Sunday, October 31, 2010

Restoring the American Dream

A must watch for every American (and everyone else too)!!

Why do Humans Reason?

More education via Jonathan Haidt - one of the best papers I have read this year Why do Humans Reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favours decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and favour conclusions for which arguments can be found.

Inference (as the term is most commonly understood in psychology) is the production of new mental representations on the basis of previously held representations. Examples of inferences are the production of new beliefs on the basis of previous beliefs, the production of expectations on the basis of perception, or the production of plans on the basis of preferences and beliefs. So understood, inference need not be deliberate or conscious. It is at work not only in conceptual thinking but also in perception and in motor control (Kersten, Mamassian, & Yuille, 2004; Wolpert & Kawato, 1998). It is a basic ingredient of any cognitive system. ‘Reasoning’, as commonly understood, refers to a very special form of inference at the conceptual level, where not only is a new mental representation (or 'conclusion') consciously produced, but the previously held representations (or ‘premises’) that warrant it are also consciously entertained. The premises are seen as providing reasons to accept the conclusion. Most work in the psychology of reasoning is about reasoning so understood. Such reasoning is typically human. There is no evidence that it occurs in non-human animals or in pre-verbal children.

How do humans reason? Why do they reason? These two questions are mutually relevant, since the mechanisms for reasoning should be adjusted to its function. While the how-question has been systematically investigated (e.g., Evans, Newstead, & Byrne, 1993; Johnson-Laird, 2006; Oaksford & Chater, 2007; Rips, 1994) there is very little discussion of the why-question. How come? It may be that the function of reasoning is considered too obvious to deserve much attention. According to a long philosophical tradition, reasoning is what allows the human mind to go beyond mere perception, habit, and instinct. In the first, theoretical section of this article we sketch a tentative answer to the how question and then focus on the why-question: We outline an approach to reasoning based on the idea that the primary function for which it evolved is the production and evaluation of arguments in communication. In sections 2 to 5, we consider some of the main themes and findings in the experimental literature on reasoning and show how our approach helps make better sense of much of the experimental evidence, and hence gains empirical support from it.

Life - BBC Documentary

One the best I have ever seen, period. Newsweek review:

"The product is an 11-part series that's nothing short of mind-blowing—a shocking view of just how vibrant and dynamic our terrestrial brethren actually are. Each installment captures a different strata of the planet's creatures—mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, plants, primates, insects, hunters and the hunted, and creatures of the deep—in a series of stunning vignettes. Utilizing the best film technology ever employed and a seasoned score by British composer George Fenton, Life impressively captures the artistry and brutality of being alive.

And brutal it is—every day, a contest to acquire the limited resources needed for survival. It's a funny thing, really, to see the critters of the world in a mad scramble to best one another. With a subtle lesson in how evolution works, the series delivers the simple message that between hunting for food while at the same time not becoming food, life for almost all of Earth's species is actually really tough. But far from being morbid, the series instead offers a reassuring depiction of the natural ebb and flow of the life cycle, and how the realities of limited survival manage to squeeze out the weakest links. Seeing the methods that land and sea creatures have adopted to survive gives a clear picture of how they rose to the top of their gene pool, and the skills and features their departed aunts and uncles obviously lacked."

Best Hindi Song of 2010 - 16

Her Epitaph

"THE HANDFUL here, that once was Mary's earth,  
  Held, while it breathed, so beautiful a soul,  
That, when she died, all recognized her birth,  
  And had their sorrow in serene control.  
"Not here! not here!" to every mourner's heart          
  The wintry wind seemed whispering round her bier;  
And when the tomb-door opened, with a start  
  We heard it echoed from within,—"Not here!"  
Shouldst thou, sad pilgrim, who mayst hither pass,  
  Note in these flowers a delicater hue,   
Should spring come earlier to this hallowed grass,  
  Or the bee later linger on the dew,—  
Know that her spirit to her body lent  
  Such sweetness, grace, as only goodness can;  
That even her dust, and this her monument,   
  Have yet a spell to stay one lonely man,—  
Lonely through life, but looking for the day  
  When what is mortal of himself shall sleep,  
When human passion shall have passed away,  
  And Love no longer be a thing to weep."

-Thomas William Parsons. 1819–1892

Quote of the Day

"No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of all our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share our happiness in time of joy."

-Saint Alfred of Rievaulx

Saturday, October 30, 2010


This song is one of the most under-rated A.R.Rahman songs and his voice makes it more poignant.

Its night in Newyork City..
Night is full of mist now..
And Wind comes via Ship and its walking on the streets now..
But in my room now...its only me and some candles..
Oh .. its very lonely...and lonely is pain..

You are not here to sing me a lori and make me asleep.
You are not give me a coffee with a kiss.
You are not here to remove the dirt in my eyes.
You are not here to make all my heart feel the pressures and stress..
I am here..And you are there..
And in this lonelyness...Every minute is like a century for me.

Epiphanies are Overrated

Steven Johnson on his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation - here (via, Q3D). My inference on why western societies are obsessed with epiphanies is probably because of dwelling in a mis-interpreted version of self-reliance and in the process we forget (or conveniently ignore) the cumulative effort of others in innovation (or in general, the importance of others in our lives). This book is probably an elaborate version of Leonard Read's 1958 essay, I, Pencil.

Why don't you agree with the notion that most good ideas come from epiphanies?

What you end up seeing when you look at history is that people who have been good at pushing the boundaries of possibility, and exploring those frontiers of good ideas and innovations, have rarely done it in moments of great inspiration. They don't just have a brilliant breakthrough idea out of nowhere and leap ahead of everyone else. Their concepts take time to develop and incubate and sit around in the back of their minds sometimes for decades. It's cobbled together from other people's ideas and other people's technologies and other people's innovations. It's a remixed version of something. A great example from the book is Tim Berners-Lee and the Web.
But, as you point out in the book, Charles Babbage seems to have invented the computer over 100 years before the computer as we know it was possible.
Babbage was trying to invent a digital computer with Industrial Age parts. This big clanking, industrial steam-powered structure. On some level, it was right. If he had been able to build it, it might have actually worked as a programmable computer, but it just was too complicated to do that without vacuum tubes or, even better, integrated circuits and silicon chips. He also invented what is now called the calculator and it actually kind of worked. People learned and improved upon it. There's a path of mechanical calculation that runs through the 19th century where people are advancing it step-by-step. But the early computer was so far ahead of its time that it just kind of died off and many of Babbage's most crucial ideas had to be independently rediscovered 60 or 70 years later. He was so far ahead of his time he couldn't have a direct line of influence, because people couldn't figure out what to do with his idea.
Does that mean that there is no such thing as individual inspiration? Are you saying great ideas come from a "hive mind."
No, I wrote a book celebrating the hive mind and that's my book "Emergence." And I do think that there are things that true collective decision-making is capable of doing. In that book I talk about building city neighborhoods, I talk about ant colonies. But this book is not about that. It's not that we all get together and collectively contribute tiny pieces and out of the sum of our actions a good idea is formed. What I'm saying is individuals have better ideas if they're connected to rich, diverse networks of other individuals. If you put yourself in an environment with lots of different perspectives, you yourself are going to have better, sharper, more original ideas. It's not that the network is smart. It's that you are smarter because you're connected to the network."

Eat Pray Love - Ruin is the Road to Transformation

Finally, I got to watch the movie last night. Probably the first movie adapted from a book, I watched without reading the book (couldn't/didn't want to read it). The reviews were mixed, I think the only thing that made the movie work was Julia Roberts. On the other hand, the book sold millions of copies for a wrong reason - too many single women in this country.

The message from the movie was to get out of our comfort zones and look at the world through different perspectives (it helps to be foragers once in a while and stop being farmers). Obviously, it's advantageous if we could afford to travel to far corners of the world. May be we should skip that "plastic" trip on the cruise and go to Asia or Africa instead. Or without spending a dime and in comfort of our home, we can try living and thinking like some else for few months:

  • Conservatives - live and see the world like a liberal
  • Liberals - step into the shoes of a conservative
  • and so on. We should try to live our worst fears when life is less chaotic (or predictable). 
Bottom-line, we need to get out of that notorious confirmation bias. Unless that happens, we will live and die in our self-induced cocoon's. Life is too precious and world is too big to waste it in self-induced cocoon's.

"A friend took me to the most amazing place the other day. It’s called the Augusteum. Octavian Augustus built it to house his remains. When the barbarians came they trashed it a long with everything else. The great Augustus, Rome’s first true great emperor. How could he have imagined that Rome, the whole world as far as he was concerned, would be in ruins. It’s one of the quietest, loneliest places in Rome. The city has grown up around it over the centuries. It feels like a precious wound, a heartbreak you won’t let go of because it hurts too good. We all want things to stay the same. Settle for living in misery because we’re afraid of change, of things crumbling to ruins. Then I looked at around to this place, at the chaos it has endured – the way it has been adapted, burned, pillaged and found a way to build itself back up again. And I was reassured, maybe my life hasn’t been so chaotic, it’s just the world that is, and the real trap is getting attached to any of it. Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation.

"To lose balance sometimes for love is part of living a balanced life." 

A New Take on Political Ideology

Interesting perspective - here (via MR):

"Jacob Vigil, an evolutionary psychologist based at the University of New Mexico, has come up with a fresh framework that links political orientation with the way we seek to fulfill our most fundamental human needs.

“A lot of the literature is morally loaded,” he says. “It’s easy for people to gravitate to language that fits into their predisposition. [In my framework] nobody’s right or wrong. It’s just that we’re using different behavioral strategies, all of which exist for a reason.”

His thesis, in a nutshell: Conservatives, being more oriented toward dominance, tend to acquire a larger group of friends and associates than liberals. They are more sensitive to potential threats because there are more people in their orbit, and thus the danger of their being hurt by a duplicitous person is greater. Liberals, being more inward-oriented, have smaller, tighter social groups and thus feel less threatened, which in turn allows them to be more open to unfamiliar experiences.

Vigil insists no ideology is inherently superior to another; rather, they simply reflect different means of attracting needed comfort and support."

To a Butterfly

"Stay near me--do not take thy flight!
  A little longer stay in sight!
 Much converse do I find in thee,
 Historian of my infancy!
 Float near me; do not yet depart!
 Dead times revive in thee:
 Thou bring'st, gay creature as thou art!
 A solemn image to my heart,
 My father's family!

 Oh! pleasant, pleasant were the days,                       
 The time, when, in our childish plays,
 My sister Emmeline and I
 Together chased the butterfly!
 A very hunter did I rush
 Upon the prey:--with leaps and springs
 I followed on from brake to bush;
 But she, God love her, feared to brush
 The dust from off its wings."

-William Wordsworth

Quote of the Day

"True love is eternal, infinite, and always like itself. It is equal and pure, without violent demonstrations: it is seen with white hairs and is always young in the heart."

-Honore de Balzac

Friday, October 29, 2010

Your Fingers Know When You Make a Typo

This probably is a "subtle" example of Antonio Damasio's Descarste's Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, that famous "gut" feeling - here:

sychologist Gordon Logan and his colleague Matthew Crump of Vanderbilt University in Nashville recruited skilled typists — people who typed more than 40 words a minute using all of their fingers. These subjects were able to type a paragraph about the merits of border collies with over 90 percent accuracy.

As the typists pecked away, researchers introduced common typing errors into about 6 percent of the words that appeared on a screen (changing sweat to swaet, swerat or swet, for instance). The program also corrected about 45 percent of the typists’ true errors.
In questionnaires after the typing test, subjects by and large took the blame for the introduced errors and took credit for the researchers’ corrections. No matter what he actually typed, when the typist saw that the word on the screen matched the word he had intended to type, he assessed his own performance as accurate.
But the speed of the typists’ keystrokes revealed something else. After hitting the wrong key, a typist’s fingers slowed down for the next keystroke, even if the researchers sneakily fixed the error so that the typist didn’t notice it. In these cases, a typist wasn’t explicitly aware of the mistake, but the brain’s motor signal changed nevertheless.
Logan says that this change in timing reflects a kind of automatic assessment of performance. “The body is doing one thing and the mind is doing another,” he says. “What we found was that the fingers knew the truth.”

Quote of the Day

"Why is it that when you miss someone so much that your heart is ready to disintegrate, you hear the saddest song on the radio?"
-Pete & Pete

2010 X-Mas Gift for Kids - Kindle!!

It will not only change their life but will also create a better society. Amit Verma has an excellent column on this.

"I'm not writing this column to evangelize the Kindle as a device. I'm writing, instead, because while browsing the online store, I remembered my privileged childhood. I bought a handful of books on my first day with the machine, but the vast majority of the hundreds of books I downloaded in my first few hours with it were free. Every book published before 1924 is in the public domain, and therefore free to download. So there I was, reliving my childhood, downloading Dostoevsky and Turgenev and Dickens and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and even some of Agatha Christie and Wodehouse on my Kindle -- for free. In half a day, I put together a collection of books that must have taken my father years of perseverance and saving up to compile. To me, that is a matter of great wonder.
For someone who doesn't like children very much, and chose long ago not to have any himself, I will now have the audacity to give the parents reading this piece a word of advice: kindle your children. The biggest thing you can do for your kids is open up the world to them, and reading is a great way of doing that. One can't force kids to read, of course, but merely having books around the house is often enough. (Most avid readers I know picked up the habit that way.) The Kindle -- or any other ebook reader that you prefer -- saves you a lot of trouble and makes it easy to put a world of books at your kids' disposal. So here's what I suggest: gift your kid a Kindle, load it up with a library of free classic books, and set up a one-click payment system through a debit card with a monthly budget so that your kids can buy a reasonable amount of books themselves, regularly, without your supervision. Give them the power -- and set them free. There is a good chance that, 30 years later, they will thank you for it. And, thanks to the wonders of technology, it will take you far less effort than it took my dad."

As A Perfume

"As a perfume doth remain
In the folds where it hath lain, 
So the thought of you, remaining 
Deeply folded in my brain, 
Will not leave me: all things leave me: 
    You remain. 

Other thoughts may come and go, 
Other moments I may know 
That shall waft me, in their going, 
As a breath blown to and fro, 
Fragrant memories: fragrant memories 
    Come and go. 

Only thoughts of you remain 
In my heart where they have lain, 
Perfumed thoughts of you, remaining, 
A hid sweetness, in my brain. 
Others leave me: all things leave me: 
    You remain."

-Arthur Symons

Quote of the Day

"Friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born."
-Anais Nin

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Food Matters Cookbook - Mark Bittman

Procrastination and Meta-Cognition

Excellent "hilarious" post - here:

"Thinking about thinking, this is the key. In the struggle between should versus want, some people have figured out something crucial – want never goes away.

Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don’t have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted.

You are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now or later. Later is murky place where anything could go wrong.

If you fail to believe you will procrastinate or become idealistic about how awesome you are at working hard and managing your time you never develop a strategy for outmaneuvering your own weakness.

Procrastination is an impulse; it’s buying candy at the checkout. Procrastination is also hyperbolic discounting, taking the sure thing in the present over the caliginous prospect some day far away.

You must be adept at thinking about thinking to defeat yourself at procrastination. You must realize there is the you who sits there now reading this, and there is a you sometime in the future who will be influenced by a different set of ideas and desires, a you in a different setting where an alternate palette of brain functions will be available for painting reality.

The trick is to accept the now you will not be the person facing those choices, it will be the future you – a person who can’t be trusted. Future-you will give in, and then you’ll go back to being now-you and feel weak and ashamed. Now-you must trick future-you into doing what is right for both parties.

This is why food plans like Nutrisystem work for many people. Now-you commits to spending a lot of money on a giant box of food which future-you will have to deal with. People who get this concept use programs like Freedom, which disables Internet access on a computer for up to eight hours, a tool allowing now-you to make it impossible for future-you to sabotage your work.

Capable psychonauts who think about thinking, about states of mind, about set and setting, can get things done not because they have more will power, more drive, but because they know productivity is a game of cat and mouse versus a childish primal human predilection for pleasure and novelty which can never be excised from the soul. Your effort is better spent outsmarting yourself than making empty promises through plugging dates into a calendar or setting deadlines for push ups."

Life for all its Troubles is Still Beautiful

True Love

"True love is a sacred flame
That burns eternally,
And none can dim its special glow
Or change its destiny.
True love speaks in tender tones
And hears with gentle ear,
True love gives with open heart
And true love conquers fear.
True love makes no harsh demands
It neither rules nor binds,
And true love holds with gentle hands
The hearts that it entwines."

Quote of the Day

"Freedom is not an immutable fact graven in nature and on the heart of man. It is not inherent in man or in society, and it is meaningless to write it into law. The mathematical, physical, biological, sociological, and psychological sciences reveal nothing but necessities and determinisms on all sides. As a matter of fact, reality consists in overcoming and transcending these determinisms.

...Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom."

-Jacques Ellul, "The Technological Society"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wendell Berry Discusses Life

Wendell Berry's lines from his short essay "Pleasures of Eating" is not only my all time favorite but also influenced me to appreciate food and nudged me to become a vegetarian (at-least mostly).

"Eating with the fullest pleasure-pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance-is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend."

Being Suicidal: What It Feels Like To Want To Kill Yourself

One of the best piece I have read so far this year and for obvious reasons of the most under-studied "field"- here:

According to Baumeister, there are six primary steps in the escape theory, culminating in a probable suicide when all criteria are met. I do hope that having knowledge about the what-it-feels-like phenomenology of ‘being’ suicidal helps people to recognize their own possible symptoms of suicidal ideation and—if indeed this is what’s happening—enables them to somehow derail themselves before it’s too late.

A journey inside the suicidal mind, at least as it’s seen by Roy Baumeister. You might even come to discover that you’ve actually stepped foot in this dark psychological space before, perhaps without knowing it at the time.

Step 1: Falling Short of StandardsBaumeister argues that such idealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks. So, when things get a bit messy, such people, many of whom appear to have led mostly privileged lives, have a harder time coping with failures. “A large body of evidence,” writes the author, “is consistent with the view that suicide is preceded by events that fall short of high standards and expectations, whether produced by past achievements, chronically favorable circumstances, or external demands.”

Step 2: Attributions to SelfAcross cultures, “self blame” or “condemnation of the self” has held constant as a common denominator in suicides. Baumeister’s theory accommodates these data, yet his model emphasizes that the biggest risk factor isn’t chronically low self-esteem, per se, but rather a relatively recent demonization of the self in response to the negative turn of events occurring in the previous step. People who have low self-esteem are often misanthropes, he points out, in that while they are indeed self critical, they are usually just as critical of other people. By contrast, suicidal individuals who engage in negative appraisals of the self seem to suffer the erroneous impression that other people are mostly good, while they themselves are bad. Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, inadequacy, or feeling exposed, humiliated and rejected leads suicidal people to dislike themselves in a manner that, essentially, cleaves them off from an idealized humanity. The self is seen as being enduringly undesirable; there is no hope for change and the core self is perceived as being rotten.

Step 3: High Self-Awareness“The essence of self-awareness is comparison of self with standards,” writes Baumeister. And, according to his escape theory, it is this ceaseless and unforgiving comparison with a preferred self—perhaps an irrecoverable self from a happier past or a goal self that is now seen as impossible to achieve in light of recent events—fuelling suicidal ideation. This piquancy of thought in suicidal individuals is actually measurable, at least indirectly by analyzing the language used in suicide notes. One well-known “suicidologist,” Edwin Shneidman, once wrote that, “Our best route to understanding suicide is not through the study of the structure of the brain, nor the study of social statistics, nor the study of mental diseases, but directly through the study of human emotions described in plain English, in the words of the suicidal person.”

Step 4: Negative AffectIt may seem to go without saying that suicides tend to be preceded by a period of negative emotions, but, again, in Baumeister’s escape model, negative suicidal emotions are experienced as an acute state rather than a prolonged one. “Concluding simply that depression causes suicide and leaving it at that may be inadequate for several reasons,” he writes. “It is abundantly clear that most depressed people do not attempt suicide and that not all suicide attempters are clinically depressed.” Anxiety—which can be experienced as guilt, self-blame, threat of social exclusion, ostracism and worry—seems to be a common strand in the majority of suicides.

Step 5: Cognitive DeconstructionCognitive deconstruction is pretty much just what it sounds like. Things are cognitively broken down into increasingly low-level and basic elements. For example, the time perspective of suicidal people changes in a way that makes the present moment seem interminably long; this is because, “suicidal people have an aversive or anxious awareness of the recent past (and possibly the future too), from which they seek to escape into a narrow, unemotional focus on the present moment.” Evidence also suggests that suicidal individuals have a difficult time thinking about the future—which for those who’d use the threat of hell as a deterrent, shows just why this strategy isn’t likely to be very effective. This temporal narrowing, Baumeister believes, is actually a defensive mechanism helping the person to cognitively withdraw from thinking about past failures and the anxiety of an intolerable, hopeless future.

Step 6: DisinhibitionBaumeister speculates that behavioral disinhibition, which is required to overcome the intrinsic fear of causing oneself pain through death, not to mention the anticipated suffering of loved ones left behind to grieve, is another consequence of cognitive deconstruction. This is because it disallows the high-level abstractions (reflecting on the inherent “wrongness” of suicide, how others will feel, even concerns about self-preservation) that, under normal conditions, keep us alive. These authors point out that while there is a considerable number of people who want to kill themselves, suicide itself remains relatively rare. This is largely because, in addition to suicidal desire, the individual needs the “acquired capability for suicide,” which involves both a lowered fear of death and increased physical pain tolerance. Suicide hurts, literally. One acquires this capability, according to these authors’ model, by being exposed to related conditions that systematically habituate the individual to physical pain.

Science might not give us a reason to live  but it give us a reason not to kill ourselves:

Always remember: You’re going to die soon enough anyway; even if it’s a hundred years from now, that’s still the blink of a cosmic eye. In the meantime, live like a scientist—even a controversial one with only an ally or two in all the world—and treat life as a grand experiment, blood, sweat, tears and all. Bear in mind that there's no such thing as a failed experiment—only data.


"Where true Love burns Desire is Love's pure flame;
It is the reflex of our earthly frame, 
That takes its meaning from the nobler part, 
And but translates the language of the heart."

-Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Quote of the Day

"A dog is not "almost human" and I know of no greater insult to the canine race than to describe it as such."

-John Holmes

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Born Again

Had the greatest scare of my life, losing Max. He is my life, my world, my universe, my everything. I saw myself become a different person for good today. Saw the immense truth that there is no else for us except us. I woke up.