Monday, January 31, 2011

What I've been Reading

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson (2004). It's amazing how far neuroscience jargon has engulfed the media in seven years, nevertheless it doesn't fascinate everybody. I suppose, people with an innate curiosity about the world around them are the only ones who are curious about how stuff inside our skull work's as well. No surprise there and we shouldn't surprised either if dystopians flood the cable news with the coming of Orwellian age or the dawn of the brave new world. Steven Johnson is a gifted science writer; his book is a great place to peak into the fascinating world of neuroscience. Educating ourselves is probably the best bet to subside that inevitable snake oil boom.

Johnson suggests updating Freud's taxonomy of id, ego, and superego (roughly parallel to the unconscious, conscious, and preconscious) with a neuroanatomical equivalent--Paul Maclean's model of the "triune brain." This model consists of: a) the brainstem--controlling metabolic functions like heart rate and breathing; b) the limbic system--the seat of emotion and memory, comprising chiefly the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus; and c) the neocortex--the most distinctly human component of the brain's architecture that allows us to engage in abstract thought and communicate in complex sentences. Johnson asserts that mankind's evolutionary march from "brain stem, to limbic system, to neocortex--as E.O. Wilson put it, from heartbeat, to heartstrings, to heartless--is certainly a more accurate assessment of the psyche's inner divisions than the old mythos of id, ego, and superego." (To understand the brain's inner life, Johnson maintains we should also examine the molecules of emotion and affect: ocytocin, cortisol, serotonin, etc.--these chemicals constitute the raw material of the brain's value system.)

Pet Food Rating Now on GoodGuide

But I am disappointed - "experts want preservatives in pet food" - here:

"In developing the pet food ratings, we were very surprised to learn that an ingredient analysis was not the best way to identify the best products. In general, the industry relies on many by-products and waste from making human food products. Just because an ingredient seems less appetizing to a person doesn’t mean that they don’t provide valuable nutrients in a way that can be both bioavailable and tasty. Despite a lot of discussion and concern, there is no scientific basis to differentiate between synthetic vs. “natural” preservatives for health reasons.
Experts GoodGuide consulted with said many pet foods should contain preservatives to minimize chances of product spoilage. We know that there are areas for improvement with this approach, especially because there is very little transparency into the industry and limited information on what’s healthful for cats and dogs."

I would still place my bets on GoodGuide for honing their pet food rating system and in the mean time, I will not be using their ratings.  

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation For Learning?

Why overstimulate your brain with amphetamine when you can use magnets instead?

Since the mid-1990's, repetitive TMS has been used to make purposeful changes to the activability of nerve cells in the human cortex: "In general, the activity of the cells drops as a result of a low-frequency stimulation, i.e. with one magnetic pulse per second. At higher frequencies from five to 50 pulses per second, the activity of the cells increases", explained Prof. Funke. Above all, the researchers are specifically addressing with the effects of specific stimulus patterns like the so-called theta burst stimulation (TBS), in which 50 Hz bursts are repeated with 5 Hz. "This rhythm is based on the natural theta rhythm of four to seven Hertz which can be observed in an EEG", says Funke. The effect is above all dependent on whether such stimulus patterns are provided continuously (cTBS, attenuating effect) or with interruptions (intermittent, iTBS, strengthening effect).

-More Here (Rebecca Saxe's TMS TED talk here)

Quote of the Day

“Babylon Revisited”, written just as Fitzgerald faced the prospect that Zelda might be lost to him for good, and in fear for his ability to care for his daughter, is itself a kind of reckoning of the price one has to pay. Financial debts, paying the price for past extravagance, becomes a metaphor for moral debts, the loss of one’s sense of character or one’s personal credit with the world.

Throughout “Babylon Revisited”, Fitzgerald uses economic metaphors to underscore the idea that debts must be paid. The story reverberates with uncanny echoes – or rather, anticipations – of our own era, the way in which we trusted that living on credit could last forever. What Fitzgerald shows us is the effects that this mistake has not only on our economy, but on our characters: that money is the least of what we have to lose.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ayn Rand Took Government Assistance While Decrying Others Who Did The Same

Heights of cognitive dissonance - here:

"An interview with Evva Pryror, a social worker and consultant to Miss Rand's law firm of Ernst, Cane, Gitlin and Winick verified that on Miss Rand's behalf she secured Rand's Social Security and Medicare payments which Ayn received under the name of Ann O'Connor (husband Frank O'Connor).

As Pryor said, "Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out" without the aid of these two government programs. Ayn took the bail out even though Ayn "despised government interference and felt that people should and could live independently... She didn't feel that an individual should take help."
But alas she did and said it was wrong for everyone else to do so."

Tragic Bunnies in the China's Year of Rabbit

2011 is, by the Chinese zodiac cycle, the Year of the Rabbit, which is far worse news for baby bunnies than you might imagine.
As China hippity-hops into the Lunar New Year, street vendors, pet shops and flower stalls across the mainland (and in other parts of Asia) are selling infant rabbits en masse. To meet a surging demand for the little furballs, the prices of which have been significantly raised, vendors often wrench them from their mothers much too early.
Rarely do the bunnies, once purchased, survive the trip home. Those that do make it are usually abandoned by owners who very quickly tire of their new pets.
Web retailers have also jumped on the bunny bandwagon, posting rabbits illegally by regular mail to online customers. Most of the hares are dead on arrival, having suffocated or frozen to death in their cardboard confines, but that hasn't slowed a proliferation of orders. According to Shanghaiist, these companies demand that the rabbit corpses be returned to them if consumers want a refund.
PETA and other animal rights groups have issued statements imploring Chinese residents not to buy into the egregious trend. “There's no better time to help rabbits than during the Year of the Rabbit, and you can do so by refusing to support the pet trade that causes so many animals to suffer,” Maggie Chen, a Beijing-based PETA campaigner, told the AFP.
The rabbits are being disposed of in dumpsters and mailboxes by ill-equipped New Year's celebrators who fail to realize how fragile and high-maintenance a bunny can be. “Rabbits aren't just cute and fluffy,” Chen says, noting that the animals, like any other pets, require a significant amount of attention and veterinary care.

-More Here

New Dog in Town

Until recently, I couldn’t quite believe that coyotes were established New Yorkers. Among neophyte naturalists, it’s an anomaly, a bizarrerie, something like a miracle. Coyotes, after all, are natives of the high plains and deserts two thousand miles to the west. But for anyone who takes the time to get to know coyotes, their coming to the city is a development as natural as water finding a way downhill. It is also a lesson in evolution that has gone largely unheralded. Not in pristine wilderness, but here, amid the splendor of garbage cans filthy with food, the golf carts crawling on the fairway like alien bugs, in a park full of rats and feral cats and dullard chipmunks and thin rabbits and used condoms and bums camping out and drunks pissing in the brush, a park ringed by arguably the most urbanized ingathering of Homo sapiens in America—here the coyote thrives.

In the wake of white settlement, the coyote was reviled for its success. That we could not appreciate the elasticity of the native dog was fitting irony for the European species of human, so terribly successful at invading the continent and adapting to it ourselves (or, rather, forcing the continent to adapt to our new and increasingly invasive presence). Along with the Indian and the bison, the coyote was—remains—the pest par excellence of the American West, to this day classified in the law books of many western states as “vermin” or “nuisance” species. Tens of millions of coyotes have been slaughtered in the U.S. since 1900; federal and state governments over the last two decades have killed an estimated 2 million of them. This figure doesn’t incorporate the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of coyotes each year hunted, baited, trapped, snared, and poisoned by livestock ranchers and sport hunters who kill coyotes for recreation in contests and bounty hunts. The attempt at control has cost in the range of billions of dollars—no firm number is known—and it has failed spectacularly. Biologists note that the success of the coyote amid this carnage is largely due to a survival mechanism that renders the species impervious to the gun and the trap: when large numbers of coyotes are killed in any single ecosystem, the coyotes that remain produce bigger litters. The animal compensates for slaughter, in other words, by becoming more numerous, more problematic. I can only imagine this as a kind of Darwinian laughter: Kill more of us, and more of us will come. Perhaps to be killed. So that there will be more of us. Ha ha!

So the coyote runs across schoolyards in Philadelphia; he hides under a taxi on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He is in Atlanta, and in Los Angeles, and Miami, and Washington DC. He follows into the cities our paths, our roads, our railways, our bike and hiking trails. In Seattle, a coyote ran into an elevator in a skyscraper for a ride, and another ended up in the luggage compartment of a tram at the SeaTac Airport. In Boston, biologists who radio-collared a female coyote during 2004 reported that the dog traveled freely across the towns of Revere, Medford, Somerville, and Cambridge, at one point crossing into Boston proper via a railroad line at three a.m. before bedding down in a railyard north of the Charles River. The dog, nicknamed Fog, had “little more than shrubs for her to sleep in.” Stanley Gehrt, a biologist at Ohio State University who recently spent six years tracking the coyote populations of Chicago, concluded that there were at least two thousand of them living in the Windy City, and they were growing in number. Urban coyotes, Gehrt found, live longer than their country cousins, their range per pack is more compact, much like urban humans, and they hunt more often at night, very much like urban humans. Gehrt also found that coyotes howl in answer to the sirens from firehouses—calling to the sounds of men. “Originally known as ghosts of the plains, coyotes have become ghosts of the cities,” Gehrt writes. “Coyotes are watching and learning from us.”

Quote of the Day

"A seemingly obvious solution to this growing problem is to convince Americans that dark chicken meat is just as worthy as white. According to a 2007 National Chicken Council survey, 41 percent of consumers would eat dark meat more frequently if it "tasted better." But taste is entirely subjective, and familiarity is a powerful agent. Undoing many decades of conditioning would be a radical undertaking, and one that would probably prove futile. The extensive national television campaigns, in-store advertising, and revamped packaging necessary to re-educate consumers would be extremely expensive, even for the likes of Tyson and Perdue. Moreover, since boneless, skinless breasts cost nearly twice as much as similarly prepared thighs, and the production costs of dark meat are already absorbed into the price of the breasts, there is little incentive for producers to alter the status quo."

- More

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Change Blindness

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA scienceNOW.

An Examined Life Is Sometimes Not All That Wonderful

That's a damn good point!! Review of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. By James Miller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux - here:

"At the end of his life, Rousseau acknowledged that it was not nearly so easy as he had assumed to follow the Delphic oracle’s injunction to “Know thyself.” He concluded ruefully that it was “arrogant and rash” to profess virtues that you cannot live up to, and retreated into indolent seclusion.

If Mr Miller had included the sunny and admirable David Hume and some other less troubled souls in his portraits, his gallery of philosophers could have been brighter overall. But on balance, the summation in his epilogue is probably correct: philosophical self-examination is not a reliable source of happiness or political nous. Still, there are many philosophers, including Aristotle, who regarded the quest for understanding as an end in itself, not as a path to joy or success. After all, as most of those who have been bitten by the philosophy bug will know, philosophers philosophise mainly because they cannot help it."

Page One: A Year Inside the -i-New York Times-/i-

Sleeping Protects Memories From Corruption

"Replaying memories while people are awake leaves their memories subject to tinkering. But reactivating memories during sleep protects them from interference, researchers in Germany and Switzerland report online January 23 in Nature Neuroscience.

The finding shows that the brain handles memories differently during sleep than while awake, says Sara Mednick, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego who was not involved in the research. Armed with this new knowledge, she says, therapists may be able to destabilize traumatic memories and overwrite the bad memories with good ones, then solidify the new memory with a nap.

Brain scans also revealed that different areas of the brain were involved during memory replay depending on whether the volunteers were awake or asleep. While awake, replaying the memory triggered activity mostly in the right lateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in memory recall. But during sleep, memory replay was associated with strong activity in the hippocampus and parts of the cortex. The hippocampus is involved in memory formation, and memories are transferred from short-term memory in the hippocampus to long-term memory in the cortex. Reactivating memories during sleep may speed the transfer, Diekelmann says."


Quote of the Day

“Knowledge is not exclusively limited to the university. There is local knowledge from indigenous people, especially on the environment. People like myself also have knowledge; it may not be scientific knowledge, but it has value to being published.”

Friday, January 28, 2011

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's Earth Guide For Aliens

On Nootropics

"1. We do not understand cognitive systems well enough to understand the potential trade-offs that may exist from taking a cognitive enhancing drug. There are counter-intuitive findings everywhere. For example, young adults who carry the APOE-4 allele (which has been associated with a higher risk of dementia later in life) actually have better performance on decision making tasks than those carrying the APOE-3 version. Therefore, it is plausible that drugs targeting memory systems might have detrimental effects on decision making tasks.

2. It's difficult to know how well cognitive enhancing drugs work in healthy people in the "real world". Although several studies have shown increased performance for certain laboratory tests of cognitive ability, there is no clear consensus about how these tasks translate into real-world academic or job performance. Furthermore, as most studies show small effect sizes and results in some, but not all tasks, there is a very real possibility that these drugs have no measurable effect outside of the laboratory.

3. A small overall cognitive enhancing effect of a drug can come either from a small effect observed in all participants, or large effects in some participants and no effects in others. Previously, these authors have shown large individual difference in cognitive enhancers (I wrote about this here). In particular, participants with lower working memory capacity seem to have more enhancement from these drugs than those with larger working memories.

4. A common complaint, but relevant nonetheless: the long-term effects of these drugs, taken for enhancement purposes, is unknown."
via MR

Quote of the Day

“We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
Sherry Turkle

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rethinking Regulation After the Financial Crisis and the Oil Spill: A Behavioral Approach - Richard Thaler

A Rising Tide Of Christianity in China

Quote of the Day

1. "This is really crucial: Warren [Buffett] is one of the best learning machines on this earth. The turtles who outrun the hares are learning machines. If you stop learning in this world, the world rushes right by you."

2. "I think that one should recognize reality even when one doesn't like it -- indeed, especially when one doesn't like it."

3. "To me, it's obvious that the winner has to be very selective. It's been obvious to me since very early in life. I don't know why it's not obvious to very many other people."

4. "Mankind invented a system to cope with the fact that we are so intrinsically lousy at manipulating numbers. It's called the graph."

5. "Some people seem to think there's no trouble just because it hasn't happened yet. If you jump out the window at the 42nd floor and you're still doing fine as you pass the 27th floor, that doesn't mean you don't have a serious problem. I would want to address the problem right now."

-Charlie Munger

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The No Asshole Rule - Robert Sutton

Take the test here to find out if you are a certified asshole

Seven Deadly Sins vs Self Control

Excellent study via FS:

It may be ugly, but the dogged pursuit of wealth and power is part of human nature. ‘Across cultures, research has revealed about a dozen different kinds of values and goals that all people prioritise to one extent or another,’ says social-personality psychologist Tim Kasser of Knox College, Illinois. ‘Among these are values for self-enhancement and materialism, which include specific aims for power, wealth, money, status and image.’ According to Kasser, it’s when people particularly prioritise these values that they are likely to behave in a greedy fashion. For example, he says: ‘People who claim that materialistic goals are important compete rather than cooperate, endorse a Machiavellian stance towards interpersonal relationships, and care less about other people’s inner experience.’
If greed motivates us to obtain wealth and status, then envy is the emotion that’s triggered when another person achieves what we want, and we think they don’t quite deserve it. ‘Envy, when it is not in its benign form [akin to admiration], occurs when we lack another’s superior quality, achievement or possession, and either desire it or wish that the other lacked it,’ says Richard Smith at the University of Kentucky, the author of Envy: Theory and Research. ‘When we envy, we feel inferior, longing, resentment, and ill-will toward the advantaged person.’ This latter, hostile feature of envy is particularly key to the emotion. The envious person hopes for those they envy to lose their status or wealth and, if that happens, envy gives way to schadenfreude.
Whereas the success and status of others can provoke envy, pride is what we feel when the success and status are our own. Pride, like envy is a human universal, and is another of the sins considered by psychology to be an emotion. Darwin categorised it alongside 
states such as vanity and suspicion as a ‘complex emotion’. He also anticipated contemporary research showing that the expression of pride – head held high, arms raised – is recognised universally across cultures and by children as young as four.Psychologists distinguish between authentic pride, which tends to follow success which a person attributes to their own effort, and hubristic pride, which usually follows success attributed to ability. It’s the hubristic variety that most likely led to pride being seen as a sin. ‘Hubristic pride seems to be “bad for people” in a number of ways,’ says Tracy. ‘It’s associated with all kinds of problematic personality traits – such as aggression, antisocial behaviour, anxiety, shame and narcissism. In a recent series of studies, we found that the experience of hubristic pride directly promotes prejudice against out-group members. People high in hubristic pride also tend not to be well liked by others.’ One theory is that hubristic pride may have evolved as a way to cheat others into thinking you’re deserving of status, without the need for long-term effort and genuine achievement.
Anger is one the core emotions alongside sadness, fear, disgust and happiness. Its survival function is clear. When a threat to ourselves or our kin is perceived, the activity of the sympathetic nervous system intensifies, the heart races, adrenaline flows, as the body prepares to confront the situation. Anger can be triggered by the other sins, such as intense envy and threatened pride. 
‘It is very commonly experienced, and disturbs interpersonal relations more than any other emotion. And yet it has no diagnostic code in the mental health “bible”, and receives a small fraction of the research attention of anxiety and depression. Most who experience it don’t want to change it, yet anger episodes mostly target the angry person’s loved ones in their homes.’
As with anger, the evolutionary function of lust is obvious. Our drive to mate ensures the continuation of the species. As with several of the other sins, lust becomes a problem only when it is unconstrained or aroused by inappropriate targets. 
Harder to explain from an evolutionary perspective, perhaps, is why human lust has come to be relatively controlled. Part of the answer comes from the proposal by anthropologist Helen Fisher at Rutgers University and others that lust forms one of three distinct subtypes of reproduction-related emotion, the other two being passionate love (as in ‘being in love’ or infatuated with another), and companionate love. According to this account, lust is the basic driver for seeking sexual gratification, passionate love helps us focus our efforts on pursuing a particular mate, and companionate love encourages long-term bonding, which is beneficial for raising and supporting offspring. Without passionate love to focus our lustful desires, we’d be forever in a spin, pursuing potential mates in all directions. Companionate love, meanwhile, helps shift our priorities from procreation to ensuring the survival of our existing offspring.
It’s tempting to think the amount that people eat and drink is simply about personal choice. This assumption is reflected in the idea of too much consumption being a sin – gluttony, a woeful lack of temperance born out of poor character. However, psychologists today roundly reject the idea that over-consumption can simply be attributed to
a person’s free choice. In fact, so taboo is any suggestion of a link between obesity and gluttony that one British psychologist we spoke to wished to remain anonymous lest his comments be misinterpreted. ‘Obesity for the vast majority is not a choice and the implicit social discrimination society attributes to obese individuals would challenge any assumption that an individual would choose to achieve a high weight status,’ he said. ‘Gluttony may be a deadly sin, obesity most certainly is not.’
Unlike the other sins, which are largely about excess and disinhibition, sloth reflects a lack of motivation, either intrinsic, extrinsic, or both. Psychologists have been divided as to how to distinguish between these two aspects. One account, which can be traced back to Plato, states that intrinsic motivation is driven by the needs of the mind, whilst extrinsic motivation is driven by the needs of the body. Another argues that intrinsic motivation is when we do something because it’s inherently enjoyable, whereas extrinsic motivation is when we do something to obtain some other reward. Either way, laziness can be seen as a lack of drive to obtain a potential reward.
Sometimes, people will be happier even if they are forced to be busy rather than idle.’ Hsee notes, however, that idleness is not the same as laziness. ‘Laziness results from lack of motivation to work,’ he says, ‘whereas idleness occurs because the person has nothing to do.’
The original deadly sins were inspired by humankind’s perpetual struggle to rise above animalistic instincts and rein in the emotions. It’s the occasional success at doing this that makes us human. To postpone gratification today for tomorrow’s greater reward. To sacrifice our own needs for the good of others. It’s our frequent inability to achieve this level of control that makes the sins as relevant today as they ever were.
‘In my view self-control is the “master virtue” underlying almost all others,’ says Roy Baumeister at Florida State University, an expert on self-control and the author of Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-Defeating Behavior. ‘Each of the deadly sins can be seen as a failure or breakdown of self-control.’
Baumeister’s research has shown that self-restraint is like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets. But it’s also a finite resource. On any given day, if you exert self-control in one situation you’ll have less left over to triumph over temptation later on.
‘Human beings are animals who have managed to create a new kind of social system,’ says Baumeister. ‘The system (culture) requires them to overcome some of their natural, animal habits, inclinations, and tendencies, so as to follow the rules that enable the system to make life better for everyone. Self-control is a vital faculty for enabling them to accomplish this.’

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life - Walter Isaacson

Synthetic Biology - Spider Web from Goat's Milk

Straw Dogs - John Gray

The Animal Testing Rules

Again via Andew... this is very very important:

Literally every first-world environmental agency mandates a "non rodent sub-chronic toxicity test" for almost every chemical that passes through their doors. They use dogs because they have a similar metabolic rate to humans. The use of dogs (Beagles are assumed at this point), is spelled out in the regulation. You can get around the test by proving via rodent testing that the chemical/product in question is so toxic that performing the test on the Beagles serves no purpose, but that does not happen a majority of the time.

Now, if people do not want the products they use daily (and whose safety they take for granted) tested, then by all means, lobby your gov't official to change the federal laws mandating that these tests be conducted.

The ironic flip side of this is that if a product says "no animal testing" on the label, you can be almost assured that it has has minimal government testing to assure that the chemicals in it are safe.

Quote of the Day

"We need to find authenticity as well as integrity in our morality, and authenticity requires that we break out of distinctly moral considerations to ask what form of moral integrity fits best with the ethical decision about how we want to conceive our personality and our life. The austere view blocks that question. Of course it is unlikely that we will ever achieve a full integration of our moral, political, and ethical values that feels authentic and right. That is why living responsibly is a continuing project and never a completed task. But the wider the network of ideas we can explore, the further we can push that project."

-What Is a Good Life? by Ronald Dworkin

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Understanding the Rise of China

This is probably the most important talk of this year. Better we understand this, better this century will be. 

Five Steps to Fix the World

An Utopian dream on Newsweek(via here), the third point especially was hilarious...:

"Third, advanced and emerging economies that are running chronic surpluses must get rid of them. The policies needed to do so vary by country and involve structural shifts. In the case of China, a key part of its 12th five-year plan is to shift income to the household sector, where the savings rate is high but still lower than the corporate rate. The economy can then use household savings to finance corporate and government investment, rather than the U.S. government. That structural shift, in combination with the renminbi’s strengthening relative to the dollar, offers hope that China’s surplus will fall."

Beagle Habilitation

That happened, now this is happening in this country... via Andrew, I couldn't watch the video:

Beagles are the most popular breed for testing pharmaceuticals, household products and cosmetics because of their friendly, docile, trusting, forgiving and people-pleasing personalities. The research industry says they adapt well to living in a cage and are inexpensive to feed.
With time, patience, play, companionship — and most of all, love — these dogs will embrace their new-found freedom and learn how to become dogs. Just watch the video. Their transformation is nothing short of amazing."

Quote of the Day

"Shall I teach you what knowledge? 
When you know a thing, say that you know it; 
when you do not know a thing, 
admit that you do not know it. 
That is knowledge"


Monday, January 24, 2011

Bharat Ratna for Tendulkar?

I hope... here:

"A strong case to the effect has already been made, declared Mumbai [ Images ] MP Sanjay Nirupam at an initiative 'Support My School', a movement to build healthy, happy and active schools in Mumbai, which Tendulkar is the campaign ambassador.

The demands from various quarters - including politicians and ex-cricketers -- had intensified after Tendulkar became the first player in the history of cricket to score a double hundred in One-Day Internationals -- achieving the feat against at Gwalior outh Africa in February last year. The demand attained gargantuan proportion late last year -- after he recorded his 50th ton in Tests.

If the 37-year-old eventually receives the honour, it will mark yet another first for him -- for he will become the first sportsman to be awarded the prestigious honour."

Is It Pet Food?

As usual, good guide has an excellent post (click on the flow chart for bigger image)

Why I Don't Watch Cable News

"Yes, I know, television is a very popular medium (mostly because it demands so little from its audience). But it is the worst way to engage politics in America. Compared to reading it is a wildly inefficient time suck. The format itself often strips the issue at hand of all nuance. It rewards demagoguery, and the host's words disappear into the ether so fast that inaccuracies slip easily past and are seldom corrected for the people misled by them. Often as not, its producers and writers just take insights from the written medium and dumb them down.
Don't get me wrong. Television is extremely hard to do well. Unfortunately, excelling in the medium and improving political discourse are often at odds. Chris Hayes and James Poulos, among others, show it's possible for up-and-coming intellects to do good non-Bloggingheads TV that's smart and engaging. (Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, Ted Koppel, Mike Kinsley, Christopher Hitchens, Rachel Maddow – certain especially talented minds have always managed.) Since there are so few like them, I suspect that if politics on television were to magically disappear tomorrow, we'd all be better off."

- More Here . It's always a "pleasure" to read on the cognitive degradation induced by cable news. I would like to add if politics on television magically disappears tomorrow then even our health care cost would come down significantly and that happiness index will get a tremendous boost.

Agriculture Subsidies

Amoeba Farmers and Other Organisms That Grow Their Own Food

me fish are particularly picky eaters, and one species of damselfish (Stegastes nigricans) has been found to help their preferred food, the Polysiphonia alga, grow by weeding out competing species of algae. "Because this alga is highly susceptible to grazing and is competitively inferior to other algae, it survives only within the protective territories of this fish species, suggesting an obligate mutualism between damselfish and their cultivated alga," the authors of a 2010 study on the relationship concluded.

"Insects were farming way before humans," says Debra Brock, a graduate researcher at Rice University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Ambrosia beetles cultivate their fungal food on trees. When they land on a tree, the beetles deposit spores of the ambrosia fungi, which helps to transform the tree's wood into nutrient-rich food that is eaten by the beetle offspring's larvae

-More Here

Nicholas Carr Interview

Quote of the Day

"There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face."

-Ben Williams

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Happened to Michael Vick's Dogs?

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

Losing Ourselves - Schopenhauer

"Schopenhauer’s philosophy blended that of Plato, Kant, and the Hindu Upanishads to create a worldview that manages to be both compelling and depressing: existence is suffering.  It is an endless buffet of boredom and pain, combined with a constant striving for that which cannot be attained.  And yet there is escape.  Human beings can perform works of art and lose themselves in the craft of music, game playing, or workmanship.

What Schopenhauer means by “losing ourselves” in artwork is very similar to the idea of “flow” as described by the modern psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  Flow is a mental state of full involvement with an activity.

This idea of flow is ironic as it suggests in that most human of activities, that of artistic expression, we do not use that most human of faculties of conscious awareness.

Schopenhauer is usually portrayed as the pessimists’ pessimist, but I can’t help feeling that Schopenhauer could be interpreted as saying something profoundly optimistic: even if conscious existence is suffering, it is within our power to lose ourselves in art, and transcend our baser propensities for violence and conflict."


What I've been Reading

On Second Thought: Outsmarting You Mind's Hard-Wired Habits by Wray Herebert. I am regular reader of Hernert's excellent blog - We're Only Human. This book is more or less a collection of his blog posts based on academic social science studies. This is one the best book to get "accustomed" to our innate biases. I am officially taking a break from reading any more books on biases/heuristics, its getting repetitious. But I am still optimistic on Nudges since they at-least give a quasi-solution to overcome these biases in the absence (or limited) of self reflection.

The Perils of Willpower from Assn. for Psych Science on Vimeo.

Quote of the Day

“80% of success is showing up.”

-Woody Allen

Friday, January 21, 2011

Contagious Cancer in Dogs...

An old 2008 post by Ed Young, scary...:

"The disease in question is called canine transmissible venereal tumour (CTVT), or Sticker’s sarcoma and it’s a case of a cancer cell evolving into a global parasite. 
CTVT is transmitted through sex or close contact between infected dogs. It was first described 130 years ago by a German scientist called Novinski and its origins have been debated ever since. Some scientists suggested that it was caused by a virus, much like human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer in humans today. But Robin Weiss and Claudio Murgia from University College London put these theories to rest in 2006 with a definitive study.
They and their colleagues analysed tumour samples from 40 dogs across five continents. Despite their disparate origins, all these samples shared identical and distinctive genetic markers that uninfected tissues from the same dogs did not. The explanation was clear – these cancers had not developed in the usual way from the cells of the host animals. The cancer cells themselves were spreading from dog to dog.
These rogue cells have become parasites in their own right, evolving from a single ancestor into a dynasty that has colonised the globe aboard canine vessels. How this process began is still a mystery, but Weiss’s analysis provides some hints as to where and when.
The original cancer cell must have developed in either a wolf or an old Asian dog lineage, such as a Husky. It evolved anywhere between 200 and 2500 years ago and may well have been around for even longer. In fact, the CTVT cancer cell is very likely to be the oldest lineage of mammalian cells still in existence. The cells that Weiss is studying today are most probably direct clone descendants of the same cells that Novinski identified 130 years ago – genetically identical great-granddaughters of the original tumour.
When that original cell gained independence, it became truly immortal, long outliving its original body and lasting for centuries. So far, we don’t know of any human cancer cells that have pulled off a similar trick. But Weiss feels that if they did, the best place to look for them would be in people with weaker immune systems including transplant patients and those with HIV.
His group have found evidence that evading the host’s immune defences is a key part of CTVT’s strategy for finding another dog to infect. The cells accomplish this by switching off some key immune system players – a group of genes collectively called dog leukocyte antigens (DLAs). They also secrete a protein called TGF-β1 that strongly blocks any immune responses.
But slipping past immune sentries would do the cells no good if the host died before infecting another dog. Infection requires sex, which may not happen for some time. So CTVT is a merciful parasite. At the start of infection, it grows rapidly, but within 3-9 months, it regresses of its own accord. By never killing its carrier, the cells ensure that they can spread to as many new hosts as possible."

Our Role in Wild Life Crime...

"Wildlife is big business. Traffic International, a wildlife trade monitoring network based in Cambridge, UK, estimates that the legal wildlife trade is worth around $160 billion a year and the illegal side between $10 and $20 billion - the second-largest illicit market in the world after drugs. Some species, including tigers, sturgeon, elephants and rhinos, have been heavily affected.

Much of the global wildlife trade is governed by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Although CITES came into force in 1977, it has had a hard time bringing the trade under control. Understanding why is crucial. Blaming poorer people for poaching or illegal fishing fails to identify the real reasons for the problem.

The most important of these is wealth. Without demand from rich countries, poorer people would not engage in poaching, smuggling and trading. The international trade in cockles and other shellfish is a good example. It is driven by demand from wealthy consumers, which is partly met via illegal fishing or - as in the case of Morecambe bay - the use of trafficked workers.

Similarly, if elephants are poached for ivory, who is it for? If mining minerals for mobile phones threatens mountain gorillas, who is buying the minerals?"

-More Here

Quote of the Day

"Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends."

-Virginia Woolf

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Bed of Procrustes - Nassim Taleb Interview

The Secret of Mark Zuckerberg's Success

My cognitive fluency gave that title but while reading last year's review of the movie Social network, Zuckerberg's cognitive advantage became pretty obvious:  

"Zuckerberg once told a mutual friend that he was not, and would never be, the best programmer around but that he had a knack for coming up with ideas that fit the moment and could carry. Which is to say that, in a class of some 1,600 students largely trying to follow dutifully the paths of alumni who'd grown into great men and women, Zuckerberg was one of a few among us actually thinking like an intellectually mature, creative person in his moment."

Healthy Eating = Attractive Skin Glow

"According to research in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour. Ian D. Stephen, Vinet Coetzee and David Perrett, Carotenoid and melanin pigment coloration affect perceived human health
Researchers controlled the diet and evaluated the skin color of 82 participants for eight weeks. Those who ate more fruits and vegetables had a yellower hue to their skin. That tone comes from carotenoids in the fruit and veggies, which are linked to better immune defenses and reproductive health."

-More Here

Quote of the Day

"Do not bear this single habit of mind, to think that what you say and nothing else is true. ...For a man, though he be wise, it is no shame to learn – learn many things, and not maintain his views too rigidly."
-Sophocles, Antigone

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I.O.U.S.A. - One Nation. Under Debt. In Stress.

Via FS - must watch for every American (and citizens of "developing" countries, we all know history repeats itself).

Single Worm Neurons Remotely Controlled with Lasers

"Scientists have come a step closer to gaining complete control over a mind, even if that mind belongs to a creature the size of a grain of sand. A team at Harvard University has built a computerized system to manipulate worms—making them start and stop, giving them the sensation of being touched, and even prompting them to lay eggs, as seen in the video above—by stimulating their neurons individually with laser light, all while the worms swim freely in a petri dish. The technology may help neuroscientists for the first time gain a complete understanding of the workings of an animal's nervous system."

- More Here

The Logic of Altruism

Radio lab has a fascinating podcast on the this!!

A question that haunted Charles Darwin: if natural selection boils down to survival of the fittest, how do you explain why one creature might stick its neck out for another?

Organic Milk Against Global Warming

"Wetter, cooler summers can have a detrimental effect on the milk we drink, according to new research published by Newcastle University.

Researchers found milk collected during a particularly poor UK summer and the following winter had significantly higher saturated fat content and far less beneficial fatty acids than in a more 'normal' year.

But they also discovered that switching to organic milk could help overcome these problems. Organic supermarket milk showed higher levels of nutritionally beneficial fatty acids compared with 'ordinary' milk regardless of the time of year or weather conditions."

- More Here

The Rise of Genetic Architecture

Fascinating post, decimates all those idealistic myths and exposes the limits of understanding our own genome (so far...).

We’ve reached a stage where the mapping from genotype to phenotype is getting a bit on the baroque side. We have come to confront and wrestle with ‘genetic architecture.

Old fashioned quantitative genetics using statistical techniques based on family relationships is still a better bet for many traits and diseases (e.g., I have a family history of type 2 diabetes, but 23andMe gives me no greater risk). A group last year suggested a solution to the conundrum of why GWAS wasn’t picking most of the genetic variation: synthetic associations. Let me jump to their author summary:

It has long been assumed that common genetic variants of modest effect make an important contribution to common human diseases, such as most forms of cardiovascular disease, asthma, and neuropsychiatric disease. Genome-wide scans evaluating the role of common variation have now been completed for all common disease using technology that claims to capture greater than 90% of common variants in major human populations. Surprisingly, the proportion of variation explained by common variation appears to be very modest, and moreover, there are very few examples of the actual variant being identified. At the same time, rare variants have been found with very large effects. Now it is demonstrated in a simulation study that even those signals that have been detected for common variants could, in principle, come from the effect of rare ones. This has important implications for our understanding of the genetic architecture of human disease and in the design of future studies to detect causal genetic variants.

Why does it seems so synonymous to our economic theories sans those black Swans? 

Quote of the Day

"A man should read as his fancy takes him, for what he reads as a chore will do him little good."

-Samuel Johnson

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Animal That Therefore I Am

Excerpts from Jacques Derrida classic, The Animal That Therefore I Am :

I would like to have the plural of animals heard in the singular. There is no animal in the general singular, separated from man by a single indivisible limit. We have to envisage the existence of "living creatures" whose plurality cannot be assembled within the single figure of an animality that is simply opposed to humanity. This does not of course mean ignoring or effacing everything that separates humankind from the other animals, creating a single large set, a single great, fundamentally homogenous and continuous family tree going from the animot to the homo (faber, sapiends, or whatever else). That would be an asinanity, even more so to suspect anyone here doing just that. I won't therefore devote another second to the double stupidity of that suspicion, even if, alas, it is quite widespread. I repeat that it is rather a matter of taking into account a multiplicity of heterogeneous structures and limits. Among non-humans and separate from nonhumans there is an immense multiplicity of other living things that cannot in any way be homogenized, except by means of violence and willful ignorance, within the category of what is called the animal or animality in general. From the outset there are animals and, let's say, l'animot. The confusion of all nonhuman living creatures within the general and common category of the animal is not simply a sin against rigorous thinking, vigilance, lucidity, or empirical authority; it is also a crime. Not a crime against animality precisely, but a crime of the first order against the animals, against animals. Do we agree to presume that every murder, every transgression of the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" concerns only man (a question to come) and that in sum there are only crimes "against humanity?"

Using Neurofeedback To Treat ADHD

Isn't this "poor" man's meditation? I guess, its better than Ritalin. NPR story here:

"Ellison says she tried meditation, but her mind kept wandering. Neurofeedback is better for people with ADHD, she says, because it provides constant feedback during a session, which is usually done in a therapist's office.

People usually sit in a chair facing a laptop screen. The laptop is connected to electrodes applied to the scalp. Special software monitors the electrical activity in your brain. In particular, it measures rhythmic patterns known as theta and beta waves.

Proponents of neurofeedback say these patterns reveal when the brain is in a focused and attentive state. So the computer software looks for desirable brain wave patterns and changes the image on screen to let people know how they are doing.

A clinical psychologist in Connecticut monitors the electrode impulses of a patient with ADHD. Some parents are turning to neurofeedback to treat the disorder.
The image that worked best for Ellison showed a field.

"When my brain responded the way that it was supposed to, the field would burst into color. I'd hear bird song and beautiful flowers would bloom," she says. "But when I got distracted or when I got a little bit more sped up, the flowers would wilt. It would turn gray, and I'd know that I needed to work a little bit harder."

At first, people can't control their brain wave patterns, at least not consciously. But over time, their brains become conditioned to associate certain patterns with pleasant images or sounds — a reward for good behavior. And our brains like rewards."

This sort of brain training can take 40 sessions or more, and typically costs thousands of dollars."