Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cowboys & Pit Crews - Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande's 2011 commencement address at Harvard Medical School - A Classic!!

When I was in medical school, for instance, one of the last ways I’d have imagined spending time in my future surgical career would have been working on things like checklists. Robots and surgical techniques, sure. Information technology, maybe. But checklists?
They turn out, however, to be among the basic tools of the quality and productivity revolution in aviation, engineering, construction—in virtually every field combining high risk and complexity. Checklists seem lowly and simplistic, but they help fill in for the gaps in our brains and between our brains. They emphasize group precision in execution. And making them in medicine has forced us to define our key aims for our patients and to say exactly what we will do to achieve them. Making teams successful is more difficult than we knew. Even the simplest checklist forces us to grapple with vulnerabilities like handoffs and checklist overload. But designed well, the results can be extraordinary, allowing us to nearly eliminate many hospital infections, to cut deaths in surgery by as much as half globally, and to slash costs, as well.
Which brings us to the third skill that you must have but haven’t been taught—the ability to implement at scale, the ability to get colleagues along the entire chain of care functioning like pit crews for patients. There is resistance, sometimes vehement resistance, to the efforts that make it possible. Partly, it is because the work is rooted in different values than the ones we’ve had. They include humility, an understanding that no matter who you are, how experienced or smart, you will fail. They include discipline, the belief that standardization, doing certain things the same way every time, can reduce your failures. And they include teamwork, the recognition that others can save you from failure, no matter who they are in the hierarchy."

Urban Indians connect with Westerns easily than some of their fellow citizens. Being an immigrant from India; I can relate to these words:

"The rapid growth in medicine’s capacities is not just a difference in degree but a difference in kind. We have experienced the sort of vast, quantum alteration that my father describes experiencing during a life that brought him from childhood in rural India to retirement from a surgical practice in Ohio. The greatest leap for him, he tells me, wasn’t in taking that first step off the plane in New York City, extraordinary as that was. It was in going from his rural farming village of five thousand people to Nagpur, a city of millions where he was admitted to medical school, three hundred kilometers away. Both communities were impoverished. But the structure of life, the values, and the ideas were so different as to be unrecognizable. Visiting back home, he found that one generation couldn’t even grasp the other’s challenges. Here is where we seem to find ourselves, as well."

Authentic Creativity vs Karaoke Culture - Malcolm McLaren

Quote of the Day

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

- Charles Darwin

Monday, May 30, 2011

SOS From Ecuador - $3.5 Billion To Preserve Biodiversity ( & Save The Planet)

A must read - here:

Sometimes, there are hinge-points in human history – moments when we have to choose between an exuberant descent into lunacy, and a still, sober voice offering us a sane way out. Usually, we can only see them when we look back from a distance. In 1793, the great democrat Thomas Paine said the French Revolution shouldn't betray its principles by killing the King, because it would trigger an orgy of blood-letting that would eventually drown them all. They threw him in jail. In 1919, the great economist John Maynard Keynes said the European powers shouldn't humiliate Germany, because it would catalyse extreme nationalism and produce another world war. They ignored him. In 1953, a handful of US President Dwight Eisenhower's advisers urged him not to destroy Iranian democracy and kidnap its Prime Minister, because it would have a reactionary ripple effect that lasted decades. He refused to listen.

Another of those seemingly small moments with a long echo is happening now. A marginalised voice is offering us a warning, and an inspiring way to save ourselves – yet this alternative seems to be passing unheard in the night. It is coming from the people of Ecuador, led by their President, Rafael Correa, and it would begin to deal with two converging crises.

So where does Ecuador come in? At the tip of this South American country there lies 4,000 lush square miles of rainforest where the Amazon basin, the Andes mountains and the equator come together. It is the most biodiverse place on Earth. When scientists studied a single hectare of it, they found it had more different species of tree than the whole of North America put together. It holds the world records for different species of amphibians, reptiles and bats. And – more important still – this rainforest is a crucial part of the planet's lungs, inhaling huge amounts of heat-trapping gases and keeping them out of the atmosphere.

Yet almost all the pressure from the outside world today is to saw it down. Why? Because underneath that rainforest there are almost a billion barrels of untapped oil, containing 400 million tones of planet-cooking gases. We crave it. We howl for it. Unlike biodiversity and a safe climate, it's tradable for cash.
Here is a textbook example of what is driving both the sixth great extinction and global warming. We have been putting short-term profits for a few ahead of the long-term needs of our species. Every rainforest on Earth is being reduced to the money that can be stripped from it: yesterday, Brazil's Chamber of Deputies voted to slash the amount of the Amazon that must be preserved by landowners. Except this time, for the first time, the people of Ecuador have offered us an alternative – a way to break this pattern. Alberto Acosta, the former energy minister who drew up the plan, calls it a punto de ruptura – a turning point, one that "questions the logic of extractive development" that drilled us into this species-swallowing hole.

Here's the offer. The oil beneath the rainforest is worth about $7bn. Everybody knows that a stable climate, biodiversity and functioning lungs are worth far more than that. But until now, nobody has been willing to pay. Ecuador's democratic government says that, if the rest of the world offers just half of what the oil is worth – $3.5bn – they will keep the rainforest standing and alive and working for us all. In a country where 38 per cent live in poverty and 13 per cent are on the brink of starvation, it's an incredibly generous offer, and one that is popular in the rainforest itself. As one of its residents, Julia Cerda, 45, told New Internationalist magazine: "With oil, the government just sells it to richer countries and we're left with nothing, no birds or animals or trees."

10 Reasons We Need Wolves

The most obvious reason isn't "marketable"; 10 other reasons are save the wolves after the current political dissonance.

  • Scavengers thrive when wolves are around. The species that help themselves to wolves' leftovers include (PDF) ravens, magpies, wolverines, bald eagles, golden eagles, three weasel species, mink, lynx, cougar, grizzly bear, chickadees, masked shrew, great gray owl, and more than 445 species of beetle.
  • When wolves disappeared from Yellowstone, coyotes preyed on pronghorn almost to the point of no return. But since wolves have returned, the pronghorn have come back. In fact, pronghorns tend to give birth near wolf dens, since coyotes steer clear of those areas.

Quote of the Day

"Each man is a hero and an oracle to somebody."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nazi's Tried To Create Talking Dogs

According to the book, scientists envisioned a day when dogs would serve alongside German troops, and perhaps free up SS officers by guarding concentration camps. So to unlock all that canine potential, Hitler set up a Tier-Sprechschule (Animal Talking School) near Hanover and recruited "educated dogs" from throughout the country. Teachers claimed a number of incredible findings. An Airedale terrier named Rolf became a mythic figure of the project after teachers said he could spell by tapping his paw on a board (the number of taps represented the various letters of the alphabet). With that skill in hand, he mused on religion, learned foreign languages and even asked a noblewoman, "Can you wag your tail?" Perhaps most outlandish is the claim by his German masters that he asked to serve in the German army because he disliked the French. Another mutt barked "Mein Fuhrer" when asked to describe Hitler. And Don, a German pointer, is said to have imitated a human voice to bark, "Hungry! Give me cakes!" in German.
Germany's love of dogs may have blinded the Nazis to the outlandish goals of their project. "Part of the Nazi philosophy was that there was a strong bond between humans and nature. They believed a good Nazi should be an animal friend," Bondeson says. "Indeed, when they started interning Jews, the newspapers were flooded with outraged letters from Germans wondering what had happened to the pets they left behind." 

- More Here, from the book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities by Jan Bondeson

The Intelligence of Nations

Wary Herbert nails it:

"Modern Japan has very few of the world’s natural resources—oil, forests, precious metals. Yet this archipelago has given rise to the world’s third largest economy. Nigeria, by contrast, is blessed with ample natural resources, including lots of land, yet it is one of the planet’s poorer nations. Why is that? Why is there not a simple link between natural bounty and prosperity?

A detrimental physical environment consists of malnutrition, disease and environment pollutants—all of which can directly affect the developing nervous system—and thus working memory and attention—and also create a social burden that interferes with education and learning. The social environment also shapes individual and national intelligence. This includes the sheer amount of schooling, because practicing thinking makes people better thinkers. It also includes the existence of a “cognitive elite”—people with enough advanced education to familiarize them with the cognitive artifacts needed for problem solving. And it includes family, which plays the role of motivator, encouraging children to learn things like trigonometry even when they can’t see the value. Small families are better; large families are associated with drops in both cognitive and economic well-being.

National intelligence also requires a national “willingness to listen,” Hunt argues. No nation can come up with all of its own cognitive tools, but nations can borrow if they are open to new cognitive advances elsewhere. When Japan’s leaders decided to isolate the country from the world in the 17th century, the intelligence of its people declined. It’s not that they were unaware of modernization; they rejected it. When the nation reopened its cultural borders in the 19th century, national intelligence bloomed."

Quote of the Day

"Commuting is a migraine-inducing life-suck—a mundane task about as pleasurable as assembling flat-pack furniture or getting your license renewed, and you have to do it every day. If you are commuting, you are not spending quality time with your loved ones. You are not exercising, doing challenging work, having sex, petting your dog, or playing with your kids (or your Wii). You are not doing any of the things that make human beings happy. Instead, you are getting nauseous on a bus, jostled on a train, or cut off in traffic."

More Here

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Profile Of Tyler Cowen

Fantastic profile of Cowen on Bloomberg - a must read. All these years I missed seeing my favorite Lieutenant Columbo in Tyler Cowen!!

"Tyler Cowen is a pragmatic kind of libertarian: He’s for free markets, but he doesn’t get all huffy about it.

“I write books to solve problems for myself,” he says, “to figure things out. Things bug me, in a Lieutenant Columbo sort of way.”

This is the part I get jealous of Cowen... The gift of getting paid to talk about ideas sans that ubiquitous small talk:

"Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ranked first and second by U.S. News & World Report, wouldn’t need this strategy, but it’s starting to pay off at George Mason. The economists at GMU, he says, have been getting offers elsewhere and turning them down. They like each other too much. (Caplan has said this, too.)

“You get to talk about ideas the whole time,” says Cowen, “not about local politics or the real estate market, not about sports. You get to talk about ideas, from one second on to the end of the conversation.”

Wisdom Of The Week

"We Indians tend to pride ourselves on our family values. The typical middle-class Indian is brought up with the default programming that they’ll get married in their early-to-mid 20s, have kids within a few years of marriage, and have steady settled careers in conventional professions. This default programming is horrible for women. Many of these women who killed themselves no doubt grew up daydreaming about the domestic bliss that lay ahead of them. They did not try—or were subtly discouraged from trying—to turn themselves into proud independent women who did not depend on others for subsistence, and whose self-esteem did not need validation from a man and his family. They duly got married, some of them had kids, and when the marriage went bad, when the man turned out to be an ass, they could not find a way out. Even if they could have supported themselves, what about the social stigma of a broken marriage? And so, in dispair, they walked up to the terrace.

A few years ago, I’d written a piece titled ‘We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates.’ I continue to get more hate mail for that piece than any other I’ve written, but I couldn’t stand by it more strongly. As I wrote then, rising divorce rates are “the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.” If divorce was easy and socially acceptable, and if every father in the country brought up his daughter to be independent, we’d have far fewer housewives committing suicide. Indeed, we’d have far fewer men taking their wives for granted and treating them like shit. Marriage would not, then, be the prison it is for so many women."<
-To Hell With Family Values, Amit Verma

The Trees

"The trees are coming into leaf 
Like something almost being said; 
The recent buds relax and spread, 
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again 
And we grow old? No, they die too, 
Their yearly trick of looking new 
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May. 
Last year is dead, they seem to say, 
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."

- Philip Larkin

Quote of the Day

"Reverence for life is more than solicitude or sensitivity for life. It is a sense of the whole, a capacity for inspired response, a respect for the intricate universe of individual life. It is the supreme awareness of awareness itself."

- Norman Cousins

Friday, May 27, 2011

How To Live a.k.a Meaning Of Life - Montaigne

I have read half waythrough Sarah Backwell's excellent book, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at An Answer. Today being not one of the best of days, I found the best answer ever to that question.
This is again from Montaigne but from a different book - When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life by Saul Frampton (review here)

Montaigne died at home on September 13, 1592, of complications from kidney stones. In his last essay, he had written, "Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself." Virginia Woolf loved that line; she quoted it often. And Sarah Bakewell, in her own book on Montaigne, rightly calls it "as close as Montaigne ever came to a final or best answer to the question of how to live."
This simplest answer has Kantian Catergorial Imperative written all over it. No sure how much Kant was influenced by Montaigne.

"Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself."

Dog Sense - John Bradshaw

Excerpts and Interview from John Bradshaw's new book Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior:

Science is an essential tool for understanding dogs, but the contributions of canine science to dog welfare have, unfortunately, been somewhat mixed. Canine science, which originated in the 1950s, sets out to provide a rational perspective on what it's like to be a dog — a perspective ostensibly more objective than the traditional human-centered or anthropomorphic view of their natures. Despite this attempt at detachment, however, canine scientists have occasionally misunderstood—and even given others the license to cause injury to — the very animals whose nature they have endeavored to reveal.
Science has, unwittingly, done the most damage to dogs by applying the comparative zoology approach to studies of dog behavior. Comparative zoology is a well-established and generally valuable way of understanding the behavior and adaptations of one species through comparisons with those of another. Species that are closely related but have different lifestyles can often be better understood through comparative zoology, because differences in the way they look and behave mirror those changes in lifestyle; so, too, can those species that have come to have similar lives but are genetically unrelated. This method has been highly successful in helping to disentangle the mechanisms of evolution in general, especially now that similarities and differences in behavior can be compared with differences between each species' DNA, so as to pinpoint the genetic basis of behavior.
Yet although the applications of comparative zoology are usually benign, it has done considerable harm to dogs, as one expert after another has interpreted their behavior as if they were, under the surface, little altered from that of their ancestor, the wolf. Wolves, which have generally been portrayed as vicious animals, constantly striving for dominance over every other member of their own kind, have been held up as the only credible model for understanding the behavior of dogs.1 This supposition leads inevitably to the misconception that every dog is constantly trying to control its owner—unless its owner is relentless in keeping it in check. The conflation of dog and wolf behavior is still widely promoted in books and on television programs, but recent research on both dogs and wolves has shown not only that it is simply unfounded but also that dogs who do come into conflict with their owners are usually motivated by anxiety, not a surfeit of ambition. Since this fundamental misunderstanding has crept into almost every theory of dog behavior, it will be the first to be addressed in this book."

Wisdom In The Wild

"The much more enduring tradition is simple indifference. If we reject and dread our own advance of years and buy Harley-Davidson motorcycles in rebellion, when it comes to old age in the natural world we manage a striking lack of awareness. In 2009, Anne Innis Dagg published The Social Behavior of Older Animals, one of the rare academic titles dedicated to aged beasts. In it she admits that her own early fieldwork with camels and giraffes reported almost nothing about the elders of the species, an omission that she found to be widespread in scientific papers.

Ignorance tends to have consequences, and here we might revisit the pachyderms, this time in apartheid-era South Africa. In the early 1980s, the elephant population was swelling in Kruger National Park, and wildlife managers decided to dart numbers of adult elephants from the air and then shoot them to death on the ground, often in plain view of the juveniles. The youngsters were then rounded up and sent to other parks and reserves, with about forty ending up in Pilanesberg National Park, several hundred miles to the southwest. It must have seemed like a logical if gruesome act of conservation: reduce overpopulation in one place and spread the wealth of the species to others.

More than a decade later, field biologists in Pilanesberg noted what they termed a “novel situation” emerging. White rhinoceros, a species that had been bred back from the brink of extinction, appeared to be suffering, for the first time on record, high mortality from elephant attacks. Between 1992 and 1998, elephants were suspected in the deaths of forty-nine rhinos—a massacre.

The culprits turned out to be the orphaned young males from Kruger. The empathetic conclusion to leap to would be that the elephants’ berserk behavior was rooted in the trauma they’d endured as calves, and in fact there is no way to rule out that possibility. As in Tarangire, however, the investigation turned in time to a question of generations.

As they approach maturity, male elephants enter a rutting condition known as musth, during which testosterone floods their systems so fiercely that even their posture is changed. The adolescent males in Pilanesberg were entering musth too young and staying in it too long; one suspected rhino killer was finally culled after remaining in musth for as many as five months, a length of time that would be unusual even for a male twice its age. Under more natural circumstances—that is, in an elephant herd not composed of transplanted and possibly traumatized orphans—the adolescent musth periods are cut short by apparently withering encounters with larger, older males. After standing down to a dominant male, the rush of hormones stops, in some cases in a matter of minutes.

As a test, six older male elephants were introduced to Pilanesberg. The killing of rhinoceroses ceased, and the outbreak of elephantine violence was blamed on “a lack of adult supervision,” but more particularly, a lack of elders. Elephants are one of the few species in which the importance of older animals is coming to be acknowledged. Without them, the Pilanesberg orphans acted in a way so far outside of pachyderm norms that it seems fair to label it insane.

Evidence of the preferential hunting of the oldest animals—easy to find, meaty, often less dangerous than in their prime—reaches back at least to the Middle Stone Age, and today harvesting by humans is the leading cause of adult mortality in an increasing number of species. In the case of the African elephants, the “behemoths”—matriarchs and patriarchs in the sixth and seventh decades—have already been decimated, and the remaining elders remain the choice of poachers seeking larger ivory tusks."

- More Here

Quote of the Day

"It doesn't matter how long we may have been stuck in a sense of our limitations. If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn't matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years -- we turn on the light and it is illuminated. Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on."

Sharon Salzberg

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Did Lobbying Contribute to the Financial Crisis?

The answer is a FIRM YES via FK (abstract here):

"Has lobbying by financial institutions contributed to the financial crisis? This paper uses detailed information on financial institutions’ lobbying and mortgage lending activities to answer this question. We find that lobbying was associated with more risk-taking during 2000-07 and with worse outcomes in 2008. In particular, lenders lobbying more intensively on issues related to mortgage lending and securitization (i) originated mortgages with higher loan-to-income ratios, (ii) securitized a faster growing proportion of their loans, and (iii) had faster growing originations of mortgages. Moreover, delinquency rates in 2008 were higher in areas where lobbying lenders’ mortgage lending grew faster. These lenders also experienced negative abnormal stock returns during the rescue of Bear Stearns and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, but positive abnormal returns when the bailout was announced. Finally, we find a higher bailout probability for lobbying lenders. These findings suggest that lending by politically active lenders played a role in accumulation of risks and thus contributed to the financial crisis."

On Memory Reconsolidation

Yet another classic post from Jonah Lehrer:

"The answer returns us to a troubling recent theory known as memory reconsolidation. In essence, reconsolidation is rooted in the fact that every time we recall a memory we also remake it, subtly tweaking the neuronal details. Although we like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them, they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. What’s disturbing, of course, is that we can’t help but borrow many of our memories from elsewhere, so that the ad we watched on television becomes our own, part of that personal narrative we repeat and retell.
This idea, simple as it seems, requires us to completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory.  It reveals memory as a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information. The recall is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what we actually remember and more about what we’d like to remember. It’s the difference between a “Save” and the “Save As” function. Our memories are a “Save As”: They are files that get rewritten every time we remember them, which is why the more we remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes."

Neural Representation of Morality

It's all over the place and maybe nowhere; WE DON'T KNOW - paper abstract here:
This paper tries to connect cognitive processes with structure asking where is morality located? Researchers examined the literature answering that it was found all over the brain; ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), the left medial orbitofrontal cortex and medial Brodmann area (when moral situation statements were used). These are areas associated with risk, fear and  cognitive processing of decision-making, respectively. The other locations were the right medial orbitofrontal cortex and medial frontal gyrus, and lower medial Brodmann area (when visual stimulus was used). These areas of the limbic system are involved in emotion, reward, behavior and memory.
As such, the researchers define morality as a combination of characteristics such as emotion and theory of mind, which encompasses a full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions and imagination) that cause action. This paper finds ..."not necessarily the moral brain, but the engagement of the emotional brain and the social brain during moral cognition”. So, the end suggestion seems to better define precisely what we are looking for in terms of morality, then we can better hone in on where “it” may be.

Quote of the Day

"It seems that people who may be drawn to philosophy, especially as laymen, as non academics, may also be inquisitive, intellectually rigorous, autodidactic or mentally energetic, and so philosophy builds upon what was already present. What I mean to ask is do you think philosophy does or will penetrate beyond the borders of specific interest or academia in the future, as it appeared to in the past?
The sequestration of philosophy into a highly technical and abstract university discipline, if this is all that philosophy is regarded as, is a loss – but in fact philosophy belongs to everyone, and everyone engages in it (though usually without giving it that name: from conversations in pubs to thinking about big choices in life while waiting at the bus stop) – so the effort to keep it an elite pursuit to the exclusion is always bound to fail."

- A.C Grayling on Being Human

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Origins Of IVF Meat

"ABSTRACT: ANNALS OF SCIENCE about the future of cultured meat. Willem van Eelen was born in 1923 in the Dutch East Indies, yet his youth of freedom ended abruptly on May 10, 1940—the day the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Van Eelen enlisted and served in Indonesia, but he was eventually captured and spent most of the war as a prisoner, dragged from one P.O.W. camp to another. After the war, he studied psychology at the University of Amsterdam, but he struggled with the intertwined memories of starvation and animal abuse in the camps. At one lecture, he was seized by an idea: “Why can’t we grow meat outside of the body? Make it in a laboratory, as we make so many other things.” In-vitro meat can be made by placing a few cells in a nutrient mixture that helps them proliferate. As the cells begin to grow together, forming muscle tissue, they are attached to a biodegradable scaffold. There the tissue can be stretched and molded into food, which could, in theory, be sold, cooked, and consumed like any processed meat. 

Most people laughed when they heard about van Eelen’s project—it took decades for the science to catch up to his imagination. That began to happen in 1981, when stems cells were discovered in mice. In 1999, van Eelen received U.S. and international patents for the Industrial Production of Meat Using Cell Culture Methods. A new discipline, propelled by an unlikely combination of stem-cell biologists, tissue engineers, animal-rights activists, and environmentalists, has emerged in both Europe and the U.S. Teams are forming at universities around the world. Mentions Vladimir Mironov and PETA. Lab-grown meat raises powerful questions about what most people see as the boundaries of nature and the basic definitions of life. Yet our patterns of meat consumption have become increasingly dangerous for both individuals and the planet. The global livestock industry is responsible for nearly twenty per cent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Cattle consume nearly ten per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, and eighty per cent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat. The consequences of eating meat, and our increasing reliance on factory farms, are almost as disturbing for human health. Vascular biologist Mark Post says, “The goal [of cultured meat] is to create the volume previously provided by a million animals.” Mentions the Eindhoven University of Technology and Daisy van der Schaft. Describes the process of growing meat in a laboratory. Mentions Stone Barns and chef Dan Barber. The moral and ethical issues that would accompany the use of lab-grown beef may ultimately prove more intractable than the scientific issues. Mentions Princeton philosopher Peter Singer."

- Rest behind New Yorker Pay-Wall

The best news of the year is China is looking forward for IVF meat !! (via here)

"The cultured meat choice confronting tomorrow's shoppers will be similar to today's options in the meat department.

North Dakota bioengineer Douglas McFarland has grown myoblast cells from chicken, turkey, lamb, pig and cow, Mironov said.
Mironov finds that liver or "famous French guts pate" is the easiest muscle meat to grow. And he said cultured meat will be "functional, natural, designed food," arguing that modified food is already common practice, and not harmful."

FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience - Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person's hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.

The problem is that it has recently become fashionable to regard whatever we feel inside as the true voice of nature speaking. The only authority many people trust today is instinct. If something feels good, if it is natural and spontaneous, then it must be right. But when we follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces. The person who cannot resist food or alcohol, or whose mind is constantly focused on sex, is not free to direct his or her psychic energy.

The "liberated" view of human nature, which accepts and endorses every instinct or drive we happen to have simply because it's there, results in consequences that are quite reactionary. Much of contemporary "realism" turns out to be just a variation on good old-fashioned fatalism: people feel relieved of responsibility by recourse to the concept of "nature." By nature, however, we are born ignorant. Therefore should we not try to learn? Some people produce more than the usual amount of androgens and therefore become excessively aggressive. Does that mean they should freely express violence? We cannot deny the facts of nature, but we should certainly try to improve on them.

The most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment. If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one's shoulders. Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces. It is no longer necessary to struggle for goals that always seem to recede into the future, to end each boring day with the hope that tomorrow, perhaps, something good will happen. Instead of forever straining for the tantalizing prize dangled just out of reach, one begins to harvest the genuine rewards of living. But it is not by abandoning ourselves to instinctual desires that we become free of social controls. We must also become independent from the dictates of the body, and learn to take charge of what happens in the mind. Pain and pleasure occur in consciousness and exist only there. As long as we obey the socially conditioned stimulus-response patterns that exploit our biological inclinations, we are controlled from the outside. To the extent that a glamorous ad makes us salivate for the product sold or that a frown from the boss spoils the day, we are not free to determine the content of experience. Since what we experience is reality, as far as we are concerned, we can transform reality to the extent that we influence what happens in consciousness and thus free ourselves from the threats and blandishments of the outside world. "Men are not afraid of things, but of how they view them," said Epictetus a long time ago. And the great emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote: "If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now."

- Excerpts from the book FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi

Quote of the Day

"The dispassionate intellect, the open mind, the unprejudiced observer, exist in an exact sense only in a sort of intellectualist folk-lore; states even approaching them cannot be reached without a moral and emotional effort most of us cannot or will not make."

-Wilfred Batten Lewis Trotter (1872-1939) English surgeon

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cheapest Food Chart

- via Andrew

The variance was almost thrice before WII in the west and until early 1990's in India. It's still double in India but the gap is closing very fast. No one will eschew meat as long the cost difference is marginal. Morality doesn't even come into the picture especially in developing world and marginal "improvement" in morality in the west doesn't cut it either.

Quote of the Day

"For beginners, I always recommend a technique called vipassana (Pali, “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada. The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught in an entirely secular way. Experts in this practice generally acquire their training in a Buddhist context, of course—and most retreat centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, this method of introspection can be brought within any secular or scientific context without embarrassment. The same cannot be said for most other forms of “spiritual” instruction.
The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is generally referred to as “mindfulness” (the Pali word is sati), and there is a quickly growing literature on its psychological benefits. Mindfulness is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self awareness.
Programs in “mindfulness-based stress reduction” (MBSR), pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, have brought this practice into hospitals and other clinical settings. The Inner Kids Foundation (for which my wife, Annaka, has volunteered) teaches mindfulness in schools. Even the Department of Defense has begun experimenting with meditation in this form. "

Sam Harris on Meditation

Monday, May 23, 2011

Technology Plus Flamboyance = Perpetual Stagnation

 In 2006, broadband accounted for about $28 billion in U.S. Internet service-provider revenue. Economists Shane Greenstein and Ryan McDevitt estimate that consumers would have been willing to pay $5 billion to $7 billion more than they did for the benefit of access. This "consumer surplus" and Internet service provider revenues together were equivalent to just over 0.1 percent of U.S. GDP -- this at a time when nearly half of American households had broadband. With regard to broadband subsidies in particular, Ivan Kandilov and Mitch Renkow at North Carolina State measure the impact of a U.S. government loan program that provided subsidized capital to telecom companies to roll out broadband in rural areas. They can find no evidence that the program had an impact on employment, payrolls, or business establishment.
The U.N. report suggests potential impacts far beyond economic growth, however. For example, it suggests that "given that there are rarely enough health practitioners to serve everyone in need of healthcare … broadband is needed to enable doctors to share images and diagnose patients hundreds of miles away using technologies such as video-conferencing." One might question the relative importance of "advanced e-health" when fully one-third of the 10 million child deaths in low-income countries that occur each year could be prevented with technologies as simple as oral rehydration therapy, breast-feeding, and insecticide-treated bed nets. 
Again, broadband "offers a potential solution in the ability to deliver education in developing and developed countries alike," according to the report. But you have to wonder whether paying for fiber optics and computer labs is worth it in countries where, for 50 cents per child per year, deworming pills could reduce the incidence of illness-causing parasites and improve school absence by 25 percent. And you have to wonder even more when existing studies actually suggest that more widespread broadband use in schools may correlate with lower test scores. It's not much of a surprise, given that the studies found that the most popular activities for boys online were email, chat, Myspace, YouTube, music, and games. Broadband rollout to households is also associated with lower test scores -- almost certainly for the same reason.
- More Here (of-course via MR

The Deficit - Tim Geithner

Quote of the Day

"I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough."

- Daniel Dennett

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Difficulty of Knowing Thyself

This obviously applies only to those who understand the importance for self-reflection, metacognition et al., but oblivious to our innate biases... here:

The challenge in knowing oneself is that we have blind spots. These gaps are fueled by fears and an unconscious drive to maintain a particular self-image or self-worth. One study showed that even watching a recording of yourself that may be at odds with your self-perception does not change that self-perception. But others watching the same tape easily spot the inconsistency.

A 2010 study found that friends are significantly more accurate in judging traits like intelligence, talkativeness and creativity—traits that are observable and measurable. So when a friend says, “You know, you’re really smart,” it’s very possible that you really are smart.

Microbes and Us - An Unknown Symbiosis

Microbiologists researching the human microbiome are fond of citing statistics and no wonder, for the numbers are jaw-dropping. The average person is home to about 100 trillion, 1014, microbes - mostly bacteria but also some viruses, fungi, protozoans and archaeans. You are in a minority in your own body: microbial cells outnumber your cells by 10 to 1. Your microbes contribute perhaps a couple of kilograms to your body weight and they are everywhere, colonising your gut, mouth, skin, mucous membranes and genitals. In fact, the only time anyone is free from microbes is in the womb. You are born 100 per cent human, but die 90 per cent microbial. Between these two events lies a vista of unexplored ecology that helps make us what we are.

Metagenomics, is exploring what these gut microbes are capable of. Unlike conventional genome studies, which focus on individual organisms, this entails collecting all the genes in an ecosystem to create a global "metagenome" - effectively a parts list for the biological functions of that ecosystem. The most detailed inventory to date was published in 2010 by Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract (MetaHIT), a European Union-based consortium. The researchers studied faecal samples taken from 124 European adults and found a staggering 3.3 million different microbial genes, meaning that they outnumber our own human gene set about 150-fold (Nature, vol 464, p 59). Not everyone had every microbial gene, but by comparing the individuals in the study the team identified a set of genes we all share. Capable of more than 6000 biochemical functions, this "minimal metagenome" represents the core genes needed for the survival of the entire ecosystem.

It is not yet clear whether our gut microflora actually cause health problems or whether they simply change as a consequence. The system is so complex it will be hard to prove causation. With luck more detailed studies of the structure of the microbial communities in healthy and sick individuals will be a starting point for developing therapies. These might include drugs, probiotics, foods that alter the behaviour of our gut ecosystems, and even faecal transplants (New Scientist, 22 January, p 8). And this is just the beginning. The US Human Microbiome Project alone is being funded to the tune of $115 million. It aims to study the microbiomes of 300 individuals, in the gut as well as numerous other sites in the body, analysing some 12,000 samples and investigating diseases including Crohn's and necrotising enterocolitis.

Meanwhile, other researchers are wondering whether the link with gut microbes might help explain why obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and certain cancers are on the rise in western cultures. Could our modern lifestyles be having detrimental effects on the ecology of our microbiome? "We're exposed to all kinds of weird and wonderful foods that we didn't have before, and our environment is much cleaner," says Nicholson. That's not all - our tendency to overuse antibiotics could be inflicting lasting damage on our microbiomes.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

"The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do."

- Samuel P Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

Saturday, May 21, 2011


"The Annoy-a-tron features in Annoying, a fascinating book just published in the US, in which the science journalists Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman attempt to penetrate the essence of what irritates us. (They fall short of an overarching theory, which is annoying, but perhaps that's only appropriate.) Annoyance turns out to be remarkably neglected by psychologists, who try to define it away as a version of anger or frustration; there are, Palca and Lichtman note, "No department[s] of Annoying Studies or annoyingologists." But there are recurring traits, at least for aural irritations, and the Annoy-a-tron illustrates one: the agonising hope that the annoyance might have ceased. It's the same with car alarms, or people clipping fingernails on public transport: the silence between bursts is almost more excruciating than the bursts themselves.
This hints at something fundamental about annoyance: the violation of expectations. Our brains can't help but seek consistency or predictable patterns. Silence would be fine, and a regular beeping would be tolerable – but not knowing whether the beeping's stopped is unbearable. Studies have demonstrated that "halfalogues" – mobile phone conversations where you can hear only one speaker – are more distracting than monologues or dialogues: we involuntarily struggle to make sense of the exchange, but can't. People with perfect pitch get driven wild by office appliances that hum just flat or sharp of musical notes. Even the things that annoy us about romantic partners fit this mould. If you married a slob, you might be depressed, but not annoyed. It's the unslobbish partner who leaves coffee grounds in the sink who's truly irritating."

-More Here

Annoying Book Promo from flora lichtman on Vimeo.


Dogs Go To Heaven - Looks Like It's "Confirmed" Now

Make life worth for dogs on earth like they do for us... and heaven can be found here on earth. Anyways, that intellectual debate @ Slate:

Animal-loving Christians beg to differ. They point to the presence of animals in certain Bible passages that describe how Heaven might look. In Acts 10, for example, the apostle Peter has a vision of a great sheet descending from heaven, and opening up to reveal "all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air." And in Revelation 5:13 animals gather peacefully around God's throne. 
Literal interpretation of the Bible can, of course, be misleading: Animals in the Bible often appear for symbolic purposes. Though Peter's vision could point to the existence of heaven populated by animals, theologians tend to interpret Peter's vision of this celestial motley crew as God's way of demonstrating his own inclusivity—a realization that then leads Peter to infer that he can preach Christianity to Gentiles as well as Jews. Nevertheless, some heavyweight Christian philosophers have sided with the animal-lovers. John Wesley, whose preaching eventually became the basis of Methodism,wrote in the 18th century of the restoration of "the whole brute creation," i.e., the animal world. Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian active around the turn of the 20th century, also made reference to animal life in his writings on salvation. And in the 20th century, C.S. Lewis struggled with the question of animals' place in heaven. In The Great Divorce, a Divine Comedy-esque fantasy of a trip through heaven and hell, Lewis works through the scripturally difficult notion that, through their relationship to humans, pets might actually enter the realm of heaven.

Wisdom Of The Week

Bruce Mau illustrates this in the beginning of his book Massive Change by using the metaphor of modern air travel:
“Every plane crash is a rupture, a shock to the system, precisely because our experience of flight is so carefully designed away from the reality of the event. As we sip champagne, read the morning paper, and settle in before takeoff, we choose not to experience the torque, the thrust, the speed, the altitude, the temperature, the thousands of pounds of explosive jet fuels cradled beneath us, the infinite complexity of the onboard systems, and the very real risks and dangers of takeoff and landing.”
The technological apparatus that is modern civilization, or The Technium as Kevin Kelly calls it, allows us to fly high in style. But, it’s a complicated and often fragile mess designed to channel very powerful forces – and it can fail catastrophically if we aren’t careful. Additionally, it’s taken many generations of accumulated knowledge and expertise to craft and enable such soaring capability.

- More @ LongNow 

Quote of the Day

Following Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s resignation, the International Monetary Fund needs a new head. There is much talk of the candidate’s nationality but much less about another vital issue: that the fund’s next leader should not be an active politician.
The case for a politician, especially a European politician, at first seems strong. Many of the fund’s largest programmes are in Europe. The new head must enjoy the confidence of European leaders if they are to have hope of forging consensus among them. He or she also needs to understand the nuances of European politics, to avoid pressing for genuinely infeasible actions. The most able candidates may even want the job as a path to political redemption, or a stepping stone towards higher office. Yet these are precisely the reasons why someone whose primary skill is political would be an unwise choice. The fund is designed to push tough policies to straighten out countries that have mismanaged finances, not win a popularity contest.
All this is not to say that the next IMF managing director should be someone without political antennas. But history suggests that charismatic technocrats, supported by strong economists, make the best leaders at the fund. Happily, there are many fine such technocrats around the world who have done an excellent job managing central banks or government ministries. For example Brazil’s Arminio Fraga, South Africa’s Trevor Manuel, India’s Montek Ahluwalia or Singapore’s Tharman Shanmugaratnam would all make fine candidates.

- Raghuram Rajan (former IMF chief economist)