Saturday, June 30, 2012

An Amazon MBA!!

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Wisdom Of The Week

After all these years, E.O. Wilson unfazed still stresses on importance of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (this is one my all time favorite books). 

"If you bit short in your mathematically skills, don't worry about it. Most of the scientists today are mathematically semi-literate. 

I didn't take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama, they didn't teach it before then. I finally got around to calculus as a 32 year old during my tenure as a professor at Harvard. While I sat uncomfortably in the classes with undergraduate students little more than half my age and couple of them were my students for a course I was teaching on evolutionary biology; I swallowed my pride and learned calculus."

Last year while taking the Stanford ML class, calculus made my life miserable (Khan academy helped me eventually on getting the basics right). Now Coursera is planning to offer Introduction to Calculus this August - signup now (& its free!)

Quote of the Day

"In Carl Sagan's Contact, the main character, Ellie Arroway, is said to be modelled on you. Is that right?
Ellie Arroway is Carl. Her thoughts are Carl's thoughts, aspirations and dreams in a female character. But the experiences she had as a young person in a male-dominated field - those are experiences I had. The fact that her dad died when she was young was an important factor in shaping her career, as it was with mine. That is the most difficult way to learn this carpe diem lesson.
Before I read the book, Annie [Druyan, Sagan's wife] and Carl had me up to their house for a cocktail party. Annie said: "You may recognise someone in the book, but I think you'll like her." I said: just make sure that she doesn't eat ice cream cones for lunch, then nobody will think it's me. That was kind of a defining characteristic of mine at that time."

- Interview with Jill Tarter who is retiring as SETI cheif


Friday, June 29, 2012

Quote of the Day

"Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself. No one wished it so, but we are the first species to become a geophysical force, altering Earth's climate, a role previously reserved for tectonics, sun flares, and glacial cycles. We are also the greatest destroyer of life since the ten-kilometer-wide meteorite that landed near Yucatan and ended the Age of Reptiles sixty-five million years ago. Through overpopulation we have put ourselves in danger of running out of food and water. So a very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic."

- E.O.Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Psychotherapy - An "Artificial" Friend For The Lonely American

  • To survive, psychotherapy would have to become more relevant to people’s everyday lives, and therapists would have to become less disinterested scientist and more interested friend.
  • Many Americans in the 1970s had depressive symptoms or suffered from the psychological toils of everyday life, but for various reasons lacked anyone in whom to confide their troubles. Talk of stress and self-esteem helped convince people that therapists understood their concerns and wanted to help them.
  • Managed care executives wanted to turn mental health into a commodious institution, a kind of happy home where people might enjoy artificial friendship — and over-intellectual egotists who think dark thoughts in a language that average people cannot understand do not make for a happy home.

    - Read rest of the brilliant essay Psychotherapy and the Pursuit of Happiness

Will You Die For Your Dog?

"We know that our dogs would die to protect us, that they have a selfless loyalty burned into their bone and pounding in their veins. They have the moral code of Arthurian knights, steel sheathed in velvet kindness. This is the way of the pack, and when dogs accept us as their pack, it is in a sense the most horrific lie that humanity has ever told. We accept the mantle of pack leader without shouldering the responsibility. How many of you would throw yourself in front of a bear to protect your dog? How many of you would lay down on your dog’s grave to die?

Is it any wonder then that we cannot bear their suffering in a story? It isn’t because we feel more for dogs than we do for men, but because we cannot bear the reminder of our own betrayal.

- Steven Lloyd Wilson on Why We Cannot Stomach the Suffering of Dogs in Our Fiction (via Andrew)

Quote of the Day

"I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”

- Abraham Lincoln

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Humane Society 2011 Annual Report

Canada’s Seal Hunt: A Dying Industry
Since The HSUS began documenting Canada’s massive annual seal slaughter in 2005—with video footage shown around the world—opposition to the killing has grown while the global demand for sealskins has plummeted. Total kills have dropped to a fraction of government-set quotas, with hundreds of thousands of young seals spared gruesome deaths at the hands of sealers.

- Read the full report here

Quote of the Day

"Every creative act is open war against The Way It Is. What you are saying when you make something is that the universe is not sufficient, and what it really needs is more you. And it does, actually; it does. Go look outside. You can’t tell me that we are done making the world."

- Tycho

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

As We May Think - Dr. Vannevar Bush

This brilliant paper by Vannevar Bush urging scientists to make bewildering store of scientific knowledge more accessible (and call for ground breaking design) has been compared to Emerson's famous address of 1837 on "The American Scholar".

"Of what lasting benefit has been man's use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence. They have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life. They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.

Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial."

Quote of the Day

"While in the past people of rank or status were those and only those who took risks, had the downside for their actions and heroes were those who did so for the sake of others, today the exact reverse is taking place. We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending fakes, and academics with too much power, and no real downside and accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price. At no point in history have so many non-risk-takers, that is, those with no personal exposure, exerted so much control."

- Naseem Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (The book will be out November 2012, check out the prologue here)

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Twilight Of The Elites - Chris Hayes

Chris Hayes talks about his new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (also check out his the brilliant essay In Search of Solidarity).

Quote of the Day

"For one human being to love another that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is but preparation."

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wisdom Of Sebastian Thrun

  • If you believe your activities are in the best interest of the company that employs you - yet you fear you have broken enough rules that you might be fired - then you are doing well.
  • You find that Udacity classes are focused around student exercise, not lectures. Videos are minimal, often less than 90 seconds long (although some are longer). At Udacity, you will spend more time thinking on your own than listening to a professor. I feel the online medium is so amazing, we should really go beyond the replication of the classroom experience.
  • For the classes starting June 25th, the timing is entirely open. You can go at your own pace. No deadlines. Your motivation should be your eagerness to learn something you care about, not a deadline.
  • I wonder what happens to the idea of a text book in the video age. One of the things that frustrates me about books is that they "don't talk back". I can do the exercises, but the book won't tell me what I am doing wrong. I really want to see innovation on that end as well.
  • Ever since time, and certainly through the Industrial Revolution, have seen a restructuring of the workforce. Over 90% of all people used to work in agriculture and now it's about 2% in this country (number may be inaccurate). Are we better off or worse off? I think better off.This is just my personal opinion. I believe society is wasting huge resources with "inefficiencies," and when we invent methods to overcome these inefficiencies, society tends to be better off. I think we have to be socially responsible to the people who might be negatively affected by all this, but just retaining things as they are cannot be our guiding principle going forward.
  • Learning should be a lifelong endeavor. I feel we should enter the workforce soon, but keep a foot in education. Here is an example: I was taught Modula II and Lisp at college, and I would not be able to be a software engineer today with these skills. I feel the concept of a degree made sense when things moved slower, and when people died earlier. Then it made sense to be educated once and leverage those skills into a single career. Today things move really fast. In computer science, every 5-10 years there are entirely new tools, platforms, programming languages. I think society should acknowledge this. For me, the deal between Udacity and a student is a lifelong deal. We really want to offer meaningful education throughout an entire career.
  • What online will do is to reach many more students, those who can't afford being in classrooms. And it'll augment classroom teaching to enable teachers to focus more on the tutoring aspects of learning, and meaningful small group interaction - over giving lectures.
  • I think we should really try again the big goal: create human level intelligence. I think this is totally doable. We now have faster computer than ever before, more data than even 1,000 humans can comprehend during their live times, and much better engineering. If I ever run out of things to do, that's what I'll do.
  • The best rule for project completion is to complete it. When you get frustrated, I bet you get frustrated because things don't proceed as you want them to proceed. That's a learning opportunity right there. If you give up, you miss out on the most important part: the opportunity to learn something surprising. If you understand this, and use this as a learning opportunity, and develop pride once a hurdle has been taken - you will complete your projects!
  • I don't think online education will replace higher offline education. Quite the contrary. I think it'll draw more people into education. Movies draw people into theater. Radio brings people to live concerts. It's long been known that MIT's Open Courseware program has drawn students to MIT. I believe that online education will improve the educational experience and the outcomes. It'll give existing colleges and universities much more reach, and reduce their costs. 
  • I think this is key to intelligent systems. In the end we build smart systems to help us, the people. Not to serve themselves. A lot of existing technology doesn't really connect to people. But.... the machine doesn't have to be human like. My calculator perfectly understands my wishes (by pushing calculator buttons) without smiling at me and asking me how I feel.
  • I didn't think I had a talent. I honestly didn't care much about school, and it took me until college to realize I am actually good in math. Two things I always had were: passion, and a gentle disrespect for rules. If people say it can't be done, then likely those people are wrong. But instead of arguing things, I really tried to do things, and to keep my mind open for learning new things. So be passionate, try things, and when you get stuck don't give up. See it as an opportunity to learn something new. Every wall can be climbed, any ocean can be crossed.
  • We are really focusing on learning by doing. The instructor is your tutor. I am like you - I learned nearly everything in my life by attempting to do them.

- Sebastian Thrun on Reditt Udacity Chat

Quote of the Day

The presupposition is that passing judgment on somebody’s “lifestyle” (for those who do not speak psychobabble, this means the English word behaviors) is an activity which is forbidden. It follows immediately that when the person says to you “Don’t be all judgmental” they are in fact passing judgment on your behavior. In other words, they are “being all judgmental.” It is, therefore, impossible not to pass judgment. I do not mean “impossible” in the colloquial sense of “unlikely”, but in the logical sense of “certainly cannot be no matter what.”
- William M. Briggs

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A State of Military Mind

After over two years of (weekend) partice, today was the first time I got the courage to step into half a day meditation quasi-retreat. Once again, discovered that novice was still thriving but I am so glad I went. If this piece Meditation in the army cannot convince someone to purse this, I am not sure what else would.

Major Jeffrey Davis’s elite Marine unit was trained in meditation before its 2008 Iraq deployment, in one of the first scientific studies of meditation within the military. Davis became a quick believer. “We look at all of these weapons systems around us as necessary for war,” he says. “But it’s the human mind that operates all these things. If I can find a better way to train a Marine—if I can teach him to react quicker, to think quicker, to learn quicker, to act wiser in an ambiguous situation—the better off we are.”

But it wasn’t an easy sell. “There was a lot of resistance from the Marines at first,” Davis says. “When we first started, the guys felt a little weird about it.” I can imagine. This probably would have brought snickers and groans among the guys I served with, many of whom joined the infantry for the extreme physical challenge. At first glance, meditation and brain-training exercises don’t seem part of a martial culture. Though participation can be made mandatory, these techniques require significant buy-in, focus, and dedication over an extended period. “This type of training has been considered soft, not hardening,” says Amishi Jha, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Miami who has studied the effects of meditation on service members. “That somehow it’s going to weaken instead of toughen, that it’s going to make people less precise and more passive. But it’s not going to the spa and getting a massage. It’s the exact opposite for your mind. It’s being in the most alert and present state that you can imagine.”

In the second study, Johnson scanned the brains of eight platoons of Marines using fMRI. Stanley then taught four platoons an eight-week mindfulness course, similar to that used with Davis and his men. All eight platoons went through combat scenarios at the Infantry Immersion Trainer, after which Johnson gathered more blood and saliva samples, submitted them to behavioral and cognitive tests, and again scanned their brains.
 The Marines trained in mindfulness techniques, Johnson says, showed a better recovery from stressful training, and their brain scans showed similarities with the neural patterns of the elite performers—the SEALs and Olympians—in the Paulus and Johnson study. “These results,” Johnson says, “suggest that mindfulness training can produce changes at the level of brain, biology and behavior, which is quite provocative.”

John Way, an Army Special Forces soldier, started Warrior Mind Training classes in 2006 at a weekly meeting taught by Ernst near Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after returning from his first Iraq deployment. Now, for ten minutes in the morning and for up to half an hour at night, Way uses music—Miles Davis, Joe Satriani, Mozart—as a meditation tool. On his second Iraq tour, he could man a machine gun on guard for hours, refocusing his attention when his mind strayed. During ambushes and firefights, he found a clarity that had been absent before. “You see an explosion, and you don’t let the overwhelming experience of the explosion get to you,” he says. “You’ve got other stuff going on. Okay, those are explosions, but who’s shooting and where’s he at? You see the problem and you see the solution. You’re able to break it down and focus, instead of everything just coming at you at once.” He compares it to his current work as a medic, identifying and treating the severest injuries without being distracted by lesser wounds.

Wisdom Of The Week

My hypothesis is that it is precisely the dumbing down of U.S. education over the last decades that explains the increase in willingness to pay for education. The mechanism is diminishing marginal returns to education.

Typical graduate business school education has indeed become less rigorous over time, as has typical college education. But typical high school education has declined in quality just as much. As a result, the human capital difference between a college and high-school graduate has increased, because the first increments of education are more valuable on the job market than the later ones. It used to be that everybody could read and understand something like Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the typical college graduates could also understand Milton or Spencer. Now, nobody grasps Milton but only the college grads can process Animal Farm, and for employers the See Spot Run–>Animal Farm jump is more valuable than the Animal Farm–>Milton jump.

-  Steve Postrel via MR

Quote of the Day

"The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize 'inconvenient' facts--I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. I would be so immodest as even to apply the expression 'moral achievement,' though perhaps this may sound too grandiose for something that should go without saying.”

- Max Weber, Science as a Vocation

Friday, June 22, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive by Bruce Schneier. The first half the book is a nothing but an ubiquitous refresher course on psychological biases, behavioral economics et al. But if one could skim through the first half, the meat of the book is the latter half which covers Schneier's specialty - Security. Btw., I loved his TEDX talk and debate on profiling with Sam Harris more than this book.

This is the recurring theme of the book:

"The important thing to remember is this: no security system is perfect. It's hard to admit in our technologically advanced society that we can't do something, but in security there are a lot of things we can't do. This isn't a reason to live in fear, or even necessarily a cause for concern. This is the normal state of life. It might even be a good thing. Being alive entails risk, and there always will be outliers. Even if you reduced the murder rate to one in a million, three hundred unlucky people in the U.S. would be murdered every year.

We need to be able to trust strangers, singly and in organizations, all over the world all the time. We also need to be able to trust indirectly; we need to trust the trust people we don't already know and systems we don't yet understand. We need to trust trust."

Quote of the Day

"As with the other major emerging markets, India’s fate is in its own hands. Hard times tend to concentrate minds. If its politicians can take a few steps to show that they can overcome narrow partisan interests to establish the more transparent and efficient government that a middle-income country needs, they could quickly re-energize India’s enormous engines of potential growth. Otherwise, India’s youth, their hopes and ambitions frustrated, could decide to take matters into their own hands."

- Raghuram Rajan

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Peter Norvig On AI Class - The 100,000 Student Classroom

(Primitive) Self-Consciousness Chickens

Eating Chickens = Consciously Eating Conscious Creatures;  new paper on Primitive Self-Consciousness and Avian Cognition (via here):

Recent work in moral theory has seen the refinement of theories of moral standing, which increasingly recognize a position of intermediate standing between fully self-conscious entities and those which are merely conscious. Among the most sophisticated concepts now used to denote such intermediate standing is that of primitive self-consciousness, which has been used to more precisely elucidate the moral standing of human newborns. New research into the structure of the avian brain offers a revised view of the cognitive abilities of birds. When this research is approached with a species-specific focus, it appears likely that one familiar species, the chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus), also exhibits primitive self-consciousness. Given the likelihood that they are primitively self-consciousness, chickens warrant a degree of moral standing that falls short of that enjoyed by persons, but which exceeds the minimal standing of merely conscious entities."

Quote of the Day

"Seven independent experts in genetically modified crops I spoke to all confirmed that the science shows Bt crops to be safer than their alternative: noxious chemical insecticides. In Europe—where suspicions over GM crops run even deeper than in the United States—the European Food Safety Authority just rejected a French ban on Bt corn, saying "there is no specific scientific evidence, in terms of risk to human and animal health or the environment." A comprehensive report on 10 years of European Union-funded research, comprising 50 research projects, drew the same conclusions about Bt safety."

- In Defense of GMO

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

First Time @ Meditation Retreat

The Mindful Awareness Research Center at U.C.L.A. is collecting data in the new field of “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” that shows a positive correlation between the therapy and what a center co-director, Dr. Daniel Siegel, calls mindsight. He writes of developing an ability to focus on our internal world that “we can use to re-sculpt our neural pathways, stimulating the growth of areas that are crucial to mental health.”

I felt this happening during my four-day retreat. Each day, we sat for hours as bees hummed beyond the screened windows of the meditation room, a converted barn. It was hard to concentrate at first, as anyone who has tried meditating knows: it requires toleration for the repetitive, inane — often boring — thoughts that float through the self-observing consciousness. (Buddhists use the word “mindfulness” to describe this process; it sometimes felt more like mindlessness.) But after a while, when the brass bowl was struck and we settled into silence, I found myself enveloped, if only for a few moments, in the calm emptiness of no-thought. At such moments the seven-hour drive from New York seemed worth it.

As I drove out of the parking lot on the last day, ready — sort of — to return to what passes for civilization, I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to any of what I had learned — or if I even knew what I had learned, or had learned anything at all. Perhaps it was simply the lesson of acceptance — and the possibility of modest self-transformation. A teacher had said: “Don’t fix yourself up first, then go forth: the two are inseparable.” To enact, or “transmit,” change in the world, we need to begin with ourselves and “learn how to have a skillful, successful, well-organized, productive life.” That was a lot to ask from a four-day retreat, but at least it was a start.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

"The moment you study creativity in the laboratory you dilute it," says Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths University London. "Have we seen hard evidence that daydreaming leads to creativity? Not yet."

Still, there are hints from outside the lab that a wandering mind can bring success in the real world - albeit from a small study. In 2003, Shelley Carson at Harvard University and colleagues studied people who had written a published novel, patented an invention or had art shown at a gallery. In computer tests that required participants to screen out irrelevant information - latent inhibition tests - she found these high-achievers were less likely to disregard inconsequential details and focus on the task, compared with an average person. In other words, their minds more frequently wandered from the task at hand, a tendency that may have left them open to novel or left-field ideas (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 85, p 49).

- Richard Fisher, Daydream your way to creativity

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fareed Zakaria Harvard Commencement Speech

"I know I am expected to provide some advice at a commencement. Should you go into nanotechnology or bioengineering? What are the industries of the future? Honestly, I have no idea. But one thing I do know is that human beings will reward and honor those talents of heart and mind they have always honored for thousands of years: intelligence, hard work, discipline, courage, loyalty and, perhaps above all, love and a generosity of spirit. Those are the qualities that, at the end of the day, make you live a great life, one that is rewarded by the outside world, and a good life, one that is rewarded only by those who know you best. These are the virtues that people honor, that they built statues for 5,000 years ago. Well, nobody builds statues anymore. They build weird, modernist sculptures with strange pieces of metal falling off of them, but you get my idea.

Trust yourself; you know what you should do. You know the kind of life you should live. You don’t need an ethics course to know what you shouldn’t do. Just trust in your instincts, be true to them, and you will make for yourself a great and a good life. And, in doing so, you will change the world."

Sam Aaron Quick Intro to Live Programming with Overtone

Quote of the Day

"Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less."

- Marie Curie

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pet Buckle Up Laws In NJ !!

Well Max will hate it but it's all good - Enlarging that circle of morality @ works here!!

"New Jersey is now the only state in the country where driving with pets loose in the car is a violation of animal cruelty law. Drivers who do not secure their pet can face a ticket of $250 to $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Additionally, allowing your pets to hang his head out the window, having him riding in the back of a truck or curling up on the driver’s lap are also ticket-able offenses under the law."

On Eating Animals...

Namit Arora has a gem of an essay on 3 Quarks Daily.  I think the curse of being alive in this century is that one has to live and die being consciously aware of the inability to leave behind a compassionate world for our fellow non-human animals. But yet, history has taught us to be patient and find solace in small steps to a better world.

What can shake up our colossal indifference? Clearly, most of us don't even know about the horror and pain we inflict on billions of birds and mammals in our meat factories. But there is no good excuse for this, is there? It's more likely that we don't want to know—cannot afford to know for our own sake—so we turn a blind eye and trust the artifice of bucolic imagery on meat packaging. Many see parallels here with the German people's willful denial of the concentration camps that once operated around them, or call those who partake of factory-farmed meat little Eichmanns. "For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka", wrote Issac Bashevis Singer.

Predictably enough, many others are offended by such comparisons. They say that comparing the industrialized abuse of animals with the industrialized abuse of humans trivializes the latter. There are indeed limits to such comparisons, though our current enterprise may be worse in at least one respect: it has no foreseeable end; we seem committed to raising billions of sentient beings year-after-year only to kill them after a short life of intense suffering. Furthermore, rather than take offense at polemical comparisons—as if others are obliged to be more judicious in their speech than we are in our silent deeds—why not reflect on our apathy instead? Nor should criticizing vegetarians and vegans for being self-righteous—or being moral opportunists in having found a new way of affirming their decency to themselves—absolve us from the need to face up to our roles in perpetuating this cycle of violence and degradation.

Few things strike me as more absurd than calling oneself an animal lover while patronizing industrialized meat, though people will surely continue to deceive themselves about this and even offer variously unthinking arguments to defend their habit (like those which cling to such simplicities as humans are the top of the food chain, other animals also eat animals, people need meat protein to live, our traditions or religions sanction meat eating, and so on; David J Yount has compiled many good responses to such arguments).

There is no evidence that farm animals suffer any less than dogs or cats. They too are lovable, intelligent, and have individual personalities and social-emotional lives; many of them even bond with humans. They too have behaviors that in our pets we describe as fear, elation, loneliness, anxiety, playfulness, etc. More of us rediscovering this may be a prerequisite to bringing greater dignity to their lives and deaths—and in doing so, greater dignity to our own.

I highly recommend Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals

Quote of the Day

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

- Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Grass Genome with Potential

In two separate Nature Biotechnology papers, bosh groups describe assemblies that are slightly larger than 400 megabases, and a genome with about 24,000 to 39,000 genes. Additionally, the groups note a number of transposable elements and chromosome reshuffling events in the Setaria genome.

The University of Georgia's Jeffrey Bennetzen and colleagues compared their Setaria genome to other grasses and found that Setaria is an easily adaptable species: it has the capacity for drought resistance, better photosynthetic efficiency, and flowering control.

And among the chromosome reshuffling events, BGI-Shenzen's Gengyun Zhang and his team note a rearrangement in the C4 photosynthesis pathway. Additionally, they used their reference genome to map an herbicide resistance gene.

Bennetzen's team also notes the Setaria genome's potential as a tool to study switchgrass for biofuel development. "If we can find genes that affect lignin production in Setaria, they're very likely to do the same in switchgrass because they're such close relatives," Bennetzen says in a UGA press release.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

“To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities).”

- Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson on negativity bias

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Deciphering the Lines on a Solo Cup

- via here

The Scale Of The Universe

It's awesome !! Check it out HERE

Wisdom Of The Week

"The main problem is our inability to think properly about how power should be used to bind and build. Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are about how to navigate those paradoxes.

These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.

The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.
You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king. 

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else."

- David Brooks

Quote of the Day

"The end comes when we no longer talk with ourselves. It is the end of genuine thinking and the beginning of the final loneliness. The remarkable thing is that the cessation of the inner dialogue marks also the end of our concern with the world around us. It is as if we noted the world and think about it only when we have to report it to ourselves."

- Eric Hoffer

Friday, June 15, 2012

Landing Dream Job At Google via Udacity

- Check out the new Udacity Blog

Quote of the Day

"These viruses might somehow aid in the growth and development of our metabolisms, or even our organs. Scientists aren't sure, because they haven't had the chance to study a virus-free human population, as they have with the bacteria- and parasite-lacking populations in the West."

Would Curing The Common Cold Be A Good Thing?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why Smart People Are Stupid

"For one thing, self-awareness was not particularly useful: as the scientists note, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” This finding wouldn’t surprise Kahneman, who admits in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that his decades of groundbreaking research have failed to significantly improve his own mental performance. “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy”—a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task—“as it was before I made a study of these issues,” he writes.

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves.
One provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves. When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.
The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence

What Animals Can Teach Us About Health And The Science of Healing

Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers  talks about his new book Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health And The Science of Healing:

On self-mutilation, a seemingly counterevolutionary behavior that appears in both humans and animals:

Bowers: "When animals are under stress, they will often try to make themselves feel better, and one way that animals do this is by grooming. Sometimes veterinarians see that animals actually over-groom in situations where they're stressed out: Cats will lick their paws compulsively; dogs might chew the base of their tail or spin around in circles. Also, veterinarians have seen horses that bite their flanks."

Natterson-Horowitz: "Before I became a cardiologist, I did a residency in psychiatry, and I spent time with some human patients who are cutters. When you take care of a patient who cuts, it can be very hard to understand why they're doing it. And yet, they tell us that it provides them with relief, which seems counterintuitive to me. ...

"Looking at what animals do when they're self-injuring, you see that they're overgrooming in an attempt to tap into the neuro-circuitry that provides comfort and relief with grooming, and dialing it up. Veterinarians know that stress, isolation and boredom will fairly reliably lead to self-harm in certain animals that are susceptible. Knowing this, they can take steps to prevent stress, isolation and boredom in their animals, and when an animal does exhibit those behaviors, they have a very specific behavioral agenda to help them. This is information that I actually think would be really helpful on the human side, and cause me to even wonder whether it'd be interesting to have psychiatry residents spend time with animal behaviorists."

On why we should pay attention to animal sickness and health:

Natterson-Horowitz: "Animals and humans get the same diseases, but veterinarians and physicians rarely collaborate and communicate. And this is a loss, because there is a tremendous amount of opportunity to develop a broader perspective about disease. In my own practice as a cardiologist, going to the zoo and working with veterinarians has made me a much better doctor."

Quote of the Day

"Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent."

- Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How To Age Well

The poem “Maud Muller” by John Greenleaf Whittier aptly ends with the line, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” What if you had gone for the risky investment that you later found out made someone else rich, or if you had had the guts to ask that certain someone to marry you? Certainly, we’ve all had instances in our lives where hindsight makes us regret not sticking our neck out a bit more.

But new research suggests that when we are older these kinds of ‘if only!’ thoughts about the choices we made may not be so good for our mental health. One of the most important determinants of our emotional well being in our golden years might be whether we learn to stop worrying about what might have been.

Perhaps it might be better for us to feel the pain of such missed opportunities when we are younger so that we learn from them and make better choices in the future.  But when we are older, the future gets smaller, and so do the opportunities to correct previous missteps.  So, as we age a more effective strategy is to let go of the things we’ll have little opportunity to fix. For those who haven’t adopted this adaptive strategy towards missed opportunities, learning to do so may help improve their emotional well-being. Brassen and her colleagues suggest that their findings could be applied to an age-appropriate cognitive-behavioral therapy regimen that would help the unsuccessfully aging disengage from regret inducing experiences. Indeed, with the number of depressed people over the age of 65 estimated to be at roughly 6 million in the United States alone, it is encouraging to consider how this research might be used to improve their lives.

- More

Quote of the Day

“Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How To Build A Winogradsky Column

"The Winogradsky Column is a simple device for culturing a large diversity of microorganisms. Invented by Sergei Winogradsky, the device is a column of pond mud and water mixed with a carbon source such as newspaper (containing cellulose) or egg-shells (containing calcium carbonate) and a sulfur source such as gypsum (calcium sulfate) or egg-yolk. Incubating the column in sunlight for months results in an aerobic/anaerobic gradient as well as a sulfide gradient. These two gradients promote the growth of different micro-organisms such as clostridium, desulfovibrio, chlorobium, chromatium, rhodomicrobium, beggiatoa, as well as many other species of bacteria, cyanobacteria, and algae.

The column provides numerous gradients, depending on additive nutrients, from which the variety of aforementioned organisms can grow. The aerobic water phase and anaerobic mud or soil phase are one such distinction. Due to low oxygen solubility in water the water quickly becomes anoxic towards the interface of the mud and water. Anaerobic phototrophs are still present to a large extent in the mud phase, there is still capacity for biofilm creation and colony expansion, as noted by the images. Algae and other aerobic phototrophs are present along the surface and water of the upper half of the columns. Green growth is often attributed to these organisms."

- check out the animated tutorial here (via here)

Emotional Intelligence For Personal Growth - Redux

One of my favorite posts from 2010 (I wonder why they discontinued this fascinating series..)

"Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting '..holy sh*t ....what a ride!' Enjoy the ride. There is no return ticket."

and the Wolf metaphor:

One thing we notice is that our thoughts and feelings often contradict each other. Our emotional selves and our rational selves often have conflicting memories, perspectives, and motivations. On the surface, positive emotions seem helpful, and negative emotions seem to be destructive. 

There is an old Cherokee folk tale called the "Wolves Within".

"An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, "Let me tell you a story. I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.

But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times." He continued, "It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. 

But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger,for his anger will change nothing.

Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit." 

The boy looked intently into his Grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?" 

The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, "The one I feed.""

Quote of the Day

"Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance."

- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Monday, June 11, 2012

Corruption and Family Structure

The darker the color on the map, the more corrupt the country. Corruption is the norm around the world; northwest European societies, with their relatively low levels of corruption, are the outliers (via here):

The connection between corruption and ‘familism’ has long been advanced, for example by Edward Banfield in his 1958 study of southern Italy, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.  [note: Parts of southern Italy did practice cousin marriage then; see above.]  In a nutshell, the higher your loyalty toward your family group (be it nuclear, extended, clan, or tribe), the lower your loyalty toward the larger society, i.e. everyone outside your family group.  The Brazilian social anthropologist Roberto DaMatta sums up the attitude this way:

"If I am buying from or selling to a relative, I neither seek profit nor concern myself with money. The same can happen in a transaction with a friend. But, if I am dealing with a stranger, then there are no rules, other than the one of exploiting him to the utmost."

In the harshest possible terms: Corrupt, nepotistic societies are that way because, from top to bottom, they are full of corrupt, nepotistic people.  In different terms: People in such societies have much stronger family ties than Northwest Europeans, with all the good (old people taken care of at home, lower suicide rates) and the bad (large-scale nepotism and bribery).  The biggest lesson for international policy-makers is that one cannot graft a policy from one people to another without grafting the people itself.  And that way lies colonialism–as Greece’s current conundrum shows.

Quote of the Day

"It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly and justly, and it is impossible to live sensibly, nobly and justly without living pleasantly."

- Epicurus

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Sociological Imagination

Excerpts for Wright Mill's 1959 book The Sociological Imagination:

"The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions. Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues.

The first fruit of this imagination - and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it - is the idea that the individual can understand her own experience and gauge her own fate only by locating herself within her period, that she can know her own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in her circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one. We do not know the limits of humans capacities for supreme effort or willing degradation, for agony or glee, for pleasurable brutality or the sweetness of reason. But in our time we have come to know that the limits of 'human nature' are frighteningly broad. We have come to know that every individual lives, from one generation to the next, in some society; that he lives out a biography, and lives it out within some historical sequence. By the fact of this living, he contributes, however minutely, to the shaping of this society and to the course of its history, even as he is made by society and by its historical push and shove."

And my favorite lines...

"That, in brief, is why it is by means of the sociological imagination that men and women now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves as minute points of the intersections of biography and history within society. In large part, contemporary humanity's self-conscious view of itself as at least an outsider, if not a permanent stranger, rests upon an absorbed realization of social relativity and of the transformative power of history. The sociological imagination is the most fruitful form of this self-consciousness. By its use people whose mentalities have swept only a series of limited orbits often come to feel as if suddenly awakened in a house with which they had only supposed themselves to be familiar. Correctly or incorrectly, they often come to feel that they can now provide themselves with adequate summations, cohesive assessments, comprehensive orientations. Older decisions that once appeared sound now seem to them products of a mind unaccountably dense. Their capacity for astonishment is made lively again. They acquire a new way of thinking, they experience a transvaluation of values: in a word, by their reflection and by their sensibility, they realize the cultural meaning of the social sciences."

Quote of the Day

"There is a condition worse than blindness, and that is seeing something that isn't there."

- Thomas Hardy

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why We Don't Believe In Science

A new study in Cognition, led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, helps explain the stubbornness of our ignorance. As Shtulman notes, people are not blank slates, eager to assimilate the latest experiments into their world view. Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naïve intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue. For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth. And then there’s the irony of evolution: our views about our own development don’t seem to be evolving.

This means that science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories. Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin.

Shtulman and colleagues summarize their findings:

When students learn scientific theories that conflict with earlier, naïve theories, what happens to the earlier theories? Our findings suggest that naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them.

- Jonah Lehrer is the author of the new book Imagine: How Creativity Works

Wisdom Of The Week

"Our absorption with computers in whichever form and the attraction of the ICE (information, communication and entertainment ) that they can provide is making us more 'atomic' and less social. We can be very well connected with hundreds of 'friends' on Facebook, thousands of 'followers' on the Twitter and live in a virtual world of social networks. But on reflection, it should be evident that 'connection' is not 'conversation' and that to befriend someone on Facebook is not a substitute for a real friend with whom you bond.

But this view may be contested by the next generation, who may find virtual friendships on cyber space more real than relationships in the physical space. Going a step backward as it were, we also need to wonder whether we can sit 'still' without friends and conversation, whether real or virtual.

The stillness in the core of the being, the ability to meditate or at least to speculate is a step towards Ananda as all great philosophies or religions teach us. Is that precious quality of 'doing nothing' getting negated by the 'always connected', always distracted, and attention deficit inducing nature of modern technology?

Can we keep our fingers still and not text or type, let alone 'still' our minds and spirits? Finally, are we submerging our individual abilities, memories and consciousness to a larger anonymous cloud over which we have no control? Is this a surrender of our mind to an omniscient, omnipotent Viswa Chaitanya, a Universal Consciousness that the great scientists or rishis dreamed of, or is it only to the iCloud of Apple?"

- B.S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador to Brazil and I hope this article wasn't anyway influenced by Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Quote of the Day

Most of us think we are pretty wonderful. We can cheat a little and still keep that “good person” identity. Most people won’t cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.

The key job in the Good Person Construct is to manage your rationalizations and self-deceptions to keep them from getting egregious. Ariely suggests you reset your moral gauge from time to time. Your moral standards will gradually slip as you become more and more comfortable with your own rationalizations. So step back. Break your patterns and begin anew.
As we go about doing our Good Person moral calculations, it might be worth asking: Is this good enough? Is this life of minor transgressions refreshingly realistic, given our natures, or is it settling for mediocrity?

- David Brooks reviews Dan Ariely's new book
The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone---Especially Ourselves

Friday, June 8, 2012

Plants May Be Able To 'Hear' Others

"The most controversial claim is that plants can hear, an idea that dates back to the 19th century. Since then a few studies have suggested that plants respond to sound, prompting somewhat spurious suggestions that talking to plants can help them grow.

A team led by Monica Gagliano at the University of Western Australia in Crawley placed the seeds of chilli peppers (Capsicum annuum) into eight Petri dishes arranged in a circle around a potted sweet fennel plant (Foeniculum vulgare).

Sweet fennel releases chemicals into the air and soil that slow other plants' growth. In some set-ups the fennel was enclosed in a box, blocking its chemicals from reaching the seeds. Other experiments had the box, but no fennel plant inside. In each case, the entire set-up was sealed in a soundproof box to prevent outside signals from interfering. As expected, chilli seeds exposed to the fennel germinated more slowly than when there was no fennel. The surprise came when the fennel was present but sealed away: those seeds sprouted fastest of all.

In a separate experiment, chilli seeds growing next to a sealed-off chilli plant also consistently grew differently to seeds growing on their own, suggesting some form of signalling between the two. Though the research is at an early stage, the results are worth pursuing, says Richard Karban of the University of California-Davis. They do suggest that plants have an as-yet-unidentified means of communication, he says, though it is not clear what that might be.

- More Here

Rambling Like Rousseau In Switzerland

Nicolas Brulliard adventures of following Rousseau's foot steps... well quite literally.

I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Rousseau’s hangouts around Neuchatel, because I grew up in the area. But for me, Rousseau had always been first and foremost the author of “The Confessions,” an autobiographical work that I’d found an arduous read in high school. I knew that he’d lived in the nearby village of Motiers, but I’d never bothered to stop there. And though I’d visited St. Peter’s Island as a schoolboy, I’d had only a vague idea then that Rousseau had spent time there.

Now, more than 20 years after that painful reading of his autobiography, I was starting to think that I had sold the great writer short. Reading the “Reveries,” I discovered his love of walking in nature — a love I shared — and his eloquence in describing the profound effect it had on his spirits. And having left Switzerland 13 years ago, I could also relate to his exile’s sense of separation from the landscapes he treasured.

So I was ready to give Rousseau a second chance. I picked a handful of excursions that I would go on alone, or at most with a guide, as Rousseau himself would have favored.

The first walk was one that I’d actually been wanting to do for some time. To the sharp and rocky heights of the Alps, Rousseau preferred the softer and rounder Jura Mountains: The limestone that makes up most of the range dates back about 145 million to 200 million years to a geological period known as the Jurassic age. But the Creux-du-Van is an exception to the rule.

The crescent-shaped rock formation was carved by a combination of water and glacier erosion, and it features 500-foot-high vertical cliffs that stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding hills. Rousseau apparently came here one July day in 1765 to pursue his newfound passion for botany. 

“I love botany. It is getting worse every day,” he wrote to one of his friends. “I only have hay in my head. One of these mornings I will turn into a plant.”

Quote of the Day

"It's a pleasure to share one's memories. Everything remembered is dear, endearing, touching, precious. At least the past is safe—though we didn't know it at the time. We know it now. Because it's in the past; because we have survived."

- Susan Sontag

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Daryl Bem's Quest To Prove ESP

"Psi proponents say that an explanation for ESP (like the ultimate explanation for electromagnetism, incidentally) may come from quantum physics. The science they usually invoke is quantum entanglement, the bizarre relationship that arises between two particles like electrons or photons that have interacted with each other. Even when the particles are separated by great distances, the act of measuring the properties of one—spin, for instance, if the particle is an electron—immediately impacts the properties of the other. Albert Einstein, who doubted whether entanglement was possible, famously derided the idea as “spooky action at a distance.” But entanglement is now accepted as an observable fact, if only in the realm of the very small.

Dean Radin, an electrical engineer who worked at Bell Labs before devoting himself full-time to the study of psi, has hypothesized how entanglement might lead to telepathy and clairvoyance. He suggests that the matter we are composed of, including 
the synaptic fluid between our neurons, is entangled with the universe at large, allowing for the anomalous transfer of information across great distances, such that somebody might dream of an airplane crash at the instant the airplane is going down.

To explain precognition, Radin proposes a different but related concept:
time-symmetry of quantum events. This is the idea that microscopic phenomena, such as the motion of an electron through an electromagnetic field, would look the same regardless of whether time were flowing forward or backward. On large scales such time symmetry falls apart (which is why it is not possible to uncrack an egg), but some psi proponents think it may apply sufficiently to allow the reversal of cause and effect, enabling precognition.

Mainstream physicists recoil at these ideas.
Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, finds the suggested link between psi and quantum physics a “misuse” of the latter. “That sounds to me like saying we don’t understand this basic psychological phenomenon, we don’t understand quantum mechanics, therefore the two must be related,” he says. (See the DISCOVER Interview with Zeilinger.)"

- Daryl Bem's quest for ESP

Conscience+ App

Latest fascinating effort from Duke center for behavioral economics - get it from iTunes store for FREE and put a leash on that predictable irrationality.

"Conscience+ is here to help you through life’s most perplexing moral dilemmas. Based on the latest insights about human decision making, Conscience+ gives you the excuses you need to justify doing what you want to do -- whether it is something good you aspire to, OR something more shady and less moral. Think of Conscience+ as providing both an angel and a devil, sitting on your shoulder and available for advice at the flip of a switch."

Quote of the Day

The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent. The problem is: “Given a multitude of rational beings requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of whom is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.”

- Of the Guarantee for Perpetual Peace by Immanuel Kant

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Can Robots Inspire Us To Be Better Humans? - Ken Goldberg

Short answer is a BIG YES. Four lessons humans can learn from ROBOTS:
  • Question assumptions.
  • When in doubt, improvise.
  • When your path is blocked, pivot.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice.
"The devices we dream about can inspire us to be better humans."