Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 12th, 2014

All young-adult movies rolled into one

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Just the trailer, but you’ll catch the drift. (Does that count as a mixed metaphor?)

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2014 at 12:56 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Consciousness as an approximation of attention

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An extremely interesting NY Times op-ed by Michael Graziano:

OF the three most fundamental scientific questions about the human condition, two have been answered.

First, what is our relationship to the rest of the universe? Copernicus answered that one. We’re not at the center. We’re a speck in a large place.

Second, what is our relationship to the diversity of life? Darwin answered that one. Biologically speaking, we’re not a special act of creation. We’re a twig on the tree of evolution.

Third, what is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.

Imagine a group of scholars in the early 17th century, debating the process that purifies white light and rids it of all colors. They’ll never arrive at a scientific answer. Why? Because despite appearances, white is not pure. It’s a mixture of colors of the visible spectrum, as Newton later discovered. The scholars are working with a faulty assumption that comes courtesy of the brain’s visual system. The scientific truth about white (i.e., that it is not pure) differs from how the brain reconstructs it.

The brain builds models (or complex bundles of information) about items in the world, and those models are often not accurate. From that realization, a new perspective on consciousness has emerged in the work of philosophers like Patricia S. Churchland and Daniel C. Dennett. Here’s my way of putting it:

How does the brain go beyond processing information to become subjectively aware of information? The answer is: . . .

Continue reading.

I’ve been reflecting on this—the column was published a few days ago—and I’m sure I’ll be revising these remarks as I think more about it, but:

For an animal to respond effectively to its environment (from the POV of the genes, to live long enough to reproduce, often if possible), it must integrate an enormous amount of sensory data, from both internal (“I’m wounded!”) and external (“It still attacks!”) pretty much real-time. Shortcuts abound, of course. The op-ed suggests that consciousness (the brain’s analogue of attention) is such a short-cut: the brain’s shorthand for keeping track of what has happened, pattern recognition, and the like. In other words, consciousness is the experience of a way of most efficiently organizing and prioritizing all those inputs and acting on them. In much the same way, the color “white” is really just a shorthand for a pattern of stimuli. “White” is our experience of the brain’s shorthand. The feeling of consciousness is the experience of working with all those neurons and their processes via chains of shortcuts, the mechanisms of which are “under the hood,” so far as consciousness is concerned. It’s an emergent phenomenon, and really was simply an evolutionary solution to working with so much data. That we can as a result take pride in proving some highly abstruse mathematical theorem is an unexpected by-product—an emergence, if you will.

I wonder whether it required consciousness to get the meme-ball rolling. Before consciousness, there must be a theory of mind: a way to understand the thoughts/plans/intentions of another. I say it precedes consciousness because successful mammalian predators seem to respond to the prey’s intentions, to know what the prey will do next.

At any rate, memes clearly started quite early and probably before language: hand-axes are ancient, and do not some animals learn by imitating, thus creating barely viable memes. But with language, itself both a meme and a warm and hospitable environment for memes (as are also dance, music, and others), memetic evolution took off. And I’m wondering whether language did not sort of nudge consciousness into being, both language and consciousness side-effects of mechanisms being used for other ends. Pattern recognition, for example, is a very primitive engine indeed, and through evolution has long been a strong assist to survival, becoming more and more powerful, and clearly it is essential to both language and memes.

If language and consciousness sort of emerged together as a natural amalgamation, I am going to guess that the first Cambrian explosion of memes was the effect (and cause) of language and consciousness, and like language, consciousness is also built of memes. Language provided a way for awareness to accumulate identity—cultural identity, not physical identity.

One interesting corollary: if consciousness is indeed the experience of integrating and acting on all that sensory/motor data, etc., then when the sensory/motor data stream stops…. no more consciousness. Sort of takes care of the immortal soul, which is though to carry one’s own identity past the dearth of processes—and, oddly, not the identity at the time of death, because the immortal souls of departed dementia patients are not thought to suffer from dementia—I confess I do not understand all the ramifications.

UPDATE: Interesting quotation from quite another article:

It’s hardly surprising that we love the ease and fluency of the modern web: our brains are designed to avoid anything that seems like hard work. The psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor coined the term “cognitive miser” to describe the stinginess with which the brain allocates limited attention, and its in-built propensity to seek mental short-cuts.

I, as a consciousness, am just one of those shortcuts, but with curious side-effects (see above note on emotions—probably also shortcuts, integrating a whole bunch of data to offer steering guidance (like “Run for your life!”)—and intellectual (i.e., meme-combining) accomplishment in, e.g., mathematics.

But truly, it does seems as though the memes are the stars of this particular movie: the things we say that make us human seem all to be memes—naturally enough, since we generally define “human” in terms of cultural values, and culture is made of memes, pure and simple. Our greatest accomplishments (in our own eyes) are all meme-derived and meme-based. And if we ourselves are indeed constructed of memes, it would seem that memes are indeed a big evolutionary step: the unexpected result of a combination of capabilities shaped in adapting to environmental factors and natural selection—I want to say capabilities developed for other purposes, but that’s not how evolution rolls.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2014 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Memes, Science

Will bankers ever face any accountability?

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The Tom Perez decision will be of great portent. I have already made a Google search to follow it. Certainly the Obama administration has let us down on a whole string of finance industry decisions and (in)actions, but who knows? Things change.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2014 at 11:13 am

Apparently shame is no longer operational: California water officials aren’t following own call for conservation

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Read the story. I would think these people would melt from shame, but it doesn’t seem to bother them in the least. The article begins:

Mike Soubirous is a prodigious water user, pumping more than 1 million gallons per year at his lushly landscaped home on a hot, windy Southern California hilltop.

Soubirous also is a member of the Riverside City Council, which in July voted unanimously to impose tough new water conservation rules in this desert city of 317,000.

Yet as California’s drought worsened from 2012 to 2013, he consumed enough water to supply eight California households – more than any other top water official in the state, records show.Soubirous knows he should cut his water use to set a good example, he told The Center for Investigative Reporting. But he has a 1-acre lot with cascades of flowering shrubs and a weeping willow tree, and summer temperatures hit 100 degrees. Conservation isn’t that simple, he said.

“Do I have to sell my house to set that example, or do I have to just abolish all my shrubs?” Soubirous said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I can reduce my water rate.” [No, you idiot. Just use no more water than allowed. The shrubs will get rid of themselves. What to do is pretty damn simple: STOP USING SO MUCH WATER. – LG]

Continue reading. The faux confusion expressed by Soubirous is staggering. Perhaps he really is an idiot, but is it not clear what he is to do? Use less water. Some plants will probably die. So be it.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2014 at 9:28 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

US needs to understand science better—not the facts, but how it works

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In the NY Review of Books Priyamvada Natarajan has a good review of two books that explain in lay terms how science works. His introduction to the review is quite interesting:

Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything
by Philip Ball
University of Chicago Press, 465 pp., $35.00

Ignorance: How It Drives Science
by Stuart Firestein
Oxford University Press, 195 pp., $21.95

Rien ne dure que le provisoire.
—French proverb

The current misuse of scientific findings can be tragic. At 3:32 AM on April 6, 2009, a devastating earthquake that measured 6.3 on the Richter scale rocked the medieval Italian town of L’Aquila, killing about three hundred people and leveling many buildings. Residents had experienced about thirty small tremors in the preceding three months and had become very apprehensive. A week before the quake, a meeting that included leading seismologists and public officials was held to evaluate the situation. According to seismologists, it is impossible to know with certainty whether small quakes are foreshocks of a larger tremor.

One of the expert geologists at the assessment meeting, Enzo Boschi, drew attention to this scientific uncertainty and noted that while a large earthquake was “unlikely,” the possibility could not be excluded. Despite this, when the vice-director of Italy’s civil protection agency, Bernardo De Bernardinis, emerged from the meeting, he assured locals that the tremors were routine and simply symptomatic of the earth releasing pent-up energy.

When the jolt of a quake woke up his two teenage children, a local resident, Giustino Parisse, trusting the report he had heard earlier on TV, calmed them down and put them back to sleep. Later that night, his house was leveled, killing both his children. Parisse and a group of residents sued the scientists and the local public officials for failing to warn them. The failure of these estimates of risk by the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks led to those expert scientists being convicted of providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger; they were each given six-year jail terms in October 2012.

Closer to home, on June 12, 2012, the North Carolina Senate passed a law that effectively prohibited the use of any data about sea-level changes in determining coastal policy in the state. The law was drafted in response to a report from the state-appointed North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s expert scientists, who advised that sea-level rises of about thirty-nine inches could be expected in the next hundred years, putting coastal communities in the Outer Banks region at grave risk. The law, formulated to regulate development permits, discounts these projections and prescribes a new method—rejected by most qualified scientists—for calculating sea-level rises.

There is, on the contrary, near-universal agreement among climate scientists that the sea will probably rise a good meter or more within the next hundred years, potentially submerging all low-lying coastal areas around the globe. But supporters of the legislation, developers concerned about the economic consequences of basing regulations on the predicted sea-level rise, found a novel way to circumvent the scientific assessment: by simply making the use of current measurements illegal.

The law now forbids the use of any new data and allows only historical data in making estimates of the sea-level rise in awarding permits for the next four years. According to the law, measurements taken in 1900 will form the baseline from which only linear extrapolations to the present day will be allowed. Nature, though, appears to be mocking North Carolina lawmakers. Two weeks after the law’s passage, a new study of measurements from tide gauge records revealed that the fastest sea level rises since 1980 in North America are along the coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts.

What’s depressing about these two cases is the misconception of science they reflect. Much of the public clearly does not know what to make of scientific research and has a poor understanding of how findings are reached, especially when it comes to assessing future risk. This seems to be true in all countries, but it is particularly striking in the United States, where so much of today’s scientific research originates. This paradox is worth exploring.

Polls in the US regularly show nearly unanimous support for improving the quality of science education, which is perceived as being important to the country’s ability to compete globally. A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2009 found that most Americans—84 percent—saw science as a positive force in society. Yet it also found that while people under thirty were more science-savvy than those over sixty-five, all age groups had a rather flimsy grasp of simple scientific concepts, even those taught in most public high schools, such as gravity or the structure of the atom.

A recent survey by the National Science Foundation found that a quarter of Americans did not know if the earth moved around the sun or vice versa. Meanwhile, 33 percent of Americans deny the reality of evolution and still believe that humans and the rest of the animal kingdom have always existed in their present form. Americans have extremely high expectations of and confidence in science and technology and think of it as a national priority—yet they also distrust its results. How to explain this?

One view is that Americans are simply ignorant and lack an understanding of basic science and mathematics. The assumption is that if these skills were improved, the public would become more appreciative of science. Yet recent research by Professor Dan Kahan at Yale suggests that the rejection of science is only weakly correlated with scientific literacy and numeracy. His data find a much higher correlation with Americans’ general political and cultural outlook. Kahan’s research indicates that, even controlling for differences in math and science skills, people with different cultural values—individualists compared with egalitarians, for example—disagree sharply about how serious a threat climate change is. Kahan’s results also show that people who identify with the Tea Party have a slightly higher level of science comprehension (it’s a tiny effect but it is there) than the average American, according to a nationally representative sample of US adults.

Illuminating as it is, though, Kahan’s research does not address the degree to which people understand the scientific method—not whether they know what protons or logarithms are, but whether they have an adequate sense of what a scientific theory is, how evidence for it is collected and evaluated, how uncertainty (which is inevitable) is measured, and how one theory can displace another, either by offering a more economical, elegant, honed, and general explanation of phenomena or, in the rare event, by clearly falsifying it. The L’Aquila case shows that many people expect science to provide 100 percent certainty, while the North Carolina case reveals the possibility that any uncertainty can be used to render a theory either false or just as good as any other theory.

In a word, the general public has trouble understanding the provisionality of science. Provisionality refers to the state of knowledge at a given time. Newton’s laws of gravity, which we all learn in school, were once thought to be complete and comprehensive. Now we know that while those laws offer an accurate understanding of how fast an apple falls from a tree or how friction helps us take a curve in the road, they are inadequate to describe the motion of subatomic particles or the flight of satellites in space. For these we needed Einstein’s new conceptions.

Take, for example, the Global Positioning System (GPS) that many of us use when driving. GPS is based on a fleet of twenty-four satellites orbiting the earth, each equipped with a precise atomic clock on board. A GPS receiver on an iPhone detects radio signals from any of the satellites overhead, and computes the user’s position within one meter or less. As predicted by Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the satellite clocks circling at 14,000 kilometers per hour tick more slowly than clocks on earth, losing about seven microseconds per day. However, since the clocks are 20,000 kilometers above the earth’s surface, and since, according to Einstein’s general relativity theory, gravity curves space and time, a clock orbiting at this height should tick slightly faster. The combination of these two effects results in a net speeding up so the time on a GPS satellite clock is faster than one on earth by about thirty-eight microseconds per day. To achieve navigational accuracy this speeding up predicted by Einstein must be compensated for.

Einstein’s theories did not refute Newton’s; they simply absorbed them into a more comprehensive theory of gravity and motion. Newton’s theory has its place and it offers an adequate and accurate description, albeit in a limited sphere. As Einstein himself once put it, “The most beautiful fate of a physical theory is to point the way to the establishment of a more inclusive theory, in which it lives as a limiting case.” It is this continuously evolving nature of knowledge that makes science always provisional.

How could the public be better educated about the nature of scientific inquiry? Three recent books, read together, point us in a new direction. These books lay bare the provisionality of science and may, paradoxically, actually help us find a way to address rampant denialism. Rather than focus single-mindedly on the technical aspects of science or the need to improve basic skills, they focus our attention on the psychology of science—the drives that inspire us to inquire into nature, and the limits that our minds necessarily impose on our knowledge.

In Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, the science writer Philip Ball, a former editor at Nature, reveals how curiosity, combined with wonder, has driven the scientific enterprise since the seventeenth century, and how the ever-transmuting nature of curiosity shifted the practice of science to the highly specialized and impersonal activity that it is perceived as today. Ball traces the intellectual history of curiosity, from the Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to the Large Hadron Collider atCERN that harks back to a view of nature as holding secrets that must be teased out with experimental apparatuses. He shows how curiosity went from being seen as a vice in medieval Catholic Europe, to a shallow form of inquisitiveness that inspired learned societies like the London philosophical club, and then, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, got recast as a virtue. Changes in the notion of curiosity from vice to virtue, he argues, have gone hand in hand with the development of empirical methods in science.

Ball provides one of the clearest explications of the provisional nature of science by . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2014 at 5:20 am

Posted in Books, Education, Science

Why does the US rely on prisons as the main treatment for the mentally ill?

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Brave New Films has a series Over-Criminalized, the first part of which is a look at defining mental illness as a crime worthy of prison time. Another film in the series looks at how homelessness is also a crime in much of the US. It’s as if the state and federal government and policymakers, have decided that the police are best equipped to deal with social problems, by locking people away, much as in international affairs the US relies mostly on its military to deal with the challenges of international relations. If your primary reflex is armed response, every problem looks like an enemy and every approach to solving it is treated as a war.

The first film in the series, shown below, is only 8 minutes long, and it’s worth watching. Their blurb:

Instead of helping the mentally ill, police often put them behind bars. Watch how one police department is making a positive difference.

It’s simple. Diversion programs work better than incarceration – for everyone. In cities like Seattle, San Antonio, and Salt Lake City, we see that successful solutions are a viable option to help end serious social problems. These services alter the course of people’s lives in a positive way and save taxpayers huge amounts of money. We cannot continue to isolate and imprison people who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, or homelessness. We must treat them with compassion and care to better serve our communities and our pocketbooks.

It’s time we got serious about pulling our money out of incarceration and putting it into systems that foster healthy communities. Hundreds of thousands of people are locked up not because of any dangerous behavior, but because of problems like mental illness, substance use disorders, and homelessness, which should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system. Services like drug treatment and affordable housing cost less and can have a better record of success.

This summer, news stories from around the nation provided the American people with a litany of issues about how police officers respond to community members. By highlighting programs like Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), and Housing First, OverCriminalized explores the possibility of ending incarceration for millions of Americans who, through successful intervention programs, can put their lives back on track.

OverCriminalized focuses on the people who find themselves being trafficked through this nation’s criminal justice system with little regard for their humanity and zero prospects for actual justice. They are victims of unwillingness to invest in solving major social problems, and the consequent handling off of that responsibility to the police, the courts, and the prisons. They are the mentally ill, the homeless, and the drug addicted. Sometimes they are all three.…

Quick facts on over criminalization:

  • Approximately 20 % of state prisoners and 21 % of local jail detainees have a “recent history” of a mental health condition.
  • Approximately 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46% live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.
  • In 2012, it was estimated that 23.1 million Americans needed treatment for problems that related to drugs or alcohol.
  • Pew Research finds that 67% of Americans say that the government should focus more on providing treatment for those who use illegal drugs such as heroin or cocaine. Just 26% think the government’s focus should be on prosecuting users of such hard drugs.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2014 at 4:52 am

Israeli squatters beat up woman picking olives in Palestinian West Bank

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I wonder whether Israel ever considers that perhaps their treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza may be what’s motivating the attacks. From Informed Comment:

A large group of Israeli settlers on Saturday morning violently beat a young Palestinian woman while she was picking olives from trees in an orchard in the village of Yasuf in the Salfit district in the central West Bank, a Palestinian official said.

The assault is the third such attack on Palestinian olive pickers in three days, creating concern about unchecked settler violence as the olive harvest kicks off across the West Bank.

Ghassan Daghlas, a Palestinian Authority official who monitors settlement-related activities in the northern West Bank, told Ma’an that 25-year-old Alaa Fathi Atiyani and her children were picking olives in a field in the al-Masamic area outside of Yasuf village at the time of the alleged assault.

He said that ten settlers arrived from the nearby Kfar Tappuah settlement and assaulted Atiyani, beating her “brutally.”

Daghlas said Atiyani sustained serious bruises all over her body as a result of the attack.

Daghlas added that Israeli troops arrived later and claimed to have arrested the assailants.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said that “clashes” took place “between settlers and Palestinians” in the area and Israeli police arrested four people.

The assault is the third such attack on Palestinian olive pickers in three days, including the second on the village of Yasuf.

On Friday, settlers from Kfar Tappuah attacked the village and burned down several olive trees belonging to a villager. None of the assailants were reportedly detained by Israeli authorities after that assault. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2014 at 4:41 am

Posted in Mideast Conflict

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