Later On

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

Archive for July 7th, 2017

How Nature Solves Problems Through Computation

leave a comment »

A very interesting interview of Jessica Flack by Joshua Sokol in Quanta:

here are many patterns of collective behavior in biology that are easy to see because they occur along the familiar dimensions of space and time. Think of the murmuration of starlings. Or army ants that span gaps on the forest floor by linking their own bodies into bridges. Loose groups of shoaling fish that snap into tight schools when a predator shows up.

Then there are less obvious patterns, like those that the evolutionary biologist Jessica Flack tries to understand. In 2006, her graduate work at Emory University showed how just a few formidable-looking fighters could stabilize an entire group of macaques by intervening in scuffles between weaker monkeys, who would submit with teeth-baring grins rather than risk a fight they thought they would lose. But when Flack removed some of the police, the whole group became fractured and chaotic.

Like flocking or schooling, the policing behavior arises from individual interactions to produce a macroscopic effect on the entire ensemble. But it is subtler, perhaps harder to visualize and measure. Or, as Flack says of macaque society and many of the other systems she studies, “their metric space is a social coordinate space. It’s not Euclidean.”

Flack is now a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, where she has spent all of her postgraduate career, except for a stint at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her “collective computation” group, C4, which she co-runs with her collaborator, David Krakauer, probes not just macaques but neurons, slime molds and the internet for the rules that underlie each model, as well as the general rules underlying them all.

Flack describes her work as an investigation into three interlocking questions. She wants to understand how phenomenological rules in biology, which seem to work in aggregate, emerge from microscopic ground truths. She wants to understand how groups solve problems and come to decisions. And she wants to know how complex systems stay robust in the face of shocks, like the macaques with their own police force that acts as social glue.

At its root, though, Flack’s focus is on information: specifically, on how groups of different, error-prone actors variously succeed and fail at processing information together. “When I look at biological systems, what I see is that they are collective,” she said. “They are all made up of interacting components with only partly overlapping interests, who are noisy information processors dealing with noisy signals.”

Over the phone, by Skype and via email, Quanta Magazine caught up with Flack to ask about C4’s current projects, her own career path, and the overarching philosophy behind her work. An edited and condensed version of our conversations follows.

How did you get into research on problem solving in nature, and how did you wind up at the Santa Fe Institute?

I’ve always been interested in how nature solves problems and where patterns come from, and why everything seems so organized despite so many potential conflicts of interest. Those sorts of questions have been with me since I was really little.

At Cornell, I was taking evolutionary biology classes, but none of the material really addressed these questions. I would spend a lot of time in Mann Library, which was where all the good biology books were. So I would sit on the floor in the dusty, dimly lit stacks with this pile of books around me. And in that way I discovered that there was a community of people working on these questions in evolutionary biology that I found more interesting.

They weren’t in the mainstream. One of the main places that turned out to be home to a lot of these people was the Santa Fe Institute. This was in the early to mid-’90s. I emailed the Santa Fe Institute and I requested something like 40 working papers. I was being a really annoying undergraduate. And someone mailed them to me! They actually snail-mailed me 40 of these papers, and I was thrilled, and I read them all.

Now that you’ve ended up there, can you break down what your C4 research group means by “collective computation”?

Collective computation is about how adaptive systems solve problems. All systems are about extracting energy and doing work, and physical systems in particular are about that. When you move to adaptive systems, you’ve got the additional influence of information processing, which we think allows a system to extract energy more efficiently even though it has to expend a little extra energy to do the information processing. Components of adaptive systems look out at the world, and they try to discover the regularities. It’s a noisy process.

Unlike in computer science where you have a program you have written, which has to produce a desired output, in adaptive systems this is a process that is being refined over evolutionary or learning time. The system produces an output, and it might be a good output for the environment or it might not. And then over time it hopefully gets better and better.

What we are doing at C4 is taking messy, conceptually challenging problems and turning them into something rigorous. We’re very philosophically oriented, but we’re also very quantitative, particularly in thinking about how nature can overcome subjectivity in information processing through collective computation. We really think the answer to these questions requires combining insights from statistical physics, theoretical computer science, information theory, evolutionary biology and cognitive science.

Can you walk us through an example? In a recent paper, your group looked at communication between neurons in the brains of macaques.

The human brain contains roughly 86 billion neurons, making our brains the ultimate collectives. Every decision we make can be thought of as the outcome of a neural collective computation. In the case of our study, which was lead by my colleague Bryan Daniels, the data we analyzed were collected during an experiment by Bill Newsome’s group at Stanford from macaques who had to decide whether a group of dots moving across a screen was traveling left or right. Data on neural firing patterns were recorded while the monkey was performing this task. We found that as the monkey initially processes the data, a few single neurons have strong opinions about what the decision should be. But this is not enough: If we want to anticipate what the monkey will decide, we have to poll many neurons to get a good prediction of the monkey’s decision. Then, as the decision point approaches, this pattern shifts. The neurons start to agree, and eventually each one on its own is maximally predictive.

We have this principle of collective computation that seems to involve these two phases. The neurons go out and semi-independently collect information about the noisy input, and that’s like neural crowdsourcing. Then they come together and come to some consensus about what the decision should be. And this principle of information accumulation and consensus applies to some monkey societies also. The monkeys figure out sort of semi-independently who is capable of winning fights, and then they consolidate this information by exchanging special signals. The network of these signals then encodes how much consensus there is in the group about any one individual’s capacity to use force in fights.

I noticed that another recent paper uses the same macaque data set you produced during your graduate work at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Lawrenceville, Georgia. What did you find when you returned to thinking about this system?

We wanted to understand how social systems or other biological systems go from state A to state B. How a group of fish goes from shoaling to schooling, or how a social system goes from having a few super-powerful animals to a setup where there is less inequalityOne mechanism known to facilitate switching between different states like this is for the system to sit near what’s called a . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2017 at 8:15 pm

Posted in Evolution, Science

Mindful Parenting

leave a comment »

Five Books interviews Genevieve Von Lob:

Dr Genevieve von Lob is a clinical psychologist. She has worked with families from every type of background during a ten-year career spanning private practice, NHS child and adolescent mental health services and work for local authorities. She has been widely quoted in the media, including in the Telegraph, Daily Mirror, Financial Times, Top Santé and Grazia, and featured as a consultant therapist in an episode of Channel Four’s Dispatches. Her new book Five Deep Breaths: The Power of Mindful Parenting was recently published by Transworld.

The interview begins:

 I’m really intrigued about the idea of mindful parenting. What is it?

The last thing I want to do is tell mums and dads what kind of parents they should be.  It’s hard enough being a parent, and all the advice on offer can make it seem even more overwhelming. The idea of ‘mindful parenting’ is to help parents find their own answers. So many mums and dads I’ve worked with have ended up questioning their judgement when they know their child better than anyone. I wrote Five Deep Breaths to empower parents to listen to their own inner guidance and learn to trust themselves again. In a sense, ‘mindful parenting’ is a break with the kinds of behavioural strategies and techniques for disciplining your child parenting experts have emphasised in the past, almost as if raising a child was like training one of Pavlov’s dogs. The danger with these kinds of strategies is that they can reinforce the myth that there’s some ideal, one-size-fits-all way to raise children, and parents can feel very discouraged and disempowered when the approaches they read about in books don’t work.

I often find that parents who come to me have tried everything – they’ve been to all the parenting groups, they know all the techniques – but nothing is actually working. And I think it’s often because they’ve spent so much time listening to other people’s opinions that they’ve lost touch with their own intuitive guidance – what I call ‘the inner parent.’ For me, mindfulness is all about learning to step back from our busy minds so we can hear what our ‘inner parent’ is saying. We can get so stuck in our heads that we forget that the feeling of connection we share with our child is by far the most important thing.

And it’s also hard, I suppose, because (unless it’s a single parent family) you are parents. There are two different views, although you’re trying to do it together.

Having children can put all kinds of pressures on a relationship, and parents can often have very different perspectives on what’s best for their children, often based on the way they were brought up. The great thing about mindfulness is that it can help you to notice when you’re slipping into the same old patterns in your relationships and choose a new response. The other great thing about mindfulness is that it’s something you can easily incorporate into your daily life. You don’t have to carve out time to try to meditate because I think for most parents that’s just really hard. It’s just too big of an ask. Mindfulness shouldn’t be another thing on the to-do list, or something else to strive for. Striving is the opposite of being kind to yourself, which is what mindfulness is all about.

Even something as simple as remembering to take little pauses throughout the day to check-in without yourself and just ask “How am I feeling? What kind of thoughts am I having?” can make such a big difference. I called my book Five Deep Breaths because taking a few deep breaths is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to calm a busy mind and bring yourself back into the present moment. Taking a breath acts like a brake on our nervous system and calms our whole physiology down, and we can start to see things more clearly. We learn to respond, rather than react.

It’s about prioritising what’s important. So much can shift when you start to slow down a little bit. It’s an inner thing. You really start to appreciate those little moments of connection with your child when you get them. There’s something wonderful about being really present with your child when you’re reading them that bedtime story, rather than thinking I’ve got to do x, y and z later.

I’m so guilty of that – reading them bedtime stories and weighing up how much I can get away with paraphrasing or skipping.

It’s not a matter of ‘guilt’, it’s just the way we’re programmed. Part of being mindful is choosing not to beat ourselves up when we don’t manage to be mindful. We can learn to say to ourselves: ‘Okay, that’s fine, every moment is a new moment. I haven’t been particularly mindful today but I can be kind to myself about that and realise I’m doing my best here and that has got to be good enough.’ I think we can be very hard on ourselves and there are some great suggestions for being kinder to ourselves in some of the books I’ve chosen.

Your first choice is The Whole-Brain Child (2011). I’ve returned to this book several times since reading it, because it is so informative. Especially when the author gives examples of parenting mistakes that can happen. I recognise so many of them! . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2017 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

“Shocks the Conscience”: South Dakota Forcibly Catheterizes Three-Year Old in Drug War

leave a comment »

It seems to me that the War on Drugs has long outlived whatever usefulness it may once have had and has been doing more harm than good. Philip Smith writes in the Drug War Chronicles:

The state of South Dakota is practicing a form of drug war excess tantamount to torture, according to a pair of federal lawsuits filed by the ACLU on June 28. One suit charges that law enforcement and medical personnel subject drug suspects to forcible catheterization if they refuse to submit to a drug test.

The second suit charges even more outrageous conduct: State social workers and medical personnel subjecting a screaming toddler to the same treatment.

Let’s be clear here: We are talking about a person having a plastic tube painfully inserted in his penis without his consent and with the use of whatever physical force is necessary by agents of the state. In the name of enforcing drug laws.

Law enforcement has an incentive to coerce people into consenting to warrantless drug tests — with the realistic threat of forced catheterization — because its state laws punish not just possession of drugs, but having used them. Under the state’s “internal possession” or “unlawful ingestion” statutes, testing positive for illicit drugs is a criminal offense.

“Forcible catheterization is painful, physically and emotionally damaging, and deeply degrading,” said ACLU of South Dakota executive director Heather Smith in a statement announcing the filings. “Catheterization isn’t the best way to obtain evidence, but it is absolutely the most humiliating. The authorities ordered the catheterization of our clients to satisfy their own sadistic and authoritarian desires to punish. Subjecting anyone to forcible catheterization, especially a toddler, to collect evidence when there are less intrusive means available, is unconscionable.”

In the case of the toddler, the ACLU is suing on behalf of Kirsten Hunter of Pierre and her thee-year-old son. According to the complaint, their ordeal began on February 23, when police arrived to arrest her live-in boyfriend for failing a probationary drug test. Accompanying the cops was Department of Social Services (DSS) caseworker Matt Opbroeck, who informed Hunter that she and her children would have to take drug tests, and that if she failed to agree, her two kids would be seized on the spot.

Under such coercion, Hunter agreed to take herself and her kids to St. Mary’s Avera Hospital to be tested the next day. Here, in the dry language of the legal filing, is what happened next:

Ms. Hunter was met by [SMA medical staff] and told that she and her children needed to urinate in cups on orders of DSS.

At the time, A.Q., was not toilet-trained and could not produce a sample in a cup.

Even though other methods, such as placing a bag over his penis, would have yielded a urine sample, [SMA medical staff] immediately began to hold him down and to catheterize him.

At the time, [they] did not inform Ms. Hunter of altemative methods of getting a urine sample or explain the risks associated with catheterizing a child.

Ms. Hunter did not know that she could object nor was she given any opportunity to object. Ms. Hunter did not speak with or see a doctor.

A.Q. was catheterized and screamed during the entire procedure.

On information and belief, A.Q. was catheterized with an adult-sized catheter.

Ms. Hunter was humiliated and upset about A.Q.’s catheterization.

A.Q. was injured physically and emotionally.

In the aftermath of the state-sanctioned assault, three days later, A.Q. had to be taken to a hospital emergency room 100 miles away in Huron for constipation and pain and discomfort in his penis, and he had to return again to ASM two days after that, where he was diagnosed with a staph infection in his penis.

Hunter and the ACLU are suing DSS caseworker Opbroeck, Opbroeck’s bosses, Department of Social Services Secretary Lynn Valenti and DSS Division of Child Protective Services Director Virginia Wieseler, and St. Mary’s Avera, Registered Nurse Katie Rochelle, Nurse Practitioner Teresa Cass, and four unnamed SMA medical employees.

The ACLU argues that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2017 at 5:36 pm

Why People From Manchester Are Mancunians, Not Manchesterians

leave a comment »

Dan Nosowitz writes in Atlas Obscura:

Take a list of cities with unusual demonyms—that’s the category of words describing either a person from a certain place, or a property of that place, like New Yorker or Italian—and ask people to guess what the demonym is. Here are some favorites I came up with, with the help of historical linguist Lauren Fonteyn, a lecturer at the University of Manchester. It’s tilted a bit in favor of the U.K. for two reasons. First is that Fonteyn lives and works there, and second is that the U.K. has some excellently weird ones. The answer key is at the bottom.

  1. Glasgow, Scotland
  2. Newcastle, England
  3. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  4. Liverpool, England
  5. Leeds, England
  6. Wolverhampton, England
  7. Madagascar
  8. Halifax, Canada
  9. Barbados

Demonyms are personal and vital to our conceptions of ourselves. Few things are more important to our identities than where we’re from. This explains why people invariably feel the need to correct anyone who gets their demonym wrong. “It’s understudied but it’s kind of important,” says Fonteyn, who is originally from Belgium. “I moved to Manchester and had no idea what the demonym was. And if you do it wrong, people will get very, very mad at you.”

The demonym for people from or properties of Manchester is “Mancunian,” which dates back to the Latin word for the area, “Mancunium.” It is, like the other fun demonyms we’re about to get into, irregular, which means it does not follow the accepted norms of how we modify place names to come up with demonyms. In other words, someone has to tell you that the correct word is “Mancunian” and not “Manchesterian.”

A MAJOR PROBLEM WITH THE entire system of demonyms is that it’s almost entirely ad-hoc, a mess of words cobbled from mostly archaic languages. Typically, though not in every case, the way we turn a place name into a demonym, at least in English, is with a suffix. The suffix -an or -ian, as in “Canadian,” “Mexican,” and “German,” comes from Latin. The suffix -er comes from, linguists think, Proto-Germanic, the Northern European precursor to Germanic languages like English, German, and Dutch. Originally it was something like -ware or -waras, but eventually was turned into the -er suffix we see in “New Yorker,” Londoner,” and “Berliner.”

Other less common ones came from other sources. From Old French we get -ois, as in “Québécois” and “Seychellois.” Also from Old French is -ese, as in “Chinese” and “Portuguese.” Proto-Germanic also gave us -ish, as in “Scottish” and “Swedish.” From Ancient Greek we get -ite, which is found in “Brooklynite” and the somewhat irregular “Muscovite” (that’s someone from Moscow, Russia).

Demonyms usually end in a suffix like that, but there are hardly any rules as to which place names get which suffixes. Sometimes there’s some historical connection with the base language of one of the suffixes—“Venetian,” say, because Venice has Roman and Latin roots—but sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes we pick a certain suffix to make a demonym easier to say, as in “Peruvian,” because nobody wants to struggle to say “Peruer.” Sometimes we don’t! The demonym for Dubai is “Dubaiite.”

And things get way worse than that, because not only does the suffix not necessarily follow any rules, but the actual place name itself often changes, as in Manchester’s switch to Mancunian.

From our list, let’s take Glasgow, which boasts the irregular demonym “Glaswegian.”  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2017 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Daily life

Judge uses Excel chart to burn attorneys

leave a comment »

Here’s the chart:

Kevin Drum comments:

Here’s something kind of awesome. Wonkblog’s Christopher Ingraham points us to a district court opinion that justifies its conclusion with a chart drawn in Excel.

Is this common? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chart in a judicial opinion before, but then, I don’t read a whole lot of judicial opinions. In any case, if this is a trend, I heartily approve.

In case you’re wondering, Judge Joseph Goodwin used this chart to demonstrate that US attorneys are lazy bastards who make plea deals for everything and barely ever do the work of actually bringing someone to trial: “In FY 1973, each federal prosecutor handled over eight criminal trials on average. By FY 2016, the average number of criminal trials handled by each federal prosecutor plummeted to 0.29 trials.”

For that reason, he rejected a plea deal in the case at hand. US attorneys are hardly overworked, he said, so let’s have a trial: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2017 at 1:44 pm

Posted in Government, Law

G.B. Kent BK4, Meißner Tremonia Indian Flavour, Rockwell R3, and a splash of Dominica Bay Rum

with 3 comments

A very nice shave indeed. As you see, Indian Flavour has coriander, mint, and lemongrasss and works well with a sunny summer morning, the Kent brush doing its usual wonderful job.

The Rockwell with the R3 baseplate swooped over my face, removing all stubble and leaving skin intact throughout, and a finishing splash of Dominica Bay Rum made the day feel good already.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 July 2017 at 9:46 am

Posted in Shaving

%d bloggers like this: