October 2007

I love Jon Ronson. His book “Men who stare at Goats” was brilliant and and I am delighted to find that he is a regular on my all time favorite radio/podcast This American Life.

In today’s Guardian, he relates this wonderful story.

Jon Ronson on telling his son the worst swearword in the world | Weekend | Guardian Unlimited


 From the ever wonderful Edge.org comes a series of video lectures by Critical Thinking master Danny Kahneman:

I’m deeply ashamed of the rest of the story, but there was something really instructive happening here, because there are two ways of looking at a problem; the inside view and the outside view. The inside view is looking at your problem and trying to estimate what will happen in your problem. The outside view involves making that an instance of something else—of a class. When you then look at the statistics of the class, it is a very different way of thinking about problems. And what’s interesting is that it is a very unnatural way to think about problems, because you have to forget things that you know—and you know everything about what you’re trying to do, your plan and so on—and to look at yourself as a point in the distribution is a very un-natural exercise; people actually hate doing this and resist it.

Edge: A SHORT COURSE IN THINKING ABOUT THINKING — “A Master Class” By Danny Kahneman

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Teaching children to fear men

by Limbic on October 22, 2007

From the Wall Street Journal:

“When children get lost in a mall, they’re supposed to find a ‘low-risk adult’ to help them. Guidelines issued by police departments and child-safety groups often encourage them to look for ‘a pregnant woman,’ ‘a mother pushing a stroller’ or ‘a grandmother.’

The implied message: Men, even dads pushing strollers, are ‘high-risk.’

Are we teaching children that men are out to hurt them? The answer, on many fronts, is yes. Child advocate John Walsh advises parents to never hire a male babysitter. Airlines are placing unaccompanied minors with female passengers rather than male passengers. Soccer leagues are telling male coaches not to touch players.

Child-welfare groups say these are necessary precautions, given that most predators are male. But fathers’ rights activists and educators now argue that an inflated predator panic is damaging men’s relationships with kids. Some men are opting not to get involved with children at all, which partly explains why many youth groups can’t find male leaders, and why just 9% of elementary-school teachers are male, down from 18% in 1981.

People assume that all men ‘have the potential for violence and sexual aggressiveness,’ says Peter Stearns, a George Mason University professor who studies fear and anxiety. Kids end up viewing every male stranger ‘as a potential evildoer,’ he says, and as a byproduct, ‘there’s an overconfidence in female virtues.'”


Evolution-Once More, with Feeling

by Limbic on October 18, 2007

 From American Scientist Online comes a review of two new books which look very interesting.

Most people would not expect a scientist to speak of love, except perhaps in terms of endorphins or pheromones. And who would want to hear love reduced to that? Is the heart but a pump and not the seat of the soul? Though science may clock the beats of a racing pulse, such a sterile accounting of the muscle in our breast is cold and, well, bloodless. Isn’t such a heartless picture of the world always what science leaves us with after it has explained (or explained away) some previously mysterious miracle of nature?

Such antipathy toward science and its purported effects is probably more common than scientists would like to admit. The German sociologist Max Weber was the best-known figure to articulate this worry about science. In his 1918 lecture “Science as a Vocation,” for instance, Weber spoke of the “disenchantment of the world,” which he suggested is the result of its modern worldview. He thought that the scientific idea that everything in nature can, at least in principle, be explained in natural terms effectively drains the world of mystery and thereby of transcendent purpose and meaning as well. For many, the world as science explains it is a bleak and unfeeling place.

Of course, given the often exaggeratedly impersonal way in which many scientists have described the goals of objectivity and quantification, there is a sense in which science has brought this plague upon itself. In the past, physics, especially, contributed to this malaise in its insistence on reducing the world to the interactions of matter, but another discipline is most often singled out for blame: With the familiar references to the “uncaring” Darwinian struggle, and the “mechanical” and “pitiless” action of natural selection, evolutionary biology has long been the obvious whipping boy for those who are uncomfortable with scientific naturalism. It is not just fundamentalist religious beliefs that motivate creationists’ attacks on evolution; they are also driven by a deep existential angst—a fear that evolution renders the world pointless, emptying it of purpose, meaning and morality.

George Levine’s book Darwin Loves You confronts Weber’s problem of the loss of enchantment head-on. Levine’s thesis is that this all-too-common view of science in general and evolution in particular is dead wrong and that, in fact, Darwinian evolution provides a model for what he calls “secular re-enchantment.” The aim of the book, in his words, is to enlist Darwin on the side of the angels. In keeping with the bumper-sticker comparison of Darwin to Jesus in the title of the book, Levine doesn’t hesitate to use religious language, sometimes for its shock effect, to get his point across. He says he will argue for “a redeeming Darwin” who is “an apostle of secularism.” Some readers will find the periodic insertion of such indirect, unnecessary jabs at religion off-putting, but I hope they can ignore them and focus on the emotionally uplifting view of science with which Levine aims to inspire those who are open to the idea. Evolution, he argues, if properly portrayed, is not only perfectly compatible with meaningfulness but provides a new basis for it.

American Scientist Online – Evolution-Once More, with Feeling


Taming Baby Rage

by Limbic on October 18, 2007

From Scientific American:

It is not the cartoons that make your kids smack playmates or violently grab their toys but, rather, a lack of social skills, according to new research. “It’s a natural behavior and it’s surprising that the idea that children and adolescents learn aggression from the media is still relevant,” says Richard Tremblay … at the University of Montreal … “Clearly youth were violent before television appeared.”

Tremblay’s previous results have suggested that children on average reach a peak of violent behavior … around 18 months of age. The level of aggression begins to taper between the ages of two and five as they begin to learn other, more sophisticated ways of communicating their needs and wants.

Tremblay on Wednesday is set to present preliminary study results showing a genetic signature consistent with chronic violent behavior at a meeting of The Royal Society, the U.K.’s academy of science, in London.

Taming Baby Rage: Why Are Some Kids So Angry?: Scientific American

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PR for the self

by Limbic on October 17, 2007

From Mind Hacks: PR for the self: managing identity on social networks:

“The New Atlantis magazine has an intriguing article that considers the social effects of sites like MySpace and Facebook and discusses how we are increasingly using these tools to carefully manage our public image – something that was previously only a concern for celebrities and media figures.

The article begins by describing the social networking sites and how they work and discusses a little of their history, but shortly after, it tackles the psychology of how we use them to manage our online identities.”

So all you MySpace and Facebook whores, get reading about yourselves.


Silent Minds

by Limbic on October 16, 2007

The New Yorker serves up a brilliant article this week on how fMRI scans of people in a “vegetative state” have revealed astonishing evidence that many have an active mental life, and some might argue may actually be conscious.

The findings are having powerful effect on not just the diagnosis of individuals with brain injuries, but the very concept of consciousness itself.

From these and other recent experiments, including his own, Naccache and his research team are developing a working medical definition of consciousness. “When we are conscious, the key property is our ability to report to ourselves or to others the content of the representation—as when I say, for example, ‘I am perceiving a flower,’ or the fact that I am conscious of speaking with you now on the telephone,” Naccache told me. “You have patients who are conscious, or who are able to make reports, but you can prove that some stimuli escaped their conscious reports, as in the case of blindsight or neglect. You can study the neural fate of these representations by showing that, even if the stimuli were not reported by the subject, they were still processed in the brain.” He added that, in the case of Owen’s vegetative patient who imagined playing tennis, it’s impossible to know whether she reported the event to herself—which would suggest that she is capable of conscious thought—or whether, as in the case of the blindsight and neglect patients, she had no subjective awareness of the experience. However, Naccache believes that consciousness also requires an ability to sustain a representation over time, which Owen’s patient clearly was able to do. “In assessing apparently vegetative patients who are unable to speak, and thus report, the direction of research should be to look for sustained representation,” he said. “If we can prove by neuroimaging techniques that this person is able to actively maintain a given representation during tens of seconds, it provides strong evidence of conscious processing.”

Naccache has recently incorporated a third neurological feature into his definition of consciousness: broadcasting. In a person who is conscious, he explained, information entering the brain is processed in a few areas and then distributed—or broadcast—to many others. “It’s as though there is a kind of ignition in the brain, and then information is made available to a very rich number of regions,” Naccache told me. “And that makes sense, that the information is initially represented locally and then made available to a vast network, because the person has this ability to maintain the representation within the network for a long time.”

Medical Dispatch: Silent Minds: Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker


According to reports in B92 today, Serbia’s position in the Council of Europe (CoE) could be compromised by failure to carry out recommendations related to corruption but membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is well on target for 2008.

In other news, The economy and regional development minister Mlađan Dinkić revealed that EUR 291mn had been generated from privatizations since the turn of the year. He added that of that figure, EUR 180mn had been collected in the last four months since the formation of the new government.


Neurotic software has a winning personality

by Limbic on October 12, 2007

From The New Scientist Blog

They say the meek shall inherit the earth, but these experiments with emotional computer programs (pdf) suggest it may actually be the neurotic. And that they’ll probably take it rapidly by military force.

The Austrian researchers want games to be more engaging by having emotional, not just coolly calculating, computer players. Instead of just challenging your rational planning and decision skills, you’ll have use your emotional intelligence too.

They created aggressive, defensive, normal and neurotic versions of the AI software in the war strategy game Age of Mythology, drawing on “the big five” emotional dimensions to personality recognised by psychologists.

The bots are able to switch between states of pleasure, pain, clarity, and confusion in response to events. The strength of particular emotional changes is related to the overall personality.

The neurotic bot was more likely than the others to distort hard facts about resources – like the amount of timber around – and flip between extremes of behaviour. And it was better than the rest.

Each bot took on the game’s default AI seven times. Both the aggressive and neurotic bots won all their matches – but the neurotic did it faster. On average by around 25%. There’s no indication of whether being top bot boosted the neurotic program’s low self-esteem. The researchers say their result suggests a neurotic strategy gives an advantage, and are going on to pit the emotional bots against humans. It’ll be interesting to see if neurosis still wins – and if humans can tell the different personalities apart.

New Scientist Technology Blog: Neurotic software has a winning personality


American vagabonds

by Limbic on October 11, 2007

Stunning photo essay about young American nomads by little known photographer Mike Brodie called “Bound by Tones of Dirt & Bone” .

The grimy beauty of some of the subjects subjects and the quality of the photographs have led some people to question whether these really are nomads or this is part of a fashion campaign by Diesel or similar.


Via Kevin Kelly