Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Professional reapers teach of death

{ Podcast this essay } Have we not all seen death? Death is the fuel that powers life; that event which is fated for all things, and which makes life possible. Death at the small scale is easily overlooked, and thus our stunning upset when macro death -- death of people, of loved ones, even death of the self -- breaks from the horizon of the possible into the probable, and finally into the actual. Small scale death is death, nonetheless. And there are a host of professional reapers just waiting to teach us that single lesson that we must all learn, even if just once.

[image] Samuel Young.


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Monday, July 30, 2007

Optical Illusions

Our brains are wired to receive and interpret input, but we are usually oblivious to all this visual processing going on behind the scenes. One of the most impacting optical illusions is called The Spiral Aftereffect. What makes it impacting is not what it does to you while you're looking at it, but what it does to you after you look away, i.e., when you stop looking at it. Here are the instructions:
Stare at the center of the rotating spiral for about 20 seconds, then look elsewhere. You will notice that whatever you look at now appears swirling. (Don't worry, it won't last very long), this sensation will go away after a few seconds. [...] Gazing at the spiral for a longer time will increase the duration of the aftereffect, leveling out at ≈ 30 s. Holding the gaze steady at the center (don't over-concentrate, “let it hang”) also increases the effect. [Now click here.] [1]

Since many of our neuronal structures are, functionally speaking, pattern detecting modules, processing efficiency is increased when the pattern is presumed to be continually present. This presumption fades when there is no continual feedback from perception. Of course, that's good, since one would would otherwise be forever locked into a illusory pattern of perception interpretation. The brain must set some temporal window on pattern presumption.

In psychology labs, people don special mirror masks that up-down invert or left-right symmetrically switch the visual field. At first, this make them sick. Later, the brain adjusts and eventually they don't even notice that their world has been turned upside down--until they take them off. At that point, the the motion sickness symptoms reoccur until the brain readjusts itself.

Of course, one does not have to wear a mirror to have misperceptions, since people don't properly interpret what they see in a mirror anyway.[2]


[image]Floating Motion” from Pinna & Spillmann (2002) Just by exploratory eye movements over the image the centre square “decouples”, so the background seems to move, while the central square remains in place, and seems to float on top. Linked from 72 Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena Website (Accessed 7/30/2007)

[1]"Spiral aftereffect" 72 Optical Illusions & Visual Phenomena(Accessed 7/30/2007)

[2] "Humans Do Not Understand Mirror Reflections, Say Researchers" PHYSORG.COM (Accessed 7/30/2007))


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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Kids, computers, and the flabbening of society

Lately, I've been spending too much time as a glorified baby-sitter for my two-year-old son, who has a very slight respiratory irritation (i.e., doesn't get to go play with his "new friends" at daycare.) As any experienced zookeeper knows, watching young primates is a very draining task, since this particular species has strong abstracting skills and carefully plans mischief during times of no immediate monitoring. Thus, I've been forced to keep one eye on the primate, but another on the television. Naturally, because of such circumstances, my I.Q. has dropped significantly, though I hope this is only a temporary condition. Fortunately for my other, older children (six and nine), my mandated reign of the living room has given them access to my computer. They have now become dedicated real time strategy game players. As a matter of science, this is good for them in some ways:
A study of elementary school students found that children who had television sets in their bedrooms scored significantly lower on school achievement tests than children without TVs in their bedrooms. Having a computer in the home was associated with higher test scores, according to the same study, which was conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Stanford University.[1]

Apparently the drop is about eight points worth on standardized tests if they have a TV in the bed room (mine don't), but plus six points on the same kinds of tests with a computer. But I'm pretty sure the kind of software on the computer matters a whole lot. (Surely Barbie Fashion Show can't compete with Dawn of War for sheer I.Q. increase.)

Still, there's more to life than cognition. Other scientific studies, such as one by Paul Attewell (et. al.) in 2003, have shown there are physical drawbacks:
We observe modest benefits associated with home computing on three tests of cognitive skill, and on a measure of self-esteem. Most young children who spend time at home on computer-based activities spend no less time on activities such as reading, sports or outside play than children without home computers. However, young children who use home computers a lot, for over 8 hours a week, spend much less time on sports and outdoor activities than non-computer-users. They also have substantially heavier body mass index than children who do not use home computers.[2]

So, the the ever-growing fat-n-flab ratio is amplified by the kind of techno-computer entertainment lifestyle, the one in which the newest generation regularly engages. And right now, I'm a part of the problem. I'm encouraging the flabbening of society -- that's right: flabbening. And I respect a word that captures the unfriendly trend in BMI index for the college students I'll see over the next few years.

In the not too distant past, I remember going to a college play where many of the college-age girls lined up and did some sort of dance and sing part, and I recall thinking, "My, that's quite a beefy line-up!" Now what's interesting is these girls were some of the most popular on campus. So apparently there has been a realignment of aesthetic beauty as a result of the BMI trends. I guess that's no surprise, really. But as I said, my I.Q. has been lowered by constant exposure to TV as of late.


#1 "Welcome to the Official UK Documents Archive 2 website"
#2 "Growing Trend" Chicago Tribune

[1] "Television In The Bedroom May Hurt Child's School Performance" Science Daily (Accessed 7/26/2007)

[2] Attewell, Paul A. "Computers and Young Children: Social Benefit or Social Problem?" Social Forces - Volume 82, Number 1, September 2003, pp. 277-296


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Sunday, July 22, 2007

When did humans first start to murder?

{ Podcast this essay } I have often wondered when murder actually started. Is it something basic to the primate genome? I suspect it is. Chimps will go on raiding parties and kill one another:
It was only [in the 1970s] when researchers learned that one aspect of this shared behavior [with humans] is the proclivity of adult male chimps to attack, maim and kill other adult male chimpanzees whom they discover near their territory. Like gangsters during Prohibition or bounty hunters in the Wild West, male chimpanzees will organize raiding parties to seek out isolated members of other chimpanzee bands and then move in for the kill. In ways that eerily suggest human behavior, life for male chimpanzees is a continual jockeying for status and power.[1]

Bonobo monkeys, who are slightly more removed from humans in evolutionary development, have a different tactic of interaction than chimps:
Bonobos are the Barry Whites [cit.] of the primate world, dedicating their lives to peace, love and, above all, sex. "Bonobos use sex for much more than making babies [...] They have sex as a way of making friends. They have sex to calm someone who is tense. They have sex as a way to reconcile after aggression." Like the members of some adventurous free love commune of the 1960s, bonobos have frequent homosexual sex and condone sex between adults and children. When a bonobo group meets a group of unknown bonobos, they generally mate and socialize with them rather than try to kill them.[1]

Researchers Wrangham and Peterson go on to theorize that millions of years ago, subtle changes in food sources and feeding patterns "allowed the bonobos to stay together in larger communities on their side of the river."[1] Also to the social advantage of bonobos was the ability of female bonobos to hide their ovulation patterns. This ability made it difficult for bonobo males to detect the mating cycle of the female.[1] This, along with longer-term social bonds and the resultant tempering of aggressive urges of males, lessened the need for use of violent behaviors among males to establish dominant mating access.

Chimpanzees, however, did not gain such advantages in food access, and were forced by their environment to "break off into small parties to hunt for their favorite fruit and meat sources."[1]

Not unrelated to the plight of Chimpanzees in their environment, is an article recently posted over at The Center for Science Writing Blogs, which gives a short overview of when the first archaeological evidence for (human) murder was noted. There is discussion on why murder occurred then (around 20,000 years ago) and not earlier, since there were still plenty of humans around. Here's a selection toward the end of the excellent article which essentially reviews professor Sale's thesis:
[I]t is important to see that this kind of interpersonal violence and murder comes rather late in Sapiens development. In fact, for 90 per cent of our time on earth there is nothing to indicate that humans ever reached the extreme state of knocking each other off. It was a reaction to an extreme crisis, it got to be a familiar response to the increased tensions in a time of scarcity and competition, and once established it seems to have continued on. But not because it was in our human nature. Rather it was in the conditions of our life. And therefore the obvious lesson is that we can’t just shrug and say some people are just “born killers,” or “it’s in the blood.” It’s not, and was not for 175,000 years.[2]

This seems to me to parallel the Chimpanzee issue noted above; humans default to one kind of standard primate behavior under certain conditions of scarcity. Until we come up with a cheap energy source to manufacture food and shelter, we can expect this built-in violence proclivity to regularly crop-up in human affairs in the near future. Naturally, as fresh water management and farming patterns are quickly (and adversely) changed by global warming, that nasty part of our genome shared with Chimpanzee heritage will regularly re-assert itself, leading to regional wars for resources.


[image] Cezanne, Paul The Murder (Le meurtre) c. 1870 Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

[1] Daniel Pinchbeck "Men, Monkeys And Mayhem" Washington Post (Accessed 7/22/2007).

[2] Kirkpatrick Sale "Is Murder Human Nature" Center for Science Writings Blog (Accessed 7/22/2007).


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Monday, July 16, 2007

Wittgenstein, Aliens, and Yip Yips

{ Podcast this essay } This Yip Yips meet the telephone video brings up many issues in philosophy of language. Were even the most friendly aliens to make an initial landing on Earth, things would not go well for them in understanding human ways. Of course, this is contrary to every Hollywood movie one sees on the subject.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the most famous 20th-century philosopher, once said that "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him."[2] This is probably overstated, since mammalian threat sounds are understood widely; hence, growling, hissing, etc. are all commonly taken as non-neutral encounters among differing mammal species.

But Wittgenstein's quip would not be overstated if there were a radically different evolutionary heritage at work. I was in Boston, recently, and was finally able to observe live jellyfish up-close. How could one possibly tell what mood they are in? Is it even sensible to say jellyfish have moods? It seems not, at least given how we attribute that mental state to one another, and possibly to other animals with relatively large brains.

Whether sporting a "brain" or not, on the assumptions that aliens built spaceships and landed on Earth, they would necessarily have some sort of physical structure which allows them the ability to process information to guide action. But the way they perceive the world and parse objects could be so radically different from ours that even the simplest interaction with our most basic technologies would bamboozle them. Indeed, by observing objects in the world, it might be unclear to them just what things are alive and what things are not. There are many natural kinds of objects in our world that seem alive, yet aren't. [3]

And certainly there are a host of artificial kinds of objects in our world with very complex behaviors which appear alive. Such robots and computer-driven toys are ubiquitous. Some years ago, I obtained a wind-up, Bug's Life, Rosie the spider toy from a McDonald's Happy Meal. For minor pedagogical thrills, I occasionally let it plod across my desk. "Why is this not considered alive? Or sentient?" I ask students with feigned puzzlement. The answers do not come readily, even to intelligent people wanting to give a defensible answer.

Many of the kinds of unstated assumptions that we naturally make about pragmatical issues in language are brought to the fore by the Yip Yip encounter with the old school telephone. Here is something known by adults to be a nonliving, inanimate object, but Yip Yips approach it as if it were a sentient, living creature. Perhaps in Yip Yip land -- Apparently they are from Mars -- virtually all shiny black things which sit quietly near windows are alive; so, they make the natural induction that here they've found a likewise living creature dwelling on Earth -- thus the amount of labor they invest in trying to communicate with it.

Yips do seem to share the basic biological response that sudden-impacting sense events are, by default, to be taken as threatening. See how they duck-and-cover beneath their chins as their basic survival pattern.

Notice also that while Yip Yips know books are used for attaining information about things on earth, they don't quite have the context down for use of the word "call". The Yip Yips, of course, are characters on a children's program, a program that has interests in teaching children language and reading skills. The writers must ask the deep questions of what someone who has very little experience and skills in language must think about. Yips are stand-ins for the pre-philosophical puzzlements of very young children. Wittgenstein address these kinds of puzzlements in many ways and in various places within his writing, but here is a particularly relevant quote from him on the subject:
Someone coming into a strange country will sometimes learn the language of the inhabitants from ostensive definitions that they give him; and he will often have to 'guess' the meaning of these definitions; and will guess sometimes right, sometimes wrong.

And now, I think, we can say: Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one. Or again: as if the child could already think, only not yet speak. And "think" would here mean something like "talk to itself".

Suppose, however, someone were to object: "It is not true that you must already be master of a language in order to understand an ostensive definition: all you need --of course!-- is to know or guess what the person giving the explanation is pointing to. That is, whether for example to the shape of the object, or to its colour, or to its number, and so on." -- And what does 'pointing to the shape', 'pointing to the colour' consist in? Point to a piece of paper. --And now point to its shape -- now to its colour -- now to its number (that sounds queer). --How did you do it? --You will say that you 'meant' a different thing each time you pointed. And if I ask how that is done, you will say you concentrated your attention on the colour, the shape, etc. But I ask again: how is that done?[4]

How is it all done, indeed. There is a mysterious air about setting the context for what is "meant" by something. Yet moving from no language to competency in language is regularly seen in the natural development of children, and it is thought that certain rules for learning the rules of language -- call them "second-order" rules -- are somehow encoded into the DNA of all humans. For example, when a parent talks to a child, the child's default glance is not to the adult's feet, but to that moving, sound-emitting hole in the front the adult's head.

Recognizing the oddness of Yip Yips is probably about as close as we adults can get to feeling the conundrums of entering the linguistic world faced by each child as s/he works out, day by day, his or her semantic and pragmatic competency in a native tongue.


[1] "Yip yips meet the telephone" YouTube (Accessed 7/16/2007)

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953/2001). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing. p. 190.

[3] Examples of things that might appear to look alive but are not: [rocks 3.1], [crystals 3.2], [electricity 3.3]

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations section 32 & 33.


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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sir John Polkinghorne's writing day

{ Podcast this essay }By sheer luck I happened to be seated next to Sir John Polkinghorne at a recent Open Theology & Science dinner in Boston.[1]

John Polkinghorne was a lecturer in Mathematical Physics at Cambridge for many years. He published a slew of papers on theoretical elementary particle physics in learned journals, and advanced quantum theory in significant ways. He was author of a couple of well-known technical scientific books, The Analytic S-Matrix and Models of High Energy Processes .

One day he decided to resign his Professorship to train for the Anglican Priesthood, which came as quite a shock to his scientific peers. Eventually he was ordained Deacon in 1981 and served as Curate in Cambridge (St Andrew's Chesterton 1981-82) and Bristol (St. Michael and All Angels, Bedminster 1982-84) and was Vicar of Blean (near Canterbury) from 1984-86. Of course, he ended up writing many pivotal books on the interplay between religion and science, and eventually won the Templeton Prize for Science and Religion in 2002. (In that same year he became the Founding President of the International Society for Science and Religion also.[2] The guy gets around.) Even this quick summary does not do justice to the many organizations he influences and the slew of articles and books he's authored.

At any rate, so there I was sitting next to this well-cultured, genial Englishman. Rest assured, I was carefully monitoring everything I said so as not to utter any inanities (lower probability) or blatantly tactless, overly-crass southern-trash remarks (higher probability). I'm happy to report I was successful on both accounts. Clearly there was nothing available from the cafeteria of my mind that would match the spicy intellectual delicacies of his cognitive palette, so I thought I'd move the conversation in another direction. I inquired along several lines concerning the regular patterns of his writing life.

Sir John describes himself as a morning person, and finds that to have any success in writing, he needs a fairly good block of sit-down time. He also hand-writes all of his manuscripts. Given the extraordinary amount of writing he's done, my eyes involuntarily forced themselves to glance down at his hands. Surely, I thought, there would be some gnarly calluses or obvious arthritic injury to someone who would exercise so much muscular labor in achieving the sheer volume of prose that has flowed from his pen. Alas, the only reconnaissance I got was a good look at neatly trimmed nails dancing on the end of perfectly symmetrical fingers, all duly anchored to hands that would have made any chalkboard laboring academic proud. He did admit to poking-out his manuscripts on a typewriter after some intermittent section of his written draft was complete. This confession removed at least of bit of my vertigo on the whole matter.

Now I talk-out much of my own writing to a dictation machine before actually typing it, so in some ways a move to the computer is likewise second in the process of my own writing. I suggested he might find this process amenable, since one can speak much faster than one can write, and since he was seemingly a person who was naturally comfortable with verbally elucidating his ideas. (After all, he was but moments away from giving the dinner speech for the evening.) "Oh, I could never so such a thing," he laughed. "I like to see my thoughts as I write them, and review the flow of where I've been. I get the 'big picture,' as they say." I considered a rebuttal that the quick-rewind button would easily allow him to review what had been said in the previous moments; but, for such a man that has written so much of high quality prose, what possible gain would obtain that would not be obviated by the risk of befuddling the process of his unquestionable success? "None," I thought to myself.

Soon enough, he arose from his chair and tootled his way to the front and gave as interesting a speech on Open Theology and Science as I've heard. Too bad he didn't record it.


[1] For those curious about such matters, this is why my blog has received no updates for three weeks.

[2] "The International Society for Science & Religion" Official Website (Accessed 7/8/2007)


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