Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Use it or lose it

According to the NIH "Brain reserve refers to the amount of damage that can be sustained before a threshold is reached for clinical expression."

Researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia found that
All the studies assessed agreed that mentally stimulating leisure activities, even in late life, are associated with a protective effect.

"This suggests that brain reserve is not a static property, nor that it is determined by early life experiences such as level of education, socio-economic deprivation or poor nutrition," said Dr Valenzuela. "It is never too late to build brain reserve."

Statutory rape

According to the NY Times,
a Kansas law [prohibits] virtually all sexual activity by people under age 16. …

Mr. Kline's [the Kansas attorney general] interpretation of the law focused mainly on the reporting duty of abortion providers, arguing that any pregnant, unmarried minor had by definition been the victim of rape or abuse. But it included a broad mandate for reporting whenever "compelling evidence of sexual interaction is present." …

Steve Alexander, an assistant attorney general … said the Kansas statute meant that those younger than 16 could not consent to sex, and that those violating the law forfeited any privacy rights. …

A federal trial opened … Monday over whether a Kansas law prohibiting virtually all sexual activity by people under age 16 means health care professionals and educators must report such behavior to state authorities, which some say would stop many teenagers from seeking contraception or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. …

[The plaintiffs are arguing] that Mr. Kline's "dragnet approach" to amassing information on under-age sex violated minors' privacy rights and the Constitution's equal protection clause, and that it "seriously endangers the health and well-being of adolescents."

"Sexual abuse is not synonymous with consensual sexual activity. … Consensual sexual activity is not inherently injurious. It is a normal part of adolescent development." …

A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a temporary injunction blocking enactment of Mr. Kline's ruling but provided a two-week window, approximately the expected length of the trial, before the reporting would be required.

Among the issues debated Monday was the very definition of sexual activity. Anal and vaginal intercourse and oral sex are mentioned in the law, as is "lewd fondling or touching" done with "the intent to arouse," which Ms. Jones said could cover even intense French kissing.

Mr. Kline, who is expected to testify Friday, declined to discuss the case. In an e-mail statement, he avoided the central controversy over consensual sex between teenagers of a similar age.
I would agree with the plaintiffs that it's a bad law, but unless they can make a case that the law is unconstituional, I don't see how they can claim that it doesn't say what it says. I'm curious to see how the trial turns out.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Evolving evolvability

For a paper I'm working on, I just wrote the following, which I think is a really neat idea.
Evolution evolves evolvability. It seems intuitive, fairly well established theoretically (Adami 2000) (Heylighen 1996), and obvious just by looking around that evolution leads to an increase in complexity. But increasingly complex evolved systems are not designed from scratch. Each more complex system is an evolutionary step away from something that is usually a bit less complex. The only way such an evolutionary process can succeed is if the evolutionary sequence provides both (a) the specific features needed at each step and (b) a framework (or architecture) that can support the evolutionary process itself. In other words, it is only those natural architectures that support and facilitate evolutionary change that survive. The process of evolution itself evolves evolvability.

Adami, C., C. Ofria, and T. C. Collier, “Evolution of biological complexity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 97, Issue 9, 4463-4468, April 25, 2000. Available as of January 31, 2006: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/97/9/4463.

Heylighen, F., “The Growth of Structural and Functional Complexity during Evolution,” The Evolution of Complexity" (Kluwer Academic Publishers), 1996. Available as of January 31, 2006: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/ComplexityGrowth.html.


I think (hope) that the Hamas victory will be a good thing. They seem to be much more efficient in terms of providing services to the Palestinian population. They also seem to be much less corrupt. As I understand it, that's why they won the election—and not because the Palestinians are itching for war.

The question, of course, is what will their position be with respect to Israel. It seems to me that being in power makes that question a lot more straightforward. Does Hamas see the Palestinian Authority (the nation they would be heading were it to become a nation) as being in a state of war with Israel? Their official position seems to be that they do. Is that a tenable position? If Palestine were recognized as a state tomorrow, would they really want to be in a state of war with Israel? It's hard to imagine that they would.

The alternative is that they are not in a state of war with Israel. In that case, they are responsible for preventing attacks on Israel from within their borders, and they are presumably desirous of negotiating with Israel regarding disputes with the intent of arriving at a mutually satisfactory settlement—just as other nations negotiate with each other about disputes.

It seems to me that Israel, the US, and the rest of the world should stop blustering and just pose this question to Hamas. What do you want: a state of war or negotiation of differences? If given the chance, I hope Hamas will be responsible enough to answer.

Reading your heart and mind

From SciScoop.
How can [a] computer possibly find out anything about its human operator's frame of mind? Emotions are given away by peripheral physiological processes. Some of these, such as posture, fidgeting or frowning, are easy to detect and can be observed and classified by a camera with image analysis software. Heartbeat and breathing rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and electrical resistance of the skin, on the other hand, are rather more subtle factors. "We have developed a glove that has sensors for measuring parameters like these," says Christian Peter, engineer at the department for Human-Centered Interaction [at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics]. "It is connected to a device that evaluates and saves the data. We are also working on techniques that will enable computers to interpret facial expressions and extract emotional elements from voice signals."

Interpreting all the data is difficult too, since emotions are by their very nature ambiguous, transient and hard to describe. The method can only work if the user trains the computer in advance - but the IGD researchers have even succeeded in doing this.
And from Nikkei Weekly.
Researchers at the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (Riken) have created a computer operating system that can read a user's brain waves and manipulate the cursor accordingly. An electroencephalograph, which monitors the electrical activity of the brain, and roughly 200 electrodes placed on a user's head link to software that synthesizes the data and moves the cursor. Though brain waves are typically created by an action such as speech or movement, people can be trained to trigger that same brain activity simply by intending to perform an action. The Riken team expects the research to improve the accessibility of computers for handicapped people. The researchers matched each signal to appear from moving a part of the body with a particular movement of the cursor. This way, a user's intention to move his right hand would consistently move the cursor in the same direction. When conducting tests of people who had been trained to produce brain waves merely by intending to make a motion, the researchers reported that the cursor moved at an accuracy rate of 70 percent to 80 percent.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Making it harder to help

I teach at Cal State, Los Angeles. The University—perhaps the entire CSU system; perhaps even the entire state of California; I just don't know—has a policy whereby employees who have used up their sick leave may use sick leave accrued and donated by other employees. (I have no idea why the University doesn't have a plan for long-term leave in case of catastrophic illness.) It used to be possible to donate sick leave by email. I just received this notice (by email).
Campus Wide e-mail,

I am submitting this request on behalf of … . He has been determined eligible to receive donated sick or vacation time. The University has a program where, if you are able, you can donate your sick or vacation time to help him get through this time of need.

If you would like to donate any sick leave or vacation time you must go to the Payroll Office to complete the catastrophic leave form.

I would like to thank you in advance for your help.
This is the second time I've received a request for donation that requires the person making the contribution to go physically to the Payroll Office. The first time I called the Payroll Offie to ask about this new policy—a personal appearance had not been required in the past—but the Payroll Office person to whom I spoke had no idea why this new rule was put in place. It seems both mean-spirited (because it reduces the number of contributions) and arbitrary. In addition, one would think that in the 21st century, the necessity of such personal appearances would become less not more frequent. Is this another example of a bureaucracy gone wrong, or is there a valid reason for this requirement?

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Chipper, pesky, and spunky. Three playful adjectives.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Jeblumd txet

It's not quite true that
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
This page gives both a history and analysis of this semi-urban myth. But it you want to play around with it, The Jumbler will jumble any text you give it. (Or should I say The Jebmlur?)

The No Fly Watch List

James Moore, author of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential tells this story.
I made it a point to arrive very early at the airport. My reservation was confirmed before I left home. I went to the electronic kiosk and punched in my confirmation number to print out my boarding pass and luggage tags. Another error message appeared, "Please see agent."

I did. She took my Texas driver's license and punched in the relevant information to her computer system.

'I'm sorry, sir,' she said. 'There seems to be a problem. You've been placed on the No Fly Watch List.'
See the rest of the story here.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

We are not really in charge of how we act

This is another recurrent thread. I already mentioned Herb Gintis' piece from another source. Here is Andy Clark.
So much of what we do, feel, think and choose is determined by non-conscious, automatic uptake of cues and information.

Of course, advertisers will say they have known this all along. But only in recent years, with seminal studies by Tanya Chartrand, John Bargh and others has the true scale of our daily automatism really begun to emerge. Such studies show that it is possible (it is relatively easy) to activate racist stereotypes that impact our subsequent behavioral interactions, for example yielding the judgment that your partner in a subsequent game or task is more hostile than would be judged by an unprimed control. Such effects occur despite a subject's total and honest disavowal of those very stereotypes. In similar ways it is possible to unconsciously prime us to feel older (and then we walk more slowly). …

It now seems clear that many of my major life and work decisions are made very rapidly, often on the basis of ecologically sound but superficial cues, with slow deliberative reason busily engaged in justifying what the quick-thinking zombies inside me have already laid on the table. The good news is that without these mechanisms we'd be unable to engage in fluid daily life or reason at all, and that very often they are right. The dangerous truth, though, is that we are indeed designed to cut conscious, aware choice out of the picture wherever possible. This is not an issue about free will, but simply about the extent to which conscious deliberation cranks the engine of behavior. Crank it it does: but not in anything like the way, or extent, we may have thought. We'd better get to grips with this before someone else does.
Richard Dawkins takes this one step further.
Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.

Basil Fawlty, British television's hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn't start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. "Right! I warned you. You've had this coming to you!" He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburettor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don't we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty? Or at King Xerxes who, in 480 BC, sentenced the rough sea to 300 lashes for wrecking his bridge of ships? Isn't the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component? Or a defective upbringing? Defective education? Defective genes? …

But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car.
The usual answer to why we don't "fix" criminals is that it would be disrespectful to them as persons. But one can look at it another way. Fixing them could be thought of as their punishment. How about giving people a choice: get your brain fixed or spend 10 years in jail. Which would you choose?

The universe may be unknowable in principle

A significant number of scientists are worried that we may be at the end of science because the universe may simply be unknowable. Here's how Lawrence Krauss put it.
[P]hysicists have been exploring the idea that perhaps physics is an 'environmental science', that the laws of physics we observe are merely accidents of our circumstances, and that an infinite number of different universe could exist with different laws of physics.

This is true even if there does exist some fundamental candidate mathematical physical theory. For example, as is currently in vogue in an idea related to string theory, perhaps the fundamental theory allows an infinite number of different 'ground state' solutions, each of which describes a different possible universe with a consistent set of physical laws and physical dimensions.

It might be that the only way to understand why the laws of nature we observe in our universe are the way they are is to understand that if they were any different, then life could not have arisen in our universe, and we would thus not be here to measure them today.

This is one version of the infamous "anthropic principle". But it could actually be worse — it is equally likely that many different combinations of laws would allow life to form, and that it is a pure accident that the constants of nature result in the combinations we experience in our universe. …

In this case, the end of "fundamental" theoretical physics … might occur not via a theory of everything, but rather with the recognition that all so-called fundamental theories that might describe nature would be purely "phenomenological", that is, they would be derivable from observational phenomena, but would not reflect any underlying grand mathematical structure of the universe that would allow a basic understanding of why the universe is the way it is.

Sam Harris

I ran across Sam Harris on the Edge website. He is one of the very many people who responded to the question, What is your most dangerous idea? He didn't beat around the bush. His dangerous idea: Science Must Destroy Religion.

Many of the "dangerous ideas" were anti-religion: there is no soul, there is no God, etc. But Harris came straight at it. I was intrigued enough to follow the links to his web site. He has written a book, "The End of Faith" (published in 2004), in which he elaborates.

I probably wouldn't like him politically. His web site includes reviews of the book. The NYTimes review includes the following.
The End of Faithis far from perfect. Harris seems to find "moral relativism" as great a sin as religious moderation, and in the end he singles out Islam as the reigning threat to humankind. He likens it to the gruesome, Inquisition-style Christianity of the 13th century, yet he never explains how Christianity became comparatively domesticated. And on reading his insistence that it is "time for us to admit that not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development," I couldn’t help but think of Ann Coulter’s morally developed suggestion that we invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders and convert their citizens to Christianity.

Harris also drifts into arenas of marginal relevance to his main thesis, attacking the war against drugs here, pacificism there, and offering a strained defense for the use of torture in wartime that seems all the less persuasive after Abu Ghraib.
Harris also seems to have no ear for religious symbolism, taking every religious statement as the literal belief of its utterer.

But Harris is willing to speak out against religion when it strays into what he (and I) think are beyond its bounds, namely beliefs having to do with facts in the physical world. Here's how he put it in the Edge piece.
Most people believe that the Creator of the universe wrote (or dictated) one of their books. Unfortunately, there are many books that pretend to divine authorship, and each makes incompatible claims about how we all must live. Despite the ecumenical efforts of many well-intentioned people, these irreconcilable religious commitments still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict.

In response to this situation, most sensible people advocate something called "religious tolerance." While religious tolerance is surely better than religious war, tolerance is not without its liabilities. Our fear of provoking religious hatred has rendered us incapable of criticizing ideas that are now patently absurd and increasingly maladaptive. It has also obliged us to lie to ourselves — repeatedly and at the highest levels — about the compatibility between religious faith and scientific rationality. …

Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower.

Religion is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society. Religious faith — faith that there is a God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, etc. — is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a genuine openness to fruits of human inquiry in the 21st century, and a premature closure to such inquiry as a matter of principle. I believe that the antagonism between reason and faith will only grow more pervasive and intractable in the coming years. Iron Age beliefs — about God, the soul, sin, free will, etc. — continue to impede medical research and distort public policy. The possibility that we could elect a U.S. President who takes biblical prophesy seriously is real and terrifying; the likelihood that we will one day confront Islamists armed with nuclear or biological weapons is also terrifying, and growing more probable by the day. We are doing very little, at the level of our intellectual discourse, to prevent such possibilities.

In the spirit of religious tolerance, most scientists are keeping silent when they should be blasting the hideous fantasies of a prior age with all the facts at their disposal.
Although I agree that religion should not make claims to have knowledge about the physical world, I find him less than convincing that the right way to go about educating people is to "blast the hideous fantasies of a prior age."

His solution?
To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world.
Fine so far.
We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.
All true—actually I'm not much of a fan of ritual or tradition—but I'm afraid it doesn't help to tell people that they are embracing the preposterous.

Yet as Natalie Angier, the NYTimes reviewer put it,
It’s not often that I see my florid strain of atheism expressed in any document this side of the Seine, but The End of Faith articulates the dangers and absurdities of organized religion so fiercely and so fearlessly that I felt relieved as I read it, vindicated, almost personally understood.

We don't understand animal navigation.

This is Rupert Sheldrake's dangerous idea.

No one knows how pigeons home, or how swallow migrate, or how green turtles find Ascension Island from thousands of miles away to lay their eggs. These kinds of navigation involve more than following familiar landmarks, or orientating in a particular compass direction; they involve an ability to move towards a goal.

Why is this idea dangerous? Don't we just need a bit more time to explain navigation in terms of standard physics, genes, nerve impulses and brain chemistry? Perhaps.
But there is a dangerous possibility that animal navigation may not be explicable in terms of present-day physics. Over and above the known senses, some species of animals may have a sense of direction that depends on their being attracted towards their goals through direct field-like connections. …

The obvious way of dealing with this problem is to postulate complex interactions between known sensory modalities, with multiple back-up systems. The complex interaction theory is safe, sounds sophisticated, and is vague enough to be irrefutable. The idea of a sense of direction involving new scientific principles is dangerous, but it may be inevitable.

Altruism and programmability

Herbert Gintis is a game theorist. In this interview in Science & Theology News he talks about his theory about why people are altruistic.
The reason humans are so successful is normally attributed to the fact that they're smart. The reason they're smart is because humans operate in complex groups. The reason they can operate in complex groups is that they have strong reciprocity: Not only do they share, but they're willing to punish non-sharers. If you look at the whole range of social species, you find that punishing is very important. …

You always think of the hive as the big social collective, everybody does what they're supposed to do. But that's not true. Workers often try to lay eggs, even though only the queen is supposed to lay eggs. If workers lay eggs, there are other workers that run around, eat the eggs, then punish the workers that laid the eggs. Wherever you find cooperation, you'll also find punishment. Think of your own body. Each cell has its own self-interest to multiply. Why don't they go berserk? How do you get cells to cooperate? The answer is, you punish cells that don't cooperate. As far as we know, there is no other vertebrate species that punishes. Humans are by far the most social vertebrate species and we argue that that's why humans are so cooperative. …

We argue that everyday life has little bits of altruism all over the place. They're generally not that costly, but they're extremely important. For instance, when I go on an airplane, everyone is nice to each other; they're never going to see each other again. Why be polite? You can imagine if you put chimps on an airplane, it would be a total disaster. Why go through these little amenities: "Can I help you with your bag?" "Let me move for you." "Let me get up so you can get out and go to the bathroom." Think about it. If you put a bunch of sociopaths on an airplane, it would be a disaster. But these little amenities, in everyday life, we tend to help each other even if it doesn't cost that much. This makes society work.

It may be that you really care about the other guy, and very often that's the case. Human beings' notion of empathy is very strong. And that's what altruism is. It's wanting to help people at a cost to yourself -- but also punish people at a cost to yourself when they're behaving in an anti-social manner. And then the question is, how can human beings be this way? No other species is like this. And that's where the biology comes in. You have to show that groups in which you have a strong reciprocator, an altruist, will do better than groups that don't have altruism. …
And here is his key point.
Sociologists have a concept called socialization, which means the internalization of norms, which is completely opposite from every other behavior. There's no such thing in biology or economics or political science or anthropology.

It seems to me that the principle of socialization was one of the established behavioral universal principles in academic sociology. What we propose is that human beings have this capacity to be programmed. Humans are the only ones where humans can want things just because they were socialized to want them [emphasis added] -- want to be fair, want to share, want to help your group, want to be patriotic, want to be honest, want to be trustworthy, want to be cheerful -- when they are costly to our selves. If you're honest as a principle, that's good for everybody else and it costs you. So being honest is part of strong reciprocity.
He goes on to make what I see as a different point.
Within a complex society, the general approach to this is gene-culture co-evolution. In biology, you get genetic information. In sociology or anthropology, you get cultural information. But really, in human society, they go together. Genetic evolution leads to culture. In that culture, given strong reciprocity, you can be rewarded for being nice or for cooperating. So cultural evolution can lead to genetic evolution. Human beings become nicer and more reciprocal and more honest. So, you get this whole dialectic back-and-forth between cultural evolution and genetic evolution and the product is human beings.
This is not about being programmed by society; it is about evolving to be social, which is different. Then he goes back to his original programmability point.
The interesting thing is, once you get people who are programmable, you can program them to do a lot of things, even things that aren't in their interest. You can program people to be honest, even when it's in their self-interest sometimes not to be honest. A lot of people won't be honest. By programmability, you can get people to be more altruistic than they would ever be if they were self-interested. Now we have all these suicide bombers. That's completely obvious. You get these people who are programmable and you can program them to be willing to commit suicide. You could never do that to an animal, not willingly. Our argument is that this is one more kind of collective social mechanism that allows us to cooperate.
The more general point is his claim that we have evolved to be programmable. But he also claims that we have evolved to be emapthetic independently of being programmed.
People don't like to see others suffer. After 9/11, you saw in NYC, the whole city rise up, people helping each other. It's just a spontaneous empathy. Empathy itself is the result of gene-culture coevolution, because, again, people are empathetic; They help in the short run because they feel like it; they feel good helping. But in the long run it helps them because people help back or some phenomenon allows empathy to be fitness enhancing. I think that's more important than what they were taught by their parents. But some of that can come in too.
So what's the real point? Is there any doubt that people are programmable? Certainly not, if by programmable one means can be influenced by others. If we weren't programmable, advertising wouldn't work. Of course some people are more easily influenced than others and can be influenced in more extreme ways than others. Today's suicide bombers are probably not all that different from yesterday's cult members. Do you remember Johnstown where almost an entire cult committed suicide?

So our intelligence and our ability to think and to be influenced by outside persuasion is stronger than in other animals. So what? In fact, other animals can be trained. It's just more difficult and can't be done through conversation. So at this point, I'm not quite sure that there is as much new about Gintis's argument as it seemed at first.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Qualia, without the word

Donald Hoffman wrote
Suppose I have a headache, and I tell you about it. It is, say, a pounding headache that started at the back of the neck and migrated to encompass my forehead and eyes. You respond empathetically, recalling a similar headache you had, and suggest a couple remedies. We discuss our headaches and remedies a bit, then move on to other topics.

Of course no one but me can experience my headaches, and no one but you can experience yours. But this posed no obstacle to our meaningful conversation. You simply assumed that my headaches are relevantly similar to yours, and I assumed the same about your headaches. The fact that there is no 'public headache,' no single headache that we both experience, is simply no problem.
A spoon is like a headache. Suppose I hand you a spoon. It is common to assume that the spoon I experience during this transfer is numerically identical to the spoon you experience. But this assumption is false. No one but me can experience my spoon, and no one but you can experience your spoon. But this is no problem. It is enough for me to assume that your spoon experience is relevantly similar to mine. For effective communication, no public spoon is necessary, just like no public headache is necessary. Is there a 'real spoon,' a mind-independent physical object that causes our spoon experiences and resembles our spoon experiences? This is not only unnecessary but unlikely. It is unlikely that the visual experiences of homo sapiens, shaped to permit survival in a particular range of niches, should miraculously also happen to resemble the true nature of a mind-independent realm. Selective pressures for survival do not, except by accident, lead to truth. …

Once one abandons public physical objects, one must reformulate many current open problems in science. One example is the mind-brain relation. There are no public brains, only my brain experiences and your brain experiences. These brain experiences are just the simplified visual experiences of homo sapiens, shaped for survival in certain niches. The chances that our brain experiences resemble some mind-independent truth are remote at best, and those who would claim otherwise must surely explain the miracle. Failing a clever explanation of this miracle, there is no reason to believe brains cause anything, including minds.
I'm fine with the notion of abandoning public physical objects—or Platonic objects? I don't know what he's getting with the rest.

Free will is going away. Time to redesign society to take that into account.

In response to the Edge question of the year, Clay Shirky wrtoe
Consider laws concerning convicted pedophiles. Concern about their recidivism rate has led to the enactment of laws that restrict their freedom based on things they might do in the future, even though this expressly subverts the notion of free will in the judicial system. The formula here -- heinousness of crime x likelihood of repeat offense -- creates a new, non-insane class of criminals whose penalty is indexed to a perceived lack of control over themselves.

But pedophilia is not unique in it's measurably high recidivism rate. All rapists have higher than average recidivism rates. Thieves of all varieties are likelier to become repeat offenders if they have short time horizons or poor impulse control. Will we keep more kinds of criminals constrained after their formal sentence is served, as we become better able to measure the likely degree of control they have over their own future actions? How can we, if we are to preserve the idea of personal responsibility? How can we not, once we are able to quantify the risk?

Criminal law is just one area where our concept of free will is eroding. We know that men make more aggressive decisions after they have been shown pictures of attractive female faces. We know women are more likely to commit infidelity on days they are fertile. …

Conscious self-modulation of behavior is a spectrum. We have treated it as a single property — you are either capable of free will, or you fall into an exceptional category — because we could not identify, measure, or manipulate the various components that go into such self-modulation. Those days are now ending, and everyone from advertisers to political consultants increasingly understands, in voluminous biological detail, how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will.

In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable.

Olivia Johnson, " Why I'm Happy I Evolved"

This was published as an op-ed piece in the NY Times. It was copied here. It's a great column, with lots of examples of strangely evolved creatures.
[T]he sea slug Elysia chlorotica … not only looks like a leaf, but it also acts like one, making energy from the sun. Its secret? When it eats algae, it extracts the chloroplasts, the tiny entities that plants and algae use to manufacture energy from sunlight, and shunts them into special cells beneath its skin. The chloroplasts continue to function; the slug thus becomes able to live on a diet composed only of sunbeams. …

[T]he wasp Cotesia congregata … injects her eggs into the bodies of caterpillars. As she does so, she also injects a virus that disables the caterpillar's immune system and prevents it from attacking the eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the caterpillar alive. …

Suppose you find that a particular bacterium lives exclusively in the gullets of leeches and helps them digest blood. Then I can tell you how that bacterium's genome is likely to differ from those of its free-living cousins; among other changes, the genome will be smaller, and it will have lost sets of genes that are helpful for living free but useless for living inside another being. …

When I was in school, I learned none of this. Biology was a subject that seemed as exciting as a clump of cotton wool. It was a dreary exercise in the memorization and regurgitation of apparently unconnected facts. Only later did I learn about evolution and how it transforms biology from that mass of cotton wool into a magnificent tapestry, a tapestry we can contemplate and begin to understand.

Some people want to think of humans as the product of a special creation, separate from other living things. I am not among them; I am glad it is not so. I am proud to be part of the riot of nature, to know that the same forces that produced me also produced bees, giant ferns and microbes that live at the bottom of the sea.

For me, the knowledge that we evolved is a source of solace and hope. I find it a relief that plagues and cancers and wasp larvae that eat caterpillars alive are the result of the impartial - and comprehensible - forces of evolution rather than the caprices of a deity.

More than that, I find that in viewing ourselves as one species out of hundreds of millions, we become more remarkable, not less so. No other animal that I have heard of can live so peaceably in such close quarters with so many individuals that are unrelated. No other animal routinely bothers to help the sick and the dying, or tries to save those hurt in an earthquake or flood.

Which is not to say that we are all we might wish to be. But in putting ourselves into our place in nature, in comparing ourselves with other species, we have a real hope of reaching a better understanding, and appreciation, of ourselves.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The poor and their health. Can they sell it?

In a post entitled Should the Purchase and Sale of Organs for Transplant Surgery be Permitted? Gary Posner wrote
Another set of critics agree with me that the effect on the total supply of organs from allowing them to be purchased and sold would be large and positive, but they object to markets because of a belief that the commercially-motivated part of the organ supply would mainly come from the poor. In effect, they believe the poor would be induced to sell their organs to the middle classes and the rich. It is hard to see any reasons to complain if organs of poor persons were sold with their permission after they died, and the proceeds went as bequests to their parents or children. The complaints would be louder if, for example, mainly poor persons sold one of their kidneys for live kidney transplants, but why would poor donors be better off if this option were taken away from them? [emphasis added] If so desired, a quota could be placed on the fraction of organs that could be supplied by persons with incomes below a certain level, but would that improve the welfare of poor persons?
Steve Landsburg made a similar point in an article about a woman who was taken off a ventilation machine because her family couldn't afford it. He says that the cost of lifetime insurance against this sort of thing might be $75 at age 20. But he says,
Tirhas Habtegris would probably have taken the cash. Then she'd have gotten sick and regretted her decision. [But why not ask people what they would prefer?]
We outlaw selling oneself into slavery. I think there is a similar argument to be made here. But these are intelligent people asking serious questions. I'm taken aback not to feel sure about my position.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Laughing at Laffer or Freedom Really Isn't Free

The New Yorh Times reports on a study by the Congressional Budget Office conerning the effects of tax cuts. From the Times article.
Arthur B. Laffer, an economist and sometime adviser to President Ronald Reagan, noted that when tax rates are zero, the government collects no revenue. He also noted that when tax rates are 100 percent, the same might be true: no one would work, he theorized. In between, along the curve he famously scribbled on a napkin, the amount of revenue collected first rises along with tax rates. Then, after a crucial point is passed, it falls back to zero, as it must under his theory.

One motivation for Mr. Reagan's tax cuts was a guess that the United States was on the right side of the curve - that is, that lowering rates would actually yield more tax revenue over all.
It turns out that the Republicans were wrong. It really was voodoo economics. The article continues.
Early last month … the Congressional Budget Office released a paper called "Analyzing the Economic and Budgetary Effects of a 10 Percent Cut in Income Tax Rates." … The author of the analysis, Ben Page, estimates how an across-the-board cut in income tax rates could generate higher levels of economic activity, potentially replacing lost tax revenue. …

The [paper] dismisses the idea that tax cuts may actually improve the government's fiscal situation. Even in his most generous scenario, only 28 percent of lost tax revenue is recouped over a 10-year period. The United States, it seems, is firmly planted on the left side of the Laffer Curve.

Recent experience corroborates this prediction. In the second quarter of 2001, just before the first of President Bush's tax cuts took effect, federal receipts from personal taxes accounted for 10.3 percent of the economy. By the end of the post-recession slump, receipts had dropped to 6.4 percent. But in the third quarter of 2005, with the economy booming, they were still under 7.5 percent - an enormous difference. In dollar terms, federal receipts from personal income taxes, at $802 billion in 2004, are still lower than they were in 1998 ($826 billion) and much lower than in 2001 ($994 billion).
So much for Laffer. But as we know, freedom isn't free, no matter what the Republican's say. But then does anyone still believe that Republicans tell the truth?