Friday, March 31, 2006

Your computer will tell you when you're boring

From ACM TechNews.
Researchers are scheduled to present a device that will inform people with autism that they are boring or annoying … [T]he device consists of a camera (small enough to be attached to eyeglasses) connected to a handheld computer that uses image recognition software, and software that can read the emotions of the images. The software makes the handheld vibrate when its wearer does not engage the listener. The device, which gets emotions right 64 percent and 90 percent of the time when presented with video footage of ordinary people and actors, respectively, is based on a machine-learning algorithm that was trained by showing it more than 100 eight-second video clips of actors expressing different emotions. The researchers say they still need to reduce the device's computing demand for a standard handheld, find a high-resolution digital camera that is easy to wear, and train autistic people to use it. In addition to autistic people, teachers could benefit from the device.

Thursday, March 30, 2006


The New York Times has an article on the political implications of immigration.
The battle among Republicans over immigration policy and border security is threatening to undercut a decade-long effort by President Bush and his party to court Hispanic voters.
I hope the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot.

I'm more interested in a possible approach to immigration: open borders. Europe has open borders for all the EU countries. It seems to be working. What would happen if we tried it here? The apparent fears are that (a) a flood of Mexican workers would take away the jobs of Americans and (b) a flood of Mexican non-workers would over-burden our welfare system. Remember the Polish plumber scare in France, that a flood of Polish plumbers would take all the plumbing jobs in France from the French plumbers? It doesn't seem to have happened. It would be useful to find out what has happened. My sense is that the EU countries that have been most accepting of foreign workers have been most economically successful. As for over-burdening the welfare system, I don't know how things have worked out in the EU.

A longer term larger solution would be a United States of North America. Think of the opportunities available in Mexico if it were to become as open and transparent as the US. Canada and Mexico are far less developed than the US. More openness and economic integration among all three countries would benefit everyone.

The conservative Linda Chavez makes the case that Latino immigrants are good for the US.
Mexican-born men, for example, are more likely to be in the labor force than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Census Bureau. Nearly half of Latino immigrants own their own homes. While most immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico and Central America, lag in educational attainment, their children are far more likely to stay in school: according to research by the Pew Hispanic Center, 80 percent of second-generation Latinos graduate from high school. Almost half of second-generation Latinos ages 25 to 44 have attended college, and those who graduate earn more on average than non-Hispanic white workers.

Latino immigrants are also starting their own businesses at a rapid pace. The Census Bureau reported that entrepreneurship among Latinos is increasing at a rate three times faster than that of other Americans. Americans of Hispanic descent now own 1.6 million businesses generating $222 billion annually; and while Census data didn't distinguish between immigrants and American-born Hispanics, it suggested that much of this growth occurred in heavily immigrant communities.

Like every generation of immigrants before them, Latinos start out on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, but they don't stay there. They are learning English as quickly as their predecessors, perhaps more quickly thanks to television (a majority of third-generation Latinos speak only English). They are intermarrying at faster rates than earlier ethnic groups, too, with about one-third of married American-born Latinos having a non-Hispanic spouse.

These facts, if they were more widely known, would go a long way to calming fears about Latino immigration.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Republicans (the party of values?) lie again

Emily Bazelon reports on how two Republican Senators lie about whether material inserted in the Congressional Record actually took place on the floor of the Senate.
Inserting comments into the Record is standard practice in Congress. What's utterly nonstandard is implying to the Supreme Court that testimony was live when it wasn't. …

The [inserted] colloquy is even scripted to sound live. 'Mr. President, I see that we are nearing the end of our allotted time,' Kyl says at one point. At another, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., appears to interject a question. 'If I might interrupt,' he begins.
None of that actually happened.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Afghan Christian to be freed

According to Abdul Rahman, the Afghan Muslim who converted to Christianity will be freed. But
it was not in recognition of 'universal values' that Abdul Rahman was released. Instead, authorities cited insufficient evidence, insinuations about his mental state and even questions raised by the authorities over his citizenship. The legal basis for charging someone for converting from Islam to Christianity has not, thus far, been altered — the political confict that from having U.S. troops trying to protect a government that can't guarantee the right of its citizens to choose the same faith as the President of the United States has simply been kicked down the road. Not only that, the Abdul Rahman case has alerted the Evangelical Christian base of the Republican Party to the need to press the Bush Administration on the issue, and at the same time mobilized the conservative Muslim clerical establishment and the powerful Islamist politicians in Afghanistan's coalition government to defend their Sharia code.
It would serve them all right to have a religious war. But it wouldn't do the rest of us any good.

In the mean time, The Guardian reports the following.
Rahman is being held in a cell by himself next to the office of a senior prison guard, the warden [of the prison where he is being held] said. He showed the AP the outside of Rahman's cell door, but refused to allow reporters to speak to him or see him.

He said Rahman had been asking guards for a Bible but that they did not have any to give him.

Rahman, meanwhile, said he was fully aware of his choice and was ready to die for it, according to an interview published Sunday in an Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

``I am serene. I have full awareness of what I have chosen. If I must die, I will die,'' Abdul Rahman told the Rome daily, responding to questions sent to him via a human rights worker who visited him in prison.

``Somebody, a long time ago, did it for all of us,'' he added in a clear reference to Jesus.

No prescription but an interesting diagnosis

Orlando Patterson, a Haarvard sociologist writes in a NYTimes Op-ed piece about black youth—or at least the 20% of it that is still failing.
So what are some of the cultural factors that explain the sorry state of young black men? They aren't always obvious. Sociological investigation has found, in fact, that one popular explanation — that black children who do well are derided by fellow blacks for 'acting white' — turns out to be largely false, except for those attending a minority of mixed-race schools.

An anecdote helps explain why: Several years ago, one of my students went back to her high school to find out why it was that almost all the black girls graduated and went to college whereas nearly all the black boys either failed to graduate or did not go on to college. Distressingly, she found that all the black boys knew the consequences of not graduating and going on to college ('We're not stupid!' they told her indignantly). [Emphasis added.]

So why were they flunking out? Their candid answer was that what sociologists call the 'cool-pose culture' of young black men was simply too gratifying to give up. For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture, the fact that almost all the superstar athletes and a great many of the nation's best entertainers were black. …

Not only was living this subculture immensely fulfilling, the boys said, it also brought them a great deal of respect from white youths. This also explains the otherwise puzzling finding by social psychologists that young black men and women tend to have the highest levels of self-esteem of all ethnic groups, and that their self-image is independent of how badly they were doing in school. [Emphasis added.]

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is — or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.


In a NYTimes op-ed piece on whether search engines help or hurt education, Edward Tenner write that
Graduate students, in the front lines as teaching assistants, are starting to discuss joining Wikipedia … .
Wikipedia turns up more and more frequently (and closer to the front) in Google searches. I use it to get an idea of what something is about—if I don't know—and as a source of links to other sites. I have never cited a Wikipedia article in a paper because I have no way to confirm the competence of the author(s). If Wikipedia becomes a place to which graduate students, who are often but not always knowledgeable, contribute it will become increasingly reliable and useful. This will be a case of good money driving out bad rather than the other way around.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Like mother like crony

From Wired News
Former first lady Barbara Bush gave relief money to a hurricane relief fund on the condition that it be spent to buy educational software from her son Neil's company.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Afghan Clerics Demand Death for Convert

Afghanistan makes Sam Harris' case. (See entry immediately below for Sam Harris' case.)

From Guardian Unlimited.
Senior Muslim clerics demanded Thursday that an Afghan man on trial for converting from Islam to Christianity be executed. …

``Rejecting Islam is insulting God. We will not allow God to be humiliated. This man must die,'' said cleric Abdul Raoulf, who is considered a moderate and was jailed three times for opposing the Taliban before the hard-line regime was ousted in 2001. …

Rice spokesman Sean McCormack said she told Karzai it is important for the Afghan people to know that freedom of religion is observed in their country. But in deference to the country's sovereignty, Rice evidently did not demand specifically that the trial be halted and the defendant released.

``This is clearly an Afghan decision,'' McCormack said. ``They are a sovereign country.''

Still, Rice's direct appeal to a foreign leader in a judicial proceeding in their own country is an unusual move. …

Diplomats have said the Afghan government is searching for a way to drop the case. On Wednesday, authorities said Rahman is suspected of being mentally ill and would undergo psychological examinations to see whether he is fit to stand trial.

But three Sunni preachers and a Shiite one interviewed by The Associated Press in four of Kabul's most popular mosques said they do not believe Rahman is insane.

``He is not crazy. He went in front of the media and confessed to being a Christian,'' said Hamidullah, chief cleric at Haji Yacob Mosque. …

He said the only way for Rahman to survive would be for him to go into exile.

But Said Mirhossain Nasri, the top cleric at Hossainia Mosque, one of the largest Shiite places of worship in Kabul, said Rahman must not be allowed to leave the country.

``If he is allowed to live in the West, then others will claim to be Christian so they can too,'' he said. ``We must set an example. ... He must be hanged.''
If Bush were capable of embarrassment, can you imagine how embarrassed we would be!

The case against religion

Sam Harris makes the case against religion.
[O]ne of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns— about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering—in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith. While there is no guarantee that rational people will always agree, the irrational are certain to be divided by their dogmas. [Emphasis added.] …

If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Meditation by Thynn Thynn

Here's another extract from her book.
When you think of meditation, you may think of the type of meditation that is popular these days, the sitting form of meditation. But that form is merely an aid, a support to develop a mental discipline of mindfulness, and equanimity. The form should not be mistaken for the path.

The popular notion is that you need to set aside a special time or place to mediate. In actuality, if meditation is to help you acquire peace of mind as you function in your life, then it must be a dynamic activity, part and parcel of your daily experience. Meditation is here and now, moment-to-moment, amid the ups and down of life, amid conflicts, disappointments and heartaches — amid success and stress. If you want to understand and resolve anger, desires, attachments and all the myriad emotions and conflicts, need you go somewhere else to find the solution? If your house was on fire, you wouldn't go somewhere else to put out the fire, would you?

If you really want to understand your mind, you must watch it while it is angry, while it desires, while it is in conflict. You must pay attention to the mind as the one-thousand-and-one thoughts as emotions rise and fall. The moment you pay attention to your emotions, you will find that they lose their strength and eventually dies out. However, when you are inattentive, you find that these emotions go on and on. Only after the anger has subsided are you aware that you have been angry. By then, either you have made some unwanted mistakes or you have ended up emotionally drained.

Take Note of Your Mind

I had not heard of Thynn Thynn before seeing this,
It's impossible to take note of your mind all of the time. You would tie yourself up in knots and run off the road. Instead of going to an extreme, begin by concentrating on one particular emotion in yourself. Choose the emotion that bothers you the most, or the one that is most prominent in you … . For many people, anger is a good starting point because it is easily noticed and dissolves faster than most other emotions. Once you begin to watch your anger, you will make an interesting discovery. You will find that as soon as you know you are angry, your anger will melt away by itself. It is very important that you watch without likes or dislikes. The more you are able to look at your own anger without making judgments, without being critical, the more easily the anger will dissipate.

--Thynn Thynn, Living Meditation, Living Insight
I liked that statement enough to look her up. Here is a website that offers some information about her.

The extract is from her book, Living Meditation, Living Insight, second edition published about a decade ago. The book is freely downloadable here.

Why sex has to be so much fun

In my message below, I talked about how reproductive functions take precedence over survival functions. This thought was triggered by the message below that, which noted that the clitoris has no survival function at all. It exists solely to make sex enjoyable. Of course, this is true about everything that makes sex enjoyable—for both men and women.

We have evolved to such an extent that lots of life is enjoyable. In fact, so much of life is so enjoyable that if sex were not as much fun as it is, we might not miss it. So here's a problem. Life is so enjoyable that it's primary function, to reproduce, might get lost in the shuffle. To avoid that, sex has to be even more enjoyable so that we don't forget about it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Reproduction takes precedence over survival

In the previous entry (see below), I noted that the clitoris performs no function necessary to sustain life. That's true of our entire reproductive system. The whole thing can be removed (as we often do to our pets), and life goes on.

Why is that startling? When one thinks about how we work, one is impressed with how clever evolution has been in designing functioning organisms. We are very well designed to sustain life.

There should be very little waste. After, all any organism that is burdened with waste is at an evolutionary disadvantage. So evolution should have discarded all waste. Yet our entire reproductive system involves waste—at least from the perspective of what it takes to stay alive. We don't need any of it.

Yet it's foolish to ask why it wasn't discarded. Without a reproductive system, an organism would not be able to pass on its slimmed-down and waste-free design to its offspring.

In other words, our reproductive systems are primary. Without them, there would be nothing else. From an evolutionary perspective, it's more important to be able to reproduce than to survive. (Just ask the male praying mantis, who is eaten by the female—but only after he fertilizes her eggs.) It sounds strange to say so, but that's the message of the fact that we have reproduction systems that don't contribute to our being alive. That's also the explanation, of course, for extraordinarily wasteful developments like the peacock's tail. Even though they burden the peacock, they enhance reproduction. Hence they develop and persist.

None of this is a new thought. But it seems like a nice way to make the point about how primary reproduction is when we understand how evolution really works. This is the message of the selfish gene. A chicken is an egg's way to produce more eggs. From an evolutionary perspective, our lives are nothing more than a way to generate offspring. We are designed to survive only to the point where we can complete that task. Everything else we do, everything else about us, is an accidental by-product. It's quite amazing to stop and think about things this way.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The clitoris

According to the Kinsey Institute Sexuality Information Service for Students at the University of Indiana
the only function of the clitoris is sexual pleasure.
Do we know of any other element of the body that has no anatomical or physiological function? That is, the clitoris is not necessary for any life process. (In that sense it is like the appendix—although there is some thought that the appendix does serve some detoxification purpose.) Apparently the only reason for the clitoris to exist is so that women will enjoy sex. Its biological function is to encourage women to have sex. I wonder what the Intelligent Design people think about that.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

How I Learned to Love the Wall

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Irshad Manji, a Muslim, understands Israel's rationale for the wall.
[The wall] was birthed by 'shaheeds,' suicide bombers whom Palestinian leaders have glorified as martyrs. Qassam missiles can kill two or three people at a time. Suicide bombers lay waste to many more. Since the barrier went up, suicide attacks have plunged, which means innocent Arab lives have been spared along with Jewish ones. Does a concrete effort to save civilian lives justify the hardship posed by this structure? The humanitarian in me bristles, but ultimately answers yes. …

Israel is open enough to tolerate lawsuits by civil society groups who despise every mile of the barrier. Mr. Sharon himself agreed to reroute sections of it when the Israel High Court ruled in favor of the complainants. Where else in the Middle East can Arabs and Jews work together so visibly to contest, and change, state policies?

I reflected on this question as I observed an Israeli Army jeep patrol the gap in Abu Dis. The vehicle was crammed with soldiers who, in turn, observed me filming the anti-Israel graffiti scrawled by Western activists — "Scotland hates the blood-sucking Zionists!" I turned my video camera on the soldiers. Nobody ordered me to shut it off or show the tape. My Arab taxi driver stood by, unprotected by a diplomatic license plate or press banner.

Like all Muslims, I look forward to the day when neither the jeep nor the wall is in Abu Dis. So will we tell the self-appointed martyrs of Islam that … before the barrier, there was the bomber? And that the barrier can be dismantled, but the bomber's victims are gone forever?

Young Muslims, especially those privileged with a good education, cannot walk away from these questions.
The fundamental question remains: Are the Palestinians willing to live with a 2-state solution?

According to her website, which she calls "Muslim Refusenik," Irshad Manji is based at Yale University as a Visiting Fellow with the International Security Studies program.

Here is her (audio) call for a revival of Muslim independent thinking, the kind of thinking that flowered in the 9th - 11th centuries.

It seems to be Muslim women who are most courageous in speaking out these days. See this article (and this blog entry) on Wafa Sultan, a psychiatrist, originally from Syria and now living in Southern California.
Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies. This path will not yield any results. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind, before they demand that humankind respect them.
I think she is too hard on Muslims. There are other terrorists in the world. But it's not an admirable way to try to get things done.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Senate G.O.P. Blocks Tight Budget Rule

From The New York Times
In … Congress this week, the Senate rejected on a 50-to-50 tie a proposal to restore what are known as 'pay-go' rules, a requirement that tax cuts and some new spending be approved by 60 votes or offset by budget savings or revenue increases.

Democrats and a handful of Republican allies said that the added discipline was essential to getting a handle on the mounting federal debt and that the rules had been instrumental in reducing red ink before they were allowed to lapse in 2002. …
Why did the Republicans vote against it?
Republicans said the push to add the rules to the budget was a back-door effort to make it harder to extend President Bush's tax cuts.
The Democrats have finally done something smart. Keep pounding away on them.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Atheists: defenders of the faith

Slavoj Zizek has a nice op-ed piece in the New York Times
During the Seventh Crusade, led by St. Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she carried the two bowls, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: 'Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God.' Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

… David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity as a key component of the European legacy. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the 'religious inheritance' of Europe. But where was modern Europe's most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.

Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. …

[This confronts] Europe's Muslims with a difficult choice: the only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies. The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who … published the caricatures [of Muhammad] for shock value, but those who … support of the ideal of freedom of expression.


Ajahn Sumedho has a nice analogy for understanding the Buddhist sense of grasping.
Desire can be compared to fire. If we grasp fire, what happens? Does it lead to happiness? If we say: "Oh, look at that beautiful fire! Look at the beautiful colors! I love red and orange; they’re my favorite colors," and then grasp it, we would find a certain amount of suffering entering the body. And then if we were to contemplate the cause of that suffering we would discover it was the result of having grasped that fire. On that information, we would hopefully, then let the fire go. Once we let fire go then we know that it is not something to be attached to. This does not mean we have to hate it, or put it out. We can enjoy fire, can't we? It is nice having a fire, it keeps the room warm, but we do not have to burn ourselves in it.

--Ajahn Sumedho, Teachings of a Buddhist Monk

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Memory triggers

A week ago I told a friend about a project on of my students was doing. He said he wanted to offer his web site as a guinea pig. This week I saw the student and got him together with my friend. How did I remember to do that? I didn't write it down. I didn't make a special effort to remember. Yet when I saw the student, my friend's remark came to mind. What is in the brain that causes that to happen?

It's one thing to be offended

by ill-considered cartoons. It's another to hang onto one's anger and to attempt to use it as a weapon. The New York Times reports that "Muslims Express Anger and Hope at Danish Conference."
'We are here today, because we want to tell you that every Muslim in the world is very angry,' said Tareq Alsuwaidan, general manager of the Kuwaiti satellite channel Al Resalah.
'We request an official apology from your government to the Muslim nation … .'
Why does the Muslim world have such a sense of weakness about itself that it can't move on? Most of the world has acknowledged that the cartoons were thoughtless and rude. They were published without knowing about the Muslim sensativity to images of Muhammad. Having established this point—and it has been very well established—it's time to continue with our lives. Those who are attempting to provoke continued anger are not doing themselves any good. On the contrary, they are confirming the Western image of certain elements of the Muslim world that it lives by irrational and exploitative anger rather than by intellectual honesty.

Friday, March 10, 2006


There are two, count them two articles in the March 10 issue of Slate on Big Love, a new HBO series on polygamy. What I don't get is how polygamy can possibly be illegal. Since a second marriage is not valid, it would seem that polygamy is no more possible than gay marriage. It simply is not recognized as a valid state. But that's different from saying that it's illegal. And we certainly don't criminalize people for having sexual relationships with more than one person at a time. So what does it really mean to say that polygamy is illegal?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Blind artist

From New Scientist
Esref Armagan … is here in Boston to see if a peek inside his brain can explain how a man who has never seen can paint pictures that the sighted easily recognise - and even admire. He paints houses and mountains and lakes and faces and butterflies, but he's never seen any of these things. He depicts colour, shadow and perspective, but it is not clear how he could have witnessed these things either. How does he do it?

Because if Armagan can represent images in the same way a sighted person can, it raises big questions not only about how our brains construct mental images, but also about the role those images play in seeing. Do we build up mental images using just our eyes or do other senses contribute too? How much can congenitally blind people really understand about space and the layout of objects within it? How much "seeing" does a blind person actually do?

Armagan was born 51 years ago in one of Istanbul's poorer neighbourhoods. One of his eyes failed to develop beyond a rudimentary bud, the other is stunted and scarred. It is impossible to know if he had some vision as an infant, but he certainly never saw normally and his brain detects no light now. Few of the children in his neighbourhood were formally educated, and like them, he spent his early years playing in the streets. But Armagan's blindness isolated him, and to pass the time, he turned to drawing. At first he just scratched in the dirt. But by age 6 he was using pencil and paper. At 18 he started painting with his fingers, first on paper, then on canvas with oils. At age 42 he discovered fast-drying acrylics.

His paintings are disarmingly realistic. And his skills are formidable. "I have tested blind people for decades," says John Kennedy, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, "and I have never seen a performance like his." Kennedy's first opportunity to meet and test Armagan in person was during a visit to New York last May, for a forum organised by a group called Art Education for the Blind. Armagan, who is something of a celebrity in Turkey, has become used to touring with his canvases to the Czech Republic, China, Italy and the Netherlands. What made this visit different was the interest shown by scientists - both Kennedy and a team from Boston.

Kennedy put Armagan through a battery of tests. For instance, he presented him with solid objects that he could feel - a cube, a cone and a ball all in a row (dubbed the "three mountains task") - and asked him to draw them. He then asked him to draw them as though he was perched elsewhere at the table, across from himself, then to his right and left and hovering overhead. Kennedy asked him to draw two rows of glasses, stretching off into the distance. Representing this kind of perspective is tough even for a sighted person. And when he asked him to draw a cube, and then to rotate it to the left, and then further to the left, Armagan drew a scene with all three cubes. Astonishingly, he drew it in three-point perspective - showing a perfect grasp of how horizontal and vertical lines converge at imaginary points in the distance. "My breath was taken away," Kennedy says.

Kennedy has spent much of his career exploring art from the perspective of blind people. He has shown that people who are congenitally blind understand outline drawings when they feel them just as seeing people do. They understand and can draw in three dimensions. In fact, blind children develop the ability to draw, he has found, much as sighted children do - but all too few blind children ever get the opportunity to explore this ability. Even knowledge about perspective, he has come to believe, is acquired in similar ways for both. "Where a sighted person looks out, a blind person reaches out, and they will discover the same things," says Kennedy. "The geometry of direction is common to vision and touch."

Lines and one-liners
It is the night before the Boston team's first brain scan. Armagan is sitting at a long table at an inn, entertaining everyone with one-liners, trying to explain how he does his artwork. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the Harvard neurologist who invited him here, and Amir Amedi, his colleague, are challenging him with more and more complex tasks. Draw a road leading away, says Pascual-Leone, with poles on either side and with a source of light underneath. Armagan smiles confidently.

He uses a special rubberised tablet, called a "Sewell raised line drawing kit". This device allows him to draw lines that rise off his paper as tiny puckers, so that he can detect them with his fingertips. And so he draws the road and the poles: one hand holding the pencil, the other tracing along behind, like surrogate eyes, "observing" the image as it is being laid down. A minute or so later, the picture is done. Pascual-Leone and Amedi shake their heads in wonder.

So, we ask, how do you know how long these poles should be as they recede? I was taught, he says. Not by any formal teacher, but by casual comments by friends and acquaintances. How do you know about shadows? He learned that too. He confides that for a long time he figured that if an object was red, its shadow would be red too. "But I was told it wasn't," he says. But how do you know about red? He knows that there's an important visual quality to seen objects called "colour" and that it varies from object to object. He's memorised what has what colour and even which ones clash.

Scanning the mind's eye
Next day, and the time has come for Armagan to get into the scanner. The Harvard scientists are collaborating with scanning experts at Boston University. In addition to taking a structural snapshot of Armagan's brain and establishing if it can perceive any light (they confirmed it cannot), this morning's experiment will have him doing some odd sequences of tasks. He'll have a set number of seconds to feel an object, imagine it and draw it. But he has also been asked to scribble, pretend to feel an object and recall a list of objects that he learned days earlier.

Pascual-Leone and Amedi want to see what Armagan's brain can tell them about neural plasticity. Both scientists have evidence that in the absence of vision, the "visual" cortex - the part of the brain that makes sense of the information coming from our eyes - does not lie idle. Pascual-Leone has found that proficient Braille readers recruit this area for touch. Amedi, along with Ehud Zohary at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, found that the area is also activated in verbal memory tasks.

When Amedi analysed the results, however, he found that Armagan's visual cortex lit up during the drawing task, but hardly at all for the verbal recall. Amedi was startled by this. "To get such extraordinary plasticity for [drawing] and zero for verbal memory and language - it was such a strong result," he says. He suspects that, to a certain extent, how the unused visual areas are deployed depends on who you are and what you need from your brain.

Even more intriguing was the way in which drawing activated Armagan's visual cortex. It is now well established that when sighted people try to imagine things - faces, scenes, colours, items they've just looked at - they engage the same parts of their visual cortex that they use to see, only to a much lesser degree. Creating these mental images is a lot like seeing, only less powerful. When Armagan imagined items he had touched, parts of his visual cortex, too, were mildly activated. But when he drew, his visual cortex lit up as though he was seeing. In fact, says Pascual-Leone, a naive viewer of his scan might assume Armagan really could see.

That result cracks open another big nut: what is "seeing" exactly? Even without the ability to detect light, Armagan is coming incredibly close to it, admits Pascual-Leone. We can't know what is actually being generated in his brain. "But whatever that thing in his mind is, he is able to transfer it to paper so that I unequivocally know it's the same object he just felt," says Pascual-Leone.

In his own life, too, Armagan seems to have a remarkable grasp of space. He seldom gets lost, says his manager Joan Eroncel. He has an uncanny sense of a room's dimensions. He once drew the layout of an apartment he had only visited briefly, she says, and remembered it perfectly nine years later.

We normally think of seeing as the taking in of objective reality through our eyes. But is it? How much of what we think of as seeing really comes from without, and how much from within? The visual cortex may have a much more important role than we realise in creating expectations for what we are about to see, says Pascual-Leone. "Seeing is only possible when you know what you're going to see," he says. Perhaps in Armagan the expectation part is operational, but there is simply no data coming in visually.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a person can't have a "mind's eye" without ever having had vision. But Pascual-Leone thinks Armagan must have one. The researcher has long argued that you could arrive at the same mental picture via different senses. In fact he thinks we all do this all the time, integrating all the sensations of an object into our mental picture of it. "When we see a cup," he says, "we're also feeling with our mind's hand. Seeing is as much touching as it is seeing." But because vision is so overwhelming, we are unaware of that, he says. But in Armagan, significantly, that is not the case.

I sit across from the source of all this mystery and I ask him about the birds he loves to paint. They are brightly coloured and exotic and I wonder aloud how he knows how to depict them. He tells me about how he used to own a parakeet shop. "They come to your hand," he says. "You can easily touch them." He pauses and smiles and says: "I love being surrounded by beauty."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Besides exercising, eat right

A second article on the brain.
Studies suggest that foods such as fish and a curry spice called curcumin, for example, can give the brain an added edge to stay healthy.

On the other hand, a steady diet of high-fat and starchy foods, such as that double cheeseburger from a favorite fast-food joint, may eventually do the brain a serious disservice. On the extreme end of dieting, some research indicates that paring food intake to the bare minimum may protect the brain from a lifetime of everyday insults. …

Working with rats, [Fernando] Gómez-Pinilla (of UCLA) and his colleagues compared the effects of two diets. Both included healthy, low-fat chow. However, one diet contained 8 percent fish oil—the amount people would receive by eating fish about twice a week. After 4 weeks, Gómez-Pinilla's team subjected some of the rats to a mild percussion injury—a knock on the head in a machine specially designed to standardize the force of its blows.

The researchers tested all the animals a week later in a water maze to see how quickly the rats could learn the location of a platform hidden beneath the water's milky surface. They found that brain-injured rats fed the fish oil-supplemented diet found the platform's location in about two-thirds of the time it took the injured rats that ate the standard rat chow to do so. Surprisingly, Gómez-Pinilla says, the injured rats fed the fish oil mastered the maze almost as quickly as rats that weren't injured did.

He and his colleagues found that rats that had eaten unsupplemented chow had lower brain concentrations of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This compound encourages nerve cells to grow and make new connections. BDNF concentrations are typically low after the type of injury that the rats had experienced. In contrast, BDNF concentrations in rats fed fish oil were much like those in rodents that hadn't received brain injuries.

Gómez-Pinilla and other scientists have shown in previous studies that nerve cells produce BDNF when animals exercise. This protein may be a prime player in the neurological benefits that animals get from exercise. …

[Neuroscientist Greg M. Cole of UCLA] says that both fish oil and curcumin [from tumeric in curry] may eventually become widely used in preventing neurodegenerative diseases, while causing few side effects. …

[Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging] says that the reason calorie restriction seems to save neurons probably extends beyond simply protecting them from free radicals. Eating less cuts energy to all the body's cells, including those in the brain.

This mild stress makes brain cells more active and triggers production of protective proteins, such as BDNF and heat-shock protein. Mattson suggests that the lightly stressed neurons tend to cope better with more-severe stress—such as that imposed by neurological disease—than cells of animals on a steady diet do.

"When you put animals on dietary restriction, some studies suggest that their brains are more active because they're apparently looking for food," says Mattson.

Eat cocoa

From the Archives of Internal Medicine
In a cohort of elderly men, cocoa intake is inversely associated with blood pressure and 15-year cardiovascular and all-cause mortality.
In other words, eat cocoa and live longer. But the cause of longer life is not necessarily reduced blood pressure, although that too is a consequence of eating cocoa.

The present moment

From Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen.
Buddha-nature requires that we... completely be each moment, so that whatever activity we are engaged in—whether we're looking for a lost sheep, or waiting for a friend, or meditating—we are standing right here, right now, doing nothing at all.
From S.N. Goenka, The Art of Living
Yet surely this moment, now, is the most important for us. We cannot live in the past; it is gone. Nor can we live in the future; it is forever beyond our grasp. We can live only in the present. If we are unaware of our present actions, we are condemned to repeating the mistakes of the past and can never succeed in attaining our dreams for the future. But if we can develop the ability to be aware of the present moment, we can use the past as a guide for ordering our actions in the future, so that we may attain our goal.
Although I agree, my question is whether these writers were living in the present moment as they were writing these words.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Early Summers

Two bona fide liberals have come out in support of Larry Summers. See Camille Paglia's op-ed piece in the NY Times and Alan Dershowitz blog entry in the Huntington Post.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Selling diseased tissues for transplant

In Black Shrouds and Black Markets - New York Times, Susan Cooke Kittredge, minister of the Old Meeting House in East Montpelier, Vt. and daughter of Alistair Cooke, who died two years ago of bone cancer, writes about the stealing of her father's body.
The criminals in my father's case were apparently able to pull off multiple frauds. They forged his death certificate, medical history and family consent forms. A simple phone call to his next of kin would have revealed that these documents were false, but at no point in the chain did anyone audit them. Although it is illegal to buy and sell tissue, those involved may have managed this by exploiting a loophole that allows harvesters to charge an unspecified processing fee. And although the Food and Drug Administration forbids the transplant of tissue contaminated with malignant cancer, the tissue bank in question may not have run the mandatory tests. …

Thanks to advances in technology, the tissue-processing industry has expanded to make use not only of donated organs but also of muscle, bone, tendons and skin for research and transplant. But now prosecutors say that some people who desperately needed help were given diseased tissue and body parts. Already there are patients who say they have contracted syphilis and hepatitis from these transplants. Imagine for just a second, if you can bear it, being told by your doctor — as thousands of patients have been — that in retrospect they aren't exactly sure where the tissue they put in you came from. How could you run away from yourself fast enough? …

I've thought a lot about bodies over the last couple of months. I am not unfamiliar with dead bodies; I have watched autopsies, prayed over victims of fatal accidents, been in embalming rooms, funeral homes and emergency rooms and stood at many a graveside. I have counseled parishioners and families not to see our bodies as the core essence of who we are. Most of the time when I see a dead person, my reaction is: "Oh, not here anymore. Gone." I believe with all my heart that this is true. And though gone where, exactly, is less clear, gone to whom is pretty certain in my mind: gone to God.

The body we are left with is empty in the way that counts most. But we have loved that body in its particulars — perhaps the long fingers, the arch of the neck, the quirky smile, the strong arms, the face undone by tears. …

No doubt the recipients of illegally procured tissue continue to live in fear, while we, the families told that our loved ones' remains were stolen, remain haunted by the body's gruesome fate. Just last week I discovered the unsettling detail that it was my father's legs that were cut off and sold. To know his bones were sold was one thing, but to see him standing truncated before me is another entirely. …

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Exercise the mind

From Science News.
While exercise may be the path to looking great in a two-piece, everyone knows that it's also healthy for the body. It strengthens the heart and lungs, shores up thinning bones, and wards off a host of evils, including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. …

New research suggests that physical exercise encourages healthy brains to function at their optimum levels. Fitness prompts nerve cells to multiply, strengthens their connections, and protects them from harm. Benefits seem to extend to brains and nerves that are diseased or damaged. These findings could suggest new treatments for people with Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injuries. …

Out of the variety of neurotrophic factors released during exercise, however, scientists found that one in particular stood out: brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. This protein seems to act as a ringleader, both prompting brain benefits on its own and triggering a cascade of other neural health–promoting chemicals to spring into action.

"I think of BDNF as brain fertilizer. It's thrilling to see what it does to cells in culture," says Carl Cotman, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine. Sprinkling a dilute solution of BDNF onto neurons in a lab dish makes the cells "grow like crazy," he adds. The cells sprout branches prolifically and extend them rapidly.

Let's get physical
Knowing what BDNF can do to neurons in the lab, researchers wondered whether the BDNF that exercising animals produce has similar effects on neurons in their brains. If so, could these physical effects translate into behavioral ones, making the animals learn quicker and better?

In 1999, Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and his colleagues, including Salk's Henriette Van Praag, began exploring these questions. They studied two groups of healthy mice housed individually in cages that were identical except for one detail: One group of mice had running wheels.

"The mice just love [the wheel]. They run on it as soon as you put it in their cages," says Van Praag. "If you let them run as much as they want, they run all night long."

Over the next several weeks, the researchers kept track as the runners voluntarily racked up an average of 4 to 5 kilometers on their wheels every night. The scientists then tested whether the groups differed in how quickly each mouse solved a popular learning test known as the Morris water maze.

Although both groups of mice swam at about the same speed, Gage and his colleagues noticed that the runners learned the location of a platform hidden under the maze's opaque water significantly sooner than their less-fit counterparts did.

Dissections showed that the runners had about twice as many new brain neurons as the sedentary mice did. When the researchers tested individual neurons isolated from both groups, they discovered that neurons taken from the runners showed greater signs of strengthened connections and cellular learning.

In a related study published in 2004, Gage's team teased out the molecular factors responsible for the behavioral effects that come with exercise. The researchers provided a group of rats with running wheels and compared them with rats without access to the wheels. On average, the runners voluntarily racked up an astounding 48 km per day over the next several weeks.

When they dissected the rats' brains, Gage's team found changes similar to those that they'd seen in the previous study's mice: The runners had more new neurons and stronger connectivity, which is evidence of learning, than did the rats that didn't have running wheels. After examining the messenger RNA of both groups, an indicator of gene expression, the researchers found that the running rats had consistently higher activity in the gene that codes for BDNF than the nonrunners did.

Gómez-Pinilla and his colleagues added more evidence that BDNF is a primary source for the behavioral benefits of exercise. Like Gage's group, Gómez-Pinilla's team worked with rats that were either sedentary or had access to a running wheel. After a week, some members of each group began receiving daily injections of a drug that blocked the action of BDNF. The rest of the animals were injected daily for several days with a chemical called cytochrome-C, which isn't known to cause any physical or behavioral effects.

The researchers then tested all the animals on the Morris water maze. While runners receiving cytochrome-C excelled at the test, runners that received the chemical that blocked BDNF performed only as well as the sedentary mice did. Performance by the nonrunners was about the same, regardless of which injection they received. "If we block the action of BDNF, we block learning and memory," concludes Gómez-Pinilla.

Keep on moving
With mounting evidence of what exercise and its associated BDNF can do for healthy animals, researchers speculated that a similar mechanism could benefit animals and people stricken with neurological disease or injury. For example, in the April 27, 2005 Journal of Neuroscience, Cotman and his colleagues suggested that exercise could slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

In the study, Cotman's team worked with mice that were genetically predisposed to develop an Alzheimer's-like disease. When they're a few weeks old—that's young adulthood in mice—the rodents' brains start accumulating a protein known as beta-amyloid. In the brains of people with Alzheimer's, this protein surges to form thick plaques that are one of the hallmarks of the disease.

As in other exercise-related studies, Cotman housed Alzheimer's-prone mice individually in cages, some of which were equipped with running wheels. At the start of the experiment, the animals were around 1 month old. Alzheimer's-like symptoms "had barely started by then," says Cotman.

After 5 months, the researchers tested the animals in the Morris water maze. As in the earlier studies, the exercisers fared significantly better on that memory test than the sedimentary mice did.

However, in the "really exciting" part of the study, says Cotman, he and his colleagues dissected the animals' brains at 6 months of age to measure the beta-amyloid. They were surprised to find about half as much accumulation of the substance in the runners as in the nonrunners.

Cotman says that his team hasn't figured out how exercise reduces the buildup of amyloid-beta. But regardless of the mechanism, he notes that his results suggest that physical activity could eventually fight early Alzheimer's disease.

Exercise also shows promise in preventing Parkinson's-like symptoms from developing in animal models of that disease.

Surveys of lifestyle and health have suggested that people who exercise moderately, such as walking an hour each day, are less likely than others to develop Parkinson's disease. For the past 5 years, Michael Zigmond of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues have been experimenting with rats to explain this preventive effect.

In one study, the researchers forced healthy rats to exercise on a treadmill daily for a week. They then injected the animals with a chemical called 6-hydroxydopamine, which selectively kills dopamine-producing neurons. These cells also die in Parkinson's disease patients.

After several days, Zigmond's team examined the animals' brains. Compared with rats that received 6-hydroxydopamine but hadn't worked out on the treadmill, the exercisers lost fewer dopamine-producing neurons. Earlier studies had suggested that a protein called glial cell–derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) protects dopamine-producing neurons in patients with Parkinson's disease and that neurons produce GDNF, just as they do BDNF, in response to exercise. So, Zigmond proposes that GDNF protected brain cells in the rats that exercised. He described his team's findings at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in October 2005 in Washington, D.C.

Pathological Gambling Caused by Drugs Used to Treat Parkinson Disease

This has been in the news lately. This may be the original report.
Pathological gambling is a rare potential complication related to treatment of Parkinson disease (PD). However, the etiology of this behavior is poorly understood.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Bush lies again, but who's counting

This story reminds me of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11.

BBC New reports:
Video has been obtained by a US news agency showing President George W Bush being briefed by officials on the eve of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

The confidential video obtained by the Associated Press shows very strong warnings being given to Mr Bush about the potential strength of the storm.

It appears to contradict subsequent suggestions by the Bush administration that the threat had been unclear.
But according to Francis Fukuyama, Europe has nothing to be smug about.

Here's the full AP story. It begins as follows.
In dramatic and sometimes agonizing terms, federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees, put lives at risk in New Orleans' Superdome and overwhelm rescuers, according to confidential video footage.

The footage — along with seven days of transcripts of briefings obtained by The Associated Press — show in excruciating detail that while federal officials anticipated the tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, they were fatally slow to realize they had not mustered enough resources to deal with the unprecedented disaster.

Linked by secure video, Bush expressed a confidence on Aug. 28 that starkly contrasted with the dire warnings his disaster chief and numerous federal, state and local officials provided during the four days before the storm.

A top hurricane expert voiced "grave concerns" about the levees and then-
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown told the president and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that he feared there weren't enough disaster teams to help evacuees at the Superdome.

"I'm concerned about ... their ability to respond to a catastrophe within a catastrophe," Brown told his bosses the afternoon before Katrina made landfall.