Thursday, January 31, 2008

The proposed ScienceDebate is a significant political risk

The ScienceDebate2008 will not be a debate about science. And unfortunately, it poses a serious risk to those who care about science. The Republicans have done such a hatchet job on science over the past few decades that anyone laying out what one would normally think is a thoughtful position on science will be trashed by the right-wing echo chamber.

If the ScienceDebate2008 is going to succeed it will require not only thoughtful positions on science but science salesmanship. For a politician to risk debating science he or she will have to be prepared not only to have intelligent positions but also to mount a campaign to convince the uninformed that science matters. That's a big risk for politicians. Why should a politician who is ahead in the polls risk that? A politician who is ahead in the polls and who has an intelligent position on science already has the backing of those who respect science. So taking part in a debate won't help him/her. But it will open him/her up to right wing charges that might strip away support from those who are neither pro nor anti science but who support the candidate for other reasons. In other words, a ScienceDebate2008 may have the unintended consequence of weakening good candidates unless those candidates are prepared to campaign strongly for science and not just set out thoughtful positions.

New species of mammal found in Tanzania

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More on consciousness

I mentioned my Abstraction abstracted paper to the CAS group. In responding to one of the comments I wrote the following.
Thanks for looking at the paper. The issue I was attempting to address is what is abstraction. I don't think we have a good answer. We all regard it as very important—especially in software and computational thinking. If you were going to define abstraction, what would you say? That's where I was going.

It wasn't where I was planning to go. (I'm not sure I knew where I was planning to go when I started.) But I kept getting pushed in the direction of attempting to understand what we mean by abstraction. I would up by saying that "abstraction" and "concept" are more or less the same. One contribution of the article (if there is one) is that "concept" depends on consciousness. Of course there is a very large philosophical literature on conceptualization. I can't claim to know much of it. (For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this article on concepts, which I haven't mastered.) But it does seem to me to be useful to say that a concept is a distinction that one is aware of making or being able to make--and hence depends on some level of self-awareness. So a concept is our way of making discrete chunks out of our experience.

It's not clear how widespread the ability to form concepts is. For example, dogs can recognize their masters. So they have a concept (an abstraction) of their master in some sense. (So even proper nouns are abstractions—of the thing named.) But do we know whether dogs can mentally refer to their masters? Can a dog think to itself something like, "I wish my master were home so she could take me out for a walk." Or is that too abstract? So perhaps some animals have the ability to form concepts but not to manipulate them mentally? Obviously I don't have all the answers.
So I guess that one of the important characteristics of concepts/abstractions is the ability to manipulate them mentally, to think with them, to use them to model the world. Apparently this is discussed in Rational Animals? by Susan Hurley and Matthew Nudds (Eds), including this paper by Ruth Garrett Millikan.

A further thought. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Emergent phenomena are epiphenomenal. But we experience consciousness as real. (The qualia problem.) Why is that?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Squirrels use rattlesnake scent as camouflage and fake burying food

From Scientific American
California ground squirrels and rock squirrels from New Mexico have both shown the ability to chew up sloughed-off rattlesnake skin and smear it on their fur, thus masking their scent from one of their biggest predator threats.
In a recent paper, I suggested that a particularly human characteristic is the ability to reify experience as concepts. I can't argue that I know that no other creature has that ability, but I would guess that squirrels don't conceptualize what they are doing and don't "know" that they are rubbing rattlesnake scent on themselves—and especially don't know that they are doing so as camouflage.

Here's another example of squirrel intelligence.
To protect their winter food stocks from potential thieves, [grey squirrels] put on an elaborate show of burying non-existent nuts and seeds, a study has shown.

Scientists say the fake burials are designed to confuse any rival squirrels, birds or humans who might be watching.

The level of deception has astonished animal experts who say it shows a rare form of animal cunning and intelligence. …

The squirrels go to elaborate lengths to keep up the pretence of hiding food.

Once they have dug a small hole in a flower bed, woodland floor or lawn, they act as if they are thrusting a small object into the gap.

They complete the deception by covering the fake cache of food with a layer of soil or leaves.

The incidence of fake burials goes up when they think their food is under threat.

Dr Steele recruited a group of undergraduates to follow the squirrels and find out where they were burying food. The number of bogus interments shot up as soon as the human volunteers began to raid the food stocks - suggesting that the creatures were becoming even more deceptive as a reaction to the raids.

He believes that the bizarre behaviour suggests a far more advanced thought process for grey squirrels than scientist previously thought.

But experts are divided on whether the latest research means they are capable of reason or whether they simply get into routines which work for them.

Dr Lisa Leaver at the University of Exeter said: "They may just have learned through trial and error that certain behaviours protect their food from theft."
Do they know what they're doing?

Monday, January 28, 2008

More on consciousness

What does it mean to say that consciousness (really subjective experience) is an illusion? An illusion implies the ability to have illusions. So it doesn't make sense to me to say that consciousness (subjective experience) is an illusion. The experiencing of the illusion is subjective experience. Not quite Descartes, but close.

This isn't saying that I am proving my existence because I experience myself thinking. But it is saying the having of an illusion by definition is a phenomenon that requires consciousness.

It may also be that the experience of thinking (in Descartes' version) similarly (again by definition) establishes the existence of the thinker. That is if one grants that one experiences oneself thinking then by definition whatever is experiencing the thinking exists.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Obama Carries South Carolina by Wide Margin

More than half of the Democratic voters were African-American, and surveys of voters leaving the polls suggested that their heavy turnout helped propel Mr. Obama to victory.

Mr. Obama, who built an extensive grass-roots network across the state over the last year, received the support of about 80 percent of black voters, the exit polls showed. He also received about one-quarter of the white vote, with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards splitting the remainder.

In particular, Mr. Obama was helped by strong support from black women, who made up 35 percent of the voters. Mrs. Clinton, with the help of her husband, had competed vigorously for black women voters, but Mr. Obama received about 80 percent of their support, according to the exit polls, conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for the National Election Pool of television networks and The Associated Press.

'Telepathic' Genes Recognize Similarities In Each Other

From ScienceDaily (Jan. 26, 2008)
Genes have the ability to recognise similarities in each other from a distance, without any proteins or other biological molecules aiding the process, according to new research. This discovery could explain how similar genes find each other and group together in order to perform key processes involved in the evolution of species.

This new study shows that genes -- which are parts of double-stranded DNA with a double-helix structure containing a pattern of chemical bases - can recognise other genes with a similar pattern of chemical bases.

This ability to seek each other out could be the key to how genes identify one another and align with each other in order to begin the process of 'homologous recombination' -- whereby two double-helix DNA molecules come together, break open, swap a section of genetic information, and then close themselves up again.

Recombination is an important process which plays a key role in evolution and natural selection, and is also central to the body's ability to repair damaged DNA. Before now, scientists have not known exactly how suitable pairs of genes find each other in order for this process to begin. …

The researchers observed the behaviour of fluorescently tagged DNA molecules in a pure solution. They found that DNA molecules with identical patterns of chemical bases were approximately twice as likely to gather together than DNA molecules with different sequences.

Professor Alexei Kornyshev from Imperial College London, one of the study's authors, explains the significance of the team's results: 'Seeing these identical DNA molecules seeking each other out in a crowd, without any external help, is very exciting indeed. This could provide a driving force for similar genes to begin the complex process of recombination without the help of proteins or other biological factors. Our team's experimental results seem to support these expectations.'

[CAS-Group] Shadow emergence

There is a discussion of consciousness on the CAS mailing list. I posted the following.
On an abstract level I agree with Telmo that saying that consciousness emerges from neurons does not lead to a theoretical problem. The problem it seems to me is that we experience consciousness. The 'hard' problem is all about qualia, which is subjective experience. We don't have any way of explaining how that comes about. Either it's 'just' emergence, which doesn't provide a satisfying explanation for our subjective experience, or it's something else, which obviously doesn't explain anything.

The problem with subjective experience is that we all have it. It seems so real. Emergent phenomena don't quite have that quality of personal immediacy. Yes we see ant colonies doing their things. That's real. But it doesn't have the sting of a pin prick. It seems to me that it's at the level of understanding how qualia can seem as real as they do that we're stuck.

The 'emergence' answer is that it's all an illusion. But that's no answer. Other than saying that we are built so that we experience these emergence effects as subjective experience it doesn't seem like much of an explanation. Perhaps that's the best we will be able to do.

'The Mystery of APinker on why a scientific basis for consciousness provides a basis for morality

I just came across article from Time, reposted on a single page on It's Steven Pinker on consciousness. He discusses the "hard" and "easy problems"—with no resolution. At the end he makes the interesting claim that
the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It's not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings—the core of morality.

As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people's sentience becomes ludicrous. 'Hath not a Jew eyes?' asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew—or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog—a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.
Sounds like a good point. But is the denial of other people's capacity to suffer really getting in the way of morality? Now that I think about it, I doubt it. We may de-personalize other people, but that's an emotional reaction. I suspect that torturers don't deny the capacity of their victims to suffer. They are either turned on by it, or they repress it. But they don't deny it.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) supports Sciencedebate 2008

Sciencedebate 2008

Science and engineering have driven half the nation’s growth in GDP over the last half-century, and lie at the center of many of the major policy and economic challenges the next president will face. We feel that a presidential debate on science would be helpful to America’s national political dialogue.

-Alan Leshner

CEO, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
You can sign up to support it here. (No contribution requested.)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Some People Never Learn

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany have found a genetic factor that affects our ability to learn from our errors. The scientists demonstrated that men carrying the A1 mutation, which reduces the amount of dopamine D2 receptors in the brain, are less successful at learning to avoid mistakes than men who do not carry this genetic mutation. This finding has the potential to improve our understanding of the causes of addictive and compulsive behaviors.
Sounds bad, right? But what if it's put this way?
Some people do not give up even when they do not succeed. They refuse to accept defeat and continue to try even when common sense tells others there's no use in trying.
Here's the story.
Tilmann Klein and Dr. Markus Ullsperger at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, believe they have found the genetic cause for this "stubbornness". They discovered that a single genetic mutation can determine whether people repeat their mistakes. This mutation, named the A1 mutation, is found in about one-third of the population and causes a reduction in the amount of D2 receptors in the brain, which are the docking sites for dopamine.

Stimulate the economy by REPEALING Bush's tax cuts early!

Len Burman says:
[I]f they were repealed in a year, the Bush tax cuts could spur a burst of economic activity in 2008. If people knew that their tax rates were going up next year, they’d work to make sure that more of their income is taxed at this year’s lower rates. Investors would likewise have a giant incentive to cash out their capital gains now to avoid paying higher taxes later. In 1986, stock sales doubled as taxpayers rushed to avoid the capital gains tax rate increase scheduled for 1987. If people pour their stock gains into yachts and fast cars, that’s pure fiscal stimulus.

The money involved could be considerable. Capital gains in 2007 were something like $700 billion, representing well over $1 trillion in asset sales. It looks as if gains will be much lower in 2008, but a looming tax increase could easily spur an additional $500 billion in sales. If only 20 percent of that translated into extra spending, we’d have as much or more short-term stimulus as we could get from the package Congress and the president are considering.

Best of all, this is one stimulus proposal that would reduce the deficit — the single largest threat to the economy’s long-term health. And that long-term benefit wouldn’t depend on our getting the timing and amount of stimulus right, something policymakers are notoriously inept at.

What is wrong with the Congressional Democrats?

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities comments that
Changes reportedly made last night in the stimulus package would reduce its effectiveness as stimulus. Although the package includes a reasonably designed tax rebate, the two most targeted and economically effective measures under consideration — a temporary extension of unemployment benefits and a temporary boost in food stamp benefits — were zeroed out, apparently at the insistence of House Republican leaders.
What is wrong with the Democrats? They control both houses of Congress. They should be able to pass their own stimulus package without having to negotiate with the Republicans. If the Republicans filibuster it or the President vetoes it, it will be their necks. Given the panic about the economy, they wouldn't dare.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Did Bush steal the 2004 election?

I don't know what to make of this. Scoop: Election 2004: The Urban Legend
Figure 5. Unprecedented! That’s the only word necessary to show the dichotomy of 2004 – Bush losing actual votes in his base, rural America, while gaining an exponential increase in big cities.
claims that the 2004 election results were fraudulent.
Bush had not been a city-friendly President and he had not gone out of his way to help large cities with any initiatives of note. In our largest city, New York, things looked particularly bad. A 2003 poll showed that over 50% of the residents thought that the administration had foreknowledge of the 911 attacks and did nothing, hardly a predictor of great success in that largest of large cities.

But something very unusual happened. … According to the [National Election Pool], Bush made incredible gains in the cities over his 2000 vote share. These gains were large enough to offset his drop in core support in rural areas and give him a 3% victory.
It's strange to imagine that the Republicans would have the means to do this sort of manipulation in big cities, normally a Democratic stronghold. For a convincing case that this really does represent fraud and vote count manipulation I'd like to see a hypothesis about how this might have occurred mechanically. Even better, of course, would be actual evidence.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Republican politics at its best

From the
As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigned in South Carolina yesterday, he confronted crudely produced fliers attacking his war record and a blitz of robotic phone calls twisting his position on abortion, attacks he said were reminiscent of the political kneecapping he endured in the state eight years ago.
So McCain fights back. Of course you can guess what the South Carolina Republicans do. They attack him for fighting back!
While the McCain camp sent out e-mails immediately decrying the flier and the phone calls, his opponents questioned whether the senator's true intent was to bat down the attacks or if he is more interested in garnering sympathy and attention.
The Republican seem to find intellectual honesty impossibly hard. Someone who is intellectually honest will deal with issues and not make ad hominem attacks on the person taking the opposite side. But Republican can't bring themselves to operate that way. No matter what the issue, their strategy is always to attack the person arguing the other side. That's been the Bush strategy on Iraq for years. Don't defend your position; call your opponents traitors. When will we wake up to this? It's not all that complicated.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sun Buying MySQL

The New York Times reports that
Sun Microsystems … would spend $1 billion to buy MySQL, a Swedish company that is the world leader in open-source database software used by Internet powers like Google, Yahoo, MySpace and YouTube.
Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's CEO, is certainly committing Sun to being an open source software company. I don't know how that will fit into its continuing strategy of selling hardware.

I no longer have a clear sense of how to think about Sun as a company. What do you look to it for? It seems to me that this will be a significant challenge for Sun — to define itself as a brand. That seems like an awfully trendy thing to say, but I think that how Sun is perceived will be important to its future. Apple, for example, is transforming itself from a computer company to a consumer company in the realm of digital media. That's probably not the right description, but I think Steve Jobs knows the image he wants to create for Apple — and he is doing it quite well. I don't know where Jonathan Schwartz wants to take Sun. This isn't to say that he's doing the wrong thing, only that I don't see where he's going. I like Sun, and I hope that Schwartz is successful in his transformation.
Further thoughts. How about open sourcing their hardware as well! Of course they can't give it away. But they can open source the design, and they can arrange to make the hardware itself available at cost. If the price is low enough, that might attract enough independent users to make Sun a competitor to other general purpose platforms. (Now they are just competitors as corporate servers.) There is still money to be made in support, which is what their corporate customers want to pay for anyway.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Words of faith inflame Malaysia

From Asia Times Online
In a move that threatens to further inflame already mounting religious and ethnic tensions, the Malaysian government announced that certain Arabic words such as 'Allah' cannot be used in the literature, gospel and speeches of non-Muslim faiths.

Three other commonly used words ordered excluded from non-Muslim lexicon are 'Baitullah' (House of God), 'solat' (prayer) and 'Kaabah' (sacred house). …

"Only Muslims can use [the word] Allah. It's a Muslim word. It's from the Arabic language. We cannot let other religions use it because it will confuse people," deputy minister for internal security Johari Baharum told the press in explaining the rationale for the controversial decision. "We cannot allow this use of 'Allah' in non-Muslim publications; nobody except Muslims [can use it]. The word 'Allah' is published by the Catholics. It's not right," he said. …

"There is fear that the use of Arabic words common to Muslims and Christians aids proselytizing," said a Muslim cleric who asked not to be identified. "Muslims have long feared Christian proselytizing and the fear surfaced strongly after the Lina Joy case," the cleric added, referring to the case of Malay woman Azalina Jailani who converted to Christianity and was then subjected to a brutal legal battle that ended last year with the highest federal court ruling that the country's Muslims cannot legally leave their faith. …

It is considered an offence to proselytize among Muslims and punishment may include a fine or jail term. …
Apparently, the Christians accept the ban on proselytizing.
In a statement, the Christian Federation of Malaysia expressed "deep disappointment and regret" at the government's decision. "The words predate Islam and it is wrong to bar others from using them in private worship and internal Christian publications," said the federation's executive secretary, Reverend Herman Shastri.

"We never preach to Muslims and they should not worry," he said, rejecting the government's arguments for the policy.
Of course, it's no more about religion than the "values" debate in this country is — or about values either. It's "red states" against "blue states."
Political observers say political compulsions prompted the government to move ahead with the ban, even though it is clearly unpopular with non-Muslims minority groups. With general elections around the corner, they said, the government is appeasing the conservative Muslim majority to win political support at a time Abdullah's popularity is falling.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ability to track risk has shrunk forever!

Moody's says it can no longer track risks, according to Reuters.
The complexity of the global financial system and the imbalance of information available to market participants means the ability to track risk has declined 'probably forever', Moody's Investors Service said on Monday. 'It is extremely unlikely that in today's markets we will ever know on a timely basis where every risk lies,' analysts at the ratings agency, led by chief international economist Pierre Cailleteau, wrote in a report. …

"The problem in the case of extreme complexity of inter-connecting financial systems is that it is hard to see how the level of information could reach levels adequate to enable reasonable risk management standards," the agency said.

Ratings agencies have been viewed as one of the means for increasing information available in the market, but Moody's said this had proved "somewhat unrealistic when the incentive structure of (subprime) loan originators, subprime loan borrowers and market intermediaries also shifted in favour of less information".
Transparency is the new opaqueness.


I had never heard the word before, but it was apparently created three years ago. A snow clone is a recognizable verbal phrase with some components changed. The most widely use these day is X is the new Y. Here are all the "is the new" instances encountered by this web site in 2005.

There are lots of others listed here. Although it seems like a nice idea, after a while they get tedious.

Second Life must deal with banks

From the Official Linden Blog
Since the collapse of Ginko Financial in August 2007, Linden Lab has received complaints about several in-world “banks” defaulting on their promises. These banks often promise unusually high rates of L$ return, reaching 20, 40, or even 60 percent annualized.

Usually, we don’t step in the middle of Resident-to-Resident conduct – letting Residents decide how to act, live, or play in Second Life.

But these “banks” have brought unique and substantial risks to Second Life, and we feel it’s our duty to step in. Offering unsustainably high interest rates, they are in most cases doomed to collapse – leaving upset “depositors” with nothing to show for their investments. As these activities grow, they become more likely to lead to destabilization of the virtual economy. At least as important, the legal and regulatory framework of these non-chartered, unregistered banks is unclear, i.e., what their duties are when they offer “interest” or “investments.”

There is no workable alternative. The so-called banks are not operated, overseen or insured by Linden Lab, nor can we predict which will fail or when. And Linden Lab isn’t, and can’t start acting as, a banking regulator.

Some may argue that Residents who deposit L$ with these “banks” must know they’re assuming a big risk – the high interest rates promised aren’t guaranteed, and the banks aren’t overseen by Linden Lab or anyone else. That may be true. But for all of the other reasons we’ve set out above, we can’t let this activity continue.

Thus, as we did in the past with gambling, as of January 22, 2008 we will begin removing any virtual ATMs or other objects that facilitate the operation or facilitation of in-world “banking,” i.e., the offering of interest or a rate of return on L$ invested or deposited.
Second Life is a virtual world that allows participants to set up virtually whatever sorts of organizations and interactions they wish. They can even exchange virtual money for real money. But that leads to issues pertaining to real-life regulations. It also attracts confidence artists. So Linden is outlawing (or attempting to outlaw) interest as it outlawed gambling.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Do the humanities ennoble?

Stanley Fish asks an interesting question: does familiarity with the humanities make you a better person?
The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.
Fish answers in the negative by citing the example of professors of humanities.
If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge.
There are a few things to say about this.

First, is it true? Are professors of philosophy and literature no better as human beings than the average? Fish doesn't think so. I don't know.

Second, is it fair to expect them to be? I don't know about that either. I think it is fair to expect members of most other academic departments to be better at their subjects than the average person. The average Computer Science professor, for example, is almost certainly a better computer scientist than the average man on the street. But Fish acknowledges that the average professor of philosophy and literature is better at the work of analyzing philosophy and literature than the average person. Should one expect her also to be a better person? If familiarity with the humanities is supposed to make one a better person—as those who argue for the teaching of the humanities claim—is that an unfair expectation? I really don't know what to say about that?

I'd be interested in comments.

P.S. The image has nothing to do with the post other than that I was looking for a "humanities" image and liked this one.

Sniping, Emotional Clinton Mark NH Race. Really?

What a terrible AP story! The headline is as above. Here's the first paragraph.
Barack Obama, the new Democratic front-runner, told cheering supporters, 'You're the wave and I'm riding it.' Hillary Rodham Clinton, her voice breaking, told voters in a little cafe that her White House quest is not just political.
I guess she's just another emotional woman who can't take the pressure of major league politics.

Here are the final paragraphs of the story's Clinton coverage.
Later, during a meeting over coffee with undecided voters, a sympathetic voter asked how she keeps going. "It's not easy," she replied. "It's not easy."

"I've had so many wonderful opportunities in this country," she said, her voice catching. "This is very personal for me. It's not just political. It's not just public."
So her honesty and feeling for the country was turned by the reporter into a weakness. That's terrible reporting!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Belief is so complicated

An article in the New York Times discusses Mormonism and Romney. The primary focus is on how the rest of the country treats Mormonism. It's worth reading. But I want to comment on how religious beliefs seem to make life so much more complex than it need be. And I don't mean complex in the sense of richness but complex in the sense of unnecessarily and overly complicated.
Faced with the allegation that they do not believe in the same God as ordinary Protestants, or that their beliefs are not truly Christian, Mormons find themselves in an extraordinarily awkward position.
This reminds me of the recent story that the Malaysian government objected to the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims when referring to non-Islamic gods. They claim that Allah refers to the god of Islam and not to the Christian god. Christians and Muslims all claim to believe not only in "one God" but in the same "one God." Yet at least some of them want to restrict a word to be used as a reference to their "one God" and not to the other "one God," who is presumably the same as their own "one God." Do they really worry about keeping it straight?
Romney has felt the need to minimize the centrality of Mormon scripture by saying that he reads the Gideon Bible when he is alone in his hotel room on the campaign trail.

The formulation may be seen as a clever hedge: to the ordinary Protestant listener, it sounds as if Romney is saying that he reads the same Bible that they do. To the Mormon insider, however, Romney is simply saying that when he travels to the hotel and finds himself, presumably, without a handy copy of the Book of Mormon, he reads the text of the Bible that can be found in the drawer beside the bed. Some LDS insiders have been heard to wonder quietly how Romney could come to be traveling without his own copy of the Mormon scriptures — or why he isn’t staying in Marriott hotels, where the Book of Mormon can be found in the nightstand drawer alongside the bible.
This is the same issue but approached with more subtlety. Heresy, I suppose, has always been a problem for people who feel strongly about what other people believe. But that makes life so difficult for them. First of all, one has to spend the time to figure out what the other person believes and whether it is different in important ways from what one believes oneself. This may matter when beliefs determine action: I'll shoot you if you do this or don't do that. But in the case of Mormonism vs. mainline Christianity we're not talking about actions. We're talking about beliefs that (a) are basically the same — they all believe in a trinitarian "one God" — and (b) by definition are outside the realm of evidence and verifiability in any case — or they would be science, which they aren't.

It's my understanding, based on conversations with someone who is very committed to religion, that belief is not the essence of religion, that belief is a final step in adopting a religion, not a first step. The essence of religion is a search for a connection to something fundamental. The connection is an experience, not a fact claim. Beliefs as fact claims may arise from the experience, but they aren't the experience. In my opinion it's unfortunate when people attempt to express a religious experience as a fact claim. It's really just an experience. So the fact claims are (or should be) secondary. (There's a good Buddhist story about this. Someone sees a glimmering of fundamental reality. Mara, who is cynical about mankind and doesn't wish us well, is asked by his attendants whether it worries him that the man has seen a bit of reality. His answer is "No" because the man will just turn it into a belief. I quote the whole thing, which is not much longer, at the bottom of this post.)

So many people put so much weight on variants in statements of belief. It seems so strange to see people who claim to hold the same fundamental beliefs finding themselves so at odds about the details. It seems to make their lives so unnecessarily complex.

Hail Britannia

From Times Online
LIVING standards in Britain are set to rise above those in America for the first time since the 19th century, according to a report by the respected Oxford Economics consultancy.

The calculations suggest that, measured by gross domestic product per capita, Britain can now hold its head up high in the economic stakes after more than a century of playing second fiddle to the Americans.

It says that GDP per head in Britain will be £23,500 this year, compared with £23,250 in America, reflecting not only the strength of the pound against the dollar but also the UK economy’s record run of growth and rising incomes going back to the early 1990s.

Clinton meltldown? Clinton shrillness? I think it's Clinton strength.

This is the segment about change that Hilary Clinton has been criticized for. I think she shows strength. I don't like the way the media appear to be ganging up on her. I hope there is a backlash and that she gets a sympathy bounce.

I haven't yet decided whom to support. Obama is attractive. But I haven't seen any particular depth of intelligence in anything he's said so far. (I haven't been paying that much attention to anything anyone has been saying, though. So it may be there.) I like his ability to refrain (for the most part) from attacking and his tendency toward conciliation. Perhaps he can be successful. But Clinton has already demonstrated that ability for quite a few years in the Senate.

By the way, when Bill Richardson entered the race, I saw and loved his initial ad.

I even sent him some money. Since then, though, he hasn't said anything interesting as far as I'm concerned. He hasn't said anything wrong, but nothing worth particularly original or worth thinking about.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Daniel Gilbert changed his mind about the value of being able to change your mind

Six years ago, I changed my mind about the benefit of being able to change my mind.

In 2002, Jane Ebert and I discovered that people are generally happier with decisions when they can't undo them. When subjects in our experiments were able to undo their decisions they tended to consider both the positive and negative features of the decisions they had made, but when they couldn't undo their decisions they tended to concentrate on the good features and ignore the bad. As such, they were more satisfied when they made irrevocable than revocable decisions. Ironically, subjects did not realize this would happen and strongly preferred to have the opportunity to change their minds.

Now up until this point I had always believed that love causes marriage. But these experiments suggested to me that marriage could also cause love. If you take data seriously you act on it, so when these results came in I went home and proposed to the woman I was living with. She said yes, and it turned out that the data were right: I love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend.

The willingness to change one's mind is a sign of intelligence, but the freedom to do so comes at a cost.

Snorting a Brain Chemical Could Replace Sleep

A nasal spray of a key brain hormone cures sleepiness in sleep-deprived monkeys. With no apparent side effects, the hormone might be a promising sleep-replacement drug.

In what sounds like a dream for millions of tired coffee drinkers, Darpa-funded scientists might have found a drug that will eliminate sleepiness.

A nasal spray containing a naturally occurring brain hormone called orexin A reversed the effects of sleep deprivation in monkeys, allowing them to perform like well-rested monkeys on cognitive tests. The discovery's first application will probably be in treatment of the severe sleep disorder narcolepsy.

The treatment is 'a totally new route for increasing arousal, and the new study shows it to be relatively benign,' said Jerome Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a co-author of the paper. 'It reduces sleepiness without causing edginess.'

Orexin A is a promising candidate to become a 'sleep replacement' drug. For decades, stimulants have been used to combat sleepiness, but they can be addictive and often have side effects, including raising blood pressure or causing mood swings. The military, for example, administers amphetamines to pilots flying long distances, and has funded research into new drugs like the stimulant modafinil (.pdf) and orexin A in an effort to help troops stay awake with the fewest side effects.

The monkeys were deprived of sleep for 30 to 36 hours and then given either orexin A or a saline placebo before taking standard cognitive tests. The monkeys given orexin A in a nasal spray scored about the same as alert monkeys, while the saline-control group was severely impaired.

The study, published in the Dec. 26 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, found orexin A not only restored monkeys' cognitive abilities but made their brains look "awake" in PET scans.

Siegel said that orexin A is unique in that it only had an impact on sleepy monkeys, not alert ones, and that it is "specific in reversing the effects of sleepiness" without other impacts on the brain.

Such a product could be widely desired by the more than 70 percent of Americans who the National Sleep Foundation estimates get less than the generally recommended eight hours of sleep per night (.pdf).

The research follows the discovery by Siegel that the absence of orexin A appears to cause narcolepsy. That finding pointed to a major role for the peptide's absence in causing sleepiness. It stood to reason that if the deficit of orexin A makes people sleepy, adding it back into the brain would reduce the effects, said Siegel.

"What we've been doing so far is increasing arousal without dealing with the underlying problem," he said. "If the underlying deficit is a loss of orexin, and it clearly is, then the best treatment would be orexin."

Dr. Michael Twery, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, said that while research into drugs for sleepiness is "very interesting," he cautioned that the long-term consequences of not sleeping were not well-known.

Both Twery and Siegel noted that it is unclear whether or not treating the brain chemistry behind sleepiness would alleviate the other problems associated with sleep deprivation.

"New research indicates that not getting enough sleep is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders," said Twery.

Still, Siegel said that Americans already recognize that sleepiness is a problem and have long treated it with a variety of stimulants.

"We have to realize that we are already living in a society where we are already self-medicating with caffeine," he said.

He also said that modafinil, which is marketed as Provigil by Cephalon and Alertec in Canada, has become widely used by healthy individuals for managing sleepiness.

"We have these other precedents, and it's not clear that you can't use orexin A temporarily to reduce sleep," said Siegel. "On the other hand, you'd have to be a fool to advocate taking this and reducing sleep as much as possible."

Sleep advocates probably won't have to worry about orexin A reaching drugstore shelves for many years. Any commercial treatment using the substance would need approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which can take more than a decade.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Piet Hut on Explanations

Piet Hut on Explanations
So for each insight there is at least some explanation possible, but the same explanation may then be given for radically different insights. There is nothing that cannot be explained, but there are wrong insights that can lead to explanations that are identical to the explanation for a correct but rather subtle insight.
I think that the reason there can (almost) always be an explanation is that if an idea makes sense in one person's mind, it is an idea that can make sense in a human mind. Therefore unless the mind in which it makes sense is so enormously different from other minds, it should be possible to convey that idea to other minds. The trick, of course, is to figure out what to say so that the right idea forms in the in of another.

Dynamic entities

Tor Nørretranders has a poetic description of dynamic entities in his answer to this year's Edge question.
My body is not like a typical material object, a stable thing. It is more like a flame, a river or an eddie. Matter is flowing through it all the time. The constituents are being replaced over and over again.

A chair or a table is stable because the atoms stay where they are. The stability of a river stems from the constant flow of water through it.

98 percent of the atoms in the body are replaced every year. 98 percent! Water molecules stays in your body for two weeks (and for an even shorter time in a hot climate), the atoms in your bones stays there for a few months. Some atoms stay for years. But almost not one single atom stay with you in your body from cradle to grave.

What is constant in you is not material. An average person takes in 1.5 ton of matter every year as food, drinks and oxygen. All this matter has to learn to be you. Every year. New atoms will have to learn to remember your childhood.

These numbers has been known for half a century or more, mostly from studies of radioactive isotopes. Physicist Richard Feynman said in 1955: "Last week's potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in your mind a year ago."

But why is this simple insight not on the all-time Top 10 list of important discoveries?
To see my discussion of static vs. dynamic entities see "Emergence Explained" and "If a tree casts a shadow is it telling the time?"

Two interesting books

An interview with Rachel Hertz on The Scent of Desire.

Brian Doherty's review of David Cay Johnston survey of how government interference in the market privileges the privileged.

What Have You Changed Your Mind About?

Sean Carroll, the Caltech physicist, distills what he thinks are the most interesting answers to this question from Edge.
This year, the Edge World Question Center asks people what they have changed their minds about. Here are excerpts from some of the most interesting answers.
There's just way too much to read.

P.S. There are two Sean Carroll's, the physicist (to the right) and the evolutionary biologist (below).

The imagination of cosmologists

How do they come up with this stuff? First there was the big bang. Then inflation. Now Paul Steinhardt talks about a string theory version of a cyclical universe with branes banging together every few trillion years like a cosmic hand-clap. Unbelievable.

His book is Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang.

Matthew Yglesias takes a surprisingly moderate view on Romney

Romney and Institutional Power
[O]ne thing I can say about him is that there's some indication he might make an okay president. He ran a successful business. He managed the Olympics well. He took over a state that enjoyed a high standard of living and during his years of governor it continued to enjoy a high standard of living and he never tried to do anything crazy. He's taken a lot of repugnant stands in the campaign, but that's clearly because he's telling people what he thinks they want to hear. When he thoughts his constituents wanted to hear about gay equality and a women's right to choose he said that stuff, too. He's a giant phony. But also a technocrat with some record of competence -- basically a risk-averse guy who knows what he's doing and understands how to color between the lines. It's impossible to imagine him being a great president, but it's relatively easy to imagine him being an okay president.

The rate of scientific progress

Responsible Nanotechnology has this New Year's thought.
It stuns me to realize that less than a century ago most scientists believed that our galaxy -- the Milky Way -- was, in fact, the entire universe. Let's go back to the early 1920's...

At that time, the prevailing view of the cosmos was that the universe consists entirely of the Milky Way galaxy. Using the Hooker Telescope, Hubble identified Cepheid variables in several objects, including the Andromeda Galaxy, which at that time were known as 'nebulae' and had been assumed to lie within the Milky Way. His observations in 1922–1923 conclusively proved that these objects were much more distant than previously thought and were hence galaxies themselves, rather than constituents of the Milky Way. Announced on January 1, 1925, this discovery fundamentally changed the view of the universe.

Just 83 years ago, today. That's all.

Think about it. That means that the size of the recognized universe has expanded by billions of times in the last century. Meanwhile, of course, we've also learned much more about the inner workings of the universe -- of subatomic particles and fundamental forces -- knowledge that was nearly non-existent not long ago.

Now, if you consider how much we've learned since then, when you realize that a large proportion of what we now deem to be scientific truth is only recently discovered -- that is, within the last century -- then it has to make you wonder how much more we will learn in the next 83 years.

No reincarnation without permission

In The Quiet Heroes of Tibet - The New York Review of Books Pankaj Mishra reports that
In August this year, the officially atheist Chinese regime passed legislation effectively banning Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnation without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which stimulates the procedures for rebirth, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation."

UK drops the term "war on terror"

As an apparent afterthought at the bottom of an article about Afghanistan, the Daily Mail reports.
The words 'war on terror' will no longer be used by the Government to describe attacks on the public, the chief prosecutor said yesterday.

Sir Ken Macdonald said terrorist fanatics were not soldiers fighting a war but simply members of an aimless 'death cult'.

The Director of Public Prosecutions said: 'We resist the language of warfare, and I think the Government has moved on this. It no longer uses this sort of language. London is not a battlefield.

'The people who were murdered on July 7 were not the victims of war. The men who killed them were not soldiers. They were fantasists, narcissists, murderers and criminals and need to be responded to in that way.'

His remarks signal a change in emphasis across Whitehall, where the 'war on terror' language has officially been ditched.

Officials were concerned it could act as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, which is determined to manufacture a battle between Islam and the West.

The term 'Islamic terrorist' will also no longer be used. Officials believe it is unhelpful because it appears to directly link the religion to terrorist atrocities.
What's interesting about this is that as far as I can tell it was reported only in this apparently tabloid-style newspaper. Other items on the page were of the order of this. Lindsay Lohan kisses THREE men in 24 hours... and one gets lucky.

In the mainstream world, Matthew Yglesias seems to have been the first to notice—not Lindsay Lohan.

The Republican Road to Nowhere

If only I had more faith in David Brooks.
The Republican Party is more unpopular than at any point in the past 40 years. Democrats have a 50 to 36 party identification advantage, the widest in a generation. The general public prefers Democratic approaches on health care, corruption, the economy and Iraq by double-digit margins. Republicans’ losses have come across the board, but the G.O.P. has been hemorrhaging support among independent voters. Surveys from the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post, Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University show that independents are moving away from the G.O.P. on social issues, globalization and the roles of religion and government.