Category Archives: Science & Ideas

Stories of Your Life – Ted Chiang (2002)

I know I’m arriving very late at the party on this one, but only recently discovered Ted Chiang, a celebrated science fiction short story writer who’s been publishing since the early 1990s. His collection “Stories of Your Life” gathered up his work as of 2002, and it’s pretty great stuff.

I think my favorite was “Story of Your Life” which concerns attempts to establish communications with an alien race. The main idea is that there can be completely different ways of looking at the universe, and these viewpoints could result in very different linguistic approaches (as well as different ways of behaving). This makes the story sound very abstract, and while I suppose in some ways it is, it’s also very readable and easy to approach (as are just about all the stories).

Lethem on P.K. Dick & more

Found this interview at H+ between Erik Davis and novelist Jonathan Lethem, mostly on P.K. Dick but I found this Q/A on ‘the singularity’ interesting:

ED: For proponents of the Singularity, we are on the verge of massive technological transformations that involve some version of artificial or machine intelligence. Dick had a very particular take on intelligent machines, like Joe Chip‘s conapt or suitcase psychiatrists. While these devices are clearly fantastic and absurd, they also express some real insight and concerns about the cultural consequences of machine intelligence. Does Dick‘s take seem relevant now, thirty years later? What would he say to our contemporary gadget fetishism and addiction to information machines?

JL: My best guess about such matters is that each technological transformation, up to and perhaps including the Singularity, is going to work itself out vis-à-vis “the human” according to the deep principles of all media. Defined in its largest sense, as including things like cinema, theory, drugs, computing, moving type, music, etcetera, media is utterly consciousness-transforming in ways we can no longer competently examine, given how deeply they‘ve pervaded and altered the collective and individual consciousness that would be the only possible method for making that judgment. And yet -— we still feel so utterly human to ourselves, and the proof is in the anthropomorphic homeliness that pervades the ostensibly exalted “media” in return. We humanize them, shame them, colonize and debunk them with our persistent modes of sex and neurosis and community and commerce. We turn them into advertisements for ourselves, rather than opportunities for shedding ourselves. At least so far.

The Mind and the Brain

I’ve been reading a number of things lately about the mind (our subjective experience) and the brain, and how they inter-relate.  Some scientists seem perfectly comfortable with simply stating that the mind can be equated to brain-states, and this may be true (I don’t think we really know, though the scientific position rejects the dualistic approach that posits the mind as something more or different from the brain).  But even so, certainly my experience of mind is not an experience of brain-states, it is about concepts like attention, memory, feeling, etc.  I am particularly interested in scientific study of how intentional mind-states have impact on the brain (and thus have known physical effects), even if we don’t really understand what ‘attention’ actually is.

Here’s some material from a book I’ve been reading called Train Your Mind Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley which reports on some recent neuroscience findings (it’s in fact a summary of findings that were presented to the Buddhist community  including the Dalai Lama in a series of workshops).  Many of the findings are with regard to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to various stimuli.  But this one stuck out in my mind (page 158):

Attention is also, as it happens, indispensable for neuroplasticity. Nowhere was that shown more dramatically than in one of Mike Merzenich’s experiments with monkeys. The scientists rigged up a device that tapped the animals’ fingers one hundred minutes a day every day for six weeks.  At the same time as this bizarre dance was playing on their fingers, the monkeys listened to sounds over headphones. Some of the monkeys were taught, pay attention to what you feel on your fingers, such as when the rhythm changes, we’ll reward you with a sip of juice; don’t pay attention to the sounds. Other monkeys were taught, pay attention to the sound, and if you indicate when it changes, you’ll get juice. At the end of six weeks, the scientists compared the monkeys’ brains. Let me underline that every monkey, whether trained to pay attention to what it was hearing or what it was feeling on its fingers, had the exact same physical experience – sounds coming in through headphones plus taps on its fingers. The only thing that made one monkey different from another was what it paid attention to.

Usually, when a particular spot on the skin suddenly begins receiving unusual amounts of stimulation, its representation in the somatosensory cortex expands. That was what Mike Merzenich discovered in his monkeys. But when the monkeys paid attention to what they heard rather than to what they felt, there was no change in the somatosensory cortex – no expension of the region that handles input from the finger feeling the flutter.

It goes on to state that the stimuli that was attended to produced more brain resources going to that stimuli, and not to the one that was ignored.  So in some sense it appears that ‘attention’ can be a part of what shapes our brain, and that since we can direct our attention, there may be ways to consciously direct the development of brain resources.

Now in some ways this finding seems completely obvious.  Clearly when we’re in school, we tend to learn those things which we pay attention to… if you attend a foreign language class and don’t pay attention, you may pick up a few words, but will not learn much.  This just confirms that there’s an actual physical result from the conscious attention.  The interesting questions to me are what techniques can be used to direct attention in the most effective way to achieve one’s goals and desires.

Also it seems to me that as more brain resources are trained on particular tasks, the task moves from one that requires conscious attention to being more of a background, autonomous process, allowing the conscious attention to move to other areas.

Natural-Born Cyborgs – Andy Clark (2003)

The author of Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark, is more philosopher than science fiction writer, though as the cover indicates he does cover some pretty far out technology in this book.  He’s most interested in the notion of the ‘expanded mind’, by that meaning the way we incorporate not only biological but also technological tools to navigate in the world.  By this he means not just the cinematic cyborg concepts like implants into the brain, but also simpler tools like pen and paper, and anything else we use either consciously or unconsciously.  I found this book really interesting for a number of reasons, and I’ll try to cover a few high points.

1.  On language:
“The deepest contributions of speech and language to human thought, however, may be something so large and fundamental that it is sometimes hare to see it at all! For it is our linguistic capacities, I have long suspected, that allow us to think and reason about our own thinking and reasoning. And it is this capacity, in turn, that may have been the crucial foot-in-the-door for the culturally transmitted process of designer-environment construction: the process of deliberately building better worlds to think in.” (p. 78).  What he’s getting at here is language as a tool that gives us the ability to examine concepts and generate ideas that could not have been conceived of without language.

In a somewhat similar fashion he mentions how we use mathematical shortcuts and paper-based tools to, for example, multiply two large numbers, like 147 * 382.  Most of us cannot do that calculation in our heads, but with a piece of paper and a pencil and the mental math tools of breaking the problem down into simple integer multiplication (7 * 2, then 7* 8, etc.) we can solve the problem.  So is the calculation simply in our head, or is it in fact a collaboration of brain and pencil and paper (or these days brain and calculator).  The tools expand our mental universe, give us access to areas that we could not get to without them.

2. On extended mental worlds, Alzheimer’s example:
“These patients were a puzzle because althoushould not have been able to do sogh they still lived alone, successfully, in the city, they really should not have been able to do so. On standard psychological tests they performed rather dismally. They should have been unable to cope with the demands of daily life. What was going on? A sequence of visits to their home environments provided the answer. These home environments, it transpired, were wonderfully calibrated to support and scaffold these biological brains. The homes were stuffed full of cognitive props, tools and aids. Examples included message centers where they stored notes about what to do and when; photos of family and friends complete with indications of names and relationships; lables and pictures on doors; [etc.]” (p. 140).

Here again he is making the point that we put ‘intelligence’ out in our environment, and our brains and bodies work with these tools to make sense of the world.  Note that none of this involves ‘biological implants’ but in principle these too are tools that can feed us more useful information, just the way a cane can provide information to a blind person.

3. The extended mind:
“What we really need to reject, I suggest, is the seductive idea that these various neural and nonneural tools need a kind of privileged user. Instead, it is just tools all the way down. Some of those tools are indeed more closely implicated in our conscious awareness of the world than others. But those elements, taken on their own, would fall embarrassingly short of reconstituting any recognizable version of a human mind or an individual person. Some elements, likewise are more important to our sense of self and identity than others. Some elements play larger roles in control and decision making than others. But this divide, like the ones before it, tends to crosscut the inner and the outer, the biological and the nonbiological.” (p 137).

“Tools-R-Us. But we are prone, it seems, to a particularly dangerous kind of cognitive illusion. Because our best efforts at watching our own minds in action reveal only the conscious flow of ideas and decisions, we mistakenly identify ourselves with the stream of conscious awareness.” (p. 137).

There is plenty more to chew on in this book.  This argument about the extended mind is similar to the points made by Alva Noe in his book Out of Our Heads.

What color are you?

In today’s NYT Business Section, in a story on the Jobs page titled “Workplace Gossip? Keep It To Yourself” by Shayla McKnight, I found this bit about an online printing company quite interesting:

When employees are hired here, they’re given a communications assessment, a commercial program that the company uses to pinpoint a person’s dominant communications style. The styles are linked to colors that identify how each employee likes to communicate.

If someone is a “red,” for example, he or she appreciates when others are direct and state the facts quickly. A person who’s a “blue” enjoys having all the details, and time to process them. A “yellow” is spontaneous and likes a personal connection.

I’m a “green.” That means I’m sensitive and like to be approached as courteously as possible; greens tend to be compassionate and supportive.

Nameplates on our desks have a color bar to identify our styles, or we can easily find them in a company database. This system lets everyone know how co-workers prefer to be approached, and it goes a long way in promoting harmony. If I don’t know someone’s style, I check before I visit his or her office or send an e-mail message.

I’ve never seen a company that does this, but it’s intriguing.  Do people actually adjust their own style of communication when speaking to someone self-identified as another color?  From this description, I’d have to go with  blue for myself, with a little red mixed in… does that make me a purple?

You get what you expect?

Interesting article from Wired’s Steve Silberman on the apparently increasing placebo effect.  He concludes:

Ironically, Big Pharma’s attempt to dominate the central nervous system has ended up revealing how powerful the brain really is. The placebo response doesn’t care if the catalyst for healing is a triumph of pharmacology, a compassionate therapist, or a syringe of salt water. All it requires is a reasonable expectation of getting better. That’s potent medicine.

So think positive!

LED bike lights from MonkeyLectric

Just found out about these from a twitter post – pretty amazing!  The company that makes this is MonkeyLectric based in Berkeley, CA.  Here’s a cool gallery of wheel images from a Portland rider.   Here’s a cool video that shows off some of the more sophisticated stuff they can do – check it out!

Genetics impasse?

A quick note on an NYT story today, front pager “Genes Show Limited Value in Predicting Diseases” by Nicholas Wade.  The lead:

The era of personal genomic medicine may have to wait. The genetic analysis of common disease is turning out to be a lot more complex than expected.

Since the human genome was decoded in 2003, researchers have been developing a powerful method for comparing the genomes of patients and healthy people, with the hope of pinpointing the DNA changes responsible for common diseases.

This method, called a genomewide association study, has proved technically successful despite many skeptics’ initial doubts. But it has been disappointing in that the kind of genetic variation it detects has turned out to explain surprisingly little of the genetic links to most diseases.

Can’t say I’m all that surprised.  I think in recent years the “man=computer” and “genes=software” metaphors have been way overdone, leading people to think that ‘cracking’ the genome would explain everything.  While it’s surely important, and study should continue, I think there’s got to be a whole lot more going on.

In related news, this post from Boing Boing is interesting… “Our ‘Missing’ Chromosomes” on the evidence of better explained linkage between human and ape genes, indicating that in humans chromosomes may have fused together which are separate in apes.

Solar Cooking Innovation

Via Boing Boing I caught this story on a simple invention that uses solar energy to create enough heat to boil water and bake bread.  Here’s an excerpt:

The ingeniously simple design uses two cardboard boxes, one inside the other, and an acrylic cover that lets in the sun’s rays and traps them.

Black paint on the inner box, and silver foil on the outer one, help concentrate the heat. The trapped rays make the inside hot enough to cook casseroles, bake bread and boil water.

What the box also does is eliminate the need in developing countries for rural residents to cut down trees for firewood. About 3 billion people around the world do so, adding to deforestation and, in turn, global warming.

By allowing users to boil water, the simple device could also potentially save the millions of children who die from drinking unclean water.

Read the whole story here: “Inventor turns cardboard boxes into eco-friendly oven”.

Out of Our Heads – Alva Noë (2009)

Last night I went to a new book event at Powell’s City of Books, for the publication of Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads. Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at Berkeley, and his book is really trying to re-define the cognitive science approach to consciousness – not to deny that the brain is an important part of the picture, but to broaden the conception of consciousness out much wider.  He likens it to moving from a physics/chemistry type of approach to a more biological approach, where you focus on a complete entity in its environment rather than going reductionist. He feels the concentration on the neural basis approach actually doesn’t present anything new, because in a sense it’s just a new way of restating what Descartes wrote – that there’s something inside us that is a ‘thinking thing’.  We still don’t really know what that ‘thing’ is, and Noë is trying to reject the notion in any case.

Summing it up from the book:

I seek to demonstrate that the brain is not the locus of consciousness inside us because consciousness has no locus inside us. Consciousness isn’t something that happens inside us; it is something that we do, actively, in our dynamic interaction with the world around us.  The brain – that particular bodily organ – is certainly critical to understanding how we work.  I would not wish to deny that.  But if we want to understand how the brain contributes to consciousness, we need to look at the brain’s job in relation to the larger nonbrain body and the environment in which we find ourselves.  I urge that it is a body- and world-involving conception of ourselves that the best new science as well as philosophy should lead us to endorse.

Afterwards I got a book signed, and mentioned to him my parallel observation with regard to computers.  One can truly say that computers just boil down to 0’s and 1’s – but that explains almost nothing about what is interesting about computers, nor does it predict anything about what will be done with them (nor could you understand much what a computer is doing by simply monitoring the 0’s and 1’s at points within the chips).  He agreed, and spoke of the fact that computers have these various levels of abstraction, where programming languages work high above the 0’s and 1’s.  We concluded that both computers and people are ‘programmable’ – and that the programming clearly involves all sorts of interactions with ‘the world’.

Update:  Here’s a link to a video interview with transcription, to get a quick overview.