Showing posts from August, 2018

Rosy Fingered Dawn

... is one of the famous Homeric epithets.   I happened to be up early today and noticed the pink fingers of dawn quite prominent in the morning sky.  A closer look revealed that the pink fingers were in fact jet contrails illuminated by red morning light filtered through a dusty atmosphere. So what were they in Homer's day?

The Conservative Position

... you are too deficient too know, or (it would appear) even to care, what "conservatives" think....... William Connolley, addressing your (no doubt insufficiently) humble correspondent. Well, yes, Mr. , er, Dr., Connolley has managed to irk me.  Fair enough, I suppose, since I suppose I have done the same by abusing some of his sacred bovines.  A couple of his changes of subject later, he further accuses me of ignorance of the conservative position.  Of course that was never the subject of my post - I was talking about mutual opinions of conservatives and liberals, and, more importantly, their neural substrates.  However, WC is rarely guilty of either that foolish consistency that Emerson called the hobgoblin of little minds or any other kind of logical consistency. Of course it's true that I don't know what conservatives think, though I think the functional MRI brain studies provide some strong hints.  So, I imagine, are the actual words of those selfsame con

Of Mice and Men

If you bite into rancid food, the insula activates, just as in every other mammal. You wrinkle your nose, raise your upper lip, narrow your eyes, all to protect mouth, eyes, and nasal cavities. Your heart slows. You reflexively spit out the food, gag, perhaps even vomit.  Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 713). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  Man and mouse activate the same or at least analogous neural circuits in these reactions.  Humans do the same if they witness or think of something they find morally or esthetically disgusting.  Mice, probably not.

The Rich

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me................  F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Rich Boy . Hemingway heard and borrowed critic Mary Colum's rejoinder to the effect that the only difference was that they had more money.  Robert Sapolsky takes a look at the data and the neurobiology.  It seems that the answer is both no and yes.  ...when it comes to empathy and compassion, rich people tend to suck. This has been explored at length in a series of studies by Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley. Across the socioeconomic spectrum, on the average, the wealthier people are, the less empathy they report for people in distress and the less compassionately they act. Moreover, wealthier people are less adept at recognizing other people’s emotions and in experimental settings are greedier and more likely to cheat or steal. Two of the findings were picked up by the media as irresistible: (a) wealthier people (as assessed by the cost of the car they were drivi

The Rational Animal

Plato and Aristotle get credit for propagating the notion than man is "the rational animal."  The main problem with this idea is that detailed psychological studies show that it is a myth.  It's true that people, or at least some of them, exhibit rational thought on many occasions, but aside from problem solving, our rational thought is more commonly used for constructing post hoc rationalizations for what our instincts told us to do than in actually deciding. Most human behavior arises out of our instinctive or emotional responses.  We don't save rational thought for solving algebra problems or crossword puzzles, though.  We also use it in our moral and social reasoning, but it's implicit in our neural design that the logical elements of such thinking are literally an afterthought.  Initial processing of such decisions comes from the evolutionarily older emotional and instinctive parts of the brain, with the higher level logical thinking parts of the prefronta

Right and Wrong

...make a liberal tired, hungry, rushed, distracted, or disgusted, and they become more conservative. Make a conservative more detached about something viscerally disturbing, and they become more liberal.   Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 569). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. A lot of research and pontification has been expended on what makes a person conservative or liberal.  One broad conclusion that is not particularly controversial is that liberal and conservative tendencies tend to apply broadly - those liberal on some subjects tends to be liberal on most.  Similarly for conservatives.  Both conservatives and liberals are convinced that their opposites are morally deficient.  Liberals find conservatives deficient in compassion and tolerance and conservatives find liberals deficient in some other stuff. Some studies seem to confirm the liberal suspicion that conservatives, at least those of the so-called right wing au

NYT, Reaching for Greatness

Newspapers have pages to fill up, even when the real news is either too inconsequential or depressing to print, so a lot of really stupid stuff gets printed.  My nominee for today comes from the New York Times: 60 times Madonna Changed Our Culture.   I guess the former pop star just turned sixty.  I would be more sympathetic if I wasn't so much older. I was never much of a fan, though I did appreciate some of her music once it made it into its Weird Al version.  Anyway, it seems that every reporter, copy boy and kiosk tender in the NYT stable got to submit some way in which Madonna "changed the culture."  Some of them might even be real, but the top few give a hint of the intellectual gravity of the enterprise: 1. SHE IS FIGHTING THE PERNICIOUS IDEA THAT OLDER WOMEN DON’T MATTER.   - yeah, we all fight that notion that old people don't matter, but we always lose. 2.  SHE TURNED HER CONFIDENCE AND STYLE INTO MOVIE STARDOM. - omg, that's got to be the first ti


  Westworld is the story of a theme park in which rich tourists can inflict their most depraved fantasies on extremely humanoid robots.  In an age when sexbots and virtual reality glasses are about to be mainstreamed, this is a prescient topic.  My old news review is based on Season 1, the only one I've seen. What's good: rather sophisticated meditations on the nature of consciousness and the implications of artificial intelligence, gorgeous scenery at all scales, excellent music, lots of apt and penetrating Shakespearean quotations delivered by talented actors, and those talented actors, including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, and others that I did not recognize.  This series can suck you in. What's not good:  A bloated and barely coherent plot that relies entirely too much on ugly Deus ex Machina .  For example, Harris plays a monstrously bloody sociopath in the early episodes, but the effort to give him meaningful motivation and backstory collapses into the ludicrous.

Portrait of the Artist as a ?

There is ample evidence that being a great artist is no innoculation against being a rotten human being.  Wagner and Picasso come to mind.  The recent death of Nobel Prize winning author V. S. Naipaul has provoked a flood of both praise and condemnation: praise for his work and a more mixed reaction to his life and character.  A child of the Indian diaspora, he was born in Trinidad in 1932 (on my birthday, though not my birth year). I've only (so far) read one of his books, A Bend in the River.  Clearly a great book, it nevertheless left me with a distrust of the author's character, a distrust inherited, I expect, from my feelings about the narrator.  It fits neatly in my mind between two other great Africa books: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Part of the anger against Naipaul is personal, based on his misanthropy, misogyny, and treatment of the women in his life, including physical and psychological abuse.  The rest of it

Abrahamic Religions

Stated most straightforwardly, most of earth’s humans have inherited their beliefs about the nature of birth and death and everything in between and thereafter from preliterate Middle Eastern pastoralists.  Sapolsky, Robert M.. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (p. 417). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  An exaggeration, of course, since those religions only got critical mass after people started writing stuff down - the Old and New Testaments, and the Koran.

Agricultural Blunder

Agriculture enabled civilization*, but what else bad can be said about it?  Sapolsky is another member of the not completely a fan club: Which brings us to agriculture. I won’t pull any punches— I think that its invention was one of the all-time human blunders, up there with, say, the New Coke debacle and the Edsel. Agriculture makes people dependent on a few domesticated crops and animals instead of hundreds of wild food sources, creating vulnerability to droughts and blights and zoonotic diseases. Agriculture makes for sedentary living, leading humans to do something that no primate with a concern for hygiene and public health would ever do, namely living in close proximity to their feces. Agriculture makes for surplus and thus almost inevitably the unequal distribution of surplus, generating socioeconomic status differences that dwarf anything that other primates cook up with their hierarchies. And from there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump until we’ve got Mr. McGregor persecut

Unequal/Air Rage

There is a substantial body of observations that show that societies that are more unequal are more violent, have more crime, and dramatically less healthy.  Sometimes this exhibits itself in small but vivid ways.  Sapolsky has an example: The frequency of “air rage”— a passenger majorly, disruptively, dangerously losing it over something on a flight— has been increasing. Turns out there’s a substantial predictor of it: if the plane has a first-class section, there’s almost a fourfold increase in the odds of a coach passenger having air rage. Force coach passengers to walk through first class when boarding, and you more than double the chances further. Nothing like starting a flight by being reminded of where you fit into the class hierarchy. And completing the parallel with violent crime, when air rage is boosted in coach by reminders of inequality, the result is not a crazed coach passenger sprinting into first class to shout Marxist slogans. It’s the guy being awful to the old wo


"A shlemiel is somebody who often spills his soup, a shlemazl is the person the soup lands on."..................................Somewhere on the internet. Scott Aaronson, an apparently mild mannered computer science prof at MIT, somewhat improbably managed to get himself arrested in the Philly airport.     His crime seems to have been the ultimate absent-minded professor case of accidental theft - but if you want the details, you'll have to go to his linked version of the story.  It's a bizarre one, demonstrating an almost unbelievable amount of cluelessness from a truly brilliant guy. I sometimes think of Aaronson as the kid who walked around the school with the "kick me" sign taped to his back.  For some reason, despite his evident but naive sincerity and often painfully  earnest rationality, he seems to attract the attention of small bore internet thugs like Amanda Marcotte and Arthur Chu (whoever the heck he is). I often find myself wanting to say

Discounting the Future

The ability to plan ahead is one of the human race's prized abilities, but it has pretty clear limitations.  When we are three, it can be hard to forego that marshmallow for 15 minutes to win a promised extra one.  No doubt evolution has had good reasons for us to discount future events, especially if they happen to be fairly far in the future.  That's doubly, triply true when that future depends on a whole lot of others cooperating too. The New York Times Magazine has a long article, supposedly the longest it has ever published, on the history of global warming during the decade 1979-1989 arguing that we missed our chance to deal with global warming back then and thereby committed our planet to at least moderately catastrophic results. I have to admit that I was a bit put off by the melodramatic and even hysterical title (Losing Earth) and introduction.  The basic argument is that we blew it by not signing a supposedly binding agreement to limit carbon emissions thirty ye