Friday, November 25, 2016

BBC offers a supermarket booklet on "The Amazing Brain" for coffee tables

The BBC offers an interesting supermarket counter booklet “The Amazing Brain: The Newest Discoveries About Memory, Consciousness, and Free Will”, from the editors of Science Focus,
The booklet has three parts: Neuroscience, Mental Health, and Future Minds.

The Neuroscience part includes two important essays, “What Makes You, You” (by Rita Carter), and “Free Will: The Greatest Illusion” (by Simon Crompton), and “Memory” by Nicola Davies.  The material tends to follow a strictly physical explanation of consciousness and of personality types.  Extroversion, conscientiousness, and anxiety are all connected to concentrations of neurons in specific areas of the brain.  “Free will” is said to be an illusion of numbers.  Although, a lot of us think that a feral cat who adopts a new owner is showing free will.

Identity has always been a bit of a puzzle.  If “I” commit a crime and go to jail, it is “I” who experiences the imprisonment.  It was “I” who felt the ritual of danger of basic training.  If I get hurt, it is “I” who feels the pain.  All of this seems to have something to do with the idea of irreversible causality in physics (which makes reversible time travel impossible).  There is no way I can wake up and have the body of a 21-year-old friend.

The Mental Health book has a chapter on Addiction, and Alzheimer’s Disease (Robert Matthews).

Huffington Post has an article about how microtubules inside neurons resonate with a quantum universe.  This is “Jack Andraka” nano-man type stuff, but the article is a good summary.

I wanted to give a couple of links on whether consciousness survives death.  Here’s one on Quora, and another by Sam Parnia at Southampton University in England, showing consciousness surviving total stoppage of the heart for at least several minutes.  It’s quite likely that we know that we have died, for some time, and that time might seem to stop.

Another thing to look at is distributed consciousness.  This is best known maybe in social insect colonies.  Because insect colonies usually center around one or a few queens, all are relatives, so social organization reduces the need for individualization of the brains of individual workers.  In vertebrates, social groups include non-relatives, so increases the need for complex brain capacities, to function both as an individual and as a member of the group (the old elementary school report card problem). But dolphins and killer whales may have their own distributed sense of self on top of their individual personalities, that is much stronger than for humans.  A comparison of dogs and cats shows how social interaction affects brain and learning capacities in otherwise somewhat similar animals.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Hazlitt's "The Foundations of Morality" on PDF from FEE now

I wanted to mention the E-book, “The Foundations of Morality” (2010), by Henry Hazlitt, from the Foundation for Economic Education, at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, pdf link here.  The book comprises 26 chapters and runs close to 300 pages including romans.
The author generally is following a libertarian foundation for morality, and at one point notes that the center of moral behavior is the ability to hold back on immediate pleasure or gain for the self, for greater good for both the self and others farther in the future.  A lot of it has to do with the cognitive ability to “see around corners”.

The author seems to discuss utilitarianism, as Bentham defined it (the way we studied it in high school government class in 1961). 


Chapter 14, “The Problem of Self-Sacrifice” will need careful attention.  Hazlitt does not deny that such an idea as “duty” exists, and that societies generally may rightfully expect individuals to take personal risks to save or otherwise help others in some situations.  He does not deny that in exceptional circumstances an ultimate sacrifice can be expected.  But “sacrifice” is more likely to be expected when some greater general good comes from it.   Giving money to panhandlers probably doesn’t qualify.  But willingness to work in dangerous neigjborhoods or take on risky jobs, like police officer or fireman (even as a volunteer) or in military service, may well be appropriate for many people at points in their lives.  Some risk taking and exposure to “sacrifice” may give the appearance to others of having “skin in the game” and make one more credible later when pursuing one’s own goals.  Most of us can’t get anywhere in life without these experiences at some points.  Trump's claim of sacrifice last summer when confronted by Khzir Khan was quite shocking. 
Hazlitt seems willing to accept the idea that morality involves a lot more than just answering for one's own deliberate choices. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

NatGeo and USA Today publish primers on colonizing Mars

National Geographic and USA Today have major issues dealing with Mars, especially with Elon Musk’s idea of starting colonization in 2033.

The NatGeo issue (“Race to the Red Planet”) supplements the television series that premiered Nov. 14 and places great emphasis on the health of passengers in the 6-month journey.  It says that theoretically some of the health risks could be overcome with a centrifugal force wheel arrangement providing a kind of artificial gravity.

The NatGeo issue also has an atlas of both sides of Mars, and diagrams showing how the living quarters would be laid out.  They might be constructed inside lava tbes.  NatGeo implies that small fission reactors could provide power.  This gives some credibility to Taylor Wilson’s idea that the Earth’s power grids could be made more secure by decentralization using small fission reactors as supplemental sources.  That’s an idea that the new Trump administration could actually take seriously.

The NatGeo issue also has an interesting issue on octopuses, among the most intelligent of invertebrate animals.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Electronic Frontier Foundation publishes booklet "Censorship in Context" about social media companies' own monitoring

Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a booklet online in PDF format, “Censorship in Context: Insights from Crowdsourced Data on Social Media Censorship”, link here.  The authors are Jessica Anderson, Kim Carlson, Matthew Stender, Sarah Myers West, and Jullian C. York.

The report shows that pre-emptive censorship by social media companies has been common throughout 2016.  “Milo” was banned from Twitter soon than I had thought (and “Real Strategy” has just been banned).

One concern is to make content moderation more transparent, especially if content is taken down because of user report or some other scheme.

There are fine distinctions, between criticizing and country, and criticizing the people of a religion or ethnic group.  Donald Trump had a lot of trouble with this, to be sure.

The report does consider the "fake news" problem that the 2016 Election amplified.

NPR has a detailed story on Twitter's recent ban on some alt-right accounts (especially associated with white supremacy), and a "whitelash" today, here.  It's pretty ugly.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Revisiting "Catcher in the Rye"

“Gabe the Babe” has a quickie review of J. D.Salinger’s classic “Catcher in the Rye”, the 1951 coming-of-age novel by J.D. Salinger.

Holden Caulfield, Gabe says, hates “fake people”, as he runs away, deals with prostitutes and street life.

Wikipedia notes that the book used to be censored a lot in public schools, and was connected with John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman.

I recall a particular line early in the book where Holden notes physical degeneration of men in power.  “Old guys’ legs always look so white and unhairy.”

I read it myself when in the Army.  When I worked as a substitute teacher, I handed back book reports on it one day in a ninth grade class in northern Virginia.

A book that seems a little related is Gunter Grass "The Tin Drum". (1959)., a film in 1979.  The little boy who doesn't want to grow up hides in his mother's dress. I read this book when in the Army in 1969.