Charlie Stross discusses life lessons at 50

Charlie Stross just turned 50 and put up a post discussing his major life lessons, things he wished he could tell his 15 year old self, which briefly are:

  1. Don’t die.  (Try not to fail at this one as long as you can.)
  2. Idiots abound.  (And recognize that correcting them is usually not your problem.)
  3. Follow the Golden Rule.  (He prefers the negative Confucian version: “do not do unto others that which would be repugnant were it done unto you”)
    1. Charlies does have some caveats for self defense and what-not.

Check out his post for the details.

I’m not quite 50 yet (I just turned 48 a few weeks ago), but I found Charlie’s list to be reasonable, although I think trying to distill all of life’s lessons to a short list is violating Einstein’s rule that things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.  Reality is complicated, and many people are too impatient with that complexity.

Maybe that’s why at least three additional important life lessons quickly came to mind:

  1. Conventional wisdom is often wrong.  (Strikingly, this appears to include conventional wisdom among those familiar with this lesson.)
    1. Yes, I know many might see this as a detail of 2, but in my experience many smart people buy into the conventional wisdom.
  2. Most people are more concerned about your evaluation of them than they are about their evaluation of you.  This is usually true even if they are in the more powerful position.
  3. Cherish your real friends, and don’t make enemies when you don’t have to.

There are lots of others, but in the vein of prioritizing what I wish I could tell my 15 year old self, these are big ones.

What would your additions be?

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A Layperson’s guide to basic brain structure!

Originally posted on gwizlearning:

Following on from last week I thought it would be useful to start with a basic look at the “geography” of the brain and what is currently thought of as an overview of function.

I include here an image I drew so must first apologise if it is not completely in proportion… Do check out other images!

Brain lobes with label

The view shown here shows the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes. It also shows the cerebellum (more on this in later blogs).

You probably already know that the brain has two hemispheres, left and right. The lobes are sub-divisions of the lobes and appear in both hemispheres

The primary responsibility of the occipital lobe is vision. Damage to this lobe leads to blindness in part of the visual field.

The parietal lobe deals with body sensations while the temporal lobe contributes to hearing and to complex aspects of vision.

The frontal…

View original 320 more words

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Multiverse theories: “meta-cosmology”?

Level 2 multiverse

Level 2 multiverse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marianne Freiberger reports on a discussion she had with Bernard Carr on whether or not multiverse theories are science.  He has a suggestion for how we should classify these theories.

With the possibility for indirect evidence in the future, maybe we shouldn’t dismiss the multiverse as mere speculation, especially since it has many features that are theoretically attractive. So attractive that some have even suggested we change the criteria of science in order to accommodate it. “The key question is: how crucial is testability?,” says Carr. “My view is that it is crucial; you do have to be able to test a theory to make it science.” He advocates classifying ideas like the multiverse in a special category he calls meta-cosmology: outside the present boundary of science, but not on the far end of fiction. “It’s a sort of intermediate state, a state of purgatory, before you’ve decided whether [something] is proper science or not.”

“Meta-cosmology” seems like an obvious dance around the term “metaphysics”, a term physicists seem to hate having applied to any theories they discuss.  But it seems like that label makes sense for speculations about unseen and untestable realms.  Of course, accepting it means accepting that physicists engage in philosophy, as least to some extent.  We should remember that many of today’s scientific concepts, such as atomism, began as metaphysical speculation.

Personally, if it makes cosmologists happier, I don’t see a problem with referring to multiverse theories as speculative science, provided that the “speculative” isn’t dropped.  Along the lines of Carr’s reference to calls some have made to change the criteria for established science, I think doing that would, at a minimum, do damage to cosmology’s credibility.

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Video on what exactly a gene is

There’s a video on the evidence for evolution going around, but turns out the artist that made that video has made a number of them, including this one on the scientific understanding of a gene.

via Videos / What Exactly is a Gene? – Stated Clearly.

What’s interesting about this, is that the definition of “gene” has changed over the decades.  As I understand it, when the word was originally coined, it meant a discrete unit of inheritance, but now it refers to a cistron, a discrete string of DNA encodings that only make up a small percentage of DNA overall, with the remainder initially receiving the nickname “junk DNA”.

As molecular biologists are learning more about DNA and inheritance, it’s becoming increasingly evident that these coding sequences aren’t the whole story, that vast swaths of what was thought was junk DNA are turning out to be part of the process, which is causing many to declare that genes aren’t the whole story.  And they’re not, using the modern definition.  But by the classic definition, which would include the sequences and any supporting framework in non-coding DNA, they arguably remain the main story.

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The attention schema theory of consciousness deserves your…attention

English: Neural Correlates Of Consciousness

Neural Correlates Of Consciousness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Graziano published a brief article in the New York Times on his attention schema theory of consciousness, which a number of my fellow bloggers have linked to and discussed.  I’m not sure this article was the clearest description of it that he’s given, and I suspect the title biased readers to think his theory is another consciousness-is-an-illusion one, which affected some of the discussion.

I’ve written about this theory before when I reviewed his book, ‘Consciousness and the Social Brain’, and alluded to it in several other posts.  I’m doing another post on it, partially to take another shot at describing it, partially to reaffirm my understanding of it, and partially to do my small part to call attention to a scientific theory of consciousness that I think deserves your attention.

Before starting on the theory, I think it’s important to understand that the scientific evidence doesn’t point to the brain operating under any central control.  There’s no homunculus, no little person inside controlling the brain.  The brain is more of a distributed set of modules that operate somewhat independently.

The first thing to understand with the theory is the distinction between attention and awareness.  Attention is the process of your brain deciding which sensory inputs to give priority processing to.  It’s  a messy emergent process with, again, no central control.  It can be top down, such as your attention to reading this blog entry, or bottom up, such as the attention you’d give to a spider crawling up your arm.

These sensory signals are constantly streaming into your brain, each signal is constantly striving for attention.  There is an ongoing contest in your brain with signals effectively forming coalitions, coming to prominence, and then receding to the next ascendant coalition of signals.

Some philosophers of mind stop here and say that this is consciousness, and that the feeling that there is anything else, that there is an inner experience of some kind, is an illusion.  But if this is an illusion, then what is experiencing the illusion?  And how is the illusion arising?  And how are the top down attentional states referenced above developed?

The answer may be awareness.  Awareness is not attention.  Your attention can be drawn to something without you being aware of it.  This is something every magician and illusionist knows.  They often misdirect your attention, without you being aware of it, which allows them to perform seeming feats of magic.

But if awareness isn’t attention, then what is it?  According to this theory, it is information.  Awareness is a model, an executive summary in your brain of the messy and emergent process of attention.  Like any executive summary, it lacks a lot of detailed information, it isn’t always accurate, and is by nature incomplete.

Compare this to what we know about the relationship between consciousness and the subconscious.  We are conscious of many things, but a lot more things go on within our subconscious that we have only incomplete or hazy information about, and much goes on that we simply have no information on.

In other posts, I’ve used the metaphor of a city newspaper.  The city is the brain, and the newspaper is awareness.  The newspaper gathers information, summarizes and simplifies it, and then makes it available to the rest of the city.  It is a feedback mechanism that allows the components of the city to know a summary of what is happening with all the other components of the city.

Awareness serves the same function in your brain.  It’s a feedback mechanism that allows the brain to monitor its attentional state.  According to the theory, it’s this feedback mechanism, this schema, that gives us our feeling of inner experience, of essentially experiencing our experience.

Another aspect of this theory is the idea that, just as we have an attention schema for our own attention state, we also have attention schemata for other minds.  The idea is that the same brain circuitry that processes awareness for our inner experience also processes our perceptions of what others are thinking.  For example, when we watch another person look at an apple, we model their attentional state and understand that their attention is on the apple.

In other words, consciousness is our theory of mind pointed back at ourselves, and our theory of mind is our awareness feedback mechanism pointed at other perceived minds.  (I’m tempted to go off on a tangent here about the importance of understanding yourself in order to understand others, but I think I’ll save that for some other time.)

Graziano feels that consciousness has at least some control over our actions, that asserting that it doesn’t, as many epiphenomenon theories of consciousness do, ignores the main thing we can know for sure about consciousness, that we can describe it.  I think that’s why his preferred metaphor for describing the attention schema is of a general plotting strategies with a map and toy soldiers serving as a model of the real battlefield.

I’m sure Graziano has his expert reasons for believing this, but based on all I’ve read, I’m less sure about consciousness being in control, thinking that maybe a better description might be to say that consciousness has causal influence.  I think this is one reason why I prefer the newspaper metaphor.  Unlike a general, a newspaper doesn’t have control over what happens in the city (at least not directly), but it has substantial causal influence through the information that it makes available.  The city, or more accurately the various faction within the city, may or may not use the information provided by the newspaper in their decisions.

This conception also melds well with Michael Gazzaniga‘s description of the interpreter functionality which seems to be revealed by split-brain patient experiments.  These experiments are some of the indications that we have that the brain isn’t controlled by any one central point.  The mechanism producing the attention schema is the interpreter, or at least a crucial part of it.

So, why am I enthusiastic about this theory?  Well, first, it seems solidly rooted in neuroscience and psychology.  In his book, Graziano discusses the empirical support for the theory.  He admits that the support is still incomplete, and that the theory may have to be modified as more data becomes available.  This is normal for a scientific theory.

Second, the theory doesn’t invoke an unknown magical step.  For example, the integrated information theory posits that consciousness arises from the integration of information without being able to describe exactly how much integration is necessary, or why integrated entities like the internet or the tax code aren’t conscious (at least not without making counter-intuitive assertions that they are conscious but with no ability to communicate with us).  The attention schema theory sees integration as necessary for consciousness, but not sufficient by itself.

Third, the theory doesn’t dismiss inner experience as an illusion.  It’s description of a feedback mechanism actually gives an explanation for the intuitive feeling of the homunculus that we all have.

And fourth, it gives insight into the type of architecture that might eventually be necessary for an artificial intelligence to be conscious, while showing how unlikely it is that such an architecture will come about by accident.

Is this theory the natural selection of consciousness, as Graziano admits he is looking for?  I don’t know, but it feels like at least an important step toward that theory.  This theory will rise or fall on whether or not the data support it, but it being rooted in the data that is already available makes me think it’s a closer approximation of that final theory than most of the other theories that often get tossed around.

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The conquest of the Americas

"Landing of Columbus" - Christopher ...

“Landing of Columbus” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning, I came across an essay by Howard Zinn, the famous historian and activist (now deceased), on the real historical Christopher Columbus.  I suspect Zinn’s portrayal of events was a bit one sided (I doubt the Native Americans were quite the lambs that he portrayed), but he probably overcompensated to some extent for the version we learned in grade school being far too one sided in the other direction, for it essentially being whitewashed.

Reading the essay reminded me of the brief and infrequent mentions of Native Americans in my historical education.  I remember learning that the Pilgrims, early English immigrants on the east coast of America, were aided by Native Americans during their time of crisis with training on how to grow local crops like corn, and how surprised I was by the idea that there were “Indians” that far east.

I recall them being mentioned again in relation to the French and Indian War (the North American theater of the Seven Years War), but the first hint that I got that maybe things weren’t going well historically for Native Americans was in a brief side bar, in the chapter on Andrew Jackson, about the Trail of Tears.  And finally getting to the (brief) narrative of the American Indian Wars in the late 19th century.

It wasn’t until I was in college and started reading history more broadly that I realized that the entire history of the progress of westerners moving across the North American continent, was in fact a period of relentless conquest, with Native Americans consistently being pushed off of their lands, or in many cases eradicated.  The utter failure of K-12 history textbooks to discuss this glaring fact of history was an eye opener for me, one of the indications that the view of the world I had received growing up was pretty slanted.

Many Americans resist hearing about this conquest history, asserting that what actually happened was that Native Americans were wiped out by smallpox.  While there is some truth to this, Native American populations were indeed ravaged by smallpox and other communicable diseases brought in by Europeans, it doesn’t explain the large scale disappearances of Native American societies.  What does explain it is large scale conquest by westerners.

Of course, similar events were happening during these centuries in South America, Africa, India, and Australia, so this is far from being an issue unique to the US.  And I’m not even sure it makes sense to single out Europeans for doing this, since there can be little doubt that many other societies (such as the Mongols or the Ottomans) would have done the same thing if they’d had the chance.  Europe just happened to reach the right level of technological development at the right point in history.

So then what’s the point?  I think it’s important to understand real history, to understand the real relationship that the west has had with much of the rest of the world.  Undoubtedly the west has brought modernization and many benefits, but we should remember that before those benefits, came conquest, and understand how much this complicates our current relationship with the rest of the world.

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Mars One and done?

Mars One, a non-governmental plan to send colonists on way trips to Mars starting in 2025, has been in the news a lot over the last year.  While I’d love to see us establish a human presence on Mars, the Mars One project has always struck me as a flawed plan, with far too many optimistic assumptions.

It turns out that I’m not the only one with that concern: Mars One and done? | MIT News.

In 2012, the “Mars One” project, led by a Dutch nonprofit, announced plans to establish the first human colony on the Red Planet by 2025. The mission would initially send four astronauts on a one-way trip to Mars, where they would spend the rest of their lives building the first permanent human settlement.

It’s a bold vision — particularly since Mars One claims that the entire mission can be built upon technologies that already exist. As its website states, establishing humans on Mars would be “the next giant leap for mankind.”

But engineers at MIT say the project may have to take a step back, at least to reconsider the mission’s technical feasibility.

The MIT researchers developed a detailed settlement-analysis tool to assess the feasibility of the Mars One mission, and found that new technologies will be needed to keep humans alive on Mars.

Among the findings of the researchers are that it would be cheaper to ship food from Earth to the colony than to resolve all the problems with growing it locally, that it would take a lot more Falcon 9 launch vehicles than the Mars One team’s optimistic estimates (at a much higher cost totaling $4.5 billion), and the logistical problems of the vast inventory of spare parts that the colony would need that, in the absence of advanced 3D printing technologies, would have to shipped from Earth.

The MIT teams doesn’t completely rule out the feasibility of Mars One, but they do highlight how many unknowns remain for such an endeavor, how much technology still has to be developed, and how expensive it would really be.

I didn’t see it discussed in the article, but I personally find the idea of sending people on a one way trip to Mars to be a deeply questionable strategy.  Yes, it does eliminate having to relaunch from Mars, which is the most technically difficult aspect of a two-way trip.  But we’re talking about asking people to spend the rest of their lives in a harsh, unforgiving, and utterly isolated environment.

It’s hard to imagine that many of the young people volunteering for this have any real conception of what they’d be getting themselves into.  And, as the years piled up and the initial excitement waned, we should expect a substantial portion of them to come to bitterly regret their decision, with consequences for the morale of the colony, as well as subsequent recruitment efforts.  The colony could become, effectively, the starkest penal colony ever created.

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