The relentless rain

It was a forecast that was all too common for south Louisiana.  We would have several days of rain.  It would start Thursday evening and continue through the weekend.  There was a possibility of flooding.  The people in flood zones, who lived near rivers and bayous, should prepare.  I don’t live in a flood zone so I largely ignored these warnings.  I pictured a weekend watching TV, reading on the internet, and maybe cranking out a blog post.

The rain did start Thursday evening.  It was quickly evident that this was going to be a deluge.  There were copious amounts of thunder and a dull roar as torrents of water hit the roof.  Again, this is normal for south Louisiana.  It happens.  I went to bed to the sound of that dull roar.

I woke up around midnight.  The deluge continued.  Had it continued since I’d fallen asleep?  No, that was unlikely.  I rolled over and went back to sleep.  I woke up again around 3am.  The deluge was still in full force.  I started to get a little worried, but still managed to fall back asleep.

When I woke up in the morning, it was dark and the deluge was still going.  I got up, ate a protein bar for breakfast and got ready for work.  I was delayed leaving by one of the commodes backing up.  This is somewhat normal during heavy downpours, although it hadn’t happened in a long time.  I dealt with that, then prepared to leave, dreading having to drive into work in the downpour with all the associated traffic problems that would be out there.

I left my house, but when I reached the front of the neighborhood, the street was flooded.  I was contemplating how I’d navigate through it (I drive a 4Runner and thought it would be manageable) when my phone suddenly went off with a message from the emergency broadcast system warning of a flash flood alert for the area.  While reading that, I also received a text from the university stating that it was closed today and that everyone should stay home.

So I returned to my house.  While turning in to my driveway, I noticed that the ditch that runs in the front yard by the road was seriously overflowing, with the water taking up maybe a quarter of the space between the road and the house.  I got a little more nervous, but reassured myself that I don’t live in a flood zone.  All this time, the dense downpour continued.

I went inside and turned on the news.  The amount of rain we were receiving was record setting.  I don’t remember what the number was at that point, but the weather person warned that we should expect floods on a scale that we hadn’t seen since the infamous flood of ’83.  I settled down for a quiet day inside.

Around mid-morning, I looked outside and saw that the water had reach the halfway point between the road and the house.  The deluge continued.  As the morning wore on, the news people became increasingly more alarmed, their tone more ominous.  The amount of rainfall was not just going to set new records, it was going to blow well past them.

In Louisiana, we talk about 20 year flood events, meaning an event of a magnitude that happens around once every 20 years.  Many of us, when buying houses, look for land that is not on the 100 year flood zone, meaning that it hasn’t flooded in any event within the last 100 years.  It was becoming evident that the current event wasn’t a 20 year one, or even a 100 year one, but a 500 year one, meaning that no flood chart in existence would be able to mark its limits.

At noon, the water was approaching my front porch, and the deluge continued.  I wasn’t going to flood.  I was not in a flood zone.  The deluge continued.  The water got closer.  Around 1:00, with the water about a foot from the porch, I snapped out of my denial and realized that I needed to act.

I frantically started moving as many things off the floor as I could.  I was suddenly aware of just how many electronic items I had lying around, how much the cables and paraphernalia of the home entertainment system were near the floor .  Getting much of it off the floor meant wholesale disconnecting.  I moved as quickly as I could.  I have a lot of books that would be difficult to replace, many of which are on bottom shelves near the floor or in boxes in corners on the floor.  I couldn’t think where to put them, so I left them there.

The deluge continued.  By now the water had reached the porch and was starting to roll onto it.  I called my dad, who advised me to pack a bag and come to his house, but warned that roads were closing all over the place.  If I was going to come, it needed to be soon.  The problem was that his place is about a 50 minute drive away, and that’s on roads I knew would be flooded.  To get there, I’d likely have to take a circuitous route that would take even longer, possibly hours under current conditions.  And my city mayor (I live in the city of Central on the northeastern outskirts of Baton Rouge) had announced that a curfew would be in effect that evening.

The deluge continued.  I frantically packed.  What to take?  What would I need to live on for what might be an extended period?  I threw everything I could think of into the bag.  By this time, the water was on the porch and in the back carport.  It was maybe two or three inches deep.  In another inch or two, it would be in the house.  It now seemed inevitable.  I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to be home when it happened.  The thought of watching the house flood was painful.

So I loaded up the car.  I had to wear rubber boots by this time.  The water in the carport was about 4 inches high.  By the time I finished, the water was a fraction of an inch from the door.  I killed power to the house and left.

And quickly discovered that I wasn’t going anywhere.

My street was flooded, to the extent that I couldn’t tell where it ended and where the ditches began.  I had thought the water might be foot or so high, but then I saw mailboxes almost completely submerged (they are about 4-5 feet tall).  And someone had left barricades indicating that the street should be considered closed.   I suddenly had no confidence that I could even get out of the neighborhood, much less make it to my dad’s house.  I realized I wasn’t even confident I could get back to my house.

I called my dad from the car and appraised him of the situation.  He stayed on the phone while I slowly drove my 4Runner through the water back to the house.  It looked like I was going to have to make my stand there.  Dad noted that I would probably only get a few inches of water.  It wouldn’t be a life threatening situation, just a nasty one.

I made it back to the house, turned the power back on, and returned to watching the news.  I also started checking the weather radar for my area about once every three minutes.  The deluge continued relentlessly.  I grew to hate the sound of the rain outside.  I talked with a neighbor who had just made it back home in his full sized truck.  He said that the water was very deep and that they had barely made it through.  And he was pretty sure the houses in the front of the neighborhood were already flooded.  The water was now millimeters from getting in both our houses.

I heard from friends whose houses had flooded and who were on the road trying to reach shelter.  One ended up having to park on the road at the highest ground she could find.  She sat there for several hours until a rescue truck brought her to a shelter.

I retreated into the house and waited.  Occasionally someone in a truck would drive by, creating waves of water that threatened to enter the house.  I had to rapidly close the door once or twice to make sure it didn’t.  At one point, what looked like a large rescue truck barreled down the street, apparently on its way to rescue someone in the back of the subdivision, creating large waves that I heard splash against the door.  I was resigned to the inevitable.

And then, the rain slackened.  It didn’t stop, but it’s intensity lowered.  The water outside did not go down, but at least it stopped getting higher.  This was in the late afternoon.  More waiting.  I had missed the opportunity to get sandbags, never dreaming I’d need them.  I put towels against the bottom inside of the door, hoping that if the waters only marginally started to top the door sill, that it might make a difference.  I racked my brain for anything else to do.

Slowly, imperceptibly, with the slackened rain, the water started to recede.  I noticed that it was maybe an inch away from the door now.  But then the deluge started up again and the water went back up.  Then it slackened again.  This cycle repeated well into the evening.  I went to bed fairly sure I’d wake up at some point in the night with water in my house.  That was Friday.

The water on Saturday morning, after it had receded substantially.

The water on Saturday morning, after it had receded substantially.

By Saturday morning, the rain was staying in a slackened, less intense state, although it still fell constantly.  The water had receded from my house a good five feet.  I started to feel much better.  The water was draining away.  I would turn out to be among the luckiest of the lucky.  But my good fortune turned out to be catastrophic for others.

A few miles from my house is the Amite river.  My water drained in that direction, and thousands of people were flooded during the day Saturday.  Then inexorably, the water started draining from their lands toward the south, creating a wave of destruction.  By Sunday, it had reached Baton Rouge proper, turning a major thoroughfare named O’Neal Lane into a river and the nearby neighborhoods into a lake.

Baton Rouge flood

Baton Rouge flood

By Monday, the wave of devastation reached communities to the south, threatening my cousin’s and my dad’s houses.  Similar to my story, the water went right up to their doors, but then receded.  We were fortunate.  Many of our friends weren’t.  My cousin in particular had to hike several miles through water to retrieve his in-laws after their house had flooded.

As I write this, the wave of destruction continues.  It will continue until the end of the rivers are reached.

Flooding is fact of life in Louisiana, but most of us know whether or not we live in a flood zone.  In this freak event, it didn’t matter.  I don’t know how many people lost their houses or cars in this event.  The estimate was at 60,000 last time I checked.  I suspect it will climb.  And thirteen people have died (again, the last time I checked).  Most of these people didn’t have flood insurance.  They didn’t think they needed it.

The city of Central, where I live, received over 20 inches (500 millimeters) of rain in a 24 hour period.  This happened largely without warning.  At least with hurricanes we get a few days notice.  But with this, what should have been a mundane rain event turned into a life changing one for tens of thousands of people.

People are doing the nasty work of cleaning out their flooded houses.  In many cases, they’re having to gut the house.  Recovery will be slow and torturous.  As I finish this post, it is once again raining outside, although it’s the normal rain (I hope) that always comes in Louisiana.

Posted in Society | Tagged , , , | 26 Comments

Don’t trust your emotions. They will betray you.

Image credit: Toddatkins via Wikipedia

Image credit: Toddatkins via Wikipedia

I’ve mentioned before that my views have changed dramatically over the years.  But thinking about that the other day, it occurred to me that most of that change happened in a fairly narrow period.  At the beginning of 2004, I was still a nominal Catholic, often voted Republican, was suspicious of gays and other non-traditional groups, and generally considered the United States to be on the cutting edge of democratic and economic innovation.

By the end of 2005, I was a liberal progressive and committed Democrat, was painfully aware of the undemocratic aspects of my country, along with the fact that many other developed countries had been doing things with social safety nets for generations that were considered hopelessly experimental and academic in the US, and my religious beliefs were more or less history.

What happened?  Well, I read a book in the summer of 2004.  It was not a book on politics, economics, religion, or philosophy.  It was a self-help book on emotional intelligence.  Well, sort of.  The term “emotional intelligence” didn’t show up anywhere in it, but I had already read a couple of other books on that subject and been irritated by how theoretical, how disconnected they were from practical solutions.

But Sheenah Hankin’s ‘Complete Confidence: A Handbook‘ ended up being pretty much what I was looking for.  I wasn’t necessarily looking for a confidence boost (although it certainly wouldn’t have hurt) but a practical guide on keeping my emotions reigned in and making better decisions.  I’m not sure what called my attention to this book, but it would eventually have a profound effect on my thinking.

Hankin’s chief thesis was to push back on the idea that there is something virtuous or enlightening with following our feelings, of giving precedence to our emotions.  As I’ve discussed before, we are emotional beings.  Reason is a tool of emotion.  But we have a wide variety of emotions, many of which are often in conflict with each other.  Notably, short term emotional needs are often in conflict with longer term emotional needs.

Reason is a tool to allow us to choose which emotional impulses we should indulge in.  That capability has become increasingly crucial in a world radically different from the one we evolved in.  Our emotions are often tuned for life on the African savanna, not for surviving workplace politics or succeeding in online discussions.

Of course, this is often much easier said than done.  Emotions are powerful things.  Often anger, fear, and sorrow overwhelm the small voice of reason pointing out what the better course of action may be.  Hankin provides a relatively simple framework to deal with this, which she refers to as “The Winning Hand of Comfort”, mainly because she counts off the steps on the fingers of one hand: calm, clarify, challenge, comfort, confidence.

Calm

This is the first and most crucial stage.  It’s also the most difficult, particularly when you’re emotionally upset.  The trick is to recognize when you’re in that state, realize that you need to calmly assess the situation, and take steps to do so.  Hankin talks about taking deep breathes, which of course is almost a cliche at this point.  But I think the key thing is to recognize that you’re not calm, and take steps to reach a calmer place.  It may involve separating yourself from the situation, which depending on that situation, could be difficult.  But in most cases (immediate life safety emergencies aside) it’s worth the effort.

Often, when  you do attempt to do this, there may be people who don’t want to give you that opportunity.  They may have an agenda and are hoping to pressure you into a decision that benefits them.  Pushy salespeople come to mind, but as a manager I’ve often had this come from customers, colleagues, employees, and from many other directions.  In most cases (again life and death emergencies aside), little or nothing is lost taking a break to calm down, and often there is much to be gained.

The good news, is that this gets much easier over time and with practice, easier to recognize when you need to do it, and easier to actually do it.  I’ve reached the point where it’s more or less a reflex now.  If I’m upset, I reflexively try to calm down.  Of course, I’m human and it doesn’t always work, but compared to early 2004, I’m practically a zen master now.

Clarify

Once you’ve managed to calm down, the next step to to assess the situation.  Why are you upset?  It’s crucial to be honest with yourself at this stage.  If you’re getting upset over something minor and trivial,  it’s still something that you need to understand.  We can’t control our immediate emotions, we can only control our reaction to them.  There’s nothing dishonorable with having emotions we may not be proud of, although there might be something dishonorable in giving in to them.

One thing I was surprised to discover when I started doing this, was how often there wasn’t really anything major I was getting upset about.  Often it was because I was jacked on caffeine.  (I drank about ten cups of coffee a day back in 2004.)  Eventually this realization led me to drastically cut back on my caffeine intake.

Challenge

Once you’re in a calm state and understand why you were upset, the next step is to challenge that notion.  How upset should I really be over that guy cutting me off in traffic?  Did that person in the meeting really mean to insult me?  Is my significant other mad at me or just in a bad mood?  More often than not, the resulting conclusion will be that there is nothing there, that really there isn’t any real reason to be upset.

Of course, sometimes the conclusion will go the other way.  The good news is, by the time you reach this point, you’ll be in a much better state of mind to deal with it rationally, rather than simply meeting what will often be an emotional display with another emotional display.

Comfort

Hankin talks about the importance of self coaching, of comforting ourselves.  I thought this was pretty strange when I first read it, but all of my reading about the mind and brain since then has convinced me that there is a lot of insight here.  We are not one unified whole, but rather a loose collection of impulses and desires.  Often, the more primal aspects of our minds can be soothed and comforted by the conscious rationalist aspect of ourselves, in a way that simply doesn’t seem to happen by just holding that comforting knowledge.

Hankin recommends having a ready phrase to use, such as “It’s no big deal,” or “Don’t overreact,” but I personally find coming up with a tailored phrase for the situation more helpful, but it does require more thought in the moment than having a ready phrase.

Confidence

This is the final phase in Hankin’s framework.  It’s really more of a desired result than a phase you work on.  I’m not sure how much personal confidence this sequence really provides, except perhaps the confidence of feeling like you’re making a more considered and careful decision.  Still, I have to say that I’m often in a much better state of mind at this stage than I was before the Calm stage.


Is this sequence the end all be all?  Will it solve every personal issue?  Not at all.  But it did help me in my professional interactions in the summer of 2004.  And then it began to have more far ranging effects.  It inspired me to calm down, clarify, and challenge my intuitive position on many matters, personal, professional, and philosophical, leading to the changes I mentioned above.  (As well as many other personal and professional changes I haven’t mentioned.)

It may be that Hankin’s book just happened to catch me at a particular point in my life where I was already subconsciously questioning many things, and using her framework allowed me to bring it up into my consciousness.

But it was a significant enough influence on me that it’s one of three books I often recommend when a discussion comes up about books on leadership or career management.  It’s the third, after Dale Carnegie’s classic ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, and Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’.  But only Hankin’s book led to wholesale changes in my worldview.

What about you?  Are there any books that had effects on your thinking far beyond their initial scope?

Posted in Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | 44 Comments

Sites for tracking the US election

One of the problems with following election news here in the US, is that the various media outlets often try to convey a sense of drama in the outcome, even when it’s not really there.  For this reason, I try not too pay much attention to most of the prognosticators out there.  Their track record been pretty dismal so far this year.

What has been fairly predictive however, are straight polling numbers.  The polls don’t always get it right (every poll itself requires considerable judgment from the pollsters), but the raw results have done much better in this election cycle than the pundits.  Many pundits ignored Trump’s early but consistent strength in the polls, while the polls themselves largely told the story that would  unfold.

With that in mind, I have a few number oriented sites that I follow to keep my finger on the pulse of the election.

The first is FiveThirtyEight.  These guys are pretty well known.  Their name is obviously a reference to the number of presidential electors in the electoral college.  Nate Silver, the founding statistician of the site, famously predicted the results of the 2012 election, much to the consternation of conservatives at the time, who strongly felt that he had to be wrong.  He wasn’t.  That said, while I’m a fan of FiveThirtyEight, it sometimes feels to me like too much in their analysis is outside of the actual polling data, and that doesn’t necessarily increase the accuracy of their projections, although they’re usually good about providing the raw polling numbers if you’re willing to scroll a bit.

A site that I just recently discovered is Princeton Election Consortium.  I’m not sure how long they’ve been around.  It was founded by Sam Wang, a neuroscientist, and has a periodically updated model which gives a probability distribution of who will win under current conditions.  I’ve seen a lot of recommendations for this site, and Wang himself reportedly has a good track record going back to 2004.

But as much attention as these sites get, they’re not my favorites.  There are two other sites that I visit more often as the election gets closer.  They are actually run by a couple of amateur poll aggregators, although they’ve been doing it longer and more successfully than many of the other sites out there.

The first is Electoral-Vote, run by Andrew Tanenbaum.  If you’re an old computer nerd like me, that name might sound familiar.  Tanenbaum wrote a number of well regarded computer science books in the 80s and 90s, one of which was about writing an operating system called Minix.  Minix was a project which inspired a certain computer science student at the time named Linus Torvalds to take a shot at building his own operating system, which just happens to be the kernel at the center of what we now call Linux, the OS that powers a sizable chunk of the internet, not to mention Android phones.

Tanenbaum is an expatriate progressive (living in the Netherlands), which concerned me when I first discovered his site in 2004.  I was a little concerned that maybe I was just reading disguised propaganda.  (I’m now a liberal progressive myself, but wasn’t quite there yet in 2004, and in any case I was looking for the most accurate numbers.)  But Tanenbaum himself pointed out that his numbers were similar to another polling aggregation site run by a born-again Christian conservative named Scott Elliott.  Elliott’s site is called ElectionProjection.

Since 2004, both of these guys have been collecting polling data to make a prediction on how the electoral college vote will come out.  And they’ve both been remarkably accurate.

Tanenbaum has been pretty open about his straightforward methodology.  (It may be that Elliott has been equally open but I haven’t scoured his site as closely.)  Tanenbaum simply takes, for each state, the average of all public polls conducted within the last five days.  If there hasn’t been any polling in the last five days, he uses the last one(s) published.

Notably, neither of these guys wimp out when the polls in a particular state are close (as many news organizations tend to do).  They identify which states are close, but still count that state as a win for whichever candidate is slightly ahead, counting on any inaccuracies in the margins of error to cancel each other out.

The result are projections of the electoral college that, while a snapshot, usually are remarkably consistent once we’re well past the conventions.  Both sites also make projections for the Senate, and Elliott makes projections for the House.   (Tanenbaum used to do House projections but found it to be too labor intensive.)

A quick glance at the sites will show the current state of the race.  Even with Trump’s current post-convention bounce and lead in the national polls, Clinton is still (barely) leading in the electoral college, the only vote tally that matters in Presidential elections.  (As anyone old enough to remember the 2000 election knows all too well.)  But the current confidence that the Democrats will take the Senate, or are within striking distance of the House, appears to be misplaced.

Still, it’s early days yet, and the shape of the race will almost certainly change, although the history of the last few elections is that we’ll get a good idea of what’s going to happen in the next few weeks.

Finally, I can’t do a post on political web sites without mentioning my favorite overall political sites.  Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire is a blog aggregating intelligent political commentary from several sources, admittedly with a progressive tilt.  I also follow Vox and FiveThirtyEight’s article feeds, both of which I can highly recommend.

Assuming you’re not disgusted by the whole mess and eager for it to just be over, what sites do you use to keep track of the election?  Any major resources that I’m missing?

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , | 8 Comments

The challenges of copying a mind

Michael Graziano has an article at the Atlantic looking at the plausibility of mind copying.  He doesn’t beat around the bush, going all in with the title: Why You Should Believe in the Digital Afterlife, although the actual text of the article is more nuanced, and echoes what I hear from most neuroscientists.

As a neuroscientist, my interest lies mainly in a more practical question: is it even technically possible to duplicate yourself in a computer program? The short answer is: probably, but not for a while.

He proceeds to give a basic overview of how the brain processes information, which I highly recommend reading if you’re skeptical that the mind is essentially information processing.  He doesn’t shy away from noting the enormous difficulties.

To copy a person’s mind, you wouldn’t need to scan anywhere near the level of individual atoms. But you would need a scanning device that can capture what kind of neuron, what kind of synapse, how large or active of a synapse, what kind of neurotransmitter, how rapidly the neurotransmitter is being synthesized and how rapidly it can be reabsorbed. Is that impossible? No. But it starts to sound like the tech is centuries in the future rather than just around the corner.

And then there’s the largest difficulty, would the resulting software mechanism be conscious?  This may always be a metaphysical debate, even if or when minds start being uploaded, but Graziano makes this point.

But in every theory grounded in neuroscience, a computer-simulated brain would be conscious. In some mystical theories and theories that depend on a loose analogy to quantum mechanics, consciousness would be more difficult to create artificially. But as a neuroscientist, I am confident that if we ever could scan a person’s brain in detail and simulate that architecture on a computer, then the simulation would have a conscious experience. It would have the memories, personality, feelings, and intelligence of the original.

Graziano goes on the discuss the difficulties inherent in the fact that brains don’t exist in isolation, but are integrated in a tightly coupled manner with the rest of the body, including the peripheral nervous system, glandular system, and other aspect of the body.  Any successful simulation would have to deal with all of that complexity.

He is actually optimistic that computational capacity will continue to increase, enabling the complexity of a simulation, noting that  he thinks quantum computing will open up possibilities.  But I don’t have his certitude on this.

The main problem is that it’s not enough simply to do the information processing that the brain does, but a computer would have to simulate the hardware.  If you’ve ever run software engineered for a different hardware platform in a hardware emulation program, you’ll know that such emulation typically comes with a severe performance penalty.  The partial emulation of biological neural processing that has happened so far has required immense processing power.

Moore’s Law is usually cited as an argument that any computational capacity issue will eventually be solved.  However, the actual Moore’s Law is an observation of a trend that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit chip doubles every two years.  Gordon Moore, the originator of that observation, noted early on that eventually the trend would end.  Recent industry reports are that the trend is approaching its end, with progress now coming slower, probably to peter out in the next few years.

Transistors can only get so small.  Currently their features are scaled at 14 nano-meters.  It’s generally recognized that silicon will reach its limit at around 5 nano-meters as quantum tunneling becomes an issue.  Graphene may extend that down somewhat further, but we appear to be nearing the limits of easy capacity increases in classic computers.  Some researchers have managed to scale logic gates down much further, but it’s not clear how commercially viable those implementations might ever be.

Quantum computing may dramatically increase capacities for certain types of processing, but I’m not sure simulating a biological neural network would fall into that category, but I’ll admit I could be underestimating the possibilities of quantum computing.  The big problem right now is that quantum processors have to process in a near 0 Kelvin (absolute zero temperature) environment, something that is unlikely to happen on your desktop computer.

Still, there’s room for optimism.  The brain itself operates at 37 degrees Celsius and has a very modest power requirement of about 25 watts.  While the processing of any one neuron is very pokey by electronic standards, the brain more than makes up for it with its massively parallel architecture.

All of which indicates that we’ve likely only scratched the surface of possible information processing architectures.  The end of Moore’s Law will likely force a type of innovation that simply hasn’t been necessary for several decades: looking at alternate ways of processing information.  That progress will likely come in fits and starts, but there’s no reason to suspect it won’t come.

All that said, it may well eventually turn out that emulating the brain hardware (or “wetware”) will never be an effective strategy.  Maybe, to have a functional copied mind, we’ll have to recreate a new substrate very similar to the original, in other words, a new biology-like brain.  Doing this while imparting the information from the source mind might be profoundly difficult, but again, taking a very long view, there’s nothing that fundamentally prevents it.

This will require a very thorough understanding of the brain and mind.  However, having that understanding may actually enable another strategy.  We may find that the best way to copy a mind is to put it through a translation process, to, in effect, port it to a new platform in the same way that programmers sometimes port software from one hardware platform to another.

This is easier to understand if we consider if a part of the brain were damaged and we swapped it out for a technological replacement.  If someone’s, say, V1 vision processing center was destroyed, and we replaced it with a computer unit that processed vision in its own way, but provided the same information to the rest of the brain that the original V1 center did, would we still have the same person?  If we replaced other components as they failed, at what point would the person cease being the original?  And what’s different if we do it all at the same time?

Of course, this will make skeptics even more convinced that we haven’t really copied the mind, only set up an imitation.  But it seems to me that skepticism is going to come regardless, and that people will still be arguing about it long after the first successful copy is made.

Unless, of course, there are aspects of this I’m not seeing?

Posted in Mind and AI | Tagged , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Thoughts from a Baton Rouge native

I rarely comment on contemporary news.  Usually we as the public have incomplete information, which often shows any immediate commentary to be wrong when the facts eventually come out (if they ever do).  Unfortunately, by the time they do, the public has often lost interest.

But with the recent killing of a black man by police in my home city of Baton Rouge, I have a local perspective.  It’s not much of a perspective mind you, since Baton Rouge is a moderately sized city and my personal exposure is very tangential.  Indeed, for most of the week, only being at home or at work, my exposure was fairly non-existent, except what I saw in the news.

But Saturday I went for a haircut in the small town that I live in at the outskirts of Baton Rouge.  The people in the barbershop (all white) discussed the recent week’s events.  Everyone had pretty much made up their mind.  The consensus there was that Alton Sterling was a troublemaker that got what he deserved.  And that shooting in Minnesota?  Well, hadn’t you heard?  They were smoking weed before the cop came up, also obviously troublemakers.  (Note: I haven’t heard anything about drugs in the news I’ve read or watched.)  And that Obama, obviously he’s just trying to leverage the situation to somehow stay in power past his constitutional term.

After the haircut, I went to Walmart.  There was a mix of white and black people there.  It’s a sad fact of the south that white and black rarely mix socially outside of school or work, and things weren’t that much different there.  But I was struck by some of the sullen stares between young black men and young white men.  The usual indifference between different social tribes seemed to have changed to a sort of uneasy wariness.

When navigating my shopping cart around, at a certain point, I needed to get by the pharmacy line.  An older black women’s cart was slightly in the way, but not in any way I couldn’t maneuver  around.  When she saw me starting to go around, she apologized profusely and moved her cart.  I quickly told her that it was fine, that it wasn’t a problem at all.  She asked me how I was today, and I said fine, and asked her how she was.  We both smiled at each other.  In this exchange, I thought I detected a deliberate attempt from the women to be civilized, to not let the recent events put up a divide.  I appreciated it and was glad I could reciprocate.

The rest of my weekend was filled with a similar mix of experiences.  One thing I was struck by is how few people are withholding judgment, how many have already made up their mind and locked their opinion in.  Unfortunately, those opinions seem to divide mostly (although not completely) by the color of people’s skin or their political ideology.

It seems evident to me that, should the evidence eventually demonstrate that the police acted properly, most of the black and liberal activist community won’t accept it, will in fact assume that it is a cover up.  But it also seems equally evident that should the evidence show that the police acted improperly, that they in fact committed murder or manslaughter, many conservatives will not accept it, will in fact assume that the police officers in question are being offered up as sacrifices to an angry mob.

I don’t know what happened in the shootings.  As a careful skeptic, what disturbs me is how many people, including people who preach evidence based reasoning, assume that they do know what happened.  But it’s worth noting how poor the angles were in the publicly available videos of Alton Sterling’s killing, and that we didn’t actually see the exchange between the police officer and Philando Castile, only the aftermath.  If the police officers in these cases are guilty, then they deserve to go to prison, but only if they’re guilty, and they deserve careful due process in that determination.

But one thing that is painfully evident to me is that the black community has been discriminated against by police for decades, long after they were supposed to have been given equal rights, and that technology, in the form of cell phone video, is finally starting to provide evidence for it.  It may be brutally hard to recognize right now, but on a broad scale, this is progress, and another benefit of the internet age.

Something that may not be evident from the news coverage, which often makes it look like the whole city is in meltdown, is that life here is mostly carrying on.  The protests have generally been peaceful.  I’ve driven by one of them and observed people with signs congregating in companionship.

Even in the protests where there were many arrests (over 160 last time I checked), things were mostly peaceful, with people being arrested for blocking the roadway rather than for  violence.  (Although there have been a few limited cases of violence, such as people throwing things.)  The police have been scathingly criticized for these arrests online, but I can’t fault them for trying to maintain order.  After all, what exactly are the police supposed to do when people try to block major roadways or have things thrown at them?

That said, it seems clear that, on a broader scale, the police have to change.  Hopefully this has become evident to the entire profession.  The systematic humiliation of a minority portion of the population is what lays the groundwork for these types of situations.  It isn’t enough to be transparent in investigations when killings happen.  (Although that definitely helps.)  The automatic assumption of guilt for black people in day to day interactions must change in a sustained and consistent manner.  Otherwise, we will just continue going from one situation like this to another.

Posted in Zeitgeist | 37 Comments

Damasio’s theory of consciousness

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist and neurologist who has published a number of theories about how the brain and mind work.  Unlike many theories of mind, his are thoroughly grounded in neuroanatomy.

Central to Damasio’s theory of consciousness is the idea of biological value, that which helps in preserving homeostasis, which of course aids in survival.  This survival impulse is shared by all life, even the simplest single celled organisms.  Brains are systems evolved to preserve homeostasis and ensure survival.

In Damasio’s view, consciousness centers on the self.  While he doesn’t see the self as an illusion, he doesn’t see it as a static thing either, but rather a process evolved to manage homeostasis.  He uses the analogy of a symphony.  When the symphony begins, it doesn’t have a conductor.  But as it plays, the conductor comes into existence and then takes control of the symphony.  The self comes into being in the brain in layers: the proto-self, the core self, and the autobiographical self.

The proto-self’s formation begins in the brainstem, although in healthy humans the insular cortex, an area in the fold between the parietal and temporal lobe, is also involved.  The brainstem is constantly receiving updates from the body, from the peripheral nervous system.  It uses these signals to construct an image map of the body.  The lower portions of the brainstem are focused on the viscera: the heart, digestive tract, etc.  The higher portions construct an image of the musculoskeletal body.

The brain is vitally concerned with and tightly bound to the body.  It is constantly receiving updates of its body image map from every corner of the body proper, initiating various changes, and then receiving the results of those changes in a tight resonance loop with the body that never ends, until death.  And the most primal level of this resonance starts in the brainstem.

The brainstem is phylogenetically ancient, and many simple animals get along without much else.  From the brainstem arise primordial feelings.  It maintains its active model of the body, the chief object of its concern, and has the basic foundations of homeostasis management.

One interesting area of evidence that Damasio uses for this part of the theory are children born with a birth defect: hydranencephaly, that is without a cerebrum, with only a brainstem and hypothalamus.  These children have a kind of proto-sentience somewhat similar to normal newborns, although they are never able to move beyond that cognitive stage.  Yet they appear to enjoy sensations, music, have favorite caregivers, and generally have a sort of primal existence.

On top of the proto-self is the core self.  The core self is the momentary self.  It exists in “pulses.”  It comes into existence when the proto-self perceives objects and how those objects relate to the body.  Is the object food?  A predator or some other kind of threat?  Another body like ours?  Something else?

When I first read Damasio’s description of this core self concept, I wondered what he was talking about?  Then I realized that he was addressing primal first person experience, the state of a self experiencing perceptions and what those perceptions immediately mean to the self, to the body.  Or perhaps more accurately, he is addressing the feeling of first person experience.

The brainstem is heavily involved in generating the core self, but it isn’t the main show.  Damasio hypothesizes that the main coordinator may be the thalamus, but all areas seem to participate, from the brainstem, the thalamus, and the cerebral cortex.

On top of the core self is the autobiographical self.  This is the self that comes into existence as the organism lives its life.  It is heavily dependent on memories, along with the projections it makes for the future.

And here we get to what I find to be the most interesting aspects of Damasio’s theory.  It’s an explanation for how perception, memory, imagination, and decisions get made in the brain.  To begin with, Damasio describes two types of brain areas: image making areas, and dispositional areas.  The dispositional areas are, evolutionarily, far more ancient, but even the brainstem has low resolution image making portions.  We are conscious of a portion of the processing that happens in the image areas, but never conscious of what happens in the dispositional areas.

To understand the image making areas, consider the process of seeing something.  The photons hitting the photoreceptors on your retina form a pattern which trigger signals up the optic nerve to the brain.  When the signals reach the vision processing centers, patterns form, models, image maps built from the cumulative signals coming in.  In other words, visual images form.

If we hear a sound, a similar audio image will be formed in the audio processing centers, and so on for all the other senses.  This  happens with greater resolution in the neocortex than in the sub-cortical areas, but it happens in many areas of the brain, all in the regions closest to where the sensory pathways come in.

Further from the sensory pathway areas are the dispositional portions.  These are the areas that drive memory, imagination, emotions, and actions.  For memory, Damasio’s view is that we never store actual images.  We only store what the image means to us, the associations between the aspects of the image, the associations between various images from the different senses, and the associations between combinations of images, emotions and possible actions.  From these associations, we are able to later recreate a version of the original image, although it’s never as detailed as the original since the recreated version doesn’t have the sensory data stream coming in.

This works through a concept Damasio calls CDZs (convergence divergence zones).  When images form, the patterns propagate from the image areas into the dispositional areas.  The image of a doughnut may come in at the same time as the smell of doughnuts and then the taste.  All of the cascading signals from the senses converge at a certain neural circuit, a zone.  If this happens repeatedly, or perhaps once with strong emotions firing, synapses become strengthened.

Later, when only one of these signals come in, it may trigger a reverse signal flow, initiating a process called retroactivation, that causes a version of the patterns that initially formed the convergence to reappear in the image areas.  So the smell of doughnuts may trigger memories of the sight and taste of doughnuts.

CDZs exist in hierarchies.  The lowest hierarchies receive inputs from image areas and can both output back to the those image areas as well as upstream to next level of CDZs.  The CDZ hierarchies are clustered in regions Damasio calls CDRegions, which interconnect with each other.  Damasio envisions CDZs existing in the “many thousands”, but there being a few dozen CDRegions.

The multisensory doughnut example above would be a fairly high level CDZ.  In reality, every complex image is itself a galaxy of CDZs.  The visual of a bear is a full range of associations, such as attributes of the bear’s shape, color, activity, etc.  The image of the bear that probably popped in your mind while reading the previous sentence was, according to Damasio, recreated from the bear related CDZs in your brain being triggered by the word “bear.”

But CDZs aren’t just for generating images.  They also generate actions.  (Image generation could itself be considered a type of action.)  That action can be to trigger the release of hormones, to initiate muscle action, or maybe to inhibit action arising from another cluster of CDZs.  CDZs are, of course, the physical manifestation of associations, and the mind works through associations.

I wasn’t sure of usage rights so I didn’t reproduce them here, but here are some diagrams showing the CDZ hierarchies in action.  It starts with a stimulus to part of the network, and ends with the whole associative network being activated and generating the images.

CDRegions are probably created from genetic information, as are many primordial CDZs, but most CDZs get created from experience, from learning.

Incidentally, CDZs also trigger emotions, which Damasio sees as self contained autonomous actions.  He makes a distinction that had never occurred to me, the one between having an emotion, and the feeling of the emotion.  When something triggers an emotion, it happens.  Hormones are released, heart rate is altered, the brain goes into a state prepared for a certain type of cognition.

Earlier in evolutionary history, this immediately led to action, but in more intelligent animals it’s a two step process.  The second step for us is that we feel the emotion though the body image, which influences our inclinations, but leaves us with the power to alter the inclined actions, a capability the autobiographical self contributes toward and a possibly adaptive reason for its existence.

Neocortex lobes Image credit: Sebastian023 via Wikipedia

Neocortex lobes
Image credit: Sebastian023 via Wikipedia

The CDRegions interlink with each other, but the linking appears to converge heavily in a region Damasio calls the PMCs (posteromedial cortices), an unusual name referring to a region that, judging by his diagrams, appear to be in the middle portions of the parietal lobe, and the posterior cingulate cortex underneath.  It is here that Damasio thinks the autobiographical self may live.  It might be best thought of as a CDRegion at the center of a galaxy of CDRegions.

There’s obviously a lot here, and I’ve just given a very surface level summary.  As I noted above, I find the CDZ and CDRegion part of this theory to be the most interesting.  (In reality, they were published as a separate theory, predating Damasio’s theories of self by several years, or at least their publication.)  The power of the CDZ and CDRegion concepts are that they may give us insights into the architecture of the mind.

One possible flaw I see in this overall framework is that it’s more a theory of self than of consciousness in particular.  It doesn’t seem to address the difference between what happens in our conscious experience and what happens subconsciously, or of the experience of experience.  (There are other scientific theories that do, and they’re not necessarily incompatible with Damasio’s theories.)

I also suspect that the division between image forming areas and dispositional areas in the brain isn’t nearly as clean as Damasio implies.  It’s almost certainly more of a spectrum, with early sensory cortices perhaps being more image forming and other regions gradually becoming more dispositional the further they are from the sensory pathways.

There’s also a danger here of viewing the images as passively created by the senses, when in reality, particularly for vision, an enormous amount of active modeling is taking place from the retina on back to the brain, with even our immediate perceptions heavily influenced by preexisting associations.

Still, there’s a lot here that strikes me as very plausible.  Damasio makes no pretense of his theories being the final word, only that they add possible explanations of what is happening, and I think they definitely do that.

All of the information in this post came from Damasio’s book ‘Self Comes to Mind‘.  A quick warning: I didn’t find this to be easy reading.  Damasio often discusses neuroanatomy in detail and assumes the reader can follow along.  And his style is very verbose, often taking a long time to make a fairly basic point.  Still, if you’re interested in how the mind works, I found it worth the effort.

If you have the time, here’s Damasio’s TED talk on consciousness:

h/t amanimal for recommending the book!

Posted in Mind and AI | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Is there a moral arc to history?

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

As someone who isn’t able to find an objective basis for morality, I’ve often wondered what that means for the above statement from Martin Luther King.  It certainly feels like we’re making moral progress, that the status of previously oppressed or marginalized people in society are better right now in developed societies than at any other time in history.

But without an objective basis for this, can it be a true sentiment?  Or is it an illusion, similar to the illusion of progress in evolution, the idea that humans are the goal, the pinnacle of success of a billions year long process, when in reality it’s all just naturally selected random mutations and that humans were far from inevitable.  Maybe the appearance of moral progress is just the shifting tides of social mores, and what looks like progress to us is the gradual approach in history toward the relative mores we hold today, the ones we’ve all been indoctrinated in.

I think we have to be cognizant of that possibility, but we can maybe get a little more objective footing by, instead of looking at morals per se, looking at happiness.  Of course, happiness can itself be a treacherous measure, since how happy people say they are is often heavily influenced by their culture, about whether people should be happy.  I know intellectuals who never claim to be happy although they often act like they’re happy, and conservative evangelical Christians who always insist that they’re happy, even when they’re clearly not.

Still, there have been international surveys of happiness, and to a certain extent, there are factors that seem to affect it cross culturally.  People who are starving, suffering persecution, discrimination, economic hardship, or are in other precarious situations where their safety and well being are challenged, are not as happy as people who don’t have those challenges.

Of course, happiness, like morality, is built on a foundation of evolved instincts.  Those foundations seem to leave a lot of leeway for what might make any one individual person happy.  A woman in a heavily traditionalist society, whose options are tightly constricted, might still consider herself to be happy.  But the percentage of women in that society who chafe under the restrictions will likely be higher than the percentage of women in a more liberal society where women are treated more equally.

It could be argued that societies are evolving toward a state that more closely matches our instinctual needs.  But what are those instinctual needs?

Evolutionary psychology often looks to our ancestral environment, usually labeled as the African savanna, although in reality it’s probably more accurate to consider it to encompass many if not all of the sub-Saharan African environments.  But more importantly, we’re talking about a time where we lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands.

Homo sapiens first appear in Africa about 200,000 years ago.  From that time until about 10,000 years ago, we lived in these small roving bands.  And if we include pre-Homo sapiens in the mix, then we lived that lifestyle for millions of years.  Of course, evolution hasn’t stopped and we have to remember that, but there are limits to how much a human nature shaped by millions of years of evolution could have changed in only 10,000 years.  Populations of humanity were separated from each other for most of those 10,000 years, yet humans from any part of the world are more alike than not, indicating that recent evolution, while it definitely has happened, has been more subtle than profound.

What was the ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle like?  It’s difficult to know since we’re talking about prehistory, with the only records left being the very rare cave painting.  Archaeologists can glean some clues from the artifacts left behind, but the amount of that evidence is pretty tiny.

A San (Bushman). Image credit: Ian Beatty from Amherst, MA, USA via Wikipedia

A San (Bushman). Image credit: Ian Beatty from Amherst, MA, USA via Wikipedia

This leaves us to derive what we can by studying modern hunter gatherers.  We always have to keep in mind that these modern societies may or may not resemble the ancient ones.  However, those ancient cultures are unlikely to have been monolithic anyway, so examining the logistics of living such a life, the physical constraints it puts on the parameters of such a culture, probably does give us some insights.

Hunter gatherer bands tend to be small, less than 150 people.  They rarely have permanent leaders.  Everyone knows each other, and is more or less equal, although there can be inequalities between men and women, and old and young.  There generally aren’t any codified moral standards, even oral ones.  They’re not needed since everyone knows each other and reputations, ostracizing, or the occasional threat of revenge act as deterrent mechanisms.  From what I’ve read, the lifestyle often only requires about 10-15 hours of work a week, at least when food is readily available and game not too difficult to catch.

Before getting too taken with the attraction of such a lifestyle, it’s worth noting the drawbacks.  While the band is nomadic, it usually is restricted to a fairly narrow territory, so you’re not going to see the world.  Straying from the territory into another band’s area can cause conflict.  It’s also worth noting that anyone who can’t keep up with the band, such as aged parents, generally have to be left behind or euthanized.  And women usually have to marry into other surrounding bands to avoid coupling with their relatives.  (It’s rarely the men who go to the other bands.)

Life can be precarious.  Food generally can’t be stored.  It has to be consumed when it is picked or killed.  If the population of the band gets too high, it can cause problems.  Indeed, increasing populations, coupled with a drying climate, is probably what led to the earliest farming.

The egalitarian nature of ancestral humans is somewhat unusual among primates.  Chimps, gorillas, and other primates generally form hierarchies, with an alpha male on top and he and his lieutenants having privileged access to females and food.  (Bonobos are egalitarian, and have lots of sex, but they’re also oddballs.)  That this doesn’t happen in humans might have something to do with language.  If an alpha male tries to dominate, the other males will likely form coalitions and take him out.

So, our evolutionary background seems to include latent instincts for forming and obeying hierarchies, but also instincts for resisting bullies.  For the vast majority of anatomically modern human history, the urge for freedom, or at least egalitarianism, triumphed.  But then we started settling down and farming, and societies started to become more complex.

Narmer, first king of Egypt Image credit: Wikipedia

Narmer, first king of Egypt
Image credit: Wikipedia

A flat leaderless society couldn’t work anymore.  We went back to hierarchies, with a vengeance.  Across hundreds of generations these hierarchies became deeper, more pronounced, and more rigid.  The right of chiefs and kings to absolute power often became linked to the will of the gods.  All of this culminated in perhaps the ultimate act of inequality, human sacrifice.

This appears to have been the situation at the beginning of recorded history.  Writing seemed to have had an effect on the most extreme practices of inequality.  Human sacrifice generally doesn’t seem to survive its introduction for very long.  But pre-Axial Age archaic societies (think ancient Sumer or Egypt) were still rigidly and relentlessly hierarchical.

Starting in the Axial Age and the greater proliferation of literacy, thinkers began to push back against this arrangement.  Confucius, while largely accepting the necessity of hierarchies, sternly warned that those higher up had responsibilities to those lower down.

Other figures questioned the need for absolute hierarchies.  This was a period where some philosophers and religious figures started to push back against the idea that hierarchies were a natural and immutable aspect of existence, or at least that those currently on top deserved to be there.  The earliest democracies and republics formed during this period.  Systems of morality started to apply to all of humanity, not just those in the local culture, questioning a type of inequality that had existed even back in the hunter gatherer days.

There have been many setbacks over the centuries, but societies seem to be progressively becoming more egalitarian, less hierarchical, gradually bringing us closer to the state of nature we lived in 10,000 years ago.

No one has figured out how to keep civilization while eliminating the hierarchies completely, although many political movements in the last few centuries tried (such as the French and Communist revolutions).  But western civilization seems to do be doing what it can to mitigate their evils.  Most developed societies are democracies with everyone having a say, at least nominally, in who sits in the upper echelons of the hierarchy.  And there is generally an expectation that people have to earn their spot in the hierarchy.

Of course it’s not all sweetness and light.  Aspects of inheritable position seem difficult to stamp out.  In many western societies, it takes the form of wealth and the power that comes with it, power which, as many of us are aware, allow those who wield it to influence the composition and actions of the hierarchies.

So, is there a moral arc?  I think we can tentatively say “yes”, in the sense that societies are gradually changing their moral and social systems to be more compatible with the instinctual needs of the vast majority of their citizens.

But while the broad sweep of history seems to be moving in that direction, the setbacks will still happen, and the suffering of those caught up in them will remain.  After all, the desire to be the alpha male (or alpha female, history has shown that women aren’t necessarily immune) continues to be a latent urge in many of us.

What do you think?  Is there a moral arc?  Or am I just engaging in wishful thinking?  What effect might technology have on moral and governance systems in the future?  Will we ever be able to eliminate hierarchies?  Should we?

Posted in History, Morality | Tagged , , , , , , , | 33 Comments