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Monthly Archives: March 2004

Victoria station at rush hour

If you stand on Victoria station at rush hour there are more people in your field of view than most people, for most of human history, would have met in their entire lives. In ten minutes more people walk passed you than the sum population of the human species at its narrowist bottleneck.

All in all, I think we’re coping remarkably well.

Quote #16

The availability of good coffee has become more important than the availability of democracy.

– Michael Leunig

Quote #14

Reading maketh a full man,
conference a ready man,
and writing an exact man.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) ‘Of studies’

neuroanatomical orientation

Not only do different people call different structures in the brain by different names, depending on which classificatory scheme they use and which species they mainly invesitgate, but also the different structures are all heirarchically organised so that any given structure is probably also part of several supa-structures and will contain a number of sub-structures.

Help is at hand.

This is a basic crib sheet for the basic terminology on prefixes, directional terminology, etc

BrainInfo is great for definitions of areas, showing where they are in the heirarchy, what else they are called and what else they contain.

And the Whole Brain Atlas is another great resource for orientating yourself.

Medics and moral reasoning


A study of a class of Quebec medical students has prompted researchers to ask whether a hidden curriculum exists in the structure of medical education that inhibits rather than facilitates moral reasoning. The study appears in the April 1 edition of the Canadian Association Medical Journal (CMAJ 2003;168:840-4).

Using a french-varient of the Kohlberg moral reasoning scale…

The authors say that in the results they did not observe the increase in the development of moral reasoning that was expected with maturation and involvement in university studies: “We found a significant decrease in weighted average scores after three years of medical education.”

I’d love to see the appropriate controls for all other kinds of further education. Reminds me a bit of the anecdata about selfish (aka ‘rational’) behaviour increasing as economics students progress in their studies

children, chickens and pecking orders

So I was in a meeting at the OU the other day, talking to this developmental psychology professor and we got onto the topic of status hierarchies. If you go around a class of children and ask everyone who is popular and who is unpopular you can classify the children into accepted (i.e. liked), rejected (i.e. disliked) and controversial. Then you have another group of children – the neglected – who simply aren’t mentioned by anyone else. They don’t appear on the social radar at all! Sadly although kids in the first three categories tend to move around – the rejected can become accepted, the accepted controversial, etc – the neglected category is far and the most stable. And worse than that, belonging to that category is strongly associated with poor academic performance, with behavioural problems and low self-esteem.

So far, so standard sociometry, you say. What it was that this professor said that interested me was that with children’s status hierarchies you can disrupt them most successfully by removing the kids at the bottom (the rejected, that is, not the neglected). If you just remove the kid at the top then the second most popular kid becomes the most popular, and so on down the hierarchy. Remove the kid at the bottom and there is a tendency for the whole thing to reassemble. A whole new micro-social order is created.

He also said that the same thing was true for pecking order in chickens.

I love the way this inverses the way you might think about the importance of people in a hierarchy with respect to the definition of that hierarchy. The guys at the top are immediately replaceable. It’s the guys at the bottom who define the social structure. Speaking to Matt about this he suggested that it was all about the referent classes that the micro-society uses to define itself against. Everyone uses the people at the bottom as the standard they set themselves apart from, the object of their scorn which they use to demonstrate their position on the social ladder. (At least that’s what i think he meant).

Politically the moral is exciting – if you want to change society, don’t replace the leaders, get rid of the oppressed.

It’d like to hear from anyone who can easily reference this, by the way

Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students

Stephen C. Stearns provides Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students which is punchy and useful:

?When you first arrive, read and think widely and exhaustively for a year. Assume that everything you read is bullshit until the author manages to convince you that it isn?t. If you do not understand something, don?t feel bad ? it?s not your fault, it?s the author?s. He didn?t write clearly enough.

?Nothing elicits dominant behavior like subservient behavior. Expect and demand to be treated like a colleague. The paper requirements are the explicit hurdle you will have to jump, but the implicit hurdle is attaining the status of a colleague. Act like one and you?ll be treated like one.

?To learn to think, you need two things: large blocks of time, and as much one-on-one interaction as you can get with someone who thinks more clearly than you do.

?Describe your problem as a series of subproblems that can each be attacked in a series of small steps. Devise experiments, observations or analyses that will permit you to exclude alternatives at each stage. Line them up and start knocking them down. By transforming the big problem into a series of smaller ones, you always know what to do next, you lower the energy threshold to begin work, you identify the part that will take the longest or cause the most problems, and you have available a list of things to do when something doesn?t work out.

And my favourite bit

?Pick a date for the presentation of your thesis and work backwards in constructing a schedule of how you are going to use your time. You can expect a stab of terror at this point. Don?t worry ?it goes on like this for awhile, then it gradually gets worse.

He also recommends the excellent style guide by Strunk (rather forcefully: Buy and use a copy of Strunk and White?s Elements of Style. Read it before you sit down to write your first paper, then read it again at least once a year for the next three or four years.) which is available here

article links

Just updated my cuttings page to include some scans of two articles I wrote for the ecologist last year, something on Greenmaps and a scan of my article about social influence/milgram. There’s also my article about tv addiction, but it’s too annoying to read really.

Speaking of self-publicising, there’s an article I wrote about the Sheffield Social Forum on Democracy is not a spectator sport.

The Greenmap Atlas e-book has just been published and, gosh, who is that eminently sensible young man quoted on page 3 of the introduction…?

The banality of evil

Just finished:

Hannah Arendt (1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem, A report on the Banality of Evil

The historical complement to Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority. Like Primo Levi said,

They were made of the same cloth as we were, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces…

The thing that stood out was the the way the final solution was resisted by a few couragous individuals and by a handful of countries (Denmark particularly) that found the strength to say ‘no’. And in those countries where dissent was expressed more or less openly, the majority of the population – even anti-semites and Nazi soldiers – could be carried along with the resistence to the holocaust

… “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere

the autistic i-society

Autism as the defining symptom of the internet-age and/or the internet as a bridge through which the space of society is widened to include individuals who aren’t neurotypical: read “Autism & The Internet” or “It’s The Wiring, Stupid” by Harvey Blume.

Bruce Mazlish is… The Fourth Discontinuity: the Co-evolution of Humans and Machines (1993)… argues that human history has been marked by four discontinuities, each considered unbridgeable while it prevailed. The first discontinuity was between humanity and cosmos. This was overcome by Copernican astronomy, which located earth within a universe of stars, planets, and other galactic phenomenon. The second discontinuity was between human and beast. This, in turn, was bridged by Darwin. The third discontinuity pertains to the distinction between ego and instinct, the presumably autonomous individual and the unconscious. Freud showed this to be a permeable membrane at best.

The last discontinuity is between human and machine. What with smart machines, and cybernetic models of the human mind, Mazlish sees that discontinuity as giving way in our own time. The computer opens a Northwest Passage between natural and artificial intelligence, the organism and the mechanism. The last of the discontinuities that make humanity special, a creation unto itself, is being scaled.

Except, of course, that the true discontinuity is not between human and machine but between life and non-life. Blume’s point is still true at heart – that a neurological view is a neurofunctional view, which is a type of mechanism. But

With neurology comes neurobabble. As Americans we will certainly not refuse the chance to simplify and babble-ize any paradigm that comes our way.

If only it was just Americans!

I find the use of the label ‘autistic’ to include everyone on the autistic spectrum disturbing. Most clinically defined autistics probably don’t even use language, let alone the internet. Grouping clinical and sub-clinical populations is a linguistic dilution which confuses the issue and marginalises clinical cases. It confuses because it continues the zeitgeist for medicalising and/or pathologising everything.

High functioning ‘autistics’ are able to talk about the patterns of ability/disability. The average person is able to emphasise with the way the profile is presented and the average parent is able to spend money on ‘curing’, treating or preventing autism in their child. We start to think of autism as a quirk of personality or to expect savantism in every autistic – something that is unfair to autistics who won’t conform to our misled prejudices and hence disappoint or be cast in roles that don’t suit them

Linguistic reservations aside, Blume’s essay has lots of truth in it and is engaging and thought-provoking.