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Monthly Archives: May 2004

Quote #25, Neoteny

Reading Tom Robbin’s Still Life With Woodpecker on the tube this morning i was pleasently surprised by this:

“Neoteny” is “remaining young”, and it may be ironic that it is so little known, because human evolution has been dominated by it. Humans have evolved to their relatively high state by retaining the immature characteristics of their ancestors. Humans are the most advanced of mammals — although a case could be made for the dolphins — because they seldom grow up. Behavioral traits such as curiosity about the world, flexibility of response, and playfulness are common to practically all young mammals but are usually rapidly lost with the onset of maturity in all but humans. Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature

Ha! And with that, I’m off to the Hay Festival.

Links for 28th May ‘04

Marketing (rant warning)

Geoffrey Miller thinks marketing is the greatest invention of the last 2,000 years


What he writes make me feel uncomfortable in a way I can’t really put my finger on. This means that either

a) he is right, and I’m a damn liberal who can’t face up to the truth

b) he is wrong, but in ever so subtle a way

He says Almost everything we can buy is the result of some marketing people in some company thinking very hard about how to make us happy.

Surely, it’s more accurate to say that almost everything we can buy is the result of some marketing people in some company thinking very hard about how to make us buy their stuff. This is an important difference.

If, like he notes, the marketing orientation has become common in companies that make things for individual customers, like clothes, cars, televisions, and movies. It remains rare in heavy industry that produces steel, coal, oil, and paper, where the immediate consumers are other businesses

isn’t this because businesses are subject to a different set of irrationalities than individual consumers?

One important difference might be that businesses consumers aren’t divided and vastly outsized by their producers in the same way as individual consumers.

Marketing makes us technology?s masters. This renders most of Marx irrelevant. What can alienation and exploitation mean when business listens so hard to our desires?

I guess alienation can only make sense if people can become alienated from their own desires. Which is kind of a psychological-level version of Marxist false-consciousness anyway, and remains a pretty dirty theoretical trick.

Doesn’t mean it isn’t true though.

Like fish unaware of water, we do not realize that we live in the Age of Marketing…Democracy is simply the marketing concept applied to government.

And there are different types of democracy, and democratic failures, just like there can be different types of markets and market failures. I have to be suspicious of anyone who tries to sell me One Market, or one notion of Democracy.

Is the marketing revolution a good thing? On the upside, it promises a golden age when social institutions and markets are systematically organized to maximize human happiness.

There’s that mistake again – maximising fallible human choices isn’t the same as maximising human happiness. But then, it’s hard to know what other indexes to use.

On the downside, marketing is Buddha?s worst nightmare. It is the Veil of Maya made scientific and backed by billion-dollar campaigns. It perpetuates the grand illusion that desire leads to fulfillment..It is the enemy of human consciousness, because consciousness is content with its own company, and needs nothing from the world. The trouble is not that marketing promotes materialism. Quite the opposite. It promotes a narcissistic pseudo-spiritualism based on subjective pleasure, social status, romance, and life-style.

A moment of clarity mixed with a moment of nonsense.

Marketing brings more immediate problems. Like democracy, it forces intellectual elites to confront our patronizing attitudes towards the masses. Elites do not always like companies and states that provide what the people want….Marketing, like democracy, is anti-arrogance, anti-power, and anti-idealism….For the elite, marketing?s populism can be an alarming prospect….Cultural elites usually take a dim view of uncultured human nature to justify denying the power of choice to ordinary people. Fear of an economy based on market research, like Plato?s fear of democracy based on universal suffrage, is based on contempt for our species. Elites hate to recognize the marketing revolution because they hate to admit that contempt. Marketing is the most important invention of the last two millenia because it is the only revolution that has ever succeeded in bringing real power to the people.

I look around at the six billion, as we break in waves of hunger a desire upon the eroded shore of history, and I wonder how we feel about our new, real, power. Power given to us – yes given! – by the wonderful power of marketing, marketers and the corporations that employ them.

It is not just the power to redistribute wealth, to split the social cake into different pieces. Rather, it is the power to make our means of production transform the natural world into a playground for human passions. Marketing is not just the icing on the material world. It has become the recipe, the kitchen, and the cook.

But marketing isn’t just a tool for working out what human desires are. Human desires are not some inviolate essence. They are created by social influences- created, evoked, and manipulated. Consciousness is not content with its own company, and needs nothing from the world. Consciousness is inherently social. We gauge our own status by social comparison, we want what others want, we believe what others in our tribe believe.

Marketing is not an innocent observer in this scenario, no more than markets are spontaneous entities existing aside from politics and culture. All markets are designed by a set of socially sanctioned forces, and all marketing serves interests other than those of the consumers.

visualisation of the dynamics of neural pruning

Via futurepundit

A time-lapse 3-D movie that compresses 15 years of human brain maturation, ages 5 to 20, into seconds shows gray matter – the working tissue of the brain’s cortex – diminishing in a back-to-front wave, likely reflecting the pruning of unused neuronal connections during the teen years. Cortex areas can be seen maturing at ages in which relevant cognitive and functional developmental milestones occur. The sequence of maturation also roughly parallels the evolution of the mammalian brain, suggest Drs. Nitin Gogtay, Judith Rapoport, NIMH, and Paul Thompson, Arthur Toga, UCLA, and colleagues, whose study is published online during the week of May 17, 2004 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Yummy, mpeg here

The Development Set

The Development Set
By Ross Coggins

Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet-
I’m off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots,
I have travelers’ checks, and pills for the trots

The Development Set is bright and noble,
Our thoughts are deep and our vision global;
Although we move with the better classes,
Our thoughts are always with the masses.

In Sheraton hotels in scattered nations,
We damn multinational corporations;
Injustice seems so easy to protest,
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African drought,
We face each issue with an open mouth.

We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution-
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.

The language of the Development Set
Stretches the English alphabet;
We use swell words like ‘epigenetic’,
‘Micro’, ‘Macro’. and ‘logarithmetic’.

Development Set homes are extremely chic,
Full of carvings, curios and draped with batik.
Eye-level photographs subtly assure
That your host is at home with the rich and the poor.

Enough of these verses — on with the mission!
Our task is as broad as the human condition!
Just parry to God the biblical promise is true:
The poor ye shall always have with you.

From Graham Hancock’s book “Lords of Poverty”

Petty, unoriginal griefs

Neil has some thoughts on The Black Rider:

*what is it* I’m actually enjoying about this? It’s not the emotional resonance of well-drawn characters or the powerful realism of great acting or the engaging originality of cleverly-devised plots- I guess it’s the triumph of style over substance in both cases, but what style 😉 I also wondered whether one of the reason burlesque does work is because its cliche-laden expressions of cheap sentiment are actually a more realistic representation of a life characterised by the mundane scope of petty, unoriginal griefs, loves and yearnings than the grand passions and higher purposes portrayed elsewhere, but by treating it all with such irony manages to get away with the dramatic equivalent of adolescent poetry- expressing feelings in cloying and cliched terms that are utterly heartfelt and engulfing.

links for 23nd of May

How Creationists do peer-review

Interesting post over at Panda’s Thumb on the ‘peer-review’ system of the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design – which is an Intelligent Design organisation (ie Creationist front).

The thing i love about the creationists is that they can be so good at hitting upon genuine problems within evolutionary theory, and science and general, but their solutions are so WRONG.

Anyway, one comment on the post is interesting

Do y?all mind if I ask another stupid question?

Is this site named ?Panda?s Thumb? or is it, ?Get Dembski??:)

Here?s my background:

1. I am an attorney, specializing in cancer cases;
2. I, therefore, have to hire zillions of experts (pathologists, biochemists, oncologists, etc,) at usurious rates (sometimes up to $500/hour!)
3. I, therefore, have to cross-examine the other side?s expensive, well-qualified experts at trial;
4. I, therefore, know just enough science to make me dangerously, incompletely informed;
5. I also get to see, first hand, numerous schisms in the scientific/medical community on numerous issues;
6. But, I rarely see the rancor and teeth-gnashing exhibited in this debate, Evolution v. ID.

That’s the thing isn’t it – just enough science to make me dangerously, incompletely informed. Now with a topic as large as evolution, who has the time or intellect to get completely informed? Apart from geniuses and fanatics, none of us. So we have to fall back on meta-theory to make decisions about which theories to accept. And part of meta-theory is world-view (ie axiom 1: believe the bible vs axiom 2: believe scientific orthodoxy).

The creation-evolution debate will be an endless chase of fact, challenge and refutation until people start discussing why they believe things or why anyone should believe anything.

And then we wheel out the two real strengths of evolutionary theory
1. Parsimony – which also implies, incidentally, that even if evolutionary theory was wrong, there’s no good reason to believe that the Christian bible is right).
2. Generativity – the ability of a research programme to generate new insight over time, rather than just adjust itself to new evidence in an ad-hoc manner is crucial.

Read the full post here

Links for 20th of May

The mechanics of option paralysis

A book review in the New Yorker by Christopher Caldwell of Barry Schwartz’s ‘The Paradox of Choice’

Schwartz looks at the particular patterns of our irrationality, relying on the sort of research pioneered by two Israeli-American psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. It turns out, for instance, that people will often consciously choose against their own happiness. Tversky and a colleague once asked subjects whether they?d prefer to be making thirty-five thousand dollars a year while those around them were making thirty-eight thousand or thirty-three thousand while those around them were making thirty thousand. They answered, in effect, that it depends on what the meaning of the word ?prefer? is. Sixty-two per cent said they?d be happier in the latter case, but eighty-four per cent said they?d choose the former.


Research in the wake of Kahneman and Tversky has unearthed a number of conundrums around choice. For one thing, choice can be ?de-motivating.? In a study conducted several years ago, shoppers who were offered free samples of six different jams were more likely to buy one than shoppers who were offered free samples of twenty-four. This result seems irrational?surely you?re more apt to find something you like from a range four times as large?but it can be replicated in a variety of contexts. Students who are offered six topics they can write about for extra credit, for instance, are more likely to write a paper than students who are offered thirty.


Nor is the ?paradox of choice? limited to the shopping aisle. It helps explain why so many people at age thirty are still flailing about, trying to choose a career?and why so many marriageable singles wind up alone. You await a spouse who combines the kindness of your mom, the wit of the smartest person you met in grad school, and the looks of someone you dated in 1983 (as she was in 1983) . . . and you wind up spending middle age by yourself, watching the Sports Channel at 2 a.m. in a studio apartment strewn with pizza boxes.

[and, after discussing one, solution, that of limiting choice, Caldwell discusses the extent to which consumers are already using their freedom of choice to choose, in effect, a limiting of their choices]

Robert Reich, in his recent book ?The Future of Success,? notes that modern consumers, like corporations, respond to the marketplace by ?outsourcing? choice. They hire experts?critics, in the old way of looking at things. While many experts, such as interior decorators, offer personalized service and charge a mint, the masses have access to choosing services that are essentially free. That, in effect, is what a ?brand? is.

One function of certain New Economy innovations is to make choosing easier by automating it. TiVo, in theory, allows television addicts to lose themselves in ever more programming choices, but it can also be used as a filter, a means of allowing viewers to dispense with choosing altogether. Internet grocery services, such as Peapod, allow shoppers to fill out a template that protects them from having to rechoose every week. In practical terms, the Peapod shopper is confronted with far fewer new brands and choices than was a suburban housewife pushing her cart down a grocery aisle during the Kennedy Administration.

[although this does look like one kind of solution i’m yet to be convinced that this is the way forward – the consumption of a tailored set of limited choices customised to my desires seems very limiting for the potential of human growth, certainly bad in terms of social capital (lots of bonding, no bridging in the terminology) and pretty sinister in implications for social control as well

but Caldwell is off to other terrain for the end of the review…]

…the phenomenon?sometimes called the ?hedonic treadmill? can also explain why disaster, whether bankruptcy or incapacitation, seldom burdens our spirits for very long.

Strangely, we lose sight of our human resilience when we make big choices. People are consistently puzzled that so many things they had dreaded?from getting fired to being ditched by a spouse??turned out for the best.? Gilbert and Wilson even speculate (in a diplomatic way) that our inability to forecast this adaptive capacity spurs some people to a belief in God. ?Because people are largely unaware that their internal dynamics promote such positive change,? they write, ?they look outward for an explanation.? A tendency to overestimate the joy we?ll get from buying baubles and winning honors is only half of a complex predisposition. The other half is our enormous capacity for happiness, even in the absence of such things. The surprise isn?t how often we make bad choices; the surprise is how seldom they defeat us.

[all book reviews should be like this!]


brighton dawn

My friend jenny sent me this picture from a few weeks ago at a party in Brighton. I’ve no idea who these people are but i didn’t want to delete the picture, so i put it here.

thinking faster

Via (in this edited excerpt Steve Johnson is quoting Antonio Damasio)

On the face of it, idea that the speed of modern life will lead to cognitive overload is a familiar complaint: cultural critics like David Shenk and the late Neil Postman have warned of the dangers of accelerated society. But Damasio has a twist: he’s not saying that the brain can’t keep up with the society — he’s saying that part of the brain can’t keep up with the society, while another part, thus far, has been game to go along for the ride.

“We really have two systems that are totally integrated and work perfectly well with each other, but that are very different in their time constants. One is the emotional system, which is the basic regulatory system that works very slowly, with time scales of a second or more. Than you have the cognitive system, which is much faster, because of the way it’s wired, and because a lot of the fiber systems are totally mylenated — which means it works much faster. So you can do a lot of reasoning, a lot of recognition of objects, remembering names, in just a few hundredths of a second. And in fact it has been suggested that we’re optimizing those times — that we’re working faster and faster…

[however] there is no evidence whatsoever that the emotional system is going to speed up…In fact, I think that it’s pretty clear that the emotional system, because it is a body regulatory system, is going to stay at those same slow time constants. There’s this constant limit, which is that the fibers are unmylenated. So the conduction is very slow.” In a sense, this is an engineering problem: The system that builds somatic markers — the system that encodes the stream of consciousness with value — works more slowly than the system that feeds it data to encode. The result is not a short-circuit of our cognitive machinery. (We can in fact process all that data, and perhaps more.) The danger comes from the emotional system shorting out.

show it like it is

Via Dave does the blog

The story is told of Picasso that a stranger in a railway carriage accosted him with the challenge, ?Why don?t you paint things as they really are.?

Picasso demurred, saying that he did not quite understand what the gentleman meant, and the stranger then produced from his wallet a photograph of his wife. ?I mean,? he said, ?like that. That?s how she is.?

Picasso coughed hesitantly and said, ?She is rather small, isn?t she. And somewhat flat??

? Angels Fear, by Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson

chomsky in the UK

Chomsky is in the UK in May

The 2004 Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture will be given by Professor Noam Chomsky and is called, ‘Simple Truths, Hard Choices: Some Thoughts on Terror, Justice and Self-defense’. Professor Ted Honderich will preside.

The lecture will take place on 19 May at 5.30 pm in Logan Hall, The Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1. The lecture is free and open to the public. There are no tickets, and no reservations can be made. We suggest you arrive early to be sure of a seat.

And, guess what, he also has a blog now!

Innate Landscape Preferences

Young children (eg age 8) say they prefer savannah landscapes over other types of natural landscape (Balling & Falk, 1982). Older children and adults don’t exhibit this preference. The evolutionary psychology interpretation of this is that there is an innate preference for the environment within which modern humans evolved, but that this preference is over-ridden by lifetime development of aesthetic preferences which are influenced by your personality and environment.

Or, put another way, you’re born with a feel for the plains of east Africa, but as you get older you can grow to love the flats of Peckham.

In lots of ways this seems like a typical piece of evolutionary psychology. It could be true – and if it was true it might be interesting – but there’s no reason why it has to be true. Has the experiment been replicated? Has it been replicated cross-culturally? Has it been replicated when controlling for scene complexity and for the adaptive value of the landscape (ie the prospect-refuge affordances). The answers to these questions seem to be either ‘no’ or ‘not alot’ (ie not very well). Obviously i could be wrong and some more delving into the literature might turn up some more references [1].

It also seems to be crying out for a replication with pre-linguistic infants using a preferential-looking paradigm…

[1] I think my further reading would begin here:

Appleton, J. 1996. The Experience of Landscape. Revised edition. New York, Wiley.

Orians, G.H. & Heerwagen, J.H. 1992. Evolved responses to landscapes. In Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (eds) The Adapted Mind. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 555-579.

Myth busting: metabolism while watching TV

I’ve been told this so many times, and it feels so right it should be true: your metabolic rate while watching television is lower than when you are unconscious. It should be true, but it isn’t

Buchowski MS, Sun M. (1996). Energy expenditure, television viewing and obesity.
International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolism Disorders. 1996 Mar;20(3):236-44.
Abstract: OBJECTIVE: To measure energy expenditure (EE) of television viewing, sitting, and resting and duration of self-selected television viewing in obese and non-obese men and women. DESIGN: Cross-over randomized study consisting of two separate 24-h stays in a whole-room indirect calorimeter. SUBJECTS: 123 obese and non-obese healthy men and women (age: 38 +/- 9, BMI: 29.4 +/- 7.9) MEASUREMENTS: Rates of energy expenditure during resting (RMR), sitting (EEsit) and television viewing (EEtv) using indirect calorimetry technique on two separate 24-h stays in a whole-room indirect calorimeter. Physical activities and work of body movements during these periods using a large force platform system located inside the calorimeter. RESULTS: Rates of EE for television viewing, adjusted for differences in body composition were 18% higher than resting metabolic rate (RMR), but similar to rates of other sedentary activities. There were no significant differences between obese and non-obese subjects in metabolic rates during resting, television viewing, and other sedentary activities. Average time of self-selected television viewing was significantly greater in obese than in non-obese subjects and also in women than in men. CONCLUSION: EE rate for television viewing in adults is higher than RMR and similar to other sedentary activities. Obese adults choose television viewing as a form of leisure activity more often than non-obese individuals and as a result they could significantly reduce other forms of physical activities and total daily EE.

Mind Shut Closed

Steve Johnson‘s Mind Wide Open gets a bad review. Although the review is great fun to read, it’s because it contains more about the review than the book. It concludes:

The idea that brain science is somehow going to do something which will “exceed the wildest dreams of poets and philosophers” is very light and very ignorant. It is, however, a characteristic idea of our time.

Which is true, as far as it goes, but he also says:

Equally, our minds work on the basis of myriad assumptions. If these are exposed as the deterministic workings of mere chemistry, then we might not even be able to get through the day, never mind the next million years.

which Paul Myers characterises well as

Well. I guess we’d better stop studying the brain then, shouldn’t we? Who knows, we might actually learn things about how it works that don’t involve angels or ghosts, and then people will get depressed.

The great thing about consciousness is it’s sheer obstinacy in the face of contradictory evidence. We don’t need to worry too much about the existential dangers of too much scientific information (the damage has already beeen done in that respect). We do need to worry about the social use, misuse and abuse of scientific information…But that’s another story.


charity efficiency

So someone suggested last night that Oxfam waste our money. The specific claim being (if i remember right) that ‘there was a report’ saying that even though they pay less than the commercial sector to their employees, and they use volunteers to do work for free, they are still an inefficient beaurocracy squandering cash in only the way well-meaning but incompetent lefties can.

Well, I couldn’t find any hint of this report by looking on the internet, although i did find this from Oxfam Ireland

We strive to keep our administration costs to an absolute minimum in order to ensure that the value of each euro/pound that you donate is maximised. During the 2002/2003 period, 90 cent/pence in every donated euro/pound went towards supporting our overseas programmes and campaigns work…When you make a donation to one of our Emergency Appeals, 100% of your donation goes directly to that Emergency relief effort…Did you know that for every pound or euro donated, there is the possibility of us raising a further four pounds or euros from other European (both government and other institutional) funding sources?

The annual report of Oxfam UK (the third biggest charity in the UK, incidentally) gives their accounts. So, next, I looked at this and the accounts for Cancer Research UK (who are the biggest charity in the UK) and two other international development charities – Christian Aid and Action Aid, comparing the total income, charitable expenditure and admin and management costs for each charity.

So Oxfam have about the same admin costs as other international development NGOs and about the same charitable spend as another charity of comparable size. But I guess a lot depends on what they include under ‘charitable spend’. This here is a pretty crude index of efficiency.

Simply put I don’t have the expertise to assess if, or if not, Oxfam are being more or less inefficient that anyone else. What they do, and the scale they do it at, makes comparisons difficult. My ignorance of the subject doesn’t help either. Does anyone have any advice or leads on this – i’d love to hear more about how to tell if a charity is spending money well?

This guy seems to have looked into it and to have been satisfied with what he found out. There’s an article about league tables of charity spending efficiency, and why they can be misleading, here, which seemed important.

For me I think the more important thing is what the money is being spent on (which is what I think Emily was getting at when she started the conversation and concluded by saying, “I just don’t want them spending my money on bibles” i guess). Given that Oxfam operates in 75 countries, provides emergency disaster relief but also – and this is the majority of their work – invests in long-term development work, including lobbying and policy work to challenge the institutions and structures which keep under-developed parts of the world under-developed, I’m going to continue giving them my money and not worry about the efficiency which which they spend it – it’s got to be better than not giving anything at all.

Oxfam International
The Trade Justice Movement