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Monthly Archives: June 2004

Make good art

Some thoughts from a speech by Neil Gaiman:

Ignore all advice.

In my experience, most interesting art gets made by people who don’t know the rules, and have no idea that certain things simply aren’t done: so they do them. Transgress. Break things. Have too much fun.

Another piece of advice:

I’ve learned over the years that everything is more or less the same amount of work, so you may as well set your sights high and try and do something really cool.

more on cortical plasticity

The unexpected consequences of a noisy environment
Xiaoqin Wang
Trends in Neurosciences
Volume 27, Issue 7 , July 2004, Pages 364-366
Laboratory of Auditory Neurophysiology, Department of Biomedical Engineering, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Abstract: A recent study found that the functional organization of auditory cortex was disrupted when rats were exposed to a moderate level of continuous noise during early development. However, this detrimental effect on auditory cortex could be remedied later by stimulating the noise-reared rats with structured sounds. These findings suggest that the endpoint of the ?critical period? could be extended well into adult life, which has significant implications for our understanding of cortical plasticity.


brain scamming

Nature discuss neuromarketing:

A more skeptic view of neuromarketing is that cognitive scientists, many of whom watched from the sidelines as their molecular colleagues got rich, are now jumping on the commercial bandwagon. According to this view, neuromarketing is little more than a new fad, exploited by scientists and marketing consultants to blind corporate clients with science

No one would do that, would they? Would they…?

Links for 29th June 2004

post-text is pre-modern

It occurs to me that the post-modernist critics, with their obsession with text, are in fact profoundly modern. Treating words as objects, rather than events, analysing language as if it had some meaning in-itself, rather than as a dynamic relation to the world. Just like the literalists, the fundamentalists and their holy texts, the unreformed scientists and their static truths.

And before you say it, the more I hear the insistence that words are multiplicitious, the more i hear the binaries deconstructed, the more hollow it sounds. Such ardent disbelief in words feels too utterly entangled in the world of written words to escape – back to or onward to – the world of words as voiced actions.

Quote #37

Given what we know about the human brain, two facts stand out as astonishing: (1) We know very little about what distinguishes the human brain from that of other species; and (2) apparently, few neuroscientists regard fact 1 as much of a problem.

–Todd Preuss (2000). What’s human about the human brain? In The New Cognitive Neurosciences (M.S. Gazzaniga, Ed.), Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Via Jody Culham

Unquiet emptiness (in image and words)

I went to the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Tate Modern on saturday. The unquiet emptiness of his paintings reminded me of this poem by Leonard Cohen

What I am doing here

I do not know if the world has lied
I have lied
I do not know if the world has conspired against love
I have conspired against love
The atmosphere of torture is no comfort
I have tortured
Even without the mushroom cloud
still I would have hated
I would have done the same things
even if there were no death
I will not be held up like a drunkard
under the cold tap of facts
I refuse the universal alibi

Like an empty telephone booth passed at night
and remembered
like mirrors in a movie palace lobby consulted
only on the way out
like a nymphomaniac who binds a thousand
into strange brotherhood
I wait
for each of you to confess.

the hare of credulity

I blogged about this paper [1], last week, and alex had some very sensible things to say about it too, but basically my fear was that it would be that once outside the realm of academic discussion it would be seized as good evidence for a sixth sense. In fact the deeper story is that in the more tightly controlled studies the effect wasn’t present – a classic pattern for investigations of the paranormal and one that suggests to me that, if anything, the evidence is against the effect being a true one.

And how is the research reported in the Sunday Times [2] today? “There is a sixth sense…science has found evidence that people know when they are being observed”. The text of the article is a more balanced than the headlines, but it leaves me gritting my teeth as the hare of credulity outruns the tortoise of skepticism, again.

1. Schmidt, S., Schneider, R., Utts, J. & Walach, H. (2004). Distant intentionality and the feeling of being stared at: two meta-analyses. British Journal of Psychology, 95, 235-247

2. The Sunday Times, 27th of April 2004, p9, “Didn’t you know it: there is a sixth sense”, John Elliott and Sarah Keenlyside

No language instinct

Geoffrey Sampson doesn’t believe in the language instinct. I remember reading his book Educating Eve in my final year at university and being splendidly, incoherantly, annoyed by his views on the nature-nurture debate. My girlfriend at the time had been set the book as part of her linguistics course and I singularly failed to express to her just how wrong-headed Sampson’s arguments were – how he completely failed to engage with the whole point of Pinker’s book., for one thing.

Of course I was fresh from reading things like Rethinking Innateness and had all the zeal of the new convert. I can’t remember the details of Sampson’s argument, and now I think i’d like to re-read it to check if i still feel the same way, and maybe to recapture that feeling of annoyance. Maybe my appreciation of it will have changed, I certainly think my appreciation of the language innateness debate has changed – i’ve had the luck to read Terance Deacon’s The Symbolic Species for a start, and that’s a book which should stretch anyone’s appreciation of language and brain evolution.

Quote #36

As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life – so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so that you can meet girls.

Matt Cartmill – Professor of Biology, Duke University.
Via Don’t Dance with DNA

The Reasonable Man

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw (1856 – 1950), from Man and Superman (1903) “Maxims for Revolutionists”

BrainVoyager BrainTutor

This is a screenshot of me playing with the BrainVoyager BrainTutor. BrainVoyager make fMRI analysis and visualisation software, and they’re kind enough to offer this interactive guide to different cortical regions for free.

Pictures can’t describe how much fun it is to play with, adding and removing the different hemispheres, labels, views, rotating the whole head, etc. It’s a shame they don’t have more areas programmed in at the moment (it’s just the lobes the gyri and sulci – but there’s a promising ‘forthcoming’ button for Brodmann areas).

Links for 21st June

Quote #34

I think the great lesson of the 20th century is that you have to separate the ethics from the aesthetics… The great lesson there is that you don’t have to agree with what the Nazis did, but, yes, be honest about it, they did have the best uniforms. A lot of people can’t come to terms with something as banal as that.

Andrew Eldritch

We interrupt this webcast…

My home web-connection is down, so don’t nobody expect prompt replies to any emails sent, nor frequent blog posts. Hopefully will sort by the weekend…

Fixed it! That was far easier than i expected

Quote #33

Nothing I’ve ever written was anti-market. Being against the market is like being against conversation. It’s a form of exchange. But I was just as hostile in the past to giving any privileges to the market as I am now. Besides, those who are great advocates of the market don’t always make it easier for people to have access to the market through basic education, credit or whatever. (my emphasis).

Amartya Sen

Anomalous Data

It’s definitely an anomaly, but what kind of anomaly is it? In the British Journal of Psychology this month there is a meta-analysis of studies of electrodermal response to being stared at – or, to put it another way, a review of the evidence on whether we have a sixth sense to detect when people are looking at us. The review looked at two different paradigms and, quoting the conclusion:

We conclude that for both data sets that there is a small, but significant effect. This result corresponds to the recent findings of studies on distant healing and the `feeling of being stared at?. Therefore, the existence of some anomaly related to distant intentions cannot be ruled out. The lack of methodological rigour in the existing database prohibits final conclusions and calls for further research, especially for independent replications on larger data sets. There is no specific theoretical conception we know of that can incorporate this phenomenon into the current body of scientific knowledge. Thus, theoretical research allowing for and describing plausible mechanisms for such effects is necessary. [My emphasis].

So that’s okay then – just casually suggest that the entire physicalist basis of western science may be in error. Surely this result should either be better supported and in a better journal, or not published at all.

Thoughts anyone?

Schmidt, S., Schneider, R., Utts, J. & Walach, H. (2004). Distant intentionality and the feeling of being stared at: two meta-analyses. British Journal of Psychology, 95, 235-247

Links for 18th of June

Science and Poetry on science, language, and ‘the reptilian brain’

The words we use, even in passing, to describe genes or brains or evolution can lock us into a view of nature that may be meaningful or misleading.

The brain suffers from plenty of bad language….[In Alchemy of the Mind, Ackerman] indulges in this sort of bad language a lot. One example: she loves referring to our “reptile brain,” as if there was a nub of unaltered neurons sitting at the core of our heads driving our basic instincts. The reality of the brain–and of evolution–is far more complex. The brain of reptilian forerunners of mammals was the scaffolding for a new mammal brain; the old components have been integrated so intimately with our “higher” brain regions that there’s no way to distinguish between the two in any fundamental way. Dopamine is an ancient neurotransmitter that provides a sense of anticipation and reward to other animals, including reptiles. But our most sophisticated abilities for learning abstract rules, carried out in our elaborate prefrontal cortex, depend on rewards of dopamine to lay down the proper connections between neurons. There isn’t a new brain and an old brain working here–just one system. Yet, despite all this, it remains seductive to use a phrase like “reptile brain.” It conjures up lots of meanings. Ackerman floods her book with such language, which I grouse about other bad language in my review.

Which makes me wonder, as a science writer myself: is all poetry is ultimately dangerous? Does scientific understanding inevitably get abandoned as we turn to the juicy figure of speech?

I say ‘no’. All language is imprecise to some degree. This is what gives it power- without imprecision you couldn’t have generality. To try and cut out all figures of speech would be to buy into the idea that perfect truth can be expressed in language, which is the sort of absolutist manifesto that leads to fundamentalisms of all sorts (including scienticism).

A good figure of speech can convey whole worlds of understanding, as well as being part of the fun that you need to motivate you to keep reading. Precision in scientific understanding is like democracy – something to always strive towards without fooling yourself that you’ve ever completely arrived.

So, yes poetry is dangerous, but so is trying do without it- any dealings with the ostrich-literalism of Creationists will demonstrate that.

Damn, I’m so liberal sometimes i make me sick.

The real problem with poetry is that people are given more license to get away with complete nonsense. But then the problem isn’t poetry – it’s nonsense.

We love sheffo

(Quoting andy) This is from ‘we love sheffo’ a new fanzine type thing about how great sheffield is…most of it is kind of about urban design / town planning, but it has a hip hop flavour too:

yo yo peeps this is real life and I’m a tell you about it. So me and my homes is chilling in the ponder rosa and hubs (he’s 2nd in command) is all ‘yo we need more 40s’. they all turns to me, you know, being il duce of the beats, so I hit my pops on the 2way – ‘urgent 40 call ponder rosa’ and he’s all like ‘i’ll pick you up when I drive by’. Got kind of excited at that part. Anyhoo, he rolls by in the mondeo and chaffeurs the don of rhymes (i.e. me) to Jacksons. I look but hey, I don’t know this stock, so I give Janice a heads-up. ‘where the 40s at ?’ and janice gets on the mike, spitting out ‘shelly, this young man’s looking for some 40s. do you know where they are ?’. I’m like yo, are we freestyling ? is this a battle ? D-stroy V Janice who’s hotter ? Holler back. But she’s all like ‘if you don’t stop grabbing that microphone I’ll fetch security’.

A brother can’t find no peace in Crookes.

genius !

Links for 15 June 2004

Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart

Precis of Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, by Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd, and the ABC Research Group, Oxford University Press, 1999

Abstract: How can anyone be rational in a world where knowledge is limited, time is pressing, and deep thought is often an unattainable luxury? Traditional models of unbounded rationality and optimization in cognitive science, economics, and animal behavior have tended to view decision-makers as possessing supernatural powers of reason, limitless knowledge, and endless time. But understanding decisions in the real world requires a more psychologically plausible notion of bounded rationality. In Simple heuristics that make us smart, we explore fast and frugal heuristics–simple rules in the mind’s adaptive toolbox for making decisions with realistic mental resources. These heuristics can enable both living organisms and artificial systems to make smart choices quickly and with a minimum of information by exploiting the way that information is structured in particular environments. In this precis, we show how simple building blocks that control information search, stop search, and make decisions can be put together to form classes of heuristics, including: ignorance-based and one-reason decision making for choice, elimination models for categorization, and satisficing heuristics for sequential search. These simple heuristics perform comparably to more complex algorithms, particularly when generalizing to new data–that is, simplicity leads to robustness. We present evidence regarding when people use simple heuristics and describe the challenges to be addressed by this research program.

Haven’t read this for a while, and on re-reading this jumped out

5.1 Exploiting environment structure
Fast and frugal heuristics can benefit from the way information is structured in environments. The QuickEst heuristic described earlier, for instance (see chapter 10), relies on the skewed distributions of many real-world variables such as city population size–an aspect of environment structure that traditional statistical estimation techniques would either ignore or even try to erase by normalizing the data. Standard statistical models, and standard theories of rationality, aim to be as general as possible, so they make as broad and as few assumptions as possible about the data to which they will be applied. But the way information is structured in real-world environments often does not follow convenient simplifying assumptions. For instance, whereas most statistical models are designed to operate on datasets where means and variances are independent, Karl Pearson (1897) noted that in natural situations these two measures tend to be correlated, and thus each can be used as a cue to infer the other (Einhorn & Hogarth, 1981, p. 66). While general statistical methods strive to ignore such factors that could limit their applicability, evolution would seize upon informative environmental dependencies like this one and exploit them with specific heuristics if they would give a decision-making organism an adaptive edge.

Because ecological rationality is a consequence of the match between heuristic and environment, we have investigated several instances where structures of environments can make heuristics ecologically rational:

  • Noncompensatory information. The Take The Best heuristic equals or outperforms any linear decision strategy when information is noncompensatory, that is, when the potential contribution of each new cue falls off rapidly (chapter 6).
  • Scarce information. Take The Best outperforms a class of linear models on average when few cues are known relative to the number of objects (chapter 6).
  • J-shaped distributions. The QuickEst heuristic estimates quantities about as accurately as more complex information-demanding strategies when the criterion to be estimated follows a J-shaped distribution, that is, one with many small values and few high values (chapter 10).
  • Decreasing populations. In situations where the set of alternatives to choose from is constantly shrinking, such as in a seasonal mating pool, a satisficing heuristic that commits to an aspiration level quickly will outperform rules that sample many alternatives before setting an aspiration (chapter 13).
    By matching these structures of information in the environment with the structure implicit in their building blocks, heuristics can be accurate without being too complex. In addition, by being simple, these heuristics can avoid being too closely matched to any particular environment–that is, they can escape the curse of overfitting, which often strikes more complex, parameter-laden models, as described next. This marriage of structure with simplicity produces the counterintuitive situations in which there is little trade-off between being fast and frugal and being accurate.

  • Three stages of so what

    Three things you can ask when told of a (psychological) phenomenon

    1. Is it true?

    Often you don’t need to look any further than disbelieving what you’ve been told. We only use 10% of our brains. You can remove the mystery implied by simply doubting the assertion. No one is influenced by adverts, so why do they spend money on them Etc. Not true, no mystery, no problem.

    2. Is it real in and of itself?

    Are we talking about something that is real and seperate from other effects we are familiar with, or is it just an consequence of something else (which we’ve already dealt with). You’re told The children of Israeli pilots are 70% boys. It seems to be true- is it worth worrying about? Only if the sex bias in the children born to Israeli pilots continues passed the point it was brought to your attention. Otherwise it’s just selection bias – of all the national & professional groups in the world something statistically unlikely had to happen to one of them, and that’s the one you got told about.

    3. If it is true, and real, is it manifest?

    Lots of phenomenon in psychology can be shown in controlled experiments, but it’s not clear that they manifest in any practical way amoung the noise and confusion of the real world. You’re told movement of light attached to people’s joints creates a powerful subjective impression of a full moving human form.. It’s true. It’s real (probably). Is it any use? Yes – we can use of flourescent markers at the joints of cyclists to tap into the specialised circuitry for figure perception and therefore make cyclists more visible, and thus more safe [1].

    [1] Kwan, Irene; Mapstone, James (2004) Visibility aids for pedestrians and cyclists: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. Accident analysis and prevention 36(3), 305-312

    Links for 11th of June