Quotes #21 and #22

Taking about the transition from naive ignorance to profound ignorance in the pub last night, this quote came up :

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

– Ch’ing-y?an

The quote reminded me of a Chinese poem which touches upon the same distinction

Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.
When I had not been there, no rest from the pain of longing!
I went there and returned…. It was nothing special:
Mount Lu in misty rain; the River Che at high tide.

Both are in Alan Watts’ book The Way of Zen


The Sensory homunculus

From the Natural History Museum picture library, a sensory homunculus:

This model shows what a man’s body would look like if each part grew in proportion to the area of the cortex of the brain concerned with its sensory perception.

To see which areas of cortex map to which body parts use the interactive motor/sensory homunculus mady by Jaakko Hakulinen (IE only i think, sorry).

technical notes


Here’s how to tell if your browser supports Microsoft’s Web Embedding Fonts Tool (WEFT). Mine (Mozilla Firefox) doesn’t. If this page looks special, then you are seeing embedded fonts:

There’s an image of what it should look like if WEFT is working here


The nature of memory

A post from Onemonkey, Context is everything, on the perpetual construction and reconstruction of memory and the research findings of Susan Engel.

From the outset our so-called episodic memories act in ways far removed from the faithful verbatim recording we often feel we’ve experienced….[Children] only really relive the past when prompted to do so, and rely heavily on confirmation and elaboration from the adult or their peers. And when they tell these stories to others and later to themselves, the world is seen through [the distorting lens of their limited linguistic capacities].


Environmental enrichment causes critical period closure of visual plasticity for dark-reared rats

This seemed important:

Environmental enrichment prevents effects of dark-rearing in the rat visual cortex
Nature Neuroscience, March 2004 Volume 7 Number 3 pp 215 – 216
Alessandro Bartoletti, Paolo Medini, Nicoletta Berardi & Lamberto Maffei
Abstract: Environmental enrichment potentiates neural plasticity, enhancing acquisition and consolidation of memory traces. In the sensory cortices, after cortical circuit maturation and sensory function acquisition are completed, neural plasticity declines and the critical period ‘closes’. In the visual cortex, this process can be prevented by dark-rearing, and here we show that environmental enrichment can promote physiological maturation and consolidation of visual cortical connections in dark-reared rats, leading to critical period closure.

Presumably because environmental enrichment encourages cannibalisation of the proto-visual areas by other functions. Another tale of activity dependent neural development…


‘An experiment in consumerist identity’

In February 2001 Michael Landy destroyed all his possessions. Every single one. This act of annihilation, entitled Break Down, took fourteen days to complete and cost approximately ?100,000….Landy spent three years cataloguing the 7,006 separate items. Each object was numbered, separated into a category and included in a long list displayed on the walls. The smaller objects were bagged in plastic and placed in yellow crates that snaked along 160 metres of conveyor belt around four dismantling bays. Landy and his team of operators, all clothed in industrial blue overalls, systematically reduced each item down to its basic components. The pieces were then shredded or granulated and bagged up.

(from BBCi arts)

Landy says:

The happiest day of my life


Quote #21: On the road

It’s just the only place a man can go, When he don’t know where he’s travelin’ to
– Steve Earle on the road, and Townes Van Zandt


Quote #20: Erdos on publishing

“Non numerantur, sed ponderantur”
(They are not counted, but weighed)


Our glorious leader

U.S. President George W. Bush looks up before speaking at the Davos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, January 29, 2003. Traveling a day after his State of the Union address, Bush spoke here of his plan to offer prescription drug benefits and catastrophic illness coverage to seniors as inducements to give up their fee-for-service Medicare benefits and enroll in private plans. Bush also talked about the situation in Iraq. 29 Jan 2003 REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


quote #19 : die knowing something

Stare. It’s the way to educate your eyes. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.

– Walker Evans


The death of Bacon, by Chicken

I’ve just found out how the father of modern science died. It was, fittingly, in the pursuit of knowledge. In March of 1626, Bacon took advantage of wintry conditions and stuffed a chicken with snow, in an attempt to research the effects of freezing on putrefaction. He became ill from exposure to the cold and died of pneumonia on April 9, 1626.

An admirable death!


quote #18

Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. For what the world needs is more people who have come alive.

– Howard Thurman or Harold Whitman, depending on which bit of the web you look for the source.


The Panda’s Thumb

The Panda’s Thumb: The Panda’s Thumb is dedicated to explaining the theory of evolution, critiquing the claims of the anti-evolution movement, and defending the integrity of science and science education in America and around the world.. (via Corante/loom).


Orality and Literacy

If you enjoyed Relevant History on word spacing (and you should have) or me on the invention of perspective you must read Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. I can’t do the erudition, sweep and profundity of the book justice, but here’s a few quotes. You’ll have to excuse me if I leap to the conclusions rather than pr?cis the arguments here. My thoughts are preceded by a !, everything else is a quote, paraphrase or summary of Ong.

Walter Ong (1982,2002) Orality and Literacy – The Technologizing of the Word. Routledge, New York.

Writing makes words appear to be things. In oral culture words have no residue, they are just potential. They only exist in transience. The visual form of words gives you control over them. Without stable form they are spectres – always actions, always transient, always willed – intrinsically agenic. (p14)

When and often-told story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it (p11)

In oral cultures you only know what you can recall – in literate cultures you know what you can look up. Formulas and themes are central to oral culture, for they provide structure for works which rely upon human memory to persist. By removing this constraint, literacy unleashes chaos on knowledge.

Writing separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for ‘objectivity’ p45

oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance

Table summarising Chapter 3: Some psychodynamics of orality

words as actions words as objects
formulaic unstructured/multiple
additive subordinative
harmonising analytic/dissective
redundant sparse
narrative facts & lists
episodic/thematic chronological
ever-present past and future looking
amnesic hypermnemonic
‘savage mind’ rationality
animistic objective
holistic linear
conservative progressive
unreflective introspective
social/public individual
empathetic & participatory objectively distanced
situational/situated abstract
contextual self-contained
restricted code elaborated code

! It is impossible not to note at this point how the features of oral culture are those idealised by the environmental and new-age movements.

! While literate knowledge is abundant, oral knowledge (‘ancient wisdom’) is concentrated. Single items – koans, kata, poems, rituals, icons – physically embody depth of information and can reveal it to the individual through study of that single thing (compare: knowledge is explicit, in multiple sources, and the individual can collect that information by acquiring, ie reading, those sources).

The ‘restricted’ linguistic codes of primarily oral cultures are just as specific and expressive, but much content is embedded in the context the language is used in. The ‘elaborated codes’ of text-based culture have their meaning rooted within the language itself.

! Note the paradoxical nature of creation myths of pre-literate cultures (eg Norse or Ancient Greek) – pre-literate cultures are ever-present. They do not see the need for creation ab nihilo, so the writing down of these myths makes them seem nonsensical (ie illogical). The great, later, religions – with their sacred texts – are only possible because of the development of literacy and the grafting of a new literate form on top of passing oral cultures.

Is the idea of a Jaynesian software rewrite of self-consciousness subsumed within the idea of a transition from oral to literate culture? (p28)

By separating the knower from the known…writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set (p104)

Because spoken language is necessarily shared, it promoted groupness. Language is only what can be mutually understood. Reading is done individually. Literate culture promotes individuality and introspection. In writing the audience is always imagined (simulated) rather than actual.

Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the centre, the self, to be examined and described.

By removing words from the world of sound where they first had their origin in active human interchange and relegating them definitively to visual surface, and by otherwise exploiting visual space for the management of knowledge, print encourages human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space (p129)

! Writing is a cognitive technology for transforming meaning across sensory codes. It takes what defines human uniqueness and subsumes it to work in our most powerful modality. This raises the question of what kinds of operation are best subserved by audition. I suggest associative recall (the chaining of items in sequences) – note that the order of the alphabet is learn auditorially but employed visually (in indexes)!

What’s amazing is that our cognitive abilities have coped so well with such a radical technological hybridisation. It’s as astounding as the fact that we can live in cities of millions when we evolved to live in tribes of hundreds.

The present-day phenomenological sense of existence is richer in its conscious and articulate reflection than anything that preceded it. But it is salutary to recognise that this sense depends on the technologies of writing and print, deeply interiorised, made part of our own psychic resources. The tremendous store of historical, psychological and other knowledge which can go into sophisticated narrative and characterisation today could be accumulated only through the use of writing and print (and now electronics). But these technologies of the world do not merely store what we know. They style what we known in ways which made it quite inaccessible and indeed unthinkable in an oral culture.

! So, back to my original compulsion – how was inner life experienced before the ascendancy of individual perspective? At the very least the articulation of that experience couldn’t have occurred in the way is does now. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, does it make a sound? If a qualia cannot be articulated, is it experienced?

I feel like I?ve reached the end point of this question?s productivity. Which isn?t to say that it is answered, but rather that the question will have to be changed to go forward.


peadophiles, the turing test and Bad Science

I had stopped reading the Guardian’s Bad Science on thursday’s. The two most recent columns from Ben Goldacre (first, second) convince me I should start again. (thanks to Andy for this).


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 #17

“Love! Shall I tell you what love is? Love is suffering!

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Gambler


Quote #16

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

– Michael Leunig


Quote 15: Hanlon’s Razor

Hanlon’s Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity

(this from the very interesting MeatBall Wiki)


Note to self: wear hats more often…


Quote #14

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

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) ‘Of studies’


The Invisible College says some considered, interesting, important things on Echoes in the Invisible College. I so want to be able to see five years into the future to find out what conclusions all the current thinking about the influence of social structure on group cognition will produce…


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

technical notes

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.


‘Satan’, er, i mean ‘green’!

Still on the look out for cognitive neuroscience bloggers i’ve found Brain Waves, Cog News, Psychscape, Brainworld and, also, Cognitive Engineering, who reports on hearing a radio evangelist evoke the Stroop effect to explain the temptation of evil. Apparently:

?just like you need great concentration and will-power to prevent reading the name of the word, you need great strength to prevent the temptations and influences of Satan.?

I hear the nascent field of neuro-theology beckoning!