Archive Page 2
November 6th, 2013 by Wil
A while back I mentioned an event that occurred when I was trying to go to sleep one night. Why don’t I let me describe it?
…a couple nights ago I was lying half asleep and heard a clicking sound of the sort that houses often make — the wood of the frame settling a bit or something. My mind said, “Oh, an annoying sound… whatever,” but my body had a noticeable reaction. I felt that feeling of “tinglies” traveling from my neck down to my body. I presume these “tinglies” to be adrenaline released to the body from the brain and I presume the individual “pricks of tingliness” to be this adrenaline stimulating the synapses of various muscle nerves.
I doubt this is uncommon and I suspect most of us experience it. I, personally, experience it more in the morning. I’ll be lying there, pleasantly adrift, and a thought or sound will occur that jostles me from sleep. As much as I would like to go back to my reverie, I can feel my body waking up, against my wishes.
I’ve long suspected that the reason for this must be something to do with hormone production. Basically, we go to sleep and our body spends the night replenishing spent chemicals (like adrenaline and glucocorticoids, which, while I don’t fully understand, are similar to adrenaline in function.) In the morning we’ve got a vast reserve of these chemicals and it doesn’t take much to get them to be fired off.
Recently I was reading an article on coffee and it hinted at the same idea. We shouldn’t drink coffee in the morning, it said, because our body is already rich with excitatory cortisol. (Cortisol is a glucocorticoid which is a type of hormone.)
…if we are drinking caffeine at a time when your cortisol concentration in the blood is at its peak, you probably should not be drinking it. This is because cortisol production is strongly related to your level of alertness and it just so happens that cortisol peaks for your 24-hour rhythm between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on average (Debono et al., 2009). Therefore, you are drinking caffeine at a time when you are already approaching your maximal level of alertness naturally.
This jibes with my sense that some excitatory hormone is at its peak during the morning. So I was pretty much right about everything, as usual.
I’m not going to stop drinking coffee in the morning though.
October 30th, 2013 by Wil
I know it’s been AGES since I’ve run some penis news but the wait has been worth. Trust me.
Man loses severed penis after FORGETTING to take it to hospital to be sewn back on.
Yang Hu was left in agony after severing his manhood from his body, and decided to CYCLE to the hospital to have it re-attached to his body.
But rather than prep him for immediate surgery, doctors told him to get on his bike again and go home because he FORGOT to bring it with him.
Yang, from Jiaxing, in Zhejiang province, east China, eventually rode home to pick up his penis but doctors hit him with yet more bad news – it had been without blood for too long and was therefore impossible to re-attach.
October 29th, 2013 by Wil
I’m a great fan of situations where people try to make the world a better place only to find their efforts backfire. It really gives me a chortle!
The new New Yorker (October 21st, 2013) has a piece on its “Financial Page” which stands as a good example. As we all know, there’s been a rising disparity in the amount of money corporations pay their average worker compared with what they pay their C.E.O.. Modern C.E.O.s earn about 270 times what the average worker earns! As a result, the S.E.C. has put in place various laws making this disparity public. The idea being that company boards would respond to public outcry and shame over the pay rates.
However, things haven’t worked out as planned. These transparency laws illuminate not only to the public what C.E.O.’s are making, they also illuminate to the boards of companies what their competitors’ C.E.O.s are making, thus generating a bidding war! There are several reasons for this, but this one gets at the psychology behind it all.
…Elson said, “If you pay below average, it makes it look as if you’d hired a below-average C.E.O. and what board wants that?”
We tend to be uneasy about bargaining in situations where the stakes are very high; do you want the guy doing your neurosurgery, or running your company, to be offering discounts? Better, in the event that something goes wrong, to be able to tell yourself you spent all you could. And overspending is always easier when you’re spending someone else’s money.
In essence, board members are thinking, “This guy probably isn’t worth 100 million a year… but what if I’m wrong?”
This reminds me of a study which argued that people enjoy more expensive wine because it’s more expensive.
…researchers at Stanford and Caltech have demonstrated that people’s brains experience more pleasure when they think they are drinking a $45 wine instead of a $5 bottle – even when it’s the same stuff.
October 28th, 2013 by Wil
So Lou Reed just died. I’ve never been a big fan of his; he’s sort of associated with punk rock which is a genre of music I find tedious (though Reed’s proto punk is quite removed from groups like The Sex Pistols or D.R.I.)
However, a few years ago I discovered Reed’s album “Growing up in Public” and I loved it. It has tons of great songs, including this one (which has a certain prescience being that Reed died from complications from a liver replacement.)
Here’s the title track from the album which is also great. Listen to that great cello-esque bass line.
October 27th, 2013 by Wil
In some quarters that seems to be the perception. Life is getting uglier and more unstable, global violence more pandemic etc. In “How to Create a Mind,” Ray Kurzweil’s new book, Kurzweil notes that…
…a Gallup poll released on May 4, 2011, revealed that only “44 percent of Americans believe that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents.”
Why is this? Kurzweil offers an interesting explanation, one that mirrors arguments I’ve made. There’s just a lot of information flying around overwhelming people. Kurzweil writes:
A primary reason people believe that life is getting worse is because our information about the problems of the world has steadily improved. If there is a battle today somewhere on the planet, we experience it almost as if we were there. During World War II, tens of thousands of people might perish in battle, and if the public could see it at all it was a grainy newsreel in a theater weeks later. During World War I a small elite could read about the progress of the conflict in a newspaper (without pictures). During the 19th century there was almost no access to news in a timely fashion for anyone.
In short, people were blessedly ignorant.
Interestingly, neither Kurzweil nor America’s other great mind – myself – are the first to comment on this problem. In an article entitled “Only Disconnect” in the October 26 New Yorker, the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer is quoted. In 1924, he said…
A tiny ball rolls toward you from very far away, expands into a close-up, and finally roars right over you. You can neither stop it nor escape it, but lie there chained, a helpless little doll swept away by the giant colossus in whose ambit it expires. Flight is impossible. Should the Chinese imbroglio be tactfully disembroiled, one is sure to be harried by an American boxing match… All the world-historical events on this planet—not only the current ones but also past events, whose love of life knows no shame—have only one desire: to set up a rendezvous wherever they suppose us to be present.
In 1924 people though the news was roaring over them! This guy’s head would have exploded if he saw Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow.
October 21st, 2013 by Wil
A while back I was considering an idea for a fiction character. The conceit was that the character had multiple consciousnesses in their brain, but each consciousness generally arrived at the same decisions. So, if this person received an coffee from a waitress, one consciousness might think, “Wow, she sure brought the coffee fast, I better thank her,” while another consciousness might think, “Look at this whore. I bet she thinks by bringing me coffee quickly she’ll get a tip! Oh, well, I better thank her in the interests of conforming to society. Bleg.” In addition, neither consciousness was aware of the other.
I’m continuing to read Ray Kuzweil’s “How To Create a Mind” and he gets into some related territory, even allowing for the possibility of multiple consciousnesses. There is strong evidence for some version of this possibility. For example, we have Mike Gazzaniga’s split brain patients. I described these patients in an earlier post.
These are people, usually epileptic, who’ve had the series of neural fibers that connect their left and right brain hemispheres separated (for therapeutic reasons.) Gazzaniga came to find that in subtle ways these people are really of two minds. The right hemisphere is very literal and has no language function. The left hemisphere is the interpreter (e.g. it can construct stories and explanations – often incorrectly – from observed events), and has rich language functionality.
His exact experiments have been described many times and I see no reason to repeat them here. (This Nature article covers the gist.) But what’s observed is that the two separate sections of brain really seem to process the world separately and be unaware of each other.
We can also consider half brain patients. These are people, as you might suspect, have half a brain (either because of a birth defect or a surgical procedure.) The term is often considered derogatory, but in fact patients with half a brain function quite well. But they beg the question, what is that missing half a brain (present in most people) doing?
And of course, we can consider the unconscious – the part of your brain regulating your heart, causing your legs to walk and, possibly, repressing your sexual attraction to your dog, your primal hatred of all life etc. (Sometimes these two types of unconscious are broken up into the terms “unconscious” and “subconscious.”) Is the unconscious in some way conscious, but cordoned off from what we consider our conscious experience to be?
In a sense, I’m alleging that there’s more than one “I” in our skull. There’s our standard consciousness, which has rich language functionality and subjective experience, though maybe even that can be split into separate “Is” as the split brain experiments show. Then there’s the unconscious—probably the domain of our fear and pleasure driven reptilian brain—which has no language functionality. And maybe the unconscious can also be split into multiple components, each of them independently (in some sense) conscious.
You of course might say, “But I only feel that main, traditional consciousness—the one that gets up for work in the morning and and watches late night television at night?” Correct – “you” do, but I’m saying there are many “yous” in your body. It might help to think of those classic horror films where a person has an evil conjoined twin growing out of their body. That twin has no real say about what you (the main consciousness) decides to do, but he sits there, growing out of your chest and stewing in his anger*.
* Why do I presume these unconscious units are filled with hatred and anger as opposed to affable joy? It’s just the way I see the world, I guess.
Of course I’m really saying, maybe that evil twin (the un/subconscious) does have some effect on your decisions. He’s the classic Freudian subconscious nag, spurring you to chose a wife who reminds you of your mother, or to fear the boss who reminds you of the uncle who molested you before you had memory.
The question is whether these additional consciousnesses are really conscious the way “we” are. I suspect no; their consciousness is more like that of a dog or a bug. And we – the top consciousness – are left hearing the cries and pleas of these tiny consciousnesses and using them to guide our path through life.
UPDATE: Another neurosis implying some possible separate consciousness in one body: Alien Hand Syndrome! After a stroke…
The patient complained of a feeling of “strangeness” in relationship to the goal-directed movements of the left hand and insisted that “someone else” was moving the left hand, and that she was not moving it herself. Goldstein reported that, as a result of this report, “she was regarded at first as a paranoiac.” When the left hand grasped an object, she could not voluntarily release it. The somatic sensibility of the left side was reported to be impaired, especially with aspects of sensation having to do with the orienting of the limb. Some spontaneous movements were noted to occur involving the left hand, such as wiping the face or rubbing the eyes; but these were relatively infrequent. Only with significant effort was she able to perform simple movements with the left arm in response to spoken command, but these movements were performed slowly and often incompletely even if these same movements had been involuntarily performed with relative ease before while in the abnormal ‘alien’ control mode.
October 20th, 2013 by Wil
A recurring theme on this blog is my contention that medical care in this country (and probably a large part of the first world) is a joke. As I argued here, Doctors are incentivized to offer or order care that may not be actually needed.
Recently I stumbled across an op-ed piece (written by a Dartmoth professor who has a book out entitled “Overdiagnosed.”) It adds some interesting information to this whole debate. In describing the analysis of one doctor who examined how medical care is dispensed, the article states…
Jack went on to document similarly wildly variable medical practices in the other New England states. But it wasn’t until he compared two of the nation’s most prominent medical communities — Boston and New Haven, Conn. — that the major medical journals took notice. In the late 1980s, both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine published the findings that Boston residents were hospitalized 60% more often than their counterparts in New Haven. Oh, by the way, the rate of death — and the age of death — in the two cities were the same.
So, two populations were getting quite disparate amounts of medical care but were in the same state of health. Observations such as this led the development of medical care epidemiology, the science of studying the effects of medicine.
Medical care epidemiology examines the effect of exposure to medical care: how differential exposure across time and place relates to population health outcomes. It acknowledges that medical care can produce both benefits and harms, and that conventional concerns about underservice should be balanced by concerns about overdiagnosis and overtreatment. Think of it as surveillance for a different type of outbreak: outbreaks of diagnosis and treatment.
October 19th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve talked a bit about computers and robots replacing humans in various vocations. It struck me today that we should consider creating computer politicians. After all, could they do any worse than humans?
What would a computer politician be? Obviously it would have to be some sort of collection of artificial intelligence modules. Ideally it would have a knowledge base of existing laws, history, geography, world politics, etc.
A computer politician on a regional level would have to represent its voters against the wishes of other regions. For instance, a computer politician would try to get a airplane manufacturing plant built in its region, not one state over.
What if a computer candidate ran against a human candidate? Would the computer candidate be able to tout its strengths over an opponent? Maybe… possibly… a computer candidate could very strongly make the claim that it would be incorruptible, that it would not stray from its mission to serve the needs of its voters (be they on a national or regional level.) Obviously it would be immune to sexual dalliances as well, such as those that recently tanked the careers of Bob Filner and Anthony Weiner. And a computer could show that it is programmed not to lie. All these attributes make a computer candidate quite appealing
Obviously most of this is outside the province of existing artificial intelligence technology. But that might not always be the case.
October 18th, 2013 by Wil
A while back I was reading David Cope’s book on the idea of computer created music. Cope is using computers to create music that sounds like it was written by humans, and that’s a laudable, worthwhile goal. But I find myself wondering if the real value of computer music would be creating music only computers could write. Could computers create music that would tax the compositional abilities of mere humans?
What would this music be like? I suppose really long pieces – songs that go on for hours or days might be an example. So too could music that requires an incredible attention to detail, like music with very precise rules about how notes vary their frequency. Or perhaps a kind of variations-on-a-theme process that could generate endless variations on a melody.
Such music might be interesting, but I’ll grant you it might be quite boring; some people these days can barely pay attention to a ten minute song, much less a day long one. I think this music would be probably fall into the category of “furniture music”; music meant to be in the background.
Today I came across the website electricsheep.org. This site has a collection of computer created artwork (non-representational art) generated by computers. The computers use a genetic algorithm which is essentially a software process that duplicates the process living creatures go through to evolve. As I understand it, genetic algorithms introduce mutations into output and if those mutations are beneficial, they are adapted as traits. If the mutations are not beneficial it drops them.
I know that’s a bit hard to understand so let me explain with a practical example. Let’s say the electric sheep computer(s) start(s) off with a big red circle. Some possible variations could be “Make the circle blue,” “make the circle more square,” “fill in the circle with polka dots” etc. The traits that succeed get added to the artwork’s “DNA” and carry forth into new generations with additional mutations. But what constitutes the idea of success in this realm? People rank the artwork on the site. Top ranked artwork is more successful that lower ranked art.
Could such a process be applied to computer music? What’s electric sheep doing exactly? It’s taking shapes – circles, squares, grids, cloud type shapes, and changing them. Could something similar happen with music? First we’d have to find some corollaries to shapes in music. This could be chords, melodies, maybe even rhythms. Could a genetic algorithm be applied that morphed these music elements, and then tracked listener preferences, adopting the high scoring mutations into the music’s DNA? That’s the kind of music only a computer could compose.
One final point here. I suspect one other area worth exploring in computer generated music would be microtonal music. This is…
…music using microtones—intervals of less than an equally spaced semitone. Microtonal music can also refer to music which uses intervals not found in the Western system of 12 equal intervals to the octave.
Manipulating music on that level seems like something computers would be good for.
October 14th, 2013 by Wil
A recent L.A. Times article covered the topic of self driving cars. The gist is that they’re real, they’re coming and they could be on the road by 2020. This is not to say there aren’t concerns.
“It is uncharted waters,” said James Yukevich, a Los Angeles attorney who defends the auto industry from product liability lawsuits. “I don’t think this is an area very many people have thought much about.”
Coddled by robotic chauffeurs, would people retain the driving skills to take over in emergencies? Who would be liable if an autopiloted car runs through a crowd of pedestrians: the owner or the automaker? Would insurance premiums go up or down? Would cyberterrorists figure out how to make Fords blast through school zones at 100 mph?
The article doesn’t explore what I think would be a likely effect from such technology: loss of jobs. Would robot cars effectively put every cab driver out of business? After all, why should a cab company hire a sweaty Armenian to drive cabs around town when a robot car will happily do it without asking for a smoke break? For that matter, what about the transportation industry? Will robots trucks drive around the nation’s manufactured goods?
I suspect in coming years, after mankind has made itself obsolete with its own technology, many will ask, “Why didn’t we see this coming? Why did no one warn us?” At which point I will step out from behind the curtains and say, “Well, if you had been reading my blog you would have been warned.” Then my robots will kill them.