Saturday, May 30, 2009

By the Numbers


Friday, May 29, 2009

Issac Newton by James Gleick

An interesting (but brief) exploration into one of the greatest figures in history. While I was happy to find a short biography, after it was done I found I wanted greater detail. I can’t fault Gleick for that because he seems to cover the major aspects of Newton’s life and makes the work accessible. I knew of the odd personal experiments (knitting needle in the eye socket and staring at the sun for as long as he could handle it), but these were put into greater context – Newton was examining notions of perception and sensation and whether experiences were internal or out in the world. Further, Gleick reminded of Newton’s alchemy, metallurgy, theology and that Newton was the head of the Royal Mint for a good chunk of his later life.
Gleick also describes the staggering accomplisments that Newton achieved: foundation work on light and optics; glass and telescopes; calculus and, of course, gravity. To think of someone inventing the notion of infinite series to solve problems as well as being the first to usefully describe and specify what we call “gravity” is truly impressive. I was also surprised to learn that Newton predicted the Earth was oblate in shape and not perfectly circular because of the rotation (this is in fact true). Considering most people don’t know this now and he was able to figure this out in the late 1600s is one more indication of his immense powers of reasoning. Newton, despite his theological leanings, was also the person who pushed the concept of having experiments and data to justify belief as mere opinion was not sufficient.
Newton’s intermittently nasty personality is also explored, like when he attempted to defend his discovery of calculus by discrediting Leibnitz. The Royal Society released an anonymous report indicating that Leibnitz could not be trusted on a whole range of issues, chief among them his claim to the calculus. Further, an anonymous review of this report said additional words of condemnation. Both the report AND the review were by Newton. Sneaky Issac! Apparently, if you want your name preserved in history, make sure to kick everyone else down.

Issac Newton is a good book that describes an obsessive man that barely travelled and never knew a woman but revolutionized mathematics and physics such that we are still using his work as a foundation for understanding the world (ever use the words inertia, momentum, or gravity?).
If we have seen further, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of Newton.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

File-sharing report slamming Canada plagiarized

Oh, isn't hypocrisy amusing?
(but be wary of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Feeling Pain and Being in Pain by Nikola Grahek

A good little book. I quite enjoy when philosophers think explorations should be driven by the findings of science, so it is unsurprising that I liked Grahek’s brief exploration of what pain means and how we understand it. Feeling Pain and Being in Pain uses clinical neuroscience studies to explore different experiences of pain and what they might mean for philosophical stances on the issue.
The book’s title indicates the main idea: that it is possible to feel pain without being in pain as well as be in pain without being able to feel much pain. What does that all mean? How could someone feel pain without being in pain? The foundation of the work is analyses of pain asymbolia patients who, usually due to brain lesions, can detect the intensity, duration and other aspects of painful stimuli, but they do not experience the stimuli as a negative, painful thing. They will say, “I’m in pain but it doesn’t bother me.” They do not show aversive reactions to noxious stimuli, the approach of noxious stimuli or are able to learn to avoid noxious stimuli. Such a phenomenon is contrasted with those who are congenitally unable to feel pain (they don’t describe the experience of noxious stimuli as painful), patients who have had types of lobotomies and briefly those on morphine. Grahek makes a tenable case that all these situations are slightly different and all help parse out and delineate what we might mean by pain and what he thinks we should mean.
An excerpt from the Introduction might help:
The first lesson is that although pain appears to be a simple, homogeneous experience, it is actually a complex experience comprising sensory-discriminative, emotional-cognitive, and behavioral components. These components are normally linked together, but they can become disconnected and therefore, much to our astonishment, they can exist separately. The second lesson is that pain, once deprived of all its affective, cognitive, and behavioral components, loses all of its representational and motivational force: it is no longer a signal of threat or injury, and it no longer moves one’s mind or body in any way. The third lesson is that pain deprived of its sensory-discriminative components comes to such sensory indeterminacy that it cannot be distinguished from other unpleasant sensations, or sensations of other quality, and loses all informational power with regard to the location, intensity, temporal profile, and nature of harmful stimuli. (p.20)
The book successfully reminded me of the positive side of pain; the life preserving aspect of negative experience. “People may not only be deprived, genetically or by disease, of that precious gift of the ability to feel pain; they may also become overwhelmed by it to such a degree that the whole mechanism of pain becomes maladaptive and, instead of signalling threat or danger, starts to threaten, endanger, or even terrorize the unfortunate patients.” (p.14)
Through the exploration of so many neurological findings, I was once again reminded how we are just so much amazing physical stuff, wound together in staggeringly complex ways. Additionally, it seems like almost anything is possible. For example, there was a case where a patient would only react to pain if he saw someone approach his vulnerable arm, but not if the arm was touched without visual awareness. Additionally, there are “multisensory neurons are capable of learning and relearning the threatening significance of visual stimuli.” (p. 20)

The final chapter of the book was the most challenging because it explored both the neuroscience findings and their philosophical implications to a greater depth than previously explored in the book. For example:
Generally speaking, it seems that we are allowed to rely on something that is already intelligible to us in order to bestow intelligibility upon something that does not wear that mark or distinction on its sleeve. The intelligibility of the relationship between C-nociceptive fiber firing (as well as A-Delta nociceptive fiber firing) and pain is just such a conferred of second-order intelligibility, established via the first-order or conferring intelligibility of the functional-phenomenal relationship between noxious or potentially noxious stimuli and pain. If the relationship between pain and stimuli as adequate or appropriate stimuli both for pain and for the activity of C- and A-Delta nociceptive fibers will imbue, through conceptual mediation, homogeneity between phenomenal and physiological concepts which are (thus far) normally thought to be inherently heterogeneous. (p.157)
Whew! Grahek is making bold claims against various philosophical notions of pain, but I do not have the time nor competence to go into them. Suffice to say that he is arguing that it makes sense that pain and injury are linked and that to keep thinking there is more explanation necessary is sometimes a misstep towards understanding.

Finally, the story of curare, which was thought to be an analgesic but was really just a paralytic (so people having surgery would experience the horror but just couldn’t say or do anything about it), reminds that one has to be careful with medical processes and things aren’t always what they seem.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Best headline of the day?

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A good book that describes how our brains fall into various traps regarding prediction and knowledge because we underestimate the impact of randomness and overestimate the validity of our models of phenomena. This was not an excellent book (for me) because much of it was review as I have had prior exposure to much of the content, both from various other works as well as his previous book, Fooled by Randomness. Further, Taleb does have a bit of a condescending tone and though he makes many an significant point, calling others stupid or idiotic isn’t the best way to try to convince them of anything.
That aside, The Black Swan has numerous pieces of important information, from social psychological findings regarding happiness and relative rank to the plausibility of financiers having a good run for years but possibly just by luck, to philosophical explorations of the problems of induction, how we can know things and the inherent problems when we try to predict.
As it is so very easy to fall into myriad cognitive traps that bias the world for us, I find works like this valuable. Consequently, I think similar content should be mandatory in our education system (minus the snotty tone and occasional, overreaching statement).
In summation, worthwhile but you would probably do nearly as well with his first book as it was more concise and explored similar themes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Reality Check #35-38

It seems I am behind in my links to the podcast in which I participate. Here are the direct links for the past several shows:

The Reality Check #35: Climate Change + Plastic Bags + Ozone Depletion (I did the first segment)
The Reality Check #36: Japanese Horror + Bible Code + Soda Can Myth
The Reality Check #37: Skeptic Course + Penta Water + Swine Flu Myth (I did the third segment)
The Reality Check #38: Politics/Skepticism + Climate Change Questions + Red Bull Myth (I did the second segment)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought

(from ScienceDaily) "The most comprehensive modeling yet carried out on the likelihood of how much hotter the Earth's climate will get in this century shows that without rapid and massive action, the problem will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago - and could be even worse than that."
The link also has a good depiction of temperatures with the slice of the circle representing the probability of occurrence.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Succulent in both content and style, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a fascinating tour through our food system that reveals facts as interesting as they are startling. Pollan’s goal was to figure out “What should I eat?” and that question soon leads to another: Where does our food come from?
The book explores that query by examining the industrial food system (corn), the pastoral (grass) and the personal hunting and gathering of food. Pollan wisely displays his (prior) ignorance and incompetence which makes the book more accessible to the reader and serves the tactical purpose of leading someone along thought processes and arguments instead of making overt arguments to which readers might be more resistant. Among others, this occurred for the investigation of the “military industrial corn-plex,” the ethics of eating animals, McDonalds, as well as the issues of organic and sustainability.
The book really underscored the idea that there is a cost, usually not factored in, to our food and it is most often paid in environmental damage. There was so much packed into this 400+ page book that it would take far too long to describe all the fascinating things I learned, so below are just several examples.

- How (and why) cheap corn exists and is used in the industrial food system; and thus why it is beneficial for a farmer to produce more corn when prices go down. Most things you eat are a decent percentage of corn, mainly because of the high-fructose corn syrup.
- That most humans can only eat about 1500 pounds of food per year which means the growth rate of the food industry is (basically) limited to the population growth of a nation. Consequently, the goal of the food industry is to get people to spend more for the food they are eating or to get them to eat more than they need to or should. (The idea of business doing business was not new, but the specific numbers of amount and growth were interesting.)
- The pervasiveness of whisky in the early 19th century (the modern coffee break began as a late-morning whisky break!).
- That smaller, local, pastoral farming can actually be more productive and better for the land (because the outputs are used as inputs and the external energy source of the sun allows growth but laws of physics to hold.
- A one-pound box of organic prewashed lettuce (that is shipped across the USA) cost 57 calories of fossil fuel energy (due to the growing, chilling, washing, packaging and transporting) for every calorie of food. 57:1 ratio!
- “Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world.” (p. 243)
- “Supermarkets in Denmark have experimented with adding a second bar code to packages of meat that when scanned at a kiosk in the store brings up on a monitor images of the farm where the meat was raised, as well as detailed information on the particular animal’s genetics, feed, medications, slaughter date, etc.” (p. 244)

Additionally, I quite enjoyed the discussion in the “The Ethics of Eating Animals” (chapter 17) as I’ve thought for a couple years now that my meat eating doesn’t have a moral nor ecological leg to stand on (and I enjoy ethical explorations of behaviour). Further, his description of experience of hunting and killing an animal, from the ecstasy to the revulsion, was very well done.

The only part that was less reasoned was his brief discussion of lunar energy and the possibilities surrounding it; this occurred during the Mushroom section – the weakest part of the book in my opinion.

For those seeking a well-written exploration of their food and where it comes from, you could likely do little better than Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Afghanistan's only pig quarantined in flu fear

This piece says so many interesting things about the world an its inhabitants, from Reuters, May 5th:
Afghanistan's only known pig has been locked in a room, away from visitors to Kabul zoo where it normally grazes beside deer and goats, because people are worried it could infect them with the virus popularly known as swine flu.The pig is a curiosity in Muslim Afghanistan, where pork and pig products are illegal because they are considered irreligious, and has been in quarantine since Sunday after visitors expressed alarm it could spread the new flu strain."For now the pig is under quarantine, we built it a room because of swine influenza," Aziz Gul Saqib, director of Kabul Zoo, told Reuters. "We've done this because people are worried about getting the flu."Worldwide, more than 1,000 people have been infected with the virus, according to the World Health Organization, which also says 26 people have so far died from the strain. All but one of the deaths were in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak.There are no pig farms in Afghanistan and no direct civilian flights between Kabul and Mexico."We understand that, but most people don't have enough knowledge. When they see the pig in the cage they get worried and think that they could get ill," Saqib said.The pig was a gift to the zoo from China, which itself quarantined some 70 Mexicans, 26 Canadians and four Americans in the past week, but later released them.Some visitors were not concerned about the fate of the pig and said locking it away was probably for the best."Influenza is quite contagious and if it passes between people and animals then there's no need for the pig to be here," zoo visitor Farzana said.Shabby and rundown, Kabul Zoo is a far cry from zoos in the developed world, but has nevertheless come a long way since it suffered on the front line of Afghanistan's 1992-4 civil war.Mujahideen fighters then ate the deer and rabbits and shot dead the zoo's sole elephant. Shells shattered the aquarium.One fighter climbed into the lion enclosure but was immediately killed by Marjan, the zoo's most famous inhabitant. The man's brother returned the next day and lobbed a hand grenade at the lion leaving him toothless and blind.The zoo now holds two lions who replaced Marjan who died of old age in 2002 as well as endangered local leopards. In all, it houses 42 species of birds and mammals and 36 types of fish and attracts up to 10,000 visitors on weekends.

Do Longitudinal Studies Make You Happy?

Brooks discusses an article that discusses the Grant study - for 72 years, researchers at Harvard followed 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age.

The article itself - "What Makes Us Happy?"

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Becoming What We Seek to Destroy

Great article by Hedges about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those who are "sacrificed on the altar of an idea."

Friday, May 08, 2009

Lungs of the Earth

I just learned that algae contribute more oxygen to our atmosphere than do the rainforests. It seems the lungs of the Earth are underwater.

Face Transplant