Wednesday Round Up #32


Anterior cingulate inputs to nucleus accumbens control the social transfer of pain and analgesia

Distinct Anterior Cingulate neural circuits mediating the social transfer of pain/analgesia & fear: “Abstract: In mice, both pain and fear can be transferred by short social contact from one animal to a bystander. Neurons in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex in the bystander animal mediate these transfers. However, the specific anterior cingulate projections involved in such empathy-related behaviors are unknown. Smith et al. found that projections from the anterior cingulate cortex to the nucleus accumbens are necessary for the social transfer of pain in mice (see the Perspective by Klein and Gogolla). Fear, however, was mediated by projections from the anterior cingulate cortex to the basolateral amygdala. Interestingly, in animals with pain, analgesia can also be transferred socially.”

Food for thought? French bean plants show signs of intent, say scientists

Intrigued by the ability of climbing beans to sense structures such as garden canes and grow up them, he devised an experiment to investigate whether they deliberately aim for the cane, or simply bump into such structures as they grow, and then turn them to their advantage. “The question is, are they showing goal-directed behaviours consistent with anticipation and fine-scaled tweaking of their movements, as they approach?” Calvo said.

Together with Vicente Raja at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy in London, Canada, they used time-lapse photography to document the behaviour of 20 potted bean plants, grown either in the vicinity of a support pole or without one, until the tip of the shoot made contact with the pole. Using this footage, they analysed the dynamics of the shoots’ growth, finding that their approach was more controlled and predictable when a pole was present. The difference was analogous to sending a blindfolded person into a room containing an obstacle, and either telling them about it or letting them stumble into it.

Home Grown Humans podcast

Jamie Wheal’s new podcast, HomeGrown Humans, combines neuroanthropology and culture architecture to help us create a better future.

Perspectives and the Truth: Another Case for Diversity and Inclusion

Consider cognitive dissonance as an example. Dissonance involves a cognitive conflict and negative feelings associated with it. Imagine you experience dissonance after telling a lie to somebody. What do you feel? There are two possibilities. First, you might be angry at yourself or feel guilty for the unethical act you committed. This way of feeling is in line with the original formulation of dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957). The best evidence for it is that dissonance is most robust when the choice to act unethically (by telling a lie, in this example) is made in private (Cooper & Fazio, 1984). Hidden behind this feeling of dissonance is a cultural belief that behavior is driven and guided by the internal attributes of the self. Dissonance occurs when those internal attributes (say, honesty or integrity) are called into question.

Second, however, you might feel afraid that the unethical act could become public, which would produce intense shame. I suspect that this way of feeling is less common in Western contexts. However, my colleagues and I concluded that it probably is the best description of how Japanese and other East Asians feel under such circumstances. The best evidence for it is that dissonance is stronger for these individuals when the choice to act unethically is made in public (Kitayama et al., 2004). Hidden behind this second feeling of dissonance is a cultural belief that behavior is a matter of managing social honor or “face.” Dissonance occurs when this social honor is called into question.

Are the two cultural beliefs merely alternative interpretive frames that are applied to a psychological behavior (the feeling of dissonance in this case) only after the behavior is observed? This example shows that they are much more than that. They are part and parcel of the psychology that produces the feeling of dissonance. This psychology is shaped by the environment—in this case, the cultural environment.

Longevity Linked to Proteins That Calm Overexcited Neurons

Recently in Nature, Bruce Yankner, a professor of genetics and neurology at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues reported on a previously overlooked controller of life span: the activity level of neurons in the brain. In a series of experiments on roundworms, mice and human brain tissue, they found that a protein called REST, which controls the expression of many genes related to neural firing, also controls life span. They also showed that boosting the levels of the equivalent of REST in worms lengthens their lives by making their neurons fire more quietly and with more control. How exactly overexcitation of neurons might shorten life span remains to be seen, but the effect is real and its discovery suggests new avenues for understanding the aging process.

Evolution’s engineers and Niche construction

Earthworms also build houses to stack the evolutionary odds in their favour. There are more than 6,000 species of earthworms, which differ considerably in their ecology and behaviour. However, most are not just wandering nomads, roving the soil in search of food and leaving displaced earth behind. Rather, earthworms can construct semi-permanent burrows, which commonly last substantially longer than a lifetime. Charles Darwin himself noted that earthworm burrows aren’t simple excavations, but rather robust vertical tunnels, sometimes more than a metre deep, which he described as ‘lined with cement’. Earthworm ‘cement’ arises from the compaction of secretions and castings produced by the resident worm, and creates a distinctive burrow lining up to a centimetre in thickness, known as a ‘drilosphere’. Each earthworm burrow – the living quarters – opens up on the soil surface with a midden, a kind of compost heap that serves as both kitchen and toilet, comprising a mound of litter collected as food together with earthworm casts. Earthworms are even known to excavate side-burrow nurseries in which cocoons are laid. From the safety of their homes, many earthworms scavenge in the dark on the surface for food and mates, often leaving their tail ends safely attached to the burrow.

How Our Brains Work: A Reading List for Non-Scientists

For more non-jargony insights into the way our weird, wonderful brains work, Dr. Barrett shared 10 Pocket-ready links to essays, videos, profiles–plus one delicious chicken pot pie recipe (you’ll see why).

A Shift in American Family Values Is Fueling Estrangement

Both sides often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century. “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles,” the historian Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, told me in an email. “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”

The historian Steven Mintz, the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, made a similar observation in an email: “Families in the past fought over tangible resources—land, inheritances, family property. They still do, but all this is aggravated and intensified by a mindset that does seem to be distinctive to our time. Our conflicts are often psychological rather than material—and therefore even harder to resolve.”

The 2,000-year-old Wonder Women who inspired the comic

While the story of a race of warrior women first appeared in Greek mythology, excavations across the north and east of the Black Sea region have revealed that warrior women like the Amazons existed in real life. In December 2019, the graves of four female warriors from the 4th Century BC Sarmatian region were found in the village of Devitsa, in what is now Western Russia. The Sarmatians were a people of Iranian heritage, with men and women skilled in horsemanship and battle. Excavations within the modern borders of Iran have revealed the existence of female warriors. In the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz, 109 warrior graves were unearthed. Archaeologist Alireza Hejebri-Nobari confirmed in a 2004 interview that the DNA found in one belonged to a woman. DNA testing was due to take place on other warrior graves, 38 of which are still intact, but according to Mayor’s contacts in Iran, that DNA research was halted in August 2020 due to a lack of resources.

The great rivalries of the ancient Greeks and Persians are well documented in Greek art, history and mythology, so much so that historians of Ancient Persia rely on the Greek interpretation of the region to unlock its history. Experts have identified depictions of the women in battle with Greek men on vases and other ceramics as dressed in Persian-style clothing: the Kandys cloak, the Anaxyrides trousers, the Persikay shoes. By the 470s, the Greeks began to refer to portrayals of the Persians as the Amazons, turning their real-life adversaries into mythological folklore. Even the word “Amazon”, meaning “warrior”, is likely rooted in the Iranian language.

Wednesday Round Up #31

5 Don’ts For Better Fat Loss (Evidence Based)
Decent summary of how to start to create the long-term changes that sustain weight loss and healthy weight

‘Toxic Individualism’: Pandemic Politics Driving Health Care Workers From Small Towns

It also undermines the rural economy. Hospitals are often the biggest employers in small towns, according to Chris Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. And Merrett says health care workers are absolutely vital.

“They are really the lifeblood of any community and a rural community in particular,” Merrett says. “These are well-paid individuals who are the ones who are buying cars, buying homes, and really part of that economic anchor of your community.”

Merrett says towns that let pandemic politics drive medical professionals away are choosing what he calls “toxic individualism” over the common good.

Even If It’s ‘Bonkers,’ Poll Finds Many Believe QAnon And Other Conspiracy Theories

A significant number of Americans believe misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus and the recent presidential election, as well as conspiracy theories like QAnon, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll.

Forty percent of respondents said they believe the coronavirus was made in a lab in China even though there is no evidence for this. Scientists say the virus was transmitted to humans from another species.

And one-third of Americans believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election, despite the fact that courts, election officials and the Justice Department have found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the outcome.

Why Do We Dream? A New Theory on How It Protects Our Brains

What does brain flexibility and rapid cortical takeover have to do with dreaming? Perhaps more than previously thought. Ben clearly benefited from the redistribution of his visual cortex to other senses because he had permanently lost his eyes, but what about the participants in the blindfold experiments? If our loss of a sense is only temporary, then the rapid conquest of brain territory may not be so helpful.

And this, we propose, is why we dream.

In the ceaseless competition for brain territory, the visual system has a unique problem: due to the planet’s rotation, all animals are cast into darkness for an average of 12 out of every 24 hours. (Of course, this refers to the vast majority of evolutionary time, not to our present electrified world.) Our ancestors effectively were unwitting participants in the blindfold experiment, every night of their entire lives.

So how did the visual cortex of our ancestors’ brains defend its territory, in the absence of input from the eyes?

We suggest that the brain preserves the territory of the visual cortex by keeping it active at night. In our “defensive activation theory,” dream sleep exists to keep neurons in the visual cortex active, thereby combating a takeover by the neighboring senses.

Genetics Spills Secrets From Neanderthals’ Lost History

“If there were really only 1,000 Neanderthals in the whole world,” Rogers said, “it’s hard to believe there would be such a rich fossil record.”

But genetic evidence is exactly what Rogers and his colleagues have now cited to support their claim that the Neanderthals effectively numbered in the tens of thousands. They made their argument in a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The key to this new result lies in the researchers’ assumption that Neanderthals had a much more diverse gene pool, but that it was divided into small, isolated, inbred groups of genetically similar individuals. This kind of fragmentation would have skewed the earlier genetic results: Estimates like that 2-in-10,000 number described the local populations and their regional histories but missed the big picture.

Anthropology at the Crossroads

The art and science of anthropology is to recognize culture as a system that we humans use to act intentionally and to make sense of the world around us. We make and communicate meaning by utilizing culture. There must be an art or humanistic angle that is foundational to the study of culture, because there is an inherent opacity to the cultural concept in exactly the same way that Peter Carruthers (2011) argued the mind is opaque: we apprehend neither directly; we just infer them.

I think the theories of such famous scholars as Daniel Kahneman (2011), Daniel C. Dennett (1991), Ruth Garrett Millikan (2010), and even Paul Gilbert (2010) fail because they seek to understand the mind, and more specifically collective cognition, without taking culture into account! We anthropologists are better off because we do have a theory of collective thought. The mind is more subtle to have but two gears for thinking: slow and fast. Probably all mental states not produced by immediate sensory input, are infected with culture. To use Robert Levy’s theory of hypocognition and hypercognition, it is likely that the speed of thinking, except that which is reflexive (like pain or distress), depends on the degree to which perceptions are culturally hypocognized or hypercognized. One can see this as a continuum (not just emotions)—the more hypercognized, the more elaborate and the more cultural symbols can be infused into the thought, therefore the slower the thinking.

What Kahneman and other psychologists miss is a thoughtful well-developed theory of culture.

Antihero Care: On Fieldwork and Anthropology

Le Guin suggests we remake the hero. For inspiration she turns her attention to seed containers, which are round, soft, and capable of holding many different kinds of things. These sacks, used to collect food, do not command attention. Unlike the quick pointed arrows of the Hero’s story, audiences do not typically gather around to watch or listen to the slow work of filling them up. Seed containers are capable of taking objects in the world into them, folding or expanding as they respond to the weight of sustenance, but their appearance is often drab and unremarkable. In contrast to the single hunter’s perfectionistic bravado, filling seed containers often requires that people work together, through work that can be difficult or boring but also often gentle and full of quiet pleasure (brown 2019). One can be skillful with a seed container—seed collecting is not easy—but the labor that goes into filling them occurs without relentless competition to win or be the best.

The seed container offers a lesson for the field of anthropology. Le Guin suggests we might turn our attention away from the “killer” story of the Hero, instead retelling our stories around these unheroic seed sacks that have, to little fanfare, been keeping us alive. Drawing from Le Guin, I propose a pathway of “antihero care”: care that does not seek adventure, that does not take it all upon its shoulders. This is care that rests, making space for an individual’s fallibility, and care that stops listening to the story of the Hero.

Why Chimpanzees Don’t Hold Elections: The Power of Social Reality

This neural process of compression runs at a massive scale throughout your brain and produces an incredible result. It enables to you think abstractly: to see things in terms of their function instead of their physical form. You have the ability to look at a painting by Picasso and perceive that the colorful shapes represent a face. You can view squiggles of ink on paper and grasp that they represent numbers, and moreover, that the numbers represent your spending for the month. Abstraction lets you view objects that look nothing alike — such as a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers, and a gold wristwatch — and understand them all as “gifts that celebrate an achievement.” Your brain compresses away the physical differences of these objects and in the process, you understand that they have a similar function. Abstraction also allows us to impose multiple functions on the same physical object. A cup of wine means one thing when your friends shout, “Congratulations!” and another when a priest intones, “Blood of Christ.”

Abstraction, together with the rest of the Five Cs, empowers your large, complex brain to create and share social reality. All animals pay attention to physical things that allow them to survive and thrive. We humans add to the world by collectively imposing new functions on physical things, and we live by them.

Each of the Five Cs is found in other animals to varying extents. Crows, for example, are creative problem-solvers who use twigs as tools. Elephants communicate in low rumbles that can travel for miles. Whales copy one another’s songs. Ants cooperate to find food and defend their nest. Bees use abstraction as they wiggle their bums to tell their hive-mates where to find nectar.

In humans, however, the Five Cs intertwine and reinforce one another, which lets us take things to a whole other level. Songbirds learn their songs from adult tutors. Humans learn not only how to sing but also the social reality of singing, such as which songs are appropriate on holidays.

Timnit Gebru’s Exit From Google Exposes a Crisis in AI

It was against this backdrop that Google fired Timnit Gebru, our dear friend and colleague, and a leader in the field of artificial intelligence. She is also one of the few Black women in AI research and an unflinching advocate for bringing more BIPOC, women, and non-Western people into the field. By any measure, she excelled at the job Google hired her to perform, including demonstrating racial and gender disparities in facial-analysis technologies and developing reporting guidelines for data sets and AI models. Ironically, this and her vocal advocacy for those underrepresented in AI research are also the reasons, she says, the company fired her. According to Gebru, after demanding that she and her colleagues withdraw a research paper critical of (profitable) large-scale AI systems, Google Research told her team that it had accepted her resignation, despite the fact that she hadn’t resigned. (Google declined to comment for this story.)

Google’s appalling treatment of Gebru exposes a dual crisis in AI research. The field is dominated by an elite, primarily white male workforce, and it is controlled and funded primarily by large industry players—Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, and yes, Google. With Gebru’s firing, the civility politics that yoked the young effort to construct the necessary guardrails around AI have been torn apart, bringing questions about the racial homogeneity of the AI workforce and the inefficacy of corporate diversity programs to the center of the discourse. But this situation has also made clear that—however sincere a company like Google’s promises may seem—corporate-funded research can never be divorced from the realities of power, and the flows of revenue and capital.

Dendritic Integration Theory: A thalamocortical theory of state and content of Consciousness

In what follows we elaborate on our theory of consciousness – the Dendritic Integration Theory (DIT) (Aru, Suzuki, & Larkum, 2020) and show how it reconciles the traditional separation between content vs. state of consciousness and cortex-based vs. thalamocortical foundations of consciousness. This theory takes the view that understanding the pyramidal neurons of the cortex and their dendritic trees is central to explaining the flow and control of information relating to conscious processing (Aru, Suzuki, & Larkum, 2020). In this endeavour, as the matter to be explained is how conscious experience emerges from the brain, our theory starts by describing the attributes and characteristics of conscious experience in order to find neural mechanisms capable of explaining how these subjective characteristics can be achieved by certain neurobiological mechanisms.

How to Write (Almost) Anything, From a Great Joke to a Killer Cover Letter

Whether you’re just looking to punch up your tweets or have ambitions to write the Great American Novel, we’ve got you covered with this collection of great articles about the craft of writing, well, just about anything.

Wednesday Round Up #30

Dylan Thomas reads “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
This reading makes the poem come even more alive, to hear its rhythms in the voice of its creator

Romantic Regimes

Sitting in the American school library, I stared at my dozens of handwritten notes and saw an abyss opening up: a gulf between the ideals of love that I had grown up with and the exotic stuff I was now encountering. Where I came from, boys and girls were ‘falling in love’ and ‘seeing each other’; the rest was a mystery. The teen film drama that my generation of Russians grew up with – a socialist replica of Romeo and Juliet set in a Moscow commuter neighbourhood – was deliciously unspecific when it came to declarations of love. To express his feelings for the heroine, the protagonist recited the multiplication tables: ‘Two times two is four. It is as certain as my love. Three times three is nine. That means you are mine. And two times nine is 18, and that’s my favourite number because at 18 we will get married.’

What else was there to say? Not even our 1,000-page Russian novels could match the complexity of Seventeen’s romantic system. When engaging in love affairs, the countesses and officers were not exactly eloquent; they acted before they spoke, and afterwards, if they weren’t dead as a result of their hasty undertakings, they gazed around speechless and scratched their heads in search of explanations.

Although I did not yet have a PhD in sociology, it turned out that what I had been doing with the copies of Seventeen was exactly the kind of work that sociologists of emotion perform in order to understand how we conceptualise love…

But perhaps the greatest problem with the Regime of Choice stems from its misconception of maturity as absolute self-sufficiency. Attachment is infantilised. The desire for recognition is rendered as ‘neediness’. Intimacy must never challenge ‘personal boundaries’. While incessantly scolded to take responsibility for our own selves, we are strongly discouraged from taking any for our loved ones: after all, our interference in their lives, in the form of unsolicited advice or suggestions for change, might prevent their growth and self-discovery. Caught between too many optimisation scenarios and failure options, we are faced with the worst affliction of the Regime of Choice: self-absorption without self-sacrifice…

Having analysed discussions in various TV talk shows, conducted interviews and done content analysis of the Russian press, she established that, to Russians, love remains ‘a destiny, a moral act and a value; it is irresistible, it requires sacrifice and implies suffering and pain.’ Indeed, whereas the concept of maturity that lies at the heart of the Regime of Choice regards romantic pain as an aberration and a sign of poor decision-making, the Russians consider maturity to be the capacity to bear that very pain, sometimes to an absurd degree.

Michel Henry – Philosopher of Phenomenology

Since the publication of the Essence of Manifestation in 1963, Henry’s entire oeuvre was devoted to the systematic development of a phenomenology that, while constituting itself within the phenomenological tradition, criticizes substantially not only classical Husserlian phenomenology but also the works of some of Husserl’s most famous successors: Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. The originality of Henry’s phenomenology lies in the fact that it considers intentionality to be only one of two modes of appearing. In other words, Henry argues that the way in which phenomena appear to us cannot be restricted to the “consciousness of something” as classical phenomenology would suggest. On the contrary, for Henry, intentional consciousness must be founded in a more fundamental mode of appearing that is precisely non- and even pre-intentional and that therefore essentially differs from intentionality. It is this fundamental mode of appearing that Henry designates as “affectivity”, “pathos” or “life”.

A ‘Self-Aware’ Fish Raises Doubts About a Cognitive Test

A little blue-and-black fish swims up to a mirror. It maneuvers its body vertically to reflect its belly, along with a brown mark that researchers have placed on its throat. The fish then pivots and dives to strike its throat against the sandy bottom of its tank with a glancing blow. Then it returns to the mirror. Depending on which scientists you ask, this moment represents either a revolution or a red herring.

Alex Jordan, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, thinks this fish — a cleaner wrasse — has just passed a classic test of self-recognition. Scientists have long thought that being able to recognize oneself in a mirror reveals some sort of self-awareness, and perhaps an awareness of others’ perspectives, too. For almost 50 years, they have been using mirrors to test animals for that capacity. After letting an animal get familiar with a mirror, they put a mark someplace on the animal’s body that it can see only in its reflection. If the animal looks in the mirror and then touches or examines the mark on its body, it passes the test.

Humans don’t usually reach this milestone until we’re toddlers. Very few other species ever pass the test; those that do are mostly or entirely big-brained mammals such as chimpanzees. And yet as reported in a 2018 study that appeared on bioRxiv.org and that is due for publication in PLOS Biology, Jordan and his co-authors observed this seemingly self-aware behavior in a tiny fish.

Covid-19 has shown us that good health is not just down to biology

Of all the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic, the most significant is how unequal its effects have been. Wealth, it turns out, is the best shielding strategy from Covid-19. As poorer people crowded together in cramped housing, the rich escaped to their country retreats. Two of the largest risk factors for dying from Covid-19 are being from a deprived background and being from a minority-ethnic background, pointing to the underlying role of social inequalities, housing conditions and occupation.

Our society’s recovery from this disease should be centred on building more equal, resilient societies, where people in all parts of the world have access to both protection from the disease and access to research developments.

Wednesday Round Up #29

Ira Glass, the Host of This American Life, Breaks Down the Fine Art of Storytelling

Doing the Biocultural Work with Dr. Jada Benn Torres and Dr. Gabriel A Torres Colón

On this weeks episode, Chris and Cara talk to Dr. Jada Benn Torres and Dr. Gabriel A Torres Colón about their new book Genetic Ancestry: Our Stories, Our Pasts

John Rawls: can liberalism’s great philosopher come to the west’s rescue again?

The columnist, Elizabeth Bruenig, suggested to colleagues: “What we’re having is really a philosophical conversation and it concerns the unfinished business of liberalism. I think all human beings are born philosophers, that is, that we all have an innate desire to understand what our world means and what we owe to one another and how to live good lives.” One respondent wrote back witheringly: “Philosophy schmosiphy. We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?”

In an age of polarisation, the exchange encapsulated a central question for the liberal left in America and beyond. Jagged faultlines have disfigured the public square during a period in which issues of race, gender, class and nationhood have divided societies. So was Bruenig right? To rebuild trust and a sense of common purpose, can we learn something by revisiting the most influential postwar philosopher in the English-speaking world?

The Virus, the Bats and Us: They probably spread the virus that’s killing humans. We almost certainly spread the fungus that’s killing them.

They play a huge role in the perpetuation of tropical hardwood forests. They eat a vast tonnage of insects each year. In Thailand, wrinkle-lipped bats provide protection against a major rice pest. In Indonesia, other bats reduce the insect burden on shade-grown cacao. A single colony of big brown bats in the American Midwest, by consuming 600,000 cucumber beetles in a year, prevents 33 million cucumber beetle larvae from feeding on the next year’s crop. Mexican free-tailed bats eat cotton bollworm moths in Texas. By one estimate, from 2011, bat predation on insects was saving $23 billion annually for agriculture in the United States. The global total is incalculable. “Bats are too important to lose,” Dr. Epstein said.

Yet they are being lost in many parts of the world, because of habitat destruction and direct killing — and, at a cataclysmic rate in North America over the past 14 years, because of a new problem: a contagious disease. It’s called white-nose syndrome, and it’s caused by a pathogenic fungus that seems to have arrived from Europe. In this case, humans are the vector, and bats are the victims.

The Pressing Need for Everyone to Quiet Their Egos

In recent years, Heidi Wayment and her colleagues have been developing a “quiet ego” research program grounded in Buddhist philosophy and humanistic psychology ideals, and backed by empirical research in the field of positive psychology. Paradoxically, it turns out that quieting the ego is so much more effective in cultivating well-being, growth, health, productivity, and a healthy, productive self-esteem, than focusing so loudly on self-enhancement.

To be clear, a quiet ego is not the same thing as a silent ego. Squashing the ego so much that it loses its identity entirely does not do yourself or the world any favors. Instead, the quiet ego perspective emphasizes balance and integration. As Wayment and colleagues put it, “The volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.” The quiet ego approach focuses on balancing the interests of the self and others, and cultivating growth of the self and others over time based on self-awareness, interdependent identity, and compassionate experience.

How Nature Solves Problems Through Computation

Flack describes her work as an investigation into three interlocking questions. She wants to understand how phenomenological rules in biology, which seem to work in aggregate, emerge from microscopic ground truths. She wants to understand how groups solve problems and come to decisions. And she wants to know how complex systems stay robust in the face of shocks, like the macaques with their own police force that acts as social glue.

At its root, though, Flack’s focus is on information: specifically, on how groups of different, error-prone actors variously succeed and fail at processing information together. “When I look at biological systems, what I see is that they are collective,” she said. “They are all made up of interacting components with only partly overlapping interests, who are noisy information processors dealing with noisy signals.”

Nicole Krauss’s Beautiful Letter to Van Gogh on How to Break the Loop of Our Destructive Patterns

It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our “nature” and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed — rather absurdly, when one thinks about it — by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.

Wednesday Round Up #28

Trees Talk to Each Other in a Language We Can Learn, Ecologist Claims

Like humans, trees are extremely social creatures, utterly dependent on each other for their survival. And, as it is with us, communication is key.

After scientists discovered pine tree roots could transfer carbon to other pine tree roots in a lab, ecology professor Suzanne Simard set out to figure out how they did it.

What she discovered was a vast tangled web of hair-like mushroom roots — an information super highway allowing trees to communicate important messages to other members of their species and related species, such that the forest behaves as “a single organism.”

How a New Hampshire libertarian utopia was foiled by bears

It turns out that if you have a bunch of people living in the woods in nontraditional living situations, each of which is managing food in their own way and their waste streams in their own way, then you’re essentially teaching the bears in the region that every human habitation is like a puzzle that has to be solved in order to unlock its caloric payload. And so the bears in the area started to take notice of the fact that there were calories available in houses.

How The Dutch Economy Shows We Can’t Reduce Wealth Inequality With Taxes

New Approaches to Four-Field Anthropology

Franz Boas did not see the utility of four-field analysis beyond his desire to separate out the concept of culture from nineteenth-century paradigms of general evolution. With that aim achieved he was content to let the discipline segment. Consequently, he missed an immense opportunity to broaden anthropological theory. In our individual researches on systems of bodily movement, holistic, four-field strategies were both obvious and necessary tools for completing our studies. Dancers and martial artists use their physical bodies, they use specialized language to talk about their activities, they incorporate history into their training, and their styles all have deep sociocultural meanings. If we use slightly different terminology for the four fields: anatomy, history, language, and culture, the great expansion of the number of areas of research that could use a four-field approach becomes even more apparent.

What’s the Role of Developer Experience in Programming Languages Research?

Continue reading “Wednesday Round Up #28”

Wednesday Round Up #27

Apocalypse Then and Now

Pine Ridge sits on plains that are typically arid, so these extreme weather events were unusual—a result of shifting jet streams and increasing ocean evaporation driven by climate change. They were also catastrophic. Roads became impassable, cutting families off from medicine, food, and outside assistance. Water lines across the reservation broke, depriving eight thousand people of drinking water. At least four deaths were reported.

Amid the flooding, I drove all over the reservation to survey the damage, eventually arriving at Wounded Knee, site of the infamous 1890 massacre and 1973 American Indian Movement occupation. I parked and trudged up a small hill, the mud pulling at the heels of my boots. At the top was a mass grave of one hundred forty-six Lakota. Feeling the weight of this solemn place, I was compelled to offer a prayer. Lingering awhile at the peak, I watched residents of a nearby housing development walk along the highway to the closest post office to collect rations from the National Guard.

I checked Twitter and learned that Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, had driven onto the reservation with a convoy of military vehicles carrying potable water. She was not welcome. Just two weeks earlier, Noem had passed a bill that held protesters opposing projects like the Keystone XL oil pipeline liable for what the state called “riot boosting.” (The Oglala were among the tribes opposed to the pipeline and the bill.) Here before me, in one scene, were the interlocking forces of genocide, ecological apocalypse, resistance, and repression—the imperial roots of the climate crisis and their colonial fallout.

Racism literally ages Black Americans faster, according to our 25-year study

I’m part of a research team that has been following more than 800 Black American families for almost 25 years. We found that people who had reported experiencing high levels of racial discrimination when they were young teenagers had significantly higher levels of depression in their 20s than those who hadn’t. This elevated depression, in turn, showed up in their blood samples, which revealed accelerated ageing on a cellular level.

Our research is not the first to show Black Americans live sicker lives and die younger than other racial or ethnic groups. The experience of constant and accumulating stress due to racism throughout an individual’s lifetime can wear and tear down the body – literally “getting under the skin” to affect health.

Acedia: The Lost Name for the Emotion We’re All Feeling Right Now

We get distracted by social media, yet have a pile of books unread. We keep meaning to go outside but somehow never find the time. We’re bored, listless, afraid and uncertain.

What is this feeling?

John Cassian, a monk and theologian wrote in the early 5th century about an ancient Greek emotion called acedia. A mind “seized” by this emotion is “horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room … It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading”. He feels:

such bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast … Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting.

This sounds eerily familiar. Yet, the name that so aptly describes our current state was lost to time and translation.

Publishers are not obliged to give bigots like Jordan Peterson a platform

Believing that a prestigious publisher should not give such a person a contract is not the same as believing that they should be punished for speaking, or that they should not have access to the internet, a printer, or the marketplace. It’s important to make this distinction clear, because many conservative claims about being “censored” actually just amount to demands that their opinions be elevated far beyond their worth – that evidence-free, bigoted speech be given any prestigious platform it demands, with criticism seen as proof that the critics are intolerant. (Andrew Sullivan, for instance, resigned from New York magazine in a huff after his colleagues expressed discomfort about his flirtations with white supremacism and race science. They didn’t demand the magazine stop publishing him, but just being criticized was enough for him to bolt, claiming a hostile environment.)

Emmanuel Acho: ‘White people don’t understand the jurisdiction of black things’

That book, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, debuts in the UK this week after a bestselling run in the United States. And it builds on his viral YouTube series of the same name, which is less about what’s being talked about than who’s doing the talking: the skier Lindsey Vonn, the actor Matthew McConaughey, a police department in California. The book, on the other hand, not only adds the missing context of 400 years’ worth of enslavement, subjugation and disenfranchisement as context, but sums it all up with a breezy succinctness that is careful not to lay any blame at the feet of its intended audience. Where Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me stokes white guilt by relating the hollow pain of his all too familiar black experience, Uncomfortable reads more like an FAQ page writ long. Struggling to wrap your head around the idea of reverse racism? Turn to page 83.

Many Minds Podcast: Episode – From Where We Stand

Welcome back folks! Today’s episode is a conversation about the nature of knowledge. I talked with Dr. Briana Toole, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College. Briana specializes in epistemology—the branch of philosophy that grapples with all things knowledge-related. In her work she is helping develop a new framework called “standpoint epistemology.” The basic idea is that what we know depends in part on our social position—on our gender, our race, and other factors. We flesh out this idea by walking through a bunch of examples that show how where we stand shapes the facts we attend to, believe, accept, and resist. We also talk about our moment present, polarized and fractured as it is. As we discuss, standpoint epistemology might offer tools to help us make sense of what’s happening, understand where others are coming from, and maybe even bridge some of the chasms that divide us. Enjoy!

The Radio Auteur: Joe Frank, Ira Glass, and Narrative Radio

Frank’s style earned him no more than a modest cult following. But his legacy lives on, in a very different form, in the work of Ira Glass (whose first job in public radio was as Frank’s production assistant) and in Glass’s own outsize influence on radio and now podcasting, where many of the best shows don’t aim to break news or provide trenchant analysis. Instead, they prize, above all, narrative tension and surprise, lending them an absorbing, binge-worthy quality that helps to build an emotional connection between the hosts and their listeners.

The Slippery Math of Causation

The search for a clear and comprehensive theory of causality may well be a philosophical chimera. However, as Insights readers know, our philosophy is that all subjects, however complicated, can be explored through puzzles. So let’s explore multifactorial causation using some simplified mathematical models, restricting ourselves to just three causative factors and omitting interactions between causative factors over time.

Consider a scenario where there are three causative factors, a, b and c, which are real variables that take values between 0 and 2. The three factors interact together to determine the value of a hidden factor, d. If the value of d is within a certain window, then a particular event occurs (Y). If not, the event fails to occur (N).

For the solution, and more discussion, see here

Why are public thinkers flocking to Substack?

Substack is a pragmatic response to one issue plaguing an industry in crisis – a collapsing ad-based revenue model. Rather than propose more voodoo innovation, it addresses the issue head on with the straightforward transaction of a subscription, a shift that industry leaders such as the New York Times have also pursued to great effect. A new micropayments platform for newsletters won’t magically liberate public intellectuals from commercial pressures; it won’t solve the tensions between free speech and safety; and I highly doubt it will make having a career as a writer any easier. But it will create space for writing not tailored to the trending on Twitter section, encourage writers to develop a deeper relationship with their audience, and promote the sort of writing (both longform and short) that doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of legacy media.

The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty

Credit-scoring algorithms are not the only ones that affect people’s economic well-being and access to basic services. Algorithms now decide which children enter foster care, which patients receive medical care, which families get access to stable housing. Those of us with means can pass our lives unaware of any of this. But for low-income individuals, the rapid growth and adoption of automated decision-making systems has created a hidden web of interlocking traps.

Fortunately, a growing group of civil lawyers are beginning to organize around this issue. Borrowing a playbook from the criminal defense world’s pushback against risk-assessment algorithms, they’re seeking to educate themselves on these systems, build a community, and develop litigation strategies.

How modern mathematics emerged from a lost Islamic library

“Centuries ago, a prestigious Islamic library brought Arabic numerals to the world. Though the library long since disappeared, its mathematical revolution changed our world.”