Wednesday Round Up #33

The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More

Why You Should Still Wear A Mask And Avoid Crowds After Getting The COVID-19 Vaccine

It may seem counterintuitive, but health officials say that even after you get vaccinated against COVID-19, you still need to practice the usual pandemic precautions, at least for a while. That means steering clear of crowds, continuing to wear a good mask in public, maintaining 6 feet or more of distance from people outside your household and frequently washing your hands. We talked to infectious disease specialists to get a better understanding of why.

Why Aren’t We Wearing Better Masks?

Don’t get us wrong; everything we said about the efficacy of cloth masks stands the test of time. Wearing them is much better than wearing nothing. They definitely help reduce transmission of the coronavirus from the wearer and likely protect the wearer to some degree as well. But we know that not all masks are equal, and early on in the pandemic, there was a dire shortage of higher-grade masks for medical workers. During those emergency conditions, something was much better than nothing. There are better possibilities now, but they require action and guidance by the authorities…

Fixing this problem is more urgent now that a new variant of the coronavirus, known as the B.1.1.7 lineage, is making its way around the world. This variant is believed to be about 50 to 70 percent more transmissible than earlier strains of the virus. Masks are an important part of the battle against this new variant because they decrease transmission by reducing the number of infectious particles spread by a mask wearer (known as “source control”) and by reducing the amount that a mask wearer inhales. The cloth masks that we focus on in our paper do a good job at source control, but on their own they do not protect the wearer as well as medical-grade respirators do.

Is It Really Too Late to Learn New Skills?

One problem with teaching an old dog new tricks is that certain cognitive abilities decline with age, and by “age” I mean starting as early as one’s twenties. Mental-processing speed is the big one. Maybe that’s one reason that air-traffic controllers have to retire at age fifty-six, while English professors can stay at it indefinitely. Vanderbilt cites the work of Neil Charness, a psychology professor at Florida State University, who has shown that the older a chess player is the slower she is to perceive a threatened check, no matter what her skill level. Processing speed is why I invariably lose against my daughter (pretty good-naturedly, if you ask me) at a game that I continue to play: Anomia. In this game, players flip cards bearing the names of categories (dog breeds, Olympic athletes, talk-show hosts, whatever), and, if your card displays the same small symbol as one of your opponents’ does, you try to be the first to call out something belonging to the other person’s category. If my daughter and I each had ten minutes to list as many talk-show hosts as we could, I’d probably triumph—after all, I have several decades of late-night-TV viewing over her. But, with speed the essence, a second’s lag in my response speed cooks my goose every game.

Social Allostasis and Social Allostatic Load: A New Model for Research in Social Dynamics, Stress, and Health

Theories such as social baseline theory have argued that social groups serve a regulatory function but have not explored whether this regulatory process carries costs for the group. Allostatic load, the wear and tear on regulatory systems caused by chronic or frequent stress, is marked by diminished stress system flexibility and compromised recovery. We argue that allostatic load may develop within social groups as well and provide a model for how relationship dysfunction operates. Social allostatic load may be characterized by processes such as groups becoming locked into static patterns of interaction and may ultimately lead to up-regulation or down-regulation of a group’s set point, or the optimal range of arousal or affect around which the group tends to converge. Many studies of emotional and physiological linkage within groups have reported that highly correlated states of arousal, which may reflect failure to maintain a group-level regulatory baseline, occur in the context of stress, conflict, and relationship distress.

Our Machiavellian Moment

The introduction to the English edition of The Art of Teaching the People What to Fear, written in June 2019 for readers in the United States, begins with the theme of fear in politics and an issue of Time magazine with Trump on the cover. Boucheron argues that the United States had entered a “Machiavellian moment”—“the dawning realization of the inadequacy of the republican ideal”—in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that today, under “Trumpian America,” a fusion of politics and fiction has allowed for techniques of domination to be perfected, setting “a general disregard for the ‘actual truth of the matter.’” Referencing George Orwell’s 1984, Boucheron sees the United States as captured by a propaganda machine that has undermined reality and common sense—“that sixth sense Machiavelli spoke of, the accessory knowledge that the people have of what is dominating them.” Given the pervasive lack of realism in U.S. politics today, it is clear that the republic would appear to Machiavelli as a corrupt order, not because the powerful few break the rules or because a faction attempts to undermine the integrity of elections, but because the people have been “either deceived or forced into decreeing their own ruin.” Perhaps the most important part of Machiavelli’s wisdom for our own time is that republics tend to become oligarchic, giving the powerful few indirect control over government.

Marcus Aurelius on How to Motivate Yourself to Get Out of Bed in the Morning and Go to Work

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

Banning Trump won’t fix social media: 10 ideas to rebuild our broken internet – by experts

*Hire 10,000 librarians for the internet

We need 10,000 librarians hired with the mandate of fixing our information ecosystem. This workforce would be global in size, but local in scope, focused on building systems for curating timely, local, relevant, and accurate information across social media platforms. Their work would be similar to the public interest obligation already applied to radio, where we legally require “broadcasting serve the public interest, convenience and necessity” as a condition of having access to the airwaves. Social media companies should tune into the frequency of democracy, rather than the static of disinformation.

*Fund training for teachers, our ‘informational first responders’

Social media feeds people lies, hate, and radicalizing messages. But people also bring lies, hate, and radicalizing messages to social media – or at least carry those interests with them when they go online, in turn triggering recommendation algorithms to serve up false, bigoted, and radicalized offerings. Something needs to be done about all those beliefs and choices too – because otherwise, even the most sweeping technological or regulatory fixes will be treating the symptoms, not the underlying causes.

We need funding for empirical, longitudinal research into media literacy education, and funding for the development of collaborative media literacy curriculum. We also need funding for research to assess what media literacy training K-12 teachers themselves need, and funding to ensure that teachers across subject area receive that training to ensure that they are equipped for their role as informational first responders. We do a great disservice to our teachers when the message is: here’s nothing, now go save democracy.

To Make Sense of the Present, Brains May Predict the Future

There are obvious technological applications for GQN, but it has also caught the eye of neuroscientists, who are particularly interested in the training algorithm it uses to learn how to perform its tasks. From the presented image, GQN generates predictions about what a scene should look like — where objects should be located, how shadows should fall against surfaces, which areas should be visible or hidden based on certain perspectives — and uses the differences between those predictions and its actual observations to improve the accuracy of the predictions it will make in the future. “It was the difference between reality and the prediction that enabled the updating of the model,” said Ali Eslami, one of the project’s leaders.

The Great Unraveling

For a while now I have thought of this period as a great unraveling — the unraveling of the old truths, the old political consensus, the old order, the old conventions, the old guardrails, the old principles, the old shared stories, the old common identity.

The metaphor of the unraveling is true enough, but it fails to capture the takeover and the unimaginable strength of the new powers that have superseded the old ones. My friend David Samuels has dubbed it the age of the machines and I think that gets it right.

“The machines ate us,” he wrote in Tablet last month. “We are all sick with the same disease, which is being pumped through our veins by the agents of a monopolistic oligarchy — whether they present themselves as the owners of large technology companies, or as the professional classes that are dependent on those companies for their declining wealth and status, or as identity politics campaigners, or security bureaucrats. The places where these vectors converge make up the new ideology, which is regulated by machines; the places outside this discourse are figured as threats, and made to disappear from screens and search results, using the same technologies that they use in China.”

The machines ate Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran and Obama voter who slid into the gutter corners of the MAGA web and followed the siren song of Q to the capitol before bleeding out for the president in the people’s house.

We’re on the verge of breakdown: a data scientist’s take on Trump and Biden

In the US, he points out, there are two political chief executives, each commanding his own elite cadre, with nothing yet being done at a deep structural level to improve circumstances. “We’ve seen growing immiseration for 30 to 40 years: rising levels of state debt, declining median wages and declining life expectancies. But the most important aspect is elite overproduction” – by which he means that not just capital owners but high professionals – lawyers, media professionals and entertainment figures – have become insulated from wider society. It is not just the 1% who are in this privileged sector, but the 5% or 10% or even 20% – the so-called “dream hoarders” – they vie for a fixed number of positions and to translate wealth into political position.

“The elites had a great run for a while but their numbers become too great. The situation becomes so extreme they start undermining social norms and [there is] a breakdown of institutions. Who gets ahead is no longer the most capable, but [the one] who is willing to play dirtier.”

Foundations Built for a General Theory of Neural Networks

More recently, researchers have been trying to understand how far they can push neural networks in the other direction — by making them narrower (with fewer neurons per layer) and deeper (with more layers overall). So maybe you only need to pick out 100 different lines, but with connections for turning those 100 lines into 50 curves, which you can combine into 10 different shapes, which give you all the building blocks you need to recognize most objects.

In a paper completed last year, Rolnick and Max Tegmark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proved that by increasing depth and decreasing width, you can perform the same functions with exponentially fewer neurons. They showed that if the situation you’re modeling has 100 input variables, you can get the same reliability using either 2100 neurons in one layer or just 210 neurons spread over two layers. They found that there is power in taking small pieces and combining them at greater levels of abstraction instead of attempting to capture all levels of abstraction at once.

“The notion of depth in a neural network is linked to the idea that you can express something complicated by doing many simple things in sequence,” Rolnick said. “It’s like an assembly line.”

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?

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