The Architecture of Memory

From Smithsonian:

Memorypalace550Most of us think of memory as a chamber of the mind, and assume that our capacity to remember is only as good as our brain. But according to some architectural theorists, our memories are products of our body’s experience of physical space. Or, to consolidate the theorem: Our memories are only as good as our buildings. In the BBC television series “Sherlock,” the famous detective’s capacious memory is portrayed through the concept of the “mind palace“—what is thought to be a sort of physical location in the brain where a person stores memories like objects in a room. Describing this in the book A Study in Scarlet, Holmes says, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…”

The mind palace—also known as the memory palace or method of loci—is a mnemonic device thought to have originated in ancient Rome, wherein items that need to be memorized are pinned to some kind of visual cue and strung together into a situated narrative, a journey through a space. The science writer and author Joshua Foer covered this technique in depth in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, in which he trained for and ultimately won the U.S. Memory Championship. To memorize long lists of words, a deck of cards, a poem, or a set of faces, mental athletes, as they’re called, fuse a familiar place—say, the house they grew up in—with a self-created fictional environment populated by the objects in their list.

More here.

Social Network Size Linked to Brain Size

From Scientific American:

Social-network-size-linked-brain-size_1As humans, we aren't born with formidable armaments or defenses, nor are we the strongest, fastest, or biggest species, yet despite this we are amazingly successful. For a long time it was thought that this success was because our enlarged brains allows each of us to be smarter than our competitors: better at abstract thinking, better with tools and better at adapting our behavior to those of our prey and predators. But are these really the most significant skills our brains provide us with? Another possibility is that we are successful because we can form long-lasting relationships with many others in diverse and flexible ways, and that this, combined with our native intelligence, explains why homo sapiens came to dominate the planet. In every way from teaching our young to the industrial division of labour we are a massively co-operative species that relies on larger and more diverse networks of relationships than any other species. In 1992 British anthropologist Robin Dunbar published an article showing that, in primates, the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increasing social group size. For example, the Tamarin monkey has a brain size ratio of about 2.3 and an average social group of size of about 5 members. On the other hand, a Macaque monkey has a brain size ratio of around 3.8 but a very large average group size of about 40 members. From this work Dunbar put forward what is now known as the “social brain hypothesis.” The relative size of the neo-cortex rose as social groups became larger in order to maintain the complex set of relationships necessary for stable co-existence. Most famously, Dunbar suggested that given the human brain ratio we have an expected social group size of around 150 people, about the size of what Dunbar called a “clan.”

Now, in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dunbar and his colleagues have shown that the size of each individual’s social network is linearly related to the neural volume in a frontal region of each individual’s brain, the orbital prefrontal cortex. This provides strong support for Dunbar’s original conjecture at the individual level for what was previously proposed based on species-level data: Our brains are not as large as they are in order to provide each of us with the raw computational power to think our way out of a sticky situation, instead our brain size helps each of us to deal with the large and complex network of relationships we rely on to thrive.

More here.

dementia praecox


Modern American psychiatry treats auditory hallucinations as the leading symptom of serious psychotic disorder, of which the most severe form is schizophrenia. When the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin first distinguished dementia praecox, as he called it, from manic-depressive disorder in 1893, back when Freud was drafting the Interpretation of Dreams, he argued that schizophrenia could be recognized by its persistent, deteriorating course. These days, schizophrenia is often imagined as the quintessential brain disease, an expression of underlying organic vulnerability perhaps exacerbated by environmental stress, but as real and as obdurate as kidney failure. The new post-psychoanalytic psychiatric science that emerged in this country in the 1980s argued that mental illnesses were physical illnesses. Many Americans and most psychiatrists took away from this science a sense that serious mental illnesses were brain dysfunctions and that the best hope for their treatment lay in the aggressive new drugs that patients often hated but that sometimes held symptoms at bay.

more from T. M. Luhrmann at The American Scholar here.

sisters of the night


The bookstore, and especially the used bookstore, is vanishing from New York City. Today there are a few, but there used to be a multitude of them, crammed between kitchen appliance shops and Laundromats and thrift stores. They all had temperamental cats prowling their aisles and they all smelled wonderfully of what a team of chemists in London has called “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” I will miss terribly this stimulating fragrance, and the books that produce it, when it’s washed from the city for good. Luckily, there are towns that still accommodate used bookshops. Lambertville, New Jersey, is one of them. On North Union Street, there are two used bookstores, Panoply and Phoenix Books, one right across from the other. You can spend hours here, and it’s guaranteed that you’ll return with some grassy, musty artifact of the past. On my last visit to Panoply, I came home with a copy of Sisters of the Night: The Startling Story of Prostitution in New York Today by “veteran newspaperman” Jess Stearn.

more from Jeremiah Moss at the Paris Review here.

The morality of drone warfare revisited

NOTE: Bradley Strawser has written to me and strongly protested the way he was portrayed in this article. He is making a formal complaint to the independent ombudsman at The Guardian and has also published this op-ed to correct some of what he feels are misrepresentations of his views. –Abbas Raza

Bradley Strawser in The Guardian:

An-unmanned-drone-at-Cree-008In the contentious debate over drone warfare, it is necessary to separate US government policy from the broader moral question of killing by aerial robots. The policy question deserves vigorous debate by legal scholars, policy experts, and diplomats. The moral question posed by this new form of remote warfare is more abstract and has only recently begun to receive critical examination by philosophers and ethicists.

The Guardian has attempted to feature the distinct moral and philosophical side of this issue, and a recent story profiled my own views on the topic. Unfortunately – if understandably, given the complexities of the matter – I consider some of my views were misrepresented. Most disturbingly, I was reported to claim that “there's no downside” to killing by drones. In fact, the majority of my work on drones is dedicated to elucidating and analyzing the serious moral downsides that killing by remote control can pose. The Guardian has graciously offered me this space to set the record straight.

My view is this: drones can be a morally preferable weapon of war if they are capable of being more discriminate than other weapons that are less precise and expose their operators to greater risk. Of course, killing is lamentable at any time or place, be it in war or any context. But if a military action is morally justified, we are also morally bound to ensure that it is carried out with as little harm to innocent people as possible.

More here.

Anything But Human

05thestone-img-blog427Richard Polt in in the NYT's The Stone:

Wherever I turn, the popular media, scientists and even fellow philosophers are telling me that I’m a machine or a beast. My ethics can be illuminated by the behavior of termites. My brain is a sloppy computer with a flicker of consciousness and the illusion of free will. I’m anything but human.

While it would take more time and space than I have here to refute these views, I’d like to suggest why I stubbornly continue to believe that I’m a human being — something more than other animals, and essentially more than any computer.

Let’s begin with ethics. Many organisms carry genes that promote behavior that benefits other organisms. The classic example is ants: every individual insect is ready to sacrifice itself for the colony. As Edward O. Wilson explained in a recent essay for The Stone, some biologists account for self-sacrificing behavior by the theory of kin selection, while Wilson and others favor group selection. Selection also operates between individuals: “within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.” Wilson is cautious here, but some “evolutionary ethicists” don’t hesitate to claim that all we need in order to understand human virtue is the right explanation — whatever it may be — of how altruistic behavior evolved.

I have no beef with entomology or evolution, but I refuse to admit that they teach me much about ethics. Consider the fact that human action ranges to the extremes. People can perform extraordinary acts of altruism, including kindness toward other species — or they can utterly fail to be altruistic, even toward their own children. So whatever tendencies we may have inherited leave ample room for variation; our choices will determine which end of the spectrum we approach. This is where ethical discourse comes in — not in explaining how we’re “built,” but in deliberating on our own future acts. Should I cheat on this test? Should I give this stranger a ride?

David Mamet, Gilad Atzmon and Identity Politics

WarnerJames Warner in Open Democracy:

Reading Gilad Atzmon's The Wandering Who? immediately after David Mamet's The Secret Knowledge, I was surprised to find the two books, written from vehemently opposed political viewpoints, nonetheless reminded me of each other. Does Mamet's need to see the Israelis only as scapegoats grow from the same root as Atzmon's need to see them only as perpetrators? An underlying emotional argument of Mamet's The Secret Knowledge could be glossed as “I used to be a poster child for liberalism, so all the more reason to believe me now I reject everything about liberalism.” For an underlying emotional argument of Atzmon's The Wandering Who? substitute “Zionism” for “liberalism.” But even if this were a compelling line of argument, each book contains plenty of evidence Mamet and Atzmon were never exactly poster children.

Mamet's plays and other writings celebrate individual courage, discipline, and commitment. While he has only recently started identifying as a conservative, his long-term distrust of academia and high estimation of street smarts, his generally low opinion of human nature and belief that playing the victim card is a more contemptible route to power than is straightforward self-interested chicanery – while arguably bipartisan attitudes — in the contemporary U.S. tend to be more associated with the right. It's not surprising if a man whose plays observe the Aristotelian unities of Time, Place and Action leans conservative, while when it comes to Israel – more likely the driving factor behind Mamet's political conversion – he has for some time been on the right of Israel's foreign policy spectrum. According to The Secret Knowledge, he now desires a Republican victory in the U.S. in 2012 and the repeal of health care reform, Israel's infallibility apparently not extending to its system of socialized medicine. Mamet loves America and Israel for their entrepreneurialism, and tends toward the neocon line that Israel is the front line in the “War Against Terrorism,” and that anyone criticizing the Israeli government's treatment of the Palestinians must be an anti-Semite. Mamet reports he is now ashamed not to have fought in Vietnam, a lack for which his more recent hawkishness could be seen as a bid to compensate.

Atzmon on the other hand is in rebellion against his own experience of the 1980s Israel-Lebanon war, recalling in The Wandering Who? visiting a prison camp in Lebanon where Palestinians were incarcerated by Israelis, and deciding he was on the wrong side.

Neuroscience and Race

756px-Meyers_b11_s0476aDaniel Lende in Neuroanthropology:

I want to highlight four questions that come up for me in thinking about the neuroanthropology of race.

*How does experience get under the skin?

*How do human judgments, decisions and interactions get instantiated in the brain?

*What role does human variation play in how brains work?

*What role does neuroscience play in reinforcing or questioning the use of race in science and society?

I’ve made all of these questions more general than just about “race.” I do that largely because these sorts of questions come up with all sorts of social phenomena – gender, class, immigrant status, and so forth. But that step back into generality and into dispassioned observation is, ironically enough, a step back into my own white privileged space. I’m protected here – it’s about them, rather than me. And that is a major part of the problem. That is how “race” often works today.

Question #1: How does experience get under the skin?

The first point to make here is that experience, like biology, is varied. It doesn’t match up with our pre-established categories. But we can look for patterns of experience and see if those correspond to changes in human development, biological structure and function, and health and educational outcomes.

So, as a first pass, I’d say this question boils down to three things: (1) characterizing lived experience; (2) examining the interface between experience and development; and (3) looking at outcomes.

Ghosts on the Waterfront

Rediker_2Marcus Rediker in Eurozine:

The origins and genesis of the slave ship as a world-changing machine go back to the late fifteenth century, when the Portuguese made their historic voyages to the west coast of Africa, where they bought gold, ivory, and human beings. These early “explorations” marked the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. They were made possible by a new evolution of the sailing ship, the full-rigged, three-masted carrack, the forerunner of the vessels that would eventually carry Europeans to all parts of the earth, then carry millions of Europeans and Africans to the New World, and finally earn Thomas Gordon's admiration.

As Carlo Cipolla explained in his classic work Guns, Sails, and Empires, the ruling classes of Western European states were able to conquer the world between 1400 and 1700 because of two distinct and soon powerfully combined technological developments.[2] First, English craftsmen forged cast-iron cannon, which were rapidly disseminated to military forces all around Europe. Second, the deep-sea sailing “round ship” of northern Europe slowly eclipsed the oared “long ship,” or galley, of the Mediterranean. European leaders with maritime ambitions had their shipwrights cut ports into the hulls of these rugged, seaworthy ships for huge, heavy cannon. Naval warfare changed as they added sails and guns and replaced oarsmen and warriors with smaller, more efficient crews. They substituted sail power for human energy and thereby created a machine that harnessed unparalleled mobility, speed, and destructive power. Thus when the fullrigged ship equipped with muzzle-loading cannon showed up on the coasts of Africa, Asia, and America, it was by all accounts a marvel if not a terror. The noise of the cannon alone was terrifying. Indeed it was enough, one empire builder explained, to induce non-Europeans to worship Jesus Christ.

European rulers would use this revolutionary technology, this new maritime machine, to sail, explore, and master the high seas in order to trade, to fight, to seize new lands, to plunder, and to build empires.

Chain Medicine: What can hospitals learn about quality from the Cheesecake Factory

Atul Gawande in The New Yorker:

ChainIt was Saturday night, and I was at the local Cheesecake Factory with my two teen-age daughters and three of their friends. You may know the chain: a hundred and sixty restaurants with a catalogue-like menu that, when I did a count, listed three hundred and eight dinner items (including the forty-nine on the “Skinnylicious” menu), plus a hundred and twenty-four choices of beverage. It’s a linen-napkin-and-tablecloth sort of place, but with something for everyone. There’s wine and wasabi-crusted ahi tuna, but there’s also buffalo wings and Bud Light. The kids ordered mostly comfort food—pot stickers, mini crab cakes, teriyaki chicken, Hawaiian pizza, pasta carbonara. I got a beet salad with goat cheese, white-bean hummus and warm flatbread, and the miso salmon. The place is huge, but it’s invariably packed, and you can see why. The typical entrée is under fifteen dollars. The décor is fancy, in an accessible, Disney-cruise-ship sort of way: faux Egyptian columns, earth-tone murals, vaulted ceilings. The waiters are efficient and friendly. They wear all white (crisp white oxford shirt, pants, apron, sneakers) and try to make you feel as if it were a special night out. As for the food—can I say this without losing forever my chance of getting a reservation at Per Se?—it was delicious. The chain serves more than eighty million people per year. I pictured semi-frozen bags of beet salad shipped from Mexico, buckets of precooked pasta and production-line hummus, fish from a box. And yet nothing smacked of mass production. My beets were crisp and fresh, the hummus creamy, the salmon like butter in my mouth. No doubt everything we ordered was sweeter, fattier, and bigger than it had to be. But the Cheesecake Factory knows its customers. The whole table was happy (with the possible exception of Ethan, aged sixteen, who picked the onions out of his Hawaiian pizza). I wondered how they pulled it off. I asked one of the Cheesecake Factory line cooks how much of the food was premade. He told me that everything’s pretty much made from scratch—except the cheesecake, which actually is from a cheesecake factory, in Calabasas, California.

I’d come from the hospital that day. In medicine, too, we are trying to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, we haven’t figured out how. Our costs are soaring, the service is typically mediocre, and the quality is unreliable. Every clinician has his or her own way of doing things, and the rates of failure and complication (not to mention the costs) for a given service routinely vary by a factor of two or three, even within the same hospital.

More here.

After Safe Landing, Rover Sends Images From Mars

From The New York Times:

MarsNASA followed up its picture-perfect landing of a plutonium-powered rover Sunday night with a picture of the balletic Mars landing — as well as some well-earned self-congratulation about what the accomplishment says about NASA’s ingenuity. “There are many out in the community who say NASA has lost its way, that we don’t know how to explore — we’ve lost our moxie,” John M. Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, said at a post-landing news conference, where beaming members of the landing team, all clad in blue polo shirts, crammed in next to the reporters. “I want you to look around tonight, at those folks with the blue shirts and think about what we’ve achieved.”

That achievement, in the early hours of Monday morning Eastern time, was indeed dramatic: with the eyes of the world watching, the car-size craft called Curiosity was lowered at the end of 25-foot cables from a hovering rocket stage, successfully touching down on a gravelly Martian plain. For the world of science, it was the second slam-dunk this summer — the first one being the announcement last month that the Higgs boson, a long-sought particle theorized by physicists, had likely been found. But while the focus of high-energy physics world has shifted overseas to CERN, the European laboratory, the United States remains the center of the universe for space, ahead of Russia, Europe and China, and for NASA, it was a chance to parry accusations of being slow, bloated and rudderless. “If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at the news conference, “well, there’s a one-ton automobile-size piece of American ingenuity. And it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”

More here.

Joanna Demers, “Listening Through The Noise”

by Dave Maier

Joanna Demers – Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford University Press, 2010)

DemersWhen I tried, in 1981, to interest my undergraduate music professors in progressive electronic music, they didn't get it: anything with notes was “harmonically simple” (“it hess to do with analeetical levelss”, explained one prof), and anything without notes left them completely at sea. Apparently “musicology” meant the theory, not of music generally, but of Western classical music in particular. For anything else you want “ethnomusicology”, which turned out to be basically a subset of anthropology, dominated by scrupulously objective descriptions of Javanese gamelan, Ghanaian drumming, and so on (worthy music all, but not what I was talking about).

I guess that's not too surprising. If you are trained from the age of five to think about music solely in terms of melody and harmony, or at least pitch and duration, then you should be equally flummoxed both by music which lacks these things entirely, and – perhaps even more – by that which subordinates them to other things, like sound texture and spatial location. So I have not been expecting much analytic help from musicological quarters. However, I am pleased to report that Joanna Demers's recent book displays an amazing degree of familiarity – for an academic musicologist at any rate – with the full range of contemporary electronic music and sound art.

Listening Through the Noise is not a work of criticism, but of aesthetic theory, and the discussion is a bit abstract at times, perhaps in order to avoid drowning the reader in technical detail. However, as appropriate to the subject as this abstraction is, Demers renders her subject approachable through the analysis of a wide-ranging array of examples, and her writing is clear and accessible. This is partly because she is laying the groundwork for future elaboration rather than making a definitive statement, but as a level-headed introduction to this difficult topic, this book is hard to beat.

Yet I think we're still talking about baby steps. Impressed as I was to see approving references in an academic book to the likes of Celer, Basic Channel, and Tetsu Inoue, a quick look at the discography and index reveals huge, gaping holes. Some are excused by the focus on aesthetic theory rather than history or criticism, but to see what progress has actually been made here, we need to take a closer look.

Read more »

The Value of The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

by Hasan Altaf

Legend-of-pradeep-mathewThe cards are laid on the table right away in Shehan Karunatilaka's stunning debut novel, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew (Graywolf Press). The narrator, W. G. Karunasena – an aging, alcoholic former sportswriter, who has just been handed what amounts to a death sentence (if he limits himself to two drinks a day he can hope for one or two more years) – takes a moment to respectfully rebut the criticism that sports, in this case cricket, have no use or value: “Left-arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.”

Pradeep Mathew is in some ways like the great rock novels, the great books about Hollywood: From a specialized world, in this case that of cricket, it's adopted a jargon, a built-in store of legends and myths and stories. It's also very much in the vein of Moby-Dick or Don Quixote, a quest book – Wije's attempt to give the world (before liver and family fail him) what it really needs, “a half-decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket,” and his obsession with the titular Mathew, whom he considers the greatest bowler of all time, are a kind of reversal of Ahab's hunt for the whale, Don Q. fighting for the honor of Dulcinea. Wije has his own Sancho Panza in his friend Ari, and for tilting at, the windmills of Sri Lankan TV, the mysteries and bureaucracies of power political and athletic, the bottle and the family (in particular, his son, Garfield – named for a cricketer and not, unfortunately, the cat; the depiction of this mostly nonexistent father-son relationship is among the finest I've seen in fiction recently: one of the final scenes in the novel, as Wije lies in the hospital, is absolutely perfect and perfectly-rendered).

Read more »

Monday Poem


big moon sky dish Amber moon
amber as a goldfish
late summer, duskish,
mirror of our sun disk

cherry tree in our yard
many limbs akimbo
holds you in its trellis

as you wax in heaven
we wane in limbo

big moon at night is
a bubble in a jinn fizz,
the genie in a quiz that
trumps the ciphers of a math whiz

shuffles shadows in our yard
while we muse but who knows
what holds us in its trellis

as we burn
moon glow

by Jim Culleny