THE PROBLEM OF CONSCIOUSNESS

A talk with Alva Noë in Edge:

Noe201 We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.

A much better image is that of the dancer. A dancer is locked into an environment, responsive to music, responsive to a partner. The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us. And this idea that human consciousness is something we enact or achieve, in motion, as a way of being part of a larger process, is the focus of my work. Experience is something that is temporarily extended and active. Perceptual consciousness is a style of access to the world around us. I can touch something, and when I touch something I make use of an understanding of the way in which my own movements help me secure access to that which is before me. The point is not merely that I learn about or achieve access to the world by touching. The point is that the thing shows up for me as something in a space of movement-oriented possibilities.

Visual consciousness relies on a whole set of practical skills that we have, making use of the eyes and the head. I understand that if I move my eyes, I produce a certain kind of sensory change. Perceptual consciousness is a mode of exploration of the world, making use of a certain kind of practical bodily understanding. And that is what dance is. And this makes dance, for me, the perfect metaphor for consciousness.

But there’s more to the comparison with dance. 

More here.

next generation of cancer treatments may be delivered by nanoparticles

From The Economist:

D3508st1Journalists sometimes joke that the ideal headline for a science story would be something like “Black holes cure cancer”. Sadly, it will never happen. “Nanotechnology cures cancer”, though, is a pretty good runner-up, and that might just turn out to be true.

In fact, nanoparticles (ie, objects whose dimensions are measured in nanometres, or billionths of a metre) have been used to treat cancer for some time. But these treatments are mainly clever ways of packaging existing drugs, rather than truly novel therapies. For instance, Doxil, a medicine used to treat ovarian cancer, is wrapped up in naturally occurring fatty bubbles called liposomes. Taxol, a common breast-cancer drug, is similarly packaged with naturally occurring blood proteins in a product called Abraxane. In both, the packaging aids the delivery of the drug and reduces its toxic side-effects.

Now, however, a second generation of nanoparticles has entered clinical trials. Some are so good at hiding their contents away until they are needed that the treatments do not merely reduce side-effects; they actually allow what would otherwise be lethal poisons to be supplied to the tumour and the tumour only. Others do not depend on drugs at all. Instead, they act as beacons for the delivery of doses of energy that destroy cancer cells physically, rather than chemically.

More here.

Barack Obama Flees U.S.

Screenhunter_02_nov_13_1329In a devastating blow to millions of unsuspecting Americans, newly elected president and international con man Barack Obama fled the country Wednesday with nearly $85 million in campaign funds.

According to FBI investigators, Obama’s sudden disappearance was discovered at 6:15 p.m. when the former Illinois senator failed to arrive at a gala event in Lincoln Square, prompting several aides to rush back to his campaign headquarters. At 6:23 p.m., flight logs at O’Hare International Airport confirmed that two passengers, a male carrying two silver briefcases and dressed in a perfectly tailored Brioni tuxedo, and an African-American female wearing a fur coat and speaking in a thick Russian accent, were seen boarding a private plane.

Obama’s campaign office, sources said, was completely vacant aside from a discarded Abraham Lincoln portrait, behind which was an emptied safe that his aides claimed never to have seen before.

In addition, three unconscious Secret Service agents were discovered at the scene, along with two lit cigarettes still burning in an ashtray, and Obama’s daughters, who authorities now believe were taken from an Alabama foster home six years ago.

More here, from The Onion.

Coming Home: A History of War Veterans

VeteranThis is from an excellent radio program called Backstory: With the American History Guys, produced by 3QD friend Tony Field:

Between the election and the economy, news about the war in Iraq has become scanty-at-best. And what little coverage there is tends to focus on developments overseas. In this Veterans’ Day special, the History Guys look at what happens when vets return home. Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman Frank Earnest makes a case for separating the politics of war from our remembrance of its veterans. Historian Rebecca Jo Plant discusses the changing expectations for veterans’ wives and mothers. And psychologist Ed Tick talks about PTSD and how psychological trauma was seen in a pre-psychological age.

More here.  [Thanks to Asad Raza.]

That Burger You’re Eating Is Mostly Corn

David Biello  in Scientific American:

Corn If you thought you were eating mostly grass-fed beef when you bit into a Big Mac, think again: The bulk of a fast-food hamburger from McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s is made from cows that eat primarily corn, or so says a new study of the chemical composition of more than 480 fast-food burgers from across the nation. And it isn’t only cows that are eating corn. There is also evidence of a corn diet in chicken sandwiches, and even French fries get a good slathering of the fat that makes them so tasty from being fried in corn oil. “Corn has been criticized as being unsustainable based on the unusual amount of fertilizer, water and machinery required to bring it to harvest,” says geobiologist Hope Jahren of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, who led the research. “We are getting a picture of the American diet on a national scale by using chemistry, which is quite objective.”

Eating a diet of meat from corn-fed animals hasn’t been linked to any specific health effects in humans. But it has resulted in widespread environmental degradation, including drained water supplies, degraded soils, and reliance on fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides and farm machinery fuel, says preventive medicine physician Bob Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study. It’s also hard on cows, whose stomachs are specially designed to break down the cellulose in grass, leading to an epidemic of antibiotic use. Also, humans may lose out on beneficial omega-3 fatty acids—important for development of the nervous system and heart health—when they consume corn-fed as opposed to grass-fed beef.

More here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

camille paglia loves palin and the “powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes”

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I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism. Pro-life women will save feminism by expanding it, particularly into the more traditional Third World.

As for the Democrats who sneered and howled that Palin was unprepared to be a vice-presidential nominee — what navel-gazing hypocrisy! What protests were raised in the party or mainstream media when John Edwards, with vastly less political experience than Palin, got John Kerry’s nod for veep four years ago? And Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, for whom I lobbied to be Obama’s pick and who was on everyone’s short list for months, has a record indistinguishable from Palin’s. Whatever knowledge deficit Palin has about the federal bureaucracy or international affairs (outside the normal purview of governors) will hopefully be remedied during the next eight years of the Obama presidencies.

more from Salon here.

liar’s poker redux

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To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

more from Conde Nast Portfolio here.
(This is one hell of a read, it may also be, I dare to say, an important read)

the most important election in the history of time

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In July 1864, as President Abraham Lincoln prepared to run for a second term against General George B. McClellan, The New York Times editorialized: “We have had many important elections, but never one so important as that now approaching….The republic is approaching what is to be one of the most important elections in its history.” The Civil War had been raging for three years and seemed to be at a stalemate. Lincoln was for fighting on until victory, regardless of the cost. McClellan supported compromise and negotiation to end the bloodiest conflict in American history. As everybody knows, Lincoln won the election, the Union soon won the war, and McClellan’s reputation never recovered.

The expression “the most important election in history,” however, achieved immortality. “Every even-numbered year,” Senator John McCain told an interviewer in 2006, “politicians go around and say ‘This is the most important election in history.’” As the republic’s history lengthened, the phrase often mutated into “the most important election in my lifetime” or “in a century.” Still, in all its forms it proved remarkably resistant to irony or derision. In 1988, when George H. W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis, the already venerable Senator Robert C. Byrd declared: “It may be the most important election of this century.” In 1992, when Bush ran for re-election against Bill Clinton, Clinton declared it “the most important election in a generation,” generation being a word that sounds weighty and biblical but is often deployed without any precise meaning.

more from The American Scholar here.

death by a thousand cuts

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As I was writing this I heard a stockbroker on Radio 4 describe the economy failing as if ‘tortured’ by ‘the Chinese death of a thousand cuts’. It is an evergreen concept, and definitely not off limits to scholars. These three academic authors, from Oxford, Lyon, and Victoria, British Columbia, have attended conferences, we learn, on ‘The Comparative History of Torture’ and ‘The Representation of Pain’, and their research is published by one of the world’s most prestigious academic presses.

They write coolly and formally, but this is a book primarily about torment. Torment is distinguished from torture, the authors contend, in that it aims only to cause pain, while torture is inflicted to extract some statement. The Chinese practice of ‘lingchi’, known in the West – falsely – as ‘death by a thousand cuts’, was a form of torment, imposed for a particularly serious crime before an audience directed to draw a lesson from the agonies of the criminal. What Americans inflicted on their captives in Vietnam, the application of electrodes to the genitals (called ‘ringing him up’), or in Iraq, the semi-drowning termed ‘water boarding’, is torture, because the victims are compelled to disclose something.

more from Literary Review here.

Danny Boyle’s joyful trip to the slums of Mumbai is one of the year’s best films

Christopher Orr in The New Republic:

Screenhunter_06_nov_12_1458Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s captivating new film, is structured as a riddle: How is it that 18-year-old Jamal (Dev Patel), a penniless orphan–i.e., “slumdog”–from the streets of Mumbai, could answer trivia question after trivia question correctly on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” en route to a shot at the 20 million rupee jackpot? Is he a genius? Is he cheating?

The riddle is answered with a series of flashbacks to Jamal’s boyhood, in which reside the seeds of his hard-won knowledge. He knows, for instance, who the star of the 1973 film Zanjeer was–Amitabh Bachchan, for those of you scoring at home–because Bachchan was his favorite star when he was little. How much did he love Bachchan? When the actor made a publicity stop in Mumbai, and Jamal’s brother Salim (played when grown by Madhur Mittal) locked him in a stilted outhouse, he exited the only way he could: straight down, a fecal pilgrimage that makes Ewan McGregor’s plunge into the Worst Toilet in Scotland in Boyle’s Trainspotting look like a dip in the Caribbean. When the boy emerges exultant from the muck, he makes a beeline for the scrum surrounding his idol Bachchan, bouncing off (and soiling) his fellow fans like a subcontinental variation on Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. Rewarded with an autographed photo, he holds it aloft with all the pride of an Olympic athlete brandishing a medal. This is not the last time we see the lengths to which Jamal will go for love.

More here.

The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle by Russell Miller

From The Telegraph:

Conan “All our lives have been but a preparation for this supreme moment,” wrote Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914. He happened to be writing this sentence in a propaganda pamphlet to muster public opinion against Germany in the Great War, but it could have been written at almost any moment in his life, with any number of objects in mind. Conan Doyle was a man for the supreme moment. His enthusiasms – detective fiction, the Channel Tunnel, submarines or motor cars – and some of his animosities – miscarriages of justice, inequitable divorce laws – were, for the first part of his life, broadcasts to a sleepy population from someone alert to the rhythms of the future.

His later enthusiasms, for spiritualism and fairies, were not so in step.

Russell Miller is serviceable on the story of his subject’s life and works. We get the facts: the family background, his father’s alcoholism and madness, his Catholic education and subsequent scepticism, his medical studies and career, his married lives. The “Adventures” of the title is, however, putting it strongly: Miller shows none of his subject’s narrative swagger. After Conan Doyle made his doomed attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, the Strand magazine lost 20,000 subscribers, and workers in the City of London wore mourning crêpe tied around their top hats. Conan Doyle was assaulted in the street. “It was as if a god had been destroyed by treachery,” one critic wrote. But Conan Doyle had had enough of his greatest and most profitable creation. He wanted respect as a writer of historical romances. And he had his causes to fight.

More here.

Switching Memories ON and OFF

Mauro Costa-Mattioli Memory in ESSAYS ON SCIENCE AND SOCIETY series from Science:

Ireneo Funes, the fictional main character in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Funes el Memorioso,” could remember in vivid detail every day of his life after he was thrown from a wild horse at a ranch in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. He had acquired a prodigious ability to store new information without any practice. Unlike Funes [and real “autistic savants”, who could store information with a glance, most people learn new things only after many attempts.

Psychologists have identified two corresponding processes: short-term memory, which lasts from seconds to minutes; and long-term memory, which lasts for days, months, or even a lifetime. It is now well accepted that making long-lasting memories is dependent on the ability of brain cells (neurons) to synthesize new proteins. Indeed, animals treated with a drug that blocks the production of new proteins cannot form long-term memories, yet their short-term memory is preserved. But how are memories stored? It is hypothesized that information is stored in the brain as changes in strength of the connections (synapses) between neurons. Such changes in synaptic strength are observed when neuronal activity is recorded in the brain with microelectrodes: Relatively weak or infrequent stimulation elicits a short-lasting effect [early long-term potentiation (E-LTP)], whereas stronger or repeated stimulation elicits a sustained effect [late long-term potentiation (L-LTP)], lasting many hours instead of minutes. Similar to long-term memories, long-lasting changes in synaptic strength (L-LTP) are prevented by blocking protein synthesis.

If making new proteins is the rate-limiting step required to store new long-lasting memories, how is this process turned on? If one were able to identify the triggering mechanism and switch it on, then stimulation normally eliciting short-lasting changes should evoke long-lasting ones. Could an increase in the ability to make new proteins explain extraordinarily long-lasting memories?

More here.

Our Vanishing Night

Verlyn Klinkenborg in National Geographic:

Screenhunter_05_nov_12_0951If humans were truly at home under the light of the moon and stars, we would go in darkness happily, the midnight world as visible to us as it is to the vast number of nocturnal species on this planet. Instead, we are diurnal creatures, with eyes adapted to living in the sun’s light. This is a basic evolutionary fact, even though most of us don’t think of ourselves as diurnal beings any more than we think of ourselves as primates or mammals or Earthlings. Yet it’s the only way to explain what we’ve done to the night: We’ve engineered it to receive us by filling it with light.

This kind of engineering is no different than damming a river. Its benefits come with consequences—called light pollution—whose effects scientists are only now beginning to study. Light pollution is largely the result of bad lighting design, which allows artificial light to shine outward and upward into the sky, where it’s not wanted, instead of focusing it downward, where it is. Ill-designed lighting washes out the darkness of night and radically alters the light levels—and light rhythms—to which many forms of life, including ourselves, have adapted. Wherever human light spills into the natural world, some aspect of life—migration, reproduction, feeding—is affected.

More here.

The Promise and Power of RNA

Andrew Pollack in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_04_nov_12_0902RNA interference, or RNAi, discovered only about 10 years ago, is attracting huge interest for its seeming ability to knock out disease-causing genes. There are already at least six RNAi drugs being tested in people, for illnesses including cancer and an eye disease.

And while there are still huge challenges to surmount, that number could easily double in the coming year.

“I’ve never found a gene that couldn’t be down-regulated by RNAi,” said Tod Woolf, president of RXi Pharmaceuticals, one of the many companies that have sprung up in the last few years to pursue RNA-based medicines.

The two scientists credited with discovering the basic mechanism of RNA interference won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006, only eight years after publishing their seminal paper. And three scientists credited with discovering the closely related micro-RNA in the 1990s won Lasker Awards for medical research this year.

More here.

Last year I interviewed Craig Mello, one of the two scientists who shared the 2006 Medicine Nobel for their discovery of RNAi. That interview can be seen here.

Wednesday Poem

///
Image_espresso_2Do you want a cup of coffee?
Paolo Bertolani

Do you want a cup of coffee? It won’t be a minute.
Where do you think you are going, when it’s still dark?
To dig up dust?
Stop a second, Giovanni, we must die anyhow,
and this spade, these tomatoes and zucchini,
you won’t be taking them along with you.
So, what about some coffee?
But I’m asking the wind,
because Giovanni is already beyond the bend,
with his tomatoes and zucchini,
his eyes all laughing inside.

Translation: Massimo Bacigalupo
and Jennifer Compton

///

Last Call: 3 Quarks Daily is looking for 3 New Columnists

Dear Reader,

AbbasHere’s your chance to say what you want to the international audience of highly educated readers that 3QD has! Several of our regular columnists have had to cut back, or even completely quit, their columns for 3QD because of other personal and professional commitments, and so we are looking for three new voices for our Monday columns. We cannot pay, but it is a good chance to draw attention to subjects you are interested in, and to get feedback from us and from our readers.

You would have a column published at 3QD every fourth Monday. It should generally be between 1000 and 2500 words and can be about any subject at all. To qualify for a Monday slot, please submit a sample column to me by email (s.abbas.raza at att.net) as an MS Word-compatible document, which I will then circulate to the other editors, and we will let you know our decision fairly quickly after we have a vote on it a fews days after November 15th. If you are given a slot on the 3QD schedule, your sample can also serve as your first column. Feel free to use pictures, graphs, or other illustrations in your column. Naturally, you retain full copyright over your writing.

To browse previous columns, go to our Mondays page.

Several of the people who started writing at 3QD have gone on to get regular paid gigs at well-known magazines. Even those who have not, have written to me saying that it has been a uniquely rewarding experience. If you have a blog or website of your own, please help us to spread this invitation by linking to this post. (This means you, Sean, Jennifer, Lindsay, Norm, Andrew, etc.)

The deadline for sample submissions is 11:59 PM, November 15, 2008, so start writing!

All best,

Abbas

P.S. We have more submissions than I thought we’d get, so it may take some time (at least a week, maybe a little longer) to announce who our new columnists are going to be.