Rama and the Brain

Other than molecular biology/genetic engineering, the field which currently promises the most revolutionary changes, not just in the world around us but also in how we think about that world and about ourselves, is cognitive science. Not very many people realize that over the last couple of decades, cognitive scientists have quietly been mapping the brain, figuring out how we think and perform the mental miracles that we do even in routine mentation. One of the most interesting figures in this effort has been V.S. Ramachandran, a man who has designed and performed ingenious experiments to show how the mind actually works. This is no mere theorizing, à la Freud; this is hard science, and the brain is shown to be a thing of extreme beauty. Rama, as he is affectionately known, delivered the 2003 Reith Lectures for the BBC, which have been collected into book form as A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers. I have not had such immense pleasure reading a presentation of scientific theory since I first read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins more than twenty years ago. Rama is a writer of sharp wit, and his delightfully wry sense of humor shows frequently in his lively prose. Not only this, Rama’s earlier book for the general reader, Phantoms in the Brain, is also a tour de force in expository writing, and I recommend that highly as well.

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Disgust is an adaptation for survival but what is the point of it now?

“What, precisely, is so bad about sex between adult siblings, bestiality, and the eating of corpses? Most people insist such acts are morally wrong, but when psychologists ask why, the answers make little sense. For instance, people often say incestuous sex is immoral because it runs the risk of begetting a deformed child, but if this was their real reason, they should be happy if the siblings were to use birth control – and most people are not. One finds what the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt called ‘moral dumbfounding’, a gut feeling that something is wrong combined with an inability to explain why.” Rest of the article by Paul Bloom here in The Guardian.

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Nebraska Strikes Again

Today’s announcement of our new U.S. poet laureate, Ted Kooser, filled me with a state pride I haven’t felt…well, ever. Although he’s not a native Nebraskan in the strictest of senses (he was born in the lesser-known Iowa), he lives there now, and I have no doubt that he will represent the great Cornhusker state with the same panache that has characterized the already existing pantheon of Nebraskan cultural deities, which includes Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Johnny Carson, Henry Fonda, Willa Cather, Darryl Zanuck, Malcolm X, and, of course, Dick Cavett (yes, Cornhuskers all…even if, come to think of it, they all did display an odd refusal to come back after they made it big…). Anyway, here are a few choice, bite-sized bits of Kooser’s work that even a non-indigene can appreciate: After Years, and Selecting a Reader. If, for some peculiar reason, you’re still feeling poetry-ish, here are two poems by a fella whose work kind of reminds me of Kooser’s, Stephen Dunn (a New Yorker, but there’s still a midwestern odor) “Biography in the First Person” and “I Come Home Wanting to Touch Everyone”. And perhaps just one more, a great poem about the midnight flaneur by the poet best known for his unfortunate appearances in commencement day speeches, Bobby Frost.

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August 12, 2004

Last Glimpses

If you are an admirer or avid reader of Edward W. Said, whom Abbas quotes in his post titled Insight and Foresight, you may want to check out a newly released documentary featuring him, called “Selves and Others”. This film, playing at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village, may contain some of the last footage of EWS, before his tragic death last year.
A New York Times write up about the film says:
“‘Selves and Others’ allows the highly articulate Said, a professor at Columbia University and an outspoken advocate of a Palestinian homeland, to lay out his views without the help of an on-screen interlocutor. Sitting at his desk at Columbia or in his study at home, Said offers a concise summary of his thought, with an emphasis on his most influential book, ‘Orientalism’ (1978).”

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Honesty in Inference

“Theoretical physicist Edwin T. Jaynes, who died in 1998, is best known as pioneer and champion of the principle of maximum entropy, which states that of all possible probability distributions that agree with what you know about a problem, the one that leaves you with the most uncertainty is best—precisely because it does not imply more than you know. As important as the principle is in practice, surprisingly little space is devoted to it in Jaynes’s magnum opus, Probability Theory: The Logic of Science.” Book review by Tommaso Toffoli here in American Scientist Online.

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The Induce Act could stifle tech innovation

“The Induce Act, also known as the IICA, says that anyone who ‘intentionally aids, abets, induces, or procures’ a copyright violation can be sued for copyright infringement. That surely applies to the file trading networks, which make it easy to find and download a free copy of any song you desire. Apple’s iPod could also come under fire for its huge hard drive, which would cost about $10,000 to fill with legally downloaded music. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has prepared a sample complaint against the iPod, pointing out the dangers of the Induce Act against established, respectable companies and technologies.” More here from ReasonOnline.

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Insight and Foresight

“So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.”

If you think that is a fairly accurate description of the US attitude toward the Arab world at the moment, consider that the late Edward W. Said wrote that passage more than twenty-four years ago, here, in The Nation. Said is, of course, inimitable and irreplaceable. Nevertheless, one could not have hoped for a better heir to his courageous erudition, his sharp insight, and his intellectual accessability than Rashid Khalidi. Professor Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, and his new book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East is reviewed here in Foreign Affairs, and also here in the New York Times.

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August 11, 2004

Darfur: we need to pay attention NOW

“The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution last Friday giving the government of Sudan 30 days to comply with its July 3 agreement to put a stop to violence against civilians in Darfur and to allow aid through to the 1.2 million people in refugee camps, or else. Or else what remains to be seen–the watered-down resolution doesn’t specify–but the ghosts of Auschwitz and Rwanda are clearly haunting the concerned nations of the world, military intervention may be on the horizon. (Britain, for one, has already said it would back such an intervention if Sudan doesn’t put an end to the violence in Darfur.) Sudan’s military is openly bracing for that possibility, calling the U.N. resolution a ‘declaration of war on Sudan,’ and the Sudanese government’s actions to date suggest they are more interested in creating the illusion of compliance so they can continue their campaign of genocide. As pressure builds for action, it’s important to step back and consider what an international military intervention in Sudan might require: the results of this exercise might surprise you.” More here from The New Republic.

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The Streets and Dizzee Rascal

“Despite having invented the English language and those clever TV shows, Britain hasn’t withstood our cultural colonization any better than the rest of the world. In the eighties and nineties, British m.c.s generally sounded like variants of their American counterparts. Having an adorable accent didn’t disguise the fact that you’d borrowed your style from Rakim, or Run-DMC, or Nas. The debt is finally being erased. The music coming out of Birmingham and London today sounds nothing like American hip-hop. You can’t even call it hip-hop—though it wouldn’t exist without hip-hop.” More here from The New Yorker.

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High tech apparel may determine who takes home the gold

“Drug use may be the most prominent controversy surrounding this summer’s Olympic Games in Athens. But the second burning question concerns an entirely legal approach to getting the winning edge: namely, whether or not form-fitting fast-suits made from high-tech fabrics will decide which athletes bring home a medal. These new garments will be most visible in high profile events such as swimming, but rowers and cyclists are sporting them as well. Although to the casual observer the suits might bring to mind costumes for the next Spiderman movie, they are less about good looks and more about their ability to reduce drag and thereby increase speed.” More here from Scientific American.

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Fairytales for Adults

inside_perl080604_untitled1“Lee Bontecou has imagination aplenty. At the retrospective of her work that has just arrived at the Museum of Modern Art after a national tour, museumgoers respond gratefully to the ingenuity and wit and complexity of the wall reliefs, drawings, sculptures, and mobiles that she has been doing since the late 1950s. There’s a magnetism to Bontecou’s achievement. Her eerie imagery casts a spell. And yet this mood spinner of an artist lacks the feeling for formal completeness that could turn her imaginary forays into self-contained worlds.” More here from Jed Perl in The New Republic.

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Why Cartier-Bresson, The Peintre Manqué, Became Photographer

Hilton Kramer in the New York Observer:

I was glad to see that The New York Times featured its obituary of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) on the front page. After all, no other photographer of his time lived and worked so long or commanded the admiration of so many artists, critics, editors, museum curators and connoisseurs of photography—not to mention the public at large—and none bore worldwide fame with a more appealing combination of intelligence, authority, insouciance and self-deprecating irony. In high spirits, Henri (as I shall speak of him here) was as amusing as his most amusing pictures, and he was certainly a master of comedy in many of his photographs. Yet what was deepest about both the man and his work was the gravity of his moral candor.

More here.

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El Bulli and the Mass Market Food Aesthetic

Some of us have this odd fascination with El Bulli, the over-the-top experimental restuarant in Roses, Spain. Sara Dickerman, one of the smartest food (as cultural anthropology) writers I know, had an insightful take on El Bulli and the new haute cuisine some time ago. It’s still worth a read.

“The form of [El Bulli Chef Ferran] Adrià’s food, for example, echoes that of mass-market snacks. His liquid-filled ravioli are reminiscent of the liquid center of the ’80s phenomenon, Freshen Up gum; the mushroom-gelee “slurps” resemble the suckable packets of yogurt sold in grocery stores today, and his phyllo “pizza” snack, coated in tomato powder and parmesan, seems a step away from a Dorito.”

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Randomized Trials of Economic Development Projects

The Poverty Action Lab has deployed a new method of evaluating policies designed to reduce poverty and improve education, among others–learning the lesson from the natural sciences, the PAL uses randomized trials. The results are often fascinating, well if you’re the policy type anyway.

Some of their findings:

Deworming (e.g., of hookworms, round worms and similar parasites which infect more than 25% of the world) is a cheap way of improving education attendance in the Third World.

Village councils in India (panchayats) invest more in infrastructure that is directly relevant the needs of the gender of the council leader.

There remains discrimination against African-American names in job applications. “White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews,” even when qualification and experience are accounted for.

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August 10, 2004

The pro-war uses of stochastic, context-free grammar–take that Noam Chomsky!

Sometime ago, I came across this, a self-writing, right-wing, pro-war blog.

R. Robot (‘Debasing the Political Discourse @ Superhuman Speed’) is a rhetoric simulator. He shuffles grammatical chunks into into thousands of loathesome new templates. He’s a Perl CGI script, hooked up to a Movable Type engine for good measure — making him the first blogger who is also a computer program (to the best of our knowledge. . . He writes his columns instantly. . . His adjectives and nouns are taken from a Newt Gingrich memo called ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.’ It recommends using words like ‘candid,’ ‘pristine,’ and ‘reform’ for your team’s ideas, and imagery like ‘machine,’ ‘abuse of power,’ and ‘decay’ for the other guy’s. Most of R.’s grammar engrams are lifted from some of the most lovable editorials of the pre-Quagmire era. Those were heady times, when the like of Ann Coulter, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan and the late Michael Kelly took fearlessly to their PowerBooks. For those too young to remember, these mighty scribes of ’02 saw themselves as the lone voices warning of a shocking Fifth Column: that is, people who disagreed with landing the U.S.A. in its current predicament. If not for these scribes, an uninformed world never would have seen the Warbot — and we all would have been helpless to stop Al Gore, Harry Belafonte, and Saddam Hussein from teaming up to betray the world.”

Test it out. Enter your name or someone else’s in the field below the control panel, and watch the satisfying slander, er, libel.

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