Some scientists say humans can read minds: Mirror neurons may generate ability to empathize


In 1996, three neuroscientists were probing the brain of a macaque monkey when they stumbled across a curious cluster of cells in the premotor cortex, an area of the brain responsible for planning movements. The cluster of cells fired not only when the monkey performed an action, but likewise when the monkey saw the same action performed by someone else. The cells responded the same way whether the monkey reached out to grasp a peanut, or merely watched in envy as another monkey or a human did. Because the cells reflected the actions that the monkey observed in others, the neuroscientists named them “mirror neurons.” Later experiments confirmed the existence of mirror neurons in humans and revealed another surprise. In addition to mirroring actions, the cells reflected sensations and emotions.

“Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person’s mental shoes,” says Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. “In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person’s mind.”

More here.

Sheikh meets Shakespeare

From The Telegraph, Calcutta.Aparna

Would Caliban have been more at home in the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans than on the island in The Tempest? Or was Puck a “pakhi before he morphed into a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? The first few pages of Kalyan Ray’s debut novel Eastwords give a glimpse of an enticing land and a fascinating narrative. Here, Shakespeare pops up on Indian shores and hobnobs with our own Sheikh Piru, straight from the pages of Parashuram’s Ulot Puran. Eastwords is a novel that the professor of English literature in Morris College of the US has written between semesters and bundles of answer scripts.

Ray’s debut has already been inducted in the popular culture studies syllabus at MIT in the US.

More here.

Regulated Resistance: Is it possible to change the system when you are the system?

From Neutopia Magazine:Regulated

In February of this year, United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), a coalition of more than 800 peace and justice groups throughout the United States, held their second annual Assembly to hear and vote on proposals for a 2005 “action plan.” With the war in Iraq fast approaching its second anniversary, and the larger “War on Terror” crossing its third and half year, close to 500 delegates from 275 member groups traveled to St. Louis in the hopes that the “anti-war movement”—which emerged with unprecedented speed and size just prior to the US invasion of Iraq in spring of 2003—could be resuscitated. Despite impressive beginnings, the movement as a whole has yet to make any significant impact on US policy, or achieve any lasting public resonance. More disturbing is the fact that since Bush’s victory in November, it has gone completely MIA.

More here.

Without Top Predators, Ecosystems Turn Topsy-Turvy

Ape When the construction of a hydroelectric dam on Venezuela’s Caroni River was finally completed in 1986, it flooded an area twice the size of Rhode Island, creating one of South America’s largest human-made lakes: Lake Guri. As floodwaters turned hilltops into islands, a key group of animals—predators such as jaguars, harpy eagles, and armadillos—disappeared from the islands. Some swam or flew away. Others drowned or starved to death. In the predator’s absence, their prey—howler monkeys, iguanas, leaf-cutting ants—began multiplying. Soon these plant-eaters had devoured most of the once pristine forest.

More here.

A Painting with “Legs”

Jina Moore in Harvard Magazine:

AmericangothicLike the poems Emily Dickinson stored in her attic, or John Steinbeck’s repeatedly rejected early manuscripts, one of America’s best-known paintings was almost lost. American Gothic, Grant Wood’s ubiquitous vision of Midwestern farmers posing before their home, wedged its way into history by winning third prize in a Chicago art competition, says Steven Biel, senior lecturer and director of studies in history and literature and the author of a new book, American Gothic: The Life of America’s Most Famous Painting. “If it hadn’t won anything,” he adds, “it would’ve gone home to Iowa, where no one but Wood’s friends would’ve seen it.” Instead, the image has become synonymous with America itself.

More here.

Mind-reading machine knows what you see

From New Scientist:

Scientists have already trained monkeys to move a robotic arm with the power of thought and to recreate scenes moving in front of cats by recording information directly from the feline’s neurons. But these processes involve implanting electrodes into their brains to hook them up to a computer.

Now Yukiyasu Kamitani, at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, and Frank Tong at Princeton University in New Jersey, US, have achieved similar “mind reading” feats remotely using functional MRI scanning.

More here.

What’s the Matter with Liberals?

Thomas Frank in the New York Review of Books:

For more than thirty-five years, American politics has followed a populist pattern as predictable as a Punch and Judy show and as conducive to enlightened statesmanship as the cycles of a noisy washing machine. The antagonists of this familiar melodrama are instantly recognizable: the average American, humble, long-suffering, working hard, and paying his taxes; and the liberal elite, the know-it-alls of Manhattan and Malibu, sipping their lattes as they lord it over the peasantry with their fancy college degrees and their friends in the judiciary.

Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economics—trade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden, expressing worshipful awe for the microchip, etc. But define politics as culture, and class instantly becomes for them the very blood and bone of public discourse. Indeed, from George Wallace to George W. Bush, a class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism has been one of their most powerful weapons.

More here.

A380 Super-jumbo set for maiden flight

From CNN:

A380Runway windsocks were being studied more closely than ever as Airbus test pilots prepared to take the world’s largest airliner, the A380, on its maiden flight Wednesday — weather permitting.

About 11 years and €10 billion ($13 billion) into the A380 program, the 555-seater “superjumbo” is set to heave its 280-metric ton frame aloft for the first time before 50,000 expected onlookers, both invited and uninvited.

More here.  Update: it has flown.  More on the flight here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

George ka Pakistan: Reality TV, Desi Style

From Pakistan’s Daily Times:

27_4_2005_georgeISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz on Tuesday committed residency for George Fulton, a British national who appeared in Geo TV production George Ka Pakistan.

The TV programme ran for three months during which George was shown trying to adopt Pakistani culture in an attempt to become a Pakistani.

The prime minister made the announcement as a goodwill gesture at a meeting with George who called on him at Prime Minister’s House.

The prime minister praised George for his love and affection for Pakistani people and culture and announced the result of an opinion poll asking people to vote if George had succeeded in becoming a Pakistani. More than 60 percent people voted in George’s favour, 28 percent against him. The prime minister congratulated George on becoming a Pakistani citizen. George thanked Pakistanis who voted in his favour and said he would try to become a true Pakistani.

More here.  [Thanks Husain!]

Fun Follows function

Michael Webb writes in Frame Magazine about the new design of Clive Wilkinson for the LA campus of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM)

“Students at the LA campus of the Fashion Institute of Design and F43f03i Merchandising (FIDM) relish the good life of Southern California, riding a big wave, immersing themselves in a shimmering blue tank or lounging by a palm-fringed pool. Thanks to the wizardry of architect Clive Wilkinson, they can do all this in a design studio that’s located in a gritty commercial neighbourhood 20 kilometres from the ocean. Lofty banking halls flanking the lobby of a 1926 beaux-arts office building have been stripped and turned into vibrant two-level study areas that are both functional and fun.”

Forewarned and forearmed

Book review from The Economist:

Men need to be better informed about prostate disease and how to deal with it. A new book, by a leading New York surgeon, fills a much-needed gap.

Prostate cancer is far more common in men than breast cancer is in women. Yet the public awareness of the two diseases could not be more different. Women have their mammograms, their ultrasounds, pink-ribbon days, designer T-shirts and celebrity-awareness campaigns. Like breast cancer, cancer of the prostate is treatable if caught early enough. Unlike breast cancer, it is also completely curable. Yet more men in America and in Britain still develop prostate cancer—and more die of it—than any other cancer other than that of the lungs. Why so?

“Dr Peter Scardino’s Prostate Book” goes a long way towards repealing the ignorance that even many educated men display about this disease.

More here.

But this book from Amazon by clicking here.

Simulators are changing the way doctors are trained

Jerome Groopman in The New Yorker:

Four students in their third year at Harvard Medical School recently met a patient named Mr. Martin. The students’ mentors, two physicians, told them that Martin had come to the emergency room complaining of abdominal pain that had grown steadily worse over several days.

Martin was lying on a stretcher, moaning. A monitor next to the stretcher indicated that his blood pressure was dangerously low—eighty over fifty-four—and his heart was racing at a hundred and eighteen beats per minute. An X-ray mounted on a light box on the wall showed loops of distended bowel, called an ileus. The intestine can swell like this when it is obstructed or inflamed.

“It hurts!” Martin cried as the students reviewed his chart. “They told me you’d give me something for the pain.”

…Fortunately, Martin is not a real patient but a mannequin, an electronic instructional device known in medicine as a simulator.

More here.

Early Black Holes May Have Heated the Universe

Michael Schirber in

Though invisible, big black holes are not hard to find. Astronomers have noted evidence in the center of many galaxies for supermassive black holes weighing millions to billions of times our Sun.

Where these huge holes came from is an open question. One theory is that they are the result of a progressive build-up of smaller black holes, starting from the stellar mass black holes that formed from the explosions of the first stars.

If this hierarchical formation is true, then some of the middle stages between the 10-solar-mass acorns and the billion-solar-mass oaks should still be around. Yet confirmation of these intermediate mass black holes has been difficult to come by.

More here.

Emails ‘pose threat to IQ’

Martin Wainwright in The Guardian:

The distractions of constant emails, text and phone messages are a greater threat to IQ and concentration than taking cannabis, according to a survey of befuddled volunteers.

Doziness, lethargy and an increasing inability to focus reached “startling” levels in the trials by 1,100 people, who also demonstrated that emails in particular have an addictive, drug-like grip.

Respondents’ minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an email dropped into their inbox. Productivity at work was damaged and the effect on staff who could not resist trying to juggle new messages with existing work was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night’s sleep.

More here.

Murakami and the Aesthetics of Imperfection

‘…this tale of two people’s struggles to escape/fulfill an unknowingly shared fate is at once absurdly fun and highly sentimental. Murakami’s voice — detached but not indifferent, sympathetic but never mawkish — comes through most clearly in that of a supporting character, a young androgyne librarian, who says to Kafka, “A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging.” Perfect.’

From Jon Zobenica’s Atlantic review of Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

Highly Sentimental? Not the right words for Murakami’s aesthetic, although when you try to think of another phrase it isn’t easy. But with his emphasis on imperfection, Zobenica is on to something.

He’s Right: The novel is rich and strange and exceedingly wonderful. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The Murakami sensation is one of the most positive signs I’ve seen about the existence of under-served intelligent young American readers.

Whatever happened to machines that think?

Justin Mullins in New Scientist:

In the next few months, after being patiently nurtured for 22 years, an artificial brain called Cyc (pronounced “psych”) will be put online for the world to interact with. And it’s only going to get cleverer. Opening Cyc up to the masses is expected to accelerate the rate at which it learns, giving it access to the combined knowledge of millions of people around the globe as it hoovers up new facts from web pages, webcams and data entered manually by anyone who wants to contribute.

Crucially, Cyc’s creator says it has developed a human trait no other AI system has managed to imitate: common sense. “I believe we are heading towards a singularity and we will see it in less than 10 years,” says Doug Lenat of Cycorp, the system’s creator.

More here.  And also see my earlier post about Cyc here.

The “Virtue” of Lust?

W. Jay Wood reviews Lust by Simon Blackburn in Christianity Today:

Blackburn is a prolific writer of both popular and professional philosophy, an outstanding essayist, and an insightful reviewer of books, whose sparkling prose customarily displays philosophical skill and evident wit. Lust doesn’t lack in stylistic grace and wit, but its ground note is a smirking satisfaction with its own provocations, and its treatment of opposing views falls well below Blackburn’s usual standard.

At least the reader is forewarned. Blackburn announces at the outset that he has no intention of writing a book about the sin of lust, an intention he admirably fulfills—which may be all to the good, since he appears to lack any developed notion of sin and, even if he has one, he doesn’t think lust qualifies as a sin. He knows quite well, of course, what reputation religious tradition, common sense, and ordinary language have assigned to his subject: “Lust is furtive, ashamed, and embarrassed”; “Lust pursues its own gratification, headlong, impatient of any control, immune to reason”; “Lust looks sideways, inventing deceits and stratagems and seductions, sizing up opportunities”; “Lust subverts propriety” and is “like living shackled to a lunatic.”

More here.

Monday, April 25, 2005

More on Capote

The trouble with being a bad boy is that people don’t remember you were once very, very good. In author Truman Ca­pote’s last years, his cringingly public displays of drunkenness and drug use caused old friends to wring their hands over his squandered talent. By his death in 1984, the shambles of his personal life had dwarfed his literary reputation.’

From The Wilson Quarterly’s Periodical Observer, on Brooke Allen’s “Capote Reconsidered,” in The New Criterion.