Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Diwali!

A tad early, but Happy Diwali!

On Snake Detection Neurons

Primates may have neurons specialized to detect snakes.

In macaque monkeys:
They found that images of snakes had a particularly strong and fast-acting effect on pulvinar neurons: Of the 91 neurons that became active at some point in the experiment, 40% were “snake-best,” meaning they were more active during snake photos than other images. These neurons also fired more frequently than the ones responding to faces, hands, or shapes. (Neurons responding to angry faces, an important social threat for the highly social macaques, came in second.) Finally, snake-responsive neurons sprang into action more quickly, activating about 15 milliseconds faster than those that responded to angry faces and about 25 milliseconds ahead of the neutral shape-detecting neurons.

But, there is always a caution:
The results support the idea that primates have built-in mechanisms for recognizing a very specific threat based on its shape, says Isabelle Blanchette, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Quebec, Trois-Rivières, in Canada who studies the role of emotion in how we process information. But she warns that we should resist the urge to extrapolate to humans. Even if we carry these “leftovers from evolution” in the form of snake-sensitive neurons deep in our visual system, higher brain processes, such as learning and memory, may influence our behavior just as much as this deep and instinctive snake sense. “It’s a very important part of the picture, but it is only a part,” she says. Her research has shown that humans aren’t always faster at detecting snakes than other threats, including guns and cars, which we haven’t evolved to fear innately.

"Misinformation works" - Senator Rand Paul

This luminary gracing  "the world's greatest deliberative body", Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, tells students:
Rand Paul was talking with University of Louisville medical students when one of them tossed him a softball. "The majority of med students here today have a comprehensive exam tomorrow. I'm just wondering if you have any last-minute advice." 
"Actually, I do," said the ophthalmologist-turned-senator, who stays sharp (and keeps his license) by doing pro bono eye surgeries during congressional breaks. "I never, ever cheated. I don't condone cheating. But I would sometimes spread misinformation. This is a great tactic. Misinformation can be very important."

He went on to describe studying for a pathology test with friends in the library. "We spread the rumor that we knew what was on the test and it was definitely going to be all about the liver," he said. "We tried to trick all of our competing students into over-studying for the liver" and not studying much else.

"So, that's my advice," he concluded. "Misinformation works."
 If people expect government to work with this kind of person in it, they must be delusional.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Genetic Determinism is the website of a business that does a genetic analysis from saliva samples submitted by its customers.  In particular, they report on health risks.  Following Bee, I had submitted a saliva sample to them. One new thing I learned from their technical reports was that for incidence of disease,  the very same gene variants had different sized effects in people of European, African or Asian ancestries. 

There could be a number of reasons for this - the interaction of these gene variants with other genes or environmental and developmental differences,  or epigenetic differences.   In any case, these effects throw sand into the gears of naive genetic determinism.

If you want examples from you are going to have to subscribe to them.  Here is an example from Wiki:
The same gene variant, or group of gene variants, may produce different effects in different populations depending on differences in the gene variants, or groups of gene variants, they interact with. One example is the rate of progression to AIDS and death in HIV–infected patients. In Caucasians and Hispanics, HHC haplotypes were associated with disease retardation, particularly a delayed progression to death. In contrast, for African Americans, possession of HHC haplotypes was associated with disease acceleration.
We might get "lucky" and human intelligence might be universally determined by a handful of genes in which we can determine the "good" and "not-so-good" variants.  That opens the door to genetic engineering of humans for improved intelligence.  Or we might discover that Mendel discovered laws of heredity by happenstance, having picked traits in his pea plants on which simple genetic determinism does work; but that that is largely the exception, not the rule for features like intelligence.   We might get "unlucky" and find out that human intelligence is governed by complex interactions between genes with any particular variant of a particular gene being advantageous or deleterious depending on the entire set of other genes; or we might get "really unlucky" and find that intelligence depends not just on genes but the entire history of the individual (or even on the history of the individual and its previous generations - that pesky epigenetic thing again).

I think how it is going to turn out is very much an open question.  I think only ignorance or ideological predilections lead one to assert that it is definitely going to turn out one way or the other.

Further, the possibility of genetic engineering is not going to raise problems that we don't already have in some form.  In India and in China, already the XX chromosome pair is selectively engineered against despite laws against it,  doctors being required not to share ultrasound images of the fetus with their patients and so on.  In the state of Haryana in India, the gender ratio is at around 877 women per 1000 men.   The dire effects on society are already being felt.  Unfortunately, the modern ease of determining the sex of the fetus cannot be regulated away.  One can only hope that other forms of genetic engineering are less accessible and thus more susceptible to regulation.

Since tens of millions of women were never even born, some activists term it a genocide.

That is why I find the following exceedingly simplistic, especially coming in a post that makes the accusation of large-scale willful blindness.
Suppose we do find that higher IQ is closely associated with certain genotypes. What then? The most likely thing in the future is not some kind of genocidal murder program, but rational therapy, based on genetic medicine. Echoes of Brave New World? Yes, but it's coming, and we ought to prepare to deal with it.

More Gould on the sociobiologists' category mistake

Ruminating about it while going to purchase some trick-or-treat candy, I decided that this metaphor from Gould should not lead to much misunderstanding.
"Sociobiologists work as if Galileo....dropped a set of diverse objects...and sought a separate explanation for each behavior -- the plunge of the cannonball as a result of something in the nature of cannonballness; the gentle descent of the feather as intrinsic to featherness.  We know, instead, that the wide range of different falling behaviors arises from an interaction between two physical rules--gravity and frictional resistance.  This interaction can generate a thousand different styles of descent.  If we focus on the objects and seek an explanation for the behavior of each in its own terms we are lost.  The search among specific behaviors for the genetic basis of human nature is an example of biological determinism.  The quest for underlying generating rules expresses a concept of biological potentialityThe question is not biological nature vs. nonbiological nurture.  Determinism and potentiality are both biological theories--but they seek the genetic basis of human nature at fundamentally different levels."

Blank Slaters

CIP wrote:
Thanks to the attacks of various blank slaters, led perhaps by the late Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, IQ studies became so disreputable that they were mostly left to cranks and racists.
Now, I think CIP got the idea that Stephen Jay Gould was a blank slater by reading Steven Pinker.  Regardless, I pick up Gould's most concentrated attack on IQology, The Mismeasure of Man, where in the conclusion of the book he writes: {emphasis added}
"If people are so similar genetically, and if previous claims for a direct biological mapping of human affairs have recorded cultural prejudice and not nature, then does biology come up empty as a guide in our search to know ourselves?  Are we after all, at birth, the tabula rasa, or blank slate,  imagined by some eighteenth-century empiricist philosophers?  As an evolutionary biologist, I cannot adopt such a nihilistic position without denying the fundamental insight of my profession.  The evolutionary unity of humans with all other organisms is the cardinal message of Darwin's revolution for nature's most arrogant species."
So clearly, if Pinker thinks that Gould was a blank slater, it means Gould's denial of blank slaterism was a false one, the ideas he elaborated on make him a blank slater.

Following this statement, Gould makes the points, among other things:
Human sociobiologists "have made a fundamental mistake in categories.  They are seeking the genetic basis of human behavior at the wrong level.  They are searching among the specific products of generating rules...while the rules themselves are the genetic deep structures of human behavior."
The clearest he explains what he means by generating rules is as follows:
Human uniqueness lies in the flexibility of what our brain can do.  What is intelligence, if not the ability to face problems in an unprogramed (or, as we often say, creative) manner?  If intelligence sets us apart among organisms, then I think it probable that natural selection acted to maximize the flexibility of our behavior.  What would be more adaptive for a learning and thinking animal: genes selected for aggression, spite and xenophobia; or selection for learning rules that can generate aggression in appropriate circumstances and peacefulness in others?
 He also writes:
         "...we must be wary of granting too much power to natural selection by viewing all basic capacities of our brain as direct adaptations. I do not doubt that natural selection acted in building our oversized brains....But these assumptions do not lead to the notion....that all major capacities of the brain must arise as direct products of natural selection.  Our brains are enormously complex computers.  If I install a much simpler computer to keep accounts in a factory, it can also perform many other, more complex tasks unrelated to its appointed role.   These additional capacities are ineluctable consequences of structural design, not direct adaptations.   Our vastly more complex organic computers were also built for reasons, but possess an almost terrifying range of additional capacities -- including, I suspect, most of what makes us human. .....

....We need not view Bach as a happy spinoff from the value of music in cementing tribal cohesion, or Shakespeare as a fortunate consequence of the role of myth and epic narrative in maintaining hunting bands.  Most of the behavioral "traits" that sociobiologists try to explain may never have been subject to direct natural selection--and may therefore exhibit a flexibility that features crucial to survival can never display.   Should these complex consequences of structural design even be called "traits"?  Is this tendency to atomize a behavioral repertory into a set of "things" not another example of the same fallacy of reification that has plagued studies of intelligence throughout our century?"
Some blank slater this:  Our behavior ultimately arises from the ineluctable consequences of the structural properties of our brain, that was shaped but not fully constrained by natural selection.  But the flexibility of our brain makes cultural evolution very much more responsible for the differences in behaviors of human groups than darwinian evolution.  Humans were not adapted by natural selection  to have certain propensities, like aggression; rather humans are embody rules that allow for aggression or peacefulness based on circumstances.

Where is the blank slate in all of this?  One must ask, why did Pinker term Gould a blank slatist? The possibilities are:

1. Gould repudiates himself elsewhere.
2. Pinker misunderstands Gould.
3. Pinker understands Gould, but has an ideological axe to grind.

My suspicion is (3.), but it remains a suspicion only, until I put some effort into it.  I don't trust intermediaries any more.

Curious IQ obsession

Warren G. Magnuson's funeral:


Goodbye to the Last of the True New Dealers

At first it was a solemn affair, Maggie's funeral yesterday, beautiful. There was the march of prelates, with Mrs. Magnuson and the family, into the great white enclosure of St. Mark's Cathedral, the mourners standing, the organ and choir resounding, and the senator's remains in a flag-draped coffin carried by former staffers of his, dark-suited, somber, none of them with an IQ under 129.
Feynman would not have qualified.


Lack of knowledge is a dangerous thing

In his blogpost, "Knowledge is a dangerous thing",  CIP makes a series of unsupported assertions such as:

1. IQ studies are targeted by advocates of the "blank slate" view of human nature (he includes Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin in this set).

2. IQ is a powerful predictor of achievement - ignoring the idea that a society that uses tests to erect barriers for people will strangely find that the tests work as expected.

3. Because of attacks by blank slaters, IQ studies became relegated to cranks and racists (rather than the fact that IQ studies were taken over, very quickly after the invention of IQ, by cranks and racists).

4. IQ denialists prefer blindness - rather than they prefer to understand IQ for what it is - some measured quantity that is rising by 10 points every thirty years (roughly speaking) - this is the infamous Flynn effect - which should have led to an explosion of Einsteins, Beethovens, Edisons and Wittens among us, if IQ had anything to do with what we intuitively mean by intelligence.

5. IQ denialists prefer blindness - perhaps they prefer to understand intelligence as a multi-faceted thing, as an example - Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.

6. The study of intelligence (IQ) is dead - IQ doesn't tell us anything really useful about intelligence.  The study of human intelligence is alive and healthy (A crude search in Google Scholar gives 105,000 titles since 2012).
I could go on, but the point is, stuck in the mindset of "The Bell Curve" (even the bell curve is disputable, there is evidence that human achievement, when quantifiable, is distributed at the high end in a power-law curve),  berating the world is not a winning strategy.  Lack of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Math, IQ and Culture

This article, via Bee on Facebook: The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math' in the Atlantic:

A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental orientation believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an Entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.

The “entity orientation” that says “You are smart or not, end of story,” leads to bad outcomes—a result that has been confirmed by many other studies.
The outcome of an experiment:
The results? Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing intelligence was genetic. (A control group, who were taught how memory works, showed no such gains.)
But improving grades was not the most dramatic effect, “Dweck reported that some of her tough junior high school boys were reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control.” It is no picnic going through life believing you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way.
In my opinion:
  1. IQ may or may not mean intelligence.  But IQ is irrelevant.  The obsession with intelligence is dangerous.  Achievement is what matters.  What is the point of high intelligence, low achieving people?
  2. Far too many pieces, including the above cited, confuse intelligence and achievement.  Achievement is what may be quantified, is tangible, etc. 
  3. The truth is:  one can improve their achievement through effort.   Not indefinitely, and only rarely to a world-class level, maybe not even to the upper half of the local market competition; but usually enough to make a practical difference in their life.  Who cares whether one's IQ went up or down in the process?   IQ is the realm of quacks like Murray and Herrnstein.
  4. The obsession with intelligence keeps a lot of people from achieving what they could; and keeps a lot of high achieving people nevertheless unhappy and insecure.
  5. The elusive thing called culture lies in these approaches to life - e.g., the attitudes of a group towards intelligence and achievement - and not in whether one wears jeans and drinks Coke. (The only case where culture is sort of legitimately wholly confused with material artifacts is in archaeology, where sometimes potsherds are the only trace of the identity of a people - e.g., "the painted greyware culture".  But this is only because of lack of information.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

To be read: Religion, Science and Empire
Peter Gottschalk offers a compelling study of how, through the British implementation of scientific taxonomy in the subcontinent, Britons and Indians identified an inherent divide between mutually antagonistic religious communities. 
England's ascent to power coincided with the rise of empirical science as an authoritative way of knowing not only the natural world, but the human one as well. The British scientific passion for classification, combined with the Christian impulse to differentiate people according to religion, led to a designation of Indians as either Hindu or Muslim according to rigidly defined criteria that paralleled classification in botanical and zoological taxonomies. 
Through an historical and ethnographic study of the north Indian village of Chainpur, Gottschalk shows that the Britons' presumed categories did not necessarily reflect the Indians' concepts of their own identities, though many Indians came to embrace this scientism and gradually accepted the categories the British instituted through projects like the Census of India, the Archaeological Survey of India, and the India Museum. 
Today's propogators of Hindu-Muslim violence often cite scientistic formulations of difference that descend directly from the categories introduced by imperial Britain.
Religion, Science, and Empire will be a valuable resource to anyone interested in the colonial and postcolonial history of religion in India.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ye Old Paint Shoppe

The New York Times reported in 2011:
Digging deeper in a South African cave that had already yielded surprises from the Middle Stone Age, archaeologists have uncovered a 100,000-year-old workshop holding the tools and ingredients with which early modern humans apparently mixed some of the first known paint.

These cave artisans had stones for pounding and grinding colorful dirt enriched with a kind of iron oxide to a powder, known as ocher. This was blended with the binding fat of mammal-bone marrow and a dash of charcoal. Traces of ocher were left on the tools, and samples of the reddish compound were collected in large abalone shells, where the paint was liquefied, stirred and scooped out with a bone spatula.
The discovery dials back the date when the modern Homo sapiens population was known to have started using paint. Previously, no workshop older than 60,000 years had come to light, and the earliest cave and rock art began appearing about 40,000 years ago.  (emphasis added)
This news is yet to reach Israel :)

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Great Leap Forward?

Was there a great leap forward in human cognitive ability 70,000 years ago?

The evidence is mixed and the idea is contested.  e.g., Wiki here, here.
Trade, according to the exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute, had emerged 130,000 years ago. A question is - how much evidence to the contrary is needed to disprove the idea of a great leap forward?

The assumption that such a "cognitive revolution" took place seems to be an important point in  Harari's history of humanity.

Coursera advertises Harari's course as a challenging perspective on history. I doubt it. Otherwise, they would not say this.
Suggested Readings
Participating in the course does not require any reading.
A real challenging perspective on history would point out all the uncertainties and unknowns.

PS:(emphasis added) - while not directly relevant to the Great Leap Forward 70 kilo years ago:
Vol. 338 no. 6109 pp. 942-946
DOI: 10.1126/science.1227608

 Hafting stone points to spears was an important advance in weaponry for early humans. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that ~500,000-year-old stone points from the archaeological site of Kathu Pan 1 (KP1), South Africa, functioned as spear tips. KP1 points exhibit fracture types diagnostic of impact. Modification near the base of some points is consistent with hafting. Experimental and metric data indicate that the points could function well as spear tips. Shape analysis demonstrates that the smaller retouched points are as symmetrical as larger retouched points, which fits expectations for spear tips. The distribution of edge damage is similar to that in an experimental sample of spear tips and is inconsistent with expectations for cutting or scraping tools. Thus, early humans were manufacturing hafted multicomponent tools ~200,000 years earlier than previously thought.

A simpler family tree?

Apart from a general outline, human evolution is far from settled science.  Any day a new finding can change our interpretation of what we know.  The Dmanisi finds are an example of that.  Any "grand narrative" has to acknowledge the uncertainty.   We tend to claim a lot more certainty to our knowledge than is justified.

The interpretation of the Dmanisi finds has kicked up a scientific controversy and whichever way it is resolved (or proves to be unresolvable), we will know a little more, and also know the limits to our knowledge a little better. 

The five Dmanisi skulls
The five skulls found in one place at one geological time (they are from about 1.8 million years ago) might have been classified as different species had they been found separately.  The principle of parsimony requires us to postulate they are the same species.  The range of variation is similar to the range of variation found in modern chimpanzees and humans.   This opens the question of whether the finds around the globe are at best regional variations of one species?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Dmanisi skull(s)

A couple of good discussions of the Dmanisi skull(s) and what they mean to our picture of human evolution:
The value and significance of Dmanisi extends far beyond Georgia. The window on variation at Dmanisi can be applied to the rich fossil samples from East Africa and elsewhere. When the authors of this study make that step, they determine that we have likely be over-taxonomizing, or relying too much on species identification and diversity to explain the variation we observe in fossils of this time period. All the fossil variation that in East Africa gets divided by some into Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, and Homo erectus, because the specimens are too variable to represent a single species, viewed from Dmanisi, suddenly look like a single evolving lineage. Or at least, make it harder to reject that idea as a starting hypothesis.

Let's look harder at this concept of "parsimony". The basic principle is that plurality should not be posited unnecessarily. But what kind of plurality?

A simple answer is that we should adopt the null hypothesis that a sample of fossils represent a single species. Multiple species would be an unnecessary plurality, unless we discover that the sample has statistical properties that are rarely or never found in known samples of a single species. This is the conclusion of Van Arsdale and Wolpoff, and of Lordkipanidze and colleagues, and indeed it is my own attitude. A single species is a good null hypothesis, and the data considered here don't reject it.

Still, saying that the data don't reject a null hypothesis is not the same as saying that the null hypothesis is true. Maybe the data have little power to reject any hypothesis. Parsimony may guide us toward the choice of a null hypothesis, but that's no reason for us to promote it, if the data are indecisive.
          .....Humans today are a poor model for understanding early Homo, because the last major layer of shared ancestry has left us too genetically uniform.
          ......The model I outline is complex. It is not a simple bifurcation of species, branching without reticulation over time. But the model I outline is necessary for Neandertals, Denisovans and MSA Africans, it is necessary within MSA Africa, it is necessary for living chimpanzees, and for living gorillas, and it is necessary during the last 50,000 years of our evolution. These are the mix of demographic and selective forces that characterize every close model we have for the evolution of early Homo.

The march of History versus the march of Science

In Coursera, Yuval Noah Harari's first lecture on the history of mankind is described thusly:
Lecture 1: The Human Family
One hundred thousand years ago, at least six different species of humans inhabited planet Earth. Our species, Homo sapiens, was just one among them. Who were the others? Where did they come from? And what happened to them? Why is there today only one species of humans—Homo sapiens?
I find it amusing to note that the New York Times recently reported this:
After eight years spent studying a 1.8-million-year-old skull uncovered in the Republic of Georgia, scientists have made a discovery that may rewrite the evolutionary history of our human genus Homo.

It would be a simpler story with fewer ancestral species. Early, diverse fossils — those currently recognized as coming from distinct species like Homo habilis, Homo erectus and others — may actually represent variation among members of a single, evolving lineage. 

In other words, just as people look different from one another today, so did early hominids look different from one another, and the dissimilarity of the bones they left behind may have fooled scientists into thinking they came from different species. 

This was the conclusion reached by an international team of scientists led by David Lordkipanidze, a paleoanthropologist at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, as reported Thursday in the journal Science.
The reason the skull tells us so much is because it is "“the world’s first completely preserved adult hominid skull” of such antiquity."

If this finding stands, then there were no six species of humans one hundred thousand years ago, and Harari's first lecture will be history.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Feynman on science

From here:
As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

When someone says, "Science teaches such and such," he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn't teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, "Science has shown such and such," you might ask, "How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?"

It should not be "science has shown" but "this experiment, this effect, has shown." And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments--but be patient and listen to all the evidence--to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.
From his blackboard:
What I cannot create, I do not understand.
 How I read the above:-   Feynman is trying to explain what it means to know, to understand.  Reading about something does not give you understanding or knowledge, experiencing it does.  How does one experience a mathematical proof or result of a calculation?  By creating the proof for oneself, by doing the calculation for oneself.  By going through the whole process of discovery for oneself - for that is how Feynman read scientific papers.  One comes to know the whole terrain - not just the published work, but lots of things that don't work, and maybe some alternate ways of arriving at the same result.  By having a thorough experience of the terrain, one makes it one's own.

As far as I understand, the Indian traditions also consider knowledge to be truly gained by experience.  A little bit of training, for instance, enables one to learnedly blabber that this Atman is Brahman.  That remains just a formal statement though.  One does not get knowledge from the study of scriptures; one only learns of the possibility of knowledge.  One is informed that there is something to look for, and how one might go about finding it.  In this sense, the Hindu "scriptures" also say that experience is the teacher.   I don't think that is very consonant with the usual idea of religion, where the scripture teaches.

ibn al-Haytham

"The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them," Ibn al-Haytham wrote in Doubts Concerning Ptolemy, "but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Just whom is she talking about? :) :) :)

"So, I will say this — Indian men can also be among the kindest in the world....."

"Let me introduce the Common Indian Male, a category that deserves taxonomic recognition: committed, concerned, cautious; intellectually curious, linguistically witty; socially gregarious, endearingly awkward; quick to laugh, slow to anger. Frequently spotted in domestic circles, traveling in a family herd. He has been sighted in sari shops and handbag stores, engaged in debating his spouse’s selection with the sons and daughters who trail behind. There is, apparently, no domestic decision that is not worthy of his involvement. 

There is a telling phrase that best captures the Indian man in a relationship — whether as lover, parent or friend: not “I love you” but “Main hoon na.” It translates to “I’m here for you” but is better explained as a hug of commitment — “Never fear, I’m here.” These are men for whom commitment is a joy, a duty and a deep moral anchor. 

At its excessive worst, this sensibility can produce annoyances: a sentimentalized addiction to Mummy; concern that becomes judgmental and stifling; and a proud or oversensitive emotional landscape. 

But when it is at its best, the results, in women’s lives, speak for themselves. If the image of the Indian female as victim is true, so, too, is its converse: the Indian woman who coexists as a strong survivor, as conqueror, as worshiped goddess made flesh. Indian women have served as prime minister and president. They head banks and large corporations. They are formidable politicians, religious heads, cultural icons, judges, athletes and even godmothers of crime."........."A successful woman is very likely to have had a supportive male in her life: a father, a spouse, a friend, a mentor."
For his part, the Indian male, when nested in family and community, is part of a domestic tapestry that is intricately woven and vital, it seems, to his own sense of well-being. Take that away from him, hurl him away — and a possible result is a man unmoored, lost, adrift and, potentially, a danger to himself and to his world. Disconnection causes social disengagement and despair — and the behavior that is the product of alienation and despair. 
 Lavanya Sankaran in the New York Times.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Nature protects from Nature

Via forum, Mighty mangroves shield Indian village from cyclone’s wrath.

I'm a bit skeptical about the story for various reasons, but here goes:
“Our elders had made an embankment along the coast to prevent soil erosion in 1975. They randomly planted mangrove trees on the embankment. Gradually, this plantation converted into a mangrove forest. However, it was during the 1982 cyclone that we realized that mangrove can also prevent the storm from reaching us,” said Balram Biswal, another resident.

Thereafter, the villagers aggressively started planting mangroves on the island and also made provisions in the village to protect the forests. “We constituted a 15-member forest protection committee from among the villagers. The body penalised anyone who damaged the forests in any possible way and a night guard was appointed and paid Rs 100 per night to protect the mangrove,” said Behera.
Today, a dense forest of tall mangrove trees stands between the sea and Praharajpur. Apart from a shield from cyclone, the residents also get wood, honey and fruits from the mangrove. “The story of Praharajpur has also inspired nearby villages to plant and protect mangroves coasts. We hope that the forest comes to their rescue as well,” said Suresh Bisoyi of non-profit Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC).
Also, Praharajpur in other news:


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Atman and Brahman

 In terms of Western philosophy, the main school of thought arising from the Vedas would be called Monism.


The Vedic realization is roughly the following - and a mere understanding from definitions is not enough, any more than the definition of mango tells you what the mango smells like and tastes like.  Please take the following to be approximate only.

In the course of life, I identify myself  with my body or my personality or my mind or my intellect.  Upon removal of this ignorance, I correctly identify myself with my Self, the Atman.  Roughly speaking, in the closest Christian terms, Atman is imperishable, incorporeal soul.

Another realization is that there is an ultimate grounds for existence, Brahman.  Roughly speaking,  in Christian terms, Brahman is the most impersonal conception of God that you can possibly have. In particular ascribing intentions to Brahman is a mistake.

With effort I am supposed to be able to lift the veil of ignorance, and these truths become manifest:

Brahman is consciousness (awareness).
This Atman (I) is Brahman.
I am Brahman.

Moksha is the removal of the ignorance that we have about these truths.    The Self dissolves into Brahman.  The cycle of rebirths is ended.


Or so they say.  I am telling you a secondhand tale, so for you it is thirdhand.   If this is meaningful, it is possible to know it firsthand, and only then is it meaningful.  In every few generations of Hindus,  there are one or two souls whom are believed to have acquired this firsthand knowledge, and who teach it.  (Many more supposedly acquire this knowledge but pass through unnoticed.)

No Hindu is obliged to believe any of this.  We are told though, that eventually each of us will tire of the cycle of births and then our thoughts will turn towards the attainment of moksha.  The pursuit of moksha as a sannyasi (renunciate) takes one outside India's infamous "caste system".

In the Upanishad, Yajnavalkya is teaching us what he found about Atman and Brahman, that is why he equates the two.


Hindus conceptualize the trinity of Brahma (different from the Brahman above), Vishnu, Shiva as having the functions of creation, sustenance and destruction of the universe.  (Perhaps this story will help.  The infinite Vishnus, Shivas and Brahmas in the infinite number of bubble universes over infinite time are all simply Brahman. )  For whatever reason, while there are lot of temples to various manifestations of Vishnu and Shiva, there are barely a handful to Brahma.   The story is that since Creation is already done, and since Hindus are a pragmatic race, they don't waste much time on him.

Harari might possibly mean this Brahma.  But enough time wasted on Harari.

PS: You can see the translation of Rg Veda X.97.11 here, and the word Atman has been translated as spirit.  I'm not sure whoever wrote the Wiki knows what they are talking about.
11 When, bringing back the vanished strength, I hold these herbs within my hand,
The spirit of disease departs ere he can seize upon the life.
PPS: Yaska in Wiki.   I looked him up because I am not aware of any surviving commentary on the Rg Veda by Yaska.  I'm only familiar with his Nirukta, which is a work of etymology of words of Vedic Sanskrit.   Looking at the citation in the article on Atman, that is given for the claim about Yaska, I believe it is a glossary or dictionary of philosophical terms.
Baumer, Bettina and Vatsyayan, Kapila. Kalatattvakosa Vol. 1: Pervasive Terms Vyapti (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts). Motilal Banarsidass; Revised edition (March 1, 2001). P. 42.
PPPS: You can see the relevant piece of Yaska on page 49 here:

When scientists feud

Nicholas Kristof in today's New York Times:

This summer 18 scientists wrote a scathing letter railing against European Union regulations of endocrine disruptors. That underscored the genuine scientific uncertainty about risks — until Environmental Health News showed that 17 of the 18 have conflicts of interest, such as receiving money from the chemical industry. Meanwhile, more than 140 other scientists followed up with their own open letters denouncing the original 18 and warning that endocrine disruptors do indeed constitute a risk......

When scientists feud, it’s hard for the rest of us to know what to do. But I’m struck that many experts in endocrinology, toxicology or pediatrics aren’t waiting for regulatory changes. They don’t heat food in plastic containers, they reduce their use of plastic water bottles, and they try to give their kids organic food to reduce exposure to pesticides.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Balu on introspection.
Not necessarily easy to get the point.

Class notes on Darwin's theory of sexual selection

See here.  Some class notes on the theory of sexual selection:
Darwin suggested that the elaborate tails of male peacocks exist because females preferred to mate with males that had longer, brighter, or more beautiful tail If this is true, then the mating advantage of males with longer tails will compensate for the corresponding amount of reduced male survival.
This is, in my opinion, a very poor statement of what the theory must be.   How did females get to prefer to mate with a certain class of males?   That female preference is also subject to variation,  natural selection and evolution.

As a thought experiment, suppose there are genes that determine a male behavior of  tending to kill or not kill its own offspring.   Suppose some females somehow have a preference to mate with the males with the kill genes relative to the males without the kill genes.  It is plausible that this male-female sub-population would go quickly extinct.

The theory has to be asserting that the sub-population A of  {females that prefer to mate with males with longer, brighter tails, and males with such tails} outcompeted the sub-population B of {females that prefer to mate with males with small tails and males with such tails} or else that the two sub-populations diverged into separate species without out-competing each other.  The question would be why, in each case where sexual selection is supposed to apply, of the two species, the less flamboyant species has gone extinct.  

It is nowhere near obvious that sub-population A must outcompete sub-population B.  In fact one would think sub-population B always has the advantage, and only an accident could explain why sub-population A prevailed.  I think one would have to invoke some other mechanism if not happenstance.  For instance, suppose the expression of big tail genes is dominant, and small tail genes are recessive.  Then the supply of males with small tails would be reduced (because any male with mixed genes would display a larger tail) and even if females temporarily had a stronger mating preference for short-tailed males over long-tailed males, the smaller supply of short tailed males would make that a failing choice.  Sub-population A would tend to be naturally larger than sub-population B, and that is why it succeeds from the point of view of evolution.

As far as I have thought it through, female preference alone is never enough to make the theory of sexual selection to work.  But maybe further thought will make it clear.

PS: Darwin's theory as spelled out in Vol 2 of The Descent of Man is stated like the class notes. :(

I am making a public resolution

Unless I state this publicly, I probably will lapse.  Therefore, here goes: I will not engage with the blather on CIP's blog any more, like this recent example from an online course from an Israeli historian, Harari, who is CIP's latest guru:
"Ultimate power belongs to a supremely disinterested entity, called ....the Atman by the Hindus. Nobody makes temples to these ultimate powers because they don't care."
Perhaps the world has an irreducible amount of ignorance cloaked with authority.   We see Krugman battling with it daily in his blog in the area of macroeconomics. In that case we suspect the source to be the paymasters or the ideological commitments of the players.   But perhaps it is just macroeconomics' quota of this irreducible amount of ignorance cloaked with authority.

It is simply a fact of life to be lived with that people don't even know that they don't even know.  It is not an attitude of resignation any more than one is resigned to the tiger having stripes.  And yes, to avoid having to engage in any further arguments, I'll concede upfront despite having no evidence for it, that this fact of life likely has some evolutionary origin and is genetic in nature.


Just FYI, if we used the generally approved mapping of Hindu teachings into Christianity, the above sentence would read:

"Ultimate power belongs to a supremely disinterested entity called the Soul by Hindus.  Nobody makes temples to these ultimate powers because they don't care."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Via Bee (on facebook): "Best essay about creativity I've seen lately".
It was a literature of superstition, in which everything always worked out and the good guys always triumphed and the right inventions always came along in the nick of time.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Who killed Dr. Sinha - 2?


In his opening statement, Middlesex County Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Kubriet dramatically recalled the brutal event. “Tinli tapped Dr. Sinha on the shoulder and said ‘hey man, I got a question to ask you.’”

“That question came in the form of a punch when Dr. Sinha turned around. Tinli delivered a blow, and then another one,” until Sinha fell to the ground, stated Kubriet. “But that wasn’t good enough. As his motionless body lay there, they continued to kick him,” said the prosecutor.

Tinli’s attorney Joe Mazraani sharply rebuked Kubriet’s opening statement, saying: “If you’re going to believe what the state is telling you, we should close up this courtroom, take these two boys outside and just lynch them up.”

But on the witness stand, Contreras – who allegedly sat in his car during the attack and then drove the get-away car with all of the suspects – said he saw Daley, not Tinli, delivering the blows. Though it was dark, Contreras said Daley was visible because of his white shirt. Several minutes later, Daley ran back to the car with the others and told Contreras to quickly drive away from the scene of the crime.

Contreras also recalled Conway as saying “I never punched a dude so hard.” He testified that Johnson knocked the glasses off of one of Sinha’s sons.

But prosecutors showed a video in court in which Contreras told police he believed Tinli threw the first punch. Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Bradley Ferencz initially barred the video from being played in the courtroom, saying it would unfairly prejudice the jury, but finally allowed it.

Gaurang Vaishnav, executive vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, told India-West that the video clearly implicates all five suspects. Vaishnav has watched the trial closely, attending court every day, and drumming up support within the Indian American community to petition the prosecutor’s office for a fair trial.
“Contreras has been lying through his teeth. He’s a state witness, but clearly he was trying to defend his friends,” stated Vaishnav. “Frankly, I’m no longer confident of a fair verdict. It all depends on the jury. The defense only has to plant doubt in one juror’s mind for the case to be hung,” he said.

Who killed Dr. Sinha?

Three years ago, Dr Sinha was killed by youth on a rampage.
Who is responsible?
The New Jersey justice system says the following:

Justice for Dr. Divyendu Sinha. Stop the miscarriage of justice now!

Three years  and four months ago, on the night of June 25, 2010, Dr. Divyendu Sinha, 49, was out for a walk with his wife and two sons near his home in Old Bridge, NJ., when they were attacked by four teenagers for no apparent reason. They beat Dr. Sinha with their fists and feet, knocking him to the ground. His two sons were beaten as well. Dr. Sinha succumbed to his injuries three days later. After beating Dr. Sinha, the four teenagers ran back to the get-away car and fled. They bragged to each other about what they had done and how much they enjoyed it. Julian Daley, 16, Christian Tinli, 18, Christopher Conway, 17, Cash Johnson, 17, along with the driver of the get-away car, Steven Contreras, 17, were charged with murder and other lesser counts.

On May 8th, 2012, in a verdict that devastated many, including the Sinha family, a jury found the driver of the get-away car, Steven Contreras Not Guilty of murder, and could not reach a verdict on the count of reckless manslaughter, for which he could have been re-tried. Subsequently, he pleaded Guilty to the lesser charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, and faces only up to four years in prison, in a plea bargain with the Prosecutor’s Office.

Earlier this year,  two more defendants, Julian Daley and Christopher Conway took a plea deal before they could be tried. Prosecution gave them a lenient deal where Conway will not serve more than eight years and Daley’s exposure is limited to 15 years. Judge can reduce the sentences even further.

Remaining two defendants, Christian Tinli and Cash Johnson went on trial on August 6, 2013 and in  a verdict on September 30, 2013 that has shaken the community to the core, were found not guilty of murder or any serious charges. Out of 10 charges, they were found guilty of only one charge, Simple assault on Dr. Sinha’s sons. This conviction carries a jail term from zero to maximum six months, and in reality they will not be jailed.

Thus in spite of eyewitness account of Mrs. Alka Sinha and her two sons as well as that of those who pleaded guilty, the jury decided that no one killed Dr. Divyendu Sinha; it was as if he disappeared into thin air.

The murder of Dr. Sinha was a heinous crime perpetrated on a good man, a good family man, a good citizen. He graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1982, authored a number of technical papers in computer science. After teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology and at the College of Staten Island, he worked at Siemens, an international electronics and engineering company. His students, business associates, friends and family, have nothing but kind words to describe him, and are devastated by his murder.

We are protesting this gross miscarriage of justice and asking the presiding judge by this petition to not accept the guilty plea of the three defendants and award them a prison sentence appropriate for the murder and not let Tinli and Johnson walk away free.

Please sign this petition and share it widely through social media and emails from wherever you are in this world. We have to close the petition on Wednesday,  October 15th since the sentencing is set for Friday, October 18th so we ask your urgent attention.

If you live in New Jersey, We also request you to attend the sentencing on October 18th to show community support to Mrs. Alka Sinha and her sons, Ashish and Ravi.

Thank you!

Edison, NJ, USA

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Two of the best takedowns of Niall Ferguson

Two of the best takedowns ever of Niall Ferguson happen to be by people of Indian origin. I wonder if that is merely coincidence.

June 30, 2013, Ashok Rao on The Great Degeneration:
Never, however, have I read a book – no less from an endowed chair at Harvard – that is so blatant in its fraudulent claim, only vindicated by a lawyerly interpretation of grammar: something, as any reader of the book knows, Ferguson does not like.
 November 3, 2011, Pankaj Mishra on "Civilization: The West and the Rest" (from which I excerpt this, which is relevant to my previous post
Hysteria about ‘white civilisation’ gripped America after Europe’s self-mutilation in the First World War had encouraged political assertiveness among subjugated peoples from Egypt to China.
He sounds like the Europeans described by V.S. Naipaul – the grandson of indentured labourers – in A Bend in the River, who ‘wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else’, but also ‘wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves’.
 PS: It doesn't mean that others don't know how to take down this gasbag:

Niall Ferguson: More Mistaken Musings from the Land of the Excel Spreadsheet Error
So there you have it: Ferguson has no serious measure of either the cost or the extent of regulation. And he gets the story on growth completely backward. This is the sort of wisdom on economic policy that we are coming to expect from Harvard University and the Wall Street Journal opinion page.
A Full Fact-Check of Niall Ferguson's Very Bad Argument Against Obama
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to disapprove of the president. Here's the big one: 8.3 percent. That's the current unemployment rate, fully three years on from the official end of the Great Recession. But rather than make this straightforward case against the current administration, Ferguson delves into a fantasy world of incorrect and tendentious facts. He simply gets things wrong, again and again and again.
“There’s wrong, there’s very wrong and then there’s Niall Ferguson.”
But Ferguson — a man for whom the term “hackademic” would surely have been invented, had it not already existed — is part of a long right-wing hack tradition.

Broken promises - a parallel

Indians lent their support enthusiastically in World War I to Great Britain, thinking that it would help them become equal partners in the British Empire.  A brief take on this can be found here.  Even the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi said "I would make India offer all her able-bodied sons as a sacrifice to the Empire at this critical moment, and I know that India, by this very act, would become the most favored partner in the Empire, and racial distinctions would become a thing of the past." [1]  800,000 Indians saw combat, 1.5 million volunteered. But, as the aforementioned link will tell you:
The British government’s post-war attitude quickly alienated Ghandi and was a great stimulus for his independence movement.

And in 1919, there was the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre.

Meanwhile, in the US of A, events were proceeding in parallel. C. Vann Woodward [2] tells us what happened following World War I.

The war aroused in the Negroes a new hope for restoration of their rights and a new militancy in demanding first-class citizenship. More than 360,000 of them entered military service and a large part of those saw overseas duty in uniform. More joined the exodus of migration to the North in quest of high wages in the war industries. Temporary prosperity gave them new hopes and desires that needed fulfillment, and official propaganda picturing American participation in the war as a crusade for democracy raised the natural demand for a little more democracy at home.

The war-bred hopes of the Negro for first-class citizenship were quickly smashed in a reaction of violence that was probably unprecedented. Some twenty-five race riots were touched off in American cities during the last six months of 1919, months that John Hope Franklin called 'the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed." Mobs took over cities for days at a time, flogging, burning, shooting and torturing at will. When the Negroes showed a new disposition to fight and defend themselves, violence increased. Some of these atrocities occurred in the South—at Longview, Texas, for example, or at Tulsa, Oklahoma, at Elaine, Arkansas, or Knoxville, Tennessee. But they were limited to no one section of the country. Many of them occurred in the North and the worst of all in Chicago. During the first year following the war more than seventy Negroes were lynched, several of them veterans still in uniform.

The Empires made promises they had no intention of keeping.

[1] Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, pg 327.
[2] C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, third edition, pg 114-115.

PS, remembering the 1919 race riots in Washington, DC, the Washington Post has this (emphasis added)

Racial resentment was particularly intense among Washington's several thousand returning black war veterans. They had proudly served their country in such units as the District's 1st Separate Battalion, part of the segregated Army force that fought in France. These men had been forced to fight for the right to serve in combat because the Army at first refused to draft blacks for any role other than laborer. They returned home hopeful that their military service would earn them fair treatment.

Instead, they saw race relations worsening in an administration dominated by conservative Southern whites brought here by Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian. Wilson's promise of a "New Freedom" had won him more black voters than any Democrat before him, but they were cruelly disappointed: Previously integrated departments such as the Post Office and the Treasury had now set up "Jim Crow corners" with separate washrooms and lunchrooms for "colored only." Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan was being revived in Maryland and Virginia, as racial hatred burst forth with the resurgence of lynching of black men and women around the country – 28 public lynchings in the first six months of 1919 alone, including seven black veterans killed while still wearing their Army uniforms.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Science is not a just-so tale

In the New York Times, Piet van den Berg and Tim W. Fawcett tell us that it is a near universal phenomenon in human cultures that human parents try to influence their children's choice of mates, and since it is universal there might be an explanation from evolution for this behavior.  So they computer-modeled this.  Simplified, evolutionary success - having more successful offspring -  means parents invest in their daughters' children, and this leads daughters to be less picky about choosing men who will help them raise children and further this results in parents' trying to pick more responsible son-in-laws.

The first problem with this is that cultural evolution would produce exactly the same results - that is, this behavior need not be encoded in our genes, but in our cultures.

But there is a bigger problem.  The authors tell us:

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Political Parties

David Frum (of all people!)

The sixth habit: (emphasis added) -

Habit 6: Politics as war.
The business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge said. American politics has been businesslike too. Americans understand that the business of the nation is ultimately settled by a roomful of tired people negotiating their differences in the small hours of the morning: everybody gets something, nobody gets everything. It’s a grubby business, unavoidably, and most of the time, Americans understand that. They build statues to Martin Luther King. They elect Lyndon Johnson.
From time to time in American politics, differences arise that are too wide to negotiate. Slavery versus no slavery. Prohibition versus drink. Pro-life versus pro-choice. Professional politicians usually keep their distance from absolutist movements. As George Washington Plunkitt observed, “The politicians have got to stand together this way or there wouldn’t be any political parties in a short time.” That line was meant as a joke, but it contains truth. Professional politicians are disagreement managers. Since 2009, however, the GOP has given unprecedented scope to those who for their own ideological, financial, or psychological reasons refuse to allow disagreements to be managed—and instead relentlessly push toward the kind of ultimate crises the country so nearly escaped in 2011 and teeters again on the verge of today.
We get the Civil War (USA), the Partition of India, etc., when the disagreement managers fail.  The disagreement managers fail when one side refuses to allow disagreements to be managed.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Advances on the Solar Energy Front

David Eves, CEO of the Public Service Company of Colorado, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy Inc., is quoted as follows:

He also said this round of bidding is the first time the utility has seen solar projects that are cost-competitive with natural gas-generated power.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen, purely on a price basis, that the solar projects made the cut — without considering carbon costs or the need to comply with a renewable energy standard — strictly on an economic basis,” Eves said.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Cardinal Flower

From a month ago, Lobelia Cardinalis


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The Republican strategy is not new

Prof. DeLong writes of his experience in 1993 within the Clinton Administration:
The gossip in the Treasury Department then was that Republican Senate Leader Bob Dole (R-KS) had explained what was going on to our boss Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen more-or-less like this:
Look: Clinton is not a legitimate president. 57% of the voters voted for a more conservative Texan. Only the fact that Perot really does not like Bush and did not drop out once he had made his policy point got your guy in. Minority presidents don't get to impose their policy priorities on the country. Our task now is not to help govern, but to demonstrate that a minority president like Clinton cannot legitimately govern--and when we demonstrate that Clinton cannot govern, we will get our majorities in 1994 and our majorities and the presidency in 1996 and things will be back to normal.
And come 2009 the Republican Party adopted the same unified position--that their task was to show that Obama was not a legitimate president and could not govern. But why wasn't Obama a legitimate president? There was no Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, or William Rehnquist to put someone with minority support into the Oval Office. Well, they say, Obama is not a legitimate president because--CLANG!!!!
In my opinion, the puzzlement in the last sentence goes away if you repeat after Bob Dole the Republican credo:
Minority presidents don't get to impose their policy priorities on the country.
For those who missed it, this dailykos diary talks about the 1992 elections that brought Clinton to the Presidency as a "minority" President.