Archive for the ‘history and culture’ Category

Hofstadter and the Singularity

Friday, May 16th, 2008

I got a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s “I Am a Strange Loop” (Amazon) for my birthday and spent the next month puzzling over why this inane book ever got written, other than to make a few bucks from aging technohippies with fond memories of Godel, Escher and Bach. It’s basically a random collection of unstructured jottings, boring personal stories, and contentless musings. Try as he might, Hofstadter never manages to convince us of the connection between Godel’s proof and some kind of loop that supposedly lies at the basis of our consciousness. Oddly, there’s almost no reference to any of the actual research in neuroscience or related fields which has started to cast light on the phenomenon of consciousness in recent years.

Hofstadter’s treatment of Zen in the book is emblematic of its problems. In a dialog between “Strange Loop #641”, a believer in the ideas of I Am a Strange Loop (such as they are), and “Strange Loop #642”, a doubter, he has them saying: (more…)

Bob and Sakiko's New House (II)

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

Last weekend we visited the Los Encinos Historic Park with Claire’s husband Robert. This park is all that remains of the grand Rancho Encino, owned starting in 1889 by Domingo Amestoy (picture), father of John B. Amestoy, the first owner of our new house.


Cheryl Chase and intersex article in NYT

Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

The NYT magazine has an extended article on Cheryl Chase, my friend and former business partner, and the incredibly important work she is doing on medical, cultural, and societal aspects of intersex, or ambiguous genitalia.

See also the website for the Intersex Society of North America.

Visiting a third-world country

Saturday, January 28th, 2006

It can be a shock leaving a first-world country and going to a third-world one.

We are to travel on our destination country’s bankrupt national airline. We leave the plush lobby in the gleaming steel and glass airport we’re departing from to board a decrepit 30-year-old plane. The inside of the plane is a harbinger of what’s to come: depressing, dirty, and dark. The aircraft rumbles shakily down the runway, barely making it into the air and nearly shaking itself apart in the process. After nine hours in the air and two skipped meals—one hardly wants to look at, much less eat, the substances that culture calls food—our plane swoops down into the teeming, steaming metropolis that is our destination.

How sad it must be to live in a country like this. We can’t even leave the plane when it lands because the immigration people haven’t showed up for work yet. Once we do disembark, the airport seems to date back to the 70s, if not the 50s. Grime is caked on the walls and floors. Ceiling panels dangle. Paint is peeling. Sullen, bored immigration officials stamp our passports without making eye contact, after we have waited far too long in unreasonably long lines. Even then, our baggage still has not made it from the belly of the plane to the claim area—doing that in less than half an hour is apparently beyond the capabilities of this country and its lethargic denizens. Finally, the luggage does start to flow onto a cramped carousel, piling up everywhere, until obese locals materialize, grabbing the bags and tossing them onto an empty spot or dumping them unceremoniously on the floor.

We finally manage to escape the airport and wander out into the dank, muggy air of our destination country’s second largest urban conglomeration. At the taxi stand, natives are lounging on and around their filthy, broken-down vehicles, and we grab the nearest one. No more than a block from the airport we encounter the first of the ubiquitous street dwellers and beggars, looking so rancid one can almost smell them from within the taxi.

How did this country find itself in such dire straits, blessed as it is with bounteous natural resources and a hard-working populace? One major problem: the country’s autocratic leaders spend an inordinate proportion of the country’s wealth on their military, perhaps because they’re scared, perhaps because they want to push around other countries, or perhaps because it’s a good way to funnel money to their friends (and back to themselves). The country can drop one of the precision bombs it bought on an enemy—but it can’t get the homeless off its streets. They build up the military, which tempts them to use it, thus “justifying” yet further build-up.

What wealth wasn’t taken by the country’s military establishment was plundered by the rich and corrupt who have taken over its government, democratic in name only. Big companies—whether in the area of natural resources, manufacturing, or drugs, simply buy the legislation they want and the business they desire. The ultra-rich, living in their mansions in gated communities, pay virtually no taxes, due to bizarrely skewed tax laws.

The entire country is on the verge of a horrific health crisis. Hospitals are underfunded and understaffed; many are closing. People can’t use the hospitals that do exist since they have no way to pay for the services—neither the government nor sometimes even their company, should they happen to be lucky enough to be employed, offers medical insurance. Infant mortality, of course, is sky-high—higher even than in Cuba!

The younger generation—the hope for the future—is stuck in a massively dysfunctional educational system, most of them not even graduating from high school, even the ones that do unable to read and write their own language.

What country is this? What has happened to my country?

Supremes OK getting high at church

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

In the case of the Brazilian religious group wanting to import its hallucinogenic tea (prevous post on the topic), our nation’s top legal weenies have given the green light to tripping your brains out (opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts), as long as it’s sacramental and circumscribed . I doubt if the likes of Scalia or Thomas are really into the whole cleansing the doors of perception stuff, but hey, Congress has said people have the right to practice their religions (Religious Freedom Restoration Act), and that includes Indians using peyote.

Not an Indian? Not to worry. Courts have ruled that even white people can “join”.

The Dalai Lama has also come out in favor of bioenlightenment, even volunteering to go first if scientists come up with a happiness module they can implant in your brain. But most Buddhist teachers would emphasis the precept against taking things that lead to intoxication or heedlessness. To me, though, it seems that the “heedlessness” part indicates the whole precept is focused on alcohol.

It probably couldn’t have been a proscription against hallucinogenic plants, because, for whatever reasons of botanical fate, Asia, where Buddhism developed, has very few such plants. One exception is the powerful datura (Wikipedia) plant from the nightshade family, which has narcotic qualities and is known in India as “dutra” or “dhatura”. Some ancient Chinese writings are believed to refer to this drug, which apparently was held sacred in that country, where people believed that when Buddha preached, heaven sprinkled the plant with dew.

In addition, some theorize this may be the plant which when burned produced the intoxicating vapors of the Oracle of Delphi.

Actually, the latest theory about the Oracle of Delphi, set out by William J. Broad in his recent book “The Oracle: The Lost Secrets and Hidden Mesage of Ancient Delphi” (Amazon ), is that unique geological structures under the shrine produced a mist of potent, trance-inducing gases.

In an article in the NYT science section on 2006-02-28, entitled “The Oracle Suggests a Truce Between Science and Relgion’, Broad claims that the approach of scientists involved in the discovery represented an important paradigm for the coexistence of science and religion:

[The scientists] claimed no insights into how her utterances stood for ages as monuments of wisdom. They had no explanation for how the priestess inspired Socrates, or the seeming reliability of her visionary pronouncements. In short, the scientists, while solving a major riddle of antiquity, wisely left other mysteries untouched.

This seems very confused. The scientists did not “leave other mysteries untouched” out of some muddled belief in overlapping magisteria, but because they were archaeologists and geologists trying to find the famous chasm under the shrine. If they had been neurobiologists then they should and would have studied the physiological and behavioral effects of inhaling limestone fumes.

The Predator Delusion

Sunday, January 1st, 2006

A day when a French writer has been threatened with death for writing that Islam harbors violent tendencies seems appropriate for considering the role played in the propagation of destructive and divisive religous beliefs by the indoctrination of unwilling children.

This is a point that Richard Dawkins makes at great length in his new book The God Delusion, which I’ll have more to say about later from the neurotheological perspective. What interests me here is the connection Dawkins makes between the religious abuse (my term) of children and sexual abuse. His point is that, of the two, religious abuse—scaring children with stories of hell, to name just one example—does more profound damage than sexual abuse. He goes so far as to call the current preoccupation with child sex abuse “hysterical” and to compare it with the Salem witch trials.

Hear hear. As I write this, NBC is running a series on its Dateline “news program” called To Catch a Predator, where an on-line decoy posing as a 14-year-old girl, perhaps, entraps foolish men by offering sex if they come to her house where she will be alone. The level of the scam rises to the decoy reminding the victim to bring condoms and liquor. When the clueless prey actually show up at the house, they are met by a reporter who reads back to them their crude chat room dialog and asks them if they really intended to have sex with a 14-year-old. On leaving the house, the men are thrown to the ground by waiting local police and hauled dramatically off to the police station. This scenario is repeated, with very little variation other than the age and profession of the target of the sting, a dozen times in one program. At the end of the program, experts solemnly aver what a grave danger has been averted by capturing these vicious predators before they could harm innocent children.

Try again, NBC. Given what losers these guys are, the chances they would have ever actually done anything without being actively set up are nil. If they have enough money to get a good lawyer, which they probably don’t exactly because they are such losers, they should be free in a heartbeat. Can you really be convicted of corrupting the morals of a minor when the minor is not a minor or doesn’t exist at all? All this program does is show how stupid the network, the audience, and the entrapped men all are. (See a critique from the journalistic perspective.)

Right here in California a proposal to crack down hard on these disgusting perverts, the so-called Jessica’s Law, Proposition 83, will be on the ballot in November. Reportedly over 80% of the voting public are in favor of this. It’s being compared to the Three Strikes Law—a great success which allowed prosecutors to put a man in jail for 50 years for stealing some videotapes (the Supreme Court said that was not cruel and unusual punishment).

The proposal is massive draconian overkill. It makes a mockery of due process by allowing people to be kept incarcerated—not in a jail, of course, but a “hospital”—after they complete their sentence, simply on based on the opinion of a psychiatrist, with no appeal process. It brings many more offenses, including misdemeanors, or boys having sex with their girlfriends, into the metastatizing sexual predator frenzy. It will be expensive, not least due to the requirement for all sex offenders to wear ankle bracelets for the rest of their lives. It will crowd the jails with minor offenders. The residential restrictions will drive the offenders away from populated areas with police and counseling facilities. The entire premise—that sex offenders lurk in bushes then jump out to rape and kill our children—is false.

To its credit, the Sacramento Bee came down against this ineffective initiative:

Sex offenders who prey on children are every parent’s nightmare, and understandably so. Unfortunately, the fear they evoke makes them the bogeyman of choice for pandering politicians. What better targets for candidates in search of an easy issue to demagogue? Proposition 83 is a case in point. Despite Proposition 83’s title—the Sex Offenders, Sexually Violent Predators, Punishment, Residence Restrictions and Monitoring Initiative Statute—it would do nothing to protect children.

There is certainly a class of crimes that are despicable and reprehensible and need to be treated with the same severity as any other serious crime. However, a hallmark of the “debate” about juvenile sexual predation is to fail to make any distinction between such crimes and much less serious ones, or ones which should arguably not be crimes at all. It is no accident that this is the same society where a school teacher in Texas is fired for taking her class on a field trip to a museum which happens to include ancient statues with bare breasts or even dangling penises.

If sexual offenders are such evil incarnate, of such a uniquely perverse nature that they should be treated in a way completely different from regular criminals, let’s adopt unique approaches like not letting them of prison even after they’ve finished their time—just keep them locked up forever. Ooops—we’re already doing that in many places, and that’s one of the things Jessica’s laws wants to do. Well then, how about punishing them even before they offend, in a Minority Report sort of way? That’s already being done too, under an Ohio rule that allows judge to categorize people as sexual offenders, put them on the register, and subject them to all the relevant restrictions, even if there is merely a suspicion that they might have done something bad. The next step, which I’m sure somebody will propose soon enough, is to give the entire population MRIs to see if they’re interested in kids and throw them in jail right then and there.

If addition to the disproprortionality of the punishment to the crime in individual states, another problem is the gross inequity in sentencing levels from state to state. The exact same crime committed in one state could result in a sentence ten or more times longer than if committed in another. This hardly seems like the equal treatment under the law promised by the Consitution.

That we think of pedophiles in a frenzied horror, as opposed to say, murderers, who commit crimes every bit as heinous, is a reflection of our natural need for symbols of pure evil in our lives.

Is sumo rigged?

Monday, May 30th, 2005

Freakonomics is a current best-seller looking at real-world applications of economics. Steven Levitt, the author, says sumo is rigged.

That’s horrible! What’s his evidence? Well, wrestlers who have a 7-7 record on senshuraku, the last day of the bimonthly fifteen-day tournaments, and therefore face demotion if they lose, win 80% of their matches against opponents who have already notched their eighth victory and are safe from demotion, even though statistically they would be expected to win only 50%.

Further, in the next match between the same two wrestlers, the win-loss percentage is precisely reversed! In other words, the wrestler in the first match who is allowed to win then “repays” his opponent in the second match by letting him win.

Statistically, I’m sure the win-loss patterns the author discovered are not attributable purely to differences in skill. But that is not enough to condemn sumo as being “fixed”.

First, by definition, a game being fixed or rigged requires some quid pro quo. The authors of Freakonomics speculate about the possibility of bribes or payoffs, but of course have no way to validate that. Personally, I doubt that money is changing hands. The entire “transaction”, or “agreement”, to lose now and get paid back later, is probably non-verbal. It’s possible that it is not even entirely conscious.

But whether non-verbal or non-conscious, such behavior still offends our Western notion of fairness. We say: the wrestlers are “cheating.”

But in a way this behavior is entirely fair: anyone who enters the last day at 7-7 can expect to be given the same favorable treatment by any opponent who is 8-6. And the effect on rankings is smaller than you might think. It certainly does not rise to the level of a structural effect, like someone throwing a World Series game. The authors make the point that big money is at stake—yokozuna can make a million dollars a year, and being demoted out of juryo cuts off your salary altogether if I recall—but in fact any biasing of the results caused by shading 7-7 matches does not cause major swings in salary-related outcome values either.

Rather, the result is simply to put a bit of a damper on the ups and downs of the game—to decrease the standard deviation, if you will. Wrestlers the fans know and love may stay around a bit longer before getting demoted or retiring to open a chanko nabe restaurant.

Instead of making the pedestrian observation that money can lead people to cheat, a phenomenon hardly worthy of their attention, it would have been great if the authors could have brought some real insight to the sumo question, namely what the value function is that is maximized by the behavior in question—in this case, the Japanese values of stability, prestige, and solidarity.

Of two minds, or, neuroscience enters popular culture

Friday, May 20th, 2005

Neuroscience is rapidly permeating popular culture. Proof in point: Jim Holt’s recent New York Times Magazine article, Of Two Minds. But Holt sadly fails to meet the special responsibility of writers targeting the mainstream, not to promote oversimplified neuromemes that threaten to invade popular consciousness. He starts off apparently worrying about privacy:

The human brain is mysterious—and, in a way, that is a good thing. The less that is known about how the brain works, the more secure the zone of privacy that surrounds the self. But that zone seems to be shrinking.

As proven by the neuropop “factoid” that scientists can now read your mind. Leapfrogging:

How will our image of ourselves change as the wrinkled lump of gray meat in our skull becomes increasingly transparent to such exploratory methods?

Second factoid: meditators can modify their brain structures . As if no-one had ever heard of neuroplasticity before. Wait, though:

…there could be revelations in store that will force us to revise our self-understanding in far more radical ways.

Sounds frightening. Third factoid: research showing that severing the corpus callosum (which is white, not gray) gives rise to weird stuff happening (he fails to tell us that this research was first done nearly a half-century ago). He goes on:

Pondering such split-brain cases, some scientists and philosophers have raised a disquieting possibility: perhaps each of us really consists of two minds running in harness.

Oh no! He proceeds to quote Thomas Nagel:

The ordinary, simple idea of a single person will come to seem quaint some day, when the complexities of the human control system become clearer and we become less certain that there is anything very important that we are one of.

Thomas Nagel (home page) is an eminent philosopher at NYU. But certainly Holt needed to put this quote in the context that Nagel is a leading anti-reductionist, famous for his insistence that consciousness cannot be reduced to brain activity. It seems unlikely that Nagel meant that scientific insights about the functioning of the hemispheres will give rise to a new understanding of what a “person” is.

Holt concludes:

The more that breakthroughs like the recent one in brain-scanning open up the mind to scientific scrutiny, the more we may be pressed to give up comforting metaphysical ideas like interiority, subjectivity and the soul. Let’s enjoy them while we can.

Brain scanners will eliminate the concept of subjectivity? (Hint: who is looking at the brain scans?) Interiority is a “metaphysical idea”? Neuroscience will eliminate the idea of the “soul”, which is “comforting”?

We can only hope that those responsible for interpreting and presenting the insights of neuropsychology to our culture at large will do much better than this in the future.

Go, Richland High School Bombers!

Monday, May 9th, 2005

It’s just a matter of time before the brisk sales of Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory, my childhood memoir, force it into a second print run. So I’m collecting new bits of information for the second edition.

One factoid I definitely want to add is the name of the Richland High School sports teams. That’s right: they’re the Bombers, a name adopted just weeks after the proud little atomic city’s plutonium devastated Nagasaki. And the school logo (see above) is a cute mushroom cloud, imposed on the “R” for Richland. One thing is sure: this is a town confident in its identity. RHS alumni congregate at (where you can get your memorabilia emblazoned with the “Proud of the Cloud” motto—mugs or mousepads anyone?), and then there’s The school mascot is a green and gold bomb, an airplane affixed to its top, carted onto the field by cheerleaders bearing the cloud image on their bosoms.

Various attempts have been made to change the name, but all were voted down. A Japanese delegation visited the school to request a change, but the principal dismissed them, saying “We didn’t start that war.” But in case Richland High ever gives in to the political correctness wave and needs a new name for its teams, could I suggest “Homeless Indians”? How about “Crispy Japs”? Or “Thyroid Cancers”?

Egawa Tarozaemon, the Father of Japanese Bread

Sunday, May 8th, 2005

Bread is central to our Western civilization, so much so that it’s a common metaphor for spiritual nutrition. The starving Israelites wandering in the desert survived on manna from heaven. Jesus multiplied the loaves to feed the multitudes.

So it’s rather surprising to learn that bread was not first baked in Japan until 1842. Egawa Tarozaemon, a 19th century Japanese Renaissance man, was the man responsible, and is thus known as “Panso”: the Father of Bread. He felt bread would be the ideal food for the “farmer militia” he came up with the idea of training in readiness for attacks from foreign ships, although the bakufu never adopted his plan.

Egawa not only introduced bread into Japan, but was also responsible for bringing in landfill technology for creating harbor islands. He did the initial work that led to the development of Odaiba , a huge man-made island in the middle of Tokyo Bay, now packed with leisure and business facilities. He also built some of the earliest cannons in Japan, which required construction of a pig-iron furnace, still a landmark in the area. He dabbled in painting too: the drawing to the left is his self-portrait.

Egawa was a hereditary local governor in Nirayama (map), a part of modern-day Shizuoka Prefecture. His ancestral house, which still stands, is well worth a visit. Nearby, you can purchase modern-day versions of the bread he made 150 years ago; it’s dry, almost cracker-like.

Additional information in Japanese (Wikipedia ) and English.