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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 6 July 2013

Don't Let It Happen Again

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.
- Elie Wiesel
The picture above if of my grandfather, Buchenwald survivor Ed Carter-Edwards and my eldest son.  They are laying a rose on a plaque at the site of the former Nazi Concentration Camp; the plaque lists the dozens of countries who lost citizens in Buchenwald.  These nations include places like the ANZAC countries and Canada that were nowhere near the line of fire in WWII.
It just goes to show - when we allow hatred to flourish, no one is safe.
My grandfather ended up in Buchenwald because he went to fight for his country against a cause he knew to be wrong; there was no way he could have predicted the path signing up set him on and the impact that journey would have on his entire family.
When my grandpa first returned to Canada after the war, he was told by his own commanders not to speak about his experiences.  The fear these well-meaning folk had was that my grandpa's PTSD would serve as a detriment to him finding and keeping work - best to sweep the whole thing under the carpet and go on as if nothing ever happened.
Back then, the culture was to keep your head down and carry on.  That's exactly what happened at Buchenwald; as Allied nations went about returning order within their borders, Buchenwald became Soviet Special Camp II and the atrocities continued. 
There's a lesson in this; we can never, never afford to turn our back on hatred and discrimination; like a weed or a cancer, it has to be stamped down from the outset.  When we ignore the resurgence of violent racism, we doom ourselves to repeat history.
I don't want my son to have to endure the horrors his great-grandfather did.  No thought pains me more than that of my boy signing up to fight another war against hatred made policy in Europe, possibly facing the exact same risks his grandfather did.  But if could very well happen if we don't step up, speak out and take a stand against intolerance.
Which is why I am asking for your support.
Third Generation Buchenwald is a grassroots organization of children, grandchildren and friends of Buchenwald Survivors spread out around the world that is working very hard, year after year to raise awareness of exactly what happened in Buchenwald and to speak against the hatred of politics wherever it occurs.  There's no large organization or sponsorship dollars behind us; we're just a group of people who refuse to be indifferent to the horrors of the past.
To do this work effectively, we need your help.  We need you to pay attention and, if you're willing, to help us bring all these passionate people from around the world together under one roof to plan the way forward, including an exhibition that can bring this story around the world.
You can help us by donating here.
To learn more about Third Generation Buchenwald, watch this short video.
Whatever your resources, whatever your comfort level, please help.  Hatred is on the rise out there; we can do something about it, but only if we act now.
Don't be indifferent.  Don't condemn our children to endure the same fight our grandparents did. 

"We, the survivors, are not going to live forever.
You, the young, are not only the preservers of our legacy, you also embody our hope for a peaceful world – the kind of world we have always hoped for."
Bertrand Herz, President of the International Committee Buchenwald Dora and Kommandos, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation, April 2005

What Stephen Harper can learn from Colin Powell

In 2005, Stephen Harper either didn't know what was happening within the highest ranks of his own Party or felt comfortable fibbing about what he did know.
Eight years later, the same thing's happening.  Deals are being made within the upper echelons of Harper's staff - deals that are questionable in their legality - and Harper either has no ideas what's happening within his own house or is lying to us.
All this reminds me of a Colin Powell quote on leadership:
Maybe this is all part of Machiavellian Harper's plan to get the public to distrust and demand less government, who knows.  What is clear is that leadership is fundamentally not what Harper cares about.

Friday 5 July 2013

Waiting For the Light

Marketing gurus have learned that closing the wedge by providing countdowns "only 10 days left to get Product X!" stimulates people, makes them feel the risk of not getting a thing outweighs the risk of not having it - making countdown sales an effective tool to instigate reactive behaviour.
GOTV works the same way - when you're trying to get identified votes out, you apply pressure and time constraint as a tool to motivate action, not inaction.  It works; that's why we do it.
Yet when it comes to timers, we're blaming people for rushing when they see a countdown clock?  We're telling people that it's their choices, not polling methodology, that's flawed?    Bikes on road designed for cars are simply not supposed to be part of the system, so get 'em out of there?  Telling people from marginalized communities they just need to get jobs, telling employers they just need to hire, telling the average bear voting is important and wondering why they don't - given the bigger picture, is it really that mysterious?
We aren't designing tools or systems for people, we're trying to train people to be functionaries.  You can do that under some circumstances - widget building, military training - but it doesn't work in general.  In fact, when you try to design counter-intuitive social structures, it's those best able to subvert that structure who succeed (or is that just spin) while those less-able fall behind, resulting in an imbalanced, tragedy of the commons scenario.
If we want to address the systematic social issues that are weighing down our system, we have to think differently about these problems.  It's the systems themselves that need to be more organic, more fluid, more grounded in the principles of design thinking.
The trick to making practical infrastructure isn't to aggressively force everyone to think your way - instead, commit a little sociology, expand your horizons, learn to build structures that bridge usage gaps and create something that works for everyone.
Sound field systems in classrooms, for instance.
Instead of a countdown, just flash the words DON'T START CROSSING or if you can think how to infographic that concept, even better.
The solutions to structural problems won't be found in one box, but across many. 
For some, that concept is an absolute revelation.

The Science of Consciousness for a Conscious Society?

A topic I think about, from time to time - the nature of consciousness, how conscious we really are, and the social matrix; if our organs aren't conscious that they're part of a body, what consciousness could be part of?

This cognitive consideration is catching; if you don't want to be left behind, it's time to start living consciously.

Can science explain consciousness?

Dualism, Descartes
In a book published last fall1, Thomas Nagel defends the idea that science cannot explain consciousness – that the mind is a natural phenomenon which cannot be reduced to physical states of the brain. He also argues that evolutionary theory, or its current materialist version, is not sufficient to explain the appearance of the mind. My attention got drawn to the book by Kristina Musholt’s review in Science2.

Although worth reading to see the state of the reflection in that branch of philosophy of mind, the book turns out to provide a very poor argument for its two central claims. Nagel starts by opposing two ideological stances that he labels inappropriately, in my view. On the one hand, there are “materialists” or “reductionists” in which he seems to include anyone who thinks that the laws of physics and the facts of biology can explain behaviors and the mind. On the other hand, he refers to those who oppose that view as “antireductionists”. There is nothing particularly reductionist in thinking that consciousness could be explained by the networks of neurons in our brain. To the contrary, I find that acknowledging the incredible complexity of those networks and to think that they could underlie our feelings and states may be the most antireductionist claim in the philosophy of mind. What appears as reductionism to me is the trap in which Nagel falls by taking every elements of consciousness that we can’t explain yet (and I’ll address some of those later) and stating that they simply belong to a non-material mind that is not understandable using the tools of science. Reducing the spectacular aspects of the mind to another reality that is not understandable, not physical and not observable other than by our own introspection and intuition does not solve any of the issues, it makes them worse. It is, however, precisely that magic trick which has been used by dualists for years and which is performed here in a new form, perhaps more in line with monism, but still invoking the existence of something that is “more than physical”.
Nagel then asks for an evolutionary explanation of why we are conscious. He does seem to recognize that evolution could, in theory, lead to the appearance of consciousness. He writes:
Selection for physical reproductive fitness may have resulted in the appearance of organisms that are in fact conscious, and that have the observable variety of different specific kinds of consciousness [...]
But then adds:
[...] but there is no physical explanation of why this is so-nor any other kind of explanation that we know of.
[...] To make facts of this kind intelligible, a postmaterialist theory would have to offer a unified explanation of how the physical and the mental characteristics of organisms developed together, and it would have to do so not just by adding a clause to the effect that the mental comes along with the physical as a bonus. [...] Explanation, unlike causation, is not just of an event, but of an event under a description. An explanation must show why it was likely that an event of that type occured.
The problem is that evolutionary theory is not necessarily a complete and deterministic equation. Saying that some feature of an organism has appeared due to biological evolution is one thing, saying that it was certain or highly probable to appear is another thing. The precise shape of our noses, for illustration, is not due to an evolutionary advantage that these specific shapes procure. There is a part of noise in the evolutionary processes that leads to the creation of some features out of pure randomness, and if the organisms that have those features survive they will simply be passed on to the next generation. This does not mean that there is no evolutionary advantage to having a nose – obviously it does play a role in breathing. The same thing goes for the mind – there may not be a specific reason why the mind has the characteristics that it has, but it might just turn out that it appeared with those characteristics and got passed on to the next generations. Now I am making that point simply to highlight the idea that every feature of our biology does not need to be explained as an obligatory and deterministic consequence of all possible evolutionary histories but that some things can be the way they are just because of our evolutionary history. There is something impossible in the kind of predictive power that Nagel demands from evolutionary theory. He would want it to explain why the mind had to evolve. I like to transfer the question to physical features to illustrate its flaws. Think about the fact that a lot of animals on the planet have four legs. Do they have four legs? Yes. Is there an evolutionary advantage to having legs? Yes. Did it have to be four legs? Not necessarily. Yet no scientist, nor Nagel I suppose, would state that quadrupedy is a non-physical feature that evolutionary biology can’t explain. Nevertheless he seems to be making exactly that statement for the mind.
Beside that, the very characteristics of what we call consciousness do not seem completely independent from our biological needs – in fact they seem to be highly in tune with our survival. Ever noticed how pain hurts very badly and how positive feelings make you want to repeat the experience? It does seem that the mind has characteristics that make us better adapted and in that idea might lie the evolutionary explanation that Nagel is looking for. Nagel does recognize that some of those characteristics could have an evolutionary explanation, and I’ll cover that later.
For now, although I disagree that there has to be a reason for the appearance of consciousness, I do think we can play the game of hypotheses and I do think it is likely that there may be multiple reasons indeed. “Why [is] the appearance of conscious organisms, and not merely behaviorally complex organisms, [...] likely?”, Nagel asks. Here are some possibilities.
First, to be efficient and act, our brain needs to represent the world and update its model of reality. It is this internal representation of the world that makes it such that we can close our eyes and still reach to objects. It is also due to this representation that when we hear the voice of someone behind us we can imagine a visual representation of his position, and even his identity if we know him. We have inside of our head a very detailed and complex model of the world and when we generate actions, we sometimes rely solely on that model rather than on inputs from the outside world (like the reaching in the dark example). It is not at all unlikely that part of our perceptual subjective experiences might simply be a good way that biology has found to make us negotiate our actions within that model of the world. By creating feelings of perception when we see things for real and when we imagine them, the brain might simply be using subjective experience as a good common language to link real world inputs and imagined perceptions. There is already a great deal of evidence that the parts of our brain activated when receiving inputs from the world are also activated during mental imagery, which makes this hypothesis at least plausible3,4. This is also the case for motor imagery and we know that brain damage impairs such skills, suggesting that they have a physical and neurobiological basis5.
There is, also, the possibility that subjective experiences could have evolved in response to social context. Perhaps someone really in pain, really happy or really annoyed is more convincing than someone who would simply generate behaviors without actually experiencing the feelings. Robert Trivers pointed out that self-deception might have been favored by evolution to better deceive others6. Can’t the same thing be said of feelings like pain? Is it really unlikely that we might have evolved a feeling of pain so we could send better “stop” signals to others? Is it really unlikely that the inner conviction that we are hungry might be a drive to gather more food or to incite more food sharing from our conspecifics and parents?
None of these possibilities are proven scientific facts but their simple plausibility renders the alternative view proposed by Nagel unnecessary until they get more scientific attention.
I have not yet mentioned, however, what constitutes the biggest problem with Mind and Cosmos. The problem is one that affects many other works on the philosophy of mind: the so-called unique properties of the mind that science is portrayed to have so much difficulty to explain are often poorly defined, and when trying to seek what they really mean, one realizes that they might very well have homologies with brain properties that have already been identified. After removing all those subjective experiences that may have evolutionary significance like pain and happiness which he recognizes might result from our evolutionary history, Nagel claims that other properties of the mind are problematic for materialism, including our ability for reasoning (mathematics for instance), logic and ethics.
Let’s consider abstract reasoning. Our ability to find truths, in short, would be unlikely to be explained by materialist evolutionary theory because the truths that have been identified in modern physics and mathematics are too complex to have been produced by a brain that evolved in prehistoric conditions.
This story depends heavily on the supposition of a biological origin of the capacity for nonperceptual representation through language, resulting in the ability to grasp logically complex abstract structures. In view of the mathematical sophisticiation of modern physical theories, it seems highly unlikely; but perhaps the claim could be defended.
There are many problems with this equation linking the sophistication of the great abstract human creations with an impossibility or unlikeliness that these creations could emerge from a biological brain. First, as argued previously, there doesn’t need to be an evolutionary explanation for everything that the brain does. The fact that it can do many different things might, however, reflect the dynamic environments in which we have evolved. In simple words, maybe evolution has programmed into the brain the ability to do anything or many things, not just hard-code specific behaviors in it. Secondly, the brain of any individual does not have any particular access to “truths”. For every mathematician who develops a single great mathematical equation, there is at least a thousand freaks who believe they made an extraterrestrial encounter or who think apocalypse is due next year. For every trained mathematician who ends up discovering something, there are hundreds of others who end up making errors and not discovering anything. It is through a social process, that of the scientific and academic system, that we identify those who produce the most useful equations and give them a job and the recognition they deserve. But looking back at it, it all seems like there is a part of random in that process and subsequent selection. The brain wasn’t programmed by evolution to seek abstract truths, it was programmed to be curious maybe, and to learn things, most likely. One does not need to invoke the existence of a non-physical aspect to the mind to explain how some people might end up being right and their theories might end up being selected as useful for mankind. For a more detailed view of how good ideas can spread through social networks, the reader might want to consult Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the meanings of life.
There are, on top of it, many reasons why the brain might have evolved some form of logical reasoning, even in prehistoric context. We know that even birds and monkeys are capable of some degree of numerical cognition7,8. We know that the social environment humans always lived in might favor skills such as knowledge attribution to specific individuals and reasoning on fictive scenarios to deal with others9. The dynamic evolution and learning of interacting individuals have been largely discussed and are a subject of current research10. There is in fact no reason to believe that our mental faculties cannot be explained by an evolutionary process – a biological and physical one.
There are other claims about value and intentions being other problematic characteristics, but again most of these questions are already being studied in current brain research. I might cover those claims in more details in a future post.
Finally, another argument that is brought by Nagel is the idea that rationality cannot be divided in small components like a computer separated in miniature transistors. This irreducibility of the mind and of rationality in particular, he argues, constitutes a big problem for the idea that it may be entirely explainable by neuronal networks. But there are other things that are not reducible in biology and that do not seem to require the kind of explanations that Nagel wants to develop for the mind. If you slice a heart in small dices, there is a point at which it is not a heart anymore, it’s just a bunch of cells that have no function because their normal biological structure has been destroyed. Yet I hear no one claiming that the heart is a non-physical entity that is not explainable by the materialistic version of evolutionary theory.

1. Thomas Nagel (2012) Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
2. Musholt K. (2013) A Flawed Challenge Worth Pondering. Science 339:1277.
3. Zvyagintsev M, Clemens B, Chechko N, Mathiak KA, Sack AT, Mathiak K. (2013) Brain networks underlying mental imagery of auditory and visual information. European journal of neuroscience. doi: 10.1111/ejn.12140.
4. Zapparoli L, Invernizzi P, Gandola M, Verardi M, Berlingeri M, Sberna M, De Santis A, Zerbi A, Banfi G, Bottini G, Paulesu E. (2013) Mental images across the adult lifespan: a behavioural and fMRI investigation of motor execution and motor imagery. Experimental Brain Research 224:519-40.
5. Daprati E, Nico D, Duval S, Lacquaniti F. (2010) Different motor imagery modes following brain damage. Cortex 46:1016-30.
6. von Hippel W, Trivers R. (2010) The evolution and psychology of self-deception. Behavioral and Brain Science 34:1-16.
7. Pepperberg IM. (2012) Further evidence for addition and numerical competence by a Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Animal Cognition 15:711-7.
8. Nieder A. (2012) Supramodal numerosity selectivity of neurons in primate prefrontal and posterior parietal cortices. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109:11860-11865.
9. Cosmides L. (1989) The logic of social exchange: has natural selection shaped how humans reason? Studies with the Wason selection task. Cognition 31:187-276.
10. Gintis H. (2009) The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences.

How Does Subjective Confidence Work?

Clearly of no interest to urban planners, marketers or political operatives:

Prefrontal brain areas track subjective confidence.

People act and decide with varying confidence levels. As they explore novel environments, people try options before fully committing to them; testing if that wooden bridge is solid enough, inspecting the tires of a car or trying a limited version of a product before buying it. Tracking and improving the confidence that we have on what surrounds us allows us to explore and exploit features of the environment successfully. Confidence is likely a major determinant of the economical decisions that we make, but the brain mechanisms involved remain poorly understood.

A suspensed wooden bridge. This is one of the situations where people seek to increase their confidence by first trying the bridge with the tip of their foot.Photo from Ivars Indāns released under the Creative Commons license.

Confidence in our actions is of particular interest because it is one of those psychological processes that is directed toward our inside states rather than the outside world. Confidence is introspective – it is how sure we are about our own knowledge of things. This is why it falls within the category of metacognitive processes. The subject is currently of high interest because experimental tricks were found to induce different confidence levels, both in human and non-human animals, and we are starting to be able to address the brain mechanisms involved1,2,3.
A recent study by De Martino and colleagues has looked into the brain areas in humans that might be related to confidence4. They focused on subjects making decisions between two items. They offered food and candies of different values to subjects. There are two phenomenons when people make these choices. First, there are occasions where the candies are pretty equal in terms of subjective value. This makes decisions harder to some degree. Other times, one of the candies is clearly preferred to the other, and subjects can choose with more ease. This is a classical setup that uses decision difficulty between two options. The authors introduced along this setup a measure of subjective confidence – meaning they asked people to do these choices and then evaluate on a scale whether or not they felt confident about their decision. Thus the experiment allows experimenters to tease apart decision difficulty due to the valuation process and subjective confidence that people can experience and report.

The study identified two brain regions that might be related to some aspects of this task. First, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex had signals related to decision difficulty (how close the two options are valuated) and subjective confidence (which people reported using a scale). Another region, the right rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, has been found to be activated along with variations of subjective confidence, but not the difficulty of decisions. This means that the activity of this area tracked what people were feeling and experiencing in terms of confidence, but not necessarily in relation to how close the food items were in terms of value.

The authors of the study suggest that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex might be closely related to the decision or valuation process whereas the right rostrolateral prefrontal cortex might be a second-order area responsible to “read-out” confidence levels. Further work on these areas will allow us to completely test this hypothesis, which for now remains a plausible one.

1. Kiani R, Shadlen MN. (2009) Representation of Confidence Associated with a Decision by Neurons in the Parietal Cortex. Science vol. 324 (5928) pp. 759.
2. Kepecs A, Uchida N, Zariwala HA, Mainen ZF. (2008) Neural correlates, computation and behavioural impact of decision confidence. Nature 455:227-31.
3. Terrace HS, Son LK. (2009) Comparative metacognition. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 19:67-74. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2009.06.004.
4. De Martino B, Fleming SM, Garrett N, Dolan RJ. (2012) Confidence in value-based choice. Nature Neuroscience doi: 10.1038/nn.3279.

Non-Linear Systems to play with your head (Bradley Voytek)

Non-linear systems

Non-linear dynamics are fascinating, if for no other reason than so many statistical models are linear, so testing for non-linearity often requires a more strong hypothetical foundation for understanding.
I’ll discuss these topics in rough order of my personal favorites.

Oscillatory Dynamics
Oscillatory dynamics are the best. The most simple to understand is a pendulum, but you add a second pendulum to the end of the first and suddenly the non-linearities lead to some crazy complexities.

Check it out:

I love this because oscillations play an important role in neural communication, perception, etc. This is the focus of my neuroscience research and is, of course, the name of this blog, This is a figure from a paper of mine currently under review, for example, showing a model wherein neuronal oscillations coordinate communication between brain regions. This is nice because it allows for “cleaner” communication in a noisy environment (think about a radio):

Closely related to oscillatory effects, but can be nice to demonstrate certain emergence effects, in contrast to some of the chaotic effects of other non-linear systems. Check out this simple demonstration of resonance and emergence:

Simulating 10^6 neurons sending signals to one another can also lead to interesting emergent “waves” of activity caused by the non-linearities of the interneuronal communication effects:

Power Laws
Social networks are so hot right now. Social networks follow a power law (aka the six degrees of Kevin Bacon effect). Some people (influencers) know a lot of people, whereas most people know relatively few. This is the infamous “black swan” “long tail” effect.

Without getting into too many details, power laws are “scale-free” in that they have no preferred length scale. This (roughly) means you can “zoom in” on any portion and retain the original complexity. By definition, this is a fundamental feature of fractals.

I find fractals and power laws super interesting not only because of how prevalent they are in neuroscience, but also their real world consequences are fascinating. The classic example is the question of How Long Is the Coast of Britain?

The famous Zipf’s Law is a power law distribution concerning word frequency. Some words appear a lot in language, while many words are very infrequently used. Here’s a plot of the English language Wikipedia’s word frequency:

Another power law that’s received a lot of attention is Benford’s Law, which states that the distribution of digits in a lot of data are not even, but power law distributed. For example, in base 10, the number one should, all things being equal, appear 10% of the time. But in many data sources one appears around 30% of the time. This fact is actually used to help detect fraud in, for example, tax returns.

One of my favorite answers on Quora, that by Michael Wolfe to Engineering Management: Why are software development task estimations regularly off by a factor of 2-3?, embodies power laws in human perception very nicely. We tend to subjectively experience time as the logof objective, actual time. Meaning we’re really really bad at estimating how long something took, or how much time has passed. Check out the results from this paper:

In the words of the authors, “subjective estimates of future time horizon change less than the corresponding change in objective time.” Here’s the same data, but log-transformed to highlight the power law effect:

U-shaped curves
These are ubiquitous in learning, economics, and pharmacology. The classic is the Kuznets curve:

U-shaped (or inverted U-shaped curves, such as the one above) are also highly prevalent in pharmacology. This is captured by the idea of Hormesis, “It is conjectured that low doses of toxins or other stressors might activate the repair mechanisms of the body. The repair process fixes not only the damage caused by the toxin, but also other low-level damage that might have accumulated before without triggering the repair mechanism.”:

Other non-linearities
Non-linear relationships can be modelled using any number of non-linear equations. For example, I’ve got data that suggests that cognitive slowing increases not as a linear function of age, but rather it accelerates with age:

To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm, non-linear systems are, uhhh, awesome.

(This post originally appeared on my blog, Oscillatory Thoughts and was inspired by a question over on Quora.)