Saturday, May 28, 2011

Metaphor Gone Mad

(h/t A. Sullivan) Rama thinks that synesthesia results from the neurological wiring for metaphor in overdrive/overconnectivity. About this fascinating prospect, here's a talk:

Parts 2 and 3. And here's a lecture.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blow the Mind (Up)

Figure 1: (left) termite castle; (right) Gaudi's La Sagrada Famiglia.
This is one of the coolest examples of cognition-free-competency in contrast with top-down (cognitively directed) competency around. The two vastly different modes of execution can sometimes come to stunning convergence. The salient difference between these two structures lies in the representational ability of their creators: the structure on the right had a conscious purpose for being built, and was dependent on verbal communication, while the structure on the left was built by clueless organisms with no organizational plan. That "mind" is not requisite for the construction of highly functional complexity is both hard and wonderful to comprehend. Dennett:
Only in one species, Homo sapiens, has transmission by replication of nongenetic information taken off. In us, culture accumulates recursively, explosively, leaping thousands of miles and dozens of centuries in single steps. This hyperpotent variety of cultural evolution depends, I will argue, on language and more specifically on features of words, a category of cultural replicant found only in human beings (and, marginally, degenerately, in some of their domesticated animals and pets, such as parrots). It is words, I will argue, that make possible a novel system of design control never before instantiated on the planet, the difference dramatized by the comparison between the termite castle and Antonio Gaudí’s La Sagrada Famiglia church in Barcelona (Fig. 1). These two animal artifacts, so outwardly similar in shape, are produced by fundamentally different processes. In the case of the termite castle, “local rules generate global order,” as the slogan has it: Individual termites follow rigid rules for moving and depositing building material by detecting local pheromone signals, and no organism has, or needs, a vision or blueprint of the whole structure. In the case of La Sagrada Famiglia, there was an “intelligent designer,” an individual, Antonio Gaudí, who did have a guiding vision and did draw up plans; the control of the building flowed from the top down, through verbal representations to subordinates and thence to their subordinates. The design and construction could not have proceeded without elaborate systems of symbolic communication.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Frank Zappa - Muffin Man

Bibi, Cry Baby

"A sailor throws a drowning man a life preserver. How dare you, screams the man. Because of you, people are going to think I can’t swim."
That is how Beinart hears Netanyahu's paroxysm over the "1967 borders with mutually-agreed swaps" reasonableness. The claim of indefensibility is, at the least, bizarre, and it's a claim which virtually all media outlets have repeated without investigating whether such is the case. Nobody has asked Netanyahu to give evidence for the assertion-come-talking-point, a position which has gone mysteriously unspoken by serious parties over the past decade.

What's obvious is that large, out-posted settlements in the West Bank make the defense of Israeli citizens more difficult under any conception of a contiguous Palestinian state. Oh, wait...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Coyne Contra Brooks

Jerry Coyne lucidly schools the NYT columnist and author of The Social Animal on the problems inherent in the group selection hypothesis (read Coyne's full article here):
In yesterday’s New York Times, Brooks writes about recent scientific “advances” in the understanding of human altruism.  And he signs on to the idea that altruism evolved by group selection.
I disagree, and see Brooks as ignorant about the true scientific issues.  If true altruism (which I define here) is indeed a trait that’s deleterious to an individual’s reproductive fitness, then it could, as Brooks envisions, evolve only by the differential survival and reproduction of groups.
That form of evolution would work like this: although genes for altruistic behavior would be constantly weeded out of populations (for altruists, by definition, sacrifice their own genetic heritage for others), those genes might survive if groups that contained higher proportions of altruists were the groups that persisted, giving rise to descendant groups more often than groups lacking altruists.  (The idea here is that groups without altruists wouldn’t flourish very well.)  That’s group selection, and it’s how Brooks sees altruism as evolving:
In his book, “The Righteous Mind,” to be published early next year, Jonathan Haidt joins Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, and others who argue that natural selection takes place not only when individuals compete with other individuals, but also when groups compete with other groups. Both competitions are examples of the survival of the fittest, but when groups compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes. The idea of “group selection” was heresy a few years ago, but there is momentum behind it now.
Let’s be clear about what biologists really know about group selection and altruism.  If true human altruism has a genetic basis, it is individually disadvantageous and could have evolved only by differential propagation of groups. That’s very unlikely, since it requires that the rate at which altruist-containing groups reproduce themselves must be high enough to counteract the substantial rate at which altruism genes disappear within groups.  It’s unlikely because groups reproduce much less often than do individuals!  Further, once a group consists entirely of altruists, any non-altruistic genes would rapidly invade it, as their carriers reap the benefits of altruism without sacrificing their reproduction.
Now if we’re talking about apparent altruism, in which individuals appear to sacrifice their reproductive interests but actually reap hidden genetic benefits, then we don’t need group selection to explain it.  As I’ve written in a longer post on this topic, kin selection (“inclusive fitness”) can do it, as can simple individual selection based on reciprocity or, simply. selection for the advantages of cooperation, as in hunting lions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Free Speech Must Include License to Offend

Despite one of the weakest opposition panels I've ever seen argue for IQ2US (managing to be both hysterical and boring), the debate is worth watching in full, if only because it is important to be able to spot poor arguments for the curtailment of free-speech that function by sneakily blurring its meaning (such as by raising copyright law and classified information as examples of speech which is not protected). The eternally insurmountable task for those opposed to the primacy of this right over all others is to answer the question of who will decide what is eligible for censorship. Whose responsible ears will decide what is right to impoverish from our own?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fight of the Intellectuals

Out from all the whinging surrounding the ethics of the Bin Laden raid and the American response to it, Paul Berman's is a voice of clarity. Contrary to those who claim the event as insignificant, the slaying of so infamous and effective a monster is a symbolic triumph of the secular, liberal-democratic vision over its detestable opposite. We can be glad that Bin Laden is dead, and we can be so guiltlessly.
Berman, on why it matters, in TNR:
“Relentlessness is good. Relentlessness has a philosophical resonance, which everyone intuitively understands. The war between Al Qaeda and the United States has always rested on a dispute over the meaning of history. Al Qaeda has always believed that God wishes the resurrection of the ancient Islamic caliphate. And Al Qaeda has always regarded America, with its Christian origins, as the ultimate obstacle to the resurrection of the caliphate. Al Qaeda’s militants have always believed that, as the representative of God’s will, they will ultimately win. Al Qaeda has therefore called for a stubborn and even eternal struggle—the kind of struggle that might lead earnest and idealistic people to agree to commit suicide on Al Qaeda’s behalf.

America, however, has also been stubborn. Ten years, compared to eternity, is nothing. Still, relative to the lifetime of a human being, ten years is not, in fact, nothing. For ten years the United States has been relentless. And now that America can boast of its achievement, the American relentlessness has suddenly become eloquent, and this is more than good. It is crucial.
The United States adheres, after all, to its own theory of history, even if most of us do not like to acknowledge anything of the sort. In our own liberal and democratic theory of history, doctrines like Al Qaeda’s are doomed to defeat. In our estimation, the mad and fantastical doctrine about resurrecting an ancient caliphate is comparable to other doctrines that we have encountered over the last century—the doctrine about resurrecting the Roman Reich in an Aryan version or the doctrine about resurrecting the ancient Russian peasant communes in the form of a proletarian Soviet civilization. We liberals and democrats look on doctrines of that sort as reactionary protests against the authentic march of progress, and as nothing more than reactionary protests. And we believe that, if we struggle sufficiently, if we are relentless enough, the reactionary protests will go down to defeat.”
Which brings to mind this reflection from another fight-not-flight intellectual, who, upon the towers' fall, thought:
“Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose. A pity that we let them pick the time and place of the challenge, but we can and we will make up for that."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Goblin's Final Moments

Click to Enlarge.
"Osama bin Laden died on Walpurgisnacht, the night of black sabbaths and bonfires. Not an inappropriate night for the Chief Witch to fall off his broomstick and perish in a fierce firefight. One of the most common status updates on Facebook after the news broke was “Ding, Dong, the witch is dead,” and that spirit of Munchkin celebration was apparent in the faces of the crowds chanting “U-S-A!” last night outside the White House and at ground zero and elsewhere. Almost a decade after the horror of 9/11, the long manhunt had found its quarry, and Americans will be feeling less helpless this morning, and pleased at the message that his death sends: “Attack us and we will hunt you down, and you will not escape.” - Salman Rushdie

Monday, May 2, 2011

OBL Death Opportunity for Rethink

Beinart in TDB:
Even before the U.S. killed bin Laden, the Arab Spring had already rendered him irrelevant. President Obama now has his best chance since taking office to acknowledge some simple, long-overdue truths. Terrorism does not represent the greatest threat to American security; debt does, and our anti-terror efforts are exacerbating the problem. We do not face, as we did in the 1930s, a totalitarian foe with global ideological appeal. We face competitors who, in varying ways, have imported aspects of our democratic capitalist ideology, and are beating us at our own game.
Bin Laden was a monster and a distraction. It is good that he is dead, partly because the bereaved deserve justice, but also because his shadow kept us from seeing clearly the larger challenges we face. The war on terror is over; Al Qaeda lost. Now for the really hard stuff; let’s hope we haven’t deferred it too long.
And Frum, on growing up:
Those of us who oppose this administration’s economic and foreign policies have had so many valid points to make.
Yet some have insisted on traveling beyond those valid points. They have called the president “post American.” A “Third world dictator.” An individual whose behavior could only be interpreted as “Kenyan post-colonial.”  A “thug in chief.” They have tried to present US politics not as a choice between liberal and conservative, but as a choice between American and non-American, between real Americans and between a dangerous dark-skinned intruder. They have sought to portray the President as a man who could not be trusted to lead the country because he owed no loyalty to the country – because he did not belong in the country.
After the events of the past 72 hours, those kinds of attacks should be finished now. It’s a cleaner world without bin Laden soiling it. And American politics will be cleaner for the expunging of the malicious fantasy of the president’s non-Americanness.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

El Guincho

Bombay from MGdM | Marc Gómez del Moral on Vimeo.

Vatican Diversions / Celebrity Culture

Barbie Latza Nadeau in TDB on JPII beatification:
The Vatican is hoping that their “rock star pope” will once again inspire a fractured congregation in a time of global despair. For weeks, those who feel he failed the church through the pedophile sex scandal voiced their disappointment at his fast-track to sainthood. Rod Pead, editor of the traditionalist Catholic magazine Christian Order, believes that the beatification is capitalizing on the Pope’s “celebrity status” and that his legendary charisma and achievements are not enough to elevate him to sainthood. He says that it is John Paul II’s popularity and the knock-down effect it has on the church as a whole and not his rectitude that is the driving force to santo subito. “By pushing it through at such scandalous speed they degrade and undermine the beatification process itself,” Pead told The Daily Beast. “Remember, out of more than 260 popes only 76 have ever been canonized and of those only three have been canonized in the last 700 years.”