Making noise, not getting anywhere.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Paying through the Nose

the nose

On an episode of Whad'ya Know taped in Wyoming I just heard about a man who can place a penny on his tongue, move it up his nose in the back of his throat and retrieve it through the nostrils. Amazing, isn't it? He visited Letterman's show to demonstrate the penny come out of his nose.

That could have been me! I've always been able to put my tongue behind my soft palate and probe my tonsils, but it never occured to me to launch a transportation industry back there. Maybe it's not too late.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Seeing Red

red blood cells

The second of the arguments against a materialistic theory of mind that I'm going to debunk is based on an article by Frank Jackson, "What Mary didn't know".

In it, there is a colour scientist, Mary, who has a full materialistic account of colour processing available, she knows everything there is to know about that. But she has lived in a black and white environment all her life. Now Mary is for the first time taken out of that environment and shown something red, the above mosaic of red blood cells, for example. Now, Jackson argues, she knows something she did not know before: she know what it feels like to see something red. Since we have assumed that she had a full materialistic account of colour vision, the quality of seeing is not included in that account. Thus, there is more than said account. QED.

Which, of course, more often than not stands for Quod erit demonstrandum - somthing that should be proven, but isn't.

Let's look at the argument in some detail, to see where it might go wrong. What exactly is it that Mary has learned when she sees the red? Specifically, if we asked her, could she tell us what it is she has learned? Alas, she could not. Anything about the experience of seeing red that she could describe in words - say if the experience suggested warmth to her - would necessarily be part of what she knew before. Remember? She knows everyhting there is to know about colour vision. She knows what happens when coloured light hits the retina, she knows how it tickles the brain, and what associations and processes are caused by it. She would even have known what it felt like to see red - in the theoretical meaning of the words, where she can deduce the causal consequences and side effects of such a feeling.

The only thing she can be said to have gained by being shown the mosaic, is the actual experience. But just as in the case of the bat, where being a bat is not a legitimate part of a theory of the bat's mind, an experience is not something that can or should be part of the theory of mind. The theory should of course describe the experience in all detail and consequence. But it need not, and cannot, contain that experience, nor cause it.

In other words, after looking at the mosaic Mary's brain is in a state it has not been in before, but which she indeed knew everything about beforehand (which in itself is probably impossible, but that's beside the point here).

To require colour vision theory to contain actual brainstates is just as silly as to claim that hydrodynamics is incomplete, because there is no actual physical glass of water in it.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

What is it like to be a squirrel?


There seems to be a rather curious disconnect between the people doing basic neuroscience research and philosophers of mind. While the former operate on the implicit assumption that mental phenomena are reducible to physical phenomena, and that fully understanding the latter will imply understanding the former, philosophers are struggling with principled objections against this form of materialistic monism.

I recently attended some of John Searle's Philosophy of Mind lectures, where he introduced seven such objections to materialism, including of course his own Chinese Room argument.

On none of the seven did he manage to convince me, and I'll present my counterarguments here. I'll start with the cuddliest of the arguments, put forward by Thomas Nagel, who famously asked

"What is it like to be a bat?"

The argument's core, as I understand it, is: suppose we knew everything knowable about bats. That is a big assumption, and we never might, but even if this were true, Nagel argues, we'd still lack one crucial piece: we wouldn't know what it's lile to be one. Our theories and descriptions of the bat would quantify everything, but they wouldn't capture the quality of batness. This is known as the argument of absent qualia, for obvious reasons, and it seems convincing on the surface - no physical theory about bats can show us what it's like to be one, so being a bat is not part of a physical theory.

This argument is erroneous, and I think it's central problem is a confusion of hierarchies, which I'll explain in a second. But first let's have a look at an analogy. Suppose we knew everything there is to know about water. Would that tell us what it feels like to be wet? Of course it wouldn't, because that is not, indeed cannot be the job of a theory. The theory can describe to us how adhesive and cohesive forces would work to cover our skin with a liquid film, it can tell us how the high specific heat capacity and evaporation will affect skin temperature, how all that combines to create certain nerve impulses, and so on. But to know what it's like, we'll have to jump into a river, or, lacking one, take a shower. Does that mean our theory of water is incomplete? No. All it means is that there is a difference between the theory and the real thing. Real water can be experienced, a theory of real water can't. If there is a hole in a theory at all, it's in the description of our own minds. But let's not worry about that for a moment.

That took us off the bat, so let's get back to it. A theory of the bat's mind will not, indeed cannot, contain a description of what it's like to be a bat, because that isn't even part of the theory of bat minds. It's part of the theory of human minds. We can perfectly describe what goes on inside the bat's mind, relate sensory input to motor output via cognitive processes (if you like that way of describing things, which might turn out not to be too great in the end), without missing a thing.

So back to the description of ourselves. What I indeed can not obtain from the description of a bat is what it would feel like for me to be a bat. But there is two possible arguments against that being a problem. The first one is that is very probably a nonsensical question to ask. I am not a bat, and were I a bat, I wouldn't be me, so it seems pretty close to being logically impossible for me to have the batness cake and feel it, so to speak.

But there is a more profound objection. What is it you want when you ask the above question? You want a theory that, in capturing the structure of the mind, enables you to implement that mind. In other words, you want a theory that produces that which it describes. Which seems even sillier than wanting to be a bat. It's worse than complaining that your theory of water doesn't make you feel wet; it's like complaining that your water theory doesn't make you wet other things, doesn't make you emulate water.

Sounds silly. So why doesn't the bat question sound equally silly? I think it's because of the hierarchy confusion. The practical purpose of theories is to give you an understanding of it's subject. So when the theory is one about mind, and thus about understanding, it seems natural to expect to obtain that understanding that is the subject of the theory, when in fact all the theory is going to give you is an understanding of that understanding.

In short: yes, qualia are absent from the theory. That's because the qualia are not the substance, but the subject of the theory. It's perfectly able to describe them, as much as any theory is able to describe anything. This is different from the real thing, of course, and that's not special to the mind, nor is it a indication that more than the physical world needs describing.

Now go find some nuts. You must be hungry.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Munching pills in darkened rooms

Cognitive Daily � Video games: Are the myths true?

It's a contentious issue - do computer games add to behavioral problems or are they a mere symptom. Every time I hear someone claim that violence is caused by games, I just want to whip out the rocket launcher and splash their brains on the pixelated wall; luckily I always remember the number one lesson playing the Doom series games taught me: don't use a rocket launcher in a tight space. So I have to resort to reasoned arguments, like those presented by Dave Munger over at Cognitive Daily (link above). Doesn't that prove something?

Worth mentioning in that context is the fabulous quote/joke "Computer games don't affect kids; I mean if Pac-Man affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in darkened rooms, munching magic pills and listening to repetitive electronic music." That quote is usually misattributed by non-factchecking geeks to some Nintendo CEO named Kristian Wilson. In fact, it's been written by comedian Marcus Briggs, who is rightly proud of it.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Stereotypes a go-go

Cognitive Daily � The negative impact of positive stereotypes

Three groups of asian women were given math tests to perform. Each of the three group got a different focal questionnaire before, the first focused on the contestant's personality, the second on their race the third on their gender. Sounds like a fairy tale? There's a reason.

The race group came out doing about 15% worse on the test (the cited article doesn't provide statistics to put that difference into perspective, but 15% is big anyway, and if you go to the original paper, you'll find it's significant at p<0.025. Fair enough.), but the conclusion drawn is ludicrously ill-founded. Rather than conclude, for instance, that bringing up stressful subjects before a test disrupts performance, the performance drop is attributed to racial stereotypes of success and the pressure that puts on asians.

It's called "pulling causalities out of your ass", I believe. Which, ironically, is one of the stereotypes I have of psychology research. It just disrupts my concentration.

Jigsaw Pieces

digest this


This ploy is quite popular among marketing fucks, it seems. This is the second one in two weeks I received. Send magazine advertisements that look like an invoice, and some percentage of recipients will be suckered into actually paying and thus subscribing to your quality rag. Why, it's pure evil genius!

Update for this.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mice that think, humans that love cheese, ah, the possibilities

A while ago, at an SfN meeting, I attended a ethics panel, where one of the questions discussed was the growing of human neurons in animal brain. Other than being vaguely creeped out by the concept in spite of my better knowledge, I only remember one of the researchers talking about how very, very much they discuss this in the ethics panel at Stanford. I guess he sorta knew that people would be vaguely creeped out.

Now the Frankenmice have made Yahoo News, and no doubt the religious nuts are already collecting their wits for an assault against the perversity of science! So let me be quick to point out that this mousebrained thing is a great idea, for it brings us one step closer to creating Franky and Benjy, the two mouse overlords from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Children and Chimps

Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. - New York Times

(If you don't have one of the NYTimes accounts annoyingly required to read the story, consider BugMeNot and its Firefox Extension)

The study quoted reports that when shown how to open a box, chimps can leave out causally unnecessary steps, while human infants tend to reproduce everything, even if they know it to be unnecessary. The researchers conclude that this imitation may enable the learning of complex new behaviours, which the child wouldn't understand at first sight, and thus couldn't analyse causally.

Most intriguing about this is that the other obvious explanation, that the children are trying to conform in a social situation with an adult, and are willing to give up efficiency to do so, may be the same thing. Culture and tradition, after all, are the codified learning of behaviors which do not seem to make immediate causal sense.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The buzz of bees

Bees can recognize human faces, study finds

More pseudo-news about animal superpowers. Like the ability of pigeons to distinguish painter's styles, this is interesting for entirely different reasons than the general audience will think reading the article - rather than showing some uncanny humanness in bees, it shows the algorithmic generalityof some problems, and misleads one into thinking they are simple to solve computationally, because supposedly simple animals can solve them. I would be surprised, however, if these bees were doing better than face recognition software, in which case the point becomes moot.

Particularly interesting is the researcher's quote "the bees probably don’t understand what a human face is" (my emphasis), indicating that it's not just the journalists that are playing that angle for the publicity. Although on the other hand, maybe that does mean that killer bees can be trained to be truly deadly now. Winged assassins! Hold the presses!

Beklommene Stille

Vielleicht würde es, wenn man mehr davon wüsste, beklommen still werden um dieses Hauptwort "Geist" (Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften)

Vielleicht aber auch nicht. Ohnehin fragwürdig, ob ausgerechnet der Autor dieses geschwätzigen Ziegelsteins sich über beklommene Stille verbreiten sollte.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Sapir, Whorf and History


When we toured all the big monuments on our recent visit to DC, I got gut feelings about them, I was left cold by the World War II memorial, touched by the Vietnam Memorial's somber simplicity, avoided what looked like a bad kitschy joke, but was in fact the Korean War Memorial, looked up with a sarcastic smile at Lincoln's face covered in scaffolding for renovation, and stood with an even more sarcastic smile in the midst of the great words of Jefferson and, again, rubble and scaffolding. Jefferson's statue, a park ranger had explained, looked north toward the White House, because Jefferson was highly suspicious of authority. This statue, apparently, keeps the administration honest.

It is an interesting experience to then revisit this only a short while later when Slate's Witold Rybczynski walks the same walk. The substance of his article is interesting, but I'm most intrigued by my reception: some of the things he says I have the impression of having felt while visiting - like the inappropriateness of the fountains and the cold oddness of the columns in the WW2 memorial, but I could never have said them. Now the fact that I can think that this man says what I think, while at the same time I would not have been able to say it myself, pretty much refutes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. If you'll accept that jump.

On a related note, I bought Roth's The Plot Against America for the flight back, and was delighted by it's thoroughly constructed plot and the clever way it turned it's counterfactual premise back into the real flow of events at the end. I felt pretty stupid when I read what feels now like pretty obvious criticism on Salon, saying that a book that talks about how close American society was to prosecution of minorities while hardly mentioning the situation of the black, seems counterfactual indeed. Sadly, I didn't notice that at all, explicitly or implicitly, but don't think that's an argument for Sapir-Whorf. Least I don't feel it is.

Edit: It's a bit misleading to talk about Sapir-Whorf in this context, since the thesis has a hard and a softer formulation. While the hard formulation says that there is no thinking but what is mediated by language, hardly anybody adheres to that any more. The softer variant is that language influences what we can think, and there some cool evidence to that end has just come out. I've added an entry on that further up.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


don't do that

Nature berichtet in seiner aktuellen Ausgabe, dass man einen britischen Tierversuchs-Lobbyisten für eine Fernsehsendung den Alltag eines Versuchsnagetiers nacherleben liess. Unter anderem musste er dabei teuflisch warme Fussböden und brutal trockengefönte Haare erdulden. Wir Nagerfreunde begrüssen dergleichen Kaspereien natürlich, nicht nur als soliden Beitrag zu einer komplexen Diskussion, sondern auch als ersten Schritt in eine bessere Welt; denn erst wenn alle Menschen leben wie die Ratten ist unser Auftrag erfüllt. Oder Karnickel. Oder eben Vizcachas, wir sind da flexibel.

Vielleicht darf man sogar hoffen, bei der Ausstrahlung der Sendung am 14. Dezember auch eins der berüchtigtsten Rattenexperimente am Lobbyisten nachgestellt zu sehen; das nämlich, bei dem ermittelt wurde, um wieviel länger Ratten sich durch Strampeln vorm Ertrinken retten, wenn man ihnen zuvor den Eindruck verschafft hat, man würde sie schon beizeiten da rausholen. Zugegeben, das Originalexperiment ist recht alt, wurde schon in den 50er Jahren durchgeführt und würde heutzutage von keiner Ethikkomission mehr genehmigt. Aber ein kleines bisschen Unsachlichkeit ist ein geringer Preis für eine unterhaltsame Sendung, und zudem sind Lobbyisten ja in der Regel auch nicht mehr die Jüngsten.

(Dieser Beitrag erscheint parallel bei der Riesenmaschine).

Monday, December 05, 2005

Jigsaw Pieces

passport design


When three of our local drugstores, two Walgreens and a Longs, failed for different reasons to produce acceptable passport photos, we decided to take matters in our own hands, and save a few bucks in the process. I took a picture of Caroline against our kitchen wall, cropped and scaled them in photoshop to 2x2 format, arranged two on a 4x6 sheet and went to Longs to print the thing for 20 cents instead of $7. Yay!

Only when we came back an hour later to pick up the order, it clocked in at $7.71. For a total of four prints. After I contested the sum, the clerk called in the photo assistant, who said, "I'll show you", opened the folder and triumphantly pulled out the passport photo print. "These are seven dollars" she said.

Incredulously, I asked whether Longs charges for prints depending on what's on them, which just made her repeat that those were passport prints. It took five surreal minutes of discussion with the manager to convince him to give us that print for 20 cents, and even then he left us without a word of apology or goodbye, to his sourly suspicious clerk to ring up our corrected bill.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

wer jetzt keinen truthahn hat, brät sich keinen mehr

wer jetzt keinen truthahn hat, brät sich keinen mehr

Berkeley on Thanksgiving Day is its most deserted - this holiday includes everybody in it's national myth. No parked cars, hardly anybody on the streets but beggars trying to ear a buck by wishing the occasional passerby a happy holiday. All shops and restaurants are closed and dark. Only at Blockbuster is there life, scores of people wandering the isles in search for something to fill the evening with.

The title is a modified Rilke quote. The full poem:


Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


captive audience

A few years ago at a Society for Neuroscience meeting, there was an ethics panel discussing animal research. I quickly realized that the panel's discussion was not about whether or not animals should be used in research, but rather how to propagandize their use properly and avoid lawsuits and flamebombs. This seemed a somewhat conservative and backwards approach - if only in contrast with the discussion of animal consciousness and its consequences I had, in fact, expected to hear.

This year, one of the large talks - which are always held in a ludicrously big room, making them seem less well attended or received than they are - was on the subject of cognitive enhancement, and once more I expected to see some innovative debate of emerging technology and knowledge, and the dangers and opportunities inherent in messing with the very organ that creates experience, when we hardly understand the first thing about it.

Instead I heard a talk on performance enhancers in sports, with some lame joke about how everybody in the audience had taken some congnitive enhancer that very morning (meaning, of course, caffeine) coming the closest to the advertised subject.

It might be naive to expect cutting edge, or even just mildly surprising statements in presidential lectures at monster meetings like this. But that the most daring and controversial moment in the biggest meeting on Neuroscience comes when the Dalai Lama speaks for a few minutes on his understanding of meditation, something seems amiss.

(The foto above, by the way, was taken during a talk on animal consciousness, specifically on whether mental timetravel was unique to humans, presenting evidence from chaching behaviour of scrubjays, suggesting it might not be)

Jigsaw Pieces

bordering fraud


This morning I received something that looked like an invoice for my Newsweek subscription, complete with a stub to send in with the payment and a due date. I am not now, nor was I ever, a subscriber of Newsweek.