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May 12, 2010

If time flies, did you have more fun?

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 4:04 pm

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.” –attributed to Albert Einstein

Our subjective experience of how fast time is passing depends on the situation we are in. Waiting for a pot to boil while you watch it can feel like a frustratingly long time, and watching a clock as it ticks down the last minutes of a long meeting or class can be excruciating. (In fact, studies consistently show that we perceive a watched clock to slow down or stop briefly when we first look at it, an effect known as chronostasis).

altered time perception

On the other hand, when immersed in enjoyable activities, we often lose track of time and are surprised to find out just how much time has really passed while we were so engaged. Time flies when you’re having fun, as the expression goes.
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November 7, 2009

What Pretension, Everlasting Peace

Tags: , , , — Strange Loops @ 10:57 pm

My grandfather lived a long life, well into his eighties. In his later years, he was caught in the grip of full-blown Parkinson’s dementia, and doctors suspected Alzheimer’s disease. He didn’t recognize people he had known all his life. He generally couldn’t hold a conversation, not even a snippet of one. Toward the end, he simply was not the same Grandpa Bill that I had known as a child. Those more recent memories are perhaps the most vivid, but I try to treasure the older memories as more representative of whom I refer to when I talk about Grandpa Bill.

The funeral was hard, just as it had been for Grandma Deanie (a quick descent following stroke) and just as it would be later for Grandma Etta (Alzheimer’s again). I had to face the reality that I would never see these people again, that all I had left were the memories.

My mom, Bill’s daughter, is an ardent Christian and strongly convinced she will see her dad again in Heaven. Being convinced of that fact doesn’t make everything better for her – she took it all so hard – but it means that she can wait for a time when she’ll be with him again, for eternity, along with all the other relatives who’ve died or will die. I can tell it’s a comforting thought to her, as it is to most everyone who believes in a Heaven.

In the famous song ‘Imagine’, John Lennon asked us to imagine there’s no Heaven – it’s easy if you try, he said. What’s long been more difficulty for me is imagining that there is a Heaven.

How would it work, I wonder? Which Grandpa Bill is in Heaven? The most recent version, with dementia and sadness and confusion? Surely not, if Heaven is the wonderful place it’s supposed to be. So perhaps an earlier instantiation of him? But if a younger Bill is in Heaven, then we’re deprived of the memories and personal development (for better or worse) that happened in all those intervening years. We’re faced with the opposite problem: again it doesn’t feel like the Grandpa Bill I remember from childhood, if he’s just a young man who hasn’t had a fraction of the life experience that older fellow had.
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May 29, 2009

Parasitic Personality Disorder

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 1:02 pm

You have ten times as many bacterial cells as human ones in your body, and that leaves out viruses and fungi. Are those non-human creatures in your body part of you?

It’s easy to think of them as ‘not you’, as little Others along for the ride on your body. They are parasites and symbiotes that feed off of us, help us digest food, might even protect us from infections – but they’re not part of me, right?

Toxoplasma gondii

Enter Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that infects all sorts of mammals but really loves getting into cats (the only place it can reproduce). In fact, its talent is finding its way from other mammals into cats. How does it do this?

By altering the behavior of intermediate non-cat hosts. If a mouse is infected, it starts hanging out in open areas. An infected rat actually seeks out cat urine, rather than running from it. Then, presumably, the mice and rats get eaten by hungry cats. In other words, T. gondii changes the behavior of its hosts in order to maximize the chance of finding its way inside a cat.

Of course, T. gondii doesn’t just find itself inside rats and mice on its way to cats. Often it gets into humans, through exposure to pet cats or from eating uncooked meat (a report in the UK discovered that up to 38% of stored meat was infected). Some infected people develop flu-like symptoms, but most people develop no symptoms and the infection remains latent and apparently inactive. For a long time, it was assumed that latent infection in humans had no real effect on the host.
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April 19, 2009

There Is But One Truly Serious Philosophical Problem

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 6:30 pm

As a species with the apparently rare gift of being able to contemplate life and death, being able to choose our own end should we desire it, we are endowed, unavoidably, with the problem of suicide.

”There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” –Camus

Let’s start by acknowledging that it is a serious question, a serious problem. The answer is not simple. We cannot get away from this issue by blanket affirmations against suicide because it is cowardly or because it is hurtful to others. These things may be true, but they do not answer the question.

Those with the benefit of an airtight faith in some religion or creed that prohibits suicide may seem to escape the problem; but only because they never really address it. To eschew consideration of suicide because it is against the laws of a god or against the imperatives of a philosophical system is to have already given up the reigns of your own life to an outside authority. Rather than face the question yourself, it is side-stepped; in removing that one threat to your life, you have given up claim to that very life.

No, we must deal with the question head-on, on its own terms, for and by ourselves.
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January 26, 2009

An Occasional Will to Stupidity

Tags: , , , , — Strange Loops @ 12:40 am

“Once the decision has been made, close your ear even to the best counter argument: sign of a strong character. Thus an occasional will to stupidity.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

We live in a world of many choices: the foods we eat, the careers we choose, the relationships we foster, every consumer good we buy. We tend to have more than a binary yes/no choice, but rather many options, often with complicated trade-offs involving many dimensions. I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but which peanut butter should I get: Crunchy or creamy? Reduced fat, normal fat or normal fat with extra omega-3′s? All-natural or not? Store brand or name brand? Which jelly: strawberry, grape, apricot-pineapple, or countless other fruit choices? Jam, jelly or preserves? Low sugar, low sugar with other additives, or normal? Relative balance of cheap, healthy and tasty?

Paradox of Choice

Even simple decisions like this can present a crippling array of possibilities, over which we may feel some pressure to maximize and find the “right one”. But there’s a fine line between giving a little thought to decisions here and there, and agonizing over labels and minor cost differences at every choice.

Unfortunately, it’s not just minor matters that present us with myriad options. Buying a car: New or used? Lease or purchase? Cash or finance? Make, model, color, options, all of which we can easily find extensive information about. Presumably the more information we have — the better informed our decision is — the better our choice will be. This is what I might call the naive rationalist assumption.
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January 18, 2009

Consciousness and Branes

Tags: , — Strange Loops @ 1:48 am

Since Einstein’s work on relativity, we have come to think of our universe not simply as involving three spatial dimensions and one time dimension, but rather as a four-dimensional entirety, labeled space-time. Roughly speaking, instead of thinking there are different versions of an object (my car in the past, my car in the present, my car in the future), we say there exists simply a 4D hyper-object that encompasses all those states of the car at what we think of as all different times, and our experiences with an object are really experiences with particular ‘slices’ of that hyper-object.

Thinking in terms of more than the familiar three spatial dimensions can be challenging. In the late 1800′s, Edwin Abbott used his novel Flatland to show us how a 2-dimensional being could eventually come to recognize its world as being contained within a higher-up 3D world, and to suggest we three-dimensionites might have similar trouble recognizing higher dimensions that contain our own.

Of course, mathematicians have long dealt with non-Euclidean geometries, including those of higher dimension, and cosmologists today continue to debate the possibility of even more dimensions actually existing. For example, some string theorists are now investigating M-theory, which posits 11 dimensions of space-time, and may involve multidimensional objects called ‘branes’. In this theory, our universe would be considered a 4-brane (with its three spatial dimensions and one time dimension), but there could be other branes of different dimension.

Brane Theory

Building off of this (still-nascent and controversial) field, John Smythies over at The Psychological Channel presents what a “new paradigm” of consciousness he calls extended materialism.
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January 16, 2009

Personal Genomics

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 11:51 pm

Stephen Pinker has a pretty decent article up in the New York Times called My Genome, My Self about the topic of personal genomics, i.e. getting your DNA analyzed to discover your own ‘genetic code’. For example, having a certain set of alleles (versions of a gene) guarantees that your eyes will be a particular color. You may have genes that predispose you to various diseases, or that are associated with high intelligence. The more we learn about genetics, the more subtle and fine-grained become the predictions that accompany possession of particular alleles.

Steven Pinker Personal Genomics

Some limited personal DNA profiles are now available for under $400 and people are worried that as this information becomes commonplace, it may be used against them. That is, we may find job discrimination based on genetic makeup: “Well, this candidate appears a good fit, but her profile shows a predisposition toward anger problems and a high chance of developing health problems that impair her ability to work or stay with the company.” Likewise, insurance companies may refuse to insure those with risky genes, or to make their coverage exorbitant. If someone has an allele that makes them 87% likely to develop M.S., an insurance company may deem them too risky to insure.
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December 11, 2008

The Life of Abbie Hoffman

Tags: , , , , — Strange Loops @ 1:34 am

I just finished reading The Autobiography of Abbie Hoffman (published 1980). This activist, revolutionary, brilliant guy embodied the heart of the 60s, and indeed embodies the heart of all activists fighting against a corrupt, messed-up system.

Abbie Hoffman Autobiography

Abbie Hoffman was a smart kid born in 1936 to an Ashkenazi Jewish family that was assimilating into a somewhat anti-semitic America right before World War II broke out. Kicked out of high-school, he was a trouble-maker and a hustler early on. His parents managed to get him into a fancy academy to finish high school, which brought him to college at Brandeis.

There he ran into some big name teachers, like Abraham Maslow for psychology, Herbert Marcuse for political philosophy, Leonard Bernstein for music, Eleanor Roosevelt for foreign affairs. He ended up getting his masters in psychology, coming out of Berkeley right at the birth of the 60′s. He saw Castro speak. The CIA had just been born and was already pulling dirty tricks abroad. Students were demonstrating. Allen Ginsberg was composing poems right across the bay (they later would become friends).
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December 6, 2008

Economic Dictatorship

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 11:33 am

“The inability of the Colonists to get power to issue their own money permanently out of the hands of George III and the international bankers was the prime reason for the revolutionary war.”
–Benjamin Franklin

The video below, by Paul Grignon, is a superb animated history of money, explaining how our current system of Debt as Money came about, and how it affects and traps us (and our government) today. It makes a strong case against the banking system, and suggests that our own ignorance of how money actually works leaves us in a hidden slavery we don’t even realize.

Some interesting points from the video:
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December 5, 2008

Intelligence in the Neglected Branches of the Tree of Life

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 10:11 pm

When you think of intelligent non-human animals, you probably think of apes: they use tools, appear to have culture, can be taught language-like communication systems, and the list of uniquely human traits seems to be ever-shrinking thanks to them. Maybe you include dolphins in your list of smart animals.

When asked to imagine intelligence in the animal kingdom, it’s unlikely that the critters coming to mind would be octopuses, fish, birds or insects. But as a recent Scientific American article on comparative cognition points out, some branches of the tree of life that don’t normally get a lot of attention for their smarts have actually demonstrated some pretty impressive abilities.

octopus solves rubik's cube

In the sea, cephalopods (octopuses, squid, cuttlefish) are the mental badasses of the invertebrates. Octopuses, for example, are not only great problem solvers, but can learn to solve a problem simply from watching other octopuses do a task. Fish may be smarter than we give them credit for. Goldfish, for example, can orient their way through mazes (more efficiently than slime-mold, even). So can reptiles like turtles.
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December 1, 2008

Experimental Philosophy

Tags: , — Strange Loops @ 11:05 am

Science and philosophy are traditionally considered very distinct disciplines. Certainly many scientists are philosophical, and there are many philosophers of science. But we think of the two domains as following very different methodologies. Scientists perform experiments: they manipulate variables and observe the outcome. Philosophers think: they perform thought experiments, manipulating concepts by pumping intuitions in one direction or another using words. Which is far from putting on a lab coat and collecting data, right?

Well, recently a subdomain of philosophy has appeared on the scene, called experimental philosophy. Philosophers have long pontificated about how people think, and base their thought experiments on the assumptions of “folk psychology” — naive, common-sense assumptions about our everyday behaviors and why we think and act the way we do. Until recently, philosophers have pulled from the work of scientists (at best) or just ignored the science (at worst).

But now, experimental philosophers are performing actual experiments, controlling variables and collecting data. Take, for example, the entertaining video below of comedian Eugene Mirman explaining a recent experiment:


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November 30, 2008

Feeling Out of Control

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 9:33 pm

ResearchBlogging.org When your life feels out of control, are you more likely to believe in a deity and its grand plan than when you feel in control of your life? A study by Aaron Kay and colleagues (2008) showed just that effect. In fact, if you prime someone to feel out of control — say, by merely asking them to recall a personal experience where they felt out of control — they tend to report a stronger belief in a controlling higher power. Also, when people feel that they lack personal control, they’re more likely to deny randomness and chance in the universe, perceiving their external reality as orderly.

Furthermore, the study showed that priming someone to feel out of control increases their support for and defense of government (especially if they perceive the government as generally benevolent). It’s as if people change their beliefs about the orderliness of the external world based on how they feel inside about their personal level of control. Kay and colleagues label this a “compensatory control mechanism” — when your perception of personal control goes down, perceptions of external control go up to compensate.

god and government

To test this general explanation, the researchers asked whether the effect would work in reverse. If you prime people to see an external source of control as chaotic or unjust, will they perceive a higher level of personal control as a result? The researchers had subjects watch a video story about an HIV patient who sought government medical assistance. Participants saw one of two versions of the video: in one version, the government was depicted as effectively helpful; in the other, it was not.
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November 25, 2008

Blowjobs and Authority

Tags: , , , — Strange Loops @ 5:36 pm

The Victims of Blowjobs
In 2007, the Georgia State Supreme Court released Genarlow Wilson from prison, after he had served 2 years of his 10 year sentence. The court concluded that his sentence was cruel and unusual punishment.

His crime? As a 17 year old, Wilson had accepted consensual oral sex from a 15 year old (the age of consent being 16). The irony? Having penetrative sex with the girl would have netted him a mere misdemeanor with no sex offender registration (because he was himself younger than 18 at the time). The fact that it was oral sex made it a felony with a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. (Note that until 1998, oral sex between a married couple in Goergia was punishable by up to 20 years in prison).

That silly little detail in Georgia law (that oral sex — i.e. “sodomy” — was considered a felony while vaginal penetration was consider a misdemeanor) was amended as a result of the publicity from this case. However, the lawmakers specifically chose the update not to apply retroactively, meaning that people like Wilson would not have their conviction overturned. In other words, anyone convicted under this crazy law would still remain a sex offender for life.
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November 20, 2008

Word of the Day: Eudaimonia

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 12:45 am

Eudaimonia, n.
1. The good life.
2. Happiness, not as a state of mind like joy, but in the sense of human flourishing.
3. The process of living well, as an end in and of itself.

Eudaimonia is a classical Greek word that comes from ‘eu’ (good or well-being) and ‘daimon’ (one’s spirit, one’s fortune). It is the good life, the life lived in harmony with one’s inner spirit, informed by thought.

The Greeks differed on the details of what this meant. For Plato, arete (virtue knowledge, ethical knowledge) was an essential part of eudaimonia: the good life is one informed by knowledge and thought. In his system, eudaimonia was proper ordering among the three competing aspects of the soul (the rational, the emotional and the appetitive), with the rational guiding desires and actions based on arete. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was a life not of honor or wealth or power, but “rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life” [Wiki], a combination of character virtue, intellectual virtue, friendships, scientific knowledge and more. For Epicurus, on the other hand, eudaimonia was a life of pleasure. Not simply short-term, immediate pleasure, but a thoughtful, long-term, big-picture view of pleasure in life.

More generally, eudaimonism is an ethical system where the ultimate aim and justification of activity is personal happiness. Virtuous activity is that which leads to happiness or well-being. Thus it is very distinct from utilitarian ethics wherein the virtue of an action is determined by how it affects everyone. Eudaimonism is concerned with the individual’s life, though the social and communal aspects of that life may be considered crucial to flourishing.

Nor does eudaimonism make specific prescriptions for ethical behavior that apply universally. Insofar as everyone is different, a flourishing life for those people will necessarily look different. Eudaimonia is living your life true to your individual daimon (‘spirit’, roughly), and the good life may not look the same for everyone.

November 16, 2008

Do Primates Have Self-Control?

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 10:32 pm

Despite our many lapses, humans still manage to show remarkable self-control. We pass up a tempting slice of cake in order to eat a healthier alternative. We avoid buying a shiny new car today so that in a year we can put a down payment on a house. We save for retirement. Sure, we may not be perfect at avoiding temptation in the present, but when you think about it, the amount of self-control we do show is rather impressive.

Some people are better than others, of course. In the 1960s, Walter Mischel tested young children by giving them a marshmellow. They could eat it immediately if they wanted, but if they waited 15 minutes, they got a second marshmellow. Some kids succeeded in waiting, some didn’t; and it turns out the ability to wait was linked to success later in life.

animal self-control

Self-control is a valuable skill, but is it unique to humans? We can look at our close evolutionary ancestors, the non-human primates, for a hint.
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