Caesar’s Last Breath

Over enough time, molecules released into the air disperse pretty evenly (this is why polluting smoke-stacks are so tall, avoiding local pollution by dispersing the output more widely). It’s reasonable to assume, then, that whenever you breathe out, eventually those molecules from your breath end up spaced fairly uniformly around the Earth’s atmosphere.

That’s also the case for historical figures (for whom enough time has passed to really disperse their breaths well). So if, for example, Caesar’s last breath is spread around the atmosphere pretty uniformly, then what are the chances you are breathing part of that in right now, in this very breath?
caesar's last breath
According to common calculations, the chances are really good. Each breath you take, in fact, has a high chance of having some of Caesar’s last breath in it! (And the exhalations of Shakespeare and Hitler and Plato and the first human beings and…). How do we make such a calculation?
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Last Week’s Potatoes

“So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago — a mind which has long ago been replaced. To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of my brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out — there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.”
–Richard Feynman (The Value of Science)

Back in 1953, researchers at the Smithsonian Institution concluded from radio isotope tracings of chemicals entering and leaving the body that we replace around 98% of our bodies’ atoms every year or so.

Most of us are familiar with the cells in our body being replaced (the new daughter cells being made up largely of new food we take in). Skin cells slough off constantly and yet we retain skin. Hair is lopped off and new hair comes out. The stomach lining is replaced in a matter of days, the liver in weeks. An 18% yearly calcium replacement in the adult body replaces most of our bones in a few years. Neurons essentially stay for life (though adult neurogenesis sometimes replaces these).

But even those cells that are not replaced through duplication — even those holdout cells like neurons — have shifting make-up on the level of particles. New atoms flow in to replace old ones.

Now, we need not concern ourselves with whether or not every single atom actually gets replaced, or on what timeframe. We can at least be confident that a very large and significant amount of material in our bodies — even in our brains — was not there previously and won’t be there for very long. As Feynman put it, our bodies and brains are last week’s potatoes.
richard feynman
Obviously, this suggests that the individual atoms in our brains aren’t like packets of information holding memories or personality. Rather, the structure is what is important to cognition: whatever materials can instantiate that structure so as to carry out the computations and lead to the proper outputs are sufficient.
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Chimpanzee Memory

At the Primate Research Institute in Japan, Ai is a chimpanzee in her thirties who has been involved in cognition research for decades. She’s well-known for learning to use our familiar numerals (1, 2, 3…) to appropriately label sets of objects (5 bananas, etc.), and she’s done some other really cool things with numerals and numbers.

What I didn’t know until recently is that she has a son, Ayumu, and he too is becoming quite the research superstar. A recent study demonstrated his talent for remembering an array of randomly mixed numerals on a computer screen, after they were very briefly flashed to him and then masked by white boxes. He had to touch each of the hidden numerals in order without a single mistake in order for a trial to be considered a success. This seems to show a pretty impressive working memory for visuo-spatial layouts, but does that mean Ayumu has something like eidetic memory (“photographic memory”)?

I don’t have the full article. However, previous studies with other chimps (including Biro and Matsuzawa’s 1999 study with his mother Ai) have shown that they “queue up” action sequences in a task like this, such that if the targets change/move in the middle of a trial, their fingers still briefly travel toward where the right answer would have been. Perhaps this is a demonstration of a pre-planned motor sequence, rather than anything like photographic memory.

One way to test this might be to remove one or more of the number locations completely (including the white box masking where it originally was flashed). If the chimp has a photograph-like visual of the layout in memory, then he should be able to continue the sequence by skipping over the missing numeral. But if he has pre-planned his actions in advance (as mother Ai did for a set of 3, 4 or 5 numerals), then his finger should still move to where the missing numeral disappeared.

Either way, if the task sounds easy, try it for yourself. (even with only 5 numerals, it’s pretty tough at first). The study compared college students’ performance to that of Ayumu, and the chimp won. Note that without access to the paper, it’s hard to know if the setup was truly the same. Ayumu almost certainly had a lot more practice than the college students (but then this is necessary to teach him what the task is, whereas humans can have instructions explained to them). Also, Ayumu’s numerals aren’t masked until he touches the first one (usually very quickly), but the college students’ might have been masked immediately after flashing (as the website demo with fewer numerals does).

At any rate, the experiment is a very impressive demonstration of a larger memory span than has been seen before in a setup like this. However that information is stored, it’s cool that he can do it.

[Thanks to for the game link]

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Shortage of Proper, Trained Sorcerers

The Catholic Church just announced an effort to train hundreds of priests to become exorcists. Apparently, right now “you have to hunt high and low for a proper, trained exorcist,” according to the Vatican’s Exorcist in Chief, Father Gabriele Amorth. You know, a proper, trained exorcist, as opposed to some schmuck merely reciting prayers to an archangel (the poor man’s exorcism, according to the Vatican). It’s just more magically powerful if a proper priest does it.

In case you forgot, Father Amorth is the guy who warned against the Harry Potter books because they try to distinguish between good and bad [fictional] magic, whereas he says any magic is a move toward the devil. Any magic, that is, except his own. Magic power words (prayers), magic water, and hand-waving magic gestures used to banish demons during an exorcism — those are okay, because they are done by trained professional magicians (priests).

By the end of 2005, Catholics numbered over 1.1 billion, about one-sixth of the entire world population. We are not talking about a small religious group, but one of the biggest out there. And their official body, representing their god and religion, is still back in the Dark Ages worrying about boogiemen possessing people. Why?

Is it because fear keeps people in the flock, and takes their mind off scandals like wide-spread child rape by church leaders?

If so, it’s a double-edged sword, because such fear makes people irrational, and when you feed into their irrational impulses with talk of magic and demons and other superstitions, you fuel a fire of stupidity that leads to deaths (note some exorcism-related deaths thanks to Wikipedia) and more scandals.

Of course, this sort of thing is not confined to Catholics. Many Muslims believe in possession by jinn (genies, invisible spirits made of smokeless fire). Scientologists work to exorcise possession by Body Thetans. But it’s especially popular among Evangelical Christians (a “big business”, estimated at around 500 such ministries in 2006).

A couple years back, I had a friend in the army. He told me stories about how himself and his Evangelical comrades in the barracks were involved not just in a war against another country, but in a real war against evil demons. This was apparently common belief among a large proportion of the barracks personnel, who claimed to experience the literal presence of demons involved in such shenanigans as opening and closing doors at night and moving objects around. No doubt more nefarious things would have occured were it not for the “strength in Christ” shared by these army guys. The same friend also told me once of an exorcism “successfully performed” on a member of his church, right down the street from where I lived at the time. The practice is not just for the rare group of nutcases; it’s surprisingly common (often hidden under the less conspicuous label “deliverance ministries” by Evangelicals).

The sad thing is that many of the victims of exorcism (note: victims of the practice itself, not victims of possession) have historically been people with some sort of real disorder (schizophrenia, epilepsy, Tourette’s, depression). Unfortunately, this faux treatment can keep them from getting real help (when it doesn’t directly threaten their lives, that is).

Maybe some people just need magic. The world is big and complex and scary, and believing in magic is an easy way to simplify everything. But it’s too bad that such a belief in magic can hurt innocent victims too.

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Farcical Semiotics Returned

Fear not, I have done my best to banish the bandwidth-eating demon of hotlinking, so that you, my dear reader, may safely once again peruse my collection of odd signs at the Introduction to Semiotics.

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No More Hilarious Semiotics

I’ve taken down the Funny Signs (Intro to Semiotics) page from the website. I logged in to find that in a single day, many gigs of bandwidth had been burned by someone hotlinking to my images there.

Initially, I tried to simply prevent hotlinking to images by altering my .htaccess file, but it turns out that also blocks RSS programs and breaks images on my own blog syndication. So I’m back to allowing hotlinking, and have just removed the files that tended to be linked to.

If someone finds a more elegant solution (say, allowing hotlinking to blog images but not main site images), please let me know.

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Our Lives are a Waste

or: You Didn’t Pay For What You Bought

When we buy an item at the store, there’s a price tag attached and we usually assume that price on the tag is made up of two things: the cost of making the item, and some amount added on for overhead, profit, etc. If we see a remarkably cheap item, like a complicated piece of electronics for mere pennies, we assume that efficient creation, cheap parts and mass selling make up for the small profit margin. And to some extent that is a valid picture.

However, more often than not, the price tag on the shelf does not actually reflect the real cost of the item we buy. The cost is, in fact, higher than what we pay. Sounds like a great deal, right?

our lives are a waste

It’s not. The reason companies get away with selling items at lower than the cost to produce them is because the companies externalize their costs. Now, externalization is a simple enough idea in general: let some third party do part of your business in a way cheaper than doing it yourself. For example, having the pros like FedEx do shipping for your business instead of doing it in-house can save lots of money. But that is only the surface of cost externalization, and what we are interested in is much more insidious.
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Poetic iTerrorism

Someone in Maryland has been secretly replacing ipods inside their boxes with culture-jamming ransom-style notes.

ipod ransom

Quote: “Reclaim your mind from the media’s shackles. Read a book and resurect[sic] yourself. To claim your capitalistic garbage go to your nearest Apple store.”

Personally, I think this little act of poetic terrorism is well-intentioned and pretty harmless, so I say more power to whoever is doing it, and may you continue your spree without getting caught. Yeah, it may have been an annoyance to the end consumers, but maybe it caught their (or someone else’s) attention. Getting someone to stop and think (or giggle) for a moment is worth slowing them down a day or two on their latest quest for expensive consumer goods.

[story via BoingBoing]

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Discrimination Against Atheists

A survey from Pew (Sep 2007) reported on Americans’ opinions of various religions.

Basically, most people (76%) tend to have a favorable opinion of Jews and Catholics, more than half (53-60%) like Evangelical Christians, Mormons and Muslim Americans, though non-American Muslims are viewed unfavorably by about a third of Americans.

But then we see down at the bottom that — what a shock — atheists are the most disliked group. Only about a third of Americans have a favorable opinion while more than half have an unfavorable opinion of atheists. They’re much more disliked than Muslims, despite all the extreme Christians and nationalists media-blitzing on the dangers of Islam lately.

It seems Americans just don’t like atheists. (Note: it doesn’t ask for their opinion of atheism, the belief, but atheists, the people). Not a surprise I guess, given:

  • a 2007 Gallop poll showed that more than half of Americans would refuse to vote for an otherwise well-qualified atheist as president (a similar Newsweek poll has the number at 62%). We’re more likely to see someone female, black, Jewish, Mormon, gay, etc.
  • a 2006 study Univ of Minnesota study found atheists to be the most mistrusted minority among Americans (even more than homosexuals, Muslims, etc., and we’ve seen how backwards people can be about those subjects).
  • a number of states’ constitutions only extend protection from religious discrimination to those who acknowledge a deity; also, many states’ constitutions still bar atheists from public office or testifying as a witness in court. (Thankfully most of these wouldn’t stand up to federal constitutional scrutiny).
  • negative popular opinion: for example, in Tampa Bay half of the city council walked out of their meeting because an atheist had been invited to give the invocation.
  • in child custody cases, religious parents are preferentially chosen over non-believer parents (under the assumption that a religious education is in the child’s best interests).
  • these has never been a known atheist representative in Congress. (The first African-American in the House was in 1870; the first woman in the House was in 1916; the first known gay Congressperson was in 1972, after coming out in 1983).
  • common claims of atheists being immoral or criminal…despite the fact that atheists make up less than 1% of the prison population (i.e. underrepresented in crime).
  • treatment by public figures: for example, the elder Pres Bush said in 1988 “I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic.” His son has been as bad (the same guy who claimed that God told him to go to war with Iraq). Note we’ve never had a non-Christian president, certainly not an atheist.
  • media coverage is generally antagonistic: see example CNN video on Youtube)
  • countless personal anecdotes of jobs lost, students assaulted, families harassed, etc. when people find out someone is an atheist. Such harassment isn’t as well-recognized or well-published as some other discrimination because beliefs are not as overt as, say, skin color, but out-atheists can face as much or more persecution than out-homosexuals.

I could go on, but then it’s easy to find a similar list of discrimination against many groups (even majority religious groups still get discriminated against in some instances). Odd to think, though, that at the end of the day the atheists may have the hardest hill to climb, given that they’re the most disliked and mistrusted group in the U.S. right now. Thankfully we’ve come a long way in accepting peoples’ differences in this country, but we’ve got a long way to go yet.

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Death Gives Life Meaning, or Cognitive Dissonance?

The Singularity Institute (Oct 2007) posted a piece on how immortality can give meaning to a life, in much the same way people have argued that death gives meaning to our lives.

The author, E. Yudkowsky, gives some common arguments about the meaning death gives to life, and then goes on to provide examples of how similar reasoning could be applied even if people never died.

Death gives a sense of urgency, people say, so we are motivated to do things we would otherwise put off. “Go hang-gliding today, go learn to play the flute today, for tomorrow may never come.” But, as Yudkowsky points out, if you were immortal, you’d still have motivation for not procrastinating. “You’ve got to learn linear algebra eventually – why not start today?” Or perhaps a better argument would be that the boringness or regret of time not well-lived would still be there for immortals, pushing them toward more interesting or worthwhile pursuits (whereas those who age and die may come to their regret — or wisdom — too late to do anything about it).

Some people are nice to others in the here and now because, who knows, they may never see those people again. But presumably that gives you just as much reason to be an ass, which is why people are often more rude and confrontational when anonymous. For that matter, Yudkowsky points out, if people lived forever, they would be much more likely to run into the same people again eventually, so we have good reason to treat them well.
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Dolphin Language?

The Telegraph (Dec 2007) has a story on Liz Hawkins’ research into dolphin communication which claims they might be using language.

Basically, they used different whistles and clicks depending on environmental and behavioral context. Not exactly a surprise: many species do this. Vervets monkeys are well-known for making distinct alarm calls to their fellows based on the type of predator spotted. But is this enough to call it language?

Linguists have identified a handful of general properties of human language which give it its expressive power. Some of the crucial ones:

  • Arbitrariness: the sounds, letters or hand-signals used do not directly resemble the objects or ideas they refer to. The word cheetah does not look or sound like a big cat, and a vervet’s alarm call when eagles and hawks are around does not sound like a bird.
  • Productivity: can create new strings (combinations of sounds or words) from smaller pieces, i.e. can say something that has never been said before, and people will understand.
  • Displacement: allows reference to the past or future, or things out of immediate sight/experience. We can talk about yesterday’s weather and events that never happened.
  • Duality: has two levels — meaningless sound pieces (phonemes) and semantic meaning (morphemes, words, etc.) — operating at the same time. That is, mouth sounds like the ‘b’-, ‘a’- and ‘t’-sounds in “bat” mean nothing alone, but in the proper sequence they refer to an animal.

Whether all of these (and other important properties) are necessary to classify communication as strictly linguistic, it is clear that what we normally mean by language (i.e. human-like communication) is much more complex than simply producing different sounds or signals in distict contexts. So they’ve got a long way to go in establishing that dolphin communication is a “language” in anything close to the same sense by which we apply that term to human communication.

Certainly, other researchers have done work investigating dolphins’ communicatory abilities (including linguistic precursors like equivalence classes), but as of yet, most scientists in the field would probably not be comfortable calling it language. That’s one problem with popular media science writing: the writer tends to go for catchy, succinct headlines and descriptions that at best over-simplify scientific results, and at worst present outright falsities. It is important to spread scientific knowledge, but we must also spread scientific literacy in order for that knowledge not to be corrupted.

At any rate, the Telegraph article ends with a quote from Liz Hawkins: “Dolphin communication is much more complicated than we thought.” Fair enough, but perhaps she should replace the word ‘complicated’ with ‘flexible’. Making different whistles when feeding versus traveling is not exactly complicated.

There’s still a lot of research to be done, but this is a really exciting area because dolphins provide a rich source of data from an evolutionary line rather distinct from primates (the target of most animal language research in the last half of the twentieth century). Nice to see that field work is complementing the controlled experimental work.

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New Blog Design, With RSS

I’ve switched my blog over from hand-coded HTML to a more comprehensive, managed solution (with open-source WordPress software).

 The blog now allows syndication (click RSS up at the top of the menubar), and will have a tag cloud at the bottom of the menubar, once more posts get tagged.

Hopefully everything runs smoothly. Please let me know of any issues, especially with RSS, commenting, or the visual display.

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