Strange Loops - Blog Archive: June 2005
Strange Loops Journal Archive: June 2005

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

The Lottery Will Kill You
June 25, 2005

Interesting fact of the day, courtesy of Mike Orkin's book What Are The Odds?: in driving ten miles to buy a lottery ticket, you are sixteen times more likely to die in a car crash during your drive than you are to win the lottery.

Of course, people also overestimate the danger of flying compared to driving, likely due to the vividness effect. Auto deaths tend to accrue in widely distributed numbers, leading to an abstract fact about the danger of driving ("X deaths occur from auto accidents each week"), while something like a plane crash gives a single, vivid case where a bunch of people die together all at once. The number might be much smaller, but it stands out and is more accessible to memory and cognitive processing.

The lesson to take away from this? People suck at internalizing and understanding probabilities and large numbers. Probably due to evolutionary adaptation (where back then you have mainly single, close-to-hand experiences or anecdotes to learn about your immediate environment from), we overemphasize that which comes to us in single, vivid cases even when our higher reasoning abilities tell us - and we explicitly acknowledge - that the reality of the situation is different.

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Indefinite President
June 18, 2005
A number of Representatives in Congress recently introduced a bill, HJ 24 IH, to repeal the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 22nd Amendment declares that no person can serve as President for more than two terms. Representatives Hoyer, Berman, Sensenbrenner, Sabo and Pallone cosponsored this bill that would make it legal for a President to serve for an indefinite length of time. If it passed prior to the next election, President Bush could theoretically stay in office for four or more years. Likewise, Clinton could run again. Imagine that election.

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A Scientific Argument for the Ethical Treament of Lab Animals
June 18, 2005
Animal studies have been used for decades to understand various physiological and behavioral phenomena, including the factors involved in drug addiction. Studies involving rats have been one of the most common methods of scientific study of addiction, and countless articles have been published in peer reviewed journals based on this work.

More than twenty years ago, however, a psychologist at Simon Frasier University suggested that these sorts of studies have a major flaw in their basic experimental design. Rats used in scientific study are generally kept individually in tiny cages, cut off from the extensive social contact that rats in the wild are known for. They are often given little or no physical or mental stimulation. In other words, the life of a lab rat (specifically in physiological, neurological and pharmacological studies) is a dreary one.

The psychologist in question, Bruce Alexander, hypothesized that the drug addiction seen in lab rats when they are exposed to drugs (for example morphine, which is what heroin is converted into in the body) might not arise solely or primarily from the properties of the drugs themselves, as people assumed. Rather, he suggested that perhaps it was because the rats' lives were so unpleasant that they went back to the offered drugs over and over.

So he set up Rat Park, a very large, semi-natural housing colony for lab rats (two hundred times the size of a normal cage), stocked with food and toys and other rats. Then he offered the rats a typical morphine solution alongside their normal water, giving them the choice to use the morphine or not. He sweetened the morphine water (rats love sweetened water), and even got a number of rats started by forcing them to use morphine for two months.

Amazingly enough, his results showed that the rats in this enriched park chose to intake significantly less of the morphine solution than rats in normal housing conditions (as little as one twentieth as much). This seems to suggest that rats kept in cramped cages choose to self-administer drugs because their lives are boring or painful, not necessarily or primarily because their initial exposure to the drugs got them addicted.

If the findings of this experiment are reliable (pending further replication and extension of the study, which was published in a peer-reviewed journal but did not catch on), then it suggests that much of the scientific study done on the subject of human drug addiction by studying lab rats could be inaccurate or incomplete. Considering how ubiquitous such studies are in neuroscience, biology, psychology, pharmacology and other departments in universities (not to mention private research institutions), this would be a major deal, and could have implications for social policy that is often based on those findings.

Furthermore, it is possible that cramped housing of rats and other laboratory animals has an even wider effects than just studies involving behavior like drug addiction. What the Rat Park experiment suggests is that lab animals can be in a better or worse state ('happier' or more 'depressed' in simple terms) depending on their living conditions. If psychological well-being has some effect on an animal's physiological state (much like stress has been shown to make ulcers worse, even though it does not cause ulcers), then even studies of the physiological effect of drugs (as opposed to behavior where there is a choice, like whether or not to self-administer morphine) could be biased by this variable.

So regardless of any moral arguments as to the ethical treatment of laboratory animals, this seems to suggest that there is solid scientific reason to improve the conditions of animals and keep their psychological well-being in mind when housing and working with them. For if we are to generalize the results of animal-testing studies to human beings (as has been crucial to the development of medicine in the past, e.g.), we cannot afford results that are based on inadequate models, that tell us only how a depressed and unhealthy mammal will behave when exposed to drugs like morphine.

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Electro-Synaesthecholocation, or What is it Like to be a Bat, an Elasmobranch, an Alien and a Gorilla?
June 09, 2005
That bats and dolphins navigate through echolocation is well known, but perhaps not properly appreciated. We humans have five senses, all of which at various times aid us in orienting ourselves to our environment. We certainly use sound to learn about our surroundings; for example, the sound of an approaching car leads a person to get out of the street. Echolocation is just a specialized form of acoustical orientation, so what makes it so interesting?

To begin with, while we can get a crude idea of what it is like to navigate by echoes (walk around a room blindfolded and shout - you can often distinguish when you are near a wall or far from one), it is hard to imagine what a honed sense of echolocation would be like. Considering the basic way that the process works - send out signals that bounce off objects and send back new information about where and what they bounced off of - a sense of echolocation almost seems more analogous to our own sense of vision than our sense of hearing.

Imagine standing in a completely dark room and looking around. You see nothing. Now give yourself the ability to produce beams of light, say by a small flashlight. Now, by flicking the flashlight on briefly, you send out a signal which in turn bounces off of objects and sends back a signal that your sense organs are able to absorb. Depending on the shape, size and location of the objects, the signal has certain characteristics (wavelength and such) which allow your brain to automatically interpret so that you gain that information. The end result: you see the environment. You have a sort of mental image or mental map of your immediate space based on bounced signals.

Echolocation similarly seems to give a mental image or mental map of the surrounding space to the user. Of course, it lacks certain information such as color that a sense of vision gives. So is our sense of sound in the end a closer analogy? Not necessarily. More often than not it seems that sound alerts us to changes in our environment rather than orienting us to its basic layout and structure. Even a blind person tends to learn the arrangement of a room through tactile contact and moving around rather than listening to the details of the room.

Yet even though our sense of vision might in some sense be analogous, can we really know what it is like to sense the way echolocators do? Dolphins use sounds in a range familiar to us, so that we can perhaps imagine our own wall-shouting honed to act like our vision does. However, bats use ultrasonic sounds above the range of human hearing. When they sense their environment, how similar is it to the analogies used so far? Is hearing an ultrasonic sound similar to hearing a normal sound?

If this seems like a silly question, consider how limited our sense of vision is. We can only see visible light. We can use technology to transform infrared signals into visible-light images, but we are not actually perceiving the infrared, just a representation of it. What would it be like to perceive ultraviolet light? Or further out on the spectrum, x-rays and gamma-rays? In the other direction, what would it be like to perceive radio signals? We listen to our radios every day, but they in fact simply take the radio-wave light and transform it into audio signals in the range of human hearing. Again we do not perceive radio waves - we do not see or hear them - but only a representation of them constructed by technology to project in the range we do perceive.

If a sense organ developed to directly perceive ultraviolet light or gamma rays or radio waves, would it be vision just because it is receiving light signals and turning it into information about the environment? Or would it be an entirely different sense? We probably will never know, short of biotechnology giving us this sort of organ and finding a way to integrate it into our physiology. Installing a sensor for such signals which in turn sends nerve impulses to the brain which represented the sensed information is certainly plausible - but without evolution tailoring the brain over countless generations, could we find a way to integrate these translated signals into something the mind perceives?

It is not so simple as stimulating our optic nerve with these new impulses that originated in the newly-installed sense organs, for that might just end up stimulating new visual experiences that seem random and are not actually integrated in any meaningful way (like pressing on your closed eye causing spots and lines to appear in your field of vision). Or it might just lead to a strange criss-crossing of the sense interpretation pathways similar to the phenomenon of synaesthesia, where sounds have colors or words have taste. A person in such a situation might pick up on correlation between certain objects (like sunshine, known to be full of ultraviolet radiation) and certain synaesthetic experiences. However, this would not necessarily be a new sense, a truly new form of perception.

Thus, getting back to echolocation, we can only generalize our own sense experiences and abilities so far before we enter a territory where we truly cannot say what it is like to be a bat, for example. The limitations are even more apparently when considering another sense found in the animal kingdom: electroreception. A group of creatures known as elasmobranchii - including sharks, rays and skates - actually have a sense that does not seem very directly similar to any of our own.

All living things give off an electrical field with every heartbeat or muscle movement. Through electroreception, sharks and their relatives can actually sense changes in the local electrical field and use it for hunting and communication. Many sharks can detect these fields at a distance of up to three feet through special receptors on their head. These receptor cells convert the signal into a physiologically significant message which is transferred to the primary afferent nerves (the sensory nerves that carry impulses to the central nervous system), and in turn that message is transmitted to the brain which analyses the signal and allows the animal to respond accordingly.

This sense is strong enough that a predatory elasmobranch will use it to attack an electrical field source even in the complete absence of chemical cues. A shark does not need to see, smell, hear, touch or taste prey in order to locate and attack it.

Again one can ask what it is like to perceive in this way, but it seems to me we can only scratch our heads and wonder. No more can we understand what it is like to be a shark electrically scanning the water in front of its face than we can understand what it is like to be a bat just because we ourselves have hearing and vision, senses that seem related in basic process (bouncing, receiving and interpreting signals) and function (creating a mental image or mental map of the environment - those terms being used loosely for whatever form the representation actually takes).

Indeed, we can speculate about aliens which perceive in even more strange and abstract ways than a bat or an elasmobranch. Perhaps they experience something like color when the gravitational field around them shifts; or perhaps they experience something akin to music as streams of countless neutrinos pass through their bodies every minute of every day. Perhaps they even experience things we cannot ever experience, even in theory, things we could not comprehend.

We cannot imagine what it would be like to be such a creature, to be in its place and perceiving as it perceives (seeing through its eyes one might say, if it were not for the lack of eyes), but surely it would be distinct enough from us that if they also developed intelligence and consciousness to the extent we have, they would still probably not end up living or thinking or interacting like we do.

If such creatures had something that could be called language, it would surely not be easy to translate into our own languages. Consider how much information is lost translating between spoken human languages; or between spoken human language and signed language like ASL (American Sign Language, which Koko the gorilla learned to use as proficiently as many human children). Getting a gorilla to talk to us in human language is an impressive feat, but gorillas come from a similar evolutionary ancestor and have an innate advantage toward learning our sort of language in that way. If dolphins were capable of language - of semantics and symbol use and all the rest that goes with it and sets language apart from simple signal calls - surely it would be much harder, if not impossible, to teach them to communicate using and understand our languages.

A creature even more distinct from us in evolutionary history, sense apparatus and basic physiological form would surely have an even harder time communicating with or understanding us. The point here being that not only do we have trouble imagining what it would be like to perceive the way these other creatures perceive, but even a tool like language would not provide a simple solution to that problem. Neither species could easily explain themselves and what they feel - even if language could capture subjective experience. So it seems there is to some extent an inseparable divide between us and creatures which interact with the world in vastly different ways.

The conclusions of this are intriguing. For one thing, it means that if computers ever develop artificial intelligence and awareness, their 'senses' - the ways in which they receive and process information from the environment - may turn out to be very different from our own. Even if they evolve out of current robotic designs that utilize something like vision-navigation, they might not process the incoming signals the same way we do, and so an intelligent computer's experience (its sensory perceptions) might not be similar to our own.

Thus, if someday computer technology (which today is still rudimentary, of course) reaches a level where it is undeniably intelligent and conscious, aware and sentient, we might not be able to communicate with it in any deep manner. This of course does not bode well for the Turing Test as it is most commonly imagined - a chat interface between human and computer. Current attempts at chat interface work on very simplistic principles which do not suggest deep understanding of human language in the way we or Koko the gorilla use it. There is no reason to think that if or when computers reach a high level of intelligence and consciousness, they will still be using a higher-evolved version of a chat interface; rather one might suspect that they would develop their own methods of communication and language tailored to the way they exist and perceive.

This potential divide of communication and understanding between different entities also suggests some positive things though. As mentioned above, we now know that gorillas are capable of language. They do not simply respond to verbal signals with trained behavior in the way a pet rat seems to. Rather, Koko invents new signs and new uses for old signs, she makes jokes that involve plays on words and sign-homonyms, she creates insults and builds meaningful linguistic strings that she has never been exposed to (i.e. picking up semantic rules). Considering our shared evolution with these creatures - and thus the similarity in our sense systems and how we perceive the world - we can now recognize the potential for deep inter-species communication. Through communication and the knowledge of our shared experience, perhaps we can in some sense learn what it is like to be a gorilla. And that is an amazing thing.

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Getting Fat Without Eating
June 09, 2005
According to a study at Tufts university, most Americans get more of their calories from drinking soda than any other food source. Granted, that is not to say that people drink over fifty percent of their calories in soda; just that if you list all their food intakes by calories soda wins. In other words, it is more common than most other dietary intakes, and is drank often enough to still beat higher calorie foods (like pizza). About a year ago I switched from drinking soda almost exclusively (zero intake of plain water) to drinking water almost exclusively (one soda every couple weeks). Not only did this single dietary change help me lose about thirty pounds in a few months with moderate exercise, but now I do not even miss soda. The taste is too sweet to drink regularly. It is amazing how much the body adapts to our diets and makes us crave things that in other circumstances we not only do not crave, but do not really enjoy ingesting at all. With a little training, your body can be made to not even desire some junk foods.

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