Friday, May 17, 2019

Like the emperor’s new clothes, DNA kits are a tailored illusion

I recommend reading this article by George Estreich. Here are a few clips:
Most people remember the emperor: a vain ruler, swindled into paying for a nonexistent magical garment, parades in public, only to be embarrassed by a little boy. To me, the story is really about the swindling tailors. Audacious, imaginative, their true product is a persuasive illusion, one keyed to the vulnerabilities of their target audience. In contemporary terms, the story is about marketing; and as such, the tale is tailor-made for an examination of genetic ancestry tests, because these too are sold with expert persuasion, with promises woven from our hopes, our fears, and the golden thread of DNA.
With these new tests, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century tale, a gap yawns between the promise and the reality – and now and then, as in the story, someone says so in the public square. For example, when Phil Rogers, a reporter in Chicago, tried out home DNA test kits from competing companies last year, he discovered contradictory results. So did the Canadian reporter Charlsie Agro and her twin sister Carly, who mailed spit samples to 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage and LivingDNA. As with Rogers, the companies gave different histories – Balkan ancestry, for example, ranged from 14 to 61 per cent – but 23andMe actually reported different scores for each twin. (According to the company, Charlsie has French and German ancestors, while Carly does not.)
The tests are sold with variations on a single pitch: find your story. The companies don’t mention that the story might shade into fiction, or that stories can conflict. The evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas at University College London has dismissed ancestry testing as ‘genetic astrology’, but it could be as useful to think of it as genetic gossip: a rumoured past that, like most rumours, is at least partly true.
Chasing his dreams of status and power, the emperor misses the swindle: the ‘weavers’ make off with tangible wealth, while the emperor receives nothing. The entire performance is a masterful misdirection, a distraction from the truth of the exchange. In the same way, the promises of discovering identity and the genealogical past are a misdirection: the real exchange takes place offstage, with drug companies and others paying for access to the data that customers actually pay to give. Once it’s given, customers are vulnerable to future data breaches (and you can’t, at this date at least, change your genome), and they aren’t guaranteed compensation for any profits the data might lead to.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Father's physical activity directly enhances offspring's brain physiology and cognition.

Experiments on mice suggest that human kids of athletic fathers might have more smarts than kids of couch potatoes. From McGreevy et al.:

Physical exercise is well known for its positive effects on general health (specifically, on brain function and health), and some mediating mechanisms are also known. A few reports have addressed intergenerational inheritance of some of these positive effects from exercised mothers or fathers to the progeny, but with scarce results in cognition. We report here the inheritance of moderate exercise-induced paternal traits in offspring’s cognition, neurogenesis, and enhanced mitochondrial activity. These changes were accompanied by specific gene expression changes, including gene sets regulated by microRNAs, as potential mediating mechanisms. We have also demonstrated a direct transmission of the exercise-induced effects through the fathers’ sperm, thus showing that paternal physical activity is a direct factor driving offspring’s brain physiology and cognitive behavior.
Physical exercise has positive effects on cognition, but very little is known about the inheritance of these effects to sedentary offspring and the mechanisms involved. Here, we use a patrilineal design in mice to test the transmission of effects from the same father (before or after training) and from different fathers to compare sedentary- and runner-father progenies. Behavioral, stereological, and whole-genome sequence analyses reveal that paternal cognition improvement is inherited by the offspring, along with increased adult neurogenesis, greater mitochondrial citrate synthase activity, and modulation of the adult hippocampal gene expression profile. These results demonstrate the inheritance of exercise-induced cognition enhancement through the germline, pointing to paternal physical activity as a direct factor driving offspring’s brain physiology and cognitive behavior.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Ready to pounce - Cat smarts get some attention

I live in a symbiotic relationship with my two Abyssinian cats, and so was gratified, given that canine social cognition is the subject of dozens of scientific papers, to see that feline cognition is beginning to get more attention. One simple reason for the difference is that dogs want to please humans and cooperate with experimenters, while cats could generally care less, and after a few trials will walk away from earnest efforts to engage their responses. When a human points at something, a chimp will not react, but a dog, like a human toddler, knows to look at the same thing. Turns out that cats do the same thing, they will trot over to a bowl that a human points to. It is turning out that cats match dogs in many tests of social smarts. Alas, I'm going to show you a cat video... not of some adorable feline faux pas, but of behavioral work being done with cats:

And, since I'm showing cat pictures, I can't resist introducing you to Abyssinians Marvin and Melvin, shown napping while I'm driving between Madison WI and Austin TX.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Want to escape your liberal bubble? Try this.....

I have a recommendation for MindBlog readers like myself who are concerned about their immersion in the liberal bubble of the New York Times, Washington Post and the numerous sarcastic evening show commentators (Colbert, Maher, Maddow, Noah, etc.). The media (alas, like scientific reality in general!) does indeed have a liberal bias. I'm now finding a crystallized antithesis to my bubble in the American Greatness website, whose daily email screeds I have subscribed to after reading an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times by its publisher and editor Chris Buskirk. To note only three of the twelve pieces in last Thursday's email: Democrats’ Collapse Could Happen Quickly , Yes,Christians Can Support Trump Without Risk to Their Witness , and  Why the Left Mocks the Bible . A clip from the last of these, a telling piece:
...on virtually every important value in life, the left and the Bible are diametrically opposed...
The biblical view is that people are not basically good. Evil, therefore, comes from within human nature. For the left, human nature is not the source of evil. Capitalism, patriarchy, poverty, religion, nationalism or some other external cause is the source of evil.
The biblical view is that nature was created for man. The left-wing view is that man is just another part of nature.
The biblical view is that man is created in the image of God and, therefore, formed with a transcendent, immaterial soul. The left-wing view—indeed, the view of all secular ideologies—is that man is purely material, another assemblage of stellar dust.
Relevant to humans being 'born in sin' I hope to do a post soon on a book I just finished, Nicholas Christakis' Magnum Opus “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society”. This book, like Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" , the subject of previous MindBlog posts, paints a more benign picture of desirable human traits that have evolved to make society possible.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

MindBlog Changes

I want to explain to readers who check MindBlog daily why the drumbeat of a post each weekday (4,700 posts over the past 13 years) has stopped. My 78th year starts next week, and performative professor Deric has decided to spend more time doing other things, to try a few new tricks. I will continue to occasionally post on interesting material I encounter.

Monday, May 06, 2019

The Case for Doing Nothing

An article by Olga Mecking fits so well with my increasing allergic reaction to making myself busy all the time that I have to pass on a few edited and rearranged clips:
Perhaps it’s time to stop all this busyness. Being rarely the status indicator we’ve come to believe it is...There’s a way out...and it’s not more mindfulness, exercise or a healthy diet... What we’re talking about is … doing nothing. Or, as the Dutch call it, niksen...being like a car whose engine is running but isn’t going anywhere...coming to a moment with no plan other than just to be.
...the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless...permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out...daydreaming and idleness let the mind search for its own stimulation...counterintuitively, idleness can be a great productivity takes you out of your mind, and then you see things clearly after a makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas......For that to happen, though, total idleness is required.
...don’t get discouraged if you don’t catch on immediately to the benefits of beginning a new workout routine: At first, you might get sore, but after a while, you’ll find yourself in this moment of "Oh, this feels fantastic.” Keep your devices out of reach so that they’ll be more difficult to access, and turn your home into a niksen-friendly area. Add a soft couch, a comfy armchair, a few cushions or just a blanket. Orient furniture around a window or fireplace rather than a TV.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Same-sex marriage legalization reduced implicit and explicit antigay bias

Interesting work from Ofosu et al. shows how government legislation can inform individuals’ attitudes, even when these attitudes may be deeply entrenched and socially and politically volatile.:
The current research tested whether the passing of government legislation, signaling the prevailing attitudes of the local majority, was associated with changes in citizens’ attitudes. Specifically, with ∼1 million responses over a 12-y window, we tested whether state-by-state same-sex marriage legislation was associated with decreases in antigay implicit and explicit bias. Results across five operationalizations consistently provide support for this possibility. Both implicit and explicit bias were decreasing before same-sex marriage legalization, but decreased at a sharper rate following legalization. Moderating this effect was whether states passed legislation locally. Although states passing legislation experienced a greater decrease in bias following legislation, states that never passed legislation demonstrated increased antigay bias following federal legalization. Our work highlights how government legislation can inform individuals’ attitudes, even when these attitudes may be deeply entrenched and socially and politically volatile.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Why are some people more anxious than others? Brain correlates of trait anxiety.

Why does trait anxiety (the stable tendency to attend to, experience, and report negative emotions such as fears, worries, and anxiety across many situations) vary between individuals? Berry et al. have measured self-reported trait anxiety in healthy adults, examining its relationships with brain dopamine function (Most anxiolytic drugs target serotonergic and GABAergic neurotransmitter systems) and also examining functional connectivity within circuits implicated in anxiety regulation. This enabled them to probe the neural substrates of individual differences.

  Significance Statement
It is common wisdom that individuals vary in their baseline levels of anxiety. We all have a friend or colleague we know to be more “tightly wound” than others, or, perhaps, we are the ones marveling at others' ability to “just go with the flow.” Although such observations about individual differences within nonclinical populations are commonplace, the neural mechanisms underlying normal variation in trait anxiety have not been established. Using multimodal brain imaging in humans, this study takes initial steps in linking intrinsic measures of neuromodulator release and functional connectivity within regions implicated in anxiety disorders. Our findings suggest that in healthy adults, higher levels of trait anxiety may arise, at least in part, from reduced dopamine neurotransmission.
Trait anxiety has been associated with altered activity within corticolimbic pathways connecting the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), which receive rich dopaminergic input. Though the popular culture uses the term “chemical imbalance” to describe the pathophysiology of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety disorders, we know little about how individual differences in human dopamine neurochemistry are related to variation in anxiety and activity within corticolimbic circuits. We addressed this issue by examining interindividual variability in dopamine release at rest using [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography (PET), functional connectivity between amygdala and rACC using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and trait anxiety measures in healthy adult male and female humans. To measure endogenous dopamine release, we collected two [11C]raclopride PET scans per participant. We contrasted baseline [11C]raclopride D2/3 receptor binding and D2/3 receptor binding following oral methylphenidate administration. Methylphenidate blocks the dopamine transporter, which increases extracellular dopamine and leads to reduced [11C]raclopride D2/3 receptor binding via competitive displacement. We found that individuals with higher dopamine release in the amygdala and rACC self-reported lower trait anxiety. Lower trait anxiety was also associated with reduced rACC–amygdala functional connectivity at baseline. Further, functional connectivity showed a modest negative relationship with dopamine release such that reduced rACC–amygdala functional connectivity was accompanied by higher levels of dopamine release in these regions. Together, these findings contribute to hypodopaminergic models of anxiety and support the utility of combining fMRI and PET measures of neurochemical function to advance our understanding of basic affective processes in humans.


Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Is Superintelligence Impossible?

Andy Clarke does an interesting and concise commentary on a discussion between Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers. I pass on the final two paragraphs of Clark's comments and suggest you read the whole piece.
I think we can divide the space of possible AI minds into two reasonably distinct categories. One category comprises the “passive AI minds” that seemed to be the main focus of the Chalmers-Dennett exchange. These are driven by large data sets and optimize their performance relative to some externally imposed choice of “objective function” that specifies what we want them to do—win at GO, or improve paperclip manufacture. And Dennett and Chalmers are right—we do indeed need to be very careful about what we ask them to do, and about how much power they have to implement their own solutions to these pre-set puzzles.
The other category comprises active AIs with broad brush-strokes imperatives. These include Karl Friston’s Active Inference machines. AI’s like these spawn their own goals and sub-goals by environmental immersion and selective action. Such artificial agents will pursue epistemic agendas and have an Umwelt of their own. These are the only kind of AIs that may, I believe, end up being conscious of themselves and their worlds—at least in any way remotely recognizable as such to us humans. They are the AIs who could be our friends, or who could (if that blunt general imperative was played out within certain kinds of environment) become genuine enemies. It is these radicalized embodied AIs I would worry about most. At the same time (and for the same reasons) I’d greatly like to see powerful AIs from that second category emerge. For they would be real explorations within the vast space of possible minds.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Digital addiction and the attention economy.

Jia Tolentino's "What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away" is a broad essay on our digital addictions that focuses on two recent books: Cal Newport's “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” and Jenny Odell's “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy." I strongly recommend that you read it. I am going to resist the impulse to pass on many choice clips of text, limiting myself to two:
Odell elegantly aligns the crisis in our natural world and the crisis in our minds: what has happened to the natural world is happening to us, she contends, and it’s happening on the same soon-to-be-irreparable scale. She sees “little difference between habitat restoration in the traditional sense and restoring habitats for human thought”; both are endangered by “the logic of capitalist productivity.” She believes that, by constantly disclosing our needs and desires to tech companies that sift through our selfhood in search of profit opportunities, we are neglecting, even losing, our mysterious, murky depths—the parts of us that don’t serve an ulterior purpose but exist merely to exist. The “best, most alive parts” of ourselves are being “paved over by a ruthless logic of use.”
On the monetization of attention:
Legislators might succeed in granting citizens more control over the data that they generate by using the Internet, but social-media companies will, presumably, continue to treat their users like little countries that can be strip-mined to make other people rich...We remain attached to these technologies in a way that is clearly affecting the health of the body politic. Newport insists that our Internet-fuelled lack of mental peace and quiet is a better explanation for the current wave of American anxiety than “the latest crisis—be it the recession of 2009 or the contentious election of 2016.”

Monday, April 29, 2019

A bit of digital detox - rehearsing a Mendelssohn Piano Trio

I have been fortunate to find in Austin TX two accomplished string players, violinist Andrea Gore and cellist Karen Foster Cason, who join me in sight reading interesting piano trios. We have decided to work up a few of the pieces we like to do for a house concert in late May, - a musical/social occasion of the sort I used to do in the 1860 stone schoolhouse that was the living room of my Twin Valley Road residence in Madison Wisconsin. I thought I would pass on to MindBlog readers a bit of our rehearsal this past Thursday, working on a Mendelssohn piano trio.

The "digital detox" phrase in this post's title is a clip from Jia Tolentino's recent New Yorker Article "What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away." I'm very much in the mood these days to get away from the "invasion of your cognitive landscape" that it describes and that I have permitted by being open to so many digital input streams as I spend a large fraction of my days hovering over screen and keyboard.

I find that the exercise of playing music is an antidote to this malaise, and I want to spend more time doing it. Don't be surprised if MindBlog posts become less frequent. Anyway, here is the 1st movement of the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, in a video recording done with my iPhone XS Max with a Shure condenser microphone plugged into its USB port:

Friday, April 26, 2019

Bringing dead brains back to life.

Work by Vrselja et al. on restoring brain function in pigs four hours after death has been extensively covered by the popular press. I want to pass on the abstract to their paper, and then one clip that shows how far away the recovery observed is from actually restoring brain function.
The brains of humans and other mammals are highly vulnerable to interruptions in blood flow and decreases in oxygen levels. Here we describe the restoration and maintenance of microcirculation and molecular and cellular functions of the intact pig brain under ex vivo normothermic conditions up to four hours post-mortem. We have developed an extracorporeal pulsatile-perfusion system and a haemoglobin-based, acellular, non-coagulative, echogenic, and cytoprotective perfusate that promotes recovery from anoxia, reduces reperfusion injury, prevents oedema, and metabolically supports the energy requirements of the brain. With this system, we observed preservation of cytoarchitecture; attenuation of cell death; and restoration of vascular dilatory and glial inflammatory responses, spontaneous synaptic activity, and active cerebral metabolism in the absence of global electrocorticographic activity. These findings demonstrate that under appropriate conditions the isolated, intact large mammalian brain possesses an underappreciated capacity for restoration of microcirculation and molecular and cellular activity after a prolonged post-mortem interval.
This beautiful work shows that the brain has a much greater capacity for restoration that had been realized. The authors were able to obtain intracellular recordings from hippocampus pyramidal cells. However:
Monitoring of electrical activity from the dorsal surface of the brain using clinical-grade surface grid electrodes and electrocorticography (ECoG; also known as intracranial electroencephalography, EEG) revealed that spontaneous global activity did not reemerge and that ECoG activity was isoelectric throughout BEx perfusion. This indicates that the organization and/or summation of synaptic activity of individual neurons was inadequate to elicit detectable network activity as assessed by ECoG.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Factfulness - Rosling's instinctual mental errors - Destiny, Single Perspective, Blame, Urgency

This is the final installment of several posts for my own benefit - making brief clips from the Rosling "Factfullness" book to encapsulate what he calls our 10 'basic instincts' - instinctual mental errors that we make - hoping this exercise will imprint them in my feeble memory and make me less likely to perform some of the mental errors he describes.

The Destiny Instinct (Chapter 7) - Many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly. Remember that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes. To control the destiny instinct, remember slow change is still change. Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change every year can translate to a huge change over decades. Update your knowledge. Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing. Talk to Grandpa. If you want to be reminded of how values have changed, think about your grandparents’ values and how they differ from yours. Collect examples of cultural change. Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterday’s, and will also be tomorrow’s.

The Single Perspective Instinct (Chapter 8) - Recognize that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remember that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions. To control the single perspective instinct, get a toolbox, not a hammer. Test your ideas. Don’t only collect examples that show how excellent your favorite ideas are. Have people who disagree with you test your ideas and find their weaknesses. Don’t claim expertise beyond your field: be humble about what you don’t know. Be aware too of the limits of the expertise of others. If you are good with a tool, you may want to use it too often. If your favorite idea is a hammer, look for colleagues with screwdrivers, wrenches, and tape measures. Be open to ideas from other fields. The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone. Love numbers for what they tell you about real lives. Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis.

The Blame Instinct (Chapter 9) - Recognize when a scapegoat is being used and remember that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future. To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat. Look for causes, not villains. When something goes wrong don’t look for an individual or a group to blame. Accept that bad things can happen without anyone intending them to. Instead spend your energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation. Look for systems, not heroes. When someone claims to have caused something good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give the system some credit.

The Urgency Instanct (Chapter 10) - Recognize when a situation feels urgent and remember that it rarely is. To control the urgency instinct, take small steps. Take a breath. When your urgency instinct is triggered, your other instincts kick in and your analysis shuts down. Ask for more time and more information. It’s rarely now or never and it’s rarely either/or. Insist on the data. If something is urgent and important, it should be measured. Beware of data that is relevant but inaccurate, or accurate but irrelevant. Only relevant and accurate data is useful. Beware of fortune-tellers. Any prediction about the future is uncertain. Be wary of predictions that fail to acknowledge that. Insist on a full range of scenarios, never just the best or worst case. Ask how often such predictions have been right before. Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested. Step-by-step practical improvements, and evaluation of their impact, are less dramatic but usually more effective.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Factfulness - Rosling's instinctual mental errors - Fear, Size, Generalization

I'm continuing posts for my own benefit - making brief clips from the Rosling "Factfullness" book to encapsulate what he calls our 10 'basic instincts' - instinctual mental errors that we make - hoping this exercise will imprint them in my feeble memory and make me less likely to perform some of the mental errors he describes.

The Fear Instinct (Chapter 4) - Frightening things get our attention, but remember that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks. To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks. The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected—by your own attention filter or by the media—precisely because it is scary. The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but on a combination of two things. How dangerous is it? And how much are you exposed to it? Get calm before you carry on. When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.

The Size Instinct (Chapter 5) - When a lonely number seems impressive (small or large), remember that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number. To control the size instinct, get things in proportion. Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious. Always look for comparisons. Ideally, divide by something. The 80/20 rule. Have you been given a long list? Look for the few largest items and deal with those first. They are quite likely more important than all the others put together. Divide: Amounts and rates can tell very different stories. Rates are more meaningful, especially when comparing between different-sized groups. In particular, look for rates per person when comparing between countries or regions.

Remember that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly. To control the generalization instinct, question your categories. Look for differences within groups. Especially when the groups are large, look for ways to split them into smaller, more precise categories. And, look for similarities across groups. If you find striking similarities between different groups, consider whether your categories are relevant. But also, look for differences across groups. Do not assume that what applies for one group (e.g., you and other people living on income Level 4 or unconscious soldiers) applies for another (e.g., people not living on income Level 4 or sleeping babies). Beware of “the majority.” The majority just means more than half. Ask whether it means 51 percent, 99 percent, or something in between. Beware of vivid examples. Vivid images are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule. Assume people are not idiots. When something looks strange, be curious and humble, and think, In what way is this a smart solution?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Factfulness - Rosling's instinctual mental errors - Gap, Negativity, Straight Line

I'm doing this and a few subsequent posts for my own benefit - making brief clips from the Rosling "Factfullness" book described in the previous post to encapsulate what he calls our 10 'basic instincts' - instinctual mental errors that we make - hoping this exercise will imprint them in my feeble memory and make me less likely to perform some of the errors he describes.

The Gap Instinct (Chapter 1) - the irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap—a huge chasm of injustice—in between (as in rich vs. poor, us vs. them). The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be. To control the gap instinct, look for the majority.

The Negativity Instinct (Chapter 2) - ...information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them, gradual improvement is not news. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful. To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news. More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering, not a worsening world. Beware of rosy pasts. People often glorify their early experiences, and nations often glorify their histories.

The Straight Line Instinct (Chapter 3) - ..straight lines are rare in reality, remember that curves come in different shapes, many trends do not follow straight lines but are S-bends, slides, humps, or doubling lines. Not child ever kept up the rate of growth it achieved in its first six months, and no parents would expect it to. World population will be stabilizing in the next 50-100 years as birth and death rates become equal. 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Factfulness - Hans Rosling - Introduction

I have just had a read through the book “Factfulness” written by Hans Rosling together with his son and daughter, published in early 2018, very much in the vein of Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” published at roughly the same time. Both books provided detailed data showing that things in this world are not as bad as we commonly suppose. I abstracted portions of Pinker's book in a series of MindBlog posts beginning on 3/1/18,  and in a series of subsequent posts  I want  to pass on my thumbnail sketches, taken from the text, of the main points of the "Factfulness" book. They are descriptions of 10 human "instincts", evolved psychological short cuts that blind us to obvious facts that are revealed by just paying attention to the numbers.

To begin, however, this post points to a marvellous video that serves as an introduction  - Hans Rosling's 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes - The Joy of Stats - from BBC 4:

Friday, April 19, 2019

Return of the oppressed.

An article written by Peter Turchin in 2013 notes that inequality moves in cycles, from the Roman Empire to our own Gilded Age, and he gives a chilling prediction about 2020: that inequality will have reached levels sufficient to cause violent social unrest (cf. threats of violence by Trump supporters if he does not win re-election in 2020.) I suggest you read the article, and include below his interesting graphic on American History

Inverse relationship between well-being and inequality in American history. The peaks and valleys of inequality (in purple) represent the ratio of the largest fortunes to the median wealth of households (the Phillips curve). The blue-shaded curve combines four measures of well-being: economic (the fraction of economic growth that is paid to workers as wages), health (life expectancy and the average height of native-born population), and social optimism (the average age of first marriage, with early marriages indicating social optimism and delayed marriages indicating social pessimism).

Thursday, April 18, 2019

New microscopy technique sees thousands of cells and their activity deep in the brain

Weisenberger et al. manage the amazing feat of imaging and recording activity of ~12,000 neurons in the mouse cortex. Here is their abstract and a clip from their Figure 7.

•In vivo Ca 2+ imaging of ∼12,000 neurons in mouse cortex at single-cell resolution
•Simultaneous 2p and 3p Ca 2+ imaging within 1,000 × 1,000 × 1,220 μm at up to 17 Hz
•Volumetric 3p Ca 2+ imaging of hippocampus through intact cortex 
•A new integrated, systems-wide optimized microscopy design paradigm
Calcium imaging using two-photon scanning microscopy has become an essential tool in neuroscience. However, in its typical implementation, the tradeoffs between fields of view, acquisition speeds, and depth restrictions in scattering brain tissue pose severe limitations. Here, using an integrated systems-wide optimization approach combined with multiple technical innovations, we introduce a new design paradigm for optical microscopy based on maximizing biological information while maintaining the fidelity of obtained neuron signals. Our modular design utilizes hybrid multi-photon acquisition and allows volumetric recording of neuroactivity at single-cell resolution within up to 1 × 1 × 1.22 mm volumes at up to 17 Hz in awake behaving mice. We establish the capabilities and potential of the different configurations of our imaging system at depth and across brain regions by applying it to in vivo recording of up to 12,000 neurons in mouse auditory cortex, posterior parietal cortex, and hippocampus.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

McMindfulness - how capitalism captured the mindfulness industry

A great piece in The Guardian by David Forbes, an extract from his forthcoming book "Mindfulness and its Discontents" from which I further extract a few chunks:
On the internet is an image of Ronald McDonald, the McDonald’s hamburger icon, seated in a lotus position. Some Thai Buddhists see this in literal terms as disrespectful to the Buddha...The technical, neutral definition of mindfulness and its relativist lack of a moral foundation has opened up secular mindfulness to a host of dubious uses, now called out by its critics as McMindfulness...Instead of letting go of the ego, McMindfulness promotes self-aggrandizement; its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatized, militarized, individualistic society based on private gain...McMindfulness aims to reduce the stress of the private individual and does not admit to any interest in the social causes of does not grasp that an individualistic therapized and commodified society is itself a major generator of social suffering and distress. Instead, the best it can then do, ironically, is to offer to sell us back an individualistic, commodified “cure” – mindfulness – to reduce that distress...Meditation apps monetize mindfulness; Headspace’s revenue is estimated at $50m a year and the company is valued at $250m.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The New York Times Privacy Project

Many MindBlog readers are probably aware of the NYTimes series of articles on privacy, but I point to it for those who may not be. A recent piece by Ross Douthat describes how our emerging post-privacy isn't quite totalitarian, but it's getting there. I was particularly chilled by Valentino-DeVries' description of Google's Sensorvault database - a trove of detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide. Law enforcement officers are using it to identify possible suspects near crimes, and can obtain names and email addresses of device owners who appear relevant to the crime. The article has links to Google web pages that let you download all of your location history and any other data Google has on you. Other pages give instructions on deleting location, web, and App activity, as well as turning off such data collection.