Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Enhancing longevity by removing deteriorated body cells.

Here I pass on both the introductory summary and concluding paragraph of van Deursen's review of efforts to enhance longevity by removing body cells that have deteriorated and become dysfunctional (SNCs).
The estimated “natural” life span of humans is ∼30 years, but improvements in working conditions, housing, sanitation, and medicine have extended this to ∼80 years in most developed countries. However, much of the population now experiences aging-associated tissue deterioration. Healthy aging is limited by a lack of natural selection, which favors genetic programs that confer fitness early in life to maximize reproductive output. There is no selection for whether these alterations have detrimental effects later in life. One such program is cellular senescence, whereby cells become unable to divide. Cellular senescence enhances reproductive success by blocking cancer cell proliferation, but it decreases the health of the old by littering tissues with dysfunctional senescent cells (SNCs). In mice, the selective elimination of SNCs (senolysis) extends median life span and prevents or attenuates age-associated diseases. This has inspired the development of targeted senolytic drugs to eliminate the SNCs that drive age-associated disease in humans.
As knowledge of the fundamental biology and vulnerabilities of SNCs expands, the rational design of targeted senolytics is expected to yield therapies to eliminate SNCs that drive degeneration and disease. This positive outlook is based on successes in oncology and because the main limitation of cancer therapies—the clonal expansion of drug-resistant cells—does not apply to SNCs. Additional confidence comes from the recent progress in bringing senolytic agents into clinical trials. The first clinical trial is testing UBX0101 for the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee. Another drug, UBX1967, a BCL-2 family inhibitor specifically tailored for diseases of the aging eye, is also advancing to human testing. Multiple clinical trials treating diverse diseases of aging with senolytic drugs are expected to follow soon. This includes two-step cancer treatment approaches whereby malignant cells are first forced into a senescent state by one drug and then eliminated with a senolytic agent. Success in these first clinical studies is the next critical milestone on the road to the development of treatments that can extend healthy longevity in people.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Why can we read only one word at a time?

Fascinating work from White et al.:

Significance
Because your brain has limited processing capacity, you cannot comprehend the text on this page all at once. In fact, skilled readers cannot even recognize just two words at once. We measured how the visual areas of the brain respond to pairs of words while participants attended to one word or tried to divide attention between both. We discovered that a single word-selective region in left ventral occipitotemporal cortex processes both words in parallel. The parallel streams of information then converge at a bottleneck in an adjacent, more anterior word-selective region. This result reveals the functional significance of subdivisions within the brain’s reading circuitry and offers a compelling explanation for a profound limit on human perception.
Abstract
In most environments, the visual system is confronted with many relevant objects simultaneously. That is especially true during reading. However, behavioral data demonstrate that a serial bottleneck prevents recognition of more than one word at a time. We used fMRI to investigate how parallel spatial channels of visual processing converge into a serial bottleneck for word recognition. Participants viewed pairs of words presented simultaneously. We found that retinotopic cortex processed the two words in parallel spatial channels, one in each contralateral hemisphere. Responses were higher for attended than for ignored words but were not reduced when attention was divided. We then analyzed two word-selective regions along the occipitotemporal sulcus (OTS) of both hemispheres (subregions of the visual word form area, VWFA). Unlike retinotopic regions, each word-selective region responded to words on both sides of fixation. Nonetheless, a single region in the left hemisphere (posterior OTS) contained spatial channels for both hemifields that were independently modulated by selective attention. Thus, the left posterior VWFA supports parallel processing of multiple words. In contrast, activity in a more anterior word-selective region in the left hemisphere (mid OTS) was consistent with a single channel, showing (i) limited spatial selectivity, (ii) no effect of spatial attention on mean response amplitudes, and (iii) sensitivity to lexical properties of only one attended word. Therefore, the visual system can process two words in parallel up to a late stage in the ventral stream. The transition to a single channel is consistent with the observed bottleneck in behavior.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Why high-class people get away with incompetence.

Belmi et al. do four experiments suggesting that people who come from a higher social class are more likely to have an inflated sense of their skills — even when tests proved that they are average. This unmerited overconfidence is interpreted by strangers as competence. This highlights yet another way that family wealth and parents' education confers an advantage in getting ahead in life.
Understanding how socioeconomic inequalities perpetuate is a central concern among social and organizational psychologists. Drawing on a collection of findings suggesting that different social class contexts have powerful effects on people’s sense of self, we propose that social class shapes the beliefs that people hold about their abilities, and that this, in turn, has important implications for how status hierarchies perpetuate. We first hypothesize that compared with individuals with relatively low social class, individuals with relatively high social class are more overconfident. Then, drawing on research suggesting that overconfidence can confer social advantages, we further hypothesize that the overconfidence of higher class individuals can help perpetuate the existing class hierarchy: It can provide them a path to social advantage by making them appear more competent in the eyes of others. We test these ideas in four large studies with a combined sample of 152,661 individuals. Study 1, a large field study featuring small-business owners from Mexico, found evidence that individuals with relatively high social class are more overconfident compared with their lower-class counterparts. Study 2, a multiwave study in the United States, replicated this result and further shed light on the underlying mechanism: Individuals with relatively high (vs. low) social class tend to be more overconfident because they have a stronger desire to achieve high social rank. Study 3 replicated these findings in a high-powered, preregistered study and found that individuals with relatively high social class were more overconfident, even in a task in which they had no performance advantages. Study 4, a multiphase study that featured a mock job interview in the laboratory, found that compared with their lower-class counterparts, higher-class individuals were more overconfident; overconfidence, in turn, made them appear more competent and more likely to attain social rank.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Policy evaluation by randomized trials may provoke greater objections than implementing them untested.

Meyer et al. find that experiments comparing two unobjectionable policies or treatments can generate more objections than simply proceeding to implement them.

Significance
Randomized experiments—long the gold standard in medicine—are increasingly used throughout the social sciences and professions to evaluate business products and services, government programs, education and health policies, and global aid. We find robust evidence—across 16 studies of 5,873 participants from three populations spanning nine domains—that people often approve of untested policies or treatments (A or B) being universally implemented but disapprove of randomized experiments (A/B tests) to determine which of those policies or treatments is superior. This effect persists even when there is no reason to prefer A to B and even when recipients are treated unequally and randomly in all conditions (A, B, and A/B). This experimentation aversion may be an important barrier to evidence-based practice.
Abstract
Randomized experiments have enormous potential to improve human welfare in many domains, including healthcare, education, finance, and public policy. However, such “A/B tests” are often criticized on ethical grounds even as similar, untested interventions are implemented without objection. We find robust evidence across 16 studies of 5,873 participants from three diverse populations spanning nine domains—from healthcare to autonomous vehicle design to poverty reduction—that people frequently rate A/B tests designed to establish the comparative effectiveness of two policies or treatments as inappropriate even when universally implementing either A or B, untested, is seen as appropriate. This “A/B effect” is as strong among those with higher educational attainment and science literacy and among relevant professionals. It persists even when there is no reason to prefer A to B and even when recipients are treated unequally and randomly in all conditions (A, B, and A/B). Several remaining explanations for the effect—a belief that consent is required to impose a policy on half of a population but not on the entire population; an aversion to controlled but not to uncontrolled experiments; and a proxy form of the illusion of knowledge (according to which randomized evaluations are unnecessary because experts already do or should know “what works”)—appear to contribute to the effect, but none dominates or fully accounts for it. We conclude that rigorously evaluating policies or treatments via pragmatic randomized trials may provoke greater objection than simply implementing those same policies or treatments untested.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Is technology really reshaping our consciousness?

My first reaction on reading a recent Op-Ed piece by David Brooks "When Trolls and Crybullies Rule the Earth" was to say 'Yes!', and think I should immediately fire off some selected clips in a MindBlog post. I'm glad I waited a bit, because as I look at it again I feel he has erred on the side of being an alarmist drama queen to grab our attention. The article begins with:
Over the past several years, teenage suicide rates have spiked horrifically....What's going on?
Several sources show an increasing rate from 2010 to 2017, but a look at Centers for Disease Control data shows higher rates for the late 1980's and early 1990's. He continues:
My answer starts with technology but is really about the sort of consciousness online life induces.
Brooks then describes transformations of human consciousness as if they have replaced, rather than adding to and enhancing, older forms of consciousness:  the shift from an oral to a printed culture centuries ago and the current shift from printed to electronic communication.
Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods...up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile...your online post can go viral and get massively admired or ridiculed, while other times your post can leave you alone and completely ignored. Communication itself, once mostly collaborative, is now often competitive, with bids for affection and attention. It is also more manipulative — gestures designed to generate a response.
But... were not the old fashioned kinds of attention exchanged personally or in crowds of people, rather than electronically, labile and competitive with constant bids for affection and attention? Electronics may have amplified what was happening, but it didn't fundamentally transform it. Vicious gossip can be exchanged in old fashioned personal or newer less personal electronic ways. Online platforms may be an amplifier of our traits, but they don't basically transform them. Trolls and crybullies have always been with us. Still, Brooks makes good points, even if a bit exaggerated:
The internet has become a place where people communicate out of their competitive ego: I’m more fabulous than you (a lot of Instagram). You’re dumber than me (much of Twitter). It’s not a place where people share from their hearts and souls.
Of course, people enmeshed in such a climate are more likely to feel depressed, to suffer from mental health problems. Of course, they are more likely to see human relationship through the abuser/victim frame, and to be acutely sensitive to any power imbalance. Imagine you’re 17 and people you barely know are saying nice or nasty things about your unformed self. It creates existential anxiety and hence fanaticism.

Friday, June 07, 2019

The wisdom of partisan crowds.

Fascinating and counterintuitive findings from Becker et al., who find that the wisdom of crowds is robust to partisan bias:

Significance
Normative theories of deliberative democracy are based on the premise that social information processing can improve group beliefs. Research on the “wisdom of crowds” has found that information exchange can increase belief accuracy in many cases, but theories of political polarization imply that groups will become more extreme—and less accurate—when beliefs are motivated by partisan political bias. While this risk is not expected to emerge in politically heterogeneous networks, homogeneous social networks are expected to amplify partisan bias when people communicate only with members of their own political party. However, we find that the wisdom of crowds is robust to partisan bias. Social influence not only increases accuracy but also decreases polarization without between-group network ties.
Abstract
Theories in favor of deliberative democracy are based on the premise that social information processing can improve group beliefs. While research on the “wisdom of crowds” has found that information exchange can increase belief accuracy on noncontroversial factual matters, theories of political polarization imply that groups will become more extreme—and less accurate—when beliefs are motivated by partisan political bias. A primary concern is that partisan biases are associated not only with more extreme beliefs, but also with a diminished response to social information. While bipartisan networks containing both Democrats and Republicans are expected to promote accurate belief formation, politically homogeneous networks are expected to amplify partisan bias and reduce belief accuracy. To test whether the wisdom of crowds is robust to partisan bias, we conducted two web-based experiments in which individuals answered factual questions known to elicit partisan bias before and after observing the estimates of peers in a politically homogeneous social network. In contrast to polarization theories, we found that social information exchange in homogeneous networks not only increased accuracy but also reduced polarization. Our results help generalize collective intelligence research to political domains.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Inequality brokered

Public opinion about sexual minorities has improved dramatically in recent years, but Sun and Gao do an analysis showing that discriminatory behavior in lending practices has been ongoing and gone unchecked.

Significance
We propose a method to infer people’s sexual orientation indirectly through gender disclosure of the borrower and coborrower in a mortgage. Furthermore, we examine lending practices toward same-sex borrowers and its spillover effects. We attempt to extend the research on race/gender discrimination by systematically investigating the potentially different lending treatment toward same-sex borrowers. The data reveal that, compared with otherwise similar different-sex applicants, same-sex applicants are 73.12% more likely to be denied, and they tend to be charged up to 0.2% higher fees/interest. Furthermore, neighborhoods’ higher same-sex population density adversely affects both same-sex and different-sex borrowers’ lending experiences. Our method might approximately measure the US homosexual population distribution up to the census tract level annually over decades.
Abstract
Using massive US mortgage lending data, we propose a method to infer a borrower’s sexual orientation indirectly without a self-identification requirement and demonstrate the method’s potential to approximately measure the sexual orientation of the US population at the local level annually over decades. We continue to examine the lending practices to same-sex borrowers and its spillover effects. The persistent results since 1990 reveal that, in contrast with otherwise comparable different-sex loan applicants, the approval rate for same-sex applicants is ∼3–8% lower. Furthermore, conditional on approval, lenders, on average, charge about 0.02–0.2% higher interest to same-sex borrowers, which is equivalent to an annual total of $8.6 million to $86 million in additional interest/fees nationwide. Meanwhile, we find that same-sex borrowers are less risky overall, as they exhibit similar default risk but lower prepayment risk. Finally, we document findings of spillover effects. That is, when the share of a neighborhood’s same-sex population increases, both same-sex and different-sex borrowers seem to experience more unfavorable lending outcomes overall. The findings should raise enough concerns to warrant further investigations.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Blueprint - Nicholas Christakis' new book on evolutionary origins of a good society

This opinion piece by Frank Bruni in the NYTimes motivated me to download and read Nicholas Christakis' Magnum Opus “Blueprint” (very much in the 'everything you need to know about humans' spirit of Sapolsky's "Behave" and Harari's "Sapiens," and "Homo Deus," and "21 Lessons," all books that I have made the subject of previous posts.). It echoes Pinker's emphasis on the more positive aspects of human nature and progress. It is a very engaging read, and not amenable to a simple summary, but here is a bit from his introduction:
How can people be so different from—even go to war with—one another and yet also be so similar? The fundamental reason is that we each carry within us an evolutionary blueprint for making a good society.
Genes do amazing things inside our bodies, but even more amazing to me is what they do outside of them. Genes affect not only the structure and function of our bodies; not only the structure and function of our minds and, hence, our behaviors; but also the structure and function of our societies. This is what we recognize when we look at people around the world. This is the source of our common humanity.
Natural selection has shaped our lives as social animals, guiding the evolution of what I call a “social suite” of features priming our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, learning, and even our ability to recognize the uniqueness of other individuals. Despite all the trappings and artifacts of modern invention—our tools, agriculture, cities, nations—we carry within us innate proclivities that reflect our natural social state, a state that is, as it turns out, primarily good, practically and even morally. Humans can no more make a society that is inconsistent with these positive urges than ants can suddenly make beehives.
I believe that we come to this sort of goodness just as naturally as we come to our bloodier inclinations. We cannot help it. We feel great when we help others. Our good deeds are not just the products of Enlightenment values. They have a deeper and prehistoric origin. The ancient tendencies that form the social suite work together to bind communities, specify their boundaries, identify their members, and allow people to achieve individual and collective objectives while at the same time minimizing hatred and violence. For too long, in my opinion, the scientific community has been overly focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for tribalism, violence, selfishness, and cruelty. The bright side has been denied the attention it deserves.

Friday, May 31, 2019

After brief music training 8-10 year old kids show less hyperactivity and better inhibitory control.

Fasano et al. show that only three months of orchestral music training improves inhibitory control and reduces hyperactivity in 8-10 year old children. From the Science Magazine summary of Tamela Hines:
Play your notes and nothing extra. Wait during your measures of rest. Watch the conductor and synchronize with your neighbors. Such attention and sensorimotor skills are key to performing music as part of a group, whether orchestral or choral or a marching band. Not everyone, however, has the time and interest to become a professional musician. Fasano et al. tested the effect of a short orchestral training program, spanning 10 sessions over 3 months, on a group of psychologically normal schoolchildren in Italy. Children in this brief program improved on measures of inhibitory control and hyperactivity. The results suggest new, and fun, ways to help children manage their own hyperactive behaviors.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Happily ever after....

Sure enough, as soon as I do yesterday's post on aging, I run into, and will pass on in this post, a sane article in the Guardian that is basically a listicle of 25 ways to live well into old age. An explanatory paragraph accompanies each item in the list.

-Look to your ancestors for answers
-Enjoy coffee
-Walk faster
-Exercise in green space
-Fast every day
-Build muscle
-Read books
-Work longer
-Keep learning
-Take a nap
-Clean out your medicine cabinet
-Only spend on vitamin D and zinc
-Avoid pollution
-Use olive oil
-Build bone density
-Cultivate friendships
-Support Immunity (dark leafy greens, brassicas like cabbage and broccoli, alliums like garlic, leeks and onions, and mushrooms.)
-Change how you eat, particularly in the evening
-Add tumeric
-Meditate
-Eat more fiber
-Avoid blue light in the evenings
-Look after your eyes
-Walk a dog
-Cultivate optimism

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Live younger longer

New Yorker Magazine writer and polymath Adam Gopnik does an excellent article describing studies on our increased longevity that aim to enhance its quality, not its duration. He also describes anti-aging research directed at increasing longevity.  I suggest you read the article. Here are a few clips, mainly from the first part of the article describing the experience of aging:
Over the past century, we’ve created the greatest gift in the history of humanity—thirty extra years of life—and we don’t know what to do with it! Now that we’re living longer, how do we plan for what we’re going to do?
To get a sense of what it would be like to have the slow process of aging become a fast process, you can go to the AgeLab, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, and put on agnes (for Age Gain Now Empathy System). agnes, or the “sudden aging” suit, as Joseph Coughlin, the founder and director of the AgeLab describes it, includes yellow glasses, which convey a sense of the yellowing of the ocular lens that comes with age; a boxer’s neck harness, which mimics the diminished mobility of the cervical spine; bands around the elbows, wrists, and knees to simulate stiffness; boots with foam padding to produce a loss of tactile feedback; and special gloves to “reduce tactile acuity while adding resistance to finger movements.”
Slowly pulling on the aging suit and then standing up—it looks a bit like one of the spacesuits that the Russian cosmonauts wore—you’re at first conscious merely of a little extra weight, a little loss of feeling, a small encumbrance or two at the extremities. Soon, though, it’s actively infuriating. The suit bends you. It slows you. You come to realize what makes it a powerful instrument of emotional empathy: every small task becomes effortful. “Reach up to the top shelf and pick up that mug,” ...requires more attention than you expected. You reach for the mug instead of just getting it. Your emotional cast, as focussed task piles on focussed task, becomes one of annoyance; you acquire the same set-mouthed, unhappy, watchful look you see on certain elderly people on the subway. The concentration that each act requires disrupts the flow of life, which you suddenly become aware is the happiness of life, the ceaseless flow of simple action and responses, choices all made simultaneously and mostly without effort. Happiness is absorption, and absorption is the opposite of willful attention.
The AgeLab is designed to alleviate this progression. It exists to encourage and incubate new technologies and products and services for an ever-larger market of aging people....the AgeLab swiftly discovered that engineering and promoting new products and services specially designed for the expanding market of the aged is a good way of going out of business. Old people will not buy anything that reminds them that they are old. They are a market that cannot be marketed to. In effect, to accept help in getting out of the suit is to accept that we’re in the suit for life. We would rather suffer because we’re old than accept that we’re old and suffer less.
The AgeLab has rediscovered the eternal truth that identity matters to us far more than utility. The most effective way of comforting the aged, the researchers there find, is through a kind of comical convergence of products designed by and supposedly for impatient millennials, which secretly better suit the needs of irascible boomers. The best hearing aids look the most like earbuds. The most effective PERS (personal-emergency-response system) device is an iPhone or an Apple Watch app.
It’s the failure of industry and engineering to address the actual problems of aging—the problems summed up by the aggravations of the agnes suit—that makes Coughlin impatient with scientific speculations about extending life. “We’ve already extended life! What we need is not to put off death a little longer but to write a new narrative of aging as it could be.”
The second section of the article describes several approaches that contest the classic explanation of why we age:
Once we have passed reproductive age, the genes can get sloppy about copying, allowing mutations to accumulate, because natural selection no longer cares. And so things fall apart. The second law of thermodynamics gets us all in the end. The car or the Cuisinart works for a decade, breaks down, and can’t be fixed; rust never sleeps, and we do.
Contra this view:
...in certain genetic labs at Harvard, the chairs and seals and exaptated services of the AgeLab are regarded as mere Band-Aids on the problem to be solved. Here, there are whispers of undying yeast, tales of eternally young mice, rumors of rejuvenated dogs, and scientists who stubbornly insist that age is an illness to be treated like any other...Perhaps aging is not a condition to be managed but a mistake to be fixed.
However,
To pass from the Harvard rejuvenators to the laboratory of Patrick Hof, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in Manhattan, is to sober up a little. Here, there is talk not of imminent innovation but of discouragingly minute work proceeding on many slow-moving fronts over decades. Where the Harvard crowd see quick fixes in the near future, Hof, an expert on the neuronal underpinnings of aging and Alzheimer’s, sees the exposure of ever more confounding complexity.
In conclusion...
As you take off the agnes suit—piece by piece; the boots and then the wrist weights and the impeding gloves—the feeling is disconcerting. It’s the return of flow, the feeling of choice and possibility as you begin to move again through the world, that makes you recall that what it is to be young is not to be in a state of ecstasy but merely to be unimpeded, to be in the world without having undue consciousness of your own muscle and bone within it. It’s the same thing we experience when we remove a splinter from our foot; what we get is not happiness in a positive sense but a return to not having to think about the prison and the fact of our flesh. We forget our insides, and fold ourselves back out.
The true condition of youth is the physical ability to forget ourselves. A friend who is still creative in his eighties points out what he calls the geriatric possessive: people past eighty, he says, are expected to say, “I’m going to take my bath,” “I’m going to take my walk.” We can counterpoise that to the pediatric possessive: “You’re going to take your bath,” “It’s time for your nap.” Only in midlife do we feel secure enough to enumerate actions as existing individually outside our possession of them: “I’m going to take a bath,” “I’m going to take a nap.” A bath and a nap exist, briefly, outside our possession of them—they’re just around for the taking, we suppose, and always will be.
We may indeed already be converging as a population — irascible millennials who feel dated at twenty-five and determinedly upbeat boomers who insist on feeling young at seventy — on a single American age, a kind of shared perpetual middleness, where we will dye our hair and take our pills and suddenly collapse in the midst of the dance. Right now, we live well, and then we don’t live well, and then we die. The most that science seems to offer us is this: We’ll live well, and then we’ll die.

Monday, May 27, 2019

With the rise of Trump, the fall of racial prejudice?

Stanley-Becker points to a fascinating study by Hopkins and Washington. Their abstract:
In his campaign and first few years in office, Donald Trump consistently defied contemporary norms by using explicit, negative rhetoric targeting ethnic/racial minorities. Did this rhetoric lead white Americans to express more prejudiced views of African Americans or Hispanics, whether through the normalization of prejudice or other mechanisms? We assess that question using a 13-wave panel conducted with a population-based sample of Americans between 2008 and 2018. We find that via most measures, white Americans' expressed anti-Black and anti-Hispanic prejudice declined after the 2016 campaign and election, and we can rule out even small increases in the expression of prejudice. These results suggest the limits of racially charged rhetoric's capacity to heighten prejudice among white Americans overall. They also indicate that prejudice can behave like an issue attitude: rather than being a fixed predisposition, prejudice can respond thermostatically to changing presidential rhetoric and policy positions.
Stanley-Becker quotes Hopkins:
...it’s quite conceivable that Trump has simultaneously galvanized a small number of highly prejudiced white Americans while also pushing millions more to affirm that they are not as prejudiced.
Hopkins said his discovery is not out of step with other assessments. In fact, his conclusions are in line with recent scholarship suggesting that bias, both implicit and explicit, has declined when it comes to race and sexual orientation, though prejudice has remained steady regarding people with disabilities and actually increased regarding obesity.
The recent scholarship Hopkins references is work from Banaji's group:
Using 4.4 million tests of implicit and explicit attitudes measured continuously from an Internet population of U.S. respondents over 13 years, we conducted the first comparative analysis using time-series models to examine patterns of long-term change in six social-group attitudes: sexual orientation, race, skin tone, age, disability, and body weight. Even within just a decade, all explicit responses showed change toward attitude neutrality. Parallel implicit responses also showed change toward neutrality for sexual orientation, race, and skin-tone attitudes but revealed stability over time for age and disability attitudes and change away from neutrality for body-weight attitudes. These data provide previously unavailable evidence for long-term implicit attitude change and stability across multiple social groups; the data can be used to generate and test theoretical predictions as well as construct forecasts of future attitudes.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Blame the liberals for unlivable cities!

An excellent article by Farhad Manjoo, focusing on San Francisco's affordable housing crisis. Some clips:
Just look at San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi’s city. One of every 11,600 residents is a billionaire, and the annual household income necessary to buy a median-priced home now tops $320,000. Yet the streets there are a plague of garbage and needles and feces, and every morning brings fresh horror stories from a “Black Mirror” hellscape: Homeless veterans are surviving on an economy of trash from billionaires’ mansions. Wealthy homeowners are crowdfunding a legal effort arguing that a proposed homeless shelter is an environmental hazard.
And there is no end in sight to such crushing success. At every level of government, our representatives, nearly all of them Democrats, prove inadequate and unresponsive to the challenges at hand. Witness last week’s embarrassment, when California lawmakers used a sketchy parliamentary maneuver to knife Senate Bill 50, an ambitious effort to undo restrictive local zoning rules and increase the supply of housing.
It was another chapter in a dismal saga of Nimbyist urban mismanagement that is crushing American cities. Not-in-my-backyardism is a bipartisan sentiment, but because the largest American cities are populated and run by Democrats — many in states under complete Democratic control — this sort of nakedly exclusionary urban restrictionism is a particular shame of the left.
Democrats on the 2020 presidential trail rarely mention their ideas for housing affordability, an issue eating American cities alive.
What Republicans want to do with I.C.E. and border walls, wealthy progressive Democrats are doing with zoning and Nimbyism. Preserving “local character,” maintaining “local control,” keeping housing scarce and inaccessible — the goals of both sides are really the same: to keep people out.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Educating liberals about white privilege doesn't make them more empathetic.

Cooley et al. find that people with socially liberal views on the major political issues are actually less likely to empathize with a poor white person’s plight after being given a reading on white privilege (see also the article by Jilani that points to this work):
White privilege lessons are sometimes used to increase awareness of racism. However, little research has investigated the consequences of these lessons. Across 2 studies (N = 1,189), we hypothesized that White privilege lessons may both highlight structural privilege based on race, and simultaneously decrease sympathy for other challenges some White people endure (e.g., poverty)—especially among social liberals who may be particularly receptive to structural explanations of inequality. Indeed, both studies revealed that while social liberals were overall more sympathetic to poor people than social conservatives, reading about White privilege decreased their sympathy for a poor White (vs. Black) person. Moreover, these shifts in sympathy were associated with greater punishment/blame and fewer external attributions for a poor White person’s plight. We conclude that, among social liberals, White privilege lessons may increase beliefs that poor White people have failed to take advantage of their racial privilege—leading to negative social evaluations.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Benefits of a period of exercise persist after 10 years.

Gretchen Reynolds points to a study by Johnson et al. showing long term effects of an experiment conducted from 1998 to 2003, in which overweight volunteers between 40 and 60 were divided into control (inactive), moderate walking), and vigorous (jogging) exercise groups that completed three sessions of their assigned workout each week for eight months. Health markers (aerobic fitness, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and waist circumference) improved in the exercise but not the control groups. Experimenters were able to get in touch with many subjects 10 years later and found:
Most of the men and women from the control group, who had not exercised 10 years before, had larger waistlines now, while the exercisers displayed little if any middle-aged spread compared to their decade-earlier selves.
Those from the control group also were less fit now. Most had lost about 10 percent of their aerobic capacity, which is typical of the declines seen after about age 40, when most of us will lose about 1 percent of our fitness annually.
But those men and women who had exercised vigorously for eight months during the original experiment retained substantially more fitness. On average, their aerobic capacity had fallen by only about 5 percent, compared to when they had joined the Strride study, and those few who reported still exercising at least four times a week were more fit now than they had been a decade before.
Interestingly, those earlier experimental volunteers who had walked — meaning their exercise had been moderate, not intense — did not seem to have enjoyed the same lasting fitness benefits as those who had exercised more vigorously. Most of them had shed about 10 percent of their aerobic capacity during the past decade, much like the controls.
On the other hand, they showed surprisingly persistent improvements in their metabolic health, more so than among the intense exercisers. The walkers from 10 years ago still had healthier blood pressures and insulin sensitivity than they had had before joining the earlier experiment, even if they rarely exercised now. They had also had relatively healthier metabolisms than the men and women who had exercised intensely all those years before.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A Sunday Afternoon Musicale - Bridges and Mendelssohn

This post falls in the 'random curious stuff' of the MindBlog title above. I want to share some of my current musical efforts with MindBlog readers. When MindBlog began in 2016 I started to share with readers some of the videos made at Sunday afternoon musical/social events at my 1860 schoolhouse/residence in Madison Wisconsin. I'm now living full time in Austin Texas, and have been fortunate to be able form a piano trio with two accomplished musicians, violinist Andrea Gore and Cellist Karen Foster Cason. Andrea hosted a Musicale this past Sunday at her beautiful home built on the banks of a creek running into Lake Travis. The pictures show our trio, and the natural grotto photographed from the deck of the house. I embed a rehearsal video of the Mendelssohn Allegro and give links to rehearsal videos of the rest of the program (I wish I had recorded the coherence and precision of the event itself). The Mendelssohn Allegro and Finale are the most pyrotechnical of the offerings.





Program for the Sunday, May 19, 1:00 Musicale at Awalt

Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Miniatures for Violin, Violoncello, & Piano
4. Romance
5. Intermezzo
6. Saltarello

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) Piano Trio No. 2 in D minor, Op. 66
1. Allegro energico e con fuoco
2. Andante espressivo
3. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto
4. Finale: Allegro appassionato

Andrea Gore, Violin
Karen Foster Cason, Cello
Deric Bownds, Piano

Monday, May 20, 2019

Are rich people really less generous than poor people?

Here is a ‘fact’ (that rich people are less generous than poor people) that I had locked into mind that turns out to be wrong. They are not less generous, contra the findings of an often cited 2015 landmark study. From Schmukle et al.:

Significance
Are the rich less generous than the poor? Results of studies on this topic have been inconsistent. Recent research that has received widespread academic and media attention has provided evidence that higher income individuals are less generous than poorer individuals only if they reside in a US state with comparatively large economic inequality. However, in large representative datasets from the United States (study 1), Germany (study 2), and 30 countries (study 3), we did not find any evidence for such an effect. Instead, our results suggest that the rich are not less generous than the poor, even when economic inequality is large. This result has implications for contemporary debates on what increasing inequality in resource distributions means for modern societies.
Abstract
A landmark study published in PNAS [Côté S, House J, Willer R (2015) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 112:15838–15843] showed that higher income individuals are less generous than poorer individuals only if they reside in a US state with comparatively large economic inequality. This finding might serve to reconcile inconsistent findings on the effect of social class on generosity by highlighting the moderating role of economic inequality. On the basis of the importance of replicating a major finding before readily accepting it as evidence, we analyzed the effect of the interaction between income and inequality on generosity in three large representative datasets. We analyzed the donating behavior of 27,714 US households (study 1), the generosity of 1,334 German individuals in an economic game (study 2), and volunteering to participate in charitable activities in 30,985 participants from 30 countries (study 3). We found no evidence for the postulated moderation effect in any study. This result is especially remarkable because (i) our samples were very large, leading to high power to detect effects that exist, and (ii) the cross-country analysis employed in study 3 led to much greater variability in economic inequality. These findings indicate that the moderation effect might be rather specific and cannot be easily generalized. Consequently, economic inequality might not be a plausible explanation for the heterogeneous results on the effect of social class on prosociality.

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.:

Significance
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.
Abstract
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 busy...is 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 tool..it takes you out of your mind, and then you see things clearly after a while...it 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 idleness...like 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.
Abstract
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.

[11C]

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.

Highlights
•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
Summary
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 stress...it 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.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Changes in well-being measured by massive online choice experiments.

Brynjolfsson et al. (open source) suggest moving beyond using gross domestic product (GDP) and productivity as a proxy for well-being to include the welfare gains from digital goods having zero price that are currently not captured in GDP.:

Significance
Gross domestic product (GDP) measures production and is not meant to measure well-being. While many people nonetheless use GDP as a proxy for well-being, consumer surplus is a better measure of consumer well-being. This is increasingly true in the digital economy where many digital goods have zero price and as a result the welfare gains from these goods are not reflected in GDP or productivity statistics. We propose a way of directly measuring consumer well-being using massive online choice experiments. We find that digital goods generate a large amount of consumer welfare that is currently not captured in GDP. For example, the median Facebook user needed a compensation of around $48 to give it up for a month.
Abstract
Gross domestic product (GDP) and derived metrics such as productivity have been central to our understanding of economic progress and well-being. In principle, changes in consumer surplus provide a superior, and more direct, measure of changes in well-being, especially for digital goods. In practice, these alternatives have been difficult to quantify. We explore the potential of massive online choice experiments to measure consumer surplus. We illustrate this technique via several empirical examples which quantify the valuations of popular digital goods and categories. Our examples include incentive-compatible discrete-choice experiments where online and laboratory participants receive monetary compensation if and only if they forgo goods for predefined periods. For example, the median user needed a compensation of about $48 to forgo Facebook for 1 mo. Our overall analyses reveal that digital goods have created large gains in well-being that are not reflected in conventional measures of GDP and productivity. By periodically querying a large, representative sample of goods and services, including those which are not priced in existing markets, changes in consumer surplus and other new measures of well-being derived from these online choice experiments have the potential for providing cost-effective supplements to the existing national income and product accounts.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Tracking emotions of unseen persons by their context.

Martinez does a commentary on work by Chen and Whitney (open source) in the same issue of PNAS.  Here is a clip from that commentary:
Face perception is a fundamental component of our cognitive system and, arguably, a core ability that allowed humans to create the large, advanced societies of today. When we look at someone else’s face, we recognize who they are, whether they are female or male, attractive or unattractive, and happy or sad; that is, their affective state. Correctly interpreting these signals is essential for a functional, cooperative society. For example, when looking at the faces in Fig. 1, most people identify a female expressing sadness on the left and an angry male on the right. But while identity and other attributes are recognized quite accurately, affect is not. To see this, look at the images in Fig. 2A and B. What expressions would you now say these two individuals express? Most of us classify them as expressing excitement or euphoria; that is, positive emotions. What is behind this radical change in our interpretation of these images? Context. Our interpretation of a facial configuration is dependent on the context in which the facial expression is situated. In an ambitious new study in PNAS, Chen and Whitney show that people make reasonably good predictions of people’s affect when only the contextual information is known; that is, when the face is not observable (Fig. 2C). This inference is shown to be accurate, even when the whole body of the person is masked (Fig. 2D), thus preventing an inference based on body pose. Context, therefore, is not only necessary for a correct interpretation of how others feel but, in some instances, it is sufficient. This surprising result will provide renewed interest in the value that context plays in our interpretation of how others feel.
Fig. 1. When asked to identify the emotions shown in these images, most people agree that the left image expresses sadness, while the right image is a clear display of anger. If asked whether these expressions communicate positive or negative valence, most people agree that both correspond to a negative expression. The problem with these assessments is that context is not observable, which may lead to incorrect interpretations. Images courtesy of (Left) Imgflip and (Right) Getty Images/Michael Steele.

Fig. 2. Adding context to the facial expressions previously seen in Fig. 1 radically changes our interpretation of the emotion being experienced by a person. (A and B) In these two images, most observers agree that the people shown are experiencing a joyful event (i.e., positive valence). (C and D) When the face and body are blurred out, inference of valence and arousal is still possible. Images courtesy of (Upper Left, Lower Left, and Lower Right) Imgflip and (Upper Right) Getty Images/Michael Steele.


Here is the Chen and Whitney abstract:
Emotion recognition is an essential human ability critical for social functioning. It is widely assumed that identifying facial expression is the key to this, and models of emotion recognition have mainly focused on facial and bodily features in static, unnatural conditions. We developed a method called affective tracking to reveal and quantify the enormous contribution of visual context to affect (valence and arousal) perception. When characters’ faces and bodies were masked in silent videos, viewers inferred the affect of the invisible characters successfully and in high agreement based solely on visual context. We further show that the context is not only sufficient but also necessary to accurately perceive human affect over time, as it provides a substantial and unique contribution beyond the information available from face and body. Our method (which we have made publicly available) reveals that emotion recognition is, at its heart, an issue of context as much as it is about faces.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Studies on brain renewal and enhancement

I want to point to two recent examples of studies on brain renewal in aging humans and other animals. First, a Stanford group finds that the normal decay in the effectiveness of the microglial brain cells that clean up brain garbage (protein deposits and cellular debris) correlates with the increased appearance of a single gene product, the B cell receptor protein CD22. They find that "Long-term central nervous system delivery of an antibody that blocks CD22 function reprograms microglia towards a homeostatic transcriptional state and improves cognitive function in aged mice."

Second, Zimmer does a nice review of work on the brain protein Klotho. Mice bred to make extra Klotho live 30 percent longer, and protects those with symptoms of Alzheimer's disease from cognitive decline. Klotho not only protects, but enhanced brain function, even in young mice. A recent study suggests that Klotho may also provide some protection from Alzheimer’s disease to people as well.