Link Roundup, 10/27/2017

From The Texas Tribune: Joe Straus, the man who has checked the most insane ambitions of Texas Republicans, announced he will retire from the Legislature.

From Wired: A look at what happens in Russia when a women go public over sexual assault.

From The New York Times: The strange story of a doctored official photograph of Tillerson’s visit to Afghanistan.

From Bloomberg: Bundy-types are taking bold steps to cut off access to public land.

From Aeon: How a faulty metaphor complicates our understanding of the brain. Fantastic long read.

22 Comments

  1. I don’t know where to begin with Epstein’s Aeon article, but I’ll try:

    First, He’s a psychologist, and not a neuroscientist. He’s not a computer scientist either. If he were the former, he’d realize that human brains have specific structures that accomplish very specific functions associated with social behavior. For instance, the fusiform gyrus has evolved to recognize human faces. It’s specialized hardware! Had he any training in the latter, he’d recognize that certain low-level functions in infants are perfectly analogous to firmware, or our BIOS. This list is long, but enough of this for now…

    His tactic is essentially to state what the field of neuroscience and AI suggests is true. or at least a rational model of the brain, and than asserts that it isn’t, *completely without support*. Consider the assertion that the brain doesn’t “store information”. Let’s do an experiment: Write down two phone numbers you know one above the other. Where the hell did those numbers come from? Now add them together. Now you’ve used a learned algorithm to process data in a very specific way to get a specific result. It may be my lack of creativity, but I can see no description other than memory recall from storage, and subsequent algorithmic processing, can you? Perhaps I just don’t understand psychobabble.

    It may be that this heaping bowl of word salad from AEON is nothing more than a sort of semantic game attempting to redefine common ideas in and with different terms. If so, it serves no useful purpose. Alternatively, it may be a superficial attempt to inject metaphysics into neuroscience – to ‘show’ that human consciousnesses is a sort of ‘ghost in the machine’ that we’ll never be able to understand or model it or the brain with any accuracy. If this is the message, he ought to try to prove it rather then simply assert it.

    And what was supposed to be so compelling about the ‘dollar bill’ experiment? The subject recalled from memory, a compressed image of a dollar bill. On seeing the real thing s/he replicated the image in far greater detail. So what? It’s been established for a very long time that memories are compressed versions of experience. This process has artifacts like any similar process. For example, we understand quite well why eyewitness testimony is often very, very unreliable. Nothing to see here, move along…

    So indeed, as WX mentioned below, the ‘brain as computer’ model is very robust and very useful. That details of exactly how much, (perhaps most), of the processing is actually accomplished, and how consciousness seems an emergent property of the brain remains unexplained, are completely irrelevant to the fidelity of the model.

  2. Hi all,

    I had a great trip to SW Utah – visited and hiked in Capitol Reef, Zion, Bryce and the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Parks. Also visited Grand Staircase Escalante NM, which Zinke is attacking.

    Anyway, amidst all the gloom and doom, I feel compelled to post a good news story – https://patch.com/washington/redmond/dhingra-has-big-lead-over-englund-new-poll.

    As the article explains this race is for control of the Washington State Senate. A win will mean that all three of the left coast states will have be fully Democratic with the governorship, lower and upper legislative houses in D hands. If one includes HI, it would be 4. The election is on Nov 7. In Washington the R controlled Senate has caused considerable gridlock. The R’s have been using every dirty trick in the books to keep this seeat.

    Furthermore, I recently read that for the midterm elections in 2018, the D’s have really strong candidates running in all 4 of the R Congressional Districts. This includes the 5th CD, which Cathy McMorris-Rodgers holds and the 4th CD, which is the most R in the state and the last three cycles has not had a D on the General Election ballot. WA is a top-two primary state. There might be some good news coming out of WA in Nov 2018.

    1. Sorry Ryan. I am more than a little cynical at this point. That is a generic lead. How does that translate 12 months from now, after the right-wing financial machine gets cranked up, plus the effects of gerrymandering, plus after the repub/russian propaganda machine gets moving, and lastly, after the ballot machines are hacked?

      Frankly, the only way anyone can expect a fair election is if the U.N. is called in to administer the whole thing, and every election goes back to paper ballots, guarded by said U.N.

      1. And your point is what, Dinsdale? There are only two options: give up or fight. If we just throw our hands up in the air and shout out every conceivable reason to get cynical and depressed, then our enemies win, and then what?

        So, with all due respect, look in the mirror, give yourself a nice smack in the face, and get it together.

        If that’s not enough for you though, then keep your eyes open and look around. Things aren’t always going against us, y’know. That so-called “right-wing financial machine” has been shutting down for a while now. Republican donors are incensed that Congress hasn’t passed anything and they’re closing their wallets until they see action.

        Gerrymandering? To be sure, nothing’s settled until it’s settled, but Kennedy sounded like he was looking to side with the four liberal justices in that landmark Wisconsin case, and if he does, that’ll go a long ways towards having a workable standard for overturning a lot of other partisan gerrymanders in the country.

        Yeah, we have a lot of problems that we need to tackle, but the trials we have in front of us are no greater than what others have beaten in the past. Focus on what you can do and stay strong.

      2. Thanks Ryan for the comment of gerrymandering. A SCOTUS decision upholding the WI case will also have the positive benefit of giving a real boost to the effort to remove redistricting from the state legislatures. Seven states use commissions for both legislative and congressional redistricting and six for legislative districts only. Iowa is non-partisan using an unique system. Most of them are bipartisan, but some are nonpartisan, such as CA.

        Based on experience in WA, which is bipartisan, those commissions are still subject to gerrymandering but it is not very egregious. Rather most likely it protects incumbents.

        Based on my observations and conversations with people in other states, most people are fed up with gerrymandering and the lack of representation in the legislative bodies.

      3. TMerritt – Welcome back from your travels…The folks down south in the red states like the gerrymandering just fine…at least the ones in the majority. The amount of damage that the Republicans and Trump et al can do before the pendulum swings back is huge. We all hope the S.C. will help move Democracy forward by affirming the WI plaintiff’s case, but the horror that we wake up to every morning is daunting. I am not going to yield to it nor ignore it, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

    2. I remember when “Generic Republican” lead in the ballot by x, y, z amounts.

      Individually it didn’t lead to snuff once ‘Generic Republican’ became a real person who once looked a banker in the eye while shaking his hand, and therefore is literally the worst thing to ever happen and should be strung up, drawn and quartered. Overall it lead to a Republican wave, but not of any decent or even cohesive people, just an eclectic group of clowns who could argue that they never looked a banker in the eye while shaking his hand without vomiting because it was actually true, these people having social and mental issues disabling them from treating adult professionals like human beings.

      Unless the Democratic party starts defining a platform they can hold themselves to, ‘Generic Democrat’ is merely revanchism from the left following the six years of revanchism from the right. That’s not a good thing.

      I’m not as cynical as Dinsdale, but I have seen this dance before. One of the reasons why I’ve been impressed with the local activists I’ve joined up with is because they’re not paying attention to ‘Generic Democrat’ at all. They’re focused on specific action items in their local region and the representatives who effect them. There’s still the day-by-day step forward and setback that keeps the gut cinched tight, but the ‘Generic Democrat’ is definitely not sought out or relied upon as the solution to our problems, nor a particularly meaningful construct for moving forward activism.

      And the less ‘Generic Republican vs. Generic Democrat’ really means to active American voters, the better and healthier our country will be.

      1. While I certainly don’t disagree with any of what you said, the fact remains that even a generic ballot test is useful in that it can at least give us some insight into what kind of political environment we’re headed to in ’18. Are Democrats, broadly speaking, merely holding steady or are there more opportunities than they once thought?

        Democrats should be competing everywhere, regardless of the political environment, one might reasonably retort? Certainly true, but politicians are cowards and people need to feel their time and money is worth any potential investment. No one wants to vote their Ossoff only to come up short when it counts.

      2. Several points. First, agree about local, focused effort by grassroots “non” Republicans…that could be first time political participants, Independents, Democrats, Progressives, (too few) disgusted Republicans, etc..

        Second, our nation is terribly uncomfortable now…the constant chaos, megalomania with Trump, the absolute total silence from conservatives to the most outlandish, amoral, undemocratic norms…why would Republicans think voters in mid-terms would not be repulsed? And, more so at them? If the voter is going to blame someone, do they really think they will blame Democrats? And, I think they will turn out to vote because they are pissed. Royally.

        Third, America is in a very dark, dangerous place and deep down people are feeling this….they are scared, angry, and unsettled. Assuming they vote, and, I think they will, just why would anyone expect them to not want to get even?

    1. I also took the quiz and as I expected was typed as a solid liberal. The only two areas where i did not fully meet that criteria was one: I believe that both strong diplomacy and military are necessary for ensuring peace, and two: to get ahead strong work and determination are required, though I also realize that there are significant barriers. Government can help in that regard. Nevertheless, all successful people I’ve met are disciplined and work hard.

      1. Yes, I had the same difficulty with these two choices. Yet, I believe America spends too much on defense and not enough on health care, and of course, do believe that effort can bring success…just not as easily for some races and ethnicities…As is so often the case, “it’s complicated” and not so easily described in absolute terms. Still the data breakdown was interesting.

        More and more I am coming around to Chris’ belief that until things collapse for the masses in a very personal, direct way, the average conservative voter will not grasp the enormous divide between message and priorities.

      2. I too fear that things must collapse in a direct personal way for there to be a real change of significant progress. That has been the entire history of America. A crisis must occur for a consensus to form before real change is possible. That is the reason we were forced into a bloody civil war to end slavery (those issues are yet to be fully resolved) and we had to have a Great Depression to begin to control rapacious capitalism and WWII to join the world.

    2. EJ

      It should surprise nobody what I came out as. (It surprises me a little, but that’s mostly a terminology thing.)

      It’s genuinely odd to me that this lies as tightly along a one-dimensional axis. In Europe, it’s possible to find people who have Right-wing economic views but who are pro-immigration and pro-gay equality (Quite common, in fact) just as it’s possible to find people who are solidly Left-wing on economic issues but who are isolationist, protectionist and in favour of closed borders. These different issues exist on multiple axes rather than just one. However, this quiz seems to indicate that in America, such hybrid positions are “centrism” rather than their own separate beliefs.

      To my American friends: Do you think that this is an accurate depiction of how Americans hold their views, or is it an oversimplification.

      1. I used to describe my politics as such: fiscal conservative and social liberal. In thinking more deeply about these two labels, however, I find myself in a bit more complicated position. I want our government to spend taxpayer money wisely, reducing waste, fraud, but I also want it to support programs that benefit social liberal services – health care, social security, etc. Therefore, I have resolved that I am pretty dead on a social liberal in my beliefs but also want fiscal accountability. I would like there to be a way to delineate what the priorities of the nation are…would most people value universal health care over expanding our defense apparatus (and budget)? Elimination of a retirement plan (Social Security) over lower taxes? I understand the need for productivity, contribution and work in our society, even as I want understanding and support for those who need help. I’ve often stated my belief in universal health care but funded by a sales tax that all would contribute to according to their spending capacity…These positions are at once at odds in America but not so in other countries. I have spoken with Americans who lived in Belgium while working in the oil sector and they have found socialism to work rather well there…Why are the choices so impossible to reconcile in the United States? I believe profit at any price is a significant contributor.

  3. Reading the Aeon article got me to thinking. A central philosophy question is , does consciousness come from matter and energy or matter and energy from consciousness. Much of our world (man made things) first was conjured up by one or more human beings. Then the matter and energy around us manipulated into a new form. They first existed in mind then in the physical world. Many things only exist in the mind. Things like love , truth and honor. Even math is a mind thing, exist nowhere else, which sometimes seems to be useful in explaining things in the physical world. In Christian thought God is mind who through words does what we do (man) on matter and energy on nothingness. Originally only mind existed. I suspect that philosophy, religion and science will intersect because all seek reality (truth) and I believe there is only one reality with many perspectives. Maybe what we are doing when we think is changing reality on the fly. That is what I got from reading the article. Which still does not explain what consciousness really is.

  4. Re: The Aeon article about the human brain.

    While I think the author makes a reasonable point, he carries it too far. No one in neuroscience actually believes there’s a literal memory bank with ones and zeros in the brain. When they say a memory is “stored” in a certain part of the brain, that’s a simplified way of saying, when a person is asked to recall something, we see increased neuronal activity in that area (even that’s not exactly true; most imaging techniques that visualize “neuronal activity” actually just visualize increased uptake of glucose, a cell’s fuel / energy source; we then assume that the cell is taking in more glucose because it’s more metabolically active, and that this increased activity of a neuron is directed toward firing more signals rather than say, just creating local heat; a professional neuroscientist continues down this rabbit hole even further to talk about the actual chemical reactions and neurotransmitters). This is why most responsible reporting on brain mapping says so-and-so area of the brain is *involved* in emotions / memory / movement / etc. rather than saying it’s *responsible* for such. We only have correlation, not causation.

    Similarly, while no doubt each brain is unique, similar experiences usually lead to similar brain changes. In a class of 30 students taking calculus, hopefully everyone at the end of the class will be able to solve a calculus problem. Not everyone (some people will get A’s, others will fail, others will be in between), but generally speaking the class has altered people’s brains in a similar (albeit not exact) way, leading to reliably patterned responses (the answer) in response to the same stimulus (presenting the student with a specific calculus equation). Heck, this blog is devoted to understanding a common response (voting for Trump) based on common life experience (rural, white, male, whatever).

    So yes, the brain doesn’t function like a computer in many crucial ways. But thinking of a brain as a computer can be useful depending on what you’re trying to do.

    I’m reminded of an analogy the poet OB Hardison Jr. made to maps: there are dozens of different “projections” of maps. Which one is the “true” representation of the world? None of them: the world is a sphere, and it’s mathematically impossible to accurately project a sphere onto a 2-d surface. A globe is actually the closest representation we use (even that’s inaccurate because the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere).

    And yet maps far outsell globes. All of us carry maps in our cars, and no one uses a globe to navigate. Why? Because maps are cheap, can be folded up, written on, and be used to navigate streets. So the real question isn’t which projection is the most true? Rather, which one tells us the most useful lies? For navigation, the Mercator projection is useful (all arcs are converted to straight lines, allowing us to use rulers to plan routes, rather than drawing arcs with compasses). For estimating land size, the Mollweide projection is useful. And so on.

    So the reality is, thinking about a brain as a computer can be a reasonable analogy, allowing us to form an imperfect but useful mental representation of how the brain works. The important part, which I agree with the author on, is to recognize that it’s only an analogy, and to develop an awareness of where that analogy breaks down.

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