Archive for December, 2009

X’mas YouTube II and Open forum

December 24, 2009

I said I wouldn’t post the usual X’mas sap but Bill Evans can interpret anything into brilliance, even ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’

Anyway I'll be away from the web for a couple of days from the end of today. Since this is a new blog I don't expect many commenters and any new ones to register may be stuck in moderation until I come back to release them but let's see how this open forum works out. Comment away.

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Christmas YouTube

December 23, 2009

Those who have read my scribblings in the past will know me to be a convinced secularist and philosophical naturalist.

So rest assured, do not interpret this post to be sign of a Damascene conversion. I just thought given that this is Christmas eve I’d offer up a YouTube with some stirring music that isn’t just the usual Christmas pap. And the superb gospel number by Bob Dylan ‘Gotta serve somebody’, covered by Shirley Caesar stirs even this atheist’s heart.

In any case the admonishment that everyone will have to ‘serve somebody’, whether the devil or the Lord, need not be interpreted supernaturally.

Some of the more message laden visuals in the video, compiled by a dedicated fan who more than makes up for them by his excellent musical taste are well worth sitting through to hear Ms Caesar’s voice.

Mental imagery and personality

December 23, 2009

Via Steve Sailer, some rather eclectic research which finds surprising correlations between mental imagery and personality:

In “Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Skeptic” (M.I.T. Press, 2007), Dr. Hurlburt, 64, presents the case of Melanie, a young woman who was fitted with a beeper that randomly prompted her to record everything in her awareness several times a day. In later interviews, she reconstructed these moments, often under rigorous cross-examination …

After hundreds of introspective interviews, Dr. Hurlburt still hesitates to generalize from his findings. But he has observed that the basic makeup of inner life varies substantially from person to person.

“My research says that there are a lot of people who don’t ever naturally form images, and then there are other people who form very florid, high-fidelity, Technicolor, moving images,” he said. Some people have inner lives dominated by speech, body sensations or emotions, he said, and yet others by “unsymbolized thinking” that can take the form of wordless questions like, “Should I have the ham sandwich or the roast beef?”

In a 2006 book, “Exploring Inner Experience,” Dr. Hurlburt suggests that these differences may be linked to personality and behavior. Inner speakers tend to be more confident, for example, and those who think in pictures tend to have trouble empathizing with others.

Differences in thinking style may also help explain some aspects of mental illness. In studies conducted with Sharon Jones-Forrester and Stephanie Doucette, Dr. Hurlburt found that bulimic women experienced a clutter of simultaneous thoughts that could often be cleared by purging.

“Why is that? I have no idea,” Dr. Hurlburt said. “But I haven’t found anything about it in the bulimia literature.”

The usual caveats apply here if not with more force given that we are talking about self-reporting. But I’ve often thought about the question myself. How do most people think? In words or concrete pictures or some hybrid of both? I find my own thinking to be a running verbal commentary interpersed with abstract imagery.

Rain Man RIP

December 23, 2009

The real Rain Man has passed away:

Kim Peek, who died on December 19 aged 58, was the model for the autistic character Raymond Babbitt in the 1988 film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman.

Hoffman’s portrayal of a middle-aged savant’s complex interaction with the world through astonishing mental facilities and childlike emotions earned him an Oscar for best actor. But it was Peek, who suffered from Agenesis of Corpus Callosum (a condition similar to autism), whom Hoffman and Barry Morrow – Rain Man’s writer, who also won an Oscar – acknowledged as the inspiration behind the performance …

Despite his mother’s uneventful pregnancy, Kim’s head was 30 per cent larger than normal at birth.

He was a sluggish baby who cried frequently, and doctors soon discovered that he had a blister inside his skull that had damaged the left hemisphere of his brain, which controls language and motor skills.

By the time he was nine months old he was expected to be mentally impaired for life.

His parents were advised to place him in an institution, but they dismissed the idea, deciding to bring him up normally alongside their other son and daughter.

They were soon astounded by his progress.

At the age of 16 months Kim taught himself to read children’s books.

When he was three he consulted a dictionary to clarify the meaning of the word “confidential”; it was then that his parents realised that he could also read newspapers.

Yet for all his brilliance, his oversized head required physical support because of its weight; and, unusually, he was unable to walk until he was four.

When Kim was six, a visit to Utah by the renowned brain surgeon Peter Lindstrom resulted in his being offered a lobotomy.

His parents declined, and Kim went on to memorise the entire Bible before his seventh birthday.

By the time he was 14, Kim had completed the high school curriculum, though the local authorities would not recognise the achievement and refused to award him a certificate.

Before the release of Rain Man – by which time he was 37 – Peek had an insular existence, knowing only about 20 people.

Unable to describe his condition, or to dress himself, cook, shave or brush his teeth without help, he was looked after by his mother, Jeanne, until 1981, when his parents divorced. Thereafter his father provided the supervision he required …

Neuroscientists who conducted tests discovered that he had no corpus callosum, the membrane that separates the two hemispheres of the brain and filters information.

This meant that Peek’s brain was effectively the equivalent of a giant databank, giving him his photographic memory.

He was also the only savant known to science who could read two pages of a book simultaneously – one with each eye, regardless of whether it was upside down or sideways on.

More fanciful physics models

December 22, 2009

This is all very fun but is it science?

What’s the difference between the past and the future? Not a great deal, if you take a purely relativistic view of the universe, say George Ellis from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and Tony Rothman from Princeton University in New Jersey.

The standard spacetime diagrams used in relativity accord no special status to the past, the present or the future. That’s because they assume that everything evolves from time-reversible local physics.

In fact, it is possible represent such a universe using a kind of spacetime diagram in which space and time merge into a single entity. “The universe just is: a fixed spacetime block,”say Ellis and Rothman. In this view, no instant has any special status: “All past and future times are equally present, and the present “now” is just one of an infinite number.”

This kind of “block universe” has indeed been studied by various physicists in recent decades with limited impact.

Today, Ellis and Rothman introduce a significant new type of block universe. They say the character of the block changes dramatically when quantum mechanics is thrown into the mix. All of a sudden, the past and the future take on entirely different characteristics. The future is dominated by the weird laws of quantum mechanics in which objects can exist in two places at the same time and particles can be so deeply linked that they share the same existence. By contrast, the past is dominated by the unflinching certainty of classical mechanics.

What’s interesting is that the transition between these states takes place largely in the present. It’s almost as if the past crystallizes out of the future, in the instant we call the present. Ellis and Rothman call this model the “crystallizing block universe” and go on to explore some of its properties.

The milk bar

December 22, 2009

Andrew Norton writes a short piece in praise of milk bars after he hears his local one is closing down:

It was a slow way to make money, but by working 12-15 hour days, 7 days a week milk bars were a source of upward mobility for many migrant families, first the Italians and Greeks, and more recently for Asian families like the one who ran my local milk bar. Their son studied computer science at the U of M. Usually they lived behind or above the shop which allowed some family life between customers.

Their main commercial assets were that they were within walking distance and they were friendly and familiar. As you can see from the picture, there was no slick presentation. Beneath some graffiti to the left of this picture there is still a sign advertising The Sun, which was last sold inside on 5 October 1990, merging with The Herald to the become the Herald-Sun the next day. Partly obscured in the corner of the window is still an ad for Marlboro cigarettes. How this escaped the attention of the health police I have no idea.

Most milk bars couldn’t survive competition from supermarkets, 7-11s and service station convenience outlets (which my next-door neighbour in that childhood street started at Shell). The milk bar in my childhood street went many years ago. Though there are three service stations, two supermarkets and a 7-11 nearby in Carlton or Fitzroy, my current milk bar had survived – probably because many locals, like me, would rather do business with people we see regularly than the passing parade of students at a chain outlet.

I’d like to add my own sentiments here. My first experience of Australian commerce and cuisine (so to speak) when my family first moved here in 1990 was getting milk shakes and fish and chips from a milk bar owned by a Greek family in the local Seven Hills shops (I have no idea if it’s still there). To this day I still associate millk bars with a quick nice fry up and milkshakes.

Repugnant markets

December 22, 2009

Via Market Design, some abstracts from a researcher who specialises in the economics of ‘repugnant markets’:

Altruism and Intermediation in the Market for Babies:

Central to every legal system is the principle that certain items are off-limits to commercial exchange. In theory, babies are one such sacred object. This supposed ban on baby selling has been lamented by those who view commercial markets as the most efficient means of allocating resources, and defended by those who contend that commercial markets in parental rights commodify human beings, compromise individual dignity, or jeopardize fundamental values. However, the supposed and much-discussed baby selling ban does not, and is not intended to, eliminate commercial transactions in children. Instead, it is an asymmetric legal restriction that limits the ability of baby market suppliers to share in the full profits generated by their reproductive labor, insisting instead that they derive a large portion of their compensation from the utility associated with altruistic donation. Meanwhile, a wide range of baby market intermediaries profit handsomely in the baby market, without similar restrictions on their market activities. Baby selling “bans” thus have more in common with the rent-seeking by powerful marketplace actors seen in other commercial markets than with normative statements about the sanctity of human life. The author concludes with a call for the removal of the last vestiges of the “ban” against baby selling and other laws that diminish the capacity of baby market suppliers to access the marketplace.

Sunny Samaritans and Egomaniacs: Price-Fixing in the Gamete Market :

This Article considers the market structure of the human egg (or “oocyte”) donation business, particularly the presence of anti-competitive behavior by the fertility industry, including horizontal price-fixing of the type long considered per se illegal in other industries. The Article explores why this attempted collusion has failed to generate the same public and regulatory concern prompted by similar behavior in other industries, arguing that the persistent dialogue of gift-giving and altruistic donation obscures both the highly commercial nature of egg “donation” and the benefits to the fertility industry of controlling the price of a necessary input into many fertility services – namely, eggs. A comparison to the egg market’s closest cousin – the sperm market – does not reveal similar collusive attempts to depress the price of sperm. A further analysis of the industry explores potential reasons for this difference.

Brass balls and billions

December 22, 2009

Hedge fund manager to make billions from betting crazy:

An American hedge fund manager is set to collect a $US2.5 billion ($A2.8 billion) pay package for the year after staking huge bets that global banks would recover in 2009.

In one of the richest pay deals of recent years, David Tepper, boss of New Jersey-based Appaloosa Management, stands to land over a third of the $7bn profits generated by the firm in 2009. The hedge fund has said it generated over 120pc returns for year to the beginning of December.

Mr Tepper, a former Goldman Sachs trader who reportedly keeps a brass pair of testicles on his desk, started buying shares in American investment banks in February when the markets feared that the company’s would be nationalised. He bought Bank of America when the shares were trading below $3 and Citigroup at just $1. The firm, which specialises in spotting value in distressed companies, also bought large tranches of debt in February and March. He told the Wall Street Journal: “I felt like I was alone … no one was even bidding.”

Roll over von Clausewitz

December 18, 2009

Scientists claim to be able to use power laws to model insurgencies.

… a mathematical model published today in Nature (see Nature 462,911–914; 2009) suggests that insurgencies have a common underlying pattern that may allow the timing of attacks and the number of casualties to be predicted.

“We found that the way in which humans do insurgent wars — that is, the number of casualties and the timing of events — is universal,” says team leader Neil Johnson, a physicist at the University of Miami in Florida. “This changes the way we think insurgency works.”

Johnson and his colleagues argue that the pattern arises because insurgent wars lack a coherent command network and operate more as a “soup of groups”, in which cells form and disband when they sense danger, then reform in different sizes and composition. The timing of attacks, the authors say, is driven by competition between insurgent groups for media attention.

Johnson, who has presented preliminary versions of the work to the US military, says that the findings allow a glimpse into the heart of insurgency behaviour. “We can get a sense of what is going on and what might happen if we intervened in certain ways,” he says. He is now working to predict how the insurgency in Afghanistan might respond to the influx of foreign troops recently announced by US President Barack Obama.

Scientific American on climate contrarianism

December 18, 2009

It looks like I’ve already violated one of the tenets of this blog by posting a link to this but I am actually increasingly finding the science behind AGW more interesting than the politics. Thus I welcome any contributions from informed parties in the comments section on any of these specific refutations of climate contrarians set out in the article.