March 30, 2007

Spring Cleaning of Late Summer Bookmark Cleaning

Attention conservation notice: I wrote the following in late August, trying to clear out my stuff-to-blog bookmarks folder. For reasons I don't remember, I left it aside then, and only ran across it again now. I haven't updated anything, just checked that none of the links have rotted. You've probably already seen any which you would have found interesting.

Jack Balkin has put the full text of his 1998 book Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology on-line for free. This is a really good book, where Balkin makes a serious attempt to tackle two huge problems, namely how we manage to have shared cultural meanings, and how culture can help produce injustice. The tools he uses are the idea of memes (in a broad sense, compatible with say Sperber's critiques), along with some more experimentally-grounded psychology. I think he succeeds, but what he ends up with is 190-proof liberal evolutionary naturalism, which is mostly what I believe anyway. (He doesn't make much of the way he's recapitulating both the origins of American pragmatism in evolutionary and psychological science, e.g. this, and its outcome in a liberal social philosophy, but I can't imagine it's escaped his notice.) What's really curious, though, is that Balkin does all of this while suffering from a mild strain of the French Disease (he does teach at Yale), so that he appeals to Lyotard and Foucault in the course of defending motherhood, apple pie, and even the flag. Straightforward appeals to not let over-simplified stereotypes of group differences blind us to the reality of individual diversity therefore get prefaced by elaborate Derrida-for-beginners deconstructions of all binary oppositions. I suspect that Balkin has thus managed to write a book which will irritate almost all of its prospective readers — some with "naive scientism", and others with "postmodern bullshit" — but is nonetheless actually very good and worth reading. And, now, free. [This is the short version of the review which has been sitting, in draft form, on my hard-disk since the fall of 2000.]

Meera Nanda gives a progressive Indian perspective on American affirmative action, in the context of the debate on "reservation for backward castes". (Via Nanopolitan.) — Has anyone done a systematic comparison of the Indian caste system and the American racial system? It seems to obvious to have been left alone...

Charlie Stross contemplates the future, and sees a world whose constitution was written by Gary Gygax. It's not pretty to imagine how this will intersect with the economy of phishing.

Michael Bérubé has his head split open by Yeats. (I predicted Jonathan Goodwin's response, but not publicly, so that doesn't count.)

Elif Shafak writes about having a novel which is charged with the crime of insulting Turkishness:

The fictional Armenian characters in my latest novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, are blamed for defaming and belittling Turkishness. Thus for instance, a character named Auntie Varsenig is in trouble now for saying the following on page 57:
"Tell me how many Turks ever learned Armenian. None! Why did our mothers learn their language and not vice versa? Isn't it clear who has dominated whom? Only a handful of Turks come from Central Asia, right, and then the next thing you know they are everywhere! What happened to the millions of Armenians who were already there? Assimilated! Massacred! Orphaned! Deported! And then forgotten! How can you give your flesh and blood daughter to those who are responsible for our being so few and in so much pain today? Mesrop Mashtots would turn in his grave!"
Similarly, another character, Dikran Stamboulian, is in dire straits now for saying the following:
"What will that innocent lamb tell her friends when she grows up? My father is Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, my great-uncle is Dikran Stamboulian, his father is Varvant Istanboluian, my name is Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, all my family tree has been Something Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives in the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustapha! What kind of a joke is that ... Ah, marnim khalasim!"
As much as I believe in their vivacity, my Armenian fictional characters cannot go to court to be tried under Article 301. Instead of them, my Turkish publisher, Semi Sökmen, and I, will be there when the time comes. It will be a long legal battle from then on, and certainly a hassle and cause of stress. But, we Turkish writers are not pitiful or forlorn victims unable to go out into the street for fear of nationalist assault. After all, we do know, perhaps not intellectually but intuitively, that a similar clash of opinions between the progressive-minded and the close-minded xenophobes is under way almost everywhere and the world is not a safe planet anymore.
Commenting on this idiocy, Walter Jon Williams (one of my favorite authors) takes a break from blogging a fascinating account of a trip to Turkey (now at part eleven and counting) to write "I would say something like, 'In solidarity with our literary siblings, let us all insult Turkishness together,' except that I happen to like Turkishness. It's just shithead Turkish politicians I despise."

Not-unrelated, the Editors call for the rectification of names.

The Sarong Theorem archive is "an electronic archive of images of people proving theorems while wearing sarongs."

Ilya Nemenman has put his bibliography file online, with rather uninhibited remarks on the papers concerned. Since Nemenman is very smart, this is a valuable resource for anyone interested in scientific applications of information theory, and should be emulated.

Nothing is eternal dep't: old sand in the Taklimakan Desert; old rocks in the the Sierra Nevada.

Giant ground sloths in Iowa.

Gary Farber reads about crackpot Nazi science so you don't have to! (Unless you find that sort of thing amusing, of course.) — Amygdala, by the way, is one of the most consistently interesting, and broad-ranging, weblogs I've found; Gary really does blog about almost everything three to six months before everybody else does. Since contributions really do help keep him on the air, it's a good idea to follow the links at the top of each page and contribute a little, if you can.

I have far, far too many links to arresting images and off-beat ideas from Geoff Manaugh's consistently-delightful BLDGBLOG, which is poised somplace near the triple point of photography, urbanism and architecture. Without pretending that these are the best, here the ones in my folder: Mount St. Helens of Glass; When Landscapes Sing; or, London Instrument; Where Cathedrals Go to Die; The Knot Driver; the Mine, the Rivers, the Caves and Drainscaping Nevada's Gold; The Scrap Lung; Famous Hulls of the Alaskan Sea; Silt; Optometric Metropolis; Urban Diptychs; The Hedge-Bridge; Landscapes Undone; Euclidean Agriculture; A Mars Supreme; glowing Oceans; Cities of Amorphous Carbonia; Earth Surface Machine; The Architecture of Spam; Seal Silo.


Posted by crshalizi at March 30, 2007 16:00 | permanent link

A. R. Luria: The Neuropsychology of Praxis

Today's find, via Mind Hacks, is an online archive at UCSD dedicated to the memory of the great Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander R. Luria. (Lots of the links are broken, though.)

Today Luria's probably best known for the "neurographies" he wrote, like The Mind of a Mnemonist and The Man with a Shattered World, which inspired Oliver Sacks's famous ventures in this line. But he actually made really important scientific contributions, which deserve to be remembered.

Luria began his career as a disciple of Lev Vygotsky, who had a fascinating pre-cognitive theory of how individuals acquire higher mental functions through a scaffolding provided by cultural traditions (especially language) and social interaction. Vygotskyism was an explicitly Marxist theory: it was supposed to be a scientific account of how thought arises from practice. While it is very hard to accept some of Vygotsky's more extreme statements, there is I think a core of very real insight here, about both individual development and collective cognition, and one which moreover is fundamentally compatible with sound computational views of the mind.

To support the theory, Luria led an expedition to Uzbekistan which sought to document how the Soviet introduction of modern education and collective agriculture (!) was transforming the mentality of the natives. The resulting report — translated as Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations — is an astonishing mixture of fascinating experiments and conjectures, and equally fascinating displays of colonialist blindness. Most of Luria's subjects were Uzbekistani peasants who'd been forced onto collective farms a few years earlier; a decade previously the whole province was the scene of the basmachi revolt, which was suppressed by the Red Army with the usual measures. It never crossed Luria's mind, so far as I can tell, that a bunch of Russian academics, asking questions which clearly indicated that the Russians thought the Uzbeks were idiots, would meet with anything less than full and sincere cooperation. Consider the following dialogue (p. 112) with an illiterate peasant named Nazir-Said:

The following syllogism is presented: There are no camels in Germany. The city of B. is in Germany. Are there camels there or not?
Subject repeats syllogism exactly.
So, are there camels in Germany?
"I don't know, I've never seen German villages."
Refusal to infer.
The syllogism is repeated.
"Probably there are camels there."
Repeat what I said.
"There are no camels in Germany, are there camels in B. or not? So probably there are. If it's a large city, there should be camels there."
Syllogism breaks down, inference drawn apart from its conditions.
But what do my words suggest?
"Probably there are. Since there are large cities, there should be camels."
Again a conclusion apart from the syllogism.
But if there aren't any in all of Germany?
"If it's a large city, there will be Kazakhs or Kirghiz there."
But I'm saying that there are no camels in Germany, and this city is in Germany.
"If this village is in a large city, there is probably no room for camels."
Luria's interpretation was that Nazir-Said had difficulty with hypothetical syllogistic reasoning, as opposed to more concrete inferences in practical situations, difficulties typical of those "whose cognitive activity was formed by experience and not by systematic instruction or more complex forms of communication" (p. 115). But it's also easy to interpret this as Nazir-Said parrying the question with a perfectly valid, if enthymemic, syllogism ("Every large city has camels; B. is a large city; therefore B. has camels"), and then supporting his major premise with another valid syllogism ("Every large city has Kazakhs or Kirghiz; Kazakhs and Kirghiz always have camels; therefore every large city has camels"). The greater success of members of collective farms in "solving" the syllogisms might just reflect their greater willingness to cooperate with the Russians. In other words, there is a whole layer of issues here, involving the social relations between the scientists and their subjects, to which Luria turned a blind eye...

Even in Russian, this book wasn't published until 1974. One reason, to which Luria and his translators allude, was the political sensitivity of saying that Central Asians had a child-like mentality, even if that was being transformed by socialist labor. The other, though, on which they are conspicuously silent, was the well-known fact that a crude Pavlovian behaviorism became the Official Soviet Line in psychology. Vygotsky was in a sense lucky to die of tuberculosis then, rather than be purged, and Luria had to lie low in an institute for retarded children. (An old New York Review piece on Luria goes into some of the history.) Luria's memoirs, written in the 1970s, are, let us say, extremely tactful about this turn of events. His American discipline Michael Cole, in an epilogue to those memoirs, is rather more open these matters, and confesses to finding some of what Luria wrote when, as it were, he was compelled to speak Pavlovian "unnerving". What I find unnerving is that none of this seems to have turned him against the Soviet system.

In any case, this forced switch in research ultimately led Luria, during and after the war, to rehabilitation work with soldiers with brain injuries, and so to neuropsychology, where he made his greatest contributions. His academic works from this period, like The Working Brain, present a picture of how cognition can work through what we would now call parallel, distributed processing, in which small brain regions perform specialized processing tasks, but none of the "higher cortical functions" maps directly, as it were phrenologically, onto a particular cortical area, but rather recruits these areas in shifting configurations. In particular, this would explain how lesions in single areas can lead to deficits in multiple functions, and conversely how there are many lesions which can cause a given functional deficit.

One could draw an analogy between this view of how the brain works and Marx's idea of how communism will overcome the division of labor. (This connection was never, so far as I know, even hinted at by Luria.) In a famous passage in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels write as follows:

[A]s soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
Analogously, according to Luria, a region in the frontal cortex (say) might be involved in grammatical parsing in the morning, the planning of rapid motion in the afternoon, and mental arithmetic in the evening, without ever being a parser, a planner or a calculator exclusively. I am tempted to turn this conceit into a just-so story about why Hayek and Hebb, in their accounts of distributed neural information processing, put so much less emphasis on functional flexibility, but I am afraid that someone might take me seriously. (For the record: Marx and Engels's ideas on overcoming the division of labor were profoundly utopian, and that is not a compliment.)

For what it's worth, I think Luria was really on to something here, and the fundamental point against a purely "phrenological" view of the brain is valid. There are times when I wish that no one would write a press release about a neuroimaging study without reading The Working Brain first. (The rest of the time, I wish no one would write press releases about neuroimaging at all.) But I also think it's really a matter of how much and in what manner. Part of the subtext of my own work on information in networks is to develop tools to make these questions quantitative ones, about estimation, rather than qualitative ones, about interpretation.

Which is a good note on which to do some calculations...

Manual trackback: Three Quarks Daily; Language Log

Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Progressive Forces; Afghanistan and Central Asia

Posted by crshalizi at March 30, 2007 15:20 | permanent link

Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

Well, do you? If so, it's probably the casino magnetically stimulating your right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex:

Daria Knoch, Lorena R. R. Gianotti, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Valerie Treyer, Marianne Regard, Martin Hohmann, and Peter Brugger, "Disruption of Right Prefrontal Cortex by Low-Frequency Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Induces Risk-Taking Behavior", The Journal of Neuroscience 26 (2006): 6469--6472
Abstract: Decisions require careful weighing of the risks and benefits associated with a choice. Some people need to be offered large rewards to balance even minimal risks, whereas others take great risks in the hope for an only minimal benefit. We show here that risk-taking is a modifiable behavior that depends on right hemisphere prefrontal activity. We used low-frequency, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to transiently disrupt left or right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) function before applying a well known gambling paradigm that provides a measure of decision-making under risk. Individuals displayed significantly riskier decision-making after disruption of the right, but not the left, DLPFC. Our findings suggest that the right DLPFC plays a crucial role in the suppression of superficially seductive options. This confirms the asymmetric role of the prefrontal cortex in decision-making and reveals that this fundamental human capacity can be manipulated in normal subjects through cortical stimulation. The ability to modify risk-taking behavior may be translated into therapeutic interventions for disorders such as drug abuse or pathological gambling.

How long, I wonder, before the tinfoil hat becomes the hallmark of the professional gambler?

Minds, Brains, and Neurons

Posted by crshalizi at March 30, 2007 12:36 | permanent link

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