Saturday, July 18, 2015

Consciousness as I know it

Two books I've read that deal more directly with the nature of the mind have stuck with me over the years. I wish I could say that a great deal of their content has stuck with me too, but in actuality just a few ideas.

The first - and one of my all-time favorite books - is Gödel, Escher, Bach. This was the first exposure I had to concepts like isomorphism and recursion. As it relates to the human mind however, what made the strongest impression on me was the idea that an essentially programmatic system could become so complex it could eventually refer to itself and even program itself. In that way, from the smallest biological building blocks we could eventually end up with consciousness and ostensibly free will.

The second was Consciousness Explained. What I retained from that one was the "multiple drafts" model of thinking. As I understand, it purports that at any given moment we have a shifting, incomplete impression of the world and ourselves. This is in keeping with the brain as a distributed network and in contrast to the outdated idea of dualism and the ghost in the machine. There is no central point where the experience of say, a color, is complete. Rather, we are more or less conscious of stimuli as their effects cascade across the brain.

This view of the mind rooted in materialism - that the brain is the mind - has me recalling the tendency to speak of the mind as though it exists independently of biology or the physical world. Just the other night a friend and I were discussing what someone would experience if they'd never been exposed to external stimuli. Biological considerations weren't the first thing to come to mind. It's as though we're wired to think we can transcend the material world. In a way, that's true. Neuroplasticity shows us thought can lead to physical change. While our minds may ultimately have a physical basis, we can overcome thoughts and behaviors and the particular physical states they represent.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I forgot the job market.

It took me a long time to understand any significant part of the labor market, particularly the nature of its demand. When I was graduating college, I didn't really have a sense of what employers were looking for, and that complicated my career path.

I had thought that for someone with my qualifications - a strong academic and extracurricular background and some work experience - there would be at least a couple straightforward paths. This was pre-crisis 2007, so in theory I should have been golden. When I began diving into job posts, however, I saw that employers were looking for skills I didn't have, hadn't considered, or hadn't even heard of: knowledge of Oracle, financial products, a programming language. I hadn't tailored my education to what actually had currency in the market. I had naively assumed my economics program would prepare me for a career . . . in economics.

To be fair, I think Ohio State's economics program did a good job of preparing me to pursue a higher degree, but I wasn't planning on that. It also endowed me with some knowledge and skills that would eventually prove very useful, but only after I'd gotten my foot in the door by combining that base with other qualifications that I'd accrued along a less cohesive and more incremental career path.

My advice for young people as they undertake decisions around their career and education is to look at job openings - particularly the requirements - throughout, not because you're looking for a job in that moment, but for the sake of understanding what you can do when you are, and how to line yourself up for it.

If I were to do it again, I would take some formal classes in the more applied stuff I've picked from work and on my own: courses in business, computer science, or engineering. And in keeping with my own advice, browsing job posts on Craigslist would help me keep in touch with movements in the market.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Connection between Helter Skelter and ISIS

I had dinner with my neighbors a few days ago, and we somehow got to talking about this. One of them had grown up in the '60s and recalled that the scariest public event for her then was JFK's assassination. But things reached a new level of horror with the cult events that occupied the public eye of the '70s: Jonestown, the Manson Family, etc.

Jonestown was the largest single loss of American civilian lives until 9/11. Nine hundred and thirteen individuals lost their lives in a mass suicide/murder, the origin of the saying "drink the Kool-Aid," referring to the unquestioning acceptance of group norms. It's not difficult to imagine that this, along with the aftermath of the Manson murders, had a traumatizing effect on the public's psyche.

Some 40 years later, and I find myself wondering what's behind a phenomenon like ISIS. I'm sure there's a great body of sociological research that could shed some light on the question, but in our armchair capacity, my neighbor and I speculate that the instability of the '60s was the impetus for many of the curiosities that point forward. And the destabilizing effects of rapid globalization, not least of all the War in Iraq and other conflicts, have similarly given rise to the likes of ISIS.

The Civil Rights Movement and the response to the Vietnam War broke the status quo. That translated to a lot of progress, but there's also another side to it. The questioning required to make progress also left a lot of otherwise healthy individuals lost as myriad unexplored avenues and lifestyles were opening up. More nefarious actors were able to take advantage of individuals in that state.

If not war-torn Syria or Iraq, ISIS recruits comprise marginalized or disillusioned individuals from other parts of the world. They're in search of meaning and structure in their lives, and in a similar fashion, are finding it among homicidal radicals.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ecology & Geology: The world is my lab, the world is my oyster

I've been taking a closer look at different scientific fields recently. I'm trying to develop a better sense of how they differ from each other. I think the layman often thinks of scientific research in a generic sense, not really appreciating how techniques and lifestyle vary across fields. This was (and probably still is) me. But I think even professional researchers are often so involved in their own work that they don't develop a sense of how things differ in other contexts.

Today I was delving into the world of practicing ecologists. It doesn't exactly come as a surprise that they appear to place particular value on freedom, mobility and working outside. This impression comes primarily from the ecology subreddit. Among the commenters we have:

  • An environmental consultant who works on wetland delineations, threatened and endangered species surveys, habitat assessments, etc.
  • A postdoc who's following up two weeks of field work with two years of computer work and who values the outdoor lifestyle, creativity and mobility afforded to those with an MS in biology or ecology
  • An arborist who spends a lot of time climbing trees and describes it as the "best job ever"

This probably has something to do with natural environments serving as the ecologist's "lab". That stands in contrast to fields like biology, chemistry and physics, where more happens in a controlled environment. In that regard ecology reminds me of geology, which may be even more extreme when it comes to travel and working outdoors. It doesn't seem uncommon for geologists to spend a lot of time in the field searching for natural experiments and observing them. Geologists also appear to conduct some pretty sophisticated operations with heavy duty equipment, such as collecting cores and the like, which would make extensive field research that much more imperative.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gaza and Israel, Russia and Ukraine: Illustrations of Risk-Eliminating Psychology

I often encounter blanket attitudes toward whole groups of people. Yesterday I was struck by a couple examples from an NPR article covering shifting attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians toward each other:

  • An Israeli to a Palestinian: "Go away you trash. I would bury you in Gaza."
  • A Palestinian: "Israeli Jews are bad human beings. They kill every day."

How could it be all members of an ethnicity are bad human beings, or deserve to be buried? People will argue the accuracy of their gross generalizations. Underneath their arguments, however, there's something actually worth considering: the psychology of group politics.

A number of studies have touched on the connection between neurology and political convictions. I've seen them best summarized here, but these ideas have popped up across popular media over the past couple years. Some notable conclusions are:

  • Reliance on quick, efficient, and "low effort" thought processes yields conservative ideologies, while effortful and deliberate reasoning yields liberal ideologies.
  • Liberals have more tolerance to uncertainty (bigger anterior cingulate cortex), and conservatives have more sensitivity to fear (bigger right amygdala).
  • Republicans are more likely than Democrats to interpret faces as threatening and expressing dominant emotions, while Democrats show greater emotional distress and lower life satisfaction.
  • Conservatism is focused on preventing negative outcomes, while liberalism is focused on advancing positive outcomes.
  • Conservatives tend to have a stronger reaction to threatening noises and images than liberals.

The overarching theme is that the attitudes we associate with conservatism tend to arise more from fear than liberal attitudes do. Or, to invert the chicken and egg, fear lends itself to conservative thinking. That holds true in the literal sense of the word "conservative." Fear drives us to conserve our positions, to seek to eliminate risk.

This risk aversion is what's behind the overgeneralizing rhetoric around Gaza and Israel, Russia and Ukraine, and anytime and anywhere large scale conflict occurs. When someone says, "All these people are bad," I believe their brain has actually decided, "Some of these people might not be bad, but I associate enough risk with their group identity that I will act as though they all pose a threat to me."

If people were capable of expressing themselves in those terms, that latter sort of statement would allow for an honest conversation. It would allow for discussing whether that sort of risk-minimizing behavior is practical and ethical, instead of arguing over which ethnicities are good and which are evil.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Losing Face & Communicating Effectively

I'm starting to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be a good communicator. To my mind I've practiced a few key skills for a long time - providing and seeking out feedback, expressing my plans and information to other parties in various ways, eliciting their plans, etc. - but at times I now think I missed the forest for the trees.

The key to good communication is not just observing best practices. That's certainly part of it and a good start. Without an explicit understanding of the overarching goal, however, those habits quickly descend into mindless process, so ritualistic in nature it cannot be intelligently applied to the unique circumstances of different situations.

To excel beyond that one must keep in mind that the ultimate point of communication is to ensure that all parties concerned have the same understanding of a particular topic. At the material level this is an isomorphic mapping of the most important features of the topic among the neurons of all involved. This is literally what the phrase "on the same page" means.

For a long time I thought it was sufficient to do my part to make mutual understanding merely possible. After that, the onus fell on the other parties involved. In some situations this is still appropriate. Excellent communication, however, requires that one go beyond that. In that regard, communication becomes much like more involved forms of education, where you ensure that your audience has retained the information you've presented to them. The sort of hands-off approach typical of laissez faire, college-level education isn't appropriate here. If someone has difficulty understanding the material, the responsibility to identify that difficulty and clarify the material falls with the instructor. As a result, effective communication should focus more on multimedia, take advantage of different learning styles, and more actively seek confirmation of understanding than the conventional course lecture.

There was one other thing that historically held me back from becoming a better communicator. That was my aversion to asking questions. Questions at some point in my mind had become the tool of those unable to pick something up the first time. I now see that I was wrong to be so absolutist in my attitude. Questions reinforce mutual understanding, serve as a mechanism for confirming it, and - to those adept at communication - illustrate intelligence and skill. If you're concerned about those who value sharpness as I did, making clear that you're asking questions to ensure mutual understanding can win you their esteem.

To the extent one reaches out to their audience and is willing to potentially lose face as a communicator, there is a certain selflessness in exercising communication skills. One might even think of it as a trade off between short-term and long-term gain. By taking the effort to establish upfront the certainty of details among all parties involved, one can avert costly mistakes and adjustments in the future.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Recreating Society & Organizational Behavior

Thanks to shows like Doomsday Preppers, the recent Mayan calendar scare and the general apocalyptic malaise of the post-financial crisis world, I've recently taken an interest in the end of the world and what it would be like to rebuild society.

Survival guides and a few reality TV shows (including my favorite, The Colony) already show us what we'd need to survive an initial catastrophe, but I'm more interested in what comes next. What would it take to approach what we have today and what improvements, if any, could we make?

A society is by definition more than one person, so you'll need some help along the way. Naturally, the first thing my mind turned to was group dynamics. After you've secured your basic needs - and even during it unless you're going solo - a certain set of norms for group behavior must be established and serve as a foundation going forward.


First and foremost you need to be sure that those in your immediate vicinity won't materially harm you. That requires one of the following:

  • Physical separation from threatful individuals and groups
  • An established history of peaceful coexistence or cooperation
  • Some other reassurance that someone means or poses no harm. This could take the form of a larger population on your side, rendering individual outsiders or groups of outsiders innocuous, or some notional reassurance, such as strictly observed symbolic codes (think truce flag).


This largely overlaps with security, but I feel that the word more extensively alludes to emotional and informational aspects. Trust is the concept that not only will someone refrain from materially harming you, but also that they are as they represent themselves to be and will maybe even help you in times of need.


What will keep someone in my community from riding on the coattails of others? We've historically remedied freeriding and collective responsibility in a couple of ways. One is community-based, in which a population is small enough to collectively understand how much any given individual puts into and gets out of the system. This allows a community to decide who can manage what according to their known circumstances. Perhaps a seemingly capable person would get a lot of flak for skimping on their investment in their community, but we wouldn't expect the same for infants and we'd expect compassion to come into play for elderly or sickly individuals. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests the number at which this solution breaks down is 150 individuals.

After it is no longer feasible to effectively track who gets what they give by means of relationships and gossip alone, we've managed by implementing my formal systems: central governments and courts for enforcing property rights, credit scores and background checks for establishing reputation, etc.

Humans have an innate sense of fairness that they seek to realize whether through soft means, such as peer pressure and retaliation, or through a more officially-recognized vehicle. In the context of our scenario, accountability will come naturally to a certain scale as individuals specialize and recover a previous standard of living. Obtaining it will then require more sophisticated technology or forms of organization.

The above characteristics are interrelated and by no means an exhaustive list. However, it has got me thinking about what it takes to make any team - in a survival scenario or not - to function effectively. It also seems that a key to instilling relationships of this nature is some sort of central identity, suggesting that tribalism, by necessity, is deeply rooted into what it means to be human.