Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Words: 1927 and 2011

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal recently posted 15 new words from the 1927 Webster's International Dictionary. The additions include airplane, jazz, movie, and windshield. It's interesting to compare these to the words the Oxford English Dictionary added this year.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The danger of computers filtering Internet content

Online organizer Eli Pariser delivered a fascinating TED talk last month about how computer algorithms filter what we come across on the Internet. He calls for changes in corporate practice and policy in order to prevent what could be a grim future for online public discourse.

Friday, June 24, 2011

More on Free Will

The Boston Globe's Josh Rothman recently detailed new research into free will. Responding to the work of Benjamin Libet, who, in the 1970s, conducted a series of experiments that suggested that the experience of consciously making a decision follows brain processes that dictate action (i.e. that we lack free will), a new group of researchers have conducted more precise experiments using new neuroscience technologies. The new research suggests that making choices involves both our minds and our bodies, complicating Libet's theory and offering a more complex view of free will.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Free Will in Limited Supply?

Is self-control a limited resource? Do we deplete our supply as we make decisions throughout our day? A recent piece in The New Republic by Jamie Holmes explores social psychology research that suggests that willpower is, indeed, limited. Experiments have demonstrated that people who complete tasks which require them to exert self-control become less able to exert self-control on subsequent tasks.

The article focuses on poverty and asks, why can't more poor people escape poverty? Holmes offers a brief introduction into the psychology of economic decision making. He then argues that poor people must routinely make weighty decisions which wealthier people would consider trivial—whether to buy food or medicine, for example. Making these decisions exerts a mental cost, depleting the willpower of the poor, and making their escape from poverty even more challenging.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Summer... and the Science of User Interface Design

Summer has arrived! While I hope to continue to post at least three times a week, I plan to write shorter posts. These will include links to interesting articles that I find online—with less analysis. I hope that those of you who have come to read my blog on a regular basis—and there are a handful of you out there—will continue to find the blog an enjoyable stop on your journey across the web.

For now, please enjoy this article about user interface design from the Fast Code Design blog (via Brainiac).  The author examines why software and operating system designers lay out user options in the way that they do. He asks, for example, why, on computer dialogue boxes, is the 'OK' button usually to the right of the 'Cancel' button. His analysis peers into the psychology of user interface design.

Monday, June 13, 2011

World War II: The importance of continued scholarship

Several weeks ago, the New York Times' Sunday Book Review published a review of several World War II history books. Written by Adam Kirsch, the review notes that a new crop of books, written by historians now more than a generation removed from the war, complicate our common understanding of World War II as, unequivocally, a "good war." These historians do not challenge historical fact; rather they seek to expose and to evaluate the moral implications of a wide variety of actions—from Churchill's complicity in the Bengal famine to Allied aerial area bombardments of German cities.

In addition to reviewing scores of books, Kirsch provides a thoughtful analysis of the importance of historical scholarship—especially scholarship that makes us see the past with fresh eyes. Many of the new books about World War II remind us that with war comes moral challenges—yet we cannot turn a blind eye to injustice. Kirsch writes:
After all, the present is always lived in ambiguity. To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth—because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.

The best history writing reverses this process, restoring complexity to our sense of the past. Indeed, its most important lesson may be that the awareness of ambiguity must not lead to detachment and paralysis—or to pacifism and isolationism, as Nicholson Baker and Pat Buchanan would have it. On the contrary, the more we learn about the history of World War II, the stronger the case becomes that it was the irresolution and military weakness of the democracies that allowed Nazi Germany to provoke a world war, with all the ensuing horrors and moral compromises that these recent books expose.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Uncertainty of Our Inner Lives

We rely on our intuitions, emotions, perceptions, and memories to make sense of our world, to get along with other people, to make decisions—simply, to survive. Yet it's nearly impossible for us to verify them and, claims Eric Schwitzgebel, philosopher and author of Perplexities of Consciousness, we actually have a poor grasp of them. He argues that we are “poorly equipped with the tools, categories, and skills that might help [us] dissect them." What's more, we rarely question our minds and are inclined to a sort of cognitive hubris—at least when it comes to how we feel, see, and think. "When you’re in a position where you are the sole authority on something," he says, "that tends to artificially inflate your confidence."

The Boston Globe recently published an interview with Schwitzgebel, in which he explains his contention that we should be skeptical about our inner lives—even more skeptical than we are about the world outside of the mind. Our knowledge of self, he says, is weak knowledge at best. The author of the interview, Joshua Rothman, preludes the piece by recounting a famous experiment conducted by Solomon Asch:
In 1951, the psychologist Solomon Asch gathered seven college students around a table and presented them with two cards. On one, he’d printed a single vertical line; on the other, three lines of varying lengths. Going around the table, Asch asked each student a simple question: Which of the three lines was the same length as the solitary one? Asch’s secret was that all but one of the “volunteers” were actors, with instructions to answer incorrectly. While the actors contributed their wrong answers, Asch watched the real volunteer, who always went last. Would he give in to the pressure of the group?

The results were unsettling: When they had to go against the group, 75 percent of Asch’s volunteers gave at least one wrong answer, often without knowing it. Psychologists have long cited Asch’s experiments as sublime demonstrations of “groupthink.” But they also point to a more subtle and disquieting aspect of our inner lives: They suggest just how easily our confidence in our own perceptions, memories, and inner experiences can be shaken. Most of us assume that we know, with omniscient certainty, exactly what we’re thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Asch’s experiments force us to question that certainty. If we’re so sure of what’s going on in our own minds, then how can we be so easily persuaded to change them?
I understand why most people find the results of Asch's study unsettling—just as they do Schwitzgebel's suggestion that we can know little with certainty about what we think or feel. We find comfort in believing we know our own emotions, have memories about which we can be certain, and can perceive the world around us without interference from other people. When asked if he finds his ideas unnerving, Schwitzgebel said:
I may be unusual in a certain way, in that I find being cast into doubt and uncertainty kind of liberating and exhilarating and fun. When I read a piece of philosophy or piece of psychology or science fiction, and it throws me off and confuses me and bewilders me, and calls into doubt what I thought I knew—that lights my candle, that’s what I really like.
While Schwitzgebel enjoys the thrill of uncertainty—did he take Theory of Knowledge?—he contends that we can move towards certainty. "In coming to self-understanding," he says, "we can use introspection to some extent....We can also use third-person evidence." I find Schwitzgebel's ideas quite interesting. But then again, how certain can I be of that?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Metaphors and National Defense

In a post last week, I discussed a new book about metaphors—their ubiquity, complexity, and importance in thought and communication. Apparently, US intelligence personnel have become quite interested in metaphors as well. A colleague recently pointed me to an article by Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, which details the The Metaphor Program, a project of the government's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.

According to the program's website, "The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture." The program, through grants to computer scientists and linguists, seeks to develop computer algorithms that can identify conceptual metaphors used by those who may seek to harm the US. Such an algorithm could be deployed to the corners of the Internet and perform the work of an army of intelligence officers. To be effective, such an algorithm would need to be exceptionally knowledgeable. "What IARPA's project calls for is the deployment of spy resources against an entire language," Madrigal notes. "Where you or I might parse a sentence, this project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people."

The complexity of human language and culture makes developing such an algorithm a great challenge. Metaphorical language can change—what would it have meant in 1980 to surf the information superhighway?—and is highly contextual. Madrigal explores this complexity:
While some of the underlying structures of the metaphors—the conceptual categories—are near universal (e.g. Happy Is Up), there are many variations in their range, elaboration, and emphasis. And, of course, not every category is universal. For example, K√∂vecses points to a special conceptual category in Japanese centered around the hara, or belly, "Anger Is (In The) Hara." In Zulu, one finds an important category, "Anger Is (Understood As Being) In the Heart," which would be rare in English. Alternatively, while many cultures conceive of anger as a hot fluid in a container, it's in English that we "blow off steam," a turn of phrase that wouldn't make sense in Zulu.
The Metaphor Program assumes, Madrigal notes, that the metaphors someone uses can tell us a great deal about that person's worldview—perhaps more than the person says in plain language. The applications for a machine that can detect and analyze metaphors, then, extend well beyond national security. The fruits of The Metaphor Program will help advance the cause of artificial intelligence in many domains.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On Unintelligent Voting

I try to vote in every election I can—school board, village president, state legislature, governor, and, of course, federal legislature and President. I am not, however, always a well informed voter. Take, for example, my vote during my village's local school board election this past April. While I received a flyer in the mail from each candidate that listed his or her platform, all of the platforms included the same platitudes. Instead of investigating each candidate's positions further by, for example, attending a candidate forum, I voted for the candidate who attended the same undergraduate college that I did. My vote was not well informed, but at least I had voted—unlike 90% of my fellow village citizens. I had done my civic duty, right?

Perhaps not. In The Ethics of Voting, Brown University professor Jason Brennan argues that while voting may be a fundamental American right, voting and voting well are two different acts. Voting, like singing, can be done well or badly—and one has no obligation to do it at all. Josh Rothman, who reviewed Brennan's book in a recent post on the Boston Globe's Brainiac Blog, summarizes his main argument:
To vote well, Brennan argues, you actually need to be thinking at a very high level. It's not enough to know which policies different candidates support. You also need to have "epistemically justified" opinions about those policies—which, in many cases, means drawing on "social-scientific background knowledge." That knowledge is hard to acquire, which is why reasonable people can disagree about their votes while also voting well; the point is that they've done their due diligence and taken voting seriously.
Rothman reports that Brennan is not suggesting we abandon civil engagement. Rather, he is urging citizens to consider voting as an optional responsibility—one which the individual need not choose to burden himself with if he is not prepared to educate himself. Because we are not obligated to vote, Brennan argues, if we choose to vote we have an ethical responsibility to our fellow citizens to do so well. I will need to heed Brennan's advice the next time the polls open in my town.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: I is an Other

"Whenever we describe anything abstract—ideas, feelings, thoughts, emotions, concepts—we instinctively resort to metaphor," writes James Geary in I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. I came across Geary's book in my local public library and found it an easy read. Since then, I have found myself dissecting and categorizing metaphors—just as Geary does throughout his book. "We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words," he notes early in the book, so it's no wonder that they keep on popping up everywhere.

The word metaphor, Geary explains, derives from two Greek roots: meta (over, across, or beyond) and phor (to carry). Metaphors allow us to carry ideas from one realm to another, and they do so beautifully and efficently. Geary spends the bulk of the book demonstrating the ubiquity and power of metaphors. Consider his analysis of the word shoulder:
You can give someone the cold shoulder or a shoulder to cry on. You can have a chip on your shoulder or be constantly looking over your shoulder. You can stand on the shoulders of giants, stand shoulder to shoulder with your friends, or stand head and shoulders above the rest. Wherever you turn, you can't help but rub shoulders with one of the word's multitude of metaphorical meanings.
Consider also his analysis of the ways in which we seek to understand finance through metaphor: 
Flick on the business news and you're in for a smorgasbord of financial metaphor. Gasp in horror as the bear market grips Wall Street with its hairy paws; then cheer as fearless investors claw back gains. Watch in amazement as the NASDAQ vaults to new heights; then cringe as it slips, stumbles, and drops like a stone. Wait anxiously to see if the market will shake off the jitters, slump into depression, or bounce back.
From literature to advertising, from comedy to tragedy, from science to art—metaphors make communication possible. In each of the book's fifteen chapters, Geary explores a different use of metaphor. His analyses pull from a range of disciplines—including linguistics, history, and psychology—and his writing is sharp. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in taking a journey into the land of metaphor.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Craniopagus Twins

Last weekend, the New York Times magazine featured a story about a set of four-year-old conjoined twins, Krista and Tatiana Hogan, who, unlike most conjoined twins, are joined at the head. They are craniopagus twins. The author of the piece, Susan Dominus, provides both an anthropological portrait of the girls—she spent five days with the twins and their extended family—and an exploration of the meaning of identity.

What makes Krista and Tatiana's story so fascinating is that the girls appear to share sensory information. One sees something funny on television, for example, and the other laughs. Images of the girls' brains reveal an anatomical link between their thalamuses—a thalamic bridge. "The thalamus is a kind of switchboard," explains Dominus, "a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness." The girls' doctors believe that sensory input from one of the girls can cross the thalamic bridge into the brain of her sister.

Dominus reports that she witnessed, over and over again, remarkable sensory connection between the girls. "Over the course of the days I spent with them," she writes, "I witnessed the girls do seemingly remarkable things: say the precise name of the toy that could only be seen through the eyes of her sister or point precisely, without looking, to the spot on her sister’s body where she was being touched." She also saw the girls fight when one of them wanted to eat chicken fingers and the other objected violently because she didn't like the taste.

In short, Krista and Tatiana seem, on some level, to share a mind. This makes them fascinating subjects for neuroscientists. Dominus explains:
The average person tends to fall back on the Enlightenment notion of the self—one mind, with privacy of thought and sensory experience—as a key characteristic of identity. That very impermeability is part of what makes the concept of the mind so challenging to researchers studying how it works, the neuroscientist and philosopher Antonio Damasio says in his book, "Self Comes to Mind." "The fact that no one sees the minds of others, conscious or not, is especially mysterious," he writes. We may be capable of guessing what others think, "but we cannot observe their minds, and only we ourselves can observe ours, from the inside, and through a rather narrow window."
Assuming Krista and Tatiana survive into adolescence and beyond—and I certainly hope they do—neuroscientists will seek to gauge if the girls are able to share abstract thoughts, just as psychologists will be eager to understand how their condition has shaped their identities. For the time being, despite physiological challenges, Krista and Tatiana, Dominus reports, are remarkably well-adjusted children—daily reminding us of the power of the brain.

In addition to reading the full article, I recommend this video about the twins: