Archive for July, 2010

Hey, Wait a Minute! – Biological roots of today’s anger

David P. Barash in The Chronicle Review:

No fair! No fair!

“No fair” must rank among the loudest and most readily evoked complaints. Nor is the din of inequity limited to children. Consider the widespread anger generated by the Wall Street and AIG bailouts: Regardless of whether they were justified as national policy, those and other departures from perceived evenhandedness have a long history of rousing departures from citizen complacency, and even from civility. Ditto for outrage over executives getting outsized bonuses and golden parachutes while the rest of us are left to soldier on as best we can.

In evolutionary terms, what’s going on here?

Another way of asking that question is to turn it around. Why do we feel so violated? Lixing Sun, a professor of biology at Central Washington University, thinks we have a “fairness instinct.” And he may be right. He maintains that high on the roster of human propensities is a “Robin Hood mentality” that characterizes our species and qualifies as one of those “mental modules” that evolutionary psychologists consider part of our likely biological inheritance. If so, our fairness instinct goes far beyond the pleasure we take in romantic tales of medieval Merry Men adventuring in Sherwood Forest. Sun believes that despite the fact of our specieswide social and economic disparities—perhaps in part because of them—human beings are endowed (or burdened) with an acute sensitivity to “who is getting how much,” in particular a deft attunement to whether anyone else is getting more or less than one’s self.

Read on

Beware those Black Swans

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in New Statesman:

The bestselling economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we can’t make the world financial system immune to shocks –– but we can make sure it’s much more robust by building randomness into our planning.

After completing my book The Black Swan, I spent some time meditating on the fragility of systems with the illusion of stability. This convinced me that the banking system was the mother of all accidents waiting to happen. I explained in the book that the best teachers of wisdom are the eldest, because they may have picked up invisible tricks that are absent from our epistemic routines and which help them survive in a world more complex than the one we think we understand. So being old implies a higher degree of resistance to “Black Swans” (events with the following three attributes: they lie outside the realm of regular expectations; they carry an extreme impact; and human nature makes us concoct explanations for their occurrence after the fact).

Take Mother Nature, which is clearly a complex system, with webs of interdependence, non-linearities and a robust ecology (otherwise it would have blown up a long time ago). It is a very old person with an impeccable memory. Mother Nature does not develop Alz heimer’s – and there is evidence that even humans would not easily lose brain functions with age if they took long walks, avoided sugar, bread, white rice and stock-market investments, and refrained from taking economics classes or reading the New York Times.

Let me summarise my ideas of how Mother Nature deals with the Black Swan. First, she likes redundancies. Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains (with the possible exception of company executives) – and each has more capacity than is needed ordinarily. So redundan cy equals insurance, and the apparent inefficiencies are associated with the costs of maintain ing these spare parts and the energy needed to keep them around in spite of their idleness.

Read on

In 6 days, Buddhist monks create insane sand mandala sculpture…and then destroy it

Bowls of Fingers, Baby Victims, More Found in Maya Tomb

John Roach in National Geographic:

Reeking of decay and packed with bowls of human fingers, a partly burned baby, and gem-studded teeth—among other artifacts—a newfound Maya king’s tomb sounds like an overripe episode of Tales From the Crypt.

But the tightly sealed, 1,600-year-old burial chamber, found under a jungle-covered Guatemalan pyramid, is as rich with archaeological gold as it is with oddities, say researchers who announced the discovery Friday.

“This thing was like Fort Knox,” said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, who led the excavation in the ancient, overgrown Maya town of El Zotz.

Alternating layers of flat stones and mud preserved human bones, wood carvings, textiles, and other organic material to a surprising degree—offering a rare opportunity to advance Maya archaeology, experts say.

“Since [the artifacts] appear in a royal tomb, they may provide direct insights in the political economy of the divine kings that likely involved tribute and gifts,” Vanderbilt University anthropologist Markus Eberl, who was not involved in the project, said via email.

Excavation leader Houston added, “we’re looking at a glimpse of lost art forms.”

(Pictures: what the Maya Empire looked like.)

Fingers, Teeth, and a Taste of Things to Come

The researchers found grisly deposits even before they reached the Maya tomb.

Almost every layer of mud above the tomb contained blood-red pottery filled with human fingers and teeth wrapped in decayed organic material—perhaps leaves.

The fingers and teeth were “perhaps a kind of food or symbolic meal offering,” Houston speculated. “Sacred breads in [Mexico‘s] Yucatán are wrapped in such materials today.”

In another bowl above the circa A.D. 350 to 400 tomb, the team found a partly burned baby. The bowls closest to the burial chamber were arranged like the Maya cosmos—the four cardinal compass points plus the center of world.

Read on

He impersonated a human

Gideon Levy in Haaretz:

Sabbar Kashur wanted to be a person, a person like everybody else. But as luck would have it, he was born Palestinian. It happens. His chances of being accepted as a human being in Israel are nil. Married and a father of two, he wanted to work in Jerusalem, his city, and maybe also have an affair or a quickie on the side. That happens too.

He knew that he had no chance with the Jews, so he adopted another name for himself, Dudu. He didn’t have curly hair, but he went by Dudu just the same. That’s how everyone knew him. That’s how you know a few other Arabs too: the car-wash guy you call Rafi, the stairwell cleaner who goes by Yossi, the supermarket deliveryman you know as Moshe.

What’s wrong? Is it only fearsome Shin Bet interrogators like “Capt. George” and “Abu Faraj” who are allowed to adopt names from other peoples? Are only Israelis who emigrate allowed to invent new identities? Only the Yossi from Hadera who became Joe in Miami, the Avraham from Bat Yam who became Abe in Los Angeles?

No longer a youth, Sabbar/Dudu worked as a deliveryman for a lawyer’s office, rode his scooter around Jerusalem and delivered documents, affidavits and sworn testimonies, swearing to everyone that he was Dudu. Two years ago he met a woman by chance. Nice to meet you, my name is Dudu. He claims that she came on to him, but let’s leave the details aside. Soon enough they went where they went and what happened happened, all by consent of the parties concerned. One fine day, a month and a half after an afternoon quickie, he was summoned to the police on suspicion of rape.

Read on

The Struggle for the (Possible) Soul of David Eagleman

Robert Jensen in Killing the Buddha:

A neuroscientist imagines life beyond the brain.

There’s a struggle inside the brain of David Eagleman for the soul of David Eagleman.

That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all—with or without a soul, whatever that term might mean.

Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman, to life in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.

Eagleman-the-scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. But Eagleman-the-writer knows that those machines aren’t going to answer those questions.

Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

Taking seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence,” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God (at least not in God defined as a supernatural force or entity) can never say with certainty what doesn’t exist. So, the difference between agnostic and atheist is typically a matter of attitude, and such is the case with adding possibilian to the mix. Eagleman is not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities.

While he reports on what-is in scientific journals, Eagleman’s brain and mind run free pondering the what-ifs. In his 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman imagines life beyond death, in a playful series of short philosophical musings: What if there were an afterlife in which we relive all our experiences but shuffled into a new order? What if in an afterlife we confront all the possible versions of ourselves that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when your name is spoken by another for the last time? Sum offers 40 such what-ifs. The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals about what an afterlife may be. They are vehicles for Eagleman’s ruminations on the vexing philosophical questions of human life.

Read on

Historian claims Plato’s manuscripts are mathematically ordered according to 12-note scale

Julian Baggini in The Guardian:

It may sound like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but an academic at the University of Manchester claims to have cracked a mathematical and musical code in the works of Plato.

Jay Kennedy, a historian and philosopher of science, described his findings as “like opening a tomb and discovering new works by Plato.”

Plato is revealed to be a Pythagorean who understood the basic structure of the universe to be mathematical, anticipating the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton by 2,000 years.

Kennedy’s breakthrough, published in the journal Apeiron this week, is based on stichometry: the measure of ancient texts by standard line lengths. Kennedy used a computer to restore the most accurate contemporary versions of Plato’s manuscripts to their original form, which would consist of lines of 35 characters, with no spaces or punctuation. What he found was that within a margin of error of just one or two percent, many of Plato’s dialogues had line lengths based on round multiples of twelve hundred.

The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.

Kennedy argues that this is no accident. “We know that scribes were paid by the number of lines, library catalogues had the total number of lines, so everyone was counting lines,” he said. He believes that Plato was organising his texts according to a 12-note musical scale, attributed to Pythagoras, which he certainly knew about.

“My claim,” says Kennedy, “is that Plato used that technology of line counting to keep track of where he was in his text and to embed symbolic passages at regular intervals.” Knowing how he did so “unlocks the gate to the labyrinth of symbolic messages in Plato”.

Read on