Thursday, January 31, 2008


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Monday, January 28, 2008

"This is tragic but it's worth it"

John Manley, chair of the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan:
If Canadians really don't want to do this, well then that is something that has to be respected. But in the past, Canadians have shown a willingness to do things that were difficult and required sacrifice and were challenging. But you can't feed them news about young men and women dying without putting it in a context in which they can say this is why and this is meaningful and this is tragic but it's worth it.
Presumably Manley was referring to the young Canadian men and women dying in Afghanistan. The Afghan victims (young or old) are rarely mentioned. I was reminded of Madeleine Albright's infamous remark regarding the deaths of many thousands of Iraqi children due to the sanctions, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it." I'm not trying to equate these situations, but note that while Manley and Albright both conclude that the deaths in the respective situations are "worth it", they're not the ones paying the price.

It is revealing that Manley says you can't "feed" Canadians "news about young men and women dying without putting it in a context in which they can say this is why and this is meaningful". Factual reports of deaths provide too much opportunity for heterodox interpretation. Instead, bitter facts need to be coated in reassuring meaning so as not to upset Canadians' stomachs.

Manley grudgingly concedes that if "Canadians really don't want to do this" (my emphasis), "well then that is something that has to be respected." In the latest Canadian poll from Angus Reid, 61% of respondents indicated they did not support extending the Canadian military presence in Afghanistan beyond the current end date of February 2009. The figure was almost identical in a July poll. So how does Manley's panel show its respect for public opinion? By arguing strongly for an indefinite extension of the Canadian military presence in Afghanistan.

With respect, that's not respect.

Some relevant commentary on the Manley report: Eric Margolis, Steven Staples, Rideau Institute, Council of Canadians, Canadian Peace Alliance.

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Political plots

Last week the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan released its report. The full report is available here. The basic message? Stay the course: Canadian soldiers should stay in Afghanistan well into the future. The argument is propped up by the usual noble words—and a few ignoble graphs, two of which I've shown here.

The graph below shows Afghan's opinions about the direction in which their country is moving:

Comments both graphical and political would be most welcome!

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Proud Papa

My 12 year-old son has been learning Flash and ActionScript, and he has been designing a groovy animation for my blog. Here's version 1.0 (to replay the animation, reload this page):

I'm looking forward to new versions ...

Comments very welcome!

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The princess and the outlier

In my continuing effort to eff the ineffable (consciousness), I today stumbled on an article by Jaron Lanier with the intriguing title "Death: The skeleton key of consciousness studies?" It's written in an entertaining manner with little in the way of technical jargon. Lanier makes some interesting points, but what struck me was the following piece near the beginning:
There is a popular story about a princess who complains that she cannot sleep comfortably because of a single pea buried under layers of mattresses. That pea is consciousness in the sciences.

To consider consciousness by itself is entirely undemanding. It is a pea. There is nothing to describe. An attempt to account for it in context, however, forces the construction of ever shifting, elaborate adventures of thought.

What a temptation it is to dispose of this erratic data point. That is what any first year student of statistics would be taught to do.
Excuse me? I was enjoying the metaphor until that last bit!

At this point I'm tempted to launch into an extended discussion of statistical approaches to outliers. Or an outraged defense of statisticians against the notion that we teach first year students to casually discard data points that seem aberrant. But I think I'll put it on my to-blog list. That's one more pea under my matress!

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Plus ça change ...

... plus c'est la même chose. The more things change the more they stay the same. Take for instance the fascinating phenomenon of change blindness.

Check out this demonstration by Ronald Rensink, a professor of psychology and computer science. The program flashes back and forth between two versions of a picture. Can you see what's changing? It's not as easy as it sounds!

Rensink explains:
... we developed a flicker paradigm in which an original and a modified image continually alternate, one after the other, with a brief blank field between the two ... The onset of each blank field swamps the local motion signals caused by a change, short-circuiting the automatic system that normally draws attention to its location. Without automatic control, attention is controlled entirely by slower, higher-level mechanisms which search the scene, object by object, until attention lands upon the object that is changing. The change blindness induced under these conditions is a form of invisibility: it can become very difficult to see a change that is obvious once attended.
In Rensink's demonstration, if you left-click on the image and then right-click there's a menu where you can change some parameters and look at other examples.

A 2005 BBC article reports on a study indicating that the parietal cortex (which is involved in concentration) plays a key role in change blindness. The article also suggests that one way magicians are able to fool us is by exploiting change blindness.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Consciousness raising

Two years ago I started thinking about consciousness (my earlier posts are here and here), and ever since, what's in my mind has been on my mind.

First, some of what I've been reading lately. About a year ago, Time magazine published an article by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker titled "The mystery of consciousness". Pinker refers to a distinction made by philosopher David Chalmers, between the Easy Problem of consciousness (what are the neural correlates of consciousness?) and the Hard Problem (why do is there such a thing as subjective conscious experience?). Chalmers' ideas are intriguing; see for example his Scientific American piece, "The puzzle of conscious experience". There's also a fascinating video interview with Chalmers.

Now, on to some of my thoughts ...

First person very singular

I know that I'm conscious (in fact for René Descartes, this was the one thing that could be known with certainty). But there's no way to know that any one else is. It is conceivable that they are just biological machines with no conscious experience. They behave just like a conscious person would, and thus would pass any Turing test. There's plenty of computing going on, but nobody's home. Or as philosophers rather melodramatically put it, they are zombies.

You may be reassured to know that I don't believe this. But on what grounds can I believe that other people are actually conscious? It's really an article of faith. Along with a body, and in particular a brain, I have an inner self, therefore I take it for granted that others who are made like me and act like me also have inner selves.

A brute to the brutes?

It seems clear that other humans are "made like me" and "act like me". But broadly speaking, so are other mammals. Are they conscious? Our friend monsieur Descartes considered this issue as well. In Mind: A Brief Introduction, John Searle writes that Descartes
... thought the crucial distinction between us and animals, that enables us to tell for sure that human beings have minds and animals do not, is that human beings have a language in which they express their thoughts and feelings, and animals have no language. Their lack of language he considered to be overwhelming evidence that they have no thoughts or feelings ... If we see a dog hit by a carriage and we hear the dog howling in apparent pain, it looks like we have to assume that the dog has feelings just as we do. But Descartes says all of that is an illusion. We should no more pity the dog than we pity the carriage when it is involved in a crash. The noise might make it look as if the carriage was suffering pain, but it is not; and likewise with dogs and all other animals.
But Descartes' views were not as blunt as this might suggest: see Peter Harrison's article Descartes on Animals. Along with a careful consideration of Descartes' thinking (which relates in part to the issue of sentience), there is this tidbit:
We are reliably informed, for example, that Descartes owned a little dog—Monsieur Grat—upon whom he lavished much affection, and who used to accompany him on his walks.
I believe—as I think most people today do—that dogs are indeed conscious. But then what about birds? Fish? Insects? Corals? Plankton? Protozoa? Perhaps consciousness is some kind of continuum. This line of thought seems to weaken the connection between consciousness and neurology, and it also seems to lead towards panpsychism.

Artificial irrelevance?

If animals may be conscious, then what about machines? I have long been skeptical of artificial intelligence, in part because of the outlandish hype. According to Peter Hankins on his fascinating blog Conscious Entities, one of the leading proponents of AI, Marvin Minsky, declared in 1977 "that the problem of creating artificial intelligence would be substantially solved within a generation." (oops.)

My guess is that there will continue to be gradual progress towards developing some of the capacities that have been identified with AI. But I suspect that even with a much more modest target (i.e. omitting consciousness), Minsky was wrong by several orders of magnitude.

Consciousness consciousness

I'd be very interested in feedback on some of these questions. I've felt for some time that consciousness is the great mystery. There are many unsolved problems in science, and some of the most fascinating ones are in neuroscience. But while neuroscience informs the study of consciousness, I believe that it can only identify the neural correlates of consciousness. Consciousness itself cannot be investigated scientifically.

Or can it?

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