Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Wearable Dog Toilet

I had to go in for surgery today and now Im laid up in bed, seriously considering buying this for myself:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My Brain Made Me Do It

I just came across this interesting discussion on the implications of neuroscience on policy and law held at the Institute of Ideas in London, which I recommend checking out (in particular chapters two, six, and seven).

Raymond Tallis opens the floor with what I think was a pretty fair rebuke of those 'who wish to blame their brains for their misdemeaners' using the recent research in neuroscience as proof. Tallis argues that this research does not answer philosophical questions pertaining to free will or legal questions about the allocation of blame. Moreover, Tallis continues on a more philosophical tact, 'if you wish to blame your brain for bad behavior, why stop there'? Since the brain is a physical entity it is therefore wired into nature and thus one could go so far as to say "the big bang made me do it".

I think Tallis makes good points. Previously I had been under the sway of 'well, we might as well hold criminals accountable for their actions, regardless of the free-will question and the obvious failures of our justice system, because it just might have a minor effect on their decision to commit or not commit a socially unaccepted offense or crime. An effect, however small, nevertheless beneficial'. But Tallis and Magistretti have helped clarify the personal responsibility stance for me. Holding people accountable for their brain's decisions is thus potentially beneficial (behavior modifying) and intellectually justifiable (at least until I'm swayed otherwise).

Anyways check out the vid. In chapter 6 there's some brief commentary on Benjamin Libet's interesting work, as well as some of the philosophical thought dilemma's such as the 'trolley problem'.

Feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments section below.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Falling Slowly - Glen Hansard

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Adam K - Coconut Skins

Todays song of the day, is me covering a Damien Rice song:

(My voice cracks at one part and I fuck up a few times on guitar, but I'm too lazy to rerecord it and it also takes way too long to upload vids on youtube, so endure and hopefully enjoy.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Congressional Hearings on Executive Power: To Impeach or Not to Impeach

Yesterday I tuned in and out of the House Judiciary Hearing on the limitation of executive power. Summary: long, partisan, and unproductive. Bush has clearly flouted many of our constitutional laws, continues to circumvent congress on a number of national security issues, but so far as I can tell he has not committed an impeachable offense.

Bruce Fein (who was perhaps the most impassioned witness at the hearing) did a diavlog with Firedoglake blogger Jane Hamsher on recently where he overviews the President et al's crimes and why they should be impeached. Fein explains why the war on terror does not or at least should not classify as a true war by way of analogy, shares his hypothesis as to why the American public doesn't care, and proposes that we return to a constitutional government.

Also Rush Holt had a piece over at TPM cafe, though it seemed to gloss over much of the legal controversies.

Much of the news and discussion about this surveillance legislation has to do with immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that may have followed the President's request and overstepped the law. Generally, I believe that people and corporations should be held responsible for their actions. More important, though, is the other part of this legislation that would set the law for surveillance in the future.

Any change to FISA must strengthen our ability to gather reliable, verifiable, and actionable intelligence on real enemies versus imagined or assumed enemies. I am not aware of any historical examples where a "fishing expedition" approach to intelligence collection has made our country safer. To the contrary, fishing expeditions are sloppy intelligence. There is an age-old principle used to avoid imagining someone is an enemy or a danger to society. The people who would seize persons, papers, and communications are not the same people who determine that the target should be suspect. A court considers the particular facts and then issues a particular search warrant. Neither police, nor intelligence agents should decide who is suspect. It is an important principle that is part of what makes the United States of America what it is: the government does not regard any American with suspicion first. Only after a due process is a person treated with suspicion. No individual, no class, no religion, no immigrant is lesser in the eyes of the government.

One of the commenters had a pretty succinct post below the article where he/she writes:

With respect, any bill that is debated that includes retroactive immunity for telecoms make a mockery of our laws, our Constitution and our values and so everything else you have to say is really academic and serves only as a distraction. That is the issue and it is an easy call. I am horrified and outraged that the bill is even being allowed on the floor of the house for one minute let alone being debated! It is an abomination, a sellout, and yet another examply of the pathetic cowardice of the Democratic Party at a moment that demands courage.

We, the people, understand quite clearly that this administration (with Democrats aiding and abetting at every step of the way) has trampled our Constitution and used "fighting terror" as the cover story and excuse for it. Time and again have Democrats capitulated in the face of the intimidation and lies of that pack of criminals running the White House and the Republican Party. Democrats did so when authorizing the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq which is itself a Crime Against Peace--the worst of all war crimes! Democrats have done so repeatedly during the reign of terror presided over by Bush and his henchmen.

But the sad truth is that at almost every turn, the Democrats could have stood in the way of tyranny and the destruction of our most cherished Constitution. Frankly, I don't give a damn about the rest of the details of the bill you and your colleagues will debate tomorrow. If it contains retroactive immunity for telecoms in any form whatsoever it is an affront to respect for the laws and Constitution of the United States and no Democrat with any spine at all should be caught dead supporting it. We Democrats are supposed to believe in the rule of law! Giving the wealthy, powerful corporations yet another way to avoid responsibility for their criminal actions is reprehensible to say the least.

You make some good points here, but it is all beside the point if once again the Democrats demonstrate how weak and craven and calculating they are. I am so disgusted with Pelosi, Hoyer, Reid and Rockefeller that I can't even put into words how I loathe them and their failure to stand up to that criminal tyrant Bush!

This is not a close call Congressman. You don't need to read what the "compromise" language is in the bill. The bill is a total and complete capitulation. It is a disgrace! Don't dance on this: oppose it. It is the right thing to do for America. If you or any Democrat votes for this bill it will constitute an open and willing failure to uphold your oath to defend the laws and Constitution of the United States.


Big Spanish Castle

I just came across this cool optical illusion today. Enjoy.

Brain Magic

Magician Keith Barry, who has made a number of appearances on various tv shows, recently did a performance at TED, in which he show-cased a number of cool 'mindreading' and 'mind-control/misdirection' tricks.

A number of psychologists and philosophers have started looking into these cognitive tricks to gain insight into the workings of the mind and have produced a pretty interesting body of literature (I just hope they're not putting magicians out of their jobs).

When I took theory of mind last year we read a good article by Dennet, Explaining the Magic of Consciousness, which was a rather valiant attempt by Dennet to dismantle or you could say dethrone Chalmers' so called hard problem of subjectivity. In the article Dennet uses a famous trick by Ralph Hull called 'the Tuned Deck' to demonstrate how words themselves can often mislead our minds.

The tempting idea that there is a Hard Problem is simply a mistake. I cannot prove this. Or, better, even if I can prove this, my proof will surely fall on deaf ears, since CHALMERS, for instance, has already acknowledged that arguments against his convictions on this score are powerless to dislodge his intuition, which is beyond rational support. So I will not make the tactical error of trying to dislodge with rational argument a conviction that is beyond reason. That would be wasting everybody's time, apparently. Instead, I will offer up what I hope is a disturbing parallel from the world of card magic: The Tuned Deck.

For many years, Mr. Ralph Hull, the famous card wizard from Crooksville, Ohio, has completely bewildered not only the general public, but also amateur conjurors, card connoisseurs and professional magicians with the series of card tricks which he is pleased to call "The Tuned Deck"...

Ralph Hull's trick looks and sounds roughly like this:

Boys, I have a new trick to show you. It's called 'The Tuned Deck'. This deck of cards is magically tuned [Hull holds the deck to his ear and riffles the cards, listening carefully to the buzz of the cards]. By their finely tuned vibrations, I can hear and feel the location of any card. Pick a card, any card... [The deck is then fanned or otherwise offered for the audience, and a card is taken by a spectator, noted, and returned to the deck by one route or another.] Now I listen to the Tuned Deck, and what does it tell me? I hear the telltale vibrations, ... [buzz, buzz, the cards are riffled by Hull's ear and various manipulations and rituals are enacted, after which, with a flourish, the spectator's card is presented].

Hull would perform the trick over and over for the benefit of his select audience of fellow magicians, challenging them to figure it out. Nobody ever did. Magicians offered to buy the trick from him but he would not sell it. Late in his life he gave his account to his friend, HILLIARD, who published the account in his privately printed book. Here is what Hull had to say about his trick:

For years I have performed this effect and have shown it to magicians and amateurs by the hundred and, to the very best of my knowledge, not one of them ever figured out the secret. ...the boys have all looked for something too hard [my italics, DCD].

Like much great magic, the trick is over before you even realize the trick has begun. The trick, in its entirety, is in the name of the trick, "The Tuned Deck", and more specifically, in one word "The"! As soon as Hull had announced his new trick and given its name to his eager audience, the trick was over. Having set up his audience in this simple way, and having passed the time with some obviously phony and misdirecting chatter about vibrations and buzz-buzz-buzz, Hull would do a relatively simple and familiar card presentation trick of type A (at this point I will draw the traditional curtain of secrecy; the further mechanical details of legerdemain, as you will see, do not matter).

His audience, savvy magicians, would see that he might possibly be performing a type A trick, a hypothesis they could test by being stubborn and uncooperative spectators in a way that would thwart any attempt at a type A trick. When they then adopted the appropriate recalcitrance to test the hypothesis, Hull would 'repeat' the trick, this time executing a type B card presentation trick. The spectators would then huddle and compare notes: might he be doing a type B trick? They test that hypothesis by adopting the recalcitrance appropriate to preventing a type B trick and still he does "the" trick - using method C, of course. When they test the hypothesis that he's pulling a type C trick on them, he switches to method D - or perhaps he goes back to method A or B, since his audience has 'refuted' the hypothesis that he's using method A or B.

And so it would go, for dozens of repetitions, with Hull staying one step ahead of his hypothesis-testers, exploiting his realization that he could always do some trick or other from the pool of tricks they all knew, and concealing the fact that he was doing a grab bag of different tricks by the simple expedient of the definite article: The Tuned Deck.

I am suggesting, then, that David Chalmers has (unintentionally) perpetrated the same feat of conceptual sleight-of-hand in declaring to the world that he has discovered “The Hard Problem”. Is there really a Hard Problem? Or is what appears to be the Hard Problem simply the large bag of tricks that constitute what Chalmers calls the Easy Problems of Consciousness? These all have mundane explanations, requiring no revolutions in physics, no emergent novelties. They succumb, with much effort, to the standard methods of cognitive science. I cannot prove that there is no
Hard Problem, and Chalmers cannot prove that there is. He can appeal to your intuitions, but this is not a sound basis on which to found a science of consciousness. We have seen in the past – and I have given a few simple examples here – that we have a powerful tendency to inflate our inventory of “known effects” of consciousness, so we must be alert to the possibility that we are being victimized by an error of arithmetic, in effect, when we take ourselves to have added up all the Easy Problems and discovered a residue unaccounted for. That residue may already have been accommodated, without our realizing it, in the set of mundane phenomena for which we already have explanations – or at least unmysterious paths of explanation still to be explored.

The “magic” of consciousness, like stage magic, defies explanation only so long as we take it at face value. Once we appreciate all the non-mysterious ways in which the brain can create benign “user-illusions”, we can begin to imagine how the brain creates consciousness.

Argument to Beethoven's 5th

I thought this was pretty creative:

The Zutons - Valerie

Todays song of the day. Enjoy!

Back to Blogging

After receiving millions of requests to return to blogging and occasional death threats if I don't, I suppose it is time to announce that my summer hiatus is officially ended. Im back!

Now I know many of you missed me, so I will try to make it up to you by posting as frequently as possible--at least sometime in the coming weeks, I promise.

In the meantime here are some of the books that I've recently finished and recommend adding to your summer reading list:

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace
- Ali Allawi

The Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky

Collapse of Complex Societies - Joseph Tainter

Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies and Collapse - Jared Diamond

The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex and Unpredictable Future
- Thomas Homer-Dixon

Who's Afraid of Schodinger's Cat - John Marshall and Danah Zohar

Currently reading:

This is Biology: The Science of the Living World
- Ernst Mayr

PostWar: A History of Europe since 1945 - Tony Judt

Capitalism and Modernity - Jack Goody

What is Life? - Erwin Schrodinger