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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.


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Diapers Inspire Advances in Neuroscience

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, August 19, 2016

“A Constellation of Information About Life”


Neuroscientist Edward Boyden wants to know what is happening in the circuitous networks of the brain when thoughts and emotions are in process.  He has been working for years on new technologies for close examination of brain functions, and he recently unveiled a new tool called expansion microscopy.  He got some of the ideas from diapers.   

In a recent Ted Talk Boyden, a father of two young children, notes baby diapers can swell enormously when water is added, “an experiment done by millions of kids every day.”   Disposable diapers are cleverly designed, he explains, with an industrial polymer that promotes expansion when they get wet.

Boyden is an associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, where is also leads the synthetic neurobiology research group at the MIT Media Lab and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.   

The brain is incredibly complex and dense, posing multiple challenges for researchers.  Very specialized cells called neurons are connected in networks, joined together by junctions called synapses that exchange chemicals and allow neurons to communicate, Boyden said.  “In a cubic millimeter of your brain,” he told the TED audience, “there are about100,000 of these neurons and maybe a billion of those connections…if you could zoom in to a neuron….what you’d see are thousands and thousands of kinds of biomolecules, little nanoscale machines organized in complex 3D patterns, and together they mediate those electrical pulses, those chemical exchanges that allow neurons to work together to generate things like thoughts and feelings.”    

If the brain could be made much bigger, Boyden and colleagues mused, all those connections and interactions could be observed and mapped in three dimensional detail.  Boyden has pioneered technological tools to try and discover which specific neurons in the brain govern specific kinds of behavior and emotion.  An MIT news story says Boyden’s group, working with the University of Vienna, recently developed a system that can generate 3D movies showing the simultaneous activities of the all parts of the brains of small animals. In an absorbing discussion, Boyden explained that researchers at Caltech used one of his group’s technologies to discover specific neurons associated with aggression in the brains of mice. When those neurons deep in the brain were activated by pulses of light, the mice attacked anything near them, even if it was only a rubber glove. He says an MIT colleague also discovered that activating certain brain cells with light could make the mouse recover a rewarding memory.    

In an extraordinary presentation, illustrated by artist’s graphics and video, Boyden showed a brain tissue sample infused with the polymer.  The specimen had been treated with a chemical that loosened the molecules from each other, and when water was added, and the sample massively expanded and the polymer chains moved apart, taking brain tissue biomolecules with them.  In an accompanying technological wonder, the scientists were able to distinguish different kinds of biomolecules with tags of glowing dyes in different colors. Scientists could see individual molecules in the 3D structure of the tissue.

The goal, Boyden said, is to make the invisible visible, to take tiny and obscure things and “blow them up until they’re like a constellation of information about life.”  Ultimately, he said, new detailed insights about the brain could help understand and treat such diseases as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and Parkinson’s as well as yielding clues about what makes us human.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, describes how some brilliant breakthroughs arise from what he calls “the adjacent possible,”  a concept from biology introduced by Stuart Kauffman. Ideas, Johnson writes, are works of bricolage, in which some old or perhaps little unnoticed item or notion is jiggered into a new shape by someone seeking solutions for something else. So a neuroscientist’s curiosity about diapers could provide a part of the inspiration for the path-breaking brain research technologies


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Fire, Ice and Anthrax at 'The End of the World'

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, August 5, 2016

Fire Ice and Illnesses Frozen Undergound

In the windswept tundra of northern Siberia, the cascading and unpredictable consequences of climate change have brought huge holes in the earth, flaming explosions that burst through ice, and illnesses from ancient pathogens. 

Yamal, which means “the end of the world,” is the ancestral home of the Nenets, an indigenous nomadic people who raise and live among reindeer. Scientific American and The Washington Post report an outbreak of anthrax has killed at least one child, resulted in hospitalization of hundreds, and infected many more.  The Russian government has airlifted many families away from their homes to avoid the public health hazard of more than 2,300 reindeer infected with anthrax. Russian officials are vaccinating surviving reindeer and burying carcasses.  

Initially a mystery, scientists now believe a sudden heat wave with temperatures this summer in the 90s caused an unusually deep melt in the permafrost, bringing to the surface the carcass of a reindeer that died of anthrax more than 75 years ago.   Permafrost is a thick layer of subsoil that has stayed frozen trough at least two summers, and in some places can be hundreds of yards deep.  Much of the Siberian and Arctic permafrost has been frozen for millennia.  Jean-Michel Claverie at the National Center for Scientific Research in France says anthrax and other bacteria and viruses can remain alive in frozen soil for a very long time. 

Scientific American reports Arctic zones are warming at unprecedented speed. The summer of 2014 was hotter than average by 9 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat that melted the ice also activated the dormant anthrax bacteria, allowing growth of spores that spread across the tundra and infected grazing reindeer. Brigitta Evengard, a microbiologist at Umea University in Sweden, a scholar of diseases and climate, notes people and animals that could be infected with all kinds of pathogens have been buried in permafrost for centuries. Scientists are just beginning to investigate that, and Evengard things more anthrax is likely to surface in Siberia. Researchers have already found bits of the 1918 Spanish flue virus in corpses buried in Alaska’s tundra.   “So we really don’t know what’s buried up there,” Evengard told NPR.  “This is a Pandora’s Box.

In addition to the unexpected anthrax outbreak, The Siberian Times reports, scientists have been examining several huge, deep craters that have appeared recently on the Yamal Peninsula. Several theories, including asteroids and underground missiles, were considered before scientists concluded the likely culprit was temporary warming and long term climate change.   A story in Nature explains that with low temperature and high pressure, hydrogen, methane and water can freeze together into what’s called methane hydrate locked within permafrost.  Melting permafrost triggers the accumulation and release of volatile “fire ice” gases that create giant funnels of flame with they explode.  Methane is a greenhouse gas vastly more powerful than carbon dioxide, and many scientists believe the Arctic will become the epicenter of global climate change.  Watch a YouTube video of a fireball breaking through Arctic ice.


Remembering Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”


Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.


 Attached Thumbnails:

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The Contagion of Kindness

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, July 30, 2016

We Can Also Catch the Spirit


Witnessing kindness spreads kindness, and that diffusion involves more than repetition of benevolent actions.  Research suggests the underlying spirit of kind actions can cascade through individual and group encounters, evolving new forms as it travels.

Scientists have documented many types of social, behavioral and emotional contagion, both positive and negative. Drug addiction and obesity can travel through networks and so can happiness and cooperation. People who know that neighbors recycle, or donate to a charity, are likely to do the same.  Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, and colleagues explored whether such contagion extended more flexibly beyond replication of similar actions.  In a Scientific American story Zaki says their work suggests one individual’s kindness can “trigger people to spread positivity in other ways.” Zaki is also director of the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab.

In one study described in the article, participants received a $1 bonus in addition to payment for completing the study.  They were then shown descriptions of 100 charities and asked if they wanted to donate any of their bonus. After each donation, participants were shown what purported to be the average donations of the last 100 study participants.   Actually, some participants were told the average donation was a generous three quarters of the bonus, and others were told it was a stingy one quarter.  Participants who thought others were generous became more generous themselves.  

In a follow up study, participants witnessed generous and stingy donations, and were then asked to do what they thought was an unrelated follow up task.  They read a note that related the recent ups and downs in another person’s life and wrote back. Those who had witnessed generous behavior wrote friendlier, more empathetic and more supportive notes than those who has witnessed stingy behavior.  In another follow up, people read stories of the suffering of the homeless, and then saw reported reactions of past study participants. Some saw reported responses that were kind and empathetic, others saw callous ones.  Given the chance to donate a test bonus to a homeless shelter, those who saw empathetic responses donated twice as much as those who were led to believe their fellow test subjects were callous.

While all the psychological forces that power kindness contagion are not fully understood, Zaki writes, people like to “be on the same page” with others. Studying social norms and neural responses to food preferences, Zaki and colleagues found that when people discover their opinions match those of a group, the brain area associated with rewards is activated.  They also found that alignment with group norms can influence opinions and preferences.  


“The battle between dark and light conformity likely depends on which cultural norms people witness most often,” Zaki writes. “Someone who is surrounded by grandstanding and antagonism will tend toward hostile and exclusionary attitudes herself. Someone who learns that her peers prize empathy will put more work to empathize herself.” 

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Wisdom of Crowds Works Best for Easy Choices

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, July 29, 2016
Small Groups May Make Wiser Choices
But Don't Abandon Need for Elections
The wisdom of crowds apparently works best when there is a pretty straight forward correct answer.   What it the weight of the ox? How many jelly beans in the a jar? Or a tougher problem, but one that still had specific right answers: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) placed 10 red weather balloons at different locations around the continental U.S. and launched a public competition to find them. Where were they?
Santa Fe Institute Professor Mirta Galesic and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin have investigated how many people make a wise crowd, and their research suggests when it comes to qualitative decisions, a small to moderate group may be better.    
A story in the Santa Fe Institute newsletter Parallax explains, for example, that a team of five to seven doctors is likely to do better than a much larger group of doctors at identifying a diagnosis that fits patient symptoms. Financial official forecasting unemployment, economic growth and inflation, and panels of forecasters predicting political victories are also likely to perform best in small to moderate sized groups.
While past research on wisdom of crowds has looked at decisions about how much or how many, the current research examined more difficult decisions that combined an unpredictable mix of easy and hard choices. The researchers mathematically modeled group accuracy with groups of different sizes and different combination of decision difficulties. The smaller groups did better. Galesic says the reason is a matter of probabilities. A group of experts of any size will probably get an easy decision right. For more difficult decisions, the story explains, "moderate sized groups are more noisy representations of the overall population of experts," and can by chance arrive at a correct answer even if most of the experts in the larger population wouldn't.
What about democracy? Galesic doesn't think we should abandon large scale referendums and national elections. Those choices, she says, represent preferences, with a whole spectrum of consequences, rather than a right or wrong answer.
Mark Buchanan, a physicist, author and columnist for BloombergView, contemplating this question and the new research, notes that decision making bodies around the world tend to work with small numbers-juries, parish or municipal councils, central bank boards and parliamentary committees, which usually have five to 40 participants. Buchanan suggests U.K. voters who expressed clear discontent on matters of globalization and immigration may not have reached the wisest decision on Brexit.
Arguably, he writes, the referendum didn't have a right or wrong answer, but he says it was a "crude instrument for deciding such an important and difficult issue," especially because much of the British public has adopted some inaccurate ideas, such as believing there are twice a many immigrants in the country as there actually are. He says U.K. leaders will need to examine carefully how to respect the will of the voters and determine whether that respect demands invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which begins the process of taking the U.K. out of the European Union.
The MIT team that got the right answers on the balloon locations had help from 4,400 volunteers quickly recruited from across the country. Click here to read how the team won the DARPA challenge.

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Citizen Groups Welcome Refugees to Canada

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, July 18, 2016

Grass Root Efforts Aid Syrian Refugees

When Liz Rykert was working as a consultant a hospital in Oswego, New York, she and colleagues visited the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, which preserves the memories of nearly 1,000 European refugees rescued from the Nazis in World War II and housed in what was then the Fort Ontario Army barracks. She also learned of the work of Ruth Gruber, the woman whose book Havendescribes the harrowing work of getting the refugees from war zones to a military ship for transport to the U.S. and safety.  

Rykert and her husband, John Sewell, who had accompanied her, thought of what refugees endure: dangers and hardships, loss of their worldly goods and comforts, fear of the future, and endless struggle to stay alive keep their children safe. Rykert recalls her husband saying: “We have to do something about Syrian refugees, being displaced by the millions, taking terrible risks.” His reaction was no surprise. Sewell, a life-long activist for progressive causes and a recognized urban affairs expert, formerly taught law and social and political science at York University and has held several posts in Toronto government.  As Toronto’s Mayor from 1978-1980, he helped organize Operation Lifeline, a citizens’ organization that helped bring refugees from war-ravaged Vietnam to Canada. Nearly a third of the 60,000 who arrived settled in Toronto. The insights learned and networks formed more than three decades ago have been a factor in the effort to welcome today’s victim of war and violence.  Sewell has now spearheaded a new group, LifelineSyria, and a new website, Toronto4Refugees (can’t find this) to foster the Syrian initiative.    

Rykert and Sewell are part of a group of 21 friends and neighbors sponsoring a refugee family who fled their home in Aleppo, Syrian, fearing for their lives. They spent two years in emergency quarters in Turkey before their arrival in Canada.  Omer Suleyman, a cook, his wife, Aliye El Huseyin,  nurse, and their three children, daughters Esra, 13, Marem, 8, and son Suleyman, 6,  are now in an apartment in Toronto, adjusting to new and very different lives.  A Toronto Globe and Mail story by Ian Brown describes the family, the sponsors, and their experiences.  

While the Obama Administration has pledged to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, only about 5,000 had been admitted to the U.S. as of June. Governors of many states oppose their arrival and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Canada had admitted 25,000 Syrian refugees by last February, and expects 10,000 more.  

As of last February8,527 Syrian refugees had private Canadian sponsors, an unusual system unmatched elsewhere in the world. Sewell says some 10,000 private groups like the ones he and Rykert helped form have organized to welcome refugees and many are frustrated with national and international bureaucracies that have delayed arrival of their families. Immigrations officials, observing the doors closing to refugees across the world, have been surprised to find Canadian citizens impatient for more to arrive.

The sponsors commit to paying all their family’s expenses for a full year. Sewell explains the groups collect money (his collected some $45,000 and members don’t know amounts of individual contributions), make arrangements and help meet individual needs. Some sponsors take classes in how to help without smothering, and how to help foster eventual independence.  “It’s a brilliant system,” Sewell said. “We find them places to live, find doctors, get their kids into schools, and a network of people gets them into society, all at small expense to the government, which does pay for healthcare.” Rykert explains the groups introduce newcomers to others who speak Arabic, find banks and other businesses where someone speaks Arabic, locate mosques and grocery stores that sell halal meat and other foods they need, find tutors for children who have missed years of schooling, and free language classes for all.  While Suleyman and his wife were anxious to find jobs immediately, their sponsors encouraged them to focus on their new language for the sake of more success later. Five core people in the sponsoring group regularly visit the family, which can benefit from all their connections. “It make them feel welcome, and if there are problems, we’ll know and help,” Sewell said.  He said studies have shown privately sponsored refugees adjust more easily than those who are government sponsored because of the personal connections and relationships they develop.

The couple says many newcomers suffer from dental problems that result from the often-chaotic lives and erratic diets of refugee existence. Canadian health care doesn’t cover dentistry, so they found a friendly dentist who discounts rates. Treating their family.  Sewell recently took the Suleyman youngsters on a downtown outing, where they were delighted with their first escalator ride.

Sponsors benefit a much as the families they help, Sewell observes. “This is extraordinary community building,” he said. “We have gotten to know our neighbors in more ways than we’d have thought. You think you know your neighbors until you start something like this.  This expresses the best about being Canadian. We do this.” For the last 120 years, Sewell said, Canada has had immigrants and refugees equaling about one percent of the population annually.  “That means we are very adaptable, and very accepting of new people and different cultures,” he said. “That has been our history.”   

Canadians who came from Vietnam as refugees have integrated well, Sewell said, and many kept strong ties with their sponsors. Many have also maintained the spirit of their communities. Marianne Nguyen, who came to Canada from Vietnam as a 12-year-old without her parents nearly 40 years ago, now wants to help a Syrian family find a new home. A designer who was trained as an architect, Ms. Nguyen is heading one of 11 teams from Ryerson University that are part of Lifeline Syria’s effort tosecure private sponsorship for 1,000 Syrian refugees.  Read the story here.  Read a New York Times story on Syrian refugees in Canada here.  An accompanying story tells of efforts to bring Syrian refugees to the U.S.

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Is the Future Out of Date?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, July 18, 2016

Evolution Didn't Equip Us to Contemplate the Future

 With continuing technological advances that have brought us big data, robotics, virtual reality, gene editing, artificial intelligence, and cyber crime, and geopolitical upheavals represented by ISIS, an international refugee crisis and Brexit, change is inevitable. Paradoxically, some observer say, this recognition hasn't made us very good at thinking about the future.

 FarhadManjoo, writing in the New York Times, says the late Alvin Toffler was right when he predicted in his 1970 book Future Shock that the dizzying pace of technological change would make us disoriented and progressively incompetent in dealing rationally with our environments. Manjoo says today's local and global crises arise from our "collective inability to deal with ever-faster change."

 "All around, technology is altering the word," Manjoo writes. "Social media is subsuming journalism, politics and terrorist organizations. Inequality, driven in part by techno-abetted globalization, has created economic panic across much of the western world. National governments are in a slow-moving war for dominance with a handful of the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen-all of which happen to be tech companies."

 Despite that, Manjoo says, we have short-sighted politics where vision is limited to the next election, and our crumbling roads and bridges reflect a lack of investment in our future. Critics say too many business leaders trade long-term benefit for short- term profit. Economic and social policies haven't kept up with an aging population that includes longer life spans. Laura Carstensen, founder of the Stanford Center on Longevity, observes in a Time essay that during the 20th century the numbers of Americans living into their 80s, 90s, and beyond began to exceed the cultural changes needed to accommodate longevity.   She notes that long term planning doesn't come naturally to humans, that nothing in our evolutionary heritage prepared us to think about the distant future, and that research shows humans are ill-equipped to envision negative consequences of routine daily behavior.

 In mid 20th century the government and several independent research institutes were working on long-range projection in many fields. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)was created in 1972 to analyze impact of new science and technology, and analyze proposed legislation for its future effects. But Manjoo says "futurism" fell from grace in the 1980s after it became associated with marketers pushing products. Manjoo says the elimination of the OTA in 1995 left the government without a place for futurists, and left every decision about the future "viewed through the unforgiving lens of partisan politics."  

 Certainly, many initiatives examining the future of technology still exist at universities and think tanks. Many researchers are expanding the discoveries in big data that have already brought improvements in healthcare. The Good Judgment Project, founded by scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California-Berkeley, with government funds initially as a way to help CIA analysts be better at their work, continues to examine predicting, forecasting and new ways of thinking about the future.  

But Manjoo thinks we have become collectively short-sighted. In his view, we've traveled from Toffler's future shock to having "future blindness" today. He quotes Amy Webb, a futurist who founded the Future Today Institute, who believes future studies have diminished. "I don't know of many people any more whose day to day pursuit is the academic study of the future," she said.

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The Art of Hacking: Boundaries and Selectivity

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 7, 2016

Kevin Kelly:The Amish Make Hacking an Art

The Amish don’t usually have computers or high-speed internet access in their homes, and they’re rarely big users of social media.  But they’re not Luddites. In fact, Kevin Kelly, a renowned tech aficionado, thinks we can learn a great deal from the creative ways the Amish use technology.

For example, he says, the strictest among the Amish don’t use public electricity in their homes. But they can get creative use from an electrical appliance, such as a kitchen blender, because they’ve learned to transform it so that it runs on air pressure.  They have also developed refrigerators that run on natural gas and tools that operate pneumatically.  Most don’t own or drive cars and ingeniously crafted battery operated lights and turn signals can make buggies safer.  

Kelly was a co-founder of Wired magazine, where he is now Senior Maverick, and the author of several books on technology and society. In a recent book What Technology Wants, in which he argues that development of technological innovations is similar to biological evolution, Kelly includes a chapter called “Lessons from Amish Hackers.”  He also discusses Amish technological adaptations in his blog The Technium. 

An eWeek story by Todd R. Weiss explains Kelly became inspired by the Amish some 35 years ago when he visited small villages and towns in Lancaster County PA during a cross-country bike ride. He has developed friendships and spent years studying Amish history, beliefs, and lifestyles, which can vary from one region to another.    “I find (the Amish) to be incredibly technology oriented,” Kelly told Weiss. “They’re using technology to hack their own rules.”  He adds that in this case the term “hacking” implies no negative connotation. Originally, he explained, the term meant subverting a rule or exploring a loophole, and that doesn’t have to be bad. The Amish, he suggests, hack within the boundaries of their beliefs, while some other hackers have no boundaries.   

“It makes them artists,” Kelly said. “Regular hackers are hacking because they can while Amish hackers are hacking with more of a goal.”  They evaluate new ideas, try adapting new things and decide what fits with their lives and values.  Kelly says they use technology minimally and selectively, which might be good strategy for the rest of us.  He imagines that Amish communities will become increasingly diverse in their technological adaptations, and that cell phones will impose greater pressure on tradition than past technologies.   Kelly has presented at the Young Center for Anabaptist and  Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, PA. The Center fosters scholarship on the heritage and culture of Anabapist and Pietist communities, which include the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and Moravians.  The Center conducts events that include lectures, exhibits, seminars and conferences.


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The Power of Paradox and a Poet’s Prescience

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 24, 2016

Why is the night sky dark?

Edgar Allan Poe, the enigmatic poet and literary critic who created short stories combining human horror and science fiction, may have been the first person to suggest a possible solution to Olbers’ paradox, an astronomical riddle that perplexed scientists for centuries. 

Anthony Aguirre, a physics professor at the University of California—Santa Cruz, says when we find a paradox and explore it and study it, the effort may lead us on a beguiling path that gets close to the truth.  In a short essay in John Brockman’s book “This Will Make You Smarter,”  Aguirre says Olbers’ paradox is one of his favorites. It was named for German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, who recognized that the darkness of the night sky conflicted with the idea of an infinite, eternal and static universe, which was dominant scholarly view during his lifetime (1758-1840). If the universe were fixed and static and filled with an infinite number of stars and galaxies, he figured, any sight line from earth would end on a very bright star. So the night sky would have to be as bright as day.

Why is the sky dark at night? Why don’t we see light from all those stars? Aguirre writes that scientists grappled with this puzzle for centuries, coming up with all sorts of unworkable solutions.  Could there be a dynamic, expanding and evolving universe? Poe thought so, Aguirre observes, and the scientific world took a long time to catch up.

Poe was no scientist, but he had a restless imagination and a mind full of esoteric knowledge.  Contemporary literary critics didn’t much like “Eureka,” his lengthy 1848 prose poem on the nature and origins of the universe. But many scholars say he came up with a rudimentary version of how modern science explains the universe. In a New York Times story, Emily Eakin explains Poe’s “uncanny display of prescience.”  Rather than static and eternal, Poe envisioned universe exploding in “one instantaneous flash” from a “single primordial particle.” Eighty years before scientists hammered out the math, she writes, Poe had envisioned a crude description of the Big Bang theory, which became a mainstream idea in the 1960s.  She notes Poe also imagined an expanding universe that might eventually collapse, and something like black holes.  And she explains that Poe’s thoughts on the Olbers paradox have turned out to be right: he imagined that the universe, while inexpressibly and unimaginably great, was finite in time and space, and if the speed of light is also finite, the light from some of those stars would be eons away and not visible from earth. Watch a scientific explanation of the Olbers paradox here.

Aguirre is wrestling with a number of paradoxes, and he considers them a gift. “Nature appears to contradict itself with the utmost rarity,” he writes, “so a paradox can be an opportunity for us to lay bare our cherished assumptions and discover which of them must be let go….and reveal…that the very model of thinking we used to create the paradox must be replaced.”

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Outsourcing Morality

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Moral Outsourcing and Clever Fudge Factors

Under a Chinese law enacted in November, students caught cheating on the high-stakes Gaokao college entrance exam may face up to seven years in prison. Nine million anxious students recently filed into testing centers across the country to take the exam, widely considered the most important test in the life of a Chinese citizen.  

A New York Times story by Javier C. Hernandez reports that the harsh penalty was, according to the Chinese newspaper Global Times, intended to enforce fairness and uphold a sense of “social justice” in society, because these test results have such critical impact on any individual’s future. A high score means a prestigious university and a well-paid profession and a low score means shame and a lifetime in menial jobs.  Families have gone to extremes to help their kids on the tests, hiring companies to surreptitiously transmit answers, bribing officials for an advance look at the questions, and buying pens and other products designed to facilitate cheating. To help enforce the law, Beijing officials said they had sent eight police officers to each of the city’s 96 testing sites.   Reactions on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, were mixed—some supported enforced fairness, and other considered the penalties too harsh.

Do punishments prevent cheating? Is morality more certain when it relies on external enforcement? High-stakes educational testing in the U.S. has been marred by cheating scandals, and some teachers and other adults involved have faced criminal charges. Student too have faced sanctions. 

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics, has studied cheating and other forms of dishonest behavior in business environments and private transactions.  He’s the author of The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, and Predictable Irrational. In the latter, he explains that we internalize the values and ethics from the society we live in, and we’re unhappy when we’re not in compliance and happy when we are—or appear to be. His experiments show we want to maintain a positive view of ourselves as honest people, and we also want to get what we want.  When those two goals are in conflict, he says, we devise what he calls a moral fudge factor. In experiments where circumstances allowed students to correct test answers so they would appear smarter, or when they could reward themselves with coins for asserting improved scores that could not be verified, most test subjects cheated a little bit. Compared with scores of students who had no chance to cheat, the groups who could get away with cheating consistently scored higher. But they boosted their performance just a little, so they could still feel good about themselves, not outrageously enough to feel they’d been dishonest.  Ariely and other scholars also examined the Enron scandal, in which a group of executives pushed the company to collapse by deliberately disguising massive debt with creative accounting. The norms within the group blurred and changed as the cheating progressed, and Ariely writes that when social norms collide with market norms, market norms tend to prevail.

David Mayer, writing in Fast Company, suggests that when our morality and self-interest conflict, one of our fudges is to “outsource” unethical behavior to others who can do it for us. So we sometimes like leaders, bosses, officials and political candidates, who do or support things we’d rather not personally acknowledge.  He writes:

“The psychologist Crystal Hoyt and her colleagues found in several experiments that when productivity is at stake, people are less concerned that their leaders use unethical means to reach their goals. This is consistent with recent coverage in the popular press suggesting that jerks can be better bosses because they're efficient, that narcissists are unusually likely to rise into leadership positions, and that we're psychologically vulnerable to trusting obviously untrustworthy people. Many of us want leaders to engage in whatever "goal-pursuit" best serves our self-interest, and we're more willing to make moral accommodations for those who appear hell-bent on doing that.”

Ariely writes that determined people find their way around laws and regulations intended to enforce ethics that thwart their interests, but he urges against giving up on honesty. We need reminders about our personal honest when the temptation occurs. In one large experiment, he asked one group of subjects to name 10 books they read in high school, and another group to name all of the Ten Commandments they could remember.  Given an experimental chance to cheat, some of the book list subjects cheated. Among the Ten Commandments group, even among those who remembered only one or two commandments, none cheated.   The result wasn’t about religion, Ariely wrote in Predictably Irrational. It was because the exercise had evoked the idea of honesty among the subjects.

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The Complex Processes that Make Us Human

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 3, 2016

Self-Organization and the Origins of Agency

Philosophers and scientists have for centuries explored the mysteries of self -awareness. What causes the emergence of “I” as a distinct entity with individual thoughts, intentions and physical capacities? 

“We humans tend to believe we are agents, masters and mistresses of our fate, that our deeds and desires are our destiny,” writes neuroscientist J.A. Scott Kelso, PhD. Because scientific basis for that belief has been lacking, he says, our notion of “the self as a causal agent remains a ghost in the machine awaiting exorcism. ” But the main feature of self-organizing systems, he explains, is that they are self-less: no internal or external entity organizes them.  So how does the self as a causal agent emerge?  

Ironically, Dr. Kelso suggests, the first expression of the extraordinary quality of agency in human infants takes the form of phase transition, the most fundamental form of self-organization in natural systems. The mechanism involved is positive feedback, a ubiquitous process in nature, economies and societies in which systems amplify each other’s output so that A produces more B which produces more A.  Dr. Kelso’s insights come from mathematical modeling and a new look at studies of babies.

Dr. Kelso founded the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, where he holds the Glenwood and Martha Creech Eminent Scholar Chair in Science and is also professor of complex systems and brain sciences, psychology, biological sciences and biomedical sciences.  He is considered the originator of Coordination Dynamics (CD), a theoretical and empirical framework grounded in concepts of self-organization in physics, chemistry and biology and the mathematical tools of nonlinear dynamical systems.  Processes studied in CD include moving, perceiving, thinking, feeling, learning, remembering, developing and aging.

In a new paper in Trends in Cognitive Science, Dr. Kelso writes that “the birth of agency is due to a eureka-like pattern forming phase transition in which the infant suddenly realizes that it can make things happen in the world.”  Scientists from many fields have pondered the roots of agency, which Dr. Kelso says means deliberate action taken toward an end. He notes the observations and inquiries of Charles Darwin and physicist Edwin Schrodinger, one of the architects of quantum mechanics, who explored the physical basis of life and our sense of being a separate self. He quotes philosopher and evolutionary biologist Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, who believes physical movement is “the mother of all cognition” and the source of agency and selfhood.   

Dr. Kelso describes studies in which researchers tied ribbons around the ankles of three and four month old babies, then attached the ribbons to mobiles over their cribs.  When the babies kicked, the mobiles moved, creating sights and sounds they liked.    A positive feedback loop was triggered. When the baby realized mobile movement was the result of kicking, and that the baby itself could cause the movement, its kicking rate was amplified.  The kicking rate of babies with the ankle ribbon increased three or four times more than the kick rate of babies who were presented with the same stimulation but could not make the mobile move.  These studies measured the movements of the babies but not the movements of the mobiles. 

Looking through a lens of Coordination Dynamics, Dr. Kelso writes, the baby is coupled with the world, and agency arises when the baby has the “aha experience” of realizing it is causing change.  In a mathematical model of the research, which includes the baby, its actions and its environment, he explains, this “aha experience” refers to a bifurcation in a coupled dynamical system. The coupled dynamics refers to the coordinated relation between the baby’s movements and the kinesthetic, visual, auditory and emotional consequences they produce.  Bifurcation happens when a system shows an abrupt but lasting change in typical behavior or function.  And bifurcations, he explains, are the mathematical equivalent of phase transitions.

“The pairing of movement and motion, motor and sensory, action and perception, matter and mind, typically treated as separate, becomes a meaningful unified experience,” Dr. Kelso writes. “Awareness of their intimate relation is the basis of conscious agency.  Just as two cells exchange matter through the joint action of stimulus and inhibitions to form a simple biological structure, so the baby and the mobile form a coupled dynamical system.”

“The causal influence that the baby exerts on the world, “ Dr. Kelso writes, “is the source of what we call ‘I’.”

See a YouTube lecture on coordination by Dr. Kelso here and read the paper  here. .


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