CONTRARY BRIN: Shall we give up on reason?

Will we genetic-cavemen ever become the logical beings we flatter ourselves into believing we are? Or that Science Fiction says we might become?  Recent research suggests that we have a long slog ahead of us… and yes, even the smartest best-educated folks allow their pre-set beliefs and passions to interfere with basic mental processes, if their close-held biases might be under threat. Indeed we have all seen this tenacity in online arguments, in which cogent – even devastating and fact-rich — rebuttals don’t sway the other guy even an iota. See: Scientists’ depressing new discovery about the brain.
 
We already knew this. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. Clearly this is what goes on as know-nothings rage against scientists and other professionals. –David Brin

via CONTRARY BRIN.

—————————————————

If the Dunning–Kruger effect describes the delusional superiority of unskilled know-nothings, what should we call the brilliant self-delusions hatched by our best and brightest minds? The cognitively biased genius may be a greater threat to the fate of civilization than the self-deluded dumb-ass.

Bertrand-Russell-the-whole-problem-with-the-world-is-that-fools-and-fantatics-are-always-so-certain-of-themselves-wiser-pepole-so-full-of-doubts

Notice that Russell says wiser people are full of doubts–not smarter people or better-educated people.  Is there a consistent correlation between intelligence and wisdom? If my personal experience is any guide, there often seems to be an inverse relation between the two at the high end of the intelligence scale. There never seems to be any shortage of highly-intelligent and well-educated fools. It reminds me of the correlation between income (or wealth) and happiness. Up to a point increasing wealth is positively correlated with increasing happiness and decreasing stress. But at some point there is a diminishing return, and then eventually the relationship becomes inversely proportional. So too with intelligence and wisdom. So too with knowledge and certainty.

PR

Jane Austen

“I have no talent for certainty.”

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

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A World With No One In Control « how to save the world

A World With No One In Control « how to save the world.

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard

“There’s an implicit presumption, in everything the media reports on, in our whining about governments and elites and bosses, that as civilization culture has grown ever larger and more global, the power and control of those at the top of the pyramid has grown correspondingly larger, and that they’re still in control, still worthy of praise and re-election and multimillion dollar bonuses when things go right, and still worthy of blame and overthrow and opprobrium when things go wrong.

“But there’s plenty of evidence that if that ever was the case, it isn’t the case now. One of the key attributes of complex systems is that, unlike merely complicated ones, because of the huge number of variables and moving parts and interactions and effects between and among them, we can never hope to understand what’s really going on in them, or predict or significantly influence what happens in them. They become larger and larger black boxes, ever more mysterious, until suddenly they produce great depressions, peak oil and runaway climate change, and no one knows how, or why, or how to mitigate or change them. Like Charles Barsotti’s cartoon above says, in complex systems nobody knows anything. And no one is in control.”  Read the rest…

[I agree with most of Dave’s epiphany about complexity, but another aspect of reality is proximity–we do know a little about a little, and we can predict or control a little about a little. So there is a place for small hopes and puny efforts, even in the context of the grand complexity and absurdity which Dave Pollard portrays most eloquently. The ego that wants to control or save the whole world is the same one that wants to renounce the world and absolve itself of all duty and responsibility. –PR]

:: Pema Chodron – On Shenpa :: (being “hooked”)

Atheism 2.0

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion

Alain de Botton is a philosopher with some very constructive suggestions for improving secular society by selectively plucking  useful heirlooms from the traditions, practices and organizations of religion while leaving the rest. He surveys the cultural and social capital of three major religions– Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism– and suggests some assets worth salvaging.

Leeds Student Radio Web page article about the...

(credit: Wikipedia)

Botton isn’t asking atheists and agnostics to kiss and make up with religion. He is a non-believer. He may not be the confrontational type, but he’s no double agent with a secret religious agenda, as some atheists might fear. His mission is to initiate a humanistic renaissance in secular society that will bring us up to speed in some areas where religions may have superior social and cultural know-how.

“The starting point of all religions is that humans are weak and vulnerable and needing direction, but as I look at secular society, I see how we’ve been abandoned to make our own way through life and how challenging that is.”

“Religion has a lot to say about how to live and love, caring for others, handling suffering, dealing with death and all the other universal experiences that make us human.”
“The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed.”

– – – –

Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religion, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from it—because the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.(Amazon.com)

– – – –

Religion for Atheists

“It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.”

Note: I have not read the book (so it could be awesome or awful), but based on the interviews and articles below, I like this guy. I think he is measured, pragmatic, and non-polemical; and he has one of the most constructive arguments I’ve heard in a very long time.  It strikes me that the approach taken by Botton could go a long way towards ratcheting down the hostility between atheists, agnostics, and our superstitious brothers and sisters :). It is the kind of thing that might be a useful balm for folks in the Occupy and 99% movements who struggle to maintain solidarity with each other despite differences that are sometimes deeply rooted.

Interviews

My favorite interview is from C-SPAN’s Book TV. You can view the whole 58-minute  After Words interview with Chris Hedges here or watch a ten-minute segment below, followed by other interviews from You Tube.

BookTV: Alain de Botton and Chris Hedges

Alain de Botton on atheism 2.0 and what secular ideologies can learn from religion

Alain de Botton: Religion for Atheists

Philosopher and author Alain de Botton says non-believers can learn a lot from religion – without believing in God.

1. Believers 2. Religion 3. Atheists 4. Science

1. Believers 2. Religion 3. Atheists 4. Science

 

Perrenial Wisdom vs Cultural Graffiti

Many of the earliest known teachings about wisdom and self-knowledge include methods of meditation and breathing. We find these teachings in every culture around the world, past and present. We can trace the teachings back to every dead culture that we have evidence for. It is possible that these teachings originate before writing, and perhaps before language itself. The wisdom teachings we know today as meditation and breathing methods may go back to our earliest cognitive experiences of  self-awareness, even before the dawn of Homo sapiens.

Although such ancient teachings may have had independent origins in many different times and places, I suspect that all these teachings about meditation and breathing may have a common source, and that source might actually be our own DNA.

There are numerous instinctive patterns of breathing and mental states that are suitable to different types of activity.

Although there is probably some cognitive “wisdom” correlated with all such possible states, here I only want to focus on the state of being at rest or repose or prior to sleep; and in particular the state of intentional self-calming and relaxation on a mental and physical level concurrently. This could be characterized as a process of progressive relaxation and breathing in a characteristic way. Although the optimal patterns, processes, and progressions are only vaguely defined, they include

  • Synchronization of circulation, muscle action, organ functions, neural networks, etc.
  • Process cycles, oscillators, timing and re-timing cascades
  • Self-massage of internal organs and muscle sets. Optimizing circulation.
  • Balance and equilibrium approached progressively, step by step, through repeated cycles of stretching (inhalation) and relaxing (exhalation).

Muscles are like taffy. They tend to stiffen into any long-held position. Stretch-relax cycles plasticize the tissue, allow stress and balance redistribution, equilibrium.

Three stages:

  1. Beginning: The first step is mental, attention turns from thought to quiet observation of body, muscles, breath, etc.
  2. Middle: as tensions are located and relaxed, the breathing pattern gradually gets deeper, larger, and more synchronized. The deep breathing creates passive mobilization of joints, alternate muscle sets, and organs. All gradually assume their ideal positions and orientation.
  3. Ending: When all the tissues and organs have experienced a sufficient period of rhythmic flexing and have assumed their ideal configuration, the breathing gets shallower until motion becomes minimized at a level just adequate to provide sufficient blood/air material exchange in the lungs to support the resting, or idling, body and brain.

This type of meditation and breathing is ideal for introducing sleep but can also be practiced as a “tune up” in many other situations.

These three stages of progression probably have many subdivisions that could be teased out by subtle physiological measurements.

At each point along the progression of this process, with each breath, there may be an optimal rate of inhalation and exhalation, an optimal volume of expansion and contraction, and an optimal pause in transition. These parameters can not be prescribed by theory or taught in any exact, static, one-size-fits-all paradigm. It can only be anticipated that such optimums exist and that they can and must be directly sensed by each individual in each moment.

Each species presumably has it own distinctive set of patterns for this process of retuning or toning the brain and body.

These instinctive patterns have not been invented by us. They have been invented by evolution and are only crudely understood by the mind and by the traditions that attempt to “teach” them.

Our cognitive attempts to recognize, ponder, and practice this process consciously could possibly be the very first example of organic biology percolating up into mindfulness and ultimately taking shape as individual and collective human wisdom.

Cognitive models of these phenomena vary. Many are crude and take off in tangents influenced by many possible agendas. Most end up in “the weeds”. But as long as the core elements of calming thought, turning attention to finding and releasing tensions, and expanding breathing cycles remain, each individual has an opportunity to follow a gradient in these perceptual “tastes” towards the “zone” of equilibration and instinctive “master rhythm”. This process may involve not only joints, tissues and organs but perhaps even cellular and sub-cellular processes. It may also involve rerouting neural network/module inputs and outputs in novel ways that increase functional neural integration and/or re-order the functional dominance hierarchy of one area or network over another. One example would be new or increased mapping of the motor, parasympathetic, or proprioceptive neural networks onto the neocortex. The neocortex is the newest and outermost layer of the brain that seems to be all about integrating, organizing, and coordinating older brain areas in new ways. Practices such as yoga and tai chi may also help to increase brain integration in a similar way.

What makes this authentic wisdom is that it is self-knowledge gained through a combination of self-observation and rational thought. It is a combination of instinctive biological activity with conscious cognitive functions in which each enhances the other. The instinctive pattern of breathing becomes associated with a passive but observant mental state and the conscious mind becomes able to initiate and facilitate the instinctive activity. Such combinations promote new and higher cognitive and biological integrations. I think this is the reality base and the functional nucleus of most forms of yoga, meditation, and other “spiritual” practices. Unfortunately, this core reality often gets obfuscated or entirely lost in inappropriate language, ideas, and extraneous associations. Then the potential for wisdom is perverted into its own opposite, magical thinking and folly.

I guess this is my non-mystical version of the “perennial philosophy“.  People in all cultures and all ages find a few common truths hidden in plain sight and proceed to embellish them with all sorts of extraneous associations drawn from the culture, natural history, and language of the respective place and time. This process further buries and obscures what was always hidden in plain sight under more and more layers of cultural graffiti.

The human brain is brilliant at connecting dots. List three facts on a blackboard and anybody can instantly make up a story about them. In fact, we can’t help it. We have to make up a story. Our brains are wired that way. The problem is that we go around spontaneously and compulsively connecting all kinds of dots that really shouldn’t be connected. Pretty soon we are all lost in the tall weeds of our own bullshit.

“Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Did Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday really say that–or not?

Poor Richard

Related PRA 2010 posts:

Know Then Thyself

by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks to little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The beginning of wisdom 3.0

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece (Image via Wikipedia)

According to the Bible’s Psalms and Proverbs, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Solomon expresses a similar sentiment in the book of Ecclesiastes.

But long before the Bible was written, the greatest men and women in ancient times (times in which travel could be difficult and dangerous) journeyed from all over the world to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi seeking answers to their most burning questions.

Over the door of the temple they found the inscription “Know thyself”.

“Know Thyself”

The phrase “Know thyself” has been attributed to Pythagoras, Socrates, and a number of other Greek sages, but it is thought to have originated in pre-history, perhaps from the time of the Mother Goddess and the Gaia religion. It has been found in many other places, including ancient Icelandic runes.

In fact, it has been suggested that this phrase sums up the whole of ancient philosophy.

What does it mean?

The implication of the inscription’s exact placement above the entrance to the Temple at Delphi is perhaps that self-knowledge is a pre-condition to all further knowledge. In other words, “Know thyself before thou entereth in here and bother the Oracle.”  Without meeting that prerequisite, further inquiry may be pointless. You just might be wasting the Oracle’s precious time and your own.

The seat of consciousness? (Click image for full size)

But what is self-knowledge and how is it obtained? What is the self? Is it the body, the mind, the soul, or is it all of these? At least in the case of the ancient philosophers it was probably a combination of all three. The distinctions were not as clearly drawn then as they can be today. However, in the context of our modern perspective, it may be safe to say that the ancients were not really talking about knowing human anatomy. It is more likely that they were thinking about consciousness.  People still differ about the “seat of consciousness”, whether it be the soul, the brain, the universe, or any number of other things.

According to modern opinion, human beings (homo sapiens, from the latin “wise man” or “knowing man”) are thought to be self-aware by nature. Is this natural self-awareness the same as self-knowledge? Surely the whole of ancient philosophy would not be dedicated to exhorting the need for something that all human beings already possessed!

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but how many of us really knows how to examine our lives? I think we assume we’d know how to do that if we chose to, but do we? The brain evolved in some very idiosyncratic ways, and self-examination was apparently not high on the to do list for natural selection.

Nevertheless, we modern humans, especially the best and brightest of us, tend to assume that our own personal self-knowledge is something we come by automatically in the course of all our experience and all our spontaneous and natural thoughts and feelings about ourselves. 

The small percentage of us who have studied psychology or participated in some kind of psychological counseling or therapy(such as Freudian analysis, aroma therapy, or the currently popular cognitive behavioral therapy) tend to assume that we are especially knowledgeable about ourselves. We may even have become self-conscious.

“Self Observation”

On the other hand, the really sophisticated philosophers among us (we know who we are) may believe that self-examination, self-observation, introspection, mindfulness, meditation, and other forms of psychological mindedness prescribe specific kinds of education, work, or practice that one must pursue in order to acquire greater insight into and mastery of the workings of ones own mind.

Those willing to explore the outer limits of knowledge may also believe that a guru, an extraterrestrial intelligence, or an altered state of consciousness has conferred special self-knowledge upon them mystically.

Some may have come by their heightened self-insight chemically.

Though having belonged at some time or another to all of the above groups,  I have recently settled down to the more pedantic pursuit of following the research on cognitive neuroscience.

“fMRI Brain”

Be all that as it may, however, what all of the above paths to self-knowledge tend to have in common is the problem of motivation and discipline, or the lack of it. So I was delighted with myself when I hit upon the following idea: what if the video game industry could be induced to produce exciting, psychologically addictive video games based on some or all of the above methods for increasing self-knowledge?

Lo and behold a few days later I accidentally found this:

The “Know Thyself” game

A Lost Soul. An Unruly Subconscious. A Second Chance. A Role-Playing Game.

What if you were suddenly without any memories, held in a dream prison by your own subconscious, and the only hint you have of who you might be is a single statement repeated over and over in your head?

Know Thyself is a game for three to five players for an evening’s entertainment. One person plays an amnesiac in a fever dream hell and the others play that person’s subconscious & people from their past. The game features bizarre, unreal play due to a special deck of playing cards.

This is not actually a video game, and there are no photo-realistic, kick-ass action avatars, but it seems like a small step in that direction. For more information (but not much) see Tomorrow the World Games.

Could this at last be the true philosopher’s stone, the long sought-after secret to transforming unemployed couch potatoes into enlightened beings, the key to awakening the dormant wisdom we need to save the world?

First there was the beginning of innate, natural wisdom in human pre-history, the first dawning of wisdom in the world (beginning of wisdom 1.0). Then there was the beginning of conscious, formal wisdom in individual cognitive development and human culture (beginning of wisdom 2.0). Now begins the promulgation of that most radical and fundamental form of wisdom, self-knowledge, by the new and improved process of electronic video game addiction (beginning of wisdom 3.0).

Video games that promote self-examination and good mental hygiene? Gee whizz, Batman! That could be the beginning of a whole new age of wisdom and enlightenment for humanity.

The current “Known Universe” of video games is relatively flat…

Go now and carry this eureka-quality epiphany to the four corners of the video game world!

Poor Richard

ADDENDUM 9/15/2010

In reply to a post called

______________________________

Mind change – a moral choice?

______________________________

at the Open Parachute blog , I posted the following comment:

In “The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0” I argue that brain changes or cognitive influences caused by video gaming could, if the games were appropriately designed, be very constructive. In fact, I suggest video games as a delivery system for a whole spectrum of positive cognitive re-engineering efforts addressing such issues as “predictable irrationality”, “cognitive self-defense”, cognitive self-assessment, cognitive therapy, etc.

“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

As we all know, video games can be extremely compelling (if not addictive), and users can obsess over them for hours and days at a time. If a game meets enough of the criteria needed to make it compelling to a target audience, users can be expected to gladly consume any educational content embedded int the game. This is well-established and has already been extensively exploited in a broad range of educational software and interactive video products.

I advocate robust research and development efforts aimed at producing state-of-the-art video games designed to teach actual cognitive skills and abilities, with or without explicit, factual educational content.

At the simplest level, games might be designed to train users in critical reasoning skills such as the use of sound logic and argument or the recognition of logical fallacies.

On a deeper level, games might be designed to reveal a user’s implicit associations and unconscious cognitive biases and even to assist the user in altering such biases.

On a deeper level yet, information gleaned from cognitive neuroscience might be applied to correct pathologies, compensate for deficits, or improve a wide variety of targeted cognitive or neural processes.

The psychological and neural consequences of using video games may very well be undesirable or even harmful if some or all of the impacts are arbitrary, unintended, and unexamined. On the other hand, if the impacts are intentional and constructive, video games might help us fix a whole panoply of thorny problems. They could become a virtual panacea for any and all correctable neuro-cognitive disorders of thinking, reasoning, and behavior.

Video Game themes that could be adapted for cognitive skills/hygiene

These projects have a potential to be made into video games or other spin-offs that could be designed not simply as entertainment products but also as educational tools–both pedagogical and dialectical–perhaps the first of their kind.

An Economical Bestiary (PRA 2010)

PRA 2010′s “Economical Bestiary” is a work of  hypertext literature — a blog-based book– about economic myths and facts. The work analyzes economic myths and political misconceptions and  in many cases relates the misconceptions to irrational cognitive biases. A video game based on the Economical Bestiary could be designed to teach critical reasoning skills, propaganda self-defense, logical fallacy detection, discovering and altering implicit associations, etc.

One object of the game would be to take-over the status quo government/economy, based mainly on accumulating economic and political points–but some violence is inevitable… and good for suspense.

I suppose it would have to go all “Global”, with economical and political beasties from multiple nations slugging it out.

The ultimate ULTIMATE objective might be an egalitarian, steady-state civilization that would solve global warming, etc. At the very least, the players would have to prevent and/or survive any number of possible catastrophes, regardless of who was in power.

If it were done right it might be a fun game for business- and politically-minded people of just about any age, and it might get some people to think harder and smarter about how to save the world at the same time.

The game could continue to evolve, becoming more realistic, until it actually started spilling out into reality with people creating real alliances and institutions.

The Inner Hunchback (PRA 2010)

Synopsis: In Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notradame, each character has its own individual point of view, drawn from trusted sources such as religion, academic or political authority, kinship, popular culture, traditions, etc.  Hugo  leads the reader through each character’s reality, giving us privileged vantage points from which to glimpse the insights, errors, and cognitive biases of each and providing us an opportunity to assemble a “bigger picture” of our own.

Animal Farm 2.0 (A nail-biting modern sequel to George Orwell’s original novel) (PRA 2010)

Synopsis: Over a course of  years, an average family farm is gradually transformed into a corporate animal death camp, complete with an ersatz animist-fundamentalist theocracy that secretly serves the human corporate overlords. There will also be sinister, mad scientists doing gene-splicing experiments on plants, animals and humans alike….Too scary for young readers? Don’t worry–it all comes out right in the end!

The Illustrated Treasury of Cognitive-Bias Fairy Tales and Folk Stories (This project will be posted shortly on PRA 2010)

Poor Richard

Related Information:

Virtual Reality Won’t Just Amuse—It Will Heal Millions (wired.com)

The Quantified Self: Self Knowledge Through Numbers–a catalog-in-progress of all the self-tracking tools out there

Dozens of tools are listed in  14 categories. Some tools gather and analyze data collected by mobile devices and sensors. A sampling:

Mood

ButterBeeHappy
CureTogether Anxiety, Depression, Mood Tracking
Facing Us
Gotta Feeling
Gratitude & Happiness
GratitudeLog
Happiness for iPhone
Happy Factor

Productivity

1DayLater
BaseCamp
Blueprint HQ
BubbleTimer
EtherPad

Stanford  Encyclopedia of Philosophy Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Introspection , as the term is used in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a means of learning about one’s own currently ongoing, or perhaps very recently past, mental states or processes.

Self-Knowledge In philosophy, ‘self-knowledge’ commonly refers to knowledge of one’s particular mental states, including one’s beliefs, desires, and sensations.

Introspective People Have Larger Prefrontal Cortex

Lumosity “Brain Games –Scientifically designed brain fitness program. Lumosity is designed by some of the leading experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology from Stanford and UCSF.”

NASA-funded game aims to make science more appealing

Last week a curious, free release popped up on Steam: Moonbase Alpha, a NASA-funded game where up to six players can team up in order to save a near-future Lunar base crippled by a meteor strike. The game is just the first release from NASA’s Learning Technologies program, which aims to help raise interest in the space program through gaming.

“The US is facing a crisis in technical fields,” explained Laughlin. “There are not enough students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics to fill our national needs in those areas. NASA literally cannot function without STEM graduates. The big goals for NASA Education are to get more students into STEM fields of study and graduating into STEM careers. It’s also the president’s goal with the Educate to Innovate initiative. Moonbase Alpha was developed in support of those goals.”

Gamers beat algorithms at finding protein structures (ArsTechnica.com)

Today’s issue of Nature contains a paper with a rather unusual author list. Read past the standard collection of academics, and the final author credited is… an online gaming community.

Scientists have turned to games for a variety of reasons, having studied virtual epidemics and tracked online communities and behavior, or simply used games to drum up excitement for the science. But this may be the first time that the gamers played an active role in producing the results, having solved problems in protein structure through the Foldit game.

Starting with algorithms, ending with brains

Foldit uses some of the same conventions typical of other computer games, like a few simple structural problems to give new users a smooth learning curve. It also borrows from other online gaming communities; there are leaderboards, team and individual challenges, user forums, and so on.

Though very few of those who played Foldit had any significant background in biochemistry, the gamers tended to beat Rosetta when it came to solving structures. In a series of ten challenges, they outperformed the algorithms on five and drew even on another three.

By tracing the actions of the best players, the authors were able to figure out how the humans’ excellent pattern recognition abilities gave them an edge over the computer. For example, people were very good about detecting a hydrophobic amino acid when it stuck out from the protein’s surface, instead of being buried internally, and they were willing to rearrange the structure’s internals in order to tuck the offending amino acid back inside. Those sorts of extensive rearrangements were beyond Rosetta’s abilities, since the energy changes involved in the transitions are so large.

The authors also note that different players tended to have different strengths. Some were better at making the big adjustments needed to get near an energy minimum, while others enjoyed the fine-scale tweaking needed to fully optimize the structure. That’s where Foldit’s ability to enable team competitions, where different team members could handle the parts of the task most suited to their interests and abilities, really paid off.

The Nature article makes it clear that researchers in other fields, including astronomy, are starting to try similar approaches to getting the public to contribute something other than spare processor time to scientific research. As long as the human brain continues to outperform computers on some tasks, researchers who can harness these differences should get a big jump in performance.

Science gleans 60TB of behavior data from Everquest 2 logs (ArsTechnica.com)

Researchers ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists have wondered for some time whether online, multiplayer games might provide some ways to test concepts that are otherwise difficult to track in the real world.

Jaideep Srivastava is a computer scientist doing work on machine learning and data mining—in the past, he has studied shopping cart abandonment at Amazon.com, a virtual event without a real-world parallel. He spent a little time talking about the challenges of working with the Everquest II dataset, which on its own doesn’t lend itself to processing by common algorithms. For some studies, he has imported the data into a specialized database, one with a large and complex structure. Regardless of format, many one-pass, exhaustive algorithms simply choke on a dataset this large, which is forcing his group to use some incremental analysis methods or to work with subsets of the data.

Srivastava then gave a short tour of the sorts of items the team is trying to extract from the raw logs. He apparently has graduate students working on non-traditional figures like the “monster composite difficulty index” and an “experience rate measure.”

Noshir Contractor described how the data was allowing him to explore social network dynamics within the game. He described a variety of factors that are thought to influence the growth and extent of social networks, such as collective action, social exchange, the search for similar people, physical proximity, friend-of-a-friend (FoaF) interactions, and so on. Because these are well-developed concepts, statistical tools exist that can extract their signature from the raw data by looking at interactions like instant messaging, partnerships, and trade.

Williams pointed out one case where having access to the server logs allowed the researchers to identify some serious skewing in the responses to the demographic surveys. Older women turned out to be some of the most committed players but significantly under-reported the amount of time they spent in the game by three hours per week (men under-reported as well, but only by one hour). The example highlights the risk of using self-reporting for behavioral studies and the potential of the virtual world data.

Blizzard [World of Warcraft] negotiating with researchers for virtual epidemic study (ArsTechnica.com)

A strange phenomenon struck the virtual inhabitants of World of Warcraft. A disease designed to be limited to areas accessed by high-level characters managed to make it back to the cities of that virtual world, where it devastated their populations. At the time, Ars’ Jeremy Reimer noted, “It would be even more interesting if epidemiologists in the real world found that this event was worthy of studying as a kind of controlled experiment in disease propagation.” The epidemiologists have noticed, and there may be more of these events on the way for WoW players. There were a number of features in the virtual outbreak that actually mimicked the spread of and response to real-world epidemics.

Modeling Infectious Diseases Dissemination Through Online Role-Playing Games, Balicer, Ran D. (Epidemiology: March 2007)

As mathematical modeling of infectious diseases becomes increasingly important for developing public health policies, a novel platform for such studies might be considered. Millions of people worldwide play interactive online role-playing games, forming complex and rich networks among their virtual characters. An unexpected outbreak of an infective communicable disease (unplanned by the game creators) recently occurred in this virtual world. This outbreak holds surprising similarities to real-world epidemics. It is possible that these virtual environments could serve as a platform for studying the dissemination of infectious diseases, and as a testing ground for novel interventions to control emerging communicable diseases.

Neurobiology of Meditation

How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain Max Miller on October 6, 2010 (BigThink.com)

—”Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence,” (2009) by Antoine Lutz in The Journal of Neuroscience [PDF]

—”Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation,” (2007)  by Michael Posner in the journal PNAS

Know Then Thyself

by Alexander Pope

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind and body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

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