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Richard E. Cytowic, MD to give an illustrated talk on synesthesia & creativity at the Library of Congress on Friday, October 30

From Richard Cytowic:

Richard E. Cytowic, MD will give an illustrated talk on synesthesia and creativity at the Library of Congress on Friday, October 30 at 6:125 p.m. based on his latest book, Wednesday is Indigo Blue.

A book signing follows.

His lecture (6:15 to 7:15) is part of the Library’sMusic and the Brain Series While free, tickets disappear rapidly. The library will hold a block of seats for personal guests. Please mail [email protected] to place your name on the reserved list.

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Don't think of pink elephants

Interesting passage from the NYT article Why the Imp in Your Brain Gets Out by Benedict Carey which discusses Daniel M. Wegner's paper published in Science this week, How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion. Carey writes:

Efforts to be politically correct can be particularly treacherous. In one study, researchers at Northwestern and Lehigh Universities had 73 students read a vignette about a fictional peer, Donald, a black male. The students saw a picture of him and read a narrative about his visit to a mall with a friend.

In the crowded parking lot, Donald would not park in a handicap space, even though he was driving his grandmother’s car, which had a pass, but he did butt in front of another driver to snag a nonhandicap space. He snubbed a person collecting money for a heart fund, while his friend contributed some change. And so on. The story purposely portrayed the protagonist in an ambiguous way.

The researchers had about half the students try to suppress bad stereotypes of black males as they read and, later, judged Donald’s character on measures like honesty, hostility and laziness. These students rated Donald as significantly more hostile — but also more honest — than did students who were not trying to suppress stereotypes.

In short, the attempt to banish biased thoughts worked, to some extent. But the study also provided “a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible,” the authors concluded.

Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best: A review of Snakes in Suits

006083772101_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v54208143_Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work  by Paul Babiak & Robert D. Hare, Regan Books, 2006

I love this book. I read it in one sitting, more or less. I started reading it just after I cleared security at White Plains Airport and finished the last page as I touched down at my destination.

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare is marketed and mostly reviewed as a business book on the problem of psychopathy in the workplace. For example MSNBC’s excerpt, coordinated with the authors’ appearance on the Today Show, is headlined “Snakes in Suits unmasks corporate psychos.” But what the book has to say is much more generally applicable and translates well to the larger context of daily life.

Snakes in Suits takes us beyond the stereotypes about psychopaths that emerge from news coverage focusing on serial killers, and from horror novelists’ attempts to delve into that same material. The psychopaths portrayed and profiled in this book for the most part do not kill people and are not in jail. And this last is one important reason why you should read this book: Most of us in daily life do not have the opportunity to interview cannibals, as do some of those who specialize in the profiling of the criminally insane. If and when we meet a psychopath, it is much more likely to be at a cocktail party than in a death row jail cell. So the literature of the profiling of criminal psychopaths, with its talk of organized vs. disorganized crime scenes and such, is not likely to be all that helpful. In contrast, the psychopaths of Snakes in Suits are presented in much more familiar settings and contexts.

In the book’s preface, the authors explain why psychopaths often excel at talking their way through job interviews: They can be very charming, often possesses a disarming charisma, and tend to be skilled at social manipulation. (xi) Their “appearance of confidence, strength, and calm” makes them seem right for the job and make them stand out among other candidates. (xii) These same traits can also make them shine in other social contexts like parties or conferences or stand out as attractive in context like dating web sites or Internet discussion lists.

Hare is the author of a checklist of indicators of psychopathy, the Hare Psychopath Checklist—Revised (PCL-R), and so the book’s definition of psychopath is quite concise. While the book vividly describes the traits of psychopaths, the authors’ repeatedly emphasize that the term is a diagnostic category to be applied by a professional, and that while we may observe psychopathic traits in others (or in ourselves) this does not mean that the person in question is truly a psychopath, and so they caution against the broad application of the term.

Some of the characteristics of psychopaths I found interesting in this section were these: That the aggression and violence of psychopaths tends to be “instrumental”, i.e. a means toward an end, rather than impulsive (18). That “psychopaths are without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves.” (19) That psychopaths often live a parasitic lifestyle (20) and are often liars who will lie about even the most inconsequential things. (21)

One of the most interesting, from the standpoint of literary characterization of psychopaths, is that they tend to manifest a semantic aphasia:

[Hervey] Cleckly  . . . noted that psychopaths use language somewhat differently than other people; their sentence structure, choice of words and tempo (or beat) were different. (22)

The authors describe this further a little later in the book:

. . . many psychopaths come across as having excellent oral communication skills. In many cases, these skills are more apparent than real because of their readiness to jump right into a conversation without the social inhibitions that hamper most people.  They make use of the fact that for most people the content of the message is less important than the way it is delivered. A confident, aggressive delivery style—often larded with jargon, clichés, and flowery phrases—makes up for the lack of substance and sincerity in their interactions with others. (38)

If this sounds like your new best friend, watch out! As the authors remark further down the page, psychopaths are “social chameleons” (38) which makes them “a near-perfect invisible human predator.” (39)

However, psychopathy is also a type of personality disorder, and so while psychopaths are in many ways very versatile, people with personality disorders tend to have “a limited range of ‘solutions’” to life’s problems. (40) So they also lack flexibility and the ability to change that people without personality disorders have.

A psychopath’s targeting of his victim goes through three phases: the Assessment Phase (43), the Manipulation Phase (48), and the Abandonment Phase (53). There are some interesting remarks along the way as the authors describe these phases. For example, in the discussion of the Assessment Phase:

. . . the psychopath is constantly sizing up the potential usefulness of an individual as a source of money, power, sex, or influence. People who have power, celebrity, or high social status are particularly attractive. (44)

In this section the authors’ also discuss the attractiveness of emergencies and disasters to psychopaths, who can find opportunities in the confusion: “psychopaths remorselessly use other people even when able-bodied and capable of supporting themselves.” (46) They also remark on psychopath’s attraction to life on the edge: “there is evidence that psychopaths need considerable novel stimulation to keep from becoming bored.” And here’s another notable line: “Sometimes their sense of superiority is so great that they say they are conferring a gift by letting their victims support them.” (48)

And so, on to the Manipulation Phase:

Following identification of individuals who may be useful to them, psychopaths begin to create a shroud of charm we have labeled the psychopathic fiction. This is the beginning of the manipulation phase.

The first goal here is to gain the trust of the individual through ingratiation and various impression-management techniques. (48)

The psychopath’s lack of social anxiety makes him more believable:

Unencumbered by social anxieties, fear of being found out, empathy, remorse, or guilt—some of nature’s brake pedals for anti-social behavior in humans—psychopaths tell a tale so believable, so entertaining, so creative, that many listeners instinctively trust them. (50)

And then comes the Abandonment Phase:

Once the psychopath has drained all the value from a victim—that is, when the victim is no longer useful—they abandon the victim and move on to someone else. (53)

The creepiest section of the book, and one of the most engaging as well, is the description of the “Psychopathic Bond” (pp. 74-79) in which the authors describe how the psychopath convinces his target that he is exactly the friend or lover the target has been looking for, that all secrets are safe with him:

Those who have been in long-term relationships with psychopaths describe them as the supreme psychologist or mind reader. The more they interacted wit the psychopath, the more they felt mesmerized by the facade. Many referred to their psychopathic partners as “soul mates” and reported how much they believed they had in common with the psychopath. It is even more disturbing to hear some victims’ reports—once they have been cut loose during the abandonment phase—that they miss the relationship and want the psychopath back in their lives. It is very difficult to believe that the relationship never really existed. (79)

The author’s describe a number of different roles a psychopath’s targets and victims can fulfill for the psychopath. Particularly memorable is the character of “Dorothy,” a bright young woman who ends up doing all the real work for a corporate psychopath, “Dave,” that gives him the credibility to rise within the organization.

"The whole idea, from concept to action plan, even the executive committee proposal presentation, was Dorothy's work. Dave just tapped into her and took her ideas as his own." (293)

Images_1"Dave." meanwhile, had been complaining about "Dorothy"'s job performance.

Other “Roles in the Psychopath’s Drama” are “Pawns, Patrons, and Patsies.” (Chapter 6)

Later in the book, the various scenarios begun earlier play themselves out, and the authors try to give their business audience practical advice on how to keep psychopaths out of their organizations. Then they give advice to individuals on how to unravel a psychopath’s complex web.

The book is most notable for its description of the problem rather than for its proposed solutions. How many people it will save from the malign influence of psychopaths, I don’t know. But at very least, once people have been through it, it will help them understand what happened to them.

But that is indeed the nature of the beast: The psychopath is our real life nosferatu. Hand out the garlic, grab the crosses, and hope for the best.

Flow & Deception

In June, when I was blogging Wolfram Research's New Kind of Science Conference, I did a post on three books which, when read together, lead me in interesting directions. I later used the blog post as a kind of introductory set piece for a one-hour talk I gave at Readercon in July.

Lies Well, I've found another pair of books. I'm just beginning to bounce them off of one another to interesting effect. The books are: Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit by Charles V. Ford, M.D. and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The first of these two is a delightful journey through the psychological landscapes of salesmen, politicians, and lawyers, hypochondriacs and con men. It treats the subjects of deception good-humoredly, yet rigorously. While there is a fair amount of moralistic fun to be had in this book reading about the exploits of the notorious, the book also makes one conscious of the deception involved in saying "good job" to every picture scrawled in crayon and attempted cartwheel. No one gets away in this book.

Ford has a lovely epilogue that concludes:

In one of those rare instances when intellectual honesty rears its head above the ugly sea of self-deception, I must confess that others have demonstrated at least equal insight and have often communicated with greater style. It seems that we must continually rediscover the truth.

FlowFlow is a foundational book for the contemporary psychological movement that is focused on the study of human happiness and how to attain it. I'm about halfway through. "Flow" is another term for what the author calls "optimal experience."

. . . we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions when it happens, we feel a deep sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

That is what we mean by optimal experience. . . .

Csikszentmikalyi argues in the book that attaining this state tends to involve controlling the focus of one's attention, usually when working toward a self-defined goal, and that in such moments of concentration, one loses awareness of distractions. He argues that the state of flow is a tool by which one can achieve personal liberation. While the author does grant that the flow state can be addictive, that it can be attained in socially unacceptable circumstances, and that well-meaning people attaining a flow state during their work may in fact be working towards our destruction, in general he holds it as above and distinct from all other sources of human pleasure. Also, I think, he essentially argues that the flow state is a more effective way of finding longterm happiness than the usual things that motivate people such as sex and money. The author makes the usual disclaimers about flow in an of itself being value-neutral, but it is clear that he esteems the pursuit of the flow experience much more highly than the pursuit of sex or money.

This is the first time I have read about "flow" directly, though I have seen it referred to in pop-neurology books by others (Howard Gardner. I think?). And while I strongly identify with the author's descriptions of the joy of flow, and am myself strongly motivated to seek out the flow experience, I am not at all sure that he is right to set it apart from and above other sources of pleasure and objects of desire.

Regarding darker sources of pleasure, Csikszentmihalyi remarks:

. . . the underground system of forbidden pleasures run by gamblers, pimps, and drug dealers, which is dialectically linked to the official institutions, promises its own rewards of easy dissipation -- provided we pay. The messages are very different, but their outcome is essentially the same: they make us dependent on a social system that exploits its energies for its own purposes.

Why exactly flow should be expected to be exempt from exploitation by social systems seems to me an interesting question. Is any source of human pleasure exempt from that? It would seem to me that if a reward circuit exists, a way will arise for it to be exploited. Flow may be a better and more reliable source of human happiness that heroin, but why is there any reason to believe that the psychological state of flow cannot be exploited?

And here is where reading these two books together gets interesting. There is a very specific attentional feature to flow states to which Csikszentmihalyi returns again and again: a focused awareness, a narrowed concentration -- what my husband described in me as a "hawk-like focus."

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions . . .

Now combine that with all the complexities of deceitful human social interaction as described by Ford, and your protagonist is headed for a real George-of-the-Jungle moment, swinging serenely through the jungles of intellectual experience headed straight for that TREEEEEEE. "Optimal" experience carries with it specific vulnerabilities. So perhaps it also carries with it specific opportunities for exploitation.

Secondly, there are moments in these two books when it seems like they could be describing the same person from radically different perspectives. The continuing emphasis on the importance of the feeling of mastery, as explained in Flow, has unsettling resonances with Ford's accounts of the lives of impostors and pathological liars.

Also, mastery, set in the context of the narrowing of perceptions, which could also be framed as a form of self-deception, is an interesting psychological state indeed. Also, it's hard to say that what one person would call "flow" might not be called "hypomania" by someone else. Mastery, as he uses the word, seems to be an inner experience rather than something externally verifiable, the feeling of power, the feeling of control.

I'm only halfway through Flow. We'll see where the second half takes me.

UPDATE 9/1: Well, I had a go at the second half of the book, but I'm having the problem that Csikszentmihalyi seems to be trying to shoehorn most other forms of healthy pleasure into the notion of flow. Or maybe I'm just irritable and suspicious because he doesn't answer my objections. And of course the book was written years ago, so there's no particular reason to expect that he should. So I put it down and instead have been reading Robert Young Pelton's new book Licensed to Kill, which I am quite enjoying so far.

What Kind of Insects Are Those Buffalo?

Quote of the day from a page entitled "Perceptual Fallacies":

There is a tribe called the Ba Mbuti that provide evidence that size constancy is learned. This tribe lives in a thick jungle where they never are able to see more than a few yards away. When taken into a field and shown Buffalo in the distance, they asked what kind of insects they were. When told that the animals were buffalo, the tribespeople thought it was witchcraft.

A Few Shiny Pebbles on the Infobeach

I wrote to Alice Flaherty, expert on the neurology of writing, for help with references on the neurology of math. She suggested some places to look and some search terms, so I've been playing with PubMed and discovering interesting things such as that a lot more seems to be known about the neurology of metaphor than about the neurology of math. I came across a couple of articles with interesting descriptions which I though I'd share:

Research into the origins and characteristics of unicorns: mental illness as the unicorn. Abstract:

Ethical Hum Sci Serv. 2000 Fall-Winter;2(3):181-92.
Research into the origins and characteristics of unicorns: mental illness as the unicorn.
Simon L.
Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York, USA.

    Basic research, particularly into the psychological and neurological underpinnings of schizophrenia and other "mental illnesses," is flawed because of its adherence to the ideology that unwanted, hard-to-understand behavior constitutes true medical illness. It is argued here that psychiatric diagnostic terms represent moral judgments rather than medical entities. By reducing experimental subjects to a moral label, and assuming that neurological differences associated with unwanted behavior are brain diseases, researchers fail to take into account the conscious experience, organization of self and self-image, patterns of motivation, history and social contexts of their patients. The failure to consider the psychology of their subjects renders the results of these studies ambiguous and irrelevant for any uses except bolstering the biomedical model of psychiatry.

    PMID: 15278984 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

(I had recently noticed that the literature associated with various conditions affecting the social skills is often contaminated by the researchers' dislike of the research subjects.)

And Neural activity associated with metaphor comprehension: spatial analysis.

Neurosci Lett. 2005 Jan 3;373(1):5-9.
Neural activity associated with metaphor comprehension: spatial analysis.
Sotillo M, Carretie L, Hinojosa JA, Tapia M, Mercado F, Lopez-Martin S, Albert J.
Departamento de Psicologia Basica, Facultad de Psicologia, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, 28049 Madrid, Spain.

    Though neuropsychological data indicate that the right hemisphere (RH) plays a major role in metaphor processing, other studies suggest that, at least during some phases of this processing, a RH advantage may not exist. The present study explores, through a temporally agile neural signal--the event-related potentials (ERPs)--, and through source-localization algorithms applied to ERP recordings, whether the crucial phase of metaphor comprehension presents or not a RH advantage. Participants (n=24) were submitted to a S1-S2 experimental paradigm. S1 consisted of visually presented metaphoric sentences (e.g., "Green lung of the city"), followed by S2, which consisted of words that could (i.e., "Park") or could not (i.e., "Semaphore") be defined by S1. ERPs elicited by S2 were analyzed using temporal principal component analysis (tPCA) and source-localization algorithms. These analyses revealed that metaphorically related S2 words showed significantly higher N400 amplitudes than non-related S2 words. Source-localization algorithms showed differential activity between the two S2 conditions in the right middle/superior temporal areas. These results support the existence of an important RH contribution to (at least) one phase of metaphor processing and, furthermore, implicate the temporal cortex with respect to that contribution.

    PMID: 15555767 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

and Neural correlates of metaphor processing.

Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2004 Aug;20(3):395-402.
Neural correlates of metaphor processing.
Rapp AM, Leube DT, Erb M, Grodd W, Kircher TT.
Department of Psychiatry, University of Tuebingen, Osianderstrasse 24, D-72076 Tuebingen, Germany. [email protected]

    Metaphoric language is used to express meaning that is otherwise difficult to conceptualize elegantly. Beyond semantic analysis, understanding the figurative meaning of a metaphor requires mental linkage of different category domains normally not related to each other. We investigated processing of metaphoric sentences using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Stimuli consisted of 60 novel short German sentence pairs with either metaphoric or literal meaning. The pairs differed only in their last one to three words and were matched for syntax structure, word frequency, connotation and tense. Fifteen healthy subjects (six female, nine male, 19-51 years) read these sentences silently and judged by pressing one of two buttons whether they had a positive or negative connotation. Reading metaphors in contrast to literal sentences revealed signal changes in the left lateral inferior frontal (BA 45/47), inferior temporal (BA 20) and posterior middle/inferior temporal (BA 37) gyri. The activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus may reflect semantic inferencing processes during the understanding of a metaphor. This is in line with the results from other functional imaging studies showing an involvement of the left inferior frontal gyrus in integrating word and sentence meanings. Previous results of a right hemispheric involvement in metaphor processing might reflect understanding of complex sentences.

    PMID: 15268917 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

What I really need is a second head

I was reading through the May 28th New Scientist article 11 steps to a better brain nodding along with stuff I mostly already knew, when I hit this passage:

The second step is to cut down on distractions. Workplace studies have found that it takes up to 15 minutes to regain a deep state of concentration after a distraction such as a phone call. Just a few such interruptions and half the day is wasted.

I looked at  that and wondered how I can think at all. How often do I get interrupted when trying to think during a normal day?  It is not possible to count. Night before last, I had a really good idea that was absorbing my RAM and managed to focus on it most of the day anyway. This resulted in things like me arriving at the grocery store only to realize that I had not delivered Elizabeth to nursery school and she was still with me. I knew she was there. We had been arguing for five minutes about whether I was going to pull over to the side of the road and retrieve the toy she'd hurled over the side of her car seat. I had just been driving on autopilot and had skipped a stop in our itinerary. And this followed in interesting conversation with Peter while I was in the bath; interesting enough that I discovered later that I had neglected to rinse the cream rinse from my hair. (These are mistakes I rarely, if ever make.)

Reading the New Scientist's accounts of medications that can increase focus is tempting, but for a mommy, focus is a double-edged sword.  What I really need is a  second head: one head could focus while the other maintained the diffuse awareness necessary for keeping everything on track.

Multi-tasking, so prized by industry, is a really poor substitute for a second head.

Lacking a second head, here is Kathryn's Big Tip: Address the cognitive impairments of motherhood by trying to work on things closely tied to what your biology will code as important, i. e. try to chose intellectual projects closely aligned to the interests and the best interests of your children. I find that I have much clearer recollections of what I was working on and what I was trying to do when I chose this strategy.

Return of the Mathematical Kathryn

Some of you have probably been wondering what has become of me, since I haven't posted much lately.

After more than 15 years, I seem to be heading back in the direction of mathematics.  This is partly Rudy Rucker's fault. If anything really comes of this I'll explain in more detail later, so he can take full credit. But the short version is that hearing him talk at the ICFA in March got me thinking in that direction.

I've got a new project that involves the program Mathematica, and am busily reading. The books I've been reading in the past few days are The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics by Stanislas Dehaene and Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being by George Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez.  (I also dug out all the math books I boxed and put into storage two months before Peter was born.)

So who knows: this might evolve into a math blog; I might fall silent (at least on my blog); or I might return to blogging as usual.  I've also been writing fiction. We'll see where it goes.

Catching Up

I've started a new blog style journal of notes for my own use, so that has siphoned off some of my energy for blogging. (I'm trying to make use of the good habits developed over two years of blogging, but without the problem for having an audience. How, for example, would Bruce Sterling have written Heavy Weather if he told you about the ideas he'd been kicking around every day? (Conspiracies to make giant killer tornadoes? Get the man a tin foil hat!)

Also, we all caught the flu (and everyone next door, too).

Some of my regular correspondents may have noticed that I was not responding much to email. I've spent the past few mornings plowing out my in box.

Here are a few things kicking around in my email that I had planned to mention in this space:

For those who were following the fireworks over Michelle Dawson's stand on the treatment of autism, she has some new material up on her site:

Also, my dad was in the April 1st edition of the Wall Street Journal in an article entitled "New Theory Suggests Bid to Produce 'Mother Of All Matter' Worked." He says:

It looks like our recent calculations made the April Fool's Day edition of the Wall Street Journal.  I wonder if that's significant.

I no longer have an online subscription to the WSJ and he didn't have the link.  The article begins:

H .L. MENCKEN isn't known for his prowess in physics, but he was eerily prescient about the angst experienced by today's intrepid voyagers into the heart of matter. "Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable," Mencken wrote. "But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops."

For almost five years, just such an "it" has been tormenting about 1,000 physicists at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC, pronounced "rick"), a powerful particle accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York's Long Island. Scientists, following Mencken's script, had penetrated secrets such as the fundamental building blocks of matter and how they burst into being with the universe some 13.7 billion years ago. And although physicists didn't think there was nothing "unknowable" left, they were confident enough to embark on an experiment of Promethean hubris: They would create the kind of matter that last existed moments after the big bang.

Now the years-long debate over whether they succeeded in creating the mother of all matter, called a quark-gluon plasma, may be on the verge of resolution.

"A lot of evidence had indicated that RHIC had created a quark-gluon plasma, but one observation was out of line," says theoretical physicist Gerald Miller of the University of Washington, Seattle. A twist he and colleague John Cramer discovered "makes it much more likely that RHIC produced the quark-gluon plasma."

(The vintage of this article indicates how far behind I'd gotten.)

Meanwhile, David and I note with amusement that, judging from the Thursday Style section of the New York Times, David's manner of dressing has once again come into fashion.


Sudden Temporary Architecture of Chaotic Light

I had lots of lovely blogging planned for late last night when the kids were asleep, but our hotel's Wayport internet connection was a bit spotty overnight, so I'm going to rush through a bunch of material that I had planned to address in a more lesiurely fashion.

One fringe benefit of the net connection being down is that since I couldn't keep a good connection, I followed Rudy Rucker's excellent example and went out and did early morning yoga by the pool. I picked my spot next to the whirlpool, since it was a little chilly out. Just as I finished up, the first rays of the rising sun came in through the palm fronds illuminating the rising steam, creating a sudden temporary architecture of chaotic light: vectors of golden light textured by the steam's vortecies. (I couldn't resist using that as a title.) For those at ICFA who would like to try seeing this tomorrow, it happened at about 6:45-6:50 AM.

OK. Quick run through of what I want to cover:

First of all, my dad, John Cramer, has some new physics stuff in the news. I was waiting for a few free moments to carefully write this up so you would think I knew what I was talking about, but this is not to be in the immediate Floridian future, so here is the link:

American Institute of Physics: A Puzzling Signal in RHIC Experiments:

A puzzling signal in RHIC experiments has now been explained by two researchers as evidence for a primordial state of nuclear matter believed to have accompanied a quark-gluon plasma or similarly exotic matter in the early universe. Colliding two beams of gold nuclei at Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) in New York, physicists have been striving to make the quark-gluon plasma, a primordial soup of matter in which quarks and gluons circulate freely.

However, the collision fireball has been smaller and shorter-lived than expected, according to two RHIC collaborations (STAR and PHENIX) of pions (the lightest form of quark-antiquark pairs) coming out of the fireball. The collaborations employ the Hanbury-Brown-Twiss method, originally used in astronomy to measure the size of stars. In the subatomic equivalent, spatially separated detectors record pairs of pions emerging from the collision to estimate the size of the fireball.

Now an experimentalist and a theorist, both from the University of Washington, John G. Cramer (206-543-9194, [email protected]) and Gerald A. Miller (206-543-2995, [email protected]), have teamed up for the first time to propose a solution to this puzzle. Reporting independently of the RHIC collaborations, they take into account the fact that the low-energy pions produced inside the fireball act more like waves than classical, billiard-ball-like particles; the pions' relatively long wavelengths tend to overlap with other particles in the crowded fireball environment.

This new quantum-mechanical analysis leads the researchers to conclude that a primordial phenomenon has taken place inside the hot, dense RHIC fireballs. According to Miller and Cramer, the strong force is so powerful that the pions are overcome by the attractive forces exerted by neighboring quarks and anti-quarks. As a result, the pions act as nearly massless particles inside the medium.

Secondly, ICFA Guest of Honor Rudy Rucker has much of the material he's been presenting here up on his web site: His speech from lunch, "Seek the Gnarl" and the PowerPoint slides from his his science talk.

I didn't get to see the luncheon speech, but really enjoyed the science talk. The PowerPoint slides don't give you the full sense of the experience, since they don't include such things as Rudy projecting fractal patterns onto his skin or using a gnarly stick as a pointer. A good time was had by all.

Also, Rudy's blog has great stuff about his recent trip trip to Palau including an interesting discussion of his experiences swimming with jelly fish.

Finally, we have more pictures to put up in my ICFA photo album, but they'll have to wait until later today.

The Mommy Brain

I was skimming a copy of Publishers Weekly in the car this morning and encountered a listing for a book I must have: The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter by Katherine Ellison which I have just preordered from Amazon.

Journalist Katherine Ellison draws on cutting-edge neuroscience research to demonstrate that, contrary to long-established wisdom that having children dumbs you down, raising children may make moms smarter. From enhanced senses in pregnancy and early motherhood to the alertness and memory skills necessary to manage like a pro, to a greater aptitude for risk-taking and a talent for empathy and negotiation, these advantages not only help mothers in raising their children, but in their work and social lives as well.

Filled with lively (and often hilarious) stories of multitasking moms at home and on the job, The Mommy Brain encourages all of us to cast aside conventional thinking and discover the positive ways in which having children changes mothers' brains for the better.

I have long been a proponent of the central thesis of this book. It took me several years to get a panel on entitled "Does Your Baby Make You Smarter?" on the program of a science fiction convention. (When the panel was finally held, at Readercon, it was really good.)

Why not preorder a copy for yourself?

Here's an article by someone who must have a review copy or a bound galley. (Earlier this month, I paid a visit to the family neurologist and had a chat covering much the same ground covered in this article. Do I just have too much to keep track of or is there something going wrong with my brain? The neurologist and I agreed that finding an assistant was probably the best treatment.)

A Suggested Title Change

Shouldn't this article be retitled Why Men Can't Talk? My title seems a little better supported by the data cited.

(Um. Yes, I can read a map. When I was nine years old and living in Munich, the really dumb British babysitter from upstairs used to borrow me so she could go around Munich because I could read a map. And I could speak German, but I don't think that was why she had me come with her. I got to see a number of R rated movies [in English] that way. She couldn't find the theaters without me.)

A Chilling Bit from Rosemary Kennedy's Obituary

Further to the subject of ethics and parenting, the NYT obituary of Rosemary Kennedy:

In 1941, Joseph Kennedy was worried that Rosemary's mild mental retardation would lead her into situations that could damage the family's reputation, and he arranged for her to have a lobotomy. She was 23.

"Rosemary was a woman, and there was a dread fear of pregnancy, disease and disgrace," Laurence Leamer wrote in his book "The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family" (Villard Books, 1994).

A Response to My Behaviorism & Autism Post

MB at Wampum responds to my post on behaviorism and autism. I did not approve MB's inital comment which she reprints in her post because of its trolling tone. The extended post is more substantive and therefore I direct your attention to it.

My question to MB is what possible relevence whether Dawson is truly autistic could have to what Dawson wrote.

UPDATE: The answer seems to be that I should f*ck off. Right busy catching flies with vinegar, those folks at Wampum are!

Behaviorism & Autism

I was intrigued by the NYT story How About Not 'Curing' Us, Some Autistics Are Pleading, so I looked around some of the web sites run by autistics mentioned in the article. I found some fascinating stuff. Michelle Dawson, quoted in the article is one heck of a writer. I found myself laughing out loud and reading passages to my husband -- a rare occurance with things I find to read on the web. Her quiet, relentless demolition of the ethics of using beheviorist techniques to "cure" autism, entitled THE MISBEHAVIOUR OF BEHAVIOURISTS: Ethical Challenges to the Autism-ABA Industry is a joy to read.

Here is a sampling of passages:

In 1991, researchers from Rutgers, including the well-known behaviourists Sandra Harris and Jan Handleman, published a study about the consequences of aversives in autism programs. The study was called "Does punishment hurt? The impact of aversives on the clinician." They compared the morale and job satisfaction of more than 100 staff, divided into those who could use only mild aversives, and those who could use severe aversives on their autistic clients. Severe aversives included (and one assumes were not limited to) "slap, pinch, electric shock, noxious odor, noxious liquid, and hair pull."

Restraints were removed from the scope of this study when no one involved could decide whether their use on autistics constituted a "mild" or "severe" aversive. Clearly, they did not ask an autistic. Nor did anyone notice that autistics had been injured and killed in restraints, which might argue for a classification of "severe". 

In any case, the researchers' concern that clinicians routinely applying severe aversives to autistics would suffer for this proved groundless. They found that those applying severe aversives were happiest and reported less job-related stress and greater personal accomplishment. In fact, the longer they had been at it, the more personally accomplished they reported being.

. . . and . . .

Autistics cannot communicate. Autistics are incapable of learning from a typical environment. Autistic behaviours and interests are useless and wrong. These are some behaviourist claims at the core of autism-ABA. When this treatment was being developed, intelligence and autism--that is, autistic behaviours--were assumed rarely to co-exist. There have since been radical changes in autism diagnostic criteria and epidemiology which are subversive of most core behaviourist claims about autistics. No commensurate adjustments have been made in the tenets of the autism-ABA industry: tenets which, having been deserted by their scientific basis, remain stubbornly in place as articles of faith.

As I naively pointed out to the behaviour analyst Gina Green, there is no scientific evidence that autistic behaviours are incompatible with intelligence, learning, and achievement. She countered that there exists no proof they are compatible. Untreated intelligent autistics are mere anecdotes, which, in her view, means non-existent. All ABA-deprived autistics are by definition unintelligent, uneducable, and unaccomplished, until the day behaviourists like Dr Green decide to believe, by their criteria, otherwise.

This sort of "science" informs the autism-ABA industry's omnipresent exercise in fiscal coercion, the cost-benefit analysis. In its most popular manifestation, Dr Green and colleagues base their analysis on an elaboration of the articles of faith listed above: all ABA-deprived autistics are a financial burden on society; all ABA-deprived autistics are lifetime liabilities; and all ABA-deprived autistics contribute nothing whatsoever to society.

Similar articles of faith have been imposed on other groups. I couldn't vote until 1940 or deliver the mail until 1980 in the province where I live. This is because, like Dr Green, I'm female. Quebec females did not undergo behaviour modification in order to become intelligent enough to vote or strong and tough enough to deliver the mail circa 1940 and 1980. In fact, we did not change at all. We did not prove anything we hadn't already proven for centuries. But suddenly, we were discovered to have qualities we never had before. 

I have no dog in this fight. Before reading Dawson, I had a vaguely favorable opinion of this kind of treatment for autism, having encountered advocacy for it on the web. I remember thinking, At least behaviorism is good for something. In any case, I find her literary voice clear and compelling, the kind of voice I would happily follow for thousands of pages. But I must stop now because it's time to put my kids to bed. But here's one last bit:

My fourth ethical challenge to the autism-ABA industry is directly stated: I challenge behaviourists to realize that human rights violations do not just damage and destroy their victims. They also damage those who commit them. Human rights violations compromise your work, mar your science, and undermine your credibility. They cast doubt on your successes and call into question your own humanity. You have decided to deny our rights and our worth to get what you want and this leads to worst outcomes for everyone. 

UPDATE: I have received a couple of nasty comments from "parents" whose remarks cross the line into trolling which I have not let through the comment approval process. One sounds to me like "she" may be a practitioner rather than a parent by "her" tone, and the other seems to think that telling me that her child started out subhuman will sway me to his or her point of view. Look, people. I am a fellow parent. I know what it is like to negotiate with insurance companies. I have met a lot of other special ed parents. The special ed parents I know care about the ethics of the treatment of their children. How come the ones who are writing to me care more about whether Dawson is autistic than about the very convincing arguments she raises? What is wrong with you people? I'm willing to be convinced but not insulted.

Vision in Perspective

When I sit down to blog, it is to easy to get sucked into quick reactions to news stories. I had a really fascinating experience the other day which I've been meaning to blog, but other things kept getting in the way. So here we go.

About a week ago, I read Oliver Sacks's book An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. One of the seven tales, "To See and Not See" [this link will work only if you have a credit card on file with Amazon],  concerned a blind man named Virgil who had his sight restored in middle age. The surgery worked, but the consequences of restoring his sight were disastrous. It's very Flowers for Algernon; in fact the similarity is so strong that I wonder if Daniel Keyes may have taken his plot from early case histories like this.

Virgil begins as an economically independent massage therapist with a devoted fiancee, and ends as an angry disabled man, unable to work, even blinder than he started out. The case is medically complex, so Sacks doesn't come out and say this, but there is the sinister implication that the demands of sight borrow processing power from the parts of Virgil's brain that control his heart and lungs. (In an earlier case history,  a man whose sight was restored died within two years.)

Nor was Virgil's restoration to sight much like the Biblical scales falling from the eyes of the blind. He had to be taught to see, and it only partly worked.

A few days after reading this, I got a phone call: my friend Deena was in Boston, staying with Sarah Smith. She had picked up a car and was driving it back to Colorado. I immediately invited her to say with me on the return trip. Our house is extremely difficult to find under the best of circumstances. I hadn't seen Deena in about seven years, but I had some faint recollection that she didn't see very well. So I was a bit surprised that she was driving. Despite our best efforts, it took over an hour for us to get her from the center of Pleasantville to my house. When she arrived, she explained that she'd only been driving for a few years, following surgery to correct her vision.

It was only then that I remembered that when I had last seen her, she walked with a blind person's cane. While not entirely blind -- with really thick glasses she had been able to see things that were close -- she had been "legally blind." I remember her making some remark about her vision being "80% imagination."

The story goes that her vision had deteriorated further, and that she had fallen on her head repeatedly. After five or six concussions and some unsuccessful vision therapy, it was decided that she needed surgery to correct her vision. The surgery was successful, but like Virgil, she lacked a lot of the basic skills for seeing.

Most fundamentally, she lacks skills for visual prioritizing. She said that initially she was unable to have a conversation with someone wearing patterned clothing because the patterns were too distracting. Even now, four years after surgery, she finds it difficult to converse in our kitchen because of the intrusive pattern of our 70s wallpaper. (We moved our conversation to the living room).

Perspective remains difficult, though she was able to teach herself how to see it. She bought a digital camera and took pictures of scenes she didn't understand -- a street, sidewalk, and house. She asked people to explain the scenes: How do you tell where the street is? How do you tell the house from the sidewalk? At this she was successful, though she says she still has problems with uphill and downhill.

On the other hand, faces have defeated her. Though she can recognize a generic face, efforts to learn to recognize people by their faces and to tell how people feel by their faces have defeated her, despite some very hard work. She says she used to be able to tell with some precision how people felt by their voices, but she is losing that ability: the demands of trying unsuccessfully to understand by facial expression erodes older coping skills. Also, her inability to recognize faces really upsets people and causes frequent social difficulties.

I have a book of optical illusions around, so I got it out and tried them on her. I would have expected that she could not recognize all the different ways to see the pictures. Instead, she saw what I saw, plus additional botanical images that I didn't see -- seemingly on the basis of small parts of the images that looked a bit like petals or branches.

What she feels she has gained from the surgery is mobility: she can drive, so she can go many more places. But in general she would rather go back to the way she was. Vision does not work for her as well as her older ways of gaining information, but the demands of vision erode these older skills. It reminds me of upgrading a computer operating system to find that one doesn't like it as well as the older system.

I told her she really must write about her experiences trying to learn to see, which I found quite fascinating. This was all especially startling, since I had not really thought of Deena as blind in the first place.

(I do wonder, now that I've written all this down, whether my wandering off into cyberspace from what I intended to blog, as recounted in the very first paragraph, is neurologically similar to Deena becoming distracted by the wallpaper. Perhaps later generations will have better prioritizing skills for this kind of information feed.)

UPDATE: Read Deena's comments on my observations in the comments.

Kathryn Cramer at November  3, 2003 07:35 AM | Link Cosmos | Purple Numbers  | Edit


As I understand it, there is a part of the brain that is specifically devoted to recognizing people's faces. People who have this part of the brain damaged in  an accident, say, may have otherwise excellent vision but have great difficulty recognizing even close friends and relatives. It sounds like your friend may not have been able to develop this portion of her brain, if she was visually impaired for so long, or has let it lapse.
  I tend to think that my own ability to recognize faces isn't that great. I find that I often recognize someone not only from their face--for example, I might recognize you because you're slender + have pale blond hair + happen to be carrying a baby, rather than only by your face Actually, my ability in this regard isn't totally lacking, so I probably would recognize your face, but in general I feel my facial recognition software is not as well developed as I would like. If your friend has trouble with this, she might be able to develop a lot of workarounds: if she's losing her ability to recognize voices, there are still height, body shape, gait, distinctive items of clothing or shoes or jewelry, hair color...tattoos can be especially helpful, since they tend to be distinctive.
  I find it slightly odd that your friend is driving, though I can see how it might be relatively easy to just look ahead at taillights. But navigation is part of driving...

Posted by: Robert L at November  3, 2003 07:58 AM

Thanks Kathryn, you've summed this up much better than I ever have.   I have sent you a rough draft of a writeup, please let me know if I have the right email.

There is a website for face blindness--it is a great explanation and you can't imagine how wonderful I felt when I first read it:

Of course, a lot of this was actually realizing that people use faces to recognize other people.  This hadn't dawned on me until 2 years after I had my sight.  I asked Stephanie Strickland, another hypertext poet, how people seemed to be recognizing each other at the hypertext conference we were attending.  The conference did not have name tags, and people hadn't seen each other for a few years. Yet they could call out to each other across the room.  I had had a feeling there was some visual clue, but  I didn't know what.

It is these bases of assumptions that get to me. You never say oh a tree stays where it is all night and doesn't move--that is assumed. You don't say oh, people have different features and you look at the face and can tell who it is, that is assumed. (By the way, no one has yet given me a good explanation of WHAT they look for in a face.  Eyes change, expressions in mouths change.) I would love a detailed explanation of how you use faces to recognize people. 

I have researched the computer IT folks progress in facial recognition, but this is also based on a static picture for the most part, with some complicated algorithms that would take me more than the moment usually alloted for facial recognition.  Ahh...thanks for letting me vent.

Before I could see clearly, I could hear very well. I still can.  I could tell who someone was within a word or two of them speaking. I still can, usually, but the ability has dimmed. I can still listen in a crowded room and pick out voices I know and follow up to about 6 conversations.  I can no longer do this and carry on a conversation at the same time--but I used to be able to.   So my abilities to recognize by hearing have diminished.

Also, I no longer carry a cane and people expect me to recognize them as I can now see.  At first, I tried and faked it, with horrible results.  When I realized it was a problem, I tried very hard to memorize faces and learn people.  Now I am becoming more resigned to not being able to do this.  I do memorize what a person wears for that day and once I meet a person I can tell who they are, as long as they don't put on a sweater or a jacket.

I also look for height, shape, style of walking, hair --hair is very misleading.  I also use contextual conversations--we are in a grocery store but you are talking about work, so I know you from work... But most of these take a few minutes and people often will not take the time I need to recognize them.  I am finally becoming up front about the issue and warning people ahead of time that I will not recognize them. This has lead to a few practical jokes, but for the most part, people are good about it. Most of my friends now come up to me and say "Hi Deena it's so and so."    You could say this is my anti-spam method in person ;)

Posted by: Deena at November  8, 2003 01:35 AM

While I am intrigued and heartened by the track of Deena's abilities, I am skeptical that she belongs behind a wheel. I can imagine too many driving scenarios where her gaps and additional processing time could be lethal to others.

Posted by: David Lubkin at September 13, 2004 12:39 PM

Dawn at the Bird Cathedral

OK: It's 5:28AM and I'm bright-eyed awake. Now I know why my kids woke up at this time yesterday. It's when the birds start chirping and it begins to get light. Because of a nearby rock wall, sound has interesting properties in our back yard, and we have some very tall trees. At dawn at this time of year -- between now and late July -- our back yard becomes a bird cathedral; there is a choir of birds and the patches of bright orange sky through the trees are like stained glass windows.

SO here I am. I've made coffee and switched on one of the ambient space stations available over the cable modem which plays music I won't even notice while concentrating on what I'm doing.

I jot down stuff that was kicking around in my head during the night:

ENQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW: (1) Is anyone actually running against GWB for the Republican nomination? ANSWER: It's not allowed; forwards into Man and party are indistinguishable. (2) Does Santorum have a dog? What kind? Are there any pictures of man and dog on the web? ANSWER: Though Santorum wants his constituents to know that he is deeply concerned about dog breeding, I have found no information available on the web about whether he has a dog.

NEXT, I go to Breaking News at to see what other people (mostly to the East of me, given the time) think is important in this morning's news cycle. Technorati is quite handy at this time of day. Topics haven't yet been beaten to death. Also, there are a lot of smart bloggers who have an eye for important stories, but who aren't writers (lowercase 'w'). They either make links without comment, or their comments read like this: Disgraceful and disgusting acts of atrocities are ignored. So provides first readers for the slush pile of the morning's news. I'm a morning person.

Speaking of morning people, baby's awake. David brings her to me and goes back to bed. I nurse her and type with one hand.

The moment's top story is from the Independent: The allies' broken promises:

Tony Blair: 'We don't touch it, and the US doesn't touch it'  MTV, 7 March
The reality: Yesterday's draft UN resolution gives total control of Iraq's oil revenues to the US and UK until an Iraqi government is established

etc. Glad someone's keeping track. I've been exploring this general theme of shifting political realities, but have nothing immediate to say -- brief mental flash of the cover of Philip K. Dick's MARTIAN TIMESLIP. I'm not sure what to do with it yet. So I put this shiny infopebble in the bucket and move on down the beach.

The #2 technorati item is a fairly hard-hitting editorial in the Guardian, also on the proposed UN resolution: The new caliphs; US and Britain seek a free hand in Iraq

The new joint draft resolution is in other respects a deeply unsatisfactory document. Common sense again suggests that the UN should be afforded a leading role, as in Afghanistan, in facilitating the creation of a post-Saddam system of governance. Impartial UN mediators would be far better positioned to instil confidence, among Iraqis and in the wider region, in a process that will at best be complex and arduous. The contrary US-British intention to direct political reform via a new legal entity, the "Authority", controlled by them, and with only an advisory, non-executive role for a UN "special coordinator" is ill-conceived and potentially divisive. 

The resolution envisages a similarly tight US-British grip, also for at least one year, on exploitation of and revenue from Iraq's oil once UN controls, specifically the oil-for-food programme, are phased out. The proposed international oversight by a board of absentee luminaries drawn from the UN, IMF and World Bank is no real safeguard against the sort of abuse EU commissioner Poul Nielson warned about yesterday. Nor is it responsible to assume that the 60% of Iraqis who rely on UN-administered food aid will soon be able to do without it. While the US and Britain now - finally - accept their obligations under international law, what this resolution boils down to is legitimisation of an illegal war and of an open-ended occupation. It gives them a free hand in Iraq. What it will give Iraqis is much less clear.

Story #3 is Bush unveils Mid-East trade plan. I check it out. After reading it, I'm still not sure what Bush's plan is, but I have a few sacrcastic thoughts: What does he want to trade it for? To which US corporations does he want to trade it? I click on some of the blog links to see if anyone else understands it, but I find something better at a site called Nurse Ratched's Notebook, which she saw via atriosPresident Bush's Movements and Actions on 9/11 by Allan Wood and Paul Thompson. I skim it. This is real historical reseach, important stuff, a must read. It's full of things I didn't know.  I'll read more later.

Baby Elizabeth gets tired of playing with the toys on the floor by my feet and trying to learn how to crawl and starts to fuss. I turn on the TV and put on an infant stim video: Newton in a bottle: Physics for kids! For children 3 months and up.  I turn off the space music because it competes with the music-only soundtrack of the TV. (The bird have piped down by now, and the sky is between the trees is pale yellow. It's quarter of 7.)
Skimming down technorati, I see various stories I've read already from different sources . . . . Now here's a lurid one! Doctors 'stole brains for research': The brains of thousands of mentally ill people were illegally removed after their deaths. But this is really just a variant on a story I've read before about body parts illegally removed in UK hospitals, yes? Nonetheless, it's going to confirm the worst suspicions of some poor paranoid schizophrenic out there: His doctor really is trying to steal his brain! Whoopee!

Now here's someone who needs his brain removed for examination:

But John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said, "Without committing to deployment, research on low-yield nuclear weapons is a prudent step to safeguard America from emerging threats and enemies."

Newton in a Bottle ends just as I find out that army ants are a truly ancient species originating over 100 million years ago on the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. Sunbeams are coming in the window now. I put on Baby Einstein and get a refill on my coffee.

Checking out CNN, I don't find much new . . . except, here's something:    fly fossils in Antarctica. I was wondering about the fossils of Anarctica just the other day, wondering what they might find if all that ice weren't in the way:

The tiny fossil of a fly discovered 300 miles from the South Pole could help scientists figure out what life was like millions of years ago in Antarctica.

Peter just woke up and brought me two books he wants me to read, one about aliens, and the other about jellyfish. So I'll stop here.    

8:43AM: Here's a few things I missed:

Washington Post: Med Students Performing Unauthorized Pelvic Exams on Unconscious Women

When Zahara Heckscher went to George Washington University Hospital last month to have an ovarian cyst removed, she asked her surgeon if medical students would be practicing pelvic exams on her while she was unconscious. She was shocked that the answer was yes.

Medical students, interns and residents at teaching hospitals across the nation routinely learn how to perform such examinations by practicing on patients under anesthesia, medical educators say, and GWU Hospital officials say their program is no exception.

Also from the WP, Seven Nuclear Sites Looted. I took this for an old story, but there are more sites than previously reported.

MEANWHILE, Arthur Hlavaty directs our attention to this marvelous graphic by Edward Tufte: Thinking With Bullets.