Archive for December 3rd, 2011

Extremely long odds say that you should not exist.

| December 3, 2011 | Reply
Extremely long odds say that you should not exist.

For me to exist, my mother and father had to meet each other, which is a rather unlikely thing to have occurred in the scheme of things. Even assuming that they met, they would also need to mate at just the right time, and then the right sperm (out of hundreds of millions in each ejaculation) had to fertilize the right egg (or which there were many thousands of candidate eggs).  But the same thing had to happen to each of their parents, and their parents, and so on. How many sets of parents did this need to happen to? Quite a few–consider my earlier post, “Ancestors Along the highway.” Before all of those parents came onto the scene, the right non-human ancestors had to meet and mate, and before them . . . [skipping way back] the right sponges had to have offspring, and the fungi before them. Had any of these organisms been eaten as prey prior to having offspring, I wouldn’t be here.  If any of them had succumbed to disease prior to having offspring, I wouldn’t be here.  If any of them had broken a leg or gotten lost in the forest, they might not have gotten around to mating on that critically important date and time (from my perspective).   The adventures of Marty McFly (“Back to the Future”) barely scrape the surface.

The seemingly impossible hurdles faced by each of us are addressed by a well-constructed website, “What are the Odds,” which stirs quite a bit of eye-popping mathematics into the description. Wait until you get to the bottom of the page to read about the trillion-sided dice.

Actually, “What are the Odds” overstates the odds that you or I would exist, because there’s far more to being “you” than your biological substrate. If you were raised in a war-torn region rather than a suburban American school, you would be a very different version of you. And ask yourself whether you would be you even if a few of your closest, most influential friends or acquaintances weren’t around to influence you. Or what if you hadn’t happened to read some of the ideas that most influenced you, or if even one or two of those important character-building events that defined you (joyous or tragic or in between) hadn’t occurred?

Thus, it’s almost impossible that you should be here reading this post. Then again, you are here, because all of the antecedent events necessary to make you actually did occur.

I don’t know what lesson one is supposed to draw from this idea that it is essentially impossible that you should be here.  Perhaps it’s merely an excuse for a healthy dose of humility.  It also seems to me that working through this thought experiment is good for one’s mental health, at least once in a while.  I consider it an existential vitamin that I should take periodically.

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Products that allow others to spy on you

| December 3, 2011 | 3 Replies
Products that allow others to spy on you

Electronista introduces Wikileaks’ new web page listing many of the products allowing the government to spy on you:

Wikileaks has a web page called the Spy Files that shows off a number of Internet surveillance products meant for government agencies. The confidential brochures and slide presentations are made for law enforcement and authoritarian regimes and can be used to spy on the public and track political dissidents. In all, Wikileaks has 287 files for products from 160 companies and promises to reveal even more in the future.

Wikileaks worked with activist groups like Privacy International and press organizations including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Washington Post. The surveillance industry is unregulated, allowing governments, authorities and military to quietly track and intercept calls and e-mails and take over computers, Wikileaks believes.

[Addendum Dec 3, 2011]. Here’s an excerpt from an email I just received from Josh Levy of Free Press (and see here)

Trevor Eckhart exposed the privacy breach in a shocking video that shows how Carrier IQ secretly records actions that you take on your phone — numbers that you dial, letters that you press when texting or searching the Web, menu buttons that you push — and sends it all back to Carrier IQ headquarters.

There’s no way to turn any of this off without hacking your phone. And carriers neglected to inform the public that this software exists in the first place.

The fact that one company is secretly storing away the data of millions of cellphone users — without our knowledge, and with no way for us to opt out — is just incredible. You’d expect this sort of thing from the Chinese government — not from a company operating in the present-day U.S.

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Making banks pay for their secret $7 trillion free ride

| December 3, 2011 | Reply
Making banks pay for their secret $7 trillion free ride

Eliot Spitzer offers “5 Ways to Make Banks Pay for Their Secret $7 Trillion Free Ride.” Here’s the problem:

During the deepest, darkest period of the financial cataclysm, the CEOs of major banks maintained in statements to the public, to the market at large, and to their own shareholders that the banks were in good financial shape, didn’t want to take TARP funds, and that the regulatory framework governing our banking system should not be altered. Trust us, they said. Yet, unknown to the public and the Congress, these same banks had been borrowing massive amounts from the government to remain afloat. The total numbers are staggering: $7.7 trillion of credit—one-half of the GDP of the entire nation. $460 billion was lent to J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley alone—without anybody other than a few select officials at the Fed and the Treasury knowing. This was perhaps the single most massive allocation of capital from public to private hands in our history, and nobody was told. This was not TARP: This was secret Fed lending.

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What the news media used to be

| December 3, 2011 | Reply
What the news media used to be

Comment following transcript of a speech by Dan Rather, this comment being authored by “fredboy”:

We went from hardball reporting in the 60s, 70s, and 80s–I know, because I was an investigative reporter at the time and took heat from no one–to today’s “news”. Newspapers are but floor diapers to train new pups, and TV network “news” is eight minutes of Washington and campaign press releases and seven minutes of lollypop feel good softballs.

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Superior autobiographical memory

| December 3, 2011 | 3 Replies
Superior autobiographical memory

A friend of mine who I have known since high school has often quoted actual dates on which events occurred a long time ago. Much of the time, I haven’t had a way to disprove him, but on several occasions I was able to confirm that he had stunning recall. After watching the following video from a 60 Minutes show, I emailed Mike, urging him to take a look.

The people featured in this 60 Minutes two-part video easily remember non-emotional ordinary events from throughout their lives down to the actual dates on which those events occurred.  If you’re like me, you’ll be somewhat suspicious of the idea that people can remember long-ago events of their lives so well. If so, watch the video–it will leave you shaking your head unless you have this ability yourself.

This extreme memory is a stunning phenomena.  Check out the researcher’s statement at about the 10-minute mark of the video that these folks are correct 99% of the time that they offer these detailed responses.    Until watching this show, however, I had assumed that the ability to forget would be essential to good mental health.  Based on the appearance of the superior memory subjects, that doesn’t appear to be true (though most of the subjects are not involved in long-term romantic relationships).   These subjects have amazing recall without having any struggle with “cluttered” minds.

I definitely don’t have “superior autobiographical memory.”  I don’t need all of superior autobiographical capability, but I wish I had somewhat better recollection.

James McGaugh, Ph.D.- University of California at Irvine, has studied these ultra-memory folks and will be discussing his findings at a Psychology Colloquium on Monday, December 5, 4:00 PM, Wilson 214 at Washington University.   McGaugh’s team has found (video, Part II at the 2 minute mark) that people with superior autobiographical memory had larger (almost twice as large as expected) temporal lobes and caudate nuclei (the latter of which has been associated with OCD).   See Video II at the 3-minute mark for more on the OCD angle.

Here’s more on this fascinating topic.

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