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Virtual worlds inside of our heads

This morning, I found myself reveling in the representational capacity of brains.

Here’s an illustration: Sometimes I misplace an item such as my keys and I can’t find them while physically walking around my house. Sometimes, frustrated, I pause my physical search. I sit down and close my eyes. Using only images, sounds and memories embedded in neural pathways in my head, I “see” that I had my keys when I last walked into my house. I “play” a series of short “videos” and “images” in my head reminding myself where I walked and what I touched. I run through the logic that I could NOT have left them in certain places, because I didn’t go to those parts of the house, seeing images of them as I run through this logic? Then, perhaps, I “see” myself closing my car trunk while holding my briefcase. I’m now wondering–did I put the keys on top of the car for a second while closing the trunk? I go outside and there are the keys on top of the car.

My mind contained detailed representations of my home and car, as well as episodic memories that, while imperfect, is often good enough. My neural pathways contain a virtual, somewhat explorable, world inside of my head. Although it is not perfect in all of its details, it is quite functional. It’s a capability we use every day, drawing on the brain’s extraordinary power to represent the world around us, allowing us to perform virtual manipulations of objects, “searching” our house while sitting down with our eyes closed. What type of magic is this that a 3 pound living organ can do this and so much more? How is it even possible that a system like this can spout up and train itself over a lifetime without a “person in the brain” to guide the process? And how is it possible that we experience consciousness on top of this amazing process?

This is but one reason for my love of cognitive science. It’s not my profession, but it is one of my passions to better understand this process that we so often take for granted.

August 27, 2014 | By | 6 Replies More

Race Day

I just finished running a 5K in downtown St. Louis, finishing at 26:12.

My concern is that there are people running the race who have runners’ physiques–they have long legs and they glide like they aren’t even touching the ground.  An even bigger concern is that some of the people they allow to enter the race are able to run much faster than me.  For instance, the man that won my age bracket finished in 19 min.  It’s not fair that they let people like that enter the race. Even worse, the race was filled with morning people–They walk around annoying owls like me by being chipper at 7am.  I’m going to propose that they begin their next 5K annual race at 10pm, that they screen out all of the larks, and that they ban all of the people who are unfairly fast.

August 23, 2014 | By | 2 Replies More
Myths of Authority in Practice

Myths of Authority in Practice

I’ve been trying to come to terms with Ferguson since it began. The shooting of Michael Browne sparked a response that surprised many people and the counter responses have been equally surprising among certain people, not so much among certain others. Every time I start to write something I find what I intended to say had already been said better elsewhere. [More . . . ]

August 22, 2014 | By | 2 Replies More

Fake Creationist Labs

Delightful detective and unsurprising information from Patheos.

Amazingly proud ignorance displayed her, and a green-screened lab thrown in for shits and grins. Wow. These are the people who want to have equal time in science classrooms.

August 20, 2014 | By | Reply More

The stereotypes about atheism

A new movie, “God’s Not Dead,” is about to be released. From it, many church-going folks will have their stereotypes about atheists reinforced. Here’s a list provided by Nell Carter at Patheos:

1. Atheist professors are predatory, and they are out to convert everyone into ideological clones of themselves.
2. Atheists are selfish, self-absorbed, greedy jerks.
3. Atheists are cocky, self-sure, and totally enamored with their own superiority.
4. Atheists will openly threaten you, bow up, get in your face, stare you down.
5. Atheists are clearly incapable of love.
6. Atheists lack ethical boundaries.
7. They disbelieve in God because something bad happened to them.
8. Atheists are angry at God. You can just hear it in all of their voices.
9. Atheists are miserable because they believe life is meaningless.
10. Atheists have no basis for morality.

August 19, 2014 | By | 3 Replies More

Beware Free Dimes from the March of Dimes

Would you like to piss away some money? How about sending money to the March of Dimes, which recently sent me this letter that included a dime glued to the letter.

March of Dimes

The first thought in my mind is Robert Cialdini’s Rule of Reciprocity, which appeared in his best selling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion:

Reciprocity – People tend to return a favor, thus the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing. In his conferences, he often uses the example of Ethiopia providing thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after the 1985 earthquake, despite Ethiopia suffering from a crippling famine and civil war at the time. Ethiopia had been reciprocating for the diplomatic support Mexico provided when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. The good cop/bad cop strategy is also based on this principle.

In his book, Cialdini points out that when someone hands us something, the feeling of indebtedness makes many of us feel compelled to reciprocate, and the reciprocation is often out of proportion to the initial gift. In the case of the March of Dimes, people get only dimes but they will often respond by writing checks for $25 or $50.

But should you contribute to the March of Dimes? Consider this, also from Wikipedia:

In his book Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach, sociologist Professor James M. Henslin describes March of Dimes as a bureaucracy that has taken on a life of its own through a classic example of a process called goal displacement. Faced with redundancy after Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine, it adopted a new mission, “fighting birth defects”, which was recently changed to a vaguer goal of “breakthrough for babies”, rather than disbanding.

Charity Navigator, an organization that attempts to quantify the effectiveness of charities, has given the organization a rating of two stars (out of four). This is a merged score that attributes both a Financial as well as Accountability & Transparency rating to a non-profit. As of Fiscal Year 2012, Charity Navigator gives a 34.68 out of 70 score for Financial and a 67 out of 70 for Accountability & Transparency. This gives the March of Dimes a merged score of 44.93, leading to their two star status.

Another criticism has been that President Jennifer Howse’s compensation is high. In 2011 the March of Dimes 990 reported it was $545,982.[citation needed] In 2012 her compensation was reduced to $526,679.


Related topic: Charities that play the game of giving you something so that you give THEM something. Example: Girl Scout Cookies.

August 17, 2014 | By | Reply More

How many ancestors do you have?

How many ancestors do you have? This article is a delightful excursion into math and biology.

I’m always fascinated to hear people over-focused on only that one twig of their family that carries their surname. Too bad we can put a button to see everyone related to us glow, the glow brighter based on how closely they are related to us. Would anyone NOT glow? Maybe such a fantasy device would make us less likely to start wars.

August 17, 2014 | By | Reply More

Farce Democracy

A paper by Princeton University’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern University’s Benjamin Page questions whether the United States can claim to be a meaningful democracy. Bloomberg reports:

Economic elites have “quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.” Interest groups have a lesser but still “substantial” influence, the paper says. In contrast, the authors found, “It makes very little difference what the general public thinks.

August 16, 2014 | By | 1 Reply More

The new version of brick and mortar

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine, a lawyer from Kansas City, who mentioned that he is moving to Birmingham, Alabama. He’s fully intending to maintain his Missouri practice with his Kansas City law partner.

I’m increasingly hearing these sorts of stories from experienced lawyers who handle complex litigation. That is my situation too, and it’s working out well. My two law partners ( John Campbell and Alicia Campbell) are based in Denver, where John teaches law at Denver University, but also handles litigation with our firm. We have a workload based mainly in Missouri, and the Campbells often “commute” by airplane to Missouri to handle court hearings, depositions and trials. In the meantime, much of what all of us do involves creating pleadings and researching at our computers, exchanging tons of email and having phone conferences with other attorneys and judges. We keep our files almost entirely in the cloud and we make use of quite a few internet services and computer programs to keep our workload moving and accessible.

IMG_0764 CampbellLaw - trio portrait - March 17 2013

Functionally, it’s really not much different than it would have been had we been working together daily in a brick and mortar office. Campbell Law, LLC was featured for the way we employ technology in an article published by the Bar Assn of Metropolitan St. Louis for being one of the prominent St. Louis firms to make such extensive use of technology (I’ve attached the article as a jpeg). I’m feeling gratified about how well things are working out, especially as Campbell Law is in the process of preparing for its five-year anniversary, Alicia having founded the firm in 2009.

August 15, 2014 | By | Reply More