Saturday, March 26, 2011

Plato is unreal

Abstract ideas are our creations, however much we want to make them into absolutes and deities.

"Platonism describes idea as prior to matter and identifies the person with the soul. Many Platonic notions secured a permanent place in Latin Christianity."Wiki

As a non-philosopher, it may be slightly presumptuous to dismiss the founding philosopher. But something really needs to be said. Plato and his school were obsessed by the abstract- by forms and ideas. The idea(!) is that abstractions are real-er than real, since we need ideas to make sense of sensations. They paid homage to the soul as the ideal figment of man, and to idealized forms of the universe as the shape or expression of god. Christianity, formed out of the meeting of Greek philosophy and Jewish theology, lapped all this up, treating Plato as a church father who led the way towards making the metaphysical and the supernatural into respectable intellectual topics. But Plato was wrong.

Who makes forms? Nature doesn't. Nature can (sometimes) be described using formal mathematics. We can abbreviate its vast clockwork using abstract ideas. But they are only helpmeets and makeshifts to make up for our paltry cognitive capacities. They are our creations, confined to our minds and writings. We discover them in the sense of developing those ideas the most efficiently describe large collections of phenomena. But we don't discover them in the sense of going to Antarctica to discover new equations. They are found in our heads, and there they remain.

It is frankly bizarre that people could get so carried away with the power of abstract thought, (their own or that of others), that they project these powers onto the universe at large, characterizing it as a giant computer, or as a "thought" of a deity. And go far as to deprecate the very reality they are faced with, regarding it as less real than the true realities that are hidden behind in the shadowy realms of mathematics, celestial spheres, simplifying concepts, and the rest.

What does this amount to? It is the oldest form of thought in the book- magical thinking, which sees hidden forces, agents, spirits in all the vexing phenomena of our world. This is not to say that phenomena can't be analyzed ... where would we be without germ theory, geology, or Newtonian physics to make sense of the bewildering chaos around us? But never have we come face to face with what we most desired and feared- that vengeful deity or merely conscious being that, to be frank, sprang entirely from our own imagination.

Plato cleaned this up in his image as forms rather than gods, but the same process was at work- the projection of human capabilities and motivations on the canvas of reality. So, isn't the quest of physicists for a grand unified theory of everything an indication that he was on the right track? Wouldn't the ultimate reduction of physical reality into, say, an enormous Lie group, or a tiny string, vindicate the Platonic position? No it wouldn't, because such an abstraction, enormous as its explanatory power would be for us, wouldn't change the reality before us.

Biology has taught us the dangers of casual projection in place of detailed empirical engagement when dealing with bizarre, even alien, technologies. How much more inscrutable is the fabric of the universe? Whatever its cause and nature, it would be madness to assume that it follows the outlines of psychological projections which have been consistent over millennia, persistently invoking a thinking, emotional, sentient, powerful, intelligent, and caring, etc... being.

If forms were really the real reality, then we should be able to stretch reality into new shapes by altering those forms. Admittedly, this is the ultimate magical thinking, but it follows directly from the Platonic argument (as well as all the related theologies of prayer, intercession, etc.). If, on the other hand, the forms we use to describe reality are mere desiterata of our mental mechanics while reality exists outside them, not caused by form or embodying form, but capable (sometimes) of being represented through forms and formalisms... then the empirical reality is what we get, adamantly resistant to formal manipulation.

And what is the cause of this reality that we can abstractly understand by our formalisms? Is it something / someone which thinks, and whose thoughts actually conjure reality in elegant mathematical relations? This again is a projection from our mode of understanding onto the world. Biology has taught us the dangers of casual projection in place of detailed empirical engagement when dealing with bizarre, even alien, technologies. How much more inscrutable is the fabric of the universe? We simply have no idea what its ultimate cause is or was. While we can be thankful that it exists, there is no reason to think that there is anything cognizant at its core, let alone cognizant of us, much as we may wish to please it and understand it.

"The company reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, and said $5.1 billion of the total came from its operations in the United States. Its American tax bill? None. In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion."
... "... have pushed down the corporate share of the nation’s tax receipts — from 30 percent of all federal revenue in the mid-1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009."
"The fact that countries with central banks that were not independent performed so much better than some of those that were—partly because the latter were “cognitively captured” by the financial markets that they were supposed to regulate—should perhaps lead to rethinking of doctrines concerning central bank independence."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Memory on my mind

Memory storage in the brain happens simultaneously in the hippocampus and cortex.

Despite the continuing hold that supernaturalism, soul-ism, and related theistic sentiments have over much of the population, to those scientists working on the mind and consciousness, its physical nature is obvious and underpins a rich program of research.

One key to consciousness, of course, is memory, which, along with direct sensation, emotion, and whatever else bubbles up from unconscious processes, make up its contents. Sensations as well are now understood not as mechanical readings of outside input, but as template-filling exercises strongly structured by our prior experience and expectations- i.e., our memories. And emotions are increasingly characterized to have complex hormonal and anatomical sources within the brain, also strongly tied to memories, many of which are themselves unconscious.

For instance, in the paper under review this week, rats learn about what is good to eat or not by smelling the breath of another rat who has just eaten that food. Give one rat some tasty, aromatic cinnamon, and its housemates rapidly learn about it as well, and remember that goodness (if that is what the first rat thought about it) for the rest of their lives. We are all each other's taste testers, apparently!

Memory formation is currently theorized to begin in the hippocampus as short-term storage, before being deposited in the cortex for long-term storage. This model arose from studies of humans and other animals with lesions indicating that if the hippocampus is absent or disconnected, no memories form at all, while if its connections to the cortex are severed, no long-term memories are formed, though prior long-term memories are retained and short-term memories form briefly (weeks to months) as well. Some forms of immediate short term, or working, memory (like recalling phone numbers and word lists) escape this effect and are not dependent on the hippocampus at all.

The transfer mechanism between the hippocampus and the cortex is currently believed to involve sleep and dreaming, where memories are replayed, perhaps in substantially speeded-up form, reinforcing their connections and salience in the cortex.
"Replay of encoding-related activity during phases of sleep has emerged as a core mechanism for driving the structural changes within the hippocampal-cortical neuronal networks."
And what is the ultimate physical engram of memory? This is thought to be the neuronal synapse, whose structure is plastic over long and short time spans, and whose structure / connection is reinforced by electrical activity in the basic Hebbian learning hypothesis. This current paper also engages in some molecular wizardry to manipulate synaptic structural change and thence either enhance or cancel memory formation in rats.

The interesting finding in this paper is that cortical involvement is key for this type of memory in rats from the very start, not just after some weeks of residence in the hippocampus, as the prior theory had it. To figure this out the experimenters used a somewhat shocking technique of injecting the respective areas of the rat's brains with an inhibitor of synaptic transmission (CNQX) for various windows of time. So, if they blocked the hippocampus at the start of the 30-day period, no memory of the food smell occurred at the end. Conversely, if they blocked the frontal cortex in the second half of the 30-day period, the memory was reduced by half. Some key experiments are diagrammed below:

Direct brain injection of a synaptic transmission inhibitor (red) vs control fluid (gray) into the orbital frontal cortex at the time of learning (day 0) eliminates long-term memory (30 days) of the social food interaction (this time with cumin), but not the short-term memory (7 days).
Double learning test, where one inhibitor injection eliminates memory of the taste learned simultaneous with drug, but not the one learned a week beforehand.

What they found was that blocking nerve transmission in the frontal cortex during the early time (days 0 to 12) also dropped memory formation by half at the end of 30 days. They claim from this that the hippocampal-first model of memory formation may be incomplete, and perhaps nascent cortical memory is laid down at the very start, during or after the original experience, but requires reinforcement over the ensuing weeks from the hippocampus to become a long-term memory.
"This finding identifies early cortical tagging as a potentially critical process reponsible for the progressive embedding of enduring memories within cortical networks."
The experimenters supported their theories on the cellular and molecular levels by mapping synaptic morphology and numbers, intracellular golgi complex concentrations, and histone modifications in among  neurons otherwise tagged as active in the dissected rat brains, all of which are known to correlate with memory formation. They claim that the single learning trial (of 30 minutes) conducted in each experiment significantly increased measurements of these indexes in their rat's brains. Which perhaps goes to show that these rats, housed in individual plexiglass cages, were leading stultifyingly boring lives otherwise!

In addition, they applied drugs locally into the cortex that are known to alter memory formation at the cellular level, (either inhibiting or activating histone modification enzymes) at selected times; in this case at the same time as the learning session. Memories established by the social food preference learning exercise could be eradicated (or enhanced) by this pharmacological intervention, showing that while the hippocampus is sufficient for memory recall at early times (1 to 2 weeks), memory formation in the cortex depends not only on late events, but early ones as well.

Test of memory enhancement with sodium butyrate (inhibitor of histone deacetylases). Injection into the orbital frontal cortex at the time of learning significantly enhances the same type of memory that the synaptic inhibitor eliminated, thirty days later.
The main message I took from this is that the study of memory is getting remarkably detailed. Theories are becomming more refined, spanning from the behavioral and anatomical to the molecular levels, and are tested with more intricate and bizarre methods. The results are consistent with mechanistic theories of memory storage and retrieval, while being disputed and adjusted in many details as experiments go on. It is amazing, really to see this progress.

One has to ask, however, what goes on in rats getting cortical infusions of a synapse blocking agent? Were they conscious? Were they even alive? Apparently so, but these methods seem rather extreme and prone to a lot of unintended consequences. The methods section of this paper reiterates that the drugs were precisely delivered in quite small amounts. And their location and activity were verified on autopsy by staining the brains for gene expression patterns characteristic of neural and synapse activity.

In the end, a great deal remains unknown. Assuming that the Hebbian model is basically correct, how are the network engrams (i.e. memories) called up at will? Does any associating thought or sensation lead the brain to re-animate the stored memory, injecting into the stream of active thoughts? Does calling it up automatically reinforce it, or does something else have to happen, like new cognitive or emotional associations? What is the form of sleep/dream replay that reinforces memory between the hippocampus and the cortex? And of course, how do memories relate to consciousness- do they "enter" it, or do they constitute it?

  • Basic brain anatomy video.
  • Nuclear disaster, or climate disaster?
  • We need a Tobin tax, and not just on currency speculation.
  • Are scientists ready to take over the mantle of spirituality in the West?
  • Bill Mitchell ... Writes a fine piece in the Nation.
"Under the gold standard governments had to borrow to spend more than their tax revenue. But since 1971 that necessity has lapsed. Now governments issue debt to match their deficits only as a result of pressure placed on them by neoliberals to restrict their spending. Conservatives know that rising public debt can be politically manipulated and demonized, and they do this to put a brake on government spending. But there is no operational necessity to issue debt in a fiat monetary system. Interestingly, conservatives are schizoid on the question of public debt: public borrowing provides corporate welfare in the form of risk-free income flows to the rich because it allows them to safely park funds in bonds during uncertain times and provides a risk-free benchmark on which to price other, riskier financial products."

Saturday, March 12, 2011

You can't take it with you

A modest proposal: tax estates at 100%

It always strikes me as funny how Republicans cry on about freedom, the opportunity society, and everyone pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and getting only what they work for & deserve. But when it comes to their own children, no expense or trust fund is spared. The principle of individualism takes a back seat to a distinctly socialistic distribution of wealth without regard to merit or virtue, the criterion of blood trumping all others.

While this is without question instinctive and in accordance with the most hallowed aristocratic traditions, it hardly accords with the professed ideology of the right, which celebrates the self made, the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the up-from-poverty Horatio Alger stories. Leaving aside the typically dubious methods of acquiring such nouveaux riches, the vieux riche are rather the opposite- unemployed, coddled, Paris Hilton ... need we say more? The best that can be said by way of justification is that they share some of the genes of the originating generation, if one sets store by that kind of inheritance. Or that they faintly echo the dreams of their progenitors, who, despite being dead and gone, deserve our continuing gratitude.

So in order to supply all the character-building and innovation-encouraging opportunities heretofore denied to children of the rich, I'd propose that all children start life out of the same gate, provided with all the opportunities we can collectively and fairly give them, along with the healthy need to take advantage of them. Each would make his and her own way in the world. In short, each would have to work.

We could begin to provide this opportunity by making the estate tax 100%, eliminating the corrupting influence of inherited wealth. Such a tax should net upwards of $200 billion per year. Perhaps not quite the vast sums we need to fund the whole government, but a definite boost to programs needed to provide all children the opportunities and education needed to have a proper start in life. Gifts and other forms of intergenerational transfer would likewise be prohibited over nominal levels, to make the playing field of life as fair as possible. While I am at it, elementary and secondary schooling would become similarly egalitarian, with private schools either eliminated or opened to all students without financial restriction.

The last century has seen a truly remarkable sea change in the opportunity structure of higher education in the US and Europe. Academic and personal merit has gained substantial ascendance over breeding and money. Trust fund students still get inordinate attention, but financial aid has enabled high achievers from all backgrounds to get excellent educations in the finest schools, with meritocratic standards like standardized test scores opening many doors to the unpropertied and un-networked.

A no-inheritance revolution would extend this opportunity-generating process, making our society fairer, more focused on the many public goods involved in providing opportunity to the young, and better able to nurture and benefit from everyone's talents. It would also make us less susceptible to the kind of entrenched power that flows from old money- from the creeping re-establishment of aristocracy, if you will. The New World should lead the way in repudiating this inherited vestige of Europe- one of its very worst traditions.

Indeed, a thousand years hence, this may be one of those things that people look back at in sage disappointment, as we do at slavery in ancient Rome. That we prideful "moderns" still adhered to the old rules of blood inheritance, ate the carcases of dead animals, and burned fossilized carbon till we choked on it.

Would inequality remain? Huge amounts would indeed remain, from social and professional networks to more or less enriching home environments and genetic endowments. The advantages of the advantaged would still be incalculable. But perhaps without unearned and undeserved wealth to look forward to, all children would on average have a brighter future, and children of wealth could embody those values their class so prizes, of self-reliance, ambition, and hard work.

"Over the past several years, the Taliban have savagely attacked tribal leaders who oppose Taliban rule in the tribal areas and the greater northwest [of Pakistan]. Tribal opposition has been violently attacked and defeated in Peshawar, Dir, Arakzai, Khyber, and Swat. Suicide bombers have struck at tribal meetings held at mosques, schools, hotels, and homes."
  • Pakistan is on fire ... and Islam as the fuel.
"The religious fanaticism behind our assassinations is a tinder-box poised to explode across Pakistan," -Zardari 
  • Skidelsky on Ricardo, Osborne, and austerity.
  • GOP knows no bounds in meanness towards the poor and unfortunate. The rich are the only ones you can trust with money, after all!
  • Bill Mitchell quotes of the week:
"In relation to today’s blog we should understand that government deficits are the norm and they generally never pay back their debt (overall).
These economists essentially lead sad professional lives. They bunker down in their offices and doodle away with mathematical models that are largely banal representations of some obscure untested assumptions about human behaviour and motivation which the other social science disciplines and relevant research show to be inapplicable."
"The only “pressing policy question” relating to “fiscal space” is that there are millions of people unemployment who could be engaged productively generating income and feeling better about themselves.
Unfortunately, that is not the “hotly debated topic” and that is because economists like this lot have a completely warped sense of priorities and a mistaken understanding of how the monetary system actually operates."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Socialism - Si!

We live in a socialist country and have for a long time.

One of the many scarewords of the right is "socialism". Obama is a socialist, Nancy Pelosi is socialist, Government reform of health care is socialism, except for Medicare, which is OK. However what we should really be worried about is totalitarianism, not socialism. The banks didn't mind a bit of socialism over the last few years, nor does the miltary get dinged for its entirely socialistic structure and practices. No, the danger is the health of our political system, which the right has done far more to damage in recent decades than anyone else.

The "socialism" debate is really about more or fewer public goods. Socialism is all about public goods provided on the basis of citizenship or other merits like educational potential. In contrast, Laissez faire is all about private goods sold to those willing and able to pay... the highest bidder. There is no question that laissez faire is a great way to distribute many goods- those that are exclusive, privately enjoyed and consumed, with no further socially redeeming qualities. Like toothpaste.

The right-ward view, most thoughtfully expounded by Friedrich Hayek, maintains that private goods are the most important, and every attempt to provide goods in non-laissez faire fashion ultimately fails because "government is the problem" ... it is inefficient, sclerotic, corrupted, etc. Corporations could never exhibit such blemishes. Corporations are always cleansed and policed by Darwinian competition, while the state's ultimate regulation, by its voters, appears to these thinkers to be untrustworthy and ineffective- fundamentally less effective than the discipline of the market.

Such proponents grit their teeth and accept the necessity of a bare minimum of public goods- police, military, maybe a legal system. But they are deeply suspicious of every good that could conceivably be furnished in private fashion. A gold-based currency is only one of the most signal and bizarre examples. There are many others- oil companies should be private, as should postal services, power companies, educational institutions at all levels, drug testing, and pensions, to name a few.

The US has, however, never taking this view terribly seriously, and painstakingly raised itself out of bare laissez faire conditions by establishing public schools, a social security system, public research institutions, public roads, regulatory bodies, and countless other public goods. The question is not whether we might become socialists, but how much socialism we decide to practice.

Herewith, a few more of the great American public goods:

The fact is that public, common goods are the very foundation of our greatness in commercial, not to mention other, spheres. There is no question that US worker productivty, which all sides recognize as the fountain of future prosperity, depends in very large measure on public goods devised or supplied by the government- education, roads, legal structures, the internet, academic research, military security, sound money, ... the list is endless. Even an economic safety net is essential to maintain individual social and work potential, according to some!

To take a concrete example, the inefficient redundancy of the US cell phone industry is traceable to the ideological abdication of rational regulation and public provision. Due to a laissez faire approach to cell phone infrastructure, we now have four or more providers building totally independent national networks on conflicting technical standards, each with poor coverage.

We could have had a common carrier policy where single technical standards were used, common tower systems were installed, by the government directly or by a publicly regulated consortium like electric or other utilities, and different companies allowed to sell service in whatever form they wished. This would have created advantageous competition on an optimal technical and infrastructure basis (upgraded as needed, on a national scale).

Similarly, the TV cable and landline phone industries still labor under monopolistic and overly privatized structures due to the inability (for ideological reasons) of our government to grapple with the common goods and network aspects of these industries. Now we are slipping behind countries with more vigorous governments, mostly in Asia, more willing to provide public goods.

Health care is a similar problem, where purely private markets are simply defective and unworkable- for insurance, for treatment, and for larger social objectives. Obamacare, as the right likes to call it, is not only an important increment to public goods for US citizens, but is going to do more to reduce long-term deficits than any amount of token budget-cutting of parks and PBS by the Republican House.

Now, one asks.. what is the role of safety net, income support and similar redistribution schemes in this conception of government? Aren't they the opposite of proper government infrastructure provision? Well, it depends how you look at it. If happy, secure, and educated workers/citizens are the goal of a prosperous society, then such provisions certainly are part of the infrastructure picture- social, not physical. If cowed, cheap, and deskilled workers are the goal, then they are not. It is our choice.

Such social supports are broadly enabling in several ways. First, in giving workers some security that they and their parents are not going to be discarded at the end of their working lives, they enable somewhat more worker mobility and flexibility- a large advantage in an ever-changing economy. By providing income during economic downturns, they provide the automatic stabilizers needed to counteract the business cycle and prevent the kind of long-term unemployment we are looking at right now.

And insofar as they combine with progressive taxation, they also counteract the socially corrosive ratchet of the rich getting richer, which is inevitable in the laissez faire system and happens increasingly the more laissez it is, up to the limit of feudalistic serfdom + aristocracy. There is simply no way that total laissez faire ends up constructing a remotely egalitarian society. Socialism is required.

As an aside, it is notable that state and local taxation systems in the US are broadly and strikingly regressive, averaging twice the taxation relative to income on the bottom 20% as on the top 1%. Not a single state has a truly progressive system. Thus the Federal role needs to be that much more progressive to accomplish these social goals.

At the same time, Hayek had an important point, which is that key motors of private enterprise- the ability to address private needs by capitalizing on novel ideas, founding and growing companies, and meeting freely expressed demand in a stable, impartial legal system- that is all critical to both economic prosperity and personal liberty. But the key point is that markets are only part of the picture- they are by themselves inefficient and not broadly beneficial. They need a vast array of public goods to reach their potential, and beyond markets, we as citizens and humans need yet more public goods to reach our full human potential.

So government is not the problem. It is a solution, very often the only solution, to many of our most important problems.

Here is another public good to possibly add to the list above:
  • A solution to global warming
The biggest challenge of our time is a clear public goods challenge- that of climate change. The long-term harms of CO2 acrue to everyone worldwide, while the present benefits acrue to whoever has the wherewithal to purchase and use fossil fuels (much of which many, like our roads, are themselves public goods). Rational policy would price these harms into our use now, making it gradually prohibitive versus all the private motivations that would lead us down the garden path to an unacceptable future.

One can liken this crisis to that of the US civil war, so ably covered by the historian's series in the New York Times. The civil war was a crisis of greed, in a nation of greed. The South knew that the future was not on its side, neither morally, economically, nor technologically. The slave trade had ended completely. Territories were increasingly resistant to the idea of expanding slavery. Southerners were living in the past- a Roman past, if one wants to be specific, more flagrantly inegalitarian and cruel than even the feudal model of medieval Europe. Out of sheer greed, the leading figures of the South thought it wise to shut their borders, maintain the peculiar institution, and hope that they could continue their barbaric ways, selling cotton to a world that had otherwise turned its back on slavery.

With global warming, we know what needs to be done. We know the stakes. We know that we won't have fossil fuel forever in any case. Yet we (the US political system, and the right in particular) keep our heads in the sand, hoping that it will all blow over somehow.

Well, it won't, and while the earth is heating up, animals are going extinct, and the weather gets worse, we are dithering, as the US did in the decades leading up to the Civil War, extending compromises against fate, engaging in morally dubious alliances to preserve this peculiarly addicting institution. For this too is at base a moral question- whether we leave a world hopelessly compromised and diminished from how we found it. The earthworms won't care. It is our human posterity that will care, and curse us for our profligacy.

"My profession is a total disgrace and our arrogance leaves us blind to reality. The latest survey by the National Association for Business Economics reinforces how far removed from reality my profession is. They think the most pressing problem in the US at the moment is the deficit and the public debt and downplay the importance of the entrenched unemployment. When pressed to explain this crazy set of priorities they invent a fantastic (as in fantasy) narrative about the dangers of deficits (which are?) and emphasise that unemployment is largely a voluntary choice by the individuals involved. The academic members of the profession teach their students this nonsense. They talk about the virtues of efficiency but ignore the huge losses that arise from unemployment.
The problem is that it is the likes of these characters who were incapable of seeing the worst recession in 80 years that was looming up before them but who are now lecturing us from behind the desks of their secure jobs that the deficit is the number one problem."