Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Robert Sapolsky on Why We Behave the Way We Do

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

A common argument against free will is that human behavior is not freely chosen, but rather determined by a number of factors. So what are those factors, anyway? There’s no one better equipped to answer this question than Robert Sapolsky, a leading psychoneurobiologist who has studied human behavior from a variety of angles. In this conversation we follow the path Sapolsky sets out in his bestselling book Behave, where he examines the influences on our behavior from a variety of timescales, from the very short (signals from the amygdala) to the quite ancient (genetic factors tracing back tens of thousands of years and more). It’s a dizzying tour that helps us understand the complexity of human action.

More here.

Existing models of U.S. politics are wrong: here’s how the system really works

Thomas Oatley and Mark Blyth in Foreign Policy:

In 2020, President Donald Trump received more votes, almost 75 million, than any sitting president in U.S. history. And yet he lost the popular vote to Joe Biden, who received more votes than any presidential candidate in U.S. history—full stop. The 2020 election will thus go down in history as one in which Americans were both remarkably mobilized and sharply divided.

To date, the election postmortem focused on the role of the pandemic and its associated economic collapse, the long-standing divides uncovered by the Black Lives Matter protests, the appeal within a segment of the electorate of Trump’s personal brand, and an overestimate in the polls of Biden’s lead.

But such issues miss the forest by obsessing about some (important) trees. In particular, the discussion pays almost no attention to the more profound changes in the U.S. economy’s structure that have both produced Trump and will continue to make Trumpism part of the fabric of U.S. politics for years to come. It’s time to recognize that Trump is a symptom, not a cause, of our discomfort. And to understand that, we need to clear out the broader theoretical models that shape how we think about politics.

More here.

The skin microbiome

Michael Eisenstein in Nature:

In contrast to the gut, which offers a near-ideal habitat for the growth of fermentative bacteria, the skin is an inhospitable expanse. Much of the epidermal layer that protects humans from the elements is dry, salty, acidic and nutrient-poor. The exceptions are the oases around lipid-rich hair follicles. Despite this adversity, a diverse and physiologically important array of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea make their home on the skin. Typically, a person has around 1,000 species of bacteria on their skin. And, as might be expected from such a large area — roughly two square metres for an average adult — the skin offers a variety of distinct ecosystems, which create conditions that favour different subsets of organisms.

The skin microbiome is seeded at birth. The first microbial colonists help to train the immune system to tolerate commensal organisms (which have a neutral or beneficial impact on their host) while remaining alert to pathogens. These microbial communities continue to grow and diversify until puberty, when hormonal and developmental changes help to sculpt the final composition that is carried throughout adulthood. Over the past decade, researchers have uncovered evidence of extensive communication between bacteria, skin cells and immune cells. These interactions help to reinforce and repair the barrier formed by the skin, bolster the body’s defences against infection and tamp down excess inflammation.

More here.

Henry Darger’s Book Of Weather Reports

Lytle Shaw at Cabinet Magazine:

From December 31, 1957 until December 31, 1967, the artist and writer Henry Darger (1892–1973) kept a series of six ring-binder notebooks with almost daily entries on the weather in his native Chicago. On the outside cover of the first book, Darger describes the project, with encyclopedic enthusiasm, as a “book of weather reports on temperatures, fair cloudy to clear skies, snow, rain, or summer storms, and winter snows and big blizzards—also the low temperatures of severe cold waves and hot spells of summer.”

Though generally short, the entries abound in peculiarities. Darger is concerned, for instance, as much with periods of continuous temperature as with shifts—“3 to 7 am 57” (10/21/1958). Often up at 3am taking readings, Darger’s descriptive vocabulary also tends toward the moral and anthropomorphic: terms like “unsettled” and “threatening” are as common as “cool” or “hot.”

more here.

Tuesday Poem


.. 1.
.. alcohol
27 years

.. I’m

& don’t
know how
to not be

in love
my one

.. 2.
on blue
lips of winter

a whisper
of smoke

.. 3.
I can’t pray
by the ocean
too sacred

& these
.. carved
are like islands
& I’m split

Read more »

Anna Torma’s Hand-Sewn Dreams

Lauren Moya Ford at Hyperallergic:

Angels, devils, dragons, and monsters are just a few of the unruly creatures that maraud across Anna Torma’s delightfully chaotic textiles. The Hungarian-Canadian artist’s multicolored, swirling scenes are filled with semi-clothed human-animal crossovers tangled together in curious acts of sex and mischief. Inspired by fairy tales, children’s drawings, Hungarian folklore, and medieval legends, Torma’s playful, hand-sewn worlds present an especially engrossing escape from the bleakness of everyday pandemic life.

Permanent Danger, the artist’s major solo show at the Textile Museum of Canada, showcases works from the last two decades of Torma’s 40-year career. The exhibition takes its title from a wall-sized 2017 tapestry covered with meticulously stitched, fire-breathing beasts.

more here.

These 5 books by Black women are must-reads this month – and any month

Candace McDuffie in The Christian Science Monitor:

Black feminist thought has become crucial to how we navigate the social, economic, and political currents in America. To understand the consequences of pervasive racist narratives that seep into mainstream media – as well as into public policy and legislation – we must first examine how these narratives affect one of this country’s most vulnerable populations: Black women.

Too often, the societal contributions of Black women are erased, undervalued, or credited to others. We are forced to be our own biggest advocates and we are compelled to fight for the opportunity to express our truths, all while educating folks who are ignorant of our realities. Black women were expunged from the suffrage movement and overlooked during the civil rights movement. Naturally, written works are a direct and succinct way to write ourselves back into history. These five classic literary works serve as manifestoes by Black women when it comes to articulating our unique experience. They are also must-reads, especially during Black History Month.

“Ain’t I a Woman” by bell hooks

This 1981 book by feminist icon bell hooks is named after a famous speech given by Sojourner Truth at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. It examines the complicated nature of Black womanhood, especially as it pertains to the legacy of slavery, fetishization of Black women’s bodies, and sexism as it related to the Black nationalism movement. A strong and sobering read, “Ain’t I a Woman” grapples with a disturbing history that has always worked to degrade Black women.

More here. (Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to honoring Black History Month. The theme this year is: The Family)

Tech philosophers explain the bigger issues with digital platforms, and some ways forward

by Filippo Santoni de Sio[1], along with Marianna Capasso, Rockwell F. Clancy, Matthew Dennis, Juan Manuel Durán, Georgy Ishmaev, Olya Kudina, Jonne Maas, Lavinia Marin, Giorgia Pozzi, Martin Sand, Jeroen van den Hoven, Herman Veluwenkamp[2]

Abstract: This article, written by the Digital Philosophy Group of TU Delft is inspired by the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. It is not a review of the show, but rather uses it as a lead to a wide-ranging philosophical piece on the ethics of digital technologies. The underlying idea is that the documentary fails to give an impression of how deep the ethical and social problems of our digital societies in the 21st century actually are; and it does not do sufficient justice to the existing approaches to rethinking digital technologies. The article is written, we hope, in an accessible and captivating style. In the first part (“the problems”), we explain some major issues with digital technologies: why massive data collection is not only a problem for privacy but also for democracy (“nothing to hide, a lot to lose”); what kind of knowledge AI produces (“what does the Big Brother really know”) and is it okay to use this knowledge in sensitive social domains (“the risks of artificial judgement”), why we cannot cultivate digital well-being individually (“with a little help from my friends”), and how digital tech may make persons less responsible and create a “digital Nuremberg”. In the second part (“The way forward”) we outline some of the existing philosophical approaches to rethinking digital technologies: design for values, comprehensive engineering, meaningful human control, new engineering education, and a global digital culture. Read more »

The Chanting Goshawks And The Rainbow-Bearded Thornbill

by Mary Hrovat

Photograph of rainbow lorikeet perched on a branch
Rainbow lorikeet

I love birds, and I’m obsessed with words, so I suppose it stands to reason that I’m fascinated by the names of birds. I enjoy the “what it says, it does” names such as gnatcatcher and wagtail. (Further investigation reveals that the gnatcatcher family includes gnatwrens such as the chattering gnatwren and the trilling gnatwren, who I assume also do what their names say.) There are also bee-eaters and brushrunners, leaftossers and treecreepers, berrypeckers and foliage-gleaners.

Rollers perform acrobatic flight maneuvers to woo a mate or protect their territory. Bowerbirds build elaborately decorated structures to attract a mate, and some ovenbirds (furnariids) build nests of clay that roughly resemble tiny ovens. Weavers are known for their intricately constructed nests, which they build by weaving grasses and other types of vegetation.

I also delight in names that describe a bird’s appearance: the checker-throated stipple throat and the harlequin duck, for example. The male twelve-wired bird-of-paradise has twelve wiry filaments near his rear that he uses in his courtship display. The prothonotary warbler was named for a yellow-robed notary at the Byzantine court. The rainbow-bearded thornbill is a hummingbird with a narrow glittering band along its gorget (throat feathers) that ranges in color from green to red (more visible in the males than in the females). Read more »

Does belief in God make you rich?

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Religion has always had an uneasy relationship with money-making. A lot of religions, at least in principle, are about charity and self-improvement. Money does not directly figure in seeking either of these goals. Yet one has to contend with the stark fact that over the last 500 years or so, Europe and the United States in particular acquired wealth and enabled a rise in people’s standard of living to an extent that was unprecedented in human history. And during the same period, while religiosity in these countries varied there is no doubt, especially in Europe, that religion played a role in people’s everyday lives whose centrality would be hard to imagine today. Could the rise of religion in first Europe and then the United States somehow be connected with the rise of money and especially the free-market system that has brought not just prosperity but freedom to so many of these nations’ citizens? Benjamin Friedman who is a professor of political economy at Harvard explores this fascinating connection in his book “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism”. The book is a masterclass on understanding the improbable links between the most secular country in the world and the most economically developed one.

Friedman’s account starts with Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, whose “The Wealth of Nations” is one of the most important books in history. But the theme of the book really starts, as many such themes must, with The Fall. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were cast out from the Garden of Eden and they and their offspring were consigned to a life of hardship. As punishment for their deeds, all women were to deal with the pain of childbearing while all men were to deal with the pain of backbreaking manual labor – “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground”, God told Adam. Ever since Christianity took root in the Roman Empire and then in the rest of Europe, the Fall has been a defining lens through which Christians thought about their purpose in life and their fate in death. Read more »

We Must Connect the Climate Crisis with Human Health

by David M. Introcaso

Tragically, President Biden’s 21-page “Tackling the Climate Crisis” Executive Order signed January 27th failed to make any effort to address the increasingly dire health effects caused by the climate crisis.  This may seem surprising since, for example, just one-month earlier Lancet published its fifth, well publicized and highly regarded annual report, “Countdown on Health and Climate Change.”  The report’s introduction opens by asserting planetary warming is “resulting in profound, immediate and rapidly worsening health effects.”  Nevertheless, the executive order makes no mention of the Medicare and Medicaid programs and ignores the fact the US health care industry’s greenhouse gas emissions significantly contribute to climate crisis-related health effects.  This is disturbing since the federal government, responsible for safeguarding the health of America’s most vulnerable citizens, should not allow the healthcare industry to systematically harm their health.

We have known for decades that greenhouse gas emissions significantly contribute to the prevalence and exacerbation of numerous disease conditions.  The Countdown report documents at length morbidity and mortality due to heat stress and heatstroke, wildfires, flood and drought and the transmission of numerous infectious vector-born, food-born and water-borne diseases including dengue, the incidence of which has grown thirtyfold over the past 50 years threatening half of the world’s population.  The Biden administration is aware that during the past 20 years there has been a 54% increase in heat-related deaths among those over age 65 and that nearly half of Americans breathe unhealthy air that explains why fossil fuel use accounts for 58% of excess US deaths annually.  The administration knows this because the Obama administration published in 2016 the nearly encyclopedic report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States.” Read more »

Science Is Truth Until It Isn’t

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Science cat
Don’t forget to credit my research assistant, Erwin Schrödinger. Image: ScienceLive / Shutterstock

“Trust the science; follow the scientists” has become a familiar refrain during our past year of living dangerously. It is the admonition of world health organisations to shifty politicians; it is good advice for all whose lives have been battered into disruption by Covid-19. But another insidious pandemic has been creeping up on us. The World Health Organization calls it the “infodemic”. It includes those endlessly forwarded emails from ill-informed relatives, social media posts, and sensational videos full of spurious “cures” and malicious lies about the virus and the pandemic. The disinformation isn’t all the work of internet trolls, conspiracy theorists and “alternative” medicine peddlers. Some actual scientists have been caught in acts of deception. These are people who undermine whatever faith the public has left in science, and who sabotage the credibility of their scrupulous colleagues. One of the worst cases of fraud was Dr Andrew Wakefield’s bogus 1998 research paper linking vaccines to autism, which endangered the lives of countless children before it was debunked and its author struck off the UK medical register. In this 700th anniversary year of Dante Alighieri’s death, we should reserve a special place in his Inferno for those who profit from turning the truths of Mother Nature into dangerous lies.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it,” the physicist Richard Feynman once said in a lecture on scientific method. It’s a noble truth — your theory is wrong if the experiments say so — but given the flaws of human nature, it’s not that simple. Sloppy work or deliberate fraud can make your theory seem correct enough to get published in one prestigious journal, and cited in many others. Scientific theories should follow the Darwinian principle of “survival of the fittest”. Yesterday’s cast-off ideas (goodbye, phlogiston) may pave the path to progress, but along the way, there are also some fake signposts pointing in wrong directions. Read more »

Poetry in Translation

The Brothers Kathwari

after Iqbal

You know the secret
I lack depth

You have a home
I’m a wanderer

You control the sky
I’m prisoner of desire

You profit by interest earned
I’m losing the race

Your ships float in the air
My boat is without a sail

Restless, you’re spring
I’m fall

You’re weak. You’re strong
I’m this. I’m that. So?


Translation created from the original Urdu by Rafiq Kathwari who has a new collection of poems “My Mother’s Scribe” available here.

Monkeys in our treehouse

by Charlie Huenemann

“. . . . For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. […] The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it is compos’d.” (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1.4.6)

So when Hume looked inward he found nothing stable: nothing but “a bundle or collection of different perceptions”, he said. But when he wrote about looking inward, he produced intricate and elegant successions of words like the paragraph above, which vividly describes that disordered jumble of perceptions and thoughts. One wonders how a mere bundle of perceptions could produce such a fine account. If Hume were correct about the nature of the mind — an ever-flowing chatter with no suggestion of unity — one might expect to read instead:

“…he kissed me in the eye of my glove and I had to take it off asking me questions is it permitted to enquire the shape of my bedroom so I let him keep it as if I forgot it to think of me when I saw him slip it into his pocket of course hes mad on the subject of drawers thats plain to be seen always skeezing at those brazenfaced things on the bicycles with their skirts blowing up to their navels even when Milly and I were out with him at the open air fete that one in the cream muslin standing right against the sun so he could see every atom she had on when he saw me from behind following in the rain I saw him before he saw me however standing at the corner of the Harolds cross road with a new raincoat on him with the muffler in the Zingari colours to show off his complexion and the brown hat looking slyboots as usual what was he doing there where hed no business…” [James Joyce, Ulysses] Read more »

Counter-Institutions and Black History/Present

by Mindy Clegg 

The Black Panther Party, a Black Empowerment counter-institution

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow continues to make the rounds with his new book, The Devil You Know. In it he advocates for a reversal of the Great Migration, when Black Americans fled Jim Crow violence and sought economic opportunity in Northern and Western cities during the first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, these refugees from the American South were met with more of the same, Blow argues in several recent interviews. Still, most considered escaping the situation in the south a general improvement, a premise he agreed with until recently.

In Professor Hope Wabuke’s review on NPR, she notes how a speech Blow heard by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte challenged his thinking about the Migration, prompting this book. Based on recent interviews Blow’s premise is that a new Black migration from the North back to the South will give Black Americans a greater share of political power in America, locally and nationally. Born in Louisiana, he’s recently returned to the south himself and currently resides in Atlanta. The recent political shifts here in Georgia bear him out. Atlanta has become an internationally celebrated Black city that’s been led by Black mayors since 1973. In the past decade or so, Stacey Abrams and many others worked to elect President Biden and Vice President Harris, as well as Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, our first Black and Jewish senators respectively. People expressed shock that this could happen. But that’s only because they’ve not been paying attention to what’s been happening in places like Georgia.

I wish to echo Blow’s argument and highlight a necessary strategy for political change. Based on what Abrams and her allies have done here in Georgia—still unfinished work—there is no reason not to think about this in terms of transforming the entire south. I will argue that Blow’s argument has a lot of merit and is how political change happens. When thinking of history, people like to focus on extraordinary individuals and events, but the reality is that changing the politics of a place is a long hard slog undertaken by everyday men and women. Doing that work is going to be critical to creating an enduring and vibrant democracy. Building and transforming institutions are the key to long term change. Read more »

GPT-3 Understands Nothing

by Fabio Tollon

It is becoming increasingly common to talk about technological systems in agential terms. We routinely hear about facial recognition algorithms that can identify individuals, large language models (such as GPT-3) that can produce text, and self-driving cars that can, well, drive. Recently, Forbes magazine even awarded GPT-3 “person” of the year for 2020. In this piece I’d like to take some time to reflect on GPT-3. Specifically, I’d like to push back against the narrative that GPT-3 somehow ushers in a new age of artificial intelligence.

GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) is a third-generation, autoregressive language model. It makes use of deep learning to produce human-like texts, such as sequences of words (or code, or other data) after being fed an initial “prompt” which it then aims to complete. The language model itself is trained on Microsoft’s Azure Supercomputer, uses 175 billion parameters (its predecessor used a mere 1.5 billion) and makes use of unlabeled datasets (such as Wikipedia). This training isn’t cheap, with a price tag of $12 million. Once trained, the system can be used in a wide array of contexts: from language translation, summarization, question answering, etc.

Most of you will recall the fanfare that surrounded The Guardians publication of an article that was written by GPT-3. Many people were astounded at the text that was produced, and indeed, this speaks to the remarkable effectiveness of this particular computational system (or perhaps it speaks more to our willingness to project understanding where there might be none, but more on this later). How GPT-3 produced this particular text is relatively simple. Basically, it takes in a query and then attempts to offer relevant answers using the massive amounts of data at its disposal to do so. How different this is, in kind, from what Google’s search engine does is debatable. In the case of Google, you wouldn’t think that it “understands” your searches. With GPT-3, however, people seemed to get the impression that it really did understand the queries, and that its answers, therefore, were a result of this supposed understanding. This of course lends far more credence to its responses, as it is natural to think that someone who understands a given topic is better placed to answer questions about that topic. To believe this in the case of GPT-3 is not just bad science fiction, it’s pure fantasy. Let me elaborate. Read more »