an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

the USA’s presidential crisis – what will they learn from it?

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it really is this crazy

The USA has a tragic problem on its hands, of its own making. It now has, as its President, a career criminal, a narcissistic demagogue, a flim flam man who’ll stop at nothing to remain in power. Within a few days, though, his power will be curtailed and, I strongly suspect, and certainly hope, US law enforcement authorities will be rounding up some of his accomplices and generally turning up the heat. Everything about Trump tells me he would be prepared to destroy as much of the country’s political edifice as he possibly can, rather than go quietly.

But it’s the political edifice itself that’s allowed Trump, who isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat, or a politician or a businessman, to take over the ship of state and steer it on a bumpy ride to nowhere. This could never have happened under the Westminster system, which pertains in Britain and Australia, two countries of which I happen to be a citizen. 

The flaws in the US Presidential system have been unwittingly exposed by Trump, and this may be the one true gift he will have bestowed on his people, just as the horrors of the great European wars of last century left the one bright legacy of over seventy years of peace in Western Europe. 

So what are these problems? Well there’s one general problem of democracy, which is shared by all democratic countries, and that’s the fact that not everyone eligible to vote is sufficiently informed or detached to use their vote to the best advantage of themselves or the nation as a whole. Many are massively influenced by what is called ‘identity politics’, because they identify with a particular sub-culture, be it ethnic, religious, job-related, or special-interest-related in a host of ways. Many simply don’t understand much about politics and are easily swayed by political promises or the promises made by those around them on behalf of politicians. The intellectual elites, the cognoscenti, have no more weight to their vote than the more or less completely clueless. 

This problem is exacerbated in the USA by the fact that, every four years, they’re asked to cast a vote essentially for one person over another. In the run-up to that vote there’s massive fund-raising and lobbying, hype (short for hyperbole), overblown promising, and circus-like razzmatazz and bells and whistles. 

The one-against-one competition is, it seems, typically American, where the ‘great man’ who saves the world by single-handedly defeating all enemies is a staple of Hollywood blockbusters. In contrast, elections in the Westminster system are more like a blend of the American mid-term and presidential elections, but with much more of the mid-term than the presidential. People essentially vote for parties – a major party of the left and of the right, together with smaller independent parties and independent members. The two major parties and the smaller parties all have leaders, of course, and they’re elected by the rest of the elected MPs of their parties. They’re the ‘captains of the team’, and they work with them in parliament. The Prime Minister, the leader of the party elected to power in general elections, is thus in a very different position from the US President, who resides in and works from the White House, surrounded by staff and officials who are appointed by himself (though more or less vetted by others) without necessarily having been elected by the public to any office of any kind in the past. These include some very influential positions indeed – the 15 members of the Presidential Cabinet including Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney-General and Chief of Staff. The President thus heads the ‘executive branch’ of government, which is entirely separate from parliament, or congress.

Under the Westminster system there’s no such separation. The Prime Minister does get to select his cabinet, but they’re all appointed from within parliament, and all of them work within the House, or the Senate. So the PM is literally ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, and often has to defend his or her ministers and policies in the teeth of opposition sitting across the aisle. This creates much more of a team spirit, and if the PM ‘goes rogue’, as Trump clearly has, his party can organise a no-confidence motion to oust him. Such an event obviously has major repurcussions for the nation, but they are clearly nowhere near as disastrous as the ousting of an American President. Though, arguably, the difficulties involved in ousting the President are even more disastrous. 

In watching and learning about the US political system over the past year or so, I’ve been totally astonished at the power granted to the President, and with that power comes a sense of Presidential immunity, due to his ‘indispensability’. This is virtually a recipe for demagoguery and dictatorship. The current President has clearly utilised powers that previous Presidents quite probably didn’t know they had, because they grew up within the usual ethical guidelines of the vast majority of people, regardless of background. Trump has no such guidelines, and so has sacked appointed officials without replacing them, has used pardoning powers – and will continue to do so unless ousted – without restraint, and has issued executive orders in a manipulative and detrimental fashion. He has monetised the Presidency, obstructed justice by declaring war on the FBI and justice department officials, viciously and relentlessly attacked the fourth estate, and spread myriad falsehoods with impunity.

All of this has created a kind of internal paralysis in the US, while making the country and its President both a laughing stock and a cause for grave concern worldwide. Meanwhile the success of demagoguery and ‘power’ over ethics has had its echoes in elections in Austria, Sweden and Brazil. But the USA’s political problems are unique. The two principal problems are – How do you rid yourself of a rogue president? and, How do you present this from ever happening again?

Many concerned Americans are looking to the process of impeachment as the solution. I’m writing this on the day (in Australia) of the mid-term elections, November 6, though the USA is some 11-12 hours behind us in central Australia. It seems likely that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, though I wouldn’t bet on it – I usually get these things wrong. But impeachment is a political process and therefore highly partisan in a nation that has become partisan perhaps to the point of extreme violence. Impeachment doesn’t exist in the Westminster system, because there is clearly no need for it.

For a Prime Minister, under the Westminster system, to ‘successfully’ go rogue, as the US President has, he would have to carry the whole of his party with him, or a substantial majority, as the party system and party loyalty are deeply entrenched in the polity. A no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister can be put up at any time during parliamentary sessions, either from within the PM’s party or from the opposition benches. It’s easier for the President to become a ‘one-man band’ because he’s entirely cut off from congress. I don’t know if Trump has ever entered congress. There seems no reason for him to do so. This complete disconnection from what is is supposedly his own party and government is, I think, disastrous. 

The massive power of the President – veto powers, pardoning powers, executive orders, and apparent, if limited, immunity from prosecution – is no small problem for a country that is the most economically and militarily powerful in the world.  Rachel Maddow of NBC has highlighted the problem of prosecuting the President. If he is charged and placed in custody or let out on bail, does he still have presidential authority? If not, who does? This would not be a problem under the Westminster system – the Deputy PM would step up, as s/he does when the PM is overseas. And if the matter were serious enough, that deputy, or another senior cabinet minister, would take over the PM’s role permanently. And there would be no hesitancy, under that system, to arrest and detain. Why should there be? The law should treat all offenders in precisely the same way.

In the US there seems to be a lot of confusion on these matters. Many consider the President ‘too important’ to be charged with a crime while in office. This is truly ridiculous. If you have allowed one person to be so important within your political system as to be above the law, for even a second, then your political system sucks, to put it mildly. 

Another bizarre anomaly of the US system is this ‘hanging back’ by the federal authorities, in terms of subpoenas and indictments, during pre-election periods. This, it seems to me, is an interference, by a kind of stealth, of the judiciary by the political sphere. Where did this ridiculous idea come from? It seems abundantly clear to me that when investigating potential felonies of any kind, the political background should play no part whatsoever. Once investigators have ‘all their ducks in a row’, as Americans like to say, that’s when prosecutions should begin. I’ve no idea right now what will happen to Trump after these elections, but he has already been clearly implicated in campaign finance violations via his criminal fixer, so prosecutions should have occurred already. To not institute criminal proceedings when everything is set to do so, because of some election or other – that constitutes political interference. Am I missing something here?  

Assuming that Trump is indicted after these elections (though what I’ve heard is that the Mueller will only issue a report to congress, even if it includes indictable offences, which makes my head spin with its unutterable stupidity and dereliction of duty), is it likely that Trump will give himself up to authorities? Trump is a career criminal who has never spent any time in jail, though his tax crimes and various scams should have seen him incarcerated for much of his adult life. It’s hard to know what he’ll do when cornered, but I can’t imagine him giving himself up to authorities. The real crisis is about to hit the fan, so to speak. It will get very very bumpy over the next few months, no matter what the election result. 

The other major question is – what will Americans learn from the Trump disaster? Will they reform their political system? With their jingoistic pride, I don’t hold out too much hope. My guess is that there will be some reform around the edges – the emoluments clause might be ‘promoted’ to something more than a mere clause, for example – but their beloved but outdated Constitution will remain largely untouched, and they’ll still keep their POTUS in splendid isolation, a law unto himself and a potential threat to their nation and the outside world. But then, as some dipshit has often said, we’ll have to wait and see. 


Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

bird smarts and theory of mind

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human brain compared to that of a zebra finch, I think

I like birds a lot – how could you not? I particularly like their brains, which considering their ‘beautiful plumage’, their grace in flight, their songs, their treatment of mates and offspring and their dinosaur history, is quite a big call. Not that I’ve ever seen or examined a bird’s brain, but I’ve seen and heard of  some gobsmacking behaviour from some species, so I thought I might check out what’s known about their grey-white matter.

As with so many research fields, there’s been a surge in research into bird brains, and I’ve not heard the term bird-brain used as an insult in recent times. Still, when we think of bird intelligence, we tend to anthropomorphise, to compare them with us – do they play, do they use language or tools, do they recognise us individually, can they solve the same sorts of problems we can? That’s understandable enough, but in studying bird brains we should be just as thoughtful about the differences as the similarities.

The birds that have stood out for us so far are corvids – ravens, crows, jays and magpies, though many parrots such as the sadly endangered kea of New Zealand have also caught researchers’ attention. So how do these small-brained creatures manage to do the things that so impress us? Well for a start it may be more a matter of numbers than actual size (and it should be noted that birds have the largest brain to body ratio of any creature). Some research published in July 2016, which received a lot of media attention, found that bird brains pack neurons more densely than other animals. It was previously thought that neuron density didn’t vary much between species, but it’s now becoming clear this isn’t so, and actual brain size isn’t such a reliable guide to intelligence. But bird brains are really small compared to those of primates, so there must surely be other differences besides density.

But the 2016 research, which featured a revolutionary method for sampling brain tissue and making neuron counts, found that, in fact, a parrot brain contained as many neurons as some mid-sized primates. However, it’s also true that a bird’s brain is structurally different. Unsurprisingly, in the past, bird brains were thought of as primitive, and were classified as such, probably because they’re far removed from us on the evolutionary bush. Anthropomorphism again – understandably we used to feel that the only really intelligent creatures apart from us were those most closely related to us, but in recent decades we’ve learned that cetaceans, octopuses, elephants and birds, none of which are close to us  evolutionarily, are highly intelligent creatures. And they’re not all mammals, and in the case of the octopus, not even vertebrates. This is quite exciting for our understanding of intelligent life forms – they can have a multitude of ‘brain plans’.

The first important bird brain anatomist was the 19th century German naturalist Ludwig Edinger, whose work was so influential that it provided the orthodox view until a few decades ago. Noting the very different structure of the bird brain, Edinger understandably assumed they couldn’t be as smart as mammals, and being one of the first to name brain structures in birds, he assigned names such as paleostriatum, suggesting a very basic region involving instinctual and motor activity. Basically, he assumed birds lacked a neocortex altogether. However, we now know that the bird brain evolved from the pallium rather than the striatum, and in 2005 it was agreed that an overhaul of bird brain nomenclature was required. All part of our more informed and respectful approach to these wondrous creatures.

National Geographic, in combination with other interested organisations, has declared 2018 the Year of the Bird, and has some fascinating pieces on bird behaviour on its website. That’s where I learned that, according to one researcher, birds’ brains are more distributed ‘like a pizza’, whereas the mammalian brain is more layered. However, the wiring that underlies long-term memory in birds (and they clearly have impressive long-term memory) and decision-making is similar to that in mammals. 

Here are just a few of the extraordinary behaviours discovered. Green-rumped parrotlets of South America use calls as names for their chicks. Male palm cockatoos of New Guinea court females not only with calls but by drumming on hollow trees with twigs and seedpods – arguably a form of music. Goffin’s cockatoos, from Indonesia, make and use tools in captivity even though they’ve never been seen to do so in the wild. They’re also expert at opening locks. The National Geographic video ‘Beak and Brain: genius birds down under’ compares the kea of New Zealand’s South Island to the New Caledonian crow as problems solvers tasked with overcoming a variety of obstacles to obtain their favourite treats. It makes for riveting viewing. Other videos online show crows creating hooks on sticks and using them to pull food out of holes. 

Another video, involving experiments with jackdaws by Princess Auguste of Bavaria (really), a behavioural scientist, shows that these birds are much influenced by the gaze of humans, and can be directed to act simply by the gaze of a human they have bonded with. They also appear to know when they’re not being watched, and can act more boldly in such circumstances. All of this raises obvious questions, voiced by Auguste in the video. How do jackdaws think? How is it similar to the way we think? Do they recognise intentions? Do they have a theory of mind?

This theory of mind issue comes up with a lot of birds, and other animals. It refers to whether and to what extent a creature has the ability to attribute any or all of the variety of possible mental states to itself and/or others. The question of an avian theory of mind was explored in a study entitled ‘ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors’. In describing their experiment, the authors highlight what they see – or what skeptics see – as a problem with much experimental work that tests for theory of mind in other species. This is the question – as I understand it – of whether the bird or animal actually ‘sees’ or reads what conspecifics are thinking, or is simply following particular observable cues. It was a complex experiment involving caching (hiding a store of food for later consumption, a common raven behaviour), peepholes that were either open or closed, and inference (by the researchers) from observed behaviour to either ‘minimal’ or ‘full-blown’ Theory of Mind. As a dilettante I found much of the discussion and analysis beyond me, but I found these remarks interesting:

In conclusion, the current experiment, together with the other recent studies on chimpanzees11,12, provides strong evidence against the skeptical hypothesis that the social cognition of nonhuman animals is limited to behaviour-reading. Peephole designs can allow researchers to overcome the confound of gaze cues, but further experimental work is needed to determine the specific limits of ravens and other animals—including humans—on such tasks.

In my general reading on these matters I’ve definitely found something like a rift between the skeptics on the behaviour of higher primates, dolphins and other ‘smart’ creatures, and those who have pushed, sometimes naively, other-life smarts with regard to ‘language’, memory and emotional intelligence. What I think needs to be kept clearly in mind is that in examining intelligence, or brain power or whatever, human intelligence may be only one of a possible infinity of gold standards. Is Theory of Mind itself an anthropomorphic concept, or one that lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic thinking? 

Meanwhile, experimentation and investigation of the neurological underpinnings of bird behaviour will continue, and I’ll be watching for the results. Just about to embark on Jim Robbins’ book The wonder of birds, and I hope to learn more especially about bird neurology in the future, and how it relates to birdsong. That’s a whole other issue.

Written by stewart henderson

November 2, 2018 at 9:40 am

The bandwagon of macho thuggery rolls on

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it’s reignin’ men!

Brazil has just elected a macho thug to lead its country down the descent to demagogic doom. So now, just off the top of my head, we have the USA, Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Belarus, Iran, Saudia Arabia, all full of shit leaders.

Tears of rage, tears of grief. Women, women, we need you to save us! Rise up, flush these scumbags down the toilet, and never never let a man run your country again! Never!

Written by stewart henderson

October 30, 2018 at 4:13 pm

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.


R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’.

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

some thoughts on the importance of nations

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America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

how to define a planet: the problematic case of Pluto

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Pluto, with its ‘heart-shaped’ area known as Sputnik Planitia, imaged by New Horizons, July 14 2015

A while back I listened to a podcast from Point of Inquiry, in which two planetary scientists, Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, involved in NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, were separately interviewed, and were inevitably asked about Pluto’s demotion from planet status. Having not followed this issue, I was surprised at the response. So it’s time to take a closer look.

Of course I should be writing ecstatically about the New Horizons mission, not to mention those of Juno, Cassini, Mars’ Curiosity and so forth, and hopefully that will come, but the controversy about Pluto immediately struck me, as I thought, in my naïveté, that its demotion was a consensual thing amongst astronomers, with only the ignoroscenti (my neologism) left to mourn the fact (not that I mourned it particularly – Pluto still existed after all, and it didn’t care a jot what we thought of it).

Pluto, discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, was accepted as the ninth and final planet in our solar system for decades until the nineties, when another Kuiper belt object was discovered (besides Charon, Pluto’s large moon), and the Kuiper belt itself became a thing, in fact a massive thing, far bigger than the ‘familiar’ asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. We now know of more than 1000 kuiper belt objects, with at least 100,000 believed to exist. The Kuiper belt is widely spread out from the orbit of Neptune, and though Pluto is its largest and brightest object, it’s not the most massive. Presumably it’s for this reason that Pluto was demoted – what with the scattered disc and the Oort cloud there seemed to suddenly be a host of objects that could be included as planets, so it was thought better to exclude Pluto, or to demote it to dwarf planet status, presumably along with other assorted Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), rocks and iceballs that were worthy of the designation. That seemed okay to my thoughtless mind, but here’s what Alan Stern had to say on the subject:

Well, you know, we don’t really honour that classification in planetary science, that was really done by a group of different astronomers who don’t know much about planets. Let me give you a technical term, we call it BS. You know what BS stands for don’t you? Bad Science. Now you wouldn’t ask a podiatrist, a foot doctor, to help you if you had a cardiovascular problem with your heart, that’d be the wrong expertise, though they’re both doctors you’d be going for a cardiologist. And if you had a real estate problem you probably wouldn’t go to a divorce attorney, even though they’re both attorneys. In the space field we have many professions, we have engineering professions, we have many different scientific specialties, etc. Astronomers really don’t know much about planets any more than I’m an expert in black holes in faraway galaxies. They had a little meeting in 2006, they were worried that school children would have to memorise the names of too many planets, so they wrote a definition that limited the number of planets to eight. Now, right after that, Ira Flatow called me up on Science Friday and said, would you debate Mike Brown, who was one of the proponents of ‘let’s limit the planets to eight’, and I said, sure, and we got on the phone and it’s Science Friday live, and Mike Brown makes his case and says, ‘look we just can’t have 50 planets, it’s too many to remember.’ Now, I found that anti-scientific, it seems like engineering the definition, versus letting it inform you, but Ira said, Alan what’d you think, ‘can’t have 50 planets’, what d’you say back to MIke? I said, ‘well if you can’t have 50 planets then we’re probably going to have to go back to eight states, I guess’. And he was speechless…

I love that story – though no doubt Mike Brown would’ve told a different one. So let’s turn Stern’s objection into an inquiry. Was it scientifically correct/accurate/fair to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf/minor planet?

Happily I just happened to listen to a podcast of the Skeptics’ Guide a few days later, which has led me to a more detailed piece on Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog on the Pluto controversy. Apparently, in the above-mentioned 2006 meeting they decided that to be classified as a planet, a body in our solar system should meet 3 criteria:

  • it has to orbit the sun
  • it has to be spheroid (i.e. have the mass to be so, due to its gravity),
  • it must have cleared its orbit of other objects.

Now this third criteria immediately seems the dodgiest, as it sounds like it’s designed to eliminate any KBOs. And how do we know an orbit is cleared? After all, one day, a comet or asteroid may strike us, because our orbits have coincided this time around. And why is that third criterion even important?

Novella cites a recent paper by planetary scientist Phillip Metzger who argues that the third criterion is invalid and that nothing about a body’s orbit should be in the definition since orbits can alter due to external influences. Only characteristics intrinsic to the body should be included in the definition. This would essentially leave one criterion standing – that of sphericity. And even then, how sphere-like does a planet have to be? Another ‘problem’ with Metzger’s definition is that it would include moons, such as our own, and many others. Novella has his own classifying suggestion, which sounds promising to me:

We keep criteria “a” and “b” and drop “c”. However, we add that the object must not be in a subservient orbit around a larger object. What does that mean? If two objects, like the Earth and Moon, are in orbit around each other, and the center of gravity (barycenter) lies beneath the surface of one of the bodies, then the smaller object will be said to orbit the larger object, and is a moon. Therefore Europa, which is large enough by itself to be a planet, would instead be considered a moon because it orbits Jupiter.

I need to further explain the term ‘barycentre’, for my own sake. Think of two bodies in gravitational relationship to each other. Inevitably, one of them will be more massive, and will exert a greater gravitational force. An obvious case is the Earth and the Moon. Between the two there is a point, the ‘centre of gravity’, or barycentre,  around which the two bodies revolve, but because the Earth is a lot more massive that the Moon and they’re relatively close to each other, that barycentre is actually close enough to the Earth’s centre to be within the mass of the Earth, with the result that only the moon revolves. The Earth, though, is very much affected by the Moon’s gravitational field, which causes a slight wobble as well as tidal effects on the Earth’s surface. 

Interestingly, Novella’s reclassification would include Charon, Pluto’s ‘moon’, as a planet (as well as Pluto of course) because its size relative to Pluto puts the barycentre at a point between the two bodies, rather than within Pluto. So Pluto-Charon would be reclassified as a binary-planet system. It would also promote Ceres, in the asteroid belt, and Eris and Makemake, two recently discovered Kuiper belt objects, to planetary status. That takes the current eight up to thirteen, with others yet to be discovered. 

It’s unlikely of course that the astronomical overlords who reclassified Pluto would be swayed by any mere outsider’s view, however well-reasoned, but this examination of the issue is a reminder of just how dubious the reasoning of ‘experts’ can be, and how important it is to question that reasoning. Size apparently does matter to these guys, but this new category of ‘dwarf’ or ‘minor’ planet seems inherently unstable, and will probably become even more so as the number of discovered exoplanets increases. Will it be mass or volume that’s the decider, and what will be the mass or volume that decides? And does it really matter? It’s only nomenclature after all. And yet… The difference between an asteroid and a comet is important, is it not? And so is the difference between a planet and an asteroid. And so is the difference between a moon and a planet. And so… is it not? 

Written by stewart henderson

October 14, 2018 at 1:09 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm