Archive for June, 2011

“Global food prices are at record highs, driven by huge increases in the price of wheat, corn, sugar, dairy and oils. A complex mix of factors simultaneously boosting demand and constraining supply means the recent price surges might be just the beginning”. Below is a list of some of the main factors on the demand and supply side:

DEMAND

  • continuing rapid population growth, especially in so-called developing countries, means rising demand for food (we’re close to reaching 7 billion people on this planet this year, with 9.5 billion predicted by 2050, which will be a 300% increase on 1950s’ figures)
  • rising prosperity, especially in Asia and Brazil: wealthier people eat differently compared to poorer people, and they eat more and are willing and able to pay more for food; meat and dairy consumption has been growing rapidly and dietary pattern developed in Western countries over centuries have shifted in developing countries in decades
  • the arrival of new investors in food commodity markets (including large pension funds), being attracted by higher profits as a result of higher food prices

Supply

  • ever-increasing production of biofuels: a result of peak oil, rising fossil fuel demands from growing economic power houses like China, India and Brazil, climate change concerns, misguided and unsustainable government policies and economic interventions, profiteering by energy companies and other factors that made energy prices shoot up; all have led to a reduction in available areas dedicated to growing food and diverting millions of tons of cereals away from food markets
  • climate impacts, having led to weather related crop destruction over the last few years in main food producing countries like Russia, the US and Australia
  • the so-called Green Revolution that started to deliver increasing outputs since the 1960 is coming to the end of its life cycle
  • urbanisation and pollution are contributing to a growing scarcity of land and water; it is predicted that by 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas under water stress if current trends aren’t being reversed (and that will not just affect to so-called developing world)
  • government policies, especially restrictions and bans on food exports having negative consequences on food availability

Interesting times ahead, not just for food supply but also for whatever exists as world peace …

Source: SMH

Ray Kurzweil is interviewed here by Nataly Kelly who works for Common Sense Advisory, a company focused on language in the context of globalisation, which of course includes translation. While her questions are informed by her work context (and sometimes lead to repetition in Kurzweil’s answers), they nevertheless make Kurzweil reflect on whether and how computers will replace humans as translators.

 

Kurzweil already predicted more than eleven years ago in his book “The Age Of Spiritual Machines” that computers will reach a high degree of almost human proficiency in translating written and spoken language by 2029. While he was formulating his prediction, Franz Och started to work on language translation algorithms; Och today is the man behind Google Translations, which still is very crude but nevertheless has reached mainstream. Considering how rapidly technological progress happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if 2029 will turn out to be a fairly conservative assumption.

But the video is not so much focused on time frames, as it is on questions based on the effects of computers on translation, like for example whether we will live in societies without language barriers because computers will comprehensively convey meanings from one language to another in an instant. Kurzweil answers that question with a categorical ‘no’. Even if computer translations will be able to reach a level of proficiency that will allow us to use them for day-to-day conversation and communication, Kurzweil predicts that people will still gain immense benefits from learning other languages, the same way literature (in particular poetry) will still need humans for translation. Words do not just have literal meanings but are also carriers of cultural messages, are steeped in historical contexts and are the products of unique individual creative expression. Unless we create artificial intelligence that at least fully matches our own human one, machines relying on databases for translation won’t reflect and produce the complexity and richness that humans are able to tap into when extracting meaning from words in another language.

Another question Kurzweil addresses in this context is whether computer translations will wipe out the profession of human translators, for example in non-literary fields like that of commerce. Again he answers with a ‘no’. While making references to the just mentioned translation quality argument, he also suggests that new technologies bring diversification to traditional professions by providing people with new skill sets (and Kurzweil refers in this context to the introduction of synthesisers in the 1980s and the consequent changes computers have made to music creation).

While Kurzweil’s historical perspective seems verifiable over longer time periods, it certainly won’t hold true in the short-term. After all: car factories are not filled with masses of multi-skilled workers but with robots and a hand-full of engineers and technicians, and those workers’ experience was just another repetition of what for example the weavers’ trade went through in the 19th century when the steam engine eliminated it. Therefore and despite different avenues being opened for a new generation of language agents, countless translators will lose their professional career prospects forever – the same way people are losing their jobs in bookshops and record stores without being re-employed en-masse by online companies. But I guess, if you’re a futurist with a fascination for technology, social justice aspects are outside  your general frame of reference – which still makes Kurzweil’s reflection within its own albeit limited context quite interesting.

RESEARCHERS have long known that city dwellers are at greater risk of mental health problems than their country cousins. But the biology behind this was not known until now.

Results of an international study have shown for the first time how two regions of the brain responsible for regulating stress and emotion are affected by city living.

As part of the German study, 32 people were asked to do a tricky maths test while lying in a brain scanner.
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Researchers at the University of Heidelberg introduced stress by imposing time constraints and relaying disapproving feedback from examiners.

They found that when exposed to stress the parts of the brain that process emotion – the amygdala and cingulate cortex – were more active among the students who lived in or had been raised in cities.

The findings, published in the journal Nature this week, establish that there is a connection between city living and sensitivity to social stress.

Results also showed a corelation between the activity levels in the amygdala region of the brain and the size of the city each student called home: people from cities of more than 100,000 people showed more activation of the amygdala region than those from towns of more than 10,000, and those in turn showed more activation than people from the rural areas.

Previous research has found that growing up in a big city raises the risk of schizophrenia.

Originally published by The Age

Source: Asher Moses, The Age

Straight men are as aroused by penises as homosexuals and have fantasies of their wives sleeping with other men, but any fears about the negative or corrupting influence of pornography are misguided, neuroscientists have found in one of the largest studies of internet porn habits.

The study also gathered some revealing insights into women’s porn searches finding that, unlike men, they generally prefer erotic stories to visuals. They were also turned on by stories about masculine men sharing their tender side and being intimate with each other.

For their new book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam say they analysed as much data on internet pornography habits as they could find including more than a billion web searches, a million erotic stories, a half-million erotic videos, paid porn site subscription statistics, millions of personals ads, ten thousand digital romance novels, online data responses, the world’s most popular free porn sites and other data.


Women are clicking on internet porn more and more and getting addicted.
One of the largest studies on internet porn habits has revealed some
surprising insights. Photo: Phil Carrick

The study – which they dubbed the “world’s largest experiment” – found a group of about 20 sexual interests that accounted for 80 per cent of all the porn people watched and spent money on. The top five categories, in their words, are: youth, gays, MILFs (mothers), breasts and cheating wives.

Ogas said some of the interesting findings from his research included that men “prefer overweight women to underweight women” and while men generally prefer younger women, there was significant sexual interest in older women including those in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

“There’s even an internationally popular genre of erotica known as granny porn,” said Ogas.

“The four body parts that both straight and gay men are wired to find sexually interesting are: chests, butts, feet and penises. Heterosexual men are very interested in looking at penises, especially large penises.”

Orgas said heterosexual men searched for penises almost as often as they search for vaginas and out of the top 35,000 most popular adult sites, roughly 1000 were devoted to large penises.

“This interest is perhaps inherited from our primate ancestry: chimpanzees, monkeys, and bonobos use their penis as a prominent and versatile social instrument, to signal aggression, to indicate dominance, to mark territory, and to indicate sexual interest,” he said.

The study found that the largest audience for “shemale” – male-to-female transexual – porn was heterosexual men. Orgas described this as an “erotical illusion”.

“These are erotic stimuli that trick the perceptual machinery of the sexual brain by combining different sexual cues in novel combinations,” he said.

“A shemale has the body of a woman and a penis. The female body consists of female anatomical parts that trigger arousal (breasts and curves, for example)… but also has the cue of a penis, which is another sexual cue for men.”

Ogas and Gaddam’s research has been extensively covered everywhere from Time magazine to the Freaknonomics website.

The researchers have dismissed moral panic that argues pornography is encouraging men to pursue degrading and perverse sexual habits. Ogas said porn was a reflection of male desires rather than a creator of male desires and erotica generally functioned to liberate and satisfy male sexual interests.

“There is an inverse correlation between the availability of pornography and rape: the more porn that’s available, the less rape,” said Ogas, adding extreme pornography was a rare indulgence and did not spill over into the viewer’s real life.

“Almost all fears about the negative or corrupting influence of pornography are misguided, and usually applied to other people’s sexual interests.”

Ogas said the easy, inexpensive availability of online erotica had been a boon to women and “sexual minorities”.

He said previously women lacked a way to safely and conveniently explore their sexuality, and being able to explore their desires in the security, anonymity and comfort of their own homes was preferable to travelling to a red light district or going into the back room of a video rental store.

“Similar, for homosexuals, bisexuals and transexuals living outside of urban areas, it was very difficult to access erotica with the result that many sexual minorities felt isolated, alienated and ashamed,” said Ogas.

“Now, the internet allows these groups to explore their sexuality in safety and privacy and discover that many others share the same sexual interests that they do. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to sex.”

As other researchers have found previously, Ogas said sexual cues that triggered arousal in women were mainly psychological while for men it was overwhelmingly visual. Straight man were aroused by sexual dominance while most women, and gay men, were wired to be aroused by sexual submission.

One unusual result from the research was that erotica featuring cheating wives was very popular among straight men.

Ogas explained that he believed men were attracted to cheating wives due to a function biologists call a “sperm competition cue”.

“All across the animal kingdom, when a male sees another male mate with a female, this often triggers greater sexual arousal in the viewing male so that he might pursue sex more vigorously – and produce more sperm – than his competitor in order to increase his chances of impregnating the female,” he said.

“The sperm competition cue also explains why men are aroused by cuckold porn, also called cheating wife porn or cheating girlfriend porn, or about fantasies of their own wife or girlfriend cheating on them.

“Though men are most definitely designed to get jealous and furious at the thought of their partner cheating on them, they can also become simultaneously aroused.”

twitter This reporter is on Twitter: @ashermoses

As someone who frequents airports quite a few times every year, I wholly sympathise with this post by the always sharp-minded, witty, sarcastic and eloquent Fleet Street Fox

THE problem with flying is not making sure you have enough pants to last or working out how much of the local currency is a reasonable amount to pay for a beer; it’s the airports.

They are the only type of construction in the history of mankind designed to make your life less efficient and more difficult.

(And before anyone smart says torture chambers, they were models of efficiency and can keep you entertained for months if necessary.)

It used to be that you parked next to the plane, waved your ticket and climbed aboard. Now you park on an unending patch of tarmac four miles from the airport where you will never find your car again, get a bus to the terminal, spend an hour in a queue to check in, spend more hours in queues having your underwear rifled and your toothpaste sniffed for explosives while being repeatedly asked to undress, then get channelled through a series of over-priced retail opportunities before you’re thrown into the back of a jet with several hundred other people in various states of rage and most of whom are ready to kill.

Whoever in the world designs airports and various parts of them – in particular the seats which are too uncomfortable to sit on, and the vast, hangar-like ceilings which are exercises in ugliness and lazy architecture – needs a kick up the backside.

The purpose of all engineering and design is to make life nicer, simpler, and more efficient. Yet in the case of airports it causes low-grade misery so pernicious that, even if not manifested via the medium of multiple homicides in the Duty Free, still makes the world a less pleasant place by a factor of millions of people a year.

So, because I am stuck in this terminal for another four hours waiting for the plane which cost £200 more than it should after I missed the one before because I was having such a nice holiday, and for what it’s worth, here are my suggestions for nicer airports:

* Sofas. Yes, I know they would all become like the ones in Starbucks within a week, covered in stains and food that has fallen out of someone else’s mouth, but they’re nice and the metal creation I am sat on at the moment is not. It’s vile. It’s uncomfortable, it’s ugly, and it hurts to sit on it for more than five minutes. We spend hours in airports – some people have to sleep in them. I’m not asking for anti-macassars but I think we should be able to have cushions. We certainly should not have things designed entirely to stop someone having a snooze because it makes the place look untidy.

* No-one has yet found a way to hijack a plane with the use of tweezers. Let us keep them.

* Ditto nail clippers, toothpaste, foundation and bottles of water.

* We do not, generally speaking, have to be on your plane. It would be nice if everyone who works in airports realised this.

* Make some effort with the architecture. I’d happily spend days staring at the vaulted ceiling of St Pancras station, which is proof that just because you have a big open space doesn’t mean it has to look like a shed. Add some beauty to the world instead of corrugated steel and plastic.

* Proper heating. Airports are always cold, and there is no good reason for this.

* Public announcements should be made by a member of staff who can speak clearly and has a pleasant voice. Not some toothless stroke victim who can’t be trusted to empty the bins.

* There is no earthly reason why a cup of tea in an airport costs twice as much as one outside. Or the clothes, or the sunglasses, or the twatty keyrings.

* Gardens. Play areas for children that don’t just consist of a couple of small plastic chairs. A giant piano keyboard like the one in Big. Free massages. Put some paintings on the walls. Have showers for people travelling overnight and provide toothpaste and toothbrushes in the toilets – you’re making enough money out of the sunglasses to pay for it.

* Travel should be about new experiences so promote a sense of adventure by paying someone to dress up as Indiana Jones and run through the terminal screaming while pursued by a giant stone ball and some angry-looking natives. Failing that, hire a samba band.

* Lastly, if I wanted to blow up a plane I’d post the bomb or get a job as a baggage handler. Bend more of your energies to that end of things and do me the honour of presuming I’m probably not a killer.

Not yet, anyway.

Another brilliant article by Elizabeth Farrelly published by the Sydney Morning Herald. This time on why the privileged at the top of our societies, the so-called leaders in politics, sports and business, get away with pillaging, corruption, murder and rape. Do they have a specially sanctioned system of ethics? Do we approve of their seemingly impunity-driven Silverback actions? What is our relationship to these mainly alpha males that for example makes us think that rape is just a slight sexual digression or at the most a sex crime, instead of seeing it as a violence crime based on the assumed right to having power over someone else? Why aren’t we bothered when the heads of governments and armed forces play games that kill thousands of innocent villagers?

Farrelly offers some interesting observations and reflections in her usual hard-hitting and eloquent way. One small reservation though: while I’m enjoying the bollocking those so-called leaders, the last paragraph is somewhat detrimental to the post; it deflates the whole previous argument and almost kills it. There’s an easy fix though: just ignore it ;).

Gruesome gorillas in our midst

What do Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Sepp Blatter and the NSW Labor Right have in common? Only this. The grotesque sense of entitlement that lets top people act in ways totally unacceptable for the rest of us.

This is silverback behaviour. “Every group needs one,” says the trailer for Mountain Gorilla, “and every male aspires to be one.” True, perhaps, for those primates. But is it also – still – true for us?

When l’affaire DSK broke on May 15, France was shocked – not by the allegation that this presumed presidential contender had forced a hotel maid to perform une fellation, but that he had been jailed for it like a common criminal.

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Christine Boutin, France’s Christian Democrat leader, insisted DSK had been entrapped, as though it were inconceivable that this wealth-loving socialist and legendary womaniser might do wrong. This was the truly astonishing aspect of the Strauss-Kahn affair; the revelation that, at the top of this powerful and finger-pointing organisation, ethics simply do not apply.

The IMF’s 2400 staffers must abide by its increasingly stringent and policed ethical code, but its 24 directors are above scrutiny.

It’s no isolated case. We laugh at the Putins and Berlusconis, the Stalins and Bushes and Sarkozys, marvelling at their ongoing popularity as if we ourselves would never childishly follow such thugs. Yet we’re not so different, having just spent over a decade politely re-electing a Labor government that was clearly on the nose.

Only now, for example, is the 2007 below-market sale of Currawong to alleged Labor mates referred to ICAC. Engineered by the then secretary of Unions NSW, John Robertson, and facilitated by the Heritage Council member, uh, John Robertson, the Currawong sale seemed fishy from the start. Yet only now, with Tony Kelly’s vanishing, does sad little ICAC finally turn up the heat.

Or consider the weekend’s honours list, giving an AO to Mick Keelty who, as federal police commissioner, deliberately betrayed 19-year-old Scott Rush to Indonesian ”justice”. Keelty knew Rush was small-fry, and knew the father’s desperation, yet he dropped the boy into treatment we won’t tolerate for cattle.

Or take sport, which should be the cleanest of enterprises but consistently turns up among the filthiest. It’s dirty because of the money involved and because our reverence blinds us, but also because sport is native silverback territory.

Indeed, you might say sport derives its excitement from the tension between jungle-rule and the rules of the game. The same tension in the boardroom, however, generates cosiness and corruption. As the New York judge Loretta Preska noted in dismissing a 2007 appeal, “FIFA … still does not govern its actions by its slogan ‘Fair Play’.”

Sepp “let the women play in … tighter shorts” Blatter survived the Qatar corruption scandal but, as head of this graft-ridden autocracy, probably shouldn’t have. Juan Antonio Samaranch, who as head of the IOC (on which Blatter also serves) was more tinpot tyrant than Spanish patrician, shamelessly parading over decades his predilection for Franco’s fascists, five-star presidential suites and being addressed as ”Excellency”.

It’s like the Kerry Packer tax question. Why do we constantly condone behaviour at the top which we ourselves would never get away with and which, as a society, we affect to despise?

One theory is that decency isn’t mandated at the top because it needn’t be, because silverbacks are inherently decent.

This would explain the huge public outcry, almost grief, whenever a favourite actor is found sniffing cocaine from toilet seats or a football star king-hits a colleague for fun. But were it true, such events would be rare. So, hmmm. Plausibility problem. Another explanation is that we, needing to revere our Churchills and our Menzies, simply overlook their failings. But there’s a third, more disturbing possibility; that we actually select leaders who can look moral while acting in ways that are profoundly not. Leaders who have perfected the art of church-and-apple-pie Sundays while bombing the shite out of Third World villages. Leaders, that is, whose hypocrisy facilitates our own.

No surprise, then, that these primal morals accompany equally primitive attitudes to both violence and sex, blurring the bounds between these, our most primate appetites.

Open any paper and alongside the relatively innocent tabloid array of celebrity babies, boob-ads and ministerial fishnets there’s a whole other, more sinister genre of forced sex: paedophile priests, Gaddafi rape squads, campus stalkers, child-immigrant rape, asylum-seeker rape, workplace abuse (and its profits), naked French chaps leaping on hotel maids and rape rampant – so to speak – throughout the armed forces.

This is silverback territory, and it’s not actually sex at all. It’s repression, territory and power.

For there is a neglected distinction between sex and sexual abuse. Abuse, any psychologist will tell you, isn’t sex. It’s power. Rape is not a sex crime – though the titillation may be sexual – but a crime of violence. Yet these violent tendencies to treat others as territory are traits we consistently prefer in our leaders.

So is this reality? Has sex-as-repression always been core human behaviour and we’re just now noticing it? Or is it more that this brutal picture is the self-portrait we choose?

Even now the French press treats l’affaire DSK as a sexism issue – les phallocrates getting their comeuppance at last – while we treat it as a fascinating scandal, with added political frisson because the maid in question is black. But it’s not really about sexism or racism. It’s about the kind of monkeys we want running the show.

There is of course a good argument for evil, which is that perception depends on contrast. We wouldn’t feel goodness without knowing its opposite. But I’m suggesting more than that. That we actually love evil, especially when it’s in the closet.

Perhaps we’re like those chimps in the snake-in-the-box experiment, who know there’s really bad stuff in there but cannot resist going back for another peek. Are we secretly attracted to evil?

Maybe so. Then again, maybe we’re overdoing this whole primate thing. Maybe we could work a little on the sapiens angle instead. If actual goodness is too big an ask, just a little wisdom at the top would go a long, long way.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author and architect
More Elizabeth Farrelly articles

 

 

 

I recently posted an article by Burkhard Bilger, published in the The New Yorker, on David Eagleman. The following post by Betsy Mason for the Wired Science blog looks at aspects of Eagleman’s work, such as the structure of our brain as different competing aspects being involved in decision making, the role the illusion of time plays in schizophrenia as well as the legal ramifications arising from the fact that neuroscience suggests that we are not equal before the law.

Most people probably feel like they know their own brain reasonably well. After all, our thoughts form the core of who we are, or at least who we understand ourselves to be. But it turns out we know only a tiny portion of what our brains are doing and where our own thoughts come from.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman takes us on an enlightening tour of all that our brains are up to behind our backs in his new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Get a preview in the audio excerpt and learn more about the book and Eagleman’s current research in the interview below.

Wired.com: Your book deals a lot with the idea that we are totally unaware of most of what goes on in our brains. Is this why we get hunches that seem to just materialize from nowhere?

David Eagleman: The main thing that inspired me to write this book is looking at all the ways the conscious is just the littlest bit of what’s happening in the brain. Your brain does these massive computations under the hood all the time. And a hunch essentially is the result of all those computations. So it’s exactly like riding a bicycle, the way you don’t have to be consciously aware, in fact you cannot be consciously aware. Your consciousness has no access to the operations running under the hood that allow you to ride the bicycle, or for that matter that allow you to recognize somebody’s face. you don’t know how you recognize somebody’s face, you just do it effortlessly.

In both of these cases, it’s very hard to write computer programs to do this stuff, to ride a bicycle or recognize somebody’s face, because there’s massive computation going on there that’s required. Your brain does this all effortlessly and the hunch is when it serves up the end result of those computations.

Essentially the conscious mind is like a newspaper headline in the sense that all it ever wants is the summary, it doesn’t need to know all the details of how something happened, it just wants to know, Obama’s in China or whatever it is. It doesn’t need to know every bit of the background of American history and Chinese history, it just wants to know what’s happening right now. And so a hunch is a way of summarizing vast quantities of data. And you may not have any conscious access to how the computation was made.

Wired.com: If our brains are working without us being consciously aware of it, how does that affect the choices we make?

Eagleman: When people go through marriage registries, they find that people are more likely to marry other people whose first name begins with the first letter of their own first name, so Alex and Amy, Joel and Jenny, Donny and Daisy, these kind of things. And if your name is Dennis or Denise you’re statistically more likely to become a dentist. This can be verified by looking in the dentist professional registries.

Also, people whose birthday is Feb. 2, are disproportionately more likely to move to cities with the number two in their name, like Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. And people born on 3/3 are statistically overrepresented in places like Three Forks, Montana, and so on.

Anyway, the point of all this is that it’s a crazy reason to choose a life mate or a city to live in or a profession, and if you ask people about why they made these choices, that probably would not be included in their conscious narrative. And yet it’s statistically provable that these things do have an influence in very subtle ways on our choices. People like brands, for example, that begin with the the same first letters as their first names, and they’ll be more likely to choose that brand just based on that, even though they’re not consciously aware they’re doing that.

Wired.com: So if we’re not consciously directing our own decision-making, how do our brains handle the process?

Eagleman: I make this argument about the brain being like a team of rivals. I synthesize a lot of data to show that you are not one thing, but instead your brain is made up of these competing networks that are all battling it out to control this single output channel of your behavior. And so your brain’s like a neural parliament, and you’ve got these different parties in there like the Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians, all of whom love their country and feel that they know the best way to steer the ship of state. But they have differing opinions on how to do it, and they have to fight it out.

This is why we can cuss at ourselves and cajole ourselves and get angry at ourselves, and this is why you can do behavior and look back and think, “Wow, how did I do that?” It’s because you are not one person, you are not one thing. As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

In the book I break down all these different competing parties in the brain. If you’re trying to understand yourself, and what kind of person am I, and why did I do that and so on, this gives you a much richer view of what’s actually happening under the hood so that you don’t suffer from the illusion that there’s a single “I” in there.

And once you start understanding this about yourself, then you can structure things so that you constrain your future behavior. For example, once you realize that your short-term instant-gratification circuits will be really tempted in a certain situation, you can then think about it in advance and make sure you don’t get yourself into that situation.

Wired.com: Besides short-term vs. long term interests, what are some of the other warring parties in your brain?

Eagleman: Another team of rivals is closely related to this issue of emotion and reason. You have certain parts of your brain that really care about essentially math problems and just adding things up and deciding on something in a purely logical way, and then other networks in your brain that are involved in what we generally summarize as emotion. And these largely have to do with monitoring your internal state, instead of the external world, and they have to do with judging how things will pay off for the system whether these things are good or bad.

And it turns out with neuroimaging you can see these things in competition when people are making a decision, let’s say a moral decision where logically you might feel like you want to go one way, but emotionally you feel like you want to go the other way. You see these battles in action.

I think an understanding of the teams of rivals in the brain allows us to really think more clearly about other people’s behavior. In the book I use an example of Mel Gibson, who made these antisemitic rants when he was drunk and then afterward wrote these letters of apology that seemed to be genuine. Everybody was arguing about whether he is an anti-semite or not an anti-semite. What I say in the book is, even though his behavior was despicable, are we obliged to think somebody is or is not something? Isn’t it possible for somebody to have both racist and non-racist parts of their brain that can be coexisting in a single person — where he might say things at one point and feel bad about it at another point?

To say that somebody has true colors — that there’s sort of one thing this person is — isn’t nuanced enough with our understanding of modern neuroscience. People are complex in this way. They contain multitudes.

Wired.com: How does the brain decide who wins?

Eagleman: One piece of advice that I give in the book is something that my mother advised me a long time ago: If you’re ever stuck between two options and you just can’t make a decision, flip a coin and then consult your gut feeling about whether you’re disappointed with the way the coin landed.

What you’re doing is a gut check on how the coin toss came out, and that immediately tells you what you need to know. You sort of pretend that you’re committing to it. And then if you go, “Oh shit!” then you know that you should just go with the other choice.

Wired.com: What does your current research about time teach us about how our brains work?

Eagleman: I study time perception and illusions of time, and one of the main questions that I look at is, as we understand time better, what does that tell us about how these systems can break?

One of the experiments we did a few years ago showed that if we inject a small delay between your motor act and some sensory feedback, then when we remove that delay, you’ll have the impression that the feedback happened before you did the act. So, if you press a button and that causes a flash of light to go off, you quickly learn that you are causing the flash of light. Now if we insert a small delay so that when you press the button, there’s a tenth of a second before the flash, you don’t notice that delay, but your brain starts to adjust for it. Then, if we suddenly remove that delay, you’ll hit the button, the flash of light will happen immediately, but you will swear the flash of light happened before you pressed the button.

This is an illusory reversal of action and effect. What people say in this situation is, “It wasn’t me. The flash happened before I pressed the button.” And that struck me as very interesting because this is something that we see in schizophrenia. Schizophrenics will do what’s called credit misattribution where they will make an act, and they will claim that they are not the ones responsible for it.

So that immediately got me thinking that maybe what’s happening in schizophrenia is fundamentally a disorder of time perception. Because if you’re putting out actions into the world and you’re getting feedback, but you’re not getting the timing correct, then you will have cognitive fragmentation, which is what schizophrenics have.

We always talk to ourselves internally and listen to ourselves — we have an internal monologue going on. Now imagine that the talking and the hearing that’s going on internally, imagine that the order got reversed. Well, you would have to attribute that voice to somebody else. That’s an auditory hallucination, and that’s another thing that characterizes schizophrenia.

I’ve been running studies now at the Harris County Psychiatric Center with schizophrenic patients, and it does appear that they have problems in the time domain. So I’m pursuing this hypothesis right now about whether schizophrenia is fundamentally a disorder of time perception. If it is, that’s a big deal because it means that we might be able to develop rehabilitative strategies that involve playing a little video game in front of a computer instead of a pharmaceutical approach.

Wired.com: You argue that brain science could improve our legal system. How would that work?

Eagleman: As part of my day job I direct the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. What I’m asking is, given the situation that much of what we do and think and act and believe is all generated by parts of our brain that we have no access to, what does this mean when we think about responsibility and blameworthiness when people are bad actors in society?

I’ve been working on this topic for years and it’s become clear to me that our legal system as it stands now is so broken and outdated. It essentially rests on this myth of equality, which says all brains are created equal. As long as you’re over 18 and you’re over an IQ of 70, then all brains are treated as though they have an equal capacity for decision making, for simulating possible futures for understanding consequences and so on. And it’s simply not true.

Along any axis that we measure brains, they are very different. There’s as much variation neurally as there is with people’s external physical characteristics. So an enlightened legal system, and one that’s also more humane and more cost effective, will instead of treating everybody equally and treating incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution, will do customized sentencing and customized rehabilitation. It will try to understand people better, in terms of what can be done with them and for them. It can have better risk assessment to understand, “How dangerous is this person?”

We still have to take people who break the law off the streets to have a good society, so this doesn’t forgive anybody. But what it means is we have a forward-looking legal system that just worries about the probability of recidivism, or in other words, what is the probability that this person’s behavior will transfer to other future situations? That makes a forward-looking legal system instead of a backward-looking one like we have now, which is just a matter of blame and saying, “How blameworthy are you and we’re going to punish you for that.”

What’s happening more and more in courtrooms is defense lawyers will argue that their client has bad genes, that he was sexually abused as a child or he had in utero cocaine poisoning, so it wasn’t really his fault. It turns out that’s the wrong question to ask, because the interaction of genes and environment is so complex that we will never be able to say how somebody came to be who he is now and whether he had any real choice in the matter of whether he behaved this way or that way. So the only logical thing is to have a forward-looking system that says, “We can’t know the answer to that, all we need to know is how dangerous is this person into the future?”

Beyond that there’s this issue that our prison system has become our de facto mental health care system. The estimates now are that 30 percent of the prison population suffers from some sort of mental illness. It’s much more humane and enlightened and cost effective to have a system that deals with the mentally ill separately, deals with drug addicts separately. and so on. Incarceration is the right solution for some people because it will be a deterrent. But it doesn’t work if your brain’s not functioning properly. If you’re suffering from a psychosis, for example, putting you in prison isn’t going to fix that.

Wired.com: So do we need, next to the jury of your peers, a jury of brain experts?

Eagleman: So here’s what I think. Trials have two phases. There’s the guilt phase, or the fact finding phase, and of course that should always remain with a jury of your peers, there are many reasons for that. But the sentencing phase should be done with statistics and sophisticated risk assessment instruments. And I should mention, these are already underway.

For example, with sex offenders, people have done very good studies where they have followed tens of thousands of sex offenders for years after they are released form prison, and they find out who recidivates and who doesn’t. Then they correlate that with all of these things they can measure about the person. And it turns out that that gives really good predictive power about who’s likely to recidivate and who’s not.

Now I need to specify here that we will never be able to know whether any individual will commit a crime again or not, because life’s too complicated and crime is often circumstantial. Nonetheless, it is the case that some people are more dangerous than others. And these statistical tests are incredibly powerful tools for understanding who on average is going to be more dangerous than whom and thereby how long we should sentence them for.

Betsy Mason is the editor of Wired Science.
Follow @betsymason on Twitter.

Go to the  Wired Science website  to listen to excerpts of David Eagleman’s latest book “The secret lives of the brain”.
Nice video edit – unfortunately the Sesame production team wouldn’t dare going into this territory.

Tracks:
– Liquid Stranger – Destroy Robots (g’iz-roc remix)
– Benny Benassi – Cinema (Skrillex Remix) (Renger’s Bootleg Edit)

Supplementing the previous post on the illusion of time, here are 10 examples of warped time provided by PsyBlog.

How time perception is warped by life-threatening situations, eye movements, tiredness, hypnosis, age, the emotions and more…

The mind does funny things to our experience of time. Just ask French cave expert Michel Siffre.

In 1962 Siffre went to live in a cave that was completely isolated from mechanical clocks and natural light. He soon began to experience a huge change in his experience of time.

When he tried to measure out two minutes by counting up to 120 at one-second intervals, it took him 5 minutes. After emerging from the cave he guessed the trip had lasted 34 days. He’d actually been down there for 59 days. His experience of time was rapidly changing. From an outside perspective he was slowing down, but the psychological experience for Siffre was that time was speeding up.

But you don’t have to hide out in a cave for a couple of months to warp time, it happens to us all the time. Our experience of time is flexible; it depends on attention, motivation, the emotions and more.

1. Life-threatening situations

People often report that time seems to slow down in life-threatening situations, like skydiving.

But are we really processing more information in these seconds when time seems to stretch? Is it like slow-motion cameras in sports which can actually see more details of the high-speed action?

To test this, Stetson et al. (2007) had people staring at a special chronometer while free-falling 50 metres into a net. What they found was that time resolution doesn’t increase: we’re not able to distinguish shorter periods of time when in danger. What happens is we remember the time as longer because we record more of the experience. Life-threatening experiences make us really pay attention but we don’t gain superhuman powers of perception.

2. Time doesn’t fly when you’re having fun

We’ve all experienced the fact that time seems to fly when we’re having fun. Or does it? What about when you’re listening to a fantastic uplifting piece of music? Does time seem to fly by, or conversely, does it seem to slow down?

When this was tested by Kellaris (1992), they found that when listeners enjoyed the music more, time seemed to slow down. This may be because when we enjoy music we listen more carefully, getting lost in it. Greater attention leads to perception of a longer interval of time.

The same thing happens when you have a really good, exciting day out. At the end of the day it can feel like you ate breakfast a lifetime ago. You enjoyed yourself enormously and yet time has stretched out.

The fact that we intuitively believe time flies when we’re having fun may have more to do with how time seems to slow when we’re not having fun. Boredom draws our attention to the passage of time which gives us the feeling that it’s slowing down.

Or—prepare yourself for a 180 degree about-face—it could all be the other way around. Perhaps you’re having fun when time flies. In other words, we assume we’ve been enjoying ourselves when we notice that time has passed quickly.

There’s evidence for this in a recent experiment by Sackett et al. (2010). Participants doing a boring task were tricked into thinking it had lasted half as long as it really had. They thought it was more enjoyable than those who had been doing exactly the same task but who hadn’t been tricked about how much time had passed.

Ultimately it may come down to how much you believe that time flies when you’re having fun. Sackett and colleagues tested this idea as well and found it was true. In their experiments, people who believed more strongly in the idea that time flies when you’re having fun were more likely to believe they were having fun when time flew. So, the whole thing could partly be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3. The stopped clock illusion

The stopped clock illusion is a weird effect that you may have experienced. It happens when you look at an analogue watch and the second-hand seems to freeze for longer than a second before moving on.

I always thought this was because I just happened to look at it right at the start of the second, but this is actually an illusion.

What is happening is that when your eyes move from one point to another (a saccade), your perception of time stretches slightly (Yarrow et al., 2001). Weirdly, it stretches backwards. So your brain tells you that you’ve been looking at the watch for slightly longer than you really have. Hence the illusion that the second-hand is frozen for more than a second.

This happens every time our eyes move from one fixation point to the next, it’s just that we only notice it when looking at a watch. One explanation is that our brains are filling in the gap while our eyes move from looking at one thing to the next.

4. Too tired to tell the time

When things happen very close together in time, our brains fuse them together into a single snapshot of the present. For vision the shortest interval we can perceive is about 80 milliseconds. If two things happen closer together than that then we experience them as simultaneous.

The shortest possible gap in time we can distinguish across modalities (say visual and auditory) is between 20 and 60 milliseconds (Fink et al., 2006). That’s as little as a fiftieth of a second.

When we’re tired, though, our perception of time goes awry and we find it more difficult to distinguish between short spaces of time. This fact can be used to measure whether people are too tired to fly a plane, drive a truck or be a doctor. Indeed just such simple hand-held devices that quickly assess your tiredness are already being developed (Eagleman, 2009).

5. Self-regulation stretches time

The effort of trying to either suppress or enhance our emotional reactions seems to change our perception of time. Psychologists have found that when people are trying to regulate their emotions, time seems to drag on.

Vohs and Schmeichel (2003) had participants watch an 11 minute clip from the film Terms of Endearment. Some participants were asked to remain emotionally neutral while watching the clip and others were told to act naturally. Those who tried to suppress their emotions estimated the clip had lasted longer than it really had.

6. Altered states of consciousness

People report all sorts of weird experiences with time when taking drugs like psilocybin, peyote or LSD. Time can seem to speed up, slow down, go backwards, or even stop.

But you don’t need drugs to enter an altered state of consciousness, hypnosis will do the trick. People generally seem to underestimate the time that they’ve been under hypnosis. One study found this figure was around 40% (Bowers & Brenneman, 1979).

7. Does time speed up with age?

People often say the years pass more quickly as they get older. While youthful summers seemed to stretch on into infinity, the summers of your later years zip by in the blink of an eye.

A common explanation for this is that everything is new when we are young so we pay more attention; consequently it feels like time expands. With age, though, new experiences diminish and it tends to be more of the same, so time seems to pass more quickly.

Whether or not this is true, there is some psychological evidence that time passes quicker for older people. One study has found that people in their 20s are pretty accurate at guessing an interval of 3 minutes, but people in their 60s systematically overestimate it, suggesting time is passing about 20% more quickly for them (Mangan & Bolinsky, 1997).

8. The emotional experience of time

The emotions we feel in the moment directly affect our perception of time. Negative emotions in particular seem to bring time to people’s attention and so make it seem longer.

Research on anxious cancer patients, those with depression and boredom-prone individuals suggests time stretches out for them (reported in Wittmann, 2009). Just like life-threatening situations, negative emotions can concentrate our attention on the passage of time and so make it seem longer than it really is.

This effect may be made worse by our efforts to regulate these negative emotions (see number 5), which also has the effect of stretching time.

9. It’s getting hot in here

If you’ve ever had a fever then you’ll know that body temperature can have strange effects on time perception.

Experiments have found that when body temperature is raised our perception of time speeds up (Wearden & Pento-Voak, 1995). Conversely when we are cooled down, our sense of time also slows down.

10. What’s your tempo?

Setting aside emotions, age, drugs and all the rest, our experience of time is also affected by who we are. People seem to operate to different beats; we’ve all met people who work at a much slower or faster pace than we do. Psychologists have found that people who are impulsive and oriented towards the present tend to find that time moves faster for them than others (from O’Brien et al., 2011).

There’s little research on this but it’s likely that each of us has our own personal tempo. Research has found that when different people listen to metronomes the number of beats per minute they describe as comfortable ranges from as slow as 40 bpm up to a high of 200 bpm (Kir-Stimon, 1977). This is a large range and may help to explain why some people seem to operate at such a different pace to ourselves.

Time is relative

The last words on time come from two great thinkers; first Albert Einstein:

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

And finally, Douglas Adams:

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

Image credit: Alice Lucchin

Source: Peter Murray, Singularity Hub

Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town will be built from the ground up with the latest green technologies, including solar panel roofing, smart household appliances, and shared usage of electric cars and bicycles.

Panasonic has just partnered with eight other companies to build an eco-friendly town that uses the latest energy-saving and generating technologies. The houses populating the new town are expected to have virtually zero carbon emissions. It is Panasonic’s hope that the new city, expected to be completed by March 2014, will change the way cities are built in Japan and, eventually, across the world.

Unfortunately, it won’t.

I have no doubt the new city, to be named Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town (SST), will be the greenest on Earth. But Panasonic should know that, in the end, the town will be more pipe dream than prototype. More helpful than creating a city with the latest in green technologies would be finding ways to incorporate those technologies in already existing city infrastructures. It’s a daunting task, and it’s an expensive task. Until we find cheap ways to replace shingles with solar panels, for example, we’re simply not going to do it.

That being said, you have to start somewhere.

Fujisawa SST will be built on a 47-acre vacant lot where a Panasonic factory once stood about 50 km west of Tokyo and will include aout 1,000 houses. Most of the technologies that will be on display at the town won’t be new, but their multi-layered incorporation will be.

By taking a ground up, green energy approach, Panasonic will be able to optimize the functionality and energy use of all the town’s equipment. Their energy management system will synergistically incorporate created energy, stored energy, and saved energy for maximal efficiency. The created energy will come from solar paneled roofing that will adorn all of the houses as well as public facilities. The energy harvested by the solar panels will then be stored in a new type of home-use lithium-ion storage battery that Panasonic developed itself. According to Panasonic the battery will be able to store enough electricity to power a house for a week. Efficient use of that energy will come from Panasonic’s ECO NAVI range of smart household appliances that sense their surroundings and adjust usage accordingly to reduce wasted electricity. The ECO NAVI refrigerator, for example, has four sensors: a door sensor to detect when it is open, an ambient light sensor that tracks the time of day the refrigerator is accessed, and ambient and interior heat sensors for optimal control of internal temperature. The refrigerator also learns the eating schedule of the household. In times of low access, such as during the workday or at night, it maintains a less cool temperature. Compared to conventional refrigerators, the ECO NAVI fridge reduces energy usage by up to 10 percent.

The developers aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the town by 70 percent compared to 1990 levels.

The layout of city blocks will be planned with the surrounding landscape in mind. A “green axis” of parks and vegetation will line the main roads and form wind paths. Solar panel design will be artistically rendered to blend with the town’s lush green landscape. And, of course, the car of choice for Fujisawa SST residents will run on electricity. Because they will require some electricity from an outside source when enough can’t be generated from solar energy within the town, the cars won’t be completely free of emission. But a city of electric cars well definitely minimize the carbon footprint compared to their gas-guzzling counterparts. Home garage and public facilities will be equipped to promote electrical vehicle ownership and sharing in Zipcar fashion. Currently under consideration is an alternative plan that does away with garages altogether. In their place would be sprawling yards and separate parking areas would hold the cars to be shared by the families in 10 to 20 homes. Electric bicycles will also be available for sharing among residents in an effort to further decrease the town’s carbon footprint.

In an effort to make Fujisawa SST both energy-efficient and safe, many of Fujisawa SST’s public spaces, such as parks, will have storage battery systems accessible by the public in the event of a catastrophe. Given Japan’s high risk of earthquakes, publicly available energy would be crucial in the event residential energy stores were destroyed.

Fujisawa SST’s optimally designed infrastructure will be connected by a power and information network, part of Panasonic’s comprehensive solutions. A Smart Energy Gateway system will connect the energy creation and storage devices as well as appliances on a single network for easy control at in-home displays. Field testing is currently underway for energy-saving technologies to be used in the town’s stores. Energy saving and storage equipment is being developed for efficient use of wind, light, heat and water. Check out the idyllic artistic renderings of the town in the computer-generated tour below.

Fujisawa SST’s timing couldn’t be better for Japan. March’s devastating earthquake knocked out one of Japan’s major sources of energy: the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Another plant, the Hamaoka plant near central Japan is also being shut down due to safety concerns, further pinching energy resources. To minimize energy demands, the Japanese government has urged its people to save as much as it can. Companies were asked to cut their electricity use by 15 percent. At home, people are being asked to maintain a room temperature of 28 degrees Celcius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), use fans rather than air conditioners and to not leave gadgets plugged in.

Spurred largely by the earthquake, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, recently outlined a new future energy policy for his country. The policy calls for increased emphasis on solar and wind power. In addition the government plans to invest in future, as yet unrealized innovative technologies. In light of the country’s new green initiative, Panasonic is aggressively moving to position itself at the forefront of a market they expect to flourish in the coming years. The company acknowledges that if they stay exclusively in the business of audiovisual and white goods then their future growth will be limited. In the Fujisawa SST spirit of combining capabilities into a single multi-faceted toolset, Panasonic last year acquired Sanyo, one of Japan’s leading electronics companies. The acquisition turned Panasonic into Japan’s second largest electronics company after Hitachi, Ltd. The acquisition enabled Panasonic to develop the lithium-ion batteries planned to be used in the Fujisawa SST homes.

The Fujisawa SST project is a breath of fresh air in a world where efforts to go green are sadly limited. Unfortunately, the main impetus for a new city is the same reason green technologies are slow to take hold in old cities: it is much more feasible to incorporate green technologies into new infrastructures from the start than it is to retrofit old ones. For most buildings and houses, the cost of major remodeling with an already expensive technology is prohibitive. Panasonic’s “ground up” idea is a great one, but the world needs something better. I don’t think New York is going to be rebuilt anytime soon.

[image credit: Panasonic]

image: Fujisawa SST
video: Fujisawa SST