Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Post Lecture Recap: Future of the Brain

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for the latest Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Cognitive Scientist Dr Gary Marcus of NYU.

Dr Marcus began his lecture by displaying President George H. W. Bush's 1990 Proclamation 6158, declaring the "decade of the brain". He then noted that, sadly, little has been done to follow up on this lofty declaration. Twenty-four years after the proclamation of the "decade of the brain", we still can't reliably use brain scans to diagnose such mental illnesses as autism and schizophrenia.

Regarding the biology of the brain, there are many unknowns, the basis of short-term memory, the full role of Broca's area, the mechanisms behind the brain's ability to process sentences- all are unknown. How does the brain "decide" which part performs which functions? What changes to the brain are made in the formation of long-term memories? Is the brain "analog" or "digital"? Can we even abstract brain function?

There is no serious Theory of Brain, despite the fact that a lot of researchers are doing a lot of research on various related topics. Regarding the development of Artificial Intelligence, Dr Marcus quipped that it is always "20 years in the future", whereupon some bastard in the audience likened it to workable fusion power. The core problems of AI remain unsolved: machine reading is stuck at a 4th grade "D" level, sketch understanding is extremely limited, there is no genine language understanding, there is no "common sense" reasoning. Despite the advances that have been made, there is not a lot of real progress.

Regarding the lack of progress in the development of artificial intelligence, Dr Marcus joked that there is a misguided search for "silver bullets", but there are no "three laws to put on a T-shirt". He then catalogued some of of the various models that were put forth- Parallel Distributed Processing, Neural Networks... the model that is currently generating excitement is Deep Learning. Dr Marcus noted that it is easy to fool "deep learning" systems- if an artificial intelligence is trained to recognize one thousand items, item number one thousand and one will stymie it. Such is system is limited, it only functions within a "closed world".

Whole brain emulation, while seemingly a great idea in the long term, is unrealistic in the short term- scientists currently can't model the 302 neurons in a worm's brain, much less the 86 billion neurons in a human brain. The quest for a single "Canonical Cortical Computation" model is in its early stages- a single common principle is hoped for.

Regarding the structure of the brain, even though there are considerable differences in the various parts of the brain, scans of these areas appear to be similar. There is no satisfactory account for what a "canonical circuit" might be- Dr Marcus quoted noted scientist Bono, we "still haven't found what we're looking for". There is no reason to think the brain is simple- complexity is found at every scale.

Dr Marcus prefaced the next part of the lecture with a quote from pioneering neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal:

Unfortunately, nature seems unaware of our intellectual need for convenience and unity, and very often takes delight in complication and diversity.

He likened evolution to a tinkerer, fiddling around with spare parts- it is difficult to reconcile a canonical circuit model with developmental, molecular, or evolutionary biology... the biology of the brain is haphazard. The traditional view of the brain, proposed by the visual cortex researchers Hubel and Wiesel, is one of a hierarchy of features. In a simple visual system, cells would differentiate between light and dark, with more complexity, a simple line could be distinguished, eventually, a right angle would be perceived. In reality, single neurons can be stimulated by very specific visual input- the infamous Jennifer Aniston neuron.

The lecture then shifted to the topic of making brain maps. Dr Marcus opined that neuroscience has a sorry history of attempting to explain the brain using metaphors drawn from the latest technology. The brain is not a hydraulic system, nor is it a hologram, nor a computer- one cannot download a brain app. The brain performs as many "devices" acting at the same time.

The computation that occurs in the brain is massively parallel- the brain is not subject to the limitations of Von Neumann architecture, it is probably more like a Field Programmable Gate Array in which many blocks can be configured to do different things. Although the structure appears homogenous on a superficial level, it is customizable in order to perform many tasks. While the anatomy of the brain is fairly uniform, the brain is "tuned" by experience- "nurture" is an important factor in brain structure. There is a lot of parallel "architecture" in the brain to integrate the many "computational blocks" needed to perform the brain's myriad functions.

Gene expression differs across the cerebral cortex, but the closer two parts of the brain are to each other, the more closely they configure- there is no grand principle of the brain, there is variation across the brain. Evolution reconfigures its toolkit over time. If synthetic biology progresses to the point in which a synthetic brain can be "wired" according to code, the computational blocks could be configured in customizable ways.

Once again, the Secret Science Club delivered a fantastic lecture. In the Q&A, some bastard in the audience brought up the subject of plasticity in the brain, and Dr Marcus reiterated the importance of experience "tuning" the brain. For a taste of the Secret Science Club experience, here's a video featuring Dr Marcus:

Pour yourself a libation and drink in the SCIENCE!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Two Years, No Progress

It's been two years since the massacre of twenty little children and six educators in Newton, Connecticut. I was really hit hard by the massacre- the children who were killed were as old as the youngest children I coach on Saturdays. Yesterday, we had our annual luncheon before our two-week break, so I was surrounded by kids all day. Over the years, we've lost a couple of the kids I coached... one mischievous-but-lovable teenager succumbed overnight to a sudden outbreak of pericardial inflammation- the last time I saw him alive, I "ripped him a new one" when I caught him smoking in front of his younger cousin, who is now a stunningly gorgeous woman who is helping with the administrative duties necessary to run the program. We lost another participant to lung cancer brought on by the toxic cloud produced by the destruction of the Twin Towers- his daughter, who was a babe-in-arms when her father died, is now an adorable, earnest five year old participant. A former athletic director was unable to attend- he is fighting a terminal brain tumor. When you have history with people, you have loss. You remember the fallen fondly, and lend emotional support to the survivors.

The real tragedy is that, two years after the massacre, there have been ninety-five school shootings, and nothing has been done to institute a national gun policy involving background checks prior to gun purchases. Nothing's going to get done- the fearmongering about confiscation of guns is too effective a political issue.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Swiss Degrees of Separation

Today, a new sensei joined our ranks for our kids' judo classes. On hearing that our new colleague was from Switzerland, I asked him from which of the cantons of the Confoederatio Helvetica he hailed, he told me that he was from Zürich. I mentioned that my brother Sweetums and his family lived in the town of _____, a lovely suburb of Zürich, whereupon my new Swiss friend said that he grew up in that town, and gave Zürich as his origin in order not to confuse people... much like I tell people who from out of the area that I am from "New York", even though I live three blocks north of the Bronx border- if pressed, I can tell them I live in the Greater Woodlawn neighborhood, on the Yonkers side of the border.

Of course, finding out that he was from the town in which my brother is living, I mentioned that I had visited his home dojo so I could watch my nephews' classes. Of course, the boys' sensei is a good friend of his. When I was in Switzerland, I had a great conversation with their sensei, in which we discussed the international nature of the sport, the shared experiences and vocabulary of the community, and the importance of ethics and empathy in a sport in which we engage in potentially dangerous activity. I was elated to meet another friend from this beautiful judo club.

It's funny how you can travel far away from home and have experiences which "echo" in your home life. It just goes to show you that, no matter where you are, you have to comport yourself in a decent fashion, because you never know when you'll run into someone who knows someone you've run into.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Space Race

Once again, I find myself pressed for time, so I'm putting up a post which I've expanded from a comment I left

Earlier this month, there was a nerd-kerfuffle over the casting of an actor of African descent as a "Star Wars" Imperial Stormtrooper. I believe there's a significant amount of racism in the nontroversy, but I'd apportion most of the blame to simple nerdrage over an alteration of "canon". For the "Comic Book Guy" contingent, a simple deviation from their interpretation can inflame passions that "mundanes" can't understand:

Some Star Wars fans were upset that Boyega was apparently cast to play a Stormtrooper. These fans claimed that Stormtroopers were clones of Jango Fett, and since Fett wasn’t black, no Stormtroopers should be. There is only a black Stormtrooper because of “political correctness,” they lamented.

Despite the fact that "Star Wars" is fiction, I'll play along with the canon-trolls... In the fictional milieu of the "Star Wars" saga, the original Stormtroopers are, indeed, clones of the Jango Fett character. In the course of the movies, these clones exhibit such poor marksmanship that they are the "trope namers" for bad shots. Even the "higher quality" clone, the bounty hunter Boba Fett, was an incompetent boob who was killed by a blind man and George Lucas' vagina dentata anxiety. Given the poor performance of these clones, the Empire must have made the decision to recruit competent individuals in a bid for its very survival, so the ranks of the military would eventually be filled by individuals of all races, from all planets (except for critters like this which couldn't be equipped with helmets). Of course, these new merit-based hiring practices weren't put into place in time to save the Empire.

The people complaining that there's a black Stormtrooper (of course, this assumes that the character isn't in disguise) are the same sort of people who whine about affirmative-action subverting the meritocracy when a qualified minority candidate is hired instead of the boss' golfing-buddy's "gentleman's C" earning frathole son.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tokyo, Memphis... I Believe You've Met

This is a busy week for me- I have to attend some classes for certification necessary for my job. This is a perfect time to fall back on the "post a video" gambit... and have I got a video for you! Back in 1992, Kiyoshiro Imawano, the father of Fuji rock, toured Japan with Booker T. and the M.G.'s, the legendary Stax Records house band:

Besides showcasing the musical virtuosity of Booker T. and the M.G.'s and the inimitable showmanship of Kiyoshiro, the video features Booker T. Jones, the master of the instrumental, singing- he has a rich voice that should have been featured on more recordings. On a sad note, Kiyoshiro and Duck Dunn of the M.G.'s are no longer with us. Booker T. Jones is still going strong. Back in 2009, Mr Jones played a memorial concert for Kiyoshiro during the Fuji Rock festival.

The video is a lot of fun- it features a flamboyant frontman backed by one of the greatest backup bands in the history of popular music. Tokyo met Memphis, and they had a ball!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Violation of the Geneva Fur Conventions!

In a shocking story from the Heartland, a chlorine gas leak disrupted the Midwest FurFest in a hotel in a suburb of Chicago. It is suspected that the chlorine gas leak was intentional:

The manner by which the substance, which was consistent with powdered chlorine, was released “suggests an intentional act,” according the statement from Rosemont police, who are investigating the incident as a criminal matter.

Chlorine gas, which was used extensively in WWI's trench warfare, is now considered a banned substance under the Geneva protocol. The use of this banned substance on the furry community, whose members often wear headgear which may dull their sense of smell or prevent them from hearing alarms, might represent a hate crime, verging on a war crime, committed by mundane extremists. The Geneva Conventions should be in effect to protect fur conventions.

The best case scenario, in this ugly incident, is an accidental chlorine gas release by a green dragon otherkin. Should this be the case, better regulation of the more dangerous "kindred" must be implemented to protect the community at large.

UPDATE: If there's anything that can make a horrible event even worse, that thing is coverage on the "Morning Joe" show.

This scene is rather unusual, in that Mika Brzezinski runs off the set after learning what "furries" are- she is a sophisticated, jaded coastal elite type, so I doubt that a mere paraphilia, no matter how outré, would phase her. I believe she is running off the set so she can jet out to Chicago to join the furries, now that she can put a label to the yearning which has always been in her heart. I imagine her "fursona" is a golden jackal. Also, please note that, at the 32-second mark, there is a green dragon present in the crowd. I believe that this individual is a dragon of interest and have alerted the authorities, namely St George and King Pellinore.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Right-Wing Hive Ass, Pooping Out Talking Points

I've long maintained that the American right doesn't have a hive-mind, it has a hive-ass from which it pulls out bullshit talking points. The current crop of crap is the assertion that Eric Garner's death can be blamed on high cigarette taxes, not a chokehold forbidden to police officers. The usual suspects, such as repulsive Rush, crackpot Rand Paul, ghoulish Ann Coulter, idiotic Jonah Goldberg and most likely your goofball right-wing uncle/cousin/in-law, are all poop-parroting.

I imagine that Jon Stewart will have quite the montage of right-wing creeps spouting this nonsense about "liberals" and the "nanny-state" cigarette taxes being responsible, never mind what the goddamn video tape shows. The crazy thing is that the mainstream media won't be calling any of them out about their patent-falsehoods.

UPDATE: Tengrain has this covered!