Thursday, December 31, 2009

How we read?

Every moment of awareness is a pile of interpretations all insuperposition. A single state of mind is layered with harmonics of meaning - yet somehow remains one experience - Susan Blackmore

Reading and understanding language is a skill that most people take for granted. Processing language in the brain is very complex and entails many variables. Most language is processed in the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere processes visual and motor activities - States Stanislas Dehaene.

"When we look at a text photons are bouncing off those black squiggles and lines -- the letters in the particular sentence -- and colliding with a thin wall of flesh at the back of your eyeball. The photons contain just enough energy to activate sensory neurons, each of which is responsible for a particular plot of visual space on the hole image. The end result is that, as you stare at the letters, they become more than mere marks on a page. You begin to read "- Says .

Interesting Facts:
  • Seeing the letters is just the start of the reading process. Although our eyes are focused on the letters, we learn to ignore them. Instead, we perceive whole words, chunks of meaning. Once we become proficient at reading, the precise shape of the letters -- not to mention the arbitrariness of the spelling -- doesn't even matter, which is why we read word, WORD, and WoRd the same way.
  • Until now most assumed that when we read both eyes look at the same letter of a word concurrently. But it was found that our eyes look at different letters in the same word and then combine the different images through a process known as fusion. We were able to clearly show that we experience a single, very clear and crisp visual representation due to the merging of the two different images from each eye.
  • Language tends to be stored in the brain to be processed in audio format, so besides reading the text we automatically convert it to speach in our own heads. After that the process of making sense takes place.
  • Studies have shown that when a word is checked against the storehouse of words in the brain - whether it is a written word or a word-sound - only the main part of the word is checked first, and then the ending is processed separately. For example, 'sing', 'singing' and 'singer' would all be checked against the base word 'sing'.
  • Once we recognized the printed words we need to make sense out of them. Understanding how meaning arises from those words is of the most challenging tasks in cognitive sciences.
  • More on making sense and meanings can be found here and here.
  • There is an onging debate whether the new kind of reading experience provided by internet is benefitial or not. Some interesting articles are worth exploring: Is google making us stupid and How is google making us smarter. It would be interesting to incorporate the last scientific findings about how or brain reads in order to draw new and more accurate conclusions.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Greed is out, Empathy is in

When people do evil things, such as when they commit
genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda, we call them "animals." If
people do altruistic things, such as when they save another's
life or give generously to the poor, we attribute this to our
noble human morality. We call them "humane."

Based on his fieldwork and research on chimpanzees, bonobos, and capuchins Doctor Frans de Wall
said - "many animals are predisposed to take care of one another and come to other beings aid. Their strong similarity to human biology suggests that every person is destined to care for others.

"To effectively learn from others, apes need to see an actual fellow ape: Imitation requires identification with a body of flesh and blood. Recently we are beginning to realize how much human and animal cognition runs via the body. The body produces internal sensations and communicates with other bodies that construct social connections and an appreciation of the surrounding reality." - Waal stated.

Empathy is an automatic response, as old as mammalian maternal care. Mothers and children play games of clapping each other’s hands following a certain rhythm. These games involve imitating the other and synchronization among the two.

We are far from being isolated , indeed we are strongly interconnected, trough our bodies and emotions at a very high level. This might sound odd in the West, with it's tradition of individuality. Nevertheless Homo sapiens tends to be easily swayed in one emotional direction or another depending on his peers.

Waal thinks - "humans can be described as animals that need to work to keep selfish and aggressive urges under control, but also as animals that can engage in cooperative work. They are among the most aggressive primates, but they can also relate to each other properly. Many economists and politicians model human society based on the aggressive instincts mentioned before, even dough survival through cooperation is a frequent scenery. This suggests that there is a long evolutionary history of compromise and peaceful coexistence. It seems empathy is part of the survival package; human society depends on it as much as animal communities".

"The way our bodies—including mood, posture, and so on—are influenced by surrounding bodies is one of the mysteries of human existence. It’s also one of the most underestimated phenomena, especially in disciplines that consider humans as rational decision makers. Rather than individually weighing the pros and cons of our own actions, we occupy nodes within a tight network that connects all of us in both body and mind ". - Concluded Waal.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Narrative and Self Construction

Self-awareness can be thought as the to the capacity to become the object of one’s own attention where the individual actively identifies, processes, and stores information about the self. It includes the end result of this processing and the recopilation of—self-knowledge. It involves attention paid to one’s own mental states (such as perceptions, sensations, attitudes, intentions and emotions) and public self-characteristics (which include behaviors and general physical appearance).

According to Jonathan Adler "one of the most important and least recognized features of the human mind is inner speech which is sometimes refered to as self-talk". In adults, self-talk is described as "thinking" or “reflection”. Self-talk is a continuous narrative feature of the mind. We often "think" things silently to ourselves - have the conscious experience of having a certain thought. We also silently "say" things to ourselves trough our inner speech.

Inner speech facilitates self-awarnes because it creates a psychological distance between the self and the mental events it experiences—which facilitates self-observation— it can act as a problem-solving devise where the self represents the problem and self-information the solution, and can label aspects of one’s inner life that would otherwise be difficult to objectively perceive.

"Self-talk (thought) begins in children learning language, connecting words to their experiences and actions. Language skills develop slowly in a predetermined sequence that requires daily practice. The meaning of words and sentences develops as sounds are linked to experiences in real time. Children will talk to themselves as they play and learn. Their monologues begin with repeating words and statements they copy and extend to problem-solving and creative narratives that expand the range of linguistic ability." - explained Stephen Gislason.

Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative which is baed on inner speach. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list. According to Harlene Anderson's the most influential/relevant component on the self is the narrative; The following propositions are based on her assumptions:

  • The self is formed, informed and reformed through story telling.
  • Therefore the self is a dynamic mosaic, a cloth woven of stories told - reader & writer of own lives.
  • An on-going self & other multi-faceted biography which is constructed, reconstructed through interaction & relationship (a being & becoming through language).
  • As humans we are interpretive beings.
  • We seek to make sense of daily experiences.
  • The stories we have about our lives are created by linking together certain events in a particular sequence across a certain time period and explain or make sense of them (plot).
  • Talk is action - “I” telling self and others who we are, where we come from and where we going.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is information Physical?

"Information is inevitably tied to a physical representation. It can be carved on stone tablets, marked by a spin up or down, a hole punched in a card, or many other alternative physical phenomena. It is not just an abstract entity; it does not exist except through a physical embodiment. It is, therefore, tied to the laws of physics and the parts available to us in our real physical universe".- Rolf Landauer

According to Brian Hayes "There is a distinction between representation of information and information itself but both of these have always a physical form. Somehow, this increase of physical representations for information does not strengthen the conviction that information is subordinate to its physical representation. When we can write the same message in so many forms–everything from lines in the sand to holograms–the message itself begins to seem just as substantial as the physical medium, and perhaps more enduring".

The fact that the process of copying the bits of information is easier than capturing them, leads us to an argument from Rolf: "we can represent information in many physical forms: as packets of electric charge, as base pairs in a DNA molecule, as beads on an abacus. When we build machinery to process this information, we can also choose among many different computing technologies such as valves, transistors or even neurons".

We use numbers as representations of quantities, they are not pure information whatever that means. They make a reference to some quantity in a mind of an observer and that relation constitutes the information - the match between a physical instance of a symbol and the observers ability to connect that symbol to a certain quantity.

Some mathematical philosophy schools (Realists, Platonists and intuitionists) believed that mathematical concepts and propositions have meanings, and when we formalize the language of mathematics, these meanings are meant to be reflected in a more precise and more concise form. But according to the formalist school understanding mathematical object has no meaning; implying that all we have are marks and rules governing how these marks can be combined.

Haynes points at the fact that "There is a tendency to think of mathematics as a tool which somehow existed before and outside of our physical world. Mathematics, in turn, allowed the formulation of physical laws which then run the world. Nevertheless we emphasize that information handling has to be done in the real physical world, and the laws of physics exist as instructions for information handling in that real world. It, therefore, makes no sense to invoke operations, in the laws of physics, which are not executable, at least in principle, in our real physical world".

Here are two interesting riddles for you to think about:
  • How do you distinguish the concrete from the abstract when the word “concrete” is in fact an abstract concept? Or how do you distinguish the physical from the nonphysical with the nature of the word “physical” is in fact nonphysical?
  • How can we ask--not to mention answer--the question “What is information?” when the question itself is, in fact, pure information? - Bertrand Russell

Friday, December 4, 2009

No need to pay

According to Tom Foremski, as much as we complain about how expensive things are getting, we're surrounded by forces that are making them cheaper. Forty years ago, the principal nutritional problem in America was hunger; now it's obesity, for which we have the Green Revolution to thank. Forty years ago, charity was dominated by clothing drives for the poor. Now you can get a T-shirt for less than the price of a cup of coffee Also for toys, gadgets, and commodities of every sort. Even cocaine has pretty much never been cheaper (globalization works in mysterious ways).

It seems to be accurate the notion that Internet devalues everything it touches. Anything that can be converted or made digital. You should notice that we use the word devalue with a materialistic connotation and not in the cultural value sense and that we use the word internet to refer to a class of distributed technologies and applications. The truth is that as you take the friction out of the economic system pricing goes down; Internet remains the ultimate economic lubricant.

Internet made possible the following devaluations:

  • The price of a 10 song CD was around $20. Now If you use you can pay 10 cents per song for lifetime streaming rights.
  • The money spend on buying software application was possible to reduce due to the large percentage of or nearly free applications available online. This trend is likely to continue. Given that companies like Google plan to buy software companies and then offer those products online for free — this instantly devalues competing software applications.
  • Telephone communications are much cheaper today thanks to services such as Skype and other VOIP based products. It used to cost $2 a minute to make a transatlantic telephone call but now it’s only about 5 cents.
  • Public relations are being devalued because now fewer people can do the work of more people than before and small teams can do the work of the previously used large teams.

Internet allowed depriving from monetary value products and services such as:

  • Music by offering it for free (which ended up being really successful for musicians such as Trent Reznor, and the Radiohead band members).
  • Online games can be played for free because parts of the gaming industry are ad-supported.
  • Some newspapers like "The New York Times" since the year 2007 can be read for free (This reminds me of an aphorism from 1984: "Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive ... That tension will not go away.")

According to Chris Anderson, the fact that money is not the only scarcity in the world becomes evident now. Chief among the others are your time and respect, two factors that we've always known about but have only recently been able to measure properly. The "attention economy" and "reputation economy" are too fuzzy to merit an academic department, but there's something real at the heart of both. Thanks to Google, we now have a handy way to convert from reputation (PageRank) to attention (traffic) to money (ads). Anything you can consistently convert to cash is a form of currency itself, and Google plays the role of central banker for these new economies.

There is, presumably, a limited supply of reputation and attention in the world at any point in time. These are the new scarcities — and the world of free exists mostly to acquire these valuable assets for the sake of a business model to be identified later. Free shifts the economy from a focus on only that which can be quantified in dollars and cents to a more realistic accounting of all the things we truly value today.