Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Back with a Vengeance

Summer is upon us (and by us, I mean me), which means slightly more time for this little adventure I like to call NeoCorTEXT.

As previously blogged about, I have begun reading Who Is Man? by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I highly recommend it. It is a short work that is a collection of his talks given at the Raymond Fred West Memorial Lectures at Stanford University in 1963.

Here are some quotations from Part I that resonate with me:

"The animality of man we can grasp with a fair degree of clarity. The perplexity begins when we attempt to make clear what is meant by the humanity of man."

"He knows that something is meant by what he is, by what he does, but he remains perplexed when called upon to interpret his own being."

"Man was, is, and will always remain a beast, and nothing beastly is alien to him. And yet such an epigram, though rationally plausible, is intuitively repulsive."

Here is where it has direct applications to what I see as my future research:

" has become man by acts of culture, by changing his natural state."

"One's relationship to the self is inconceivable without the possession of certain standards or preferences of value."

"...the problem of man is occasioned by our coming upon a conflict or contradiction between existence and expectation.

and finally: "How shall we articulate exactly what is sensed by us vaguely?"

Now this was only Part I - the introduction to the lectures - where Heschel introduces all the problems and questions. Because it's Heschel, God will enter into the solution somewhere, but it isn't clear yet how or in what way.
However, I believe that neuroscientists today are asking the same questions that Heschel asked nearly fifty years ago: "How shall we articulate exactly what is sensed by us vaguely?" People have a sense that they are somehow different from other animals. Many would say that culture is a key difference. I would say (and this echoes Heschel) that what sets humans apart - what makes humans human - is the ability to assign value to behavior. We don't merely engage in self-observation, we engage in self-judgement. Animals can perceive their position in physical space; humans can perceive their position in "moral space." The question I'd like to ask is: how does the brain engage in this sort of moral perception? How does the human brain make moral decisions? How do we teach morals to our children, and how did we learn them from our parents and teachers?

My motivation here may at first seem confusing: I am (currently) doing research on reading. I'm asking questions about how reading skill is built up in the brain, and how the environment contributes to it. This is analogous: How is moral decision-making skill built up in the brain? How does the environment (e.g. culture, education) contribute to our development of values? There must be similar underlying processes at the biological level. Many schools and camps and whatnot say that they provide a "values education." I'd like to prove it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


The thing about friendships is that they take work. You don't just wake up one morning, and be like "I think I'll be friends with X." You have to take some time to figure out what are the things that X loves and hates. When you do something to annoy X, X needs to tell you explicitly what it was, what you could have done differently, etc - playing an elaborate game of trial and error is a waste of everyone's time and energy. If X is not willing to put a little effort into building a meaningful friendship, then despite what he or she says, he or she probably isn't truly interested in the friendship in the first place.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


The buzz on today's front page at scienceblogs:

Sixty-four measles cases were reported in the U.S. from January 1 to April 25, the highest since 2001, according to a CDC report released Thursday. Health officials traced most of those to children who were not vaccinated for religious or philosophical reasons.

This reminds me of an old joke: A man is in a little boat fishing when his motor dies, and he is left in the middle of the open ocean. The first day another fisherman spots him and comes by, and he offers his assistance. He refuses, saying "God will save me." The second day, a tanker comes by and the crew offer their assistance, and again the man refuses, saying "God will save me." The third day, a coast guard helicopter spots him, and the pilot gets on the loudspeaker and offers his help, but the man shouts up to the pilot that "God will save [him]." Finally, on the fourth day, the man is weak, hungry, thirsty, and very tired. Suddenly, the clouds open and golden light spills down and surrounds the man and his boat. A booming voice echoes from the heavens, and the man asks God, "what took you so long? I've been out here for three days!" God responded: "I sent you a boat, a tanker, a helicopter..."

Point is, if you choose to believe in God (or any other supernatural power), you'll not hear an argument from me. But don't be stupid.

Oh, and there is no proof that the MMR vaccine causes autism or autism spectrum disorder. (

Friday, April 25, 2008

Firefox Tab Dump

Despite the somewhat dirty sounding title, here is a roundup of tabs that have been open on my Firefox browser the last week or so:

1. Gmail Blog: Gmail changed my life. Seriously. For those of you who have gmail but have not yet harnessed or experienced the entirety of the G-magic, read about the newest features here. I check this blog regularly, as well as its parent blog, the Googleblog.

2. Abraham Joshua Heschel: Short biography of this great Jewish thinker/philosopher/scholar/teacher at the USCJ website. I am eagerly awaiting the delivery of my latest venture into his philosophy, Who Is Man? I'm going to work through it with the outgoing Dean of Religious Life at USC starting after commencement. Works like this offer an interesting counterpoint to the more neuroscientific answers to the question of Who is Man that I spend time reading. What I wouldn't give to witness Rabbi Heschel in dialogue with Antonio Damasio, with whom I am about to start working, on a project looking at the neural basis for empathy.

3. and 4. RGB Color Wheel and RGB List of Palettes: Some references for a neural network model that I am working on, about human color vision for my computational neuroscience class. It's a very very abstract model for color vision, and because I'm a bit more familiar with computer RGB color than with human color vision - though one can be generalized to the other, because of the theory of trichromatic color vision, which has the retina's three types of cones being preferentially sensitive to blue, green, and red wavelengths (i.e. long, medium, and short).

5. Larchmont Grill: Excellent restaurant near Hollywood (not actually in Larchmont Village though). I highly recommend it - great food, cool ambience (it's a converted craftsman-style house). I've been meaning to go there for the Sunday brunch, which sounds amazing. They also have a great room upstairs which can be rented out for private events (which is what I've been there for, now 3 times).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Blog Coma

Apologies to all the (like, three) readers for the relative lack of blog posts in the last month or so. The academic year is winding down, which means my workload is winding up for at least another 3 weeks or so, but I'll try to do better.

In the meantime:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Quotation Stealing

PZ Myers at Pharyngula stole this quote from Mike the Mad Scientist, and I am stealing it from PZ here:

Mike the Mad Biologist wins a gold star for this quote that I'll be stealing:

The other thing we evolutionary biologists don't do enough of, and this stems from the previous point, is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Cunningham, who declared, "Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?"

My response was, "In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him."

Now that is good framing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Earlier this week, Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away at the age of 90. Several months ago, in December, for his 90th birthday, he recorded a sort of message to the world.

His words will do him far greater justice that I could, so here is the transcript of the speech, followed by the Youtube clip of it.

Hello! This is Arthur Clarke, speaking to you from my home in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

As I approach my 90th birthday, my friends are asking how it feels like, to have completed 90 orbits around the Sun.

Well, I actually don't feel a day older than 89!

Of course, some things remind me that I have indeed qualified as a senior citizen. As Bob Hope once said: "You know you're getting old, when the candles cost more than the cake!"

I’m now perfectly happy to step aside and watch how things evolve. But there's also a sad side to living so long: most of my contemporaries and old friends have already departed. However, they have left behind many fond memories, for me to recall.

I now spend a good part of my day dreaming of times past, present and future. As I try to survive on 15 hours’ sleep a day, I have plenty of time to enjoy vivid dreams. Being completely wheel-chaired doesn't stop my mind from roaming the universe – on the contrary!

In my time I’ve been very fortunate to see many of my dreams come true! Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, I never expected to see so much happen in the span of a few decades. We 'space cadets' of the British Interplanetary Society spent all our spare time discussing space travel – but we didn’t imagine that it lay in our own near future…

I still can't quite believe that we've just marked the 50th anniversary of the Space Age! We’ve accomplished a great deal in that time, but the 'Golden Age of Space' is only just beginning. After half a century of government-sponsored efforts, we are now witnessing the emergence of commercial space flight.

Over the next 50 years, thousands of people will travel to Earth orbit – and then, to the Moon and beyond. Space travel – and space tourism – will one day become almost as commonplace as flying to exotic destinations on our own planet.

Things are also changing rapidly in many other areas of science and technology. To give just one example, the world's mobile phone coverage recently passed 50 per cent -- or 3.3 billion subscriptions. This was achieved in just a little over a quarter century since the first cellular network was set up. The mobile phone has revolutionized human communications, and is turning humanity into an endlessly chattering global family!

What does this mean for us as a species?

Communication technologies are necessary, but not sufficient, for us humans to get along with each other. This is why we still have many disputes and conflicts in the world. Technology tools help us to gather and disseminate information, but we also need qualities like tolerance and compassion to achieve greater understanding between peoples and nations.

I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I hope we've learnt something from the most barbaric century in history – the 20th. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalisation…

As I complete 90 orbits, I have no regrets and no more personal ambitions. But if I may be allowed just three wishes, they would be these.

Firstly, I would like to see some evidence of extra-terrestrial life. I have always believed that we are not alone in the universe. But we are still waiting for ETs to call us – or give us some kind of a sign. We have no way of guessing when this might happen – I hope sooner rather than later!

Secondly, I would like to see us kick our current addiction to oil, and adopt clean energy sources. For over a decade, I've been monitoring various new energy experiments, but they have yet to produce commercial scale results. Climate change has now added a new sense of urgency. Our civilisation depends on energy, but we can't allow oil and coal to slowly bake our planet…

The third wish is one closer to home. I’ve been living in Sri Lanka for 50 years – and half that time, I’ve been a sad witness to the bitter conflict that divides my adopted country.

I dearly wish to see lasting peace established in Sri Lanka as soon as possible. But I’m aware that peace cannot just be wished -- it requires a great deal of hard work, courage and persistence.

* * * * *

I’m sometimes asked how I would like to be remembered. I’ve had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer, space promoter and science populariser. Of all these, I want to be remembered most as a writer – one who entertained readers, and, hopefully, stretched their imagination as well.

I find that another English writer -- who, coincidentally, also spent most of his life in the East -- has expressed it very well. So let me end with these words of Rudyard Kipling:
If I have given you delight
by aught that I have done.
Let me lie quiet in that night
which shall be yours anon;

And for the little, little span
the dead are borne in mind,
seek not to question other than,
the books I leave behind.

This is Arthur Clarke, saying Thank You and Goodbye from Colombo!