Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, January 26, 2008

The internet, as I’ve said repeatedly of late, is a rather big place. But not all information should or can be valued as equally important. Nor should all information that passes through our hands, ears, and listening eyes be passed on to other readers. As such, in spite of the grandiose quality and quantity to the internet and digital information, current news and information must be filtered and shared accordingly. I’m not really entirely sure what the criteria of my selection should be. But for now, I’d at least like to share what I found this week. So, without further ado, here are this week’s interesting and important links:

1.) An Eye for Sexual Orientation (Science NOW Daily News, 18 January 2008):

Ambady and colleague Nicholas Rule, both at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, wondered about sexual orientation. They showed men and women photos of 90 faces belonging to homosexual men and heterosexual men for intervals ranging from 33 milliseconds to 10 seconds. When given 100 milliseconds or more to view a face, participants correctly identified sexual orientation nearly 70% of the time. Volunteers were less accurate at shorter durations, and their accuracy did not get better at durations beyond 100 milliseconds, the team reports in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “What is most interesting is that increased exposure time did not improve the results,” says Ambady.

2.) New Findings Confirm Darwin’s Theory: Evolution Not Random

To settle the question about whether evolution is deterministic or random, the researchers used various tools – including DNA strand analysis and electronic microscopy – to study female sexual organ development in 51 species of nematode, a type of worm commonly used to better understand evolutionary processes.

When the researchers measured changes in 40 defined characteristics of the nematodes’ sexual organs (including cell division patterns and the formation of specific cells), they found that most were uniform in direction, with the main mechanism for the development favoring a natural selection of successful traits, the researchers said.

“Since random development would not create such unifying trends, we concluded that the observed development was deterministic, not random,” said Professor Benjamin Podbilewicz from the Technion Faculty of Biology.

3.) Singapore’s Health Care System – There is a constant debate with Democrats in the U.S. about creating a system of universal health care. While the majority of the debate turns on a certain moral argument claiming that everyone deserves “affordable health care,” much still needs to be thought on the practical and economic side such that our current health care system can be become more efficient and, as such, less expensive. There are a number of models outside the U.S. (for example, France’s socialized medical system) that the United States should study in order to create an affective, efficient, ethic and economically feasible universal health care system, which remains competitive in medical research.

4.) Discovery of a new enzyme that helps regulate blood flow to neurons

5.) MIT’s Open Coursework – This site by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides anyone who has the internet and a PDF reader with the opportunity to a vast wealth of its previous courses. You can “take” any of its more than 1800 courses. I’m currently reading a course on Moral Psychology as well as intending to work through a class on Basic Chinese. Good stuff.

6.) After becoming one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world (peaking in 1990 with 2,245 homicides), New York City implemented an aggressive program to attempt to decrease crime and, in particular, murder. Recently, NYC’s murder rate for 2007 dropped below 500. But the question remains: Can this murder rate be decreased to zero? Most people including NYC’s police chief would skeptically say, No! Outside of a massive exodus from the city, they claim, homicides will continue in our society. New York magazine explores a number of scenarios and hypothetical answers to the question: What would it take to get New York City’s Murder Rate to Zero?

One particularly interesting and chilling thing to note is the description of the angry, violent, and potentially murderous brain:

*Guido Frank, a child psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, Denver, has already been using brain-imaging technology to peer inside the brains of a small group of aggressive teenagers to isolate the causes of violent behavior. *

Back when murder was peaking in New York, some brain scientists believed that biology soon would be able to identify “a violence gene.” Though that quest proved quixotic, subsequent findings have largely confirmed that particular physical and physiological characteristics of the brain, some genetic, are common to individuals predisposed to violence. The intriguing twist is that “criminal” thought patterns only emerge in such brains if they’ve been ill fed both by damaging individual experiences and by the surrounding culture. Neurology is now all but saying, in other words, that both childhood abuse and Hollywood shoot-’em-ups really do matter when it comes to a society’s level of violence.

Frank has focused on five teenagers in whom the damage of life experiences has already been done, and the consistency of his findings has been startling. Three separate segments of the brain functioned abnormally when these participants were asked to perform particular tasks. When the teenagers were shown images of angry faces, the amygdala, which registers threats, became overactivated, while the ventral striatum, the brain’s reward center, lit up much as it would after sex or a bite of chocolate. “These kids may get some pleasure out of aggressive responses,” Frank says. In a separate test, the prefrontal cortex, the segment of the brain that moderates impulses, responded feebly to control emotional responses.

7.) As one writer in Political Animals (New York Times, Jan. 22, 2008) so accurately said recently, “there are a number of nonhuman animals that behave like textbook politicians.” And perhaps by coming to look more closely at these behavioral and cultural similarities (and differences) between non-human and human animals and by accepting what they have to say about all political organizing, we can further understand ourselves and better and more ethically treat and deal with all animals. The examples and details in this article are very fascinating stuff.

8.) The Edge asked a bunch of scientists and intellectuals the following question: What have you changed your mind about? Why? The responses are really interesting and merit a look, if not some reflection. I’m currently in the process of reading so hopefully I’ll be able to post some of my favorite excerpts soon. Caring is sharing, no?

Quote of the Week:

“Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”

  • H. L. Mencken