Minding the Borderlands

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

Weekly Links, February 12, 2008

Generally, I try to post my favorite links at the end of the week, either Friday or Saturday, but there were just too many interesting articles these last few days to not share them sooner than normal. So happy reading, as usual. 1.) A Puffed up Red Dragon? Everyone around me keeps saying how mega-large and mega-powerful China is economically. My students often talk about how China is, is in the process, or soon will be the world’s (economic) superpower. But as Times reported in its end of the year edition (“the fragile, superpower”) and as a recent Los Angles Times article writes, we shouldn’t be so hasty about declaring China the next superpower. For example, China’s GDP was recently revised as 40% smaller than predicted, that equals out to about 4 trillion dollars less than the anticipated 10 trillion. While this news is a mixed message for the U.S. economy, it also means that the Chinese people are poorer than hopeful expectations.

2.) The United States is fat—statistically (and stereotypically, as my French students often remark). The causes of the rising levels of obesity are economical “from air-conditioning to restaurant portions,” according to E. Finkelstein and L. Zuckerman, who write in their book The Fattening of America. Check out an interview with one of the authors. Here’s just a couple quotes:

*Modern society is giving Americans many more incentives to gain weight than to lose it. We are, in fact, victims of our success as a nation. The two most obvious factors are: 1) the abundance of cheap, tasty foods; and 2) the new technologies that allow us to be increasingly more productive at work and at home while burning fewer calories. For example, between 1980 and 2005, the price of food fell 14 percent relative to non-food items, so it is thus not surprising that we are eating more food. […] The reality is that no matter how we label it, as long as there is a demand for labor saving devices and cheap, tasty food, there will be a significant obesity problem. The United States has the most advanced economy in the world, so we saw the obesity spike first, but other nations are quickly catching up. Of course, even in this obesity-inducing environment, many people are finding ways to stay thin and, given the large profit motive, companies are working hard to help people do so. As a result, I find it hard to believe that obesity rates could ever reach the dire levels that some have predicted. In fact, recent evidence suggests that obesity rates may be slowing among adults. *


*I see more similarities between obesity and motorcycle helmet laws. If someone wants to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, and take the risk of getting into an accident that would almost surely result in a major trauma, why do we really care? I think the answer is that we don’t want our hard-earned tax dollars to pay for this individual’s “poor” choice. It really boils down to money, and the fact that we live in a society that would not allow this person to bleed out in spite of the fact that he or she knowingly made a choice that made a major injury far more likely. So, to solve this problem, and because those who ride motorcycles are in the minority, we pass mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. *

3.) For Pro-Lifers, abortion remains the central target, but their attention is starting to focus more on “a tiny, undeveloped ball of cells” called stem cells, which many scientists claim could save many lives. Traditionally, pro-life arguments center on a defense of personhood. A recent book entitle Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, authors Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen claim that to be human is not to have a “soul” but: “To be a complete human organism, an entity must possess a developmental program (including both its DNA and epigenetic factors) oriented toward developing a brain and central nervous system.” This self-contained genetic program, as we all know scientifically, will lead to a human person if everything goes well environmentally. But these authors want to trace back person to the program itself with no line between these cells and a certain quality of a lived and meaningful life or personhood. Check out this review at the New York Times.

4.) Expérience à l’épreuve de la science. In an article from ScienceNOW, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his fellow neuroscientists have recently confirmed what readers of Merleau-Ponty (and Heidegger) already understood on a phenomenological level, namely that tool usage is integral part of a biological or living experience of the body and the mind. Specifically, it has been shown by previous research that an area of the brain called F5 “fired” in relation to the hand’s grasping of an object. But using a tool is something else more complex because tool use means manipulating a tool through the meeting of hand and the tool in order to manipulate another object. Rizzolatti and his team:

*recorded brain activity in two macaque monkeys. Each was trained for 6 to 8 months to grasp items of food with pliers. The team documented the activity of 113 neurons in F5 and in a brain area called F1, which has also been implicated in the manipulation of objects. The researchers first established the brain’s firing sequence when the monkeys grasped only with their hands. The experiment was then repeated while the monkeys used normal pliers that required first opening the hand and then closing it to grasp the food. The same neurons fired in the same order. Remarkably, the same neurons also fired, in the same order, when the monkeys used “reverse pliers” that required them to close their fingers first and then open them to take the food […] *

*Rizzolatti and his co-workers conclude that when learning to use a tool, the pattern of neuronal activity is somehow transferred from the hand to the tool, “as if the tool were the hand of the monkey and its tips were the monkey’s fingers.” As for how the same neurons could affect both the opening and the closing of the hand, the team speculates that they may be connected with other sets of neurons that more directly control these movements. The authors also point out that area F5 is rich in so-called mirror neurons, a type of nerve cell discovered earlier by Rizzolatti that fires both when a primate performs an action and when it observes another individual doing the same thing (ScienceNOW, 13 July 2007). Mirror neurons in F5, the authors suggest, may be involved in this transfer process as a monkey learns how to use a tool by watching others. *

*The findings “fairly clearly show that monkey tool use involves the incorporation of tools into the body schema, literally as extensions of the body,” says Dietrich Stout, an archaeologist specializing in tool use at University College London. Scott Frey, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, Eugene, says that in humans, this ability to represent tools in the brain, combined with a capacity for innovation, “was no doubt a fundamental step in the development of technology.” *

5.) Violence in Fudge Sundaes? Tranquility through vitamins? A recent study has been launched to further study the effects of dietary habits and violent/criminal behavior. One scientists in the Oxford study says:

*”Our initial findings indicated that improving what people eat could lead them to behave more sociably as well as improving their health. This is not an area currently considered in standards of dietary adequacy. We are not saying nutrition is the only influence on behaviour but we seem to have seriously underestimated its importance.” *

The theory behind the trial is that when the brain is starved of essential nutrients, especially omega-3 fatty acids, which are a central building block of brain neurons, it loses “flexibility”. This shortens attention spans and undermines self-control. Even though prison food is nutritious, prisoners tend to make unhealthy choices and need supplements, the researchers say.

6.) The Bush Administration has recent launched a plan to “globally” boost the American economy, which seems to be bordering on a recession. At the same time though, no additional pressure has been implemented to improve the food stamp program, a program aimed at the low income groups most affected by these economic changes, because as many would say (or think to themselves), giving more money to the poor will only lead to increased obesity. This is a dangerous and false claim, both on an empirical as well as even on a logical level, because as we all know, the root cause is cheap, junk food (not the types of people eating it). And it seems to me everyone is eating this stuff.

7.) Simple solutions in simplistic models can, as any pessimistic realist knows, lead to unintended consequences in our complex, sans-model real world. See three examples of this idea in Law of Unintended Consequences by the authors of Freakonomics.

8.) Myth Buster: Against popular opinion, it’s not true that people use only 10% of their brains. In fact, the average human brain, which only weighs about 3 pounds or about 3% of total body weight, uses over 20% of human energy.

9.) More and more disciplines are coming under the guise of the neurological. The most recent that I’ve learned about (but has existed apparently for over 10 years) is Neuroeconomics, meaning studying the chemistry of the brain in relation to how someone (namely, “I”) makes business decisions and take risks, and, furthermore, how to predict behavior. Traditional economists remain skeptical, because functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, the core tool of neurological studies, measures how oxygen-rich blood flows to activated regions while real decision are made in split seconds, such that blood flow is after the decision was made. In any case, neurology is intended to help us understand better the cerebral activities in our motivations and our actions in business situations (Something economic theory cannot by itself investigate.). For a taste of neuroeconomics, check out this piece dealing with the neurological activities associated with gambling.

Quote of the Week:

Homo liber nulla de re minus quam de morte cogitat; et ejus sapientia non mortis sed vitae meditatio est.

(There is nothing over which a free man ponders less than death; his wisdom is, to meditate not on death but on life.)

  • SPINOZA’S Ethics, Pt IV, Prop. 67