Minding the Borderlands

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

Weekly Links, April 11, 2008

[![][2]][2] Images this week come from Adams’ ABC Book of Invertebrates (see #3 on the neurology and pathology of creativity). These images display an interesting use of symmetry. I hope it’s sunny where you are, because here it’s been rainy for days. Happy reading.

1.) “The Future is (still) plastics”? Plastics come from petroleum. As a New York Times article Harnessing Biology, and Avoiding Oil, for Chemical Goods brings up:

Much of what you see in there comes from petroleum, too: the plastic dashboard, the foam in the seats. More than a tenth of the world’s oil is spent not on powering engines but as a feedstock for making chemicals that enrich many goods — from cosmetics to cleaners and fabric to automobile parts.

But with environmental questions looming everywhere, a shift is starting towards renewable resources, namely from oil refineries to the hope of biorefineries; oil-based chemicals to biobased chemicals:

In recent years, this unsettling fact has motivated academic researchers and corporations to find ways to make bulk chemicals from renewable sources like corn and switchgrass. The effort to tap biomass for chemicals runs parallel to the higher-stakes research aimed at developing biofuels.

There are several examples in this transition:

One success story is a method developed by DuPont, with Genencor, to ferment corn sugar into a substance called propanediol. Using propanediol as a starting point, DuPont has created a new polymer it calls Cerenol, which it substitutes for petroleum-sourced ingredients in products like auto paints.

As well as:

Similarly, the biotech giant Cargill has begun manufacturing a polymer from vegetable oils that is used in polyurethane foams, which is found in beddings, furniture and car-seat headrests. Cargill says that using the polymer does more than save crude oil and reduce carbon emissions: the foam it produces has a more uniform density and load-bearing capacity.

2.) Choosing the Better Odds. John Tierney has an interesting article up at the NYTimes entitled And Behind Door No. 1, a Fatal Flaw, which looks at a potential logical fallacy brought to light by economist M. Keith Chen in some of the experimentation related to cognitive dissonance and choice rationalization. Researchers have been using the so-called “free-choice paradigm” to attempt to explain how people rationalize their choices, but Chen claims that certain preferences can be merely explained through statistics.
The Monty Hall Problem:

Here’s how Monty’s deal works, in the math problem, anyway. (On the real show it was a bit messier.) He shows you three closed doors, with a car behind one and a goat behind each of the others. If you open the one with the car, you win it. You start by picking a door, but before it’s opened Monty will always open another door to reveal a goat. Then he’ll let you open either remaining door.

Suppose you start by picking Door 1, and Monty opens Door 3 to reveal a goat. Now what should you do? Stick with Door 1 or switch to Door 2?

You should try playing the game first at the TierneyLab. The response is a bit counterintuitive:

Play enough rounds and the best strategy will become clear: You should switch doors.

This answer goes against our intuition that, with two unopened doors left, the odds are 50-50 that the car is behind one of them. But when you stick with Door 1, you’ll win only if your original choice was correct, which happens only 1 in 3 times on average. If you switch, you’ll win whenever your original choice was wrong, which happens 2 out of 3 times.

In a now classic experiment at Yale involving monkeys and their choice of M&Ms:

The Yale psychologists first measured monkeys’ preferences by observing how quickly each monkey sought out different colors of M&Ms. After identifying three colors preferred about equally by a monkey — say, red, blue and green — the researchers gave the monkey a choice between two of them.

If the monkey chose, say, red over blue, it was next given a choice between blue and green. Nearly two-thirds of the time it rejected blue in favor of green, which seemed to jibe with the theory of choice rationalization: Once we reject something, we tell ourselves we never liked it anyway (and thereby spare ourselves the painfully dissonant thought that we made the wrong choice).

But Dr. Chen says that the monkey’s distaste for blue can be completely explained with statistics alone. He says the psychologists wrongly assumed that the monkey began by valuing all three colors equally.

Its relative preferences might have been so slight that they were indiscernible during the preliminary phase of the experiment, Dr. Chen says, but there must have been some tiny differences among its tastes for red, blue and green — some hierarchy of preferences.

If so, then the monkey’s choice of red over blue wasn’t arbitrary. Like Monty Hall’s choice of which door to open to reveal a goat, the monkey’s choice of red over blue discloses information that changes the odds. If you work out the permutations (see illustration), you find that when a monkey favors red over blue, there’s a two-thirds chance that it also started off with a preference for green over blue — which would explain why the monkeys chose green two-thirds of the time in the Yale experiment, Dr. Chen says.

Chen claims that “researchers haven’t recognized that the choice during the experiment changes the odds.”

3.) Neurological Disease spurs Creativity. An article at the NYTimes recounts the story of a mathematician named Anne Adams affected by FTD, Frontotemporal Dementia. While this disease has varying results, it brought increased creativity to her as well as the composer Ravel.

The disease apparently altered circuits in their brains, changing the connections between the front and back parts and resulting in a torrent of creativity.

“We used to think dementias hit the brain diffusely,” Dr. Miller said. “Nothing was anatomically specific. That is wrong. We now realize that when specific, dominant circuits are injured or disintegrate, they may release or disinhibit activity in other areas. In other words, if one part of the brain is compromised, another part can remodel and become stronger.”

Thus some patients with FTD develop artistic abilities when frontal brain areas decline and posterior regions take over, Dr. Miller said.

The circuits in Dr. Adams’s brain had reorganized. Her left frontal language areas showed atrophy. Meanwhile, areas in the back of her brain on the right side, devoted to visual and spatial processing, appeared to have thickened.

When artists suffer damage to the right posterior brain, they lose the ability to be creative, Dr. Miller said. Dr. Adams’s story is the opposite. Her case and others suggest that artists in general exhibit more right posterior brain dominance. In a healthy brain, these areas help integrate multisensory perception. Colors, sounds, touch and space are intertwined in novel ways. But these posterior regions are usually inhibited by the dominant frontal cortex, he said. When they are released, creativity emerges.

More paintings by Adams are available at http://members.shaw.ca/adms/

Video / Documentary of the Week:

The Brain Cannot Multitask
at Brain Rule at YouTube.com

While the ability to multitask is often praised as the highest of virtues in today’s go-go society, this 2-minute video attempts to debunk this myth by showing that we become less effective and more prone to error when we multitask at several things at the same time. Even though the ability to plan and execute more than one thing is important, it doesn’t mean you should be doing more than one thing at the same time.

Quote of the Week:

“Have you ever observed that we pay much more attention to a wise passage when it is quoted than when we read it in the original author?”

–Philip G. Hamerton