Time to Hit the Delete Key

We are organisms, not computers

Research psychologist Robert Epstein says the idea that the brain works like a computer is now “generally assumed without question.” But, he contends, the idea that the brain stores and retrieves physical memories and processes algorithms and symbolic representations of the world—like a computer—is “preposterous.”

According to Epstein, the human brain does not contain “memories.” And we are not born with—nor do we develop—the design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently:

  • Processors
  • Buffers
  • Programs
  • Symbols
  • Data
  • Rules

But, he said, we are built with more than a dozen ready-made reactions that are important for survival. And we are equipped with learning mechanisms that allow us to change rapidly to interact increasingly effectively with the world.

According to Epstein, we are changed by three types of experiences:

  1. Observation of what is happening around us (other people behaving, sounds of music, instructions directed at us, words on pages, images on screens),
  2. Association of unimportant stimuli (such as sirens) with important stimuli (such as the appearance of police cars), and
  3. Punishment or reward for behaving in certain ways.

“We become more effective in our lives if we change in ways that are consistent with these experiences. Though no one has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned, for example, to sing a song or recite a poem, neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. Neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.”

“We are organisms, not computers,” he insisted, and we should “get on with the business of trying to understand ourselves, but without being encumbered by unnecessary intellectual baggage. The IP metaphor has had a half-century run, producing few, if any, insights along the way. The time has come to hit the Delete key.”


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Part of the Herd

Being near a horse’s latent strength and deep reserves of composure make me feel welcomed, at peace and significant

I’ve written about equine therapy before, but starting again in the spring makes it fresh and amazing again. This personal description by one of its beneficiaries is from The Walrus:

“With a horse, you get instant feedback on how you are in the moment. Are you tense? Angry? The horse feels it and reacts in kind. Movement in response to tension is tense. Movement in response to anger often ends with you lying in the dirt. You always need to be aware of how you are holding yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically. Where are your arms and legs? What is the angle of your body in the saddle? Are you providing confident leadership or transmitting anxiety and fear?”

“Riders have to learn how to read their animals. Horses have facial expressions. They exhibit preferences. There’s nothing more heartwarming than the sound of a horse nickering when you approach the gate. And there’s something really moving about a massive creature that could kill you (with hooves, teeth, and the sheer weight of its body) but won’t. It’s an honour to be considered part of the herd rather than a threat.”

“Building a relationship with a creature that has a different way of looking at the world is an exercise in patience and compassion. I’m more ready to face the world after spending time around a horse. It’s a relief to groom, tack up, and ride. I feel like I’ve found my way back to an old friend.”

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The Progress of Opinion

Many scientists contributed to the formulation of an understanding of the interrelationship of species and their adaptability over many centuries

New ideas are often understood to have appeared fully formed from nowhere but, in truth, they almost always have their origin in the work of others. So it was with Charles Darwin’s description of natural selection in On the Origin of Species.

In her book, Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, Rebecca Stott tells how Darwin created a list of thinkers who had proposed some aspect of natural selection before his work was published. But Darwin chose not to include the list in the first three editions of his book in part because he realized that Alfred Russel Wallace was about to publish his similar findings on the subject, and he wanted to make sure he received primary credit for the idea.

Immediately after the first edition, Oxford geometry professor Baden Powell criticized Darwin for not acknowledging his predecessors and taking credit for a theory that had already been proposed. Darwin admitted that the ideas of species mutability and descent with modification did not originate with him but he believed that natural selection did.

He blamed his failure to include a history of the subject in the first edition of Origin on his poor health and the additional effort it would have required. He denied impropriety, however, writing to Powell, “No educated person, not even the most ignorant, could suppose that I meant to arrogate to myself the origination of the doctrine that species had not been independently created.”

Before Darwin’s “historical sketch of the progress of opinion on the origin of species” was published with the fourth edition of his work, it expanded to over 30 names, including:

Stott focuses on several of those who put forward ideas about the interrelationship of species before Darwin and demonstrates how once again, though an individual name is primarily associated with a milestone scientific idea—Darwin’s with evolution via natural selection—our understanding actually evolved out of multiple ideas over a period of centuries.

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Getting Better, XII: Even More Progress

How we see the glass can determine what we do about it

Last summer, Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian asked, Is the world really better than ever? Burkeman quoted Philip Collins, Nicholas Kristof, Johan Norberg and Brendan O’Neill as examples of a “loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this stubbornly cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation.” This group is sometimes labelled the ‘New Optimists’, he said.

Burkeman granted that “nobody in their right mind should wish to have lived in a previous century,” because “according to numerous sensible metrics,” things are clearly getting better. But he also listed “several more controversial implications” of the optimists’ claims, particularly:

  • The idea that since things have so clearly been improving, we have good reason to assume they will continue to improve, and
  • The belief that we ought to stick with the political and economic arrangements that have brought us here since they are clearly working.

And Burkeman wondered whether, “The world we have created—the very engine of all that progress—is so complex, volatile and unpredictable that catastrophe might befall us at any moment.” Could it be, he said, that our real problem is not an excess of pessimism, as the New Optimists maintain, but a dangerous degree of overconfidence?

Burkeman’s dismissive contention that, “Of course things are better than they were. But they’re surely nowhere near as good as they ought to be” is precisely the cynical reaction that the optimists contend is inappropriate and self-defeating.

David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University, also completely got it wrong when he said that the New Optimists “describe a world in which human agency doesn’t seem to matter, because there are these evolved forces that are moving us in the right direction.”

On the contrary, the optimists—also including Bill Gates, Steven Pinker and Max Roser—are in no way characterized by complacency. Instead, they insist that acknowledging positive change affirms that it is possible to make the world better and prompts us to do so, much more compellingly than fear and incrimination can. According to Pinker, the evidence of progress is motivation to be grateful and continue working for even more progress.

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Nuances Are Hard to Communicate

According to Cesar Hidalgo, the relative power of scientists diminished as we exited the printing era

Pantheon is a project of The MIT Media Lab that seeks to quantify, analyze, measure and visualize global culture. They created a dataset that ranks notable individuals from 4000 B.C. to 2010 by their popularity. It can display a chart representing the roles of globally recognized people from a selected country and timeframe.

For example, this chart shows the roles of people who were globally known between 1850 and 1900, regardless of their birth country:

This chart, on the other hand, shows the roles of people who were globally known between 1950 and 2000:

Whether or not critic and educator Neil Postman was right to say that we’re “amusing ourselves to death“, it’s not hard to see what types of people attract the most attention nowadays or why Cesar A. Hidalgo calls our time a “performance-based era”.

Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab, said there was a tremendous effect on the place of science, particularly, in our culture when electronic media began to overshadow print. “The new mediums of radio and TV were much more adaptive for entertainment than science, that’s for sure. The people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of the people who became famous, diminished enormously during the 20th century. The new mediums were not good for the nuances that science demands. For good reason, scientists need to qualify their statements narrowly and be careful when they talk about causality. They need to be specific about the methods they use and the data they collect. All of those extensive nuances are hard to communicate in mediums that are good for entertainment and good for performance. So the relative power of scientists, or their position in society, have diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.”

But, Hidalgo said, “At the same time, scientists and the general scientific community have not been great at adapting their ideas to new mediums. Scientists are the first ones to bring down another scientist who tries to popularize content in a way that would not be traditional. So scientists are their own worst enemies in this battle. They have lagged behind in their ability to learn how to use these mediums. Sometimes they focus too much on the content without paying attention on how to adapt it to the medium that will best help it get out.”

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In investing, you get what you don’t pay for.

One of the hardest tasks—in business, in technology, in finance—is to make something simple. Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle simplified investing for millions of small clients by resisting the urge to try to “beat the market” and popularizing the low-cost index mutual fund instead. As a result, he saved them billions of dollars in reduced management fees.

Bogle died on January 16, 2019, having adopted a different approach to investing from the one most often taken by executives on Wall Street—where “people are so often measured by the size of their financial assets.”

“He built something bigger than personal wealth,” said New York Times columnist Jeff Sommer. He built “a reasonable way for great masses of people to get a more equitable share of the world’s financial pie.”

Bogle’s investment tips included:

  1. Stay the course—”Wise investors won’t try to outsmart the market. They’ll buy index funds for the long term, and they’ll diversify.”
  2. Beware the experts—”You probably don’t need a financial adviser at all.”
  3. Keep costs down—”In investing, you get what you don’t pay for.”
  4. Don’t get emotional—”Impulse is your enemy.”
  5. Own the entire stock market—Have a portfolio that mirrors the performance of a market yardstick like the S&P 500 stock index.

His simple philosophy was rooted in his desire to make investing available to a wide range of people, and that desire was rooted in his interest in people. “His overriding North Star was caring about the customer and wanting what is best for the customer,” said Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments.

Sadly, that care provoked opposition from some of Wall Street’s status quo. Barbara Roper, Director of Investor Protection for the Consumer Federation of America, said, “There has been thinly veiled resentment toward Bogle from other mutual fund leaders over the years because of his focus on reducing costs, which was a direct threat to their bottom line. He always cared more about that vision—how the industry should be run—than making friends in the industry.”

“More” was the word of the decade in the 1990s, said financial advisor Manisha Thakor. But Bogle taught her the concept of “enough.” “It’s the notion that accepting your fair share of the market’s return over the long run will do you just fine,” she said. “What is often missed when speaking about Jack’s legacy,” she said, “is the way in which this concept of ‘enough’ also shaped his outlook on the way to live a life of meaning, rooted in character.”

Bogle’s 2009 book, Enough, begins with a story: “At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have…enough.”

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Unbridled Iconoclasm?

Orville and Wilbur Wright were partners in the invention of the airplane, though perhaps not equals

It is clear from the title of his book, Wright Brothers, Wrong Story: How Wilbur Wright Solved the Problem of Manned Flight, that William Hazelgrove wanted to provoke a reaction by claiming to correct the “myth” that the Wright Brothers were equal partners in their quest to fly. Indeed, he worked hard to dispel one of the most cherished of all American narratives—the story of two Midwestern brothers who worked together with perseverance, tenacity and genius to invent the airplane. I wonder if he worked a little too hard to highlight something that anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the Wrights’ work already knew.

The myth began, Hazelgrove said, with Wilbur and Orville’s father—Bishop Milton Wright—who told a reporter his younger sons were “as inseparable as twins” and insisted that “they are equal in their inventions, neither claiming any superiority over the other.” Indeed, the bishop longed to see his entire family united against the corrupting, stultifying influence of the world.

Moreover, Tom Crouch, in his book, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright, said “adherence to agreed conditions was essential to good relations within the family” and “the strength of the lifelong bond between Milton, Wilbur, Orville, and [their sister] Katharine suggests an unspoken…agreement to remain together as a mutually supporting family unit.”

But when Hazelgrove said that Wilbur alone was the “real intellectual force” and “silent genius” of the two, driven by an ambition to replicate the ability he observed in the birds overhead, he seemed to think he was revealing something new and shocking to the world. Moreover, he said, Orville was no more than a skilled mechanic, content to continue printing business materials or building bicycles in Ohio who would never have done otherwise if not for Wilbur’s desire to fly. Hazelgrove said Wilbur “had a vision that wedded him to solving the problem of manned flight. His brother would come along for the ride.”

James Tobin had indicated a similar comparison of the brothers when he wrote, “It is impossible to imagine Orville, bright as he was, supplying the driving force that started their work and kept it going from the back room of their store in Ohio to conferences with capitalists, presidents, and kings. Will did that. He was the leader, from beginning to end.” As for their interest in flying, Crouch concurred with Hazelgrove that, when Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian in 1899, “there is no indication that Orville was also interested in flight.”

Hazelgrove placed such significance on the letters between Wilbur Wright and Octave Chanute—even calling them a “smoking gun”—that he insisted on the uniqueness of Wilbur’s desire to fly. He said Orville’s authorized biographer Fred C. Kelly did not have access to these letters when he wrote his account with Orville’s approval in the 1940s and claimed that Orville was quite willing to undermine the account the letters provided.

The “brothers as equals” version of the story was preferable to the truth for many, Hazelgrove said, because it “appeals to our national team approach. America is a team. We will solve our problems together.” But Hazelgrove contended that it was a sinister revisionist effort on Orville’s part that established that view.

According to Crouch, the brothers chose together to portray themselves as equals. “Any impression of Wilbur’s dominance vanished abruptly after the fall of 1900,” he said. “From that time forward, the brothers made a concerted effort to present a corporate personality to the world.”

Hazelgrove’s unnecessary diminution of Orville went much further than calling Wilbur the leader of the two. Their father’s viewpoint was legitimized, he said, when Orville outlived Wilbur by more than three decades and used the time to rewrite history in his own favor, establishing the story of equals as the accepted narrative.

According to Hazelgrove, Orville used Kelly to cast himself in an undeservedly favorable light. Indeed, they took great pains together, he said, to “obliterate Wilbur’s use of the singular ‘I’ for the plural ‘we’ in his early letters. We invented the airplane. We called the Smithsonian for information. We cracked the code of aeronautics. We wrote Octave Chanute. We are equal in the eyes of the world. This is the beginning and the core of the Wright myth.”

In making the case for Wilbur’s preeminence, it clearly exasperated Hazelgrove that in John T. Daniel’s iconic photograph of the first heavier-than-air, powered flight in 1903 Orville is at the controls and Wilbur stands watching. He strained to describe the brothers’ roles in their crowning moment as “fitting”: “Wilbur could observe his plane leaving Earth under its own power; and, in that moment, he has the satisfaction that his vision, his theories, his calculations, his year of work produced a machine that could lift a man and fly like the birds he studied so intensely.”

“The Wright brothers were similar in many respects,” Hazelgrove conceded before insisting, “but it is the difference between the pilot and the mechanic, the visionary and the assistant, the poet and the scribe, that sets them apart. And that is all the difference in the world.”

Wilbur himself had a different perspective and didn’t think at all that his intellect was the basis of their success or that Orville was simply “along for the ride.” Wilbur objected to the suggestion that “sheer genius might be the only explanation” for their accomplishments, saying, “Do you not insist too strongly on the single point of mental ability? To me, it seems that a thousand other factors, each rather insignificant in itself, in the aggregate influence the event ten times more than mere mental ability or inventiveness….If the wheels of time could be turned back…it is not at all probable that we would do again what we have done.”

Most observers understand that Wilbur and Orville Wright made different contributions to what was a remarkable partnership, despite the family’s efforts to present them to history as equals. And to view their work as a partnership is to understand rightly the unique genius of their accomplishments.

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