Unrelated to all that, 10/12 edition

The Big Problem With Mini-Pigs

mini pig behind bars

In 2012, as a favor to a friend, Canadians Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter adopted a three-pound (1.4-kilogram) “mini-pig” named Esther. Or so they thought. Within two years Esther wasn’t so mini. In fact, she weighed 500 pounds (227 kilograms). “We didn’t want to believe it,” says Jenkins, “but at four months it became painfully obvious she would be larger than we thought. She grew about three-fourths of a pound a day. And she’s still growing now.” Like thousands of others before them, Jenkins and Walter had been duped into thinking that their tiny pig would stay tiny—perhaps small enough to fit in a teacup—and make as good a house pet as any dog or cat…

To keep the animals’ size down, many breeders have been inbreeding and underfeeding their pigs, telling buyers that piglets are actually adults, or—as in Esther’s case—passing off commercial pigs originally intended for food as a smaller breed of pig…To keep costs down Hoyle has learned to do routine veterinary procedures himself—a common strategy among sanctuary owners. He gives enemas to pigs that overindulge on acorns, trims their tusks and hoofs, and occasionally lances abscesses.

Whoever makes the first genetically-engineered PermaKitten is going to be a billionaire.

The Limits of Friendship

The Dunbar number is actually a series of them. The best known, a hundred and fifty, is the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. (In reality, it’s a range: a hundred at the low end and two hundred for the more social of us.) From there, through qualitative interviews coupled with analysis of experimental and survey data, Dunbar discovered that the number grows and decreases according to a precise formula, roughly a “rule of three.” The next step down, fifty, is the number of people we call close friends—perhaps the people you’d invite to a group dinner. You see them often, but not so much that you consider them to be true intimates. Then there’s the circle of fifteen: the friends that you can turn to for sympathy when you need it, the ones you can confide in about most things. The most intimate Dunbar number, five, is your close support group. These are your best friends (and often family members). On the flipside, groups can extend to five hundred, the acquaintance level, and to fifteen hundred, the absolute limit—the people for whom you can put a name to a face. While the group sizes are relatively stable, their composition can be fluid. Your five today may not be your five next week; people drift among layers and sometimes fall out of them altogether.

I can barely believe these are real

The moment of uncertainty

What led Heisenberg to formulate the uncertainty principle? Was it something that fell out of the formalism in mathematical terms?

That’s a rather dramatic story. The uncertainty principle emerged in exchange of letters between Heisenberg and Pauli, and fell out of the work that Heisenberg had done on quantum theory the previous year, called matrix mechanics. In autumn 1926, he and Pauli were corresponding about how to understand its implications. Heisenberg insisted that the only way to understand it involved junking classical concepts such as position and momentum in the quantum world. In February 1927 he visited Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. Bohr usually helped Heisenberg to think, but this time the visit didn’t have the usual effect. They grew frustrated, and Bohr abandoned Heisenberg to go skiing. One night, walking by himself in the park behind Bohr’s institute, Heisenberg had an insight. He wrote to Pauli: “One will always find that all thought experiments have this property: when a quantity p is pinned down to within an accuracy characterized by the average error p, then… q can only be given at the same time to within an accuracy characterized by the average error q1 ≈ h/p1.” That’s the uncertainty principle. But like many equations, including E = mc2 and Maxwell’s equations, its first appearance is not in its now-famous form. Anyway, Heisenberg sent off a paper on his idea that was published in May.

How did the public react?

Immediately and enthusiastically. A few days after October 29, 1929, the New York Times, tongue-in-cheek, invoked the uncertainty principle as the explanation for the stock market crash.

On twitter, @mxnmnkmnd pointed out the Fourier transform version of the uncertainty principle which is very cool in its own right, which was apparently rejected as wrong and unrigorous until he was president of the academy!

The Brain-Wiping Science of Pigeon Training

One: Let them out of the coop everyday when they’re hungry, so that they’ll come back for food.

Two: Let them out in the dark, so they’re less likely to fly away.

Three: Let them out in a group, and raise them in a group, too.

When Ptomey first acquires a group of pigeons, often from a pet store, he almost always keeps them in the basement in the pitch black for several weeks before bringing them up to the loft. “It’s to brainwash them,” he said, “and to erase their memory” of their original home…If a stray pigeon happens to fly past his loft, Ptomey often tries to use his birds to catch it, and he has a strategy for this, too. He whistles to his flock, who gathers and then flies up and around the bird, bringing it into the fold. He says he has captured a number of his neighbor’s stray birds this way.

The best single of the past ten years?

Tales of the Trash

There hasn’t been a single day when the trash wasn’t cleared outside my kitchen door. As a whole, Cairo’s waste-collection system is surprisingly functional, considering that it’s largely informal. In a sprawling, chaotic city of more than seventeen million, zabaleen like Sayyid have managed to develop one of the most efficient municipal recycling networks in the world.

At first, I never saw Sayyid working, because he cleared my fire escape before dawn. After three months of this invisible service, he approached me one day on the street and asked if I had previously lived in China. I wasn’t sure how he knew this—we had chatted a few times, but never for long. He said that he had an important question about Chinese medicine.

Is Ecology like Economics?

“To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in.”

If this is at least a partially correct summary of ecology’s history, we could argue that finally in the last 20 years ecology has begun to analyze the far more complex questions posed by the ecological world. But it does so with a background of oversimplified models, whether verbal or mathematical, that we are continually trying to fit our data into. Square pegs into round holes.

What is ecology’s billion dollar brain?

The interesting thing about the Human Brain project is that neuroscience is more like ecology than many scientific fields – it deals with complex organic systems with emergent properties and great variability. What ecology needs, ever so simplistically, is more data and better models. Maybe, like neuroscience, we should request a supercomputer that could located and incorporate all ecological data ever collected, across fields (natural history, forestry, agronomy, etc) and recognize the connections between that data, based on geography, species, or scale. This could both give us the most sophisticated possible data map, showing where the data gaps exist, and where areas are data-rich and ready for model development. Further, it could (like the Human Brain) begin to develop models for the interconnections between data.

The parallels between ecology, economics, and neuroscience are vast. It is a sign of the academy that the fields talk so little to each other when, in my opinion, they are all fundamentally studying the same thing. Hence, the blog neuroecology…

Does Technology Make You Smarter Than You Think?

JON: You mention how in freestyle chess, players who could work effectively with computers suddenly were able to beat giants who relied on their minds alone. This suggests an increase in performance but not necessarily an increase in actual smarts. So are we really getting smarter? Or is our performance simply being amplified through the use of new tools and technology?

CLIVE: To a certain extent I think the distinction might be kind of false because it proceeds with the idea that our intelligence has always been just in our heads. But our intelligence has never been entirely just in our heads. A huge amount of our thinking is what the philosopher Andy Clark would call taking place in the extended mind, which is to say, using all sorts of resources outside of us to help scaffold our thinking in new directions and capabilities that are impossible with the mind alone. That ranges from something as simple as being able to write something down so you no longer have to hold it in your head for the short or for the long term. You could say that if I don’t have pen and paper handy I cannot really very easily multiply two four digit numbers together. So does that mean I’m dumber when I don’t have the pen and paper there together? What it really means is that a huge amount of human cognition has relied on resources outsides of our heads in the same way that the basics of our memory relied very heavily on social dynamics, social remembering, or what psychologists call transactive memory.

When groups of people hang out, once they get to know each other they begin to realize that Clive is really good about remembering things on Canadian politics, not so good at knowing American politics, but he’s really good at math and calculating the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit because he grew up in Canada.   He doesn’t know anything about sports, whereas someone else over here is great on sports but doesn’t understand anything about economics.  So once you’ve mapped out what other people are really good at you see and use them as memory resources because our minds have always been quite terrible at remembering details.  They are very good at retaining meaning, but we’ve relied on other people as sort of these cognitive amplifiers.  So you could ask the question, are we dumber if we’re not around other people?  Are we smarter if we’re near them?  I think the answer is yes, we are smarter when we are around other people, we are smarter when we are around all sorts of external scaffolds for our thinking, and that’s an essential definition of being human.

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