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changing minds

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Vox's Brian Resnick discusses a study on changing minds, which he describes as "the hardest challenge in politics right now:"

Psychologists have been circling around a possible reason political beliefs are so stubborn: Partisan identities get tied up in our personal identities. Which would mean that an attack on our strongly held beliefs is an attack on the self. And the brain is built to protect the self.

When we're attacked, we evade or defend -- as if we have an immune system for uncomfortable thoughts, one you can see working in real time.

"The brain's primary responsibility is to take care of the body, to protect the body," Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, tells me. "The psychological self is the brain's extension of that. When our self feels attacked, our [brain is] going to bring to bear the same defenses that it has for protecting the body."

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Thanks to decades of right-wing paranoia and propaganda, even the science of fluoride isn't safe from ideological blindness--remember Jack D. Ripper?

Noah Charney's piece "Your Brain on Art" praises Eric Kandel's book Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, saying that it "offers one of the freshest insights into art history in many years:"

Ask your average person walking down the street what sort of art they find more intimidating, or like less, or don't know what to make of, and they'll point to abstract or minimalist art. Show them traditional, formal, naturalistic art, like Bellini's "Sacred Allegory," art which draws from traditional core Western texts (the Bible, apocrypha, mythology) alongside a Mark Rothko or a Jackson Pollock or a Kazimir Malevich, and they'll retreat into the Bellini, even though it is one of the most puzzling unsolved mysteries of the art world, a riddle of a picture for which not one reasonable solution has ever been put forward. The Pollock, on the other hand, is just a tangle of dripped paint, the Rothko just a color with a bar of another color on top of it, the Malevich is all white.

Kandel offers this explanation:

In abstract painting, elements are included not as visual reproductions of objects, but as references or clues to how we conceptualize objects. In describing the world they see, abstract artists not only dismantle many of the building blocks of bottom-up visual processing by eliminating perspective and holistic depiction, they also nullify some of the premises on which bottom-up processing is based. We scan an abstract painting for links between line segments, for recognizable contours and objects, but in the most fragmented works, such as those by Rothko, our efforts are thwarted.

Thus the reason abstract art poses such an enormous challenge to the beholder is that it teaches us to look at art -- and, in a sense, at the world -- in a new way. Abstract art dares our visual system to interpret an image that is fundamentally different from the kind of images our brain has evolved to reconstruct.

"We like to think of abstraction as a 20th century phenomenon," he writes, but its roots lie far deeper:

A look at ancient art finds it full of abstraction. Most art history books, if they go back far enough, begin with Cycladic figurines (dated to 3300-1100 BC). Abstracted, ghost-like, sort-of-human forms. Even on cave walls, a few lines suggest an animal, or a constellation of blown hand-prints float on a wall in absolute darkness.

Abstract art is where we began, and where we have returned. It makes our brains hurt, but in all the right ways, for abstract art forces us to see, and think, differently.

Enriching, but not merely entertaining--no wonder it's so unpopular.

disappearing data?

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WaPo's Brady Dennis informs us that "scientists have begun a feverish attempt to copy reams of government data onto independent servers in hopes of safeguarding it from any political interference:"

In recent weeks, President-elect Donald Trump has nominated a growing list of Cabinet members who have questioned the overwhelming scientific consensus around global warming. [...]

Those moves have stoked fears among the scientific community that Trump, who has called the notion of man-made climate change "a hoax" and vowed to reverse environmental policies put in place by President Obama, could try to alter or dismantle parts of the federal government's repository of data on everything from rising sea levels to the number of wildfires in the country.

There is, sadly, historical precedent for just this sort of disappearing data:

Climate data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been politically vulnerable. When Tom Karl, director of the National Centers for Environmental Information, and his colleagues published a study in 2015 seeking to challenge the idea that there had been a global warming "slowdown" or "pause" during the 2000s, they relied, in significant part, on updates to NOAA's ocean temperature data set, saying the data "do not support the notion of a global warming 'hiatus.'"

In response, the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee chair, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), tried to subpoena the scientists and their records.

Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M, commented:

"If you can just get rid of the data, you're in a stronger position to argue we should do nothing about climate change."

"strange numbers"

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Kevin Hartnett's dive into the strange numbers found in particle collisions is a nice read, exploring "a surprising correspondence that has the potential to breathe new life into the venerable Feynman diagram and generate far-reaching insights in both fields:"

It has to do with the strange fact that the values calculated from Feynman diagrams seem to exactly match some of the most important numbers that crop up in a branch of mathematics known as algebraic geometry. These values are called "periods of motives," and there's no obvious reason why the same numbers should appear in both settings. Indeed, it's as strange as it would be if every time you measured a cup of rice, you observed that the number of grains was prime.

Hartnett writes that "mathematicians and physicists are working together to unravel the coincidence:"

For mathematicians, physics has called to their attention a special class of numbers that they'd like to understand: Is there a hidden structure to these periods that occur in physics? What special properties might this class of numbers have? For physicists, the reward of that kind of mathematical understanding would be a new degree of foresight when it comes to anticipating how events will play out in the messy quantum world.

Here's an infographic that might clarify things:

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group selection

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David S. Wilson writes about Elinor Ostrom and the tragedy of the commons, particularly the path forward from her 1990 book Governing the Commons. "Is the so-called tragedy of the commons," he asks (referencing Garrett Hardin's famed 1968 Science essay), "ever averted in the biological world and might this possibility provide solutions for our own species?"

One plausible scenario is natural selection at the level of groups. A selfish farmer might have an advantage over other farmers in his village, but a village that somehow solved the tragedy of the commons would have a decisive advantage over other villages. Most species are subdivided into local populations at various scales, just as humans are subdivided into villages, cities and nations. If natural selection between groups (favoring cooperation) can successfully oppose natural selection within groups (favoring non-cooperation), then the tragedy of the commons can be averted for humans and non-human species alike.

Rio scale

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538 analyzes the search for an alien signal, opining that although the work of "alien hunting, commonly referred to as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, is still very much relegated to the sidelines," it's become a "cutting edge" pursuit:

Occasionally, promising signals make their way through the broader astronomical community and into the public eye. A few such claims have made headlines recently, prompting some astronomers to call for a new framework to rank and interpret these signals.

"To help with this," she writes, "astronomers came up with a way to gauge the credibility of a SETI signal, called the Rio scale," where "an answer of 0 is obviously nothing and a 10 is 'wow, aliens are calling':"

Formulated at an astronomical conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2000, it's a 10-point scale intended to help people understand when to take an apparent signal from another world seriously. [...]

RS=Q⋅δ

In this equation, Q is the sum of numerical values assigned to three parameters: the class of phenomenon, such as whether it's an "obviously Earth-directed message" or a randomly swooping beacon; the type of discovery, like whether it's a steady signal or something that comes and goes; and the distance to the signal. The latter is important because you'd want to know how long it would take for aliens to receive a reply.

Each parameter has a numerical value from 1 to 4, 5 or 6.1 For instance, "an Earth-specific beacon designed to draw attention" gets a 4. If it's within the galaxy, add 2. If it was a passing signal detected once, it gets another 2. To get your Rio scale value, you multiply this sum by δ, which is a measure of the credibility of the claim. The values for δ go from 0 to 2/3. If it's uncertain but worth checking out, for example, that's 1/6. This quantity depends on experts' opinions, so it's inherently subjective. And unless a signal has been verified repeatedly by SETI experts, the δ value is almost certain to drop its total value to a 2 or a 3.

coding is not fun

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Walter Vannini, a digital consultant and researcher, writes that coding is not fun:

Programming computers is a piece of cake. Or so the world's digital-skills gurus would have us believe. From the non-profit Code.org's promise that 'Anybody can learn!' to Apple chief executive Tim Cook's comment that writing code is 'fun and interactive', the art and science of making software is now as accessible as the alphabet.

"Unfortunately," he writes, "this rosy portrait bears no relation to reality:"

For starters, the profile of a programmer's mind is pretty uncommon. As well as being highly analytical and creative, software developers need almost superhuman focus to manage the complexity of their tasks. Manic attention to detail is a must; slovenliness is verboten. Attaining this level of concentration requires a state of mind called being 'in the flow', a quasi-symbiotic relationship between human and machine that improves performance and motivation.

Coding isn't the only job that demands intense focus. But you'd never hear someone say that brain surgery is 'fun', or that structural engineering is 'easy'. When it comes to programming, why do policymakers and technologists pretend otherwise?

Anyone can learn to type a "Hello, world!" program, but the artisans are few--and the artists far fewer. "Insisting on the glamour and fun of coding," he continues, "is the wrong way to acquaint kids with computer science:"

It insults their intelligence and plants the pernicious notion in their heads that you don't need discipline in order to progress. As anyone with even minimal exposure to making software knows, behind a minute of typing lies an hour of study.

It's better to admit that coding is complicated, technically and ethically [and] it's irresponsible to speak of coding as a lightweight activity. Software is not simply lines of code, nor is it blandly technical. In just a few years, understanding programming will be an indispensable part of active citizenship. The idea that coding offers an unproblematic path to social progress and personal enhancement works to the advantage of the growing techno-plutocracy that's insulating itself behind its own technology.

Michelle Legro explicates the transit of Venus, praising Andrea Wulf's book Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens:

In 1716, sixty-year old Sir Edmund Halley called on astronomers all over the world to leave their cozy observatories, travel to the edges of the known world, set up their telescopes, and turn their eyes toward the sunrise on the morning of June 6th, 1761, when the first Transit of Venus of the scientific age would march across the face of the sun.

In the eighteenth century, the solar system had a shape but not a size. By timing the entrance and the exit of Venus across the sun from latitudes all over the world, Halley explained, astronomers could roughly calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun -- a "celestial yardstick" for measuring the universe, as Andrea Wulf calls it in her excellent book Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens.

It was the first worldwide scientific collaboration of its kind, a mathematical olympiad six hours in duration, with years of planning and seconds that counted. [...] Chasing Venus chronicles a rare planetary event that happened at a rare juncture in human history, when the age of empire, the age of science, and the age of curiosity brought the world together for just a few moments -- to achieve the measure of the universe.

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