Thursday, December 22, 2011

do thoughts have a language of their own?

NewScientist | What is the relationship between language and thought? The quest to create artificial intelligence may have come up with some unexpected answers

THE idea of machines that think and act as intelligently as humans can generate strong emotions. This may explain why one of the most important accomplishments in the field of artificial intelligence has gone largely unnoticed: that some of the advances in AI can be used by ordinary people to improve their own natural intelligence and communication skills.

Chief among these advances is a form of logic called computational logic. This builds and improves on traditional logic, and can be used both for the original purpose of logic - to improve the way we think - and, crucially, to improve the way we communicate in natural languages, such as English. Arguably, it is the missing link that connects language and thought.

According to one school of philosophy, our thoughts have a language-like structure that is independent of natural language: this is what students of language call the language of thought (LOT) hypothesis. According to the LOT hypothesis, it is because human thoughts already have a linguistic structure that the emergence of common, natural languages was possible in the first place.

The LOT hypothesis contrasts with the mildly contrary view that human thinking is actually conducted in natural language, and thus we could not think intelligently without it. It also contradicts the ultra-contrary view that human thinking does not have a language-like structure at all, implying that our ability to communicate in natural language is nothing short of a miracle.

Research in AI lends little support to the first view, and some support to the second. But if we want to improve how we communicate in natural language, the AI version of the LOT hypothesis comes into its own, offering us a detailed analysis we can use as a guide.

Using this guide we can then try to express ourselves in a form of natural language that is closer to the LOT. This will make it easier for others to understand our communications because they will require less effort to translate them into thoughts of their own. But to fully exploit the guide, we need to understand the nature of the LOT and the relationship between it and natural language.

is free will an illusion?

ScientificAmerican | It seems obvious to me that I have free will. When I have just made a decision, say, to go to a concert, I feel that I could have chosen to do something else. Yet many philosophers say this instinct is wrong. According to their view, free will is a figment of our imagination. No one has it or ever will. Rather our choices are either determined—necessary outcomes of the events that have happened in the past—or they are ­random.

Our intuitions about free will, however, challenge this nihilistic view. We could, of course, simply dismiss our intuitions as wrong. But psychology suggests that doing so would be premature: our hunches often track the truth pretty well [see “The Powers and Perils of Intuition,” by David G. Myers; Scientific American Mind, June/July 2007]. For example, if you do not know the answer to a question on a test, your first guess is more likely to be right. In both philosophy and science, we may feel there is something fishy about an argument or an experiment before we can identify exactly what the problem is.

The debate over free will is one example in which our intuitions conflict with scientific and philosophical arguments. Something similar holds for intuitions about consciousness, morality, and a host of other existential concerns. Typically philosophers deal with these issues through careful thought and discourse with other theorists. In the past decade, however, a small group of philosophers have adopted more data-driven methods to illuminate some of these confounding questions. These so-called experimental philosophers administer surveys, measure reaction times and image brains to understand the sources of our instincts. If we can figure out why we feel we have free will, for example, or why we think that consciousness consists of something more than patterns of neural activity in our brain, we might know whether to give credence to those feelings. That is, if we can show that our intuitions about free will emerge from an untrustworthy process, we may decide not to trust those beliefs.

Read Nichols, S. forthcoming paper The Indeterminist Intuition: Source and Status. The Monist.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

it's lonely out there – the evolutionary explanation for the fermi paradox

Baen | What kick-started intelligence in humans? Given that our powerful brains have so many disadvantages and not much payback in terms of survival, at least in the early stages before technology, why was increasing brain power been selected for, generation by generation, until the evolution of the human mind?

The primary selection pressure is survival but the second is reproductive success: Darwin pointed this out in the Origin of Species. Complex animals reproduce sexually so success involves mating. Vertebrates have complex signalling systems and behavior to persuade another individual to choose them as a suitable partner. This can result in the evolution of anatomical features that are neutral or even disadvantageous to survival. For example, the growth of antlers in deer have a high metabolic cost, offer little survival advantage, but are essential for a male deer to intimidate competitors to win the hooves of fair deer maidens.

The more complicated an organism's reproductive system the more likely the sexes of a species are to have different reproductive strategies, and the mammalian system is very complicated. The best explanation of human intelligence is that it is the result of sexual selection by women. Men tend to be attracted to women who are fit, healthy, young and not yet pregnant (slim waist).

These characteristics are not unimportant to women (well, except the last) but women get stuck with the baby so, given that people are social animals, women are attracted to high status men who will be able to provide support for them and their children. In a social animal, high status revolves around sophisticated interaction, for which intelligence is an advantage because of the need to manipulate, and enjoy good relations with, other members of society.

Even our verbal facility is probably the result of female sexual selection. In British English, boys attempt to "chat up" girls at parties. If women kept selecting for intelligence in men then this would overcome any counter-survival effect of "wasting" resources on high energy brains.

But note that the exact choice of a sexual selection feature is a haphazard process. Women might have selected on developing an oversized red nose, the ability to hop around in a circle with effortless grace, or antlers. Female birds often select on feather coloration patterns and there is evidence that therapod dinosaurs had similar behavior. Bipedal therapods were mostly predators, like wolves or tigers, whereas we are social omnivores and that is probably the key difference.

The take home message is that intelligence is a rather unlikely end result that depends on a conjunction of haphazard ecological and evolutionary features.

Maybe an intelligent species of social therapod dinosaur might still have evolved if the Cretaceous Great extinction had not happened — but major catastrophes from local events up to mass extinctions are a regular feature of life on Earth.

Species survival over time, particularly for a large organism, is to a large extent a matter of sheer luck. We almost didn't make it. About seventy-five-thousand years ago there was a catastrophe, the Toba super-volcanic eruption. The Toba Event seems to have taken human beings to the very brink of extinction. Genetic evidence suggests that we were reduced to between one and ten thousand breeding pairs. All modern humans are genetically closely related, which is why inbreeding is so very dangerous for us.

Toba was a volcanic pinprick compared to the Deccan Traps associated with the Cretaceous great extinction, or the Siberian Traps with the larger Permian extinctions, but it was enough to nearly do for a large animal geographically restricted to Africa. Toba may even have given the kick needed to evolve the human mind and civilization, but our survival was touch and go.

And here, I think, is the explanation for the Fermi Paradox. There does not need to be anything special about Earth or H. sapiens. Applying the Principle of Mediocrity, the universe probably teems with life, quite complex life. But intelligent life is simply unlikely because the evolutionary dice are rigged against it. It is very unlikely that a large complex animal, with the right sexual selection system, will survive long enough for circumstances to kick start the path to a technological civilization.

You don't need a special, unique planet to evolve an intelligent organism. You just need a lot of life on a lot of planets and one or two will win the lottery no matter how unlikely the probability. It's just a matter of random luck. There is nothing special about someone who wins the national lottery.

I suspect it is the "probability of evolving intelligent life" that is the key variable that governs the Drake Equation: the probability must be close to zero. Should we survive long enough to break free of our solar system cradle, the last variable, I suspect we will find life in abundance but will probably never ever meet intellectual peers.

It's going to be lonely out there.

Social Insect Societies, Human Societies, and Religion - Redux

Magnus Magnuson | Two Recent Middle-Eastern Religions Involve 50% of Humanity. In many scientifically advanced Christian countries people are still taught that a super being created the universe and humans especially (in its image). And that this being, about 2000 years ago, worrying about their situation decided on a remedy that included having a woman in the Middle-East made pregnant.

Why do millions of educated modern humans apparently believe that gods exist and that they frequently intervene crucially in everyday life – often quickly or immediately on personal demand (prayer)? Why do many states encourage such believes?

Extreme conditions and mental illness facilitate this through realistic hallucinations and delusions, but what may be further reasons for the emergence of mass-belief in common gods.

Brain Power and Mass-Social Emergence - is excessive cognitive power a hindrance?
The algorithms of caste development and behavior are the first level in the construction of a superorganism. These specialists, working as a functional unit, are guided by sets of behavioral rules..”

Nothing in the brain of a worker ant represents a blueprint of the social order. Colony life is the product of self-organization. A number of different interacting sub-sets of specialists each have a few behaviors with algorithms regarding their use in a few particular circumstances (job descriptions). Citizens often have specialized body-parts for tasks such as communication (interaction).

If mass-social self-organization requires countless predictable interactions between simple algorithms, could superfluous cognitive abilities be a disturbance?

Deceptions concerning essential aspects of life seem crucial in the two principal modern religions. Should some people have the right to deceive others concerning, for example, the existence of an afterlife with gratifying or terrifying post-life consequences of their lifetime actions?

If so, who or what gives them this right?

Should such deception and gullibility be encouraged also in the 21st century after possibly the most spectacular increases ever in human knowledge? Is this deception compatible with basic human rights and democracy? Religion typically serves the hierarchy, that is, the ruling sub-set of individuals through blocking or misleading cognitive power. Deception is an essential part of religion which exploits human innocence (gullibility, ignorance and trust). Possibly this is one consequence when highly evolved primates evolves a mass-social lifestyle like the proteins in its cells and like social insects.

pseudo-scientific mouthbreathing in the nytimes

Nature | Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates - Although much attention has been focused on explaining and describing the diversity of social grouping patterns among primates1, 2, 3, less effort has been devoted to understanding the evolutionary history of social living4. This is partly because social behaviours do not fossilize, making it difficult to infer changes over evolutionary time. However, primate social behaviour shows strong evidence for phylogenetic inertia, permitting the use of Bayesian comparative methods to infer changes in social behaviour through time, thereby allowing us to evaluate alternative models of social evolution. Here we present a model of primate social evolution, whereby sociality progresses from solitary foraging individuals directly to large multi-male/multi-female aggregations (approximately 52 million years (Myr) ago), with pair-living (approximately 16 Myr ago) or single-male harem systems (approximately 16 Myr ago) derivative from this second stage. This model fits the data significantly better than the two widely accepted alternatives (an unstructured model implied by the socioecological hypothesis or a model that allows linear stepwise changes in social complexity through time). We also find strong support for the co-evolution of social living with a change from nocturnal to diurnal activity patterns, but not with sex-biased dispersal. This supports suggestions that social living may arise because of increased predation risk associated with diurnal activity. Sociality based on loose aggregation is followed by a second shift to stable or bonded groups. This structuring facilitates the evolution of cooperative behaviours5 and may provide the scaffold for other distinctive anthropoid traits including coalition formation, cooperative resource defence and large brains.

Somehow the model published for consideration in Nature got lost in translation to become the conclusion trumpeted by human biodiversity hack Nicholas Wade in the NYTimes thus;

NYTimes | Genes Play Major Role in Primate Social Behavior, Study Finds - The Oxford survey confirms that the structure of human society, too, is likely to have a genetic basis, since humans are in the primate family, said Bernard Chapais, an expert on human social evolution at the University of Montreal.

“Evolutionary change in any particular lineage is highly constrained by the lineage’s phylogenetic history,” Dr. Chapais said, referring to the evolutionary family tree. “This reasoning applies to all species, including ours. But in humans, cultural variation hides both the social unity of humankind and its biological foundation.”

Human multifamily groups may have arisen from the gorilla-type harem structure, with many harems merging together, or from stable breeding bonds replacing sexual promiscuity in a chimpanzee-type society, Dr. Chapais said.

In his book “Primeval Kinship” (Harvard, 2008), he describes a further stage in human social evolution that occurred when individual bands allied with those with whom they exchanged daughters. The bands in such a marital exchange system formed a tribe, taking human society to a level of organization beyond that of chimpanzee society.

With chimps, territorially based bands also exchange daughters to avoid incest but continue to fight with one another to the death because the males cannot recognize their kinship with relatives in neighboring bands. Fist tap BD/Fist tap Nana.

the social brain hypothesis and its implications for social evolution

PubMed | The social brain hypothesis was proposed as an explanation for the fact that primates have unusually large brains for body size compared to all other vertebrates: Primates evolved large brains to manage their unusually complex social systems. Although this proposal has been generalized to all vertebrate taxa as an explanation for brain evolution, recent analyses suggest that the social brain hypothesis takes a very different form in other mammals and birds than it does in anthropoid primates. In primates, there is a quantitative relationship between brain size and social group size (group size is a monotonic function of brain size), presumably because the cognitive demands of sociality place a constraint on the number of individuals that can be maintained in a coherent group. In other mammals and birds, the relationship is a qualitative one: Large brains are associated with categorical differences in mating system, with species that have pairbonded mating systems having the largest brains. It seems that anthropoid primates may have generalized the bonding processes that characterize monogamous pairbonds to other non-reproductive relationships ('friendships'), thereby giving rise to the quantitative relationship between group size and brain size that we find in this taxon. This raises issues about why bonded relationships are cognitively so demanding (and, indeed, raises questions about what a bonded relationship actually is), and when and why primates undertook this change in social style.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

one-third of young U.S. adults have been arrested: study

Reuters | Close to one in three teens and young adults get arrested by age 23, suggests a new study that finds more of them are being booked now than in the 1960s.

Those arrests are for everything from underage drinking and petty theft to violent crime, researchers said. They added that the increase might not necessarily reflect more criminal behavior in youth, but rather a police force that's more apt to arrest young people than in the past.

"The vast majority of these kids will never be arrested again," said John Paul Wright, who studies juvenile delinquency at the University of Cincinnati's Institute of Crime Science, but wasn't involved in the new study.

"The real serious ones are embedded in the bigger population of kids who are just picking up one arrest," he told Reuters Health.

Though violent crimes might be on the rarer end of the spectrum of offenses, the study's lead author pointed to the importance of catching the early warning signs of criminal behavior in adolescents and young adults, saying that pediatricians and parents can both play a role in turning those youngsters around.

Robert Brame of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and his colleagues analyzed data from a nationally-representative youth survey conducted between 1997 and 2008.

A group of more than 7,000 adolescents age 12 to 16 in the study's first year filled out the annual surveys with questions including if and when they had ever been arrested.

At age 12, less than one percent of participants who responded had been arrested. By the time they were 23, that climbed to 30 percent with a history of arrest.

That compares to an estimated 22 percent of young adults who had been arrested in 1965, from a past study.

"It was certainly higher than we expected based on what we saw in the 1960s, but it wasn't dramatically higher," said Brame.

Arrests in adolescents are especially worrisome, he told Reuters Health, because many repeat offenders start their "criminal career" at a young age.

The researchers said it seems that the criminal justice system has taken to arresting both the young and old more than it did in the past, when fines and citations might have been given to some people who are now arrested.

"If (police) find kids that are intoxicated or they have pulled over someone intoxicated... now, nine times out of 10 they're going to make an arrest," Wright told Reuters Health.

"We do have to question if arrest is an appropriate intervention in all circumstances, or if we need to rethink some of the policies we have enacted."

He pointed out that young people who have an arrest on their record might have more trouble getting jobs in the future. It's one thing if that's because they were involved in a violent crime, he continued, but another if their offence was non-violent, like drinking underage or smoking marijuana.

"Arrest does have major social implications for people as they transition from adolescence to adulthood," Wright said.

While the report didn't ask youth why they had been arrested, Brame said that common offenses in that age group also include stealing, vandalizing and arson.

For most minor offenses, teens and young adults will get a term of probation or another minor penalty, he said. The most serious adolescent offenders and those with a prior record could be prosecuted as adults and end up getting a prison sentence.

Brame said that being poor, struggling in school and having a difficult home life have all been linked to a higher risk of arrest in that age group.

He and his colleagues wrote in Pediatrics on Monday that other warning signs of delinquent behavior include early instances of aggression and bullying, hyperactivity and delayed development.

Pediatricians might be able to recognize those warning signs more clearly than parents, and can point kids toward resources to help keep them out of trouble, such as counseling services, Brame said.

"We urge that parents who are concerned about their kids' well-being, that they get those kids in to see a pediatrician on a regular basis so the pediatrician can do the things they're trained to do."

SOURCE: bit.ly/jsoh2P Pediatrics, online December 19, 2011.

six reasons young christians leave church

Barna | Many parents and church leaders wonder how to most effectively cultivate durable faith in the lives of young people. A five-year project headed by Barna Group president David Kinnaman explores the opportunities and challenges of faith development among teens and young adults within a rapidly shifting culture. The findings of the research are included in a new book by Kinnaman titled You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church.

The research project was comprised of eight national studies, including interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.

No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research uncovered six significant themes why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
A few of the defining characteristics of today's teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysometing Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church's expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).

do surveillance cameras violate students' rights?

WaPo | The Fairfax County School Board decided Thursday to permit indoor video surveillance cameras for the first time, capping a months-long debate over whether such monitoring technology is appropriate and effective for public schools.

Those for monitoring students with surveillance cameras cite student safety and crime as the deciding factors, while those against installing the cameras worry about violating students' rights.

Chat with Elizabeth Schultz about why she thinks surveillance cameras are inappropriate in public schools and violate the rights of the students.

Agree? Disagree? Submit your opinion and questions on the topic now!

Monday, December 19, 2011

as above, so below: the worldview of Lynn Margulis

realitysandwich | "In the arithmetic of life, One is always Many."

Lynn Margulis, biologist and Distinguished Professor of Geosciences, composed a grand and powerful view of the living and the non-living. Integrating the work of obscure Russian scientists, DNA pulled from cell organelles, computer-generated daisies, and the hindguts of termites, her vision was wider in scope and more profound in depth than any other coherent scientific world view. At the time of her death on November 22nd, 2011, it is a vision that remains misunderstood and misconstrued by many scientists.

Much of this view came from her uncanny ability to first lean forward and see the smallest inhabitants of the Earth; to hover there, and then to leap back at the speed of thought to conceptualize the entire planet. Lean forward, then stand back. This inner movement, this seeing from soil to space, marked a unique scientific endeavor.

This perspective was earned only through walking through diverse areas of study -- geology, genetics, biology, chemistry, literature, embryology, paleontology. Those fields, are sometimes separated by an untraversed distance at universities: they are housed in separate buildings which may as well be different worlds. In Margulis, they found agreement and discussion with each other; they were reconnected, just as they are intrinsically connected in nature.

This journey led her to emphasize in all her scientific work two phenomena -- the fusing of distinct beings into a single being: symbiosis; and the interaction of organisms and their environments to create relational "loops" that led to regulation of many Earth systems: Gaia Theory.

Taken separately these concepts have the ability to redefine, respectively, how we understand organisms and the environment.

Taken together, they can redefine our consciousness.

stuporstitions off the table of rational criticism?


Video - The four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse.

HuffPo | Richard Dawkins has challenged David Cameron’s assertion that the UK needs to return to Christian ideals, calling the Bible “an appalling moral compass”.

On Friday, in a speech to celebrate the 400th birthday of the King James Bible, the prime minister said the New Testament had helped give our country "a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today,” adding that we should "actively stand up and defend" these Christian values.

However, speaking to Sky News, Dawkins, a renowned, scientist, author and atheist, said that Cameron is wrong to suggest the Christian Bible is going to “help us with our morals and our social wellbeing.”

“The Christian bible will help us with our literature,” said the author of The God Delusion. “It should therefore be taught in schools in literature classes, but it’s not going to help us with our morals, far from it.”

“The bible is a terrible moral compass, if you think about it. Of course, you can cherry pick the verses that you like, which means the verses that happen to coincide with our modern secular consensus, but then you need to have a rational for leaving out the ones that say stone people to death if they break the Sabbath, or if they commit adultery. It’s an appalling moral compass.”

The Oxford professor reasoned that the ideas within the new testament - of crucifixion, of redemption, of a scapegoat who is put to death for the sins of all mankind – makes it a terrible social guide. “The sooner we leave Christianity and all other religions behind, from a moral point of view the better,” he said.

In an open letter to Cameron in the December edition of the New Statesmen, Dawkins questioned the prime minister's faith and that of most politicians.

"If you are like several government ministers - of all three parties - to whom I have spoken, you are not really a religious believer yourself," he wrote. "Several ministers and ex-ministers of education whom I have met, both Conservative and Labour, don't believe in God but, to quote the philosopher Daniel Dennett, they do "believe in belief".

Speaking on Saturday, Dawkins continued on the offensive, charging Cameron with falling into a trap by calling the UK a Christian country, but concluding that it is in a "terrible moral state".

"It seems like a paradox," he quipped. "If we are in a state of moral collapse, I don’t think Christianity or Islam is going to help. What we need is a better moral sense, which we get from moral philosophy. It’s absolute nonsense to say we need faith in order to be good.”

On Friday, Professor Dawkins' fellow atheist campaigner Christopher Hitchens died aged 62, following a battle with cancer. Along with Dennett and neuroscientist Sam Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins became known as The Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse, a group of atheist thinkers and writers offering, as Hitchens put it, "a push back to religious tyranny".

Sunday, December 18, 2011

song presentation induces gene expression in the songbird forebrain

PNAS | We investigated the participation of genomic regulatory events in the response of the songbird brain to a natural auditory stimulus of known physiological and behavioral relevance, birdsong. Using in situ hybridization, we detected a rapid increase in forebrain mRNA levels of an immediate-early gene encoding a transcriptional regulator (ZENK; also known as zif-268, egr-1, NGFI-A, or Krox-24) following presentation of tape-recorded songs to canaries (Serinus canaria) and zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). ZENK induction is most marked in a forebrain region believed to participate in auditory processing and is greatest when birds hear the song of their own species. A significantly lower level of induction occurs when birds hear the song of a different species and no induction is seen after exposure to tone bursts. Cellular analysis indicates that the level of induction reflects the proportion of neurons recruited to express the gene. These results suggest a role for genomic responses in neural processes linked to song pattern recognition, discrimination, or the formation of auditory associations.

songbird genome reveals new insights...,


Video - Learning and reproducing song has direct effects on finch genome.

WUSTL | Nearly all animals make sounds instinctively, but baby songbirds learn to sing in virtually the same way human infants learn to speak: by imitating a parent.

Now, an international team of scientists (listed below), led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has decoded the genome of a songbird — the Australian zebra finch — to reveal intriguing clues about the genetic basis and evolution of vocal learning.

An analysis of the genome, published April 1 in the journal Nature, suggests a large part of the bird’s DNA is actively engaged by hearing and singing songs. The simple melodies last only a few seconds but are rooted in tremendous genetic complexity, the scientists report.

The new work provides insights to help scientists understand how humans learn language. It also sets the stage for future studies that could help identify the genetic and molecular origins of speech disorders, such as those related to autism, stroke, stuttering and Parkinson’s disease, the researchers say.

“Now we can look deep into the genome, not just at the genes involved in vocal learning, but at the complex ways in which they are regulated,” says senior author Richard K. Wilson, PhD, director of Washington University’s Genome Center. “There are layers and layers of complexity that we’re just beginning to see. This information provides clues to how vocal learning occurs at the most basic molecular level in birds and in people.”

Among songbirds, singing is almost exclusively a male activity: Males serenade females with love songs to attract a mate. As babies, they learn to sing by listening to their fathers. At first, a young bird “babbles,” but with practice learns to closely imitate his father’s song. Once the bird has mastered the family song, he will sing it for the rest of his life and pass it on to the next generation.

Aside from humans and songbirds, other animals known to communicate by vocal learning include bats, whales, elephants, hummingbirds and parrots. Because zebra finches learn to sing in a predictable way and many of their genes are conserved in humans, they are an important model for understanding vocal learning in humans.

the genome of a songbird..,


Video - Zebra Finch pair bathing

Nature | The zebra finch is an important model organism in several fields1, with unique relevance to human neuroscience. Like other songbirds, the zebra finch communicates through learned vocalizations, an ability otherwise documented only in humans and a few other animals and lacking in the chicken—the only bird with a sequenced genome until now. Here we present a structural, functional and comparative analysis of the genome sequence of the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), which is a songbird belonging to the large avian order Passeriformes. We find that the overall structures of the genomes are similar in zebra finch and chicken, but they differ in many intrachromosomal rearrangements, lineage-specific gene family expansions, the number of long-terminal-repeat-based retrotransposons, and mechanisms of sex chromosome dosage compensation. We show that song behaviour engages gene regulatory networks in the zebra finch brain, altering the expression of long non-coding RNAs, microRNAs, transcription factors and their targets. We also show evidence for rapid molecular evolution in the songbird lineage of genes that are regulated during song experience. These results indicate an active involvement of the genome in neural processes underlying vocal communication and identify potential genetic substrates for the evolution and regulation of this behaviour.

As in all songbirds, singing in the zebra finch is under the control of a discrete neural circuit that includes several dedicated centres in the forebrain termed the ‘song control nuclei’. Neurophysiological studies in these nuclei during singing have yielded some of the most illuminating examples of how vocalizations are encoded in the motor system of a vertebrate brain. In the zebra finch, these nuclei develop more fully in the male than in the female (who does not sing), and they change markedly in size and organization during the juvenile period when the male learns to sing. Analysis of the underlying cellular mechanisms of plasticity led to the unexpected discovery of neurogenesis in adult songbirds and life-long replacement of neurons. Sex steroid hormones also contribute to songbird neural plasticity, in part by influencing the survival of new neurons. Some of these effects are probably caused by oestrogen and/or testosterone synthesized within the brain itself rather than just in the gonads.

Song perception and memory also involve auditory centres that are present in both sexes, and the mere experience of hearing a song activates gene expression in these auditory centres. The gene response itself changes as a song becomes familiar over the course of a day or as the context of the experience changes. The act of singing induces gene expression in the male song control nuclei, and these patterns of gene activation also vary with the context of the experience. The function of this changing genomic activity is not yet understood, but it may support or suppress learning and help integrate information over periods of hours to days.

neurobiology of vocal communication

Duke | Dr. Jarvis' laboratory studies the neurobiology of vocal communication. Emphasis is placed on the molecular pathways involved in the perception and production of learned vocalizations. We use an integrative approach that combines behavioral, anatomical and molecular biological techniques. The main animal model used is songbirds, one of the few vertebrate groups that evolved the ability to learn their vocalizations. The generality of the discoveries is tested in other vocal learning orders, such as parrots and hummingbirds, as well as non-vocal learners, such as pigeons and non-human primates. Some of the questions require performing behavior/molecular biology experiments in freely ranging animals, such as hummingbirds in the tropical forests of Brazil. Recent results show that in songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds, perception and production of song are accompanied by anatomically distinct patterns of gene expression. All three groups were found to exhibit vocally-activated gene expression in forebrain nuclei that are in almost identical brain locations. These structures for vocal learning and production are thought to have evolved independently within the past 70 million years, since they are absent from interrelated non-vocal learning orders. One structure, Area X of the basal ganglia's striatum in songbirds, shows large differential gene activation depending on the social context in which the bird sings. These differences may reflect a semantic content of song, perhaps similar to human language. Future work will address: 1) the function of the basal ganglia in vocal communication; 2) the evolution of vocal communication; 3) the molecules responsible for the formation of vocal/auditory memories; 4) the links between electrophysiological activity and gene activation, and 5) the relationships between songbirds vocalizations and human language. The overall goal of the research is to advance our knowledge of the neural mechanisms for vocal learning as well as basic mechanisms of brain function. These goals will be further achieved by combined collaborative efforts with the laboratories of Drs. Mooney and Nowicki at Duke University, who study respectively behavior and electrophysiological aspects of vocal communication.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

open-source tactical evolution

PortlandOccupier | The Portland Occupation stumbled upon a tactical innovation regarding occupying public spaces. This evolution in tactics was spontaneous, and went unreported in the media. On December 3rd, we took a park and were driven out of it by riot police; that much made the news. What the media didn’t report is that we re-took the park later that same evening, and the police realized that it would be senseless to attempt to clear it again, so they packed up their military weaponry and left. Occupy Portland has developed a tactic to keep a park when the police decide to enforce an eviction.

The tactical evolution that evolved relies on two military tactics that are thousands of years old- the tactical superiority of light infantry over heavy infantry, and the tactical superiority of the retreat over the advance.

Heavy infantry is a group of soldiers marching in a column or a phalanx that are armed with weaponry for hand to hand, close quarters combat. Heavy infantry function as a unit, not individual soldiers. Their operational strength is dependent upon maintaining the integrity of that unit. Riot police are heavy infantry. They will always form a line and advance as a unit.

Light infantry are armed with ranged weapons for assault from a distance. Light infantry operate as individuals that are free to roam at a distance and fire upon the opposition with ranged weapons. Cops firing tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, bean bag rounds, etc. are light infantry. They remain to the rear of the phalanx of riot cops (heavy infantry) and depend upon the riot cops maintaining a secure front and flanks to provide them a secure area of operations.

Protesters function fluidly as either light or heavy infantry. Their mass, because it is lacking in organization, functions as a phalanx, having no flanks or rear. Lack of organization gives that mass the option of moving in whichever direction it feels like, at any given time. If protesters all move to the right, the entire group and supporting officers has to shift to that flank. While the protesters can retreat quickly, the police can only advance as fast as their light infantry, supporting staff can follow and maintain a secure rear (if the mass of protesters were to run to the next block over and quickly loop around to the rear of the riot cops, the organization of the cops would be reduced to chaos). If that police cannot assemble with a front to oppose protesters, they are useless. The integrity of that tactic is compromised, and unable to maintain internal organization, the cops revert to individuals engaging in acts of brutality, which eventually winds up on the evening news and they lose the battle regardless of whether they clear the park or not.

Because of the lack of organization in a crowd of protesters, light infantry cops firing tear gas, etc. has little effect because it just serves to disorganize a group that relies upon disorganization in the first place. All it really does is disorganize the riot cops, who then resort to brutality.

The lack of weaponry on the part of the protesters grants them the luxury of opposing riot cops at close quarters, or remaining at long range in a refusal to engage the heavy infantry riot police at all. They have the advantage of the retreat, they can quickly move away, or in any direction, and the heavy infantry riot cops lack the swiftness to respond.

So far, all the occupations have, in a grave tactical error, agreed to engage the riot cops when they march in to clear parks. This has been a show of bravado that has the tactical benefits of providing media coverage of the brutal methods of police and the benefit of draining the resources of the oppressor by forcing them to incur the expense of arresting and prosecuting people for trivial offenses. Fist tap Dale.

three myths about the detention bill


Video - Jerrold Nadler and Keith Olbermann discuss NDAA.

Salon | Condemnation of President Obama is intense, and growing, as a result of his announced intent to sign into law the indefinite detention bill embedded in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). These denunciations come not only from the nation’s leading civil liberties and human rights groups, but also from the pro-Obama New York Times Editorial Page, which today has a scathing Editorial describing Obama’s stance as “a complete political cave-in, one that reinforces the impression of a fumbling presidency” and lamenting that “the bill has so many other objectionable aspects that we can’t go into them all,” as well as from vocal Obama supporters such as Andrew Sullivan, who wrote yesterday that this episode is “another sign that his campaign pledge to be vigilant about civil liberties in the war on terror was a lie.” In damage control mode, White-House-allied groups are now trying to ride to the rescue with attacks on the ACLU and dismissive belittling of the bill’s dangers.

For that reason, it is very worthwhile to briefly examine — and debunk — the three principal myths being spread by supporters of this bill, and to do so very simply: by citing the relevant provisions of the bill, as well as the relevant passages of the original 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), so that everyone can judge for themselves what this bill actually includes (this is all above and beyond the evidence I assembled in writing about this bill yesterday):

Friday, December 16, 2011

the scandal of alabama poor cut off from water

BBC | Banks stand to lose millions of dollars in debt repayments if the biggest municipal bankruptcy in American history is allowed to proceed.

But the real victims of the financial collapse in the US state of Alabama's most populous county are its poorest residents - forced to bathe in bottled water and use portable toilets after being cut off from the mains supply.

And there is widespread anger in Jefferson County that swingeing sewerage rate hikes could have been avoided but for the greed, corruption and incompetence of local politicians, government officials and Wall Street financiers.

Tammy Lucas is the human face of a financial and political scandal that has brought one of the most deprived communities in America's south to the point of what some local people believe is collapse.

She says: "If the sewer bill gets higher, my light might get cut off and if I try to catch up the light, my water might get cut off. So we're in between. We can't make it like this."

Mrs Lucas's monthly sewerage rate bills - the amount levied by the county to flush away waste and provide water for baths and showers - has quadrupled in the past 15 years. She says it is currently running at $150 (£97) a month, which leaves little left out of her $600 social security cheque for food and electricity.

"We need to keep the water running because we're women," she says. "We need to take baths. I try to pay the sewer bill and the water bill together and then what little I got left I try to put on my lights. I got to have lights."

effective and sustainable public education for these children will revolutionize all public education

USAToday | One in 45 children in the USA — 1.6 million children — were living on the street, in homeless shelters or motels, or doubled up with other families last year, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

The numbers represent a 33% increase from 2007, when there were 1.2 million homeless children, according to a report the center is releasing Tuesday.

"This is an absurdly high number," says Ellen Bassuk, president of the center. "What we have new in 2010 is the effects of a man-made disaster caused by the economic recession. … We are seeing extreme budget cuts, foreclosures and a lack of affordable housing."

The report paints a bleaker picture than one by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which nonetheless reported a 28% increase in homeless families, from 131,000 in 2007 to 168,000 in 2010.

Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor of social policy, says HUD's numbers are much smaller because they count only families living on the street or in emergency shelters.

"It is a narrower standard of homelessness," he says. However, Culhane says, "the bottom line is we've shown an increase in the percentage of homeless families."

The study, a state-by-state report card, looks at four years' worth of Education Department data. It assesses how homeless children fare based on factors including the state's wages, poverty and foreclosure rates, cost of housing and its programs for homeless families.

The states where homeless children fare the best are Vermont, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Maine.

It finds the worst states for homeless children are Southern states where poverty is high, including Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, and states decimated by foreclosures and job losses, such as Arizona, California and Nevada.

the face of poverty in america

USAToday | Eleven-year-old Sarai Camacho of Donna, Texas, tears up when she tells why her mother let go the baby sitter for her and her younger sister this summer. It's the same reason her father brought the family to Indiana so he could work the melon fields for a season.

"Last December, my mom didn't get paid for one month, and we started having problems," said Sarai, at Oaktown First Christian Church, which hosted free classes for children of migrant workers. "My mom said for us to come here (to the church) so she doesn't have to give money to the baby sitter because we're running out of it."

For churches, it's become an all-too-familiar sight: working families that aren't able to make ends meet. As household resources get tapped out, churches are often the first to see the changing face of poverty — and it's often a young one.

"We're seeing younger families come in," said Ken Campbell, food coordinator for Lazarus House, a Christian ministry to help the needy in Lawrence, Mass. "They're coming forward because one member in the household got laid off or had their hours cut, and now they're just barely making it."

Across the United States, rising numbers of children are coping with the stressors of economic hardship:

•Child poverty rates reached 22 percent in 2010, up from 20.7 percent in 2009 and 16.2 percent in 2000, according to a September report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of children living in poverty increased from 13.1 million to 15.5 million, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

•The Casey Foundation also reported that 4 percent of American children had been affected by home foreclosures since 2007, and 11 percent had at least one unemployed parent in 2010.