Connectomics, and An Approach to Frequency Normalization

August 14, 2011  |  Research Ideas  |  No Comments

Lots of very intelligent people are putting lots of effort into mapping the brain’s networks. People are calling these sort of maps of which-neuron-is-connected-to-which-neuron ‘connectomes‘, and if you’re working on this stuff, you’re doing ‘connectomics‘. (Academics love coining new fields of study! Seems like there’s a new type of ‘omics’ every month[1]. Here’s a cheatsheet courtesy of Wikipedia– though I can’t vouch for the last on the list.)

Mapping the connectome is a great step toward understanding the brain. The problem is, what do we do with a connectome once it’s built? There’s a lot of important information about the brain’s connectivity packed into a connectome, but how do we extract it? Read on for an approach to broad-stroke, comparative brain region analysis based on frequency normalization. (Fairly technical and not recommended for a general audience.) Read More

Quote: Salt in the Wound

August 12, 2011  |  No Comments

Ken Jennings, on his match with IBM’s Watson supercomputer:

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it’s confident about an answer.

Perhaps somewhat less funny from Ken’s perspective, a question asked during his reddit interview:

How’s it feel to be owned by something that asked “What is leg” ?

Quote: On Academic Bravery

August 11, 2011  |  2 Comments

From an interview with Eliezer Yudkowsky (the world’s leading paranoid on the dangers of AI):

Richard Hamming used to go around annoying his colleagues at Bell Labs by asking them what were the important problems in their field, and then, after they answered, he would ask why they weren’t working on them. Now, everyone wants to work on “important problems”, so why are so few people working on important problems? And the obvious answer is that working on the important problems doesn’t get you an 80% probability of getting one more publication in the next three months. And most decision algorithms will eliminate options like that before they’re even considered. The question will just be phrased as, “Of the things that will reliably keep me on my career track and not embarrass me, which is most important?”

And to be fair, the system is not at all set up to support people who want to work on high-risk problems. It’s not even set up to socially support people who want to work on high-risk problems. In Silicon Valley a failed entrepreneur still gets plenty of respect, which Paul Graham thinks is one of the primary reasons why Silicon Valley produces a lot of entrepreneurs and other places don’t. Robin Hanson is a truly excellent cynical economist and one of his more cynical suggestions is that the function of academia is best regarded as the production of prestige, with the production of knowledge being something of a byproduct. I can’t do justice to his development of that thesis in a few words (keywords: hanson academia prestige) but the key point I want to take away is that if you work on a famous problem that lots of other people are working on, your marginal contribution to human knowledge may be small, but you’ll get to affiliate with all the other prestigious people working on it.

And these are all factors which contribute to academia, metaphorically speaking, looking for its keys under the lamppost where the light is better, rather than near the car where it lost them. Because on a sheer gut level, the really important problems are often scary. There’s a sense of confusion and despair, and if you affiliate yourself with the field, that scent will rub off on you.

Academia does plenty of good things– but the opportunity cost of our systemic incentives toward ‘safe’ research (I include both the derivative and the esoteric) is rather staggering.

Edit, 8-13-11: A friend blogs,

The answer comes down to ethics. Service as an ethic is alien to so many academics. “I serve.” They don’t get it. Some do. A few. But a number of my friends have gone into the academy for longer or shorter periods of time, and the observations have always been similar – it’s not a place of scholarship and diligent service, but rather of all sorts of politics and backbiting where you desperately try to carve out your own private sphere in a confusing bureaucratic jungle.

I think academia used to have a strong shared sense of duty (Sebastian uses the term ‘warrior ethic,’ where service to a noble cause is its own reward), but for several reasons this has largely eroded or isn’t sustainable in today’s academy. It’s still present, but it’s much weaker. We could point to institutional factors, a changing demographic of who goes into academia, a crossover from our increasingly mercenary private-sector culture, or getting more of what we pay for, but at the end of the day– it seems like many people in academia think of it primarily as a career, not as service. It’s a big loss.

Research Idea: TMS Sonar

August 11, 2011  |  Research Ideas  |  2 Comments

TMS ‘Sonar’ for mapping brain region activity coupling

Modern neuroscience is increasingly suggesting that a great deal of a person’s personality, pathology, and cognitive approach is encoded into which of their brain regions are activity-coupled together. That is to say, which of someone’s brain regions are more vs. less wired together, compared to some baseline, determines much about that person.

Right now such coupling is largely invisible and unquantifiable. If we are to move toward a clearer understanding of individual differences, not to mention psychiatric conditions, it would be invaluable to have a test for this activity coupling. A combination TMS+fMRI alternated pulse device- as it could stimulate a specific brain region/network, and measure how it affected the activity in other regions- may very well provide an objective basis for psychiatric diagnosis and treatment recommendations, and perhaps even a firmer foundation for psychology as a whole.

The following is a somewhat technical writeup of the idea. Not into detailed neuroscience stuff? Click here.

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Quote: Nethack

August 10, 2011  |  4 Comments

A friend of mine on difficult video games and accomplishment:

Have you heard of the game NetHack?

It’s been in continuous development for the last 20 years or so. It’s all text-based graphics, very spartan in that sense, but those limited graphics make for extremely rich and deep gameplay and interaction with the world.

Oh, and it’s really, really fucking hard.

When you die, you’re dead forever. And it’s really easy to die.

Basically, every time you touch a key on your keyboard, a turn passes.

If you hold a direction key on your keyboard, 20 turns will pass and you’ll have moved 20 squares.

It’s very, very possible to have a threat emerge and kill you in 2-3 turns. The game requires extreme patience, caution, and planning to get through. Even that might not be enough, but it’s definitely required.

Beating NetHack is called “ascending” – I finally did it after a few years of playing.

And afterwards, I thought to myself – you know, I bet it’s easier to start a bank in the real world than it is to ascend in NetHack.

… Anyways. I haven’t started a bank yet. But I really seriously suspect it’s easier than beating NetHack. If you took 200,000 perfectly normal people and split them into groups of 100,000 – and half of them were instructed to beat NetHack and the other half were instructed to start a bank, and it was a really big deal if you succeeded or failed… I bet you’d get more new banks than NetHack ascensions.

His points:

1. If you can win a hellishly difficult video game, you should be able to do almost anything.

2. If you can structure your life like a video game– e.g., forgiving learning curves, point-based progression systems, rewards for difficult accomplishments, carefully selected addictions— it can really help better yourself.

I basically agree. Regarding #1, I think video games are somewhat akin to very broad IQ tests (probably a much better IQ test than the “standard” psychometric suite!), and as such don’t test for everything. There’s more to achievement than IQ. But if you can beat, say, any of the Civilization games on the hardest difficulty, it’s good evidence that you can handle complexity much, much better than most people. (Maybe you should start a bank!)

Tylenol helps with emotional pain, too

August 7, 2011  |  No Comments

One of the most interesting things we’re learning about pain is that both physical and emotional pain use the same parts of the brain. If someone feels the sting of rejection, most of the same circuits activate as if they’d stubbed their toe. Pain is pain, period, no matter where it comes from.

Some enterprising scientists (and Roy Baumeister, who has had his fingers in other interesting research) decided to check– if all pain is the same, would Tylenol help the sting of social rejection, too? They ran two experiments: in the first, they had volunteers take Tylenol for three weeks, right after waking up and just before going to sleep. In the second, they simulated social rejection by playing a game and not passing the ball to certain people. In both experiments, the group taking Tylenol reported less emotional pain than the placebo group. NIH paper; Pop writeup.

So next time you do something that could be painful- ask a girl out, get into a fight, do your taxes– take some Tylenol beforehand. It’ll help.

The Invisible Backhand: How Anonymous Has Already Won

July 31, 2011  |  5 Comments

The hacker group Anonymous has been on a tear lately, successfully hacking the Tunisian government, Sony, federal cybersecurity contractors, and after suffering from several raids, is now apparently eyeing the FBI.

It’s an interesting era for extreme cyber activism, with the hacker community seemingly finding its voice and becoming very creative in extracting vengeance upon organizations it sees as oppressive. Much has been said about whether this is ethical, if Anonymous can maintain effectiveness, and how things will develop from here. But I think most commentators have missed the point:

Anonymous has already won. And it boils down to one word: insurance.

It looks probable that cybersecurity insurance will become required for many sorts of companies– the proverbial cat is out of the bag, and even if Anonymous isn’t behind the keyboard, so-called “ethical hacking” is likely to increase in popularity. Given this, it’ll become as common to hedge your risk from hacking as it is to hedge your risk from fire or flooding– whenever risk reveals itself, there’s a huge drive to securitize it. But insurance companies aren’t dumb, and it’s likely that the premium on cybersecurity insurance will strongly reflect how much of a high-profile hacker target a company is. Just like it’s more expensive to insure a coastal home from hurricanes, so too it’ll be more expensive to insure a company popularly seen as brazenly greedy against hackers. Companies will have a powerful and quantifiable incentive to not engage in activities that make them a target.

To put this a different way, sometimes companies do things that are legal but unethical. Vigilante justice can ‘reinternalize’ the externalized costs of these behaviors.

Granted, I’m not saying vigilante justice is a good thing– often it’s not– just that Anonymous has the potential to be a very potent market force. The greater hacking community could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by being seen as capricious with their targets: if there’s little correlation between deed and penalty, insurance premiums will be high across the board. It’ll be interesting to see how things turn out.

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Quote of the week: on distractions

July 30, 2011  |  No Comments

From the New York Time’s Why Writers Belong Behind Bars:

It’s wonderful that writers can access medieval manuscripts, Swahili dictionaries and collections of 19th-­century daguerreotypes at any moment. But the downside is that it’s almost impossible to finish a sentence without interruption. I confess that even those last 15 words were stalled by a detour, via Wikipedia, to various health Web sites, where I learned that concern was aroused last year by a report that Wi-Fi radiation was causing trees to shed their bark in a Dutch town, and that our excessive Web browsing and e-mailing may also be having ill effects on bees and British children. After an hour of this, I concluded that perhaps an equally urgent scientific study might be conducted on the devastation Wi-Fi has caused to world literature. The damage is surely incalculable.

Pain/pleasure metaphysics: a request

May 16, 2011  |  No Comments

Lately I’ve been looking into causal connections between brain states and pain/pleasure.

I’m finding plenty of material on specifics such as nociceptors, gate circuits, correlative fMRI studies, and so forth, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of research, or even much speculation, on the general question. I.e.,

What are pain and pleasure, in relation to systemic properties of the brain? E.g., what principles could be used to examine a brain and predict whether it’s experiencing pain or pleasure? If we knew someone was experiencing pain or pleasure, what principles could we apply to predict what’s going on in their brain?

Ditto for sadness and happiness.

If any readers have perspective on the literature or can put me in touch with someone who does, please let me know.

Quote: the most important idea in neuroscience?

November 19, 2010  |  No Comments

Mind training is based on the idea that two opposite mental factors cannot happen at the same time. You could go from love to hate, but you cannot at the same time, toward the same object, the same person, want to harm and want to do good. You cannot in the same gesture shake a hand, and give a blow. So there are natural antidotes to emotion that are destructive to our inner well-being.

Matthieu Ricard, Habits of happiness: TED 2004
Humans are very bad at multitasking. This can have a silver lining.