Friday, April 26, 2013

Man v. Woman v. Dog

I’m going to share a breakthrough.  I’m a little apprehensive since, like so many groundbreaking thoughts, this will be controversial.   

You know how it goes:  People read a headline and “go off” before they understand the context.   

But because it’s important, I will press on.  Just bear with me and you’ll see the genius of it: 

Now, cringing as I write, I offer the headline:  Women's Brains Smaller than Men's, but Used More Efficiently. 

All right you guys!  Did you even read the whole sentence?  No fair to stop at the comma! 

And Women, it’s OK.  Breathe...!  And breathe...! 

Men, if you’re still there, quit high-fiving and read on.  

This research out of the University of California says that while women average 8% less brain mass, they maintain equal intelligence to big-brained men.   

We’ve been trying to tell you forever that size doesn’t matter! 

And guys, I just tossed you that bone to soften the blow this mind-blowing revelation will deliver:  Women’s little brains are more like dogs’ brains than men’s big brains are.   

I know.  Men take pride in their dog brains.  They cling to and cultivate their canine heritage.   

Conventional wisdom has assured us for decades that men’s brains and dogs’ brains reflect parallel composition.  This conclusion is well supported by evidence and readily observed in the equivalent preoccupations of man and his buddy. 

As an example, both dogs and men have significant chunks of gray matter dedicated to mindless, repetitive activities – for dogs, it’s chasing thrown objects; for men, it’s air guitar. 

Both dogs and men have entire lobes of their brains devoted to ball sports, reflected by the endless repetition demanded by every canine that ever dropped a slobbery orb at his master’s feet, and the interminable playing or watching of ball sports on TV by adult males. 

But I got to thinking about it this week after I read more redundant research in the category of “gender challenges” titled, New Research Proves MenReally Don't Understand Women. 

The study comes out of Germany and concludes that men fail to recognize fairly obvious nonverbal signals, such as expressions of fear or disgust, when conveyed by the eyes of women.  Duh.  And, it goes on; when they’re communicating with other men they do just fine!  Double duh. 

In fact, brain scan data showed that when looking at the eyes of other men, but not women, male participants showed “heightened activation of the right amygdala,” which is that small, almond-shaped part of their big ole brain that plays a key role in the processing of emotions.  

“The finding that men are superior in recognizing [the] emotions [and] mental states of other men, as compared to women, might be surprising,” said the research team leader, psychiatrist Boris Schiffer.  

Well, maybe it was surprising to Boris, but the rest of us are rolling our eyes.  We just keep on proving what we already know.  

So here’s where the trailblazing begins: 

After painstaking and diligent review of that internet article, an array of single pane, hand-drawn cartoons about brains and numerous stand-up comedy routines, I contend that we have fallen victim to confirmation bias, only seeing what supports our foregone conclusions.  

We have rushed to judgment.  We have only protected the punch lines of all our sexist jokes!  The truth is - Men can NOT claim dog brains! 

As proof, consider the classic Berman cartoon “Comparative Anatomy: BRAINS – Dogs v. Men” which offers a graphic depiction of specks in a man’s brain labeled “Commitment Molecule,” and “Listening Particle.”  These two, when paired the almond-shaped sliver dedicated to detection of the emotions of women should put to rest the long-held notion that men have brains comparable to dogs’ brains. 

That’s right.  We know the unwavering, loving gaze of our dogs.  They listen to us for the sheer joy of hearing our voices!  In contrast to man’s “Interruption Lobe,” the dog brain encompasses an expanse entitled “Selfless Devotion to Loved Ones” and a gland reserved solely for “Commitment to Family.”  

Now honestly, what man hangs on your every word or gives you the first cookie out of the oven?  No!  But a woman does.  Woman and her little dog-brain!  

Well.  That didn’t come out right.   

And I thought I had a victory.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Aldous Huxley got it right

Item:  Man uses mind to control rat’s tail. 

OK.  Set aside your common sense reaction:  A man decides to use his mind and he uses it for that?  To control a rat’s tail?!   

What about the rat’s breeding habits, or his choice of residence, for example.  Why not use your mind to control one of those more pressing rat proclivities? 

Or how about a man controlling his own impulse to browse the channels for hours on end while the cable guide obscures the picture from other viewers in the room?  What about that? 

Or what if such a man used his mind to remember someone’s birthday, as a suggestion, or her ring size? 

But I digress. 

The point of the news out of BBC Future is that a man in the United States has successfully used his mind to control a rat’s tail in Brazil.  It’s scientifically documented. 

Yeah, me too.  I’m still hung up on the why of it all, but let’s press on. 

It’s a breakthrough, you understand.  The man wired up in a lab here thought “twitch” into an internet connection with the rat’s brain in South America, and voila!  That rodent wagged his hairless appendage as though he thought to do it himself. 

Still feeling a little underwhelmed. 

And they don’t mention any concern regarding reverse signals, from rat brain to man brain.  Nevertheless. 

Very serious grown men with clipboards and grant money, neuroscientists at Duke University, Harvard and the Pentagon, are focused on such brain-computer interfaces.  They are hell-bent it seems, to take steps beyond the already established ability of human brains to commandeer computer cursors, artificial limbs and virtual drones. 

We can extrapolate with confidence that they want that rat to dance to whatever tune is stuck in their heads.  It’s a small world after all.  (Sorry.)  Achieving that pinnacle they most certainly will move on to bigger and more bizarre brain-to-brain interactions. 

Hold that thought.   

Item:  Researchers at the 2012 conference for the International Association for the Study of Dreams report lucid dreamers sending signals to each other over the internet while in the dream state. 

These guys strap on their brainwave headbands and when the EEG recognizes they’re in the dream state via rapid eye movement, it alerts them.  The first one to get that signal becomes lucid - self-aware in the dream state - and signals his pal who’s sleeping in another room, or another state.  

These Avant guard techies even created a rudimentary competition in which the dreamer who signals his counterpart first, wins.  Now they’re exploring dreaming-brain-to-dreaming-brain connections via social media.  What a time saver!  Find your perfect mate while you sleep. 

The dream guys jumped ahead of the Pentagon guys and their pet Brazilian rat.  They established a conscious - at least lucid - contact between two human brains in remote locations.  The difference is that the dreamers aren’t trying to control each other, they just want to play. 

And finally:  

Item:  Google has opened a new service to let people control their email, blog posts and online photos posthumously, as concern grows over what happens to a user’s "digital life" when he dies. 

This service allows living Googlers to set up binding instructions for what happens to their electronic legacies when they pass into that great Ethernet in “the cloud.”  It heralds a common clause in wills of the future.  

And it’s worrisome for those of us who’ve had this experience:  One of my LinkedIn connections died a couple of years ago but he continues to ask for my endorsements.  “Does ‘John’ know about project management?” the screen prompts hopefully.  “Does ‘John’ know about Microsoft Word?” 

It’s creepy.  And by the way, “John” was creepy when he was alive.  I didn’t like him in the first place.  We started out as Facebook “friends” because we worked together and I didn’t want to draw his attention by declining his request.  Twisted, I know.  Then, he never even “liked” my posts or LOL’d one time!  I guess he wants sympathy endorsements now! 

In summary:  Mad scientists work feverishly toward methods of controlling us from afar.  Fun-loving researchers develop dazzling means to connect and entertain us.  And search engines allow us to communicate from beyond the grave. 

We have, indeed, a Brave New Electronic World.

Friday, April 12, 2013

I left it in the living room

The scene:  Baby Boomer working diligently at her desk.  She’s concentrating, writing, editing, rewriting, working toward deadline.  She’s a master.  A wizard.   

Then, a pause.  She pushes away from her keyboard, jumps to her feet and dashes - dashes mind you - downstairs into the living room to get … something.   

Something very important.  

Something warranting a dash for goodness sake. 

What the heck did she go there for?!!! 

Then, because the room looks familiar but the goal remains enigmatic, resignation sets in.  Shoulders sag.  She must turn and climb the stairs with a little wrinkle in her brow while reviewing the circumstances of her journey.  She retraces her steps in faint hope of regenerating the same urgency she felt so … urgently just moments ago. 

Let’s see…I was sitting right here.  Writing my column.  Then I jumped up and ran to the living room for…for…Dang it!  Why did I get up and run out of the room?! 

She tries to calm herself.  It’s no big deal, she says.  Everyone does that, right?  We’re all jumping up from our desks, hurrying around the house pointedly seeking something, only to have to shrug, abandon the mission and settle down again.   

Perhaps it’s not material, but an esoteric sort of metaphysical thing we seek.  Inner meaning.  Purpose of life.  No need to prowl the world, thank God, when peace of mind is within your own home, your metaphorical self.  Perhaps our built-in internal yearning for depth of experience compels us … OK.  I’m not buying it either.  

Pretty sure it was more mundane than that.  I was probably looking for that new pencil with the fresh eraser I just bought at…where’d I get that thing?  More important, where’d I put that thing?  I don’t know.  Doesn’t matter.  Look!  A squirrel!  

But so what?  Everyone misplaces her car keys now and then.  No need to worry until you misplace your car!  Let me just check.  Yep, it’s there, safe in the garage. 

I’m OK, I tell ya!  

But you can see why I glommed onto “brain games” with millions of other Boomers.   

Thank God, I thought.  These intellectual games will save my withered walnut of a brain from further shrinkage!  If I race around these mental agility wheels frantically enough I won’t have to careen around the house like a pinball.  Sign me up.  I’ll do it! 

I jumped in with both lobes.  I couldn’t wait for the “positive and often remarkable results” including “better face-name recall, faster problem-solving skills and a quicker memory.” 

Oh yeah, just 10-15 minutes a day of synapse gymnastics will “reorganize my brain by confronting it with new challenges,” thereby improving my ability “to dynamically allocate attention,” not to mention split infinitives.  

I began to feel top heavy in a hurry. 

But wait.  What’s this from the NewYorker?  “Brain Games are Bogus.”  

Uh oh. 

See that headline’s a problem for me.  I’ve devoted some serious time to feeling all good and smug about my calisthenics for neuroplasticity.  I have an emotional investment in brain games.  These brain games may be the final fragile filament holding my pale gray matter intact!  You can’t take away my brain games!  

And what does the New Yorker know anyway?  

Oh, right.  They collected information from analysts at the University of Oslo and Georgia Tech who investigated claims made in the multi-million dollar brain game industry and came up with a pretty big goose egg.  

Sure, they say, diligent hours of playing games supposedly designed to improve “working memory and fluid intelligence” does produce growth in one’s performance on those games.   

But that’s it.  The scientists who gathered all of the best research—twenty-three investigations of memory training by teams around the world—and employed a standard statistical technique (called meta-analysis) conclude:  "The games may yield improvements in the narrow task being trained, but this does not transfer to broader skills like the ability to read or do arithmetic, or to other measures of intelligence.” 

In short, “Playing the games makes you better at the games … but not at anything anyone might care about in real life." 

Well that’s just great.   

Excuse me for a moment.  I have to get something from the living room.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Everyday life in the City of Drones

In the category of What Could Possibly Go Wrong we find this item from Reuters:  U.S. authorities grapple with regulating the use of unarmed drones in U.S. skies as they are already flying.  Rapidly evolving drone technology is reshaping disaster response, crime scene reconstruction, crisis management and tactical operations.   

So that should be good.   

But coupled with this from staff at Business Insider:  [I] “tried to fly a drone and failed miserably,” questions arise.

Admittedly, these were not the highly trained police, first responders and expert personnel one might expect to be at the controls of such hi-tech machinery.  Nevertheless, a couple of young techies were goofing around, er, testing their skills in the offices of the magazine.  They posted a 65-second video showing 11 full-on crashes of their PTAP F-0700 AR.Drone – purchased online for $45.95.   

It’s the newest craze.  And therein lies the problem:  Soon everyone will be flying a drone.  Or at least looking up at one! 

The kids at Business Insider were toying with an apparatus that looks like an oversized water bug.  You know, the insect that lives spread-eagled on the surface of a pond, scooting around with amazing agility.  The F-0700 is an expanded, airborne, polypropylene version of that.  Look for one soon in the skies above you. 

Under these kids’ control, it wobbled chest high, thumped into walls, crashed into doorjambs and repeatedly capsized onto the floor.  You’d think with their video game trained thumbs, they’d do better than that. 

They said flying it was “ridiculously hard.” 

I can so relate. 

I wasn’t very good at it either.  Flying drones.   

Oh yeah.  I was a drone pilot myself, back in the day.  I worked undercover in JC Penny’s seasonal toy department as an SA.  Okay, Sales Associate.  I was working retail, all right?  I was only 16 years old, after all! 

Anyway, the must-have item in the toy department that year was the radio-controlled helicopter.  I flew that little sucker up and down the aisles, all the way through housewares and straight into men’s underwear (the department!).   

That’s where I got into trouble.  Concentrating on my flight pattern, I’d left the toy department unattended.  Some mom reported me!  Merry Christmas. 

But the point is that the drone led me around the store.  I didn’t so much control it as follow it.   

And this is why now, with the explosion of this really cheap, cool, and highly functional technology, the Federal Aviation Administration must determine who gets to fly these unmanned aircraft in America, and where they get to go.   

Uh oh. 

While the Feds assure us that for more than five decades they have a “proven track record of introducing new technology and aircraft safely into the National Airspace System (NAS)…” 

And that they’re now working on the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into that self-same NAS.  

Accordingly, “Federal, state and local government entities must obtain an FAA Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) before flying UAS in the NAS.” 

Yep.  You’ve gotta have an FAA COA to fly your UAS in the NAS; or, in spite of your best intentions just to have some fun, you could wind up in men’s underwear.  Just sayin’.

And who believes that that alphabet goulash will have any bearing on the rest of us amateur aviators?  You may have noticed there is an ongoing negotiation between what the law dictates and what people actually do.  Just think speed limits.  

Even though the use of drones for commercial purposes is outlawed, and hobbyists are forbidden from flying drones above 400 feet or in densely populated areas, rogue drone operators have posted already aerial videos of New York and San Francisco.  And, a commercial airline pilot has reported that a drone flying at an altitude of 1,700 feet came within 200 feet of the airliner!

It’s unenforceable.  A typical American free for all.  A quick Google and anyone with $450 can buy a sophisticated drone with a wireless mini cam and a 5-foot wingspan, like the ones used by the Air Force for medium-altitude long-endurance reconnaissance and surveillance. 

The same site offers costumes, props and magic tricks!

I’m thinking scavenger hunt!  Who’s up for a drone party?!!