Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beyond Little Albert

An article by carl Zimmer on fear in mice and men.
American psychologist John Watson decided to see if he could teach an 11-month-old baby named Albert to become scared of arbitrary things. He presented Albert with a rat, and every time the baby reached out to touch it, Watson hit a steel bar with a hammer, producing a horrendous clang. After several rounds with the rat and the bar, Watson then brought out the rat on its own. “The instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry,” Watson wrote in a 1920 report. “Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell over on his left side, raised himself on all fours and began to crawl away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching the edge of the table.”
Oddly, just reading this description got my heart going faster
In the 1980s Caroline and Robert Blanchard, working together at the University of Hawaii, carried out a pioneering study on the natural history of fear. They put wild rats in cages and then brought cats gradually closer to them. At each stage, they carefully observed how the rats reacted. The Blanchards found that the rats responded to each kind of threat with a distinct set of behaviors.
The first kind of behavior is a reaction to a potential threat, in which a predator isn’t visible but there is good reason to worry that it might be nearby. A rat might walk into a meadow that looks free of predators, for example, but that reeks of fresh cat urine. In such a case, a rat will generally explore the meadow cautiously, assessing the risk of staying there. A second, more concrete type of threat arises if a rat spots a cat at the other side of the meadow. The rat will freeze and then make a choice about what to do next. It may slink away, or it may remain immobile in hopes that the cat will eventually wander away without noticing it. Finally, the most active threat: The cat glances over, notices something, and walks toward the rat to investigate. At this point, the rat will flee if it has an escape route. If the cat gets close, the rat will choose either to fight or to run for its life.
Turns out that fear in humans is very similar to fear in mice.
Fear, the new results suggest, is not a single thing after all. Rather, it is a complex, ever-changing strategy mammal brains deploy in order to cope with danger. When a predator is off in the distance, its prey—whether rat or human—powers up a forebrain network. The network primes the body, raising the heartbeat and preparing it for fast action. At the same time, the forebrain network sharpens the brain’s attention to the outside world, evaluating threats, monitoring subtle changes, and running through possible responses. Another important job it performs is keeping the midbrain network shut down so that, instead of fleeing at top speed, a prey animal keeps very still at first. As the predator gets closer, however, the forebrain’s grip on the midbrain loosens. Now the midbrain becomes active, orchestrating a powerful, quick response: fight or flight. At the same time it shuts down the slower, more deliberative forebrain. This is no time for thinking.

It came from Newcastle

An article by Robert Allen on why the Industrial Revolution was British. He argues that Britain boostrapped its way into the Industrial era. I have excerpted heavily below, while trying to point out the main points.

First, success in trading Woollen textiles with Europe, and later Asia and America
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries a European-wide market emerged. England took a commanding position in this new order as her wool textile industry out competed the established producers in Italy and the Low Countries. England extended her lead in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by creating an intercontinental trading network including the Americas and India.
As London grew, the price of wood soared and houses began to burn coal; thanks to this coal, Britain had the cheapest energy in the world
As London grew after 1500, the price of wood fuels rose and by the end of the sixteenth century, charcoal and firewood were twice the price of coal per unit of energy. With that premium, consumers began to substitute coal for wood. Instead of a wood burning hearth in the middle of a large central room, houses were built with narrow fireplaces and chimneys to burn coal. The coal burning house was invented. It then paid to mine coal in Northumberland and ship it down the coast to London. The coal trade began. On the coal fields (in Newcastle, for instance), Britain had the cheapest energy in the world. Energy was more expensive on the European continent and particularly expensive in China (Figure 2).
The growth of trade and maufacturing led to increased demand for labour, and soon the British had the highest wages and living standards in the world
After the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, the standard of living of workers everywhere was high; they typically earned three or four times subsistence. In the ensuing centuries, population growth in Europe and Asia led to falling real wages, so that most workers ended up in the eighteenth century earning just enough to purchase the subsistence standard of living. The only countries to avoid that fate were Britain and the Low Countries. Their populations, in fact, grew more rapidly than those elsewhere, but this effect was offset by the booms in their economies due to international trade. Workers in London and Amsterdam did not, however, buy four times as much oatmeal as they needed for subsistence. Instead they upgraded their diets to beef, beer, and bread, while their counterparts in much of Europe and Asia subsisted on quasi-vegetarian diets of boiled grains with a few peas or lentils. Workers in northwestern Europe also had surplus income to buy exotic imports like tea and sugar as well as domestic manufactures like books, pictures, watches, and better clothes.
Thus it made sense to look for technology which could substitute capital (cheap energy) for labour; the demand for innovation led to supply.
High wages and cheap energy created a demand for technology that substituted capital and energy for labour. These incentives operated in many industries. Pottery, for instance, was manufactured in both England and China. The design of the kilns differed greatly, however. English kilns were cheap to build but very fuel inefficient; much of the energy from the burning fuel was lost through the vent hole on the top (Figure 4). The typical Chinese kiln, on the other hand, was more expensive to construct and, indeed, required more labour to operate. Figure 5 shows how heat was drawn into the chamber on the left and then forced out a hole at floor level into a second chamber. The process continued through many chambers until the air, by then denuded of most of its heat, finally exited up a chimney. In England, it was not worth spending a lot of money to build a thermally efficient kiln since energy was so cheap.

These technologies made sense only because energy was so cheap in Britain
The French government was very active in trying to promote advanced British technology in the eighteenth century, but its efforts failed since the British techniques were not cost effective at French prices. James Hargreaves perfected the spinning jenny, the first machine that successfully spun cotton, in the late 1760s. In 1771, John Holker, an English Jacobite who held the post of Inspector General of Foreign Manufactures, spirited a jenny into France. Demonstration models were made, but the jenny was only installed in large, state supported workshops. By the late 1780s, over 20,000 jennies were used in England and only 900 in France. Likewise, the French government sponsored the construction of an English style iron works (including four coke blast furnaces) in Burgundy in the 1780s. The raw materials were adequate, the enterprise was well capitalised, and they hired outstanding and experienced English engineers to oversee the project. Yet it was a commercial flop because coal was too expensive in France.
With time, energy efficiency improved to the point where others could adopt these technologies
The Industrial Revolution was confined to Britain for many years, because the technological breakthroughs were tailored to British conditions and could not be profitably deployed elsewhere. However, British engineers strove to improve efficiency and reduced the use of inputs that were cheap in Britain as well as those that were expensive. The consumption of coal in steam engines, for instance, was cut from 45 pounds per horse power-hour in the early eighteenth to only 2 pounds in the mid-nineteenth. The genius of British engineering undermined the country’s technological lead by creating ‘appropriate technology’ for the world at large. By the middle of the nineteenth century, advanced technology could be profitably used in countries like France with expensive energy and India with cheap labour. Once that happened, the Industrial Revolution went world wide.
Marvellous stuff: read the whole thing.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lords of Finance

Teddy Grenfell, the head of Morgan Grenfell, the House of Morgan's London arm, on Winston Churchill:
"We, and especially Norman, feel that the new Chancellor's cleverness, his almost uncanny brilliance, is a danger. At present, he is a willing pupil but the moment he thinks that he can stand on his own legs and believes that he understands economic questions he may, by some indiscretion, land us in trouble."
The book includes a marvellous passage describing how Churchill cut to the heart of the question of whether Britain should return to the Gold Standard. In fact, of course, he went against his better judgement, and disaster followed.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Good move

What is Martin Wolf doing reporting this from Delhi?
The Indian government has offered to suspend contracts with mining companies in central and eastern parts of the country in a bid to persuade leftwing Maoist rebels to lay down their weapons.
Palaniappan Chidambaram, the home minister, said that the Indian government was seeking to bring Maoists militants to the negotiating table by insisting that mining contracts be reviewed to provide royalty payments for local communities
Anyway, I was glad to see this on the home page of the FT yesterday, and I wish our papers gave it more prominence.
The main motivation is the Naxal threat
India began what is expected to be up to a three-year offensive against guerrillas active in at least 11 of the nation’s 28 states in October. At least 818 people died in Maoist violence in the first 11 months of 2009 in a campaign that has targeted infrastructure and officials. Maoists are estimated to hold 33 of India’s 600 districts.
Large parts of India do not have title deeds, notaries, and other elements of what we consider property rights. When a company opens a mine, many parties benefit: the company's employees, shareholders, customers, the overall economy. It seems only wrong that these benefits are at the expense of those living on that land, epecially when they are often the poorest of the poor. I think Ninan depicts it beautifully here.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Sociology of Facebook

Truly excellent article in the New York Review of Books. I loved this opening description of "social networking"
What is "social networking"? For all the vagueness of the term, which now seems to encompass everything we do with other people online, it is usually associated with three basic activities: the creation of a personal Web page, or "profile," that will serve as a surrogate home for the self; a trip to a kind of virtual agora, where, along with amusedly studying passersby, you can take a stroll through the ghost town of acquaintanceships past, looking up every person who's crossed your path and whose name you can remember; and finally, a chance to remove the digital barrier and reveal yourself to the unsuspecting subjects of your gaze by, as we have learned to put it with the Internet's peculiar eagerness for deforming our language, "friending" them, i.e., requesting that you be connected online in some way.
Very, very good discussion of how Facebook has changed as it began to move away from its origins as a site for students of elite universities.

Magnetic attraction

I had never really understood that magnetism is a consequence of special relativity, as this post by Steven Landsburg explains so clearly.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Self destruct

Article, in the New York Times about how Microsoft has been sabotaging itself, by a former vice president at Microsoft.
Classic stories of how corporate bureacracies eat their children, even if "top management" tries to protect them.
For example, early in my tenure, our group of very clever graphics experts invented a way to display text on screen called ClearType. It worked by using the color dots of liquid crystal displays to make type much more readable on the screen. Although we built it to help sell e-books, it gave Microsoft a huge potential advantage for every device with a screen. But it also annoyed other Microsoft groups that felt threatened by our success.

Engineers in the Windows group falsely claimed it made the display go haywire when certain colors were used. The head of Office products said it was fuzzy and gave him headaches. The vice president for pocket devices was blunter: he’d support ClearType and use it, but only if I transferred the program and the programmers to his control. As a result, even though it received much public praise, internal promotion and patents, a decade passed before a fully operational version of ClearType finally made it into Windows.
When we were building the tablet PC in 2001, the vice president in charge of Office at the time decided he didn’t like the concept. The tablet required a stylus, and he much preferred keyboards to pens and thought our efforts doomed. To guarantee they were, he refused to modify the popular Office applications to work properly with the tablet. So if you wanted to enter a number into a spreadsheet or correct a word in an e-mail message, you had to write it in a special pop-up box, which then transferred the information to Office. Annoying, clumsy and slow.

Morituri te salutant

An article on the strange past-times of our ancestors.

Gladiator matches were not free for alls. Each gladiator had a certain attack and defence weapon combination, and these were matched between pairs of fighters so none had an unfair advantage. Men of equal, speed, strength and skill were also matched together to ensure a fair fight.

Since no point system existed, fighting was always pursued until a decisive outcome, which could be any of the following alternatives: defeat through death, defeat due to injury preventing further combat, defeat due to exhaustion, a win, with the bestowal of a palm branch or a laurel crown, or a draw, with both opponents being allowed to depart the Arena alive. This was the most unlikely case, since the superiority of one fighter had to be proved to enable the public to reach a verdict.

The final decision of the loser's fate resided within the hands of the games’ organizer. To this end he appealed to the mood of the plebs. Upon the cry of iugula (lance him through), it was expected of the vanquished that he would set an example of the greatness of manhood (exemplum virtutis) and would motionlessly receive the death thrust. The turning down of the thumb signified to the spectators, not that the gladiator should be put to death, but rather that the gladiator was dead.

After the final blow, arena servants carried the combatant on a stretcher into the carcass chamber and gave the twitching body a deathblow. It is not known exactly how this execution was performed. The executor, a costumed arena servant, associated with the Roman god of death “Dis Pater” or the Etruscan counterpart “Charun” carried a deadly hammer accompanying the gladiator on his last journey.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Upholstery and Personality Types

Robert Sapolsky on how the link between personality types and heart disease was discovered.
It was the mid-1950s, and he and Rosenman were having an unexpected problem with their successful cardiology practice: they were spending a fortune reupholstering the chairs in their waiting rooms. There seemed to be no end of chairs that had to be fixed. One day a new upholsterer came in to see to the problem, took one look at the chairs, and discovered the type A-cardiovascular disease link. He announced it semicryptically, with the words: What the hell is wrong with your patients? People don’t wear out chairs this way. The front-most few inches of the seat cushions and the armrests--and only the front-most few inches-- were torn to shreds, as if some very short beavers had spent the night in the office craning their necks to savage the chairs. Obviously these particular waiting rooms were far from peaceful places. The patients habitually sat on the edges of their seats while fidgeting and clawing away.