Monday, August 22, 2016

Trump's Leninist?

Ronald Radosh, writing in the Daily Beast:

Why has the Trump campaign taken as its new head a self-described Leninist? I met Steve Bannon—the executive director of who’s now become the chief executive of the Trump campaign, replacing the newly resigned Paul Manafort—at a book party held in his Capitol Hill townhouse in early 2014.

We were standing next to a picture of his daughter, a West Point graduate, who at the time was a lieutenant in the 101 Airborne Division serving in Iraq. The picture was notable because she was sitting on what was once Saddam Hussein’s gold throne with a machine gun on her lap. “I’m very proud of her,” Bannon said.

Then we had a long talk about his approach to politics. He never called himself a “populist” or an “American nationalist,” as so many think of him today. “I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.

The Trump saga gets odder and odder.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Why Cuba is Still Communist

Recent years have seen the global collapse of Communism. All of the major Communist nations have abolished many of their Marxist and Leninist features, as have all but a tiny handful of minor Communist nations. Cuba is one of the few exceptions. I'm inclined to think that the US, and in particular, the Cuban exile community, are mostly to blame - after Castro, I mean. How so?

Our first mistake was welcoming Cuban exiles. Yes, it was the humane thing, but it also ensured that both those most hostile to the Castro regime and those most ambitious and talented would be out of Cuba and unable to influence its historical trajectory. The second mistake was carrying out an official and totally ineffective campaign to overthrow Castro. This gave Castro a totally convincing way of persuading many of the Cuban people that outside enemies were plotting against them. Nothing unifies a people like an external threat. Moreover, exile types like our correspondent Fernando frequently proclaim their desire to "kill all the Communists." Since Cuba is a one party (Communist) state, this give the entire political elite extra special reason to fear and oppose those outsiders.

The exiles, having never grasped the first principle of hole theory, remain resolutely determined to keep doing the same things that have failed utterly for half a century.

The US had plenty of reason to get rid of Castro. He was a very dangerous and destructive neighbor, a neighbor who nearly forced the US into turning Cuba into a sea of molten radioactive glass. We did manage to contain him, in a compromise that has worked for us for half a century. It was not so hot for the Cuban people - but probably better than being turned into radioactive ash.

Book Review: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

Despite my more or less disastrous encounter with the chapter on Phi, Tononi's theory of consciousness, I think this is a pretty good book. One can learn a lot about what makes consciousness possible and impossible, and the often ingenious techniques used to investigate it. Christof Koch's Consciousness has all that and more: historical and philosophical background of the problem, meditations on his own history and behavior, and some interesting stuff on his mentor and "Sun," Francis Crick. I recommend it to anyone interested in this fundamental concept.

Koch is confident that consciousness is not something exclusively human. Chimps, dogs, mice and birds have some version of it. Perhaps even bees and flies have it. Many of the key insights into it have come from investigations of the mouse brain, a key target of the Allen Institute that Koch leads.

Koch's studies have led him to a certain amount of respect for our junior partners in consciousness:

Then, in 2004, Susan Blackmore, an intrepid British psychologist with rainbow-colored hair, interviewed me for a book of hers. I had just concluded a riff on mouse consciousness with a plea to not kill mice thoughtlessly, as many researchers who work with them do, when Susan asked me, out of the blue, whether I ate meat. We looked at each other for a while, silently, until I sighed to cover up my embarrassment at having been revealed a hypocrite. This incident really bothered me.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 160). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

He still eats fish.

More on the book from me at:

Meteorology vs. Theology

In the Middle Ages, and well into the Eighteenth Century, the dominant theory of lightning was that it was the work of "The Prince of the Power of the Air," AKA, the Devil. It was noticed, of course, that lofty church spires often attracted Satan's attention. Consequently, they were heavily protected by the theological and magical means available: blessings, crosses, statues of angels, the burning of occasional suspicious witches, and especially, by bells and their ringing during storms. These means were not notably successful. Benjamin Franklin's lighting rods were initially regarded as heretical and blasphemous. From A.D. White's 1898 "A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom"

In England, the first lightning conductor upon a church was not put up until 1762, ten years after Franklin's discovery. The spire of St. Bride's Church in London was greatly injured by lightning in 1750, and in 1764 a storm so wrecked its masonry that it had to be mainly rebuilt; yet for years after this the authorities refused to attach a lightning-rod. The Protestant Cathedral of St. Paul's, in London, was not protected until sixteen years after Franklin's discovery, and the tower of the great Protestant church at Hamburg not until a year later still. As late as 1783 it was declared in Germany, on excellent authority, that within a space of thirty-three years nearly four hundred towers had been damaged and one hundred and twenty bell-ringers killed.

In Roman Catholic countries a similar prejudice was shown, and its cost at times was heavy. In Austria, the church of Rosenberg, in the mountains of Carinthia, was struck so frequently and with such loss of life that the peasants feared at last to attend service. Three times was the spire rebuilt, and it was not until 1778--twenty-six years after Franklin's discovery--that the authorities permitted a rod to be attached. Then all trouble ceased.

A typical case in Italy was that of the tower of St. Mark's, at Venice. In spite of the angel at its summit and the bells consecrated to ward off the powers of the air, and the relics in the cathedral hard by, and the processions in the adjacent square, the tower was frequently injured and even ruined by lightning. In 1388 it was badly shattered; in 1417, and again in 1489, the wooden spire surmounting it was utterly consumed; it was again greatly injured in 1548, 1565, 1653, and in 1745 was struck so powerfully that the whole tower, which had been rebuilt of stone and brick, was shattered in thirty-seven places. Although the invention of Franklin had been introduced into Italy by the physicist Beccaria, the tower of St. Mark's still went unprotected, and was again badly struck in 1761 and 1762; and not until 1766--fourteen years after Franklin's discovery--was a lightning-rod placed upon it; and it has never been struck since.

So, too, though the beautiful tower of the Cathedral of Siena, protected by all possible theological means, had been struck again and again, much opposition was shown to placing upon it what was generally known as "the heretical rod" "but the tower was at last protected by Franklin's invention, and in 1777, though a very heavy bolt passed down the rod, the church received not the slightest injury. This served to reconcile theology and science, so far as that city was concerned; but the case which did most to convert the Italian theologians to the scientific view was that of the church of San Nazaro, at Brescia. The Republic of Venice had stored in the vaults of this church over two hundred thousand pounds of powder. In 1767, seventeen years after Franklin's discovery, no rod having been placed upon it, it was struck by lightning, the powder in the vaults was exploded, one sixth of the entire city destroyed, and over three thousand lives were lost.

Of course we have not yet transcended this superstition. I seem to recall the governor of Louisiana proposing to protect her State against hurricane Katrina by "praying it down to a category 3." Prayer also featured heavily in the Republican Party's proposals for dealing with gun violence.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Real Thing

A bit more Koch:

turning water into wine is so outlandish that it can be rejected using Occam’s razor. It is far more likely that something else, obeying the laws of physics, was the cause. Maybe the wedding organizers discovered long-forgotten flasks of wine in the basement. Or a guest brought the wine as a gift. Or the story was made up to cement Jesus’ reputation as the true Messiah.

Remember Sherlock Holmes’ advice: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Miracles are not in the cards. The fabric of everyday reality is woven too tightly for it to be pulled asunder by extranatural forces. I’m afraid that God is an absentee cosmic landlord. If we want things to happen down here, we had better take care of them ourselves. Nobody else is going to do it for us.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (pp. 157-158). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I dunno. Turning water into wine? If grapes and yeast can do it, why not a Supreme? Sounds like technology to me.

Friday, August 19, 2016

More on Integrated Information Theory (IIT)

The Chapter on IIT in Christof Koch's book, Consciousness, seems to be nearly isomorphic to this Scientific American article that he wrote in 2009.

Lubosh doesn't like Scott's take on IIT, mostly, I think, because he doesn't like Scott. He was, I suppose, provoked, since Scott did describe him as a "spiteful human being."

Thursday, August 18, 2016


From Scott Aaronson, hat tip to Lee. His objections to Integrated Information Theory, though better informed, line up quite well with mine. I should mention that the author of IIT, which I have more or less attributed to Koch, is really Tononi.

Why I Am Not An Integrated Information Theorist (or, The Unconscious Expander)

Giulio Tononi and Me: A Phi-nal Exchange

Lochte: Dog ate my Homework

Police: Videotape says dog was sleeping peacefully the whole time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Into the Woods

...Or, the Integro-Differential theory of consciousness. Perhaps you would suspect from this that this theory has something to do with the calculus of Leibniz and Newton. So far as I can tell, that's not it at all. Instead, Koch and collaborators have constructed - claim to have constructed - a theory of consciousness that depends on the degree of differentiation and integration of a complex system. A sample:

Integrated information theory introduces a precise measure capturing the extent of consciousness called Φ, or phi (and pronounced “fi”). Expressed in bits, Φ quantifies the reduction of uncertainty that occurs in a system, above and beyond the information generated independently by its parts, when that system enters a particular state. (Remember, information is the reduction of uncertainty.) The parts— the modules— of the system account for as much nonintegrated, independent information as possible. Thus, if all of the individual chunks of the brain taken in isolation already account for much of the information, little further integration has occurred. Φ measures how much the network, in its current state, is synergistic, the extent to which the system is more than the sum of its parts. Thus, Φ can also be considered to be a measure of the holism of the network.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 127). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I have no idea what the heck that means. My first reaction was that Koch had taken all those Paul Allen $ and invested them in magic mushrooms. Even if I could figure out what the reduction of uncertainty of the system is when I think about Britney Spears or Homer's "wine dark sea," how does that number connect with consciousness?

Koch adds:

Integrated information theory makes a number of predictions. One of the more counterintuitive, and therefore powerful, ones is that integrated information arises from causal interactions within the system. When those interactions can’t take place anymore, even though the actual state of the system remains unchanged, Φ shrinks.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 127). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.


The state of any physical system can be mapped onto a shape in this fantastically multidimensional qualia space. Its surfaces are facets. The technical term for this shape is polytope, but I prefer the more poetic crystal. A nervous network in any one particular state has an associated shape in qualia space; it is made out of informational relationships. If the network transitions to a different state, the crystal changes, reflecting the informational relationships among the parts of the network. Each conscious experience is fully and completely described by its associated crystal, and each state feels different because each crystal is utterly unique. The crystal for seeing red is in some unique geometric way different from the one associated with seeing green. And the topology of color experiences will be different from that for seeing movement or smelling fish.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 130). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

I hope you found that at least as illuminating as I did.

Sweden vs. Brazil

Wouldn't it have been simpler to skip all the running around and just go directly to penalty kicks?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

More Christof Koch: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Richard Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen is a series of four operas centered on the conflict between fate and freedom. Unrestrained by fear or by the mores of society, the hero, Siegfried, kills the dragon, walks through the ring of fire to woo Brünhilde, and shatters the spear of Wotan, precipitating the destruction of the old world order of the gods. Siegfried follows no laws but his inner desires and impulses. He is free, but he acts blindly, without understanding the consequences of his actions. (It is likely that Siegfried had lesions in his amygdala— he did not know fear— and his ventromedial prefrontal cortex, depriving him of decision-making skills. Genetic and developmental factors contributed to his dysfunctional behavior: his parents were siblings; he was raised as an orphan by a sole caretaker, a quarrelsome dwarf obsessed with a hoard of gold; and he grew up isolated in the depth of the German forest. This lack of social skills ultimately led to his murder at the hand of Hagen, a trusted friend.)

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (pp. 94-95). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Consciousness as a Conversation

In summary, local properties of the cortex and its satellite structures mediate the specific content of consciousness, whereas global properties are critical for sustaining consciousness per se. For a coherent coalition of neurons to assemble at all— and for awareness to emerge— the cortico-thalamic complex needs to be suffused with neurotransmitters, chemicals released by the long and winding tentacles of neurons in the deeper and older parts of the brain. Both local and global aspects are critical for consciousness.

Koch, Christof. Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) (p. 74). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.