April 17, 2008

Is Free Will An Illusion?

This is a question that has always perplexed me. On one hand I know I make decisions everyday (what to wear, what to eat, which friends to visit) but on the other hand I don't know how those decisions are made. Society has adopted the mind-body duality and the underlying meaning that one can be separated from the other. But that doesn't sit well with me, when it comes down to it your brain is subject to the same set of physical and biochemical processes whether it is decoding hunger, pain, drowsiness, and even decisions.

Long before you're consciously aware of making a decision, your mind has already made it. If that's the case, do people actually make decisions? Or is every choice -- even the choice to prepare for future choices -- an unthinkable, mechanistic procedure over which an illusory self-awareness is laid?

These questions are raised by a study conducted at the Max Planck Institute and published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience. Test subjects chose to push a button with their right or left hand; seven seconds before they experienced making the choice, their brain activity already predicted their final decisions.

John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck neuroscientist and co-author of the study says, "your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time the consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done."

Seven seconds before Hayne's test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration. These patterns were monitored using a functional MRI machine.

These results show that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously though. But we do not now yet where the final decision is made. The decision could be reversed at some point which is totally reasonable.

Maybe "free will" isn't a sensible concept, and you don't need neuroscience to reject it -- any mechanistic view of the world is good enough, and you could probably argue on purely conceptual grounds that the opposite of determinism is randomness, not free will. Maybe we should replace the concept of free will with the concept of rationality -- that we select our actions based on a kind of practical reasoning, and there is no conflict between rationality and the mind as a physical system -- After all, computers are rational physical systems.

I feel that the very existence of neuroscience and physchology precipitates the idea that free will is not that large of a component in our lives. As with chemisty and physics, observation with predictable outcomes has shaped these sciences. People placed in a set of conditions will usually come up with a predictable response or action.

Mental illness offers another look into the idea of free will. Being able to predict how someone with depression, bipolar, or any other number of conditions will act is rather an easy task for phychiatrists. But these are easy to observe since they are out of the social norms. Who says that a healthy brain doesn't precipitate the same kind of predictive actions but they are less noticable since they fall within the frame of social norms.

I'll end the diatribe here but will be revisiting this later on this week I hope.

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April 16, 2008

The "French Paradox"

Outside of the medical community, the "French paradox" probably sounds like a joke about cheese and surrender, but it is a very real phenomenon. It has been observed that the French suffer a low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats and cholesterol.

A new study released in the journal Euromed (Volume 1:3, April 1, 2008 pp 13-26) applied the French paradox to other populations successfully. In an eight year, double-blind, randomized controlled trial, Americans from two urban areas were fed either their usual diet, or a typical French diet, including, but not limited to, wine with all meals (except breakfast, if breakfast occurred before 8am), foie gras at least three times weekly, butter-based sauces, and crusty bread. In another arm of the study, an urban French population was given a "typical American" diet, including, but not limited to, at least one meal of fast food daily, four servings of soda-pop, and other specialty foods, such as Philly cheese steaks, Chicago hot dogs, and Detroit coney islands.

While Dr. Etienne D'Estang was sure to mention the results were by no means conclusive,

"it appears that a typical French diet, which includes red wine, foie gras,
and butter, can improve the health of populations unaccustomed to such
habits. Our study did not reveal the reason behind this effect, in
which Americans who were on the diet gained an average of 21% increase
in longevity, but it appears to be a certain je ne sais quoi. On l'autre main, the French population exposed to typical American merde lost an average of 50% longevity."

Now I like her style, but I couldn't find anything that explained the metric for "longevity." Either way, I'm pretty sure its not hard to imagine that switching away from the "typical American" foods could do anything but benefit you. America really is a fat nation and its apparently getting worse with our kids. I know I have gone through spans where I could consider what I ate anything but healthy. But as time has progressed my body has begun failing to deal with the rigors of an unhealthy lifestyle.

I will admit I'm a lucky one and I would eat anything I wanted and didn't gain a pound, but the effects have been felt recently. I guess its true that age does get to you but I didn't think 24 (25 on Friday!) would make me feel so old. I now realize a lot of that was my lifestyle and that has changed but it wasn't easy. Most of the unhealthiest places to eat are quick to remind you how easy and cheap it is to just get something. And people really do have limited time to shop, prepare and cook meals for most meals of the week. But I'm here to tell you that its possible and the earlier you start the faster you'll feel the effects.

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Excuse Dean...

But he forgot to mention Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (yes, the Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame), Manu Chao, N.E.R.D., The Black Keys, South Austin Jug Band, and about 100 more bands. Everyone should come check it out if they have a chance!

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Austin City Limits Lineup Released

Austin City Limits is an open-air music festival held in Austin, TX every September. They always have a fantastic lineup (in the past: Bob Dylan, Oasis, Willie Nelson, almost every Marley son, Jack Johnson, Muse, and a ton more I can't remember at the moment.), and its held at the beautiful Zilker Park. They just released the lineup for this year, and these are the ones I'm excited about:

Foo Fighters
Slightly Stoopid
The Raconteurs
Robert Earl Keen
G. Love & The Special Sauce

Not the best lineup in history, but it should be fun.

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April 15, 2008

Bush Thinks About New Climate Proposals

The Bush administration, signaling a change in policy, has discussed placing a limited cap on greenhouse gases. But instead of the growing concerns from scientists, health professionals, and environmental specialists, this change of thinking by the Bush administration is spurred by a "regulatory train wreck."

Dana Petrino, White House press secretary, says the Republican leadership is having a "robust discussion" about new climate change proposals. So why the sudden change of heart?

I would hope the logical answer would be the growing chorus of scientists and physicians who are calling for a cap on emissions (warning: super long research paper) to reduce the health risks associated with continued output. It would seem the government has a responsibility to legislate and regulate companies who are producing hazardous material which is becoming a health risk to most Americans. We've seen them do it to companies who produced lead and asbestos products but when it comes to Carbon and global warming issues the administration just doesn't want to believe.

And here's what has the administration in a tizzy about new policies, the Supreme Court has ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it must be regulated if it is determined to be a danger to health and welfare. At the same time, the Interior Department is under pretty intense pressure to specially protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act because of disappearing Arctic sea ice. Another similar lawsuit has been filed under the same law for more protection of arctic seals.

With these two issues, the enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act will be pulled into the debate over climate change. Petrino says the "trajectory...is fraught with peril and will ultimately end up in a train wreck." Hello, you know what's gonna be a train wreck; when 80% of the population has COPD and emphysema and life expectancies shorten to 50 years. I'm pretty sure you'll have a train wreck of angry people asking why large corporations weren't told to stop polluting the health of the citizens.

But this speaks to a larger point about the Republican leadership. They continually ignore the concerns of the citizens (read: Iraq, Economy, fucking everything) in favor of protecting their own asses (and assets). If there wasn't going to be a shitstorm of lawsuits (from citizens and organizations made up of citizens; hmmm, I wonder what the citizens think about it) then this administration would continue to walk the line for corporations and to keep the money machine pumping. There has got to be a shift in thinking toward the long term. We need to continue to investigate the dangers of air pollutants (as well as water and soil pollution) and evaluate their safety and risks. The science community has built a large machinery to do just this but lawmakers need to wake up and take the facts for the facts. This great idea of multiple mechanisms affecting the climate, our health, and our sustainability didn't get dreamed up in someone's head. They are the collections of thousands of people's life's work. I imagine being a father of the climate change and sustainability movement is hard as you devote your life to trying to understand how to maintain our way of living and improve people's health and you continually get told that there isn't any evidence or you just get ignored.

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McBush Supports the Troops

Its probably more accurate to say he supports the military. Its pretty clear that individual troops and the idea of soldiers as people doesn't get a whole lot of support from the Rethuglican nominee. John McBush, a Vietnam Vet himself, has been awkwardly absent from the G.I. Bill being pushed by Sen. Jim Webb (VA-D). Much has been made of McCain employing the tired GOP talking point of "Supporting the Troops." Those on the left critical of the Bush/McCain disaster in Iraq have been often smeared as unpatriotic and un-supportive of our men and women in uniform, despite the logical inconsistency of that argument (I am against a tragic, expensive, and unnecessary war of choice, and thus I am opposed to "the troops," whatever that means). Supporting the Troops has been the one unifying rallying cry of the Warmongers and Bloodletters on the Right, the single justification for continuing Bush's prideful adventure in death. Yet when it comes to actually supporting the troops, the record of the right has been somewhat lack-luster. The conditions of wounded vets at Walter-Reed, substandard or nonexistent body armor, deadly delays in delivering lifesaving anti-IED vehicles for soldiers, and ever-lengthening tours of duty, all at the hands of Republican leadership, are just a few examples.

Now this new G.I Bill would almost double educational benefits for service men and women, allowing them more money for college after their service, along with extending those benefits to Reservists and National Guardsmen, who currently receive significantly less than normal military members, despite oversea deployments and dangerous missions. Seems pretty sweet huh? I mean, who in their right mind could sincerely wish to deny this pittance of gratitude to the men and women who have risked, and sacrificed so much in their service to this country?

John McBush could. Maybe he isn't exactly "in his right mind," but that is a subject for another post. McCain claims to support the troops.

I'm a consistent supporter of educational benefits for the men and women of the military
Sounds like Ol' Blood n' Guts is saying the right things, now what is he actually doing? Seems he is refusing to co-sponsor, or even support, this bill. The rational?
I want to make sure that we have incentives for people to remain in the military as well as for people to join the military.
So he thinks providing funding (according to Webb, $2.5 billion and $4 billion annually, or about a week in Iraq) for troops to get an education after they return from duty is a bad thing, because it would encourage individuals to leave the military after their tours are up. So there's the rub. McCain doesn't want to support the troops, he wants to support "military retention."
Officials in charge of Pentagon personnel worry that a more generous and expansive GI Bill would create an incentive for troops to get out of the military and go to college.
Heaven forbid! Gawd knows we can't let these people go and get educated! Who will bleed and die for George W. Bush's amusement if that happens?!?!

McCain is terrified that if more troops attempt to better their lives instead of staying in the military as grunts indefinitely, his meat grinder in Iraq, which he obviously cares so much about, might just run dry. Shameful...

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April 14, 2008


So Hillary Clinton has been driving me nuts these past few days. (Full disclosure: I'm definitely an Obama supporter, and I don't pretend to not have a horse in this race, so get your grains of salt ready.) Conflict and controversy suddenly erupted late last week over comments Obama made at a private fund raiser.

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them.And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Honestly, that seems like a fairly candid assessment of the possible sentiments of some Americans. Its not the rosiest picture of the American Electorate, but I think we have had enough happiness and sunshine in the face of Reality from Bush and Company for the past 7 years.

Is is crazy to posit that perhaps certain American might feel that their government is some big, burdensome, faceless entity which lacks compassion and understanding when it comes the the realities of their lives? Might they feel that the only way for them to affect change within the system is to focus on certain issues, like gun laws or abortion, as their most likely chance for a win, and to vote exclusively on that issue? Hell, I think we just described a majority of the electorate, just substitute "gun laws or abortion" with "Iraq, the economy, D.C. corruption, etc."

Now Clinton is claiming that those remarks are somehow "demeaning" and "out of touch." I understand that this is a campaign, and distinctions need to be made, but Gawd! Clinton spokesman Steve Schmidt:
It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking.
Is this for real? This is the subject of 24 hour news coverage? Bush admits he "approved" of his top aides discussing exactly how and to what extent to torture specific individuals, and we labast Obama for discussing the sentiments of American Voters and asking for a glass of orange juice. Holy hell.

My point is, if this Barack guy wasn't running for president, would these statements be condemned in this way? I believe that Clintons' advisers aren't sitting around watching CNN, seeing these comments, and exclaiming "Shit! Listen to this pompous ass! Can you believe anyone could be THAT out of touch?" No, I bet the conversation went something like:

"Hey, someone give me the latest printout of everything Obama has said over the past 3 days. Ok, lets see here...nothing...nothing...Oh!...wait, no, thats pretty good...damn...wait! We can make this sound like hes some kind of snob or something! Someone hand me a thesaurus and call ABC, I need another word for stuck up...elitist...now we're talking."

This is not constructive, this is not revealing, this is just stupid. I know, I know, its how these things go. But if Clinton is attempting to recast herself as something other than a D.C. political elitist (read: the same ol' damn thing), this is not helping her cause.

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Drinking Bleach Will Prevent HIV (according to Florida teens)

Teens in Florida believe that "drinking a cap of bleach will prevent HIV and a shot of Mountain Dew will stop pregnancy." Most experts and school officials blame the abstinence-only sex education that the teens receive.

Seems like the adults are starting to wise up a little bit. If you don't teach your kids how things work they're going to learn it from their dumbass friends. And their dumbass friends probably believe that eating poprocks and drinking coke will make them explode, is that really who you want your kid learning about sex from?

I can't believe that such an important topic with such wide-reaching consequences (emotional scars, STDs, teenage pregnancy) isn't a major topic of discussion. Parents have no problem telling their kids about drugs and their dangers so why is sex such a damn taboo?

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Nature is Not a Liberal Plot

"Our nation's continued prosperity hinges on our ability to solve environmental problems and sustain the natural resources on which we all depend."

Any guesses as to who said that? It might shock you that it is John McCain, especially after he scored 0 on the National Environmental Scorecard for 2007. That quote was taken from a November 22, 1996 article in the New York Times written by John McCain himself.

This is just another example of how the brazen, do-good-at-all-cost senator from 10 years ago has shifted his tune and fallen in line with the Republican party.
"Have Republicans abandoned their roots as the party of Theodore Roosevelt, who maintained that government's most important task, with the exception of national security, is to leave posterity a land in better condition than they received it?"

That's a good question John and it seems like you've answered it with your voting record. Yes, your party has abandoned the idea of conservation in favor of a personally-profitable marriage with big industry. Your party's attempts to repeal the Clean Air Act as well as pumping billions of dollars in tax rebates and government contracts has left the Grand Ole Party in a precarious position.
"I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use our natural resources, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob by wasteful use, the generations that come after us." -Theodore Roosevelt

This is what your party stood for before you forged an alliance with the oil and coal industries. The idea that a man could till the land for prosperity and leave it to his sons has degraded into the idea that as long as money is flowing and a select few are able to amass personal wealth (legally or illegally) the country is healthy.

Unfortunately that is not the case. The economy may be faltering now but it will correct itself and there will be money to be made, the mechanisms of global economics assures that. But the land that we are ruining now will not correct itself under huge physical pressures that we are forcing upon it. Conservation has been thrown to the wayside, along with all of the other McCain ideals that he espoused so profusely in the past. Get ready for 4 more years of the same crap if this guy gets in office, its pretty obvious that he will do whatever it takes to appease his party and looking at the state of our nation I say that is a scary prospect.

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