Monday, September 21, 2009

Thomas Friedman

One of my favorite journalists is Thomas Friedman. To me he has a refreshingly practical common-sense approach to his writing that fits well with his insightful and not-always-obvious observations that strike at the core of issues.

Here his most recent op-ed "Real Men Tax Gas" discusses how we are still unwilling to take steps to reduce our dependence on oil - the one thing that would weaken our enemies the most. The essential crux of his argument: Why are we so willing to send thousands of more young Americans to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, but so unwilling to seek energy alternatives to oil? And what does that say about us?

There are arguments on both sides of this, and there are certainly valid arguments that it's not all about oil... but Friedman as usual hits on a key point that has gone largely un-addressed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How We Decide - by Jonah Lehrer

"How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer finally became available at the library (long-long hold list) and I read it over the past few days. I'd requested it so long ago that I forgot about it. I remember seeing the author on C-Span book-TV and must've requested the book and am very glad I did.

"How We Decide" is a popular science book that attempts to summarize many recent neurological experiments that highlight new findings about BRAIN function, coordination, strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and ultimately how we arrive at decisions incorporating input from all the different parts of our brain.

It's full of stories about poker (getting reads on other players), consumer decisions (like buying a car, buying a house, buying jam, using credit cards, how we're manipulated by marketers and retailers), military decisions, airline emergency scenarios, quarterback decisions, stock market bubbles and crashes, rationalization, creativity, autism, and many others.

Key concepts.
- The author and the studies presented attack the prevailing conventional wisdom that humans are primarily rational decision makers. If anything, the research utilizing real-time brain scans seems to indicate that our older emotional brains often make decisions before we're aware of it, and then our conscious mind tends to rationalize those decisions "after the fact".
- The author sees the subconscious and older emotional brain centers as a highly powerful computer that picks and considers alot of things that our conscious mind is unaware of. There's alot of power our "gut" feeling about things - and often if we try to rationalize our gut instinct we end up making more mistakes than just going with our initial impressions.
- There are significant limitations to our conscious rational mind (prefrontal cortex)- and it's far more limited than we realize. It's a small part of the brain's mass and it's really best at coordinating the work of the unconscious mind. (Some of the discussions/research reminds me of the futility of multitasking when we see how small stresses on our conscious mind degrade functionality and decision capacity).

Anyhow - this is an excellent book. The best read I've had in a long time. One of the few books I come across that isn't "padded" with fluff. When it was finished I was actually wishing there was more. There are lots of "Wow!" and "Aha" moments in reading through. I'm going to check out his other books.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I guess we like to think we remember things, but maybe we mis-remember them better?

I played in a corporate band challenge about 5 months back and recently watched a video of that performance. Alot of the performance was kindof like I remembered, but then there was the judging section at the end (kindof like American Idol) where a panel of local celebs and music industry people evaluated our performance. I sortof remembered the general theme what they said, but on rewatching the video I realize my mind had stored several of the comments quite a bit differently. I think the process of replaying the comments in my head after the performance may have gradually changed my memory of the comments themselves. (Like the game where you line up a bunch of people and whisper a story into one person's ear, and they whisper to their neighbor, and so on.... When you get to the end the story may have changed quite a bit just through the retelling.)

I've seen quite a few studies about how memories of an event can easily evolve over time to become considerably different than what actually occurred, but here's a very interesting study that shows that in some cases you can actually come to believe the exact opposite of something you directly experienced. Here researchers doctored a videotape of test subjects and successfully convinced 40% of them that something happened that didn't. Basically the researchers showed that we can be led to completely abandon real memories and replace them with fake memories. And get this - many of the test subjects were so convinced of the new fake memory that they would say they'd testify that the fake memory was the actual truth...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Night Vision "drops"

I read alot of pop-science related stuff, but for some reason this caught my imagination. Apparently scientists have determined that some deep sea creatures utilize chlorophyll to enhance their vision in extremely low light conditions.

Efforts are underway to see if "drops" can be developed to allow humans to see better at night. The military is particularly interested.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

One Way ticket to Mars

Here's an interesting discussion - should a human mission to Mars be a one way trip?

It seems kindof cold to me, but worth reading.