Friday, September 19, 2008

Startles and Moral Reasoning

I was startled awake today by the work at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, that showed a potential link between political affiliation and startle response. Partisan Republicans exhibit greater startle response to threats than do partisan Democrats, seemingly supporting the penumbra of classic definitions of "liberal" like this fine Bertrand Russell offering:

The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology.
There are other results that seemingly bear this out, including Jonathan Haidt's findings that political conservatives simply value tradition and fairness at different levels from liberals. Preservation and stability trumps flexibility and risk.

Other recent interesting finds this week include Pyschiatric Times reporting that adult ADHD sufferers have lower educational and professional outcomes than non-ADHD individuals, even when IQ was held constant:

Adults with ADHD are not achieving the educational and occupational successes that they should be, noted researchers in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

In a case control study, Dr. Joseph Biederman and colleagues looked at 222 adults with and 146 adults without ADHD to determine if educational and occupational functioning in ADHD represented low attainment or underattainment relative to expectations based on intellectual abilities.

In the control group, educational levels were significantly predicted by IQ scores, and, in turn, employment attainment was significantly predicted by educational levels. However, in the ADHD group, patients did not achieve successes as expected based on IQ and educational levels. In fact, only 50% of patients with ADHD were college graduates, yet based on IQs, 84% should have been. Similarly, only 50% achieved semi-professional or major professional levels, although 80% were expected to achieve such based on their education. Most importantly, the researchers noted, ADHD was associated with significantly decreased educational obtainment independent of IQ.

“These findings stress the critical importance of early identification and aggressive treatment of subjects with ADHD,” the researchers concluded. “Appropriate intervention could be highly beneficial in reducing the disparity between ability and attainment for individuals with ADHD.”

The take-away to me continues to support the notion that an evolutionary effective brain that trades-off risk aversion with creativity (and the kinds of transcendant and even randomizing cogitation that is essential to creativity) is in a wide valley of contributory genetic and environmental inputs that are easy to get just slightly wrong, whether we are looking at dysfunctional and excessive behavior among artists, interference with educational success for ADHD sufferers, or enhanced mental capabilities among borderline autistic individuals. The continued maintenance of this diversity of types suggests that the diversity is or was more adaptively useful than the obverse.

Finally, Marc Hauser works the landscape of moral decision making in a recent Newsweek article, once again describing how remarkably uniform a "moral grammar" we seem to share, regardless of ethnic background or political affiliation. In discussions among friends and family on this topic, I always come away with a more complicated picture of the moral dilemmas. How can you guarantee that dropping the fat man onto the railroad tracks will stop the train? How can you be certain additional help will not arrive before cutting the woman out of the cave mouth? How can you be certain that the death row inmate really committed the crime?

In every case, the trade-off is not between what is morally permissible and obligatory, but between the individual's level of certitude and the killing of one or many. I can therefore almost always answer the dilemmas with a refusal to act until the situation is so dire that action is required. Flipping the switch to divert the trolley car is the exceptional case that demonstrates pure utilitarian moral reasoning, but almost all others require persmissibilty to be modified to something like "permissible only given a lose lose situation where there is the strongest signal that other lives may be lost."

That kind of reasoning requires a low startle response, of course.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gray Laptops and Luminous Clouds

Last Friday my new laptop arrived, throwing me into a dark, confused fog that is only beginning to lift. I know, I know, it should have been a joyous and exciting time for me, but the time commitment needed to make it functional has been somewhere between distracting and onerous.

The machine is impressive enough: a Sony VAIO FW (no, not the recalled model) with 4GB of RAM, 250GB of disk, and a Blu-ray device with HDMI output built-in. Although large, it was a concession to a round of deliberation about how I use computers. My old machine, a Gateway with a 13 inch screen and 1GB of RAM running XP, was simply too slow and lacked sufficient screen real estate for effective software development. With 10 Firefox windows open and a running Eclipse instance, things would start to drag and switching became ponderous. Part way through my deliberations over what to get, I seriously considered a Mac Air, which would have not met my requirements at all but was just so delicious I had to give it consideration. I thought briefly that the Air would work because I have five Linux servers hosted in a high-rise in San Jose, California and could use them remotely for my development needs. Almost--but not quite--due to networking speeds and the need to sometimes work offline. The larger Macs were also considered, although the price points to get serious bang were too steep. In the end, the VAIO was a good trade-off, with the Blu-ray add-on a concession I made to myself because I was not going for the high-end Mac.

And then the work began.

Luckily, I have cultivated a model of continuous holographic reflection of all work-related materials through the use of a source code control system called Subversion (SVN for short). In this model, every document, note, source file, image, etc. I create is checked-in to a repository hosted on one of my servers through an HTTPS connection and WebDAV. Change logs are maintained on the server, and periodic backups are created to other machines in the cluster as well as to a portable USB drive and, soon enough, to Blu-ray writeable media tossed in the trunk of a car.

So the first thing I did was install SVN on my new machine and check out everything to my local hard drive. Nice. But to get everything working took 4 days of software installations and configurations. I configured 10 different POP and IMAP accounts, PHP5, Apache HTTPD, MySQL, PHP5 plugins, Eclipse, Subclipse, ITunes, FabFORCE DB Designer, The GIMP, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Visual Studio 8, Adobe Flash CS3, Cygwin, Inkscape, Firefox, Propel, Xemacs, and many more. I updated everything to the latest versions and got automated and manual patches. I rebooted many times (wasn't that supposed to be fixed back when I worked on Windows 2000?)

All the complexities were smoothed out gradually and incrementally, of course, and I am fairly happy with the screen real estate and performance of the new machine after I disabled most of the security features of Vista. I even picked up the Blu-ray edition of Blade Runner, The Final Cut and ran HDMI to our LCD TV to confirm it all worked (note: no start-up lag unlike some BD console players; also, HDMI and LCD can't be running simultaneously due to HDMI-based DRM policies, which seems like ridiculous overkill).

But I wondered why I can't have a computing universe where the ease of the SVN management of my own resources was replicated in the software installation world? There is a hint of that capability in recent Linux installations that can download and install software packages and their dependencies with a single, short command. Still, configuration and customization remains daunting and can even be exacerbated because the installation process doesn't communicate all the details about where resources go (and the destinations change with some regularity).

Ideally we can imagine a computing cloud where apps are no longer installed locally, just web-based, and all of our configuration settings and password management is remote (and trustable) as well. Hints of that have been emerging with Java Web Start, Adobe AIR, Microsoft Silverlight and, to a lesser degree, Google Chrome. Each is an attempt to move web-based applications away from the limitations of a browser-based model and support more sophisticated interaction models. One company I work with has shown the model can work for specialized enterprise computing needs, so I think there is hope, but the evolution is nevertheless slow and may even require re-imagining the computing platform itself.

I'm guessing I have several dozen more gray laptops, virtual tablet devices, holographic mental interfaces and whatnot to go before everything becomes as neat and easy as I'd like, disconnected from individual platforms and universally available on-demand from some luminous computing cloud where replicants slave away maintaining and upgrading software in those tilt-up buildings in Silicon Valley.