Saturday, August 09, 2014

Rep-coins, Legos, humor... and fear of "14"!

For your weekend pleasure... a light potpourri of tasty items.  For you smartypants types, that is.
For starters: Do you like great science fiction anthologies?  Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Smarter Tomorrow is out at last, with stories gathered by Neal Stephenson, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. Project Hieroglyph is the keystone to a joint project to bright science fiction out of its current funk... the lazy obsession with doom, dystopia and nostalgia... and make it once again something that encouraged us all to feel that we can overcome.

Along similar lines... offering hopeful sci fi to youths... While books like The Hunger Games and Divergent have brought a whole new generation of young readers to science fiction, there’s not a lot of short, accessible stories for middle grade readers (usually considered ages 9-12). The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide is meant to fill that gap. Their Kickstarter is currently live — and the anthology may have a story from Nancy Kress!  Oh, also one of my best ones, ever.

== An alternative to both Bicoin and fiat money ==

DIGITAL-CURRENCY-REPUTATIONDigital Currency Based on a Person's Reputation - J. Chris Anderson wants to create a new kind of digital coin that could replace government “fiat” money or nerd-crypto money like Bitcoin, by going to the most human fundamental — reputation.

I admit, I’ve toyed with that concept for a very long time. In both fiction and some of my patents, I have suggested ways that reputation management might move up from the stone and middle ages. In this case, Anderson’s Document Coin will rely on personal reputation to keep all transactions in order. And each unit of currency created using Document Coin could have different values in different situations. “‘For example, the coin my disco singer friend created and gave me at my barbeque might be what gets me past the rope at the club,’ Anderson says. A coin minted by tech pundit Tim O’Reilly might be highly prized in Silicon Valley circles, but of little interest to musicians. ‘It’s a bit like a combination of a social network with baseball trading.’”

Indeed, very interesting.  The article is rather vague on many points.  It appears as if the coin is based on only upon the original issuers reputation but --like a gold-backed currency -- something of real value.  The issuer's promise to let you into the club, for example. Or my promise to name a character after you in a book.

great-explosionThis makes the coin like an "ob" or an "obligation" from an Eric Frank Russell novel, in which person A owes person B a favor, but person B owes person C, so B hands the "ob" over to C and now person A must help C in some way.  If the coin system were truly massive, some farmer who is paid with a pile of these Ob-Reputation coins would let his computer find the folks out there who most want to be named in my book and who most want to attend a gig at the club, and the obs would finally come around, full circle and be paid in something tangible (or in fiat-money).

With sufficiently smart web computing, such a system might work, if the reputation mediation were VERY good so that I could issue naming rights as currency to pay any debt, even my gas bill, because the gas company would know that the circle will eventually close.

If it is something being tried in reality... that is the stuff of a sci fi era.

On the other hand… this may be the dawning of the Age of….

The DEA is now asking the Food and Drug Administration to remove marijuana from its list of the most dangerous and harmful drugs. And early tentative outcomes from Colorado’s legalization of MJ seem positive. An important trend, which is happening (so far) only in Blue States. The greatest benefit of all will be the undermining of the prohibition-driven underground economy in illegal cannabis. We need to get the same effect - though more carefully and with calibrated innovations - to wipe out illicit markets for other, far worse drugs. (See one reason: Pablo Escobar’s hippos are now running wild in Colombia.)

While any tapering of the insane Drug War is welcome, this glowing article may be overlooking the one problem that I forecast long ago. There is one unambiguously well-proved harmful effect of marijuana. It should be on our minds and on our lips, when we talk to our kids. Except in very controlled moderation… it is an antidote to ambition. In excess, it is harmful! Moreover... um... what was I saying again?  Pass those cookies over here.

== Fun Cinema ==

Lego-movieI liked the LEGO Movie. It seemed time to finally see it, since our son now works (for the summer) at Legoland. Many rave about the snappy dialogue, which I found amusing and above average… though not epochal. The visuals were cool and cute, of course, and the story diverting enough to hold onto all ages.

As many of you know, my own little obsession, in critically appraising cinema, has to do with whether the drama is tritely simplistic or somewhat original… e.g. featuring a villain whose motives are at least contextually understandable… or whether the story is just one more “idiot plot” - based on the tedious assumption that civilization is futile and our fellow citizens are sheep. Refreshingly, the LEGO Movie starts with the notion that - despite problems like excess conformity, and villainous conformity-promoters - people and society aren’t hopeless.

SOA-ROCYes, yes, the “be original” and “be suspicious of authority” (SoA) and “rejection of conformity” (RoC) messages are pretty darn common in mass media — so common that most of you probably never notice them and think you invented SoA, instead of growing up steeped in SoA and pro-eccentricity memes. Still, to see the Lego Company mock their own Instruction Manual Culture, in praise of free-form creativity, was kinda cool. And I always get a kick out of it when - as happens in every Spiderman flick - average citizens take on a vital and major plot-role in saving the day.

Just remember — everything is awesome!

== Items! ==

1. “An interesting development in the chess world of recent years is that human-computer teams, in which a grandmaster is aided by a program, have tended to be stronger than either humans or computers playing alone.”  -- Are Killer Robots the Next Black Swan?

2. See Humanity's cultural spread, illustrated in video mapping births and deaths, over centuries.

3. This is fun: Supernatural collective nouns: a clamor of clones, a clangor of robots, a yard-sale of androids...the Borg.

5. Hilariously well-done urban rebel-art pasted into select spots on the London Underground. I am stodgy enough to dislike a few of these handsomely official-looking signs… those that might confuse a rider and make her miss a stop. But the rest are marvelous. Punishable, of course. But guerrilla art is about willingness to pay for it.

== on target humor ==

HADramamine — the miracle drug we all need! See why.

For insight into the science of humor, see HA! The Science of Why We Laugh and Why? by Scott Weems.

Okay, maybe its a guy thing... and these fellows had too much time on their hands.  But I'm proud of em!

Funny! What if movies had been made earlier, with different stars? Movies Reimagined for another time and place: Volume 1. If you enjoy that, try Volume 2 and Volume 3.

Assholes: The Theory: Philosopher (not-proctologist) Aaron James presents a theory of the asshole. “James proposes a theory of assholes (a person is an asshole when his sense of entitlement makes him immune to complaints from other people) that explains not only why assholes are a vital part of human society, but also how to recognize them and coexist with them.”

==The Fourteenth Year==

 Michael Nelson - one of the unsung heroes of our Internet Age - wrote to me with a story that riff’d off my article about the “Fourteenth Year”… my assertion that the last several centuries began exhibiting their true themes on 14 years after their calendar beginnings.

Said Mike: “I was talking to a Chinese-American woman. She asked, "Why is the world falling apart?" I said, "1914, 1814, 1714 etc." She told me that makes a lot of since to her. Apparently, to the Chinese, the number 14 is considered at least as unlucky as 13 is in Western cultures. In Chinese, the word for "fourteen" sound like the phrase "sure dead." Some Chinese buildings don't have a 14th floor, or fourth floors, for that matter.”

It’s called tetraphobia. And it shows that some take seriously my assertion that all changes with the 14th year.

But it can still be good changes! That was my point in The Postman.  

Whatever hits us, react with resilience!  Resourcefulness, agility and determination to work together, as citizens of the greatest experiment in history. Remember this, whether that glow on the horizon is a sunset... or a dawn.


Doris said...

Images Earthrise and the DNA sketch may have the most impact on the present and future.

locumranch said...

Eric Frank Russell is absolutely tops even though most of his (best) works have been out of print for 50+ years:

The Great Explosion is available at

Wasp is available at

[And, please let me know if anyone can track down a pdf copy of 'The Space Willies']

Starting as a galactic tour, The Great Explosion quickly becomes an idealised libertarian treatise, powered by the great Gandhian principles of 'I won't' (civil disobedience), MYOB (Mind Your Own Business) and My_OBs (a personal obligation and/or IOU-based economic system).

What David doesn't tell you, however, is that such an IOU-based economic system (1) differs little from one based on a personal checking account,
(2) quickly becomes dysfunctional when it extends beyond a local level and (3) depends entirely on personal reputation -- a reputation being something that is not within individual control, is entirely trust-dependent and often reflects the less-than-charitable opinion of others -- and, as such, is entirely unworkable on any large economic stage that values global anonymity.

So my Eustace tells me.


sgs said...

A pdf copy of "The Space Willies"? Are you Nuts?

(Somebody had to say it!)

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I loved the supernatural collective nouns, but does anyone have a similar list for offspring (i.e. a cygnet is a baby swan, a kid is a baby goat - not a baby human). What would you call a baby pixie, or an adolescent banshee?

Paul Shen-Brown said...

By the way, it's the number 4 that is bad luck in China (and Japan, too), but any number that includes 4 is bad, as the word for 4 is a homophone for the word for death. Interestingly, six is lucky, though I don't remember the reason my wife gave for it. 666 is extremely lucky, though our idea of these digits representing the Devil is a mistake. In the original it was 686, but a monk miscopied the passage way back in the 4th Century.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

And it shows that some take seriously my assertion that all changes with the 14th year.

But it can still be good changes! That was my point in The Postman.

You mean the choice of the year 2013 for the novel's setting had that much of a purpose?

David Brin said...

Larryhart huh. So The Postman was really all about getting ready for a 2014 return of civilization....

Paul, if you have access to any kind of reference for that 686 thing, I'd be very interested. There have been attempts to connect 666 to the name of Nero, who was the cruel emperor of the time....

sociotard said...

My problem with the Lego Movie was all with the end. Wildstyle was a trophy. Not even a very natural-feeling trophy.

It's nice that Hollywood is giving us competent female characters that can fight and build and do all manner of useful things, but Hollywood still insists on using those women for the same purpose in the story. They are trophies for the hero. Done.

I have a daughter, man. I want her to dream of more than being some princess-trophy.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Dr, Brin,

The 686 comment came up in a Medieval history class I had when I was an undergrad, something in the neighborhood of 25 k years ago, so unfortunately I don't have a handy reference for it. I tried googling it, but no luck there. If I can get my autie son to leave me alone long enough, I'll try digging through my old history books, but they may be in boxes in the garage - I have a lot of books.

btw - I just finished Existence last night, and it is hands down the best fiction I have read in a decade.

greg byshenk said...

Something like ReputationCoin sounds interesting, until one thinks about the possibilities for arbitrage or otherwise gaming the system.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

sociotard (not exactly a flattering handle, eh?) I haven't seen the Lego movie, so I couldn't comment on it specifically, but I do agree with your assessment of Hollywood in terms of sexual stereotypes. Heroes are mostly male and female characters are usually just prizes for them to win at the end. This is especially insidious and in children's movies. My daughter watches a lot of anime, which sometimes does better, sometimes worse. Often they have shows or movies in which all the main characters are tough women with guns, which strikes me as just a different variety of male fantasy.
The domination of one sex over the other no doubt comes from the fact that one averages 20% bigger than the other, making bullying a one-way street in our species. But there is some hope. 4 million years ago the males of our ancestors were 60% bigger, 2 million years ago they were 40% bigger. In another couple million years we will be like marmosets - you will only be able to tell the difference by looking under our tails. Of course, culture has an important role to play, and maybe even genetic engineering.

Alex Tolley said...

It isn't clear to me that reputation currency solves anything that fiat currency cannot do. Making a coin stand in for some sort of paper IOU just adds another layer of complexity. AFAICS it is just a reinvention of private money with a fancy tech overlay. I could just as easily write on a piece of paper, although it might need some heavies to "collect".

The use of "reputation" to try to make this somehow fraud/inflation proof is just a synonym for "trust", something all banks/money lenders should have, and that we know gets broken every couple of generations.

Let's look at what happens in teh simple case of an author offering to name a character in a future book. The token is only worth something as long as the author is alive and writing. So the value might be more like an option, expiring in time. How much detail would the transaction require - name as any character, hero, villain? How many can be issued based on likely possible characters. Would books become bloated with characters? Could uyou corner a market and demand all characters in a book be one name, or names the token holder chooses? This seems to suggest a need for a reputation market to evaluate the tokens, but this makes transactions very costly, rather like checking barter values.

Paul451 said...

Re: Reputation-Coin

Reminds me of LETS credits for hobby/volunteer/community labour. LETS is a "time based currency", meant to be an hour's work by a skilled person. (Actually closer to EFR's "Obs", since it's a favour for a favour, regardless of reputation.)

[And to pre-empt Alex, the point of LETS is to inject "currency" into a region that is time rich but money poor, without an external entity having to inject legal fiat money as stimulus, but which is inherently limited by actual time available.]

Eric Frank Russell, The Space Willies (AKA Next of Kin):

Paul Shen-Brown,
List of baby animals (and male/female/collective nouns):

(Puggle: Baby Echidna.)

Re: 666/686

Are you sure you're not mixing up with 616? [Scholars found early NT references with 616. But 666 appears elsewhere in the bible, 616 doesn't. It's more likely that 616 is a mistake than 666. And, as David notes, numerology links it with Nero, an obvious candidate for Beast (his Mark being Roman coins, thus accepting Roman pay). Although 616 works for Caligula, so maybe they were adapting it whenever the Emperor changed and 616 was the first draft?]

Jumper said...

I thought the Dramamine thing would be about this
(although they replaced the scopolamine in it with something else a few years ago).

Of course, in reality, "drama" is the answer to Freud's question "what do women want?" It is odd that "drama" has gained such a bad reputation (among straight white men, I posit) that women, and various minorities have accepted the meme of drama's undesirability. (This incidentally answers the conondrum of why women stay with abusive men, and thankfully torpedoes the hypothesis that they like the abuse. No, it's the drama.)

So for any frustrated lovers out there I would suggest giving the thing the competition is unaware of - at the conscious level, at least. Drama. For if a man wants sex without drama, I suspect sex with drama is the only kind women desire.

Without the abuse, please. As we see, it's unnecessary.

ZarPaulus said...

Reputation economies, again, seriously?

Seems to me that would only heighten the class divide. I mean seriously, what percentage of the oligarchy have you actually heard of compared to the masses who actually produce?

Mel Baker said...

I'd be curious to hear David's take on what this 2014 is showing us. It seems astonishing that so many old fashioned wars are breaking out in so many areas. On the one hand we have what seems to be the beginnings of large scale war between the two main sects of Islam. We also seem to be seeing the rise of the war between a more authoritarian East (Russia and China) and the rest of the western or western looking world. (China and Japan are getting closer and closer to conflict over a small chain of islands.) It seems to have early precursors of World War.

David Brin said...

Sorry Sociotard, I don’t see it. My daughter has a 2nd degree black belt and I too raised her to be independent and audacious. Moreover, I am glad to see many films (first pioneered in sci fi with Aliens and Xena) that portray kick-butt female leads. Ever watched the Underworld flicks? And Lara Croft is barely even interested in the guys drooling after her.

But there is an intrinsic problem if you expect and demand total equivalence, across the board. If you poll what men and women desire in toe opposite sex, more and more males now list “an accomplished person I respect” somewhere in their desiderata — and that’s great! I did!

But “an accomplished person I respect” is number one for a majority of women. And that is not about to change tomorrow. Honestly, do you want your daughter NOT to rank that in her top three? But it makes life hard for top female professionals, who often prefer to stay single rather than marry-down.

Might all of this change, along with other sexisms? Sure. But now you are no longer dealing with low-hanging fruit. This one is more difficult. And in this light, I think you are very very unfair to Wildstyle, calling her a “trophy.”

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Paul451 - Thanks for the list of baby terms, but it doesn't include supernatural/sci-fi critters. The echidna young you pointed out was very cute, though.
As to the number of the Beast, it would not surprise me at all if I had it wrong, given how long ago it was and tendency toward source blindness in human cognition. I haven't had a chance to verify my memory. If the authors of the Bible changed the number to go with whatever despised leader happened to be on the throne, it sounds like a good tradition. Does anyone know what numerology code would go with George W. Bush?

David Brin said...

Paul S-B thanks for your kind words. Show the trailer to your friends!

Alex T I’d still like to issue my own “naming rights” currency!

locumranch said...

Thanks for providing a link to 'The Space Willies' & reminding us that the Russians have both a cultural predilection for scifi and no respect for copyright.

You forget that reputation-based coinage has the added potential bonus of preventing the economic participation of certain undesirable-types on the basis of class,race, religion, ethnicity & what have you.

And, Mel Baker:
Thank you for implying that 'world peace' is the natural state of man since a good chuckle is always appreciated. May I recommend a healthy dose of the Space Willies?


sociotard said...

Let me start with the paraphrase portion:

David, you agree with me that Wildstyle is presented as competent, accomplished, driven, and kick-butt action star material. You agree with me that Hollywood is better now, with more female characters presented thusly. Less simpering and screaming on the sidelines while their men handle things.

After that . . . you go on to describe what portions of men and women want accomplished, competent mates. I think you are missing the point.

My point is regarding what role women play in the story.

Are they in the story to motivate a male lead, or do they drive the plot on their own?

Yes, I want my daughter to desire a spouse who is accomplished and competent. More importantly, I want her to have her own story.

I know you read cracked and SMBC on occasion.

SMBC: Superfluous Female Protagonist

Cracked: 5 ways modern men are trained to hate women / #5 We Were Told That Society Owed Us a Hot Girl

It was just so blatant in the Lego movie with Wildstyle already having an accomplished, competent boyfriend. When Emmitt finally saves the day, Batman just says "yep, he's the best hero man here. He gets whatever hot girl he wants, and that includes mine I guess."

daddyoyo said...

I'm sure that many have remarked before that, like centuries as cultural categories beginning on the 14th year, decades as cultural categories recently have often coalesced on the 4th year. For example, the release of Rock Around the Clock in 1954, the Beatles first appearance on Ed Sullivan in 1964, or possibly the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984. Any other suggestions?

Acacia H. said...

@Sociotard: Um... so what you're complaining about is Lampshade Hanging on the Trope of The Hero Gets The Girl. I mean, The Batman loses his girlfriend to The Protagonist and says "the hero gets the girl. Even my girl."

Isn't that basically pointing out the stupidity of the trope? I mean, the freaking Batman loses his girl to The Protagonist because The Story calls for it. Do you think people are going to say "hell yeah, he deserved to get Batman's girlfriend!" or are they going to roll their eyes because of the stupidity of the trope?

And yes, the idiots won't get it. But they never do even when it's spelled out before them.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...


I haven't seen "The Lego Movie" (I wanted to, but my daughter went with her friends instead-*sniff*), so I can't comment on the specific film.

I do have to agree, however, with the sentiment expressed in the "Cracked" link you supplied. The "We're taught society owes us a hot girl" thing was dead on, and the prime example is that a-hole in Santa Barbara who killed a bunch of people because he was all of *gasp* 22 years old and no hot chick had yet given him sex.

True, that individual must have had a certain amount of insanity in the mix, but still, there was some sort of cultural thing in the air that told him he was due that particular "prize" which was not being delivered as promised. It seems to me that when I was 22 and no hot chick had yet given me sex (in 1983), the expectations wer much different.

Paul451 said...

Paul Shen-Brown,
Argh, misread your original comment, sorry.

Don't know if anyone's created names for baby versions of mythical animals. It's really only in modern fantasy that people have created naturalistic life-cycles for fictional creatures. In classical legends they just seem to exist. Although griffins and dragons come from eggs, with claims of "griffin eggs" and "dragon eggs" for sale in the middle ages. (Which would make the young just hatchlings.) The rest don't seem to have any naturalistic origins, they were mystically created and then just exist.

I guess pixies/fairies/nymps/sprites would also seem analogous to insects, so larva/pupa. Were-* are easy, just pick the animal equivalent, pup/whelp/cub/kit. Ditto the horses, unicorns, pegasuses, just foals. But centaurs? Foals or infants? As for dwarves, elves, etc: All ape young are called infants, so I guess that would carry to any hominoids, from giants to angles.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Larry Hart
As a high school teacher, I deal with kids who are growing up with these kinds of expectations all the time. I hate to use that clich├ęd phrase "perfect storm" but I think there are a lot of things happening that are predisposing the up and coming generation to some pretty self destructive leanings. Certainly big business advertised just about everything with unsubtle associations between their products and sex when we were growing up, but ever since gansta rap became the rage on MTV, video game graphics went from pixelated to gory and it became possible for people to spend every moment of their lives in contact with their peers, tweeting and texturbating always broadcasting their opinions but never really carrying on real conversation, there have been too many subtle factors that turn young people into socially inept, self-centered egomaniacs with deeply unrealistic expectations. The looney who shot up the school kids in Newtown would not likely have gone over the edge if he was not playing video games almost 24/7. The human brain is not meant to release so much dopamine, they build tolerance in just a few years, and everything becomes so dreadfully boring they lose most of their self control. But unlike building tolerance to pot or heroine, electronic overstimulation is normal, legal and has huge industries behind. It's turning our children, and a fair number of our adults, into mental and emotional cripples. Life was just slower and less stimulating in our generation, and stimulation, like water or oxygen, is wonderful in the right amount, but devastating in either deficit or excess. Can we blame the looney in Santa Barbara, or was he maybe 3 deviations from the mean in terms of his sensitivity to dopamine, or oxytocin, and was clinically depressed. Look up the stats on clinical depression around the world - it is very sobering! Clearly the media bears a huge part of the blame for this, as does self-serving big business. How much of our culture is made of ancient, outdated memes we should have rejected ages ago, but cling to because they are easy and financially or politically useful? More voices for reason are clearly needed, and fiction is a great place to voice reason, but every day I go to work what I see gives me little hope for the future. Our technology and our culture together are sapping their willpower. How can this spiral of overstimulation be broken?

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Paul 451 - It could be a fun little project to make a chart like the one Dr. Brin passed along, or many even a mythical animal babies book? If I only had time, and my artistic skills hadn't atrophied from disuse...

Acacia H. said...

30 years ago psychologists blamed television for desensitizing young people to violence and encouraging antisocial behavior. 40 years ago it was Dungeons & Dragons. 70 years ago radio. 100 years ago it was the newspaper.

Claiming video games and social networks are turning people into antisocial monsters is utter bullshit and is just another broken repetition of an ongoing message of blame. And when we have working holodecks, no doubt within ten years people will blame holodecks for the decline of society.

Rob H.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Robert, please learn a little bit about neurochemistry, specifically how drug tolerance develops, especially in the dopamine system, and also about the normal distribution and polygenic traits.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Paul Shen-Brown
Please learn a little bit about history and data - specifically data about ACTUAL behavior

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Mr. Cairncross,
It would be unfair of me to ask for you to provide specifics without reciprocating. This will take some time, and I am only really willing to spend that time because I am on vacation, my kids are asleep, and I was a little terse with the last commentator. But if you have some historical and behavioral data that would be of use, I would like to hear it. I am not unfamiliar with either of these realms of thought. I started as a history major and kept with it for three years before switching to Anthropology, which I later got a Master’s in. Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, and it uses actual behavioral data – both quantitative and qualitative – so I do have some familiarity. I will admit that I have been out of the field for some time, though, so I may not be up to date on a lot of things. It is notoriously hard to get a job in the field, and after 9/11 with the economy drying up and my wife demanding we have baby #2, it was necessary to change careers.

But to get on with it, let’s start with some basic neuroscience. All our thoughts and feelings are a result of complex electro-chemical circuits that connect different parts of our nervous systems that have specific individual functions. Feelings are specifically created by neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that are transferred from one nerve cell to the next in a circuit to activate it. There are about 60 known neurotransmitters, most of which we know part of their functions but not entirely. Don’t expect perfect answers from science – it is an ongoing process and you can only work with what you know. The neurotransmitter I was going on about before, called dopamine, is used by our brain to give us rewarding, pleasurable feelings. It is thought that the brain generally rewards us with dopamine (and others) when we do things that match instinctive drives. Of course, we do not fully understand all of our instincts either. That would require fully decoding all of our genes, though this does not stop most people from assuming they already know what our instincts are. One that is pretty obvious is the need for food, and for a warm-blooded mammal especially high-energy molecules like fats and sugars. When we eat these, dopaminergic pathways in our brains are activated, providing us with a good feeling and thus the motivation to seek more. This is normal, and without it, we would lack the drive to eat and starve.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

However, food is not the only thing that causes a dopamine release. There are quite a lot of things that do this, and most of them do this in normal levels that are safe and healthy. The act of catching food, even before you have put it in your mouth, for example, provides the same reward as actually eating. Presumably this circuitry evolved to encourage our ancestors to go to the effort to get foods that contain high-energy molecules in fruits and animal fats, which is exactly why we crave these things are often not so impressed by the flavors of vegetables, even though we know they contain other vital nutrients. Energy, for a mammal, is a much higher priority just to maintain our body temperature. The one natural thing we do that releases a huge amount of dopamine is orgasm, which releases around 100% more dopamine than eating a Snickers bar. This provides animals of all kinds with the motivation to reproduce. There are some things, however, that hijack our natural dopamine system, the most studied of which are controlled substances. Marijuana releases about as much as orgasm, cocaine releases around 400% more than normal sugar consumption. This is why these drugs – as well as sex – are addictive. Food can also be addictive, but the amount of the dopamine release is simply not as much, and you can only load yourself up with dopamine this way as long as you have room in your stomach. No normal person can eat enough Snickers bars to cause their brains to release as much dopamine as a hit of pot, or even come close to what cocaine does. And yet, so many people are addicted enough to sugary and/or fatty foods that most of our top causes of death relate to overindulgence.

This is all stuff that Dr. Brin clearly understands. In his novel “Existence” he describes a senator as an “indignation junkie” who gets a dopamine rush from throwing tantrums on the Senate floor. This is very much like what most people know as an adrenaline rush, which we get from amusement park rides, extreme sports and double dares. If you haven’t read the book, what Brin does with this is really devious, and I seriously think that if more people were aware of it, it might help to break the stranglehold of extremists.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I have read that there are people who argue that sugar is addictive and should be considered a controlled substance. Personally, I think this is going a bit too far down the road of regulation. The dopamine reaction to sugar is normal, and sugar is the fuel that all of our cells operate on. I would not leave it to any bureaucrat to determine how much sugar we can eat. One major part of why we are best left to our appetites is the fact that, although we all have the same basic neural mechanisms in us, we all have different levels of sensitivity to our own neurotransmitters, and therefore to the things that trigger them. This gets into the Normal Distribution. While most people think that average means normal, for living things average is only part of normal. There is a normal range of variation among living things that is an unshakable fact of life. It would be really strange if absolutely everyone were exactly the same height. In reality, adult humans have a normal range of heights (different in different parts of the world). More people are average than tall or short, but tall and short people are both normal. If a fully-grown adult were, say, 2 feet tall or 15 feet tall, that would be abnormal. Most things in nature follow this basic pattern. The USDA recommends a 2000 calorie diet, but if you are 5’ 2’’ that diet will drive you to obesity, while a person over 6 feet would be flirting with starvation. When you graph these things out, you get a curve shaped like a bell, so the normal distribution is often called a bell curve. The bell curve is exactly why some people start smoking at 11 and keep puffing into their 90’s, while others kick the bucket in their 30’s. Most die in their 50’s or 60’s. The couple who made it to 90 do not prove that smoking isn’t bad for you, they just happen to be all the way at one end of the distribution, what statisticians would call a few standard deviations from the mean.

Now, to get to video games and social media. Every time you check your email, get a text or a tweet, your brain releases dopamine. It is about the same amount as what you get from eating that Snickers. Likewise with video games, anything that scores points creates the same release. This should make texting or playing video games about the same as eating. Some people chronically overeat, others exercise more self control and keep themselves fit and trim. There should be a normal distribution, with some people being extremely sensitive to dopamine rewards, while others have very low sensitivity, while most people are in the middle. Not everyone who has a cell phone or a Facebook page behaves compulsively, but if you look around, you will see a whole lot of people walking around like zombies glued to their phones. There is an enormous but, here. Remember what I said about your normal dopamine releases being limited by the size of your stomach? With video games and social media, there is no such limitation. You might not be able to stuff more than a dozen Snickers down your gullet, then have to wait a few hours before you can get your dopamine fix again while your stomach clears it out. But the electronic frontier is only limited to how long you can hold it (push pause, charge to the potty, and you can be back to your dopamine fix in a minute), time needed to eat (keep a huge bowl of chips and a super-duper mega big gulp on the coffee table) and sleep (I have seen kids who will stay up until 4 a.m. playing Halo when they know they have an Algebra test at 8:00).

Paul Shen-Brown said...

But, is that a problem? Aren’t they just having fun, getting what they want? Does it hurt anybody? Maybe you will recall that old Nine Inch Nails song called “Hurt” that Johnny Cash covered on his last album. People who are addicted to serious drugs like cocaine start out feeling great, but it doesn’t end that way. When they started, one hit gets them high as a kite, but after awhile one hit doesn’t do it anymore. They need two hits to feel the same high, then three, then four and pretty soon they die of an overdose. It is a vicious circle. The most vicious part is that after awhile, they are no longer taking drugs to get high. They can’t get high anymore. They are taking drugs to feel normal, to feel anything at all (like in that old song). This is called Tolerance. How it works goes back to the nerve cells inside your brain. For every neurotransmitter there is a receptor on the next nerve cell. The neurotransmitter fits the receptor like a key in a lock. Once the neurotransmitters dock with the receptors, the next nerve cell sends the signal on, continuing the circuit. If either the neurotransmitter or the receptor is missing, the signal doesn’t get through and you don’t feel the feeling. Nerve cells have many receptors for the same neurotransmitter, but when a signal comes too often, the nerve starts to pull receptors inside. This makes it less likely that a neurotransmitter will fall onto a receptor, so the first nerve cell has to keep pumping out more and more neurotransmitters to make the signal go through. So your first toke feels awesome, but the more you do it, the less awesome it feels – a negative feedback loop. This is why married couples eventually get tired of sex, though since most people don’t know much about how their brains work, they often think the problem is their partner and they start looking around for someone else, when in reality their brains are saying lay off the sex, not cheat on your spouse.

So does that just mean that people who do a lot of video games will get tired of it and do something else? No. The problem is that the neurotransmitter they are over stimulating is the same one used for a lot of other good feelings. It should not be too hard to connect the dots. You score a point on the soccer field, you get a dopamine high, but the soccer game doesn’t go on all day and all night long. People who play video games, or text or Facebook (or compulsively submit to blogs) are only getting normal amounts of dopamine at any one instant, but over the course of hours, days, years they are releasing as much as a crack head. They blow their natural dopamine systems, taking away their ability to feel good – ever. How long this takes for any individual depends on where they are in the normal distribution. Some people never get addicted, some get addicted very easily. Once you get to that zombie stage, someone can hand you a $15 million winning lottery ticket and you would hardly care. It is in that stage where your need for a thrill, a dopamine release, is rising exponentially that people get to be really dangerous.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

This is no joke. I have to fight my son every day to limit his exposure, and I can see that it is true by how he acts. When he plays games for more than an hour, he becomes obsessive and belligerent, with little desire to eat, talk or do anything else except play video games. It is especially hard for him because he has autism, which makes people less able to get good feelings from social interaction. When I manage to get the thing away from him, he calms down and starts to act more normal. Then when he goes to a friend’s house and plays all day long, he comes back with a dazed, overdosed look on his face. There are now rehabilitation facilities (at least one that I know of in the U.S.) for video game addiction. It is not a joke.

Maybe you can see why I was a little loathe to go into detail. It takes me weeks to teach the basics to tenth graders. It makes a mighty long post, and there is a lot I left out. Now this is part of our basic nature, the mechanics of how we work. Is there any historical or behavioral data that counters this?

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Paul

How about the NEGATIVE correlation observed between violence in society and the prevalence of video games?

Society used to be a LOT more violent BEFORE the mass adoption of video games

That is not to say that there is a causation

Whatever possible negative effect of increased video gaming it has been thoroughly trashed by whatever the overall social positive effect is

Not convinced about this guys reasons BUT his data about the actual effect is very conclusive

I think lead in petrol had a major effect

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Hello again,

Oddly enough, I was thinking about exactly that. Historically violence has tended to rise with bad economic times and fall with good economic times. Right now violence is falling, and the social scientists who look at this stuff have been scratching their heads about it. I heard an LAPD spokesman a few months ago attribute the drop in crime to video games. He said that the games a re so much better than they were when he was a kid that now there are fewer young men wandering the streets looking for a fight. He may be right, and it would seem like a really good thing. But then, maybe there is more too it than that, specific historic circumstances that make the figures appear skewed. I can name several.

For one, at least in the U.S., a lot has changed since WW 2, making comparisons before and after potential apple/orange comparisons. One is the Demographic Transition. Before the War most Americans lived on farms, and had very little education. Less than 50% went to school beyond 6th grade. After the War, more than 90% moved in to cities, where compulsory education could be enforced much more easily. Education changes people's prospects for work very dramatically, but then there's the old Ratopolis Effect. What happens when you crowd people together? Even if they have adequate resources (jobs for us, food in the rat experiments) they annoy each other and start getting violent.
Along with the War and the Demographic Transition came the Baby Boom. Population spiked in most of the industrialized world in the 1950's. By the 1970's those baby boomers came of age and found that they had to compete for work in a much more crowded arena than history had ever known. And what accompanied that population spike? What may be the greatest spike in violence in history. Before the 70's there were a lot of places where you could forget to lock your door and not have to worry. Gruesome murders and rapes were rare, and you could count on neighbors to keep an eye on your kids as they played outside in the neighborhood. But the violence became so commonplace it stopped being news, and our cultures adapted to it, not only tolerating much higher levels of violence but normalizing it, acting as if it were just part of our nature and it has always been that way.
What you said about the lead in petroleum was probably part of it, too. I had my suspicions ever since reading about how lead affected the Romans. The new remaking of Cosmos has a great episode on this - one I am probably going to show my classes this year. I did archaeology work on sites near highways where we were all required to wear dust masks because of the lead in the soil left over from the 70's. Our figures and more importantly our perceptions may be skewed by what happened in that relatively recent decade.

Part of the downshift in violence may be purely cultural. Back in the 70's people used to throw their garbage out their car windows without pause. Driving down the highway looked like driving through the city dump. Then the came the public outreach campaign with those crying Indian commercials, and the hundred dollar fines for littering. Today most people think littering is disgusting and have a low opinion of those who do it. Have we seen more messages of peace in mass media since then? Or have more violent people been jailed? Has society simply become less tolerant of violence as a result of the violence itself? We just don't know.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

But here's another bit of history to think about - the Opium Wars. China had once been one of the most powerful nations on Earth, until the British East India Company happened upon a product they could sell there to get the silks and spices and china so coveted by the West. It's not hard to see how having a huge segment of a nation's population doped up made it relatively easy for other nations to carve that country up like a Christmas turkey. There was an old Monty Python skit where a sergeant bellows at his men about paying honor to all those who died to keep China British.

We just don't know the answers, yet. Can we afford to sit on our hands and just see if this becomes the failure mode that takes us out?

Here we go with another really long post! No more caffeine after 5 for me!

Acacia H. said...

So you're discounting the neurological effects that lead has on the nervous system and the impact that eliminating lead from gasoline and paint has had on reducing antisocial behavior? And waving your hands at the mass shootings discounts two things - first, the copycat syndrome that is enhanced by the glorification of these events by the news media, and second the fact these events have happened for quite some time including someone trying to blow up a school full of children with dynamite back 100 or so years ago.

We're just so interconnected now that we hear every single incident which is blown up out of proportion by a news media trying desperately for increased market share.

And I agree with Dr. Brin - you force anonymity on the perps, you destroy one of the incentives - notoriety. If all the criminal is is a number and letter code, then the only thing that is notorious is the actual event. And the human ego isn't one to easily accept that they will get no credit at all, that their face and voice will be blurred out, that they become nothing.

Further, the forced anonymity also increases the constitutional protection of fair trial. If XT#53256 committed a mass murder and the number was even changed before the trial, then jurors don't attribute Jason Smeeds with the horrific event and may be less swayed by emotional appeals and focus more on the actual evidence.

Ultimately what will be required is artificial intelligence, both to assist in law enforcement and to provide an impartial jury that will examine just the evidence and determine if that is sufficient for a conviction.

Rob H., who thinks any prosecutor who is found to have put an innocent man behind bars because he or she suppressed evidence should be thrown in jail and be subject to civil lawsuits

Paul451 said...

"from giants to angles"

Oh blessed are the angles.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Duncan,

I read over the reviews for that book you suggested, and it looks like it could be some fun. If my vacation time were not almost gone I would jump on it right away. Steven Pinker is a well-known and respected worker. The plot synopsis provided by the first customer reviewer shows me that most of what is there is stuff we covered when I was an undergrad, but I suspect he will have done a very good job of putting all those disparate threads together and communicating it. It might even provide a decent antidote to the wannabe gang culture at my school, if I can find very short bits to feed my students.
I remember having this discussion in a cultural anth survey. We had been going over Richard B. Lee's classic work on the !Kung San, who had a reputation for being exceptionally peaceful people. He related a tale of murder and execution told him by his informants that probably happened some time in the 1930's or 20's. Then he did the math, three murders and one execution, and found that this tiny number of deaths by violent hands gave them a much higher murder rate than just about any state-level society. State-level coercion methods are very effective. Of course the flaw in this argument should be obvious - the sample size is so small the conclusion might be made spurious just by randomness in such a small data set. On a more human side, having a handful of murders a couple generations back pales compared to the sheer numbers we have here and today. Even if the percent is low, the amount of human misery is still very high.

If there were an audio version of the book, I would snag it in a heartbeat. I spend far too much time trapped on the highways. Might I make a suggestion to you? When I finished Grad school I told myself I had to catch up on a lot of fiction I had been missing, but I had a book recommended to me that sounded interesting (though now it is getting old). Reading it, though, very much changed how I view human behavior, in part because it introduced me to neurochemistry, but also because the author did a good job of connecting it with how our brains affect our daily lives in subtle ways. It is called "Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species" by Sarah Hrdy. It is not a book that is only of interest to women, by far, but it is a very long, dense book. It was a real eye-opener. The author has newer material, but I haven't read it, so I can't make any recommendations there.

Paul451 said...

Paul Shen-Brown
Re: Kids today.

However, crime rates, murder rates, are all declining in the US. Focusing on the sub-set of mass shootings that makes the national media and saying "Ah, video games!", is ridiculous. If your thesis was correct, you'd see an explosion in the general crime rate. There isn't, so it isn't. Your thesis may make intuitive sense to you, but that doesn't make it any less wrong, just harder to accept it's wrong.

Australia made one change to its laws, and has (so far) completely eliminated mass shootings. Even though it had no effect on murder/robbery and other crimes, even though it didn't reduce the number of guns in the community, even though we've increased the number of phones/video games/twitter/rap music. This strongly suggests that mass shootings are not a symptom of general cultural/sociological shifts, whether it's video games or lead in fuel/paint, but instead very specific combinations of mental illness, ease of access to certain types of guns, and, as Robert notes, copy cats.

"Have we seen more messages of peace in mass media since then?"


"Before the 70's there were a lot of places where you could forget to lock your door and not have to worry."

There still are. We just worry anyway. That's a side effect of the media hysteria. I often forget to lock my front door, usually overnight, but occasionally when I go out. And I've often forgotten to lock my car, both out front of my flat for a couple of days, and at shopping centres. Depending on the weather, when I'm hope I'll leave both doors not only unlocked but open. I should point out, I live in a ground floor "duplex" type group of flats, with no private yards. It's a low-income, relatively high crime area and I've never been mugged, never been broken into. My total exposure to crime in the last decade is having my number-plates stolen. (For service station drive-offs, apparently.)

Doris said...

Proposed collective nouns:
A scamper of pixies.
An aura of fairies.
A flotilla of nymphs.

locumranch said...

I feel Paul_Shen's pain but his assumptions about tolerance & addiction are erroneous because the two concepts are non-identical: Tolerance refers to habituation (and/or desensitization) and addiction refers to adaption.

Assuming repeated exposure to a set stimulus, the indulging individual is said to become tolerant (desensitized; habituated) to said stimulus when it takes more & more of the same to elicit an equivalent response, meaning that the tolerant individual becomes LESS responsive to said stimuli, and this principle, TOLERANCE, applies to any type of desensitizing stimulus including alcohol, ethnic diversity, alternative sexuality and videogame violence.

Addiction is a much less common phenomenon wherein an individual adapts to a repeated stimuli in such a manner that he requires said stimuli to function in a normal fashion, much like the dependent alcoholic or junkie who decompensates (ceases to function) when he fails to consume a sufficient amount of his chosen poison.

Strictly speaking, Paul_Shen's son exhibits an intolerance or 'a lack of tolerance' when he is exposed to videogame violence, meaning that he decompensates and cannot function in the desired fashion when exposed to even a small amount of said sensitizing stimulus, much in the same way that the compulsive gambler ceases to function when he gambles, even though many choose to equivocate such dysfunctional behavior as an 'addiction' in order to shift responsibility (blame) from the affected individual to the affecting stimulus.

Suffering from a 12-step mentality, Paul_Shen attempts to shift responsibility away from the affected individual (his son) by blaming his son's illness, the videogame stimulus, his son's friends, society in general & himself, as if the peanut can be forced to accept moral responsibility for causing an anaphylactic nut allergy,

Nuts, I say. Rather than the media, videogames, junk food, drugs. teen pregnancy, homosexuality & fossil fuels (etc), it is this societal preference for blame-shifting that indicates a society in decay and a morality in decline:

No one is innocent; no one is guiltless; responsibility will rain down all on saint and sinner alike; and no one -- not one of us -- is to be spared.


LarryHart said...

Wow! Lots to catch up on today.

@Paul Shen-Brown, I hope you don't stop posting when your vacation is over. You seem to be a fount of good information. I've never been a high-school teacher, but my brother teaches high school (in Pennsylvania), so I know a bit from where you speak.

At the moment, though, my mind is still reeling from recognizing eternal verities in that "Cracked" article someone (wait I'll look--ok, it was sociotard) posted about 5 reasons men hate or fear women or something to that effect.

But what most struck me in recent postings was the discussion over whether today's video games "kill ambition" any more than D&D or television or comic books supposedly did before them--and how that all ties in with Dr Brin's warnings about marijuana killing ambition, or even how old-fashioned sexual mores represent a fear that any form gratification other than procreative sex "kills ambition" reproduce. Oh, or the conservative argument that welfare or charity or redistribution--any assistance to the poor that doesn't let them die in slow agony--kills ambition.

I'm anxious to expand on these, but the short version is that they are all similar arguments. And that, as a good liberal, my response is that there is a fundamental difference between a time of scarcity and a time of plenty. There is a fundamental difference between a time when all must pull lots of weight to keep the system from collapsing, vs a time when only a little work per participant is truly required. And that the application of rules designed to apply to one sort of phase of society when we're really living in the other phase is not only unnecessary, but cruel.

"No sex except for reproduction" makes sense when your survival depends on outproducting your losses to predators, diseases, and/or other tribes. In a world of seven billion people, it is not only unnecessary to worry about people "losing ambition" to reproduce, it is actually counterproductive. And I believe an analogous argument could be made for any of the other areas I just attempted to tie together above.

Food for thought?

anon said...

By referring to 'ambition', I assume that Larry is referring to the Aggressive Qualities (AQ) that Pinker defines as anti-social.

Food for thought?

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Doris - I like your name suggestions. If the offspring of an insect is a nymph, would the offspring of a nymph (the mythical sort) be a nymph nymph? Or would we need another term?

locumranch - I am not sure I understand your argument, which may just be because I am tired and have been out of touch with such things for a long time. I do not think I suggested the tolerance and addiction are the same thing, but addiction typically leads to tolerance. I'll read what you wrote again after I have had some sleep, but I can't make promises. The curriculum is changing and I have a lot of work to do to figure out what they want us to teach this year.

Paul 451 - I think you are misreading my argument. I did not suggest that video games would cause a massive uptick in violence. You missed the whole bit about the normal distribution. Most people will not be too seriously affected, but people who are a couple deviations from mean in terms of their sensitivity to dopamine will be much more affected by the overstimulation, possibly leading to unfortunate behavior and/or exacerbating other mental issues. Sure, there have been loonies throughout history, but the more crowded the world gets, the more damage they can do. Please note, though, that I was not making any sort of pitch for regulation - I'm not trying to take your games away.
It's good to know that things are copacetic down in Oz, and that you have not experienced much in the way of crime. I grew up in a small city of just 200 k, but was robbed a couple times, pick-pocketed, sexually assaulted as a child, and a close friend was shot at multiple times for choosing the wrong religion. And when the police found out she was Jewish, they seemed to lose interest in investigating. Then there's L.A., but I digress. It is very easy to let anecdotal evidence and personal experience color our judgements. Statistics are generally more useful, and argument from assertion is no argument at all.

anon - I haven't read Pinker, but I am not sure that ambition and aggression are necessarily the same.

Larry Hart - I'll get back to you soon. I have to go pick my daughter up from school.

LarryHart said...

@Paul Shen-Brown
I've been on and off of the internet the past few days too, so no worries if life gets in your way as well.

The thing is, I feel as if I have a lot to comment on, but must do so in small bytes. OTOH, that's probably good for the rest of y'all. I do tend to ramble at times. :)

@anon, I didn't exactly mean "aggression" when I mentioned "ambition". Using the specific word was a reference to our own host, Dr Brin, cautioning that marijuana was a killer of ambition. My emotional reaction to that was that, just like oxygen or water or sugar (or money), ambition in unlimited quantities is not necessarily a good thing to be encouraged at all costs. Especially when we seem to have moved from a phase of civilization where ambition meant "urge to create new and better modalities" to one where ambition is more often channeled as "urge to acquire as private property what used to belong to the commons." If the ones who excel at that form of ambition can instead be satisfied with a few hits off the bong, I'm all for it.

I can try to make similar arguments for why I understand the need to channel sexual urges into "productive" activities in a small, vulnerable tribe, but I don't think it's a good idea to apply such rules in a world of seven billion human beings. Or why "If you don't work, you don't eat," makes sense when everyone's labor is essential to produce the food necessary for survival, but in a wealthy nation with enough food for all and enough automated labor to free humans from drudgery, it's unnecessary and cruel to limit the value of individuals to "What have you done lately for the owners of the means of survival?"

I could make much longer arguments about each individual point, but I doubt anyone wants me to, and I hope I've made the direction of my argument clear.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Larry Hart again,

I remember the days when people claimed that D&D was going to destroy young people's souls, etc. I played the game in jr. high, and even then it was obvious that the people making those remarks religious looneys, so we didn't take them too seriously. Believe it or not, I once attended a church where the claimed that John Denver, of all people, was in league with Lucifer. John Denver? Marijuana, or course, contains an actual drug (tetrahydrocannabinol) that mimics one of our reward neurotransmitters (anadamine). The amotivational syndrome caused by weed is pretty well established, but once again you have to think about that normal distribution and how different people have different susceptibilities, depending on their own unique amounts of both the transmitters and receptors as well as the number of nerve cells carrying them and how they are arranged. Any kind of social activities, be it D&D, playing board games, or sitting around observing low tea, will cause our nerves to release a different chemical called oxytocin, which has some truly profound impacts on us. There is a great TED Talk on oxytocin, about 15 minutes long and very worth watching. I'm trying to find it, but not having any luck. It's probably on my work computer. Oxytocin, which makes people social and want to be together, is much more subtle and long-lasting than dopamine. In fact, Helen Fischer identified a cross-cultural pattern in divorce that demonstrates this. Most places around the world see the greatest number of divorces by a huge amount in couples that have been married between three and four years. This is about how long it takes most people to build tolerance to the dopamine release of orgasm. Couples who have married mainly for sex and do not spend a lot of time with each other outside of bed often end up divorced because they have not built an association between the comfortable feelings of oxytocin and their partner. For those who prefer to be together rather than hanging out with their same-sex peers, the bond of oxytocin can last a lifetime. Thus there was no real reason to worry about people playing a tabletop game together. That has more to do with long-lasting oxytocin than than brief but powerful dopamine. of course, little of this was understood back then.

A difference with TV, social media and video games is which chemical they activate, and for how long. We have all known people who waste their days away in front of the boob tube. I had a roommate once who came back from a tour in naval intelligence, only to plant his butt in front of the TV. 30 years later he still has a hard time keeping down a job. It is worse today, because of how cinematography has changed. Faster cuts from scene to scene mean more stimulation. Likewise video games that have fast-paced action are more damaging than those that are slower. Fortunately my son is into Minecraft, which is fairly slow-paced. Something like Mario Brothers would be worse.

locumranch, let me know if you think there is an element of free choice to discuss here. This is a huge philosophical can of worms, but I suspect that is what you may be getting at.

LarryHart said...

@Paul Shen-Brown

locumranch can certainly speak for himself, but sometimes it takes awhile to catch on. So if I may offer an interpretation--loc sometimes reminds me of the teenaged Woody Allen character in "Annie Hall"--the one who won't do his homework because "The universe is expanding," and therefore, "What's the point?" Things that may improve life in the next ten to twenty years are going to destroy civilization in a hundred, and in any case, we'll all be dead in a billion years, so everyting is pointless.

I'm being purposely snarky in my interpretation. Like a good liberal, I know I might be wrong. Judge for your own self, and caveat emptor.

Paul451 said...

Paul Shen-Brown
"You missed the whole bit about the normal distribution. Most people will not be too seriously affected, but people who are a couple deviations from mean"

However, it's the "normal distribution" that you are ignoring. If you got an increasing effect at the top end, from video games/etc, you would see a similar increase in thrill-seeking type behaviour (and the associated impulse control) through the rest of the curve. In other words, it would shift the whole curve upwards. That would correlate with an increase in other crimes, most notable in murders. The actual murder rate has been declining, suggesting that the entire curve is, in fact, shifting down. (And I think US culture has yet to adapt to that fact.) That means there must be another reason for mass shootings.

"I'm not trying to take your games away."

Cute. Implying that any objection I make is based on emotion. For the record, I'm not a gamer.

"It is very easy to let anecdotal evidence and personal experience color our judgements."

And indeed, your entire thesis seems to be based around your own "sigh, kids today" experience as a teacher/father. The rest of your text is a just-so story about dopamine to justify that prior belief.

"Statistics are generally more useful"

Which is why I talked about Australia's change in gun laws eliminating mass shootings. Not reducing them, not arguably having an effect on them, but eliminating. One every 18 months to zero in 18 years (as measured by the same criteria. Using a different criteria, it's one every six months down to 1 in 18 years.) All while video games became more photo-realistic and more widespread, all while rap music became a standard in the Australian music scene, all while phones/texts/twitter/facebook changed the teen and twenty-something social scene. Your theory fails.

Paul451 said...

"However, it's the "normal distribution" that you are ignoring."

Just to elaborate on that: What you're proposing is an effect which simultaneously causes an increase in violence at the top of the curve, and a decrease in violence through the rest of the curve, but claim as evidence crazy-eyes after kids (who aren't at the top of curve) play video games (implying an increase in stimulation-seeking/violence across the entire curve.) But you've failed to show how the same cause would have to completely contradictory effects depending on where you are on the curve.

Doug S. said...

I would SO love to be able to see Peter Sellers as Walter Mitty. (Thus speaks someone who was born two years after Peter Sellers died.)

David Brin said...

Wow, what a discussion!! I have only a few side comments.

I do not agree that video games make kids more violent. That is a hard case to make, when violence is plummeting. Yes, it may be a factor in dozens or even hundreds of individual cases, where the brain chemistry goes haywire! But for most kids, the danger is the same as marijuana… a destroyer of ambition and engagement with the world. I anecdotally have experience.

“efore the 70's there were a lot of places where you could forget to lock your door and not have to worry. Gruesome murders and rapes were rare, and you could count on neighbors to keep an eye on your kids as they played outside in the neighborhood.”

Sorry, Paul. That is bull. All of those things were far worse, then. We are much much less tolerant of levels of risk that were formerly shrugged off as “normal.”

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Dr. Brin,

What you wrote here: That is a hard case to make, when violence is plummeting. Yes, it may be a factor in dozens or even hundreds of individual cases, where the brain chemistry goes haywire!
This is pretty much what I was saying, though I can see how that would get lost with the length of the discussion. Likewise your comment about amotivational syndrome really was my main point (thus the Opium Wars comment). I see it every day, though that seems to have gotten lost in all the heat over violence. As to earlier decades being more safe, I was born in '68, so I did not live in them personally, as you did. My impressions come from discussions in college history classes. I come to a place like this to share ideas and have some interesting discussions. If I am wrong about something, then it serves the purpose of clearing up a mistaken impression.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Paul 451
I’m glad you brought up the fact that distributions change. Most people in my experience think that a distribution is some permanent feature, but in fact shifts in distribution curves is a fundamental concept in population genetics. What you are describing is called Directional Selection, but it is one of three ways a distribution curve can shift. Directional selection would only happen if all members of the population were equally exposed to the stimulus, but dopamine is motivation. People on the other end of the curve, who have very little sensitivity to dopamine, would have little motivation to game, or text, become addicted to Facebook, etc. Therefore they would not be nearly as exposed to the stimulus by choice – they would not choose to be gamers, as you have chosen not to (though a person could be highly sensitive and simply get their dopamine another way, like the indignation junkies Brin describes). Therefore, those at one end of the curve do not experience the stimulus and they do not shift. If the curve does shift (the population evolves) what you would see would be Disruptive Selection. That is, the curve would split into two populations. In disruptive selection the range may or may not change, but the middle begins to disappear. One single trait, even if polygenic, might not be enough to split the species into two separate races, but in time, if for some reason high thrill seekers and low thrill seekers find themselves reproductively isolated, it could, but it’s not a quick process. James Alan Gardner wrote a short story in which he postulated that Catholics and Protestants, if laws permanently isolated them from each other, could end up speciating. Still, the point is that the pressure is not being applied equally to the entire population, therefore the uptick in violent crime you are assuming may or may not happen. The third possibility is called Stabilizing Selection, in which the extremes disappear and the overall distribution becomes more average.

Singedrac said...

The idea of team chess with human/computer pairs has been around for a while. The first I saw the idea flirted with was in an 80's sci-fi novel by no less than... Vernor Vinge!

The Peace War is an excellent novel. :)

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Just a recommendation before I run out of time - neurology is one of the scientific revolutions of our time, largely thanks to new imaging technologies that have allowed us to peer inside like never before. Much of my earlier posts has been very basic neuroscience, and only the tip of the iceberg, as it were. The human mind is a fascinating thing, flexible like no other we know of, but limited in some very peculiar ways by the hardware of the brain. If you are curious but find you don't have enough time for reading, there are some very good books on CD out there. If you live in a big city you may spend a lot of time in your car, and learning something can be a nice alternative to the radio autopilot. Some of the best I have been listening to have been recorded lectures from The Learning Company's Great Courses series. They are pretty expensive, so I only get them on sale, and I have seen some in local libraries if you want to try them out without investing the money. If your local library doesn't have them, most libraries participate in Interlibrary Loan.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky's "Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality" is excellent. Sapolsky is a neuroscientist who has won the MacArthur Genius Award for his work on stress. His title "Stress and Your Body" is a fascinating look at how things can go wrong inside, and do for so many people (I'm sure by now most of you have heard the news about Robin Williams' apparent suicide). National Geographic also did a great video that features Sapolsky's work called "Stress: Portrait of a Killer." His "Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science" is easier for people who don't have much of a science background, though most of the material is covered in the first one I mentioned.
Mark Leary's "Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior" is also good and geared toward a more general audience.
Steven Novella's "Your Deceptive Mind: A Guide to Critical Thinking Skills" does not have a lot of neuroscience in it, but it is a good way to help people tell the difference between solid reasoning and fallacious arguments, even in your own thinking, is always useful. Michael Shermer's "Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist" is similar and more entertaining but also a little lighter.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

I got a hold of my work computer and found that TED Talk video on oxytocin. It is called "Trust, Morality and Oxytocin" by Paul Zak. It's about 16 minutes long, and my students certainly found it fascinating, as well as other adults I have shown it to. Here's the url:

Paul451 said...

Paul Shen-Brown
"That is, the curve would split into two populations."

What I can't seem to get you to realise, so I'll spell it out explicitly, is that you are discussing an extremely rare phenomena (mass shootings) but you are using as your anecdotal evidence the experience of non-extreme cases.

That's important, because it means the effect you claim to observe is occurring in the bulk of the population, otherwise you wouldn't have observed it. That would produce the equivalent effect in that bulk of the population, such as thrill-seeking behaviour. We know from ADHD that thrill-seeking behaviour (and similar impulse control issues) has a high correlation with crime (and being a victim of crime). Which means that a phenomena (games/phones/twitter caused dopamine-addiction) which affected enough of the population for you to see anecdotally it, would also have created an noticeable increase in crime.

Since that hasn't happened, your anecdotal experience is shown to be misinterpreted, and not related to dopamine addiction levels in society, hence nor to mass shootings.

Everything else you write is a just-so story created from fragments of neuro-chemistry to justify that prior (anecdotally driven) mistaken assumption.

To paraphrase it again to try to make it clearer, while the overall population distribution curve may not uniformly shift upwards (where crime is "up", here), the sub-population that is prone to dopamine addiction would all shift up, and must have done so for you to see the lesser effects in non-extreme (non-mass-murdering) children. If your thesis is correct, in order for dopamine-addiction to explain an uptick in mass shootings, we'd see an uptick in all crimes across that sub-population that is dopamine addiction prone.

For your thesis to work, you need a simultaneous effect which reduces crime in the non-dopamine-addiction-prone population that not only balances out the increase in crime from the dopamine-addicts, but dominates it (in order to produce the actual decline). But your dopamine-addiction thesis has no such mechanism. There's no reason why the part of the population with no special addiction or attraction to gaming/twitter/facebook/etc would reduce their crime rate.

Paul451 said...

"for you to see anecdotally it"


locumranch said...

According to the definitions I supplied earlier, many of the trendy so-called 'addictions' are fictions, representing (dysfunctional) obsessive-compulsive behaviours rather than compensatory adaptions to noxious stimuli.

Sex, Work, Gambling & Videogaming are not addictions or even potential addictions, neither is 'dopamine addiction' (as this mechanism is an intrinsic part of human physiology), and no one can be said to be 'addicted' to the basic requirements of life like food or water, or air, or sleep, or exercise because 'dysfunction' is not synonymous with addiction ...

Although some individuals DO appear addicted to equivocation, ignorance & illogic.


David Brin said...

Paul S-B I get an impression you feel that I stomped on you a bit, when I said “bull.” Please be assured that this community (one of the oldest and best on the web) welcomes you and deems you a worthy addition. Just expect to need a somewhat thick skin. “Bull” is par for the course and said in a spirit of collegial give and take.

Suggestion? Use more paragraph breaks. Solid lumps of text are difficult. Se how the other Paul ($%!) does it. Also, you have no idea how rough 1968 was ! We reached the end (and the Apollo 8 photo) just in time. One more day of that year…

Acacia H. said...

Small question. I recently read an article about the possibility of a Carrington Event and on shielded electronics. My question is this: if we were to get sufficient warning of a Carrington Event that we could shut down computers and such, would wrapping them, cell phones, and other electronics in aluminum foil so it's completely covered be sufficient protection to avoid the electronics being damaged?

In essence I'm talking about making something akin to a Faraday Cage out of aluminum foil - by unplugging electronics (and external hard drives for that matter) and completely encasing them in thin metal, would that protect those electronics?

(I'm not sure if I could find enough tin foil to wrap around the automobile though! ^^)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

I meant Paul (451) and not Paul ($%!) !!!

I doubt Autos are very vulnerable to a Carrington event. Forewarned, I might try to connect a jumper cable from engine to ground. Maybe pop the circuit breakers for most of the house, except the kitchen because life must go on. Unplug the valuable electronics.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Dr. Brin,
Thick skin noted. I may be coming across as extra pessimistic because it is the end of my vacation, when I am about to go back to working 27 hours a day, 9 days a week.

My writing style might come across as overly emotional, but it is mostly out of habit. After learning about Standpoint Theory in college, I have tended to do this. Standpoint Theory (not really a theory, but a suggestion for praxis) originates with a psychologist named Donna Haraway, who argued that conventional scientific discourse, in which authors try to remain as anonymous as possible, has the effect of making it difficult for a reader to assess biases in the author's thinking. Her prescription is for authors to reveal something about themselves, both so that they can examine their own biases more easily and so their readers can better judge for themselves.

btw - I looked over that oxytocin video again, and I had forgotten that the speaker brought up Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments." I thought you might find this interesting, given your previous discussion.

My daughter just finished sculpting a Hoon and a G'kek (Alvin & Huck) to go with the Traechi she made last week. Unfortunately I had had poor success with photographing miniatures, or I would send you pictures.

Alfred Differ said...

If you have stucco on your house, you already have a partial Faraday cage. Look at how they put the stuff up and you'll find a metal mesh underneath on which everything is 'plastered.' Complete the mesh in the attic and you've got your cage. Track down the ways power gets into the cage and disconnect there.

Some people also have a metal foil on the foam insulation in the walls. If your cell phone has trouble inside the building, you might be one of them. 8)

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Paul 451, I am willing to concede the point. I am not wed to any particular hypothesis here, I was probably just being overly pessimistic. However, don't dismiss the explanatory value of neuroscience so easily. Most of the discourse on violence in media versus violence in reality has been dominated by analogical reasoning (if it looks like it, it must be like it), and while this is unsurprising coming from the media, mostly untrained in scientific reasoning, some of the professionals in behavioral sciences are equally guilty.

Neurology provides ways to actually test hypotheses, though I do not have the means to do so myself. As I said before, most of what I wrote is conventional neuroscience. Only the bit about the limits of exposure to natural stimuli vs. artificial stimuli and how that might relate to tolerance was my own conjecture (not a just-so story, which is argument by assertion, the difference is that I am not saying I am absolutely right about this, I am only suggesting a possibility).

Anyway, my main point was about amotivational syndrome, not violence. Fortunately the place I teach is not that bad. There have been some interesting articles on about marijuana recently. I check this site frequently, though sometimes their summaries of research too brief to satisfy my curiosity.

I just picked up Pinker's book at my local library, though I have not had time to read it yet. I did skim through and look at some of the graphs, and it reminded me of something that came out of the old debate between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism. Stephen Jay Gould made the point that what may look like gradual change on a very broad time scale looks ounctuated on a shorter time scale. The smooth curves of a graph are sometimes illusory. When you look closer, you see the data are rarely so clean, showing dips and valleys. On a scale of decades you may see stretches of a few years where something like violence increases, even though the overall trend is downward over hundreds or thousands of years.

I will certainly grant that the media distorts perceptions. They make their living by drawing attention to themselves. There are also those that deliberately manipulate data. I have seen climate change deniers do this trick, showing only a very short part of a graph where average temperatures do not seem to change, but if you look at the graph over a time span of a century, the overall trend is clearly up.

Are these paragraphs short enough?

David Brin said...

Fun idea for sculptures based on sci fi characters! When I make pancakes, the shapes include flying saucers, duckies, tanks, bicycles... and traeki!

Alex Tolley said...

Although "disruptive selection" is one of the 3 classic textbook mechanisms, and it appears easy to simulate, I am skeptical of it occurrence. There are almost no examples from biology to support its occurrence in nature. Therefore even positing it in this discussion should require some good supporting evidence, rather than just speculation.

Alfred Differ said...

Pinker's story is backed by an explanatory narrative that comes from a different field, namely economics. There is no reasonable way to refute that humanity has been fantastically successful at multiplying and expanding our skill sets/knowledge base through specialization from trade. Those of us who do it are filling the world with successful children and the connection to Pinker comes from the recognition this success requires devoting quite a bit of time to it in the form of comprehending hypotheticals and handling social abstractions. Kids who can do that in trade are probably applying the same tricks to other parts of social life because they are in their emotional toolkits. THAT leads to a reduction of violence where trade gets most complex.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alex Tolley, the classic peppered moths of London are an example. Most textbooks only talk about what happened to populations in or near London itself, but in the surrounding countryside where there was less smog, there was selection against the medium-colored moths, leading to a split in the curve.

Alex Tolley said...

Purpr very@Paul Shen-Brown
I disagree. These were probably different populations that were each driven by directional selection in their respective habitats - dark for London trees, peppered for the country.

greg byshenk said...

I agree that neuroscience is one of the revolutions of our time. But it is also very early days for neuroscience, with lots that we don't know, and any conclusions are probably speculative (at best).

David Brin said...

The amazing human trait... that when given freedom, safety, health and education, most human women chose to defy Malthus and have 1 to 3 kids... may be temporary, lasting only 3 or 4 generations. In that blessed window of time we must make a truly advanced civilization. Other species may never have lucked into that trait.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Alex Tolley, you could be right, but to find out we would have to know something about their mating habits, specifically their catchment area, and there would be the problem of boundaries, where gene flow would likely happen.
btw - what is "Purpr very"?

Dr. Brin, the four features you give, freedom, safety, health and education tend to lead to income, which gives women leverage they did not have in most societies in the past. I explain this to my students each year, and they are mostly floored by the idea that women could possibly choose to have fewer children. So the transition isn't complete even here, but it still shows some real hope and progress.

I can see Traeki pancakes, but trying to do this with G'Kek would be nightmarish, I think.

LarryHart said...

re: traeki pancakes...
I'd think that stacks of doughnuts would make some interesting traeki. Or maybe Jophur too, if master rings could be introduced.

G'kek wheels could be made from pancakes (or doughnuts) as well.

For those who haven't heard my theory before--Dr Brin doesn't fully specify what the nature of the insult was that caused G'Kek to be hunted down and slaughtered by Jophur, but I came up with a theory that seems to me so "right" that it has to be true. G'kek once mortally offended the Jophur by using discarded Jophur/Traeki rings as tires.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Larry Hart, your suggestion is whispering to my tummy, but another vision is dancing in my head: wheels made of melon rings, the rest a concatenation of other fruits. Maybe we can sell them to the Jophur. They might enjoy eating their enemies for breakfast.

Dr. Brin, my daughter asked how you do the tentacles on your traeki pancakes?

greg byshenk - yes, neuroscience is very young, and in all sciences all conclusions are considered tentative, as new data can always change the picture. Theories are more often modified than outright rejected. Newton's Theory of Gravity is not gone, it has been modified by by Einstein and others, so it has evolved rather than being replaced.

Think of Seasonal Affect Disorder. Most people get bummed out when the weather is gloomy, some more than others. Some people get so bummed out they become suicidal. If you look at suicide rates, they tend to be high in places that have few sunshine ours in the year, like Finland or Seattle. This is explained easily by a neurotransmitter called Serotonin, which is, in humans, mostly activated by sunlight. Too little sunlight makes people depressed, too much nudges people toward violent behavior. Knowing that it is light that activates it, psychologists hit on the in retrospect obvious solution of having people who are especially sensitive to serotonin get up in the morning and turn all the lights on.

This is a very practical treatment for a very serious condition that has come from an understanding of neurochemistry. It can also provide useful advice to the many more people who are not sensitive enough to be diagnosed with SAD, but who find themselves especially down during the winter (in most climates). The opposite condition is also interesting to think about. While neuroscience is young and people are discovering new and amazing things all the time, you have to go with what you know, especially if you want to be of help to your fellow human being. Just be prepared to change your thinking if new data merits a change.

David Brin said...

Spare tires... heh...


Jumper said...

Endorphins stimulated by exercise are a good moderator of dopamine. I suspect exercise is needed for gamers, potheads, TV watchers, and some forms of mental "illness."

I think locumranch is right to be skeptical of the disease model of addiction.

I found doing activities you really love are dopamine releasers. I recall learning photography and "just one more set of negatives; just a few more prints" would occupy me long into the night. Later came art, and writing. I could spend butt time writing that would kill me otherwise. Few see the arts as a bad habit however.

As far as endorphins, a plate of spaghetti big as your head, or 2 lb. steak, will also serve.