How Real Is Your World

How Real Is Your World

It is a rare person who uses the word“realism” in everyday conversations. Realism is a noun that philosophers use when they discuss what exists independent from an observer. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow believe no living thing truly experiences reality in its raw form. They coined the term “model-dependent realism” in their book, The Grand Design. Model-dependent realism asserts that every living creature has sensory organs that cherry-pick sights, sounds, and/or other sensations that have evolved to allow each species to survive and reproduce.

For example, what humans see is dramatically different from what a snake sees; neither picture of the world matches the “real” reality more accurately. A human could barely notice a rat at night because we have not needed to eat rats in the dark to survive. Rodent eating snakes could not have survived as a species were it not for their acute infrared vision.

Each species has a unique set of senses but none have an unaltered conduit to “reality”. We humans and other animals tend to assume what we see, for example, is what is actually before our eyes. We act as if we have a clear window through which we directly experience what’s OUT THERE. There is no doubt that there is something OUT THERE that allows humans to enjoy and share common experiences. Model-dependent realism is all about how our perceptions relate to an independent reality assuming one exists.

I will use sight as an example. What we see on a sunny day incorrectly appears to us as if photons travel an unobstructed path to our personal “TV-like” screen showing us exactly what’s OUT THERE. But we don’t directly experience the light that enables vision; photons pass through our pupils but they die as they hit light-sensitive cells, rods and cones, at the back of the eyeball (there ends the unobstructed path to our TV screen -- from our eyeball on, light itself plays no role in our vision, there is no light inside the pitch-black recesses of our brains). The photons stimulate rods and cones that generate electrical signals which travel (in the dark) up the optic nerve to the brain’s visual cortex. The visual cortex “decodes” the electrical signals (analogous to your TV or computer screen decoding electrical signals). But, unlike your TV, those electrical signals in your brain don’t produce light on a screen. Inside the visual cortex, a model of what’s OUT THERE is constructed to appear as if it were light but actually is an assembly of electrical signals scrambling through your neurons masquerading as light. Here is a short video showing an example of how neurons can coordinate with one another (in the dark, of course) to help us build a big picture of where we are in the world.

To keep neurons from overwhelming and confusing us with sensations, interneurons and chemical processes tame the active neurons and maintain enough order to provide just enough of a view of “reality” to function. For example, our eye is capable of registering a single photon but a chemical process requires at least 10 photons to stimulate rods to transfer information to the brain; cones demand 10,000 photons to register (rods are primarily used for night vision and cones for vision in daylight).

Other animals are presented with a different visual reality. Many birds see a range of ultraviolet colors that allow birds of prey to spot urine trails of rodents and voles; many fruits and berries reflect ultraviolet light that makes them stand out against green foliage highlighting food sources. What “exists” for birds and bees is quite different than what “exists” for humans and snakes; realism is modeled differently according to the needs of each creature.

Of course, we humans know this, not because our sensory organs perceive what other animals see, but because humans developed the capability to invent instruments and use logical processes to detecting things our senses cannot experience, thus expanding our understanding of realism beyond what our bodies sense. Nevertheless, we only know what nature has allowed us to know, limiting our knowledge of how expansive is the reality that is OUT THERE. Even our extended understanding of reality is incalculably limited to what our sensory organs and our logical abilities facilitate. Our realism is as model-dependent as that of the snake stalking a rat in the dark.

Could A Real-life Version of "Rain Man" Count 246 Toothpicks At A Glance

A Real Life Rainman

In the 1987 movie “Rain Man,” a waitress in a diner brings a box of toothpicks to the table and accidentally spills them on the floor. Raymond Babbit, a savant played by Dustin Hoffman, studies them on the floor and instantly calculates the number: “246 toothpicks.”
Dustin Hoffman (L) as Rain Man, inspired by Kim Peeks (R) 

His cocksure, manipulative brother Charlie (played by Tom Cruise) asks the waitress how many toothpicks the box holds. When she tells him 250, Charlie—skeptical of his brother's quirky certainty—says a bit triumphantly, “Pretty close, Ray.”

But as he walks away, the waitress calls after him, “There's four left in the box.” [Psychiatric News, March 5, 2010].

Is such a feat within the capacity of the human mind? The Rain Man scene is fictitious but was inspired by a real-life person, Kim Peek, a savant with unimaginable mental abilities despite his measured IQ of 87. The ability to know the numerical quantity of a collection of objects without counting them is called subitizing. Most humans do not need to count 4 objects on display, they instantly know the quantity at a glance. Beyond 4 objects, the frequency of errors increases rapidly. Humans solved this deficiency by enumerating (counting) which has no limit but requires time and attention roughly proportionate to the number of objects.

Subitizing is not confined to humans. For example, bees don't enumerate but do subitize quantities up to 3 or 4 as demonstrated by navigating a simple maze by following the one unique path marked by the same number of objects as that posted at the entrance of the maze (article).

Some savants are able to spontaneously estimate the number of objects in a large group but even Kim Peek could not reliably estimate 246 toothpicks scattered on the floor. Autistic savant twins, John and Michael" saw a box of matches spill on the floor and simultaneously said "one hundred eleven" followed by "thirty-seven". When the matches were counted, there were exactly 111 scattered about (I suspect this event inspired the toothpick scene in Rain Man). When asked about 37, they smiled and said in unison "37, 37, 37, 111". They "saw" that 111 could be factored into three groups of 37.

The ability to factor numbers was even more evident in a game they were observed playing as adults. One day the twins were taking turns calling out numbers and smiling. "All the numbers, the six-figure numbers, which the twins had exchanged, were primes - i.e., numbers that could be evenly divided by no other whole number than itself or one. Had they somehow seen or possessed such a book as mine - or were they, in some unimaginable way, themselves 'seeing' primes, in somewhat the same way as they had 'seen' 111-ness or triple 37-ness? Certainly, they could not be calculating them - they could calculate nothing." (excerpt from Chapter 23 of Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat). 

The twins were finding very large prime numbers without the aid of books or calculating devices. The game the twins were playing escalated to 12 digit numbers. There is no known way to find prime numbers using any simple mental rule.

One hypothesis is that the twins (and other savants) naturally access lower level unprocessed information in the brain. That is, they are directly aware of details without being encumbered by the higher-level assembly of information into meaningful patterns and recognizable memories. In the case of the twins, the number 111 might have been immediately "seen" and then automatically decomposed into its factors (37). A non-savant would have immediately engaged higher-level mental processing that would visually separate the matches into groups of, say 5, to eventually arrive at 111 by counting the recognizable clusters of 5 and adding the remainder 1. In essence, savants may bypass the time consuming and energy-demanding process of looking for patterns that are consistent with their past experiences. This hypothesis is consistent with studies of brain injuries that induce savant-like characteristics in previously normal persons.

Postscript on Kim Peek

Kim Peek, unlike the twins, was not autistic. In general, not all autistic people are savants and savants are not all autistic. Most (but not all) individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have similar characteristics: difficulty with social interactions, obsessive repetitive behaviors, language impairment, and hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli. 

Kim lacked most of these traits. Kim's unique mental abilities were attributed to the lack of a corpus callosum, the part of the brain that transmits information between its right and left hemispheres. This explains how Kim was able to read two pages simultaneously, one with his right eye and one with his left eye.

Kim was intimately familiar with musical compositions and Shakespeare's plays. "He had memorized so many Shakespearean plays and musical compositions and was such a stickler for accuracy, his father said, that they had to stop attending performances because he would stand up and correct the actors or the musicians. He'd stand up and say: 'Wait a minute! The trombone is two notes off,' ..." A fascinating article about Kim's abilities can be found here; a summary is posted below.

  • Not only could he read at 18 months of age, but he could also read two pages at once; one with his left eye and the other with his right eye. He retained this ability for life retaining 98% of the contents of over 12,000 books. 
  • He memorized maps and encyclopedias. He could give driving directions within and between all major cities in the United States. 
  • He memorized all zip codes and area codes in the United States and could recite which were served by what television stations. 
  • He could identify most classical music compositions and knew the date the music was written and could recite details about the composer's life. He had equally detailed knowledge in a long list of other areas such as history, sports, literature, movies, etc. 

California Wants Year Round Daylight Saving Time, So Do I: Here's Why.

Year-Round Daylight Saving Time?

Image result for barbecuingAs most of the United States set clocks back one hour today the news media repeats the biannual controversy about fiddling with time twice a year. In the interest of disclosing my bias, I would love to leave my clocks on DST year-round. This bias partly reflects my longitudinal position on the map; Del Mar, CA is much farther east than most people realize. We are east of Reno Nevada, for example. Setting our clocks back one hour means the sun will set at 4:47PM on the shortest day of this year. I would much rather see it set at 5:47PM. The extra hour of evening daylight would make a winter afternoon Barbecue more feasible (it is not uncommon for us to use air conditioning when the winds blow across the eastern desert towards the ocean in December).

This started me musing about who might benefit and who might not if we were to stop fiddling with clocks and just leave DST in place each winter.

DST moves one hour of daylight from the morning to the evening. Nearly 75% of Americans share my bias and would like to keep DST year-round. The predominant reason for that preference is the same as mine; one can do more in the evenings during the winter after a day at work or school. A second reason people want to stop changing clocks is that it is inconvenient and confusing. Livestock farmers, in particular, are inconvenienced because their animals lay eggs or expect to be milked on nature's time, not human time, yet farmers often are obliged to meet delivery and transportation schedules in clock time. In my case, the dog awakens me for his morning walk an hour earlier than when our park
opens. He of course will adjust within a few days.

Most of the arguments to stop changing our clocks twice a year highlight either confusion and inconvenience, or detrimental effects of losing evening daylight when we switch from DST to standard time (ST).

Of course, clocks are not to blame. The effects of the clock changes in our daily lives are entirely due to the sudden realignment of nature's light cycle with our scheduled human activities. Here are some effects of the realignment.

If DST were in place year-round, less energy would be used in the evening because, with more evening daylight, people at home use less lighting and appliances before retiring to sleep. But this would be somewhat offset by more people beginning their day in the dark. The net effect is however less energy consumed overall although the effect would vary by location. For example, locations with greater temperature extremes use more heating and cooling appliances than locations in moderate climates; these appliances consume more energy than lighting, cooking, and watching TV. Most studies show so little effect overall that we can largely ignore effects on energy consumption.

Effects on our health and safety are harder to ignore. Health effects occur mostly in the spring when DST steals an hour of sleep. There likely are more strokes and heart attacks in the days following the start of DST but most studies are criticized for not included all relevant variables. There is stronger evidence that work-related and auto accidents increase when we lose the hour of sleep in the spring and are not entirely offset by the extra hour of sleep we get in the winter. Crime has been shown to increase when the hours of darkness are extended into the afternoon and there is some increase in depression likely due to spending more time in darkness following the return to standard time. While these affect a small percentage of people, the time change affects nearly the whole nation and the numbers add up.

Thus far, it appears that we and the farmers' livestock would be better off leaving our clocks alone and continue to act in alignment with nature's light cycle.

However, being mindful of the biases discussed in my last blog, I asked myself if I were falling into the trap of "confirmation bias".  Am I searching for arguments that support my preference to keep DST year-round?

There are a few reasons not to impose DST year-round. The first is a legal reason. The U.S. Uniform Time Act of 1966 allows states only two options: change clocks twice a year or impose only standard time -- year-round DST is not a legal option. Last year the California Legislature passed a bipartisan resolution asking Congress to approve a third option for states — permanent daylight saving time. To date, Congress has not approved that request and year-round standard time is not an option that California voters would ever accept. The afternoon light is too ingrained in the California culture to consider a change.

Related imageThere is a safety issue as well: during the Nixon administration, the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Conservation Act put the United States on Daylight Saving Time for the fifteen-month period between January 1974 and April 1975. One reason it was repealed was because of an increased number of school bus accidents in the morning darkness (recall that DST moves an hour of sunlight from morning to evening).

And there is a negative impact on some businesses. Nielsen TV ratings found that immediately following the change to DST, TV audiences fell by 10% to 15% even for the most popular shows (yep, my Bar-B-Que is to blame but my DVR has me covered). Offsetting this, some businesses benefit. A study by Hardee’s fast-food chain estimated that extending DST would increase sales by $880 a week per store.

Considering all the pros and cons, I believe our nation would be better off dropping the change from DST to standard time. At the very least, congress, please let California have the option. Maybe I will be lucky enough to get my winter Barbecue before I die.



Image result for doctor treating patientLast night, Helen and I met with a friend we haven't seen for 40 years. Jay Russo and I were colleagues on the UCSD faculty, he in the psychology department and I in the economics department. We both studied decision making as viewed from the perspectives of our respective disciplines. Jay currently studies decisions made by physicians and the heuristics and biases that can lead to poor medical treatment. Remember the definition of the word heuristics as we look closely at the problem of misdiagnosis.

Heuristics: "...mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision."

Heuristics can be instinctive reactions, "rules of thumb", common sense, intuitive judgments, or any other expedient way of making decisions with less than complete information. Unfortunately, our tendency to allow cognitive biases to influence a decision often leads to a poor decision. Much of the time, the consequences of a poor decision are minor. When decisions are critical, such as diagnosing a medical condition, the consequences can be devastating or even fatal.

As Jay and I began our conversation, he mentioned that he had recently completed a study of 101 medical diagnoses; 86 of those decisions likely were influenced by misleading heuristics and cognitive biases. Another study in which 26 doctors verbalized the diagnostic process, only 6 clearly avoided these pitfalls.

There are literally dozens of ways heuristics can mislead and I will not list them in this brief blog. Rather I will give two illustrative examples that exemplify the problem.

1. At the height of flu season, a patient complains of difficulty breathing. The doctor listens to the chest and reviews the four primary vital signs, determines that the patient did not have an influenza vaccine, and administers the usual flu remedies. The patient eventually is diagnosed with listeria caused by eating contaminated food. The availability heuristic (not looking beyond what appears obvious) and confirmatory bias (seeking information that confirms premature conclusions rather than exploring more unlikely possibilities) unduly influenced the initial exam. The patient might have been better served if the doctor had paused, disregarded the lack of a flu vaccination, and considered alternatives.

2. A patient training for a marathon visits a sports medicine specialist complaining of a pain in his left knee. The doctor prescribes a knee brace and suggests the patient wear it while running. Months later, another doctor discovers an osteosarcoma above the left knee. The incorrect diagnosis was caused by the representativeness heuristic, an assumption that the patient is typical of other like patients. The doctor might have made a better diagnosis if she had asked herself: "would I make the same diagnosis absent the information that the patient was a marathon runner in training?" [This heuristic is responsible for many faulty criminal convictions influenced by race, gender, etc.]

Physicians can greatly improve diagnostic accuracy by following a few simple rules.
  • Question the most conspicuous data; look at alternatives; 
  • Occasionally assume your suspicions are wrong and entertain alternative hypotheses;
  • Ask what would disprove rather than confirm your tentative conclusions.
In the above examples, there is an implication that more time and resources would be required to pursue additional options. This need not be the case; in fact there are ways to use fewer resources and incorporate the benefits of heuristics and bias avoidance. Here is an excellent example

It is not uncommon for an emergency patient with serious heart pain to be sent directly to the coronary care unit rather than a regular nursing bed. An alternative is to use a fast-and-frugal heuristics tree to make decisions by answering a few yes-or-no questions without knowing exact probabilities. Here is how the fast and frugal tree works.

"if a certain anomaly appears in the patient's electrocardiogram (ie, an ST-segment change), the patient is immediately sent to the coronary care unit. No other information is considered. If there is no anomaly, a second variable is taken into account, namely whether the patient's primary complaint is chest pain. If not, the patient is classified as low risk, and assigned to a regular nursing bed. Again, no additional information is considered. If the answer is yes, a third and final question is asked to classify the patient."

Substituting the fast and frugal heuristics tree for the the prior assignment criteria resulted in a much larger proportion of emergency patients with heart pain being assigned correctly to the coronary care unit thereby greatly reducing the time and resources needed to treat emergency heart patients with heart pain.

There is much promise in Jay's work (and that of his colleagues) to make significant advances improving medical care and reducing its costs. I thank him for introducing me to the subject.

Additional reading (Jay is referenced in this government publication)

How does wildlife survive wildfires?

How does wildlife survive wildfires?

Northern California is experiencing deadly firestorms as I write this blog.  I remember well October 2007 when San Diego experienced firestorms that burned hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed thousands of homes. During every major wildfire, I worry about the families and wildlife affected by the fire. I know much about the human impact but until recently, I knew little about wildlife. In 2007 I imagined wildlife dying as flames engulfed their homes. My research since then proved my imagination partly wrong.

Kirtland's warbler thrives from wildfires
While some animals do die in fires, we forget wildfire has been a recurring natural phenomenon for longer than most species have existed on earth. Evolution has sorted out animals that can survive a large variety of environmental disruptions: summer heat turning into winter ice, hurricanes whipping up 200 mph winds, floods of fresh and salt water, periodic ice ages, and volcanic eruptions blackening the sky.

Animals have adapted to recurring natural disasters in surprisingly effective ways. According to National Geographic News, days before a tsunami hit Sri Lanka and India:
• Elephants screamed and ran for higher ground.
• Dogs refused to go outdoors.
• Flamingos abandoned their low-lying breeding areas.
• Zoo animals rushed into their shelters and refused to leave.

"Wildlife experts believe animals' more acute hearing and other senses might enable them to hear or feel the Earth's vibration, tipping them off to approaching disaster long before humans realize what's going on." (National Geographic News, January 4, 2005).

Nature has finely tuned the senses and instincts of wildlife to survive natural disasters in order to reproduce another day. In Northern California, birds fly to safety, predators enjoy a meal by catching fleeing prey but most prey escape, Amphibians burrow into the ground where conditions are survivable, and large animals like deer instinctively run to streams and lakes.

Small, young and old animals are most likely to die in a wildfire. But these are the same animals that are likely to die in the face of the many threats in their daily lives. After all, that is exactly how evolution strengthens a species over time. That is how elephants acquired the ability to predict a tsunami.

In some cases, animals have come to depend on fires to survive as a species. Kirtland's warbler is one example. These small songbirds from Michigan nest only in young jack pine forests. But the pines' cones only release their seeds in a fire. So without fire, much of the birds' nesting habitat has been eliminated. By over-controlling wildfires, we are threatening a bird species.

Santa Rosa Neighborhood yesterday
Weep not for the wildlife in Northern California, it is we humans who are most poorly equipped to to cope with Mother Nature's forces. Apparently we don't evolve as efficiently as wild species; we build homes in flood plains and fire-prone areas, we relax or circumvent building codes to reduce construction costs, we ignore or even deny that our industrial activities contribute to the climate changes which scientists predicted would cause the very events we are now experiencing, and we continue to overpopulate our planet unconstrained by natural forces. Nevertheless, people affected by fires and other natural disasters deserve out sympathy and support; they, as individuals, are not responsible for their plight, we collectively have constructed institutions and technologies that conflict with natural processes. Mother Nature will always have her way; perhaps the best we can do is console her victims and begin to make the sacrifices necessary to improve our ability to live with her in the future.

Bird Brain Part 2

Bird Brain Part 2

In my last blog, I described how some birds' brains outperform human brains. I concluded by describing some of the outstanding abilities of Alex, an African Grey Parrot. One of Alex's feats caused some confusion among my readers: I wrote that I was astounded Alex understood the concept of zero, an abstract notion that was not fully integrated into mathematics until a few hundred years ago.

The first known symbol for the number 0 
Zero plays two distinct roles in mathematics: 1) it is a placeholder, e.g., it is used to distinguish the number 1 from the number 10; and 2) it symbolizes the concept of nothingness. Indeed much confusion between these two uses of zero could have been avoided throughout history if the two distinct notions had been given different names and different symbols. Alex displayed a rudimentary understanding of zero as "nothingness" -- the absence of anything that exists.

Before proceeding, let's look more closely at how Alex processed information and how he displayed what he knew. Alex, of course, was frequently asked to perform for researchers and for the media. When Alex tired of performing, he either would say "wanna go back" [to his perch] or deliberately give incorrect answers to questions to end the session. In the case I cited in the earlier blog, Alex had become bored with performing and tried to end the session by avoiding correct answers.

"Once, Alex was given several different colored blocks (two red, three blue, and four green ...). Pepperberg asked him, "What color three?" expecting him to say blue. However, as Alex had been asked this question before, he seemed to have become bored. He answered "five!" This kept occurring until Pepperberg said "Fine, what color five?" Alex replied 'none'." (Wikipedia)
The word "none" previously had been used by Alex to say there was no difference between two identical objects.

"If asked what the difference was between two identical blue keys, Alex learned to reply, “None.” (He pronounced it “nuh.”)" In both cases, the word nuh was used by Alex to mean "nonexistence" rather than for purposes of counting. There is a long history of philosophical and mathematical controversy about zero. Indeed there are more than a dozen books devoted to the subject (my favorite is Zero, The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife). Unless you want to dig a little deeper into the academic side of the literature about zero, stop reading now. What follows is a simplified glimpse into the strange nature of the concept of zero and its relation to set theory from which all numbers are logically constructed. I include the discussion only because it underscores how sophisticated Alex's concept of "nuh" was.

0, 1, 2, 3... looks like a natural sequence of numbers. Zero didn't always occupy its place in this list. We saw an unintentional sleight of hand when we crossed the "Y2K" threshold on January 1, 2001, and not January 1, 2000. The reason was simply that the calendar most used by international standards were conceived when the sequence of years was numbered -2, -1, 1, 2, 3... (the negative numbers represent BC and the positive numbers represent AD). Zero was not recognized as holding its current place in the list of integers: ...-2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3... and with good reason. Early civilizations naturally used natural numbers that could be match one for one with things (e.g., human fingers).

To be precise for current purposes, natural numbers are used to count things and begin with 1 continuing towards infinity (1, 2, 3,...,). Whole numbers are natural numbers with 0 added (0, 1, 2, 3...), Integers are whole numbers with their negative counterparts (-2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3...).

The reason mathematics developed without zero until a few centuries ago zero was a misfit. Any natural number can be divided by another natural number but not by zero. Thus zero is a misfit, it misbehaves in other ways as well. Add a number to itself and you always get a different number (1+1=2); but not so with zero (0+0=0). Zero cannot make any number bigger; add zero to any number as many times as you like and the original number stubbornly remains the same, unlike any other number. Zero reduces any other number to zero by multiplication as if to reproduce itself indiscriminately. And there are many other anomalies that prevent zero from being a part of a simple set of rules that apply to all numbers.

Numbers can be constructed from set theory. The contents of a grocery cart is a set and its contents can be counted using whole numbers: an empty cart has zero items, I can use the express line if the set contains 15 or fewer items. But to construct numbers from set theory requires another misfit. An empty cart cannot be assigned the number zero to build numbers from sets. I will skip the technical details and ask your intuition to take a leap of faith. We must begin building numbers starting with the empty set, a set that consists of nothing. The cart contained zero items; there is a difference.

Examples of an empty set: the set containing all triangles with four corners, the set of whole numbers that are larger than 3 and less than 2. The empty set -- also called the null set -- is different than zero. A set containing zero is written as {0}. This set has one member, viz. the whole number, 0. The null set contains no members and is written {}. Alex did not declare "what color five" to be zero blocks on the tray; he said there is no group of five blocks; what color five is an empty set. That was a pretty sophisticated response for a bird brain.

Called A Bird Brain? Consider It A Compliment.

Image result for crow bending wireIn 2002, researchers were stunned when a New Caledonian crow named Betty made a hook tool to solve a complex physical challenge: she used leverage and manipulation to bend a wire into a hook perfectly designed to lift a bucket to the top of a tube and bring a treat within beak distance. 

Since 2002, there has been a diverse set of investigations into avian intelligence. Many of the investigations focused on the relationship between brain activities and behaviors associated with intelligence. 
Image result for blue jay stashing foodFor example, it is well known that the hippocampus is engaged when two components associated with intelligence testing, memory, and spatial relationships, are required for problem-solving. A human who excels at the game, Concentration (a game that requires remembering where specific cards are located face down), would be no match for a bird that makes hundreds or even thousands of flights stashing seeds that later will be retrieved when food is scarce. This skill requires a highly developed ability to use spatial memory. Not only do the birds remember the approximate location of the food but remember specific landmarks that pinpoint the exact location (for example, if food is stashed and later buried by snow, and a stone used by the bird as a landmark is secretly moved, the bird searches a location that is moved by the same distance and direction as the stone).

Human intelligence historically has been measured by the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test. Recent refinements distinguish between analytical and creative intelligence, general and specific intelligence, and a variety of other subcategories. Evaluating avian intelligence has no universally accepted tests but research into the problem-solving abilities of birds has revealed that birds surpass humans in many dimensions of problem-solving. A recent line of research uses advanced technologies to discover what connections among different parts of the brain activate, and in what quantities, during specific problem-solving events.

For example, research suggests that a small hippocampus in a bird may be as powerful as a much larger mammalian hippocampus. The reason likely is that brainpower is not directly related to brain size. It is the number of, and interconnections among, neurons that powers the brain, not its size. A parrot has as many neurons in its walnut-sized brain as the macaque monkey has in its lemon-sized brain. Indeed, the small brain size may have advantages not available in larger brains. There is strong evidence that short connections between specific parts of the brain allow birds to make faster decisions and discriminatory perceptions than occurs in mammals with larger brains.

While there is no universally recognized IQ test for humans to say nothing of other species, there are intelligent behaviors that can be compared. Birds are as adept as primates at solving certain problems. For example, adapting to unexpected changes in the environment, planning ahead, considering another's state of mind, and recognizing individuals within a species as distinguished from other members of the same species. An example of using a combination of these skills is a bird may stash food and upon departing catch another bird observing. The bird hiding the food later will return to move the stashed food when the observing bird is clearly absent.

Even an intuitive understanding of physics is present in some birds. New Caledonian birds like Betty have been demonstrated to understand that stones can displace water but floating sticks cannot.

Alex the Parrot.jpg

Perhaps the most famous genius bird is Alex, an African grey parrot. There are many articles about Alex and his extensive vocabulary exceeding 100 words. What astonished me most as I read about Alex the genius bird was that he understood the concept of zero, something that eluded many ancient civilizations that had mastered basic arithmetic. "Alex was given several different colored blocks (two red, three blue, and four green—on a tray similar to [but in different quantities than] in the picture). Pepperberg asked him, "What color three?" expecting him to say blue. However, as Alex had been asked this question before, he seemed to have become bored. He answered "five!" This kept occurring until Pepperberg said, "Fine, what color five?" Alex replied, "none" (Wikipedia). Alex understood that a group of five colored blocks did not exist on the tray! He understood that "none" meant non-existence.

So the next time you hear someone refer to a shallow or ignorant person as a bird brain, refer them to Jennifer Ackerman's The Genius of Birds for a lesson in humility.

American Politics and the African Wild Dogs of Botswana

American-style politics have a lot in common with how African wild dogs packs in Botswana make collective decisions. Evolution has left a narrow gap between how Homo sapiens and Lycaon pictus make "democratic" decisions. The dog packs vote, propositions put forth by leaders are more successful than those offered by lower-ranking members, and there is a protocol to collectively decide when and how to take actions that affect the community.

Let's Hunt

A greeting ceremony, literally called a rally, assembles a congress that will make a group decision. A dog proposes to initiate a hunt by arising from rest with head lowered, mouth open, and ears folded back, then awaits a group consensus. If a dominant dog initiates the rally the chances of collective action are greatly increased but can be overridden by the lower members of the congress. A threshold of "ayes" (a quorum) is required to execute the proposed action. Each affirmative vote is expressed by sudden bursts of air expelled from the nostrils.

The Congress

The decision to act depends on the group's perception of the urgency of hunting compared to the attraction of continuing to enjoy the comfort of the status quo. An initial rally only succeeds about one-quarter of the time. A second attempt at a rally succeeds about half the time. A third attempt succeeds about two-thirds of the time. This suggests the urgency of the proposed action (hunger?) has a strong effect on the decision.

Dominant individuals in the pack have a disproportionate influence on group decisions. When a dominant dog initiates a rally, three votes of approval is, on average, enough to launch a hunt. When a low-ranked dog initiates a rally, launching a hunt takes ten votes on average and therefore is more likely to fail.

Dominance in African wild dog packs is rarely achieved by aggression. African wild dogs achieve a dominance ranking according to a breeding pair's contribution to ensuring the survival of the pack.  Dominance is evidenced by the priority a dog has to access a carcass.

There is little understanding of why votes are cast by expelling air through the nostrils but one of two theories, or a combination of, may explain: the sneeze-like sound may simply be a way of communicating approval of the action, or the dogs may be clearing their nostrils knowing that whatever action is proposed, the olfactory sense and clear air passages will be needed.

Resting Pack
A combination of the two theories is likely. The sneeze may act as a call to order initiating the process of recruiting other dogs for the hunt. The action is voted upon. A group decision is approved or declined in about four minutes on average. Either the pack returns to rest or the group (or a subgroup) departs, most often lead by a dominant member or members.

The similarities between the American political process and that of the African wild dogs of Botswana are clear. However, American politicians lack one behavior prevalent among the African wild dog: as described by author Paul Janssen: "... the remarkable aspect of their hunting is the complete lack of aggression toward each other. Wild dogs have a social hierarchy but unlike many other social animals, there is little obvious intimidation." Take note, politicians.

Trump's Core Supporters: Who Were They and Who Are They Now?

Today my random musing focuses on the president, Donald Trump, and the voters who elected him. How did an inexperienced outsider with no military or government experience become president? Are his supporters getting what they voted for?

I begin by examining what motivated Trump supporters to elect him. Trump's approval rating has declined from 46% to 39% in the first 6 months of his presidency. Who has dropped off the Trump train and who remains? And why?

Why Was Trump Elected?

Just before the election, USA Today interviewed dozens of representative Trump enthusiasts from across the nation and within every socioeconomic class. I studied the reasons for their support and selected the three most prevalent themes. I will later look at the opinions of the remaining Trump supporters by comparison.

By far the most prevalent reason for supporting Trump was anger and mistrust directed at Hillary Clinton. She was viewed by Trump supporters as dishonest, unconcerned with anyone outside the political elite, and excessively concerned with political correctness in her public communications. "Crooked" Hillary provided an easy target following the Benghazi scandal." Trump publicly announced, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing." In the end, many supporters cast a vote for Trump as a vote against Hillary.

Right behind, and related to the first reason, was Trump's willingness to say whatever was on his mind without regard for being politically correct. Trump was viewed as outspoken, willing to speak (tweet) directly to his constituents bypassing the traditional communications media, and unabashedly condemning the traditional political establishments. Many supporters seemed to accept Trump's contradictory and inconsistent statements as a clever means to win each battle -- the end justified the means. Indeed, this enhanced Trump's image as a fighter unwilling to lose. Trump once said:" I was beat up in business and in my personal life. But you learn that you're either the toughest, meanest piece of shit in the world or you just crawl into a corner and put your finger in your mouth and say 'I want to go home'..." Most supporters liked this attitude which contrasted sharply with the attitude of the liberal elite.

Finally, Trump supporters liked his promise to tip trade agreements and job growth back towards favoring America. The mechanism for fulfilling these promises included enforcing strict immigration laws, rewriting international trade agreements, providing tax incentives to create American jobs, and confronting China and other countries with demands to end unfair practices. Trump's business experience was often cited by supporters as equipping him to succeed. In business, Trump thrived on and took opportunistic advantage of, chaos and unpredictability. Any criticism or perceived disloyalty by friends or foes was met with threats of expensive legal challenges or other means of financial ruin. In general, Trump's perceived business acumen was expected to be an asset to help make America great again.

There were of course other positions that appealed to Trump's supporters (reforming health care, reducing regulations, etc.) but the three I selected were most prevalent.

Are Trump's Supporters Satisfied With Their Choice?

First, most of the anti-Hillary contingent has hardened their support for Trump. Hillary is still blamed for perpetuating the Russian "witch hunt" as an excuse for losing. In addition, Trump instinctively reinforces this contingent; for example, he referenced Hillary negatively in 17 of his last 19 speeches, further hardening his core support by bashing Hillary. Problems that persist under Trump's watch are quickly attributed to the prior administration and Hillary. 

Many of Trump's supporters cringe at his undisciplined tweets. Nevertheless, they accept them as necessary ammunition to fight back at what they believe are liberal and hostile broadcast media attacks. Tweets make supporters feel more directly connected to Trump. Being politically incorrect "trumps" more consistent and traditional presidential communications. In general, his supporters like his aggressive public persona and admire his ability to disregard criticisms cast by the liberal Democrats.

Trump's business acumen remains a solid part of his reputation among supporters. Trump is fond of gloating over economic achievements. He points out that the stock market is doing well, unemployment is declining and is low by historical standards, wasteful spending is declining, and jobs are slowly coming back. Trump supporters view contrary arguments and suggestions that the improved economy is "spillover" from Obama's policies as fake news perpetuated by resentful Democrats and a predominantly hostile media.

Did Trump's Supporters Get What They Expected?

In general, however, Trump's remaining supporters appear to have no regrets.  Trump has lost support in some demographic segments however for reasons cited below.
  • Military: two significant factors in this segment are Trump's proposed closure of more military bases, and the Russia/Trump investigation.
  • White voters without college degrees: some members of this subgroup see Trump as untruthful, dishonest, and incompetent.
  • Blue-collar workers: This group is upset at Trump's broken promises regarding the border fence, the travel ban, and the power Trump has given to his family.
  • Independents and Republicans: Many people in this diverse group are growing frustrated with Trump's tweets and inconsistent statements (read -- "lies"). Republicans in Congress are expressing frustration at Trump's unpredictability, bullying, and disregard for the many procedures and institutions that ensure the integrity of our political system.
To date, it appears that the remaining Trump supporters with the exception of the GOP members of Congress and state governors are down to "hard rock", a hardcore base that is unaffected by almost anything Trump says or does. Further decline of support in this group would likely require a major event such as indisputable evidence that Trump has: much deeper nefarious Russian connections; insurmountable legal entanglements;  significant evidence of dementia; or public policies (e.g., health care, taxes, etc.) that significantly threaten the financial security of the remaining supporters.

Social Security: A Thimblerig Game

 After the Great Depression, many elderly constituents had lost their retirement funds and lived (or prematurely died) in poverty. To ensure this would never happen again, Congress passed the 1935 Social Security Act as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.

After successfully running a complex maze of legal obstacles, social security payroll deductions began in 1937 and the money was (figuratively) placed under a cup on the Thimblerig table. The first social security payments to workers began in 1940. Payments were paid from a trust fund accumulated from payments made by workers created to make social security self-supporting. By 1939  the pea under the "money" cup was worth $2B and Congress began to shuffle them. The trustee of the fund, the Secretary of the Treasury, was authorized to invest the assets of the fund in securities for the benefit of the workers who had paid into the trust.

Fast forward to 1968. Under the Johnson administration, the federal budget was consolidated as a "unified budget" that portrayed the government's deficit as a single number lumping social security trust reserves with all other government assets. The federal deficit thus appeared smaller than it otherwise would. This mathematical sleight of hand reduced the negative political consequences of increasing the deficit, let first-grade arithmetic be damned.

In isolation, short-term surpluses in the social security trust encouraged Congress to gain political favor with their constituents by making generous increases in social security benefits. But in the late 1970s (as I taught in my economics classes at UCSD) the long-term prospects for a self-supporting social security trust fund were darkening: projections showed a persistent decline in the trust assets that would run out in a very few decades.

Fast forward again to 2017. Today the social security trust fund of about 2.8 trillion dollars is invested in non-marketable securities (loans to the U.S. government) paying a modest interest rate just under 4%. But the loans to the government are spent as if they were freely available to the general budget. To keep the trust fund solvent IOUs were deposited in the trust fund in place of real assets. In other words, our social security trust fund is largely made up of promises that can be broken by changing federal laws. The pea is no longer under the cup; it is in the hands of Congress which may or may not produce the pea when the cup is lifted to pay retirement benefits. Incidentally, Medicare has a similarly convoluted history that has its own dark projections of solvency. 

So how important is this Thimblerig game in the big picture? Here's the bottom line: mandatory spending including social security benefits plus defense spending exceeds our tax revenues. If we were to eliminate all other discretionary items such as education, homeland security, energy, housing programs, etc. we could not balance the budget; we would still run a federal deficit.

I focused on social security here because it is 1/4 of our entire government spending. Add health care and you get half our entire spending. Look at the pie chart below: the green cannot be reduced without a change in the existing laws; the yellow is more than half military spending which is most likely to be increased under the current and future administrations. That leaves precious little room to cut spending and negative room to balance the budget. Indeed, the present focus on cutting programs like food stamps indicates how dire the problem is; food stamps would be a tiny sliver of yellow on the pie chart. You likely would need a magnifying glass to see it. The currently proposed budget (admittedly in its draft stages) could avoid a catastrophe only if tax revenues grow at unprecedented rates -- an unlikely prospect given the nature of the proposed tax cuts and historically sluggish (even nonexistent) reaction to tax incentives.

An objective as stated by the present majority of the present Congress -- balancing the budget in 10 years -- can only be met either by relaxing the existing laws governing the integrity of the existing social security and health care trust funds or by deftly playing new and dangerous versions of the Thimblerig game. If future events such as military spending or unforeseen catastrophes require unplanned increases in spending, or if there is political pressure to avoid raising taxes or even reduce taxes, we could lose the Thimblerig game.

If your future health care and retirement funds are under the cups; watch carefully how the cups are shuffled.