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PredPol – Predicting crime through data mining

Not too long ago in LA, crime was going up while the number of officers was going down. The LAPD had to try something different if they wanted to make a dent in this, so they looked to an anthropologist and mathematicians from UCLA, Santa Clara University, and UC Irvine.

“PredPol,” mines vast amounts of crime data and predicts where crimes will occur. Unlike the “hot spot” system, which identifies crime-heavy areas, PredPol is updated in real time and gives predictions for the next 12 hours. Cops in LA would go to these “boxes,” sometimes as small as 500 feet square, just to make their presence known and look out for criminal activity.

According to PredPol’s Proven Results page, the system was twice as effective as trained crime analysts. In the areas in which PredPol was tested, crime dropped by 13% while other areas showed a 0.4% increase.

PredPol works because, although an individual’s behaviour is very difficult to predict, once you put people in herds the trends and averages become very apparent. If you know the factors that contribute to a certain behaviour, you can work out a probability of that behaviour occurring. The more factors you know and the more accurately you know them, the better your prediction will be.

PredPol is being rolled out further, including the UK.

It’d be interesting to see how far you can take this. If you imagine a day where PRISM style data mining is legal and totally accepted, and governments can access all data, then combine that with “quantified self” monitoring (it won’t be long before neuro imaging become cheap and portable enough to be the latest personal informatics tool), you could pretty much predict anything, couldn’t you?

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Is obesity actually a marker for an underlying condition?

There’s a swing in opinion happening. The current view of obesity is that it’s an effect of overeating. Obese people are largely considered to be at fault for their condition — if they’d only choose health over the pleasure of eating and sitting around, they’d cure themselves.

I used to think the same thing, but my thoughts are slowly shifting too. The first step for me was thinking that junk food might be addictive, and that it’s a superstimulus, manipulating an evolved preference for sugar and fat. I started to see it more like drug addiction (though I’m aware that lots of people disagree and think that getting off drugs or alcohol is just a choice). Later I read books like “Why we get fat” which even argue that the cause of obesity and overweight is not simply overeating.

Peter Attia talks frankly about his own shift of opinion, why he thinks the old view of obesity is wrong, and gives a few speculations on where he’s going to look for the actual cause.

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Richard Feynman on thinking processes.

Feynman said that there are no miracle people, and anyone can do what he did if they put their mind to it (my thoughts here). Yet there’s one domain in which Feynman clearly had a natural gift in — curiosity! This is exemplified by the little experiments he describes in the video below, where he learned how accurate his sense of time was and what things affected this sense. He’d count to a minute in his head and learn that when he got to 48, a minute had passed. Then he tested what else he could do while doing this, and he could read but not talk.

At the end of the video he says “Now I’m starting to talk like a psychologist, and I know nothing about that!” Let’s test that theory. Here’s the video.

For the lazy, when Feynman told mathematician John Tukey about this, Tukey could do the reverse — talk but not read. The reason was that Feynman would talk to himself in his head, while Tukey would see an image of a clock ticking over. Feynmann suggests this could be because people think differently, and if you’re having trouble getting a point across, it might be because what your saying is more difficult to translate into the other person’s favoured modality than it is your own.

I don’t know if he’s right about that latter point, but he’s certainly right about the rest. We have multiple cognitive “modules” in the brain which are specialised to different functions, and it’s possible to bring different modules to bear on a task. For example, our working memory, which is the cognitive process in use whenever you’re consciously “doing” something (like Feynman’s counting task) has a number of different components. I discuss these here. Each of these components has limitations, but your brain can use all the components at the same time.

When Feynman started counting in his head he was employing the phonological loop, and when counting lines in a book he’s using the visuo-spatial sketch pad. These are different “modules,” that’s why he could do both tasks at the same time. Talking uses the phonological loop, so when he tried that, he’s asking too much of the module (which in most people would be fully occupied by the counting) causing him to mess up on the task.

For Tukey, the reverse is true. He visualised a clock, occupying the visuo-spatial sketch pad but leaving the phonological loop free. So he could talk freely but as soon as he tried to read, he messed up.

Some experiments even take advantage of this fact, by having participants count out-loud as they perform some other task, so they occupy the phonological loop as they test some other cognitive module.

It’s also true that different people have different preferences in terms of how the process information, and cultural differences play a big role in this. So at the end of the video, Feynman was being a little unfair on himself when he said he knew nothing about psychology!

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Alan Wallace on scientific dogmatism and materialism

Alan Wallace, a Buddhist and writer on consciousness and meditation, talks about what he sees as the dogmatism and idolatry of the current, materialistic scientific paradigm.

While I have some questions about materialism that no one has been able to answer, I don’t agree that the focus materialism is a form of idolatry. It’s just the framework into which all the other empirical data best fits. If another model came along that fit the data better, or data came along that did not fit the model, the prevailing paradigm would change. It would change slowly I’m sure, because paradigms do, but it would change. It’s a bit unfair to talk about current scientific models as if they are not works in progress — even if they slow, perhaps too slow, to change.

Since there’s a finite amount of time and money that can be invested into consciousness research, it makes more sense to start your investigations from the standpoint of the most supported, the most accepted and the most validated paradigm, which is the material model. So you start from here, you make assumptions from here and then test them. A difficult question then becomes, at what point do you know that you’ve exhausted all the avenues of this model, and should start looking to others?

Wallace says that a better way to study consciousness is to use our immediate experience, through our own observations, because this is a direct experience of consciousness, unlike second-hand self-report or brain imaging data. But I don’t see how this can answer the fundamental question – whether consciouness emerges from matter, as the materialistic view proposes, or whether matter emerges from consciousness, as the Buddhist and other views propose. How would introspection answer that?

Observing the mind might well let you understand it, it might show you, as Wallace describes, this blissful second “layer” of consciousness, which Wallace claims does not arise from matter. How is it possible to know this from introspection? If you answer “You have to experience it to know,” then that’s an argument to authority (to people who have already experienced it) and I won’t be convinced by that, but at the very least it’s testable and a million times better than “you must have faith.” That it takes years and years of meditation to test this hypothesis is somewhat inconvenient, but at least its falsifiable.

But let’s say I do experience it. How do I know it does not arise from matter? How can introspection separate something that does not arise from matter and never did, from something that does but has changed through years of mental training?