Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Secret Science Club Post-Lecture Recap: Snap Judgments

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Jon Freeman, Director of NYU's Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences Lab.

Dr Freeman kicked off his lecture by noting the importance of transferring information to the general public, especially in light of public funding for research. He then launched into an overview of evolution- the brain evolved to solve certain problems. The most important function of the human brain is getting into others' minds... others' behavior, thoughts, and feelings are complex, and figuring them out is important. Minds are invisible, they can't be directly observed, so any information about them must be gleaned from what information is available, most importantly from facial cues. Facial recognition is important to perceivers- who is a particular individual? Is a particular person a stranger? Evolutionarily, it is critical to determine whether another is friend or foe because of the threat of coalitional aggression. It is important to recognize threats or competition for resources.

Infants have an early ability to recognize faces, and humans have a tendency to see faces where they don't exist. The ability to divine emotional expression is important- is an individual appeasing or posing a threat? An expression of fear is a signal of the likelihood of an impending threat, the recognition of which has an important outcome.

In 1872, Charles Darwin wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, in which he compared human facial expressions to those of other mammals. Paul Ekman built on Darwin's work on 'mapping' emotions and their corresponding facial expressions. He theorized that expressions for fear, anger, joy, sadness, and surprise are genetically hardwired and are spontaneously expressed and recognized. The idea that the expression of emotion is hardwired is an enduring idea.

Robin Dunbar's Social Brain Hypothesis (PDF) turned a lot of thought on brain development on its head, so to speak. Human brains possess a huge neocortical complex. Dunbar noted that the size of an animal's neocortex correlates with the mean social group size of the species. Originally, it was thought that brain size was driven by the development of general intelligence, and social complexity 'spilled over' from general intelligence. In Dunbar's model, the development of social intelligence 'spilled over' into general intelligence.

What are the brain mechanisms for snap judgments? Most of the consequential decisions we make are snap judgments- dating, hiring, electing presidents... In order to determine these mechanisms, Dr Freeman indicated that functional brain imaging, computer mouse tracking, electrophysiology, and computational modelling.

When an individual makes a snap judgment about something, there are typically two dimensions- what is that person's intention and what is that person's ability? Is an individual's intention to be friendly or hostile? Does an individual have the ability to be helpful? Is an individual dominant or not? Is an individual competent or not? Dr Freeman displayed a graph with ability as one axis and intention as the other, and noted that humans have complex emotions regarding the placement of individuals along these axes- trust, disgust, pity. Facial models tend to be judged by subjects using cues- trustworthiness decreases as a facial model frowns. Judgments of trustworthiness subtly overlaps with emotional expression- trustworthiness tends to correlate with joy, untrustworthiness with anger. There is an amazing consistency with subjects' judgments, but are we accurate? Gauging accuracy is difficult even though people demonstrate consistency of judgment. These perceptions matter! How competent a face appears is a predictor of elections. The attractiveness of a face has many consequences. The trustworthiness of a defendant's face is predictive of trial outcomes.

One controversial area of study involves measurement of one's bizygomatic width to determine formidability, it being thought that one's testosterone levels during puberty might predict aggressive behaviors. Do hockey players with a certain facial type spend more time in the penalty box? Both male and female subjects tend to 'puff up' in the lab to express aggression. The 'trustworthiness' markers of an individual's face are the brows and cheekbones.

Much research has been done on how quickly the brain can judge facial expressions and the neural pathways involved in the process. The amygdalae are the structures in the brain which drive rapid responses- Dr Freeman quipped that the amygdalae are fast-acting but 'dumb'. The neural pathway for a quick response involves the amygdalae and the thalamus, using a sub-cortical route. In the longer neural pathway for responses, visual stimuli traveling to the visual cortex in the back of the brain for processing. This long pathway is also quick, even without the shortcut. Functional imaging can help researchers determine these pathways- using MRI, researchers can determine which neurons activate because associated blood vessels dilate in order to provide oxygen and glucose. This hemodynamic response can be tracked to determine brain function. The amygdala was the subject of an 2010 SSC lecture by NYU's Dr Joseph LeDoux... I really stepped up my lecture writeups over the intervening years.

In one experiment, subjects were presented with computer-generated images of faces, with real faces interspersed for the sake of comparison. The subjects were unaware of the faces due to backward msking, these faces were displayed for thirty-three milliseconds, and the images were 'masked' by a display of another image for one-hundred and sixty-seven milliseconds to terminate the visual processing. This was done to determine if subjects needed conscious awareness to perceive trustworthiness. The amygdalae showed a lot of responses to stimuli, and the brain could process untrustworthiness even in cases in which there was no awareness that a face had been shown. This process is beyond our conscious control.

This is not the end of the story- there is a certain degree of malleability as subjects get to know individuals and actively judge faces. In one study, subjects were given prior knowledge about a depicted individual- a label indicating that an individual 'left clothing in the dryer' would have an effect on perception while a neutral bit of information 'the tide is usually low that time of day' would not. If context matters, can it change responses? If subjects aren't allowed to get to know individuals, the amygdala plays a greater role. If a subject is given information about an individual, there is a greater neocortical response involved, with the tempoparietal junction playing a major role.

One problem in processing facial expressions is that we don't have a single image of ourselves. Every aspiring actor or model would be able to tell you that headshots communicate something, but are there some dimensions of social perspectives that are immutable? Trustworthiness is malleable, being related to emotional expressions. There are dynamic facial cues and static facial cues- Dr Freeman joked about resting bitch face and its counterpart, resting nice face. While the facial musculature can change these chronic expressions, the underlying skeletal cues don't change. Dr Freeman also mentioned the 'Bouncer Effect', whereby an individual spontaneously assumes a more dominant, tougher looking expression.

Dr Freeman then posed the question, is it a special process to stereotype another? Stereotyping is part of the general social process, the categorical structure which causes us to lump individuals together is adaptive, it streamlines cognitive resources and reinforces cultural associations. Can we act non-prejudicially in light of cultural associations? By measuring computer mouse movements, intentions can be revealed- the trajectory of movement of a mouse between two facial images (e.g. caring vs aggressive, black or white) can reveal implicit bias despite a subject's intentions. In the case of gender bias, female political candidates in conservative-leaning districts have to maintain a certain degree of conventional physical attractiveness in order to win elections, and more attractive candidates are generally seen as more competent.

Dr Freeman then asked, how can our biases change how we see others? Visual information 'fans out' from the visual cortex to other parts of the brain, from the back of the brain to the front- this information is colored by the higher functions of the neocortex, resulting in a compromise between actuality and expectations. The brain is 'too lazy' to do a complete job of processing visual information. He then presented us with this image:

Prior knowledge changes perceptions- the brain incorporates expectations into perception. One wouldn't expect to see an elephant in the beautiful Bell House... expectations form an adaptive context, in social context, stereotyping results. It has been theorized that a fusiform face area is involved in perceiving faces.

In one study to determine if perceptions can be changed with regard to stereotyping, a series of computer generated faces in a range of pigments was displayed. In the middle range, the appearance of the face was racially ambiguous- in these cases, the attire displayed in the image was an important cue. A racially ambiguous image of a man in a suit and tie was more apt to be deemed 'white' while a racially ambiguous image of a man in a mechanic's coverall was more apt to be deemed 'black'. The brain has expectations and will apply them to a face. Men's faces are more likely to be seen as angry, women's as appeasing. At what level are stimuli biased? White subjects are more likely to perceive African-Americans as hostile or angry.

Thankfully, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex can correct snap judgments. Is ter a pattern code in the fusiform face area for emotion? By adding the dimension of race, can a face's anger or happiness be changed? Visual representation is biased by stereotypes but individual differences matter. Stronger stereotypes predict bias and similarities in the cortices of the brain- these are not hardwired, they depend on the stereotypes. This is an unfortunate consequence of a perceptual system which is meant to carve up a complex world. Dr Freeman asked, can we change vision to reduce bias? Mixed-race individuals form the fastest growing 'racial group' in the United States- how do we process ambiguity? In areas with low minority populations, such as Utah, racial breakdown of mixed-race individuals is unstable, and category shifts are easily achieved.

Experience matters in perception- Dr Freeman noted the split-second decision involved in deciding whether an individual is holding a gun or an innocuous object. If we acknowledge bias, what effect does this have on vision? Is it a wallet or a gun, and is a misperception a matter of black or white? Bias trickles down to effect vision. We automatically make a lot of snap judgments, often beyond our conscious control. Unconscious bias can alter visual 'reality'. We can change to some extent, this involves a shift to an evolutionarily more modern system.

While the bastard in the audience didn't get a question in during the formal Q&A, he did have a brief conversation with the good doctor after the lecture, in which he asked about our perception of deceptive or 'wrong' emotional cues- the insincere or even minatory smile, the false sorrowful face. Dr Freeman indicated that this would be an interesting matter of inquiry. All told, his lecture was thought-provoking, especially in light of police responses to African-American suspects versus white suspects. Amazing how such an interesting lecture can also be sobering.

Here's a quick video of Dr Freeman, explaining the process of making snap-judgments:

Pour yourself a libation and soak in that Secret Science Club experience. Once again, kudos to Dr Freeman, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House. High fives, all around, people!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Oh, No, Not Black Leaf Jack Chick!!!

Proving the adage that only the good die young, outsider artist, fundamentalist, and bigot Jack Chick has died at the age of 91. Chick was known for his religious tracts in comic strip form and for his damn near universal bigotry- hating Catholics, gay people, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, gamers, Hindus, hippies, and you, you snarky liberal!

As tools of evangelism, Chick's tracts were failed propaganda- they were so over-the-top, so hateful, that they didn't have a chance to convince anyone not 100% in Chick's camp. As outsider art and unintentional comedy, they were top-notch. His overwrought "Dark Dungeons" strip, a key document in the "Satanic Panic" of the 70s and 80s, is a perennial favorite with gamers. His anti-evolution "Big Daddy", with its "evolutionist" professor ripped straight out of an early 20th century "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is popular among biologists and atheists. My Hindu roommate used to burst out laughing when someone quoted the anti-Hindu tract:

"There are six-million gods in India... AND ALL OF THEM ARE SATANIC!!!"

Similarly, my electrical engineering major roommate would howl with laughter at Chick's stab at modernity, with his Devils describing a technological innovation in Hell:

"We've added microchips to increase the pain!"

Chick's world was certainly an outré one, with the Vatican not only creating Islam and Mormonism, but communism as well. His was a kitchen sink approach to finding theological enemies, a conspiracy theory worthy of a pulpy novel by Roberts Shea and Anton Wilson. Chick's tracts have been satirized by gaming nerds, Lovecraft nerds, and atheist nerds. Reading comment threads on posts about Chick's death, though, has been a sad experience- as an urban northeasterner from a family that values education, I was never exposed to the sort of fundagelical bigotry that leads to shunnings and false accusations (even, in cases such as that of the West Memphis Three, imprisonment on death row). Somehow, the laughable Chick tracts have some power over the small-minded and cruel-hearted. People who burn books (a book burning forms the "happy ending" of "Dark Dungeons") often end up as people who burn people.

I'm hastily typing this post out on my phone before heading down to a science lecture in a bar (you know, a meeting of the hellbound), so I haven't added any links or images. I'll add those later, plus some examples of Chick's oeuvre, including some of his unintentionally(?) homoerotic "Crusaders" comics. There are also some wonderful parodies of his works. Tomorrow, I'll have time for editing the post, I just wanted to get this up before rigor mortis set in the old bigot's body. In the meantime, I have to email my old roommates.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Peggy Tsunami

I'm catching up with current events after a long, busy weekend on the job and at my volunteer gig. The big story of the weekend is the wave of women voting early in battleground states, a wave of women voters which promises to swamp Donald J. Trump, asshole. Donald Trump is the asspotheosis of the creepy Republican misogynist- he's the sexually harassing boss, the leering peeping Tom, the groping sexual predator, the anti-choice authoritarian. Trump is everything that is wrong with toxic masculinity, and he's going to get schlonged in November.

This election is shaping up to resemble the movie Nine to Five, reimagined as a horror film. Luckily for the country, every woman of voting age in the country can play the role of final girl defeating Orangeface. The most rabid Trump supporters are whining that the 19th Amendment should be repealed, it's going to be nice to hear the lamentations of these troglodytes in two weeks and two days.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Tallow Drips Upon a Withered Hand

It's October, my busy month, and I'm swamped at work every weekend... time to set up a post in advance. Halloween being right around the corner, I figure I'll post something appropriately creepy... One of my prized possessions is a copy of the first paperback edition of Katharine Briggs' British Folk Tales and Legends: A Sampler, a gift that my father purchased for me while on a business trip that took him to London. Yeah, I was a nerd from day one.

One of the most outré bits of folklore in the book involved the Hand of Glory, a black-magic talisman used by thieves breaking into a house or business. Creating a hand of glory is a grisly affair, involving the amputation of a hanged murderer's hand. From clergyman and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould's monumental Curious Myths of the Middle Ages:

The Hand of Glory .. is the hand of a man who has been hung, and it is prepared in the following manner: Wrap the hand in a piece of winding-sheet, drawing it tight, so as to squeeze out the little blood which may remain; then place it in an earthenware vessel with saltpeter, salt, and long pepper, all carefully and thoroughly powdered. Let it remain a fortnight in this pickle till it is well dried, then expose it to the sun in the dog-days, till it is completely parched, or, if the sun be not powerful enough, dry it in an oven heated with vervain and fern. Next make a candle with the fat of a hung man, virgin-wax, and Lapland sesame.

In this particular tale of the hand of glory, the hand has the power to render the sleeping unwakeable and to open all locks:

Several stories of this terrible hand are related in [William] Henderson's Folklore of the Northern Counties of England. I will only quote one, which was told me by a laboring man in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and which is the same story as that given by Martin Anthony Delrio in his Disquisitiones Magicæ, in 1593, and which is printed in the Appendix to that book of M. Henderson.

One dark night, after the house had been closed, there came a tap at the door of a lone inn, in the midst of a barren moor. The door was opened, and there stood without, shivering and shaking, a poor beggar, his rags soaked with rain, and his hands white with cold. He asked piteously for a lodging, and it was cheerfully granted him; though there was not a spare bed in the house, he might lie along on the mat before the kitchen fire, and welcome.

All in the house went to bed except the servant lassie, who from the kitchen could see into the large room through a small pane of glass let into the door. When everyone save the beggar was out of the room, she observed the man draw himself up from the floor, seat himself at the table, extract a brown withered human hand from his pocket, and set it upright in the candlestick; he then anointed the fingers, and, applying a match to them, they began to flame.

Filled with horror, the girl rushed up the back stairs, and endeavored to arouse her master and the men of the house; but all in vain, they slept a charmed sleep; and finding all her efforts ineffectual, she hastened downstairs again. Looking again through the small window, she observed the fingers of the hand flaming, but the thumb gave no light: this was because one of the inmates of the house was not asleep.

The hand cannot be extinguished through conventional means:

The beggar began collecting all the valuables of the house into a large sack -- no lock withstood the application of the flaming hand. Then, putting it down, the man entered an adjoining apartment. The moment he was gone, the girl rushed in, and seizing the hand, attempted to extinguish the quivering yellow flames, which wavered at the fingers' ends. She blew at them in vain; she poured some drops from a beer-jug over them, but that only made the fingers burn the brighter; she cast some water upon them, but still without extinguishing the light. As a last resource, she caught up a jug of milk, and dashing it over the four lambent flames, they went out immediately.

Uttering a piercing cry, she rushed to the door of the room the beggar had entered, and locked it. The whole house was aroused, and the thief was secured and hung.

The Hand of Glory has made it into several modern works of fiction- in my mind, most notably in John Bellair's The House with a Clock in its Walls. A variation on the theme plays a major role in Charles Stross' 'Laundry' books, in which the talismans can provide protection from observation and be used as projectile weapons- in a further deconstruction of the trope, they can be made from pigeon feet. The hand of glory also figures prominently in the 'weird tale' Dead Man's Hand by Manly Wade Wellman, a tale which also introduces Wellman's take on a particularly 'Lovecraftian' subject- the survival of hostile not-quite-humans in what Robert E. Howard dubbed the dark corners of the earth.

The hand of glory lends its name to the title of a Smithereens song I first heard as a high schooler, the lyrics of which the title of this post references:

The Smithereens song is actually a cover of a song by the late Jimmy Silva.. As Smithereens drummer Dennis Diken explained to music journalist Joe Clark:

Joe: All right. What is the song "Hand of Glory" about, and what are the damn fucking lyrics that I can't understand?

Dennis: I'll give you Jim Silva's number. You can call him. He's the guy who wrote that.

Pat: Jimmy Silva was a--

Joe: He sung it. He must know.

Pat: I sung it. I always felt I did a very piss-poor interpretation.

Dennis: It's an obscure kind of lyric. It's about this medieval ritual to ward off evil spirits froma a person's house, where you take the hand of a freshly-hung felon, chop it off, pickle it with these various herbs and things in, dip it in tallow, light the fingers, run around the house several times, and what it's supposed to do is, for a robber that wants to rob the house, it makes the people inside the house asleep.

Jim: No, it's an unborn hand. It's a--

Dennis: Well, that's another interpretation of it. So there''s your answer.

Pat: But anyway, to make a long story short

Jim: That's some weird shit, man!

Joe: [Laugh] That's even weirder than what I thought it was [namely, finding a severed hand in a railway yard]!

Pat: I could never get behind the lyric of that song. It was more the type of song that had a lot of energy live and it always went over great, and we thought we'd give it a shot in the studio, and it wound up on the album.

I hadn't heard the original before, but the Smithereens cover is a pretty faithful rendition:

I love it, I'm going to have to second musician Scott McCaughey's take on the song- the combination of macabre subject matter with a nice jangle-pop song is particularly appealing to me.

Now, to make things even creepier, Yorkshire's Whitby Museum has a purported hand of glory in its collection. Don't go to sleep tonight!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Single Best Moment of Tonight's Debate

I listened to tonight's presidential debate, much to the dismay of those on the left, especially myself. I had to admit that I laughed when I first heard Trump's trademark debate sniff. The crowning moment of the debate was when Trump said this:

We have to keep the drugs out of our country. We are ­­ right now, we're getting the drugs, they're getting the cash. We need strong borders. We need absolute ­­ we cannot give amnesty. Now, I want to build the wall. We need the wall. And the Border Patrol, ICE, they all want the wall. We stop the drugs.


I imagine Trump's coke trafficker is one 'bad hombre' Donald doesn't want to stop.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Remember These Two?

Longtime readers of my blog will have noticed a conspicuous absence over the past few weeks. I haven't posted any pictures of mah preshus kittehs. I've been so busy with our Fall fundraising events that I have not had any time to spend with my beloved Fred:

And my adored Ginger:

For a change, I am at my principle jobsite for a 5PM to 9PM shift rather than an overnight. I was supposed to have a night off, but one of my subordinates texted me to know that his brother-in-law had bought him a ticket to see Steely Dan at Manhattan's Beacon Theater as a birthday present. I couldn't say no to him, and I couldn't say no to an opportunity to frolic with my precious, precious kitties.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Not Deplorable, Just Sad

This afternoon, I had to cover one of my worksites because we have an eight-week afterschool program for one of the local elementary schools. After touching base with the managers on duty, I hung around the parking lot to make sure that no unauthorized individuals entered the site, which is normally closed on Mondays. I like to take a low-key approach, informing anyone who enters the front gate that we are closed, but that some other local points of interest are available for visitors.

While I was lounging around the parking lot, I saw a vehicle enter, driven by a man who appeared to be in his sixties or seventies. He had an older man sitting in the front passenger's seat. The driver had long hair, a beard, and spectacles- he could have passed for an aging hippie, or an aging biker, or an off-duty new-age guru. I introduced myself and told him that we were closed, but would be open to the public Wednesday through Sunday. We spoke briefly about local affairs, and he told me that his dad, the ninety-five year-old man in the passenger's seat, used to work in the area until the 1970s and wanted to see his old stomping grounds.

The talk went very well until, somehow, the guy brought up politics, and noted that 'one of the candidates should be in jail' (oddly enough, I think I agree with him on the point, but with one significant difference). He lamented how corrupt politics had become, and I reminded him that politics have been corrupt since before the Teapot Dome Scandal. He lamented how bad things had become, and I reminded him that it was the rich who screwed things up so a worker couldn't put in thirty to forty years of honest work and retire with a wristwatch and a pension. Every point he brought up, I countered, gently bringing up the reality behind the rose-colored vision he had of history.

The conversation remained cordial, for the most part. He did drop a hint about 'even the poor black people were honest', which I deflected by noting that a lot of the necessary grunt work of the country was performed by poor black women who deserved much higher pay and decent benefits. For the most part, we talked about local affairs- even though the guy was now living in Colorado (I made a point of reminding him that this is a Spanish name), he grew up in the same neighborhood in Yonkers that I inhabit, going to middle school in the school across the street from my place. He asked me if I could help to locate the building where his dad worked decades ago, and I referred him to the local historical society, providing him with an address and a phone number.

After our talk, he tended to his dad, a World War 2 veteran, for a brief while, making sure his oxygen tank was properly connected and giving him a cup of water. We parted on good terms, but when he left, I felt a certain amount of melancholy. Here was a guy who isn't a bad man, he's just misinformed, and the gaps in his knowledge, or better yet, memory, have been filled with poison. I don't think he was a hateful person, just a scared and uncertain person. While I think he will make a deplorable choice in November, I don't think that he fits in the 'deplorable' half of Trump's 'basket'. He wasn't deplorable, just sad.