About Hal Morris

Hal Morris grew up in Huntington WV, a sort of freelance suburb, and has since mostly lived in NJ. He has been a Math Ph.D. dropout, Bell Labs systems programmer and Amdahl UNIX kernel hacker.

He is a historian of broad interests, including always, and long before the book by Acemoglu and Robinson, "why nations fail", with focus on the USSR, Nazi Germany, China; also why cultures have such tragicomic misunderstandings (represented in works like Stilwell and the American Experience in China and A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam). Also, in later years, how nations do OK and muddle through to something like democracy, with strongest focus on the early 19c US. He is now most interested in why relatively successful nations start falling apart.

For the last 8 years he has been obsessed with the alternate realities inhabited by fans of the right wing media, and has published a series of mostly unnoticed blogs: The Ontological Comedian, The Eisenhower Socialist, "What Was the Cold War", The Real Truth Project (he was was trying to be ironic with the "Real" bit but nobody got it), Smart-ALEC (for ridiculous legislative proposals), Truthology 101.

He has schooled himself pretty deeply in social epistemology, cultural evolution, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, primatology, linguistics and evo-devo, and made much progress in mastering the Ribbonfarm Canon.

The first Ribbonfarm Longform blogging class may (time will tell) have given him a new voice figuring out and writing about possibly sound ideas rather than wrestling with crazy ones.

From Monkey Neurons to the Meta-Brain

What can one neuron tell us about brain function?  It can tell if we are looking at a picture of Jennifer Aniston. Brain surgeon and researcher Itzak Fried, in 2005, was probing a certain brain region in patients with epilepsy to pinpoint the source of their seizures.  This is open brain surgery done while the patient is conscious (the brain doesn’t have pain receptors).  These patients agreed to additional probing in the interest of science.  Fried was showing patients pictures, some of famous people, and kept running into neurons that would fire to multiple representations of the same person or object, and to nothing else (within the limited but large set of images used).  “The first time we saw a neuron firing to seven different pictures of Jennifer Aniston–and nothing else–we literally jumped out of our chairs,” recalled R. Quian Quiroga, who did subsequent work on the phenomenon with Fried.

In a study by Quiroga, Fried and others, severe epilepsy patients each had 64 tiny probes implanted in different parts of the brain, to study how the seizures manifested. The patients also agreed to view sets of images while the probes were monitored. A number of invariant responses (the same neuron firing to multiple views of the same person/thing) were found.  “In some patients, Jennifer Aniston neurons would also fire to her fellow actresses in Friends, … But they would never fire to other similar-looking, but otherwise unconnected, actresses” (Nature Magazine).  Either way, a connection was made between a concept and a single neuron.  Finding connections between a specific neuron and one specific memory has been going on for seven decades, and single neuron stimulation has triggered laughter, remembered childhood scenes or hearing snippets of music, but this association, apparently with the concept of a certain person, instantly became and remains a major focus of brain research.

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Cannon Balls, Plate Tectonics, and Invisible Elephants

For our pre-technical ancestors, the clockwork at the bottom of the material world was so clothed in messiness that hardly a trace of it appeared on the surface.  But you could say that three exposed bits collectively formed a Rosetta stone to the mathematical language of nature:  a thrown rock, a pendulum, and the solar system, revealed by the night sky.  The last had to be viewed from such a difficult angle that reams of tables, centuries worth of exact observations, and a huge advance in mathematics were required to see it, but it was there to be seen.

Antique Orrery, source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons 20

The concept of machine pervades our culture, and has driven many philosophical debates for centuries.

For example, it is often argued that living organisms, or the human mind, are “ultimately just machines”. I.e. underlying all the messy organic complexity of the world’s surface is a level at which things function with mechanical or mathematical precision.  Sometimes it is then too blithely concluded that this proves we can eventually replicate anything, including the human brain.

But if “everything is a machine”, it can’t contribute anything to any argument  because it doesn’t distinguish anything from anything else.

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