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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Memory Transplants and Climate Risks

Guest post by Lisa M. P. Munoz

Fourteen years ago, I visited the small town of Orting, Washington. Sitting in the shadow of the magnificent yet menacing Mount Rainier, it resembles other small Pacific Northwest or even midwestern towns, but something there was different. The residents, more than any other group I have met, have a profound understanding of risk.

Lahar, Mount St. Helens eruption (public domain)

While Mount Rainier is an active volcano that will eventually erupt, the residents there fear something more hidden: lahars. These massive mudflows – often triggered by glacial melts – have raced down Mount Rainier and buried the valley before and will likely do so again. Orting residents face a 1 in 7 chance that lahars will occur in their lifetimes. But unlike many people who live near the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault or the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico who don’t think a life-threatening event will ever truly threaten them personally, Orting residents seem to truly believe a lahar could take their lives.

What makes Orting different? Why do its residents relate so uniquely to the risks in their environment? And do their approaches generalize to other risks and populations, in particular,  global climate change risk? The key, I’ve come to believe, is a kind of cultural memory transplant.

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Been There, Done That

In a previous post, Thingness and Thereness, I introduced my goat-crow-rat triangle and the in-progress thinking associated with it. Here is my my next iteration of the diagram.


In the previous version, I didn’t have a label or annotations for the edge between the public and frontier vertices. Since I am a bit of an obsessive-compulsive maniac with diagrams like this, I couldn’t rest easy till I had figured out a complete, maximally symmetric set of labels. So, here we go. A relatively complete version with no labeling gaps and some pleasing symmetries.

The edge between frontier and public is now officially the been there, done that edge. I hope the label is intuitive enough that at least some of the significance is obvious. Let’s talk about the non-obvious significance.

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How I Hired Your Mother

I was once riding in the back of a friend’s car next to an intelligent, beautiful, exciting woman. We’d spent the last few hours talking to each other as though no one else was around. Bar? Jazz band? Where are we now? What language are we speaking? Who cares. Then a pause, and a curious look flashed across her face. I felt my toes curl around the edge of an invisible diving board. She started talking nervously off the top of her head about… something. I said callate mija, a silly thing only old abuelitas say. Then I leaned over and we kissed. Our friends in the front cheered. Three months later we were married.

The stories you tell later about clincher moments are peculiar in both senses of the word: unique and strange. By itself the clincher quip makes little sense, a one-off generated in the moment out of shared context & vulnerability. You had to be there. At the time it’s created it functions like a gavel strike, cueing up a decision. Later, it acts like a bookmark to take one back to a spot in a million-dimensional emotionspace.

The really funny thing is that these stories have the same pattern whether they are about recruiting a key employee, the love of your life, or an enemy spy. They have some elements of a joke but they are not quite jokes. They are also full of purposeful lies. Every clincher story is prepared testimony for a future trial.

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Thingness and Thereness

For months now, I’ve been thinking about a whole mess of related ideas with the aid of a Penrose triangle visualization of three key, interconnected loci that frame a sort of canvas on which life scripts (whether canned or improvised) play out. The three vertices are home, public and frontier. This is the simplest version of the visualization:


Between home and public you find subcultures of being and identity, defined by the question, is that a thing now?  Fidget spinners are a thing right now. Gangnam Style was a thing a few years ago.

Between home and frontier you find subcultures of doing and creation, defined by the Gertrude Stein question, is there a there there? There currently seems to be a there there around cryptocurrencies. Opinion is divided about whether there was a there there around Big Data, but we may move beyond that question to the question of whether there’s a there there to Deep Learning, without ever figuring out the thereness of Big Data definitively.

Our lives are shaped by how we relate to thingness and thereness, and how those two qualities relate to each other.

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Blockchains Never Forget

Just three years ago, in 2014, I wrote a little short story set in a future where most work is organized around blockchains. That story was set sometime past the 2120s, but it appears we’ll get there a century earlier than I thought. The idea of organizing work through smart contracts on blockchains has been moving ahead at a breathtaking pace.

Over the last few weeks, I had my first hands-on immersive experience of this particular piece of the unevenly distributed future. I’ll share more about the specifics of this experience, and lessons learned, but mainly I want to enter my first serious attempt at blockchain punditry into the public record: the blockchain is irreversible social computing. 

The message of the medium is this: blockchains never forget. By providing an extra-institutional base layer of irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased, blockchains create a foundation for fundamentally different institutional and technological landscapes. Ones based, as I will argue, on a notion of artificial forgiveness.

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Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor

“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians…”

–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

We were days away from closing a fresh fundraising round when our CFO pulled me aside to tell me the company did not have enough cash to cover the next payroll run.

“Never miss payroll” is the most uncontroversial of all the startup advice out there. We held this hard-and-fast rule in mind and used our gross payroll figure as a fixed expense in forecasts. Black-and-white issues are rare in startups, yet once you get down to practice, you find that even this simple advice is not so black-and-white.

We called an urgent meeting of the executive team to discuss our cash emergency. The solution we came up with was for everyone on the management team to take a drastic pay cut, but leave all other employee salaries the same, allowing payroll to squeak through at just under our current cash balance. A week later we closed our round and soon things returned back to normal.

So, were we faithful followers of the startup maxim? Did we still “make payroll,” even though several management employees got paid less than their usual wage?

Even if you answer in the positive, the best you could say is something like “Yeah, you made payroll, but…” It’s not 100% clear cut. We only just made payroll because we redefined what it meant to make payroll, and shifted some atoms in the world (that month’s salary calculations) to make the outcome “Did employees get paid?” come out true.

In the annals of entrepreneurship, this tale is a dime a dozen. Every entrepreneur worth their salt can relate with a story of their own company’s near-death experience. In fact, because this story is so common, I believe it sheds light on the defining skill set of entrepreneurship.

Just as emotional labor is arguably the foundation of work in the service industry, I posit that the shared work domain of entrepreneurs the world over is one of metaphysical labor.

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Zorba, Spock, or Voldemort?

This is a guest post by Matthew Sweet.

To be rational is to make the seemingly right decision, for the seemingly right reason, at the seemingly right time.

Of course, the real question is, how do you know when you’ve found the “right” decision, reason and time? One way to go about discovering it, according to the evangelists of rationality, is to flatten the curve of human experience.

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Nobody Expects The Mongolian Earthship

As a kid, I enjoyed thinking about my address in the universe. You know — the one that extends your regular postal address with Planet Earth, Solar System, Orion Spur, Milky Way. I think we like this game as kids because it provides us with a comforting sense of being at home in the universe. When you know your whole address, there is no foundational ambiguity left in the human condition, cosmically situated, as you experience it. Moral and ideological relativism may leave you disoriented with respect to loftier aspects of it, but at least you know that you’re home relative to material reality. And that there are no horizons beyond which lurk unnamed, unplottable horrors, threatening to refactor that determinate condition. You’re in a universe with a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Including you. A universe where true surprise is profane.

Betty Bowen Command Deck of Spaceship Earth. Coordinates: tidy.advice.curry

Addresses though, are for plants, and at home in the universe is a sessile way of thinking. Real Humans™ are defined by their mobility more than they are by their stationarity, and there ought to be a way to relate to the universe that emerges from a fundamentally mobile, nomadic outlook on life, the universe, and everything. A Hitchhiker’s Metaphysics of the Universe, so to speak, based not on the home metaphor, but perhaps on something closer to the Spaceship Earth metaphor popularized by Buckminster Fuller: the entirety of the planet construed as both a literal and figurative vehicle for the shared human adventure.

Allow me introduce you to my version of Spaceship Earth: the Mongolian Earthship. Its defining feature is one shared by the Spanish Inquisition of the Monty Python universe: nobody expects it.

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The Winter King of the Internet

On May 23, 1618, in Prague, three Catholics, named Slavata, Borzita, and Fabricius, got themselves thrown out of a window by a bunch of Protestants. That marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. About eight million died in what was the bloodiest — and arguably most pointless and unnecessary — religious war in European history. It was also, unfortunately, a war that was triggered by a set of conditions that are uncannily similar to those that prevail today, 400 years later, in the Western world of 2017.

Defenestration of Prague, Public Domain photograph from period woodcut.

Curiously, the Thirty Years War, and the events leading up to it, are discussed far less today than the event that ended it: the Peace of Westphalia. Over the last decade, the “Westphalian nation-state” has become the official spherical cow of Internet futurism. To murmur ominously about how the the rise of the internet and the blockchain presage the impending “death of the Westphalian nation-state” is to establish credibility in certain internet thought-leadership circles. In these circles, the Peace of Westphalia has become a notional origin-myth for an equally notional mental model of the modern nation-state.

Yet, it is the Thirty Years War that is the more interesting story for today. In the immediate aftermath of the Defenestration of Prague, for a brief period, an obscure minor noble, Frederick V of the Palatinate, known in the history books as the “Winter King” of Bohemia (and therefore, ex officio, of the Reformation), played a brief but pivotal role in triggering the Thirty Years War. His role bears a remarkable resemblance, with features not captured by other analogies, to the one being currently played in our own time by Donald Trump: The Winter King of the Internet.

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