The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding the Middle East

August 29, 2013

The Washington Post recently posted a “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding the Middle East” drawn by an Egyptian blogger. I have redrawn the diagram below, in an attempt to make things clearer. Blue links mean “supports,” while red links mean “hates.”

I suspect that all the diagram does is to clarify the muddled nature of Middle East politics. In particular, there are no real “blocs” – every group is connected by a web of alliances.

– Tony

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CIRCOS and networks

March 8, 2013

On my other blog, I highlighted a nice visualisation of career paths, produced by Satyan Devados using the CIRCOS tool (which has its origins in genetic visualisation). As an experiment, here is a similar diagram I produced for the Southern Women Social Network Data Set. This famous dataset (originally from this book) links a somewhat divided community of 18 women to 14 events which they organised (click on the picture for a larger image):

It’s very pretty, but is it more or less informative than a traditional network diagram? What do you think?

– Tony


Emotion and Intelligence

January 14, 2013

A recent blog post in Science 2.0 refers to the 2004 book The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans by the late Stanley I. Greenspan and by Stuart Shanker. Drawing particularly on personal studies of child development, Greenspan and Shanker claim that “our highest level mental capacities, such as reflective thinking, only develop fully when infants and children are engaged in certain types of nurturing learning interactions.

They go onto to argue that the various stages of child development involve an intertwined growth of emotional and cognitive skills, and that these cannot be separated.

This raises the question as to whether (strong) Artificial Intelligence is possible. Can an unemotional thinking entity, like Data in Star Trek, actually exist? Such issues are explored further in a 2002 book edited by Robert Trappl, Paolo Petta, and Sabine Payr.


Unemotional thinkers in fiction, like Star Trek’s Data, actually do display various emotions – if not, the reader/viewer would lose interest

Greenspan and Shanker’s theories also have implications for child-rearing. If they are correct, emotionally rich interactions with caregivers are essential for the development of intelligence. For example, they argue (in contrast to Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker), that language does not develop “spontaneously,” but is critically dependent on those interactions. Greenspan and Shanker write: “A child’s first words, her early word combinations, and her first steps towards mastering grammar are not just guided by emotional content, but, indeed, are imbued with it.


Emotionally rich interaction (photo: Robert Whitehead, 2006)

– Tony


School Shootings – Can Potential Shooter Profiles be Identified?

January 8, 2013

In light of the recent shootings, in Newtown, Connecticut. New debates have been sparked on the idea of gun control and identification of potentially unstable individuals who could commit such crimes.

An article on Science Daily website, School Shootings: What We Know and What We Can Do, highlighted some recent research studying past events and tragedies to accumulate a profile of potential shooters and how these individuals can be identified ahead of time. The article uses research by Dr. Daniel J. Flannery on explaining how shooters demonstrate similar features such as depression, low self-esteem, narcissism and a fascination with death. However these key aspects and similarities across shootings are not strong enough to produce conclusive profiles which could allow for future prevention of such tragedies.

Other research has produced similar findings, Leary, Kowalski, Smith and Philips (2003) analysed multiple shootings between 1995 to 2001. They found that depression, low self-esteem and narcissism were all present in the individuals involved in the shootings. However they all also shared one more common attribute and that was social rejection. Social rejection alone cannot fully explain these acts of violence as most people navigate through life and at some stage are exposed to social rejection. However this social rejection coupled with psychological problems or a fascination with death may lead to acts of violence occurring.

Unfortunately research in this area is inconclusive and therefore specific attributes and characteristics have not been idenitifed to put in place preventative measures to reduce the chances of such tragedies occuring again.

– Stefano


Suicide and the Military

December 18, 2012

A recent (2011) report by Margaret Harrell and Nancy Berglass (“Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide”) looks at suicide in the U.S. military.


U.S. military active duty suicide rates, compared to general U.S. population (from Harrell and Berglass)

The U.S. military has seen an increase in suicide among its serving and former personnel, with suicide now killing more troops than enemy fire does. Junior enlisted personnel appear to be most at risk. Among U.S. veterans, it is estimated that there is one suicide death every 80 minutes and, although only 1% of Americans have seen military service, veterans account for 20% of U.S. suicides. The U.S. Army in particular has seen suicides increase markedly since 2004.

From Vung Tau, riding Chinooks, to the dust at Nui Dat,
I’d been in and out of choppers now for months.
But we made our tents a home, VB and pinups on the lockers,
And an Asian orange sunset through the scrub.

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes,
Can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.
– Redgum, I Was Only 19

Harrell and Berglass make a number of recommendations to help address this suicide problem, including that the U.S. Army establish a “unit cohesion period” on return from deployment. Stress factors among soldiers include encountering dead bodies – and this is a stress factor which may also apply to troops on humanitarian relief missions. A 2003 book notes that “there is growing evidence that the stress of peace support operations can be as psychologically damaging as conventional warfare.” Given these stresses, addressing the problem of military suicide will require recognising post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a “real injury.” Various helpful recommendations for dealing with PTSD have also been made in the past.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are over 36,000 suicides in the U.S. each year (and almost half a million cases of self-inflicted injury). Risk factors include stressful life events and feeling alone – two factors common among post-deployment military personnel who have left their unit.

Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel appear to think about suicide more than the general community. According to one study, 3.9% of the ADF had suicidal ideation. However, comparing the 8 suicide deaths per year of ADF personnel against the 2,300 suicide deaths per year in the general Australian community shows that ADF personnel are slightly less likely to die by suicide than their civilian counterparts. This may indicate that ADF suicide prevention strategies are having some positive effects.


Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, USA

Some of the recommendations from Harrell and Berglass also appeared in a 2010 U.S. Military Task Force report. That report highlighted in particular the need for reducing the stigma of soldiers seeking help, and for removing cultural and organisational barriers to doing so. RAND has also produced a lengthy report on preventing suicide in the U.S. military. In its July 2012 special issue on the topic, Time Magazine printed some helpful advice for wives and husbands of military personnel – see here. The Australian Defence Force has a fact sheet here.

In the end, though, suicide is everyone’s business, for “no man is an island … every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … any man’s death diminishes me.”


U.S. Army Suicide Prevention Poster (2011)

This post is dedicated to all my friends who wear, or who have worn, a uniform, and to everyone who has been affected by suicide.

– Tony


(Religion) Lost in Space

September 24, 2012
Luna 9 :*Denomination: 2 Forint

Luna 9 :*Denomination: 2 Forint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The concept that any future interstellar exploration be free of organised religion has recently been discussed.  Some have expressed the view that religion is toxic for human interaction and cooperation as is evidenced in many unsavoury incidents throughout history and is currently being witnessed with respect to the YouTube video denigrating the prophet Mohammed and subsequent reaction to it.

Humans have many attributes which may be positive or negative depending on the context.  Adaptability and imagination are very valuable human abilities, but these skills are not required nor perhaps desirable in a situation that requires heuristic thinking.  Conversely, applying a flawed or inappropriate heuristic can have disastrous consequences, or prevent a more appropriate paradigm from being developed.

A human will always be influenced in how they act and think by their prior experience. Even the application of the scientific method cannot eliminate these influences. The ability to assess complex data for example can be affected by education, training, aptitude and a host of other factors, which can vary according to the information being assessed.  It probably explains the range of specialities within a discipline, for example, in medicine, physics, chemistry, engineering and psychology.  With regard to future space exploration, the various TV program depictions such as Star Trek portray a range of specialists in the crew, making the assumption that all of these skills will be required to fully comprehend the magnitude and complexity of space.

Given that previous experience or belief systems are an inherent part of the human condition, it seems logical that a religious aspect will also then be represented within the crew of any intergalactic mission if it is to be truly representative of the human species.  And as bigoted or fundamentalist religious views are by definition extreme values within a normal population, it is highly unlikely that these would be represented to any significant statistical level.

With regard to positive and negative attributes, religion has been blamed for many ills, many of which can be justified.  However, religion should also be recognised for its many positive aspects, such as altruistic value systems, beneficence, the intrinsic value of individuals regardless of race, social standing or wealth, the existence and importance of a fundamental natural order and the concept of stewardship and responsible use of resources that then derive from it. Many advances in science were made possible by the religious systems of the time, such as astronomy and mathematics, although some of the authorities subsequently disputed the findings for whatever reason.  Is it so different to what is currently occurring where the evidence supporting climate change is disputed by certain sections within a secular society without any obvious underlying religious philosophical rationale?  It seems that belief systems generally, not just religious ones, are the root cause of disagreement.  This can be beneficial in the search for scientific truth and the progression of understanding – perhaps conflict is a positive human attribute as long as it is confined within an intellectual framework.So the discussion regarding the crew mix for future space exploration missions should expand to include all human experience and belief systems.  Perhaps religion can help unlock the mysteries of the human mind and the continuing quest of the species to explore and understand the universe.  All of which relates back to human science.