Sunday, April 24, 2011


by Richard Crews
Memory is a powerful aspect of human intellect. It links us to our past, allows us to interpret and manage the world around us, and secures our relationships with the people who are important to us.

Memory actually has several different parts. Perhaps the best known--and the one we work hardest at--is called "long-term memory." This is the one built up by the experiences of a lifetime, the one we expand and strengthen through years of schoolwork, the one which fades last and least as our years advance--it is the one which decorates our old age.

Long-term memory seems boundless. Some remarkable people (like Kim Peek) memorize thousands of books word-for-word; many less remarkable people (like you and me) remember billions of bits of information, and dip into that vast encyclopedia every day.

Long-term memory is built by associating sensory and mental elements together in vast, tangled webs of neurons, that is, brain cells. Elements are associated because they have similar sounds, colors, textures, smells--or similar patterns and meanings (although "meaning" is simply the association with mental networks that were laid down previously).

The glue of mental associations is emotion--amusement, titillation, fear, affection, etc. The stronger the emotional glue, the more easily long-term memory associations are made and the longer they are preserved. That is why memory-assistance systems emphasize building images that are colorful, active, silly--at best, obscene or profane. The more emotionally titillating or charged the associations are, the better something is remembered.

Long-term memories are built over a time frame of minutes to hours. They are then reviewed and renewed over days to weeks. They last months to years--sometimes (with renewal at monthly or yearly intervals) they last a lifetime.

Short-term memory functions on a much more abbreviated time frame--over seconds to minutes. Short-term memory is where we initially store ideas and sensory impressions; then we either use them (as with a telephone number we are about to call or a street address we are trying to find), store them in long-term memory (by identifying associations and links), or forget them. All within a few seconds or, at most, a few minutes.

Sensory memory is the third general kind of memory function; it is the least appreciated and hardest to study of the three. Each of the three "acute" senses (that is, the senses whose input may come and go quickly), sight, hearing, and touch, has a quick memory function which seems to be built into the sensory apparatus itself. Thus, for example, if we see someone whirling around in the dark with a bright light (perhaps a kind of firecracker known as a "sparkler"), there is a trail of sparkling lights that follows the trail of the light source. Sometimes this is called an "after image" and is considered related to the fatigue and recovery of the retinal vision cells themselves. But it is more than that. The image and after images precipitate cascades of mental associations seeking to identify and find meaning for the visual image.

In senior years, visual memory (also called "iconic memory") tends to become slow and abbreviated, and the cognitive usefulness of it blunted. This is the reason for the phenomenon of "missed association" in advanced age. A sign flashing by on the highway reads "horses for sale" and the elderly passenger reports seeing "houses for sale." It is also the reason that reading is easier for the elderly in bright light; the trains of associations that head into the brain are more distinct and more likely to find meaningful associations before the blunted iconic memory gives out.

Similarly, auditory input causes "echoic memory" which lets the listener rehear the stimulus for up to three or four seconds. For example, a sudden explosion came and went too quickly for analysis and identification; echoic memory lets us send inward to our brains repeated cascades of neural associations looking for the meaning--was that a gun shot, a car backfire, a fire cracker? What direction did it come from and how far away was it?

As with visual memory, the dulling of echoic memory also causes missed associations. A convention speaker says "paper trail" and the elderly listener reports hearing "vapor trail." And it is the reason the elderly can follow a conversation better at a loud volume and without background noise, better without a foreign accent or slurred speech; the fewer and duller neural cascades that are sent inward need to be clearer and more precise than the ones we needed in our youth. The common decrease in auditory acuity (particularly in the 4,000-cycles-per-second range that accumulates from a lifetime of acoustic trauma) also contributes to this difficulty, but it is not the whole story.

Memory is a many-faceted intellectual resource. Long-term memory, short-term memory, and the three kinds of sensory memory are very different in the ways they function--particularly in their transience and durability--but they all must function together smoothly for an efficient, effective, and satisfying intellectual life.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is There a World Food Crisis?

by Richard Crews
The scene is a small, dirty shack, about eight-feet square, made from scraps of corrugated metal, wood, and plastic scavenged from the nearby dump. There are three children who sit in the dark squalor. One is a girl about 12, the other two are a boy and a girl about 4 or 5. The older girl spoons a small amount of something that looks like a slurry of dark beans and rice into two tin pans held by the younger children. There isn't much of it. Each small child has a wooden spoon, and they dig in hungrily.

Then the little boy looks around at his older sister sitting quietly in the corner watching. He seems cheerful--after all, he is hungry and he is eating. And he sounds more curious than concerned when he asks, "Where's yours?"

Throughout the world a billion people are hungry right now. Fifty thousand die of starvation each day--mostly children. And the ones who live and grow up on the brink of starvation have more than their childhoods stolen from them. They lose not just their childhood teachings and activities, but their growth and development--both physical and mental--are stifled as well. Even if they live, they are small of stature, slow of wit, and without the emotional and social skills needed to pursue full lives: their future is stolen from them.

A billion people are hungry right now, and the irony of this savage tragedy is that, worldwide, there is enough food to go around. In the U.S. (and other post-industrialized countries), the typical family is overweight (perhaps even participating in the so-called "obesity epidemic"). In addition, they throw away each year more food than they consume--they buy more than they need; much of it goes stale and rotten and after a couple of weeks in the refrigerator it is thrown into the garbage or compost. Overall, about 60% of the food they purchase is discarded.

Moreover, many participants in the food chain from farmers and truckers to processors, commodity brokers, and grocers earn a good living slicing off a piece of the world food pie as it goes by them.

Last year food prices skyrocketed around the world. This was because vast crops were lost to storms and floods and fires (and perhaps because of price speculating and tariff interventions as well). The price of corn doubled, the price of wheat tripled--the prices of all food commodities were up signficantly. Because of this, millions of people were plunged into poverty and starvation.

Because of this, the 12-year-old girl in that squalid shack can barely put food in the pans of her younger brother and sister. Because of this, she has none for herself.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Origins of Humanity

by Richard Crews
Two independent investigations have now placed the birthplace of civilization in the heart of Africa several tens-of-thousands of years ago.

The older study, first proposed a couple of decades ago but greatly filled in over the past few years, traces the migration of human DNA. The genes that make us human vary a bit from place to place around the world. Analyzing hundreds of thousands of DNA samples taken from indigenous populations across six continents shows patterns of drift and change, all pointing back to a spot in East Africa some 160,000 years ago. Take a look at the fantastic map journey depicted at This shows the fits and starts of a long series of migrations including, for example, the devastation from the ice age caused by the massive volcanic eruption at Lake Toba in Sumatra some 74,000 years ago.

In addition to the DNA studies, recently a statistical analysis of the sounds used in some 300 languages around the world has provided a second, independent view of the human migrations out of Africa. It seems that as human groups migrated and their languages evolved over many thousands of years, the vocabularies and grammars changed, often becoming more complex, but the range of consonants used in a given language did not. In fact, the sounds (or "phonemes") used in a language became simpler and more limited the farther the language migrated, in time and place, from the birthplace of human civilization (and language) in Africa so many millennial ago.

Another fascinating discovery that emerges from these studies is that at least twice during this immense journey, the surviving population of human beings was reduced to numbers so small that extinction threatened. The statistical analysis of mitochondrial DNA, the small portion of the genetic material that is inherited maternally--it is only passed from mother to daughter--shows that all human beings on Earth are descended, several thousand generations ago, from a single woman, the so-called "Mitochondrial Eve." Evidently--and luckily--she had 18 daughters, or at least there are 18 distinct lines of maternal inheritance that lead back to her, for example, the seven "European Daughters of Eve" whose descendants now populate the European continent.

In addition, genetic studies of the Y-chromosome (which is inherited only through the male line) show that thousands of years ago there was a "Y-Chromosome Adam." Every human being on Earth is descended from one of his ten sons.

Since Mitochondrial Eve lived about 150,000 years ago and Y-Chromosome Adam dates to 60,000 to 90,000 years ago, there were at least these two near extinctions in human evolution. In addition, the eruption at Lake Toba about 74,000 years ago reduced the human population of the globe to about 1,000 individuals, a number that is also disastrously close to extinction.

Another interesting chapter in human evolution relates to the discovery that about four percent of our genetic material is derived from Neanderthals, a species closely related to us--that is, to Homo sapiens--that was driven to extinction in Europe and Asia some 30,000 years ago. Apparently in addition to overcoming the Neanderthals through our superior mental and physical abilities, adaptability, or luck--and in addition to enslaving and eating them (as observation of more recent human nature would suggest), we interbred with them--again, an observation entirely consistent with behavior observed among modern humans.

The origins of humanity as uncovered by scientific studies has been a long, complex, and at times perilous journey. It makes a fascinating, sparkling tale.

What's Wrong with the GOP?

by Richard Crews
The Republican Party or GOP (the "Grand Old Party") is one of the two enormous, overriding forces in American politics (the other being, of course, the Democratic Party). The Republican Party has traditionally espoused conservative values. (The Democratic Party, on the other hand, has traditionally been associated with liberal or progressive values.)

The basic perspective of political conservatism is sensible: Government can't do everything, and it is always possible to make things worse--so when you govern, proceed slowly and cautiously.

A more formal and precise definition is provided by the WikiPedia: "Conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society."

Although one can hear this basic perspective in the rhetoric of present-day Republican politicians in Washington, the day-to-day reality of their activities has become more a matter of pandering to the rich and powerful (who pay for costly election campaigns) at the expense of the elderly, the infirm, and generally of the not-so-wealthy.

Brian Beutler writes for TPMDC (a political blog), "House Republicans voted Friday [April 15, 2011] in favor of a vision of the future without Medicare [health care for the elderly and disabled], with a significantly eroded Medicaid [health care for the poor], and with lower taxes on wealthy Americans."

With the pretense of promoting cautious government, the Republicans have--
opposed fair taxation,
undermined environmental and consumer protections,
minimized regulation of the greedy excesses of Wall Street,
interfered with women's and minority rights,
tried to defeat lobbying and campaign-finance reforms, and
opposed and sought to undermine universal health insurance.

What's "wrong" with the GOP is not the conservative philosophy they pretend to promote, it is that their activities in fact favor big-money interests at the expense, frankly, of everyone else--in effect, at the expense of American Values and of sharing, as broadly as we wish we could, the American Dream.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What's Wrong with U.S. Democracy?

by Richard Crews
Winston Churchill, an astute observer and often an international battering target of U.S. politics, said, "You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing--after they've tried everything else.” He also said that "democracy is the worst form of government except for all others that have been tried."

An observer of democracy in the U.S. is struck with the absurd disparity between popular opinions--as measured by the parade of opinion polls (the final poll on any issue being an election)--and any realistic assessment of the grave and complex issues at risk. Popular opinion on political issues has been characterized as "somewhere between irrational hysteria and psychotic stupidity."

Notwithstanding this, the U.S. political machinery and discourse is often held in high esteem internationally; it is characteristically the gold standard by which other modern, humane, and responsive governing systems are measured. Francis Fukuyama, in his epochal essay "The End of History," opined that--after centuries of tyrants, wars, and the gradual arc of history curving toward justice--the final form of government had been achieved: liberal democracy on an economic and cultural base of private, entrepreneurial capitalism. And this grand cultural invention was becoming accepted worldwide. For many, the U.S. appears to be the oldest, largest, and most successful manifestation of this historical thrust.

How shall we reconcile this disparity between the golden myth of U.S. democracy and the facts on the ground?

Perhaps it is inevitable that any close observation of political (or any administrative) machinery be disappointing. The famous observation that "anyone who likes sausages and respects the law should not watch either being made" is perhaps inescapable. Perhaps greed and power-hungry ambition are so intrinsic to human nature that anyone put into a leadership role should be expected to function with personal avarice and pride bubbling gradually to the surface of their actions. Perhaps counter examples in history--Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela--are rare.

Perhaps modern information and communication technology has merely exacerbated psychological and historical factors that have been with us for a long time. But the modern 24/7 news cycle which displaces in a few days a natural tragedy in Haiti or Japan with some political scandal or athletic triumph in order to maintain a frenzied, entertainment pace is not conducive to thoughtful consideration of important national issues--the national debt, education, infrastructure limitations, global warming, green energy, etc.

There is a lot "right" about U.S. democracy. But there is also a lot "wrong" with the frenzied, entertainment quality of media coverage which exacerbates the underlying self-centered myopia of human nature.