Monday, May 30, 2016

Cool paper: "Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor?"

Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording recently put out a paper that (in my opinion) successfully argues a point I've heard a lot of people try and fail to make over the years. As I read it, the argument is that the common tools of cognitive neuroscience are often misused and misinterpreted. And that we have a far worse "understanding" of how the brain works than we often suppose.

The way they make this argument is by more precisely defining understanding (roughly 'the ability to explain why something is broken when it breaks and possibly how to fix it') and then using a known system---the MOS 6502 microprocessor---to compare the understanding gleaned by neuro tools with what is known about the human-made system.

They basically perform a lot of neuro tests on a simulated version of this processor while it boots different old-school video games. In and of itself, this is pretty fun. There are several important insights and perhaps I'll go over all of them but just one example is the use of transistor lesioning. I've copied figure 4 from the paper to give an idea. What they found was that there are a bunch of transistors which, when lesioned (i.e. removed or made nonfunctional), prevent the processor from loading any game. There's a similar number of transistors which don't seem to affect the processor's ability to boot games at all. The interesting thing is the finding that several transistors seem specific to an individual game, and those are highlighted in the image. For instance, there are 98 transistors which, when lesioned, prevent Donkey Kong from booting but don't seem to affect the other two games. Jonas and Kording point out that in neuroscience, results like these are often used to make causal and functional inferences, such as "these transistors cause Donkey Kong to boot" or "these transistors are Donkey Kong transistors".

Obviously, these inferences are not exactly merited by the results in either case but it's curious that this fact is more obvious when the system being analyzed is one that is known (the microprocessor) rather than mysterious (the brain).

Anyway, the entire paper is well worth reading. As is the inspiration from Biology, Lazebnik's Can a biologist fix a radio?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why the DOJ's statement matters

I've generally avoided talking about the wave of "Bathroom Bills" that have been making their way through—and in a few cases becoming law in—state legislatures across the country. It's not that I don't have anything to say (hah) but instead that the things I've had to say feel like they miss the point or are too dark for me to be comfortable sharing. But Something happened yesterday that made it clear to me what is important about these bills.

It's easy to miss because there's plenty to complain about. These bills violate nearly every conservative principle in the service of "social conservatism". This is yet another great example of why the various things we categorize as "conservative" in this country are truly strange bedfellows. In seeking to codify "biological sex", these bills actually reveal problems with defining something as complex or tenuous as sex at all. I think these are interesting points, and I think about them a lot, but the second I start putting them down to be shared it strikes me that they miss the forest for the trees.

That's because the most important impact of these laws is the public, authoritative endorsement of discrimination against and harm to trans people. This isn't to say that the immediate impact of it becoming difficult to meet a basic human need for trans people (and others who don't rigidly conform to gender expectations) is unimportant. It absolutely is. But I fear that far more people will be affected by what these bills do to social and political norms than what they do to bathrooms.

Most harassment and discrimination is small, insidious, and not illegal in any way. Nearly all of the trouble I've faced has had a strange relationship with laws. And even when the law is on my side, like when I was kicked out of a women's changing room or my landlord threatened to hold all packages addressed to my chosen name, it was far easier for me to just take it on the chin and not make any trouble than to involve the law. And I'm one of the lucky ones. The absolute worst transphobia is aimed at people who don't look like me, is already illegal, and is often excused for the least convincing reasons possible.

But if the direct effects of laws are of little concern, the social effects are of great concern. This is just one part of what I think of as authoritative claims on the acceptability of groups: "the supreme court considers same-sex couples equals",  "your favorite comedy considers trans people to be a joke and so does everyone watching", "the state considers trans people to be predators",  "the pope considers trans people to be mentally ill sinners". These are statements that come from some source of authority and make some statement about how legitimate or acceptable a group of people are. Obviously some authorities will be more credible than others but people are generally bad at untangling expertise (remind me to cite). While a vanishingly small number of people keep track of every local and federal law that affects trans people, everyone is exposed to numerous instances of these authoritative claims over their lifetime.

Now, imagine a parent of a trans child who has just come out. They have heard several of these statements from authorities. Do you think it matters what the balance of those statements is? Do you think it matters that one of the highest profile statements from legal authorities in recent years has been "trans people are delusional predators who cannot be trusted to safely use the bathroom"? Abso-fucking-lutely. This affects people in states where the bill was not passed for one reason or another. This affects people in states with no such bill in the works. It affects people who would harass trans people so long as they think they can get away with it. It affects people who haven't figured out that they are trans yet. It affects trans people who haven't decided to come out of the closet yet. It affects trans people who would never be questioned in a restroom. It affects the coworkers, friends, parents, and loved ones of trans people.

Have you ever tried to love someone you are ashamed of? Have you ever tried to love someone who is ashamed of you? Statements of authority, like those made by lawmakers shepherding these bills through their states, have the power to support and unite and protect far more people than they would ever directly effect. And they also have the power to harm, to destroy, to slowly eat away at people and relationships like an acid that won't wash off.

This is the context in which I read, through tears, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch's words when she announced the Department of Justice's lawsuit against the state of North Carolina:
Let me also speak directly to the transgender community itself.  Some of you have lived freely for decades.  Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead.  But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that  we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.  Please know that history is on your side.  This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all, and we have always managed to move closer to that promise, little by little, one day at a time.  It may not be easy – but we’ll get there together. 
Loretta Lynch is the chief law enforcement officer and chief lawyer of the United States of America. This is a big fucking deal.