Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Friday, October 31, 2003day link 

picture Well, Halloween isn't quite the same in France. But apparently it has been introduced here too in recent years, like it has in other parts of Europe. When you look at the aisles in the supermarket it looks just like in the U.S. So, we did actually put out a couple of lighted pumpkins and skeletons and stuff. And all of 3 brave kids actually showed up dressed-up, trick or treating. Except for that they have a different chant, saying something about wanting bon-bons. Which they got. We weren't sure anybody were going to show up. In part because people don't easily venture in to other people's houses here. Normally you're barricaded behind locked gates and rolled down shutters. To start a little action, little Nadia stood outside by the driveway and offered candy to people who came by. Several kids who happened to walk by with their parents actually refused. I suppose they've been taught not to accept candy from strangers. And one man accepted a piece of chocolate, but insisted on paying for it. So, things are a little different here. Anyway, here on the picture is Marie-Therese and Zachery on their way out to a party.
[ | 2003-10-31 13:02 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 What you believe is what you will get
Curt Rosengren mentions a fine little article in Discover Magazine about how our brains are wired for getting us what we expect we'll get, even when it doesn't make sense.
"Touch a pencil with all five fingertips of one hand, close your eyes, and ponder: If each fingertip forms a distinct tactile "image" of the pencil, why do you perceive a single pencil instead of five unconnected pencil fragments? The answer is that your brain has special circuits that help you build complete pictures from fragmented sensory information. In effect, these gap-filling circuits induce your brain to perceive what it expects to see, instead of what it actually sees. When these expectations accurately reflect the objective world around you, your perceptions will be on target. Sometimes, however, what your brain expects to see is far from an accurate representation of reality."
It then has some practical exercises for demonstrating this, which you've probably done as a kid and forgotten. Like, demonstrating to you that you actually have two noses.
The way that expectations shape perceptions has important implications for education. The developing brain processes complex perceptions, such as how difficult an academic subject is, in much the same way it handles simpler sensory information. If a student is led to expect that mathematics is difficult, even simple numerical problems may be perceived as unsolvable. Plain as the nose on your face, what you believe determines what you achieve.
I seem to remember experiments done with prisoners on death row that convinced them that they were dying, when they really weren't. They were promised money for their favorite charity or something. And then, you know, they were blindfolded and their arm anesthesized so they couldn't feel it, and then told that their veins were cut, so the blood would run out, and the point was to see how long they would stay conscious. And sound effects were produced that made it sound like blood was rushing out, even though it wasn't. And the guy died, because he was sure he would. I think they stopped the experiment after the second prisoner died the same way. Anybody has a reference on that? Sorry about the bloody story.

Anyway, the constructive point is of course that we can just as well get ourselves and others into expecting wonderful, magical and positive things to happen. And, again, the point is to do it sufficiently thoroughly that we actually succeed.
[ | 2003-10-31 14:51 | 6 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 The Office of Special Plans
A key source of the information the U.S. administration based the decision to invade Iraq on seems to have been a secret office in Washington, D.C. It has the curious name "Office of Special Plans" and had a direct line feeding intelligence and conclusions to George W and his friends. The problem was that it wasn't really intelligence they were feeding him, even though it was presented as such. The office was staffed by ideologue neo-conservatives who specialized in putting together exactly the story and the information and reasons that the administration would like to hear. They didn't consult with traditional intelligence professionals like the CIA, and their information and conclusions weren't reviewed or cross-checked by anybody but themselves. They sub-contracted some of the work to various groups who had similar neo-conservative views, such as an Israeli group that manufactured suitable intelligence separately from Mossad.

You can read about it for example here, or a detailed analysis here.

Some of this has come to light from a whistleblower, Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who worked in the office of Under Secretary of Defence until her retirement in April.
"What I saw was aberrant, pervasive and contrary to good order and discipline", Kwiatkowski wrote. "If one is seeking the answers to why peculiar bits of 'intelligence' found sanctity in a presidential speech, or why the post-Saddam (Hussein) occupation (in Iraq) has been distinguished by confusion and false steps, one need look no further than the process inside the Office of the Secretary of Defence" (OSD)...
and she mentions here one of the prevailing themes she noticed in operation in the Office of Special Plans:
"Groupthink. Defined as 'reasoning or decision-making by a group, often characterized by uncritical acceptance or conformity to prevailing points of view', groupthink was, and probably remains, the predominant characteristic of Pentagon Middle East policy development. The result of groupthink is the elevation of opinion into a kind of accepted 'fact', and uncritical acceptance of extremely narrow and isolated points of view.

The result of groupthink has been extensively studied in the history of American foreign policy, and it will have a prominent role when the history of the Bush administration is written. Groupthink, in this most recent case leading to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, will be found, I believe, to have caused a subversion of constitutional limits on executive power and a co-optation through deceit of a large segment of the Congress."
A cult of fanatics duping the United States congress with manufactured and incorrect information into going to war. I don't see why this shouldn't be as big as Watergate.
[ | 2003-10-31 17:30 | 11 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

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