Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Our furry friends may be smarter than we think

A fascinating study suggests so, anyway:

Researchers have believed for some time that people and non-human primates are capable of "metacognition"--reasoning or thinking about one's own thinking. There have been studies on birds about this kind of thinking process, but results thus far have been inconclusive. The new study is the first that shows a non-primate species has metacognition--a proposal that may well be controversial.

The study involved what is called a "duration-discrimination" test--offering rats rewards for classifying a signal as either short or long. As in most such tests, the "right" answer led to a large food reward, while a "wrong" answer led to no reward at all. The twist, however, is that before taking the duration test, the rats were given the chance to decline the test completely. If they made that choice, they got a small reward anyway.

"If rats have knowledge about whether they know or don't know the answer to the test, we would expect them to decline most frequently on difficult tests," said Crystal. "They would also show the lowest accuracy on difficult tests that they can't decline. Our data showed both to be true, suggesting the rats have knowledge of their own cognitive states."

From here. Makes you wonder how many other species this applies to. If I was going to pick another, I'd bet on some species of crow (maybe the Common Raven), but that's just a guess on my part.

Friday, January 18, 2008

RIP Bobby Fischer

A sad day for the chess world:

Former chess champion Bobby Fischer has died of kidney failure following a long illness, his spokesperson said Friday. He was 64.

Fischer, a brilliant chess player who rocketed to grandmaster status at 15, was hailed as a Cold War hero when he defeated Russian Boris Spassky in 1972 to become the first American world chess champion in more than 100 years.

From the Ceeb. Nowadays most people know him for his, er, eccentricities- his forfeiting of the World Championship in 1975 following his refusal to defend his title, his sexism (he once said that he could give knight odds to any woman in the world), his rabid anti-Semitism (despite the fact that Fischer himself was of Jewish ancestry) and his comments about 9/11 (which, while a bit over the top, weren't really too far off the mark). But really, what we should remember him for is the fact that he was one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Just go through this game (played when he was only 13!) and try not to be amazed at his brilliance. Or just watch this moment of silence held in his honour at a major international tournament:

Via babble. As N. Beltov says, you could hear a pin drop in that room.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Weird things

The other day at work my senior boss was in a chatty mood (right now we're all basically marking time until the next project) and was talking at length about the alleged uncertainties with regard to global warming, basically parroting the arguments of folks like Tim Ball (though he didn't recognize Ball's name when I mentioned it). Actually I'm being a bit unfair; he didn't actually assert that Ball et. al. are right, just that their positions should be considered, but it seemed kind of strange to be having that conversation when it's over 10 °C in early January and nearly all the snow has melted. And to be fair, he also mentioned James Lovelock in his discussions. Lovelock has lately been on about how it's too late to stop global warming, so we should be focusing on how to cope with it. I guess it makes sense for a right winger to keep Lovelock in reserve, so that when the credibility of folks like Ball drops into the cellar, you can still trot out an excuse to oppose constraints on the sacred free market. Whatever...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Confessions of a mobster: 'My job was to kill Pierre Trudeau'

A former mobster says he was slated to rub out Prime Minister Trudeau back in the 1970s:

Trudeau was slated for execution because of his close association with Cuban President Fidel Castro, Craft said. Canada was trading with Cuba in 1974 and giving aid, despite an American boycott of the communist Caribbean nation.

Mobsters like Meyer Lansky hated Castro because he had kicked them out of Cuba and shut down their casinos when he seized power in 1959, Craft said. They hoped that Castro would attend Trudeau's funeral in Canada, so that they could get a shot at him, Craft said.

"They thought, if we kill Trudeau, we can get Castro."

From here.