John Maeda: The Laws of Simplicity

Pop on over to John Maeda’s blog and learn about what makes things simple:

You just gotta love his first law:

“The simplest way to achieve simplicity is thoughful reduction”

So desu ka? So very, very difficult to do ……..

Chimps More Evolved Than Humans

By Jeanna Bryner
LiveScience Staff Writer
posted: 17 April 2007
09:36 am ET

Since the human-chimp split about 6 million years ago, chimpanzee genes can be said to have evolved more than human genes, a new study suggests.

The results, detailed online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contradict the conventional wisdom that humans are the result of a high degree of genetic selection, evidenced by our relatively large brains, cognitive abilities and bi-pedalism.

Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan and his colleagues analyzed strings of DNA from nearly 14,000 protein-coding genes shared by chimps and humans. They looked for differences gene by gene and whether they caused changes in the generated proteins.

Genes act as instructions that organisms use to make proteins and thus are integral to carrying out biological functions, such as transporting oxygen to the body’s cells. Different versions of the same gene are called alleles.

Changes in DNA that affect the making of proteins are considered functional changes, while “silent” changes do not affect the proteins. “If we see an excess of functional changes (compared to silent changes) the inference is these functional changes occurred because they were positively selected, because they were useful in some way to the organism,” said study team member Margaret Bakewell, also of UM.

Bakewell, Zhang and a colleague found that substantially more genes in chimps evolved in ways that were beneficial than was the case with human genes.

The results could be due to the fact that over the long term humans have had a smaller effective population size compared with chimps.

“Although there are now many more humans than chimps, in the past, human populations were much smaller, and may have been fragmented into even smaller groups,” Bakewell told LiveScience. So random events would play a more dominant role than natural selection in humans.

Here is why: Under the process of natural selection, gene variants that are beneficial get selected for and become more common in a population over time. But genetic drift, a random process in which chance “decides” which alleles survive, also occurs. In smaller populations, a fortuitous break for one or two alleles can have a disproportionately greater impact on the overall genes of that population compared with a larger one.

Chance events could also explain why the scientists found more gene variants that were either neutral and had no functional impact or negative changes that are involved in diseases.

There is still much to learn, the scientists say, about human and chimp evolution. “There are possibly a lot of differences between human and chimps that we don’t know about, [perhaps] because there are differences in chimps that nobody has studied; a lot of studies tend to focus on humans,” Bakewell said.

Bilingualism delays onset of dementi

Fri Jan 12, 2007 7:33 PM ET

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) – People who are fully bilingual and speak both languages every day for most of their lives can delay the onset of dementia by up to four years compared with those who only know one language, Canadian scientists said on Friday.

Researchers said the extra effort involved in using more than one language appeared to boost blood supply to the brain and ensure nerve connections remained healthy — two factors thought to help fight off dementia.

“We are pretty dazzled by the results,” Professor Ellen Bialystok of Toronto’s York University said in a statement.

“In the process of using … two languages, you are engaging parts of your brain, parts of your mind that are active and need that kind of constant exercise and activity, and with that experience (it) stays more robust,” she later told CTV television.

The leading cause of dementia among the elderly is Alzheimer’s disease, which gradually destroys a person’s memory. There is no known cure.

Bialystok’s team focused on 184 elderly patients with signs of dementia who attended a Toronto memory clinic between 2002 and 2005. Of the group, 91 spoke only one language while 93 were bilingual.

“The researchers determined that the mean age of onset of dementia symptoms in the monolingual group was 71.4 years, while the bilingual group was 75.5 years,” the statement said.

“This difference remained even after considering the possible effect of cultural differences, immigration, formal education, employment and even gender as (influences) in the results,” it added.

Bialystok stressed that bilingualism helped delay the start of dementia rather than preventing it altogether.

Psychologist Fergus Craik, another member of the team, said the data showed that being fully bilingual had “a huge protective effect” against the onset of dementia but he added that the study was still a preliminary finding. The team plans more research into the beneficial side-effects of bilingualism.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada described the report as exciting and said it confirmed recent studies that showed that keeping the brain active was a good way to delay the impact of dementia.

“Anything that staves off the time when the risk factor (for dementia) overcomes the defenses is wonderful news,” scientific director Jack Diamond told Reuters.

The society estimates that in 2000 — the latest year for which data is available — Canada spent C$5.5 billion ($4.7 billion) taking care of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Go Ask Alice: Mushroom Drug Is Studied Anew

July 11, 2006; Page B1

In a study that could revive interest in researching the effects of psychedelic drugs, scientists said a substance in certain mushrooms induced powerful, mind-altering experiences among a group of well-educated, middle-age men and women. Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions researchers conducted the study following carefully controlled, scientifically rigorous procedures. They said that the episodes generally led to positive changes in attitude and behavior among the 36 volunteer participants and that the changes appeared to last at least two months. Participants cited feelings of intense joy, “distance from ordinary reality,” and feelings of peace and harmony after taking the drug. Two-thirds described the effects of the drug, called psilocybin, as among the five most meaningful experiences of their lives.

But in 30% of the cases, the drug provoked harrowing experiences dominated by fear and paranoia. Two participants likened the episodes to being in a war. While these episodes were managed by trained monitors at the sessions where the drugs were taken, researchers cautioned that in less-controlled settings, such responses could trigger panic or other reactions that might put people in danger.
A report on the study, among the first to systematically assess the effects of hallucinogenic substances in 40 years, is being published online today by the journal Psychopharmacology. An accompanying editorial and commentaries from three prominent neuroscientists and a psychiatrist praise the study and argue that further research into such agents has the potential to unlock secrets of consciousness and lead to new therapeutic strategies for depression, addiction and other ailments.
In one of the commentaries, Charles R. Schuster, a neuroscientist and former head of the National Institute for Drug Abuse, called the report a “landmark paper.” He also expressed hope that it “renews interest in a fascinating and potentially useful class of psychotropic agents.”
Still, the research is likely to stir controversy. Though psilocybin mushrooms, which can be found growing wild throughout the world, have been used for centuries in some societies during spiritual rituals, they also were agents, along with such hallucinogens as LSD and mescaline, that fueled the “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” counterculture of the 1960s personified by Timothy Leary.

Researchers acknowledge that the study’s positive findings may encourage inappropriate use of the agents. Roland Griffiths, the Hopkins neuroscientist who headed the research, warned against viewing the results as a green light for consuming the mushrooms. “We don’t know all their dark sides,” he said. “I wouldn’t in any way want to underestimate the potential risks” of indiscriminate use of the drugs.
The National Institute for Drug Abuse, which co-sponsored the study as part of its support for research into drugs of abuse, also warned against eating psilocybin mushrooms. They “act on serotonin receptors in the brain to profoundly distort a person’s perception of reality,” the institute said, possibly triggering psychosis, paranoia and anxiety.

It was widespread abuse in the 1960s that led to hallucinogens becoming illegal, effectively shutting down then-burgeoning corporate and academic research programs that had suggested the agents might be valuable research and therapeutic tools. One of the last influential studies was the Good Friday Experiment in 1962 in which 20 seminary students were given either psilocybin or nicotinic acid during a religious service. The 10 who got psilocybin reported intense spiritual experiences with positive benefits; one follow-up study suggested those effects lasted 25 years.
“It’s remarkable that we have a class of compounds that has sat in the deep freeze for 40 years,” Dr. Griffiths said. “It seemed to me scientifically it was high time to look again” at psychedelic agents.

Known colloquially by such names as magic mushroom or sacred mushroom, psilocybin is considered a Schedule I substance under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act. That puts it in the same class as heroin and LSD, drugs that have a high potential for abuse and no known medical use. It isn’t considered addictive. The psilocybin used in the study was synthesized by David E. Nichols, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., under a special permit.

After getting approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration and an institutional review board at Hopkins, Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues circulated a flier seeking volunteers for a “study of states of consciousness brought about by a naturally occurring psychoactive substance used sacramentally in some cultures.”
From among the 135 people who responded, 36 were eventually selected, based in part on their lack of a history of psychedelic drug use or family history of serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. The 36 — 14 men and 22 women — ranged in age from 24 to 64 years old, with an average age of 46; 97% were college graduates, and 56% had post-graduate degrees. All 36 participated at least occasionally in religious or spiritual activities. (Dr. Griffiths declined to make any participants available for interviews, citing privacy issues.)
Thirty of the participants were randomly assigned to receive either psilocybin or Ritalin (known generically as methylphenidate) as a control for the first eight-hour session; two months later, they were given the other drug in another session. Neither the participants nor the monitors who were present during their sessions knew which agent was being taken. To further reduce chances that participant responses would be affected by expectations they were getting psilocybin, a third group of six participants was randomly assigned to receive Ritalin in both sessions, followed by a third session when they knew they were getting the psychedelic agent. Ritalin was selected as the control agent in part because it can cause mood-changing effects similar to those of psilocybin, researchers said. It also takes effect at about the same time and lasts for about as long.

Participants were given the drug in individual sessions in a living-room environment with two experienced monitors. They were blindfolded, given headphones to listen to classical music and encouraged to lie down and direct their thoughts inward.
Researchers provided participants with a battery of questionnaires and mysticism scales, some of which were developed based on research from more than four decades ago, to measure their impressions of their experience at the end of the session and again two months later.
A third of the participants said the experience with psilocybin was the single most significant experience of their lives, and an additional 38% rated it among their top five such experiences — akin to, say, the birth of a first child or the death of a parent. Just 8% of the Ritalin episodes were reported to be among the top five meaningful occurrences. Two months after the sessions, 79% of the participants indicated in questionnaires that their sense of well-being and satisfaction increased after the psilocybin episodes, compared with 21% for Ritalin.
Researchers hope the findings will spur other studies that will, for instance, compare the effects of other hallucinogens and use MRIs to observe how such drugs affect the human brain. Other efforts are expected to test the value of psilocybin as a therapy. Charles Grob, a researcher at UCLA, is heading a small study to see if the drug relieves anxiety, depression and pain among patients with advanced cancer.
Dr. Griffiths said another goal is to understand the consequences of spiritual experiences — both drug-induced and spontaneous — and to determine how long they last and whether they lead to personality changes.

Island Wisdom, Coded in Java

Quinn Norton
(Wired) 02:00 AM Mar, 24, 2006

Charles Armstrong had one day job in his life — working as an account manager for an internet marketing firm in London. He didn’t like it. Communication was dysfunctional, morale was terrible. Like anyone who’s served time in cubical hell, Armstrong was certain people could do better.

So in 1999 he set out to conduct an ethnographic study of how people naturally communicate and organize when shorn of externalities like e-mail and PowerPoint. His quest took him to the tiny island of St. Agnes, the smallest of the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the coast of Britain. He lived there for a year, studying how the 80-or-so island villagers interacted and functioned.

Not surprisingly, life on the island contrasted powerfully with the corporate culture of London business. “Looking at how people schedule tasks and priorities, in most conventional organizations people make a to-do list, then they will do the highest-priority things first,” he says. “On St. Agnes, somebody wakes up, has breakfast, walks out the door and looks up at the sky…. If it looks like the right kind of wind and tide to catch a kind of fish they like, they might just do that first.”

That same fluidity extended to communications, says Armstrong, with unexpected efficiency. If Friday’s boat from St. Mary was canceled, there might be six people in the village that needed to know. Armstrong found consistently they would all have that information within hours, even without a formal distribution system, and few uninterested people would be burdened with the knowledge.

From studying how this and other situations played out, Armstrong formulated a set of fundamental principles on how people communicate.

Now Armstrong is readying a productivity tool that he hopes will put those precepts into action. Called Trampoline, the program will integrate with a company’s existing desktop and enterprise server applications, sitting quietly on a company’s network and vacuuming in e-mail, files, spreadsheets and anything else it can find.

From there, Trampoline indexes the data by parameters like authorization, originator and destination, and scours it for “semantic triggers” — interesting words that tend to crop up a lot. Then, like a village gossip, it shares information with people who might have use for it within the organization.

If, for instance, one of the semantic triggers matches the interests of another person on the network, that new bit of data will be added to a weekly e-mail of interesting items sent to that person.

This alert mechanism automates what Armstrong says is an intangible, but crucial, element in natural communications: the “delight” of discovery.

On St. Agnes, “you never know what you’re going to hear or learn,” says Armstrong. “If I walked out of my door, I was going to bump into a half-dozen people…. I might find the Hicks doing something with planting bulbs, and they would tell me about it, and it’s this fascinating piece of wisdom.”

The program is an update of an earlier, hosted solution, also called Trampoline, that didn’t interface with a company’s existing e-mail and productivity tools, and incorporated less of Armstrong’s research. Despite those limitations, the first Trampoline rollout enjoyed some early success, most significantly as part of a sustainable energy initiative of the U.K.’s Foreign Office called the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, or REEEP, where some 3,800 users work in the virtual-island setting.

Nick Mabey, a team leader at the U.K. Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, says REEEP struggled with collaboration between many countries, cultures and companies. “We wanted to move from face-to-face and flying around collaboration to be more virtual,” he says. Trampoline has proven useful in juggling what Mabey describes as a mix of diplomacy, campaigning and conversation. “We were working with very busy people with high time pressure. It was quite seamless for them, they could learn to use it over time.”

But Mabey cautions that the program wasn’t a cure-all for organizational dysfunction. “It can’t give you the wisdom of how to work with other people, but it can allow you to apply the wisdom of how to work with other people.”

Danah Boyd, who researches social software and networks at the University of California at Berkeley, says she’s excited by Armstrong’s ambition to use software to facilitate serendipity. Random providence, she says, is something that “people find delightful at all times.”

“Employees are interested in not what’s more useful, but whatever makes them smile,” says Boyd. And when employees aren’t totally committed to their work, the small joys of discovery might re-engage them.

But Boyd says she is wary of any collaborative software that tries to solve social problems, and she cautions that Armstrong’s algorithms might result in users being deluged with data. “It has a value, until we feel like we have reached too much information,” she says, but at that point additional input becomes frustrating.

To address that, Trampoline filters incoming information as well, pushing irrelevant data into digest formats that can be perused later. Users can also set levels of authorization on their data, so a private message to a spouse or a furtive résumé update doesn’t get added to an alert.

Armstrong says much of the challenge in translating his island observations into Java code was making sure the program facilitates natural communication without getting in the way. “That’s almost been a design constraint — this will only work if you don’t need any training.” He sees his work as part of a growing field that parallels biomimetics, which uses computers to imitate biological qualities of organisms. He says “sociomimetics” will allow technology to mimic human interaction.

“Social software is implicitly doing that, but it isn’t rooted in a particularly deep analysis in social behavior,” says Armstrong. “I think that will change.”