Okinawa Computational Neuroscience Course 2016: Thoughts from a Student

OIST Campus, Okinawa, Japan.

OIST Campus, Okinawa, Japan.

By an isolated beach on an isolated island in the East China Sea lies a place where people gathered to study the most complicated biological organ known to humankind – indeed, the organ which has made humankind possible. Shoes were deemed optional by most, even for the morning lecture; indeed, appearances and formalities and the regular trappings of the world seemed to have no relevance here. Here was a monastery of science, nestled in the sub-tropics. Our prayers were programs and our sermons were lectures. It would be preferred by most that you had combed your hair in the morning and bathed appropriately, but beyond that it was not the external you that people were interested in, but the internal you. And what a mixture of internal yous we had.

With 32 students, some half a dozen tutors, and a steady stream of lecturers from all around the world, there was hardly a single moment which wasn’t filled with some kind of fascinating conversation. While in one corner there could be a deep discussion on the merits of different exploration techniques of solution space for parameters of advanced simulations, in the other corner there could easily be a passionate discourse about the free jazz evolution of Miles Davis. And all the while there would be several people tapping away at keyboards, working, and still others relaxing or eating sushi. It was marvellous.

Of course, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University, our generous hosts. They provided us with three square meals a day, lodging, airfares for those who could not otherwise afford it, as well as transfers to and from the airport. That actually meant our yen could only be spent in only one of three places: trinket shops about the tourist places we visited on Sundays, the local Family Mart, or the beer vending machine in the lobby. Can you guess where most of most people’s yen went?

A few of the visiting lecturers were kind enough not just to share their devotion to knowledge with us, but to share their enthusiasm for karaoke or beer. It seemed only natural to do so in that here we were, many hundreds or thousands of miles away from our regular environments, trapped on an island together with only learning and conversation and beer (assuming one can distinguish learning from conversation, and conversation from beer).

It was these three things, or really just the time we spent together, that made this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make life-long friends. Many were made and many will be treasured.

3 keys to success in student networking

sobr dinner 2016

Students of Brain Research 2016 Professional Development Dinner on 25 May at the State Library of Victoria, Australia. Photo: Dr Marguerite Galea ‏@MVEG001

This week saw the culmination of months of dedicated work by the Students of Brain Research  (SOBR) 2016 Committee, of which I am a part. A professional development and networking dinner is held annually for (as you might guess) students of brain research in the state of Victoria, Australia. This year it was held at the State Library of Victoria on 25 May, where 170 guests attended what was the largest and most diverse event in SOBR’s history.

Here is my à la Buzzfeed listicle, odd in number (per the suggestion from consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier, one of the event’s speakers), which will likely be a rare format for this blog, but which might hopefully give some insight into what I consider to be the three keys to success in student networking:

  1. Be prepared. If you’re attending a function where you know other students and senior people in your field are going to be, such as at a conference or event like SOBR’s, prepare. Prepare answers to the undoubted questions which will be asked, like what your research topic is, and what your plans are in the immediate and longer terms for your career. Prepare to ask questions of others, too! This means doing your homework about the people who are likely to be there, especially the big-wigs. Knowing who they are and a bit about their research will help guide you on who might be most appropriate to approach for conversation and what questions to ask of any who start conversation with you. Oh, and prepare some business cards. Yes, I hear your complaints about how this isn’t business and an exchange of ideas shouldn’t begin with such tokenism – well, it’s not tokenism and this is business: business cards are practical tools for quickly making an initial connection with someone for later follow-up in time-sensitive scenarios; and research is business these days, I’m afraid, none of it gets done without money.
  2. Be confident. This comes with time but only if you let it. Sitting or standing in the same place in the room, even throughout the breaks, is a big no-no. While it might feel less intimidating, don’t fall into the trap of very literally limiting your interactions with others. There could very well be few if any people you think you want to speak with, but how can you be completely, totally sure that there’s not someone in the crowd who isn’t someone you wouldn’t want to meet? There might be someone in that crowd who are starting a project that suits your skills perfectly and are looking for collaborators, or perhaps someone else has a friend who is running a course that you could benefit from, or perhaps someone else has a rich aunt who wants to invest in people’s research. The possibilities are endless, so brave up and approach people – you will never know what you might have missed otherwise.
  3. Be savvy but open-minded. At a large event like SOBR’s this week or at a major conference, you might not have time to meet everyone you want to. You therefore need to prioritize your conversations; don’t be afraid to tell someone you’re engaged with that you’re glad to have met them but that you have to move on. Slip them a business card (see step 1) and practice your confidence (step 2) by approaching the people you really want or need to talk to. That said, try to be open-minded. A large part of the value of networking opportunities is to meet people you mightn’t otherwise (and mightn’t have planned to otherwise), be it due to distance of discipline, of geography, of institution, or of anything else – so you should be willing to get a bit out of your comfort zone, I think; be prepared to learn something new, something that’s perhaps just left of your field. Because, who knows? Perhaps that conversation or connection will, in 10 or 20 years, help propel your field forward with innovative research.

Now go and put it into practice! The success of our collective endeavour to progress knowledge depends on collaboration, and to that extent the formation of those collaborations through networking.

How Udacity Scammed Me


Udacity website screengrab.

I’ve been on both sides of the classroom when it comes to e-learning. I watched as KhanAcademy went from humble YouTube channel to being worthy of Bill Gates’ endorsement; I created similar content via TutorTom10 in my undergraduate years, now seen by tens of thousands of people; I worked with education innovators at world-leading universities in various e-learning roles and as a consultant; I’ve been involved in delivering and designing curricula in traditional educational settings; and I’ve contributed to institutional education policy, including one that was in the midst of moving into MOOCs (massively open online courses). Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve never met anyone particularly greedy or in it for the wrong motives. Sure, at times the hype which results from the ‘e-‘ prefix isn’t always realistic, but at least those involved are relatively pure of heart.

However, pure motives and (frankly) any semblance of educational standards is apparently bereft in some of the more recent commercial operators to enter the MOOC and e-learning scene. One company in particular, whom I’ve had recent experience with, typify the very essence of what’s wrong with these operators and how little integrity they actually possess. The company in question? Udacity. (That’s ‘audacity’ without the ‘a’ – and, well, their business practices are very audacious …)

I signed up for a free trial of one of their courses, or ‘nanodegrees’ as they incessantly refer to them as, after exploring their site a little and browsing through the courses. Everything seemed quite normal and innocuous. Wrong. Churning beneath the clean, white design are the machinations which lead to their out-and-out scamming me for hundreds of dollars.

The first dead giveaway, in hindsight, is the payment structure itself: 200 USD a month, with half that refunded if you complete the course within 12 months. On the surface, that seems rather expensive, but reasonable if you complete it in a few months. On closer inspection and with experience, however, you find yourself at the mercy of hapless ‘assessors’.

Completion of the course requires the submission of several projects. ‘Assessors’ then ‘mark’ the project against criteria to determine if the project, in essence, ‘passes’. But here’s the problem: if you’re paying 200 USD a month and the assessors don’t pass you by this pay cycle’s end, well, you pay another 200 USD. So Udacity actually have a strong financial incentive to delay assessment for this direct reason, but also in the long-term they wish to avoid payout of the 50% refund scheme if they can.

To blatantly delay assessing students’ projects would be a little too obvious, however, and Udacity ‘assessors’ (while they take longer than they should) aren’t so obvious. Instead, they offer impersonal, copy-and-paste blocks of text in an unaddressed e-mail for anything that wasn’t quite right. Such a response would be considered so totally outside the realms of education normally that we could close the case right about there, but to additionally give false information in that e-mail would be an even graver sin, wouldn’t it? In fact, Udacity committed this graver sin against me not just once – but twice!

Keep in mind that while such mistakes might be more forgivable if the course were a free MOOC or if these long, copy-and-paste e-mails were not so obviously copied-and-pasted. But the fact is that if this ‘assessor’ is telling me the wrong information and giving me bad instruction, they’re probably giving exactly the same wrong information and bad instruction to other students. What’s worse is that when a student goes to correct this ‘error’ in their project, and resubmits it for re-‘assessment’, a new ‘assessor’ will then give them feedback and potentially further or differently wrong information or bad instruction (or, worse yet, miss the mistake altogether and let the student carry on thinking they have learnt something when in actual fact they have learnt precisely the wrong thing).

This then leads to the misinstruction loop:

  1. assessor #1 instructs me to do A when I did B
  2. I do A when B is correct (not A)
  3. assessor #2 instructs me to change it back to B
  4. I change it back to B, and it’s a coin-flip as to whether the next assessor will let me move on or stay stuck in the loop

And, of course, just exiting the loop isn’t sufficient; this is a fundamentally flawed and impersonal mode of instruction. In fact, it leads to confusion in the student’s mind about the content and causes them to become disenfranchised with their learning.

That this is the only means of ‘personal’ instruction when Udacity plasters their site with this selling point is sufficient reason enough to realise that they are misleading their students. This is a course, and a course I was paying 200 USD a month for, and the only form of actual instruction I receive are copy-and-paste e-mails with misinstruction? Not once but twice?

With that amount of money, Udacity could and should provide a much higher quality of service or should otherwise cease with the charades about caring for students’ education. The fact of the matter is that as soon as I had the first incident of that misintruction loop (and saw how low the bar for ‘personal instruction’ was set), I let them know this wasn’t okay. The response was highly apologetic and I trusted them when they said it was a very rare occurrence and that it wouldn’t happen again. My trust was misplaced.

There are canals everywhere and cars no where

A busy canal in Venice.

A busy canal in Venice.

Venice is a bit like Amsterdam when it rains, except that instead of it being bikes which seem to outnumber faces, it’s umbrellas – streets and streets full of them. Large wooden and steel platforms are laid down when flooding is expected, raising you twenty or so centimeters above the old cobblestone. The higgledy-piggledy (dis)organisation of it all begs exploration.

After a few hours of getting lost in the maze of Venetian mask stalls, churches, and quaint stone bridges, the similarities with Amsterdam begin to fade, however, and the Italian culture becomes more pronounced.

Memory of the once glorious city state, the Venetian Republic,­ fades much slower in the minds of many who call this place home, however. Ornate gold and rose flags don window-cum-­balconies along nearly every street. A secession referendum was held as recently as a few years ago, but failed by the slimmest of margins. Though how well Venice could function without the mainland was an open question. Tourism would surely account for almost its entire export, except whether it should is a sticky topic in the half-floating city.

Venetians seem to have a love-hate relationship with tourists. Large posters promoting anti-tourism rallies lined at least one back-alley and not all locals greeted you with a smile. It’s easy to sympathise with the historic city’s 70,000 residents playing host to millions of gondola-riders and mask-­wearers and clothes-­buyers and glass-­blowing-watchers. Whether Venice is for the Venetians or for the tourists should be a question with an obvious answer, and yet I don’t know if there is one.

When Egyptians make decisions about access to or maintenance of the pyramids, or Athenians decide things about the Parthenon, I think they ought to make decisions which aren’t purely and always in their own interests. There is, at least to me, a shared human heritage which we are all responsible for and should all have access to. Sadly, not all states and actors agree (see extremists blowing up Buddhas in Afghanistan or the wreckage of much of the Levant’s ancient history).

But, for the Venetians, I ask: for how long can your home be a stranger’s hotel? In such a small place, can space ever be personal and if not, at what point does its invasion become tantamount to assault on a culture or on a place or on a people?

Perhaps I was wrong in adding to the masses or perhaps this is simply the nature of special places.

Why animals should be treated as co-citizens

Dogs on a farm in Canada. (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

Dogs on a farm in Canada. (Photo: Martin Cathrae)

Cats, dogs, dolphins, chimps, and humans – we’re all technically animals, but do some of us deserve more rights than others? There is a tiny town in northern Spain that thinks not. In late July, the municipality of Trigueros del Valle unanimously passed a local law which officially defines cats and dogs in the town as ‘non-human residents’.

“The mayor must represent not just the human residents but must also be here for the others,” the Spanish town’s mayor told The Independent.

While it might seem a bit far-fetched, the idea that non-human animals should be given human-like rights is gaining traction in jurisdictions as far as India and Argentina to Romania and the United States. But what are the cultural and philosophical implications of all this? And isn’t giving ‘human-like rights’ going a bit too far? I don’t think so, in fact, I think we should be prepared to grant not just human-like ‘rights’ or ‘residency’ to animals, but indeed we should be prepared to give them citizenship and let their interests be directly represented in our governments.

Such a radical shift in thinking about non-human animals is unlikely to occur quickly, and there seem to be some clear stepping stones which will first need to reached. One of the most pivotal steps centres around the debate of whether some animals have a level of ‘personhood’ that can be legally meaningful.

Personhood – that an entity has the essential capacities of a person, like self-consciousness, intellect, experience of suffering and complex emotional states, etc. – comes in different forms and to varying degrees. We would not say, for instance, that a human infant was criminally liable for their own actions, even if those actions caused serious harm to another human, since we know the infant wouldn’t be properly aware of their own actions or the consequences of those actions. However, if a competent adult harmed an infant, that adult would definitely be criminally liable for their own actions, since they have adequate foresight and self-awareness. In this context, then, both the adult and infant have different levels of legal personhood and this is reflected in how the law treats them.

If non-human animals like chimpanzees or orangutans could be argued as being at least somewhat equivalent in a legal or moral sense (courtesy of their intellectual and other human-like capacities) to a human person – even on the level of a human infant – then courts could be persuaded to recognise them as non-human persons. And with the status of personhood can come great things.

The English Somerset case, which gave an African slave his freedom in 1772, was prompted by a writ of habeas corpus, a legal summons that requires the custodian of a prisoner to demonstrate before a court that their detention of the person in question is lawful. Animal rights activists in Argentina and New York have argued that the same legal summons should be employed to require a zoo or university to demonstrate their lawful detention of an orangutan or chimpanzee, respectively. The question for such cases hinges on whether the zoo or university is detaining a legally-defined person.

While these cases are currently ongoing, some politicians and scientists have already made up their minds, and it’s easy to see why. Advanced non-human animals like dolphins or chimpanzees or others are highly intelligent and share huge swaths of genetic heritage with us humans. They lead rich emotional lives and have human-like capacities such as self-awareness.

But personhood should not be the only game in town when it comes to thinking about animals. My pet dog is quite dull, but that shouldn’t mean I can get away with mistreating it any more than I could get away with mistreating a clever orangutan. The ability to experience suffering, therefore, seems to be important in this regard. That said, there can be indirect negative effects or suffering which results from killing something as basic as even an ant (even though it’s unlikely insects experience pain). Sure, stepping on one accidently from time to time won’t cause a catastrophe, but we couldn’t live a world without ants altogether. They, along with the rest of the insect class, form the basis of the food chain. Crops couldn’t grow and cows couldn’t eat grass if it weren’t for creepy crawlies. So even suffering doesn’t seem to capture everything there is to value about animals. In a broad sense, I think most of us recognise that we ought to value our ecosystem as a whole, if not for its own sake then for our own survival’s.

I’m not arguing that trees or bees ought to be considered our co-citizens, however, but rather the non-human animals which form a part of our societies: companion animals like dogs and cats, produce or working animals like horses and sheep. These are the animals which we have actively enlisted into the ranks of our societies for our own purposes. They are the biggest modern caste group worldwide and are regularly exploited for financial gain without full consideration of their welfare.

Just like we wouldn’t expect a co-citizen to work their whole lives and never be given adequate time for rest and relaxation, we shouldn’t expect this of animals. In most high-income countries, we expect that our co-citizens will enjoy a basic level of provision and protection in the forms of food, medicine, and housing; the same should all be true for animals as well.

What might be a touch difficult is getting hoof and paw prints on electoral votes in a meaningful manner. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely any non-human animal could be expected to understand the complexities (and absurdities) of modern politics. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t seek to know what is in their best interests and have those interests represented in our governments’ decision-making and services. We don’t expect children to know their best interests or be able to fully care for themselves outside of their families, but we still make concerted efforts to care for children who cannot be cared for by their own families; we, as a society, take it upon ourselves to care for them and to avoid their being exploited or abused. In the same way, perhaps we ought to create policies and agencies which care for animals.

It is likely that the way we treat animals will change and one day we might even call them our co-citizens. A few decades ago the animal rights movement seemed to some like a fringe fad, but it is now part the mainstream. Call me barking mad, but I suspect that in a few more decades we might be talking about co-citizen adoption agencies rather than pet shops.

Friendship and partiality

Old friends sitting on a park bench in Guatemala. Photo: Keneth Cruz

Old friends sitting on a park bench in Guatemala. Photo: Keneth Cruz

On Monday 6 July 2015 I guest hosted BioethxChat – a weekly Twitter discussion based around bioethical issues – on the topic of friendship and partiality. We had 40 participants during the live, online discussion and a few of us continued conversing during the following days.

The discussion was organised into four topic questions, each discussed for approximately 10 or 15 minutes. These were:

  1. What is friendship? What makes a friend a true friend?
  2. Does friendship have intrinsic or merely instrumental value?
  3. Can impartialists coherently maintain true friendships or value friendships intrinsically?
  4. Is impartiality required in moral judgements? If so, to what degree? Does this change with context, e.g. public vs. private morality?

Although these questions are not bioethical in a conventional or typical sense, their answers can be relevant to a range of bioethical dilemmas. Some examples which were brought up in our discussion were of a medical professional reporting on the malpractice of a peer who was also their friend and of medical professionals triaging patients in partial or impartial ways.

To many in the literature and many BioethxChat participants, friendships are something that complete or add to the persons involved. My brother said to me once that friendship was like a sculpture that two people work on. I agree, and think that some of the most beautiful sculptures are those which can be viewed as beautiful from all sides – in the same way, friendships are most beautiful, I think, when both persons put effort into the friendship.

However, can a friendship be valued despite instrumental concerns or does it need to result in something outside of itself to be worthy of value? A quintessentially consequentialist response is presumably that friendship should only be valued by what it gives rise to. But if what is being valued is not the friendship itself but rather what it gives rise to, is friendship a true value? Not according to arguments by Michael Stoker and others. In his paper ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’, Stoker provides the example of being bored and lonely in hospital when your friend, Smith, visits you not (as you find out) because he is simply your friend, but because he felt it was his duty (subscribing to deontology) or because he could think of no better way to improve utility (subscribing to consequentialism, specifically utilitarianism). It’s argued that Smith isn’t as true a friend as someone who visited you because they valued your friendship. Many BioethxChat participants seemed to agree with this sentiment and some said that in their close relationships and friendships, instrumental aspects were not a major part of what they valued. However, several participants noted that instrumental aspects damages or gives rise to intrinsic value, as in the case of a friend who ‘uses’ the friendship for their own benefit or when two people begin a friendship and are only at the start of developing their intrinsic value for one another.

My own view on this debate is that while this ‘problem of friendship’ for consequetialists (and impartialists generally) is a genuine and worrying problem, there are still options to consider. I present one such option in a paper recently submitted to a journal which I call the ‘personification solution’. I argue that if we agree that personhood grants some intrinsic value to a subject, and it can be shown that friendships possess some level of personhood, then friendships (and relationships generally) can be intrinsically valued by consequentialists and perhaps other impartialists to some degree. If consequentialists can coherently value relationships not only for their instrumental value, but also for their intrinsic value, then this might allow them to engage in ‘true’ (or ‘truer’) friendships and relationships. Such a view also has broader implications for other normative perspectives on the ethics of friendship and relationships generally.

As for the ultimate roles of partiality and impartiality in ethical decision-making, on face value it seems that neither can be used without escaping potential problems: being partial to friends and family is a natural and perhaps essential part of being human, but we can’t justifiably ignore a stranger’s dire needs. Though, in a hospital emergency department, would it be right of a medical professional to see to their friend or family member’s ailment before a stranger’s? It probably depends on the ailments of both the friend/family member and the stranger, but to what degree? I’m not sure, but I know I regularly give friends and family members gifts on special occasions when I could have donated them to charity or spent the money more effectively.

The ethics of child participation in significantly risky non-therapeutic research

Children in Conakry, Guinea, on 14 January 2015. (Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret)

Children in Conakry, Guinea, on 14 January 2015.
(Photo: UNMEER/Martine Perret)

After recently returning to Melbourne, Australia from Geneva, Swtizerland, where I was the 2015 Monash-WHO Bioethics Fellow at the World Health Organization headquarters in the Global Health Ethics Unit, I have revisited a paper I wrote in November last year on the ethics of child participation in significantly risky non-therapeutic research.

At the time of writing this paper, a safe and effective Ebola vaccine was unavailable and there were many questions related to how to produce one while maintaining existing ethical standards for research involving vulnerable populations. I used this as an example of why I think there are many situations in which it is ethical to allow children to participate in significantly risky non-therapeutic research.

Here are the conclusions I ultimately arrived at:

The principles which can justify significantly risky nontherapeutic research on children are a combination of: (1) direct or indirect benefits to the child participants now and/or in the future (and these benefits need not necessarily be medical, they can also be socioeconomic or otherwise non-medical); (2) a high standard of informed consent that fundamentally focuses on the child participant’s understanding (and capacity for understanding) of relevant features of informed consent. Researchers, parents and guardians, as well as child participants themselves, have different roles and obligations towards one another. This is not an issue of seeking to find excuses to expose children to risk, but rather an issue of seeking the least risky and most ethical way to do so if and when required by public health emergencies or to achieve directly beneficial scientific breakthroughs.

As I do not have any strong inclinations for having this published elsewhere, I have made it available for others via the philpapers archive.