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Economics, Computers, and Human Nature

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Monday, April 04, 2011

On today’s show: Yale University’s Vikram Mansharamani explains how he thinks we can spot the next economic bubble—and even know when it’ll burst. Then, Andre Dubus III talks about growing up the son of a famous but absent father, and about his memoir, Townie. Also, David Bezmozgis tells about his debut novel, The Free World, which examines the lives of Soviet Jews who have escaped to Rome in 1978. Plus, Brian Christian explores what speaking with a computer program can tell us about human nature.

Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst

Vikram Mansharamani, lecturer at Yale University and a global equity investor, explains how to identify unsustainable booms and forthcoming busts. Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst gives an in-depth look at several major booms and busts and shows how to identify upcoming financial bubbles and the tell-tale signs of a forthcoming bust.

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Andre Dubus III on His Memoir

Novelist Andre Dubus III talks about his memoir, Townie. It’s an account of growing up with his three siblings and his exhausted working mother in a depressed, crime-ridden Massachusetts mill town. His father, an eminent author and college professor, took the kids out on Sundays, and the clash of worlds couldn’t have been more stark. He describes learning to cope with violence, trying to communicate with his father, and how he was saved by writing.

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David Bezmozgis on The Free World

David Bezmozgis discusses his debut novel, The Free World, a multigenerational saga about a family that flees the Soviet Union in 1978. Among the thousands who have landed in Italy to secure visas for new lives in the West are three generations of the Krasnansky family, who will spend six months in Rome in the carnival of emigration, preparing for a new life.

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The Most Human Human

Brian Christian looks at how computers are reshaping our ideas of what it means to be human and tells about his experience participating in the annual Turing Test, which pits artificial intelligence programs against humans. The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive gives an account of his participation in the Turing Test, and he examines the philosophical, bio­logical, and moral issues it raises.

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Phineas Gage and Please Explain: Anger

During Friday’s Please Explain about anger, Dr. Philip Muskin brought up a man named Phineas Gage, who, he said, “was a very responsible manager on the railroad. One day a tamping rod went through his eye, through his brain, and basically gave him a frontal lobotomy. And Phineas Gage then became basically a ne’er do well. He was not responsible, he drank, he caroused, he lost his temper all the time. That is, the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain is really important.”

Phineas Gage was 25 in 1848, and the foreman of a crew building a new railroad track in Vermont. He was packing explosives with a tamping iron that was “43 inches long, 1.25 inches in diameter and weighing 13.25 pounds,” according Steve Twomey, writing in Smithsonian magazine, when an explosion shot the tamping iron through his head—it entered through his cheek and exited through the top of his skull. He survived, but his doctor and friends noticed a remarkable change in his personality in the months following the accident. He became the most famous patient in neuroscience because his injury demonstrated a connection between brain trauma and personality change and showed that specific parts of the brain were responsible for our moods. Read more about Phineas Gage—and see a photograph of him with the tamping iron that injured him—in Smithsonian Magazine.

In February, Dr. V. S. Ramachandran spoke with Leonard about his work in neuroscience, and he described how strokes cause brain trauma that can alter senses and change personalities. One patient started drawing with incredible detail after he suffered a stroke, although he was never particularly interested in or skilled at making art before. In Dr. Ramachandran's book The Tell-Tale Brain,  he gives a number of examples of how brain injuries reveal the ways the brain works. You can listen to that interview here.

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