August 31, 2009

A proof of the existence of an intelligent proofreader?

Just one sentence was deleted, the last sentence of an appendix-of-sorts at the end of a brief (three-page) article. And that deletion appeared to me to be a proof of the existence of an intelligent (if not loving) proofreader.

A few years ago I was invited to contribute a brief introductory article to a special issue of a magazine. So I did. 

The professional society that publishes this magazine (and many journals) requests (insists) that every author supply a brief professional biographical sketch (the usual stuff: training, appointments, research interests), to appear at the end of the article. So I did. 

Only, when I got the page proofs back (in PDF form), I found that the final sentence of my biographical sketch was gone! 

I didn't mind. I certainly wasn't offended, nor did I think that this editing reflected poorly on the journal or its publisher. Indeed, I took the deletion of the final sentence of my draft biosketch to be a sign of the existence of an intelligent proofreader. As in "hey, someone is really reading this stuff!"

And that sentence? It was:
A son of the Garden State, Dr. Pekar is especially grateful to have worked with so many international scientists, who tend to lack the irrational prejudice against New Jersey so prevalent among his own countrymen.

August 30, 2009

"a hot car, a hot girl, and a cold beer"

Just one sentence, from a 1953 letter home from Al Puntasecca (Fifth Infantry, Forty-Fourth Battalion, A Company) during the Korean War, presented earlier today by tenor and actor David Kozisek (photo below) as part of the "Letters Home" program at the Smithsonian Institution's American Museum of Natural History:
I still want a hot car, a hot girl, and a cold beer, but, there were times I could have traded them all for a warm blanket.

August 29, 2009


Speaking of googlewhacksthis morning we wrote about the smooth cruiser vs. the bucking bouncer. Googling "smooth cruiser" gives over forty thousand results; googling "bucking bouncer" gives none but our Kensington Diary entry. You can, as they say, try it yourself:

"... fantasies of the eras when the longings began..."

Just one more sentence, this one from page 298, of Thomas Pynchon's new novel "Inherent Vice":
Studio musicians showed up in rides they had bought with their first big paychecks, to be redeemed in years to follow from impound lots, winched out of mudslides, preserved from the depredations of divorce lawyers, all replacement parts kept authentic for resales that would never happen, fantasies of the eras when the longings began, Morgans from the showroom up in Westwood with hoods held down by leather straps, Cobra 289s and '62 Bonnevilles and that supernatural DeSoto in which James Stewart, gone round the bend of love, tails Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958).

stay smooth

On this morning's dog walk I didn't see many cars, because who's out driving before seven o'clock on a Saturday morning? But I did see two in a row cross Kensington Parkway on Beach Drive. The first was a small sedan that smoothly glided to a stop and then smoothly accelerated away; the second was a big white SUV that - as the sedan ahead was slowing - roared up, braked suddenly, causing the front of the vehicle to dip down, crossed the intersection without stopping (because the meaning of a sign saying "STOP" is just so, well, obscure and hard-to-understand), then accelerated suddenly, causing the front of the vehicle to buck up, and then braked hard again, nose diving, to fall close behind - i.e., tailgating - that small sedan...

So, there you have it, a fundamental dichotomy in the multi-dimensional (surely there are at least four dimensions: psycho-, socio-, spatio-, temporal-) world of driver-types: The smooth cruiser vs. the bucking bouncer. NeuroCooking friends, if you do drive, I hope that you stay smooth.

August 28, 2009

googlewhacks, Orwell, & modest immodesty

A googlewhack is a two-word phrase, which, when entered as a google query, yields a unique result. It turns out that a three-word phrase in our public service announcement posted yesterday, namely "inane marketing falsehoods", does not appear, as of this writing, per google, to be anywhere else on the web. 

Here, try it yourself:

George Orwell, in his great 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language", lamented that "modern writing at its worst ... consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else..." So, what appears to be our accidental invention of a novel three-word phrase may suggest that we are at least avoiding the worst.

August 27, 2009

as a courtesy to our readers

Following several inquiries, we thought it would be useful to state here that NeuroCooking is not affiliated with or sponsored by the Neuro beverage company, makers of "Health and Wellness Drinks" including NeuroBliss ("happiness in every bottle"), NeuroTrim ("a leaner you in every bottle"), & NeuroGasm ("passion in every bottle"); nor does our quotation here of their inane marketing falsehoods constitute our endorsement of their products. And let's not even mention their Junior line of beverages for kids, including NeuroSonic Junior Formula "...for better cognitive function."

August 26, 2009

"... reveals better than all the words in the world could..."

Just one sentence from Glenn Greenwald's essay "The CIA torture regime: What every American should be forced to learn" (a sentence found in "Update II" and addressed "to those blithely dismissing all of this as things that don't seem particularly bothersome..."): 
The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle -- all things that we have always condemend as "torture" and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies ("torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering...") -- reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.

August 25, 2009

Presenting Research and Methodology

If you are going to be presenting research, especially to mid-sized to large audiences, you may wish to, ahead of time, post a web page thoroughly explaining the research methodology. Then, when you get a question about the methodology, you can volunteer that it is fully explained and documented on the web site, and, out of respect for the rest of audience, you will not take their time to go into details about it now. This offers both transparency and confidence, and keeps you on message. The skeptics can poke around at the research on line, instead of poking at you, the trustworthy presenter.

August 24, 2009

and the last word is...

Just one sentence from Toni Bentley's review, in yesterday's New York Times, of "Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent BoysProfessionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex", edited by David Henry Sterry and R. J. Martin, Jr:
This collection is a wonderful reminder that good writing is not about knowing words, grammar or Faulkner, but having that rare ability to tell the truth, an ability that education and sophistication often serve to conceal. 

August 22, 2009

"... in the darkened rooms, in louvered light..."

Just one sentence, about the Santa Ana winds, from page 98 of Thomas Pynchon's new novel "Inherent Vice":
In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattled together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there'd be only the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.

August 21, 2009

option of the week

"Glazed black" ceramic knobs are a $650 option on the BMW 750iL sedan. 

(Yes, we are talking about those little knobs on the dashboard, which you turn to control, for instance, the radio & the ventilation.)

I think it's sweet that you can buy jewelry for your car.

status update: one hundred served

Sometime earlier this week – until experts complete their review of seismographic records, the precise time remains uncertain  –  NeuroCooking reached its one-hundredth post. 

Thank you, NeuroCooking friends, for your readership.

Note: NeuroCooking is not sponsored or endorsed by General Motors, makers of Cadillac cars, which combine legendary luxury with state-of-the-art performance, and include the world's fastest V8 production sedan; nor does any mention herein of any trade names or products signify our endorsement thereof. 

August 19, 2009

Those Who Know the Least Yell the Loudest

When confronted with skeptics or opponents, one tends to think one must be defensively armed with knowledge of facts and data. The truth is, most heated political and personal discussions are about ideology and values.

How well do you know yourself? What do you really believe and why? How much hypocrisy have you confronted -- and vanquished -- from your life? Why are you relying solely on data, facts, and figures?

We remember what we feel.
What happens when you yell at someone? They usually get angry, or they get intimidated -- neither of which are emotionally conducive to sustainable change. Attempt to be heard because of the emotional resonance of your words, and the meaning you convey. Armed with self-knowledge, you may find yourself
not raising your voice.

with inspiration from Seth Godin, Wally Woodshopper, and Shawn Callahan; it's been a busy day


The Washington National Opera (WNO) reliably produces captivating (& often outstanding) operas, as well as amusing (& often ridiculous) communications to their subscribers.

We've subscribed to the WNO for almost twenty years now. This week I received an email:
Welcome to Washington National Opera!

You have been invited by Mr. and Mrs. Pekar to SAVE 25% on your first purchase of Washington National Opera's 2009-10 Season.*

You are receiving this offer as part of WNO's Patron Referral Program, where our subscribers are given the opportunity to share their love of opera with their family, friends and colleagues.  This offer is extended to patrons new to WNO and to those who have not attended a WNO performance since September 1, 2008.

Click here to participate in this this special program or call WNO's Audience Services at 202.295.2400. You must enter or mention Referral Code XXXXXX  to redeem this offer.

"Live opera transports you to a magnificent place, one filled with artistry and drama, music and storytelling. Washington National Opera's productions will lift your spirits and refresh your soul."  ~ Pl├ícido Domingo

We hope you take advantage of this special introductory offer and become part of the opera family.
Of course, a reasonable person receiving such a message would reasonably ask three reasonable questions about the WNO:
  1. How dare the WNO solicit in my name, without first seeking my permission?
  2. Why would the WNO send me an invitation from myself?
  3. Has the WNO replaced their entire development staff with a roomfull of monkeys typing randomly at computer keyboards?
Today I telephoned the WNO. [Frankly, I do not recommend that you, NeuroCooking friends, ever telephone the WNO, because being put on hold by the WNO requires listening to opera on the telephone. And listening to opera on the telephone is, quite unlike the real thing, really awful. Sort of like phone-sex vs. real sex, except that phone-opera is even more annoying than phone-sex. I do recommend that you attend the Washington National Opera, and subscribe to the Washington National Opera, and support the Washington National Opera – but don't phone them; use their website.]

After a few minutes of phone-opera punishment, a kind and thoughtful person answered the phone, and explained to me that the email offer in my name had not been sent to anyone else, and was not actually intended for me. Rather, it had been sent to me, by the WNO, so that I might forward it to my friends. Furthermore, a card had been mailed to me, explaining this! The card could be found, I was told, inside the recently-mailed big envelope with our 2009-2010 season tickets.

Got that? They sent an email offer to me, only so that I would forward it to others – and they explained this, not in the email itself, but in a small card included in a big fat envelope destined for my mailbox.

Perhaps question three above is still reasonable.

August 15, 2009

"twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift"

The single most valuable thing I learned during my years of post-doctoral training in the intramural research program of the National Institutes of Health is:

Never attribute to maliciousness anything that can be explained by stupidity.

And the single most valuable thing I learned in my first faculty position, at Georgetown University Medical Center, is a modification or addendum to that lesson, yielding:

Never attribute to maliciousness anything that can be explained by stupidity or inattention.

[title is from this]

August 12, 2009

Story sharing, if done right, results in chaos.

I had a wonderful, inspiring conversation today with Aspen Baker, who is doing brilliant and important work leading Exhale. Through story sharing, Aspen is changing the way America talks about women, men, and abortion. One of the things Aspen and I spoke about is the need for an organization, when embarking on story sharing activities, to be completely accepting of any resulting chaos.

Story sharing, if done correctly, results in chaos. If stories are elicited with authenticity and benevolence, chaos will ensue. Story begets story, which begets story, which eventually...begets chaos. In that you, the organizational leader, are surprised, delighted, and frightened by what you are hearing. That there is a natural outpouring of honesty, passion, and good intention. Only then, out of chaos, will clarity, innovation, and/or change emerge.

This is one of the reasons I prefer "story sharing" to "story telling" or (horrors!) "story collection". These terms are too transactional, implying a giver and a taker. Too many organizations and campaigns fail because they refuse to accept, or they are simply apathetic to, the stories that do not fit a predetermined goal. Chaos, and its resulting rewards, will occur only if you, as the leader, have refrained from communicating (in any way) that only certain stories are acceptable, welcome, and valued.

August 7, 2009

More on Believable & Bearable

Several years ago, I worked at a consulting firm where we taught clients that their messages had to be both "true and believable". That there are many things that are true, but not believable; and that there are many things that are believable, but not true, such as SUVs being safer than the majority of cars on the road, or Saddam Hussein instigating the 9/11 attacks.

I no longer disrespect my clients or waste their time by reminding them that their messages must be true; my clients do not lie or spread fallacies. And there are many things that may be true and believable, but not bearable, as in able to be borne, to be carried around. And it is the bearable part that is necessary in order for your listeners to hear and act upon your message. I now help smart leaders and their organizations place their messages within a context of meaning that enables the information to be accepted and acted upon.

August 6, 2009

We seek to strike a responsive chord in people, not get a message across.

I just finished reading Tony Schwartz's seminal 1973 book, The Responsive Chord. Thirty-six years ago, he brilliantly articulated what I am only now thinking and teaching. His Resonance Principle in Communication is similar to my Heart, Head & Hand (TM) framework. His focus on behavioral effect underscores my approach to what I call Story Sharing (TM). His works remains highly relevant, especially given the rise of social media and other new forms of communication.

Schwartz writes [emphasis is his]:

"The critical task is to design our package of stimuli so that it resonates with information already stored within an individual and thereby induces the desired learning or behavioral effect. Resonance takes place when the stimuli put into our communication evoke meaning in a listener or viewer. That which we put into the communication has no meaning in itself. The meaning of our communication is what a listener or viewer gets out of his experience with the communicator's stimuli. The listener's or viewer's brain is an indispensable component of the total communication system. His life experiences, as well as his expectations of the stimuli he is receiving, interact with the communicator's output in determining the meaning of the communication.

"A listener or viewer brings far more information to the communication event than a communicator can put into his program, commercial, or message. The communicator's problem, then, is not to get stimuli across, or even to package his stimuli so they can be understood and absorbed. Rather, he must deeply understand the kinds of information and experiences stored in his audience, the patterning of this information, and the interactive resonance process whereby stimuli evoke this stored information....

"To achieve a behavioral effect, whether persuading someone to buy a product or teaching a person about history, one designs stimuli that will resonate with the elements in a communication environment to produce that effect. The traditional communication process is thus reversed. A 'message' is not the starting point for communicating. It is the final product arrived at after considering the effect we hope to achieve and the communication environment where people will experience our stimuli.

"In developing a set of useful principles for communicating, it is necessary to abandon most of the traditional rules we were taught. A resonance approach does not begin by asking, 'What do I want to say?' We seek to strike a responsive chord in people, not get a message across. This involves, first, examining how stored experiences are patterned in our brain, and how previous experiences condition us to perceive new stimuli. Second, we must understand the characteristics of the new communication environment, and how people use media in their lives. Only at the final stage do we consider the content of a message, and this will be determined by the effect we want to achieve and the environment where our content will take on meaning."

Believable & Bearable

I've written about the need for communication to emotionally resonate with your listener. And for your message to be personally relevant to your listener. All communications is a means to an end goal, and if you wish to move your listener to take your desired action, you must place your request within a context of personal meaning. It's not enough that your messages may be construed as true and believable; your listener has to find them meaningful. Now, partially because I adore alliteration, I suggest the need for your message to be both believable and bearable. Your message, when placed alongside your listener's existing experience and knowledge, must comfortably fit - it must be bearable to the listener, a message they can carry around.

August 5, 2009

Care for a 20-oz. pour with your 358-year-old opera?

One more very special thing about opera @ the Barns: The bar pours twenty-ounce drafts of good beer, and you can bring your drink to your seat. Seats on the floor (but not in the balcony, a.k.a. "hayloft") even have cupholders. Honest!

[title refers to this summer's superb WTOC production of Monteverdi's Return of Ulysses]

opera in a barn

Sometimes it's dangerous to rely upon a small N. But other times, it can really pay off.

The Barns at Wolf Trap, in Vienna Virginia, is a special performance space – two eighteenth-century New England barns, relocated and repurposed, joined such that one barn houses the theater and the other barn houses the bar – that seats fewer than four hundred people. The Wolf Trap Opera Company (WTOC) is a summer opera company dedicated to the development of promising young singers. Each summer WTOC stages two or three operas in the Barns - mainly baroque operas, which were written for smaller ensembles; the "pit" at the barns is small - with three or four performances of each.

It's a treat to see opera in a hall this small, because opera is usually produced in much much larger halls. At the Barns, events onstage become more intimate and less remote. And, for each WTOC production, if you ask how many people saw that? You multiply the audience size for each performance, times the number of performances, and get a total N of a bit more than one thousand. This is maybe twenty times smaller than for a major opera company, which fills an almost ten-time-times-bigger hall for maybe three-times-as-many performances.

Having recently warned of the dangers of relying on small N in other settings, today I'd like to celebrate the small-N WTOC productions. Simply because they are consisently as good as, if not better than, anything else in the world. [I have seen in total maybe two hundred opera productions, so I am no expert. But opera is something about which I do know more than nothing, and my job at NeuroCooking is to share my opinions.] Now, just how does this happen? How is it that the thousand or so folks who sit in a wooden barn over three evenings (or two evenings and a Sunday matinee) enjoy the sublime transcendence of a totally successful integrated artistic experience - combining words and music; singing, instrumental performance, oration, acting, choreography; sets, costumes, makeup, hair, props, lighting - more so (in your reporter's opinion) than the twenty thousand folks who (pay much more to) turn out over eight nights at most fancy state-of-the-art opera houses? I think the answer lies in the training mission of the WTOC – and in their excellence.

To save money, when I was in graduate school, I had my teeth tended by the student dentists at the dental school clinic, and I had my dog tended by the student veterinarians at the veterinary school clinic. These student clinics were not quick, but they were remarkably cheap, and the care was superb. Now, the primary mission of the vet clinic, say, was, in a real sense, not to take care of my dog, but to train the next generation of vets. And to do that, they gave my dog the best care in the world. Well, I think that the primary mission of the WTOC is not to please their audience, but to help grow the next generation of singers. And to do that, they consistently give their audiences the best opera in the world.

The WTOC is remarkably selective. Reminds me of some remarkably selective doctoral programs. If you ask, why do the best students in the world go there? They go because it is the best program. And what makes it the best program? Why, in large part, because they get the best students.

NeuroCooking friends, I hope to see you next summer at the Barns.

August 3, 2009


Uh-oh. There's another problem. And, like the first problem, it's well-known, and has been for years; but the limitations imposed by it have not always been respected by the fMRI community.

The first problem – you may recall! – is voodoo baloney.  That's what happens when you use some criterion to select data, and then perform, on those selected data, a statistical test, related to that selection criterion, which assumes that the data are completely random, rather than pre-selected. Why is this a problem? Because if you try so very many different things that one of them is bound to turn out right, just at random, but then pretend that the one that turned out right was the only one you tried, you're fibbing. In the context of functional neuroimaging, those "many different things" are the many different locations in the brain.

Voodoo baloney is the topic of  Vul, Harris, Winielman and Pashler's paper, formerly known as "Voodoo correlations in social neuroscience", now known as "Puzzlingly high correlations in fMRI studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition", Perspectives on Psychological Science 4:274-290, 2009. A "correlation" is a mathematical summary of how two variables are related; it is known as "r"; r=1 is complete correlation. The correlation here is between brain activity (measured by fMRI) and some behavioral or cognitive measure (for example, IQ). The key point is that these correlations are between variations in brain and performance measures over different people. The goal is to probe brain-mind relationships by exploiting inter-individual differences, by asking where do differences-in-the-brain "track" with differences-between-people's behavior or cognition.

So, is Vul's charge that researchers using fMRI in social neuroscience were guilty of looking at fMRI signals from a hundred thousand different brain locations, finding, just by pure random chance, some locations with signals that correlated with behavior, and then reporting the very high correlation between signal in those regions, and behavior? Almost. Vul charged not that such correlations were completely bogus; Vul charged that when such correlations exist (weakly) in reality, this analytical approach will artificially inflate them. Inflate them enough to make 'em "voodoo" or "curiously high".

That's the charge. Now, Perspectives on Psychological Science published not just Vul et al.'s paper, but many responses to it, too. Most of the responses are pretty much on topic - they say, essentially, that Vul's reporting and analyses are right and here's why, or Vul's reporting and analyses are wrong and here's why. Except one.

Tal Yarkoni's paper, entitlted "Big Correlations in Little Studies: Inflated fMRI Correlations Reflect Low Statistical Power – Commentary on Vul et al. (2009)" says that many reported correlations are surely inflated, but for a completely different reason, namley, lack of power. Because when we avoid voodoo baloney by correcting for multiple comparisons, we raise the threshold for determining that correlations are significant. And then, if we haven't scanned enough people, we will erroneously report an inflated correlation.

Too abstract? Here's the example given by Yarkoni: Assume there are ten brain regions-of-interest, each with fMRI signal correlated with behavior at r=0.4, and that our study has 20 participants (this is the "big N"; so we can write N=20). Then, if we properly correct for multiple comparisons, by raising the threshold for significance, based on the number of comparisons, we will find, on average, that 1.3 (call that one, on average) of those ten regions are correlated. But, we cannot report a correlation of r=0.4, because the threshold for significance will have become r=0.6. So, thanks to random variation, we'll find that one region is correlated with the behavior, with a correlation of at least r=0.6. 

Ain't that troubling? Yarkoni's simulation says that when ten brain regions are truly correlated with behavior, each at r=0.4, our N=20 study is likely to find just one region, with r=0.6! So, we'll exaggerate the correlation, and also exaggerate the degree of brain localisation, by turning what had been a distributed network of ten regions, into a single "hot spot." What's more, if we (or others) repeat the study, we're just as likely to find a different one of those ten regions. The solution is much larger sample sizes. If we study 50 or 100 or hundreds of people, this problem goes away. 

So, please, the next time you see a claim based on an fMRI study of inter-individual differences - check the N!


Blog Archive