December 31, 2009

three-quarters of a million years ago

In the current issue of Science, Nira Alperson-Afil, Gonen Sharon, Mordechai Kislev, Yoel Melamed, Irit Zohar, Shosh Ashkenazi, Rivka Rabinovich, Rebecca Biton, Ella Werker, Gideon Hartman, Craig Feibel, and Naama Goren-Inbar present archeological evidence for the "
Spatial Organization of Hominin Activities" about 750,000 years ago. Which means that civilization, of sorts, is very old indeed. No word yet on whether the research team found any evidence of a pleistocene Starbucks.

[Disclaimer: All trademarks are property of their respective owners; their use here does not denote endorsement or sponsorship. And remember, NeuroCooking is not supported by General Motors, makers of fine Cadillac vehicles, which combine legendary luxury with best-in-class performance.]


The close of this year ending with "9", NeuroCooking friends, makes me look not back over the decade, but instead ahead five decades, to ask how 2009 will look to the people of 2059.

I was going to predict that they will ask why we ate so much high-fructose corn-syrup, but a friend with trusted taste says that doing so would make me sound shrill, or batty, a self-marginalized web-ranter. (Though she admits some people would find it funny). So no, we won't make any predictions about the future that touch upon sensitive topics like agribusiness, politics, war, science, health, sex, or religion (certainly we won't mention that 2009 saw the first Vatican conference on possible theological implications of extraterrestrial life). People are too sensitive about that kind of stuff; we wouldn't want to risk offending anyone.

Instead, I predict:

The people of 2059 will look back upon 2009's use of petroleum-fueled motor-vehicles for the daily distribution of pulped-wood newspapers, like we look back on horse-drawn milk-wagons.

December 27, 2009


Just one sentence from Junot Diaz's remarkable first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007):
After his initial homecoming week, after he'd been taken to a bunch of sights by his cousins, after he'd gotten somewhat used to the scorching weather and the surprise of waking up to the roosters and being called Huáscar by everybody (that was his Dominican name, something else he'd forgotten), after he refused to succumb to that whisper that all long-term immigrants carry inside themselves, the whisper that says You do not belong, after he'd gone to about fifty clubs and because he couldn't dance sala, merengue, or bachata had sat an drunk Presidentes while Lola and his cousins burned holes in the floor, after he'd explained to people a hundred times that he'd been separated from his sister at birth, after he spent a couple of quiet mornings on his own, writing, after he'd given out all his taxi money to beggars and had to call his cousin Pedro Pablo to pick him up, after he'd watched shirtless shoeless seven-year-olds fighting each other for the scraps he'd left on this plate at an outdoor café, after his mother took them all to dinner in the Zona Colonial and the waiters kept looking at their party askance (Watch out Mom, Lola said, they probably think you're Haitian – La única haitiana aquí eres tú, mi amor, she retorted), after a skeletal vieja grabbed both his hands and begged him for a penny, after his sister had said, You think that's bad, you should see the bateys, after he's spent a day in Baní (the campo where La Inca had been raised) and he'd taken a dump in a latrine and wiped his ass with a corn cob – now that's entertainment, he wrote in his journal – after he'd gotten somewhat used to the surreal whirligig that was life in La Capital – the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin' Donuts, the beggars, the Haitians selling roasted peanuts in the intersections, the mind-boggling poverty, the asshole tourists hogging up all the beaches, the Xica de Silva novelas where homegirl got naked every five seconds that Lola and his female cousins were cracked on, the afternoon walks on the Conde, the mind-boggling poverty, the snarl of streets and rusting zinc shacks that were the barrios populares, the mass of niggers he waded through every day who ran over him if he stood still, the skinny watchmen standing in front of stores with their brokedown shotguns, the music, the raunchy jokes he heard on the streets, the mind-boggling poverty, being piledrived into the corner of a concho by the combined weight of four other customers, the music, the new tunnels driving down into the bauxite earth, the signs that banned donkey carts from the same tunnels – after he'd bone to Bona Chica and Villa Mella and eaten so much chicharrones he had to throw up on the side of the road – now that, his tío Rudolfo sad, is entertainment – after his tío Carlos Moya berated him for having stayed away so long, after his abuela berated him for having stayed away so long, after he saw again the unforgettable beauty of the Cibao, after he heard the stories about his mother, after he stopped marveling at the amount of political propaganda plastered up on every spare wall – ladrones, his mother announched, one and all – after the touched-in-the-head tío who'd been tortured during Balaguer's reign came over and got into a heated political argument with Carlos Moya (after which they'd both got drunk), after he'd caught his first sunburn in Boca Chica, after he's swum in the Caribbean, after tío Rudolfo had gotten him blasted on mamajuana de marisco, after he'd seen his first Haitians kicked off a guagua because niggers claimed they "smelled," after he'd nearly gone nuts over all the bellezas he saw, after he helped his mother install two new air conditioners and crushed his finger so bad he had dark blood under the nail, after all the gifts they'd brought had been properly distributed, after Lola introduced him to the boyfriend she'd dated as a teenager, now a capatileño as well, after he'd seen the pictures of Lola in her private-school uniform, a tall muchacha with heartbreak eyes, after he'd brought flowers to his abuela's number-one servant's grave who had taken care of him when he was little, after he had diarrhea so bad his mouth watered before each detonation, after he'd visited all the rinky-dink museums in the capital with his sister, after he stopped being dismayed that everybody called him gordo (and, worse, gringo), after he'd been overcharged for almost everything he wanted to buy, after La Inca prayed over him nearly every morning, after he caught a cold because his abuela set the air conditioner in the room so high, he decided suddenly and without warning to stay on the Island for the rest of the sumer with his mother and his tío.


Just one sentence from "
The Truth About Lions" by Abigail Tucker in the January 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:
Lions are vigorous when it comes to reproduction; Schaller observed one male mate 157 times in 55 hours.

December 26, 2009

Time-traveling with Mark (& Rusty!)

Most days, I read Mark Trail in the Washington Post. Sometimes I read it online.

Today's strip ended with a real cliff-hanger. As you may know, the Sunday Mark Trail strips are non-contiguous with the stories told in the daily strips, which means the cliff-hanger would last until Monday.


I noticed that online, the URL for the "big" version of the current strip looks like this (this is today's):

So, without much optimism, but thinking it was worth a try, I edited the URL to yield the date for Monday, the day after tomorrow:

And sure enough, there's the resolution to the cliff-hanger!

In fact, you can read to the end of the story:

Whew. I was worried about Mark. And Rusty.

December 19, 2009

"From our family to yours."

Please allow us to share with you, NeuroCooking friends, this greeting that we received in the mail, from, it would appear, a family of motor vehicles:

[Disclaimer: All trademarks are property of their respective owners; their use here does not denote endorsement or sponsorship. NeuroCooking is not supported by General Motors, makers of fine Cadillac vehicles, which combine legendary luxury with best-in-class performance.]

December 17, 2009

I solved my dream.

"People would much rather expose their lives than keep a secret, especially if they are in the company of those they trust."

-- Distinguished documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, last night, after a screening of Grey Gardens

When further pressed to explain how he gained the trust of his extraordinary subjects, Albert (he insists on being called Albert) replied, "My brother and I learned from early on, from our mother, that there is good in everybody."

He observed that "the mass media destroys our humanity. ...We don't have enough examples of people living good lives." And then he described a current project on which he is working: his goal is to take 6 cross county trains, to just get on with a camera and start walking the aisles, knowing that every person on that train has a story. That each person started with a story, and a story awaits them upon departing the train.

Albert described one trip he has already taken, traveling west across America. He met a 26-year old woman, who lost touch with her mother when she was three. Two days prior, her phone rang and a woman said, "I am your mother. And I am waiting to meet you in Philadelphia." The young woman immediately got on the train.

Albert filmed her getting off in Philadelphia, where the platforms are below ground. There was no one on the platform, and they started up the stairs to the station. At the top of the stairs, a woman threw open her arms, and ran down and thoroughly embraced the young woman. The two of them cried and hugged. And then the mother pulled back, and still holding onto her daughter, turned to Albert and exclaimed, "Isn't she beautiful?!"

He quoted Leo Tolstoy, who reportedly said upon first seeing a film “
We will no longer need to invent stories."

My husband, Tom, achieved a lifelong goal when he got to work with Albert on
The Gates. He worked with him again, filming the stage production of Grey Gardens.

Albert is an amazingly gifted, optimistic, generous, intelligent and kind man. 83 years of age, and he obviously continues to enrich cinema, and the lives of those around him. With his children, earlier this year he opened a cinema in Harlem and an educational institute for teaching young people from the neighborhood how to make movies.

He is also currently filming children, and noted that just the day before, he filmed a young boy announcing, "
I solved my dream."


"Nothing is more common than the erroneous belief that one is displaying judgement or taste by showing an unwillingness to be pleased."

- Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784)

December 16, 2009

"He could feel ... the seamless fabric ..."

Just one sentence from the short story "The Use of Poetry" by Ian McEwan, in the December 7th issue of the New Yorker:
He could feel the way the seamless fabric of space-time might be warped by matter, and how this fabric influenced the movement of objets, how gravity was conjured by its curvature.

December 15, 2009


In her song Woodstock, when Joni Mitchell sings "we are stardust", she's right.

December 14, 2009


Sometimes, the best way to get someone's attention is to whisper.

December 13, 2009

December 12, 2009

a non-seasonal observation

Most years, robins nest in our back porch trumpet vine.

But I have no idea why a youtube video of our 2007 hatchlings has been viewed more than 2000 times (especially since it's one of those old jumpy not-that-shareable youtube clips).

[Figure: Photo from 6/28/2005; others here.]

she said / I said

My wife told me that something interesting happened to her the other day.

She was getting her usual coffee to go from the coffee shop in the building next door to her office.

She saw a young man for whom she felt an instant warmth and affinity, but she did not know why, because she did not recognize him, or know him.

She puzzled over this, she told me, for a little while. Then, she told me, she figured it out.

This young many, she told me, was not quite tall enough, but otherwise looked very much like I did, twenty years ago, when we met.

Well, I replied, I don't understand that. Because no woman could remind me of how you looked twenty years ago, I told her, because you look just the same, just as lovely, today.


"It is impossible to make anything truly foolproof, as fools are so ingenious."

-Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

December 11, 2009


In eighth grade American History & Social Studies class in Clifton, New Jersey, I once used the word "lest" in answering a test question.

When I got back the scored test, the word was circled, and points had been deducted.

So, I asked why. Had I used the word incorrectly or improperly?

No, I was told, the problem was that "no one really uses that word."

From this we can conclude that we should not assume that all teachers aim to inspire all students to achieve their best, lest we forget that the educational system provides a warm home to conformity and anti-intellectualism.

her new old scope

A dear friend gave my wife a microscope:

It was made in Germany, about a hundred years ago.

We, naturally, took some pictures with it:

A poppyseed.

Scales on a human hair.

A slice of papaya.

[For full-resolution images, click here.]

sometimes, it's faster to lose traction

Skilled drivers can get through a curve faster by drifting (or "getting sideways"), as shown in this classic film from 1987 (love the soundtrack!):

December 10, 2009

not that kind of drag race

We agree with Colin Chapman, & we'd also like to share our understanding of how, in the world of cars, the meanings of the words "faster" & "quicker" differ.

The quicker car is the one that accelerates most speedily from a standing start to, say, 60 MPH, in a straight line. Or, the one that does the standing quarter-mile in the least time.

The faster car is the one that get around a particular banked curve in the least time. Of course, this requires a skilled driver.

Related to this distinction is another one: Competition to determine which car is quickest is called drag racing. Competition to determine which car & driver are fastest is called automobile racing.

December 8, 2009


In preparation for an upcoming trip, I loaded the TomTom app onto my iPhone.

[Although my iPhone 3G has built-in GPS, & google maps, it is of limited utility for navigation because the maps are not built in. That is, if you don't have a cellphone signal, you don't have a data network, so you don't have any maps! In contrast, the TomTom app contains roadmaps for all of North America (and also additional functionality that folks are used to having in a nav system, such as turn-by-turn voice instructions).]

Now, the TomTom iPhone app is huge – about 1.3 Gigabytes – because of all those roadmaps. And I swear my iPhone feels heavier, with all those maps in it. Really. It reminds me of some lines from the song "
Your Belgian Things" from the album "We Shall All be Healed" by the Mountain Goats:
I shot a roll of thirty-two exposures / My camera groans beneath the weight it bears.
I told my wife that the phone felt heftier because of all the roadmaps in it, and she asked:
Which are heavier, the zeroes or the ones?
[Disclaimer: Trademarks are property of their respective owners; their use here does not denote endorsement or sponsorship. Also, NeuroCooking is not sponsored by General Motors, makers of Cadillac vehicles, which combine legendary luxury with state of the art performance.]

Clay Shirky on Algorithmic Authority

"Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying 'Trust this because you trust me.' This model of authority differs from personal or institutional authority..."

December 6, 2009

... but sometimes your lens does

Your camera doesn't matter, but sometimes your lens does.

In optical image formation, the box-with-the-film-in-it behind the lens matters a lot less than the lens.

Sometimes, the lens does matter, a lot:

But most of the time, in my opinion, you can grab good shots with an iPhone:

Similarly, for the most part, your scanner doesn't matter (much), but your pulse sequence sure does. When zeugmatographers discuss various kinds of MRIs – something we love to do, by the way – we talk about functional imaging vs. diffusion imaging vs. angiographic imaging, about spin echoes vs. gradient echoes, but not (much) about which manufacturer (e.g., GE, Philips, Siemens) made our scanners...

[First illustration: Backyard yesterday, in the first snow of the season. Nikon 105 mm f/2.0 lens on D200 camera (1/4000 s, ISO 3200).]

[Second illustration (slideshow): iPhone photos, from a weekend visit to NY & NJ last year.]

[Disclaimer: Brand names are the property of their respective owners, & their appearance here does not denote sponsorship or endorsement; NeuroCooking is also not supported by General Motors, makers of Cadillac vehicles, which combine legendary luxury with state of the art performance.]

December 5, 2009


I apologize for not remembering where I saw this estimate, but somewhere recently I read that the rate of publication of peer reviewed research papers using functional MRI is currently running at about eight per day. Don't know if that's calendar days or business days.

theory vs. practice

In theory, theory & practice are the same.

In practice, however...

a note on noise

Although scientists try to be precise with language, they are often imprecise regarding the word "noise". Sometimes, noise refers specifically to that random jiggling, of thermal origin, that makes the signals we are looking for harder to see. But often, researchers use "noise" simply to mean signals they don't want, whatever their origin. And in fact, noise is a hot topic in functional MRI.

[P.S. NeuroCooking friends, thank you for staying with us as we reach this, our 200th post.]

The Trouble with Values

My new essay at PhilanTopic, the Philanthropy News Digest blog: The Trouble with Values.

You will learn:
  • How values are utterly subjective
  • My story about my journey to working with story
  • When values collide - then what?

December 4, 2009

Q & A

War! What is it good for?

Writing as "Helvidius" in 1793, James Madison (1751 – 1836), who would go on to serve as the fourth President of the United States, explained:
War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honours and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle.

December 2, 2009

Remembering through Story

I recently participated in a storytelling workshop presented by Narativ, and gained insight into how story can actually be an embodiment of a person, in the sense that it can presence them in a community.

Participants were directed to tell a 3-minute story as if we were one of our grandparents. All 13 participants shared a pivotal moment, told in the voice of one of their grandparents, as well as a brief biography of that relative's life. At the end of the storytelling, it felt as if 13 additional chairs had been added to our circle, as if each of the grandparents who had "spoken" were now sitting amongst us.

Murray Nossel, the Director of Narativ, introduced the anthropological concept of "re-membering" (also used in narrative therapy) and offered this summary: "When people die, they are no longer members of our community, and we must re-member them by telling their stories."

This exercise got me thinking about why it is so critical that organizations share the stories of their founders.

I have the tremendous pleasure of working with Enterprise Community Partners, for whom Jim Rouse, their extraordinary founder, is very much a felt presence. I get the feeling that most decisions at Enterprise are made with Jim at the table, so to speak; he is often quoted, and many staff and board members continue to share personal and professional stories about him.

And I was reminded of a story David Beckwith, of The Needmor Fund, shared with me about their founder, Virginia Secor Stranahan.
Very much focused on the family legacy of community stewardship, their board now contains family members who once played under the very table at which they currently meet. The Needmor Fund not only shares stories about the organization's history at every meeting, they even have an effigy of Virginia Secor Stranahan seated at the table!

Start now, when your founders are alive, so that their values and motivations live on to forever spark understanding and innovation within your organization. A great example of a young organization sharing the story of their founding can be found here, from Mercy Corps.

And certainly remember friends, family, mentors, and other people who have touched your life. Re-member their way back around your proverbial campfire.

" teaching art history, and then testing by..."

It's oddly common across a variety of disciplines: teaching analysis but testing on synthesis.

In chemical engineering, teaching reagents and reactions – what chemicals do – and testing by asking students to design reactors and processes – to build a factory, in essence.

In pure mathematics, teaching axioms and theorems – what mathematical objects do – and testing by asking students to prove a novel theorem – to build a new proof.

It's like teaching art history, and then testing by asking students to paint.

December 1, 2009

X is a culture of Y

"Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt."
- Richard P. Feynman


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