October 31, 2009

live from Halloween

Live-blogging Halloween 2009 from NeuroCooking's Chesapeake Headquarters in Kensington Maryland USA:

As of 10:30 PM
, we've still given no candy to no trick-and-treaters.

Or, as they say where I'm from, we still ain't given no candy to no trick-and-treaters.

Live on Halloween!

Liveblogging Halloween from NeuroCooking's National Medical Center Headquarters in Kensington Maryland USA:

At 10:10 PM, we can ask: Candy? Does anyone need some candy?

Halloween live!

Liveblogging Halloween from NeuroCooking's National Defense Headquarters in Kensington Maryland USA:

At 10:08 PM, we can report that we saw what we thought might be a trick-or-treater, but turned out to be a dog-walker.

live-blogging Halloween!

Halloween update from NeuroCooking's Old Line State Headquarters in Kensington Maryland USA::

As of 9:30
, here, still no one, nothing.

We saw three hooded figures cross the bridge, one with a pair of crutches, one with a cane, but they were headed away from us; they did not come here.

Not content with just reporting on the local action, your Old Line State correspondent fired up his iPhone's "911 scanner" app. The local Montgomery County Police & Fire yielded a priority call reporting nearby teens shooting BB guns at people. "They also have water balloons and eggs"! Also mentioned were "girls wearing wide-legged jeans, some with skateboards and some on foot".

By "nearby" we do mean safely many miles away from here.

And that's your latest Old Line State Halloween update from your friends at NeuroCooking.

this just in...

Halloween update from NeuroCooking's National Capital Area Headquarters in Kensington Maryland USA:

As of 8:25 PM, no one, no thing. From time to time we have thought we have heard through the rain the nearby sounds of trick-or-treaters but none were to appear; and from time to time we glimpsed perhaps the dim forms of such across the creek, but none approached.

Live-blogging Halloween from NeuroCooking's Mid-Atlantic Headquarters in Kensington Maryland.

Live-blogging Halloween from NeuroCooking's Mid-Atlantic Headquarters in Kensington Maryland!

As of 8:02 PM we can report: zero trick-and-treaters and zero candy distributed.

"Chance favors the prepared mind."

"Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés."
-Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), lecture, Lille, France, 7 December 1854.

(Dr. Pasteur on a 1966 French banknote)

October 30, 2009


This title of this morning's Erwin Hahn tribute was, per google, unique on the web:

NeuroCooking: Fresh ever since 2009!

offering money is not recommended

"There is nothing that nuclear spins will not do for you, as long as you treat them like human beings."

- Erwin Hahn

October 29, 2009

one thing you can say about a difficult subject

Phase transitions mostly (but not always) involve a breaking of symmetry, in that one phase is more symmetric than the other.

October 27, 2009

Shoulda bought more!

To my considerable surprise, it turns out that my favorite quantum mechanics book, that we've quoted from and referred to here, is out of print and selling for more than ten times what I paid for it.

"Shoulda bought more!"

Have you heard that line before? And are you familiar with "investment analysis for neurotics"?

It goes like this: Either you buy the stock, or you don't; then, either it goes up, or down.

  • If you buy the stock, and it goes up, you shoulda bought more.
  • If you buy the stock, and it goes down, you shouldn't have bought it.
  • If you don't buy the stock, and it goes up, you shoulda bought some.
  • If you don't buy the stock, and it goes down, see, you were smart.
So (according to this analysis-for-neurotics), there's only one way to be smart in investments, which is not to buy things that go down.

October 26, 2009

equality & assignment

The equals sign has two totally different meanings: equality and assignment.

In mathematics, x = y means that the quantity represented by x and the quantity represented by y have equal values.

In computer programming, x = y means that the present value of y should become the new value of x.

So, in math, x = x + 1 would be a contradiction,
while in software, x = x + 1 increments the value of x by one.

(I have heard computer science people refer to "=" as "the assignment operator" rather than as "the equals sign".)

October 25, 2009

it's okay to make the slit Gaussian

To produce an elementary exposition of quantum physics, you must diffract particles through a slit (and
then two slits).

When R.P. Feynman & A.R. Hibbs approached the slit in "Quantum Mechanics & Path Integrals" (McGraw Hill, 1965), using their path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the math for a square slit required some nasty-looking definite integrals. So, they assumed that the profile of their slit was a smooth Gaussian function, rather than a harsh step-function, to make the math easier. And then they built on that result.

It's okay to simplify – to make the slit Gaussian – so you can do the math. Always respect the limitations of that result – view it as a first-estimate or starting-point, and work out how different things are for real-world slits, which are non-Gaussian.

October 24, 2009

October 23, 2009

The Benefits and Limits of Storybanking

Two of my essays, on the benefits and limits of banking your organization's stories, can now be found at PhilanTopic.

just one!

John Wheeler proposed that the answer to the question "why are all electrons the same?" is that the universe contains just one electron.

October 22, 2009

what is asked for is not always what is wanted (1982)

I do support the Laplace transform, but I admit that I once got yelled at for using one.

I was the new arrival in the lab. After I'd been there a couple of weeks, a more senior student told me that she had a math problem and had heard that I was good at math. Could I help? I said sure, so she handed me a piece of paper on which she had written the problem. I saw that a Laplace transform would work, so I took a pen, made the substitution, & found the solution. Done.

Was she pleased? No! She yelled at me for being a smart-ass. Evidently, what she had really wanted was not a prompt solution but rather affirmation (that hers was a hard problem) and interaction (an appointment made for a meeting to work on the problem).

Sometimes, what you are asked for is not what is wanted.

Only sometimes. Mostly, people want what they ask for. Often, they even need what they ask for. But sometimes... There's a scene in a Marx Brothers movie where a panhandler asks Harpo if he can spare some change for a cup of coffee. Harpo reaches deep into his voluminous overcoat, pulls out a fresh steaming cup of coffee on a saucer, and hands it to the gentlemen. This is funny because it is cruel because we know that the man did not want coffee.

October 21, 2009

roads not taken

An unusual formulation of one of the fundamental concepts of quantum physics, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, is provided by R.P. Feynman & A.R. Hibbs in "Quantum Mechanics & Path Integrals" (McGraw Hill, 1965):

"Any determination of the alternative taken by a process capable of following more than one alternative destroys the interference between alternatives."

What sings to you?

"If you change your emotions without warning, the audience will think you've given up."

This is akin to the old adage, Stick to Your Guns. In communication, this means acutely understanding and being able to articulate your motivation. No throwing everything up against the wall to see what sticks, to court favor with your listener. If you are persuading your listener to take action, you must believe wholly and passionately in the action for which you are advocating. Anything less telegraphs ambivalence. And ambivalence, on your part, results in your listener distrusting you.

To be an effective, persuasive communicator, follow this additional advice from my Improv Instructor, Pat Shay:

"What sings to you? Heighten it a little bit."

Think about what the action for which you are advocating means to you. How does it make you feel? Now, imagine that emotion saturating your body, "like water moving through a sponge."

"Draw your listeners in and make them care.

"We lay down a mat of context and weave our emotions through it. ...Scene work is the needlepoint and our emotions are the thread."

Facts and data do not cement our argument in our listener's mind; emotion - mindfulness combined with meaning - is the glue that holds together context, data, and calls to action.

October 20, 2009

Lessons from the Retelling of Stories

Think about the most recent story you repeated, having heard someone else tell. It may have been an anecdote you heard on the radio, or watched a celebrity share with a talk show host, or perhaps it was a compelling or humorous tale offered to you by a friend or family member.

What was it about this story that made you repeat it? I imagine there are several important attributes:
  • The story you repeated is fairly short, probably taking no more than 3 minutes to tell, and most likely taking no more than 90 seconds.
  • There is a clear beginning, middle, and end, which assist you in remembering and retelling the story.
  • It offers some surprise: an unexpected statement or outcome, perhaps, or an unlikely hero.
  • It was personally relevant to you and there’s a reason why the person with whom you shared it would find it interesting.
These elements: brevity, clarity, narrative arc, relevancy, and surprise are some of the most common – and most important – attributes to memorable, repeatable stories that move people to action.

I know you want to get better at sharing stories. Start by paying attention to the attributes of the stories you choose to retell.

I find this to be a more helpful and purposeful piece of advice than to simply think of the stories you have heard or read and liked. By focusing instead on the stories that you hear or read and then remember and share, you hone in on a crucial element of effective communication: your efforts to connect with your listener.

Maxwell (1831-1879) & Einstein (1879-1955)

Magnetism is electricity;
energy is matter;
gravity is curvature.

October 19, 2009

algebra is easier

Laplace transforms are often worth the trouble, because they let you turn a differential equation into an algebraic equation, which is much easier to solve!

October 18, 2009


Just one sentence from Sir Arthur C. Clark's 1945 (!) article in "Wireless World" entitled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays" that proposed a global radio network using four rocket-lofted solar-powered relay satellites in geosynchronous orbits 42,000 km above the earth:
However great the initial expense, it would only be a fraction of that required for the world networks replaced, and the running costs would be incomparably less.

October 17, 2009

"This is a revolution; it can not be contained by the institutions."

Thursday morning, I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing my intellectual crush, Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, address the Communications Network conference. Here are my notes from his compelling presentation:

Communications is changing in that "group action just got easier. ...Media is shifting from being just the site of information, to also being the site of coordination, of action."

Clay talked about wikis as great examples of group action and the presentation and protection of information. "Wikipedia is a process, not a product." I love Clay's description of the m.o. of wiki page editors: "they form a defensive cordon around the value of the information." And he asked us to "imagine a world in which it is easier to take the spray paint off a wall than to put the spray paint on." In essence, "Wikipedia works because it is easier to undo than to do damage." Of course, the number of people who want to defend the information must exceed the number who want to destroy the information.

Clay also declared that "We are living in the largest revolution of personal expression. ...When you buy a computer you get both consumption and production in the same box, now fused with public access."

He summed up his observation that "the Internet is the first medium that is good at 2-way group support", by this pithy statement: "Every URL is a latent community. ...This is a revolution; it can not be contained by the institutions. ...People can now talk directly to each other without asking for permission. ...We now have a medium in which we can have tiny global movements." Prior to the connectivity of the Internet, "we were used to 'global' being the last step after 'really big'."

More pithiness: "Behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity."

He talked about bloggers, when reporting breaking local news, "committing an act of journalism." And he defended professional journalists by reminding us that "amateurs are not little professionals."

The Communications Network is a group of philanthropic professionals focused on communications. Hoping to overcome the fear of change and loss of control that too frequently delay philanthropic organizations from embracing social media, Clay urged those present to "start small and only talk to people who care. ...The whole idea of filter before publish is gone. ...Figure out where the people you want to talk to are, and give them the tools to help spread your message. ...View the Communications Department as not just a mouthpiece, but also a microphone. It's now about 2-way conversation. ...The feedback loop makes the organization smarter!"

He also pointed out that "The loss of control you fear has already happened."

Clay suggested that organizations ready to engage in social media "Find the person with the vision and lock them out of the building! Don't let them back in until they come back with 10 medium ideas or 100 small ideas. ...You can't stomach failure if you are only working on one thing."

To those in the audience who suggested postponing engagement until the value could be clearly measured, Clay replied, "It is an experimental time. The metrics will come. Waiting for the metrics is a lost opportunity, shaping your early death."

This past March, Clay wrote a provocative essay on the future of print journalism, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. Representatives from several foundations that fund journalism were present, and questioned Clay about the future of print journalism. His response was especially poignant to me, living in a city where my last elected mayor in under indictment for corruption: "Every city of less than 500,000 in this nation is at risk of rising, endemic corruption because the old watchdogs will disappear before the new ones arrive."

He then stated that "85% of accountability journalism is produced by newspapers." Change, however, will have benefits, since "we never want any one thing to have that much importance! We'd rather have an ecosystem of news sources where the loss of any one thing will not be catastrophic."

[For those of you who may share my intellectual crush, or just want to read more from Clay, I highly recommend his essay, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.]

Clarke's Laws.

"1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

- Sri Lankabhimanya Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, C.B.E., F.R.A.S. (1917 - 2008)

October 16, 2009

a personal triumph (1982)

In Tokyo in the summer of 1982, I earned some pocket money by editing translators' drafts of an English version of a Japanese encyclopedia. I got paid in envelopes of cash.

The articles were on the flora and fauna of Japan. They had been written in Japanese by Japanese experts on the natural sciences of Japan, then translated into English by Japanese technical translators; my role as a college-educated but non-expert-in-the-field native English speaker, was to make the language less weird. To turn Japlish into English, you might say.

Now, I had drunk deeply of Strunk & White, including "Omit needless words!", a few years before that, and so I eagerly took up my editor's shears to cut cut cut. It is not clear however that my doing so was to the pleasure or perceived short-term benefit of my employer, who was after all trying to fill up an encyclopedia. Cutting things down didn't make the books (there were several volumes) any plumper or more appealing on the shelf. I think, though, that good editing made them better.

My triumph happened when I was reading an article on a mountain goat (perhaps a Japanese relative of the Ja'al or Ibex). I read:

"Very few individuals survive today."

And with a few strokes, I had left only:

"Few survive."

Thereby eliminating a majority of the words in the sentence. I took this feat, then, as a great personal triumph.

common sense & happiness

"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."
- Albert Einstein

What happens to, say, nuclear spin systems in strong magnetic fields is governed by the relevant equations, but may have little to do with expectations born of your daily experience -- unless and until your daily experience includes lots of nuclear magnetic resonance!

It's fun to learn how physical systems behave, and why, but it's perhaps especially fun when phenomena that formerly would have violated your idea of common sense, begin to seem, well, sensible.

Phenomena such as:
Like Popper, I believe that great joy can come when our common sense is changed by our experiences:

"One of the many great sources of happiness is to get a glimpse, here and there, of a new aspect of the incredible world we live in, and of our incredible role in it."
- Karl Popper

October 15, 2009

Sounds like a fun guy!

Just one sentence from the results section of the article "
Mapping and correction of vascular hemodynamic latency in the BOLD signal" by Catie Chang, Moriah E. Thomason, & Gary H. Glover, which appeared in the journal NeuroImage last year:

"... [one] subject had excessive motion ... during the ... task (he found the stimulus tones amusing and laughed throughout ...) and so was excluded from all analyses."

yes, but in the case of magnetoencephalography, do you say "em ee gee" or "Meg"?

Positron Emission Tomography is shortened to PET, which is an acronym.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging is shortened to MRI, which is an initilization or initilism.

Not a big deal, but it's nice to be aware of the difference.

(By the way, the New Yorker magazine typesets them differently in print, using small caps for acronyms, and regular caps for initilisms, but this distinction appears to be lost in their on-line version.)

October 14, 2009

"data cannot..."

Just one sentence from Karl Friston's "primer" entitled "Causal Modelling and Brain Connectivity in Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging" in PLoS Biology:

"Data cannot cause data; data are caused by underlying brain states."

tom (not Tom)

"Atom" and "tomography" both derive from the same greek root meaning "cut" or "slice".

An a-tom is something that is not-sliceable; a tom-ograph is a slice-picture.

October 13, 2009

the important word here is "absolute"

Just one sentence from Gianni Vattimo (as quoted by Karen Armstrong):

"When someone wants to tell me the absolute truth, it is because he wants to put me under his control."

part of my job description

When I sit down with colleagues, I always assume that everyone in the room knows more about something than I do.

However, most people seem to agree with the dictum that "it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt" (a saying attributed variously to Mark Twain & to Abraham Lincoln), so the hard part often is just getting the conversation started.

My solution? Ask dumb questions!

October 12, 2009

failure is not publishable, so the scientific literature can be misleadingly optimistic

Just because an approach is published, doesn't mean it really works.

Because, if ten different researchers try an experiment, and it works for just two of them, only those two successful studies will appear in print; the others will not. Anyone reading the literature will see only the successful studies, and conclude that the approach just works!

(While this problem is generally self-correcting, such corrections can take some time.)

October 11, 2009

as a courtesy to our readers (& the FTC)

As you may know, the FTC has released new disclosure requirements for bloggers, which have generated some controversy. Rather than commenting on the requirements, and thereby adding to the controversy, we would like to state, once again, that NeuroCooking is not sponsored or endorsed by General Motors, makers of Cadillac cars, which combine legendary luxury with state-of-the-art performance, nor does any mention herein of any trade names or products signify our endorsement thereof. But, if you want to give us a couple of Cadillacs, that's cool. We both like grey.

"...something really remarkable happens..."

Unless you live in New Zealand, Prof. Paul Callaghan is probably one of the smartest people you've never met:

once is never enough (but thrice is a good start)

The simplest way to estimate the uncertainty in a measurement is to perform it (at least!) two more times.

October 10, 2009

Show both!

Always plot the data (points) and the equation (curve) together, making sure that the curve is thick enough to see.

October 9, 2009

That should take a day. So, it'll take two weeks.

Performing any experiment for the first time will take ten times longer than your best estimate.

October 8, 2009

ten plus-or-minus two is completely different from ten plus-or-minus 0.002

A number, by itself, is never correct; you have to specify an uncertainty as well.

How long did I train for this?

I am deeply impressed with Matthew Frederick's book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. Impressed, and inspired to do something similar, by writing here about 101 things I learned doing science. Having already shared here two of the most important things I learned doing science, I only have 99 to go... Please watch for them, here at NeuroCooking!

October 7, 2009

benefits of story vetting

I had an inspiring discussion yesterday about outcome-based communications with Bob Penna, author of Outcome Frameworks: An Overview for Practitioners, and the forthcoming (and eagerly awaited!) Outcomes Toolbox. Bob frames outcome-based communication as: 1) Who are you talking to? 2) What do you want them to do? Simple steps for remembering that all communication is a means to an end goal.

We talked about our mutual desire to expand applied narrative work within the nonprofit sector, to help nonprofits in finding and utilizing stories to help not just in communications, but also in program evaluation, organizational learning and knowledge sharing, and capacity building. We talked about the Army and their use of After Action Reviews, and how this type of immediate, constructive, and democratic analysis of programmatic action contributes to rapid organizational learning and advancement. And we talked about the dire need to expand this low-cost, high-benefit approach to capacity building within the sector, despite fears of fall out from a recessionary economy.

Without training, Bob said, nonprofits are limited in their constructive use of the stories and anecdotes surrounding them. He also talked about the need for organizations to fully vet the stories they are using for marketing and fundraising, to assure that the successful outcomes are also sustainable outcomes.

There's another reason to fully vet the stories and anecdotes that are gathered: so much is learned in the retelling! As you speak with the real-life characters, you not only corroborate the facts of the story, you also learn details that can help make the story more dynamic for future listeners. Small, sensory details help listeners to imagine and emotionally connect with the story. And, with each retelling, more meaning is uncovered, and more understanding is fostered.

x-posted to Advancing the Non Profit Sector

October 5, 2009

the difference between an argument and a fight

According to my Improv teacher, an argument is "Yes, but...", while a fight is "Yes, and...".

October 2, 2009

"It's [not] the economy, stupid."

When I heard that the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine had announced a Reconstruction Contest, with winners to be announced at the society’s 2010 Annual Meeting in Stockholm, my first thought was that it pertained to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. “the stimulus bill.” But no, “reconstruction” in this case refers not the economy, but rather to creating images from incomplete data…

[title refers to this]


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