February 27, 2010

Word does not know the difference between sushi and cheeseburgers.

One day at group meeting, the question of "which vs. that" came up. Oddly, though, instead of talking about grammar, syntax, or meaning, people talked about Microsoft.

You see, Microsoft Word will tell you that all these sentences are wrong (the squiggly underlining in this screenshot indicates that Word thinks something is wrong):


Well, the sentence: "John likes cheeseburgers, which are fattening" is correct. Because "which" is the proper way to indicate that all cheeseburgers are fattening, and "which" takes that comma.

And the sentence: "John likes sushi that is fresh" is correct. Because "that" is the proper way to indicate that not all sushi is fresh, and that John only likes that subset of sushi that is fresh. And "that" does not take a comma.

[The mavens say that "that" introduces "restrictive" clauses, while "which" introduces "nonrestrictive" clauses.]

But Word? Word does not know the difference between sushi and cheeseburgers! Word just knows that "which" takes a comma, and that "that" doesn't. So if you don't know the rules, but just modify your text to make Word happy, you could easily go wrong. And that would be a pity.

[Disclaimer: All trademarks are property of their respective owner, and their use here does not denote endorsement or sponsorship. Persons in need of dietary advice should consult a licensed nutritionist.]

February 26, 2010

order matters

Rotations in two dimensions commute (i.e., it doesn't matter in what order you apply them), but rotations in three dimensions do not.

February 24, 2010

February 22, 2010

Two Extraordinary Communication & Story Programs

Are you currently facing challenges in communication, team building, resource development, fundraising or change leadership? Benefit from the power of story as a persuasive communication tool. Svend-Erik Engh -- perhaps the world’s greatest leadership and story coach -- and I are offering two programs in NYC before traveling to DC and opening the Smithsonian Institution Conference on Organizational Storytelling.

You are invited to join us at:

Motivate & Communicate through Story

Wednesday, April 14, 8:15 AM to 9:30 AM

Limited to 25 participants

StorySharing™: The New Communication Paradigm

Wednesday, April 14, 1 PM to 6 PM, plus optional dinner

Limited to 6 participants

This is a rare opportunity to re-discover and enhance your ability to harness the power of story to solve problems and achieve success. You will benefit from both my deep expertise in persuasive communication and organizational story elicitation and Svend-Erik’s mastery in crafting and performing stories. Svend-Erik is the author of Tell a Story: Be Heard, Be Understood, Get Action (Fokus). He has consulted with Microsoft Denmark, Maersk Container Industry, and Novo Nordisk, among other international companies.

Both programs will be held at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, 1230 6th Avenue at 49th Street. Details and registration here.

Discount for registration prior to March 1!

convenience matters

I recently received this item as a gift:

Because the packaging – or, more specifically, the labeling on the packaging – was so special, I have not removed the item from its blisterpack card.

Here's what I love about it. Clearly, this is intended to go on a keyring for convenience:

After all, it attaches to any keychain!

You always have your keys in your pocket, right? Well, now you'll always have a knife with them! Convenient.

But hold on! Read the warnings, especially warning number 3:

"Wear ANSI-approved safety goggles and heavy-duty work gloves during use"!

Now, do those goggles and gloves also go on my keyring? Sigh.

Questions about this item, its packaging, and its warnings, may be referred to the good people at Harbor Freight Tools:

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

February 21, 2010

In which your correspondent learns a valuable lesson.

When I took
MIT's Physics Junior Lab, we did about seven or eight experiments each semester. However, we were required to submit, each semester, only one written report. For each of the the remainder of the experiments, we underwent an oral examination. (We had to bring our lab notebooks to the oral exam, and sometimes they would be examined, but we did not have to write a report.)

My lab partner and I were at the oral examination for the experiment on plasma physics. Our professor asked me to define the Langmuir length (also called the Langmuir distance). I started in on what was, I'm afraid, a lengthy explanation, which I suppose I thought would show off my knowledge of the subject.

Our (famous and distinguished) professor interrupted me.

"No, not like that," he said. "That's not the kind of answer I want. Here's the kind of answer I want. Imagine you've had dinner with your girlfriend. You've had a little wine. Now you're in bed. She asks you, 'say, what's the Langmuir length?' What you want to do is give her the briefest possible answer, and then fuck. That's the kind of answer I want. Now, try again. What's the Langmuir length?"

I provided a one-sentence answer; he approved; we went on.

February 17, 2010

"the blossoming field of neurogastroenterology"

"The enteric nervous system uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and in fact 95 percent of the body's serotonin is found in the bowels."

Scientific American reports on this, and other interesting findings from "the blossoming field of neurogastroenterology."

Not what I was expecting.

The laser (an acronym, for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, which, due to common usage, is typically written in lowercase) is a wonder of modern physics used in a fantastic variety of applications.

Google suggest is a feature built into google. As you start typing into the google search box, google suggests searches. For example, if you type New York , google suggests "New York Times", "New York Post", "New York Yankees", etc.

Try going to google, and typing laser .

Not what I was expecting.

February 15, 2010

warping space-time & brain-space

"Warp fields" are important in both fiction (where they let people go fast) and fact (where they let people come together).

February 13, 2010

Story as a Persuasion Tool

ScienceDaily reports, TV Drama Can Be More Persuasive Than News Program.

An excerpt:
Researchers found that college-age women who viewed a televised drama about a teen pregnancy felt more vulnerable two weeks after watching the show, and this led to more support for using birth control.

However, those who watched a news program detailing the difficulties caused by teen pregnancies were unmoved, and had no change in their intentions to use birth control.

The results show the power that narratives like TV shows can have in influencing people, said Emily Moyer-Gusé, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University.

"A message that is hidden inside of a story may overcome some of the resistance people have to being told how to behave," Moyer-Gusé said.

I was asked by a journalist to comment on this study. Specifically, might these
findings may also be applied to other cause-related messages?

Here is my email reply:

This study clearly illustrates the power of story as a persuasive communication tool. When a listener identifies with a protagonist, they can picture themselves in the situation. They have taken the details presented by the narrative and connected them to memories they already hold. They’ve fused the fictional with the real and created a new and personal understanding. What results is a sense of ownership over the situation and the outcome.

Every issue requires multiple stories so that multiple viewers and listeners can find a protagonist with whom they identify. This takes work, and it takes campaign directors who are willing to admit that they don’t possess the single answer; one message does not fit all. Giving up that kind of message control is difficult for many communicators. They believe the message which with they identify is the right message. Or, the message that tested best in a focus group is the best message. Focus groups don’t test internalization and application of a message. Story, whether fictionalized or real, is a powerful persuasion tool.

One problem with educational films and other materials, is that usually they are presented with a “right” and a “wrong” answer. Students are quick to comprehend with which protagonist they are supposed to identify. This stifles authentic discussion about complex issues. Adolescents, especially, are living complex lives and will benefit from being presented with multiple pathways into understanding of an issue.

Teen pregnancy, smoking, HIV infection – these all seem like obvious issues (just say no), but to a teenager, these are complex topics, encompassing issues of health, class, and peer pressure, for example. Story helps to make sense of that complexity. Understanding an issue through the lenses of a protagonist, perhaps a hero to whom the viewer can relate, can place complex issues into an understandable and actionable context.

February 12, 2010

a virtual polaroid

This is
not a polaroid (i.e., this is not an "instant" photograph made using a
Polaroid instant camera):

But it sure looks like one.

It is a digital image, taken on an iPhone, using the ($0.99) ShakeItPhoto app. Ah, the treachery of images!

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

February 11, 2010

How does the story end? Let the audience decide.

Mozart never finished Zaide. (I suppose dying when you're 35 gets in the way of finishing all kinds of stuff.) This summer, when the opera is presented at the Barns of Wolf Trap, at each performance, the audience will decide how the story ends.

Snomagadden status report, part two

Our NeuroCooking Snowmagedden status report, part two, consists of just one photograph and just one number.

The photograph, taken in our front yard around 5 PM yesterday, is:

And the number, which pertains to the yardstick Bucky is facing in the photograph, is:


February 10, 2010

How Your Pet’s Diet Threatens Your Marriage, and Why It’s Bush’s Fault

The New York Times offers fascinating research that the most-shared articles from their web site are awe-inspiring.

"Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, an emotion that the researchers investigated after noticing how many science articles made the list....
"They used two criteria for an awe-inspiring story: Its scale is large, and it requires “mental accommodation” by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way....

"“If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together.”"

Read the whole article to understand the title of this post.

Snomagadden status report

Snowmagedden, round I, gifted us with more than two feet of snow. The storm ended Saturday, but our road was not plowed until late Monday. Here's how it looked Sunday at around 5 P.M.:

The unplowed road was impassable by car or light truck, of course. Four wheel drive or not, you can't drive over (through?) several feet of icy snowpack. There was however a social trail, that started as a tire-rut early in the storm, running down the road. Here's how it looked Monday at about 10 A.M.:

Snowmagedden, round II, is here now, having arrived last night. How much snow fell overnight? Well, we keep a path shoveled out for the dog, from the back porch to the rear of the back yard, where we've dug out a small snow-room for him to, um, do his business. This dog-path is, after round I, a trench, with walls two to three feet tall. Here's how it looked around mid-day Saturday (as Snowmagedden I was still with us):

Anyway, today started with a pre-dawn shoveling out of this trench, for the sake of the comfort of Bucky (and all), perhaps four inches of snow that had accumulated overnight.

Forecasts for Snowmagedden II have recently gone down, from 12-20 inches, to only 8-12 inches. But wind gusts to 45 miles per hour 55 miles per hour [mid-day edit] are predicted to accompany the snow this afternoon. Best then, to shovel early. Like now! Neurocooking friends, would you like to stop by to help?

[Post-storm edit: Snowmagadden status report, part two, now available]

mmm.... organic!

Organic chemistry is chemistry about hydrocarbons.

February 6, 2010

Rover, speak!

Following up on earlier remarks distinguishing "the equals sign" from "the assignment operator", we would like to comment upon the distinction, in canine obedience training, between the name vs. the utterance of a command. For example, when we call upon the dog to "come", we are giving the "recall" command. We say "come" but the name of the command is "recall". Now, it may amuse you, NeuroCooking friends, to learn that many dogs are trained to "speak", in that "speak" is the utterance often used for the command known as "stand for examination".

February 4, 2010

The Dangers of Labeling

Beware "the human propensity to name something, to categorise it, and then discover its properties vanish before our eyes." -- Shawn Callahan, Anecdote, Australia

Shawn recently wrote a terrific blog post, sharing and reflecting upon a story about Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807–73), a Swiss-born American zoologist and geologist.
Imagine that you went to Louis Agassiz’s laboratory at Harvard as a student. Agassiz would place a small tin pan in front of you with a small fish and utter the stern requirement that you “should study it, but should on no account talk to any one concerning it, nor read anything related to fishes” nor use any artificial aids like a magnifying glass until he gave you permission to do so. As one student said, “To my inquiry ‘What shall I do?’ he said in effect “Find out what you can without damaging the specimen; when I think you have done the work, I will question you”. Students kept telling Agassiz what they had found and Agassiz kept saying “That is not right.” This went on, typically, for 100 or more hours with the same now “loathsome” fish. Agassiz would keep asking “What is it like?,” “Do you see it yet?” and saying “You have not looked carefully” and “You have 2 eyes, 2 hands, and 1 fish”. Gradually, things would begin to change. One student replied to the professor’s query as to whether he had seen one of the most conspicuous features of the fish, the symmetrical sides with paired organs, “No I have not seen it yet, but I see how little I saw before.” Agassiz replied, “That is next best . . . now put away your fish, go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish”. Another student reported the following experience: “I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned. ‘That is right,’ said he, "a pencil is one of the best eyes.”
Shawn explained, "Agassiz (nicely told by Karl Weick on an article on richness) was acutely aware of the human propensity to name something, to categorise it, and then discover its properties vanish before our eyes. Once named we no longer need to attend to the details to work it out."

Refraining from labeling can help us to truly see an object or a situation. Shawn offers great advice on helping an organization tell their strategic story. I'm struck by the parallels to effective interpersonal communication.

I've written in the past about the dangers of assumption. And about the importance of being in the moment, and not making assumptions about the future. We want to be in control; we want to get to a comfortable place of knowledge, to assume we understand something in its entirety. Our eagerness to please may sometimes result from ego, and it may also result from a genuine kindness, and a strong desire to express empathy.

I've also written about the terrific work of Exhale, and Shawn's post got me thinking about what happens when someone is labeled A Woman Who Had an Abortion, or, A Woman Who Decided Not to Have an Abortion.

When we jump to label, we loose details such as context and emotion, details that are critical to true understanding.

February 3, 2010

Nice Story & Story Prompts

A novel approach to Valentine's Day, from my favorite NYC restaurant, Prune.

February 1, 2010

he said, she said

Some years ago, Woody Allen wrote:

Man will not kill for food alone. There must also be a beverage.

Last night, at dinner, my wife said:

Man cannot live on love alone. He must also have salt.


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