March 31, 2010

don't laugh

You could view it as helpful when your professor wears his sweater vest tucked into his trousers, if seeing that helps you to realize that, while you'd love to learn everything he knows about science, he's not necessarily the best choice to serve as your overall role model.

March 29, 2010

Look, ... that's just annoying.

Well, I got annoyed the other day at the argument that 'alternative & complementary medicine' is today's necessary revolutionary response to the failures of 'standard' medicine, just as, in the early 20th century, modern physics was the necessary revolutionary response to the failures of 'classical' physics. And that, therefore, as a physicist, I should support 'alternative & complementary medicine'. Said this fellow to me.

I got annoyed with that analogy, and especially the suggestion that it compelled my support for a field rife with low standards, cranks, quacks, and junk science. Not because the idea that quantum physics was developed in 'response to the failures of' classical physics has been oversold (e.g., Planck's Law has been presented as 'the solution to the ultraviolet catastrophe', but appears to have been no such thing, its development having been motivated by rather separate concerns). No, I got annoyed because of the implication that it would have been, back then, necessary for those pioneering thinkers to leave the academy, to give up on the normal journals & symposia, and to enter instead a parallel universe of institutions devoted to their great 'alternative & complementary' revolution.

Look, I said, back then, early in the 20th century? The big worry over the Rayleigh-Jeans prediction (that bodies emit infinite radiant energy)? And then figuring out how to fix it (by quantizing the possible energy)? That all happened in the major scientific journals of the time. No one needed journals of 'alternative & complementary physics' to get that stuff out there. Read the key early papers in quantum mechanics and relativity – they were all published in the main journals!

Look, I continued, whether you call quantum mechanics a discovery or an invention, it's something people did, that helps us to understand how stuff works. It is an important success; we use it for all kinds of cool things! I happen to believe that 'alternative and complementary medicine' does have some utility & validity. But stop telling me that quantum physics – which was developed within the academic 'mainstream' – compels my support for 'complementary and alternative medicine', because it's just like physics, because that's just annoying.

March 27, 2010

What does it say at your supermarket's express lane?

If you're unlucky, you will have more distractions.

But if you're lucky, you won't have less distractions.

You'd have fewer.

March 25, 2010

Only Experience Changes Perception

Two times in as many days, I have heard communication professionals contend that knowledge and information will change perception. They are mistaken. I no longer believe that information alone results in behavioral change and change in perception; that all a communicator has to do is load information and facts onto the scale until reaching the proverbial tipping point.

Experience changes perception. Ideally, first-hand experience. My Brownie troop leader admitted to me, a second-grader, that until she found out I was Jewish, her perception was that all Jews had horns and tails. My perception of prison was altered by my spending a day inside the New Jersey State Prison.

Short of first-hand experience, virtual experience results in behavior change. This is why video games are proving effective in helping adolescent cancer and diabetes patients stick to their drug regimes.

The next-best thing to being there? Being transported into a situation through an engaging story. A story with a protagonist with whom you can identify; a story with just enough detail that you can imagine yourself seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting what the protagonist is experiencing.

The April issue of the Harvard Business Review contains an interview with Jane Goodall, which touches on the issue of changing people's perceptions:

HBR: Your work requires persuading people to change when it may not be in their immediate best interest to do so. How do you do that?

Goodall: It's important to tell stories. Sometimes you're told you'll never change so-and-so's mind. But if you can be one-on-one with that person and tell a couple of stories....You usually can't change people's minds by the intellect. You've got to find something that reaches into their hearts. ...

HBR: How do you stay hopeful?

Goodall: ...[P]eople say you can't change somebody who's older than such and such an age, because they're set in their ways. It's not true. If you can find a story, if you can make them think and not be defensive, sometimes the toughest person can change.

March 23, 2010

adventures in minimalism

Long ago, before google, I belonged to an internet writers' group that ran as a listserv. Members contributed stories, mostly autobiographical, which were distributed without editing or annotation; everything happened via email. Many of the members wrote daily. I too contributed regularly, but in a minimalist vein, sending in, for some time, an almost-daily report consisting, in its entirety, of either:
Breakfasted; walked dog.
Walked dog; breakfasted.
The choice depended simply on in which order I had done those two things that morning.

One Saturday, it happened that my wife woke early and walked the dog without me. So, I contributed, on that day, to this story-writers' list, an email that consisted of a single-word sentence:
In reply, I received, from people in many nations, emails asking – some quite anxiously! – about the health of my dog.

March 21, 2010


Recently we came across a phrase we had not seen before: "To predict caseness".

March 20, 2010

"Flash turns day into night."

Flash turns day into night.

In this photograph, a pair off-camera speedlights (that's Nikon-speak for strobe-light), hit the flowers with so much light that, by comparison, the background looks like nighttime, even though it's daytime: With flash, I can turn day into night. Like they do in the movies, sometimes.

[Spring arrives: Narcissus by the kitchen steps, 18 March 2010. Nikon 35mm f/2.0 lens on D700 camera with two (off-camera) SB-600 speedlights; exposure 1/125 s, f/22, ISO 800. Any trademarks are property of their respective owners; their appearance here is under fair use; no endorsement or sponsorship exists or is implied. The camera was hand-held against the ground; focus was set manually, using a wooden ruler to measure distance from the camera's sensor plane.]

March 18, 2010

"Scientists Discover What Any Woman in a Bar Could Have Told Them."

In her phantom essay entitled "It's a Guy Thing: Pity the poor woman who overestimates the size of a man's corpus callosum" on page 84 of the
New York Times Style Magazine "Men's Fashion Spring 2010" issue, which we discussed here earlier, Holly Brubach also quotes from Dr. Louann Brizendine's book "The Male Brain", and comments:
"The female brain wants the hope of love and commitment before having sex," Brizendine writes, "but for men, sex often comes first." News bulletin: Scientists Discover What Any Woman in a Bar Could Have Told Them.

Rodent bow ties?

In an essay entitled "It's a Guy Thing: Pity the poor woman who overestimates the size of a man's corpus callosum" on page 84 of the
New York Times Style Magazine "Men's Fashion Spring 2010" issue, Holly Brubach summarizes Shaunti Feldhahn's book "The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace" in this way:
Feldhahn attributes many of the differences in men's and women's behavior on the job to the corpus collosum, which connects the brain's right and left hemispheres. According to one study, it's 25 percent smaller in men, with more isolated gray matter, which facilitates compartmentalizing. In women, a greater concentration of white matter relays more thoughts across various areas of the brain and makes for more efficient multitasking.
Such clear prose brings to mind H. L. Mencken's dictum that "There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong."

Elsewhere, but no doubt with equal authority, the same magazine issue directs our attention to the "rodent bow tie":

[Note re: "links in original". While the New York Times Style Magazine "Men's Fashion Spring 2010" issue appears gayly hyperlinked on the web site of the New York Times, and while other excellent writing by Holly Brubach is available on the web site of the New York Times, Holly Brubach's essay "It's a Guy Thing: Pity the poor woman who overestimates the size of a man's corpus callosum", on page 84 of the New York Times Style Magazine "Men's Fashion Spring 2010" issue, does not. In fact, there appears to be absolutely nothing on the web site of the New York Times to confirm your correspondent's observation that Holly Brubach's essay "It's a Guy Thing: Pity the poor woman who overestimates the size of a man's corpus callosum" appears on page 84 of the New York Times Style Magazine "Men's Fashion Spring 2010" that was delivered to our home with last Sunday's New York Times. It's as if the web site of the New York Times has decided to pretend that the essay does not exist, depriving their substantial internet readership of authoritative observations on human neuroanatomy – if not of helpful tips on taxidermy bow ties.]

[Any trademarks are property of their respective owners; their appearance here is under fair use; no endorsement or sponsorship exists or is implied; "corpus callosum" means "tough body", "corpus" as in corpse, and "callosum" as in calluses.]

March 16, 2010

Primer on Cultural Neuroscience

The March 1 issue of Newsweek offers an interesting article on cultural neuroscience, West Brain, East Brain: What a difference culture makes. I encourage you to read the entire article, and I post some excerpts, and the important conclusion:

Cultural neuroscience wouldn't be making waves if it found neurobiological bases only for well-known cultural differences. It is also uncovering the unexpected. For instance, a 2006 study found that native Chinese speakers use a different region of the brain to do simple arithmetic (3 + 4) or decide which number is larger than native English speakers do, even though both use Arabic numerals. The Chinese use the circuits that process visual and spatial information and plan movements (the latter may be related to the use of the abacus). But English speakers use language circuits. It is as if the West conceives numbers as just words, but the East imbues them with symbolic, spatial freight....

Not to be the skunk at this party, but I think it's important to ask whether neuroscience reveals anything more than we already know from, say, anthropology. For instance, it's well known that East Asian cultures prize the collective over the individual, and that Americans do the opposite. Does identifying brain correlates of those values offer any extra insight? After all, it's not as if anyone thought those values are the result of something in the liver.

...[C]ultural neuro-science does advance understanding. ...Especially when it shows how fundamental cultural differences are—so fundamental, perhaps, that "universal" notions such as human rights, democracy, and the like may be no such thing.

March 12, 2010

Tomorrow (Saturday) at ten!

Tickets to the Wolf Trap Opera Company's summer season go on sale at 10 AM tomorrow!

on happiness

"The secret of happiness is to own a convertible and a lake. If the sun shines, you can ride around in your convertible. If it rains, you can say, 'At least the rain will fill up my lake.' "
- Charles M. Schulz (1922 - 2000)

I have a bicycle that is rideable, and another bicycle that is not, because it needs new brake shoes and a new shifter cable & housing. I got the parts. So, if this weekend's weather forecast is correct, and it rains, I can work on the bike that needs work. But if the forecast is wrong, and the weather is nice, then I can ride the other bike. And, I suppose that if the weather is just right, then I can first fix the bike that needs fixing, and then ride it.

I agree with Mr. Schulz! But two bikes are more affordable than a convertible and a lake.

March 11, 2010


There is a large research literature on the effects of sedentary behavior.

March 10, 2010


Researchers whose work is supported by the National Institutes of Health are prohibited by law from using any of those funds to "disseminate scientific information that is deliberately false or misleading."

March 9, 2010

two on love

"The main reason for the virtual disappearance of discourse on love ... is the enormous prestige of science in our age, and science's propensity to value only that which it can explain."

"But what the old time masters had / Is what I feel for you / Love is love and doesn't change / In a century or two / If some way they had seen and knew / How it would be for me and you / They'd wish for love like yours / And they would wish for love like mine / Before my time / Before my time."
- Johnny Cash (1932-2003), from "Before My Time" (from his album "American III - Solitary Man", 2000)

March 8, 2010

Ah, but how?

Just the very first sentence of a thoughtful, comprehensive, & provocative article entitled "Lack of generalizability of sex differences in the fMRI BOLD activity associated with language processing in adults", by S.K.Z. Ihnen, Jessica A. Church, Steven E. Petersen, & Bradley L. Schlaggar that appeared last year in the journal NeuroImage:
"Neuroscientists and men, women, and children the world over seem to agree that, despite being largely similar, the average human male brain is different from the average human female brain in important and predictable ways."

March 6, 2010

unless the fence is closed, rather than straight

If you build a straight fence one hundred feet long, using ten-foot-long rails, how many fenceposts do you need?

The obvious answer is 100/10=10, which is wrong. The correct answer is eleven.

If you write a computer program to process items I through J of a list, how many items will be processed?

The obvious answer is J-I items, which is wrong. The correct answer is J-I+1.

By analogy to the fencepost question, the wrong answer is known as the "fencepost error".

March 4, 2010

What, Why & How Story Matters

My newest essay is up at PhilanTopic: What, Why & How Story Matters.

It begins:
I fear the term "story" is being used so broadly as to render it meaningless.

Messages are not stories. Statements of belief and opinions are not stories. And, most of the time, answers to direct questions are not stories.

Many well-intentioned professionals are rushing out and thinking they are asking for stories, when they are not. What gets shared as a result of their efforts is often called story, even when it is not.

Click here to read the full post.

March 3, 2010

"... a skyscraper made of..."

Just one sentence from Louis Menand's article, "Head Case: Can psychiatry be a science?" in the March 1st issue of the New Yorker:

"Science, particularly medical science, is not a skyscraper made of Lucite."

March 2, 2010

having nothing to do with Gov. Mark Sanford

I have never hiked the Appalachian Trail. But somewhere I read advice for what "through-hikers" should carry in their backpacks, and I have used this advice to pack for various trips.

The advice, as I recall, is this:

Make three piles of gear:
  1. Items you definitely need and cannot do without.
  2. Items you might need, but could likely do without.
  3. Items you definitely do not need, but would like to have along (e.g., guitar, camera, or frisbee).
  • Take half of the items from the first pile;
  • none of the items from the second pile;
  • and one item from the third pile.
[Title refers to this. If you know the original source of the advice I recapitulate above, please let me know!]


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