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February 17, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

Know Your Opponents

I don't re-post or link a lot of stuff from the official BEACON blog, but these two thoughtful commentaries, one from undergraduate Lazarius Miller and the other from grad student Carina Baskett, caught my eye.  Both of them were models of constructive engagement.  Maybe a little more earnest and serious in tone than readers will often find here, but equally honest in intent.

They were particularly welcome after I spent three cups of coffee reading this fascinating but disturbing piece of journalism by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.
"The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million."
There's an old phrase from Sun Tzu: "Know Your Enemy."  Americans are pretty accomplished at demonizing our enemies, as just about every cartoonist did during World War 2 (even Dr. Seuss!).  We're even better at morphing elements of other people's cultures into our own entertainments, like the cheesy Secrets of Isis kids'  show from the 1970s.
We have trouble with understanding people and groups for the purposes of opposing them.  Understanding a group does not mean agreeing with it, or even tolerating it.  There has to be some distinction between enemies (ISIS / ISIL / those black-flag guys) and opponents, like the people renting out the student center for a creationist conference.  Our two-party politics have lost that distinction.  Scientists of all people should not fall to those same tribal impulses.
Coincidentally, one of my best friends from grade school used to be obsessed with those old Filmation live-action shows and built this page:
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January 13, 2015 @ 12:32 pm


Yesterday I heard this great interview on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) on NPR.  It’s become common, especially among young people, to use the label to describe healthy, high-performing individuals who display higher-than-average anxiety -- about their grades, for instance.  I teach at Governor’s School, and I taught Early College high school students last fall, and they use the phrase commonly.  It’s true that every single one of us has weird, irrational fears.  According to the interview, there’s apparently even a developmental progression of highly unlikely things, from being abandoned as a small child to being completely ostracized and alone as a teenager to sexual perversions to fears of disease and bizarre ways of dying as adults.  Most of us ignore these irrational thoughts, and they go away.


However, some people have more obsessive thoughts, or they last longer (variation).  Some portion of those people reinforce those thoughts by dwelling on them, reactivating them in a positive feedback loop, increasing their anxiety level (selection).  All of us have an anxiety threshold beyond which we freak out and behave irrationally.  That threshold varies between people, so that some of us reach it sooner, with less provocation.  I would guess that people who have lower anxiety thresholds are more likely to develop clinical OCD, but I haven’t seen any real research on that.  There is a scale to measure where you are on the spectrum.




I took it, and got a 4 out of 40.  It’s subjective, because the questions ask things like how much it disturbs you, not how many times per day the thoughts occur, but it's enough to get a rough idea.  There's a cute bar graph at this link.


One of the ways to reduce anxiety is to do something calming, to perform a behavior, which may or may not have any rational connection to the stimulus.  The important thing is that the behavior immediately reduces the anxiety level.  At first the connection might be completely accidental, but in neuroscience, that doesn’t much matter.  Simple repetition strengthens the connection, like Pavlov’s experiments, where he paired meat powder with a bell to “teach” his dogs to salivate when the bell was rung alone.  The same mechanism could produce compulsive behaviors.  The essentially loopy nature of behavior in general can even lead to people doing their compulsions to try and prevent the obsessive thoughts, rather than waiting for the obsessive thought to occur on its own, thereby actually triggering the obsessive thought.


Anyway, it was a great interview, and in particular the author said


you get trapped in this loop where you're desperate for certainty, and you can never get it. You're always checking.


This struck me when I heard it.  It struck me again as I was walking home from Panera this morning, when I saw a soggy, discarded tract lying on the sidewalk:



100% SURE

That You Will

Go To Heaven

When You Die?


It’s actually that demand for certainty that bothers me, and in my anecdotal experience, I see it about equally often in hard-core atheists and in religious people.  Likewise, a quick Google Scholar search showed no evidence that religion fosters OCD, though there is a form of OCD that centers around religious and moral issues called scrupulosity.  Maybe they aren’t looking closely enough, at the proper magnification.  Maybe it’s not religion in general, but looking at that tract, and remembering my own fundamentalist upbringing, I have to imagine that at the very least there are particular churches, particular spiritual leaders, who act as amplifiers, increasing the existing tendency towards OCD in their followers as part of a feedback loop.  Or selecting for those vulnerable followers, for those people who are especially looking for certainty, who would pick up that tract and go to that church to find out more, rather than saying “Huh, that’s interesting,” and recycling it like me.

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December 2, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

But Temporary and Partial Comfort is not Alliterative! (and sells less well)

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in Kentucky, ignoring the whole Black Friday foolishness as much as possible, although there were a couple of good social science NPR pieces on the phenomonon that I shared to the VSI page on Facebook. Instead we went to the woods and whacked dead things with sticks. We hung out with friends, old and new, and played games. Easy and cheap.

The long drive home on Sunday was much improved by a slew of old Escape Pod stories and a well-done radio documentary on the Disney theme parks fromStudio 360. They interviewed park insiders, well-known critics like Carl Hiassen, and well-known Disney afficionados like Corey Doctorow. Most of their criticisms were about the company's tendency to sanitize everything. Corey D. was more nuanced. He didn't ignore the criticisms and contradictions, but said that is was in fact the tension between light and dark, sweet and bitter, commerce and art, that makes Disney work. It led to some really good rear-view mirror conversations with my son in the back seat as we drove.

This show reminded me of a particular interaction I had with Len Testa, one of the hosts of the WDW podcast (now the Disney Dish podcast?) and my very first guest on this VSI podcast. I was being snarky, in one of my “evil control-freak corporation” moods, and he pointedly reminded me that families spent years, sometimes, saving up to visit these parks. Life is hard, he seemed to say, and who was I to say which diversions from that difficulty were good and healthy, and which were stupid and childish?

I never even tried to answer that implied question at the time, because I agree that being narrowly judgemental is rarely helpful, and because I read comics and play fantasy RPGs for fun (glass houses if ever there were any).  In the car on Sunday, though, when the documentary compared Disney to a religion, a couple of things clicked. One was a CD I had picked up at the KentuckyArtisans Center in Berea, of a style of vocal-only, call-and-response singing, evolved in Old Regular Baptist churches where they generally didn't have written hymnals (and probably a lot of the people couldn't read). I'm not a church person, but I understand the need for comfort, for shelter from the storm. That CD did not inspire those feelings in me, but I could see where they might in people whose experiences differ from mine. The other thing that clicked was my Buddhist readings and practice. It's not the comfort of religion, or of Disney, that bothers me. I like comfort. It's specifically the promise of perfect and permanent comfort that bothers me. That has always struck me as simple fraud, as impossible and as irresponsible as Peter Pan's refusal to grow up.

Science fiction has that same strain of techno-utopia running through it, sometimes. These days I'm more frustrated by the opposite bias, that the future is only scary. My favorite authors and thinkers balance promise and peril in surprising ways. That's why I joined the Center for Science and the Imagination. They're trying to shift that balance towards optimism, not by eliminating critical thought about our problems, but by applying critical thought to try and solve those problems. Disney made honest (but creepy) efforts to do this.  Another thing that I learned from the documentary was what EPCOT stands for, which I'd never thought about.  Rather than being just a mall, the original vision was an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, a living museum of the future, where people would live full-time.  They tried again with the town of Celebration.

Personally, I'm waiting for the Disney fundamentalists to break off from the larger group and build their own walled compounds, where they stockpile weapons and snack foods.  Damn.  There's that snark again.  That's not helpful.

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October 19, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

An opportunity to cooperate

This is not simply a cheap call-back to Episode 6: "Iron Dad," although if you go to teen inventor Chase Lewis's YouTube channel, he is indeed a fan of Tony Stark, though his helmet is the movie version, not the animated Armored Adventures version.  Below is a message forwarded to the Greensboro Science Cafe Facebook page from ... his mom?


"PLEASE VOTE for Chapel Hill teen inventor Chase Lewis' Emergency Mask Pod invention. It is in the national finals of an XPrize Challenge! XPrize teamed up with Disney for this "Big Idea" Challenge. 

Chase will be speaking at the Science Cafe's October meeting.

The judging will be done by a panel, but 20% of the total score will be determined by a public vote. Fortunately, the voting is from today through Sunday. You can vote once a day. The link is: http://bit.ly/ZtMhF3

The prize is a trip to L.A. to meet with XPrize and to attend the Disney premier of "Big Hero 6." Chase wants to win because he wants to meet with the XPrize people to tell them about his Inventing 101 Now idea, which was the subject of his TEDx talk in September."

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September 27, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

Being Wrong is a Good Thing (as long as we learn from it)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started up again last night (at least, on my DVR it did).  The baddie du jour was Carl “Crusher” Creel, the Absorbing Man.  Like Colossus becomes solid metal, Creel can become whatever he touches.  In the comics, he's an Avengers-level badass, like DC's Metamorpho but dumber.  Metamorpho at least took high school chemistry and knows how to apply it.  Creel just bulks up and punches things.  In the show his transformations were usually partial, to limit him enough that the SHIELD team could kind of handle him, which was probably a good decision.

In the comics, Creel's powers were magical, the result of some weird Asgardian potion, if I remember correctly.  In the show, they wisely just said, We don't know how he does it.  A technobabble explanation would just alienate the scientists and the continuity geeks, and the muggles everyone is now trying to recruit to watch all this geek-porn that's being produced wouldn't care, anyway.

Much of science fiction is only flavored with science, anyway.  Some of that is cynical, but there are people who are interested in the real science but not trained as working scientists.  I think I met one of those last night – Piper Kessler, who writes the web series Frequency, which is a romance between psychic time-traveling lesbians.

There are certain non-scientific phenomena that get updated whenever new science appears to maintain plausibility.  It's the same emotional issue to deal with, but the metaphors used to explore the issue shift over time.  Aliens are one.  They used to be fairies and angels and demons; and then they were extraterrestrials, or time travelers; and now they're often extradimensionals.  Psychic powers are another. 

In the earlier part of the 20th century they were imagined to be based on electromagnetic waves, like radio (thus blockable by hats made of tinfoil).  Marvel Comics, using a particle physics metaphor, invented the psion, a subatomic particle that psychics could manipulate with their minds.  They also had a villain called Graviton, who was based on the real theoretical subatomic particle of the same name.  I don't mean the particles are real (noone's found them), I mean that the theory was proposed by professional physicists in a serious way, not as a jokey plot device by a bunch of comics guys.  Confusing, I know.  Nowadays psychic phenomena are more often presented as phenomena somehow related to quantum physics, except on a human scale, like in this video, "Alice in Quantumland," last year's runner-up in a contest run by the journal Nature. 

And that's a good thing, as far as it goes.  Stories are a really useful tool for thinking about unintuitive phenomena.  Not as good as mathematical models for prediction, but much better than nothing.  Probably better than mathematical models for helping people think about the meaning of unintuitive phenomena.

Anyhow, Piper Kessler's psychics are based on brainwaves.  When many thousands of neurons are spiking in synchrony, those tiny electrical disturbances add up into larger voltage changes that can be measured on the scalp through a machine called an EEG.  When they're out of synchrony, the spikes average out.  Different behavioral states tend to have different synchronous frequency bands.  For instance, deep sleep is usually marked by average frequencies of less than 4 cycles per second, called delta waves.  It's kind of like watching the clouds from an old-school weather satellite.  You can see big things like hurricanes and the jet stream but not what's going on at street level, not traffic patterns within a single city.  Modern spy satellites, of course, have much better cameras and can supposedly read license plates.  You can read a lot more detail about EEG on Wikipedia.

Ms. Kessler's metaphor is unrealistically fine-grained.  For instance, during her talk on Thursday about her fictional psychics she described telepathy is the same frequency as happiness, exactly 30Hz.  Clairvoyance (displayed by Meredith Sause's character Claire) uses a different frequency, time travel another, and memory wiping and magical healing still others.  That is sort of logical, as far as it goes, but it doesn't take into account most of the complexities of EEG, like it varies with different locations in the brain, or that those powers don't have anything to do with one another.

And you know what?  That's OK.  Many years of educational research have shown us that our undertanding of the physical world is based on internal mental models.  Those models are never perfect, but they get better with experience.  Making wrong predictions and updating the models based on the results of our experiments is one very important way of learning about complicated topics.  Ms. Kessler played around with her fictional model in a logical, narrative way, and she predicted that if her character Deena the dentist practiced trying to control her brainwaves, she'd be able to achieve a particular frequency and learn to time travel.  What she actually got (at first, at least) was telepathy.

That particular hypothesis was in fact correct.  Not the telepathy, but the ability to shift the dominant frequency band of brain activity.  It's been shown in controlled experiments that trained meditators can enter different attentional states more or less at will.  These states display specific frequency bands.  There's even a New Agey biofeedback-based video game called Wild Divine that's designed to teach people to manipulate their attentional state.  There's also some evidence that trained meditators have more control over their moods, that they can deliberately generate positive emotions, which shift activity to the left hemisphere of the brain.  So Ms. Kessler was right about the phenomenon, but wrong about the basis (location, not frequency alone).

Again, that's good.  That's all any of us science types are ever doing, telling stories to ourselves and our students about our data.  We just have special cultural rituals and tools for doing it that are more effective for the specific purpose of making predictions.  Those rituals and tools are not very useful for people outside the trained “priesthood,” and they aren't very good for coming to terms with difficult situations on an emotional level.  Stories are better for that.

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September 21, 2014 @ 9:30 pm

Episode 68: Book Review of ‘The Man from Mars’

"This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer's purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine."
--official disclaimer, In Search Of
That show gave me nightmares.
Fred Nadis's website (his other book Wonder Shows looks pretty neat, too)
A neat and extensive wiki built by college students at Georgia Tech (check out their Reptoids coverage)
Also search this blog for "conspiracy"
A Brief History of Lovecraft's Necronomicon


The X-Files
Quote Game: Scully or Blanche DuBois?  ( I got a C -- 7/10)
In Search Of, with Leonard Nimoy (I never knew that he was a replacement for Rod Serling)
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August 24, 2014 @ 1:00 pm

Extinction Level Events

I spent 5 days in Washington, D.C. last week with my family. We biked the mall to see the various monuments. We selectively toured some Smithsonia (or is it Smithsonians?); check the Facebook page for that album, including the Hall of Human Origins exhibit. We hadn't really inherited anything recently, so we slept on the floor of one of my wife's grad school buddies. Oh, and my son attended the World Pokemon Championships, not as a contestant, but as a fanboy journalist, hoping to score some footage for his YouTube channel. Of course, being twelve, he got so excited by being there that he forgot to record anything. Maybe there was some inheritance displayed there, after all.

My wife had gotten Huckleberry Finn on CD for the car, but we blew that off for a bunch of year-old Escape Pod episodes. Two Ken Liu stories were particularly resonant with my current life stage.  "Good Hunting" was about the ways in which people (including magical ones) adapt to a changing environment. In some ways it was like Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away, but richer on an emotional level, and deliberately remixing several subgenres, from fantasy to steampunk.  "Mono No Aware" was likewise sad, what with the destruction of human society and such, but there too, it was the father/son stuff that had me all verklempt.

My son is now producing his own comics, his own vodcast on YouTube. He's never listened to VSI (except when I made him), and he's only reluctantly helped me with a few episodes, but it seems that he was paying attention, that he was watching me work, and that something was inherited there. A transfer of some sort took place. Of course, like the three generations of the Wyeth family mentioned in this exhibit that I saw at the National Gallery of Art, it wasn't a perfect transfer. Grandfather NC was mostly an workman, an illustrator of other people's adventure stories; father Andrew was your classic tortured fine artist, painting the same things over and over again; and son Jamie seems more laid back. My son's channel is only about games, and he's already more invested in the process of production, in making the pieces look and sound fancy, than I ever had time for. In fact, he spent part of his Saturday morning yesterday at the Apple store, learning some new editing tricks for iMovie.

So, with the tenure-track position having crashed (in slow motion, and not without warning, rather like the asteroid in "Mono No Aware"), what's next? First, obviously, survival. That's what this fall's adjunct class at Guilford College is about. The household economic machine needs just that much lubrication to keep humming along on one full-time salary while I'm building up my new company, Agnosia Media, LLC.

More importantly, from your point of view, what about VSI, the blog and podcast? Well, the BEACON funding is at least temporarily gone. I've been promising them that I'd start accepting donations like Escape Pod does. Podbean has some different revenue streams I might be able to take advantage of, as long as I don't run afoul of any NSF rules. Content produced with government money is supposed to be public domain, if I remember correctly. Donations to produce new stuff should be OK, but I'll have to check on that.

Short answer, we are not extinct. Expect ongoing goodness.

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June 25, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

Depictions of mental illness in pop culture: a comparative case study of The Tick vs. The Maxx

How's that for an informative, authoritative, academic-sounding title?  Right out of the Journal of Popular Culture.

I had a subscription to that journal for a year, because registering for the meeting automatically subscribed me (neat marketing trick; I should remember that).  Articles were like medical case studies, in that they were qualitative descriptions.  Points were made by choosing quotes that supported the author's view much more often than by systematically counting the number of times a word was used or an event happened.  Something like:

The Tick is a farce, a sitcom, a parody of the conventions in superhero comics.  Most of the "heroes" spend their time displaying conventional petty social dynamics.  For instance, the cowardly Der Fleidermaus (a parody of Batman) spends most of his time boasting and hitting on women.  Bipolar Bear is a throwaway joke.


Only the Tick, whose social awkardness and verbal malapropisms label him as generically insane, really believes in selfless action, even to the extent of risking his own life.

The Maxx, on the other hand, is homeless.  He lives in a box in an alley.  He has great difficulty distinguishing inner from outer reality, exemplified by the catch-phrase,

"Damn.  Talking out loud again." 

While these behaviors are played for laughs, it is also quite obvious that the Maxx is in deep emotional pain.  Other characters in the show are also experiencing mental difficulties.  These are likewise approached ironically, but realistically.  The teenager Sarah, who is clearly depressed, considers suicide at one point...

Pretty low on the evidence scale, as used by most doctors and scientists.


However, there's a second scale (from the same website) for qualitative research, "showing relative usefulness of different types of evidence to answer meaning or experience questions."


For example, what is it like to be mentally ill?  There have been attempts to simulate hallucinations.




But I find these do not generate a lot of empathy within students (a qualitative observation, to be sure).  Something like The Maxx, with a compelling storyline and art that expresses the character's emotional state seems to work better.

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June 20, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

A Grievous Oversight (x2!)

According to the custom Google search embedded in the Podbean site, and half an hour of dedicated human searching, I have never mentioned The Maxx on this blog.  Not once.  Which is odd, because it is one of my favorite bits of pop culture ever. 

Not believing this result, I did an experiment.  I did a second search for The Tick, which I'm pretty sure I've mentioned on here.  Nothing.  Even stranger.  So I wasted the better part of an hour searching month by month trying to prove the search algorithm wrong.  Nothing.  Finally, I did a more intelligent control by searching for something I know should be there: Game of Thrones.  Ten results at least.  Doh!

So, in celebration of two of my favorite mentally disturbed heroes,


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June 15, 2014 @ 11:50 am

Aaaaaaahh. . .

The title refers not to the aargh.jpgof comic book pain and anguish (or of pirate parlance).  Neither is it the Aieee! of fear.  No, it is rather the Aaaahhh of relief.  The relief of having quit a job.  The relief of ending sixth grade.  The relief of my family going on vacation without me.  Most of all, the relief of writing again.

With all the wrap-up required in my last semester at A&T, I allowed the Podbean payment to lapse for over a month.  This meant that I basically stopped writing during that period, except for posting little things to the Facebook page.  Since BEACON is no longer funding the podcast, and I no longer work at A&T, there's some legitimate question as to what will happen to the show.  Podbean yanked access as soon as the money ran out, although there's supposed to be a free option for podcasting.  That means I may have to move the content to someplace free, as suggested by Tom Barbalet of the Biota podcast a couple of years ago.  Technically, the content belongs to A&T, but pretty clearly they aren't interested in it (at least my former department wasn't).  So that's a bit up in the air.  Don't worry, though -- we've got year to figure it out before I'd have to pay the Podbean Piper again.
For the next six weeks, after six years away, I'm back to teaching at the North Carolina Governor's School, so any posts and podcasts will be connected to that in some way.  After that. . . ?  Wait and see.  No, that's not me stalling like a cheesy chatbot trying to win a Turing test.  I do in fact have plans a-plenty.  I'm just due on campus after lunch.
UPDATE: David Lewis's book Science for Sale (reviewed below) is out as of June 3rd.  Look for it.  I was reminded of this when our local NPR affiliate ran what has become a standard story, repeating the fraud charges against Andrew Wakefield.  "Aren't journalists supposed to fact-check their sources?" says the blogger who probably did exactly the same thing at one point.
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