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December 31, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

Episode 29: quiet reflection

This New Year’s weekend, Krista Tippet is interviewing the Dalai Lama, whom I’ve never met but whom I have heard speak at a couple of different conferences. They will probably be discussing his latest book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, in which he draws a marvelous analogy, one I really liked.

We like tea, but we need water.

He’s using it to compare the need for some workable spiritual and ethical system with the desire for that system to be my system, the one I was raised with and feel comfortable in. He says that religious traditions are like flavors. They increase your pleasure and the depth of your engagement with ethics, but it is the ethics themselves which are nourishing.

These analogies about culture may not sound like science, but what is science but philosophy with experiments, flavored by humility? Every field starts out vague and undefined, and grows more specialized and powerful as it becomes more quantitative. Check out this very cool paper, which takes something traditionally considered artistic, ineffable, squishy, and shows the hidden connections between foods that make up a cultural culinary style, in a very intuitive way, through the chemical compounds they contain.


Happy New Year, y’all.

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December 30, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

Slicing the Audience, with Wang Chi

This week, between Christmas and New Year’s, is a traditional time for reflection. For most people, that’s about telling a story that makes sense. Scientists do the same thing. We just try to root our stories in data, in our observations of facts, surprising and humbling though they may be, and to reason forward to a conclusion from those data. The podcast this week will be a more personal journey type story, but here’s a data-driven, science-type story.

In keeping with the reflection thing, I started poking around on Podbean’s statistics pages. I started looking at how many times each episode had been downloaded, as an individual audio file. First thing I was surprised by is how consistently low those numbers were. They ranged between 7 and 28 downloads, from 11 different countries. That difference is so small I can’t really draw any conclusions about what kinds of content these one-time listeners prefer. It’s also a little humbling and worrying in terms of funding, something I’ll have to loop around back to later.

When I plotted those data in a spreadsheet, I did see a surprising pattern. Episode 2, a review of the sitting-around-drinking-and- bullshitting science fiction film The Man from Earth, is our most popular episode ever, having been individually downloaded 28 times. There’s a consistent downhill trend from there. Now if I were a pundit, making a best of/worst of list, I would start rambling on about how popular hard science fiction on religious themes is, especially during times of economic uncertainty, and looking for other examples to cherry-pick. But it looks to me like a simple decay with time. In other words, the oldest things get more hits because they’ve been there longer. Yeah, it also might mean I’ve been losing listeners the whole time. I would need more detail to be sure about that.

Next I started looking at the RSS feed hits, those people who are subscribing to both the podcast and the blog, who get them automatically delivered to their favorite platform. That’s an average of 18 people per day, for a total of 5531 contacts, from only 4 different countries – the US, Canada, Germany, and China. Those are the loyal listeners (who I love), but since they get everything, I have no way of passively distinguishing what they prefer. I would need to talk to them. Podbean has multiple feedback mechanisms in place, and we do have an e-mail address vsi dot beacon at gmail dot com, but people aren’t using them for the most part, so there’s a frustrating lack of data, a vacuum. I need to figure out how to jump-start the community aspect of the show. One way to do that would be to just require my students to listen, which is definitely going to happen. But I’ll experiment with anything.

Third, and most surprising to me personally, was how relatively successful our website is, when we’ve put very little effort into it, compared to the podcast. We’ve had visits from 3580 different IP addresses, from, by my count, a staggering 49 countries. 1245 of those hits have been just in the last month, and 157 of those hits came on one day, the 23rd of December (I have no idea why).

But the overall pattern is very clear. The written blog is more popular than the audio podcast, and the blog’s popularity is growing, where the podcast has kind of stalled out. There’s two conclusions I might draw about that pattern. One is that we should abandon the podcast. Another is that all we have to do is figure out how to convert those website visitors into listeners and subscribers.

Why was this in any way surprising to me?

Well, first, outside of my blogging, I personally don’t spend much time webslinging for non-professional content. I do a lot of searching for journal articles (like three hours yesterday alone, while I was writing a very late abstract for the Contact conference), but I don’t read a lot of blogs. I do listen to a lot of radio, while I’m in the car or cleaning my kitchen, or on those rare occasions when I make it to the gym.

Secondly, I work with teenagers, who don’t read (which is a whole other chicken/egg nightmare of causality).  YouTube is their idea of a research tool.  So, am I writing and podcasting to two different audiences?  I don’t think so.  Should I be?  Interesting question.

Reminds me of something our old buddy Wang Chi said, in the immortal John Carpenter film Big Trouble in Little China, “That’s why the bottle didn’t slice.  My mind and my spirit were going north and south.

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December 28, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

World’s Oldest Chimp

Wow.  Chimps in zoos normally live to be maybe 35 or 40.


I watched those movies as a kid and took no notice of just how much stock footage and pre-bluescreen overlay there was until I caught one on Turner Classic Movies recently.  I loved them at the time, but they were nothing compared to the majestic Technicolor weirdness of Sabu's The Jungle Book, or even King Solomon's Mines with Stewart Granger.

I kind of randomly punched "chimpanzee medicine" into Google, just to see what would happen, and got this.


which then led me to this


which led me to this guy


who works in Asheboro, just down the road, and whom I hope to interview about chimps real soon.  This is how science is done.  I am not kidding.

By the way, I could not find Cheeta's Bacon number, but it must be no more than 3, since Johnny Weissmuller has a Bacon number of 2, according to


Just in case you are happen to be an elderly chimp and are thus unfamiliar with the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon


The article above also introduced me to the Erdos number, based on mathematical papers, which would theoretically link most of science to Kevin Bacon as well, through Natalie Portman (Bacon number of 2) or possibly Mayim Bialik (also a Bacon number of 2).

By another way, this book about a human who wakes up in a parallel world run by chimps (of a much more authentic variety than Planet of the Apes) is kind of hilarious.


Final note: the embed link button is not working (because I'm working on the Mac at home?).  That's why I'm just pasting them into the stream of consciousness.

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December 26, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

Games: of, by, and for the People

Yesterday was Christmas, and today was my son’s birthday. With the grandparents in town, it could have been an absolute orgy of consumerism, but thankfully people restrained themselves. Many of his presents were books, although there were far too many BeyBlades and the latest marketing mutation, non-action figures with embedded chips that contain video game characters (“virtual action figures”?). So now, not only do you have to unlock the characters, you have to pay extra for them, too. Brilliant, in an evil sort of way. What’s next? Will we have to pay them to do their work for them? Will all games eventually be like Spore, where you put in the work to develop your own characters, and the video game maker just provides the basic infrastructure?

That might not be so bad, actually, if we’re after using games to develop skills and creativity, and not just as electronic babysitters. I gave my gamer nephew a copy an electronic copy of Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which I assume is an expanded version of her TED talk, which he loved (me, too, actually).


She talks a lot about games making us into a more collaborative species.  Making us better people.  I know that during my few experiments with City of Heroes, people were constantly just flying by and healing me, for no reason.  I never interacted with them.  My old buddy Mike Hager used to describe receiving all sorts of gear and help from total strangers.  This was before there was an online marketplace attached to CoH.  Hager says anecdotally that the introduction of the marketplace reduced the gifting behavior somewhat (although he played so much that I trust his intuitions implicitly, I'd still love to see some data on it).

I'll give an opposite example.  There's a defunct collectible card game called Middle-Earth: the Wizards, done by Iron Crown Enterprises back when they still had the Tolkien game license. My friends and I played that game in a particularly bloodthirsty way. We almost never used the spells or the healing resources; we just let characters die and replaced them. We likewise did not “waste space” in our hazard decks with cards that created delays or obstacles—we just loaded up with monsters and monster-pumpers, so much so that we started calling them “threats” instead of “hazards.”  Ours was a small group, so it wasn’t hard for us to consistently bump the game into a different and deadly region of the space of possible games.

So games don't necessarily make us better people.  Better games make us better people.  Collaboration depends on the rule-set, and on the personalities of the players, and on the social dynamics of the group. In other words, we adapt to the local gaming environment.  But given that I like games, and I like the idea of games as education, the idea of games as world-changing problem-solving environments really appeals to me.  Question is, how to do that?  How to bump a community into the collaborative region of parameter space?

One way is simply by providing the right kind of feedback.  In the talk she describes World Without Oil, an online simulation where people change their consumption habits based on real-time (fictional) feedback.  She says this was a somewhat permanent change for her players.  I know that a much simpler intervention, simply making the gas mileage explicit, moment by moment, on the dashboard of the Prius totally changed my wife's driving habits.  It became a game between the two of us to see who could get the highest mileage.  So it's definitely possible.

Here's a journal for people who think about these questions.


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December 20, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

(R)evolutions and Nostalgia

NPR's On Point today was going on about the revolution in unmanned drone technology, and the ripple effects on the law, as cops want to use them to observe criminals, and the Constitutional questions, as the Founders never considered insect-sized surveillance bots.  Why are we so continually caught off-guard by these things?  Why is it so hard for us as humans to expect the unexpected?  By which I don't mean individual events, but the pattern of disruption caused by technology?  Nassim Nicholas Taleb says it's built into the very structure of our brains, as an experience-compression technique.  I've never read his books, but I liked this essay, particularly his insistence on looking at the losers as well as the winners.  And I agree with him that we focus too much on specific events and not on general principles, like technological disruption.

Biology understands these issues of ecological disturbance fairly well.  Burn down a forest, or clear-cut one, and a biologist cannot tell you (nor would he/she care) exactly where each replacement tree will eventually sprout.  But the basic principles of forest succession say that in the southeastern U.S., there will be a meadow, then shrubby thickets, then a pine forest, then a hardwood forest.  We can even predict the rough mix of species, IF we can average over a large enough chunk of time and space.

This may seem like a leap, but hang in there with me.  An old friend sent me a copy of the following film for Christmas, and I watched it tonight.


It's a short documentary about a local after-school kids show , starring a clown, Happy the Hobo, and his puppet sidekick Froggie.  They were the framing device for cheap old Three Stooges and Little Rascals reruns, in the days before practically every show went into syndication.  Apparently they also ran the Flash Gordon serials, but I don't remember those.  It was on every weekday, including the summers, in late 1970s central Kentucky (Hager says they only got West Virginia stations up in the mountains), at the tail end of that kid-show phenomenon, before people started doing them ironically (like Weird Al's UHF) or nostalgically (most brilliantly,  PeeWee's Playhouse).  It was done live, totally improvised, by a bunch of partiers.  The end of the film lamented how TV is so packaged and polished today that you could never get away with that kind of screwing around.

Hello?  The Internet?   The technology opened up a new niche, where every YouTuber and podcaster has the freedom to do whatever we want, no matter how bad it is.  For now.  The same way radio was unregulated and wild.  The same way television was unregulated and wild.  Enjoy it while it lasts, until the professionals come in and take it over, homogenize it, and then finally turn it into a small number of incredibly high quality works that soak up all the attention.  Very similar, in some ways, to the process of forest succession, leading to a climax forest, where the tallest trees temporarily monopolize the light, and the biodiversity drops until something opens up a hole.

Its closing credits also did the Cartoon Network / Boomerang thing of letting a modern band cover the theme song, which made me laugh.

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December 18, 2011 @ 11:41 am

Episode 28: Tom Drury, Singing Postman

Sitting at the Tate Street Coffee House yesterday, watching the jazz trio set up, I just then realized that Ian McDowell (author/artist of the literally cute-as-hell AlphaBestiary, which I'll link to as soon as I can get in contact with him; there's a lot of people named Ian McDowell) is also the guy behind some of the coffee-themed movie poster spoofs that hang on the walls more or less permanently. I should really pay more attention, just in general.

Sticking with the STEAMy theme of art and science for this week, and continuing the tradition of “my old buddy” interviews, meet Tom Drury, who sings (formerly at Shaker Village in Harrodsburg, and now with the Kentucky Bach Choir), delivers mail, and plays games. Lots and lots of games. He may do other things as well, but we don’t talk about those...

Here’s a bunch of links to stuff we talked about in the show.

Anathem, including the music from the c.d. I mentioned and some other goodies


The spooky raw POWER of mathematics to describe unseen and even unimagined things, on Krista Tippet's show On Being


Settlers of Cataan, including free play online, so you can see the recombinant design I was talking about


Guns, Germs, and Steel, the Pulitzer Prize winning book and the PBS documentary



Parting question: If a short novel is called a novella, what’s a really really long novel called?

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December 16, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

Music as Medicine

Fascinating music therapy episode of Science Friday on today as I ran errands before the holiday postal crunch (although I heard that volume was down this year).  That ties into this week's episode in at least a couple of ways.  I'll be talking to my old buddy Tom Drury of the Kentucky Bach Choir, not about music therapy (although he and I have had lots of good neuromusic conversations over the years), but about music and games and intuitive math.

Music therapy is a great example of how stupid this divide between art and science is.  BEACON has not yet gotten deeply into the idea of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) as a way to make science compelling to a broader audience, but there are beginnings.  They're paying Chad Rohrbacher and me to build an interdisciplinary curriculum guide for this science fiction book, an idea I stole from astronomer/sf writer Mike Brotherton.  I did adapt the idea (slightly) to use existing stories rather than commissioning new ones.  Chad and I are hoping to expand this to other books and to other media, like audio fiction, and to get students involved.

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December 16, 2011 @ 10:08 am

Big Cat Week

And in fact I was not late; I was a week early for the office potluck.

I only have a minute or two before I'm off to consult on a BEACON grant application (services for which I have already been paid in delicious dim sum - type pastries).

In that time I want to plug Big Cat Week on NatGeo Wild (also the supposed host of Stephen Colbert's Republican presidential debate), which has set a new standard for gross realism in depicting the utilitarian cruelty of predators.  The only thing I've ever seen to surpass it was Gary Paulsen's description of an 'unclean' wolf kill in Woodsong: "There is horror in it."


Good meeting (by which I mean short and productive).  Not to imply there is only horror.  That same leopard documentary showed the adolescent leopard killing a baboon, and then discovering a baby baboon clinging to the carcass's fur.  She did not kill the baby, did not torture it; in fact she carried it up to a tree, chased off the hyena who did want to eat it, and played with it (gently) for hours -- groomed it, even slept with it -- until it died in the night of hunger and cold.  Then she ate its mother.

That's the issue that I think humans are so uncomfortable with, and that Paulsen put his finger on so eloquently.  We have these often stupidly simple mental models of the world (animals are good, animals are bad), and we demand that the world conform to those models, and it just doesn't.  Donella Meadows said repeatedly that any model is a simplification.  That makes it useful; but that also makes it incomplete and, to that extent, wrong.

Another vignette in the same leopard show revolved around the mother leopard bringing this same cub an injured baby impala to practice killing on.  That one she did torture, played with it, very roughly, until it died and she ate it.  The contrast was striking.  Was she just not as hungry when she found the baby baboon?  Was she older, closer to her own hormonal maternal urges?  The person who made the show obviously had a lot of footage and had spent a lot of time with this cat, so maybe he could say.

Or maybe not.  Our intuitions are not necessarily very good.  Here's an example of a peculiar dog behavior that we call "The Bowl Ritual."  My favorite part is the squeaky noise her wet nose makes on the kitchen floor.   Chloe does not do this all the time.  She's much less likely to do it when she's hungry (Note: my index of how hungry she is is how much and how fast she eats.  Even after the bowl ritual is complete, she may just take a couple bites and wander off).  And here's a classic rambling Internet discussion of why dogs do this.  I think the original blog poster  is wrong, by the way, and that commenters # 25 and 34 are right, although I agree with him on the more general point that our intuitions and just-so stories are not very good.

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December 12, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

Episode 27: Playing Hive and Systems Thinking

Wow.  I just got totally avalanched by the end of the semester.  Even now, I'm late for the office potluck.  And I didn't bring anything (jerk).  Maybe I can get away with brewing coffee...

We didn't try to record a game, but you can watch a demo video here, to visualize what the board looks like as you build it, and you can even play online or download a touchscreen version of the game.  Pretty fun.

Here is the description of the two-bug system model I mentioned during the podcast.

And my apologies for the gratuitous "I farted" comment at the end there (which was untrue, by the way).  I threatened to remove it, but hey, that's what living with an almost-ten-year-old is like.  You know it, I know it, why hide it?

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December 11, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

A missed networking opportunity

Last week I was sitting at Starbucks early in the morning, before my office hours, grading quizzes. Yes, I still use paper pop quizzes fairly often. Partly it’s a game theory thing; I want students to know that they can’t ever skip class, safely. Partly it’s because I want to see the pattern of their free-response answers so that I can build better multiple-choice questions.

Anyway, the tables at Starbucks are really close together. Eavesdropping is kind of inevitable unless you stick something in your ears. So while I’m working, I’m also listening to these two insurance guys dishing about the medical malpractice market. Apparently this was the single biggest expense for a doctor, until they changed the rules by doing what one of these guys called “defensive medicine,” wherein the doc orders every possible test, driving up the cost for the patient’s insurer, while reducing the chance that he’ll be sued. That was pretty interesting in itself, from a game-theory point of view, the moves and countermoves that these different players make within a system of rules, always trying to come out on top. They continued that thread through quite a few different examples, including the competition between companies for customers within each state.

(I don't know about where you live, but here in NC, Blue Cross is sitting on an 81% market share.  That's for individual health care insurance, not malpractice insurance, but the principle is the same.  Competition reduces costs, and companies try to reduce competition so they can raise costs.)

But then there was a momentary shift. One guy described his failures to get a meeting with a local hospital’s risk manager. He kept doing his normal sales pitch, describing the relative advantages of his products. Finally she said, “I’m a nurse by background and training. I don’t appreciate you talking over my head like that.” And he realized that this person “didn’t understand even the rudiments of insurance.” I really should have broken in at that point, handed them both my cards, and invited them to come talk to our prospective medical students. But I kind of chickened out, and they got up and left.

In any case, it was a great point. It reveals the single biggest tension I’ve seen in college education. Do you want to train specialists, who have detailed knowledge of a single topic? Or do you want to train generalists, people who can learn anything, given some time? Certainly most students want to be specialists, defined as narrowly as possible, because that’s easier. The most common question I heard that week was, “Can you tell me exactly what will be on the final, so I know what to study?” In other words, “What can I safely ignore?” Which makes sense. Every species strategically conserves its energy and resources when it can. But it creates a problem, namely that these specialists can’t understand one another. This is one of the major goals of the BEACON Center. How do we get biologists and computer scientists and engineers to talk to one another in productive ways, instead of talking past one another in defense of their own specialties?

So obviously and abstractly, the answer to the question of what to teach is “just enough to allow the specialists to communicate clearly with one another.” But how much is enough? Clearly, the language is necessary. Basic vocabulary, basic grammar. Currently English is the language of science, as Greek, Latin, French, and German were in the centuries leading up to this one. But each discipline has its own dialect of English; they label the same concepts with different words. And then they abbreviate those words into slang and coded acronyms to save time, and to emphasize the community of their disciplines, to exclude people outside their disciplines.

I think the solution is sort of like a fractal. The basic principles are the same across every field. Things like demand evidence. At each level of detail, there are similarities and differences. So is there a basic conceptual language that would allow a nurse and an insurance salesman to talk to one another? The old answer was logic. At one time every high school student studied premises, or facts, and conclusions, or inferences based on those facts. We don’t do that anymore. I personally never studied logic until I had to start teaching it as part of my Analytical Reasoning class. As a specialist research scientist, it was never required by any program I was in. But I have to say that teaching logic clarified my thinking and speaking about cause and effect in a way that doing experiments never had. On the flip side of that, I find that philosophers are entirely too confident about their ability to say whether a premise is true or not. Logic and experiments are both necessary; neither is sufficient; but as a scientist I have to say that experiments are more necessary. The world is above all a surprising place.

So let’s say for the sake of argument that we can magically convince all the specialists that a common language beyond the one they learned osmotically from their parents is necessary, and we teach everyone traditional logic. Arguments, premises, the rules that connect them.  There are a lot of  tools out there for that. Is that enough?

I would say no. Traditional philosophical logic is linear. Cause and effect are only one-way relationships. It does not take into account feedback loops, where event 1 causes event 2, but event 2 also causes event 1 in a later time-step. For instance, having babies who grow up to have their own babies.

There is a language that umbrellas a lot of different fields.  It's called, among other things, system dynamics.  More about that tonight, in an around our playtesting of the game Hive.

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