One Commandment Better Than Ten

I often hear people proclaim the importance of the Ten Commandments. Now I’m not going to get into which ten nor am I interested in delving into whether or not they should be displayed in public schools, at the local courthouse, etc. (clearly not because government sanction of the first four are obvious violations of the Constitution).

No, what I’m interested in is whether or not we can come up with something that is both broader and simpler. In other words, better. Continue reading “One Commandment Better Than Ten”

Sorry, It’s Still M*A*S*H

I’m getting a little sick of the repeated announcement (thank you, corporate sports whores at the NFL) that this past Sunday’s game was the most popular TV event in US history. And of course, this is quickly followed by the “fact” that last year’s game is in the number two spot with the finale of M*A*S*H having dropped to third.  Here are the numbers that have been swirling around lately:

1. Super Bowl XLV — 111 million viewers (2011)

2. Super Bowl XLIV — 106.5 million viewers (2010)

3. M*A*S*H* series finale — 106 million viewers (1983)

I guess it helps if you conveniently ignore the fact that while there are an estimated 307 million people in the USA right now, that value stood at a mere 233 million in 1983. So if you look at it in terms of the percentage of people who chose to watch, M*A*S*H beats the pants off of both of them. And no, I am not some manner of disgruntled M*A*S*H fanatic. I thought the original movie was better than the TV show.


My most recent odd dream

I don’t have them consistently, but never go too long without a real eyebrow-raiser.

Last night I had one of those Dreams That Won’t Quit–the kind that is broken into segments by brief periods of wakefulness accompanied by a modicum of bleary “what the hell?” thinking. At the outset, I found myself in Boston, sitting on a giant trestle situated in the Charles River and facing east. And when I say “in,” I am not actually intended to convey “across.” This trestle–and there were others like it to the left, skimming along the river’s northern shore, as well as several side-like exits to the southern shore–ran longitudinally near the center of the river itself all the way to Boston Harbor (which appeared to be at least two miles away) and for some indeterminate distance behind me.

Seated in front of me was a certain lady friend. Behind me was my dad. For whatever reason I knew this unlikely trio was on its way to the Boston Museum of Science.

That the Boston landscape had been rendered as a cross between wherever the Jetsons live and the Wild West did not affect the fact that the dream only got interesting when the track beneath us began to move, treadmill-style, toward the west (in other words, opposite the direction we were facing and needed to go). As it turned out, the surface of this track was for some reason slick enough to cause my father to fall forward rather than move with the track itself, and when he did, I in turn fell forward into my certain lady friend, who then fell sideways into the Charles.

My father and I managed to secure purchase on the track and moved westward with it at a furious pace as my certain lady friend plunged below the surface. I felt palpable panic by dream standards until I saw her head pop above the surface. As what I could see of her receded from view, I saw a pair of police boats emerge from the left and speed toward the beleaguered lady. At the very moment I saw that she had been rescued, I tumbled toward the right (why didn’t these things come equipped with safety rails?) and down one of the slide-like constructs bound for the southern shore, presumably toward the vicinity of the Fens.

But when I landed (on my feet, natch), I wasn’t in the Fens. I was in some dense and unlikely jungle that boasted creatures ranging from oversized lions to penguins who could fly as adeptly as the most venerable hock. They failed to notice me, so I said “fuck this shit,” and wandered deeper into the jungle, determined to find Storrow Drive and ideally an MBTA station. Then I woke up for good.

I won’t look for any of these niceties on my next trip to Beantown.

The Big G

I kind of like the idea of a god with a dark sense of humor and a keen eye for irony. Like this: All the atheists and agnostics go to the afterlife and the big G says “You know, you guys never found any concrete evidence for the existence of all of this supernatural stuff and I can respect your search for the truth, even though you wound up wrong. For that, I’m going to tell you the secret of the universe and give you everlasting happiness”. To the true believers from whatever religion that wind up in the afterlife he says “You had absolutely no tangible proof whatsoever that any of this existed. You simply nodded your head and followed the other sheep, bleating about ‘faith’. As I gave you a functioning brain and expected you to use it, I simply cannot abide by that sort of mindlessness. Therefore, I will grant you everlasting happiness, but as you don’t seem to value a true search for evidence of the underlying nature of the universe, you don’t get to learn the secret of it all.”

Glorifying dysfunction, round 296.80

Tim Kreider recently made an excellent point in his always hilarious weekly comic strip, “The Pain–When Will It All End?” In the note below the illustration, Kreider writes:

“Let the record show that the hooch did William Faulkner’s prose, health, and complexion no favors, and he ended up cowering from invisible dive-bombing Jerries; that Miles Davis mostly sat around watching TV while on heroin and only returned to making music after successfully kicking it; and that as Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler made some very poor policy and strategic decisions, at least some of which might be attributed to the daily injections of amphetaimes his doctor had him on after ’42 or so, and that the bad end to which he ultimately came was a direct result of his own poor judgment. Among others, he committed the most famous of the classic blunders: Never Get Involved in the Land War in Asia. A textbook meth-head move. In a clichéd denoument straight out of so many drug education filmstrips, he ended up shooting his wife and himself in an underground bunker while the Russian army closed in around his crumbling empire and his body was doused in gasoline and set on fire, and now he is the most hated person in world history.”

I point this out because I often see people classified or formally diagnosed as bipolar lauded for their creativity. Often it’s the bipolar person himself or herself making the association. From there, it’s only a short misstep to proclaiming bipolar disorder a veritable sine qua non of good artistic works and hence as a de facto asset.
Noted 20th-century novelist Graham Greene made the following observation:

“[Greene] was, he later explained to Vivien, ‘a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life”, his restlessness and moods being symptoms of a disease. ‘Unfortunately, the disease is also one’s material.'”

Greene’s life on the whole was, not only by others’ testimony but by his own admission, a predictable morass of womanizing, poor accountability, and generally unpredictable behavior.
It’s one thing to look for unifying traits among people with troubling mood disorders and seek silver linings in those disorders. But rationalization and plain self-deceit are first cousins, and to pretend that the bipolar writer, painter, or musician requires periods of mania in order to maintain properly affected output is a load of shit. This is not only because of the poor trade-off Kreider describes, but because of simple averaging.
If a marathon coach told you to transition from weekdays of no running and Saturdays and Sundays of 35 miles each to a simple 10-miles-a-day regimen, you probably wouldn’t accuse him of robbing you of motivation. A nutritionist who advises people who fast two days in every three and knock back 6,000 calories on eating days to take in about 2,000 calories daily would probably not be accused of ruining people’s appetites. Other, equally trivial but illustrative examples abound. Yet those in the sizable community of bipolar people are often led to believe, through their own analyses or through others’, that dealing with their symptoms through pharmacology or other means spells a virtual end to creativity.
I would argue that this is bullshit. For one thing, among writers, much of what’s produced during manic episodes is undirected or misdirected garbage, nothing more than glaring evidence of someone with a keyboard and an aversion to sitting or lying still. For another, and hearkening to the analogies above, the fact that such people usually experience lows as often as they do highs spells an overall output lower than that of someone able to churn out a certain amount of material daily or almost daily. A few nights a week or month of high-octane verbosity cannot, except for the most talented, compensate for to many strings of days spend in lassitude or outright paralysis, where the whole idea of sitting before a keyboard presents as a Sisyphean task. Perhaps this “theory” would have merit if the mania added a qualitative element that was otherwise lacking, but there’s no evidence that it adds anything but energy. Vim is important, but in bipolars it comes coupled to far too many destructive patterns to be properly labeled an asset.
Clearly, the association between bipolar disorder–like any mental-health diagnosis a subjective one and hence probably applied with undue enthusiasm to highly successful artistic sorts–and creativity is real. But for every Peter Gabriel or Sting or Graham Greene are thousands of people whose lives simply suck on account of the difficulty of managing the composite of symptoms formerly labeled “manic-depressive disorder.” It is as ludicrous to paint bipolar disorder as an asset in any functional way as it is to look at the average pre-winnings incomes of lottery winners and conclude that poverty is a strong indicator of great luck.

Wish I knew what the editors of Nature were smoking!

Oh, wait, I do. Kind of.
As I write this, the home page “buzz” concerns this editorial in Nature, one of the world’s pre-eminent science journals. Here, a septet of scholarly voices combine to rally behind “brain doping” (apparently a cutting-edge way of saying “taking speed”) as a means of achieving “cognitive enhancement” (or, more formally, “getting high”).
The thrust of the argument the writers make is that the responsible use of stimulant drugs like modanifil (Provigil), methylphenidate (Ritalin) and Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) can lead to enhanced cognitive function and thus (careful of this “if A then B,” because I don’t really see it as categorically valid) a better, more productive life. It’s a little strange; these people are taking an old idea and making an old argument in its favor, but because the argument is in Nature and supplemented by more psychopharmacology than you’d see at, say, a NORML convention, people are apt to treat it as novel.

Continue reading “Wish I knew what the editors of Nature were smoking!”

The Golden Gate Bridge suicide phenomenon

A man named Eric Steel has stubbornly filmed the jumping suicides of 24 people from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004.
I’m not sure anyone wants to watch this.
I happen to have a been a city resident at the time, doing diabetes research. I never saw a jumper, but a running friend had. This person saw a guy who was just poised, and, with no warning, sprang over the edge of the bridge, hands-free. Apparently all sorts of people saw it.
I always figured that if I were to do the deed, I’d jump. Messy if not done over water, certainly. I”m just too much of a wimp to deal with with the final seconds, in which virtually everyone reconsiders. Takng one’s own life is just contrary to biology, after all.
I’m reminded of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which connects Pinellas County in Florida with Manatee County via I-275. I thought more than once of leaping off that fucker into Tampa Bay. No one lives through that.
Editorializing, the Skyway is a freakish and scary structure to cross. Like the Golden Gate, there is camera monitoring on the highest span, and a cop is always there to talk jumpers down. Of course, if someone wants to park his car on top of the bridge, get out, and jump apace, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
In May of 1980, in one of the most notable bridge disasters ever, a freight boat crashed into a pier of the old Skyway during a storm, knocking out a quarter-mile long span of the bridge. 35 people died (a Greyhound bus was on the span at the time). I was ten years old and remember it well because I was such a bridge nut. The entrance to the old bridge has been converted into a park, and many people fish there.

Have You Been Paying Attention?

Have you been paying attention to science news? See if you can answer the little quiz below (my mind was wondering while proctoring my Science of Sound final exam yesterday).
Which of the following is not both a planet and an element in the Periodic Table:
A. Mercury
B. Uranus/Uranium
C. Neptune/Neptunium
D. Pluto/Plutonium
No fair looking up a Periodic Table either.

Recite Your ZYXs

Maybe it’s my musical training or my love of palindromes, but I have a habit of reading signs and whatnot backwards (right to left). Sometimes funny things pop up.

As readers of this blog may have noted, I have a thing for patterns and sequences. Maybe it’s my musical training (e.g., inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion of a motif) or my love of palindromes, but I have a habit of reading signs and whatnot backwards (right to left). Sometimes funny things pop up. The other day I was riding my bike (on the mag trainer, not in the snow) and sometimes I will count revolutions to pass the time. That gets boring so I might count “alphabets” (hey, it’s easier than counting to 26 over and over). I thought about reciting the alphabet backwards. This proved to be not so easy. I found myself reciting small bits forward, and then spitting them back out in reverse. Not very efficient. Then I hit on something. I discovered that if I created a mental picture of the alphabet, as if I was looking at it on a blackboard, reciting it backwards became much easier. I could “see” the letters in my head, so reciting them became much easier. Then, I started to link the letters to the familiar cadence of “The ABCs” that is taught in grade school (groups of 7, 9, 3, 3, 2 and 2):
Y and Z
Now I’ve said my ABCs,
tell me what you think of me.

Given the way this is usually recited, I’d wager that half of all children think “LMNO” is a single letter. For my own part, I like to envision it as the name of a Mexican superhero from the 1800’s: “Why look! It’s El Emeno! We’re saved!”
OK, so apply the same cadence to the backward alphabet and you get:

SRQPONMLK (roll that onmlk together)
B and A
Now I’ve said my ZYXs,
tell me what you think of Texas.

Try it. It’s fun once you get the hang of it and people will think you have some kind of talent if you do it at parties because most people never ever try to do familiar things in alternate ways.
It also gives you a chance to make snide remarks about the Lone Star State if you so choose.

Top Gear in Alabama

I am a fan of the BBC show Top Gear. Mind you, I’m no gear-head, but these guys do some funny things and I like to hear their take on various new car models. Last night I caught an episode that I had not seen before where the three hosts come to the USA, rent cars, and drive to New Orleans. On the way, they pass through Alabama, and well, some not-so-friendly southern hospitality ensues. Video here.
Co-host James May has a few words about it in his blog.
Let’s just say that the take-home message is that in certain areas of the USA one should not attempt humor that “colors outside the lines”. I cannot imagine this reaction where I live in upstate NY (odd looks yes, maybe even a few rude remarks, but that’s about it). The best line is the closer:
“In certain parts of America now, people have begun to mate with vegetables.”


There is a fun programming assignment I give to my freshman Python class. I call it curses. An example of it (written in Java, with source) can be found here. Basically, the program generates a series of denunciations, each followed by a somewhat odd curse. For example: “You noisy pile of squashed dog snot- May your TV set gyrate madly!” or “You mindless sponge of rotting spam- May your buttocks emit a loud buzzing noise!” (try it, you might find it entertaining). The purpose of the assignment is to show the students how to use random numbers to access tuples (random array indexing for you non-Python programmers).
(fun stuff and naughty bits below the fold)

Continue reading “Curses”

A Mnemonic Device for Electrical Students

Sequences, whether it’s the colors of the rainbow, the names of the planets, or ages of Earth’s geologic past just scream for mnemonic devices such as acronym-sentences. Some of these can be quite entertaining in their own right, and even more entertaining if you make them up yourself. For example, beginning electrical engineering and technology students are faced with the task of memorizing the resistor color code. The code is used to denote the nominal value of resistors with a total of ten colors corresponding to the numerals 0 through 9:

Continue reading “A Mnemonic Device for Electrical Students”

DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments, Part 3

Can the idea of visualization coupled with mirror neurons be helpful to someone learning a musical instrument?

“Visualize! Visualize! Visualize!” is a cry often heard by athletes. The idea is to picture a performance in the mind, and by repeatedly doing so, help insure a successful result when the times comes for the real thing. For example, as a runner I might try to visualize striding smoothly and powerfully mid-race so that hopefully, that image will become reality on race day. I have had some luck with this and recommend Running Within by Lynch and Scott if you’re interested. But these sorts of things are rather vague and rely on reinforcement of a positive self-image, of a confidence-booster. I’m more interested in something a little more concrete. If you’ve read my earlier DIY Neuro-Motor posts here and here, you know what I’m getting at. Can the idea of visualization coupled with mirror neurons be helpful to someone learning a musical instrument?

Continue reading “DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments, Part 3”

DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments, Part 2

One thing I want to dispel immediately is that this is about normal “handedness”. No, this has more to do with skills that are shared unevenly across the body (or even directionally on a side).

One thing I want to dispel immediately is that this is about normal “handedness”. Sure, you can pick up a ball and throw it with your non-dominant hand/arm and experience the sensation of a “chicken-arm”, but that’s not the point under investigation. No, this has more to do with skills that are shared unevenly across the body (or even directionally on a side). Consequently, the attempt at a mirror image action produces sub-par performance in both the dominant and non-dominant sides. Secondly, we expect that repetition of an action will lead to better performance of that action, so repeated performance of the mirror image motion will eventually produce smoother and more efficient motion. This, in turn, raises a few questions: What does it feel like for an expert to be suddenly “thrown backward in time”, performing at the same level as an intermediate of beginner? How long does it take to master the mirror movement and how does the process compare to the original learning? Is this experience in any way comparable to what someone with a mild stroke experiences? Further, does this new learning impact former skills, and if so, positively or negatively?

Continue reading “DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments, Part 2”

DIY Neuro-Motor Asymmetry Experiments

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been performing a little experiment on myself. I’d like to invite other Sciblings and readers to consider joining in with their own self-experimenting and report back their initial findings and then again weeks or months down the road. This could be interesting.

Owing to an overuse injury that has curtailed my running, I find myself gravitating toward my other main avocation, the drums, in order to maintain my sanity. These two things are at opposite ends of the spectrum: one is all about fitness, the other, skill. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been performing a little experiment on myself. I’d like to invite other Sciblings and readers to consider joining in with their own self-experimenting and report back their initial findings and then again weeks or months down the road. This could be interesting.

Continue reading “DIY Neuro-Motor Asymmetry Experiments”

Hitchens: Men are from Comedy Central, Women are from Dourland

Ever the provocateur, Christopher Hitchens tells us Why Women Aren’t Funny in the January 2007 Vanity Fair.
Mr. Hitchens believes that humor in men serves as an attractant to women, sort of a laff riot version of the male peacock’s tail:

Continue reading “Hitchens: Men are from Comedy Central, Women are from Dourland”