Category Archives: science

The School of Misdirection

* Masquerade *

“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
– Margaret Fuller

“Misinformation works.”
– Rand Paul

Before I became a computer programmer I was a student at a tech school. It was a fast-paced track that promised to teach employable programming skills in under a year.

On the first day the students in my class were also promised that many of us would drop out. That is what had always happened on this tough track.

But it didn’t happen to us.

The stereotype of introverted computer geeks hadn’t taken hold in the culture yet. Sociability was fairly high in the class and many of us hung out together, had lunch together, or had drinks together after class. We studied together. This group was very open, no one was excluded.

Along with a few others I was getting straight A’s and would help anyone who asked, answer anyone’s questions, keep trying to explain for as long as needed. We learned very quickly that doing this helped us to learn the material better. Things become clearer when you think them through and make them simpler.

Helping other students definitely helped me to improve.

And talking about the material made everything more interesting and studying was actually fun.

At graduation time they told us that we were the biggest class to make it through the course and we had the highest class GPA. We had a record number of students finish with an A average and few or no dropouts.

My class had gelled around a sense of mutual support.

Recently I’ve been told that some educational tracks are cut-throat. The students compete with each other for grades and ranking and the tactics can be vicious. A few weeks ago a United States Senator advised medical students to sabotage each other with bad information. Apparently within some fields of study knowledge is a zero-sum game and the incentives reward hoarding it for oneself and trying to prevent others from accessing it.

A few years after graduation I was looking for a better job. One of the students from my programming class spotted my resume on her boss’s desk. She told him that she remembered me from that class and that I’d helped her with the coursework.

I got the job.

In my career since then I’ve always tried to share whatever knowledge I have and tried to help and answer questions and offer ideas. In my spare time I became involved with a local technical group dedicated to spreading know-how and networking, and I served on the board of directors. Sharing has always enriched my life and I love it when I can make something clear enough that I can actually see the light in another person’s face as connections are clicking together.

Occasionally I’ve also encountered people who hoard knowledge or even are outright saboteurs, intentionally giving bad information in an attempt to cause the other person to fail.

I’ve found that people remember the ones who helped them and learn to distrust saboteurs.

As the use of social media rises, employers are catching on to the value of teamwork and sharing. Knowledge hoarders will find that they must learn to share or they won’t fit in.

And saboteurs? Saboteurs will find that misinformation will follow them.

Masquerade * by pareeerica, on Flickr

Connecting Across Spaces


We spin out our webs, weaving a structure for others to cross between or after us, if they happen to chance upon them.

There must be tracks to span the spaces between worlds, between my world and yours and anyone else’s. How else can we reach?

When structures fail us, that’s when we fall. That’s when the homeless find themselves huddled on an uncaring street. That’s when the suicide grasps at the blade as if flailing for a line, because solid structure can’t be found; if it exists it’s unseen, unfelt, tragically unknown. The strand that was followed ends here, the trail fades out, drops off.

The tracks our lives leave are what matters. Our lives are short but the tracks we leave behind may support scores after us.

Without them our lives are written on the wind.

Image source :” title=”Construction by, on Flickr”

Students, you will be receiving your Thinking Caps!

Research suggests that electric stimulation of the brain can speed up learning.

Scientific American: Transcranial Stimulation Shows Promise in Speeding Up Learning


The Dangerous Group

The young man squinted hard at the lines in front of him. He’d been asked to match a line to another line of the same length. He could see very clearly which it was. There shouldn’t be any doubt.

But the other young men who were seated at the table with him were unanimous. And they had, all of them, chosen the wrong line.

Pressed for an answer the young man went along with the group, knowing their answer was wrong.

To him, agreeing with the group was more important than the truth, was more right than fact.

Soloman Asch, the psychologist that led the experiment, found similar results in group after group. With nothing tangible at risk and no persuasion at all most subjects were willing to let a group of unarmed, nonthreatening strangers prevail at least once.

Questioned later, many of the subjects indicated that they’d feared the ridicule of the group. Some seemed to have even convinced themselves that the group must be right and they themselves wrong.

Conformity studies such as this one seek to observe the level of need of the individual to fit in with a group, but what about the group? What is there to fear from a group and why?

The answer is that groups do have the power to enforce their collective will on an individual, through punishment if necessary, regardless of the rationality, or lack of rationality, of the demand.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), the United States military policy formally repealed today, represents nothing so much as the power of a group to force its own version of reality upon dissenting individuals. Non-conforming service members faced the threat of losing their jobs and their homes, the companionship of their local friends, and were vulnerable to blackmail, perpetuating a threat to national security.

LGBT U.S. military personnel have now gained the right to claim their own thoughts and feelings about sexuality.

The unspoken and well supported fear of the group by individuals is another matter.

Apparently, Moms really do carry their children in their hearts forever

Part of me forever

Brain Time

“Time is this rubbery thing,” Eagleman said. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it shrinks up.”

– from:
The Possibillian : The New Yorker.

I can relate to Eagleman’s memory of the suspension of time during his childhood fall. I experienced it once as my car launched into the air over a ravine, tree branches whipping by, and also during a fall from a galloping horse, and while in the basket of a rapidly deflating hot air balloon plunging towards a swamp.

Like Eagleman and his grad students, I feel bedeviled by time. Tasked to invent a test for an industrial organizational psychology class, I wrote a measurement for “time sense.” But my test was primitive and rudimentary, especially compared to Eagleman’s methods using EEG, fMRI, musicians, and dropping subjects into a horrifying 110 foot free fall backwards to a net.

Missed exits

I had a mechanic check the cooling system of my car yesterday. It had overheated last Friday, late in the afternoon. Some thingamajiggy had popped off and all the coolant dumped out.

“Freak accident,” Tim the mechanic said. “It’s fine now.”

I don’t really believe in freak accidents. I’ll apologize right now to my scientist friends. I do know that my feelings about that are normal. I plead normalcy!

Because the car had overheated, I changed all of our plans for the weekend. Instead of farmers markets and friends and family, we had a quiet weekend at home because I didn’t trust the car. Who knows what the weekend might have been like otherwise? Might we have gotten in an accident or gotten a ticket? Whatever it might have been, the thingamajiggy changed it.

Once, years ago, my brother Bill called me from his truck.

“I missed my exit,” he said. “How do I get to your house from the next exit?”

I told him how and we hung up but it wasn’t long before he called me again. He’d had an accident and he needed me to come get him.

It turned out that he’d gotten caught in a left turn only lane at the 2nd stoplight. He’d had to stop behind a little Honda turning left. A massive SUV, a Navigator, came up full speed behind him and smashed into the back of his mid-sized Dodge Dakota pickup truck. It pushed him forward and he hit the back of the Honda in turn and almost pushed it into oncoming traffic.

I went and picked him up. He was upset and kicking himself. When he saw me he started to cry.

“I’m such a screwup!” he said.

I gave him a big hug. It wasn’t his fault! The girl in the SUV had been gabbing away on a cell phone and not paying attention. She hadn’t even hit the brakes!

“Besides,” I said, “I think you saved that girl’s life by being there. What if that SUV had back ended the Honda instead of you? Think how much energy your truck absorbed. It acted as a buffer. If she’d hit the Honda it would’ve gotten the full force of the impact and it certainly would’ve been pushed directly into the oncoming traffic.”

“Bill, I think you were meant to be there. I think God asked you to miss your exit and he put you there to save that girl.”

He got quiet. The tears stopped while he thought about it. It seemed to make him feel better.

It was true. Whether there was a higher power involved or not, his truck had buffered the impact on that little car. The girl in that car was hurt enough that an ambulance had taken her to the hospital. A direct hit from that SUV could have killed her.

I believed then and I still believe that Bill saved her just by being there. He seemed to believe me too. At least, he stopped beating himself up over it.

God bless Bill for feeling comforted by the thought that he’d taken a metaphorical bullet for some girl that he didn’t even know.

Whenever I miss an exit or something happens to cause me to reroute my plans, like a thingamajig jumping off my car, I think about Bill and the girl in the little Honda.

How a Personality Profile Helped Uncover John Edwards’ Lies

It’s easy for a confident liar to lie. Getting that same liar to tell the truth is another story, a story told by David Perel, former Editor-in-Chief, National Enquirer, in a recent post.

As Perel recalls, no one wanted to take the National Enquirer seriously when it published a piece about the pregnant girlfriend of a married presidential candidate. The man, John Edwards, denied it. Edwards’ aide supported the lie by claiming paternity himself. And with the supermarket tabloid’s long history of reporting ‘news’ about such fantasy figures as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, displaying photos of Satan’s face in a black cloud, denial was an easy sell for Edwards.

Incredibly, the Enquirer team had not expected the denial or the creative cover story. Edwards was betting that only his confession could validate the unsavory story. He wasn’t about to do it.

Unwilling to write off an actual news story and all of the effort and high-tech resources that getting it entailed, the Enquirer hired a mental health professional to help them to understand why Edwards was lying and how to gain his confession.

The analyst told Perel that Edwards was a man who prioritized and controlled his own carefully constructed image. He would never confess to anything unless it was the only way to keep some of that control. This knowledge changed the way Perel handled the growing evidence.

Perel held most of the evidence back but let Edwards know that the Enquirer team had stalked and photographed him throughout a recent encounter with his mistress. Edwards was given just enough information to realize that the Enquirer’s claims were true. From there his own imagination and guilty conscience could take over. Not knowing what else the Enquirer had, Edwards confessed to the affair but continued to deny fathering a child with his mistress, keeping some small control of the extent of his betrayal.

It was enough to validate the Enquirer. Thousands of man hours and the use of the best technology available had still come down to one thing: understanding Edwards and predicting his reactions.

According to Perel, letting Edwards imagine the worst was the only way to get him to tell some truth.

“Is Facebook Damaging Your Brain?”

My brother Bill sent me this youtube link last night – Is Facebook Damaging Your Brain?.

The journalist understandably seizes on the most exciting aspect of neuroscientist Lady Susan Greenfield’s concerns for the title. The edited clips suggest that she sees a possible correlation between social networking and rising rates of ADHD and Autism “over the last 10 years.” Perhaps that suggestion is only in the editing, as she must be aware that social networking is much more recent. Facebook itself was limited to college students and faculty until recently.

Then she says, “…depending on what kind of person you want the next generation to be…”

I wonder if aging adults have a primal fear of losing the attention of their descendants even while becoming more and more dependant upon them. After all, it’s one thing to share photos with Grandma over Facebook, and quite another to drive over with the photos and visit her, and maybe clean the gutters or clear some snow and ice while you’re there.

I’m all for studying the effects of computing on the brain but I wouldn’t worry too much about Facebook as a cause of autism. Instead, I recommend that you make sure you have frequent facetime with Grandma and Grandpa, if you’re fortunate enough to still have them. Go and see what they might need but aren’t asking for.

If you want to worry about brain damage, maybe you should worry more about common chemicals in your environment, for example, Ammonia (
It’s What’s For Dinner)

Reading Between The Lines: NY Times

Stuff I Read In The New York Times

Food Industry fights back in the battle for healthy food, creates a label calling sugar, fat, sodium “Smart”.
(For Your Health, Froot Loops)

Wall Street Innovates a New Way to Reach Out and Harvest Your Savings.
(Wall Street Pursues Profit in Bundles of Life Insurance)

Boeing Throws a Big Project over the Wall, Gets Broken Wings in Return.
(A Dream Interrupted at Boeing)
Comment: Isn’t engineering and design a key strength at Boeing? Why would they outsource that?

Some Good Advice for Freshmen, Take a Composition Course! Stanley Fish says that if you can’t write a clean English sentence, “…you can’t do anything.”
(The Hunt for a Good Teacher)
Comment:Spoken like a writer and of course I agree. I could easily have gotten out of the freshman composition class but it was well worth the investment. Please. Forget that you think you can write and your high school teachers said you could too. Swallow your pride. Take the course.

Released CIA documents support FBI agent’s claim that Osama Bin Laden is still Free Because of Torture.
(What Torture Never Told Us)

The New York Times Editors Don’t Seem to Know What Socialism Is, Either.
(Respect Your Children)

In Case You Haven’t Already Figured This Out, Rising Health Care Costs Hold Wages and Jobs Down.
(Let’s Get Fundamental)
Comment: Guess what? If your employer can’t afford the health premiums for you, welcome to the Great LayOff. If your employer can cover them but then can’t afford to give you a raise, then you don’t get a raise. Welcome to Reality!

No Surprise: One Of the Kidnapping Couple Is Described As Likable, Kind, Caring.
(Few Clues to Puzzle of Suspect in Abduction)
Comment: Folie a deux

Amazon Thinks College Students Want To Pay More For Textbooks
(Texting? No, Just Trying To Read Chapter 6)

Nanny Robots Build Emotional Ties With Children, Useful For Nagging Them To Brush Their Teeth.
(Gadgets Now The Target of Marketing for the Ages)

Amazon: Sorry We Snuck Into Your Libraries and Took Your Books. We Thought You Couldn’t Mind.
( Offers To Replace Copies of Orwell Book)

Pour On The Coal! Pollution May Be Saving Us From An ICE AGE.
(Global Warming Could Forestall Ice Age)