Rocks vs. Frogs

Teresa on game design (inspired by a lesson on alive and not alive at school today, in which rocks and frogs were compared):

What if there was a game called rocks versus frogs?
If the frog sits on top of the rock and lays its eggs on it, and the eggs crack and the yolk gets all over the rock, then the frog wins.
If a tornado comes and blows the rock on top of the frog, the rock wins.

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Bedtime Story: “Hey, watch what I can do,” said the Skunk

“Hey,” said Skunk, “watch what I can do.”

“Okay,” said Rabbit and Deer, and turned to watch.

Skunk pointed at a dandelion, ripe and ready to blow in the wind, and raised his black and white eyebrow.  “Eh?”

Skunk turned his rear end towards the dandelion and let fly his best predator-befuddling blast.  The dandelion seeds flew up into the air and over the grass.

“That’s quite a trick,” said Rabbit, holding her nose.  “I think I see some really nice clover go over there. My stomach is ready for breakfast.” She hopped away.

“Grrt idear, frrnd rrbbit,” snuffled Deer, trying not to breathe. She wobbled after her friend.

“Yeah,” mused Skunk. “That was a good one.”

The seeds wafted across hillock and glen. Wherever they went, animals avoided them. Mice refused to eat them, or in fact anything they touched. Beetles, as soon as they caught a whiff of the scent they carried, scuttled in the opposite direction. In fact, none of them was eaten–save one, by a stink bug.

Teresa: Ew gross, a stink bug.

Yes, they all landed safely, because no animal would go near them. They were the worst-smelling dandelion seeds ever.

“We’re lonely,” one seed said.

“Why doesn’t anyone like us?” moaned another.

But you know what?  Because they weren’t eaten, most of them sprouted, and nearly half of them grew into dandelions. Which was very unusual — normally, they’d be lucky if even one made it. They were protected by the skunk’s scent.

And that’s the end of the story.

Maya: Dad, can we have an ending?

Rabbit and Deer munched in a clearing. Their noses twitched every once in a while.

“Mmm, this is delicious clover,” said Deer.

“Oh, yes, it is absolutely delicious,” Rabbit agreed. “A fine breakfast.”

“Yes, I’m so glad we are eating it together,” Deer said.

“I think I’ll go get some salad dressing to go with it,” Rabbit offered, and scampered off.

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Return Fluids to User

Over the last year or so, our local blood bank has been encouraging donors to give what they call “double red” donations, rather than regular old whole blood.  I’ve done it a couple of times now.

The Good:

  • You get to lie down on a heating pad.  It’s awfully nice.  The apheresis machine (which centrifuges your blood, keeps what it wants and returns the rest to you) gives you extra saline, and it’s cold.
  • My employer gives time off to donate blood.  That’s awfully nice of them.
  • You can go in half as often as whole blood donation and still give the same quantity.  After all, most of what hospitals need is your red blood cells; they’re happy for you to keep the rest.

Now, regular blood donation is pretty straightforward: Someone sticks a needle in you and waits for the bag to fill up.  Then they walk you over to a kitchenette, holding your arm in case you start to faint, and you celebrate with a snack.  But apheresis involves a more intimate encounter with technology.

The Weird:

  • You can taste the machine.  (I’m sure this is true for being on an IV drip, too.)  When it puts electrolytes back into you, they come through a fresh vinyl tube.  It doesn’t take long for the fumes to spread throughout your circulatory system, including the back side of your taste buds, so that it feels like you just ate a new inflatable pool toy.  Does that mean we are constantly tasting ourselves from the inside, but we we’re just used to it?
  • It can make your teeth tingly.  The phlebotomist explained that, with the red cells, I’m losing calcium from my blood, and my body is drawing it out of my bones and teeth.  But that’s okay, there’s a remedy, she said, and gave me a couple of Tums to chew on.  It seemed to work—the tingling went away.

A few weeks ago, I went in for my fourth double-red donation.  I was well-hydrated, and I had just gone out to lunch with my Mom and had a nice big plate of chicken fajitas to prepare.  The blood donation folks hooked me up to the machine, and everything was going well, until the phlebotomist called a supervisor over to look at the machine.  She was doing her best Professional Calm.

“What is it?” the supervisor asked, in a half-whisper.

“It’s saying 12/09.”  They both inspected the machine’s little LCD display.  “This one came out of the same box I’ve been using all month.”

“Well, it’s expired.  We can’t use it,” the supervisor admitted.

“What should I do?”

“You’ll have to give him his fluids back.”

“How do I do that?”

“Select ‘Return fluids to user’ in the menu.”

Man, if I ever get to use “Return fluids to user” in a computer interface, I will have truly lived.

Posted in Life, Techno-biological | 3 Comments

Smart Pill to help children get through Puberty?

This looks like a “tip of the iceberg” type of article: Smart pill that helps children through puberty.

To summarize,

  1. During adolescence, a specific brain development makes it harder for you to learn. I remember going from being able to absorb just about anything to having to work to learn stuff, around 13-15, and I’ve heard that my grandfather Bill made a similar observation.
  2. Someone is advocating use of a drug to block this development (which seems kind of crazy without much more investigation)
  3. But there’s another way to improve learning: experience mild stress: “Dr Smith said until a pill was developed, students could increase their learning by enduring mild stress.” What does that mean — adolescents should be challenged? Could there be a sound basis to some cultures’ ritualized coming-of-age stress experiences?

What is going on here, and what does it imply for adolescent education? Is “send them to a farm” correct after all? What kind of farm? Should it include camels, or are they too stressful?

Posted in Techno-biological | 1 Comment

Keeping computers from ending science’s reproducibility

Here’s a really good description of one of the key things that the people I work with are wrestling with right now:

Ars Technica: Keeping computers from ending science’s reproducibility

Basically, scientific exploration is relying more and more on computation. Scientists used to know how to tell other scientists how to reproduce their results, when it was just manipulation of the physical world. But computers have turned out to be really messy, and it’s hard to describe how they were used to perform a particular experiment.

One of the main things we’re trying to provide (that is, the people I work with at NCSA) is an accurate — even reproducible — description of the computer processes that led to particular data or conclusions. It’s the kind of thing that Joe Futrelle can foam at the mouth about, but only arouse concerned looks from the people around him because it sounds so esoteric and fiddly. I thought this article did a good job of explaining why it’s vital to the process of scientific investigation. Here are the first two paragraphs:

In recent years, scientists may have inadvertently given up on a key component of the scientific method: reproducibility. That’s an argument that’s being advanced by a number of people who have been tracking our increasing reliance on computational methods in all areas of science. An apparently simple computerized analysis may now involve a complex pipeline of software tools; reproducing it will require version control for both software and data, along with careful documentation of the precise parameters used at every step. Some researchers are now getting concerned that their peers simply aren’t up to the challenge, and we need to start providing the legal and software tools to make it easier for them.

In the past, reproduction was generally a straightforward affair. Given a list of reagents, and an outline of the procedure used to generate some results, other labs should be able to see the same things. If a result couldn’t be reproduced, then it could be a sign that the original result was so sensitive to the initial conditions that it probably wasn’t generally relevant; more seriously, it could be viewed as a sign of serious error or fraud. In any case, the ability to reproduce a given result is key to its general acceptance and, since a successful experiment is often the foundation of further research, often essential for pushing a field forward.

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The Psychology of Moral Safety

I’ve had a question for a while now: Why do people who crusade against a particular “moral evil” so often struggle against it personally and fall prey to it, sometimes very publicly? In my opinion, it happens too often to be mere coincidence — I really think there’s a correlation.

Well, the Boston Globe published an article this week by Drake Bennett on The Nature of Temptation, which talks about that tie. It explains the dangers of overconfidence in one’s own willpower:

… people with the most favorable opinion of their own moral fortitude seem to have the widest empathy gaps. In one study, Nordgren looked at a group of people trying to quit smoking and found that it was those who rated their willpower particularly highly who were most likely to end up smoking again within a few months. The reason, Nordgren argues, is that they were more cavalier about exposing themselves to situations where they might be tempted to smoke. It’s a tendency that he argues extends far beyond smokers. Mark Sanford’s admission this week that in the lead-up to his affair he had flirtatious extramarital relationships that “didn’t cross the sex line” with multiple women suggests, perhaps, a similarly reckless faith in his own willpower.

Beyond willpower is a sense of one’s own inherent moral goodness — if you’re a “good guy”, you don’t need to prove it by actually doing good things:

A paper published this spring … at Northwestern University found that, if people were primed to think of themselves as good, caring people, they were actually less generous with donations, and less likely to advocate spending money on costly environmental protection measures, than people primed to think of themselves as selfish and cruel.

The article quotes Benoit Monin, a Stanford University professor, “People feel like they have a free pass because they’ve amassed those moral credits as a good person.” It goes on to cite a suggestion by Sonya Sachdeva, a graduate student who was an author of the Northwestern paper:

… for those who worry about the complacency that moral self-satisfaction can bring, the key may lie in seeing our good deeds as individually unimportant. Rather than thinking of moral acts as accomplishments – thereby triggering the cooling effect on our inner moral thermostat – we should strive to make them habitual, almost rote, so they’re not competing with all of our other goals. Writing of “moral habits” two millennia ago, Aristotle argued for something similar.

This line of reasoning also might help illuminate why the Baha’i Long Obligatory Prayer includes such an emphasis on our own weakness and moral limitations.

Thou dost perceive my tears and the sighs I utter, and hearest my groaning, and my wailing, and the lamentation of my heart. By Thy might! My trespasses have kept me back from drawing nigh unto Thee; and my sins have held me far from the court of Thy holiness. Thy love, O my Lord, hath enriched me, and separation from Thee hath destroyed me, and remoteness from Thee hath consumed me.

The Long Obligatory Prayer has always seemed to me to be particularly powerful. Baha’u’llah is quoted as saying, “In truth, it hath been revealed in such wise that if it be recited to a rock, that rock would stir and speak forth.” I’ve wondered, though, why it puts so much emphasis on humility and unworthiness. Perhaps comparing one’s moral standard to God’s is a sure way to keep perspective, and help avoid the “cooling effect on our moral thermostat” that Sachdeva describes. From the prayer:

Thy forgiveness hath emboldened me, and Thy mercy hath strengthened me and Thy call hath awakened me, and Thy grace hath raised me up and led me unto Thee. Who, otherwise, am I that I should dare to stand at the gate of the city of Thy nearness, or set my face toward the lights that are shining from the heaven of Thy will? Thou seest, O my Lord, this wretched creature knocking at the door of Thy grace, and this evanescent soul seeking the river of everlasting life from the hands of Thy bounty. Thine is the command at all times, O Thou Who art the Lord of all names; and mine is resignation and willing submission to Thy will, O Creator of the heavens!

There’s much more in the Globe article. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in current psychological research on personal moral integrity.

Posted in Life | 1 Comment

Philosophy of a 4-year-old

Setting: back yard

T: “I wish it was pillow day. Where there are pillows everywhere.”

Dad: “Pillows everywhere?”

T: “Yeah, and all the pillows are filled with candy.”

On not having arms

“Without arms you couldn’t throw out the compost.”

“Without arms, you couldn’t pick flowers for your Mom on her birthday.”

See, those are the important things.

Teresa Philosophizing

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Things Grownups Do

(according to Teresa)

  • Put out balloons for birthday parties
  • Reach the sink1
  • Make a hole in the ground
  • Drink coffee
  • Make a happy face
  • Grow flowers
  • Pull out weeds
  • Eat sour plant2
  • Make honey water3

And that’s all.

1 Without a stool.

2 Referring to wood sorrel, an edible plant common in Illinois. Also referred to by the under-5 crowd around here as “heart plant”, for the shape of its leaves. Actually, Teresa does her own share of eating it whenever she has a chance, so this list is apparently not exclusive to grown-ups.

3 I made her some this morning because her throat was crackly.

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Parental responsibility: resolving disputes.
Teresa: Dad, Maya said that difficult is hard. And I said that difficult is easy.

Can you please tell the best way?

Me: Mm-hmm. Is difficult easy for you?
Teresa: Yes.

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Time and Beauty

Here is an article that I just read that I love. It describes time as an emergent property of the universe; that is, it’s not a fundamental thing—instead, it arises from other, more basic things. I’m not sure what those basic things are, but I have a feeling that the arrangement is important:

My favorite part of the article:

“It’s quite mysterious why we have such an obvious arrow of time,” says Seth Lloyd, a quantum mechanical engineer at MIT. (When I ask him what time it is, he answers, “Beats me. Are we done?”) “The usual explanation of this is that in order to specify what happens to a system, you not only have to specify the physical laws, but you have to specify some initial or final condition.”

The mother of all initial conditions, Lloyd says, was the Big Bang. Physicists believe that the universe started as a very simple, extremely compact ball of energy. Although the laws of physics themselves don’t provide for an arrow of time, the ongoing expansion of the universe does. As the universe expands, it becomes ever more complex and disorderly. The growing disorder—physicists call it an increase in entropy—is driven by the expansion of the universe, which may be the origin of what we think of as the ceaseless forward march of time.

Although the article seems to raise more questions (and good ones) than it provides answers, here’s another part that I think is very elucidatory:

“Time may be an approximate concept that emerges at large scales—a bit like the concept of ‘surface of the water,’ which makes sense macroscopically but which loses a precise sense at the level of the atoms.”

I am interested in Time especially because it enables consequences, results of actions, and learning, which is, according to Baha’u’llah, central to physical existence:

Out of the wastes of nothingness, with the clay of My command I made thee to appear, and have ordained for thy training every atom in existence and the essence of all created things.

— Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words

I also find this kind of reductionist thinking and experimentation appealing artistically because it breaks things down to such a fundamental level that I feel, when I’m reading it, like “this universe is actually pretty simple and mechanical”, which can also be a pretty depressing thought.

But then I contrast that with the whorling beauty that surrounds and permeates us, and wafts from every direction, and in the contrast between that and the reductionist explanations, the beauty itself takes on new meaning.

It’s like listening to music before and after studying music theory—the structures you subconsciously appreciated before are now open to you for deeper exploration.

Posted in The World | 3 Comments