Praying Mantis (Stagomantis)

This charmer found a nice little space on our porch light last night.
Praying Mantis on porch light, Central Texas

common name Praying Mantis (or Praying Mantid)
domain Eukaryota
kingdom Animalia
phylum Arthropoda
class Insecta; subclass Pterygota; infraclass Neoptera
order superorder Dictyoptera; order Mantodea
family Mantidae; subfamily Stagomantinae
genus Cyanocitta
species unknown
location Central Texas
IUCN status Not tracked
Extremely local species are itemized species seen at our homes: on the actual property, or in the air above it. (Across the street doesn’t count!) I began by itemizing species seen at our house in Copperas Cove, Texas, and later expanded the project to include our home in Renton, Washington.


Yellow Houseplant Mushrooms (Leucocoprinus birnbaumii)

These appeared in one of my mother’s flower pots a day after we had our first rain in months. They grew rapidly.

Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, a common mushroom

Post-storm yellow mushrooms | Flickr – Photo Sharing!.

Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, day 2

common name Yellow Houseplant Mushroom
domain Eukaryota
kingdom Fungi
phylum Basidiomycota
class Agaricomycetes
order Agaricales
family Agaricaceae
genus Leucocoprinus
species birnbaumii
location Central Texas
IUCN status Not tracked

Singing like a bird…

“Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it;
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”

Black-headed grosbeak

Cole Porter was wiser than he knew. Insofar as love songs and “territorial” songs are concerned, we do as the birds do. From The Scientist’s “Behavior Brief:”

Courtship songs of chestnut-sided warblers appear relatively stable over evolutionary time compared to those used for territorial displays, which have changed considerably over the course of two decades, researchers found, suggesting the presence of two distinct traditions in song bird “culture.”

Isn’t that the case with humans as well as birds? While each generation contributes its own songs to the ouevre, certain love songs continue to appeal decades and even centuries after composition: Someone to Watch Over Me, I’ll Be Seeing You, and of course the evergreen Greensleeves all have strong followings beyond their generations, from people born long after they showed on the scene.

In contrast, highly specific genre songs which help define cultural “territories” such as metal, punk, gangsta rap, indie, bluegrass, and others, frequently hold less appeal over time, even within the groups in question. Perhaps simple, cross-genre love songs are more likely to have lasting appeal simply because the audience is larger – but perhaps that’s because they engage on a more universal level.

P.S. On a related note, we should probably all stop using bird-brained as a derogatory term.


Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)

Frequent visitors to our home in Washington.
Two Steller's Jays enjoying seed

common name Steller’s Jay
domain Eukaryota
kingdom Animalia
phylum Chordata; subphylum Vertebrata
class Aves
order Passiformes
family Corvidae
genus Cyanocitta
species stelleri
location Renton, Washington
IUCN status Least concern
Extremely local species are itemized species seen at our homes: on the actual property, or in the air above it. (Across the street doesn’t count!) I began by itemizing species seen at our house in Copperas Cove, Texas, and later expanded the project to include our home in Renton, Washington.


The ever more optimized “worst graph ever”

I’ve always argued that there is no “perfect” design—either the context changes its usefulness, or the design can be improved in some way. (Hence my philosophy of evolutional UX.) No matter how good you are, there’s always something to learn.

Proving this, Robert Simmon‘s comments on my original revision of the “Worst Graph Ever?” were extremely helpful, so I’ve applied them here. Simmon wrote:

I’m not completely sold on this idea, but I like the approach. I think using a lightened and desaturated orange line would work better than a dashed line–the spaces between dashes create optical effects. I’d also label each line directly, instead of having a separate key.

It may possibly be overkill, but I also changed the data point markers: the NPP marker is square, the CO2 markers, both inverted and actual, are round.

revised graph
Click for larger image.


Science funding shouldn’t depend on ignorance

Physics World editor Hamish Johnston blogged about the difficulty of public perception, research funding, and scientists commenting on God and religion in the public square. Most recently, Stephen Hawking spoke out about M-theory making God unnecessary. From Johnston’s blog:

There is just one tiny problem with all this – there is currently little experimental evidence to back up M-theory. In other words, a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory.

I could see why Johnston was concerned. A BBC video, linked in the Physics World post, had this in the descriptive text:

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said that he sees no necessity for God in the creation of the universe and that philosophy is dead.

Things like this just make me shake my head. Hawking is so, so brilliant, but perhaps not very wise.

Johnston’s concern was driven by the possible adverse effect such pronouncements could have on science:

Physicists need the backing of the British public to ensure that the funding cuts don’t hit them disproportionately. This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.

I know he’s right. Personally, I find this situation both sad and frustrating. That science’s direction and funding can be at the whim of the public; that scientists and philosophers don’t speak of and to each other with respect; that willfully ignorant people end up pitting people of good will against each other (read the comments in any blog touching both science and religion)—this kind of particularly human screwball black comedy just seems, well, wrong. I know, I know—I’m not the only one.

I commented, of course. Here’s what I said, for what it’s worth (the comment was still in moderation as of this writing):

Personally, I wish science fell into the same category as infrastructure and education when it came to funding: a must-have, something without which a society cannot thrive.

I have no problem with Hawking or anyone else pronouncing on God or religion. They are scientists, so I take their opinions in this area to be that of lay people in the field, much as my opinion in it is. I’m not offended, but I do wish they would formulate such comments with more of a “it’s my opinion that [insert sweeping religious view here]” attitude.

The same goes for evangelicals and fundamentalists of any religion who proclaim their ignorance of science loudly and proudly. Please, take a moment to reflect. Surely a creative God would want his thinking creations to view his work accurately and clearly, and support an unflinching, honest appreciation and understanding of the universe? What artist doesn’t want their craft appreciated? Therefore, fund science! Promote it! Support it in the name of understanding the world God gave you clearly and without fear.


Making all your points with graphs

James Hrynyshyn, a science journalist, pointed out on the Class M blog that a recent climate research graph was poorly designed.

The paper, Drought-Induced Reduction in Global Terrestrial Net Primary Production from 2000 Through 2009, demonstrated that anomalous CO2 and anomalous NPP (net primary production, described by Robert Simmon of NASA’s Earth Observatory as “a measure of the amount of carbon a plant takes from the atmosphere and uses to grow”) were negatively correlated. In other words, not only was increased CO2 not acting as “plant food,” it was undermining NPP overall.

In order to demonstrate just how strong this correlation was, the researchers inverted CO2 emissions on their graph:

Original NPP and inverted CO2 graph as shared on Class M science blog
Click for larger image.

As Hrynyshyn pointed out, this could readily lead to misunderstanding by non-scientists (or the occasional absent-minded scientist) to appear as though the CO2 anomaly was positively correlated to the NPP anomaly, instead of the opposite. That would be a significant misunderstanding, and in a politically controversial area such as climate change, a serious problem.

Robert Simmon, of NASA’s Earth Observatory, provided an alternative graph, clearly demonstrating the negative correlation:

Robert Simmon's version of NPP and inverted CO2 graph, as shared on NASA's Earth Observatory blog
Click for larger image.

But if I understand this correctly, the original graph had a useful purpose, it just went about it poorly. The point of the original graph was not to mislead about the positive/negative aspect of the correlation, but to demonstrate the strong level of correlation. This is a useful visualization in the right context, you just can’t do it by itself.

So why not add a third line? Something which showed the actual anomalous NPP and CO2 numbers with differently colored solid lines, as shown in the 2nd version, and added a clearly different third line (perhaps dotted, but in the same color as the CO2 to associate them), labeled CO2 (Inverted to demonstrate absolute correlation).

Revised NPP, CO2, and inverted CO2 graph, showing both actual data and degree of correlation
Click for larger image.

If you show the actual numbers clearly, then equally clearly distinguish the inversion, you can make both points without misleading, or allowing your graph to be misused.

Note: I commented this suggestion to the Earth Observatory post, and David Powell, another commentator, expressed concern the line could still be misunderstood. Powell wrote, “people would assume that a third line meant a third set of data and not just the same data plotted differently.” To show how I think it’s possible to avoid that, I created this example, which I think clearly distinguishes the inversion from the actual data.


Nature and nurture, not nature or nurture

Recent research reported in Scientific American shows that for some people, mother’s milk may promote a higher IQ. That’s all very well and good, but it was this paragraph that had me skipping with joy:

As for the study’s implications on the nature / nurture debate, Linda Gottfredson, a professor of education at the University of Delaware, says that a person’s DNA is not really a blueprint, as it is commonly portrayed. “[Genes] are more like playbooks,” she says. “It’s not nature or nurture, but your genes operate frequently by making you more susceptible or less susceptible to certain environmental conditions.”

I find this a beautiful example of stepping away from the tyranny of dichotomy (I’ve been saying “nature and nurture” since high school). One of my pet peeves is either-or conceptualizing being applied to more complex discussions. Such black-and-white, right-or-wrong pigeon holing erodes critical thought.


Much more than just a pretty image, this is a full-featured interactive web application that showcases the periodic table from a variety of different perspectives. My favorite? The orbitals view. Mouse down the columns in this view to get a visual of the similarities between the elements.


Northern Flicker

common name Northern Flicker
domain Eukaryota
kingdom Animalia
phylum Chordata; subphylum Vertebrata
class Aves
order Piciformes
family Picidae
genus Colaptes
species auratus
location Renton, Washington
IUCN status Least concern
Extremely local species are itemized species seen at our homes: on the actual property, or in the air above it. (Across the street doesn’t count!) I began by itemizing species seen at our house in Copperas Cove, Texas, and later expanded the project to include our home in Renton, Washington.


We evolved to be…depressed?

Scientific American explains the idea that depression evolved as an adaptive tool, to enhance analytic focus.

First thoughts:

  • This reminds me of a study I read in the ’90s that claimed that on reality inventories, depressed people scored as having a more realistic, fact-based view of the world.
  • The surprise attached to this study showcases a “common sense” belief that feeling sad can’t be a good thing. This is yet another case of common sense being the last refuge of a scoundrel, at least as far as psychology is concerned. (An example of poor, common-sensical thought is the idea that if an emergency occurs, more bystanders make it more likely someone will call the police/ fire dept/ etc. In reality, people are more likely to call when there are fewer people, since they feel more personally accountable. The more bystanders present, the more likely it is that any given bystander will assume someone else called.)
  • This strongly supports my working hypothesis that the dichotomy between feeling and thought is completely bogus. There are no thoughts without feelings, and no feelings not attached to thoughts.

For those of you who haven’t seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian, here’s that classic song, “Always look on the bright side of life .” (Warning: NSFW!)

Related article: Blue is the new black . Maureen Dowd on the increasing depression of women.


Technological evolution in the Cambrian age

Another comment left in the wild, this time in response to the deeply wonderful Irving Wladawsky-Berger’s post about The Data Center in the Cambrian Age. I strongly recommend it. In the meantime, here’s what I had to say:

Great post! Reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, which discusses the explosion of fauna of the Burgess Shale. That book transformed my understanding not just of biology, but of creativity and human development. Since then I’ve observed this effect in other areas.

For example, movies of the ’20s and ’30s used techniques set aside in later decades, as the industry determined what they thought most appealed to the market. Ironically, some of these were then called innovative when re-used by more modern directors. Typography has gone through a similar pattern of evolution as well.

The interesting thing about an explosion of human technological innovation is that unlike competing animal species, whose success is just as largely due to chance as well as adaptation, humans can at least partly evaluate the value of a new idea. But in the marketplace, established companies using older approaches can crush new ideas and better approaches. Humans have to leverage the internet, governments, and their purchasing power to make sure we know *all* our options, and can choose the best one for our needs, not an abstract corporate entity’s profit line.


Thomas Huxley’s letter, on the death of his son

The below is from Leonard Huxley’s The Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Quoted by Stephen Jay Gould.

A letter written in response to well-meant advice from Cambridge professor and priest Charles Kingsley.

14, Waverley Place, September 23, 1860.

My dear Kingsley,

I cannot sufficiently thank you, both on my wife’s account and my own, for your long and frank letter, and for all the hearty sympathy which it exhibits–and Mrs. Kingsley will, I hope, believe that we are no less sensible of her kind thought of us. To myself your letter was especially valuable, as it touched upon what I thought even more than upon what I said in my letter to you. My convictions, positive and negative, on all the matters of which you speak, are of long and slow growth and are firmly rooted. But the great blow which fell upon me seemed to stir them to their foundation, and had I lived a couple of centuries earlier I could have fancied a devil scoffing at me and them–and asking me what profit it was to have stripped myself of the hopes and consolations of the mass of mankind? To which my only reply was and is–Oh devil! truth is better than much profit. I have searched over the grounds of my belief, and if wife and child and name and fame were all to be lost to me one after the other as the penalty, still I will not lie.

And now I feel that it is due to you to speak as frankly as you have done to me. An old and worthy friend of mine tried some three or four years ago to bring us together–because, as he said, you were the only man who would do me any good. Your letter leads me to think he was right, though not perhaps in the sense he attached to his own words.

To begin with the great doctrine you discuss. I neither deny nor affirm the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing in it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.

Pray understand that I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force, or the indestructibility of matter. Whoso clearly appreciates all that is implied in the falling of a stone can have no difficulty about any doctrine simply on account of its marvellousness. But the longer I live, the more obvious it is to me that the most sacred act of a man’s life is to say and to feel, “I believe such and such to be true.” All the greatest rewards and all the heaviest penalties of existence cling about that act. The universe is one and the same throughout; and if the condition of my success in unravelling some little difficulty of anatomy or physiology is that I shall rigorously refuse to put faith in that which does not rest on sufficient evidence, I cannot believe that the great mysteries of existence will be laid open to me on other terms. It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions. I dare not if I would.

Measured by this standard, what becomes of the doctrine of immortality?

You rest in your strong conviction of your personal existence, and in the instinct of the persistence of that existence which is so strong in you as in most men.

To me this is as nothing. That my personality is the surest thing I know–may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, about noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

It must be twenty years since, a boy, I read Hamilton’s essay on the unconditioned, and from that time to this, ontological speculation has been a folly to me. When Mansel took up Hamilton’s argument on the side of orthodoxy (!) I said he reminded me of nothing so much as the man who is sawing off the sign on which he is sitting, in Hogarth’s picture. But this by the way.

I cannot conceive of my personality as a thing apart from the phenomena of my life. When I try to form such a conception I discover that, as Coleridge would have said, I only hypostatise a word, and it alters nothing if, with Fichte, I suppose the universe to be nothing but a manifestation of my personality. I am neither more nor less eternal than I was before.

Nor does the infinite difference between myself and the animals alter the case. I do not know whether the animals persist after they disappear or not. I do not even know whether the infinite difference between us and them may not be compensated by THEIR persistence and MY cessation after apparent death, just as the humble bulb of an annual lives, while the glorious flowers it has put forth die away.

Surely it must be plain that an ingenious man could speculate without end on both sides, and find analogies for all his dreams. Nor does it help me to tell me that the aspirations of mankind–that my own highest aspirations even–lead me towards the doctrine of immortality. I doubt the fact, to begin with, but if it be so even, what is this but in grand words asking me to believe a thing because I like it.

Science has taught to me the opposite lesson. She warns me to be careful how I adopt a view which jumps with my preconceptions, and to require stronger evidence for such belief than for one to which I was previously hostile.

My business is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonise with my aspirations.

Science seems to me to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. I have only begun to learn content and peace of mind since I have resolved at all risks to do this.

There are, however, other arguments commonly brought forward in favour of the immortality of man, which are to my mind not only delusive but mischievous. The one is the notion that the moral government of the world is imperfect without a system of future rewards and punishments. The other is: that such a system is indispensable to practical morality. I believe that both these dogmas are very mischievous lies.

With respect to the first, I am no optimist, but I have the firmest belief that the Divine Government (if we may use such a phrase to express the sum of the “customs of matter”) is wholly just. The more I know intimately of the lives of other men (to say nothing of my own), the more obvious it is to me that the wicked does NOT flourish nor is the righteous punished. But for this to be clear we must bear in mind what almost all forget, that the rewards of life are contingent upon obedience to the WHOLE law–physical as well as moral–and that moral obedience will not atone for physical sin, or vice versa.

The ledger of the Almighty is strictly kept, and every one of us has the balance of his operations paid over to him at the end of every minute of his existence.

Life cannot exist without a certain conformity to the surrounding universe–that conformity involves a certain amount of happiness in excess of pain. In short, as we live we are paid for living.

And it is to be recollected in view of the apparent discrepancy between men’s acts and their rewards that Nature is juster than we. She takes into account what a man brings with him into the world, which human justice cannot do. If I, born a bloodthirsty and savage brute, inheriting these qualities from others, kill you, my fellow-men will very justly hang me, but I shall not be visited with the horrible remorse which would be my real punishment if, my nature being higher, I had done the same thing.

The absolute justice of the system of things is as clear to me as any scientific fact. The gravitation of sin to sorrow is as certain as that of the earth to the sun, and more so–for experimental proof of the fact is within reach of us all–nay, is before us all in our own lives, if we had but the eyes to see it.

Not only, then, do I disbelieve in the need for compensation, but I believe that the seeking for rewards and punishments out of this life leads men to a ruinous ignorance of the fact that their inevitable rewards and punishments are here.

If the expectation of hell hereafter can keep me from evil-doing, surely a fortiori the certainty of hell now will do so? If a man could be firmly impressed with the belief that stealing damaged him as much as swallowing arsenic would do (and it does), would not the dissuasive force of that belief be greater than that of any based on mere future expectations?

And this leads me to my other point.

As I stood behind the coffin of my little son the other day, with my mind bent on anything but disputation, the officiating minister read, as a part of his duty, the words, “If the dead rise not again, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” I cannot tell you how inexpressibly they shocked me. Paul had neither wife nor child, or he must have known that his alternative involved a blasphemy against all that was best and noblest in human nature. I could have laughed with scorn. What! because I am face to face with irreparable loss, because I have given back to the source from whence it came, the cause of a great happiness, still retaining through all my life the blessings which have sprung and will spring from that cause, I am to renounce my manhood, and, howling, grovel in bestiality? Why, the very apes know better, and if you shoot their young, the poor brutes grieve their grief out and do not immediately seek distraction in a gorge.

Kicked into the world a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none, I confess to my shame that few men have drunk deeper of all kinds of sin than I. Happily, my course was arrested in time–before I had earned absolute destruction–and for long years I have been slowly and painfully climbing, with many a fall, towards better things. And when I look back, what do I find to have been the agents of my redemption? The hope of immortality or of future reward? I can honestly say that for these fourteen years such a consideration has not entered my head. No, I can tell you exactly what has been at work. “Sartor Resartus” led me to know that a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology. Secondly, science and her methods gave me a resting-place independent of authority and tradition. Thirdly, love opened up to me a view of the sanctity of human nature, and impressed me with a deep sense of responsibility.

If at this moment I am not a worn-out, debauched, useless carcass of a man, if it has been or will be my fate to advance the cause of science, if I feel that I have a shadow of a claim on the love of those about me, if in the supreme moment when I looked down into my boy’s grave my sorrow was full of submission and without bitterness, it is because these agencies have worked upon me, and not because I have ever cared whether my poor personality shall remain distinct for ever from the All from whence it came and whither it goes.

And thus, my dear Kingsley, you will understand what my position is. I may be quite wrong, and in that case I know I shall have to pay the penalty for being wrong. But I can only say with Luther, “Gott helfe mir, Ich kann nichts anders.”

I know right well that 99 out of 100 of my fellows would call me atheist, infidel, and all the other usual hard names. As our laws stand, if the lowest thief steals my coat, my evidence (my opinions being known) would not be received against him. [The law with respect to oaths was reformed in 1869.]

But I cannot help it. One thing people shall not call me with justice and that is–a liar. As you say of yourself, I too feel that I lack courage; but if ever the occasion arises when I am bound to speak, I will not shame my boy.

I have spoken more openly and distinctly to you than I ever have to any human being except my wife.

If you can show me that I err in premises or conclusion, I am ready to give up these as I would any other theories. But at any rate you will do me the justice to believe that I have not reached my conclusions without the care befitting the momentous nature of the problems involved.

And I write this the more readily to you, because it is clear to me that if that great and powerful instrument for good or evil, the Church of England, is to be saved from being shivered into fragments by the advancing tide of science–an event I should be very sorry to witness, but which will infallibly occur if men like Samuel of Oxford are to have the guidance of her destinies–it must be by the efforts of men who, like yourself, see your way to the combination of the practice of the Church with the spirit of science. Understand that all the younger men of science whom I know intimately are ESSENTIALLY of my way of thinking. (I know not a scoffer or an irreligious or an immoral man among them, but they all regard orthodoxy as you do Brahmanism.) Understand that this new school of the prophets is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is of no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being “shocking.”

I don’t profess to understand the logic of yourself, Maurice, and the rest of your school, but I have always said I would swear by your truthfulness and sincerity, and that good must come of your efforts. The more plain this was to me, however, the more obvious the necessity to let you see where the men of science are driving, and it has often been in my mind to write to you before.

If I have spoken too plainly anywhere, or too abruptly, pardon me, and do the like to me.

My wife thanks you very much for your volume of sermons.

Ever yours very faithfully,

T.H. Huxley.


How not to ask questions

From the NY Times, Yes, Running Can Make You High, 27 March 2008:

Yes, some people reported that they felt so good when they exercised that it was as if they had taken mood-altering drugs. But was that feeling real or just a delusion? And even if it was real, what was the feeling supposed to be, and what caused it?

The bit that bothers me is the middle sentence. Unless the NY Times is seriously proposing that all runners reporting a high are either lying or confabulating, a feeling is a feeling is a feeling. It is real, and originates and is reflected in your physical being, just as every aspect of your experience is. The only relevant definition of real in the context of feelings is “real to the individual experiencing them,” and that cannot be questioned. Of course it’s real, they experienced it.

The question What [is] the feeling supposed to be? has the opposite problem. Instead of a universal affirmative (Of course it’s real), this question can have a variety of answers, some or all of which may be correct. It’s a useful question to ask, since it helps us parse the situation from different angles, but it cannot be answered definitively.

The question most able to be answered here, at least on a biological level, is not Is it real?, but What caused it?, asked in the last sentence.

Psychology will not have come into its own until there is a general understanding that there is no difference between mind and body. This is why the talking cure, journaling, and other cognitive therapy works, because they subtly affect—in essence, reprogram—the brain. Our experience occurs in the interaction of our selves with our environment. The challenge in psychology is in defining the parameters of the environment, and the capabilities of the self in reacting to and understanding it.


Messy is fun: stepping away from Occam’s Razor

The scientific method is the most popular form of scientific inquiry, because it provides measurable testing of a given hypothesis. This means that once an experiment is performed, whether the results were negative or positive, the foundation on which you are building your understanding is a little more solid, and your perspective a little broader. The only failed experiment is a poorly designed one.

So, how to design a good experiment? The nuts and bolts of a given test will vary according to the need at hand, but before you even go about determining what variable to study, take a step back and look at the context. The context in which you are placing your experiment will determine what you’re looking for and what variables you choose. The more limited the system you’re operating in, the easier your test choices will be, but the more likely you are to miss something useful. Think big. Think complicated. Then narrow things down.

But, some say, simple is good! What about Occam’s razor and the law of parsimony (entities should not be unnecessarily multiplied)?

Occam’s razor is a much-loved approach that helps make judgment calls when no other options are available. It’s an excellent rule of thumb for interpreting uncertain results. Applying Occam’s razor, you can act “as if” and move on to the next question, and go back if it doesn’t work out.

Still, too many people tend to use it to set up the context of the question, unconsciously limiting the kind of question they can ask and limiting the data they can study. It’s okay to do this consciously, by focusing on a simple portion of a larger whole, but not in a knee-jerk fashion because “simple is better.” Precisely because of this, several scientists and mathematicians have suggested anti-razors. These do not necessarily undermine Occam’s razor. Instead, they phrase things in a manner that helps keep you focused on the big picture.

Some responses to Occam’s concept include these:

Einstein: Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Leibniz: The variety of beings should not rashly be diminished.

Menger: Entities must not be reduced to the point of inadequacy.

My point is not that Occam’s razor is not a good choice in making many decisions, but that one must be aware that there are alternative views. Like choosing the correct taxonomy in systematics, choosing different, equally valid analytic approaches to understand any given question can radically change the dialogue. In fact, one can think of anti-razors as alternative taxonomies for thought: ones that let you freely think about the messy things, the variables you can’t measure, the different perspectives that change the very language of your studies. You’ll understand your question better, because you’ll think about it more than one way (thank you, Dr. Minsky). And while you’ll need to pick simple situations to test your ideas, the variety and kind of situations you can look at will be greatly expanded.

Plus, messy is fun.

Note: Some of these thoughts sprang from a letter to the editor I posted on Salon.

Cross-posted on


Smart because I’m stupid, stupid because I’m smart

Some people are smart because understanding comes easily to them. I, on the other hand, might argue that what smarts I have come from what I don’t understand.

Take, for example, mirrors. There is a basic rule about mirrors that many take for granted, and that is when we focus on a mirror image, we focus not on the mirror but on the things it’s reflecting. Optometrists use this all the time to avoid having twenty-foot-long rooms. Using mirrors, light bounces from the eye chart letters twenty feet before hitting the patient’s eyes; hence the 20 in 20/20. (20/20 means that at twenty feet, you see at the same clarity as a normal human. Some few see more clearly; 20/10 means you see an object at twenty feet as clearly as it would appear at ten to most people.)

But this presented problems to me because I could not understand how it worked. Here were my questions:

How does my eye know how far to focus in order to see the other object clearly? If I’m looking at a mirror that’s reflecting something out of my line of sight—a plain cube, say—how would I know, without a context, where to focus to see it at the appropriate clarity for my vision? How know if it was five inches a side, or five feet? All my brain knows is that the cube is some distance farther from me than the mirror. Yet somehow my eye focuses. (Briefly I wondered why, if my brain can “decide” how distant a thing is, it can’t “pretend” it’s closer so my myopic eyes see it clearly? I’m a highly near-sighted person who sees clearly about six inches from my eyes, after which the world begins to blur. Don’t worry, I figured it out.)

Why can’t I take a picture of the mirror itself, or glass, for that matter? Saying it’s because they’re transparent only raises the issue of what, exactly, makes transparency possible in the first place. A thing that both allows an unimpeded passage of light through, but can also reflect that light almost perfectly?

It was all too weird for me.

But I understood the basics of refraction, and eventually (I’m ashamed to admit how long this took) I came up with a mental picture to understand this at least partly.

First, I had to acknowledge that transparency was not a focusing issue (more about transparency later). Then I imagined a camera, an object, and a mirror at the points of an equilateral triangle. The mirror is angled so that it reflects the object to the camera, and the camera to the object.

The camera’s view includes both the object and the mirror. But the representation of the object the camera sees via the mirror has traveled twice as far, and so is less clear. As was my understanding, until I thought of this.

Then another question occurred to me. If the camera is absorbing both its direct view of the object, and the reflected view, perhaps a piece of film with both those bits of information was more accurate somehow than simply seeing the object clearly. Then I imagined multiple mirrors, each angling a different aspect of the object onto the same point. The results would have much more complete information about the object than a simple photograph. We might not interpret it well on a flat surface. Then I thought of holograms, and suddenly my understanding of the interference pattern that creates a hologram, and the apparent chaos of a piece of holographic film, improved sharply.

Most of the things in my life that I understand well originate like this, with something obvious to others but not to me. And that’s why I say that I’m smart because I’m stupid.

Stupid because I’m smart

Still, I’m also stupid because I’m smart. There are a bunch of cuttlefish in a lab in Pennsylvania that are demonstrably better able to learn than I am, Here’s why:

Jean Boal, an associate professor at Millersville University, studies cuttlefish intelligence, as well as that of other cephalopods. She has devised a fairly complex test, demanding not only learned association, but unlearning it and learning a new one, then going back and forth in a process called serial reversal learning. They’re pretty good at it.

The cuttlefish goes through a door, into a tank within a tank. It’s small, with opaque walls. To both sides of the cuttlefish are two openings into the larger tank, and in front of it is an object such as a plastic plant.

The two openings are marked differently, one framed with broad, vivid stripes, one a solid color. Both appear to be open to the cuttlefish, but one is closed using a transparent piece of plastic. If the object in front of the cuttlefish is a plastic plant, then the solid-framed doorway is open. If the object is a rock, then the striped doorway is open.

Cuttlefish are smart enough to figure this out, and act accordingly to obtain access to the rest of the tank.

Here’s why I’m not as swift as a cuttlefish. There are two good routes to my workplace, one on the highway, one on a street paralleling the highway. If I stepped out the door to see a mockingbird sat on my mailbox, and this was followed by a wreck on the highway necessitating my taking the street route, I would not correlate these things. Even if every time the mockingbird was on the mailbox there was a wreck on the highway, I sincerely doubt I would notice the correlation. For one thing, I’m smart enough to have a lot of things on my mind, which might make noticing and retaining and associating the data more difficult. For another, I’m informed enough to understand the basics of physics, and this tells me that birds on mailboxes are not catalysts for car wrecks. So the very simple association the cuttlefish makes would be beyond me.

Dr. Boal say that “the ultimate question is, am I smart enough to find out how smart they are?” Well, Dr. Boal, I can tell you one thing—they are most definitely smarter than I.

A last note

Transparency and reflection are still interesting to me. Think about it. Here’s a piece of glass, and it allows light to pass through in a straight line, unimpeded so far as we can tell (I’m assuming no impurities are present to tint or otherwise distort the glass). We look through the piece of glass, and we see what’s on the other side. But that same piece of glass can, if I view it from the right perspective, reflect all that light instead of letting it pass through. And my brain lets me see it clearly, despite the focusing distance being farther than the glass itself. Water and other things are similarly challenging.

It’s as though the property of the transparent object—allowing light through, or reflecting it—is dependent on the perspective and behavior of the observer. I know this is very obvious. But it seems to me that this is a good analogy for some of the more mysterious behaviors in the universe. It’s not that something magical is happening. It’s that we’re seeing different facets of the same thing, and we just can’t see the thing itself yet. Because it’s transparent.


Spineless Smarts, NOVA: Kings of Camouflage. Interview conducted on July 26, 2005 by Gisela Kaufmann, producer-director of “Kings of Camouflage,” and edited by Rima Chaddha, assistant editor of NOVA online. Retrieved July 31, 2007 from


You can’t see it clearly in this photo, but this snake is just finishing off what I think was an earthworm.
Lined Snake

common name Lined Snake
domain Eukaryota
kingdom Animalia
phylum Chordata; subphylum Vertebrata
class Reptilia, subclass Diapsida
order Squamata, suborder Serpentes
family Columbidae
genus Tropidoclonion
species lineatum
location Central Texas
IUCN status Least concern
Extremely local species are itemized species seen at our homes: on the actual property, or in the air above it. (Across the street doesn’t count!) I began by itemizing species seen at our house in Copperas Cove, Texas, and later expanded the project to include our home in Renton, Washington.