What I learned this week, March 23, 2012

I love the idea of local folks still doing this sort of thing. I remember when I was a little kid I’d visit the newspaper office in the tiny town out in the wheat fields where my family was from. He set the paper in linotype and I loved watching the lead letter slugs being made. I remember being amazed at how hot the slugs were when he could pick them up (his hands were so callused).

Your Brain on Fiction

A really interesting article from the New York Times on how reading fiction can improve our minds.

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

I found these passages particularly provocative:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

I have always wondered if reading is a waste of time.

Apparently not.

I don’t know if I agree with the guy’s riding style – and it’s really just a long commercial for a brand of bike tire – but man, what a cool video!


It’s the battery, stupid: The looming 4G smartphone crisis

As more power, faster processor, fancier features are added to smartphones, the battery life becomes less and less. This is the one problem that will limit the post-laptop technological revolution. If your battery doesn’t work, your phone (or tablet) is useless.

The trouble with batteries, as everyone who makes phones will tell you, is that they don’t follow Moore’s Law. Batteries are an ancient technology that depend on chemistry that scientists have already pretty much optimized.

Very interesting article. I wonder if we will see a bifurcation in the phone market, with folks carrying both an old-technology phone for voice and text only (I only have to charge my crappy work Blackberry in my car during my commute) and another smart phone or tablet or in-between form factor (and leave this turned off most of the time) for all the other goodies.

The only way to play guitar


“But we make the best buggy-whips in the world!”

Another dinosaur. We subscribe to the newspaper on the weekends so that I can access its digital content.

19 Signs That America Has Become A Crazy Control Freak Nation Where Almost Everything Is Illegal

#1 One California town is actually considering making it illegal to smoke in your own backyard.

#2 In Louisiana, a church was recently ordered to stop giving out water because it did not have a permit to do so.

#3 In the United States it is illegal to operate a train that does not have an “F” painted on the front. Apparently without that “F” we all might not know where the front of the train is.

#4 In many U.S. states is it now illegal to collect rain that falls from the sky on to your own property.

#5 In America today it is illegal to milk your cow and sell the milk to your neighbor. If you do this, there is a good chance that federal agents will raid your home at the crack of dawn.

#6 In Washington D.C. it is illegal not to recycle cat litter.

#7 It is illegal to give a tour of the monuments in Washington D.C. without a license.

#8 In the United States it is illegal to sell natural cures for cancer – even if they work.

#9 In the state of Massachusetts it is illegal to deface a milk carton.

#10 In the state of Alabama, bear wrestling is completely illegal.

#11 In Fairbanks, Alaska it is illegal to give alcoholic beverages to a moose.

#12 In Lake Elmo, Minnesota it is illegal to sell pumpkins or Christmas trees that are grown outside city limits.

#13 There is a federal law that makes it illegal to be “annoying” on the Internet.

#14 If you register with a false name on MySpace or Facebook you could potentially “spend five years in federal prison“.

#15 In Hazelwood, Missouri it is illegal for little girls to sell girl scout cookies in the front yards of their own homes.

#16 All over the United States lemonade stands run by children are being shut down because they do not have the proper permits.

#17 In Florida, it is illegal to bring a plastic butter knife to school.

#18 In San Juan Capistrano, California it is illegal to hold a home Bible study without a “conditional use permit“.

#19 In the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania it is illegal to make even a single dollar from a blog unless you buy a $300 business license.

Get the Lead Out

For a long time, I have had an idea that, when I was silly enough to say it out loud, received more than its share of derision. The idea is a theory I have had concerning the question of why has crime been falling so much in the last decades.

The most famous (and controversial) theory is from Steven Levitt and John Donohue – the Freakonomics Guys – they famously said that the drop in crime is mainly caused by the legalization of abortion in the US – so on and so forth. It is an unsettling theory, though a compelling one.

So I read Freakonomics and found the book to be well written and thought provoking, though I found their crime theory to be not completely convincing. I may have missed something, but they did not close the loop in my mind – they showed plenty of correlation, but failed to indicate causation.

Correlation does not prove causation. Never. Read and remember that. Very few people – and nobody that appears on television understands that simple sentence.

So, what is my theory of the drop in crime?

I have been saying for a long time (years before Freakonomics) – as a matter of fact, I predicted it before it really happened – that a large portion of the drop in crime can be attributed to the removal of lead from gasoline.

You see, for years I have had access to sampling results (some done by me) of lead in both emergency release situations (spills, waste sites, industrial pollution) and in background, “ordinary” locations and situations. Over those years I was repeatedly shocked at the elevated levels of lead near highways, especially in urban areas, and at the blood levels of lead in animals and humans living in those areas. These levels were regularly high enough to expect noticeable behavioral effects. While leaded gas was still being sold, I would talk about how I thought that was one environmental hazard that was more serious than anyone thought (and there were plenty of others that I thought/think weren’t/aren’t so important). When the tetraethyl lead anti-knock compounds were formulated out, I felt that we would see an improvement in behaviors from the populations (mostly densely urban) that were exposed to lead residues fairly quickly as the lead dissipated.

Nobody took my rantings seriously. I had one female actually tell me, “That is so typical, for a man to blame something like the drop in crime on some chemical.”

That didn’t make me very happy. My response was, “Well, I think it’s a typical response for a man that has had years of access to large numbers of lead sampling results and who has studied the dangers and effects of lead exposure to the point of doing work on protecting elements of the population from the possible effects of heavy metal poisoning.” She gave me a very dirty look and refused to talk to me any more. It’s no surprise I could never get dates.

I’m not sure what she objected to… was it my refusal to acknowledge the importance of unicorn saliva in making the world a friendlier place? This was before the Freakanomics book, so it couldn’t be a pro-choice argument (though that is a slippery slope point of view that nobody, rightly so, would touch with a ten foot pole). Now, I am very aware of the, “If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail,” principle, and concede that there is a lot of that at work, but that still doesn’t mean I was wrong.

You see, unlike most people, and all pundits and politicians, I looked at the data first – then made predictions from the data – then tested this against reality. There is a huge difference between operating from data first and doing what the pundits and polititians do – coming up with some cute theory that you can benefit from and then searching for data to support it.

Well, now that I’ve dug up all this dirty laundry, what is the point? Someone else has come up with the same idea. After all these years, the New York Times has come out with an article that agrees with my point about lead levels and crime rates. There is a detailed study (pdf) that talks about it.

Of course, there are already articles that contradict the theory and I’m sure we will see more.

So what do I think? More importantly, what do I think now?

As I get older and more experienced (and more muddled and more cranky) I have come to believe the disconnect between correlation and causation is even more tenuous that we think. I’m beginning to believe that it is only under very rare and special conditions that we can even talk about causation in a confident way. I think that chaos (mathematical chaos, not philosophical chaos) rules almost everything we do – feedback loops, sensitivity to initial conditions, and unintended results are the norm, not the exception. I think that we are fooling ourselves when we think we know what’s going on and why.

So after decades of thought and research – why do I think that the crime rate is decreasing? Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows? I think the important thing is to remember to enjoy the walk in the evening that we were too scared to take a decade ago.

Here is an old, bad photo of me working on the Geneva Superfund Site in South Houston, Texas. Circa 1983. It's no wonder I couldn't get dates.