The Kind of People Whose Neighbors Are Sad When They Move Away

I have neighbors who were also friends who have just moved away.  I look at their house now and they’re not in it, it’s empty, they’re gone.  I’m sad.  Why should I care so much? It’s what urban America does, it moves away — stays a while, then moves somewhere else.  I’m used to it.  These people whose daily cycles, real worries and deserved joys, faults and virtues, parents and children, and cars and gardens I know so well, I now know at best via Facebook, maybe Christmas cards, “we should get together again sometime.”  Fine.  That’s the way it is.  I’m still sad.

Meanwhile, I’ve given some thought to what you might do to be the kind of person whose neighbors are sad when you to move away.  I started looking for research in the social psychology of groups but it’s the wrong field; it’s about how groups function for good or ill, and not about how to be a certain kind of person.  Maybe I’m talking about moral philosophy.  Maybe Aristotle covered this; maybe Montaigne did; I don’t think Kant did.  But I’m not looking it up.  Instead I’m going to make a specific list of action items and we can theorize another time. Continue reading

The Last Word

April 10 – 14, 2017

The word was, DC’s famous cherry blossoms had died untimely deaths due to cold and ice.  Wrong, says Helen, and proves it, sepal by sepal, petal by petal.

The music behind the math in movies, says Guest Stephen Ornes, can sound just like the math: doubling back, laying down patterns, tick tick ticking.

A science metaphor called scale mismatch, remembers Michelle, is temporally appropriate: “match the scale of the problem, either by making ourselves larger or making the problem smaller. We make ourselves larger through cooperation. We make the problem smaller by discerning the sliver we’re best equipped to solve.”

Cameron faces down the bug on her floor like a cowboy badass, but from somewhere now in the grass outside is a bug whistling the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Galaxy Zoo, a citizen science project set up because people could do superbly what computers couldn’t, Jessa says, is in trouble because computers are now doing what people can’t.

First, AI came for our volunteer jobs

In 2007, while a researcher at Oxford, astrophysicist Kevin Schawinski co-founded what would become the largest online citizen science project to date. Galaxy Zoo involved several hundred thousand volunteers pouring over images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to classify galaxies. Significant discoveries were made, dozens of journal articles published the results, and another site, Zooniverse, launched to apply the same process in other fields.

Since then, and in part as a result, citizen science has become all the rage. Funding agencies are keen to support it, the concept has proven useful, and it’s a popular pastime for those whose passion for science must be expressed outside of working hours. But just as the movement has earned its chops, it may be about to be upstaged.

“I think the whole old approach of ‘Let’s crowdsource it to the whole internet’, that’s I think somewhat if not largely superseded’” says Schawinski, now at ETH Zurich. “Just because thanks to machine learning, we don’t need half a million people to go click away at galaxies anymore. I think that is probably over.” Continue reading

“Bug” on My Floor

It was a standoff in my own living room. The stranger and I faced each other, both completely still. I could almost hear that eerie whistle from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. 

The stranger was dressed in black. I was dressed in black yoga pants. I towered over my challenger, who was only an inch long. But still, it looked fierce, and I knew it had a secret weapon. Which one of us would still be standing after this showdown?

This foe goes by many names: pinacate beetle, darkling beetle, clown bug, stink bug. As far as I know, it was Eleodes obscura, a beetle that lives all over the west. I’ve seen them plenty of times on trails, but I’d never seen one in my house. This one lowered its head and raised its beetle bum. It was ready. Continue reading

Redux: Science Metaphors (cont.): Scale Mismatch

I wrote this post less than 24 hours after the U.S. presidential election. It’s been a long five months since then, but I’m still finding this metaphor useful, in work and in the rest of life. I hope you will, too.

Dear readers, dear friends,

As I write this, on the afternoon of November 9, 2016, the future looks very dark. If you respect reason and truth, if you care about the planet we depend on, if you believe that biology is just biology, not destiny, then I expect the future looks dark to you, too.

I hope that you and yours are finding solace and strength as best you can.

I don’t have much to offer. But on and off during this chaotic, distressing year, I’ve found it useful to borrow a metaphor from ecologists and conservation biologists. I’m sure they won’t mind if I lend it out to you. Continue reading

Guest Post: Math Movie Music

Let’s be real: Watching someone doing math is only slightly more exciting than watching metal corrode. That may be why we’ve never seen a naturalistic depiction of math in the movies; such a snoozer would show someone hunched over a desk or a computer for hours, maybe with a few coffee refills and bathroom breaks. Math is such a mental sport that its dramas, its twists and surprises, its gradual build to Unassailable Truth, are usually locked between the eyes and the fingertips.

But not at the movies! A good math movie can draw out those inner eddies of abstraction. Which is why the math music of movies is so great. Imagine the the task given to a film’s composers as they start to assemble a soundtrack for a math-heavy movie: “Okay folks, in this scene the genius is going to solve some equations, and you have to write music to make people care. Go!” And yet they do it.

Last year’s Hidden Figures, for example, included several scenes where Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), NASA math genius, obliterator of obstacles rooted in racism, does nothing more than solve equations. And we’re riveted, partly because Henson pulls it off, and also because the soundtrack — by Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Benjamin Wallfisch — tells us we should be. (To hear what I’m writing about, and for enhanced experience of this post, play one of the HF math-doing tracks by clicking here. In fact, if you play the music, this post will be better.)

At its best, math movie music helps the rest of us experience the emotional payoff of mathematics: The elegance of a proof, for example, or the underlying beauty of group theory. For just a moment, the music connects us to the mathematician’s mental gymnastics, and while may not get the math itself, we share in her feeling of triumph as she approaches the truth.

Continue reading

Cherry Blossoms, Close By

cherry blossoms, in full bloomHere in Washington, D.C., we love our cherry trees. The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, near the Jefferson Memorial, get all the attention. And they deserve it–they’re lovely. This year, peak bloom was an elusive creature. February was so unseasonably warm that the Park Service predicted peak bloom would come March 14 or 15, one of the earliest dates ever–but then it got colder, snow and ice came, and everyone fretted over whether the cherries would make it through at all.

I never made it down to see the famous flowers this year, but never fear. Next to a parking lot near my apartment are a line of scrawny pavement trees, and a few of them are cherries. Continue reading

Moby Peep: A Peeps Diorama

A diorama of Moby Dick, but with marshmallows instead of people and whale.
Thar she peeps!

I have a bit of a thing about whales. The shelf above my desk at home is full of whale art, and a National Geographic whale poster hangs in a frame above that. Along with that, I have a thing about Moby Dick, which is a book about whales.

So when it was time for my friends Joanna Church, Kate Ramsayer, and I to follow up the success of Hamilpeep and Knit One, Peep Two, I remembered my beloved whales and suggested: Moby Peep. Neither Joanna nor Kate has ever read Moby Dick – and, honestly, I haven’t read it in like a decade – but I think it was the Peep with a peg leg that sold them on it.

In the whaling boat

In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab (Peephab) is dead set on getting revenge against the whale. (Many people think this is what the book is about, but you and I know it is actually about whales. So here he is, out in the boat with some of his top crew members to kill that darn whale once and for all. Because we are into historical accuracy, we included several lances for killing the whale, but because we have limits, we did not make any harpoons.

Let’s get a better look at those crew members.

From left: Our narrator, who asks you to call him Ishmael; Queequeg, the harpooneer; and Starbuck, the first mate (I am extremely proud of the logo on his apron – the mermaid is a peep).

The white whale

Kate spent many, many hours gluing mini marshmallows onto cardboard. Many hours.

The whaling ship

And way in the back there, rolling on the waves – you may know it as the Pequod, but the Peep figurehead and the tiny peep looking over the side should clue you in that this is in fact the Peepquod. Spoiler alert: The Peepquod doesn’t last much longer.

cutting a peep with a knife (to make Captain Ahab)
Experimental Peep amputation

We’d been so rushed on our previous diorama masterpieces, this time we decided to meet early and start working before the Washington Post’s annual contest was announced. In some Murphy’s law of contests, the Washington Post then announced that it is no longer in the business of fun. The Washington City Paper saved the day, announcing they would continue the contest! But, on the neverending emotional rollercoaster that is the Peeps diorama experience, Moby Peep didn’t make it to the finals. Alas. Almost as tragic as the ending of Moby Dick.

Photos: Helen Fields, except last photo, which is by Kate Ramsayer