Monthly Archives: February 2013

Americans are (statistically!) Weird

Have you ever wondered how social scientists conduct their psychological experiments? They mostly use volunteer American college undergraduates. This might seem obviously flawed; can a bunch of educated 20-year-olds possibly even represent the American spectrum, much less the world? The field hypothesized that the human brain structure is universal, and thus reasoning and decision-making as a consequence of that structure should be universal. The article “Why Americans are the Weirdest People in the World” explores the research of Joe Henrich. The article discusses how different cultures solve different problems, and how truly diverse thinking processes are across the globe. And wouldn’t you know it, Americans are crazy, crazy outliers in all of the problems.

Economics often uses behavioral experiments of game theory to understand choices that people make. In the famous “prisoner’s dilemma”, two “prisoners” may choose whether or not to rat out the other prisoner. Depending upon the choices of the two, there are four possible outcomes. If both betray, they are collectively worst off (say two years of prison each). If A betrays B and B does not betray A, A goes free while B gets 3 years of prison, and likewise for the reverse. If neither betray, they are collectively best off, and get a year each. The constructs of the game reward deceit.

Joe Henrich played such games with natives in Peru. The Ultimatum game is a version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Player 1 is given $100. He must make an offer to player 2. If player 2 feels the offer is too low, he may reject it, in which case both players keep nothing. Both players know the rules. Player 1 is compelled to offer enough so that player 2 does not feel cheated. In the US, the offer is typically close to $50, and lower offers are typically rejected. In Peru, the offer was much lower, and it was typically accepted. The people in Peru figured money was money, why reject it? Different cultures displayed different reactions to the Ultimatum game yet. The US is relatively typical of the west in this game. The researchers supposed that in a western society, people have grown to accept some inconvenience on their own behalf to punish dishonesty or greed, such as taking the time to write a complaint to the Better Business Bureau.

The article goes on to detail that Americans are outliers statistically. This has major implications for economics and sociology and psychology. It’s a great read, and for my part, I think a reason to take these kinds of sciences with a grain of salt. They are definitely fields worthy of study, but definitive conclusions are difficult. We know most that we know little about the human brain. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the science, the article is a fascinating read just for the variety of human thinking.

Some images of spring

Because I am still very sore and cranky from my polo tournament (played every minute but those I was kicked out for), here are some pictures of spring. Soon enough the colors will be all around us! My brain will come around by Wednesday for some more thoughtful content. Tulips and dogwoods!


Sports Art: Water Polo

This weekend I’m playing a water polo tournament. When I’m not playing, I like to do a little polo-themed art. I love day-dreaming about playing, and sketching the lines of motion put me right in the water too. When I’m not playing, I also love to photograph the games. In the split seconds, you see parts of the game that disappear at full speed. Plus, there is not a great deal of water polo art, besides that destined for t-shirts. Maybe I can share some of the beauty I see in the game.

Mucha-inspired water polo art


An in-progress work, with the source photo:Scan-linesSC4A9993


Maori-warrior interpretation of water polo:



The backhand shot in water polo, taken from the offensive center position. The offensive center treads 2m in front of the goal, facing away from the goal, with a defender behind.


Scan 1

Fun Science: Small World Networks

The small-world phenomenon refers to the fact that even in a very large population, it takes relatively few connections to go from any element 1 to another random element. Amongst people, we know this concept as the “six degrees of separation” game. Any population of objects with connections can be conceptualized this way. Examples include crickets communicating by audible chirps, websites with links, electrical elements with wiring, board members with common members, or authors on mutual scientific papers. All of the examples I list have been examined in various scientific studies.

In a small-world network, elements are first connected in a regular lattice; for example, each element is connected to one or two nearby neighbors on each side. The leftmost picture below shows a regular lattice of elements. A connection between element and element j is then removed. Then we add a connection between element i and any other element x, like the middle picture below. If x is across the network from i, then the number of steps between i and x has been reduced from some large number to 1. All of the elements connected to i are now 2 steps from element x. This reduces the diameter of the network, which is the maximum number of steps between any two elements, although the number of connections remains constant. In the six-degrees of separation game, the diameter would be 6. As we replace more of the lattice connections with random ones, the network becomes more and more random. We quantify a small-world network by its randomness, as in the picture below.

The small-world network has been explored as a means of sending information efficiently through a population. As the diameter reduces, the time it takes information to spread through the entire network reduces. Neurons in the brain have been explored as small-world networks; certain regions of the brain are highly interconnected with a few long distance connections to other regions of the brain. Protein networks and gene transcription networks have also been described with the small-world model. Further information with scholarly references is available on the scholarpedia page (which is generally a great resource for complex systems problems).


Here you can read a good scientific paper by Steven Strogatz, one of the premier scientists in the area. This is a paper published in Nature, one of the highest scientific publications. There are some equations, but the figures are also excellent if you are uncomfortable with the math. The paper models the power grid, boards of directors, and coauthorship using network ideas. I mention this paper specifically because I find Strogatz a very relatable and clear writer. Also consider reading his recent nontechnical book about math, The Joy of X, for more math fun.

Check out my other science posts on graph theory, chaos, fractals, the mandelbrot set, and synchrony. And drop a note with any questions!

Girls in boys sports: My experience playing boys water polo

A few days ago, I read about an 11-year-old girl in Philadelphia who has been kicked off her football team because and only because she is a girl. It is a Catholic league, so technically they may discriminate as they wish. The archdiocese says they wish to prevent her injury. I was dismayed to see comments on various websites that many people agree with this decision. I have also heard similar rationales for not allowing women in combat.

First off, the obvious stuff. The girl, Caroline Pla, is 5’3″ and 110 pounds. This is above average for an 11-year-old. She has played for years and played well. There are undoubtedly boys smaller than her, so we know her size is not the issue. Yes the boys will be getting bigger, but she probably will too. Does anybody think Holley Mangold (sister of NFL player Nick Mangold), who played football in Ohio and is an Olympic weightlifter, was too small? Men and women both come in large and small. But by this logic, all men and big and strong, and all women are small and weak.

I played boys water polo in high school. It was called boys water polo, even though football was not called boys football. This was because in other states, there was girls water polo, but not in the state of Missouri. In college I also played on a men’s team. Now there is a women’s team where I live, and I play women’s water polo.

As a girl playing water polo, I was often not welcomed either. The year after I graduated high school, one of my teammates told the school paper he didn’t believe girls should play because they weren’t strong enough and could get hurt. I was shocked when I read it. I am 5’10” and 160 pounds– I was one of the tallest and fastest players on the team and the only lefty. I had a weak arm, but I did other things well. Our varsity team only had nine players. The game requires seven to play, and many of the other teams had whole lines of substitutes. We had two substitutes. But one of my teammates felt strongly enough that girls should not play on a team lacking players that he agreed to be quoted in the paper.

In high school and college I often dealt with hostility. I was once extensively groped by an opposing player in a way that had nothing to do with gameplay. (Players often say that we make “friends” when gameplay results in intimate contact.) He failed to stop even after I asked him to stop. Fortunately, much of the action in water polo is underwater and invisible to the refs, and I delivered a well-placed kick. Often opposing teams immediately pegged me as the weakest despite the fact that I was not the smallest. Players often didn’t bother to guard me as tightly. But my teammates had subtle yet obvious biases too. Even when I was unguarded, they often would not pass me the ball. One of my teammates (who was otherwise a friend) felt it his duty to yell at me every time I failed to score if I shot. When I did score, the whole pool would gasp, which was simultaneously gratifying and annoying.

Missouri had only 18 high school teams when I played, and thus water polo should have been clamoring for all the participants they could. But that was not the case. Some of the schools had reputations of being hostile to girls, without officially disallowing them. For the good of the boys and girls and the sport, realistically water polo in Missouri and many places can use anyone it can get.

Despite all this, I did and still do love water polo. I never for a moment considered quitting polo. I liked playing against bigger and faster players and testing my limits. I once played against a training mate of Michael Phelps. What pains me most I think is all the girls who never played because of the nonsense. I knew plenty of girls who would have played water polo, but they didn’t want to play with the boys. They were smaller or just didn’t care for the stigma of it. There were a couple other girls on the team with me too. Even if we formed a girl’s team, there were no other girls teams to play. Out east, I play women’s polo now. It’s awesome to be among the biggest and fastest and strongest with the girls, and I can play a different style of game. But there are gameplay merits to each game, and I wish it would just boil down to that.

Both girls and boys should be encouraged to play sports, and we should not be telling girls or boys that all boys are stronger than all girls. We should retire the phrase “throw like a girl”. Girls should play contact sports if they wish to, and they should have their own leagues too. Water polo gives me a new appreciation for the power of my own body; in this age of image obsession and eating disorders, we should give more girls the opportunity to appreciate their bodies. Why should Caroline Pla not play the sport she loves?

Great kids books, great sources of inspiration

Whenever I go to a museum, I like to look at the kids book section. Often times, there are several really engaging and pretty books relevant to the museum’s collection. They’re often more fun and compact than the books in the adults section. I don’t need a coffee table book for every artist I like. I like to have little pieces of inspiration about my office, though. With my interest in writing children’s books, it’s even better.

The Smithsonian museums in DC have nice gift shops too. Many of the books are award-winning, and seeing them in person makes it easier to judge the book. Plus I don’t mind paying money to the Smithsonian. Below are a few of my finds:

  • Snowflake Bentley— A kid’s book biography of the guy who first photographed snowflakes (he has his own museum even). Beautifully illustrated, with a tone that appreciates science. If you like this book, there are also books of photos of snowflakes; those are great fun too. Below is one of the illustrations from the story (from

  • Oceanology— this one was in the Natural History Smithsonian. It’s a very interactive book written from the perspective of a teenager on “20,000 leagues under the sea”‘s the Nautilus. It’s written to resemble a logbook something like Darwin’s logbook from his journeys.
  • The Legend of the Lady Slipper–I found this one at the American Indian Museum (which, if you are ever in DC, has a great cafeteria). Like the cover, the illustrations have a lovely sense of movement, and nice colors. One of the artists is known for painting people dancing; this comes across in the people of the story, who are always in subtle motion.

Beautiful Books: “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie”

I first saw “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” in an expat bookstore in Belgium. The book is vibrant and colorful and intriguing. After I got back, the book was still on my mind, and I purchased it. The book is an art-collage biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, and their Nobel-prize winning work on radiation. Their work is so influential that they named several elements (radium and polonium). A unit of radioactivity, a Curie, bears their name, and the element Curium was named for them.

Every page of this book is truly beautiful. The colors are deep and wonderful. Somewhere in the book, the author describes the techniques she used, and how they were specifically inspired by radioactivity, but I have not found this description on the web. This book is much more beautiful than most graphic novels, and I love that it is about science. The book makes Marie Curie especially relatable. She’s still the most famous female scientist a century after her great discoveries. She comes across as driven but human.

Here, then, is the big caveat in my review. The author relates a mostly negative view of radioactivity and nuclear advances. The damage to Marie and Pierre’s bodies, as well as their daughter, is given in detail. The bombing of Japan, the three-mile island incident, and Chernobyl are covered in great detail.

I found it incredibly saddening reading about Marie Curie, the most recognized female scientist perhaps ever, and then to read essentially a condemnation of the outcomes of her work. I also think this condemnation was unfair. To write the story of coal or gasoline would be to include tales of mesothelioma, ground water pollution, and air pollution bad enough in many parts of the century as to blot out the sun. The motors of wind power require mining for difficult-to-acquire materials, which comes from messy mining. No form of power comes without its evils just yet. That’s why we have scientists like the Curies, to keep stabbing away at the problem. Nuclear energy frightens people more than other forms of energy, but I think this is mostly an irrational fear. A simple Geiger counter reveals any stray radiation. Do you know when there are trace amounts of benzene about (a common hydrocarbon in oil)? Or other carcinogens? Hundreds of Superfund sites exist across the USA, many of them from hydrocarbon contamination. These sites can take decades to remediate.

Nonetheless, this book is beautiful and worth reading. The writing about Marie and Pierre Curie as people was wonderful. For those unfamiliar with the science of radioactivity, perhaps it will be a more inspiring read than it was for me.

Valentine’s Thoughts

I never understood the fuss about Valentine’s Day. In elementary school, it was a day that ostracizing the odd kid was officially approved of in the form of who didn’t get valentines. As the kid who claimed to be a cat (and later an alien), that kid was me. It didn’t get me down. It instilled a sense that I was in charge of my own happiness every day of the year. Just as every day, I’d try to bear the knocks and celebrate the compliments. I try to do my best every day of the year. Some times I’m going to have a bad day. Perhaps as a practical pessimist, I don’t have use for a day that is awful unless it’s wonderful.

But let me celebrate what I do like about Valentine’s:

  • Chocolate: Seasonal candy makes every holiday better. Cadbury eggs and candy corn and Valentine’s truffle boxes on sale after the holidays are awesome. As a kid I used to go to the chocolate shop the day after every major holiday and score some 75% off candy. 
  • Flowers: Not so much purchasing them, because they get kind of ragged and expensive this time of year. More that they are popping out of the ground. Here the crocuses are erupting by the hundreds now. The daffodil greens are up. The lenten roses are blooming. The little spring snowflakes are out. The world is at last offering up its bouquets after the winter.
  • Hand-made valentines: I feel like a genius when I make valentines out of doilies and construction paper. I always think they look awesome, and they definitely look more awesome than the pre made ones. Years ago a good friend made me one and I think it made my decade.

Also, it’s finally February! Today the sun sets at 5:50 PM. Every day has an extra hour of better sunshine than this day last month. The world teases with little flowers. Soon the sun will come out and all the trees will bloom. Baseball returns! Soon we shall be wearing short sleeves again. 

Cheer to your Monday and Valentine’s Week!SONY DSC   SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC

Fun Science: Network Theory and Graphs

If you have a set of items and you can connect or sequence them in many ways, you probably have a graph or network. Clearly if you have these objects, some connection arrangements might be preferable to others. Heart cells are connected in patterns that contract the heart in the proper pattern. If you must deliver items to ten different locations, different paths may be more efficient (the traveling salesman problem).

Euler’s 1735 Koenigsberg bridge problem is considered the first graph theory problem. At the time, the city of Koenigsberg had seven bridges (shown above). Euler wished to find a path which crossed each bridge exactly once. He showed mathematically that no path satisfied those constraints.

The famous game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” is a network theory problem. This game says that with six steps, any actor can be linked to Kevin Bacon through films pairs of actors appeared in. This idea was originally introduced at the Erdös number. Paul Erdös was a brilliant and highly published mathematician (over 1500 papers!) who worked in graph theory and combinatorics. The Erdös number was how many papers it took by coauthoring to connect you to Erdös. He was also wonderfully eccentric. Once, visiting a friend, he woke in the night to get some juice. In the morning, his friend found red liquid all over the floor. Erdös, puzzled by the juice carton, had simply stabbed a hole in the side to drink from. His biography is a fascinating glimpse into a nearly alien mind.

In my own research, I look at how oscillators synchronize in small networks, such as rings. Even in a simple ring, many new types of synchrony occur, compared to all-to-all connections. It is easy to believe that the structure of the brain, and how various regions and subregions connect, might greatly influence human thinking. On a more science fiction note, I suspect that artificial intelligence will not exist in machines without complex networks of elements.

This was just a very quick overview of a huge field. In the future, I plan to write on topics like small-world networks, scale-free networks, and synchrony on networks. Check out my other science posts on synchrony, fractals, the Mandelbrot set, and chaos.

My Top 20 Best Science Fiction Novels

Following my post last week about my top 5 science fiction novels, I’ve been getting a lot of hits on search engines. I too scour the web for good scifi lists, so I thought I’d add my top 20 science fiction novels to the mix. I weighed a little towards including some less-common mentions, so while I enjoyed both “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and “Hothouse”, two incredibly different books, nobody needs help in hearing about “Hitchhiker’s Guide”. So without further ado, my top 20 science fiction novels in no particular order.

Top Five (see last  week for longer descriptions of each)

The Rest

  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein 1966)- The inhabitants of the moon attempt to revolt from the oppressive Earth with the help of a supercomputer named Mycroft. Mycroft is an awesome central character. The best of the grown-up Heinlein novels. 1967 Hugo Award winner.
  • The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester 1953)- How does one get away with murder when telepathy is common place? Fast moving and surprisingly modern, the winner of the first Hugo award.
  • The Absolute at Large (Karel Čapek 1922)- See a longer review I did here. The author hypothesizes that when the atom is split (a new concept at the time) that energy is released, as well as a pervasive religious fervor. As the atom-splitter spreads due to its phenomenal energy production, so too does the side effect of religiosity.
  • The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula LeGuin 1971)- When one man dreams, his dreams can become reality. He fears this awesome power; when he enters therapy, his therapist begins to use his gift, imagining he will fix the world.
  • Mathematicians in Love (Rudy Rucker 2006)- Totally awesome and wacky. Mathematics grads students compete to find the equation of everything, and win the affections of a cute girl. And there are enormous sentient venomous conch shells, intergalactic mathematicians, and parallel universes.
  • Worlds (Joe Haldeman 1981)- A woman from a communist orbiting asteroid visits New York City on a scholarship. I love everything by Haldeman, but this is my favorite after “Forever War”. Very heartfelt and emotionally gripping. The rare female protagonist, and done phenomenally. This is the first of a trilogy, but I think it’s the best and stands alone just fine.
  • The Door into Summer (Robert Heinlein 1957)- My favorite of Heinlein’s “children’s” books, which are all very intelligent, but have less of some of Heinlein’s more alarming interests like incest. A man is duped by his business partner, who steals the company and puts him into cold sleep. He awakens after 30 years, and tries to figure out how to get his life back. One of the main characters is the protagonist’s cat, always a plus.
  • Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson 1992)- cyberpunk done properly with a sense of humor. A pizza delivery man, Hiro Protagonist, and a 15-year-old girl start investigate the propagation of a mysterious internet drug, snow crash. The plot line of this one gripped me less than the excellent fun had with a future world.
  • Tau Zero (Poul Anderson 1970)- A crew on a near light speed ship is on a five-year journey to another planet. During the voyage, the deceleration mechanism is damaged. As they continue to go faster and faster, the time dilation grows and they travel farther. The best hard scifi book I’ve read.
  • A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge 1992)- The best and most intelligent space opera I’ve read. Different laws of physics exist in different parts of the galaxy. People create a malevolent higher intelligence near the rim of the galaxy and must flee into the galaxy where the laws of physics preclude such an entity. They get stuck on a planet of sentient creatures composed of several animals in constant communication with one another. They are called the Tines, and they are hands-down the best alien I’ve read in scifi. Also read anything by Vernor Vinge. 1993 Hugo Award winner.
  • Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner 1968)- At first I found this book a bit confusing; the chapters jump around to relatively random people doing random things as part of the world building. But after 50 pages or so you get your bearings. The world is over-populated, and child-limits have been instituted. The plot is complex and rich. The style is grimly funny. Hard to describe, and requires some effort to read, but one of the greats. 1969 Hugo Award winner.
  • Hothouse (Brian W. Aldiss 1962)- Also called “The Long Afternoon of Earth”. In the distant future, the sun is bigger and hotter, and one side of the earth always faces the sun. Plant life, with so much energy available, has evolved in many ways, and all but overruns this half of the earth. There are plant birds, plant predators, and plant just about everything. A small group of humans tries to survive in this near-apocalypse Earth. Chock full of great imaginings. Aldiss doesn’t have the most sparkling characters, but he has engaging concepts, somewhat like Asimov. “Helliconia Spring” is another worthy read by Aldiss, but it is somewhat longer.
  • The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov 1954)- My favorite Asimov book, partially because it is self-contained and relatively succinct. People of an overcrowded Earth live under steel domes, and never go outside. The story is set around the investigation of a murder.
  • The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi 2009)- The 2010 Hugo Award winner. A biopunk story set in Bangkok. After the world has been devastated by engineered illnesses and crop-plagues, society is finally mostly recovered. Carbon emissions are strictly limited, so energy-efficient methods are desirable. The main character is an employee working at a start-up energy company as a front, but for one of the bio-engineering firms that creates genetically modified species actually. A rich world that incorporates biology well.
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson 1993)- A group of 100 brilliant hand-picked scientists is selected and sent to Mars to live there and begin terraforming it. These scientists are strong-minded, and don’t always agree how to go about things; political fractures form. The first book follows the political developments of the first 100 martians. “Red Mars” is followed by “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” which occur over the course of a couple of centuries. Mars itself is the main character of the whole trilogy, and is described in the best scientific detail available at the time. Sometimes a bit long-winded, but very realistic, and an interesting exploration of terraforming.

Happy reading!!