Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Vain Brain-- by Jennifer Taylor

      You are about to read that which comes from a self-educated and self-trained mind that considers all life on earth (including modern humans) through a prism of evolutionary thought, reason and logic. Sort of like philosophy without the boner for human ego. I am also a lifelong student of free thought, which means you are urged to debate, question or utterly dismiss the belief system regarding the human brain I have gleaned from 20+ years of geeky armchair neuroscience. Lastly, I have been drawn to conclude an absolute: we are by the very nature of our working brain hopelessly, horribly biased. Therefore, my sources of information are pro science-based methodology and peer-reviewed literature. Onward to the brain behind the "self" and reality as we do not even close to know it..

     Your three-ish pounds of energy-vampire silken tofu-like control center of a staggeringly complex one hundred billion brain cells is quite probably the most cognitively rich in the history of our planet.It is the only known brain to have the cognitive ability to understand our own eventual mortality, both a gift and a curse. I am always a whore for knowing. Do not confuse this with the natural world's faulty-recipe strive toward an evolutionary pinnacle: hello horseshoe crabs, sharks, cockroaches...we may have guns and steel but after the microbial world, the lowly mosquito is arguably the most historically deadly creature to our species, aside from ourselves, of course. 

     Currently a hot topic amongst the nuerogeeks is how we begin to grasp that what we experience as waking, conscious  individuals is filtered, altered and distorted by the brain behind the curtain. The why is easy: protection from an uncertain and unknown existence. The How? There lies the paradox of trying to understand the brain with the brain. Your brain is the key master of the reality the "self" perceives through its senses. Your very concept of "self" is a brain construct.

The following are some of my notes of research-based generalities common to the vast majority of us: 
-our memory is faulty to a degree that it becomes one of the ego's greatest allies.

-we think our weaknesses are very common while our strengths are unique.     
-we overwhelmingly prefer explanations that cast us in the best light and memory will alter facts to fit our version of events in a matter of days.
-our self-serving bias works well below conscious thought.

That is a small taste of our very vain brain. Chaw on that for a while...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Jonathan's Great Adventure

More of that crazy JD out there in LA!

The Quantified Self

     I've come across a blog lately... The Quantified Self. Basically it's about the new science of self-tracking, using technology like computers and smart phones to use tools and apps to meticulously record data about one's self. All kinds of data about all kinds of activities! Like sleeping, eating, mood, exercise, and goals.
     In my opinion some of the self-tracking tools border on obsessive-compulsive, but others can be quick and useful. Three tools that I have tried recently are Moodscope, 750 words, and I Done This. In all three applications you are prompted everyday by an email to respond. I find that using a daily email as a taskmaster motivates me and helps me to complete the activity promptly. I also like the fact that each tool includes some kind of analysis-- the number of words used, percentage of tasks completed, or average of quantified mood per day. The analysis includes plots, graphs, and statistics.
     Conceivably the analytical tools help you to self-monitor and self-improve over time. Moodscope for example lets you share your daily results with a buddy. (I haven't tried this yet). This way your buddy can cheer you on, or sympathize with your plight. Studies show that mood improves with frequent monitoring. I Done This simply makes you feel accomplished because you've completed a task each day, even if a small one. Also, you anticipate the prompting, so you are more likely to plan to get something done each day! 
     In contrast I have found 750 words interesting but a bit challenging to complete each day.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

1930 Census

In April, 2011, the 1940 American Census will be available for research. For amateur genealogists like me, that's very exciting news. Although the census will (perhaps) not reveal any information I don't already know, just seeing it will be interesting. Here is my great-grandmother, Margaret Downing, in Chelsea on the 1930 Census. My grandmother is Gwendolyn.

United States Census, 1930 for Margaret Downing

Name: Margaret Downing
Event: Census
Event Date: 1930
Event Place: Chelsea, Suffolk, Massachusetts
Gender: Female
Age: 41
Marital Status: Widowed
Race: White
Birthplace: Ireland
Estimated Birth Year: 1889
Immigration Year: 1925
Relationship to Head of Household: Head
Father's Birthplace: England
Mother's Birthplace: Ireland

  Margaret Downing F41
Child Henry R Downing M23
Child Cyril Downing M19
Child Cecil Downing M18
Child Gwendolyn Downing F16
Child Leslie Downing M9
Child Mildred Downing F4

Martin Wonson M40
Child Isabelle Wonson F22

Grandmother at time of census



There's an exhibit at the National Museum of American History, called "Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life." You can view the exhibition online by clicking the above link. I was struck by all the everyday artifacts that were preserved, from the day of Lincoln's assassination. Normally these everyday items would have been long ago lost to obscurity had they not been associated with the events of April14, 1865.

Laura Keene, an actress starring in "Our American Cousin" that night at Ford's Theatre, ran upstairs with water to assist the president after he was shot. As she held his head in her arms, she transferred the blood spots you see on the cuff she was wearing that night. Her niece, Virginia Adler Thompson, kept her aunt's cuff for decades, then bequeathed the artifact to the National Museum of American History in 1962.
Laura Keene 1826- 1873

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Man Ray and Lee Miller

Lee Miller by Man Ray 1930
Lee Miller
Recently I visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and saw the current exhibit featuring May Ray and Lee Miller. Previously I knew of both photographers, and had my favorites from each, but did not know of their ongoing relationship and collaboration throughout the years (from 1929 to 1976). The exhibit covers the different phases of their friendship, corresponding with the art created during the time by both artists, as well as other artists like Picasso and Dali. My two favorites of Man Ray and Lee Miller are included here, as well as some of my favorites from the exhibit. Well worth seeing. 

Click here for a fantastic review from NPR.

Iceman's Stomach Sampled—Filled With Goat Meat

     In 1991 scientists found the frozen corpse of a 5,300 year old Copper Age man (dubbed 'Otzi) in the Alps between Italy and Austria. Over the years more and more information about him has been analyzed, some of it controversial. The latest article I guess is not all that surprising, that the Ice Man's last meal was a mixture of grains (barley and einkorn) and ibex goat meat. Another interesting tidbit is that scientists found ashes in the Ice Man's intestines, meaning that he cooked at least some of his meals. Also discovered is animal hair and insects, so we can expect that ancient people were not as concerned with the hygiene of meats as modern day. Experts believe Otzi was a alpine herder, and seemed to be murdered, (he had an arrow head lodged in his back, and blunt force trauma to his head) though the circumstances of his death can only be speculated. What I find most interesting is that the Ice Man was an older fellow for the time--- at least in his mid-forties.
Iceman's Stomach Sampled—Filled With Goat Meat

Monday, July 18, 2011

Walking and Hiking

     Since I have to get into shape for my fundraising hike in October at Zion, I've been making a conscious effort to increase my exercise. On Friday I went camping in Western Massachusetts near Savoy Mountain. On Saturday Jennifer and I did an 8 mile hike with the boys. We began at the summit of Mt. Greylock then hiked down the Hopper Trail to Stonyledge Overlook. Then we hiked up the Hopper trail, with a diversion to see a waterfall, then back on the Hopper trail, which we actually ended up losing. We ended up on the main road for awhile, but eventually got back into the woods. Overall it was a challenging yet very nice hike.

     Today Jennifer and I completed another walk. We walked about 4.2 miles, from one end of the Arboretum to the other. It's a very lovely walk, even with the humidity.

View Larger Map

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Old Burying Point

     Yesterday Ellyn and I walked around Salem, Massachusetts, somehow avoiding all the tacky witch related tourist traps and only touring the Peabody Essex Museum for about two hours. We also went and explored the Old Burying Point Charter Street Cemetery. Ellyn said that this cemetery of 347 recorded souls is the second oldest in the country. It was established in 1637. Some famous people are buried there, including Simon Bradstreet, a royal governor of Massachusetts. Also buried there is the notorious Judge John Hathorne, the man responsible for hanging 19 people during the Salem witch trials. Ellyn explained how Nathaniel Hawthorne, the famous writer of "The House of Seven Gables," changed the spelling of his name to dis-associate himself from his distant Hathorne relatives. Other frequently found surnames in the cemetery include Bowditch, Gardiner, Crownsfield, Pickman, and Peele. Ellyn and I also noted that common female names were Elizabeth, Abigal, and Sarah. Most fascinating was the varied decor on some of the gravestones--- grip reapers, skeletons, willow trees, angels, cherubs, and urns.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Walkie Walkie Gromit

hot socks

    The GF and I went for a little jaunt today in the urban oasis also known as the Arnold Arboretum. We walked from one end of the Arboretum to the other, and back, with some side tracks. If you want to see our every step, check out the map. The GF has a way cool application on her iPhone that records our every step and distance. We actually went a bit further, as we forgot to turn on the device from the beginning. It was a good walk--- we saw robins, cat birds, chipmunks, squirrels, dogs, people, fruit trees, and a hawk's nest..... Plus, I sampled my new compression socks. (see photo). With me in the socks and the GF with the fishing hat, nobody bothered us.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Smoking the Bard's Bones?

 A gentleman named Francis Thackeray, a palaeontologist from South Africa, has petitioned the Church of England to exhume Shakespeare's bones, and that of his wife and sister. It's very unlikely he'll get his way, but he wants to submit the bard's skeleton to a laser technology that will shed light on the cause of death. When Shakespeare died in 1616 at the age of 52, the cause of death was not listed. Thackeray also wants to prove that Shakespeare smoked pot, by analyzing his teeth, hair, or fingernail samples. In 2001 Mr. Thackeray analyzed several clay pipes excavated from Shakespeare's garden, that contained traces of cannabis and cocaine. Interestingly enough, several of Shakespeare's plays and poems mention the "noted weed." Pot was grown in England at the time, and used for rope and textiles, and presumably smoking.

Please Call Stella

I discovered a website called The Speech Accent Archive, developed by the linguistics department of George Mason University in Virginia. The site has a collection of transcripts from speakers all over the world, rehearsing the same paragraph in English. You can submit your own, if you like. Below are some samples of American speakers, then some other English speakers, then some foreign speakers: 

Please call Stella.  Ask her to bring these things with her from the store:  Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob.  We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids.  She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station. 

I tried to get a cross-section of the country.

Boston, MA

Atlanta, GA



El Salvador:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The World's Most Typical Person

The world's most typical person, out of the 7 billion of us, is a 28 year old Chinese man. Here he is:
My first thought: If China didn't have it's birth limitation policies, I wonder if the world's most typical person would be a Chinese woman?
My second thought: I am far from the world's most typical human being....

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Musket At Bat

Here's an old video of me hitting the ball in 2007.