Another Rands In Repose gem.

Tinkering is a deceptively high-value activity. You don’t usually allocate much time to tinkering because the obvious value of tinkering is low. You don’t start tinkering with a goal in mind; you start with pure curiosity. I’ve heard about this thing, but I’ve never used it. How does this thing work? I’ve always wanted to know about more about X. Downtime is an easy time to tinker. Nothing is pressing, so these acts of mental wandering are acceptable.

This is how things get done. This is my life.

I think Dopamine is related to why I tinker. There is a definite expectation to getting something out of it. And that is all the motivation I need.

The dopamine from the ventral tegmental area… usually sends dopamine into the brain when animals (including people) expect or receive a reward. That reward might be a delicious slice of pizza or a favorite song. This dopamine release tells the brain that whatever it just experienced is worth getting more of. And that helps animals (including people) change their behaviors in ways that will help them attain more of the rewarding item or experience.

My reward is learning something about a gadget. Similar to how reading rewards me with learning about science, history, motivations, or behavior.


TED Talk: Demise of Guys

For a few weeks The Demise of Guys by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan has occupied a corner of my attention. It started when a friend posted about the Reddit AMA: I am a published psychologist, author of the Stanford Prison Experiment, expert witness during the Abu Ghraib trials. AMA starting June 7th at 12PM (ET). I even bought the Kindle ebook and read it in a couple days.

The idea is according to the site (linked above):

We took an inter­est in this topic because we noticed an alarm­ing trend: in record num­bers, guys seem to be flam­ing out aca­dem­i­cally, wip­ing out socially with girls, and as they mature fail­ing sex­u­ally with women.

This seems to describe me. I was lucky to graduate high school and college mostly by exploiting loopholes. I have never had a girlfriend. I was in my late 20s when I started dating. Even then I am not often very excited about it.

The alleged causes in the video were video games, online activity, and porn. By my calculations I have played around 20,000 hours of video games, twice the level of concern. My time online easily exceeds 40,000 hours. (That is only assuming 50 hours a week * 50 weeks a year since 1996. That 50 hours a week average seems low to me.) The book focused on the video games and porn.

In Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, Steven Johnson made an interesting point that receptors for dopamine, a reward for almost accomplishing something, and oxytocin, a reward for social connections and establishing trust, occupy close areas. Activities like playing video games can activate dopamine, but doing so while alone ignores the oxytocin and too much of it is bad for the brain. Physical contact, just like the rhesus monkey choosing between the cloth fake mother and wire+milk, is good for us.

Playing video games were just one of many later activities adopted to escape being around others. If anything, then video games were an avenue that made me more social not less. It gave me something to talk to with other guys. That avoiding girls by being with guys is supposedly the problem. I also might go to their house or them come to mine to play. Without it, I probably would have been more alone. Reading, LEGOs, soccer, exploring the woods, and even biking were all activities whereby I achieved getting away from other people. Really, spending significant time away from other people was always a goal of mine.

I would like to see a debate between Susan Cain of Quiet and Philip Zimbardo.

If the below video does not work, then try Philip Zimbardo: The demise of guys?

Are We Information Junkies?

Catherine who I follow on Twitter retweeted about agreeing with this blog post:

Last night while sitting at a pub with some friends, the topic of information came up. My friend Tom, in particular, had a few interesting things to say about it. I asked him if he thought that constantly being tapped into the stream of information that the online world affords us was bad thing. Is our constant connection to blog posts, news articles, video, podcasts, Twitter, and Facebook more detrimental than positive? Are we a culture of information junkies?

His response, essentially was “no”. He basically said that in fact (and I’m paraphrasing) we have always been able to tap into information whenever we wanted to. Back in the old days, Tom said he used to scour through encyclopedias, magazines, and books all day long. He was always consuming information and learning new things. I thought back to my younger days and realized I did much the same. You probably did too. The difference is, said Tom, these days information is with us wherever we go. We carry the encyclopedia, and magazines, and book in our pockets. Information is always there, on any topic. It’s an amazing thing, said Tom, and it’s a good thing.

My reading list Back in the old days I owned more books a 9 years old than all of my close friends and their parents put together. I had read every novel more than once. Around a sixth of my books were science and history, which were often partially re-read, often as a result of looking for something specific to get proof of something. It could have been something novel that needed understanding. It could have been a claim by someone else. It probably did not help that from seven to ten years old, I spent a couple hours every week day after school at the library.

Later, as a teen when I played Dungeons and Dragons, I knew my books well enough I could open a book to within a few pages of the information I wanted. Of course, I replaced my Player’s Guide and Dungeon Master’s Handbook three times when they fell apart from overuse.

As a college student, I worked in the university library. It had a larger and much more stimulating collection of journals, books, maps, microfilm, and microfiche than the public library of my childhood. Some thought me a dedicated worker. Ha! Having unfettered access to information was the best form of entertainment.

Only working with computer systems and the Internet, so more information could tear me away from the libraries.

But am I an information junkie? Oh, yeah, absolutely. Finding that kernel of information that answers a question, solves a problem, or wins an argument causes a surge of dopamine. People get the same dopamine high from winning a game.

The delayed gratification of waiting to search my or another library or waiting until I got to a computer to search the Internet was probably a good thing. I’m learning to be better about not whipping out my phone to track down every possible query that comes across my head. Probably a good thing to wait.

Black Box Magic

black boxes ttv

With a black box system a person working with it sees what goes in and what comes out. The machine’s decision making process is obfuscated. Theories are made based on incomplete evidence on the behavior. More data points on more situations confirming the behavior is my way of being more comfortable the theory is correct. Sometimes we lack the time or conscientiousness or even access to ensure the theory is correct. This leads to magical thinking like labeling the software in human-like terms, especially insane or stupid or seeking revenge.

With a white box system, a person working with it can see the machine’s logic used to make decisions. Theories can be made based on more complete evidence due to investigating the code to see what it is intended to do. The evidence is far more direct than testing more.

Systems today are so complex they tend to have many parts interacting with each other. Some will be of each type.

Then there are Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) which expose vendor supported methods to interact with a black box by disclosing how they works.

Proprietary systems tend towards a black box model from the perspective of clients. This black box philosophy depends on the experts, employees of the company, design the system so it works well and resolve the issues with it. So there is no need for clients to know what it is doing. Where the idea breaks down is clients who run the systems need to understand how it works to solve problems themselves. Sure the company helps. However, the client will want to achieve expertise to manage minor and moderate issues as much as possible. They want to involve the vendor as little as reasonably possible. Communities arise because peers have solved the client issues and getting an answer out of the vendor is either formulaic, inaccurate company line, or suspect. Peers become the best way to get answers.

Open source systems tend toward a white box model from the perspective of clients. This white box philosophy depends on clients to take initiative figuring out issues and solutions to resolve them. Clients become the experts who design the system so it works well. Where the idea breaks down is some clients just want something that works and not to have to solve the problems themselves. Sure the open source community helps. Companies have arisen to take the role of the vendor for proprietary systems to give CIOs “someone to yell at about the product”. Someone else is better to blame than myself.

Cases of both the black and the white box will be present in either model. That is actually okay. Anyone can manage both. Really it is about personal preference.

I prefer open source. But that is only because I love to research how things work, engage experts, and the feel of dopamine when I get close to solving an issue. My personality is geared towards it. My career is based around running web services in higher education. Running something is going to be my preference. (Bosses should take note that when I say not to run something, this means it is so bad I would risk being obsolete than run it.)

This post came about by discussing how to help our analysts better understand how to work with our systems. It is hard to figure out how to fix something when you cannot look at the problem, the data about the problem, or do anything to fix it. So a thought was to give our analysts more access to test systems so they get these experiences solving problems.

Photo credit: black boxes ttv from Adam Graham at Flickr.

TED Talk: Is Play More Than Fun?

In the Q&A, Stuart Brown, co-author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, rejects the idea play is a rehersal for adulthood. Stopping an animal from playing doesn’t prevent the animal from being a successful predator. REM sleep provides the rehearsal needed for learning. Play is the next evolutionary step. The video is a little too heavy on repeating the same generic idea over an over with different examples. However, they are amusing examples.

The types of play Brown references usually involves multiple individuals in a social interaction. This play teaches survival skills like socialization, adaptation, flexibility (our selfish genes at work).

The origin of this play research was in identifying the next Charles Whitmore, the University of Texas Tower sniper. In studying mass murderers, he found Charles and others like him consistently grew up in environments where play was not allowed. By not playing these children developed into dysfunctional adults.

I found a particular claim quite interesting. “The opposite of play is not work… It is depression.” That is almost word for word out of his book on page 126, which Google Books has a copy. Later he better explains the part about play and work are not in opposition:

The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both we are building our world, creating new relationships, neural connections, objects…. At their best, play and work, when integrated, make sense of our workd and ourselves. (Play, p.127)

This agrees with Adam and Jamie from the Mythbusters to Moira Gunn for the Commonwealth Cluf of California about their work. Just look at Adam’s face before triggering a test on any episode. The complete and total joy is a testament to the power of dopamine.

I think the opposition to depression involves movement which is exercise. Exercise produces serotonin which is crucial to fighting off depression. So my work, sitting in a cube all day long problem solving is good for dopamine but not a producer of serotonin. However, a good game of tag would produce both dopamine in anticipating tagging a playmate and serotonin from the movement. (Why can’t work be more like tag?)

If Dr. Brown is right, then suppressing the rough and tumble playing children enjoy is the best way to place in society malfunctioning adults who are more likely to be violent. Things like recess (just half an hour) during the day will keep our prisons less full 20 years later. <sarcasm>Maybe the No Child Left Behind meant all the children will end up in prison?</sarcasm> More likely children will fit their play in less supervised situations and get their fill.

TED Talk: Social Bacteria

We have 10x bacteria cells on or in our bodies as human cells. By far most of those protect us. Soap which kills 99% of bacteria kills both the good and the bad. This video by far gives an idea as to how cool bacteria can be.

Bonnie Bassler here says bacteria use produce chemicals which attach to receptors to communicate with each other to know when they have enough presence to do their joint action called quorum sensing. The human brain acts similarly. Vasopressin, oxytocin, dopamine, adrenaline, cortisol, etc. all influence brain cells with the right receptors. Really most if not all human cells are operate in unison by chemicals attaching to receptors. Of course, our cells are super-specialized descendants of bacteria, so why not use a known efficient communication method?

It seems like bacteria intending to attack a human would have been selected for two contradictory points:

  1. Large enough numbers to overwhelm the body.
  2. Small enough numbers to prevent white blood adapting and increasing their own numbers to fight off the infection.

Interrupting the quorum sensing used by bacteria to delay the attacks ought to violate that second selection point. If so, then this might create selection pressure for bacteria which launch their attacks with smaller numbers. This might be even better for us?

I also like how she gave credit to her team of people who did the real work.