Mirroring People

Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People. I found out about this book through Charles Mudede's review of it. Actually, I didn't read the whole review. I read the first sentence. Halfway through the second sentence, I had already ordered the book from Amazon. Yep, it's an interesting book.

Lakoff and Johnson's 1999 book Philosophy in the Flesh persuades that a philosophy of mind should be motivated by our knowledge of cognitive science and neurology. That is, what we believe about minds should be consistent with what we know about brains.

Iacoboni's work on mirror neurons, described in his book, thus provides a new foundation on which to address critical philosophical questions. What does one person really know about another? How do we know that we understand another person, or have been understood? In mirror neurons, Iacoboni and his collaborators have uncovered the specific neurological machinery by which we comprehend and imitate the actions of others, and by which we empathize.

The answer is fascinating and unexpected: when we perceive an action by others, we experience the action as if we had performed it ourselves. In a real and visceral sense, we empathize with others by experiencing what they experince. We are far less trapped in our own brains than was once thought. Specific neurological mechanisms allow us to understand the actions and emotional states of others as if they were our own. Iacoboni shows us a world far less lonely than almost anyone has ever imagined.

Good Name for a Band

One of my guilty pleasures is taking the news commentarium as an I Ching of names for popular music acts. Here are new arrivals:

Amish Mantle David Eugene Edwards' hot new Pennsylvania-based band.
Blago Midwestern power punk.
Trample Mart Thrash metal with a pop edge.


Why is Sex Fun?

Jared Diamond, Why is Sex Fun? My friend Heather Holmback loaned me this book, after a typically interesting discussion. (Aki and Heather are old friends, and used to work together.)

In this case, the discussion was on the evolutionary value of menopause, a phenomenon (nearly) unique to humans. Diamond raises and dismisses some typical arguments that don't make much sense, then advances the one widely-heard argument he (and FWIW I) find sensible: by skipping the last child or two, old women can help raise their grandchildren, and do more to ultimately increase their genes' survival than would a risky pregnancy. Grandmothers help not just with childcare: in some traditional societies such as the Hadza of Tanzania, grandmothers are the most economically productive people.

But then Diamond raises an argument of his own, a very interesting argument at the heart of Heather and my discussion: in traditional societies, old people are the library people turn to in times of crisis.
Any human societies that included individuals old enough to remember the last event like a [hurricane] had a better chance of surviving than did societies without such old people.... At times of crisis... prior death of such an older woman also tended to eliminate all of her surviving relatives from the gene pool.... The importance to society of the memories of old women is what I see as a major driving force behind the evolution of human female menopause.

The book is about a good deal more than menopause. And, like sex, the book is also fun. Thanks for loaning it to me, Heather. I'll have it back to you real soon now.


P4 Medicine

I maintain a biotech/health blog called P4 Medicine. The name comes from Lee Hood's concept of a new medical practice that is "Predictive, Preventive, Personalized, and Participatory." (Other people use different combinations of words beginning with P to get across the same idea.)

But, there is a new P4 appearing in the Google rankings, and it's strong medicine: the Cervelo P4 bicycle. It's very nice.

Now, I'm not a time trialist, so there's no chance I'd actually buy this bike. But it's a very pretty bike all the same. If I saw one in person, I would stare at it. For a good long while.

This brings up a point that has been bothering me for some time: how strong a concept is P4 Medicine anyway? Really, it's not a coherent concept so much as a laundry list of objectives (or adjectives). We have a bike, a revision control system, and a medical revolution all competing for the top of the same Google search. That's less than ideal.

But what are the alternatives? Prospective Medicine is a different, narrower idea. Likewise, Personalized Medicine seems to me inadequately ambitious. PM is personalized medicine as opposed to what? Impersonal medicine? Bulk medicine? Medicine is already personalized. Yes, I know, PM is about medicine that is more personalized in very specific ways, but again that's really beside the point. I don't want my medical care to be more personalized, I want it to help me feel better and live longer, for the same or less money. "Personalized" isn't a value proposition, and it isn't a recipe for how to achieve value any more than four copies of the letter P.

Hmm, maybe I just need to go on a bike ride....


Burrill Personalized Medicine Meeting 2008

Just got back from the Fourth Burrill Personalized Medicine Meeting. I blogged it on my biotech/health blog here.

The conference wasn't exactly upbeat. But given the economic turmoil, it was certainly optimistic. People see a bright future for Personalized Medicine and diagnostics, which is good news both for America's health and for my day job, so I shouldn't complain.


My 150ms of fame on 538

I made a comment on that crackpipe of election information fivethirtyeight.com, related to voting and tangentially to e-deceptive campaign practices. My comment elicited favorable response. Believe it or not, there were suggestion that the comment should be its own thread. (No really, more than one. OK, two.) So here it is in all its glory:

@MsMike said...
> Erik: Thanks for the info on vote protection. Very helpful. I will be wathing for more.

OK, the report on deceptive electronic practices is here: http://votingintegrity.org/pdf/edeceptive_report.pdf Non electronic deceptive elections practices are still a danger, but are for the most part understood in the elections community. This report explores some deceptive practices specifically using electronic (primarily internet) means. Deceptive practices are attempts to affect voter registration, turnout, or vote choice by means of deception. I am an author on this report, which was produced by the National Committee for Voting Integrity a project of the highly esteemed Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The Voter Suppression Wiki has a list of list of election protection initiatives and a nice incident tracker page that lists prominent suppression incidents in an organized way.

There is also a Twitter VoteReport Project that looks promising.

The Verified Voting Foundation has a wealth of information on elections technology. This is not directly related to elections incidents, but may be helpful if you are trying to understand what kinds of known problems exist with different voting systems.

To reiterate my previous message, if you personally experience what you consider to be a voting incident you think might be worthy of follow-up or investigation, I recommend you call 866-our-vote or visit voteprotect.org.

In places that permit early voting, you can take stress off of what will in many places be an overburdened elections system by voting early.

Take a minute to visit your county's elections web site (assuming it has one), especially if you're new to the county, and most especially if you're new to the state. Rules vary. In some places, if you go to the wrong polling place, you can vote provisional, but in some places, it's basically impossible to vote in the wrong polling place. Worst of all are places where you can vote provisionally in the polling place, but unless you visit the county elections department in person before the elections results are finalized, your provisional ballot gets thrown out. It's important to know the rules.

If you are voting in person on election day, try to vote early if possible. Mid-day is often a quiet time. The county elections web site may have recommendations. Employers by law have to give you "adequate" time off from work to vote. (I'm not a lawyer and not an expert on this particular law, but if an employer will not reasonably accommodate your voting, then I recommend you call 866-our-vote right now.) Bring ID with you to the polling place regardless of the rules, just in case.

If you experience something bad (an "incident,") try to be a good reporter. Make notes in writing, if you can. Note the names of people you talk to and the time you talked to them. If it's relevant, note precinct numbers, brand names, model numbers and serial numbers. Generally and for very good reasons you can't take pictures inside a polling place, but if you have a camera or camera phone, take pictures outside the poling place and where permitted that might be helpful later. (Long lines, illegal behavior, etc.) If you don't have anything to write with, call yourself on your cell phone and leave yourself a voicemail message. This information can be valuable real time in getting injunctions, and better yet helping elections staff do a better job before an injunction even becomes necessary. Be firm but polite. More elections incidents are caused by bad information than by malice, and even in the case of malice, being hostile probably won't help you gather valuable information.

Do not, of course, forget to vote. If you fall ill or break your leg or something, you can still vote. Have a friend drive you. (Or if none of your friends have cars, contact your campaign to see if the GOTV people can help.) Many places offer curbside voting for handicapped voters, and it is now common to establish a temporary handicapped parking space in front of polling places. Rules vary, but I doubt many places would deny you assistance if you say you need it. I know a poll watcher in South Africa. One of the voters was an elderly, arthritic man who walked four hours one way on a very hot day to get to the polls. Then he waited in line several more hours. Then he walked home again. Oh, and he was carrying his handicapped wife on his back. If they voted, you can get your a** to the polls. Hear? Better yet, help somebody else who might not vote get to the polls.

Finally, as you enjoy the election night drama at an election party or quietly at home, give a moment's thanks to the election workers and election protection volunteers, whose work is not finished on election day. They will be toiling through the night and the next day. Many of them will not sleep for 30 or 40 hours straight, only to grab a brief rest and begin again. All for generally low pay or no pay at all, in the service of our precious democracy.

E-Deceptive Practices: Now with added blogos.

The report E-Deceptive Campaign Practices Report: Internet Technology & Democracy 2.0 I recently blogged about is getting some traction on the web.

Deceptive Election Practices

The report E-Deceptive Campaign Practices Report: Internet Technology & Democracy 2.0. has released under the auspices of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The list of contributors is (me aside) quite impressive. This ambitious and useful project was led and pulled together in remarkably short order by the remarkable Lillie Coney, also a contributor. The report discusses how deceptive campaign practices have changed in the age of ubiquitous internet.


Sarah Palin Web Poll

Well, all the kids are mad for Sarah Palin web polls. Even PBS is getting into the act. I succumbed to the fever and did my own:

Poll: Sara Palin Web Polls

How important to the presidential election are web polls about Sarah Palin?

Extremely important. My vote will be strongly influenced by web polls.
Very important. The advertising revenue from web polls is now the only factor keeping the banking crisis from tipping into a full-blown depression.
Somewhat important. Web polls are an important source of traffic for web sites crass enough to use them.
Not very important. Web polls are even less important than conventions to the political process.
Not important. Web polls are silly and I never participate in them.
What's a web poll?


High Pass Challenge

I rode the second annual High Pass Challenge. Pictures here. It is a beautiful ride. I was trying for 7 hours, but didn't quite make it.


Side Show

The cover story in today's P-I is Evi Sztajno's article on how low a priority sidewalks are in Seattle. My homey Kate Martin is quoted extensively. Pedestrian issues seem to finally be getting some real attention in Seattle.


More spikes in Seattle

Aki was riding her bike in our neighborhood, and had to dodge some odd spikes sticking up out of our street. The spikes turned out to be masonry nails with a head about the size of a nickel, sticking about half an inch out of the pavement. Such a nail could easily cause someone to trip, or cause a flat tire. Not a good thing to have on your street. Aki assumed that the spikes had been accidentally dropped and driven into the pavement, or the like, although she considered the possibility that someone was being very mean.

I asked our next-door neighbor about them, and he told me that the spikes had already caused a flat tire on a car on our street. It's easy to see how these spikes could cause a flat tire on a bike. A flat tire on a car surprises me a little, but that just shows that these spikes definitely don't belong in the street.

My neighbor told me something else interesting: the City of Seattle Transportation Department put the spikes in the street.

That's right: this hazard is not caused by an accident nor antisocial hostility. The spikes were put there on purpose to hold down air hoses for a street traffic study. After the city came back and took away the traffic measuring equipment, they left two spikes along one side of the street. I got out a pry bar and popped out the spikes. They came out very easily, revealing them to be sharp, wicked-looking, hardened spikes. Given that they were set only lightly into the pavement, they would have worked themselves free, and embedded themselves in something: a car or bike tire, a foot, a dog's paw, or something else. These things were a bad enough hazard in the street, but sooner or later, they'll work lose and pose an even more serious threat.

On reflection, it occurred to me that if my neighbor was right about the city putting in the spikes, there should be two more spikes on the other side of the street. After careful inspection, I found that there were spikes on the other side of the street. Or, there was at least a third spike. I looked for a fourth spike, but couldn't find it. Perhaps it had already come loose, leading to who-knows-what trouble.

It just can't be right for the City to leave spikes all over town. First it was spikes in Greenlake, now spikes in the streets. How does an organization charged with the safety of Seattle streets reach the point where they are leaving sharpened spikes in those same streets? The City should clean up better after traffic studies. Maybe they shouldn't be putting these spikes in the road in the first place.



Yet another of the books I find myself reading lately, mostly concerned with identity. (Compare with Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence, for example.) One difference: this is a novel, one of the few novels I've read this year. Alexie's novels are always fictions, but always picking the scab of an unhealed truth. This isn't a breezy summer novel, but it's a quick read and literally a wild ride. Flight is ultimately optimistic about what people are and what they can become.

Earthquake-proof a wine cellar

[Update: I've updated this article and put it on my personal website here.]

At the same time I was looking for somewhere to share my experiences earthquake-proofing a wine cellar, I ran across Wired's How-to Wiki. So I wrote an articles on how to earthquake proof a wine cellar. Of course, there's no such thing as earthquake proof, but our wine cellar is certainly more earthquake resistant than it was before.

Wired's How-to wiki seems to be off to a slow start, but there are some useful articles in there, mixed in with bar bets and other cruft.


Pedestrians take safety in their own hands

Kery Murakami quotes me in an article in today's P-I. The article is about the people, including me, who put up and maintain buckets of pedestrian flags in Seattle.

I prefer the title of the print edition, "Pedestrians take safety in their own hands," to the online title which focuses on flag attrition. Flags disappear over time. That's inevitable but just part of the remarkably small expenses of flagging. And anyway, flag attrition seems to be falling over time, so the online title isn't really news.

Regardless, Kery's article is a good reflection of pedestrian flagging in Seattle, why people do it, and how it's working. People flag intersections because they seem to help, and we felt we needed to do something to make pedestrians safer. Nobody's in charge. Nobody called a meeting and got everyone to agree. People just took action. There is some communication between some of the people putting up flags, but it's sporadic. There is some sharing of technical information. Some flaggers talk to the City of Kirkland, which has been flagging crosswalks for ten years.


Greenlake Spikes

This month, a boater found a bunch of metal spikes in Green Lake, Seattle. There were lots of them, regularly spaced. Who would do such an awful thing? Turns out the Seattle Parks Department put them there as part of a misguided milfoil control program. The City Parks Department said the spikes came as a kit, and the City had "no say" in using the spikes.

I'm not buying it. The City put the spikes in the lake. If the City had concerns about the kit, they should have returned the kit or modified the kit to use sandbags, as in later efforts. It may not have been completely obvious 20 years ago when these spikes were put in that they would become a hazard, but it's still the City's screw up. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt, and the city is really very somewhat certain that they have all of the spikes up out of the lake.


Critical Crossings

City Councilmember Nick Licata has a web site devoted to "critical" pedestrian crossings in Seattle: Critical Crossings. You can add your own crossing with a picture. Cool.


Identity and Violence

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen wrote Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny to argue why the conventional wisdom on large scale human conflict is almost entirely wrong. There is no clash of civilizations. Instead, there are people who are happy to speak on behalf of these viewpoints for their own benefit, while actual people are far too complex to be captured in such narrow confines.
    Sen repeatedly makes two points: first that people have a variety of identities, and different identities are more or less important under different circumstances. Sen's second point is that opponents of the narrow-minded "clash of civilizations" perspective usually concede too much. It is not just, for example, that the Muslim and Christian worlds are not inherently at odds. Moreover, people who are ostensibly part of these two "worlds" do not see themselves as one-dimensional components of these worlds, and they should not try to see themselves in this way. Sen has a term for the simple-minded concept of identity that makes a "clash of civilizations" seem possible. He calls it the "miniaturization" of identity. But of course, the consequences of this mistaken, miniature view are serious and dangerous. That's where the "violence" part of the title comes in.
    Sen's book reminds me oddly of a very different book by a very different author that makes similar points: My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd. Loyd's and Sen's books are mostly about different things. However, particularly regarding religious identity, both Sen and Loyd make similar points about how extremists benefit by destabilizing situations and marginalizing moderates. Loyd makes his point more viscerally, and Sen more scholarly, but both draw on their own horrifying personal experiences to inform their analyses.


Freak Accident

In a recent New York Times article (requires free registration), Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt analyze the costs of traffic. The punch line:

Driving costs in the US, per year:
  • Carbon footprint: $20 billion
  • Congestion: $78 billion
  • "Accidents" (crashes): $220 billion
By this analysis, if we all switched to true zero emissions vehicles and somehow eliminated congestion, we would cut the cost of traffic by about a third.

And even that wouldn't really work, because if there was no congestion, people would drive more and have more crashes. That's really the point of the article: America subsidizes driving, so people drive more than they would if they had to individually bear the cost of their driving. The result is that everybody pays.


What does traffic really cost?

The news media is reporting a new study by AAA on the costs of auto crashes and on traffic congestion. The report is available here (1MB PDF).

Short answer: we worry too much about congestion, when crashes are the more expensive problem. To the left are two graphs based on the report's data. The report also contains a number of nice graphs.

The study compares the economic costs of crashes vs. the costs of congestion. Costs include delays, lost work, and so on. See the report for a complete discussion of the methodology, which looks to me to be thorough and balanced. This study isn't performing a trivial analysis, but I think the work will support some important conclusions:
  • The cost of traffic is dominated by crash costs. Except for a very few places that manage snarled but not terribly deadly traffic, lowering crash costs is a much more promising strategy than striving for lower congestion costs. This is perhaps most striking in Seattle, my home town. Congestion dominates the traffic discussion, even though congestion is not particularly bad. Conversely, Seattle's streets are among the most dangerous, pushing overall traffic costs near the top in the US. If Seattle had crash costs as low as San Francisco, our overall traffic costs would be the lowest of any major US city.
  • The smaller the place you live, the more traffic generally costs you. Not because of congestion of course, but because of crashes. Partly because of greater travel distances, the further you get from the city, the more crashes there are. (When looking at major cities, the study includes nearby suburbs. )
  • It's impossible to build enough roads for everybody to go at full-speed wherever they want whenever they want, but even if we could, it wouldn't have that much effect on the cost of traffic, because as vehicle miles rise, so do accidents and the costs associated with them.
  • These are just economic costs, not the human costs. The human cost of waiting in traffic isn't much. The human cost of being in a car crash is often extreme. Nor are the environmental costs considered. These are real economic opportunity costs that we pay every year.
  • Some places are doing much better than others. Miami and Phoenix are just categorically worse than the rest of the country for traffic. Conversely, places as diverse as New York, San Francisco, and Eugene are doing much better than everyone else. It's interesting that the places with low traffic costs are also places that are known as pedestrian- and bike-friendly places. This suggests that effective pedestrian and bike safety facilities are actually profitable: they can save more money in crashes than they cost to install and maintain.
Update: see Erica Barnett's Slog posting here on the AAA study.


Esoteric knowledge of the Blogosphere

"Actually, before you post to the internet, get someone who passed middle school English class to proof read your witting please. Its riddle with errors and makes my eyes bleed to read it."

Actual comment from here.

Sometimes the truth is right there in front of us. Sometimes its riddle with errors, but its there.


Joe Weizenbaum

Joseph Weizenbaum 1923 - 2008.

Joe Weizenbaum, pioneering and uncompromising computer scientist, passed away this last week. Weizenbaum wrote the computer program ELIZA, and was a relentless foe of oversimplifications of cognition and a defender of what it really means to think. Weizenbaum was a scientist and a thinker in the truest senses of the words.

I didn't really know Joe well, but we were acquaintances. One time, Joe told me the most wonderful story about his daughter. This is when Joe was at MIT and his daughter was about twelve. A colleague of his, an MIT mathematician, was over for dinner. (I forget who.)

Joe's daughter reached for last piece of bread. Joe said, "don’t take that." She asked why. Joe said, "because you don't take the last piece of bread." Joe's daughter sat silent for a minute.

"Then nobody can have any bread."

Silence around the table.

Finally, the mathematician couldn't restrain his curiosity as to how a twelve-year old would advance an induction proof. "Why?" he asked.

"Well," she said, "if you can't eat the last piece of bread, it isn't really the last piece...."

Joe's delight in this story was not just pride in his daughter, but the window it opened into one of his favorite subjects: the nature of human cognition. Joe will be missed. We'll miss the person, his utter lack of tolerance for convenient and comforting yet wrong explanations, and his unwillingness to keep his mouth politely shut in the face of bullshit.

More on Joe here and here. Terry Winograd's tribute to Joe on his winning the Norbert Wiener award is here.


Sherman Alexie, Insomniac

Sherman Alexie wrote the perfect prose poem for everyone who's ever had trouble sleeping.