If Birds Left Trails Like Tracer Bullets, It’d Look Like This

Dennis Hlynsky, a photographer/filmmaker and professor at Rhode Island Institute of Design, has been filming various bunches of birds — murmurations of starlings, murders of crows, and others — with a techqnique that shows each bird’s trail, in images, from the preceding two seconds. It’s something like the effect of watching fireflies, or tracer bullets, or, as it was put by the fabulous Flowing Data, where I found this, like a video version of long-exposure photography. I could watch these for quite a while.

In each case below, you’ll get a higher-quality if you open the hi-def version in Vimeo (click the little Vimeo bit in lower right-hand corner of a vid you want to watch) and go full-screen.

He has shot starlings; jump to minute 9 for some good action:

1 2014 starlings 00011 from Dennis Hlynsky on Vimeo.
Continue reading →

Sex Reverses Cognitive Decline of Aging. At Least in Rats.

From the lab of Liz Gould, who quite knows her neurogenesis; she’s one of those who proved a few years back that it occurs, despite insistence by many that it didn’t happen.

Only tried on rats so far. But … encouraging results. More research is needed. Which is a good thing.

Aging is associated with compromised hippocampal function and reduced adult neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus. As new neurons have been linked to hippocampal functions, such as cognition, age-related decline in new neuron formation may contribute to impaired hippocampal function. We investigated whether a rewarding experience known to stimulate neurogenesis in young adult rats, namely sexual experience, would restore new neuron production and hippocampal function in middle-aged rats. Sexual experience enhanced the number of newly generated neurons in the dentate gyrus with both single and repeated exposures in middle-aged rats. Following continuous long-term exposure to sexual experience, cognitive function was improved. However, when a prolonged withdrawal period was introduced between the final mating experience and behavioral testing, the improvements in cognitive function were lost despite the presence of more new neurons. Taken together, these results suggest that repeated sexual experience can stimulate adult neurogenesis and restore cognitive function in the middle-aged rat as long as the experience persists throughout the testing period. The extent to which changes in adult neurogenesis underlie those in cognition remain unknown.

via Sexual experience restores age-related decline in adult neurogenesis and hippocampal function 

Why Do Military Brats Kick Butt in Reading and Math?

Helen Epstein, in an aside in her fine piece on public-health innovator Sara Josephine Baker, suggests it rises partly from the excellent healthcare, daycare, and social services we give our military:

[T]here is one group of Americans that receives high-quality government-subsidized child-care services, including day care, preschool, home-visiting programs, and health care: the US military. Unlike the Soviet version, these comprehensive programs aren’t designed to create obedient little soldiers. Instead, they use a play-oriented approach to help bring out children’s individual cognitive and social capacity. This may help explain why military children score higher on reading and mathematics tests than public school children, and why the black/white achievement gap is much lower in military families than it is in the general population. Since the military child-care program was created in 1989, the government has repeatedly declined requests to fund an in-depth evaluation, perhaps because if the effects were known, all Americans would demand these programs for their children too.

via The Doctor Who Made a Revolution by Helen Epstein | The New York Review of Books.

William Faulkner Is One Tough Interview

Willam Faulkner's grave, with accessories
Willam Faulkner’s grave, with accessories. Credit Bridgman Pottery, rights reserved.

I’ve been combing through various of the Paris Review “Writers At Work” interviews, which are spectacular. William Faulkner looks like a pretty tough assignment.


Mr. Faulkner, you were saying a while ago that you don’t like interviews.


The reason I don’t like interviews is that I seem to react violently to personal questions. If the questions are about the work, I try to answer them. When they are about me, I may answer or I may not, but even if I do, if the same question is asked tomorrow, the answer may be different.

Okay; the interviewer is duly warned: Possible violent reactions to personal questions. Onward, then:


How about yourself as a writer?


If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.


But even if there seems nothing more to be said, isn’t perhaps the individuality of the writer important?


Very important to himself. Everybody else should be too busy with the work to care about the individuality.

It gets worse:

How much of your writing is based on personal experience?


I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not important. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows. I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, since it came first in man’s experience and history. But since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better. That is, music would express better and simpler, but I prefer to use words, as I prefer to read rather than listen. I prefer silence to sound, and the image produced by words occurs in silence. That is, the thunder and the music of the prose take place in silence.

But as with his books, the thing is worth sticking with. Payoff like this is rare:


Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?


Read it four times.

Get it all at Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 12, William Faulkner. It’s a priceless series, and free on the iOS app.

Photo by Bridgman Pottery, via flickr, some rights reserved

Janet Malcolm’s Inescapable Truthfulness

Leaves through ice
Pondbottom leaves through ice

At the New Yorker’s “What We’re Reading” blog, Sasha Weiss articulates some of the many reasons I so enjoy Janet Malcolm:

Reading Janet Malcolm’s essay on the German photographer Thomas Struth (it originally appeared in the magazine, and is collected in her recent book “Forty-one False Starts”), I’m struck by the similarity of her eye to that of a camera. As she says, in what could be a buried allusion to her own style, “Photography is a medium of inescapable truthfulness. The camera doesn’t know how to lie.” Her prose gets close to the camera’s flat, dispassionate, all-encompassing gaze. Malcolm, who was the magazine’s photography critic for a number of years, sees more than most people can, and, in the same way that a photo does, includes details that seem incidental—say, the skimpy, pretentious portions at a restaurant where she eats with Struth. But the details accumulate so that they fill out the background of the central subject, much as they would in a photograph (in another subtly self-reflexive moment in the piece, she talks about the importance of background for portrait photographers, August Sander in particular. The environment in which he poses his subjects, she tells us, is crucial to our sensation that he is stealing his subjects’ souls).

Very little escapes her scrutinizing, cool, highly trained eye. That she exposes her subjects to the reader, and to themselves, can cause discomfort. But the writer’s eye is of course not mechanical like the camera’s: the details the writer includes are much more consciously selected (the photographer selects, too, but once a photograph is framed, a detail that chances to be there might be inadvertently preserved). The writer’s inclusions inevitably reveal her prejudices, her sensibility. Malcolm exposes herself, too.

Here’s a bit of the Malcolm piece on Struth, “Depth of Field“:

In one of our talks, Struth told me that when he was in high school he belonged to a little band of classmates—four boys and four girls—who spent all their time together and were determined not to be like their parents, whose recoil from the catastrophe of the war had taken the form of ultra-conventional behavior and a devotion to what was “safe and clean.” Later, as I was leafing through a book of Struth’s photographs, this phrase came floating to mind, for there is a sense in which it describes the world of Struth’s huge, handsome pictures, from which the dangerous and dirty is conspicuously absent. “Dallas Parking Lot” (2001), for example, a magnificent composition of cool grays and icy blues and warm browns that Struth extracted from the ugly mess of the construction boom in Dallas, shows a rooftop parking lot in early-morning near-emptiness and after-rain freshness, over which pristine glass high-rise buildings hover like benign guardians of the sleeping city’s security.

from What We’re Reading: Janet Malcolm, ‘Schottenfreude,’ Thomas Nagel, ‘Vanity Fair’. That particular installment also includes a nice Joshua Rothman quick take on Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere.

Other bits here at Neuron Culture that touch on Malcolm:

The Writer’s Dilemma: What to Toss

My Top 5 (or 10) Longreads of 2011 | David Dobbs’s NEURON CULTURE

Photo by the author

Will the FDA Regulate Just Genetic Risk Data, or All Risk Data?

That might not be good for your heart, if you don't mind me saying so.
That might not be good for your heart, if you don’t mind me saying so.

The latest in the 23andme versus FDA saga, in which the FDA halted 23andme from offering health-risk analyses of the genotyping service the company sells, comes in a commentary published yesterday in Nature. The commentary’s authors, Robert Green of Harvard Medical School and Nita Farahany of Duke Law School, address a key question raised by the FDA’s action against 23andme: Might the FDA expand its reach to regulate health-risk information derived from sources other than DNA, such as demographic, physical, or activity information? Green and Farahany find reason to fear that’s the case:

We find the FDA’s precautionary approach to 23andMe particularly troubling because it could presage similar actions against other consumer health products. In its recent guidance on mobile health applications, the FDA left open the possibility that it will regulate as medical devices information-based products such as questionnaires that evaluate the risk of a heart attack or the plethora of fitness trackers that help people to follow their weight, body temperature, heart rate, sleep patterns and more. Many operate as stand­alone or companion software for predicting risks including the likelihood of sleep disorders, seizures or heart attacks. Downloads and installations of these applications are expected to grow from 156 million in 2012 to 248 million in 2017 (ref. 10).

Such consumer products could democratize health care by enabling individuals to make choices that maximize their own health. They follow the historical trend of patient empowerment that brought informed-consent laws, access to medical records and now direct access to electronic personal health data.

Regulating such apps would essentially be treating analysis of information as a medical device. (“I wouldn’t eat that carbonara if I were you; could give you a heart attack.”) Green and Farahany may be overreaching themselves there, but it’s an important point to consider, and one that I’ve not yet seen FDA clarify.

Way too much about what the FDA wants here remains unclear.

via Regulation: The FDA is overcautious on consumer genomics : Nature News & Comment.

Quartz has good short write-up of the commentary, with information drawn from another study as well. New evidence shows the FDA was wrong to halt 23andMe testing

For lots of background — a whole trove of stories about this — see my ongoing round-up, I Got Your 23andMe – FDA Food Fight Links Right Here

Photo by @matpackery, rights reserved  

Why Artificial Intelligence Might Kill Us All

Would it be stupid to create something smarter than us? Over at Aeon, Ross Andersen considers the question:

To understand why an AI might be dangerous, you have to avoid anthropomorphising it. When you ask yourself what it might do in a particular situation, you can’t answer by proxy. You can’t picture a super-smart version of yourself floating above the situation. Human cognition is only one species of intelligence, one with built-in impulses like empathy that colour the way we see the world, and limit what we are willing to do to accomplish our goals. But these biochemical impulses aren’t essential components of intelligence. They’re incidental software applications, installed by aeons of evolution and culture. Bostrom told me that it’s best to think of an AI as a primordial force of nature, like a star system or a hurricane — something strong, but indifferent. If its goal is to win at chess, an AI is going to model chess moves, make predictions about their success, and select its actions accordingly. It’s going to be ruthless in achieving its goal, but within a limited domain: the chessboard. But if your AI is choosing its actions in a larger domain, like the physical world, you need to be very specific about the goals you give it.

‘The basic problem is that the strong realisation of most motivations is incompatible with human existence,’ Dewey told me. ‘An AI might want to do certain things with matter in order to achieve a goal, things like building giant computers, or other large-scale engineering projects. Those things might involve intermediary steps, like tearing apart the Earth to make huge solar panels. A superintelligence might not take our interests into consideration in those situations, just like we don’t take root systems or ant colonies into account when we go to construct a building.’

I like the role empathy plays here: a key asset, a source of restraint and success, the lack of which could make our own creation our destroyer.

See also Zachary David’s essay on (among other things) “the problems with friendly AI.”

Ross Andersen – Humanity’s deep future

Gut Parasite May Keep Locusts From Swarming

By itself, the migratory locust is about as harmless as a grasshopper. But under the right conditions, it can assemble with billions of its comrades into apocalyptic swarms that destroy thousands of hectares of crops in Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Now, scientists have discovered that a gut parasite may be key to keeping these insects living the single life.

Researchers first identified the parasite’s swarm-prevention potential in 2004. A team led by entomologist Wangpeng Shi of China Agricultural University in Beijing noticed that migratory locusts (Locusta migratoria manilensis) infected by a microbe known as Paranosema locustae were less likely to aggregate into swarms than were their healthy counterparts.

To uncover how the parasite stemmed the swarms, Shi and colleagues infected healthy locusts with P. locustae. Locusts release chemical signals called pheromones in their scat to notify their neighbors that it’s time to swarm. Healthy locusts placed in chambers containing scat from the infected locusts were significantly less likely to display swarming behavior than were those placed in a chamber with scat from healthy locusts, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. An analysis of the infected locust scat found fewer swarm-inducing pheromones.

Looking into the insects’ guts, the team discovered why. The parasite acidified the locusts’ lower guts, subduing the growth of bacteria responsible for creating the pheromones. Additionally, the researchers found that infected locusts produced lower levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, which can initiate swarming behavior, and  dopamine, which can sustain the behavior.

via Gut Parasite May Keep Locusts From Swarming | Science/AAAS | News.

Middlemarch, Through Layers of Time and Sympathy


A few paragraphs into her consideration of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, New York Magazine’s Kathryn Schulz lays out a refreshingly practical definition of what constitutes a great book:

As a rule, I am allergic to the adjective “best,” which asserts only the inferiority of all other things—not a useful or appealing function, for those of us who are promiscuous thing-lovers. But here is one benchmark of a book, and a very difficult one to achieve: whether, while you are immersed in it, it mutes all other claims upon your taste and convinces you it’s the greatest thing ever written. That’s how I felt last month, when, for the third time in my life but the first in more than a decade, I read Middlemarch.

Schulz’s re-reading of Middlemarch was inspired by Rebecca Mead’s new book My Life in Middlemarch, which I ordered even before I finished Schulz’s essay:

Mead first read ­Middlemarch when she was 17 and found a foothold in it. Eventually, she would climb it through college and coming to New York, through love and its loss, ­thorough parenting and stepparenting, through all the life-stuff that sloshes outside of and into those stages: ambition, frustration, ­loneliness, desire, arguments, intellectual life, aging. Virginia Woolf famously said of Middlemarch that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up ­people.” For Mead, it also turned out to be a book to grow up with. In My Life in Middlemarch, she weaves the story of that private relationship together with biography and literary criticism; the whole, gracefully executed, makes a pleasing aperitif or digestif to Eliot.

Middlemarch is splendid, I know from prior reading; Mead’s book too sounds wonderful, a prospect I’ll soon test. In the meantime, let me say that while reading this Schulz review, as while reading other pieces of her work — even her irritatingly well-argued explanation of why she despises The Great Gatsby, a book I adore — her writing muted all other claims upon my taste and convinced me it was among the smartest, most elegantly penned criticism ever written. She writes devilish well and — a dangerous thing in a critic — turns a quote with the best of them:

Toward the end of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” [Eliot] leaves off excoriating bad writers to describe that rarer creature, the excellent one: “She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture—she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence.” Eliot gives us that, and asks something in return. Seeing ourselves in her book is just a start. What she really wants is for us to see past ourselves.

Kathryn Schulz, What Is It About Middlemarch?. Read it, and all those books too.

Love, War, Death, and How Family Secrets Spill

EJ & Angus in Hawaii 5
Angus and Evelyn Jane in Hawaii, 1944.

Even before I published “My Mother’s Lover” (free this month at The Atavist), I had learned that telling people of my mother’s long-hidden WWII lost love that many, many families hold big family secrets, and that such secrets often come out very late in the life of a principal. At a discussion of the story at Metafilter, one such was offered. In this case, both people survived the war and stayed connected — but not as much as the airman desired:

My father was in the Air Force and then in the Army Air Force in WWII and Korea and my mother worked at an airbase in Miami as a soda jerk, a Jeep driver in Transportation, and a piano player/singer in the Officers Club, I think, at night. Both parents are gone now and we didnt get along anyway, but this post makes me realize how complex and deep the memories from that time reached into their souls.

Interestingly, when my mother was very old she was taken to the hospital in Arizona and, on the way, asked me to call her “friend” in Iowa, a man she had known in WWII, whose name was Dale. She and Dale talked on the phone nearly every day – I knew nothing about it. When I called him, he told me he had been head over heels in love with my mother in the 40s, having fallen for her when they went to school together in Iowa. He was in the Air Force and came to Miami on R&R and was amazed to find my mother there. In his words, “we spent every single hour together during my 30 days in July of 1945 – every single moment” – and he went on to tell me he wanted her to marry him but she wouldnt and he didnt know why. I knew why – she didnt want to live the life of a farmers wife – she wanted bright lights and a big city. That didnt happen, but there were at least 40 years before they reconnected, maybe more, and they were long-distance sweethearts of a sort in their 80s. The love in both their voices was very real even after all those years.

This story makes all that more real to me and I wish Id been able to put together the pieces of my own mothers story – and my fathers, also – before it was too late.

The tangled webs we weave.

via My Mothers Lover | MetaFilter.