The Dream Watchers

I’ve had an idea that answers the question “What are dreams for?” floating around in my head for several years now. Whenever there’s an article or a podcast about sleep, I listen to hear whether anyone else has had the same idea. This meaning of life dialog comes close.

Bob Wright asks the classic question “Why do we dream?” and Robert Stickgold gives a long and fascinating answer about the role of dreams in information processing and its relationship to forming memories.

There are studies demonstrating that, if you are given a cognitively complex task to perform and then tested on that task three hours later, your performance will degrade. However, if you have a nap during the three hour interval, you’ll perform even better after the interval than you did when you first attempted it.

A more elaborate version of the study has the researchers waking the subjects from their naps at periodic intervals and asking them what they were dreaming about. The subjects who reported dreaming about the task, performed better at the task when they were retested than those who didn’t. Robert Stickgold’s conclusion is that (one reason) we dream is to help form associations between events. I think this is wrong and it’s got to do with a muddle over the meaning of the word consciousness.

Bob Wright:

When you wake up in the middle of the dream it seems as if there was consciousness of the dream but if you didn’t wake up, you would never be able to recall it. It’s as though consciousness has to be a part of the information processing infrastructure.

It seems completely obvious to me that memory and awareness are separate functions in the brain and Robert corrects Bob’s error…

You are conflating a couple of things. One has to do with remembering your dreams when you wake up.

…but then goes on to make a similar error himself. Let’s deal with Bob’s error first.

Arguments about the meaning of consciousness have a long and storied history and I expect that a lot of the controversy arises because it’s not obvious what the term consciousness refers to. Is it the difference between being asleep and awake? Is it something to do with recognizing yourself in the mirror? Is it that ineffable quality of experiencing the colour red? I think it’s none of those things and all of the mystery goes away if we stop using the word consciousness and talk about awareness or attention instead.

In a previous dialog with David Chalmers, Bob tried to explain the distinction between perceiving the color red and having the experience of perceiving the color red. That distinction, in a nutshell, according to Bob, is what consciousness is all about and is what separates us from the lower animals and is why machines will never be conscious. But, for the life of me, I struggle to understand this distinction and wonder whether or not I am actually conscious myself.

The real explanation is simpler.

I can perceive the colour red and I can be aware (or not) that I have perceived the colour red and I can have a memory (or not) that I was aware that I have perceived the colour red and those are all separate ideas. It’s well established that we can perceive things without being aware of it—this is the basis for subliminal messaging—but it’s less obvious that we can be aware of something but to then immediately forget that we were aware of it. At least, it’s less obvious to Bob.

When you think about it, our brains must have a finite memory and to make sure we remember the good stuff we have to throw away a lot of the bad stuff and our brains continuously make decisions about which is which. This brings us back to Robert’s explanation of what dreams are for.

Dreams, according to Robert, are for making associations between events and for fitting them into an information schema in our memories so that we can recall them at appropriate times in the future. According to this explanation, our dreams rummage through the day’s events and decide which are significant and which are not (paying special attention to the emotional valence of an event, which is why dreams are often emotionally disturbing). I think this is close, but wrong.


Michael Gazzaniga discovered through experiments on patients with split-brains, that is patients who have had the connection between the left and right halves of their brains severed, that different areas of the brain have different responsibilities. You can think of these areas as specialized modules.

From a New York Times article,

In the decades to follow, brain scientists found that the left brain-right brain split is only the most obvious division of labor; in fact, the brain contains a swarm of specialized modules, each performing a special skill — calculating a distance, parsing a voice tone — and all of them running at the same time, communicating in widely distributed networks, often across hemispheres.

In short, the brain sustains a sense of unity not just in the presence of its left and right co-pilots. It does so amid a cacophony of competing voices, the neural equivalent of open outcry at the Chicago Board of Trade.

In one experiment, Dr. Gazzaniga showed different pictures to different halves of the brain.

The man’s left hemisphere saw a chicken claw; his right saw a snow scene. Afterward, the man chose the most appropriate matches from an array of pictures visible to both hemispheres. He chose a chicken to go with the claw, and a shovel to go with the snow. So far, so good.

But then Dr. Gazzaniga asked him why he chose those items — and struck gold. The man had a ready answer for one choice: The chicken goes with the claw. His left hemisphere had seen the claw, after all. Yet it had not seen the picture of the snow, only the shovel. Looking down at the picture of the shovel, the man said, “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

The left hemisphere was just concocting an explanation, Dr. Gazzaniga said.

In this multi-module model of how the brain works, there is a module for recognizing faces, another for experiencing emotions and yet another for  reasoning. But most importantly for our purpose here, there is a module whose job it is to make up stories about what we’ve just seen. Dr Gazzaniga calls it the interpreter or narrator.

The brain’s cacophony of competing voices feels coherent because some module or network somewhere in the left hemisphere is providing a running narration.

Back to the question of what dreams are for. Putting together what we’ve learned from Dr. Gazzaniga and Professor Stickgold, my answer is: nothing at all.

I imagine that there’s a module somewhere in our brain that sorts through our memories, categorizing them and throwing away the useless ones. As this memory sorter looks at each memory, it comes to the attention of the interpreter module which makes up a story about it.

So, imagine your memory sorter going through your recent memories one by one:

  • Big presentation at work (file it under anxiety).
  • Beautiful lady said ‘Hi’ on the bus (file it under lust).
  •  Taxes are due next week (file it under dread).

These three things are unrelated except for the fact that they were memories to be filed away. Meanwhile, the poor old interpreter is watching these memories as they scroll by and feels compelled to make up a story about them and suddenly you are back in 10th grade giving a presentation to your class in double history and, when the cute girl in the front row smiles, you realize you are naked and run away screaming.

There’s no rational meaning to the dream (like President Trump, the storyteller’s gonna tell stories whether they are true or not) and if you happen to wake up at the right moment, the story itself becomes a memory. And that’s where dreams come from.

Dreams are not for anything. They are a weird side-effect of your memory-processing system being watched by your story-telling system. They have no function and no predictive power. Just enjoy them.


Dream Photos from Flickr (Creative Commons)

Parlour Games

I read a novel a long time ago where the characters played a parlour game at a dinner party.  Each player took it in turns to name a prominent work of literature that they had never read and they scored a point for every other person who had read the book. The protagonist won with ‘Hamlet’ and was fired the next day from his teaching position in the English department of a university.

We tried a similar game at work today.

“Which prominent claim of mainstream science do you think is bullshit?”

To reduce the chances of being fired tomorrow, let me first acknowledge that I know I am a crank with this claim. I don’t think I’m as far into the rough as climate science deniers or anti-vaxxers but I know that I am certainly off the fairway. But still…I think the mainstreamers are fooling themselves.

My understanding is that mainstream nutrition science would claim that, when you lose a lot of weight, your body somehow adapts to its new weight and requires less energy. Therefore it gets harder and harder to lose weight because your body has some kind of memory of what it used to weigh and tries to get back to that. This is why most diets don’t work (according to mainstream science).

A stronger version of the theory claims that if you gain weight again after losing a lot, it gets harder to lose weight the second time around because the body “remembers” what it used to weigh and tries to get back to it.

I think this is bullshit because it either requires that my body either a) violate the laws of thermodynamics or b) it requires me to believe that my body chooses to run inefficiently—and burns energy promiscuously—until the day that you start getting somewhere with your diet. On that day, your body switches to “efficient” mode and decides to use less energy.

Sounds fishy to me.

I’m an acolyte of John Walker’s Hacker’s Diet. Mr Walker says it’s useful to think of your body like a closed system where calories come in as food and drink and calories are burned or otherwise exit your system as “solids”.

Here’s Mr Walker:

when it comes to gaining and losing weight, the human body is remarkably akin to a rubber bag. Fad diets and gimmick nutritional plans obscure this simple yet essential fact of weight control: if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight; if you eat fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight.
Here’s your body, reduced to a rubber bag.

To determine whether you’ll gain or lose weight—whether the rubber bag will grow or shrink—just take the number of calories in, what you eat, and subtract the number of calories you burn. If the number’s positive, you’re eating too much and the excess calories will stay in the bag; you’ll gain weight. If the result is negative, you’re burning more calories than you’re putting in; the bag will shrink as the reserves stored in fat cells are drawn down to meet the body’s energy needs; you’ll lose weight.

I acknowledge that your body might adapt to starvation conditions by trying to conserve energy in the short term but, in the long term,

calorie excess = calories in – calories out

and the excess is turned into fat at the rate of 3500 kCal/lb.

It is true that it’s harder to lose weight when you are very hungry—but that’s a failure of will, not a suspension of the laws of thermodynamics.

It’s also true (probably) that losing too much weight too quickly can backfire but, again, that’s because you weaken your will, not because your body mysteriously decides to run more efficiently.

It might sound like I am blaming people who fail to lose weight for a lack of will and that’s exactly what I am doing but… take comfort! According to Schopenhauer, it’s not your fault!

Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.
– Arthur Schopenhauer

The secret to losing weight is to use Jiu-Jitsu on your will. Don’t do anything to cause your will to falter (like losing weight too fast) and don’t keep the beer or the Doritos within easy reach for those inevitable occasions when your will WILL fail.

As I said, this is all crank science and you shouldn’t believe a word of it. Mainstream nutrition science says that when your body starts to lose weight, it gets more efficient so it gets harder to lose weight. I say “Bullshit!”

In next week’s edition edition of Crank Science, we’ll explore whether it’s more likely that 90% of the universe is made of the mysterious and undetectable “dark matter” or that astrophysicists didn’t calibrate their instruments right.


Lots of feedback in the comments, so I’ll clarify my argument a little.

I’m well aware that smaller bodies require less energy than larger ones. I don’t dispute that.

I’m also aware that if you cut your calorie intake below a certain level, your body goes into starvation mode and burns less energy as it tries to keep you alive. I don’t know the exact details of how this works but it sounds plausible and I don’t dispute it.

I was not previously aware of The Biggest Loser thing but I just read an article about it in the New York Times. This is exactly what I am talking about:

“you can’t get away from a basic biological reality,” said Dr. Schwartz, who was not involved in the study. “As long as you are below your initial weight, your body is going to try to get you back.”

I’ve heard this many times from many different people who accept it as truth.

More from the article:

“But what obesity research has consistently shown is that dieters are at the mercy of their own bodies, which muster hormones and an altered metabolic rate to pull them back to their old weights, whether that is hundreds of pounds more or that extra 10 or 15 that many people are trying to keep off.”

A diagram makes the point more forcefully.

The idea that your body just decides to operate more efficiently when you have lost a lot of weight sounds completely implausible to me but, I have been told on many occasions, this is what the science says.

Dr. Rosenbaum agreed. “The difficulty in keeping weight off reflects biology, not a pathological lack of willpower affecting two-thirds of the U.S.A.,” he said.

The last part of the article shares a more likely explanation.

Slower metabolisms were not the only reason the contestants regained weight, though. They constantly battled hunger, cravings and binges. The investigators found at least one reason: plummeting levels of leptin. The contestants started out with normal levels of leptin. By the season’s finale, they had almost no leptin at all, which would have made them ravenous all the time. As their weight returned, their leptin levels drifted up again, but only to about half of what they had been when the season began, the researchers found, thus helping to explain their urges to eat.

I can completely understand that it’s harder to resist food when you’ve just lost a lot of weight. This is what I was alluding to when I quoted Schopenhauer above and what I mean when I say that losing weight is a matter of will: Hunger hormones sabotage your will; they don’t change the laws of thermodynamics.

A final word about Mr Cahill. This is just nuts:

Before the show began, the contestants underwent medical tests to be sure they could endure the rigorous schedule that lay ahead. And rigorous it was. Sequestered on the “Biggest Loser” ranch with the other contestants, Mr. Cahill exercised seven hours a day, burning 8,000 to 9,000 calories according to a calorie tracker the show gave him.

Mr. Cahill set a goal of a 3,500-caloric deficit per day. The idea was to lose a pound a day.

There’s no way you can sustain that kind of exercise regime. I am comfortable with a 250 calories per day deficit. A good friend of mine has a 1000 cal/day deficit that he has sustained for months. 2,500 calories per day is madness and it’s no surprise to me that:

Mr. Cahill knew he could not maintain his finale weight of 191 pounds. He was so mentally and physically exhausted he barely moved for two weeks after his publicity tour ended. But he had started a new career giving motivational speeches as the biggest loser ever, and for the next four years, he managed to keep his weight below 255 pounds by exercising two to three hours a day. But two years ago, he went back to his job as a surveyor, and the pounds started coming back.

And here’s my argument in a nutshell:

His slow metabolism is part of the problem, and so are his food cravings. He opens a bag of chips, thinking he will have just a few. “I’d eat five bites. Then I’d black out and eat the whole bag of chips and say, ‘What did I do?’”

There’s a one in five chance…

When the big little clown was in fourth grade, he and his friends were really into Texas Hold’em. I regularly hosted a bunch of nine year olds for poker sessions. They couldn’t get enough of it. The Little Clown and I used to play all the time, even when his friends weren’t around.

Texas Hold'em
Texas Hold’em

Nine year old poker players are pretty easy to beat because they tend to be very aggressive, betting on all kinds of crazy hands. After The Little Clown went all in with three cards to a straight for the umpteenth time I decided it was time for a lesson in probability. As synchronicity would have it, The Little Clown’s annual science fair was coming up and we agreed that he would choose as his question:

What should I bet if I draw three cards to a straight in Texas Hold’em?

We filled in the forms and it didn’t take long before his teacher contacted me, appalled that a nine year old would be playing poker, let alone that he would have the audacity to want to study the topic in a science project. After some negotiation, we compromised on a less provocative hypothesis:

What is the probability of getting a pair if you draw two random cards from a deck?

Science Project

Little Clown did a science project every year from kindergarden to fifth grade but this one was my favourite as it fulfilled all of my criteria for a good science project.

  1. There should be an obvious hypothesis that is wrong.
  2. The hypothesis can easily be proved wrong by an experiment.
  3. The experimental result can easily be confirmed with maths.

Excuse me for a second while I rant a little about elementary school science projects.

Paper Mache Volcano from Science Project Lab
Paper Mache Volcano from Science Project Lab

Who exactly was it that decided that filling a cardboard volcano with baking soda and vinegar was a good science project? What is the child learning from the experiment?  What is the hypothesis? How come the vast majority of children’s science projects are either variants on the volcano “experiment” or an exercise in building a model out of lollipop sticks and elastic bands?

I predict that if I leave bread out for three months it will go moldy.

I predict that if I make a little car that is jet-propelled by a balloon, the car will be jet-propelled by the balloon.

How is that science? Where is the experiment?


What are the chances?

The poker experiment is perfect because 9 years olds (like most people) don’t really get probability and will always get the answer wrong (that’s why they are easy to beat at poker). It’s also easy to demonstrate by choosing random pairs of cards from a deck and recording the results. The maths is a bit harder, but this was actually my favourite bit of maths instruction ever with my budding scientist. We started with a coin.

What is the chance of getting heads if you flip a coin?

We tried it a hundred times and confirmed our intuitions before moving on to something more complex.

What are the chances of getting two heads if you flip two coins?

This was a little bit harder but we figured it out and experiments again confirmed our intuition. We tried more coins.

What are the chances of getting three heads if you flip three coins?


Intuition failed us here but … maths to the rescue! Do 9 years olds know about exponents? *shrug* Mine did and we got the results quickly and confirmed it with experiments. From there, it was trivial to try four coins and five coins so we moved on to dice.

What are the chances of getting a six if you roll a dice?

Intuition was inadequate again, but again the maths held up (hooray, maths!). Exponents still work if the base is 6 instead of 2 and the experiment confirmed it.

What are the chances of getting two sixes if you roll two dice?

By now it was easy and we zoomed through three dice and four dice. Time for cards.

What are the chances of getting a pair if your draw two cards from a deck?

A deck of cards is trickier because you have to deal with the whole take-one-away thing but, luckily, 51 is divisible by 3 and the maths is not hard, even for a nine year old. The experiments are more tedious because you have to deal a lot of pairs to demonstrate a 1 in 17 chance and nine year olds are not famous for their patience. Fortunately my nine year old was already a pretty good Logo programmer as he was already a four year veteran of the business having started to learn Logo in first grade.

I helped him recreate the coin-flip experiment in Logo and then we did it again for the coins. The cards were beyond his programming skills but he followed along OK when I wrote the code and he got a kick out of the results.

Chance of a Pair

Challenger School – where my little clown learned his nine year old skills – gets a bad rap for allegedly teaching rote learning. But the rap couldn’t be further from the truth. Having sent one little clown to Challenger and another to public school, I can attest that only one of them was ever subject to rote learning and it wasn’t the Challenger clown.

Challenger is intensely academic and, while I can understand that it is not right for every kid, mine was challenged in ways that he didn’t experience again until high school. In fact, I wonder whether the transition from high-performing fifth grader to coasting sixth grader wasn’t detrimental to his determination as it taught him that coasting was an option; an option unavailable to him at Challenger.

Fast-forward nine years and my little clown is now all grown up and accepted to UC Santa Barbara and, under protest, Ragged Clown Sr and Ragged Clown Jr are on their first road trip together to go check out Jr’s home for the next four years. It’s a long trip so we brought along Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich for company.

Jad and Robert – and their magnificent Radiolab podcast – have long been our companions on road trips. On this particular trip, the podcast app summoned up the episode “Are You Sure?”

Radiolab episodes have a certain structure. There is always a main theme – in this episode the theme was doubt –  and they do a powerful job of exploring variations on the theme with an  eclectic selection of interviews and zany editing and contributions from psychologists, scientists and moral philosophers – and anyone else who has a good story to tell.

The first segment was interesting albeit not relevant to my story here. A couple of devout Christians were due to get married until one of them started to wonder whether all that stuff in the bible was actually true. That topic would make a great blog post, but it was the second segment that intrigued me more.

Annie Duke is a decision strategist – a poker player – and won the poker world championship in 2004. In her segment, Annie describes the strategy that professional poker players use for winning poker games: know the odds. But knowing the odds doesn’t just mean knowing which hand is likely to win; it means understanding that the hand that is most likely to win will often lose (and vice versa). The secret is in knowing the pot odds.


If there is a $300 in the pot and you have to bet $100 to stay in, you could lose the pot three times and still break even if you win the next hand.


So you could lose a hundred dollars on Monday, a hundred dollars on Tuesday, you could lose another hundred dollars on Wednesday, but if you win the hundred back on Thursday, you are good.


So you just need to win one out of every four times

In other words, it’s not enough to know your chances of winning. The important thing is that your chances of winning are greater than the pot odds.

The climax of the story has Annie playing against her brother in the final of the World Hold’em Championship. They are playing for two million dollars and she’s holding a pair of sixes and her brother goes all in with a pair of sevens before the flop. Her brother is 82% to win the hand. Amazingly, the flop gives Annie a full house and she wins the $2,000,000.

Pocket Nines
Pocket Nines

Aside from the lessons on how to play hold’em, Annie’s good luck highlighted some fundamentally different ways of thinking in the Clown household. There’s one strand of thought that says, if there is a chance that a bad thing might happen at a particular event, you should avoid events like that in the future. Bad movie? No more movies! Awkward silence or said the wrong thing at a social gathering? No more social gatherings! On the other hand, the more optimistic clowns are willing to tolerate a lot of  crap movies and awkward gatherings in the knowledge that, eventually, you’ll find a movie to enjoy or that a social gathering will sparkle. Even without knowing the pot odds, I’m pretty certain that if you never take a chance, you’ll never win.

Final word from Annie:

It’s not about winning the hand all the time. It’s about winning the hand enough of the time […] That embracing of uncertainty does some really wonderful things for you.


You learn how to avoid that very human tendency to feel ashamed or embarrassed when you lose. You just float right above it.

Annie’s brother:

If you are making good decisions, then you are making good decisions.


You have to be somewhat outcome blind.

By coincidence, Annie was a psych major and Little Clown is majoring in bio-psych at UCSB. He’s gonna be a scientist!

UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Barbara

I hope he’ll learn from Annie and take some chances. I hope he’ll win some too.

I’m Free

I read two articles this morning.

The first was about the nature of the activity that we call science. The author uses the example of Anaximander’s realization that the Earth is not flat to illustrate what he believes to be the fundamental principle that drives scientific progress.

Until him, all the civilizations of the planet, everybody around the world, thought that the structure of the world was: the sky over our heads and the earth under our feet. There’s an up and a down, heavy things fall from the up to the down, and that’s reality. Reality is oriented up and down, heaven’s up and earth is down. Then comes Anaximander and says: no, is something else. ‘The earth is a finite body that floats in space, without falling, and the sky is not just over our head; it is all around.’

Science is not about the invention of theories that explain our observations. It’s not about answering questions that our current theories can’t answer. It’s about questioning the assumptions that lead to faulty questions.

He understands something about reality, essentially by changing something in the conceptual structure that we have in grasping reality. In doing so, he is not doing a theory; he understands something which in some precise sense is forever. It’s some uncovered truth, which to a large extent is a negative truth. He frees ourselves from prejudice, a prejudice that was ingrained in the conceptual structure we had for thinking about space.

I like the Anaximander example but my favourite example of questioning the question is about the hunt for phlogisten (the attempts to detect the ether were similar, but phlogisten has a cooler name). Phlogisten was assumed to be the hidden element that was released during combustion and it wasn’t until Priestley’s and Lavoisier’s work on oxygen that the people looking for phlogisten learned that they were trying to answer the wrong question.

The hunt for free will always strikes me as a similar problem to the hunt for phlogisten. The mainstream view of scientists (and some philosophers) is that, if the universe follows deterministic (or probabilistic) laws, there is no room for our thoughts to influence our actions and therefore no such thing as free will.

My second article of the day was an interview about, among other things, how the determinists choose definitions of determinism and free will that make their argument a fait accompli.

Whether they are justified depends on three things: whether their target conception of free will is a reasonable one to use, whether their target conception matches what people think free will is, and which, if any, of these conceptions of free will the scientific evidence plausibly challenges. Most of them use unreasonable definitions of free will, ones that require supernatural or magical powers. For instance, willusionist Jerry Coyne says, “Free will is, I believe, an illusion that we have that we can somehow affect the workings of our brain and free them from the laws of physics.” If that’s how you define free will, then we don’t need science to show us that it’s implausible.

The interview served to reinforce my intuition that we will only make progress on this topic when we find the right questions to ask and when we have better definitions for words like determinism and free will and consciousness and self.  It drives me mad when people use studies like this one,

these studies were able to detect activity related to a decision to move, and the activity appears to be occurring briefly before people become conscious of it. Other studies try to predict a human action several seconds early (with greater than chance accuracy). Taken together, these various findings seem to confirm that at least some actions – like moving a finger – are initiated and processed unconsciously at first, and only after enter consciousness

to justify their claim that free will is an illusion. There are so many places for free will to hide outside the gap between conscious intention and activity that I sometimes wonder if the determinists choose their narrow definitions deliberately to make their conclusions easier to justify.

I don’t know the answer to the question of how free will can be compatible with a universe that follows the laws of physics but I have a deep sense that the deterministic explanations are wrong because of the paradoxes that arise from this point:

Free will matters. Our views about free will influence our self-conception and our moral and legal practices.

This is only true if we have free will. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter at all. If we don’t have free will, it doesn’t matter one jot what we think about justice or responsibility or morality. In fact, we don’t even have a choice about what we think so we’d be better off not even worrying about the question (as if we could).

This was not the post that I had intended to write today. I had meant to write about how I am mystified by an argument made by Ross Douthat; that without revelation from on high, morality is just an expression of our preferences (therefore god exists?). It’s obviously wrong, but the explanation will have to wait for another day.

How Much Would You Pay for the Universe?

If you had asked me, six minutes ago, whether we should spend more money on NASA, I’d’ve said “No. Can’t afford it and it’s not a proper role for government.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s testimony to the Senate may have just changed my mind.

Actual testimony:

The empty seats at the committee table make me think that not many other people were persuaded. They were probably discussing whether mandating contraception coverage violates the establishment clause.

The Science of Jiggling

Having now shepherded two little clowns through elementary and middle school, a lot of teachers have crossed my path. It has been rare to come across one with a passion for science.

I have come across teachers who apologize for how hard maths is. They explain how they will make it easier and more fun for the kids by letting them draw pictures or play with the manipulatives. That’s great for kids who like to draw pictures but it’s not so great for kids who like maths. Nothing worse, for a kid who can’t draw, to be made to draw pictures in maths class. I’d rather be doing maths.

Especially in middle school, it seems like many teachers do all they can to delay the inevitable encounter with scary science. Collectively, my kids have written around 9 essays entitled “All About Me” as the first assignment in a science class.

To be fair, there has been a handful of teachers who clearly loved their subject and were able to convey some of their passion, but most have come across and somewhat apologetic “Sorry kids, I know you rather be reading novels, or making music or learning about the civil war but this is science class and you are going to be learning science whether you like it or not and we’ll start by writing an essay entitled ‘All About Me'”.

Imagine what science classes would be like if all science teachers were as excited by science as this guy.

Eleven more like that one if you click through to YouTube.

While I am ranting, why is that science documentaries in the UK are always narrated by scientists, while in America they have actors narrating the very same programs? Hands up who thinks Morgan Freeman is an expert on penguins? Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a famous scientist like Sigourney Weaver!

Let’s go tickle some rats

I’ve always assumed that humans were the only animals to laugh and that the cute noises that dolphins and chimps and friends make are just coincidentally similar to human laughter.

I might be wrong, if this finding, described at Animal Wise holds up.

As they progressed with their research, Panksepp and his colleagues found that many of their rats seemed irresistibly drawn to tickling, chasing after the ticklers and making substantially more play chirps while being tickled than during any other behavior. But the researchers weren’t content with anecdotal observations, and over the course of several years and a number of experiments, they systematically documented a dozen separate lines of evidence suggesting that the rats’ tickle chirping corresponded behaviorally to playful laughter in young human children.

The Rat Tickler

Animal Wise has plenty more great articles like this one. I recommend it for home-schooled (and regularly-schooled) kids.

Hacker’s Diet

The Hacker's Diet Online

I’ve been following John Walker’s Hacker’s Diet for about nine months now. I love the simplicity of it.

“Anyone can control their weight. It’s a simple matter of balancing calories.” – John Walker

Mr Walker’s book is a fun, simple read. If you are technically inclined and you want to lose weight, you should certainly read The Hacker’s Diet. The book introduces a model of the human body as a rubber bag full, mostly, with water. Every day stuff goes in and stuff comes out, but the rubber bag always obeys the laws of physics.

If you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight at a rate of a 3500 kCal/lb. Simply count the calories you eat and subtract the calories you burn and the resulting number will tell you how quickly you will gain (or, hopefully, lose) weight.

But I think it’s even simpler than that.

If you weigh yourself every day, you can quickly figure out whether you are gaining weight. If your weight goes up, you are eating too much. Eat less.

Ok, ok. It’s not quite that simple. Your weight can vary by a couple of pounds each day as you retain water (or, as John Walker delicately puts it, solids); but if you plot the moving average you get a surprisingly stable trend line. From that trend, you can figure out your daily excess (or deficit) and decide to eat more (or less) accordingly.

People who work in software development use a planning technique called yesterday’s weather. The idea is based on weather forecasting. Imagine a computer that monitored the humidity and the temperature and pressure and a thousand other variables and used it to predict the weather with an accuracy of 82%.

It turns out that, if you just predict that today’s weather will be the same as yesterday’s, you’ll be correct about 70% of the time. That’s close enough for most purposes and it saves you a really expensive computer.

In my case, the prediction that I’ll eat about the same number of calories today as I did yesterday saves me lots of tedious calorie counting. With a little practice, I got quite good at knowing whether I was eating too much or too little and adjusting my intake accordingly.

Here’s my trend since last October:

You can see from the chart that I lost weight pretty steadily for several months. My daily deficit held steady at about 250 cal/day for most of that time. 250 calories is about a bagel a day and represents the loss of a pound every two weeks. Since I don’t really like bagels anyway (or french fries, or bread, or candy) it was easy to stop eating them. I hit my target weight about a month ago and, since then, my weight has crept up a little (I don’t like bagels but I do enjoy beer).

The little red dots are a warning sign that I might be eating too much (notable red dots: The Captain’s Table Dinner in January and Piratefest in July) and the prominent red 74 says that I need to have half a pint less beer at Quiz Night.

Like any good hacker, I decided that I didn’t like any of the weight trackers out there so I wrote my own for my iPhone (it was also an excuse to learn Objective C). I might decide to stick the app on the app store one day but, for now, it’s just a bit of fun that I am sharing with some friends. Ping me if you want to play along too.


This post is from 8 years ago. The iPhone app is long dead but I wrote a little web app a few years ago.

Slimming with Strangers

It’s a bit bare on the bones but it has served me, a handful of friends and a couple of strangers well enough for a while now.

Try it if you like: Slimming with Strangers

Slimming with Strangers 2019
Slimming with Strangers 2019

If you weigh yourself in pounds, it works pretty well. If enough people nag me, I’ll let you enter your weight in stone or kilograms.