Toothbrushes are up to 95% less effective after 3 months and hugging your children regularly can raise their risk of anxiety, alcoholism, or depression by up to 95%

It sounds impossible, but this statistic is true:

Hugging your child regularly can raise his or her risk of anxiety, alcoholism, or depression by up to 95%.

I don’t even need a citation. Does it mean parents should stop hugging their children? No. You’d think that it couldn’t possibly be right, but the truth is even better: it couldn’t possibly be wrong.

And there are other statistics just like it. I was at a Walmart and on the side of a giant bin of cheap toothbrushes I read that “a new toothbrush is up to 95% more effective than a 3 month old toothbrush in reducing plaque between teeth.”

If you’ve heard related things like “Your toothbrush stops working after three months,” from TV or word of mouth, I’ve found that they all come as butchered versions of this original statistic, which actually says something completely different.

I’d only heard the simplified versions of that stat myself, and it had always set off my bullshit detector, but what was I going to do, crusade passionately against toothbrushes? Seeing the claim written out in science speak changed things a little. The mention of an actual percentage must have struck me because I pushed my giant shopping cart in big mindless circles before the genius of the phrasing bubbled up. This is textbook truthiness: At a glance, it looks like science is saying you should buy more toothbrushes, but merely reading right showed that the sentence means nothing at all. The key is in the “up to.” All this stat says is that if you look at a thousand or a million toothbrushes you’ll find one that is completely destroyed (“95% less effective”) after three months. What does that say about your particular old toothbrush? Pretty much nothing.

And that’s how it could be true that hugging your child regularly can raise his or her risk of anxiety, alcoholism, or depression by up to 95%. Once again, the key is in the “up to.” To prove it, all I have to do is find someone who is a truly terrible hugger, parent, and person. If there exists anyone like that — and there does — then this seemingly crazy claim is actually true. If any person is capable of causing psychological distress through inappropriate physical contact, the phrase “up to” lets you generalize to everyone. Should you stop hugging your child because there exist horrible people somewhere in the world? Of course not. These statistics lead people to conclusions that are the opposite of the truth. Is that even legal?

If it’s in your mind that you should buy a new toothbrush every three months, that’s OK, it’s in mine too. And as everyone who comes within five feet of me will be happy to hear, me and dental hygiene have no conflict. But you have to know that this idea of a three month freshness isn’t based in facts. If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a phrase that was purchased by the dental industrial complex to sell more toothbrushes, probably because they feel like they don’t sell enough toothbrushes. If it sounds tinfoil hat that an industry would invest in fake science just to back up its marketing, look at just one of the exploits pulled by Big Tobacco, very well documented in testimony and subpoenas from the 1990’s.

Press release by Colgate cites an article that never existed

Hunting to learn more about the statistic, I stumbled on some Colgate fan blogs (which I guess exist) pointing to a press release citing “Warren et al, J Dent Res 13: 119-124, 2002.”

Amazingly, it’s a fake paper! There is nothing by Warren in the Journal of Dental Research in 2002, or in any other year. But I kept looking and eventually found something that seems to fit the bill:
Conforti et al. (2003) An investigation into the effect of three months’ clinical wear on toothbrush efficacy: results from two independent studies. Journal of Clinical Dentristry 14(2):29-33. Available at

First author Warren in the fictional paper is the last author in this one. It’s got to be the right paper, because their results say exactly what I divined in Walmart, that a three month old toothbrush is fine and, separately, that if you look hard enough you’ll find really broken toothbrushes. Here it is in their own words, from the synopsis of the paper:

A comparison of the efficacies of the new and worn D4 toothbrushes revealed a non-significant tendency for the new brush head to remove more plaque than the worn brush head. However, when plaque removal was assessed for subjects using brush heads with the most extreme wear, i.e., scores of 3 or 4 (n = 15), a significant difference (p < 0.05) between new and worn brush heads was observed for the whole-mouth and approximal surfaces.

This study should never have been published. The phrase “revealed a non-significant tendency” is jargon for “revealed nothing.” To paraphrase the whole thing: “We found no effect between brand new and three month old toothbrushes, but we wanted to find one, and that’s almost good enough. Additionally, a few of the toothbrushes were destroyed during the study, and we found that those toothbrushes don’t work.” The only thing in the original stat that isn’t in the Conforti synopsis is the claim about effect size: “up to 95% less effective.” The synopsis mentions no effect size regarding the destroyed toothbrushes, so either it’s only mentioned in the full version of the paper (which I can’t get my hands on) or it’s based on a really incredibly flawed interpretation of the significance claim, “(p < 0.05)." The distinguished Paul J Warren works or worked for Braun (but not Colgate), and has apparently loved it. Braun is owned by Gillette which is owned by Proctor & Gamble. The paper’s first author, Conforti, works, with others of the paper’s authors, for Hill Top Research, Inc., a clinical research contractor based in West Palm Beach, Florida. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with working for a corporate research lab — I do — but it looks like they produce crap for money, and the reviewers who let Braun’s empty promotional material get published in a scientific journal should be embarrassed with themselves.

The original flawed statistic snowballs, accumulating followers, rolling further and further from reality

I did a lot of digging for the quote, and found lots of versions of it, each further from reality than the one before it. Here is the first and best attempt at summarizing the original meaningless study:

A new toothbrush is up to 95% more effective than a three month old toothbrush in reducing plaque between teeth.*

A later mention by Colgate gets simpler (and adds “normal wear and tear,” even though the study only found an effect for extreme wear and tear.)

Studies show that after three months of normal wear and tear, toothbrushes are much less effective at removing plaque from teeth and gums compared to new ones.*

… and simpler ….

Most dental professionals agree you should change your toothbrush every three months.*.

That last one might come from a different source, and it might reflect the statistic’s transition from a single vacuous truthy boner to vacuous widespread conventional wisdom. The American Dental Association now endorses a similar message: “Replace toothbrushes at least every 3–4 months. The bristles become frayed and worn with use and cleaning effectiveness will decrease.” To their credit, their citations don’t include anything by Warren or Conforti, but the paper they do cite isn’t much better: Their evidence for the 3–4 month time span comes from a study that only ran for 2.5 months (Glaze & Wade, 1986). Furthermore, the study only tested 40 people, and it wasn’t blind, and it’s stood unelaborated and unreplicated for almost 30 years. It’s an early, preliminary result that deserves followup. But if that’s enough for the ADA to base statements on then they are a marketing association, not the medical or scientific one they claim to be.

They also cite evidence that toothbrushes you’ve used are more likely to contain bacteria, but they’re quick to point out that those bacteria are benign and that exposure to them is not linked to anything, good or bad. Of course, those bacteria on your toothbrush probably came from your body. Really, you infect your toothbrush, not the other way around, so why not do it a favor and get a new mouth every three months?

So what now?

Buy a new toothbrush if you want, but scientifically, the 3–4 months claim is on the same level with not hugging your kids. Don’t stop hugging your kids. Brush your teeth with something that can get between them, like a cheap toothbrush, an old rag dipped in charcoal, or a stick. You can use toothpaste if you want, it seems to have an additional positive effect, probably a small one. Your toothbrush is probably working fine. If your toothbrush smells bad, you probably have bad breath.

Disclaimer is that I’m sure I could have read more, and I might be working too fast, loose, and snarky. I haven’t even read the full Conforti paper (If you have good institutional access, see if you can get it for me). I’ll dig deeper if it turns out that anyone cares; leave a comment.


  • That paper that doesn’t exist actually does, sort of. The press release got the journal wrong. But that doesn’t help, because its findings have nothing to do with the claim. Conforti is still the go to resource, and it’s still crap.
  • That journal with both the Warren and Conforti results, the Journal of Clinical Dentistry, bills itself “the highest quality peer-reviewed medium for the publication of industry-supported oral care product research and reviews.” It’s a shill venue. And they don’t offer any online access to past issues or articles, so it’s real tough to dive deeper on any of these pubs, or how they were funded.
  • The industry has now organized its science supporting its claim at this site:
  • Warren is now at NYU. ugh.
  • Looking outside of journals that get paid by toothbrush companies to publish meaningless research, there are failures to replicate Warren’s 3 month findings:
    • “no statistically significant differences were found for plaque score reductions for 3-month-old toothbrushes exhibiting various degrees of wear.” (Malekafzali, 2011)
    • and stronger: “A total of 238 papers were identified and retrieved in full text. Data on tooth-brushing frequency and duration, ideal bristle stiffness, and tooth-brushing method were found to be equivocal. Worn tooth brushes were not shown to be less effective than unworn brushes, and no ideal toothbrush replacement interval is evident.”(Asadoorian, 2006)


Conforti N.J., Cordero R.E., Liebman J., Bowman J.P., Putt M.S., Kuebler D.S., Davidson K.R., Cugini M. & Warren P.R. (2003). An investigation into the effect of three months’ clinical wear on toothbrush efficacy: results from two independent studies., The Journal of clinical dentistry, 14 (2) 29-33. PMID:

Glaze P.M. & Wade A.B. (1986). Toothbrush age and wear as it relates to plaque control*, Journal of Clinical Periodontology, 13 (1) 52-56. DOI:

Why Carl Sagan wasn’t an astronaut

Astronomer Carl Sagan probably loved space more than most people who get to go there. So why did it never occur to me that he maybe wanted to go himself? We don’t really think of astronomers as wanting to be astronauts. But once you think about it, how could they not? I was in the archives of Indiana University’s Lilly Library, looking through the papers of Herman Joseph Muller, the biologist whose Nobel Prize was for being the first to do biology by irradiating fruit flies. He was advisor to a precocious young high-school-aged Sagan, and they had a long correspondence. Flipping through it, you get to watch Sagan evolve from calling his advisor “Prof. Muller” to “Joe” over the years. You see him bashfully asking for letters of recommendation. And you get to see him explain why he was never an astronaut.

The letter

Cambridge 38, Massachusetts

November 7, 1966

Professor H. J. Muller
Department of Zoology
Jordan Hall 222
University of Indiana
Bloomington, Indiana

Dear Joe,

Many thanks for the kind thoughts about the scientist-astronaut program. I am not too old, but I am too tall. There is an upper limit of six feet! So I guess I’ll just stay here on the ground and try to understand what’s up in the sky. But a manned Mars expedition — I’d try and get shrunk a little for that.

With best wishes,
Carl Sagan

A little note on using special collections

A library’s Special Collections can be intimidating and opaque. But they have amazing stuff once you’re started. The easiest way to get started is to show and up and just ask to be shown something cool. It’s the librarian’s job to find things, and they’ll find something. But that only shows you things people know about. How do you find things that no one even knew was in there? The strategy I’m converging on is to start by going through a library’s “finding aids”, skip to the correspondence, skip to the alphabetized correspondence, Google the people who have been pulled out, and pull the folder of the first person who looks interesting. The great thing about this strategy is that even if your Library only has the papers of boring people, those papers will include letters from that boring person’s interesting friends.

Philip K. Dick’s vanity was his best protection from his vanity

I went on a deep dive and learned several fascinating things about Philip K. Dick and his life. Foremost, he named his daughter “Isa Dick”. Talk about a Dick move.

Among his notes about A Scanner Darkly were a question and answer. Question: “How will the book sell?” Answer: “Such inducements have no appeal to the superior man.” I like that he both considered the question unselfconsciously and posed himself to deny interest in it. I like how, in the context of an answer to a question about himself, the funny construct of the “superior man” isn’t about superiority to everyone else, like it would come off in any other context, but superiority to oneself. The phrasing was so peculiar that I Googled it. Expecting to find more by him, I stumbled on the same phrasing in the divination manual The I Ching, or The Book of Changes, which he wrote a book about and got deeper into as he fought less hard against schizophrenia and started to imagine us all in the Matrix.

In his notes he had written under each question, and prior to each answer, numbers and dashes and codes that looked meaningless until I had made the I Ching connection. The questions were real questions he had, and the answers were divined. His roll for the question about how the book will sell was for hexagram 58, where I found the quote about the superior man. That means that he didn’t endogenously pose himself to deny his crass interests, but that his reading emboldened him. In that context, it’s very clear that The Superior Man is best imagined as a version of you that’s notable only for being superior to yourself.

No, I’m wrong. Dick’s question was crass because he was vain. His attraction to the I Ching’s was an attraction to the idea that the Universe is organized around the Superior Man, which is vain. His speechifying about being The One who saw into the computer simulation controlling us was an assertion that he was host to the superior. The only thing that pulled him from the vain thought of his book sales was the vain thought that he was too much better than everyone else to worry about them. Any of my tea leaf reading about this softer interpretation of the superior man says more about my hopes than about either Dick or the Book that inspired him.

I was also interested to learn that, after his divorce, he lived communally but maybe not inappropriately with 1970s street kids, that he was very much from the Bay and Berkeley, and that despite his reputation for a variety of drugs, his devotion was exclusive to prescription amphetamine, on which he wrote most of his books. The mathematician Paul Erdos had the same hangup. They were contemporaries in more ways than one.

I learned all this from the audio commentary track on a Scanner Darkly DVD, which had Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Isa Dick, the flick’s screenwriter, and another person. It’s funny to hear Reeves philosophize without the benefit of a script. Nearly every time he spoke up, it was to helpfully and prosocially elicit more commentary from one of the others, but it came off like a philosophical conversation between a bunch of sage elders as convened and presided over by a stoned 14 year-old.


Image is from this comic about the man.

Words with dundant or fluous fixes

Words that aren’t opposites

  • real — unreal
  • canny — uncanny
  • valuable — invaluable
  • credulous — incredulous
  • fact — fiction (this is actually a deep one. Roots of both are in proto-indo-european words for “to make”)
  • mure — demure
  • vert — invert
  • aging — imaging
  • pact — impact
  • mediate — immediate
  • predate — postdate
  • toward — untoward

Prefixed words that aren’t words and don’t have prefixes. Some of these are words that aren’t opposites because one of them isn’t a word.

  • ert — inert
  • molish — demolish
  • venient — convenient
  • dundant — redundant
  • fluous — superfluous
  • becile — imbecile
  • agining — imagining
  • plicate — replicate
  • gruntled — disgruntled
  • sidious — insidious
  • whelmed — overwhelmed
  • rageous — outrageous
  • cursion — recursion
  • imburse — reimburse
  • burse — reimburse
  • fluous — superfluous
  • cilious — supercilious
  • quited — requited
  • quited — unrequited
  • vagant — extravagant
  • bolé — hyperbole
  • bolic — hyperbolic
  • luctant — reluctant
  • hap — mishap
  • pugnant — repugnant
  • dolent — redolent
  • eptitude — ineptitude

Also, words with redundant prefixes, and

  • reiterate — iterate
  • concatenate — catenate
  • intercatenate — catenate
  • encompass — compass
  • eminant — preeminant
  • perception — apperception

Other fixed words whose meanings don’t correspond to those of their bases

  • irrespective
  • consummate
  • insure
  • ensure
  • fulsome
  • remiss
  • relax
  • reply
  • reflux
  • reflex
  • convent
  • effable

This post was formerly “Words that aren’t opposites,” but it’s bigger now. Obviously, there’s room for more.

See also, islands that don’t exist, and list of fictional guidebooks.


This entry was posted on Monday, March 20th, 2017 and is filed under life and words, lists.

Bless me

So I was just walking down the street when some nice person I don’t know gave me a nice kind smile and said “God Bless You” kind of out of nowhere. At first I thought, “How nice and friendly, I love small towns” and I transitioned from there into “What a strange and archaic greeting.” Did he want my money? He had been crouched against the side of a building, but that was just because he had been stooping to help his dog. Had he been flyering for Jesus? (By this time I’ve continued well past him, and am just working back through the encounter in my head) Nope, no pamphlets. The closest I ever got to that key insight into the whole thing was that he must be a Shaker or Amish guy recently departed from his closed community of a dozen families and their quaint ways who has just gotten into his first big city of 5,000+ people and hasn’t yet learned that you’re not supposed to say Hi to everyone. But I didn’t actually finish that thought—it was around there that I realized from a still-damp hand that I must have sneezed.

Maybe this is what it means to live a life of the mind.


This entry was posted on Friday, July 8th, 2016 and is filed under life and words.

Generosity of spirit is the generosity of taking

I used to experiment with giving. In one instance I walked around my daily life with a bag of cherries, offering them to acquaintances and even random people on the street. It’s obnoxious, I know, but I would get all pushy and at other times try to guess who would take me up. It didn’t happen often with strangers, and not even much with people I knew, but it happened. I’ve thought about it a lot, and in some way “generous” is the best word for the ones that took the most.

[years pass]

So how gratifying to find the same case made much more clearly and strongly, by the literary wanderer John Steinbeck in a beautiful eulogistic memoir of marine biologist Ed Ricketts?

Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver…It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving, on the other hand, if it is well-done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving, you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.

It requires self-esteem to receive–not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.

John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Appendix, “About Ed Ricketts”, Penguin Books, 1951, pp. 272-3


This entry was posted on Thursday, November 26th, 2015 and is filed under life and words.

Individually wrapped M&Ms

Visiting Japan, and with a little time in Taiwan and Korea, it’s been comical the amount of packaging around snacks in East Asia. But these individually wrapped M&Ms, from Indonesia, take the cake. They’re packaged with a foil backing, like pills.



This entry was posted on Thursday, July 16th, 2015 and is filed under life and words.

Some people know how to kill

Certain processes are vital to the computer’s operation and should not be killed. For example, after I took the screenshot of myself being attacked by csh, csh was shot by friendly fire from behind, possibly by tcsh or xv, and my session was abruptly terminated.

Context? This. Turns out I’m only 14 years behind the latest word on Doom as a system administration tool.

Some people know how to live

While following the Rolling Stones across the country during their 1972 tour, Jim Bell found a discarded cardboard sign on the side of the road that read: “ALASKA.” On a whim he picked it up and stuck his thumb out. He’s been here ever since.*


This entry was posted on Saturday, March 7th, 2015 and is filed under life and words.

The scientist as dataset — specifically a high-rez, 4-D facial capture dataset

I am data for my colleagues at Disney Research. Note lawless dentition and sorry excuse for anger.

Sailing west down the Panama Canal will get you into which ocean?

The Atlantic.

And when you get to the Pacific, and sail up to L.A., you can drive west toward Reno. WHile we’re at it, there is also a sliver of the world where the timezones go backward. Thank you geopolitics.

Photo from Wikipedia.

“No wang-wang zone”

My dad lives in the Philippines, and I was in the Manila airport on my way to visit him. I was in the part where you get in line and wait for them to glance at your passport when I saw a cheap computer printed sign taped to a column.

This is a no wang-wang zone.
We have cameras, don’t embarrass yourself.
Stay in line.

I couldn’t help but notice it, which made me wonder why I’d never seen it before — I’ve been visiting that country every few years since I was 12. It didn’t seem like a very airport type of sign.

Eventually I had a chance to ask my stepmom, and she explained. Wang-wang is pretending that you’re really important. Say you don’t want to wait in traffic. You light up the siren on your dashboard, get over to the shoulder, and plough on past all the suckers. Or say you don’t want to wait in line at the airport. You put on a pair of sunglasses, tell your family to follow you in a tight pack while tittering about your celebrity or photographing you, and stroll confidently past all the long lines right on through to baggage. It’s called wang-wang because of the first example: That’s the sound a siren makes.

I’m not one of these Foucault-fawning critical theory types — at all — but when I think about wang-wang I can’t shake words like “postmodern” and “postcolonial.” They don’t usually go together, but I think wang-wang is both. The Philippines was colonized for centuries and the country, despite its merits, has a bad case of some of the worst aspects of Western culture, like extreme wealth disparities, deified celebrities, and the use of bureaucracy for interfacing between citizen and state.

Naturally there are forms of resistance to those things, and wang-wang is one, but it stands out to me for how savvy it is to the arbitrariness of power. The terms of being a powerful person are a bit arbitrary in any culture, but they are so blatantly arbitrary in the Philippines, partly because of the colonial mold: their governance system and economic structure were copied and pasted from Western models with Western loans and no regard for this idea that a country’s political and economic systems should be congruent with its culture. The common result is the portfolio of asymmetries that characterize life in the developing world, like asymmetry in wealth, in power, in the development of urban and rural places, in the relative amounts of law and lawfullness, and in the amount of admiration for Westerners over compatriots.

If asymmetry is the common result of orthodox international development, the “no wang-wang zone” is the postmodern result: a rule in an airport immigration lobby chastising this new kind of person who can break all the rules by pretending to be the kind of person who can break all the rules.

Words whose acronyms take longer to pronounce

  • WWW
  • WWII
  • WTF
  • maybe any acronym with W in it, possibly no other acronyms

Oh, just thought of an acronym with a W that might be an abbreviation of its source: WWF. Theory-wise, this phenomenon should be a puzzle for researchers who assume that efficiency is an important factor in language change and evolution.


This entry was posted on Saturday, June 21st, 2014 and is filed under life and words, lists.

Irony is the flatulence of truth

I can actually defend this: The world is complicated so the truth is too, and it can’t always contain itself. Irony reveals parts of the truth, but always out around the back, and in sudden spurts. Even when you don’t see it you can still sense it. I could keep going.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 18th, 2014 and is filed under life and words.

Auspicious and inconsequential

Photo on 16-06-14 at 12.49

“Auspicious” and “inconsequential” are two tidy words for describing the experience of being burger customer number one. I like that they can coexist with so little friction. Maybe it works because auspicious wafts superstitious.

Is it possible to forge your own signature?

It’s true for everyone that no two signatures are identical, at least in the sense that no two periods on a page are identical. It’s a little more true for me. My signature is sloppy, but I’ve never been called out on it until now. I’ve been trying to get a credit card and the issuers cannot be satisfied that I am who I say I am. They’ve returned my application to me five times now, complaining each time that my signatures on the forms don’t match the one on my ID. The first few times I figured it was a fluke and I just signed the forms again. Then I photographed myself holding a copy of my signature, my ID with my other signature, and a note saying “this is me.” They didn’t buy it. So now I’ve resorted to forgery, copying out my card signature, enlarging it, and tracing over it exactly. I would call this my confession but the nice customer service lady giggled when I told her so I guess everything will be OK. But what the hell do I know? Maybe it should be a crime to pretend to be the person you were yesterday.


This entry was posted on Monday, April 14th, 2014 and is filed under life and words.

The selling out diaries: Surprising sources of pressure

I’m a behavioral scientist, pretty lefty, and I currently do research for a major media corporation. I predicted before taking on this job that I would feel some pressure to drift from deeper questions about society towards “business school” questions — questions that are less about human behavior and more about consumer behavior. What I didn’t predict is that all of that pressure would come from within myself. I voluntarily propose questions in the direction of consumer behavior when it’s not what I want to do and I’m not being pressured to do it. Why?

The big factor is that I’m amiable and eager to please. So while I maybe am not drawn towards consumer research questions, the people I meet in other parts of the company are often interested — personally interested as reasonable people — in just that stuff. I like these people, and I recognize the good in the things they want to accomplish, and I want to be worth their time to do other kinds of work with them in the future, so I offer to help.

And there it is: I prepared myself against outside pressures, and got surprised by the pressures I’m really vulnerable to, the ones that come from the inside. They are trickiest in that they seem to come from good places — in particular from the ways that I like to think of myself as a good person.

In introspection-heavy spaces, recognizing a problem is the bigger part of solving it. For this particular problem, the rest is easy enough: For every 50 questions I generate, 10 are academically interesting, and 1 also has appeal to the people I work with. So if I stay creative enough to sustainably generate 100s of questions, I can constrain my helpfulness to the ways that I want to help without making any party feel constrained; I can do satisfying work and help my colleagues at the same time.

This particular solution is a patch, and it will raise other problems. I’m not done thinking about these things. But as long as I pay attention and stay aware of my values I think I can do work that is good for me, good for the people who support me, and good for the world.

My first autogenerated recommendation letter

I was procrastinating through my LinkedIn backlog when I found this note from an old acquaintance:

Dear Seth,
I’ve written this recommendation of your work to share with other
LinkedIn users.

Details of the Recommendation: “Seth is a personable and empathetic leader with a passion and a drive to see his goals through to completion. He looks at the world with great curiosity, from a logical and questioning point of view. Seth is imaginative and innovative in his thinking while also being practical and systematic. He seeks precision and notices the minute distinctions that define the essence of things, then analyzes and examines their interconnections and interrelations. Seth scrutinizes all sides of an issue, looking to solve problems in creative and unusual ways. He employs novel cognitive models as tools for discovery, using “what if” questions to explore alternatives and allowing multiple possibilities to coexist. He sets high standards for himself and others, inspiring enthusiasm, fostering collaboration, and maintaining accountability. I very much enjoyed working with him.”

We didn’t have very much contact, much less anything like professional contact. This contact was quirky, and generally suspicious, and it was such a nice-but-strangely-um-I-don’t-know gesture that I found myself cynically googling sentences from it. It turns out my cynicism was justified: the recommendation above points straight to Wikipedia’s pages on


This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 11th, 2014 and is filed under life and words.

Exclamation point on a flag?

There is the category of thoughts that were nice to think halfly because I never imagined thinking them. One was trying to figure out if/how/why it’s redundant/deep to include an exclamation point on a flag. Maybe because each are such active forms of non-action, and the combination makes such a louder call to talking about arms.


This entry was posted on Thursday, February 13th, 2014 and is filed under life and words.

Are existential crises heavier when you don’t exist?

This robot fails the turing test on herself. She can keep Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine company in the category of Self Denying Automata That I Think Are Deep But I Can’t Tell And That’s Why They Are.

Hayek’s “discovery” is the precognition of economics

I’m exaggerating, but I’m still suspcious. I think Vernon Smith does have some interesting, unconventional work in that direction. There are also null results.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 26th, 2013 and is filed under life and words, science.

A list of things I wanted to know in July 2013

  • the biology of mushrooms
  • the mathematical methods of physics: how to wreak havoc on equations
  • the name and history every plant I step on
  • when we should have decentralized control, when we should have bosses
  • the contributions of statistical physics to social science
  • more theoretical neuro
  • more theoretical bio
  • more theoretical ecology
  • how to evolve modularity, and how modularity evolved
  • birds by their songs
  • more about soil ecology
  • how palm wine tastes differs in every country that you can find it
  • every Mediterranean climate in the world
  • the influences of Greco-Roman culture that elicited Christianity from Judaism
  • the cultural histories of Heavens and Hells
  • how to never lie to myself unintentionally
  • how to keep changing forever
  • how I’ll change when I leave this town for the next
  • why there aren’t more worker-owned businesses

FYI, I don’t know yet.

Is it immoral to not read the newspaper?

Is it immoral to not educate myself about political issues that affect thousands and millions of lives. If I’m a voter? If I’m a resident of a (the) superpower? If I, as a scientist, try not to have opinions?

I ask these questions from the far extreme. I get my current events by reverse engineering jokes on the Daily Show. And I rationalize my ignorance with a language game. In science, especially social science, total ignorance is the default state. Exceptions to that are mainly brief, trivial lapses into insight.

A few years ago things were going badly, and I wanted to stop making unqualified judgements about the state of the world. I asked my friends to kick me in the nuts every time they caught me speaking as if I knew what I was talking about. It didn’t really work — no one wanted to kick me — but it was a fun exercise, and it represented something I still want to cultivate. Maybe I’ve taken thing too far, but I believe that the ultimate purpose of science is nescience. I think that the best way to survive feeling like an idiot all the time is to love the feeling of ignorance. That’s awe.

So what happens when someone with those habits ends up in a political conversation? Ignorance is considered bad in politics, as if we have a choice but to be 90% ignorant about the causes and effects of social phenomena. I think that that ignorance of ignorance continues on down to the American social fabric. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Or even better: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” So if you ask me to say something definitive about some current event, I’m either going to tell you that I don’t really know, or I’m going to throw something together from the thin fabric of my prior beliefs. And I’m no exception.

When I look around, I get the feeling that the people who identify as politically informed are those with the strongest opinions. As I write that, I realize I must be a strange creature, because when it comes to society, I believe its delusional to have strong opinions.

My attitude as a social science, the only non-delusional attitude that a social scientist can adopt, is that every informative declarative statement about society is wrong and riddled with exceptions. Race? What about light-skinned black people, dark-skinned white people, Arabs (“white”), Latinos, multiracial Americans, multiracial immigrants, 1/64 black people now, 1/64 black people 100 yeas ago? The race of each of these people depends on what and when they were born, what they do and who they spend their time with. And its never so simple that this person or policy caused that social catastrophe.

Now imagine a politician who adopts the same view — treating a social system less like a machine with buttons and levers and more like the ecology of a national park. The job of a politician is to do stuff, is to intervene boldy and confidently in an inherently unpredictable, unknowable system that determines the fate of millions. Kids smashing blocks together. I don’t think that’s immoral. I think its necessary. I’ve done it myself on a smaller scale. But I did it conscious that it was all based on flimsy premises. Believing in change doesn’t make it any less audacious.

And that’s the riddle. Because not doing anything, this responsible, careful, outsider’s cultivated ignorance and equinimity is also based on flimsy premises. I’m not an outsider. My daily habits, however normal, perpetuate values that I don’t support. My opinions, and my lacks of opinions, influence how other people think and what they say and where society goes.

So what do I do? I’m not going to read three books about every newspaper article. I’m not going to start a foundation, or become a citizen journalist. A part of me wishes I wanted those things. In the long term maybe I’ll try to start caring more, or maybe try to get angrier about social problems. And in the mean time, I’ll just have to be honest that I’m unjustifiably hiding behind my justified ignorance.

Enfascination 2013

29742_396066756605_704462_n“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Thus spoke Martin Luther King Jr. in a great endorsement for humility, curiosity, and discovery.

On Thinko de Mayo, from 1PM, you will have five minutes to help us see how dangerous we are. You may share anything at all during your five minutes, as long as you personally think it’s fascinating. Your goal is to transmit your sense of fascination to others. FB page:

If the constraints of themes help you brainstorm, try “Science towards nescience.” But generally, you should trust yourself. If you manage nothing more than five minutes of wobbling, inarticulate, ecstatic blubbering then Well Done: You have successfully expressed the unfathomable depth of your subject.

This is the ten-year anniversary of these lectures –– ten years since I attempted the world’s nerdiest 21st birthday kegger. This will be the fifth and probably last in Bloomington. Ask me for help if you’ll have slides or a demo.

Past topics have included:
Slide Rules, Counting the Permutations of Digit Strings, Conceptions of Time in History, Chili Peppers, How to cross a glacier, The Singularity, Indiana Jones, Rural desert water distribution systems, Hexaflexagons, Small precious things, Wilderness Camps as Commodity, DIY Cooking, Roman Emperor Deaths , Joy of Science, Salt , Three Great Banquets in Italian History, How to Sharpen a Chisel, Some Properties of Numbers in Base Ten, The Physiological Limits to Human Perception of Time, Geophagy, Pond Ecology, Superstition: For Fun and Profit, Counterintuitive Results in Hydrodynamics, The Wolof Conception of Time, Arctic String Figures, The Seven Axioms of Mathematics, Dr Seuss and his Impact on Contemporary Children’s Literature, Twee, Motorcycle Life and Culture, Cultural Differences Between Japan and the US, Brief history of the Jim Henson Company, Female Orgasm, Insider Trading: For Fun and Profit, Film of Peter Greenaway, A Typographical Incident with Implications for the Structure of Thought, Cooperative Birth Control, Tones in Mandarin, Unschooling and Deschooling, Q&A: Fine Beer, DIY Backpacking, Chinese Nationalism in Tibet, Biofuels, The Yeti, The Health Benefits of Squatting, The Big Bang, How to Pick Stocks Like a Pro, Food Preservation Technique, or Managing Rot, Infant Visual Perception, Demonstrations in Number Theory, Rangolis, Kolum, The Hollow Earth, Edible Mushrooms: For Fun and Profit, Human Asexuality, A History of the California Central Valley Watershed, An Account of the Maidu Creation, The Paleoclimatology of the Levant, Rural India, German Compound Words, Manipulating Children, Physics of Time, Animal Training on Humans, Constructed Languages, This Week’s Weather, The XYZs of Body Language, Light Filtration Through Orchards, Our Limits in Visualizing High Dimensional Spaces,Twin Studies.

Last year’s audio:
And video/notes from before that:


UPDATE post-party

Here is what happened:

  1. The Tiger Café by Ronak
  2. Jr. High School Poetry Slam by Lauren
  3. The “Border” language by Destin
  4. Perception/Objectivity by Paul Patton
  5. Readings from James Agee by Jillian
  6. “A signal detection theory of morality” or “The morality manatee” by Seth
  7. Dreams and the four candies by Danny
  8. Pick Two by Adam
  9. Trust and Trust Experiments by Jonathan

Militant atheism is oppressive atheism. c.f. Portugal

Wikipedia’s list of religious slurs contains the Portugese slur “Ateu-graças-a-Deus.” It translates to “‘Thank God’ atheist,” and its what you call someone who is only atheist in public, but who secretly believes. Fortunately American culture doesn’t yet have a need for that kind of atheist. Its symptomatic of an atmosphere in which believers are coerced into acting like non-believers. I think its a failure, and I also think that its the kind of thing that must fall out of the religious bigotry of Dawkins and the other most prominent Western atheists. But, thanks to the mistakes of communism and fascism, and the lessons learned from them, I don’t believe atheism will swing so far over that it becomes oppressive. I hope not.

Enfascination 2012 number 2 at the Complex Systems Summer School in Santa Fe, NM

I spent the summer of 2012 with fascinating people. Seeing only their talent as scientists, I thought I knew how fascinating they were. But this short-notice series of short talks revealed their depth. There is no record of the proceedings, only the program:

SFI CSSS Enfascination, for we must stop at nothing to start at everything:
Priya on Symmetries
Kyle on the adversarial paradigm
Drew on the history of espionage in Santa FE
Tom’s song, the Power Law Blues
Seth on keiteki rio
“Yeats on robots sailing to Byzantium” by Chloe
Christa and her Feet
Xin on Disasters
“Kasparo, A robotics opera” by Katrien
Jasmeen on post-war polish poetry
Keith on voting
Madeleine’s “Paradoxes of modern agriculture”
Sandro singing “El Piscatore”
Robert on audio illusions, specifically Shephard tones and the McGurk effect
Isaac on biblical Isaac
Miguel on the diversity of an unpronounceably beautiful variety of sea creature
Nick on mechanical turk
Georg’s poetry

Enfascination 2012 audio


Some things take time, but it only takes an instant to realize that you have no idea what’s going on. This epiphany-every time it happens-is punctuated by the sound of 500 stars around the universe literally exploding, dissolving their planets and neighbors in flaming atoms, in silence. It happens every instant, forever. As right as you were, its impossible for you to know how right.

The 2012 program from May 5, 2012, featuring:

  • “Hoosier Talkin’,” Sarah on the southern Indiana dialect
  • “A brief history of Western art” by Eran
  • “Introduction to conducting” by Greg
  • “Infant perception” by Lisa
  • Poems read by Jillian
  • “The paleoclimatology of the Levant” by Seth
  • “Tweepop” by Robert
  • “Direct perception” by Paul Patton
  • “Slide rules” by Ben

The Reesee Cup and other bits of the southern Indiana dialect

“Libary”, “supposably”, and other wonderful nuggets welcomed me to southern Indiana five years ago. I no longer have inSUREance, I have IN-surance. I eventually also learned that the grass needs mowed, the fence needs painted, the dishes need washed, and the car needs fixed and sold.

But the best ones are those that it takes you five years to realize you’ve been hearing the whole time. Natives will ask for a Reesee cup. Tonight I saw a father and daughter walk in. The dad said Reese’s pieces, the daughter said Reesee pieces, both referring to the same thing. I asked about it, and not even they had realized that they were saying it different. Its been getting as far as my ears the whole time I’ve been in the state, but it took me this long to actually let it as far up as my conscious awareness.


This entry was posted on Thursday, February 28th, 2013 and is filed under life and words, lists.

“Seth Frey the Sandwich Guy”

In high school I would bring very large sandwiches constructed with many pounds of meat and bread. They were famous enough that I would sell them. I bought some in exchange for people’s souls. Jonathan Lazarus wouldn’t sell his, but he offered to make me a song instead, and I couldn’t have hoped for more.

This is 1998 or 1999. He died two weeks ago, hit by a train. His brother Ben made this video to remember Jon. RIP Jonathan Lazarus. RIP also Sean Emdy who was in the same high school class, and was killed the same way in 2003 or 2004. Thanks also to Ben.

My Awe Talk: Inventors who were killed by their own inventions

Awe Talks are a 5-minute fun lecture series started by my pal Kyle. He asked me to record one, here:

What big titty b****** taught me about institution design

wifibigtittybitchesIn institutional economics, there are four main kinds of resource, classified by whether they are limited (yes or no) and whether you can keep others from using them (yes or no). Now everyone who uses these categories knows that they are fuzzy, and full of exceptions. They can vary in degree, by context, and in time. WiFi gives us a beautiful example of how technology (and defaults) can change the nature of a resource. These days, early 2013, wireless routers come password-protected out of the box, and they come initialized with unique hard-to-crack passwords. That wasn’t the case in the early 2000s, when routers either came unlocked by default or locked with an easy-to-find default password. In those days, wifi was a common-pool resource in that it was limited (only so much bandwidth) and you couldn’t keep others out of it by default. You needed special knowledge to create a proper password and turn your wireless into the private good (still limited, but excludable) that you get out of the box today.

The point about technology has been made. Governing the Commons contains a history of roundups in the Western US, showing how the invention of barbed wire turned the large cattle herds from a managed common-pool resource into a private (excludable) good. The WiFi example adds the influence of defaults, which makes it a bit more interesting, since we see a case in which the flip of a switch can change the nature of a good, and we see how, given the choice, society has chosen private property over common property over the past ten years.

But there is another facet to the WiFi resource. Another feature that comes default is the broadcast SSID, or the name of your wifi. These are often informative, but they can also be impressively inappropriate. Trying to steal wireless on the road, you can be driving around a beautiful peaceful thoroughly-family-looking neighborhood and stumble upon all kinds of sinister things in the air.

What kind of resource is the NSFW SSID? Well, lets be square and say that its a bad rather than a good. Its non-subtractable because unlike bandwidth my reading it doesn’t interfere with your reading it. Its common. By all that, NSFW SSID’s are a public bad, pollution. And what is interesting about all this is that a resource can be anything, even the name of an interesting resource can be an interesting resource, one that gets managed by norms and rules, and one that channels all the complexity of human society.

The real Makkie

So I was at a lumber yard looking at the fancy woods they’ve got. A guy on the yard was walking me through showing me what they’ve got, and at the end he added with a gesture “… and this here is just the run of the mill.” I realized at that moment that I was for the very first time hearing that expression in context. For a big geek that kind of thing can be pretty exciting and I, personally, am pretty easily amazed. People say things, they get meaning, those meanings change, but not as a unit. Phrases diffuse over the hills, or hop on to different islands, and evolve in their own directions to suit their own environments.

Ever wonder why the standard hotel breakfast is called the continental breakfast? I did — not as a thing I’ve always actively wondered about, it has just been an ambient missing piece. Well I figured it out this morning. I’m in the UK, and they were serving two options, the British breakfast and the Continental breakfast. Get it? The Continent is a meaningful idea, but only from the UK. This morning I had my first authentic continental breakfast, which is a hilarious idea, because continental means “other,” and its a mash and interpretation of the very different breakfasts served in every region of every nation of the continent. So its inherently inauthentic, but this was still the authentic inauthentic non-British breakfast. Its based most probably on the French breakfast. Croissant, with marmite, fruit, coffee or chocolate. The British breakfast is eggs, tomato, two kinds of vulgar sausage, and “bacon,” known to me as fried ham.

So there it is. Continental breakfast is the British interpretation of breakfast on the continent, and its great! Your Motel 8 roadside continental breakfast is only a cheap imitation of the true cheap imitation that I’m tucking in every morning this week.

Another funny thing about Britain: One of the many junkfood companies calls itself the real McCoy. Also, all the elevator voices have British accents.


This entry was posted on Thursday, October 25th, 2012 and is filed under life and words.

Enfascination 2012

Some things take time, but it only takes an instant to realize that you have no idea what’s going on. This epiphany—every time it happens—is punctuated by the sound of 500 stars around the universe literally exploding, dissolving their planets and neighbors in flaming atoms, in silence. It happens every instant, forever. As right as you were, it’s impossible for you to know how right.

Enfascination is a very tiny event that celebrates the act of being
caught. You have five minutes to share something that you think is
fascinating—that’s the only rule. You will find that the people you
are sharing with are fascinated too, and you will be caught by things
you’ve never thought to catch.

The 2012 Enfascination Lectures
Why: I would love for you to share.
When: Saturday, May 5th, or “Thinko de Mayo,” starting at, say, 5PM.
Where: Probably in the basement of Woodburn Hall, on the IU campus
Really?: Probably, maybe not. I just made this all up now so times and places can change. Check this webpage for updates.

This year’s occasion is my 30th birthday, but this is the ninth year that I’ve been hosting this birthday lecture series. Past topics have included Counting the Permutations of Digit Strings, Conceptions of Time in History, Chili Peppers, How to cross a glacier, The Singularity, Indiana Jones, Rural desert water distribution systems, Hexaflexagons, Small precious things, Wilderness Camps as Commodity, DIY Cooking, Roman Emperor Deaths , Joy of Science, Salt , Three Great Banquets in Italian History, How to Sharpen a Chisel, Some Properties of Numbers in Base Ten, The Physiological Limits to Human Perception of Time, Geophagy, Pond Ecology, Superstition: For Fun and Profit, Counterintuitive Results in Hydrodynamics, The Wolof Conception of Time, Arctic String Figures, The Seven Axioms of Mathematics, Dr Seuss and his Impact on Contemporary Children’s Literature, Motorcycle Life and Culture, Cultural Differences Between Japan and the US, Brief history of the Jim Henson Company, Female Orgasm, Insider Trading: For Fun and Profit, Film of Peter Greenaway, A Typographical Incident with Implications for the Structure of Thought, Cooperative Birth Control, Tones in Mandarin, Unschooling and Deschooling, Q&A: Fine Beer, DIY Backpacking, Chinese Nationalism in Tibet, Biofuels, The Yeti, The Health Benefits of Squatting, The Big Bang, How to Pick Stocks Like a Pro, Food Preservation Technique, or Managing Rot, Demonstrations in Number Theory, Rangolis, Kolum, The Hollow Earth, Edible Mushrooms: For Fun and Profit, Human Asexuality, A History of the California Central Valley Watershed, An Account of the Maidu Creation, Rural India, German Compound Words, Manipulating Children, Physics of Time, Animal Training on Humans, Constructed Languages, This Week’s Weather, The XYZs of Body Language, Light Filtration Through Orchards, Our Limits in Visualizing High Dimensional Spaces,Twin Studies. There is video for some of it, notes for others, collected here.

see you there,

How to learn every spice in the cabinet

So many of my peers are going epicurean. Its beautiful because I think cooking is empowering: it encourages people to try new things and experiencing new ways of thinking. It worrisome because it provides another thoroughly commodified identity, with all kinds of vocabulary for justifying not liking something. I spent a year convinced that I knew how I liked my coffee (and that I didn’t like it any other way). I finally admitted to myself that it was a delusion, and that the variance between cups of coffee was greater than my ability to tell the difference.

So we’ll focus on the first: empowerment. I never knew how to use the spices. I figured that the best way was to just cook lots of recipes by the book until I got the hang of it. But so much of the joy of cooking, for me, is making stuff up. For a while I just cooked without spices at all. I still prefer it that way, but I wanted to learn the spices, so I shifted to throwing in tons of random everything. Occasionally I would make things that worked. While the random approach will eventually start to pay off fine, it requires a certain affection for failure.

Though my stance towards failure is particularly affectionate, I did eventually refine my technique, and now it is fancy enough for anyone to learn to use any spice. Did you know that taste and smell are thoroughly integrated senses? Did you know that the tastiness of coffee and chocolate is entirely illusory? Coffee and chocolate have no taste. They are entirely smell. Try eating chocolate while holding your nose: all you’ll taste is the added sugar. And you can use this confound of the senses to simulate the experience of a new spice without committing to it. Soup is the easiest for this technique, so I’ll focus on it, but it works for everything:

Make your soup without any spices at all, throwing in all kind of stuff and putting off any spicing towards the end. When you are ready, ladle a little thimbleful of soup into a cup and walk over to you spice cabinet. Now open a random spice, take a sip of the soup, and smell the spice, and the next spice, and on down the line. By mixing smell and taste, you can simulate the experience of the soup with the spice. If you like what you are tasting, add the spice to the soup, erring on the side of too little. You can try all kinds of exotic spices and figure out what you like with impunity. Its simple and intuitive, and it will eventually get you a familiarity with the spice cabinet that you didn’t imagine yourself capable of. Feel the power of spice through your main course!


This entry was posted on Friday, February 24th, 2012 and is filed under life and words, tricks.