Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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Eyjafjallajokull: Volcanopalypse!

Eyjafjallajokull: Volcanopalypse

Media singularity

 A thought has been bouncing around my mind for quite a number of years now regarding the accumulation of knowledge and media. Basically there are two separate but related thoughts here. The first relates to keeping on top of new science that's published relevant to my work, and the second relates to trying to keep on top of culturally-relevant media such as video games, comics, music, movies, books, etc.

As a neuroscientist I spend a decent amount of time just trying to stay on top of new research. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how I use a mix of PubMed, RSS readers, and email to keep on top of the very specific topics and researchers related to my work. Although these tricks save me time, I spend probably an hour a week just sorting through new publications. That doesn't include the time it takes to skim and read them, which is (or... should be) much more.

According to this paper by Karl Friston published last year in Science, there are roughly 80,000 neuroimaging papers published every year in fMRI, PET, SPECT, EEG, and MEG. Let's assume this is a decent metric for the number of actual cognitive and systems neuroscience papers published every year relevant to my interests, though this is only a very rough measure because I tend to ignore many fMRI studies and over-emphasize single-unit, LFP, EEG, MEG, and intracranial studies.

Now, going back to mass media...

You know what? Initially I was doing this off-hand, but I think I'm going to cut this post short and break it into a few parts.

I've actually gone and run some simulations now, and I'm going to post the results here later as I put finishing touches on the model, but it looks like if we make some modest assumptions that 0.1% of media are worthwhile, culturally-relevant, and interesting enough to your own tastes to consume, it would take 72.3 years to get through those media. Here I make the assumption that one could get through everything (every video game, book, movie, etc.) in an average of 10 hours each.

That's... daunting.

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions here, but I'm going to keep fiddling with the model, start using real data, and see what happens.


TEDxBerkeley thoughts

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking at TEDxBerkeley alongside some truly amazing people. As I said in an earlier post leading up to the event I was feeling quite nervous and like a bit of an odd-man-out amongst such an accomplished group. My good friend Torgeir put it best when it said that the format of a TED talk is usually one wherein people distill the golden nuggets out of a long career. As a graduate student I haven’t even really begun my career.

There’s definitely a general personality type that is attracted to TED. Especially in the Bay Area, there is a strong trend toward entrepreneurship. Talking with Rick Smolan at dinner last night, I was lamenting about how many awesome young scientists decide to bail out of research and academia because of the current funding models for science. By the time you’ve established yourself as a researcher so much of your time and effort has to be dedicated to securing and maintaining research funds for your lab that little time is left for you to do actual research. For obvious reasons this is unattractive for a lot of scientists who study for 20+ years so they can do research, not so that they can be over-specialized grant-writers.

It strikes me that there has to be a mutually beneficial relationship between science and entrepreneurship. As I said in my talk, there are two tracks that guide my research: working with patients with unique circumstances so that we can learn more about basic brain mechanisms that give rise to cognition, and then turning that around to see how we can use that information to help future patients. The latter track has more obvious financial potential and is more meaningful to me, whereas the former is more “fun” in terms of scientific research and data analysis.

I just don’t know how to change that. Ideally I would like to work in an independently-funded research institute working on these problems. In fact, I’ve talked to many brilliant and talented young scientists who are craving such a thing. It doesn’t seem like a hard sell to say that I’ve got a dozen Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT-trained neuroscience PhDs who are willing to work together to solve the hard problems in human cognitive neuroscience. What is a hard sell, however, is that there’s no guaranteed financial returns. While our research does have obvious practical and medical applications, marketable discoveries would not necessarily be the focus, nor would they be guaranteed. And there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

But the point of this post isn’t to air my career fears. Instead, I’d like to talk about my personal TED speaker experience.

If you saw the talk you could probably tell how nervous I was. This is a bit of a strange feeling for me because talking about science is easy for me. But I didn’t want the talk to be just another data-driven science talk. Being TED, I wanted to share a story. I wanted to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing and how I came to be here. My work is very important to me and I genuinely feel privileged to get paid to do something I love (…well… as much as a graduate student can be said to be "paid"). But I do get paid to think, to work with these amazing patients, to write code, do math, and analyze data, to give talks and teach students. It’s amazing.

The story I shared was a very personal one. Prior to yesterday I had only told a handful of loved ones about that period of my life. No amount of practice could prepare me for getting in front of hundreds (thousands?) of people and just laying it out like that. I’m glad I did it—it was somewhat cathartic, actually. But I was worried about sounding cheesy, heavy-handed, depressing, or just plain boring. When I talk less formally I like to think I’m animated and maybe even sometimes funny. But it’s hard to be either of those things when talking about one of your saddest memories. So far the feedback has been positive and—even though people could tell I was nervous and uncomfortable—it seems like most people empathized with it in a way that I hoped they would. I was nervous and uncomfortable. That was the point.

I very intentionally wanted to do something that made me uncomfortable specifically because it would knock me out of my comfort zone. But at the same time, I really wanted to get across just how amazing I think neuroscience is and to try and get across some of the ideas that blow my mind about who and what we are. I hope you all enjoyed it. Some of the talks were funny. Some beautiful. Some strange.  Some uplifting. But they were all most definitely interesting, and I really hope to do it again some day. Thanks Jessica Mah, Kai Chang, and all the rest for giving me the opportunity!



So of all the April Fools Day nonsense on the interwebs, xkcd had my favorite: a unix version of their website. It's still available here: http://xkcd.com/unixkcd/

After playing around with it I found a lot of commands that work, a number of inside nerd jokes, and a few easter eggs.

All of the following commands seem to get unique responses (yes, my wife and I played around for a while testing these out...):

sudo make me a sandwich

The following gives you an easter egg game:
find kitty

This sends you to a chat room:

EDIT: Updated from comments here and elsewhere, these also work:
sudo shutdown -h now
uname (try this one a few times)
use the force luke
use the source luke
make me a sandwich
make love
asl (try this a few times too)
locate ninja
locate raptor
locate problem
locate keys
i read the source
man cat
man next
man last
dist-upgrade (this one is platform dependent)

enable time travel

And entering the Konami code (up up down down left right left right B A) several times is somewhat amusing.

Anyway, well done xkcd. Usually the April Fools Day stuff is annoying, but this was pretty well done...