Archive for May, 2008


I was recently asked why I used the term “emergent” in a statement on development in the central nervous system. I thought it the right word in fit, form and function but preceded to look it up in several references works to hone in on it best use. What I found was something a bit different.

I had hoped that it would be an idea or strategy that was being tested or tried to see if explained behavior of things unexplained but, not so.

An emergent concept is a slight variation on consensus reality. That is, something that has become commonly used or accepted as plausible. It is thus, something relatively new to the user or audience that has come to be increasingly accepted as truth or plausible. Consensus realities have worked so well for the species, haven’t they? Their continued use throughout society is everywhere:

Ford vs. Chevy

Democrat vs. Republican

Absolute vs. relative knowledge

Texas vs. Texas A&M

PC vs. Mac

East vs. West

Black vs. White

Christians vs. everyone

Muslims vs. everyone

…you get the idea…

Clearly, it may or may not have anything to do with data at all if the concept is absorbed for common use. Furthermore, if the emerged idea is not found to be useful [read: true], its continual use will be established and difficult to remove from the lexicon of use, e.g., ego, phrenology, inheritance of sports skills, etc.

All this makes emergent ideas and concepts the bare bones basis of mores or morals in that there is a ‘revealed’ component to what has emerged based upon some empirical evidence or, more commonly, anecdotal example for the believer or society as a whole. All those examples in the short list above have this in them.

Like analogies, they work because on some level – superficially at least, they explain how one small segment of the world works. Ultimately, using these concepts lead to what I refer to as ‘pooling’ where people come to hang out literally or intellectually with those with similar views – some the emergent view, some not. Ethologists also refer to this as ‘flocking’ or herding. On occasion, friends find it important to ‘help’ you see the light and reveal their clarity for you so as assist you in your understanding. You do it too. We all do. Now you know. Go back to work.

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Phone rings. I pick up the phone without call identity.

A voice I don’t recognize asks for me. “This is John” I reply.

“Hi, this is Mike C…” The phone goes silent for a second or two that seems to be a lot longer. “Damn,” I respond, “it is good to hear your voice Mike, C… [repeating his name as if to reassure myself I heard it right] …Where the hell have you been?”

A little background:

We last saw each other in the early 70’s. We were raw, immortal, and passionate about everything. Bright guys who were luckily stupid or stupidly lucky…or both. We had nothing but everything in front of us and we saw clearly those who had a cloud around themselves and those that had the wind at their backs. We did things we weren’t suppose to do and we didn’t do what we should have done. He taught me early on to “go fast” – also our special word for our favorite controlled substance – and the value of ‘wishing’… “John, you can wish in one hand and spit in the other and you know which one will fill up first!” To this day my kids don’t use the term “wish” very much.

Then, for no apparent reason we went separate ways after an ice climbing experience where our friend slipped and fell several hundred feet down a razor runway of ice. We all laughed about it when we got back down but we all knew we had escaped another bullet.

Back on the phone we go back and forth to catch up on what has been 30 years of experiences. I had not seen or talked to him or his lovely wife Jane for a long time although I thought of him during that time on many occasions. We also had common friends around the country. I met people in business that knew Mike and just smiled when his name was mentioned, making sure that I knew him as well as they thought they knew him prior to sharing with me their ‘adventures’ with him. Our ice climbing friend in San Francisco recently sent his email over with his email address and I pinged Mike in the hopes of connecting again. It worked.

Jobs, adventures of my own, wives, divorces, remarriages and more adventures – both positive and those less so. We went down the check list of catch-up:

  • Children (mine, not theirs)
  • Home – past and present
  • Speed bumps encountered
  • Jobs – past and present
  • Common friends –
  • Current passions –

In all too short a time the call was over with commitments to exchange data on current locations, etc. and to keep in touch – probably with email due to his travels… Jane would follow up in the next few days while he was on his latest adventure.

I hung up and it started.

“What he hell just happened…?”

In the past we were connected in so many ways and now we were reminiscing. It was not getting older that rubbed me wrong… I was jealous that he was who he was right now… leaving me with some explaining to do to me on why that was so.

So here is the question set:

1. What was the reason for the jealousy?

2. What data was I processing that made me want to say more and listen less?

3. Did I really know him today or was he a figment of the past intense experiences?

So give me your answers…

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The Ask Marilyn column in Parade magazine featured this question and answer in 1990 and 1991.  It received over 10,000 responses and over 1000 from PhDs.  Can you solve it and do you think Marilyn is right? (yes, this is an old topic but I just encountered it for the first time 🙂  )

Suppose you’re on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors. Behind one door is a car, behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say #1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say #3, which has a goat. He says to you, “Do you want to pick door #2?” Is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?

Craig F. Whitaker
Columbia, Maryland

Yes; you should switch. The first door has a 1/3 chance of winning, but the second door has a 2/3 chance. Here’s a good way to visualize what happened. Suppose there are a million doors, and you pick door #1. Then the host, who knows what’s behind the doors and will always avoid the one with the prize, opens them all except door #777,777. You’d switch to that door pretty fast, wouldn’t you?

Read the ensuing archived discussion and rebuttals here:


What a simple problem, right?  So simple, you don’t need any math training to solve it correctly.  Chances are, though, your brain won’t get it right and even after you read the explanation it won’t stick and/or you won’t quite feel right about it.

That’s probability for you.  There’s a bevy of books and research materials out now on uncertainty, probability and chance.  From The Black Swan to The Drunkard’s Walk to Chance to Fooled by Randomness.  It seems to be a hot topic whenever the markets appear to be haywire, when finances get tough, when wars carry on, when we start the red vs blue discussion.  

Decision theory, quantum physics, analysis of behavior, managing your daily life, parenting… all involve studying probability of events.  Frankly, we’re bad it.  We’re bad at researching it and we’re bad at really understanding it.  We’re really bad at talking about it.

Not only does the above type of problem vex us, we fall prey to the “if I recognize any detail about a fact, I’m more likely to agree with that fact than something I know nothing about” situation.  Same Names, same birthdays, cities you’ve lived in, color of your skin, same employer, political party…. we tend to those things we know even when it might not help us.

Some evolutionary psychologists will offer the explanation that we evolved into taking chances on partial information that are familiar with because it aided in survival more often than not. hmmm.

To me, that’s a stretch.  I think we just suck at probability.  There’s no evolutionary advantage or disadvantage.  It simply might just be that way because of the way everything else about us is put together.

OR, the big OR.

It’s really about behavior.  We are conditioned by the environment.  We gravitate to people, things, situations we have behavior for – we’ve been punished or reinforced for.  When we haven’t yet experienced the other options, we can’t attribute any value to them.  If we don’t value something, we can’t chase it or pick it.  As soon as we pick or don’t pick it and we experience what happens, we then can assign value to it for the next encounter.

So, why do we suck at probability calculations?  We don’t behave based on calculations.  We literally do not connect the dots via probability.  We associate stimulus (sounds, words, smells, information) with other stimulus.  When the connection is made, it’s not a probability statement.  Why that is biologically, I don’t know.  I know that you don’t get partial action potentials and partial connections and partial patterns in the nervous system.  We get patterns and if the stimuli/situation matches a pattern (neural, muscular, etc.) we associate it.

In the game show problem above, it’s uber important to the math and to the behavior to understand the actual sequence.  You pick an option first then the host picks a losing option.  You’re learning at each step and assigning value – people over value the option they pick first (don’t switch!), the other option is unknown.  

You can research this on that old clips of Let’s Make a Deal or just watch Deal or No Deal – people over value their own case they chose and they associate all sorts of crazy data in choosing cases – the strategies mostly stink.

So… our ability or inability to accurately determine probabilities may not be some cause or end to itself but is simply an intervening variable or side effect of how we learn.  Now, why we learn the way we do is a big discussion and is worthy of writing about behavior every day!

I sure wish I evolved a better way of gambling… I’d be rich!


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It appears likely that cellular automata, even elementary CAs, can model Fixed Action Patterns.  This is a potential area of study for me.  However, my gut suggests this won’t be all that interesting in of itself.  Now by cobbling together a handful of Fixed Action Patterns in the form of a CA model we might get to something very dynamic.  Will this be a useful model? Will it be accurate?

Though for automata to be useful in the study of human behavior, we’re going to need to identify more complicated implementations of automata.

Please not that thought I think automata can make valuable models to understanding relationships between behaviors, I do not suggest that automata IS THE MECHANISM.  I am simply looking for a reliable way to computational represent animal and human behavior for the purposes of building a bigger story about learning, conditioning and social dynamics.


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and more where that came from here.

and even more to investigate. (not Bronowski)

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In further research (yes, me sidetracking), I found these two communities based on BF Skinner’s Walden Two and radical behaviorism concepts – an experimental analysis of behavior approach to building a community.

Los Horcones


Twin Oaks

Pretty neat real world experiments of behaviorism world views.  Very cool.

These were located at the bottom of this summary of behaviorism.

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A reflection on what happens so much in technology, science and, even, art.

In technology we get “sidetracked by [our] tools–like a sculptor who spends all day sharpening her chisels but never sets one to marble, or a novelist who spends all day fiddling with the fonts in his word processing program.” – from a piece about Stephen Wolfram.


Our tools are so fabulous and sometimes so challenging.

We don’t like risking success.

There are few immediate consequences to us for telling people “it’s in the works”

and so many more contingencies that basically keep us forever in focus groups, font selection, logo design, mission statements, problem framing and all other manners of sidetracking.

How to Avoid?

Value the Do.  Value the Done.  Value the Ship Date.

Write, send, sell, get in front of users, professors, bosses or whoever the end consumer is and get reinforcement directly for your efforts.  They won’t reinforce you for sidetracking, they’ll only want to know what you efforts have done and will do for them.  You’ll learn to value the do.



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