Non-Urban Design


There’s this kind-of discipline that exists at the intersection of architecture, geography, economics, politics, and civil engineering.  I know almost nothing about it, so that qualifies me to sound off.

This discipline is another aspect of behavior.  The better their theories about behavior in general, and specifically regarding living conditions, the better their work.

So here’s a fun project for our unsung planners.  Consider this scenario.  You have a planet, much like Earth, and a good distribution of resources.  Nothing is infinite, but let’s not go too crazy.  Speaking of crazy, let’s limit the area to 100,000 square kilometers.

What’s the smallest city-size you can make for a city-state containing 10 million people?

What’s a city?  Let’s say it’s a concentration of people more than 1,000 per square kilometer, OR the same area containing two or more buildings taller than three stories.

Yes, my conditions are a bit arbitrary, but it’s a start.  With today’s technologies, why do we even need cities?  Let the planners chew on this.  And who knows?  They might come up with some pretty cool ideas that we can use to eventually get rid of cities entirely.

Now THAT’S planning.


Itch Pitch


As far as my exhaustive internet research can discern, there is no complete theory as to why we scratch an itch.  (This article explains how the mouse body generates an ITCH.)

Now, before you go all mosquito and feathers on me, consider this.

The most common scratch is when there’s nothing there!  We watch men do this during baseball all the time.  In all fairness, that’s not scratching, that’s adjusting.

Check out the deer in the image.  He’s scratching an itch.  Could it be a mosquito, a tick, a teeny-tiny rifle?  Maybe he was trying to answer his phone.

We’ve recently learned about the microbiome.  Are you eating?  Maybe stop for a moment and consider this.  You have more than one mouth.  In fact, you are feeding about ten TRILLION mouths.  Yes, they are really tiny mouths.  Many of them are plants or viruses, but you get the picture.

You are filled with about a trillion of your own, personal cells.  Then there’s a whole lot of other cells that live on and in you.  That’s your microbiome.  And we’re learning more about it all the time.  For fun, I’m going to call the microbiome that lives ON your skin, skin+ instead.

Your skin is totally covered with skin+.  The skin+ on your elbow is different than the skin+ behind your ear, or your belly button.  My belly button is filled with lint, but that’s another story.

Consider this.  When you itch, there’s a skin+ war going on.  Your skin loves to live with one kind of mix, but perhaps there’s another variety that’s butting in.  Who knows, maybe the elbow skin+ is trying to move to your ear.  Whatever the reason, by scratching when “nothing” is there, you’re helping mixup the skin+ from one area to another.

So, if you’re scratching your head now, think about your skin+.

If you’re itching a scratch, try scratching your head first, and then scratch your skin+.

Or take a soothing bath.

Happy Scratching!


Jeweler Screws


As a student of behavior, it’s great to make sweeping generalizations inspiring others.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore details that muddy up one’s life.

This is one of those diddly details.  I’m trying to make the best of it, and use it as a lesson for staying on track and being a good STUDENT of behavior, instead of a VICTIM.

For our 25th anniversary, and for Valentines, and for her 50th birthday, and for recognizing neutron stars, I wanted to do something very special for my wife in solid gold.  That’s total gold.  24 carat.  No extra ingredients.

Jewelers don’t like pure gold because it’s very soft.  But I wanted pure gold in a very special shape.  Not only because it was a special occasion with special math involved (halves and all that), but also because physicists and chemists had figured out where gold comes from.

Colliding neutron stars.  Cool, huh?  So all the gold on Earth started out as space dust spewed out from a couple of neutron stars that couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

Now, four years ago when I did this, it was only a partial theory than generally accepted physics, because there was no evidence.  Then, only last year, we got evidence.  Three huge telescopes that are set up to measure gravity waves recorded the collision of two neutron stars.  Bang.  Gold!  And a whole lot of other heavy elements.

Back to me and the jeweler.  I asked them to make this.  They were local, they were nice, and they did it.  Cost a lot.  My bride was very happy.  She always is.  Heck I could have made it out of steel and she would have been just as happy.

Fast forward four years.  The jeweler has moved.  My wife is taking out the jewelry, and guess what?  It’s tarnished.  What?  She tries to remove the tarnish, and it doesn’t come off.

Gold doesn’t tarnish.  I’m feeling, angry, anguished, cheated, vengeful, disappointed, angry again, depressed, and trapped.  Angry with them, angry with myself.  How could I have allowed this to happen?

I’ll go to another jeweler and get it checked.  I’ll go to a lawyer and see what my options are.  But my guess is that the money is gone, along with my friendly jeweler.

What’s the lesson?  I’ll let you help me figure it out.  The bigger point is that I can’t let it get to me.  My wife is still happy, she always will be.  The money is still gone, and it’s unlikely to come back.

At least this life’s lesson, this life event, can live on the internets so that others may be able to learn from it before it happens to them.

Learning.  That’s what being a student is all about.  I just wish it didn’t have to be so darn expensive.

Or painful.


School Bus Moon Bus


Mom: Ohnny, you’re going even if you turn blue.

Kid: Don’t want to.  What good is a stupid park?

... school bus.

Mom: You’ll learn something you can’t learn here.  See cool things like animals you’ve only seen in pictures.

Kid: But’s it’s going to take days and days and days.  I’m going to die!

Mom: It takes three days each way, and your Rangers will keep you very busy.  And you have to exercise along the way.

Kid: I know I know, I don’t wanna go!

Mom packed up her 9 year old with required gear, some mom-required gear, and then extra for good luck.  All the kids were loaded onto the school bus, strapped in extra tightly, kissed again, and sent off.  The parents breathed a sigh of relief, most of them looking forward to a few weeks of quiet.

The kids split in smaller groups, each guided by their accompanying Rangers.  By way of deserts, jungles, rivers, mountains and cliffs each one got to see a bit of unadulterated Nature, the landscapes of their distant ancestors.

Ohnny wasn’t the best behaved little boy, and during 4th day, a special transport showed up.

Ohnny the Kid: Grandma!

Grandma: Hello spitfire.  I hear you’ve been causing trouble for your teacher.

Kid: Not really.  Maybe a little.  I’m sorry.

Grandma: You’re going to be extra sorry now.  (To the Ranger:) I’ll take him, young man.  And he’ll be returned in pieces if he doesn’t shape up, understand Ohnny?

Ranger and Kid: Yes, Ma’am.

Ranger:  I’m glad you’re here.  He’s a good boy, just, animated.

Grandma: Out of control?  Sounds like his father.  A lot like his grandpa, too, now that I think about it.  That old fart, he just missed his 102nd birthday.

Ranger: I’m sorry.  You must miss him so.

Grandma: I don’t miss the old coot.  He missed his birthday because he’s on Mars helping with the Terran-dome exhibit.  He’s a lichen specialist and that stupid mold is giving them problems.  He’s going to live till he’s 150, unless I kill him first.

Ranger: You must be quite the experts to be full-time Terrans.

Grandma: We know our stuff.  Someone has to repair this place, considering the damage done by our ancestors.  A few more centuries and it will be back to where it was during the Egyptians.

Ranger: You get a whole planet to yourself, one big park.  You’re lucky.

Grandma: Lucky?  This is hard, full-time work.  And I don’t need a snot-nosed kid diddling with my agenda, Ohnny!  Get back here!

Grandma continued: You’ve got the work, turning the whole moon into one huge city.  That can’t be fun, living with all those people breathing down your neck.  That’s another reason we opted to stay here.

Ranger: It’s not so bad.  All the trappings of civilization that used to be in the big cities, like New York or Paris, you can only find those on Luna, and soon on Mars.  Someday it’ll be completely covered, we’re up to over 15 billion already.

Grandma: Good luck to you.  Okay, as promised, he’ll be back by sundown.  And if he so much as breathes funny, let me know and he answers to me.  Got it?

Ranger: Yes Ma’am.

Kid: Yes Grandma Ma’am!

She laughed and walked away, Ohnny holding her hand tightly.


Measuring a Teacher


Have you ever argued for your best teacher?  “Mr. A was the best!”  and your friend says “Oh yeah!  And in college I remember Ms. B teaching me the most.”

Perhaps you may have debated who was greatest among classic philosophers: Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle?

It’s a fun debate, and I’ve revealed my choice earlier.  But here, I can provide us with an objective measure that we should all be able to accept.  It has some shortcomings, but every measure has benefits and drawbacks.

The greatness of a teacher should be measured by how many subsequent teachers they create.

You see, it’s not necessarily important that they teach something totally awesome, although it doesn’t hurt.  It’s not even important that we be able to understand what it is they did.

With respect to philosophy, Socrates taught Plato.

Plato taught Aristotle.

Aristotle taught, hmmm, who did Aristotle teach?  I heard that he taught Alexander the great, but Alex wasn’t exactly known for being a good teacher.  He was more of a doer.

There we have it for philosophy.  So Socrates is the greatest teacher among them.  We can debate which of them had the “best” philosophy [1] but that’s for another day.

How about something like physics?  Archimedes is easily the first in this category, both theoretical and experimental, but we don’t know if he left any teachers behind.  Tycho Brahe was a polymath that included physics, he taught Kepler, and Kepler taught Newton.  Who did Newton teach?  No one directly, as far as I know.  He did teach many indirectly, but I’m not counting that.

Einstein is one of those people who learned from Newton, Faraday, and many others.  But did he teach anyone?  Not sure.

So, are Archimedes, Newton, and Einstein still great scientists?  Of course.  But were they great teachers?

My measure says no.  Is that worth anything?

Now that is something we should discuss another day.

[1] Socrates, with Plato being a close second.  Archie was a hack who sold out for celebrity.


Tycho’s Moose is Loose


This is one of those stories that has to be retold, rechecked, and retold as many times as possible.

There’s this great scientist, see?  He’s great because he’s able to look at Nature and figure out many things, teach others how to do what he does, and lay the foundation for his students to figure out even greater things.

That’s what I call a great teacher.

He was Tycho Brahe.  BRA-hey.  Something like that.

One of his students was Johaness Kepler.  Kepler was cool because he figured out that all orbits are elliptical.

One guy using Kepler’s work was Newton.  Sir Isaac Newton.  Greatest scientist of all time.  With help from Kepler he created new laws of physics still in use.

What about Tycho?  And his loose moose?

Turns out that among all his crazy stunts, like losing his nose in a duel, hanging out with psychic dwarves, Tycho also kept a pet moose!

In fact, it was such a pet that he lived in the house.

Not only did he live in the house, but he used the stairs.

Not only did he use the stairs, but he was also invited to the parties!

Not only was he invited to the parties, but he was also allowed to drink!

Oh oh.  This is where Tycho may have slipped up.  In fact, the moose slipped up.

At one of his parties, the moose got into the beer and drank all of it.  Yes, mooses are big, but Tycho’s parties were legendary, and I’m sure there was a LOT of beer.

The moose got drunk.  The moose tried walking down the stairs, and that didn’t go well for the moose.

The rest is history.

And the moral of this story?  We can find all sorts of lessons in behavior wherever we look.  You can still be a great teacher, a great scientist, and still be a bit of a kook.  Kookieness is not necessarily related to being a great scientist.  Newton was nowhere as fun as Tycho.

But even if we can’t learn anything from this, at least we can laugh.  We can allow ourselves to have a wee bit of fun.  And that’s always a nice lesson.


Short Story Time: Talking Heads


Studying behavior can be fun!  We can do thought experiments, like hard-assed physicists when they bend the universe to fit the speed of light, or put their heads inside a proton in order to get to know quarks and gluons better.

Our thought experiments take the form of short stories, generally known as science fiction.  Enjoy!



Walter looked upon two graceful women in shimmering, semi-transparent robes.  They revealed enough to excite.

“He’s reacting well, like an alpha male of his time,” the older one said.  “Welcome to the future, Walter.  Not many heads made it from your era.  Yvette will be your guide for now.  I’ll be going.”  She gave instructions to the young woman and left.

Walter winced in pain.  The young lady stroked his temple and neck so gently he immediately felt at peace.

“Walter, go slowly.”  She continued stroking, and he looked her over.  She was twenty, curvaceous, and perfectly formed.  She was tall, and nothing about her calmed him.

He had a body!  He had signed up for freezing his head for centuries, until the future could cure his disease.  Now here he was!  Could he talk?

Talk he did.  As he warmed up, he asked Yvette many questions, and she answered him patiently, lovingly.

The body was built of his own cells.  They made improvements, and he would live a normal life.  His former profession was making “movies,” but there was still a need for storytellers.  He would have to learn new techniques.

He could walk now.  There were no cities, no tall building, no monorails.  These had all been deemed dangerous to the environment, Yvette explained.  Terrans lived in harmony with nature.  Machines were only found on Luna and Mars.

We colonized space? Walter asked.

“Of course.  We have also perfected our bodies and our society.  We learned how to alter DNA directly, no need for random pairings.  Every child is carefully engineered, and improved.”

No falling in love, no husband and wife?

“Wife?” she laughed.  “A concept males used to subjugate females for a million years.  No, the husband is history.”

I’m a man, I have deep feelings.  You are someone that I could easily fall in love with.

“You will find that we are all, as you would say, desirable.  Humanity is all female.  How old am I?” she demanded.  Walter shared his thoughts.  “I’m 50, my mentor over 90.”

I’m surrounded by millions of beautiful women?

“Yes, you are.  And according to history, you were quite randy, weren’t you?”

Walter confessed the truth.  But he remembered the 1960’s well, and hoped this future was as sexually enlightened.  He was looking forward to making many new friends.  Yvette laughed.

“I’m sure you are.  But the only way you can experience sexual stimulation will be through a deep brain stimulator we have implanted.  Here is your special button that only you can access,” pointing to his groin.  “We also removed your sex organs.”

Walter held onto a tree, looking at his lap.  The world spun, even as Yvette continued.  “Now, let me show you where you’ll be living for the rest of your life.”


How’d Ya Sleep?


I’ve had the pleasure of working with a remarkable woman.  Marine tough, tougher in fact.  Titanium spine, many kids, battling cancer for a decade like a true warrior.  And through it all she keeps a great attitude with a fantastic work ethic.

There’s another reason I like her, and it took a while of us working together to learn this.

She’s a short sleeper.  In her case it’s extreme.  She only needs about an hour a day.

When most people hear something like that they go into disbelief mode.  No way!  How can anyone survive like that?

Not me.  In my prime I only needed 2 to 4 hours.  During college I was able to stay out till 3 or 4, get two hours, and make my 8am classes.  True, they usually put me to sleep, but I still passed.

Nowadays I need more, but not much.  And she’s an extreme.

I mentioned my sleep habit to a stranger once, in passing.  But it was a stranger who was leading a large yoga class.  And in his opening statements to the class he said, straight out, I don’t believe anyone who says they are a short sleeper.

Wow.  Talk about getting dissed.  Right in front of class.  Lucky for me (and him) he didn’t call me on this.

But it’s got me thinking.  How would you ever know?  My wife has been by my side for 3 decades, and until the “hot flash” time of life, slept like a rock from 9 till 6.  She wouldn’t have known about my not sleeping unless she didn’t see the proof.  Like writing books, cleaning dishes, making stuff in the garage.

Now, there’s a good chance that when she wakes up she sees me like the guy in this picture, doing something on the device.  Or reading.  Sometimes writing.

So how can you know?

You can’t.  You normal sleepers go to sleep, you turn off, you recharge your batteries.

We are up.  We do stuff.  We may not be super productive, but our brains are still going.  Our batteries are made differently.  Maybe we’ll burn out sooner than later.  Maybe not.

I’ve been taking care of the dying dad now for two months, and in my 24 hour coverage I’ve discovered he has a lot of sleep habits similar to mine.  He can stay up late.  He can get up early.  He doesn’t need coffee to get going.  And he’s 88.

So the next time someone asks you how you slept, think about how they slept, or didn’t.  For all you know, they have a whole other life that’s hidden from you.

Sleep on that!


Making Stuff


I’ve been reading a great book on the making of 2001 A Space Odyssey and also thinking other extraterrestrial thoughts, and just figured something out.

The aliens aren’t going to need us.  And they aren’t going to worry about sending signals about their advanced civilization.

Consider this.

When early man villages got going, did they worry about sending signals out to other man villages to let them know they were around?


They went along with daily life.  Burning fires for cooking food, hitting rocks to make knives, hammering metal to make blades, things like that.  Smoke, sound, those all spread the news.

So, what’s been the biggest space news lately?  Neutron stars colliding.  Talk about a big bang.

Wait, there’s more.

Turns out this big bang does more than just wiggle the universe around.  (Thank you Albert Einstein.)

It makes lots and lots of stuff.  Two “small” neutron stars creates about an Earth Moon’s worth of gold.  Lots and lots of GOLD.

By the way, it also makes pretty much many tons of every other heavy element on the periodic table.

So, how about this?  You’re an advanced civilization.  And the price of gold has just gone up because all your super advanced alien friends want solid gold fidget spinners.  What do you do?

You make a couple of neutron stars and spin them into each other.  Sure it takes centuries, and sure it takes an unbelievable amount of energy.  But what the hey – you’re advanced!

So no need to go probing other alien worlds and scavenging poor populated planets like in the B rated movies.

Which brings me to the real point.  Those bumps we’ve been detecting in the night?  (Thank you LIGO and friends!)

Maybe THOSE are the signals we’ve been looking for.  Maybe, just maybe, we’re hearing cosmic hammers letting us know our neighbors are making stuff.

I’m hoping we are able to join them in time for dinner.


How About Coffee?


Quoting another source semi-verbatim isn’t my style, but with the proper citation and it being only a little bit of quoting, we should be able to swing this by the legal department.  If there’s a problem, please ask nicely and this post can be modified.

But there’s a reason it’s worth quoting, it’s great writing and speaking.  The text is from Piers Bizony‘s book on the making of 2001 A Space Odyssey.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in aviation, space, movies, science fiction, science, anything technical, or anything having to do with behavior.  I fall into 5 of those categories.  You’ll want to buy it because it’s too good to share.

First, paraphrasing only slightly, we have Marvin Minsky, the expert from MIT advising Kubrick who had no problem understanding that the emptiness of 2001’s dialogue was intentional

” … And after the momentous statement that the monolith must have been deliberately buried, one of the astronauts says, “Well, how about a little coffee?”  Kubrick’s idea is that the universe is too majestic for short sighted people.”

Now, here’s the good part where I’m trying to be as faithful to Bizony as I can;  Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, speaking about her husband’s intentions.

“Stanley thought we are always falling behind our scientific and technical achievements.  We are very good at making more and more things – but to do what with?  We haven’t kept up, psychologically and philosophically.  We are not profound.  We are still getting away with the most boring entertainments.  We are shallow, and we know it.  We suffer from it.  The choices we make are not satisfying.  Our sins are all of omission – of not doing the more interesting things that we could do.  There is a lethargy, a lack of energy and concentration that prevents us from reaching the key point where we are as creative and perceptive as we would really wish to be.  We are in the terrible position of being smart enough to know that we are not smart enough.  For instance, we still can’t imagine, “What is God?”  So in 2001 we see fantastic tools of communication.  People can speak over zillions of miles, but nobody has anything to say.  So we pretend.  We live in a little world of nonsense and send each other funny photos and cute stories, with this enormous technology.  “Happy Birthday,” and so on, when nobody seems to care, or react.  It’s very melancholy – although two things we really can do.  War and pornography we’re good at.”

Bizony then distills much of Kubrick’s angst.

 “2001, so optimistic on the surface, is in fact a morally complex movie.  Either we will bore ourselves to death while our machines sneak in through the back door and take over; or else we will blow ourselves to hell, our modern minds still compromised by an instinctive taste for aggression.  It seems we have to keep fighting to survive.  And we have to stop fighting to survive.”

page 421, Piers Bizony, The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, published by Taschen, 2015

PS – For goodness sake, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, please do both of those first, and as soon as possible.