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      I’ve been writing online for 17 year or so, if you don’t include forums, in which case it’s 25 or so. And I’ve never known how to say this. We’re really fucked up. Really. We’re cruel to each other in ways that just aren’t needed. We have more houses than homeless; enough food too feed […]
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The Neuroscience of Creativity

James Joyce: creative and a bit crazy

Spoiler alert: It’s not about your IQ.

According to the fascinating article in The Atlantic, Secrets of the Creative Brain, by Nancy Andreason, you can be a creative genius with an IQ of 120. That doesn’t mean that an IQ of 170 puts you at a disadvantage, only that extra points are unnecessary.

So, what is the extra something that contributes to creativity? It helps if you’re a bit mad but I’ll get to that later. There are more traits associated with creativity. For example, your personal “verbal lexicon”, the way you associate language to other information is very important to creativity.

Here’s another finding that I can relate to:

When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.

This has been my personal experience when I have had rare flashes of insight at work. I have no idea what my IQ is and would hardly put myself in the genius category. But I do have a strategy I call it “putting an elf on it”. Here’s how it goes: There’s a period of intense concentration and learning. I tend to learn better when I’m thrown in the deep end of the pool and have to struggle to keep my head above water (assuming there’s nothing else for me to worry about). The learning curve needs to be sufficiently steep and I need to be fully engaged. And then, just when I can’t focus on a niggling problem anymore, I need to stop doing that and do something completely unrelated for awhile. Sometimes that means surfing the net mindlessly or playing some mind numbing word game or listening to a book in an unrelated genre. Before I do that, I mentally gather the elves that are lazily sitting around in my mind and tell them I’m going home for the day and I’m assigning them the task of figuring the problem out or I send one down into the archives to retrieve that missing piece of information. Then I disengage and do something else while the elves do their thing without my supervision. It’s not long before the elves start forwarding their information. It usually arrives in bits and pieces, phrases or some nugget of an idea. Some assembly is required. I have some elves that are particularly busy at night and like to put little puns and riddles in my dreams.

My elf solution sounds a bit like what Andreason would call “random episodic silent thought” or REST. It’s like free association in a relaxed state.

Some other findings: the more associations you can make, the better your chances of doing something creative. Polymaths are more creative because they have a lot of interests and do multiple things well. Nurturing may have something to do with creativity. Did your parents indulge your creative whims with trips to the craft store, museums or other places of interest? It helps if your family also valued education and study. Creative people tend to work harder at their jobs because they love their work. I have to say that I really fell in love with my job during the last two years at work. This is when I felt like I was most creative and it was so much fun. Who knows if it would have lead to any breakthroughs but this study should be read by the people who are running R&D into the ground right now. True innovation requires happily engaged people who are allowed to disengage periodically without fear of being laid off.

What about madness and genius? Andreason says there is a link. The families of highly creative people are chock full of mood disorders. Many highly creative people have at least one relative who is schizophrenic, though schizophrenia itself could derail creativity. The reason why mental illness is important to the highly creative is because the brain is more easily unmoored and can find connections that other people can’t.

These are only a few of the findings of Andreason’s study. After having spent a good deal of time in the past twenty five years around scientifically creative people, I’d say she is on to something. Read the whole thing.

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Happy Hanukkah!

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. As Jewish holidays go, it’s not the most significant but it is seasonal in that like many religious holidays at this time of year, there is an emphasis on light. Wait, the date of Hanukkah is not based on the solar calendar, right? So, what does that mean? For answers to this and other burning questions about Hanukkah, let’s go to YouTube.

I found two topical videos on what Hanukkah is all about. The first is from the Christian perspective:

Hokay, moving right along.

These two know the whole story of Hanukkah and are inspired by Taylor Swift?

And that’s what Hanukkah is all about, Charlie Brown. I’ll bet you’ll be singing that tomorrow. I know I will.

Anyway, Happy Hanukkah to all my illuminated friends in Squirrel Hill.

Who could have predicted??

I haven’t written much about the Cromnibus bill because it snuck up on us, didn’t it? It probably didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus overnight. The various political movers and players had to have been working on it for some time, probably before the election. Nothing should be shocking anymore but I do admit to being surprised at how thoroughly the pension system has been undermined and how much ground the bankers have gained back. You would think that Democrats would have put up more of a fight because it’s not going to end well for a generation of people my age who played by the rules, lived within their means, paid in advance, and still got laid off and ripped off.

In any case, it was all pretty predictable back in 2008. Here’s one of my posts from May 2008 as we watched the party invite the vampires in and the level of peer pressure, vicious attacks on the Clintonista holdouts and accusations of racism directed at us reached a crescendo. I was not entirely correct about the result of these attacks on us. Back then, I thought there would be a backlash from the party faithful that got chucked overboard. There was but it was a very bad idea called the Tea Party. That was a waste. It’s only made things worse.

Note that we were pretty spot on about who had taken over the party.

Here’s the gist of it from Bird Brains, May 2008:

It looks like people higher up in the food chain are considering a protest vote as well. Taylor Marsh writes that even Geraldine Ferraro is disgusted. And, predictably, the accusations of political immaturity are not far behind.

Let me set the record straight for those of you who don’t understand where this is coming from (referring to a video link now lost). This DNC and the Obama campaign have conducted the campaign season as if they took lessons from the Enron boys from the movie, The Smartest Guys in the Room. There’s something distinctly unDemocratic about the whole thing. It doesn’t pass the smell test.  Cokie Roberts (of all people) mentioned it a couple of days ago. The process for picking a candidate is deeply flawed and *could* be easily manipulated to thwart rather than confirm the will of the people. It’s like the California deregulation plans that were just sitting there waiting for some clever traders to game the system for fun and profit at “granny’s” expense.

The system is flush with cash and one can almost imagine the operatives sitting at their monitors hearts pumping with adrenaline while they pull out all of the stops, reaching deep down into the modern American psyche in order to power play off all the weaknesses there that will result in a maximum payoff. Assertive women, men with hardhats, hillbilles, grannies ripe for rapping, gays and lesbians all provide targets for the aggressive young, male and pretentious to exercise their new social hierarchy. The level of viciousness is reaching a fever pitch.

Who is giving them permission to set aside their ethics and shuffle off the standards of acceptable behavior? Who is running the party that allows for the brutal suppression of one half by the unleashed id of the other half? I put the blame at the top of the party and Obama himself.

There is a price to be paid for such aggressive and insensitive behavior. People do have free will. The party belongs to the people who believe in its principles. Those principles of social justice, equality and shared responsibility can not be discarded for Change! without the party suffering some severe blows to its foundation. Going forward, the party becomes a fragile shell, easily blown to bits by outside forces because its foundations of support have been carelessly undermined.

This is where we are. The foundations of support, the people and principles that made the Democratic party viable and strong, are being callously destroyed by those who have been given permission to rig the system for one candidate over the other. Those of us who stayed with the party and our country through decades of movement conservatism, who volunteered our time and our voices, who suffered withering criticism and family divisions for not adopting Republican values, who protested the war, the attacks on science, the regression of women’s and GBLT progress in the public sphere, the subjugation of the working class have all been told that we’re not wanted anymore. Our party has evolved and we, like neanderthals, didn’t make the cut.

And Voila! The Cromnibus bill.

It’s not looking good. I don’t watch cable news. Katiebird does. She says the level of propaganda on MSNBC is just as bad as it is on Fox News. I’m glad I’m missing it.

No, I don’t think Elizabeth Warren can save us.  We’re going to have to save ourselves, from ourselves.

The Second Annual Nigel Tufnel “Lick My Love Pump” Award

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 10.29.11 AMYes, it’s that time again. It’s time to select the winner of the most hummable song with lyrics most likely to come out of the singer’s erotic fantasy.

Previous winner, Bruno Mars, received this honor for Gorilla last year. Gorilla’s explicit, leave nothing-to-the-imagination lyrics were set to soaring vocals in an addictive hook. That, my friends, is the sign of a true winner. You will catch yourself singing along in spite of your best efforts.

This year’s winner is Beyonce. But she had so many entries that it was hard to narrow the award down to one song.

Was it the way TMI musical meditation that was Drunk In Love? The lyrics were competitive. We learned that we probably do not want to go anywhere near the kitchen if we are invited to a Christmas party at the Carters’ house. Yep, pass on the canapés.

But drunk in Love is very wordy and dense. The only catchy part of the song is the “swerving on my surfboard” segment. It’s too stream of consciousness for this jingle to connect to any broader melody.

What about the moodier, darker Haunted? I’m unimpressed with the song. It’s mediocre melodically and serves more as a carrier for the bizarre images in the music video. If you haven’t seen it, think Madonna’s Justify My Love crossed with Donnie Darko, The Shining and that Japanese import horror move, The Ring. It’s definitely sexual and you can dance to it but, I dunno, Dick, you don’t really want to sing to it. The video evokes Hotel California without the desire to sing about how “we’re all just prisoners of our own device”.

That leaves me with the true winner, Blow. It’s got all the ingredients for a Lick My Love Pump Award winner. In fact, the song is all about licking, but we don’t have to go there. I mean, you can if you want to. There’s nothing wrong with that. This award is not about prudishness. It’s about singing wildly inappropriate songs at the wrong moment because you can’t help yourself. I blame my middle school music teacher who taught me how to harmonize. Now, I can harmonize to just about anything. I can sing the top notes, the bottom notes, the high lonesome harmony (really great with Ricky Skaggs bluegrass). It’s annoying, probably more so for the people who have to listen to me.

So, when I heard Blow, I immediately recognized it for what it was. A bright and poppy, catchy, melodic ditty with explicit lyrics that was sure to float around in my mind with my harmonic elves doing little riffs on:

Can you eat my skittles
It’s the sweetest in the middle
Pink is the flavor
Solve the riddle

I’m a lean back
Don’t worry it’s nothing major
Make sure you clean that
It’s the only way to get the
Flavor

It’s deadly. Before long, you’re waiting for someone to “turn that cherry out”. What the hell does that even mean?? I had to look it up. But by the time you’ve heard the song a couple of times, you can’t help yourself.

So, this year, Mrs. Carter wins the prize. I just hope that she and JayZ come up for air and take a break. I’m feeling like a voyeur and it’s exhausting.

 

 

CROs, Temp Work and the future

These two reports go together. The first is from WRAL in North Carolina reporting on the research cuts at Glaxo Smith Kline in RTP, North Carolina. Says a company spokesperson:

“The aim of this program is to improve performance by taking unnecessary complexity out of our operations and establish a smaller, more focused, organization, operating at lower costs, that supports our future portfolio,” GSK spokeswoman Mary Rhyne said. “Each business unit is currently deciding how to respond to this challenge. When we do have proposals, we will first share those with our employees.”

Followed by:

Jobs affected are in the following categories:

  • Chemist
  • Engineer
  • Biologist
  • Clinical development scientist
  • Statistician
  • Other managerial, technical and support roles

Cuts “are not being made across the board but are strategic,” Rhyne added.

However, hundreds of affected workers could quickly find jobs at life science research firm Parexel, which has an office in Durham. GSK signed a letter of intent which would allow up to 450 workers work in a GSK-focused business unit at Parexel.

The second was found at Naked Capitalism. It’s a report on the nature of temp work and how it erodes the skills of the workers who have been forced into temporary contract work. The bottom line is that it is bad for your cognitive health. Temp workers do not develop the necessary skills to become experts in their field because they never last long enough to gain the experience and form the neural memories that allow them to extrapolate from their assigned roles.

Now, I’m sure that the people at Glaxo who made the decision to streamline and de-complexify their research units to save money have never actually done drug discovery work because the whole enterprise is very complex. Sometimes, a discovery effort gets more complex as you go along. The people who remain after their colleagues have been shunted off to a CRO with a poorer benefits plan and temp contracts, will have to spend more of their time negotiating with competitive outside vendors to get the resources they need to do the research work. That means more time finding the contractors, writing up secrecy agreements, asking for money from the MBAs to hire the contractors and preparing the projects to be offloaded to them. Before the layoffs, they might have walked down the hall to submit their sample to the queue or talked to a chemist about the next steps in hitting a specific cluster of amino acids in the binding site. Now, they’re going to have to arrange all of that stuff offsite. Instead of doing science, they’ll be doing paperwork.

Note that this does not in any significant way reduce complexity. The complexity is inherent in the endeavor. We’re not talking about creating a new Facebook or Amazon. We’re talking about messing with cells and feedback and cross talk and reactions that yield tiny amounts of product and proteins that don’t fold right or won’t crystallize. Drug discovery is very, very difficult. It can still seem like an art than a science because there are still a lot of unknown unknowns. It’s not ever going to be like writing code.

Meanwhile, the poor researchers shuffled off to the CRO are now faced with a problem that may be as important as how long they’re going to get paid.  That is, have their years of education and experience resulted in nothing more than a dead end job where they will be treated as “just in time” workers who manufacture pieces parts of a project without any reference to those projects? There may be new restrictions on access to information. They may not be invited to team meetings. Their input will no longer be required. They will have the same status as factory workers, churning out compounds or proteins or analysis as directed from some external person who used to be their colleague. Thinking outside the box will no longer be required. All connections between the product and the project will be severed.

How long will it take before we have reduced their cognitive skills to irrelevancy?

By the way, ebola, drug resistant bacteria and schizophrenia are still out there.

One other post also comes from Naked Capitalism. It’s a mini-rant from Richard Wolff about how immoral it is for companies to offshore work and the havoc it has caused in American cities because wages have stagnated or fallen. He says there ought to be a law that prohibits companies from doing that, just like we have labor laws to prevent 4 and 5 year olds from working in factories.

You know, I get his point and understand that Germany and even France has stood up for its work force during this horrible recession (that’s looking more and more like a depression from where I sit). I find it remarkable that there was no one in our government who stood up for us when the pharmaceutical companies started to slash through the R&D units like a chainsaw homocidal maniac. But I don’t think Wolff’s suggestions are going to work. I think the corporate overlords would simply laugh at them.

What I think would work extremely well to curb the excesses of the finance and corporate unholy alliance is to eliminate the 401K system for the vast majority of workers. Because right now, the retirement savings of millions of working Americans is flowing into the system that has to turn around and gamble that money to return some of those earnings to the donors. There’s a lot to be skimmed and a lot more incentive to take risks both for the personal gain of the bonus class and in order to show some kind of return on investment. That in turn leads to excessive profit seeking, risk taking and layoffs.

So, the best thing that could happen to this country is a return to a defined pension plan and I will vote for the presidential candidate who proposes one along with the gradual elimination of the 401K.

 

Serial: Both Sides Now

Serial fans are now the topic of New Yorker cartoons.

Yep, I do this.

************************

Episode 10 of Serial dropped on Thursday. This episode, titled The Best Defense Is A Good Defense, was about Adnan’s trial and the performance of his lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez. Sarah Koenig reviewed the tapes of the trial, transcripts and motions, and came to some rather surprising conclusions.

Koenig says that while there was some pretrial misinformation that was prejudicial to Adnan, especially with respect to anti-Muslim sentiment, she doesn’t feel that he lost his trial specifically because of it. Some of the excerpts of this section were painful to listen to. Adnan is an American but he was portrayed as a flight risk fleeing an honor killing. In actuality, Adnan’s upbringing was similar to my own, which just goes to show that a smart kid in a house with two extremely strict and religious parents will find a way to be a normal teenager no matter what the religious affiliation. And when I say “normal” I don’t mean “bad”. Adnan did some things I didn’t do in high school but I don’t consider any of it outside the norms. In short, Adnan had fully adapted to western culture in a way his parents probably had not.  In the end, that’s primarily the way the jury saw it too even though there was some residual cultural biases. So, no, the jury didn’t convict Adnan simply because he was a Muslim from Pakistan but we can’t rule out the notion that there was some association that affected the way they perceived the motive the prosecution presented.

Then there is Cristina Gutierrez, Adnan’s lawyer. Koenig’s take on her varies quite a bit from Rabia Chaudry’s memory to the extent that Rabia wrote a more extensive rebuttal on her blog Splitthemoon. Rabia and Koenig are on the same side but I expect that Koenig knew she would be ruffling some feathers. In the end, I think they roughly reach the same conclusion but Koenig’s is more objective because she wasn’t in the courtroom at the time and didn’t get the feedback that Adnan’s community provided, nor was Koenig able to gauge the juror’s reactions at the time of the trial.

As to whether Gutierrez deliberately threw the trial as Rabia asserts, Koenig says she doesn’t think so. But both Koenig and Rabia conclude that Gutierrez was not in peak form, and her illness and distraction probably lead to a less effective presentation for the jury. One frustrating finding was that the first trial ended in a mistrial when an alternate juror overheard the judge calling Gutierrez a liar. At that point, the jury had heard Jay’s testimony and when polled afterwards, would have acquitted Adnan at the time the trial abruptly ended. During the second trial, the prosecution cleaned Jay up and coached him better and Cristina seemed to have lost her edge.

But the segment of this podcast that affected katiebird and myself most was when Adnan tells us that he advises new inmates to “take the deal”. He tells them that even if they are innocent, they are better off pleading guilty to something for a reduced sentence. Maintaining your innocence and not showing remorse (for something you haven’t done) is a sure fire way to remain in prison for the rest of your life. The takeaway message that we both got was that the system is stacked against the innocent because if you were totally innocent, you wouldn’t have gotten into trouble in the first place. You wouldn’t be sitting in a courtroom. No one gets accused of murder if they are completely innocent. Therefore, your best bet of living a life outside of prison someday is to give the justice system what it wants: closure and repentance. Then you can serve out your 20 years and be out just in time for the rest of your middle age.

This is scary for Americans who were brought up thinking that you are innocent until proven guilty. The system definitely doesn’t work that way, especially for those who are not wealthy. But even for Adnan, whose community was able to help him pay for an attorney with a stellar reputation, getting convicted of first degree murder based almost exclusively on the wildly inconsistent testimony of a prosecution witness with a sweet deal and no physical evidence, was incredibly easy. And it shouldn’t have been.

In the end, I think this is what Serial is about. It’s not about the nature of truth, although that is important. It’s not about culture, ethnicity or race, though I don’t think we’ve heard the end of that portion of the case. I do think race might have been a factor as far as how Jay was perceived by the jury. It’s about the borglike authority of the investigation, prosecution and penal system. The unidirectional nature of a system with plea deal check valves is very frightening. You enter it presumed guilty and never truly exit from it. The system is allowed to buy witnesses and fabricate a narrative without physical evidence in order to reach a predetermined outcome. Your whole life may hinge on whether your lawyer is feeling well enough to put on a good defense. Every American should pay attention to how a life can be completely unravelled when getting to the truth is less important than getting a conviction at any cost. If it could happen to Adnan, if could happen to anyone.

Koenig says that Adnan’s future freedom hangs by a thread at this point. There is one appeal motion pending in January to address some final issues about whether Gutierrez did all she could to reduce Adnan’s sentence. After that? Who knows. It could be back to prison for the rest of his life with no possibility of parole.

**************************

As you may have guessed by now, I am firmly team Adnan. I’ve been pretty convinced that he was not guilty since about episode 4 on Inconsistencies of Jay’s testimony. More and more, I am leaning towards the idea that Jay might not have been involved in the crime at all. Susan Simpson, the lawyer blogging at TheViewFromLL2, is also leaning towards a not guilty conclusion for Adnan based on Jay’s testimony as well but she does feel that Jay was involved because Jay was spinning tall tales all over Baltimore before the body was found that Adnan killed Hae. Yeah, imagine that. You are hanging out with this guy, blithely unaware that behind your back he is telling his friends that you killed your ex-girlfriend.

But I remember a couple of episodes ago that Jay’s friends said that he was a habitual liar. Oh sure, he would never lie about something big but he did have a habit of telling lies just for fun. Some of these lies later turned out to be partially true. But I’m beginning to think that Jay has an overactive imagination. Maybe he should be writing crime fiction. Or maybe he really did have something to do with it. With an almost complete absence of physical evidence tying either Jay or Adnan to the crime, it’s difficult to say but I’m throwing Adnan’s involvement out. I don’t think he had any clue what happened to Hae. More and more, it looks like he was condemned by bad luck, loose lips and a corrupt judicial system.

Seasonal Potpourri and other stuff

I’m really considering trying to arrange some kind of discussion around why the drug industry charges so much for drugs and the true cost of research etc. Maybe when I have more time. It is a very important topic and the people closest to the problem seem to be left out of the policy discussions. I think it’s time we hear from them.

Closely related, Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline has a short post about how devastating the mergers have been to R&D. He touches briefly on a subject that Matt Taibbi and Michael Lewis could write volumes about: consultant groups, like McKinsey and BCG. Take about vampire squids and blood funnels. This is a vast untapped area of greed and corruption that just flies under the radar.

Update: Derek posted this morning about the firing of Chris Viehbacher from Sanofi recently. A Whistlblower alleges that this is due to kickback arrangements Viehbacher had with consulting company Accenture and others. It’s intriguing especially because Accenture is all over pharma and I’ve had friends who have had to deal with them before. There is a lot of money involved in an Accenture deal, lots of subcontractors, lots of poorly paid developers in India, many delays, budget overruns and poor products. Think of Obamacare’s rollout. Yeah, like that, only worse. That’s what consultants do for pharma. Am I surprised that Accenture might be involved in unethical activity? Not in the least.

On a more cheerful note, I love Christmas time. It’s not because of the concept of Christmas. Historically, it makes no sense. But I love all the celebrations at the end of the year. I’ve taken a fancy to Solstice because it is a celebration of nature and I love that. Nevertheless, I have a Christmas tree because it is pretty and shiny and reminds me of my grandparents.

But I’ve stayed away from decorating Christmas cookies. It is always my intention to make them every year but I never get around to it. This year, I might attempt something simple, like reindeer cutouts. But check out this Christmas cookie to end all Christmas cookies from youtuber Sweetambs:

She makes it sound so easy. Yeah.

But if red flood icing is not your thing, maybe you’d rather dance. Here’s a line dance to Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer.

I might actually give this a try.