Review: Inside Out

First, it’s great, and totally reverses Pixar’s downward slide.  Second, they did an amazing job of making everything work as a character/story and a metaphor for how the brain works and an Aesop.  A good chunk of the time kids’ shows teach lessons I consider abhorrent (looking at you, My Little Friendship Means Never Having Boundaries) , and at the beginning it looked like they were setting up one of those, but in the end in became clear they considered it exactly as problematic as I did.

Also I need to see it at home so I can cry harder. That is all.

Eusociality/How to Train Your Dragon in Behavioral Ecology

Like many people who know things, I often find inaccuracies in movies frustrating.  I’ve learned to let this go in most instances, but I still have a weakness around behavioral ecology, possibly because I spent so long studying it and use that knowledge so little now.  This week’s victim is How to Train Your Dragon (1 and 2).  The questions I want to answer: how/why are they so many different types of dragons, and what is their social structure?  The ecosystem as described by characters makes so little sense I’ll never come up with a plausible system that makes their statements true, so I’m going to focus on generating a system that could generate their observations without being constrained to make them actually true.  For example: real species always have variation between individuals, even if they’re all clones (because of environmental variation). Vikings indicate all dragons of a given type are identical.  So I will design dragons that have little enough variation that Vikings could plausibly mis-measure them as having none, but not actually none, because that would be dumb.

I’m also just going to ignore the fact that that ecosystem couldn’t support that many predators of that size, and the whole fire breathing thing, because those are just things you accept when you watch a movie.

Here are the observations I need to explain (enormous spoilers for both movies, although mostly not the parts anyone else cares about):

  1. There are a lot of different types of dragons that live together and appear to work cooperatively.dragons_crowd
  2. Nests with lots of dragons tend to be controlled/led by a single enormous dragon.
  3. Movie 1 had a queen dragon and Movie 2 had a king dragon.  Valka says that kings outrank queens.
  4. The nest with the queen (a Red Death) was in a volcano, lesser dragons hunted for her, and she ate them if they failed.reddeathfacereddeath-full
  5. The nest with the king (a Bewilderbeast) was located in an iceberg, and he fed the other dragons.bewilderbeast
  6. There was a second collection of dragons led by a different Bewilderbeast under the control of a human that we don’t know much about.
  7. Dragons react to human speech at a level that indicates understanding, not just keyword matching.  They pick this up without formal instruction.
  8. The kings are shown giving sophisticated commands to lesser dragons.  The queen did not do so on screen, but that may be how she compelled the lesser dragons to hunt for her.
  9. The bewilderbeasts breathe ice and can stay underwater indefinitely.  They can survive on land but do not fly.
  10. A number of underwater dragons are mentioned.
  11. The Vikings believe very strongly that dragons are groupable into distinct species where members have identical stats.  They refer to these as species, although it’s never mentioned how Vikings define that.
  12. Dragons vary enormously in size.  Bewilderbeasts are 520′ x 160′.  Terrible Terrors are 1.5 feet tall, and judging by their behavior, adults.
  13. For all their morphoological diversity, we see dragons doing mostly the same things.  This could be an artifact of their interaction with humans.
  14. Dragons appear to congregate in massive nests.
  15. There is some variation in morphology even among juvenilesDragon_hiddenability_baby

The mass nesting and single head sound a lot like bees/ants/termites, where thousands of sterile workers coordinate to support a single breeding individual.  The technical term for this is eusocial.  Eusociality was something of a puzzle to evolutionary biologists for a while because wait, individuals are not breeding?  How could that ever be selected for?

The answer is kin selection: workers bees are able to pass more of their genes onto the next generation by caring for eggs the queen lays than they would by raising their own offspring. In the particular case of Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants), this may be helped by the fact that females are more related to full sisters than they are to their own offspring (I’ll explain this tomorrow), but this is neither necessary nor sufficient to generate eusociality.   Eusocial animals have some variation in their breeding structure: ant queens mate once and store sperm for life, males die shortly after mating.  Termites, certain shrimp, and  Damaraland mole rats have a single breeding pair.  Naked mole rats and some bees have a queen and several breeding males.  Bees and wasps can have either either the first or third structure (and not all bees or wasps are eusocial).  However, and this is important, there’s no known (non-fictional) eusocial species with one male and multiple breeding females.  There are animals with a harem structure (e.g. gorillas, lions), and females may have some cooperative care (e.g. lionesses will nurse others’ cubs), but children are cared for primarily by their mother and immature siblings, and there are no permanently non-breeding females.

The sheer number of dragons, the size differential, the fact that they cooperate to feed the alpha (sometimes), and that they can be compelled to take orders points to eusociality.  However eusocial animals are usually pretty dumb.  Dragons are smart, and have relationships outside that with their alpha (e.g. Toothless trying so hard to impress Valka’s dragon).  This suggests they have a more complex social structure than a beehive.  Moreover, they actively work to understand what humans want and to do it: this suggests they’re something like wolves, where there is a complex hierarchy beyond a simple alpha, and that like wolves dragons have applied their ability to interpret intentions and respond to them to us.*  This doesn’t necessarily mean they view humans as alpha, they may view us as a senior pack member to be listened to.

If they are eusocial, they’re going to be more like naked mole rats (where any individual can theoretically become alpha) than insects (where alpha-ness is designated at birth).  I believe this because we see three different dragon types as alpha (Red Death in the first movie, two Bewilderbeasts and Night Fury in the third), and because alphas obviously retain the capacity to be ordered around (by both humans and other dragons).

That’s social structure.  What about speciation?  We see an enormous variation in dragon morphology and behavior in the movies.  There’s a few ways to generate that:

  1. There are many closely related species, like whales.  This does not gel with the fact that dragons are clearly cooperative. While different species sometimes cooperate (e.g. humans and dogs), there’s nothing approaching interspecies eusociality.
  2. There are very different species with tight, possibly obligate, mutualisms (humans and dogs were probably this once, and gibbons and gazelles have some mutualism as well).  But those species tend to be good at very different things (dogs and gazelles have smell and we and gibbons have eyesight), while the dragons seem to mostly do the same thing.  This could be sufficient to explain them nesting together, but not following the alpha.
  3. They could all be the same species (meaning they can interbreed), but have diverged into semi-distinct genetic pools, like dogs.  Rare types could be hybrids. If hybrids are frequent and distinct enough to be recognized as their own type, it suggests morphology is controlled by only a few genes, or that all the genes are located on the same chromosome.  Otherwise you would just have a bunch of dragons that were intermediate between their two parents.
  4. Dragons are born having the ability to take many forms, and move through multiple forms in their lifespan or settle on one form based on the environment. This would be a good fit with eusociality, where drones often specialize in a single task.
  5. Dragons vary a lot and the Vikings more or less made up categories to shove them into

I suspect there’s more than one base form, because the babies in HTTYD2 were already bigger than the smallest adult dragons we’ve seen. But the different types must be able to interbreed, because different species don’t cooperate that extensively.  This points to 3 and possibly 4.

I also have to explain the feeding.  Eusocial alphas get fed, they do not feed their drones, which doesn’t match the behavior in movie 2.  The easy answer is that it depends on environmental conditions: when food is plentiful the alpha feeds their minions, when it’s not their minions feed them.  Since the sex making the larger investment in offspring is usually the one fed by the other, this suggests alphas are male in the water and female in volcanos.  Normally that would make no sense, but I’m about to get to a really satisfying explanation.

Let’s talk about reproduction.  Given the babies in movie 2, alphas must reproduce with members of their own nest, not an alpha from another nest.  All the examples I can think of with a single alpha that have that level of control (as opposed to a dominance structure with one member at the top) are eusocial and have a female leader.  This gels with the minions feeding the alpha in movie 1.  Or they could be like gorillas, with a single male keeping a harem of females.  That matches well with the fighting between the two alphas and the loyalty shifts, plus Valka would probably notice if her king laid hundreds of eggs.  It seems to me to be incredibly unlikely a species would have the ability to have alphas of either sex, so we have to choose one or choose hermaphroditism.  There’s only one reptile that could be called hermaphroditic, and that’s really more like being intersex than a true hermaphrodite.

But… hermaphroditism is really common in fish.  Fish also feature more morphological variation through their life than reptiles, and have more and more complex social/pack behavior.  And we know there are underwater dragons.  What if those came first, and they moved out of the sea later?  The intermediate step would look a lot like flying fish, which totally exist.  I’m not sure about the fire breathing thing, but it’s not like assuming they’re reptiles makes that so much easier to explain.  Dragons eat fish a lot, even the terrestrial ones.  While I said I was going to ignore the inability of that environment to sustain that many predators, the ocean comes closer to meeting their requirements than land. And it explains the variation in feeding behavior.

In conclusion:

  •  Dragons are descended from fish, and have a highly cooperative harem structure when food is plentiful and a eusocial one when it is not.
  • The alpha is a hermaphrodite who leans male when food is plentiful and female when it is not.   Either minion dragons are also hermaphroditic, or male and female forms exist and whichever complements the alphas goals gets to reproduce.
  • There may be other dragons that get an occasional shot at reproduction, who may or may not be considered part of the pack (a la the side-blotched lizard or marine isopods).
  • There are probably a lot of non-breeders of either sex, or dragons stay sexually immature until promoted by an alpha.
  • A given baby dragon can turn into many (but not all) kinds of dragons, and may be more than one over its lifetime.  Minion dragons are extremely intelligent and can understand complex instructions, but have limited ability to talk back.  They can be compelled to follow these against their will but also have a strong desire to follow them without compulsion.
  • Not all dragon types can be alphas, but more than one can.

As for the movie plots… yeah, they were pretty good.

*Wolves are obviously not dogs, but they’re much more trainable than other animals.

Soylent + Blender Bottle = Awesome

Soylent should be more convenient than real food, but the world is set up for real food, so sometimes it is not.  You’re not supposed to carry it warm for hours, but it’s not water-soluble enough to just mix by shaking, or even with a spoon.  You get clumps and those protective cysts of dry powder on the sides of the glass.  Enter Blender Bottle, a normal water bottle with a whisk ball inside it.  As long as you don’t overfill it it mixes extremely well.  Not quite immersion blender well, but it’s pretty homogeneous.  And you can do it anywhere.

Technically you could accomplish this with any water bottle + the whisk ball.  The advantage of the Blender Bottle is 1.  not every water bottle can stand up to that amount of shaking and 2.  the Pro Stak System.  You can buy little ~tupperware containers that interlock with the water bottle.  Unfortunately they don’t hold a useful amount of soylent, I use a ziploc bag for those.  But they are big enough to carry around salt.  I always drink water with salt.  Nothing was stopping me from carrying a salt shaker with me before, but I didn’t, so I didn’t drink enough water out of the house.  Apparently I will carry an attachment to my water bottle filled with salt.  So the blender bottle has solved two problems for me.

Credit to Brian for recommending a version of the Blender Bottle to me.

Review: Mindset (Carol Dweck)

I went into this pretty skeptical, based on Scott Alexander’s analysis of the science.  But the reality was worse than I imagined.  First, she never even defines terms like talent or ability.  I would use ability to mean “current level of performance” and talent to mean something like “innate propensity to excel at task, as manifested in initial ability, ease of learning, or ceiling on ability.”  She… maybe uses ability to mean both those things?  She’ll talk about initial ability or talent and then increased ability or talent after practice, but that doesn’t mean the same amount of effort will get everyone to the same place, or all places are reachable by all people.  For that matter, she never defines mindset.  She talks about it like a fairly fixed trait (meaning it stays constant from one situation to another), but her own studies show it being changed by a four second speech.

Second, you can’t just make a list of good things and a list of bad things and wrap all the good things under your label and bad things under it’s opposite.  Here is a list of statements I believe will be uncontroversial:

  • A person who treats failure as a learning opportunity will learn more and be happier than a person who treats it as a mandate to curl into a ball and cry.
  • Ditto for viewing feedback as a source of information, rather than a referendum on you as a person.
  • Sometimes people start out bad at a task, practice, and then get really good at it.
  • This is more likely to happen if the person believes practice can improve their skill.
  • Children (and probably all people) tend to do better when their successes are ascribed to something they can control than to forces outside their control.

These things don’t necessarily go together.  For example, it is entirely possible to believe almost anything is learnable, and then beat yourself up for failure because you should have learned it already.   I’ve seen me do it.  “I’ll do better next time” can just as easily become a mantra to avoid mindfulness as to encourage it.

Third, I can’t even with the chapter on corporations.  Jack Welch brought stack ranking aka “rank and yank” to the masses, and she uses him as an example of not only having growth mindset, but fostering it throughout his company.


[An artist’s rendering of working at GE]

After this I refused to trust her anecdotes, and Scott already took down the studies.   You might think that left the book with nothing, but surprisingly it didn’t.  Her descriptions of the individual facets of growth or fixed mindset and how they affect people were useful and informative, even if I don’t think they have anything to do with each other.  And I think growth vs. fixed mindset might actually be a useful schema for institutions.  It certainly captures a lot of what’s wrong with American schools.

And as inspirational reading, it’s pretty good.  I would love to live in a world where one determined teacher takes 40 students from illiterate to Shakespeare, and stereotype threat is countered with a short speech.  In a world that overvalues innate talent, a push too far in the other direction may still leave us better off.  But that doesn’t make it correct.

Minor Spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron and previous MCU movies

Iron Man saves 12 people under impossible circumstances as they fall from a plane:  *crying*

Guardians of the Galaxy stall to evacuate the planet as doom flies in: *crying*

Captain America insists on endangering the entire world rather than let one civilian die in his sight:  I’m uncomfortable with how angry this makes me.

Calvary shows up, allowing them to save everyone after all: Awwww….

Still not as bad as Green Arrow insisting they not kill the chief villain because Killing Is Wrong while splattered with the blood of henchmen he just killed.

Review: The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis (Thomas Goetz)

I love this book so much I gave it to my cats to cuddle, which would have made a more impressive visual if I hadn't gotten the kindle version.
I love this book so much I gave it to my cats to cuddle, which would have made a more impressive visual if I hadn’t gotten the kindle version.

I don’t even know where to start.  This book was fun to read and I felt like I learned a lot.  It covered both the specific facts of Robert Koch’s quest to prove germ theory and cure tuberculosis, and provided a good general sense of how science and medicine move forward and don’t.

A couple of specifically interesting points: doctors fought germ theory tooth and nail.  They also rejected stethoscopes as technological interlopers to be disposed of because they threatened the doctors importance, while using so many leaches prosperous countries had to import them.  The naive interpretation is “doctors are idiots, their reluctant to use quantified self data is proof they haven’t changed.”  This is the first time I’ve seen any hint as to why they found germ theory so implausible.  In the particular case of tuberculosis, everyone was exposed all the time, and it took the infection years to become symptomatic.  Preventing any one exposure wouldn’t have had noticeable results.  Another early-identified bacteria was Anthrax, which didn’t follow a typical exposure pattern either.  The doctors still come out looking pretty bad for refusing to wash their hands between autopsies and childbirth, but marginally less than they might have.

I knew this already, but it was good to have a reminder that the first person to suggest the germ theory of disease, Ignez Summelweis, died in an insane asylum.  This either means that people with truly visionary ideas can be broken when we reject them, or germ theory was so crazy it took a crazy person to see it.  Goetz doesn’t mention it but according to my dad Summelweis was also an asshole, which I try to remind myself every time someone mean says something I disagree with.

Remember last week when I suggested using microchips to force people to finish their antibiotics?  Several friends seriously questioned the effect of that, since they didn’t estimate the contribution of unfinished antibiotics to antibiotic resistance as very high.  The Remedy says that the current protocol for drug resistant TB is to have a medic visit a patient every day for 6 -24 months to observe them taking their pills, because drug resistant TB is that big a problem and the pills are that unpleasant.  So at least in that situation swallowable microchips would be an enormous improvement.

Apparently syphilis is always the [nationality] disease, where the nationality is not the speaker’s.  French is the most popular, but far from the only

I’ve always found the methods section the most boring of any paper or textbook.  I want to know what we learned, not how.  But The Remedy (and to a lesser extent Neanderthal Man, which I reviewed last week) made it seem interesting.  I’m still not terribly interested in microscopy, but it was deeply interesting to see how advances in technology enabled scientific advances.  Using or inventing new technology is how you move the world forward.  And when I thought about it, the modern field that most reminds me of the wide-open-ness of microbiology in the mid 1800s is programming.  That is where I get the most sense of possibility.  I still really care about translational health (in fact this book taught me that that is the word for what I am trying to do with this blog) and mental health, but I am feeling more and more like staying in programming would be the best way to accomplish that.

Review: Neanderthal Man

As a narrative about how science works, this is pretty strong.  I got it as part of my new policy of not reading emotionally intense books right before bed, and while it didn’t produce the post reading anxiety that, say, that book about slavery did, it was pretty exciting and pushed my bedtime back quite a bit.

The actual science, I’m not sure about.  He’s doing molecular biology without any background in basic bio, so he says things like “I didn’t know insects were animals.” on his first day as a zoology professor (he’s since realized his error) or “Can we really say they’re the same species just because they fertily interbreed.” in his book, on biology, that people paid him actual money to publish.  Yes, we can say that because that is exactly what species means.

I’m also a little confused by how they determined humans and neanderthals interbred.  It seems like they’re using the same data to calibrate the technique they’re using to sequence the DNA, the degradation rate of DNA, the contamination rate of the sample, when humans and neanderthals diverged, and when/how much they interbred.  He also doesn’t make a good distinction between when he’s talking about junk DNA (which is not subject to selection pressure, so is a pretty good molecular clock) and when he’s talking about genes (which is, and so it’s difficult to distinguish inheritance from the same source, interbreeding, and convergent evolution).

Lots of very smart people with much more information and training in this area than I have seem to be okay with his conclusions, so I assume this is one of those things where he is simplifying, and I know enough to know that he is missing something but not enough to fill in the gaps myself.  But if you are not in that uncanncy valley, it’s very well written and entertaining.

The Talent Code: Two Truths and a Lie

The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) makes three claims: that myelination is instrumental in learning, that skill is built by by methodically breaking down actions into component parts and perfecting them, and that these two facts have anything to do with each other.

In TED talk form:http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Growing-A-Talent-Hotbed-Dan-Coy/player?layout=&read_more=1

Some background: your brain is made of nerve cells, which connect to each other and to other nerves outside the skull.  We have only the foggiest idea what brain cells do, but we’re pretty sure the external nerve cells are for controlling muscle movement and reporting sensory data.  Nerve cells communicate with each other by extending a long arm (called an axon) from their body to meet an axon from another nerve.  Signals travel down an axon electrically, and between axons chemically.  Like any electrical charge, nerve signals are subject to resistance and decay.  To prevent this they are wrapped in myelin, a mostly fatty substance that insulates the axon.

I had never heard of myelin being involved in learning, and in fact it’s not on the wiki page, but deeper googling reveals that there is some fairly compelling research to back this up.  Einstein had an unusually high number of glial cells (which, among other things, produce myelin).  White matter (made up mostly of myelin and glial cells) volume in fine-motor-control areas in the brains of pianists correlates with self-reported practice hours.  Most compellingly, mice prevented from producing new myelin are unable to learn a new task but maintain previous learning.  And it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense that a substance that protects and speeds up nerves would be involved in learning.   However, I don’t see anything here that tells us how a specific act of learning affects myelination of specific cells.  Coyle’s explanation of this is so dumbed down I immediately want to trounce it, but as far as I can tell it’s a reasonable summary of the data for his purposes.

His recommendation to practice by breaking down a skill into component parts and refining them to perfection seems entirely reasonable to me.  He cites a little bit of science for this, but mostly it’s just his observations of various talent hotbeds (The Spartak Tennis Club in Russia, KIPP schools, ).  He believes these hotbeds stem from a combination of this cultivated practice and “ignition”, the ability to make a kid believe they can be successful at something.  No doubt those are both helpful, but I don’t see any evidence that those factors and only those factors distinguish the talent hotbeds

This was originally going to be part of a longer series on several books with “talent” in the title, but there is only so much “intelligence is irrelevant, practice is everything” followed by absolutely no guidance on practice I can read.  So, here you go.

Review: How to Be Sick (Toni Bernhard)

Everything this book says is absolutely true.  Mindfullness is awesome.  Spending energy being angry at reality for not living up to your expectations is not useful.  A calm acceptance of where you are now without attachment to the future is useful in almost any situation.  But my primary feeling reading the book was “This is fine for you, but I’m going to get better, so I’m just going to go wait for that.”  I told that to someone in the waiting room at the IV place who was probably suffering from something pretty serious*, thinking I was making a funny joke about how I had failed at zen, and she said “good for you, keep fighting.”

This captures a lot of the tension around health problems that are prolonged or chronic or ambiguous as to where they fall between the two.  If you “accept your limitations” too hard you end up putting yourself in smaller and smaller boxes until there’s nothing left.  If you don’t accept your limitations enough you push too hard and make yourself worse.  How to Be Sick isn’t falling into those traps.  It’s describing a third way, of zen acceptance that doesn’t overly narrow or widen your vision for the future because it’s not about the future.  The problem is that this is hard to teach.  The author had been practicing Buddhism for 10+ years when she fell ill, and most of the book feels more like describing the benefits or appearance of a mindfulness practice rather than how to achieve it.   I did get one really useful technique out of the book, enough to justify all of the time I spent reading it, and I suspect that will be true for a lot of people so I do recommend it.  It’s just not magic.

Although maybe it kind of is.  I ordered the book from the library when my doctor looked at me and said “maybe being pain free isn’t a realistic goal for you and you need to redirect your energy to learning to cope with it.”  But then I saw a specialist who told me that the damage was healing, would probably be finished in about a year, and in the meantime enjoy this pain medication that leaves you almost pain free.  So I can’t rule out that this book actually is magic, and if you are at the point where you’re considering books with subtitles like “A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers”, you probably are going to try weirder things in your attempt to heal yourself.  So give it a shot and please report back.

*I’m there to mainline protein because my teeth and stomach aren’t up to the task of eating enough to heal me, but a lot of people are there for debilitating but poorly understood collections of symptoms like fibromyalgia, or better understood but more terminal diagnoses like cancer.  Nothing makes me you feel grateful for your health after having dead bone scraped out of your jaw like seeing an eight year old get cancer treatment.

Review: Immune Defense Video Game

Medical-inspired video games have a long history of disappointing me.  For example, real pathogens don’t ride rocket ships around your organs (Trauma Center)

nor does every single member of the species worldwide suddenly develop a new trait all at once (Plague, Inc)

And Surgeon Simulator does not follow Atul Gawande’s best practice surgical checklists at all

Plus Trauma Centers’s difficulty curve is insane, and they found a way to make repeating unskippable cutscenes worse. But one of the nice things about game development getting cheaper is they can make games for me and the four other people who will appreciate a cross between an immunology textbook and Majesty, which is the best way to describe Immune Defense.  In Immune Defense you play as the immune system, releasing various immune cells (each with different skills, and customized to different pathogens), which you do not directly control (it isn’t pac-man) but can lure over to the bacteria with antibodies if the %^&*ing macrophages will stop eating them.  In place of the usual Hit Points it has an inflammation count, which is actually pretty reasonable.  It has some biological inaccuracies (I’m reasonably certain real neutrophils don’t change receptor types instantaneously), but it’s still overall educational. Note the lack of rocket ships in this trailer.

That said, it’s obviously still in beta, and if the phrase “immunology x majesty” doesn’t grab you, you’re probably better off waiting.  The tutorial is really lacking and they need to smooth out some of the controls.  But I had a ton of fun until tendinitis forced me to stop playing, and if “immunology x majesty” does inspire joy in your heart you will probably enjoy it a lot, so check out the IndieGoGo and demo.