Friday, May 30, 2008

ride that train

I was recently made aware of the fact that New Mexico is now in possession of its very own commuter train, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express. I am more than a little proud of my home state for investing in such a noble form of public transportation. My love of trains and train subculture has lain dormant recently, but this news sent me off an a train tangent. Therefore, a blog on the subject:

Perhaps my first love for trains - or, more specifically, the subculture around them - came about when in 1985 I watched the film The Journey of Natty Gan. In it, a depression era girl hops trains from Chicago to the northwest in an attempt to reunite with her father who has gone in search of work. Along the way she sees the rougher edges of life, but has the good company of both a loyal wolf dog and John Cusack. I had a crush on both Cusack and trains from that day forward.

I've thus far always bought my ticket to ride, but I can't help but romanticize the hobo lifestyle. The hobo is perceived both as a down-on-his-luck bum with a fondness for liquor, and as a noble free-spirit who can't be tied down by the mundanities of life. He was an icon of Americana; he was the depression-era working man, he was Jack Kerouac On The Road. He had his own styles of art, currency, and his own system of written communication.

More recently, the hobo is the gutter punk teenager living free from adult constraints. As an adolescent, I was pretty thrilled to see my beloved subculture of punk-rock combined with that of hoboing. Had train hopping with these sorts not necessitated total lack of sobriety, sanity, and cleanliness, I may have hopped along.

A wonderful young photographer named Mike Brodie (aka The Polaroid Kidd) has documented contemporary hobos in a series of photos titled Boys and Girls of Modern Days Railways. I think his images capture both the tragedy and freedom of young train hoppers:

One of the other appealing aspects of hobo subculture is the quantity of hobo themed songs. Musicians like Jimmie Rodgers and Boxcar Willie are famous for their hobo tunes, and folks like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and John Prine have penned several hobo themed songs. In fact, if anyone would care for a CD of hobo and train themed songs I've compiled, I'll happily mail you one.

Some hobo themed films worth watching are the documentaries Catching Out: A Film About Train Hopping and Living Free and Who Is Bozo Texino? as well as classic old black & whites like, Beggars of Life, Sullivan's Travels, and Wild Seed (pictured below).

Finally, as an example of the melancholy romanticism of the hobo legacy, here are the most oft heard lyrics to the song Big Rock Candy Mountain, first recorded in 1928 by Harry McClintock:

One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning
Down the track came a hobo hiking and he said boys I'm not turning
I'm headin for a land that's far away beside the crystal fountains
So come with me we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
On the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs
The farmer's trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay
Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too
You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains the jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in
There ain't no short handled shovels, no axes saws or picks
I'm a goin to stay where you sleep all day
Where they hung the jerk that invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
I'll see you all this coming fall in the Big Rock Candy Mountains
But perhaps a more telling depiction of the hobo lifestyle is heard in McClintock's last stanza, which was left out of the recorded version:
The punk rolled up his big blue eyes
And said to the jocker, "Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered too,
But I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
And I'll be damned if I hike any more
To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

spore & science

It's officially summer. And while that supposedly means I should be writing and running rats, it really means that I'm allowing myself more time to screw around, exercise, read novels, play games, and even lust after games that don't exist yet.

As such, I'm going to officially jump onto the Spore bandwagon. In case you don't know, Spore is probably the most-talked-about computer game currently in development, the brainchild of Sims-creator, Will Wright. I'll let the video speak for itself, but in a nutshell this game will attempt to model Life, the Universe and Everything. Seriously. You will start the game as a single-cell organism on an isolated planet, progress through various stages of evolution, encounter other species (created by other players), form civilizations, watch them collapse, invent spacecraft, and eventually confront the mind-boggling scope of galactic space - which will reflect the mind-boggling scope of cyberspace, since much of the game content (species) will be player-generated and instantaneously uploaded for communal use. It will be like one gigantic evolutionary playground, with you playing the role of Intelligent Designer - or rather, one ID among many. If all this sounds impossible to put into one game, it should be noted that 1) Will Wright is a genius, 2) Spore has been in development for 4 years already.

You can check out the Spore website for mucho cool images and videos but here's one I recently came across that gets the scientist in me salivating. The pontificating uber-nerd is Will Wright and the gameplay is, frankly, astonishing.

Every now and then, game designers blah-blah about the "educational value" of their work (Grand Theft Auto teaches us about... societal mechanisms of inner-city violence? Hobbesian theories of human nature? How to kill a prostitute with a sword?). Spore may actually achieve this lofty goal by evoking curiosity and wonder. As any scientist will tell you, this is where the process always begins.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

ticket to ride: europe

Ticket to Ride is an example of an inventive Eurogame that has helped reinvigorate the boardgame market within the last decade. Designed by Alan Moon, Ticket to Ride was introduced in 2004 as a family-friendly game of train building that featured brightly colored components, a beautiful map of North America, and rules that could be learned in 15 minutes. It has rightly earned the moniker of "gateway game": a boardgame that convinces skeptics and non-gamers that there is an enjoyable world beyond the Monopolies, Risks, and Candylands of our Milton-Brothers-dominated youth.

I'm not actually going to talk about Ticket to Ride, but rather its later (and more entertaining) cousin, Ticket to Ride: Europe. Aili and I recently played this with some friends and it was a resounding success. It's a brilliantly fun but challenging game that new players can grasp in a couple turns.

The goal of the game is to score points by building trains across a map of Europe in the early 20th century. Here's a pic of the board, along with some of the train-routes filled in:

The routes connect specific cities and vary in length (from 1 to 8 cars). At the beginning of the game, each player draws a set of cards (called tickets) which depict your primary goals for the game: what specific cities will you need to connect, in order to get your biggest scores. Here are some sample tickets:

The one on the left is relatively short: by the end of the game, you need to connect London and Berlin. That involves building 3 or so adjacent routes that run between the two cities. The one on the right is far more challenging. You need to connect Brest, France to Petrograd, Russia. This will involve dozens of train cars, and most likely, some serious strategizing. However, it also lands you 20 points at the end of the game if you successfully complete it. It should be noted that every ticket card you fail to complete counts against your final score; so if you drew this card and weren't able to complete it, you'd subtract 20 points from your final tally.

How do you build trains and complete routes? Simple. In your hand, you hold colored train cards (black, white, red, yellow, etc.). The individual routes on the gameboard are color-coded. If you want to build a 3 train-car length black route, you simply need to discard 3 black train cards from your hand. Some routes are gray, which means that you can use any color to complete the route: however, the set must always match (for a 2-car gray route, you can play 2 blue cards or 2 red cards, but you can't play 1 red and 1 blue card). So really, it's all about collecting sets of colors.

Each turn, a player can only take 1 of 4 actions:

  • Draw 2 colored train cards. There are 5 train cards kept face-up at all times, so you can pick the 2 that you want from these. Or, if none of them help you, you can draw from the face-down stack. You will periodically draw locomotives, wild-cards that serve as any color.
  • Build a train route. Discard a set of colored cards that match a route on the board and put your trains into play.
  • Play a train station. Sometimes, an opponent has claimed a route that you desperately need to complete one of your tickets. You have 3 train stations that you can play on any city, which allow you to use another player's train-route. However, at the end of the game, whatever stations you still have (did not put into play) are worth 4 points each - so it behooves you to be conservative about this.
  • Draw more tickets. If you've already completed the tickets you drew at the beginning of the game, you can draw some more. Remember, completing these ticket missions get you big points at the end of the game - but if you overreach and fail to complete a ticket, you'll get severely punished.

That's basically it. I've left out a couple of the more complicated rules, but this gives you a sense of the game. There's a surprising amount of strategy here. Since you can only take 1 action per turn, you're constantly presented with difficult decisions. Do you draw a locomotive, hoping to claim the big 6-car ferry between Smyrna and Palermo a couple turns from now? Or do you play it safe and build that critical route between Berlin and Warsaw immediately? Ticket to Ride: Europe can accommodate up to 5 players, and with more players direct competition for routes becomes an increasing problem. You can choose to play aggressively and block your opponents, if you have a guess of where they're trying to go. But if doing this doesn't help you complete your own goals, you run the risk of falling behind in completed tickets.

Since turns are so short, there's limited down-time. Plus, you can always spend a little more time figuring out which route you need to concentrate on next - and whether taking the face-up train cards would help you. Needless to say, I think Ticket to Ride: Europe is a great game. And it says quite a bit that Aili loves it as well and always seems willing to play. It's quick to set up, easy to understand, challenging, and perhaps most importantly, very rewarding. You really feel satisfied every time you build a route, and especially when you complete a big ticket that stretches across the continent. The player who, at the end of the game, has the longest continuous train route gets a 10-point bonus. It's a blast trying to extend your railway masterpiece to absurd limits, within a fiercely defensive and paranoid environment.

Definitely worth buying and bringing out the next time you're hosting a small party and don't want to bore/embarrass your guests with Pictionary or some such nonsense.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

asymmetric tail-wagging

This is old news by today's standards... but lately I've been thinking about it some more, after watching Fenris wag his tail when Aili or I come home or when he meets another dog.

In the April 24, 2007 New York Times, there was a Science Times article on asymmetric tail-wagging. Some Italian scientists hypothesized that dogs may possess hemispheric asymmetries in the neural regulation of their emotional/motivational responses. The valence hypothesis argues that the left hemisphere of the brain is more specialized for processing positive emotions (e.g. joy, safety, attachment), while the right hemisphere regulates more negative emotions (e.g. fear, anger).

I should note at the outset that I have never been a particularly big fan of hemispheric asymmetries - or rather, how they become distorted and exaggerated for public consumption. By and large, neuroscientists don't have a firm understanding of the various differences between the hemispheres. There are some "known" lateralizations:

  1. language processing is biased towards the left hemisphere
  2. spatial ability is biased towards the right
  3. the left hemisphere regulates somatosensation (touch) and motor control on the right side of the body, and vice-versa: the principle of contralateral control
But I cringe when I hear people say things like, "she's a right brain person - so emotional and artistic." First off, this assumes that because there are functional and structural differences between the hemispheres, there will also be significant differences between individual people in hemispheric dominance. This may or may not be the case. It is possible that Larry has better spatial ability than Moe because his right hemispheric spatial centers are more broadly developed (or distributed), due to either genetic or environmental influences. But this is a big assumption. Correlating individual differences in behavior & personality with individual differences in brain structure (a la phrenology) is not something that most neuroscientists focus their attention on.

Second, there's this thing called the corpus callosum, a dense collection of axons that connect the two hemispheres and allow them to fluidly communicate with one another. This means that most complex cognitive functions are mediated by both hemispheres. Even when it comes to language processing, the right hemisphere makes significant contributions (especially if you're left-handed and/or female). "Left brain" and "right brain" are misnomers. Such terms are really only applicable when referring to those wacky split-brain patients.

All this is not to say that hemispheric asymmetries don't exist. There are hundreds of empirical demonstrations, perhaps the most convincing being the aforementioned split-brain studies conducted by Gazzaniga and his students. I recall learning about these experiments during my junior year in college, at the same time I was taking a course in metaphysics from Derek Parfit. He had us read all these crazy thought experiments on "identity"... So, you're on Earth and some engineers first scan and then destroy your entire brain and body. They recreate you, cell by cell, on the Moon using that scanned blue-print. Is this Moon version still "you"? The emerging materialist in me would scream (silently, from the back of the lecture hall) "Yes!" And then Derek would throw that mind-blowing loop in: what if the engineers fucked up and didn't destroy your Earth copy but still created your Moon copy? Which version is actually "you"? Are they both "you"? Is that possible, given how personal identity is? Which individual's consciousness would you occupy? When you opened your eyes after the operation, would you see Earth's green fields or the desolate lunar landscape?

So here I am going through some weird existential identity crisis, and then my cognitive neuroscience professor starts telling me that if you cut your corpus callosum, you will actually have two identities within yourself. One hemisphere might have you reach out your right arm to hug your wife, while the other hemisphere is having your left hand grab a knife. Or something less dramatic, but you get the point. Why would our brain be designed this way?

Of course, there is a strong engineering advantage to this kind of specialization: division of labor. It is likely that lateralization evolved because individuals with more specialized hemispheres were better able to juggle multiple cognitive tasks at once, be more likely to survive and eventually reproduce. Turns out that hominids aren't the only ones with these kinds of design characteristics. On to the actual experiment...

Quaranta A, Siniscalchi M, Vallortigara G (2007). Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli. Current Biology, 17: R199-201.

The experimenters placed test dogs in an apparatus that allowed them to present controlled stimuli and concurrently measure tail-wagging responses. The stimuli used were: the dog's owner, an unknown person, an unfamiliar dog, and a cat. The specific tail-wagging variable the authors were interested in was wagging angle. This was assessed using the following method:

"Tail wagging scores associated with the different stimuli were analyzed from video-recordings. Positions of the tail were scored every 10 seconds by superimposition on the computer screen of a cursor on the long axis of the body: the maximum extents of the particular tail wag occurring at each 10 second interval was recorded. Using single frames from video recording two angles were identified with respect to the maximum excursion of the tail to the right and to the left side of the dog's body (Figure 1). Tail wagging angles were obtained with reference to the axes formed by the midline of the dog's pelvis — the segment extending lengthwise through the dog's hips, drawn from the largest points as seen from above; dotted line in Figure 1 — and the axes perpendicular to it. Tail wagging angles were evaluated by the segment that extended lengthwise through the base and the tip of the tail, considering the tip of the sacral spine as 180° and the base of the tail as 0° (as in Figure 1). Minimal movements of the tail, within a range of maximum 3° overall, which were plausibly not correlated to wagging, were discarded."

The results?
  • When dogs were shown their owner or an unknown person, they exhibited a right-sided bias in amplitude. In other words, their tail swung farther and more extremely to the right than to the left (as shown in the image above: compare an 85 degree swing to the right versus a 70 degree swing to the left). This more intense wag to the right in indicative of greater left hemisphere involvement. The left hemisphere, according to the valence hypothesis, is associated with more positive emotions. So, when a dog wags more intensely to the right, they are expressing joy/attachment/love/etc.
  • In contrast, when subjects were shown an unfamiliar dog, they exhibited a significant left-sided bias in tail-wagging. This is indicative of right hemisphere dominance and negative emotional valence. A dog wagging its tail more intensely to the left is expressing anxiety/threat assessment/etc.
  • The cat condition provoked minimal tail-wagging, but interestingly enough, a slight right-sided bias.
What are we to make of this? Well, before I swallow this whole, I'd really like to see a detailed explanation of how the canine brain regulates muscular control in the generation of a tail-wag. The issue here, as Dr. Davidson in the NY Times piece points out, is that the dog tail lies along the midline of the body. How does contralateral control of musculature apply to a limb that isn't asymmetric?

Hmmm... google search in progress...

"The canine tail usually consists of between six and 23 highly mobile vertebrae.These vertebrae are enclosed by a versatile musculature that make the various segments, especially the tip, capable of finely graded movements that lift the tail, move it from side to side, or draw it down toward the anus or between the hind legs. The caudal muscles lie on the lumbar vertebrae, sacrum (in the lower back region) and tail vertebrae. The muscles insert on the tail/caudal vertebrae exclusively. The muscles are attached to the tail vertebrae by tendons. The most posterior tendons attach to the last tail vertebrae. Part of the musculature is formed from muscles associated with the rectum, the anus and the pelvic diaphragm. Four to seven paired nerves serve the tail muscles. These muscles have many tendons that insert from the fifth or sixth caudal vertebra, then onto the next vertebra, and so on to the end of the tail."

So I suppose that the left hemisphere (motor cortex) controls muscles on the right side of the tail that can pull it in that direction. And the right hemisphere controls muscles on the left side of the tail that pull it in the other direction.

A final note: there is also evidence that our facial musculature exhibits a slight lateralization when we make emotional expressions. Happier emotions, exemplified by smiling, are expressed more strongly in the right side of our face. Negative emotions show a left-bias. It is possible that when we meet someone we have conflicted feelings about (we enjoy their company but find them slightly annoying), these emotions play out in a lateralized fashion on our face.

Might all this be partly responsible for the notion of left as sinister?

Friday, May 9, 2008

outsider architecture

Oh, I can't resist adding this as well. This house isn't abandoned, but it is Russian. Built by ex-gangster Nikolai Sutyagin, here we have a fine example of one man's creative drive taking him to questionable new heights:

Thursday, May 8, 2008


Anyone who has spent any time with me probably knows I have a fairly strong liking for abandoned buildings. NW and I had several "forts" in various abandoned houses throughout childhood. (In fact, our girlish decorations were still in the attic space in the abandoned barn down the road when I peeked in a few years ago). Abandonment can make any dwelling look like it has a story to tell, probably some tragic tale at that.

In any case, this love of no-longer-lived-in-spaces has never left me.
I am not alone in this however, and the internet is host to some marvelous examples. These gems were plucked from the truly great site, on which you can find some of the most stunning examples of broken soviet scenes:

Villages all across Russia were abandoned after the fall of the soviet infrastructure, when the state could no longer support its industries:

There is no place so abandoned, however, as Chernobyl:

(photos by Alexandr Vikulov,

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

the slip

Yesterday, Trent Reznor (NIN) introduced his new album, The Slip, on his official website by providing a download link and the following statement: "(thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years - this one's on me)".

If you follow the links and provide your email address, you will indeed be able to download his new release (for free) in a variety of formats, including MP3, lossless (FLAC or Apple) or even "better than CD" 24/96 WAVE. The download also comes with a PDF of the album artwork and liner notes.


01 999,999

02 1,000,000
letting you
04 discipline

05 echoplex
head down
07 lights in the sky

08 corona radiata

09 the four of us are dying

10 demon seed

It's worth a listen. After a 6-year hiatus between releasing the mediocre "The Fragile" (1999) and the slightly better "With Teeth" (2005), Reznor seems to be undergoing some kind of creative revival. Last year's "Year Zero" is a very strong and interesting concept album, certainly his best work since "The Downward Spiral". He is also clearly embracing new distribution models, a la Radiohead. Sharing of the new album is actively encouraged:

"the slip is licensed under a creative commons attribution non-commercial share alike license.

we encourage you to remix it
share it with your friends,
post it on your blog,
play it on your podcast,
give it to strangers,

This, obviously, is pretty sweet and, dare I say, the shape of things to come.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


I am currently in grading hell. I've got approximately 500 pages of student writing to critique before I can call this semester quits and I'm theoretically on sabbatical (although I have yet to be convinced that that actually means anything). My experience has inspired me to research various cartographic representations of hell, in search of a place similar to my current state of being.

Here is Sandro Botticelli's illustration from the early Renaissance:

Seems a big rocky.

A couple by Stradano (circa 1580):

All based on Dante's vision. So I guess we better check out what signor Alighieri had to say on the topic.

Well, if we closely examine Upper Hell, I see a couple possibilities. I might be in Circle V: the Wrathful. But that's not usually my grading style. I don't feel any sense of vengeance or wrath in my heart as I grade these damnable things. Lower Hell looks more promising...

I'm not a Sorcerer (though that sounds awesome). I might very well be a Hypocrite, but that only vaguely has to do with grading. I think Sower of Discord is probably the most applicable.

Discord, as in "lack of agreement or harmony (as between persons, things, or ideas)." Yeah, that sounds like grading. So, as I suspected, I may well be in one of the deepest levels of hell right now - the only pathetic few I see beneath me are the Falsifiers and the Giants.

Botticelli's representation of the Sowers of Discord:

I'm pretty pumped. Plus, I get to hang out with this guy: Bertran de Born, who's carrying around his own head as a lantern in the 8th circle. Apparently, he used to piss people off by fueling and exploiting the dissension between the British and French in the 12th century.

Hey Bertran, can you move your head over here a little? I can't make out this what this honors student is trying to say about Bandura and objectification (oh dear god...).

A final note. Level 5 in Lower Hell is dedicated to Barrators, and I was curious as to the term. A barrator, not surprisingly, is someone guilty of engaging in barratry:


n. pl. bar·ra·tries
1. The offense of persistently instigating lawsuits, typically groundless ones.
2. An unlawful breach of duty on the part of a ship's master or crew resulting in injury to the ship's owner.
3. Sale or purchase of positions in church or state.

This does not bode well for modern legal counselors (1) or politicians and their lobbyist pimps (3). Unless Dante was referring to definition #2, in which case, most of us don't have much to worry about.