Try this in your next meeting

I just came upon a great little app/website Are Men Talking Too Much? that is a simple and humorous counter that allows tracking the gender of the person speaking in a meeting. I like this because I am prone to talk too much, and over the years, through great effort, have done some work to pay more and more attention regarding proper etiquette in dealing with others. I’ve enjoyed this transformation, and have learned much by deepening my listening skills and hearing important information that might not have been shared had I unconsciously dominated the conversation. Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 21.58.11.png

At the same time, in this international conversation on enhancing freedom of speech for all, it is important not to essentialize certain qualities like domination to a specific sex. A person belonging to any group can display laudable or abhorrent behavior. People of a given gender or sex, or culture, etc., are not a monolith. This is diversity 101.

Of course, men tend to have higher acculturated propensities for not picking up on social cues and dominating (because they have been able to get away with it, and even sometimes valorized for doing so). So, it’s important to correct these imbalances.

The simple act of timing who speaks, and for how long, can lay bare some otherwise tangled emotional justifications around a problem that, at its root, in some ways can be fixed through less complicated means than some might admit. It’s this elegance, of sharing time, giving and taking, and keeping an eye out for fairness and justice which is ever-so-relevant and sorely needed in this welcome #metoo era.

The need for hermeneutics in science communication

There’s this popular pro-science YouTube video. I like it–it’s bold, brash, and has good knock-down arguments. It also espouses a defensive attitude against stances which I too find abhorrent.

There’s only one problem with it. It’s wrong.

Even though I like the pro-science sentiment, there are many ways to do science, or to solve a math problem. We could easily have a science that doesn’t require tearing things apart to know or understand them. In fact, that science is being born as we speak (see the work of Isabel Stengers, Barbara McClintock, Participatory Action Research, etc.). So, properly speaking, there is no such thing as monolithic science; there are always only sciences, plural. Still, these are different from fiction, ideology, or theology. But, to say that facts aren’t inflected by values is quite imperialistic.



Designed to Fail–Industrial Design and Cuteness

The Washington Post’s alarming story about teenagers intentionally imbibing Tide detergent “pods” (or “pacs”) due to dares by other teenagers, is not a story about teenagers being dumb, but really one about faulty design.

The increasing one-use bite-sized packetization of goods, like food, housecleaning supplies, and other “conveniences” is the problem. No teen, unless they are trying to commit suicide, are going to drink a bunch of Tide detergent from a 64 oz. container. But place it in a cute packet, like peanut butter or sports energy gel, then the fun starts.

Tide’s parent company, Procter & Gamble, said in a statement that it is “deeply concerned about conversations related to intentional and improper use of liquid laundry pacs.”

“Laundry pacs are made to clean clothes,” Proctor & Gamble spokeswoman Petra Renck said in the statement. “They should not be played with, whatever the circumstance, even if meant as a joke. Like all household cleaning products, they must be used properly and stored safely.” Proctor and Gamble is so concerned, why don’t they just take the product off the market? They can admit–“we made a mistake. We got greedy, and gimmicky, thinking that this would give us a leg up on the (scant) competition. Instead of making our product better, we just thought giving you less laundry detergent for a higher price BUT in  nifty little “pacs” would do the trick. But, we didn’t realize that over 10,000 children under 5 would try to eat them in 2017 alone. Or that 225 teens would be exposed to them. Perhaps bite-sized packets for laundry detergent is inappropriate. Let’s pull those Tide Pods off the market, for the sake of the public good and public health.”

Nope, instead, P&G play the usual corporate routine–they’re not designed wrong, they are just being used incorrectly. As if it were possible for 10,000 baby poisonings in a year to occur, and that to be an incorrect use. That’s like saying that people who drove Pintos and got into accidents (and they blew up) were using their cars incorrectly.

You’ve got to love their corporate defense, doing their best to stave off regulation (because, like little kids eating Tide PODS, they can’t regulate themselves):

“even the most stringent standards and protocols, labels and warnings can’t prevent intentional abuse fueled by poor judgment and the desire for popularity.”

Whatever you do–don’t make us have a label or warning! It would be too onerous. And it would certainly be too onerous to pull this (quite unnecessary!) product from the market. Methinks this reeks of cigarette industry rhetoric… but I digress.

A design flaw is a design flaw, whether it is intentional or not. Admit it, make it right, and move on. For those of us that are adults here, we ought to design products that cannot be prone to abuse on such a large scale. And if we learn that our creations happen to look like candy (deliberately?) and are hurting people in mass numbers, we have a responsibility to take them off the market.

Airplanes and Death: A Study in Sound Pollution


I recently published an article in Berkeley’s newspaper, Berkeleyside, about the incessant overhead air traffic, and how this likely is causing significant public health effects.

Here’s the evidence  base: “These significant associations were not attenuated after the adjustment for air pollution. The present ecological study supports the hypothesis of an association between aircraft noise exposure and mortality from cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and myocardial infarction. However, the potential for ecological bias and the possibility that this association could be due to residual confounding cannot be excluded.” “Aircraft noise was associated with mortality from myocardial infarction, with a dose-response relationship for level and duration of exposure. The association does not appear to be explained by exposure to particulate matter air pollution, education, or socioeconomic status of the municipality.”

Eighteenth Annual Biosemiotics Gathering at UC Berkeley

I am very pleased to announce that the Eighteenth Annual Biosemiotics Gathering will take place at the University of California Berkeley’s elegant International House grand auditorium June 17-20, 2018.  On behalf of the Organizing Committee, Terry Deacon and myself are excited to bring a host of new researchers to the Gathering, the flagship conference of the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies.

Fungal-Network jpg

Normally held in Europe, the Biosemiotics Gatherings offer an intimate yet intense venue for leading and emerging scholars in the field to exchange ideas. All talks are heard by all members as plenaries; we do not have break-out sessions. This ensures that the quality of discussion remains cohesive over the course of the Gathering, and that we all enjoy exposure to the various branches of the discipline, from literary, to linguistic, to philosophical, to microbiological, ethological, and beyond.

This event also serves as the annual meeting for the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies, and the journal Biosemiotics. Anyone curious about biosemiotics, cybernetics, and meaning-making in alloanimals and other organisms is invited to submit an abstract  or attend.

The Organizing Committee aims to make available a limited number of stipends and registration wavers for overseas graduate students with accepted abstracts, so please encourage graduate student participation in this Gathering as well.

To download the CFP, please do so here: Biosemiotics 2018 Call for Papers Jan22.

More information can be found at

We hope to see you in Berkeley in June!

Interspecies Vision Design Lab at the California Academy of Sciences’ NightLife series

This Thursday, November 2, 2017, from 6-10pm, I’m very pleased to be presenting my work on interspecies seeing at the California Academy of Sciences. Their NightLife series, where the CAS becomes a 21+ venue for cocktail-fueled science, exhibits cutting-edge hands-on research to the public. Mingling scientists and community, the evening also offers access to their planetarium and living rainforest biosphere exhibit.


My exhibit will be on Interspecies Vision–a look at how other critters see the world, and how we can make sense of their sensory experience through the confines of our human-specific senses.

We’ll also be presenting the 4th yellow experiment: a yellow that only 2-10% of women can distinguish as different, based on the fact that instead of being trichromates like the rest of us (3 different types of color cones in their eyes), they actually have a fourth cone, making them tetrachromates capable of seeing a wider range of the visible color spectrum.

This after-hours museum-going made fun experience seeks to thrill with inquiry, curiousity, and the bizarre wonder of nature.



A Systems Approach to Dysfunction


One of the things that resonates the most about systems theory, is that it focuses on how different pieces of large puzzles interrelate and interlock. For, it is the inter aspect that gives phenomena movement, gusto, dynamism, spark. Speaking of things, essences, stuff, or problems, tends to slump description into the corner of inexorability, and worse, resignation.

When we look at climate change, war mongering, oil interests, urban design, transport diversity, and factory farming in concert, then suddenly, the intractable problems of each become much more tractable. The haze lifts, and the easy solutions abound. Instead of the Sisyphusian task of unravelling Gordian Knots (to mix my Greek metaphors), like Alexander the Great, we simply cut through it. With systems thinking, we cut through the lies, the bad habits, the greed, excuses, and story. We take care of what calls for attending, without the oppositionality, the rage, hate, or anger. We don’t even resent the system of destruction that has killed millions, and will likely kill billions more (not to mention the thousands of species extinct, priceless waterways despoiled, mountains detonated, etc.).

No, instead, a systems view asks: what is the most opportune point of intervention? Where can I (and we, because it is always a we, this I) most skillfully intervene now? What is the first step? And then: what is the next step after that?

Having a goal is important. We don’t want to make great time in the wrong direction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But, planning without action does little good to soothe our own anxieties, nor to shine as an examples. Nor does it form good habits, to think without acting, for we shall too soon grow content with such a pattern, forgetting the thrill of satisfaction when we follow through with a dedicated plan.

Paul Hawkins’ new book and ground-restoring Project Drawdown has made this plan, indicating the best points for intervention in our anthropo-patriarchal-colonialist-scene. This blueprint shows the problem, in its glorious complexity, and details what interventions will produce what results. México, the first developing country to take the lead in reducing emissions through a carbon trading plan, is working on an important component of drawing down CO2 from industrial producers. Of course, a carbon tax is much smarter policy than a cap-and-trade system, as most climate policy scientists agree. Nonetheless, such leadership as México’s will no doubt have a cascading effect on other developing and BRIC countries, as the rest of the world gains more power as climate leaders in the vacuum left by the Trump presidency. Brazil and China are already stepping up, in various ways, and the US may soon be an island, exceptional only because no other country wants to trade with it until it institutes strong sustainability policies.

Understanding the changing dynamics of international politics through US abdication of responsibility despite its role as the world’s largest economy, and 2nd largest polluter (likely first largest, when we include Chinese imports), helps contextualize the contemporary situation. While from a media-saturated point-of-view, Trump and co. are dead-set on bringing about the apocalypse, from an international perspective, the long-overdue transfer of power to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is simply being accomplished as these areas reduce trade with the US and stop looking to the US for guidance. What emerges from this transition will be exciting to watch. Perhaps an improved UN? Perhaps planetary citizenship, doing away with the need for climate refugees, instead implementing climate justice? Perhaps a new healthy form of regionalism? Perhaps reduced consumption? These exciting times promise nothing, but offer many exciting paths.