science Pearls

Labmeeting rocks

I want to tell you a little about Labmeeting.  I work at Labmeeting.  Actually, thinking about it, I have too much to say about Labmeeting.  I cannot tell you everything in one post.  I will tell you a little bit at a time as I think of cool things to talk about.  Let me tell you about our goals.

First, understand that science is broken.  Not in the traditional sense.  Science has not been speeding along the freeway and then suddenly tore a gasket and broke down.  No.  Science is puttering along reliably as it has for decades, centuries.  Exactly as it has been.  No faster.

Yes, scientists do an incredible job of being on the cutting edge of technology while simultaneously pushing that edge further and further.  Nevertheless, it takes between months and years to publish interesting results.  Labmates email cumbersome PDF’s back and forth.  Literature search tools frustrate even the most patient of users.  Conferences help disseminate knowledge quickly, but not when abstracts lose themselves amidst a shuffle of papers and when fellow scientists’ contact information evaporates. Publishers almost seem to try to restrict access to fulltext research articles, so much so that the government must force them to share knowledge.   Graduate students find professors and professors find grad students by pure luck, not by targeted searches.  Professors spend little time at the lab bench due to the skyscraper of paperwork required for modern research grants.

At Labmeeting, we are well on our way to solving all of these problems and many more.  Science operates best when people can develop good ideas securely and communicate good ideas rapidly.  We created a platform to do both like nobody has ever seen before.

Thousands of biomedical scientists, both at top US Universities and smaller ones around the world, already use and love Labmeeting.  We want to help all researchers communicate and work more efficiently so that they can focus on what they do best: science.

over 9 years ago on December 23 at 12:21 am by Joseph Perla in entrepreneurship, personal, science

Blackberry Theory of Email Apathy

The Germ Theory of Disease saved billions of lives from early deaths.  It identified a root cause, as well as solutions, to the population-threatening problems of contagious diseases.



Today, email apathy plagues the workforce.  Whenever you send someone an email and he or she never replies to you, realize that you have been slashed by the sharp sickle of email apathy.  Recently, I have noticed an upward trend of email apathy from business colleagues and others.  After each click of the Send button, I think, “is my message going to a person or a black hole?”

The simpleton would argue that the large increase in the amount of both real email and spam makes it very difficult for someone to respond quickly even to legitimate emails.  A busy person loses even important emails among the piles of clutter in his inbox.  Certainly, the amount of email plays a factor, in the same way that stress plays a factor in exacerbating symptoms of a disease.

Blackberry Theory of Email Apathy

I hypothesize that the recent boom in handheld email devices, embodied in the Blackberry, iPhone, and other such tools, cause much email apathy.  But by what process?

Nominally, the Blackberry intends to improve efficiency of communication by instantaneously notifying you of a new email as soon as the sender clicks “Send.”  In fact, the recipient does feel the Blackberry gently vibrate with every incoming email, but he lacks increased communication.  In practice, the Blackberry owner skims the email on a tiny screen, understanding very little of the intended meaning.  If the email requires urgent action, at best the sender receives a curt reply tapped out awkwardly on a tiny keyboard by two fat thumbs.

Very often, the Blackberry user mentally notes to himself that he should reply to or act on the email at some point soon in the future, and then he forgets.  The sender receives notification that the Blackberry user even received the email.  Communication informational content quickly approaches zero.

How do we cure Email Apathy with knowledge of the Blackberry Theory?  Proper Getting Things Done process.  Perhaps non-instantaneous email triaging.  Who knows.  Just please reply to my email.

over 9 years ago on July 26 at 3:57 am by Joseph Perla in science

Learn 100 digits of pi at lightning speed

Learn 100 digits of pi at lightning speed.

In a previous post, I wrote about the Secret to Pi.  I wrote about the method I used to learn 100 digits of pi in under an hour and remember them days later without extra practice.

While memorizing the digits of pi using this method, I realized that I was spending most of my time trying to think up words that would translate to the digits.  I tried to think of the longest word I could.  Sometimes I would screw up and use a word that did not translate to the correct digits.  I spent 2/3rds of my time just thinking of good words, images, vivid pictures.  It was hard and slow.

So, I decided to make a computer program to find the words and optimize everything for me.  I did, and I’m releasing the code under Affero GP.  Of course, all the code is PYthon2.5.  Please allow me describe it to you.  With the words precomputed, I can learn pi as quickly as I can tell a story!

At the top above, I linked to a page which I generated automatically using these libraries I’m releasing.

There are a few libraries.  They all require NLTK.  NLTK is an excellently-designed, well-developed, actively-maintained open-source natural language parsing library.  It has many (nearly 1GB of) corpora.

First, is a script.  We need to automatically generate a good, long list of concrete nouns for you to have strong images and remember the story of pi visually. It uses the CMUDict Pronunciation Corpus which is in nltk.corpus.cmudict.  It also uses the wordnet corpus in nltk.wordnet.  The script does some intelligent processing to filter out archaic words, curse words, and abstract nouns.  Run at the command line to create a nouns.csv file, or just download my copy in the repo.  50-75% are very good, concrete, vivid nouns for this purpose.  If you can help me get a higher percentage/more good nouns, please tell me.

Second, there is is a library (import soundmap) that you can use to convert a word or phrase into the corresponding digits.  To be perfectly flexible, it loads a file which describes how to match which sounds to which digits.  I provided the sounds.csv file which is the one I use.  I haven’t tried to figure out what would be the optimal configuration yet, but maybe you can :) .  This also uses the CMUDict Pronunciation corpus (of course).  Call soundmap.convert_to_digits(phrase) to have it return a string of digits.

Finally, there is is a library that takes in a string of digits (such as the digits in pi) and uses the nouns.csv list of nouns and to figure out the optimal sequence of words for people to remember that sequence of digits.  It also has a couple hundred digits of the famed constant inside the library: mapwords.pi.  Simply call mapwords.get_best_mapping(mapwords.pi) for it to return a list of words.

You can put all these together and quickly learn thousands of digits of pi.  Here’s a great page with many digits to throw into the program.

over 9 years ago on March 14 at 12:01 am by Joseph Perla in art, hacks, science, technology

The Secret to Pi

NEW: I created a website designed designed to teach you dozens of digits of pi in minutes using this secret method. If you want more digits, I also open-sourced the code.

Tomorrow, around the country, schools and universities will be celebrating the ratio pi (π).  Students and professors will eat blueberry pies, talk about math, and hold contests.  The pie-eating contests look like fun.

(photo by becw)

Another large part of the festivities are pi recitation contests.  In these competitions, students face off against one another attempting to see who can recite the most consecutive digits of pi starting at 3.14.  A number of schools have them.  The Daily Princetonian, from my alma mater, reported on a contest few years ago where one student recited a couple hundred digits of pi.  Harvard’s Crimson reported on a student last year who recited more than 1000 digits of pi in one sitting.  Even elementary school kids have these contests on March 14th.

Last year, FOX News interviews some students about the significance of these contests.  “Bryan Owens, an MIT senior, says the ability to recite pi is a sort of bragging right, a coin of the realm.”  Math geeks wear the number of digits of pi they know as a symbol of pride. Some people become obsessed: “In 2004 Umile read the digits of pi into a
tape recorder. He did it a thousand at a time and gave it a rhythm _
some numbers high-toned, some low. He listened to the tape constantly. This went on for two years. A two-year trance.”

Two years.  I say, a waste.  I know the Secret to Pi. I have learned 100 digits of pi in under an hour with perfect recall a day later.  That includes overhead of learning the secret, so now I can learn at the rate of 100 digits of pi every 20-30 minutes.

The secret:

First, you must leverage human psychology.  Understand that you can only remember so many things.  Furthermore, human beings evolved an incredible capacity for remembering some pieces of information, but not others.  We have a weak capacity for numbers, strings of digits.  They are unnatural.  However, we have a strong capability for remembering images, and a large number of images.  You can close your eyes and see your childhood home, even imagine walking through it clearly.  In particular, we remember vivid, unique images.  You will remember and recognize the picture above with the pied woman’s face, because you do not see that everyday.

You also have good short-term auditory memory.  That is why it might be easy for you to learn 10 digits of pi very quickly, since you just replay your auditory memory of the digits, but you forget them just a day (or an hour) later.  Stories and images, however, stick with you.  You can imagine most of Harry Potter’s long journey from beginning to end.  How do we take advantage of our natural gifts?


  • Associate words and hard, concrete images with numbers.
    Take any word with a strong visual image. For each hard consonant sound in the word, associate a digit to that sound. Ignore the vowel sounds. Use the key that is on Tim Ferriss’s excellent blog post on the topic.
  • Associate the digits of pi with a list of words. [3.]1415 926 becomes TREADWHEEL BANJO.
  • Make a story with the words, in oder. Make it wacky. The more offbeat, the easier to remember. Imagine the story vividly.
    (Or use the method of loci; just don’t run out of locations!).
  • Recite pi: simply remember the words in order, then translate each word into the corresponding digits.

So, instead of trying to remember chunks of numbers, and how chunks of numbers relate to other chunks of numbers, you just remember a story.  Imagine you are on a farm, pushing a TREADWHEEL very hard with your own hands (for some reason, remember the zanier the easier to remember;  the droll is forgettable).  You’re sweating from the work, but the sweet farm fresh air keeps you going.  Suddenly, somebody comes in playing a BANJO, playing your favorite song.  And so on.

Instead of imagining a story, you can use the method of loci. This method involves imagining vividly a location you already know very well, such as your home.  Imagine walking through, very clearly, and identify objects one by one.  For example, imagine your kitchen.  You start walking in, the first thing on your left is a CLOCK, then a CUTTING BOARD, then a REFRIGERATOR, then a MICROWAVE, etc.  Finally, associate each word in your list of words with each word in your kitchen, in order.  So imagine a TREADWHEEL CLOCK, then a BANJO where you can cut vegetables like a CUTTING BOARD.  Now, to recite pi, just imagine walking through your kitchen.  You will first see a CLOCK, but you will also immediately think of a TREADWHEEL.  Then you take a step and see your CUTTING BOARD, reminding you of BANJO.  You can use this method to remember any kind of list.

Finally, use the key to translate a word into the sequence of digits in pi.  TREADWHEEL is 1415, and BANJO is 926, so those are the numbers in 3.1415926… And just continue on that way.

Not only do you learn the digits more easily, but also you remember them for weeks without a refresher, and re-learning becomes an easy game of recalling the story just once for a few minutes.

Moreover, this method is overall less taxing on your brain.  You use up less of your mental space (although I think you have more than you will ever need).  To memorize 100 digits of pi, you need only remember 1 story, composed of 40 words, instead of 100 digits.

Finally, learning to recite pi this way becomes useful for remembering other numbers or lists of numbers.  If you ever have to remember a very long number, just break it up into a few words and remember those.

I want to demistify pi memorization.  Although people may treat it that way, it is no more a measure of real intelligence than the SAT or Stanford-Binet.  You can learn a few hundred digits of pi tomorrow morning, go to a pi recitation contest, and blow everyone out of the water.  When people say how smart you are, just tell them you how easily you learned hundreds in a few hours, and how they can too.

over 9 years ago on March 13 at 11:25 pm by Joseph Perla in hacks, science

Overcoming Bias

Overcoming Bias is the best blog on the Internet today. You should subscribe to it immediately. Whether you are a student, engineer, waitress, philosopher, or as long as you have and use a brain, you should read this blog regularly.

Overcoming Bias explains wrong thinking in science and everyday life. They often point to an article or cite personal examples, then they explain the intellectual mistakes that led to the false conclusion. More importantly, they explain why people so easily make these intellectual mistakes. The authors suggest new ways to think about the world to prevent you from making the same kinds of mistakes.

They point to peer-reviewed research to compare the systematic biases that people have discovered over time. The articles are information-rich, focused, poignant, and valuable. They are not always right, but never are they shallow. They always think deeply about the topic. If, while reading one of their articles, you can construct a simple counterexample to disprove the claim, then you are misreading it. Read it again until you understand.

The authors write amazingly clearly and unambiguously. I was surprised by this, given the range of topics. The comments are of an unusually high-quality (when reddit doesn’t link to them). I’m lucky to have come across the blog. I’ll look forward to every post, especially to those written by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

over 10 years ago on December 9 at 5:50 pm by Joseph Perla in ethics, life, science


Peter Norvig wrote a great article on how to recognize common flaws in published research.

Norvig mentions Seth Roberts, a noted self-experimenter. He espouses an unorthodox form of scientific investigation: self-experimentation. He maintains a public blog detailing his various experiments and results. It’s a unique approach that I’d like to adopt.

over 10 years ago on October 21 at 5:31 pm by Joseph Perla in science

Memory Experiment

I was thinking about it, and I realize that I made a really big claim in my discussion of memory. Although I did search for some scientific or expert knowledge on the veracity of my claims before I published the post, I found nothing very solid.

Nevertheless, my claim is specific enough to be verifiable. I should be able to test it.

My claim: suppose that I have something I want to remember called X, I hypothesize that writing down X discourages my mind from remembering X. Furthermore, not writing down X encourages me to remember X, while simultaneously training my mind to remember other things similar to X.

If I cannot find any literature on this, I should be able to design an experiment and verify that what I’m saying is true. It might not be. It might be spectacularly false. Maybe I just had a good memory after all and I just never tried to use it before. I prefer to think that everyone’s memory is on about an equal level, but I moreso prefer to know the truth.

I will think about a way to design a controlled experiment that tries to eliminate all confounding variables, test it, then publish results here.

over 10 years ago on October 16 at 3:39 pm by Joseph Perla in science

Howdy, my name is Joseph Perla. Former VP of Technology, founding team, Entrepreneur. Actor. Writer. Art historian. Economist. Investor. Comedian. Researcher. EMT. Philosophe

Twitter: @jperla

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