Notes from a great conference

Ali Binazir 2012-03-08

I just came out of a four-day conference (which shall remain nameless), and it was such a life-affirming, mind-expanding, invigorating experience that I thought I would share my notes.  I got doused by a downpour of novel ideas from disparate fields in the many talks I attended.  Here’s a sampling, in no particular order:


There are no diacritical marks (representing vowels) in the Hebrew Torah – it’s all consonants.  As a result, any reading of the Torah is effectively an act of interpretation.


  • The most efficient way to tile a 2-dimensional surface is a hexagon.  It has the best ratio of boundary to surface, or uses the least amount of ‘ink’ per surface area as you draw the cells on paper.  The honeycomb exemplifies this in nature.  Although for hundreds of years mathematicians have intuitively known this to be true, it was only in 1998 that Thomas Hales proved it mathematically.
  • Until recently, the most efficient way to tile a 3-dimensional space was a Kelvin cell – a modified 3-D hexagon.  Then in 1994, Weaire-Phelan cells came along and beat the Kelvin cell’s efficiency by 0.03%.

Problem-solving and creativity

  • Improve your thinking and creativity by making deliberate mistakes.  Then, ask yourself, “If this is the wrong way, what’s the right way?”
  • Second, exaggerate: how would you go about solving this problem if you had no constraints of time or money?  That will yield some useful insights.
  • Third, invert the problem to come up with novel solutions.  If traffic’s problem is that the destination is more fun than the traffic, what if we were to make the traffic more fun than the destination?  What if you had great books on tape that you really enjoyed listening to in traffic?  Then it wouldn’t be as much of a problem.
  • Fourth, use all ideas.  A mistaken answer for one problem may be the correct answer for another.  As one wise person said, “The time to work on a problem is after you solve it.” What are the chances that your insight only applies to that one measly problem you were working on?  So go forth and find some applications.


  • After battle exposure, officers get post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at dramatically lower rates than enlisted soldiers.
  • Experimentally, hypnosis can alter your dominant sense of time orientation and take it from future-oriented (ant) to present-oriented (grasshopper).
  • There are at least four types of charisma: authority (exemplified by Obama), kindness (e.g. Dalai Lama), visionary (Steve Jobs) and focus (Bill Clinton).  Each can be learned, and you can turn them on or off depending on the situation.

Psychology of love and relationships

  • Adrenaline mediates feelings of attraction.  As a result, many women end up going for dominant, intimidating men who scare them a little, mistaking the feeling for attraction.  This isn’t always good.  Instead, it’s useful for a couple to be aware of this phenomenon and use it to recalibrate and rejuvenate their relationship by engaging in exciting activities together.
  • Marrying for love is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history.
  • John Gottman’s studies show that successful responses to a spouse’s bids for attention are the best indicator of marital success.  Example of a bid: wife’s reading the paper and says, “Wow, that’s interesting!” (the bid) and the husband says, “What’s interesting, honey?” (the response).  Couples who have an 80-85% positive response rate basically don’t get divorced.  Even a 50% bid response rate augurs a rapidly rising divorce rate.
  • Marital satisfaction for men correlates with how much sex he gets and how little criticism he gets.  For women, it correlates with how sensitive he is to her emotional cues and how much housework he does.  There’s a certain complementarity to this, in that the more housework a man does, the less her wife nags him.

Keeping your brain young

  • Playing first-person shooter video games can reduce mistakes by surgeons.
  • Travel, new language acquisition, taking a different route to work, and brushing your teeth with the non-dominant hand are ways of waking up your brain and keeping it cognitively fit.
  • Women should let their husbands talk more because men are most at risk for losing their verbal abilities as they age.  Men should let their wives drive more because women are most at risk of losing their visuospatial abilities as they age.
  • The best thing you can do to keep your brain sharp is to walk briskly 30min per day.  You gain the maximum benefit at around 40min/day.  There’s no additional benefit beyond 60min/day of exercise.
  • Social contact is the second most protective agent against cognitive decline. People who have 5 or more close social ties have half the cognitive decline of those who have fewer than five.
  • Smoking doubles the rate of dementia later in life.  Even a casual cigarette or cigar is highly deleterious.
  • Water and cosmetics can contain lead.  Use a PUR water filter (better than Brita), and check the cosmetic products you use against the Cosmetics Database.
  • A Mediterranean diet has been shown to be the best for protecting against cognitive decline.  Think 7-9 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables a day.  Juices don’t count; eat the whole fruit or vegetable.  Wild fish and sardines are good.
  • Green tea is the best for improving brain function.  Oolong tea is second.
  • Texting while driving increases accident rates by a factor of 23! You may as well be driving while completely wasted off your ass.
  • A person on average fails to notice a sudden event while driving – eg kid jumping in front of car – around 30% of the time. That goes up to 90% when you’re on the phone, so you’re better off not talking at all, hands-free or not.
  • Relaxation is a key to optimal brain function.  This means meditating or doing absolutely nothing for at least 10min.
  • Getting slimmer improves brain function.  Measure progress by waist size, not weight.
  • Have a positive emotional outlook.  Read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.

Mycology (the study of mushrooms)

  • Fungi have ruled the earth twice: once during the Permian-Triassic (P-T) extinction 250 million years ago, and once again at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction 65 million years ago.  At these extinctions, sunlight could not get through the atmosphere and most organisms perished while fungi flourished.
  • Oyster mushrooms can break down petroleum-based oils (like motor oil) embedded in soil, taking levels from 20,000ppm to 200 ppm
  • Other fungi have shown to be hyperaccumulators of heavy metals, sequestering heavy isotopes like Cs-137 from the ecosystem.
  • A mycelium network visually resembles a network of neurons.
  • Agarikon, red reishi and chaga mushrooms have high activity against viruses.  In combination, they are more active than ribavirin against influenza virus
  • Cordyceps subsessilis and Cordyceps sinensis have immune-modulating activities that make them candidates for use in organ transplantation and multiple sclerosis treatment, respectively.
  • Turkey tail mushroom capsules as an adjunct to traditional breast cancer chemotherapy mediated dramatic remissions and multiyear survival for some late-stage cancer cases with otherwise bleak prognoses (3 month survival or less).

This represents but a fraction of what transpired, and I’m deeply grateful to the organizers for creating such a lovely environment conducive to the free exchange of ideas and connections.