The Good Show – Radiolab

Did you know at one point in WWI the English and Germans on some front lines ceased fighting and hung out with one another for a week? Or how about the theory that being “good” or “altruistic” just might be encoded into our DNA? These are just some of the things featured this week in WNYC’s Radiolab podcast. For those of you unfamiliar with it, this podcast is both entertaining and informative, and the hosts have a wonderful rapport that is downright charming.

What I enjoyed most I would like to rephrase here with my own little spin on it. Robert Axelrod, professor at the University of Michigan, created a competition based on the prisoner’s dilemma thought experiment to determine which strategy would be best when dealing with complex situations like the Cuban Missile crisis. The tournament involved people who had written papers on the prisoner’s dilemma by asking them to compose computer programs on their theories. Each program would be played against every other strategy program 200 times. Points would accrue each “game” and at the end, one winner would arise. Here were some of the games mentioned in the podcast and their basic strategies:

  • Massive Retaliatory Strike: This program cooperates at first, but after the other program provokes it the MRS program continues to retaliate indefinitely regardless of how the other program responds.
  • Tester: This program basically creates a profile of its opponent through a series of tests. Provoke, learn, provoke, learn, cooperate, learn, and so on.

The winner had only 2 lines of code. It was called Tit for Tat. Here’s how it would behave:

  • First, be nice. (Apparently the word “nice” is in the code!) The program is never the first to incite a problem or confrontation.
  • Second, do equally in return whatever the other program does. So this means Tit for Tat never takes reparations from its opponent in the form of retaliation. It also means it is not a push-over. It doesn’t take the other program’s crap, but it always responds proportionally to the attack. In other words: it doesn’t over-react. And finally, the program goes back to hunky-dory land after that. Square one. Everything is A-OK. (Had enough of the cheesy phrases?! Ha!)

What is exciting about this post you may ask? Well, they theorize that if in a world full of retaliatory people the “nice” people can find one another, those people have a good chance of filling the world with their niceness (a.k.a. winning). Apparently this mode of interaction theoretically brings one the most advantages out in the real world!

Tit for Tat‘s rules reflect the exact actions I think one needs to maintain a pretty pleasant existence. The narrator Andrew Zolli cites the ideal combination of the two rules, saying that the best probable version of Tit for Tat is to be nice 90% of the time, and respond-in-kind 10% of the time. After all, sometimes a person is simply having a bad day and there’s no need to be one of those “right back atcha” kind of people. Why provoke one another when you could be on your merry way?

Thanks for reading and definitely check out the Radiolab podcast here (you can also subscribe for free on I-Tunes):

The Good Show – Radiolab.

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Fear and hookworms

from Wikimedia commons and Radiolab.org

Did I tell you I work a boring job? It’s good, don’t get me wrong. Benefits, decent pay for a recession. But it’s dull. Data entry. Is that all I have to say? I think so.  While I’m staring into my computer for those 40 weekly hours, I listen to my IPod and try not to think about the irreparable damage I’m doing to my eardrums. Recently I’ve become a huge fan of podcasts, and today listened for the first time to WNYC – Radiolab. On September 25, 2009 they did a segment on parasites (link to their page is here). I didn’t think I would like the subject, but ended up totally fascinated. Particularly I was interested in the story of Jasper Lawrence who suffered from ridiculous allergies which progressively worsened. Jasper tried everything it seemed, until he learned about the beneficial effects hookworms could have on illnesses like his. Determined to alleviate his pain, Jasper exposed his body to quite possibly the most disgusting environment imaginable so he could contract a healthy dose of hookworms. I won’t go into further detail–you can listen to the (free) podcast if you want to hear it! But within less than a year, Jasper went from allergy-attack victim (to the point of hospitalization), to nearly allergy-free!

The theory behind this “Helminthic Therapy” is that these little critters evolved with us, living in our digestive tracts where they could sustain themselves, and in turn offer us a little balance down there. But then we went and got all clean. You know: sanitation systems, clean water, bathing more than once every few weeks; and we ended our relationship with the sweet little parasite. Of course, back then it wasn’t so sweet–too much of them caused anemia, fatigue, malnourishment, and other issues. But what scientists have found is that these tiny guys may be the answer, or a very very effective treatment, to many disorders including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, allergies, asthma, IBS, lupus, and MS to name a few. The podcast asks, “Why aren’t people knocking down the doors of these treatment organizations to get some help?!” and one of the many reasons is the very old, but ever-new: fear.

And that’s what I’m writing about here. How many times has “fear” been the reason we haven’t done something? Something that would make us happy, make us feel better, solve a problem. I’m not just talking about infecting ourselves with hookworms either. Was there ever a person you were attracted to that you didn’t ask out on a date, for fear of being shot down? Or a job you didn’t apply for, because you didn’t know what you would do if you actually got it? There are so many reasons we generate for why we shouldn’t do something, and so few we acknowledge for why we should. And often, when we let fear rule our lives, we continue living in unhappy circumstances, being something we’re not, or being suppressed by some sort of liability (like Jasper’s allergies).

A good way to decide how to respond to fear is to ask yourself:

1. Are these fears based in anything tangible and logical? Do they have validity?

2. What are the odds that the “fear” would actually occur?

3. Is it a “safe” risk?

4. Will your actions hurt anyone in the process of being achieved?

5. What is worse: staying where you are now, or taking a risk and going for what makes you afraid?

Depending on your answers to these questions, you may be in a good position to make that move that causes you so much anxiety. Sometimes, however, the option isn’t worth the risk. But if I had an immune disorder, I think I’d take the hookworms.