NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Thursday, February 15, 2018 [Full link to blog for email clients.]

My Brain is Full
The human brain is not a computer, but yes, it really does store, represent and retrieve information!

About two years ago, Dr. Robert Epstein penned an essay for AEON entitled "The Empty Brain." []  Dr. Epstein is a research psychologist, and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today.  In the essay, Epstein started off decrying the modern, casual attempt to equate the functions of the human brain with modern digital computers.  A computer has physical memory representation and processes information in a manner prescribed by algorithms. The human brain, in contrast, lacks physically identifiable memory structures, has no fixed algorithms, and cannot perform the functions attributed to computer "processing."

In short, his logic amounts to:  you can open up a computer and find each function physically represented.  I might quibble with that, but he has a valid point as he continues to say that the human brain has no central processor, no "clock," no memory core, and you cannot find a physical representation of any of the information that the brain utilizes in its function. So we should stop using terminology appropriate to a computer in referring to the function of the brain. The article seems to resurface in social media every 4-6 months, and every time it does so, I get called in to comment, or get drawn into a discussion of why the basic premise: "The brain is not a computer" is true, but nearly everything else in the article is at best, misinformed, and at worst, junk science.

Generally speaking, the first thing that happens in these discussions is that commenters tend to denigrate the "soft-science" profession of psychology and the specific qualifications of the author.  I like to avoid that, because psychology is a very useful tool in the neurosciences, it's just that I feel the author has insulated himself from the "hard-science" findings of neurophysiology, neurology and neurosurgery.  If Dr. Epstein had had a colleague in Neuroscience read the essay, he would likely have been told that many of his illustrations and examples of his premise are incorrect or misleading.

On the other hand, it may be that he felt that the actual neurophysiological findings were too technical for a lay audience, and he wished simply to concentrate on the central premise -- the brain is not a computer - with simple explanations.  After all, he was editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, a publication that distills psychological research and development into articles with broad appeal across both the sciences and lay audience.  Such distillation requires that an article be understandable by readers with an education well below the MD or PhD level, and much scientific rigor and accuracy can be lost in translation.

Or it may simply be the approach of psychology as a field.  As a neuroscience researcher, I am interested in the function of the brain -- human or otherwise.  Having been trained initially in physiology & pharmacology, I tend to take a very mechanistic view.  I also work with Neurologists and Neurosurgeons as part of my day-job, and their viewpoint differs from mine.  They may be more mechanism oriented in some ways (what brain area connects with another; what happens when I cut in this place; why is this area acting abnormally), and less detail oriented in others (not necessarily interested in whether this single cell is connected to another). 

Psychology, however, frequently takes a different approach, concentrating on the external evidence of brain function.  Thus, a psychologist would be much more oriented upon whether a patient can remember a string of numbers than whether those numbers actually have some form of representation in the brain.  This is actually an approach often taken by modelers who use a "Black Box" nonlinear systems approach to the brain.  For a nonlinear model, it is not necessary to map every single connection and modulation, but rather to define the input and output patterns of a given system.  From these, it is possible to calculate nonlinear mathematical solutions which can transform input to output.  It's a useful type of model when the actual detail is so utterly computational complicated that a detailed model is unworkable using current technology.  Epstein's essay clearly relies on such a conceptual approach, but ignores that fact that Neuroscientists do know much of the detail of how the brain processes and encodes information. 

I therefore propose that aside from the central premise -- that the human brain is not a computer -- many of the examples and conclusions in the essay are biased by the author's own field and approach to brain function and neglects or ignores experimental evidence to the contrary.  As for my secondary concerns regarding the validity of Dr. Epstein's essay, I will simply state that he should have consulted colleagues in the more biological/organic corners of the Neuroscience field before making his claims and formulating his conclusion.

This is actually familiar territory for me.  SF congoers who attended the LibertyCon 27 convention in Chattanooga, TN in 2014 may recall a rather heated discussion involving myself and physicist and SF author Dr. Travis S. Taylor. Guests tended to gather around the pool in the late evening, and discussion topics range widely... and wildly.  I had been asked by many people to comment on Taylor's "quantum connection" theory of the mind.  The short form of the theory is that some of the "unexplainable" phenomena of the mind (attraction, common interest, prayer/positive thinking, etc.) could be explained by a quantum connection, and further, Taylor proposed that neurofilaments and neurotubules in brain cells could serve as "antennae" to pick up this quantum signal.  Taylor's usual explanation for the phenomenon included the challenge: "Do you like beer?  Why or why not?  You can't explain that.  It's unknowable with conventional science." - my response:  "Yeah, I can pinpoint the preference right down to the specific molecules making up the taste receptors in the tongue. Anything you propose, I can explain with conventional physics and Neuroscience."  It was a fun and amicable argument, and we actually concluded that I think his idea of a quantum connection is interesting and could be true, but largely untestable.  The problem simply being the selection of the wrong examples for his premise.

Which takes us back to the AEON essay:  Dr. Epstein entreats his readers to stop using a flawed analogy for the function of the human brain; thus, the human brain is not a computer.  However, in the process, Epstein uses many other flawed analogies to support his conclusion that there is neither "representation" nor "processing" of information in the brain.  The problem is that while we may not have a discrete identifiable location for memory storage -- the truth is that neuroscientists can observe the phenomena of memory processing in very real ways.  Thus the analogies used to counter a flawed analogy are themselves flawed.  The initial premise is correct (within certain bounds) but his examples and conclusions are faulty.

So let's take this apart:   First, the brain is not a computer.  We actually had this discussion in a graduate student class yesterday.  I agree.  The brain is not a computer - at least, not a digital one.  Rather, the brain is closest to an analog computer, but even that is a flawed analogy.  One of my favorite thought experiments is to consider that the brain acts as if it were a steampunk analog calculator... but that's a topic for another blog!  [] There is no central processing unit, no "memory core", no "clocks" that synchronize computation steps, and no place in the brain where one could "open it up and see the information." 

The first problem to crop up in the analogy is that one could counter that it is not possible to "see" a representation of memory in a computer, either.  Absent the tools to measure current running through semiconductors and resistors, and charge held in capacitors, it is not possible to see the representation of a picture or any other information content in a computer.  Even then, one does not simply see a color, a line or an object.  Instead, the computer stores bits--ones and zeros, represented by presence and/or absence of voltage, current, or charge--and those bits represent other information such as color, shading, presence or absence of lines or shapes.  On its own, the computer representation also not a "picture," although it can be argued that there is a discrete storage location for the information.
As for there not being a "representation" of memory information in the brain, one need only look at the evidence that the visual and auditory cortex of the brain are organized into groups of brain cells that only respond to a single visual (i.e. line, rotation, position, color) or auditory (frequency, movement, location) feature of the respective sense.  These are highly topographic mappings of information onto the structure and function of the brain.

But let's take it one step further:  My colleague Jack Gallant at UC Berkeley [] would certainly argue that the brain does indeed store and represent a recognizable pattern for pictures and visual scenes.  In 2011, Dr. Gallant published a study in which his team identified brain signals that corresponded to visual scenes in memory.  Using an MRI scanner to track blood and oxygen usage in the brain at resolutions down to cubic millimeters of brain tissue, the team created a "library" of brain activity patterns that resulted when a person looked at particular pictures.  Later, the same subjects were told to "daydream" a scene involving some or all of the pictures.  Gallant's team was able to identify a "movie" of the daydream constructed from human brain patterns.  As the subject imagined each scene in their daydream, the team compared the resulting brain patterns with the library of patterns correlated with previously viewed images.  The identified pictures were placed in sequence, and compared to the subject's report of their daydream with a very high correlation between the two.  Thus Gallant and I would argue that here is evidence that the human brain does both store and represent memory information in the brain.
Unlike a computer, the storage location is not fixed, and the "storage medium" is not standardized.  Still, there are identifiable patterns within the brain that correspond to the stored--i.e. remembered--information.  Furthermore, there is ample evidence that such information is "processed."

A particular region of the brain, the hippocampus, is involved in the processing of memory in all species of mammals, with a similar structure fulfilling the same function in reptiles and birds.  Animals and humans with damage to this part of the brain have difficulty formulating new memories, and may also have difficult retrieving memories.  In 1971, researchers John O'Keefe and Jonathan Dostrovsky noticed that certain cells in the hippocampus of rats were active only when the rat was in a particular position in the cage or test chamber [].  The finding led to nearly 50 years of research into "place cells" in the hippocampus, which correlate their activity with various elements of location.  Cells have been identified with preferences to corners, edges, head directions, body directions, and both future and past movements.  The more cells are recorded from a single subject, the more detailed a "cognitive map" of the environment can be created from the activity of these neurons.  Furthermore, the "map" may disappear or reorganize when the subject moves to a new environment, room, chamber or cage, but will reappear in the original form when returned to the original environment.  Thus, a representation of place exists in the hippocampus, and moreover, it is a memory of a representation, since it can completely disappear and be re-formed in the original format.  Place cells and place fields have been identified in mice, rats, gerbils, cats, dogs, monkeys and even humans, demonstrating that this is a function associated with the physical nature of the brain, and not just an "emergent" phenomenon of human cognition.

In 1994, Matt Wilson and Bruce McNaughton demonstrated that place cells were not only involved in a physical representation, but that they were an important component of memory [].  Utilizing a track that limited a rat's movement through the environment to specific lanes--and hence a specific sequence of activating various place cells, the team demonstrated that the same cells were activated during sleep in the same sequence as when the animal had passed through them in the test session.  By making the rat's behavior and reward dependent on remembering a previous sequence of movement, and then manipulating whether this sleep-replay could occur, Wilson, McNaughton and their colleagues were eventually able to demonstrate that the replay was an important phase of memory formation.  If the spatial information was to be remembered, it had to be replayed during sleep!

One of the major questions raised by both the scientists studying place cells, and the outsiders looking in, was that there was (evidently) no clock, no map, and no coordinate system driving the representation of spatial position in the brain.  Then in 2005, Edvard and May-Britt Moser and their teams reported that neurons in another part of the brain--the entorhinal cortex, which lies "upstream" from the hippocampus--had neurons which fired in a regular grid pattern throughout the environment [].  While not a square representation analogous to the Cartesian coordinates of a world map, the "Grid cells" nevertheless formed a triangular or hexagonal spatial mapping which could serve as the basis for the hippocampal place cells!

So, with just a few examples, we shoot down the "no representation," "no storage," "no controller" and even the "no processing" portions of the AEON articles premise.  In yet another example, of identifying computer or electronic-like functions of the brain, Dale Purves published an article in 1996 that began to lend credence to the concept that the human brain had a function analogous to a CPU clock-cycle [].  Most people have viewed a demonstration of the stroboscopic effect: if a bright light is flashed on a moving object, it can appear to be still. Photographers use it to create stop-action images that reveal the wonders of nature: the beat of a hummingbird's wing, popping a balloon, a drop of water. It is the basic mechanism of a movie film and video.  A sequence of images projected in a stroboscopic manner can create the illusion of motion.  Other illusions are also possible, as seen in the "wagon wheel effect" in which video of a moving object appears to rotate backward because the "frame rate" of the video (or the original photography) does not match the rate of rotation. 

Picture a wagon wheel with 12 spokes.  If the motion of the wheel is captured exactly at, say, 4 times the speed of revolution, the spokes will always be in the same orientation, so playback of those photos makes it appear that the wheel is standing perfectly still.  If the capture speed is slightly slower, the spokes turn a slight additional amount with each photo, and the playback looks as if the wheel is rotating forward.  If the capture speed is slightly faster than rotation, the spokes move less with each capture, and in playback, the wheel appears to be moving backward.  It's the same principle that caused video of CRT-style computer screens to have scan lines and dark bands: the screens typically refreshed at 30 or 60 times per second, but pre-HD video capture was at 29.97 times per second.

Purves research demonstrated that even in continuous light--i.e., no strobes, no frames--the human brain can sometimes perceive a "wagon-wheel effect."  To summarize a lot  of further research, the human brain acts as if it has a 10-times-per-second "frame rate."  Furthermore, we know from various Neuroscience experiments, that the mammalian brain relies on many basic "rhythms" (at roughly 4, 6, 12, 20 and 40 Hz) that can act similarly to a clock function for the brain.  They are not quite computer-like, for they are highly variable, and in fact, one of the key flexibilities of the human brain is the ability to alter certain rhythms with conscious and unconscious control.

With these examples, we've pretty much shot down the corollary statements to Dr. Epstein's premise.  But what about his example of the flawed memory of a $1 bill?  We know that there are many artists and individuals who can draw, paint, sculpt and create beautiful detail from memory.  This is perhaps the easiest of his demonstrations to shoot down.  The example shown is simply less effective memory and offers no "proof" to the lack of representation in the brain, whereas I have provided four very real examples above--including literature citations--which disprove Epstein's claims.  As stated from the start, his counter to a flawed analogy is to simply trot out more flawed analogies.

No, the brain is not a computer.  It's better! The brain is a wonderful thing filled with emergent properties and untapped potential.  Thinking of it as a computer is... limited... not flawed.  There are many features of the brain which inspire and direct our current computer technology from parallel computing, to neural networks, quantum computing and a renewed appreciation of analog systems.

But to say that the brain is not a computer, and then to follow that statement with conditions that can easily be disproven by recourse to experimental evidence outside one's own field is parochial, misguided, and misleading.  We live in a society that all too often doubts scientific professionals because of the flaws in communication.

As professionals, we must do better than that. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Survey help requested [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

One of our laboratory projects is looking at brain signals that support memory.  We use a delayed memory task as our test, and in the task the subjects are asked to look at many different "clip-art" and photographic images, and then indicate which pictures they have previously seen in the course of testing. 

To better understand how the brain "encodes" such information, we categorize each picture according to a number of different features and characteristics - is it a cartoon? Photograph?  Silhouette or drawing?  Is it in color or black & white - if color, which colors?  Are there certain recognizable features or items visible in the picture? However, we are certain that different people will categorize the pictures in different ways.  Thus, before we can use these categories or classifications in a study, we need to conduct a survey of as many people as possible to find the most likely common classifications. 

Thanks to the Hampson Laboratory Webpage (, we have created a survey of 500 pictures that we use in our study.  We are asking volunteers to go to that page and take a survey in which we ask for classification of 25 images.  There are instructions and hints on the first page (; clicking on "Take the Survey" will bring up random set of 25 pictures.  You enter your responses by licking next to the appropriate features that you see in the image.  We know that the preselected research categories are not necessarily a perfect match to the contents of all pictures, but choose the closest match from the list of options.  At the end of the page, "Submit" the Survey, and your responses will be written to our server.  You can also click on "Take Another Survey" (and we hope you will!)  and the webpage will return to the beginning where you can click on "Take the Survey" to see a new page of 25 pictures.

The survey is completely anonymous - only the picture identification and 1's or 0's representing your choices are recorded (you can briefly see the data in the box on the Submit page).  Unlike an earlier version of the survey, there is no need for email or cutting and pasting the results; everything is automatic.  All of the pictures in the survey are purchased or used under fair use, non-commercial research purposes only.  Your data contains no personal information.  We conduct no diagnosis or analysis of the people taking the survey, and the data is used solely to develop anonymous population classifications that will be used for another study. 

We're hoping you take the survey more than once (i.e. more than one page of 25 pictures); we have 500 different pictures, and 20 different surveys.  You can choose your survey page by bypassing the default screen and editing the URL to read: , ...v2Survey2.html, ...v2Survey3.html, etc. through  ...v2Survey20.html.  Again, all results are logged on our server automatically. 

Thank you for participating in the survey.  I appreciate your help. 

-Tedd Roberts / Rob Hampson

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

...In which I "Hulk-out" on a conspiracy theory... [Full link to blog for email clients.]

I *really* try not to get drawn into discussions like this... as the man said, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry...

However, a friend posted this: 

[Image by the Skeptical Meme Society, shared by Dr. Mehmet Oz on Facebook.]

...and immediately ended up with people saying that there *were* conspiracies, and all it took was a few people at the top of the company, or a few peer reviewers, or sprinkling around some of the billions in profits...

So, I got a bit heated.  Here is my response:

First, most pharma companies have minimal laboratory facilities for advanced drug testing. If it takes animal research these days, it's largely done via Material Transfer Agreement and a Research Services contract to a university lab. In the long run, it is cheaper to contract out the work on a fee-for-service basis than to invest in the infrastructure and personnel to maintain all of the possible labs that are needed in the course of testing.

So there's no secret underground lair in the heart of an extinct volcano where the demon Big Pharma threatens investigative journalists with the piranha tank in order to keep the deep dark secret cures away from the public! To believe otherwise is really a condemnation of one's own rationale thought processes and education.

Those same universities have a research publication policy - if you've ever heard of "publish or perish" it applies to the research contracts, too. No university would agree to contract terms that prevent a scientist from publishing *any* results they obtain - it doesn't matter if they are positive or negative. I was once in a contract negotiation where the funding company wanted a 36-month embargo on publication to protect their process trade secrets - the university would not agree to the terms, and we did not get the contract. You see, agreement to the terms would have jeopardized the tax-exempt/non-profit status of the university.

So, no, there's no big conspiracy to keep cures away from the public. ...And no, it's not possible for only the people at the top to know about a cure and keep that secret - frankly, the people at the very top don't know that much - they are upper level managers. The scientists that do all of the development work are in middle management, with lab techs under them (who know of the results) and bosses above them (who also know the results).

As for Big Pharma profits - someone in the facebook thread read a profit-loss statement and commented on billions in profits - they do not go into some huge Scrooge McDuck giant vault where the CEO can sleep on a bed of gold coins at night! Profits go back into the company - they pay dividends to shareholders, they pay bonuses - yes, to the CEO - but also to most everyone who works for the company.

For John Ringo's The Last Centurion, I gave him a number (in 2007) of $2,000,000,000 to bring a new drug to market. Today, that's more like $10,000,000,000 (that's ten *billion* dollars, just for one new drug). That money has to come from someone-somewhere. It doesn't come from the president's magic pocket where he keeps "his" money to pay for all of those special programs like the so-called "Obama phones" (actually, he keeps those in his *other* pocket). No, that money comes from the sales of other products by the company - and that means the prior profits. Those profits are what exists after taxes, and thus reported on annual financial reports. Capital investment in the company is *also* post-taxes, so you have to really dig down to find out how that profit is distributed and re-invested in the next stage of the company.

Oh, and by the way, the shareholders are not money-grubbing elites eating up all the wealth stolen off the backs of the laborers - A company has a stock issue when they want to do something that requires investment - build a new lab, hire more people, try a new market - and they don't have the cash *now* to do it. So, they sell stock to people who *do* have the cash *now*. That way they raise way more cash than they could get with a bank loan. Later, once the investment pays off, they pay out to the investors - with interest, because that's what you do when people loan you money. However, in the public sector - when someone loans you money, they need some form of collateral to hold until the loan is paid off. In the case of stock, that is a small ownership share in the company. Stockholders are not merely investors, they are *owners* (and in many cases, they are also employees) and so they *do* deserve a cut of the profits (and frankly, it's a pretty small cut per stock).

What's also not obvious in the profit-and-loss statements is the cost of doing business in the global community - see, governments like to minimize prescription costs when *they* are paying - foreign aid, nationalized medicine, Congressional perks - any time a lower-than-cost price is negotiated. When a drug is new, the cost is high to recoup that $10 billion investment. Once patents expire and the drug goes generic, or *competitive drugs are released, all chance of recouping costs are over - so it makes sense to recoup those costs early. But international agreements often limit drug costs - plus Pharma companies are often "encouraged" (or blackmailed) into provide free or steeply discounted drugs for humanitarian reasons. China, frankly, steals the formula and copies it - and they aren't the only ones. Even our dear friends north of the border (i.e. the government of C-eh?-N-eh?-D-eh?) are on record as having told several U.S. pharmaceutical companies that they *would* provide drugs at the price the Canadian governemnt demanded - or else they government would allow Canadian generics manufacturers to violate the International Patent and produce cheap (in more ways than one) drugs.

So yeah, drug companies make profits, and still Americans pay higher prices for drugs than Canada, Mexico, China, Japan - but that's largely because our legal system limits the extent to which the government and healthcare can criminally extort those same companies.

Regarding those "magic" cures out there - I fight this all the time with medical marijuana claims. Let me state right out, that there are many positive medicinal benefits that the Medical Field can develop using components derived from Cannabis sativa. Smoking pot is of limited use - and really only medicinally sound in cases where the euphoria induced by smoking pot is one of the desired effects - for all other uses, synthetics and extracts are much more scientifically and medicinally sound - mainly because of control of dosing and route of administration. Ingestion is a *lousy* route of administration - and burning, baking and boiling alters the chemical compounds.

Hemp Oil is NOT a cure-all - half of the things it is claimed to do (the half that actually refers to scientific publications) is a result of using pure extracts or synthetics! - not street pot! I once had someone cite several papers at me concerning medical marijuana effects on cancer cells - one of those reported on the cancer that took my Father-in-Law's life - at a time when I was actively researching cannabinoid effects on brain cells. I pointed out that in each publication, the cannabinoid used was a *synthetic* - not occurring in nature, and considerably altered from the 63 different cannabinoid compounds found in marijuana smoke. Hemp Oil, Charlotte's Web*, and "pick-your-favorite-bud-at-the-medical-pot-shoppe" are the modern day equivalent of snake oil - yes, some people will see positive effects, but in the end, it's due to many more factors than just the medMJ.

Another such example is the recent craze for claiming medical marijuana treats (or cures) autism.  I was recently asked about the actual published research on the topic.  A Google search shows hundreds of search results on marijuana and autism, with sources such as "Natural News" touting the beneficial effects - but they are *all* anecdotal, and not based on scientific research.  It turns out that in 2013, there was an article in the scientific journal Neuron (volume 78, Issue 8, pages 498-509) that showed that one of the autism-related mutations (Fragile-X) caused a change in brain cell-to-brain cell signalling that involved the brain's normal neurotransmitter that acts at the same location as marijuana (known as the endocannabinoid 1, or CB1 receptor). These receiving sites for signals can operate in two modes - always on, or in pulses. It turns out that the autism-related condition does not have an always-on mode, only the pulse mode. The assumption from this study is that it is not the receptor that is faulty, but the cells producing the endogenous marijuana-like chemical normally present in brain. Thus, people surmise that replacing this chemical with medical marijuana would restore normal function. The truth is very likely that no, it won't, but that doesn't stop "Natural News" and other sources as claiming that Big Pharma is withholding evidence that marijuana cures autism. The authors never said this - and in fact, the endogenous cannabinoid signalling and receptors in the brain are tied into almost every brain function - such that if it really were the "root cause" of autism, or the cure, then the autistic brain wouldn't function at all (and we know that is not the case, it just functions differently).

Another article from 2013 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Vol. 43, Issue 11, pages 2686-2695) found that there is an excess of a different type of endogenous cannabinoid receptor in the blood of autistic patients. This "CB2" receptor occurs in high quantities than it normally does. In many cases, this pattern called "receptor upregulation" means that the receptors are being under-stimulated (hence too little of the triggering endogenous marijuana-like chemicals).

Again, this was latched onto by medMJ proponents as something that could be "treated" with medMJ. Two problems with that - (A) CB2 doesn't really react to THC - the main active ingredient in marijuana, and (B) CB2 and the cells in which the receptor is present are involved in immunity, not brain function.   

There is a tendency for the medMJ crowd - or frankly any group touting the latest miracle cure - to shout back at scientists urging restraint that "just because it isn't scientifically proven doesn't mean its not true." 

Well, it's not scientifically proven, there's no support for their claims, and in fact, it's probably *not* true.  As I wrote last year ( and what is difficult in science is proving something to be *true* - proving it to be false is actually quite easy - and many such claims are proven to be false.  In the case of many "quack" cures, there's even a fair amount of evidence that they could be harmful.

Frankly, people need to learn to read scientific papers - it's not hard to learn how to do, but it would require people to *work*, to *think* and to *read* more than 140 characters on their phone screen!

[*Charlotte's Web is a strain bred for high levels of cannabidiol, to enable use as a treatment for juvenile epilepsy and other disorders sensitive to CBD. It is a step in the right direction - selecting for the desired chemicals. However, *any* tetrahydrocannabinol content in the compounds shown to be *effective* against epilepsy negates the beneficial effect. Thus Epidiolex - the drug developed by medicinal cannabinoid research - is a pure extract, which known, controlled dosing and preparation. Charlotte's Web does NOT meet this standard. Epidiolex is in an oil-based spray absorbed through the mucus membranes in the mouth; however, it is *not* burned, smoked, baked, boiled, or digested. Any and all of those alter the drug - leading to much less certainty in effects!]

See, I *told* you that you wouldn't like me when I was angry!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Operation Baen Bulk 2015 [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[EDIT:  UPDATE: Thank you Instapundit and Insty's readers!!!]
[EDIT:  Clarified the history of the Operation Baen Bulk]
[EDIT 5/15/15 - Continuation of above clarification and an apology have been included at the end of this post.]

If you've been a reader in past years, you may have heard about Operation Baen Bulk, a charitable effort that yours truly has taken part in since 2009.

Here's a website that explains what we do:

Operation Baen Bulk started out in 2009 when Keith Glass heard of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan who had little to access to "comfort items" that would be sold in the Post Exchange.  That was because his unit was forward-deployed, their PX was a tent, and many shelves were empty more often than not!

Keith made a plan (with the participation of several members of the Baen's Bar discussion groups - including your truly, who would complete the third OBB campaign in Christmas of 2010 and go on to lead the fundraising efforts ever since) to send shampoo, body wash, toothbrushes and toothpaste, hand sanitizer, wet-wipes, etc. - in bulk - so that the whole unit could share.  In addition, winter had just set in and this unit had to patrol in the mountains, so some more friends raised money, got measurements, and sent multiple pairs of warm winter hiking socks for every member of the team.

Next we heard about an ammo supply platoon that had to pull stock and make deliveries at all hours of the day and night.  Ammo was stored in large "conex" containers (think semi-sized truck trailer without wheels) and those things are dark inside, even during the day. Our contact asked if we could send flashlights and replacement batteries, because they just didn't have enough issue flashlights.  We sent several cases of the super-bright Surefire flashlights, and several months worth of batteries.

By this time, the winter holidays were approaching, so with out friends at Baen Books, we sent books, cookies, candy, small gifts and holiday decorations to as many troops/units as we could contact.

But back to the Ammo Supply Platoon... Since the unit had to make those middle-of-the-night deliveries, they asked if we knew of any travel coffee mugs that could stand up to being bounced around in military vehicles.  So we designed and ordered stainless steel mugs (picture at right), and raised the funds by selling a mug to our friends - for each mug purchased, we could have three manufactured - thus we sent 2 mugs to any of the troops we were supporting for each one sold.  The campaign was so popular, we had to have a second run of mugs made.  We sold over 200 mugs, and sent nearly 500 mugs to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Korea and Germany.

Fast-forward six years, and we have run 6 almost-yearly campaigns to send "comfort items" - snacks, books, personal hygeine supplies, unusual requests that are not readily available to deployed troops.  In many cases, we've also sent regional favorites to give the troops a "taste of home" while they serve our country abroad.  We have supported more than 10 units in 6 countries, plus other individual requests as they come in.  Donation support trickled in, with each campaign able to support a higher volume. [Many times with the assistance of Instapundit and our friends at PJMedia, Vodkapundit, PJ Tattler, Otherwhere Gazette, and others.]

Then in 2013, we changed direction, slightly.  There were fewer troops deployed, but a record number of soldiers recovering from combat injuries.  Since we are a loose affiliation of Science Fiction fans, we decided to buy Kindle eBook readers, pre-load them with free books, and send to facilities where troops were recovering from combat-related injuries. Since those injuries could involve limbs and eyesight, we choose eBook readers that could adapt to large-print and one-handed, stand-alone operation.

Once we had the idea, we started asking for donated books directly from the publishers and authors...

The response was astounding, and we were able to load the readers with over 500 titles - science fiction, fantasy, adventure, reference and classic literature.

We raised over $5000 and sent 80 Kindles, divided among 5 facilities.

This year, we are at it again.  In previous years, we asked strictly for donations, and were able to gave a limited number of thank-you gifts out to top contributors.  This year is a little different, since contributors can get an immediate token of our appreciation if they buy a 2015 Limited Edition Operation Baen Bulk Challenge Coin. You can see the front and back of this coin at the left.  It is 2" diameter, 1/8" thick, minted from antique brass and feels nice and weighty in your hand.  All of the coins in this minting are engraved with the year (2015).  There was a previous, serial-numbered minting exclusively for the 2009-2012 OBB teams, but we're making this coin available to anyone and everyone for $27.50. We're using the same cost model as the OBB mugs above, so 2/3 of the cost of the coin will go directly to OBB, with only 1/3 of the cost going to minting, shipping and handling.

We're taking straight donations, or you can order an OBB coin directly from http://obb.teddroberts.comPlease note that while Teddy's Rat Lab, Brain&Brain Press and are hosting the website and merchant site, we are not receiving any profit from the sale. 

Here's a lab rat... just because... well, see below!

While we were at it, we made a few other coins, and the proceeds from those sales will also go to support OBB2015.  For fans of author Sarah A, Hoyt and may be familiar with the Sarah's Diner Facebook group and/or the Baen's Bar Sarah's Diner conference, we have a Sarah's Diner coin featuring artwork by Robert A. Hoyt.  The Dragon flipping pancakes refers to the iconic sign of The George Diner in Sarah's fictional town of Goldport, CO.  Some of you may also know that Sarah is heavily influenced by the work of Robert A. Heinlein, (note similarity in the naming of her eldest son, above) so the back side of the coin features one of Heinlein's famous phrases: TANSTAAFL - "There Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Lunch." 

Fans of John Ringo's recent series starting with the 2013 novel Under A Graveyard Sky - may recall that the philosophy of the key scientist in that novel could be paraphrased as What part of Mad Scientist did you not understand? That phrase, and a few other characteristic utterances of Mad Scientists have been captured in the Mad Science coin for Teddy's Rat Lab and fans a/k/a "Speaker's Lab Rats."
Artwork for the front face of the coin is by Speaker, and is also available in a slightly modified version as a button from Mystik Waboose Clothier.

These additional coins are available at, once again, all profits will go to Operation Baen Bulk.  These coins are 1&3/4" in diameter, 1/8" inch thick and finished in gold-plated brass.  Both the Diner and Mad Science coins are serial numbered from 1-200.  For an extra charge, customers can request a specific S/N or the lowest available numbered S/N [Be advised, as of this writing, S/Ns below 24 are taken, with numbers below 50 going fast.  S/Ns 1-23, 26, 31, 42, 50, 51, 69, 86, 87 and 100 are already reserved.]    

[EDIT 5/15/15:  Clarification and Apology:

An earlier version of this blog appeared as if I was claiming credit for Operation Baen Bulk:  I would like to issue a clarification and an apology.

I have been the "front man" for Operation Baen Bulk for many years. I am the person whose name gets associated with it, but I am far from the only person or even the most important person in the effort.

Keith Glass started OBB in the Fall of 2009. There were lots of little efforts going on, but Keith took on the task of herding cats and got us all organized - he's a logistics type, and he's done it extremely well.

Since 2009 it's been a group effort. We've run 6 different campaigns in 6 years - not including the current one. At various times, there have been other people involved - identifying sources for supplies, *buying* those supplies, shipping, donating, etc. There are times Keith has been too busy, and times I have been too busy. During much of this time, Keith has done the "heavy lifting" - like 2013, when he configured and loaded over 80 Kindles with >500 free books.

It has never been my intent to claim credit in place of, nor to supplant Keith. I call myself the "front-man" because basically, that's what I have done - write announcements, shill for funds, help coordinate. Keith is the founder and the one behind the scenes making it work. Any use of the pronoun *"we"* was never intended to usurp credit, but merely to take the attention off of persons involved with OBB, and *onto* the troops whom we supply.

Operation Baen Bulk will likely undergo some changes in the future. We are currently funded with an ongoing campaign. There are funds coming in and we *will* deliver what we promised. There may be a name change, there may not. There is currently a personnel change, but I would like to resolve that and get back to serving the troops.

As always, "we" appreciate your support.