Sunday, November 16, 2008

"The Problem Is the Blood-Brain Barrier"

An Interview with Boylston Blogger Jason Rihel

EV: Let’s start with a few get-to-know-you questions. Tell us all about yourself: job, age, hobbies, family, involvement in chess...

JR: My job is, believe it or not, to watch zebrafish with video cameras. I try to see when they are sleeping, but also how they respond when we manipulate them.

EV: How many of them do you watch? And how much of the time are they sleeping? And do they dream?

JR: We can watch more than 1000 at a time. When they are young, they sleep quite a bit, mostly at night. They probably don't dream. Dreams happen when your brain starts firing in random patterns during REM sleep, and fish don't appear (as far as we know right now) to have anything similar to REM.

EV: Do you manipulate them when they are sleeping or awake and how? And why?

JR: We do lots of things when they are sleeping, mostly. For example, a good question is-- how do you know the fish are sleeping at all? They don't have eyelids... maybe they are just sitting, chilling with their bad selves, but are totally aware of the world at all time.

So, we look to see if their arousal threshold changes. For example, I can't wake up to my alarm clock. It goes off for a couple of minutes. But if it goes off when I am already awake-- damn, it is so loud! How could I not hear it when I was asleep?

When we are sleeping, we just aren't as aware of the world. And neither are the fishes. So, maybe, we'll flash a light on them, or touch them, and they don't respond as well.

EV: And you are trying to figure out if the people who just sit around all day, seemingly unmoving and unconscious, are really sleeping or just sitting there?

JR: Yes, some of the chess players who just sit there. Have you ever had a player fall asleep at the board?

EV: um, Jay Bonin maybe.

JR: Jay fell asleep on me, once, too! Sometimes Alexander Ivanov puts his hands over his face, but I think he is peeking through the cracks of his fingers.

Back to science-- we are trying to figure out how sleep works. It is one of the great mysteries-- Why do we sleep? And how do we sleep?

EV: Is it true that you can store up sleep and get behind on sleep?

JR: If you mean, let's sleep for like 24 hours and then go non-stop for three days?

EV: Like if I sleep 6 hours a night for a week, do I have a deficit of 7 x 2 = 14 hours?

JR: Actually, the math on sleep need is pretty confusing. I don't think we understand it. For example, some people just go and go without sleep, and their "sleep debt" doesn't build up too much. Other people have big problems with sleep loss. Also, it isn't as though you don't sleep for a whole night, then you need to make it all up. For example, if I stay up all night then go to bed normally the next day, I might only sleep an extra hour or two.

EV: It’s ridiculous to say fish don’t have any feelings, yes? I’m listening to the Nirvana song, “Something in the Way.”

JR: I can get into trouble here with the fish feelings…. Let me think how best to phrase it. Fish certainly have sensations. They can avoid painful stimuli. There is a long debate in the science community about what constitutes emotions and what constitutes a response to stimuli. One thing I can say is that the fish doesn't have some of the structures of the brain that process complex human emotions. For mammals, it gets harder to say they have no emotions, because they probably do.

Wonky, wonk. I can go on and on about fish, clearly.

EV: Do you eat much fish?

JR: I love sushi.

EV: Is there a big question you are working on right now in terms of sleep?

JR: Well, one thing we did recently was to check to see if what is known about sleep in humans works in fish. For example, humans have a peptide in their brain called hypocretin, and if they don't, they have narcolepsy. People with narcolepsy will fall asleep, often after a funny joke, or when they get too excited. Maybe you've seen My Own Private Idaho?

EV: yes

JR: Anyway, it means this peptide is involved in keeping us awake. And fish have the same peptide. And if you give the fish a lot of it, they are more awake. They become insomniacs.

EV: Given it to humans yet?

JR: No, but people have thought about this, of course. It makes mice insomniac, too. The problem is the Blood-brain barrier-- you can't just inject it. Right now we make the fish/mice transgenic.

EV: Transgenic= you change their genes?

JR: Yes, we change their genes.

EV: So how are you proposing to make it relevant to humans?

JR: I saw you had a post about the green cat (Mr. Green Genes, ed.). We make fish brains glow green, too.
Relevant to humans-- mostly, we think that the fish makes for a simple system to actually learn something about how it all works. Biologists do that kind of thing all the time. Sarah Palin might think fruit flies are a big waste of money, but almost all of modern medicine has been affected by great fly work. For example, the mouse has 10,000 of these hypocretin cells. The fish has 15-20. Simpler.

Speaking of Sarah Palin and your earlier question about my family…have you seen the fake interview Palin had with Sarkozy? When the radio station tricked her into talking with them?

EV: yeah, beautiful stuff

JR: Well. my wife wanted me to quote from that interview: "I have a hot wife, and she is very jealous that I am speaking with you today."

EV: My readers would very much like if you included a photo of her in the interview --they went crazy for Matan Prill's gf.

JR: Yes, I can send a picture. It isn't a lie. But you kind of need to know that Palin interview, or it sounds too bad.

BJ Richards, Jason's wife

EV: I like it; I'm setting a goal of out-objectifying Chessbase.
Right here: the most gratutious photos of attractive women of any chess website! USCL News and Gossip: the place to come for pictures of random chicks.
and who's this?? ... Magnus Carlsen's hot Danish half-cousin?? Or is it...

BJ Richards, Jason's wife

JR: My wife, her name is B.J., and she LOVES the Chessbase chessbabes…

EV: Agree or disagree: the East is a much more interesting division than the West.

JR: Ah. I think so, but I know more people in the East. There seems to be more bloggers devoted to the east and we have such colorful personalities.

EV: Agree or disagree: chess will steadily decline in popularity because the skill set it requires—the willingness to focus on one highly complex, anti-social thing for a long period of time-- is increasingly unimportant in the modern world.

JR: I agree with this. Here is what I dislike about chess-- so much is memory. My favorite games are starting to be the ones against players rated 1000. They do such BAD moves, but then I get to go all Morphy on them with little risk.

I used to think that I could brain my way through a chess game. But I have learned there is a limit to that. New games are already taking over people’s interest. My point is that it is daunting for new people to see that so much is known about chess, when they can be pioneers in new games.

EV: If you accept that chess is inherently on the down-turn, does that mean that trying to popularize chess is a pointless, futile battle?

JR: Probably. Interview over. Your question requires too much thinking now. It is a good one. In the end, all we do is futile, I guess. Fatalistic.

EV: Okay, we can move on to more formulaic questions. Tell me about your job at the BCC: what exactly are you in charge of, who else does the blog with you, how has it changed since Glickman stopped posting?

JR: My job at the BCC is such a non-job. I mostly took over from David Glickman, who took a (family forced?) leave from the Blog. I saw the blog as a way to promote our game and our club, so I wanted to keep it going. I recruited some other people so I don't have to be in charge of all the content. Mike Griffin, a long BCC member, and Bob Oresick, our Treasurer and longtime BCC member, have been very helpful. Master Alex Cherniack provides the best game comments, and check out his photo-essay on Aeroflot.

When the USCL started up this season, DG had been doing coverage of it, but that was jeopardized when he left. So I decided that I would run it again, after Greg S. kept asking for coverage, and other people in Boston said they liked it.

DG always thought the USCL was a great idea to keep our game alive, and I am pretty impressed with how much interest it generated.

EV: It seemed like you made some rather reasonable predictions and got taken to task for it, and then you went all out. Any thoughts on people's reactions?

JR: The reaction really surprised me. I thought I was being fair, but some people were offended by being told I thought they would lose.

I suppose I don't like being told I am going to lose, either, but the egos in chess always shock me. Win a game and half the post-mortem is about how that person was the one who really was winning until they made one careless move in time trouble or a meteor hit and distracted them. Lose a game, and you were worse from the opening.

I think this is related to why people were so mad that I was calling for wins and losses. But it shaped my style, too. I started to include references to Oujia Boards and other props to make it clear that I understand that I am only making predictions, not speaking perfect truths.

In a way, it has been one long goof on Ilya Krasik, who had the most vocal reaction. It is my way of saying, "Be cool, my brothers."

EV: Do you think in general that writing as opposed to speaking tends to mean people express more extreme emotions, possibly because they have time to think about it more, possibly because they don't have to actually face the person they are expressing emotion to?

JR: Well, in the sense that you don't have to be as willfully strong to say strong things on-line as opposed to in person.

EV: One of the things I've noticed and I like about these interviews on IM is that the slight delay of typing makes people's responses more thoughtful and more extended. I'm wondering if that idea can be generalized: internet conversations/ exchanges tend to be more thought-through (?) developed (?) than conversations?

JR: But wouldn’t you then expect less emotion and more thought on blog posts and blog comments, no?

EV: But I’m not suggesting emotion and thought are opposed; I think they are both heightened by time. People stew, plot, reread.

JR: Ah, maybe you find time to express that vague feeling. For instance, it is devastating if you are in person and you sputter something asinine like, "Yeah, well, ......, well..... shut up, poopy face!"

But if people really use the time to process more thought AND more emotion, how are so many of them still just variations on "well.... YOU shut up....well...."

EV: that's a good point.
This gets to a more general question about blogging I wanted to ask you: I’m interested in blogging partly as a general interest in genre and how it impacts meaning. For example, I’ve found that the casualness of blogging means that topics can be more diverse, thoughts don’t need to be in a digested, polished form, etc. It also maybe means that the tone of voice I write in tends to be lighter, “breezier.” Any thoughts about blogging as a genre, especially with regards to chess?

JR: In science, I have to follow such formulaic writing that blogging is a nice escape from that. I am really also just experimenting, in 1.5 hours or less, with my posts. It is a nice creative release.

Related to chess, I think that blogging is a nice promotional tool, and also there is a lack of really creative writing in chess that is both informative and funny/interesting/novel somehow.

EV: Which is your favorite, of the blog posts you’ve written? And also your favorite chess writing by other people, including books, magazines, blogs, genres, etc

JR: I liked that one where I hid the names of who I thought would win and lose in the typing. It was so lost on some people that another BCC blogger actually edited away all my typos before realizing what I had done.

My favorite chess writing. You know, this might sound like schmooze, but I really liked that piece that Shabalov did for Chess Life on the new MCO. Comparing Carlsen's games to MCO recommendations was inspired!

Best Lessons of a Chess Coach was well done, and I also really like Silman's books. I've gained 200 rating points or more from Silman.

I've been enjoying Mike Griffin's posts on the BCC. Lots of great BCC history that I like to learn about. Chess for me is as much about the people as it is about the game. Science is like that for me, as well. I almost like the stories about personalities as I do the science.

EV: Okay, let's talk a little about the Blitz. What's your relationship to the team? Are you friends with some of them? Do you go to watch the matches? How interested in the USCL are you?

JR: I love the USCL, and I keep tabs every week. I think Greg Shahade really had an inspired idea here, and finally we have a showcase for most of the best chess players in the US that we didn't really have.

As for the Blitz, I have long been friends with several members of the team. Marc Esserman was at my wedding. Charles Riordan and I have known each other for maybe 10 years now. I am cordial with many of the others. I may target Ilya a lot, but we have no problems, at least on my end. I don't go to the matches too often. I did once or twice, but mostly I watch on-line. By the way, I want to take credit for their success this year. Can I do that?

EV: Because you motivated them? Probably only if you share the laurels with me.

JR: I mean, look at Ilya. Ever since I started hounding him about his games, he has won every game! He might be close to a Board 4 MVP honors at this point.

EV: He has a tough game on Wednesday against Craig Jones. Any thoughts about the match up with Carolina?

JR: Yeah, I was going over the Carolina's Boards 3+4, and they are strong. That has been the tandem of their success. Get a draw out of Lev Milman or Board 2, win on 3 and 4.

I think Marc Esserman matches up well on Board 3. To me, that is where the match is decided this week. Board 1 and 2 are not to be underestimated, but let's say they split. That leaves a win on Board 3 really important, with draw odds favoring Carolina. I'm not worried about Ilya, this week, but this is probably his toughest opponent all year.

EV: Really? I would have thought Ilya is a serious underdog, and Boston has to hope to hold 2.5-0.5 on the top three?

JR: Well, in truth, this is probably true. But Ilya has been playing much better. Again, though, against not as strong opponents as Jones. I am worried about Milman winning on Board 1.

EV: Why specifically Milman?

JR: I was going over Milman's games this weekend, and he played some really good ones. I don't see him losing to Eugene Perelshteyn this week. Eugene is a good player, but I think his chess has leveled out. Milman is still getting a bit better, perhaps.

Don't get me wrong, stride for stride, Eugene is stronger. But Milman is playing at least at Eugene's level, from what I have seen.

Maybe my last comment is a paradox … but that's fine.

EV: Any thoughts on how Boston could improve? Suggestions for next year?

JR: One thing I wonder about is why Boston doesn't have a strong junior on Board 4. Wouldn't that be 1) a nice experience for them 2) a nice way to promote chess to kids?

I think Andrew Wang is a strong choice for Board 4. I also think Adam Yedidia could fill that role if he kept improving. But you know, he was showing me all the chess variants he invented, and all these interesting things about game theory. Maybe he is looking beyond chess. I hope so…. I hope so in the sense that I think chess is a gateway drug for more learning, not just for chess's sake.

make like a tree and...


Malcolm said...

Nice interview. I love how his first answer, about his job, completely threw you off-topic for the first half of the interview. Plus the photo. Go fishy scientists!

A request, on behalf of your international reader, though: next year could you mention the full names of the players as they are brought up. We're not all on first name terms with all the USCL team members. Hard to believe they're not idolised and discussed in coffee shops on my side of the Pacific, I realise, but it's just one of those things that hasn't happened yet.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

Sorry for that, Malcolm. I've inserted a few last (and first) names and hope it is clearer.

Anonymous said...

A couple of pictures of GM Alexander Shabalov from the 17th Kings Island Open!

ALCHEssMIST said...

Thanks both Jason and Elizabeth for a very interesting interview.

DG said...

"...took a (family forced?) leave..."

Not at all, just needed a break. Besides, since I left, BCC Weblog has evolved into something much closer to my original vision.

Rihel said...

Glad I put the rationale for your blogging departure as a questioning aside.

Closer to your vision, but I feel that we need another 3 or 4 regular posters to have some kind of sustained blogging commune.

Rihel said...

Glad I put the rationale for your blogging departure as a questioning aside.

Closer to your vision, but I feel that we need another 3 or 4 regular posters to have some kind of sustained blogging commune.

DG said...

Yes, today we are closer, but not quite there. 3 to 4 more would be great.

julius g said...

You are a very talented writer, I really enjoy your interview segments. I remember the one you did with Matt a long time ago. Phelps was quoted as saying he's nothing but a middle-aged sixteen hundred player, with a paunch, who is managing a team so he can hang around good players. What hasn't been quoted yet, is him asking what toppings Tookie and Monster J wanted on their DiGiorno pizza after they got back from the strip club. Industry secret being leaked out right now, the Grape Street Crips had him under extortion, big time, he should have never ate Meech Z's McRib on accident. We had him buy all our baby mamas furniture from the swap meet, the rest of the money went towards high priced Eliot Spitzer type prostitutes, ya dig? Talking about baby mamas, I got a new show coming out on the Lifetime Network called Crippin' Housewives. It shows Crippilettes during a normal day, cooking, cleaning bullets, and ironing blue and purple rags. It's a very interesting show in telling the life and times of a Crip Housewife and what they go through. You already know what it is cuzz, Rollin' 60s, fresh BK's daily, body anyone from Nickerson Gardens, roach meat, shout out to all my 133rd Paybacc Crips, I'll holla at Kelly Park this weekend.

Globular said...

Word to your Mutha.

Rihel said...

OOT OOT! I called it! Ilya wins in a stunner against Carolina!

(hint-- the trick is to predict a surprise. When it doesn't work, you just say, "Hey, it was expected, but I wanted to be interesting." When it works, you say,"Hey, it was expected--by me!"