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Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Lab Jake Leachman’s Posts

Mentoring and The Sage at the Top of the Mountain

Me to Sage: “The university is a cancer patient.”

Without hesitation, Sage to me: “And you’re the cancer.”

Me: suddenly realizes this was part of the plan all along.

The classic tale of the sage, or old wise man, on top of the mountain was written by a sage, just not one on top of a mountain.

Why create such a tale? Why send people off alone on such an arduous journey in search of enlightenment? Because most expect to be enlightened by an authority. Authoritarians are always on top of something somewhere (See Yertle the Turtle). It’s what they do.

Why do true sage’s send seekers to the mountain top first? It’s part of both the filtering and the development process.

When the seekers come down from high and back to the true sage, frustrated by the authoritarian telling them what to do and filled with the realization that it was the journey and not the sage that mattered, it’s time to start.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a definitive mentor at every stage of my life and could probably define each stage by the mentor. A football coach here, honors english teacher there, IT technician here, outcast colleague there, former university chancellor… Now I’m a mentor for many students. None of the mentor systems I’ve found explain my experiences, many seem outright short sighted. Funny thing is, mentors are never on top of a mountain — quite the contrary, more likely outcast in a cave at the base. It’s more comfortable and easier to quietly get work done there.

Conditions Conducive to Coaching

The mentee needs to initiate the relationship. Since the value/knowledge gradient already exists, the mentee should voluntarily initiate the relationship to initiate a balance of power and individuality that will become important later. Usually, a prospective mentee seeks out a mentor because of some stressful problem, situation, or coming opportunity, something they are having a hard time understanding. Usually it’s not just one issue, it’s actually a host of issues that are difficult to pin down, but for some reason the mentor doesn’t have the same problem.  The mentee usually aspires towards values and abilities possessed by the mentor. But much like with relationships, the mentee’s value sets shouldn’t be more than two v-Meme levels removed from the mentor’s, else the mentee simply can’t understand where the mentor is coming from. The mentor also likely has key experiences that the mentee can relate to. The strongest mentee-mentor relationships are formed independent of money or influence, because it’s about empathy. The mentor knows this. It’s always best when resources result from the relationship independent of either participant. In the end the mentee needs to know what’s in it for the mentor.

Mentors are not out recruiting disciples for a reason or necessarily about a facade of mentoring excellence — that’s the age old con or a Ponzi scheme. It’s generally not about the money or influence, although having enough matters. The mentor’s key resource is time, because bestowing values on a mentee takes work, often in many ways, at a pace the mentee ultimately controls. But it isn’t all about the mentee. Every mentee is different. The mentor sees a challenge, opportunity for both and community, and ultimately is open to the empathy of the exchange.

The Mentoring Process

I’ve watched and coached enough teams to see the following classic phases of change repeatedly in many environments: forming, storming, norming, performing. Sure it’s possible to make it through a project with all of these, but the most real and genuine change usually includes all of the elements. The empathy levels espoused by the mentee and mentor throughout the process differ. The mentee mirrors a bunch — the old saying applies “fake it ’til you make it”. The mentor is conscientiously empathic to both broadcast appropriate values in the moment while setting up a longer-term process to lead to a positive outcome for the mentee. At some point the mentee will become aware of the process and how formulated. Usually the mentor is unable to complete the task on their own and must rely on the mentee — another old saying, “those who can’t, coach instead”.

Forming: At first the exchange is a bit of a leap of faith for both mentee and mentor. At the onset of the exchange empathy for eachother is limited. The mentee really doesn’t know if the mentor is a con, much less aware of such individuals, and the mentor doesn’t really know that the mentee will complete the process, or waste the time and leave. A shared goal, objective, or task is beneficial to guide the process as it provides natural bounds for both in the exchange. Stories from eachother’s experiences, and shared activity is important at the onset as these develop the minimum required empathy for efficient exchange. A minimum amount of work/credibility must be established between the participants.

Storming: Is practically an essential part of the process. The mentee wouldn’t need the mentor if it wasn’t a challenge to change. This is usually the phase when the mentee is given a task to be performed independent of the mentor. Without the mentor, the mentee cannot mimic to the same extent and begins to revert to traditional, un-effective ways. Stress is almost essential. The mentee needs to experience why the old ways are inadequate and change is a necessity. Sometimes sparks fly. It’s ok if people know it’s part of the process.

Norming: When the mentee really realizes why they need the mentor and that the mentor has subtle tricks and heuristics that aid performance. The mentor and mentee come back together again and again. The mentee has really good questions this round and the mentor really explains how they are doing something on another level. It’s much more than going through the motions and mere mimicry. It’s subtle, but at some point the mentee now realizes the change and new way of being, yet the process still isn’t complete. The mentor must keep reinforcing.

Performing: At some point, “a case of the student outdoing the teacher” occurs. The metrics usually back it up, the mentee now can perform with the new ability. While success is fickle and the knowledge fragile, the mentor needs to send the mentee off to perform on their own. Time for the mentee’s “spirit journey” or “coming of age” moment. Sink or swim. Fish or cut bait….. This last part is essential. The mentor must get out of the way and allow the mentee to perform on their own, else it was never truly a mentor-mentee synergy. Ideally, a few connections the mentor has could aid in initiating the journey with resources and addition contacts through other networks. “When you love something, set it free.”

If successful, the transformation was complete. The mentee is now out seeking new mentors and continuously improving. Though a period of separation is generally beneficial, this does not mean the relationship between the original mentor and mentee is necessarily over. A shared story of experience, empathy, and change is now there. The mentor maintains an incredible insight and understanding of the mentee good for periodic wake-up-calls now and again.

Common Pitfalls

Trying to be something you’re not. If you’re fit to be a mentor, just be yourself. Many, many mentoring relationships sour from the beginning because the mentor tries to “act like a mentor”. Creating a contrived exchange or environment because they had a mentor once help them that way. Mentees can immediately tell if it’s not a natural exchange. The best exchanges likely occur when the mentor doesn’t realize they are the mentor, and the mentee proceeds in blissful ignorance.

Where things go awry is when the mentee is never truly separated from the mentor, as in the case of the ponsi scheme or with authoritarian mentors. Having a mentee stick around when new mentees arrive with the mentor casts credibility shades. If the mentor really is a sage, and the goal is independent mastery, why is this prior mentee still around? The mentee struggles to become the mentor while still in the shadow of the original sage. Minions are born.

Where things get awkward, and these are warning signs, is when the mentor starts telling the mentee demeaning statements “you’re like the daughter/son I never had.” While viewed by the mentor as a compliment, these tribal/familial tendencies show that the mentor in the position of authority is not ready to allow the mentee independence irrespective of the mentor. In these cases it’s common for the mentor to vicariously live off of the success of the mentee. “I taught him/her everything he/she knows.” Clearly not the case. There needs to be a mutual independence and respect. The mentor should never emasculate the mentee by taking away the opportunity for respect and admiration. Judgement should only be used when required. If the mentor setup the environment/process appropriately the conditions will naturally provide feedback to the mentee.

I’ve also engaged mentors that friends and other mentors have questioned — for good reason. The old saying goes, “you become more alike the people you spend time with.” But you have to be careful about judging people by there mentors. Primarily because they are ultimately NOT there mentors. They see something in the mentor they need, which may not be at all apparent to others.

This leads to the final pitfall, this one by mentors — you must not burden yourself with responsibility for the future success of your mentees. There is a difference between a mentor and a life coach. It is their future. They must succeed independent of you.

In the End

The social thermodynamics equation for change shows how the process of seeking a mentor is inherently a phase change problem:

g = u + Pv -Ts

When we realize a single importance of a value/skill and decide to develop it, mentors help simplify and focus (u). Stress (P) is a part of the process and it’s uncommon for mentors to work through a distance. The end result though is likely increased resources (T), connections, and understanding (s).

Throughout nature there are examples of templating — providing a framework or scaffold to grow in virtuous ways otherwise unlikely. In some cases a seed is even required.

I’m to the point now where I realize that the mentees know how and when to find me, and not forcing that exchange is part of the filtering process. I also know that I don’t know everything. I need to work on skills all the time, whether it be a new instrument, program, or cooking technique. The challenge now is finding mentors and systems that can work me through the change process as efficiently as possible. And with everyone so busy in society these days, it’s getting harder and harder to find those good mentors.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )


Social Thermodynamics: The beginning of the end

My four year old son Max from three feet away looked directly into my eyes, then down to my mouth, then back to my eyes.

“Daddy, why aren’t you talking?”

Right in the middle of playing, my mind drifted to this book, and I was staring out the window.

The intent of his question was more along the lines of: Where did you go? We were connected and playing. What happened?

Children are generally born with an innate ability to read and mirror facial emotions. I couldn’t have taught him to do that if I wanted to. Somehow, this programming is buried away in our DNA. Empathy makes us happy. It’s not simply play my son lives for, it’s shared experience and discovery. Abandoned children who are fed, kept warm, and left alone without human interaction have a tendency to die of natural causes. Unlike values, which are learned, we are born to empathize. When allowed to flourish empathy can even lead to love. And, like so many other gifts of our universe, we’ve taken empathy for granted.

We teach children that others are different or somehow less valuable. We shame young boys for crying and showing fear. We replaced in person exchanges with TV, phone, and computer screens. Once a humane pat on the back or high five. Now a digital thumbs up. We stonewall, bully, disrupt, and gaslight. We scare people with doomsday prophecies.

Here we are again, as always, wondering whether the new technology, generation, or emerging nation threat is the beginning of the end. The beginning of the end is not the flash before the mushroom cloud, the perfectly sentient machine, or the rising oceans — these are relics of ourselves. Take another look at human history. The beginning of nearly every end is ultimately rooted in empathy.

While most will agree on the issue, our values have stopped humanity from directly addressing our empathy problem. I’ve had many friends and colleagues stop me and say, “What are you smoking with this empathy stuff?” or “We’re not meant to quantify the soft sciences — that’s God’s role.” Some just say “Wow, sounds interesting” and quickly walk away. Our value systems, including religions and academic disciplines, have wired this response into our cultures. Setting empathy free subverts control and efficiency. As humanity has shown, work and control are needed — in appropriate context. Knowing the appropriate context for values and empathy is a key take away from this framework. Where values create balance for humanity, empathy creates direction.

While it’s easy to blame social constructs for our empathy flaws, the core of our empathy conundrum lies within. We all have our own realities. To justify our continued engagement in humanity we’re wired to believe our own reality is right and just. Individuality.

I started this book with no less of an intent than to avert World War III. It made so much sense to apply the thermodynamic duality of energy versus entropy, and the most rigorously tested physical laws of the universe, to explain our challenging duality of values versus empathy. Like so many others, I realized what I was really after during the journey: I needed to write about empathy because I struggle with it. I’ve known this struggle for decades. It’s one of many reasons I married my wife Chelsea, who’s naturally an empathic listener.

As Chelsea knows better than anyone else, “You’re so very analytical, all of the time, which kindof defeats the point of empathy.” Indeed there is a tendency for those who are not naturals to coach — I have to analyze and break empathy down in order to stay connected with others. But as a result of my deficiencies, I’ve always been able to help those around me aspire to something greater.

Now I look around my community and see people with wonderful values and connections struggling to understand the context for when and how to apply them to affect change — each of their stories a potential chapter or publication. At the same time, I’ve got new friends and colleagues who are going to do incredible things proving and applying this framework in many more ways than I can imagine. Hence, it’s time to set the book free. As Chelsea said, “You’re spending all of this time empathizing with your book’s readership, at the expense of empathizing with your family, friends, and community.”

When she said that, I finally knew how this book would end.

When you know the values that matter, and all of the ways, it’s time for a new beginning.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )


Social Thermodynamics: Good Cop, Bad Cop

(Bad Cop standing over suspect): “Look, we know your friend ran off with the cash, and you helped him. Let’s make this real simple: WHERE IS HE?”

(Suspect, calmly): “I don’t know where he is.”

(Bad Cop): “You know I could throw on an impeding an investigation charge — another 5 years!? One last time: WHERE IS HE?”

(Suspect): “I’m not saying anything.”

(Bad Cop): “You fucked up. I’m not sure I can help you after this. I’m going to get the paperwork for the next charge.” (bad cop leaves)

(Minutes later Good cop quietly enters room with a root beer): “Hey, want to share a root beer?”

(Suspect): “You pigs are idiots.” (takes root beer)

(Good cop, sits down): “I’m sorry, he can get pretty worked up about things. While you were talking, I read through your file. This isn’t the first time your friend took off and left you the bill is it?”

(Suspect): “You don’t know the half of it.”

(Good cop): “You might be surprised. Have any idea how often I have to finish my partners paperwork? Did you see that vein coming out on his forehead? You know, after he left here, he went outside and punched the soda machine? What a hot head.”

(Suspect): “My friend can’t control his temper either. Gets both of us in tight spots all the time and I have to bail him out.”

(Good cop): “My boss said I’ve got know choice but to work with mine. What’s your excuse?”

(Suspect): “I needed the money to pay my family’s mortgage.”

(Good cop): “Oh I remember your kids now, I’ve got a 3 year old too — man their cute. Don’t you live in the neighborhood? You know there’s a program to get assistance.”

(Suspect): “No I didn’t.”

(Good cop): “I’ll get you the paperwork for the program. What’s your friend going to do with the money with you stuck in here?”

(Suspect): “Drugs.”

(Good cop): “I bet that’s not going to help your family. I tell you what, I can probably get my partner to wave the charge, and we’ll get you back home with the paperwork this evening if we can get the money back.”

(Suspect): “Ok….”

The classic good cop, bad cop routine was described as “one of the oldest devices in police work,” in a book from 1940 on Police Interrogation.

This was just an example. But what you can see is the setup for phase change as our Gibbs energy equation describes. Remember that G2-G1 is indicative of change where

G = U + PV – TS

In good cop, bad cop, the bad cop focuses in on ratcheting up the stress (P), flustering an individual with values (U), and depriving them of others, resources, or connection. The good cop comes in later with a simple focus (low U), calm demeanor (low P), and offerings of resources or connections (high T and S). Classic negative change of G2-G1.

The Good Cop, Bad Cop routine has found it’s way outside of criminal justice. It’s a common analogy to describe the relationship between a university president (good cop) and provost (bad cop). CEOs and CFOs likely evolve a similar duality. Probably even parents.

It turns out that our social thermodynamics simply explains one of the oldest tricks in the book. May’be it will help our officers know when and how to apply it with a little more efficiency.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )


Social Thermodynamics: The Collapse of Anti-Empathy Movements

“Then again, from below, in the great heavy stack,
Came a groan from that plain little turtle named Mack.
“Your Majesty, please… I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down here at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food. We are starving!” groaned Mack.

“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.
I rule from the clouds! Over land! Over sea!
There’s nothing, no, NOTHING, that’s higher than me!””

-Dr. Suess from “Yertle the Turtle and other stories”

The novelist George Santayana is often attributed to the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” People often associate this quote with memory, and that simply knowing what happened before can prevent a future tragedy. I’ve asked myself over and over again how many times society must repeat itself. It’s clear that the problem isn’t just one of memory, it’s understanding the drivers behind great tragedy that matters.

Think back to a human caused tragedy in history. Odds are, the tragedy was enabled by an empathy deficiency at some level: the Aztecs, Nazi Germany and World War II, the French Revolution, and just about every other revolution. Empathy deficiencies don’t just cause wars, but just about every engineering disaster has it’s roots in empathy — the Halifax Disaster, the Quebec bridge, the Radium Girls, the Bhopal chemical leak, the Shuttle Challenger, and many more. Each of these has it’s roots in one of the empathy disorders of stonewalling (mirroring), bullying (emotional), sociopathy (rational), and gaslighting/psychopathy (conscious). In the moment, we justify the non-empathic decision as essential under the circumstances. But in the end, we somehow identify tragedy as something that arose through a grave misunderstanding. Simply understanding the ways that actions affect other individuals, groups, or the environment is the essential essence of empathy.

Paul Bloom and the Anti-Empathy Movement

Paul Bloom is a Professor of Psychology at Yale who in 2016 published the book, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion“. To cherry pick several phrases from the book, “Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism… It is innumerate… favoring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others… This perverse moral mathematics is part of the reason why governments and individuals care more about a little girl stuck in a well than about events that will affect millions.”

What you can see from Bloom’s quote is that he definitely cares about preventing tragedy and views empathy as the problem. As is often the case, what someone wants is not the problem, it’s how someone goes about doing it that matters. If you take any of the levels alone in Pezeshki’s empathy pyramid you have the potential to do great wrongs. Empathy, like entropy, is defined as many ways. Bloom seems to have a limited view of a sympathy heavy mirroring and emotional empathy. Compassion is defined as a rational form of sympathy. This is often typical of so many authoritarian-legalistic academics because these empathy forms limit power and control to promote a nuanced view of reliability. Let’s get at the social thermodynamics to straighten this quandary out.

In social thermodynamics, empathy generation is the wasted opportunity to do work. Having to work through emotional or in-group out-group dynamics can take a lot of time and resources, and yes, even lead to medical or other tragedies. This is in part because we lack appropriate context for when to act on rational values versus when to empathize as developed in Chapters 2 and 3 of this book. When the data and evidence is conclusive, and you know what values to act on, it’s time to act. That is unless not everyone understands, in which case acting against the will of others can lead to psychological harm. Remember that having values more than two v-Memes removed can make shared understanding extremely difficulty due to the amount of resources required to build the shared values. Setting up the rational and conscious empathy layers to promote shared understanding before it’s time to act is the key that Bloom seems to miss. And not just Bloom, but just about all of humanity.

We’ve watched how extreme ideals, like the Nazi elitism parodied by Dr. Suess in “Yertle the Turtle”, have led to the greatest atrocities humanity has witnessed, yet we suffer such a chronic misunderstanding of empathy that the tragedy risks repeating. Empathy and entropy are not the mere disorder of yesteryear, but may be the very thing that saves us from ourselves.

Empathy in the balance of Nature

The tower of turtles in Yertle the Turtle has many corollaries to termite towers around the world. In these, a queen termite creates a colony of millions to form tonnes of earth into towers as tall as 17 feet. What we power-driven humans often neglect though is the point of these towers. The point is to “farm” a symbiotic fungus that takes up 8 times more of the tower than the termites themselves do. The fungus needs the termites, and the termites need the fungus. One tower can take 4 to 5 years to build and one strong rain can cause the need to rebuild. And like the rafts of fire ants after floods, we may see wonders of evolution at work in the aftermath.

Termite tower — Commons — Jim Bendon from Karratha, Australia

In his seminal text that launched the field of Thermodynamics, Saudi Carnot wrote, “Everyone knows that heat can produce motion. It causes the agitations of the atmosphere, the ascension of clouds, the fall of rains and of meteors, the currents of water which channel the surface of the globe, and of which man has thus far only employed but a small portion. Even earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are the result of heat. From this immense reservoir we may draw the moving force necessary for our purposes.” From the beginning, thermodynamics was responsible for incredible machines, like termites, and the withering of the towers they build. Without this duality, algae, fungus, or termites would’ve encompassed the planet eons ago.

Humanity seems the first organism of our planet to fully attempt this domination. Politicians and companies have gaslighted us into believing that the climate isn’t changing. We’re sociopathic enough to fence ourselves off from our neighbors and the wilderness. We’re stone-walled away from our environments behind layers of insulation and air conditioning. And we attack empathy as the cause of great injustice. The question becomes whether we’ll suffer the fate of Yertle the Turtle or realize our empathic connections to our home, before the rains come tumbling down, in whatever form they may.

“where the Lorax once stood, as long as he could, before he was lifted away…” -Dr. Suess in “The Lorax”

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )


Social Thermodynamics: The size of the party next door

Staring off into the darkness of my bedroom at midnight, all I can here is the “thump, thump, thump” of the party next door.

Rather than stir me to call the cops though, for some reason this one is taking me back…

I was a freshman in college. The senior quarterback on the football team was eating alone in the lunchroom.

I dropped my tray in front of him and asked him what the #1 piece of wisdom he had for a new freshman to the team.

“Do you party?” he asked.

“Not really.” I replied.

“My advice is to party.” he said without hesitation.

He continued, “I’ve woken up in the most random places and made the most incredible life-changing connections because I partied.”

I thanked him.

Commons — in many ways,, literally.


College towns are phenomenal test-beds for social experiments. One of my classic essay prompts in thermodynamics tasks students with applying entropy in their personal lives. It’s a pass-fail short essay posted on a message board for their classmates to read. What it does is approach a nebulous class topic, like the definition of entropy, in many neat and new ways that helps empathize with the class, and me. One response I’ve never forgotten: a taxonomy of parties that correlated size to entropy. I’ve attempted more formality here via definitions inspired by the Urban Dictionary:

Date: Between just two people. Decisions are to be made and sometimes it’s necessary to control the flow of information.

Get-together: “What someone calls a party that they don’t want a lot of people to come to.” A get-together likely has less than 8 people in attendance. Get-togethers likely range between 3-8 people in size and often occur with a specific objective in mind, like moving a heavy item in a yard, replacing an auto-part, etc. Socializing over drinking or some other shared food is likely.

Kick-back: “Small gathering between group (sic) of friends, more than a get together, less than a party (used in nor-cal central valley). Kickbacks have one simple rule. They are not parties. No illegit (sic) friends of friends of friends showing up empty handed and emptying your fridge. Kickbacks are the stress free versions of parties where the host doesn’t have to worry about shit (sic) breaking or cops being called. There’s a reason it’s called a kickback; as in kickback, and relax.” Kick-backs likely range in size between 8-24 people to conform with “no friends of friends of friends” rule. Drinking is likely with common music, dancing and other forms of empathy (pickup football game, etc) are possible as well.

Party: 24-60 people in size. Parties typically involve alcohol, drugs, dancing, and sex. Music is essential. Something usually gets broken, often on purpose. Parties are stressful for the host, unless they have a designated location for party hosting. Cops could be called.

Rager: “A party where everyone there calls everyone they know to come rage the house. eventually theres (sic) like 500 people, the house gets trashed, and the cops come.” Generally more than 60 people. Drugs, sex, music, violence. By definition, the “entropy” is high as the cops are expected.

The amount of empathy-building experiences, alcohol, common music, dancing, clearly correlate with the size of the party; much like the premise of Jeremy Rifkin’s “Empathic Civilization”. Imagine a party where everyone was listening to their own music — it would probably dissipate quickly with a few skirmishes. We need the shared empathy of experience to keep it together.

Obviously, the presence of security and business rules changes the dynamic considerably if in a dance club. Rules like this are a layer of rational empathy.

But why? Especially in high-school and college, are we drawn to these parties, like moths to flames? It’s both the blooming age and the age of stress. It’s prime time for connection and change. Going with our Gibbs’ energy for change G = U + Pv – Ts, the falling values, stress, increasing density, resources, and empathy are the indicators of change. Much like our marches and riots chapter, society knows the conditions for change whether we are aware of it or not. Hence the sage wisdom from my senior quarterback friend.

Applications to education and business/group theory

The reason this taxonomy stuck with me is that the sizes roughly corresponded to group/classroom sizes for education. But these sizes also correspond to the groupings you see in companies and other realms. I was talking with a team-leader at Google once about size groupings and ran with a hunch. I told her she likely sees the following groupings at Google: 2 for permission, 3-6 for a design group, around 24 for a task area, 60 for a division, and everyone else. She said, “how did you know that?” Just experience, in many ways:

Decision meeting: usually just two people, one with authority, where permission is granted or a decision is made.

Design group meeting: usually 3-6 people. Similar to a morning coffee group meeting. This number of people allows the conversations to go in new and fun directions, while still keeping everyone in the multi-mode conversation. Once you exceed 6 people though it becomes difficult to keep the group from partitioning. This is likely also the threshold where people feel like they are contributing to the discussion.

Elementary classroom/team: 8-24 people. A leader is almost essential and information is no-longer bi-directional on an even plane. Rules and guidelines are more significant, but the group is small enough for everyone to know everyone else’s name and for the group to change topics and focuses throughout a day. Improvised discussions can still be easily facilitated.

University classroom/division: 24-60 people. Very much a one way, data-dump conversation with minimal questions or discussion. The purpose of these meetings is to inform. I’ve found that over the course of a semester, I’ll get close to learning everyone’s names in a class of this size. But not everyone knows everyone else.

Mega-class/company: More than 60 people. Often a CEO or other lead addressing a company wide problem or issue. Discussion is unlikely. It’s a low empathy environment if you’re just using verbal communication. People are too far removed to see facial or other empathy cues.

From this breakdown it’s easy to see why the swelling classroom size/sophistication is forcing a phase-change to more experiential and active learning techniques augmented by digital media and communications systems. Although not explicitly viewed as such, these techniques and technologies are all trying to scaffold and build our empathy for the group.

Dunbar’s Number

In the 1990’s British Anthropologist Robert Dunbar noticed a trend between primate grouping size and neocortex size. He then used these observations to estimate the maximum number of active social relationships a human can maintain between 100 and 250, with a common estimate of 150. Malcolm Gladwell associated Dunbar’s number in “The Tipping Point” with the limit on people that the Gore-Tex company allows in a single building.

But what we’ve seen from the party argument above, the number of social relationships that can be stewarded at any given time is likely as much, or more, of an empathy and value/function problem than a neocortex/brain problem of an individual. It’s an artifact of the group empathy. Now that we have computers in all of our pockets adding an entirely new dimension of empathy and information, it will be interesting to watch how Dunbar’s number(s) change.

When to call the cops

Has always been a debate. At least now we can contextualize the problem and have an idea of 1) why we party, 2) how many layers of empathy are required to keep a group, based on size and function together, and 3) the ratio of people to empathic modes/layers when a party will get nasty. Basically, with just oral communication, and no security/watch people (see the Bouncy House Physics chapter), more than 60 is the threshold where it’s only a matter of time. Someone’s got to study this. We want to facilitate change, society has figured out how that happens. We just haven’t figured out how to do so efficiently.

My quarterback sensei was right. I’ll never forget a party one January when one of my offensive lineman friends took off his shirt and belly slid down the icy street flapping his arms and snorting like a walrus. Some connections do change you for life.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )

Social Thermodynamics: Gibbs and the Energy for Change

It was late January of my first Wisconsin winter. I had started my Ph.D. studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about half a year ago. I had just failed the qualifying exam — a tortuous two day event with a cumulative 6 hours of written exams covering a wide range of topics to determine qualification to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. I had been told that I should seriously consider a job in industry. My dreams of combining what came natural to me in teaching with the fun of research had shattered.

I don’t know why, but when I was walking by the mail room one day I decided I should check my mailbox. I had never received anything. But today was different, a letter not to any of the other graduate students with an L for the last name, but one for me. I opened it.

The hair stood up on the back of my neck, my knees started shaking, and tears welled up in my eyes.

On the letter was typed a congratulations that I had won the Western Association of Graduate Schools Distinguished Thesis Award for 2007.

The Western Association of Graduate Schools consisted of 85 member institutions in the Western United States and Canada. The award covered all disciplines. Holy cow! Spurred by this momentum I passed my next qualifying exam, raced through my Ph.D. in experimental cryogenics in just 3 years, and skipped a post-doctoral position entirely to land my current spot on the faculty at Washington State University — just 40 minutes from where I grew up… Life has it’s ups and downs.

Thermodynamic Surfaces for Fluids

It’s still astonishing to me that anyone could understand my thesis, let alone consider it for an award. The title, “Fundamental Equations of State for Parahydrogen, Normal Hydrogen, and Orthohydrogen,” gives an idea for how technical it was. With help from my advisors and researchers from the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), I developed new equations that expressed all of the thermodynamic properties of liquid and vapor hydrogen. The equations were soon adapted as standards for hydrogen vehicle refueling. Considering the global exchange of hydrogen is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the flammability dangers, having very accurate equations was important.

Another way to think about my thesis is to consider equations of state as topographical maps — the kind that show elevations to help you to navigate a mountain on a backpacking trip. Equations of state connect all of the thermodynamic properties in a single equation that fits the ‘mountain’ that is the fluid surface — and all fluids have one. Here are a couple of plots from my thesis. The plot on the left shows the “mountain” that divides the vapor from the liquid region, with phase change in between. Above the mountain are the experimental measurements of pressure-density-temperature, in this case taken at constant density. The plot on the right shows lines of constant temperature predicted by the equation of state I developed. This plot also includes the melting line that separates solid from fluid. From graphs like these you could engineer a system to run hydrogen at any practical temperature, pressure, or density.

Each surface is unique to each fluid. The phase change ‘mountain’ is very different for hydrogen than water, or mercury. Despite over 150 years of effort, we still do not have purely theoretical equations that can accurately model these surfaces to the precision of experimental measurements. My equations, like most of the leading equations, are simply numerical fits of the surface. This is an important point. Most scientists and engineers are doggedly determined to derive equations from basic fundamentals, yet the most encompassing laws of physics still rely on these empirical fits for fluid data. Another way to think about it, atoms and molecules are incredibly complex. Trying to mathematically model all of the ways they can interact in order to accurately predict the bulk properties would require such a complex set of equations they wouldn’t be worth solving. Social space is likely no different.

In the late 1800’s, thermodynamic researchers were trying to develop these “surfaces of state” for any simple fluid, even water. Around this same time, Kelvin, Maxwell, Helmholtz, and Gibbs were all trying to merge and resolve the first law of thermodynamics (balancing energy), and the second law of thermodynamics (balancing entropy). It was Gibbs, working in near isolation at Yale, that had the spatial-graphical understanding to merge the two laws with the fluid surface.

Gibbs and the Energy for Change

I’ve taught graphical plotting of thermodynamic properties for over a decade now. It wasn’t until I went back and read Gibbs’ original paper from 1873 “Representation By Surfaces of the Thermodynamic Properties of Substances” that I realized the significance of these methods to the history of thermodynamics. By 1873 it was well established that the useful work production from a substance was related by the change in U + Pv, what was also known was the degradation of this useful work by the change in TS. As Gibbs began trying to relate these to the property surface for water, he realized that the change in the combination of the properties U + Pv – TS was 0 while the fluid was stationary, known as equilibrium, and negative when the fluid was spontaneously changing phase at constant temperature and pressure. He and Maxwell developed the following figures based on this realization:

James Clerk Maxwell famously molded the surface from plaster and mailed copies to his scholarly friends to aid in visualizing the phase change problem. The figure in the middle is particularly useful. In this original figure, drawn at a single value of volume (density), η is entropy (S), ε is internal energy (U), and A is the original state of the fluid (at any given point it has a single value for internal energy and entropy). From this, Gibbs realized that the line MN represents the total amount of energy that would be dissipated as heat if you wasted the potential to do something, AB is the maximum amount of work available (also known as exergy, or Helmholtz energy in this context) if no entropy is generated, AC is the maximum amount of entropy that could be generated without changing internal energy or density.

Extending Gibbs energy beyond thermodynamics

Gibbs had a pretty good idea for the significance of his new property. Ultimately he could predict phase change throughout nature, not only fluids but solid materials, biological materials, and more. In 1891, Irving Fisher, one of Gibbs’ Ph.D. students finished a dissertation titled “Mathematical Investigations in the Theory of Value and Prices” that drew a direct analogy between Gibbs’ equilibrium in physical and chemical systems and the equilibrium of financial markets in social systems. The work ultimately influenced Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson who published a seminal treatise, “Foundations of Economic Analysis” which heavily utilized principles of equilibrium, vector analysis, and probability. The Physicist and economist Robert Ayres has completed extensive work on thermodynamic equilibrium theories in economic systems. If we invented economics and money to aid in social exchanges, and invented economic properties like inflation to cope with physical phenomena like entropy, it’s not a far extension to imagine how these same thermodynamic laws directly transfer to social space.

Gibbs Energy in Social Space

Once I had equated empathy with social entropy, the question became how to represent the other common thermodynamic properties in social space. In April 2016 I had an epiphany one morning and just listed all of the properties off.

Internal Energy (U) –> value evolution

The values a society aspires towards (whether adopted or imposed) are directly related to the spiral memes that correspond to how the society transfers knowledge. The more evolved the value set, the higher the degree of plasticity and movement between value sets that is possible. For example, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is how the US and most Western societies gauge progress and fits in with the Performance v-Meme. The Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI) is the metric that Bhutan adopted to gauge progress and the sustainable values necessary for this small nation fall primarily into the Communitarian v-Meme, but yet require a modest GDP to achieve. The desires/perceived needs by society are also relative to a reference state, the GDP of the US is very different from Japan, etc. Just like entropy, internal energy meters don’t exist and change is relative. But change does indicate momentum, whether for better or worse.

Temperature (T) –> Energy/resources

Temperature is defined as the statistical average speed of particles in a system. As the temperature goes up, the more energy modes that can be awakened.

As temperature approaches absolute zero, molecules (people) cannot do anything but worry about survival and quantized (think mirroring) behavior dominates. This is the lowest Sprial vMemes structure above. Think a homeless person here, while at first glance you think they have the most freedom, the reality is they don’t have the resources to do anything.

With sufficient temperature enough energy/resources are available to energize more complex storage and communication modes.

Heat Capacity (Cv) -> Capacity for conceptual understanding of a topic

Cv is defined as being equal to the change in internal energy du divided by the change in temperature dT at constant volume. If a person has little to no values related to the concept in question, it takes considerable resources to significantly build and influence their opinions about it. You have to first form a core value, then build up the complexity of the value to influence it.

Density (1/v) –> Population/agent density

The tighter the packing, the faster the phase change. It is true that ideal gases don’t interact with the other particles. Rural communities and isolationists suffer similar problems.

Pressure (P) –> Stress

If a stress is being applied to a community, it increases the flow enthalpy of the system to change/work, or even eventually explode.

Enthalpy (H) –> Agency

Enthalpy is defined as H= U+Pv, which when transferred to social space becomes the value set of a person (U) plus the stress and space (v) within which a person can work. Un-empathetic people have had the agency to act throughout history because they had the values, and sufficient stress combined with the space (freedom) to act.

Helmholtz energy (A) –> Maximum work that can be produced at constant entropy

The Helmholtz energy is defined as A=U-TS. In other words, have a strong value set with no resources or empathy. You become a conduit through which things efficiently flow with minimal entropy generation. This is the prime target of authoritarians and other low v-Meme individuals. The more information you collect about the situation (Q) and empathy you develop for the problem (S) the more difficult it becomes to enact the exchange. In traditional thermodynamics, the Helmholtz energy is the “useful work” that can be transferred from a system with constant temperature and volume. In other words, this is the goal of the “anti-empathy” movement — rational individuals that work hard to avoid empathizing with others due to the siphoning of resources involved.

Gibbs Energy (G) –> Potential for societal phase change

The Gibbs Energy is defined as:

G = U + Pv – TS.

Gibbs Energy describes the potential for a system to change. If the change in Gibbs free energy is negative, a system will spontaneously change. If positive, the system requires additional inputs to drive the change. Another way to look at this, the Gibbs energy of a saturated liquid and vapor (both on the verge of phase change) is identical. So if the Gibbs energy is the same for two different social states, change is already happening! The more negative the delta becomes, the more likely a cavoom, or disruptive phase change. But think about it — the perceived progress, stress, and density of a population is counterbalanced by the available energy/resources and the empathy of the group. As Chuck says, “There has never been an evolved democracy that has declared war on another evolved democracy.”

Keep in mind what we can actually measure about a society: population density, energy/resources, and may’be stress (happiness?). This is similar to what we can measure (T,rho,P) of thermodynamic systems. U, H, A, G, and S are relative to reference states.

The higher the energy (temperature) and empathy (entropy) of a system the smoother the changes and the less likely you are to have a disruptive flash phase change from liquid to vapor or vice-versa. See the Temperature vs. Entropy plot below generated from Nitrogen. Density increases as you go up and to the left along with pressure (stress), the opposite direction of entropy (empathy). The area to avoid is the lower left. The area we want is the upper right. Drawing these lines based on the physics/thermodynamics of real human systems is the challenge.

Entropy versus temperature

Others Connecting Gibbs Energy to Social Space

Attempting to merge the concept of Gibbs equilibrium in social sciences has been a common theme of physical-chemists. Frederick Rossini received the Priestley Medal in 1971 and offered an address, “Chemical Thermodynamics in the Real World“. Rossini equated the change in entropy to individual freedoms and the change in enthalpy over temperature to security.

Sociology Professor Kenneth D. Bailey in his book “Social Entropy Theory” used traditional thermodynamic arguments, and a traditional view of entropy to conclude that society was doomed to chaos. Physical Chemist, and former president of Illinois State University, Thomas P. Wallace’s book “Wealth, Energy, and Human Values: Dynamics of Decaying Civilizations from Ancient Greece to America,” took a similar dismal view.

Chemical Engineer Libb Thimms has compiled an incredibly sophisticated wiki, titled the Encyclopedia of Human Thermodynamics, of the historical works attempting to merge social systems and humans to thermodynamics. Libb concludes that humans actually are molecules, a complex 23 atom molecule. As LIbb’s cohort has shown, many have attempted, in many ways, to apply thermodynamics to social systems.

I found most of these other attempts to model the thermodynamics of social systems after I had the initial combination of internal energy as values and empathy as social entropy. Both of those connections appear to be new to this space. So I leave the following applications, and the determination of the veracity of this approach to you.


(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )



Summary of Summer 2017

The HYPER summer 2017 cohort. From left to right: Carl Bunge, Kjell Westra, Kevin Cavender, Eli Shoemake, Ian Richardson, Me, Sierra Bishop, Rachel Johnson.

The summer of 2017 will be known as the summer when we put all the pieces together. We finally have assembled all of the facilities to complete the entire Design-Build-Test cycle for cryogenic systems entirely within the HYPER lab. To my knowledge, we may be the only cryogenic or hydrogen laboratory in the US with distinct spaces for all three parts of this cycle. I can’t wait for next summer.

Rachel Johnson and the CLEAN bench system

In this research position I was responsible for the implementation, and continuous improvement, of four Cougar LEAN (CLEAN) manufacturing stations.  The CLEAN system uses modular aluminum frame tubing for component fixturing and modification. I chose to design and manufacture a custom lighting fixture for the workbenches in the lab with the help of a partner. This was a challenge because the light fixture needed to be easy to manufacture and aid student efficiency at the workspaces. I utilized a design-matrix-method process with multiple iterations and diligent communication with clients. A prototype fixture was iteratively improved prior to mass production. The result was a light fixture that created modularity with the existing workbench and enhanced working environment.

Wesley Bolliger and his cool PET films

The HYPER Lab this past summer gave me the opportunity to run a cryogenic permeability test as a Material Science undergraduate. Each specimen was a separate piece of PET film sandwiched in a knife-edge CF flange with a teflon o-ring for sealing and copper gasket to prevent the film from breaking under heightened pressure differentials. Helium was run through this film into a mass spectrometer at various temperatures and a set pressure to obtain the steady-state leak rate, which was then converted into a measurement of permeability consistent with other literature for comparison’s sake. Running this experiment required time management between measurements, familiarization with units of permeability, experience with constructing and deconstructing a novel leak rate measuring setup designed for cryogenic operation, understanding of the cryocooling machinery used to reach the low temperatures, ability to troubleshoot operational failures, and the creation of a standardized procedure and safety manual. Three of the film measurements followed a standard cooling curve with a plateau towards the end of the leak detector’s resolution. The other two runs with usable data ended up deviating from this behavior, showing signs of what we have theorized to be quantum tunneling.

Mathew Hunt and the hunt for safety

Hi, my name is Mathew Hunt and as an undergraduate at Washington State University my first real design project began in the fall of 2016 within the Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research Laboratory at WSU’s Pullman campus. Under the direction of Dr. Jacob Leachman, I was tasked with designing safe and efficient compressed gas bottle storage within the lab’s work bay. The project challenged both my theoretical foundations in engineering statistics and CAD modelling, as well as my ability to navigate national standards. The system has the capability to store up to nine K sized compressed gas bottle cylinders, as well as one large nitrogen dewar. To ensure the safety of students and those who work in the lab, all the bottles are secured individually with their own chaining system as to remove the ability for any compressed gas bottle cylinders to tip over. This complies with CGA standards 3.4.4 and 3.5.3, as well as NFPA standards and When transporting gas bottles a handling truck is placed conveniently within the vicinity of the system and complies with CGA standards 3.2.3, 3.2.5, 3.2.6 as well as NFPA

The final design was built in SolidWorks, and a full finite element analysis with simulated loads was conducted before final construction. This allowed for all design iterations to be made while minimizing potential labor and material costs.

Sage Pratt — The Sage of fluid management

This summer I worked primarily on designing a manifold to direct and control the flow of gaseous hydrogen through the storage end of the system in accordance with the NFPA 2 and CGA G-5.5 standards. This includes pressure relief, manual and automatic shutoff valves, provisions for inert gas purging, on vent systems for the GH2 buffer system and the LH2 Dewar. I drafted P&ID diagrams in Autodesk AutoCAD Plant 3D and used EES code to size the vent system in accordance with CGA G-5.5 Section 6.2.1 before ordering over $1000 worth of parts and tubing from Swagelok, McMaster-Carr, etc.  As of now we have received most of the necessary components and have sketched out a mockup of the manifold using scrap copper pipe. I plan to begin the final assembly of the manifold and vent system soon.

Jasper Haney and our handy new machine shop

Jasper led the project to build our new machineshop in TFRB 113. He refurbished a Bridgeport-style manual milling machine with digital readouts and installed a new coldsaw. The big change though is the new plexiglass wall that separates the machining area from the assembly space. This wall creates a natural buffer layer to promote increased safety.

Kevin Cavender locked it in with Lockheed-Martin

Kevin built a wonderful computing machine — our computing cluster. He then used the cluster to complete Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) studies of a cryogenic hydrogen vortex tube. It paid off. Lockheed-Martin’s cryogenics group in Santa Barbara, CA picked his resume out of the stack an d offered him a great job. Shortly after accepting, Kevin found out he had one a prestigious NASA STARS fellowship to do a Master’s thesis. As he said to me, “I would’ve done a master’s thesis to get this job, but I got it anyways.” Well done Kevin!


Jose Ramos and the quest for LN2

During the transition into my final year at Washington State University, I worked with a small team in the HYPER lab assembling the cold-end apparatus of our H2 liquefier. The cold-end assembly consists of a custom vortex tube, heat exchanger, and Joule-Thompson valve. With the addition of recycling and compression to the hydrogen gas, we have the ability to simultaneously cool down hydrogen gas to cryogenic temperatures, and recycle the hot gas output by the vortex tube for additional cooling. Assembly of this apparatus proved to be far more interesting than I had originally thought. Many of the components found packed in between the heat exchange required custom fabrication in our lab to suit our specific needs. After assembly of the heat exchanger, vortex tube, and Joule-Thompson valve were complete, leak tests were conducted to ensure the integrity of the build. Before stepping into H2 testing, we fabricated a test bed and ran nitrogen through our system at a quarter of our operating pressure (350 psi) and measured temperature drops across the inlet and cold-end outlet. Keeping tabs on inlet and outlet temperatures will allow me to tweak the flow ratio on the hot and cold end of the vortex tube in future testing for a more efficient cooling process.



Social Thermodynamics: Hate and Terrorism

Ok, get ready for the haymaker right swing.

Jab. Jab. Jab. Here it comes!

Duck. Come back with a quick right.

What just happened?

Holy shit. I knocked him down!


It was my freshman year of college. To ‘toughen up’ the offensive lineman on the football team, we had mandatory boxing matches in one of the racquetball courts. We had head gear. A coach facilitated. All of the defensive lineman loved to watch. Somehow I, the underweight freshman, got paired to box with a Senior from Southern California who had the current best NFL bench press test — 225 pounds something like 30 times in a row. It was the first time that anyone had been knocked down, let alone a freshman against a senior, so it was now his moral obligation to pummel me.

We don’t need to delve into the details. But to make a long story short, the next week I gave a talk to middle schoolers on the importance of staying away from drugs, alcohol, and violence with a BIG black eye.

I’d always been terrified of hurting people growing up. I was over 6′ tall in the 6th grade. People would run up and hit me because I wouldn’t move or blink. A gentle giant. After all of my conflict mediation training, I wasn’t one to hate much of anything or anyone either. About the only thing I’ve really ever hated in life was a sandwich a family member in Alaska made for me from stale white bread, bologna, butter, and 4″ green onions he’d grown in an old bathtub in front of his house —  chemical terrorism.

I’ve known hate though. Growing up in Northern Idaho during the 80’s and 90’s, you could find hate if you looked for it. A few days after the Charlottesville white supremacist protest that left several people dead, I had the experience of sitting next to one of the participants on a plane. He was the real deal — iron eagle tattoos, shaved head, green military tactical hat, aviator shades, and death metal music. I know the music because after the plane taxied to the runway he put in his earbuds and I could still here the words to the music through my noise-deadening headphones. Think he’s hard to reach and empathize with now? Wait 10 years when he can’t hear you.

It’s hard to express how much hate he spewed. He swore after every announcement by the white pilot, or the cute white stewardess who had just started her training. He wanted to pick a fight with someone, anyone. Which was why it was all the more surprising to me when he pulled out his tablet and started playing a game where a Unicorn runs around in something like candy-crush. May’be it was a coping mechanism.

Hate is real. Terrorism is real. Much like violence and murders, it’s slowly going away, and not fast enough. Knowing the social dynamics to place hate into context will help us act effectively when we see hate and need to respond.

The value challenges of hate

Our value v-Meme taxonomy is just the starting point. Let’s go through the levels with specific respect to hate:

  1. Survival: depriving others of food, water, and shelter.
  2. Tribal: our tribe has always been at war with the other tribe. Read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.
  3. Authoritarian: Fascism, supremecy, anything that increases your power over others.
  4. Legalistic/Absolutistic: Anyone not following the rules. One religion/constitution necessitates fighting another.
  5. Performance: Anyone cheating the system or trying to limit gains.
  6. Communitarian: Capitalist pigs that will destroy the planet.

As we go down the list, it becomes harder and more contrived to find good examples of hate. Once you get to systemic, and realize the necessity of most everyone in the system, it gets really hard to hate. But these values sets alone don’t necessitate hate. Being more than two levels removed, per Dr. Chuck’s intuition, just means you have trouble communicating values to someone else — hate is something different.

Hate is an intense, passionate dislike for something. We don’t inherently dislike something or someone we don’t understand. But it’s not hard to teach us to hate it if we don’t understand something. All it takes is a friend to say that whatever it is, it’s against us. Then you fake it till you make it. Remember that the v-Meme levels are not opposed, but orthogonal (90°) to one another. And if we have no way to connect with the values of something, we have little capacity for the topic, and the math says it will take a lot of resources, and time, to change that. Lower down on the v-Memes it’s really easy to think anyone and everyone opposes you and your values.

Combine this values challenge with our bell-shaped curve grading system in education. When you realize 20% of the population is exemplary and 20% of the population has a diagnosable disorder, and there are 5 grades (20% As and 20% Fs), you can see how we do so much of this to ourselves. Teach someone that they don’t get it over and over again, that they are not valued or contributing, that they are not as important as the minority, and you’ve got a recipe for hate. Those who were abused continue the cycle of abuse.

The Nelson Mandela quote rings true, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” But why is it easier to love?

Hate and the anti-empathic

We’re born to empathize. Otherwise babies would never mirror that beautiful smile and laugh or play with others. But why are those filled with hate so difficult to empathize with? If you thought you were at war with someone else’s values, would you connect with them? The values of hate are locked in by teaching the anti-empathy cues of conflict: 1. Stonewalling — refusing to mirror or acknowledge, 2. Bullying — abusing someone else’s emotions, 3. Sociopathy — disrupting the empathic connections of other groups and individuals in order to isolate them, 4. Psychopathy/gas-lighting — re-construing events to create doubt and cause others to question their recollection of events.

This presents a problem. How are we supposed to help others not hate, to a happier life, to understand them and their cultures to ultimately enrich both of us, if they deliberately disrupt our empathy channels for connection?

Fixing hate

Anti-empathy, or extreme movements, are inherently not sustainable due to the lack of required empathy. A neighboring community from one I grew up with in Northern Idaho had the unfortunate luck of having an Aryan Nation leader move to town and buy a compound. Neo-nazi marches ensued. The towns people got together and developed a strategy: 1. They would never attend an event in counter protest (the empathy disconnect is what fuels the anti-empathic), 2. They would have counter-rallies far away and form fundraising campaigns where the amount of money donated was directly correlated to the time the neo-nazis marched, 3. They would wait and let the legal system work. The strategy was a success. One day a car driving by the Aryan nation compound backfired, the security goons immediately opened fire on the car, nearly killing the African-American couple inside. Attempted murder charges ensued, the compound was seized, and problem removed — mostly.

Changing hate fast is as challenging as wealth-inequality. It likely takes a traumatic event associated with extreme neural plasticity. Given the value conflict proposition of hate, forcing or contriving traumatic events is not advisable, as you could permanently ingrain stonewalling and breach trust if discovered. But we can be ready to help when nature naturally causes it to happen. Just like all of our other social phase change problems, G = U + Pv -TS. when nature simplifies things to survival and ratchets up the stress and density, better be ready with resources and empathy.

Changing hate slowly, and persistently is much more pragmatic. Hate happens. Outlawing is merely suppression, but boundaries are essential. The strongest way to build foundational, core empathy values is in childhood. Want to solve generational war? Mix the children. Teach them how to empathize. Get them playing together before parents can imbue incompatible values and anti-empathy tendencies. Then rely on the combination of neural plasticity and empathy to place the different values they are taught into appropriate context.

We also need to change the performance metrics of our educational system. Everyone has value to our communities, the challenge is finding and cultivating it. I’m not saying everyone is equal by any means — we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But, in general, the more empathy we have for others, the harder it is to hate.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )


Social Thermodynamics: Empathy for Autism Spectrum Disorders

I heard a loud BANG!

The lights flickered.

I heard a scream. “OH MY GOD NO!!!! JAKE HELP!”

I ran upstairs into the kitchen and immediately smelled smoke.

I looked around. My mom was holding my sister down in a chair.

On the other side of the kitchen a black circle surrounded an outlet with a burnt fork lying in front of it.

My sister, two years younger than me and in the 7th grade, had just tried to hurt herself, badly.

Somehow, despite my social issues, I was always the prodigy in school. My sister, a year behind, was always in my shadow under a burden of high expectations. She had been diagnosed with a reading disorder, a developmental disorder, and eventually Asperger’s – a label that was eventually lumped into the Autism Spectrum of Disorders (ASD). Her act of burying a fork in an electrical outlet was a cry for help, a plea for connection, to be understood, the desire for what she could not attain: empathy.

Defining the Autism Spectrum

The National Institute of Health has a primer on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The primer lists several of the traditional restrictive symptoms associated with the spectrum:

  • “Repeating certain behaviors or having unusual behaviors
  • Having overly focused interests, such as with moving objects or parts of objects
  • Having a lasting, intense interest in certain topics, such as numbers, details, or facts.”

The primer also provides the following list of strengths:

  • “Having above-average intelligence – the CDC reports  46% of ASD children have above average intelligence
  • Being able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time
  • Being strong visual and auditory learners
  • Excelling in math, science, music, or art.”

Autism spectrum disorder symptoms pertaining to social issues are also provided, I added the empathy pyramid categories in parentheses:

  • “Making little or inconsistent eye contact (mirroring)
  • Having a tendency to look at and listen to other people less often (rational/mirroring)
  • Responding in an unusual way when others show anger, distress, or affection (emotional)
  • Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversations (rational)
  • Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond (rational)
  • Using words that seem odd, out of place, or have a special meaning known only to those familiar with that person’s way of communicating (rational)
  • Having facial expressions, movements, and gestures that do not match what is being said (emotional)
  • Having trouble understanding another person’s point of view or being unable to predict or understand other people’s actions. (conscious/rational)”

My sister is brilliantly gifted. She sees colors, flavors, shapes, and sounds on an entirely more advanced level than I can. I’ve often described her as a Macintosh (computer) in a PC world. Social situations stress her to the point of agoraphobia. This combination of beauty, tragically limited by our society, is perhaps what enables her to produce stunning art. One of her earliest and favorite pieces, a watercolor self-portrait, is relevant to this chapter:

Alone — Water color on canvas (used with permission)

One of my friend’s once described people on the spectrum as having “a brilliant processor, but a crummy detector”, which works if the detector is related to social issues.

Understanding Autism from both Values and Empathy

I’ve had brilliant academic friends tell me that if I want to advance my engineering and science research, find graduate students on the Autism spectrum. They said this for good reason. My sister, like most on the spectrum, is capable of sophistication that most of us cower before. If I had a well defined problem, and the tools mostly established, I would get far and away the most sophisticated and quality work out of someone on the spectrum. As society has evolved more sophisticated work, and if you believe our genetics help prepare us for the future, it’s only reasonable to expect an increase in percentage of autism spectrum individuals.

A complex taxonomy of values v-Memes exists, and the question remains how this relates to those on the spectrum. Remember that the values are stacked, which doesn’t mean some are better than others, they are all needed in appropriate balance: 1. Survival, 2. Tribal/Familial, 3. Authoritarian, 4. Legalistic/Absolutistic, 5. Performance, 6. Communitarian, 7. Systemic. Remember the symptoms from the NIH — folks on the spectrum have serious skills in sophisticated rule following and tend towards the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme. What’s more, if the rule following pertains to auditory/sensory behavior, such as art, folks with ASD likely have superior performance abilities. Imagine the piano world without Glenn Gould — the autism spectrum can be a very, very beautiful thing.

A troubling trend over the past decade has been the association of autism spectrum individuals with mass shootings. Autism spectrum individuals, like the rest of us, have needs for authority, power, and control. If power and control is a strong v-Meme in an individual, and the empathy detector is broken, you’ve got a recipe for tragedy. Starting early in life by giving ASD individuals control over the empathic caring and nurturing of pets is both challenging and important — especially with my sister.

Asking ASD individuals to curate Community, Systemic, and other group based tasks is likely challenging, but not impossible. How to develop ASD individuals is the question.

Changing Individuals with ASD

Empathy in ASD individuals is a long-term investment. The Gibbs energy function for phase change adds insight to the challenges of developing those with ASD:

G = U + Pv – TS

For phase change to occur, indicated by G2 – G1 being negative, there needs to be a fall in values (U) and stress (P), coupled with an increase in density (1/v), empathy (S), and resources (T). ASD individuals already have a very fine tuned value focus, don’t handle stress or groups well, and are empathicly challenged. Change will be slow, if at all, over the course of a lifetime. They will likely be very consistent through time, even if they can be mercurial in the moment.

Looking back on this equation, and all of our efforts to change my sister, to force her to understand, were often futile and usually ended in frustration. The thing that needed to change was me and my understanding of her and how she excelled. Most of this happened over time while I was away in college. During this time a psychologist, who is nothing short of a hero, volunteered for over a decade to empathize with my sister. Now, she turns to my sister to help her empathize with new ASD clients.

Over time, now in her thirties and living alone, my sister has learned how to be happy and empathic. She is one of the most empathic individuals I know towards the caring of her pets, and the few friendships she has developed. While she still struggles in stressful social situations with strangers, she is doing beautiful art, that regularly changes my view of reality.

I had serious reservations about writing this with my sister as a focus. When I brought this up with her, her response was simple, “If I can help or contribute in any way, I’ll feel valuable.” Helping everyone find value is probably the greatest empathy challenge of society and one that often starts in ourselves.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )


Social Thermodynamics: The Phase Change that led to ‘Kind of Blue’

Shit. Screwed up the note.

Try the other pattern.

Another sour note. SHIT.

I’m not going to pull it off. That’s it. I’ve had enough of this…

(insert sound of record player screeching to a halt)

It was zero hour Jazz band during my senior year in high school. It was 7:10 am. If you’re not familiar with jazz, it’s meant to be played after 9 pm. Jazz is uniquely performance-based in value v-Memes — once you’ve mastered the scales, rhythm, and your instrument, you’re suppose to improvise. Seriously. You have the freedom to solo however you want within the bounds of the chordal progression accompanied by only the drums, piano, and bass. A solo is uniquely empathic — if someone drops a glass at the end of the bar you can run with it as material for your solo and your audience will love it. Me? I liked the non-conformist attitude of jazz. I was really too busy with sports and other things to get any good at it. Besides, Performance + Improvisation + Empathy + 7:10 am = not happening + cruel + unusual.

So there I was, 2nd chair trombone, proceeding to bone it in front of the student teacher and my friends.

Nobody was awake. I couldn’t play the notes.

That’s when I decided to take a shit — in musical sense.

With the trombone slide (the thing that controls the note pitch) all the way in I started shaking it on it’s way out, playing the whole way.


The student teacher got an awkward look on her face like someone had farted.

My friend in the front row turned around and said, “What was that?!”

That’s when one of my cool friends who played first chair trumpet did something I’ll never forget.

He screamed, “OHH YAA!!!!” and proceeded to belt out a mimic of what I’d done, entirely in key, and cool.

i can still hear it after 15 years.

The rest of the band followed suit and burst in with the mimicking — all out shit storm.

The song we had been playing was gone. The band was hijacked. We’d become something more, together, and we could feel it. The head band teacher came out of his office fired up, “Ya!!! You guys came to play!”

Such is the vibe when phase change happens to unsuspecting high school jazz band members. But even the pros succumb to phase changes from time to time.

Miles Davis’ masterpiece album ‘Kind of Blue‘, released in 1959, is widely considered the greatest jazz album of all time. The album established what became known as “modal jazz” — what some have called the primary contribution of jazz to the philosophy of music. I must admit, no matter how often the teachers played it to the class, I had no idea why everyone liked ‘Kind of Blue’. It was different, and I didn’t understand the significance until much later in life.

The Phase Change that led to ‘Kind of Blue’

My favorite jazz album is Stan Kenton’s ‘Cuban Fire!‘ released in 1956. ‘Cuban Fire!’ much like the name implies is incredibly hot, intense, and sophisticated. High screaming trumpets like Maynard Ferguson and others had incredible “heavy lifting” just to perform the pieces of the list and often had to be interchanged among songs. It was almost unplayably sophisticated. Not much room for solos either. Kenton could force the bounds of what was possible, he was white (which mattered at the time) and well financed. For over a decade this was the epitome of jazz — until things changed.

In 1945, composer George Russell was talking with a young 18 year old trumpet player named Miles Davis. When Russell asked Davis what his musical aims were, Davis replied, “to learn all the changes.” Russell inferred the response as newer and broader ways to relate to chords, as Davis was already an accomplished soloist. Shortly thereafter, Russell was hospitalized for 16 months with tuberculosis. It was during this time that he developed the core of his theory, which he later published in 1953 as “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” The tome efficiently lays out the art and science of ‘tonal gravity’ and blends methods for associating scales, including minors, to traditional chords.

Through the early to mid 1950’s Davis had solidified an ensemble focusing on the jazz style known as ‘hard bop’ — an extension of rhythm and blues. But during this time, Davis had become increasing frustrated with the loss of freedom associated with the increasing complex chord progressions in ‘hard bop’. Russell’s ‘Lydian Chromatic Concepts’ offered an escape from traditional major and minor key relationships in the form of improvisation based on chord and chord changes. As one writer put it, “the musician’s palette of melodic colours is considerably wider. The harmonic language is enriched, since modes bring new harmonic structures into the aural mix.” With pressure mounting, new values to act on solidified, the potential for new modal  connections emerging with a connected band, the conditions were prime for phase change. G = U +Pv -TS

‘Kind of Blue’ is brilliant in it’s simplicity. Just 2 saxophones, base, drummer, pianist, and a trumpet (Davis) completed the ensemble. Pianist Bill Evans kept notes of the preparation which included only sketches of scales and melody lines for improvisation. Davis gave them little to no time for rehearsal. The group only needed two recording sessions to complete the album and at least one of the songs was played start to finish, live, for the first time. But if you listen to any of the songs, you immediately here the modal tones played by Davis — it was all that was needed. The band was connected and understood the theory. No need for sophistication. Instant phase change and history. Perhaps the last great act of jazz.

The Sophistication versus Evolution trends of Music

Pick any genre or period of music history and you’ll see a trend towards increasing sophistication before evolution to a new, fundamentally different way of playing. Atonal modality like Davis’ has modern connotations with ‘Drake’ trying to break free of the pop sophistication.

Sophistication versus evolution can even be seen within albums and individual musical scores. ‘Tannhauser’ and other operas use increasing density of notes, intensity, and simplicity to transition to more beautiful choral transitions when the main character has a transcending realization.

One of my friends once told me, “never play your high note in public.” In many ways this makes sense from a sophistication versus evolution perspective. We know when you’re played out. Time to start looking for change.

Frank Oppenheimer once said, “Art, for it to be valid, must correspond to a plausible human experience.” Even music, it seems, knows the conditions for social phase change and can communicate this without saying a word. The chords and melodies were always there, we just couldn’t see the connections or ‘all the changes’ as Davis would say.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )



Washington State University