Friday, December 28, 2007

Cowards

I remember after the September 11th attacks six years ago all of the talking heads were tossing around the word "cowards" to describe the terrorists. I was first confused, and then a little annoyed. Yes, what they did was clearly malicious and ignorant, but were they cowards? The idea that they would sacrifice themselves for their cause struck me not as cowardly, but brave. Surely what they had accomplished was not easy.

After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto yesterday, politicians are once again referring to an act of suicide as "cowardly." George Bush himself said so. But this time I'm beginning to understand what they mean.

Acts of suicide terrorism are cowardly because they allow the suicide bomber to opt out of the situation without having to do any actual work. They feel as if they have done something worthy for their cause. They can now retire to their afterlife (presumably a good one) in peace.

I am willing to acknowledge that the conditions in which many of these young men grow up must be horrible. I do not know the life details of the man who blew himself up yesterday, but I can imagine that he probably lived in fear of hunger and lacked proper medical care. When he was offered a way out of it all, a way that may have brought honor and money to his family, I can see why he might have been tempted.

But when he accepted that role as a suicide bomber, he did not care about how it would affect his community. He would never see the community again after his death. He was doing it for himself.

Bravery is taking action that will start a positive change in your community, regardless of how it might affect you. That is why bravery has often become associated with self-sacrifice. It is about putting others ahead of yourself.

Cowardice is making the easiest choice for yourself, regardless of how it might affect your community. Suicide bombing is a cowardly act. Today it is more clear than ever that the world needs more brave men, and fewer cowards.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Clarification

If some guy says that a picture of a group of people is good, what he means is that he himself looks good in it.

If some guy says that a picture of a group of people is bad, what he means is that he himself does not look good in it.

Fruit Bias

There's no doubt that monkeys have probably been on to something all along: bananas are good. Indeed, not only do they taste good, but they are part of a balanced meal. Most sweets, on the other hand, begin to drain your energy after a short term spike.

Unfortunately, most animals are quite poor at time-based learning. It is very difficult for us to establish a time-delayed contiguity between two stimuli. We may know that eating a slice of fudge will drain us of energy in an hour, but when we look at chocolate all we think of is the short term energy boost. My heart rate is speeding up right now from merely writing about chocolate.

When I think about a banana, I reach no such mental nirvana. Let me get this straight: I know that bananas taste good. Every time that I actually eat a banana, or some melon, or an apple, or most any fruit, I am surprised by how good it tastes.

But if presented with the choice between fruit and chocolate as a desert, I will almost always prefer the chocolate. This is counter intuitive to my long-term goals of maintaining good health, my short-term goals of having energy an hour later, and even my immediate goals: a good banana tastes no better nor worse than any type of candy. It is clear that I am biased against fruit. I offer three explanations:

a) Social cues make fruit seem less sexy. You bring an apple to your teacher, you don't steal one and eat it while no one is looking.

b) My aforementioned inability to see a time-delayed relationship, which makes sweets seem nicer than they really are.

c) The clean-up factor involved in most types of fruit. You have to deal with the banana peel, or the apple core, or the little part of the strawberry that nobody eats. Although it is sort of bad ass to throw an apple core on the side of the road, and have somebody look at you funny, only to respond that "it's biodegradable."

Anyway, I'm biased against fruit, and now that I realize that, hopefully I'll begin to work against it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

One the whole, I'm not that mad about it

While I was reading this story about a modern art museum robbery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, it struck me that an artist might be pleased to find out that his painting had been stolen in a major heist. I certainly would be smugly happy to know that my work had caused such a commotion. There's a little Helen of Troy in each of us.

It also strikes me that imitation is not the highest form of flattery. Theft is.

A suggestion for imdb.com that would be really money

Why not allow users to see how their friends have rated movies? Right now you can vote on movies, your votes can be added to the average score, and you can make your votes public. But there is no way to see how a particular individual has rated a particular movie without a substantial amount of effort.

What I'm suggesting is that each movie's page has a hyperlink right below the average score titled "your friend's scores" that leads you to a separate page. There you find a list of how highly each of your friends have rated the movie out of 10. And for people with no friends, there would be a simple way to add people whose opinions you respect onto the list. If you enjoy somebody's written review, you could "subscribe" to their rankings and their opinions on movies will be added to your list. Of course, not everybody will have seen every movie, but this option could tell you which movies your friends have seen and whether or not they liked them.

Note that people are already ranking tons of movies and that these rankings are already public, so this shouldn't be all that hard to configure. Make it happen, imdb! This probably could also work as a facebook application, although it would have to start from the ground up.

By the way, I've been on a tear of watching movies this break, here are my most recent scores:

Eastern Promises - 10/10
The Shining - 9/10
1408 - 6/10
National Treasure Part II - 5/10
No Country for Old Men - 9/10

Merry Christmas guys.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Diagram of a neuron, and why simple is often (always?) better

The Children's Hospital Boston has an instructive interactive diagram explaining some of the electrical and chemical processes in the neuron. Although it probably goes into slightly less detail, quite frankly it does a solid job of summarizing the information I learned about neurons in my physiological psychology class this semester.

It is strange, then, that it is advertised as "for children." What kind of children are they talking about? I didn't see any references to Digimon. This reminds me of Eliezer Yudkowsky's post about when he tried to explain Bayesian inference at the elementary school level. It ended up being wildly successful for college-level students. I have two conclusions:

1) Don't allow hubris to prevent you from reading things aimed for a lower level than you consider yourself. It will be easier to read and it will help you ground yourself on the basics.

2) If you are explaining something, it might be helpful to pretend that you are explaining it to somebody at a much lower technical level than you really are. You shouldn't admit it, of course (to avoid problem #1 altogether), but it will help the actual understanding of your readers tremendously.

Of course, this all assumes that you know what you're talking about. If you don't, you should probably go ahead and use as much technical jargon and as many acronyms as possible.

Link to the diagram of the neuron. (Hat tip: Mind Hacks)

Yes, I encourage you to start a blog

I am always enthusiastic when somebody mentions that they might want to start a blog. Wildly so, some might say. I'll offer to help you set it up (although it is absurdly intuitive), and throw out some ideas about what to write about.

Why do I do so? Aside from believing that their writing will be interesting to read, there is a tremendous advantage for me to have friends who blog. A few reasons:

a) Staying in touch: We all have tons of difficulty staying in touch with old friends. Keeping a blog makes it so simple to keep in touch with what people are doing, and what people are thinking. If you post a couple of paragraphs every day, they will automatically update to my RSS reader, and I can probably read everything you write in around 5 minutes a week. That's not a lot to be intimately connected to what somebody is thinking from anywhere in the world.

b) Other people who blog can't make fun of me behind my back for doing so.

c) Site ranking: As of now, the #1 goal of this blog is to remain the first choice when somebody searches for andy mckenzie in Google. Fooling the algorithms is not easy, so the simplest way to make sure that I maintain my spot at the top of the results is to have people that link to me. I link to you, you link to me; it's just a little quid pro quo between friends. And if there's mutual masturbation involved (and there generally is), that's just icing on the cake.

So when I tell you to start writing, I mean it. Your blog will not be a time drain, it will be a pleasure. Join us, and don't look back.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The top 5 all time home run leaders

1) Barry Bonds - 762
2) Hank Aaron - 755
3) Babe Ruth - 714
4) Willie Mays - 660
5) Sammy Sosa - 609

Truly incredible feats by each and every one of these players. Their efforts transcend sports.

(Follow-up to Updated AFC East Standings, Week 14)

The Conformity Theory

A couple of weeks ago our basketball team played in The Hudson Valley Shootout in Bard. The games were fun, but the most interesting part of the tournament was how many fans Bard had in their gym. My rough guess was 150 students (out of 1800 undergrads), but it could have been more. And they were rowdy. I heard a story that four years ago when we last played there the fans cut out a picture of our best player's head and stuck it on a poster with a picture of George Bush's body.

Those of you who don't know much about Bard probably assume that it is some sort of big jock school, a liberal arts version of USC or something. But anybody that has seen the student body knows otherwise. These kids are artsy. I saw more wool sweaters and tight jeans during two hours at Bard than I saw in four years of high school. They're too trendy to shop at H&M, too politically heterodox to vote Green. They're too fucking punk rock to listen to punk rock.

So why do they go in droves to watch their basketball team? Basketball, the mainstream sport that was started by a crotchety old guy from the YMCA? I think it's because they're so non-conformist that they conform.

If everybody starts out as conforming, some cool people will probably end up not conforming in order to stand out. But if all of the cool kids are doing it, then everybody else will too. Now most everybody is non-conforming. So the next generation of non-conformists are so-non-conformist that they refuse to conform with their fellow non-conformists, and they conform. Viola, watching Bard basketball is cool again. This diagram should help explain my point (click on the image to make it bigger):

The numbers refer to degrees of coolness. So 0 corresponds to your average Mathlete competitor, and 720 is reserved for Chris Brown driving down to Tijuana in a convertible smoking a blunt, with his arm around Jessica Alba. Moreover, the numbers can apply to both individual people and activities. In the example of Bard basketball, the coolness of the activity jumped from 180, where nobody went, to 360, where suddenly it was cool enough to go again. If this all seems complicated, good. Keeping up with the cool kids can't be easy, otherwise everybody would be cool.

My advice to sports teams at trendy liberal art schools that want to get more fans at their games? Go semi-underground and market the team as conformist or boring. Maybe write an article in the campus newspaper under a pen name about how traditional sports are washed up and irrelevant. Explain in layman's terms why nobody watches the games anymore. Then sit back and watch the crowd tip back in your favor.

Updated AFC East Standings, Week 14

New England Patriots (13-0)*
Bufallo Bills (7-6)
New York Jets (3-10)
Miami Dolphins (0-13)

* = the Patriots are huge cheaters.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Does embracing your narcissism mean that you have to feel superior than other people?

I just took an online psychology study for extra credit, and while I don't want to ruin the experimental integrity of the study (so if you are planning on taking it, don't read this post), one of the questions has stuck with me. The section asks you to rate which attitude you most agree with. So either you believe more strongly that,

a) I am not better or no worse than most people
or b) I think I am a special person.

There are some social cues working against the second answer, and overconfidence bias working against choosing the first answer. I suppose that this question aims to determine which of these forces is stronger, and hopefully illuminate how narcissistic you are.

Tyler Durden insists in Fight Club that you "are not a special, unique snowflake." But I think that for the purposes of positive psychology and pragmatism (ie, getting shit done) it is more useful to consider yourself as at least a little bit special. If you don't think of yourself as special, why should you even do anything? You might as well wait for somebody else to do it first. And as Victor Frankl describes in Man's Search for Meaning, a purposeful life is one of our core human needs. So there is plenty of reason to choose option b, and nobody can fault you for that.

But there may be reason to fault those who believe that they are better or worse than others. To not believe that you are "not better or worse than most people," or in essence to believe that you are intrinsically better than most other people at just life in general, is a scary thought. It's the idea that led Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment that it was forgivable to commit murder. So there is also very good reason to choose option a.

So here's the problem that this question poses us, and I would say that this question is indicative of our society's general view towards narcissism. Either we think of ourselves as special, and better than other people, or we think of ourselves as boring, but the same worth as everybody else. Do you have to feel superior to others in order to embrace your narcissism? Or, can you think of yourselves as special and still assign yourself the same value as you assign everybody else? Let me know what you think.