Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Evolutionary psychology is fruitless without neuroscience

That's the thrust of this paper by J. Pankseep et al (hat tip: Mind Hacks). It grounds the field of evolutionary psychology by holding some of its claims to the same scientific standards necessary in other fields of evolutionary research.

One of the primary points of the paper is that human changes in brain-based behavior may be due to epigenetics and cultural selection (through exaptation, perhaps), and are not solely attributable to natural selection.

It also looks at the HPA axis and evaluates its role in regulating social interactions in animal models. It stresses the "resident-intruder" experimental set-up in rats, in which the intruder is almost always the "loser" of the social interaction and exhibits physiological changes following this defeat, including loss of weight, testicular regression, and increased fearfulness. These changes are especially evident when the "loser" rat is not placed back in a social housing condition but is instead housed in isolation. While we should be careful not to excessively generalize these findings to humans, they are obviously exciting.

Well worth a read for those interested in either field.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tuesday Statisticz: Dog Parks and City Safety

I wanted to see if parks had any correlation with city safety. My a priori expectation was that more parks would make a city safer, because I normally think of park goers as law abiding citizens. But then I happened upon this chart showing the number of dog parks in various cities, which I thought was even cooler. So I went back to these old crime statistics from 2006 (the "offenses known to law enforcement") and correlated the amount of crime in US cities with the number of dog parks in them. Here is a chart showing dog parks versus property crime:

Each of the dots represents one city, with a distinct crime rate and number of dog parks per capita. As you can see, r square here is nonexistent. There is no correlation. Next, here's dog parks versus violent crime:

I couldn't combine these charts because the y-axis values of the two data sets are so different, since there are many more property crimes than violent ones. In this chart, there appears to be an inverse relationship, although it is small, with an r square of merely 0.023. But is it significant? A student's t-test (t=1.18, p > .05) tells us no. So for all intents and purposes, there's nothing going on here.

Finally, just for fun, dog parks and arson:

Once again, there is nothing of importance here. Although I do like that shade of orange.

What can we draw from these statistics? For one thing, maybe a park isn't as effective a way to reduce crime as I had assumed. I suppose that growing up in picnic-central Mill Valley may have created this perception.

Also, this data gives us no reason to suspect that a dog owner will be any less likely to burn your house down than anybody else. So the next time you see your neighbor walking his dog down the street and think nothing of it, check to make sure he has no lighter fluid on him. If he does, even if it is ostensibly "for the barbecue at the Anderson's", you should be afraid. Very, very afraid.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Another conversation

"Have you read... Lolita?"

"Yeah, I just love how Nabo-"

"Have you read... The Catcher in the Rye?"

"Of course! It was my favorite book in mi-"

"Have you read... The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?"


"Oh, you should really read that book. It's very good."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Overconfidence bias in frisbee tossing

When I make an error and overshoot my target in any direction, it seems like a small error since both my target and the fallen frisbee are far away from me. When my partner makes an error, I am able to see precisely how far away from me the frisbee has landed.

We perceive two points far from ourselves as closer than two points near to ourselves, even if the two sets of points are both "in truth" the same distance apart.

I perceive my errors as more innocuous than they really are. I see my partner's errors, which affect me, with perfect clarity.

Can this be applied to other two agent scenarios where our actions affect others and their actions affect us? I would say so. The farther away we are from the consequences of our actions, the smaller we perceive them to be, and the more we overestimate our own abilities.

And by the way, the thought that I may be worse at frisbee than I already judge myself to be is a very scary thought. A very scary thought, indeed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tuesday Statisticz: The Dude would have voted Libertarian

"Smokey, this not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules." - The Big Lebowski

I've always associated bowling with Miller Lite, cigarettes, and the 50s. And when I visualize this picture, I can't help but think that everybody who goes bowling also votes Republican. It's like candy corn and carnivals. But is there really something about throwing a ball down a lane that makes you want to give your soul to the devil? Just kidding, but seriously, that's what this Tuesday Statisticz is set to find out.

I figured that the best way to do it would be to compare states. So I found the number of bowling alleys in each state (here), and the number of people that voted for Bush compared to Kerry for each state in 2004 (here). First, here's the states with the most bowling alleys per capita:

There are 4 levels here: the states with less than 1.5 bowling alleys per 100,000 people (like California) are clear, the states with 1.5 to 3 bowling alleys per 100,000 (like Maine) are grey, the states with 3 to 4.5 bowling alleys per 100,000 (like Wisconsin) are dark grey, and the state with more than 4.5 bowling alleys per 100,000 people (like North Dakota) are dark green. I know it's hard to tell the difference between dark grey and grey, but squint for me, this map was hard to make and I can't figure out how to fix it.

Next, we have the presidential voting by state in 2004. We've all seen this graph more than we've seen Jamie-Lynn Spears's boyfriend, so I tried to spice it up a little bit:

There are technically 5 levels here: dark blue states that voted more than 57% for Kerry (NY, a few other in the Northeast), light blue for states that voted between 57 and 52% for Kerry (ie, Hawaii), white for states that were "toss-ups" between 48-52%, darker red for states that voted more than 52% for Bush (like Florida), and light red for states that went predominantly for Bush (like Texas). I know that it is hard to tell the difference between dark blue and light blue, but I wanted somehow to differentiate between states that really went for a candidate and states where the populace didn't have a serious preference.

Looking at the maps, do you think that there is a correlation? Think of your answer now, I don't want any hindsight bias on my conscience.

Here's the scatterplot for votes versus bowling alleys, along with a best fit line:

It's tempting to look at the r squared value and assume that there is a pretty good correlation. But we can do better than that, and use an actual measure of significance. I found that the result was indeed significant (p < .01, t = 3, two tails, df = 48). The effect size at 0.148 isn't humongous, but it is almost certainly nonrandom. The amount of bowling alleys per capita in a state does account for a positive correlation with the number of people that will vote Republican in that state.

There are a lot of different possible third variables that could be at play here, including average temperature (notice how the bowling alleys are mostly in the North?) and distance from a major ocean (where there may be other distractions). But somebody else will have to do those regressions. I'm off to drink a White Russian.

(Thanks to Andy Eggers for providing the R code for these maps.)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Laptops in class

A long haired boy raised his hand midway through my Faulkner class today to add his commentary on the Sound and the Fury. The teacher probably thought of it as innocuous, given that his insight was reasonably astute.

But us students sitting behind him got a different take. We were able to see that while speaking, he was simultaneously playing the best-selling online RPG World of Warcraft on his laptop. In fact, while he was making this comment I'm pretty sure that his paladin character got into a fight with some tentacled monster. Which means that he was commenting about Quentin's character in one world, while in another world he was (presumably) fighting for the forces of good over evil. There's no way to be sure how these two activities informed one another, but I suspect that it made his comment more intense and forceful.

It's the sort of thing that may have aggroed some, but quite frankly, I was impressed.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Worst of Andy

I have kind of wanted to delete some of my old posts because, to be quite frank with you, some of them make me want to go back in time to slap myself. They make me cringe, and they make me sweat. For a long time, their removal seemed like the only option.

But that would be self-censorship, right? And in our age of transparency, that's not only dishonest but imprudent. If there are skeletons in your closet, they are going to come out, so it may as well happen on your own terms. So here they are, in all their glory, the worst posts from this blog.

1) What I'm Reading, 7/1/07. A direct quote in response to this post: "Nobody cares what you are reading, Andy. If it's not funny there's no point." Point taken, I will focus on my niche whenever I can. Plus, now that I have Shelfari people can go here to see what books I'm reading, here to see my delicious tags, or here to see my shared items from google reader. And if you haven't realized that this whole thing was a roundabout way for me to brag about how much I read, you don't know me well enough.

2) This post on Ruckus Media, which I used for about two days and then switched to just downloading from iTunes so I could put the songs onto my iPod. This was the post that made me decide to never endorse a product until I myself had used it for more than a week.

3) The two times I linked to videos. I know that some of my friends do it, but I'm sorry, I don't like it when people link to YouTube et cetera. There's so much stuff to keep up with on the internet and only so much time in the day. If you find a world-class video now and then, feel free to show me it in person or through an e-mail. Maybe I'm a purist, but I think that blogging should be mostly for writing, and I loathe loading times.

4) This post on poker. I hate it when other people discuss the bad "beats" they had at the poker table, and I shouldn't hold myself to a double standard. I wasn't even gambling for money, so it couldn't be more irrelevant to you, my valued reader. You all could be anywhere in the world right now, but you're right here with me, and I appreciate that.

5) I don't even know what I was talking about here, here, or here. Don't click on those, whatever you do.

6) All of these stupid, pointless, you could care less movie reviews. Yikes! And I think I left a few out. Now I crowdsource my opinions to imdb and save everybody a lot of valuable time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Words vs. action

Same day, same NYT science section, yet radically different:

Bush sets greenhouse gas emissions goal.

Businesses in Bay Area may pay fee for emissions.

Greg Mankiw may soon have to add the Bay Area to his Pigou club. President Bush, on the other hand, will probably not be invited.

These days those days

"He was a Republican because his father before him was a Republican and because this county was Republican."

That's from Dreiser's An American Tragedy, which is by the way not a tragedy because of this sentence. Please note that you could replace "Republican" with "Democrat" and the message would be the same; I am not evangelizing either way. Also note that this novel was published in 1925, a full 80 years ago. An appetizer for contemplation.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tuesday Statisticz: God vs. JK Rowling

"The revolution will not go down better with coke." - Gil Scott-Heron

A commenter on the Top 10 Christ Figures questioned why The Boy Who Lived was not on my list. This is the way that we would have had the debate, say, 10 years ago.

My first move would have been to claim my credentials on the subject. I have read Harry Potter (especially the earlier books) more times that you can possibly imagine. I used to play a game where I would close my eyes and have my mom read a random line from one of the first three books and I would try to guess what page it was on. I was pretty good at this game. Also, my blog is the tenth result on google when you search for christ figure (I'm coming for you, Wikipedia!). Clearly I have a degree of authority on the matter, which in the old days I would have swung to my advantage.

Although the argument would have probably been over after my credentials were established, I would still have indulged my audience. I would have made flowing statements like, "Potter may be the paragon of religion for some readers, but in a very Orwellian sense he remains a steadfast member of the Austrian school." I would said that if Harry is Christ, then it follows that Hermoine is Eve and Dumbledore's cloak must be the biblical coat of many colors. And I would have made pithy attacks on my opponent, such as "Mr Matt's nonsensical arguments lack form, structure, and are revealing of his lilliputian disregard for scientific vigor." The audience would cheer and applaud me, although my argument would likewise lack empiricism.

But that was then. This is now. I found some data from Belief Net on Harry Potter, where they had a vote on this specific question, and the results render any such discussion useless:

The future is data. The revolution will be charted and regressed.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Don't trip

There is a lot of pressure on college graduates to get a money pumping position immediately upon receiving a degree.

My friends Jer and Joe followed a different path (which I would say most people probably end up in to some extent) and Jer chronicles their adventures in his post this morning. It's a cool idea, transparency about what's going on in your life, and he accomplishes it eloquently. I'm happy to see heterodox viewpoints getting their outlet a fuera de traditional media. Check it out.

It also leads me to a bigger question. Will people continue blogging their whole lives? The internet as we know it may change, but if that happened there would probably be some way to transfer content. I remember somebody asked me a couple of weeks ago if I was ever bored at college, and I replied that I don't think I could ever be bored anywhere with an internet connection. In large part that is due to the blogosphere. Keep writing your whole life, Jer. I'll be listening.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Notes from the Buddha, part V

Probably the facet of Buddhism that I appreciate the most is that they wouldn't mind any of my jokes about the religion. I'm pretty sure that the lama would laugh if he saw my chart on the Buddha's caloric intake, and then he would probably shrug his shoulders.

Before each of his three (short) teachings on Buddhist philosophy, the lama told us that at any point we could ask questions. And afterwards we would have question and answer sessions where he would literally wait until the 10 or so students thought of something to say. It was like being in class when the teacher asks you about a reading on Moby Dick that clearly nobody has done. This was awesome, because they were essentially admitting that there were other viewpoints out there, and that it was OK to voice them.

Another important note is that as much as I joke about not having desires, all of that meditating and chai tea really did put me into good mood. I'm still feeling awesome a week later, although that could be the coffee talking.

This concludes my mini-series on Buddhism, but it may not be the end of my inquisition into the religion. I'm open to finding some more aspects of it to steal and apply to my own life.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The game theory approach to staying in touch

Staying in touch with old friends of mine has long since been a conundrum. I am infamously bad at articulating myself on the phone. People tell me that they can't understand what I say. Although I am ardently working on my pronunciation, it doesn't come easily.

Moreover, if you put yourself out there in other mediums, you are seen as a little bit cocky. I truly cannot tell you how many times I have been told or had it inferred that writing a blog is narcissistic. Some people think that the internet is a bad thing because it replaces talking on the phone. I could not possibly disagree more.

The problem is that when you call somebody on the phone, a game-theoretic model emerges where both individuals want to extract information, but are faced with difficulties, namely:

1) If you just start spilling out information about yourself (with the expectation that your partner will later reciprocate), you are viewed as self-centered.

2) If you start asking questions, they often will not answer in depth because of fear #1, and the conversation may seem like an interrogation.

3) People often forget what they wanted to say or need a recap of what is going on in the other person's life, which is inefficient. And don't tell me that this inefficiency is a central part of life. I'd prefer to discuss interesting things than recap details that are not of tremendous importance any day.

Now, if people recognized these difficulties and performed what economists refer to as "collusion" to solve them, things would go much more smoothly. But many people try to convince themselves that talking on the phone is the most natural thing in the world, which simply causes more confusion when the conversation is sidetracked.

Listen, it's not like I'm nervous about talking on the phone. As I said recently, I don't desire anything anyways. But don't tell me that having a blog replaces talking on the phone, when clearly it supplements the conversation tremendously.

Notes from the Buddha, part IV

The lama and his brother were probably the two happiest people I have ever seen. They came from a family of 10+. When we asked the lama his age, he said 61, or maybe 62, with a wave of his hand.

The lama was so happy about silly things that he was almost as immature as a child. He would laugh at things that "normal" adults wouldn't find funny, like somebody cutting in line for tea. He also loved pictures in a way that I will never be able to understand.

His brother, on the other hand, did not speak English at all. He set up our tents and taught us how to carve prayer stones, but he was never able to communicate at all. Somehow, he seemed even happier to see us. His natural face was a semi-smile, and he would break into a full laugh at the drop of a hat.

But his language barrier didn't isolate him from us, instead it brought him closer. There was literally no way that any of us could have gotten into an argument or any sort of disagreement with him. All that he offered us was his happiness. At the end of the weekend he said goodbye to everybody, and tapped people's foreheads with his forehead, which was disarmingly endearing. Nobody knew how to react.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Notes from the Buddha, Part II

The lama told us a story about a young monk who really wanted enlightenment, and went about accumulating as much merit as possible in order to prove his enlightened state. Then he went to the abbot of his monastery and asked about his progress.

"You are far along in your accomplishments, but your mind is cloudy. You need to learn to control your thoughts," is what the abbot told him.

So the monk sat down at a table with a pile of black stones and a pile of white stones. Whenever he had a negative thought, he would pick out a black stone and put it into the center. Whenever he had a positive thought, he would pick out a white stone and put it into the center. By the end of the day, he had many more black stones than white stones.

But the monk kept at it, repeating the exercise daily. Over time, he began to place more and more white stones into the middle, as he trained his mind to think positive thoughts.

Sounds like my kind of monk.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A few thoughts on Shelfari

As you can see from the widget on the side of this blog, I don't mind Shelfari. It's a good way to track which books you've read and since I'm aiming for 50 on the year, I need all the help I can get. Shelfari right now is the best of the worst.

What I really want is to find the imdb of books. While Shelfari obviously can't compete in terms of scale--in large part because people generally watch tons more movies than they read books--they can compete with their interface.

The one particular suggestion I have to make is that they change their voting system from 5 stars to 10 stars. 5 stars makes no sense, because people are extremely unlikely to give a book 1 or 2 stars, and every rating oscillates somewhere around 4.

The most annoying part is that imdb has proven how successful a 10 star system can be. Their top 250 is unrivaled, and there's no way it could exist with a 5 star voting system. Plus, it's not like 10 stars is any harder from the voter's side, as you're still just clicking on one button.

I'm sure that Shelfari has some employee that scans the internet looking for sites that mention them. If you are that employee, and I still have your attention, please forward this to your boss (or maybe you are the boss). Either e-mail me one good reason that it wouldn't work, or let's make this happen.

Bill Simmons on keeping it real

A long quote, but an example of why Simmons is the one of the top writers on the net. From his most recent column:

"Worst debate coming out of the game: Will Bill Self stay at Kansas or "sell out" and jump to Oklahoma State to become the highest-paid college coach? There's nothing funnier than when sports columnists and radio hosts -- for the most part, a group of people who will appear on any conceivable show no matter how terrible it is, as long as they're getting paid at least $50, and by the way, if you want them to spend three months ghostwriting someone's forgettable biography, they're available for that, too -- complain someone else is selling out. Give it a rest. I guarantee that if you offered any sports media member three times as much money to work somewhere else, 99.99999999 percent of the time, they'd take it. They would. So please, shut the hell up and spare us the "selling out" stories."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Tuesday Statisticz: Calculating the Buddha's caloric intake

At the Tibetan Buddhist monastery this weekend, the lama told us a story of the Buddha's journey to enlightenment. At one stage of the path, he spent six years in meditation without moving. He only ate one juniper berry per day, then he dropped to one grain of rice, and finally only one sesame seed per day.

Obviously, this is impressive. But exactly how impressive is it? I've charted out the average person's caloric intake, and compared it with the Buddha's intake during these six years, at each one of those phases. First I had to determine how many calories are in each of these foods.

To determine the calories of the sesame seed, I went to this unrelated article (via google) and learned that 1000 seeds weigh about 3 grams. Then I converted the grams into ounces. Then I found the number of calories per ounce of sesame seeds. My answer came to 0.017 calories. This seems a little low, but I expect its because the sesame seeds I was looking at are the type that they feed to rats. But who says that the Buddha wouldn't have eaten this type? He's certainly no glutton.

For the grain of rice, I first found the amount of grains of rice per cup, then I found the calories per cup. I'm assuming that he was eating the "wild rice," because those were wild times. My answer came to 0.021 calories per grain of rice.

The calories for juniper berries were easy. Assuming he was eating the "ripe" type, these contain a whopping 38.97 calories. I'm surprised he didn't gain weight on this diet, quite frankly. Finally, I compared these totals to the average suggested caloric intake for males in the UK. Here's the chart:

Okay, I was going to do some more analysis here, but wow, that is just insane. What... self-control. I'm converting to Buddhism.

Notes from the Buddha, part one

I want to continue posting on this blog, but there may be some difficulty. You see, I went to a Buddhist monastery this weekend, and it's totally altered my frame of mind.

I no longer desire material things, per se. So if there are posts from now on, you can rest assured that the post appeared because it simply happened. This is the way the world is meant to be.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Climatoligists issue novel solution to global warming

New York-- Fed up with the lack of success of previous pleas for the public to "conserve," climatologists have taken another route. Their new plan, unveiled Thursday, urges people all across the globe to kill themselves.

"The problem with traditional conservation methods is that although people might apply them for a week or so, after a while they grow tired of saving energy and revert back to their old habits," Dr. Juhanzur of Bates College explains.

The new report has not come without controversy, and some global warming activists have expressed criticism. Nobel prize winner Al Gore noted that although the report was a step in the right direction, without government intervention it would not be effective. "People aren't just going to kill themselves on their own. There need to be quotas and incentives."

Gore's proposal includes a temporary legalization of suicide. However, it comes with the caveat that the death has to be for the explicit purposes of fighting global warming. Already, there has been some worry that people will use the injunction to commit suicide for "the wrong reasons," such as failed romances or windfall financial losses. It is speculated that there will be judicial reviews to ensure that the intentions of the deceased were indeed legitimate.

Another controversial aspect of the report is that it urges poor people in particular to kill themselves. Their argument is that poor people will be less likely to have friends rich enough to fly out to their funeral. "Plus," Dr. Juhanzur adds, "Poor people can't afford to buy hybrid cars, which we all know have the best chance of saving the environment."

One of the charts included in their report showed why suicide was the most optimal way for people to reduce their carbon stamp. Although other options such as tactically nuking certain cities were considered, they were judged to be too morbid. Dr. Juhanzar quipped, "What, do you people think that all we care about is the atmosphere? Come on."

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I just looked up "Talairach space" on google, expecting there to be a wikipedia article that would explain away my woes. But there was none to be found.

That's the true test of whether something is really complicated--whether or not there's even a wikipedia article for it. Getting my results back without the comforting "wikipedia, the free encyclopedia" makes me squeamish.

First, bad impressions

"What's more, there is a well documented asymmetry between the impact of bad first impressions versus good ones. Consider the following: We are quicker to both form and recall bad impressions, and are also more likely to do so. We also tend to be more confident about bad impressions, take less time to arrive at them, and require less information to be convinced of them -- that is, relative to good impressions. Finally, once a bad impression is formed, we seal it away from revision or interference."

That's from a post on The Splintered Mind, a blog on experimental philosophy. There is more about ways to avoid these impressions and counteract the bias.

I would add that this is especially important when we begin to discount people's ideas due to our dislike of their personality. It is even more reason to be a close reader and critical thinker. History is chalk full of scientific advancements that weren't accepted for decades because the person espousing them was considered uncharismatic.

My favorite part of April 1st isn't all of the fakes...

It's all the serious e-mails that I ignore since they were sent on April 1st.

Pre-registration for classes is due today? Nice one.

I forgot to turn in a tuition form? Good try, "Office of Finance and Administration." Like that place actually exists.

There was a security report issued about me on Saturday and the Poughkeepsie Police were contacted? Suuuuure, "Dean of Sophomores."

Stop lobbing up so many softballs, people. Next time bring some creativity.

Non-fiction classroom anecdote

"Okay, well, unless there's any other questions, I guess you guys can leave a little bit early today."

People start packing up their joints, etc. Obviously everybody's hella pumped that we got out a little bit early. But before you know it,

"Um, actually, I have a two-part question."

I'm going to start slapping people when they do this. The most frustrating part is that they seemingly don't even realize how selfish they're being. I confronted the offender afterwords and non-jokingly joked that he just wasted 5 minutes of everybody's time, and he looked at me with a quizzical stare.

This needs to be on par with other highly socially unacceptable things, like ratting out your friends or eating dinner before everybody has their food. Parents need to educate their kids on these kind of manners. Because I am sick and tired of people asking questions after the class has essentially ended.