Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"It Teaches You How To Think"

Many pursuits apparently fall under this purview: programming, economics, history, philosophy, english, physicsmath (often called "mental weightlifting"), sociology, classics, engineeringcollege (esp. the liberal arts), grad school, law school, medical schoolbusiness schoolmulti-level marketing, neuro-linguistic programming, and chess, to name a few.

I'm not at all opposed to this idea and I do favor "raising the sanity waterline." But I'd like to see the claims evaluated more systematically against 1) how beneficial the most common alternative activity that the median person who would otherwise invest in these pursuits would be and 2) how beneficial the most useful alternative activity that the median person who would otherwise invest in these subjects could be.

Surely there is not enough time, given our current healthspans, to invest ourselves in all or even most of these activities. So, for those of us who do value good "thinking" skills, how should we choose?

(The above link anecdotes do not prove much, as it is possible to make nearly any point with a little google-fu, but I have read and heard this sort of statement repeated over and over to the point that it seems to me to be nigh-gospel. If anyone knows of a systematic way to determine whether these are commonly held beliefs, I'm all ears.)

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Best Movies Of 2011

In reverse order: 5) Hugo (not bad, but fragmented and too long, e.g. they could have cut out the station inspector storyline, which relied upon sadly hackneyed deterministic developmental psychology), 4) HP7P2 (technically stunning, but Radcliffe just doesn't do it for me), 3) Drive (I do sympathize with the "too violent" critiques, but I loved the pacing), 2) Warrior (I'm slacking), and 1) A Separation (still not out in my area).

All in all this has been a down year for offerings on the big screen. Currently there are only 5 movies in the top 250, and that number will surely drop as they come out on video and the attrition of time does its damage. I predict only 3 movies from this year will still remain on the list come this time next year. Compare that to 7 for 2009 and 8 for 2010. Hollywood needs to stop investing so heavily in sequels!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Six Thoughts On Rewatchability

1) Let's consider movies that are driven at least in part by plot uncertainty. Watching such a movie a second time is by no means necessarily worse (e.g., many enjoy Inception even more the second time through), but it is different.

For example, watching a movie could really force you to question some of your beliefs and adjust your corresponding models of the world. This could be a very worthwhile experience, yet you could quite reasonably expect that watching the movie again would be unlikely to yield the same reward.

In such a case, it'd be fair to say that the experience you derived from that particular movie (i.e., watching it and thinking about it after) was better than the experience you derived from any other, yet you still might not especially want to watch it a second time.

2) Touching the Void is an example of such a movie, for me. Watching it meant a lot to me and I have thought about it often since doing so, but I wouldn't want to watch it again in the near future.

3) I'd agree that, all things equal, wanting to re-watch a movie is a proxy for how much you got out of it. But I don't think people should have to "prove" that they like a movie by watching it over and over.

4) And further, I don't think the metric is all that good of a proxy. I doubt that there'd be a very high correlation between the movies with the highest average subjective experience rating and the ones that people watch over and over.

This is because I expect people ultimately get the most out of movies that challenge them, and in the moment they are less likely to choose to re-watch such a movie, because of the insidious effects of delay discounting.

5) The counter is that people are too likely to be signaling when they merely say what their favorite movie is, which is why we need some measure of how people actually behave. I do sympathize with this argument.

For example, people tend to watch a lot of comedies, yet there are few comedies in the top 250 and actors in comedies hardly ever win awards. Yes, some of this is because humor does not cut across cultures well. But surely on some level comedies are underrated because liking them does not allow us to as effectively signal our sophistication.

6) The main upside to any behavioral metric is that it slices through the noisy opinion market. The downsides are that we might not be measuring what we think we are, and, to the extent that the metric is widely held, it can lead to costly gaming.

Full Disclosure: When a movie that I have seen more than once is brought up in conversation, I will almost always brag about how many times I have seen it, to collect some street cred.

Disease Olympics

This is my favorite new phrase, which I first heard in this article by Carl Bialik about the ethics of using sometimes tenuous statistics to rouse advocacy for diseases. It is used to refer to situations in which different maladies "compete" against one another for funding, attention, empathy, and the like.

As Otis Brawley points out, in many avenues of biomedical research, disease olympics relies upon a false dichotomy. For example, the antimicrotubule agent estramustine was the first targeted therapy for breast cancer cells, for which it failed. Instead, it became the first (and until recently, only) chemotherapy agent for prostate cancer. Sites like, although laudable in some respects, often neglect these crucial second-order effects.

I love this phrase because it articulates what was previously an unconscious anxiety of mine, its meaning is intuitively obvious (i.e., it doesn't propagate "insider baseball"), and it addresses an important issue. One thing I don't like about the phrase is that the word "olympics" is usually capitalized. I worry that this will hurt its memetic staying power, because capitalization often perturbs the flow of a sentence. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Yawn Contagion Increases With Social Bond

The social bond categories are 0 = strangers, 1 = acquaintances, 2 = friends, and 3 = kin and life partners, more details here. Perhaps this would be a good litmus test for how close you are with someone?

Note that merely reading about yawning is often sufficient to elicit a yawn.


Norscia I, Palagi E (2011) Yawn Contagion and Empathy in Homo sapiens. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28472. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028472

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Time Estimation Correlates With Math Smarts

Details here. For the five tone durations, the mean correlation coefficient was 0.59, and was still significant when the authors adjusted for a measure of general intelligence.

Suddenly "what time is it?" isn't such an innocuous question.


Kramer P, Bressan P, Grassi M (2011) Time Estimation Predicts Mathematical Intelligence. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28621. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028621

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Reviewing Newt's Reviews

That is a histogram of his Amazon book ratings, and here is the source (HT TC). He is quite the pushover, and the above is a classic example of why a good rating system must rate the raters or suffer from bias. What about the content? Two trends stick out:

1) He is highly positive. Among his most common adjectives are "masterful," "remarkable," and "brilliant." Even when he gives a book four stars, he rarely says anything negative, and in fact it's usually not clear why books didn't get the top score of five.

2) He is highly technical. By this I mean that the majority of his sentences are devoted to strict summary rather than analysis. This makes sense, as it is probably smarter for a politician to say something obviously factual (and thus unassailable) than to take a risk.