Tag: behaviour

Recoil in disgust

Posted by – April 14, 2010

One downside of living near nature again (see previous episode of this blog in which we moved back to my creaking childhood château) is the nature. Ants… fucking EVERYWHERE. They discovered the pre-compost bucket we keep in the kitchen and went crazy about pear peelings. Moving the bucket around doesn’t fool them for very long. I guess I’d have to kill all the bucket-outbound ants to accomplish anything.

But I can deal with ants. They’re not really disgusting.

One thing I hear people disgustedly complain a lot about is stupid opinions. Sometimes they’ll even lament in their Facebook statuses that they’ve been reading the reader comments in web-newspaper (eh?) stories: the comments are like soooo ignorant and they totally shouldn’t have done it because now their head hurts and they feel bad.

I reckon this is because people like to cheat themselves about the world. They like to think that their social reference class is normal and everyone who’s different is either evil or ignorant. I get that, everybody hates diversity. But this convenient psychological defence can really blind you from what’s coming. If you find other people’s opinions so offensive that you have to protect yourself from them, you’re not going to have a very clear view of the world.

This phenomenon has been rather poignantly replayed in about every European country in recent decades with regards to immigration and multiculturalism. For a long time politicians and newspaper columnist took it as given that on this topic, 99% of everyone agrees and 1% are loser racists who nobody cares about. As time passed and the world kept changing, the loser racists became more and more relevant and suddenly it’s more like 40% – 60%, the politicians are scrambling to change their opinions and the columnists just can’t believe what happened because everyone they know is still right-thinking.

By the way, something similar is happening with anthropogenic global warming, although of course that’s not just a matter of opinion.

Anecdote: when I was a kid, I had to turn away from the tv when there was kissing because I found it to be extremely disgusting and unsanitary. I had to be told when it was over so I could look back. My mother was the same way about violence. Now both seem about as silly to me, although I guess the kissing aversion is really worse. Opinion aversion is probably even worse than that.

Merely perfect

Posted by – February 20, 2010

I saw a brief interview with a middle-aged academic woman who is unemployed and angry about it because she “did everything right”. On reflection, an odd thing to say. If you do everything perfectly by the book, the best you can hope for is the best the system can do, which is nothing special. By the time you’re ready for employment you’ll represent what people born 50 years ago thought would be a good thing to produce. Not only will you be unremarkable, you’ll be obsolete.

Also, it strikes me that people who choose exactly what is offered must be severely lacking in imagination and passion for their subject, not to mention disturbingly in awe of authority. The world hasn’t reached a state of perfect equilibrium, the right thing keeps changing. If you decide to be perfect, you abandon your duty to improve things.

By the way, I suspect this tendency towards faux perfectionism instead of excellence is a particular psychological burden of female academics.

Don’t walk in the masters’ footprints. Seek the things the masters sought.

The outer limit is where you learn

Posted by – September 27, 2009

It used to be that beyond major newspapers and television, the main exchange of opinions happened with people you knew personally, who in turn mostly used the same newspapers and tv to form their opinions. People who travelled a lot and met a lot of people were in the best position to encounter whatever was excluded in the local discourse. Like everything you don’t know the alternative to, this seemed perfectly normal. But with the advent of the Internet, all that has changed: now you can actually learn about different people for real and in their own words, not just the filtered caricatures you get via mainstream media.

Strengthening this trend, I find the blog/opinion -type stuff I read on the web has become more and more “far out” lately. Now that I can read what all kinds of people have to say, it’s less interesting to hear things I more or less already know / agree with already.

Btw, I would like to take this opportunity to say that when I link to a site, in a post or in the sidebar, that should not be taken to indicate my endorsement or support of whatever the link points to. I link to things that interest me for whatever reason, and often they’re “far out” to me as well.

One of my guilty pleasures (although far from the guiltiest) is Feministing, where people’s thought processes are so different from my own that I am starting to wonder whether the postmodernists might actually be right and people really do live in their own reality. In fact, my inspiration for mentioning the whole thing was this post about Wikipedia’s gender gap:

This week’s Time magazine shed more light on the fact that women make up only 13 percent of Wikipedia contributors. Sue Gardener, Wikimedia Foundation’s E.D. noted:

The average Wikipedian is a young man in a wealthy country who is probably a graduate student — somebody who’s smart, literate, engaged in the world of ideas, thinking, learning and writing all the time.

It should go without saying that if women make up 51 percent of the population, 13 percent representation at Wikipedia is a DISGRACE!

I probably sound stupid for saying this, but at this point I was thinking “gosh, are they really blaming women collectively for failing to contribute to Wikipedia?” No, the point of course is that this disparity is prima facie evidence of sexism. No other possibility is entertained. The author specifically mentions that Wikipedia, being a large and complicated organisation, takes a lot of “wikilegalese” to grok. She continues:

When I think of the demands of graduate school, plus the unique challenges that I face as a woman of color, becoming fluent in Wiki-speak so that I can post something up at Wikipedia is low on the priority list.
Shame on Wikipedia for not even attempting to address these issues.

As someone who doesn’t have the time/energy to contribute to Wikipedia, this person could either

a) feel grateful that so many others have been able to create such a wonderful thing, or
b) feel angry and offended that others haven’t somehow engineered her participation in it

The people who go for b) every time make me sad. They’re doomed to feel angry and cheated about everything, and we don’t even get anything productive in exchange for their mental anguish.

Life as an IQ test

Posted by – September 20, 2009

I’ve heard dismissals of the concept of measurable intelligence on the basis that “IQ tests only measure the ability to take IQ tests” or “intelligence is such a multi-faceted concept and everyone is intelligent in their own way, IQ is just one part of it”. I suspect these arguments (which are, btw, misunderstandings of what is meant by general intelligence in this context) conceal another objection which I happen to agree with.

The objection concerns organizations like Mensa having people take tests and telling them “this number is your intelligence”. That is stupid! If I took an IQ test and it told me something wildly different from what I expected, I’d only change my beliefs a little. In other words I wouldn’t believe the test.

(Sidenote: many of the same people who discount the concept of intelligence would consider this to be arrogant. One moment they’re saying how stupid it is to believe in intelligence, the next they’re laughing about how low George Bush’s IQ is. Or saying that race doesn’t exist and laughing about James Watson, who believes that black people have lower intelligence than the global average, being 1/6 black.)

What does an IQ test tell you? It’s an inaccurate measurement of a non-constant quantity that correlates with intelligence. Does that mean it’s meaningless? No, but it’s still a good way to quickly get some information about someone you don’t know much about. This is like armies choosing all the men and rejecting all the women: not perfect, but better than randomly choosing half of everyone.

But it’s not a very good way to find out your own intelligence, because you already have a ton of information about that. Almost everything that happens in your life has something to do with intelligence, so it’s hard to avoid forming some kind of an idea of your cognitive abilities. Similarily for people you spend a lot of time with. As the danimal said,

A smart person doesn’t need to hear how smart he is, any more than a pretty girl needs to hear how pretty she is. Anybody with an obviously outstanding attribute has been hearing about it their whole life.

People don’t want someone telling them how intelligent they are. It would feel like being told who to be (another false fear). The good news is that nobody can “tell them how intelligent they are”. The bad news is that everybody already knows.

Communion breakdown

Posted by – September 20, 2009

Holy shit, someone just explained to me what radical Islam is all about:

The history of religions sometimes resembles the history of viruses. Judaism and Islam were both highly virulent when they first broke out, driving the first generations of their people to conquer (Islam) or just slaughter (Judaism) everyone around them for the sin of not being them. They both grew more sedate over time. […]

I have a theory that “radical Islam” is not native Islam, but Westernized Islam. Over half of 75 Muslim terrorists studied by Bergen & Pandey 2005 in the New York Times had gone to a Western college. (Only 9% had attended madrassas.) A very small percentage of all Muslims have received a Western college education. When someone lives all their life in a Muslim country, they’re not likely to be hit with the urge to travel abroad and blow something up. But when someone from an Islamic nation goes to Europe for college, and comes back with Enlightenment ideas about reason and seeking logical closure over beliefs, and applies them to the Koran, then you have troubles. They have lost their cultural immunity.

(emphasis mine)

It seems so obvious now, as always.

The interesting thing is that most people’s response to this isn’t “beliefs which lead to immorality/absurdity when consistency and logic are applied to them are immoral/absurd” but “you shouldn’t apply too much consistency and logic to your beliefs”. Go figure!

This also happens with other things than religion. The other night I was talking about politics with someone and was reminded of how different our respective attitudes are (in caricature):

  1. one should formulate a consistent set of principles to decide everything with
  2. one should try not to break anything and to gradually improve things that seem particularly broken

I suspect 2 contains the idea that you shouldn’t be “too” principled because society is too complicated to be consistently improved by your preferences. To me that sounds like giving up. (Maybe giving up is the correct move here, but I’m not convinced yet.)

OP continued:

The reason I bring this up is that intelligent people sometimes do things more stupid than stupid people are capable of. There are a variety of reasons for this; but one has to do with the fact that all cultures have dangerous memes circulating in them, and cultural antibodies to those memes. The trouble is that these antibodies are not logical. On the contrary; these antibodies are often highly illogical. They are the blind spots that let us live with a dangerous meme without being impelled to action by it. The dangerous effects of these memes are most obvious with religion; but I think there is an element of this in many social norms. We have a powerful cultural norm in America that says that all people are equal (whatever that means); originally, this powerful and ambiguous belief was counterbalanced by a set of blind spots so large that this belief did not even impel us to free slaves or let women or non-property-owners vote. We have another cultural norm that says that hard work reliably and exclusively leads to success; and another set of blind spots that prevent this belief from turning us all into Objectivists.

A little reason can be a dangerous thing. The landscape of rationality is not smooth; there is no guarantee that removing one false belief will improve your reasoning instead of degrading it.

Sad but true.

You make your own Big Brother

Posted by – August 15, 2009

One of the quotes that randomly appear near the top of the sidebar of this blog is “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Whatever side of yourself you most want to present to the world is what your future self will be more like. I can feel that happening to myself right now, and I’m not sure I like it.

Blogging feels very different than it did when I first started on Livejournal. Back then it was a very personal, expressive, “teenage” thing. The vast majority of those entries underwent a Stalinist purge when importing material here. It was not very far from a true reflection of myself – not that it was purely a description of my personal life, but a form of self-broadcasting nonetheless (like self-reflection but outwards). Now I feel uncomfortably restricted, very aware that everyone I come into meaningful contact with will google me and make a quick judgement based on the first things they see.

The safest things from that perspective are technicality, glibness and distant commentary on something someone else thinks. The worst things are bubbly emotionality, being uninformed, honesty and being boring. As a result, I don’t suppose this blog is terribly representative of me as a person. In real life, I often am pretty expansive, impulsive and eager to sound out on things way beyond my expertise.

One might ask why I would want to “be myself” here – after all, the market for persons is very much a buyer’s market – but ultimately, I don’t have any reason to do do this but self-expression. Besides, the really fun things to read, even when they’re strictly business, always have a powerful personal flavour. I want to (learn to) write that way.

The weird thing is that when I meet people in real life, even the new acquaintances whose googling I dread, I don’t particularly restrain myself – and nothing bad happens! People like me fine, and the ones who don’t I usually don’t feel bad about. I haven’t had the experience of missing out on a job opportunity because of my personality or what I think, whereas the opposite probably has happened.

Still, when I’m alone, thinking about how to seem, the sterile, defensive self-projection comes through and is even gaining ground inside my mind. It’s like I’m being persuaded by what I think a person should appear to be like. Propriety is taking me over! On the whole, this conflict has made me less eager to blog or to really think about what sort of a person I am. I don’t know how to solve this yet.

Partly this is due to the widespread tendency to be somewhat ashamed of oneself deep down, something that for me goes away when I’m caught in the moment, socialising and trying to get everybody to like me. But another part is the clear message some other expressive people have gotten (and is also one of the quotes in the sidebar): You’re WRONG and you’re a GROTESQUELY UGLY FREAK. I’m not a truly ugly freak, but I have my ugly sides. Socially, I am almost proud of them, but they somehow become scary when written down in pixels.

As for the really ugly freaks – well, I have some reading habits I am wary of admitting to; widely excoriated things on the Internet I’m drawn to for whatever reason. I guess it’s often a simple curiosity of “dangerous things”, plus the fearlessness and force of personality of their authors. In Finland the writings in question have led to legal prosecution and conviction in some cases (most famously Jussi Halla-aho will soon be on trial for his opinions). In one fascinating case in Canada it led to public self-flagellation, humiliation and removal of the blog in question, one which I had happily (often disagreeing) read for years unaware of what a heinous thing it would turn out to be in a Canadian university.

Such things sometimes make me catch myself – it seems perfectly possible that I’m one of these sick, terrible people who deserve to be run out of civilized society. And then there’s the reality where I feel like I’m acting normally and get along with people. I don’t know which reality is more accurate, and it’s making be a boring coward and I want to break out of it.

The Stasi test

Posted by – May 10, 2009

Grudgingly I have come to accept that family is important. It’s nicer to think that the people you choose to associate with are way more important than a group of people you’re born into, but it’s just not true. There are ways in which friends matter more: they will often have similar interests so you have more to talk about, they’re more likely to understand and accept you as an individual because they’re probably similar to you anyway, they won’t try to control you or make you feel guilty because they don’t think they have any particular authority over you etc. But there’s another important sense in which family seems to win hands down. I call it the Stasi test.

I remember asking my mother as a child about how she’d react if I were suspected of murder, in particular if the evidence seemed to overwhelmingly suggest that I was guilty but I nevertheless claimed to be innocent. In other words, I wanted to know whether she would be biased towards me. She said she guessed she would “have to believe” me. This is the essence of the Stasi test.

In the Stasi test I imagine that I’m living in a “thought control” state in which certain beliefs are punishable and generally considered to be reprehensible and disgusting (or that I’m living in a society that’s even more like that than this one). Let’s say I hold those immoral beliefs and assume that everyone else sincerely considers my beliefs to be evil just like the secret police does. Think 1984. The question is this: which people could I safely reveal those beliefs to, ie. which ones wouldn’t turn me in to the secret police?

I’d like to think that some of my friends wouldn’t, although it’s hard to say which ones. Not necessarily some top slice of closest friends, because there are some pretty morally conscious people among them. They would be able to rise above their affections towards me as a friend in order to fulfil the greater good. But some close friends who generally care more about practicality, immediacy and loyalty than abstract moral values would pass the Stasi test (I am thinking of three people in particular, I wonder if they guess who they are).

But for some reason family doesn’t work like this. No matter what they thought, I just can’t see my immediate family throwing me to the wolves because of my immorality in this situation. Not only does family have this “ultimate bond” characteristic, but it’s very long-lasting and enduring: even when people have been apart for decades they will often recognise each other as family and therefore bonded. The knowledge that you share lots of genetic material with someone overrides a lot of preferences in your brain and makes you care about them and protect them.

I recognise this in myself too: hurt to people I’m genetically invested or vice-versa feels a lot like hurt to me personally. This is about as intrinsic a part of human nature as you can get.

Norm normativity #2

Posted by – May 10, 2009

-a prejudice is a particular kind of belief
-some prejudices are valuable to have
-beliefs have variable accuracy and effects

Humans have a tendency to develop prejudices that are especially valuable. People who fail to develop such prejudices are constantly at greater risk from various threats and fail to identify good opportunities.

The most common prejudices about people concern age and gender. Everyone cares about them because those two things typically tell you a lot about a person. If you’re walking down the street alone at night it’s a very different sensation to notice you’re being followed by a 25-year old man than a 10-year old girl (or a 70-year old woman).

How should we evaluate these prejudices about age and gender? To people who have them they are useful. It makes you safer to be a little wary of people you don’t know who are in the age/gender group that commits almost all of the violent crime in our society (of course it’s even better to tune your prejudices more finely; eg. muscularity, drunkedness, tattoos and loudness adjust the threat estimation up). This has the consequence that people in the group in question are seen as threatening even if they’re really no more of a threat than the average person. Nevertheless, most people would probably say we’re better off with the prejudice than without it.

On the opportunity side, most businesses and individuals assume in their dealings that everyone is heterosexual. As opposed to the previous example, this prejudice has a name: heteronormativity. Why do businesses do this? Instead of printing an ad saying “buy your wife this necklace and she will have more sex with you” they could cover other possibilities too, like women who want to extract sex from men by buying them stuff, gay couples and people who like to buy nice things for themselves. They don’t do those things because they think they’re making more money by doing what they’re doing now.

Their underlying assumptions are that most people are heterosexual and that men mostly buy things for women instead of the other way around. As far as I can tell, those assumptions are actually true. This and other practices have the consequence that non-heterosexuals are made to feel weird, and it’s very unpleasant to feel that your sexuality is weird. That’s why some people think this prejudice is wrong and that you shouldn’t make assumptions about anyone’s sexuality. I sympathise with this and try to avoid making gay people feel weird (then again, I feel pretty weird myself), but I can’t make myself not know that nine out of ten people are heterosexual. Or if I can, I don’t really want to. I don’t want to make my map any worse. If I were in the jewellery business I would have to balance the goal of making money with the goal of not making people feel excluded.

In the previous cases prejudice is generally considered to be acceptable, but there are others in which it isn’t. For example, I’m pretty sure racial prejudice is a de facto part of being streetwise in many parts of the world. In the United States, black people commit more violent crime than white people (in the case of homicides by a factor of about six). That is a statistical fact that doesn’t provide any explanations as to why this should be so, but it’s true enough to make most people racists in the sense the word is widely used today. Whether they want to or not, people can’t get this out of their minds and will often react accordingly even if they intellectually believe they shouldn’t be racist. Unlike with sex/age/sexuality, many people believe it’s wrong to even know (or express) this fact because it stigmatises blacks and perpetuates the situation.

I agree that it’s not desirable to stigmatise innocent black people, just like it’s not desirable to stigmatise innocent young males in general. In general the rational thing is to judge people as individuals when you get to know them as individuals. But I don’t make it my goal not to know these things, nor do I make an effort to approach a rowdy gang of Somali youths as if it weren’t a rowdy gang of Somali youths. I don’t believe that would be so much “fighting racism” as “fighting reality”.

Norm normativity #1.5

Posted by – April 1, 2009

Before I go to #2 I want to briefly discuss belief.

What you believe about the world controls what you do in the world. Therefore, commonly held beliefs shape the way society works. In a sense you could even say that beliefs shape reality, although this can obviously be taken too far. On the other hand, your beliefs are your map of reality. Now, when choosing your beliefs, is it better to choose the best reality or the best map?

I used to think the choice was obvious: you should unconditionally choose the best map. One problem with choosing the best reality is that the less your map corresponds to reality, the more difficult it becomes to alter reality by choosing your beliefs. But that’s not the real reason I chose the map. In fact, there was no real reason, I just thought the truth is important and damn the consequences. I hoped I could learn to control my actions independently of my beliefs and get some of the reality-changing benefits that way.

I have a personal guru. Call this person “Sai”. It has often happened that Sai adopts some belief that seems totally stupid to me, only for me to adopt it as well some time later. Some time ago Sai started talking about choosing beliefs with the aim of getting results in reality. I was quite shocked by this, and in some senses I still think it’s misguided. But Sai’s goals have shown me that sometimes the map is tangled together with reality. This is especially true concerning beliefs about yourself.

A simple example: if you can really believe you’re feeling happy, then you really are happy.

A less simple example: what is the main (or most common) difference between someone who is good at picking up girls and someone who isn’t? Confidence. Believing that you can get the girls doesn’t automatically make it so, but it makes it a bit more so. More importantly, it opens up new ways for your mind to perceive yourself and other people, allowing you to learn and actually become the thing you’re trying to believe you are. Many so-called pick-up artists (PUAs) have taken this approach, and although they end up deluding themselves for a while and frequently losing faith (because that’s what it is), it seems that this is actually a somewhat reliable way to achieve the goal of picking up girls. When that happens, the map is again reconciled with reality.

A less pleasant example: if you don’t believe your personal god has power in the world, he doesn’t. But if you do believe he does and start converting people and making the world conform to your idea of the god, then even after you’re dead people will talk about the god and think about what he wants and continue conforming to the idea of the god. Then, in some twisted sense, the god has come into being in reality.

At some point before the last example the reasonable idea of the map having something to do with the reality (after all, the map exists in reality) becomes a bad guide for behaviour (I would rather be an evil religion-inventor, one who doesn’t even believe in the god himself and just gets everyone else to worship him). In the earlier examples there are tangling effects between the map and reality. There is not that much discrepancy between the two because we’re talking about a part of reality that partly is the map. At the other end of the spectrum we have causal effects between the map and reality. This is where you falsely believe something and trigger some behaviour in yourself that affects reality.

In the case of norm normativity (heteronormativity, white normativity, right-hand-normativity, what have you), tangling effects aren’t very important because we’re primarily talking about society as a whole. When you decide whether to conform to a norm, the tangling effects only affect you but the causal effects affect everyone around you. So in this case beliefs can be simplified to two aspects:

  1. Truth, ie. whether the belief conforms to reality
  2. Consequences, ie. the causal effects of beliefs on society

(As an aside, there are also people who want good maps for their own use but want other people to have beliefs that will make their lives or the world better. For example, many lies are told to modify the social reality to the liar’s benefit. I have also often heard people who don’t believe in God say that it’s still good for “the masses” to believe in God because it makes them behave better and gives them a sense of purpose. They will sometimes tell me I’m arrogant for arguing against people’s well-meaning faith in God because I am trying to take control of “their reality”.)

Further reading:

Norm normativity #1

Posted by – March 31, 2009

I am a big fan of accurate preconceptions, stereotypes and the social norms that make use of them. Example: merchants of skin care products in shopping centres don’t try to sell me anything because I’m a man. In other words, they make an assumption about me based on my sex. What are the overall effects of this prejudice? Let’s break it down by customer groups.

  1. Women who are interested in skin care products. They get approached and don’t mind it. The merchants make money out of these people.
  2. Women who aren’t interested in skin care products. They get approached but are bothered by it. The merchants are wasting their time here.
  3. Men who are interested in skin care products. They don’t get approached, but they can always go talk to the salespeople themselves so presumably they don’t mind. The merchants lose money by not targetting this group more aggressively.
  4. Men who aren’t interested in skin care products. They don’t get approached and are happy about it. The merchants save money by not targetting them.

The sizes of these groups and various other variables determine the overall profitability of the prejudice, but it’s probably positive since the skin care people do utilise it. So for them, there is a tangible benefit to having this prejudice. What about the customers? Trivially, if aggressive selling were banned altogether, nobody would be bothered by it. But barring that, this prejudice is also a net positive for the customers because it takes away the bother to group 4 and doesn’t provide bother to anyone extra.

There are those who would say of this and similar situations that the prejudice still shouldn’t exist because making assumptions based on gender is wrong. According to them it’s unfair that women who don’t want to be bothered can’t get the same deal men get. These people are essentially saying that they don’t care about efficiency for anyone else, but only about their needlessly hurt feelings. I can’t support such antisocial views.

Of course, this was a rather simple instance of a useful prejudice. An entry-level prejudice, if you like. If you still find yourself thinking “you shouldn’t be prejudiced”, there is probably no hope for you.

Tomorrow come trouble

Posted by – January 31, 2009

Evolutionary explanations for human biodiversity are creeping into the mainstream: Why are taller people more intelligent than shorter people?

In our paper, Reyniers and I propose a second possible explanation […]
1. Assortative mating of tall men and beautiful women. […]
2. Assortative mating of intelligent men and beautiful women. […]
3. Extrinsic correlation between height and physical attractiveness (produced by Mechanism 1 above) and extrinsic correlation between intelligence and physical attractiveness (produced by Mechanism 2 above) will create a second-order extrinsic correlation between height and intelligence.

We believe that this may be why taller people are more intelligent than shorter people. Another factor contributing to the seeming male advantage in intelligence is that taller parents are more likely to have sons than shorter parents. So, over many generations, more sons will inherit their parents’ genes inclining them to be taller and more intelligent, and more daughters will inherit their parents’ genes inclining them to be shorter and less intelligent. But, once again, the crucial factor is height, not sex.

In our paper, we present evidence for all of the crucial mechanisms: Taller people are on average physically more attractive than shorter people; physically more attractive people are on average more intelligent than physically less attractive people; taller people are on average more intelligent than shorter people; and taller parents are more likely to have sons than shorter parents.

I have no idea whether this particular hypothesis will turn out to be correct, but in general I suppose there must be numerous human selection mechanisms of this kind waiting to be discovered. I expect they will explain some surprising things, confirm some unpopular but well-known truths and raise much ire. As danimal, that steely fist of Internet logic, put it:

Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” This includes relationships between men and women.

It surprises me that the obvious extensions of this haven’t been researched much, at least as far as I know.

If you’re into science, you’ve probably heard people complaining about scientific information and contemporary results being too proprietary and hard to discover, especially considering they’re mostly funded by the public. The Science Commons is looking to change that; let’s hope it takes off.

For math geeks: a series of Project Euler puzzles revealed something shocking to me:
– once you’ve solved problem 64 and have a good way of handling continued fractions (it’s not feasible to do this with floating point approximations)
– gone on to 65 and learned about convergents
– you run into 66 which seems to be completely unrelated and again too slow for naive bruteforce methods, so after banging your head for a while you google quadratic diophantine equations and find out that the way to solve these equations is to find the right convergents for the square roots – and this is guaranteed to find the minimal solution for every equation of this type! Check it out.

There’s a program called Microsoft Songsmith that’s supposed to allow users to sing over a backing track that follows their singing. It doesn’t really work. Except for hilarity:

The sex-filled world

Posted by – December 6, 2008

While I’m probably at least as sexually inhibited as the next guy, I do sometimes feel there are certain obvious extensions to the way we think about sexuality. I think the official story right now is this: most people “figure out” their sexuality at some point during or after adolescence. A person’s sexuality is either straight, gay or bisexual (or “it’s a continuum” as some people are fond of saying). There are also some unusual cases, but they’re practically more like identities than sexualities. (If you don’t like sex at all, you’re pitiful and funny. If you want sex with animals, you’re strange and funny. If you want sex with children, you should be murdered.) Your sexuality can change later on, that’s ok, but it brings peace of mind to be “something”.

I always felt that this was a somewhat backward way of looking at the whole thing because I don’t feel sexual attraction to the majority of people of either gender. If you think you’re straight, ask yourself this: would you rather get with a hot member of your own gender or with a disgusting member of the opposite one? If your answer is the latter, you probably didn’t imagine a sufficiently disgusting person. Do a google image search and try again.

So rather than “I like girls” or “I like boys” it’s more like “I like hot people”. Of course, that’s not a sexuality extension. More like a… contraction? Let’s call it a generalisation.

The extension is that I think a lot of sexuality is really directed towards non-humans. Go to the opera sometime and see the middle-aged, slightly weird-looking guys spring up at the end to applaud and shout, red-faced, often with tears in their eyes and tell me that’s not a sexual climax of some kind. Or just listen to almost any symphonic classical music; abstract sexuality is never far. People get attached to all kinds of things with the kind of intensity that looks more like romatic love than anything else. Somewhere deep in the brain these emotions are connected with the procreation drive, but the brain is not an intelligently designed thing; things get mixed up.

(There’s also the matter of solitary sexual fantasising which I suspect accounts for a supermajority of human sexuality but I’m not going to get into that now.)

As for me, I’d say I experience a lot of this kind of non-human sexuality. Here’s a medium-difficulty representation of what I’m trying to say: PJ Harvey and Nick Cave performing Henry Lee.

1) If this does nothing for you, you are a cold fish.
2) I don’t think most people’s interest in this video will be directed towards whichever person is of the opposite gender to them. It’s the situation, the tension, how they behave that’s attractive.
3) I’m sexually attracted to this youtube clip.

The Internet is the new Academy

Posted by – November 19, 2008

Some interesting presentations I’ve watched of late:

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel on why societies collapse (18:21).

Martin Seligman, psychologist, on the state of psychology and especially the “psychology of happiness” or how to make people happier (23:41). If you’re interested in finding out whether you’re really happy you may want to do some of Seligman’s questionnaires (registration unfortunately required).

Barry Schwartz, psychologist, on the paradox of choice or why more choice isn’t always a good thing (1:04:07). If this is too long for you there’s also a 20:23 TED talk by the same guy on the same subject.

This was perhaps the most interesting one to me personally: Luis von Ahn on human computation (51:31). You really have to watch it to understand what it is. I’ve tried to get some of the old fogeys at the language technology department to watch this but they haven’t been interested; it’s truly their loss.

Ventral striatum blues

Posted by – November 7, 2008

Not really my week, this: I broke my bicycle and the laptop in a minor accident. I wanted to take the bike for repairs in a shop in Töölö and my only computer was now my desktop at home, so I decided to try to coexist with the dog for at least a day.

Fast forward to tonight. When I went to bed the dog decided for some reason to stick to my side at all times so I could maximally enjoy its odour, nightly movements and general dogginess. Eventually I tried to shift the dog but it just lazily growled at me. Some ancient part of my brain said: “We have a 1000% weight advantage over this elderly female dog. If it is growling at us for wanting to sleep in our sleeping place, we should show it what’s what.” What this ancient brain-part didn’t understand is that things just don’t work like they did in the stone age anymore. The dog is in fact higher in social status than me – hell, it eats better food than I do. It would be impossible for us to do anything about the growling other than to back down, my frontal lobe said.

This caused my ventral striatum, which assigns emotional reward and punishment for social standing, to go berserk. It is old school like my lizard brain and started RRRAGING at what it couldn’t understand. Violent urges and negative emotions began to boil at a high heat in the dark places of my soul.

I guess the most productive thing would have been to cause the stone age parts of my brain to somehow grow up to the modern world, but that seemed to be a rather large undertaking in the circumstances. I decided to (make like my pants and) split before the factions of my brain did from each other, so I rode back to Herttoniemi at four in the morning on my wounded bike which I’m going to have to take back to town for repairs tomorrow.

Of course, to my girlfriend this isn’t so much an epic struggle between the dog and my ventral striatum as me being a whiny bitch who is terrified by living with a dog for a couple of weeks. But what you gonna do.

The creeping move

Posted by – October 31, 2008

Of the recently finished Chess World Championship my favourite moment came in game 10, the only one Kramnik won. In this position:

Kramnik as white made the move Qa6. Ignoring black’s c-pawn, white moves the queen one square without attacking any undefended piece or creating a threat against black’s king. Why make such a move? From a6 the queen denies black’s knight access to c4, controls b7 and prepares the way for the advance of white’s a-pawn. Black’s positional problems are nailed down and white ends up marching the a-pawn to drive away black’s knight, then taking control with a rook on the b-file with black seemingly helpless to do much about it. This sort of quiet, approaching, limiting move is often called a “creeping move”. It’s very difficult for weak players like me to understand when such a move is strong, but it was a pleasure to see it work so effectively here. Kramnik said of this phase of the game “It seems that I didn’t do anything special and then the position was already winning… it’s a pleasant surprise.” A unique perspective.

It would be nice to be able to make creeping moves in life as well, but in general it’s just too complicated. People can decide not to play by the rules you expect them to. Perhaps this sort of thing can happen in politics or war.

Today I saw Woody Allen’s new film Vicky Cristina Barcelona which partly made me think of this. The first quarter or so of the film contains some excellent portrayals of the psychological views of PUAs (Pick-Up Artists), presumably unintentionally. I don’t know does Javier Bardem’s character exactly make creeping moves, but he certainly leaves practically no choice to the women he seduces.

The film also has a somewhat bleak but potentionally educational view of American women, or possibly women in general (it was difficult to tell). There may certainly be an interesting lesson in the film on that theme for some people amongst my readership. Overall I must say I don’t understand why the cultured anglosphere of The Guardian and NYT seems to have turned its back on Allen. They say he’s just a boring, creepy, ogling old man now but I suspect they’re just jealous.

He’s got feet down below his knees this season

Posted by – December 19, 2007

Here’s a word I only recently realised is most frequently used to mean the opposite of what it actually means: trend. A trend is really a tendency or the direction of a long-term change, but you most often hear it meaning “fashion”, ie. a temporary, arbitrary, passing fluctuation. I don’t know are there any actual trends in the way people dress, probably not. In general there are very few trends in the appreciation of the most basic things; contrary to popular belief, men have pretty much always wanted women to look the same.

But people are always more interested in the pointless and temporary. Example: why on earth do they quote recent stock prices in the tv news? They only have time for a couple of pieces of information, and anyone who actually cares can get more detailed and current information for free on the net. For most people it’s just random noise (and even people who do follow stock prices on a daily basis shouldn’t). [political] Way to reassure your cattle with perpetually mutating and illusory props, capitalism! [/political]

Here’s a real trend for you: artificiality. The world has been getting less and less natural for humans since written history began, and I’m loving it. Why does the word “natural” have such positive connotations when everything that’s natural sucks compared to the wonderful artificial things that now surround us?