(from xkcd)



I love Google’s title image for today:

It’s a nice mix of recognizing an extremely important scientific accomplishment with just a pinch of end-of-the-world paranoia.

The truth is that the world has about the same chance of ending today as it did yesterday. But I think the dimwitted people protesting the large hadron collider aren’t all bad. It’s seriously nice to be reminded that the world could end at any moment. All of human history is just a brief blip in time on a cosmic scale; it could end right now and the universe would barely notice. But the thing is, in a universe with a past almost completely devoid of our existence, and a future that could very easily be the same, all we’ve got are our short little lives here in the present.

The fact that the universe is vast, cold, and uncaring does not make our lives meaningless. It’s the opposite; it shows that we are the exception rather than the rule, so we damn well better take advantage of this fleeting gift and make our lives mean something. It also makes it all the more incredible that we are on our way to understanding this vast, cold, and uncaring universe with technology like the LHC. Even if it did end human existence, at least we went out trying to understand our place in the universe. And with a good excuse to have sex.

(xkcd rules)

Minor Issues

I’ve been thinking about music a lot lately. Yesterday, I had a conversation about why certain chords tend to “sound good” together. It seems like a lot of it has to do with the physical layout of an instrument; certain chords are easier to play together on a guitar. Since most rock music is based on guitars, chords that are easy to play together “sound good” together in rock music.

The thing with this is that it’s arbitrary. There’s no real, underlying reason why certain patterns sound good; it’s just a matter of what was easiest to play, and thus what musicians played, and thus what we’ve been exposed to our whole lives. Other cultures hear different patterns growing up, and would think ours sound weird. If we’d grown up hearing random patterns of chords (within certain limitations, I’m sure), those would sound natural together.

This seems unsatisfying somehow. Music feels like this transcendental, magical stuff that, when done right, can tickle the deepest reaches of our souls. If the line between beautiful music and shitty music is really just a proxy for the line between familiar and unfamiliar, filtered through historical accidents in our culture (like the layout of a guitar), it seems less magical, less eternal.

I think an even more striking example is the difference between major chords and minor chords. To people in Western culture, major chords usually sound happy, and minor chords usually sound sad. Why? Did one of the first popular musicians happen to associate minor chords with sad lyrics, then later musicians just followed suit? Could it have just as easily gone the other way?

I dunno. I’m inclined to refuse to believe in the arbitrariness of music. Maybe minor chords are more similar to the sounds of crying and other expressions of sorrow, so their sadness is deeply imprinted in our genes and our souls. Maybe there is a deeper reason to prefer patterns of chord progressions, even if the specific set of chords in them is arbitrary.

I tried to look this up, as I figure it’d be a common issue and is certainly subject to scientific scrutiny. However, Google only comes up with speculation, and a quick search of PsychINFO (a database of psychology research) only comes up with only 10 results. One of them is an article from 1942 titled “The preference of twenty-five Negro college women for major and minor chords”, which might be a bit outdated. I guess, then, that this is still an open issue, and I’m one of the only nerds who spends time thinking about crap like this.

Of course, overthinking music is, while fun, pointless. No amount of intellectual pondering can take away the fact that music feels magical, and that is what really matters.

The Psychology of Ice Cream

In the psychological study of learning, there has been a lot of research on how to reinforce behaviours. Of particular interest is the timing of rewards. If you want someone to keep doing something, do you reward them every time they do it? Or do you reward them only some of the time?

Well, it turns out that if you want somebody (or somerat) to do something a lot, and keep doing it, it’s best to reward them only some of the time, and to randomly determine whether they will get rewarded or not. This is called a variable ratio schedule. If you don’t believe me, here is a graph with writing and numbers. Graphs do not lie:

This is why gambling is so addictive. You get rewarded for pulling that lever, but randomly and only every so often. It may also be why checking email can be addictive. Clicking that inbox gets rewarded with a message, but only sometimes.

I think this also applies to ice cream. As we all know, the best part of many ice creams is the chunks. Vanilla ice cream is OK on its own, but in a spoonful with a nice big chunk of cookie dough or a brownie bit, it’s infinitely more rewarding.

But usually, in a tub of, say, 100 spoonfuls, there can only be, say, 25 spoonfuls that contain yummy chunks. And since the chunks are randomly distributed throughout the tub of ice cream, each spoonful only has about a 25% chance of containing a chunk. If eating a spoonful of ice cream is the behaviour and chunks are the reward, this is what we call a VR4 (variable ratio 4) schedule; reinforcement is random, but on average, every 4th behaviour is rewarded. It’s the perfect recipe for making someone eat ice cream quickly, and keep eating it.

This is why I eat so much ice cream. It’s friggin’ science. And while I often complain that there are not enough chunks in ice cream, it’s clear that ice cream manufacturers have outsmarted me. It wouldn’t be quite so addictive if every spoonful had a chunk.

It’s also why you shouldn’t eat right from the tub. With the magic of psychology at work, you would probably eat the entire tub in the time it takes to, say, write a blog post about the psychology of ice cream.



P.S. If you do a Google image search for “Reese ice cream”, you will find a surprising number of pictures of Reese Witherspoon eating ice cream. She, too, must be a victim of variable ratio reinforcement.

Coffee of Doom

I’m writing this from a Starbucks in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’ve never written anything in a coffee shop before, but it seems to be a thing that real writers do, so here I am.

This vacation has been awesome, but I gotta point out one thing about traveling in today’s world. More and more, every place I go looks almost the same. This Starbucks has a pretty sweet fireplace and no breakfast sandwiches, but other than that, I might as well be in London. I drive down any major street in any decent-sized city, and it’s Wal Mart, McDonalds, Starbucks, Pet Smart, CIBC, Starbucks, some generic family restaurant chain, Starbucks, another family restaurant chain, etc., repeat. Any major street corner plaza could be constructed, and probably be successful, by putting the names of big franchised businesses into a hat and pulling a dozen out.

One of the most fundamental laws of the universe is that entropy constantly increases. Things get more spread out, random, arbitrary. Less meaningful. Us humans like to think of ourselves and our society as an exception to this law, getting around it due to the open vs. closed system loophole in nature, as we get more organized, and our lives becoming more meaningful. But maybe that’s not entirely true.

Maybe the future of human civilization is every restaurant collapsing together into a Kelsey’s-flavoured mass; every coffee shop mixing into a super-grande cup of Starbucks. Then, like milk poured in coffee will eventually spread out randomly until it’s just a beige sludge, each type of business, represented by a single brand, will randomly disperse throughout the world. The “character” of a city will be determined purely by chance fluctuations in its mix of businesses.

The fact that you can already get a hot cup of Starbucks coffee on every corner of every city is an early warning sign that the heat death of human civilization is near.

Beer : Statistics :: Peas : Carrots

I once got slightly intoxicated while “studying” the night before a major exam in statistics. Normally this would not be something to be proud of, but the fact is, despite the morning headache, my mind was clear of distractions and all that wonderful statistical knowledge flowed onto the paper just as smoothly as the beer flowed into my belly the night before. I aced the exam and secured my future in psychology. (This is a story that Nick likes to tell whenever someone mentions exams and drinking in the same sentence).

It turns out there is a very good reason that beer and statistics go together like birds of a feather. The study of statistics has been linked with beer since its early history. Anyone with basic stats knowledge has heard of Student’s t-distribution, often used to tell if two groups are different from each other on some measure. Student was the pen name of William Sealy Gosset, a statistician working in Dublin. The dude chummed with some of the more familiar names in stats, like Pearson and Fisher.

The thing is, Gosset didn’t give a crap about discovering the inner workings of the mind by poking and prodding samples of unsuspecting humans. No, Gosset just wanted to use mathematics to brew tasty beer. He worked for the Guinness brewery, applying statistical knowledge to growing and brewing barley. Guinness wanted to protect this powerful secret knowledge from competitors, so Gosset was forced to publish under a fake name, and apparently more math-creative than naming-creative, chose the name “Student.”

So that’s how Student’s t-distribution was born. And that’s why having a few pints of Guinness before a major stats exam should be encouraged. Even if it results in failure – and very well might – mention to the prof that it was a tribute to the long and fascinating history of beer and statistics. That’s gotta be worth a few bonus marks.


P. S. I hope you noticed the subtle normal curve in the picture of the Guinness up there. That took some serious Photoshop skills you know.

Get Smart

Wired Magazine has just put up a set of articles on the topic of intelligence: Get Smarter: 12 Hacks That Will Amp Up Your Brainpower.

It’s partly just a movie promotion (for the Steve Carell remake of Get Smart. Get it?), and a lot of it is oversimplified or just plain wrong, but there is some interesting stuff in there that’s worth thinking about as long as you have a few grains of salt at the ready.

One thing I found particularly interesting is the person who tried maximizing their time by cutting down on sleeping. As I’ve long maintained, sleep sucks. For the most part, it’s a waste of time. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to work for this person, who tried altering their sleeping pattern such that they had short naps throughout the day but less overall sleeping time. They felt crappy all the time. Bummer. I’m still waiting for that anti-sleeping pill with no side effects. Get on it, science!

Publish and Perish

Not to not brag or nothin’, but you are now a friend/acquaintance/worshiper of a published scientific researcher. My first publication finally popped up on the internet recently (even though it was apparently published in 2007, the journal seems to be running behind or something).

Here is the full reference:
Sorrentino, R. M., Seligman, C., & Battista, M. E. (2007). Optimal distinctiveness, values, and uncertainty orientation: Individual differences on perceptions of self and group identity. Self and Identity, 6, 322-339.

If you’re subscribed through your university (or wherever), you can find the article here, at your local library, or through Google. That’s right, I’m Googlable.

Optimal distinctiveness refers to the fact that people don’t like to feel too different from other people, but also don’t like to feel too similar. However, this is true for some people more than others. We found that people who prefer certainty to uncertainty also tend to try thinking of themselves as similar to other people after being made to feel different. In other words, these certainty oriented people tend to want to assimilate back into a crowd when they feel like they are weirdos who don’t fit in.

We proved this with advanced science. Here is some science from the article:

Those are graphs and formulas formulae. It doesn’t get much more scientific than that.

I do find it strange that this article costs $43.75 to purchase without a subscription. That’s more than most books, just for one article that is, no offense to the authors (none taken), not all that exciting. What’s strangest, though, is that I don’t get a dime of that. Musicians complain that record companies take a large percentage of the profit from record sales. With us, publishers take 100%.

Plus, isn’t science supposed to be free, open, and collaborative?

Oh well. Luckily, with the internet, it’s nearly free to distribute a file containing a research article, and many researchers make their own work available free of charge on their personal web sites. Hey, maybe I should do that. I will soon. You just stay tuned.

Anyway, I’m done bragging / feeling sorry for my broke self.

See also: Optimal Distinctiveness Theory on Wikipedia. Oh look, there’s our article! How did that get there? *WINKY FACE*

A Skeptical Look at Yogurt

I hate yogurt commercials. I’m not a big fan of yogurt itself either, aside from it being one of the funniest-sounding words in the English language. Yet, the other day, I went to pick up some groceries, I was really hungry, I wanted something healthy, and I was in a hurry, so some sort of implicit association kicked in and I got some Activia yogurt.

There are a bunch of buzz words associated with yogurt like Activa that they blab about in the commercials, calling it pre-biotic, pro-biotic, mo’ biotic, whatever. I decided to look into what this actually means.

The horrible commercials clearly imply that eating this bacteria-infested yogurt will help you lose weight. In one of them, two people are sitting down in workout clothing talking about yogurt. One of them has sciency-looking animations orbiting around her skinny belly. As if sitting there eating yogurt is the equivalent of a full workout, infusing science into your belly and melting away fat. The commercial asks you to take the “14 day challenge” (*). What are you challenged to do? Well, buy lots of yogurt and chow down for 2 weeks, of course!

Let’s go to their web site to see how they back up their claims. Ahh, ok, so probiotic cultures are literally little living organisms that survive in your gut after you swallow them. Gross…but I guess we always have living beasties in there anyway. But how do the magical health benefits work? Oh, here we go:

Oookay. So it works by, um, working. Then something about balance.

Oh look! A hot chick in a lab coat! Perhaps she can tell us more.

Ok, so we need some of these bacteria. Of course, it doesn’t actually say that eating this yogurt is the only source of them. Or a good source. The leap to eating it every single day might be a bit of a stretch.

But what do they actually do? Does having lots of these bugs in your gut help you lose weight like the ads imply? Let’s go to the section devoted to information on probiotic cultures. Oh, look, they link to an external web site all about them – – to learn more. A third party must be a legitimate source of information, since they won’t fabricate hard scientific data just to sell more yogurt.

Now, I’m not making this up; here is the sole source of information on

Seriously. The only working link is “watch.” If you do, it’s a disturbing video with smiling animated bacteria worming their way around the human digestive system.

Here they are packing their bags and leaving out of someone’s anus, along with a giant turd. Again, I’m not making this up.

Oh, and look who owns that web site. Danone. Makers of Activia. So it’s basically the world’s most ineffective propaganda video.

Back to Danone’s main site. Here is what they claim the point of eating Activia is:

Why is Activia® yogurt such a great choice?

* It is the only yogurt to contain unique BL RegularisTM specifically selected by Danone researchers.
* BL RegularisTM is scientifically proven and clinically tested to survive passage through the digestive system, arriving into the large intestine as a live culture that stays active.
* Activia® can truly be called a “yogurt with an active probiotic culture” because of the unique, additional friendly bacteria it contains: BL RegularisTM.
* It tastes great – consumers ranked Activia® highest among yogurts for flavour and creaminess in Danone taste tests! (Source: Cintech, July 2003)
* It is available in twelve delicious flavours.

To sum up: It tastes good, and it puts living organisms in your belly. Hey, neat, but I could replace “BL RegularisTM” with “dirt”, and it really wouldn’t be any more or less convincing. Wow, it’s the only yogurt with dirt, it maintains its pebbly nature in the digestive system, and tastes great! Uh, so what?

There’s still no mention of weight loss here. No mention of any benefits at all.

Let’s just go to the “Scientific Proof” section. Finally, we get to a small handful of actual scientific studies done on this stuff. The main conclusion? It helps old people and people with intestinal problems have reduced “intestinal travel time.” In other words, if you have trouble shitting regularly, it will help you shit.

Nothing about weight loss. And more importantly, regarding normal people, I quote, “In subjects with a normal transit time, no marked change or risk of diarrhea was observed.” Note: no marked change.

The bottom line is, unless you are having bowel problems, it won’t do anything. If you are, it might make you more regular. And it probably won’t give you diarrhea.

I guess all the stupidness of the commercials and the vague claims on the web site make sense now. They were dancing around the fact that all these fancy words really don’t mean much. And “it probably won’t give you diarrhea” wasn’t a very catchy slogan.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on this stuff. It actually does taste pretty good, and even if it has no special benefits, all yogurts are healthy low-calorie foods in general. But I see no reason to go out of my way to get yogurt specifically because it has probiotic cultures in it, nor to pay more for it. Also, it is downright deceptive to clearly imply that the stuff helps with weight loss, when no such benefit has been demonstrated. Danone can take their bacteria and shove them back up their extremely regular asses.


(*) Of course, the yogurt expires before the 14 days are up, so you gotta have more than one per day, share some, or waste some and buy another pack in 10 days.

Oh, but if you need help with the challenge, there’s another web site for that:

Do we really need a support group to eat a cup of yogurt?

Book Review: The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil

The singularity refers to a time, sometime in the future, when machines become more intelligent than biological humans, and technology begins to improve rapidly as a result. The Singularity is Near is Ray Kurzweil’s attempt to justify his belief that the singularity is coming sooner than most people think, and what consequences it will have.

Oh, what consequences.

Kurzweil envisions a future where almost nothing is impossible. Human-machine hybrids live forever in a world with very few problems, playing and engaging in intellectual pursuits in any virtual reality environment they can imagine. This isn’t your typical flying-car future. What use are flying cars when anybody can instantly obtain any information, or experience any location, just by thinking about it? It sounds like science fiction, but Kurzweil convincingly argues that it is not fiction at all.

The best part is that, if he’s right, almost everyone reading this can experience this future in their lifetime. This book should be prescribed to suicide-prone people. With a Utopian future just a few years off, why end it now?

Some would probably argue that Kurzweil is too hopeful. He does seem a little, uh, off at times. The dude is on a radical diet involving dozens of drugs and food restrictions, just so his aging body can last long enough to see the singularity he so believes in. And how many times do we need to be reminded that in the future, you can become the opposite gender and have sex with whoever, or whatever, you want? That’s cool if you’re into it, but in a world with almost no limits, I think most people will come up with even more interesting stuff to do with their time. And although he argues each point well, if he’s wrong about even one – for example, one fundamental limit on technology is reached, or one catastrophic world-altering event sets us back – all his predictions could fall apart.

Still, even a small chance that he’s right should give us all an enthusiastic hope for the future. Reading this book (and its shorter predecessor, The Age of Spiritual Machines) made me happy to be alive in today’s world; I don’t think I could give a book any higher a recommendation than that.

P.S. I wrote more about this book at this post. Yes, it took me more than 6 months to read it. In fact, it probably took me over a year. It’s damn thick. But although it does have boring bits, it’s worth the time investment.