In the News

  • Today’s top story: LOLcats are awesome. Among the usual stories of politics, business, and school shootings, today’s LA Times featured an entire article about I Can Has Cheezburger, the internet’s leading provider of pictures of cats with poorly written captions. It’s actually an interesting read; I never really considered that people are making a living off of internet fads. The owner of the site also has an awesome name: Ben Huh. Huh? Huh. (I found this via Tony Pierce’s Twitter).

  • How to Slow Aging is an article at Canadian Living. Among medically questionable (eating lots of protein, taking vitamin supplements) and trivial (be around stuff that smells good, relax) advice is “get 9 hours of sleep a night.” The thing is, if your goal is to slow aging and extend your life, isn’t spending an extra hour or two a day unconscious kinda the opposite of that? If most people can happily get by on 7 hours of sleep (and I think most can), is it really worth sleeping more to live longer? Let’s do math!

    – Wasting an extra 2 hours out of every 24 means that waking time for each day is reduced by about 8.3%
    – People in Canada live to about 80. To extend that by 8.3% would mean living to almost 87.
    – Can sleeping 9 hours a night extend one’s life expectancy to 87? I doubt it. And even if it did, I’d rather be enjoying waking hours while I’m young and virile than while I’m old and fragile. Screw sleep.

  • Gmail has a new feature that warns you when you said you’ve included an email attachment, but never actually attached the file. I do this all the time so this will save me lots of sorries. It should also cut down on hearing “no I swear to baby Jesus God damn it, I attached the file. There must be something wrong with your email. Or maybe I have a computer virus.”

Book Review: American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis


Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho describes a few years in the life of Patrick Bateman, a successful investor and psychopath. That’s about all there is to it.

American Psycho is not so much a story, but a drawn out snapshot of the nightmare world of yuppies in late 80s New York. This setting is as much of a character as Patrick Bateman is (the first third of the book is purely about his everyday life in this world, and we only later get a glimpse into the “psycho” part of it). I think that it’s not so much that this world created the monster that is Patrick Bateman (the only description of his father is something like “there is something wrong with his eyes”, implying that his psychosis has pretty deep roots), but that this world allows him to exist. Everyone is so self-centered and focused on superficial crap that they don’t notice the serial killer in front of their noses. In a way, many of the characters in the book are as inhuman as Bateman is.

This is not a straightforward novel; it is very much open to interpretation in both its narrative and its message. Both the matter-of-factly described scenes of brutal violence and the overly detailed descriptions of fashion and music often had me wondering why the hell I kept reading it. But I did keep reading, and while it may not be an entertaining novel in the traditional sense, it did make me think. And it made me want to go out to a cheap restaurant where I don’t need a reservation and make real connections with people, because dude, the world depicted in American Psycho is a shitty place that should be avoided at all costs.

I have to go return some videotapes.

Nuking Dreams

This is from a recent issue of Science:

In 2004, a research team led by Pierre Maquet of the University of Liège, Belgium, used positron emission tomography (PET) to monitor brain activity in men playing a virtual-reality game in which they learned to navigate through a virtual town (actually a scene from the shoot-’em-up video game Duke Nukem). The same regions of the hippocampus that revved up when the subjects explored the virtual environment also became active when the men slipped into slow-wave sleep that night.

Well first, that’s pretty neat. I guess dreams aren’t a waste of time after all.

But: Duke Nukem?? In 2004? Assuming they meant Duke Nukem 3D and not the 1991 original, that game is almost 10 years old. By today’s standards, the graphics are horrible and unrealistic. You’d think that they would get better results using a game that resembles real life; and, um, less meaningful results with a game where you walk around a pixely city fighting cartoony 2-dimensional pig-people with a freeze ray.

Of course, if they really wanted a Duke Nukem game to use, that was their only choice. The sequel to Duke Nukem – Duke Nukem Forever – is one of the most hilarious things in the video game world. It’s been in development since 1997, and was scheduled to be released in 1998. It is still not out. It’s now almost 10 years over its scheduled relase date. What’s funny is that every few years, news of the game will come out, usually saying that it will be out soon, accompanied by a tiny screenshot. Nobody will admit that it’s been cancelled. The fact that it has “forever” in the title, and abbreviates to “DNF” (i.e., did not finish) makes it even better. Still, there are plenty of games, out now, that have gorgeous graphics which psychology researchers could easily use to simulate real life. Look at Gears of War.

And this, friends, is why spending countless hours playing video games is no more a waste of time than dreaming. It’s pretty much studying for school and my future career as a psychologist.

I’ve now outed myself as a pathetic geek to everyone on Facebook.

To be all intellectually honest, here is the full source of the quote in glorious APA format:

Miller, G. (2007). Hunting for meaning after midnight. Science, 315 (5817), 1360 – 1363.

Bonus picture:

Book Review: Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories, by Chuck Palahniuk


This is the first book that I listened to in audiobook format. That is, I downloaded an audio file of someone reading the book, and then listened to it on my iPod. I got it from Audible, which is a pretty cool site. The books are a lot cheaper than buying them physically, or even getting the same audio files from iTunes. And here’s a secret…follow this link and you get two books for free. You’re supposed to have bought a certain iPod accessory to get the offer, but it’s not like they check if you actually have it. I just signed up, got the two free books, then cancelled the account. Nice.

Anyway, Stranger Than Fiction is a collection of essays that Palahniuk has written for various sources. Thus, it’s sort of a mish-mash of random topics, some of which are fascinating, and others less so.

I enjoyed the autobiographical stuff the best. Much of it is about Fight Club, and the consequences of it being adapted into a popular movie. Palahniuk writes about how his jealousy of Brad Pitt’s lips caused him to invest in a lip pump (sort of like a penis pump, but to give you bigger lips instead of a longer schlong); how most of Fight Club is based on true stories that he and his friends experienced, and the weirdness of seeing people imitating actors imitating characters in a book imitating real people; how people get annoyed when he doesn’t reveal the location of real fight clubs. Funny stuff. There is also some material about writing itself. For me, it’s always fascinating to hear about what fiction writers think about writing itself, given how mysterious of a process writing fiction can be.

Less interesting, but still worth reading, are some of the other random topics. The worst offender was the overly long chapter about people who dedicate their lives to building castles. I like hearing about the people who do that, but I really didn’t need to hear the details on how to keep moister out of a concrete building.

Overall, it’s worth reading, to see a bit into the mind of a unique author like Palahniuk, and learn a bit about some of the fascinating people and situations he has encountered. Especially if you are a fan of his fictional work.

One last note, though…don’t get the audiobook version. It says “Unabridged Selections” in its title, which apparently does not mean you get the whole book. You get whole chapters (i.e. “selections”), but not all of them. I have no idea why two or three chapters were left out, but it sucks that I missed them.

New Words I Learned Today

  • Hyperopia: An excess of farsightedness. Most people aspire to be farsighted. It’s good to delay pleasure now so that we can be better off in the long run. But a recently published study (read about it here) interviewed people about what they regret. In the short term, people regretted partying when they should have been working. In the long term, though, people wished they partied more.

    On the surface, this seems like evidence that I should be partying right now instead of writing FOUR damn papers by the end of the month, but that’s probably not the case. The people they interviewed were probably the ones who did work hard to get to where they were. They may regret not partying now, but fail to realize they wouldn’t be alive to express their regret if they spent their entire life eating finger food and drinking martinis. I doubt they’d find the same results with less successful people. The homeless drug addict on the verge of death probably wouldn’t say “yeah dude, I wish I partied more…my life would have been so much better if I had even less self control”.

    Still, it illustrates that we should enjoy our lives in addition to working, or we’ll hate ourselves later.

  • Pseudocyesis: Fake pregnancy. This article tells the heartwarming story of a pregnant woman who went to see her doctor. She was quite far along, with a big belly, kicking baby, screwed up nipples, etc. The doctor, however, could not detect the baby’s heart beat. After further research, he discovered that there actually was no baby. There never was a baby. She just wanted to be pregnant so bad that her body changed to look like she was.

    The hilarious part of the story, though, is that the doctor didn’t tell her that she didn’t have a baby. Instead, in a mind boggling breach of ethics and human decency, he told her that the baby was ready to be delivered that very day. Then he drugged her, and when she came to, he told her she’d lost the baby.

    You’ll have to read the article to find out the rest. The power of the mind over matter in this case is fascinating, but equally fascinating is how horrible (but, looking back on them, hilarious) things have been done in the name of science.

    Thank science we have ethical standards now. Science bless you all. Merry Sciencemass.

Book Review: The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene

It has literally taken me years to read this book. Not because it’s uninteresting or anything, but because I have to be in a certain mood to read it. A mood in which I’m ready to read slowly and think deeply.

The Elegant Universe is about superstring theory and M-theory; basically, the “theory of everything” that physicists have always been searching for. It’s written for a general audience, but still gets pretty deep into it – without much math. While that’s a good thing, since most people (myself included) would need years of training to even begin to understand the math involved, it also left me with a feeling that I was always missing part of the picture. I guess that’s unavoidable in a book of this sort, though.

The book answers a lot of questions, but also brings up just as many – most of which are things that the average person has never considered before. Many such questions are very very deep. So deep that it’s nearly impossible to really grasp what’s being talked about. Whenever possible, Greene illustrates things with 2 or 3-dimensional analogies, but again, you feel like you’re missing something when, in reality, the theory involves 11 dimensions.

That’s the thing, though – humans will never intuitively grasp a world with 11 dimensions. We live – and evolved in – the 3 space dimensions (and one time dimension) that we’re all familiar with. Our brains simply weren’t built to understand any more than that. Like a goldfish can never understand the math involved in buying a chocolate bar, maybe we will never fully understand the math involved in describing the universe.

People will damn well try, though. I have much respect for the physicists involved in string theory (and other cutting-edge stuff like it). Many would probably hate this word, but it involves a lot of faith. Faith in at least two things: 1) That humans are able to understand the universe, and 2) That the universe is understandable at all. As briefly discussed in the book, maybe there is no ultimate theory that ties everything together. Maybe planets just work a certain way, and photons work a certain way, and there is no connection between these two ways of working. Until they find it, these physicists don’t even know if the theory they dedicate their lives to finding exists. Of course, they feel it exists, as I’m sure most scientists do. How could it not? And so far, everything has gotten closer and closer to meshing together cohesively. But it could stop at any point, and yeah, that feeling that it won’t, in some way, that’s faith.

These are deep issues, and I can’t really get into them in a brief review, so you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you want to have your brain challenged and get a better understanding of one way the entire universe might be explained, give The Elegant Universe a shot.

Video Games Make You Smart


I’ll stick with posting about psychology, since school/work is all I’ve been doing lately.

I came across an article (Teasdale & Owen, 2000) which looked at trends in intelligence scores over the last few decades. As you may know, intelligence has been steadily going up over time. This study looked at a Danish population, to see if IQ is still going up. The graph above shows what they found. It’s not going up as much as it used to, except visuo-spatial abilities (working with shapes in your head), which continue to increase.

Why is this? The researchers guess: “..it is tempting to speculate that […] it has been growing exposure to video games and geometrically configured computer screens via operating systems, applications programs and the Internet, that have particularly accelerated the development of visuo-spatial abilities during the last decade.”

So there you have it. Contrary to what some believe, video games are not responsible for the downfall of society; it’s the opposite. Video games are making everybody smarter. Parents: start your kids off on the right foot. Get those toddlers playing Grand Theft Auto right away.

This also gives me an idea for my Ph.D. dissertation: “Does Playing Video Games All Day for a Year Make People Smarter? A Self-Administered Case Study. By Mike.”

Here’s the full reference for the article I’m talking about:

Teasdale, T., & Owen, D. (2000). Forty-year secular trends in cognitive abilities. Intelligence, 28, 115 – 120.

Psychobabble


You know, there are a lot of interesting things in the field of psychology, but not a lot of people know about them. When most people think of psychology, they think of Sigmund Freud sitting behind a patient on a couch while they talk about their childhood, while he fills out a prescription for crazy pills. That has very little to do with real psychology.

I think one of the reasons that most people ignore psychology research is that we use stupid jargon for very simple things. This makes us feel smart, but just confuses everyone else.

As an example, here is a line from an article I came across, defining what a “home page” is:

A home page is an entry interface of hyperdocuments for presenting a Website’s information to visitors, which is mostly concerned with human perception in terms of users’ comprehension and mental representation.

Seriously. I barely know what it’s talkng about. How about this? “A home page is the first thing you see when you visit a web site.” Much better.

Book Review: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Just finished reading Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk. Most people know him as the guy who wrote Fight Club. Invisible Monsters is so full of twists and turns that I feel that I’d give important plot points away with even a brief summary of the book. But basically, it’s about a fashion model who gets her jaw blown off, and ends up going on a physical and psychological journey with some, um, interesting characters.

The style of this book sets it apart from most others. It’s written like a fashion magazine; that is, it uses too many adjectives, the paragraphs are short, and it jumps around from topic to topic so that you feel like you’re never getting the whole story at one time. I actually found that this made it more enjoyable to read, rather than less, though perhaps that just says something about my attention span.

The content is loud, shocking, hilarious, and campy. Easily disturbed or easily disgusted people will probably want to avoid this (though if you really wanna throw up in your mouth while reading, check out his short story Guts (click to read the whole story)). The themes running through Invisible Monsters will be familiar to anyone who’s read Palahniuk’s other novels, or seen Fight Club.

I’ve heard rumours that Invisible Monsters was being worked on as a movie. I find it hard to picture this as a movie, though. Without giving much away, let’s just say it would have to employ some “unique” actors and/or actresses. I enjoyed the book from start to finish, though, so I’d recommend it to anyone with a strong stomach looking for a fun read.