Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Lasagna Recipe

Last night Robert and I had homemade frozen lasagna for dinner that was so good, I decided to share the recipe. I have tried a lot of different recipes (and different ways of winging it) but this one is my favorite. Since Robert and I have different preferences (me: veg, him: cheese) and batch cooking is a time-saver, we always make two big lasagnas, one for each of us. This allows us to freeze about half of the servings (individually packaged in plastic, microwave-safe boxes for ease of reheating) to eat later. It does take time to make, but calculated on a time-per-serving basis, it’s well worth it in my opinion. This kicks the ass of a store-bought frozen lasagna so hard as to be laughable. Actually, I prefer it to any restaurant lasagna I’ve ever had too.

I have found that taking the lasagna straight from the freezer, heating on 50-70% power for about 7 minutes, and then heating on full power for a couple of minutes works very well. I recommend serving the lasagna with a green salad.

This version calls for meat, but I have also made it without and it is still delicious.

Sally’s Spinach and Meat Lasagna
Serves 8

2 10-oz boxes of frozen spinach
1 lb button mushrooms, sliced*
6 oz portabella mushrooms, sliced*
½ c. pesto OR lots of herbs**
2 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
1 16-oz carton 2% cottage cheese
1 egg, beaten
½ c. parmesan cheese, divided in two
½ lb. ground beef (95%), browned
½ lb. turkey sausage (low fat), browned
26-oz jar tomato-basil pasta sauce (e.g. Bertolli)
8-oz can tomato sauce
8-oz package oven ready lasagna noodles

* I use this particular type and ratio of mushrooms because it’s what is convenient at my store. Cremini (baby bella) mushrooms are also great in it. If you are going meatless, you may want to increase the mushroom quantity and go for a more flavorful combination of shrooms rather than using button ones.

** Particularly for the vegetarian version, this is good with pesto that you either make yourself or you can buy. Lately, I have been saving calories (and cost – pine nuts are expensive) by skipping the pesto and just using a large quantity of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme) from my garden.

1. Wilt, drain, and chop spinach. Sauté mushrooms on stove top to release extra water and drain. Combine spinach, mushrooms, and pesto/herbs in a bowl; set aside.
2. Combine mozzarella, cottage cheese, and egg in medium bowl. Stir in ¼ c. parmesan and set aside.
3. Combine pasta sauce and tomato sauce in small bowl; set aside.
4. Make layers in large Pyrex pan sprayed with oil:
1) 1/4 pasta sauce mixture
2) 3 noodles
3) 1/3 cheese mixture
4) 1/3 spinach mixture
5) 1/3 meat
6) 1/4 pasta sauce mixture
7) 3 noodles
8) 1/3 cheese mixture
9) 1/3 spinach mixture
10) 1/3 meat
11) 3 noodles
12) 1/3 cheese mixture
13) 1/3 spinach mixture
14) 1/3 meat
15) 1/4 pasta sauce mixture
16) 3 noodles
17) 1/4 pasta sauce mixture
18) ¼ c. parmesan
5. Cook covered with foil in 375 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and cook 15 minutes.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Consumer Behavior Grade

My professor emailed the scores today, and I have a 99.7. So there's really no point in taking the optional final to replace the 94 I got on the 3rd exam. Yay.

It looks like we got a 93 on our 5 minute presentation last week, which is good considering how little work we put into it. Actually, when I say "we" I am not sure whether everyone in my group got the same score or not. We all got the same score on the report, so I assume so, but we all did a post-project group evaluation which could have impacted the final grade for the project. In any event, I'm well-pleased.

(The reason it is as high as 99.7 is that we can earn up to two points on our final grade by doing special assignments; I would have a 97.7 without this bonus.)

It is rather a reassuring thing to have gotten such a ridiculously high grade in the class, given that I am planning to make consumer behavior my profession. But it's amusing that this is the second-lowest grade I have had at Texas State, following my intro to marketing class last semester. I had full 100's in my psychology class and have killed the math classes due to grading on a curve.

If this school gave A+'s, I would be even happier. The difference between a 91 and a 99.7 (or 100-something) is pretty huge. Of course, theoretically, this means that I could just not work as hard to get a lower A but I'm not going to do that. I have to hope that the simple A's will be burnished by professors' recommendations.

A Walk in the Park

Robert and I had a great 6 mile walk at our local-ish park on Saturday. We have been trying to take advantage of the last remaining not-hot days before summer starts with full fury. (And although I complain about daylight savings time, the ability to walk several miles at the park after dinner during the workweek is also wonderful.)

We spent almost the entire time talking about economics and occasionally stopping to observe flora and fauna. The Mexican hat has come up since last week.

Wildlife highlights included:

A hispid cotton rat (which Robert saw but I did not)

A gulf coast toad (which scared me)

A blanchard's cricket frog (which we heard but did not see)

A cottontail bunny, quite young

A roadrunner, running across the road, which prompted me to say "A cuckoo!" It is a member of the cuckoo family, but still seems like a weird way to categorize such a familiar bird.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

What's the Story on North Carolina?

In the comments, my mom (and dad) ask what school is in North Carolina.

Right now, my first choice masters program is:

MA Psychology
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, NC


1. 3 professors are good matches to my research interests (which I have a lot of, but still, given that my interests tend toward the consumer behavior side and not, for instance, the racial stereotyping or behavior of small groups side of social psychology, this is a somewhat amazing feat).

2. The location is very good for Robert; it's a large population area, in the Research Triangle, the home of SAS (the stat software people), etc. And it's NOT in NYC, which makes me happy.

3. Quality: the acceptance rate last year was just over 12% and the average GRE score was 1250; these are excellent for masters programs (are higher than many PhD programs). I have also seen it mentioned on many grad school forums as a school with a good reputation for sending students on to good PhD programs and they prominently feature a link to the list of PhD programs their graduates have attended on the web site.

4. The curriculum/coursework looks good.

5. It's a thesis-based, two year program. (Some other programs are non-thesis, which is less useful to me, or are crazy one year thesis-based programs that appear to exist as a "bridge" for people who were rejected from all the PhD programs they applied to and need something to do for the year before they apply again.)

I also like that the MA is the highest degree offered in the psych department, which means the masters students are the top of the food chain. (I mean, to the degree that such a concept makes sense. Obviously all grad students are lowly apprentices in this situation.) This helps with getting funding, attention from professors, etc., compared to say the infamously huge (233 people enrolled last year) and cut-throat environment of the NYU masters program, which gives no aid, makes you compete for the opportunity to do a thesis, and is clearly a cash cow for the university.

According to the APA guide, last year 100% of masters students received a research assistant or teaching assistant position, averaging 12 hours per week and $8,500 per year, that came with a full tuition remission (i.e. they charged no tuition). (Yes, if you think of this as a job, you could weep, but it pretty much rocks that you can get a masters degree for somewhat better than free. The trick is not to think of the opportunity costs.)

I am also biased because it seems like a "real" university to me, as opposed to the usual Directional State University type of school that tops out with a masters in psychology. Perhaps this is pathetic, but I would have trouble feeling good about being a grad student at Northeastern West Virginia State University at Podunksville. Brand matters to me here in a way it doesn't matter elsewhere. It's too central to my self-concept.

Robert also pointed out that Wake Forest has a similar 'feel' to Rice in some respects - it's a small school, for example. I'm sure this is part of the attraction.

However, I am trying not to become too attached to this one program. There are other good ones on my list (and not all of them are even in psychology).

(Perhaps I need to use this coy, hint-dropping strategy purposely in the future to generate comments on my posts...heh.)

Sally's Closet: Cleaning Off My Desk Edition

Today I have three pieces of paper (which are now in the recycle bin) to share with you.

Work Doodle #1: The Giraffe

Giraffe-like creatures are a common doodle theme of mine.

A rare, unchained giraffe-creature

Work Doodle #2: A Collection of Mostly Alice-Related Characters

Figures include, from upper left, what looks like a very fat bat but I guess is an owl because of the words "hoo hoo"; the Cheshire Cat superimposed on a supply-demand chart; a bird on a tree limb with the words "follow bunny" underneath; a bottle labeled "Eat me"; a cat saying "meow" and thinking "woof"; a girl; a snail; a butterfly; a rabbit; and a dog thinking of a dog just like himself.

I like how the P and Q complicate the dog drawing

Note that both doodles are here presented with the shadow of death over them. Very symbolic, no doubt.

Print-out of Journal Article

In case you are curious to see what one of my peer-reviewed publications looks like.

Apparently written in a Swedish-Polish
Robert cleaned off his own desk last night and found, among a couple of reams of paper that was recycled:

(1) An inordinate number of gigantic doodles of connected hexes, which he explained was used for mapping in strategy games. I thought that if I taped all of them up on the walls, we could get that crazy-obsessive person vibe that was used to good effect in the movie A Beautiful Mind.

(2) A paystub from 2003. Um, yeah.

Friday, April 25, 2008


UPDATE: No, Leo does not count as a possession to be disposed of prior to moving; he is quite welcome to come along on what he will no doubt view as a road trip from hell. I'm thinking bunny tranquilizer will be in order.

This post links to a brief NPR story on the proliferation of self-storage businesses.

Robert had a storage unit in Austin for some time after he moved from College Station into my old one-bedroom apartment. After we moved to our current larger apartment with excellent closets, we went through his stuff in the storage unit and the vast majority of it was thrown out. (We went through it more than once because I firmly believe that it is very difficult to cull the correct amount of junk at once. It's sort of like pulling weeds - you start with the big weeds, and when they are gone, you can focus on the smaller ones until they're all gone, or you simply run out of energy for it.)

At one point in this process, Robert was holding a telephone and said that even if he sometime needed another telephone, he wouldn't want this crappy old one; he would want to purchase a new, up-to-date phone. (And I was thinking that even if he decided to use this one, would he ever be able to find it in the mountain of "stuff that might, theoretically, one day be useful.")

The story made a good point that many people spend much more money on storage than the stuff itself is worth. In many cases, I would guess that the storage costs even exceed the replacement value of the items. After all, you can easily buy some junky furniture, appliances, etc., from Goodwill or the Salvation Army for almost nothing.

But this clearly does not apply only to apartment dwellers with a storage unit. I think many people who would agree that renting a storage unit is a waste of money quite blithely spend a huge amount of money to buy a bigger house than they need and then fill it with stuff. (Corollary of the ideal gas law: stuff expands to fit the available space.) Just because once you have bought the big house, your storage costs are fixed does not mean that the decision to buy such a large house wasn't stupid and that you are not throwing money away to store stuff that is of little genuine value. And even if your house isn't huge, you are basically turning rooms, garages, etc., into self-managed self-storage units that could be used in another way. You may have purchased a two-bedroom house that has de facto become a one-bedroom plus room storing mounds of crap.

Of course, there is a huge body of literature on the meanings invested in personal possessions and how these possessions inform self-identity through the extended self. There is relatively less work in the area of people's disposal or "divestment" of possessions.

Personally, I have almost always felt better after getting rid of stuff. Obviously, I do not make a habit of getting rid of things that I use or truly believe that I will need later or to which I am strongly emotionally attached, but it seems that people have difficulty making the decision to get rid of possessions that are much more mundane and insignificant. It's hard to know how various factors like laziness and risk-averse frugality (i.e. being unwilling to get rid of something that may be needed later because you don't want to risk having to spend money to replace it in the event; I just made that term up) intersect with psychological attachment in leading people to keep stuff forever.

I am not alone in this feeling of post-disposal contentment. A 2001 qualitative study in the journal Advances in Consumer Research notes:

"Following disposal, informants frequently reflected on their decisions, the outcomes both financially and psychologically, and the overall impact of severing their relationships with possessions. For most informants, this assessment elicited positive emotions, feelings of release from obligations to possessions that tied them down, and a newfound awareness of opportunities more suitable to their current situation (Pavia 1993). Informants described a sense of "regained control" over their environment and a sense of emotional closure to the past. Even Juanita, who had disposed of so many of her possessions, described her feelings of relief and renewal in this excerpt from her interview:

Relief! Definitely, that was it, relief! I knew it was going to be hard. But after you get rid of everything that hurts so bad to get rid of, you just feel better. I won't have to go through that again. I had dreaded it, but it's past me now. It wasn't really anything traumatic, but then again, it was. I've lived here 52 years and the kids were raised here too. So, it just hurts. But it's a new beginning."

(Roster, CA. 2001. Letting go: the process and meaning of dispossession in the lives of consumers, Advances in Consumer Research, Vol 28(1).)

Robert and I will likely be moving to another state at this time next year. (I am hoping that state will be North Carolina, but more on that later.) We will almost certainly be downgrading our apartment to something smaller and I have no interest in joining the self-storage trend, so systematic reduction of our stuff is imminent.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Personalized Apology Card For a Significant Other

The latest Achewood comic made me wonder what would be the most appropriate apology cards for common situations I get into with significant others in my life.

For Robert: I'm Sorry That I Was Such a Nutcase; My Blood Sugar Totally Crashed. Lunch at Matt's on Me?

For Mom: I Didn't Mean to Imply You are an Idiot By Criticizing at Great Length a Point of View You Were Merely Mentioning to Me But Don't Even Hold Yourself

For Leo: I'm Sorry You Never Get Enough Carrot But You Can Eat This Card

Anybody have ideas for their own cards?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Three Test Tuesday

Fortunately, it was last week and not today because I have been in a semi-sleep-deprived state of incompetence today. I meant to go to sleep early yesterday but didn't manage to do so until after midnight. (For instance, I nicked my leg shaving this morning, which doesn't sound too bad until you realize I nicked the leg I had not yet attempted to shave. What, was I flailing around with my razor without knowing it?)

But I do now have the grades back from the exams.

Marketing: I made a strategic decision to do the absolute minimum of studying I thought would be consistent with getting an A. I made a 94. I do not have to take the final (which is optional for replacing one exam). My only remaining thing for the class is the 7 minute presentation on Thursday. I currently have a 91% in the class - I mean, a 91% even without showing up for the presentation and hence having a 0 for an assignment that counts as 9% of my grade. So, I have this one in the bag, unless my group does so poorly that we get negative points.

Linear Algebra: I got a 95/104, which is better than it sounds because the grades do not correspond to 90% = A, etc. I only got half credit on one (of 4) proof that I didn't really figure out how to do; I got part of the way there and blanked. (I was something like the 4th to last person to leave the room, as is usual for that class, with only 5 minutes left. The professor always gives us enough work that you have to make continuous progress to actually finish. Most people abandon early, while I always keep going in hopes that I will get a flash of insight.) I also lost a couple points elsewhere on proofs where I left a little something out.

I was amused when we reviewed the exam that I missed the obvious approach to one proof because I did not think of the simple way two things were related. Instead, I followed my usual default process of "If I can link this to the Invertible Matrix Theorem (aka The Theorem of a Thousand Parts), I am golden" because I can pretty much prove any part of that from any other part. It worked, but it was needlessly complex. I admit that I am sort of perversely proud of myself for solving the problem while not taking advantage of the most straightforwardly clear aspects of the conepts involved (null space and eigenvalues). It's like I subconsciously presented myself with a more difficult thing to solve.

Statistics: Of course the professor reports the mean and median grades (both around 72). Then he gets ready to write down the maximum grade on the board, pauses dramatically, and says "Does anyone have a guess?" He writes down 100 to mass groaning. At this moment, I know that I have finally not made a bone-headed error like thinking "less than 4" = "4" on the exam. I had come so close on the other two tests that I was super chuffed to see the 100 Perfect written on the back page.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Whipped How?

I have recently read a book by Robyn Dawes, a professor in the Social & Decision Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon, called Everyday Irrationality. The goals of this book:

"First, it specifies exactly what types of conclusions and beliefs deserve the term irrational; second, it examines the structure of irrational conclusions; third, it provides examples from everyday life, from allegedly expert opinion that is not truly rational to beliefs that most of us would immediately recognize as irrational - such as those we associate with psychosis or lunacy."

He defines irrationality in a very limited way - beliefs or conclusions are irrational if they are "self-contradicting." For example, a person who believes she is the Virgin Mary because she is a virgin, but also believes that other people who are virgins are not the Virgin Mary, is "obviously" irrational.

He views a great deal of irrationality to stem from a failure to consider the full range of alternatives and to make appropriate comparisons. For instance, looking at the characteristics of a person in a particular category as saying something important about the category without comparing to people in other categories. My own extreme example would be noting that a very high percentage of criminals have two legs and thus viewing two-leggedness as a warning sign of criminality rather than comparing the percentage of two-leggers among criminals versus non-criminals, a comparison which would tell you (I assume) that the characteristic does not distinguish criminals from non-criminals in any way.

In one section, he discusses the interest in understanding the "authoritarian personality" that arose after WWII, when people became aware of the horrors of the Nazi regime and questioned why Germans willingly supported Hitler. In the 1950's, various psychological scales were devised to measure this unusual willingness to follow authority. Ironically, the scales were developed such that if you are responding in the direction of authoritarianism, you would endorse questions like "Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues a child should learn"; they did not include negatively worded questions such that the high authoritarian response was disagreement. Once the scales were changed, so that an authoritarian person would have to agree with some items and disagree with others, "the same person agrees with a reversal of the same item more often than not (62-72% of the time)."

The interest in authoritarianism led to the famous Milgram experiment of the 1960's, which you may have heard about before. Participants, believing they were in a learning study, were instructed to quiz another participant sitting in the next room and when the person got the answer wrong, to give him an electric shock. The shock started at 45 volts and increased with each wrong answer. Of course, there was no other participant. Instead, as the shocks mounted, an actor in the next room screamed in pain, pounded on the wall, yelled that he had a heart condition, and eventually stopped responding. When subjects asked the experimenter if they should stop, the experimenter instructed them to continue. No subject refused to continue before reaching 300 volts, labeled "Extremely Intense Shock." A full 65% of subjects administered the highest, 450-volt shock, two steps beyond the level marked "Danger: Severe Shock" on the shock generator. It would appear that bowing to authority is the more common behavior pattern while people who consistently question authority may be presenting the divergent personality type.

But the thing in the book that motivated me to blog about it was this: in discussing the authoritarianism scales, Dawes gives us the Footnote of the Week. He writes:

"For example, people would be asked to endorse or reject statements such as ... 'Sex crimes, such as rape and attacks on children, deserve more than mere imprisonment; such criminals ought to be publicly whipped or worse' (Adorno et al., 1950).*

* There was a typographical error in the mimeographed version of one of these scales that was widely used at the University of Michigan when I was there. I have substituted the word 'publicly' for 'pubicly.' "

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Restaurant Nutrition Labeling

This article discusses a recent NYC law requiring chain restaurants with over 15 outlets nationwide to include nutrition information on menus.

Despite whether one thinks this is a good idea, likely to curb people's tendency to order calorie-laden lunches in favor of picking healthy alternatives, or crazy-ass government nannyism, surely one wonders: why only chain restaurants?

"New York City Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden said the decision will allow New Yorkers to make informed choices about what they eat. He said chain restaurants were singled out because they have standardized menus. The new policy won't apply to most fine dining establishments, or the thousands of family-owned delis and pizza shops around the city."

Um, standardized menus? Like, standardized across the various outlets of the restaurant so each outlet serves the same items as the other ones? So...wouldn't any stand-alone restaurant kind of already be standardized? Or do they mean that there is a standard prescribed way of making each item on the menu such that the nutrition information can be listed next to each item? Like a Whopper contains one bun, one burger patty, ... and a combination of other things depending on exactly how you order it. How does that all fit on the menu?

And it's not the Chilis and the KFCs of the world that make it impossible to know what kind of nutritional hell their food is. This stuff is readily available on the internet. I'd be more terrified of the local hot dog vendor's chili.

I don't know. It just seems implausible to me that the sole reason Olive Garden and McDonald's and their ilk are singled out for this regulation is that they have "standardized" menus, and that the local shops are spared because their menus are not "standardized." Like, what, a local pizza place doesn't pay attention to how much sausage or how many slices of pepperoni goes onto a medium pizza while Domino's does? Are the kitchen staff of Taco Bell actual robots that can perfectly, uniformly measure out dollops of sour cream and refried beans while the hole-in-the-wall taqueria makes do with illegal immigrant labor?

What would have been a display of real chutzpah would have been requiring all restaurants to "standardize" their menus and make this information available to all customers, either on the menu or on a separate sheet (like so many of the fast food chains already do). But who wants to piss off the local business owners? How much better to make a regulation that puts the national chains at a disadvantage.

For every 10 customers that stop eating 1,000-plus calorie double meat cheeseburgers at a fast food chain once they see in stark print how bad that stuff is, how many will start eating something healthy and how many will start eating at another restaurant, that is not required to communicate this information, where they can order the Giganto-Burger with a level of plausible deniability about the nutritional profile of their meal?

This is probably not their actual intent (at least, for most of the public health people, I am sure it is not). They went after the Big Guys because they're high-profile, convenient to regulate, and easily detestible by the populace due to being Evil Corporations (That Force You to Eat There Through Advertising Voodoo) and not Family Owned Stores (With Employees Who Care). (Although I wonder, no restaurant franchises are owned by families? Aren't some of the NYC Pizza Hut franchises owned by Bob and Betty New Yorker?) I would have more respect for them if they'd be willing to admit this.

In any event, it still strikes me as unfair to require some restaurants to do it and let others not, regardless of the merits of the legislation itself. I recognize that figuring out the nutrition information for a small, stand-alone restaurant could be expensive and awkward, but come on - don't we think that the fucking 21 Club could do it? I mean, these people were able to figure out how to make a burger that people will pay $30 for; they clearly have their act together in a big way.

Of course, I am greatly looking forward to how dramatically this move will reduce overeating of crappy, high-calorie food in NYC and solve the obesity epidemic. I mean, ever since the federal government required nutrition information on labels in grocery stores, people all over the country stopped buying high fat ice cream, frozen pizza, doughnuts, etc. (And I say this as a person who supports the requirement for nutrition information on packaged foods - and am glad that it appears to be on all of the items, and not some select subset of the major brands - and tries to pay attention to what's on them.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Stuff White People Like

If you haven't already seen this website, it's good for much amusement and education.

There is a lot of relevant material here for how white people create meaning and identity through product consumption and lifestyle choice. I think readers of EQ will likely find some resonance in entries like:

Organic Food


Whole Foods

Toyota Prius

Apple Products

Not Having a TV

San Francisco

T Shirts

And two that I can especially relate to:

Graduate School

Making You Feel Bad About Not Going Outside

Monday, April 14, 2008

Fellini Satyricon

I can't help but feel that this movie would be much less boring if it were actual porn.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Or Why Psychologists Should Take More Math

I've been putting off writing about this because there is so much reading up I could do before commenting. But since I am unlikely to have a lot more time to do that any time soon, I figured I might as well get started.

Via Marginal Revolution, I read this interesting NY Times story in which an economist argues that an entire line of psychological research into (post-choice) cognitive dissonance is compromised by a methodological error. (Note: you really do need to read the article for any of the rest of this to make sense. But it's written for the layman, is pretty short, and has drawings of M&Ms in it. Check it out.)

The abstract to the working paper (it has not yet been peer reviewed & published) reads:

"Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential theories in social psychology, and its oldest experiential realization is choice-induced dissonance. Since 1956, dissonance theorists have claimed that people rationalize past choices by devaluing rejected alternatives and upgrading chosen ones, an effect known as the spreading of preferences.

Here, I show that every study which has tested this suffers from a fundamental methodological flaw. Specifically, these studies (and the free-choice methodology they employ) implicitly assume that before choices are made, a subject's preferences can be measured perfectly, i.e. with infinite precision, and under-appreciate that a subject's choices reflect their preferences. [In other words, ignoring the economist's beloved "revealed preferences" demonstrated by the person's choice and over-trusting that the ratings that people give.-sally]

Because of this, existing methods will mistakenly identify cognitive dissonance when there is none. This problem survives all controls present in the literature, including control groups, high and low dissonance conditions, and comparisons of dissonance across cultures or affirmation levels.

The bias this problem produces can be fixed, and correctly interpreted several prominent studies actually reject the presence of choice-induced dissonance in their subjects. This suggests that mere choice may not be enough to induce rationalization, a reversal that may significantly change the way we think about cognitive dissonance as a whole."

Bottom line: I believe that Chen's math is correct. I think he was clever to see the connection to the Monty Hall problem. I think it's great that he and a psychologist colleague are testing a new free choice methodology that is intended to correct for the measurement problem and will be interested to see what results from it.

However, when he says that control groups do nothing to mitigate against the measurement problem, I'm not sure that I agree. It's not obvious to me that findings of differential post-decision "spread" across various treatment and control groups can be explained away with his analysis.

It's one thing to say that you would expect, based on the probabilities alone, for 2/3 of subjects to choose green M&M's over blue, and that when you get that result, it doesn't give you evidence of dissonance. This argument is saying that the experimenter's baseline expectation that only 50% of subjects should choose green was mathematically invalid.

But when you put people in different experimental situations, some of which are expected (based on dissonance theory) to cause a greater amount of change in pre- and post-decision ratings than others, and you find those differences between groups who were treated differently, it seems like there is something else going on. Shouldn't this measurement problem affect all groups equally?

Of course, it's possible that he does not intend his criticism to extend to those kinds of experiments, just as he does not criticize the many other experimental paradigms used to study dissonance effects. To the degree this is the case, the criticism is fairly trivial.

I also would just like to say that I really like the Monty Hall problem. Part of this, of course, is that I get to feel smart because my intuition steers me right in choosing the high-probability door. My first reaction to the problem was: "Choose the other door. But why? Well, because I was probably wrong when I picked this door. My choice probably forced him to pick the door he did, because he has to pick a door without the car behind it. Thus the car is probably behind the door he didn't pick." I was only later able to work out the 1/3, 2/3 math.

But I wonder if many people do not immediately understand the significance of the fact that Monty knows where the car is and has to act accordingly. It seems like they treat Monty's choice of door as though it was as random as their own. I guess I'm saying that I hypothesize that if you were to vary the emphasis put on the fact that Monty knows where the car is in your description of the problem, people in the high-emphasis condition would be more likely to get the problem right than those in a low-emphasis condition. But I would not be surprised if many people were not helped by that information. It's a confusing enough problem that apparently many people adamantly maintain that the probabilities remain 1/2, 1/2 despite all explanations and do not even trust the simulators that hope to show people that it works out empirically.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Minor Ringtone Mystery Solved

I think I’ve mentioned before that my stats professor is from Sichuan, China. (He drew a map on the board the first day of class and told us a couple things, including that the food there is great.) (His English is excellent, by the way, but he also is good about writing things on the board - always useful in math classes - for maximum comprehensibility.)

Today his cell phone went off several times in class for the first time. Everyone seemed pretty amused (I was) that it was tinkly-sounding classical music. I recognized that it was from “The Nutcracker” but couldn’t place which piece.

Looking up the list of movements from “The Nutcracker” just now on Amazon, I am filled with a sudden sense of duh and click on the one labeled “The Nutcracker, Op.71 - Act 2 - No. 12c Character Dances: Tea.” Yes, his ringtone is the Chinese Dance.

(Hey, remember - my academic team specialty was identifying Russian composers from the titles of their works, not Name That Tune.) (If you do not know this story, no doubt you will hear it eventually. It’s part of the Sally myth...and arguably fits into the familiar triumphant underdog, David-versus-Goliath monomyth tradition.)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Behavioral Inhibition Among People of Pallor

This week I read the 2000 book Survival of the Prettiest by Nancy Etcoff. Basically, it makes the case for the evolutionary reasons behind human attention to physical beauty and directly takes on the popular idea that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." It was pretty solid, and I thought she did a particularly good job of distinguishing beauty from fashion and social status symbols (e.g. current American preference for thinness). Of course, evolutionary explanations run the risk of tautology, but references are given for the reader to judge for themselves how well the scientific reasoning stands up, and she seems careful about noting cultural influences.

She surveys a lot of research that many of us are familiar with (e.g. babies look longer at faces adults have judged to be attractive; the desired waist-to-hip ratio for women is 0.7, regardless of their overall size; symmetry ~ health ~ attractiveness) but also some things that I had not heard before.

Here's one research tidbit that was new and of interest to me for the obvious reasons:

"When people are asked to rate various personality traits of people they only see in pictures, they tend to judge blondes as weaker, more submissive, and less wise. Is this a result of media stereotyping of the typical blonde heroine? In an intriguing set of studies done on tempermental differences in infants and young children, psychologist Jerome Kagan has found that children with pale pigment, in particular children with blue eyes, are far more likely to be shy and inhibited than dark-eyed children. They are the most likely to be fearful of new situations, hesitant in approaching someone, quiet with a new person, and the most likely to stay close to their mothers. Brown-eyed children are bolder. Kagan speculates that fear of novelty, melanin production, and corticosteroid levels share some of the same genes.

His theory is speculative, suggesting that when people migrated to northern Europe they were faced with the problem of keeping up a body temperature that was used to a warmer climate. A mutation that increased the efficiency of the sympathetic nervous system and upped the level of norepinephrine (one of the major neurotransmitters) would have also raised their body temperature and offered a survival advantage. Unfortunately, it would also have left them with a more reactive nervous system and a more timorous temperment. Where does the pigment come in? High levels of norepinephrine can inhibit the production of melanin in the iris and can increase the level of circulating glucosteroids that can inhibit melanin production as well. So blonde hair and blue eyes and shyness may be a common biological package...."

She doesn't mention this but in addition, this researcher (Kagan) found that behavioral inhibition was more common among girls than boys.

Also, in the journal article I read, the researcher limits the sample to children of northern European descent, so it is not a cross-cultural analysis. (This also reduces the likelihood that behavioral differences between dark- and light-eyed children should be attributed to cultural differences between, e.g., Hispanic and Anglo families.)

They study behavioral inhibition among children because "with repeated exposure to such [unfamiliar] events, most people acquire socially acceptable strategies that enable them to disguise the disorganization that may attend novel experiences. Therefore, individual differences among adults in overt reactions to unfamiliarity are often subtle."

Sadly, my current level of coping with novel experiences (particularly unfamiliar people or places) is not that great, but it is still worlds better than when I was the age of the children in this study. I am not sure that at the age of the subjects (2 years) I would have been willing and able to even go through the experiments. (I found the description of the "stranger entry" segment particularly bad; there is no way I would have "spontaneously" approached some unfamiliar adult no matter how cool the toy was.) Does it mean something that 24% of parents of blue-eyed children declined to participate compared to 12% of brown-eyed? I would expect parents of scaredy kids would be more likely to refuse to participate. If anything, this suggests to me that the research under-estimates the behavioral inhibition of blue-eyed kids.

The idea that I may have an overly sensitive sympathetic nervous system is not surprising, given that it regulates the fight-or-flight response. My whole being goes into Danger! Danger! mode at the drop of a hat. (I mean that literally. The sound or sight in my (excellent) peripheral vision of something as mundane and non-threatening as a hat falling on the ground would make my heart pound.) And of course, I have a nervous system disorder of some kind ("nervous system disorder not otherwise specified" so it's not just I, it's the entirety of medical science who isn't quite sure what's wrong) so the plausibility of my sympathetic nervous system being fucked up seems high to me.

Fall Registration

As I've mentioned before, I am lucky that TSU lets non-degree-seeking grad students register with other grad students starting a day before all the undergrads. Last week, I sort of waited until the last minute to get my paperwork in to the graduate office, but I was fortunate to be able to catch Dr P in the math department in the evening on Wednesday to sign my forms and get everything in first thing on Thursday morning.

Today I enrolled in two courses:
Differential Equations MW 11:00 - 12:15
Calculus III (aka Vector) MW 12:30 - 1:45

Dr P teaches the Diff E class. (Apparently his schedule varies from semester to semester; this semester he was teaching all graduate courses, but he has said before that he likes to teach Calc 2 - his favorite - and Diff E sometimes.) I don't know the Calc 3 professor.

I had also been considering taking a programming course; there is a two-semester sequence in C++ that is the first year for CS majors. The class fit well into my schedule (9:30 MW with a lab that I could get at 2:00) but I am still not certain that I want to do it.

Pro: I know nothing about programming and would come out of this knowing something. Programming is a practical and useful skill in psychology since a lot of experiments are conducted via computer.

Con: I might want to fill up the time with a (part time) job and/or an independent research class. August is pretty far away and I'm not certain what exactly I will want to do. Dropping a class at TSU costs money (unlike at Rice) so enrolling on spec is kind of throwing money away.

I figured I would hold off on this for now. It may mean that I will decide to do it but the class will have filled up first. That's not a tragedy if it happens. Presumably, if I decide that I really want to learn some basic programming, I can get a book and the software and do it on my own. This would be cheaper than paying tuition, more convenient, and (if I am diligent) could result in my learning more due to being able to take a faster pace than the class is likely to go.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Fictional Name

I have often noted (though perhaps not on this blog) how frequently I come across the name Sally in songs, books, and movies. Though it's certainly possible that I am more inclined to notice Sally than other names, I have made a point in the last year or so of also looking for the (comparably very common) names of some family members to get a sense of how the fictional instances of these names compare to Sally, and my name still seems to me to be more frequently chosen as a fictional name than would be expected.

My favorite examples are when Sally is used as a fictional name within a work of fiction, such as when an author character is writing a book with a heroine named Sally. Sally is also crazily common in any kind of educational story problem. (You know - Sally and Tom went to the market. Sally bought 3 apples and Tom bought 4. Etc.) In fact, I was distracted by the name Sally in a question on my last marketing test.

But a book I'm reading this week puts a somewhat different spin on this:

"Where is she?" Parrish asked...

"I told you, at the library."

A lie. Ford was deliberately lying. Grace stood still...

"Don't give me that shit. Her car's here."

"She went with a friend."

"What's this friend's name?"

"Serena, Sabrina, something like that. Tonight's the first time I've met her."

Ford had always thought fast on his feet. The names were enough out of the ordinary that it gave the lie a bit of credence, where a plain Sally wouldn't.

And of course, if Ford is smart, he realizes that Sally is a name that sounds really familiar and "normal" but is actually very rare among real, living people. Does he think that the evil guy he's lying to is clued in enough to know this also?

Rankings of first names from the SSA (in the last 100 years):

1973: 262
2004: 919
highest: 1939: 52

1973: 1
2004: 38
highest: 1970-1984: 1

1973: 25
2004: 550
highest: 1957-1960: 2

1973: 7
2004: 36
highest: 1924-1939, 1953: 1

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Market Segmentation - Computer Edition

Man, I really wish this PC had been available when I was managing the European Computer brand-tracking study. It's brilliant!

Design by Dieter Rams

RB sent me this information about design genius Dieter Rams and the huge influence his products for Braun from the 1960's has had on familiar Apple products like the iPod and iMac. The article generously distinguishes this "borrowing" from straightforward "rip-off" but I'm not sure I am inclined to be so charitable.... given that Apple is so totally revered for their brilliant design. I suppose Apple should get kudos for (1) even thinking about good design and (2) choosing such great ideas to steal.

But what happens to Apple if any of their competitors figure out that they too can design good products by using Rams's ideas? Although RB points out, no doubt correctly, that executing the ideas is still difficult, the fact that Apple's head design guru is not coming up with his own stuff to me undermines what has been one of Apple's primary advantages over other technology companies. It gives me the impression that Apple is a lot more vulnerable than I had previously believed.

I also think this slide viewer (from this portfolio) is just seriously awesome looking. (Part of the appeal is that it has an alive robot quality reminiscent of R2D2.)

Let me show you something really cool