Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tool-Using Octopus

Robert sent the link to this video. Priceless.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

O Slightly Liberal Christmas Tree

I spent a shocking amount of my afternoon putting up and decorating my Christmas tree. It is a fake tree prestrung with lights, and I amazed myself by figuring out how to hook up all the strands of lights so that it worked. (This is not difficult, obviously, but it's the kind of thing that I often have trouble doing.) (Click on the photo for a nice close up of part of my ornament collection.)

Groucho looks askance at my tree

Yesterday I finally finished a cross-stitch ornament that I started several years ago (when Katy was still alive). It only needed about half an hour of work. I'm glad that I got it done. There are many varieties of Silly Rabbit Ornaments - this one falls into the "Oh Too Sweet" category.

Katy would never wear a dress

Since the functioning lights were not obvious in previous photo, check out this blurry but lit-up tree. (This is simulates my tree as seen after drinking a couple too many cups of alcoholic eggnog, perhaps.)

Lights camera no action
(Yes, note that the tree does lean somewhat to the left.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009


I've spent much of this day in a Chuzzle-playing, movie-watching stupor as I try to make sense of the fact that tomorrow is Monday yet I don't have a billion things to do before school because this semester is ovah!

In other news, I have it on good authority that Leopold is wearing a single sock on one of his legs these days. I figure if Michael Jackson could rock the one glove, Leo can rock the sock.

Oh, and no, there was no snow during the exam (or otherwise) on Saturday, though the vegetable pizza during the grading session had a mysterious topping we eventually identified (right or wrong) as battered eggplant. (At least it wasn't lettuce!)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

We'll Burn the House Down!

I sort of freaked out tonight when I came out from the office where I've been studying into the living room and smelled something like burning wood. It took me a few minutes of looking around for the source of the fire before I remembered, Oh yes, we have wood-burning fireplaces in our living rooms. My neighbor must have a fire going. I must be smelling this from my own (empty) fireplace.

And the title is quoting Dodo from Disney's Alice, the scene in which he and the White Rabbit are trying to figure out how to get the large Alice (monster!) out of the WR's house.

On a related note (since Alice was sent into the house by the WR to get his gloves), I have found that a combination of wearing a flannel shirt over my pj's, pulling the blankets entirely over my head, and starting off the night wearing a pair of thin fleece gloves (which I later remove when I warm up) has made a huge difference in my overnight comfort level. I have also finally relented and turned the heater on, with the thermostat set at about 62 overnight. The last few days during my final exam study madness, I have been wearing a big, insanely warm fleece/felt jacket thing that was a Christmas gift it never got cold enough in Austin to use but that creates instant warmth.

Robert reported that Leo's fur has started growing back on the side where it was missing, but that the one back leg is still bare except for the foot, which is furry again, giving the appearance that he is wearing a fuzzy (bunny?) slipper or has gotten some weird poodle grooming by mistake. Recent Leo discovery: he is mad for dried pear, simply mad.

(Now that's the Cheshire Cat.)

Seriously? A 60% chance of snow on Saturday afternoon while I am proctoring that stupid exam? Great....

Monday, December 7, 2009

Exam Week Countdown

One exam (the easiest one) down, two to go. Plus proctoring & grading an exam on Saturday afternoon.

This evening's cognitive neuropsychology study session is sponsored by Salt n Pepa. (You know it's going to be a weird week when an old hip-hop song comes into your head when you open your textbook to a diagram of the loss of dendritic elaboration accompanying mental deterioration. Let's get retarded, indeed.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Poor Timing

With my final exams starting tomorrow, last night was not a particularly great time to rediscover the joys of Speed Chuzzle. I played several games before bed and had a score that qualified for the high score board, but instead of luxuriating in my win, I went for a costly "hint" to keep the game going (this was pretty much automatic - I didn't think it through or I would not have done it), was unable to execute the play in time, and ended up with a score falling just short of high score board status.

So Nebraska football players, I understand the pain of victory turning to defeat just like that. It bites.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Quote of the Day

From Desk Set, 1957, with Katharine Hepburn as reference librarian extraordinaire Bunny Watson.

Peg: "A glass of champagne has 85 calories."

Bunny: "There's a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65."

Generation Gap


"There can be only one" is the famous line from Highlander.

"Sentimental old fluff" occurs in an exchange in Duck Soup:

Groucho (flirtatiously): "You might think me a sentimental old fluff, but would you mind giving me a lock of your hair?"
Dumont (girlishly): "A lock of my hair? I had no idea you..."
Groucho: "You're getting off easy. I was going to ask for the whole wig!"


I've commented to Tam that one nice thing about being in grad school is that everyone gets my psychology jokes, but I have also run into generation gap issues in pop culture knowledge. This week in my social psychology class, only the professor and I had never heard of this personage known as "Chris Brown" who recently assaulted some other celebrity I have only vaguely heard of and is some singer or actress or model or combination thereof, I believe. In cognitive class, I found myself having to correct my comment about the Pepsi Challenge being "several years ago" to it being from the 1980's.

The professor I TA for, who is about my age, runs into this also - he used a Borg analogy in class that I thought quite apt but that did not seem to connect at all with the kids in the class who, in 1994 when the Star Trek: The Next Generation finale aired, were about 6 years old.

Today one of my fellow students asked me whether there could be more than one something or other in a 3-way interaction in ANOVA. I didn't really hear the entire question because I had no choice but to answer: "There can be only one." He looked at me blankly and I said, sorry, what was that?

OK, people, here's the thing: Please answer in the comments: (1) Do you recognize the source of the phrase "There can be only one" and (2) Would you have felt that same immediate temptation to respond with this phrase?

Sadly, I do have to admit the possibility that in this particular instance, it's less about the generation gap and more that these psychology students are not quite up to the high geek standards set by the rest of my friends and family. (I love you guys.)

Oh, and a special bonus: (3) Do you recognize the source of the phrase "sentimental old fluff" in the previous post?


In the opening scene of the Jane Austen movie Becoming Jane, we see Jane wake up her entire family by playing really loudly on the piano at an early Sunday morning hour, exactly the sort of behavior that establishes the character as an intelligent woman of independent thought toward whom we should have warm feelings and much respect. But it's OK, really, because her minister father takes advantage of this extra pre-church-service time to go down on his wife.

The plausibility of the story goes down from there.

Actually, even the costuming didn't stand up all that well; one of Jane's "walking around, looking wistfully out windows, cleaning house" dresses that she wears very often is a lovely and not-at-all faded blue color that my modern clothes cannot manage to retain past 10 washings. (I guess they don't make them like they used to?)

Two of Jane's suitors either undergo sudden, complete personality changes or are revealed to be completely different from what anyone had believed of them before (it is a bit ambiguous).

It's also worthwhile to realize that any resemblance between the life of the character Jane Austen and that of the historical person Jane Austen is coincidental.

The movie also posits that Austen's most famous line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," was half-written by the "stupid" suitor. It makes sense, though, that she couldn't have written it herself, being only a woman or whatever.

I did "learn" something new from this movie, however: You can tell a man is really heartbroken, depressed, and filled with self-loathing when he goes to a club/brothel as usual but can't bring himself to fuck a prostitute.

This all being said, I enjoyed the movie anyway as a piece of sentimental old fluff. And I am always in the mood to watch 50 British Actor James McAvoy, so seeing him with truly bizarre hair was just a bonus.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A New Thought in the Endless Discussion

Speaking to Robert on the phone tonight, I thought of a new characterization of the difference between psychology and economics:

Psychology studies real people in fake situations.

Economics studies fake people in real situations.

It's interesting to wonder where these disciplines will be in 50 years or so and what debates, controversies, and criticisms we will be talking about in our wheelchairs. (In 50 years, will we have flying wheelchairs? That would be sweet.)

Dear Nationwide Insurance

The person in charge of your automated customer service system seems to be operating under the misapprehension that saying it is "calling on behalf of Joe Blow" means that it is calling with information for Joe Blow. This is at first confusing, then annoying, and frankly, it makes your entire company sound like a bunch of illiterate asshats.

So, congratulations! You momentarily made me forget about Land Rover and their current high-dollar magazine ad campaign with the slogan "Eyes in the front, back and side of it's [sic] head."

Not your customer now or in the near future,

Sally Porter

Saturday, November 28, 2009

That Sounds Right

This morning I finally watched the Robert Rodriguez movie Spy Kids (which has been in my Netflix queue approximately forever as a "wait" until showing up unexpectedly last week in my mailbox) and was really surprised by how exactly Floop's song sounded like it belonged on the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. I looked it up and oh, they're all by Danny Elfman. I like the song (and Alan Cummings' performance) but I was a little jarred by the similarity. Is there a point at which this reaches the level of self-plagiarism?

Somebody did nice a video of the song that I recommend checking out.

As for the movie itself: If you somehow have missed this one, see it. Now. It's a lot of fun.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Marxist Rabbit

Via Cute Overload, the rabbit they describe as "the bunny born from equal parts of John Lennon, Groucho Marx, and Albert Einstein!"

Eating = mango * carrot squared
He is only missing a carrot to wave around like a cigar, Bugs Bunny style.

Thanksgiving Outing

For Thanksgiving, Robert and I went to a local cafeteria that was having a Thanksgiving day special - roast turkey with dressing and gravy, 2 vegetables, bread, a dessert and iced tea or coffee. I was hopeful that since cafeterias tend to cater to older people that the servings would be of a reasonable size.

We decided to get an early start, and got there about 10:45 a.m. There was already a line, but it only took about 15 minutes to get through. I got the turkey/dressing, steamed broccoli, mashed potatoes, a yeast roll, and pumpkin pie. (Robert got a yam souffle instead of potatoes and cornbread instead of a roll.) Putting all the different plates and bowls of food onto our table, I felt somewhat overwhelmed, but actually, it wasn't that much food. The vegetables came in dishes that held perhaps 1/2 cup, and the turkey wrapped around dressing thing wasn't very big. (The roll, however, was good-sized - about 1.5 times as big as a normal roll that comes 10 to a package or whatever - and very fresh and tasty in that soft, refined flour kind of way that I basically never experience.) It was interesting that the many different plates provided a sense of abundance while in reality, it was much less than I would normally eat at Thanksgiving.

It turned out to be even less than that because the pumpkin pie was ... I don't even know. It wasn't particularly spiced, and the texture was weird. I ate two small bites before I started to seriously investigate it. When I dug around and found something that looked like a piece of onion but surely had to be candied fruit, I gave up. I had a second glass of iced tea for dessert instead. The lack of good pie was only the tiniest bit disappointing, and I have decided to get my pumpkin fix by making pumpkin-apple muffins to eat for breakfast all next week.

By the time we left the restaurant, the line was well out the door. Driving home, we passed the Golden Corral, which had a sign announcing their Thanksgiving buffet, which I think is almost the exact opposite of what I would want to do for Thanksgiving. (At that place, I could skip the entirety of the normal food and go directly to the dessert counter to make a layered oatmeal or chocolate chip cookie / vanilla ice cream / chocolate chips dessert. Repeat until full. Dangerous.)

After lunch, we went to the historic park next to my apartment that has a wildlife preserve and did some birding. It was a gorgeous day, cool and mostly clear, and we saw quite a few birds, due in part to the fact that most of the trees have lost their leaves so the birds can't hide easily. We didn't see a huge number of different species (23, I think) but a good number of individual birds. I got close, long looks at a belted kingfisher, so I was very satisfied. The quality of the light was a bit odd - the white on the kingfisher and on the faces of the ruddy ducks we saw glowed brilliantly.

I admit that today, I would not be adverse to being in the position to eat turkey sandwiches for a couple of days, but overall, I really did like the decision to eat at a restaurant. Two people is just not enough to justify the effort of cooking a full Thanksgiving meal, and I am glad not to have the rest of a pumpkin pie or other delicious dessert calling my name all weekend now that Robert is flying back to Austin this afternoon.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Who Buys Extended Service Contracts?

The December Journal of Consumer Research has an article on a topic that I have wondered about - why people purchase extended service contracts (ESCs) on consumer electronics like TVs and cameras, given how expensive those suckers are (between 10% and 50% of the product's price, according to the article), and that Consumer Reports and all the other consumer advocate organizations advocate against purchasing them. This really seems like an obvious place for self-insuring.

I cannot speak to the quality of their statistical model (based on data about 1700 purchases of consumer electronics at a single retailer), which, to be honest, I didn't even bother reading about in its entirety, so believe the results at your own risk. In fact, I am offering a very attractively priced insurance policy that will pay you double your money back if these findings do indeed turn out to be faulty. Email me for details.

Here's what they found:

* People are more likely to buy ESCs for hedonic (i.e. fun) products than utilitarian products. They speculate this is because people place a higher value on hedonic products than utilitarian ones, even if they cost the same amount to buy.

* People are more likely to buy ESCs when they buy the product on a promotion, especially an unadvertised promotion. This may be due to the savings in the cost of the product putting the consumer into a positive mood, which has been linked to higher risk aversion.

* People are less likely to buy ESCs when the product is high-priced (perhaps due to a price = quality heuristic).

* Low-income people are more likely to buy ESCs than higher-income people. This result sucks because these are the people who can least afford to throw money away.

* There were no differences in ESC purchases between men and women.

Source: Chen, T., Kalra, A., & Sun, B. (2009) Why do consumers buy extended service contracts? Journal of Consumer Research, 36(4). DOI: 10.1086/605298

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fusiform What? Area

Today I've been thinking about the fusiform face area (FFA). This is a part of the brain that is specifically involved in the recognition of human faces. People with damage to the FFA develop prosopagnosia, a selective inability to discriminate between or recognize faces that occurs even though vision is unimpaired and they are able to identify other objects. (If you are familiar with Oliver Sacks' famous book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the man in question had prosopagnosia.) The existence of this specialized brain region suggests that faces may be a special kind of object.

Of course, it easily makes sense to us that human faces are special, but this interpretation is a little bit complicated because human faces are also a type of object with which we are very, very familiar and for which we have arguably developed high levels of expertise. So is it really a fusiform face area, or is it an area that comes into play when viewing objects for which a person has great expertise?

I enjoyed reading an article about a study that found that people with significant expertise identifying birds (averaging 18 years) showed activation in the FFA when viewing pictures of birds (New England passerines). (Car experts did the same when viewing pictures of cars but not birds.) The researchers were able to predict performance on a behavioral identification task from the level of activation of the right hemisphere FFA in the neuroimaging study. They also discussed a bird watcher who, after damage to the FFA, was no longer able to recognize birds.

Other research suggests that the use of the FFA in face recognition specifically is at least partly innate, since people with brain damage from birth have shown an inability to recognize faces. Perhaps the FFA really is a face area that gets involved in object recognition for other things with high enough levels of expertise.

So I suppose you know you are a serious birder when you have recruited the FFA, which people use to recognize their spouse, children, Jennifer Aniston, etc., to identify a common yellowthroat.

The article also cites reseach showing that novices use a "featural" strategy for identifying things like birds while experts use a "configural" strategy, which is another way of saying that birders identify familiar birds on the basis of their general impression of size and shape.

This brings up another thing that I've been complaining about for years now - the tendency for experts to want to teach novices how they themselves do a particular task, which is extremely common in, say, the teaching of mathematics. (In a birding context, this method would be like my mom asking me how I know a bird is a grasshopper sparrow and me saying "well, it just looks like an ammodramus sparrow.") I've been reading a bit about the late Robbie Case and his efforts to develop math teaching methods that involve identifying the natural developmental pathway for understanding some bit of knowledge and teaching that rather than the expert's solution (e.g. "set up two ratios and solve for x"). Interesting stuff.

Source: Gauthier, I., Kludlarski, P., Gore, J. C., & Anderson, A. W. (2000). Expertise for cars and birds recruits brain areas involved in face recognition. Nature Neuroscience, 3, 191-197.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"This Week" Column: November 21, 2009

by Gris du Bourbonnais

This week, I caught up with Leopold Rex, Chief Morale Officer of the NC-based research organization Salligent, at his elderbun care facility in Austin, TX. Mr. Rex, fresh from a bath and spa treatment, was in deep communication with Salligent CFO Robert Eggman when I arrived. Admittedly, Mr. Rex no longer projects the same vigorous persona as he did a couple of years ago, before he became crippled by arthritis in his back and legs so severely that he is unable to stand and became what Mr. Eggman affectionately calls a "skinny mini" rex. But he maintains a very positive attitude, a healthy appetite (especially for dried fruit), and a lively interest in the world. Of course, his view of the world has changed in recent years as he has shifted from a "hop and flop" perspective to his current "flop and prop" (over Mr. Eggman's leg or against Mr. Eggman's arm), but he remains alert to all possibilities of food and petting. And while it seems that his softness field should be compromised by fur loss on his left (typically downward) side, it radiates as strongly as ever.

When asked about his involvement in the Leopold Rex Fleischerei, an association with which he had been implicated by mysterious sources in Germany, Mr. Rex gave me a disdainful look, clearly viewing this as a question which was not worth dignifying with a response. And truly, despite his physical declines of late, there is no evidence that Mr. Rex has completely and utterly lost his mind, which would be a prerequisite to any rabbit opening a butcher shop. It is too bad that the same cannot be said of a certain irresponsible, rumor-mongering so-called "journalist" whom I need not name.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Short Pathway to Fear

Animal brains are amazing, and human brains are no exception. One historically vital and currently nifty feature of our brains is that we can be afraid of something and automatically act in accordance with that fear while consciously asking ourselves, What the fuck am I doing?

The best story I know of along these lines comes from my mom. Several years ago, she was in her bedroom with her sister K, and she pulled a white shirt out of the closet. Then she immediately flung the shirt across the room. Her sister concernedly asked her what was wrong, but she didn't know. Her own behavior was mysterious to her. K walked over to the shirt, looked at it, and declared that there was a spider on the shirt. My mom, who is the most spider-phobic person I know, kind of freaked out all over again because she had absolutely no conscious awareness of there being something on the shirt, let alone a spider. However, her behavior was exactly what she would have done had she known there was a spider - getting the thing the hell away from her. (Ironically, my mom is also actually very brave in that even though she is terrified of spiders, she can make herself hunt them down and kill them because she can't stand knowing that there is a spider in the house.)

The reason my mom flung away the shirt, my cognitive psychology professor stopped in mid-stride with his foot in the air on a hiking path, and Robert launched himself mid-step a couple of feet down the trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park is that we are blessed with a mental short-cut that allows us to respond to negatively emotionally charged stimuli while by-passing the cortex. Visual information goes to the sensory area of the thalamus, the scary stimuli sparks an alert of "Danger, danger!" (but not a good representation of the object, which occurs in the cortex), and this danger alert is sent directly to the amygdala (the "fear center"), which precipitates an immediate response. Simultaneously, the visual information is being sent along the slow pathway through the cortex, where object recognition occurs, which allows you to eventually realize: Oh, I threw the shirt because there is a spider on it; I stopped mid-stride because there is a copperhead on the trail; I launched myself over this area of the path because there is a snake on it. Snakes and spiders - definitely the type of dangerous stimuli that we would expect our brains to tag as super-important for alerting the amygdala that bad stuff is about to go down, so act now. (It is also unsurprising to me that phobias about snakes and spiders are so common given their importance to our species in the past.)

My own short route to fear is way, way oversensitive, I think. I have sudden freezes with accelerated heart rate all the time, which often end with me looking down and realizing I had been automatically fearful of the raisin that is on the floor. (Hey, it's round and dark colored and on the ground; of course it's going to resemble a spider enough to get things going.) One time I was on my treadmill and suddenly stopped; after stabilizing myself from falling off the treadmill, I realized I must have seen something out of the corner of my eye, so I turned to look at the wall. There was a little spider there. I then thought, jeez, it's just a spider, and got back to my exercise. I am not much afraid of spiders at a conscious level, but spiders still set the short pathway to fear in motion for me as a part of my evolutionary heritage.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Invoking Relevant Gods

Tomorrow I get my first look at the data from part 1 of my first year project. I am praying to the gods of probability that I have a p<.05 (or, at least that I have a p close enough to .05 that it can reach that magical quantity through the application of a not unreasonably large number of additional subjects).

Tonight's make-up stats class (the second stats class of the day) was pretty much insane, by the way. About 80% of us were punch-drunk, and I think that might have included me, though in a much calmer fashion that manifested itself in not-entirely-inapt comments about cuneiform and papyrus and belonging to a generation of people who know how to write things down on paper with a pencil and erase errors when they occur. (And it definitely included the professor.) At one point, a woman was trying to suppress outrageous laughter to the point that her face turned a mottled pink with white spots. A guy almost choked on a cold chocolate pop tart that he described as tasting like a combination of "burnt" and the nastier goo of a melting marshmallow. Talking about the binomial distribution in my last stats class did not deliver anything like this level of giddiness.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Moving Trouble

Right now there is a Penske moving truck outside my apartment with the hood up (which looks odd because it opens with the hood toward the front of the truck instead of toward the windshield) with about 4 people standing around it. One guy came down from looking at it and said to the others that he thinks the alternator has gone out. This is really not something you want to happen ever, but it seems particularly poorly-timed for someone who is moving house.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Inside Business" Column: November 13, 2009

by Dominique Argente

Leopold Rex of Salligent has been lying low ever since the relocation of CEO Sally Porter to North Carolina several months ago, and many have been concerned about the state of his physical health. But it's really his mental health we should be worrying about: a source traveling in Germany reports that Herr Hare has taken on a radical new position as the owner of a butcher shop! Yes, the fruit-and-veg-loving rabbit is now selling animal meat to humans at the Leopold Rex Fleischerei in Dankerode, Saxony-Anhalt. Although there is no clear evidence one way or the other as to whether rabbit meat appears in his store, and Leopold has not been seen cutting up the meat personally, this is an extremely disturbing move for a vegetarian chief morale officer to make.

When this reporter questioned Porter and Salligent CFO Robert Eggman about Rex's current doings, both admitted to not having seen him for a long time. Porter, who frankly looked desperately in need of a furry little mammal to lie on her heating pad and be petted, has clearly not been in contact with Leopold for too long. Even Eggman, historically a reliable visitor at Leopold's rabbit hotel in Austin, has not seen ear or tail of him for several weeks, surely long enough for a wily bunny to move to Europe and open a new business.

Stay tuned as this bizarre and unsettling story continues to unfold!

Thursday, November 12, 2009


45 degrees and raining isn't so bad, except for the wind gusts that make the rain hit you horizontally. It's a bit hard to keep dry under such conditions, though I found that the rain pants I bought for our pelagic trip in Washington state (I think) worked very well this morning in conjunction with my rather impervious Lands End mocs. Approximately 85% of female students on campus were wearing tall rain boots with the jeans tucked into them, which is a very practical approach given the poor drainage situation.

I've enjoyed watching the leaves changing colors, then falling. Different kinds of trees go through their cycle at different times, so when one set goes all brown and boring, another set gets beautiful. This is a phenomenon well-known to people who live north of Austin, but it's been a while since I've experienced it myself. The currently stunning trees are ones with still a bit of green, a bit of yellow, and a lot of orange and red. There are some bushes with similar coloration that feature dark purple berries. There is a fairly long row of the trees along the street approaching campus that I haven't been able to photograph with the continual rain situation. From a distance, they sort of look like they're aflame, even with the dismal greyness of the scene.

Monday, November 9, 2009

50 British Actors: Ronan Vibert

* The extremely annoying Wilmot from Jeeves & Wooster.

* Lepidus from Rome.

* Le Gaucher on Cadfael.

And tonight, of course, he finally appears on... Midsomer Murders.

Also, one suspects that he and Alan Rickman are twins separated at birth or perhaps actually the same person. Have they ever appeared together?

I sooo could have done that Snape thing

I am feeling envious that Ben Jones got semi-attacked by a gorgeous swooping barn owl twice in this episode. I still haven't even seen one.

Face Implausibility

Robert sent me the link to a review of a book about decision-making that features the opportunity to take the self-assessment survey featured in the book - how do you rate on the 6 traits they identify as comprising personal decision-making style? There are 5 yes/no questions for each trait.

The test is seemingly pretty bad. I mean, what should we think of things things like:

* The question "Do you always lock your door no matter how long you'll be gone?" somehow measures my short-term vs long-term viewpoint rather than risk while the question "How many speeding tickets have you had in the last five years?" measures risk rather than time preference.

* One of the 5 questions about information use in decision-making is "Do you watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report?"

* Another one for information is "Do you like to try different flavors of ice cream before choosing one?"

* Two of the questions about status-seeking relate to what is culturally rather than personally valued.

* "Enjoying foreign travel" makes me not a loyal person.

Yet we know that face validity is a very poor indicator of whether scales are measuring what people want them to measure. These could be really good questions (in that they are correlated with what we want them to correlate to, don't correlate with what we don't want them to, and predict the right kinds of things) even though they look crappy. Without any information on how these scales were developed and validated, and what the reliability of the scales are, it's hard to know for sure.

But they sure look stupid, don't they? Especially for a mass-market (or perhaps small-business-focused) book, you'd think they could have developed scales that had both decent psychometric qualities and didn't look so idiotic on their face. I mean, we are to believe that one of the best 5 questions for getting at the "using information to make decisions" construct is whether a person tries different flavors of ice cream before choosing one? How often do people even eat ice cream in a place where they can sample ice cream and yet they don't already have a favorite flavor? (And this question doesn't load on the "risk" factor?) It just seems implausible that these scales are doing a very good job of assessing people's preferences, and I think that face implausibility can only hurt their credibility unless it is explained really well in the book why their seemingly dumb questions can yield useful insights.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Paper at a Glance

Please enjoy this summary of my paper for my social psychology seminar, created using a word cloud program. Any ideas on what it's about? (Click on the image for a larger version.)

My paper got attitude

Getting Close

I still need to turn a series of bullet points into an introduction, replace the words "SAY SOMETHING TO WRAP THIS PUPPY UP!" with an actual final sentence, turn my scribbled-in-pencil drawing of the theoretical model into something on the computer that I can print out, put together the reference list, and make the whole thing reasonably APA-style compatible, but the major content of this paper is done. (I am sort of afraid to read it now and find out, ah, crap, I meant to say XYZ and ABC here needs some work.)

I am glad that I managed to incorporate the phrase "empirical investigations" (though not "empirical question") quite naturally, though ultimately, I could find no place for Cronbach's quote about higher-order interactions of variables as a "hall of mirrors that extends to infinity."

In any event, now, some lunch. My brain is hungry. It's cold in my apartment, and I have chili ready to heat up. Yay.

Oh yeah, and my computer has been asking me every few minutes if it can please, pretty please, no really please I beg you restart itself now? I guess I should let it, before it decides it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Not Found in Translation

From a google scholar search link:

404 – Datei oder Verzeichnis wurde nicht gefunden.

It felt rare to go to a German web site and see actual German language. I've sort of gotten used to this (erroneous) idea that everybody speaks American on the Internet. I actually had to look up the first three words because in English, the message reads that the "file" wasn't found, but in German we had (presumably) file and something else - Babel fish informs me that the file or listing wasn't found.

I hope to get back to more substantive blogging soon, but I am absolutely obsessed with this theoretical model I'm working on. Like, to the point of waking up an hour before the alarm, instantly awake and alert with ideas. I suppose this is a very good thing for my work, but it does rather cut into my life.

And for my stat homework this week, there was a problem (Robert, you may recall the one about fixed versus random effects I showed you) that I kept approaching mathematically (which the prof said not to do, but it's so hard to resist!), but I finally just made myself think really hard about it more conceptually; soon I had a Gleistesblitz that made feel that I was either an inspired genius or a complete moron. In this case, it was more of the former than the latter, fortunately, because after that one idea, I was pretty much thought out.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Acts of Kindness

This is just a shout-out for the customer at the Exxon station who came out to my car and gave me perfect directions to the restaurant where I was supposed to be meeting my classmates for dinner. You're a good guy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bad Psychology Joke of the Month

Why did the submissive psychology student so desperately want his mistress to take him to the local BDSM dungeon party?

He learned that being in the presence of coactors increases arousal, which leads to an increase in dominant responses (Zajonc, 1965).


Since you ask, why yes, I did make that up during social psychology class. Who knew how useful this stuff would prove to be?

Actually, it was very interesting to realize that perhaps the reason I found myself making completely unplanned jokes during my conference presentation this past summer is that making jokes is a dominant response for me (a very likely action for me to take). It was an odd experience for some control part of my mind to be saying "Wait, what are you doing?" while my mouth went off on its own. Fortunately, jokes about baseball and unexpected self-deprecating remarks went over well with the crowd listening to the final presentation during the final session of the final day of the conference.

It's pretty useful to be aware that this is a likely phenomenon in these situations, since there are times it could be dangerous or in spectacularly bad taste (e.g. testifying in court as to the facts surrounding the death of a child I saw run over by a car, esp. if I was the driver of that car). But I maintain that if my parents did not intend for me to frequently break out with sudden quips and witticisms, they should have named me something else.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I took these photos at my apartment complex about a week ago. Since then, the trees got even more fantabulously colored, and in last night's windy rain, lost a lot of their leaves. The cars in the parking lot this morning were deeply covered in fallen leaves.

I'm especially fond of the red tree at the right:

The yellow one lost about 90% of its leaves last night.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Anna Karenina and Psychology

Tam mentioned that Anna Karenina blew her away with its psychological insights (esp. given the time that it was written), so I was probably even more primed than usual to see this kind of thing.

For instance, I liked the way this section dealt with the fact that people do work (this actually comes up very often throughout the book) and how Tolstoy describes his character's experience of it, anticipating the idea of "flow" by over 100 years. The landowner Levin is mowing grass with his peasants:

"He thought of nothing and desired nothing, except not to lag behind and to do his work as well as possible. He heard only the swishing of the scythes and saw only the receding figure of Titus, the convex half-circle of mown piece before him, and the grasses and heads of flowers falling in waves about the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the swath where he would rest.

Suddenly he was conscious of a pleasant coolness on his hot perspiring shoulders, without knowing what it was or whence it came. He glanced up at the sky whilst whetting his scythe. A dark cloud was hanging low overhead, and large drops of rain were falling...others as well as Levin felt the pleasure in the refreshing rain and merely moved their shoulders up and down.

They came to the end of another swath. They went on mowing long and short rows, good and poor grass. Levin had lost all count of time and had really no idea whether it was late or early. His work was undergoing a change which gave him intense pleasure. While working he sometimes forget for some minutes what he was about, and felt quite at ease; then his mowing was nearly as even as that of Titus. But as soon as he began thinking about it and trying to work better, he at once felt how hard the task was and mowed badly."

Let's see, we have: clear goals, concentrating, a distorted sense of time, immediate feedback, action awareness merging.

Here's Anna's husband after his conversion to Christianity, definitely experiencing motivated cognition:

"Karenin was quite devoid of that deep imaginative faculty of the soul by which ideas aroused by the imagination become so vivid that they must be brought into conformity with other ideas and with reality. He saw nothing impossible or incongruous in the notion that death which exists for the unbeliever did not exist for him, and that as he possessed complete faith--of the measure of which he himself was the judge--there was no longer any sin in his soul, and he had already experienced complete salvation here on earth.

It is true that the frivolty and falseness of this view of his faith were vaguely felt by Karenin. He knew that when, without thinking that his foregiveness was the act of a Higher Power, he had surrendered to his faith, he had experienced more joy than when, as now, he was perpetually thinking that Christ lived in his soul...But it was absolutely necessary for Karenin to think thus; it was so necessary for him in his humiliation to possess at least this imaginary exaltation, from the height of which he, the despired of all, was able to despise others, that he clung to his mock salvation as if it were the real thing."

And doesn't the phrase "clung to his mock salvation as if it were the real thing" (as the way to end a chapter, no less) just seem incredibly modern?

Levin is experiencing the benefits of associational automaticity:

"He did not now recall, as he had done before, the whole course of his thoughts (he did not need to). He at once returned to the feeling that directed him, which was related to those thoughts, and he found that feeling in his soul yet more powerful and definite than before. Now it was not as it used to be with him when he had invented ways of tranquilizing himself and had been obliged to recapitulate the whole train of reflections in order to arrive at the feeling. Now, on the contrary, the feelings of joy and tranquility were more vivid than before and his thoughts could not keep pace with them."

And though it has nothing to do with psychology, I cannot resist sharing this description that I loved (Tolstoy is excellent on physical descriptions):

"The Prince enjoyed unusually good health even for a Prince, and by means of gymnastics and care of his body had developed his strength to such a degree that, in spite of the excess he indulged in while amusing himself, he looked as fresh as a big green shining cucumber."

Mmmm, crunchy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

You Know It's a Long Day When, Part 28

...You see an article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (the top journal in the field) refer to the "equation likelihood model (ELM) of persuasion (Petty & Wegener, 1998)" and you start laughing hysterically.

The elaboration likelihood model is quite easily the most well-known and dominant attitude theory of the last 25 years. It is hard to imagine any reader of this article not being very familiar with the model.

Amusingly, a google search on "equation likelihood model" brings up this article and some guy's undergraduate thesis (which has clearly cribbed a lot from this article). It's odd to imagine that his thesis advisor didn't totally bust him on that. I can only suppose that the advisor assumed the word error was the kid's own or simply could not even see the mistake, having made recognition of the phrase automatic due to the ubiquitousness of "elaboration likelihood model" in print.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Perhaps Not That Clearly Valenced

From a review article:

"Participants then categorized a variety of clearly valenced [i.e. obviously positive or negative] words (e.g. "poison" or "gift") as pleasant or unpleasant..."

Let's hope this was done among a non-German-speaking sample.

A Semi-Miraculous Meal

OK, it's not up there precisely with the loaves & fishes, but the evening before my cog exam, my selection of ready-to-eat meals was basically down to zero, and I admit, I was tempted to eat crap. (My favorite crap in this situation being peanut butter and crackers. Mmmm.) But I happened to have the page of recipes I had pulled out of a recent Nutrition Action Newsletter (about the importance of eating veg) sitting on kitchen counter and my eye fell on the salade nicoise recipe. As it happened, the one ready protein I had to hand was a piece of cooked salmon and I was able to scrounge up salad greens, black olives, bell pepper, and red-skinned potatoes (that I boiled), and ingredients for a balsamic vinaigrette dressing from my fridge. (I did not have little tomatoes or red onion.) It was quick to make, tasted pretty good, and perhaps most importantly made me feel like I was doing myself a favor (health-wise) and was still in reasonable control of myself.

Brain food
I am not denying that the meal was objectively healthier than peanut butter and crackers, but that the perception of still having my act together enough to made a good choice was probably more meaningful than the marginal difference to my health in having eaten this better meal this one time. After the fact, it really felt like a symbolic act. Eating peanut butter and crackers for dinner does not make me feel guilty or anything like that (I sometimes do it just as a treat because I enjoy it a lot), but I do recognize that it is often the result of being tired / stressed / ego-depleted and not a conscious choice.

I think it's sort of crazy (though not completely inexplicable) that in our society, we have reached this point at which we so often feel that doing "hard work" (which is often just, you know, doing a normal amount of work that is, in the scope of human history, not really that hard) means that we "deserve a break today" - accomplished by eating some crappy food. I don't know if this is just me being psychologically reactant or what, but when I think of that, I think (1) okay people (self included) simply grow up and (2) the last thing a tired, worn-down person needs after a long, exhausting workday is to chow down on crappy food.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Weird Morning

Yesterday afternoon was my stat exam, which took me 5 hours to complete (and it took several people longer than that). It was hard, but I felt very satisfied when I was finished with it - it was difficult enough to have felt like a worthy challenge but not so hard that it ever felt hopeless. After getting home around 6:00, I decided to take the rest of the day off from work, but kept finding little things to do and got to bed later than I would have liked.

This morning, I woke up around 5:00 disturbed by a sound that I cannot be sure really existed; it wasn't anything I could identify, but may have been one of those sound waves as pressure waves situations in which you almost feel the sound more than you hear it from a distant loud stereo or something. I went back to sleep and was totally knocked out when the alarm went off at the unusually, luxuriously late hour of 7:15. I hate waking up with a headache, and somehow I managed to fall back asleep almost instantly without realizing it was happening. I woke up half an hour later with an immediate feeling of panic, thinking, Damn, I am going to be late for teaching this morning and I haven't even looked at the lab that we're doing! It took me several minutes to realize, Wait, it's only Wednesday. I don't have anything scheduled this morning.

Yesterday was such a long, tiring day that it felt like it lasted 48 hours.

Also, my standing fan in the living room - which a few days ago I realized had become unstable when I turned it off (in the warmer weather, I leave it on 24/7 mostly from laziness) and it instantly fell over - finally gave it up entirely. While I was on the treadmill last night, I started to smell that distinctive, disturbing burning engine smell. I was glad it was just my fan. I brought in the other fan from the bedroom, which I haven't used in weeks since that room is somewhat of an icebox, and have already gotten spoiled by its remote control. Maybe I can actually bring myself to turn this one on and off so I don't run it into the ground as quickly.

Cog Exam

He said the average grade was around 88 or so.

It would be very nice if this turned out to be my lowest midterm grade, as I had felt my performance on the other two tests was better.

Now we are so happy we do the dance of joy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Though I consider it likely that Ran is a good movie, I just could not get past the feeling that I was watching King Lear as a Heroes of Might & Magic campaign. I made it through about 2 hours (over 3 different sessions) and then just ran out of patience with it.

(Oh god. That verb choice really was unintentional, I promise. Clearly my brain needs sleep.)


I thought Tam's post on the weird role the idea of "stupid" played in her childhood and the way it continues to be an issue to her now was interesting, in part because of how hugely it differs from the way "smart" operated in my childhood. I really can't recall "stupid" being much of an issue at all, though I assume we used the phrase an average amount and in typical situations. It certainly was not the primary evaluator of whether something was good or bad. (Although I will admit as a teenager thinking specifically that it was "stupid" that my grandmother had a house rule against using the word "stupid.")

My mom took the position, "Great, you're smart; what are you going to do with it?" And I responded very well to that because I've always been extremely achievement-oriented, which should not come as a surprise to my dear readers. (My high school calculus teacher sees my mom at the public library sometimes and he still has stories to tell about that.)

Don't get me wrong - I don't have any extreme, grandiose feeling like, "With my intelligence and talent, it is my duty to humanity to work to solve the major problems of the world," but that's probably as much about my not feeling like I am actually up to solving those problems as it is about recognizing where the limits of one's obligation to apply their abilities lie. And I mostly think of it as my duty to myself rather than to someone else.

It's interesting, this removed from my childhood, to realize how little it was ever said or implied that being "smart" should give me a pass for anything at all. I know one very smart guy (RM) whose mom told him that he was "too smart" to do the worksheets assigned as homework (sort of like Tam's mom and the fact that writing the spelling words was "stupid") so he didn't do them, and, generally, was a complete underachiever in school. Several times over the years I have had reason to recall how my early attempts to justify to my mom that certain homework assignments were unnecessary for me to do or a waste of my time because I already knew the material were met with my mom's basically unanswerable reply: "If you already know how to do it, then it should be very easy for you to do, so there's really no point in complaining about it. You're luckier than the other kids who will have to work harder at it."

I remember in sixth grade, when I became the school's first top-graded "mathlete" in the weekly competition, a reporter came to the school to interview me for the local newspaper. Among other things, she asked me if I studied or practiced a lot for the competitions, and it was really difficult for me to know how to respond. Truthfully, I didn't do diddly-squat but show up every week and perform, and my default response was to be honest and say no, I didn't study very much, but (1) that felt arrogant to say, (2) I was already specifically feeling sort of bad for a girl in my class who worked really hard and desperately wanted to win but wasn't able to beat me, and I felt like having to read how effortlessly I won would make her feel even worse, and (3) even though I knew that this particular task was not one in which my putting forth a lot of effort was necessary, I had a generalized feeling almost of embarrassment of having to admit that I hadn't really put much into it. So I lied and answered simply "yes" but I was also a bit uneasy of what my mom would say when she read the article. I don't remember what her response was, but I didn't get into trouble for lying.

I will say that under my mom's influence, I was a nicer and less judgmental (about other people, I mean, not in general) person than I became later on, though I believe that I have, in recent years, made some progress toward being more accepting and rumors of my ruthless lack of niceness are exaggerated. But there is no way I will ever be as non-judging of people as my mom is. (That is definitely one of her defining characteristics.)

It has been surprisingly hard to think of what characteristics I feel are central to my identity in the way that "smart" is so critical to Tam. It seems that I value a sense of being competent (perhaps in general, but particularly in the spheres that are important to me) at least as much as, if not more than, being smart. For example, the exchange in one of the Gap Series novels in which the uber-capable female character tells this new super-woman who has joined them "Until you came along, I was the most competent woman I’ve ever met. If you don’t count Nick and one or two other men, I was the most competent person I know." probably resonated with me more than the typical person, and I actually felt a sort of relief that my identity is not as wrapped up in a feeling of competence as it was for her. (And her life was 8,000 other kinds of bad, too.)

Robert suggested that important to my identity is "being right." There's truth to that, though it is much more the process (the way of thinking) that I care about than it is the outcome (the correct judgment). Of course, it's best when you can have both, but I'd rather be wrong for the right reasons than right for the wrong ones. I'd much rather have my facts shown to be untrue than my reasoning process to have been faulty, although I probably dislike being wrong in either way more than is normal.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Not Feeling the Love

I can't understand why everybody in the world has encouraged me to start using the Firefox browser. It is utterly crashtastic. It's like, oooh, thanks for offering to restart the program with the pages I already had open...since you crash several times per day.

I have never had this kind of problem with Microsoft Internet Explorer. I have had Explorer crash, of course, once in a blue moon, but not this frequent, annoying cycle of crashes that is particularly awful when I am looking through a journal database for articles to read/download for my research (i.e. I am in a groove seriously thinking/working and then interrupted due to an idiotic browser issue, which makes me just want to abandon the god-damn thing and read Doctor Zhivago instead).

So, what gives?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Will We Too Become Our Racist Grandparents?

A body of social scientific research supports the commonly-observed phenomenon of older people being more prejudiced/racist than younger people, and it is often assumed that this difference reflects changing social values toward egalitarianism and acceptance of diversity.

However, my recent reading of the role of automatic and control processes in attitudes has made me question the validity of that assumption.

In very simplistic terms, various social cognitive models suggest that two different (but interacting) mental processes are involved in determining our attitudes. The automatic process involves the activation of a network of associations that have been created by conditioning and is evoked by stimuli without a person's intent (and, sometimes, without awareness). The associative evaluations that arise from this automatic process (aka implicit attitudes) do not necessarily reflect what we would endorse as true. For instance, a person might have a positive implicit attitude for Bud Light due to exposure at a vulnerable age to Spuds McKenzie TV advertisements (a dog on the beach in sunglasses, yay) while not believing that it is in any way true that Bud Light is a good beer or at all a desirable product. Less trivially, a person may (indeed, probably does) have negative associations with black people and positive associations with white people; indeed, black people themselves may have these associations, if to a lesser extent than white people. (Do you doubt that you have this kind of implicit prejudice? Feel free to put your implicit moral superiority to the test on the Implicit Association Test.)

The control stage is a conscious, effortful process of placing one's automatic evaluations under judgment to determine what a person believes is true. For example, one can consider the Bud Light-Spuds McKenzie pairing rationally in the light of other propositional beliefs such as "Spuds McKenzie doesn't even drink beer" and "Bud Light tastes bad" to develop a negative explicit attitude toward Bud Light (e.g. "I don't like Bud Light") that diverges from the association-based response and to behave in keeping with that explicit attitude by not purchasing it. Similarly, a person may have negative associations with black people while recognizing that black people are not actually inferior and not behaving in a prejudicial manner toward them.

But it's important to note that these models often (always? I'm not familiar with all the variants on the theme) state that the default situation is for the control process to merely rubber-stamp the attitude activated by the automatic process rather than place it under rational scrutiny. Therefore, without the consideration of other beliefs, these automatic evaluative associations can become one's attitude, full-stop.

But if the control process is effortful (draws on a cognitive resource), I thought: shouldn't older people, who have deterioration in cognitive resources, be less well-equipped to over-ride the racist attitudes popping up from their automatic process? Could this contribute to the fact that older people are more prone to behave in racist ways? (I have to credit a paper I read for cognitive psychology on the greater difficulty older people have in inhibiting their responses to distracting visual stimuli in a perception task for giving me the idea that they might have difficulty inhibiting their responses to automatically activated associations also.)

Of course, as with a dozen other good ideas I've had on related topics today, I have been beaten to the punch on this question. In a study published in March of this year, an analysis of almost 16,000 respondents on the IAT web site provided support of their (and my) hypothesis that older adults show greater bias against blacks and greater preference for whites on the IAT compared to younger people because older people are less able to control their automatic associations, not because their automatic associations are more extreme (Gonsalkorale, et al 2009).

But wait a minute...I thought that you said that the IAT measures implicit attitudes, which is what automatic evaluative associations are. Now you're saying that people control or regulate those automatic associations in the process that is used to measure the very same associations. That's confusing. Well, yeah, it sort of is, and is a good example of how we need to be careful of equating a process with a measurement of the results of the process. The researchers state: "However, although implicit measures surely restrict the role of inhibitory processes more so than do self-report measures, even here, self-regulatory abilities affect task performance."

The implications of this research are kind of depressing: those of us younger folk who listen with embarrassment and dismay as our elders make weird racist comments may not actually be less implicitly racist than they are, but only better able to keep those (untrue) associations at bay through the application of cognitive effort. Once we're old fogeys ourselves, we may be just as apt to say and do racist things.

To me, this points up the importance of people developing less prejudicial evaluative associations in the first place or having patterns of associative activation that are less negative toward racial or ethnic minority groups (since different stimuli or contexts can cause different parts of your associations to be activated - like thinking of black men when seeing a photo of Denzel Washington vs. a gang member). Is it completely naive to hope that the next generation, growing up in a world in which the elementary school walls will show a line of US Presidents that includes a black man, may be less implicitly racist than our generations are?

A literature search reveals one tiny glimmer of hope in this regard. A July 2009 study found lower levels of anti-black implicit attitudes among non-black college students at the time of the Obama presidential campaign than before, particularly among those who listed a positive role model (e.g. Obama, MLK Jr.) among their list of 5 thoughts that came to mind about black people (measured after the IAT) (Plant et al, 2009). Of course, it is very possible that the various positive Obama phenomena will not yield persistent changes in attitudes, implicit or explicit.


Gonsalkorale K, Sherman JW, and Klauer KC (2009). Aging and prejudice: Diminished regulation of automatic race bias among older adults, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 410-414.

Plant EA, Devine PG, Cox WTL, et al (2009). The Obama effect: decreasing implicit prejudice and stereotyping, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 961-964.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Not Actually So Decrepit As Previously Feared

Leo, that is.

Last weekend, when Robert visited Leo at the bunny hotel / nursing home, Leo was looking a lot better in terms of energy and generally not appearing on death's door. (He was eating when Robert showed up and happily gobbled all the treats offered.) We suspect that he may have just been having a bad pain day the other week when Robert saw him looking so pathetic.

And since everybody else is doing physical therapy these days (including my grandfather, who after his stroke has regained the ability to do sign language with his right arm/hand but still can't move his leg), Leo did some PT also under Robert's direction. As I'm sure I've mentioned, Leo's been reluctant to move around a lot and is hobbling more than he's hopping these days. Robert stood Leo up on his four legs and discovered that instead of his spine curving normally so that his back feet are flat on the ground, Leo's spine stays straight such that his legs are at angle that would make him stand on tiptoe.

It is actually a big relief to me to find out that Leo is not so weak and frail that he can't move around but just has developed a physical disability. This disability may be closely tied up with aging, but is not in itself the kind of thing that indicates he's gone into a final decline. (I had been pessimistic enough about him before that I specifically told Robert that he shouldn't say anything about Leo's current condition until after my exams because I was afraid to have my heart broken.)

And I am told that neither the power of his softness field nor his love of petting has been damaged in any way.


Two down, one to go (next Tuesday). My predictions: social = A, cognitive = B. I would be satisfied with such a result.

I felt like I underperformed relative to my knowledge base on the cognitive exam, partly due to getting zapped on the first two, obviously supposed to be "easy" questions. But over the course of the test period, I did remember enough to get some partial credit. (If this exam had been linear and computer-adaptive like the GRE, question 3 would have read "Most people have how many brains?" with response options 0 and 1.) I was also disappointed that I simply could not think of a relevant experiment for one of the essay questions, but later when looking at my notes realized that the primary experiment was one that I had, on a previous assignment, myself suggested before we discussed this experiment in class. D'oh.

However, I do not feel that I was cheated or had especially bad luck or anything, nor do I feel that I should have studied more. With the massive amounts of information that we covered, and the fact that exams do test performance, which means among other things being able to remember the right things at the right times, it seemed likely that I would get questions that I simply could not in the moment recall the appropriate information to full answer. It's possible that if "study more" had meant study really, really hard throughout the entire semester so that by the time of the exam I was thoroughly familiar with the information I could have ensured myself a very high grade, but within the realistic constraints of having other things to do that are, without doubt, more important than learn to the zillionth degree this material that is outside my research area, it's not like spending an extra day or two studying hard before the exam would have helped appreciably. I figure I just would have forgotten different information.

This being said, I am finally reaching that point in cognitive where everything starts to seem connected, which is always a helpful sign that you have developed a schema to organize information around.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Not a Joke

"Obama Awarded 2009 Nobel Peace Prize" read the headline; it's not The Onion, but CNN.

Alternatively, "Prize Committee to Obama: Thanks for not being George W. Bush."

Obama is reportedly "humbled" by the award. Well yeah I should hope so, given that he doesn't have any actual accomplishments in his scant months as POTUS to make him deserving of such an award. I would like to think that Obama is embarrassed by the extent to which he has become a messianic figure.

Meanwhile, The Onion is on top of other important developments, such as this newly created bird species, though as a birder and a marketing person, I felt that the story was rather weak.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

NYC Labeling Law Study

Megan "Four Apples" McArdle comments on (and, helpfully, links to the full text of) a recent study examining the impact of the NYC restaurant labeling law on purchases made by predominantly low-income, low-education minority-race customers at 4 fast-food restaurant chains.

The highlighted results: From examining receipts, the mean calories purchased by customers did not differ before and after the labeling law was passed, nor did they differ from a control group in Newark, NJ, where there is no labeling law (all were around 820 - 850 calories for a lunch or dinner meal). Those who reported that the calorie information did make a difference to their order did not differ in calories purchased from those who said it didn't. Labeling did lead to a higher proportion of customers being aware of the calorie labels, but no noticeable difference on behavior.

I'd say this is not great news, but I still think the celebratory "see, this wonderful study proves my already firmly-held opinions and thus I am right and the busybody public health policy makers are moronz!" tone of the comment section is a bit ... um, inappropriate.

This is one study. In the behavioral sciences, one study is hardly sufficient evidence to make sweeping claims about the effects of anything. I agree, this is not the kind of result that policy makers (and I) would like to see, and yet, it's not very surprising that favorable results were not found among this population. It seems like they purposely chose a population that was less likely to be responsive to the calorie data - they are poor, uneducated, and eat fast food an average of 5 times per week. This is a tough crowd. I agree with the researchers that this is an important population to study, given that they are at high risk of obesity and related health problems, but they aren't the only population we care about. (This is not to fault the researchers but to point out another way that this study hardly settles the debate.)

I could also nitpick the study methodology - they based calorie counts on food ordered, not food eaten; some people who were eating at the restaurants before the labels may have stopped eating there once they knew how many calories were in the food but they could not be included in the study; they looked at fast food but not other restaurants in which the calorie content might be more surprisingly high and hence more likely to give the customer pause* - but I think (on the basis of a very quick read) that this is probably a reasonably good field study for looking at the particular population they are interested in.

* Recall previous posts that cite many studies finding that perceptions of calories become more divergent from actual content the larger the calorie content gets. Also, like some of MM's commenters, I too have sometimes been surprised by how relatively few calories are in some fast food items, like a quarter pound burger or a small french fries. I think there is definitely an effect of food categorization on perceived health value (e.g. hamburgers are "unhealthy" and salads are "healthy") that influences how we react to fast food calorie information.

I was very surprised that they did not report standard deviations to accompany the group means, which I think of as the default reporting style (and I believe is required for many journals); I'd be curious to see if there was a difference in the distribution of calories for the customers ordering from menus with calorie data compared to the other groups. The presentation of calorie data could have led one group of people to purchase even more calories (e.g. those interested in getting the most calorie bang for their buck) while another group purchased fewer calories, for example, without changing the overall mean for the sample. They did report means for various socio-demographically-defined groups, but I wouldn't expect attributes like race and under/over 35 years of age to capture this kind of thing very well.

I would also have liked to see the calorie numbers broken down by things like weight or weight status (i.e. normal, overweight, obese) or dieting / health consciousness status, but they did not collect that sort of data in this study.

But that's OK - I am confident that researchers in this area will be (are) working on and publishing additional articles looking at this issue from a lot of different angles.

Also, Tam might like (as I do) the fact that NYC has rolled out an educational campaign that says, in a less psychological-reactance-inducing way "Eat less." To wit: "2,000 calories a day is all that most adults should eat." I wish them luck.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Some Questions Aren't Particularly Empirical

Overheard this afternoon: "Why is it that the students who need help the least are the ones that come to get help?"

Since this was one personality psychologist talking to another, I think they probably have a pretty damn good idea of why that is, actually.

Monday, October 5, 2009


This weekend, my mom mentioned seeing something on TV about female and male brains. I know that I have a sort of allergic reaction to gender essentialism (which I am using to refer to the belief that men and women are/must be different in many respects that have nothing to do with reproduction and that these differences arise naturally, perhaps inevitably, from genetics/biology), but the entire pop psychology view of the brain, including the sweeping categorizations that are made on the basis of gender, is pretty whack.

On the show my mom was watching, some doctor (note: not a neuroscientist) brought up ye olde "men and women have different brains" chestnut, focusing on the fact that men's brains are more "compartmentalized" to explain some differences in social behavior - if I recall correctly, in expressing feelings or something like that.

I am going to take this "compartmentalized" brain language to be referring to hemispheric lateralization - the idea that the right and left hemispheres of the brain are specialized for (or show processing advantages in) different cognitive functions - and the extent of a person's connection between the hemispheres in terms of neural connections within the corpus callosum, the 250 million nerve fiber connection that allows the two sides of the brain to communicate.

(I am not going to interpret "compartmentalized brain" in its other common meaning of "men store their ideas about sex, love, work, etc., all in different file drawers in their head" because I don't know of a respectable memory model that would support that and the interpretation of "compartmentalization" as emotion suppression is not something I'm at all prepared to address from a brain perspective.)

One thing we do know: the average woman's brain is smaller than the average man's brain, since brain size is correlated with body size. This causes problems in understanding whether some observed gender differences, such as the shape of the posterior section of the corpus callosum, are really due to gender or are simply a matter of brain size. (Also, of course, neuroscientists have not actually found functional differences that correspond to every anatomical difference, so it may not even matter.)

What about the popular notion that men's brains are more "compartmentalized" or show a greater degree of lateralization than women's brains do? This is a continuing source of debate, with various studies showing women (and left-handed men!) to be less lateralized than right-handed men, showing no differences between the sexes, or even showing women to be more lateralized. One review of the literature found that between 5% and 15% of studies have found women to be less lateralized than men are and further noted that even when the differences reach the level of statistical significance, gender accounts for about 1% or 2% of the variability in lateralization. I would not say that is explaining much of anything at all, and especially not about stereotypically male and female social behavior.

Also, note that I used the phrase "show processing advantages" when talking about the two hemispheres of the brain advisedly. People used to think that cognitive functions were very localized to particular parts of the brain, but we now know that there are often multiple ways the brain can accomplish the same function and that many functions are much more generalized than previously thought. Once you get past the popular media summaries of things like "the left hemisphere is for language, the right hemisphere is for spatial processing," you find it's a lot more complicated. Maybe the left hemisphere (LH) is more analytic and the right hemisphere (RH) is more holistic in its processing. But maybe it's more that the LH has an advantage in processing local information and the RH has an advantage with global information. And when it comes down to it, the hemispheres are a lot more alike than they are different.

My mom asked an astute question: Even if there are differences in the brain, how do we know that they are inherent and haven't changed over a person's life? I don't know how to answer that question. Since we're generally studying adults, not infants, to me it does require a leap to infer that differences are genetic, especially since there are plenty of well-documented cases of people's brains "reorganizing" after being damaged, for example.

One thing that is lost in the mass media discussion of neuroscience is that brain science is not straightforward. There are a wide array of different methodologies, each of which is problematic and requires making interpretive leaps. (This is why neuroscientists place so much value on converging evidence from multiple methodologies - animal studies, neuroimaging, electromagnetic recordings, studies of people with brain damage, behavioral studies, studies of neurotypical people, etc.) A lot of what is being measured is very indirect - for instance, functional MRI (fMRI), which is one of the more advanced methods, involves measuring blood flow and blood oxygenation in different parts of the brain and using those measures to infer the activity levels of those brain areas.

In any event, making categorical statements about male and female differences on the basis of linking some perceived discrepancies in behavior to tiny differences in brain anatomy or neural activation rather than, say, socialization is pretty drastic...especially when these supposed behavioral differences are questionable to begin with. (My mom brought up the finding that despite widespread belief to the contrary, women don't actually talk 3 times as much as men do.)

I know that since I study social psychology, I am very interested in and highly aware of how much influence environment and social context has on people's behavior, perhaps to the extent of prejudging some biological/genetic arguments as unlikely without giving them a fair hearing. But all these variants on "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus and because God/Nature/Evolution made them that way!" gets tiresome. And yeah, that does include the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, whose "female brain = empathizing, male brain = systemizing because of prenatal testosterone levels" thing is not bearing out perhaps as well as it might in the general (neurotypical) population.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Very Useful Link

You should definitely check out The Ultimate Productivity Blog. You may want to bookmark it for later reference, too.

(Via Marginal Revolution)

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Exams: graded.

Two slices of veggie pizza: eaten.

24 poppy-seed banana muffins and 6 servings of bean soup: cooked.

Money transfer: accepted.

4.15 miles: walked.

Tam's blog: read.

Favorite Robert and Leopold photo: swooned over.

Orthogonal contrasts: ignored.

My blog: updated.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

School Stuff

I am quite happy to report that I am starting work on the experiment(s) that will be my first year project. I don't think it's a good idea to discuss the project in detail here, but I will say that it's in the area of persuasion, and that I have a two stage study - I will be bringing people into the lab for a persuasion paradigm, then bringing them back a week later to see if the persuasion stuck and whether I can persuade them again (in the opposite direction). I would be happy to talk about the project in excruciating detail with anyone who is really interested. Consider yourself warned.

Today I started programming the actual experiment in the psychology-experiment-specific software my advisor's lab uses, and it is proving to be easier than I expected. Like a lot of the questionnaire development software I've used in the past, very little genuine programming is needed; the built-in functionality is there for a wide range of experimental designs.

The director of grad studies for the department (who is one of the world's most extremely nice people) gave me a ride from the building to the parking lot this afternoon, and she asked how I was doing, mentioning that I seem...I can't remember the word, something to the effect of relaxed and on top of things. Oddly, I think that assessment is pretty accurate and that I'm not just doing a good job of faking it. I feel like I'm starting to get a decent handle on the workload, but I won't really know that for sure until after midterms; it's too soon to know whether the level of work / understanding I'm operating at is sufficient or not. I am loving the whole "having my own office" thing. When I can get and stay focused, my productivity is good.

I got back my reaction papers for my neuro class and the comments came out to around 5 "good point" or "very good point" (over 3 papers) and 0 "you are a moron." So either I'm being more smart than dumb with my observations or he is pulling his punches. I prefer to believe it's the former. Certainly there was no indication that my level of understanding was woefully insufficient or that I was completely missing the point, which is very good. (These are ungraded assignments, and we only have to do 5 total for the semester, but as I learned from the psych grad course I took a couple years ago, writing these reaction papers is probably the best way to ensure that I understand the material at all. I plan to do one for each week's set of articles.) I am almost entirely caught up with taking notes over the textbook chapters also, which is Step 3 in studying for the exam. (Step 1 is reading the material before class, and Step 2 is showing up to class and taking notes.)

I also got my required presentation of an empirical paper out of the way for social psychology class. It was one of the classics in the area of attitudes, and I think I did a reasonably good job of explaining it. Since the grad class class I took before (which only had 4 students) required me to do an entire lecture period on a topic, including explaining several empirical papers as well as the theoretical foundation, and lead a discussion session, discussing one paper (in my field no less) was neither intimidating nor difficult to prepare for.

Oh, and while my students were taking an exam today in lab, I started reading the journal article for tomorrow's neuro class, but found that I was not able to take the information in very easily since there was some distracting clicking calculator noise. I gave up at this sentence: "Low perceptual load in the relevant task, on the other hand, results in the processing of irrelevant as well as relevant information, and therefore requires some active means of rejecting distractors for maintaining appropriate control of behavior." I settled for desultory web surfing and looking around for roving eyes.

Leopold Update

Robert went to visit Leopold this past weekend and spent about 2 hours petting him. Here's the summary of the Leopold update:

* He really liked being petted and "presented" at Robert for more petting just as he used to do to Katy (for licking/grooming). This is new behavior (he used to not have the patience to sit still for two hours at a time unless he was basically asleep, and he would want to play at some point when humans were around).

* He's skinny but not getting skinner. He is still eating.

* He eats and drinks standing up, but that's about it. He mostly lies down. His hopping looks more like walking. He is generally looking "elderly and shaky."

* The sitter is considering diapering him because he's not using his litter box anymore (too hard to get in and out) so he gets pretty messy in the back. This would also allow them to put in a fleece floor cover in his cage, which is comfier for his feet.

* He does not seem to be in pain. The sitter does give him shots for inflammation which seem to be helping.

* His fur is still soft.

* They looked up his records and determined that he is 10 years old (life expectancy for a rabbit is 8-10 years).

* He started life with the name "Domino." No alternative name was listed for Katy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Grocery Shopping

Ever since Tam published the photographs of her grocery shopping goodies, I have meant to do the same, and today, I even remembered before I put all the groceries away.

Here is the produce:


You may not be able to tell, but the square item on the right side is a mix of pre-cut melons, strawberries, grapes, and blueberries that is kind of expensive ($7.50) but is an indulgence I let myself get.

Here is the rest:

Yes I do like that yogurt

One thing I've noticed since moving to W-S, where grocery prices are higher than they were in Austin, is that I am more inclined to purchase the store brands and I am willing to consider them for a wider range of products. I surprised myself today by getting the store brand old-fashioned oats, since I've been loyal to Quaker for so many years, but the price differential was pretty large and I only use them for baking muffins (either whole or ground into flour).

I have a large box in which I keep my broken-down paperboard for recycling, which makes very clear what my commonly-purchased boxed foods are:

* Honey Nut Cheerios
* Quaker Instant Oatmeal
* Trisuits - Rosemary flavor
* Saltine crackers (Wal-Mart brand because they really are the best, though I am sure many of you will react to that as I react to the concept of a best English muffin: OK, it's a tastier flavorless lump of dough than the other brands)
* Morningstar Farms breakfast sausage patties

The Honey Nut Cheerios are conspicuous in their absence from today's shopping, but I had decided that I've come to rely too much on them for snacking purposes. (For a while, it was really bad because I'd discovered how delicious it is to eat dry HNC with walnut pieces. I had to stop buying walnuts a couple of weeks ago to put an end to that particular madness.) And there's this odd but kind of awesome thing: if I do not buy food, I do not eat it. So I bought more produce instead.

I sometimes have trouble remembering that I have bought produce, and I think it's largely a function of the out of sight, out of mind phenomenon that arises with putting items into the crisper drawers. Today, I reorganized my crispers so that the left contains stuff I bought for specific recipes and the right contains snackable stuff. (I also typically leave berries, baby carrots, and leafy greens on the shelves themselves.) I hate it when I'm cleaning out the drawer and find bell peppers that I've forgotten long enough that they've gone bad - roasted bell peppers are the bomb and I can eat them with pretty much any meal or as a snack.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Book/Life Congruence

Friday is my "light" day, on which I don't have any classes of my own to go to; I try to get a jump start on the crushing work for the next week, though, and this is easier when I get to school early and stay later, even though my only commitments are from 11-1. I have a pretty good handle at this point on what work I am more efficient with / find it easier to make myself to do when I'm at school and what kind of work I do well with from home.

I got to my office by about 8:30 and worked solidly until 11:00 on re-reading and takes notes on my computer from my neuro book, catching up to the chapter we just did this week! This was great, beyond my expectations and goals for the day, and I planned to do the readings for next week's neuro class when I got back at 1:00.

Today's undergrad research methods lecture was not particularly boring, but since I had (for the first time in a little while) an unsatisfactory quality of sleep last night, and I was suffering a bit from a low-pressure-system headache, I had the worst time just trying to stay awake. (Thankfully I sit in the very back row and thus do not set a bad example.) After class, I went back to my office to do the reading.

Still feeling almost overwhelmingly sleepy, I opened the book to the chapter, topic: attention, and tried really hard to focus on the material but not as successfully as I would have liked. I had to read the section on the reticular activating system and its role in arousal and alertness a couple of times since I kept half-dozing off while my eyes went through the motions of reading. The irony of the situation was not, however, lost on me. Eventually, I did become slightly more alert and I decided that it was an appropriate time to bust out one of the 45-calorie mini-packs of raisins I carry around for emergency situations (as Sun-Maid tells us, they're good for "quick energy," whereby energy = calories from sugar). Whether the infusion of sugar helped or it just had a placebo effect, I can't say, but I did manage to work my way through the material with a reasonable level of attention.

Then I came home and took a delicious, rather long nap, though I screwed up my eating schedule a bit and woke up with a stomach ache that didn't go away for some time after eating dinner.

Anyway, the odd congruence between my reading material and the immediate conditions of my life this afternoon reminds me of a story I don't think I've told on this blog:

Last year some time, during that period when I was going to the college library every morning and reading through books on psychology / economics / etc., I was in the library reading when I heard a girl scream from somewhere in the stacks behind me. The approximately 8 of us seated at tables in the immediate vicinity all looked up with surprise and then looked at each other with confusion. About 15 seconds later I'm guessing (though it felt like minutes), the girl came out from the stacks laughing really hard into her cell phone, and everyone realized, "OK, she was shrieking with laughter" and went back to their work.

At this point, I resumed my reading of what must be, at this point in my life, my dozenth description of the bystander effect, which refers to the tendency for people to be less likely to offer help in an emergency when there are other people present, and felt sort of dismayed that even being not only knowledgeable about this phenomenon but having this knowledge as the most salient thing in my brain at the time of this girl screaming, I still reacted this useless way. And I could definitely feel that it was not a diffusion of responsibility issue (I did not just assume that somebody else would help) but that I wasn't sure what the situation really was and so fell into the trap of social proof (since nobody else was doing anything, action mustn't be warranted). Ugh.