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.