Sunday, May 17, 2009

So the cultural implications of language are enormous (see Sapir, Whorf, Chomsky et al.). 

What if a group of humans exists that has a ridiculously primitive language?  No abstractions or recursions?

This article is the most revealing study of human nature that I have seen so far, and I've read a few.   Read it once, then think about it.  Then read it again.

I only have one word to describe the work, fascinating.

I don't read many novels anymore.  This is why.  Short works have much more value, pound for pound.  If one day I write something half as interesting as this article, my life will be complete.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Interested in AI, Alex Trebek, IBM, or game shows?

And yes, I read "the Atlantic".  Sometimes I glance over things that are a little more cerebral than "Guns 'N' Ammo".

Monday, May 11, 2009

If you own a digital SLR and need lens information, read this article.  I actually learned a bunch.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Warning:  Book Review

Cosmos by Carl Sagan
copyright 1980

I was a little sad when I started reading this book, I was enormously disappointed that I hadn't read this book many years earlier.!  It was written four years before I was born and I'm just now finishing it!  Well, that can't be helped.  

Sagan succinctly sums up everything.  By everything, I mean everything literally.  I'm not a physicist or an astronomer, but I easily understood and learned quite a bit about space and space/time.  The main focus throughout most chapters was the existense and change of the universe and its components and how those components interact (aka everything).  Now,  the universe, its components, and their interactions would have to be the most important things to study, right?  In fact, those are the only things available to study.

Think about this:
I asked my college freshmen students if they thought science was important.  Most said yes. 
"So scientists can figure stuff out.  And invent stuff."

"Do you like learning about science," I asked.  "Are you interested in science?  Do you have a responsibility to understand science."

"No."  Was their adamant and unanimous answer.

Go figure.  I tried to convince them that ordinary everyday people like us can and should understand science, and even use it.  I even told them it would be easier than memorizing sports stats.  I must've done something wrong, they didn't become enthusiastic.

I think most folks share this attitude.  Honestly, it's hard for me to believe it, but I bet most people are turned off by science or at best, indifferent.

Sagan disagrees with me.  He says that the general public could learn to love science but scientists have been doing a bad job of promoting their work as important.  Evidence for this is summed up with the example of the Library of Alexandria in the first century AD.  

This was the birthplace of the scientific method.  It was a research institution where early scientists made breathtaking and awe inspiring discoveries.  The precise size of the earth was calculated, the nature of the movements of planets was deduced, evolutionary theory was proposed, the atom as the basis of matter theorized.  Who knows what else was discovered nearly two millenia ago?!  The vast majority of the library's scrolls were burned probably in accordance with a decree from Pope Theophilus to destroy this "pagan" building.  This knowledge had to be rediscovered, and due to a lengthy period called the Dark Ages, not much real science happened until 1500 AD or so.

What was lost?  How much did the ancients learn?  How much different would things be today if that knowledge had been preserved?  Will we learn from this?  Who will come with torches to burn down the new library?

I'm sure that the same science that has taught us that we are insignificant masses of atoms huddled together on a mote of dust in a near infinite vastness is the same science that will be our only tool in establishing our true significance in the universe.

The adventure is in its infancy.  Man's footprints are no longer confined to Earth.  But to ensure that we voyage again, our first priority should be resisting the urges to destroy this planet....and we only get one chance at that.

Your Brain's not Perfect

This is not my original work, I found it at

Here are some common thinking errors:

1) Confirmation Bias

The confirmation bias is a tendency to seek information to prove, rather than disprove our theories. The problem arises because often, one piece of false evidence can completely invalidate the otherwise supporting factors.

Consider a study conducted by Peter Cathcart Wason. In the study, Wason showed participants a triplet of numbers (2, 4, 6) and asked them to guess the rule for which the pattern followed. From that, participants could offer test triplets to see if their rule held.

From this starting point, most participants picked specific rules such as “goes up by 2“ or “1x, 2x, 3x.” By only guessing triplets that fit their rule, they didn’t realize the actual rule was “any three ascending numbers.” A simple test triplet of “3, 15, 317“ would have invalidated their theories.

2) Hindsight Bias

Known more commonly under “hindsight is 20/20“ this bias causes people to see past results as appearing more probable than they did initially. This was demonstrated in a study by Paul Lazarsfeld in which he gave participants statements that seemed like common sense. In reality, the opposite of the statements was true.

3) Clustering Illusion

This is the tendency to see patterns where none actually exist. A study conducted by Thomas Gilovich, showed people were easily misled to think patterns existed in random sequences. Although this may be a necessary by product of our ability to detect patterns, it can create problems.

The clustering illusion can result in superstitions and falling for pseudoscience when patterns seem to emerge from entirely random events.

4) Recency Effect

The recency effect is the tendency to give more weight to recent data. Studies have shown participants can more easily remember information at the end of a list than from the middle. The existence of this bias makes it important to gather enough long-term data, so daily up’s and down’s don’t lead to bad decisions.

5) Anchoring Bias

Anchoring is a well-known problem with negotiations. The first person to state a number will usually force the other person to give a new number based on the first. Anchoring happens even when the number is completely random. In one study, participants spun a wheel that either pointed to 15 or 65. They were then asked the number of countries in Africa that belonged to the UN. Even though the number was arbitrary, answers tended to cluster around either 15 or 65.

6) Overconfidence Effect

And you were worried about having too little confidence? Studies have shown that people tend to grossly overestimate their abilities and characteristics from where they should. More than 80% of drivers place themselves in the top 30%.

One study asked participants to answer a difficult question with a range of values to which they were 95% certain the actual answer lay. Despite the fact there was no penalty for extreme uncertainty, less than half of the answers lay within the original margin.

7) Fundamental Attribution Error

Mistaking personality and character traits for differences caused by situations. A classic study demonstrating this had participants rate speakers who were speaking for or against Fidel Castro. Even if the participants were told the position of the speaker was determined by a coin toss, they rated the attitudes of the speaker as being closer to the side they were forced to speak on.

Studies have shown that it is difficult to out-think these cognitive biases. Even when participants in different studies were warned about bias beforehand, this had little impact on their ability to see past them.

What an understanding of biases can do is allow you to design decision making methods and procedures so that biases can be circumvented. Researchers use double-blind studies to prevent bias from contaminating results. Making adjustments to your decision making, problem solving and learning patterns you can try to reduce their effects.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What have I done?

I've raised a republican......I'm sorry, maybe he'll change his mind before he's old enough to vote.

This morning, I thought it would be smart to tell Max, my 2.5 year old, that "Obama will be the new president".  Of course I didn't think that Max would care or understand in the least bit. 

I asked, "Who is our president, Max?"

"JOHN MCCAIN!!!!"  he replied to my dismay.  Maybe he saw the terror in my face, maybe he has been coached by grandparents, maybe he learned these vulgarities at Mother's Day Out at Central Baptist.  Whatever the reason, he started to chant, "John MCCAIN IS PREVISANZ over and over."

He was so loud that I looked around the kitchen half expecting to see a disapproving crowd shaking their heads in disgust.

"No, Max, Barack Obama will be president", I tried to reinforce calmly.

"No!  John MCCAAAAAAAAIIIIIINNNNN,"  he was pretty mad by now.

"Max, I'm sorry, Obama is gonna be president,"  I remained cool.

"NOOOOOOO!  JOHNNNNNN MCCAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIINNNNNN," louder than before and with evidence of upcoming tears.

I let off.

We had the same discussion when Mom got home; Max remains an unabashed McCain supporter.

I could make a few analogies to "neo-cons" or "consersative Christians" about empty fact-less, emotional, pro-conservative arguments, but I won't because that would be cheap.  

I was under the impression that Obama's appeal was universal, spanning all ages, races, faiths, and both sexes, but I'm sorry to report that these initial results indicate that McCain has soundly defeated Obama in the 2 to 3 year old demographic.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


My molly had a dozen or so babies.