Monday, October 31, 2016

Fewer Police Shootings in Chicago

A little over 2 years ago, Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Chicago police office, Jason Van Dyke. Though initially, police supervisors ruled the case as justifiable homicide, the first responding officer as well as countless Chicago citizens felt there was no need to use force against McDonald, let alone lethal force. In fact, autopsy reports indicated that 9 of the 16 shots were in McDonald's back, suggesting he was not even facing the office who shot him. (This is despite information in the initial report that stated McDonald lunged at Van Dyke, and that was the reason Van Dyke fired.) Video footage of the shooting, that was released under court order in 2015, showed multiple inconsistencies with the initial police report, and Van Dyke was eventually charged with (and is awaiting trial for) six counts of first degree murder.

Multiple protests of this incident of police brutality have been held, and the Chicago Police Department has been investigated over its use of aggressive and hostile tactics. And it appears this increased scrutiny has helped - police shootings and civilian complaints have decreased:
Complaint counts have been declining since 2012, but starting in mid-November 2015 — about two weeks before the video was released — complaints against police dropped at a rapid rate.

Police shootings have shown a similar decline. From the month in which the McDonald video was released through April of this year, the annual rate of shootings has remained lower than at any other point in our data, which goes back to September 2007. There have been four months since McDonald’s shooting in which there were no police shootings, something that occurred only twice in the seven years before the shooting.
You can view data for yourself, through the Invisible Institute, a journalistic production company on the South Side of Chicago that promotes transparency from public institutions, including the police.

There's Late... and then There's This

Last Tuesday, a patron returned an overdue copy of William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." How overdue was it? 15,531 days:
"It's a notable thing. Doesn't happen very often. I've been in libraries for 30 years and this is the most extreme overdue book I'm aware of," explains Guilderland Library Director Tim Wiles.

It's unclear why, exactly, the patron kept the book for so long. But it seems this chronicle of Nazi Germany now has a history of its own.

Late fees for a book that's 15,531 days overdue total $3,106.20.
Speaking over "overdue," the Cubs are thankfully still in the World Series, after yesterday's win at Wrigley. The Indians lead by 1 game in the series. Though 538 gives the Cubs a 52% probability of winning game 6, they predict the Indians will win game 7 (55% probability) and the World Series (76% probability). Guess we'll have to just wait and see...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Facing Their Fears

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the students learned about boggarts, magical creatures that take on the form of whatever their targets fear the most:



While this could have been an absolutely terrifying lesson, as each student is asked to step up and face the boggart, the students spent much of the time laughing. During the lesson, Professor Lupin taught them a charm that would take away the power of the boggart (or rather, take away the power the boggart had over them), by forcing it to take on a ridiculous form (whatever the spellcaster imagines).

There may be something cathartic about facing one's fears, perhaps by taking a good long look at it and realizing it is actually ridiculous. That may have been the motivation for photographer Joshua Hoffine, who photographs reenactments of his children's nightmares:
Hoffine, based in Kansas City, Mo., and a self-proclaimed “Horror Photographer,” is interested in the psychology of fear. In his project “After Dark, My Sweet,” Hoffine’s surreal and staged images render these fears visible with the “visual grammar of a child.” Through elaborate sets, costumes, makeup and fog machines, Hoffine’s children act out these terrifying scenes in front of his camera.
It's easy to let things spiral out of control in one's mind, but talking to others about it helps keep you grounded; others may be better at seeing when something is irrational. In setting up and taking the pictures, Hoffine is able to talk to his children about their nightmares, which may help take some of the power away.

And the pictures, which will be featured in a forthcoming book, Horror Photography, are absolutely gorgeous, if not a bit disturbing:

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Studying Real-Time Decision-Making

We are called upon to make decisions thousands of times a day, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. Some of these decisions we think through systematically, while others are made quickly with little conscious thought. Though I've blogged before that quick decisions are not necessarily less accurate than slow decisions, there are certainly situations where you need to think through your options before making a choice.

There are a variety of factors that can affect your decision-making. And today I learned that time of day may be one of them. A group of Argentinian researchers decided to study the impact of time of day on decision-making. And they did it in a brilliant way - by examining online chess matches:
The research team, which included postdoctoral fellow María Juliana Leone (who won a Woman International Master chess title in 1999) and APS Fellow Mariano Sigman, found that decision-making abilities do appear to fluctuate across the day: In the morning decisions tend to be slower but more accurate, and late in the day decisions were made more abruptly with less accuracy.

When it comes to our behavior and time of day, individual differences in circadian rhythms, called chronotypes, play a role in when people prefer to go to sleep and when they wake up. Individuals who prefer to stay up late are called “owls” and those who prefer to get up early are called “larks.” Other individuals are somewhere in the middle.

The researchers recruited samples of players who had played at least 2,000 games. Approximately 100 participants were asked to note their Time Zone, age, and to complete a Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (MEQ), which indicates morning or evening preferences. The players also completed a short questionnaire about daily sleep routines, meal habits, and wake-up times.

As a control group, the researchers also included games from 14 computers that regularly play in FICS, since “computers are not expected to have diurnal fluctuations in the decision process.”

The results showed that chess playing activity tended to follow along with a player’s chronotype: Larks played more games in the morning and owls played more often in the evening. However, chronotype did not appear to have a significant impact on play performance. Regardless of players’ chronotype, the researchers observed a consistent pattern in decision-making quality and time of day.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Learning by Counter-Example

We all have role models we aspire to be like, who help us be the best we can be. But we probably also have people who are the opposite of that - sort of anti-role models that we learn from by counter-example. If we do what our role models do, and avoid doing what are anti-role models do, we can (hopefully) be our best self. I've said in the past that I became a good teacher from both my great teachers and my awful ones. And, as I blogged about on the topic of meta-analysis before, the techniques for the earliest meta-analysis were established by Glass doing basically the opposite of what Eysenck did.


Today, I learned about a process that uses the nature of counter-example to generate new ideas. It's called "reverse brainstorming:"
Instead of asking participants to come up with great ideas for improving a process or achieving a goal, you ask them to instead brainstorm ways to absolutely undermine a process or make a goal impossible to achieve. You let all those pent-up negative thoughts bubble to the surface. This provides the group with useful information about what isn’t working. Once you know what isn’t working, of course, you have the tools you need to plan for success.
According to the post, this approach works best when a group is burned out or lacking enthusiasm about a project, or when a particular process has become so established it's difficult to break out of it. It also gives group members a chance to vent their frustrations.

Same As It Ever Was

Via The Daily Parker, I read an article in which Richard Florida offers analysis of demographic characteristics associated with support for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump:
There can be little doubt of the fact that reality television star Donald Trump has made the 2016 presidential campaign season one of the strangest in American history. Yet in many ways, this election conforms to America’s underlying basic economic, demographic, and political divides. In fact, the 2016 election reinforces the nation’s divides between richer, more highly educated, more diverse, and more urban Blue States and less advantaged, working class, less diverse, and whiter Red States.
The analysis involves basic correlations, using poll data from three sources (Pollster, Real Clear Politics, and YouGov). What they found mirrors relationships seen in previous elections, including the 2012 Presidential election between President Obama and Mitt Romney. States that have higher support for Clinton tend to be richer and more educated, and have a larger share of creative class workers, as well as unionized employees. Unsurprisingly, these states also tend to have higher property values and income tax. Trump, on the other hand, has higher support among states with higher rates of poverty, fewer college graduates, more working class employees, and lower rates of unionization.

One interesting finding - which makes sense now that I think about it in concert with these other variables - is life expectancy: "Clinton support is higher in states where life expectancy is longer (.35), while life expectancy is negatively correlated with Trump support (-.56)." This makes sense when you think about differences in health and access to health care between richer and poorer citizens, as well as differences in diet and access to healthy food choices. Higher rates of infant mortality might also explain these differences. These differences would be more pronounced in rural (where access to a variety of services is an issue) versus urban settings, so the fact that more urbanized states show higher support for Clinton isn't too surprising. Trump also shows higher support in states with more gun deaths, so that could also explain the life expectancy finding.

They also dug into the data on racial divides. Trump supporters are more likely to be white, but that isn't the whole story. They tend to be white and racially isolated. In states with higher proportions of foreign-born citizens, Clinton support is higher.

The conclusion of this analysis, though, is that even though Trump seems to be one of the most divisive presidential candidates ever, the characteristics predicting support for one candidate over another in this election cycle are very similar to the characteristics predicting support in previous cycles. So these characteristics really don't explain support for a candidate so much as support for a particular party:
Despite Trump’s bizarreness as a candidate, the election is not a break with a past. According to our analysis, Clinton and Trump support this election cycle basically lines up with Obama and Romney support in 2012. Clinton states are correlated at a whopping .95 with Obama’s vote shares by states in 2012; and Trump states are correlated at .87 with the shares of the vote won by Romney.
In spite of the group of high-profile conservatives who have joined the "Never Trump" camp, it appears that many citizens are going to vote along party lines, even if it means holding their noses while they do it.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Girls, Math, and Grade School Stereotype Threat

Stereotype threat, especially with regard to women and math ability, has been one of my interests for a long time (see past posts here and here). To recap, stereotype threat occurs when a stereotype about a group (e.g., "women are bad at math") affects a group members' performance (e.g., a woman encountering math test). Though some studies have tested this by specifically stating stereotype prior to the test phase, other research suggests that this isn't necessary. Simply being aware of the stereotype is enough to impact performance.

Recent research suggests this stereotype is still alive and well, and begins rearing its ugly head around 1st grade:
A new study shows that first-grade teachers consistently rate girls’ math ability below boys’ — even when they have the same achievement level and learning style. The study out today in the journal AERA Open from researchers at New York University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign seems to represent a setback for gender equity in math. A widely reported 2008 study found that girls score as well as boys do on standardized state math tests. But the latest study suggests that early in their math education, many girls run into a teacher who perceives them as being worse at the subject than they are — which could discourage some of them from heading down a path that could lead to a career in math, science or engineering.
For me, I think I became consciously aware of the gender math stereotype in middle school. And they were especially obvious to me in junior high and high school, when I took algebra courses for the first time. Believe it or not, I struggled big-time with algebra. But I excelled at geometry. Still, I started to buy into the stereotype, if not about all women, but definitely about myself. I used to be involved with science and math clubs, but around 7th or 8th grade, I stopped going because I believed I couldn't do math.

My Algebra 2 teacher definitely bought into gender stereotypes. I approached him early in the course to tell him I was having trouble. He invited me to stop by during study hall. I showed up, he gave me some problems to work on, and walked away. A couple of boys from my class showed up and he spent the whole time showing them how to do the problems on the board, correcting them when they gave a wrong answer, and just being really hands-on with them. Meanwhile, I was working through problems I had no idea how to do with no attention from him. I did this one more time before I got the hint and stopped showing up. That was my one and only C in high school. That was also the last math class I took in high school.

Now that I've been working with higher-level statistics for so long, algebra makes perfect sense to me. I wonder how different things would have been in my career choices if I'd had more help.

Lying Liars Who Lie

In the words of one of my favorite characters, Gregory House:


One lie can easily turn into two, and small lies can easily become big lies. And today I encountered some recent research that suggests why.

Whenever you tell a lie, you experience a little twinge of emotion - usually guilt. That guilt may not be enough to keep you from lying, especially if the lie benefits you and does not necessarily hurt someone else. And past research has shown that increased exposure decreases our emotional response over time. So just like your first break-up is likely to hurt a lot more than your fifth break-up (cue "The First Cut is the Deepest"), the guilt you feel from your first lie is going to be much greater than the guilt you feel after lie #793.

To test this hypothesis, and get at the specific brain response to lies, researchers had people participate in a game while undergoing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI):
Specifically, we adapted a two-party task used previously to elicit and measure dishonesty. Participants advised a second participant, played by a confederate, about the amount of money in a glass jar filled with pennies. We changed the incentive structure over the course of two experiments such that dishonesty about the amount of money in the jar would either benefit the participant at the expense of their partner (Self-serving–Other-harming, Experiment 1), benefit both (Self-serving–Other-serving, Experiment 1), benefit the partner at the expense of the participant (Self-harming–Other-serving, Experiment 1), benefit the participant only without affecting the partner (Self-serving, Experiment 2) or benefit the partner only without affecting the participant (Other-serving, Experiment 2). Importantly, the participants believed that their partner was not aware of this incentive structure but thought that they were working together at all times to provide the most accurate estimate, which would benefit them both equally. A baseline condition enabled us to infer the amount of dishonesty on each trial without the participant being instructed to act dishonestly or required to admit to dishonesty.
The researchers observed dishonesty escalation - that people became more dishonest over time - when it was self-serving. This was the case even when the lie hurt the other person, though people were more likely to be dishonest when served the other as well. (So they still lied if it hurt the other, but not as much as if it helped the other.) Results from the brain scan showed reduced amygdala activity over time. As I've blogged about previously, the amygdala, part of the mid-brain, is involved in emotional response.

So, to answer Liz Phair's question, "Why I Lie?" the answer is: it just keeps getting easier.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Polling the Polls: Meta-Analysis in Action

I blogged recently about a new course I'm taking on the topic of meta-analysis, which is a set of techniques for aggregating results from multiple studies. I realized this morning that you've probably encountered meta-analysis recently, in the form of election polls - specifically, sites that aggregate data from multiple polls. A couple examples are Talking Points Memo's Poll Tracker and FiveThirtyEight's Election Forecast.

Since we can't poll everyone in the population, we use samples as a stand-in. (Terminology side note: When we poll a sample, we call it a survey; when we poll an entire population, we call it a census.) There are techniques to use in surveying, to ensure the sample is representative, but of course, weird things can happen. We may get bias in who responds, or bias because of how a question was worded, or any number of issues. These polls of polls are great examples of the usefulness of meta-analysis. While an individual study, even when done very well, has limitations, aggregating across studies and weighting each study's contribution by its sample size allows us to uncover relationships that may be too small to detect in a single group. And as sample sizes get bigger, we can get a closer and closer estimate to the true population value. In the case of presidential elections, that population value is of course the proportion of voters who will vote a particular way.

See? You've been watching meta-analysis in action all along!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Early Voting (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Though Election Day is still a couple of weeks away, you may have already heard friends and family say they've already voted. Thanks to early voting, which is already underway in many states, people can go cast their ballot today. Christina Silva at FiveThirtyEight offered a post today that explains early voting and differences by state, as well as analyses of early voting patterns (in terms of who votes early and its potential impact on outcome):
Well-organized campaigns do have opportunities to capitalize on early voting, however, and this year that could benefit Hillary Clinton, who has a stronger ground game than Donald Trump.

It "opens up more possibilities for voting, boosting turnout in the long run," said Mark Stephenson, the CEO of Red Oak Strategic, a political consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia. "But it also gives the campaign tacticians the opportunity to analyze and see what is happening over a longer period of time and be efficient with where spending is going as a result. Both, when done successfully by either party, can provide a real tactical and strategic advantage."

The Clinton campaign uses a variety of techniques for reaching out to early voters, including door knocks, phone calls, emails and text messages, said Lily Adams, a Clinton campaign spokeswoman.

"Hillary Clinton was in Iowa on the first day of early vote in person and suggested to all of the attendees of the rally that they go vote," Adams said. Similarly, President Obama held a rally for Clinton in Ohio just before early voting began in that state.

"The DNC is dominating early voting [outreach]" in Nevada, [Jon] Ralston said. And it seems to be paying off: So far, the proportion of Nevada early voters who are Democrats is higher than the proportion of registered voters who are Democrats, which suggests Clinton’s lead in the polls there may be mirrored in the results.
And in related news, the results of Channel One News OneVote 2016 (which gets America's youth involved in the political process by having them vote in a mock election) are in: Hillary Clinton was the winner. OneVote has accurately predicted the next president since 1992 - which coincidentally is when I participated in OneVote and voted for Bill Clinton.

With a Little Help From His Friends

Thanks to research, Christopher Marlowe will now be listed as an official coauthor on three of William Shakespeare's plays, specifically the three dealing with Henry VI:
The new Oxford edition, which will be available in November, was edited by four Shakespeare scholars: Gary Taylor of Florida State University, John Jowett of the University of Birmingham, Terri Bourus of Indiana University and Gabriel Egan of De Montfort University.

Taylor tells NPR the conclusion that Marlowe should be credited as co-author is partly based on a combination of new and old research. In particular, Taylor cited 2009 research by Hugh Craig and Arthur Kinney that analyzed vocabulary from the Henry VI plays and compared it to plays known to have been written by Marlowe, and a 2015 article by John Nance analyzing the prose of Part 2 of Henry VI.

Taylor himself has published scholarly work on Marlowe and Shakespeare, including work from last year titled Imitation or Collaboration? Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare Canon, on which he collaborated with Nance.
This research is a great demonstration of the power of computational linguistics. It's similar to some of the past research I've blogged about, such as this study using sentiment analysis of Trump's tweets. In fact, see this recent post on Natural Language Processing for a more in-depth look.

To put it very simply, every writer, no matter how they were taught or who influenced them, has their own unique style. Some of the unique characteristics are very subtle - simple word choice or sentence length. Others are more noticeable. And of course, writers from the same period and genre will be more similar to each other. So based on the fact that both playwrights were active at the same time in the same location, and dealing with similar content, we would expect Shakespeare's writing to be more similar to Marlowe than, say, Isaac Asimov.

But even after taking that into account, there will be some slight differences. So if the writing of Shakespeare is more similar to Marlowe than we would expect based on their similarity in approach and paradigm, we can start to speculate that the two may have been collaborators, rather than simply rivals. This is hinted at in the film Shakespeare in Love, where Shakespeare discusses his writer's block with Marlowe, and gets some advice and direction for the play that would become Romeo and Juliet. This short scene isn't surprising considering that people have been speculating about Marlowe's role in Shakespeare's plays for a very long time. But while a person may read the work of two writers and notice similar patterns, a computer can really dig into the data. Just as statisticians test against a null hypothesis (that a relationship does not exist) and estimate the probability that if there is no relationship we would observe a difference, these analyses can estimate the probability that, if the two authors did not work together, we would see such similarity in vocabulary and style.

Obviously, there could be alternative explanations for the similarities. One strong possibility is offered in the article:
Carol Rutter, a professor of Shakespeare and performance studies at the University of Warwick, told the BBC, "It will still be open for people to make up their own minds. I don't think [Oxford University Press] putting their brand mark on an attribution settles the issue for most people."

Rutter told the BBC, "I believe Shakespeare collaborated with all kinds of people ... but I would be very surprised if Marlowe was one of them."

As for how Marlowe's vocabulary and style could have made it into Shakespeare's work without direct collaboration, Rutter said: "It's much more likely that he started his career working for a company where he was already an actor, and collaborated not with another playwright but with the actors — who will have had Marlowe very much in their heads, on the stage, in their voices. ... They were the ones putting Marlowe's influence into the plays."

Monday, October 24, 2016

With Liberty and Justice For All

One of my favorite topics in social psychology is justice, or rather, how individuals determine whether something is just or fair. I did one of my candidacy exams in grad school on justice, citing work on, for instance, belief in a just world and Norman Finkel's contribution of commonsense justice. The various justice frameworks certainly influence how I perceive interactions with others, and I often remind myself of these different approaches anytime the phrase "not fair" enters my mind.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are 2-3 overarching frameworks (depending on who you ask): distributive justice (which deals with the different types of distributions of outcomes believed to be fair), procedural justice (which states that, as long as the process is fair, the outcome is believed to be fair), and (the potential third) interactional justice (which is sort of an extension of procedural justice, with some attention to distribution of outcomes). Of these, procedural justice is arguably what most political processes are based upon. By clearly delineating the process through which decisions (such as elections) are made, and by ensuring those procedures are followed, we can be confident that the outcome of that process is just.

The current election cycle has had an underlying subtheme of justice since the very beginning, especially with regard to a certain political candidate. Earlier this year, a New York Times article discussed Trump as the Anti-PC Vote; that is, he appeals to people who believe that political correctness is hurting America, forcing the majority to submit to the will of the minority. Trump gives his supporters (which polls suggest are predominantly men) an outlet for their "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" feelings and a perceived opportunity to take back their country. Trump heightens these feelings, through in-group/out-group tactics - othering and scapegoating - paradoxically blaming minority groups for their own suffering while also blaming them for making the majority group suffer. I say paradoxically because in order to do both, they have to be both powerless and powerful.

But one part of Trump's rhetoric is especially related to the concept of justice: he has stated on multiple occasions that he will only trust the outcome of the election if he wins:
As Trump has fallen in the polls, he has said that the electoral system is rigged against him and that rampant voter fraud could rob him of votes, even though documented cases of such fraud are rare. Trump said Thursday that undocumented immigrants are illegally voting in elections, even though only U.S. citizens are allowed to register to vote, and that Democrats are voting on behalf of people who have died, even though most jurisdictions regularly update their voter rolls.

“This is having nothing to do with me but having to do with the future of our country,” Trump said. “We have to have fairness.”
This is a frightening notion - not just because the thought of a Trump presidency scares the sh*t out of me. He is making a mockery of our system, inciting further division and uproar among his supporters, that will carry long past Election Day. He is giving his followers license to distrust any process that doesn't deliver the outcome they want, promoting circular reasoning over critical thinking skills. And he is furthering sexism by insinuating that the only way a woman could win the presidency (or really any contest against a man) is by cheating.

Of the different justice frameworks, Trump's seems most like distributive justice. In distributive justice, there are three distribution rules that can be applied: equality, in which each party receives an equal share; equity (also sometimes known as merit), where an individual party’s share is based on the amount of input from that party; and need, where share is based on whether the party has a deficit or has been slighted in some other distribution. Trump's approach, however, does not fall cleanly in one of these rules. It's sort of equity/merit, where his estimation of input is subjective and egocentric, but also a perversion of need, because he's convinced himself (and his followers) that the system is rigged and his win will reverse some of that. And who has rigged the system?
"I think that the media and the Clintons and Obama have all rigged the system and they're trying to make us all believe that she's the winner."
So, among others, they are Obama (his stand-in for scapegoating the entire African-American community) and Clinton (his stand-in for scapegoating women). In fact, the news that Clinton would win if only women voted led many of Trump's followers to proclaim we should "repeal the 19th amendment." Yes, it seems his idea (and his followers' idea) of making America great again is taking it back to a time when only white men could vote.

This is not fairness or justice; this is a mockery of the concept. This is not how someone worthy of being our leader determines justice; this is how a child does it.

Animals Are Funny

In case you need a laugh this Monday morning, let me introduce you to the Comedy Wildlife Photography competition:
The Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards, ingeniously titled to avoid any confusion, was the result of two factors: Firstly, a need for a photography competition that was light hearted, upbeat, possibly unpretentious and mainly about wildlife doing funny things. After its first year, these objectives seem to have been met. Secondly, and way more importantly, this competition is about conservation.

None of us are perfect, all of us at some point will fly somewhere, drive somewhere, cook something, burn something and probably provide some direct input into the general warming of the globe. Indirectly, we will also have some impact on the animals that share this planet with us. So the end result?

By entering this competition it gives both Paul and Tom and the rest of you talented photographers a chance to do a little bit for conservation. How? Well… you are now obviously going to go to your office, home, pub, club or wherever and talk about the dire need for us all to be conservationists in our own little way. Also, perhaps you will go to Born Free’s website and have a look at the work they do and spread that word as well.
The competition is now closed and they are down to the finalists. Winners from the 6 categories will receive a trophy, and the overall winner will receive an all-expenses paid photographer-led safari in Kenya and a new Nikon camera (a D810 body and 24-120mm f/4G ED VR AF-S NIKKOR for the camera nerds out there).

Here are some of my favorites.




The whole gallery can be viewed here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Trying to Be Less Dumb

Previously, I blogged about a book called You Are Not So Smart. Last night, I started the sequel, You Are Now Less Dumb:


As the previous book, it deals with cognitive biases, which I've blogged about before. But while the purpose of the previous book was to make you aware of these various biases, the goal of this book is to help you "learn from failings" and "feel more connected with the community of humanity." Less succinctly:
You think seeing is believing, that your thoughts are always based on reasonable intuitions and rational analysis, and that though you may falter and err from time to time, for the most part you stand as a focused, intelligent operator of the most complicated nervous system on earth. You believe that your abilities are sound, your memories are perfect, your thoughts are rational and wholly conscious, the story of your life true and accurate, and your personality stable and stellar. The truth is that your brain lies to you. Inside your skull is a vast and far-reaching personal conspiracy to keep you from uncovering the facts about who you actually are, how capable you tend to be, and how confident you deserve to feel.
You may wonder why, as a psychologist who is familiar with much of this research, I would read this book. Wouldn't it make sense for someone without that knowledge and education? But the thing I love about reading these types of books, especially when they accurately discuss the research, is that I come away with new insights and connections. I also enjoy some of the different anecdotes and findings they bring in from other fields, that help give me a wider view and understanding. For instance, in the first chapter, McRaney talks about the importance of narrative in understanding ourselves and others. Part of his evidence for the importance of these narratives? Centrifuges.

Applying g-forces to the human body can have many interesting effects - not just pushing the body around, but also (when one "pulls too many g's") keeping blood from getting to your brain. As a result, you pass out. The Air Force and places like NASA use centrifuges as they teach pilots techniques they can use to keep blood in their brain, and keep themselves from passing out. During practice, many of the pilots pass out, and interestingly, they may report visions and hallucinations - which sound strikingly similar to visions reported by people with "near-death experiences":
The tunnel, the white light, friends and family coming to greet you, memories zooming around--the pilots experienced all of this. In addition, the centrifuge was pretty good at creating out-of-body experiences.

As Whinnery and other researchers have speculated, the near-death and out-of-body phenomena are both actually the subjective experience of a brain owner watching as his brain tries desperately to figure out what is happening and to orient itself amid its systems going haywire due to oxygen deprivation. Without the ability to map out its borders, the brain often places consciousness outside the head, in a field, swimming in a lake, fighting a dragon--whatever it can connect together as the walls crumble. What the deoxygenated pilots don't experience is a smeared mess of random images and thoughts.

Narrative is so important to survival that it is literally the last thing you give up before becoming a sack of meat.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

How Statisticians Solve Disagreements

I'm currently taking an online course on meta-analysis, which is a set of statistical and methodological techniques that allow you to combine multiple studies on a topic and generate an estimate (or set of estimates) about the true effect. It's almost like crowd-sourcing data - you're taking advantage of all the work others have done and capitalizing on the strength of having an increased number of participants, difference treatment methods, and so on. I did a candidacy exam in grad school on meta-analysis, and have conducted one before (on pretrial publicity effects), so I know a bit about the topic. This course is devoted to using the R Statistical Package, an open-source program with powerful analysis and graphing capabilities, to conduct a meta-analysis.

For the first week, we were assigned to read up on the R packages we'll be using, as well as an article from the creator of meta-analysis, Gene Glass. I've read some of Glass's work before, but for some reason, didn't encounter this article until now, which tells the reason meta-analysis was created. In addition to wanting to contribute to the field, and have a good topic to introduce in his Presidential Address to the American Educational Research Association, it was really developed to solve a disagreement.

Glass, like many grad students, left grad school with a brand new PhD and a case of depression. He found his way into psychotherapy and was so pleased with his progress, he began studying clinical psychology and became psychotherapy's biggest fan. However, another researcher, Hans Eysenck, became psychotherapy's biggest critic, constantly arguing that any effects were merely placebo:
I found this conclusion personally threatening—it called into question not only the preoccupation of about a decade of my life but my scholarly judgment (and the wisdom of having dropped a fair chunk of change) as well. I read Eysenck's literature reviews and was impressed primarily with their arbitrariness, idiosyncrasy and high-handed dismissiveness. I wanted to take on Eysenck and show that he was wrong: psychotherapy does change lives and make them better.
Glass goes through the decisions Eysenck made in conducting his literature review on the subject, and it's easy to see why, based on these decisions, Eysenck concluded psychotherapy was ineffective - or rather, it easy to see that because Eysenck strongly believed going in that psychotherapy was ineffective, he looked for evidence that supported and ignored evidence that refuted his conclusion. First, he refused to include any research that was not published in a peer reviewed journal, even studies that have to undergo another form of peer review, such as dissertations, theses, or conference presentations. But there is much reason to believe that peer reviewed articles could be biased.

Next, he eliminated any study that didn't have a control group (a group that received no treatment). So if a study compared two forms of therapy, it was tossed out. This left only 11 studies. He then did a vote count, which involves tallying up the number of studies finding a significant difference and the number finding no significant difference. "All that Eysenck considered worth noting about an experiment was whether the differences reached significance at the .05 level. If it reached significance at only the .07 level, Eysenck classified it as showing 'no effect for psychotherapy.'"

And finally, here's the real gem: if he didn't like the outcome they used (that is, he considered it subjective), he discounted the finding, and if a study found differences for one outcome but not for a second one, he also discounted it, calling it "inconsistent." This was the case even if one of the outcomes was something that might be only show a small change due to therapy, such as GPA, versus an outcome that would show a big difference, such as a measure of symptom severity. Eysenck's review didn't even take into account effect sizes: what outcomes would show big differences after psychotherapy and what would show small difference.

And that's where meta-analysis comes in:
Looking back on it, I can almost credit Eysenck with the invention of meta-analysis by anti-thesis. By doing everything in the opposite way that he did, one would have been led straight to meta-analysis. Adopt an a posteriori attitude toward including studies in a synthesis, replace statistical significance by measures of strength of relationship or effect, and view the entire task of integration as a problem in data analysis where "studies" are quantified and the resulting data-base subjected to statistical analysis, and meta-analysis assumes its first formulation. (Thank you, Professor Eysenck.)
So the TL;DR is, how to statisticians solve disagreements? They create new statistics, and then publish pithy articles where they thank the person they disagreed with. Love. It.

Friday, October 21, 2016

"The" Key to Othering

I'm beginning to think Trump will go down in history as the candidate to inspire the most hashtags. And not in a good way. In addition to inspiring the #TrumpBookReport tag I blogged about yesterday, he's also inspired #TheAfricanAmericans, to highlight the fact that when Trump talks about racial and ethnic minorities, he always uses "the": "the African Americans," "the Hispanics," and so on. What's next?



Many people are calling this use of "the" racist. Not too surprising considering all of the racist, sexist garbage Trump has thrown out during this election cycle. But is using "the" racist? After all, he uses it in speeches about how he wants to help these groups. For instance:
I’m going to help the African Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African Americans.
Fortunately, Lynne Murphy, a linguist at the University of Sussex is here to explain why this tiny word keeps setting off your "this guy's a racist" alarms:
“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group. The Nazis did it when they talked about die Juden (“the Jews”). Homophobes do it when they talk about “the gays.” In my research on British and American cultural relations, I’ve found that British writers’ views on American English are a good predictor of whether they’ll write “Americans say it that way” or “The Americans say it that way.” Those who feel that American English threatens British English use “the” to hold Americans at arm’s length (possibly while holding their noses).

Trump’s “the” works as a dog-whistle to disaffected rural white voters attracted to his message. At the very least, he is demonstrating to those voters that he is keeping other groups distanced—that, like them, he sees African-Americans and Latinos as something over there, in the inner cities (and the White House), rather than as millions of individual Americans with as much invested in the future of this country as its white citizens.

How a Picture of Margaret Thatcher Demonstrates the Way We Process Faces

You may remember seeing this picture of Margaret Thatcher in your introductory psychology textbook:


Notice anything odd about either of these pictures (other than being upside-down, of course)? I'll give you a hint that there is something wrong, and it's much more obvious if you look at it right-side up:


Obvious, and also slightly terrifying. Thatcher's mouth and eyes have been inverted in the picture on the left. It's completely obvious when the face is viewed right-side up, but often unnoticeable when viewed upside down. This demonstration, known as the Thatcher Illusion, was first demonstrated in 1980 by Professor Peter Thompson from the University of York. But this demonstration was about more than just making the then Prime Minister look funny. It helped show the way we process faces.

Previously, people speculated that we processed faces piecemeal - taking in each feature. But Thompson argued that we take a holistic view of the face, taking in the overall look and configuration, as well as noting the individual features. When the faces are presented in a way we rarely see (upside-down), we look at the individual features, but since we're used to seeing them right-side up, they appear correctly placed. When the images are flipped right-side up again, we are able to immediately see the issues with the configuration.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Trump Book Reports

During last night's debate, Antonio French tweeted this:
It spawned the hashtag #TrumpBookReport, in which users write summaries of the classics in Trump style. Here are my contributions:

Politicians Can Be Classy

During one of the craziest election cycles I've been witness to, it's refreshing to see this letter, which Former President George H.W. Bush left for incoming President Bill Clinton:


Here is a man who, even though he lost, recognized the gravity of the position in which President Clinton would find himself, and told a man he disagreed with politically that he was rooting for him. It's evidence that you don't have to agree with someone to be kind.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Everything's Coming Up Hamilton

I finally got to see Hamilton this past Sunday, several months after we purchased our tickets. After obsessively listening to the soundtrack, reading about a third of the biography on which the show is based, participating in a Hamilton-themed trivia night, and blogging about it several times, I'm sure you can imagine how excited I was to finally see the show. And I absolutely loved it. I laughed. I cried.

The whole production was very tight, with excellent blocking, a fantastic orchestra, talented dancers and singers, and creative use of a floor turntable, which added a nice touch to Hamilton's song, "Hurricane," in which he stood in the center, singing about the eye of the hurricane that was both a literal and metaphorical part of his life, as the cast swirled around him. In fact, the turntable frequently demonstrated Hamilton's approach to life - that though things happened around him, he was able to control himself and his response to it, using his words and actions to shape the course of events and maintain his place in the world. Though his mouth may have gotten him trouble a few times, he was able to accomplish a great deal because of his skill with words.

Even more, seeing the production got me thinking about different aspects of the show I've been toying with for a while. The choice to make Aaron Burr the stable narrator (with moments where other characters operate as narrator for a song or two) is an interesting one. Narrators usually fall into one of two categories: narrators who are absent from the action and are simply an onlooker (the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one such example), and narrators who are completely involved in the action (to use another ALW show, Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar). Burr is sort of a hybrid of the two - he's an onlooker who wants to be actively involved, and the title character of show inspires him, for better or for worse, to break out of the bystander role and become a key player. In so doing, he found himself on a path where he became "the villain in your history." Really, he has many similarities to Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, in that both shows did something interesting with a character universally recognized as villainous, by making them human and showing their motivations. While you certainly can't excuse either characters' actions, you can at least understand how they got there.

Chicagoans have been excited for the show since the moment they announced a Chicago production. Chicago Tonight spoke with Lin-Manuel Miranda about the production back in September (available here), where he shared the beginnings of his interest in Hamilton:
I wrote a paper in 11th grade, all I knew was that his [Hamilton's] son died in a duel and then he died in a duel three years later, and I remember thinking, “That’s weird” like a cautionary tale right in front of you … and, so that’s sort of all I knew, and it was a thing I did for high school and forgot about it and then when I was going on vacation, my first vacation from "In the Heights," I was in the bookstore with my then-girlfriend, now wife, and we were looking for books to take on our vacation (this was pre-Kindle) so I picked up [Ron] Chernow’s biography and saw the good reviews on the back and I remembered that paper and I thought, "This will have a good ending." And then the book grabbed me and never let go.
I also learned something new from this interview, that Lin-Manuel was the voice of a character from Sesame Street, with the adorable name Lamb Manuel:


It seems fitting that today in history was the victory at the Battle of Yorktown, the day "the world turned upside down." Given the length of this battle, Hamilton, Washington, and their troops would have been actively engaged in it on October 16, the day I saw the show.

Not only that, but the timing of Hamilton is well-placed considering what is happening currently in our nation, as Hedy Weiss from the Chicago Sun Times comments:
With performances of the show beginning on Sept. 27 — about six weeks before what, by any reckoning, is an exceptionally tumultuous presidential election season — a musical about the people who helped shape our system of government might be just what the doctor ordered. As the show’s lyrics also remind us, the Revolutionary War period resulted in a world turned upside down, and while it is one thing to win a war it is quite another to govern a country.

TSMR: Housebound

Time for another movie review! Yesterday, I reviewed Contracted, which attempted to take a well-known horror subgenre and turned it on its head (poorly, while also falling into many annoying horror tropes). Today, a movie that turns a subgenre on its head and does it really well: Housebound.


Kylie is a habitual offender, who is caught trying to steal an ATM. Her lawyer tries to get her placed in a rehabilitation clinic, but the judge notes her history of recidivism and argues that these programs, which she has been sentenced to before, have not helped. Instead, he sentences her to 8 months house arrest at the home of Kylie’s mother and step-father, Miriam and Graeme. We also meet Amos, the security guard in charge of her ankle monitor, who puts it on and shows us how it works.

Kylie has a very poor relationship with her mother and step-father, and continuously ignores and demeans them, while sitting around drinking, watching TV, and binge-eating. One night when she tries to use the house phone, after misplacing her cell phone, she finds Miriam on the phone with a talk show, talking about her potentially haunted house. Kylie doubts this story and thinks Miriam is just trying to get attention, until she goes into the basement one night and a hand reaches out and grabs her ankle, setting off her ankle monitor. Amos shows up to see if Kylie tried to tamper with the monitor, and Kylie tells him someone is in the house. When they find no evidence of an intruder, Miriam tells Amos about her theory that the house is haunted. Amos believes her immediately and accuses Kylie of having a closed mind. Amos, who it turns out is an amateur paranormal investigator, returns the next day to set up video surveillance equipment and help figure out if the house is haunted, and by whom.

The movie is described as a horror comedy, and there are some very funny moments, such as the Teddy Ruxpin-like doll that says creepy things to Kylie and corners her in the shower, as well as the interactions between Amos and Kylie. That being said, the movie has some legitimately creepy moments, with funny moments interspersed to lighten the mood, but fortunately without detracting from the mystery and suspense. What could have been a by-the-book haunted house movie is able to take those tropes and turn them around, making something new and different. Well-written lead characters that avoid the horror stereotypes also keep things interesting, and keep you engaged.

As is often the case in horror movies, though, there will be moments where you find yourself shouting at the character, "What are you doing?!" But, unlike other horror movies, you'll probably laugh at the same time. As I said, there are some legitimately creepy moments, so it doesn't come across as a parody, though it might technically be a parody of horror as a genre (rather than specific movies, like Scary Movie). If you like super-creepy horror, you might not care for this movie as much, but if you like your horror with a good dose of comedy - like much of the old school horror, such as The Nightmare on Elm Street series - while still having a few creepy chills, you'll like Housebound.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

TSMR: Contracted

Time for another Totally Superfluous Movie Review of one of October's viewings: Contracted.


The movie follows a young woman named Samantha Williams, as she bumbles from one bad situation to another. It starts with a man (who we later learn is named BJ) having sex with a corpse in the morgue. (It doesn't actually show that, but it's pretty obvious that's what is happening.) We also notice the corpse has a biohazard toe tag.

In the next scene, Samantha is attending a party thrown by her friend Alice. Before entering the party, Samantha calls and leaves a message for a woman named Nikki, who we gather is or was Samantha's girlfriend. Both women work for the same restaurant, Samantha as a server and Nikki as a bartender. Samantha asks Nikki to meet her at the party after she gets off work, but doesn't seem optimistic that Nikki will show up. Samantha greets Alice, who asks after Nikki. Samantha brushes off the question, then excuses herself to the bathroom. On her way there, she encounters Riley, who clearly has a crush on Samantha and is jealous of Nikki, and Zain, Samantha's former dealer.

After returning from the bathroom, Alice hands Samantha shot after shot, and the two get very drunk. A drunk Alice humiliates Riley over his feelings for Samantha, and Samantha notices BJ watching her throughout the party. While stumbling around in the kitchen, BJ approaches Samantha and hands her a cup that he insists is her drink. Samantha is so intoxicated, she states she doesn't remember having a drink in her hand, but accepts it without question. He asks if Samantha is seeing anyone, and she tells him about Nikki. Later, BJ takes Samantha back to his car, and has sex with her despite her requests for him to stop. (This is one point of contention on the movie. The filmmaker describes it as a one night stand, while others recognize it for what it is: rape.)

Samantha wakes up the next morning in her bed, with no memory of how she got there, and feeling very hungover. She fights with her mother, Nancy, who disparages Samantha's "lifestyle choices" (specifically, being in a relationship with a woman, as well as sleeping later after going out to a party). Nancy also expresses fear that Samantha has relapsed into hard drug use - we find out later that her drug of choice was heroin. Samantha talks to Alice, who mentions the police were asking about a man named Brent Jaffe who was at the party. Since he introduced himself as BJ, rather than his full name, Samantha doesn't initially make the connection that the police are looking for the man who raped her until much later in the movie. Over the course of the next few days, Samantha starts developing some horrifying symptoms, including an extremely heavy period, bright blue veins on her lower abdomen, and red eyes, and worries that this is something worse than a hangover.

Samantha goes to see a doctor about her symptoms, and he finds that she has an extremely low heart rate and infections in both her ears. When she shows him the veins on her abdomen, he asks if she had unprotected sex. Though she argues that she is in a relationship with a woman, and has been for many months, she finally admits that she had sex with a man the night before. She never describes it as rape though, and seems more interested in hiding it from people, especially Nikki, who she is trying to rekindle her relationship with. The doctor draws some blood to figure out what she has. But the symptoms continue to worsen rapidly.

The film has almost no likeable characters, and most of them are walking stereotypes. Nancy is a controlling mother, Alice is just a party girl stereotype, Riley is that guy who describes himself as nice but would take advantage of the girl he likes at first opportunity, and Nikki is somehow both territorial over Samantha while clearly demonstrating she's just not that into her. And BJ - well, who could possibly identify with a character who must view necrophilia as great practice for raping intoxicated women? The only one you could maybe identify with is Samantha, because the initial actions of the story are not her fault, but as the movie goes on, she just digs herself in deeper.

Reading up on the film, I found out the filmmaker's goal was "to tell a story within the virus/infection subgenre like we’ve never seen before. I’ve recently become interested in using sex as a device to drive genre films because it’s something most people can understand and relate to, so your story inherently feels familiar to the audience." What it ends up being is a movie that punishes a girl for being gay and/or getting drunk, through rape followed by an infection that rapidly changes her physically and emotionally. After the party, her motivation seems to be getting Nikki back and hiding what happened/is happening to her.

In doing research on the movie for this post, I learned a few new terms, including body horror (a gross-out genre of horror that focuses on physiological changes, as the character turns into a literal monster), and mumblecore, a genre of independent film that focuses on naturalistic dialogue over plot development. Some well-known examples of mumblecore are Slackers and Clerks. When combined with the horror genre, it's often called mumblegore.

If you're looking for a good horror movie to check out this October, I'd give Contracted a pass. But if you want a modern example of how the horror genre punishes people, especially women, for being sexual beings, Contracted is definitely that.

Who Does Facebook Think You Are?

Via ProPublica, you can find out who Facebook thinks you are. Unsurprisingly, Facebook collects a lot of data about its users, not just from what they post and share, but also from data purchased from other sources:
Facebook has a particularly comprehensive set of dossiers on its more than 2 billion members. Every time a Facebook member likes a post, tags a photo, updates their favorite movies in their profile, posts a comment about a politician, or changes their relationship status, Facebook logs it. When they browse the Web, Facebook collects information about pages they visit that contain Facebook sharing buttons. When they use Instagram or WhatsApp on their phone, which are both owned by Facebook, they contribute more data to Facebook’s dossier.

And in case that wasn’t enough, Facebook also buys data about its users’ mortgages, car ownership and shopping habits from some of the biggest commercial data brokers.

Facebook uses all this data to offer marketers a chance to target ads to increasingly specific groups of people. Indeed, we found Facebook offers advertisers more than 1,300 categories for ad targeting — everything from people whose property size is less than .26 acres to households with exactly seven credit cards.
To allow users to access this data easily, the people at ProPublica built a Chrome browser plug-in. You can use this plug-in to view the data and, if you're interested, share it with ProPublica and rate it for accuracy. They, in collaboration with Note to Self, hope to use these data to audit Facebook's personal dossiers.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Not So Superfluous Movie Review: Hush

Last night, I watched another horror film, one that had been recommended to me many times: Hush. And since it was just released widely this year, it's not exactly a superfluous movie review - yay!


The movie is about Maddie Young, a writer living alone away from the city, who is deaf and mute, due to a bout with meningitis as a teenager. We meet her as she is cooking dinner, and is visited by next-door neighbor, Sarah, who has just finished Maddie's book. Maddie describes her approach to writing to Sarah, and notes that she writes many potential endings to any of her stories.

Their interaction is briefly interrupted when Maddie's (forgotten) cooking sets off her fire alarm, which is extremely loud; Maddie shares that this is so she can feel the vibrations of the alarm, even if she is asleep. We are able to gather that Maddie is completely deaf, rather than simply extremely hearing impaired.

Later that night, as Maddie is cleaning up the remnants of her cooking, Sarah runs onto Maddie's porch and bangs on the door. Maddie unfortunately doesn't hear her, and we realize that Sarah is being chased by a masked man. The man stabs and kills Sarah, noticing that Maddie doesn't notice what is happening. Later, as Maddie is Facetime-ing with her sister on her laptop, he sneaks in and steals Maddie's phone, then sneaks back outside and sends her pictures through various windows of the house to alert her of his presence.

Maddie is able to lock her doors to keep the man out, but before she can contact 911 through her computer, the man cuts off the power, shutting down her Wi-Fi. She writes a note on her door in lipstick, telling him that she didn't see his face and won't tell anyone about what he did. He removes his mask, communicating to her that he knows she won't tell anyone about him, because he is not going to let her live. The rest of the film is about the man terrorizing Maddie, while she tries to alert help, distract the attacker, and escape.

The movie only has 5 characters (6 if you count the cat), and takes place in and around a single house. Still, the movie is action-packed and keeps you engaged. Additionally, the lead character has very little dialogue (since she is mute - the only dialogue from her comes in the form of her inner voice, which is very craftily done, especially in one scene as she considers the different endings, so it doesn't feel like lame voice-over. Most of her dialogue is in the form of sign language with subtitles. In fact, the director is very thoughtful in his use of sound, and actually used the sound of ultrasound machines to give us a glimpse of what Maddie's world sounds like, during the scenes that adopt Maddie's POV. He made this decision because he feared complete silence would make the audience seek sound from elsewhere or tune out from the movie. Additional sounds, such as Maddie's breathing, were added in during post-sound editing.

I really only have three complaints about the movie. The very beginning of the movie (where the splash screens of the different production houses are displayed) is completely soundless. I thought there was something wrong with my speakers at first, which I'm guessing was intended, and they probably expected people to turn their sound up as a result, because the very beginning of the movie featured a sudden bell sound that made me jump. I can understand where they were going with this, since it's a movie where sound or lack of sound make an important statement, but it was a little gimmicky.

The second thing is that, when Sarah runs onto Maddie's porch, and has enough of a headstart from the masked man to bang on the door several times and call for help, we assumed the door was locked. However, moments later, the masked man sneaks through one door (which is unlocked), and then Maddie runs around the house locking doors, including the porch door (which was unlocked just before). How come Sarah couldn't get in? It's possible she didn't try, and assumed it was locked or was in such a state of panic she didn't even think about it. At the time, I didn't pay attention to whether she tried the door. Relatedly (number 3), it seems strange that the masked man wasn't that concerned Sarah was trying to alert her neighbor, suggesting he knew Maddie was deaf. But he acts surprised when he observes this and does a few tests (knocking on and scraping his knife across the glass) to confirm. Since he didn't know before Sarah ran to that house that Maddie was deaf, wasn't he worried that she would call the police before he was able to stop her?

Despite these potential plot holes, the movie was excellently done, in writing, acting, and filming. I highly recommend it, despite the fact that the home invasion genre is one of my least favorite forms of horror.

Batting Statistics with Bayes

One of my favorite blogs, Variance Explained, has spent a lot of time talking about a particular type of statistics known as Bayesian statistics. Bayesian statistics approaches probability differently than traditional statistics, and can take into account data from previous studies, known as "priors." In fact, there's a great book about Bayesian statistics I've been working through, known colloquially as "the puppy book" because there are dogs on the cover (including a corgi! Yes, this may have been what initially attracted me to the book.)


A couple days ago, he published a new post on Bayesian hierarchical modeling, which he explains using baseball statistics. As always, he provides all code he used to run his analyses. In his post, he tests an assumption held by many that left-handed batters outperform right-handed batters. Using historical batting data, he tests this assumption to develop his "prior" so that he can then use it to predict which of two hypothetical batters (one left-handed and one right-handed with the same success rate from 100 at-bats) should be hired:
One interesting feature is that while the ratio of righties to lefties is about 9-to-1 in the general population, in professional baseball it is only 2-to-1. Managers like to hire left-handed batters- in itself, this is some evidence of a left-handed advantage!

According to our beta-binomial regression, there is indeed a statistically significant advantage to being left-handed, with lefties hitting about 1% more often. This may seem like a small effect, but over the course of multiple games it could certainly make a difference. In contrast, there’s apparently no detectable advantage to being able to bat with both hands. (This surprised me- does anyone know a reason this might be?)
But, he can also use the historical data to look at the effect of handedness over time. As he says, "It’s absurd to expect that players in the 1880s would have the same ranges of batting averages as players today, and we should take that into account in our estimates." And he noticed some interesting historical trends:
Well, there’s certainly a trend over time, but there’s nothing linear about it: batting averages have both risen and fallen across time. If you’re interested in baseball history and not just Bayesian statistics, you may notice that this graph marks the “power struggle” between offense and defense:
  • The rise in the 1920s and 1930s marks the end of the dead-ball era, where hitting, especially home runs, became a more important part of the game
  • The batting average “cools off” as pitchers adjust their technique, especially when the range of the strike zone was increased in 1961
  • Batting average rose again in the 1970s thanks to the designated hitter rule, where pitchers (in one of the two main leagues) were no longer required to bat
  • It looks like batting averages may again be drifting downward
He also discovered that the gap between left-handed and right-handed batting averages is closing, so that today, there is almost no difference. So if you were a baseball scout in 1915, you would do best to choose the left-handed batter from the two hypothetical choices. Today, handedness doesn't give you any additional information.

For his next post, he'll be exploring multimodal distributions - distributions with more than one "peak" (most frequent value), as can be seen in this graph showing pitchers versus non-pitchers.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

Worth Psychology recently tweeted this link to a New York Magazine story, "5 of Humanity's Best Ideas of What Dreams Actually Are." Believe it or not, I learned a thing or two in the article:
The earliest recorded dream is from the Sumerian king Dumuzi of Uruk, who ruled just before Gilgamesh, sometime around 2500 BC. “An eagle seizes a lamb from the sheepfold,” a translation reads. “A falcon catches a sparrow on the reed fence … The cup lies on its side; Dumuzi lives no more. The sheepfold is given to the winds.” The king was freaked out about his dream, and occasioned the first recorded dream interpretation, care of his sister, who was evidently a professional at these things. Sister’s advice: Some bad shit is about to go down, so you’d do well to hide.
The article then goes through the 5 theories, offering some background and explanation for each. Unfortunately, they give a lot of attention to the Freudian/psychoanalytic perspective, that dreams are your brain trying to tell you something.
  • Dreams are pragmatic prophecies - This is not to say dreams are actual prophecies, but rather, that because we know our situation well and because human survival comes from our ability to think about and prepare for the future, we could have dreams about things that we expect to happen. Dreams in this theory are about preparation, so that we are ready to deal with situations in our wakeful life.
  • Dreams tell you what to do - Unfortunately, for this item on the list, they really just followed along with the previous item, even delving into actual prophetic elements (such as mentioning that Lincoln dreamed of a White House funeral days before his assassination). However, one story they share, about Descartes, gets at a different aspect of dreams - that of consolidating and synthesizing information, and using that to solve problems:
"In the 17th century, René Descartes, the great doubter, had his life course shifted by a series of dreams he had one November evening. In Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, historian-psychiatrist George Makari reports that Descartes had a series of sleeping visions that prompted him to realize that 'spatial problems could become algebraic, which crystallized a vision of a natural world underwritten by mathematical laws,' thereby changing his life and eventually the popular, scientific conception of reality."
This realization was likely not a sudden insight, but an issue Descartes had spent a great deal of time thinking about. Because of the memory consolidation aspect of sleep, combined with dreaming about something that had been on his mind, Descartes was able to solve his mental puzzle.
  • Dreams are communications from the unconscious mind - The good old "Your dreams are trying to tell you something" hypothesis. I've blogged before about my thoughts on Freud and psychoanalysis, and why social psychological findings are a much better explanation for some of the things Freud and his ilk observed. And of course, I would argue that this "theory" differs very little from the first and second items on this list. (I would also argue that none of these first three items meet the definition of theory, hence the quote marks.)
  • Dreams are data - This one is not actually a theory at all, but rather a thinly veiled reason to share the Sleep and Dream Database, a crowdsourcing site that has catalogued 20,000 dreams (which, to be fair, is a cool idea, and a site I'll be visiting myself). Using these data, researchers have been able to examine psychological themes, and the results suggest that, because we are rarely alone in dreams and we tend to dream about people we are close to, we use dreams to explore the quality of our relationships with others. Honestly, that would have been a better bullet point for this list.
  • Dreams are your memories in action - And finally, the author mentions the memory consolidation and learning aspects of dreams. Of all these "theories," this is the only one for which they offer research support over anecdotes. The author hints at the neural network aspect of memory, and also shares findings from a study on learning that allowed some participants to nap afterward, resulting in enhanced learning. (In fact, many such studies have been performed.) But they also discuss a study on male zebra finches that also provides support for this theory. Birds aren't born knowing how to sing certain patterns, but instead learn them. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that male zebra finches showed the same patterns of neuron firing while sleeping as they were when they were singing, suggesting they may be practicing the songs in their dreams.
Personally, I ascribe to the last (and really only) theory on the list. But that's not to say that aspects of the other items on the list can't be true. In fact, as is the case with the Descartes anecdote, they can be easily combined with this theory. The human brain is an incredibly complex machine. Even with advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we have not even begun to truly imitate the human brain's incredible pattern recognition ability or attention to context. This is arguably an evolved trait, because the best way to learn (something humans excel at compared to most other species) is to connect it to something already learned. This strengthens neural connections, and not only enhances our ability to learn the new thing, it changes our understanding of what we've learned previously. This can, of course, have some pesky effects when it comes to memory of events. But all in all, this ability is a good thing.

While we're awake, we think through things and examine patterns, but we also have to devote a lot of energy to being awake and interacting with the world, making decisions that takes up space in our limited working memory. Sleep is a time of rejuvenation, when our body replenishes, heals, and repairs. Our cognitive resources are free to work through problems, and our brain is consolidating memories, getting us closer to a synthesized solution. And because our problems range from intellectual (like Descartes's) to social and psychological, the content of our dreams can also range from thought problems to interpersonal issues.

Sweet dreams, everyone!

TSMR: The Amityville Horror Remake

So I finally sat down and watched the 2005 remake of The Amityville Horror last night. Totally unbelievable. I mean, do you know any grown men who take baths?


Kidding. But honestly, I'm kind of glad I skipped this movie up to now. It was bad. So here's my Totally Superfluous Movie Review of an 11 year old film.

Kathy and George Lutz are house-hunting and find a beautiful home at bargain prices. They of course ask what's wrong with it, and are told by the realtor that a brutal murder happened in the home. The grown son, Ronald DeFeo Jr., kills his entire family, claiming they were demons and that the house told him to do it. So Kathy, George, and Kathy's 3 children (Billy, Michael, and Chelsea) move into the house posthaste. (After all, it was a steal!)

Almost immediately, George starts displaying uncharacteristic cruelty and irritability, which Kathy writes off as stress, even when George becomes abusive to the children and Kathy herself. The timeline of George's decline was really too short. You didn't have enough time to grow to like the character before he turned into a total asshole. So even though you knew the house was the cause of his dickish behavior, you didn't care.

Chelsea also starts acting different, after befriending Jodie, who Kathy believes is an imaginary friend, but is actually the name of one of the deceased DeFeo children. It's never completely clear why the only spirit of the DeFeo family to appear is little Jodie, or whether Jodie is a ghost, a demon, or something else. She sometimes appears in distress about the evil things happening in the house (getting pulled around by disembodied hands), and other times, seems to be pissed off and evil herself. Other creatures show up, but they look inhuman, so I would guess they aren't members of the DeFeo family. Who are they? No one knows, not even the writers it seems.

All the scares were mostly surprise or shock value. They tried throwing in some "creepy" symbolism, but it just came across as "We're trying to do the symbolism of The Ring because that movie was super successful, but we're failing, and, oh, did you see Ryan Reynolds shirtless? Here he is chopping wood. Some of this is working, right?"

After Chelsea tries to kill herself to be with Jodie, Kathy starts to realize there is something seriously wrong. She visits a priest, and asks him to come to the house to do a blessing. The house immediately starts to mess with the priest, causing him to flee in terror. In the meantime, George gets more unhinged, moves into the basement, and kills the family dog. Kathy suggests they pack up and leave, resulting in more abuse from George, who storms into the basement.

On the 28th day in the house, Kathy has finally had enough and goes to the library to do some research. She learns the house was a mission for Native Americans, started by Reverand Ketcham.

Poor Ash Ketchum's family had to change the spelling of their name to
sever any ties they had with the black sheep of their family tree.
This explains the chants George hears of "Catch 'em, kill 'em." Ketcham, get it? So clever. I bet he gave the best sermons.

The book on Reverand Ketcham, which shows a drawing of the house, provides dates in the 1600s. Does this house really look like it was built in the 1600s to you?


So yes, they basically used the Indian Burial Ground trope. Kathy also learns that Ronald DeFeo killed his entire family on their 28th day in the house. So what does she do?

Goes to the priest, of course, and tells him everything she's learned, asking "Could it be true?" ("And, oh, by the way, father, why did you run away like that?") The priest has to be the one to tell her to get the family out of the house. Despite the fact that not long before, she sat at the kitchen table and told George they needed to leave. Now she has some real evidence that the house is bad, and she has to be told. She also decides at this point that the best way to get through to her crazy husband is to call on the telephone and tell him to get the kids and leave. Needless to say, it doesn't work.

She finally does show up, only to fall into the lake because George shined a flashlight in her eyes. While she was standing still. She then finds the coffins George made for the family. It sure was thoughtful of him to label them. I'd hate for him to get confused during his murderous rage and put little Chelsea in the wrong one. The movie really just beats you over the head with obvious things, and then totally fails to address random things.

And then, finally, we have a chase scene, with characters running up the stairs and climbing across the roof, because the house locked all the doors and windows. Breaking the glass in the giant picture window apparently wasn't an option.

Overall, you should skip this one. Looking for a "house made me crazy" movie? Watch The Shining. Need some creepy symbolism with little girl ghosts? Watch The Ring. Want a movie that uses the burial ground trope but doesn't suck? Poltergeist. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Educating the Next Generation of Scientists

My new employer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, announced today its release of HMH Science Dimensions, a K-12 science curriculum:
“HMH Science Dimensions represents an entirely new approach to teaching science, one that is grounded in the real-world application of scientific concepts. This comprehensive program focuses on investigative activities and three-dimensional learning and leverages technology to provide new opportunities for engagement,” said Mary Cullinane, Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President of Product Planning, Development and Marketing, HMH. “Our focus on experiential and interactive learning supports students and teachers as they pursue integrated and holistic scientific understanding within the NGSS framework.”
Not only will this new curriculum be more interactive and technology-based, it will feature exclusive content from Randall Munroe, author (of What If?, Thing Explainer, and the web comic, XKCD), former NASA roboticist, and just all-around awesome guy.