Thursday, June 30, 2016

Serendipity and the New Blue

I've blogged before about serendipity - fortunate accidents - which occurred in many important scientific discoveries: like Pavlov's classical conditioning studies or the invention of safety glass. Recently, science and serendipity once again combined to give us a new color, known as YInMn Blue.

The new color was discovered when scientists heated manganese oxide and a mixture of other chemicals to 2000 degree Fahrenheit. This happened back in 2009, and it wasn't until now that the rest of the world learned about the discovery. The article also discusses a few more examples of serendipity I hadn't heard of:
"The mighty Post-It Note only exists because a lab engineer at 3M failed to make a strong adhesive. The childhood wonder that is the Slinky was born after a naval engineer dropped a tension spring and watched it snake down the stairs. Even the tiny, crispy potato chip is only here because a chef messed up a simple fried potato."

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Beautiful Graphs

Graphs and charts are a great way to add some visual interest to presentations and papers. They should also serve a purpose, of course, not simply adding eye candy. Every once in a while, I see a truly great graph or chart that demonstrates both aspects perfectly: visually appealing but also highly informative.

One great example is this graph shared by I Fucking Love Science (IFLScience for people put off by the F-word or, you know, if you're into that whole brevity thing):

Read more about it here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Whatever You Do, Don't Blink

Samantha Bee weighed in on Brexit, and recruited David Tennant to read some of Scotland's best insults of Donald Trump, who visited Scotland after the vote to congratulate them on voting to leave (even though they overwhelmingly voted to stay).

Two of my favorite people on the planet working together? I'm in fan girl heaven right now.

As for what we can learn from this, Bee said:
“At least there’s still time to make sure we don’t feel in November the way the Brits do today. Go to your state Board of Elections website and check your voter status and deadlines. Take this election seriously, and for God’s sake, between now and November, don’t blink.”

Puppy Research

We all have moments of self-doubt, where we ask ourselves if we made the right choice. And I'm experiencing some of that right about whether I picked the right area of research, right after reading an article about research using dogs and remote controlled cars.

Yes, you read that right. Puppies and toys. What have I been doing with my life?!

The study was about contingent reactivity - basically, a direct and predictable connection between one's actions and a partner's response. Temporal contingency refers to the immediacy of the action and the response, and it can be considered an indicator of causality: if an action is followed immediately by a response, it's more likely that the action caused the response than if there is a lag in between. The researchers built off of prior work with dogs, showing that dogs prefer to choose an object approached by a person. However, instead of using people, they used a stuffed animal strapped to a remote controlled car.

The study had three phases: observation of the interaction, target approach, and choice. During the observation phase, they manipulated temporal contingency with three conditions: perfect, high-but-imperfect (where the stuffie responded to 2/3 of the commands), and low (where the stuffie responded to 1/3 of the commands). They did this to manipulate whether the dogs attributed agency (control) to the stuffie; they hypothesized that the dogs would be most likely to attribute agency in the perfect condition, and that this would lead the dogs to follow the stuffie's lead in the choice stage. After this observation, during the target approach stage, the stuffie approached one of two tennis balls. Afterward, the dog had to choose which ball to approach.

They found that dogs selected the tennis ball chosen by the stuffie most frequently in the perfect condition (significantly more than chance), less so in the high-but-imperfect condition, and the least in the low condition (though the latter two findings were not significant, instead showing a linear trend). The authors argue that this is because the dogs were paying more attention to the actions of the stuffie when they perceived it as an agent - something that acts of its own volition. This has some really important implications. As the authors state:
"dogs might be able to identify an agent whose behavior should be monitored, even if that agent is unfamiliar to them. Agent identification, therefore, might help dogs to differentiate between social and non-social interactions, a skill that could also help them to determine whether an action is relevant."
Dogs are pretty awesome.

BTW, the authors have also added their study to the Open Science Framework.

Monday, June 27, 2016

I've Been Myers-Brigged

I have a few friends who like to bring up Myers-Briggs results, and there are some great posts out there describing different Myers-Briggs types with geek references, or this recent one that describes each type's personal hell. (Personally, I prefer describing people in terms of good/evil and law/chaos, but that's just me.) I took the measure in college, like many people did, but couldn't remember my results. Also, since personality is malleable and can change across one's lifetime, those results might not be valid anymore. So I decided to once again take the Myers-Briggs test (you can find a free version here if you're curious).

So here are my results. Most of them weren't too surprising. My overall type is ENFJ-A, also known as the Protagonist. Here's the specific breakdown of traits.

I'm slightly more extraverted than introverted, which I knew. I was a little surprised about being intuitive (over observant) and feeling (over thinking), being a scientist. But I think also being a psychologist and having many years of knowledge understanding people, I often go with my gut instinct in my interactions with others, choosing the methodological approach for other issues. "Feeling" types also tend to value harmony and cooperation over competition, which is absolutely me. The only person I prefer to compete with is myself. And the methodical part of my nature really comes out in the judging (over prospecting) portion.

What's interesting, though, is that for many of these traits, I'm only slightly one more than the other. Many of the splits are 50-something% v. 40-something%. So many of these traits seem (to me) to be situational - of course, I'm a social psychologist, so I would say that about all traits. While I may have a predisposition toward one, I could easily be the other, if the situation calls for it.

And now fun with pop culture Myers-Briggs types.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brexeunt, Bregret, Mulligans, and What We Can Learn From It

As I (and many others) blogged yesterday, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union - what has become known as Brexit, or what I like to call Brexeunt (former theatre person and lover of Shakespeare here). Yesterday and today, many voters in the UK have expressed regret over voting to leave - which, I'm not kidding, has become known as Bregret.

The Bregret from those who voted to leave seems to be either 1) I wasn't clear on what I was voting for, and 2) I dislike the EU and voted to leave as a protest, but didn't truly believe many others would do the same. And then there are the people who genuinely wanted to leave the EU, but now regret that vote once they see what is happening to their economy.

There are many things in life for which you can have a mulligan (to borrow a golfing term - a do-over) or at least, a way out. Whether it's buying the wrong thing, accepting the wrong job, or even getting in a relationship with the wrong person, there are ways out.

The same is not true with voting. Once you cast your ballot, that's how it is. You don't get to change your mind later.

Let this be a lesson, America. In November, when you step up to vote, remember that you only get to do it once. You don't get to take it back after you see how everyone else votes, or after you see how awful the winner could be. Think through how you're going to vote. Listen to people when they discuss what could potentially happen if a certain person wins.

A vote is not a protest. A vote is not an experiment. You only get one shot. Don't throw it away.

Friday, June 24, 2016

John Oliver's Background on Brexit

If you're still confused about Brexit, check out this video from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:

The UK Vote: An Interesting Analysis by Age Group

The news all over the world today is that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. It was a close margin: 51.9% voted to leave. Turnout for the vote was high - over 72%. The ramifications of this decision are still coming to light, and people all over the world are weighing in on the decision. I'll leave it to my more politically-savvy friends to comment on the decision (for instance, my friend over at The Daily Parker). Instead, I'll focus on what I do best - examining data.

One interesting analysis I saw on social media today uses poll results from June 17-19, asking people how they planned to vote. What made it interesting is that they presented the results by age group, showing a definite relationship between age and vote:

The poll was conducted by YouGov. You can check out their coverage of recent polling results here.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Because Science

I received this link the other day from a friend: Science shows what humans will look like in 1000 years.

There are some mistakes in this title, so I've taken the liberty of editing it for them:

Some person used research findings on evolution and a lot of speculation to predict what people will look like in 1000 years (based on traits that would be selected in our current environment)

Longer, but an improvement. As I've blogged about before, science is a method for conducting and presenting research. The interpretation, prediction, and (let's face it) speculation that results from results generated by scientific studies is not science, but an adjunct to science, with some conclusions being more justifiable than others. The problem is that often people slap "science" onto something to make something sound more valid. But science is a method, and just as some conclusions based on scientific research are more justifiable than others, some methods are more justifiable than others. Simply because someone used "science" doesn't make it automatically correct - it could be bad science. Or weird science. Or [insert your favorite adjective] science.

So this article begs the question:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Netflix Titles and the Illusion of Scarcity

Every month, I receive a similar email - a list of all the titles leaving Netflix in the next month. Here's the July list. And of course, what this list does is illicit a "Damn, I better go home and watch that movie RIGHT NOW!" reaction. Sometimes, there's a legitimate reason to immediately want to watch that movie - for instance, I started watching at one point, had to pause and walk away for some reason, and never got back to it. But much of the time, the reason I haven't watched that movie on Netflix yet is because I wasn't interested. So why does this list influence my behavior?

What the list is probably doing is creating an illusion of scarcity, which makes an object appear more attractive. In fact, in psychology, we call this the scarcity heuristic - where the value of an object is based on how easily it could be lost. This is why infomercials have timers on their ads and tell you to "Call in the next 10 minutes to get this great deal." Spoiler alert: My husband used to work in broadcasting and informed me (which I suspected) that those ads are often squeezed in during the local ad time on stations; the time at which the ad is shown is irrelevant and there really is no timer on that deal.

But those timers work. And the reason they work is because they force you to make a decision in an arbitrarily shortened amount of time, which means you're more likely to make decisions using heuristics and knee-jerk reactions, as opposed to systematic thought. In fact, there are surprising number of psychological principles going on in infomercials that I won't go into. They're just applied in a really over-the-top way:

Of course, the difference with Netflix (as opposed to infomercials) is that the cost of streaming is fixed, regardless of how many movies you watch, so urging you to "watch this movie now!" is not really costing you anything (besides time). But I would imagine this approach generates revenue for Netflix somehow - perhaps by encouraging people who don't already subscribe to sign up, or people with the live streaming plan to add access to the DVD/Bluray library so they can continue to access those movies.

Still, I have a feeling I'll be watching Best in Show tonight.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why and How We "Like"

A new study in Psychological Science did something no one has done before (to my knowledge) - examined social media usage while participants were undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The study used 32 adolescents (between the ages of 13 and 18), and underwent the fMRI while viewing a simulated Instagram environment. They submitted some of their own pictures and viewed other pictures as well (which were actually publicly available Instagram images). They were also told that 50 other adolescents had viewed these pictures previously, which allowed participants to know the size of the audience (and what constituted many likes or few likes). In actual fact, likes were assigned by the researchers for the purpose of the study.

Participants viewed images through goggles and were given two buttons - one to "like" the picture and the other to move on without liking. They each saw a total of 148 pictures: 40 of their own, 42 depicting risky behaviors (e.g., drinking, smoking), and 66 neutral (nonrisky) images. Pictures could be assigned a "popular" number of likes (23 to 45) or "unpopular" number of likes (0 to 22). These ranges were used to reduce participants' suspicion that the number of likes was being assigned, rather than occurring naturally.

Overall, they found participants were more likely to "like" an image that was perceived as popular. This makes sense from a social capital viewpoint. Social capital refers to the resources we are able to access through relationships with others. Connecting with others is beneficial to our survival, and, not coincidentally, it feels good to connect with other people. And as I've blogged about before, one way we connect is through mutual interests and likes. So it makes sense that the reverse is also true; we try to connect with others by liking the things they like.

But the really cool thing about this study is what they found out about brain responses. Through the fMRI, they were able to look at brain activity while participants examined the pictures. Overall, they found greater brain activity when participants viewed popular images. For specific types of images, they found that participants showed:
  1. Greater activity in the visual cortex when viewing neutral images with many likes, which researchers suggest is because "participants may have scanned popular images with greater care."
  2. Greater activity in the left frontal cortex and reduced activity in areas of the brain related to response control and inhibition when viewing risky images with many likes
  3. Greater activity in a variety of areas (including those involved in reward learning and motivation) when viewing their own images with many likes.
What implications do these findings have? For one, participants showed less activation in parts of the brain that inhibit behaviors when viewing popular risky photos, suggesting that they may be more inclined to imitate those behaviors if they are viewed as popular. For another, seeing one of your own images receiving many likes is rewarding, which I suppose is not terribly surprising, but also motivating - perhaps to post more images and content on that topic. And if that image or topic is related to risky behaviors, we may be more inclined to engage in those behaviors.

The authors end their article by stating that these findings not only have implications for social media researchers, but anyone studying social interaction - because it has been difficult to accurately simulate social interaction in fMRI. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media use, these interactions are being viewed as similar to other types of interactions, at least by the public if not by researchers. So this small study on Instagram likes may have some interesting ramifications for the entire field.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Writing, Personality Analysis, and No Good Very Bad Day

There are days when you feel on top of the world, where everything is going your way.

Today was not one of those days.

After a rough day, I came home to work on some writing. Before settling in, I caught up on recent tweets and found a link to this personality analysis that requires about 3500 words of writing by an individual. I thought it might be fun and make for an interesting blog post about examination of validity. I tried to open one of my writing files to paste it into the website.

And got multiple error messages. I tried every trick I could think of, but couldn't get the file to open.

TL;DR: The file is corrupted. I'm going to try to open it somehow. But for now, that writing appears to be lost. I have some handwritten notes I can draw from, but if I can't get into that file, most of what I've written is gone.

After dealing with that frustration (I'm not going to lie, there were tears), I decided to proceed with the personality analysis, using some previous blog posts.

Here's the summary it gave me:
You are unconventional, excitable and can be perceived as critical.

You are intermittent: you have a hard time sticking with difficult tasks for a long period of time. You are empathetic: you feel what others feel and are compassionate towards them. And you are proud: you hold yourself in high regard, satisfied with who you are.

Your choices are driven by a desire for connectedness.

You consider helping others to guide a large part of what you do: you think it is important to take care of the people around you. You are relatively unconcerned with taking pleasure in life: you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

The fuller analysis is displayed in a dashboard style:

Though there is some truth here, some of the results definitely are not accurate. For one, saying I have trouble sticking to tasks for long periods... I hate to use the PhD card, but um, yeah, PhD - that's basically sticking to a task for a long time. I think the compassion and connectedness information is accurate, but wouldn't anyone self-apply that information? This description sounds kind of like a Barnum description - an analysis of a person that is vague enough to get just about anyone to agree it is accurate. Throw in a couple of negative traits, so it doesn't read so much as "You're awesome" to be suspect, and most people would agree to it.

For comparison, here's the results of a Big 5 personality test I took recently:

Extraversion 72
Extraversion reflects how much you are oriented towards things outside yourself and derive satisfaction from interacting with other people.

Conscientiousness 33
Conscientiousness reflects how careful and orderly an individual is.

Neuroticism 37
Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions.

Agreeableness 91
Agreeableness reflects how much you like and try please others.

Openness 82
Openness reflects how much you seek out new experiences.

So the openness characteristic lines up, but agreeableness is the opposite - a person who tries to please others is likely not critical. It is important to note that the Big 5 results are from a self-administered test, which can be affected by social desirability and biased responding, so it may not be truly accurate. On the other hand, the text analysis is "objective," not depending on my own responses. However, without knowing more about how it is done, I can't speak to its accuracy. But based on my own examination, I would say it's not.

Now to try to get at my corrupted file...

Be the Next Star of Postmodern Jukebox

I'm a big fan of a group known as Postmodern Jukebox. Led by the super-talented Scott Bradlee, they do vintage covers of pop songs. As they did before last year, they are having a search contest to find new talent to star in their videos. As part of the search, they released a karaoke CD of their songs for you to sing along to:

You can enter using tracks from the new Volume 2 karaoke CD, or with tracks from Volume 1. I plan on entering. Do you?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

This Suburban Life

After being incapacitated yesterday with a migraine, and getting a ridiculously low number of steps, I started today with a walk around my apartment complex. Snapped some pictures of the pretty flowers:

This afternoon, I did some cleaning/organizing and assembled a new shelf for our garage, which I promptly filled with boxes and books:

When I got home just now, I spotted a random chair on the sidewalk. Perhaps this is how people save parking spaces in the burbs?:

Back to regular posts tomorrow (hopefully)!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Death and "Dead Man": Another Movie Review

It's been said that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. While there isn't a lot of media about the latter (a notable exception is, of course, Stranger than Fiction, which is really about both), there are many dealing with the former. I've noticed some thematic similarities between some of these works, such as between the play Our Town and the film American Beauty, something I've been meaning to sit down and write about.

But today, I wanted to write about one of my favorite movies, that I discovered completely by accident (thank you, Netflix recommendations!): Dead Man, a 1995 psychedelic western starring Johnny Depp. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend it. Just know that you're in for a trip, if you do. In many senses of the word. You may not want to read this review if you plan on watching the film, though, because there are some spoilers.

The movie begins by introducing us to a young man named William Blake (yes, really, and no, not that one... maybe), an accountant from Cleveland on his way to the town of Machine, to begin a job he was offered by mail. Unfortunately, when Blake arrives at the company to accept his job, he is told by the owner, John Dickinson, that the position has already been filled and leaves the office at gunpoint. He helps out a young woman (and former prostitute), Thel, who is being manhandled by some of the rougher elements of Machine and goes back to her room with her. We next see them laying in bed, chatting, when Thel's ex, Charlie, walks in. In a jealous rage, Charlie tries to shoot Blake but Thel jumps in the way. The bullet goes through Thel, killing her, and embeds in Blake's chest. Blake shoots and kills Charlie, then realizing that the scene does not look good for him, runs away.

We find out Charlie is John Dickinson's son. He knows that Blake is the killer - how, we never really find out, but surprisingly, I don't think that's a plot hole because... well, you'll see. Dickinson sends three mercenaries after Blake. Blake stumbles into the wilderness and passes out - he does have a bullet in his chest, after all. He awakens to find a Native American man (whose name, we learn is "He who talks loud, saying nothing" and who goes by "Nobody") trying unsuccessfully to remove the bullet.

Nobody tells Blake that there is "some of the white man's metal" in his chest and that he will probably die. Nobody asks his name, and, as a fan of William Blake's poetry, decides that Blake is actually William Blake's (yes, that one) spirit wandering and that Nobody has to help him get to the afterlife. (In fact, Nobody is so-named because he was the child of members of two opposing tribes, and was kidnapped, raised, and schooled by white Europeans; this is where he learned William Blake's poetry. The name "Nobody" also leads to some jokes in the film, like when someone asks who Blake is traveling with and he says, "Nobody.")

Together they travel west, toward the entrance to the spirit world (according to Nobody). On the way, they encounter many people after Blake because of the large bounty, and Blake is able to escape by killing most of them, including two US Marshalls. Even though he shows no concern about taking human lives, he mourns over a dead fawn, who was shot by one of the Marshalls, and paints his face with its blood. Meanwhile, one of the more ferocious mercenaries kills the other two, so he can keep the full reward. In fact, few people in the film seem to show concern for human life, and cannibalism is also a recurring theme.

Blake is shot again during one of his encounters, leaving him near death. Nobody takes Blake to a Makah village, where he performs final rituals, and puts Blake into a boat to take him to the afterlife. From the boat, Blake sees the remaining mercenary approaching Nobody. Too weak to cry out, Nobody is shot by the mercenary, though Nobody is able to shoot and kill the mercenary before dying. Blake looks up at the sky and dies.

Though the movie received mixed reviews, with Roger Ebert giving only 1.5 stars (saying, "The [writer-director] is trying to get at something here, and I don't have a clue what it is"), it is well-regarded for its portrayal of Native American culture. It avoids common stereotypes, and even uses, accurately, two Native American languages (Cree and Blackfoot). Those languages are not subtitled, so that people who understand the languages get an extra inside joke. In fact, so many elements of the film are so well thought out, this is the reason I don't think apparent plot holes are actual holes, but instead signs that there is more going on than it appears on the surface.

From the moment Blake arrives in Machine, the events of the film are almost surreal. The train fireman (a bit part played by Crispin Glover) cautions Blake that Machine is a rough town, but speaks to Blake as though he knows him and knows everything about him. It reminded me a little of Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where the opening scene (with Rosencrantz getting 92 heads in a row) is our first sign that something is wrong with the world (that is, the characters may not be in our world, but another one, where the usual rules don't apply).

Blake's reaction to the fireman, and just about everything else that happens to him, is very stoic. His emotions are almost muted, as though he is just a shadow of his former self. He is at first ignorant of William Blake the poet, failing to recognize verses Nobody recites, but later on, embraces the name, even asking people during his drug-induced vision quest if they are a fan of his poetry.

My theory is that the film is an allegory for death, perhaps even the portrayal of a literal spirit journeying into the afterlife. It may even be purgatory, with the mercenaries serving as demons trying to drag Blake to hell, while Nobody is an angel trying to help Blake get to heaven. This might explain the disregard for life and recurring theme of cannibalism - feasting on the flesh. As Blake gets better at escaping the demons, through Nobody's guidance, he shows more appreciation for nature, which many religions view as the embodiment of god on earth. In fact, even the name of the film (which true, could refer to the fact that Blake is mortally wounded and essentially already a dead man) could imply that the main character is already dead, and that whole movie is about a dead man (a spirit).

Every time I watch the film, I take away something new. There are many layers and subtleties in the film. If you do watch (or have already seen it), let me know your thoughts!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Fun with Legos and the Familiar

I loved playing with Legos as a kid. What kid didn't, right? This is probably the appeal of Lego movies - taking something we're all familiar with, particularly for creating our own worlds and acting them out, and using it in a creative art form, sort of acting out something that existed only in our heads before.

A friend shared this video with me last night - Ghostbusters, acted out by Legos. It's pretty awesome:

Of course, just because something uses a familiar medium doesn't mean it will be successful. It also has to not suck (warning: video NSFW):

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The News Makes Me Sad

There are many events in recent days that have made me very sad. But the reactions have given me hope that there is still good in the world.

A couple of weeks ago, the sentence for Brock Turner, a man convicted of three counts of sexual assault, was announced - even though the crimes could carry a 14-year sentence, and the prosecution requested 6 years, Turner was sentenced to only six months. His victim read a letter about what effect this event had on her, her family, and her life.

Turner's parents, on the other hand, wrote letters talking about how their son won't eat steak anymore, how much student loan debt his siblings have, and that the family doesn't feel like decorating their new house.

While I was heartbroken to hear about this slap on the wrist, I was relieved to see I was not alone in finding the sentence unjust.

I'm reminded of an episode of one of my favorite shows, Six Feet Under. If you've never seen the show, it's about a family-run funeral home. Someone dies at the beginning of each episode, usually (but not always) the person for whom a funeral will be arranged. One episode began with a young woman leaving a club. She dug her keys out of her purse, and walked nervously across the street. Suddenly, two men appear some distance behind her and cat call her. She begins to walk faster. The two men pursue, asking where she's going. She begins to run. Not paying attention to anything beyond getting away from the two men, she is hit by a car and killed.

It turns out the two men were her friends, playing a joke on her. As they talk about the incident later, they tearfully ask why she was so afraid.

I had a similar experience last night. I was walking home from a late dinner, around 10pm, trying to get my last steps of day. A car pulls up next to me as I'm waiting for the light. I hear a young man's voice say "Hey, want a hit?" (or whatever they were smoking), followed by "Want a ride?" I ignore him, praying that he won't say anything else or escalate. I wait impatiently for the light to change, thinking about what my response would be if he says something else, or if the friend with him I can hear laughing will join in. Knowing that my response could just as easily anger them and cause them to escalate as get them to leave me alone.

The light changes and I hurry across the street. They wait a moment, then turn and drive down another street.

This is an experience most women can identify with. And unfortunately, many women experience something far worse. We don't know if or when it's going to happen. We don't know if the man who appears kind or helpful will turn out to be a predator.

I took self-defense classes in college, skills I pray I never have to use. I try to stay aware of my surroundings, and avoid being distracted, hoping that I'm just being overly cautious. But I also don't blame women when the worst happens. And it will continue to happen as long as we try to pin some blame on women for what another person did. We don't ask victims of other crimes why they had so much to drink, why they were wearing that outfit, why they were walking alone.

As I said, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people I know who jumped to the defense of the victim, and commented on the injustice that Turner's sentence was so lenient. This could have been a textbook case of victim blaming. Instead, it got people talking - honestly - about sexual assault and how we need to focus our attention on the man's behavior instead of the woman's.

While we were still reacting to the sentence, the shooting in Orlando happened. As with the Turner case, I was glad to see the outpouring of support from many people I know. Unfortunately, the event is also fueling debate, with many people failing to see that the fact that a man who was under investigation by the FBI for connections to terrorists was able to acquire a gun should be a sign that we need stricter gun control.

I continue to be sad. But I'm not alone. As I was driving home yesterday evening, I drove through downtown of my neighborhood, and noticed the flags of Brookfield at half-mast:

Monday, June 13, 2016

Medleys versus Mashups: A Follow-Up to Yesterday

I posted yesterday's entry while riding back from a short trip to Michigan. While the mobile Blogger app is great for writing quick posts on the go, it doesn't have an easy way for you to embed video. So today, I wanted to follow-up on that post, with some video examples.

As I said in my previous post, the book I just finished reading (A Cappella Arranging) refers to the mashup as a subtype of medley. I disagree, thinking of them instead as two different styles that could be combined.

A mashup involves integrating two or more songs, such as by having parts of the songs sung together, or by mixing lines from the songs together to form new verses. A medley involves segments from two or more songs in succession, with some kind of transition in between.

For instance, this is a medley:

They move rapidly between songs, showing how the music of Beyonce has changed over the years.

On the other hand, this is a mashup (but not a medley, in my opinion):

They jump back and forth between the two songs, not spending a lot of time on either in isolation, and often sing the two songs together.

Now, just because I think these are two different styles doesn't mean they can't be combined, and in fact, they often are. For instance, this Disney medley, by Voctave, featuring Kirstin Maldonado & Jeremy Michael Lewis (who are now engaged, by the way!), is mostly medley with a bit of mashup at the end:

On the other hand, the arrangement sung by the Barden Bellas in the final scene (composed by Deke Sharon), is a medley of three songs (Price Tag, Don't You Forget About Me, and Everything Tonight), with substantial mashing up (Just the Way You Are, Party in the USA, Turn the Beat Around - and according to Deke, there are two more songs in there I'm not hearing):

So medleys can vary in how much mashing up they include, from none to lots. However, that doesn't mean all mashups are medleys. The mashup I'm working on is more in the style of the "pure" mashup linked above, though it does spend more time with two songs in particular, with references to other two songs sprinkled in.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


I hate medleys. I know many people who feel the same way. I cringed when I heard my choir would be doing medleys in a recent concert. They just seem cheesy and forced.

I just finished reading A Cappella Arranging and made that same cringe when I came to a chapter on writing medleys. Then the authors said exactly what I was thinking - that many people hate medleys, and that they can be cheesy and exhausting (for both performers and the audience). But they pointed out that medleys, when done well, can be fun and rewarding.

They also said that mashups, which I love, are a subtype of medleys. Personally I find them to be different enough that they should be separate styles, though they can obviously be combined. I'm currently working on a four-song mashup.

But their chapter made me realize that I don't really hate medleys, I just hate some of the crappy medleys people create. So I've decided, as a challenge, after I finish my mashup, to write a medley. I have a few fun ideas. I'm actually looking forward to it!

Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell should be commended for making me realize I don't hate medleys.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

He Has Research, All the Best Research

A friend shared this with me a while ago and I didn't think to share it then. I encountered it again today on Facebook - a peer reviewed journal article if it were written by Trump:

Friday, June 10, 2016

Science and Quality of Life

As I've blogged before, science and innovation allows us to continue to enjoy a high quality of life, as we are constantly working to better understand our world and, with that knowledge, make it better. If science and innovation are not encouraged, our quality of life will stagnate.

In my job, we work with a variety of populations with neurological disorders, like spinal cord injury and Parkinson's disease. Though our focus is on health services research, meaning understanding and improving the care people receive, there are some amazing pieces of new technology other researchers are developing that will hopefully make it into the daily lives of these populations.

One example is Liftware, a product designed for people with hand tremors (such as those caused by Parkinson's):

The goal with many new devices for people with these conditions is often to increase independence. If hand tremors get too severe for a person to feed themselves, they would have to depend on others to feed them. Even if they may get that point eventually, anything that allows people to maintain independence for as long as possible would be a major improvement. And of course, new technology like Liftware can encourage continued research and improvement.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Catching Up On Science News

I'm away from work for a few days, so I've finally had time to sit and read about what's going on in the science world.

For instance, one study examining toxin resistance in snakes may help us to understand the evolution of complex traits.

Or this one, that finds abnormal sense of touch is a factor in autism.

And 4 recently discovered elements finally got names.

Hope to get back to normal posts soon. But for now, I'm enjoying having minimal responsibilities.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Day in Pictures

Today, we drove to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a wedding this weekend.

First, in Milwaukee we saw this great billboard from Koss (who always has clever billboards):

We stopped in Sheboygan for lunch, and drove by this enormous garrison flag:

We also drove through Niagra, which has a river running alongside - Michigan is on the other bank of that river:

That's all for now! Hopefully I'll write a real post tomorrow. Or maybe I'll just take more pictures. :)

Monday, June 6, 2016

Pentatonix and Trying a Little A Cappella Arranging Myself

Yesterday, I blogged about Pentatonix. I'm sure many people, like myself, have been inspired by their work to try our hands at a cappella arranging. I'm working on an arrangement of my own at the moment, which I hope to share at some point (once I finish and record it, of course).

Part of the research involved in writing a good a cappella arrangement is doing a lot of listening: listening to the songs one is arranging, listening to other a cappella arrangements, and finally, listening to experts. That's why I decided yesterday evening to finally sit down and start reading Deke Sharon and Dylan Bell's book, A Cappella Arranging.

Deke Sharon is responsible for the a cappella arrangements in Pitch Perfect and was a producer of The Sing Off (where Pentatonix got its start), and Dylan Bell is an arranger and producer, producing for instance the Swingle Singers' amazing album Ferris Wheels, one of my absolute favorite a cappella albums (seriously, listen to this arrangement of Annie Lennox's"No More I Love Yous", from that album).

The book is full of words of wisdom, not just for would-be a cappella arrangers, but for musicians in general. The sixth chapter is especially relevant for all musicians, by dispelling five myths about music. For instance, that difficult-to-execute music is good, simple music is bad, and there is a hierarchy of music falling between those two extremes. Instead, they say that music is like food - it nourishes us and if it does that, it's good. Eating only one type of food forever, no matter how exquisite, would get boring. The same is true with music:
If you like pop music, don't consider it a guilty pleasure. Keep your ears and mind open: Bach may fill you with a sense of wonder, Led Zeppelin may get your motor running, and Josh Groban may make you weep. Dump the good/bad baggage and embrace it all.

One thing from the book that really resonated with me is how the act of breaking music apart is similar to an engineer disassembling a machine:
Like a budding engineer who takes apart an engine to see how it is built, there is no better way to understand the inner workings of an arrangement [than transcription]. Pick a song you like and an arrangement you respect, then use the process of transcription to figure out what makes it great.
They recommend that arrangers have 3 characters or personalities when they work: the Dreamer (raw, unbridled talent, all art, not much editing), the Editor (who takes the Dreamer's work and, well, makes it work), and the Critic (who finds the weak spots and brings them to light so the Dreamer can dream up something new and/or the Editor can rework it).

This book is a great opportunity to peak under the hood at two great a cappella arrangers.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Pentatonix: Making A Cappella Cool Again

If you've never heard of Pentatonix, you don't know what you're missing. This 5-person group does a cappella arrangements of popular songs, and they're amazing. The group - which started as a trio - first formed 5 years ago yesterday (they found bass, Avi, through a friend, and Kevin, their amazingly talented vocal percussionist through YouTube), and the next day (5 years ago today), they auditioned for The Sing Off.

I had the pleasure of seeing them in concert last August, when they opened for Kelly Clarkson. I believe I tried taking pictures from that night, but they didn't really turn out. It was an amazing show and I was thrilled when they performed one of my favorites of their arrangements:

Their newest album, released in October of last year, debuted at number 1 on the US Billboard 200. Up to now, that would be unheard of for an a cappella group, though you could argue (as many have) that their success can be partially credited to the popularity of shows like Glee and movies like Pitch Perfect. (And you could argue, in return, that Pentatonix helped set the stage for shows like Glee and movies like Pitch Perfect to become popular.) The album also features mostly original content, rather than arrangements of popular songs. (I just bought the album the other day, and haven't had the chance to listen just yet, but I will this week!)

If you haven't already done so, check out Pentatonix's YouTube channel:

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Human Mind

Of course, there's always SMBC's commentary on the human mind:

Changes, Unpredictability, and Distress

There are a lot of changes coming up on the horizon for me. I won't go into them, but I will say that knowing I don't have much control over some of these changes is causing a bit of stress. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I dislike believing I have no control over what happens to me or in relation to me. A recent study from Psychological Science offers some explanation.

The study looked at children, half of who were described as high in social reticence (shyness) and half described as low. This was based on measures obtained over a 5-year period (between ages 2 and 7). At age 11, children participated in an fMRI study that included a virtual school task. Children created an avatar and personal profile, and were introduced as new students in a virtual school. The children also learned about their fellow students, so for many they knew ahead of time to expect friendly or mean interactions from them. However, some were unpredictable; the children didn't know what kind of interactions they would have with these students. Children were given response options:
To establish an interactive context that modeled how participants might react to real-world experiences, we asked them to respond to positive or negative social evaluation using a button box (5 s). When the row of six response options appeared at the bottom of the screen, participants used the left and right buttons to navigate to their preferred response and a third button to make their selection. Response options were positive (“You’re nice,” “That’s nice”), negative (“That’s mean,” “You’re mean”), sarcastic (“Thanks!!!”), or avoidant (⦸). The selected option then appeared on the screen for purported peers to see or was omitted in the case of avoidant responses (2 s).
Shy children experienced more distress than non-shy children. You might expect that they experienced distress when receiving negative comments. In actuality, they experienced it when receiving it from unpredictable peers. In fact, they experienced distress in anticipation of any interaction with an unpredictable peer.

Knowing something negative is going to happen is much less distressing than when you have no idea what to expect.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Cube Personality Test

If you've been on Facebook the last few days, you've probably at least seen links to the so-called "cube personality" test. A video from Buzzfeed reveals that it is a "Japanese psychology game" meant to reveal hidden aspects of your personality:

Because I'm sure people will ask what I pictured: the cube was quite large and clear, and sitting on the ground. The ladder was leaned against it. The horse was chilling by the cube, without a saddle or reins. I pictured 3 flowers, along the bottom of the cube. And the storm in the brewing background was a sand storm. So according to the test, I have a big ego, I'm open, grounded, and am available to support my friends. I like wild relationships (wild horse), want 3 kids, and I'm seriously stressed out. According to the test, anyway.

What I'm curious about is: how many of you got something similar? The instructions are full of cues, such as asking if the ladder is leaning on the cube. That question may have influenced me to picture the ladder against the cube. In fact, any of the questions throughout the video probably influenced the final picture in my mind of the various objects. And all of that happened so quickly and at such a nonconscious level, I may not have even realized it was happening, believing instead that was how I pictured the scene all along.

We would call these leading questions. And a lot of research says they have a strong impact on memory. Our memory is very fluid, and new information can have a strong impact on memory. One of the top researchers on this topic is Dr. Elizabeth Loftus. In one of the most famous studies on the topic, Dr. Loftus and John Palmer tested the "confabulation effect" - where the wording of the question could change the memory of the event. Participants watched clips of automobile accidents.

They were later asked questions about the crash they viewed, including one question where the verb was manipulated: "About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other?" They found that the estimated speed varied by which verb was selected: "smashed" - 40.8 mph, "collided" - 39.3 mph, "bumped" - 38.1 mph, "hit" - 34 mph, and "contacted" - 31.8 mph.

In a second experiment, they added one more piece of misinformation. They used only two verbs, "hit" and "smashed", plus one control condition using neither. But they also asked people if they saw broken glass. Though there was no broken glass on the ground after the accident, over 19% of participants reported that they saw broken glass. And participants were more likely to report seeing broken glass if the question about speed included the word "smashed" (32% of people in the "smashed" condition reported broken glass, compared to 14% in the "hit" condition and 12% in the control condition) - because if the cars were going fast, there would probably also be broken glass.

As I've said before, memory is tricky. When you start asking questions, especially leading questions, the memory will probably change. Whether the "pure" version of the Cube personality test (without the leading questions) is accurate, I don't know. In fact, it may actually be a pickup artist trick. But the version linked above, and the version that has been circulating, really won't tell you much about your personality.

So picture whatever kind of cube/horse/ladder/storm you want.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Opinion Polls, Psychological Reactance, and One NYT Writer's Psychological Analysis of Trump Supporters

My friend over at The Daily Parker shared this story with me yesterday: an analysis of the resentment toward the establishment experienced by Trump supporters, or what the author calls "The Anti-P.C. Vote". The article touches on many important psychological concepts, and is definitely worth a read.

For one, the author, Thomas Edsall, discusses Trump supporters' negative views on immigration, and comments that opinion polls suggest that people favor immigration. In trying to explain this disconnect, he reached out to Lefteris Anastasopoulos, who explained the problem may be with how the polls are conducted. Opinion polls often ask broad questions about issues, such as "Do you support increased immigration to the United States?" or "Do you support amnesty for undocumented immigrants?"

Anastasopoulos argues that, when broad questions are used, people respond in more politically correct ways. I would take this one step farther and suggest that, when broad questions are used, people use their preconceived notions of what is typical or desired to fill in the missing pieces of the question, and then respond to the question based on that specific situation they have in mind. A great in-depth analysis of this issue can be found in one of my favorite books, Commonsense Justice by Norman Finkel. This book had a strong influence on me and the direction of my dissertation research.

In the book, Finkel discusses why people as a whole may support a certain policy - such as hate crime legislation - but then, when serving as a juror on a case, balk at the severity of sentencing that they may attempt to find the defendant guilty of a lesser crime or even, in rare cases, find the defendant not guilty, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt. The latter case is referred to as "jury nullification." The reason for this disconnect, Finkel argues, is in how opinions are elicited in polls - with broad questions. He found that when specific examples are given to show a typical case (which differs greatly from the extreme examples people have in mind when responding to polls), support goes down.

Another explanation offered for Trump supporters is psychological reactance, which I've blogged about previously, as well as during the April A-Z. Basically, psychological reactance occurs when you feel your sense of free will is threatened; when you feel forced into behaving a certain away, you rebel and do something else (even the opposite) simply to prove that you have free will. Again, Edsall reached out to a psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, to get additional information and application of this concept:
Haidt applies this to the 2016 election: "Translated to the Trump phenomenon, I would say that decades of political correctness, with its focus on “straight white men” as the villains and oppressors — now extended to “straight white cis-gendered men” — has caused some degree of reactance in many and perhaps most white men."

In both the workplace and academia, Haidt argues, "the accusatory and vindictive approach of many social justice activists and diversity trainers may actually have increased the desire and willingness of some white men to say and do un-PC things."

In this atmosphere, according to Haidt: "Trump comes along and punches political correctness in the face. Anyone feeling some degree of anti-PC reactance is going to feel a thrill in their heart, and will want to stand up and applaud. And because feelings drive reasoning, these feelings of gratitude will make it hard for anyone to present arguments to them about the downsides of a Trump presidency."
Not only are Trump supporters perhaps experiencing reactance, but Trump gives them an outlet for that reactance. So rather than having the outcomes of reactance on the small-scale and in specific situations, supporters can direct that feeling toward a larger cause that they perceive will bring about widespread changes.

As a psychologist, I very much enjoyed Edsall's analysis of the issue. As a citizen, I'm terrified.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Bad Science Journalism by Example

The other day, a friend shared the following story: Chocolate makes you cleverer: A 40-year psychological study proves that the sweet treat can boost our grey matter. Of course, as with many scientists, I cringe when I hear the word "prove" because we don't actually prove anything in our research. We generate hypotheses and gather evidence that would allow us to support or refute our hypothesis. We prove nothing, even if we find evidence to support our hypothesis, because the hypothesis could be incorrect. We may think the explanation is one thing but find out it is something different that we didn't even consider or gather evidence about. In fact, I blogged about this pretty extensively here.

So of course, I clicked on the article, thinking it might be an example of bad science journalism.

I had no idea how right I was.

The story is about a longitudinal study of cognitive ability on over 1,000 people in New York State. Yes, it is a 40-year study, but no, the chocolate part was not examined over 40 years. The researchers decided to look at eating patterns in the 6th wave of the study, which began in 2001. Additionally, they didn't even begin collecting the data to find out if chocolate has any relationship to cognitive ability:
The researchers incorporated a new questionnaire – gathering all sorts of information about dietary habits – into the sixth wave of their data collection, which spanned the five years between 2001 and 2006 (there have been seven waves in all, each conducted in five-year intervals). And they revealed an interesting pattern. “We found that people who eat chocolate at least once a week tend to perform better cognitively,” says Elias. “It's significant – it touches a number of cognitive domains.”
Later on, they talk about some analyses they performed to determine direction of causality - whether chocolate consumption causes improved cognitive ability or whether people with higher cognitive ability happen to like chocolate more. They found support for the former, which lends some credence to their claim. But still, the researchers are quick to caveat their results:
“It's nearly impossible to talk about causality with our design,” says Elias. “But our study definitely indicates the direction is that chocolate consumption affects cognitive ability.”
While this is not a "40-year study that proves chocolate makes you smarter," there does appear to be something here worthy of investigation. For instance, they authors used only two levels of chocolate consumption: never/rarely versus once a week or more. So these results don't tell us how much chocolate is beneficial - or whether there are diminishing returns. They also didn't look at type of chocolate consumed - white, milk, or dark. Still, this is a correlation they were not exactly looking for, so there's a danger of p-hacking.

In the meantime, how can you apply these results to your life? Probably the best conclusion is the one the researchers shared:
“I think what we can say for now is that you can eat small amounts without guilt if you don't substitute chocolate for a normal balanced healthy diet,” Elias says.