Friday, July 29, 2016

The Blind Spot

This morning, on my way to work, I was reminded of a fun piece of human physiology. The guy in front of me had two Apple stickers on the back of his car, one on each side of the license plate. (You know, those free stickers that come with any new Apple device that I end up either throwing away or throwing in a drawer.) I glanced at my rearview mirror and realized one of the Apple stickers had disappeared.

Don't worry, that's not an alarming experience. You have a literal blind spot - a part of your retina with no photoreceptors - because this is where the optic nerve connects.

Your brain fills in missing information with the surrounding pattern (this is why you generally don't notice the blind spot). So small items that break up that pattern can seemingly disappear if you look in the right place.

Here's a demonstration of the blind spot, as well as some other "eye tricks":

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Beam Me Up, Scotty

Over the years, fans have loved pointing out various technologies that seem inspired by elements from Star Trek, the series that started my lifelong love of sci-fi. From cell phones and tracking devices to 3D printers (which could arguably be early-stage replicators) have all been highlighted as potential Star Trek-inspired technologies.

Today, Nerdist focused on what they consider the best technology from Star Trek - and no, not one we have yet...

John Hinckley Jr. and the Insanity Defense

In March of 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster.

By United States Federal Bureau of Investigation - FBI Field Office Washington, Public Domain,

Though his assassination attempt was unsuccessful, Reagan was wounded, as were three other men: a secret service agent, Timothy McCarthy; Reagan's press secretary, James Brady (who was critically injured and partially paralyzed as a result); and a police officer, Thomas Delahanty. In his trial, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and has been confined to a mental hospital for the last 35 years. In August, he is scheduled to be released.

The verdict in the case resulted in national outcry, and fueled public belief that the insanity defense is too easy to get (and that insanity is too easy to fake). It's important to note, though, that prior to the Hinckley case, the insanity defense was used in only 2% of cases, and when used, was successful only 25% of the time. This case resulted in the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984, which made it more difficult for individuals to plead not guilty by reason of insanity in federal cases, and changed the burden of proof. Before this law was passed, the prosecution had to prove the defendant was sane beyond a reasonable doubt; after the law was passed, the defense now has to prove the defendant was insane by clear and convincing evidence. Expert witnesses who are brought in to provide testimony on the defendant's sanity are also prohibited from discussing opinions on the ultimate issue (that is, "is the defendant insane?"). All they can do is provide information from their assessment of the defendant and potentially interviews with significant others, and the jury must decide on the issue of sanity.

The Insanity Defense Reform Act remains controversial, especially among psychologists and psychiatrists, since lay people tend to have very different definitions of sanity and may also believe many myths (such as that people who use the insanity defense are faking). Taking away the option to provide opinions on the ultimate issue allows jurors to put words in experts mouths, and draw on their current understanding of mental health/illness - which may be completely wrong.

In fact, even in the Hinckley case, much of the public thought he was faking to "escape justice." Never mind the fact that the has been incarcerated (yes in a hospital, not a prison, but still) for 35 years. His diagnoses include narcissistic and schizoid personality disorders (with some characteristics of borderline personality disorder), and dysthymia (a form of depression). And in the past, he has shown that his obsession with Jodie Foster remains, though he has been provided some home visit privileges since 2005. So it is disconcerting to me that the case that made it more difficult to people to use the insanity defense was one in which (in my opinion), the defendant was clearly insane and not taking advantage of some legal loophole.

The changes in burden of proof in the policy may or may not be warranted - I'll leave that to people who know more about law than me, though it seems that since in criminal cases, the prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (while the defense technically doesn't have to prove anything), shifting the burden to the defense when the insanity defense is used is a bit asymmetrical. Though the Insanity Defense Reform Act applies to federal cases only, some states have followed suit by shifting the burden of proof onto the defendant.

I kind of wish I were still teaching Psychology & Law, so I could discuss these new events and see how they shift people's perspective on the insanity defense. For my part, I suspected Hinckley would spend the rest of his life in a mental hospital, considering his diagnoses, though he will remain supervised for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

New Research Discoveries Thanks to the "Ice Bucket Challenge"

You may remember the Ice Bucket Challenge from a couple years ago, where people across the internet challenged others to dump a bucket of ice water on themselves to raise money and awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating neurological condition. People who were challenged could either record themselves dumping ice water on themselves, or make a donation to the ALS Association.

While people criticized this challenge, saying it would be better to simply challenge people to donate - rather than giving them an option to "get out of" giving money to the cause - the challenge actually did raise money.

$115 million, in fact. Which has funded 6 large-scale research projects on ALS. One of these studies has identified a new gene contributing to the disease:
Research by Project MinE, published in Nature Genetics, is the largest-ever study of inherited ALS, also known as motor neurone disease (MND). More than 80 researchers in 11 countries searched for ALS risk genes in families affected by the disease. "The sophisticated gene analysis that led to this finding was only possible because of the large number of ALS samples available," Lucie Bruijn of the ALS Association says. The identification of gene NEK1 means scientists can now develop a gene therapy treating it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Man Behind "The Dude"

The Big Lebowski is my favorite movie of all time. I knew that the character of "The Dude" (Jeffrey Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges) was based off a real person named Jeff Dowd. But I never knew where the similarities begin and end. Here's a video someone sent me about the real-life Dude:

Saturday, July 23, 2016

How Important is Healthcare in this Election?

Pretty important, according to a recent poll by the American Journal of Managed Care:

As this poll shows, 81% of respondents considered healthcare to be an important issue to them, either one they consider most important or one they consider with a small number of other issues. Obviously, the specific opinions about healthcare could vary among these respondents, with some voting for a candidate who would uphold certain policies, such as the Affordable Care Act, and others voting for someone they think would repeal or lessen the impact of ACA. Either way, candidates would do well to make their stance of these issues clear. Or you could just check out this site.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Busy Day

I missed getting to post yesterday, due to a fun but very busy day. From about 9:30 am to 2 pm, I was outside with the grills. Probably not a good idea considering how hot it was, and I wasn't feeling too great by 2:30. Fortunately I rallied in time for evening plans. And I slept like the dead last night.

Here's so photos from yesterday's successful picnic.

My first job was cleaning the grills, which the previous users left dirty for us:

The trick to getting it done fast - snow shovel:

Much better!

At this point, I realized I should get a picture of myself before I get hot and sweaty:

Our theme was cartoon characters, but since I couldn't talk a couple of my coworkers into dressing as the Powerpuff Girls, I didn't really dress for the theme. But apparently my admin staff agreed I should have been a Powerpuff Girl:

I didn't get many pictures of the action, since at that point I was grilling. But I did take a break to play water balloon toss. I may have lost but I think I also won considering how hot it was:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fact, Fiction, and the Eternal Sunshine

As a scientist, the difference between fact and fiction - or more specifically, empirically verifiable truths and speculation - is very important to me. At the same time, as a lover of fiction, I recognize its important contributions to understanding the human condition. While it should never be used in place of empirical evidence, fiction gives us an opportunity to explore new realities and speculate about what might happen if those conditions came to pass.

So when I read this article about research in mice, I immediately thought of one of my favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

And if you've seen Eternal Sunshine, you might be thinking the same thing.

The research was on whether unpleasant memories could be erased. Mice were trained to push a box in order to avoid a "foot stimulus" - which I'm guessing is a shock delivered to the rats' feet. A light warned them when the shock was coming, so the rats could push the box before getting zapped. After training, the researchers "turned off" some of the rats' neuroplastin genes. They found that rats whose neuroplastin gene had been switched off could no longer perform the task properly - in essence, they forgot their training about how to avoid the foot stimulus. That is, they erased the unpleasant memory.

But they did more than that, and I think that's what Eternal Sunshine delves into. Yes, the unpleasant memory of the foot shock was gone, but more importantly, the rats could no longer avoid new pain because they had forgotten the old pain. They started making the same mistakes all over again because they didn't learn anything from the unpleasant memory.

I'm sure we all have memories we want to forget. At the same time, many of those memories shape who we are and can teach us important lessons. If we don't learn from our past mistakes, we risk making the same ones over and over again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Can Video Games Make You a Better Driver?

This Week in Psychological Science sent me another goody today - a study on the impact of action video games on driving. The study builds on research showing that video gaming can improve hand-eye coordination and reaction time. As the authors note, these studies did not examine how well these skills generalized to day-to-day tasks involving visuomotor-control, such as driving. They examined the impact of video gaming on these tasks across 4 studies. Study 1 used current gamers and non-gamers, and compared them on a lane-keeping task; the video gamers outperformed the non-gamers. Study 2 involved tracking a moving target; once again, gamers outperformed non-gamers. These first two studies only included men, because they said they couldn't find female action gamers... Um, seriously? I could find you several just in my circle of friends.

Studies 3 and 4 used non-gamers, who they turned into gamers with training. (Muah-ha-ha!) They actually included women in these samples. For experiment 3, participants were randomly assigned to play a driving game (Mario Kart) or a "nonaction simulation game" (Roller Coaster Tycoon III). Once again, gamers outperformed non-gamers, and also showed improvement in visuomotor-control tasks over multiple sessions (non-gamers did not significantly improve).

Experiment 4 compared a first-person shooter game (Death Match mode of Unreal Tournament 2004) to another simulation game (The Sims 2). Again, gamers outperformed non-gamers.

A few issues with the study: As I said, they did not include women in the first two experiments, and I'm incredibly surprised that in a college student sample, they were unable to find a handful of women who played video games. The sample sizes for each experiment were quite small (around 24 people, 12 in each group), so it seems unlikely there were not at least 6 female gamers on campus. Second, though experiment 1 looked at the impact of gaming on driving, experiments 2-4 used more abstract visuomotor-control tasks (the kinds you see in most lab studies of reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and so on). So it seems to a stretch for them to highlight their study as being about real-world visuomotor-control tasks like driving, since only one study looked at driving ability, or to state that their study supports the use of video gaming to improve driving:
Combined with these results, the findings of the current study support the claim that easily accessible action video games can be cost-effective training tools to help people improve their essential visuomotor-control skills used for driving.
But sure, it's nice to have a study show that gamers have some important skills over non-gamers. Now someone needs to study the impact Pokémon Go on hand-eye coordination - I mean, throwing one of those Pokéballs is really good practice. (Yes, I downloaded it - don't judge.)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Chicago highway taglines

I'm stuck in traffic at the moment, so I decided to try writing some taglines for the various highways in and around Chicago:

55 - If you're not going to Midway, we are so very sorry.

290 - A study into which is worse: traffic or lane closures.

90/94 - You don't have anywhere important to be, right?

294 - The closest thing to a tour of the suburbs you're going to get.

190 - Step one of getting the hell out of Chicago.

Lake Shore Drive - I can be a sweet dream or beautiful nightmare.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Lipstick Effect and the Cosmetics Industry as "Recession Proof"

Our most recent economic downturn has had many impacts on various industries. During the worst of it, I served on a board of a non-profit choir, where we dealt with budget concerns due to shrinking ticket sales. Because of the uncertainty in the economic climate, as well as a large group of people unemployed or underemployed, people weren't spending as much on the arts, and if they were, they tended to buy tickets close to the event, rather than in advance.

Over the years, many people have argued that a certain industry is "recession proof" - usually to be proven wrong when a recession actually happens. However, as I learned in an article I read today, one industry seems to flourish during hard economic times: the cosmetics industry. The article details a study into the so-called "lipstick effect," which refers to women's increased desire for and use of cosmetics during economic recession.

It has been argued that women do this to secure a more financially stable mate. However, this particular study looked at use of cosmetics in two contexts: to attract romantic partners and to improve their appearance in the workplace.

The researchers conducted 4 studies: 3 through the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk), and 1 through Precision Sampling (a marketing research firm). Two studies manipulated economic concern by having participants read one of two articles, assigned at random: an article about the poor economy or a recent flu outbreak. All 4 studies measured economic concern with a composite score on three items. The two studies that manipulated economic concern did not find an effect of the article; instead, they found that measured economic concern significantly affected the outcome.

Studies 1 and 2 used interest in six appearance-enhancing items (lipstick, dress, mascara, nail polish, perfume, and face cream) as the outcome. In both studies, they found that high economic concern resulted in greater interest in the six items. But studies 3a and 3b (which are really two separate studies, so I'm not sure why they didn't just call them 3 and 4) looked at the differences between using cosmetics to appear more professional or to appear more attractive. They found that - contrary to what has been said about the lipstick effect before - women with high economic concern were more interested in appearing professional than romantically attractive. Some women were still interested in appearing more romantically attractive, it just wasn't driven by economic concern.

A great deal of research has shown that attractive women tend to be more successful in the workplace than equally competent less attractive women. Attractive women are more likely to be hired, earn higher salaries, and are more likely to be given promotions. This is not to say they succeed only because of their looks; they have to know what they're doing and if a less attractive person is much more qualified, they will probably get the job. But appearance does give them a boost when they are equally matched with their competition in terms of skills. So using products to make oneself more attractive can have real financial rewards.

As more and more women work full-time, and fewer plan to end their career when they get married or have children, it makes sense that the lipstick effect may need an update. Men may still out-earn women, on average, but unlike 50 years ago, it's not unusual for the woman to be the "breadwinner" and out-earn her husband or partner. As a result of these social changes, the lipstick effect may need to be updated to reflect desire to appear attractive and professional, as opposed to desire to appear attractive to a potential mate.

Either way, the lipstick effect highlights that the cosmetic industry may in fact be recession proof. Though people may not be spending money on concert tickets, they will continue to spend money - and in fact, may spend more money - on products that help them look good.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Obama Being Awesome Again

Back in May, a work colleague published a paper in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) - this is a pretty big deal, as it is one of the most prestigious journals and probably the most prestigious in my field. In honor of this accomplishment, we threw a paJAMA party. Here's some photographic evidence from the day:

Yesterday, President Obama also had an article published in JAMA, becoming the first US President to publish a scholarly article while in office.
Basically, Obama is laying out how the next president could continue to improve health care. Obama recommends things like lowering the cost of prescription drugs and making a "public option" available for people buying health care coverage as a cheaper alternative to buying coverage from private companies.

Keep in mind the article isn't marked as peer-reviewed, though it did go through extensive fact checking and editing, Forbes reported.

"While we of course recognized the author is the president of the United States, JAMA has enormously high standards and we certainly expected the president to meet those standards," Howard Bauchner, JAMA's editor-in-chief, told Bloomberg in an interview.
I propose a nationwide paJAMA party to celebrate this accomplishment.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sharing in Ignorance

This morning, a friend shared this article: Scientists say giant asteroid could hit earth next week, causing mass devastation.

You should really read it.

No, really, read it. Go ahead, I'll wait.










Back now? Good. So if you actually read the article, you would see it was just a ruse to get you to click. What the article is actually about is a study finding that people often share articles without having read them first. Specifically, 59% of links on social media have never been clicked on:
To verify that depressing piece of conventional Internet wisdom, Legout and his co-authors collected two data sets: the first, on all tweets containing links to five major news sources during a one-month period last summer; the second, on all of the clicks attached to that set of shortened links, as logged by, during the same period. After cleaning and collating that data, the researchers basically found themselves with a map to how news goes viral on Twitter.

And that map showed, pretty clearly, that “viral” news is widely shared — but not necessarily, you know, read. (I’m really only typing this sentence for 4 in 10 people in the audience.)
This is especially concerning, given that the study also found that most clicks to news stories were made on posts by regular users, rather than the news organizations themselves. Since the links had to originate with the news organization first, this means that the people who start the share cycle generally don't read the article either. A person starts a viral post without really even knowing what they're sending out.

Even more concerning when you realize how misleading and even incorrect headlines can be. In fact, both of the articles linked in this post have misleading headlines - one purposefully and the other due to a misunderstanding of the results. That is, the study didn't find that 6 out of 10 people don't click on links; it found that 6 out of 10 link shares don't get clicked on. That's a lot of misinformation floating around.

And when you think of topics that can have important ramifications on, say, policy, voting decisions, and so on, it's important to know what an article actually says and whether the headline is accurate. Because if it isn't, and you share it anyway, many people who see your post will make a conclusion just based on the headline. And they may pass it on to others who do the same thing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Catch 'Em All

In high school, a boyfriend introduced me to animé. Pokémon was one show I was introduced to, though it certainly wasn't my favorite. But the games were fun, which was probably the whole point. I remember taking my Gameboy with me just about everywhere. And I thought that was the epitome of mobile gaming.

How wrong I was. Pokémon Go, a smartphone app that gets people out of their homes and out into the world to catch Pokémon - that is the epitome of mobile gaming. (For now, anyway. The great thing about technology is just when you think things can't be any different, they suddenly are.)

Of course, there are some problems with Pokémon Go, or really any mobile app. True, there are many people who are on their phones non-stop, which can get a little frustrating if you're hanging out with them. People have said before that they couldn't make the show, Seinfeld, today because most of their hilarious situations could be solved by cell phones. I'll take it one step further and say that the witty banter in the diner would be replaced by a group staring at their phones - and perhaps Jerry tweeting his jokes, rather than sharing them with his friends.

But there's spending a lot of time on your phone, and then there's being glued to your phone in case a rare Pokémon shows up - like this man who caught one while his wife was in labor. I'd be pretty annoyed, and it's not because it's Pokémon - I'd be equally annoyed if my husband were playing Words with Friends while I was giving birth.

Part of the game is that people are encouraged to get out and visit new places to catch Pokémon. It might even encourage people to talk to others - for instance if a Pokémon is in someone's yard, you might have to speak to them to be let in to catch it. So getting exercise and socialization is a good thing.

Of course, some people can become so glued to the game that they find themselves in unsafe situations. A group of teenagers used the game to lure people into a parking lot to be robbed. In another case, a young woman stumbled upon a dead body while playing. And of course, walking while staring at your phone is going to lead to some bumps and bruises.

But I'll admit, I'm a little curious about the game.

Monday, July 11, 2016

This Day in History

You'd probably have to be living under a rock to not know about the hit musical, Hamilton, which chronicles the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton. What you may not know is that today was the day of his famous duel with Aaron Burr.

Hmm, should I be worried that I just took a "Which Hamilton character are you?" quiz and got Alexander Hamilton?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Juno and Jupiter

In 2011, NASA launched a probe to Jupiter, which they named Juno. Sidenote: In Roman mythology, Juno was Jupiter's wife. Yes, they sent his wife to check on him.

That probe arrived at Jupiter on July 4. Here's a great GIF that shows how Juno got there.

You can find out more about Juno and see what she sends back here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Underwritten Female Characters

I encountered this great video on Facebook this morning:

The video references one of the great contributions to film theory, the Bechdel test, which I've mentioned in a previous blogpost, but never delved into what exactly it means.

The Bechdel test (actually developed by Liz Wallace and publicized by Allison Bechdel) is based on the following questions. In a movie:
  1. Are there at least 2 female characters?
  2. Do those characters talk to each other?
  3. About something other than a man?
A simple test that many movies fail. The test was revised with the addition that the two female characters should have names. As many have pointed out, it's a rather low bar for movies and passing it doesn't mean that women are being portrayed in realistic ways. They can still be "underwritten" even if they talk about something other than men. After all, the video above even passes the Bechdel test.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A New Map of the Human Brain

:) not really

Hope everyone had a happy 4th. Back to regular posts tomorrow!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Brickside Brewery

Today I visited a new brewery in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan: Brickside Brewery

A small outfit in Copper Harbor, I've been seeing their billboards around town and stumbled on their taproom by accident. I tried three samples while I was there: the U.P. IPA, Park Bench Porter, and Stone Ship Stout.

The IPA was crisp and hoppy, with a little bitterness. Not "soapy" like some IPAs (I actually like the soapiness, like you find in Zombie Dust, but my husband doesn't like that taste; if you're like him, and generally don't like IPAs, this is a good one to try).

The Porter had a nutty flavor, kind of like a pecan or hazelnut ale. Good sipping beer.

The stout was bittersweet with a little blackberry. Good but not the best stout I've had.

They sell samples and pints in the taproom, as well as two choices in growlers: glass and steel. The steel one is about three times the cost initially, but I'm told keeps the beer cold for hours. A couple sitting next to me took one to the golf course and it stayed cold the whole time.

They also decorated the bar with quotes, including one of my favorite beer quotes:

Friday, July 1, 2016

On the Rocks

Today, I visited the Michigan Technological University mineral museum, where I learned about some of the indigenous metals and minerals, particularly copper.

Yes, that's one piece of copper. The museum had lots of interesting specimens. For instance:

As well as this giant geode:

And a shot from inside:

Afterward, I hung out with my family and their dog, Teddy:

Who decided he wanted to drive at one point:

"Get in loser, we're going shopping." (Actually, I took the picture at the start of a yawn, hence the face.)

Tonight, I'll work on figuring out the perfect beer-s'more pairing.

Back in the UP Again

Yesterday, we drove to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan again, this time for Independence Day. On our way through Milwaukee, we once again saw the Koss billboard, which they've updated in honor of the holiday:

We hit a storm a little more than halfway, at which point, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees. We also pass by an eagle's nest - sitting atop a transmission tower - every time we drive up, but I actually got a picture this time:

Finally, after we arrived and unloaded the car, we went to see the Glenn Miller orchestra with family:

Of course, they had to perform this one:

The show was at the Calumet Theatre, which was built in 1907. Around the proscenium of the stage are murals of the five muses: