Things 52: Pug Baroo, Location Based Services, Argument Visualisation

(Originally sent June 2009)

Last week, Things was once again postponed due to time pressures burning my midnight oil candles at both ends. However, now that both my IDM evening course and my PhD are over, I theoretically have more time, and I’ve also made progress with my answer to the puzzle from Things 46 on how to get things done at sub-weekly intervals (see puzzles section below), so future updates may return to regularity.

I finally caught Synecdoche, New York. Imagine Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) doing a ‘Memento Mori‘ piece. It’s like that. I think it’s the best film I’ve seen since Speed Racer, which is a statement almost entirely devoid of utility or cogency.


It’s been quite a while since I featured a ‘cute animal’ video. Here’s three pug puppies demonstrating the comedic value of turning your head on one side when confused, an action which, as I understand it, is referred to as ‘baroo’ in cute animal watching circles.

Location based services – most commonly applications on your mobile that help you do things by knowing where you are through GPS or mobile phone mast signal interpolation – are on their way. (In terms of the hype cycle I think they are currently falling from the ‘peak of inflated expectation’ to the ‘trough of disillusionment’ before finding genuine utility). Mathew Honan tested a bunch of these services and wrote about it in Wired, in a long but important article.

My personal take is that most of the services he tries are like MySpace in that they work okay when the only other people on there are People Like You, but in order to scale they will need Facebook-like privacy control. (Specifically more like the new controls Facebook are adding to the publisher, and I also suspect a time window would be added – e.g. Share my live location with these people, for the next 8 hours only).


I like to think the years I spent in higher education were successful by this rubric:

“Nothing you learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in later life – save only this: that if you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot. And that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education.”  – John Alexander Smith


I’m interested in creating useful visual representations of arguments, as I feel sure there is a good way to do it, but I haven’t seen one yet. (I’m currently working on an idea for one which will appear in Things when I have a first draft).

Here’s a version for the same-sex marriage debate by Patrick Farley, based on observed debates on Facebook, which is pretty good (click for big):

This week’s puzzle
As the number of people on the CC list for Things has grown, the amount of reply-to-all discussion seems to have decreased. Currently there are 11 people on it, including me.

It seems clear that some threshold has been passed and a CC list discussion really works best with around 5 people.

The puzzle is, how should this be resolved? For example, I could create one CC list for the first 5 people that were on it, and another for the rest. Or I could create one CC list for people from RAPP, and another for everyone else.

Both of these solutions have disadvantages. What do you think?

On a related note, how do you think I should credit people’s answers to each Week’s puzzles? (In the example below, I summarise the answers people gave that matched my own thinking, and cite by first name the answer I hadn’t considered).

Puzzle from Things 46
I asked for good ways to develop routines with time periods somewhere between daily and weekly. My answer was a spreadsheet programmed with the intended goals and frequencies and set to load up when I switch on my PC.

After trying this out for a few weeks it seems to be successful, and I’ve uploaded a demo version. For a given task, a given ‘davelength’ (a portmanteau of ‘day’ and ‘wavelength’, setting the intended number of days I want to elapse between instances of the task), and a weighting factor, the spreadsheet highlights if I am due to do any tasks today, and if so, which one to prioritise. Upon completing the task I just have to enter the current date in the ‘Date last done’ field.

It would probably work well as an iPhone app, which means someone has probably done it already.

Last week’s puzzle
Reasons people prefer reading writing on paper than a screen seem to breakdown in to 3 main categories:

1) Visual. Resolution and emissivity of screens are issues. In principle technology should be able to overcome these concerns.
2) Convenience. A piece of paper can be folded and put in a pocket, annotated, pinned to a wall, doesn’t need electricity, and is easily carried around to read in many situations. But once again, technology could theoretically match this in most regards, and exceed it in others – think adjustable font size, editing rather than crossing out, digital annotations (including a social aspect), searchable text, and backed up data, for a start.
3) Cultural Inertia. Even if technology addresses other concerns, people that have grown up reading from paper will be resistant to change. The added convenience factors mentioned above will have to be significant before a real transition can take place. (Thanks to Laurence for pointing out this one).


Things 101: Mystery Mirror, Cutaway Lens, Scientific Method Madness

I saw this strange insect-eye mirror on the ceiling inside a bank in Vienna. What is its purpose?

This puts into words something I’ve been feeling strongly over the past few years:

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

Lifehacker brings together different pieces of research to look at the Cognitive Cost of Doing Things. For me the most important one is Activation Energy (emphasis mine):

[S]tarting an activity seems to take a larger [amount] of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it. Required activation energy can be adjusted over time – making something into a routine lowers the activation energy to do it. Things like having poorly defined next steps increases activation energy required to get started.

The idea in the Aristotelian quote above is the reason I’ve built routines around all the things I want to do; the above sounds like the reason it’s been working.

Physical cutaway of a Leica lens, one of a few different angles you can see here.

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I linked to a New Yorker article that implicitly asked “What is Going Wrong with the Scientific Method?”

The article brings together an interesting collection of anecdotes, observations and studies that suggest in different ways that across many fields, after an effect is observed (e.g. effectiveness of a drug to treat a disease, ability of an individual to telepathically identify Zener cards) subsequent measurements of the same thing will see progressively weaker versions of that effect. This seems to undermine the scientific method, which uses replicability to sort chance results from real ones.

Unfortunately, the article is constructed in a way that tends to disguise how the different pieces of the puzzle relate to one another. I think the apparent effect can be adequately explained by the following:

1) Regression to the Mean
The article mentions this key idea relatively late on, but this is an essential background problem that many of the anecdotes have to be considered against. Cut straight to the ‘conceptual background’ section in the Wikipedia article to understand how this will tend to arise. (Note that this also tends to explain the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx).

2) Bad Luck
The main thread of the article follows Jonathan Schooler’s experience of the “decline effect”. The poor fellow saw his most interesting result seem to decay away with subsequent replication attempts; he later tried measuring some more fanciful things specifically to see if those would also show effects that seemed to weaken over time, and sure enough, they did. He could put the first instance down to some kind of Regression to the Mean, but to have this happen repeatedly seemed all too unlikely.

He doesn’t really help his case by testing for paranormal effects, but in any case with hundreds of thousands of scientists testing different things all over the world, statistically, someone will end up seeing a lot of Regressions to the Mean.

3) Intentional and Unintentional Cheating or Bias
In the article, a telepathy experiment from the 30s is cited in which one undergraduate defied chance to make a series of seemingly miraculous correct guesses of Zener cards. Just as the experimenter was about to write papers on the result, the student “lost” this ability. It’s very hard to take such a result seriously, as it seems far more likely the undergraduate had found some way of cheating, which he chose to stop using as soon as he saw how high the stakes were going to get.

More importantly for conventional research, the paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” highlights the kind of systematic effects that will unfortunately tend to produce a misleading overall impression if one considers the evidence for an effect purely based on published results. The New Yorker article mentions this paper by name and covers some of the observations, but it’s well worth a detailed read.

4) Placebo Effects in medicine
Even taken together, the above three ideas don’t seem to refute the large-scale “decline effects” the article mentions being observed in the field of medicine. I would suggest this is due to something else: problems with the placebo effect.

Richard recalled an article from New Scientist (which I can’t find online) that pointed to a general problem with double-blind drug studies: active drugs will often have side-effects, and placebos won’t. Patients in such a study that experience side effects are likely to assume they have been given the real drug and not the placebo, and will therefore enjoy a stronger placebo effect, so confounding the ability of any medical study to be truly double-blind.

Even more disastrously, as this Wired article notes, the placebo effect seems to be getting stronger over time, presumably because it relates to social perception of drug efficacy. This is exactly the kind of thing that would drive an apparent decline in effectiveness of many different drugs over time.

In Conclusion
The Scientific Method is fine. We just need to remember a few things about statistics. This XKCD should help somewhat.


Things 79: Stickers, Paulstretch, The Past In Colour

Tim Link
I inaugurated my personal blog (as opposed to my analysis type blog, Tower of the Octopus) with a write-up of how implementing a personal ‘achievement’ system (as in XBox achievements) with stickers made me have more fun on my holiday in Edinburgh:

Stickers Make Me Have More Fun

PaulStretch is an amazing application that takes music and applies “extreme stretching” with minimal distortion (and does a few other things as well). Although it has been around for years, it suddenly garnered widespread attention when Shamantis posted a stretched-out 35 minute version of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile”, which works extremely well:

J. BIEBZ – U SMILE 800% SLOWER by Shamantis

I tried PaulStretch out on some other tracks and got similarly nice results, but “U Smile” does have qualities that work particularly well in this form.

I’ve been listening to it while watching extreme slow motion videos, such as this one.

We are used to seeing certain time periods only in black and white just because of the timeline of colour photography development. However, pioneers of colour photography were active, and seeing their results is a strange experience.

1939- 1944 in colour

1909-1912 Russia in colour

Dorothy Gambrell (in Cat and Girl) has a line which sums up my feeling on looking at the above images:

“The past is just the present with different technology and funny clothes.”

An old classic this week.

There is a room with one light bulb in it, currently switched off. Outside the room you can’t tell if the light is on or off, and there are three light switches, only one of which operates the bulb: the basic challenge is to work out which one. In theory, you could flick a switch, go into the room to see if it worked, and if not come back out and flip the next switch, and so on. The challenge is to come up with a strategy in which you only need to enter the room once.

If that’s too easy, how about if there were four switches?

If you can manage that, how about if there were five? (I don’t know how to do that one, although Laurence claims it is possible. It may be that his setting of the puzzle is subtly different though…)

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked what answer to 2 + 4 — 3 + 5 would get you a tick from the teacher if you had just learned the BODMAS rule.

As Richard points out, BODMAS isn’t really consistent with the way we canonically parse equations (so the teacher would probably expect the answer 8, although strict application of BODMAS would yield -2), and there are better ways to teach it, as addressed in this Wikipedia entry.

The Week Before That’s Puzzle Again
Laurence supplies this excellent postscript to the Trigger’s Broom / Ship of Theseus problem set in Things 77:

“It has occurred to me that this could equally be applied to most armies,
governments, countries, football teams, religious cults, families, and
hell, humanity as a whole. At least one of these is the cause for things
like the situation in Northern Ireland, so I think if you could solve
Trigger’s Broom, then it could well go towards solving some larger
issues. (Albeit, possibly presenting people with some radically new ones
in the process!)”