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 26: Shoe Friends, Gondry Music Video, Sushi Cat

(Originally sent August 2008)

I  am now initiating a more nuanced system for Things, as more people get added to the mailing list. [Things was originally, and still is, an email publication – T.M. 6/11/10]

There will now be two separate mailing lists.

By default, everyone will be placed in the BCC mailing list. With all email addresses in BCC, this means your email address remains private, and you do not get involved in any ‘reply to all’ discussion.

Anyone can ask to be put on the CC list instead. It’s redundant but I’ll say it anyway: the only other people on this list are other people that chose to be on the CC list. They can see each other’s email addresses and can reply-to-all at will.

So, if you want to be moved onto the reply-to-all see-each-others-addresses list, just let me know.

This week’s film
I saw Dark Knight for the second time at the IMAX, which I recommend. Seeing it for the second time there that is, not the first time. A lot of the action does not read well on such a big screen and would make things more confusing than they already are.

Next Week’s film
All the films out now are rubbish or I’ve already seen them enough times.

Last week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked why Olympic records keep getting broken. I had my own theories about this, but I asked John Broughton who gave me a very thorough response:

  • Better drugs. Drugs an athlete took to enhance their performance six years ago will still enhance their performance now due to long lasting body improvements, but will not show up in a test.
  • Better drugs. There is always an arms race between the drug tests and those developing new drugs that won’t show up.
  • Better incentives. More money in more countries is being shifted to support sporting activity.
  • Bigger potential population. Globally the middle class is expanding, meaning more people are able to take the time to obsess about something. Given a bigger pool, better contenders will tend to emerge.

This week’s Puzzle
Now in an experimental new format!

There is a plate in this office that reads “Shoes are like friends… you can never have too many!!” Since I disagreed with both halves of this comparison, I wondered if the fundamental tenet might still hold true. Are shoes like friends?

So, here is the challenge: complete the phrase “Shoes are like friends…” so it fits your own view of shoes and friends, and I’ll report on what people sent in next week!

A video:
My favourite Michel Gondry music video, mixing his penchant for in-camera effects with music, dance and mental disturbance:

A link
One of the things I love about the paranormal is how easy it is for it to exist. Confirmation bias is such a powerful effect that even – in fact, especially – the most rational people will happily ignore or explain away anything that does not agree with their world-view. So things like this can happen, and nobody really bats an eyelid:

’40 die after deliverance prayer – Family of 3 dies of food poisoning’ [Link is dead, luckily the article was copied wholesale here – T.M. 4/11/10]

Interestingly, this news story has the more exciting headline and is actually much more plausible:

‘Portal to mythical Mayan underworld found in Mexico’

A quote
I was looking back on my life notes for the past 15 years to try and come up with a name for my forthcoming blog. I found that I once said this:

“You have to identify the things that will never happen, and avoid them.”

A picture
Food as art:


Things 10: 100 Scientists, Paranormal, Laika

(Originally sent April 2008)

This week’s film – one line review
Happy-Go-Lucky was a film about an optimistic nutter, her crazy friends and family, and an intense conspiracy-theorist driving instructor. It wasn’t really much more than these people interacting, but that was very entertaining nonetheless.

Next week’s film
Next week I plan to catch the preview of Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Imdb rating: 8.1 /10
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 83%

Trailer: FilmCrave seems to fill the niche I’ve been looking for of a film database with easy access to trailers:

The trailer doesn’t look entirely convincing to me, but it’s the guys that did Superbad and Knocked Up, and 8.1 and 83% are impressive figures, so that convinces me.

A Puzzle

It’s a serious one this time!

A mad dictator has his team of 100 scientists build him a superweapon. Having completed the task, he decides to kill them all, but his advisor convinces him to instead use the following method of killing, which will permit some to survive:

The 100 are to form a line, one behind the other, so the scientist at the back can see the 99 in front of him, the next scientist can see 98 but not the one behind, and so on. The dictator has 100 black hats and 100 white hats; he will go to each scientist in turn, flip a coin, and use the result to determine which hat they get. Each scientist cannot see which hat he gets, but can see all those in front of him.

The dictator will then take a gun, and starting with the scientist at the back, ask him to guess whether he has a black or a white hat on his head. If the scientist does anything other than say ‘black’ or ‘white’ in a monotone voice, he will be killed. If he is wrong, he will be killed. If he is right, he goes free. The dictator will then go to the next scientist in line and repeat the process all the way to the front of the line.

The advisor tells the scientists that this will happen in advance, so they are able to prepare some kind of strategy.

What strategy could they devise that would allow the most to survive?

A Quote
Me: Wow, this compilation has the Beach Boys on it!
My sister: What are they doing on there?!
Me: God Only Knows.

A Link
I’ve always been interested in the paranormal – both how it suggests there exist things we still can’t explain, and also the way people delude themselves into misinterpreting things. Just browsing this forum is absolutely incredible:

A video
The music video of one of my favourite tracks tells a dramatised version of the story of Laika, the dog that the Russians sent into orbit. The dog sings and the scientists dance. Brilliant!

A picture
The fun you can have attaching balloons to your car: