Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Ugh. This SO illustrates what I'm feeling right now.

After +4 hours of trying to get the workcomputer to work after the AFS broke down - which always makes the computer go absolutely haywire, and to do ANYTHING about it you need a person with a root password since you are obviously not competent enough to do it on your own - and an associated 4 sprints back-and-forth to the sysadmins three stairs down in the next building, I'm feeling just a little tad bitter. This Dilbert strip feels rater accurate :) (And they won't even give me an optical mouse instead of the shitty $5 mechanical mouse I'm using. And the printer server always eats my documents (telling me nicely that now it has sent everything to the printer though it hasn't) - and my collegue's documents). *headdesk*

Maybe I'd feel better if I was home in bed instead of working with a fever? Well, duh. But there's work that needs to be done.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

New HD, new speakers, same old computer

Stupid computer crashed for the second time in less than a week, two days ago. Or maybe for the 1.5th time - last time it finally decided to work after a kernel error and a number of failed reboots. First time I've had win XP actually crash on me.

Anyway, at the time of the second crash I had: 2 mysteriously "missing" HD:s (i e, they were physically in the computer but couldn't be found), one of which had been making really strange noises over the last weeks and the other one with a Win installation that was doing strange things, boot failures and a number of error messages claiming that a system file was trying to write to read-only memory. Ouch.

At least I reinstalled XP recently, so I had a pretty recent backup of everything. And I'd been thinking of getting a new HD anyway, since having a +3 yrs old HD (and an even older one for backup) was making me kind of nervous. So. New HD, new installation of Windows. And the old disk still makes the system go batshit crazy if it is connected, so now I'll try to find a way to reformat it (tricky, without connecting it) and se if that helps. Bleh.

As consolation I got myself nice speakers. (I never liked the old ones and have thus done without for the last year - gave them to a friend recently). Music :)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Research on kids, games and violence seems strangely jumbled

In the news, last friday, was a meta-study of children and violent games. The ever-burning question, of course, was if children who play violent games become more violent than other children. Not so surprisingly (irony alert), the study found that children did become more violent in the short term when playing violent games. This bugs me:

1) Studies included stretched over 20 years. The world, as experienced by kids, has actually changed quite substantially in the last 20 years. Not to mention how much computer games have changed in the last 20 years. So, I do not think the long timespan makes the study more valid. It merely makes for a lot of uncontrollable parameters.

2) The definition of "violent game" was not at all similar between the studies. We can all agree that "violent" has many different meanings, right? Even in computer games. especially in a 20-year old computer game compared to one from last year.

3) Differing recruiting methods of subjects. Some studies recruited children (randomly, I assume), and let them all play the same game for 10 minutes, whereupon they were asked to grade how they felt on a verbal scale. Other studies investigated children who often played violent games, compared to other (non-gaming?) children.

For instance (citation, from Newswise):

In another study of over 600 8th and 9th graders, the children who spent more time playing violent video games were rated by their teachers as more hostile than other children in the study. The children who played more violent video games had more arguments with authority figures and were more likely to be involved in physical altercations with other students. They also performed more poorly on academic tasks.

Does it sound like damning evidence to you? If so, consider this: "Children who perform badly in school have more arguments with authority figures and are more likely to be involved in physical altercations with other students. They also tend to play more violent computer games than other children". Same information, different wording. (And the situation in the first sentence sounds familiar). Y'know, with all the pent-up frustration from school/authority/peer pressure, I'd probably enjoy playing violent games to let off some steam myself. And if frustrated children play more violent games, of course you will have more frustrated children in your sample when you specifically recruit players of "violent games". Duh.

And, as an aside: many computer games are designed specifically to let you succeed "just enough" to keep you maximally challenged and minimally bored. Not at all like most school work...

4) Inconsistent grouping into categories.

citation (same Newswise):

The authors also found that boys tend to play video games for longer periods of time than girls. Boys may play more of these types of video games, said Kieffer, because women are portrayed in subordinate roles and the girls may find less incentive to play. But those girls who did play violent video games, according to the review, were more likely to prefer playing with an aggressive toy and were more aggressive when playing.

Mhm. So let me hazard a guess here (or, rather, let me point out what I see in the text combined with some general knowledge of scientific studies): some studies divide children into boys and girls, and some studies divide them into "(violent-)game-players" and "non-players". And as they say in the above citation, more boys than girls play video games. If, in both instances, there are approximately as many girls as boys , then the "non-players" group is going to have a disproportionate number of girls. Now, I certainly don't subscribe to the "it's given by nature that girls are little angels but boys are born to be aggressive" bullshit. BUT. Due to the heavy socialization if nothing else, the girls as a group will tend to be rather less aggressive than the boys as a group. So, then the "non-players" are going to be less aggressive (and presumably less violent) than the "violent-game-players". Due to how groups were constructed and social factors outside of the study, and not at all due to the games. Duh (again).

5) So much of this seems to build on the notion that children are peaceful, loving little creatures that wouldn't normally hurt a fly (until they met the Evil Violent Computer Games). Haven't these people ever visited a schoolyard?

6) The possible link between self-esteem and aggression (or assertiveness) seems to be overlooked most of the time . Part of what draws people to computer games certainly is that they have clear goals that are relatively easy to fulfill (compared to real-life problems). Quite often you come out of a gaming session with the feeling that you did stuff and had some (or a lot of) success, whatever the game was you played. Maybe a way to correct for this could be to have groups of children playing different games - preferably as similar to each other as possible but with differing levels of violence - rather than a playing and a non-playing group. I'd suspect that many of the researchers are not gamers at all, and then this could be quite easy to miss.

7) And as long as the semi-accepted (or at least the politically correct) view is that violent games will make children violent ( i.e hurt them), there's no way an ethical committe will approve long-term studies on only non-gaming (peaceful and problem-free) children that are recruited to play a violent game (and a non-violent game for the control group, of course) over a longer stretch of time to see if they become more violent. That would be interesting to see the results of, but that won't happen and instead we get lots of politics dressed up as (pseudo-)science. Sigh.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The shortest day of my life so far

I realized this morning that this will actually be the shortest day in my life so far - at least formally, since I'm flying in the "right" direction (from US to Sweden). The 7-hour time difference will essentially eat one night's sleep, and I'll arrive around biological-clock-midnight but formal-time-breakfast in Sweden. That will be interesting. Jetlag the other way around wasn't that dramatical, but I assume that this will be different. Looking at it from a scientific perspective will hopefully make me feel less miserable...

And talking about science, there is an interesting discussion at 3 Quarks Daily about science and esthetics - how scientists sometimes search for "beautiful" theories rather than correct ones, and the implications of that. Of course, scientists' notions of beauty are not always those of the general public - I'd say they are often more centered around usefulness and function, or theoretical clarity.

And he mentions Dawkins, building a quite a large part of his discussion around memes. I am strongly ambivalent about Dawkins' work - surely, he has some interesting ideas. But I think that misconceptions and/or misapplications of Dawkins' ideas have done some real damage to the general thinking (especially this "selfish gene" thinking, that combined with the general public's unknowing lack of knowledge about biology/genetics/evolution has given us quite a few really bad "in the stoneage, where people did this and that" arguments - often used by scientists in other fields).

Anyway, it is pointed out that there are very few people that know both science and philosophy and that this means that there are few discussions about the philosophy of science. Might be true. But I think that it is also a case of trying to mix oil and water - scientific thinkers find philosophy fuzzy and badly underbuilt by facts, while philosophers find scientific thinking rigid and limited (of course I'm generalizing). On the other hand, when you do mix oil and water, you tend to end up with really interesting things. :)

And by the way, I hope this one-post-per-month thing isn't going to last forever. But since Other Blog Project is going well, that has kind of taken most of my time (usually, time that would otherwise be reserved for sleeping) and might continue to do so for a while.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Most stupid evolutionary explanation ever?

Reading a rather interesting article from New Scientist - PET scans of women's brains during sex and orgasms. Apparently a rather large part of the brain - including parts responsible for emotion - simply "shut down" during the orgasms. It could also be seen that during stimulation, activity levels in areas responsible for alertness and anxiety went down. This they take to correspond to that women cannot climax when they are stressed and/or worried - it seems like a bit of a circular argument to me; it could just as well be interpreted as "women become less stressed when having sex". But, well, that view would of course require one to assume that women naturally enjoy sex, not only in special cases...

And then comes this absolute gem among stupid explanations: "From an evolutionary point of view, it could be that the brain switches off the emotions during sex because at such times the chance to produce offspring becomes more important than the survival risk to the individual. " Hellooo? Ever heard of 9 months pregancy? *snort*

I would be OK with someone saying something like "evolutionarily speaking, to become less anxious when mating is a good strategy since mating requires one to overcome part of ones anxiety for being physically close to another human". That might be what they were after in the first place ... but trying to explain women becoming less anxious during sex with that their survival risk becomes less important since they will have offspring is ... well, stupid.

Interesting was also that they had done the same study on men, but it was much harder. PET scan is a slow method with poor time resolution, and for the men it was over in a couple of seconds...

Monday, June 20, 2005

Become fat -> earn less and lose prestige - if you're a woman

In the area of depressing but not really surprising research, I found this: Research Shows Women's Weight Gain Brings Loss of Income, Job Prestige (Science Daily).

The results: women who are fat get less prestigious jobs and earn less, but on men being fat has no impact on their prospects (and yes, they checked that it was not the other way around - being fat lead to loss of prestige, not the other way around). Fat women also had spouses who held less prestigious jobs and earned less (and I suppose that for some people, the prestige of a woman's spouse is also a measure of her own prestige, even if I wouldn't view it that way).

It was found that a 1 percent increase in a woman's body mass results in a .6 percentage point decrease in her family income and a .4 percentage point decrease in her occupational prestige as measured 13 to 15 years later.

*sigh*. Well, I guess it isn't news that women in cases like these are more affected by breaking of prescriptive stereotypes.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Biology is not magic

My poor, neglected blog. Lots of travelling the last two months. During the last trip I actually wrote a couple of prospective blog entries on paper, but all of that may not make it here. For me, blogging is mostly about the inspiration of the moment - not so much about planning.

Anyway, todays theme is: Biology is not magic. I might consider printing a T-Shirt with that slogan: recently I've been quite fed up with people - mostly rational, well-educated people - that have little or no knowledge about biology and biological processes going all "Oooh! Shiny!" and using "this will be done similarly to biological processes" or "this is biomimetic (similar to biology)" as a motivation for how to do something. I'm thinking mostly of industry and technology now, but this might apply in some other areas as well.

(and then of course we have the infamous "in the stone age men were hunters and women took care of kids" which seems to be endlessly useful as a "proof" for whatever loose statement someone fell like making. Bleh. That is almost unprovable due to lack of scientific data, and there are other issues as well)

Really, people. Why is it that so many intellectuals in economy, physics, computer science and other well-established areas seem to totally lack an ablility for logical, critical thinking when it comes to seeking inspiration from biology? Is it some kind of wish-fullfillment; "I secretly wanted to go into biology, but since it pays less/my parents wanted me to do X, I didn't - and look, now I can solve biological problems anyway! Or is it a "I recently became bored with my subject of research/I desperatly need a new research profile to get funding" sort of thing?

You know, the worst case I've seen yet was: "I use a 10-node neural network. Neural networks are brain-inspired, so this is a biology-like analysis, which means it is a good analysis." And this from a senior scientist. Shudder. What about input data, for starters? I can't imagine that explicitly putting non-biological data into a "biological" analysis method would do any good. It's like trying to type your C++ program in chinese - wouldn't be likely to work. And even a rather clueless person should be able to guess that humans have at least 1 million neuron in the brain (the real figure is much much larger) - and if your method is 100,000 times less complex than the thing you compare it to, do you relly think it will work in the same way?

We, as a human species, need to get our minds around the fact that humans are not the epitome of perfection (neither is the rest of creation, for that matter). I suppose this notion comes from the heritage of "created in the image of God", or maybe it is simply cognitive bias. In some cases this leads to pure sexism (the idea that women are a less perfect variety of men has been prominent through much of history), in other cases it leads to racism, or ageism, or ...

Neither is evoultion some kind of engineering process. It is a slow, noise-ridden random optimisation process with a huge amount of dimensions. Sure, if you run your optimisation algorithm many times you may get a good result. But you'll never know if you get stuck in some kind of local minimum along the way - and the higher the number of dimensions, the slower is the process. As long as biology works better than what you have right now - by all mean, use it for inspiration for your technological improvements. But be critical. Think about what your assumptions mean and whether they are valid. Consult a biologist who is an expert on the system you want to mimic. And remember that there may be much better solutions that nature simply hasn't come round to yet.