Pi is wrong?

This is cute:

More here and here. She’s a bit like Salman Khan – she makes learning more fun and she’s very pleasant to listen to (in my opinion). They work well together too.

Here’s another video from her youtube channel:


October 31, 2011 Posted by | Mathematics | Leave a comment

A ressource (Nalimov Endgame Tablebases)

Here we are.

It’s simple: Enter the position you want to evaluate, see what ‘the program’ says. If you limit yourself to endgame positions with 6 pieces (and avoid 5+1 situations – but let’s just say these aren’t terribly important in praxis), it has all the answers. Every single one. Chess is basically ‘solved’ for these positions. And now you can look up the answer and get it in no time, at no cost.

To take an example: Imagine a position with a black king on g2, a black queen on f3 vs a white pawn on d5, a white king on d6 and a white queen on a5. Like this:

To people who don’t already know, queen endgames are insanely complicated and this is wildly complex stuff. Many master players would end up drawing this because of imprecise play. In the position above, with white to move he has 23 options – there are 23 moves he can play, 16 queen moves and 7 moves by the king. There is one, and only one, winning move – every single other move will either draw or lose him the game with correct play by black. The winning move is Kc7. There are 52 moves more to go before the win is secured.

This is an extremely cool ressource!

October 30, 2011 Posted by | Chess | 1 Comment

Human Microbiology (ii)

First post in the series here. You can buy it here. I put it away temporarily a while ago, but this week I tried having another go at it. I’ve now read something like 2/3rds of the book, and I’ve taken a look at almost all chapters – which also means that I’ve skipped some stuff here and there. It’s a good book, and it’s actually reasonably accessible, though it’s not easy. Most of the stuff in the first post was about bacteria, but of course the book also has some stuff about viruses and fungi. Some more material below, I’ve decided to limit myself to dealing with stuff related to viruses in this post. They are actually quite interesting (things? …buggers?):

i. “Viruses are succesful parasites; they infect all the main types of living organisms from animals, plants and insects to fungi and bacteria. Viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages.
Viruses are obligate intracellular parasites. They have an absolute requirement on the host cell for manufacture of new virus components. Viruses do not multiply by binary fission but instead are assembled from component parts (nucleic acid and protein). This can only occur inside the host cell. Hence, viruses are inert outside of their hosts. With no need for a basal metabolic activity to retain viability, viruses have no need to carry ribosomes or other organelles or metabolic pathways. They simply are particles that can be copied and built by the cells that they infect. […]
In the process of becoming entirely parasitic, certain viruses have lost the minimum amount of genetic information such that they are unable to replicate outside the host cell unless aided by another virus. Such viruses are called defective viruses. […] Certain viruses have lost so much nucleic acid that they are simply infectious strands of RNA. Called viroids, these agents lack even a protective protein coat surrounding the RNA strand yet are able to infect plants, transmitted following mechanical abrasion of the plant surface. […]
Viruses resemble living organisms in that they have a genome and are able to replicate and evolve. Indeed, they have biological properties such as particular host ranges, routes of transmission and tissue tropism. Viruses, however, do not create or store free energy in compounds such as ATP and have no intrinsic metabolic activity outside their host cells (unlike spores or seeds) and are therefore not alive, at least for part of their existence. These comparisons place viruses in between chemicals and true living organisms. Attempting to include the important features, a definition of a virus is thus:

A microscopic organism that invades and only reproduces inside living cells. Viruses possess one type of nucleic acid, are unable to replicate by binary fission but are assembled and do not undertake independent energetic metabolism.” […]

“One of the most unusual features of viruses is the presence of only one type of nucleic acid. Whereas other organisms possess both DNA and RNA, viruses have only one nucleic acid, DNA or RNA, never both.”

ii. “The virus-infected cell should be seen as a controlled hijacking of the normal cell by an intruder. The replication strategy will depend on the type of genome, and the release of the virus will determine the pattern of infection within the host.
A number of differences are apparent when comparing viral replication with bacterial replication (Figure 3.8) [a good figure, not going to draw it]. A virus replicates itself from scratch, starting from the transcription of its nucleic acid, whereas a new bacterial cell is derived from a pre-existing bacterial cell as it doubles its cellular components and divides, a process not driven from nucleic acid transcription. This is partly reflected in the time taken to form new viruses and bacteria. A bacterium dividing in culture can be a relatively short event (20 minutes for Esch. coli), whereas the replication of a virus takes roughly 8 hours to complete. Whilst the bacterial cell doublings can be estimated during exponential bacterial growth, numbers of viruses produced from a single virus within one host cell cannot be predicted. The integration of the host cell machinery with that of the virus makes the targets for antiviral compounds all the more difficult.” […]

The replication of the virus can be divided into five stages, reflecting the general sequence of events:

*transcription of the genome,
*virus assembly,
*virus release. [the book spends 8 pages on these five concepts, so I’m not going into details about this part here.

iii. “If a virus grows intracellularly and does not kill the cell one might expect that infected cells remain indistinguishable from uninfected cells. Fortunately, certain viruses betray their presence by causing such disruption to the cells that they cause visible cytopathic effect (CPE). This is a general term for any alteration in the morphology of the cells caused by the virus. Not all viruses induce cytopathic effects. […] Examples of various cytopathic effects are shown in Figure 3.14, and discussed below.

*Formation of inclusion bodies. Unusual organelles may appear within virus-infected cells and are described as ‘inclusion bodies‘. […]
*Changes in the shape of the infected cells. […]
*Cell lysis. The lysis of cells by a virus is a feature of several viruses when grown in cell lines. The pattern of the gaps left by the detached dead cells from the cell monolayer is called a ‘plaque’. […] Lytic viruses cause the cell to disrupt, typically when non-enveloped virus particles are released. Clearly this is fatal to the cell in question.
*Cell fusion. Infected cells may fuse and form multinucleate cells called syncytia when infected with certain viruses. […]
*Haemadsorption. […]

iv. “At a conservative estimate, there are at least thirty different viruses from fifteen taxonomic families that are common causes of human illness. This number does not take into consideration the serological types that exist in many of these viruses. So the common cold we are taking as one virus, whereas there are over eighty serological types of rhinovirus. As every human will be infected by viruses in their lifetime, we must concede that viruses are efficient parasites of humans.” […]

“Because it is only those people with symptoms who come to our attention, it is easy to overlook the fact that most viral infections are asymptomatic. […] The proportion of susceptible people who develop illness from those who are infected is called the attack rate

The book makes it clear in a table and a figure neither of which I can easily reproduce that there are basically four types of viral infections, when using duration as the decision parameter: Acute, persistent, latent and slow. Examples given of the four types are: Rhinovirus (common cold), chronic hepatitis B, Herpes simplx and BSE (mad cow disease). Their strategies differ somewhat:

“The acute infections rely on rapid multiplication of virus in order to manufacture and shed (transmit) new virus before the host has had time to mount a neutralising immunity. […] Persistent infections in the host (not the environment) are those in which the virus is not eliminated but, having established itself, will persist for the lifetime of the host. The virus is either replicating at a very low level continually, such as chronic hapatitis virus infections, or is latent for most of the time but periodically undergoes a short burst of full replication in which infectious virus is manufactured and released, e.g. Herpes simplex in cold sores. Many persistent virus infections are acquired as children with little or no pathology and then persist for life.” […]

“Viruses have adopted various strategies to out-manoeuvre the host, in particular to evade or suppress the immune response that attempts to develop antiviral products. It is useful to consider the broader strategies before looking at cellular mechanisms.
*Evasion of immune response. Viruses can replicate in tissues that are relatively protected from surveillance by immune cells (e.g. brain, dermis). Alternatively, they can avoid extracellular states in the course of infection. […]
*Suppression of immune response. Some virus infections infect the immune cells that mount the immune response in order to suppress them. […]

The following list illustrates how viruses have attempted to modulate various points of the immune response.

*Minimise recognition by the host. For viruses that cause systemic infections, the first entry of virus into the bloodstream during a viraemic phase will attract the attention of Complement components. Certain viruses produce molecular mimics (homologues) of Complement components which will block the Complement cascade attacking the free virion. These homologues are termed viroceptors. Mimicry is also used by enveloped viruses which include host proteins in the viral envelope to mask their recognition as ‘foreign’. […]
*Inhibit production of interferon. Interferon production is an important early step in the defence against viral infections. Viruses need to interfere with the action of interferon to establish an infection. One way to counter the action of interferon, is for viruses to secrete molecular mimics of IFN receptors. In this way IFN binds to the competing mimic receptor, rather than real receptor on the virus-infected cell. […]
*Modulation of cytokine action. […]
*Prevent apoptosis. Apoptosis, programmed cell suicide, occurs only if a cell receives a signal to proceed. That signal may be triggered by the presence of a virus. In general, viruses try to prevent the cell from carrying out this self-destruction and numerous examples exist of viruses producing proteins that inhibit apoptosis.”

October 29, 2011 Posted by | Biology, Books, Microbiology | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. Salem witch trials.

If you grew up in the US, you’ve probably heard about these in school. If you didn’t, most likely you haven’t. I had heard the name but knew nothing else. Some of the stuff here’s also part of why it’s awesome to live in the present (in a Western, modern society…), apropos the previous post:

“The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. […]
The best-known trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused but not formally pursued by the authorities. All twenty-six who went to trial before this court were convicted. […] The episode is one of the most famous cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, lapses in due process, and local governmental intrusion on individual liberties.” […]

“In the small Salem Village as in the colony at large, all of life was governed by the precepts of the Church, which was Calvinist in the extreme. Music, dancing, celebration of holidays such as Christmas and Easter, were absolutely forbidden,[19] as they supposedly had roots in Paganism. The only music allowed at all was the unaccompanied singing of hymns—the folk songs of the period glorified human love and nature, and were therefore against God. Toys and especially dolls were also forbidden, and considered a frivolous waste of time.[20] The only schooling for children was in religious doctrine and the Bible, and all the villagers were expected to go to the meeting house for three-hour sermons every Wednesday and Sunday. Village life revolved around the meeting house, and those celebrations permitted, such as those celebrating the harvest, were centered there.[21]” […]

“Dorothy Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, was only 4 years old, and when questioned by the magistrates her answers were construed as a confession, implicating her mother.” […] “Sarah Osborne, one of the first three accused, died in jail on May 10, 1692.” [She was arrested in January or February – so let’s just say ‘natural causes’ is not the most likely explanation, US] […]

“Much, but not all, of the evidence used against the accused was spectral evidence, or the testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition or the shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them. The theological dispute that ensued about the use of this evidence centered on whether a person had to give permission to the Devil for his/her shape to be used to afflict. Opponents claimed that the Devil was able to use anyone’s shape to afflict people, but the Court contended that the Devil could not use a person’s shape without that person’s permission; therefore, when the afflicted claimed to see the apparition of a specific person, that was accepted as evidence that the accused had been complicit with the Devil.”

ii. Dunbar’s number.

“Dunbar’s number is suggested to be a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 230, with a commonly used value of 150.[2] Dunbar’s number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.”

iii. German battleship Scharnhorst

Try to imagine a ship that was almost a quarter of a kilometer long, that weighed more than 6000 elephants and which managed to not get destroyed by airplanes throwing bombs weighing half a ton down on it. The ship also had more people onboard than lived in the town where I grew up.

iv. Cargo cult

“A cargo cult is a religious practice that has appeared in many traditional pre-industrial tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults focus on obtaining the material wealth (the “cargo”) of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices. Cult members believe that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors. Cargo cults developed primarily in remote parts of New Guinea and other Melanesian and Micronesian societies in the southwest Pacific Ocean, beginning with the first significant arrivals of Westerners in the 19th century. Similar behaviors have, however, also appeared elsewhere in the world.

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

Over the last sixty-five years, most cargo cults have disappeared. However, some cargo cults are still active…” […]

“With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles.[5]”

v. Destruction of country houses in 20th-century Britain

“Since 1900, 1,200 country houses have been demolished in England.[7] In Scotland, the figure is proportionally higher. There, 378 architecturally important country houses have been destroyed, 200 of these since 1945.[8][9] Included in the destruction were works by Robert Adam, including Balbardie House and the monumental Hamilton Palace. One firm, Charles Brand of Dundee, demolished at least 56 country houses in Scotland in the 20 years between 1945 and 1965.[10] In England, it has been estimated that one in six of all country houses were demolished during the 20th century.[3]” […]

“Death duties are the taxes most commonly associated with the decline of the British country house. They are not, in fact, a phenomenon peculiar to the 20th century, as they had first been introduced in 1796. “Legacy Duty” was a tax payable on money bequeathed from a personal estate. Next of kin inheriting were exempt from payment, but anyone other than wives and children of the deceased had to pay on an increasing scale depending on the distance of the relationship from the deceased. These taxes gradually increased not only the percentage of the estate that had to be paid, but also to include closer heirs liable to payment. By 1815, the tax was payable by all except the spouse of the deceased.[36]

In 1853, a new tax was introduced, “Succession duty.” This not only resulted in tax being payable on all forms of inheritance, but also removed several loopholes to avoid paying inheritance taxes.[36] In 1881 “Probate Duty” became payable on all personal property bequeathed at death. The wording personal property meant that for the first time not only the house and its estate were taxed but also the contents of the house including jewellery – these were often of greater value than the estate itself. By 1884 Estate Duty taxed property of any manner bequeathed at death, but even when the Liberal government in 1894 reformed and tidied the complicated system at 8% on properties valued at over one million pounds, they were not punitive to a social class able to live comfortably off inherited wealth far below that sum. Death duties, however, slowly increased and became a serious problem for the country estate throughout the first half of the 20th century, reaching a zenith when assisting in the funding of World War II. This proved to be the deciding factor for many families when in 1940 death duties were raised from 50% to 65%, and following the cessation of hostilities they were twice raised further between 1946 and 1949. Attempts by some families to avoid paying death duties backfired. Some estate owners had given their properties to their heirs in advance of their own deaths to escape duties; when subsequently the heir was killed fighting, death duties became immediately payable and the estate would then pass back to the elderly former owner, who in turn would die before the first death duties had been paid. In this way some estates were financially exhausted.”

Some of the houses that didn’t make it:

October 28, 2011 Posted by | History, Psychology, Wikipedia | 5 Comments

»Liva« – en befolkningsundersøgelse af kvinders seksualvaner

“Medianalderen ved seksuel debut blandt de seksuelt aktive kvinder var 16 år.”

Her er linket. Jeg har ikke fundet en tilsvarende undersøgelse for mænd, det ville ellers være interessant at kunne sammenligne på tværs af køn. Ja, jeg ved godt, at det er selvrapporterede data, der sandsynligvis ikke er 100 procent troværdige, men lad os bare for øjeblikket lade som om de er.

“MATERIALE OG METODER: Vi anvendte data fra en populationsbaseret spørgeskemaundersøgelse, der blev udført i perioden
2004-2005 blandt 20.478 kvinder (18-45 år) (svarprocent: 81,4%).” […]

“KONKLUSION: Vi fandt, at kortere skoleuddannelse er associeret med tidlig seksuel debut og »aldrig brug af kondom«.
Endvidere fandt vi, at det at være bosat i de tættest befolkede områder i Danmark er associeret med et højere antal seksualpartnere.”

Ikke det væsentligste, for det var mildt sagt ikke overraskende. Det er tallene i rapporten, der gør den læseværdig.

Nogle tal fra tabel 1: For aldersgruppen 18-20 år har over 85 % af alle kvinder haft deres seksuelle debut. Blandt de 20-25 årige har ca. 95 % af alle kvinder haft deres seksuelle debut. 99 % af alle kvinder i alderen 26-30 år har ifølge undersøgelsen haft sex. Et sted mellem 14-17 % af kvinderne i alderen 18-20 år havde deres seksuelle debut før de fyldte 15 år, og givet undersøgelsens data lader dette tal til at være svagt stigende. Tendensen til tidligere seksualdebut i populationen er dog ikke klar: “I vores undersøgelse fandt vi en tendens til, at de yngste kvinder havde haft tidligere seksuel debut end kvinderne i de øvrige aldersgrupper. I nogle danske studier af helt unge er den mediane debutalder fundet at være relativt konstant gennem de seneste 20 år [10, 12, 14], mens resultaterne fra andre danske undersøgelser i lighed med vores resultater indikerer et fald i debutalderen [9, 15-18]. Imidlertid kan det være svært at afgøre definitivt ud fra de foreliggende undersøgelser, om der er sket et fald…” Omtrent 80 % af de 21-25 årige kvinder har haft mere end en seksualpartner, og over havldelen har haft 5 eller flere. Over en tredjedel af de 26-30 årige kvinder har ifølge undersøgelsen haft 10 eller flere seksualpartnere – og der er flere i denne del-gruppe end i nogen af de øvrige grupper (0, 1-4, 5-9). Givet en medianalder for seksuel debut på 16 år indebærer dette tal en ny seksualpartner om året.

Tal fra tabel 2: Individer med højst 9. klasses afgangseksamen var dobbelt så tilbøjelige til at have haft deres seksuelle debut i en alder af 15 eller derunder. De var også langt mere tilbøjelige til at svare, at de aldrig havde brugt kondom (OR = 2,53 – 95% KI: 2,15-2,97) – hvilket, som undersøgelsen også påpeger, samtidig betyder at de sandsynligvis også har højere risiko for at lide af seksuelt overførte sygdomme. Indbyggere fra hovedstaden havde en stærkt forhøjet sandsynlighed for at have haft flere seksualpartnere end gennemsnittet. Der er også langt færre af dem, der aldrig har brugt kondom. Base rate her er 8,1 %: “Blandt kvinder, som havde haft seksuel debut, rapporterede 8,1% (95% KI: 7,7-8,5) aldrig at have brugt kondom.” Tallet var 15,4 % for kvinder med 9. klasse eller derunder og 5,9 % for kvinder med gymnasial uddannelse. For hovedstadens kvinder er tallet 4,9 %. Disse tal er langt højere end jeg ville have troet – dette er ikke individer, som har dyrket ubeskyttet sex; dette er individer, der ikke har dyrket andet end ubeskyttet sex.

Det er ikke en lang rapport (6 sider), så jeg kan kun anbefale dig at læse den i sin helhed, hvis du fandt posten her interessant.

October 28, 2011 Posted by | Data | Leave a comment

Reasons why living in the present is awesome

So, every now and then you come across one of these ‘many of my particular habits would fit in well with what I believe 18th century style living was like, maybe I’m living in the wrong century’ type posts. I just read one of them – which is why I’m posting this now. I’m not arguing people aren’t different and as thought experiments go, I guess you could do a lot worse. But here are some reasons why people perhaps don’t really compare apples to apples when engaging in mindgames like these:

i. Most people when engaging in these thought experiments seem to think that if they were to live in the 19th century, they’d be a nobleman or some such. Problem is, most people living in the 19th century (and earlier on) were peasants. Peasants who hadn’t even heard about tractors. Maybe they’d heard about Monsieur the Marquis, but that’s not quite the same thing. If you weren’t a peasant, you were probably a servant. Doing hard labour most of the time for very little pay.

ii. ‘I read a lot – and I mostly read the classics, so it’d be awesome to live back in the day where Dickens or Shakespeare lived!’ Guess what, if you go back 200 years, most people either couldn’t read or read very badly. They also couldn’t afford books, which was what got that whole library thing going. Because even if you could read, books were expensive. So was everything else. And if you’d like to read Mark Twain and you were living in Russia, good luck! Also, hardly anybody but those belonging to the nobility and the clergy spoke a second language. If you were to pop up in a relatively small linguistic region (like Denmark) in 1820, odds are no translations of what we now consider contemporary major works would even be available to you. If the book was not in stock, odds are you could not afford to get your hands on it.

iii. Spare time. A lot of it was spent doing stuff that wasn’t a lot of fun, like washing clothes without a washing machine. Also, for many people there wasn’t as much of it, on account of that ‘working 12 hours/day doing backbreaking labour in the sun’-thing. Further, not a lot of stuff to do if you actually had time for yourself. Reading classics probably isn’t as much fun if you have to do it in a small smelly hut with poor lighting late at night after a long days work.

iv. Travels! How far can you go in a horse carriage compared to a modern airplane? How long would it take you to go to Brazil for a vacation if you were living in Europe (ignoring the fact that you’d never be able to pay the ticket)? Go back two centuries and you’d probably find that a majority of Danes never left the country during their entire lives, perhaps but for a trip or two to North Germany or Sweden.

v. Modern medicine. Likelihood of not dying in child-labour. Probability of surviving to the age of 60. Cancer was a death sentence, but so were lots of common bacterial infections, like those causing tuberculosis or pneumonia, because they were equally untreatable. Also, remember that living even a decade after you’ve retired is a new thing almost unheard of before the 20th century. I’ve previously posted this:

In, say, 1820 people didn’t work to the age of 50 and then retired until they died at the age of 60. Most of them probably died within weeks or days of no longer being abled to work (…if they were lucky?). Being a nobleman was a bit different, yeah, but most people weren’t noblemen. And health is not just about not dying – imagine how much fun it was to go to the dentist in the year 1850. Eyeglasses and that kind of stuff has also come a long way (both in quality and price). Over-the-counter pain medications. Hearing aids.

vi. Mobile phones. Or maybe just phones. Internet. Tv. Cars. Central heating. Also, remember how easy and cheap it was to move tropical fruits like bananas thousands of kilometres back in 1850? Indoor plumbing. Clothes (Hint: There’s a difference between what people actually wore in 1870 and what they wear when you watch a film pretending to be going on in 1870. Also, how do you think a top of the line running shoe looked like in 1845?) Or, if going back to the travel thing, how do you think the roads looked like – like it would be fun to travel hundreds of miles on them in a horse carriage? Credit cards.

viii. If you are a female, your life would have sucked bigtime. Going back just 150 years and in a lot of the places that today really treat females quite well a female would not even have had the ability to own stuff – the property would either belong to your husband or a male guardian, like your father. Arranged marriages are still widespread today in many regions of the world, but they were also pretty much the norm in most developed societies a few hundred years ago, so you can also forget about having much of a say in who you’d marry if you were to go back to 1800 and start a life there. It would also be very difficult for you to divorce the bastard after he’d started beating you or perhaps had taken up drinking (/and)or gambling. Birth control? There’s no such thing. And there’s also no such thing as ‘marital rape’ anywhere in the legal statutes. Add the high likelihood of dying in child labour.

Other people who also would probably have a hard time living a really nice life a couple of centuries ago: Homosexuals, atheists, people who like to make fun of a king and queen wearing ridiculous clothes, modern females who’d like to go topless at the beach, people who’d prefer not to go to church every sunday, people with black skin (and why do so many of these people assume they’d end up as a westerners? Maybe the idea of living in Egypt in the year 1820 isn’t all that compelling, but millions of people did),…

The past isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Because of historians, it isn’t even what it used to be.

October 25, 2011 Posted by | History, rambling nonsense, Random stuff | Leave a comment

If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren’t There More Happy People? (4)

(When I posted this, wordpress told me that this is post number 1200 I’ve written on this blog. I’ve deleted quite a few posts along the way so there aren’t that many in the archives, but anywway that’s the number I’ve written.)

Some more quotes from the book:

i. “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

ii. “A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized.” Fred Allen

iii. “It is easy to become a father, but very difficult to be a father.” Wilhelm Busch

iv. “The only reward of virtue is virtue: the only way to have a friend is to be one.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

v. “No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” Bertrand Russell

vi. “Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed.” William Penn

vii. “If you observe a really happy man, you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under a radiator.” W. Beran Wolfe

viii. “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” Oscar Wilde

ix. “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” Ingrid Bergman

x. “If only we wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” Charles de Montesquieu

xi. “It is human nature to hate the one whom you have hurt.” Tacitus

xii. “In heaven all the interesting people are missing.” Nietzsche

xiii. “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” George Santayana. I probably wouldn’t put it quite like that…

xiv. “History is but glorification of murderers and robbers.” Karl Popper.

xv. “The number of victims of robbers, highwaymen, rapists, gangsters and other criminals at any period of history is negligible compared to the massive numbers of those cheerfully slain in the name of the true religion, just policy, or correct ideology.” Arthur Koestler

xvi. “Hope is the feeling we have that the feeling we have is not permanent.” Mignon McLaughlin

xvii. “We cannot heal the wounds we do not feel.” S. R. Smalley

xviii. “Man is ready to die for an idea, provided that the idea is not quite clear to him.” Paul Eldridge

October 24, 2011 Posted by | Books, History, Quotes/aphorisms | 2 Comments

Liszt 200 years

Technically yesterday was the day to post this, but I must admit I simply forgot. Given my background I’m bound to focus on the piano stuff but of course he did other stuff as well.

October 23, 2011 Posted by | Music | Leave a comment

Random stuff

i. Perhaps most ‘imposter-syndrome’ sufferers are really imposters who do not suffer from imposter-syndrome. Convoluted? Well:

“Social psychologists have studied what they call the impostor phenomenon since at least the 1970s, when a pair of therapists at Georgia State University used the phrase to describe the internal experience of a group of high-achieving women who had a secret sense they were not as capable as others thought. Since then researchers have documented such fears in adults of all ages, as well as adolescents.

Their findings have veered well away from the original conception of impostorism as a reflection of an anxious personality or a cultural stereotype. Feelings of phoniness appear to alter people’s goals in unexpected ways and may also protect them against subconscious self-delusions.

Questionnaires measuring impostor fears ask people how much they agree with statements like these: “At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.” “I can give the impression that I’m more competent than I really am.” “If I’m to receive a promotion of some kind, I hesitate to tell others until it’s an accomplished fact.”

Researchers have found, as expected, that people who score highly on such scales tend to be less confident, more moody and rattled by performance anxieties than those who score lower. […]

In short, the researchers concluded, many self-styled impostors are phony phonies: they adopt self-deprecation as a social strategy, consciously or not, and are secretly more confident than they let on.

“Particularly when people think that they might not be able to live up to others’ views of them, they may maintain that they are not as good as other people think,” Dr. Mark Leary, the lead author, wrote in an e-mail message. “In this way, they lower others’ expectations — and get credit for being humble.”

In a study published in September, Rory O’Brien McElwee and Tricia Yurak of Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., had 253 students take an exhaustive battery of tests assessing how people present themselves in public. They found that psychologically speaking, impostorism looked a lot more like a self-presentation strategy than a personality trait.”

My emphasis, and here’s the link. The interesting thing to me is why exceeding expectations for a given accomplishment level is status-enhancing compared to doing worse than expected. Anyway, this is one of the many ways that people who pretend to be humble brag – by downplaying expectations they increase the status level associated with any given accomplishment-level. Very few people would consider employing a strategy aimed at improving expectations-forming mechanisms to better match reality in the long run a status-enhancing move.


Calvin: “I say it’s a fallacy that kids need 12 years of school! Three months is plenty!”
Calvin: “Look at me. I’m smart! I don’t need 11½ more years of school! It’s a complete waste of my time!”
Hobbes: “How on Earth did you get all the way to the bus stop with both feet through one pant leg?”
Calvin: “I fell down a lot.”
Calvin: “…Why? What’s your point?”
Hobbes: “Nothing. I was just curious.”

Calvin: “Look at all these ants.”
Calvin: “They’re all running like mad, working tirelessly all day, never stopping, never resting.”
Calvin: “And for what? To build a tiny little hill of sand that could be wiped out at any moment! All their work could be for nothing, and yet they keep on building. They never give up!”
Hobbes: “I suppose there’s a lesson in that.”
Calvin: “Yeah … Ants are morons. Let’s see what’s on TV.”

Calvin: “Tigers don’t worry about much, do they?”
Hobbes: “Nope.”
Hobbes: “That’s one of the perks of being feral.”
Calvin: “I’m not having enough fun right now.”
Hobbes: “You’re not?”
Calvin: “I’m just having a little bit of fun. I should be having lots of fun.”
Calvin: “It’s Sunday. I’ve just got a few precious hours of freedom left before I have to go to school tomorrow.”
Calvin: “Between now and bedtime, I have to squeeze all the fun possible out of every minute! I don’t want to waste a second of liberty!”
Calvin: “Each moment I should be able to say, “I’m having the time of my life right now!'”
Calvin: “But here I am, and I’m not having the time of my life! Valuable minutes are disappearing forever, even as we speak! We’ve got to have more fun! C’mon!”
[Calvin and Hobbes start running away]
Hobbes: “I didn’t realize fun was so much work.”
Calvin: “Sure! When you’re serious about having fun, it’s not much fun at all.”

When I was a child, I sometimes felt like Calvin did in that last comic. I never do anymore. I guess it’s part of growing up. Reading a strip like this once you have is a good way to make you remember that here is something you’ve probably lost for ever. I have read a lot of Calvin and Hobbes over the last couple of days. I really love that comic but sometimes reading it really hurts. Some of it is a lot deeper than it lets on.


I tweeted this, but in case you missed it: Khan Academy have now added Art History to the list of subjects covered. 300 videos of it. I don’t know how many of my readers have an interest in that stuff (I don’t), but if you do – go knock yourself out! They write in the blogpost that: “we are incredibly excited to push the frontier on freely available content in the Arts and Humanities.” And I’m excited about that too. People really shold not be paying a lot of money for this kind of stuff. Maybe if it’s available for free online – and presented at a site including other stuff as well, such as mathematics, physics ect., more young people will start to realize that…

October 20, 2011 Posted by | Khan Academy, Psychology, Quotes/aphorisms, rambling nonsense, Random stuff | Leave a comment


Background One-third of the world’s men are circumcised, but little is known about possible sexual consequences of male circumcision. In Denmark (∼5% circumcised), we examined associations of male circumcision with a range of sexual measures in both sexes.

Methods Participants in a national health survey (n = 5552) provided information about their own (men) or their spouse’s (women) circumcision status and details about their sex lives. Logistic regression-derived odds ratios (ORs) measured associations of circumcision status with sexual experiences and current difficulties with sexual desire, sexual needs fulfilment and sexual functioning.

Results Age at first intercourse, perceived importance of a good sex life and current sexual activity differed little between circumcised and uncircumcised men or between women with circumcised and uncircumcised spouses. However, circumcised men reported more partners and were more likely to report frequent orgasm difficulties after adjustment for potential confounding factors [11 vs 4%, ORadj = 3.26; 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.42–7.47], and women with circumcised spouses more often reported incomplete sexual needs fulfilment (38 vs 28%, ORadj = 2.09; 95% CI 1.05–4.16) and frequent sexual function difficulties overall (31 vs 22%, ORadj = 3.26; 95% CI 1.15–9.27), notably orgasm difficulties (19 vs 14%, ORadj = 2.66; 95% CI 1.07–6.66) and dyspareunia (12 vs 3%, ORadj = 8.45; 95% CI 3.01–23.74). Findings were stable in several robustness analyses, including one restricted to non-Jews and non-Moslems.

Conclusions Circumcision was associated with frequent orgasm difficulties in Danish men and with a range of frequent sexual difficulties in women, notably orgasm difficulties, dyspareunia and a sense of incomplete sexual needs fulfilment. Thorough examination of these matters in areas where male circumcision is more common is warranted.”

From a new paper by Frisch, Lindholm & Grønbæk. The full paper is available here. has some coverage of the study in Danish and an interview with Morten Frisch here.

October 20, 2011 Posted by | Data, Medicine, Studies | 2 Comments

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October 18, 2011 Posted by | velfærdsstaten | Leave a comment

Wikipedia articles of interest

i. English Civil War.

“The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians (Roundheads) and Royalists (Cavaliers). The first (1642–46) and second (1648–49) civil wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third war (1649–51) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The Civil War ended with the Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651.

The Civil War led to the trial and execution of Charles I, the exile of his son, Charles II, and replacement of English monarchy with first, the Commonwealth of England (1649–53), and then with a Protectorate (1653–59), under Oliver Cromwell’s personal rule. The monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship in England ended with the victors consolidating the established Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.”

There’s a lot of stuff here, this subject and related areas of inquiry are very well covered by wikipedia. See for instance also links like this, this, this and this (I’ve read most of the article on Oliver Cromwell at another point in time, because his name came up online and I didn’t know who he was – but no, I’ve not read all of that stuff I just linked to; those other links were just included to give you a sense of the scale of what’s available. Anyway, I think the Cromwell article is good and the wikipedia community agrees with me.).

ii. Ostrich. Did you know that these birds have a max speed of almost 100 km/h? – I knew they could outrun humans, but I was thinking more like 40 or 50 km/h. It’s the world’s fastest two-legged animal.

“Unlike all other living birds, the Ostrich secretes urine separately from faeces.” […] “Ostriches typically avoid humans in the wild, since they correctly assess humans as potential predators, and, if approached, often run away. However, Ostriches may turn aggressive rather than run when threatened, especially when cornered, and may also attack when they feel they need to defend their offspring or territories. Similar behaviors are noted in captive or domesticated ostriches, which retain the same natural instincts and can occasionally respond aggressively to stress. When attacking a person, ostriches kick with their powerful feet, armed with long claws, which are capable of disemboweling or killing a person with a single blow.”

iii. Bodiam Castle. This is the “Swamp Castle” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (compare the shot 4-5 seconds into this clip with the fourth picture in the article)

iv. Endorheic basin – “a closed drainage basin that retains water and allows no outflow to other bodies of water such as rivers or oceans.” Lots of links.

v. Mob football.

“Mob football is the name given to some varieties of Medieval football, which emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Mob football distinguished itself from other codes by typically having an unlimited number of players and very few rules. By some accounts, any means could be used to move the ball to a goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder.”

I think I’d find that kind of football much more entertaining than the type that’s currently in vogue.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | Biology, Geology, History, Wikipedia, Zoology | 3 Comments


“For nearly the last twenty years, Young has wined and dined his way through the Bay Area by posing as a variety of musical celebrities and convincing the starstruck to pick up the tab for lavish meals, designer clothing, luxury cars, booze, limousine rides, and stays in elite hotels. According to police and court records stretching back eighteen years, before he engineered last winter’s pass through the Bay Area as Cornelius Grant, Young had also passed himself off as one-time Temptations lead singer Ali “Ollie” Woodson, jazz bassist Marcus Miller, and vocalist James Alexander of funk group the Bar-Kays. Even under his own name, Young has played the celebrity con game claiming — sometimes simultaneously — to be the son of jazz drummer Lester Young, a musical affiliate and close friend of R&B crooner Luther Vandross, an arranger for jazz singer Nancy Wilson, an associate of Miles Davis, and the head of a fictitious production company that always seemed to be on the verge of cutting a deal with someone willing to give Young the star treatment.” […]

“He generally approaches his marks in a bar, or else drops in on them in the office and gets himself invited for drinks. He’s also often in the company of an attractive, although not flashy, young woman. This woman is usually someone he’d recently picked up by impressing her with his star status. She’d unknowingly act as Young’s foil, vouching for his identity and assuaging the victim’s suspicions. She would often become the victim herself, with Young hitting her up for cash and hotel rooms, promising to reimburse her.

Young would essentially play one victim off another, getting socially prominent businesspeople to trust him simply because others were doing likewise. He’d often target people who worked within the same industry — architects or accountants, for example — and as he moved from one mark to another, he’d amass insider terminology, a list of names to drop, even business cards, which he would allegedly take from one person’s office to pass out at the next. Since part of the classic Alan Young scam often included making hollow bids on million-dollar homes, luxury cars, and boats, he’d also gain credibility because he’d constantly be getting the five-star treatment from salespeople eager to make commission. His best trick, says Hare, was getting all of these people to vie for his attention by creating an “auction atmosphere.” They’d set aside their inhibitions in order to ensure that they got involved in Young’s deal before he left town. And Young’s private plane was always about to spirit him away.

Scams of this type generally work for two reasons: embarrassed victims don’t always report their losses, and police officers don’t always identify such complaints as crimes, because they usually appear to be a simple business deals gone awry, according to Sgt. Peter Lau, an expert on identity fraud for the Oakland Police Department.” […]

“While Young’s scams certainly have gained finesse over the years, police and court records show they almost always adhere to the same template. Young blows into town posing as the musical celebrity du jour, impresses his marks with name-dropping and insider knowledge, then wows them with promises of hefty investments or donations. Young invariably discovers that his briefcase, along with his wallet, credit cards, and identification, is missing. He usually claims they have been accidentally shipped down to Los Angeles with his band’s equipment. Young then throws himself on the good graces of his host, promising to reimburse him promptly. The host generally pulls out all the stops to offer his newfound friend Hollywood-style hospitality. Some of Young’s marks have paid off hookers, monstrous bar tabs, or bills for unauthorized limousine rides, according to police records. As soon as the victim catches on, Young simply slips away. Within a few days, Young has usually locked onto a new target, and the whole charade repeats itself.” […]

“SFPD Inspector Wismer was the man who put the case together after realizing that Young’s most recent victims had all been pulled in by a “Temptations” hook. According to Wismer, Young’s latest pass through the Bay Area began last July when, under the guise of Temptation Ali “Ollie” Woodson, he convinced a San Francisco art dealer he planned to invest $160,000 in sculptures. By the time the dealer figured out something was amiss, a week had gone by and he was out $4,000 in hotel bills and clothing. Officers picked up Young on a parole violation the following week, and he went to San Quentin for that offense. But by November he was out again, and he managed to squeeze $1,300 in hotel bills out of an attorney by pretending he had $15 million to invest in real estate.

Wismer believes that Young’s December scam, during which he switched over to the pseudonym Cornelius Grant, actually started in Hayward, where he pledged a $2.5 million donation to the choir at the Glad Tidings Church and convinced a choir member to foot his hotel bill. Then he apparently moved on to Stein. According to an incident report filed with the San Francisco police, within a few days of the Stein swindle Young had convinced a San Francisco accountant to put him up at the Argent Hotel, where he ran up an extraordinary $13,000 bill. He later got an Oakland woman to foot a $1,200 bill at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness. She called the police when he refused to reimburse her as promised. A prostitute police found in Young’s room — along with Young himself — admitted that not only had she agreed to pretend to be Cornelius Grant’s daughter in exchange for a promised Cadillac SUV, but that Young had finagled $80 out of her.” […]

“If the mechanics of how Young’s con works can be elucidated through his police records, it’s harder to explain why it works. People who have not been subject to Young’s charms often wonder why anyone falls for his extravagant claims. There are probably as many answers as there are victims, but perhaps part of the answer is that he has expertly played on the spend-money-to-make-money business culture, whose members consider buying big lunches and drinks part of the cost of doing business. Or perhaps he owes part of his success, particularly in more recent years, to the gullibility of upper-class whites embarrassed by the idea that they haven’t recognized a African-American musical legend. The East Bay is in fact a touring destination for many of the celebrities Young impersonated — the Temptations, Nancy Wilson, and Marcus Miller have all performed here within the last four months. […]

Simply put, people want to go along with the crowd, especially one following a charismatic superstar with money to burn. “When people start to get suspicious, some of their suspicions are allayed by his obvious success with astute businessmen, luxury car dealerships, yacht dealerships, real-estate people,” says Tony Hare. “They see him being wined and dined by players at least as big or bigger than they are, with all of the trappings of wealth. That’s tough to argue with. They see that A) they’re not alone and B) they don’t want to embarrass themselves by being the cheap, penurious little fish who’s swimming with the sharks.”

And when logical questions arise, people who want to play enough will invent their own answers. “He gives you enough information to allow you to fill in the gaps,” says Oakland attorney Harvey Stein. “It doesn’t all add up, but enough of it adds up that you’re ready to say, ‘Okay, how did he get on the plane?’ Or you go to Yoshi’s and he gets comped and everybody falls all over him, you say ‘Okay, how do I know they don’t know who he is?’ And of course when he shows up at the restaurant with a beautiful woman who’s a foot taller than he is and gorgeous and fifteen years younger, you think, how does an ugly short guy like this have a beautiful woman like that? So you fill in that kind of stuff.””

Here’s the link. Here are 4 more stories about imposters – I’ve read The Chameleon and An IM Infatuation Turned to Romance. Then the Truth Came Out. Both are insane stories, but the latter… I believe one commenter expressed it like this: ‘my brain just vomited’ – my reaction was similar.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | Psychology | Leave a comment

If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren’t There More Happy People? (3)

I can’t not blog this book in some detail. This post covers the letters D and E:

i. “Let’s face it: a date is a job-interview that lasts all night.” (Jerry Seinfeld)

ii. “If men could regard the events of their own lives with more open minds they would frequently discover that they did not really desire the things they failed to obtain.” (André Maurois)

iii. “Admiration is the daughter of ignorance.” (Benjamin Franklin)

iv. “Everybody has got to die, but I’ve always believed an exception would be made in my case.” (William Saroyan)

v. “Democracy consists of choosing your dictators after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.” (Alan Coren)

vi. “Desperation is like stealing from the Mafia: you stand a good chance of attracting the wrong attention.” (Doug Horton)

vii. “Destiny has two ways of crushing us – by refusing our wishes and by fulfilling them.” (Henri Frédéric Amiel)

viii. “I came to carry out a struggle, not to kill people. Even now, and you can look at me, am I a savage person? My conscience is clear.” (Pol Pot – my emphasis. The quote is from 1997.)

ix. “Doubt grows with knowledge.” (Goethe)

x. “Conscientious people are apt to see their duty in that which is the most painful course.” (George Eliot)

xi. “We spend the first twelve months of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next twelve years telling them to sit down and shut up.” (Phyllis Diller)

xii. “My education was interrupted only by my schooling.” (Winston Churchill)

xiii. “Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.” (Bertrand Russell)

xiv. “A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.” (George Santayana)

xv. “The trouble with most men of learning is that their learning goes to their heads.” (Isaac Goldberg)

xvi. “The only thing that stops God sending a second Flood is that the first one was useless.” (Nicolas Chamfort)

xvii. “Experience is that marvelous thing that enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.” (Franklin P. Jones)

xviii. “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” (Douglas Adams)

October 16, 2011 Posted by | Books, Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment

Camus – L’Étranger/The Outsider (contains spoilers!)

“In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.”

“I tried to make my character represent the only Christ that we deserve.”

If you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading right now.

So, anyway, the book is brilliant and it’s not unlikely that I’ll read other stuff by Camus. The reading experience reminded me a bit of the one I experienced when reading Kafka – not all of it is at all pleasant to read, you get into this ominous and sinister universe the book deals with; but it’s brilliant stuff and you want to read on nevertheless – you can’t put it down. It’s a bit like looking at a traffic accident happening in slow motion, but you somehow don’t feel guilty about watching.

Some stuff from the book:

i. [From the very beginning of the first chapter:] “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.
The old people’s home is at Marengo, fifty miles from Algiers. I’ll catch the two o’clock bus and get there in the afternoon. Then I can keep the vigil and I’ll come back tomorrow night. I asked my boss for two days off and he couldn’t refuse under the circumstances. But he didn’t seem pleased. I even said, ‘It’s not my fault.’ He didn’t answer. Then I thought maybe I shouldn’t have said that. […]
[two days later:] When I woke up, I understood why my boss seemed unhappy when I asked him for my two days off: today’s a Saturday. I’d sort of forgotten, but as I was getting up, it occurred to me. My boss, quite naturally, thought that I’d be getting four days’ holiday including my Sunday and he couldn’t have been very pleased about that. But for one thing, it isn’t my fault if they buried mother yesterday instead of today and for another, I’d have had my Saturday and Sunday off in any case. Of course, I can still see my boss’s point of view.”

ii. “Near the coffin there was an Arab nurse in a white overall, with a brightly coloured scarf on her head. At that point the caretaker came in behind me. He must have been running. He stuttered a bit. ‘We covered her up. But I was to unscrew the coffin to let you see her.’ He was just going up to the coffin when I stopped him. He said, ‘Don’t you want to?’ I answered, ‘No.’ He didn’t say anything and I was embarassed because I felt I shouldn’t have said that. After a moment he looked at me and asked, ‘Why not?’ but not reproachfully, just as if he wanted to know. I said, ‘I don’t know.'”

iii. “I told Marie all about the old man and she laughed. She was wearing a pair of my pyjamas with the sleeves rolled up. When she laughed, I fancied her again. A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her that it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so. She looked sad. But as we were getting lunch ready, and for no apparent reason, she laughed again, so I kissed her. It was at that point that we heard a row break out in Raymond’s room.
First we heard a woman’s shrill voice and then Raymond saying, ‘You cheated on me, you cheated on me. I’ll teach you to cheat on me.’ Some dull thuds and the woman screamed, but it was such a terrifying scream that the landing immediately filled with people. Marie and I went out too. The woman went on yelling and Raymond went on hitting her. Marie said it was terrible and I didn’t say anything. She asked me to go and fetch a policeman, but I told her that I didn’t like policemen. Anyway, one came along with the plumber who lives on the second floor. He banged on the door and the noice stopped. He banged harder and after a moment the woman started crying and Raymond opened the door. He had a cigarette in his mouth and a sugary smile on his face. The girl rushed to the door and announced to the policeman that Raymond had hit her. […] The policeman told him to shut it and said that the girl was to go and he was to wait in his room until he was summoned to the police station. He added that Raymond ought to be ashamed of himself for being so drunk that he was shaking the way he was.”

[Later on:] “The day before, we’d been to the police station and I’d testified that the girl had ‘cheated’ on Raymond. He got off with a warning. They didn’t check my statement.”

iv. [the boss] intended to set up an office in Paris to handle that side of the business on the spot by dealing directly with the big companies and he wanted to know if I was prepared to go over there. I’d be able to live in Paris and travel around for part of the year as well. ‘You’re a young man, and I imagine that sort of life must appeal to you.’ I said yes but really I didn’t mind. He then asked me if I wasn’t interested in changing my life. I replied that you could never change your life, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t at all dissatisfied with mine here. He looked upset and told me that I always evaded the question and that I had no ambition, which was disastrous in the business world. So I went back to work. I’d rather not have upset him, but I couldn’t see any reason for changing my life. Come to think of it, I wasn’t unhappy. When I was a student, I had plenty of that sort of ambition. But when I had to give up my studies, I very soon realized that none of it really mattered.
That evening Marie came around for me and asked me if I wanted to marry her. I said I didn’t mind and we could do if she wanted to. She then wanted to know if I loved her. I replied as I had done once already, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t. ‘Why marry me then?’ she said. I explained to her that it really didn’t matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married. Anyway, she was the one who was asking me and I was simply saying yes. She then remarked that marriage was a serious matter. I said, ‘No.’ She didn’t say anything for a moment and looked at me in silence. Then she spoke. She just wanted to know if I’d have accepted the same proposal from another woman, with whom I had a similar relationship. I said, ‘Naturally.’ She then said she wondered if she loved me and well, I had no idea about that. After another moment’s silence, she mumbled that I was peculiar, that that was probably why she loved me but that one day I might disgust her for the very same reason. I didn’t say anything, having nothing to add, so she smiled and took my arm and announced that she wanted to marry me. I replied that we’d do so whenever she liked.”

v. “Between my mattress and my bed-plank [in jail], I’d actually found an old scrap of newspaper which had gone all yellow and transparent and was almost stuck to the material. It was a small news story. The beginning was missing, but it must have taken place in Czechoslovakia. A man had left some Czech village to go and make his fortune. Twenty-five years later he’d come back rich, with a wife and child. His mother and his sister were running a hotel in his native village. In order to surprise them, he’d left his wife and child at another hotel and gone to see his mother who hadn’t recognized him when he’d walked in. Just for fun, he’d decided to book a room. He’d shown them his money. During the night his mother and sister had clubbed him to death with a hammer to steal his money, and then thrown his body into the river. The next morning, the wife had come along and without realizing revealed the traveller’s identity. The mother had hanged herself. The sister had thrown herself down a well. I must have read this story thousands of times. On the one hand, it was improbable. On the other, it was quite natural. Anyway, I decided that the traveller had deserved it really and that you should never play around.”

vi. “To another question he replied that he’d been surprised by my calmness on the day of the funeral. He was asked what he meant by calmness. The warden then looked down at his boots and said that I hadn’t wanted to see mother, I hadn’t cried once and I’d left straight after the funeral without paying my respects at her grave. And another thing had surprised him: one of the undertaker’s men had told him that I didn’t know how old mother was. […] for the first time in years, I stupidly felt like crying because I could tell how much all these people hated me.”

vii. “‘Has he even expressed any regrets? Never, gentlemen. Not once in front of the examining magistrate did he show any emotion with regard to his abominable crime.’ At that point he turned towards me, pointed his finger at me and went on showering me with accusations without me really understanding why. Of course, I couldn’t help admitting that he was right. I didn’t much regret what I’d done. But I was surprised that he was so furious about it. I’d have liked to have explained to him in a friendly way, almost affectionately, that I’d never really been able to regret anything. I was always preoccupied by what was about to happen, today or tomorrow.”

viii. “I looked round the room again. Everything was just as it had been on the first day. I met the eye of the journalist in the grey jacket and of the little robot-woman. That reminded me that I hadn’t looked for Marie once during the whole trial. I hadn’t forgotten her, only I’d been too busy. I saw her sitting between Céleste and Raymond. She gave me a little wave as if to say, ‘At last,’ and I saw a rather anxious smile on her face. But my heart felt locked and I couldn’t even smile back.”

ix. “All through the day there was my appeal. I think I made the most of that idea. I’d calculate my assets so as to get the best return on my thoughts. I’d always assume the worst: my appeal had been dismissed. ‘Well, then I’ll die.’ Sooner than other people, obviously. But everybody knows that life isn’t worth living. And when it came down to it, I wasn’t unaware of the fact that it doesn’t matter very much whether you die at thirty or at seventy since, in either case, other men and women will naturally go on living, for thousands of years even. Nothing was plainer, in fact. It was still only me who was dying, whether it was now or in twenty years’ time. At that point the thing that would rather upset my reasoning was that I’d feel my heart give this terrifying leap at the thought of having another twenty years to live. But I just had to stiffle it by imagining what I’d be thinking in twenty years’ time when I’d have to face the same situation anyway. Given that you’ve got to die, it obviously doesn’t matter exactly how or when. Therefore (and the difficult thing was not to lose track of all the reasoning which that ‘therefore’ implied), therefore, I had to accept that my appeal had been dismissed.”

x. “For the first time in ages I thought of Marie. She hadn’t written to me for days on end. That evening I thought it over and I told myself that she’d probably got tired of being a condemned man’s mistress. It also crossed my mind that she might have been ill or dead. It was in the natural order of things. And how would I have known when, now that we were physically separated, there was nothing left to keep us together or to remind us of each other. Anyway, from that point on, Marie’s memory would have meant nothing to me. I wasn’t interested in her any more if she was dead. I found that quite normal as I could quite well understand that people would forget about me once I was dead. They had nothing more to do with me. I couldn’t even say that this was hard to accept.”

xi. “The chaplain knew the game well too, I could tell immediately: his gaze never faltered. His voice didn’t falter either when he said, ‘Have you really no hope at all and do you live in the belief that you are to die outright?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. He then lowered his head and sat down again. He told me that he pitied me. He thought it was more than a man could bear. All I knew was that he was beginning to annoy me. […] He started talking to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I didn’t have much time left. I didn’t want to waste it on God.”

October 14, 2011 Posted by | Books, Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment

Human ability to spot liars and falsehoods

“We analyze the accuracy of deception judgments, synthesizing research results from 206 documents and 24,483 judges. In relevant studies, people attempt to discriminate lies from truths in real time with no special aids or training. In these circumstances, people achieve an average of 54% correct lie-truth judgments, correctly classifying 47% of lies as deceptive and 61% of truths as nondeceptive. Relative to cross-judge differences in accuracy, mean lie-truth discrimination abilities are nontrivial, with a mean accuracy d of roughly .40. This produces an effect that is at roughly the 60th percentile in size, relative to others that have been meta-analyzed by social psychologists. Alternative indexes of lie-truth discrimination accuracy correlate highly with percentage correct, and rates of lie detection vary little from study to study. Our meta-analyses reveal that people are more accurate in judging audible than visible lies, that people appear deceptive when motivated to be believed, and that individuals regard their interaction partners as honest. We propose that people judge others’deceptions more harshly than their own and that this double standard in evaluating deceit can explain much of the accumulated literature.”

I have been unable to find a non-gated version of this study by Bond and DePaulo. What the main result above (’54 %’) means is that people are hardly better than chance at identifying deception on average. This is the result of an analysis of 206 studies which have looked at this, with almost 25.000 ‘participants’ – it’s not just a fluke, we really are that bad at telling whether people tell us the truth or not. This link has more:

“There are a number of reasons for this poor ability; among them poor feedback in daily life (i.e. a person only knows about the lies they have caught); the general tendency among people to believe others until proven otherwise (i.e. a “truth bias”; [32]), and especially a faulty understanding of what liars actually look like (i.e. the difference between people’s perceived clues to lying, compared to the actual clues; [26]). […]

Most of the studies reviewed were laboratory based and involved observers judging strangers. But similar results are found even when the liars and truth tellers are known to the observers (also reviewed by [31]. If the lies being told are low stakes, so that little emotion is aroused and the lie can be told without much extra cognitive effort, there may be few clues available on which to base a judgment. But even studies of high stakes lies, in which both liars and truth tellers are highly motivated to be successful, suggest an accuracy level that is not much different from chance.”

All of this is of course complicated greatly by the problem that the truth/lie-variable often isn’t binary in our everyday lives – another way to think about it is to think of any statement* as having a truth component, a continuous variable going from 0 to 1 and spanning the entire range in between. Also, I’m not sure if adding confounding stuff that’s actually true to a non-obvious lie isn’t one of several common strategies employed in order to make lies harder to spot.

*if we use Popperian terminology and add ‘basic’ in front of ‘statement’, we also take care of the problem that some statements, e.g. value judgments, have an undefined truth component. But most statements aren’t basic statements, so anyway…

October 10, 2011 Posted by | Data, Psychology, Studies | 3 Comments

Earth (some stuff you should know)

I had an interesting discussion yesterday which touched briefly upon a few of these subjects, so I decided to take a closer look at the data just to make sure I wasn’t completely wrong about the stuff I thought I knew – and now I’m glad I did as I seem to have somehow picked up a mistaken idea about the land area of the Southern Hemisphere (I thought it was even smaller than it is). Now, if you asked a random guy he wouldn’t know most of these numbers or even the relevant neighbourhood. Somehow I feel like people should. So here we go, most of these numbers are pulled from wikipedia:

1. Asia covers 8.7 % of the Earth’s total surface area and hosts ~60 % of the world’s current human population. It covers 29.5 % of the land area of Earth.

1a. Africa covers 6 % of the Earth’s total surface area and hosts ~14-15 % of the world’s population. It covers 20.4% of the total land area.

1b. North America: 4.8 % of surface area, 8 % of population. 16.5 % of total land area.

1c. South America: 3.5 % of surface area, 6 % of population. 12.0 % of total land area.

1d. Antarctica: 2.7 % of surface area, 0 % of population. 9.2% of total land area.

1e. Europe: 2 % of surface area, 11.5 % of population. 6.8 % of total land area.

1f. Australia: 1.5 % of surface area, 0.5 % of population. 5.1 % of total land area.

2. Russia covers 17,075,400 square kilometres. Europe and Australia combined make out ~17,8 mio. square kilometres, a number which incidentally is about the same as South America. So if we for a moment disregard the fact that Russia already makes up 40 % of the total area of Europe, it’s large enough to almost cover the two smallest continents combined.

3. According to a 2010 census, the population of China was/is 1,339,724,852 – which is more than 19 % of the population of Earth. This is a higher population than that of any single continent which is not Asia. The population of China is significantly larger than the combined populations of South America (385,7 mio), North America (529 mio) and Australia (31,26). It’s larger than the combined populations of Europe and North America. Here’s a neat image comparing sizes and populations of the continents.

4. This source notes that: “In the Northern Hemisphere, the ratio of land to ocean is about 1 to 1.5. The ratio of land to ocean in the Southern Hemisphere is 1 to 4.” Translating those ratios into percentages of the hemispheres, it turns out that in the Northern Hemisphere 60 % of the area is made up of ocean and 40 % is covered by land, whereas only 20 % of the Southern Hemisphere is covered by land and 80 % is covered by ocean. Oceans cover roughly 70,8 % of the total area of earth and land masses cover 29,2 %, so these numbers are probably ok. Here’s an image from Wikipedia:

About 90 percent of the human population lives on the Northern Hemisphere – the combined human population of the entire Southern Hemisphere is smaller than the population of Europe.

4a. The Pacific Ocean covers a larger area than all land masses of Earth combined.

4b. The Atlantic Ocean covers as a very rough approximation the same area (106 mio. square kilometres) as the total land area of the Northern Hemisphere. It covers an area corresponding to more than 70 percent of the total land area of earth.

4c. The Indian Ocean covers 68,556,000 square kilometres, approximately the same area as Asia and North America combined.

4d. The average depth of the world oceans is about 3.8 kilometers (link).

5. I can’t copy the image, but go here for a really neat illustration of the surface elevation of the areas of Earth – I’m really annoyed I can’t copy this and put it in the post. Antarctica has by far the highest mean elevation of all continents. According to this source, the mean elevation of the continent is 2,286 m. Disregarding Antarctica (which can be considered somewhat an outlier because of the ice-thing), it seems that there’s a connection between the area of a continent and its mean elevation – i.e. the larger the area of the continent, the higher the elevation. Here’s a relevant paper.)

October 9, 2011 Posted by | Data, Geography, Science, Wikipedia | Leave a comment


“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut

A nice quote. Here’s a lot more. Some excerpts:

“That’s the cycle of cognitive dissonance, a painful confusion about who you are gets resolved by seeing the world in a more satisfying way. As Festinger said, you make “your view of the world fit with how you feel or what you’ve done.” When you feel anxiety over your actions, you will seek to lower the anxiety by creating a fantasy world in which your anxiety can’t exist, and then you come to believe the fantasy is reality just as Benjamin Franklin’s rival did. He couldn’t possibly have lent a rare book to a guy he didn’t like, so he must actually like him. Problem solved.”


“You tend to like the people to whom you are kind and dislike the people to whom you are rude. From the Stanford Prison Experiment to Abu Ghraib, to concentration camps and the attitudes of soldiers spilling blood, mountains of evidence suggest behaviors create attitudes when harming just as they do when helping. Jailers come to look down on inmates; camp guards come to dehumanize their captives; soldiers create derogatory terms for their enemies. It’s difficult to hurt someone you admire. It’s even more difficult to kill a fellow human being. Seeing the casualties you create as something less than you, something deserving of damage, makes it possible to continue seeing yourself as a good and honest person, to continue being sane.” […]

“Every person develops a persona, and that persona persists because inconsistencies in your personal narrative get rewritten, redacted and misinterpreted. If you are like most people, you have high self-esteem and tend to believe you are above average in just about every way. It keeps you going, keeps your head above water, so when the source of your own behavior is mysterious you will confabulate a story which paints you in a positive light. If you are on the other end of the self-esteem spectrum and tend to see yourself as undeserving and unworthy, you will rewrite nebulous behavior as the result of attitudes consistent with the persona of an incompetent person, deviant, or whatever flavor of loser you believe yourself to be. Successes will make you uncomfortable so you will dismiss them as flukes. If people are nice to you, you will assume they have ulterior motives or are mistaken. Whether you love or hate your persona, you protect the self with which you’ve become comfortable. When you observe your own behavior, or feel the gaze of an outsider, you manipulate the facts so they match your expectations.”

October 5, 2011 Posted by | Psychology, Quotes/aphorisms | Leave a comment

A Natural History Of Ourselves (2)

Here’s the first post in the series. There are lots of interesting ‘bites of an apple from the tree of knowledge’ in the book, so I’ll just go ahead and post some of them here. From the first three chapters (~100 pages) :

i. “Two centuries after Captain James Smith (five four, perhaps) dropped anchor at Jamestown in 1607, the average U.S. male had gained two or three inches, depending on whose data you use.”

ii. This explanation neglects the problematic hair on my head, though. The best theory here relates to my massive brain […]. Theory goes: The head of my ancestral hominids, as they reared upright, was exposed to the tropical sun. As the brain of hominids evolved larger, this head fur grew in importance. A brain is a steaming wad of fat, a three-pound radiator. It’s vulnerable to high temperatures and will fry out at 107.6°F (42°C). So it’s insulated against the sun with a mop of fur, and it’s cooled with a surfeit of sweat glands. That’s the predominant theory, anyway: We shucked the body fur in order to cool our bodies better, but kept the head hair to prevent the brain from baking. My tresses shield my brain from the sun, the way a sheep’s fleece keeps it cool in the desert. And the rest of my skin is open to the wind so I can sweat cool as I sprint after hamburgers on the plains of South Portland.”

iii. “Until you give the human animal tools, it is pitifully armed, and not dangerous. This isn’t normal, among primates. Cousin Chimp’s weapon of choice is his large teeth. […] Gorillas and orangutangs, as well as the other primates, also rely primarily on their teeth to wound and kill their rivals [and prey]. […] I don’t believe my jaws are up to the challenge of biting off human fingers, let alone severing an ankle. Humans don’t fight much with our teeth. Generally, we prefer metal tools, and generally the longer the reach of the tool, the better. When a human does tangle without tools, the weapon of choice is the hands. […] the male fist is the most common cause of broken jaws. […] In my culture, only one killing in fourteen is accomplished without tools.”

iv. “A running chimp is as graceful as a tumbling brick.”

v. “This animal [humans] perceives the world foremost with its eyes. As in many predators, the eyes are forward oriented. This produces three-dimensional vision but narrows the total field. Inside the eye, the human (like many of its fellow primates) has three cones rather than two, producing color vision much richer than that perceived by most mammals. […] Taste and smell, the chemical senses, are rather weak. The tongue can, however, identify poisons with passable accuracy and is sensitive to high-calorie sugars and fats. […] Females demonstrate a slight edge over males in the speed at which their brains process sensory information – especially during the fertile phases of their menstrual cycles.”

vi. “The eyes of all animals had a humble beginning. Some single-celled somebody probably got the vision thing rolling when a DNA flub granted it a light-sensitive chemical. This dab of chemistry may have allowed an ancestral Mr. Microbe to eat better, or to better avoid being eaten, and thus he [it] thrived. And everyone who evolved from him was grateful for his revolutionary photopigment.
Today, each species packages its photopigment a little differently (or a lot differently), but the general rule is the same: You collect a subset of the light spectrum and use the data to plot your next move. You don’t even require a brain to do this – the marine brittle star is paved with crystals that detect a predator’s shadow and signal its five arms to scramble for shelter. […] As for processing speed, my eyes are rather indolent. When I sit watching a movie, the series of still images blends together to form motion. But to a fly, a movie plays like a plodding slide show. […] A fly can process two hundred different images in a second. I can handle twenty before they start to blur.”

vii. “Just as my predator’s eyes leave me blind behind, my ears leave me with a “deaf spot.” Humans have trouble locating noises that are directly fore, aft, or above our heads. […] As for ear location, I’m pretty normal. Most mammals separate their ears to maximize their triangulating potential. Still, they keep them handy to the brain that processes sound data. […] My own ears are so far apart that a sound wave registers first in one, then a split second later in the other. The sound level drops, too, in the time it takes to reach the second ear. Between the time lag and the pinnae’s input, my brain can calculate where to point my eyes.”

viii. “the male and female human perceive pain differently – even after accounting for the COMT gene. The sex hormones that soak our respective brains seem to dictate how each sex will experience life’s cuts and contusions. Generally, females have a lower threshold: It takes less burning, freezing, poking, or pinching to make them yelp. They also have a lower tolerance for pain: They’re quicker to capitulate and pull their hands from a bucket of ice water or a heat beam. (These are common tools of torture for pain researchers.)
Other differences hint at the separate ways that male and female bodies react to pain. During painful times, a male’s heart beats faster but not the female’s. A male’s cortisol and endorphins (stress chemical and painkiller) rise, but for some reason, a female brain neither stresses out nor self-medicates for pain. […] Why? Most theories cluster around a female’s role in reproduction: She must avoid harm “for two,” so to speak.
Curiously, the human female’s pain sensitivity goes dull when her estrogen level rises toward the fertile days of her monthly cycle.”

October 3, 2011 Posted by | Anthropology, Biology, Books, Data, Evolutionary biology, Zoology | 2 Comments

Wikipedia articles of interest

1. Cloud.

2. Benford’s Law. Everybody who read MR regularly probably already read this article, but anyway…

3. Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, “a comet that broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994, providing the first direct observation of an extraterrestrial collision of solar system objects.[1] This generated a large amount of coverage in the popular media, and the comet was closely observed by astronomers worldwide. The collision provided new information about Jupiter and highlighted its role in reducing space debris in the inner solar system.”

How huge forces such a piece of rock can release is almost beyond comprehension: “Astronomers had expected to see the fireballs from the impacts, but did not have any idea in advance how visible the atmospheric effects of the impacts would be from Earth. Observers soon saw a huge dark spot after the first impact. The spot was visible even in very small telescopes, and was about 6,000 km (3,700 mi) (one Earth radius) across. This and subsequent dark spots were thought to have been caused by debris from the impacts, and were markedly asymmetric, forming crescent shapes in front of the direction of impact.[16]

Over the next 6 days, 21 distinct impacts were observed, with the largest coming on July 18 at 07:33 UTC when fragment G struck Jupiter. This impact created a giant dark spot over 12,000 km across, and was estimated to have released an energy equivalent to 6,000,000 megatons of TNT (600 times the world’s nuclear arsenal).[17] Two impacts 12 hours apart on July 19 created impact marks of similar size to that caused by fragment G, and impacts continued until July 22, when fragment W struck the planet.” Oh, in case you didn’t know just two years ago, in 2009, “a new black spot about the size of the Pacific Ocean appeared in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere […] probably a small undiscovered asteroid, was the cause.” Yeah, just a ‘small undiscovered asteroid’..

4. Limit of a sequence.

5. Dayak Fruit Bat.

“The dayak bat averages less than 150 grams. It is gray-brown dorsally with a silver-gray ventral side. Its fur is short. It has a short tail, ranging from ten to twenty percent of its body length. Its wing membranes attach to the second toe on each foot. D. spadiceus is the smallest of the bats in the genus Dyacopterus. It has the smallest skull size, averaging less than 36.1 mm from the premaxilla to the base of the skull. It has a proportionally wide skull, however, when compared to the other bats in the genus. […] The dayak bat is frugivorous, feeding on fruits from trees extending into or past the canopy of the forests of Malaysia. Figs are a staple of its diet, as are whatever fruits are seasonally available in the high canopy.”

They are interesting animals for other reasons, sure, but this part about them is pretty (Cool? Interesting? I have no idea which word even to use here..):
“The male of the D. spadiceus species is the only known natural occurrence of paternal lactation. While the reasons the male would lactate are currently unknown, it could be a mechanism to take some of the pressure of lactation off of the female. This would give the species an evolutionary advantage over other bats. Another possible explanation is the consumption of plants with high concentrations of phytoestrogens, a hormone like molecule that may cause mammogenesis and lactogenesis.” Yeah, you got that right; males breastfeed as well.

6. Pregnancy (probably NSFW – images). It’s not a coincidence that I post this one now: Next year, if all goes well, I’ll be an uncle; my big brother’s girlfriend is pregnant.

October 2, 2011 Posted by | Astronomy, Biology, Mathematics, Wikipedia, Zoology | 2 Comments