Autism, depression, loneliness, type 1 diabetes and suicide

“Up to 15% of patients with unipolar depression eventually commit suicide” (Suicide, depression, and antidepressants)

“A study of 42 adults with AS diagnoses living in the community found that 40 % of subjects had considered committing suicide at some time in the past, and 15 % of respondents reported that they had made at least one attempt to kill themselves (Balfe & Tantam, 2010)”

“The most relevant study was conducted in 2013. It compared 791 children with autism to non-austistic depressed children and typical children. The findings favored a 28-fold increase in suicide behavior in the autism sample compared to the typical children; 10.9 % of children with autism had suicidal ideation and 7.2 % had made attempts”

“…a large proportion of persons with ASD, over 50% in some studies, […] suffer from depression, and we have reports that suicidal ideation is one of the common depressive symptoms leading to this diagnosis.”

“Clinical samples suggest that suicide occurs more frequently in high functioning autism” (Suicide in Autism Spectrum Disorder)

“Compared to those in the general population, individuals with type 1 diabetes (in a British study) had 11 times the suicide rate […] One retrospective outcome study of 160 cases of insulin overdose reported to a regional poison control unit found that nearly 90% were either suicidal or parasuicidal, whereas only 5% of cases were deemed accidental.” (Insulin Overdose Among Patients With Diabetes: A Readily Available Means of Suicide)

“40% of the [diabetic] patients reported that they had felt tired of living and thought that life was not worth living during the last 12 months, and 23% patients admitted to having thought of ending their own life.” (Quality of Life and Suicide Risk in Patients With Diabetes Mellitus)

“The research reviewed indicated that patients with DM-1 are at an increased risk for suicide, although no clear consensus exists regarding the level of the increased risk. […] Our findings support the recommendation that a suicide risk assessment of patients with DM-1 should be part of the routine clinical assessment. The assessment of patients at risk should consist of the evaluation of current and previous suicidal behaviors (both suicidal ideation and attempted suicide).” (Suicide risk in type 1 diabetes mellitus: A systematic review)

“In terms of rates of 1-year prevalence we found that 3.1 % (confidence interval [CI] at 95% = 2.5-3.7) of the sample reported serious thoughts of suicide […] We found significant associations between suicide ideation on the one hand and living alone (OR = 2.5), having no friends (OR = 23) and feeling alone very often (OR= 10.5) on the other hand. […] Twenty-one percent of the individuals who […] felt lonely very often, reported having thought seriously about suicide, in contrast with 2.5% of those who did not.” (from Loneliness in Relation to Suicide Ideation and Parasuicide: A Population-Wide Study)

I’m a depressed, friendless*, lonely, (supposedly ‘high-functioning’) autistic type 1 diabetic. Relatedly, I live in a place people describe this way: “I’ve never been in a country with such a sharp dichotomy between stranger and friend, or one that was so coldly unfriendly to strangers.”

* (…to the long-term readers with a good memory: she at the end got tired of my dissatisfactory behaviour and told me, kindly, to get lost and stop bothering her, and I had no difficulty understanding her decision, which I have thus respected. Incidentally I should probably note that my conceptual model of friendship has changed since I wrote that post, at least partly as a result of increased knowledge about these topics).

January 12, 2017 Posted by | papers, personal, random stuff | Comments Off on Autism, depression, loneliness, type 1 diabetes and suicide

Random stuff

i. Fire works a little differently than people imagine. A great ask-science comment. See also AugustusFink-nottle’s comment in the same thread.


iii. I was very conflicted about whether to link to this because I haven’t actually spent any time looking at it myself so I don’t know if it’s any good, but according to somebody (?) who linked to it on SSC the people behind this stuff have academic backgrounds in evolutionary biology, which is something at least (whether you think this is a good thing or not will probably depend greatly on your opinion of evolutionary biologists, but I’ve definitely learned a lot more about human mating patterns, partner interaction patterns, etc. from evolutionary biologists than I have from personal experience, so I’m probably in the ‘they-sometimes-have-interesting-ideas-about-these-topics-and-those-ideas-may-not-be-terrible’-camp). I figure these guys are much more application-oriented than were some of the previous sources I’ve read on related topics, such as e.g. Kappeler et al. I add the link mostly so that if I in five years time have a stroke that obliterates most of my decision-making skills, causing me to decide that entering the dating market might be a good idea, I’ll have some idea where it might make sense to start.

iv. Stereotype (In)Accuracy in Perceptions of Groups and Individuals.

“Are stereotypes accurate or inaccurate? We summarize evidence that stereotype accuracy is one of the largest and most replicable findings in social psychology. We address controversies in this literature, including the long-standing  and continuing but unjustified emphasis on stereotype inaccuracy, how to define and assess stereotype accuracy, and whether stereotypic (vs. individuating) information can be used rationally in person perception. We conclude with suggestions for building theory and for future directions of stereotype (in)accuracy research.”

A few quotes from the paper:

Demographic stereotypes are accurate. Research has consistently shown moderate to high levels of correspondence accuracy for demographic (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender) stereotypes […]. Nearly all accuracy correlations for consensual stereotypes about race/ethnicity and  gender exceed .50 (compared to only 5% of social psychological findings; Richard, Bond, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003).[…] Rather than being based in cultural myths, the shared component of stereotypes is often highly accurate. This pattern cannot be easily explained by motivational or social-constructionist theories of stereotypes and probably reflects a “wisdom of crowds” effect […] personal stereotypes are also quite accurate, with correspondence accuracy for roughly half exceeding r =.50.”

“We found 34 published studies of racial-, ethnic-, and gender-stereotype accuracy. Although not every study examined discrepancy scores, when they did, a plurality or majority of all consensual stereotype judgments were accurate. […] In these 34 studies, when stereotypes were inaccurate, there was more evidence of underestimating than overestimating actual demographic group differences […] Research assessing the accuracy of  miscellaneous other stereotypes (e.g., about occupations, college majors, sororities, etc.) has generally found accuracy levels comparable to those for demographic stereotypes”

“A common claim […] is that even though many stereotypes accurately capture group means, they are still not accurate because group means cannot describe every individual group member. […] If people were rational, they would use stereotypes to judge individual targets when they lack information about targets’ unique personal characteristics (i.e., individuating information), when the stereotype itself is highly diagnostic (i.e., highly informative regarding the judgment), and when available individuating information is ambiguous or incompletely useful. People’s judgments robustly conform to rational predictions. In the rare situations in which a stereotype is highly diagnostic, people rely on it (e.g., Crawford, Jussim, Madon, Cain, & Stevens, 2011). When highly diagnostic individuating information is available, people overwhelmingly rely on it (Kunda & Thagard, 1996; effect size averaging r = .70). Stereotype biases average no higher than r = .10 ( Jussim, 2012) but reach r = .25 in the absence of individuating information (Kunda & Thagard, 1996). The more diagnostic individuating information  people have, the less they stereotype (Crawford et al., 2011; Krueger & Rothbart, 1988). Thus, people do not indiscriminately apply their stereotypes to all individual  members of stereotyped groups.” (Funder incidentally talked about this stuff as well in his book Personality Judgment).

One thing worth mentioning in the context of stereotypes is that if you look at stuff like crime data – which sadly not many people do – and you stratify based on stuff like country of origin, then the sub-group differences you observe tend to be very large. Some of the differences you observe between subgroups are not in the order of something like 10%, which is probably the sort of difference which could easily be ignored without major consequences; some subgroup differences can easily be in the order of one or two orders of magnitude. The differences are in some contexts so large as to basically make it downright idiotic to assume there are no differences – it doesn’t make sense, it’s frankly a stupid thing to do. To give an example, in Germany the probability that a random person, about whom you know nothing, has been a suspect in a thievery case is 22% if that random person happens to be of Algerian extraction, whereas it’s only 0,27% if you’re dealing with an immigrant from China. Roughly one in 13 of those Algerians have also been involved in a case of ‘body (bodily?) harm’, which is the case for less than one in 400 of the Chinese immigrants.

v. Assessing Immigrant Integration in Sweden after the May 2013 Riots. Some data from the article:

“Today, about one-fifth of Sweden’s population has an immigrant background, defined as those who were either born abroad or born in Sweden to two immigrant parents. The foreign born comprised 15.4 percent of the Swedish population in 2012, up from 11.3 percent in 2000 and 9.2 percent in 1990 […] Of the estimated 331,975 asylum applicants registered in EU countries in 2012, 43,865 (or 13 percent) were in Sweden. […] More than half of these applications were from Syrians, Somalis, Afghanis, Serbians, and Eritreans. […] One town of about 80,000 people, Södertälje, since the mid-2000s has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined.”

“Coupled with […] macroeconomic changes, the largely humanitarian nature of immigrant arrivals since the 1970s has posed challenges of labor market integration for Sweden, as refugees often arrive with low levels of education and transferable skills […] high unemployment rates have disproportionately affected immigrant communities in Sweden. In 2009-10, Sweden had the highest gap between native and immigrant employment rates among OECD countries. Approximately 63 percent of immigrants were employed compared to 76 percent of the native-born population. This 13 percentage-point gap is significantly greater than the OECD average […] Explanations for the gap include less work experience and domestic formal qualifications such as language skills among immigrants […] Among recent immigrants, defined as those who have been in the country for less than five years, the employment rate differed from that of the native born by more than 27 percentage points. In 2011, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that 35 percent of the unemployed registered at the Swedish Public Employment Service were foreign born, up from 22 percent in 2005.”

“As immigrant populations have grown, Sweden has experienced a persistent level of segregation — among the highest in Western Europe. In 2008, 60 percent of native Swedes lived in areas where the majority of the population was also Swedish, and 20 percent lived in areas that were virtually 100 percent Swedish. In contrast, 20 percent of Sweden’s foreign born lived in areas where more than 40 percent of the population was also foreign born.”

vi. Book recommendations. Or rather, author recommendations. A while back I asked ‘the people of SSC’ if they knew of any fiction authors I hadn’t read yet which were both funny and easy to read. I got a lot of good suggestions, and the roughly 20 Dick Francis novels I’ve read during the fall I’ve read as a consequence of that thread.

vii. On the genetic structure of Denmark.

viii. Religious Fundamentalism and Hostility against Out-groups: A Comparison of Muslims and Christians in Western Europe.

“On the basis of an original survey among native Christians and Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan origin in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Sweden, this paper investigates four research questions comparing native Christians to Muslim immigrants: (1) the extent of religious fundamentalism; (2) its socio-economic determinants; (3) whether it can be distinguished from other indicators of religiosity; and (4) its relationship to hostility towards out-groups (homosexuals, Jews, the West, and Muslims). The results indicate that religious fundamentalist attitudes are much more widespread among Sunnite Muslims than among native Christians, even after controlling for the different demographic and socio-economic compositions of these groups. […] Fundamentalist believers […] show very high levels of out-group hostility, especially among Muslims.”

ix. Portal: Dinosaurs. It would have been so incredibly awesome to have had access to this kind of stuff back when I was a child. The portal includes links to articles with names like ‘Bone Wars‘ – what’s not to like? Again, awesome!

x. “you can’t determine if something is truly random from observations alone. You can only determine if something is not truly random.” (link) An important insight well expressed.

xi. Chessprogramming. If you’re interested in having a look at how chess programs work, this is a neat resource. The wiki contains lots of links with information on specific sub-topics of interest. Also chess-related: The World Championship match between Carlsen and Karjakin has started. To the extent that I’ll be following the live coverage, I’ll be following Svidler et al.’s coverage on chess24. Robin van Kampen and Eric Hansen – both 2600+ elo GMs – did quite well yesterday, in my opinion.

xii. Justified by More Than Logos Alone (Razib Khan).

“Very few are Roman Catholic because they have read Aquinas’ Five Ways. Rather, they are Roman Catholic, in order of necessity, because God aligns with their deep intuitions, basic cognitive needs in terms of cosmological coherency, and because the church serves as an avenue for socialization and repetitive ritual which binds individuals to the greater whole. People do not believe in Catholicism as often as they are born Catholics, and the Catholic religion is rather well fitted to a range of predispositions to the typical human.”

November 12, 2016 Posted by | books, Chemistry, Chess, data, dating, demographics, genetics, Geography, immigration, Paleontology, papers, Physics, Psychology, random stuff, religion | Leave a comment

Random Stuff

i. On the youtube channel of the Institute for Advanced Studies there has been a lot of activity over the last week or two (far more than 100 new lectures have been uploaded, and it seems new uploads are still being added at this point), and I’ve been watching a few of the recently uploaded astrophysics lectures. They’re quite technical, but you can watch them and follow enough of the content to have an enjoyable time despite not understanding everything:

This is a good lecture, very interesting. One major point made early on: “the take-away message is that the most common planet in the galaxy, at least at shorter periods, are planets for which there is no analogue in the solar system. The most common kind of planet in the galaxy is a planet with a radius of two Earth radii.” Another big take-away message is that small planets seem to be quite common (as noted in the conclusions, “16% of Sun-like stars have an Earth-sized planet”).

Of the lectures included in this post this was the one I liked the least; there are too many (‘obstructive’) questions/interactions between lecturer and attendants along the way, and the interactions/questions are difficult to hear/understand. If you consider watching both this lecture and the lecture below, I would say that it would probably be wise to watch the lecture below this one before you watch this one; I concluded that in retrospect some of the observations made early on in the lecture below would have been useful to know about before watching this lecture. (The first half of the lecture below was incidentally to me somewhat easier to follow than was the second half, but especially the first half hour of it is really quite good, despite the bad start (which one can always blame on Microsoft…)).

ii. Words I’ve encountered recently (…or ‘recently’ – it’s been a while since I last posted one of these lists): Divagationsperiphrasis, reedy, architravesettpedipalp, tout, togs, edentulous, moue, tatty, tearaway, prorogue, piscine, fillip, sop, panniers, auxology, roister, prepossessing, cantle, catamite, couth, ordure, biddy, recrudescence, parvenu, scupper, husting, hackle, expatiate, affray, tatterdemalion, eructation, coppice, dekko, scull, fulmination, pollarding, grotty, secateurs, bumf (I must admit that I like this word – it seems fitting, somehow, to use that word for this concept…), durophagy, randy, (brief note to self: Advise people having children who ask me about suggestions for how to name them against using this name (or variants such as Randi), it does not seem like a great idea), effete, apricity, sororal, bint, coition, abaft, eaves, gadabout, lugubriously, retroussé, landlubber, deliquescence, antimacassar, inanition.

iii. “The point of rigour is not to destroy all intuition; instead, it should be used to destroy bad intuition while clarifying and elevating good intuition. It is only with a combination of both rigorous formalism and good intuition that one can tackle complex mathematical problems; one needs the former to correctly deal with the fine details, and the latter to correctly deal with the big picture. Without one or the other, you will spend a lot of time blundering around in the dark (which can be instructive, but is highly inefficient). So once you are fully comfortable with rigorous mathematical thinking, you should revisit your intuitions on the subject and use your new thinking skills to test and refine these intuitions rather than discard them. One way to do this is to ask yourself dumb questions; another is to relearn your field.” (Terry Tao, There’s more to mathematics than rigour and proofs)

iv. A century of trends in adult human height. A figure from the paper (Figure 3 – Change in adult height between the 1896 and 1996 birth cohorts):


(Click to view full size. WordPress seems to have changed the way you add images to a blog post – if this one is even so annoyingly large, I apologize, I have tried to minimize it while still retaining detail, but the original file is huge). An observation from the paper:

“Men were taller than women in every country, on average by ~11 cm in the 1896 birth cohort and ~12 cm in the 1996 birth cohort […]. In the 1896 birth cohort, the male-female height gap in countries where average height was low was slightly larger than in taller nations. In other words, at the turn of the 20th century, men seem to have had a relative advantage over women in undernourished compared to better-nourished populations.”

I haven’t studied the paper in any detail but intend to do so at a later point in time.

v. I found this paper, on Exercise and Glucose Metabolism in Persons with Diabetes Mellitus, interesting in part because I’ve been very surprised a few times by offhand online statements made by diabetic athletes, who had observed that their blood glucose really didn’t drop all that fast during exercise. Rapid and annoyingly large drops in blood glucose during exercise have been a really consistent feature of my own life with diabetes during adulthood. It seems that there may be big inter-individual differences in terms of the effects of exercise on glucose in diabetics. From the paper:

“Typically, prolonged moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (i.e., 30–70% of one’s VO2max) causes a reduction in glucose concentrations because of a failure in circulating insulin levels to decrease at the onset of exercise.12 During this type of physical activity, glucose utilization may be as high as 1.5 g/min in adolescents with type 1 diabetes13 and exceed 2.0 g/min in adults with type 1 diabetes,14 an amount that quickly lowers circulating glucose levels. Persons with type 1 diabetes have large interindividual differences in blood glucose responses to exercise, although some intraindividual reproducibility exists.15 The wide ranging glycemic responses among individuals appears to be related to differences in pre-exercise blood glucose concentrations, the level of circulating counterregulatory hormones and the type/duration of the activity.2

August 13, 2016 Posted by | astronomy, demographics, diabetes, language, Lectures, mathematics, Physics, random stuff | Leave a comment

Random stuff

i. A very long but entertaining chess stream by Peter Svidler was recently uploaded on the Chess24 youtube account – go watch it here, if you like that kind of stuff. The fact that it’s five hours long is a reason to rejoice, not a reason to think that it’s ‘too long to be watchable’ – watch it in segments…

People interested in chess might also be interested to know that Magnus Carlsen has made an account on the ICC on which he has played, which was a result of his recent participation in the ICC Open 2016 (link). A requirement for participation in the tournament was that people had to know whom they were playing against (so there would be no ultra-strong GMs playing using anonymous accounts in the finals – they could use accounts with strange names, but people had to know whom they were playing), so now we know that Magnus Carlsen has played under the nick ‘stoptryharding’ on the ICC. Carlsen did not win the tournament as he lost to Grischuk in the semi-finals. Some very strong players were incidentally kicked out in the qualifiers, including Nepomniachtchi, the current #5 in the world on the FIDE live blitz ratings.

ii. A lecture:

iii. Below I have added some new words I’ve encountered, most of them in books I’ve read (I have not spent much time on recently). I’m sure if I were to look all of them up on some (many?) of them would not be ‘new’ to me, but that’s not going to stop me from including them here (I included the word ‘inculcate’ below for a reason…). Do take note of the spelling of some of these words – some of them are tricky ones included in Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right, which people often get wrong for one reason or another:

Conurbation, epizootic, equable, circumvallation, contravallation, exiguous, forbear, louche, vituperative, thitherto, congeries, inculcate, obtrude, palter, idiolect, hortatory, enthalpy (see also wiki, or Khan Academy), trove, composograph, indite, mugginess, apodosis, protasis, invidious, inveigle, inflorescence, kith, anatopism, laudation, luxuriant, maleficence, misogamy (I did not know this was a word, and I’ll definitely try to remember it/that it is…), obsolescent, delible, overweening, parlay (this word probably does not mean what you think it means…), perspicacity, perspicuity, temblor, precipitous, quinquennial, razzmatazz, turpitude, vicissitude, vitriform.

iv. Some quotes from this excellent book review, by Razib Khan:

“relatively old-fashioned anti-religious sentiments […] are socially acceptable among American Left-liberals so long as their targets are white Christians (“punching up”) but more “problematic” and perhaps even “Islamophobic” when the invective is hurled at Muslim “people of color” (all Muslims here being tacitly racialized as nonwhite). […] Muslims, as marginalized people, are now considered part of a broader coalition on the progressive Left. […] most Left-liberals who might fall back on the term Islamophobia, don’t actually take Islam, or religion generally, seriously. This explains the rapid and strident recourse toward a racial analogy for Islamic identity, as that is a framework that modern Left-liberals and progressives have internalized and mastered. The problem with this is that Islam is not a racial or ethnic identity, it is a set of beliefs and practices. Being a Muslim is not about being who you are in a passive sense, but it is a proactive expression of a set of ideas about the world and your behavior within the world. This category error renders much of Left-liberal and progressive analysis of Islam superficial, and likely wrong.”

“To get a genuine understanding of a topic as broad and boundless as Islam one needs to both set aside emotional considerations, as Ben Affleck can not, and dig deeply into the richer and more complex empirical texture, which Sam Harris has not.”

“One of the most obnoxious memes in my opinion during the Obama era has been the popularization of the maxim that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is smug and self-assured in its presentation. […] too often it becomes an excuse for lazy thinking and shallow prognostication. […] Modern Western liberals have a particular idea of what a religion is, and so naturally know that Islam is in many ways just like United Methodism, except with a hijab and iconoclasm. But a Western liberalism that does not take cultural and religious difference seriously is not serious, and yet all too often it is what we have on offer. […] On both the American Left and Right there is a tendency to not even attempt to understand Islam. Rather, stylized models are preferred which lead to conclusions which are already arrived at.”

“It’s fine to be embarrassed by reality. But you still need to face up to reality. Where Hamid, Harris, and I all start is the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not hold views on social issues that are aligned with the Muslim friends of Hollywood actors. […] Before the Green Revolution I told people to expect there to be a Islamic revival, as 86 percent of Egyptians polled agree with the killing of apostates. This is not a comfortable fact for me, as I am technically an apostate.* But it is a fact. Progressives who exhibit a hopefulness about human nature, and confuse majoritarian democracy with liberalism and individual rights, often don’t want to confront these facts. […] Their polar opposites are convinced anti-Muslims who don’t need any survey data, because they know that Muslims have particular views a priori by virtue of them being Muslims. […] There is a glass half-full/half-empty aspect to the Turkish data. 95 percent of Turks do not believe apostates should be killed. This is not surprising, I know many Turkish atheists personally. But, 5 percent is not a reassuring fraction as someone who is personally an apostate. The ideal, and frankly only acceptable, proportion is basically 0 percent.”

“Harris would give a simple explanation for why Islam sanctions the death penalty for apostates. To be reductive and hyperbolic, his perspective seems to be that Islam is a totalitarian cult, and its views are quite explicit in the Quran and the Hadith. Harris is correct here, and the views of the majority of Muslims in Egypt (and many other Muslim nations) has support in Islamic law. The consensus historical tradition is that apostates are subject to the death penalty. […] the very idea of accepting atheists is taboo in most Arab countries”.

“Christianity which Christians hold to be fundamental and constitutive of their religion would have seemed exotic and alien even to St. Paul. Similarly, there is a much smaller body of work which makes the same case for Islam.

A précis of this line of thinking is that non-Muslim sources do not make it clear that there was in fact a coherent new religion which burst forth out of south-central Arabia in the 7th century. Rather, many aspects of Islam’s 7th century were myths which developed over time, initially during the Umayyad period, but which eventually crystallized and matured into orthodoxy under the Abbasids, over a century after the death of Muhammad. This model holds that the Arab conquests were actually Arab conquests, not Muslim ones, and that a predominantly nominally Syrian Christian group of Arab tribes eventually developed a new religion to justify their status within the empire which they built, and to maintain their roles within it. The mawali (convert) revolution under the Abbasids in the latter half of the 8th century transformed a fundamentally Arab ethnic sect, into a universal religion. […] The debate about the historical Jesus only emerged when the public space was secularized enough so that such discussions would not elicit violent hostility from the populace or sanction form the authorities. [T]he fact is that the debate about the historical Muhammad is positively dangerous and thankless. That is not necessarily because there is that much more known about Muhammad than Jesus, it is because post-Christian society allows for an interrogation of Christian beliefs which Islamic society does not allow for in relation to Islam’s founding narratives.”

“When it comes to understanding religion you need to start with psychology. In particular, cognitive psychology. This feeds into the field of evolutionary anthropology in relation to the study of religion. Probably the best introduction to this field is Scott Atran’s dense In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Another representative work is Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. This area of scholarship purports to explain why religion is ubiquitous, and, why as a phenomenon it tends to exhibit a particular distribution of characteristics.

What cognitive psychology suggests is that there is a strong disjunction between the verbal scripts that people give in terms of what they say they believe, and the internal Gestalt mental models which seem to actually be operative in terms of informing how they truly conceptualize the world. […] Muslims may aver that their god is omniscient and omnipresent, but their narrative stories in response to life circumstances seem to imply that their believe god may not see or know all things at all moments.

The deep problem here is understood [by] religious professionals: they’ve made their religion too complex for common people to understand without their intermediation. In fact, I would argue that theologians themselves don’t really understand what they’re talking about. To some extent this is a feature, not a bug. If the God of Abraham is transformed into an almost incomprehensible being, then religious professionals will have perpetual work as interpreters. […] even today most Muslims can not read the Quran. Most Muslims do not speak Arabic. […] The point isn’t to understand, the point is that they are the Word of God, in the abstract. […] The power of the Quran is that the Word of God is presumably potent. Comprehension is secondary to the command.”

“the majority of the book […] is focused on political and social facts in the Islamic world today. […] That is the best thing about Islamic Exceptionalism, it will put more facts in front of people who are fact-starved, and theory rich. That’s good.”

“the term ‘fundamentalist’ in the context of islam isn’t very informative.” (from the comments).

Below I have added some (very) superficially related links of my own, most of them ‘data-related’ (in general I’d say that I usually find ‘raw data’ more interesting than ‘big ideas’):

*My short review of Theological Correctness, one of the books Razib mentions.

*Of almost 163,000 people who applied for asylum in Sweden last year, less than 500 landed a job (news article).

*An analysis of Danish data conducted by the Rockwool Foundation found that for family-reunificated spouses/relatives etc. to fugitives, 22 % were employed after having lived in Denmark for five years (the family-reunificated individuals, that is, not the fugitives themselves). Only one in three of the family-reunificated individuals had managed to find a job after having stayed here for fifteen years. The employment rate of family-reunificated to immigrants is 49 % for people who have been in the country for 5 years, and the number is below 60 % after 15 years. In Denmark, the employment rate of immigrants from non-Western countries was 47,7 % in November 2013, compared to 73,8 % for people of (…’supposedly’, see also my comments and observations here) Danish origin, according to numbers from Statistics Denmark (link). When you look at the economic performance of the people with fugitive status themselves, 34 % are employed after 5 years, but that number is almost unchanged a decade later – only 37 % are employed after they’ve stayed in Denmark for 15 years.
Things of course sometimes look even worse at the local level than these numbers reflect, because those averages are, well, averages; for example of the 244 fugitives and family-reunificated who had arrived in the Danish Elsinore Municipality within the last three years, exactly 5 of them were in full-time employment.

*Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal (“The report estimated that 1,400 children had been sexually abused in the town between 1997 and 2013, predominantly by gangs of British-Pakistani Muslim men […] Because most of the perpetrators were of Pakistani heritage, several council staff described themselves as being nervous about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist […] It was reported in June 2015 that about 300 suspects had been identified.”)

*A memorial service for the terrorist and murderer Omar El-Hussein who went on a shooting rampage in Copenhagen last year (link) gathered 1500 people, and 600-700 people also participated at the funeral (Danish link).

*Pew asked muslims in various large countries whether they thought ‘Suicide Bombing of Civilian Targets to Defend Islam [can] be Justified?’ More than a third of French muslims think that it can, either ‘often/sometimes’ (16 %) or ‘rarely’ (19 %). Roughly a fourth of British muslims think so as well (15 % often/sometimes, 9 % rarely). Of course in countries like Jordan, Nigeria, and Egypt the proportion of people who do not reply ‘never’ is above 50 %. In such contexts people often like to focus on what the majorities think, but I found it interesting to note that in only 2 of 11 countries (Germany – 7 %, & the US – 8 %) queried was it less than 10 % of muslims who thought suicide bombings were not either ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ justified. Those numbers are some years old. Newer numbers (from non-Western countries only, unfortunately) tell us that e.g. fewer than two out of five Egyptians (38%) and fewer than three out of five (58%) Turks would answer ‘never’ when asked this question just a couple of years ago, in 2014.

*A few non-data related observations here towards the end. I do think Razib is right that cognitive psychology is a good starting point if you want to ‘understand religion’, but a more general point I would make is that there are many different analytical approaches to these sorts of topics which one might employ, and I think it’s important that one does not privilege any single analytical framework over the others (just to be clear, I’m not saying that Razib’s doing this); different approaches may yield different insights, perhaps at different analytical levels, and combining different approaches is likely to be very useful in order to get ‘the bigger picture’, or at least to not overlook important details. ‘History’, broadly defined, may provide one part of the explanatory model, cognitive psychology another part, mathematical anthropology (e.g. stuff like this) probably also has a role to play, etc., etc.. Survey data, economic figures, scientific literatures on a wide variety of topics like trust, norms, migration analysis, and conflict studies, e.g. those dealing with civil wars, may all help elucidate important questions of interest, if not by adding relevant data then by providing additional methodological approaches/scaffoldings which might be fruitfully employed to make sense of the data that is available.

v. Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States.

vi. The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence. Autistics may be smarter than people have been led to believe:

“Autistics are presumed to be characterized by cognitive impairment, and their cognitive strengths (e.g., in Block Design performance) are frequently interpreted as low-level by-products of high-level deficits, not as direct manifestations of intelligence. Recent attempts to identify the neuroanatomical and neurofunctional signature of autism have been positioned on this universal, but untested, assumption. We therefore assessed a broad sample of 38 autistic children on the preeminent test of fluid intelligence, Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Their scores were, on average, 30 percentile points, and in some cases more than 70 percentile points, higher than their scores on the Wechsler scales of intelligence. Typically developing control children showed no such discrepancy, and a similar contrast was observed when a sample of autistic adults was compared with a sample of nonautistic adults. We conclude that intelligence has been underestimated in autistics.”

I recall that back when I was diagnosed I was subjected to a battery of different cognitive tests of various kinds, and a few of those tests I recall thinking were very difficult, compared to how difficult they somehow ‘ought to be’ – it was like ‘this should be an easy task for someone who has the mental hardware to solve this type of problem, but I don’t seem to have that piece of hardware; I have no idea how to manipulate these objects in my head so that I might answer that question’. This was an at least somewhat unfamiliar feeling to me in a testing context, and I definitely did not have this experience when doing the Mensa admissions test later on, which was based on Raven’s matrices. Despite the fact that all IQ tests are supposed to measure pretty much the same thing I do not find it hard to believe that there are some details here which may complicate matters a bit in specific contexts, e.g. for people whose brains may not be structured quite the same way ‘ordinary brains’ are (to put it very bluntly). But of course this is just one study and a few personal impressions – more research is needed, etc. (Even though the effect size is huge.)

Slightly related to the above is also this link – I must admit that I find the title question quite interesting. I find it very difficult to picture characters featuring in books I’m reading in my mind, and so usually when I read books I don’t form any sort of coherent mental image of what the character looks like. It doesn’t matter to me, I don’t care. I have no idea if this is how other people read (fiction) books, or if they actually imagine what the characters look like more or less continuously while those characters are described doing the things they might be doing; to me it would be just incredibly taxing to keep even a simplified mental model of the physical attributes of a character in my mind for even a minute. I can recall specific traits like left-handedness and similar without much difficulty if I think the trait might have relevance to the plot, which has helped me while reading e.g. Agatha Christie novels before, but actively imagining what people look like in my mind I just find very difficult. I find it weird to think that some people might do something like that almost automatically, without thinking about it.

vii. Computer Science Resources. I recently shared the link with a friend, but of course she was already aware of the existence of this resource. Some people reading along here may not be, so I’ll include the link here. It has a lot of stuff.

June 8, 2016 Posted by | books, Chess, Computer science, data, demographics, Psychology, random stuff, religion | Leave a comment

Random stuff

I find it difficult to find the motivation to finish the half-finished drafts I have lying around, so this will have to do. Some random stuff below.


(15.000 views… In some sense that seems really ‘unfair’ to me, but on the other hand I doubt neither Beethoven nor Gilels care; they’re both long dead, after all…)

ii. New/newish words I’ve encountered in books, on or elsewhere:

Agleyperipeteia, disseverhalidom, replevinsocage, organdie, pouffe, dyarchy, tauricide, temerarious, acharnement, cadger, gravamen, aspersion, marronage, adumbrate, succotash, deuteragonist, declivity, marquetry, machicolation, recusal.

iii. A lecture:

It’s been a long time since I watched it so I don’t have anything intelligent to say about it now, but I figured it might be of interest to one or two of the people who still subscribe to the blog despite the infrequent updates.

iv. A few wikipedia articles (I won’t comment much on the contents or quote extensively from the articles the way I’ve done in previous wikipedia posts – the links shall have to suffice for now):

Duverger’s law.

Far side of the moon.

Preference falsification.

Russian political jokes. Some of those made me laugh (e.g. this one: “A judge walks out of his chambers laughing his head off. A colleague approaches him and asks why he is laughing. “I just heard the funniest joke in the world!” “Well, go ahead, tell me!” says the other judge. “I can’t – I just gave someone ten years for it!”).

Political mutilation in Byzantine culture.

v. World War 2, if you think of it as a movie, has a highly unrealistic and implausible plot, according to this amusing post by Scott Alexander. Having recently read a rather long book about these topics, one aspect I’d have added had I written the piece myself would be that an additional factor making the setting seem even more implausible is how so many presumably quite smart people were so – what at least in retrospect seems – unbelievably stupid when it came to Hitler’s ideas and intentions before the war. Going back to Churchill’s own life I’d also add that if you were to make a movie about Churchill’s life during the war, which you could probably relatively easily do if you were to just base it upon his own copious and widely shared notes, then it could probably be made into a quite decent movie. His own comments, remarks, and observations certainly made for a great book.

May 15, 2016 Posted by | astronomy, Computer science, history, language, Lectures, mathematics, music, random stuff, Russia, wikipedia | Leave a comment

Random Stuff

i. Some new words I’ve encountered (not all of them are from, but many of them are):

Uxoricide, persnickety, logy, philoprogenitive, impassive, hagiography, gunwale, flounce, vivify, pelage, irredentism, pertinacity,callipygous, valetudinarian, recrudesce, adjuration, epistolary, dandle, picaresque, humdinger, newel, lightsome, lunette, inflect, misoneism, cormorant, immanence, parvenu, sconce, acquisitiveness, lingual, Macaronic, divot, mettlesome, logomachy, raffish, marginalia, omnifarious, tatter, licit.

ii. A lecture:

I got annoyed a few times by the fact that you can’t tell where he’s pointing when he’s talking about the slides, which makes the lecture harder to follow than it ought to be, but it’s still an interesting lecture.

iii. Facts about Dihydrogen Monoxide. Includes coverage of important neglected topics such as ‘What is the link between Dihydrogen Monoxide and school violence?’ After reading the article, I am frankly outraged that this stuff’s still legal!

iv. Some wikipedia links of interest:


Steganography […] is the practice of concealing a file, message, image, or video within another file, message, image, or video. The word steganography combines the Greek words steganos (στεγανός), meaning “covered, concealed, or protected”, and graphein (γράφειν) meaning “writing”. […] Generally, the hidden messages appear to be (or be part of) something else: images, articles, shopping lists, or some other cover text. For example, the hidden message may be in invisible ink between the visible lines of a private letter. Some implementations of steganography that lack a shared secret are forms of security through obscurity, whereas key-dependent steganographic schemes adhere to Kerckhoffs’s principle.[1]

The advantage of steganography over cryptography alone is that the intended secret message does not attract attention to itself as an object of scrutiny. Plainly visible encrypted messages—no matter how unbreakable—arouse interest, and may in themselves be incriminating in countries where encryption is illegal.[2] Thus, whereas cryptography is the practice of protecting the contents of a message alone, steganography is concerned with concealing the fact that a secret message is being sent, as well as concealing the contents of the message.”

H. H. Holmes. A really nice guy.

Herman Webster Mudgett (May 16, 1861 – May 7, 1896), better known under the name of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes or more commonly just H. H. Holmes, was one of the first documented serial killers in the modern sense of the term.[1][2] In Chicago, at the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Holmes opened a hotel which he had designed and built for himself specifically with murder in mind, and which was the location of many of his murders. While he confessed to 27 murders, of which nine were confirmed, his actual body count could be up to 200.[3] He brought an unknown number of his victims to his World’s Fair Hotel, located about 3 miles (4.8 km) west of the fair, which was held in Jackson Park. Besides being a serial killer, H. H. Holmes was also a successful con artist and a bigamist. […]

Holmes purchased an empty lot across from the drugstore where he built his three-story, block-long hotel building. Because of its enormous structure, local people dubbed it “The Castle”. The building was 162 feet long and 50 feet wide. […] The ground floor of the Castle contained Holmes’ own relocated drugstore and various shops, while the upper two floors contained his personal office and a labyrinth of rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly-angled hallways, stairways leading to nowhere, doors that could only be opened from the outside and a host of other strange and deceptive constructions. Holmes was constantly firing and hiring different workers during the construction of the Castle, claiming that “they were doing incompetent work.” His actual reason was to ensure that he was the only one who fully understood the design of the building.[3]

Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

“The Minnesota Starvation Experiment […] was a clinical study performed at the University of Minnesota between November 19, 1944 and December 20, 1945. The investigation was designed to determine the physiological and psychological effects of severe and prolonged dietary restriction and the effectiveness of dietary rehabilitation strategies.

The motivation of the study was twofold: First, to produce a definitive treatise on the subject of human starvation based on a laboratory simulation of severe famine and, second, to use the scientific results produced to guide the Allied relief assistance to famine victims in Europe and Asia at the end of World War II. It was recognized early in 1944 that millions of people were in grave danger of mass famine as a result of the conflict, and information was needed regarding the effects of semi-starvation—and the impact of various rehabilitation strategies—if postwar relief efforts were to be effective.”

“most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression.[1]:161 There were extreme reactions to the psychological effects during the experiment including self-mutilation (one subject amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe, though the subject was unsure if he had done so intentionally or accidentally).[5] Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation.[1]:123–124 […] One of the crucial observations of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment […] is that the physical effects of the induced semi-starvation during the study closely approximate the conditions experienced by people with a range of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.”

Post-vasectomy pain syndrome. Vasectomy reversal is a risk people probably know about, but this one seems to also be worth being aware of if one is considering having a vasectomy.

Transport in the Soviet Union (‘good article’). A few observations from the article:

“By the mid-1970s, only eight percent of the Soviet population owned a car. […]  From 1924 to 1971 the USSR produced 1 million vehicles […] By 1975 only 8 percent of rural households owned a car. […] Growth of motor vehicles had increased by 224 percent in the 1980s, while hardcore surfaced roads only increased by 64 percent. […] By the 1980s Soviet railways had become the most intensively used in the world. Most Soviet citizens did not own private transport, and if they did, it was difficult to drive long distances due to the poor conditions of many roads. […] Road transport played a minor role in the Soviet economy, compared to domestic rail transport or First World road transport. According to historian Martin Crouch, road traffic of goods and passengers combined was only 14 percent of the volume of rail transport. It was only late in its existence that the Soviet authorities put emphasis on road construction and maintenance […] Road transport as a whole lagged far behind that of rail transport; the average distance moved by motor transport in 1982 was 16.4 kilometres (10.2 mi), while the average for railway transport was 930 km per ton and 435 km per ton for water freight. In 1982 there was a threefold increase in investment since 1960 in motor freight transport, and more than a thirtyfold increase since 1940.”

March 3, 2016 Posted by | biology, history, language, Lectures, random stuff, wikipedia, Zoology | Leave a comment

A couple of lectures and a little bit of random stuff

i. Two lectures from the Institute for Advanced Studies:

The IAS has recently uploaded a large number of lectures on youtube, and the ones I blog here are a few of those where you can actually tell from the title what the lecture is about; I find it outright weird that these people don’t include the topic covered in the lecture in their lecture titles.

As for the video above, as usual for the IAS videos it’s annoying that you can’t hear the questions asked by the audience, but the sound quality of this video is at least quite a bit better than the sound quality of the video below (which has a couple of really annoying sequences, in particular around the 15-16 minutes mark (it gets better), where the image is also causing problems, and in the last couple of minutes of the Q&A things are also not exactly optimal as the lecturer leaves the area covered by the camera in order to write something on the blackboard – but you don’t know what he’s writing and you can’t see the lecturer, because the camera isn’t following him). I found most of the above lecture easier to follow than I did the lecture posted below, though in either case you’ll probably not understand all of it unless you’re an astrophysicist – you definitely won’t in case of the latter lecture. I found it helpful to look up a few topics along the way, e.g. the wiki articles about the virial theorem (/also dealing with virial mass/radius), active galactic nucleus (this is the ‘AGN’ she refers to repeatedly), and the Tully–Fisher relation.

Given how many questions are asked along the way it’s really annoying that you in most cases can’t hear what people are asking about – this is definitely an area where there’s room for improvement in the context of the IAS videos. The lecture was not easy to follow but I figured along the way that I understood enough of it to make it worth watching the lecture to the end (though I’d say you’ll not miss much if you stop after the lecture – around the 1.05 hours mark – and skip the subsequent Q&A). I’ve relatively recently read about related topics, e.g. pulsar formation and wave- and fluid dynamics, and if I had not I probably would not have watched this lecture to the end.

ii. A update. I’m slowly working my way up to the ‘Running Dictionary’ rank (I’m only a walking dictionary at this point); here’s some stuff from my progress page:

I recently learned from a note added to a list that I’ve actually learned a very large proportion of all words available on, which probably also means that I may have been too harsh on the word selection algorithm in past posts here on the blog; if there aren’t (/m)any new words left to learn it should not be surprising that the algorithm presents me with words I’ve already mastered, and it’s not the algorithm’s fault that there aren’t more words available for me to learn (well, it is to the extent that you’re of the opinion that questions should be automatically created by the algorithm as well, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet at this point). The aforementioned note was added in June, and here’s the important part: “there are words on your list that can’t teach yet. can teach over 12,000 words, but sadly, these aren’t among them”. ‘Over 12.000’ – and I’ve mastered 11.300. When the proportion of mastered words is this high, not only will the default random word algorithm mostly present you with questions related to words you’ve already mastered; but it actually also starts to get hard to find lists with many words you’ve not already mastered – I’ll often load lists with one hundred words and then realize that I’ve mastered every word on the list. This is annoying if you have a desire to continually be presented with both new words as well as old ones. Unless increases the rate with which they add new words I’ll run out of new words to learn, and if that happens I’m sure it’ll be much more difficult for me to find motivation to use the site.

With all that stuff out of the way, if you’re not a regular user of the site I should note – again – that it’s an excellent resource if you desire to increase your vocabulary. Below is a list of words I’ve encountered on the site in recent weeks(/months?):

Copaceticfrumpyelisiontermagantharridanquondam, funambulist, phantasmagoriaeyelet, cachinnate, wilt, quidnunc, flocculent, galoot, frangible, prevaricate, clarion, trivet, noisome, revenant, myrmidon (I have included this word once before in a post of this type, but it is in my opinion a very nice word with which more people should be familiar…), debenture, teeter, tart, satiny, romp, auricular, terpsichorean, poultice, ululation, fusty, tangy, honorarium, eyas, bumptious, muckraker, bayou, hobble, omphaloskepsis, extemporize, virago, rarefaction, flibbertigibbet, finagle, emollient.

iii. I don’t think I’d do things exactly the way she’s suggesting here, but the general idea/approach seems to me appealing enough for it to be worth at least keeping in mind if I ever decide to start dating/looking for a partner.

iv. Some wikipedia links:

Tarrare (featured). A man with odd eating habits and an interesting employment history (“Dr. Courville was keen to continue his investigations into Tarrare’s eating habits and digestive system, and approached General Alexandre de Beauharnais with a suggestion that Tarrare’s unusual abilities and behaviour could be put to military use.[9] A document was placed inside a wooden box which was in turn fed to Tarrare. Two days later, the box was retrieved from his excrement, with the document still in legible condition.[9][17] Courville proposed to de Beauharnais that Tarrare could thus serve as a military courier, carrying documents securely through enemy territory with no risk of their being found if he were searched.” Yeah…).

Cauda equina syndromeCastleman’s disease, Astereognosis, Familial dysautonomia, Homonymous hemianopsia, Amaurosis fugax. All of these are of course related to content covered in the Handbook.

1740 Batavia massacre (featured).

v. I am also fun.

October 30, 2015 Posted by | astronomy, history, language, Lectures, medicine, personal, Physics, random stuff, wikipedia | Leave a comment

Improving your vocabulary…

Haughty, persiflage, assignation, curdle, tousle, gabble, decamp, varmint, trumpery, efflorescence, brim, bedizen, rostrum, peroration, farrago, vernal, expiate, astringent, prepossessing, dowdy, nigglevainglorious, veneer, abnegation, horology, ignoble, fulcrum, skein, acidulous, syncretism, exultant, peremptory, cognomendebonair, lachrymose, subservience, commiseration, equipoise, animadversiondiffidence, reprobate, martinet, garret, superannuate, asseverate, gravamen, saunterlassitude, verisimilar, appurtenance, oenophile, lambent, welt, churlish, ingenue, plait, inundate, scamper, incontrovertible, abscond, requite, milliner, caboose, …

The words above are all words I’ve encountered over the last few days, either in novels or during my vocabulary-building exercises on The site is a really nice learning tool, though I prefer Webster’s dictionary to theirs (which should explain the links above). I know I’ve mentioned the site before and there’s also a link to it in the sidebar, but as I recently ‘revived’ my account after some period of relative inactivity I assumed there was some positive probability that others reading along here may also have been using the site in the past and then forgot about it/given up on it.

I was wondering about whether or not I should make word-posts like these, with lists of some of the words I’ve been ‘working on’, a regular feature of the blog; it seems nice to get words you’ve come across and would like to remember, and/or words you’re actively learning/reviewing, refreshed here on the blog, and posts like this one might also provide motivation for others to have a go at this kind of stuff. The only real downside I can think of at the moment is that if I start posting stuff like this, there’s a small risk people who come across my blog might get confused and start thinking I’m an intellectual or something along those lines.

March 4, 2015 Posted by | random stuff | 2 Comments

Some links (Open Thread?)

It’s been quite a while since the last time I posted a ‘here’s some interesting stuff I’ve found online’-post, so I’ll do that now even though I actually don’t spend much time randomly looking around for interesting stuff online these days. I added some wikipedia links I’d saved for a ‘wikipedia articles of interest’-post because it usually takes quite a bit of time to write a standard wikipedia post (as it takes time to figure out what to include and what not to include in the coverage) and I figured that if I didn’t add those links here I’d never get around to blogging them.

i. Battle of Dyrrhachium. Found via this link, which has a lot of stuff.

ii. An AMA by someone who claims to have succeeded in faking his own death.

iii. I found this article about the so-called “Einstellung” effect in chess interesting. I’m however not sure how important this stuff really is. I don’t think it’s sub-optimal for a player to spend a significant amount of time in positions like the ones they analyzed on ideas that don’t work, because usually you’ll only have to spot one idea that does to win the game. It’s obvious that one can argue people spend ‘too much’ time looking for a winning combination in positions where by design no winning combinations exist, but the fact of the matter is that in positions where ‘familiar patterns’ pop up winning resources often do exist, and you don’t win games by overlooking those or by failing to spend time looking for them; occasional suboptimal moves in some contexts may be a reasonable price to pay for increasing your likelihood of finding/playing the best/winning moves when those do exist. Here’s a slightly related link dealing with the question of the potential number of games/moves in chess. Here’s a good wiki article about pawn structures, and here’s one about swindles in chess. I incidentally very recently became a member of the ICC, and I’m frankly impressed with the player pool – which is huge and includes some really strong players (players like Morozevich and Tomashevsky seem to play there regularly). Since I started out on the site I’ve already beaten 3 IMs in bullet and lost a game against Islandic GM Henrik Danielsen. The IMs I’ve beaten were far from the strongest players in the player pool, but in my experience you don’t get to play titled players nearly as often as that on other sites if you’re at my level.

iv. A picture of the Andromeda galaxy. A really big picture. Related link here.

v. You may already have seen this one, but in case you have not: A Philosopher Walks Into A Coffee Shop. More than one of these made me laugh out loud. If you like the post you should take a look at the comments as well, there are some brilliant ones there as well.

vi. Amdahl’s law.

vii. Eigendecomposition of a matrix. On a related note I’m currently reading Imboden and Pfenninger’s Introduction to Systems Analysis (which goodreads for some reason has listed under a wrong title, as the goodreads book title is really the subtitle of the book), and today I had a look at the wiki article on Jacobian matrices and determinants for that reason (the book is about as technical as you’d expect from a book with a title like that).

viii. If you’ve been wondering how I’ve found the quotes I’ve posted here on this blog (I’ve posted roughly 150 posts with quotes so far), links like these are very useful.

ix. Geology of the Yosemite area.

February 7, 2015 Posted by | astronomy, Chess, Geology, history, mathematics, Open Thread, random stuff, wikipedia | Leave a comment

Life is beautiful and wonderful…

(A slightly unusual post, but I hope you’ll bear with me…)

*Someone’s sitting on death row, condemned to death for a crime he did not commit.

*A young woman just got raped.

*A childless widow near retirement age just lost most of her life savings by participating in a financial scheme she did not understand.

*A child died of AIDS.

*A man got diagnosed with ALS.

*A traffic accident killed the parents of two children, who are now orphans.

*A married woman just realized her husband of two decades has been cheating on her for a long time. She does not know what to do.

*An old man decides to end his pathetic existence and shoots himself.

*A dog starved to death because the owner neglected to take care of it.

*Some people are employed to try to minimize the number of bullets which leave the barrel of a machine gun and do not proceed to later hit a human being.

*A young man lost most of his teeth in a bad mugging.

*A guy working in a saw-mill lost his right hand due to a work accident with a chain saw.

*A child forgot to look both ways before crossing the street, and was killed by a woman whose life will never be the same again.

*A decision is reached at the family council. The father summarizes and tells his two sons that they are to kill their sister next week in order to protect the honor of the family. They all feel that this is the best option.

*Yesterday people from the government came by and took her two children away from her.

*An old man with dementia who for the last few years has had no visitors dies at the local retirement home.

*A man who’d been married to his wife for fifteen years was yesterday told that she no longer loves him, and that she wants a divorce.

*A woman is unable to sleep due to pain from a broken arm. She broke her arm in a recent violent argument with her abusive husband, who refuses to let her see a doctor. She lives in a part of the world where there are no women’s shelters, and she has no money or friends who might be able to help her.

*A long-time smoker has been feeling scared for weeks because he’s started to cough up blood and is worried that this might be something serious. He’s too afraid to see a doctor.

*A couple was just told that their new-born child has Down’s Syndrome. Before the child was born they had no idea anything might be wrong with the child.

*A Chinese man in his forties has lost weight over the last months and some of his teeth have fallen out. He’s also had stomach pain and memory problems. He’s worried that this might have something to do with his long-time work at the local battery manufacturing plant, but he can’t afford to see a doctor about it.

*A poor alcoholic went blind from drinking methanol.

*While they were on vacation abroad, their house burned down.

*A sixty-five year old woman suddenly feels the onset of the worst headache she’s ever had while out shopping with her grandchild. She’s dead before she reaches the hospital.

*Three children are praying with their mother. A major storm hit the coast last evening, and their father is a fisherman who did not return from his fishing trip yesterday.

*A young man was recently in a bar fight. The other guy had a knife. The young man is now awaiting a kidney transplant.

*Yesterday a homeless man died from hypothermia.

*The morphine can no longer block out the pain. The woman starts to scream.

*A mother is told by her adult son that after thinking things over carefully, he’s decided that he’ll never speak to her again, because of what she did.

*A taxi-driver was involved in an accident and has just learned that he’ll need a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

*A couple is told that if they don’t pay the rent they owe next week, they’ll get kicked out of their flat. They already know they’ll never be able to raise the money in time, but they don’t know what to do.

*A young man learns that one of his former classmates, whom he used to bully in middle school, has recently taken his life. He feels partly responsible.

*A prostitute was beaten up by one of her clients.

(I’ve been thinking about writing/publishing ‘inspirational short stories based on real-life events’ for a while…) (No, not really…)

February 2, 2015 Posted by | random stuff | Leave a comment

Random stuff

i. I’ve been slightly more busy than usual lately, which has had as a consequence that I’ve been reading slightly less than usual. In a way this stuff has had bigger ‘tertiary effects’ (on blogging) than ‘secondary effects’ (on reading); I’ve not read that much less than usual, but reading and blogging are two different things, and blog-posts don’t write themselves. Sometimes it’s much easier for me to justify reading books than it is for me to justify spending time blogging books I’ve read. I just finished Newman and Kohn’s excellent book Evidence-Based Diagnosis, but despite this being an excellent book and despite me having already written a bit of stuff about the book in a post draft, I just don’t feel like finishing that blog post now. But I also don’t feel like letting any more time pass without an update – thus this post.

ii. On another reading-related matter, I should note that even assuming (a strong assumption here) the people they asked weren’t lying, these numbers seem low:

“Descriptive analysis indicated that the hours students spent weekly (M) on academic reading (AR), extracurricular reading (ER), and the Internet (INT), were 7.72 hours, 4.24 hours, and 8.95 hours, respectively.”

But on the other hand the estimate of 19.4 hours of weekly reading reported here (table 1, page 281) actually seems to match that estimate reasonably well (the sum of the numbers in the quote is ~20.9). Incidentally don’t you also just love when people report easily convertible metrics/units like these – ‘8.95 hours’..? Anyway, if the estimates are true, (some samples of…) college students read roughly 3 hours per day on average over the course of a week, including internet reading (which makes up almost half of the total and may or may not – you can’t really tell from the abstract – include academic stuff like stuff from journals…). I sometimes get curious about these sorts of things, and/but then I usually quickly get annoyed because it’s so difficult to get good data, and no good data seem to exist anywhere on such matters. This is in a way perfectly understandable (but also frustrating); I don’t even have a good idea what would be a good estimate of the ‘average’ number of hours I spend reading on an ‘average’ day, and I’m painfully aware of the fact that you can’t get access to that sort of information just by doing something simple like recording the number of hours/minutes spent reading during the day each day, for obvious reasons; the number would likely cease to be particularly relevant once the data recording process were to stop, even assuming there was no measurement error (’rounding up’). Such schemes might be a way to increase the amount of reading short-term (but if they are, why are they not already used in schools? Or perhaps they are?), but unless the scheme is implemented permanently the data derived from it are not going to be particularly relevant to anything later on. I don’t think unsophisticated self-reports which simply ask people how much they read are particularly useful, but if one assumes such estimates will always tend to overestimate the amount of reading going on, such metrics still do add some value (this is related to a familiar point also made in Newman & Kohn; knowing that an estimate is biased is very different from having to conclude that the estimate is useless. Biased estimates can often add information even if you know they’re biased, and this is especially the case if you know in which direction the estimate is most likely to be biased). Having said this, here are some more numbers from a different source:

“Nearly 52 percent of Americans 18–24 years of age, and just over 50 percent of all American adults, read books for pleasure […] Bibby, et al. (2009) reported that 47 percent of Canadian teenagers 15–19 years of age received a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of pleasure from reading. […] Young Canadian readers were more likely to be female than male: 56 percent of those who reported pleasure reading were female, while only 35 percent were male […] In 2009, the publishing industry reported that men in the United States only accounted for 29 percent of purchases made within the adult fiction market, compared to 40 percent of the U.K. market (Bowker LLC, 2009). The NEA surveys also consistently suggest that more women read than men: about 42 percent of men are voluntary readers of literature (defined as novels, short stories, poems, or plays in print or online), compared to 58 percent of women […] Unfortunately the NEA studies do not include in–depth reading for work or school. If this were included, the overall rates and breakdowns by sex might look very different. […] While these studies suggest that reading is enjoyed by a substantial number of North Americans, on the flip side, about half of the populations surveyed are not readers.”

“In 2008, 98 percent of Canadian high school students aged 15 to 19 were using computers one hour a day or more (Bibby, et al., 2009). About one half of those teenagers were using their computers at least two hours a day, while another 20 percent were on their computers for three to four hours, and 20 percent used their computers five hours or more each day […]. More recently it has been reported that 18–34 year old Canadians are spending an average of 20 hours a week online (Ipsos, 2010). […] A Canadian study using the Statistics Canada 2005 General Social Survey found that both heavy and moderate Internet users spend more time reading books than people who do not use the Internet, although people in all three categories of Internet usage read similar numbers of magazines and newspapers”

It was my impression while reading this that it did not seem to have occurred to the researchers here that one might use a personal computer to read books (instead of an e-reader); that people don’t just use computers to read stuff online (…and play games, and watch movies, etc.), but that you can also use a computer to read books. It may not just be that ‘the sort of people who spend much time online are also the sort of people who’re more likely to read books when they’re not online’; it may also be that some of those ‘computer hours’ are actually ‘book hours’. I much prefer to read books on my computer to reading books on my e-reader if both options are available (of course one point of having an e-reader is that it’s often the case that both options are not available), and I don’t see any good reason to assume that I’m the only person feeling that way.

ii. Here’s a list of words I’ve encountered on recently:


While writing this post I realized that the Merriam-Webster site also has a quiz one can play around with if one likes. I don’t think it’s nearly as useful as’s approach if you want to learn new words, but I’m not sure how fair it is to even compare the two. I scored much higher than average the four times I took the test, but I didn’t like a couple of the questions in the second test because it seemed to me there were multiple correct answers. One of the ways in which is clearly superior to this sort of test is of course that you’re able to provide them with feedback about issues like these, which in the long run should serve to minimize the number of problematic questions in the sample.

If you haven’t read along here very long you’ll probably not be familiar with the site, and in that case you might want to read this previous post on the topic.

iii. A chess kibitzing video:

Just to let you know this is a thing, in case you didn’t know. I enjoy watching strong players play chess; it’s often quite a bit more fun than playing yourself.

iv. “a child came to the hospital with cigarette burns dotting his torso. almost every patch of skin that could be covered with a tee shirt was scarred. some of the marks were old, some were very fresh.

his parents said it was a skin condition.”

Lots of other heartwarming stories in this reddit thread. I’m actually not quite sure why I even read those; some of them are really terrible.

December 19, 2014 Posted by | books, Chess, papers, personal, random stuff | Leave a comment

A couple of abstracts


“There are both costs and benefits associated with conducting scientific- and technological research. Whereas the benefits derived from scientific research and new technologies have often been addressed in the literature (for a good example, see Evenson et al., 1979), few of the major non-monetary societal costs associated with major expenditures on scientific research and technology have however so far received much attention.

In this paper we investigate one of the major non-monetary societal cost variables associated with the conduct of scientific and technological research in the United States, namely the suicides resulting from research activities. In particular, in this paper we analyze the association between scientific- and technological research expenditure patterns and the number of suicides committed using one of the most common suicide methods, namely that of hanging, strangulation and suffocation (-HSS). We conclude from our analysis that there’s a very strong association between scientific research expenditures in the US and the frequency of suicides committed using the HSS method, and that this relationship has been stable for at least a decade. An important aspect in the context of the association is the precise mechanisms through which the increase in HHSs takes place. Although the mechanisms are still not well-elucidated, we suggest that one of the important components in this relationship may be judicial research, as initial analyses of related data have suggested that this variable may be important. We argue in the paper that our initial findings in this context provide impetus for considering this pathway a particularly important area of future research in this field.”

Key findings:

Graph 1:



“Murders by bodily force (-Mbf) make up a substantial number of all homicides in the US. Previous research on the topic has shown that this criminal activity causes the compromise of some common key biological functions in victims, such as respiration and cardiac function, and that many people with close social relationships with the victims are psychosocially affected as well, which means that this societal problem is clearly of some importance.

Researchers have known for a long time that the marital state of the inhabitants of the state of Mississippi and the dynamics of this variable have important nation-wide effects. Previous research has e.g. analyzed how the marriage rate in Mississippi determines the US per capita consumption of whole milk. In this paper we investigate how the dynamics of Mississippian marital patterns relate to the national Mbf numbers. We conclude from our analysis that it is very clear that there’s a strong association between the divorce rate in Mississippi and the national level of Mbf. We suggest that the effect may go through previously established channels such as e.g. milk consumption, but we also note that the precise relationship has yet to be elucidated and that further research on this important topic is clearly needed.”

Key findings:


This abstract is awesome as well, but I didn’t write it…

The ‘funny’ part is that I could actually easily imagine papers not too dissimilar to the ones just outlined getting published in scientific journals. Indeed, in terms of the structure I’d claim that many published papers are exactly like this. They do significance testing as well, sure, but hunting down p-values is not much different from hunting down correlations and it’s quite easy to do both. If that’s all you have, you haven’t shown much.

July 29, 2014 Posted by | random stuff, science, statistics | 2 Comments

Open Thread

i. Some questions:

“Look for reasons for living and internal strengths for managing risk:
* ‘What’s important to you in your life?’
* ‘What do you feel connected to? Faith? Family? Community?’
* ‘What keeps you going?’
* ‘Do you have a sense of purpose or meaning?’
* ‘How do you manage stress?’
* ‘What do you do to take care of yourself?’
* ‘What has kept you from killing yourself?’
* ‘What do you do that helps you deal with thoughts of suicide?’
* ‘How do you manage to stay safe?’
* ‘What would keep you from killing yourself now?’”

(From Chehil’s book)

ii. Detecting Consciousness in the Vegetative. An interesting post.



From this collection of hilarious Chinese translation fails (via Razib Khan – re. RK, see also this). Curious though I’d be about how the fries would deliver the baby, I don’t really need an emergency C-section at this point. And I’m not quite willing to let go of what’s left of my inner child yet. So I’d probably go for the fried cat ear.

iv. When I grow up, I want to be a cartoonist. In other words, a mathematician. On a related matter, comics like this (and this – don’t miss the votey at the red button!) almost make me sad I won’t have children. I should perhaps point out that SMBC in general is a pure goldmine when it comes to such comics – see for instance also this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this. The best I can hope for is probably something like this.

What’s going on in your life? What have you learned recently? Links of interest? How would you answer Chehil’s questions?

November 25, 2013 Posted by | comics, Open Thread, random stuff | 5 Comments


i. PlosOne: Underestimating Calorie Content When Healthy Foods Are Present: An Averaging Effect or a Reference-Dependent Anchoring Effect?

“Previous studies have shown that estimations of the calorie content of an unhealthy main meal food tend to be lower when the food is shown alongside a healthy item (e.g. fruit or vegetables) than when shown alone. This effect has been called the negative calorie illusion and has been attributed to averaging the unhealthy (vice) and healthy (virtue) foods leading to increased perceived healthiness and reduced calorie estimates. The current study aimed to replicate and extend these findings to test the hypothesized mediating effect of ratings of healthiness of foods on calorie estimates. […] The first two studies failed to replicate the negative calorie illusion. In a final study, the use of a reference food, closely following a procedure from a previously published study, did elicit a negative calorie illusion. No evidence was found for a mediating role of healthiness estimates. […] The negative calorie illusion appears to be a function of the contrast between a food being judged and a reference, supporting the hypothesis that the negative calorie illusion arises from the use of a reference-dependent anchoring and adjustment heuristic and not from an ‘averaging’ effect, as initially proposed. This finding is consistent with existing data on sequential calorie estimates, and highlights a significant impact of the order in which foods are viewed on how foods are evaluated.” […]

The basic idea behind the ‘averaging effect’ above is that your calorie estimate depends on how ‘healthy’ you assume the dish to be; the intuition here is that if you see an apple next to an icecream, you may think of the dish as more healthy than if the apple wasn’t there and that might lead to faulty (faultier) estimates of the actual number of calories in the dish (incidentally presumably such an effect is possible to detect even if people correctly infer that the latter dish has more calories than does the former; what’s of interest here is the estimate error, not the actual estimate). These guys have a hard time finding a negative calorie illusion at all (they don’t in the first two studies), and in the case where they do the mechanism is different from the one initially proposed; it seems to them that the story to be told is a story about anchoring effects. I like when replication attempts get published, especially when they fail to replicate – such studies are important. Here are a few more remarks from the study, about ‘real-world implications’:

“Calorie estimates are a simple measure of participant’s perception of foods; however they almost certainly do not reflect actual factual knowledge about a food’s calorie content. It is not currently known whether calorie estimates are related to the expected satiety for a food, or anticipated tastiness. The data from the current studies fail to show that calorie estimates are derived directly from the healthiness ratings of foods. Other studies have shown that calorie estimates are influenced by the restaurant from which a food is purchased [12], as well as the order in which foods are presented [current study, 11], very much supporting the contextually sensitive nature of calorie estimates. And there is some evidence that erroneous calorie estimates alter portion size selection [13] and that lower calorie estimates for a main meal item have been shown to alter selection for drinks and side dishes [12].

Based on the current data, a negative calorie illusion is unlikely to be driving systematic failures in calorie estimations when incidental “healthy foods”, such as fruit and vegetables, are viewed alongside energy dense nutrition poor foods in advertisements or food labels. Foods would need to be viewed in a pre-determined sequence for systematic errors in real-world instances of calorie estimates. A couple of examples when this might occur are when food items are viewed in a meal with courses (starter, main, dessert) or when foods are seen in a specified order as they are positioned on a food menu or within the pathway around a supermarket from the entrance to the checkout tills.”

ii. A couple of reddit book lists that may be of interest: AskHistorians book list. AskAnthropology reading list. I’ve added a couple of books from those lists to my to-read list.

iii. You can read some pages from Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations here. A few quotes:

“I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ʺun‐analysedʺ and crying aloud for treatment.

The most characteristic element in this situation seemed to me the incessant stream of confirmations, of observations which ʺverifiedʺ the theories in question; and this point was constantly emphasized by their adherents. A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation ‐ which revealed the class bias of the paper ‐ and especially of course in what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their ʺclinical observations.” […] I could not think of any human behaviour which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory [Freud or Adler]. It was precisely this fact ‐ that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed ‐ which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favour of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness. […]

These considerations led me in the winter of 1919 ‐ 20 to conclusions which I may now reformulate as follows.
(1) It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory ‐ if we look for confirmations.
(2) Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory ‐ an event which would have refuted the theory.
(3) Every ʺgoodʺ scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
(4) A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of theory (as people often think) but a vice.
(5) Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability; some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
(6) Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of ʺcorroborating evidence.ʺ)
(7) Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers ‐ for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by re‐interpreting theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a ʺconventionalist twistʺ or a ʺconventionalist stratagem.ʺ)

One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.”

iv. A couple of physics videos:

v. The hidden threat that could prevent Polio’s global eradication.

“Global eradication of polio has been the ultimate game of Whack-a-Mole for the past decade; when it seems the virus has been beaten into submission in a final refuge, up it pops in a new region. Now, as vanquishing polio worldwide appears again within reach, another insidious threat may be in store from infection sources hidden in plain view.

Polio’s latest redoubts are “chronic excreters,” people with compromised immune systems who, having swallowed weakened polioviruses in an oral vaccine as children, generate and shed live viruses from their intestines and upper respiratory tracts for years. Healthy children react to the vaccine by developing antibodies that shut down viral replication, thus gaining immunity to infection. But chronic excreters cannot quite complete that process and instead churn out a steady supply of viruses. The oral vaccine’s weakened viruses can mutate and regain wild polio’s hallmark ability to paralyze the people it infects. After coming into wider awareness in the mid-1990s, the condition shocked researchers. […] Chronic excreters are generally only discovered when they develop polio after years of surreptitiously spreading the virus.”

Wikipedia incidentally has a featured article about Poliomyelitis here.

August 24, 2013 Posted by | medicine, papers, philosophy, Physics, Psychology, random stuff, science | Leave a comment


If you have any alternatives, especially ones which involve not-unpleasant interaction with other people, you should not follow these links or watch this stuff. Go interact with other people instead. Have fun, (try to) enjoy life. If you enjoy this kind of stuff, you’re likely doing things wrong and you’ll probably end up unhappy.

Tet offensive.

Arrest and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem.

Genetically Modified Crops and Food Security.

War of 1812.

Tichborne case.

Geoguessr. It’s quite fun. My best score so far is 13165 (but who cares?).

June 9, 2013 Posted by | history, Khan Academy, Lectures, medicine, Pharmacology, Physics, random stuff, wikipedia | Leave a comment

From the bookmarks

I won’t talk much about these links or cover them in any detail – but I do encourage you to have a closer look if some of this stuff sounds interesting:

i. Are All Dictator Game Results Artifacts? – “How much would participants in a Dictator Game give to the other person if they did not know they were in a Dictator Game study?”

Given how long people have known about stuff like the Hawthorne effect, I almost can’t believe nobody ever got the idea of doing something like this at some point in the past. I however have no problem believing the results.

ii. Finnish war pics. Fascinating stuff.

iii. The kind of people who apparently receive elite research prizes in Denmark these years – exhibit B: Claudia Welz (Danish link). Unfortunately I couldn’t find a good English webpage describing her activities, in order to illustrate just how mad it is that a person like that receives that kind of money from the Danish taxpayers in order to do the kind of ‘research’ she does, and my life is definitely too short to translate the crap that’s put up at the Danish site.

Exhibit A is of course Milena Penkowa. Naturally more deserving people have received the prize as well this year – at least most of the recipients probably won’t feel any strong need to talk about imaginary entities in their publications.

Here’s a related link (in Danish). It’d be a lot cheaper to just give these people unemployment insurance. I’m sure not all of this research is equally useless, but even so my willingness to pay for this kind of stuff is, well, let’s put it diplomatically – not exactly super high. I don’t really understand why people can not just study that kind of stuff (and less useless stuff…) themselves, during their own time, when they’re not working.

iv. A few more Steven Farmer pharmacology lectures:

There’s a bit of annoying microphone-related noise in parts of the second video and parts of the third one, but aside from that they’re quite good and this should not stop you from watching the videos if you find the topics covered interesting.

v. Twelve Month Prevalence of and Risk Factors for Suicide Attempts in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys.

vi. Does Educational Status Impact Adult Mortality in Denmark? A Twin Approach.

vii. Aspirin, angioplasty, and proton beam therapy: The economics of smarter health care spending.

May 31, 2013 Posted by | economics, history, Lectures, medicine, papers, Pharmacology, Psychology, random stuff | 4 Comments

Optimal information disclosure strategies?

I recently wanted to look up stuff on optimal information disclosure strategies in social settings – i.e. stuff on how to make the implicit information sharing strategies people use more explicit in order to better optimize them. The goal would be to better understand which (classes of personal-) information to share with whom, at which point in time, etc. This stuff is hard – inappropriate information sharing, both in the form of oversharing and undersharing, as well as related issues such as those of (lack of) reciprocity, are common pitfalls in social settings, and given how social feedback systems tend to work people are often not informed when they make errors in judgment in this area. I haven’t really found the sort of stuff I’ve been looking for, and I think it’s probably because I’m not looking the right places (use the right search terms). If readers know where to find such material I’d be interested to learn more – I have a comment section for a reason..

Here are some examples of what may happen when people don’t optimize:

The sketches are sufficiently exaggerated and sufficiently specific to not feel like personal attacks on people who engage in not-too-dissimilar strategies, which is why (/some people think) they’re funny. Flawed information sharing strategies are not the only things which make these sketches funny, nor are information sharing strategies the only applied strategies which are suboptimal here; but they are an important part of the problem in quite a few of the sketches (do note that non-verbal information shared is relevant as well..). Do note that the examples here are for one domain-specific application only; this stuff also applies to friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and people you’ve never met before. I’m well aware that different strategies are optimal in different domains, even though different domains likely share many similar features at the (optimal) strategy level.

Anyway, coming up with good strategies seems to me to be really hard. I assume the fact that most online dating sites don’t seem to use user-uploaded videos even now in the youtube age is probably a clue that using this medium is highly likely to lead to oversharing. Maybe there’s a cost component as well (it’s easier to just write a bit of stuff about yourself), but I’m not convinced this explanation is satisfactory without adding coordination problems and similar stuff as well (you don’t want to be the only one making a video because that presumably makes you look desperate compared to the people who do not?). I’m still a bit confused as to why videos aren’t more common in this area; they somehow seem efficient. Do privacy concerns drive this as well? I don’t know.

I tend to rely on ‘personal judgment’ regarding when to share what and in which manner; but as mentioned I’ll often find it hard to tell if my ‘personal judgment’ is off because I don’t really know very much about this stuff, and I rarely make an effort of ‘inviting new people into my life’ so I don’t have a lot of experience either. Learning these skills requires a certain amount of trial and error, sure, but it should be possible to study this stuff as well. To some extent I rely on implicit models of my own (‘personal judgment’ does include variables such as ‘time we’ve known each other’, ‘estimated degree of intimacy’, ‘information shared by the other party in the past’, etc.), but these models are likely flawed and incomplete and they don’t contain much information about dynamic elements in the equation because that’s the stuff I find particularly hard to figure out; stuff like who is supposed to ‘escalate’ – and how and ‘how far’ to ‘escalate’ – when a desire to move the social relationship from one point to another on the implicit intimacy-scale exists. Where to find better models, or at least a conceptual treatment of this kind of stuff?

Or am I overthinking all of this and the implementation of near-optimal information sharing strategies is basically considered irrelevant by most people because only severe deviations from the norm are ever (surreptitiously) punished anyway? Social interaction stuff is very complex so this would make sense; if it’s easy to get things not-quite-right it’ll often be optimal for the other party to allow for a wide margin of error.

A problem I have with the explanation in the above paragraph is that even if the level of model complexity involved here is staggering, most people do seem to engage to some extent in such optimization processes anyway – using whichever sources of information they consider to be reliable and informative (for example I’m aware that some subreddits are filled with this kind of stuff). They wouldn’t do this if ‘semi-normal’ deviations from ‘acceptable behaviour’ didn’t matter, so on some ‘relevant’ margins they clearly do.

May 9, 2013 Posted by | Psychology, random stuff | 2 Comments

What people will (and will not) say to others..

Here are 5 statements:

“You have a nice place.”

“You’re a bit lazy, and I’m sure you’d have gotten more out of the latest lecture if you’d read the material more carefully beforehand.”

“you have a fantastic episodic memory.”

“I love that you actually read these kinds of things…”

“The place would have looked less messy if you’d dusted a bit before we arrived.”

Yesterday I was told 3 of those things. One is a direct quote, the other two are English translations of what was said in Danish. I don’t think it takes a lot of work for you to realize which of the above statements I ‘made up’.

There’s a lot of stuff you can’t say. And a lot of stuff you’re expected to say. And there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t go into either of those categories.

I assume that saying nice things to others will most often make others think you’re more likely to be a nice person, because saying nice things is certainly something most people would assume that nice people are more likely to do (doing nice things is a stronger signal than saying nice things, but saying nice things provides many psychological benefits as well).

Providing constructive criticism will often be a much more risky thing to do than to say something nice, even if that criticism includes potentially much more useful information. This is, among other things, because the more potentially useful the criticism provided is, the more likely the other party is to respond emotionally, rather than rationally, to the criticism in question. So people are unlikely to run the risk of providing useful constructive criticism to another individual before they know the other party well (…and presumably have said a lot of nice things to them). Granted, someone who knows the other individual well is also more likely to be able to provide constructive criticism so this dynamic is not without benefits (lower signal to noise ratio), but the total amount of constructive criticism supplied would surely be much higher if it was costless to provide it to strangers. One big problem is that it’s hard to credibly commit to not taking constructive criticism personally and responding emotionally.

At this point it seems to me that most people who interact with me regularly are being nice to me and mostly say nice things to me. I find it interesting that I rarely explicitly acknowledge that this fact may not necessarily have anything to do with me and my attributes, and that people may say nice things simply because of how they believe such statements reflect on themselves (‘I’m the kind of person who says that he has a nice place. That’s what nice people say – so I must be a nice person.’). Also, communication strategies may be implicit and not subject to close scrutiny by the people employing them – indeed it may be optimal not to subject your communication strategies to close scrutiny, as an implicit approach to these matters makes it harder to evaluate e.g. the level of sincerity displayed (and thus makes you more likely to successfully claim at the very least plausible deniability when you’re not being perfectly honest). Different perceptions of an individual’s status, attributes, etc., may make some sincere nice statements from one individual to the other seem insincere to the receiver (making a (negative) emotional response more likely).

Maybe a good way of thinking about this stuff is in terms of a binary social (verbal) feedback varible, which may be either ‘nice’ or ‘critical’, and then making an analogy to consumption vs investment. Nice things being said have consumption value; we like when others say nice things about us, and we derive pleasure from that. Criticism has investment characteristics; it’s initially costly (it hurts to be told you’re lazy), but it may have large positive effects in the long run if potential improvement strategies are addressed. Most of income is consumption – we’re mostly told nice things. If consumption is very low (not enough social validation from peers), it may be better for an individual to lower income than to invest the marginal unit of income; even potentially very useful criticism may not be very welcome when you feel socially rejected by others. Actually you’ll only be willing to undertake an investment (accept critical remarks) once your consumption is higher than some specific baseline level (people are required to say a lot of nice things to others before they’re allowed to say less nice things to them without repercussions).

I don’t know. I like when people say nice things to me, so I’m certainly not telling anybody to stop doing that. But social stuff is confusing when you start to think about it.

On a related note – yesterday three people said something nice to me. Yesterday was a good day.

May 2, 2013 Posted by | rambling nonsense, random stuff | Leave a comment


i. Econometric methods for causal evaluation of education policies and practices: a non-technical guide. This one is ‘work-related’; in one of my courses I’m writing a paper and this working paper is one (of many) of the sources I’m planning on using. Most of the papers I work with are unfortunately not freely available online, which is part of why I haven’t linked to them here on the blog.

I should note that there are no equations in this paper, so you should focus on the words ‘a non-technical guide’ rather than the words ‘econometric methods’ in the title – I think this is a very readable paper for the non-expert as well. I should of course also note that I have worked with most of these methods in a lot more detail, and that without the math it’s very hard to understand the details and really know what’s going on e.g. when applying such methods – or related methods such as IV methods on panel data, a topic which was covered in another class just a few weeks ago but which is not covered in this paper.

This is a place to start if you want to know something about applied econometric methods, particularly if you want to know how they’re used in the field of educational economics, and especially if you don’t have a strong background in stats or math. It should be noted that some of the methods covered see wide-spread use in other areas of economics as well; IV is widely used, and the difference-in-differences estimator have seen a lot of applications in health economics.

ii. Regulating the Way to Obesity: Unintended Consequences of Limiting Sugary Drink Sizes. The law of unintended consequences strikes again.

You could argue with some of the assumptions made here (e.g. that prices (/oz) remain constant) but I’m not sure the findings are that sensitive to that assumption, and without an explicit model of the pricing mechanism at work it’s mostly guesswork anyway.

iii. A discussion about the neurobiology of memory. Razib Khan posted a short part of the video recently, so I decided to watch it today. A few relevant wikipedia links: Memory, Dead reckoning, Hebbian theory, Caenorhabditis elegans. I’m skeptical, but I agree with one commenter who put it this way: “I know darn well I’m too ignorant to decide whether Randy is possibly right, or almost certainly wrong — yet I found this interesting all the way through.” I also agree with another commenter who mentioned that it’d have been useful for Gallistel to go into details about the differences between short term and long term memory and how these differences relate to the problem at hand.

iv. Plos-One: Low Levels of Empathic Concern Predict Utilitarian Moral Judgment.

“An extensive body of prior research indicates an association between emotion and moral judgment. In the present study, we characterized the predictive power of specific aspects of emotional processing (e.g., empathic concern versus personal distress) for different kinds of moral responders (e.g., utilitarian versus non-utilitarian). Across three large independent participant samples, using three distinct pairs of moral scenarios, we observed a highly specific and consistent pattern of effects. First, moral judgment was uniquely associated with a measure of empathy but unrelated to any of the demographic or cultural variables tested, including age, gender, education, as well as differences in “moral knowledge” and religiosity. Second, within the complex domain of empathy, utilitarian judgment was consistently predicted only by empathic concern, an emotional component of empathic responding. In particular, participants who consistently delivered utilitarian responses for both personal and impersonal dilemmas showed significantly reduced empathic concern, relative to participants who delivered non-utilitarian responses for one or both dilemmas. By contrast, participants who consistently delivered non-utilitarian responses on both dilemmas did not score especially high on empathic concern or any other aspect of empathic responding.”

In case you were wondering, the difference hasn’t got anything to do with a difference in the ability to ‘see things from the other guy’s point of view’: “the current study demonstrates that utilitarian responders may be as capable at perspective taking as non-utilitarian responders. As such, utilitarian moral judgment appears to be specifically associated with a diminished affective reactivity to the emotions of others (empathic concern) that is independent of one’s ability for perspective taking”.

On a small sidenote, I’m not really sure I get the authors at all – one of the questions they ask in the paper’s last part is whether ‘utilitarians are simply antisocial?’ This is such a stupid way to frame this I don’t even know how to begin to respond; I mean, utilitarians make better decisions that save more lives, and that’s consistent with them being antisocial? I should think the ‘social’ thing to do would be to save as many lives as possible. Dead people aren’t very social, and when your actions cause more people to die they also decrease the scope for future social interaction.

v. Lastly, some Khan Academy videos:

(Relevant links: Compliance, Preload).

(This one may be very hard to understand if you haven’t covered this stuff before, but I figured I might as well post it here. If you don’t know e.g. what myosin and actin is you probably won’t get much out of this video. If you don’t watch it, this part of what’s covered is probably the most important part to take away from it.)

It’s been a long time since I checked out the Brit Cruise information theory playlist, and I was happy to learn that he’s updated it and added some more stuff. I like the way he combines historical stuff with a ‘how does it actually work, and how did people realize that’s how it works’ approach – learning how people figured out stuff is to me sometimes just as fascinating as learning what they figured out:

(Relevant wikipedia links: Leyden jar, Electrostatic generator, Semaphore line. Cruise’ play with the cat and the amber may look funny, but there’s a point to it: “The Greek word for amber is ηλεκτρον (“elektron”) and is the origin of the word “electricity”.” – from the first link).

(Relevant wikipedia links: Galvanometer, Morse code)

April 14, 2013 Posted by | Computer science, Cryptography, econometrics, Khan Academy, medicine, papers, random stuff, statistics | Leave a comment

Be amazed!

The universe, our lives, all this stuff – it’s just so incredible it sometimes boggles my mind how we can just walk around, doing whatever it is that we’re doing, just taking all this stuff for granted, overlooking everything. There’s so much to see, to appreciate!

I’ll start here – with a picture of a rock:


It’s not just any rock though – it’s been through a lot. Almost too much to imagine. Allow me to demonstrate what I mean by that…

Now, before going any further I should start by noting that I think that timescales are funny things. I sometimes sort of feel like I don’t really understand them, how they work. I have similar problems with distances now and then, but we’ll get to that later. Of course it’s not that hard to imagine an hour passing by, or a day, or perhaps even a year. But a millenium? I don’t really have a good idea how much time a millenium is – it’s such a long time it boggles the mind. A million years? That’s just crazy. I have no way to conceptualize that kind of time-scale, my mind is much too small for that. So recently I tried to come up with a way to imagine how much time these big multiples of the numbers we usually use to denote time passing by actually represent. I decided to engage in a thought experiment where I’d be counting the years that have gone by and see where I’d end up, starting out where we are now. I pretend I’m able to count one year each second. That way 60 years will go by in just a minute – an entire life of a human being in just a minute. After an hour of counting I’d be close to the starting point of written history; we’d now be 3600 years into the past. We all sort of tell ourselves that we know roughly how long that is; the Jesus stuff is supposed to have happened 2000 years ago, and 3600 years isn’t that different from 2000 after all. But here’s a picture:

This is the Sicilian Temple of Juno Lacinia, and this is what 2400 years – just two thirds of the amount of time we’ve counted so far – looks like from a certain point of view.

Let’s count on: After a day of counting we’d be 86.000 years into the past – so what happened 86.000 years ago? We have little idea, it’s so very long ago. After a year of counting without rest, we’d be 31 million and 536 thousand years into the past – you can count one year each second every second without pause for an entire year of your life and you’re not even half-way to the dinosaurs!

If we assume you count every second of your entire life and you can expect to live 75 years, then the last number you’ll get to is the year that happened 2 billion, 365 million and 200 thousand years ago.

Here’s the kicker: The rock in the image above is much, much older than that.

I’ve been to Copenhagen a few times this year. My parents also went there not too long ago – they came to the city and went back home the same day, for reasons which are not important here. I’ll pretend the trip was 220 kilometres each way; it’s close enough.

200 km is actually a really big distance, once you start thinking about it. We usually don’t, because we have means of transportation that will bring us very fast from A to B. So I decided to think about what would happen if we didn’t have those things; what if they had had to walk to Copenhagen instead of going by car? Well, walking takes more time, but it’s also a lot harder. So I decided to say that it probably wasn’t realistic that they walked more than 12 hours per day, at 5 km/hour. Or 5000 meters per 60 minutes, if you’re of a different persuasion. How long would it have taken them to get back and forth? Well, 5 km/hour and 12 hours per day gives 60 km per day, or 420 km per week. 220 km each way adds up to 440 km in total. So they’d have had to walk for more than a week to get to Copenhagen and back. It would have taken them more than a month to walk to Paris (~900 km) and back.

The closest big thingy you can see at night when you look up into the sky is basically a big rock which reflects the light of a huge ball of fire which luckily is quite a bit farther away from us than the big rock is; a ball of fire which has been burning without stop for a much longer amount of time than you can count years during your life. We like to think the big light-reflecting rock up there is quite near us; some humans have even been up there, so it can’t be that far away, right? Actually it isn’t – from a certain point of view. It’s average distance to Earth is around 385.000 km. If you could ‘fly-walk’ at a very human speed of 5 km/hour, you’d be there in just 17,5 years or so. You could leave at the age of 15 and be back here again at the age of 50. If these kinds of things were possible, which of course they’re not.

Here’s a different way to conceptualize that distance: Let’s think in terms of human-scale magnitudes (one human = ~1,5-2 metres), so that the distance is now 385.000.000 metres, instead of all that cheating with metrics like kilometres. Let’s say an average human is close to 2 metres tall and let’s say we wanted to get up to the moon by standing on top of each other; in order to reach them moon, you’d need something like 200 million people. Let’s do the counting thing again: Count one person per second. It’d take you close to 7 years to count the people you’d need to make that happen. (Of course there are various reasons why that kind of thing wouldn’t work.)

I mentioned that ‘the average distance’ was 385.000. It’s an average because the Moon is moving very fast, just like the Earth, and it doesn’t move around in a perfectly spherical manner. But the Earth and Moon is – as people know these days, although it took a very long time to convince all those well-dressed monkeys that that was how it worked – moving around the Sun as well, and this is where it gets a bit more interesting. The movement around the Sun is, well, fast. The Sun is approximately (such a wonderful word, considering which kinds of distances and differences are actually hidden here) 150 million km away from us. We don’t have enough humans to do the same trick we did with the Moon, not even close. But let’s look a little closer at the speeds involved. The average distance to the Sun is of course not the distance that the Earth travels during a year – the latter number is quite a bit larger, and like many other things it involves the number pi. The Earth goes roughly one billion km/year (940 million km/year, assuming the orbit is circular), which is 108.000 km/hour! Or 30 km each second. It’s almost unbelievable that we don’t notice, that we don’t fall off – that everything just happen the way things do, without anyone sparing much thought as to how utterly insane this is. We don’t even notice.

There’s a lot more on stuff like distances and time frames at Khan Academy. If you want to appreciate just how tiny the distance between the Earth and the Sun really is ‘in the big picture’ but you don’t have the time to watch all those lectures, see also this post.

Now, a different thing you could wonder about is how you can even think the thoughts you’re thinking now. It’s incredibly hard to understand what’s going on there, and we don’t have a very detailed model of the brain as it is. So let’s be less ambitious – let’s just have a look at some of the cells you have hanging around in ‘your body’. Here are a few juxtaglomerular cells, the likes of which are now hanging out in your kidneys (doing useful stuff):


There are a lot of different types of cells in the human body, and the total number of cells in your body is much higher than the number of humans on Earth. So you probably shouldn’t try to count them, like we tried counting other stuff before – you won’t get very far. Obviously they’re not very big, given that we don’t seem to notice them in our day-to-day lives even though there are so many of them. Until a few hundred years ago we didn’t even know such things existed. Now we do, and each day we as a species learn more about the almost infinite number of awesome small living things hanging around everywhere here on Earth. There are so incredibly many of them that cooperate with each other to keep you alive. Even though some of the types of cells in your body live only for a few hours, the combined work of all of them keep ‘you’ going for years, decades. So many things could in theory go wrong – a few cells messing up and dividing the wrong way can end up killing you (yes, I know cancer is more complicated than that – but cancer is nothing special in that respect; things always turn out to be more complicated than you’d think, once you take a closer look..). Depriving the little ones of oxygen for a few minutes will also make many of them get very angry with you, and some of them and their friends ending up the wrong place, one way or the other, may actually quite quickly end the collaborative agreement you’ve had with them for a long time.. Yet somehow things very rarely go wrong, you stay alive, year after year, until one day the little ones have done all they can for ‘you’ and so start worrying more about themselves than about what made you you.

It’s an interesting thing to think about that these small things have been around about as long as the rock in the picture above has, and that you’re a direct descendant of one of those little organisms. If you want a story of how we got from A to B, this is a good book on that topic. If you take a closer look, you’ll also realize that in a very real sense you are those little organisms.

On top of all that… If you look even closer at the cells we talked about, you’ll see that they’re made up of tiny little atoms which are jiggling around all the time, everywhere, at insane speeds and in complex patterns we don’t always understand very well at all. Even though cells are really small, it takes a lot of atoms to make a cell – a lot of atoms which need to constantly ‘cooperate with-‘ and interact with each other to maintain the structure of the cell (and again, if for some reason they don’t cooperate…). We talked about how there were more cells in your body than there are humans on Earth; it turns out that the number of atoms in a cell is roughly the same as the number of cells in a human body – 1014, or 100 trillion. The little atoms get broken down and reassembled in all kinds of ways, all over the place, all the time. I sometimes find it very confusing how all these interactions, all these things can happen everywhere and all the time, right under our noses (and over it, and in it, and…) without us being any the wiser. We look at the world and our eyes interpret the light which is available to us in a manner which the organisms which came before us benefited from. The way our eyes work is part of why we’re alive, why we’re here today – they enabled our ancestors to spot other huge collections of atoms and cells in order to facilitate the most optimal types of interaction with all those other collections of cells and atoms. Oh yes, our eyes are immensely useful things, and if you go into a bit more detail about how they work they’re fascinating things in and of themselves – yes, but even so: Such a profoundly limited, such a coarse-grained view of the world they have given us, compared to what actually is going on!

Or you could talk about the waves, all the different kinds of waves moving around in our environment – sound, heat, light, … Many of them humans can’t even see or feel, and many humans have lived their entire lives without ever knowing they even existed. Just as many people don’t know what that rock at the beginning really looks like when you start to zoom in, and which factors have caused it to look the way it does now, so relatively unharmed by time. I’ve read some stuff about rocks, but I also don’t know that in any amount of detail. And that’s okay – there’s so much stuff to learn you can’t possibly ever get to the bottom of it all.

We’re smart (yet also incredibly stupid), well-dressed apes. Apes which interact with each other and with our environment. If you have a closer look at all that interaction stuff, it turns out that that stuff – all these interaction patterns that form our lives and shape our behaviours – well, that’s just incredibly complex as well.

And it gets worse, or better, depending on whom you ask – because there are trillions of other places out there without smart well-dressed apes; places so remote we can’t even imagine the distances involved, but at the same time also places where we don’t even need to go near to understand a lot of what is happening there. Because we through a combined effort as a species have gotten wonderfully good at understanding what’s going on in this remarkable universe we’re a part of. Ignorance is the default state. But it should not be a desired end state. The world gets so much bigger, so much more interesting, once you start to look closer at what’s going on.

So much stuff to learn, to understand, to appreciate. The world is an amazing place.

I’m sad Feynman died before I ever got to at least have a chance to meet him. He set a good example:

(The last one is a repost, but I love that one. If you like these, see also this abstrusegoose comic.)


April 13, 2013 Posted by | Nature, random stuff | Leave a comment