Thursday, May 31, 2007

That's what's next 'cause that's all that's left...

Warning - huge studio 60 spoiler. If you're hanging on for the day when More4 screens this in the UK then you may not want to watch this[1]:

If you've seen it, you'll know what the title of this post refers to (see about 2"20-2"55 in the clip). And I can't help thinking about the latest pitch from Channel 4's favourite production company, or Channel 4's latest bid for controversy. How can More4 (4's sister "grown up" channel) show Studio 60 with a straight face?

[1] If the clip is pulled or you can't see it and want to know what I'm referring to (and are not afraid of spoilerage) see the on air tirade.

Talent down the drain

Professor al-Zubaidi is an Iraqi clinical biochemistry professor with 22 years experience. He's just been offered a post at Bangor university. He has a permit under the UK's Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP). So far, so good. But he's now trapped in the bureaucratic minefield that is the UK immigration system.

The "S-series" passport Prof. al-Zubaidi was issued, as one of the first wave of fleeing Iraqis, is not deemed valid to allow him to re-enter the UK if he leaves, but his HSMP permit only becomes valid if he does leave the UK and returns. He's now been told he has to become an asylum seeker, and hence ineligible to work. So he loses the chance to work, and we lose a highly skilled academic. His case is detailed in the Times Higher this week.

Still, Prof. al-Zubaidi is relatively lucky. The Brussels Tribunal has a list of 317 academics and counting that have been assassinated. Now no-one who doesn't have a militia behind them is safe in Iraq right now, but in targeting academics the killers are doing their best to cripple progress and education in Iraq for years to come. This is surely the death of hope.

Professor Issam al-Rawi, Head of the Association of University Professors, was murdered last year. Before his death he said:

Political groups inside and outside the country are seeking to rid Iraq of individuals capable of independent thought. By doing so, the men of violence make it easier to push their own agenda.

The Council for Refugee Academics has an emergency appeal for Iraqi academics"

Your donations will help CARA:

* to provide practical and financial support to Iraqi academics and their dependents
* to identify and support hosting opportunities in UK Universities and scientific institutions
* to raise awareness of the plight and exceptional case of Iraqi academics at this time
* to seek ways to assist academics still in Iraq or who have found temporary refuge in neighbouring countries
* to lobby the UK Government to provide a safe haven for Iraqi academics - Iraq’s future educators.

At the very least, it will help people like Prof. al Zubaidi face the insane Catch 22 that only bureaucracy can create.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Weekend reading: forego the Sunday supplements...

There's never anything in them worth the trees that they're printed on[1]. Instead, for your delight and delectation I direct you to this post from Science Creative Quarterly.

Part book review, part essay, entirely interesting. Well worth a read. It's more likely to change your life than an article on this season's trend for rattan garden furniture[2].

[1]Except Bad Science, but you can get the unexpurgated version of Ben Goldacre's comments online anyway. Take that old media.
[2] I'm not suggesting that there is such a trend - I have the world's most useless balcony (25 foot long, 9 inches wide) so what the heck would I know about garden furniture?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"And all I got was a giant piano player..."

...or the perils of trusting an incompetent genie.

A few weeks ago my attention was brought to the Gender Genie: an online tool for determining whether a text of 500 or more words was written by a man or a woman. Plausible, I thought, if there really is some significant difference in the Zipf distributions of the words that men and women use, or in the order of parts of speech that they prefer. Then I read that the authors claimed 80% accuracy and that has been touted as a serious tool rather than a parlour trick. Hmm - I thought - are they claiming to be able to check whether I get David to write my journal articles?

The authors of the Gender Genie (Koppel and Argamon) used texts from the British National Corpus (listed here). From the [PDF] paper it seems like this is an honest attempt to determine what the differences between male and female writing might be.

However, it's certainly not working for me. When the Gender Genie first came to my attention I was in the middle of writing a conference paper, so I tried it on that. Bad news - on a randomly selected few paragraphs the results were as follows:

Words: 671
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 368
Male Score: 1058

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Ok, fair enough, perhaps a scientific article will throw the Genie off (though the makers don't suggest any such caveat - it is supposed to be a generally applicable tool). Here's what it thinks about my blog post on Jackie Cochrane. It couldn't be more "womany":

Words: 326
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 80
Male Score: 544

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Hmmm. Not according to the Gender Genie then.

What about that über-male, St Paul, and his letter to the Colossians? [1]

Words: 277
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 732
Male Score: 401

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!

Really? Wow. That's going to require a serious dose of hermeneutics.

I should be clear: I'm not being methodical here, and I'm not attempting a genuine critique of the Gender Genie. I could look more deeply into the methods and work out why both I and St Paul are apparently so hard to place. But just as it takes only one red fleem to disprove the axiom "all fleems are green", my experience calls into question the general applicability of the Gender Genie algorithm.

UPDATE: apparently I (and St Paul) are not the only ones finding that the Gender Genie performs poorly:
Alexander Chancellor in the Guardian reports that all but one of the Guardian's female writers were classified as male. Of 9 journalists, 8 were classified incorrectly. Now if Gender Genie was guessing randomly you'd expect a better hit rate than that.

UPDATE++: The Gender Genie site gives the stats since 2003. It's not impressive, and certainly not up around the 80% mark that the authors claimed in their article.

[1]Colossians 3.12-3.25, NIV. The verses include "Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord".

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Monomania - not just boring, but dangerous too

Cognitive Daily reports on a study showing that one person repeatedly reiterating of their point of view is as influential as multiple people giving their opinion separately.

From the comments:

"I was about to point out that a lot of people are saying that in their opinion Islam must be destroyed, but then I realized: I don't know if it really *is* a lot of people, or if it's a few people repeating it over and over until it *seems* like a lot of people, which is exactly the point."


Friday, May 18, 2007

Heroine Den, part 3

May 18th's heroine: Jackie Cochran, who on this day in 1953 became the first women to break the sound barrier.

Most people have heard of Amelia Earhart - the first person (note person not woman) to fly across the atlantic from Honolulu to Oakland.

Jackie Cochran was another pioneering aviator who, as well as holding a bushel of woman's records was also the first ever pilot to acheive an instruments only ("blind") landing. She still holds more records than any pilot, living or dead, male or female.

Inspired by the British pilot Pauline Gower and her "First Eight", Cochran helped run the ATA. She then returned to the States to run the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, a "women's air army". At the same time, pilot Nancy Harkness Love ran a civillian women's auxilliary, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, to ferry bombers between the factories and the front lines.

The sad coda: by the middle of the 20th century, attitudes were once again becoming reactionary. Cochran's WASP program was wound up and her application to join NASA's spaceflight program as an astronaut was blocked on political grounds. She eventually became one of the Mercury 13 - a group of 13 women tested for their aptitude for spaceflight:

In the end, thirteen women passed the same physical examinations that the Lovelace Foundation had developed for NASA’s astronaut selection process (although the original number of male candidates was much larger, fewer men passed the tests).

The attitudes of male astronauts lead to the dropping of the Mercury 13 however: Jerrie Truhill recalls that
The male astronauts referred to the women as "98 pounds of recreational equipment,"

Two years later, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.

Today's heroines are the women pioneers of aviation, who pushed back the barriers of flight as well as the barriers of society. Future heroines: the female space pioneers fighting the same battles half a century on.

B'bye Jerry

Jerry Falwell, the chap who claimed that 9/11 was the fault of:

" the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America,"

Is dead aged 73.

This is the same Jerry who gave us:

"Most of the feminists need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home. And they blew it and they're mad at all men. Feminists hate men. They're sexist. They hate men - that's their problem."

I don't hate men, Jerry. You personally turn my stomach, but I'm not ill disposed towards real men[1]. Away from your shrill, playground accusations, I find my attitude towards men (and one man in particular) is this:

"I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman."

Anaïs Nin

[1]Men who are so free from cowering xenophobia that any difference: sex, sexuality, race, elicits neither a howl of revulsion or tyrannous cant disguised as concern.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

It takes a woman, a dainty woman...[1]

To bite the head off the offspring of an immigrating competitor... Where that 'woman' is a female Sonso chimp at least.

The paper is available here if you have a subscription to Current Biology.

If not, both the BBC and the University of St Andrews website cover the story.

This behaviour was first reported by Jane Goodall in the 1970s. From the St Andrews website:

Similar behaviour was described by eminent primatologist Jane Goodall at Gombe Stream National Park in the 1970s but her observations had long been disregarded as inconsistent and pathological.

[1] From "Hello Dolly":

The frail young maiden who's constantly there
For washing and blueing and shoeing the mare
And it takes a female for setting the table
And weaving the Guernsey
And cleaning the stable
And in the winter she'll shovel the ice
And lovingly set out the traps for the mice
She's a joy and treasure for practically speaking
To whom can you turn when the plumbing is leaking?

[2]Quelle Sur-Fucking-Prise.

Free Will or "free will"?

"Fruit flies demonstrate free will" - such is the reaction to a paper by Maye et al. It's co-author Brembs who's making the most impact in the blogosphere.

The press release on Brembs' own site has a writeup of the research. He states that the work has distinguished between two alternative models of behaviour (the first figure in Brembs' writeup online - also available here). The chaotic behaviour observed requires some sort of internal "initiator" within the fly's mind because:

[L]acking any input, if the flies were input-output devices, their behavior should resemble random noise, similar to a radio tuned between stations.

Is this really true?

  • Are the flies lacking any visual input, or do their visual systems create illusory input? (David - I need you to explain Ganzfeld again...)
  • What other inputs might there be from the fly's internal and external environment (muscle fatigue, air currents created by the fly's own movement...) that might have been creating input?
  • If we accept that they were receiving "no input" whatsoever, is it still true that this would necessarily result in random (rather than stochastic) behaviour?

These are genuine questions - I really don't know and I'm curious to find out. The paper's in PLOSOne - so I suppose the reviewers must have received good answers to these sorts of questions.

But now for the more grandiloquent claim - that the presence of this initiator is evidence of free will. The New Scientist review seems to suggest that the appearance of chaotic patterns in the fly's movement suggest free will.

If this initiator is initiating chaotic behaviour, how is it doing it? Does there have to be an element of "will" about it at all? After all, climate systems exhibit wonderfully complex stochastic behavior and no one (the romantic poets aside) has ever accused the weather of exercising choice.

Brembs quotes himself as saying:
"Our subjective notion of 'Free Will' is essentially an oxymoron: we would not consider it 'will' if it were completely random and we would not consider it 'free' if it were entirely determined."

So far, so soundbite. But the release goes on, at the end of the penultimate paragraph, to say:

Humans may not have free will in the philosophical sense, but even flies have a number of behavioral options they need to decide between. Humans are less determined than flies and possess even more options. With this small reformulation, the topic of free will becomes the new biological research area of studying spontaneous behavior and can thus be discerned from the philosophical question.

Aha! So it's not so much a question of whether or not flies have free will, as whether or not flies have "free will". This seems like a nice bit of semantic footwork. In the cog sci, neurophysiology and psychology fields, "free will" might be shorthand for "apparent free will". But to the rest of us free will means Free Will, in that pesky philosophical sense. In Nature Neuroscience, free will might mean "free will", but in the New Scientist, free will means Free Will.

See, this is why I dislike to science by press release. Without knowledge of the specific meaning of the terminology used in the researcher's community of practice (free will = apparent free will), the reader is left to interpret the news story in a commonsense manner (free will = Free Will). And so, in your newspaper today, expect flies to go from having "free will" to having Free Will. It's a big difference.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The slow climb meets the leaky pipe: women in academia.

The good news: the numbers of academic staff in UK universities increased 2.6% in 2005-2006 - higher than the increase in student numbers (1.4% over the same period).

The bad news: this is the first glimmer of hope after 20 years of declining staff/student ratios.

The good news: the increase in women academics overall increased by 4% in the same period.

The bad news: this increse is still overwhelmingly concentrated on the lower end of the scale. At professorial level, fewer than 1 in 6 academics are female.


Is this the leaky pipe, cultural factors? It's not an innate inferiority of female undergrads, that's for sure.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Specialist subject

A new study sheds interesting light on the Stamford Prison Experiment (SPE) in which a group of 'normal' young men were arbitrarily designated to be either 'guards' or 'prisoners' in a fictitious prison setting. In the original experiment, the guards quickly began to brutalise the prisoners in order to maintain discipline. In adition, the prisoners quickly became passive, after initial rebellion.

This new study examines who volunteers to be a subject in this type of experiment. Thomas Carnahan and Sam McFarland from Western Kentucky University circulated the original advert from the SPE (the original description is available as a PDF here). They also circulated an advert that was identical except that it made no mention of the prison setting. They found that people volunteering for the experiment that explicitly mentioned the prison setting "scored significantly higher on measures of the abuse-related dispositions of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and social dominance and lower on empathy and altruism" than those volunteering for the other study. The authors suggest that this should lead to a rethinking of the 'generality' of the lessons from the SPE.

This raises two questions for me. Firstly, to what extent were those who volunteered for Carnahan and McFarland's study aware of the SPE? Might prior knowledge of the violence that ensued deter less those with less 'abuse related dispositions'? Secondly, if the people in the study don't know, a priori whether they will be guards or prisoners, would the same characteristics that lead to the propensity for abuse also lead to the high levels of complicity and 'victimhood' exhibited by the prisoners in the original experiment? Any ideas, psych geeks?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Answer for Petit

I realised that this would be unreadable as a comment, as it's so darned long! "Petit" asked:

I don't understand how rhetoric is an improvement over evidence based policy. As far as I know this was an attempt to combat rhetoric and policies which were implemented purely for political reasons.

Will have to read the papers but from my limited practical experience I can't see how using rhetoric (argumentation) is any different from old style policy making.

It is also already common to argue for the applicability of ones evidence to a policy.

Hi Petit (Is that Petit Careme? Hello there!),

Good questions. These tend to be the questions that arise in presentations and, to a lesser extent, from reviewers. Arguments in favour of "rhetoric based policy making" tend to exact one of two reactions - either "evidence is good, anything else is just plain wrong" or "what's the problem? Surely nobody believes evidence alone is sufficient to make good policy" I hope the following rather lengthy comment will address both those questions:

First and foremost, I want to make it clear that there is a huge distinction between healthy rhetoric (consisting mainly of argumentation and dialectic) and unhealthy, eristic rhetoric.

The healthy type of rhetoric is desirable because the problems of "evidence based policymaking" are threefold (at least!):

  1. Evidence can only tell us which policies are possible, not which ones are desirable.[1]

  2. Knowing what is "the best" policy is impossible - policy making problems are wicked problems by their very nature. If a problem is reducable to a computable decision it wouln't be a policy decision, it would be a technical decision.

  3. Policy makers are of course human beings first and foremost - and to pretend they are not suceptible to the unhealthy rhetoric of cranks an pressure groups is naive, and yet EBPM expects policy makers to behave as automata.

    Only by making policymakers aware of the difference between healthy and unhealthy rhetoric can we inocculate policy makers against cranks.

Trevor Bench-Capon sums up the need for argumentation (healthy rhetoric) in all practical reasoning:

Argumentation is essential because no completely compelling answer can be given: whereas in matters of belief we should be constrained by what is actually the case, in matters of action no such constraints apply - we can choose what we will attempt to make the case

(Emphasis mine.)

Therefore there is no function from a given set of evidence to a single, provable or probable "best" policy answer. Good rhetoric must include arguing about the applicability of evidence to a policy choice, the laying out of warrantss. But it should go beyond that, and argue over the reasons why a particular policy is desirable. Determining the most desirable policy that "we will attempt to make the case" requires that values and frames of the stakeholders to the policy are taken into acounct. For example, in deciding on a policy to reduce teenage pregnancy:

  • We might all accept the premise that reducing teenage pregnancy is a worthwhile goal
  • We would, I hope, not be at odds over the mechanics of conception
  • We may still vehemently disagree about the preferred “means of action” taken to prevent teenage pregnancy - eg: abstinence education vs universal acces to contraception
  • We may both still be behaving reasonably, according to our value systems

Even the evidence that one policy reduces teenage prgnancy n% more effectively than the other may not be sufficient to mandate the choice of one policy over another, if other matters of importance ("personal autonomy", "child welfare") are not taken into account. But there is no non-arbitrary way to make all these factors commensurable.

If you choose but one reference, I suggest Majone's Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the Policy Process. It's pretty widely available and very readable. It certainly makes the case more cogently than I have here.

[1] There is an excellent example of good evidence leading to a totally defective policy (in that it failed to identify the real needs of the policy beneficiaries). This is the case of the "foam hip protectors" (referred by the frustrated users and their carers as "padded knickers") prescribed to elderly residents of an old people's home. The original study is:
Parker, M. J., Gillespie, W. J., & Gillespie, L. D. (2006) "Effectiveness of hip protectors for preventing hip fractures in elderly people: systematic review", BMJ, vol. 332, no. 7541, pp. 571-574.

and Green's review of the detremental effect on the dignity and quality of life of the people made to wear these devices:

Green, J. (2000), "Epistemology, evidence and experience: evidence based health care in the work of Accident Alliances", Sociology of Health and Illness, vol. 22, no. 4, pp. 453-476.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Healthy Rhetoric - what is a crank?

I'm about to go and give a talk at a certain institution (let's just say it's in a capital city, and it's an educational institute, and it was traditionally concerned with the science of the flow of money...) The talk is on the subject of my "second string" research: argumentation for policy making. The main thrust of the talk is that policy making at its best occurs where people of good will engage in meaningful discourse.

Aye but there's the rub - there are plenty of special interest groups and, let's face it, cranky individuals that won't play by the rules: creationists, pseudo-medics and pseudo-scientific racists. And these people can have a hugely detremental effect on the policy making process because it's hard to identify when these individuals have strayed from "misguided" to "dangerous loon". At best, they sap the time and energy of those people who are prepared to stick to the niceties of debate. At worst, their screed sounds convincing to the scientifically inexperienced and bad things happen.

So how do you recognise cranks? Sadly this isn't the area of my expertise (formal argumentation frameworks anyone..?). So I was pleased to run across this post from Denialism Blog. The heuristic still seems to be, in the words of Winston Churchill,

A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.

Now if only I could represent that logically.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

In the not too distant future...

This evening, AD... some of my geekiest (therefore best) friends and I will be at the MST3K allnighter.

How can I explain MST3K? Perhaps via the lyrics to the theme song? Or perhaps you'd rather sit and watch. May I introduce Mike Nelson and his robot friends as they endure (as we will tonight) Hobgoblins:

Friday, May 04, 2007

Scouting for glory

I may have been sacked from guides, but I'm now a member of the Science Scouts:

Here are my badges:


The "talking science" badge. Required for all members. Assumes the recipient conducts himself/herself in such a manner as to talk science whenever he/she gets the chance. Not easily fazed by looks of disinterest from friends or the act of "zoning out" by well intentioned loved ones.

The 'I blog about science' badge.
The 'I blog about science' badge.
In which the recipient maintains a blog where at least a quarter of the material is about science. Suffice to say, this does not include scientology.

The 'will glady kick sexual harasser's ass' badge.<br />
The 'will glady kick sexual harasser's ass' badge.
(And we mean 'ass' in the most holistic of ways). In which the recipient stands up to such miscreants in the work place. Places of science should know better.

The "has frozen stuff just to see what happens" badge (LEVEL II)
In which the recipient has frozen something in dry ice for the sake of scientific curiosity.
(Those who came to our wedding dinner will understand... thanks Jeev and Neil)

The "I'm a scientist who is fundamentally opposed to administrative duties" badge.
Presumably a badge with a consensus even stronger than that seen in the global warming arena.

The "somewhat confused as to what scientific field I actually belong to" badge
Also known as the transdiscplinary, interdiscplinary, or intradisciplinary badge.

Because I moonlight in the social sciences ("argumentation & rhetoric in policymaking" - an occasional change from robots)

The "I build robots" badge (LEVEL III)
In which recipients have built a fully autonomous robot.

Not all alone!.

The "non-explainer" badge (LEVEL I)
Where the recipient can no longer explain what they do to their parents.

The "broken heart for science" badge
In which the recipient's passion for science has led to their significant other leaving.

Okay - so I'm the one that left, and only in a geographical sense. But until we can find a solution to the two-body problem I still think I deserve this.

Being a bat

In 1974, Thomas Nagel wrote a paradigm shaking essay: What is it like to be a bat? in which he argued that consciousness exists wherever there is "the subjective character of experience", that it, there is something that it is like to be that conscious entity. The essay was also a statement against reductionism. Nagel argued as follows:

"Bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat...

"Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications."

From this position, he argued, there exist things that are unknown, but there also exist things that are unknowable:
"Certainly it is possible for a human being to believe that there are facts which humans never will possess the requisite concepts to represent or comprehend... After all there would have been transfinite numbers even if everyone had been wiped out by the Black Death before Cantor discovered them. But one might also believe that there are facts which could not ever be represented or comprehended by human beings, even if the species lasted for ever—simply because our structure does not permit us to operate with concepts of the requisite type."

(Emphasis mine)

Enter Chris Chatham's post, entitled target=bat2>What It's Like To Be A Bat: Seeing With Sound Via Sensory Substitution. This is an interesting roundup of recent work developing 'sensory substitution' technology. For example, a system exists that transforms camera images into weak electrical signals applied to the tongue; another uses sounds to represent camera images.

Note that Chatham doesn't claim that people using these systems do know what it is like to be a bat. As Nagel said "In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. ". Whilst there are now some extra sensory modalities that turn the "imagine" into "experience", the human baggage that is applied to that experience will still mean we can never know what it is like to be a bat.

One thing the human animal is very good at it story telling. For some entertaining imaginings of what it is like to be a bat see chapter 8 of David Lodge's novel Thinks

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Elephant and Castle Regeneration: the view from my window

It's a bit noisy working from home at the moment as the building work begins:

Oakmayne Plaza Foundations

How long does it take to build something this size?

Still - we're luckier than these poor folks. No-one hurt, so I hear, but what a mess:

burnt out