Saturday, September 29, 2007

Lost in Transition

It's 03:18 according to the clock on my iBook. It's 11:18 according to my watch. According to the inflight map we're over somewhere that could be Ulan Bator if I knew what the Japanese for Ulan Bator was. I'm aboard a something - Boeing I think - it has at least two 7s in the model number. Other than that, my grasp on the space/time continuum is pretty shaky.

I've woken up after a sleep only made possible thru the miracles of melatonin and extreme contortion. The cabin lights have not yet come back on line and neither, I think, has my brain.

I have decided, through the fug, that this trip is not going to be Lost in Translation. Lost in Translation was all 20th floor panoramic cocktail bars, taxis through Ginza and a glamorous, blonde American full of ennui. My version is more 7th floor panoramic bathrooms (more on that later I hope), taking the Ginza underground line and a Brit of indeterminate hair colour full of a rather tasty, for airline food, beef sweet and sour. I think I like my version better.

I also like JAL so far, despite the teeny tiny seats. They haven't caught up with the rest of the world as far as running a profitable (i.e. Spartan) airline. They still have toothbrush kits in the bathrooms and a help-yourself snack and drink bar open throughout the flight[1]. However, the flavours are taking some getting used to. So far there have been some mysterious crackers that looked like chocolate chip biscuits (did I mention that it's still dark in here?), smelt like Ritz crackers[2], and tasted like Ritz crackers. With chocolate chips in. I'm keeping the packaging to determine whether the Kanji reads "Joke cracker for Gaijin who didn't take the trouble to master Japanese - はは (ha ha)". Thankfully, peanut M&Ms look like peanut M&Ms regardless of the language on the packaging. I usually don't eat anthropomorphic food, but I need to take away the taste of "Choco-Cheese - the snack for total masochists".

[1] I should point out to those unfamiliar with UK Academia that the travel policy is "Business Class? What Business Class?". Which is why i've had to learn to type on my knees with the laptop screen angled 45 degrees towards my knees. Bitter? But if course ladies and gentlemen!

[2] To my transatlantic chums - Ritz crackers are always regular cheese flavour in the UK.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Seeing things similarly

[Disclosure of interest - there's a certain author on this paper that is married to the author of this piece...]

Visual response curves to common optical illusions

Take a look at the figure on the left (click on it to make it bigger). It's taken from a paper by Corney and Lotto. The left hand column shows some optical illusions that you've probably seen before. In Box A for example, the corner lines look lighter than they actually are, and in Box D, there is a tendency to see light spots appearing in the intersections of the darker grey lines.

In the right hand column, the blue line on the graph shows the actual lightness (reflectance) of the stimuli - that is, how much light is really being returned to the eye by the points along the blue line (assuming the blue line wasn't there!). The red curve shows the perceived reflectance - that is, how light the stimulus appears to be, once the brain is done processing the image in the light of prior experience.

Graph A shows the brain overestimating lightness throughout, but particularly at the points of maximum lightness - the "bands" in the corner that we see as being lighter than they really are. Graph D - my favourite - shows an oscillation: an intersection between two dark grey lines is perceived as lighter than it is (causing the appearing and disappearing "blobs" that we see). At the points furthest from these intersections, the line actually appears to be darker than it is.

Now for the sting: the brain in question was an artificial neural network (ANN) that only ever existed inside a computer. It was trained to successfully perform on a lightness constancy task. Most excitingly, when trained to discern between overlapping layers, the ANN sees White's illusion (Box E). White's illusion has been problematic to model as the lightness perception goes "the other way" from the stimuli shown here. Thus, the by-product of learning to see lightness and depth is a susceptibility to these illuaions. This also tells us something about how animal brains, including our own, work.

For the full article see Plos, and for a writeup see New Scientist.

Oba Emma No Tabi*

So I'm off - in a few hours I'll be in the air and on my way to Japan. I've done everything I can to prepare except pack - and I've become an adept at packing due to my commuter lifestyle, so I refuse to freak out about that. The smart shoes are re-heeled, the various language aids packed, the iPod charged and the sleeping tablets handy in my "sleeping on a plane" kit.

I wasn't going to post yet, but once aging, PhD comics seems to be talking directly to me. See panel 3:

Ho hum. I just hope the fame doesn't go to his head!

*Travels with Auntie Emma

Thursday, September 20, 2007

It's not every day...

...I get excited about an inaugural blog post about smart devices

(If you're confused as to why I'm squee-ing, grep for "not here to review the iPhone".)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What a Crockus

Dan Hodgins coordinates the the child development program at Mott Community College. He seems to have some sound advice to parents about developmental stages of children. What he doesn't seem to do so well is neurophysiology. Which is a worry - as he's using it to prescribe educational interventions based on differences between the brains of the sexes that are, for the most part, of dubious significance, some of which are of dubious reality and in once case, are totally made up.

Dan Hodgins has a theory about the "Crockus" which, Hodgins claims, is four times larger in girls than in boys. Apparently, among other ramifications of the difference in size is that "Girls see the details of experiences" whereas boys see the broad picture. He even provides an unlabeled slide showing the size of the Crockus in girls and the size of the Crockus in boys. Strangely however, his slides don't actually show the Crockus - instead using the pars opercularis and the motor cortex as examples of the scale of this structure.

So where is the Crockus? Apparently - nowhere. No literature search/Google search/"shout out" to the neuroanatomy community has managed to find it. Prof. Mark Liberman of Language Lab had a theory. Maybe Hodgins misheard/misremembered "Broca's" or even "Pars Opercularis" as Crockus? Not wishing to just, y'know, hypothesise baselessly, Liberman emailed Hodgins, who replied:

Thanks for asking....The Crockus was actually just recently named by Dr. Alfred Crockus. It is the detailed section of the brain, a part of the frontal lope. It is the detailed section of the brain. You are right, it is four times larger in females then males from birth. This part of the brain supports the Corpus Callosum (the part of the brain that connects the right and left hemisphere. The larger the crockus the more details are percieved by the two sides of the brain.

For boys, usually they only view and analyze the whole picture, not the sum of its details. Girls brains are wired to look at the details first, which then leads them to the whole picture.

Look at the work by Moir.

You think that Liberman would be happy with that explanation, no? It's in the "frontal lope" [sic] - case closed. Over to persnickity Professor Libermann:

This deepens the mystery, I think, because I can't find any likely-looking Alfred Crockus via Google Scholar or Wikipedia or even general web search. I think that the "Moir" he's referring to is the co-author of Anne Moir and David Jessel, Brainsex, 1992. But Amazon offers its "Search Inside" feature for that work, and a search for "Crockus" in it comes up empty.

I have to say - I did find one kind of Crockus - and I would be quite happy if mine was four times bigger than yours! [SFW]

"Has this complete knob-end saved American democracy? "

The tasering of Andrew Meyer, a participant in a college Q+A session with John Kerry at University of Florida, has me baffled. I don't get Campus Cops. They seem to operate outside of any kind of control, have no accountability and be worse than useless

But this?

At 1'44" the mic is cut and instantly the police are on Meyer. In my previous experience people give up talking out of embarrassment no more than about 30 seconds after a mic is cut, so the instant response seems like bad crowd management.

Around 2'50" you can kear Kerry talking in the background. He says "Let me just say [that?]... because it's a very important question". Evidently Kerry has a) no beef with the question per se, and b) no intention of talking to the "law enforcement" present.

At 3 minutes in, Meyer is on the floor with several police on top of him. He asks what he did, and begs not to be tasered. At this point he is vociferous but not actually moving anywhere. 3 bursts of taser fire can be heard being "discharged" into Meyer.

In all seriousness, I've seen far more obnoxious questioners than Meyer at academic conferences, and political events, before. Never seen any of them end up on the receiving end of a police action, violent or otherwise. Even this egregious overkill was at the hand of rentabrawns. I have to say, the tasered chap was up there for pomposity and pushiness, but that's not the point.

Guardian Unlimited Talk is leaning towards the POV of the taser-happy cops, surprisingly[1]. I think it's more because we brits find pompous windbags insufferable, and not because we think that free, all be it a bit whiny, speech is a taserable offence. Post 118 sums it up best:

"YusufAlBinDoonrapub - 05:27pm Sep 19, 2007 GMT (#188 of 202)

"Has this complete knob-end saved American democracy?"

[link whilst it lasts]

Totally brilliant: that comment sums up the masterly balance/total fence sitting for which Guardian readers are justly famed. Someone else suggests that he should have yelled "Now we see the violence inherent in the system".

Bartlebooth - 07:54pm Sep 19, 2007 GMT (#264 of 314)
...What did he do that warranted being asked to leave? Dragging someone away for asking Kerry, of all people, a waffly, confused question seems like the acme of dramatic irony.

[1] The Guardian is the left leaning broadsheet in the UK. It's readers are known for being sandal wearing, muesli eating, bike riding liberals[2]. The Guardian Unlimited Talkboard (GUT) is divided into two factions - the Guardianistas, and the right wing reactionaries who hate everything the Guardian stands for. Sometimes, however, an extremely funny one slips through

[2] It may confuse visitors from the USA in particular, that the term "woolly liberal" is not tantamount to the term "baby eating satanist" over here. The Guardian likes to send up its own image and did so with a fantastic wallchart, by the talented Posy Simmons, featuring stereotypical Guardian readers. Done with TFIC, the chart was a straight up parody of the nature wallcharts that they introduced to the UK Newspaper market in 2006. Guardian readers are, usually, secure enough in their liberalism and even sometimes, (whisper it), socialism, to be able to self satirise. One of the many reasons why I find the Guardian very comforting in these insane, taser-ridden times.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

5km today, 26.2 miles tomorrow[1]

I completed the Hydroactive Women's 5km in a pretty respactable (for me) 29 minutes dead on. The T-shirt was meant to inspire me by making me think of Lola. Instead, I ended up thinking about Simon Pegg. It did the job though - no need for spatulas - and raised over £300 for Cancer research.

[1]Where "tomorrow" = April 2008, if I get a place... Or April 2009. Or I may come to my senses...

Friday, September 14, 2007

My Kind of Science

From The Onion:
Scientists Isolate Area of Brain That Doesn't Like Poking.

Even The Onion's science stories are better than the guff spewed out by some "real" newspapers.

Friday, September 07, 2007

"I made this" [1]

Happy days...

[1] Mad props to the first person to correctly identify what production company used a small child saying this as their ident, and at the end of which programme it used to be.

Auntie Em is now mobile...

Using Kaywa's Feed2Mobile service, my blog now comes slimmed down for mobiles. The QR code on the right can be captured on a camera phone with Kaywa's QR-Reader or similar. QR codes are fun!


Thursday, September 06, 2007

She's rational/he's a flake...

There seems to be a common point of view that women are more susceptible than men when it comes to new age woo-woo (and indeed old age woo-woo: horoscopes, homeopathy and the like). Men are the rational ones, we're more... "intuitive" (read: flakey, gullible, and prone to uncritically accept answers that "just feel right").

I've often wondered if this has any basis in fact. After all - for every Randi there's a Uri, and 66% of the very rich UK fortune tellers I can name, are men: Jonathan Cainer and Russel Grant for the guys, Mystic Meg for the gals. Maybe the "XY = rational, XX = addlebrained" divide is just the way the media plays it. Are all the loopy guys, and rational women, hiding?

Well, my suspicions were further piqued on receiving this email:

I am contacting you from [TV Channel]. We are producing a new programme called [Hopelessly Derivative Programme Name] and I was wondering if you might know someone who would like to take part. The premise of the show is opposites attract. We are looking to match people together who have different viewpoints so there will be interesting discussion and have them spend a long weekend together to see if romance [1] can take place over opposing views.

We are looking for a sceptic man in his 30’s and 40’s to be on the show.

Do you know any sceptical single men who might be interested? ...

Let me know if you need any more information

I look forward to hearing from you

Best wishes

[Researcher doomed to work for terminally unimaginative program execs][2]

Now I may be wrong - they may also be matching a new-agey man with a rational-chick (I'd volunteer but I'm off the market). Maybe they tried it the other way round, but smart women are much prized by smart partners, and we're all off the market by now. Perhaps the dumb bunnies are all that's left. But I have a sneaky feeling that they believe idea of matching, say, one of the Skepchicks with this guy[3] would be too much of a stretch for their viewers.

[1]For some reason I hear "romance" in scare quotes...
[2]My words, not the researchers - though I wonder if in her heart of hearts she wonders if this is what the masters in Elizabethan literature was for...
[3]Or heck, Randi and Uri - I'd Tivo that!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

London by Leg

The last few days in London have been blighted by Tube strikes, due to the failure of cowboys PFI contractors Metronet. One of the presenters of Radio 4's Today Program was more than usually snippy about the notion of walking to work in London.

I guess if you have to arrive in time for a 6am broadcast you might never have walked to work - but there's something satisfying, and very pleasant about walking in, even when the Tube is running. It's certainly more fun than the mobile sardine-tin that is the Northern Line at peak hours. DH and I used to walk to and from work, in Bloomsbury, from our home in Elephant and Castle - a journey that more or less spans the whole of Zone One. It gave me time to ponder the day ahead/just gone and included a very pleasant five minutes (yes really, five whole minutes) crossing Waterloo Bridge. Even to this day DH tends to walk to work at Old Street.

It's free exercise, valuable thinking time and saves a lot of carbon compared to car or taxi. The charity Living Streets is trying to make walking as pleasant and easy as possible. As well as their own initiatives, they've linked to this alternative Tube map showing average walking times between Tube stations, created by students from Central Saint Martin's. For point-to-point walking maps, together with time, calories and carbon saving data, Walk It is also excellent.

Did you know?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The joys of Evo-Psy

At the GECCO debate (audio and video available here, Steve Jones described a little game he plays with his undergrads, in which they have to come up with an evolutionary hypothesis for a facet of human behaviour or biology beginning with every letter of the alphabet. His "hypothesis" for blushing is cleverly designed to make women blush, and his description of the evolutionary benefits of zoophilia would get me thrown out of Aberystwyth University (formerly the University of Wales, Aberystwyth). The point he was making was that these evolutionary fables are diverting and very plausible-sounding, but are ultimately untestable.

It seems that, whilst I was away, the bad science of evo-psy reared its head again, this time on the evolutionary basis of the "preference" for pink vs blue for girls vs boys. Let us turn once again to the acerbic Ben Goldacre who critiques the study. Read the article, and consider the sartorial choices of Alice, Cinders and Bo-Peep.

The Truth is worth more than an iPod.