Archive for September, 2011

Spherical Racehorses and Markets That Aren't

September 29, 2011 - 5:37 pm Comments Off

Go here for a stellar rant by Ozymandias about a New York Post article that’s yet another in a series on a topic I rant about often, which is the transactional model of sex and the assumption that women who put out too easily are “destroying the sexual marketplace”, because men only have relationships or get married in exchange for sex and women only have sex in exchange for relationships.

I managed to go through several different versions of this post in my head ranging from one involving a lot of statistics to a (still may do this) examination of “evolutionary psychology” from the end of what that really currently looks like as done by real evolutionary biologists as opposed to the internet and fringe psychologists*, but in the end I think I’ll simply link to Ozy- which is a reaction to the depth of misandry buried in the article’s assumptions- and make a few more observations.

“Sexual marketplace” economic models are spherical racehorses. That is, if you haven’t read that old post, it’s a model that intentionally leaves out important variables that exist in reality in order to demonstrate principles or examine local effects, or effects in which those variables are, in that specific context, relatively homogenous. Since these models are intentionally built with important variables excluded in order to make a simple model that can be manipulated, as soon as you forget what they are and why they are that way, you can use them to draw all sorts of wrong conclusions while wondering why reality obstinately refuses to match your model.

If you’re looking at an environment in which men and women meet to have sex and negotiate for longer-term sexual arrangements- the fabled “meat market”- sexual marketplace theories work pretty well. Everyone involved is after the same relatively narrow range of things, everybody is likely to share the same outlook on sex as a transaction, and everybody has a similar set of expectations and understanding. However, it falls apart to greater and greater degrees the further away you get from a population of economically homogenous twenty-somethings in a bar; men do enter relationships for reasons other than securing a steady supply of sex, and women do have sex simply because it’s enjoyable.

Or, to put it in blunter terms: if your economic model shows a good that is given away for free thirty percent of the time but is still routinely paid for at a much higher price, either the market is in serious trouble and is about to collapse completely out of existence any day now, or your model is completely fucked for describing and predicting what you’re actually looking at.

*Here’s a hint: if you don’t know what sexual strategies theory is versus pleasure theory and how they relate to each other, the term “phenotypic plasticity” and how that relates to culture, you have not seen evolution-as-applied-to-psychology in much depth yet.

KTKC: The Final Week

September 28, 2011 - 3:51 pm Comments Off

Well, according to the standings in Ambulance Driver’s Kilted to Kick Cancer challenge, any stops we can pull out here in Nerdlandia won’t put me in any danger of an early prostate exam myself, unless LabRat has plans of which I have not yet been made aware, or a trip to ninja-school or a new pistol. Despite that excellent reason to give up, quit trying, and save resources for future challenges, we’re going to give up, quit trying, and save resources for future challenges push on because while the chance to get a free roscoe or a class on how to run it is awesome, that’s not the point. As AD put it:

in just three days, prostate cancer awareness is going to get lost in a flood of pink for breast cancer awareness, a disease that kills fewer women than prostate cancer does men, yet receives four times the research dollars.

Look, I get it. Breasts are awesome, they really are. Easily one of the top three inventions in history, behind only Scotch whiskey and the 1911, they’re even ahead of cigars for pete’s sake. So I’m totally on board with notions and slogans like “Don’t let cancer steal second base.” That said, I’d kinda like to actually be around to enjoy those boobs (and better, those attached to them), and if my prostate gets uppity and kills me because research on the back end of the deal was stagnating, I’m going to be mightily pissed. You, dear reader who has seen these exhortations before but haven’t opened wallet, can donate here to the Prostate Cancer Foundation or here to Livestrong.

And while AD may have the adorable KatyBeth to wield as a blunt force cute-trauma device, he doesn’t have these:

Someone told Wonderboy here that my hand was cancer. See how much he hates that shit?

They’re fluffy and I’m in a kilt. Do I really have to draw a diagram here?

Please, if you haven’t already, donate to Prostate Cancer Foundation or Livestrong.

Everything Old Is Apparently STARTLINGLY NOVEL Again

September 27, 2011 - 4:20 pm Comments Off

Howard Kurtz is SHOCKED AND HORRIFIED by how “puritan” the scary new Tea Party-influenced Republican party is. You know how bad it’s gotten? The people who will be sorting the primary candidates take them to task for unconservative past statements and positions. It’s like they’re some sort of lynch mob or something.

The more election seasons I go through the more I’m convinced that the people whose job it is to comment professionally on these things have themselves wheeled into a secret laboratory to have their memories wiped every year before the election, so that they may start completely afresh. Kurtz’s argument is that this year’s Republican party is uniquely stringent in applying “purity tests” to its candidates for ideology, insinuating it’s probably the the fault of those Tea Party rednecks. He makes a few attempts at acknowledging that history didn’t begin five minutes ago by acknowledging that it’s more or less normal for the primary process to be one of pleasing the ideological base, who often have unrealistic standards, but he falls flat when he (perfunctorily) tries to demonstrate why this year is unique.

He specifically mentions some positions of past Republican candidates both successful and un that would get their feet held hard to the fire this cycle, but he seems to have managed to forget that a)these same positions got their feet held to the fire then, too, and b)people’s attitudes and priorities, on both sides of the ideological divide, change over time. Yes, G.W. Bush’s “compassionate conservativism” pitch probably wouldn’t fly at all in 2012, but using this as an example both pretends that the conservative base were thrilled about W. in 2000 (I have the back National Review columns to show they decidedly were not) and that more than a few things haven’t changed since then.

Even for those for whom Red vs. Blue really is like being on a team and have a basket of team-endorsed opinions, which positions and platforms are more important and which are less so changes based on what they identify as the most immediately pressing issues. “Compassionate conservatism” was acceptable in 2000 because America was at peace and had a thriving economy; people had much more of a sense that there was money to go around without a serious sense of threat, ideologically questionable or not. Despite that his presidency later became defined by war, George W. Bush ran almost entirely on domestic and cultural issues, because that’s what people viewed as important at the time. (Ironically, as far as foreign policy went, he also heavily criticized Clinton and by extension Gore for foreign adventurism and nation-building.)

The other example he mentions, John McCain, would indeed be likely “nearly laughed off the stage” for his past positions on immigration- but he very nearly was in 2008, too. Remember, McCain was a dark horse candidate to come out of that primary- he was quite literally elected because he was hated by the least conservative factions, not because he was liked the most by any of them.

Kurtz does some lecturing on how governors usually have more checkered policy pasts than Congressmen and private individuals because they have to deal with real-world problems and can’t opt out of it or hide behind someone else’s vote, but the thing is that the Republican party knows this too, just like the Democratic party knows that a candidate who really could please all their factions in the primary is both highly unlikely to exist, and if they did, unlikely in the extreme to electable in the general.

This is why I can’t quite believe Kurtz was able to write this column with a straight face and suspect him of brainwashing; this is how the primary system works and how it has for decades. Candidates spend a cycle furiously pandering to their base and trying to convince them they’re ideological superheroes, and then whichever one survives turns right around and starts trying to take back everything they said for the general, because American politics is played between the thirty yard lines and real ideological hardliners don’t get elected. Everyone who follows politics and has the observational pattern-recognition skills of the average rhesus monkey knows this, and anyone who doesn’t is probably selling something- in this case, the notion that the Tea Party is causing some dangerous new radicalization to the Republican primary system.

Friday Food Punt

September 23, 2011 - 6:56 pm Comments Off

So far all I can think to say of anything that’s happened recently is that when the Weekly Standard is agreeing with me that it looks like our possible field of Republican candidates is entirely capable of out-stupiding and out-hacking Obama, we really are in it up to our thighs.

So instead, have a recipe. Take my word for it that this absolutely delicious, and you will need lots of good bread to sop up the brothy sauce, because wasting it would be criminal.

From Apartment Therapy:

To serve 4-6, you need:

3 tablespoons of butter, unsalted
2 good-sized yellow onions, sliced thinly
4 garlic cloves, sliced rather than minced
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves thereof, or a teaspoon of the dried stuff
sprig of rosemary, or half a teaspoon dried
2 cups chicken stock or broth, as in 2 individual, separate cups
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 pounds chicken thighs (the original recipe specifies boneless skinless, but this is vicious lies and you want the bones and the skin)
2 ounces/1 cup shredded/grated Gruyère cheese

Get a deep saucepan big enough to hold all the onions comfortably, and melt the butter in it. Add the onions and stir them until the butter is coating everything. Season with salt and pepper. Cook on low-to-medium for about 40 minutes, stirring periodically to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan and everything is cooking fairly evenly. When the onions have turned light brown, add the garlic, thyme, and rosemary, and stir until everything is evenly mixed again. Kick the heat up to high and cook until the onions have turned a rich, dark brown, short of burnt. (If you have ever made or had good french onion soup- yes, that color.) When the onions have achieved the desired color and rich smell, add a cup of the stock and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan to make sure you get any burnt/stuck bits up and incorporated into the liquid. Simmer for ~5 minutes or until the liquid has reduced a bit.

Take the onions and stock off the heat and transfer to a dutch oven, lidded casserole dish of appropriate size and dimension, or a baking dish you can double-layer with foil.

At some point while the onions are cooking, pre-heat the oven to 375 F. Heat another pan- preferably a good cast iron skillet- over medium high heat. Pat your chicken thighs dry and season them with salt and pepper. Once the pan is hot enough, brown them for about three minutes a side, until they have a golden-brown crust on each. Throw them in on top of the onions in the dutch oven/baking dish*.

Add the last cup of broth to your chicken pan, and again stir and scrape to get up anything stuck to the bottom. (This dish benefits much from the delicious little burnt bits to make its sauce.) Stir in the vinegar and mustard and simmer the sauce for about five minutes or until it’s reduced by half. Pour the sauce over the chicken and onions and lid/foil the baking vessel. Let it sit around 15 minutes or so, then pop it into the oven for half an hour. After that, pull it, turn the heat up to broil, take off the lid/foil, and sprinkle the cheese evenly over the top. When the broiler has had time to heat (you know your oven), pop it back in and go another 2-5 minutes, or until the cheese is browning and melty.

Serve in shallow bowls or high-rimmed plates, with plenty of the aforementioned bread.

*Stingray points out that if you’re using a dutch oven as we do, you can brown the chicken and make that phase of the sauce first/while the onions are cooking in the dutch oven, and then just lift the chicken thighs before you put the onions in, and put the thighs on top where they belong. Saves a dirty pan.

Proof of Concept

September 22, 2011 - 4:40 pm Comments Off

Gamers Crack Protein Folding Problem. The proper journal article is here.

More accurately, this would be titled “clever biochemists induce a population of people who do spatial reasoning puzzles for fun to solve their spatial reasoning problem for entertainment and bragging rights”.

The journal article is worth digging into; if you can read around the biochemistry jargon it’s a pretty interesting description of the approach the group took and in what ways the Foldit players- non-professionals all- were not as good at the top-performing computer models, and in what ways they were better. More interesting yet is the way the researchers directing the whole thing analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of their players- and what they were succeeding and failing at and why- and re-tweaked their presentations of the problems in order to bring out the biggest strengths of their players. As an end result, they wound up solving a problem in three weeks that had been outstanding for ten years.

Even in the paper the researchers credit “human intuition” and “the ingenuity of gamers”, but what I see here is people being given a toy to play with that builds very specific cognitive skills and then being directed- quite skillfully- to sharpen those skills on successive levels of difficulty. All for the pleasures of teamwork, competition, and the sense of accomplishment.

Reminds me of nothing so much as the Calutron Girls, a pool of young women in Oak Ridge, Tennessee hired to operate the electromagnetic uranium separation machines at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project. They explicitly were never told what it was they were doing or why- for national security reasons- but they were able to outperform the PhDs who understood all of it, because their entire skill set was in the process and they practiced constantly.

You learn what you do, no matter why you’re doing it.

Pay To Play

September 21, 2011 - 4:07 pm Comments Off

Find of the day: there’ll be a talk in November on the subject of cognition and learning in MMOs, by a member of the PopCosmo research group. In the most literal sense it’s taking place in Australia, but since in effect it’s taking place in World of Warcraft within the Ironforge Library on the Saurfang server, the cost of travel is pretty cheap. I plan to be there if I can manage.

The usual reflexive reaction to a research group that studies games, and does so specifically to learn how our approaches to education are working or failing when we get kids who are completely uninterested in school but deeply engaged with games, is to pass it off as a too-hip shallow diversion into something irrelevant and unimportant. Games are games, shiny flashy play and time-wasting, and learning is learning.

The thing is, though, that what game developers are essentially in the business of is making learning such a fun and organic activity that people pay in real money and real time in order to do it. It doesn’t matter how basic the game is, all that any of them offer is a chance to master an activity at progressive levels of difficulty; Tetris is a spatial puzzle that speeds up. You can see rotation of objects through space as a challenge on many, many different IQ tests. Pac-Man is another spatial puzzle- track yourself and several other moving objects through a maze, complete the maze within a time limit and without running into any other moving object. Any of the original simulation genre is complex systems manipulation and mastery, and the flight simulator became so detailed that its devotees can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on equipment and the software to do something that has no game goal but is just as complex and difficult as flying a real plane, minus the g forces and fatal consequences. The later Sims games are a combination of resource management, virtual architecture, and learning how the AI works. Portal is another spatial puzzle, speeded up and with extra dimensions and physics problems added.

MMOs take things to the next level; something like Portal is meant to be played out over a certain number of potential gameplay hours, but an MMO developer has to make the game interesting enough, and content extendable enough, that players remain interested and engaged with the game for years. Depending on the game and the size of playerbase it’s looking to command, there are usually multiple layers of gameplay to learn and potentially master; a developer’s challenge is to make the transition between “kill ten rats, get ten silver” to “level up (gradually increase in complexity)”, to “master your class and take part in competition demanding great knowledge of the game and your role in it, teamwork, practice, and research” fun enough to be worth paying money for- and the fun is in the learning process; even very achievement-oriented players walk away if there’s no challenge to it.

EVE Online is probably the most extreme example; the point of the game is participation in a player-driven economy, which rather than being centrally controlled by the parent company is entirely player-organized and run, to the point where fantastic acts of economic sabotage that nearly any other gaming company would put their foot down on is merely part of the game experience. It’s also the only game with a player-created and elected governing political body, the Council of Stellar Management, which exists to represent the playerbase to the developer team. It is, in essence, a virtual state with virtual corporations and virtual militaries and mercenaries who do what is in nearly all respects work, with the difficulty curve to match and little effort made to make it more accessible to newer or more casual players. The work IS the point of the game. In essence, people pay real money for a non-real job with far fewer protections and benefits than a real job, except for the freedom to experiment.

There are two possible reasons for why this should be a viable and ongoing business model for the game developers:

1) People are inexplicably stupid.
2) The game developers are in the business of making even a very steep and punishing learning curve, covering multiple aspects of cognition and driven by cutthroat real intelligences, appealing and rewarding enough to pay for.

Personally, I’m betting on 2. Play is already a somewhat murky domain; we know that organisms seem to need more of it the more intelligent they get, that it is always self-driven and self-rewarding, that it seems to carry far more risks to it than just leaving well enough alone would, and that it doesn’t solely consist of aping out real-world skills and motions, though it seems to help somewhat. Games in general and MMOs in particular are play gone professional, at least in their creation; developers compete to offer something customers are internally driven to do that takes up a lot of their time and cognitive resources.

I think there is probably a great deal to learn about learning, motivation, and cognition in there, particularly as the process of development and development cycles themselves break down the moving parts in the system, and the way players interact with them, by small pieces.

Highland Fresh Atomic Balls

September 20, 2011 - 5:00 pm Comments Off

Is what the lovely Phlegmmy titled this picture moments after snapping it:

No, I’m not peeing. I just have my hands in my pockets ’cause it gets chilly at 9200 feet.

Help keep them and millions of other balls highlands fresh by donating to Prostate Cancer Foundation or Livestrong for the Kilted to Kick Cancer drive.

Oh, why not.

September 20, 2011 - 12:35 pm Comments Off


Og started it. Everybody else ran with it. WHEE I’M A HERD ANIMAL! Also, yes, I know my desk is dusty and I don’t care more than once every other month or so. As Tam said, choosy chicks choose Benchmade. And, um, others. Wait, I’m not a chick. Ok, so I’m wearing a kilt this month (remember! Donate to Prostate Cancer Foundation or Livestrong!) but still.

And yes, I think this belt really makes my suspenders look fantastic.

Talking to Dolphins

September 19, 2011 - 6:34 pm Comments Off

Interesting article here on a cetacean researcher working on the problem of dolphin-human communication.

It’s especially interesting in that the researcher seems to have an extremely solid grounding in the traditional principles of ethology rather than having a fluffier approach- part of her research involves creating and indexing a massive database of video footage of dolphins engaging in specific behaviors in specific contexts- and that she seems to be approaching the ways dolphins already communicate with each other with an eye to breaking down its exact mechanics in a way humans can understand and dissect for what is relevant to them, rather than focusing on object-symbol associations exclusively.

To me, the real meat of the matter is distilled from the following excerpt:

Up to now, dolphins have shown themselves to be adept at responding to human prompts, with food as a reward for performing a task. “It’s rare that we ask dolphins to seek something from us,” Dr. Herzing said.

But if she is right, the dolphins will seek to communicate with humans, and the reward will be social interaction itself, with dolphins and humans perhaps developing a crude vocabulary for objects and actions. …..

“The key is going to be coming up with a system in which the dolphins want to communicate,” said Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi. “If they don’t care, it won’t work.”

Dr. Kuczaj developed an early two-way communication system while working at a captive lab in Orlando in the late 1980s. The system relied on visual symbols, not sound, and used a large stationary keyboard that proved to be too cumbersome.

But he says that the effort gave him confidence that such a system could work and that Dr. Herzing is “definitely the closest to getting there.”

and highlighted by this quote from the end of the article:

And while other researchers praise her work, they point out that of dolphin-human communication has often fallen short of expectations.

“It depends on what you mean by communicate,” Dr. Kuczaj said. “I can communicate with my dog, too. But do I have conversations with my dog? Well, if I do they’re very one-sided.

We already communicate with animals. Anyone that owns a domestic animal more complex than a goldfish communicates with it on a fairly regular basis whether they’re aware of it or not, sometimes quite elaborately as tends to be the case with dogs and horses. In order for animal-human communication to take place, both parties must first realize that there’s enough going on behind the eyes of the other to make communication a possibility, and second have enough common interest for there to be something relevant at hand to communicate.

Someone with a pet dog may only cover ground like meeting basic needs, accepting or rejecting requests, and things like “someone’s at the door”; someone who hunts with their dog might pass a lot more information, like “I can smell something alive over here”, or “I can see something crouching over there”, or “trail’s gone cold”, or “keep working”, and likewise for people doing any more advanced work with a dog, like search and rescue or livestock herding. It’s not a conversation as such, but it is ongoing communication for mutual ends.

The problem of communicating with a cetacean isn’t actually the intelligence of the cetacean; we already know that many cetaceans, dolphins included, are extremely intelligent and socially complex in a way we can at least somewhat relate to, and that they suspect the same of us. We have that figured out with apes and to a lesser extent parrots, which is why all the language experiments that have yielded interesting results have come from them.

The problem is that they are large seagoing predators, and we are small terrestrial omnivores, and our points of common experience exist almost solely in that social interaction. We can teach a dolphin to punch symbols to get fish or a bellyrub, but we can teach many other critters we know to be less complex and less intelligent to do the same thing, because operant conditioning works. At the end of the day all that serves is to reinforce what we already know, and to bore the dolphin, whose social life and communication are far richer and more interesting to it with members of their own species.

A domestic animal like a dog, or for that matter a captive ape, is interested in us because we almost completely define their existence; what humans think and want is relevant to them because we have control over almost every aspect of their lives. If they’re bright enough to understand that, the motive to humor humans, and to make real attempts to communicate things to them or try to understand communications from them, is built-in.

What Dr. Herzig is proposing is to attempt to communicate with wild dolphins that don’t depend on humans based on no other draw but being interesting as other intelligent creatures- playing on sheer curiosity plus a serious attempt to understand dolphin communication as much on their terms as on human terms. In order to have a conversation you have to have something to talk about; if she can actually manage that the results stand to be potentially far more interesting than anything else we’ve yet tried.

KTKC Update

September 16, 2011 - 3:44 pm Comments Off

So it looks like Atomic Nerds is currently sitting in sixth in the Kilted to Kick Cancer drive with a total of $115 in donations.

Those of you who’ve already donated, I sincerely thank you. The rest of you though, and that would clearly be the vast, vast majority, you really need to step it up. I know there’s a trend toward the introvert in our readership, but I bet every last one of you can think of six men off the top of your head. Got ‘em all in mind? Pick one of them at random and consider that in this little thought exercise, that guy got the short stick and now has prostate cancer. This isn’t a problem that’s ever going to go away, but it’s one we can make smaller, even if it’s just improving the odds to one in seven instead of one in six men.

So on that, I urge y’all to donate, either to The Prostate Cancer Foundation or to Livestrong. Besides, do you folks really want someone from Massachusetts in 2nd place? What good is gun school gonna do him? I can see that class now:

“All right, in this drill first we will remove the firearm from state-certified safe storage. We will then perform a tactical trigger-lock removal, load a tiny number of rounds after verifying ban-compliance on the magazine, engage the threat, and then go to jail and give all our money to the threat’s family.”

Yeah, sounds like a blast.

Also, if prostate cancer continues at the rate it currently sits at, there could be a serious shortage of domestic labor.

You don’t want a dirty house do you? Open those wallets, folks!