Time Travel Art: Fantastic Video

It takes a lot for art to excite me.  But when I stumble upon a time-travel-themed YouTube video inspired by Dr. Who and Edward Gorey… I feel the urge to share it with everyone.  Yes, it’s every bit as cool as it sounds. The video is by ‘MaryDoodles’, who produces time-lapse videos of herself painting – but this time she found a way to work time-travel into the delivery as well as the content. You’ll just have to watch it:

I found myself hitting ‘replay’ over and over, figuring out how the hell she did it, spotting new things I’d missed (did you see all the things tying the scenes together?  How about the TARDIS?), and trying to piece the plot together. Alas, she’s not giving hints about the story she intended:

The discussions on Youtube are quite fun to watch as people try and piece together the order of events and what happened. I’ve decided to hold my tongue on this matter. There is an intentional order to the story but the fact that other people are seeing different orders of events, character relations and catalysts I figured I’d just leave my opinions out of it. It’s almost like a personality test when you hear someone’s take on the video. There are those that take the “glass is half empty” approach while others say the “glass is half full”. Happy ending? Tragic ending?”

I’m still making up my mind. Curiosity is a wonderful emotion, and I think the ambiguity is actually a positive factor.

Stereotypical koans take the ambiguity too far – “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is just a broadside assault on semantics – but this is pleasantly confusing to me, like a puzzle.

How to want to change your mind

New video blog: “How to Want to Change your Mind.”

This one’s full of useful tips to turn off your “defensive” instincts in debates, and instead cultivate the kind of fair-minded approach that’s focused on figuring out the truth, not on “winning” an argument.

A rational view of tradition

In my latest video blog I answer a listener’s question about why rationalists are more likely to abandon social norms like marriage, monogamy, standard gender roles, having children, and so on. And then I weigh in on whether that’s a rational attitude to take:

Basking in Reflected Glory: Football, Self Esteem, and Pronoun Choice

Sports fan? This might describe you. Not a sports fan? This will help you make fun of the sports fans! Everyone else who just doesn’t care either way, here’s a neat psychology study for you.

You’ve probably noticed that when a team wins, their fans are more likely to wear their jerseys around. Since the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots 21-17 in the Superbowl last night, I’ve seen a bunch of proud Giants fans gloating on Facebook. But it’s not just the bragging, it’s the way they brag.

It turns out that sports fans will actually change the words they use based on whether their favorite team won or lost. Once again, I turn to the impeccable Mitchell and Webb to illustrate the tendency:

I love that retort: “Remember when we were chasing the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Movies don’t inspire the same tribal attitudes that sports do, but Mitchell’s rant does highlight the absurdity of using the word “we” in this context.

It’s not just anecdotal. Mitchell and Webb are describing an actual social phenomenon: Even if they have nothing to do with the results, fans are more likely to use “we” pronouns when their favorite team is doing well.

Robert Cialdini called it Basking in Reflected Glory. In an attempt to gain social standing, we try to associate ourselves with success.

Basking in Reflected Glory

Conducting a creative study (pdf), Cialdini and his researchers called college students and asked them how their school’s team had done in a particular game. When describing victories, 32% of the students referred to the team as “we” – “We won,” “We beat them,” etc. In contrast, only 18% used the word “we” when talking about their school’s team losing.

Makes sense, right? People wanted to be seen as part of a winning group. But it gets better.

Cialdini added a twist to his study: before asking about the football game, he asked the students six quick, factual questions. Regardless of their answers, they were either told that they’d done well (gotten five correct) or poorly (gotten only one out of six correct). He hypothesized that the students who were told they’d failed would be more likely to grasp at straws to regain social status.

When the numbers were separated out, the tendency was clear: Almost all the increase in “we” pronouns was from the students who lost prestige by being told they’d failed.

Likelihood of using “we” pronoun(%)

“Succeeded” on Test “Failed” on Test Mean
Describing Win 24% (11/45) 40% (16/40) 32% (27/85)
Describing Loss 22% (9/41) 14% (6/42) 18% (15/83)

Students who were given a dose of self-esteem didn’t change their language based on whether their team won or lost.

But students who felt embarrassed? They were much more likely to latch onto a winning team and distance themselves from a losing team.

So you know all those Giants fans posting status updates on Facebook saying “We won!” or “We’re number one”? Ask them why their self-esteem is so low that they need to Bask in Reflected Glory.

That’ll show ‘em.

[Title changed after posting from "How Football Scores Actually Change The Way We Talk"]

Why Blocking Roads Can Speed Up Traffic

It’s so counter-intuitive that it’s called Braess’ Paradox: How can closing a road actually make everyone’s commute shorter? You would think that blocking a route would be an inconvenience, but under some circumstances it’s actually for the best.

Doesn’t sound right, does it?  Here’s the situation: Assume drivers are rational and intelligent.  I know, that’s a stretch – I grew up around DC.  But bear with me.  If there are multiple paths that people can take, they should in theory find an equilibrium between them.  If one path has less traffic and takes less time, more people will switch to it until it loses its advantage.  If one path starts longer than the others, nobody will use it until the other paths get congested enough to make it worth it.

So how can an extra path actually make the average commute time longer?  Shouldn’t an extra path just give people more options to choose from, and ultimately find the best equilibrium?

The Situation:

It turns out that when some roads are more prone to traffic than others, it can create Braess’ Paradox.  Imagine that some roads aren’t as affected by traffic – I picture these as the local roads with traffic lights. They add a fixed amount of time to your commute, say 45 minutes. The other roads are heavily dependent on traffic – these highways can either be wonderfully fast or a mess of stop-and-go congestion, depending on how many other people are on them. The average time it takes to drive on them is the number of cars over 100.

(Image modified from Wikipedia)

Let’s say there are 4000 cars driving from the start to finish. Without the connector (dotted in the diagram), an equilibrium forms where half the drivers (2000 cars) take the top route through A, and half take the bottom route through B.  The highway takes 2000/100 = 20 minutes, and the local road takes 45 minutes. So half the population spends 45 minutes on a local street, followed by 20 minutes on a highway, and the other half of the drivers spend 20 minutes on a highway, followed by 45 minutes on a local street. Everyone gets to their destination in 65 minutes. Nobody has any incentive to switch.

But what if a new connector is opened between A and B, allowing people to go straight from one highway to the other? Now everyone thinks to themselves, “Hey, why spend 45 minutes on a local street when I could spend 20 minutes on the highway? I’m going to take the route Start –> A –> B –> Finish, and shave 25 minutes off of my commute time!”

Of course, if everyone thinks that way, there are now double the cars on each highway than there were before, and it’s half as fast: now each highway takes 40 minutes, not 20 minutes. That’s still 5 minutes less than the 45 minutes it takes to drive on the local street, though, so everyone still has an incentive to take the highway.

So in the end, how has the connector affected people’s commutes? Everyone’s commute used to be 65 minutes; now, everyone’s commute is 80 minutes. And to make it stranger, there’s no better path to take – anyone considering switching to their original route would be looking at an 85 minute drive.

How does this happen?

How can opening a new, super-fast connector make commutes worse? It comes down to the price of anarchy and people’s selfish motivations.  With the connector open, each set of cars has the option to clog up the other half’s highways – saving themselves 5 minutes but adding 20 minutes to the other guys’ commute.

It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma: Each driver has the motivation to take the highways, even though it damages the overall system. Without the connector, nobody is allowed to “defect” for personal gain. In the traditional prisoner’s dilemma, it would be like a mafia boss keeping all his criminals anonymous. Without the option to rat each other out, criminals would avoid the selfish temptation and the entire system is better off.

Braess’ Paradox isn’t purely hypothetical – it has real-world implications in city planning. According to this New York Times article titled What if They Closed 42d Street and Nobody Noticed?, “When a network is not congested, adding a new street will indeed make things better. But in the case of congested networks, adding a new street probably makes things worse at least half the time, mathematicians say.”  That’s shocking. My intuitions about how traffic works were way off.

Lastly, via Presh Talkwalkar’s fantastic game theory blog, Mind Your Decisions, (which brought Braess’ paradox to my attention) there’s a great video of the paradox physically in action with springs. Check it out:

You’re such an essentialist!

My latest video blog is about essentialism, and why it’s damaging to your rationality — and your happiness.

The Straw Vulcan: Hollywood’s illogical approach to logical decisionmaking

I gave a talk at Skepticon IV last weekend about Vulcans and why they’re a terrible example of rationality. I go through five principles of Straw Vulcan Rationality(TM), give examples from Star Trek and from real life, and explain why they’re mistaken:

  1. Being rational means expecting everyone else to be rational too.
  2. Being rational means you should never make a decision until you have all the information.
  3. Being rational means never relying on intuition.
  4. Being rational means eschewing emotion.
  5. Being rational means valuing only quantifiable things — like money, productivity, or efficiency.

In retrospect, I would’ve streamlined the presentation more, but I’m happy with the content –  I think it’s an important and under-appreciated topic. The main downside was just that everyone wanted to talk to me afterwards, not about rationality, but about Star Trek. I don’t know the answer to your obscure trivia questions, Trekkies!


UPDATE: I’m adding my diagrams of the Straw Vulcan model of ideal decisionmaking, and my proposed revisions to it, since those slides don’t appear in the video:

The Straw Vulcan view of the relationship between rationality and emotion.

After my revisions.

Video Short: Sentient Meat

One of my earlier posts quoted the Terry Bisson “Sentient Meat” short story – well, it turns out that there’s a film short based on the story!

Great exchange:

And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you have probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?

They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.

A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.

I liked the feeling of surrealism surrounding something we take for granted every day: we are thinking, loving, dreaming meat.

And yes, that IS Ben Baily of Cash Cab.

Happy Tau Day!

I almost missed the chance to promote Tau Day! Many of you probably know about Pi Day, held on March 14th. At my high school we used to bring in pies to the math room and eat them at 1:59PM in a glorious (and delicious) celebration of mathematics. But the inimitable Vi Hart lobs an objection: using Pi often doesn’t make as much sense as using Tau, the ratio of the circumference of a circle over its RADIUS.

Thus, we need a new day in celebration of the more-useful Tau:

Seeing as Tau is approximately 6.28 and today is June 28th, have yourself a great Tau Day and enjoy two pi(e)s! While you’re eating, you can go check out more of Vi Hart’s work – she does a fantastic job showing how much fun math can be. We need more voices like hers, and I’ll be sure to post more of her videos!

When Literal Honesty Goes Awry

When is it NOT appropriate to bluntly speak the truth? We’ve all heard someone be insulting and resort to the defense of “Well, it’s true!” Even boring, inoffensive facts can become offensive if brought up inartfully. I think this is a perfect example, illustrated by the hilarious comedy team of David Mitchell and Robert Webb:

I mean, technically it’s true. The literal fact that “anyone we know is unlikely to be the most attractive person on earth” shouldn’t hurt feelings. Nobody should think that much of themselves!

…And yet, it’s rude to say. Why?

I think that’s because nobody took Robert’s original statement “this is the most beautiful woman in the world” at its face value. It violated the maxim of quality – the literal meaning was clearly false so people look for alternative interpretations (“She’s beautiful and I love her” or “She’s very attractive in a combination of ways”).

Since nobody took it seriously at face value, challenges to the claim are perceived as challenging the alternate interpretations rather than the literal meaning. The very decision to call attention to it makes a statement. Why would David be so motivated to discuss her beauty unless he strenuously disagreed with her beauty? So, in essence, he’s saying “No, she’s not very beautiful.”

Yes, David’s literal content is true: she’s not the most beautiful person in the world. But so much of our reaction to a statement is is really a reaction to its implied meaning, and it’s tough to get around that. Initial gut reactions can be powerful.

But it’s possible to do it right. I love having the opportunity to share the awesome and incredible Tim Minchin song If I Didn’t Have You:

Somehow, when Tim does it, the honest approach works better. People often claim that they DO have a soul mate, so it isn’t automatically interpreted as a figure of speech for something more casual.

But it’s particularly important the way he addresses the literal meanings. Compare “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but not off the charts” with “I don’t think you’re special. I mean, I think you’re special but you fall within a bell-curve.” It’s a strange enough statement to make people think about it harder and realize he’s not being snide.

I found myself thinking of something Steven Pinker wrote in The Stuff of Thought:

The incongruity in a fresh literary metaphor is another ingredient that gives it its pungency. The listener resolves the incongruity soon enough by spotting the underlying similarity, but the initial double take and subsequent brainwork conveys something in addition. It implies that the similarity is not apparent in the humdrum course of everyday life, and that the author is presenting real news in forcing it upon the listener’s attention.

Pinker was writing about using new metaphors to emphasize non-literal meaning, but it works the other way as well. Fresh phrasings – in this case gloriously nerdy ones – make listeners pay more attention to parsing the intended meaning, metaphorical or literal.

If you’re worried about being misinterpreted, try a creative way of expressing the same thought. Protesting “But I was telling the truth!” won’t always be enough.


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