Archive for the 'Culture' category

Is the result about the subjects, or about the test?

Sep 05 2007 Published by under Culture

I haven't read the study— it would take some digging to find, after all!— only the CNN Article, but the title sums up half of the results: "Men want hot women, study confirms."

In a nutshell, the study found that in a speed-dating test, men, despite what they said they were looking for, almost always went for the most physically attractive women (measured I am not sure how). Women, meanwhile, went for a man whose "desirability" (again, measured I am not sure how) matched their own assessment of how attractive they are.

The conclusion the article claims is that humans, despite high-minded language about looking for people who share their interests and values, seek out mates based primarily on physical attractiveness.

I want to suggest an alternate hypothesis. That is, "speed dating" is a shallow process that leads people to making judgments based on shallow criteria. Seems possible, no? I mean, even after an intense 3 minutes of conversation, can you really do a whole lot better judging how interested you are in a person than you can viewing a photograph?

It always bothers me to see news stories making (or just accepting) facile conclusions that come from studies where there are obvious potential biases built in to the methodology of the study without even acknowledging that that is something that one should think about.

Update: There is some analysis of what makes a face attractive, inspired by this same news story, at The Anterior Commissure. Hat tip: Cognitive Daily.

12 responses so far

DRM: The sky does fall

Aug 25 2007 Published by under Intellectual Property, Rant

DRM stands for "digital restrictions management". (Those who are in the business of peddling it as something positive will tell you it's "digital rights management," but the former is really a better descriptive name.) It is software that prevents you from using some other software or digital files on your computer unless you meet certain criteria.

DRM has actually been with us for a long time. Back in the 1980's, games and other software you could buy for your Apple II or Commodore 64 came with "copy protection." These were tricks that the software publishers would use to make it difficult to copy the disks. The computers hadn't been designed to support this, so typically copy protection relied on writing key bits of data to parts of the disk that the hardware wasn't documented to be able to read, or by putting disk errors that had to be there for the software to run. Sometimes these things would break if new versions of the software came out, and sometimes they would actually damage the disk drives or, at least, cause more wear than the same amount of normal use would. This also meant you couldn't back up the software you've purchased. The result: lots and lots of "backup" and "archival" programs were written to facilitate copying of these programs. Copy protection was a hassle for legitimate users, but did not really stop software piracy at all. Eventually, it more or less fell out of favor.

Nowadays its back, and it's still causing headaches and problems for legitimate users.

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25 responses so far

When Bridges Collape : Understanding Before Blame

Aug 02 2007 Published by under Culture

My heart goes out to those affected by the tragic collapse of the I35W bridge in Minneapolis. And, for all of the rest of us, this is a scary thing. I remember the 1989 California Earthquake, when the Cyprus Structure collapsed. This was also close to the time of Rush Hour— which may have been a bit early as people were going home to watch the World Series game. Quite a number of people were killed there as the upper deck of the two-deck section of freeway collapsed on the lower deck. I know that visions of that haunted me for years; I'd been on the upper deck of that freeway that very morning, driving back down to college at the end of a fall break. (Ironically, I wasn't supposed to be; my sister and I cluelessly drove on the wrong freeway, and had to correct for it later.) It was only the next day when I realized that my Dad was in fact on that freeway heading north, and was just before the Cyprus Structure when it collapsed. His main workplace was in another direction, but he had been south of Oakland at a jobsite. He got off of the freeway to pick up a bottle of wine, and was there when the earthquake hit. (I related this to people in West Dorm, the famous party dorm, and they said, "See! It's good to drink, saves your life!")

My sincere hope is that rescue efforts in Minnesota will proceed as efficiently and as effectively as possible, that those who are missing will be found alive, and that the families of those who were injured or killed will find comfort.

When we're past that stage, I hope that we place a much greater emphasis on understanding what went wrong than we do on finding somebody to blame. When something like this happens, we all feel fear and shock and anger. It's so tempting to want to find a target of that anger— to find somebody whose fault it was. I suspect that in this case the fault will not be so obvious. And, in any event, understanding what went wrong is more important, so that hopefully we can figure out if there's anything we can do to stop similar things from happening in the future. One of the classic things we always talk about in introductory Physics classes is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which catastrophically collapsed in 1940. Because of that accident, we learned something about the various resonant modes that one must take into account when designing a bridge. Who knows if there will be anything as relatively straightforward as that with this collapse— but once the disaster recovery is over, I sure hope that we are able to place more emphasis on figuring out what happened, than deciding whom or what to blame.

17 responses so far

Congress & Colleges, a Tool for the RIAA ; Let's Hack the System!

Jul 24 2007 Published by under Intellectual Property, Politics, Rant

You may have heard about the amendment proposed to a Higher Education act by Harry Reid that would make colleges responsible for enforcing RIAA and MPAA policy. The text of the amendment is absolutely every bit as scary as the Inside Higher Ed article makes it sound. And, as one commenter (highlighted by Slashdot, even) notes, we shouldn't expect much sanity from the Democrats on this, because the government of the USA today is driven by the largest campaign donors, and of course the companies behind the music and movie industries are huge campaign donors to both parties. Indeed, the "liberal bias" of Hollywood, if anything, may make the Democrats more receptive to this kind of crap. (Around scienceblogs, it's pretty trendy to bash the Republicans for all things that are wrong, and I participate in this as much as anybody else these days. There's certainly no doubt that the current administration, aided and abetted by a Republican Congress, made the biggest and uglies mess this country has made in more than 30 years. But the real problem isn't one or the other party, but, as Lawrence Lessig notes in his new personal mission statement, the influence of big money on politics, and the resultant routine corruption.)

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9 responses so far

Copyright Violation : a Bigger Threat than Murder?

Jul 21 2007 Published by under Intellectual Property, Rant

Because, unlike what happens with copyright violation, students at Kansas University would at least be given due process and the right to a trial in which they could defend themselves if accused of murder.

Oh, and P.S., just like Josh's blog, if you're at KU and just read this, well, you're worse than a murderer, and under the rules of your University, your Internet access needs to be cut off. This page is, after all; under copyright. (For more info, see and click on the "Creative Commons" icon at the bottom of the left sidebar.)

Of course, if they abide by their rules, KU really out to shut themselves off from the Internet altogether. The fundamental protocols of the Internet (TCP/IP), after all, are designed in a "peer-to-peer" manner, and "peer-to-peer" software is evil and prohibited. This would be a nice solution; cut all of KU off of the Internet because the Internet violates their Internet policies. In any event, that's what their rules tell them they have to do. (And, I suspect that the RIAA and the MPAA would love nothing more than to see the entire Internet disconnected.)

It's just nuts how witch-hunty we've gotten about copyright violation. The slightest hint from the RIAA thugs that there's an issue, and you begin to wish that you were in Guantanamo Bay facing trial as an enemy combatant.... It's a wonder Cheny hasn't tried to harness the RIAA lawyer corps, for they seem to operate in a mode that plays to his heart.

2 responses so far

Why I won't see "Sicko"

Jun 30 2007 Published by under Culture, Politics, Rant

Every day, reading the newspapers or listen to the radio, we are barraged with reminders of how screwed up our society, our country is. We see these things, and have a realization that there is little to no hope that they will change any time soon.

I can only take so much despair. I can only take so much reminder of just how screwed up things are. I have stopped listening to the radio on my way driving in to work in the morning, because too often the stories are about places in the world where horrible things are going on. Too often, that place is Baghdad, a place that was screwed up and continues to be screwed up because of how poorly my country ran a war it decided to run on reasons that turned out to be entirely smoke and mirrors.

So many things are screwed up, but I really don't believe that there is any reasonable chance of a lot of them changing any time soon. As such, I have to stick my head in the sand to maintain my sanity. All that Michael Moore's movie will do is deepen my sense of despair. At least with Gore's movie, there is some hope that something might happen. I still give you better-than-even odds that a century from now, we have faced a major international crisis as the climate has changed in a way that seriously disrupts the way we feed the world. But perhaps something will happen. The global warming denialists are getting fewer, and what needs to be done often has other reasons. (Yes, there are some extreme nutcases out there, like the one a few weeks ago who was arguing to my face that there is no point in making anything more energy efficient because people will then just use more and more energy as it becomes cheaper. Yes, indeed, it was an argument that greater energy efficiency does not meaningfully contribute to reducing energy use; I was so boggled I didn't know how to respond, other than to realize I should never put myself in a position to debate with this person again. Alas, I sort of did the next day, in a completely different context, and it ended poorly.)

But with the health care situation? I honestly, honestly do not see any way it can really change. If it turns out that this movie raises consciousness and gets people thinking about it beyond the sound-bite "gotta maintain our freedom" kinds of debates that goes on about health care right now, then all the more power to Moore (even if he is rather a jerk much of the time). Perhaps, somehow, it will make a difference. But at the moment, I have a hard time understanding how my seeing the movie will do anything more than deepen my sense of despair that we're all riding together on a developing train wreck.

Why am I so negative about the chance of real change in health care?

Look at your mutual fund portfolios if you have them, or if you have retirement accounts. If not, randomly select a few. Chances are, one of the largest industry sectors they are invested in is the pharmaceutical industry. Selling health care is big business in this country. Trying to change it, trying to take the profit motive out of selling health care, would cost a lot of people a lot of money... a lot of people who have a lot of money to spend fighting against any of that kind of legislation. There's no hope. There's another card. It's probably inevitable that any kind of change like that would send our country into a recession. I don't bring this out as an argument against that kind of change— sometimes you have to make sacrifices in order to make things better in the long run, as those who have ever supported any war have argued. And, indeed, the pain would be transient; the economy would adjust. However, it's a very strong possibility that there would be nationwide economic pain, and that possibility is another card that those who are opposed to changing our health care system can play.

I simply do not see any hope of meaningful change. Oh, there may be laws passed, but they won't be any more meaningful than recent "campaign finance reform" laws have really been. Big money is just as much a corruptor of our system as it was beforehand, and all the laws that were passed did was give people something to point at as evidence of progress, or evidence of things going to hell... the real, practical changes are something I simply can't see. It's very, very easy to maintain a cynical attitude about the inplasticity of our political system seeing stuff like this.

I'll give the movie a pass. There are too many things to be outraged about, and I don't have the energy to keep up with all of them any more.

12 responses so far

I love snopes.com

May 04 2007 Published by under Culture

Every so often, I'll get a forward from some friend or family member (usually not one who started using the Internet in college or grad school, as I did), warning us of some scam, some crime, some upcoming law, or some such. 99+% of the time, this is some sort of hoax. A quick search of the web will reveal that it's a reasonably well-known hoax; I'll respond to the whole list letting everybody know about this.

One of the best places for this sort of thing is snopes.com. Indeed, I received an E-mail this evening that was, on the face of it, fairly alarming. Fortunately, a quick visit to snopes.com confirmed what I suspected: it's just more spam, if perhaps slightly more noxious than regular spam. (I miss the guy from Nigeria trying to launder money. At least he wasn't going to kill me.)

Before I show you the text of the letter, I want to link to the relevant snopes.com article, just so nobody gets alarmed.

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10 responses so far

Copyright is Censorship

May 01 2007 Published by under Intellectual Property

Provocative title, eh? I expect many people to instinctively react as angrily to this as I do to the empty clause "intellectual property is property". However, the clause "copyright is censorship" is actually true.

What is copyright? It is a law passed by and enforced by governments that places restrictions on what you can say in public or what you can publish. It is a limitation on the freedom of expression.

In what way is that not censorship?

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33 responses so far

Copyright and scientific papers

May 01 2007 Published by under Intellectual Property, The Business of Astronomy

Scientific papers, like all other sorts of writing or creative expression, are covered by copyright. And, this is potentially a very bad thing.

Copyright grants a lot of sweeping rights to the writers of a paper, or the producers of any creative work. Often, those rights get signed away to a publisher or a distributor, but they are still there and enforceable by law. Among those rights is the right the term "copyright" is named after: the right to make copies of the work, but more significantly, the right to prevent anybody else from making a copy. There's another right that goes even further, and that some are not aware of: the right to make "derivative works." You cannot legally create and distribute a movie or novel about Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca, because 20th Century Fox (or Lucasfilms, or somebody) owns the copyright to the works in which those characters were created, and you need a license from them to distribute derivative works.

Scientists do not need, and indeed should not have, exclusive (or any) control over who can copy their papers, and who can make derivative works of their papers.

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11 responses so far

Empty Rhetoric: "Intellectual Property Is Property!"

Apr 30 2007 Published by under Intellectual Property

One of my pet peeves is when, in an attempt to help convey to others the seriousness of respecting copyrights, patents, and trademarks, somebody says, "Intellectual property is property!" This is often followed by an emotional appeal that just as you would hesitate before breaking into somebody's house and stealing their TV, you should also hesitate before passing on a digital file.

Often, people then respond, "but if I take the TV, you don't have it any more. If I copy a digital file, you still have the digital file!"

I have very rarely, if ever, seen a considered counter to that response. Most often, what I see are expressions of disgust, lamentations that "kids these days" don't respect how much work and creativity goes into making the copied work in the first place, reminders that while the copy may be free, the original production was not, etc.

But the fact is, this response makes it very clear that physical property (like a TV) and intellectual property (like a recording of a song) are not exactly the same thing. Any argument based on the equivalence of the two is either going to lead to thoughtless jingoism (which I so often see on the side of the copyright maximalists) or thoughtful dismissal.

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32 responses so far

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