Archive for November 2011
I’m a bit of connoisseur of this type of thing, and so I’m embarrassed that I just today found an utterly fantastic plain-English argument from Alex Tabarrok about why you should discount almost all news story about a really interesting new finding by scientists. (I’m a connoisseur of this kind of thing because of the number of intelligent people who seem to treat every new study about a wonder-substance or agent-of-death as meaningful.) These guidelines are a good summary:
1) In evaluating any study try to take into account the amount of background noise. That is, remember that the more hypotheses which are tested and the less selection which goes into choosing hypotheses the more likely it is that you are looking at noise.
2) Bigger samples are better. (But note that even big samples won’t help to solve the problems of observational studies which is a whole other problem).
3) Small effects are to be distrusted.
4) Multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable.
5) Evaluate literatures not individual papers.
6) Trust empirical papers which test other people’s theories more than empirical papers which test the author’s theory.
(via Tabarrok himself, in a shorter but good post about a specific study’s failure)
I’m increasingly aware of how much I like random bits of non-conclusive pondering. It’s not that it’s better than a conclusion, it’s that it’s more interactive. In that spirit, I enjoyed Sam Anderson’s essay about reaction videos:
It’s no accident that all of this started on YouTube in 2007 — at a moment when, and in a place where, human experience was beginning very visibly to splinter. Watching thousands of people react identically to “2 Girls 1 Cup” (“Come on!” they invariably shout, and “Why!?”) feels like a comforting restoration of order and unity. Which means that the most disgusting and offensive video ever to go viral was ultimately, oddly, a force of togetherness.
An interesting theory about the evolutionary value of humor:
The initial emotional response to any discovery of error in your understanding of the world has got to be “uh oh.” But in humor, the brain doesn’t just discover a false inference, it almost simultaneously recovers and corrects itself. It gets the joke. The pleasure of the punch line is enhanced by that split second of negativity just before the resolution.
I’m not sure I completely buy this theory, but I did think about it a lot while watching a two-and-half year old cousin laugh on Thanksgiving. Though in that context the theory that came to my mind is its value as a primitive form of communication and in-group bonding.
(via The Browser)
This is another one of those stories I ignored the first five times I saw it. But it actually raises some very interesting issues about the nature of McDonald’s, modern food production, and economics, and thus worthwhile regardless of the defensibility of its core conceit.
(John Gruber is the reason I actually read it)
An interesting piece that touches on both the systemic problems that plague Shakespeare scholarship, and one of the more reasonably and novel theories about Sharespeare: that he was deeply involved in the criminal world that almost certainly surrounded his theatre.
It also raises another potential argument for the “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare” folks. Perhaps the man was a simple street tough who scared the plays’s true author off from claiming their work. Unlikely, but interesting to contemplate.
(via The Browser)
The basis of “I, Pencil” is one of the most important ideas you’re likely to ever encounter. Anyone who, encountering its premise for the first time, is not at least a little awed is probably dead inside.
I am a mystery—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, as a wise man observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
[I refer in my generous praise to the first two-thirds of the piece. While the bit about the mail isn’t obviously wrong, it’s much less obviously right than the part about the pencil. While I won’t here mount a strong defense of the US Postal Service, I believe one can adequately be mounted. I favor wonder and awe, not militant libertarianism in all matters.]
(via Google, The Rational Optimist, and an email I was drafting)
Hugh Roberts offers a relatively thorough and careful political history of Libya during Gaddafi’s reign, and the events that led to his removal. (This detail will likely scare most people away, it nearly scared me off.) His most interesting assertion, especially to inattentive observers like myself is this:
The intervention tarnished every one of the principles the war party invoked to justify it. It occasioned the deaths of thousands of civilians, debased the idea of democracy, debased the idea of law and passed off a counterfeit revolution as the real thing. Two assertions that were endlessly reiterated – they were fundamental to the Western powers’ case for war – were that Gaddafi was engaged in ‘killing his own people’ and that he had ‘lost all legitimacy’, the latter presented as the corollary of the former. Both assertions involved mystifications.
This isn’t the first piece I’ve linked to about how bad conventional running footwear advice is (examples one & two), but it’s the one that’s made me think most seriously about actually taking up running again (I was probably 13 the last time I gave it any serious consideration). Christopher McDougal’s effusive praise for this ball-running teaching technique — the 100-Up — makes me wonder if he may have actually cracked it. Half of the technique:
I snapped a twig and dropped the halves on the ground about eight inches apart to form targets for my landings. The 100-Up consists of two parts. For the “Minor,” you stand with both feet on the targets and your arms cocked in running position. “Now raise one knee to the height of the hip,” George writes, “bring the foot back and down again to its original position, touching the line lightly with the ball of the foot, and repeat with the other leg.”
There’s a video on the page as well if, like me, you found that description a bit hard to visualize.
I’m not sure whether to blame myself, or America’s Zionist or nothing relationship to Israel (non-Zionists only really care about Israeli-Palestinian relations, not Israel itself), but I learned a lot about modern Israeli society from this story about the summer housing protests there. (Like for example, the fact that there were widespread protests.)
Jonah Lehrer highlights some interesting studies about inequality. This is the most interesting result:
It’s not that the primates demanded equality — some capuchins collected many more pebbles than others, and that never created a problem — it’s that they couldn’t stand when the inequality was a result of injustice.
Glenn Loury makes a similar point in this great dialog about Occupy Wall Street, saying that people begrudge Wall Street and not widget-makers like Steve Jobs because they see what Jobs did to earn his wealth.