Male Subcultures vs Women

A post at Booklubbers highlights something that’s been really bothering me lately in the skepticism “movement”: the unbelievable amount of misogyny bubbling, barely hidden, below the surface. Various events have been covered elsewhere; see most recently all the stuff with TAM and DJ Grothe and Rebecca Watson – honestly, there’s way too much of it.

In the Booklubbers post, we are reminded that this is, unfortunately, not unique to skepticism. Shannon talks about it in the context of video games and in comedy, but it seems like these are all instances of something broader. Anecdotally: think back to the “what are you doing, the Archies are over there lady” mentality you can still find in the dank backs of some comic book stores. In the world of comic books, the hypersexualization of women is so “normal” that nothing seems to be able to stop it (and note also that the way men are represented in comics is -completely- different from how women are represented, though still sexualized) – (a good run-down is here). It probably has to do with the dearth of women who are penciling art – and the surplus of guys who like to draw buxom superheroines. Similar prejudices may account for the “boy’s clubs” of magicians or technical academic subjects, where the lack of a feminist viewpoint isn’t as apparent, but the major inequality in gender frequencies certainly is.

In any case, I wonder: Is this vitriol towards women something that arises out of male-dominated subcultures? Or is it something endemic to society, and the various instances arise out of a more general cultural malaise?

Whatever it is, I think the internet has helped amplify it. Look at the response to Anita Sarkeesian. Look at the how the atheism subreddit talks about Rebecca Watson, and the comments under any YouTube video with a woman in it, and the black pit that is /b/.

Something is broken somewhere.

What do you think?



EDIT: Amusingly, WordPress informs me that this is my 25th post.

Today is one of those days, isn’t it? A lot of people remembering an important event. But barring my interest in false memories for such events, and the irritation with how it’s affected civil liberties, I actually don’t think about it that much. There are actually more important events that have happened on or around the same day for me.

One year ago today I arrived at Heathrow early in the morning, with two bags in tow packed full of clothes and books and with no idea of what I was getting myself into. Two years and a bit ago was the first post on this blog, where I wrote down what I thought I was going to do. Things have somewhat changed since both of those days, though surprisingly not that much.

For instance, right now I’m sitting in the front room of a friend’s house, surrounded by bags of my stuff. I’m biding my time until I can move into my new place in Rickmansworth. That’s technically no longer in Greater London, but that’s no problem, as living in Blighty has hardly been calm and uneventful – enough has happened that I don’t want to be in the middle of it anymore. So one year on, I figure I should take stock of what’s happened since my arrival:

* two very different riots spread around London as people showed dissatisfaction with the way things are under a government that just started a month before I arrived – and I watched another riot in Vancouver after we lost a hockey game
* I got my own office at the university, and then lost it when I was moved into a communal lab full of other people’s old papers
* a Canadian election gave the PM the power he’s been waiting for and changed the opposition party only for its leader to die of cancer – and I was back home to vote in this election
* I learned how to make a chocolate souffle completely from scratch without any electric tools, and have essentially perfected it
* the Arab Spring is sweeping throughout the middle east, spawning massive change in politics, economies, and society
* I wrote and submitted a masters thesis during the week I was in Marseille to give my first academic conference talk about completely unrelated research
* Duke Nukem Forever came out, shattering jokes about vaporware – and cheap indie games with retro graphics sold better and were more fun
* I met an astonishing amount of new people, all of whom I am grateful to for making this a cool place to be
* Osama bin Laden was found and killed, and a tsunami caused a nuclear meltdown in Japan
* my phone was stolen from my hand as I was using it, and during police questioning all I could think of was how bad eyewitness testimony is
*  I moved into Derwent Point, lived there while all of this happened, and moved out a week ago.

An astonishing amount of things can happen in a year. The upcoming year will no doubt be just as crazy – I’m starting my PhD and no doubt will need breaks from that particular insanity, so I promise that this blog will have posts on it that interest and inform. Stick around, won’t you?

Transmedia London July: Part 1

The other night I attended a sort of mini-conference on transmedia at BAFTA. I’d walked by the venue several times in the past (it’s on Piccadilly) – it’s rather unassuming, but inside it’s got a plush theatre with things like “endowed by Sir Elton John” inscribed on the back of seats. Anyways, I’ve been a big fan of transmedia ever since playing some of the first ARGs that popped up in the early 2000s, and I’m always interested to see what’s going on in the field.

The first speaker was Andrea Phillips (live from New York via a flawless video chat!), talking about the recently completed Facebook game-for-change America 2049. Set in a dystopian future United States, players are agents of the Council for American Heritage and are tasked with tracking down a troublemaking terrorist. The game is sponsored by a human rights organization that wanted to raise public awareness of various issues like human trafficking and reproductive rights. I played for three weeks before losing interest/having to do other stuff. The basic game mechanic of clicking on squares and getting letter-number pairs to solve substitution codes wore thin very quickly, but it was the anvilicious video (especially the grating hosts of Good Day Every Day) that got to me.

That said, the game had some fantastic design elements that I want to see used again. Major problems (or perhaps “goals”) with ARGs are replayability and audience reach – when something takes place over a number of months and involves rather a lot of stuff going on, it’s hard to jump in any time after the beginning. It’s easy for people to miss out entirely. Having been the chronicler of every event in an ARG in the past, I can say without reservation that keeping up with events can be enormously, time-consumingly difficult. While this kind of time-exclusivity may serve to add to the mystique of ARGs, if you’re trying to reach as wide an audience as possible you want something that people can start at any time.  However, part of the appeal of the experience is precisely that real-time feel. We do love waiting for a countdown timer to reach 0:0:0 and something awesome and one-of-a-kind to happen, and players can come to look forward to regular content updates. It gives a sense of progress and flux and so adds to the reality of the experience.

America 2049 takes a very clever approach to this issue by tying content updates to the player’s progress in the Facebook game. If they’re in week three of the game, the websites have week-three content. It’s absolutely brilliant, and means you can start at any time you’d like. To be honest, I’m incredibly surprised that it hasn’t been done before – has anyone who played Majestic or Missing: Since January recall if they had progress-indexed content?

Another trick with persistent ARGs (like the for-pay ones just mentioned) is that people will write about them. When a player googles something from the game, they may discover that the top link is actually an Unfiction forum thread, hints & tips guide or review rather than the in-game website they were hoping to find. America 2049 handily side-steps this issue by having an in-game search engine (Zooglio) that filters the results to keep in-game content at the top and blatantly out-of-game sites out of view. Of further excellence is the fact that it’s perfectly sensible for a new search engine to be popular that far in the future (and the fact that it works by filtering content is especially amusing given the nature of the dystopia in which it is used).

But I digress from the topic at hand! Andrea didn’t spend much time on these design elements, in favour of an explanation of how the game was created and what went into it. A highlight was her revealing that the celebrities featured in the game (Margaret Cho, Victor Garber, Harold Perrineau and others!) all donated their time because they are interested in the rights issues promoted by the game. Good tip for big-budget looks on smaller-budget funding!
The next speaker (he and all the rest were there in person) was Noam Sohachevsky talking about what he’d learned in trying to make Picklive work. Picklive is a game in which players pick football players, pick actions they might perform during a match, and then set the laptop near the telly so they can watch their picks rack up points as the match goes out live.  Adrian Hon (who co-organized the event) said that it was “trying to hijack football”. Noam framed the talk around “designing for split attention” – I got out my notebook immediately, as I am always interested in how people outside of cognitive psychology think about attention. To my surprise and enormously geeky delight, he immediately quoted William James, specifically:

 It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others

As rather a lot of research into inattentional blindness has shown, we can miss obvious events if we are paying attention to something else. A useful way to think of it is that attention is a limited resource, and our cognitive systems are always working on allocating it efficiently to ourselves and our environments.  If you allocate most of your attention to counting basketball passes between players, you have little left for other things, and so might miss something else. In the case of Picklive, allocating attention between the game on the computer and the live match proved frustrating for players.

Another point Noam made was that we like patterns. In some ways, that’s precisely what we –do- as human beings; we notice patterns around us, give them meaning and understand them and try to manipulate them to our advantage. If we pick a good forward and bet he’ll score goals, it’s pleasant to see that player’s icon go “ping! +1” at regular intervals, and for the rest of the icons to ping at the appropriate times in line with some recognizable pattern. However, the real world is noisy. Patterns are difficult to suss out from raw data, and once again it’s frustrating when nothing you do seems to matter.

This aspect somewhat surprised me, as research into the illusion of control suggests that gamblers, when given the opportunity to make choices about truly random outcomes, will feel that they have some influence over the outcome. There’s a reason slot machines give you so many options about which rows, columns, and diagonals to count and to be able to stop. However, perhaps in the case of Picklive the outcomes being determined by real people and the splitting of attention are interacting to minimize the illusion of control and making the situation difficult to deal with.

Noam brought up a similar, mobile app from Heineken called Star Player, where you are asked at certain points of the game questions like “will he make this free kick?”. The advantage of this approach is that the player’s attention is called for at a time of low activity during the match. This would allow the attentional system to allocate its resources appropriately and with no conflict. There are several theories of attention which revolve around the fact that a “high load” (ie; there’s a lot of distraction, or you’re trying to do something tricky simultaneously) makes attentional processing difficult. If you want a live game to not cause attentional difficulties, it pays to index use input to moments of low load – to fit the pattern of highs and lows and work in the spaces between the noise of real live data. As Noam put it in his talk, “match with the beats”.

Some real puzzles come out of this view: how do you capture real-time data? The Picklive company worked with a service that provided data on what was happening in matches, but needed to comb the data and figure out how to read it and use it. I imagine if they could construct a pattern out of that noise, the game could pick opportune moments to query for user input! That’s not a trivial problem, of course. Never mind how to do it: what kind of patterns of activity would work? People also like to have real-time feedback for their actions – if you wait for low activity to ask for a choice, how long would players have to wait to find out if it worked?

I scribbled rather a lot in my notebook, and this blog post is already rather unwieldy. I shall sum up the last two talks (Alexis Kennedy talking about EchoBazaar and Varytale, and a presentation on BBC2’s upcoming math show/puzzle challenge The Code) in an upcoming part 2.

Spies and Mannequins

In late December 2010, I went down to Spitalfields market with some other psychologists from UCL to help replicate a variation on Dan Simons’ famous change blindness study for a History Channel documentary about bizarre war tactics.

mannequin preperation

The mannequin in question

Apparently, there was an American spy during the cold war who defected to Russia (and indeed was the first spy to successfully do so). During his escape from the states, he managed to evade the authorities by swapping himself out for a mannequin. So, to illustrate the possibility of swapping someone out for someone else without people noticing, we spent the day fooling passers-by under the guise of looking for directions.

There’s video of it on YouTube (our bit starts three minutes in), and hopefully the History Channel will put it on their website soon.

Do you think you’d notice the change?

A Small Miracle

The other day, I created a small miracle.

Perhaps this will make more sense if you know a little about magic, but I think you’ll like it anyway.

I was at the Senate House library on UCL campus to give a talk on the use of deception and magic in psychology research. It was a bit of a strange situation – the conference was mostly English graduates, and I was one of two non-literary types giving a talk. The audience was small – I was the second last talk of the day, and I think half the audience was there to see if I would perform some magic. In fact, at least three people there had studied magic to some extent. So during the reception after the conference, after some prompting and a glass of wine, I set up a performance space and brought out a deck of cards. The audience was composed of the magicians who saw my talk earlier and some people who just heard the word “magic” and decided to see what was up.

I performed the trick I use in my research, and it went smoothly. I can talk about science I’m comfortable with, and then when I’ve built up enough interest I decide to do a quick three-phase set of the ambitious card. A girl (it’s always a girl, isn’t it) selects the ace of clubs. Perfect, iconic, easy to remember. I started off fairly strong, with an in-the-box card reversal. I actually screwed it up and had to take the cards out of the box myself, but I smoothed it over, nobody seemed to notice. The magicians probably figured I’m small potatoes – they aren’t wrong.

Phase two. I take her card back, chat, smile, dirty work, put it back in the middle of the deck – slowly, in full view. Does that look fair? Pop – the ace of clubs is on top. Grins all around – it’s been some time since I’ve performed and this feels good. So I decide to finish with something totally impossible. Little did I know…

Now, I was improvising, doing a bit of magic jazz. I know this deck, and instincts were kicking in and conscious effort about what to do when was flickering quietly somewhere out of the way. I wanted to do something where I didn’t touch the cards at all. I’ve set it up; I spread the cards on the table, and her chosen card is face down beside it.

“Please slide it into the deck.” She does, the audience is getting a little rowdy, a few half-jesting jeers that she should check to make sure it’s hers – but that means they’re hooked. “Now close it up – I don’t want to touch it at all.”

She does. But SHE CUTS THE DECK.

I feel a little vertigo. The magicians in the audience range from visibly disturbed to quietly smiling.

But I’d just come off a good talk, this audience was grooving – and I’d had a glass of wine or two

and I’d noticed something, half unconsciously, somewhere tingling in the back of my mind that might give me a glorious opportunity – an insurance policy that I must have worked in without thinking, without noticing. Already gears were turning to come up with a cover story, just in case, surely I’ll need it – but my mouth blurts out, “Good. Now, lightly – gingerly – cut the cards. Carefully!” She does. “And complete the cut.”

My brain must be calculating the odds implicitly; I figure I have about an 80% chance of this being okay. Somehow I’m confident and terrified in a way that I can’t tell them apart anymore. I’ve already prepared my statement – “that’s okay, it was so close…”

Time to play the audience like a fiddle.

“Now, I haven’t touched the cards this whole time. You put your card in anywhere you like. You closed it. You cut it. Now -”

Breathe in. The audience follows suit.

“Are you ready? I don’t want to kill anyone’s minds here, yeah?” I can hear my heart in my ears. “Okay. Turn over the top card.”

It’s the ace of clubs.

PANDEMONIUM. I nearly SHIT MYSELF. I’m nearly crying, people are yelling “WHAT?! WHAT?! HOW!?” The magicians in the audience must believe I am some sort of god.

I merely say, “Thank you very much. I think I’ll finish there,” and sit down, shaking.

It was one of those beautiful moments. A true sense of astonishment with complete clarity of mind. For a minute, there were no thoughts – just the pleasant fizzing of neurons firing.

It was lovely to have been a part of it.

Sleights of Mind Review

Just before the holidays I was contacted by the online neuroscience magazine Cerebrum to review Sleights of Mind. It’s a new book out by two neuroscientists and a New York Times science correspondent, wherein they discuss the possible  connections between cognitive psychology and magic. It was bizarre reading something where I kind of knew everything that was coming up, no doubt thanks to years of being a nerd magician and obsessive reading about cogsci. Who knew that I knew that much stuff?

Anyways, go have a look at the review. Here’s a brief excerpt:

They go on to the material that I find the most interesting: cognitive illusions. The charming pickpocket Apollo Robbins cleans out a mark’s pockets; the madman magician Juan Tamariz holds a coin in the palm of his hand right in front of you and it may as well be invisible. It’s the ability to manipulate and hold attention that really makes sleight-of-hand magic possible (or should I say impossible?).

Anyone else read the book?

Happy Christmas!

After 4 days of being stranded in London due to Heathrow’s inability to deal with winter (more on that in the future post, perhaps), I am now safely and happily back in Vancouver to visit family and friends for Christmas!

This occasion brings with it the dubious opportunity to deal with family members as stubborn as myself in their ways, leading to much butting of heads and wailing “Why can’t we just have a NORMAL Christmas like everyone else?” when I fully suspect that we are doing just that.

An example (which prompted this blogpost after a horrified dash upstairs to get my shiny new christmas netbook): my brother. We both grew up in BC in a Polish, Roman Catholic family and as such spent time in our childhood going to church. I didn’t mind it (and, if you can believe it, up til grade three or so wanted to be a priest. Seriously.), while my little bro hated it and vehemently vocalized his atheist leanings ever sunday morning when mom would try to get us out of bed.

Anyways, long story short, he’s gone off to medical school in Poland, and I got involved in the skeptical and scientific community. I’m an atheist, but Daniel (ah yes, that’s his name) appears to have gone through a most remarkable change: he now wears glasses, smokes, and plays the piano. Oh, and he’s a devout Christian.

What follows is a wholly biased recounting of what just happened at the Christmas breakfast table.

After the usual preliminaries (coffee, bread & jams, fried eggs & bacon), the conversation had come round to Christmas Mass. In my usual manner, I remained carefully silent while Daniel and mom discussed when to go. Under the flimsy excuse of “oh, don’t you want to hear the monks sing?” (for it’s a proper Abbey that they were thinking of going to), I declined and then my little bro started orating about choice.

“We all have personal choice, you know. Everything comes down to it.” “I don’t think I agree,” I said. Daniel interrupted and continued, “No, people have free choice. Don’t tell me any of that research stuff about advertising, even if they try to influence you it comes down to your personal choice.”

“Well, sometimes people don’t have a choice, even when they feel they did.” At this point, that may have been a calculated attempt to garner support from Mom and Dad, who had both seen me giving a talk in which I discuss choice blindness.

“Well, that doesn’t work with everyone,” says Mom. Damn. “Well, yes, there’s people who detect something fishy on the part of the experimenter – but it’s the cases where no detection happens that are interesting here.” Daniel, of course, knowing nothing of the study, ventures an opinion anyway. “Those people who it didn’t work for, they had free choice! They chose to do things their own way.”

“Look, research done since the 70s,” and I really was going to bring up Ben Libet’s research and conveniently ignore the problems, so sue me, “strongly suggests that people -believe- they’re making choices, without actually having much personal control over the outcome.” I stood up from the table in my zeal to discuss, drawing a look of exasperation from Mom (who really doesn’t like it when people disagree), and active annoyance from Dad, who just wanted to eat his damned breakfast.

My comment appeared to stick in my bro’s craw a bit. “You can reduce everything to math if you want, but really..” and here, -I- interrupted in a state of some irritation, “These are behavioural studies, not mathematical models.” “Whatever, research is all probabilities and statistics and doesn’t get what’s real.”

Hm. “So, wait, you’re rejecting careful, structured observation in favour of your personal beliefs?” I paused for a moment to let this sink in, going in for the kill. “People need to proportion their beliefs to the evidence.”

He brightened up, and I thought I’d reached some sane corner of his brain. “Proportion, yes, that’s the important thing! You need to keep things in proportion, in balance.” Oh no. “What do you mean, in balance? You can’t mean giving equal time to claims even when the evidence isn’t equally in favour. That’d be like the creationist vs evolution ‘debate’.”

“Oh you’re not going to talk to me about Darwinism now are you?” Warning bells went off in my brain. Only a certain kind of person calls evolution ‘Darwinism’. ”Wait, you deny Darwinian evolution?”

“I’m just saying that it can’t all be right. There’s no way it could explain human intelligence.” I’m flabbergasted at this moment. Finally Dad is engaged enough to contribute, “Didn’t you once tell me that it was more likely that a windstorm blowing through a junkyard could make a 747 than evolution getting to intelligence?”

“No Dad, that’s a thing that creationists say, and it’s probably not true. Nobody knows how likely intelligent life is..” and I thought, okay, I can recover here and talk about Drake’s equation, but no. “Exactly!” shouts Daniel, “nobody really knows! Evolution is just as likely as God-”

“It’s not! One has a massive amount of evidence in favour of it, and creationism has basically none! There’s a ton of research that gives evidence for a coherent story from the creation of amino acids in ancient earth’s atmosphere..” yes, RNA World, surely he can’t disagree with that!

“That’s way long before humans, or even anything like us.”  Oh boy. Maybe I should stick to the basics. “Do you know how long evolution’s had time to work? I mean, the Earth’s been around what, 4.7 billion years?” “No way, it’s just not complex enough to explain it-”

“You’re in MEDICAL SCHOOL! You’ve -seen- evolution! BACTERIA! Why do you think there’s a new flu vaccine every year!?” I’m actively fearing for the safety of his patients now. And he just makes it way, way worse: “That’s not evolution, that’s pharmaceutical companies.”

“Oh my God.”

“They’re just making a profit, you know, on vaccinations.”

“Oh My God.”

“You don’t believe that H1N1 was -real-, do you?”


It was at this point that I ran out of the kitchen to write this down.

So, everyone, enjoy talking with your family at this special time of year. If you’ve had a similar experience, do share it in the comments!

Oh and, Happy Christmas!