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Reflections

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?

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?”

“OH MY GOD.”

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!

Moved In

I have successfully moved into Derwent Point, and am currently populating the fairly-spacious-for-a-studio flat with stuff from Ikea. More interestingly, I’ve been going to all sorts of local meetups and explaining to people what exactly I do and why I’m in London.

Explaining social cognitive psychology or logic, judgment, & decision-making research to people who aren’t in academia is difficult, but FUN. Mostly I just mention behavioural economics and people nod and go “ah yes”, but with one or two people there’s a deeper interest and I get so far as to mention the word “study” or “experiment” before the conversation turns elsewhere.

In any case, I’ve been presenting myself as a science promoter, so I’d better do some of that instead of just telling you what I’ve been doing since I moved to London. So: this friday the 24th, the Natural History Museum is doing a nifty After Hours event called Science Uncovered. From 4 to 10 pm, there’ll be drinks and tours and special stations where you can talk to working scientists and see what they’re working on! I’ll be there – you should be too.

London

So I’ve moved to London.

I know, what the crap, right?  I suppose technically I haven’t quite moved in yet, but, well, let me back up.

After working at the wonderful BARLab for just about 2 years, I’ve gone off to grad school in UCL. This, of course, involved moving from my home in Canada to an entirely different country, one where I basically don’t know anyone or where anything is other than tourist attractions.

I spent a month packing things into boxes and bags, and took the 9 hour flight just yesterday. I can’t quite move into the residence UCL provides, not til the 19th, so I’m in a serviced apartment in Camden til then. Well, except for a problem on the first night, being that the booking agency declined to tell the Camden apartments that they’d booked me, and so I spent the first night in some place called Charlie’s Bed & Breakfast, but I digress.

The point is I’m here now.  And so the fact that the “Vancouver” is now gone from the title of this blog is the least of the changes I’m going to go through over the next little while.  The upshot for you, dear reader (and I know there’s only the one of you), is that I have nothing to do and plenty to blog about!  So leave some living-in-London suggestions in the comments, and I’ll see you around.

Housekeeping

I’ve removed the apartment page, in case you’re wondering where it’s gone, cos I’ve already found people to which I’ll rent out the rooms. Thanks everyone who got in touch about the rooms!  Also, I’m going to put up a list of stuff I can’t take with me to England on the Stuff page soon, and you’ll be able to hold onto them and use them as you wish while I’m in England. So that’s pretty cool.  Also some of the dead links in my blogroll are now fixed.

Crowdsourcing Data

How would you like to help get some data for SCIENCE?

Right now the lab is interested in studying how people behave during lectures, so we need video of lectures!  Unfortunately, there’s only so much I can find before I run out of ideas.  That’s where YOU come in to help!

Basically, the lecture videos need to meet these criteria:

– at least one audience member is visible (from the shoulders up, but torso and full body are preferred)
– they are visible continuously for at least 45 minutes (a full hour or more is  preferred)

BONUS POINTS:

– multiple visible audience members (we can reuse the video!)
– interesting lecture topic (so the coders don’t get bored!)

Here are some examples:

Dr. Harriet Hall lecturing on Darwin
Douglas Blackmon MLK Jr Day Memorial Lecture

So go forth and help us find some videos!  They can be on youtube, vimeo, TED – whatever, so long as we can see what the audience is doing.

Leave a link in the comments, dm me on twitter, or email!

Thanks for any help you can provide.