There's nobody here but us chickens.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The very best of (part of) 2004

A very small part, alas.

This week, I have been mostly

  • playing with Emacs, LaTeX and R; more fool me, I suppose, but the depth of my disillusionment with MSWord shows no signs of stopping, and with a XXX-page thesis to right over the next 10 months, now is the time to make the (free) plunge. Better earlier, but still. If this resonates with your inner spell-checker, then read this and muse (or see PDF here).
  • Reading - I will have a fuller booklist when I hit my post-present stride, but for now I should commend
    Kukla, Andre (2001). Methods of theoretical psychology. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. UK / US
    for managing to set me straight about the flaws in induction, the lack of a rationale for preferring simpler theories and several other 'smell the coffee' moments without freaking me out in the process
    Baggini, Julian (2004). What's It All About? GRANTA UK / US
    for cool analysis, warmly given, that reassures me that maybe I have, roughly, got it sort of, well, right...
  • eating. Apparently, the new posh Christmas lunch is a turkey stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a duck stuffed with a pigeon stuffed with hundreds of scorpions. Ok, so not the last bit. Anyway, Sunday pm I knew what they were going through. Is it bad when you sweat gravy?
Speaking of anyway, I'm ditching the crisp cheeriness of December London in favour of heatless, foreboding Stockholm, realm of the ice-bears. I'll catch y'all in '05.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Bias - prejudice or orientation?

Harry’s Place links to a comment from a blog called Iraq the Model , outlining his general lack of contact with left-wing weblogs. Various people ponder the significance of this – is the state of the Iraqi people not of interest to the left?

I want to address why such an imbalance might be so, but should note that it may not be true, that is, it may not generalize. The blog in question has a linkslist which could be enough to send me away with a shudder on a bad day (I’m prepared to give anything a try, but some sites just reek of unpleasantness, and have too low a signal-noise ratio to be worth bothering with), and a cursory click through the archives encounters the tired conservative smear that if you criticize the war, you are betraying the memory of the dead troops . Maybe it’s generally of a better pallor than that, but it doesn’t augur well. Given people tend to link to birds of a feather (unless it’s for the purposes of derision), this may mean a whole lot of very little.

But let’s beg the question for the time being, and assume that the spectrum of politics (barring position on the war) of Iraqis that blog maps across left and right sensibilities. Why might we see more links from the right than the left?

Well, take me. I fall left, broadly speaking, and I don’t link to Iraqi blogs. In fact, I don’t warblog. Be happy that I don’t! My knowledge on the subject is not enough to produce interesting copy for you, my loyal readers reader. I’m interested in what goes on, and I try to follow it within my abilities, alongside manifold other world events.

Such a position isn’t really available to the good-faith pro-war blogger. Being pro-war impels one to be extensively involved in it, both during and the aftermath. Anything less would be both irresponsible and immoral; this applies to any major project – you wouldn’t install a funfair in a public area without seeing that it was desired and safe, and ensure that its impact was observed – but particularly one where the moral calculus involves justifying the killing of people. The onus doesn’t work quite the other way; much like religion, even the faithful must admit they are non-believers more often than not (if not, what’s your opinion on Chad, Guinea, Uzbekistan, Indonesia…the moons of Jupiter?). Hence there are many people who did not support the war, and for whom Iraq, though important, is one issue, not the issue.1

As a consequence, this group (which includes myself) has no special desire to immerse itself in info about Iraq. Genuine news about the situation is going to be attended to, but Iraqi man on the street saying “today I felt safe, and a soldier was nice to me” isn’t information high on my premium. I have a stake in Iraq, as we all do in the long term, but I have a stake in a lot of other places, too. However, if I was pro-war then I would have far more staked in Iraq than on most other issues, and be hungry for confirming evidence of the arguments that led me to advocacy in the first place. Investment is asymmetrical between the pro and anti war camps, and seeing as the architects of the war were on the right, and the party most firmly behind it the Republicans, the pro-war population skews decidedly right (notwithstanding whether there are good left-wing reasons for supporting the war, as HP has argued). And as hits from these factions accrue, you’re going to see the predictable ingroup feeding frenzy in which big names cite a source and it trickles down to all the little fish. Iraqi blog X makes a comment that seems like it might undercut former candidate Kerry, Superblog links with a “heh, indeed! Kerry’s out of touch with the Iraqi people”, and X hits the reading lists of 50 foot soldiers.2

So this putative imbalance doesn’t surprise me so very much, as the pro-war camp should be invested most in Iraq. Of course, in a perfect world, we’d all be fully informed about Iraq, and Sudan, and Kazakhstan. But we can’t, and there seems to be a sensible case for a difference in how we allocate our resources contingent on one’s stance toward the particular issues. Oh, that I could know it all about Iraq! But as Theodore Zeldin3
What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time
And sadly, I’ve just added to that.

1 There is another section which I can’t account for: the anti-war brigade for whom Iraq IS the issue – the nemesis of the self-proclaimed pro warriors. Are they silent on the thoughts of the Iraqis? Could it be that they consider the musings of guys with websites secondary to general measures (deathcounts etc), and if so is this a shortcoming (ignoring personal testimony) or an advantage (a focus on the verified facts)? Or are there other sources that the Iraqiblogger/prowarblog axis simply doesn’t cover? I’m curious.

2 Furthermore, this may well form a positive feedback loop. If X gets a sudden influx of readers for saying something that gels with a core blog readership, lots of things happen. Cynically, they may feel that stance needs to be consolidated to maintain these readers, and to auger more recommendations. Emotionally, they are going to feel kinship with those people who are responding enthusiastically to what they wrote, which may lead to a genuine willingness to overstate similarities and minimize differences (your standard in-group/out-group process). Rationally, they may feel impelled to go back to those linking sites and check them out, thus being exposed to arguments, conceits and framing of issues that place them further in this camp. So one might imagine a centrist (or even centre-left) local blog-zone becoming ideologically gentrified due to special attention from the right end of the blogosphere. Now, that has to be a sentence no-one has written before. Combinatorial language system, I salute you! UPDATE: Aspects of this (mainly the first and perhaps second processes) go by the fantastic slogan of "Feeding the Beast", as I have recently been reminded.

3 Thanks to Tom, Matt and the amazing Mind Hacks for orientating me to this quote in the sea of bits in which it swims.

In Print

The book is out, and it is beautiful!!! I got my copy today and ran round the building showing it to people who probably had much better things to do. But I’m a writer now, so screw em. Screw em all.

Sorry, I think the mouse thing is spilling over. Suffice to say that if you want to know about the brain, and the mind, and you want a bunch of mavericks to illuminate it using cognitive and visual illusions, pop culture and web-references, wrapped up in a very chic, sleek simple design, you couldn’t go far wrong. One hundred hacks, and me and Disa have a hand in six of them.

If you want a taste of what it’s all about, you won't do better than to check out Mind Hacks, the blog of the book. I should be configured for it at some point so expect me to pepper this site with links to it; from this point explicitly science blogging will be confined to that location, whilst I’ll keep my scattershot blather here.

Our secret finally out

I was expecting this. There's that momentary, moment of relief, like a burden lifted, but you know it's only going to hurt science in the long run:
anthropologist Brent Wrigley suggested that the hatred of mice may be the single most important factor in the evolution of modern science.
Why do people always have to go and ruin a perfectly good thing? Sigh. Still, it's hard to keep that wracking laugh down in your belly when you read about the solid, highly replicable work being achieved by stalwarts like this:
"It kills me that I can't infect the control group," Villalobos said. "Unfortunately, if I infect them, I'll throw off my results. But once I complete this experiment, I'll rotate the control group into the hot seat. Don't you worry. They'll get what's coming to them."
Kill em all dead.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Mimi-cry me an ocean

There's nothing clever to say, just check out the wonder of nature.