How Drunk Do You Have To Be To Find Me Attractive?

Researchers at Manchester University have been getting drunk in the name of science. How does an alcoholic haze turn the plainest of people into stunning beauties? Although beauty is in the eye of the beer-holder, other factors are also important, such as whether the person is in focus or not, how much smoke envelopes the atmosphere and whether there is any lighting in the bar.

The research was commissioned by eyecare firm Bausch & Lomb PureVision, so they have little interest in selling alcohol or promoting sober driving. Indeed, the highly scientific-looking formula that accompanies the research has four 'visual' parameters and just one for alcoholic consumption. Perhaps in the spirit of the joke X-ray specs the company could also develop bullshit-detector goggles.

Using Pseudo-Scientific Surveys as Linkbait and Marketing

Pseudo-science is the linkbait of the future. In order to gain nationwide publicity for your brand, all you need is a survey, a 'scientist' and a 'formula'. The good people at Fuse Optimisation have compiled a list of their favourite experiments in social gullibility. Squirm at the inane formulas, from the perfect wiggle of the hips to how sexy someone looks when you're drunk. These wouldn't even qualify for the Ig Nobel Prize as they are merely puff pieces with a scientific cherry on top.

This has, of course, been going on for a long time - just take a close look at cosmetics adverts. Even real science is often held hostage by corporate interests as the bottom line over-rides the truth. So just sit back and enjoy these rather harmless ventures in the science of selling. Or not...

Ben Goldacre took a dim view of the "Jessica Alba has the perfect wiggle" research. He was initially asked to prostitute himself as the expert scientist for the study. Although he declined he kept a perverse interest in seeing who would swallow the bait. The story of how the PR company cobbled together the final story is a good example of how scientists should stay clear of lending their name to anything over which they do not have final editorial control. Salvaging one's shattered reputation can take more energy than the consultancy fee could ever cover.

AVG Antivirus Detects iTunes as a Trojan Horse: What To Do.

The antivirus software AVG has caused a bit of a panic by warning its users that iTunes is a trojan horse that they are calling Small.BOG. This has led many iTunes users to uninstall the software. If one follows the AVG warning and quarantine the files iTunes.dll and iTunesRegistry.dll it will also make iTunes inoperable. Apple has said there is no problem with iTunes and there is no virus in their system.

It is totally possible that AVG has misdiagnosed the problem and there is a glitch in their own algorithm. This seems likely as other antivirus companies are not reporting the same problem. It is also possible that iTunes has changed something and although not a virus and not dangerous it has triggered AVG's Resident Shield.

If you are using AVG, as either a paid or free version, and use iTunes then to avoid the warnings popping up all the time just go to the Advanced Settings for the Resident Shield and click Exceptions. This is where you can specify files and folders that AVG can ignore. Add the path to your iTunes folder, usually C:\Program Files\iTunes\ and Save.

If you have accidentally quarantined the two dll files then just go to the Virus Vault section of AVG and you can recover them.

Do Not Panic!

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months

Learning a language in one hour was, admittedly, a bit of a tease but the analysis done in that hour will set you up in how to really learn your new language. Tim Ferriss's research on language acquisition at Princeton and his practical methods for becoming proficient as quickly as possible tear up most other learning methods.

The method consists in three simple steps: Priority, Interest and Process.

For most of us the most immediate priority is in speaking a foreign language. Whether you're a tourist, on business or studying abroad the first skill you need as your plane lands is to speak. This article has a useful list of the 100 most common words in spoken English. As a comparison there is also a list of the 100 most common written English words. Perhaps surprisingly, there is only a 60% overlap between the two lists. Here is another useful word list generator. If you need to be understood by a native speaker then learning to read is not the way to achieve this.

If you're currently learning another language then it is a good exercise to input these word lists into, say, Google Translate and see how many words you need to know. Word lists for spoken languages are pretty consistent as people do pretty much the same things around the world. But once beyond the most common 300 words how do you progress from there? This is where your interests are fundamental. It really doesn't matter what that is - it could be learning judo, going fishing, listening to music, the history of architecture, the football results, whatever - just so long as you have the desire to learn and communicate.

The problem with most language courses is that they largely ignore this fundamental motivation. For example, learning Thai grammar from magazines on Buddhist talismans and sculptures is far more interesting (to me) than paying a school to teach me how to plan a train journey in four different tenses. I can figure that out myself; after all, I'm an adult! And this is one major quibble that Ferriss has with many courses that somehow try to teach a language in a similar way to how a native child would learn it. Adults already possess mastery of at least one language so can make connections between their native tongue and their new target language. Even if your topic of interest is really obscure the grammar remains identical - negotiating the price of a bronze statuette is the same as negotiating a taxi fare to the local zoo. However, how many zoos am I likely to visit?

The third step, the process, is simply the act of repetition. If you're in the actual country whose language you're learning then you have little choice. If, however, you're trying to learn a language in your home country then it's obviously a bit more difficult but there are now lots of free resources online. Listen to music or watch films in your target language. Merely hearing the correct pronunciation helps tremendously in the long run. It may sound like complete gobbledegook at first but you will start to pick up words amid the noise. You will also start to notice common phrases that your textbook has ignored. I carry around a low-tech paper notebook and jot down anything that sounds common and ask a friend what it means.

Most Thais are shy of making any social gaffes, and this includes showing up their poor English. But after a few drinks it is amazing how much English they can dredge up from their school-days. I make enough mistakes in Thai and laugh it off so they can make a few in English. Some Thais will actually speak pretty fair English but were too embarrassed to try with a native speaker yet then seem more interested in perfecting their rekindled English rather than my Thai! So the conversation turns into a bilingual game so that both sides alternate as student and teacher. Mastering a new language is ego-crushing - if that scares the pants off of you then best stay at home! I myself avoided this for a long time as I could get by with very few Thai words.

In terms of sheer volume, the vocabulary of any language seems daunting compared to the grammar. But once you have the nuts and bolts of sentence construction the act of acquiring new vocabulary is pretty easy. Just 300 words make up 65% of written English. With just 1,000 words you can be understood in most situations. Word lists make the adult learning of a new language much more efficient than ploughing through textbooks of often useless situations and unnatural conversations.

The internet has made language learning more accessible. These methods will make your language acquisition more efficient, more relevant and hopefully more enjoyable.

This article is also published at Tales from a Thai Village.

How to Learn Any Language in One Hour

Learn a language in just one hour? Must be a joke or a cheap sales pitch, right? Well, the full title is "How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour", so this isn't a miracle method but rather one intense hour dissecting the basics of your chosen target language. With just six simple phrases translated from English plus a look at your target alphabet and pronunciation should be able to answer one simple yet fundamental question: can I learn this language quickly?

This simple exercise will also highlight any serious problems that can arise. For example, I am fluent in English and Italian and proficient in a couple of other European languages. However, I'm currently trying to learn Thai, which is totally alien. So let's learn some Thai in one hour!

Completely different script - OK, that can be learnt.

Although the script is read left-to-right words are constructed as 'consonant clusters' so that a vowel spoken after a consonant may actually we written before it, or even above it! OK, that can be learnt too but is a bit weird!

The grammar is relatively straightforward - phew!!

Thai is a tonal language with 5 different tones - nightmare!! This needs some serious immersion as it is almost impossible to distinguish many words that to a European ear sound identical. For the casual tourist it may be worth forgetting to learn Thai at this point and just learn enough to get by. If living in Thailand then the logical consequence of this is to learn the Thai script. The written language includes tone marks so one can start to group together words with the same tone. Most Thais will forgive the lax foreigner as the correct word can often be guessed from the context. Trying to learn Thai just using the English transliterations is a waste of time.

Thus a quick analysis of Thai immediately reveals how to best proceed with learning it: learn the script and chat to Thai friends who will appreciate you're learning their language while they have a good laugh at the mess you'll make of the five tones.

One other consequence of this analysis is that the syntax of Thai is more similar to Italian than to English; for example, "red bus" becomes "bus red". Sadly, I don't have a 'learn Thai for Italians' book!

Is anybody else learning a fiendishly difficult language?

This article is also published at Tales from a Thai Village.

Are Three Eyes Better Than Two?

What factors govern the intelligence of humans and other animals? One theory claims that it is not merely the size of the brain but also the number of inputs - the number of perceptions. Add an extra sensory organ linked to the brain and the brain will create new areas of sensory perception. Similarly, take away one of the senses and that part of the brain will shrivel in significance and possibly be assigned other tasks. This isn't the place to argue about IQ tests and, having taken a few, I think there are some good ones and some poor ones. I feel that intelligence is correlated to the ability to create connections, especially new connections. Memory may help in this but in itself is merely the ability to recall information rather than processing it. Anyway, what's all this got to do with eyes?

Paul Pietsch and Carl Schneider ran some interesting experiments to test the above theory using salamanders and their eyes. You can read Pietsch's own amusing description of the experiments at his website. The idea was to add a third eye to embryonic salamanders and link it to their brain so that it would (hopefully) become functional as the creatures grew. To test all the different scenarios they developed a number of 'hybrids'. The Triclops was the main subject, with two normal eyes plus a third one in its forehead - pretty much where humans have their 'third eye' just in front of the pineal gland. A Cyclops was also created with the third eye but without its two normal eyes, as was a one-eyed version with just one normal eye but without the third one. One normal subject was also used as the base level reactions as well as one totally blind so as to remove effects from light sensations that are non-visual such as heat.

The experiment itself involved using a light source and training the salamanders to avoid the light with small shocks applied then measuring how long this Pavlovian training took to be mastered. The ability to learn was thus taken as a sign of intelligence. Using the normal salamander as the control they translated their data into a numerical value using the IQ scale, thereby fixing the normal creature at 100. Pietsch and Schneider must have felt pretty smug with themselves; the Triclops, with the third eye, achieved an IQ of 117, whereas the one-eyed salamander came in at 80. On the surface it looked as if the theory linking intelligence to sensory inputs was validated. The removal and addition of one eye seemed to correlate strongly with a difference of about 20 points. However, the scientists had one huge shock to contend with - the Cyclops, the salamander with just one central eye, had achieved an IQ of 173!

The salamander with just one eye - and that eye not even being one of its normal ones - had come top of the class. It wasn't a question about whether three eyes were better than two; it seemed like one 'third eye' was the best of the lot! This needed some serious rethinking.

To cut to the chase, it looks as if the brain not only processes our senses but also mediates them. To live in reaction to raw data is to live in permanent over-stimulation. The difference here is between optimum perception and maximum - they are not necessarily the same. I think it would have been interesting if Pietsch and Schneider had continued their experiments to see if the Cyclops would grow to develop its own mental editor, thereby sacrificing its 'raw intelligence' for a more subtle, more adaptive - and yes, perhaps slower - mode of response.

For humans, this mediation of sensory inputs has both positive and negative consequences. The brain tries to filter out what it perceives as unimportant and yet by doing so may miss critical information. Sometimes we need to clear out this mass of feedback mechanisms and return to the raw source. That doesn't mean that we can live in a world bombarded by sensory inputs, but sometimes it is worth flushing out this mental cache so that we can see the world, and ourselves, in a more revealing light.

Sperm Travels Faster Towards Attractive Females

Recent research has added to a growing body of evidence that in promiscuous animals, including humans, the mechanism for successful reproduction is far more subtle than merely hoping for the best. The female of the specie may be picky about their sexual partner but the male may have the last say as the quality and quantity of sperm correlates strongly with how attractive the female mate is perceived to be.

This research was conducted on red junglefowl - an ancestor of the chicken - because female attractiveness is easy to measure and directly related to her fertility. Researchers found that the quantity and speed of the sperm produced by the male were strongly correlated to the attractiveness of the female. The mechanism that triggers this remains a mystery but the method by which the amount of sperm can be altered is known: males have two ejaculatory ducts that can fire independently so that attractive females get a shot from both barrels.

Is intriguing to speculate whether this mechanism is unleashed out of pure excitement or fear that the male is not going to get another chance!

Cybercrooks Increase Credit Crunch Scams

Perhaps not surprisingly cybercrooks are focussing the global economic crisis to create scams based on refinancing and unemployment. A survey by brand protection firm MarkMonitor reveals an increase since September 2008 on domain cybersquatting and phishing scams based on terms such as foreclosure and mortgage refinancing, with "credit crunch relief" getting particular attention.

It obviously needs to be stressed over and over again not to click links within emails and to look very carefully at whether you are on the correct website. If you find something claiming to be from a well-known brand with a special offer then just do a search and find their genuine website. If there is a special deal, it will be on their website. Phishing works because there are always enough dumb people to make it profitable.
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