I See Rude People - The Battle Against Metropolitan Anger

"Buy and read Amy Alkon’s new book "I See Rude People: One Woman’s Battle to Beat Some Manners into Impolite Society". It will be the funniest book you read this decade. " So says Satoshi Kanazawa, evolutionary psychologist at the LSE.

Actually, what caught my attention was the description in the review of why so many people are rude and ignorant in our sprawling metropolises. The idea from evolutionary psychology is that we once lived in small communities in which everyone was somehow related to everyone else. Avoiding perpetual family feuds leads to a kind of social lubricant to keep the community together. In contrast, people from other communities could be raided and abused as needed. Nowadays, few of us live in such incestuous villages but rather we're surrounded by millions of anonymous people who all count as "others". They are not family, so they can be abused with impunity. I can see this in action here in Thailand where any show of emotion is frowned upon and being a fool is tolerated within the villages, but come to Bangkok and pushing people out of the way is the norm if you want to get anything done before sundown.

Blondes Have More Balls

The Sunday Times recently published an article with the headline “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses.” The article reported that “Researchers claim that blondes are more likely to display a “warlike” streak because they attract more attention than other women and are used to getting their own way – the so-called “princess effect.”” The Sunday Times article quotes the evolutionary psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Aaron Sell. Sadly, none of it is true, or at least not according to Sell.

The Scientific Fundamentalist blog written by Satoshi Kanazawa has a field day slamming British newspapers for routinely publishing fiction. Yes, headlines are designed to grab your attention - they may even lure you with a false promise - but the content should still have some link to real news. If journalists can't get a scientist to utter a few sentences on the phone that they can then distort or publish out of context they will just resort to making up stories. The right to free speech seems to be the right to distort reality - anything to sell papers. These are the same people crying over a loss of revenue to the new online media. Your support for them rather depends on whether you want news or fiction.

I have a little experience of British newspapers and my advice to anybody who is on the receiving end of journalistic charm and flattery is to write down a statement and email it to them. Spoken words are ephemeral and you will have a hard time proving that you didn't say something. Write your own press release and if you're still misquoted you'll have a stronger case for the Press Complaints Commission to adjudicate on. As Kanazawa says "[...] it is their job as British journalists to make things up. They don’t care if it’s true or not." Strong stuff... now where's that article about blondes?

Global Warming Scientist Admits No Data For Glacier Alarm

The reputation of the IPCC is melting away faster than a Himalayan glacier. The repercussions rumble on after the discovery that the claim that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 was pure speculation backed by zero science.

In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Dr Lal, the co-ordinating lead author of the report’s chapter on Asia, said: "It related to several countries in this region and their water sources. We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action. [...] It had importance for the region, so we thought we should put it in."

In other words, this was a political statement masquerading as science. Dr Lal then tries to spread the blame thinly by saying that none of the 500 external reviewers picked up on this bogus claim at the time. This too, appears to be very far from the truth.

Professor Georg Kaser, a glacier expert from Austria, who was lead author of a different chapter in the IPCC report, said when he became aware of the 2035 claim a few months before the report was published, he wrote to Dr Lal, urging him to withdraw it as patently untrue. Dr Lal claimed he never received this letter.

Having been forced to apologise over the 2035 claim, Dr Raj Pachauri, the IPCC chairman, blamed Dr Lal, saying his team had failed to apply IPCC procedures. The mud-slinging has started and everyone is running for cover.

The UN report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) won a Nobel Prize - but it wasn't for Literature. Good to see that science has not yet been totally destroyed and become a mere tool to fool the world. The bad news is that nobody has been sacked, and nobody will be as at heart they are political not scientific appointments.

The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a new body founded by former British Chancellor Nigel Lawson is also entering the fray. Benny Peiser, the GWPF’s director, said the affair suggested the IPCC review process was ‘skewed by a bias towards alarmist assessments’. More on that coming soon.

Female Teachers Can Transfer Fear of Mathematics to Their Female Students

Female elementary school teachers can pass on their anxiety and stereotypes about mathematics to female students, and girls who adopt this outlook perform worse at mathematics, research at the University of Chicago shows. In contrast, boys seem to be immune from their female teacher's phobia.

The findings come from a paper, “Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement,” published in the 25 January 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was conducted in the USA where more than 90% of primary school teachers are women, and I suspect many countries have the same tradition that early years learning is left largely in the hands of women. That is not in itself a problem but it becomes one when so many bring their fears of mathematics and science into the classroom. After all, we're talking here about basic arithmetic and geometry, not calculus courses.

"The authors suggest that elementary teacher preparation programs could be strengthened by requiring more mathematics preparation for teachers and by addressing their issues of math attitudes and anxiety." My own solution would be slightly different. I think a modern school system should finally do away with the view that primary teachers are like nannies with a whiteboard. The idea that one teacher can effectively teach everything merely because the level is low and the children young is completely false. As this study shows, individual teachers have their preferences and few primary teachers do an adequate job of teaching mathematics and the sciences. Those that are good at teaching the sciences should become 'primary science teachers'. Primary schools will often have specialist teachers in subjects such as music, art and sport. I think the solution is to split primary teaching into the sciences and the humanities. Then teachers will convey their enthusiasm and not inflict their prejudices onto their students.

To see what happens when girls are not fed false stereotypes, at the last college in the UK I taught the advanced mathematics and physics classes had an almost 50-50 split between male and female students. Brains are not governed by gender.

Apple's iSlate, The Grown-up Kindle: Will It Save The Publishing Industry?

On January 27th, Apple will unveil its latest creation which is widely expected to be a touchscreen tablet computer. With a screen size of perhaps 10 to 11 inches across it is a magazine-reader compared to the Kindle's paperback 6-inch screen. Indeed Apple is going head-to-head with Amazon's Kindle DX which has a similar sized screen.

Publishers around the world are hoping that they can finally start charging readers again as in the good old days of printing. "Both the iPhone and the Kindle have proven that people are willing to buy the devices, read on the devices, and pay for content," said Greg Hano of Bonnier Technology Group, which publishes Popular Science and other notable titles. "We already have a proof of concept." [Yahoo]

One potentially important advantage of the iSlate over the Kindle is the terms of service. Amazon does not allow its downloaded publications to be read on any other device, whereas Zinio, a digital publishing technology company, has recently released its eReader as an iPhone app that allows the user to read the same magazine on multiple devices whilst paying for just the one download. Yes, Kindle books can be viewed on other devices but only for another download fee.

People do seem to be more prepared to pay for content on their mobile devices than for web content. As computing becomes more mobile and communication devices become more powerful, it becomes difficult to justify these two contrasting consumer experiences. Perhaps this is just what publishers have been looking for.

How to Help Your Children Avoid Social Rejection

A new study by neurobehavioural researchers at Rush University Medical Center has found three key factors in a child's behaviour that can lead to social rejection. The results have recently been published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

“Children’s ability to develop positive peer relationships is critical to their well-being,” said Dr. Clark McKown, the study's principal investigator. “Compared to children who are accepted by their peers, socially rejected children are at substantially elevated risk for later adjustment troubles.”

The three factors are:

The inability to pick up on non-verbal or social cues;

The inability to attach meaning to such cues, even if the cues are picked up; and

The inability to reason about social problems and behave accordingly.

Sadly, the press release does not mention the ages of the children in the study. The above factors do seem a lot to expect from, say, a 5 year-old but certainly not from a teenager. However, with some 13% of school age children diagnosed with social-emotional learning difficulties this is a serious problem. Or is it?

If one looks at a classic bell-shaped curve for IQ then it is perfectly natural that the bottom 15% are very different to the top 15% - this is just part of natural variability. If there was an easy way to measure a social-emotional index we may well find a similar variability. This is not to say that those with problems do not need some assistance, just that in a population with variable characteristics it is not so shocking that there are winners and losers, at least in terms of raw abilities rather than any social measure of success.

The researchers hope that such data will lead to fairly simple tests that can pinpoint children at risk and offer help before the problem becomes chronic. I also think that these are precisely the skills that should be nurtured in the home rather than expecting an often chaotic environment such as a school to teach them. Such findings should also help parents in being more sensitive to how their sons and daughters behave.

One other thing strikes me, though: the idea of peers. As adults, we do not see ourselves as part of one huge homogeneous human family. We have all split into various groups based on education, work, background, hobbies and so on. Hopefully, we see others in such groups as peers and our social behaviour largely conforms to that particular group. Some people may even feel uncomfortable stepping outside of their groups. This is not to condone a lack of social graces but to note that being comfortable within one's peer group does not always translate into feeling at ease outside it.

One can see this happening at school too, with groups and cliques forming, sometimes around special interests but also around social clubs - yes, even gangs. Should we expect a child to conform to a group of which they do not want to be members? Before labelling a child with some social-emotional problem I would look very closely as to whether the child is happy to be who they are, and that is the task of the loving parents.

How Has the Internet Changed the Way You Think?

The Edge's big question for 2010 is "How Has the Internet Changed the Way You Think?" In a quest for thoroughness it has enlisted 170 brains who have collectively produced 132,000 words.

Quite a number of neuroscientists and psychologists took to sabotaging the question.

"How has the Internet changed the way I think? I can't really say, because I have no direct knowledge of what influences my thinking." says Emily Pronin, Associate Professor of Psychology, Princeton.

"The idea that my own mental processes are impenetrable to me is a tough one to swallow. It's hard to accept that, at a very basic level, I don't know what's going on in my own head. At the same time, the idea has a certain obviousness to it — of course I can't recount the enormous complexity of biochemical processes and neural firing that gives rise to my thoughts. The typical neuron in my brain has 1000s of synaptic connections to other neurons. Sound familiar?
My thinking may be influenced by unexpected search hits and extraneous words and images that are derived via a process beyond my comprehension and control. So while I have the feeling that it's me driving the machine, perhaps it's more the machine driving me. But wait, hasn't that always been the case? Same process, different machine." Well, that pulled the rug from under all those peddlers of motivational courses.

Back on message, Tor Norretranders (science writer) supplies us with a social web mantra,"The more you give, the more you get. The more you share, the more they care. The more you dare, the more is there for you. Dare, care and share."

But Marc D. Hauser (psychologist and biologist at Harvard) makes the point that for all the connections and social interactions one still can't hold hands in a chatroom. Touching is important in many cultures and Hauser thinks we may be in danger of losing something crucial in human interactions. For all those who like to accumulate online friends perhaps renaming them 'ipals' might give a better perspective on how many of them are true friends.

June Cohen (Director of Media at TED) is less worried about this and sees this mass of communications as the essentially human trait for storytelling - and that one-way mass media was an anomaly. Gone is the campfire and gone is the need to pick fleas off each other but the eternal gossip mill keeps turning.

Coming back to thinking rather than socializing, Michael Shermer's contribution is the kind of thing every blogger and struggling writer wants to hear. The internet saved him from the hard shoulder of academia and gave him the means through which to forge his own intellectual career as the founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine.

"Starting with no money, no backers, and no affiliation with elite institutions, the Internet made it possible for us to succeed by making knowledge accessible and searchable to me and my editors and writers on a scale never previously available. The intellectual playing field was being leveled and the Internet changed the way I think about the very real possibility of fairness and opportunity in a world that has for too long been rigged to favor the elite." Shermer closes with,"This is real power, and I feel that power as never before."

What many have commented upon is that their own skills have moved away from acquiring knowledge, as that has become relatively easy to find, to manipulating knowledge. There is no longer the need to remember facts but rather to find previously unexpected connections between them. There may be a future of smart agents to make such connections but for the moment that's a very human skill.

For real insights or flashes of inspiration it has always been necessary to switch off for a while, relax and let the still somewhat obscure algorithms of our own unconscious do the searching. If thinking is about making connections then the wetware between our ears is our very own intranet. However, those connections haven't changed and the internet hasn't changed them either.

Indeed, a rare bit of insight comes from Daniel Haun (of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology). Humans believe what is repeated to them. This is the primary method of advertsing, be it in the name of consumer choice or political propaganda, repetition works. But most search engine algorithms include a weighting connected to the number of incoming links a particular webpage or website has - this is but codified repetition. The internet won't change the way you think because it is programmed to resemble it.

In contrast, physicist Nigel Goldenfeld feels that the sheer speed of using the internet to collaborate has increased the pace of new insights. "I'm starting to think like the Internet, starting to think like biology. My thinking is better, faster, cheaper and more evolvable because of the Internet. And so is yours. You just don't know it yet."

Many themes, however, seem to crop up with the annoying frequency of a viral retweet.

The internet is great.
The internet is full of stuff.
The internet is full of crap too.
Knowing what's crap and what's useful requires yogic mind training.
The internet has nothing on yogic mind training.
Go read a book, even an ebook.
Long live the internet!

You can read the whole thing at The Edge. Let me finish with the funniest quip I could find.

"Some people say the Internet has made us more efficient. I waste many hours each day being efficient." Emanuel Derman (financial engineer).

How Has the Internet Changed the Way You Think?

Bored? Try Project Implicit Psychology Tests

Bored with taking dull product surveys online, or just plain bored to tears? Here's something that will stimulate a few comatose braincells, give you something to tweet about and possibly get into a few arguments over.

Those fiendish psychologists at Harvard have devised a test that tries to shed some light on the darkest recesses of people's innate prejudices - the difference between what you think you think and what you truly think.

"It is well known that people don't always 'speak their minds', and it is suspected that people don't always 'know their minds'. Understanding such divergences is important to scientific psychology.

This web site presents a method that demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences much more convincingly than has been possible with previous methods. This new method is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT for short.

In addition, this site contains various related information. The value of this information may be greatest if you try at least one test first."

Oh yeah, and you have to agree that,"I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT test performance with which I may not agree." So all that unconscious bigotry, prejudice, intolerance, irrational hostility plus a myriad phobias may well come out in the wash. In which case, deal with it!

I said it would stop you getting bored! Well, at least for 15 minutes or so.

Mark McGwire Swings Into Contrition Mode Over Drugs

Up steps Mark McGwire to take his place in this week's media contrition event. He needs his job, he needs his salary, a few tears should do the trick.

McGwire admitted in 1998 that he was using androstenedione, a steroid precursor that turns into testosterone in men. This performance enhancing drug was perfectly legal back then and didn't become a controlled substance till 2004. However, it was already banned by the NFL and the IOC so the dragnet was already closing in. So who cares? Obviously some puritans in the baseball industry are jealous that the drug may have worked too well and assisted McGwire in hitting a record home runs - not quite cricket (or baseball)!

So much so that McGwire has been black-balled from the Hall of Fame no less than four times. After crawling under a rock for a few years he is due back as the hitting coach for the Cardinals. Hence the admissions of mea culpa and an interview with AP where he recounted breaking the news to his son, who is now 22.

"He's very, very understandable [understanding]. So are my parents," McGwire said. "The biggest thing that they said is they're very proud of me, that I'm doing this. They all believe it's for the better. And then I just hope we can move on from this and start my new career as a coach." [HP]

The drug was not illegal at the time, so what's the real reason behind this cry-and-tell? Well, Bic Mac had been rather economical with the truth back at a congressional hearing on disinfecting the baseball industry.

"He knows he owes the baseball world an explanation," said former Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who chaired the congressional hearing in 2005. "I think we all knew this. I don't think anybody's surprised by this. He was one of hundreds of players who used steroids during this time. ... This was so widespread. Had we not held these hearings and put the fear of God into baseball, it would still be going on."

So Little Mac gets to be contrite and perhaps avoid the charge of perjury, all for the sake of a game. And history can be rewritten for the Minstry of Baseball and everyone can go back to counting their money.

In 2002 Mark McGwire married Stephanie Slemer, a former pharmaceutical sales representative.
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