Month: August 2005


The new Stanford Institute of Design (aka the has just started a quarterly design journal called Ambidextrous. From their webpage:


Ambidextrous Magazine is the design journal of the nascent Stanford It is a magazine for the wider design community, which includes engineers and ethnographers, psychologists and philosophers. Rather than focusing on promoting product, Ambidextrous exposes the people and processes involved in design.

Ambidextrous is a forum for the cross-disciplinary, cross-market community of people with an academic, professional and personal interest in design. The magazine is geared toward high subscriber participation and interaction. It is expressly designed to be informal, irreverent, and fun to read.

I’m still reading through the first issue, but it looks like it’ll be both a good place to find new insights and be a nice way to build community between the and other like-minded designers.

Science is hard, let’s go shopping!

There’s a debate going on over at The Edge about the role of common sense in science, especially physics and cognitive science. John Horgan is the science journalist who started the debate with a NYT op-ed:

[String theory and the idea of parallel universes] are preposterous, but that’s not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.

Common sense — and a little historical perspective — makes me equally skeptical of grand unified theories of the human mind. After a half-century of observing myself and my fellow humans — not to mention watching lots of TV and movies — I’ve concluded that as individuals we’re pretty complex, variable, unpredictable creatures, whose personalities can be affected by a vast range of factors. I’m thus leery of hypotheses that trace some important aspect of our behavior to a single cause.

He later responds to comments with:

The question that I raised — and that all these respondents have studiously avoided — is what we should do when presented with theories such as psychoanalysis or string theory, which are not only counterintuitive but also lacking in evidence. Common sense tells me that in these cases common sense can come in handy.

As I see it, Horgan is mistaking lack of differentiation for lack of evidence. Unlike the so-called theory of Intelligent Design, String Theory and the Parallel Universes interpretation of quantum physics have a great deal of predictive power and evidence behind them. The problem is that (currently) this is the exact same set of evidence that supports quantum theory in general, so there’s no way to say that one interpretation is better than the other. However, if we found evidence that our understanding of quantum theory was fundamentally wrong, the other two theories would also be out the window.

Horgan is also wrong about why these theories are so non-sensical. The reason is not, as he implies, that scientists mistake preposterousness for profundity, nor is it that they just like making fun of English majors like himself. As Stanford professor Susskind points out in the debate, the reason these theories violate our common sense is that the world violates our common sense as soon as we look outside of our comfort zone. No theory that fits the experimental evidence will satisfy our common-sense understanding because the evidence itself fails to do so.

(Props to Mind Hacks for the link.)

More on the Placebo Effect

Rawhide commented on my previous post that he was surprised there was much doubt about the placebo effect’s existence. It turns out there’ve been some serious questions raised about whether the placebo effect is actually just a myth after a 2001 New England Journal of Medicine article that analyzed 114 placebo-using medical studies and found that, on the average, the placebo effect was minimal if it exists at all.

Dylan Evans (a frequent contributor to the MindHacks blog) has a 2003 book called Placebo: The Belief Effect that argues that the placebo effect only helps with some kinds of conditions — namely pain, swelling, stomach ulcers, depression, and anxiety — and that by lumping everything into one average the meta-study washes out the few places where placebos actually work. He also suggests that placebos probably work by triggering the release of endorphins, which affect the same kinds of symptoms. Given the recent study it looks like he hit the nail on the head on that one.

You can find a nice summary of his idea in this short paper, which also includes a nice history of the discovery and our understanding of the placebo effect.

Update 8/30/05: typo fix

Running the country on fantasy and wishful thinking…

Population Services International is a great nonprofit organization — they’ve got all the business skill you’d expect from a creative and up-and-coming company, especially when it comes to brand management and culturally-appropriate marketing. But instead of making the big bucks here in the states these people dedicate their skills in the poorest regions of the world — distributing and convincing people to use safe-water solutions, nutrition supplements, mosquito nets and bedding to prevent malaria, and safe-sex education material and condoms to prevent AIDS. They’ve had an incredible track record over the past decade, applying the practical, level-headed thinking more often found in business than in a field where people often think with their hearts more than their heads. As a PSI spokesman puts it, “We’re dealing with the world as it is. It’s not always pretty.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration is not long on practical, level-headed thinking. Ultra-religious conservatives have been accusing PSI of “supporting prostitution” because they host educational games to teach prostitutes about safe sex and how to use a condom. These groups no doubt think a better way to stem the world-wide flow of AIDS is to simply convince prostitutes to accept Jesus as their savior and recognize that anything but abstinence before marriage is a sin. Well, it looks like these groups will soon get their chance: the Baltimore Sun reports that USAID decided to cut large amounts of funding for PSI in favor of faith-based organizations:

Contract decisions had typically been made by USAID officials with expertise on the topic, but the July 19 withdrawal decision was made by a high-level political appointee, said a public health official familiar with the region. “It was surprising to yank a [proposal] that was so far advanced,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivity and fear of reprisal.

On Aug. 11, USAID reopened the bidding process, but with significant changes. The agency reduced funding by $3 million, altered selection factors to put less weight on experience, and eliminated the goal of increasing condom usage. It also added language noting “the strength of community and faith-based organizations and their advantages in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

Michael Magan, deputy assistant administrator for Latin America, declined to comment on the changes in the request. Magan took the post after working in Ohio on President Bush’s 2004 campaign. Previously he was head of the agency’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, established by the president.

Not all Republicans are on this crusade — in particular Larry Craig (R-ID), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) have all asked USAID to reconsider. Let’s hope these senators can speak loud and strong for the part of the Republican party that still believes in reality over fantasy and what works over wishful thinking.

(Thanks to my favorite well of truth for the link!)

Placebo effect and views on the mind

The Economist has a short article on how researchers have observed that people’s brains emit more endorphins when given a placebo and told it will counteract pain. The article starts with this:

The placebo effect, long considered nothing more than psychological suggestibility, does now appear to be genuine.

It’s hard for me to imagine the worldview necessary for that sentence to make any sense. If you believe (as I do) that the mind is fully implemented by our biology then you wouldn’t at all be surprised that there’s a biological cause for the observed decrease in subjective pain. On the other hand, if you still put Descartes before the horse and believe in a kind of soul or other mind/body dualism then the idea that a non-physical “psychological suggestibility” isn’t genuine (even though it stops the equally non-physical pain) is ludicrous.

It seems to me that The Economist and probably a majority of Westerners want to walk a middle road, accepting only the physical, observable, and scientific world as “genuine” while at the same time refusing to accept that a direct corollary of that belief is that our own minds must be a part of that physical, observable world. It’s no wonder we have such difficulty dealing with issues like mental illness in this culture…

…somewhere in Washington enshrined in some little folder…

Did you fly in June 2004? If so (or if you have a similar name to somebody who did) then the Transportation Security Administration may have secretly collected information on you from airline reservation systems and credit bureaus. Wouldn’t it be nice to find out what they know?

Luckily, we still live in a free country — you can just ask! EFF is making it easy to do just that, and you can help them reverse-engineer exactly what the TSA has been up to at the same time.

Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design has two key arguments:

  1. Evolution is not enough to explain the biological and chemical complexity found in living beings.
  2. A reasonable hypothesis is that life was created by some “intelligence.”

The first argument has been addressed by a number of people, but it seems like the second argument has been largely dismissed since (just like Creationism or the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory) it doesn’t have predictive power and thus is a gut-feel rhetorical argument rather than a scientific theory. I think it should be dismissed on those grounds when it comes to science classes, but what surprises me is how silly the rhetorical argument is as well.

Consider: Intelligent Design claims that life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligence, even though:

  • The best known example of intelligence, namely man, is still woefully incapable of producing such a complex system.
  • When it comes to “designing” a biological system, the way we humans perform anything more major than a simple tweak is by evolving the new traits, be it by breeding dogs or in a petrie dish.
  • There’s not even agreement on what the word “intelligence” means beyond the fact that (most) humans posses the trait.

Given these rhetorical holes, I have to wonder whether the real reason Intelligent Design proponents feel something so complex must have been designed by an intelligence is because emotionally they’ve already assumed the reverse, namely that any system able to produce something so complex must in its own right be intelligent.

If so, then in a way Intelligent Design proponents are correct: there is an intelligence that designed life. That intelligence is the distributed system of naturally occurring patterns of reproduction, natural selection and genetic drift that we call evolution.

The mad scientists over at Squid Labs have just launched, a free collaboration site for posting step-by-step instructions for making interesting stuff, from bikes to food to protocols for biology research.

BlackDog: personal server lite?


BlackDog is a great concept. It’s a flash-based Debian Linux machine that fits in the palm of your hand (400Mhz PowerPC and 256 or 512MB RAM), with just a USB 2.0 plug, SPI and MMC Expansion slot, and a thumbprint sensor. There’s no battery or power plug — it’s powered completely via the USB plug.

Plug the Dog into the USB port of a Window-XP and it’ll automatically boot up from ROM in about 2 seconds. Then it claims to be a USB CD-ROM drive with an auto-run program, from which it starts up CygWin and X, and then makes an X connection back to its own server. Presto! Instant use of the host machine’s display and keyboard with your CPU, computing environment and data (up to 1GB through the MMC slot). Unplug and the host machine is left just as you found it. Security comes from what you have (the Dog itself) and who you are (the thumbprint reader), though of course you’re still susceptible to low-level keyboard, screen and network sniffing attacks from the host machine.

There’s a lot we could ask for from a personal server that BlackDog doesn’t have, like automatic wireless sync-up with the interfaces around us, but this sounds pretty decent and more importantly it’ll actually work with today’s infrastructure and machines.

(Thanks to Steve for the link!)