Thursday, March 29, 2007

Nuking Dreams



This is from a recent issue of Science:

In 2004, a research team led by Pierre Maquet of the University of Liège, Belgium, used positron emission tomography (PET) to monitor brain activity in men playing a virtual-reality game in which they learned to navigate through a virtual town (actually a scene from the shoot-'em-up video game Duke Nukem). The same regions of the hippocampus that revved up when the subjects explored the virtual environment also became active when the men slipped into slow-wave sleep that night.

Well first, that's pretty neat. I guess dreams aren't a waste of time after all.

But: Duke Nukem?? In 2004? Assuming they meant Duke Nukem 3D and not the 1991 original, that game is almost 10 years old. By today's standards, the graphics are horrible and unrealistic. You'd think that they would get better results using a game that resembles real life; and, um, less meaningful results with a game where you walk around a pixely city fighting cartoony 2-dimensional pig-people with a freeze ray.

Of course, if they really wanted a Duke Nukem game to use, that was their only choice. The sequel to Duke Nukem - Duke Nukem Forever - is one of the most hilarious things in the video game world. It's been in development since 1997, and was scheduled to be released in 1998. It is still not out. It's now almost 10 years over its scheduled relase date. What's funny is that every few years, news of the game will come out, usually saying that it will be out soon, accompanied by a tiny screenshot. Nobody will admit that it's been cancelled. The fact that it has "forever" in the title, and abbreviates to "DNF" (i.e., did not finish) makes it even better. Still, there are plenty of games, out now, that have gorgeous graphics which psychology researchers could easily use to simulate real life. Look at Gears of War.

And this, friends, is why spending countless hours playing video games is no more a waste of time than dreaming. It's pretty much studying for school and my future career as a psychologist.

I've now outed myself as a pathetic geek to everyone on Facebook.


To be all intellectually honest, here is the full source of the quote in glorious APA format:

Miller, G. (2007). Hunting for meaning after midnight. Science, 315 (5817), 1360 - 1363.


Bonus picture:

[There used to be a picture of a pixelated stripper from Duke Nukem 3D here, but Google made me remove it. LOL.]


Monday, March 26, 2007

There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief


OK, so if you watch Battlestar Galactica, you know that the song All Along the Watchtower, by Dylan and covered by Hendrix (these people need no first names), played a very important role in last night's episode.

So you wanna hear something weird?

I had my iPod on shuffle at work/school today, and that song came on (the Hendrix version). I had not watched the episode, nor heard anything about it, at this point, but I watched it as soon as I came home. Weird enough at this point, right? What a coincidence - the song that I'd be hearing in the episode just a few hours later happened to be picked randomly out of the 10000 songs on my iPod.

It didn't stop there, though, because I attached special signficance to the song as soon as I heard it. "God damn!" I said to myself, "this is the perfect song for today!" I took it off shuffle and started listening to more Hendrix. I listened to him while I did some more work, then listened to him all the way home. I considered blogging about it - about how All Along the Watchtower is the perfect song for one of the first hot days of the year, for some reason (which would be a pretty stupid thing to blog about, but my brain was obviously muddled by strange psychic cylon confusion magic). Then, we put on the show, and there was the song that started this strange mini Hendrix obsession in the first place.

Isn't that fucked? Of course it's coincidence. But it's not often that I, out of nowhere, get obsessed with a song. That's totally out of character for me. It's even less often that the song I get obsessed with for no reason ends up playing a role in my near future.

Say all you want about distorted memory, subconscious pattern recognition, the fact that coincidences are inevitable, etc etc, but some things are just so unlikely that it is more parsimonious to guess that something other than mere chance is operating.

Brought To You By The Letter P

So just for shits and giggles, while I was peeing, I tried holding my wiener with my left hand instead of the usual right. I found that my right hand automatically went to hover closeby, as if to keep a close eye on my left hand to make sure it didn't screw up. "I'll be here just in case you aim wrong; I know it's your first time, and we don't want any messy spills", said my right hand.

And what's with this? :



You'd think that at some time, from the design of the logo, to the approving of the design, to the creating of the sign, to the hanging up the sign, someone would get the guts to say "dude, your sign has a penis on it."

******

Roll up the rim count:

YOU WIN: Few.
YOU WIN THE OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY AGAIN: Many.

I don't feel like counting today.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

ROFLCOPTER

So I was reading this article on the top 10 mysteries of the mind, and one of them was about the purpose of laughter. Nobody really knows what it is.

And when you think about it, laughter is pretty strange. Someone says something "funny", and in response, your lips curl up and you start grunting. Why?

Some researchers guess that laughing signals to other people that you meant something "in fun", but this seems kinda circular. People would only do something "in fun" if it was funny, and then that just gets us back to asking what funny means. Others think that laughter is a playful response to things that don't make sense. Ok, sure, but what's the point of going into a fit every time something doesn't make sense? Since I'm in personality psychology, I'd also point out that there are huge individual differences in laughter. Some people laugh at South Park, while others think Hope & Faith is hilarious (note: I've never watched it. Maybe it is.)

My guess is that, like most things, laughter is complicated. It serves multiple purposes depending on the situation, and depending on who's doing the laughing.

Hah! Laughter. It makes me laugh. LOLX0rS.

-----

Roll up the rim update:

Gagnez: Deux cafe, un beigne
Reessayez SVP: Treize petits baiseurs

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Movie and Cereal Reviews

300 (Movie): This was a kickass movie. It is very loosely based on real historical occurances, but who gives a shit about that? If you like seeing large men with spears stabbing each other * in slow motion comic book style, then go see it right now.

* No homoeroticism intended.

Kellogg's Chocolatey Delight (Cereal): According to my dictionary, the preferred spelling is "chocolaty", so this cereal loses points right off the bat. But those who know me know two things: There aren't many foods that I don't like (give it to Mikey, he'll eat anything), but I especially like chocolate. So the combination of Special K and chocolate should have gone well. Unfortunately, calling this chocolaty, by any spelling, is misleading. There are little chunks of brown stuff, but it doesn't taste like chocolate. You know what it does taste like? Remember those wax lips that you could buy at Bulk Barn at Halloween, that were sorta like a combination between wax and gum, but didn't really have a taste? Like that. I don't want that shit in my cereal.

I made a picture combining these two things and expressing how I feel:



Edit: Oh, I almost forgot my roll up the rim count:

WIN/GAGNEZ: 1
PLEASE PLAY AGAIN/REESSAYEZ S.V.P: 9

The awesome thing about keeping track of this is that I win either way. If I lose more than would be expected, then I can say "hah! see? I'm right! I'm cursed". If I win a lot, then hey, free coffee.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Hey You Guys

On a daily basis, I find myself wondering what happened to Chunk from The Goonies. Now, I wonder no more: Chunk is all grown up and successful. And while I'm a straight male, I have a suspicion that he might even be a little bit hot.

See also: Truffleshuffle.com.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

This Week's Top Ten List:

  • Girl Guide cookies
  • Science
  • The word "shibboleth"
  • Unwashed mushrooms
  • ΔUo = Σ(ΔUfoproducts) - Σ(ΔUforeactants)
  • Bacon and bacon-related accessories
  • Battlestar Galactica (1978)
  • Your new pair of pants
  • Captain America getting snipered


Thank you for your continued support.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

New Header

Do you enjoy my new header? It has got everything I enjoy, like books, and coffee, and zombies that will bite your face off, and a fuckin' rat monkey thing. All your favourites, right there.

Roll up the rim count:
I WIN: 0
I LOSE: 3

How to Keep Full Albums Separate From Random Singles on an iPod

I love my new iPod 'n all, but it is not without its flaws. The major one I've run into is this: I have about 500 full albums that I have ripped to MP3's. I also have a few thousand random songs that I've collected over the years. The thing is, when I'm browsing my iPod or iTunes by Artist, I usually want to be searching for a full album to listen to. The random singles are good to have on there, but mostly to fill out playlists, or to come up when listening in random order. The problem is, when browsing the iPod, all these random artists come up, each containing only a song or two. It looks really crappy in iTunes when browsing songs grouped with album artwork (or Coverflow). Plus, if I'm looking for a full album to listen to, I have to sift through a lot of these singles in order to find one. I'd prefer not to skip past the one-song Artist listings of The Divinyls, Right Said Fred, and Soft Cell just to get to my Tool albums.

Before: Ugly! (and with crappy music!)


You would think there's an easy, obvious fix for this. Create a playlist called "Full Albums", and a playlist called "Singles", then browse through the Albums one when I feel like a full CD. That's fine for iTunes. Just go into the Albums playlist, sort by Artist (or even better, Album by Artist/Year), and you're all set. The problem is, on the iPod, you can't browse a playlist by Artist. All you get is a list of songs.

This is one of the dumbest things I've seen on an electronic device. I realize a lot of people use playlists as, well, lists of songs to play. But who actually browses through a playlist, by the title of the song, in order to find a song? Even if I'm looking through a list of random top-40 songs to find a specific one, I still think of the artist before the title of the song. The way they have it, it's completely counterintuitive to find a song within a playlist. In fact, even if you wanted to, you can't find a song by its name - the songs are ordered by the name of the artist. You just can't see the name of the artist. It would be much better if playlists could be browsed the same way that you browse through Genres - start with a list of Artist in the genre, then Albums for each artist, then Song titles - but at any point you can click "All" and get a simple list of songs, if that's what you want. Apple, if you're reading this (yeah right), this needs fixing. At least make it an option for all those weird people out there who put the name of the artist before the name of the song (like, you know, Billboard, Amazon, or any record store in the universe).

However, I think I've found a solution. It's not perfect, and it's a bit time consuming, but it sort of gets the job done.

After: Much better!


The trick is in Compilations. When you right-click on a song in iTunes, then click "Get Info", one of the options is "part of a compilation", which can be either checked or unchecked. Additionally, on the iPod there is a Setting simply called "Compilations" (or in iTunes, "Group compilations when browsing"). When this setting is set to "on", songs that have "part of a complilation" checked will not show up in the regular list of songs and artists. I've used this to make it so singles do not show up in my regular list of artists - only full albums do.

So, all you do is select all your singles, and check the "part of a compilation" option. Now, on your iPod, when you click "Artists", you will only be browsing complete albums.

iTunes will still look screwy though, with one-song albums sprinkled in your collection. I took an extra step to solve this problem; I set the Album tag of all the singles to be "Singles". Now, all the singles go into one GIANT Compilation called Singles, right next to other compilations under "Various Artists". If you do this, make sure that you leave "Album Artist" blank, and remove any track number information, as these can mess up the grouping.

I also created a smart playlist called "Singles", which pulls out any song with an Album that is "Singles." So if I am looking for one of those random songs, I can browse through this playlist. Unfortunately, on the iPod, you still have to browse through a list of song names, which are ordered by the names of artists which you can't see (or random order; more on that later).

To summarize:
  • Go through all your single songs and check off "part of compilation"
  • In iTunes' preference, check "group compilations"
  • On your iPod, set "Compilations" to "Yes"
  • Browse your albums by sorting by Artist (or Album by Artist) in iTunes, or clicking Artists on the iPod

And optionally:
  • Set the Album name to "Singles" on these songs (optional)
  • Create a smart playlist with Album = "Singles" (optional)
  • Browse singles in the Singles playlist (optional)


This can all be undone by selecting the whole Singles playlist and unchecking "part of a compilation".

I've run into a few drawbacks to this approach:
  • For some reason (probably a bug, though it may be a "feature"), I've found that the iPod's search function won't find artists included in compilations. Maybe they would if you took the "Compilations" option off in the settings, but then we're back to square one. I gather this is a bug that is a side effect of the iPod skipping artists in compilations when browsing them. Not a big deal for me since I rarely use searching on the iPod. Searching does work fine in iTunes, and searching for song titles on the iPod works. Still, would've been nice to be able to get a listing of every song by an artist, even those in compliations.

  • I was worried that the singles would not show up in songs selected at random (e.g. a smart playlist that randomly limits itself to 25 songs). This is not the case, though...the singles populate random playlists just fine.

  • You lose the name of the album for all of your singles, and this can't easily be undone. Not a big deal to me, since by definition the singles aren't really part of an album, but this might be bothersome to some people.

  • The order of songs within the "Singles" compliation (or even in a smart playlist) is completely broken, both on the iPod and in iTunes. There is some semblence of order - songs with the same artist usually hang out close to each other - but it's not based on the English alphabet. It also doesn't seem to be related to any tags that I can see. It's as if iTunes randomly chooses which order to put songs in. This makes it even harder to find songs within the Singles list, if you care about that.


All these drawbacks could be fixed if Apple would just add an option in the iPod firmware to see the names of artists within Playlists. This would also open up a whole bunch of powerful music organization options in addition to this. For example, an easily-browsable playlist with a certain combination of genres (say, Trip-Hop, Electronic, Classical, and World music for when you're in a chill-out sort of mood). All I want to do is see the names of artists within playlists! But for now, this solution should work OK for most people who are similar to me in the way they browse their music. If anyone has a better way, or improvements to this, please let me know in the comments.

I hope this helps some people. I know I've probably bored most of the people who regularly read this blog, but I needed to write this down to remember what the hell I was doing to my music collection (in case I needed to undo it). Maybe I'll submit it to technology news sites to try to get famous, too (DIGG THIS). Enjoy!



Monday, March 05, 2007

Roll Up the Rim to Lose

Tim Hortons has started their annual "roll up the rim to win" contest. I am incredibly bad at this game of chance. Let's take a walk (A CYBER WALK!!1 L0L) down memory lane, and see what I've written about this previously here on Phronk.com:

On March 12, 2004, I wrote:
I like having the chance to win stuff, especially big plasma TVs and cars, but I've rrrolled up the rim a few billion times and haven't even won a damn 35 cent cookie. Last year I rrrolled up 31 rims and didn't win anything (yes, I keep the losing rims and count them, because there's something wrong with me). Yet..."odds of winning a prize are 1 in 9". Very iffy.

P.S. In case you're stupid or American, rrroll up the rim is a contest at Tim Hortons where you roll up the rim of coffee cups and win prizes. Duh.


Then 3 weeks later:
So, I still haven't won in rrrrrroll up the rim to win. My girlfriend won a donut and gave it to me, but that doesn't count. Besides, I got a chocolate-mint donut, which tasted like toothpaste smeared on a chocolate donut, and I immediately gained 5 pounds and a double chin after eating it. "Win" my ass.


And 2 weeks after that:
I now have almost 50 losing rims collected, and not one winner among them. The odds of 1 in 9 seem to hold with other people, but not me. Let's do some math! If the chances of losing are 8 in 9 (or 8/9), then the chances of losing 50 times are 8/9 to the power of 50, which is .0027...about 1 in 370. In psychology, you conclude there's something other than chance operating if the odds you got your results by chance are 1 in 20 or less. So, something other than chance is operating on me...the forces of the universe are conspiring against me.


That covers 2003 and 2004, and the next two years weren't much better. I picked up a coffee this morning to kick off 2007, and of course, it was a loser.

All this month, I'll be working on my comprehensive exams for school. This basically means I read articles and books 27 hours per day, which can be a little...uh...hurting to the brain region and detrimentorial to be coherent is. To latch onto something and keep me sane through the month of March , I think I'll keep track of all my winning and losing cups. I'll even graph it and perform statistical analyses, so it's like I'm studying!

Stay tuned to find out if I can prove that either Tim Horton's odds are wrong (but hey, who said hockey players can do math?), or I am truly cursed: doomed to a life of paying full price for food that will kill me.

Roll up the rim count:

  • I WIN: 0
  • I LOSE: 1







Saturday, March 03, 2007

Fuck the RIAA


This is the third in a series of preachy and boring posts.

March is the unofficial month to boycott the Recording Industry Association of America. Gizmodo thought of the idea to boycott the RIAA this month. You can read their anti-RIAA manifesto and how they've kicked things off.

Who are the RIAA and why boycott them? Well let me tell you.

The RIAA are the ones behind suing teenagers and old ladies for sharing music on the internet. I have no problem with this in principle; really, downloading music without paying for it is wrong. But the way they go about it is downright evil. Instead of following this pesky "law" stuff, they send confusing letters to people who they suspect are sharing music, threatening to sue them for more money than they can possibly pay. This is bad enough; sure, stealing a CD is wrong, but is it so wrong that a person's entire life should be ruined because of it? But the truly evil thing is that the next thing they do is offer to settle for a more reasonable amount if the offender agrees to not get the law involved. It sounds more like organized crime than policing, and its sole purpose is to spread terror so that people are afraid to share music over the internet. Does that make them terrorists?
Or is that politically incorrect to say?

What bugs me even more, though, is digital rights management - DRM - which the RIAA is also behind. If you want to go clean and pay for music online, your most popular choice is iTunes, or something similar. But if you do, you will soon find that your songs are laden with restrictions. You can only listen to them on certain devices (i.e., an iPod), and even then, only a certain number of devices. You are paying for music that is broken; music that does less for you than cassettes did 20 years ago. CDs used to be a good alternative, but even they are often infected with DRM now. Sony was recently involved in a scandal in which putting one of their CDs into your computer would result in it installing, without your consent, a program that opened your computer up to viruses.

The worst part about DRM is that is serves absolutely no purpose. It is ridiculously easy to circumvent; for an mp3, you need only burn it to CD then rip the CD to get a clean file. For CDs, it's usually as easy as holding the shift key when you insert it in order to rip the music to computer. And of course, once one person in the entire world has gone through this, the music is on the internet, ready to be illegally downloaded. So it doesn't stop piracy. However, the legitimate users who have purchased this broken music still have to go through these hassles (which is considered illegal) just to have freedom with the music they purchased. Thus, DRM does nothing to deter illegal downloaders, and only hurts the people who actually bought the music.

OMGWTF.

Another evil thing the RIAA did just recently is charge internet radio stations way too much money to operate, essentially trying to kill them.

So, to send a message that this crap is stupid, stop buying it, at least for the month of March. Don't buy any CDs from major labels, and don't buy any music infected with DRM.

Even better, do buy DRM-free music from non-RIAA labels. This could send the message that suing people isn't working, but if you offer music that is not crippled by DRM, people will be willing to pay for it. I recommend emusic. I've been paying for it for a few months and have got some kickass music. There's even some mainstream(ish) stuff on there...e.g. Barenaked Ladies, Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, Delerium, Tom Waits, etc. Follow this link and you can get 100 free songs (vs. the usual 25), then cancel if you feel like it, or keep going. I sound like I'm advertising or something, but really, it's cool.

OK, I'm done with the preachy boring posts now. I shall go back to blogging about body hair and farting shortly.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins


I'll try not to write much here, since this book has already been written about way too much. Briefly, my opinion is that this book doesn't break a whole lot of new ground, but it puts some common arguments for atheism in popular language and is an enjoyable read. For the most part, it's well-argued and well-written, and I would recommend it to anyone remotely interested in religion.

Where I think some people may have a problem, however, is that Richard can be a real dick about it sometimes. He tries to remain respectful to religion, and does OK for the most part, but the book is still full of snarky little comments putting down religious folk. While these can be funny, it would have been nice to see someone argue a position without explicitly putting down the opposing position.

In addition, sometimes he can get a little too informal and end up undermining his own arguments. For example, in a section about the consolation that religion can provide, he mentions that there are both happy atheists and miserable atheists; happy Christians and miserable Christians; etc etc. Then he ponders whether, in general, atheists are less happy than religious people, and writes something like "there might be statistical evidence for this. I dunno! But I bet all religions would be about the same." Dude. You're a scientist. Look it up. Especially in a book relying on the idea that beliefs should be supported by hard evidence, the least he could do is look up some evidence rather than relying on his hunches. (Incidentally, I did look it up, and as with most things in science, the link between religion and happiness is complicated).

However, don't take this to mean that Dawkins is some extremist atheist who relies on blind faith as much as many strict adherents to a religion do. The cores of his arguments are grounded in scientific evidence and valid reasoning. In other words, his beliefs are based on reality - the same reality that anyone else can observe, verify, and would likely draw the same beliefs from if they really thought about it. Because of this, most of what Dawkins concludes is almost certainly true.

"Almost" is a key word here. Dawkins himself never becomes so convinced in his own reasoning that he leaves no room to be proven wrong. When speaking of the existence of God, he admits the old cliche that "you can't prove a negative"; i.e., you can't conclusively disprove God's existence. So, he explains why there almost certainly is no God.

[TANGENT] I'm no philosopher, but I have always been confused by the "can't prove a negative" thing. If something's existence entails definite, observable consequences, and those consequences are not observed, then that thing's existence is disproven. It's a valid argument of the form "If A then B...Not B...Therefore Not A". So if I say my god is infallible, and she said she would appear to me on March 1st 2007 in the form of a talking polar bear sitting on my front lawn eating Cheetos, and I don't see this polar bear (which, by the way, I don't), then my god certainly does not exist. It's proven. Of course, this only applies to my god, not all gods, which is perhaps what the "can't prove a negative" rule is really talking about. And perhaps it does not apply to the Christian God, which, I think, has been intelligently designed to avoid positing many concrete observable consquences, and vaguely defined enough to wiggle out of any failures to observe the few that exist. [/TANGENT]

Dawkins provides some good arguements showing why there is no reason to believe that God exists, and perhaps more importantly, shooting down some of the popular arguments for His existence. It probably won't convince anyone to change their mind, but perhaps atheists can clarify their reasons for believing what they do, and religious people can better understand why atheists disagree with them (and, if they care about justifying their beliefs with reason, try to prepare counterarguments to Dawkins' in order to strengthen their reasoned faith).

I would recommend the book to atheists, religious people, and people like me who are less easily labeled. At the very least, it will make you think about your own beliefs, which, I believe, is always a good thing.