Friday, May 20, 2016

Top 10 Most Popular Contributors to 4Chan

  1. Anonymous
  2. Anonymous
  3. Anonymous
  4. Anonymous
  5. Anonymous
  6. Anonymous
  7. Anonymous
  8. Anonymous
  9. Anonymous
  10. Anonymous

Plus an honorable mention: Anonymous

Image from Wikimedia Commons:

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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Books I read in 2015

My book consumption has gone up drastically since I started listening to Audiobooks! Audible has a subscription service that for $10 per month you get 1 credit, which can be spent on any audio book. It's a great deal.

Paradox Lake by J.D. Spero
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Great book. Rubin reads everything about happiness and reports on her experience trying to improve herself.
The Martian by Andy Weir (audible)
Behavioral Economics (The Great Courses) by Scott Huettel (audible)
Beastie Boys Book Deluxe: A Unique Box Set Celebration of the Beastie Boys by Frank Owen
The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey (audible)
Meaning of Life: Perspectives From the World's Great Intellectual Traditions. The Great Courses by Jay L. Garfield (audible)
Lost Worlds of South America (Great Courses/The Teaching Company) by Edwin Barnhart (audible)
Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
The Medeival World (The Great Courses) by Dorsey Armstrong (audible)
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
The Great Courses - Philosophy of Science by Jeffrey L. Kasser (audible)
The Neurobiology of the Gods: How Brain Physiology Shapes the Recurrent Imagery of Myth and Dreams by Goodwyn, Erik D.
Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History (Great Courses / The Teaching Company) by Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius (audible)
***The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically by Peter Singer
The Deaths of Tao: Tao Series Book Two by Wesley Chu
The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance by Kayt Sukel
Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature (The Great Courses) by Thomas A. Shippey(audible)
Firefight (The Reckoners Book Two) by Brandon Sanderson (audible)
Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them by Marjorie Taylor
Fooled by Randomness by Nasim Nicholas Taleb (audible)
A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (audible)
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are (The Great Courses) by David Livermore (audible)
The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu ****
Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel (Audible)
The Magicians by Lev Grossman (audible)
*** Steelheart (Reckoners Book 1) by Brandon Sanderson (audible)
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky (audible)

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Friday, November 27, 2015

Writing and the Word "Said" Part 1

"Should I use `replied' in my novel?" she said, not asked.

I've read several books on how to write fiction, and been to many writing conferences, and there is one piece of advice that seems to be unquestioningly believed and repeated:

Don't use any word for "said" other than "said." That means never use questioned, replied, exclaimed and so on.

The belief is that using these other words is distracting, pretentious, and a sign of amateur writing.

At the same conferences, and sometimes in the same talk, people will advise to use unusual ways of describing people. Use a less familiar word, like "grimy" rather than just "dirty" all the time.

These two pieces of advice are, at least at first glance, contradictory. Why is it okay to use unusual ways of describing in one context but not another?

It's further complicated by the fact that there is no empirical evidence that I've ever been able to find that they are right.

In the meantime, I just read reviews of the audio version of Scalzi's Redshirts and it's almost hilarious how many people complain that--I'm not kidding-- he uses "said" too much! Take a look for yourself; it's pretty striking.

Interestingly, the reviews for the print and kindle editions don't complain about this as much (though some do.)

Is "exclaimed" really that bad?

I have an ambition to run a study to find out. I'm just waiting for an interested student (when that study is done I'll post Part 2).

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Tabletop Role-Playing Gaming with Little Kids (ages 4-9)

Stealth Fighter's character sheet
Recently I played a tabletop role-playing session with my wife and three young nephews, ages 9, 7, and 4. It worked beautifully, and I wanted to share with you how I did it and how easy it was.

The first thing I did was make rules, and I wanted them very, very simple. Basically, anytime their characters tried to do something difficult, the kids rolled two six-sided dice and summed the results. If it was higher than 6, it was a success, and if it was 6 or lower, it was a setback (not a failure).

I asked them to make characters: What is your character? What weapon does he or she use? What is his or her magic power?

They had no trouble doing this, and the results were delightful. The eldest made "Fireborg," a cyborg man who used a flaming sword and could do an "explosion stomp."

The middle child made "Stealth Fighter," who was half cat and a little bit raccoon. He used spears and could climb on walls as his magic power. He wanted to draw a picture, which you can see in the image. Adorable!

The youngest made "Ninja Blobby," a slimy ninja who threw slime for a weapon and could replicate himself.

My beloved created an elf named "Galadriel" who threw glass balls and could heal people.

That was basically it. We got started.

I made a very basic adventure. The setting was sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Townspeople complained that a monster was stealing their livestock. The characters ventured into the mountains and
had to cross a rickety bridge with flying snakes attacking. Losing rolls are "setbacks" resulting in either some inconvenience (a delay) or actual "harm." Each character had four hit points.

 After this first encounter I had them look at their attributes: tough, smart, and magic. They could pick one to get +1 on rolls, another to get +0, and the last would get -1. As you can see from the pictured character sheet, Stealth Fighter had -1 Tough, +1 Smart, and +0 Magic.

Then they encountered a giant locked door. An old man was there and they talked him into giving them the key. This required a roll.

Then they entered the dragon's lair.  After a fight they returned to the town, where each got a healing potion as reward.

The whole thing took about 45 minutes, the kids stayed interested throughout, and one asked to play again the next day, this time with a new character, "Glorglius," who was a ghost who could throw electric balls.

Getting kids using their imaginations does not require complex rules. They do it naturally. Just make something simple and go for it.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A new soundtrack to meditation

For stress relief I've started meditating again. I did it for about a year and a half years ago, and stopped. You can read about how I meditated here.

Perhaps I should not be multitasking while I meditate, but I am. There are a few stances/poses that I want to practice. First is the Tai Chi horse stance, which looks like the left image in this picture:

Elements of this stance include: 1) keeping your feet just a bit more than shoulder width apart, 2) pointing your feet straight forward, 3) bending your knees but not so far that they go past your toes, 4) keeping your hips thrust forward, tucking your bottom, 5) crunching your abdomen a bit, and 6) pushing your lower back out.

It's apparently good for your back to do this, and it certainly strengthens your legs.

The other position I want to practice is the Japanese way of sitting indoors, called "seiza."

I find it a comfortable way to sit on the floor, but if you don't practice it your legs fall asleep easily.

I also want to practice the "asian squat," pictured below.

I picked this up in China. It's convenient when you're outside or in a dirty place and don't have a chair. If you practice it, it's comfortable and relaxing. Some people can nap in this position. Again, it is difficult (or impossible) without practice.

Finally, on the advice of my physical therapist, I like to lie on a foam roller.

I can do all of these things while meditating. I like to do them in five minute chunks, but it's really bad to constantly check the clock when you're meditating. So I made an MP3 of birdsounds that lasts about 27 minutes. Every five minutes there is a chime sound, and at the end of 25 minutes there is a gong telling you that you are finished. So in five minute intervals I practice 1) the tai chi stance, 2) the asian squat, 3) seiza, 4) the tai chi stance again (my legs are pretty tired by the end of this), and finally 5) lying on the foam roller.

Some believe that birdsong makes you relaxed.
I don't know if this has been scientifically tested, though.

I used to do mantra meditation, but now I'm trying to think of nothing, focusing on the blackness I see when my eyes are closed.

You can download the track here:

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2014 Book Roundup

Here are the books I read in 2014.
I started getting into Audible audio books, and it has almost doubled the number of books I consume.

My complete list, kept since 1993, can be found here:

The Art of Character: Making Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV by David Corbett
Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation (The Great Courses) by Mark W. Muesse (Audible)
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom (Audible)
An interesting, frightening exploration of the possibility of evil AIs.
Consciousness and the Brain: Decyphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts by Stanislas Dehaene (audible)
Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch book 1) by Ann Leckie
Some good ideas, but not enough to support a book this long.
The Stench of Honalulu: A Tropical Adventure by Jack Handey (audible)
How To Listen to and Understand Great Music (3rd Edition) (The Great Courses) by Robert Greenberg (audible)
Star Wars: Scourge by Jeff Grubb
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond
Reversion: The Inevitable Horror (The Portal Arcane Series - Book I) by J. Thorn
Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us by Jesse Bering (audible)
Bossypants by Tina Fey
What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz
Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe by Jim Davies
Catcher's Keeper by JD Spero
Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller
Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene
Great Courses (Teaching Company) The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World by Robert Garland (Audible)
How to Be a Woman by Caitlan Moran
Icemark Chronicles: Cry of the Icemark by Stuart Hill(audible)
A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss (audible)

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Exams With 728 Students Are More Complicated Than You'd Think

I teach a popular first-year class at Carleton called "Mysteries of the Mind." It's got 728 enrolled students this semester. We have two exams, a final, and an essay. Today we had the first exam. I wanted to give you a taste of what goes into running an exam for this many people.

First of all, how on Earth do we have a class with over 700 people in it? I teach in one of the largest classrooms on campus, which seats 300. The course is a part of Carleton University Online (CUOL), so that students can register for a section where they watch the lectures on video. There are two people in the room running the cameras; I am miked and well-lit. The whole thing is very professional. The lectures are available online and on television in Ottawa. So that's where the other 437 students come from. Many of them are on-campus students who could not get into the in-class section because it was full.

They all need to write their exams at the same time, so nobody talks about what's on the test. Because many online students are working, we need to have these exams on nights and weekends. There are professional proctors we use, so CUOL has to make sure there isn't more than one CUOL class exam happening at the same time. So I schedule with CUOL when these exams will be a month before class starts.

All of these people have to sit somewhere--somewhere where they can comfortably look at the test and their answer sheet, so it can't be one of those crappy airplane-style desks. Not only that, they can't sit right next to each other, because it would make it too easy to cheat. There are only so many rooms on campus like this. So what happens is that they are spread out over about 10 rooms in two buildings, broken up by the section and first letter of their last name. So we have 10 proctors.

I bring my exams (multiple choice) and scantron sheets (machine-readable answer sheets) a half hour early to the exam room. I need a teaching assistant (TA) help me carry all of the paper. The proctors make piles of appropriate counts of tests and scantron sheets and they hustle off to their respective rooms. During the 2 hour exam time, the TAs and I wander from room to room, making sure everything is okay and answer content-questions. I have six TAs.

In each exam room each student sits with her student ID and pencils. At nine on the dot this morning all the tests were simultaneously handed out. At the half hour mark, attendance was taken. This takes quite long in the rooms that hold many people. Students can't enter after the half hour mark, and students also cannot leave until attendance is taken (all to prevent communication of what is on the test). So the students who are done quickly have to just sit there waiting until attendance is taken.

When the exams are all done, all the proctors bring the exams, scantrons, and the sign in sheets back to the exam room where a TA and I carry them back to my office they will be graded by machine. I will remove bad questions, etc., and the students get their grades.

The only time they all write the exam at the same place is for the final, where we take up a huge athletic room (see image at

That's for the regular students. But many students cannot make it to the exam time for religious or whatever reasons. So there are deferrals. Right now we have four different deferral times to accommodate those students. If a student is sick on the day of the deferral, they need an additional deferral. You might ask how often this happens. Well, with 700 people, everything happens.

We have distance students, in Toronto or Korea or whatever. In cities like Toronto and Vancouver we have testing centres, but if you're on your own you have to set up and get approved a proctor. CUOL handles this too, thank goodness.

Then we have special-needs students. I have had blind students; I have had incarcerated students.  I have students who need a special quiet room, or more time, due to learning disabilities. We have a separate exam centre for these situations. I have a TA in charge of the disabilities students and another TA in charge of deferrals.

And we do this three times a semester, twice a year.

Anyway, that's all I can think of --there's probably more to it that's not coming to mind right now. It's a big production and it's kind of exciting. I love that I'm communicating cognitive science to so many people. Lots of students watch these videos with their roommates or parents.

It's a lot of work for a lot of people, but I love it.

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