Friday, May 29, 2009

Pregnant Man Peeing

Photo Credit: Jim Davies

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Conferences this July

I will be busy with conferences this summer. I am going to the following, bringing my new wife. 

CPA (Canadian Psychological Association) June 11-13, Montreal

IJCAI Workshop on Grand Challenges for Experience-Based Reasoning 11 July 2009 – Pasadena

IJCAI International Joint Conference On Artificial Intelligence July 14-17, Los Angeles (Pasadena)

ICCBR International Conference on Case-Based Reasoning (I will be there July 20-21) Seattle

Analogy 09 July 24-27, Sofia, Bulgaria

Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society July 29-31, Amsterdam

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How To Save Travel Receipts

This short how-to blog entry is for people who travel and need to save their receipts so they can get reimbursed.

If you just put the receipts in your wallet, they are likely to get mixed up with other receipts you have in there, requiring you to sort them later. Also, in a wallet they can get dirty and smudged beyond readabiltiy. Finally, some receipts are full-sized sheets of paper.

Buy one of those dollar store pencil holders that are meant to go in students' wallets. It's big enough for a bunch of receipts, and full-paper sized ones can be folded in half for it. It has a zipper so things don't fall out.

Keep it in your purse of travel bag (along with your book, notebook, and ipod.)

If you're driving, fill your car up with gas before you leave. If you refill while you're gone, save those receipts. Then, when you return home, fill the car up again. The receipt you get from that will be the exact amount of gas you used for your trip.

Then, when you get back, all the receipts for a given trip are in one secure place.

What I do then is tape each one to a piece of scrap printer paper, so they all effectively become the same size and the secretary can page through them easily.

Pictured is a chicken, for no reason at all.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Peer Review: Over-valued?

I've come across some disturbing articles lately regarding peer review. First was an article that reviewed the reviews of clinical neuroscience papers submitted to conferences and found that although editors based publication decisions on reviews, the reviews did not predict each other at all for one journal, and agreement was small for the second (Rothwell & Martin, 2000). Similar findings were reported for submitted conference abstracts.

I also found a paper reviewing the granting practices of NSERC, the main body of governmental science funding here in Canada. It found that the cost of peer review is so high that it would be cheaper to just give every scientist with the basic qualifications $30,000 per year instead of vetting and, supposedly, finding the good ones (Gordon & Poulin, 2009), which costs $40,000 per application. As you might imagine, if people didn't have to impress their peers with their research, you'd see a lot more innovation and less bread-and-butter studies. As Gordon and Poulin put it, "...control by peer review makes no sense for the allocation of scarce resources in any environment conducive of innovation..."

I am a fan of peer review, but these sobering studies have qualified my admiration for it. Peer review is good for making sure studies are methodologically acceptable, but probably has no business determining what is important.

I welcome argument to the contrary.

(If you post a comment, sign your name or I won't know who you are.)


Gordon, R. & Poulin, B. J. (2009). Cost of the NSERC Science Grant Peer Review System Exceeds the Cost of Giving Every Qualified Researcher a Baseline Grant. Accountability in Research, 16(1), 13-40.

author = "Gordon, Richard and Poulin, Bryan J.",
title = "Cost of the NSERC Science Grant Peer Review System Exceeds the Cost of Giving Every Qualified Researcher a Baseline Grant",
journal = "Accountability in Research",
year = "2009",
volume = "16",
number = "1",
pages = "13--40",
month = "January",

Rothwell, P. M. & Martyn, C. N. (2000). Reproducibility of peer review in clinical neuroscience: Is agreement between reviewers any greater than would expected by chance alone?. Brain, 123(9), 1964-1969.

author = "Rothwell, Peter M. and Martyn, Christopher N.",
title = "Reproducibility of peer review in clinical neuroscience: Is agreement between reviewers any greater than would expected by chance alone?",
journal = "Brain",
year = "2000",
volume = "123",
number = "9",
pages = "1964--1969",
month = "September"

Friday, May 15, 2009

New Calligraphy

I just posted some new calligraphy to Flickr. You can see the images at

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Paper: A Computational Model of Visual Analogies in Design

I've got a new paper published. It applies my dissertation research to design, and presents details about the modeling of drawing data by human participants. 

Davies, J., Goel, A. K., & Nersessian, N. J. (2009). A Computational Model of Visual Analogies in DesignCognitive Systems Research: Special Issue on Analogies, 10, 204--215.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How Much of Natural Intelligence Is Evolved?

I am reading a paper (Albus, 1991)  that says

Natural intelligence, like the brain in which it
appears, is a result of the process of natural selection.

This is sort of true, but misleading. It severely de-emphasizes the contributions of intellectual artifacts-- the "mindware" we install in our minds through learning.  We learn strategies, we learn languages, we learn math, we learn logic, we learn to recognize danger. 

I feel the above quote is about as true as saying that a stone house is the result of geological forces. It's sort of true, in that the stones that make up the house are created through geological forces, but much of what makes the house what it is is the result of cultural forces-- i.e., people shaping and arranging the stones for a certain function. 


Albus, J.S., "Outline for a Theory of Intelligence," IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, Vol. 21, No. 3, May/June 1991.

Friday, May 08, 2009

How To Give Money To Newlyweds

I just got married, and received a bunch of gifts, so I want to give some advice to people about how to give the newlyweds money.

Of course cold cash is great, but most people prefer to write a check.  

Let's imagine John Haigh and Tamara Maitee just got married. The best thing to do is to write the check to "John Haigh or Tamara Maitee."

Here are some bad ways to do it and reasons:
  1. "John Haigh and Tamara Maitee" requires that they create a new bank account so that the check can be deposited. You don't know if they want to do this. They might want to keep separate checking accounts. You might be causing them a hassle by writing it this way. By writing "or" as I suggest, it can be deposited into either person's account as well as a joint account should they choose to get one. 
  2. "John Haigh" is not so bad, but if for whatever reason they want to deposit the check into Tamara's account, they can't.
  3. "John and Tamara Haigh" is problematic because she might not change her name. They might want to remain Haigh and Maitee. Also, even if she does, the check can't be deposited until the bank takes care of the name change. Hassle. 
These problems didn't really apply to us-- we have joint checking and Vanessa changed her name.  Just some advice for the future. All of the checks we got were examples of 1, 2, or 3, so I figure people should know about this.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Normals Have No Business Disagreeing With Scientific Consensus

If the scientists in a particular field pretty much agree on something, and you are not in that field, you have no business disagreeing with them. It is not rational for you to disagree with them. 

I know the common objection-- that science has been wrong many, many times before. This is true. In fact, I believe that much of what we think we know about science now is probably wrong to some degree. However, we don't know what things are wrong and what things are right, and the things we know are wrong we have no better ideas for.  

But even if 80% of the scientific "facts" of today turn out to be wrong, it's still rational right now to believe them, and to act as though they are true. This is because science is the best way to get at knowledge about the world, and science's best guess at something is certainly going to be better than yours. When science comes up with a better idea, then it's rational to change your mind. 

I was teaching a class last semester and told the class the results of some scientific study. A student said "I don't know about that; my sister--" I cut her off.

"You're not about to argue against a scientific finding with an anecdote, are you?"

"No," she backed down. 

Most people want to disagree with scientific findings based on their own personal experience. But anecdotal evidence is terrible. Science is a better way. If you want to disagree with science, you have to get the study and find out what is wrong with it.  

Now I'm a scientist, but even I cannot rationally disagree with the consensus of findings in other fields.  Climate scientists think global warming is caused by people? Okay. Time started with the big bang? Okay.

I can only rationally disagree with stuff in my field, about which I know a great deal. 

What's interesting to me is that disagreeing with the status quo is good for science.  If scientists don't come up with crazy theories, we won't make any progress.

Let me re-phrase that-- scientists disagreeing with the status quo in their field is good for science.

If non-scientists believed the scientific consensus the world would be so much better. Now we have
  • politicians believing AIDS is not caused by HIV
  • celebrities promoting Scientology and the idea that vaccinations cause autism
  • medical treatments based on argument and rhetoric rather than evidence
This world needs help, people. Be a scientist. And if you can't, then please believe us and go about your business. 

What about critical thinking? Of course I'm in favor of critical thinking. However a little knowledge is a dangerous thing when it comes to scientific claims. Let's take the moon effect as an example.

The idea of the moon effect is that when there's a full moon, people behave more strangely. Nurses and police will often swear that the effect is real. It's not. Study after study has shown that there is no moon effect. Why do people continue to believe it?

First, they use their critical thinking. The argument is that the moon effects the tides, the tides are made of water, and we are 99% water. This sounds very plausible to people. And all of that is true. The problem with it is we have no reason to think that the gravitational pull of the moon will cause crazy behavior. Also, the moon pulls on everything made of matter. There's nothing special about water except that it's liquid and abundant. Also, a nearby building will have more of a gravitational pull on you than the moon, so how come there's no building effect?

Second, there's a little thing called confirmation bias. Once you hear the idea of the moon effect, you start noticing when there is a full moon and people act crazy. We don't think of the moon effect when there's a full moon and nothing special happens, and we don't notice when people act crazy and there's no full moon. Consequently, we build up all these experiences associated with the idea of the moon effect, and we believe it. 

You can see how at one level of critical thinking the moon effect is very plausible. The gravity argument has some kind of persuasive sense, and the confirmation bias makes our own experience seem to support the effect. 

This is where you need a good understanding of science to know where the flaws are. And many scientists outside of psych and cogsci don't even know about confirmation bias. It takes careful study to find out that the moon effect does not exist. You can't tell if it exists or not based on your own personal experience. You just can't. Finding out if the moon effect exists requires careful, systematic observation. And statistics. If you don't understand that stuff, then please, please, just take my word for it: there is no moon effect. 

And when you hear that the scientific community agrees on something, believe whatever it is they say. Otherwise you're just playing yourself.

When scientists have significant disagreement, you're free to believe anything you like. It's still up for grabs. This post only applies to findings that are generally accepted. That is, one or two holdouts don't make something contentious.