Tuesday, 31 July 2007

100 Posts on the Wall

Like sea turtles, blogs are born in abundance, but nearly all fail to reach maturity. Exeterra was born just over four months ago (20 March, 2007), and this is Exeterra's 100th post. At the time of this writing, the site has received over 1000 hits since March. In the blogosphere, that is tiddly-winks - no - that's sub-tiddly-winks. The Big Dogs of the blogging world each get millions of hits every month. But still, most blogs (and there are more than 71 million of them) wink out of existence after little more than a few posts and a few dozen hits. So this is something akin to Exeterra being a sea turtle adolescent. Odds of reaching full size are still remote, but I've been lucky to make it this far.

Here's a round of drinks to another 100 posts.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Mythbusting Monday IV: Daddy Longlegs are the Most Venemous Spider in the World OMG!!!!11!1

This week's myth is one that I heard frequently as a kid from other kids. It was usually told breathlessly and with a touch of bravado. Hey, be careful with that - don't you know the daddy longlegs is the most venemous spider in the world?! It's teeth are too small to bite you -- unless it can get to that little web of skin between your fingers - then you're DEAD!

Ok, where to start with this one? First of all, the name Daddy Longlegs refers to 3 different species groups, and only one, the least commonly used reference, is a spider. The most common reference in North America is to any number of species (6,400+ to be specific) of harvestmen. They often live in cellars, caves, and shady spots. Although they are arachnids like spiders (eight legs) they are as distantly related to spiders as they are to scorpions. This is a harvestman here to the right. They look like little balls with big stick-like legs. Their bodies have one segment (spiders have two) and they are not venomous.

In the UK, the name Daddy Longlegs refers to a flying insect, the crane fly, of which there are 14,000+ species. These are not related to spiders in the least (they've got big wings! How can you confuse that with a spider?) I'm not sure how long the name daddy longlegs has been used to refer to crane flys, but it may predate the reference to harvestmen. The earliest reference I can find is the poem The Daddy Longlegs and The Fly by Edward Lear published in 1871. Given that Lear was all about creating nonsensical yet descriptive words, Daddy Longlegs seems quite fitting. Again, no venom.

In some parts of the northeast US, Daddly Longlegs refers to the cellar spider. This is a spider, and all spiders have some kind of venom. But it's venom is very weak, weaker than a single ant bite. It is of roughly similar size and appearance to harvestmen, but still distinctive enough that it would be difficult to confuse the two.

Ok, so we know we're talking about three species groups here, only one of which is a spider, but none of them pose any threat to humans. To me, the most ridiculous part of this myth was always the if it bites you between your fingers your're DEAD aspect. Why? That makes no sense! The skin between your fingers is not even particularly thin. I can think of many places in the body with thinner and more sensitive skin than that. Why not the perineum? Now that would be a fun myth to test.

Update on Rob

Time for an update on my brother Rob. As you may recall, he recently nearly passed away after being buried alive at the beach (longer version).

The whole family is doing well, and continuing to return to normal, though still shaken. Rob and Charlie are doing much better than one might expect, perhaps because of the resiliency of their young age.

There is a written story and video from CBS' The Early Show you can watch. The video is embedded on the right side of the page (sorry for the rather anti-open-source/ad-laden nature of CBS' videos - they should take a lesson from YouTube and Google and let their data be free. Ah well, at least it is hi-res.) The CBS video is about five minutes, and my family is interviewed for perhaps two minutes - but they filmed my family for over three hours.

In other words, they filmed almost exactly 100 times more material than they used. I wish the network/cable news shows would be as thorough with the 'big' stories instead of the standard operating procedure of regurgitating gov. press releases. I think they're starting to learn the lessons of the last six years, if slowly.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Weekend Circular Bubbles

Ok, now underwater bubbles may not seem that interesting, but you've got to see this. What amazes me the most is that he has so much air in his lungs for so long.

If you have suggestions for particularly funny or amazing videos to be posted here, by all means let me know.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Social Policy: It's Time For a MOT

You should all read Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science article. Ben is one of the leading science warriors of the day - laying waste to pseudofacts and junk science like a level 34 Paladin amongst kobolds.

The basic premise is that social policy - something governments spend hundreds of billions on - is very rarely tested with scientific methods - particularly with controlled, randomized trials. These trials would be easy to do, and not very expensive. They could tell us whether a social policy actually works. If you're going to spend hundreds of billions of pounds/dollars on untested social programs, doesn't it make sense to spend mere millions to see what effect they actually have? Of course, sometimes controlled trials are not feasible for practical or ethical reasons - we can't randomly assign innocent people to prison to see what happens - but we can randomly assign people already in prison to various rehabilitation programs and monitor the varying outcomes of these programs. As always, strict watchdogs will need to ensure the scientific testing process remains ethical, but I believe any risk associated with these trials is far outweighed by the existing danger of present programs. Take DARE, for example. After more than 20 years, many billions in government dollars, and implementing the program on 36 million children, the effects of the program were finally tested. Instead of reducing drug use, it was found the DARE program increased drug use (including alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs) and lowered students' self esteem. Great stuff, huh? Now that is unethical. We could have saved a lot of money and a lot of grief if the program had actually been tested at some point previously in those 20 years. What was the conversation like? "Hey Frank, we've used this program on 36 million kids, maybe we should see what effect it has?" "Yeah Bob, you may be on to something."

Ben makes the point that in the recent past doctors opposed using controlled trials to test drugs and medical techniques. When trials finally were introduced it was found that many drugs of the past were in fact useless (hey, remember blood letting?), and often caused horrible unnecessary side-effects. Now it is unthinkable to introduce a new medication without testing its effects. Why are we not testing social policies? They are just as universal and societally relevant as medicine.

The fact that we don't already test social policies is frankly bizarre. It's like we don't want to know whether these programs work or not. Like endorsing a social policy is a matter of faith rather than deliberation. Like we don't want to find out the experts might have been wrong all this time. Thanks, but I'll go for the controlled trials.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

That's One Hungry Hippo

From Boing Boing, an endearing tale of a South African Pet House-Hippo:

(Warning: it goes from cute, to unbearably cute, to slightly creepy, to cute again.)

This is the same basic process in which humans have domesticated all animals - Jessica (though tame) is still wild, and potentially dangerous. Hippos kill more people in Africa than sharks, lions, and just about every other animal. But after a few dozen generations of similar treatment, it would be entirely possible to have permanently domesticated hippos. The domestic cow, which descended from the mighty aurochs, was surely much more dangerous to domesticate, weighing twice the weight of modern cattle.

So who's up for domesticated hippos? Can we have a pygmy version?

Monday, 23 July 2007

Mythbusting Monday III: Sugar Causes Hyperactivity

Many parents, teachers, and others strongly believe that giving sugar to children causes them to be hyperactive. These anecdotes have been tested in scientific trials (Milich, Wolraich, & Lindgrin, 1986; Krummel, Seligson, & Guthrie, 1996), and the results are quite interesting. In double-blind trials where half of children received sugar and the other half received nutrasweet or some other artificial sweetener, parents reported more hyperactivity when they believed their children were receiving sugar - even when they didn't - and reported less hyperactivity when they believed they did not have sugar - even when they did. In other words, the parent's expectations of hyperactivity determined whether they thought they observed hyperactive behaviours, and actual sugar consumption had no effect. It's classic confirmation bias - when we believe something we focus on supporting evidence while ignoring unsupporting evidence.

Perhaps the origin of the sugar --> hyperactivity myth is that children often consume the most sugar at exciting times (a birthday party, going on a special trip, etc.) and these kinds of events illicit hyperactivity no matter what has been consumed. A parent or teacher may assume the sugar is causing the hyperactivity when really it is just the exciting situation. This is the representativeness heuristic - the belief that two phenomena are related because they share a similarity - in this case a similarity in occurring at the same time. This belief is then supported in the future through the confirmation bias.

And in case you are wondering, high levels of testosterone do not cause violence, and low levels of serotonin do not cause depression. These are both implicated (i.e., violent people tend to have higher levels of testosterone and depressed people tend to have lower levels of serotonin) but simply giving someone an injection of testosterone will not make them any more violent, and artificially lowering someone's serotonin levels will not make them depressed. Both are complicated relationships with additional unidentifiable variables that seem to cause both the chemical imbalance and the behavioural change. The truth is, scientists do not truly know what causes almost any complex behavioural pattern. So if someone says a behaviour pattern is all down to just one dietary ingredient, or just one hormone, or just one neurotransmitter keep in mind that what they are saying is a pretty massive simplification, and not a very accurate one.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

How To: Keeping Your Organic Garden Fertile

Often times when people find out I'm vegan, they look at me with astonishment and say, 'But how do you get any protein!? Don't you have to take special pills or injections?' The answer of course, is a laughable no. A reasonably healthy diet will provide plenty of protein without any special measures. Likewise, reasonably intelligent gardening methods will ensure your organic garden stays fertile and healthy. In fact, you can do so with little or no extra expense.

First a brief overview of plant nutrition: There are three main nutrients every plant needs: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (N-P-K). When you see three numbers on commercial fertilizer (like 10-10-10, or 20-5-5), these are just the percentage of N, P, and K. So 5-5-5, 10-10-10, and 20-20-20 contain the same equal proportions of N-P-K but in increasingly strong concentrations. Nitrogen is used primarily in green leafy growth. Phosphorous is used mostly in root growth. Potassium is used primarily in fruit formation. Non-organic fertilizers provide an abundance of N-P-K, but there are a few problems: the nutrients leach away quickly, and go into the groundwater. Furthermore, a strict N-P-K diet is a little like a diet of sugar and vitamins - it will keep you alive and growing, but it is essentially junk food. There are many dozens of other nutrients and symbiotic micro-organisms that make plants healthier and more robust. Organic fertilizer sticks around longer instead of leaching away with the rain, and it provides those extra trace nutrients and micro-organisms that growing plants need.

I'll provide three levels of effort in terms of fertilization: Easiest, Easier, and Easy. If you are a serious gardener, you'll want to do all three. Each of these methods provide a good, well-balanced mix of N-P-K, so you don't have to worry about using too much of one nutrient. Don't use much fertilizer on baby plants or seeds, as this can be harmful to them.

Easiest: Liquid fertilizers can soak into the soil quickly, providing a boost to established plants. Liquid fertilizers are all around you: old coffee and old tea are some of the most readily available. Just dilute with water and spread around the base of your plants. Here's what I do: I take all my households' tea bags (about 20 a week), tear each of them into two pieces, and dump them in a large watering can. This gets all the leafy bits inside to mix around with the water in the watering can. Every Saturday I empty the tea-filled watering can on my tomatoes and corn, and it works beautifully. You can also water ('tea') your houseplants this way.

Easier: Start composting. Take all your garden waste and stick it in one pile. You can use an enclosed plastic bin, an open wooden structure (easy to make with old pallets), or just leave it loose. If you are using an enclosed plastic bin, you can stick food waste in there as well as the garden waste. Turn the mix every month or so with a shovel/spade/digging fork. After 6 to 12 months, you'll have beautifully rich topsoil. Dig it into your garden in the off-season, and the nutrients will last all year. Supplement with liquid fertilizers for extra hungry plants like corn.

Easy: Get a Wormery! This is a special bin that holds tiger worms (aka red wrigglers). You just dump your food waste in the sealed bin (any food waste - veggies, fruit, meat - even bones), and the worms eat it. The liquid waste the worms leave behind is called castings, and these drain down to the bottom of the bin, where there is a tap. Turn the tap, and the liquid castings drain out the bottom. These castings are chock full of every trace nutrient and micro-organism a plant could want - very powerful stuff. I bottle these castings in 2 litre bottles throughout the year, and use them in the growing season. Every week or two in June, July, and August, I take 1 litre of worm castings, dilute it in water 1 to 10, and our this mix around the base of my plants. They love it. When the wormery gets full (about once a year) and the contents resemble top soil, empty the contents into a wheelbarrow and mix it into the rest of your garden (best done in November when the growing season ends). This adds plenty of organic material which improves the overall condition of the soil. Make sure at least a few worms are still in the wormery and start the process all over again. The great thing about this system is that it also eliminates your food waste from going into a landfill - which typically comprises 1/3 of all landfill waste.

There are plenty of other fertilizing methods. The fine people at Shillingford Organics use a nettle tea system (basically nettle plants rotting in water) to fertilize all their poly-tunnel plants, and they produce the best vegetables I've ever had (better than mine!) - and they manage to feed a few hundreds local households this way. Comfrey and seaweed also work well in this method. I also compost my pet rabbits' litter waste (shredded paper and rabbit droppings) which is odourless. In the late autumn, I put my bunnies in the garden, and they eat all the old plants to the ground, 'fertilizing' as they eat. Growing beans, clover, or other legumes boosts nitrogen in the soil. You can usually get free compost from your local government. You can also be lame and just buy compost or other organic fertilizers. There is no limit to the methods creative organic gardeners can use to keep their soil not only fertile, but healthy as well.


It has been a good while since I've done a gardening post, so I figured it was about time. Since my tomatoes are starting to fruit, I thought I would cover them. Although I'm growing a few standard boring ol' regular varieties, the heirlooms are my pride.

Brandywine Tomato
Solanum lycopersicum

When Plato theorized his conceptions of the Forms - that is the blueprints of perfection which earthly particulars aspire to - surely he was thinking of the Brandywine Tomato as the perfect Form for all lesser tomatoes. Well, he would have if the Brandywine had been around then. Brandywines simply outperform every other tomato in terms of taste. The only bad thing about Brandywines is that once you try them, you may just find supermarket tomatoes too mealy and watery to be edible. I can't wait for this year's crop to be ready, they just go so well with my heirloom lettuces.

Yellow Perfection
Solanum lycopersicum

Ok, I've yet to taste any of these little yellow babies yet, but the plants look gorgeous so far, and other yellow varieties have been quite good. Don't those 'maters just look delectable? Yellow tomatoes have less acidity than red ones, which is either a good or a bad thing depending on your preferences. I think the yellow and red colour contrast is especially nice in salsas, sandwiches, and salads.

On Sunday, I'll write an additional gardening post about keeping your organic vegetables well fertilized. Veggies like tomatoes and corn can get quite hungry and need to be fertilized, but thankfully you can do this organically (and for free!) with household waste products. Look for a How To post on Sunday.

Thursday, 19 July 2007


Two days ago I received some very disturbing - and relieving - news. As you may know, I have two younger brothers who are three-year old twins. Rob is pictured here on the right.

My family had been spending the week at the beach in Florida. One day near the end of the trip, Rob had an accident. He was trapped in a phenomenon known as a spontaneous sand cave-in. An anomaly in the beach sand caused the surface of the beach to collapse when Rob stepped on it, with the surrounding sand filling in the collapsed area, burying Rob alive. Although not well known to the public, more people die this way at the beach than because of sharks. In Rob's case, no one saw the cave-in; my family - only a few feet away - just realized he was gone. He was buried for a full five minutes before anyone realized what had happened. By a miracle, he was found and dug out in time to save his life. Although incredibly traumatic for all involved, there were no injuries, and Rob is doing well.

It is rare to survive a spontaneous sand cave-in - and nearly unheard of to survive when nobody actually witnessed the cave-in. The phenomenon is becoming more well known, and the issue has just recently entered the mainstream media consciousness. Because of this recent interest, the story and a brief interview with my family will be appearing on CBS' The Early Show on Tuesday, July 24 at 7:30 am EST - the segment is about 4 minutes long and contains other people's stories/input as well.

I found out about the accident after it happened, and it was still traumatic for me just hearing about it, even knowing he was fine. So far this week, it's been difficult to focus on much else. I cannot imagine the unbelievable horrible experience for my family that was there. A full - and heartwrenching - account is on my step-mom's blog.

Yeah, my step-mom has a blog, and it's much more popular than mine, and it's about knitting. Want to make something of it?

Monday, 16 July 2007

New Modest Mouse Album = Delicious

The new Modest Mouse album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, is just gorgeous (but what else is new?) Parting of the Sensory and Education stick out to me right now as being particularly amenable to putting on repeat, but all of the songs are great. I love that they've produced nearly an album a year for 10 years now - spread across three labels - and nearly every song on every album has been a keeper. Their sound has changed substantially throughout, but it has always been Quality, and the themes are stable.

Your orders are to listen to the album now. It takes a few spins to settle in, but when it does, wow.

Mythbusting Monday II: Man-Eating Badgers Not Actually a Secret Terror Weapon of the British Army

This myth may not be as well known in the US and UK, but apparently in Iraq many of the people around Basra believe the British Army has been releasing man-eating bizarro badgers into Basra to eat and terrorize the populace.

They appear to be non-dangerous honey badgers who have come to the area because of flooding in their usual habitat north of the city.

Best. Myth. Ever.

As web-based political cartoonist August Pollak says, not many people in the world get to say, "We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area." as a part of their official duties.

When I was living in Reading, England nearly four years ago, I was watching tv with one of my then-housemates. One of those when-animals-attack shows came on. When these come on in the US, they usually feature rather horrific encounters with bears, alligators, mountain lions, or zoo elephants. In the UK edition, the highlight of the 'wild animal encounters' was a badger that got stuck in somebody's empty swimming pool. A badger. I was discussing this with my housemate whom I was watching with, and she said of badgers: 'They can be quite vicious you know.' Alaska has grizzly bears. India has cobras. Africa has black mambas. South America has tiny barbed fish that swim up your urethra when you pee in the water. Australia has an untold number of nightmare creatures. England has badgers.

Pmmfth. That was me stifling laughter at how non-dangerous Europe is compared to every other continent in the world.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Weekend Colbert

In a few decades time, people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will be widely acknowledged as the heroes they are. People whose 'fake' news shows have more legitimate news and commentary than the vapid 'real' ones. Their buisiness is satire, yet they are far less disingenuous than the Serious Reporters.

And of course, most importantly of all, they are funnier than anything else on the tee vee. In fact, you can watch all kinds of Colbert videos from Colbert on Demand.

The video above was part of Colbert's Better Know a District segment, in which he aims to interview all 435 US Representatives. So far he has interviewed more than 60 - a few have been in on the joke but most have not. How can you be a high-ranking national-level politician in the US and not know who Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are? Especially after the 2006 White House Press Correspondents' Dinner. Especially if you agree to do an interview with them. Seriously, if they are that cocooned, they are really just asking for it.

Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA-3) interviewed in the video above plans to run for governor of Georgia in 2010. I would love to see an opposition ad against him that was just the Colbert video with no commentary.

Got any fun stuff planned for the weekend?

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Housekeeping and Update

You may notice a few new buttons on the right hand side of the screen. You can subscribe to Exeterra with a reader so that you can get new posts without having to check the site itself. You can also add Exeterra to your Technorati favourites, if you're into that kind of thing.

I've also added two buttons below that, one to The Hunger Site and one to The Rainforest Site. If you click on one of the buttons, a new window will open taking you to the respective site. You will see some advertisements for hunger/environmental things and a big button. Click on the big button in the middle, and the site will donate one cup of grain to the hungry or preserve 11 sq ft of rainforest. The money used to buy grain/preserve rainforest is paid for by the advertisements on their site. It takes about 5 seconds to do each one.

On to personal matters, you may recall a few weeks ago I was unable to type with my left hand because of a repetitive stress injury. Thankfully, that is just about fully recovered now. Silly as it sounds, I think I was not holding my wrists high enough as I typed (specifically when I pressed CTRL + C and CTRL + V a few thousand times in a row.) That's a lesson learned. It's a good thing too, as I've been typing more than usual this week.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Yakety Sax

I have discovered a magical song that, when played, makes everything occur both faster and more humorously.

Do you remember the fights in Family Guy between Peter and the Giant Chicken? They too succumb to the powers of Yakety Sax:

Sadly, I suspect the amusement half-life of Yakety Sax is somewhere around 24 hours, after which it soon breaks down into mild annoyance.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Buh-Bye Tony

So Tony is gone. I've got to say, I'm not as saddened as Zoe above.

I don't know what to think of Gordon Brown yet. However, I've been pretty satisfied with how he has settled the recent terrorist attacks. Instead of running around with limbs flailing wildly, creating ineffective new Orwellian-sounding government departments, trying to discreetly scare the hibby-jibbies out of his own citizenry (like some national leaders I'm familiar with), the response has been sober and measured. Instead of proposing we invade unrelated sovereign nations, the matter has been treated as a serious police issue. Only those involved were arrested, rather than indiscriminately arresting thousands of Arab men in the US as happened after Sept. 11. And most importantly, it has worked. The baddies were caught with no injuries or deaths.

And a political ploy it may be, but offering to give up to Parliament the ministerial power to wage war is wise indeed. No single man should have that authority.

No conclusions on Brown from me yet, but so far, so good. If only the US leadership had been as wise or responsible in reaction to terrorism.

Mythbusting Monday I: Eskimos Have a Bajillion Words for Snow

I thought it was time for a new weekly meme, so how about Mythbusting Mondays?

I've always found myths and urban legends to be both intriguing and annoying. I think they illustrate how for most people the love of a good story overrides the desire to know what actually happens. I'm sure all my myth-telling friends at school found my corrections equally annoying.

So, let's take this oft-repeated chestnut: Eskimos have x words for snow.

Where x is usually a number between a few dozen and a few hundred. The number listed as x in print media has been observed to steadily increase: it was 4 in 1911, 7 in 1940 according to Sapir and Whorf, 50 by 1978, and 100 by 1984, as listed in the The New York Times.

The concept is cited as an example of how the more central something is to a culture, the more words they will have to describe it. Likewise, arrays and patterns of words we use are claimed to influence the speaker's thought patterns, and conceptualization of the word targets. This is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, named after the linguists Benjamin Sapir and Worf, son of Mogh Benjamin Whorf.

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, while having much intuitive appeal, has struggled to find empirical support. However, that is a discussion for another day and with someone who knows more about anthropological linguistics than me. Back to the Eskimo myth.

Deconstructing the myth:

1) There is no single Eskimo language. Wiki lists at least 10. (Also, Eskimo is a very imprecise term.)

2) Eskimo languages do have several words for frozen water. But we forget how many English words we have for frozen water: snow, snowflake, snowdrift, blizzard, sleet, hail, rime, frost, ice, iceberg, glacier, flurry, ice water, slush, permafrost, floe, pack ice, ice shelf, and so on.

3) Eskimo languages are polysynthetic. They do not have set, concrete words as in English. Instead, they string morphemes into new words, much like English speakers string together words to make sentences. As an example, the word Aliikusersuillammassuaanerartassagaluarpaalli is Western Greenlandic (classed as 'Eskimos' for our purposes) and means "However, they will say that he is a great entertainer, but ..." (Fortescue, 1983, p. 97) When a language creates new words on the spot, just as we create sentences on the spot, it is rather meaningless to say they have more words for something. Eskimos can create a near-infinite number of words related to snow in precisely the same way English-speakers can create a near-infinite number of sentences about snow. However, if we compare Eskimo's root morphemes for frozen water with English root words for frozen water, we arrive at a similar number of about 30 for each.

In summary: Eskimo languages have a near-infinite number of words for everything. However, the number of root words for snow are similar to the number English speakers use. There is little evidence that linguistic differences have caused Eskimos and English speakers to form qualitatively different conceptualizations of what snow is.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Effectiveness in Advertising - An Answer

This is a follow-up on my earlier post Effectiveness in Advertising - A Question. The basic premise of that post was that massive amounts of money is spent on advertising, but that there is little public or common knowledge about how advertising works - or rather there is public knowledge, but it is highly socially constructed knowledge, and is not exactly empirical.

I mentioned a meta-analysis of 389 real world experiments in advertising (Lodish et al, 1995), where they measured the effect of advertising on consumer purchases. Although the results are frustratingly complicated, this is their primary conclusion:

There is no simple correspondence between increased T.V. advertising weight and increased sales, regardless of whether the increased spending is compared to competition or not. ... changing the spending level had little or no impact on sales for established brands.
In other words, there is little relation between the time and money spent on t.v. advertising and how much the advertised product actually sells. That is not to say there is no relation - it is complicated and subtle - new products benefit from advertising, and brands that are reinventing themselves benefit from advertising. But in general, for established brands, the effects of advertising are not detectable in terms of sales.

Persuasion is not easy.

Yet we are all too ready to accept the myth that commericals actualy sell products and that educational campaigns really do alter behaviour. Most of the time, it does not even occur to us that these phenomena are questionable in their function. It is a social construction that even the persuaders are unaware of.

Some more examples:

Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) has been tought to 36 million children (including me) in 54 countries. The program is now 24 years old. There is just one problem with it: it doesn't work. Ok, I lied; there are tons of problems with it, but I will focus on the most salient one. I will quote from three research studies:

suburban students who participated in DARE reported significantly higher rates of drug use … than suburban students who did not participate in the program.
- from a longitudinal study of 1800 students over six years (Rosenbaum, 1998)

DARE didn’t keep children from using drugs. In fact, it found that suburban kids who took DARE were more likely than others to drink, smoke and take drugs.
- from a 1999 study by the California Legislative Analyst's office

Our results are consistent in documenting the absence of beneficial effects associated with the DARE program. This was true whether the outcome consisted of actual drug use or merely attitudes toward drug use. ... The only difference was that those who received D.A.R.E. reported slightly lower levels of self-esteem at age 20.
- from a 10-year longitudinal study, N = 1000 (Lynam et al, 1999)

There is more from West and O'Neal (2004) in a meta-analysis, but it is all the same stuff: DARE doesn't work and sometimes it makes things worse.

DARE has many problems though - such as being rather dishonest in their methods. What about other persuasive campaigns?

Let's take healthy-eating campaigns in schools. The US federal government spends about $1 billion on these every year. But a recent meta-anaylsis of 57 programs found that only 4 showed even a modest increase and the rest had no effect in behavioural change. Uh oh.

What about abstinence-only sex education? This is something the US government has spent over $1 billion on in schools (again, I sat through these in school.) Not only that, Bush (and others) have linked African aid programs to abstinence-only education programs. Teach people how condoms work, and bye-bye funding. But, as you can now guess, these programs do not work. Not only that, teens who take virginity pledges have sex at the same rate as non-pledgers but are less likely to use condoms and more likely to contract STDs. Now that's progress! Let's take a program shown to increase STD rates in the US, and implement it in Africa in the name of reducing HIV/AIDS! Hooray for morality!

On to a topic that is closer to my research efforts - education about the environment has little to no effect in influencing rates of environmental behaviour (recycling, saving energy). Because there are not national-level programs on this, most of these studies are not as high-profile or as publicly documented, but I assure you, they are there. See Clayton and Opotow (2003) for examples of many. Yet environmental NGOs, like the Sierra Club, and local governments still take the education --> behavioural change approach. It does not work.

The take home point: Standard persuasion attempts rarely work, whether in selling products, behavioural changes, or world views. Effects that do occur tend to be blunt and rather uncontrolled. Sometimes they even backfire. This is well documented in hundreds of studies. That's kind of interesting, but the more interesting point is that the persuaders seem to ignore this so doggedly that they almost seem to be consciously suppressing the results, even to the detriment of both their pursestrings and their cause. You would think the advertisers and campaigners would want to know this. The socially negotiated perception of persuasion is so strongly cemented in place that most who march for a cause do so in endless circles in the desert, accomplishing little, victims of a creeping attrition.

Mass influence is possible - but we need to escape our artifical realities of how influence works, to understand how and why.

How exactly that is done is a discussion for another day.

More Weekend Bunny Blogging

Not my bunnies, but other ones. These first two videos were sent in by Christian.

Tired of the finger cuts that come from opening mail yourself? Get a bunny!

Our rabbit connie has actually eaten an envelope before. I think she was more focused on consuming all organic matter possible rather than opening it though.

Most people think rabbits are rather passive things, just because they are at the bottom of just about everything's food chain. Not so! Rabbits can actually be quite vicious. Mine have drawn blood from me many times, and could probably hold their own in a fight with a cat. Or in this case, a snake!

Wow, who was the bubba in the background with the caricaturized redneck laugh?

Of course, if your rabbits fight too much, you can always get some chickens to keep them in line:

Thoughts on Speed Reading

On Friday, I attended an all-day workshop on speed reading, sponsored by the university for all postgrad students. I'm not quite sure how I felt about it. I think some of the techniques we learned can be useful, certainly, but much of it tasted like little more than snake oil. The session was from 9 to 5, so I will only give a brief overview.

Basically, we were told that with a little practice, we should be reading at a rate of over 1000 words/minute - about 3 1/2 pages a minute, which is several lines of text every second - with near full comprehension. Now, presumably this would take a lot of practice, so I don't want to make any broad generalizations, but, what is the saying? Something like, 'if it sounds too good to be true...'

We were asked to bring unread academic material and a novel. I brought The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks. Banks' books are quite different from nearly any other book I've read. They are classed with science fiction, but this is not the neatest of fits. Without giving anything away, a common theme in the books is inverting the readers' sense of normalcy, in terms of time, space, and culture, and philosophy, all executed with incredible creativity. (The cover is purty too!) The instructor demonstrated the speed reading technique by reading from the first page of my book.

So you know, this is the first paragraph of the book:

I have a story to tell you. It has many beginning, and perhaps one ending. Perhaps not. Beginning and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices. Where does any story really begin? There is always context, always an encompassingly greater epic, always something before the described events, unless we are to start every story with, 'BANG! Expand! Sssss...' then itemise the whole subsequent history of the universe before settling down, at last, to the particular tale in question. Similarly, no ending is final, unless it is the ending of all things...

She took my book and 'read' the first page in about 1 second. This was her analysis of the book: "This book is not about characters, it is all about the action! Right from the first page there is an explosion, it even says 'BANG!' and you can tell it is going to be a page-turner all the way through." Um... No.

Although I could write a much longer post on my thoughts of this session (and I've thought about it a lot), the instructor's analysis of my book really says it all. Woody Allen made a joke with the same point: "I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia."

To be sure, there is a definite advantage in being able to read a little more quickly - and the session did help me in this - but I said a little more quickly, not impossibly more quickly. The issue that irked me the most was the attitude that super-fast reading was the only way to read, and that reading at slow (e.g., normal) rates is never appropriate - whether for pleasure reading or heavy academic material. I got the sense that the instructor was profoundly unaware of how one reads research articles - and that 'reading' several lines of methodology or statistical results every second is not desirable, at least not if you want to know what it means. The instructor normally teaches business managers (and was one previously - now she runs workshops and writes management books), and I'm not sure she appreciated how different the styles and needs are between aspiring academics pursuing original avenues of research and business managers who seek to maximize the speed at which everything is done. I think the value of the workshop would have been more appreciable if the approach had been more holistic, the needs of postgrad students were differentiated from CEOs, and the claims of speed reading benefits had been more research-based rather than like a hard sales pitch.

I found a few articles on Slate that confirm my thoughts on speed reading. One and two.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Is Fox Even Pretending Anymore?

Watch this video, and I apologize in advance for the potentially irreparable metaphysical damage that can come from watching Bill O'Reilly:

Ooohh, pretty scary stuff! I'll bet they ride around in tinted pick-up trucks blasting Ani DiFranco, wearing designer flannels. When they lose one of their own, (maybe in a shootout with a gang of Furries?) they throw some Doc Martens over the electrical wires. Don't shoot me with your pink Glock!

There's just one problem. All of those lesbian 'crimes' did not actually happen, and no police department has found any evidence of actual 'lesbian gangs.' Literally, it is entirely fabricated. There are not 'hundreds of lesbian gangs' in every state, beating up men, converting youth to homosexuality, and raping children. (I hope I didn't need to tell you that.) The 'detective' they interview has not been a police officer for some time, and is a member of an anti-gay hate group. O'Rielly just loosened his bigotry belt, and let it all hang out.

Is Fox even trying to maintain the charade of being a legitimate news organization? Usually they try to project their delusions with slightly more subtlety.

Finally Some Sun! And Bunnies.

For the first time in, what... a month? six weeks? it has gone a full day without raining here. We had the wettest June in England's recorded history, floods have devastated much of northern England, leaving 30,000 homes abandoned in ruins. Also, there may be a nation-wide vegetable shortage, with brassicas and potatoes hit hard, and with about a quarter of the pea crop ruined. Come on storm-clouds, can't we just give peas a chance?

My heart goes out to all that have lost their homes, especially those without insurance. Not all, but much of the flooding happened in areas on flood plains - flooding is a fairly predictable event to occur in a flood plain. Some places - like those subject to natural, cyclical flooding or wildfires - are not meant to be built upon. I don't think anyone in particular is liable for blame, but it would be wise for governments to stop issuing building permits for areas that are hit with predicable, cyclical natural disasters. Just saying.

Anyway, all that is preamble to the fact that today has been a beautiful, sunny, warm but not too hot, breezy but not too windy Saturday. It seems like half of Britain has gone to the beach (the car park at Tesco was full of people in shorts with plastic pails and spades), and the other half has held a BBQ party. I got some good gardening done at home, and will be doing more allotment gardening on campus tomorrow.

The bunnies thoroughly enjoyed it, after a month of being water-logged and/or cooped up. Here are some videos of what may be the laziest bunnies you'll ever see:

That's right - Chockas is being so lazy he is eating while laying down - and slowly propelling himself with his forelegs, dragging his back legs behind him.

Nom nom nom.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Weekend Mitch

Get ready for the weekend with Mitch...

Includes many of the classics (including 'potatoes') but the audience reaction is a bit sub-par. You get Mitch or you don't.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Effectiveness in Advertising - A Question

This post is based on a general topic I have been thinking quite a lot about recently - the social construction of reality. Given I'm studying to be a social psychologist, that is probably not too surprising. Still, it is strange stuff. Follow me, dear reader, down this dark rabbit hole...

Advertising is ubiquituis. Every day, we see hundreds, if not thousands of advertisements, from places we expect them, like tv and radio, and from less expected places like toilet stalls and roof tops beneath flight paths. But this kind of saturation comes at a price - $144 billion a year is spent on advertising in the US and $385 billion a year is spent worldwide. For the superbowl, advertising costs as much as $5+ million per minute. If I were spending all that money, I'd like to know how effective it is. So it is not very surprising that there have been hundreds of research studies that have sought to discover how effective advertising really is.

I've been reading a meta-analysis (a study of many studies) of 389 real-world studies on the effectiveness of TV advertising. Most of these 389 studies are generally based on advertising a product on tv and then looking to see how much sales change. I found the results rather intriguing. Anyone want to take a guess at how much the typical increase was?

I'll give the study results with explanation on the weekend. Until then, please ponder away. Accurate answers will be rewarded with a pony, possibly a unicorn if the answer is presented in iambic pentameter.

The original paper is:

Lodish, L.M., M. Abraham, S. Kalmenson, J. Livelsberger, B. Lubetkin, B. Richardson, and M.E. Stevens (1995), “How T.V. Advertising Works: A Meta-Analysis of 389 Real World Split Cable T.V. Advertising Experiments,” Journal of Marketing Research, 32 (May), 125–39.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Must. Have. Low. Impact. Woodland. Home.

Check out this stunning low-impact woodland home, built in Wales. It is built of mostly local natural materials (stone, timber, straw bale/earth walls, turf roof) and reclaimed scrap otherwise destined for a landfill (piping, wiring, etc.) The total cost was £3000, and the project was completed in 4 months without using professional builders. It's super-efficient, and absolutely gorgeous on the inside as well. It's not just a concept-home; the builder actually lives there with his family. Any self-respecting hobbit would be jealous!
The guy who built this has a website with full plans for building your own eco-home/hobbit hole. In fact, along with 8 other families, they are making a whole village of houses like these in Pembrokeshire, SW Wales. Very cool stuff!

Monday, 2 July 2007

Please Don't Spoof the Cat...

I have a family member who is dearly beloved, but has a little problem generating misnomers. At one visit at another family member's house, a skittish pet cat was scared out of the living room by (if I remember correctly) a barking dog. Our beloved family member said, "Oh, shoot, now that dog has gone and spoofed the cat." I chuckle fondly every time I think of it, and especially when I came across this picture of a dog quite literally spoofing a cat...

Speaking of the word 'literally,' why is it that 80% of people, including Smart People on TV, have no idea what it means? Last night, an academic on the news said "terrorists are evolving before our eyes, both literally and figuratively." No, I think just figuratively, unless they are mutating a new set of gills, or something. And, unless you are referring to an amicable contortionist or acrobat, you should never have use to say "he literally bent over backwards to help me."

Lying Little Rugrats

I saw an article in the Telegraph that very young children experiment with different forms of deception (via Boing Boing) to get what they want at an age as young as six months or so. When they are this young, they obviously cannot lie with words, but they can do so non-verbally: "Dr Reddy said: 'Fake crying is one of the earliest forms of deception to emerge, and infants use it to get attention even though nothing is wrong. You can tell, as they will then pause while they wait to hear if their mother is responding, before crying again.'"

Ok, pretty interesting stuff. It goes on into more detail of a similar nature, all fairly interesting. But one sentence stuck out to me: "Until now, psychologists had thought the developing brains were not capable of the difficult art of lying until four years old." Excuse me? Has no developmental psychologist ever been around a 2 or 3 year old before? The little devils lie like the dickens, and it is blatantly obvious that they do so. Leave some 2 and 3 year olds to play, wait till a fight starts, then ask "what happened?" and you will hear a profusion of deception. Now developmental psychology is not my expertise, so it could be a newspaper misrepresentation, but gosh golly I hope developmental psychology is further advanced than believing 3 year olds are incapable of deception.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Breathing Easier...

I've been waiting for 1 July for months now, and it is finally here. Why? Smoking is now banned in all public/commerical buildings in England.

That may seem fairly trivial, but the air in English pubs can get so smoky as to be unbreathable. Many times I have sat down to enjoy some chips and a pint 'r two, and had the experience rendered completely unenjoyable by a suffocating haze emitted by smokers. It's not just distasteful - research suggests 600 pub workers in the UK die every year from second-hand smoke. In fact, smoking is responsible for about 20% of all premature deaths in the developed world - in the US this translates to about 434,000 deaths a year (cocaine kills about 7000 a year in the US - about 1.6% as many deaths as tobacco. In fact all illegal drugs put together kill less than 5% of the people killed just by tobacco.) If people want to have an ocassional smoke that's fine by me - I've had a cigar or two in my day - but I'm very grateful it is banned in restaurants and pubs. I'm not the only one - the ban is supported by nearly 80% of the British public - an unprecedented mandate in public policy. Some of the smokers groups are moaning that beer sales will go down, because smokers will refuse to go to pubs, but I find that highly doubtful - smokers still go to malls, even if they can't smoke there, and in places where bans have been implemented, beer sales have not gone down. Furthermore, people like me will be going to the pub a lot more often now that the air is breathable. Hmm, that's a good idea... I'm thinking sooner rather than later.

The Guardian has a nice summary of the expected health benefits.