3 Minute Thesis

November 25, 2011

So I saw this tweet an hour ago:


#3MT #UBC #GradSchool – Have you heard? The UBC 2012 – 3 Minute Thesis competition website is up and running3mt.grad.ubc.ca check it!


And I had a look. Explain your PhD thesis, and why it’s important, in 3 minutes. After I finished making slightly panicked noises at the thought of condensing thousands of words and hours of work into 180 seconds, I had a quick go at it. 180 seconds is ~300-400 words if you speak quickly enough and eschew dramatic pauses for effect.


As I wrote, I realized that I’ve been trying to condense my thesis into a couple of minutes since I started – when asked by relatives, friends of family, and slightly interested friends who really don’t want the whole spiel.  So I started trying a bit harder to actually make it work. It wouldn’t hurt to have a 400 word synopsis that communicates the basic ideas.

So here’s what I’ve got after about an hour:

Our modern culture doesn’t explicitly endorse racist or sexist attitudes. And yet, even people who claim vehemently not to be prejudiced, who truly believe they are not prejudiced, act in prejudiced ways. “Implicit Tests” are designed to tap into attitudes that you might not be willing to disclose, or that you aren’t aware you have.

I’m tackling implicit testing from a behavioural perspective. A behaviourist doesn’t think of “attitudes” in the same way as most psychologists – we don’t think of attitudes as something that cause your behaviour, but rather that an “attitude” is a way of describing a particular history of interacting with a culture, and the pattern of behaviour that that history produces. The behavioural field is beginning to understand the processes involved in verbal behaviour – in particular, a behaviour called “derived relational responding” which is unique to verbally able humans.

Derived relational responding is a behaviour we all learn as we’re being taught language. Even when humans learn a few things through direct reinforcement, the implied relationships between stimuli, between words and ideas, also become part of our behavioural repertoire. The number of relations that can emerge is truly massive – the number of emergent relations is the square of number of directly taught relations. When you consider how many ideas you absorb from the culture, you get a staggering number of emergent relations.

This is where my research comes in – we think that this process of deriving relations is responsible for these prejudiced behaviours from people who don’t believe they’re prejudiced. They’ve never directly been taught to act that way, but this behavioural process means that these implied, derived relations affect how people act, even if they’re not aware of why they’re doing it.

 I’m developing a testing methodology that uses knowledge of these processes to subtly, but sensitively test for this kind of relation in a person’s learning history. It’s called the Functional Acquisition Speed Test – it looks at how easily you learn new relations when we put them in opposition to the suspected relation we’re testing for – the slower you learn, the stronger that past relation is. The FAST is research tools that will help us understand the processes that create attitudes indirectly, as well as test for the existence of these attitudes in people who don’t want to admit they have them – for example, in prisoners who want to “fake good.”





Word Nerding with Anagrammy

June 22, 2011

Just a quick share – Some amazing long form anagrams by Mike Keith. Anagrams with Science and maths, anagrams with entire poems, anagrams that are also translations… The mind boggles at the skill and perseverance.

These are all kinds of fantastic


Run, And Find Out.

June 11, 2011

“[Tell Science Stories] about nature that are true and complex… but still have the power to enthrall, to excite, to remind people there is a deep and many leveled beauty in the world”

In that vein, let’s start with a story.

Two years ago, I was working as a substitute primary school teacher. On this particular day, I was teaching 3rd Class (8-9 year olds.) I found some time, later in the day, when the work their teacher had left them was done. So I looked at their Science books, and discovered that they had yet to do a science lesson. (3rd class is the first class where Science is its own subject.)

As I flicked through the first few lessons, my eye fell on the lesson which demonstrated that sound could travel through solid objects. Somewhere in the depths of my memory, something flickered. Had this been my first Science Experiment in primary school, 16 years ago? I remembered saying something belligerent, and insisting that I be the one allowed to go outside to verify the results. Sound through solid objects, I thought? Nonsense! I won’t believe it, until I hear it!

So I began, outlining in the simplest terms that sound travels from (for example) the teacher’s mouth to the childrens’ ears. No talk of wavelengths, or even vibrations. That wasn’t the point of this lesson. The point was the question.

“Do you think that sound can only travel through air? Can it travel through solid things, like the walls, or the desks? Hands up who thinks it can?”

The class was evenly divided. Not, as I had expected, along lines of ability, or curiosity, or history of reading. The division seemed random, each child forming their own opinion from their own past experience. I banged my fist against a desk in demonstration. It got their attention. “So,” I asked “When I banged my fist on the desk, the sound travelling from here to your ears?” I mimed a line of sound travelling from the point of impact, through the air to their ears. “No sound travelled through the desk itself?” I asked one boy to put his ear to the other side of the desk. As he did so, I spoke about how Native Americans tracked the movement of herd animals by putting their ears to the ground. Then, I banged my fist against the table again, and the boy’s head flew up in surprise.

“Wooooooah.” He exclaimed, putting Keanu Reeves to shame. “That was waaay louder than before!!!” Surprise to excitement in a moment. And there it was. A moment of wonder and discovery as his idea of the universe’s workings shifted. The other children saw that look of wonder, and mirrored it. Without warning, the classroom descended into chaos, with children placing their ears against desks and urging their neighbours to bang their fists against it. Laughter and gasps filled the room.

What happens to that wonder? It gets trained out of children. In a few short years, getting that enthusiastic about knowing and discovering is going to social poison to them. Some will simply keep their enthusiasm quiet, waiting for a time when they can go to college and surround themselves with other people who managed to retain their passion for science and knowledge. Most won’t. Most will find themselves with a slightly anti-science attitude, one of apathetic avoidance rather than outright rancor.

The Anti-Science Narrative isn’t a monolithic tract that creates extremist anti-science activists. Like so many similar stories, it is told in the form of isolated fragments. Each of the statements above will act on People in isolation, the words creating a collage of ideas never explicitly linked up into an Idea, but rather creating an implicit social context that reinforces a grand story that has never been expressed as such. The same is largely true of sexism and racism. The narrative isn’t presented to us as a manifesto, but rather as a collection of little pieces that don’t seem too bad alone, but thanks to our minds’ ability to pattern form unconsciously, we end up with a tapestry woven from these threads without realizing we’ve done it. Scientists (and other rational minded sorts) find ourselves constantly arguing against the irrational beliefs held by others. Homeopathy, prejudice, conspiracy theorists… the list is long. We try to change minds with facts. Surely, we think, that should be enough to win the argument. We go away shaking our heads in disbelief, knowing we were right and failing to understand how people can be quite so irrational.

It’s because irrationality has the Bigger Story. It has many threads that twist throughout popular culture and everyday discourse. Scientists are cold. Scientists are amoral. Scientists change their minds all the time, you can’t trust what they say. It’s only a theory. Gut instinct is a valid reason to do something. Scientists are uncool. Scientists are arrogant elitists who look down on “normal people.” People would rather elect someone who seems “folksy” than someone who seems “smart.” Scientists dabble in things Man Is Not Meant To Know and the result will be terrible Horror Movie Gene Spliced Monsters or conquest of mankind by Talking Apes.

That story is out there, and there is one way to beat a story.

Tell a better one.


Communicating the facts is vital, no doubt.. Lots of people change their behaviour based on facts. But there are those who don’t. There are those who reject science as a wordview because they see it as Cold. They see it as actively removing beauty from the world by a process of reduction, of breaking down the world into its elemental constituents without a care for the breathtaking majesty of the whole. And sometimes, even we scientists forget that this isn’t true. We reject metaphor and symbol as the weapons of the irrational, and get far too literal minded. To steal from Alan Moore: “We distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place”

Science has a gloriously beautiful story to tell. It’s not a story about a Grand Design perfectly executed, but rather the improv jazz masterwork of a quartet of Weak Force, Strong Force, Gravity, and Electromagnetism. It’s a story about subatomic particles dancing to that tune and building conga-lines of Carbon that started making more of themselves, mass producing the sheet music of life . It’s about Sex and Death, and how they let each new organism put their own ragtime riff on the genome they were born with. It’s a story about how one of these animals realized that they realized and started passing information to the next generation without the use of bodily fluids and starting building our own symbols with scratches on cave walls and arbitrary shapings of sound. It’s a story about layer upon layer of emerging complexity that defies any one mind to understand it. It’s a story about thousands of great minds giving their life’s work to perfecting their own tiny slice of human knowledge, hoping that someday, our picture of reality will fall together, and be beautiful all the way down.It’s a story about a children experiencing the wonder of discovery .


The story we need to tell of science isn’t one about how it’s right. The story we need to tell about science is one about how the scientific picture of the world is more breathtaking and beautiful that one with willful gaps in it. It’s a story that speaks to the curiousity and wonder we all come into the world with, and it needs to be told to those who haven’t had it trained out of them yet, and to the ones who still have it lurking in their memory. Changing the course of a story as told by a whole society is a terribly difficult task, but it starts with a few people telling a better story, moving one or two people ever so slightly. One story is not enough to overcome the inertia of society. It would take millions of little stories of wonder to do that. But science gives us no lack of source material.



Never Ending.

May 17, 2011

There was a sound, nearly subsonic. He couldn’t actually hear it, but he knew it was there. Dreams are like that. You know stuff, without sensing it in the conventional sense. He couldn’t hear it. But he knew the words to describe it.


“There was a sound, nearly subsonic. It was a rapid babble of syllables spoken through wet lips by wet gums chewing saliva and tongue.”


He was sitting at a long table. Wooden. Old. The strangeness of the dream, or rather, of dreams-in-general, struck him again. The way that you are never really aware of a whole scene the way you would be in waking. Your senses come in at the wrong times, disjointed. A badly conducted orchestra of stimulus. Or a poorly organised scene description in a bad story.

There was soft golden light, comforting and familiar, from somewhere in his earliest memories. You could be comfortable in that light, it meant you were in a safe place. The kitchen he sat in was a calm place.

But there was still that sound. Or rather, the dream-narration telling him there was one. And it’s source was at the head of the table. But still, dream-him kept looking at the table, or around the room at familiar cabinets and counter tops, soaking up the familiar, safe, golden light.


“You’re going to look up now” The dream narration told him. Not out loud, of course. This dream was told in words simply placed in his head. Or that were already there. No voice over, no captions. Just sentences in his internal monologue, telling him how it was.


“And it’s not going to be safe here, not anymore.”


He looked up.




His head pulled up, creaking against a great weight. His dream-body was near paralysed, and each inch was a battle.

Its body language, the angle of its head and the way it held its arms, told him It was looking directly at him. That was all there was to go on. The face that looked right at him was without any feature, or even particular shape. A blank sphere, its surface rippling to the rhythm of that noise which he was at last actually hearing.

Frozen again, seeing only the Thing. And the dream-monologue was silent.  The other senses wandered off, leaving him only with sight. No explanation, no dream knowledge telling him what this Thing was. The emptiness of its face was immense. It’s not-anything-ness had a terrible gravity.

Suddenly, he was running from it, instantly outside the door and turning to the stairs, which yawned, chasm-like, in front of him, and swallowed him up as he fell.

As he fell, he knew

“It stood up, and took some steps towards the door, making Its noise again. When you finish falling, you’ll land right back at the head of the table. It has taken the seat next to where you will land, and it is waiting.”


And he saw it again, while the viscerality of the fall through space made his body lurch and recoil, propelling him towards waking. Right before the shock-near-impact-jump awakening, he saw It take the seat beside his, and begin pulling chunks out of its head, and rolling little clay spheres, miniature self portraits, and placing them in a row in front of him.

He would have that dream again the next night. 17 days later, he would dream it again, but forget upon waking. Two months later, he would have that dream four times in as many weeks.

Three years later, the dream began with him sitting next to It. It reached into its own face, tearing a gap that make a leering, face-splitting mouth. It tore two fist sized chunks out above its mouth, making ragged, wide eyes.

It spoke.

And again, he woke up.


A Monster Calls

May 12, 2011

Nearly two years ago, a friend handed me a book, and told me

“Read the first page. I guarantee you’ll want to read the rest.”

It took 23 words.

That book was The Knife of Never Letting Go  by Patrick Ness. I started reading it that night. I finished reading it the next. Or rather, early the next morning.

Luckily, it was only a short wait for the second book in the series – The Ask and The Answer.

The third book – Monsters of Men –  took an agonizingly long amount of time to be released, but it was very much worth the wait. I purchased the book, and had to resist trying to read it as I walked home. I finished that book in a single sitting as well.

This evening, I went to the launch of Patrick Ness’ new novel A Monster Calls. (From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.)

After the impact the Chaos Walking trilogy had, I should have been ready for A Monster Calls. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to resist opening it on the bus home, even though I knew I had work to do. (Of course, having a tantalizing snippet of the book read at the launch didn’t help) I managed to resist briefly, but I went to bed a couple of hours ago and thought “I’ll just read a little bit more.”

I’ve just finished the book, and I can’t sleep just yet. I have a tendency to be effusive about books I enjoy. I have told anyone who would listen, at length, and repeatedly, about how fantastic I thought the Chaos Walking trilogy was and how they should immediately take  a weekend off and read all three in one sitting. I’m saying this now, because this history of enthusiasm might make you think it’s just my normal level of fervor at work in the words below.

It’s not.

A Monster Calls is an utterly breathtaking work of fiction.

Literally. As I closed the book, I had to take several deep breaths.

And that’s all I’m going to say. I could go on, with many more superlatives. I’ve been writing and deleting several, realising that I’d need either all of them or none of them to convey my reaction.

So there you go.


“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtaxed.”

May 10, 2011

I have a bit of a bugbear about how “insanity” is written in a lot of fiction, in particular in popular fiction (regardless of the medium, but TV/Movies are the worst offenders, since they don’t tend to provide any kind of internal monologue, and thus rely on behaviour to communicate “insanity”) I have a lot of problems with “insanity” as a concept, which sets up a feedback loop. I disagree with how people think about insanity, so the portrayal of it as such annoys me, and the portrayal further feeds into those erroneous ideas in the popular consciousness.

In popular discourse, the words “insanity” or “insane” (or other synonyms) are used to indicate that a character has gone “out of his mind.” They’re not simply “mentally ill,” or a “eccentric” but rather have crossed some imaginary line which places them into another category – one which labels the character as fundamentally different in his way of thinking than everyone else. Insane characters say, believe, and do things that are in no way based on the reality that every other character shares. More often than not, a “diagnosis” (I’m getting a lot of use out of quotation marks today) of schizophrenia (or a subtype) is mentioned.

A characters’ schizophrenia generally manifests as either lighty comic, with characters spouting chuckle-worthy nonsense in the vein of “Crazies say the Darndest Things.” Not a great start. More often, however, insanity is portrayed as something sinister and dangerous. This is understandable to a point – that which we don’t understand is scary, and it’s very hard to understand a person whose motivations are based on a reality that is not the same (or similar) to yours.

In particular, insane characters are generally portrayed as prone to violent outbursts.

Some real data: (From http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19668362)

Schizophrenia and other psychoses are associated with violence and violent offending, particularly homicide. However, most of the excess risk appears to be mediated by substance abuse comorbidity. The risk in these patients with comorbidity is similar to that for substance abuse without psychosis. Public health strategies for violence reduction could consider focusing on the primary and secondary prevention of substance abuse.  (Emphasis mine)

That is to say, the drunk/ drug using guy is as dangerous as the schizophrenia patient.

And despite these comic-mocking or fear-mongering portrayals of insanity, we get one other facet of insanity in popular fiction – Truth-Seers. In particular in genre fiction where psychic phenomena or supernatural forces are at work, the insane are portrayed as seeing something we don’t. Except for one problem. Vindication that what that character has been “hallucinating” is actually real is usually enough to provoke a significant improvement in their mental health overnight. They weren’t crazy, you see, just misunderstood. Like I said earlier, true insanity involves crossing an arbitrary line that divides you from everyone else. Once it’s established that their reality is real, they can’t really be insane, can they?

The foregoing is one of the reasons I’m really enjoying Fringe. I watched the pilot long ago, and it didn’t grab me – I thought that, in Walter, we were getting another Savant/Miraculous Cure type insane character. But when I persisted, I was pleasantly surprised. Or perhaps pleasantly is a poor choice of words…

Walter’s “insanity” (indeed, they rarely use that word) is portrayed in a way that is both tragic and human. . I wasn’t expecting there to be this kind of treatment of insanity in a show so obviously billed as a “mad science” show. Which it is, and there are certainly plenty of moments in which Walter gets very excited about a morally ambiguous or outright bizarre experiment. (Which, to be honest, I find more endearing than threatening. Because science is exciting.)  There are moments of comedy, and there are moments of threat, but at the heart of it, Walter is a sympathetic character.

Walter is evidently a very, very intelligent man, but the damage to his mental health has left him unable to properly care for himself, and perhaps more tragically, barely able to remember things he once grasped so easily. The Walter Bishop we come to know is, intellectually, a shadow of his former self – and this must be particularly devastating for a man who made his intellect and rationality a pillar of his own self-image. The joy he feels (and intellect he demonstrates) when he starts to understand an event or sees something fascinating and new to investigate is heavily contrasted with his sadness and embarrassment at his problems with basic functioning. His obsession with food and narcotics, while often funny, still has a shroud of pathos over it – each slip into a food conversation during something important is another example of his mind betraying him.

What I really enjoy, however, is the portrayal of the journey back from the rock bottom we first encountered him at. Despite being removed from St. Claire’s, despite his theories being frequently proved correct, despite being reunited with his son, there is no miraculous fix. The road to self reliance is long and tortured, and as sad as hell when you see him stumble. But there is progress. Insanity/Sanity is not portrayed as line that is only crossable in one direction, or even as a binary state. It is a continuum, one which you can move along in either direction (though it is tragically easier to go one way than the other. Overwriting old behaviour and thinking is far harder than acquiring it in the first place.)


Two Beginnings

April 29, 2011

Two things got Sami into trouble with his Mother.

Those two things were wondering, and wandering. He went wandering whenever he could get away from his chores, and he wondered while walking to and from his chores. He had poked and pried and explored every single corner of the Warren. The Warren was a maze of interlinked tunnels, some high enough to fit a human person, and some so small that even Sami, who was not yet a fully grown Goblin, had to crouch and crawl to get through them. If you were to follow the tunnels, you would find hundreds of caverns, like buildings along a street. The small caverns, some of them carved out by Kobs, some of them carved out by nature, were used by Goblin families as homes. The bigger caverns, the ones made by roaring underground rivers and ice flows in the far away past, were the centres of the goblin settlements, where they built their root farms, where they built their strangely on-top-of-themselves marketplaces and taverns.

The thing which Sami loved most about the Warren was the smell. The smell in the Warren was a lived-in smell. A lived in and not cleaned very often smell. It was a mixture of sticky goblin sweat smell, damp earth smell, and a mishmash of spices, roots and cooking meat, and some other smells that humans would generally prefer not to think about. Sami adored the smell. Like other Goblins, he found it comforting to be able to smell the people around him so strongly. The filth just added to the effect, meant the smell was real, made by real Goblins living real lives, right here beside him. In his mother’s burrow, he could smell her and each of his seven siblings. In fact, he could taste them, because the smell filled the air so fully. If you sat near the entrance hole, you could smell the burrows of the families that lived further down the tunnel. It gave Sami a great sense of community, to be able to smell his neighbours living just a short distance away.

Sami was a clever and curious gob, but clever and curious weren’t the virtues Goblins looked for in their children. They preferred cunning to clever, and everything else to curious. Sami’s mother always said that her mother always said that her mother always said that curiosity is even more dangerous for Goblins than it is for Cats. Sami had never seen a cat, but he very much wanted to. He was clever enough to realise that his curiosity to meet a cat was not the intended outcome of his mother’s advice, but curious enough not to let it stop his wondering and wandering. He wanted to see every part of the Warren, and he had seen most. Only one of Sami’s traits was considered desirable by his fellow Goblins. He was very good at sneaking. So good, in fact, that he was able to sneak around without other expert sneakers noticing his sneaking.

Today, however, was different. Wandering alone would have gotten Sami into trouble, but it was the second thing, the wondering, that was most dangerous.  Today, Sami wanted to see something that the Goblins in the Warren had not. After all, curious isn’t something many Goblins were.

Sami sneaked a furtive look around him, checking that no-one who would recognize him had noticed he was there, and slipped away down a rarely used tunnel…

2. Bump in The Night

Like so many ghost stories, this one starts with a child.


In The Dark.

Katie used to like the dark. With nothing else to see, she could fill the emptiness with whatever wonders she could imagine. But lately, the dark had been filled up by other things. Little sounds that spread out into the silence and became very big indeed.

Lying awake, long after bedtime, Katie listened to all the noises filling up the dark. She waited for one noise in particular, the one that started everything.


She started to fill the darkness with scary pictures of what the noise might be, and hoped that she wouldn’t find out if she was right.