Sunday, April 24, 2005

operation "back to normal": step one

i went hiking saturday with the roommate and beastie. click the picture below for more pix, including a really cute one of bad dog. we walked up chantry flats road, which is closed to cars, for the reason you see below. it's a pretty spectacular slide.

one of the members of my advancement to candidacy exam committee was unpleasant in the exam. he's a very bright guy, and a good scientist, but he's generally perceived to be abrasive. i took a class with him, and although i always came away impressed with his lecturing and intellectual skills, i didn't feel that i benefited from the ways in which he tried to help guide us to the conclusion he was teaching. the class seemed roughly divided between people who got his way of thinking and people who didn't. i talked with someone who took the class a different year who had the same problem i did. so i think i'm going to replace him on the committee with someone who i am better able to understand. it might be a little bit difficult, politically speaking, but i'm sure it will work out. at first my adviser was opposed to my firing him, but she came around.

Friday, April 22, 2005


today, i passed one portion of my advancement to candidacy exam. i presented a proposal for my thesis work to a committee of four professors. they asked me questions, i left the room, they conferred, i went back in, they said i passed. i'm numb. the other portion is a written, general knowledge exam in june.

Monday, April 04, 2005

the neuroscience of economic behavior

As I've worked in research, my resistance to a lot of things has decreased. For example, my view of the morals of the pharmaceutical industry has become more nuanced and less negative. Similarly, taking money from DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to learn how the intention to move a limb is encoded seems ok to me, even though that research will ultimately probably be applied to some kind of prosthetic weaponry, either connected to the user or a remotely controlled robot-weapon. In part, I am sifting through the new moral universe in which I find myself, but in part I have learned enough to see the value in things I didn't value before.

That said, I'm really nervous about the study of neuroscience of economic behavior. A major application is advertising, understanding how people make decisions. Even when one has an intellectual knowledge of how and why sex, for example, sells, it's hard to resist. As we as scientists become more knowledgeable about the most basic decisions in the brain and become more knowledgeable about how to influence motivation, it seems that it will be even harder to resist the siren call of consumerism.

Here's an example of recent work ( caltech press release, pubmed entry) that on the face of it is warm and fuzzy. in the experiments, two subjects undergoing brain imaging repeatedly play a game in which trust is rewarded. they find that subjects risk increasing amounts as the game progresses.

"Neoclassical economics starts with the assumption that rational self-interest is the motivator of all our economic behavior," says Quartz. "The further assumption is that you can only get trust if you penalize people for non-cooperation, but these results show that you can build trust through social interaction, and question the traditional model of economic man."

"The results show that you can trust people for a fair amount of time, which contradicts the assumptions of classical economics," Camerer adds.

To me it suggests that people can be manipulated easily, building up their trust and then taking them for a big hit. This is supported by the large number of people who are swindled countless ways in confidence scams.

I suspect that my concern for the potential applications of this work may result primarily from the fact that I don't find most of the data intellectually interesting. I'm willing to deal with the devil to answer questions I think are important and compelling, but not for this.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sin City and SRL

In a busy night, I went to the movie Sin City at the Arclight, and also to a Survival Research Labs (SRL) show. I enjoyed Sin City a lot. Visually, it was stunning. Mostly filmed against a blue screen (which I think was green in this case), the movie is almost entirely black and white. There are a lot of digital effects, which mostly work, but when they don't, it's jarring. The snow scenes were staggeringly beautiful. The image above is from the graphic novel the movie is based on. The author was the co-director. The plot was overwrought, which I guess is what you get with noir. The actors were good, even the sexpots.

I saw the movie with PI at the Arclight. The Arclight is the pinnacle of movie experience. You buy tickets in advance online for no extra fee (although the tickets are at a premium: $11). Your ticket reserves a particular seat. There are people in the parking structure guiding you to open parking. When you arrive, there is a quick and easy way to obtain your tickets. In the theater, an usher shows you your seat. The seats are incredibly comfortable, with lots of leg room. You don't have to get up, or even move much, for someone to get by. We saw the movie digitally projected. I don't know if it made a difference, but the movie was luscious looking.

SRL is a pyrotechnic robotics group that likes to make interesting artistic robots and set things on fire. If you click on the picture above, you'll go to a gallery of pictures from the show. They are not great pictures.

I was alerted to the show by my daily read of boingboing. I love when I read international blogs, and they talk about stuff going on near me. I've been reading boingboing since I lived in San Francisco, but I've found it to be a good LA reference.

For the show they closed off a street in the warehouse district just east of downtown LA. People climbed up onto the top of many of the surrounding warehouses. Given the amount of drinking in the crowd, that made me nervous.

I had a good time there, although I would have enjoyed myself more if I could have seen more of the show. There were 4 or 5 rows of people in front of me, and people around me, all of whose conversations I was subjected to before the show started. After all my complaining about how mainstream LA is, I was reminded that mainstream people haven't cornered the market on insipid conversations.

The best robot in the show had a horizontal auger that spun as it moved. Unfortunately, I think the auger was not the actual wheel of the robot. The show was also really loud, which I liked (I had earplugs), and there was lots of fire, which everyone liked. I could feel the heat of flames that were 40 feet or so away.

A piece of something came flying in my direction at one point, probably a piece of wood flayed off wooden the horse by another robot. It bounced off the ground in front of the barrier, then came flying upward. I had plenty of time to duck, but it was exciting.

I've been wanting to see an SRL show for a while, but I wasn't entirely happy to be at the show. Was it because I was tired? Was it because of the company? (My own.) I think it was mostly because I was surrounded on all sides by a crowd. So here's my advice if you're going to a show: Get there early enough to climb a warehouse or annex some other comfortable viewing place. Don't drink while you're on top of the warehouse (GP excepted, well, maybe not), because you have to climb down afterward. Bring earplugs. Bring eye protection. Enjoy.

I had a weird interaction with him a guy who I'm pretty sure was breaking into cars parked on the street I had parked on. I left the show early, but it ended right as I was walking away. When I got to the street my car was on, there was a guy sitting in a car, looking around with a flashlight. He was a nervous-acting guy who looked like he could use a shower, shave, haircut and laundry, and I made certain assumptions. He told me he was keeping watch on the cars, and I asked if he wanted to sell me a bridge too. OK, I didn't do that. He kept one hand in his pocket, and I wasn't too happy about that either. By then I had committed to walking down the street, and there were other people coming from the show. As I was getting into my car, the guy asked me for money. Idiot.

Earlier in the night, a man had held a door open for me and asked me for money. I was really annoyed by that, and it reminded me of how my daily experience has changed. It didn't used to bug me.

First day of school

HC insisted on taking a picture of me in what I wore for the first meeting of the discussion section I'm leading. She thought it was hilarious, and even funnier that I didn't get what was funny.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Spontaneous sculpture

At DM's birthday breakfast, HC ordered some kind of eggs benedict. The spout on the one on the left reminded us of Aplysia, pictured below, a sea animal that is commonly used to understand connections between neurons.


The New York Times has a great (and brief) audio-visual retrospective of John Paul II's papacy, which includes this stunning picture, among others. For most of my life, John Paul II has defined the papacy itself. The possibility of a more liberal pope and/or one from a third world country is intriguing. I haven't heard anything about the possibilities of a liberal pope. Commentators do note that the selection of JP2 was a surprise. Choosing a pope seems rare enough that it's hard to handicap.

Friday, April 01, 2005

work work work

today i came into the lab at 9:50 am to toss some stuff on the burner, metaphorically speaking, and then i went to a birthday breakfast celebration for DM, a postdoc who helps me enormously. i enjoyed it, but i felt a little off the rest of the day. i messed up a couple of things, luckily nothing that i couldn't fix. one part of what i'm doing involves leaving something overnight, and i really want to get to that step. if i don't, then i'll have to do the few steps tomorrow and not continue until sunday. i'm not completely sure i will work all weekend, but it seems like a good idea, since it's the only weekend i'll be here between now and my advancement to candidacy exam.