Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A new soundtrack to meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can download the track here:

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2014 Book Roundup

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

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

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

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Write-In: Can we have goals independent of our environment?

Hello Dr. Davies,

   I am currently working on my bachelor degree in psychology, and I am in
learning and cognition.  I found my way to your articles, due to my needing
to find an answer to choice and mental processes.  I tend to side with the
behaviorist view that experience and memory play a huge role in our power of
choice, but I am looking for an answer to the thinking about thinking
dilemma.  Thorndike seems to have had a huge influence on my concept of
mental processes, as well as Hebb, Skinner, and Alder.  I guess I am looking
for someone, who can tell me that we have higher mental processes that are
free of environmental stimuli and memory, which we can form our choices
randomly.  Am I looking for some pie in the sky?  Can you offer me some
direction, because I ultimately want to believe that we can master our
Universe through the power of our mind.  In other words, we can direct our
lives in accordance with our dreams and our goals, instead of being subject
to environmental stimuli.

My response: 

For the most part psychologists don't think that we have any goals that are not products of either our environment, our genes, or some combination. However, there are goals we didn't learn, such as the goal to eat, sleep, etc. But from your letter it sounds like what you're interested in aren't evolved goals, but goals that are chosen deliberately. In those cases I think all goals are still a product of evolution and environment, but they interact in such complex ways that individuals can have very interesting, even strange goals that appear to be, and feel, very idiosyncratic. 

So, for example, someone might have a dream to create a play that captures the feeling of social ostracism in a foreign country. This is individual and interesting, but there's no way a desire to make a play is free from the environment--she had to have heard of a play in the first place. And so on.

So to answer your specific questions, we can form choices randomly--we could use coin flips. We can direct our lives in accordance with our dreams and goals, and I think that's great, but to ask that they be independent of our environment is impossible--and not even preferable. In fact, you probably realize that your desire to be able to master your own world is a product, in part, of the education and experience you've had talking to people and reading.

Pictured: Fishermen in Mexico. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

How Many Papers Should I Review For This Conference?

My field's main conference is the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, or, as it's commonly called, "Cognitive Science." People submit 6-page papers. Each one needs to be reviewed by three people for a decision to be made. It's a part of a scholar's civic duty to review papers. It's natural to review papers for the conferences you submit to. But how many should you agree to review?

One way to think about it is that you should be pulling your weight, and not taking advantage of the system. So if every paper needs three reviewers, then maybe you should agree to review 3 papers for every one you submit.

There are two things wrong with this simple calculation--not all papers are single authored. If you're submitting a paper with 6 authors, maybe the pain should be spread out a bit.

The other factor is that there are freeloaders out there, and you might want to do your part to make up for them.

So what I do is say I'm going to review 5 papers for every one I submit. But this is divided by the number of authors I have on each paper-- so it's 5/n for each paper, where n is the number of authors per paper.

This summer Cognitive Science is in Quebec City. Nice and close! So my laboratory is submitting lots of papers. For papers with my name on it got two I'm the sole author on, three with two authors, and one with 6 authors.

So I'm going to review (5/1) + (5/1) + (5/6) + (3 * (5/2)) papers this summer. That's 18.33.

That's a lot of papers, but it's proportional to the amount of work I'm putting on everybody else in the community, so I'm doing my fair share.

It's easy to calculate using

Pictured: A charolais in Venezuela. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book Round-Up 2013

Below are the books I read in 2013.

Near the end of the year I started using which is great. For a yearly subscription, I get credit for one book per month, for $10 per month, cheaper than most audio books. And I get through about a book a month. Between that and podcasts I have lots to listen to.

I didn't get audible for a long time because I bike and I didn't want to bike with headphones. I found I didn't have much time to listen to books. But my beloved got a Bose bluetooth headset for Christmas. It can be used like most, but also can be used as a normal headphone. So now I can listen to books while I bike. It's only in one ear, so I can hear traffic and get that important situational awareness. The fact that it's bluetooth is great because I don't have lots of cords getting caught up in everything. This was especially a problem in the winter, with a coat, scarf, facemask, hat, etc. The bluetooth makes it so nice.

Anyway, happy reading! If you want to see my complete list of books read, see my webpage for it:

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (audible)
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam M. Grant (audible)
Blood Rock: Book Two of the Skindancer series by Anthony Francis
The Player of Games by Ian M. Banks
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion by Scott Atran
Gone Girl*** by Gillian Flynn
The Ragged Astronauts by Bob Shaw
Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett
A Memory of Light (Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd
Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Anyone Can Cook? How the Film "Ratatouille" Undermines Its Own Message

In the charming Pixar film Ratatouille, a rat named Remy is inspired by a famous cook who says that "anyone can cook." In the end, the rat is vindicated, and becomes the chef at a French restaurant. 

The story evokes the American value that with hard work even someone from a lower class can achieve greatness. The theme of the film, "anyone can cook," resonates when even a rat, with sufficient ambition and wiles, can make it big. 

What most people ignore about the film, though, is the complete inability of the other main character, Alfredo, to learn to cook, in spite of having the same ambition, and, indeed, extensive exposure to good cooking practices. 

In the story, Remy secretly uses Alfredo as a puppet to cook (see the picture). In this way Remy's cooking gains acceptance--nobody would give a rat the same chances they'd give a human. But even by the end of the movie, Alfredo is incapable of making a decent meal on his own. 

What's the difference between Alfredo and Remy? It appears to be some kind of in-born talent, which is at odds with the theme of the film. 

Anyone can cook. Except you, Alfredo. You just don't have the right stuff. 

Pictured: A screenshot from the trailer. From Wikipedia.

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