Monthly Archives: February 2012

Hate Speech, Censorship & YouTube

The second law of thermodynamics was right: The entropy of the universe continuously increases. In other words, as my chemistry teacher used to say, “the world is becoming a big mess”. YouTube, what has happened?

Banning (flagging) religiously offensive videos is a road to perdition. Practically anything you say may be offensive to someone on this planet. “I believe that all men and women are created equal.”, “I had premarital sex.”, “The Invisible Pink Unicorn does not exist.” are all examples of innocent statements that do not promote violence, do not call for anyone´s death and do not incite prejudicial action against anyone based on their ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual characteristic… In short, these statements by definition DO NOT constitute “hate speech”. And yet, videos containing such statements shall be forbidden.

I don´t need to go to Church every Sunday (rings a bell? see here) to realise there is something inherently wrong when a group of “YouTube experts” gets to decide which videos are potentially offensive. Are funny videos with Achmed “inappropriate”? How about the film The Invention of Lying? And I shouldn´t even mention the Atheist Song, correct?

Such a censorship policy (sorry, I call things by their real name) gives these “experts” immense power to discard any video they find offensive without taking into consideration the importance of truly “free” speech: What will have happened to this inalienable human right once we cannot say even basic statements ranging from “I like pork and beef” to “women are actually very good drivers”?

Dear Readers, I am urging you to stand up against this YouTube policy, to defend your right to say things others may disagree with. After all, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.“ (Dudley Malone)

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Posted by on 26 February, 2012 in Random


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Brandwashed: The World of Advertising Exposed

What do the following sentences have in common? “Mommy, I want Milka chocolate. Kids who eat it always look so happy…”, “Daddy, let´s go and eat in McDonalds. If have a toy from Happy Meal, other children will admire me.”, “Are you sure you want this computer? It´s not…you know, Apple.”, “How can you use other wash powder than Ariel? It was proven to be the best!”

Correct. They expose the way companies manipulate us to crave their products. As Martin Lindstrom in his Brandwashed shows, there are way more tricks to persuade us to buy stuff we don´t need than we dare to imagine. Let´s have a look at some of them.

1. The Ideal You. All companies love this strategy. If you buy their lipstick/cookies/perfume/add-a-product here, your lips will always have exactly the right shade of red, you will never be lonely again (because everybody wants to hang out with someone with the XY cookies) and always smell like a bunch of roses with a drop of morning dew. Who wouldn´t like that? The trouble is that such an “ideal you” will never exist, because no matter how much fancy stuff you buy, there will always be something you “cannot exist without”, as they would put it.

2. Fear, fear and … fear. If you don´t use this soap, you will catch a terrible disease. If you don´t read this book, the society will disapprove of you. If you… Wait a minute. Most of the threats we hear about in adverts are things we never knew before they existed! We would probably not be much afraid of indigestion, but when we hear how dangerous it potentially may be, we go and gorge ourselves on those super-healthy yogurts. Not-so-fun fact: In Japan, mothers who were “conditioned” by TV advertising to be afraid of germs and hence disinfected every single thing in the household actually made lives of their kids worse, as those could not adapt to a “normal” dirty world, because their immunity was not trained to deal with bacteria and what have you.

3. Sex. Sure, sex sells. Half-naked women have become a norm when it comes to advertising cars, “hidden” references to sex are practically everywhere, including anti-smoking campaigns – and don´t get me started on the whole Photoshop craze (see a nice response to super-thin models here). It may be a great tool to lure customers into buying something, but becomes rather horrifying when you realise that kids as young as 10 (or younger) are exposed to this as well. Not-fun fact: According to Mr. Lindstrom, the average age of children who see a porn site for the first time in their life is 11 years of age.

So here we go. Are you appalled? Surprised? Disgusted? Indifferent? You may be thinking “Well, then just don´t buy branded things!” But unfortunately (?) – this is not an option in the 21st century (try it yourself – for a month, I dare you!): No mobile phone, no games, no branded clothes, no branded food (including your favourite cereals, jam, pasta, juice, beer and pizza), no music (right, not even Lady Gaga), no books or newspapers… The list can go on.

So if “not buying” is not the solution, what is? Well, to me it is mere knowing a) that we are being manipulated and tricked, b) how we are manipulated (our hopes and fears are being exploited) and c) that not everything said on TV is true. The solution is to become a customer who is aware of the hype created around some products and who is able to put a shiny package aside and judge based on the content of the box, rather than just its colour and the face of Justin Bieber on it.

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Posted by on 20 February, 2012 in Rationality


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Systematic Bias of a Researcher

Curiosity. Dedication. Surprise. Hesitation. Confirmation. Jubilation. And so the life cycle of a research assignment goes. A research assistant spends countless hours (nights?) reading relevant papers, learning how to conduct a particular experiment, practicing how to filter and process data and hoping to discover something revolutionary. Being a researcher is not a “choice”; it´s a lifestyle. Just like debating. Let me take you on a journey to the Psychology Department of Tilburg University, where one study is being born…

Me and my classmate are going to conduct a study on how implicit and explicit motivations (explanation here) of people clash and how that impacts their work productivity. And one of the most important and challenging parts of this research is the analysis of short stories people write when presented with a number of different pictures. More specifically, we will be looking for the motivation for achievement, affiliation and power.

Here comes the tricky thing: In order to be able to “code” these three motives, we need to learn the method to identify them in a text. However, such coding cannot be an exact science: it all depends how you interpret all those fine shades of meaning. “Do they really like each other, or is it just a game?”, “Is he intentionally trying to influence her?”, “Is it her job to check on other people, or is exercising extra power?” and so on.

As you might have noticed in some of the earlier posts, I am a natural overachiever and tend to have very specific (and very high) criteria on what constitutes “success”. Hence, I have great difficulties coding this motive, since most of the actions in the practice stories are simply “not good enough” for my standards.

On the other hand, I dare say I am a caring and reliable friend who has already gone though many tough periods of separation and loneliness, which makes it easier for me to spot even slight hints of warmth and affiliation in the stories. I can relate to the feelings of depicted characters longing for friendship or cherishing it; it almost feels “natural”.

This systematic “bias” led the professor who oversees my and my friend´s preparation to a conclusion that it might actually be more interesting not to study the motivations of “normal” citizens, but rather those of researchers (of coders, in this case) – and where their biases come from.

To be quite honest, I think it is a brilliant idea: If only to show that researches are people with inner inconsistencies like anyone else, prone to errors and occasional failures. After all, to err is human. But realizing your failures before you conduct a study and draw conclusions may help to rule out the “human factor” – a step vital especially in social sciences.

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Posted by on 13 February, 2012 in Education


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The Pain of Closing Doors aka Human Rationality vol. 2

Studying at a university while not having a single clue what your major is going to be is silly. Applying for ten different positions and then experiencing an excruciating pain in deciding which ones to decline is unnecessary and unreasonable. Going out with more than one girl is outright hazardous. Yet, some people keep on repeatedly finding themselves “trapped” because of their irrational and poor decision making. Why?

Fun fact intermezzo: According to Dan Ariely, humans are very good at creating new ways to kill themselves: If the mortality attributable to bad decision-making was 10% one hundred years ago, today the figure can be as high as 45%. (Think of extreme sports, smoking, alcohol, diabetes…) Not something to be proud of, if you ask me.

The special aspect of human irrationality I would like to expose here is our inability to “close doors”. We all somewhat tend to keep on postponing decisions. Not just the small ones like what to have for dinner, but – more importantly – the big ones like which subjects to study or which career path to choose. The natural instinct is to keep as many options (“doors”) open for as long as possible; however, this often leads to less-informed, more rushed and overall worse decisions.

It can be argued that if you are given the opportunity to explore as much as possible, you will ultimately find the right thing for you. However, there are two problems with this statement: a) Unless you have a very strict deadline when you need to pick, there is nothing holding you back from experimenting for far longer than it would have been desirable: wasting opportunities and having only shallow knowledge of a lot of things instead of deeper knowledge of less. b) The more you know about different options, from some point on it may become impossible to choose “rationally”. You love economic thinking, the complexity of biology and the beauty of poetry – how can you possibly drop any of those? You become more emotionally attached to things you spent some time doing (check out the sunk cost fallacy article here) and hence no longer see their true value.

There was a study when the subjects were playing a computer game according to the following rules: There are three rooms: blue, red and green. If you click on one of them and start clicking on things inside, each click will earn you some money. Each room has a different “price level” – i.e. there are more and less valuable clicks in these rooms. You can freely move from one room to another, but you have only 100 clicks “to spend”. After that the game will end. In this setup, people usually explored the three rooms and then settled for one and made some amount of money.

However, then the rules were altered: If a room was not visited for a number of clicks, it would disappear. Guess what! Most of the participants kept on clicking like mad and running from one room to another (because they hated the prospect of a particular room being “lost” forever), effectively “wasting” clicks that could have earned them money. In the end they made significantly less money than the first group.

Morals: It is a good idea to explore the opportunities you are given, but always make sure that other options are not getting out of your reach while you are stuck resuscitating “doors” that should have closed long ago. Curiosity might have killed a cat; do not let stupid decision-making kill your dreams.

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Posted by on 6 February, 2012 in Rationality


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