Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Developmental Psych and Counting

Infants don’t really know how to count. They know the difference between 1 and 2.  But, after about 3 everything is just “a lot”.  If you show them 9 ducks or 10 ducks, they can’t tell the difference.  The only way they know the difference is order of magnitude.  They can tell the difference between 8 and 16, because that is a logarithmic increase.  This makes sense adaptively because after one or two, it really doesn’t matter how many there are if you are running around the savannah 200,000 years ago.  There is one bird, two birds, or a flock of birds.  One deer, two deer, or a herd of deer.  Maybe it could matter if it is a big herd or a small herd, so only these big differences are noticeable.  But 8 versus 9, who cares?

And the parts of the brain that are activated when you go from 8 to 16 is in the parietal lobe, which is different from the parts that would activate if you change something other than quantity, like if you switch from 8 ducks to 8 trucks.  It's also different from the parts of the brain that activate when adults notice the difference between 8 ducks and 9 ducks.  So the infants aren’t just noticing that there was some kind of change.  They are noticing specifically that it was a change in order of magnitude.

And it turns out that we have to learn our adult numeric thinking.  Tests (done on the stereotypical isolated jungle dwelling aboriginal tribes) find that they still think logarithmically.  If you ask them what number is exactly between 1 and 9, they say 3 instead of 5.  This is because these are 3 to the zero power, first power, and second power. 

And your brain isn’t ready to learn the numerical way to do math until about 3.5 years old.  If kids learn to count before that age, they are really just memorizing the words and the order.  Like the alphabet where it is only random that b comes after a and before c. They don’t really understand that 4 is one more than 3 and 5 is one more than 4. 

So next financial crash, we can just say that the bankers are thinking like 2-year olds.  Or maybe we need to put them through fMRI to see if their brains are damaged. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Copyrights from 1978

For anyone interested in music, this might be of interest.  In 1978, they passed a law that any artist who designated their copyright to another entity can claim it back after 35 years.  So 2012 is the first year that this would take effect.  Someone who did a work for hire (writing software for Microsoft) isn’t covered by this, it mostly musicians who sold their copyrights to record labels in return for production, marketing, and distribution.  The singer/band or their estate can file the paperwork and get the copyright back from the record label.  All the songs that were released in 1978 are eligible.  This is pretty much 99% of the relevant cases. 

But of course, the record labels are fighting it, claiming that these count also as works for hire.  Here are the arguments I find interesting:
  • First is the legal definition of work for hire.  There are nuances that I think favor the musicians, but it requires going through the specific wording in the definitions written into the law with a fine tooth comb.  That is what the lawyers get paid for.
  • Second are the logistical issues.  If this were to also include the backup singers, sound engineers, etc., it would be unworkable.  Anyone wanted to play a song on the radio or use it in a movie would have to get permission from every single person involved in the song.   This is called a copyright thicket.  But the experts think it would just be the singer/band and the courts would not include the others.  This is probably a jury decision though.
  • Third is the economic implications.  Back in 1978, musicians needed the record labels to get noticed.  There was a lot of equipment needed to produce a song and legwork needed to market it.  But nowadays, bands can pretty much do this on their own.  High quality recording equipment is reasonable cost and marketing can be done on the Internet.  So is there a need for the record labels any more?  This may be one of the last nails in that industries coffin.
  • Another economic issue is how much is actually at stake.  How much money are labels making on 35 year old songs?  I don’t really have a clue.  I guess there are enough oldies stations that it is worth a try for them to appeal the law.
  • Finally, is the philosophic argument.  There is something that speaks to me about setting a time limit on copyright assignments.  I understand that the record labels were critical to get the bands started in 1978.  But I can imagine how good I would feel if, after 35 years, a song I made famous was finally in my own hands again. 
 For a good discussion, check out last weekends’ On the Media show. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Smart Cities

The September 2011 issue of Scientific American is a great special issue on Smart Cities.  Cities have challenges (pollution, crime, crowding, etc) but they also have a lot of advantages.  With smart design, we can minimize the problems and maximize the benefits of density, including innovation, public transportation, smaller carbon footprints, vertical design, and more.  The issue has a whole series of articles on various aspects of this idea.  I recommend it if this is something you are even remotely interested in.  It’s an excellent series.

Financial Incentives are no fun.

There was a great story on the Moth radio hour last night that illustrates why we shouldn’t use financial incentives to motivate creative or enjoyable activities.  They only work (long term) on tasks that are done best through brute force and rote effort.

What made this story exceptional is that it was about monkeys in a research lab.  All of the research I have read in this area looked at people.  Some looked at students and some at workers.  Some were in the US and some in Asia.  But they were all people.  It turns out, our simian cousins have the same reaction.

The researcher had the monkey play a game.  It was fun for the monkey.  AND, the monkey got a treat for playing.  He got his favorite food instead of the regular stuff.  But after pairing the game with the treat for several repetitions, it wasn’t fun anymore.  The monkey just wanted the treat.  So he played the game to get the treat, and wouldn't play if there was no treat.  After trying and trying and trying, eventually they got the monkey to play it again, but it was lethargically and methodically and he clearly wasn’t having any fun anymore.  Shifting the monkey’s attention to the link between the treat and the game eliminated the link between fun and the game. 

That research I was referring to earlier found this same effect in people.  Whether you are talking about motivating workers to do their job better or students to study harder or people to play sports harder, providing tangible incentives (with people this is usually money) ruins the intangible incentives like fun and enjoyment.  And without intrinsic motivation, people can do brute force and effort, but not be creative or have fun.  This is a very important lesson for managers, entrepreneurs, parents, and pretty much everyone at some point.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Counterintuitive thinking about the social web

Some recent work by Nancy Baym at the University of Kansas at Lawrence finds that common wisdom about people on the social web may be wrong.  She finds that many people benefit from their on-line interaction in ways that help them in the real world.  It is the exact opposite of socially isolating.

Her research compared groups of university students who were interacting either in person or in a chat room.  Students who were either shy or anxious were a lot more likely to contribute and even to lead the group online than in person.  And the other students developed better opinions of the shy and anxious ones.  She also concludes that this online interaction could be practice for live interactions and therefore be helpful for the shy and anxious students when they are in real social situations.  Rather than making them more introverted, it gave them social skill practice they could use in other situations.  In a more general survey, she also found that time spent by students on Facebook was correlated with levels of empathy both online and off. 

Is this what you would have guessed?  My own research on the social web would have made me hesitant to jump to conclusions, but I am not sure I would have realized how helpful it was for shy students when they later get into live social situations to have practiced online.