Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writing pace, normal keyboard vs Swype

I frequently use my smartphone for typing emails as well as notes when I am listening to audiobooks. In the past I used the keyboard swiftkey but since about a year back I switched to swype which is much faster, especially when using only one hand, which I am frequently forced to do. Swyping seem hard at first but as you learn the benefits are quite noticeable. I was curious to see how fast my Swyping was compared to my writing pace on a normal keyboard. To do this I tried writing three paragraphs (see below) with a keyboard and my swype keyboard, measuring the time with an online stopwatch. 

As expected, writing on a keyboard is faster, but by how much? In my not very professional study it took 104s, 105s and 106s to write on keyboard and 156s, 135s and 145s on Swype for the three paragraphs respectively. Since the paragraphs were about the same length (and since this is not being sent for peer review), we simply take an average which is 145 seconds for Swype and 105 seconds for the normal keyboard. This means that for me it was approximately 40 percent faster to write on the normal keyboard. Keep in mind though that I have been writing on a keyboard almost since I was a baby = lots more training.

In sum I think that even though swyping is 40% slower than the very fast keyboard, it is a great tool and I will continue to use it. I wonder how swype would do against an old school pencil. I see a tournament in the brewing... =)

Paragraphs (taken from my own blog) and times

Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?

Swype: 2.36 = 156s
Keyboard 1.44 = 104s

The bottom line is that vaccinations save lives, many many lives. Still people in Sweden are now raging over the suggested link between the swine flu vaccine and narcolepsy in which less than a hundred extra cases may have occurred due to vaccination. Of course, I sincerely sympathize but no sane human being should question the value of vaccination in general because of this potential misfortune

Keyboard 1.45= 105s
Swype 2.15 =135s

In the end I guess it all comes down to what your values are. Is it worth it to sacrifice laboratory animals in order to develop medicines that can cure us as well as animals. My answer is yes, but I don't think it is entirely obvious, so think for yourself. Perhaps we should be content with just living 48 years instead of around 75 years, and perhaps we should just accept that some diseases will kill us (I am not being sarcastic here).

Keyboard. 1.46 = 106s
Swype 2.25 = 145s

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an amazing scientist. I have always thought so and this first part in his autobiography trilogy do reinforce my favorable view on Dawkins. His greatness, in my opinion, primarily lies in his unequaled ability to convey science to the general public using a language which should make him eligible for the Nobel prize in literature (seriously!). His book, the selfish gene is probably the book that have meant the most to me personally, all categories, and reading excerpts from it in this book made me remember what a great book it was, and still is. In fact, reading “An appetite for wonder”, made me decide to re-read Dawkins original best-seller (which I am now doing).


Yes, Dawkins is a fantastic writer and scientist, but this book, on the whole, did not live up to my admittedly high expectations. Perhaps others will disagree with me but I am not personally very interested in great people’s childhood, unless it is truly extraordinary. Yes Dawkins grew up in Africa and that was probably interesting, however, I would personally have preferred if this section was significantly shorter or left out.

The book gets more interesting when Richard gets into Balliol college, Oxford. As a University teacher one of my favorite sections of the book was Dawkins description of the education system in Oxford. Their system in which students each week study a new topic by reading up on the scientific literature and try to form hypotheses, and then discuss what they have learnt with tutors who are also leading scientists made me, well… jealous. He claims that students at oxford never asked the question, “will this be on the exam?”, which is a question I get all too frequently…

Following his description of the education system in Oxford a semi-interesting description of his early years in academia follows. The book, in my opinion reaches its climax towards the end when Dawkins discusses and reads excerpts from the Selfish Gene. I realize it may sound nerdy but just hearing a few lines from that book can increase my pulse significantly, and it was interesting to get to understand how the book came about. I was also pleased to find out that, like myself, the great writer Richard Dawkins does not write his book in one go. Rather, every sentence that he writes have been written and re-written many times. Like the natural selection of biological organisms, this way of writing should lead to evolution of better sentences and in the end a better book. This is certainly the case with the Selfish Gene.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quote from the Selfish Gene

I am currently re-reading the Selfish Gene which is a book I think everyone should read. Few books are simultaneously beautifully written, clear in thought, and dense with information at the same time, but the Selfish Gene is certainly all this. As a teaser, take this often cited quote from the end of chapter two. Dawkins is talking about ancient molecules capable of making copies of themselves (replicators). These replicators are the rulers of the world, whereas we humans are just their machines that they build to benefit their own survival. Take it away Dr. Dawkins...

“Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?

They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.

They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review of the world until yesterday by Jared Diamond

Up until a few tens of thousands years ago all humans lived in bands consisting of up to a few dussin people. Thus during almost our entire evolutionary past we lived in an environment very different from the one we live in today. To understand the evolutionary pressures that have shaped our behavior and our cognition we need to look at the way our ancestors lived. This is of course more or less impossible because written history did not appear until very recently. However, there are people alive today, who live in a manner we think is very similar to the way all humans used to live. This book is about these peoples. How do they live and think, what are the similarities and differences between us and them? What can we learn from the way they live?

This book shows that the life of our ancestors was not, as some people (especially Disney employees) like to think, all romantic and in harmony with nature etc. Personally I would never switch my life in a civilized western nation for a life in the jungles of New Guinea, and I think that any informed person would be inclined to make the same choice. The life expectancy is about half of what I have now. They are also much more likely to be murdered because crime rates in such societies is extremely high compared to any state nation. Also they have no Wi-Fi, and that would suck too.

In short, life was not better before, it is better now, much better. With that said, there are many lessons to learn from traditional societies and lifestyles. Jared Diamond in “The world until yesterday” goes through many aspects of life, including but not limited to health, crime, diet, child rearing and care for the elderly. Consistently, there are things that we do better in modern western societies and to his credit Diamond points this out. However, there are also lessons to be learned from people living in traditional societies.

The justice system is good example. Crimes in traditional societies are dealt with by the community. There are no absolute laws. For example, murder is sometimes seen as justified and therefore not punished. If someone accidentally causes the death of another person then it may be sufficient for the perpetrator to pay sorrow money to the victims family. Western societies on the other hand see crimes as committed against the community and a perpetrator cannot walk away even if the victim forgives him (yes it is usually “hims”). What lessons can we derive from this. It is probably the case that we can learn things from traditional societies about finding common ground between perpetrator and victim. Grudges are usually resolved one way or another. However, in traditional societies it is also much more common that people take justice into their own hands, which can and do have fatal outcomes.

In some areas the conclusion that progress have been made is inescapable. One perhaps unexpected example of this is wars. The first time I heard about the relative casualty rates in traditional and modern “total” wars I was rather surprised. I had always thought that the second world war was the worst war in the history of mankind, however, if one compares the casualty rate in the second world war with the casualties in wars between traditional tribes it is actually much higher in the latter. In some traditional wars the casualty rate reaches one percent of the population annually whereas Germany and Russia (the two worst hit nations) saw casualty rates of about 0.16 percent annually during the second world war. In other words, you would be much more likely to die in a “traditional war” than in WW2… One factor here is also the fact that whereas children in western societies are taught that killing is wrong and often feel bad after having killed another person (even in wars), children in traditional societies are sometimes taught to feel pride upon killing an enemy. Taking into account wars as well as violence that occurs between wars, it is crystal clear that we are much better off in our modern world. As Jeff Niehaus, who was teaching developmental psychology at UCSB once said, downtown Chicago is actually really peaceful if you compare it to traditional societies.


guess that it is clear to the reader that I feel quite fortunate that I live in a modern society and not in the jungles of New Guinea. In a few respects however the sometimes cannibalistic tribes outperform us. One obvious example is language. An average New Guinean knows five languages, which is rather impressive. I personally know only three and I think that is probably better than the average person in modern societies. Diamond argues that we should try and preserve languages which are otherwise bound to go extinct. I was not entirely convinced by his arguments. I accept that bilingualism is associated with performance on other types of tasks, delayed dementia etc, however, I also think that it would be desirable if communication between different peoples of the world was easier. Maybe there is a compromise between extinction of all languages except english (or chinese), and the ability of people to talk to each other (I’ll have to return to that topic).

In one of the last chapters Jared Diamond compares the health of people in modern and traditional societies, with mixed conclusions. Once again it is absolutely clear that we live longer in western societies. This ought to be problematic to explain for those who like to claim that a “natural” lifestyle is preferable and more healthy in general. Even though we are using more and more “chemicals” (everythings is chemicals really), we also live longer and longer. If chemicals kill us, then why do we live longer? In some respects our modern lifestyle is not so good however. We do consume too much salt and sugar. Diabetes is pretty much unheard of in some traditional societies, and high blood pressure (which occur if we eat too much salt), is also extremely uncommon. So one lesson we can learn is to eat less sugar and salt.

There are many more interesting topics in this book. One that I found particularly interesting was child rearing practices where people in traditional societies spend much more time which their kids and have much more skin to skin contact, an approach I personally do believe in to a certain extent. I also liked the discussion about treatment of the elderly which ranges from leaving them to die when they go dement (this was the practice of Swedish natives), or killing them when they are no longer of any use, to chewing their food for them when they have no teeth (yuk).

Overall I liked this book. It was 20 hours well spent although I think Diamond could have excluded certain parts that were personal and not so interesting if you are not extremely interested in Diamonds personal life. However, I did learn a lot that I did not know before and it gave me some new perspectives and it even made me want to change a few things in my own life. Above all however, the book reminded me of the privileged life I live. I live in peace. I have a family that I love (and I am under the impression that they like me too). I have a stimulating job that I like, and I am able to explore the world in a way that would be completely unimaginable to 99.99% of all humans that have existed on this planet. I really did win the lottery in the most important sense. Lucky me =)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Flynn effect, explained

The flynn effect refers to the substantial increase in average IQ seen in western societies since Binet started testing IQ scores in the 19th century. An average person living one hundred years ago would score about 70 on a modern IQ test, which happens to also be the cutoff score for mental retardation. Were our ancestors really retards?

How can this be the case given that we know that IQ is highly heritable (60 to 80 percent of the variance is explained by genes)? I believe (and I believe others believe this), that IQ is highly heritable given a relatively modern environment. What distinguishes our modern society from the society a hundred years ago is that today we deal with abstractions and categorizations all the time. Computers and the internet is based on interactions with representations of things i.e., abstractions.

Similarly, according to James Flynn (see video), there has been a notable shift in tasks that children encounter in school. A hundred years ago, tasks and examples were almost entirely based on concrete examples about things the students would encounter. Today, almost all tasks are abstract, requiring imagination of things you may or may not have seen.

The shift is also evidenced by the fact that many people living in traditional societies, whose lifestyles are more similar to that of our ancestors, are unwilling or incapable of thinking about abstract things. In the video, James Flynn talk about a conversation between an anthropologist and a native of some traditional society (cannot remember which). The anthropologist asks the man to imagine that in a country where there is always snow, bears will be white. If there is always snow in Greenland then what color will the bears be? Despite this relativeThe native insisted that to know this he would have to go and take a look or send a trusted associate to have a look. Thinking in what if terms was not a possibility...

IQ tests are to a large extent a measure of our ability to think about abstract things. This ability is undoubtedly a product of both nature and nurture. I would predict that if we could send a modern baby back a hundred years and be raised in that environment, that child would not get a great IQ score. Still this does not mean that IQ is not heritable. The variance in a population where all individuals encounter abstractions frequently (this is definitely the case in modern western nations), is likely to depend on genes. It is simply easier for some individuals.

I often hear that IQ is just "one type of intelligence" and it is often suggested that IQ doesn't matter. While IQ is not all that matters, there is a lot of evidence showing that IQ scores correlate with performance on a number of tasks and work. Your score on an IQ test is also one of the best predictors of life happiness. Our improved ability to think in abstract terms is likely to be have many positive effects. James Flynn takes about an older relative of his, who was incapable of thinking about hypothetical situations that people could encounter in other parts of the world. Our ability to reason abstractly allows us to take the perspective of other people in other parts of the world. I believe that this is a crucial ingredient in the improving global society we are seeing.

Were our ancestors retarded? Probably the answer is yes and no. If they had grown up in our society they would have become as good as us at reasoning abstractly, but since this was not the case they were probably somewhat retarded, at least in certain areas