Friday, March 5, 2010

Is There An Academy Award for Knowing Useless Information?

I once took a course in Cognitive Neuroscience - a course catered towards ‘cognitive systems’ majors from the computer science department and ‘behavioural neuroscience’ majors from the psychology department. Together we gathered in a classroom of self-importance to discuss a variety of scientific case studies and anecdotes - each week we were asked to read three peer-reviewed articles, and class time was devoted to dissecting each one and refuting their methods and findings.

There were many memorable studies - the one where the author argued that autism was not a disability, because autistic people have good informational skills and are worthwhile human beings who deserve to be loved. (Ivy argued: total bullshit. Ivy was scorned by her peers. BUT being disabled and being an inhuman monster undeserving of love or recognition are very different things. The article was nothing but sentimental feces based on prejudice. Case closed.)

Then there was phantom limb syndrome, orgasms in amputated feet, and people whose brains had been sawed in half by doctors trying to cure them of epilepsy. There was the case of the one man who’s right hand kept trying to strangle him to death in the grocery store, and then cases of patients insisting that their own limb was that of a corpse (“the doctors must have snuck it in my bed.”

Somewhere in the midst of it all was a smallish article on human interpretations of probability. It focused on a quirk of nature and seemingly anti-Darwinian fact: human beings suck at making guesses, in part because we’re so intelligent.

It’s this article I’m thinking of now, as I struggle make my final predictions for Best Picture and Best Actress, mere days before the Academy Awards.

You see, if Option A is right 70% of the time, and Option B is right 30% of the time, a less intelligent person or species tends to pick Option A, over and over again. Unable to perceive any odds ratio, the ‘uneducated’ guess is simply one of picking the perceived winner - and the result is winning 70% of the time.

But humans don’t tend to act this way - if Option A is right 70% of the time, we’ll choose it 70% of the time, and if Option B is right 30% of the time, we’ll choose it 30% of the time. But 70% of 70% equals 49%, and 30% of 30% is just 9%, so we’ll only end up being right 68% of the time...a 2% loss to the less intelligent species. And the losses only get worse when the odds get more complex...say there are three options, or four, or ten.

This is actually quite a big deal.

In my family, watching the Academy Awards and betting on the nominees is the emotional equivalent of Christmas, only better. Because while Christmas is centred around commercialism, our Oscar pool is centred around cutthroat competition and rights to brag. It is a very serious thing.

But my mom will pick who's going to win Best Foreign Film almost entirely based on which film is French Canadian, or from a country whose men she finds sexy. And when it comes to Best Actor, she was my sister will likely go for Colin Firth - not because he’s a very good actor (he’s not), but because he’s in Love Actually and Bridget Jones and oh so moppet-y and adorable (“and he really does try to act, sometimes!”). My grandmother makes her picks, mostly, on title alone - it’s rare she’s seen more that three of the movies.

My brother and I (but mostly, me) will pore over the options, vetting them up against each other, watching every movie I can, reading every blog I can, wondering if there’ll be backlash against Jeff Bridge’s inevitable Best Actor win, and if the producer’s disinvitation from the awards will further hurt Hurt Locker’s standing as runner-up for gold. Avatar’s odds of winning are 30%, Inglorious Basterd’s just 12%, and Up In the Air a slim 8%...but Inglorious Basterd’s was actually amazingly epic, AND a Holocaust movie, though an wildly inaccurate one...will that endear it to mostly-Jewish voters, known for their love of Holocaust movies, or only alienate them? How can I Choose?

If science has taught me anything, it’s that overthinking will get you nowhere, and that in an odds game, lower species always win. And the odds are in favour of my losing the Oscar Pool. Cognitive Neuroscience tells me so.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Rambles of the Day

Quote, from the late and great Kurt Vonnegut: "To all aspiring writers just starting out: Don't use semicolons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest that you might have gone to college."

Reasons to Feel Good: I won a grant (for work, not for me, which in some ways is more awesome cause now I get to brag and still look money!), I finished reading an amazing book (the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which blew my mind with its awesomeness), I felt so inspired by said book that I signed up to take a Spanish course, which I found out I can do for free (free!), I finished a giant work project and feel proud of said giant work project, my evil roommate moved out today, and I spent the afternoon in my garden killing grubs and planting peas.

Reasons to Feel Crappy: I banged my head really hard on an open cupboard while loading my dishwasher. It hurts.

And also...

Plastic terrifies me.

I know that when you hear ‘fear of plastic,’ it sounds like a particularly obscure and debilitating phobia. But this isn’t like fear of spiral notebokes, or fear of the number three. Plastic is scary shit.

Every day we produce thousands and thousands of tiny novelty plastic items which will never go away. Every day we keep pumping out more and more of this (literal) garbage which will never disappear. That toothbrush you just bought - that water bottle - that novelty waving Chinese cat - they will last forever. Forever! Doesn’t that terrify you?

...No? And I should probably see a psychiatrist?

Well I have news for you! Plastic IS scary, and I already see a psychiatrist. So, there.