Unrelated to all that, 8/9 edition

Ant colony ‘personalities’ shaped by environment

Certain behaviours go together – for example, a colony that explores more widely for food also tends to respond more aggressively to an intruder….Such a colony has a more “risk-taking” personality and this was more common in the north, where the climate is colder.

…As such, there is nothing to stop a colony of insects from having a personality – as Ms Bengston found when she tracked how colonies behaved up and down the western US, both in the wild and when she bundled them up and watched them in the lab.


On two Saturdays, they set up tasting displays of either six or 24 jars of jam. Consumers could taste as many jams as they wished, and if they approached the tasting table, also received a $1 discount coupon to buy the jam. For attracting initial interest, the large display of 24 jams did a better job, with 60 per cent of people who passed the display stopping. Forty per cent stopped at the six jam display. But only three per cent of those who stopped at the 24 jam display purchased any of the jam, compared with almost 30 per cent who stopped at the six jam display.

…Fast-forward 10 years to another paper, this one by Benjamin Scheibehenne, Rainer Greifeneder and Peter Todd. They surveyed the literature on the choice overload hypothesis – there is plenty. And across the basket of studies, evidence of choice overload does not emerge so clearly. In some cases, choice increases purchases. In others it reduces them. Scheibehenne and friends determined that the mean effect size of changing the number of choices across the studies was effectively zero.


Rescorla systematically investigated the effects of background information on learning, showing that how often a dog hears a bell in the absence of food (the bell’s background rate) has as much influence on how much it learns to associate bells and food as how often that same dog hears a bell in the presence of food (the pair’s association rate). This finding suggests that it is the informativity of bells about food that drives learning, not mere association. This idea was further confirmed when Leon Kamin discovered blocking: Even if one controls for background rates, if a dog already expects his dinner because it has been trained to associate a flashing light with food, then this prior knowledge will block its learning about a bell if it is now rung as the light flashes. Because the bell adds no new information, to all intents and purposes the dog’s brain ignores it when it comes to learning, just as my brain now ignores the bells that once seemed to be my nemesis.

Visualizing wifi signals

visualizing wifi signals

Science Is Not About Certainty

If Einstein had gone to school to learn what science is, if he had read Kuhn, and the philosophers explaining what science is, if he was any one of my colleagues today who are looking for a solution of the big problem of physics today, what would he do? He would say, “OK, the empirical content is the strong part of the theory. The idea in classical mechanics that velocity is relative: forget about it. The Maxwell equations: forget about them. Because this is a volatile part of our knowledge. The theories themselves have to be changed, OK? What we keep solid is the data, and we modify the theory so that it makes sense coherently, and coherently with the data.”

That’s not at all what Einstein does. Einstein does the contrary. He takes the theories very seriously. He believes the theories. He says, “Look, classical mechanics is so successful that when it says that velocity is relative, we should take it seriously, and we should believe it. And the Maxwell equations are so successful that we should believe the Maxwell equations.” He has so much trust in the theory itself, in the qualitative content of the theory—that qualitative content that Kuhn says changes all the time, that we learned not to take too seriously—and he has so much in that that he’s ready to do what? To force coherence between the two theories by challenging something completely different, which is something that’s in our head, which is how we think about time.

A world of projection distortions

Map projection distortions



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