The urban formula

I’ve just caught up with a wonderful New York Times article on the underlying social structure of cities and how seemingly simple mathematical formulas can describe the complexities of urban living.

Geoffrey West is an ex-particle physicist who decided to ‘solve’ cities and set about looking for mathematical laws in the seething mass of statistics generated by city life.

There is something deeply strange about thinking of the metropolis in such abstract terms. We usually describe cities, after all, as local entities defined by geography and history. New Orleans isn’t a generic place of 336,644 people. It’s the bayou and Katrina and Cajun cuisine. New York isn’t just another city. It’s a former Dutch fur-trading settlement, the center of the finance industry and home to the Yankees.

And yet, West insists, those facts are mere details, interesting anecdotes that don’t explain very much. The only way to really understand the city, West says, is to understand its deep structure, its defining patterns, which will show us whether a metropolis will flourish or fall apart. We can’t make our cities work better until we know how they work. And, West says, he knows how they work.

It’s not just about the fundamental of our most complex human societies though – the article reflects on the role of large social groups in human development and their varying forms of durability.

My description doesn’t nearly do the piece justice, however, which remains one of the most intriguing and stimulating articles I’ve ever read on the evolution of urban living.

Link to NYT ‘A Physicist Solves the City’.

A slice of the pusher man

New York Magazine has an in-depth article on a low-level drug dealer in the Big Apple who is trying, somewhat half-heartedly, to get out of the game.

It is neither glamorisation nor condemnation, but is a carefully observed slice of life from a business minded, spreadsheet obsessed, upper middle class cocaine dealer.

Lenny sighs, rubs his temples, orders another beer. Sometimes he can’t help but be disgusted by his customers, people living the heedless life he gave up when he “changed from being a consumer in that environment to being a provider for that lifestyle.” But Lenny is a consummate salesman, and to his customers he plays the role of cordial and crooked shrink, supplying all the hollow justifications that once kept his own fears at bay.

When clients invite him to hang out, Lenny understands their motives: They need to convince themselves that he is merely a friend who happens to have drugs on him, not a dealer supporting an unhealthy habit. So Lenny chills, sips a beer. Sometimes customers insist he do a line with them, at which point Lenny, who no longer uses, “accidentally” blows out through the straw so the coke flies everywhere, and then laughs it off.


Link to ‘The One-Man Drug Company’ (via Metafilter).

See Think Mash

Online scallywags The Daily Mash have a funny piece satirising the way neuroscience studies get reported in the media.

To be honest, I think I might keep the first paragraph and use it to improve any dodgy science stories that come my way from now on.

Scientists at the Institute for Studies have finally established that when human eyes see a thing the brain will often generate a thought that is in some way related to the thing that has just been seen.

Professor Henry Brubaker said: “We applied the seeing-thinking forumula to smoking and found that it followed exactly the same pattern.

“We got a bunch of smokers together and showed them a picture of a cigarette. We asked them if this made them think about cigarettes and they all said ‘yes’.”

Similarities to any recently published studies are, of course, purely co-incidental.

Link to The Daily Mash story (via @david_colquhoun).

And I’m telling you you’re dead

Two delusional patients who believed that friends and relatives had died, despite them being around to prove otherwise, are described in an amazing 2005 journal article from the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Although the Cotard delusion is well studied in psychiatry, where patients believe themselves to be dead, the report names the novel belief that another living person has died ‘Odysseus Syndrome’ – after the Greek legend where Penelope continued to believe that Odysseus had died, even after returning home from battle.

Both case studies are quite spectacular:

An 81-year-old lady presented to psychiatric services for the first time with sudden onset of ideas that her grandson had developed grossly swollen legs, inflammation of the brain, lethargy and extreme tiredness after infection by a fly which had picked up radioactive waste in the English Channel. Despite speaking to him over the telephone, she believed that he had died.

She believed that he had no stomach or internal organs, that his eyes had been removed and replaced with glass eyes, that his brain had died and been replaced by a clock and that he had expanded to become grossly obese. She described hallucinations of police providing commentary on his actions, but no other first rank symptoms of schizophrenia. Her mood was subjectively depressed but this clearly post-dated the onset of her delusions.

The lady in question had the beliefs for five years by the time of the report, although seemed to be getting on with life despite her mortality-related convictions.

The second case describes a lady with delusions that are reported as being similarly unshakeable.

A 73-year-old lady with a 40 year history of paranoid schizophrenia presented with grossly elated mood, over-activity, over-talkativeness, distractibility and grandiose beliefs. She sought help to prevent ‘experimentation’ on her lover’s health in the flat next door. She maintained he had developed ‘The Pox’ leading to his limbs rotting away, his heart being replaced by a machine and his brain requiring removal.

She believed nonetheless that he could send messages to her via television to which she could respond by arranging candles in a certain fashion. She was observed to be hallucinating to his voice. She maintained that he had died but come back to live in her mattress in a grossly distorted form, being very much larger than he had been in real life.


Link to DOI entry for journal article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

2011-01-14 Spike activity

A somewhat belated collection of quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

All in the Mind host Natasha Mitchell has an insightful article on the perils of treating psychological distress after disasters in light of the devastation from the Australian floods.

Bullshit Blue Monday came and went – and this year was being used to promote a £40-60 an hour internet counselling service. Ironically, it has become one of my worst days of the year.

The New York Times covers an interesting project on the obsession with ‘stuff‘ and the homes and possessions of people with agoraphobia.

What if the very irrationality of psychoanalysis is its strength? One of many ace posts on Neuroskeptic this week.

Edge asks it’s annual question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? 163 of the great and good give their answers.

Scientific American asks whether makeup is a hack for our evolved perception of skin colour and blushing. Baby, that red lipstick is really altering my perceptual heuristics.

There’s a stiff defence of evolutionary psychology over at The EP Blog sparked by bad tempered criticism of a recent Slate article on rape and evolution.

Newsweek has a piece on hacking intelligence, optimising the brain and boosting smarts. Can you build a better brain?

Our world is in dire need of a new organization, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. In The News finds an inspiring speech from Martin Luther King to psychologists.

Read Write Web covers a new Pew study finding that the web is destroying social life as we kn… no wait, sorry, that web users are more socially involved that non-users.

How often are doctors tempted to prescribe what patients want, rather than what’s in the medical guidelines? Dan Ariely’s Irrationally Yours blog considers the psychology of patient power.

Science has a brief study on how writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. ‘I must not wet myself during the test, I must not wet myself during…’

What makes revenge sweet? asks the BPS Research Digest.

Seed Magazine has a powerful piece arguing that for social science to deal with humanity’s most pressing problems, it must be restructured from the ground up.

Teaching style is key to promoting discovery in children finds an eye-opening study covered by the mighty Not Exactly Rocket Science

The Huffington Post has video of a 50s housewife tripping on LSD during an early research project.

Vintage Schneider Brain Wave Synchronizer Model MD-5. For Sale – on EBay. An awesome find from The Neurocritic.

The psychophysics of policy positions

In which I suggest applying the methods of experimental psychology to a longstanding question in political science.

Many people feel that there is no “real difference” between political parties (for example, Labour vs Conservatives in the UK). Politians are all the same, right? At least superficially, mainsteam parties will all echo commitments to values such as “community” and “education” and positions such as “tough on crime” and “for a strong economy”.

In perceptual psychology we have a number of methods of calculating how accurate and sensitive a sense, like sight or hearing, is. Using these ‘psychophysical’ methods you can come up with a number which allows you to compare across different senses, or across different people. So, for example, we could show that vision is more sensitive than hearing, or that your vision is more sensitive than mine (or even that your vision is more sensitive than my hearing). These methods account for things like base-rate biases in people’s responding (so, for example, it could account for the fact that you might be more likely to say you can see something when you are in doubt, while I might be more likely to say that I can’t when I am in doubt). This sensitivity statistic I am thinking of is called d’ (“d prime”) by psychologists.

I’ve been considering whether these methods from perceptual psychology could be used to address the question of how similar the positions of political parties are. My way of testing and tracking the difference in the stated policy positions of the parties would work like this: you take a standard public expression of party positions (election manifestos?) and sample policy statements (size of sample to be decided, somewhere between individual sentences and paragraphs). Then, after coding the statements for their year and origin, you anonymise them and ask voters to say which party they think the statements come from. With a few psychophysical calculations we can then come up with a sensitivity statistics which reveals how easy voters find it to distinguish the policy positions of the two parties, and we can then compare how this changes over time, or in different policy areas.

Friend and political scientist Will Jennings, told me that – of course – political scientists already look at this topic. The British Election Study has been asking voters since 1964 how close the parties are. Projects such as the Comparative Manifestos Project have coded party manifestos from around the world, using techniques such as automated coding of text and expert surveys (i.e. asking academics what they think).

The problem with asking voters how close the parties are, or to code the parties as more “left-wing” or more “right-wing” is that you deal with opinions of voters, not their actual ability to discriminate between the positions of the parties. The problem with coding the manifestos is that it puts a layer of intepretation (as to what counts as left-wing, or converservative, or whatever) before you can judge one manifesto as closer or further away from another.

My psychophysics approach tests directly the ability of voters to discriminate between stated policy positions. We do this by presenting many small fragments of the manifestos and asking a participant to judge which party they are from. By gathering many many judgements we can get a sense of how likely they are to name each particular party (i.e. their bias) and get a sense for how likely they are to be correct (i.e. their sensitivity). We combine these, accounting for any bias towards naming a particular party, to get an estimate of their ability to discriminate between the parties based on their stated policy positions. You can average this index across people, removing random variation in sensitivity between people, to get an estimate of how discriminable two stated positions truly are.

Cross-posted, with some informed comment, at The Monkey Cage

The real real thing

The can on the left is an energy drink that gets its kick from real coca leaves.

It’s called Coca Sek and was created by the indigenous Páez people of Colombia, partly in protest at the association between their traditional plant and the cocaine trade, which makes the illicit drug by processing the leaves.

The indigenous people of South American have used coca for thousands of years for its mild stimulant effects. Coca Cola originally used coca leaf extract for its kick, hence the name, but now apparently only uses ‘denatured’ leaves for flavouring.

It has only been relatively recently that the plant has been of interest to narcotraffickers, leading to the stigmatisation of the plant and its use to fund violence.

In 2005, the Páez people decided they would make a series line of home products based on coca, partly as a form of income and partly as a way of rehabilitating the image of their sacred plant.

They launched the drink to much fanfare, including coverage by the LA Times, only for the Colombian government to pressure the major supermarkets to take it off their shelves in 2007 because of its association with drugs.

However, the product lines, including energy drinks and tea bags, are still available in market stalls and health food shops around the capital.

Link to somewhat sparse Wikipedia page on the drink.