So, how much free will do we have?

Here’s an email I sent to some of my friends based on an piece I heard on The Naked Scientist:

This group did a study and found that women who were lap dancers and not on the pill (ie they had a normal menstrual cycle) go more tips on their fertile days.  (I can’t imagine the grant application process for that study.  “Yeah, we need to study strip clubs…this is important, somehow….”)

So another group wanted to explore this.  They selected a bunch of women who were not on the pill and told them to wear a t-shirt to sleep during their fertile days.  (No perfume or garlic allowed on those days because it would bias the results.  Also, they had to bathe with non-scented soap)  Then they had to wear a t-shirt to sleep on their menstruation days.  Then they got a bunch of guys to sniff the shirts.  (This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a t-shirt sniffing test in science.  How do they get people to sign up for these???)  After testing their saliva before and after the sniffing, they found that the men had increased testosterone in their system during the women’s fertile period.

So, not only do woman get hornier during their fertile period, they apparently “force” guys into it the same state.  Makes sense from a biological point of view.  Increased changes of offspring.  And, in the modern day, more tips for strippers.  (Well, lap dancers – I think you had to be within sniffing distance) One unintended consequence:  when men sense other men with elevated levels of testosterone, they have an increased chance of getting into fights.  Probably to ensure the female gets the offspring with the best genes.

And here’s some of the response from our good friend, Duffy, a sociology PhD candidate:

The first and most influential study in the field on this now-hugely-popular topic (Simpson & Gangestad, if I remember correctly, somewhere around the hear 2000) actually studied it from the other direction, with olfaction and t-shirt sniffing. They had men wear tshirts instead and found that women can actually pick more symmetrical men (supposedly the ones with better genes who are more attractive) just by smelling them; they can also pick men who have the most complementary Major Histocompatibility Complex to theirs (MHC-1, which is an indicator of genetic compatibility). Again, the pill actually ruins everything and reverses this, them pick the LEAST compatible men with respect to MHC-1.

Also, more fun stuff about the ovulatory cycle — during the fertile phase (compared to the luteal phase) women actually dress to look sexier (e.g. show more skin), prefer men with more masculine features (e.g. a more square jawline), and are more highly skilled at picking up flirting nonverbals. In the luteal phase they dress more conservatively and prefer more babyfaced men. In truth, it’s not all about the best genes — it’s about conditional mating strategies, which I’ll explain when I haven’t already typed out an entire email essay for you, haha.

Which leads me to wonder how much free will we actually have?  At what point are we being controlled by hormones and at what point are we making our own decisions?  I’m dang near 100% sure that those women in the second study Duffy mentions aren’t consciously thinking, “I’m ovulating!  Better dress sexier!”  First of all, most women I know aren’t monitoring when they are ovulating unless they’re actively TRYING to get pregnant.  Second, over the course of a woman’s fertile years, a huge percentage of the time that she’s ovulating she will actively be trying to remain free from pregnancy.  (For example – probably 100% of the time – from, say middle school through the end of college – at least)  Yet there they are behaving in ways that will lead to an outcome they don’t want.  At the same time, no guy is, upon coming close enough to smell a woman, thinking, “Oh man, she’s ovulating!  It’s gonna be so easy to convince her to have sex!”  And, in fact, while his testosterone levels may be elevated, he will not know why he finds himself so attracted to this woman.

So we’re left wondering how much free will this leaves us?  After all, if something as mechanical as a menstrual cycle is dictating how women dress, who they are attracted to that night, and how easy it will be to bed them, where does that leave us?  Of course, it’s not automatic, so we do have free will.  Every day people will find themselves sexually attracted to people and they don’t act on it, but something just seems sinister about the fact that it’s all based on chemicals rather than a person’s personality.  Let’s say in a scenario where two women are equally visually attractive (and with the same general personality), but one is ovulating and therefore is the one the guy ends up with – it could potentially lead to a completely different life if this one meeting led to marriage.  Had the chemicals been reversed, the man would have ended up with the other girl.  This just seems wrong…

Why do donations require special events? (or presents)

Free Software Foundation Member Kit
The trinkets I received for becoming a member of the Free Software Foundation.

I’ve been wondering about a peculiar aspect of human motivation. Why do we require a present of some sort in exchange for a donation? Let’s take NPR for example. During membership drives a donation will net the donator a hat or tote bag or something like that. But why does there have to be a prize for donation? The point of donation is that you realize some organization or cause needs your money. So why waste some of that money to get a mug? And if you wanted a mug emblazoned with the NPR logo, you could just go to the NPR store and buy it. But getting gifts must entice more people to donate or organizations wouldn’t waste money on it when they could be using all the money to cover their costs.

The same goes for Race for the Cure type events. You get people to sponsor you to give you some set amount of money contingent on you racing. But who cares whether or not you actually race? The people are presumably donating to something they believe in so why does their contribution depend upon you burning some calories?

Part of what got me wondering about this was remembering when I was around 11 years old and I got people to sponsor me based on how many laps I would swim in 2 hours. The money was going to help fund the city pool we swam in. I most got contributions of nickels and dimes per lap, but one family friend agreed to donate one dollar. Well, during the two hours I swam nearly 200 laps. My mother told me I couldn’t ask her for $200 even though she was betting on how many laps I’d do in 2 hours just like everyone else.

As an adult, I started thinking about this. OK – the people who agreed to donate some amount of money per lap must have done some calculation in their head about how many laps I might be able to swim in two hours. That was the upper bound on what they were willing to donate. So why not just donate that money? Why make me swim for two hours? And, if I went way over what they expected me to swim and they weren’t going to give me that money anyway, then why not just donate whatever was the max they were willing to give.

Philanthropy is an interesting human concept. An individual is donating money which, by definition, is giving money without getting anything in return. But they must get something in return whether it’s prestige or an NPR umbrella. And what are they getting in return when they donate based on how much physical activity someone does?

My Pathalogy

According to the latest issue of IEEE Spectrum, I suffer from completism. Completism is when you have to have all of a collection. It’s true I’m always get annoyed whenever I have only one DVD of a Tv series or if I have 9 of 10 DVDs or something. Feel the same way? Now you know what it’s called!

“Please See A Psychiatrist…”

That’s what the computer told my fiancee. “You have been classified as having the symptoms of being bipolar,” it continued. A friend of mine had recently taken an online diagnosis using the school’s health website. I felt it was bogus and told him so, but to drive the point home my fiancee and I decided to take the test ourselves.

We answered all of the questions from her point of view, but we didn’t do this in a, “let’s mess with the system” sort of way; we genuinely filled out the answers. I knew the diagnosis would be less than perfect when it simply consisted of multiply choice questions like

  1. I sometimes do this
  2. I always do this
  3. I do this every full moon

I don’t know about you, but when given surveys like that, none of the answers seem to fit me well. I always have to go with the “best fit”. And usually it’s more of a second order approximation. So, anyway, the computer told her she had better see a psychiatrist because she was displaying symptoms of bipolar. No one knows her better than me, except maybe her parents, and if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that she is NOT bipolar. She is definitely consistent in her moods, desires, and wants – as consistent as any “normal” human being.

The important thing to remember whenever you use a website such as or to self-diagnose you have to remember that there is no good substitute for a doctor. Look at it this way, a doctor goes to school for quite a number of years beyond undergraduate before being able to open up a practice. Even then, the doctor is mostly guessing at what is wrong with you based on your symptoms. Many times it takes a few diagnosis before the doctor can know what’s wrong with you because nearly every disease has the same symptoms. Take it from someone who’s been a “victim” of these websites, use them only for researching a disease a doctor has told you that you have. Don’t use it to try to see what’s wrong with you or you will go crazy. Seriouly, you could have flu symptoms and it will look like you’re dying of ovarian cancer, even if you’re a guy. 😉 So how could a web page survey do much better at diagnosis? It cannot look for symptoms you don’t know to tell it about. A doctor and observe you and see what’s going on. A web site relies on your answers and biases. If you are a person who believes your are ill you will answer more negatively than a person who believes everything is alright.

And, of course, there are the weird algorithms because none of the answers we entered should have signalled bipolar. They were all consistent and normal.

Bottom line – don’t get freaked out for no reason until you see a doc.

Welcome to your Lucid Dream

Yesterday I was doing looking for the website to Wikipedia and came across Wikibooks, which happens to be run by the same group, The Wiki Media Foundation. Since I knew what Wikipedia was, I decided to see what Wikibooks was. Well, the same way that Wikipedia attempts to be an encyclopedia which anyone can contribute to, Wikibooks is like a library written by everyone online. I’m not so sure if I will ever use Wikibooks in the near future, but Wikipedia is a pretty good resource to use.

It just so happened that this month’s featured book on Wikibooks was a book called Lucid Dream. This caught my eye for one reason only: in Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise’s character, David, orders the Lucid Dream package from the cryrogenics company. (DO NOT CONTINUE UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE MOVIE AND/OR DON’T CARE ABOUT SPOILERS!) As you know, the whole point of the movie is that everying occurring in the movie after the club scene is just a movie of sorts playing in David’s head. He thinks it’s real because the mind cannot tell the difference between a dream and reality. But why was it called the Lucid Dream package? When I saw the movie I was so caught up in the revelation that a full quater to (maybe) half of the movie had not even ocurred and was just a computer glitch that I didn’t even think twice about the Lucid Dream. Even the second and third times I saw it, I was busy trying to catch the foreshadowing and really trying to figure out what the movie was about. Like a good piece of art, the movie is up for interpretation. It was purposely made to have a vague ending. When David wakes up, we once again hear “open your eyes” and are unsure of whether he was dreaming the whole thing, had woken up in the lab, or had restarted his dream. It was both frustrating and beautiful at the same time. (END OF SPOILERS)

So what IS a Lucid Dream? I only read the introductory section of the Wikibook, but the practive of Lucid Dreaming is dreaming while knowing that you are dreaming. It’s something you can become awesome at instead of it just happening every once in a while. I don’t know about my readers (and you are free to use the comments feature of the blog to enlighten me) but I have unintentionally had lots of lucid dreams. It used to happen a lot more often when I was a young child in elementary school, but I remember controlling parts of my dream down to the last detail, even “rewinding” my dreams and redoing certain scenes if I felt they could be improved.

It still happens to me, but it’s very rare nowadays since I usually don’t get enough sleep either due to school work or because I stay up with other pursuits, such as writing a blog. However, when I do get to sleep until my body wakes itself up, independent of alarm clocks, fiancees, or other external stimuli, I find that the last half hour to hour before I wake up, I’m usually lucid dreaming. I’m usually in a state somewhere between sleep and wake and am able to control certain aspects of the dream. As I progressively wake up, I’m able to control more of the dream, but I am also less asleep and more awake just daydreaming. Finally, just before I wake up, I’m basically just daydreaming and waiting to get ot a part of the dream where it bores me and I feel like getting out of bed.

I don’t know if it’s being back in academia and having my mind stimulated, the excitement of having this new blog, or what, but I feel like I’ve been blogging on a level that I haven’t done in months. As a quick reminder I’ll probably be saying daily for a week or so, don’t forget that this blog will go inactive when my server goes down, but you can continue to read my blog at and once I get my server up at the new site, I will migrate my blog over to this server.