Category Archives: General

Discussion #19 – “You’re Not My Type” – the Science and Ethics of Personality Testing

We’re joined this week by musician, writer and director Polash Larsen for a critical look at the world of “personality testing” and in particular the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which categorizes people (“personalities”) as four-letter codes (e.g. ENTP).

If you like Myers-Briggs, I should warn you that we don’t (much). As gentlemen scientists, we’re not fond of any scheme that seeks to linearize a complex, non-linear system – especially when that scheme is then used as a guide for how to treat other people.

Calling someone (or yourself) an ENTP is fine as a game, but claiming it’s somehow scientific is wrong. It’s arbitrary and made up. And then using it to pre-judge people – well, that raises ethical questions.

chimpanzeeENTPs on the prowl

Personality testing and Myers Briggs in particular is very popular in certain circles (e.g. recruiting). The assumption that people have unified “personalities” and that these don’t change over time is common enough to have become a part of our language (she’s not my “type”). There’s something comforting about labelling other people and yourself.

Polash puts forward a plausible hypothesis about this – do we just label ourselves to be who we want to be?

[By the way, the soundtrack for today’s podcast is Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract. Don’t ask us to explain – just go with us on this one.]

She was our type (in 1989)

Update Monday 2/11: BTW Paula Abdul sends her love! (no, really)

Horoscopes and fortune telling are fun, but we don’t hire and fire based on them (although, see footnote about Raymond Domenach below). By putting people in boxes, we deny them the opportunity (the right!) to surprise us. Labelling people has a painful history – let’s just be careful.

Special note: we should really issue a (mild) bad language warning for this week 🙂

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1Wikipedia entry for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

2Uncovering the Secret History of Myers-Briggs – excellent piece by Merve Emre.

3Stephen Jay Gould gives a wonderful example of reification in a devastating critique of IQ testing and the concept of intelligence in A Mismeasure of Man

4Explaining the term “bogan” to a non-Australian is always difficult. Maybe the best way is to direct the interested reader to Things Bogans Like.

5The French soccer team was chosen using psychology (no Scorpios!) Raymond Domenach Looks to the Stars

6If you want to find out more about moral psychology (and chickens) check out this page.


Discussion #18 – Aging, Immortality and Pretending to be Young

Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.” [I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her “What do you want?” She answered, “I want to die.”] – epigraph to ‘The Wasteland’ by T.S. Eliot

This week we are joined by Dr Nic Woods, a doctor, health IT expert and fellow gentleman scientist. We’re all in our forties now (‘the decade that matters’ as on of our friends told us) and aging is on our minds. The Cumean Sibyl of legend wants to die as the price of immortality. In the modern world, we are encouraged to pretend to be young.

In our case, we’d just be happy to get a few more years 🙂

I look the same – right?

But medical science is already prolonging our lives, in the future maybe by decades or more. Forty is the new thirty, thirty is the new twenty etc. etc. But are we here for a long time or a good time? No one wants to cling on for years and years as a vegetable, but conversely it seems morally imperative that we pursue longer life if we can.

Nic gives us some excellent expert medical viewpoints to augment our usual gentlemanly ramblings, including a description of aging as an accumulation of errors. And with recent revelations about neuroplasticity in older age, there is hope for all of us.

hugh-hefner-playboyThe Hef, still going strong …

Entropy is entropy. Whatever else we might achieve, we’re unlikely to be able to cheat the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Even if we preserve our bodies, there is systemic physical decay, not the mention the psychological costs of aging and the decline of the mind. Change is the way of the world, and the old must make way for the new eventually.

There may be such a thing as living too long. There may be such a thing as the ‘right’ time to go.

Then again, bring on the nanobots!

99919212-617x416More red blood cells! More!

Thank you for joining us again gentlemen and women – may you live long and prosper. Remember, you’re never too old to disco. But sometimes we lie about our age. As Auden says‘Time will have his fancy/To-morrow or to-day.’

Special apologies for the poor audio quality in this discussion. Also check out our previous Discussion #15 – the Mindset of Aging

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Discussion #17 – Ancestors, Kinship and Genomics

Why do we find our ancestors so fascinating? In many cultures, the story of our ancestors is incorporated into daily life and celebrated through ritual. In the modern world we often pride ourselves on our independence from history, our ability to cut free from tradition and remake ourselves in every generation. And yet, as shown by the popularity of and TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are”, family history matters. Their stories are our stories.

GGFShourov’s great-grandparents – note the colourization of the photos done by hand

Scientists recognize kin selection as an evolutionary strategy – we care more about those genetically closer to us, all the better to persist our genes. This may operate across time too – our great-grandparents share our genes too, and thus trigger the same feelings of kinship. Brian makes the point that listening to your parents is good evolutionary strategy, but listening to the stories of your extended family in time (i.e. your ancestors) may be even more beneficial.

59898047_072077d3bb_oEveryone is you.

Can we hack kinship selection to make the world a better place? We all share a lot more ancestry than we think. Take any two random people from anywhere in Europe and they share hundreds of ancestors from only 1,000 years ago – similarly for everyone in the world. If we could bring this shared ancestry into our collective consciousness, could it create empathy and love between strangers? Could we make the Golden Rule – “love thy neighbour as yourself” – closer and closer to a tautology?

backtothefuture2Dating your mother … ewww (screenshot from Back to the Future)

We finish with a segue and a controversial thought – were our ancestors happier because they expected less from life? What are the costs of social mobility and equality of opportunity? If we could meet one of our ancestors from centuries ago, what would he or she think of us? The further you go back in time, the less options people had. We assume that caused them pain, but maybe they adjusted to their lot and found contentment – no one told them that “you can be anything you want to be”.

Download as MP3 is the popular Australian franchise of the global genealogy website.

2“Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow is a great read – Shourov refers to his phrase that our memories are more like “historical novelists and historians”.

3Brian refers to Ned Kelly, a famous bushranger (highway robber) in Victoria, Australia.

4“Mapping Human History” by Steve Olsen makes the point that we share far more genetic material with strangers than we acknowledge.

5My Big Fat Euopean Family makes the same point “Any two modern-day Europeans, even those living on opposite sides of the continent, may be more closely related than they might think”.

6Brian refers to this story – “The Egg” by Andy Weir.

7For those not from Australia – Richmond is a long suffering football club in the Australian Football League.

Discussion #16 – Rules, Meta Rules and the Not-Game of Life

Games aren’t real life. Games have rules that don’t change, but in this complex, confounding universe that we live in, the rules always change over time – even if we we don’t want them to. Maybe there are meta-rules – rules about the rules, or rules that generate the rules. Or meta-meta-rules, and so on. Complex systems don’t readily follow first- or second-order rules. But we’re always looking for rules, and we don’t like it if we can’t find them. And as we search deeper and deeper for N-order rules, the question arises – does the regress ever stop? Do we ever stop finding meta-layers?

Life isn’t like chess. Shourov makes the point that in real life a player has infinitely more options than in the game itself. For example, if I am losing, I can overturn the board. In the stockmarket game, I can lie, cheat or misinform the market. In the business game, I can deceive my clients, steal from others or even murder a rival. We’re good at gaming systems, and any set of first order rules will be modified by the agents that are nominally bound by them. Everything feeds back signals into the system and structures never stay static over time.

The stockmarket game – do ‘meta-rules’ exist?

So we’re very suspicious of someone who thinks they’ve worked out a set of positive rules. We like meta-rules a little better (see this paper proposing that quantum mechanics is an emergent property of a deeper cellular automata). We like falsifications – negative rules seem to work. For example – “nothing ever stays the same”. Folk wisdom persists through time because it is usually that kind of second-order negative statement which holds true as the centuries pass by.

Games are easy. People are hard.

Games are easy. People are hard. We love life and we love people, but not absolutely everything has to be worked out and turned into a formula. Our ramblings this week turn philosophical and messy, like life itself. But we do know that the best games are those you play with your kids, because they don’t “know” enough not to break the rules. There’s Kasparov and then there’s my five-year old. Live in the meta- if you want to live well.

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1Jabberwocky, the nonsense verse by Lewis Carroll.

2The Ludic fallacy was coined by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.

3Brian refers to the Australian Greens Party.

Discussion #14: Your Brain on Music

This week we talk about music and why we as a species like it so much.
We are joined by the very learned Declan Jones, one of Melbourne’s talented musicians.

Every human society has music. It is a Cultural Universal which features in all cultures and tribes around the world. Music is thought to have been there at the start of human evolution, along with dance and laughter as some of the fundamental building blocks of the human psyche and human language.

Other animals such as birds also sing, for many reasons. But perhaps birds use music as their language, like we talk. And so too humans use music to communicate.

We discuss the book by Dr Daniel J Levitin, ‘This is Your Brain On Music.’

Music is certainly an important part of our lives. It is tied strongly to emotion. Some emotions are very difficult to express effectively with words but much easier to convey with music. Listening to certain songs a change our mood. Musicians express their emotions through music and it resonates with the rest of us. And that resonance stays with us through our lives.

For example, the bands that were there for us during our years of teen angst such as Roxette and Bananarama stay with us, even though the equivalent musicians and bands of today have much less traction with us old timers. But the newer bands obviously mean something to the current generation of angst-ridden teenagers.

roxette in 1980sRoxette, still going strong incidentally.


Listen to the pod cast here:

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Links to our own music:
Shourov and Declan are in The Bombay Royale.
Declan currently also appears in The Wikimen and Hoodoo Mayhem.

Discussion #13 – Why do Big Projects Fail?

This week we discuss the topic, ‘Why do big projects fail’. With a slant towards IT projects due to our backgrounds in the field, we discuss and explore some examples of failures to date.

There are different types of project failure, where the project is: complete but costs too much; complete but too late; complete but with low quality; incomplete and doesn’t do what was originally envisaged; combinations of the four; and not done at all – scrapped by the stakeholders with nothing to show for it.

Software and IT projects, more than other types of projects such as construction or manufacturing, often suffer from the last case – scrapped. We discuss agile methodologies and whether they are the solution – or at least whether they reduce the probability of failure.

Sometimes there are too many chiefs and not enough engineers. And even if the business analysts identify the full scope of what needs to be done, sometimes the stakeholders don’t see the same vision or can’t afford the required budget.

As always, Scott Adams has an angle:

Listen to the pod cast here:

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1One of Shourov’s rants about Myki can be found at

2Things that cost Less than Myki (I love this site)

3Why Software Fails –






Discussion #12 – Atheists, Retail Therapy and Baptist Zombies

Susan Blackmore, a psychologist and researcher who is an authority in the field of “memetics”, posted a recent article on the Richard Dawkins Foundation site describing her dismay at having religious students walk out of one of her memetics lectures. Muslim and Christian students took exception to her description of religion as a “virus of the mind” (ala Dawkins), the Koran as a “horrible book” and other remarks critical of religious faith.


Spreading the atheist gospel

The easy narrative here is that Professor Blackmore, an avowed atheist and rationalist, was trying to open the minds of her students and show them the irrationality of their beliefs – and that those students who were offended were displaying an inability to think for themselves and explore alternative viewpoints.

As gentlemen scientists, we don’t think things are quite so simple. We like Dawkins and Blackmore, but we think that they and their compatriots often lack humility. It’s easy to sneer to religious people, but which of our ‘secular’ behaviours and beliefs will be sneered at by the Dawkins of five hundred years from now?

(Brian points out that the modern act of shopping – buying material goods that we don’t need – would be deeply irrational and ridiculous to the members of a Papua New Guinean highland tribe.)



Deeply irrational “viruses of the mind”

We are all selective and biased in our processing of information. We distort reality at every step of the way, often in subconscious ways beyond our control. We are masters of self-deception. And the boundaries of our knowledge are completely opaque to us – we have no idea of what we don’t know.

All of which means that the only rational state of mind is one of humility, skepticism and open-mindedness. Not everything can be falsified now, but just because we can’t do it does not mean that it cannot be done. We know a lot, and vanishingly little at the same time. Not everything can be settled. Arguments rarely if ever change minds, but they can plant a seed. And everyone has an agenda, even the most ‘objective’ of scientists and even (perhaps especially) if they have convinced themselves that they do not.

Our ramblings then move into memetics itself and debate the core meme-gene analogy; religions as memeplexes and useful mutations thereof; proselytization and the power of faith; our responsibility to attempt empathy; how to build bridges; learning by doing, not talking; the good that religions do for individuals and communities.

We love the ideas behind complexity, adaptive systems and evolution and we would defend them anytime, but we don’t feel the need to proselytize. You’re free to listen to our ramblings and opinions, but we are not asking you to share them. As gentlemen scientists we never expect everyone to think exactly the same way that we do.

So we sympathize with Professor Blackmore. But if her objective is to introduce her ideas to new audiences, then insulting their way of life isn’t a great way to do it.

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1Susan Blackmore’s book is called The Meme Machine

2The book that Shourov is currently reading is Deceit and Self Deception by Robert Trivers

3Brian refers to ‘stuff sickness’ as identified by Papuan New Guinea highlanders, but no relevant links can be found. Standby for more on this topic in a future podcast.

4In fact, students walking out on her lecture were demonstrating memes in action – it seems the meme of “walk out on Professor Blackmore” was conceived and transmitted quite effectively within the room without the use of verbal language.