Tag Archives: Brian Hanly

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 #15 – The Mind-Set of Aging

This week Shourov and Brian explore the link between mind and body as it relates to the aging process.

Studies by Prof Ellen Langer have shown that to some extent we are only as young (or old) as we feel.  And given the chance, the human body can surprise us when the mind is encouraged to forget the true age of its body, and instead subtly prompted to remember what it was like to be younger.

Prof Ellen Langer, photgraph from rdigitallife.com

Prof Langer has done experiments where people are treated a lot younger than their real age, in a share-house situation, and studied the effects. She says that part of the key is to encourage mindfulness, or actively noticing new things.

In our conversation we speculate on whether this means there are benefits to focusing outside the self. And at the same time not giving up when things are bad, not dwelling on how bad things are, which can be a natural habit our minds return to if there is nothing else to do.  Don’t give up. When you give up, things go down hill.

We also discuss the power of the placebo effect, and conversely the nocebo effect, and also links between immune system and attitude.

Listen to the pod cast here:

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The original New York Times article which started this conversation: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/magazine/what-if-age-is-nothing-but-a-mind-set.html?_r=0

Your Mindset and Aging: http://blog.timesunion.com/healthylifemagazine/your-mindset-our-changing-attitude-toward-aging/697/

“Being jocks, being beautiful, having bundles of energy. Those are not bad things. We are grateful for having been young and that there are always young people. But how awful to have a society where being young is ‘the best of life,’ the only good in life?” asks Githler. “Not everyone needs to do that. People who have been successful because of how they ‘think’ (rather than how they look or perform) are not subject to that kind of hysteria, a set of behaviors many of us find sadly amusing.”

We recognize that in some performers/actors/models who are terrified of aging and lie about their age!

The ever-young Rara Avis: http://www.adorn-london.com/jewelry-inspiration/rare-bird-of-style-rara-avis-by-iris-apfel/

Prof Ellen Langer:
web page: http://www.ellenlanger.com/
rdigitalife.com: http://rdigitalife.com/ellen-langer/
5 minute interview: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/can-your-mental-attitude-reverse-the-effects-of-aging/

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 http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2013/11/28/comment-oh-you-forgot-design-user.

2Things that cost Less than Myki (I love this site) https://sites.google.com/site/cheaperthanmyki/

3Why Software Fails – http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/why-software-fails






Discussion #11 – The Doomsday Review

This week we are joined again by Nick Raphael to discuss doomsday scenarios – ways in which our world (or at least the human race) may end. We’ve picked a few of our favourites, from meteors to killer robots to meme epidemics, and we review their feasibility (and entertainment value) in light of what we know about how the world works. Some of them make great movie ideas; some of them are scary but statistically very unlikely; and there are one or two are plausible enough to get us a little worried.

In the spirit of (pseudo) scientific enquiry, we have given each scenario a “rating” – a combination of likelihood (how likely it is to happen in the near future) and risk (how catastrophic would it be for us).

Download or listen to the podcast below and scroll down to see a summary of our ratings.

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Nuclear War


Sure we have enough bombs to “kill us all”, but in any real conflict there would be many millions of survivors globally. And even under the severest of nuclear winters with its attendant disruption of the food chain, you could assume that some communities would persist and survive under the harshest of conditions (as some of them do today) to seed a new generation. 2/10


We rely on a healthy biosphere for optimal existence, but even a highly damaged biosphere is likely to be habitable by humans2. In fact, the resilience of networks in the natural world and our own adaptability are part of the problem – we don’t appreciate how much damage we are doing because we always seem to ‘get by’. There are excellent ethical and practical reasons why we should limit our ecological footprint, but the claim that we are driving ourselves to extinction is a dubious one. 2/10

Reversal of the Earth’s Magnetic Field

Reversals and disruptions of the Earth’s magnetic field seem to happen quite regularly, every half a million years on average. If it happened again, we might expect global disruption – even catastrophe – but it’s unlikely to be the full-blown extinction event3. 1/10

Meteor strike


It’s thought that a meteor is what did for the dinosaurs – what would it do to us? A really large meteor would irreversibly change our climate and block the sun’s rays from much of the Earth for a long time. Nothing larger than a chicken survived the last big strike 65 million years ago, and the Gentlemen Scientists don’t like our chances with this one. 5/10

Black hole passes by the Solar System

Planets go flying in every direction, including ours. Sounds pretty bad, right? We’re not sure how likely this is, but it feels like it is unlikely. Undoubtedly a full-blown extinction for us if it does, though (unless we have time to prepare?). 1/10

Gamma Ray burst from space

Unimaginably powerful beams of energy travel through space on a regular basis – we can see them. If one of them hit us, it could burn off the ozone layer, expose us to high doses of radiation and destroy the food chain. Statistically very unlikely, but we’d never see it coming and we’d be screwed. 3/10

Extraterrestrial life wreaks havoc


Some people believe that life on Earth may have come from another planet, and it might happen again. It’s logically possible that lifeforms (microscopic life, viruses etc.) may be relayed to Earth, and that such a “pan-spermic” event could wreak havoc. However, if there is one thing about our biosphere it is highly competitive, and any “alien” life is unlikely to be adapted to our environment, let along superior in any important way (although it is possible – think of introduced species). A very unlikely scenario but risk difficult to assess. 1/10


A mass epidemic of an engineered ‘superbug’ would be super-scary, and they might not be too hard to make. But here is where the raw material of natural selection – the natural variability of our population – is our defense. In even the worst pandemic, some people survive, and the genes that lead to their lowered susceptibility are strengthened over time. Even a zombie virus couldn’t achieve a coverage of one hundred percent, and the survivors would carry the flag. 2/10

Grey Goo – Nanotechnology gone wild

The idea of grey goo seems fanciful – tiny little nano-robots that can replicate themselves take over the world, munching their way through everything. It’s possible in principle (we think) and some people take it semi-seriously, but we think any such self-replicating technology would end up mired in its own waste and would be too easy to stop. 1/10

Runaway Artificial Intelligence

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 5.02.46 PM

Will we reach a moment of technological singularity, when we build a super-human intelligence – which might decide to (or inadvertently) eliminate us? Even a super-intelligent machine will need raw materials and energy, and none of them would be evolved for our biosphere the way we are (not to mention our co-evolution with the organisms that help us live). And is it even possible for us to build machines that can think to that level? Too many assumptions needed for this scenario. 1/10

Killer Meme Epidemic

Some Jains in eastern India starve themselves to death. Could a suicidal meme such as this ever spread through the population, causing us to override our most ancient biological instincts and exterminate ourselves? Sounds far-fetched, but scary and difficult to rule out exactly because we don’t really understand the principles of cultural transmission. Again, natural variation protects us – a killer meme might infect everyone but there might be some who are immune (eg. the mentally deficient or mentally ill). 3/10

Mass Infertility

Thought experiment – some kind of catastrophe instantaneously destroy every human egg in every female on Earth. That’d the end of the human race, since women don’t create eggs but are born with them. Sexual reproduction as a modus operandi might have a weak link somewhere, but we can’t think of how you could “break” it for every individual in our global population. 0/10

1The Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) was America’s plan for nuclear conflict during the Cold war era.

2In the Asimov story 2430 A.D., there are 15 trillion humans, the Earth is covered with concrete and there are no other mammals.

3Magnetic field disruption was in the plot of the (terrible) film called 2012.

4Correction: the dinosaurs were around for 150 million years, not 65 millions years.

5A large meteor hit the atmosphere above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February 2013.

6Correction: we said “AIDS virus” and “HIV virus” which are both wrong. It is of course the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

7The Jain ritual of suicide by starvation is called Sallekhana

8The weird urge to jump off a bridge, explained

9Children of Men depicts a future where women are infertile and humanity is living through its last ever generation.

Discussion #10 – The Science (and Art) of Making Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes so why can’t you? – Big Bird, Sesame Street

Life is all about making mistakes. As we age, interrogating our own personal histories for mistakes yields more and more useful lessons, for those who wish to go through the exercise (it’s painful to do so). Whether it is in a performance review at work, on stage, in sport or just a quiet reflective moment at home, there is nothing quite as fruitful as constructively inspecting your mistakes and learning from them.

Mistakes are information wrapped in pain. They seem to be very good at compressing a lot of information into a small package. If you think of adaptation and evolution as an information processing system, then mistakes (errors, evolutionary dead-ends) are the primary way to glean information about the environment for the system.

In tonight’s discussion, we start with personal anecdotes that show the same quality – mistakes we have made that have become touchpoints for our own lives. Mistakes which have become something much bigger and much more positive.


What would the world be like if no one ever made a mistake? What would a universe without error look like? Would evolutionary processes grind to a halt? Could we ever have got out of the primordial soup without our propensity to make errors?

But then again what is a mistake? If something was a good idea “at the time”, it only become a mistake later in time. This binary judgement (mistake/not a mistake) cannot be applied to the event, but only to the complete system in time and space (action + time + consequence). And even then, whether or not something was ‘wrong’ depends a lot on your frame of reference as an observer.

2014-06-28 21_56_13-Mistake on Dilbert.com

Our culture is schizophrenic about mistakes. We pay lip service to the ancient ideas of empiricism and learning by “trial and error”, but our world is theory driven and in love with optimization, which implies the removal of redundancy and error. Our default position is to design our lives in such a way as to minimize our opportunities for making mistakes.

But you have to do it wrong to do it right. To learn what not to do. A life/world without error is dead, boring and sterile.

As Gentlemen Scientists we have made more than their share of mistakes. But mistakes plus attention equal learning. Perhaps a good life is not making less mistakes but always making new mistakes. Plus being aware of your fallibility – having the courage to say “I was/could be wrong”.

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1On Making Mistakes, Scientific America, 20th February 2014 – “Once you ask a scientist to stop making mistakes you stop him or her from discovering.”

2How Mistakes Can Make You Smarter, Psychology Today – “”View decisions as experiments””

3Impostor syndrome – a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds.

4 – I love this anecdote from Prosunjit Biswas about cooking a Bengali dish called ‘mishti doi’ – he had to get it wrong in a high profile situation before he really learnt what not to do.

5Dennett says here that “sometimes you don’t just want to risk making mistakes; you actually want to make them — if only to give you something clear and detailed to fix.”

6The Black Swan – by Nicholas Nassim Taleb

7When Life Was Odd – Discover Magazine

8Imagine a spider catching flies. If the spider always gets his prey and never fails to catch a fly, would that mean that spiders flourish or would that mean that eventually spiders die out. Do we need mistakes to grow and flourish. Are errors the food of life.

9The Meaning in Mistakes – about musicians and mistakes

Discussion #9 – Constructor Theory, Meta-Laws and the Face of God

[Today’s discussion is about Constructor Theory as proposed by David Deutsch. The original 2012 paper can be found here .]

A recent article in Scientific American introduced us to the ideas of David Deutsch and his Constructor Theory. Constructor Theory seeks to formulate “meta-laws” which sit “above” the laws of physics and determine them. They would do this by describing what may and may not (i.e. is forbidden to) happen, rather than trying to explain what will happen. Deutsch proposes that such a “meta” framework may be the way to unify the quantum and classical models of physics.

Deutsch is known as a pioneer of Quantum Computation, but this theory of his is speculative and not well known. It has its detractors, such as a this particularly abusive young physicist from the Czech Republic. But Deutsch’s ideas got us thinking here at Gentlemen Scientists HQ and set us off on a rambling, semi-informed conversation.

The thing is, we love the “meta”. Meta laws are fascinating because they hold out the promise of deeper understanding and unification. Understanding and control at a meta-level is stable over time than first-level control and survives the unexpected. Meta cognition, for example – the ability to reflect on one’s own patterns of thinking and behaviour – leads to better strategies for living under conditions of uncertainty.

However, once you start up the “meta-” ladder, how do you stop? Are there meta-meta-laws, or meta-meta-meta-laws? And when you do stop, you’re still left with the question – who designed the metaN law that you are left with? You’re still left looking at the “Face of God”.

Martian_face_viking_rotatedThe Face of God on Mars, as photographed by NASA (the Cydonia region on Mars)

So this approach is no magic bullet. In a way, the Constructor Theory is a deliberate lowering of our ambitions. Our tendency is to want to predict, and we judge our scientific models by their predictive power. But if we shift our focus from what will happen to simply trying to write down what will never happen, and then following such an exercise to its logical conclusion, we may be surprised to find just how much “drops out”(this seems to be what happened with Deutsch – he ended up with results that a remniscent of open problems in quantum mechanics).

If it makes us feel better, we can say that we are “deferring” the question of working out the “laws” while we explore the “meta-laws” first. Will it turn out that we never actually need to go to the “laws” in the end, because the “meta-” understanding will give us what we need? Counter-intuitively we might get a deeper understanding by trying to understand “less”.

Slight tangent: it got us thinking about our cognitive biases. When we look at network graphs, we concentrate on the nodes, not the edges. We put people as records into our databases, but not the relationships between people4. We see things, and we try to describe the things, but we don’t think as much about the things that make things or the things that connect things.

diagramCrude analogy with a network graph. Usually we like to think about the nodes N of the graph, but for a connected graph we could work with the edges A only and ignore the nodes altogether without losing any clarity or completeness of our model. We could even derive second order measures B based on the edges, such as e.g. relative sizes of adjacent edges. The resulting set of “meta”-edges would no longer fully specify a single graph but a whole family (“universe”) of possible graphs.

Before we get too far into our own navels, however, we do end up with a couple of concrete lines of enquiry. Deutsch’s work may be crackpot, speculative or revolutionary – or anywhere in between – but we feel encouraged to follow the same process when thinking about people and memes. Centuries of efforts to codify laws about people and communication have met with limited success in our opinion (sorry, social scientists).

So is it time to take a meta view and develop some meta-laws about what people don’t do instead? For example, we could imagine that a simple biological imperative make it (almost) impossible for us to truly believe in the imminence of our own death. What happens if we represent some of these basic assumption and construct ‘laws” from them? Could we construct a better social science that way? We’re excited about that possibility and are thinking of some simple computer simulations to explore these ideas further.

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1A Meta-Law to Rule Them All in Scientific American, May 26th 2014.

2Constructor Theory, David Deutsch 2012.

3An interesting and angry/abusive rebuttal of constructor theory can be found at
Constructor theory: Deutsch and Marletto are just vacuously bullšiting

4I had a recent conversation with a database expert and data archivist where we discussed the fact that we rarely design databases to represent the relationships between people, instead representing the people themselves. Kind of like representing the nodes of a graph but ignoring the edges. Although I am sure that sites such as LinkedIn have data structures that are doing that in some way. I wonder what would happen if we completely (and counter-intuitively) “ignored” the people themselves and only represented the relationships. People would still exist but only as an “inferred” property of the system.

5It’s Perfectly Normal to See Jesus In Toast, Say Study – TIME Magazine