Monday, November 22, 2010

Sometimes YOU are wrong on the internet

So someone writes a blog on the internet on feminism, homophobia, or racism. They don't think much of it, but then discover that someone has written an article vehemently disagreeing with them. Worse yet, the other article declares that some of the sentiments in that article are actually sexist/homophobic/racist.

The original author of the article thinks a little. They know they're not any of those things, and they obviously didn't intend to say any of those things. How dare someone accuse them of being prejudiced. They get angry, and retaliate, and, seeing as this is the internet, some of their followers get a bit heated. So the wheels on the internet turn round and round.

Its pretty hard to take critisism- I know this to be true because I have difficulty doing it- but its vital. Not everything one says will be correct, and its quite easy to say something that is genuinely a bit regressive. But expressing something which reinforces sexist/homophobic/racist trends does not necessarily make one a sexist/homophobe/racist. So when someone is calling you out, its worth taking a step back, taking a breath, and wondering if they had a point. Sure, you didn't mean it that way, but once you've written something it gets fired into the wild for everyone to interpet. I'm not saying you have to apologise, but its possible you could learn. Now obviously there are rude crazy people on the internet, and you can't take everyone sensibly, but when someone makes a reasoned, non-inflammatory article calling you out, maybe theres something there.

Lots of people fail. Joss Whedon can occasionally be hailed as a feminist writer. He has written some strong female characters, for sure. But there are episodes of Firefly that are pretty sexist, and Dollhouse is uncomfortably so on several levels. He introduced a beatuiful gay relationship in Buffy, only to have it turn into a wronged lover revenge trope at the end. Race is worse-count the number of non-white characters in Buffy up til season 7 please. Or asians who turn up in Firefly. This doesn't make him an evil person, but I would argue that occasionally he has failed. Why may be for complicated reasons- with Buffy I expect partially it'll be studio pressure, but I suspect sometimes its simply unthinking.

Sometimes its YOU who is wrong on the internet.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Some musings on board games

Its not that easy to obtain the ideal board game experience. It first of all requires a decent game which rewards skill and rational play. It also requires all players being aware of the game being played to a level that they do not make easily avoidable mistakes.. it can be frustrating to lose a game because another player benefited from a new players mistakes. Both Puerto Rico and Chaos can suffer from this quite badly, the old joke about wanting to be left of the new player in Puerto Rico being very accurate.

Still, even when everyone knows what they are doing, its really important that they are playing to win. Yes, yes, one should be playing to have fun, but in any skill based game it is inordinately frustrating who is playing for their own objectives. Sometimes this can be due to misunderstanding- an over focus on millitary in Antike leads to a pointless arms race that helps neither player (actually its usually better to try and launch surprise assaults, as vps are only awarded for temple destruction). Sometimes this can be from players being annoying, and over-interpreting "bash the leader". Many games require players to attack the leader, and might be encouraged to do so, but it is vital that when one bashes the leader one is still trying to win- you hurt the leader, but not to the extent of hurting your own ability to win. If you start doing that you are just not allowing that player to have fun, and thats a jerk move. Ideally one should always seek to better one's position. I know it can be frustrating to be in last place, but if you choose to decide to play kingmaker you are taking away someone's victory. Its just not on really.

As a game has more and more players it becomes less and less vital to attack other players. In a 2 player game hurting the other player is equivalent to helping yourself, but as more and more players join in you end up being the prisoner who keeps defecting in the prisoners dilemma, while everyone else is co-operating.

One of the reasons I enjoy Dominion is thats its actually immune to these problems and yet does have player interaction. Dominion attacks all other players equally, so its impossible to pick on any other player particularly. While new players will make mistakes, its rare for those mistakes to stop someone else from winning. The interaction in Dominion is subtler, and I know thats why people are put off from it, but it is there- following what people are buying will give you an idea of when the game is going to end and thus when to buy victory points, or defensive cards to protect against crazy attack group think.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

A quick note on testing research

"So when you use a test that has no bias whatsoever, i,e, a double blind randomized placebo controlled trial, homeopathy always fails. Always."

Uh. This is from a comment on Andrew Collin's distressingly misinformed blog post on Gillian Mc Keith. Throughout the comment thread produces comments which indicate a complete misunderstanding of science and alternative medicine (short story- individual doctors may be bad, but alternative therapists are almost always worse). I've mostly agreed with what people who disagree with him say, but I have to disagree with the commenter here.

Whenever we conduct a double blind randomised placebo controlled trial, we must be aware of certain things. First of all, while the scientists involved will do their best to randomise, they will not have done so perfectly. They probably recruited from a sample space that wasn't the entire country, and there will always be a non-compliance issue- firstly with people refusing to take the trial and some failing to follow the drug regime properly. The former is typically controlled more than the latter, which is much more difficult to measure. However, having a blinded placebo should theoretically protect us against most of those effects, but its true to say that all studies are not a truly random sample of the population.

Now, even if we ignore those issues (which, to be fair, we often can), then every single study we do is balanced to have a false positive rate. That is, when we calculate whats called our test statistic, we obtain the probability that we would have seen that result by mere chance. Usually, if there was a 5% or less chance of that occuring, we say that its likely that there is some difference between placebo and the active treatment. This means that if I was to conduct a perfect study 20 times on a homeopathic remedy, even if it was ineffective I would expect to think it was effective in exactly one of those studies. Be aware that sample size shouldn't affect this, because I have explicitly designed my study to HAVE a 5% false positive rate. Of course the fact that I needed to run 20 studies to get a positive is rather telling, but it does contradict the quote above.

But heres whats worse, and this is something that the excellent Mr Goldacre often forgets. When I run my experiments I make certain assumptions. In particular I usually assume that the mean of my outcome is normally distributed (effectively the probability of seeing a particular value is shaped like a bell curve, so I'll see less and less on either side of the mean). Now this is always not true. Unless we set up our example very carefully its unlikely that we'll actually get a perfect normal distribution (height is a stereotypical example of a normally distributed variable, but a normal distribution assumes one can have negative values, and one cannot have negative height). This means the theoretical probabilities that we've calculated are not going to be exactly true in practice. That said, theres a theorem, called the central limit theorem which says the more observations we get, the closer our means get to being normally distributed. This means that the bigger our survey gets, the happier we can be with our assumptions.

Yet this comes with an even bigger disclaimer. For most drugs its not actually hard to show a difference. The standard statistical test assumes that the outcome is identical for placebo and a drug. If the treatment and the placebo are physically different in some way this will almost never be the case (indeed I suspect that it is almost always true, which is a probabilistic statement we don't need to worry about too much here), so we need to worry about clinically significant differences- thats the standards most drugs need to meet (actually, they usually need to beat their competing drug).

So whats my point here? My point is that while double blinded placebo controlled trials are a good standard for the industry to have, theres an argument to be had that they can be misinterpreted, and caution must always be used when applying their results. In particular, pointing at any one study with an impressive result is a terribly bad idea. We can become confident when several such, independently conducted studies, get the same results. The fact that these trials can be misinterpreted is why homeopaths can mislead by pointing to studies where they have succeeeded- when actually looking over the body of research the trend is the reverse.

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