Monday: HuffPo stupidity

I can’t refrain from looking at PuffHo. I no longer derive anything useful from that dreadful aggregator site, but I look anyway:  the same way rubberneckers look at a traffic accident as they drive by. I’m fascinated by their obsession with hijabis, and by theircomplete abandonment of objective political reporting.

And so this week I’ll feature at least one dumb headline per day from the site. Actually, there are two today (click each screenshot to go to the article—if you must):


The life-giving illustrations below aren’t impressive:



First pop songs composed (semi)-entirely by a computer

From Fact Magazine comes the first pop songs composed entirely by computer using artificial intelligence (AI) programs. Now of course the machine had to be programmed; otherwise it would just emit random combinations of sounds and noises. And, as Turing predicted, it couldn’t write comprehensible lyrics, either; those came from a human. As the site notes:

The song, which is called ‘Daddy’s Car’, was composed by an AI system called Flow Machines.

The Flow Machines software got its music knowledge from a huge database of sheet music with songs in varying styles and wrote that track after being given a style prompt from a human composer. The melody and harmony was composed by AI and then a human musician, French composer Benoît Carré, produced, mixed and wrote lyrics for the track.

‘Daddy’s Car’, which you can hear below, is expected to be on an album of songs entirely composed by AI due out in 2017.

This one is said to be composed “in the style of the Beatles”. Well, yes it is, but it isn’t anywhere near as good as anything the Beatles ever did—except, perhaps, Octopus’s Garden. Still, it’s okay, and I have to say it’s at least as good as a lot of the autotuned, repetitive, soulless crap produced by today’s pop stars. It’s clear that, like classical music and opera, rock has run its course. It’s equally clear that it’s a long way before computers will even come close to replacing human composers.

Here’s another AI-composed song, “Mr. Shadow,” described like this:

“Mister Shadow” is composed in the style of American songwriters such as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Cole Porter. French composer Benoît Carré arranged and produced the songs, and wrote the lyrics.

Now this one just sucks! George Gershwin and Duke Ellington my tuchas! It sounds more like a mashup of Rudy Vallee and Davie Bowie. But feel free to disagree.


Here’s the hummingbird!

Did you spot it in the picture posted three hours ago? Here’s the location, and then a close-up (note that the bird has moved its head in the second photo):



Second most popular TED talk of all time, on “power posing”, disavowed by senior author

The second most popular TED talk of all time, with over 32 million views on TED, is by Harvard Business School associate professor Amy Cuddy, called “Your body language shapes who you are”. (You can also see the talk on YouTube, where it has over 10 million views. Cuddy appears to be on “leave of absence.”)  Her point, based on research she did with two others, was that by changing your body language you can modify your hormones, thus not only influencing other people in the way you want, but changing your own physiology in a way you want.

In a guest post on this site last year, Yale graduate student Dorsa Amir, whose thesis is on a related topic, severely criticized Cuddy’s talk, first noting this:

In the talk, Cuddy presents data from her 2010 article in Psych Science [Carney et al. 2010, reference and link below]which makes the following claim: by simply changing your posture to a “high-power” pose (i.e., taking up more space and opening your limbs), you can instantly trick your body into thinking it’s more powerful. The authors tested this claim by having 42 participants give saliva samples, engage in either a high-power or a low-power pose for two minutes (depicted below), then give another saliva sample.

The saliva tubes were then sent off to a lab and analyzed for two specific hormones: testosterone and cortisol. Interestingly, the power posing appeared to have a significant effect on hormone levels: high-power poses were associated with a rise in testosterone and a drop in cortisol, and low-power poses with the opposite. So not only did the posing make you feelmore powerful, it also made your body more powerful by fiddling with your hormone levels and making you literally embody that power.

Dorsa, giving her own opinion and citing the criticism of others, noted that the study cited by Cuddy was poorly designed, liable to produce false positives, and had other problems which made its results unconvincing. After a number of criticisms, Cuddy, the paper’s second author, stood by the conclusions:


Cuddy then wrote a best-selling book that, according to the Amazon description, is largely an expansion of the “power pose” idea:

Amy Cuddy has galvanized tens of millions of viewers around the world with her TED talk about “power poses.” Now she presents the enthralling science underlying these and many other fascinating body-mind effects, and teaches us how to use simple techniques to liberate ourselves from fear in high-pressure moments, perform at our best, and connect with and empower others to do the same.


But now we have a rare event: the senior author of the 2010 paper, Dana R. Carney (now at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley), completely disavowing the results of the paper and its conclusions about the physiological effects of power posing. The disavowal is in a statement on her own website, “My position on ‘power poses'” (free pdf). Admitting that the paper engaged in “p hacking” (using the test that provided the lowest probability that the results were due to chance alone), the fact that other reviewers couldn’t replicate Carney et al., and discouraging others from working any more on this problem, Carney said this:

As evidence has come in over these past 2+ years, my views have updated to reflect the evidence. As such, I do not believe that “power pose” effects are real.

. . . Where do I Stand on the Existence of “Power Poses”

1. I do not have any faith in the embodied effects of “power poses.” I do not think the effect is real.
2. I do not study the embodied effects of power poses.
3. I discourage others from studying power poses.
4. I do not teach power poses in my classes anymore.
5. I do not talk about power poses in the media and haven’t for over 5 years (well before skepticism set in)
6. I have on my website and my downloadable CV my skepticism about the effect and links to both the failed replication by Ranehill et al. and to Simmons & Simonsohn’s p-curve paper suggesting no effect. And this document.

Carney’s stance is admirable, but Cuddy, as far as I can see, hasn’t disavowed the paper at all—after all, her book is largely based on it. But perhaps Carney is also trying to get ahead of the game, for a paper is just about to come out in Psychological Science showing, by a meta-analysis of all the data, that there’s not a shred of evidence for the “power posing” effect, which seems likely to be due to selective reporting of positive results. A preprinted version is available on the Social Science Research Network (reference and free download below); here’s its abstract:


In a well-known article, Carney, Cuddy, and Yap (2010) documented the benefits of “power posing”. In their study, participants (N=42) who were randomly assigned to briefly adopt expansive, powerful postures sought more risk, had higher testosterone levels, and had lower cortisol levels than those assigned to adopt contractive, powerless postures. In their response to a failed replication by Ranehill et al. (2015), Carney, Cuddy, and Yap (2015) reviewed 33 successful studies investigating the effects of expansive vs. contractive posing, focusing on differences between these studies and the failed replication, to identify possible moderators that future studies could explore. But before spending valuable resources on that, it is useful to establish whether the literature that Carney et al. (2015) cited actually suggests that power posing is effective. In this paper we rely on p-curve analysis to answer the following question: Does the literature reviewed by Carney et al. (2015) suggest the existence of an effect once we account for selective reporting? We conclude not. The distribution of p-values from those 33 studies is indistinguishable from what is expected if (1) the average effect size were zero, and (2) selective reporting (of studies and/or analyses) were solely responsible for the significant effects that are published. Although more highly powered future research may find replicable evidence for the purported benefits of power posing (or unexpected detriments), the existing evidence is too weak to justify a search for moderators or to advocate for people to engage in power posing to better their lives.
So an error has been swept away, which does constitute scientific progress, and Cuddy is crying all the way to the bank.
h/t: Dorsa Amir


Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368.

Simmons, J. P. and U. Simonsohn. 2016. Power posing: P-curving the evidence. Psychol. Sci., in press.


Presidential campaigns, then and now

Kennedy, 1960:


Clinton, 2016:



Get off my damn lawn!

Spot the hummingbird!

Reader Andrei Volkov, who lives in Maryland, sent some hummingbird photos, two of which comprise a “spot the hummingbird” set. I’ll put up the first one now; given that it was taken in Maryland, this must surely be the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), the only hummer that breeds in the state. Can you spot it in the photo below? I’d characterize this as of medium difficulty. (Click to enlarge).

I’ll give the answer at 11 a.m. Chicago time, and try to avoid giving the location in the comments below.


Readers’ wildlife photographs

We’re nearing the end of the photos that Benjamin Taylor sent from his trip to southern Africa last year, but they remain wonderful. Here are a few more (his captions are indented):

Red-billed oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) resting on the neck of a Namibian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis):




John Harshman recently sent oxpecker photos as well (here).

Plains zebra (Equus quagga), Chobe National Park, Botswana:


African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus), Chobe National Park, Botswana:


The kori bustard (Ardeotis kori), the heaviest flying species of bird:


Silhouette of a marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer):


Sunset over the Chobe River:


 Greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), Chobe National Park, Botswana:


African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana), Chobe National Park, Botswana:



Monday: Hili dialogue

It’s Monday again: the first Monday of Autumn in the Northern hemisphere and of Spring in the Southern. It’s National Key Lime Pie Day, a truly worthy American foodstuff named after the Florida Keys. But beware: most of the stuff you get in restaurants is made not with Key Limes—a very small lime 1-2 inches across, with a strong and tart flavor. The vast majority of “Key Lime” pies are made either with the larger and more familiar Persian limes, or with bottled juice duplicitously named “Key West” lime juice. A few years back, Key limes weren’t much grown commercially in the U.S., and I got my pie only at one place: Manny and Isa’s Restaurant in Islamorada, Florida, in the Keys, where the limes were grown behind the wonderful Cuban restaurant. Now the place is closed, but nowadays you can often find mesh bags of Key limes at your local grocery or produce store.  I urge you to try the stuff, but only if it’s real; otherwise make it yourself, as it’s not hard. Here’s a recipe, and you’ll need to make or buy a graham-cracker crust.  Seriously, you must try this pie before you die. As PuffHo would say, it’s a “genius pie””


On this day in 1960, Nixon and Kennedy engaged in the first televised Presidential debate in U.S. history. I was watching. And tonight we’ll see the same with Clinton vs. Trump. I’m not sure I’m going to watch this time, as I already know who I’m going to vote for and both candidates will irritate me. It’s possible that the debate could, as did the Nixon/Kennedy debate, have a decisive effect on the election.

Notables born on this day include T. S. Eliot (1888), George Gershwin (exactly 10 years later), Jack LaLanne (1914), and Olivia Newton-John (1948). Those who died on this day include Daniel Boone (1820), Levi Strauss (1902; in his honor I’m wearing his invention today), Bessie Smith (1937), and the ineffably handsome Paul Newman (2008). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is wondering what time it is, and you know what she means by “time”!

Hili: Sometimes it’s nice to sit on the verandah and muse.
A: What are you musing about?
Hili: I’m wondering what time it is.

In Polish:
Hili: Czasem miło jest posiedzieć na werandzie i porozmyślać.
Ja: A o czym rozmyślasz?
Hili: Zastanawiam się, która jest godzina.

Spot the lappet moth larva!

Well, the answer is here, so I just wanted you to see this. The caterpillar is, of course, a larva, and the lappet moth is Phyllodesma americana.

The adult, when resting on bark, is also cryptic. Note how the head is tucked down and hidden:lappetmothphyllodesmaamericana

Here’s another picture of the caterpillar; don’t ask me whether they can change colors (either within one period or depending on their habitat) or come in different colors”


h/t: Matthew

Scientific fame—Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin: the Wikipedia page hit data

JAC:  Last week my friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer at Harvard and expert on Darwin and, especially, Alfred Russel Wallace, was telling me about some interesting data he’d gleaned from Wikipedia about the two Fathers of Evolution. I suggested he write it up as a post for this site, and he kindly obliged:

Scientific Fame

Alfred Russel Wallace & Charles Darwin: the Wikipedia Page Hit Data

by Andrew Berry

Completely independently of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection.  While Darwin was slowly grinding through the production of a major book on the subject – his summary of twenty years of thought and analysis – Wallace was in the field in Indonesia pondering similar issues.  The result of this academic convergent evolution was a famous and oft recounted episode in the history of science.

In 1858, Wallace sent an outline of his ideas to Darwin, who was duly shocked to find himself about to be scooped.  Darwin’s precedence was rescued, however, by the intervention by two friends, Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker, who arranged for a paper to be presented shortly afterwards at London’s Linnean Society, featuring Wallace’s manuscript and some hastily cobbled together material from Darwin.  The product was an unusual paper: it’s not strictly speaking a joint publication, but, rather, two independent statements in the same paper of the same idea.  Wallace, by now in New Guinea, knew nothing of these machinations, but was happy, retrospectively, to give them his blessing.  The idea, after all, had been published, and, also, his stock had just gone up in scientific circles now that he was associated with someone as esteemed and senior as Darwin.


The listing in table of contents of the Linnean Society’s journal of the Darwin-Wallace publication. Darwin appears as first author. Historical precedence (he came up with the theory first)? Alphabetical order? Or ranking by seniority (both in terms of age and scientific standing)?

Given this history, it’s perhaps surprising that Darwin is so much more famous today than Wallace.  Google “Evolution,” and it’s Darwin’s lugubrious bearded face that stares out at you from the search results, not Wallace’s rather less gloomy (but eventually equally bearded) visage.  In terms of posterity, Darwin has well and truly trumped eclipsed (what a pity it is to have to avoid perfectly good words because of their unspeakable newfound associations) Wallace.

Having said that, it’s not as though Wallace has altogether disappeared.  People know him as the “other guy.”  He lives on in footnotes of biology textbooks, and is often discussed in exactly the terms of this very issue: how come these days all the credit for evolution is laid at Darwin’s door with little or no mention of Wallace?  Indeed, Wallace is sometimes described as “Famous for not being famous.”

There are plenty of interesting (and contested) reasons for Wallace’s eclipse, and it’s not my intention to discuss them here.  What I want to do is introduce a very 21st century metric of fame in an attempt to quantify that eclipse.  Realizing, over years of writing and lecturing about Wallace, that I typically glibly asserted that, “Darwin is famous; Wallace isn’t,” I decided to try to back up that claim with some numbers.  And Wikipedia – so often the first stop online if you’re gathering information about topics that aren’t directly addressed by TMZ – is surely the place to look for those numbers.

For some time, an independent website aggregated Wikipedia page hit data, and presented results graphically.  (It no longer seems to be functional.  The latest data I could find on Darwin’s Wikipedia page was from January of this year.)  Here, for an arbitrary three month period in Fall ’14, are the data for Darwin:


Page hits by day for a 90 period in Fall ’14 for the Wikipedia page for Charles Darwin

Two things are immediately striking.  First, there is a consistent background pattern, but there are occasional departures from that: in this instance, Darwin apparently went viral on 3 Sept 2014.  Second, people are interested in Darwin only on weekdays.  There is a clear decline in Darwin page hits over weekends, suggesting that a lot of the traffic is driven by homework assignments (the same pattern does not obtain for less homework-y topics, like, for example, David Bowie).

Now let’s look at Wallace’s Wikipedia page hits over the same period:


Page hits by day for a 90 period in Fall ’14 for the Wikipedia page for Alfred Russel Wallace

It’s nice to see that Wallace is getting plenty of traffic – like Darwin, on a weekly cycle apparently driven by homework – but note the scales of the two graphs.  The y-axis for Darwin’s runs to 18,000; for Wallace’s, it runs to 1800.  There is more or less an order of magnitude difference in the rate of Wikipedia page visitation between Darwin and Wallace.  It is interesting to note too that, like Darwin, Wallace also has the potential to “go viral” (i.e., to have days on which his Wikipedia page’s hits vastly outnumber those on a typical day).  Like Darwin, curiously, the big viral day for Wallace was 3 September 2014.

What on earth happened on 3 September 2014?  Why would both pages show a spike? You can imagine that new scholarship on, say, Darwin could engender a Darwin-specific spike, without affecting the rate of flow to Wallace’s Wikipedia page.  But this event affected them both.

It took a bit of digging around, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve tracked down the cause of this joint spike.  On 31 August, a spoof news source published this story (it seems that the page is no longer up; this is a screen cap from earlier):


An impressively realistic fake news site reveals that Darwin and Wallace were gay lovers

Perhaps the website did too good a job of dressing up the story as real news: over that period, I received probably a dozen emails from friends, students, and colleagues drawing my attention to this (apparently) extraordinary development in the Darwin-Wallace story.  “OMG, Wallace was gay,” was the subject line of one of those emails.  Everyone writing to me was completely taken in (suggesting that perhaps we have some kind of innate yearning for more sexually interesting visions of history than the ones we’re accustomed to).  I’m guessing that it was this publication that caused the joint Darwin/Wallace Wikipedia traffic spike.  It occurred a few days after the story was first published: a period of latency during which the world of social media was gearing up to its fully exponential dissemination of the tale.

Even when bogus stories of long concealed gayness are driving interest in Darwin and Wallace, that same close-to-tenfold difference holds.  Darwin really is ten times more famous than Wallace.

Page hits for Darwin’s and Wallace’s Wikipedia pages over a 90 day period in Fall ’14, and on 3 September 2014:



Andrew Berry