Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Power of Anonymity

One of my students mentioned to me this week that he had found my blog. Knowing that he might be reading any of these entries has caused me to think twice about what I write about.

When I first started this blog, I made the very deliberate decision not to hide my identity. For the most part, this hasn't caused any problems. Only a handful of people read this anyway, and it's easier to write knowing that they know who I am. In addition, some old friends from way, way back have "found" me via this blog, and it's been good to get reconnected with them. However, I also realize that this decision to be fully public has limited what I can write about. I can't really talk about my work colleagues or students, for example, because it's pretty easy for someone at my university to figure out whom I talking about (the same goes with family members and friends). And, yes, there are certainly times when I would love to share more of my inside view on university life. One of my favourite bloggers at the moment is FemaleScienceProfessor. She is completely anonymous, which allows her to complain (if she chooses to do so) about her co-workers, students, and even her general profession in a highly informative fashion. Although she's a senior professor in the "hard sciences" at an American university, she writes about many things with which I can identify. I imagine, however, that it would cause her some grief, both professionally and personally, if her identity were now made known.

Maybe I'll start another blog where I'll adopt an anonymous pseudonym. The problem is that I won't be able to tell you about it...

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Our Spider

As summer comes to a close in Australia, I am happy to report that we didn't face any scary spiders this least none of the deadly ones. Just above Will's play area in our patio garden, however, an enormous Golden Orb built a web in late November, which she has defended, added on to, and strengthened during the entire season. Here she is close up:

She's about five inches (12.7 cm) long and her web is probably 15 feet (457.2 cm) at the longest point.We haven't interfered with this spider because Golden Orbs are a 'good' spider. In fact, having them around reduces the chances that the deadly spiders (e.g., redbacks) will set up shop. There have been a few times when our spider has tried to extend her web at the height of my head, but that didn't last long. She has stayed there through all sorts of severe weather, including heavy rains and fierce winds. I'll be sad to see her disappear when it grows colder.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Micro versus Macro

Being both a teacher and a researcher in psychology, I am often faced with the problem of using the results of a study based on the average responses of groups of people to explain the behaviour of a single person. For example, a study may have found that people are more likely to help a stranger when they are randomly assigned to an experimental condition in which they are first made sad (an actual finding, by the way!). A student hearing about this study might respond, "but I was depressed last month, and I didn't want to help anybody!" Or, I might talk about another study which found that university men were much more likely to accept an offer of free sex from an attractive researcher than were women (another actual finding, although the researchers didn't sleep with anyone!). Again, a male student might respond to this study by saying, "but I am in a committed relationship with my girlfriend, so I wouldn't want to do such a thing." In both of these examples, the one single anecdote from the student is put forward as single-handedly destroying the logical conclusions of the research. In my teaching, I try to emphasize the difference between the group-level finding and what any one individual would do, but it is still difficult for many students to comprehend this.

A similar problem goes in the other inferential direction. For example, according to a blog entry at Talking Points Memo, CNN discussed a poll last week that showed that:
Texas voters that watched the Clinton-Obama debate supported Obama by a margin of 20 points, Texas voters who followed news about the debate but didn't watch it broke even, and Texas voters who paid no attention to the debate went for Hillary by 20 points.
According to an "expert" guest on CNN, the poll's results show that:
...downscale voters look to the political process to "deliver" for them, and that's why they want specifics, and that's why they support Hillary. Upscale voters, on the other hand, want to "identify" with a candidate, and that's why they support Obama.
Note that the original polling data said nothing about the socioeconomic status of those polled.

Take another example that hits closer to home: the continued drop in home resales and prices in January. Economists are keen to say things like, "home prices haven't dropped enough yet," and "people are waiting until the prices go down further." Of course there are many reasons why people aren't buying houses, right? And, more importantly, it turns out that home prices actually increased in some parts of the U.S. Another example of this explaining a macro phenomenon with individual behaviour comes whenever the stockmarket takes a plunge: "Mr. Analyst says that people are selling out of fear that oil prices will rise next week." That's a pretty amazing statement to make when you consider that millions of people are selling shares and there are still millions of others who are buying those very shares.

So, in my first set of examples, individual (micro) behaviours are used to refute the group (macro) phenomena. In the second set, the micro behaviours are used to explain macro phenonema. We're probably comfortable making such leaps from micro to macro (and the reverse) because it's quite hard to imagine that human behaviour is determined by many, many factors. In psychology, we are more comfortable predicting behaviour on the basis of probabilities, although we are nowhere as precise as we expect the weather bureau to be.

Monday, February 25, 2008

28 Times and Counting!

Today is the first day of classes at the University of Queensland, and the start of the academic year. The campus population has increased many times from just a few weeks ago. This morning after I dropped off Will at 9:00, I had to search hard for a parking spot that ended up being triple the distance away from where I usually park. Students are crowding the campus sidewalks so much that I was forced to walk in the street or a flower bed several times. I just tried to walk down a hallway where students were waiting to get into a lecture theatre and ended up crashing into a couple who were trying to find the right room number. But, despite their intrusion on this otherwise peaceful campus, I always enjoy the reappearance of students after the summer break. They all look so excited and especially nice (showing everyone their latest outfits), and they seem so full of hope that this will be their ideal semester, whatever that ideal is.

I started my own university studies in August 1981. I have always been on a university campus every year since, so that means this is the 28th time I have seen the beginning of another academic year. Today's first-year students were mostly born in 1990 or '91, when I was still in graduate school and the first George Bush was still the president. Time flies.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Parliamentary Farce

There was an element of farce in the Australian parliament today, as you can see in this photo featuring a cut-out of the Prime Minister standing next to an opposition member, Joe Hockey. Under Rudd's new government, parliament is regularly meeting on Fridays for the first time, reportedly to allow the "backbenchers" to have a chance to say what's on their mind. The opposition coalition has a problem with this, as none of the government ministers, including the PM, plans to regularly attend these Friday sessions. Or, as The Australian put it:
For the first time under the Rudd Government, parliament is sitting on a Friday to allow backbenchers to speak their minds - in a day that is already being dubbed Rudd’s Day Off or RDO. But Coalition MPs are angry that Fridays have no proper votes, no question time where ministers can be grilled by the Opposition, and quorum will not be recorded.
I guess I would be upset if I were a backbencher and this was the only day that I could give a speech. These Friday meetings are sort of like the "kiddie table" at an American Thanksgiving dinner.
Still, I would have rather watched the Obama-Clinton debate on live television, rather than viewing these antics in Canberra, which will surely dominate the local news tonight.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Frustation For Sale

Have you checked out the link to our house that's for sale back in Atlanta?  It's a very nice site, but I am open to any suggestions to improve what our realtor has done with it.  My reaction is biased. I easily get sad when I look at the pictures of various parts of the house--especially Will's room, which V. and I painted together, and the family room, where we spent many hours watching Will--first lying on his back, then crawling, and then finally walking.  We have had barely a nibble from a potential buyer in the past 12 months.  The most common complaint is that it needs extensive "updating," which we concede, but that's also why it's listed at more than $100K less than anything else in the neighborhood.  Lowering the price isn't much of an option, as we are already looking at barely paying off our mortgage if it were to sell close to the asking price.  A few of my colleagues here have suggested that we contemplate just declaring bankruptcy, especially in light of the mortgage payments we send back to the U.S. every month.  Of course, we now live in Australia, where we would be immune to the hit such an action would take on our American credit history. But that would also mean that we really couldn't move back to the States for at least seven years.  And, perhaps more importantly, I would have to get over the whole stigma attached to someone who doesn't pay off his debts.  For now, we have decided not to think about this option until September 1.  Hopefully, someone will come along and fall in love with the place the way we did.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bottle Opener Thongs

I am now the proud owner of bottle opener thongs. Let me explain:

We drove about 90 minutes north of Brisbane to Mooloolaba yesterday to go to Underwater World. As we passed through the Mooloolaba Wharf, I saw a sign for "bottle opener" (next line) "thongs," which I thought referred to two different items. After more than seventh months here, I now know that a necessary item of apparel for the man in Queensland is a pair of thongs ("flip-flops" for the Yanks), so I went inside looking for some. After realizing that I had fairly specific color requirements for my first pair, I settled on some brownish-coloured ones that had some extra padding on the heels. As I went to pay for them, the clerk mentioned how great these were because of the bottle openers underneath. "What?" I asked. And, sure enough, there is a bottle opener on the bottom of each thong. There were even instructions included showing some stick figures taking off their thongs to open a bottle. If you don't believe me, take a look at the picture below. This naturally begs the question, "why would I ever need two bottle openers when I'm out for a walk?"

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The No-No Song

I had a very cool music teacher when I was in the 6th grade back at Jefferson Elementary in Dixon, Illinois in 1974. Perhaps as a result of the class, music later became a big part of my extracurricular activities (e.g., playing the piano, singing in the choir, playing the clarinet in the band, acting in school musicals). I don't remember the teacher's name or what she looked like (perhaps "she" was even "he"), but I always enjoyed the weekly class because it was highly interactive and relevant. One favorite feature was that the lyrics to current radio hits would be sprawled across the front of the room on large poster paper, and the entire class would sing along with the recording. For example, I remember singing "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" by Terry Jacks and "Black Water" by the Doobie Brothers this way. But I also remember that one of our favorite songs was a hit by Ringo Starr at the time--"The No-No Song." I realized back then that there was some 'vague' reference to drugs in the song, but imagine my surprise when I listened to it today, after all these many years:
A lady that I know just came from Colombia
She smiled because I did not understand
Then she held out some marijuana, oh ho
She said it was the best in all the land

And I said, "No-no-no-no, I don't smoke it no more
I'm tired of waking up on the floor
No thank you please, it only makes me sneeze
Then it makes it hard to find the door"

A woman that I know just came from Majorca, Spain
She smiled because I did not understand
Then she held out a ten pound bag of cocaine
She said it was the finest in the land

{Refrain with [sniff]}

A man I know just came from Nashville, Tennessee-o
He smiled because I did not understand
Then he held out some moonshine whiskey, oh-ho
He said it was the best in all the land

{Refrain with drink it}

{Refrain with "I can't take it no more"}
I can't imagine that an elementary school teacher could get away with something like that these days. But, then again, it does have a sort of "anti-drug" message to it, doesn't it?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


I apologise. It's been quite a while, but this entry marks the resumption of my blogging. All is well here, although V. and Will did go to bed early tonight with bad colds. The water problems of SE Queensland have eased due to lots of rain in the past month. Work is good. Our house back in Atlanta is still not sold.

By the way, tomorrow the Prime Minister of Australia will apologise too.

Did you know that respite has a very specific meaning regarding what one is resting from? According to my dictionary:

respite |ˈrespət; riˈspīt|
a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant : the refugee encampments will provide some respite from the suffering | [in sing. ] a brief respite from a dire food shortage.

Life hasn't been difficult or unpleasant. On the contrary, it's been very good. I'll tell you more about it later.