Facial Expressions

The last year or so I have been working on a project that incorporates facial expressions of emotions in games. The idea is quite simple although it sounds complicated, we have subjects communicate during a game using computer avatars. The goal is to quantify and model some form of communication. Verbal or written language being way too complicated for me to think about, facial expressions seem more tractable.

The important logistic component is done by having players control a computer avatar using a joystick. This way they are able to create a large range of expressions very quickly. Everything is done in
Poser and much of the code is based on software from our collaborator Jesse Spencer-Smith. Lusha wrote the rest of the code to be able to run a game in Poser. All in all, it works surprisingly smoothly!

There is a real difficulty however in conveying the quality of these expressions to colleagues (not to mention grant reviewers!). It's not that surprising in hindsight, but when you say that the players create an expression in 3 seconds, people expect something amateurish and not at all realistic. Compound that with the fact that the way people communicate in academia is still overwhelmingly print-based, and we have a situation where it's difficult to get across a sense of quality of the game. So I've decided to put up some video captures of the faces players are sending each other during games. At some point I'll have to do a screencast of a whole game so people can get a sense of the flow of the software.

This is an example of an expression sent in a stochastic dictator game, from recipient to dictator. The dictator gives the recipient a possibly unfair split. The recipient then decided to sent back the above expression. Needless to say, he is less than pleased. The whole sequence, from dictator's decision to recipient's expression, probably took less than 30 seconds.

Inaugural Entry from Berkeley

Hard to believe it's almost been a month since I moved to the Bay area. If only the physical move can be as easy as moving this website (made a trivial task by RapidWeaver). Of course even after settling down here, I am still trying to transport my students and all of the setups of the lab over.

P.S. To grant agencies, now would be a great time to fund my proposals. :-)

It's Good Bye for Now

After three happy and productive years at University of Illinois, I will be moving back to the west coast. I have recently completed a move to the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. This website will live on for at least another semester.

For the sake of memory, I'm putting up some random pictures of our poster at the 2008
Society for Neuroeconomics conference, as well as our space the Beckman Institute. It's too bad I never remembered to take pictures of our experiments; not every day one gets to see a room of PCs and joysticks. :-)

Real Life Impunity Game

A number of countries have incentive schemes to encourage couples to have more children. Off the top of my head I can think of Italy, Japan, Singapore, and Russia. As far as I know nobody has thought of cash subsidy in this case as being morally repugnant. But somehow if the government of Nepal offers $650 to subsidize men willing to marry widows, and they in fact are doing just that, women's rights groups and the widows themselves are less than pleased.

This looks like a real-life version of the impunity game. It is similar to an ultimatum game, except rejection only reduces the responder's own payoff, and has no effect on the proposer's. So if as a responder you were offered ($8, $2) split and decide to reject, the allocation would be ($8, $0), so you lose a couple of dollars to make some kind of a point. This is an interesting game in that rejections are inequity raising, rather than reducing as in the case of the ultimatum game. This type of behavior has now been demonstrated in a couple of recent experiments using both humans and monkeys. I think there is also an older paper by Rami Zwick where this game was introduced? Anyway I can't remember.

My question though is: what is the difference between subsidies for child-bearing and marriage? If the answer is that the subsidy is patronizing in that it sounds like it's being given to the husbands, but I don't think it would be any less repugnant to the women if the money were directly given to them.

Yamagishi et al. The private rejection of unfair offers and emotional commitment. PNAS (2009) vol. 106 (28) pp. 11520-11523

Brosnan and De Waal. Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature (2003) vol. 425 (6955) pp. 297-9

Compressing Large PDFs

Here is a nifty Automator action that I created today to automatically compress large PDFs that I encounter every now and then from journals. These are not scanned images that JSTOR produces, which are understandably large. They are articles typically less than 10 pages, with a few images. They have no business exceeding 1MB, never mind 7MB(!) which I downloaded once. After compression they are often around 700KB. You can compress using Acrobat Pro, but this is free and much faster. Here is the commandline using Ghostscript:

gs -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -dCompatibilityLevel=1.4 -dPDFSETTINGS=/printer -dNOPAUSE -dQUIET -dBATCH -sOutputFile=output.pdf input.pdf

This uses the "printer" setting, which downsamples at 300DPI. Ebook is 150DPI. There is also prepress which I haven't used but I'm guessing 600DPI? Hard disk space is cheap these days but there are a couple of practical reasons to do this: sharing with others, and screen rendering speed. In particular Preview slows to a crawl at times.

After getting tired enough of deleting and renaming the files by hand, I created a Leopard Automator action for this. Now I can just select the file, and it will convert and replace the original.

Power of Analogies

I have no idea whether the attribution of causation holds any water, but it's certainly a well-crafted piece of rhetoric.

“I told Boyden: ‘Imagine you just fired up the government printing presses and dumped an endless stream of money into the system. You’d have no way of controlling the money supply,’ ” Mr. Dudek said. “He understood totally and intuitively the importance of maintaining the cap, the key ingredient in our acid rain policy.” A month later, the Bush White House sent Congress a cap-and-trade plan...

They also seem to me to be particularly useful in situations involving repugnant transactions. Perhaps an example of cognitive appraisal?

Fairness as a constraint on profit-seeking: Printer Edition

The other day I found out that, by taping a piece of paper on top of the sensors in my printer, I can stop the printer from randomly canceling print job. Apparently it will stop printing every now and then because it thinks the printer is low on toner, with no warning. Thwarting the evil print manufacturer gave me, in hindsight, an unreasonable amount of pleasure in what amounts to a very small material gain. By comparison, I likely would have considered it a chore fixing a broken printer.

This has a similar flavor to the classic paper Fairness as a Constraint on Profit Seeking by Kahneman, Knetch, and Thaler. They explain several market anomalies by proposing that actions of otherwise profit-maximizing firms are restricted by the consumers' preferences for fairness. The definition of "fairness" is however hard to pin down, not surprisingly since the strategic and social context vary greatly. People typically agree that raising the price of a snow shovel after a snow storm is unfair; 82% in their survey rated an increase of $15 to $20 as unfair (rather stingy of the respondents I think).

They catalogue some different situations where fairness norms are violated, for example, exploitation of increased market power or protecting profits. Maybe what's tying all these together is the role of intentions in fairness interpretations. Steve and I have an upcoming perspective discussing this, so stay tuned (to all 5 of you reading).

Radio Interview

Yesterday I participated in a live radio interview with the Edmonton radio program Skeptically Speaking. It was quite fun and had very well-informed audience questions. There was even one question about how our research applies to game theory, which is exactly what we are doing these days.

The last question from the hosts kind of stumped me though. It was something like, "If there was a song that described your life arc, what song would it be?" After the show Desiree told me one previous answer was the Imperial march from Star Wars, which is pretty good. I have nothing to rival that. I've thought about it and still can't think of anything. Maybe Dirt Off Your Shoulders, but I don't even like that song.

Anyway I am looking forward to getting the podcast soon. Here's hoping that everything sounds better on air, or over iTunes in this case.

Update (5/4): The episode is up now. A couple of thoughts.

  1. It's hard to keep things on a lay level. I made a conscious effort at the beginning but it was hard to maintain. Science blogs complain bitterly about the media butchering their science reporting. They are certainly right in some cases, but what gets overlooked is just how difficult it is to be engaging without overloading on jargon and details. It doesn't help that people tend to fixate on the headlines, which to me seems harder to write and typically not even written by the author of the article.
  2. The length of the show (~40min) surprised me. And since it started recording at 7PM CST, I was totally starving and noticeably running out of steam towards the end. If it had gone on further I would have either ordered take out or starting speaking in tongues.

Neurofinance Webcast

Interesting interview with Peter Bossaerts from the private banking consulting group Arvetica. Alas for the consulting firm he does not reveal the secret to using neurofinance to make billions. Read More...


Just read the recent paper on neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Interesting overall but I'd rather they used something other than imaginary scenarios. One interesting side effect of the financial crisis is the number of overt displays of schadenfreude on the Internet. I particularly like this choice bit from the Monkey Cage:

It’ll be interesting to see whether academic starting salaries in economics fall due to the diminished demand. Somehow, I suspect that economists will cook up some new rationales that they can offer to beleaguered deans about why economists’ salaries should remain higher than what the rest of us make.

Given all of these studies are in universities, it wouldn't be too difficult to show a group of political scientists (actually you have your pick of disciplines) the pictures of their economist colleagues. I can almost see the twinkle of bemused malice in their eyes at offering $1 out of 10 to their economist colleagues in an ultimatum game. The parity in faculty compensation in Japan though is going to make this difficult. So, if you are a political scientist and genuinely enjoy seeing the misfortunes of your economics colleagues, please email me to volunteer for my new study, which I call, "Haterade in the Ivory Tower".

P.S. I don't mean to pick on the Monkey Cage. I like the blog and the entry is amusing and certainly not mean-spirited. If you are looking for the latter though, you'd be hard pressed to top this group.

Brain Atlas

Every now and then I get asked for a reference to pick up the necessary neuroanatomy knowledge to read a neuroimaging or neurophysiology paper. Unfortunately I didn't have a very good answer. The references were either too comprehensive (and typically expensive) or too low level (and also expensive). Not exactly good combinations for people who don't have the time to go through texts aimed at first year medical school course on neuroanatomy. Luckily this semester Eve Gallman is sitting in my class and pointed me to a Woolsey paperback brain atlas. It has a nice clean look, unlike some other atlases that are overloaded with details. Really, if it's hard to tell which words go with which arrows pointing to which brain areas, it is probably confusing to the reader.

Neuroeconomics in NYTimes

The Freakonomics blog at the New York Times this week has a post by Andrew Lo on how neuroscience is shedding light on the current financial crisis. This is always going to be a contentious claim, so I think perhaps a better way to say this is: neuroscience is providing additional evidence that factors outside of the standard theory, like fear and ambiguity aversion, influence behavior. Many will say that this is a "straw man" and that of course everyone knows fear matters. I get that kind of argument quite a bit during seminars. But I don't see how this is a straw man and it is "obvious" only in hindsight. Here is a quote from Colin Camerer in Economics and Philosophy that I particularly like on the topic:

A typical dictionary definition of a “straw man” is this: “To argue against a straw man is to interpret someone’s position in an unfairly weak way, and so argue against a position that nobody holds, or is likely to hold.”... A good example is self-interested preferences. This preference specification is clearly not a straw man because that simple form of preference is actually used in many types of analysis... Furthermore, belief in self-interest is not a position nobody holds because it is often clearly espoused...

Also, if one thinks it is an obvious point that fear influences risk attitude, then it should be useful to measure, say, the effects of fear on stock prices. But how does one measure the independent variable--fear? You could go around surveying traders, but you're stuck with self-report and low temporal resolution data in the best of times. Or you could measure things like galvanic skin response in real-time like Lo and Repin did, which at least gets you some indication of physiological and emotional arousal. Is this ideal? Of course not, but short of sticking electrodes in brains of traders like we do in monkey neurophysiology studies, these are the best measures we have.

HTML Text Justification and Hyphenation

One thing easy to do (but not easy to do well) in word processing software is to use hyphenation when justifying text. Up until now there have been really no way to do so on the web. I recently heard that both IE6, Safari, and recently Firefox 3, all began to support soft hyphenation. Basically you put the reference code—­—in the area where one might want to insert a hyphen. Now I don't understood why this should be something that is done on the language side (i.e., html) rather than browser side. I mean, you are not asked in either Word or Latex to put some random marker of where you might possibly hyphenate. Nevertheless, I don't ask for much and this is better than nothing, and the difference can be quite stark, especially when working with narrow blocks of text. Read More...