cognitive science and more
cognitive science and more
Boerke and the tell-tale pupils

Ok, stop procrastinating for a moment, and spend your time on something useful. Like finding Boerke in this image:

Boerke, shown at the bottom left, is hiding among his comic-strip buddies. (Source: Stripmuseum Brussels)

While searching for Boerke, you probably scanned the picture in a particular way: You scrutinized small parts of the picture one by one, looking at things that you wouldn't normally look at. Maybe Boerke is behind the ticket counter? (And where's the ticket counter?) No ... Maybe Boerke is climbing the stairs then? No, that's Bobette ... And so on, until you spotted Boerke. (Assuming you have. If not: keep looking!)

Delicious detergents and other food-imitating products

Last week, six contestants in a cycling race in Norway were poisoned after drinking laundry detergent. Drinking detergent seems like an exceedingly idiotic thing to do. So how come that six people did this? Well ...

(Source: Twitter)

... Omo Aktiv & Sport really looks like a sports drink.

In the beginning of 2006, there were almost one hundred reports of people being poisoned after drinking Fabuloso, a surface cleaner that promises to make dirty floors shine again. Why? Well ...

... Fabuloso really looks like a soft drink.

The reason that manufacturers make their cleaning products look like food is obvious. People like eating better than cleaning, so a cleaning product is more attractive if it looks edible.

Non-foods that look like foods, and non-drinks that look like drinks, are called food-imitating products. They are recognized as a public health risk by the European Union. If a detergent looks like a drink, someone will drink it. The result is a nasty case of poisoning, which, in rare cases, can be deadly. It's a problem.

Notes from the NC3Rs workshop on publication bias

I'm writing this on my way back from London, where I attended a workshop on publication bias that was organized by the NC3Rs (the British National Center for the Replacement, Refinement, and Reduction of Animals in Research). Publication bias arises when not all scientific studies are published, and when the chance of whether a study is published depends on its outcome. More specifically, studies that show a 'positive' result (e.g. a treatment effect, or something that supports a researcher's hypothesis) are published more often than studies that show a 'negative' result (e.g. no treatment effect, or something that doesn't support a researcher's hypothesis). Publication bias distorts scientific evidence. In most cases, it makes treatments (drugs, therapies, etc.) seem more effective than they are, simply because we only see studies that show positive treatment effects.

Publication bias is increasingly recognized as a severe problem that affects all areas of science. It's not new. It's just that until recently little was done about it. It was therefore great to see this workshop bring researchers, funders, publishers, and people from industry together with the aim of discussing concrete ways of reducing publication bias. In this post I would like to tell you about some of the things that were discussed.

There were many excellent speakers, but I will first highlight the opening talk by Emily Sena. Her talk was partly based on a meta-analysis in which she investigated publication bias in animal research on stroke treatment. Her work nicely shows how you can answer a seemingly unanswerable question: How many studies were never published, and what did these invisible studies find?

The play store bully

I recently had a little adventure on the Google Play store, where I publish a few apps. I wanted to share the story with you, because it illustrates the danger of having a single company (Google) that dictates an entire platform (Android) and its app store (Google Play Store).

It's about a game app called Infinite Maze. This is a cute little game that Theo Danes and I created as an entry for the 2014 Best Illusion of the Year Contest. A playable optical illusion! We didn't win, but I'm proud to say that we made the finals.

You can read more about the illusion here, but this post is about a trademark infringement that was filed by Namco against a dozen-or-so apps, including Infinite Maze. Namco is the company behind Pac-man. Their exact allegation was:

this app infringes PAC-MAN in the first game screenshot; PAC-MAN is clearly seen as the game title

Besides punctuation, there is something very wrong with this allegation: It is not true. Sure, Infinite Maze is a labyrinth game, and it's clearly inspired by Pac-man. In the past, I have even referred to it as Infinite Maze of Pac-man. But before uploading it to the Google Play store, I removed all mention of the word 'pac-man' in the game so that I wouldn't violate any trademarks. The word 'pac-man' now only occurs in the app description in the context of 'a pac-man-inspired game'. A phrasing that, as far as I know, doesn't constitute trademark infringement. But even if it does, Namco's specific allegation is that the word 'pac-man' is seen as the game title in a screenshot, which is utter, full, and complete nonsense.

I was informed of this allegation only after the app had been pulled. No warning. No advance notice. No chance for rebuttal. Google deals swift justice.

Breeding the perfect visual-search display

Tens of thousands of psychology students have spent hundreds of thousands of hours in stuffy little lab cubicles doing visual-search experiments. They have searched for diamonds among squares, red lines among green crosses, smileys among frowneys, and so on. You would think that by now every conceivable visual-search experiment has been done. But no, there's still cool stuff left.

In a study that just appeared in Journal of Vision, Erik van der Burg and his colleagues used a genetic algorithm to breed the best visual-search display. That is, they used evolution through 'natural' selection to create a display in which a target object was super easy to find. The results are a little surprising, which makes this experiment extra cool.

Natural selection applied to visual-search displays. The fittest displays from generation 1 are crossbred to create the displays from generation 2. The target is the horizontal red line segment in the center.