cognitive science and more
cognitive science and more
How to write with your mind? (or: Decoding attention through pupillometry)

I'm very excited to announce that our article The Mind-Writing Pupil is now available at PLoS ONE! In this article, we describe a technique that allows you to—literally—write by thinking of letters. This sounds like a wild claim, but it's not; the technique is actually surprisingly simple. In the video below you can see a demonstration:

So how does this work?

A simple explanation of character encoding in Python

Special characters are a pain for programmers, and a source of bugs. Whenever your code contains an accented letter, voil├Ā, funny-looking symbols appear; or, worse, your program crashes with an obscure error. Why does it have to be that hard!?

It doesn't. Character encoding is not that difficult once you understand the basic principles. Let's take a look.

The psychology of object-oriented programming

Object-oriented programming is a beautiful concept with a bad reputation. Many programmers, especially those without formal training, avoid it, because they believe that objects are complicated and abstract; in addition, many programmers don't have a clear understanding of what objects are good for. Why do you need objects at all? Can't you do everything with functions and loops?1

Object-oriented programming serves several purposes. The one that you hear most is that it 'reduces code redundancy'; that is, it avoids you from having to type the same thing twice. While this is true, this is mostly relevant for large projects, in which duplicate code causes all kinds of problems. But object-oriented programming serves another important purpose, one that is useful for large and small projects alike: It's a way to think about programming that resembles how we think about the world.

Six books to help you write

I like to write: blogs, papers, mediocre bits of fiction that never see the light of day, and even forum discussions. Each of these writings poses its own challenges, and requires its own style. When writing a blog, what is a good opening sentence? (Here I dived right in with "I like to write." Is that too blunt?) What's an acceptable length for a blog, given people's limited attention spans on the internet? (This blog is probably too long.) When to use, and when to avoid, parenthetical phrases? (Avoid, avoid!) When writing a scientific paper, how do you let the introduction flow naturally into the research question? When answering a technical question on a forum, how do you make sure that someone who is already struggling understands your answer?

And, in all cases, how do you avoid mistakes, and express yourself as clearly as possible?

Writing isn't easy, but it's not magic either. Below, in no particular order, are six books that I've personally found very useful in developing my own writing.

Can you see while your eyes move?

Try this little experiment:

  • Look at yourself in the mirror from a distance of about 20 cm.
  • Alternately look at your left and right eye.

Not much to see, is there? And that's exactly it: You don't see your eyes moving! Yet eye movements are clearly visible. You can verify this with a variation on the same experiment:

  • Look at yourself in the front-facing camera of a phone (or any webcam).
  • Again, alternately look at your left and right eye.

Now you clearly see that your eyes move, in small jerky movements called saccades. So what's the difference? Why can you see your eyes move in a webcam, but not a mirror?

When one does the second experiment, it is imperative that one duckfaces. (Source)

The answer is that your phone's camera shows things with a slight delay; therefore, you see your eyes move only after they have already stopped moving. In contrast, a mirror has no delay; therefore, to see your eyes move in a mirror, you have to see while your eyes move. And you usually can't—a phenomenon that is often called saccadic suppression. (Because vision is suppressed during saccades.)