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Intro Bio Psy

Most things around us are designed; they have been created by other people to serve some purpose. Few things are designed perfectly: Door handles turn the wrong way; chairs are uncomfortable; tables are too high or too low; etcetera. It happens. No-one nor thing is perfect.

But occasionally you come across something that has been designed so poorly that you wonder what, if anything, went through the designer's mind. These are precious gems of stupidity that not only violate principles of good design (which is excusable, because good design is difficult), but seem to have been constructed without any common sense at all.

Here are three random examples of poor design that I came across in the past week.

The first is a brand-new bathroom at the University of Lyon II. New and clean bathrooms are rare in France, so coming across a bathroom like this is, in itself, a happy occasion. But do you notice the toilet-paper dispenser? Do you notice where it is? Exactly. (You may be thinking: Surely there are also toilet-paper dispensers inside the actual toilets? There aren't.)

Apparently there was a designer who felt that it was a good idea to put the toilet-paper dispenser outside of the toilets. We can only guess what went through his or her mind, but we can be sure that it wasn't common sense.

I hope there haven't been any casualties yet: People who underestimated before going in. But there will be. Oh yes, there will be.

The second …

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Real life with an Ubuntu tablet—and only an Ubuntu tablet

Imagine: You're leaving for a long work-related trip. What, at the very least, do you take with you? Why, a laptop, of course! A brand-new one, a fancy one, so that you can be just as productive while traveling as at the office. (Not that you will be. Most of your trip will be spent socializing, drinking at hotel bars, and exploring new cities. But you could be, and that's the point.)

But then disaster strikes: Your fancy laptop breaks down, just days before the trip. No time to have it repaired, so you decide to take an old backup laptop instead. Not as fancy, but it will do. But then disaster strikes again: The evening before your trip, you spill coffee on the backup laptop. Dead!

This is more or less what happened to me.

I suddenly found myself laptopless, right before a series of contiguous work-related trips. So I was forced to boldly go where no man has gone before (it's not bold if you've been forced, I suppose, but no matter—I went there): I brought my Ubuntu tablet along as my main computer. The BQ Aquaris M10 FHD to be exact.

My makeshift hotel-room office, centered around the BQ Aquaris M10 Ubuntu tablet.

So what's Ubuntu, and what's an Ubuntu tablet?

Ubuntu is a free operating system, an alternative to Windows or Mac OS. I love Ubuntu, and it was installed on both of my late laptops. Regular Ubuntu is for desktop and laptop computers. Ubuntu …

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#Brexit: How much European research money goes to the UK?

The Brexit has caused considerable concern among British researchers—and perhaps for good reason. As in other European countries, research in the United Kingdom (UK) is funded to a considerable and rapidly increasing extent by the European Union (EU), or rather the European Research Council (ERC). And this funding is jeopardized if the UK leaves the EU.

Let's look at some numbers to put this concern into context. How much does the UK benefit from EU research funding, compared to other European countries?

Here I will focus on ERC grants, which are one of the main channels through which the EU funds research. ERC grants are awarded through a competition that is open to researchers from all EU member states, and also several non-EU countries that have special agreements with the EU. Grants are awarded based on scientific quality, and not based on the financial contributions of the participating countries; for example, Germany shouldn't (and doesn't) get most of the grants only because they contributed most of the money.

The figure below shows the number of ERC grants awarded to large (population > 30 million) countries that have received funding from the ERC. These numbers are based on the total number of ERC starting, consolidator, and advanced grants between 2007 and 2015. Green bars show the total number of grants; pink bars show the number of grants per million inhabitants, that is, corrected for population size.

Clearly, the UK receives far, far, far more ERC grants than other large countries. After …

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Why Facebook's safety check ("Marked Safe") may do more harm than good

If you live in a region where terrorist attacks happen with some regularity, you are probably familiar with Facebook's Safety Check, or Marked Safe, feature. This works as follows: When a terrorist attack happens (or another disaster, but this post is purely about terrorist attacks), Facebook determines which of its users were nearby when it happened. Facebook does so based on three sources: your phone or tablet's location, your home city, and the location of your last connection to Facebook (i.e. they check the location of your last IP address). It then asks those nearby users to confirm that they are safe, which is posted on Facebook, thus re-assuring friends and family.

Surely there is nothing wrong with letting friends and family know that you are safe! So why is this—in the format of a Facebook-wide safety check—a bad idea?

First, more than anything else, systematically marking people as safe in this way accentuates the possibility that they may not have been safe, that they were in serious mortal danger and barely survived. It increases the subjective probability that loved ones may get hurt in terrorist attacks. And it increases the feeling that we are all in danger all of the time.

People who are affected by terrorist attacks deserve unconditional sympathy and support. But empathy doesn't have to, and shouldn't, turn into unreasonable fear.

Because fear is exactly what organizations like Islamic State (IS) want to accomplish: They want to look far more dangerous to the …

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What would a modern constructed language look like?

In El Congreso, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the lead character, Alejandro Ferri, sets out to find the perfect language for a secret society whose aim is to create a congress that represents all of humanity. This story is fascinating in many ways; for example, you might ask how a society can be both secret and represent all of humanity at the same time. But I was especially intrigued by the constructed languages that Ferri considers (but not ultimately accepts) as the universal language.

Anyone who's ever learned a second language knows the feeling that language is unnecessarily complex: irregular verb conjugations, cases (i.e. modifying a noun to indicate its role in a sentence), etc. Awful! So what could be more convenient than a rational language that has been designed with a limited and fixed set of rules? A language of reason, or Lingvo de kialo in Esperanto!

Esperanto and Voläpuk are two such languages, both created at the end of the 19th century. Voläpuk, which I'd never heard of before reading El Congreso, doesn't appear to have stood the test of time. But Esperanto is alive and well; it might not have become the universal language that it was designed to be, but it has a small following, its own Wikipedia with over 200,000 articles, and it is supported by Google Translate and Duolingo (a free platform for learning languages).

I've taken a few Esperanto lessons on Duolingo, and it's really easy to learn. The …

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