Millennials Are Actually Very Creative People

Browsing through my RSS feeds today, I came across this AMAZING homemade Star Trek Into Darkness trailer.

The creator, Dustin McLean, used household items for props, created his own a capella score, and filmed the entire video on an iPhone (without any post-production effects). The result isn't just a shot-for-shot recreation, it's a hilarious commentary on film trailers.

Videos likes this remind me of how innovative Millennials are. We're digital natives who flourish in cultures of creation (like blogs, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter). Technology didn't make us dumb, it made it easier for us to make stuff to share with the world. 

Millennials are written off as narcissistic, apathetic, spoiled kids who expect great things to be handed to them. Yes, we're assertive, value flexibility, and criticize policies that don't make sense, but that's only because we believe there's always room for improvement. Nothing is sacred, which is why we love tinkering with the status quo.

Unfortunately, we're also the generation that produced internet trolls and online bullying. Unlike Baby Boomers, teamwork doesn't come easy to us. We're also too trusting of social media and could use some Generation X skepticism. But we're a work in progress and just like everything else (should be), we're open to change.

Gattaca Explains the Psychology of Cheating


After a particularly long day of clinical work last week, I came home and watched 1997's Gattaca. Science fiction, whether good, bad, or ugly (I'm looking at you SyFy channel original films) calms me down and helps me unplug from work. I'm sure it was a cognitive bias (availability heuristic?) resulting from Lance Armstrong's widely publicized interview with Oprah, but I realized that Gattaca is actually a story about cheating.

Unfair competition

Gattaca takes place in a word that has perfected genetic engineering. Families (who can afford it) select the genes of their children, optimizing intelligence and physique while eliminating genetic diseases. After being born, the purity of one's genome is quantified and ranked.

Gattaca's genetic ranking classifies individuals as "valid" or "invalid". 

Gattaca's genetic ranking classifies individuals as "valid" or "invalid". 

Though genoism (genetic discrimination) is outlawed, schools, colleges, and employers use genetics in their selection process by sampling saliva from envelopes, skin cells from handshakes, or using an otherwise legal drug screening. The main character, a man born without the aid of genetic engineering, states:

"I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science."

The story follows his quest to impersonate an individual with superior genes and fake his way into Gattaca - an elite space agency.

The culture of competition in Gattaca is the same type of environment that leads to cheating in our world. Environments where students or employees believe that even a small gain will give them a competitive edge cultivates cheating. This is especially true when individuals see little importance in their work (e.g. students aren't focused on learning and think they are doing busy work, employees don't see the harm in fudging numbers). Factor in the belief that everyone around you is cheating (as was the case at Stuyvesant High and Harvard), and you've created an environment where it's hard not to cheat.

What's brilliant about Gattaca is that you end up cheering for a character that breaks all rules and cheats his way into an exclusive institution. Why? Because there is no way to succeed in Gattaca without cheating, which is usually what cheaters say when they get caught

Who's to blame?

Would you give your children genetic enhancements like additional fingers if it helped them become elite musicians? 

Would you give your children genetic enhancements like additional fingers if it helped them become elite musicians? 

Who's responsible for what seems to be an epidemic of cheating? I can't point at any one person - students, parents, schools, universities, athletes, and the private sector are all facing very high expectations for achievement. In every domain of our lives, we've become very good at measuring success and that's created fierce competition. Yes, there are individual reasons why people cheat (like preparation, perspective, and personality) and I've singled out environmental causes here, but we're all at fault, which of course means no one group is responsible.

Fighting cheating

The research is clear - the best way to limit cheating is by:

  1. reducing competition
  2. fostering a culture of integrity and learning
  3. enforcing rules vigilantly and equally
Despite extensive security, "borrowed ladders" allowed non-genetically engineered humans to fake their way through society.

Despite extensive security, "borrowed ladders" allowed non-genetically engineered humans to fake their way through society.

This is all easier said than done. I'm guilty of plagiarizing in middle and high school (and that was before Wikipedia). One of my teachers even caught me red-handed, yet I faced zero consequences. While I never cheated in college or grad school (at that point I cared about what I was learning and feared strict university enforcement), I remained silent when I saw someone cheat in a class because I didn't want to be a "snitch". A friend of mine once confessed to cheating on her engineering tests because of strict curved grading. I've heard similar stories from law students, whose final rankings determine job prospects and salaries. Even as a professor, I was once asked by a colleague not to confront a student for cheating because that student "may start a lawsuit against the university". On both sides, it's very hard to uphold academic integrity.

In my own courses, I've decided to change the way I measure success. Instead of asking for facts, dates, and vocabulary, I test my students' ability to apply and critique information they have learned (something they can't scribble on a cheat sheet). Gattaca suggests a similar solution - assess one's perseverance, dreams, and contributions to society. Perhaps a larger discussion about what success really means is one way we can begin changing our culture of competition and cheating.

What has your experience been with cheating? What do you think can be done to stop it?

Cultural Change Goes Both Ways, Just Like on Joss Whedon's Firefly


Many people have never heard of Firefly. The TV show premiered in 2002, but was cancelled after 11 episodes (Fox set it up for failure by showing episodes out of order). Developed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Avengers), Firefly stars some familiar faces including Nathan Fillion (Castle, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Desperate Housewives), Morena Baccarin (Homeland, V), and Summer Glau (Dollhouse, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). While the premise is familiar (a crew of renegades fight for survival on the outskirts of civilization), what makes Firefly truly a gem is its unique depiction of cultural change.

Firefly is a blend of American & Chinese culture

The Alliance flag is a literal combination of cultures. 

The Alliance flag is a literal combination of cultures. 

Firefly takes place in a future where the U.S. and China have merged into one diverse superpower called the Alliance, resulting in a combined Chinese and American culture. Everyone is bilingual in Mandarin and English, but each is used in different situations. For example, people swear exclusively in Mandarin, which conveniently let Joss Whedon get away some very colorful metaphors including 笨天生的一堆肉 (stupid inbred stack of meat), 真沒耐性的佛祖 (extraordinarily impatient buddha), and 羔羊中的孤羊 (motherless goats of all motherless goats). The Alliance government, values, and beliefs borrow from both the U.S. and the People's Republic of China. Dress, food, and entertainment are influenced by Eastern and Western tastes. This fusion results in a nation that has traces of both America and China, yet remains unique. This is exactly how cultural change happens in real life.

Cultural change has many outcomes

Mal's "browncoat" is a symbolic rejection of Alliance culture.

Mal's "browncoat" is a symbolic rejection of Alliance culture.

Most people think assimilation (individuals accept a new culture, reject the old) is the only outcome of cultural change. But that's just one possibility in acculturation – the process of change that results when two or more cultures come into contact with each other. Acculturation can also result in in separation (original culture is completely maintained), marginalization (original culture is lost and there is no contact with the new culture), or integration (elements of both the original and new culture are maintained). Acculturation changes individuals entering a culture as well as that society’s culture. The development of jazz, everyday use of the Yiddish “klutz”, and the global popularity of pizza all occurred because individuals from different cultures influenced society through acculturation.

Circumstances often influence the course of one’s acculturation. Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds fought (unsuccessfully) against the imperialism of the Alliance and was forced into its rule. He separated from many parts of Alliance culture (Mal refuses to dress like the Alliance, gets into fights with those celebrating Alliance holidays, and stays away from the geographical center of the Alliance), has integrated other aspects (he speaks both English and Mandarin and eats Alliance cuisine), and has become marginalized in one key area (after the Alliance took over his home, Mal lost faith in his religion). Mal shows us that acculturation doesn’t lead to uniformed change in a person. Instead, people change differently across many parts of culture depending upon their circumstances. Dr. Simon Tam, a man who grew up in the center of Alliance civilization, presents with a very different acculturative experience than Mal (one that is far more assimilated with the Alliance). Neither experience is right nor wrong, they’re just different.

Acculturation & Firefly helped me understand myself

Dr. Lau introduced me to acculturation and helped me understand the impact it had on my life. 

Dr. Lau introduced me to acculturation and helped me understand the impact it had on my life. 

Learning about acculturation as an undergrad had a big impact on me. As a child born and raised in California to immigrant parents, the experience of “culture clash” was a big part of my life. I dressed in jeans and t-shirts but my face didn’t look like most Americans. That juxtaposition didn't make me feel like I fit in. I remember being told to "go back where you come from" (the guy didn’t realize I was born in the neighboring suburb) while others criticized me for being too "white-washed" (which usually meant they wanted me to listen to more Tupac and less Nirvana). My psychology professor, Dr. Anna Lau, helped me realize that my identity wasn't exclusively one thing, but a mixture of many things. I spoke English and Urdu, adopted Western and Eastern values, craved kabobs and burgers. Pigeonholing me into just one category and judging me only on my appearance, as I did to myself and others did to me, ignored the richness of my experience. 

Maybe that's why I love Firefly so much. The show can't be classified into one category. It's a combination of science fiction, western, and horror genres. Seeing a show that celebrates the diversity of acculturation and is itself a blend of multiple influences helped me feel a little less strange and a little more unique.  

How has Firefly and/or acculturation influenced you? Sound off in the comments below. Haven't seen Firefly? Watch it instantly on Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes.  

The Top 10 Science Fiction Moments of 2012

Yesterday, I wrote about why we love end of year retrospective lists. Today, I want to give you my rundown of the 10 best science fiction moments of 2012. I'm not ranking 2012's best scifi movies or TV shows (io9 and Tor already did a good job of that). Rather, I am ranking moments from 2012 that were important to fans of science fiction.

10. The Walking Dead strikes back

Walking Dead Season 3.jpg

Great writing, acting, social commentary, and special effects make Walking Dead one of the best shows on TV. But 2011's 2nd season wasn't that good. Fans were worried about season 3, especially after hearing that executive producer Frank Darabont left the show. Not only has season 3 been awesome so far, but it also has provided some of the most memorable moments of the entire show.   

9. IMAX endures

I'm a huge fan of the IMAX format (real IMAX, not the fake stuff) and find it much more engrossing than 3D.

This year was a big one for the format with several movies optimized for the giant screen (Skyfall, The Amazing Spider-Man, Titanic 3D, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and one partially filmed in native IMAX (The Dark Knight Rises).   

Next year promises more films optimized for IMAX (Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and at least two partially filmed in the format (Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).

Seeing the Dark Knight Rises in the native IMAX format was an awesome experience. Source: DC Comics/Warner Brothers Pictures. 

Seeing the Dark Knight Rises in the native IMAX format was an awesome experience. Source: DC Comics/Warner Brothers Pictures. 

8. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the ultimate fanboy

Neil deGrasse Tyson is about as geeky as you can get. As an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History, Tyson is one of the nation's foremost authorities on space, an eloquent ambassador for science (watch "The Most Astounding Fact"), and a passionate advocate for NASA (see "We Stopped Dreaming").

He's also a major Trekkie. This past year, Tyson had two standout moments - proclaiming the U.S.S. Enterprise as the champion of the 2012 Comic-Con Starship Smackdown (see below) and dedicating an entire episode of his hit internet show to the science of Star Trek (in which he revealed that his sideburns are an homage to Star Trek).  

7. Dystopian novels are cool again

Dystopias are a staple of science fiction, though it's been awhile since a new dystopian story captured the public's attention. Thanks to critical acclaim, word of mouth, social commentary on our obsession with reality TV, and an excellent film adaptation, this was the year Hunger Games returned dystopias to the bestseller list. Hopefully, the success of Hunger Games will bring about a renewed interest in other dystopian classics

6. TNG gets a facelift

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, CBS launched a complete HD restoration of the show for blu-ray. This meant scanning the film negatives, repairing damaged film, updating special effects, remastering sound, and recording new interviews and behind the scenes specials. The first two seasons are out and the results are spectacular! The remastering has ensured that TNG will live on long into the 21st century.

5. Space jumping becomes a reality

Space Jumping from 2009's Star Trek
Space Jumping from 2009's Star Trek

One of the coolest scenes from 2009's Star Trek became a reality on October 14th, 2012 when Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a capsule at the edge of space, broke the sound barrier, and safety returned to Earth. Science fiction to science fact in 3 years - that's pretty cool.

4. The cybernetic age begins

At the 2012 London Olympics, Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius became the first double leg amputee to participate in the games (he had previously competed in the Paralympic games). His participation sparked a global debate on the role of biological augmentation in our society.

This year also marked the first case of a cybernetic hate crime when Steve Mann was physically assaulted in a French McDonalds for having a "digital eye glass". 

Both of these cases, along with the growing sophistication of robotic implants marked the beginning of the cybernetic age.

Photo by  Erik van Leeuwen .

Photo by Erik van Leeuwen.

3. Avengers is actually a good movie

Marvel Studios' Avengers was a bold experiment. If you factor in the five separate films that were produced in parallel between 2008 - 2011 to setup the Avengers, this was one of the biggest and most expensive films in history.

I was afraid Avengers would be a flop. The first footage didn't look promising, Hulk never worked on the big screen, I didn't think Tony Stark/Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr. could play nice with the other heroes, and Loki didn't seem like a big enough villain for the movie. Why did I care? If Avengers failed, there was a good chance Marvel and other studios would become far more risk-averse in their productions of superhero films.

I was completely wrong. Avengers worked on all levels (well...nearly all, see the “Honest Trailer” below), was critically acclaimed, and made a ton of money. Not only has Marvel Studios announced 4 new movies which will lead to Avengers 2 in 2015, the studio is taking their "cinematic universe" into the very geeky galactic realm of Marvel Comics - a far more ambitious and bold move than Avengers Part 1. 

2. NASA does a lot of cool stuff

NASA did a lot to capture the public's attention this year.

First, the space agency sent its space shuttles into retirement with style by orchestrating flyovers above Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles.

Next, Harold White reiterated that the agency is looking into wrap drive technology for interstellar space travel at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, though the science remains purely speculative at this point.

Finally, NASA's most advanced Mars rover, the Curiosity, landed on August 6, 2012 at 1:32 a.m. EDT. The landing was the most complicated in NASA history and was ripped from the pages of science fiction, utilizing the largest and strongest supersonic parachute ever created and a combination of sky crane tethers and rockets to lower the rover to the surface. Curiosity has already made some interesting discoveries and is on its way to Gale Crater near the Martian equator to determine if the area had the right conditions to support life.

My favorite part of Curiosity? This photo below featuring NASA's "Mohawk Guy".

NASA Time Machine.jpeg

1. Star Wars is coming back

The best scifi moment of the year was also the biggest entertainment news of the year - Disney buys Lucasfilm and announces new Star Wars movies beginning with Star Wars Episode VII in 2015.

Yes, it's a little strange picking a corporate acquisition as my number one pick. But, Star Wars is the biggest science fiction franchise EVER, the original trilogy influenced generations of artists and scientists, and if you look at the subtext behind George Lucas' exit interviews, it seems like he's truly stepping away from creative control of the new movies suggesting that this upcoming trilogy might finally give us a fresh take on the universe.

That's my list for 2012. What do you think? What did I miss or get wrong?

2 Reasons Why We Love Top 10 Lists

Chances are you've come across a lot of 2012 "top 10" lists this past week. Some of my favorites include io9's best and worst scifi and fantasy movies of 2012, Tor's 10 essential genre films of 2012, and Popular Science's sloppiest sci-fi movie science violations of 2012.

Why are these types of articles so popular? Here are two explanations from cognitive psychology.

1. Top 10 lists make information easier to digest

A top 10 list lets the reader know what to expect and makes the article easier to understand. This is known in psychology as perceptual fluency, or how easy it is to understand information. 

A great example of perceptual fluency comes from Daniel Oppenheimer's 2005 experiment on the perception of papers with different levels of complexity. Participants in this study rated simpler writing (more perceptual fluency) as written by more intelligent writers.

Oppenheimer provides a great summary of his study here:

"It's important to point out that this research is not about problems with using long words but about using long words needlessly…Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers' evaluations of the text and its author..."

Top 10 lists don't guarantee simple writing, but they do provide a familiar way of organizing and communicating ideas that often results in easy to digest articles.

2. Top 10 lists are easier to remember.

Grouping information in a meaningful way is called chunking. For example, the numbers 1, 7, 7, and 6 can be chunked into 1776 (the year America declared independence from England). Chunked information is easier to remember (e.g. 1776 versus 1, 7, 7, 6). Top 10 lists often combine information into chunks around a subject like "best scifi movies" or "coolest time-travel episodes".

The number of items on top 10 lists also makes a difference. George A. Miller famously stated in a legendary 1956 article that the capacity of our working memory is the "magical number" 7, plus or minus two. In other words, we have the ability to hold and manipulate 5-9 chunks of information at a time. This places top 10 lists almost within the limits of our working memory.

While recent research has questioned whether 7 ± 2 is an accurate limit (some suggest the true "magical number" is 4 ± 2), new mathematical models from neuroscience help us understand why our working memory has any limits at all. With each additional chunk we try to remember, our neurons work exponential harder to hold on to each piece of information. Very quickly, we run into the biological limits of what our brains can handle.

Bottom line, a top 10 structure helps readers enjoy articles by simplifying messages and limiting them to just a few points. Writers have known about these cognitive guidelines for a long time. As Albert Camus said, "Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators” (something I remind myself when my articles fail to receive comments).