Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Inception Explained : Cobb, Mal, Dreaming, Trust

[Greetings! This is my explanation of Inception, but I bet you have a good one too! Go to MyInceptionExplanation.com and let me hear what you think.]

Okay, so Cobb was dreaming. The fact is that the entire movie was about the concept of trust. Cobb was being chased by an evil firm, just like all the other dream sequences in which the subconscious comes for the dreamer. Cobb also made use of Mal's totem, the spinning top, which only Mal knows how to use (because it is her totem), but Cobb adopted it for his own use.

I think that this is a really subtle point that one may forget about during the course of the movie, because we only see Cobb handle the totem (so we believe that the totem is his - when it is actually Mal's) and a lot of effort was put into explaining how significant it was for only the maker of the totem to ever handle it; the totem is the only way that someone in the film can know the difference between a dream and reality.

So, given that the totem actually belongs to Mal and isn't Cobb's and our experience of Cobb in the 'real world' is very similar to the types of experiences dreamers had in dream world's with the subject's subconscious, I have to believe that Cobb was dreaming.

I think that the movie is primarily about trust, specifically, the trust between Mal and Cobb. Mal and Cobb lived with one another in Limbo for 50 years and lost track of reality; what was real and what was a dream. However, even though they had both lost track of what was real or not, Cobb was somehow aware that his reality was not real.

Cobb had the idea that he was living in a dream, and he wanted Mal to wake up from it. That is why Cobb convinced Mal to commit suicide under the train.

Mal shows Cobb a great deal of trust by being willing to believe that she is living in a dream state and that the only way to wake up from this fake reality would be to commit suicide.

Imagine being in Mal's position. She believes her reality and she trusts that it is real. But, the most important person in her life, Cobb - the only person alone with her in Limbo, is telling her that it is all fake and she will need to commit suicide in order to come back to reality. Can you imagine how Mal must feel?

But, Mal trusted Cobb, and when the train ran over them in Limbo they woke again. Yet, we assume that this state that they awake into is 'reality' and we are tricked throughout the movie by Mal's totem (which Cobb uses), which spins infinitely in the dream world and falls over in reality.

When Cobb returned home, you could tell that he knew something was wrong, because he was perceiving what he was creating based on a memory (which is the definition of a dream). The house looked exactly the same and the kids were dressed the same. Even though Cobb is elated to see his children, it is at this moment that he ought to realize that he is still dreaming. Recognizing Cobb's realization, Mal makes herself know to Cobb from his subconscious by making the top spin infinitely.

If we accept the premise that Cobb is still dreaming, then Mal could still exist in his subconscious and appear in Cobb's dream (what Cobb actually perceives to be reality). However, she does not appear to him in the world that Cobb believes is 'reality' (until the ending scene) because she wants Cobb to trust her; she wants Cobb to take the 'leap of faith' that he asked of her while they were in Limbo together.

Therefore, at this point in the movie (the ending scene), Mal controls her totem once again, which only she knows how to use because it is her totem confirming that Cobb is in a dream (also based on this, we can explain the previous spinning top falls earlier in the movie - Mal is actually taking control of her totem and making it fall over to test Cobb and see if he will actually trust her by committing suicide and joining her in the next world).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wine Tasting: Testing Perception vs. Reality

The other night I had a small get together at my place. The theme of the evening was wine and cheese. I had decided to coordinate a wine tasting, so I gave my guests six different varieties of wine that I wanted them to sample.

However, I also thought this would be a phenomenal chance to collect some interesting data. What possible data could I collect during a wine tasting?

Well, I thought it would be particularly interesting to see if people could predict the value of a wine based on its taste without being told its value ahead of time. Though I am certainly no wine expert, I find it very challenging myself to distinguish whether a wine is "expensive" or "cheap".

But then again, I am just one person. There is evidence that suggests that there is some sort of wisdom that is inherent to a crowd. An entire book was actually written on this subject.

So, what would happen if you put a crowd of people together with six somewhat arbitrary wines and asked them to taste them and predict how much each cost? Would they be able to predict the value of the wine on average or would they be just as clueless as I am?

Motivated by seeking out the answer to these questions, I organized my wine tasting party - for social purposes and for science purposes!
  • The Wine Tasting
My data set is made up of 10 participants. During the wine tasting, participants were given the option of filling out a survey that I had prepared for them. The survey consisted of an empty table that allowed participants to fill in with values.

The first column on the survey table indicated the number wine that each row in the table corresponded to. Wine numbers were listed along with actual wines that could be tasted, and participants were responsible for putting their predicted value for each wine with the correct wine number on their surveys.

There is a chance then that some data points could have been marked incorrectly, but I do not foresee this altering the data significantly.

The data table was also made up of a nominal value ($) column in which participants would place their predictions. To the right of that column was a Location column, which was used as a dummy variable (but also interesting). Finally, participants could also rank their wines and write notes in the right-most column. Figure 1 depicts the survey before it had been filled out.


Each participant was uniquely identified by an ID that was written on the back of the survey. IDs were randomly assigned before the wine tasting party commenced. The unique IDs are given in figure 2.

Each column in figure 2 labeled "Wine _" represents a different wine variety and value. It goes from "Wine 1" to "Wine 6" when scanning the table from left to right.

The mean, median, and mode of the individual's responses are calculated at the bottom of the table and are labeled as such in the left most column. Finally, at the very bottom of the table is the actual value of each wine. The listed values are in currency units which are not depicted in the table. The currency is 2010 US Dollars.


The most significant comparison that I wanted to make was between the mean (the average) predictions of the group against the actual value of the wine. Comparing the average predicted values with the actual values effectively tests my general question regarding how perception coincides with reality (at least with the value of wine tasting).

I have depicted the average predicted value versus the actual value in figure 3. The x-axis is segmented by corresponding wine number and the y-axis is the value of the wine in 2010 US Dollars.

  • Discussion
Taking a look at the data, I am quite impressed with how the group performed. If we take a deeper look at figure 3 and qualitatively describe it in terms of the general trend, I see that as actual values fall so do predicted values, and as actual values rises, so do predicted values. This is strong evidence to suggest that people, on average, can distinguish the value of a wine simply via taste.

If we compare Wine 1 to Wine 2 for instance, we see that the actual value declines by 35% while predicted value similarly declines by 55%. While the degree is comparatively larger in the decline of the predicted value, the overall trend of rising or falling value is remarkably similar and is the case for five out of the six wines.

I think that even beyond predicting actual value of the wine, this trend following of the actual value of the wine is striking.

The only wine for which this was not the case was the final wine sampled, Wine 6. Wine 6 was in fact the least "valuable" wine but was ranked as the second most "valuable" wine. I think that this was the case because of the cognitive bias of anchoring. The most valuable wine, both actual and predicted, was sampled just prior to having the sixth wine and this anchor may have biased the participants overall when making their predictions of the value of wine 6.

Overall, it was a pretty rad wine tasting party and I think fun was had by all.
  • Summary
Participants were asked to predict values of different wines. On average, the group of participants was able to fluctuate their wine prediction in tandem with the actual value of the wine in all but one case. The results indicate that a group of individuals are able to discern the nominal value of a wine simply based on taste.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Twaxed.com Feature

We don’t care that you are "having a busy Monday," you just "ate a meatball sandwich for dinner," or you "dropped the soap in the shower three times this morning." And we really, really don’t care which “Sex in City” character you most resemble.

Here's where we all went wrong: We took our friendships online. First we began communicating more by email than by phone. Then we switched to instant messaging and texting. Now, we "friend" each other on Facebook, and communicate by "tweeting" our thoughts—in 140 characters or less—via Twitter. We humiliate ourselves by sharing regrettable, often embarrassing text messages late at night while drunk. Until finally, we realize that we have shared way too much, say FML, and tell the world about it.

All this online social networking was supposed to make us closer. And in some ways it has. Thanks to the Internet, many of us have gotten back in touch with friends from high school and college, shared old and new photos, and become better acquainted with some people we might never have grown close to offline.

But there's a danger here, too. If we're not careful, our online interactions can hurt our real-life relationships and our most powerful tool: communication.

“We’re not communicating and using the words we’ve been given in a constructive and effective way,” Tyrone Schiff, creator of Twaxed.com, said. “We must use our words wisely.”

In August, Schiff launched the new social media entertainment site Twaxed.com. Here ridiculous, inappropriate or simply entertaining tweets are showcased. In addition, users have the opportunity to vote on the tweet by selecting “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”; one may also comment on particularly amusing posts.

The idea for Twaxed came about last summer while 22-year-old Schiff was working in Ann Arbor after graduating from the University of Michigan in May. Behind a graffiti-covered door, at the end of the alley next to the Michigan Theater and one floor below street level, a handful of entrepreneurs brainstormed in the TechArb. With 18-foot ceilings and no natural light, the room glooms from the hubbub of Liberty Street, just one story up. Google opened up the space over the summer and invited intelligent computer programmers and entrepreneurs to focus on building their businesses.

“When you put those two groups [programmers and budding entrepreneurs] together you just make a lot of stuff,” Schiff said. “It’s the kind of place where you just show up if you want to do something cool with your life.”

It was early August 2009 when one of Schiff’s friends sat hunched in front of his computer, astounded. He had just posted something on Twitter, and within minutes, had dozens of people following him. Then he offered the words that inspired Schiff: “You just have to beware what you share.”

“Out of that instance, I wondered, are we really thinking about what we’re saying?” Schiff said. “Because when you say something today it’s out there, in the open, and people can and will see it.”

But let's face it; the problem is much greater than which tools we use to communicate. It's what we are actually saying that's really mucking up our relationships and our communication skills.
By creating Twaxed.com, Schiff hopes to show the world that amidst all this heightened chatter, we're not saying much that's interesting. “The only way we can become a better society is to reexamine what we’re doing,” Schiff said.

With the tagline, “Beware what you share, you will get Twaxed” Schiff hopes that the website will not only entertain, but also inspire people to be more profound and more prudent with what they share online.

“I don’t even use twitter,” Schiff said. “I find it quite strange.”
For instance, a recent Twaxed post by CharliDDS reads, “Every time I write "thesaurus" I imagine the best dinosaur ever. THEsaurus.” The hope is that Charli will find herself on Twaxed, realize how absurd her comments are, and think twice before typing her next tweet.

And it’s working. Since Twaxed launched in August, the website has grown by 4,000 percent and is averaging 2,500 visitors a day. Schiff hopes to see that number rise to 10,000 visitors by the end of October.

“I don’t think Twaxed will ever be as large as Facebook,” Schiff said. “But my goal is to hit half a million visitors a day and I think that can be achieved.”

Twitter projects to have 18 million users by the end of 2009. And in the next sixth months, Schiff hopes that Twaxed will have reached 25 percent of those users. While Twaxed has no revenue stream yet, the goal is that it will be a “freemium” that is advertising and merchandise-based.

“The future is unknown so I might as well see what happens,” Schiff said. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll just create something else.”

This story was produced by Lauren Rosenblum, senior at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.