Saturday, May 31, 2014

When sex becomes the most important thing

The Santa Barbara case hints at one such source — the tension between our culture’s official attitude toward sex on the one hand and our actual patterns of sexual and romantic life on the other.

The culture’s attitude is Hefnerism, basically, if less baldly chauvinistic than the original Playboy philosophy. Sexual fulfillment is treated as the source and summit of a life well lived, the thing without which nobody (from a carefree college student to a Cialis-taking senior) can be truly happy, enviable or free.

Meanwhile, social alternatives to sexual partnerships are disfavored or in decline: Virginity is for weirdos and losers, celibate life is either a form of unhealthy repression or a smoke screen for deviancy, the kind of intense friendships celebrated by past civilizations are associated with closeted homosexuality, and the steady shrinking of extended families has reduced many people’s access to the familial forms of platonic intimacy.

Yet as sex looms ever larger as an aspirational good, we also live in a society where more people are single and likely to remain so than in any previous era. And since single people have, on average, a lot less sex than the partnered and wedded, a growing number of Americans are statistically guaranteed to feel that they’re not living up to the culture’s standard of fulfillment, happiness and worth.

This tension between sexual expectations and social reality is a potential problem for both sexes, but for a variety of reasons — social, cultural and biological — it’s more likely to produce toxic reactions in the male of the species. ...

Contemporary feminism is very good — better than my fellow conservatives often acknowledge — at critiquing these pathologies. But feminism, too, is often a prisoner of Hefnerism, in the sense that it tends to prescribe more and more “sex positivity,” insisting that the only problem with contemporary sexual culture is that it’s imperfectly egalitarian, insufficiently celebratory of female agency and desire.

This means that the feminist prescription doesn’t supply what men slipping down into the darkness of misogyny most immediately need: not lectures on how they need to respect women as sexual beings, but reasons, despite their lack of sexual experience, to first respect themselves as men.
--Ross Douthat, NYT, on the dangers of idolizing sex

Friday, May 30, 2014

The median viewer of Fox News is 69 years old

The median age for [Fox News host Bill] O’Reilly’s audience reached a new high, 72.1. And less than 15 percent of his audience fell within the 25-54 group. ...

Megyn Kelly, now the 9 o’clock host for Fox News, also had a big overall audience of 1.8 million; but her total of 260,000 in the advertiser-preferred group was also Fox’s lowest in 13 years. (Her audience’s median age also edged up above 70 at 71.7.) ...

The audience for news is generally among the oldest in television. Fox News tends to skew older than its rivals. The median age for MSNBC in May was 62.5. For CNN it was 62.8. For Fox News it was 68.8.
--Bill Carter, NYT, on who watches cable news

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Diet soda doesn't make you fat

Several observational studies have suggested that drinking diet soda may encourage weight gain, but a new randomized trial finds that it is not so.

The study, published in the June issue of Obesity and paid for by the American Beverage Association, suggests that diet drinks may be better for weight loss than plain water. The study tested 303 men and women who followed the same diet for 12 weeks. But half were randomly assigned to drink at least 24 ounces of water daily, and the rest the same amount of artificially sweetened drinks.

After controlling for age, sex, ethnicity and initial weight and blood pressure, researchers found that those who drank diet drinks lost an average of 14.2 pounds, compared with a 10-pound loss for the water drinkers.

The mechanism, the authors write, is unclear, but the group on diet drinks reported slightly lower scores on a questionnaire measuring the degree of feelings of hunger.

“There’s no magic in diet soda,” said the lead author, James O. Hill, a professor of health and wellness at the University of Colorado. But the less intense feelings of hunger among the drinkers, he said, may have made it easier for them to adhere to the diet.

“From everything we know about diet soda,” he continued, “this result was totally expected. There’s not a single randomized controlled trial that shows the opposite.”
--Nicholas Bakalar, NYT, on the case for reaching for that Diet Coke

Friday, May 23, 2014

Not showering for 12 years because bacteria is a natural cleanser

I was Subject 26 in testing a living bacterial skin tonic, developed by AOBiome, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, Mass. The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide. ...

AOBiome does not market its product as an alternative to conventional cleansers, but it notes that some regular users may find themselves less reliant on soaps, moisturizers and deodorants after as little as a month. Jamas, a quiet, serial entrepreneur with a doctorate in biotechnology, incorporated N. eutropha into his hygiene routine years ago; today he uses soap just twice a week. The chairman of the company’s board of directors, Jamie Heywood, lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year. The most extreme case is David Whitlock, the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer who invented AO+. He has not showered for the past 12 years. He occasionally takes a sponge bath to wash away grime but trusts his skin’s bacterial colony to do the rest. I met these men. I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being “unclean” in either the visual or olfactory sense.
--Julia Scott, NYT Magazine, on au naturel clean

Monday, May 19, 2014

Where research goes to die

[The World Bank] is one of those high-minded organizations -- Washington is full of them -- that release hundreds, maybe thousands, of reports a year on policy issues big and small. Many of these reports are long and highly technical, and just about all of them get released to the world as a PDF report posted to the organization's Web site.

The World Bank recently decided to ask an important question: Is anyone actually reading these things? They dug into their Web site traffic data and came to the following conclusions: Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes. Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record.
--Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post, on zero-impact research. HT: Chris Blattman

Specialists in getting killed by samurai

Seizo Fukumoto has been stabbed, slashed and sliced with Japanese swords for over 50 years.

He is one of the top "kirareyaku" actors, stuntmen who specialize in being killed by the hero samurai in period movies and TV shows.

A true kirareyaku is one who can make viewers cringe in their seats, "the one that can make them ask, 'Is he OK?' " Mr. Fukumoto said.

The 71-year-old thespian got into acting at age 15 and soon became fascinated with playing the antagonist on screen. At night, on his futon, he would ponder flashier ways to drop dead in a sword fight. One of his signature moves is the "ebi-zori," or prawn bend, in which after being struck, he arches his body backward like a prawn, then goes into convulsions, twitching and grasping before dying.

"The way my characters die has a huge impact on the impression the lead character gives in a film," Mr. Fukumoto wrote in a 2012 essay. Ebi-zori is the perfect way to go, in his opinion, because the camera can remain focused on the hero's gallantry while the kirareyaku actor also gains screen time by turning his face toward the audience as he falls dead.
--Jun Hongo, WSJ, on the many ways to make a living

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Warning labels for The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, and Greek mythology

Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools. ...

Among the suggestions for books that would benefit from trigger warnings are Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” (contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (addresses suicide). ...

At Oberlin College in Ohio, a draft guide was circulated that would have asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabuses. The guide said they should flag anything that might “disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma,” including anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair (or ableism).

“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the guide said. “Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” ...

Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the guide was meant to provide suggestions, not to dictate to professors. An associate professor of comparative American studies and a co-chairwoman of the task force, Ms. Raimondo said providing students with warnings would simply be “responsible pedagogical practice.”
--Jennifer Medina, NYT, on sheltering our fragile young minds

Kant was against "do what you love"

In the old days, before the death of God, the faithful believed that their talents were gifts from on high, which they were duty-bound to use in service to others. In his treatise on ethics, “The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals,” Kant ponders: Suppose a man “finds in himself a talent which might make him a useful man in many respects. But he finds himself in comfortable circumstances and prefers to indulge in pleasure rather than take pains in enlarging his happy natural capacities.” Should he?

Kant huffs, no — one cannot possibly will that letting one’s talents rust for the sake of pleasure should be a universal law of nature. “[A]s a rational being,” he writes, “he necessarily wills that his faculties be developed, since they serve him, and have been given him, for all sorts of purposes.” To Kant, it would be irrational to will a world that abided by the law “do what you love.” ...

The universally recognized paragons of humanity — the Nelson Mandelas, Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Martin Luther Kings — did not organize their lives around self-fulfillment and bucket lists. They, no doubt, found a sense of meaning in their heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but they did not do what they were doing in order to achieve that sense of meaning. They did — like my father and some of those kids from town — what they felt they had to do.

Dr. King taught that every life is marked by dimensions of length, breadth and height. Length refers to self-love, breadth to the community and care of others, and height to the transcendent, to something larger than oneself. Most would agree with Dr. King’s prescription that self-fulfillment requires being able to relate yourself to something higher than the self. Traditionally, that something “higher” was code for God, but whatever the transcendent is, it demands obedience and the willingness to submerge and remold our desires.
--Gordon Marino, NYT, on doing what causes you to be of greatest service

Indian men want to be breastfed by their wives

In a few countries, for example, men reveal a new desire after their wives give birth: to be breast-fed by their wives. In India, the top [Google] search, by far, beginning “my husband wants” is “my husband wants me to breastfeed him.” In addition, in India, the most common search including both “how to” and “my husband” is “how to breastfeed my husband.” In the United States, this desire is rare. It is not in the top 10 searches for “my husband wants,” and it falls behind “my husband wants to share me” and “my husband wants to be a woman.”
--Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, NYT, on culture-specific desires

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Art you are meant to sleep through

Not so for a small but ambitious new show that opened last week in Times Square, “Dream of the Red Chamber: A Performance for a Sleeping Audience.” As its title suggests, it is meant to be absorbed by a slumbering crowd: Attendees doff their shoes and doze off in beds underneath the Brill Building. Around them, cast members in elaborate costumes act out scenes and gesture repetitively as their images are projected onto screens surrounding the space. The lights are dim; the music, constant and droning. The idea is for the spectacle to permeate the visitor’s subconscious.

Nearly 1,000 people attended in the first week, organizers said, half of them on opening weekend, when one show ran overnight, lasting 13 hours. The second and final overnight performance, on Saturday, runs from 5 p.m. till 6 the next morning. ...

Last weekend, the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea held its fourth “Dream-Over,” in which each visitor is invited to sleep under an artwork that a curator has chosen for him or her, and then roused in the morning for a round of dream interpretation. (With tickets priced at $108, the event sold out.) And the British musician Steven Stapleton has been giving 12-hour “Sleep Concerts” in Britain, Ireland, Switzerland and Germany at which fans doze through ambient sounds and videos in what is sometimes billed as an “avant-D.J. somniloquy.”

“Sleepovers have become quite hot in recent years,” said RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of Performa, the New York performance art biennial, which offered an all-night symphonic installation in 2013.

Friday, May 16, 2014

We like eye contact on our cereal boxes

In a study published last month in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers at Cornell University manipulated the gaze of the cartoon rabbit on Trix cereal boxes and found that adult subjects were more likely to choose Trix over competing brands if the rabbit was looking at them rather than away. In a creepy corollary, the researchers found that the eyes of characters on boxes of cereal marketed to kids were directed downward, and can meet the upward gaze of children in grocery store aisles.

“Making eye contact even with a character on a cereal box inspires powerful feelings of connection,” said Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the director of the school’s Food and Brand Lab, and one of the study’s authors.
--Kate Murphy, NYT, on selling with eyes

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Who should robot cars be programmed to hit?

Suppose that an autonomous car is faced with a terrible decision to crash into one of two objects. It could swerve to the left and hit a Volvo sport utility vehicle (SUV), or it could swerve to the right and hit a Mini Cooper. If you were programming the car to minimize harm to others–a sensible goal–which way would you instruct it go in this scenario?

As a matter of physics, you should choose a collision with a heavier vehicle that can better absorb the impact of a crash, which means programming the car to crash into the Volvo. Further, it makes sense to choose a collision with a vehicle that’s known for passenger safety, which again means crashing into the Volvo. ...

The owners or operators of these targeted vehicles would bear this burden through no fault of their own, other than that they care about safety or need an SUV to transport a large family. Does that sound fair? ...

Again, imagine that an autonomous car is facing an imminent crash. It could select one of two targets to swerve into: either a motorcyclist who is wearing a helmet, or a motorcyclist who is not. What’s the right way to program the car?

In the name of crash-optimization, you should program the car to crash into whatever can best survive the collision. In the last scenario, that meant smashing into the Volvo SUV. Here, it means striking the motorcyclist who’s wearing a helmet. A good algorithm would account for the much-higher statistical odds that the biker without a helmet would die, and surely killing someone is one of the worst things auto manufacturers desperately want to avoid.

But we can quickly see the injustice of this choice, as reasonable as it may be from a crash-optimization standpoint. By deliberately crashing into that motorcyclist, we are in effect penalizing him or her for being responsible, for wearing a helmet. Meanwhile, we are giving the other motorcyclist a free pass, even though that person is much less responsible for not wearing a helmet, which is illegal in most U.S. states. ...

An elegant solution to these vexing dilemmas is to simply not make a deliberate choice. We could design an autonomous car to make certain decisions through a random-number generator. ...

Yet, the random-number engine may be inadequate for at least a few reasons. ...

...while human drivers may be forgiven for making a poor split-second reaction–for instance, crashing into a Pinto that’s prone to explode, instead of a more stable object–robot cars won’t enjoy that freedom. Programmers have all the time in the world to get it right. It’s the difference between premeditated murder and involuntary manslaughter.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Expect blander commencement speakers in the future

A week before she was to speak at the Smith College commencement, Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund, has withdrawn from the event, citing protests against her and the fund, the college said Monday.

Her withdrawal comes after Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, withdrew from speaking at the Rutgers University commencement in the face of protests against her role in Bush administration foreign policy, and weeks after Brandeis University rescinded its invitation to the rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree at its commencement, after protests over her anti-Islam statements. ...

Such reversals have become more common in recent years, said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, referring to this time of year as “disinvitation season.” What has changed is not so much the protests themselves, but the willingness of colleges and speakers to give in, adding that many apparently voluntary withdrawals are made at the college’s urging. ...

Last year, in the face of protests, Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank president, Goldman Sachs executive and Bush administration official, withdrew from the Swarthmore College commencement, and Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon and pundit who has spoken against gay marriage and evolution, pulled out of the Johns Hopkins University commencement. ...

Most of the incidents have involved complaints from the left, usually aimed at conservative figures, but not all. Last year, Providence College, a Catholic school, withdrew a speaking invitation to John Corvino, a writer and advocate of gay rights.
--Richard Pérez-Peña, NYT, on gutless colleges

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Taking longhand notes promotes learning

Psych 101 was about to start, and Pam Mueller had forgotten her laptop at home. This meant more than lost Facebook time. A psychology grad student at Princeton, Mueller was one of the class teaching assistants. It was important she have good notes on the lecture. Normally she used her laptop to take notes, but, without it, she’d have to rely on a more traditional approach.

So she put pen to paper—and found something surprising.

Class just seemed better. “I felt like I had gotten so much more out of the lecture that day,” she said. So she shared the story with Daniel Oppenheimer, the professor teaching the class. ...

A new study—conducted by Mueller and Oppenheimer—finds that people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes, rather than typed ones.

What's more, knowing how and why typed notes can be bad doesn't seem to improve their quality. Even if you warn laptop-notetakers ahead of time, it doesn't make a difference. For some tasks, it seems, handwriting’s just better.
--Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, on another reason to ban laptops in class. HT: Marginal Revolution

Monday, May 5, 2014

Elite universities are venture capitalists in human capital

In other studies, I model HSPE [highly selective postsecondary education] institutions as venture capitalists in advanced human capital because (i) they invest massively in each student whom they educate and (ii) they earn an equity-like return on their investments (Hoxby, 2012). That is, the HSPE institution itself covers the majority of the cost of a student's undergraduate education using donations from alumni. Even HSPE students who receive no financial aid pay for only some of the full cost of their education.

HSPE alumni donate a share of their perceived returns on the educational investment made in them, and most donations occur decades after graduation. Because HSPE alumni earn returns that exhibit a highly right-skewed distribution (in each class, there are many alumni with solid professional careers but only a few Steve Jobs), it matters that donations are analogous to shares of returns and not to the repayment of a loan (the institution's investment plus some fixed rate of return). ...

Of course, this financing system only works if former students do in fact pay back the institution later in life. ...

Why do HSPE institutions use this method of financing education rather than asking for current payments equal to their current costs? The answer is akin to that for venture capital projects proposed by an entrepreneur. There exist students who can earn market rates of return on advanced human capital investments that are large because they (the investments) require cutting-edge instruction and complex infrastructure. Despite being able to earn good rates of return on such large investments, most such students cannot finance them themselves even if they exhaust their capacity to obtain grants and loans. Thus, they must find an investor--the HSPE institution--expert enough to recognize their aptitude and able to provide them with the specialized resources they need. An additional advantage of the venture capital model (as opposed to institutional loans) is that an HSPE institution shares risk across its portfolio of advanced human capital investments (across all its students).
--Caroline Hoxby, "The Economics of Online Postsecondary Education: MOOCs, Nonselective Education, and Highly Selective Education," on the case for donating to your rich alma mater

Friday, May 2, 2014

The ethics of randomized controlled trials

Objections to the idea of randomisation aren’t new. The great epidemiologist Archie Cochrane once ran an RCT of coronary care units, with the alternative treatment being care at home. He was vigorously attacked by cardiologists: how could he justify randomly denying treatment to patients? The counter argument is simple: how could we justify prescribing treatments without knowing whether or not they work? ...

Then there is the question of who consents. Camilla Nevill of the Economics Endowment Foundation says that trials are often agreed to and conducted by schools. Trying to persuade every parent to agree explicitly to the trial “decimates” the number of participants, she says.

Is this ethically troubling? At first glance, yes. But there is a risk of a double standard. Without the EEF funding, some schools would adopt the new teaching approach anyway. It is only when a researcher proposes a meaningful evaluation that suddenly there is talk of informed consent.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

How hot can Harvard students expect to be 25 years from now?

My twenty-five year [Harvard] college reunion is right around the corner. In advance of the event, my classmates were asked to write a short summary of their post college life. Next to each write-up was the picture from our graduating yearbook twenty-five years ago. Many of the entries also include current pictures.

Flipping casually through the book, I noticed two things. First, it is amazing how old we all look. Time really takes its toll, that’s for sure. Second, men were much more likely than women to submit pictures of what they look like now. ...

For the first 100 people who had pictures from today and twenty-five years ago, I first covered up the current pictures and rated the attractiveness of the graduation picture on a scale of 1 to 10. I then covered up the graduation picture and rated the current picture from 1 to 10. Then I computed the correlation between attractiveness then and now. Here were the results:

Correlation for men: .34 Correlation for women: .41

These correlations are lower than I would have predicted before looking at the data, but way higher than I would have guessed after having looked casually at the pictures.
--Steve Levitt, Freakonomics blog, on regression to the beauty mean