Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Making it easier to say no: Personal policies

Time-use surveys reveal that we have more leisure time than in decades past—but you’d hardly know it from how busy everyone feels. A prime reason for our modern busyness is, of course, our inability to just say no... to the endless demands on our time. So how do you say no without looking or feeling like a jerk? Enter “personal policies.”

Personal policies are an established set of simple rules that guide your decisions and actions. On the surface, they offer a gentler way of saying no, as in: “I don’t take work calls on Saturdays because that’s my time with family.” On a deeper level, they encourage reflection, help to define priorities and aid decision-making, especially with in-the-moment requests. They can stop you from defaulting to that regretful “yes.” ...

“Personal policies work because they essentially remove rejection from the equation.” You’re not saying “no” to the person but simply upholding your policy.

In addition, says William Ury, co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, “executing on [policies] consistently can signal a sense of integrity, predictability and trustworthiness, which is key to building any strong personal or professional relationship.” ...

In another study, published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, the same researchers found that people who said “I don’t” in role-playing and scenario-based exercises were more persuasive than those who said “I can’t.” So the next time an eager hostess tries to break your diet by offering “just a little piece,” kindly tell her, “No thank you, I don’t eat cake,” says Prof. Patrick. Saying “I don’t” connotes a higher degree of conviction and makes it harder for someone to push back.
--Jennifer Breheny Wallace, WSJ, on the power of rules instead of discretion

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Bad cafeteria food is offensive cultural appropriation

Students at an ultra-liberal Ohio college are in an uproar over the fried chicken, sushi and Vietnamese sandwiches served in the school cafeterias, complaining the dishes are “insensitive” and “culturally inappropriate.”

Gastronomically correct students at Oberlin College — alma mater of Lena Dunham — are filling the school newspaper with complaints and demanding meetings with campus dining officials and even the college president.

General Tso’s chicken was made with steamed chicken instead of fried — which is not authentically Chinese, and simply “weird,” one student bellyached in the Oberlin Review.

Others were up in arms over banh mi Vietnamese sandwiches served with coleslaw instead of pickled vegetables, and on ciabatta bread, rather than the traditional French baguette.

“It was ridiculous,” gripes Diep Nguyen, a freshman who is a Vietnam native.

Worse, the sushi rice was undercooked in a way that was, according to one student, “disrespectful” of her culture. Tomoyo Joshi, a junior from Japan, was highly offended by this flagrant violation of her rice. “If people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative,” she said.

Oberlin’s black student union joined in the fray this month by staging a protest outside Afrikan Heritage House, an on-campus dorm.

The cafeteria there wasn’t serving enough vegan and vegetarian options and had failed to make fried chicken a permanent feature on the Sunday night menu, the school newspaper reported.

Those students started a petition that also recommends the reduction of cream used in dishes, because “black American food doesn’t have much cream in it,” according to the Review.

The Nevada-based Universal Society of Hinduism joined the food fight last week after students discovered that the traditional Indian dish, tandoori, contained beef.

“Consuming beef was considered sacrilegious among Hindus,” blasted society president Rajan Zed, the Chronical-Telegram reported.

Campus dietitian Michele Gross told the Review this week the first meeting between college officials and dyspeptic students went well, and changes are being implemented to address all concerns.
--Melkorka Licea and Laura Italiano, New York Post, on one application of political correctness I could get behind

Friday, December 18, 2015

Streaming TV series are a new genre of art

...streaming shows — by which here I mean the original series that Netflix, Amazon and their ilk release all at once, in full seasons — are more than simply TV series as we’ve known them. They’re becoming a distinct genre all their own, whose conventions and aesthetics we’re just starting to figure out.

In TV, narrative has always been an outgrowth of the delivery mechanism. Why are there cliffhangers? So you’ll tune in next week. Why are shows a half-hour or an hour long? Because real-time viewing required predictable schedules. Why do episodes have a multiple-act structure? To leave room for the commercials.

HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. ...

When you watch a series weekly, the time you spend not watching — mulling, anticipating, just getting older — is a part of the show. “Breaking Bad,” for instance, is the story of a man’s descent, or rise, from ordinary life to murderous criminality. In narrative time, the story takes about two years. Watched live on AMC, it aired for more than five years. Binged — as many late-joining fans saw it — it took maybe a week or three.

The live viewer saw Walter White’s change distended, in slow-motion; little by little, he broke badder and badder, in a way that emphasized the gradual slope of moral compromise. The binger saw him change in time-lapse, in a way that suggested that the tendency to arrogance and evil was in him all along. Neither perception is wrong. In fact, both themes are thoroughly built into the show. But how you watch, in some way, affects the story you see. ...

This approach has advantages. With a few hours to seal the deal, you don’t need to load up your first episode with gimmicks, and you can avoid the tedious network practice of “repeating the pilot”: telling repetitive stories in the early episodes to accommodate latecomers. You can pack a series with story and incident and trust viewers not to forget details...
--James Poniewozik, NYT, on the medium and the message

Monday, December 7, 2015

The liberal case for allowing suspected terrorists to buy guns

Since the atrocities in Paris, many Senate Republicans had been arguing that the threat of terrorism was so severe, the U.S. could not afford to take in Syrian refugees. And yet, on Thursday, these same lawmakers voted down a bill that would have prohibited anyone on the federal government's terror watch list from purchasing firearms in the United States. ...

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, and the New York Times editorial board all railed against the GOP’s opposition to the measure. But before self-identified progressives join that chorus, they should consider this: A bill that bars suspected terrorists from buying guns is a bill that gives the White House the unilateral authority to rescind the constitutional rights of American citizens.

The terror watch list was one of the many Orwellian pre-crime initiatives adopted in the wake of 9/11. Last year, the Intercept published a 2013 document outlining the Obama administration’s criteria for labeling an individual a suspected terrorist. Those official guidelines stipulated that neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” were required to make that designation. That same evidentiary standard is applied to the smaller subset of individuals assigned to the No Fly List.

Some liberals may feel that the threat of terrorism justifies this dramatic exercise of state power. But it’s worth remembering that we live in a country that holds elections every four years and that, for the moment, Donald Trump has a non-zero chance of becoming our next president. The Obama administration considers the Black Lives Matter movement enough of a national-security threat to put its protesters under the surveillance of Homeland Security. Is it inconceivable that an administration less sympathetic to the movement’s goals might use its counterterrorism authority to inhibit the physical movement of its leading activists? Or that a candidate who has suggested establishing a database of all American Muslims might use the terror watch list in an oppressive manner?

Perhaps a liberal can oppose the lax criteria of the terror watch list and still wish to see it used as a tool for restricting the sale of guns. ...

But the problem with this reasoning is that, however unfortunately, gun ownership is currently construed as a constitutionally protected right. Thus, granting the executive branch the authority to unilaterally deny American citizens access to firearms would actually undermine our nation’s civil liberties more than the No Fly List ever could.

If the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of such an authority, it would create a precedent for the executive branch to rescind other protected rights in the name of preventing terrorism.

If that threat seems small and theoretical compared to the peril of our country’s daily gun violence, the same can be said about the threat posed by suspected terrorists purchasing firearms.

Yes, in the last ten years, 2,000 terror suspects legally purchased guns in the United States. But those 2,000 terror suspects account for roughly zero percent of American gun deaths over that period.
--Eric Levitz, New York, on the wrong way to prevent terrorist violence

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Is the U.S. really an outlier in mass shootings?

In his June 18, 2015, remarks from the White House, Obama said, "Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it." ...

For a look at the statistics, we checked with two researchers, Jaclyn Schildkraut of the State University of New York in Oswego and H. Jaymi Elsass of Texas State University. They have been collecting and analyzing mass-shooting incidents in 11 countries, covering the period from 2000 to 2014. ...

Schildkraut and Elsass shared the summary information from their database with PolitiFact. Here’s their table:

The chart does show that the United States has more mass shootings -- and more people cumulatively killed or injured -- than the other 10 nations combined, partly because it has a much bigger population than all but China.

Still, using this data, it’s easy to dispense with the first claim Obama made -- that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries." ... Clearly it does happen elsewhere, and not in trivial numbers. Seven of the countries saw double-digit numbers of people killed in mass shootings during that period.

By contrast, the second part of Obama’s claim -- that "it doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency" -- isn’t entirely off-base.

We compared mass shooting incidents across countries [by calculating] the number of victims per capita -- that is, adjusted for the country’s total population size.

Calculating it this way shows the United States in the upper half of the list of 11 countries, ranking higher than Australia, Canada, China, England, France, Germany and Mexico.

Still, the U.S. doesn’t rank No. 1. At 0.15 mass shooting fatalities per 100,000 people, the U.S. had a lower rate than Norway (1.3 per 100,000), Finland (0.34 per 100,000) and Switzerland (1.7 per 100,000).

We’ll note that all of these countries had one or two particularly big attacks and have relatively small populations, which have pushed up their per-capita rates. ...

Elsass warned PolitiFact of a few caveats about the data. While they believe their database "to be among the most exhaustive compilations available," Elsass noted that it may not include every instance of mass shootings. It also doesn’t include every example of mass killings -- just those committed by firearms, even though mass stabbings are not uncommon in such places as China. Finally, their database doesn’t include acts generally considered to be terrorism, such as the attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

"If these were included, we are likely to see something much different statistically as there have been a number of very high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe, some including the use of firearms, that are excluded from the current analysis," she said. But in all likelihood, this would only make the case against Obama’s claim stronger.
--Kelly Herring and Louis Jacobson, PolitiFact, on mass shootings everywhere

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Performance anxiety at the urinal

Not long after the invention of the idea of personal space in 1959 came a classic ’70s study gamely titled “Personal Space Invasions in the Lavatory.” In it, researchers spied upon urinals to see how long it took for men to begin emptying their bladders.

It takes, we learned, almost twice as long when there is a man at a urinal next to you, and about half as long as when someone is one urinal away, compared to going it alone.

Closeness breeds anxiety; penis-related closeness can be overwhelming.
--Choire Sicha, NYT, on unrelaxing things

Friday, November 27, 2015

Refusing racial victimhood

In a grand corridor of Harvard Law School, framed professors’ photographs hang on a wall. A week ago, someone put slivers of black tape over the faces of most of the African-American professors. I am one of those whose photograph was marked. ...

Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.

The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. ... Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.

Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. ...

Activists have succeeded in shoving to the top of the higher-education policy agenda the claims, dissatisfactions and aspirations of African-American students.

Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.

I have asked dissidents to tell me with as much particularity as possible the circumstances that led them to say that they feel burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed. ...

While some of these complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. ... Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.

Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization. A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.
--Randall Kennedy, NYT, on maintaining perspective

Monday, November 23, 2015

Yoga is now politically incorrect

In studios across the nation, as many as 20 million Americans practice yoga every day. Few worry that their downward dogs or warrior poses disrespect other cultures.

But yoga comes from India, once a British colony. And now, at one Canadian university, a yoga class designed to include disabled students has been canceled after concerns the practice was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,” according to the group that once sponsored it.

In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Jennifer Scharf, who taught the class for up to 60 people at the University of Ottawa, said she was unhappy about the decision, but accepted it.
--Justin Wm. Moyer, Washington Post, on the expanding zone of censure and prohibition

Why Jet Li didn't kiss Aaliyah

We all know the story of Romeo Must Die, how Jet Li is the movie’s hero, and the whole time you see this connection developing between him and Aaliyah, who played the female lead. And in the last scene, Li was supposed to kiss her, but when they showed the movie to test audiences, people said they found that disgusting. In the version they released, you just see them give each other a hug.
--Into the Badlands actor Daniel Wu on the bamboo romantic ceiling. HT: ACT

American Chinese food restaurant in Shanghai

Now, one restaurant in Shanghai is trying to bring American Chinese food back to China. ...

When visiting Shanghai as tourists, Fung [Lam] and Dave [Rossi] missed their usual versions of noodles and stir-fried classics, and thought others might too.

They decided to open what they believe is Shanghai's first American Chinese restaurant, featuring specialties served in Fung's family restaurants for 40 years: orange chicken, kung pao chicken and sesame shrimp. Dave describes the menu as "really American". ...

One of the biggest challenges was finding the right ingredients to use in the kitchen.

"As weird as it sounds, we actually import a lot of ingredients to make authentic American Chinese food in China," Fung says.

Items like Philadelphia cream cheese, Skippy peanut butter, cornflakes and English mustard powder must all be brought in from outside China. Even the soy sauce must be imported from Hong Kong, because that's what the first Chinese immigrants to the US used in their cooking.

The extra effort appears to be worth the trouble. The restaurant is usually packed on week nights and on the weekends, long lines of customers can stretch out of the door.

Dave and Fung have learned to predict whether first-time customers will approve of their food.

"If you're an expat, 99% of the time you're going to be happy. When it's a younger local person, we have maybe a 70% success rate," Fung explains.

Some locals come into the restaurant and ask for their food to be served in American-style white cardboard takeaway containers, mimicking meals they've seen on sitcoms like Friends and the Big Bang Theory. ...

Westernised Chinese food certainly has its critics. Some say the food is too sweet, its sauces too thick and gloopy, even too orange - a world away from the complex flavours of the vast array of foods found across mainland China.
--Celia Hatton, BBC, on the prodigal culinary son returning. HT: PW

Monday, November 9, 2015

Censorship envy

As the court wrote in a 1972 college student speech case (quoting Justice Hugo Black), First Amendment protection “must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”

One way that speech restrictions often grow is through what I call “censorship envy.” Say one group wins a ban on speech that it finds offensive. It’s human nature for other groups to then ask: What about speech that offends us — harsh criticism of Israel, or of certain religious belief systems, or of abortion, or of America?

Are we second-class citizens, whose feelings can be insulted with impunity, while other groups are protected? Are we weaklings who lack the power or status that the others have used to suppress the speech they hate? And if we’re not second-class weaklings, we demand the same “protection” from speech that offends us. That’s censorship envy, and it’s a powerful force supporting the growth of speech restrictions, at universities and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing many at universities, including student groups, administrators and even the federal Department of Education, trying to suppress student speech, again and again and again and again and again and again and again -- and the list could go on. Oddly, many of these restrictions come from political groups that see themselves as outsiders fighting the powerful. If that’s really so, how can they give the government extra censorship powers that can so easily be used against future “progressives” like them?

Monday, November 2, 2015

The crumbling of the Confucian social contract in South Korea

Their fall symbolizes the crumbling of a Confucian social contract Koreans have lived by for ages. Parents spent all their earnings for their children’s success, and in return counted on their support in old age. Now, many older Koreans find themselves without retirement savings or children capable of supporting them.

On the question of whether they had relatives or friends to depend on in times of need, South Koreans ranked at the bottom of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to its annual “How’s Life?” report, released in October. The social support was the lowest among South Koreans who were 50 or older. ...

The 2015 Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index, released in October, measured the retirement income systems of 25 major economies and ranked South Korea 24th, with only India ranked lower. Last year, only 45 percent of South Koreans between 55 and 79 received pensions; their monthly payout averaged $431, or 82 percent of the minimum cost of living for a single person, according to government data.

About 30 percent of older South Korean families have a monthly income below the absolute poverty level. But they can get welfare only when they can prove that their family is unwilling or unable to support them. Many reject that option because they find it too embarrassing to reach out to relatives they have not contacted for many years.

And one out of every four elderly people in South Korea has depression, according to a study published by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs in September. As a group, their suicide rate is double the national suicide rate.
--Choe Sang-Hun, NYT, on defying stereotype

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pad thai was invented by the decree of a dictator

The year was 1938. Six years earlier, Phibunsongkhram, better known as Phibun in Western historical accounts, had played a prominent role as a military officer in a coup that stripped Thailand’s monarchy of its absolute powers. A year later, he became the equivalent of the Minister of Defense after crushing a rebellion launched by royalists, and in 1938, he became prime minister. ...

Worried about his country’s independence, disintegration, and, most of all, support for his rule, Phibun decided to transform the country’s culture and identity. ...

As part of his campaign, Phibun ordered the creation of a new national dish: pad Thai. ...

The exact origins of pad Thai remain contested. According to some accounts, Phibun announced a competition to create a new, national dish. Phibun’s son, however, told Gastronomica that his family cooked the dish before Phibun made it government policy, although he does not remember who invented it. ...

By releasing a pad Thai recipe and promoting it, Phibun turned one potential take on stir-fried noodles into a national dish. He believed that pad Thai would improve the diet of people who ate mostly rice, and that cooking pad Thai in clean pans would improve national hygiene.

Most of all, Phibun wanted to unify the country by promoting a uniquely Thai dish. ...

Within several years, vendors selling pad Thai filled Thailand’s streets. Phibun’s son called it “Thailand’s first fast food.” ...

The Public Welfare Department distributed recipes and a great number of carts for selling pad Thai, while Phibun banned Chinese and other foreign food vendors as part of his “Buy Thai” campaign. Propagandists launched a campaign with the slogan “Noodle is your lunch.” ...

As for food, history is full of examples of seemingly quintessential dishes with short histories. When we think of Italian food, we think of pizza and spaghetti. Yet tomatoes are not native to Italy and only reached Europe after conquistadors brought them back from South America.

No food is more Irish than potatoes. Except that when potatoes first reached Britain, people thought that they, like all roots, were only fit for animals. “The poor of Europe,” Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, has said, “had to be bludgeoned into adopting the potato in the 17th and 18th century.”

“How long does it take to create a cuisine?” writes Laudan. “Not long: less than fifty years, judging by past experience.”
--Alex Mayyasi, Priceonomics, on manufactured culinary identity. HT: Marginal Revolution

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sensitivity to loud chewing might be a psychiatric disorder

People who have an extreme aversion to specific noises—most often “mouth sounds” such as chewing or lip-smacking, but also noises such as foot-tapping, pen-clicking or sniffing—suffer from a condition called misophonia. While many people find some everyday sounds annoying, misophonia—in which the sensitivity disrupts a person’s life—may affect up to 20% of the population, researchers say.

There is a current debate among physicians whether it should be a psychiatric disorder. ...

People who have misophonia often have symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression, although the researchers don't know if one causes the other, the study found. ...

The experts are clear: The person who is annoyed by the sounds is the one who needs to change and learn coping skills. If others accommodate you by changing the way they eat, they are only enabling you. ...

A form of cognitive behavioral therapy, called “exposure and response prevention,” has been shown to be effective for misophonia sufferers. The client is exposed to chewing sounds gradually—first on a tape, then from a stranger in the room and finally from his or her loved one. “After repeated exposure, they see they can tolerate it,” Ms. Wu says.
--Elizabeth Bernstein, WSJ, on having to live and let live

Harry Potter and Jane Eyre as sacred texts

During orientation at Harvard Divinity School here in 2013, Angie Thurston wandered amid the tables set up by the various campus ministries. Catholic, Methodist, Muslim — they mostly served to reinforce the sense that Ms. Thurston did not fit into an organized religion.

Here she was, starting her graduate studies in religion when she did not know the definition of liturgy, had never read the Bible and could not have identified a major theologian like Karl Barth, even if it would have won her a fortune on “Jeopardy!” Yet something in organized religion hinted at an answer to the atomized, unmoored life she led. ...

Now in her final year at Harvard, Ms. Thurston is a central figure in a boomlet of students who are secular or unaffiliated with any religious denomination, commonly known as “nones,” attending divinity school. While Harvard may be the center, nones can be found at other divinity schools around the country, especially those inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism, like Chicago Theological Seminary. ...

The group that Ms. Thurston helped start, Harvard Religious Nones, includes almost 70 people on its email list and regularly attracts 20 people to its meetings, not insignificant in a divinity school with 350 students. The divinity school also has a humanist group with about a half-dozen members.

One of her classmates, Casper ter Kuile, and a recent divinity school graduate, Vanessa Zoltan, teach a weekly course together for about 55 people on “Harry Potter” as a sacred text at the off-campus Humanist Hub. ...

With a divinity school professor, Stephanie Paulsell, [Zoltan] did an independent study in “Jane Eyre” as a holy book.
--Samuel Freedman, NYT, on the universal human need to worship

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.
--David Foster Wallace on what we worship

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Myers-Brigg test is crap

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is probably the most widely used personality test in the world. ...

The only problem? The test is completely meaningless.

"There's just no evidence behind it," says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who's written about the shortcomings of the Myers-Briggs previously. "The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you'll be in a situation, how you'll perform at your job, or how happy you'll be in your marriage." ...

...the test was developed in the 1940s based on the totally untested theories of Carl Jung and is now thoroughly disregarded by the psychology community. ... Several analyses have shown the test is totally ineffective at predicting people's success in various jobs, and that about half of the people who take it twice get different results each time. ...

CPP, the company that publishes the test, has three leading psychologists on their board, but none of them have used it whatsoever in their research. "It would be questioned by my academic colleagues," Carl Thoresen, a Stanford psychologist and CPP board member, admitted to the Washington Post in 2012. ...

The Myers-Briggs is useful for one thing: entertainment. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking the test as a fun, interesting activity, like a BuzzFeed quiz.
--Joseph Stromberg and Estelle Caswell, Vox, on gussied up astrology. HT: JL

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Toyota pickup trucks: The right choice for a zombie apocalypse

The Treasury Department's Terror Financing Unit has launched an inquiry into why the Toyota Hilux is the ISIS jihad ride of choice. “Regrettably, the Toyota Land Cruiser and Hilux have effectively become almost part of the ISIS brand,” Mark Wallace, CEO of the Counter Extremism Project and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told ABC News. ...

To be fair, this isn't new to ISIS. The Toyota truck has been the easy-to-obtain, harder-to-destroy truck of choice for paramilitary ventures since the 1980s. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Libyans, Chadians, the Free Syrian Army, U.S. Special Forces, and the Islamic State all share in common their preference for the Japanese-made vehicle, known as "the technical." They can be smashed, plunked into the ocean, buried in sand, shot at, burned, and still start dependably. (You can pick your armor-plated model here). ...

As former Army Ranger Andrew Exum told Newsweek in 2010, “The Toyota Hilux is everywhere. It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare." A New York Times report from 2001 triangulated that analogy with the Al Qaeda grunts addicted to the trucks. ...

Some features of the Hilux to note: When conducting guerrilla-style warfare in hostile desert climes, a solid wheelbase and "stout" chassis are foundational requirements. Yet, something light and fast needs to be able to fit a small army, and loot. Thankfully, there's a king cab option with extended bed in Nebula Blue. Patrolling a caliphate the size of Belgium? A 21-gallon fuel tank will get you over to the next village you plan to seize.
--Nathan Pemberton, New York, on the downside of great engineering

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

DNA testing: The Abominable Snowman is a bear

No one has ever found conclusive proof of the Abominable Snowman, because it isn’t a man but a bear. According to a genetic study published by Britain’s Royal Society in 2014, DNA from two different alleged samples shows that the yeti is almost certainly a bear, either a new species or a hybrid between a brown bear and an ancient polar bear.
--Amanda Foreman, WSJ, on unanticipated scientific advances

Monday, October 5, 2015

Most recycling doesn't help the environment

In 1996, I wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful. I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was unfair to rush to judgment. ...

So, what’s happened since then? While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. ... The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!” ...

New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.” Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere. ...

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. ...

With the economic rationale gone, advocates for recycling have switched to environmental arguments. ...

...recycling operations have their own environmental costs, like extra trucks on the road and pollution from recycling operations. ...

According to the E.P.A.’s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits — more than 90 percent — come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminum in soda cans. ...

Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.

As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. ...

Recyclers have tried to improve the economics by automating the sorting process, but they’ve been frustrated by politicians eager to increase recycling rates by adding new materials of little value. The more types of trash that are recycled, the more difficult it becomes to sort the valuable from the worthless.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Almost everybody misinterprets "The Road Not Taken"

[Former poet laureate Robert] Pinsky used his public role to ask Americans to submit their favorite poem in various forms; the clear favorite among more than eighteen thousand entries was [Robert Frost’s] “The Road Not Taken.” ... On a word-for-word basis, it may be the most popular piece of literature ever written by an American.

And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. ...

Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. ...

It’s an explanation that Frost himself sometimes encouraged, much as he used to boast about the trickiness of “The Road Not Taken” in private correspondence. (“I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,” he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer.)
--David Orr, The Paris Review, on the important of reading the whole context. HT: TS

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Flexibility is all about your nervous system, not your muscles and tendons

Many people think stretching is essential to improving flexibility. ...

It is clear that stretching doesn't actually make muscles permanently longer, experts agree. Instead, it may be that exercises such as reaching for your toes train the nervous system to tolerate a greater degree of muscle extension without firing off pain signals. ...

When animals are placed in casts that keep their muscles extended for a long time, their bodies do add additional sarcomeres, or the basic subunits of muscle fibers, but their muscles return to their original shape soon after the animal is removed from those constraints. And in those studies, it's not clear that the lengthened muscles improved the animal's flexibility.

In a June 2014 study in the journal Clinical Biomechanics, Tilp and colleague Andreas Konrad found no differences in people's muscles and tendons after six weeks of a static-stretching regimen.

So, if muscle fiber doesn't get longer as a result of stretching, why does stretching seem to increase people's flexibility? ...

The nervous system is the master conductor determining how far a person can stretch, said Brooke Thomas, a yoga instructor who discussed the science of stretching in a blog post on

Nerve endings are dispersed throughout the muscle and tendon, and if a stretch doesn't feel safe for the muscle, those nerves will fire, registering pain and resistance, Thomas told Live Science.

These nerves "will say 'you better stop stretching, because if you stretch further, the muscle will maybe get damaged,'" Tilp told Live Science.

That's why a person under anesthesia, whose nerves are quieted, can be stretched through a full range of motion with no resistance. And healthy babies are born able to do the splits, because they haven't developed a blueprint for ranges of motion that feel unsafe, Mitchell said.
--Tia Ghose, Live Science, on flexibility being all in your head

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Asking for advice makes you look smarter

People are often hesitant to seek advice because they fear it will make them appear incompetent, said Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. In fact, those who seek advice are perceived as more competent than those who do not, according to a recent paper that she wrote along with Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Maurice E. Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. ...

Researchers came to this conclusion by analyzing the responses of college students and working adults who were asked to give their impressions of people (a computer-simulated partner, in this case) who sought their advice on various written tests and tasks. ...

Being asked for advice is flattering. As Professor Gino said, “People commonly believe that asking for advice is inconsiderate — we don’t want to bother others.” But in fact, “by asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice seekers stroke the adviser’s ego and can gain valuable insights,” she said. And regardless of whether you use the advice or not, “People do not think less of you — they actually think you’re smarter.”
--Phyllis Korkki, NYT, on the double benefit of asking for advice

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Princeton Review jacks up its prices in areas with lots of Asians

But few, if any, realize that the prices for The Princeton Review’s online SAT tutoring packages vary substantially depending on where customers live. If they type some zip codes into the company’s website, they are offered The Princeton Review’s Premier course for as little as $6,600. For other zip codes, the same course costs as much as $8,400.

One unexpected effect of the company’s geographic approach to pricing is that Asians are almost twice as likely to be offered a higher price than non-Asians, an analysis by ProPublica shows. (Read ProPublica’s research methodology here.)

The gap remains even for Asians in lower-income neighborhoods. Consider a zip code in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. Asians make up 70.5 percent of the population in this zip code. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in the zip code, $41,884, is lower than most, yet The Princeton Review customers there are quoted the highest price. ...

Earlier this year, Harvard undergraduate Christian Haigh stumbled on The Princeton Review’s variable prices doing research for a class he was taking called “Data Science to Save the World.” ...

Today, Haigh and three fellow students are publishing their findings that The Princeton Review’s higher prices correlate to areas with higher income. ...

ProPublica tested whether The Princeton Review prices were tied to different characteristics of each zip code, including income, race, and education level. When it came to getting the highest prices, living in a zip code with a high median income or a large Asian population seemed to make the greatest difference. ...

Customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents were 1.8 times as likely to be offered higher prices, regardless of income. For instance, residents of the gritty, industrial city of Westminster, California, which is half Asian with a median income below most, were charged the second-highest price for the Premier tutoring service.
--Julia Angwin, Surya Mattu, and Jeff Larson, The Atlantic, on what happens when demand is inelastic

Friday, September 4, 2015

Why did the Holocaust occur in only some Nazi-occupied territories?

Why did 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark survive while 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Estonia were murdered? And why were the death camps, shootings and gassings located in Eastern Europe?

[Yale history professor Timothy] Snyder’s account ends up shifting the Holocaust’s center of gravity to Eastern Europe and the countries that then lay between Germany and the Soviet Union: Poland, the Baltic republics, Belarus and the Ukraine. This region is his specialty; he has a knowledge of at least 10 languages and consulted sources in German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, French and English. This is something no other chronicler of the Holocaust has done. ...

What was it about Poland or Belarus that made them so hospitable to participatory mass murder? The usual explanation is anti-Semitism—“a historically predictable outburst of the barbarity of east Europeans,” Mr. Snyder writes. But “the level of antisemitism, insofar as this can be ascertained, does not seem to correlate with Jewish death rates.” ...

Hitler had, from the very start, imagined the German empire expanding across Eastern Europe into the Soviet Union. But in 1939, buying time and territory, he made a pact with Stalin, the two dividing the intervening lands between them. Germany took chunks of Poland; the Soviets swept through the rest, along with Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and other territories. ...

In June 1941 came Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. No sooner had the Communist purges taken place throughout Soviet-run Eastern Europe than the Nazi ones began. The Soviets had destroyed the state apparatus in each territory. Now it was upended again. But often the same local leaders were involved in managing both upheavals. Anybody with authority in the Soviet regime had to quickly dissociate himself from the past and demonstrate a new allegiance. The killing of Jews was a solution. The massacres were, Mr. Snyder suggests, a kind of “political scenography” in which the local population proved itself to its new masters, shedding its Soviet past. This expiation was often made explicit: Nazi ideology identified Judaism with Bolshevism, so the murder of Jews was a form of revenge against the onetime occupiers.

That these were “consecutively occupied lands,” Mr. Snyder argues, is the crucial fact. Whether locals would eagerly participate in the murders and how thoroughly the Final Solution would be pursued were matters determined not by the extent of local anti-Semitism but by the condition of each nation-state. The entire Holocaust took place on lands touched by Soviet power and then again by German power.
--Edward Rothstein, WSJ, on the political expedience of the Holocaust

Friday, August 28, 2015

Finance in 1890 B.C.

In general, we know few details about economic life before roughly 1000 A.D. But during one 30-year period — between 1890 and 1860 B.C. — for one community in the town of Kanesh, we know a great deal. Through a series of incredibly unlikely events, archaeologists have uncovered the comprehensive written archive of a few hundred traders who left their hometown Assur, in what is now Iraq, to set up importing businesses in Kanesh, which sat roughly at the center of present-day Turkey and functioned as the hub of a massive global trading system that stretched from Central Asia to Europe. Kanesh’s traders sent letters back and forth with their business partners, carefully written on clay tablets and stored at home in special vaults. Tens of thousands of these records remain. ...

The picture that emerged of economic life is staggeringly advanced. The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses. The 30 years for which we have records appear to have been a time of remarkable financial innovation.

It’s impossible not to see parallels with our own recent past. Over the 30 years covered by the archive, we see an economy built on trade in actual goods — silver, tin, textiles — transform into an economy built on financial speculation, fueling a bubble that then pops. After the financial collapse, there is a period of incessant lawsuits, as a central government in Assur desperately tries to come up with new regulations and ways of holding wrongdoers accountable (though there never seems to be agreement on who the wrongdoers are, exactly). The entire trading system enters a deep recession lasting more than a decade. The traders eventually adopt simpler, more stringent rules, and trade grows again.

Taking photos to post on Facebook makes you unhappier

This research examines how taking photos to share with others (e.g., to post on Facebook), compared to taking photos for oneself (e.g., to remember an experience), affects the enjoyment of an experience. Across two field and six laboratory studies, we find that taking pictures to share with others, relative to taking pictures for oneself, reduces enjoyment of experiences. This effect occurs because taking photos to share increases self-presentational concern.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Does Joe Biden have the goods on Hillary?

As Joe Biden edges closer to a presidential run, there’s no shortage of theories as to what he’s up to. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has built a commanding lead in the national polls, giving Biden little apparent space to gain traction. Perhaps he’s counting on the early-primary state of South Carolina to provide a critical boost. He might be banking on appearing as a stronger general-election candidate than any of his potential rivals in the primary race. Maybe after spending the past 42 years of his life running for elective office, he just can’t stop.

But there’s one intriguing theory that has so far garnered little attention: What if Biden knows something about Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton that the rest of us don’t? ...

The emails that Clinton gave to the State Department are now being released in tranches every 30 days. Her server has been turned over to the Justice Department, which is reportedly optimistic that it can recover at least some of the emails that Clinton had deleted. No one knows what the emails that have not yet been released may contain.

No one, that is, outside of the administration.
--Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic, on why Biden's candidacy might not be so crazy after all

When exercising, drink only when thirsty

Are we, with the best of intentions, putting young athletes at risk when we urge them to drink lots of fluids during steamy sports practices and games?

A new report about overhydration in sports suggests that under certain circumstances the answer is yes, and that the consequences for young athletes can be — and in several tragic cases already have been — severe and even fatal. ...

The problem with this situation is that, according to the latest science, dehydration during sports is rarely if ever dangerous, but overhydration undeniably is. ...

At least two other high school football players are known to have died since 2008 from drinking too much fluid during and after a practice, Dr. Miller said. These players had developed a rare condition, he said, known formally as exercise-associated hyponatremia and less technically as water intoxication. ...

The key, he said, is for athletes to drink when they feel thirsty — not before and not after they feel sated. “You do not need to ‘stay ahead of your thirst,’ as many people think,” he said.

Listening to your “innate thirst mechanism” provides a safe and reliable guide to hydration, the new report concludes.

This strategy also should not increase players’ risks for cramping or heat illness, Dr. Miller said, since, “based on current evidence, it does not appear that dehydration directly contributes” to those problems.

During recent telling experiments that he directed, for instance,volunteers who exercised and sweated in the heat until they had become severely dehydrated were no more prone to muscle cramps than they had been at the start.

Similarly, if perhaps more surprising, other studies have found that being dehydrated does not increase athletes’ susceptibility to heat problems, and that athletes who collapse from heat illness often are quite well-hydrated.

Instead, both cramping and heat problems seem to result from athletes pushing themselves too hard.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on the reliability of your thirst signal

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Almost all female Ashley Madison profiles are fakes

So I downloaded the data and analyzed it to find out how many actual women were using Ashley Madison, and who they were.

What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots. ...

A few years ago, a former employee of Ashley Madison sued the company in Canada over her terrible work conditions. She claimed that she’d gotten repetitive stress injuries in her hands after the company hired her to create 1,000 fake profiles of women in three months, written in Portuguese, to attract a Brazilian audience. The case was settled out of court, and Ashley Madison claimed that the woman never made any fake profiles. ...

Then, three data fields changed everything. The first field, called mail_last_time, contained a timestamp indicating the last time a member checked the messages in their Ashley Madison inbox. If a person never checked their inbox, the field was blank. But even if they’d checked their messages only once, the field contained a date and time. About two-thirds of the men, or 20.2 million of them, had checked the messages in their accounts at least once. But only 1,492 women had ever checked their messages. It was a serious anomaly.

The pattern was reflected in another data field, too. This one, called chat_last_time contained the timestamp for the last time a member had struck up a conversation using the Ashley Madison chat system. Roughly 11 million men had engaged in chat, but only 2400 women had.

Yet another field, reply_mail_last_time, showed a similar disparity. This field contained the time when a member had last replied to a message from another person on Ashley Madison. 5.9 million men had done it, and only 9700 women had.
--Annalee Newitz, Gizmodo, on the great Ashley Madison con. HT: Chris Blattman. Read the full article for the boring technical details behind why more women replied to messages than checked their messages.

UPDATE: Annalee Newitz realized she misinterpreted the data. What the data really show is that there were 70,572 company-created chatbots (almost all of them posing as women) that sent 20 million messages to men on Ashley Madison.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Banning plastic bags is bad for the environment

When the city council in Austin, Texas, passed a single-use plastic shopping bag ban in 2013, it assumed environmental benefits would follow. The calculation was reasonable enough: Fewer single-use bags in circulation would mean less waste at city landfills.

Two years later, an assessment commissioned by the city finds that the ban is having an unintended effect –- people are now throwing away heavy-duty reusable plastic bags at an unprecedented rate. The city's good intentions have proven all too vulnerable to the laws of supply and demand. ...

Part of the problem is that -- despite the world-saving rhetoric that typically promotes and supports plastic bag bans -- plastic bags simply aren't that big of a problem. According to the national data recorded by the EPA in 2013, the weight of single-use plastic shopping bags amounted to around 0.28 percent of the total municipal solid waste that Americans generate. ...

Among the main environmental benefits of Austin's ban was supposed to be a reduction in the amount of energy and raw materials used to manufacture the bags. To that end, the city encouraged residents to instead use reusable bags. Those bags have larger carbon footprints, due to the greater energy required to produce their stronger plastics...

What the city didn't foresee is that residents would start treating reusable bags like single-use bags. The volume of reusable plastic bags now turning up at the city's recycling centers has become "nearly equivalent to the amount of all of the single use bags removed from the recycling stream as a result of the ordinance implemented in 2013," according to the assessment. And those lightly used bags are landfill-bound, because recycling isn't any more cost-effective for reusable plastic bags than the single-use variety.

Some of these issues could be addressed through the increased use of reusable canvas bags. But canvas is even more carbon intensive to produce than plastic; studies suggest consumers would need to use a single canvas bag around 130 times before they start achieving any net environmental benefit as compared with a single-use plastic bag.
--Adam Minter, BloombergView, on the case for keeping the single-use plastic bag alive. HT: OM

Friday, August 21, 2015

The oxymoronic nature of commencement speeches

Dartmouth Class of 2015: It’s an honor to be at your tree stump. As your Commencement speaker, I have important responsibilities. Commencement speakers have to be skilled at pretentious verbiage and pompous but completely meaningless rhetoric. I think you made a smart move when you asked someone who normally teaches at Yale. ...

This may be your first college Commencement, but you probably know these addresses have a certain formula. The school asks a person who has achieved a certain level of career success to give you a speech telling you that career success is not important.

Then we’re supposed to give you a few minutes of completely garbage advice: Listen to your inner voice. Be true to yourself. Follow your passion. Your future is limitless.

First, my generation gives you a mountain of debt; then we give you career-derailing guidelines that will prevent you from ever paying it off.

I especially like all the Commencement addresses telling graduates how important it is to fail. These started a few years ago with a Steve Jobs address at Stanford built around the message. Well, failure is wonderful if you’re Steve Jobs. For most people, failure just stinks. Don’t fail.
--David Brooks to the Dartmouth class of 2015. HT: LY

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The 7 A.M. - 3 A.M. workday in Japan

At 3 a.m. on Monday morning, Eriko Fujita leaves the IBM offices in Tokyo. She rushes home to take a shower and get a few hours of sleep before she returns to her office at 7 a.m.

This is the hidden side of life at IBM Japan. For a period of eight months, Fujita, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, averages 18 to 20 hours of work per day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Her working hours are particularly demanding since she interfaces with programmers in different time zones, including those in the U.S.

“We don't have a 5 o’clock-and-get-out kind of culture,” she says with a shrug. While her schedule depends on the specific project, she says her typical workday lasts about 15 hours. ...

Fujita's situation is not uncommon in Japan, where overtime work has increased as firms cut workforces. About 22% of Japanese employees work 50 hours or more each week on average, well above 11% in the U.S., and 6% in Spain, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. ...

In Fujita's case, the long hours became overwhelming. Eventually, she took a three-month leave of absence from IBM.

"I had a mental breakdown," she says. "I was working so hard and not sleeping well. Physically and mentally I got so tired... I was crying for no reason. I didn't know why my tears are coming out."
--Justine Underhill, Yahoo! Finance, on making Amazon's work culture look humane

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The secret ingredient that makes high-end perfumes irresistible

So on Monday, when the temperature in Central Park tied a daily record of 95 degrees, we took a tour with a sommelier, Pascaline Lepeltier, the beverage director at Rouge Tomate in Manhattan; and a perfumer, CĂ©line Barel, who develops scents for major fragrance companies at International Flavors & Fragrances in Manhattan. ...

She passed around a sample of another expensive perfume, which had an even sharper earthy scent.

“It’s the classical smell of a syrah from the northern Rhone,” Ms. Lepeltier declared. “That black olive and a little bit of horse and saddle.”

Ms. Barel nodded. When the salesman was a safe distance away, she lowered her voice and added that that particular fragrance was “very fecal.”

When a reporter looked startled, she explained, again in a hushed tone: “It’s usually used in traces, in very high-end fragrances, to give the addiction, the sexual aspect. And that’s what makes the fragrance literally irresistible. But people, they don’t want to know about that.”
--Kate Taylor, NYT, on the dirty secret of attraction. HT: ML

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Gene Fama's advising style

One thing that was pretty important for me in my development was an office visit with Eugene Fama, my dissertation adviser, where I had a couple of ideas to pitch for a dissertation. I pitched the first idea, and he barely looked up from whatever paper he was reading and shook his head, saying, "That's a small idea. I wouldn't pursue it." Then I hit him with the second idea, which I thought was way better than the first one. And he kind of looked up and said, "Ehh, it's OK. It's an OK idea." He added, "Maybe you can get a publication out of it, but not in a top journal." He indicated I should come back when I had another.

Even though he had shot down both of my ideas, I left feeling energized. The message from him was that I had a chance of hitting a big idea. That interaction, which I am sure he doesn't remember, was very influential — it pushed me to search for big ideas and not settle on the small ones.
--Campbell Harvey, Econ Focus, on Chicago love

Saturday, August 15, 2015

What it's like to work at

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”) ...

Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.” ...

Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learned in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working. ...

Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.

“One time I didn’t sleep for four days straight,” said Dina Vaccari, who joined in 2008 to sell Amazon gift cards to other companies and once used her own money, without asking for approval, to pay a freelancer in India to enter data so she could get more done. ...

In 2012, Chris Brucia, who was working on a new fashion sale site, received a punishing performance review from his boss, a half-hour lecture on every goal he had not fulfilled and every skill he had not yet mastered. Mr. Brucia silently absorbed the criticism, fearing he was about to be managed out, wondering how he would tell his wife.

“Congratulations, you’re being promoted,” his boss finished, leaning in for a hug that Mr. Brucia said he was too shocked to return.

Noelle Barnes, who worked in marketing for Amazon for nine years, repeated a saying around campus: “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” ...

Molly Jay, an early member of the Kindle team, said she received high ratings for years. But when she began traveling to care for her father, who was suffering from cancer, and cut back working on nights and weekends, her status changed. She was blocked from transferring to a less pressure-filled job, she said, and her boss told her she was “a problem.” As her father was dying, she took unpaid leave to care for him and never returned to Amazon.

“When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” she said.

A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. ...

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

The mother of the stillborn child soon left Amazon. “I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,” the woman recalled via email, only to be told her performance would be monitored “to make sure my focus stayed on my job.”
--Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, NYT, on the cost of the greatest store on Earth

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Schrodinger the extreme night owl

Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel-prize-winning Austrian physicist, was able to make major contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics, general relativity, and color theory during his lifetime. There was only one caveat: He was not able to make those contributions ... in the morning.

“He couldn’t work in the mornings at all,” his wife, AnneMarie, said in an interview. “The [Max] Planck lectures—as you know, it was 30 or 40 years ago that Planck was in Berlin—were given in the morning from nine to ten. When he got this very, very honorable call to Berlin, he wrote first thing and said, ‘I’m very sorry, but I can’t keep the lecture hours because I can’t work in the morning.’ ... They understood, and changed it to the afternoon—two lectures, one after the other—on two days.”

Ah, to be so famous that a major university rearranges its events just so you can hit the snooze button.
--Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, on the ideal schedule of my 20-something self

The paper with 5,154 coauthors

A Frenchman named Georges Aad may have the most prominent name in particle physics.

In less than a decade, Dr. Aad, who lives in Marseilles, France, has appeared as the lead author on 458 scientific papers. Nobody knows just how many scientists it may take to screw in a light bulb, but it took 5,154 researchers to write one physics paper earlier this year—likely a record—and Dr. Aad led the list.

His scientific renown is a tribute to alphabetical order.

Almost every paper by “G. Aad et al.” involves so many researchers that they decided to always list themselves in alphabetical order. Their recent paper, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, features 24 pages of alphabetized co-authors led by Dr. Aad. There is no way to tell how important each contributor might be. ...

From Aad to Zoccoli, these physicists, who conduct experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, are a measure of an accelerating trend in science—the growth in the number of people who get credits.

In fact, there has been a notable spike since 2009 in the number of technical reports whose author counts exceeded 1,000 people, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which analyzed citation data. In the ever-expanding universe of credit where credit is apparently due, the practice has become so widespread that some scientists now joke that they measure their collaborators in bulk—by the “kilo-author.” ...

In fact, some scientists speculate that “Aad” isn't a real person. He is listed among a group of thousands of researchers from 38 countries who use the ATLAS particle detector at the Large Hadron Collider. Some speculate that the ATLAS group picked the name to avoid disputes over who most deserves to be named first author on each new research paper.

Aad would always appear first in their alphabetical listing.

Google searches turn up little information about someone so well published. In a field notable for seeking the “God particle,” the pronunciation of the name as it usually appears in technical citations—G. Aad—has stoked suspicions.

“People ask me,” said Dr. Aad. “Do you exist?”
--Robert Lee Hotz, WSJ, on winning the alphabetical lottery. HT: Chris Blattman

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Why is there no Din Tai Fung in San Francisco?

I recently spoke with some employees at the new Din Tai Fung - Glendale - Glendale, CA.

They said that DTF wants to come to San Francisco, but local food safety laws make it impossible. Specifically, the metal tins they serve the dumplings in are for some reason a no-no according to SF rules. I have no idea why, and they didn't either. They just knew that was the main impediment to DTF gracing SF with delicious soup dumplings.
--Brendan Mulligan, Quora, on another example of San Franciscan over-regulation. HT: JC

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Evidence that asking directly gets better results

In reality, as [Cornell psychologist Vanessa] Bohns recounts in a recent piece for Harvard Business Review, the strangers were almost twice as likely to agree to the request than the students expected. They guessed, for example, that they'd have to ask ten people if they could borrow a cell phone before someone would let them; in reality, on average, the sixth person said yes. They also guessed that they'd have to ask about ten people before one would agree to fill out a questionnaire; in practice, it only took four asks on average to get a yes. ...

People don't consider the situation from the other person's point of view, in other words. When you're trying to get someone to do something for you, you likely pay a lot of attention to what it will cost the person to say yes. But most people also fail to acknowledge the potential cost of saying no. "No one wants to reject others, particularly not face-to-face," Bohns and Flynn write. ...

That said, there are some ways to phrase your request that are more likely to work than others. No surprise, a direct question works better than tiptoeing around the subject. In that same 2008 study with the Columbia undergrads, Bohns and Flynn asked the students to try to get passersby to fill out a questionnaire, either indirectly (by handing them a flyer) or directly (by simply asking). The strangers were much more likely to fill out the questionnaire when asked directly than when handed the flyer. The real-life lesson, then, is that you can hint around at what you want all you like, but you'd be much better served if you just asked plainly.

Other research in this area has shown that people are more likely to comply with a request if you give them a reason, even if that reason is kind of dumb. And if you try all these things and still don't get what you want, don't give up — try again. Bohns' research has shown that people are more likely to say yes after they've said no once, perhaps because they feel guilty over the initial refusal.

But the words you use when you ask matter, too. In another experiment in that 2008 study, some students were told to frame their question straightforwardly: "Would you fill out a questionnaire?" Others were told to first ask, "Can you do me a favor?" and then ask that same question. In the straightforward condition, 57 percent of the passersby complied; compare that to 84 percent of those in the favor condition. Your mom was right: People are happier to do what you want them to if you ask nicely. But first, you have to ask.
--Melissa Dahl, New York, on the power of asking

Monday, August 10, 2015

Angry venting just make you feel worse

In studies, people report that they feel better after venting. But researchers find they actually become angrier and more aggressive. People who vent anonymously may become the angriest and most aggressive. ...

Venting has an ancient history. Aristotle believed in catharsis—the purging of emotions. More recently, Sigmund Freud talked about the hydraulic model, saying that if someone holds anger inside without letting it out, it will build to dangerous levels, much the way steam in a pressure cooker will build if it is not vented. Dr. Bushman says most people still believe this to be true, even though there is no scientific research to support it. ...

Dr. Bushman has conducted multiple studies that show that venting anger or frustration isn’t beneficial. In one study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2002, he asked 600 college students to write an essay on abortion. He matched each student with a “partner”—in reality a researcher—who purported to have the opposite view and rated the student’s essay negatively on organization, writing style and originality.

Dr. Bushman then divided the students into three groups: The “rumination” group was instructed to hit a punching bag while thinking about the person who graded their essay. The “distraction” group was told to hit the punching bag while thinking about becoming physically fit. And the control group did nothing. Then each student reported his or her mood, choosing from angry adjectives such as “mean,” “hostile” and “irritated” and feel-good adjectives such as “calm,” “happy” and “relaxed.”

The students in the rumination group were the most angry and most aggressive, while those in the control group, who did nothing to vent, were the least angry or aggressive, the study found. ...

If venting just makes us madder and meaner, what should we do instead? Dr. Bushman recommends addressing both the physiological and cognitive components of our anger.

To calm our body down, we should delay our response, counting to 10 or, as Thomas Jeffersonis said to have suggested, 100. Dr. Bushman also recommends trying to relax by taking deep breaths or listening to calming music.

Turn off your computer or phone until your anger has subsided. You might even consider blocking a person’s phone number temporarily, so that you won’t be tempted to text or email.

To quiet your mind, Dr. Bushman suggests distractions such as reading a nonviolent book, working on a crossword puzzle, taking a walk.

Do something that is incompatible with anger or aggression: Kiss your sweetheart, help someone in need, pet a puppy.

Try to distance yourself from the incident that upset you. Observe the situation as if you are an outsider.

Eat something healthy. “People who are hungry are cranky,” Dr. Bushman says.
--Elizabeth Bernstein, WSJ, on the virtues of following Philippians 2:14

Sunday, August 9, 2015

An easy way to become more popular

Rameet Chawla, an app developer, reported similar findings a couple years ago when he created an app to automatically like within five seconds the pictures posted by everyone he followed on Instagram. He did this after friends seemed put out that he never liked their photos, many of which were selfies.

Just a few months after secretly deploying his app, Mr. Chawla discovered that 50 percent more people were following him on Instagram, and that he was also getting more invitations to parties and business opportunities. Instagram has since blocked his app.

Katie Ledecky is faster than Mark Spitz

The 2012 London Olympics were filled with so many dramatic victories for the U.S. swimming team that the debut of then-15-year-old Katie Ledecky was a bit overshadowed. She entered only one event and won it easily. Three years later, Ledecky is the most dominant freestyle swimmer on Earth. She’s the first to own world records in three different freestyle distances simultaneously since Ian Thorpe. Barring the unforeseeable, the 2016 Olympics will undoubtedly make her one of the biggest stars in athletics.

Over distances of 400 meters or more, she’s already faster than Mark Spitz. Yes, Mark Spitz, winner of nine Olympic gold medals — tied for the most of anyone not named Phelps — the guy who set world records at three freestyle distances, including the 400 meters, in which his top world-record time (4:07.7) now trails Ledecky’s (3:58.37) by over nine seconds.

--Benjamin Morris, FiveThirtyEight, on putting Katie Ledecky's accomplishments in perspective

Harvard students tend to write sad admissions essays

But what is less well known is that different colleges favor particular topics and even specific words used in essays.

This is a key finding from AdmitSee, a startup that invites verified college students to share their application materials with potential applicants...

AdmitSee has a team that analyzes all of these materials, gathering both qualitative and quantitative findings. And they've found some juicy insights about what different elite colleges are looking for in essays. One of the most striking differences was between successful Harvard and Stanford essays. (AdmitSee had 539 essays from Stanford and 393 from Harvard at the time of this interview, but more trickle in every day.) ...

The terms "father" and "mother" appeared more frequently in successful Harvard essays, while the term "mom" and "dad" appeared more frequently in successful Stanford essays. ...

AdmitSee found that negative words tended to show up more on essays accepted to Harvard than essays accepted to Stanford. For example, Shyu says that "cancer," "difficult," "hard," and "tough" appeared more frequently on Harvard essays, while "happy," "passion," "better," and "improve" appeared more frequently in Stanford essays.

This also had to do with the content of the essays. At Harvard, admitted students tended to write about challenges they had overcome in their life or academic career, while Stanford tended to prefer creative personal stories, or essays about family background or issues that the student cares about. "Extrapolating from this qualitative data, it seems like Stanford is more interested in the student's personality, while Harvard appears to be more interested in the student's track record of accomplishment," Shyu says.

With further linguistic analysis, AdmitSee found that the most common words on Harvard essays were "experience," "society," "world," "success," "opportunity." At Stanford, they were "research," "community," "knowledge," "future" and "skill."

It turns out, Brown favors essays about volunteer and public interest work, while these topics rank low among successful Yale essays. In addition to Harvard, successful Princeton essays often tackle experiences with failure. Meanwhile, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania tend to accept students who write about their career aspirations. Essays about diversity—race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—tend to be more popular at Stanford, Yale, and Brown.

Based on the AdmitSee's data, Dartmouth and Columbia don't appear to have strong biases toward particular essay topics. This means that essays on many subjects were seen favorably by the admissions departments at those schools. However, Shyu says that writing about a moment that changed the student's life showed up frequently in essays of successful applicants to those schools.
--Elizabeth Segran, Fast Company, on colleges' preferences

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Falling in love with a real-life AI

She is known as Xiaoice, and millions of young Chinese pick up their smartphones every day to exchange messages with her, drawn to her knowing sense of humor and listening skills. People often turn to her when they have a broken heart, have lost a job, or have been feeling down. They often tell her, “I love you.”

“When I am in a bad mood, I will chat with her,” said Gao Yixin, a 24-year-old who works in the oil industry in Shandong Province. “Xiaoice is very intelligent.”

Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice) can chat with so many people for hours on end because she is not real. She is a chatbot, a program introduced last year by Microsoft that has become something of a hit in China. It is also making the 2013 film “Her,” in which the actor Joaquin Phoenix plays a character who falls in love with a computer operating system, seem less like science fiction. ...

The program remembers details from previous exchanges with users, such as a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and asks in later conversations how the user is feeling. Although Xiaoice is a text-messaging program, the next version will include a Siri-like voice so people can talk with Xiaoice.

Microsoft has been able to give Xiaoice a more compelling personality and sense of “intelligence” by systematically mining the Chinese Internet for human conversations. The company has developed language processing technology that picks out pairs of questions and answers from actual typed human conversations. As a result, Xiaoice has a database of responses that are both human and current — she is fond of using emojis, too.
--John Markoff and Paul Mozur, NYT, on another incentive to drop into the Matrix. See a chat with Xiaoice here.