Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Chinese view: Trump is a strategic genius

I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by [Trump's] skill as a strategist and tactician.

One of the people I met was the former vice-foreign minister He Yafei. ...

Few Chinese think that Mr Trump’s primary concern is to rebalance the bilateral trade deficit. If it were, they say, he would have aligned with the EU, Japan and Canada against China rather than scooping up America’s allies in his tariff dragnet. They think the US president’s goal is nothing less than remaking the global order.

They think Mr Trump feels he is presiding over the relative decline of his great nation. It is not that the current order does not benefit the US. The problem is that it benefits others more in relative terms. To make things worse the US is investing billions of dollars and a fair amount of blood in supporting the very alliances and international institutions that are constraining America and facilitating China’s rise.

In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington.

Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong.

My interlocutors say that Mr Trump is the US first president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skilful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.

For the Chinese, even Mr Trump’s sycophantic press conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Helsinki had a strategic purpose. They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.
--Mark Leonard, Financial Times, on the thin line between madman and genius. HT: Marginal Revolution

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What explains the rise of NBA superteams?

The NBA is in a strange place, undeniably fun but also undeniably kind of screwed up. The Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant to a 73-win team, and then DeMarcus Cousins to the Durant-led champions, and now the league is separated into two tiers: Warriors and worriers. ...

MJ was in LeBron’s position once. Twice, actually. In the summers of 1996 and 1997, Jordan was the best player in the world on a championship team, with free agency looming. The difference then: there was never any doubt that Jordan would stay in Chicago. ...

Jordan stayed largely because of money. By NBA rule, the Bulls could offer him more than anybody else. They paid him $30.1 million in 1996–97—more than the entire payroll of most NBA teams—and then gave him a 10% bump the next year.

The entire NBA financial system was built to ensure that stars stayed put. The salary cap was instituted so small-market teams could compete. “Larry Bird rights” were created so teams could exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own player. In that environment, the only reason a star would leave is if the team either got cheap or decided to trade him. ...

So why are we here? Well, it started with maximum salaries for players, which were instituted after the 1998–99 lockout. Yes, a team can still offer more to retain players than other teams can offer—but the difference, while significant, is limited. It wasn’t enough to keep Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City or James in Cleveland. And because individual salaries are artificially capped (instead of determined by the free market), teams can wedge three or even four stars onto one payroll.

If the NBA had a relatively hard cap (with the Bird exception) but no maximum salaries, the league would look radically different today. The Cavs could have offered James $75 million a year to stay instead of the $41 million that the NBA allowed. It would have been similar to the deals Jordan signed at the end of his Bulls career, and it probably would have been enough. The Thunder could have offered Durant twice as much as the Warriors did. He would have been worth it. Stars would be spread around the league, because teams could not afford more than two.

Instead, stars are clustered together. That’s how they maximize their free agency, by joining other stars, because they can’t use free agency to make the most possible money. In fact, today’s rules actually encourage players to leave before their contract is up. The rules are complicated and I’m not going to get into super-maxes and all that today. But basically: if stars want to leave as free agents, they might as well try to force a trade to their preferred destination first. Then they can re-sign for the bigger salary. This helps explain (though does not entirely explain) why Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard all requested trades with free agency looming, rather than just wait to hit the market.
--Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated, on how economics explains everything

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

How to beat Serena Williams

Three years younger, three inches shorter and far less powerful, Marion Bartoli knew she had to do something extraordinary to have a chance against Serena Williams in their fourth-round meeting at Wimbledon in 2011.

So Bartoli decided not to hit any second serves. If she missed her first serve, she’d simply blast another first serve with all her might, rather than a high-percentage second serve, and not worry about double-faulting. As she figured, she would lose the point anyway if she gifted Williams a weak second-serve. Why not take a risk?

“If you serve under a certain speed, she’s just going to expose that constantly and [gain] so much confidence, that it’s pointless to do so,” the now retired Bartoli recalled Tuesday, when asked how she had managed to upset Williams, then the tournament’s four-time and defending champion, in straight sets.

In doing so, Bartoli joined an exclusive club as one of just nine women (all but two now retired) to beat Williams on the grass at Wimbledon.
--Liz Clarke, Washington Post, on understanding payoff function convexity. More underdogs should do this kind of thing.

Friday, July 6, 2018

How Silicon Valley is like the Soviet Union

Things that happen in Silicon Valley and also the Soviet Union:

- waiting years to receive a car you ordered, to find that it's of poor workmanship and quality

- promises of colonizing the solar system while you toil in drudgery day in, day out

- living five adults to a two room apartment

- being told you are constructing utopia while the system crumbles around you

- 'totally not illegal taxi' taxis by private citizens moonlighting to make ends meet

- everything slaved to the needs of the military-industrial complex

- mandatory workplace political education

- productivity largely falsified to satisfy appearance of sponsoring elites

- deviation from mainstream narrative carries heavy social and political consequences

- networked computers exist but they're really bad

- Henry Kissinger visits sometimes for some reason

- elite power struggles result in massive collateral damage, sometimes purges

- failures are bizarrely upheld as triumphs

- otherwise extremely intelligent people just turning the crank because it's the only way to get ahead

- the plight of the working class is discussed mainly by people who do no work

- the United States as a whole is depicted as evil by default

- the currency most people are talking about is fake and worthless

- the economy is centrally planned, using opaque algorithms not fully understood by their users
--Anton Troynikov, Twitter @atroyn, on the new communists

Sunday, July 1, 2018

How to have difficult conversations: Introduce complexity

In a hard-to-find windowless room at Columbia University, there is something called a Difficult Conversations Laboratory. [Psychologist Peter] Coleman and colleagues use the lab to study real-life conflict in a controlled setting...

Over the past decade, the Difficult Conversations Lab and its sister labs around the world have hosted and recorded close to 500 contentious encounters. They intentionally generate the kind of discomfort that most people spend all of Thanksgiving trying to avoid. To do this, the researchers first survey participants to learn their views on a few polarizing issues, such as abortion or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and then they match each person with someone who strongly disagrees.

When the two participants meet, they are asked to spend 20 minutes crafting a statement on the contentious subject — one that they could in theory both agree to make public with their names attached. ...

Over time, the researchers noticed a key difference between the terrible and non-terrible conversations: The better conversations looked like a constellation of feelings and points, rather than a tug of war. They were more complex.

But could that complexity be artificially induced? Was there a way to cultivate better conversations? To find out, the researchers started giving the participants something to read before they met — a short article on another polarizing issue. One version of the article laid out both sides of a given controversy, similar to a traditional news story–arguing the case in favor of gun rights, for example, followed by the case for gun control.

The alternate version contained all the same information — written in a different way. That article emphasized the complexity of the gun debate, rather than describing it as a binary issue. So the author explained many different points of view, with more nuance and compassion. It read less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes. ...

It turns out that the pre-conversation reading mattered: in the difficult conversations that followed, people who had read the more simplistic article tended to get stuck in negativity. But those who had read the more complex articles did not. ...

The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.

There are many ways to complicate the narrative, as described in detail under the six strategies below. But the main idea is to feature nuance, contradiction and ambiguity wherever you can find it. ... Complicating the narrative means finding and including the details that don’t fit the narrative — on purpose. ...

“The natural human tendency is to reduce that tension,” Coleman writes, “by seeking coherence through simplification.” Tidy narratives succumb to this urge to simplify, gently warping reality until one side looks good and the other looks evil. We soothe ourselves with the knowledge that all Republicans are racist rednecks — or all Democrats are precious snowflakes who hate America. ...

Here are some specific questions that McCulloch and other mediators I interviewed suggested that reporters (or anyone) could ask to get underneath the usual talking points:
  • What is oversimplified about this issue?
  • How has this conflict affected your life?
  • What do you think the other side wants?
  • What’s the question nobody is asking?
  • What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?
 --Amanda Ripley, Solutions Journalism Network, on healing America through complexity. HT: SC

Thursday, June 21, 2018

George Lucas wanted to make midi-chlorian movies

... a quote in the companion book for James Cameron’s Story Of Science Fiction TV show hints that Lucas had some truly terrible things in mind:
George Lucas: [The next three Star Wars films] were going to get into a microbiotic world. But there's this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.
If I'd held onto the company I could have done it, and then it would have been done. Of course, a lot of the fans would have hated it, just like they did Phantom Menace and everything, but at least the whole story from beginning to end would be told.
...To Lucas’ credit, he knows that “a lot of the fans would have hated it,” but then “at least the whole story from beginning to end would be told.”

That last bit makes it seem like Lucas thinks this “microbiotic world” stuff was really important to the Skywalker saga, even if nobody wanted to hear about it, which is the same sort of unchecked attitude that made the prequels so bad in the first place.
--Sam Barsanti, AV News, on the madness of George

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Can you ethically study philosophy when so many are suffering?

When I was in college I had the opportunity to attend a summer seminar in philosophy for Christian students who were considering graduate school. Nicolas Wolterstorff came in to talk with us, and one brave student asked a question on everyone’s mind: is it really ok to spend our lives studying this sort of thing when there are people suffering all over the world? I’ll always remember Nick’s reply: people suffer under a lot of things, and one thing that makes them suffer is the weight of bad ideas. I’ve come to see the truth of this first-hand. I see it in my students and, increasingly, in the wider culture. A lot of people are enmeshed in intellectual confusions that have real implications for their own and others’ lived experience. I have a sense of vocation to address bad ideas—in particular bad ideas about ethics, values and justice—and to make some incremental contribution towards replacing them with better ones.
--Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Northwestern University

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Exercising your left arm makes your right arm stronger

According to a fascinating new study, working out the muscles on one side of our bodies can keep the muscles on the other side strong and fit, even if we do not move them at all. ...

There have been hints... that exercising one limb can affect the other. In past studies, when someone pedals a bike with one leg or lifts weights with one arm, muscles in the other limb often contract, a development known as mirroring.

But in most of those experiments, the unused limb was not completely immobilized with a cast and scientists did not focus on specific muscles, making it difficult to know whether exercising certain muscles in one limb affects all muscles in the other or only some.

So for the new study, which was published in April in the Journal of Physiology, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada gathered 16 male and female college students and closely examined their wrists. ...

Then they covered each student’s left forearm and wrist with a hard cast to freeze the wrist in place. (All of the students were right-handed.)

Half of the students were then asked to go on with their normal lives, ignoring the cast as much as possible and not exercising their arms.

The other eight students, though, began a workout program that targeted the flexor muscles in their wrists. Using a small, vice-like weight machine, they completed multiple, strenuous, eccentric contractions of those particular muscles. ...

After a month, all of the volunteers returned to the lab, had their casts removed and repeated the original measures of their muscles.

As expected, the volunteers who had not exercised showed considerable muscle atrophy now. Their left wrist flexors were more than 20 percent weaker, on average.

Those muscles also had shrunk in size, dropping about 3 percent of their mass.

But the group that had exercised their right wrists’ flexor muscles had maintained almost all of those muscles’ original size and strength on the left.

The benefits were quite specific, though. These same volunteers’ wrist extensor muscles, which had not been exercised in their right wrists, were atrophied on the left.   ...

And the entire process seems to involve more than just muscular mirroring, he says. The sensors placed above the volunteers’ cast-bound wrists picked up some muscular contractions in the left flexors when their right-side counterparts exercised.

“But those contractions were very slight,” he says, and by themselves are likely to be insufficient to keep the muscles healthy and strong. 

He believes that there could be changes in the nervous system during unilateral exercise that somehow reach and change the same body part on the other side.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on a yearning for symmetry

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Which countries like their own inauthentic cuisine?

P.F. Chang’s may be seen as an upscale Chinese-food restaurant in the U.S. But the chain is calling its debut location in China “an American bistro”—which is exactly how its early customers there see it.

“The food looks similar, but you eat the food and you know instantly it’s not Chinese,” said Zhang Ji, 35, who works in finance. ...

Animation designer Zhang Xue said she came because P.F. Chang’s got a shoutout on “The Big Bang Theory,” the U.S. sit-com popular in China. ...

After sampling the food, Ms. Zhang’s curiosity was sated.

“I don’t think this is Chinese food,” she said. “I think it’s what Americans think Chinese food should taste like.”

Executives at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz., aren’t arguing—which is why they came up with the idea to call the restaurant, the first of several they are planning here, an American bistro. ...

P.F. Chang’s is hardly the first foreign company to try selling a cuisine back to its native land. The Domino’s pizza chain arrived in Italy in 2015 and now has 11 locations there; South Korea’s Paris Baguette has two stores in Paris that sell bread back to the French.

Yum Brands Inc., however, hasn’t had much success bringing Taco Bell to Mexico, despite two separate attempts.
--Wayne Ma and Liza Lin, WSJ, on the obstinate Mexicans

Monday, May 7, 2018

Machiavelli on loss aversion

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
--Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532, anticipating Kahneman and Tversky (1979)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Evidence that op-eds do change minds

Through two randomized experiments, researchers found that op-ed pieces had large and long-lasting effects on people’s views among both the general public and policy experts. The study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, also found that Democrats and Republicans altered their views in the direction of the op-ed piece in roughly equal measure. ...

The researchers enrolled 3,567 people into the study through an online tool. ... They were randomly assigned into a control group or one of five “treatment” groups. Participants in the treatment groups were shown one of five op-eds that had been published in a major news outlet by a writer affiliated with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, or U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Participants in the control group were not given an op-ed to read.

The op-eds, which had appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, or Newsweek, advocated libertarian policy positions on issues such as climate change, federal spending on transportation and infrastructure, and instituting a federal flat tax on income. The researchers gauged participants’ immediate reactions to the op-ed pieces and surveyed them again 10 and 30 days later, comparing their responses to those of participants in the control group.

The researchers performed the same experiment on a group of 2,169 “elites,” including journalists, law professors, policy-focused academics, think tank scholars, bankers, and congressional staffers.

In both experiments, people exposed to op-eds shifted their views to support the argument presented in the piece, with the general public being marginally more persuaded than the elites.

While 50% of people in the control group agreed with the views expressed in a given op-ed, 65%–70% of the people in the treatment groups expressed agreement with the op-eds’ authors immediately after reading the pieces, [study author Alexander] Coppock said. ...

The gap between the control and treatment groups closed by about half after 10 days, but remained substantial, Coppock noted. Participants’ views changed little between 10 and 30 days after reading the op-eds, demonstrating a lasting effect, he said.

The researchers concluded that op-eds are a cost effective way to influence people’s views. Based on the cost of producing an op-ed, the number of people likely to read it, and its ability to sway a reader’s opinion, the researchers estimated that an op-ed costs from about 50 cents to $3 per mind changed.
--Mike Cummings, YaleNews, on hope for civil discourse

Sunday, April 15, 2018

An occupational living will

My wife says that I love my work too much to ever retire. Perhaps she is right. However, my experiences as a neurologist and clinical director of an Alzheimer center have led me to think a lot about the circumstances under which it would be wise to move on. ...

More specifically, I have begun to develop an “occupational living will,” something akin to a medical advanced directive but expressly intended for one’s professional life. ...

When I was starting out as a young physician, I noticed there were always a few older, formerly very accomplished doctors who would consistently stand up during important meetings and make irrelevant comments that caused me and others to cringe. If I helped to take care of their patients, I was often struck by the mediocre treatment they were providing. At the time, my youthful colleagues and I remained oblivious to the possibility that their fate could ever become ours.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to help care for many previously high-functioning professionals with progressive dementing illnesses. Depending on the stage of the disease and the degree of disruption of brain systems important for self-awareness, patients have widely varied insight into their predicament and appreciation of the impact of their neurological disease on their work. ...

It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of adults who are 65 years and older suffer from mild cognitive impairment and 10 percent from dementia. ...

I suggest that for adults approaching their 60s or beyond, especially those with no intention of retiring, preparing an occupational living will is a particularly important endeavor. ...

No blueprint exists to guide me in this process, so I have broken down this seemingly overwhelming task into manageable steps:

1. Crafting a written document articulating advanced directives for work that represent a personal commitment to how, depending on my cognitive status, I would want to comport myself in the future.

2. Sharing the document with others I trust, who can support me through this process.

3. Recording a video that communicates my wishes and can be used to speak to my future self.

4. Identifying a few peers or colleagues I can confide in, who can access my work and make a fair and reasonable assessment of my functioning.

5. Explicitly empowering these individuals to share their observations with me.

6. Finally, if concerns are raised, having a plan in place for evaluating — via formal assessment by a cognitive neurologist or geriatric psychiatrist — whether my decline exceeds the bounds of normal aging and is truly worrisome.
--Harvard Professor of Neurology Kirk Daffner, Washington Post, on a professional commitment device

Friday, March 30, 2018

HAL 9000 originally had a Bronx accent

HAL 9000, the seemingly omniscient computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was the film’s most expressive and emotional figure, and made a lasting impression on our collective imagination. ...

The story of the creation of HAL’s performance — the result of a last-minute collaboration between the idiosyncratic director Stanley Kubrick and the veteran Canadian actor Douglas Rain — has been somewhat lost in the 50 years since the film’s release in April 1968. As has its impact: Artificial intelligence has borrowed from the HAL persona, and now, unwittingly, a slight hint of Canadianness resides in our phones and interactive devices. ...

To Scott Brave, the co-author of “Wired for Speech: How Voice Activates and Advances the Human-Computer Relationship,” HAL 9000 is a mix between a butler and a psychoanalyst. “He has a sense of deference and of detachment,” Mr. Brave said, adding that he saw a ripple effect on, for example, the iPhone’s virtual assistant. “When I listen to something like Siri I feel there is a lot in common.” ...

To play HAL, Kubrick settled on Martin Balsam, who had won the best supporting actor Oscar for “A Thousand Clowns.” Perhaps there was a satisfying echo that appealed to Kubrick — both were from the Bronx and sounded like it. ...

Adam Balsam, the actor’s son, told me that “Kubrick had him record it very realistically and humanly, complete with crying during the scene when HAL’s memory is being removed.”

Then the director changed his mind. “We had some difficulty deciding exactly what HAL should sound like, and Marty just sounded a little bit too colloquially American,” Kubrick said in the 1969 interview. Mr. Rain recalls Kubrick telling him, “I’m having trouble with what I’ve got in the can. Would you play the computer?” ...

The actor hadn’t seen a frame of the film, then still deep in postproduction. He met none of his co-stars, not even Keir Dullea, who played the astronaut David Bowman, HAL’s colleague turned nemesis. ...

Douglas Rain himself has never seen “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For the retired actor who spent decades at the Stratford Festival and turns 90 in May, the performance was simply a job.
--Gerry Flahive, NYT, on the accidental history of how we think computers should speak. HT: EP

Monday, March 19, 2018

Italian-American food is not Italian food

Most of what is called Italian food here comes from the immigrants from southern Italy and Sicily who arrived from 1880 to 1924. They made up about 80% of all Italian immigrants. Interestingly, about half of the dishes that would become Italian staples in America originated in Naples. ...

Italian food in America is largely based on the foods the immigrants had eaten during religious holidays and other celebrations – in and around Naples and elsewhere – much less on what they ate daily. That was often a dreary array of vegetable soups, greens, beans and poor-quality bread. In Italy, they seldom ate pasta, as it was too expensive. They rarely ate meat. They only ate seafood if they lived near the coast.

But, with American wages, commercially made pasta and meat were easily affordable and became regular parts of their diet. Like nearly all immigrants before and afterwards, the Italians quickly grew to include American beef-steak and the crisp, German-born lager beer.

They ate far better than they had in Italy. But, many of the ingredients were not available or not as good quality, so these immigrants had to adapt. Vegetables became less important over the years, reflecting trends in the broader American landscape. ...

Food today in Italy is similar, but is something else.  The often significant differences between Italian and Italian-American cooking can be described as harmony versus abundance. Italian-American cooking uses far more garlic, more sauce, much more cheese and meat. Fewer vegetables are used. The food is also “more cooked,” like the popular baked pasta dishes here such as baked ziti and manicotti. Pasta is an entrĂ©e, which is almost never seen in Italy; it is typically the first course (after the antipasti that is). Fewer seasonal and fresh ingredients are used here. The long-cooked and copious tomato sauces, along with the large amount of cheese, help to mask this fact.

Garlic, you see, is not quite the staple of Italian cuisine Americans think it is. Depending on who you speak to, onions are a controversial ingredient too – and don’t even think of ever combining the two in a single dish. ...

“Fettuccine alfredo are not a thing in Italy,” Silvestris continues as calmly as possible. ...

In Italy, the dish is most similar to what Italians call pasta burro e parmiggiano (pasta with butter and parmesan cheese). Italians eat this, but at home, and would never dream of ordering it in a restaurant, says Simona Palmisano, 37, a Roman native and tour guide who recently settled in New York.

Palmisano explains that in Italy, this way of making pasta is often referred to as pasta del cornuto – which translates as “cuckold’s pasta”, because making it betrays an absence of time or care put into the simple meal, with the consequential assumption that a wife’s [romantic] attention must be elsewhere.

The even more popular way of serving pasta alfredo in the US – with chicken – is beyond imaginable.

It is not just poultry and pasta that are not allowed to mix – meat and pasta very rarely make it on to the same plate. Pasta is one course (primo) and meat is another, fully separate course (secondo).

“Except for in one particular region of the south [of Italy], where they put very small meatballs in their tomato sauce, we would never put meatballs in pasta. Who has ever heard of spaghetti meatballs?!” Silvestris exclaims. ...

You finish cooking pasta in its sauce after you have drained it from the boiled water; you never dollop the one on top of the other.
--Rose Hackman, The Guardian, on culture clash

Sunday, March 11, 2018

How to comfort the suffering

Every 90 days I lie in a whirling CT machine, dye coursing through my veins, and the doctors look to see whether the tumors in my liver are growing. If they are not, the doctors smile and schedule another scan. The rhythm has been the same since my doctors told me I had stage IV colon cancer two and a half years ago. ...

What does the suffering person really want? How can you navigate the waters left churning in the wake of tragedy? I find that the people least likely to know the answer to these questions can be lumped into three categories: minimizers, teachers and solvers.

The minimizers are those who think I shouldn’t be so upset because the significance of my illness is relative. These people are very easy to spot because most of their sentences begin with “Well, at least ….” Minimizers often want to make sure that suffering people are truly deserving before doling out compassion. ...

Some people minimize spiritually by reminding me that cosmically, death isn’t the ultimate end. “It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we are here or ‘there.’ It’s all the same,” said a woman in the prime of her youth. She emailed this message to me with a lot of praying-hand emoticons. I am a professor at a Christian seminary, so a lot of Christians like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me. Maybe now?

Atheists can be equally bossy by demanding that I immediately give up any search for meaning. One told me that my faith was holding me hostage to an inscrutable God, that I should let go of this theological guesswork and realize that we are living in a neutral universe. But the message is the same: Stop complaining and accept the world as it is.

The second exhausting type of response comes from the teachers, who focus on how this experience is supposed to be an education in mind, body and spirit. ...

The hardest lessons come from the solutions people, who are already a little disappointed that I am not saving myself. There is always a nutritional supplement, Bible verse or mental process I have not adequately tried. ...

A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better. Few people will let you admit that out loud. Sometimes those who love you best will skip that first horrible step of saying: “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Hope may prevent them from acknowledging how much has already been lost. But acknowledgment is also a mercy. It can be a smile or a simple “Oh, hon, what a year you’ve had.” It does not ask anything from me but makes a little space for me to stand there in that moment. Without it, I often feel like I am starring in a reality program about a woman who gets cancer and is very cheerful about it.

After acknowledgment must come love. This part is tricky because when friends and acquaintances begin pouring out praise, it can sound a little too much like a eulogy. I’ve had more than one kindly letter written about me in the past tense, when I need to be told who I might yet become.

But the impulse to offer encouragement is a perfect one. There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts and in affirmations when everything you knew about yourself might not be true anymore. I am a professor, but will I ever teach again? I’m a mom, but for how long? A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future. They say to me, like my sister Maria did on one very bad day: “Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. You will not disappear. I am here.”
--Kate Bowler, NYT, on just loving

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Making playgrounds riskier to build kids' grit

Educators in Britain, after decades spent in a collective effort to minimize risk, are now, cautiously, getting into the business of providing it.

Four years ago, for instance, teachers at the Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School looked critically around their campus and set about, as one of them put it, “bringing in risk.”

Out went the plastic playhouses and in came the dicey stuff: stacks of two-by-fours, crates and loose bricks. The schoolyard got a mud pit, a tire swing, log stumps and workbenches with hammers and saws. ...

Now, Ms. Morris says proudly, “we have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools,” all used under adult supervision. Indoors, scissors abound, and so do sharp-edged tape dispensers (“they normally only cut themselves once,” she says).

Limited risks are increasingly cast by experts as an experience essential to childhood development, useful in building resilience and grit. ...

Outside the Princess Diana Playground in Kensington Gardens in London, which attracts more than a million visitors a year, a placard informs parents that risks have been “intentionally provided, so that your child can develop an appreciation of risk in a controlled play environment rather than taking similar risks in an uncontrolled and unregulated wider world.” ...

Australia last fall introduced new standards for playground equipment, instructing operators to consider the benefits, not just the risks, of activities that could result in injuries. Cities and school districts in Canada and Sweden are following suit.

(In the United States, a country with far higher litigation costs, government agencies overseeing play safety are not known to have made any such changes.) ...

Ms. Talarowski, who was struck by how much more adventurous playgrounds were when she moved on London in 2015, threw herself into gathering data. Using a quantitative tool developed by the RAND Corporation, a research center, she used video to track the behavior of 18,000 visitors to London playgrounds, then compared it with similar data on visitors to American parks.

The findings suggested that exciting equipment had a pronounced effect: The British playgrounds had 55 percent more visitors over all, and children and teenagers were 16 to 18 percent more active. The features that held visitors’ attention the longest — sand, grass, high swings and climbing structures — were elements American park managers use sparingly, because of high maintenance costs and the risk of falls, Ms. Talarowski said.
--Ellen Barry, NYT, on un-bubble-wrapping childhood

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Norway's extreme love of the outdoors

Then there is Norway’s abiding infatuation with its lush natural surroundings. People have a such a deep bond with the landscape that there is a ubiquitous word for communing with it: friluftsliv, a.k.a. “open-air living.” The concept is so popular that NRK, the nation’s largest TV network, found a way for Norwegians to enjoy it indoors.

In 2011, the network placed a camera on the front of a boat called the MS Nordnorge and ran live footage for 134 hours of nothing but nature, quietly passing by. Half of the country tuned in.
--David Segal, NYT, on a rugged people

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The inauspicious beginning of K-pop

Before the liberalization of South Korean media in the late ‘80s, the music produced by broadcast networks was exclusively either slow ballads or “trot,” a Lawrence Welk-ish fusion of traditional music with old pop standards. ...

As of 1992, national TV networks had penetrated above 99 percent of South Korean homes, and viewership was highest on the weekends, when the talent shows took place. These televised talent shows were crucial in introducing music groups to South Korean audiences; they still have an enormous cultural impact and remain the single biggest factor in a South Korean band’s success.

As Moonrok editor Hannah Waitt points out in her excellent series on the history of K-pop, K-pop is unusual as a genre because it has a definitive start date, thanks to a band called Seo Taiji and Boys. Seo Taiji had previously been a member of the South Korean heavy metal band Sinawe, which was itself a brief but hugely influential part of the development of Korean rock music in the late ‘80s. After the band broke up, he turned to hip-hop and recruited two stellar South Korean dancers, Yang Hyun-suk and Lee Juno, to join him as backups in a group dubbed Seo Taiji and Boys. On April 11, 1992, they performed their single “Nan Arayo (I Know)” on a talent show:

Not only did the Boys not win the talent show, but the judges gave the band the lowest score of the evening. But immediately after the song debuted, “I Know” went on to top South Korea’s singles charts for a record-smashing 17 weeks, which would stand for more than 15 years as the longest No. 1 streak in the country’s history.
--Aja Romano, Vox, on knocked down four times, rising up five

Friday, February 9, 2018

Did the Milgram obedience experiment subjects know it was fake?

Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 1960s – in which ordinary volunteers followed a scientist’s instruction to give what they apparently thought was a deadly electric shock to another participant – have been taken by many to show our alarming propensity for blind obedience. ...

Now Matthew Hollander at the University of Wisconsin, and Jason Turowetz at the University of Siegen, have conducted the first in-depth analysis of the interviews that many of the participants gave immediately after taking part in the now infamous research. ...

Little studied before, the secretly recorded interviews were conducted by the actor who played the role of experimenter. Hollander and Turowetz listened to 91 of these interviews featuring 46 “obedient” participants who’d applied the most extreme level of shock, and 45 who defied the experimenter and at some stage refused to continue. ...

The most common explanation was that [the obedient participants] believed the person they’d given the electric shocks to (the “learner”) hadn’t really been harmed. Seventy-two per cent of obedient participants made this kind of claim at least once, such as “If it was that serious you woulda stopped me” and “I just figured that somebody had let him out“.
--Christian Jarrett, British Psychological Society Research Digest, on a problem with deceiving experimental subjects. HT: Marginal Revolution

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

How to talk to cavemen

Researchers have determined that number words for small quantities — less than five — are strikingly similar across virtually every language studied, and the words are among the most stable, unchanging utterances in any lexicon.

They are more conserved through time and across cultures than words for other presumably bedrock concepts like mother, father and most body parts, with a few puzzling exceptions like the words for tongue and eye.

“The sounds that you and I use to say ‘two’ or ‘three’ are the sounds that have been used for tens of thousands of years,” said Mark Pagel, a biologist who studies the evolution of language at the University of Reading.

“It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”

That continuity, Dr. Pagel added, “should astonish us.”
--Natalie Angier, NYT, on words that count