Assorted Links

  • Dangers of Splenda. Never use it in baked goods.
  • Overdiagnosis of attention deficit disorder. “So many medical professionals benefit from overprescribing that it is difficult to find a neutral source of information. . . . The F.D.A. has cited every major A.D.H.D. drug, including the stimulants Adderall, Concerta, Focalin and Vyvanse, for false and misleading advertising since 2000, some of them multiple times.”
  • David Suzuki, prominent environmentalist, former genetics professor, founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, once voted the greatest living Canadian, is asked a question about climate change that turns out to be surprisingly hard.
  • Confucius Peace Prize. Awarded to Putin because Russia makes China look good?
  • Top 10 retractions of 2013. There is a website for retractions (Retraction Watch) but no website for discoveries that could have been made but weren’t, except maybe this blog. I’m not joking. I am far more alarmed by lack of progress than retractions.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

Meat as Health Food, Food Preference as Wisdom

A Chinese friend of mine had a cold. After a few weeks, she was still sick.  I suggested she eat meat — it would provide the amino acids needed to make antibodies. She did want to eat meat, she said, but her mom thought that meat was bad for a sick person — an idea from Traditional Chinese Medicine, I guess.

Yesterday I had a desire to eat meat. That was odd; I didn’t usually feel that way. I ate all the meat in the refrigerator (slices of cured meat) but it wasn’t much. I ate three eggs. That, too, was odd — usually one egg is plenty. In the evening, I distinctly wanted more meat but decided against going out to get some. This morning I woke up with the flu. I could tell by the joint pain. So that’s what joint pain is, I thought. I’d read about flu and written about it, but, before this morning, cannot remember having it.  How is the flu different from a cold? I once tried to find out. I might not have come down with today’s case of the flu were it not for two events: yesterday’s decision not to eat meat; and, the day before, running into a friend who had just left the house after being home-bound for four days with the flu. He shook my hand twice.

Humans (including me) are exceedingly gullible; my evolutionary explanation is that this makes us easier to lead. Gullibility — we believe something just because an authority says it — is cement. It keeps members of a group together. Better that 10 people do one thing (e.g., live in one place) than ten things, in many cases. Pointless to waste time on unresolvable and divisive arguments. Doctors, both Western and Eastern, take advantage of our gullibility. As my friend says, “doctors hurt you” because they tell you to do something different from what you want to do (e.g., eat meat). What you want to do is actual wisdom. We’ve been shaped by evolution to want to do what is good for us and what we want to eat is a giant clue to what we should eat. In nutrition research, this line of thinking, which is called dietary self-selection research, is nearly moribund, in spite of we need to eat fermented foods to be healthy. Fermented foods, much more than other foods, satisfy our desire for sour, umami-flavored and complex-flavored foods. For example, it is easy to produce complexity via fermentation; it is hard to produce it in other ways.

As for my flu, I went to the store and got pork and duck. By evening I felt much better.


Assorted Links

Assorted Links

  • How little is known about tinnitus
  • Michael Lewis on Greg Smith’s book. Published months ago. “The dystopia often imagined in the world of artificial intelligence—in which computers somehow take on a life of their own and come to rule mankind—has actually happened in the world of finance. The giant Wall Street firms have taken on lives of their own, beyond human control. The people flow into and out of them but have only incidental effect on their direction and behavior.”
  • The price of admission to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Businessmen seeking ministry contracts learned of Zhang’s nomination and offered to help. . . . Zhang, using a slush fund provided by the businessmen, cloistered 30 experts from mostly ministry-affiliated universities and research institutes in a hotel for 2 months, during which time they churned out three books on high-speed rail technology that were credited to Zhang.”
  • Why was Matthew Shepard killed? I have not yet read this book (I will) but it sounds so good I am happy to publicize it before that. It is being ignored. It supports a theme of Ron Unz and this blog, that lots of what we are told is wrong.
  • Someone leaving graduate school at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne explains why he is leaving only a few months before finishing his Ph.d. His complaints about professional (academic) science resemble mine — for example, the dominant role of will this help my career? in all decisions.

Thanks to Joyce Cohen and Allan Jackson.

Queen Late

When a Chinese friend of mine was in first grade, she was habitually late for school. Usually about ten minutes. Her mom took her to school on a bike. One day she was 20 minutes late. The door was closed. My friend opened the door. “May I come in?” she asked the teacher. The teacher came to the door. She took my friend to the front of the class. “Here is Queen Late (迟到大王),” she said.

Everyone laughed, including my friend. She thought it was a funny thing to say, not mean. The name stuck. Many years later, she was called Queen Late by those who knew her in primary school. Her teacher was not a great wit. Other students at other schools were called the same thing. It was/is a standard joke.

Sometimes I think Chinese have, on average, a better sense of humor than Americans, but who really knows? A more interesting contrast is how lateness is handled. At UC Berkeley, about 20 years ago, I attended a large lecture class (Poli Sci 3, Comparative Politics) taught by Ken Jowitt, a political science professor. Jowitt was considered an excellent lecturer, which was why I was there, but he was also famous for being hard on students who came in late. When I was there, a student came in late. Jowitt interrupted what he was saying to point out the offender and said something derogatory.  I don’t remember what Jowitt said but I do remember thinking — as someone who also taught large lecture classes where students came in late — that he was making a mountain, an unattractive mountain, out of a molehill. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how he could have dealt with the problem in a way that made everyone laugh.



Dragon vs. Dragon: Same Name, Different Genus?

In a discussion of dragonfruit (common in China), a Chinese friend pointed out that Chinese dragons and Western dragons are quite different. I was surprised, I hadn’t noticed this. My friend was right:

There are two distinct cultural traditions of dragons: the European dragon, derived from European folk traditions and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, and the Chinese dragon, with counterparts in Japan, Korea and other East Asian countries.

says Wikipedia. Why two different imaginary animals would be quite similar isn’t obvious.


Chinese Food: China vs America

I skype-chatted with Clarissa Wei, a Chinese-American journalist in Los Angeles whose post about stinky tofu in Los Angeles impressed me.

SR What do you think of Chinese restaurants in America compared to Chinese restaurants in China?

CW It depends on where you’re talking about. In broad America, the Chinese food is pretty different from that of China. In places like Los Angeles and pockets of New York… it’s much more alike

SR I’m thinking of the best ones in Los Angeles.

CW It’s definitely cleaner here that’s for sure. In Los Angeles, the food quality is pretty similar. The major difference would be the price and variety. The selections are also pretty similar. The set-up in American Chinese restaurants is obviously different than the ones in China so that influences things a lot

SR I have never been to a Chinese restaurant in America that resembles a high-end Chinese restaurant in Beijing

CW In Los Angeles — there are a couple high-end Canto restaurants. They typically are your seafood + dim sum banquet types. Lunasia is a great example.

SR What do you mean by the set up?

CW Well in China, a lot of the restaurants are literally hole-in-the-walls. There isn’t that much of a standard in terms of being neat and sanitary.

SR There is vastly more range in China, both better and worse

CW In the rural countrysides, it’s out of people’s homes. But in America, everyone has to have at least some degree of sanitation.

SR Chinese restaurants in China are more playful. Like a toilet restaurant, for example. Continue reading “Chinese Food: China vs America”

The Fate of the Tiananmen Students and the Story of Edward Snowden

This post by Ron Unz made me wonder: What really happened when student protesters were removed from Tiananmen Square 25 years ago? Unz pointed to a strange website with undated blog posts (mentioned earlier), which claimed that the students were not harmed, in contrast to the usual Western view that many were harmed, even killed. I didn’t take the website seriously but I had to admit my ignorance. Continue reading “The Fate of the Tiananmen Students and the Story of Edward Snowden”

Useful Knowledge: Arithmetic and Chinese

Long ago, a friend told me that when she was in first grade, she had a lot of pennies. She knew how to add but not subtract so after she spent some, she would have to count them again to know how many were left.

I have finally reached the last lesson (Lesson 12) in my beginning Chinese textbook, which I have been using (fitfully) for more than a year. Later lessons build on earlier lessons. When I didn’t know a word in a later lesson, I scanned the new-word lists from earlier lessons to find it. I have just discovered there is a word index.

How Meritocratic is Chinese Higher Education?

A friend of mine taught at Harvard for a few years. Her husband needed a job, so he taught a writing class. He said his students were so bad it appeared to be an experiment: How stupid can you be and succeed at Harvard? They had not been admitted based on SAT scores or grades, that was clear. In a recent article called “The Myth of American Meritocracy”, Ron Unz described considerable evidence of exactly what my friend’s husband noticed: Harvard admission not based on the usual “meritocratic” measures, such as SAT scores and grades. For example, he found evidence of an Asian quota. If Asians weren’t penalized for being Asian, far more would be admitted.

In a follow-up article, Unz wrote: Continue reading “How Meritocratic is Chinese Higher Education?”

If a Chinese Person Says You Are “A Good Student” What Does It Mean?

An American writer named James McGregor (in One Billion Customers) called China “a nation of bookworms”. In China, entry into college is heavily controlled by a nationwide test called the gao kao taken near the end of high school. For hundreds of years, China had the most sophisticated civil service entrance exams in the world. Chinese students study much harder than American students. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (in which a mother puts a huge amount of pressure on her daughters to succeed in conventional ways) was presented by Chua as reflecting Chinese parenting values. It’s true that Chinese parents push their children much harder to do well in school than American parents.

All of which might lead unsuspecting Americans to believe that Chinese people value being a good student. Not at all. A Chinese friend explained to me that being called “a good student” is essentially an insult. “You are a good student” is what you say to someone when you can’t think of anything nice to say. It means

1. You are not interesting.

2. You have no sense of humor.

3. You have no interests outside of school.

Drone might be the closest English equivalent to the Chinese “good student”, except that no one would ever say to someone “you are a drone” and the meaning of the term has recently changed (to mean mini-planes flown remotely).


Who is the Richest Person in China?

If you open the American edition of Forbes, you will find articles about the richest people in America. If you open the Russian edition, you will find articles about the richest people in Russia. If you open the Chinese edition, you will find articles about the richest people in America.

A Russian friend of mine noticed this. He happened to know an sophomore economics major at Tsinghua. It is incredibly difficult to get into Tsinghua and the economics major is the most desirable major of all. To be an economics major at Tsinghua you need a test score that is in something like the top 1 out of 100,000. Staggeringly high. My Russian friend asked the Tsinghua economics major, “Who is the richest person in China?”

The economics major didn’t know. He seemed a little angry. “Why should I know? We’ve never been taught that,” he said.


The Emphasis on Education in China

One of my students grew up and went to high school in Nanjing, population 8 million. Her acceptance to Tsinghua was such a big deal that when her acceptance letter reached the local post office they called to tell her.  The post office also alerted journalists. When the letter was delivered to her house, there were about 20 journalists on hand. One of them, from a TV station, asked her to say something to those who failed.

The Physical Spacing Effect: New Way to Learn Chinese Works Shockingly Well

Two years ago I taped a bunch of Chinese flash cards (Chinese character on one side, English meaning on the other) to my living room wall (shown above). I’ll study them in off moments, I thought. I didn’t. It was embarrassing when guests pointed to a card and said, “What’s that?” But not embarrassing enough.

A few weeks ago, I can’t remember why, I decided to test myself: how many do I know? About 20%. I’ll try to learn more, I thought. I was astonished how fast I learned the rest. It took little time and almost no effort. I didn’t need “study sessions”. I glanced at the array now and then, looked for cards I didn’t know yet, and flipped them to find out the answer. After a few days I knew all of them. Continue reading “The Physical Spacing Effect: New Way to Learn Chinese Works Shockingly Well”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Edward Jay Epstein, Bryan Castañeda, Paul Nash, Jay Barnes and Dave Lull.

Positive Psychology Talk by Martin Seligman at Tsinghua University

Here at Tsinghua University, the Second Annual Chinese International Conference on Positive Psychology has just begun. The first speaker was Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of the American Psychological Association (the main professional group of American psychologists). Seligman is more responsible for the Positive Psychology movement than anyone else. Here are some things I liked and disliked about his talk.


1. Countries, such as England, have started to measure well-being in big frequent surveys (e.g., 2000 people every month) and some politicians, such as David Cameron, have vowed to increase well-being as measured by these surveys. This is a vast improvement over trying to increase how much money people make. The more common and popular and publicized this assessment becomes — this went unsaid — the more powerful psychologists will become, at the expense of economists. Seligman showed a measure of well-being for several European countries. Denmark was highest, Portugal lowest. His next slide showed the overall result of the same survey for China: 11.83%. However, by then I had forgotten the numerical scores on the preceding graph so I couldn’t say where this score put China.

2. Work by Angela Duckworth, another Penn professor, shows that “GRIT” (which means something like perseverance) is a much better predictor of school success than IQ. This work was mentioned in only one slide so I can’t elaborate. I had already heard about this work from Paul Tough in a talk about his new book.

3. Teaching school children something about positive psychology (it was unclear what) raised their grades a bit.


1. Three years ago, Seligman got $125 million from the US Army to reduce suicides, depression, etc. (At the birth of the positive psychology movement, Seligman proclaimed that psychologists spent too much time studying suicide, depression, etc.) I don’t mind the grant. What bothered me was a slide used to illustrate the results of an experiment. I couldn’t understand it. The experiment seems to have had two groups. The results from each group appeared to be on different graphs (making comparison difficult, of course).

2. Why does a measure of well-being not include health? This wasn’t explained.

3. Seligman said that a person’s level of happiness was “genetically determined” and therefore was difficult or impossible to change. (He put his own happiness in “the bottom 50%”.) Good grief. I’ve blogged several times about how the fact that something is “genetically-determined” doesn’t mean it cannot be profoundly changed by the environment. Quite a misunderstanding by an APA president and Penn professor.

4. He mentioned a few studies that showed optimism (or lack of it) was a risk factor for heart disease after you adjust for the traditional risk factors (smoking, exercise, etc.). There is a whole school of “social epidemiology” that has shown the importance of stuff like where you are in the social hierarchy for heart disease. It’s at least 30 years old. Seligman appeared unaware of this. If you’re going to talk about heart disease epidemiology and claim to find new risk factors, at least know the basics.

5. Seligman said that China had “a good safety net.” People in China save a large fraction of their income at least partly because they are afraid of catastrophic medical costs. Poor people in China, when they get seriously sick, come to Beijing or Shanghai for treatment, perhaps because they don’t trust their local doctor (or the local doctor’s treatment failed). In Beijing or Shanghai, they are forced to pay enormous sums (e.g., half their life’s savings) for treatment. That’s the opposite of a good safety net.

6. Given the attention and resources and age of the Positive Psychology movement, the talk seemed short on new ways to make people better off. There was an experiment with school children where the main point appeared to be their grades improved a bit. A measure of how they treat each other also improved a bit. (Marilyn Watson, the wife of a Berkeley psychology professor, was doing a study about getting school kids to treat each other better long before the Positive Psychology movement.) There was an experiment with the U.S. Army I couldn’t understand. That’s it, in a 90-minute talk. At the beginning of his talk Seligman said he was going to tell us things “your grandmother didn’t know.” I can’t say he did that.



Two Dimensions of Economic Growth: GDP and Useful Knowledge

Ecologists understand the exploit/explore distinction. When an animal looks for food, it can either exploit (use previous knowledge of where food is) or explore (try to learn more about where food is). With ants, the difference is visible. Trail of ants to a food source: exploit. Solitary wandering ant: explore. With other animals, the difference is more subtle. You might think that when a rat presses a bar for food, that is pure exploitation. However, my colleagues and I found that when expectation of food was lower, there was more variation — more exploration — in how the rat pressed the bar. In a wide range of domains (genetics, business), less expectation of reward leads to more exploration.  In business, this is a common observation. For example, yesterday I read an article about the Washington Post that said its leaders failed to explore enough because they had a false sense of security provide by their Kaplan branch. “Thanks to Kaplan, the Post Company felt less pressure to make hard strategic choices—and less pressure to venture in new directions,” wrote Sarah Ellison.

Striking the right balance between exploitation and exploration is crucial. If an animal exploits too much, it will starve when its supply of food runs out. If it explores too much, it will starve right away. Every instance of collapse in Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Socieities Choose to Fail or Succeed was plausibly due to too much exploitation, too little exploration (which Diamond, even though he is a biologist, fails to say). I’ve posted several times about my discovery that treadmill walking made studying Chinese more pleasant. I believe walking creates a thirst for dry knowledge. My evolutionary explanation is that this pushed prehistoric humans to explore more.

I have never heard an economist make this point: the need for proper balance between exploit and explore. Continue reading “Two Dimensions of Economic Growth: GDP and Useful Knowledge”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Anne Weiss.