Christmas in China

A Chinese friend of mine wrote to me a few days ago:

In China, there are many people who do not believe in God, but commercial here is ….( I don’t know how to express), they launch beautiful ad and some discount for people to make them spend more money and feel more happy than the Christians.

Wise observations. I think Christmas moves so easily to a country with few Christians because it derives from deep-seated features of human nature. I also agree that ads are often beautiful. These Hershey’s Kisses ads, by my friend Carl Willat, for example.

Science in Action: Procrastination

A month ago I had lunch with Greg Niemeyer, a professor of art at UC Berkeley whose medium is games. His games have appeared in art galleries all over the world. He asked me if games had been studied by psychologists and pointed out some of their psychological properties — the power to make you concentrate for a long time, for example.

This was fascinating. He was so right — games are powerful in several ways. I wondered how that power could be (a) studied and (b) used. My first question was whether games could be a stimulant, like caffeine. I emailed Greg about this; he suggested I try Bejeweled and Sudoku. But I found them tiring — they require concentration. My next idea was that maybe I could use games as a reward. I used to enjoy Tetris and Freecell. If I do X (something I wouldn’t otherwise do), then I get to play a game. This contingency causes me to do X. There are dozens of rewards you could use this way (listening to music, eating a piece of chocolate, etc.); the advantages of games include their number and variety, the care put into them, the lack of satiation (you can play the game many times and it remains pleasant), their harmlessness (if I avoided getting addicted), their low cost, the ready supply (you can play a computer game whenever you have a computer), and the short duration of some of them. The reward for a 5-minute task should not last 4 hours.

I have wondered for a long time about procrastination — what causes it, what to do about it. I like to think I’ve figured out a few things but even so certain things I should do seem to go undone . . . well, forever.

For example, a month ago I had 40-odd emails in my inbox, some a few months old. I never got around to clearing it out. Bejeweled was no fun but Sudoku (Easy level) was okay. I never played Sudoku for fun but it was slightly enjoyable. Maybe I could play a game of Sudoku as reward for answering email. If I made the requirement — the amount of email that I needed to answer — small enough, it might work.

It worked. When I made the requirement tiny — deal with 3 email (which might take 10 minutes) — that was small enough. And I was able to do it again and again: handle 3 email, play Sudoku, handle 3 email, play Sudoku, etc. Progress was slow — I spent more time playing Sudoku than dealing with email — but slow progress was far better than no progress. I was a little stunned it was actually working. After about 10 cycles (which took 3 or 4 hours), my inbox was as empty as I could make it. It hadn’t been that empty in years. To gather some data about the whole process I wrote some R programs for recording what the task was, how long it took, etc.

Then I started spending all my time revising The Shangri-La Diet for the paperback edition. A few days ago I finished that. My inbox had gotten full again and again I used Sudoku to clear it out.

I want to learn more about this way of getting things done. Does it work with other chores besides email? Here is the kitchen table in my apartment:

My Kitchen Table 26 December 2006 8 am

It isn’t usually this messy but it hasn’t been completely clear for years. Can I use Sudoku to clear it off?

Previously On/Next On Seth’s Blog

Veronica Brown is a hot fashion designer, making a living off the virtual lingerie and formalwear she sells inside the online fantasy world Second Life.

This Washington Post article about property rights in Second Life neatly combines the subjects of my last post (fashion, etc., as engines of economic growth) and my next post (harnessing the power of games).

Christmas: An Evolutionary Explanation

In a kitchenware store a few years ago I came across the Rotary Nutcracker, a futuristic-looking device that cracks nuts in a new way. The girl at the cash register gave me a few walnuts to test it. It didn’t crack any of them. This was a curious product, I thought. Who would buy it? The salesperson told me that they’d stocked it for less than a year. I was the first person to test it. It had sold well during holiday season. Now I understood: people didn’t buy it for themselves, they bought it as a gift. As a gift, it mattered much less how well it worked — “it’s the thought that counts.” No wonder I was the first to test it.

Here, I saw, was my theory of human evolution in . . . well, a nutshell. At least part of it. Humans are the only animals with occupational specialization — we specialize, and trade. It started with hobbies. Hobbies became part-time jobs. Part-time jobs became full-time jobs. To support full-time jobs — to generate enough demand — there has to be enough expertise, which builds up slowly. To build up expertise, our brains changed so as to cause creation of special events like Christmas, Japanese New Year, Spring Festival (in China), and a thousand other examples around the world. Such events increase the demand for high-end craftsmanship, thus helping the most skilled craftsmen — the ones most likely to advance the state of their art — make a living. Christmas increases the demand for Christmas cards (fine printing) and Christmas-tree ornaments, for example. Traditional gift-giving has the same effect: It increases demand for “the better things in life.” Most gifts, if you follow the usual norms, are (a) not something you would buy for yourself and (b) not something the recipient would buy. (As Alex Tabarrok has noticed.) They are harder to make — and thus reward skilled craftsmen more — than the stuff we buy for ourselves, just as Christmas ornaments are harder to make than common household objects and Christmas-card printing is more difficult than most printing. Weddings, with the gifts, finery, invitations, etc., are another example. The Rotary Nutcracker didn’t work in my tests but it almost worked. If enough people bought it as a gift, that would finance the research needed to improve it.

Marginal Revolution and James Surowiecki have recently written about the “deadweight loss of Christmas” — about how gifts tend to be worth less than their cost. I think they see this as bad thing but I see it as a good thing — at least, in our evolutionary past it was a good thing. Likewise, the denizens of The Devil Wears Prada appear slightly defensive about the social value of fashion. They seem to believe that fashion is less useful than “curing cancer” (by which they mean doing research to learn how to cure cancer). Actually, high fashion, with its hard-to-make skirts, belts, and accessories, is the same as curing cancer — they’re two ways of increasing the human skill set. Art is the old Science.

Books Were the First Open-Source Software

Here is Aaron Swartz on Wikipedia:

When you put it all together, the story becomes clear: an outsider makes one edit to add a chunk of information [to a Wikipedia entry], then insiders make several edits tweaking and reformatting it. In addition, insiders rack up thousands of edits doing things like changing the name of a category across the entire site — the kind of thing only insiders deeply care about. As a result, insiders account for the vast majority of the edits. But it’s the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content.

(Correcting Wikipedia’s founder, by the way.) When I visited my editor, Marian Lizzi, at Penguin, I realized that book publishing is exactly the same: Outsiders write the books, insiders edit them.

The curious thing about book publishing is similar to what Swartz noticed in a different realm: The content, the crucial stuff, is entirely from amateurs. No other industry, with the possible exception of craft shows, is like this. If I run a deli, I buy supplies and food from people who make their living selling supplies and food. If I make clothes, I buy my cloth from professional cloth makers. If I make cheese, my milk comes from professional farmers. Only book publishers endlessly deal with amateurs.


Tea, Wine, Chocolate — and Coffee

Jacob Grier, who works in a coffee shop, has written to say that coffee deserves to be on my list of connoisseur-type foods with health benefits (previous entries: tea, wine, and chocolate). For the health benefits of coffee, read this and this. Thanks, Jacob. In Berkeley, Peets (coffee) and Scharfenberger (chocolate) have created several products together. Let’s see: Peets and Scharfenberger, Teance and Charles Chocolates . . . the wine/chocolate category seems underpopulated. By eerie coincidence, today I watched an episode of Weeds (Season 1, Episode 3) in which the heroine goes to a cannabis club (dispensing medical marijuana) where she learns about fancy grades of marijuana she never knew existed.

Tea, Wine, and Chocolate: A Puzzle

Last night I went to the opening of the lovely Teance store on Fourth Street (Berkeley). Teance specializes in Asian teas, with some Indian teas as well. They used to be elsewhere in Berkeley, but their lease ran out. At the new location, they replace a gift shop, which makes sense: Fourth Street is foodifying. Teance fits well with the other upscale food stores in the area, such as the Pasta Shop.

But enough about small business. At the opening, someone from a local tea appreciation society gave a brief talk. Two things he said made me think. One was: “We drink tea for fun. The health benefits are just a bonus.” The other was a comparison of tea and wine. Tea is now where wine was thirty years ago. Since then there has been a vast increase in wine appreciation. “Thirty years ago if it was a special occasion you drank a bottle of Blue Nun. Now every kid on a skateboard knows the difference between merlot and cabernet sauvignon.”

Wine has health benefits, of course. A few weeks ago I went to a little tour/talk/demonstration at Charles Chocolates in Emeryville, where a few of the fine points of making chocolates (the candies, not the raw ingredient) were explained. Chocolate, too, has health benefits, as the makers of Cocoavia will be happy to explain. (Charles Chocolates has partnered with Teance to produce a line of tea-flavored chocolates, which were served at the opening.)

Three foods with intense connoisseurship action, three foods with substantial health benefits:

1. Wine

2. Tea

3. Chocolate

A coincidence? Or meaningful? Will cheese turn out to have health benefits? As a general rule, connoisseurship and health are unrelated: That hand-painted Italian flatware is no better for you than K-Mart’s finest (at least before the partnership with Martha Stewart, who called their customers “K-Martians”.)

I became interested in connoisseurship because of my interest in human evolution. Connoisseurship evolved, I believe, because it supported high-end craftsmanship. Skilled craftspeople were the main source of technological innovation. Connoisseurs happily pay more for high-end, carefully-made stuff. The tea spokesman was right: We drink it for fun.