Alexandra Carmichael on Random Acts of Kindness

Alexandra Carmichael is one of the founders of, whom I met at a Quantified Self meeting last year. A few days ago, she left an interesting comment on one of my posts:

I practice random acts of kindness, with a goal of helping at least 10 people a day (and at least 1 person I don’t know). I find this helps my mood toward the end of the day, when it is most likely to fall – no matter what else has happened that day, at least I’ve helped 10 people.

I asked her about it:

SETH Where did the idea come from?

ALEXANDRA It goes all the way back to my grandparents being Scout leaders – I was never in the Scouts myself but I observed how helpful and supportive they always were. Then during my university years when I was forming my life philosophy, I got to attend an incredible lecture by Jane Goodall. Her organization Roots & Shoots inspires people around the world to give back to the earth, animals, and people around them, with her amazing presence and the quote “Every individual can make a difference.” Service learning is also one of the things we thread into homeschooling our two daughters, along with design, simple living, and non-violent communication.

The specific goal of helping 10 people a day started last summer during a goal-setting weekend. I was curious to see if formalizing and quantifying something I had been doing in a fuzzier way would make a difference in my life, if measuring acts of kindness would result in an increased number of acts, or more friends, or help me with my chronic depression – plus I love quantifying things! 🙂 I don’t find it necessary to actually record how many people I help in a day, but I keep a rough running tally in my head as I go through the day to make sure it’s at least 10 – my kids like to help with this count too.

SETH What are some examples of these acts?

ALEXANDRA I do a lot of different things. If I get extra free tickets to events or conferences, I will pass them along to people who I think would love to go; I will offer to take a picture of a tourist family where one person inevitably gets left out behind the camera; I will connect people who I think would benefit from knowing each other; I will take two hours to listen and hug and support a child who is having a hard time learning a new skill; I will answer a newbie entrepreneur’s questions about how to get started in business or help them spread their message; I will help coordinate gatherings that I believe in (such as Quantified Self); I will hold the door for someone. It can be anything really, no matter how small.

SETH How have people reacted when you tell them about this?

ALEXANDRA The most frequent reaction is “That sounds too challenging to do every day – 10 people? Why not 1 or 2?” The second most frequent reaction is “You are inspiring me to make positive changes in my own life.” My answer to both is “I love helping people!”

SETH What have you learned?

ALEXANDRA if you help people, without wanting anything in return, you get help when you need it – often surprising help, and often more than you gave. I learned that helping people seems to make them like you more, so my number of online friends has skyrocketed (1500 on Twitter, 800 on Facebook, 500 on LinkedIn) – but close “in person” friends I choose to limit to a handful because of my tendency to get overwhelmed by frequent or shallow social situations. I learned that helping people does help with depression, because (a) you have something else to focus on outside of yourself and (b) you go through the day with an expectant air of wonder at who will be the next person you can help. I also learned that helping 10 people a day is really not a lot, and I often wind up helping 20 or more people in a day. Of course, this is only from my perspective – I can’t guarantee that all of these people actually feel helped, I just know that I tried to help.

SETH When you say “if you help people, without wanting anything in return, you get help when you need it – often surprising help, and often more than you gave” I’m not sure I understand. Can you give some examples?

ALEXANDRA It’s not so much that the people I help help me in return, but more that by spreading goodwill and being tuned in to what others need, I also became more aware of my own needs and started to feel a greater sense of self-worth, like I deserved to have my needs met. This is not something I was taught growing up, and I went through two bouts of major postpartum depression without asking for or getting the support I needed. I feel much more open about my needs now, which perhaps makes it easier for others to help me. So the change was more in me than in others.

In terms of specific examples, when I learned that I have a Tourette’s spectrum disorder, and tweeted that, I made an incredible new friend who has been through similar neurological issues, and who in our conversations of support and empathy has helped me more than I can ever thank him for. Also, when I decided to find some consulting work to support my family while we build CureTogether, a very welcoming door opened (soon to be made public), and offered me basically a dream position. I guess I needed to learn to ask for and accept help as well as to give it.

SETH Thanks, Alexandra. It’s especially interesting that helping others raised your feeling of self-worth. I wouldn’t have guessed it would have that effect.

Experiments in Gift-Giving

Kathleen Hillers posted this on a website called The Intention Experiment:

I just read a book called 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life by Cami Walker. The author of the book has ms and was seeking natural healing. She was told by a “wise woman” from South Africa that if she gave a gift everyday for the next 29 days that it would have a healing effect in more ways than one. It’s a great book, but if you don’t want to read it, start giving a gift everyday and make a journal of every gift you give and the circumstances involved. If you miss a day, you have to start over because you have to keep the flow of giving constant. The gifts do not have to be materialistic. You can give some one a phone call, a ride, encouragement, whatever. I just started doing this on Feb 1st and my life is already getting better. The day before I started, I was in a panic. I couldn’t sleep, and I was completely broke . The day I started, i actually started feeling much better, and things are already looking up.

Regression to the mean, maybe. But maybe not. The idea has some plausibility: The Chinese character that means “happy” is a combination of a character that means “owe” and a character that means “again”.

The Unwisdom of John Mackey

John Mackey is the founder of Whole Foods, a business I greatly respect. But he’s not always right.

“You only love animal fat because you’re used to it,” he said. “You’re addicted.”

(From a profile of Mackey in The New Yorker.) I discovered that animal fat improved my sleep when I overcame my (learned) repulsion and ate a lot more than usual.I think it’s obvious that fat tastes good for unlearned reasons. For reasons not based on experience. (Babies like fat. Animals similar to us, who have never eaten fast food, like fat.) Mackey’s comment is an example of a larger disregard of this. Professional nutritionists, including nutrition professors, have ignored the general point that our food preferences must somehow be good for us. I’m not saying all fat must be good for us — just the fat we ate when our liking of fat evolved. The idea that evolution would shape us to like and eat a food component that’s bad for us makes no sense.

Interview with Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen’s new book Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World has a lot to say about two topics in which I am especially interested: autism and human diversity. What can the rest of us learn from people with autism? What does the wide range of outcomes among autistic adults tell us about our world? I interviewed Tyler by email about his book.

ROBERTS If I remember correctly, you think a book should be new, true, and something else. What’s the something else?

COWEN The “something else” should cover at least two qualities.

First, if everyone read the book and was persuaded by it, would anything change for the better? An author should aim to write a book which matters.

Second, the book should reflect something the author really cares about. If the author doesn’t care, why should the reader?

ROBERTS What was the tipping point for this book — the event that made you say: I’m going to write a book about THIS?

COWEN To me it’s very important what an author is thinking about in his or her spare time, if the phrase “spare time” even applies to my life, which has an extreme blending of work and leisure time. Ideally that is what an author should be writing about. At some point you realize: “Hey, I am constantly thinking about xxxxx in my spare time!” And then you want to write it up.

I also hit up the idea of this book through pondering the lives of some particular individuals I know — and how much they *live* the thesis of my book — although I am not sure they would wish to be identified publicly.

ROBERTS Have you been to Autreat, the annual conference of Autism Network International, that you mention? If so, did it affect your thinking?

COWEN I haven’t been to Autreat, which for me is located somewhat inconveniently away from major cities (that is on purpose, I believe). I’m also not clear on exactly who is welcome, who needs an invitation, etc. Most conferences have a very high variance in quality across presentations and mostly one goes to meet one or two key people; often you don’t know in advance who they will be. I suspect the same logic applies to Autreat as well.

ROBERTS Do you think there are jobs that persons with autism do better than persons without autism?

COWEN Autistics often exhibit superior skills in attention to detail, pattern recognition, what I call “mental ordering,” and they have areas of strong preferred interests, in which they are very often superb self-educators. So yes, that will make many autistics very good at some jobs but also poorly suited for others. But I don’t want to generalize and say “autistics are better at job X,” that would be misleading. Across autistics there is a wide variety of cognitive skills and also problems. Engineering and computer science are the stereotypical areas where you expect to find higher than average rates of autism. While I suspect this is true in terms of the average, it can be misleading to focus on the stereotype precisely because of the high variance of skills and outcomes among autistics. One of the central issues in understanding autism is grasping the connection between the underlying unity of the phenomenon and the extreme variability of the results. In the short run, positive stereotypes can perform a useful educating function. But the more we present stereotypes, the more we are getting people away from coming to terms with that more fundamental issue, namely an understanding of the variance.

ROBERTS There is a basic biological phenomenon in which animals and plants under stress become more variable. Some say variability in the genotype has been released into the phenotype. Do you think the variance seen in autism has been “released” in some way?

COWEN I am not sure I understand the question…for one thing I am not sure what is the postulated increase in genetic stress…

ROBERTS Yes, it’s a confusing question. Let’s try this: What do you think the high variance of outcome seen in autism is telling us?

COWEN I’ll try to make that more concrete. One view of autism is that autistics have greater access to lower-level perception and such that access is essential for understanding autism. On one hand it gives autistics some special abilities, such as pattern recognition, certain kinds of information processing, and noticing small changes with great skill. (In some cases this also leads to savant-like abilities.) This also may be connected to some of the problems which autistics experience, such as hyper-sensitivities to some kinds of public environments.

It could be that non-autistics have a faculty, or faculties, which “cut off” or automatically organize a lot of this lower level perception. The implication would be that for autistics this faculty is somehow weaker, missing, or “broken.” The underlying unity in autism would be that this faculty is somehow different, relative to non-autistics. The resulting variance is that the difference in this faculty gives rise to abilities and disabilities which very much differ across autistics.

That’s one attempt to come to terms with both the unity of autism and the variance within it. It’s a tough question and we don’t know the right answer yet, in my view. What I outlined is just one hypothesis.

ROBERTS A clear parallel in the increased variance of autistic persons is the increased variance of left-handers. Left-handers have brain organizations that vary much more than the brain organization of right-handers. Right-handers are all one way; left-handers are all over the place. Do you see any similarities between left-handers and persons with autism?

COWEN I recall some claims that autistics are more likely to be left-handed but I’ve never looked into their veracity. There are so many false claims about autism that one must be very careful.

ADHD is another example of something which produces high variance outcomes. I don’t think it is correct to call it a disorder *per se*.

We’re just starting to wrap our heads around the “high variance” idea. Most people have the natural instinct to attach gross labels of good or bad even when a subtler approach is called for.

ROBERTS The term left-hander is confusing because left-handers aren’t the opposite of right-handers. The dichotomy is okay but the two sides are better labeled right-handers and non-right-handers. In other words, one group (right-handers) has something (a certain brain organization); the other group doesn’t have that brain organization. Then the vast difference in variance makes sense. How accurate would it be to say that non-autistics have something than autistics don’t have? (I’m left-handed, by the way.)

COWEN I would say we still don’t have a fully coherent definition of autism. And “have” is a tricky word. I think of autistic brains as different, rather than “normal” brains with “missing parts.” Some researchers postulate differences in the kind of connections autistic brains make. In thirty years I expect we will know much, much more than we do right now.

ROBERTS I hope this isn’t too self-indulgent: What do you make of the correlation between autism and digestive problems?

COWEN I don’t think there are convincing theories about either digestive problems causing autism or autism causing digestive problems. There is *maybe* a correlation through a common genetic cause, but even if that is true it is not very useful as a means of understanding autism. This is another area where there are many strong opinions, often stronger than are justified by the facts.

ROBERTS Another “assorted” question: I loved the study you mentioned where people with perfect pitch were more likely to be eccentric than those without perfect pitch. That’s quite a result. How did you learn about it?

COWEN There is a somewhat scattered literature on music, cognition, and society. It still awaits synthesis, it seems. Someone could write a very good popular book on the topic. (Maybe Gabriel Rossman is the guy to do it.) The more I browsed that literature, the more interesting results I found.

ROBERTS I don’t think I’ve done justice to your extremely original book but here is a last question. You talk about Thomas Schelling’s use of stories. Presumably in contrast to other econ professors. I think of story-telling being something that once upon a time everyone did — it was the usual way to teach. Why do you think Schelling told stories much more than those around him?

COWEN Thanks for the kind words. Schelling has a unique mind, as anyone who has known him will attest. I don’t know any other economist or social scientist who thinks like he does, but we’ve yet to figure out what exactly his unique element consists of. I would say that Schelling views story-telling as a path to social science wisdom. They’re not even anecdotes, they’re stories. Maybe that doesn’t sound convincing to an outsider, but it got him a Nobel Prize.

I am very interested in the topic of “styles of thought in economics.”

Chatting With a Gmail Hacker

Someone broke into my gmail account. (I have regained control.) The hacker sent an email to about twenty people asking for money. To be sent to London. Here is a gchat conversation that ensued (me = the hacker, Richard = one of my students):

18:30Â Richard: do u need sth professor?
18:32Â me: nop
  not good at the moment
 Richard: what do u mean? ur feeling not well?

16 minutes
18:49Â me: HEY
18:50Â Richard: hey
18:51Â me: heop you get my mail?
 Richard: uh.. no
  when did u send it?
18:52Â me: I’m stuck in London with family right now
 Richard: wow!! u didn’t tell us u’re going to the uk!
18:53Â me: I’m sorry for this odd request because it might get to you too urgent but it’s because of the situation of things right now
 Richard: wait.. are you Kaiping or Seth?
 me: Seth
  i came down here on vacation
18:54Â Richard: oh..
  this is really odd
  i saw kaiping’s post saying that he’s with his family too..
18:55Â so u emailed to me? but i didn’t get it..
18:56Â u mentioned request.. what is the request in ur email?
18:57Â me: i was robbed, worse of it is that bags, cash and cards and my cell phone was stolen at GUN POINT, it’s such a crazy experience for me
 Richard: what!
where are you now? are you safe? 

18:58Â me: i need help flying back home, the authorities are not being 100% supportive but the good thing is i still have my passport but don’t have enough money to get my flight ticket back home and l need to clear the hotel bills here
 Richard: can u resend me the email?
18:59Â me: please i need you to loan me some money, will refund you as soon as I’m back home, i promise.Get back to me ASAP let me know what to do next
 Richard: can u log on gtalk so i can voice chat with u?
  not enough info for me
19:00Â i did get ur email so i don know how i can hel u
19:02Â me: can i ask you a qus?
 Richard: yes
 me: tell me who is your best friend?
19:03Â Richard: … girlfriend i guess
 me: are you kidding me ?
 Richard: if ur serious about my helping u then…
19:04Â me: are want to who you her
  tell me who is your best friend?
 Richard: why does this matter if.. what?
  best friend okay, a guy in tsinghua
19:05Â but u don’t know him i guess
 me: the title of book I showed you lat time ?
 Richard: the shangri-la diet or mindless eating?
  ….professor, please
19:06Â me: stop kidding me
19:07Â Richard: professor i thought u r a little strangely
sorry.. i mean talking a little strangely 

  i should be confused
19:09Â why does these matter if ur trying to fly back?
19:11Â the thing is i didn’t get ur email so i do not know how to help
19:13Â me: You can wire it to my name from a western union outlet around. Here are the details you need to get it to me;
 Richard: can u use voice chat?
19:15Â it should be easy to install the voice char plugin for gmail, i mean we are not well connected, so it’s kinda slow
  i couldn’t help thinking this as an experiment…
19:16Â i think the easiest way would be u resending the email so i can get enough info
19:17Â besides, i may not have enough money so i would need time to trasfer money into my active account if we act fast enough we can get u home more quickly
19:18Â do u have a phone number of any kind?
19:19Â me: You can wire it to my name from a western union outlet around. Here are the details you need to get it to me;
Name – Seth Roberts
Location – 27 Leicester Square, London. England.
19:20Â Richard: and how much? all i have is rmb does it matter?
19:21Â me: how much can you loan me ?
 Richard: i donno. all i have in my account is about 4k yuan
19:24Â me: I still have my passport so i can use it as identification. You’ll be given a 10 digit confirmation number as soon as the transfer goes through, email it to me as soon as you have wired the cash to me.Regards
19:31Â me: you there
 Richard: yes professor do u have a phone number?
 me: nop
19:32Â Richard: but u have access to internet! where r u now?
 me: yes
19:35Â Richard: i gotta go good luck man

Gatekeeper Syndrome

If the original Milgram obedience experiment weren’t scary enough, in the 1960s a researcher named Hofling did a variant in which nurses were ordered to give twice the maximum dose of a certain drug. The drug was not on the hospital’s approved list, the order was given by phone, and the nurse didn’t know the doctor giving the order. Yet 21 out of 22 nurses obeyed. (They were stopped just before giving the drug.) Hofling concluded that of the several intelligences that might have been involved in the situation, one was absent.

I thought of this research when I learned about a remarkable case of anaesthesia dolorosa. Anaesthesia dolorosa is a condition where you lose sensation in part of your face and have great pain in that area. It’s rare; it’s usually caused by surgery. In 1999, Beth Taylor-Schott’s husband had an operation for trigeminal neuralgia that left him with this condition. In the ensuing years, all sorts of pain medications failed to solve the problem. Then he had another operation:

In January of 2008, David underwent a gamma knife procedure to ablate the sphenopalentine nerve bundle. Before the procedure, we were told that 16 other patients had had the procedure, and that all of them had experienced either complete recovery without drugs or an 80% reduction in pain. So we were optimistic going in. It was only after they had done the surgery that the doctors admitted that they had never done it on someone with AD before and that all those other patients had had atypical facial pain. The surgery had no effect as far as we could tell.

Shades of my surgeon claiming the existence of studies that didn’t exist. But that’s not the point. The point is this: After reading Atul Gawande’s article about mirror therapy for phantom limb pain, she and her husband tried it. “Within 2-3 days, his pain was down to zero.” It stayed there so long as they continued the mirror therapy. Soon after this they were able to eliminate his pain medication.

I asked Taylor-Schott what the reaction of her husband’s doctor was. She replied:

David’s actual pain doctor wrote back a single word, if I remember correctly, which was “fantastic.”

Wow. An incurable debilitating pain condition quickly and completely eliminated without drugs or danger or significant cost and . . . a pain doctor isn’t interested. Let’s call it gatekeeper syndrome: lack of interest in anything, no matter how important to your work, that doesn’t involve you being a gatekeeper.

I said that showed remarkably little curiosity. Taylor-Schott said that was typical. I agree. After I lost 30 pounds on the Shangri-La Diet, my doctor expressed no curiosity how I had done so. A friend of mine showed his doctor some data he had collected highly relevant to how to treat his condition; his doctor wasn’t interested.

Curiosity is part of intelligence. Not measured on IQ tests — a serious problem with those tests. To lack curiosity is to be just as brain-dead, in a different part of the brain, as those too-obedient nurses. Taylor-Schott speculated that curiosity was beaten out of doctors in medical school. Or perhaps much earlier. Curiosity doesn’t help you get good grades in college.

In my experience, college professors have their own problems along these lines. UC Berkeley has a fantastic selection of talks, year after year. I almost never saw a professor at a talk in a department different from his own — no psychology professor (other than me) would attend a talk in nutrition, for example. At statistics talks, I almost never saw a professor from another department. Curiosity had been beaten out of them too, perhaps. Professors who lack curiosity produce students who lack curiosity . . . it makes sense. It sort of explains why Berkeley professors had/have a such a narrow view of intelligence; to them being smart means being good at what college professors do. It also explains why the lack of measurement of curiosity on IQ tests is so rarely pointed out.

And it explains why Taylor-Schott and her husband learned about mirror therapy from a magazine article rather than from one of the many pain doctors they consulted.

More Black-and-White Thinking

Here’s part of a speech that Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician, gave in New York in February:

There might be moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam. Islam will never change, because it is built on two rocks that are forever, two fundamental beliefs that will never change, and will never alter. First, there is the Quran, Allah’s personal word, uncreated, forever, with orders that need to be fulfilled regardless of place or time. And second, there is al-insal al-kamil, the perfect man, Muhammad the role model, whose deeds are to be imitated by all Muslims. And since Muhammad was a warlord and a conqueror we know what to expect. Islam means submission, so there cannot be any mistake about its goal. That’s a given. It’s fact.

Whereas here’s what a friend of mine living in Amsterdam sees:

Disenfranchised immigrants who were summoned here to do low skilled jobs, aspire to integrate into Dutch society, but are often systematically excluded by Dutch people.  A lot of them don’t have much formal education. That doesn’t help.
Even 2nd and 3rd generation Moroccan immigrants, many of whom are nice people and speak perfect Dutch, get treated like underclass by native Dutch people.  It angers and depresses the parents, who feel shut out, and their kids suffer also.
I find it terribly sad to think that the kids I fix bikes with have such a disadvantage due to their origin. Many of them are quite smart. It strikes me as such a waste of human potential.

There are some nice Dutch people who get along fine with the immigrants, but not very many.

They’re describing the same thing!

Evidence-Based Medicine

In the comments, Bruce Charlton writes:

The failure to fund trials is combined with a suffocating dominance of the perspective of self-styled ‘evidence-based medicine’ (EBM) – including the groundless notion that only mega-trails should be taken seriously. . . Since the vast majority of randomized trials are industry funded, EBM has meant that industry has a de facto monopoly on ‘reputable’ therapeutic knowledge.

Delivering us into the hands of Big Pharma was not – of course – intended by the socialistic founders of EBM, but it has happened nonetheless.

This reminds me of something one of my students said. We were discussing male/female differences — in particular, the observation that women are more religious than men. One student said that in her experience, guys were either not religious at all or very religious.

I agree with her. I think this is why EBM has the form it does. Its male founders — not understanding the tendency that my student pointed out — went from one extreme (medical orthodoxy, unrelated to evidence) to another (evidence-based medicine). Reliance on evidence is a good idea, yes, but the founders of EBM couldn’t help making it resemble a religion. You might think that relying on evidence is the opposite of religion but they made the whole thing as religious as possible. EBM became just another way — just another excuse, really — to sneer at people.

Michael Bailey on Michael Jackson’s Sexuality

The Man Who Would Be Queen by Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern, isn’t just the best book about psychology I have ever read, it is one of the best books about anything I have ever read, right up there with Totto-Chan by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi and The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs.

Now Bailey has written a brilliant analysis of Michael Jackson’s sexuality. Bailey writes:

Jackson’s weirdness was so multifaceted that it presents both a challenge and an opportunity. . . . I propose an explanation of Michael Jackson that, if true, can explain several seemingly unrelated things:  the molestation accusations and interest in children, the obsession with Peter Pan, and the facial surgeries.

Plus the high-pitched voice. This is a basic point about causal inference not widely appreciated: If several rare things might have the same explanation, they probably do. Bailey’s conclusion is that Jackson had a very rare sexual identity disorder: He was sexually aroused by thinking of himself as a barely pubescent boy, just as a tiny number of men are sexually aroused by thinking of themselves as amputees (and these men try to become amputees) and a larger number of men are sexually aroused by thinking of themselves as a woman (and these men often have sex-change operations).

His facial surgeries made Jackson look unlike anyone else:

Normal people would hate to look like Michael Jackson did near the end of his life, and so normal people tend to assume that the surgeries were a series of big, compounded mistakes that Jackson must have regretted. Bad plastic surgery surely happens. But when it does, it is generally recognizable as a poor rendition of an aesthetically pleasing goal. Not so Michael Jackson’s face, which resembled nothing in the actual human, living world. Moreover, it has seemed to me that there was something coherent about the redesign of his face . . . If so, the 13 surgeries may be explained by something other than 13 different errors of judgment. . .

The face and the voice were both unnatural, and he went to a lot of trouble to have them. What was he trying to say and show with them? He told us, quite directly, the most likely answer.

“I am Peter Pan,” he said, more than once. He lived in Neverland. His second wife, Debbie Rowe, said that in order to get in the mood to have sex with her, Jackson dressed up as Peter Pan and danced around the bedroom. She said: “It made him feel romantic.”

Peter Pan, in the Disney version that Jackson knew, was a barely pubescent boy.

I wonder if diversity of sexual orientation persists because it produces diversity of occupation. People who enjoy unusual jobs have an advantage (less competition). Homosexual men probably have fewer children than heterosexual men — but what if homosexual men had an occupational advantage? Then they could make more money (or whatever) and their children would be better off. This would explain the persistence of homosexuality. Jackson, of course, was a huge occupational success. Bailey says a little about this:

Does my theory say anything about the origins of Michael Jackson’s tremendous talent? There are some correlations between sexuality and [occupational] abilities. For example, gay men are vastly overrepresented among professional dancers and fashion designers. This may reflect their increased interest in and dedication to dance and fashion, rather than natural talent per se. Autogynephiles [men sexually aroused by thinking of themselves as a woman] tend to be gifted in technical, mathematical, and scientific pursuits, with computer scientist being the prototypic autogynephilic occupation. But we don’t really know anything about the occupational interests of hebephiles [men attracted to barely pubescent boys], much less autohebephiles.

The Fall of GM

There is nothing new about large industry leaders, such as General Motors, going bankrupt; in The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen gives many examples and an explanation: complacency, also called smugness. We’re doing well, why shouldn’t we continue to do things our way? They fail to innovate enough and less-complacent companies overtake them, often driving them out of business. Complacency is human nature, true, but it’s the oldest mistake in the economic world. (I’ve studied a similar effect in rats and pigeons.) In the 1950s, complacency was surely why the big American car companies rejected the advice of quality expert Edward Deming. In less-complacent Japan, however, his ideas were embraced. This doomed the US car industry. Much later, Ford was the first American car company to take Deming seriously, which may be why Ford is now doing better than GM or Chrysler.

The further away you are I suspect the more clearly you see complacency for what it is — a failure to grasp basic economics (innovate or die):

“Chinese financial assets [in America[ are very safe,” [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner said. His response drew laughter from the [Peking University] audience.


Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential by Dan Pallotta is more a howl than a book. I enjoyed opening it at random, reading a few pages, agreeing with the author that the current situation is idiotic, and then going back to whatever I was doing. It is too repetitive to read sequentially but read in bits it makes a lot of sense. His big point is that nonprofits are forced to operate under weird moralistic constraints that do no one any good — and I’m sure he’s right. The main benefit of those moralistic constraints — no one must profit from charity! for example — is that the moralizers feel good. The charities are badly damaged. And the charities are self-destructive, too. After Pallotta’s company ran highly successful 3-day Breast Cancer walks for several years, the Avon Products Foundation, which benefited from these walks, decided they could do better themselves. After a year (2002) in which Pallott’s company raised $140 million, Avon themselves ran a similar event for four years (2003-2006) during which they raised about $60 million/year.

Waltz With Bashir

I loved Waltz With Bashir, Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and was surprised to realize that Ari Folman, its director . . . I had met. In San Francisco, about four years ago, there was a conference for documentary filmmakers trying to get distribution of their film. I went with a friend of mine. I happened to meet Sarah Kapoor there; we both watched an hour of a five-hour series about love (The Material that Love is Made Of). I was blown away. A brilliant hour of TV. The particular hour we saw was about a 10-year-old boy in love with a girl. Each hour was about a different situation. Afterwards I met the filmmaker (Folman). Brilliant, I said. He said it got really dark. Later he was giving away DVDs of the series but somehow I missed getting one. I tried to contact him by email but his in-box was full.

I hope that the success of Waltz will renew interest in that old series. I would love to see the rest of it.

Why Blog? Ask American Idol

From David Osmond, a failed contestant on American Idol: “I wish I had the opportunity to share what’s inside of me.”

I think that’s exactly the driving force behind blogging.

I used to teach introductory psychology. Large lecture class. I found I could often put whatever I was thinking about in the morning into my lecture. Blogging is easier.

More Jonathan Schwarz puts it like this: We have “desperation to express what our existence is like. Sometimes this comes out literally as singing, sometimes metaphorically.”

Bill Gates Completely Wrong

In a Time article about the future of journalism — the problem of course is that it is free online — Walter Isaacson writes:

Others smarter than we were had avoided that trap. For example, when Bill Gates noticed in 1976 that hobbyists were freely sharing Altair BASIC, a code he and his colleagues had written, he sent an open letter to members of the Homebrew Computer Club telling them to stop. “One thing you do is prevent good software from being written,” he railed. “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”

Many people do professional work for nothing: the creators of open-source software, for one. Not to mention bloggers who write about their professional expertise (such as me) or my friend Carl Willat (who made a commercial for nothing). Many book writers do professional work (in the sense that what they write is based on their profession) for next to nothing.

According to my theory of human evolution before occupational specialization came hobbies — skilled work done for nothing. The mental tendencies that led us to do hobbies are still within us


How I Will Judge the Inauguration Speech

By this: Did he tell good stories? Did he tell stories that actually supported his points? This is hard to fake. It was easy for Dr. Eileen Consorti to tell me that studies existed to support her surgery recommendation but — the hard part — she never supplied those studies, probably because they don’t exist. Pronouncements are easy, stories hard. It’s easy to say X and Y (“we will . . . this is a time of  . . . “) but if X and Y are just wishful thinking it won’t be easy to come up with a decent story — or any story — that supports them. If Obama understands how the world works, he should be able to tell stories that support his views.

Lyndon Johnson was a great politician and an excellent storyteller. Presidents since Johnson have been worse politicians and worse storytellers. Obama’s current popularity may reflect something in us rather than something in him. Right after 9/11 George W. Bush enjoyed enormous popularity. His speeches at that time, at least those I heard, contained no stories, which I think revealed that he understood little or nothing about the situation. (I would have told stories about overreaction.) The dismal outcome was foreshadowed. His popularity at the time was due to something in us, not something in him.

More The speech contained about one-quarter of a story. My expectations are hereby lowered.

Lack of stories at a high school graduation.

Life Imitates Art School (part 2)

Tsinghua University includes an art school added six or seven years ago. An art school elsewhere in Beijing moved to the Tsinghua campus; a big building was built for them. Two of my Chinese teachers are art students. I told them about the San Francisco art school where every department looks down on another department. This got a big laugh. The same thing happens in their school, they said. It is divided into fine arts and design. The fine arts students look down on the design students because the design students are working for money; the design students look down on the fine arts students because they aren’t practical.

The more curious interaction is between the art students and the rest of the school. Students in the rest of Tsinghua, which resembles MIT, often ask the art students their score on the national exam that high school students take to get into college. It is incredibly difficult to get into Tsinghua by that route; maybe 1 in 10,000 is successful. Art students have lower scores on this test but must also pass a test of artistic ability. One of my teachers, who is now a graduate student, said she’d been asked her exam scores at least 10 times.  Here is one context. My teacher has just helped another student with his bike.

Student who has just been helped: What’s your major?

My teacher: Art.

Student: What was your score on the national test?

And she is big and strong, she said, so potential questioners may have been afraid of being hit. Other art students are asked more often.

Interview with William Rubel, Food Historian (part 3)

William Rubel, a friend of mine, author of The Magic of Fire and co-founder of the children’s literary magazine Stone Soup, is writing a history of bread.

RUBEL I think that, in terms of culture–human culture–it seems that rich people have liked purity. We’ve been smelting metals for a very long time and smelting metals is taking dirt and out of the dirt creating a refined silver or brass or copper, even gold. I know that gold exists in little pieces, but nonetheless, there’s a lot of melting and purifying. So it just seems to me that logically once a culture had gold, once a culture had metal, the idea of purifying the grain to get white is not a huge conceptual leap.

White flour is a form of conspicuous consumption because you are keeping the endosperm–the starchy part–and throwing away the rest of it. And when you do it by grinding and sifting, and you leave an efficient system, you might throw away 75% of the grain to get 25%–the super white or 50% of it that will be white and 50% that you will throw away. You’re not throwing it away into the trash can, but you’ll feed it to a lower status person–the servants will get the rest of it–and of course you can also feed it to the pigs. But you would keep the white flour for yourself and make a lower status bread for servants and slaves. Historically the slaves were the ones who ground the flour. In the biblical period they did, and presumably before that as well. The earliest reference I’ve seen is in a book on cooking in Byzantium, I think about 800 AD, in Constantinople and someone is saying, ‘Oh the bread here is just white and fluffy like clouds. It’s degenerate, awful bread.’

ROBERTS You mean they did not like white bread at that point?

RUBEL This is a person who is criticizing it. He is saying that the white bread in the city, which is fluffy and white as clouds, is a sign of cultural decay. It’s a bad thing. And that critique of white bread, which we have today–that you’re throwing all the best parts away, that there’s something almost morally wrong about eating white bread–is a very common critique. I think by someone named Tyson in the book called The Way to Health, I think, in the early 1600s . . . I read certainly in medical texts from the 1500s and early 1600s, people saying, ‘This white bread is essentially empty calories and it’s a bread for courtiers,’ who are eating it because they are aping the social class above them, but that it’s not really very healthy. In the 18th century when people in France, in particular, became concerned about having enough good to feed the general population, one concern was that Paris had a culture of white bread and there were often grain shortages because it takes, out of a bushel of grain, you only get half a bushel of white flour. It was an inefficient use of flour, so the government was trying to push more whole grain or kept bemoaning the fact that the peasants in Paris didn’t want to eat this more whole grain flour. They felt that whole grain flour was better for workers–this is also a big motif in medical books of the 1500s and 1600s, that if you’re a worker, if you’re a laborer, you need to have a more whole grain bread. But if you’re a student, if you’re a person like us, who don’t have calluses on our hands and just work the computer keyboard, then people like use don’t need all that good value from the bread and white bread is more appropriate for us. They also recognized that there was more calories per unit–they sensed that it was denser calories, because they felt that someone who was very thin should eat white bread but somebody who was fat should eat the more whole grain bread because they knew from being very close to their excrement–they were close to their shit since they shat into holes . . .

ROBERTS Chamber pots?

RUBEL Chamber pots, yes. So they knew if they ate something grainy it just went right through them. They thought that fat people should eat a more whole grain bread than white bread.

ROBERTS So you’re saying that this preference for white bread and a reaction against this preference are both quite ancient?

RUBEL Yes, absolutely. That’s right.Now the bread that you like that I make is a very dense bread and part of this idea of using the past to look at our own bread culture is to say, ‘Gee, what breads were there back then and what were they like?’ The rich people have liked open crumb for a very long time and the medical books do say that the best breads have eyes, have air holes in them. On the other hand, the most common breads were fairly dense: rye bread and rye wheat bread or in England, breads just made with barley flour that could be fairly dense. But the old texts also often speak about the nice flavor of some of these dense breads. I find making bread, while you are a great fan of the dense bread and seem to respond to its flavor and . . .

ROBERTS Texture, too.

RUBEL Right. But I have a friend who’s (I don’t like to use that term foodie) like a gourmet–he likes to eat a lot, he’s very focused on food, but has very definite ideas about what’s good and what isn’t good and is very concerned about what’s good and not good. He just says, ‘William, when are you going to make a bread that’s any good, when are you going to make a good bread?’

ROBERTS You’re kidding. He says that now?

RUBEL Yes. He does not like the dense breads. He says they’re not well made.

ROBERTS What is his complaint?

RUBEL That they’re dense. Because density, or a lack of density, is a cultural attribute. Germans don’t feel that a 100% rye bread you see made and exported in those plastic, square loaves in plastic packages in the deli shop–and those obviously have no air holes–people in Germany are not saying, ‘Oh my god, this bread would be great if only it had air holes.’ It’s a style of bread, it’s a style and they appreciate.

ROBERTS You’re saying that the preference for an airy bread is cultural.

RUBEL Preference for an airy bread is cultural. For example the high status white bread in the 1400s and the 1500s (probably also earlier than that) was a white bread that was made with a very dense dough, 50% water to 50% flour, which would be very dense. Using modern flour, your ciabatta, is 75% water, maybe 78% water, by weight of flour. If you have 100 pounds of flour, the baker will be adding 78 pounds of water. Whereas this other bread would have been made with 50 pounds of water. The more hydrated the dough is, there’s some other factors involved, but the wetter the dough is, the easier it is for it to expand and make big air holes. All of this artisan bread that we like that has nice air holes–those are all yeast breads, so they’re moving to very, very hydrated doughs relative to historic practices.

Even at the turn of the 20th century, a standard English bakery book said that 50% water was the standard recipe. I have one book, a big English commercial bread book, the biggest book for bakers, by a man named Kirkland. He traveled around continental Europe and he said he was quite surprised to find that in Holland they were making breads with more water than they do in England. They were not following that 50% standard.

If you get back to 50% water by weight, and then they worked it for a long time. There’s an American biscuit called a beaten biscuit, where you work the dough in a mangle over and over again, for an hour. You just break down the gluten chains; you make a dough that is very elastic, very velvety. But it will never give you big air holes. What you’re getting is lots of really tiny holes. They would work the dough with their feet or they would work it with a tool called the break, which was a stick attached by a pivot to the wall. The baker would work this stick over the dough (actually with his body weight he would sit on the stick, sort of bouncing on the dough) for a long, long time until it was, as we would say, overkneaded. You would also be oxidizing it. It would turn whiter as you worked it a lot. They would get a very white bread with a very soft interior. They did not want a crust on it, a dark crust, so they also baked it in an over probably at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe even a little bit less.

ROBERTS Do you buy Thorsten Veblen’s view of this, why people like white bread? You use the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ from Veblen. Do you think that’s pretty close to what’s going on? People are trying to advertise their leisure time or their ability to pay. It’s like having a fancy gadget today. It’s a way of showing status.

RUBEL Yes. You buy imported butter. Most peoples’ tables, especially in our social class–the people who are reading your blog–are filled with cultural signs. What salt do you use? Are you using Leslie salt in the blue container and the little umbrella or are you buying sea salt? Are you buying salt from France? What kind of cheese do you eat? If you don’t eat Velveeta cheese, or some commercial American cheese, are you doing that entirely for flavor or is there some aspect to a little bit of showing off? Food is all about signs. Once you’re not just eating to eat, you’re saying a lot about who you are by . . .

ROBERTS Especially if you have guests, or tell other people what you eat.

RUBEL That’s right. Exactly. When you have people over to dinner and have that special olive . And also, we develop cuisines that work together with the foods that we like. White bread works well if you’re having a refined meal where the cook has spent a lot of effort to highlight ingredients or spices or herbs or whatever it is that is the highlight of that cuisine. White bread is more neutral than ____ or rye bread, which has a stronger flavor in of itself. Whole grain bread is giving you all that bran, which is filling and the bread’s not the meal; the bread’s the side dish. I think that there gets to be, also, confusion between bread as a meal and bread as a side dish. Even in the modern critique of white bread. Like, ‘white bread is bad for you, it has no roughage in it.’ But how much of it do you really eat? Does it make any difference? Or, ‘it’s empty calories.’ Well, okay, it’s empty calories; so is having a Coca-Cola, obviously. Or one of those fancy vitamin drinks. We eat a lot of empty calories; your wine is empty calories.

ROBERTS Water is empty liquid.

RUBEL Water is certainly empty calories.

ROBERTS  We’ve covered the main points. But if you have more time, I’d like to ask you one or two more questions. When you’ve been going into this history, what sort of things have surprised you or have been different than what you’d expected?

RUBEL There’s a lot more variety. I found cornbread from France which apparently was a staple bread in southern France in the 18th century. I’m also finding that most of our ideas are just not right. We’ve fixed on this French bread that only uses water but in real life–and it’s a high status French bread that we have fixed on–but in read life high status French people also liked bread that had fat in it. They had milk bread–breads made with milk and a little bit of butter. There was more variety then, even at the rich person’s table than we have now. I’ve been surprised–maybe not as surprised about them, but once again surprised and sort of disappointed or shocked to see how narrow-minded our own culture is in some respects.

ROBERTS I totally agree. I think that’s such a great point. There’s a story that Jane Jacobs tells that I keep retelling because it just comes up again and again. When she was a teenager, she went to a small town in rural North Carolina, maybe. She visited an aunt, and her aunt told her the story that when her aunt had come there, maybe 10 years ago, her aunt was assigned the task of building a church, or overseeing it. She told the villagers, ‘Hey let’s build it out of stone.’ And the villagers said, ‘No, that’s not possible.’ So they laughed at her. They had forgotten that it was possible to build buildings out of stone. You’re saying that it’s not just a small town–this isolated little town in rural South Carolina–it’s our whole culture. We’ve forgotten all these ways to make bread.

RUBEL Yes, or we’ve rejected them. Because it’s somebody else’s bread. You go to a Mexican bakery and they have milk rolls.

ROBERTS They have what?

RUBEL They have bread that has milk in it. Or eggs or butter. We used to have Parker House rolls; that was a big American roll, and now our social group–we’ve rejected that. It’s gone. And yet high status French people in the 18th century would have loved Parker House rolls and had breads that were very similar to that. I guess going back has reminded me of that.

ROBERTS Can I call it the new elitism?

RUBEL I don’t think that’s unfair. We have this particularly American variety of elitism, and I can’t speak for our European cousins, where we don’t recognize class in it. You go to a Mexican market and they’re selling Wonderbread or the equivalent and you go to our market–I live in Santa Cruz–and where the professors go, and we don’t have that bread at all. Or we have a weird industrialized version in Orowheat breads, which may be ostensibly whole grain but are actually industrialized products that make a whole grain bread so they can say that it’s whole grain or say that it has nine grains in it but effectively they’re really offering you something with the texture of a white bread.

We’re elite without recognizing the class. Whereas in old books–cookbooks and books that talked about bread in the 18th century and the 17th century–they were very up front. This bread was for the owner, this bread was for the servant and this bread was for the farm worker, the lower status person. They saw the status in bread; they recognized that it was there. They lived in a more overtly hierarchical society. Not more overtly, but they recognized that it was hierarchical, whereas we tend not to recognize it, especially in America where we have this mythos that everybody can be anything we want. Obama can be president, yes, but the social system is not quite so open. And there are breads associated with that lack of openness.

ROBERTS  Do you mean that our choice of breads is a reflection of a lack of openness?

RUBEL Yes. I think that if you do an anthropological study, in the greater Berkeley area, of social status and bread, you’re going to find very clear correlations.

ROBERTS Yes. How dare we!

RUBEL And part of it is just based on cost. It’s cheaper to buy a double packet of Wonderbread at Safeway even if you might want the other. On the other hand, there’s reason why Wonderbread is a good bread for many purposes.

ROBERTS Yes; I use it in my research. Thank you, William, that was wonderful.

Part 1. Part 2.

Life Imitates Art School

I had lunch with Lisa Goldberg, an adjunct professor in the Statistics Department at Berkeley. Her application area is finance. She said that people in finance have at least as much contempt for academics as academics do for people in finance. Thorstein Veblen, of course, wrote about the latter — people looking down on useful work — but not the former. Perhaps his views were skewed by being an academic himself. I blogged earlier about how students in each major at a San Francisco art school look down on the students in some other major.

Lisa also said she sleeps well. I was surprised — hardly anyone says that. It turns out she exercises heavily. She swims or runs seven days a week and when she swims, she swims 2000 meters. As a former swimmer, I know that’s a lot. When I exercised, there was no clear effect on my sleep, apart from falling asleep faster. I still woke up too early in the morning. Maybe I wasn’t exercising enough. Anyway, it’s one little data point supporting my conclusions from standing on one leg.

My Humor Research

[Rosie Shuster] did have one quality she could privately lord over her classmates: her father was a comedian. . . A life in comedy meant that Frank Shuster nodded, rather than laughed, at jokes that worked.

From American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, pp. 62-3. When I was in college I came up with a theory: Laughter is caused by sudden pleasure. Obviously we enjoy jokes, and jokes have punchlines. People laugh in lots of situations not involving humor and as far as I can tell they always involve sudden pleasure — unexpectedly seeing an old friend, for example.

Which is only to say, as this passage implies, there should be a limited number of joke categories and they should be far from mysterious. I once wrote a bunch of jokes from the TV show Cheers on cards and sorted them into categories. Later I classified six months of New Yorker cartoons and Spy accepted it. It was my first submission and I was thrilled.

More. Mike Kenny put it better than me. That I was able to get my research published in a magazine I adored was “a fusing of the intellectual with the practical.” I was going to say it was a practical application of pure research.

Cheap vs. Expensive Wine

The Harvard Society of Fellows, I learned from this great post by Steve Levitt, drink expensive wine — like $60/bottle. Steve, who was a Fellow for 3 years, did a simple experiment that showed the other members couldn’t tell expensive wine from cheap wine. Although the other members had liked the idea of doing the experiment, they didn’t like the results:

There was a lot of anger when I revealed the results, especially the fact that I had included the same wine twice. One eminent scholar stormed out of the room stating that he had a cold — otherwise he would have detected my sleight of hand with certainty.

Stormed out of the room! Why were they so angry? I think they were embarrassed. And not just that. Steve doesn’t say it, but I think there had been lots of dinner table conversation about how great the wine was. Now all that conversation was revealed to be delusional. Noting the greatness of the wine was — to be crude about it — a way of noting the greatness of those assembled at the table. “We appreciate the finer things in life,” they were saying. “We deserve to be here.” Snobbery is reassuring. In a tiny voice, the results said, yes, you are here, congratulations, but the reason you are here is more complicated than “you deserved it”.