Ze Frank is back, making things

He did one of my favorite bits on ideas. Big ideas. Where ideas come from:

Now he's back. His first few shows are already fun. I liked this one on special effects and emotions in his show.

Yay for people who make things! Otherwise we wouldn't have things.

Are you the 1%? Or maybe the 17%?

Handy calculators to tell you what "percent" you're in:

Turns out the median US income ($47,000) puts you in the top 1% of the world.

Memory is not a hard drive: it's a stage play

Jonah Lehrer covers memory in Wired.
I can recall vividly the party for my eighth birthday. I can almost taste the Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake and summon the thrill of tearing wrapping paper off boxes of Legos. This memory is embedded deep in my brain as a circuit of connected cells that I will likely have forever. Yet the science of reconsolidation suggests that the memory is less stable and trustworthy than it appears. Whenever I remember the party, I re-create the memory and alter its map of neural connections. Some details are reinforced—my current hunger makes me focus on the ice cream—while others get erased, like the face of a friend whose name I can no longer conjure. The memory is less like a movie, a permanent emulsion of chemicals on celluloid, and more like a play—subtly different each time it’s performed. In my brain, a network of cells is constantly being reconsolidated, rewritten, remade. That two-letter prefix changes everything.
And now there are drugs that can alter reconsolidation. This is great news for people with PTSD and traumatic memories. It's unnerving for those afraid dictators can use it to erase the memory of genocide.

Making habits, and selling them

Excellent piece in the New York Times. It starts off about how Target (and other retailers) use statistics to predict precisely when you're about to start buying new products (e.g., diapers follow prenatal vitamins). But then it becomes all about forming habits.
In one project, 256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines. The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. 
According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). 
After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.
His book, The Power of Habit, is coming out soon. Looks good.

Can temperature affect your judgment?

The association between physical warmth and emotional warmth is strong, and also mostly subconscious. Room temperature, a warm touch, and apparently even a drink can sway how we feel.
Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John Bargh of Yale gave cups of either hot or iced coffee to people and asked them to rate someone’s personality based on a packet of information. The ones who held the hot cup rated that individual significantly higher for “warmth” than did the subjects holding the iced coffee.
Via the New York Times.

Rachel Maddow was a fan of Glenn Beck

Rachel Maddow regularly slams Glenn Beck. So this was cool to hear:
Glenn Beck was my favorite person of all time in radio. When he was in talk radio God wasn’t speaking to him. He was funny and much more performative than anyone. He’s amazing in talk radio.
I often tell people at work that if they want to get better at doing phone presentations, they should listen to Rush Limbaugh. Regardless of your politics, enjoy the craft.

We are all above average

Countless studies (summarized by Laura Schenck) have shown that people overestimate themselves:
  • Professional Competence: The vast majority of business managers (90%) rate their performance as superior to their peers, and most surgeons believe the mortality rate of their patients is lower than average. 
  • Driving: The majority of drivers (including those who have been hospitalized for car accidents) perceive themselves to be safer drivers than the average driver.
  • Intelligence: Most people consider themselves to be more intelligent, more attractive, and less prejudiced than most people. Almost comically, when outperformed, most people consider the other person to be a “genius.”
  • Insight: Most of us tend to believe that we understand others better than they understand us. We also tend to believe than we understand ourselves better than other people understand themselves. 
  • Freedom from Bias: People tend to see themselves as freer from the effects of bias than most other people.
One formal name for this bias is "illusory superiority." And one implication is that doing direct consumer surveys is probably a dumb idea, since clearly people are not good judges of themselves.

But not you and me. We're much more insightful and self-aware than the average bear.

Dale Carnegie was right

In 1936 Dale Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People. One of his six ways to make people like you:
Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
It's not about narcissism; it's about letting people feel acknowledged and seen. The best way to see the effect is to try it out on strangers: customer service people, stewardesses, waiters. Just use their name once in the conversation. Works wonders. Just ask Bill Clinton.

O blind taste test, how ye vex me

NPR covered the most recent of many blind test of violins. This time professional musicians tried to tell the difference between two Stradivari, a Guarneri, and three modern ones.
When Fritz asked the players which violins they'd like to take home, almost two-thirds chose a violin that turned out to be new. She's found the same in tests with other musical instruments. "I haven't found any consistency whatsoever," she says. "Never. People don't agree. They just like different things."
In fact, the only statistically obvious trend in the choices was that one of the Stradivarius violins was the least favorite, and one of the modern instruments was slightly favored.  
It's been done with vodka, wine, hi-fi speakers, and many other goods. And yet we still resist the idea that Smirnoff or Two Buck Chuck might be better than our beloved top shelf beauty.

There are, of course, cultural and social consequences of buying on the cheap. But what fascinates me is that we so quickly discount science to believe our investments weren't in vain and avoid the embarrassment of feeling like a sucker. Me included.

Young adult lit about PTSD

The Hunger Games meets my criteria for great literature. Whatever your age.
It's totally a commentary on our society: class, poverty, social inequality, excess, entertainment, materialism, struggles for resources, and reality TV. And surprisingly for a young adult book, it's a serious portrayal of PTSD.

Similarly, book 2 of the Twilight series (New Moon) is a depiction of depression which swallows you up for at least half the book.

Very cool to see young adult lit dealing with real psychological topics.

Are we headed towards a progress trap?

Surviving Progress explores the social, political and economic mechanisms driving us toward seeming self-annihilation. At one point Simon Johnson, former chief economist for the IMF, says:
The bankers can’t stop themselves. It’s in their DNA, in the DNA of their organizations, to take massive risks, to pay themselves ridiculous salaries and to collapse….
And it's true that it's in the DNA of these organizations. But I was relieved when some of the talking heads stopped blaming the bankers and the corporations and the politicians and acknowledged that we are the bankers, we work at the companies. And even if we're not literally them, we buy their cell phones, and their cars, and their home equity loans.

It's in all of us, this hunger, this short-sightedness, this materialism. If it weren't, marketing wouldn't work on us. If it weren't, only the rare, weak politician would be seduced by lobbyists. If it weren't, "the 1%" would be ephemeral, not perpetual.

Great film for a book club. (Ha ha. But honestly.)

Thinking in visual metaphors

It can be hard to find the precise visual metaphor for an idea.
The hair color one isn't quite there. Sure, hair color is like paint color. But painting with a hairy brush? The copy doesn't help: how is brown paint 'natural'?  (Sometimes the copy does help.) The Lego ad makes its point instantly and unambiguously. No copy required.

Trying to teach this and do this at work right now. Lots of examples by googling "creative ads".

Changing strides is hard to do

Evolutionary biologist Peter Larson filmed a throng of "barefoot" runners in NYC, many wearing those funny-looking Vibram finger shoes.
They wanted to land lightly on their forefeet, or they wouldn’t be in FiveFingers, but there was a disconnect between their intentions and their actual movements. “Once we develop motor patterns, they’re very difficult to unlearn,” Larson explains. “Especially if you’re not sure what it’s supposed to feel like.”
A year ago I got a pair of Merrells that aren't as goofy looking. And I found a good training video of easy exercises (essentially running in place). But a year later, I'm still not sure what it's supposed to feel like. Now I understand why it takes Tiger Woods so long to change his swing.

Christopher McDougall's article in the New York Times covering the trend & the industry, and a Science Daily piece about recent research on the mechanics.

When your little boy gets into guns...

...learn to die. Dramatically. Beautifully. With spewing blood and claw hands and death gurgles. Learn from the master of dramatic deaths:
There's plenty of research that shows boys (on the whole) naturally gravitate to fighting games. To boys, a stick is always a sword or a gun. There's tons of debate about what to do.

A lesson from improv: say yes to the game. Learn to die. Die big.

THEN, teach your kid how to die. It's lame if he always has a force field or something. It only gets really fun once you can kill your son.

Why everyone could use a coach

Not every profession has them, but coaches apparently rock.
You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. 
This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.
This hit me clearly when I took ice skating lessons last winter. The 20-yr-old who tried to teach me a backwards crossover would just say, "Just do this. You just gotta go for it." No dice. The veteran coach watched me and instantly knew how to teach the move. "Start standing still, arms out, then twist your hips sideways." And voila: my feet were crossed.

I'm trying to be a good coach at work. And I want to learn more about the Kansas Coaching Project.

Atul Gawande's piece in the New Yorker.

Why do people "like" conflict so much?

Some ascribe to the Kurt Vonnegut theory of drama:
“Because we grew up surrounded by big dramatic story arcs in books and movies, we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.”
I don't buy it.

First, it's probably not about "liking" drama in the conventional sense. Crime, horror, and medical drama conflict aren't necessary things we "like," but like a car crash on the other side of the highway, we can't resist it.

Second, compare what people want in their lives to what they want in their entertainment. A mellow, happy, relaxing, love-filled home is often quite desirable in real life, but it would make for a supremely boring movie. (This isn't to say people don't like adventure and excitement in their own lives too, but the frequency is much lower.)

Third, consider what our emotional and sensory systems have partly evolved for: to rapidly protect us from dangers by revving up our physiological systems. Heart rate, breathing, adrenal levels, visual and auditory processing all flare up in the presence of conflict.

Put these observations together and it seems that humans are attracted to drama because it is indeed "stimulating." It stimulates our minds and bodies. It creates a reaction. And those sensations (those chemical releases) are somehow addictive enough that we seek them out (in some way that involves dopamine which Jonah Lehrer has no doubt already written about).

Large campuses = narrow cliques

Going to a large, diverse university should expand your horizons, right?
Size of [friendship] opportunity leads to the ability to fine-tune the outcome. When opportunity abounds, people are free to pursue more narrow selection criteria, but when fewer choices are available, they must find satisfaction using broader criteria.
A study comparing KU students to those at small rural colleges in Kentucky found that the narrower choice of friends at the smaller campuses led to both more diverse friendships and stronger friendships. Love the one you're with, right?

Pirates, robots & ninjas

Veteran actor Billy Merritt's the three types of improv performers:

"A pirate is happiest when he swings on board a boat ready to attack and has no idea what will happen next," explained Merritt. And that is what a pirate improviser does. S/he is fearless, even reckless. Pirates initiate scenes with a strong, crazy choices and the other players work to justify and support them. You need the energy and creativity of a pirate to drive a ½ hour improv show.
The same three types are evident in meetings, workshops, brainstorms, and probably families too. Even-more-poetic descriptions are on his blog.

"I was just following orders..."

The classic Stanley Milgram experiments might not actually be all about blind obedience to authority.
Any time the experimenter said, "you must continue," the shocker said, "Hell no I don't." As soon as you say it's an order, they don't do it. Actually, the one thing the study doesn't show is that people obey orders. It's a pretty fucking big thing to miss. As we know in life, lots of things we do that are worthwhile doing are not easy. But if you think that science is worth pursuing—as these participants did—you say, "Ok, I'll go along with this." It's not just blind obedience. They're engaged with the task, they're trying to do the right thing for science. They're not doing something they have to, they're doing it because they think they ought to. And that's all the difference in the world.
This doesn't disprove that humans display blind obedience to authority. In fact there were many ways the study was designed to impart authority. But it does suggest that appeals to a higher cause might be even more persuasive than rule by force. Why? Because then the participant polices himself.

The Bad Show of Radiolab.

How language shapes thinking

Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive psych prof at Stanford, describes how language shapes our very perceptions of time, space, and self.
There are some places where asking "which direction is Southeast" would yield immediate correct responses from everyone, including people who are 5 years old. Even indoors. It's just not something that we keep track of.... The Kuuk Thaayorre of Australia don't use words like left and right to divide up space. Instead, everything is expressed in terms of north, south, east and west. And by everything I mean everything at all scales. So you say things like there's a dog trying to bite your east leg. Can you move your cup to the north-northwest a little bit. The boy standing south of Mary is my brother. In order to speak a language like this you must stay oriented.
Covered beautifully by Radiolab. Also check out her Scientific American article and her Long Now Foundation talk.