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“I want you to play like you’re 7 years old at a recital. I want you to play like your mom’s in the room. I want you to play like you’re miles from home, and your legs are dangling from a boxcar. Or play like your hair’s on fire. Play like you have no pants on.”

Stuff Tom Waits says to his musicians to get them to play how he wants



Some interesting results from research on bullying: often, neither the victims nor the perpetrators of bullying call it that. They use the term “drama.”

Dismissing a conflict that’s really hurting their feelings as drama lets teenagers demonstrate that they don’t care about such petty concerns. They can save face while feeling superior to those tormenting them by dismissing them as desperate for attention. Or, if they’re the instigators, the word drama lets teenagers feel that they’re participating in something innocuous or even funny, rather than having to admit that they’ve hurt someone’s feelings.



“The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term—‘drugs‘—and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use.”

— Sam Harris argues that experimenting with psychedelic drugs is ‘one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.’



The "new" science of responsibility

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainWe appear to be in the middle of a rash of books that seek to “re-examine” morality, responsibility, and the whole idea of criminal blameworthiness, in light of recent scientific discoveries. And while the field of neurology has had an astounding couple of decades, a lot of the work of applying these insights to our commonsense understanding of blame seems to be falling flat.

Consider The Science of Evil (British title: “Zero Degrees of Empathy”) by Simon Baron-Cohen. Here the premise is that ugly behavior is caused by a lack of empathy with others, which strikes me as banal, if not reflexive. There’s a scale of empathy, you see (and you can take the test!), and those with low to empathy are more likely to be “evil”. Of course your empathy score is a combination of nature and nurture, and people who normally have normal empathy can have temporary bouts of un-empathy. It’s all supported by research, but it’s also, I think, supported by our commonsense understanding.

Another book making the rounds is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. (You can hear him discuss it on Fresh Air.) Maybe I’m overinformed, but Eagleman’s central claim — that behavior is caused by brain chemistry — got little more than a “duh” out of me. His observation that the brain consists of a number of competing actors, and that the conscious mind is more an observer of decisions than a king, is lifted from the work of Daniel Dennett and others. And the idea that the criminal justice system should take people’s brain states into account when passing sentences is old hat to anyone with a passing knowledge of psychology; in fact our notoriously slow-changing and backwards justice system has actually been incorporating these ideas.

Eagleman’s big example of how brain chemistry cause our behavior is the pedophile who was cured and returned to normal when a suddenly discovered brain tumor was removed. But just because behavior in one person was linked to a tangible brain defect outside his control does not mean that we should re-evaluate our notions of blame in general. Some actions are within a person’s self-control and some are not. If Eagleman has a worthwhile message, it’s that the vast majority of decisions fall somewhere in the middle, and that our apparent free will is, much more so than we realize, an illusion of how our minds work.

The basis of that realization is actually decades-old psychological experiments (e.g. the pantyhose experiment), but it’s an idea that’s resisted by conventional wisdom. The value of Eagleman’s book (and his current publicity tour) is to spread this idea.

Posted: Wednesday June 15, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]


Infographic: easy, medium, and hard languages to learn for an English speaker. Spanish is easiest, Arabic and Oriental languages the hardest.



Yet another example of how people have no idea what’s happening inside their brains. You “prefer” an uncluttered store, but you buy more in a cluttered one.



Stefana Broadbent: How the Internet enables intimacy: Not exactly earth-shattering news, but there’s something sweet and compelling in the way Broadbent describes these changes.



Well, I thing that Merlin Mann might have to add me to the list of people who think he’s lost his mind a little, because according to a video he posted yesterday, he’s 25,000 words into writing a book that explains how it’s ok/good to goof off every once in a while, so long as you know when to stop and get to work. But don’t get me wrong, I agree! And the stuff about the butcher and the 7 levels of knowledge is great and everything. (Tho I think lifehacker’s point was that if you’re soaking your dishes overnight, dishwasher soap works for some reason better then regular dish soap, which is not a completely useless thing to know, really.)



From an impressive new study: “We find that the teacher performance pay program was highly effective in improving student learning. At the end of two years of the program, students in incentive schools performed significantly better than those in comparison schools by 0.28 and 0.16 standard deviations (SD) in math and language tests respectively…”



Michael Erard waxes poetic about the future of attention, envisioning such things as attention festivals and attention audits. I actually think that stuff like this is overly dramatic, and that human attention span has been, and remains, flexible. But this one was fun to read.



From a conversation with a burglar, Where to hide stuff in your home, Part 1 and Part 2. Of course the thing that most of us worry about losing these days is our data. I have an external hard drive stashed in the guts of my sofa connected to my computer by a cable that runs along the same route as the 12+ other cables plugged into my computer. They can steal my computer (upgrade opportunity!), but I’ve got all my data. On the other hand, when my friends had their house broken into recently, the thief ignored their brand new 24” iMac (easy to carry under one arm!) in favor of rifling through their bedroom drawers for jewelry.



Are pretty websites easier to use? The answer requires getting pretty deep into cognitive psychology and the theory of emotions.



“It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.”

— From Eliezer Yudkowsky’s twelve virtues of rationality (check out #12 — it makes no rational fucking sense!).



Dan Ariely asks, Are we in control of our own decisions? See Listen also, Radiolab on choices.



New Malcolm Gladwell: How do you win when you’re outgunned by your opponent? Answer: Exert more effort, change the dynamics of the contest. BTW, what’s the point of having a blog when I find out about your new writing from Waxy Banks?



David Lynch explains how to make a good movie. This advice works for anyone leading a group of people in realizing a particular artistic endeavor, which to me is the most frightening thing in the world. (Somewhat related: audio slideshow by Roxy Paine re the stainless tree installation on the roof of the Met. Both via C-Monster.)



Why don’t people boo more at the opera? Tyler Cowen thinks he knows: “When these high-status people are slighted, as they might be by a bad performance, their privately optimal response is to ignore the slight. Reacting to the slight suggests that they have let it bother them …” I’d think it has everything to do with herd mentality and accepted tradition, which could just as easily have gotten started randomly (and which a couple of spontaneous instances of booing could turn around).



The thing that’s hanging over this economy, threatening to turn it into Great Depression Deux, is the term “bank run.” Simon Johnson explains that the FDIC makes an old-school bank run unlikely. But: “Sadly, it turns out we haven’t outgrown runs. Rather, we have learned since mid-2007 that other kinds of runs — let’s call them wholesale or professional investor runs — are not only possible but also increasingly likely in the United States.” (Tho keep in mind that Johnson is of a particularly pessimistic mind about the current crisis, and this feeds into that perspective.)



Not the end of philosophy

As Republicans go, David Brooks is one of the most reasonable and thoughtful writers we have. However, this week he dropped a real howler. The title is, The End of Philosophy, and it goes downhill from there. The gist goes thus:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are like that.

Brooks goes on to cite some basic evolutionary theory (as if he’d only just discovered it) to support his claim, and at some length concludes that it is all very well and good for us to be guided by instinct as we make moral decisions. My reaction to this argument, generally made by people much less intelligent then Brooks, can best be expressed by an interpretative dance. But my camera has been acting a little buggy, so let me try to put it into words.

I’m struck by the similarity to the analogy Franklin Einspruch made between food and art. Yes, you know whether something tastes good without having to think about it. But deciding whether a piece of art is good is quite a different process, informed however subtly by whatever art education and exposure to other work one has had. It may seem instinctual, but that instinct is honed by a lifetime of experience. (I recommend reading Franklin’s post and the 114 comments that followed over three days. My own response is mostly in comment #74.)

Finding a similarity between taste in food and a taste in art may be flawed, but to extend it to a taste in ethics is just absurd. Brooks cleverly gets us nodding along in the second paragraph by observing that those who study ethics are no more likely to behave ethically than the rest of us. Fine and dandy, but the academic study of the philosophy of ethics is something quite apart from the process we all go through, as we mature, of deciding how we shall govern ourselves in life.

I think that Julian Savulescu on the ‘Yuk’ Factor, a recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast (pardon the British spelling of the word “yuck”), directly refutes Brooks’ line of thinking. We have innate tendencies, and we have ethical principles adopted from our parents, and we have the capacity as intelligent humans to think through and decide whether we want to adopt these tendencies and principles. For example, as Savulescu points out, homophobia and racism may well be based on innate evolutionary instincts (for sure they are often learned from parents).

Yet many intelligent people are able to reason through to the conclusion that homophobia and racism are completely indefensible moral positions. Thus our rational, philosophical, thoughtful self trains our ethical instinct — trains the yuck factor, as it were. Brooks is correct that we make snap judgments as we go about our daily lives, but he is profoundly and disappointingly incorrect to think that moral reasoning and yes, even philosophizing, do not enter into the picture of developing our ethics.

Posted: Wednesday April 8, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [11]


“In business, we like to convert time to money, and the reverse. But in practice, time and money are different. We can get more money, save it, move it between accounts and use it on demand. These operations don’t apply easily to time. … You can’t earn an extra hour to use on a busy day.” — Reid Hastie’s article about meetings in the NY Times



The psychology of getting conned. “THOMAS [The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System] is a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown—even with strangers.” (via)