Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lack of Memory and Happiness Leads to a Lack of Saving

Apparently my bad memory doesn't just hurt me when memorizing a phone number, it also hurts my impulsiveness:
Research has also shown that having a good short-term (or “working”) memory is associated with being able to project yourself into the future and plan for it, which is a prerequisite of saving. That’s partly because achieving a goal requires keeping it in mind.
And my recent transition woes aren't helping either:
He also finds that a squirt of the hormone oxytocin—known as the “love hormone” because of the role it plays in pair bonding and maternal behavior—makes people more patient: when people with a shot of the hormone are offered $10 now or $12 later, they are willing to wait 43 percent longer for that “later” to arrive (14 days rather than 10, for instance). “This tells us that people who are happier and have greater social support save more,”

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Costs and Benefits of Chunking

Chunking has nothing to do those several huge Thanksgiving dinners I have each year. Here's what it is:
This mental process is known as “chunking” and it’s a crucial element of human cognition. As de Groot demonstrated, chess grandmasters automatically chunk the board into a set of known patterns, which allow them to instantly sort through the messy details of the game. And chunking isn’t just for chess experts: While reading this sentence, your brain is effortlessly chunking the letters, grouping the symbols into lumps of meaning. As a result, you don’t have to sound out each syllable, or analyze the phonetics; your literate brain is able to skip that stage of perception. This is what expertise is: the ability to rely on learned patterns to compensate for the inherent limitations of information processing in the brain. As George Miller famously observed, we can only consciously make sense of about seven bits of information (plus or minus two) at any given moment. Chunking allows us to escape this cognitive trap.
But there are draw backs to creating patterns (dare I say stories) to understand information:
Now for the bad news: Expertise might also come with a dark side, as all those learned patterns make it harder for us to integrate wholly new knowledge. 
The problem with our cognitive chunks is that they’re fully formed – an inflexible pattern we impose on the world – which means they tend to be resistant to sudden changes, such as a street detour in central London. They also are a practiced habit, and so we tend to rely on them even when they might not be applicable. (A chess grandmaster has to be careful about applying his chess chunks to checkers.)
And here's how this applies to everything from improv, to our personal narratives, and even to politics:
So if you’re an expert, be proud: You’ve learned to perceive the world in a useful way. Your training has changed the structure of your brain. But don’t forget to think about your blind spots, about all those new patterns that you must struggle to see.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Night Owls are Smarter

Here's the proof. Though I have to be up in 6 1/2 hours and don't feel to smart right now.

Maybe I'll just take a nap.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Difference Between Humans and Animals, Part XXVI

A similar lesson emerges from a classic experiment conducted by Franz de Waals and Sarah Brosnan. The primatologists trained brown capuchin monkeys to give them pebbles in exchange for cucumbers. Almost overnight, a capuchin economy developed, with hungry monkeys harvesting small stones. But the marketplace was disrupted when the scientists got mischievous: instead of giving every monkey a cucumber in exchange for pebbles, they started giving some monkeys a tasty grape instead. (Monkeys prefer grapes to cucumbers.) After witnessing this injustice, the monkeys earning cucumbers went on strike. Some started throwing their cucumbers at the scientists; the vast majority just stopped collecting pebbles. The capuchin economy ground to a halt. The monkeys were willing to forfeit cheap food simply to register their anger at the arbitrary pay scale. 
This labor unrest among monkeys illuminates our innate sense of fairness. It’s not that the primates demanded equality — some capuchins collected many more pebbles than others, and that never created a problem — it’s that they couldn’t stand when the inequality was a result of injustice. Humans act the same way. When the rich do something to deserve their riches, nobody complains; that’s just the meritocracy at work. But when those at the bottom don’t understand the unequal distribution of wealth — when it seems as if the winners are getting rewarded for no reason — they get furious. They doubt the integrity of the system and become more sensitive to perceived inequities. They start camping out in parks. They reject the very premise of the game.
The monkey's just haven't figured out peaceful protest yet.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Life's Not a Story, It's a Mess

This June I got a little more personal than I usually do online. The post Blogging is Hard in the Real World was my attempt to explain why the blog had been quieter than normal. I wanted to be honest about my stress over moving from NC to SC as it was happening, instead of being retrospectively vulnerable. It's easy to talk about the problems I used to have. It was much harder to discuss the problems I was having.

It's now five months later and I my optimism about the future is waning. My fears about moving have not subsided. My new school, like any new school, has required a lot of extra effort. The months long house search has only reinvigorated my dislike of home owning. It's also difficult to connect to a new city when you have no home to invite others to. Finding a church has been a struggle. Though shows with Alchemy have been great, I miss the opportunities to teach and perform that I used to have.

Only recently have I discovered why this transition has been so hard for me: stories. Even before I knew I was moving, I posted on the power and problem of stories. I discussed how stories are like food for our emotionally hungry brain. Although they can be useful for summing up a large amount of information, because they don't contain all the facts, they can also be used for deception. The reason this rocky transition has been so hard for me is because of the stories I had been telling myself.

The narrative I've told myself and others about my life has always been one of progress. When I was kid life was fine. When I was a teenager with new found freedom life was good. When I went to college and really discovered who I was life was great. When I got married and started teaching school and improv my life was awesome! Then suddenly my life hit a wall. This new life situation didn't match the story I had been telling myself. Suddenly I faced a harsh reality that the story wasn't true.

Some people's lives don't get better. Some people's lives get worse. Some people's lives were never that good to start with. Although this is a sad realization, it's a powerful one. It frees me from being blindly optimistic, a bias I seemed to share with many people. In fact, the most common response I got from well-meaning friends and family (especially Christians) was that this life transition was all happening for a reason. That I would eventually realize the choice to move was the best. That it would all work out. But in reality, it might not.

It's very likely that years from now I'll look back and think "well that time sucked, sure I've moved on, but that time sure did suck". And here's the kicker, that's okay. Though I'm not there yet, I think I can get to a place where I'm alright will the mess. It takes a strong will of mind to accept a plotless (note I didn't say meaningless) life. I can make mistakes. My life can get worse. All I can do is the best I can with the information and people I have.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Late-November '11 Links

Here is the best of what I've shared on Twitter recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Training My Emotional Brain

My birthday wish last year was for more empathy. One of the comments I got was question of how I intended to accomplish that goal. I think the best way to do that is to stop spending so much time training my logical brain and more time on my emotional brain. So here are my plans:

1) Attend a less doctrine, more emotion focused church. One of the biggest commitments I made when moved was to find a more relational church. That's why me and lady started attending Radius Greenville. I appreciate the loose structure and the lack of Presbyterian in their order. It will take a lot of effort, but I think it's worth it.

2) Read more fiction. 90% of what I read is online and 99% of that is non-fiction. If I want to access the power of emotion I need to access the power of the story. And just to be sure you know I'm still me, I want to read more fiction to improve my empathy because it's supported by the research.

3) Listen to more music. This is part decision part lack of good NPR in Greenville. Either way I see music as way to access a part of my brain I normally don't.

If you can think of other suggestions or reading/listening recommendations send them my way.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Politics Without a Leading Political Party

As usual David Brooks from the New York Times articulates perfectly what is going on:
In 1951, Samuel Lubell invented the concept of the political solar system. At any moment, he wrote, there is a Sun Party (the majority party, which drives the agenda) and a Moon Party (the minority party, which shines by reflecting the solar rays).
In 2004 it looked like one of the parties were about to take control:
But something strange happened. No party took the lead. According to data today, both parties have become minority parties simultaneously. We are living in the era of two moons and no sun.
Here's why this is bad:
In policy terms, the era of the two moons is an era of stagnation. Each party is too weak to push its own agenda and too encased by its own cocoon to agree to a hybrid.
Like I said after watching a Tyler Cowen Q & A last year:
In the past I've specifically voted for divided government. Historically this has been the best way to limit the growth of bad government. However, now that our country is on an unsustainable growth in spending, gridlock will bankrupt us.
I must admit, my political concern about the European/American debt crisis has increased. I told my US History students recently that the current debt issue is a lot like the slavery issue during the mid 1800's. It is so lose-lose that no politician will touch it. Which meant from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln we have almost no meaningful presidents who would be willing to deal with issue issue appropriately.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Five Things Learned at BJU's Comedy of Errors

One of the connections I've made in Greenville through Alchemy was able to get me some free tickets to a Bob Jones production of The Comedy of Errors (click on either link if you don't know what Bob Jones or Comedy of Errors are). Here are five specific things I didn't know before:

1) The plot of the movie the Parent Trap is Shakespearean.
2) Without introduction, the entire crowd sings the national anthem before each play.
3) A glowing wand directing traffic will mostly just wave you in the direction you were already heading, even it's it right out the entrance.
4) I can't understand what is being said in the first half of a Shakespeare play, but by intermission it's like I've learned a new language.
5) BJU students treat plays like prom, but prom from the 1950's. Dates meet each other at the theater (because I assume they can't go to each others' dorm), each wears their best old fashioned formal dress and the men bring flowers and chocolates.

Despite it's idiosyncrasies it was a much needed and enjoyable date night for me and the lady.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Emptying the Bottle: Mid-November '11 Links

Google recently canceled their sharing format, so I've switched to posting them on Twitter. So as usual, here is a list of the worthwhile links I've found recently:
As always, feel free to email me anything interesting you come across.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Late Andy Rooney on Veterans

As a 60 Minutes fan, I didn't care much for Andy Rooney's everyday complaint journalism. But I did come across this Andy Rooney column from 2004, and I think there is some substance to it:
Most of the reporting from Iraq is about death and destruction. We don't learn much about what our soldiers in Iraq are thinking or doing. There's no Ernie Pyle to tell us, and, if there were, the military would make it difficult or impossible for him to let us know. It would be interesting to have a reporter ask a group of our soldiers in Iraq to answer five questions and see the results:  
1. Do you think your country did the right thing sending you into Iraq?
2. Are you doing what America set out to do to make Iraq a democracy, or have we failed so badly that we should pack up and get out before more of you are killed?
3. Do the orders you get handed down from one headquarters to another, all far removed from the fighting, seem sensible, or do you think our highest command is out of touch with the reality of your situation?
4. If you could have a medal or a trip home, which would you take?
5. Are you encouraged by all the talk back home about how brave you are and how everyone supports you? 
Treating soldiers fighting their war as brave heroes is an old civilian trick designed to keep the soldiers at it. But you can be sure our soldiers in Iraq are not all brave heroes gladly risking their lives for us sitting comfortably back here at home.  
Our soldiers in Iraq are people, young men and women, and they behave like people - sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes brave, sometimes fearful. It's disingenuous of the rest of us to encourage them to fight this war by idolizing them.  
We pin medals on their chests to keep them going. We speak of them as if they volunteered to risk their lives to save ours, but there isn't much voluntary about what most of them have done. A relatively small number are professional soldiers. During the last few years, when millions of jobs disappeared, many young people, desperate for some income, enlisted in the Army. About 40 percent of our soldiers in Iraq enlisted in the National Guard or the Army Reserve to pick up some extra money and never thought they'd be called on to fight. They want to come home.  
One indication that not all soldiers in Iraq are happy warriors is the report recently released by the Army showing that 23 of them committed suicide there last year. This is a dismaying figure. If 22 young men and one woman killed themselves because they couldn't take it, think how many more are desperately unhappy but unwilling to die.  
We must support our soldiers in Iraq because it's our fault they're risking their lives there. However, we should not bestow the mantle of heroism on all of them for simply being where we sent them. Most are victims, not heroes.  
America's intentions are honorable. I believe that, and we must find a way of making the rest of the world believe it. We want to do the right thing. We care about the rest of the world. President Bush's intentions were honorable when he took us into Iraq. They were not well thought out but honorable.
Here's me on the topic last year.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Enterprise Car Rental, A Personal Story

It takes a lot to convince me that business is the problem, but it happens. It happened again.

In September I got rear ended on the highway. The road was slick, the car in front of me slammed on their breaks and I did the same. The poor fellow behind me didn't stand much of a chance. He hit me so hard I slid into the car in front of me. Thankfully no one was hurt, everyone was polite, and the officer didn't fine me for a expired licence plate (how do you get a new tag when you don't technically don't have a home address?).

Then came the aftermath. My car was badly damaged but somehow still driveable. I was notified by the other driver's insurance company that I would have to take the car to them to get the damage estimated and to get a car rental voucher. Soon I'd dropped my car off at the body shop and was picked up at Enterpise Rent-A-Car. Here's what they gave me:

If there was ever hope for American car dealers, this vehicle killed it. It's a Chevrolet HHR. Luckily they also left me with a fourth-a-tank of gas. After a week I got a call from Enterprise saying that my last day with the car will be coming up and that I will need to return it. I then called the body shop who informed me that it would be several weeks before they would be done. I informed Enterprise that the voucher should be good for as long as my car was in the shop. They told me I have to contact the insurance company.

Every week I would have to do this dance. Enterprise calls me. I call the body shop. Body shop confirms the time frame they originally gave me. I'd call the other driver's insurance company. They'd call Enterprise. And each week I got gas I couldn't fill up because I was never sure when I would need to return the car to it's original 1/4 tank. After a few weeks I insisted Enterprise just call the insurance company and stopped answering their calls. They continued to call.

After a $37 charge popped up on my card, for what I haven't figured out yet, I called, assured them the voucher was still good and asked them to remove the fee. Which they did after two more reminders. Last week, to top off the great service I'd received, my American-made-PT Cruiser-wanna be broke down. I called the Enterprise office who then told me to call their roadside assistance. After over an hour of waiting they sent someone to jump the battery. It didn't work.

The mechanic leaves and tells me to call Enterprise again. They tell me to wait there for another hour for a tow truck. I tell them the keys will be in the seat and get my brother-in-law to drive me to dinner and a basketball game, then to the Enterprise office to get another car. On the way I call them to confirm I'm coming and they tell me my car has not been towed yet (which I know it has) and can't give me a car.

I show up anyways and explain to them that I have no vehicle because the one they gave me broke down and was towed. I beg them to call the roadside assistance. They do. After 20 minutes on hold they find someone who can confirm my other car has been towed. After giving me a minivan (nicer than my old one granted) then informed me that I should return the car tomorrow to their Wade Hampton branch and that my car will be fixed.

Apparently Wade Hampton is a really long road. Apparently Wade Hampton has an east and west side where the numbers change. Apparently an hour and a half is not long enough to allocate to get somewhere that closes when you apparently don't know where you're going. So I dropped the car off at the body shop, and said good riddance to bad rentals.

Enterprise, they'll pick you up, then let you down.

Friday, November 04, 2011

How to Spot a Liar

After watching the most recent episode of TV's best (only?) reality show Survivor, I remembered maybe the most practical TED Talk yet:


My takeaway: liars overcompensate the obvious (eye contact, fidgeting, details), but fail to avoid the subtle (body language, chronology, emotion).

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Hyper Halloween?

Good news from The Incidental Economist:
Let’s cut to the chase: sugar doesn’t make kids hyper. There have been at least twelve trials of various diets investigating different levels of sugar in children’s diets. That’s more studies than are often done on drugs. None of them detected any differences in behavior between children who had eaten sugar and those who hadn’t. These studies included sugar from candy, chocolate, and natural sources. Some of them were short-term, and some of them were long term. Some of them focused on children with ADHD. Some of them even included only children who were considered “sensitive” to sugar. In all of them, children did not behave differently after eating something full of sugar or something sugar-free. 
Personally, I think there are so many studies on this issue because after each was completed, the results were met with such skepticism that researchers felt the need to do another. This myth, perhaps more than any other, is met with disbelief when we discuss it, especially among parents. 
In my favorite of these studies, children were divided into two groups. All of them were given a sugar-free beverage to drink. But half the parents were told that their child had just had a drink with sugar. Then, all of the parents were told to grade their children’s behavior. Not surprisingly, the parents of children who thought their children had drunk a ton of sugar rated their children as significantly more hyperactive. This myth is entirely in parents’ heads. We see it because we believe it.
Then why does the myth continue?
Even when science shows time and again that it’s not so, we continue to persist in believing that sugar causes our kids to be hyperactive. That’s likely because there’s an association. Times when kids get a lot of sugar are often times when they are predisposed to be a little excited. Halloween. Birthday parties. Holidays. We may even be causing the problem ourselves. Some parents are so restrictive about sugar and candy that when their kids finally get it they’re quite excited. Even hyper.
HT to Marginal Revolution