Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When Daddy's tour in Iraq is extended yet again...

Dear Dr. XX,

Thank you for asking me to consult on aspects of children's socio-emotional development relevant to the Department of Defense's solicitation titled, "Virtual Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members."

I was appreciative of the fact that the DoD opened with a historical perspective:

The ability to reach out and communicate with loved ones from areas of conflict is better than at any time in history. Nevertheless, the stresses of deployment might be softened if spouses and especially children could conduct simple conversations with their loved ones in immediate times of stress or prolonged absence. Historically, families have derived comfort and support from photographs or mementos, but current technology SHOULD allow for more personal interactive messages of support. Over 80% of American children between the ages of three and five regularly use computers, and 83% of families have a computer in their home. So, computer-based applications would resonate with children and capture their interest and imagination. The challenge is to design an application that would allow a child to receive comfort from being able to have simple, virtual conversations with a parent who is not available "in-person".

It's wonderful that the military is prepared to spend substantial money to improve the well-being of military families. They may hope families will be more tolerant of repeated and prolonged tours if they can speak with a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence.

Still, I confess I am skeptical of the utility of an artificial intelligence program which mimics parental dialogue. Is there any evidence that children age 3-5 will understand that the avatar on the screen is supposed to be their parent? I wouldn't envy the job of a mother who has to train her 3 year old to comprehend this. (Just think of the bright happy forced energy required in "Let's go say good-night to Daddy!") And once children do understand, how will they sort out that this is an artificial intelligence, not really their parent? Recall young children's difficulty with the "appearance-reality distinction" (documented by Piaget and the American developmental psychologist John Flavell). This may create more confusions: where/what is my father?

Great background-story for a dystopian novel: In the early 21st century, when the protagonist was only three, he was beta-tested on a military AI project...

I saw that spouses were mentioned as possible beneficiaries of the proposed product. Would spouses really take comfort from an AI program saying the couple's tender phrases? Or perhaps the topic proposers are remembering a book they read in the 1970s, "Stepford Wives" -- the AI will be better than a human being because it can cater to the fantasies of the left-behind-spouse.

From a research standpoint, the first step in phase 1, "1. Develop metrics to determine user acceptance, usability, and content requirements" should be completed before anything else is attempted. Indeed, a simple questionnaire for armed services personnel could be sufficient to find out whether an AI could "soften the stresses of deployment." I was surprised this hasn't been done -- but indeed, the references section was about what one would expect from an undergraduate term paper -- idiosyncratic, showing little awareness of background research in the relevant scientific disciplines.

One more question: Do you have any thoughts on why the DoD does not simply try to provide (more) real-time video computer connection (as is possible with skype and ichat)?



Note: I learned about this project by receiving a request to be a consultant, but after googling saw that bloggers have already called it a "Creepy government project."

(And I really wanted to development AIs back when I was a teenager at the dawn of modern computing...)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy Year New! And use your card credit to pay those fees legal, you thank

A good friend who I knew when she was in grad school in Boston used to mess around with visual illusions of the wordy kind -- top-down expectations influencing subjective phenomenology. After 10 years that project got written up, published in Consciousness and Cognition, and now science bloggers are writing about it!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring

Published on Thursday, December 18, 2008 by
Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring
by Gary Olson
In a recent New Yorker piece, Naomi Klein astutely observes that "The crash on Wall Street should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian Communism, an indictment of an ideology." One hopes so. The financial system's collapse in 2008 offers a rare opportunity to question certain underlying assumptions about our state capitalist economy and its neoliberal ideology.

For the last few years I've been writing about neuroscience research which shows that the human brain is hard-wired for empathy, the ability to put oneself in another's shoes. This is the discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS, a finding some scientists believe rivals what the discovery of DNA meant for biology. The technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology, hardwired into our neural circuits via evolution rather than handed down from on high, lie beyond this article. But our understanding is increasing at an exponential rate and it's compelling. Earlier this year, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni's superb book, Mirroring People (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, paper) made this important research accessible to the lay public.

However, this is not to underestimate the barriers to the public's appreciation of these findings. At the apex of misunderstanding is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. From doctrines of original sin and Ayn Rand to Alan Greenspan and David Brooks, certain intrepretations of human nature have functioned to override empathic responses. In the words of famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal "You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions."

We know that cultures are set up to reward some people and disadvantage others. Capitalists maintain domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society's prevailing cultural norms. Antonio Gramsci's writing reminds us that this control is achieved through the mass media, education, religion and popular culture as subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as "common sense." It isn't that individual deviations don't occur within the interstices of society but generally they don't threaten elite control.

If we assume that the human brain or more specifically, the aforementioned mirror neuron system, is the implicit target of elite propaganda, then the current economic meltdown provides an almost unprecedented opportunity for us.

Perhaps not since the 1930s have our citizens been more skeptical of received wisdom about our socioeconomic system. That is, the carefully manufactured narrative of market capitalist identity and its assumptions about human nature are now thrown into sharp relief.

Not only has economic reality made a shambles of the canonical model of Homo economicus but robust empirical evidence offers promising alternative responses to basic questions about human nature. Parenthetically, other highly regarded cross-cultural studies reveal that the self-interested behavior predicted by the selfishness axiom simply fail to materialize and cooperation is the norm.

Of course there are also predatory and cruel urges within our nature, complete with their own neural correlates and evolutionary origins. But now we know that organizing an alternative to our vicious system of "natural" hyper-individualism will enhance the opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature to flourish. Social historian Margaret Jacobs captures my optimism with her insight that "No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence." Therein lies both our challenge and responsibility.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How razor-sharp is your wit? Test your skills against the RYS experts

How did I stumble upon "Rate your students?" Well... I've been pummeled and left for dead countless times on, rejoindered on "Professors Strike Back!" and even debated the two sites with college journalism students at my uni. So it was natural for me to start hanging out round the campus water cooler.

RYS is the site where I finally accepted that "extreme" is the new edgy, something it took me a while to understand.

Offensive, ridiculous, over-the-top, pin-your-ears-back -- its gotta be extreme to capture eyeballs on today's web. I first heard this (but didn't "get" it)' when my blogging mentor emailed me that I should not have been caterwauling over Sarah Faith Alterman's self-confessed "Americaphile asshole" attitude towards my precious China. Just back from my sabbatical in Beijing, I was mortified at her attitude and sent a big F-U to her and the Phoenix, a much-admired weekly here in Boston (my comment is at the end of her article). My mentor emailed me to pipe down, Alterman's sarcasm was pretty typical for today's humorous, edgy journalism.

My second example was hearing (uh... reading) a lit blogger referred to as "James Wood's fluffer" over in the comments section of Contra James Wood. Now, I myself probably barely know what "fluffer" means, but I know it is, like, really, really insulting -- What if the lit blogger read that??? But if extreme is the new edgy, then the lit blogger maybe grinned, what the hell, more eye balls (and search engines) are grazing on my name, thanks CJW.

But how does one learn how to write edgy? I tell my students you learn by doing -- AND getting feedback.

So here's the game (or the training regimen). You regularly read RYS. You imagine how you would respond to the current "Big thirsty." Maybe even write something. Maybe even send it in. It doesn't make it on the site. And then your eyeballs blow out when you read what did get published.

Now, I don't mean to claim that RYS only posts the nasty, Tabasco-on-the-lip screeching screeds (although I will blog about that in my next post). Frequently, it just prints the funniest stuff, with that ring of truth. First it makes you laugh, then it makes you think about the times when that really happened to you.

Such as: The professoriat's response to "The ideal campus visit." H laughed out loud as I read him gems like.... Nope, can't read just one. Run, do not walk to RYS and read'em all.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Can we shall together? A Found Poem

To me of 28 years.
Growth 171 see dark, eyes beautiful,
a figure sports.
Formation the maximum.

On character kind,
sympathetic and quiet.
Not for the husband.
Children while are not present.

I live in very beautiful city - Cheboksariy.
My hobbies - music, sports, housekeeping, knitting.
Music, from classical up to modern.
I love sports,
I like to prepare and be engaged in house affairs.

Yet has not met that the man to which could trust and pass on
a vital way to a place and consequently I dream
to get acquainted for serious attitudes
with kind, good, cultural and clever the man.
Where you wash the unique and tender reliable friend??!!

With greater impatience I look forward to hearing from you Masha!!!

Editor's note: Our experts have identified this poem as a low match to the vocabulary and grammar of a human English speaker, and suggest the English was produced by translation from Russian by a computer program.

From HumanProject: Dear Masha. Your poem reminds me of the words of the famous cultural anthropologist Edward Hall, who wrote, "... good art persists and art that releases its message all at once does not."

I am still pondering the meaning of "Children while are not present." I imagine. They are away back home, being taken care of by a woman who is my age, a youngish Babushka, a clerk in a government office. You miss your children and they you, but they know you are hard at the business of using your lovely brown eyes to secure their future.

Masha's email available on request.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New meaning for the phrase "house-to-house fighting"

My parents have just returned from the Sabeel Conference in Palestine, an especially sobering event because 2008 means 50 years have passed since the Nakba of 1948.

Mom got to see and/or speak with a number of people who have been in the international news. (My mother is the white haired grandmother seated at table in bottom right corner; photo is from Sabeel's slide show on their website).

Fawziya Khurd: My mother spoke with her in her tent in a parking lot in East Jerusalem. She was evicted from her home after settlers occupied it. She is living in the parking lot next to the home she lived in since the mid-1950s, and told my mother she is being fined close to $100 per day for living in a tent in the parking lot. To learn more, see details of Jonathan Cooks' reporting on this story, Who Will Stop the Settlers? in Counterpunch.

Samia Khoury: Mom writes: "When she stood up after Mr. Ben-Eliezer's speech and basically said we the Palestinians accept your apology it was so amazing that I was in tears."

Email from Samia Khoury to Sabeel conference attendees:

A short and small man physically, Josef Ben Eliezar stood tall as he asked for forgiveness from the Palestinians at the Sabeel 7th international conference on the Nakba: Memory Reality and Beyond which took place in Nazareth and Jerusalem (November 12-19, 2008). He shared with the participants his testimony for taking part in the expulsion of the Palestinian population from Lydda and robbing them of their money and personal possessions when he was an Israeli soldier in 1948.

Josef could not live with the reality of that day in July 1948. He realized then that what he was doing to the Palestinians was what the Nazis had done to his family and people before he had immigrated to Palestine after the holocaust. He did not find a listening ear in the newly established state of Israel, and the inhumanity of that war which as a Jew he thought was a war of liberation continued to pursue him until he eventually left the country and settled in England.

I wonder how many Israelis would have the courage and the magnanimity of Josef to admit that they have done the Palestinians wrong, let alone ask for forgiveness. Although his testimony was mostly in front of an international audience, yet there were a number of Palestinians from Jerusalem and Nazareth who heard him loud and clear. I was so moved that I felt I needed to get up and recognize his courage and thank him for his testimony assuring him that we do forgive him. (check out his book The Search)

As people came up to thank me later on for my words, I could not help but wonder how meaningful for the Palestinian people it would have been and how much suffering could have been spared had the Israelis since day one of the establishment of the state in 1948 admitted the wrong and grave injustice that they had inflicted upon the Palestinians, asked for forgiveness, and allowed all who were evicted to return to their homes. A dream that could still be realized if the Jewish people can ponder and act in accordance with the words of their great prophet Micah (6:8) " What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

Samia Khoury

"Do unto texters as you would have lecturers do unto you"

The professors/bloggers over at "Rate your students" think they have a keen eye for edgy writing and expletive-laced colorful rage about the daily inanities of teaching -- and they do. I took up the challenge of responding to this query: "So what do you do about texting in your class" and they included my answer in their line-up -- mine is the third down., beginning: "I teach one of those 100-student things, but since I don't take attendance and my detailed PowerPoint lectures are all on-line, the crowd is cut down to about 70...."

Friday, November 21, 2008

Is homosexuality only "okay" if it isn't your choice?

As part of giving a lecture on homosexuality in my developmental psychology class, I looked up Lisa Diamond's new book, because in past year's I've had to point out that most of the work on homosexuality is on male homosexuality -- it feels funny to spend an hour on theories of why men become gay addressing a room of 70 students that is 85% female.

I'd read some journal articles by Dr. Diamond and knew she had a book coming out, Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire.

The following blurb is from University of Chicago Magazine:

Is love "blind" when it comes to gender? For women, it just might be. This unsettling and original book offers a radical new understanding of the context-dependent nature of female sexuality. Lisa Diamond argues that for some women, love and desire are not rigidly heterosexual or homosexual but fluid, changing as women move through the stages of life, various social groups, and, most important, different love relationships.
This perspective clashes with traditional views of sexual orientation as a stable and fixed trait. But that view is based on research conducted almost entirely on men. Diamond is the first to study a large group of women over time. She has tracked 100 women for more than ten years as they have emerged from adolescence into adulthood. She summarizes their experiences and reviews research ranging from the psychology of love to the biology of sex differences. Sexual Fluidity offers moving first-person accounts of women falling in and out of love with men or women at different times in their lives. For some, gender becomes irrelevant: "I fall in love with the person, not the gender," say some respondents.
Sexual Fluidity offers a new understanding of women's sexuality--and of the central importance of love.

See also this review.

While googling around, I stumbled upon the controversy regarding Dr. Diamond and NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality). NARTH has been citing Diamond's research as evidence that female homosexuality contains an element of choice, which supports their view that homosexuality can be changed. Diamond contests their misuse of her findings.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"In the Black Hawk Simulator, participants experience flying through a mountain village whilst shooting at enemies"

In an effort to raise the profile of the US military, a mall in Philadelphia recently became home to the first Army Experience Center. (More from

Read the Military's own description at

See myspace video of kids mowing down simulated villagers.

Columnist Him Hightower criticizes this facility, which is in a huge space at an urban mall.

More videos.

Please comment.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

New project with students: Video games and language learning

In graduate school in cognitive science I studied artificial neural networks and language acquisition, a continuation of my interest in psychology and computer science from college.

As a professor, I became knowledgeable in several new areas during the 1990s. One of these is the question of why adults find it difficult to learn a foreign language, even in an immersion context. To answer this, I have been developing "multi-causal" theory: foreign language learning is difficult because of entrenched and routinized first-language structures, decline in brain plasticity, and decreased motivation to practice the second language because immediate rewards are so low. Adult learners may highly desire the end-state of fluency, just as they value other long-term goals like weight gain or smoking cessation; immediate rewards are minimal. The intervention I propose is a virtual reality learning environment. The virtual world is the place to learn and practice a foreign language with game characters providing language recasts and diverse skill levels. The immediate rewards of video-games (solving puzzles, finding clues) means that language learning is part of making progress in the game. After developing a prototype for foreign language learners, I want to extend the video game language learning project to the problem of literacy acquisition for deaf children. With my colleagues at BU, I argue that deaf individuals have difficulty learning to read because they are being asked to do something unprecedented: learn a second language (and sometimes a first language) via print. But can a language be learned just from print? Language learning is typically thought to depend on social-emotional interaction, which is absent when deaf children struggle to learn language from the printed page. Virtual reality environments can be used to immerse learners in a world where printed material can co-exist with interactions between characters, including interaction of the learner.

I'm currently looking for funding and collaborators and welcome suggestions.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Which one of these is not like the others?

Below is an unedited email I received from my university Office of Sponsored Programs. Take a look at items 1-4 (see italicized text below).

AGENCY: Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)/National Institutes of Health (NIH)

PROGRAM: Roadmap Transformative R01 Program (R01)

OBJECTIVES: This program, part of the NIH Roadmap Initiative, provides funding for exceptionally innovative, high risk, original and/or unconventional research with the potential to create new or challenge existing scientific paradigms.

Projects in any area of NIH interest are encouraged. Areas of highlighted need that have been identified through an NIH strategic planning process include: 1) Understanding and Facilitating Human Behavior; 2) Change Complex 3-Dimensional Tissue Models; 3) Functional Variation in Mitochondria in Disease Transitions from Acute to Chronic Pain; 4) Formulation of Novel Protein Capture Reagents; and 5) Providing an Evidence Base for Pharmacogenomics

Proposals must clearly articulate (a) the fundamental issue to be addressed and its overarching importance to the biomedical/behavioral research enterprise, (b) how the studies will either establish new or disrupt existing paradigms, and (c) how the proposed rationale and/or approaches significantly differ from state of the art in the field.

Letters of Intent (optional): December 29, 2008
Proposal submission: January 29, 2009

See why the Annals of Improbable Research say that "Soft is Hard"?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why do people confess to crimes they didn't commit?

In a discussion of whether Dostoevky deserves to be considered a great writer, the blogger Jim H wrote:

does anyone really believe that Raskolnikov would cop so readily to the murder? Was he that weak? Was his conscience so overwhelming? or was this just a way for D. to end the story in a redeeming, sort of uplifting way he couldn't find it in himself to challenge?

Hm.... the question is a reminder that most people don't understand how easily people confess. Most people are surprised to learn how common is the phenomena of false confessions.

I just lectured on this in today's psychology class and can't get the topic off my mind.

I found I was unusually strident because my undergrads were staring at me with looks of disbelief and incomprehension.

One student said, "Because they want to protect their family?"

Silently... uh... no, that was Stalinist Russia.

The evidence that people confess to crimes they don't commit, and the reasons, were recently laid out by Saul Kassin (journal article, blog report), publication list).

Dear young things, only two in a class of 85 (yes, big classes sucks) indicated that they had heard of the "Central Park Jogger" -- the young female stock broker assaulted and left for dead in 1989. Media hysteria over teens going on "wilding" rampages meant that the usual suspects were rounded up and convicted. Five young black men spent the 1990s in jail and were finally released in 2002 when the real rapist, already in prison for another crime, bragged about the assault to an imate and was found to have been the rapist via DNA evidence.

They confessed because they cracked under the relentless pressure and just wanted the harassment to end.

It doesn't sound plausible, does it -- until you start looking at the data.

About 1/4 of DNA exonerations were for death-row inmates who were on death-row because of false confessions; once you make a confession, its not easily retracted.

Readers, what is the solution to the waste of lives mispent in jail and wrong convictions?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Biking in Beijing -- Like Everest for a climber

You might think it'd be safer or easier to bike in Beijing, where often "bike lanes" are special side roads necessary to accommodate the packed throng of commuters. But no, me, a veteran Bostonian biker, who bikes in winter, rode my new candy pink girlie bike with a perpetual grimace of fear. Beijing motorists do not have the ethic that the non-motorist (bike or pedestrian) has the right of way. Its all out war there -- those drivers will hit you if you don't get out of the way.

Even so -- I thrilled to be biking in Beijing, where I wasn't some anomalous college professor who "still" rides a bike. [Of course, in Beijing, I was the far more anomalous Caucasian on wheels -- didn't see a single other round-eye on a bike in my five weeks until finally saw a couple of tourists on bikes in my last days.]

In Beijing, bikes are the primary vehicles supporting local commerce. Bikes are not just the commuting option for the masses, they are:

how large bottled water for coolers is delivered (with attached cart or special holsters, one per side)

how streets are sweeped (wish I had a pic of that -- its all muscle, biker wields broom and trash stabbing implement against the curb)

how children are picked up from school (bikes too valuable to be given to kids -- picture stern father in black suit, packing one kid on the back and one in front)

how produce is packed in from country side gardens-- all fresh food is commonly just bought sold on the streets; conventional western style grocery stores exist but fruits and vegetables are priced at up to 20 times the rate of street vended goods

and more generally, how goods and products are transported.

In contrast, motor vehicles are not used by industry and business -- too expensive when there are the no-gasoline options of bike wheels and human muscle. Cars are for the middle and upper class (and indeed, there are so many on the road that I can get to the Forbidden City from Beijing Normal University (a 40 minute bike ride) about as quickly as a taxi.

At one point I fantasized that I would bring back photos of these "working bikes" but I also had a full time job to get done in Beijing and thus had to snap what I could on the way to work (while not getting killed). But any photo journalists want to take this up, I'm available for comment and will share my few photos.

Bikes vs. Cars: The Grand Debate

Alas, were there such a debate. Ok, I had my title fun, back to reality. A reporter wrote me:

"....said you might be interested in helping us out with a discussion about biking in Boston."

Basically, I'm looking for people who are regular cyclists and who can easily discuss the problems that cyclists encounter on the road--for example: crazy motorists, double parked cars and delivery trucks, dooring, oblivious pedestrians who wander into the street without looking for traffic, construction on the BU Bridge, etc.

But I would also need someone who can address the reckless behaviors that some cyclists display, such as riding without helmets, blowing through red lights, failing to use hand signals, wearing headphones, etc.

Ultimately, we would want the two of participants to reach an agreement of ways in which cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians can all utilize Boston’s streets in a safe and productive manner without angering one another.

Would you be interested?

Of course I agreed. My comments:

I am a regular cyclist and advocate biking as an ideal commuter option for Bostonians. Yes, cyclists breeze thru red lights, but we aren't killing 50,000 people a year via vehicle accidents. We aren't polluting the environment. We are the solution, and drivers need to be grateful to us.

Still, I also understand the aggravation experienced by motorists who feel stressed out enough on the road without the extra burden of worrying they're going to accidentally hit a scofflaw bicyclist. I thus urge bicyclists to take drivers' perspectives on the situation. Bicyclists take it for granted that motorists will stop for them, give them the right-of-way, watch out for bicyclists' weaving in between lanes. I urge "be nice to these drivers" - smiles, eye contact, hand-wave of appreciation when they stop for us or wave us on, etc.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fun Post over at "Contra James Wood"

Read and enjoy

Its an arresting image: the media conspirators plotting to develop the literary critic who will make literary fiction into just another genre -- except no need, because a critic was just then stepping forward (James Wood). It got me thinking about whether this has happened in other arenas.

Hm... maybe... the current political situation?

Just a month ago, the ruling kleptocracy was still riding high, thinking they could keep cronyist pay-outs while proclaiming the rigtheous need to rally the public patriotically around the war against Eastasia -- oops, I mean Eurasia. Then the banks started failing. And failing. And failing. Someone would have to pay. And the public wasn't going to accept McCain now, not after the curtain has been ripped away showing Wall Street graft and mismanagement, not with Sarah Palin's word salad (speaking in tongues?).

There would he hard times ahead. The average American would need to do some belt-tightening, hell, would need to drill new holes in their belts, would need to take pay cuts, and pay, and pay, and pay.

The ruling class realized they needed a new kind of President, the kind they hadn't tolerated since, who, oh, Clinton. They needed someone who would look good on the international stage, someone who could calm the eye-rollers in France, Germany and Italy (those commies). They needed someone who wouldn't constantly have to fight the working class, the middle class, the liberal media elite, the Hollywood bleeding hearts. They needed someone to do their dirty work: ram down the throat of the middle class the hard fiscal reforms necessary to clean up the debacle of Wall Street's greed.... Who... Gather round, start conspiratin'. But did they need to find... They already had 'im: Obama.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In which I am challenged to dig into my encyclopedic knowledge of scientific psychology

Dear Professor,

I am writing to you because I would like to have your advice on how to find literature or studies on a certain topic and I am having trouble finding them on my own.

When developing a new products/services, there is a phase of the user- based research where the researcher tries to assess the “consumer’s latent needs”. It is said to be more of an art than a science. It usually occurs during an observational session, interview or beta testing.

A “latent need” could be defined as a need that the user has but is unaware of and cannot define when asked. The user frequently only realizes the existence of a “latent need” when she/he is presented with a product which addresses/satisfies the need. In this moment everything becomes that there was an obvious need for this product in the past and it is seemingly “strange” that no one has invented it before. This term is frequently used in marketing terminology. Good examples of these “needs” are: the necessity of being able to store money in a place other than your home or under your bed (BANK), to buy an item for which you do not have all the cash on your person at the time (CREDIT CARD), the ability to temporarily stick notes on all surfaces (POST-Its), etc.

Therefore my question for you is, is there a “psychological term” for a latent need? Have there been any studies regarding this subject?

Dear Z,

Mainstream psychologists have not studied latent needs. However, your question could be rephrased to be a specific variant of a more general topic that has been well studied: the habits of mind which prevent us from being able to see solutions to existing problems. In particular, I recommend Howard Margolis' Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind Govern Scientific Beliefs

Innovative product ideas like those you mentioned (e.g., Post-its, or think about famous intermittent car windshield wiper) can be understood as creative breakthroughs similar to the scientific breakthroughs discussed by Margolis. You wondered if psychologists have studied latent needs, and if not, why not. You noticed that it is quite interesting and even puzzling why people frequently hadn't noticed their need until the solution was posed, and then apparently suddenly felt the need had been present all along, but had been unnoticed.

To the extent that people don't recognize needs until the solution is presented, I propose that the reason why people apparently hadn't noticed the need before they saw the solution, is the same reason why the solution took so long: because people have mental habits which keep them thinking in a fixed routine. Their mental assumptions about the world entail that the problem doesn't have a solution, so they just keep stepping through their routine. I submit that they grumble, complain, and are annoyed, but the reason they don't look for a solution is not because they don't have a need, but because they haven't conceived of a solution being possible.

Let me illustrate my position with the case of post-it notes. Is it really plausible that no one had previously noticed the need to stick notes to any surface? I suspect masses of people had been annoyed at not having tape handy, were disgruntled by notes falling out of the pages of books or blowing off surfaces. But they assumed this is insurmountable because that had accepted long-standing and true generalizations about how glue works: glue is permanent and detaching a previously glued paper tears and wrecks the material. It was the accidental discovery of a very weak "glue" by chemists at 3M that led to the innovation of post-its.

I thus propose that your question is well-studied by psychologists, but they approach it from the angle of: what habits of mind keep us from seeing solutions to problems. The voluminous psychological work on creativity is only a click away.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banks failing... Wall St in crisis; Is it finally acceptable to criticize capitalism?

It wasn't acceptable 6 years ago, when writer James Rossi wote this about After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy by Seymour Melman

Few topics inspire as much fervor and unprincipled rhetoric as capitalism. Free market barons trumpet the faceless expansion of multinational corporations and lambast any environmental or labor regulation as an undemocratic assault on economic freedom. Critics of capitalism, on the other hand, have become as taboo in mainstream media as frank discussions of sex were during the Production Code.

The latter group boasts Seymour Melman, a professor of industrial engineering at Columbia University, who has long criticized American capitalism as alienating, militaristic, increasingly inequitable, and economically inefficient...

(read rest of review at Human Nature Reviews)

We could build a new society for $700 billion. Don't bail out the banks, buy them. Give home owners new loans. If they don't have jobs, start a public works program -- there's plenty of work to do -- fix roads; clean up the environment, teach school, and 100s of billions to spend to pay salaries.

Sure, I"m not an economist, so let me stop talking and just remind you that there are experts who know how to move us to a better system, we just have to start examining some of our decades-old taboos.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lol comments from Chronical of Higher Education

First, the article:

September 21, 2008

College to Compensate Students Who Sued Over Bad Teaching

Bates Technical College, in Tacoma, Wash., will shell out a half-million dollars to 16 former students in its civil-engineering-technician/surveying program who say lousy teaching left them unprepared for their careers, according to an article in The News Tribune, a local newspaper.

Then the commenters got on a roll about law suits. They started small:

Perhaps faculty should sue parents for sending them their children who’ve been badly brought up, are rude and inconsiderate, and often barely literate.

But rapidly showballed into hilarity:

I sued a chinese manufacturer of an outdoor basketball goal for intentional infliction of mental distress based on their assembly instructions. Discovery revealed that they purposefully wrote the instructions in a manner designed to cause tension and anxiety. Specifically, they included diagrams of the same assembly pieces put together in different configurations. And I sued mcdonalds because their fountain drinks were so cold they hurt my teeth. Of course, these are product cases and the article deals with services. Its a whole different ball game on services…I did sue this korean nail parlor for applying an acrylic nail and then filing it so that when I went to pick a piece of ky fried chicken from between my teeth, the nail cut into the gum and the 13 herbs and spices entered the wound creating a really ugly looking sore. It caused people to stare at my mouth when I smiled or talked and when I spoke all of my letter R sounds came out WR, but since the W was silent, nobody noticed that.

In a separate article on a different topic, readers got to see this comment gem:

"The beauty of blogs is that no one has to supply any evidence to support their claims. Most persuasive writing these days (and other days, alas) seems not to be written for people who disagree with the writer but to entertain those who already agree and to piss off those who don’t.” --Dave

Friday, September 19, 2008

Physiological reactivity to loud noises and threatening images correlates with political views

Science 19 September 2008:
Vol. 321. no. 5896, pp. 1667 - 1670

Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits

Douglas R. Oxley,Kevin B. Smith, John R. Alford, Matthew V. Hibbing, Jennifer L. Miller, Mario Scalora, Peter K. Hatemi, John R. Hibbing

Although political views have been thought to arise largely from individuals' experiences, recent research suggests that they may have a biological basis. We present evidence that variations in political attitudes correlate with physiological traits. In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War. Thus, the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

New directions in cognitive and affective science

Clinical doctoral students who wish to be licensed in Massachusetts must have training in cognitive and affective science, broadly construed. It is typical to gain this training by taking a class.

How to get this training? Why, start and maintain a blog on your readings on the topic.

I hereby announce a blog which has both a very specific, immediate purpose and a larger purpose. The immediate purpose is as a forum to discuss a set of important, mostly recent journal articles on cognitive science and especially the intersection between the cognitive and affective sciences. The blog is maintained by a student at Boston University, Kristen Ellard, who will be engaged in reading 3-4 articles each week and writing about her rections to the articles.

As Kristen's directed study supervisor, I invite any interested persons to post comments on her summaries and comments, or to post your own comments on the articles, or post questions about the general topic.

The larger purpose is to determine the usefulness of public blogging of this type. Traditionally, under directed study, a student discusses papers with a supervisor. The drawback here is that the student misses out on the dynamic interaction that accompanies classroom learning. Her writing becomes "writing for the teacher" rather than a broader audience of experts and non-experts. Yet setting up a full online course with multiple participants is not possible due to limited time and resources. The public blog is thus an intermediate step.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to see the readings and Kristen's postings thus far, please visit the blog site:

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

List of Books banned by Sarah Palin

I haven't been able to find the real list... The following is taken from the widely circulated spoof list which was probably just compiled from a list of commonly banned books. I've starred my personal favorites.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess *
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle *
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Blubber by Judy Blume
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley *
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
Carrie by Stephen King
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller *
Christine by Stephen King
Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Cujo by Stephen King
Curse Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
Daddys Roommate by Michael Willhoite
Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller *
Decameron by Boccaccio
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Fallen Angels by Walter Myers
Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) by John Cleland *
Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Forever by Judy Blume
Grendel by John Champlin Gardner
Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Have to Go by Robert Munsch
Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman *
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain *
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou *
Impressions edited by Jack Booth
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
It's Okay if You Don't Love Me by Norma Klein
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence *
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Little Red Riding Hood by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Lord of the Flies by William Golding *
Love is One of the Choices by Norma Klein
Lysistrata by Aristophanes *
More Scary Stories in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
My House by Nikki Giovanni
My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara * (Oh come on, this one was never banned!)
Night Chills by Dean Koontz
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Ordinary People by Judith Guest
Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women's Health Collective *
Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl
Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones by Alvin Schwartz
Scary Stories in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Separate Peace by John Knowles *
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. *
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain *
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain *
The Bastard by John Jakes
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Devil's Alternative by Frederick Forsyth
The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood *
The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Snyder
The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks
The Living Bible by William C. Bower
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
The New Teenage Body Book by Kathy McCoy and Charles Wibbelsman
The Pigman by Paul Zindel
The Seduction of Peter S. by Lawrence Sanders
The Shining by Stephen King
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Snyder
Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume *
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
Witches, Pumpkins...Halloween Symbols by Edna Barth

Sunday, September 7, 2008

I would like to volunteer in Research in your department

Dear Doctor,
I am Medical Student Graduate from India .I would like to volunteer in Research in your department .I can put 8 hrs daily and make commitment for a year. My sister is in [medical program in your city] doing her DMD program ,that is what fascinated me to volunteer in [your university].
My Crediantials are :
1.Degree :Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of surgery Dec'o7 from Government medical school ,patiala ,India.
2.USMLE Step1- 85 percentile.
3.USMLE Step2- 91percentile.
4.USMLE Step CSA- 9/30/08 skills :Excel,Microsoft Word ,Power Point presentation,Data management,Windows operting System,Trouble shooting.
With detailed knowledge in medicine , i can prove my selves if given opportunity in your research.
I promise for hard work,commitment and team work.
I am looking forward to hear from you soon.
Thank you so much,
In anticipation,

I wrote back

Dear xxxx
I conduct behavioral science research and thus your expertise and interests are too far from mine.

I advise you to read about the research of the different faculty you find in the Boston area. Then pick the faculty whose research you like and write a tailored letter to that person. The tailored-letter approach has a higher probability of success and will also result in a position that matches your interests. In 1999 I received such a request to volunteer in my laboratory from a scientist from Turkey who had recently received her Ph.D. from Istanbul University. She sold family property in order to fund her own way to the U.S., but after working with me for two years she had several English language publications and is now a successful researcher in Turkey. We now continue to collaborate and have a rich binational partnership.

My point is that volunteering can serve to give you valuable training, but established U.S. scientists may not respond to an indiscriminate letter, and may even view it as spam.

Also, you need to write in standard, professional English, which means using standard punctuation (no small i for I, use comma and period correctly).

Good luck with your search,

Readers: How would you answer this mail? Ignore it? Are there websites with information to help foreign scientists make contact with a U.S. researcher? I was wondering how this person obtained my email since he didn't seem to know my name, he apparently only knew my university from the acronym before the edu on my university email. Do you think there are now services that sell the emails of researchers in a certain area?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

"Can I ask you a private question?"

AFter the second lecture in developmental psychology, a tall male student waited for other students to disperse.

Student: "Can I ask you a private question?"

Me: "Ok, go ahead." Wrong. It depends on what it is.

Student: "Now -- I mean no disrepect, but, uh, Do you have children, or, you know, raise them?"

Me: "Uh, no. Why?" Wrong. That's none of your business because its not relevant to the class.

Student: "Oh. Well, I mean no disrepect, I just wanted to know since its the start of the semester, like, where you would be coming from in this class."

Me: "But, the class wouldn't be different if I had children. I guess I might include specific anecdotes about my kids, is that what you mean?"

Student: "I just wanted to know, if the class was going to be more about basic research, or more practical. I meant no disrespect."

The student had his answer and was ready to leave, but something was really wrong. I was upset. I wanted to understand.

Me: "But I wouldn't teach the class any differently if I had children, other than maybe I would include some anecdotes."

Student: "Look, I just wanted to know where you'd be coming from. And so now I understand that its going to be be focused more on science and research."

Me: "But I'm wondering why you thought that the class would be focused on research because I hadn't had children? Where did you get this idea from? Do other professors teach like that? "

Student: "I just wanted to know where you'd be coming from."

Me: "Right. So what's your background, you're not a psych major, right?"

Student: "I am a psych major."

The next class was occupying the room. "Ok, see you later." I walked out into the bright sunlight.

I was upset. What had just happened?

I told the anecdote minutes later to my colleague Dr. B, a developmental psychologist, who responded, "What, as soon as we have kids we just toss the research out the window and prattle on about our experiences?"

At home H had a different take: "What, he assumes that since you haven't had children you're not really able to teach about children? You have to resort to 'research'?"

I was upset because it had been a no-win question:

No, I haven't had children --> so this female professor doesn't have any real-world expertise, the class will just be the stuffy science that she has to describe to back up her statements.

Yes, I am raising (or have raised children) --> so its just going to be a bunch of sentimental stories about her own experiences, nothing based in science.

H: Don't let them ask these questions. It was sexist and a challenge to your authority. Don't think they are your friends. This is your service class. Teach it and get back to what you enjoy, working with individual students on research and teaching small classes.

But the real pain is my from my own sources. I didn't have children because I spent my 20s and 30s obtaining the scientific training to get and retain this very job.

Friday, September 5, 2008

More on China visit (Feb-April 2008)

The Sept 5 2008 Boston Phoenix published my response to Sarah Faith Alterman's anti-China vitriol, but I guess due to space, they left out my, Edward Said point about how westerners are always the observers and so we can't be the "other" --

Deleted part in bold below.

Very amusing, Sarah, but you dropped some clues that you barely visited Beijing, and are mainly reporting stereotypes and Americaphile asshole dribble. I lived in Beijing for 5 weeks in March-April of this year, and walked, took taxis and the subway, rode the bus and my bicycle all over the city. There are no giant Mao status in Beijing (see discussion about removal of statues, New York Times, April 15, 1988). Your second clue was more subtle: There are no cereal boxes in China! (or very few -- that's our kinda food, girlfriend).

There was one arresting image in your story: about you looking like a retarded pony. But the rest of your "observations" make me wonder where this anger is coming from -- are Americans afraid of China? Resentful; anxious about the future? So much that we vomit mean-spirited bile and say things like this (and I wish I were kidding):

"I should have known that a country that vehemently denied SARS and tried to poison our pets and children might be a little less than forthcoming about the asinine, algae-scented shitshow that is the 2008 Olympics."

You felt affronted that people wanted a picture with you. Yes, this happened to me, perhaps even once per day, but it was flattering and charming (see my photo by googling tourist-attraction-at-summer-palace). Permissions were always asked and there were big smiles all around. So what exactly was your problem?

Is your problem that idea that we, Americans are supposed to be the ones who take pictures of ourselves with the natives -- we pose with giggling black kids in Ethiopia with flies in their eyes, or an ancient, wise toothless Tibetan? We are the lookers, the ones who get to be curious about the "other", not objectified in strangers' photo albums.

Your article has one achievement: A new term for the attitude that Americans are superior and residents of other cultures inferior: "Americaphile asshole." It used to be "Ugly American" and "Boobus Americanus." Great to have a new phrase for the 21st century.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Do we have to read the whole chapter?

Last month, thinking ahead to the imminent descent of students on the beautiful cities of Cambridge and Boston, Robin Abrahams (aka the Boston Globe's Miss Conduct), wrote her "Advice for Newby Professors" which include the line: "Pretend that you care."

Wow. It got me thinking.... and I was emboldened to post the following to the courseinfo site of my developmental psychology class...

Requests from the Professor: Don't ask me...

  • Don't ask me whether you have to read the whole chapter. You don't have to read the whole chapter. This is college. You don't have to do anything.

  • Don't ask me to help you figure out the minimum work needed to get a specific grade. My hope is that you are in class out of interest in the material. If you have a different attitude about the class, I advise you not let me know this.

  • Don't ask me what will be on the test, because I have already explained this on the syllabus: "Material emphasized in lecture and section will predominate on the test."

  • Don't ask me whether material in the textbook will be on the tests because the syllabus already says that the tests will emphasize material in lecture. Does this mean that the textbook is irrelevant? No. Material from the textbook which is relevant to themes discussed in lecture and section may appear on the tests. I promise you that we have no plans to test you on obscure facts from the reading in order to reward those students who read the textbooks. I'm sorry that a teacher once did this to you.

  • Don't ask me to change your grade after class is over unless a clerical error was made. I won't change it even if you'll lose your scholarship and be sent to Iran to submit to an arranged marriage. Yes, I once did change grades for this reason. But you guys wore me out years ago because I felt too empathetic about these issues.

  • Don't complain to me that there is too much reading, because I will advise you: "Let your interests determine what you read. If some material is boring to you, skip it and look for topics that are relevant to your interests." Don't let me see the look on your face which says that your goal in reading is to be able to take the test (see #2).

  • Don't ask me how to study because I will say, "I am very skeptical of studying because too often it involves attempts to memorize while avoiding learning" (with the goal being #2). If you are by yourself, emphasize reading for pleasure and to satisfy your curiosity. Try to connect course material and themes to issues in your own life. Group study is a different matter. If you want to "study", join a group of friends and ask each other questions. Each person can take responsibility for a topic and explain it to the others.

  • Don't ask me why you did so poorly on the test when you studied so hard, because I'll say: "No wonder you did poorly if you studied." Studying often leads to poor outcome. Try to read the text and lectures notes for deep understanding, and work with others so you don't get trapped into the illusion of understanding.

  • Don't ask me what I'm looking for when I grade a course project. This suggests that there is only one reason you would do a project (see #2). Instead, we can discuss what kind of projects will allow you to grapple with themes in the class while answering interesting questions and challenging yourself.

  • Additional advice

    Learn how to think like a developmental psychologist. Often course material may seem obvious to you, but all of the material we'll go over was not obvious at an earlier time in history, so you may want to ask yourself: "From the standpoint of progress in the science of human behavior and development, why was this empirical finding an important breakthrough?"

    Sunday, August 24, 2008

    Woman Stymied In Drive For 'Beautiful Viking Baby

    Listen to Scott Simon's description of a woman who insists on using the same Norweigan sperm donor for her second child because she wants her first child to have a full-sibling.

    I agree with Simon's view that it is laudable when someone wants to parent a child of a different race. But Simon might be interested to learn about a study (presented at last weekend's APA conference) showing that full-siblings have less conflictual relationships (less sibling rivalry) than half sibs. The authors claim this indicates that kin selection is at work: we are more altruistic to those who share more of our genes.


    Michalski, R. L., & Euler, H. A. (2007). Evolutionary perspectives on sibling relationships. In C. A.
    Salmon & T. K. Shackelford (Eds.), Family relationships: An evolutionary
    perspective (pp. 230-256). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

    I wonder how the children know who is a half sib. Any thoughts, readers?

    Thursday, August 21, 2008

    Olympics 2008 -- Too much bare female flesh on display for ya?

    Not too much for me.

    Some sports commentators have been complaining that we've been getting nothing but endless up-close tours of the bodies of Misty May and Kerri Walsh. (See post by the Neurocritic about increase in TV coverage based on skin uncoverage, and long, informative post at about sportswriters negative reactions to female gymnasts' bodies).

    Let's not complain about seeing all this athletic female flesh. I hope lots of pre-teen and teen girls are seeing the muscular arms on gymnasts and "real sized" breasts. Normally TV is saturated with one type of female body, one that isn't attainable without surgery and unhealthy eating. Now we're finally getting to see another type of body, one that sends a message that women's bodies aren't just sex toys.

    After so much bikini exposure to authentic female athletes in swimsuits (think of the chests on those female swimmers), maybe the famous Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue will see the logic of displaying Olympic athletes in swimsuits rather than models.

    Sunday, August 10, 2008

    Every american should watch this film

    "No talking! Shut the fuck up!"

    "Head down!"

    "What are you dong -- praying? That;s not allowed!"

    "On your knees!"

    Stress positions. Endless interrogations. Your American captors claim to have a video of you attending a rally for Bin Laden in 2000 in Afghanistan, but you know you were working a wage-slave job in your native Britain. You've got a British accent, but your face is middle eastern, so back on your knees!

    No humans should be treated this way. See for yourself.

    Official movie site.

    Watch the film for free right now.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008

    American Psychological Association meets in Boston Aug 14-18, respects food workers labor negoations

    Although the dues to be a member of APA are sky high, and attending the convention costs almost $300, I'm still going to be attending. My students are giving a poster, and I really enjoy hearing the diversity of big name speakers and attending sessions. And -- it appears that APA is doing the morally right thing to support food workers at the Boston Convention Center.

    UNITE HERE Local 26 and the Hotel Workers Rising campaign have asked the public to boycott ARAMARK, a company accused by the The National Labor Relations Board of harassing and intimidating workers.

    I learned after receiving an email from Judy Strassburger, APA's Executive Director of Governance Affairs, sent to all APA registered attendees.

    Within the past month, we have been informed that ARAMARK, the company that provides food service at the Convention Center, is in negotiations with its employees, members of the Food Services Employee Union, Local 26.

    While it is important to note that the Union is not currently on strike, there have been periodic demonstrations at the Convention Center over the summer. It is possible that picketers could be present during our meeting.

    The Union communicated to APA that if we were to agree not to have any food served in the Convention Center during our meeting, they would not picket.

    The APA agreed to respect the boycott, but was forbidden by its contract with the Convention Center to contract independently to have food served during the meeting. There are few restaurants in walking distance. The decision was thus to provide a free trolley service during lunch time to the restaurants that are beyond walking distance.

    So -- I always like bringing a sandwich from home...

    What can you do? Stay in union hotels -- "Hotel workers rising" provides this search applet. or list.

    Update August 15 2009 -- At the conference, foodworkers were picketing, but for any atendees who hadnt received APA's memo, the dispute and action to take would be unclear. It appears that APA didn't cancel the contract with ARAMARK. There were food concession stands in the exhibit hall. I can understand how difficult it would be to have people attending a meeting from 8 am to 6pm without any food (or coffee) inside the massive building. So one strategy could have been for APA to post signs telling people about the labor negations, inform attendees that if they want to respect the boycott they should bring thermoses and food from elsewhere, or to purchase food at the union hotel next door (The Westin waterfront). Attendees would then make their own choices.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2008

    A step more nuanced than "Do onto others"

    The golden rule, "Treat others as you would like to be treated" is a great first approximation. The drawback, as Robin Abrahams has noted, is that not everyone wants to be treated in the same way. In the realm of etiquette, she suggests this formulation:

    "Avoid giving offense or alarm; avoid taking offense or alarm."

    or: "Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send."

    More generous than "do unto others", its like the strategy that beats competitors for Axelrod's cooperation/defection game, "tit for tat plus forgiveness (pdf)"

    Monday, July 21, 2008

    Should you try to cut into that 3 hour iphone line?

    Lance Arthur stood in line to get an iphone, and stood-up to a someone who slipped in right behind him, thus not waiting 3.5 hours.

    The cutter asked, when Lance challenged him, "How does it hurt you?"

    Game theorists have shown in several studies that people will pay their own money to punish a cheater.

    Sunday, July 20, 2008

    Sure, businesses often make big profits, but they deserve to, since they put up the money, they took all the risks...

    2008, what a happy year.

    With families and communities in misery (see recent journalism on this such as Moyer's pod-casts) following the subprime meltdown, the silver lining to devastated lives is that the American people may wake up to the truth of the business world.

    The truth: A large section of the business world is less about deserved gains to those who take risks, than about ruthless greed combined with cleverness: how to secure risk-free methods for accruing wealth through manipulating the legislature and courts to enact regulations such that profits are kept and debs are paid by taxpayers.

    Last year, and the year before, political progressives and anti-capitalists like William Greider or dozens, hundreds of other journalists and public commentators have made statements like the above. And they preached hard to the choir. But there's nothing like seeing and living it for believing it.

    What is heartening to me, and why I call this a happy year, is the amount of media attention focused on this problem. For example, in his LA Times article, Peter G. Gosselin actually mentions in print the phrase "government-directed economy" as an alternative to markets run by crooks and profiteers:

    "For a generation, most people accepted the idea that the core of what makes America tick was an economy governed by free markets. And whatever combination of goods, services and jobs the market cooked up was presumed to be fine for the nation and for its citizens -- certainly better than government meddling. No longer."

    Another great article is Harper's cover story (pictured), The Wrecking Crew: How a Gang of Right-wing Con men Destroyed Washington and Made a Killing.

    Profit is not essential to innovation, efficiency and growth. Many non-profits thrive around the world. Several government bureaucracies, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, do a reasonable job at using committees of expert peers to decide what scientific projects to fund. (Ha ha, they seldom fund mine, so I'm not sayings its a perfect system -- smile -- but I still admire these institutions). Indeed, American science has been the international leader in scientific innovator for decades because of the system of public funding and peer review. This format could be extended to chartering business. Community members, with experts, would decide whether a business would serve the public good.

    Alternatives to free markets exist which are humane and fair. Let's open our eyes.

    Post a comment if you have links to good articles or podcasts

    Saturday, July 12, 2008

    Got Pecs?

    "Some women report finding the procedure uncomfortable."

    Thus spoke the "reading material" provided by the Mammography clinic.

    Whoa.... No kidding! Holding my breath to prevent chest movement, I was barely holding on to sanity for those few seconds my tit was being ground between two plates.

    Looking at the images with the technician, I was interested to see the darker curve of muscle that formed an arc against the breast bone, next to which the fatty tissue of breast formed a lighter silhouette.

    I queried the technician, "Do you think my pectoral muscles are big?"

    "Oh, no, they're fine," was her jolly reply.

    "But I work out!" I practically stamped my foot.

    She tried gamely: "Oh, well, uh, you know, we see a lot of elderly, and they don't have any."

    So that's that. One of the milestones of one's 40s, passed.

    Gals, I recommend the bench press. Lie flat on your back, and push the bar straight up off your chest. No weights are necessary, the bare bar is 45 pounds and plenty to start with. Note: The photo on the page was the closest thing google image had of breast+pectoral muscles.

    Now, there was one more note-worthy aspect of the trip to Brigham and Women's hospital for my first mammogram. When I checked in, they needed to update their records, and asked me two questions I've never been asked before at a doctor's office:

    "Religious preference?"

    "Atheist," I said automatically. The efficient clerk didn't bat an eye.

    "Ethnicity? Like, you could say Irish, or Italian American."

    She gave me choices so we'd both be done with a minimum of further explanation. And its pretty obvious to look at me that I'm from that tribe that took 10,000 years to get out of Central Asia.

    "Northern European." She had no problem with that designation either.

    But I had to wonder why these new questions. The ethnicity question could be part of medicine's gamble that persons whose ancestors originated in different geographical regions have slightly different susceptibility to diseases. For example, if your ancestors lived near the equator, they left you a nice ultraviolet radiation protection kit. Your doctor won't need to freeze off suspicious brown growths on your face, neck and shoulders (my Los Angeles living parents have to go through this a lot). In the U.S.A., if you have the appearance of being a member of an ethnic minority, the stress of guarding against negative evaluation ("microaggresions") puts you at heightened risk of heart disease. So maybe this ethnic info helps --- but some critics say, medical profiling, away. It leads doctors to zero in too quickly on the statistics specific to a certain group, as when a medical team missed a white kid's sickle cell anemia (specific case described in this ppt).

    But what about the religious question? Maybe doctors have learned that if someone is Buddhist, let them try temple healing first, given the power of placebo effects. And if someone's an atheist, just give 'em their options straight up, with statistics and empirical evidence laid out in all their glory.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008

    Adult males are a "suspect" if they speak to an unknown child

    For the second day in a row the campus paper BU Today featured this story:

    BU Police Issue Sketch of Day-Care Suspect
    Likeness sent to area police, child-care centers

    Boston University Police have released a sketch of the person who allegedly approached and spoke to a small child at the Boston University Children’s Center on Agganis Way late Tuesday afternoon.

    The suspect, a white male about 5 feet, 10 inches tall, with an average build and a high voice, was dressed in khaki shorts, a gray T-shirt, and a white baseball cap worn backwards. He reportedly stopped by the bicycle area of the Children’s Center, which is adjacent to BUPD headquarters, and spoke to a young child in the center’s care. He left the area when a day-care staffer advised him that he would have to check in before he could make contact with a child. The sketch, based on observations of a day-care worker who witnessed the incident, has been sent to local police departments, the Massachusetts State Police, and area day-care centers.


    What kind of assumptions are we making -- that the only reason a male in his mid 30s would chat with a child is predatory?

    H said, "As a man, you just learn you're not suppose to talk with children you don't know. Hell, I cross the street when I see kids."

    Scott Pare, deputy director of public safety for the University, says the BU Police and other departments are doing everything they can to locate the suspect. “We are reviewing all past reports of field observations,” says Pare. “We are studying videotapes. We have a description, and we are investigating every lead we have.”

    Tuesday, July 8, 2008

    I'll make conversation while monitoring for verbal clues

    Given my stunning performance on the Cambridge Face Perception Task, the postdoctoral researcher at the Jamaica Plain Veterans Administration who is looking for prosopagnosics was eager for me to come to the lab. We reviewed my experience of face-perception difficulty and he decided to start off by checking some of skills that often accompany face perception difficulties: gender, age and attractiveness identification. This battery, The Philadelphia Face Perception Battery (pdf), also had an upright only face discrimination task (choose which of two choices was most similar to a target face). Surprise: I was normal on all 4 tasks.

    The researcher later emailed me:

    From the tests you've taken so far, it seems like you have a moderate form of prosopagnosia that is somewhat specific to facial identity. However, there are a couple tests that you were able to "beat", most likely through employing compensatory strategies.

    The stategies were simple: I used skin tone, and fat/thin face shape. On the Philadelphia Battery, I only had to look at three faces and make one decision. In contrast, the CFPT is crazy hard, because on a single trial one is confronted with 7 faces: a target and 6 faces that have to be put in order. I now think that my problem with the CFPT was that there were so many faces that I couldn't pick out similar/differnet features. As I scanned across the row of faces, they all looked equally dissimilar to the target. Consistent with prosopagnosia, I showed no inversion effect (as noted in prior post).

    My hypothesis is that my face perception abilties are good enough to process three faces at a time, but I break down under conditions of heavy cognitive demand.

    Along these lines: I had some problems watching a DVD last night, La Guerre est finie. It was a black&white 1960s movie about anti-Fascist Communist revolutionaries scuttling back and forth between Spain and France, in French with English subtitles. I couldn't keep straight who was the main character vs. one of at least two other white mid-40s males with short black hair wearing a suit and tie. I've had this problem frequently before, but it seemed really acute in this particular movie. To figure out the political machinations I had to at least know who was the undercover agent from Spain vs. his friend in Paris. I just gave up and fortunately after this first half hour got used to his face and voice enough and the friend had receded in importance so only the main character was mostly in view, etc.

    This fits the hypothesis of information overload. My face processing is exacerbated by on-going cognitive demands. The movie was black and white, so it was already a difficult person-detection task because of reduced cues for skin color, hair texture, clothing, AND I had to read subtitles so had less time to even look at the characters.

    Yes, I'm mostly a single-channel processor. I dislike concurrent processing and turn off TVs, radios when I need to work, I find even a background babble of speech (like a TV in a distant room) annoying because it tugs at my attention (nonspeech is okay).

    So... I have mild prosopagnosia compounded by poor concurrent processing, whaddaya think? And remind me of your name when we meet (smile).

    Friday, July 4, 2008

    The upright advantage in face recognition

    I haz none.

    Are faces processed differently than other objects?

    One of the indications that face processing is special -- employs holistic or configurational processing that is more detailed and sophisticated than in ordinary object recognition -- is that people process, recognize and remember upright faces more accurately than inverted faces. This is called the upright advantage.

    According to norms provided on the Cambridge Face Perception Task, most people process upright roughly twice as well as inverted faces.

    On this test, my ability to process inverted faces was in the normal range -- but I was no better at upright than inverted. I showed no upright advantage.

    My husband H took the same test. His inverted score was the same as mine (indeed, I was a few points better than him on inverted faces). But his upright face score was far above normal, in the superior range. Looking at our scores made us realize we were really different face processors. He had something I didn't have.

    H and I then together took a couple tests that are available at the website of the Prosopagnosia Research Center at Harvard University. For a basic test of memory of novel faces, H got 100% correct, and I got 52% correct.

    For this interesting and fun test of famous faces, H got 100% correct, and I got 72% correct.

    After an anonymous poster to this blog told me about the yahoo discussion group, I found Bill Choisser's remarkable website. I really resonated to many of his experiences, such as this one:

    I once had a job that involved going to buildings and getting their engineers to show me around. Inevitably they would all wear identical clothes and never have beards or long hair. My "tour guide" would take me to a distant part of the building and then tell me to come get him if I needed him again. When I'd go down to the office, there would be half a dozen guys there, all who looked just like the guy I was looking for. I couldn't just ask for the guy by name because if he was there he would get very upset that I had forgotten him completely in thirty minutes' time.


    For me, when I'd get back to the place where'd there be half a dozen guys etc., I'd kind of start scanning them, waiting for someone to light up in recognition of me, or maybe I'd get lucky and recognize him based on my my kit of various recognition methods,and somehow hope it'd just work out. In recent years I've tried to anticipate this situation by memorizing the guide's face/outfit in some way before we separated.

    I've frequently been stunned that fastfood workers can pick me out of a crowd of people when handing over my sandwich. (Any readers impressed by this?)

    Next: I am invited to the Jamaica Plain VA Hospital for more tests...

    In some cultures, being called a pimp is an insult

    Recently watched the DVD Iraq in Fragments. (See trailer.) All in Arabic with subtitles, one young man was thrown the slurs, "You mule, pimp..."

    Tuesday, June 24, 2008

    What's so bad about a pregnancy pact, anyway?

    Why are local officials so eager to determine if a "pregnancy pact" led to 17 teenagers at Glousester High becoming pregnant in the same semester?

    I'd be more impressed with the gumption and drive of these girls if they got pregnant from a pact than if they got get pregnant by accident. But sex and pregnancy are are apparently still seen as moral issues for teen girls. Studies beginning in the 70s showed that the more guilty z girl felt about premarital sex, the less likely she was to use contraception. Like murder, its morally worse to plan for sex than to be swept up by passion.

    Which made me wonder outloud during our after-dinner reading/news watching: "Why is a pregnancy pact among teen girls so terrible?"

    H ignored me, wrinkling his brow over some oddity in James Wood's The Broken Estate .. or maybe he was reading Pages from the Goncourt Journals.

    I persisted, "Is it because the current power structure and rule by elites could topple if people banded together to support each other in making life-changing decisions?"

    H snorted. "Because teens are suppose to be at school to get an education, not to do a loser thing like get pregnant."

    Me: "Oh. But why is getting pregnant for teens a loser thing..." I was reminded of my awe at young women: they have that incredible power, whenever they want, to become pregnant.

    Evolution has prepared teenage women to become pregnant. Its the most natural thing in human biology for a young woman to desire to be a mother. Would we make more progress with our goals as a society if we accepted this, and then started social planning from there?

    But H cut short my reverie with a reminder that more is going on than society's lack of understanding of the naturalness of teen pregnancy.

    H: "Its because Glousester is a loser town."

    I realized I was finally understanding. There are conflicting goals in American culture. These are girls from working class and low-income families. Their cheap labor serves a societal function in this sea-side resort town: inexpensive hotel maids, waitresses, factory workers, and girlfriends. Their presence in the labor force, rather than collecting wellfare as new mothers, has a ripple effect across the economy, keeping wages where elites like to see them: low.

    To its credit, the Time Magazine article hinted at what sociologists have long known: Young women will stop getting pregnant when they have something better to do with their lives. 10 years ago Planned Parenthood's slogan was "The best contraception is a future." (Write me if you know if they still use this slogan.) "

    In the book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, authors Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas uses national statistics backed up with myriad interviews to explain why early pregnancy makes economic and emotional sense for women from low-income families, even though it most certainly does not make economic sense for women from middle-income and high-income families.

    Altough economic mobility is possible in our culture, it is statistically unlikely. Women from middle-and high-income families are likely to earn substantial salaries in the future if they avoid early motherhood and continue their education and training. Low-income women have no such future, so there is little economic loss from early parenting. Single-parenting also makes sense, because the pool of available men is not of sufficiently high quality to afford a benefit, since getting married when pregnant means you may need to take care of a low-earning male in addition to a child. (Readers may enjoy Bitch Ph.D's thought-provoking review of this book.)

    So what should be done in Gloucester? It all depends on what kind of society you'd like to engineer.

    For me, I'd start with getting Medical Director Dr. Brian Orr and chief nurse practitioner Kim Daly back on the payroll. Then let's take some some public planning advice from Europe, which stole the American Dream a few decades ago.