May 2011 Archives

Ashes to ashes, corpse to tree

Sign me up for this “biodegradable urn made from coconut shell, compacted peat and cellulose [that] contains the seed of a tree”.

Instead of wasting thousands of dollars on a coffin and permanently occupying valuable space on this increasingly crowded and resource-constrained planet, I’d rather turn into a tree! Maybe I could still live at home with my family.

Now I just have to research what kind of tree I want to become. Our neighborhood trees have been torturing my wife and me with their pollen, so I’ll definitely want to be a hypoallergenic tree. Labradoodles are cute and hypoallergenic. What’s the arboreal equivalent?

I’ve always been a sucker for willows. But red maples are gorgeous. And how cool would it be if I could provide a steady supply of syrupy sweets for my loved ones' pancakes and waffles? “Mmmmmm. Dad is delicious! Can I have some more Dad, please!”

Posted by James on May 21, 2011

Atari founder: "I [ignored] grades... I interviewed them strictly on their hobbies"

The founder of Atari has interesting thoughts on how to improve education and prepare students for the future:

Nolan Bushnell once almost destroyed his family’s garage. As a youngster in Utah, he went tooling around with a liquid-fuel rocket on a roller skate and things went awry. He (and the garage) survived, and Bushnell went on to be a lifelong innovator — from Pong to Chuck E. Cheese’s….

“If you look at [Steve] Jobs and [Steve] Wozniak, they were makers,” Bushnell said in a phone interview with Wired.com. “The more we can turn the nation into a nation of makers, they will be smarter, they’ll be better problem-solvers, and they’ll be more equipped for the problems of tomorrow.”

…[Bushnell] envisions clubs where adults could give young people the education and tools to create anything they could imagine. Think of it as a 4-H club for nerds. If the clubs took off, they could be integrated into school programs.

Bushnell would also like to get more young people to read science fiction instead of classic literature, which he says only teaches students about the past. A curriculum that includes more sci-fi, he said, will make students think about ways to innovate for the future, adding that the “correlation between early adopters and science-fiction reading is one-to-one.”

Ultimately, in a tune that almost every maker has sung, Bushnell’s philosophy is about having hobbies that bear fruit, like tech whizzes tinkering in garages and dorm rooms. By some reckonings, bachelor’s degrees won’t be worth much in the future, because they will be so common….

“When I hired engineers and people on the creative side, I never looked at their grades,” he said, referring to the teams he built at Atari and beyond. “I interviewed them strictly on their hobbies, and if they did not have a hobby in technology I wouldn’t hire them…. Kids, when they make, are actually preparing themselves better for the jobs they’ll have in the future than [they are by] getting straight A’s.”

More and more, the big ideas are going to come from passion projects, not necessarily classrooms, and that enthusiasm ultimately is what will drive innovation, said Make’s Dougherty.

Posted by James on May 22, 2011

Cornel West outraged at Obama

I share the wonderful Professor Cornel West’s outrage at President Obama:

No one grasps this tragic descent better than West, who did 65 campaign events for Obama, believed in the potential for change and was encouraged by the populist rhetoric of the Obama campaign. He now nurses, like many others who placed their faith in Obama, the anguish of the deceived, manipulated and betrayed. He bitterly describes Obama as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”

“When you look at a society you look at it through the lens of the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable; you are committed to loving them first, not exclusively, but first, and therefore giving them priority,” says West, the Class of 1943 University Professor of African American Studies and Religion at Princeton University….

“I was thinking maybe he has at least some progressive populist instincts that could become more manifest after the cautious policies of being a senator and working with [Sen. Joe] Lieberman as his mentor,” he says. “But it became very clear when I looked at the neoliberal economic team. The first announcement of Summers and Geithner I went ballistic. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I have really been misled at a very deep level.’ And the same is true for Dennis Ross and the other neo-imperial elites. I said, ‘I have been thoroughly misled, all this populist language is just a facade. I was under the impression that he might bring in the voices of brother Joseph Stiglitz and brother Paul Krugman. I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck. I was completely wrong.”

Posted by James on May 16, 2011

Goldman Sachs: Obama's favorite psychopath

I tried summarizing “The People vs. Goldman Sachs,” a jaw-dropping Matt Taibbi article on Goldman Sachs but can’t without violating copyright law because there’s just too much stuff you must read. So please, please read this.

As Taibbi says, “the evidence has been gift-wrapped and left at the doorstep of federal prosecutors, evidence that doesn’t leave much doubt: Goldman Sachs should stand trial.”

Will Obama continue doing Goldman’s bidding? And is Goldman — which showered Obama with cash in 2008 — above the law, as long as Obama remains president?

Posted by James on May 12, 2011

Human morality is built-in, not instilled by religion

A recent article in PlOS Biology demonstrates something many scientists and philosophers have long believed: that a sense of justice and morality is built into our brains. We can now actually see our brains engaging in moral thought (something I thought impossible 25 years ago when I was fascinated by the brain but disheartened by how little scientists knew about it). As summarized in “Sense of Justice Built Into the Brain, Imaging Study Shows”:

[T]he brain has built-in mechanisms that trigger an automatic reaction to someone who refuses to share…

[T]he subjects' sense of justice was challenged in a two-player monetary fairness game, and their brain activity was simultaneously measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When bidders made unfair suggestions as to how to share the money, they were often punished by their partners even if it cost them. This reaction to unfairness could be reduced by targeting one specific brain region, the amygdala.

The study is based on the universal human behaviour to react with instant aggression when another person behaves unfairly and in a manner that is not in the best interest of the group….

[S]ubjects were either given the anti-anxiety tranquilliser Oxazepam or a placebo while playing the game. The researchers found that those who had received the drug showed lower amygdala activity and a stronger tendency to accept an unfair distribution of the money – despite the fact that when asked, they still considered the suggestion unfair. In the control group, the tendency to react aggressively and punish the player who had suggested the unfair distribution of money was directly linked to an increase in activity in the amygdala. A gender difference was also observed, with men responding more aggressively to unfair suggestions than women.

Moral norms exist in every human society. And almost all humans — aside from psychopaths — possess a sense of morality. Yet many people falsely conflate religion with morality. In reality, many religious people behave in amoral and immoral ways, while many non-religious people act morally. Religiosity does not predict moral behavior. And moral behavior does not predict religiosity.

A recent Los Angeles Times article summarizes a new study in International Journal for the Psychology of Religion titled “Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior”:

In line with many previous studies, [a new study] found no difference between the ethical behavior of believers and nonbelievers. But those who believed in a loving, compassionate God were more likely to cheat than those who believed in an angry, punitive God.

“The take-home message is not whether you believe in God, but what God you believe in,” said Azim Shariff, a psychologist at the University of Oregon. Shariff conducted the study with psychologist Ara Norenzayan, who had been his doctoral advisor at the University of British Columbia.

They administered a math test to 100 undergraduates, advising the students that a computer glitch meant the correct answers would pop up after a few seconds unless they quickly pressed the space bar. The test takers also answered a 14-question survey to determine whether they believed in God, and if so, what traits they ascribed to God.

In other words, people who believe in an angry God cheat the least. But atheists cheat less than those who believe in a loving God. The sample size is small, but it’s yet another study saying there’s basically no link between religiosity and moral behavior.

Posted by James on May 08, 2011

I love (and hate) "Drive"

If you “manage” children or work colleagues or even yourself — that’s, I hope, all of you — then you must read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us for its fascinating and extremely useful analysis of why we behave as we do and how to create an environment in which happy, engaged workers produce superior results.

80% of my LOVES this book. 20% of me HATES it… because I should have written it more than a decade ago.

A chapter in my dissertation empirically analyzed what I called “high-performance work organizations.” I showed statistically that employees with greater autonomy over their work — what they did, how they did it, with whom they did it, where and when they did it, etc. — were more creative, worked harder, produced more, and enjoyed their work more. I received strong resistance from economics professors, many of whom thought my subject “touchy-feely,” didn’t believe my results, or believed my findings apply only to white collar work.

More than a decade later, over 200 people have reviewed Drive on Amazon, and Daniel Pink’s latest is a runaway hit. My “high-performance work organization” is now a “results-oriented work environment,” but it’s the exact same phenomenon.

Wonderful book. Wish I had written it.

Posted by James on May 18, 2011

McKibben: "The real radicals are those willing to fundamentally alter the atmosphere"

Bill McKibben, as told to Chris Hedges:

There is no actual way to shut down the fossil fuel system [by protesting] with our bodies. It is simply too big. It’s far too integrated in everything we do. The actions have to be symbolic, and the most important part of that symbolism is to make it clear to the onlookers that those of us doing this kind of thing are not radical in any way. We are conservatives. The real radicals in this scenario are people who are willing to fundamentally alter the composition of the atmosphere. I can’t think of a more radical thing that any human has ever thought of doing. If it wasn’t happening it would be like the plot from a Bond movie.

The only way around this is to defeat the system, and the name of that system is the fossil fuel industry, which is the most profitable industry in the world by a large margin. Fighting it is extraordinarily difficult. Maybe you can’t do it. The only way to do it is to build a movement big enough to make a difference. And that is what we are trying desperately to do with 350.org. It is something we should have done 20 years ago, instead of figuring that we were going to fight climate change by convincing political elites that they should do something….

This year the Obama administration has to decide whether it will grant a permit or not for this giant pipeline to run from the tar sands of Alberta down to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. That is like a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet. We have to figure out how to keep that from happening. The Obama administration, very sadly, a couple of months ago opened 750 million tons of western coal under federal land for mining. That was a disgrace. But they still have to figure out how to get it to port so they can ship it to China, which is where the market for it is….

Either we are going to break the power of the fossil fuel industry and put a price on carbon or the planet is going to heat past the point where we can deal with it….

We’ve got to win quickly if we’re going to win. We’ve already passed the point where we’re going to stop global warming. It has already warmed a degree and there is another degree in the pipeline from carbon already emitted. The heat gets held in the ocean for a while, but it’s already there. We’ve already guaranteed ourselves a miserable century. The question is whether it’s going to be an impossible one.

Posted by James on May 30, 2011

Positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning & accomplishment

I own several positive psychology books, including “Authentic Happiness.” Its author, Martin Seligman, now says his emphasis on happiness is excessively narrow because happiness can’t explain “Why… couples go on having children even though the data clearly showed that parents are less happy than childless couples? Why… billionaires desperately seek more money even when there was nothing they wanted to do with it? And why… some people keep joylessly playing bridge?”

It’s possible people are foolishly deciding to have children, seek wealth and engage in addictive activities that don’t make them happy.

But Seligman now believes we need a broader conception of satisfaction:

“Watching [people] play [bridge], seeing them cheat, it kept hitting me that accomplishment is a human desiderata in itself.”

This feeling of accomplishment contributes to what the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, which roughly translates to “well-being” or “flourishing,” a concept that Dr. Seligman has borrowed for the title of his new book, “Flourish.” He has also created his own acronym, Perma, for what he defines as the five crucial elements of well-being, each pursued for its own sake: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

I still suspect many people are chasing illusory visions of happiness, esp. the false belief that greater riches bring greater happiness. But I agree that working hard to raise children, for example, brings a sense of satisfaction that outweighs the loss of “happiness” a parent would have experienced had they instead spent those (thousands of) parenting hours on leisure.

I recoil at the lifestyle choice of this formerly successful author who has spent recent years addicted to video games:

Tom Bissell was an acclaimed, prize-winning young writer. Then he started playing the video game Grand Theft Auto. For three years he has been cocaine addicted, sleep deprived and barely able to write a word. Any regrets? Absolutely none.

I can see how a hedonistic lifestyle could be “fun.” But its utter lack of deep human connections and meaningful accomplishments just doesn’t feel like a recipe for true happiness. Positive emotion and engagement alone don’t a fulfilling life make.

I want to create things that help people, be an excellent husband, and raise happy, caring, well-adjusted children. I’ve wasted a few hours on iPad games, but that’s been about it. I’ve avoided video games since I was a teen (and even then played only a bit) precisely because I feel so empty after playing video games. I’d rather learn something or produce something.

Posted by James on May 22, 2011

Supreme Court now wholly owned subsidiary of Corporate America

In case you’ve been sleeping (blissfully) under a rock and missed the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling — which handed giant corporations the right to spend any amount to buy their friends seats in Congress and even the presidency — here’s more evidence that the Supreme Court now works for corporate America, not “we the people”:

The Supreme Court dealt a blow to class-action lawsuits that involve small claims affecting thousands or even millions of people by ruling that corporations may use arbitration clauses to block dissatisfied consumers or disgruntled employees from joining together.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices said Wednesday the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925, originally aimed at disputes over maritime and rail shipments, trumps state laws and court rulings in California and about half the states that limit arbitration clauses deemed to be “unfair” to consumers….

“It gives companies a green light to exempt themselves from all class actions from their customers or from their employees,” [Vanderbilt University law professor Brian] Fitzpatrick said. “Companies can basically escape from the civil justice system. And why wouldn’t a company take advantage of that?”

It has become routine now that when someone opens a bank account, subscribes to a cable TV service, buys a cellphone, a computer or a new car or makes a purchase online, he or she agrees to let disputes go to arbitration. Many employers include the same kind of fine print for new hires, blocking class-action suits for employees with discrimination or wage complaints. These arbitration clauses typically require individuals to bring claims on their own, not as a group.

Nonetheless, the California Supreme Court in 2005 said companies should not be allowed to “deliberately cheat large numbers of consumer out of small amounts of money” by shielding themselves from being sued.

But on Wednesday, the court’s conservative majority overruled those state judges.

Posted by James on May 08, 2011

Thanks (yet) again, BP

(My blog software wouldn’t accept my initial title — “Thanks again, BP” — because I’ve already used it! There are so many reasons to “thank” BP for last year’s massive oil volcano in the Gulf.)

More sad news from the Gulf of Mexico:

Scientists are alarmed by the discovery of unusual numbers of fish in the Gulf of Mexico and inland waterways with skin lesions, fin rot, spots, liver blood clots and other health problems….

If the illnesses are related to the oil spill, it could be a warning sign of worse things to come.

In the years following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the herring fishery collapsed and has not recovered, according to an Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee report. The herring showed similar signs of illness — including skin lesions — that are showing up in Gulf fish.

Worried that same scenario could play out along the Gulf Coast, Patterson is conducting research on the chronic effects of the BP oil spill on Gulf fish. And he sees troubling signs consistent with oil exposure: fish with lesions, external parasites, odd pigmentation patterns, and diseased livers and ovaries. These may be signs of compromised immune systems in fish that are expending their energy dealing with toxins, Patterson said.

I don’t eat shrimp because shrimp are bottom-dwellers and dragnet fishing destroys entire marine ecosystems, leaving nothing but a vast wasteland on the sea floor. But now I’m afraid to eat fish too, which makes me sad because (healthy) fish is a superfood. Even worse, if large fish have already been so visibly damaged by BP’s oil volcano, most other sea life (esp. eggs and young life) has been too, so the overall damage is probably far more grave.

Perhaps we in the U.S. should feel grateful corporate greed (and the politicians who chose not to regulate it) contaminated fish with oil. In Japan, corporate greed contaminated fish with radioactive iodine and cesium.

Posted by James on May 12, 2011

The triumph and failure of Asian culture in America

David Brooks had an interesting response — “Amy Chua Is a Wimp” — to Chua’s “Tiger Mom” book. Brooks said Chua was not at all the “monster” some claimed. To the contrary, Chua was too soft on her girls because she pushed them hard on “easy” stuff, like academics and violin, while shielding them from the really hard social stuff, like teenage girls' sleepovers.

This very interesting article on Asian-American culture seems to validate Brooks' argument.

Yang notes that, academically, Asian-Americans are (on the whole) doing fabulously well. And they’re doing it by studying much harder than any other ethnic group:

Asian-­Americans, who make up 12.6 percent of New York City, make up 72 percent of [the city’s famed Stuyvesant High School].

This year, 569 Asian-Americans scored high enough to earn a slot at Stuyvesant, along with 179 whites, 13 Hispanics, and 12 blacks. Such dramatic overrepresentation, and what it may be read to imply about the intelligence of different groups of New Yorkers, has a way of making people uneasy. But intrinsic intelligence, of course, is precisely what Asians don’t believe in. They believe—and have ­proved—that the constant practice of test-taking will improve the scores of whoever commits to it. All throughout Flushing, as well as in Bayside, one can find “cram schools,” or storefront academies, that drill students in test preparation after school, on weekends, and during summer break. “Learning math is not about learning math,” an instructor at one called Ivy Prep was quoted in the New York Times as saying. “It’s about weightlifting. You are pumping the iron of math.” Mao puts it more specifically: “You learn quite simply to nail any standardized test you take.”

Yang contrasts this tremendous academic success with what Asian-Americans call the “Bamboo Ceiling,” an invisible barrier separating technical work and mid-level management from top management, that few Asian-Americans ever break through:

If between 15 and 20 percent of every Ivy League class is Asian, and if the Ivy Leagues are incubators for the country’s leaders, it would stand to reason that Asians would make up some corresponding portion of the leadership class.

[In fact], Asian-­Americans represent roughly 5 percent of the population but only 0.3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and around 2 percent of college presidents. There are nine Asian-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. In specific fields where Asian-Americans are heavily represented, there is a similar asymmetry. A third of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are Asian, and yet they make up only 6 percent of board members and about 10 percent of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5 percent of tenure-track scientists are Asians, only 4.7 percent of the lab or branch directors are.

Yang presents interesting examples of the cultural challenges Asian-Americans face:

[W]hen he arrived at Williams [College], Chu slowly became aware of something strange: The white people in the New England wilderness walked around smiling at each other. “When you’re in a place like that, everyone is friendly.”

He made a point to start smiling more. “It was something that I had to actively practice,” he says. “Like, when you have a transaction at a business, you hand over the money—and then you smile.” He says that he’s made some progress but that there’s still plenty of work that remains. “I’m trying to undo eighteen years of a Chinese upbringing. Four years at Williams helps, but only so much.” He is conscious of how his father, an IT manager, is treated at work. “He’s the best programmer at his office,” he says, “but because he doesn’t speak English well, he is always passed over.”

And then there’s the $1,450 school for Asian-American geeks desperate to learn how to attract the ladies:

Tran and Jones are teaching their students how an alpha male stands (shoulders thrown back, neck fully extended, legs planted slightly wider than the shoulders). “This is going to feel very strange to you if you’re used to slouching, but this is actually right,” Jones says. They explain how an alpha male walks (no shuffling; pick your feet up entirely off the ground; a slight sway in the shoulders). They identify the proper distance to stand from “targets” (a slightly bent arm’s length). They explain the importance of “kino escalation.” (You must touch her. You must not be afraid to do this.) They are teaching the importance of sub-­communication: what you convey about yourself before a single word has been spoken. They explain the importance of intonation. They explain what intonation is. “Your voice moves up and down in pitch to convey a variety of different emotions.”

…“What is good in life?” Tran shouts.

The student then replies, in the loudest, most emphatic voice he can muster: “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentation of their women—in my bed!”

For the intonation exercise, students repeat the phrase “I do what I want” with a variety of different moods.

Intelligence and hard work only get you so far. We live in a world full of people, so we must equip our children to get along well with others and collaborate. And memorizing to pass tests is lousy training for the inventiveness and creative thinking so prized in business today.

Posted by James on May 23, 2011

We have failed our kids and grandkids, and American papers don't care

I’m not sure whether I’m angrier at news that humanity is frying our planet faster than ever before (despite understanding better than ever how we’re harming our kids and grandkids) or that not a single U.S. newspaper has bothered to report this new data.

This should be the headline story of the day, but American papers don’t seem to care. The UK’s Guardian reports:

Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.

The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially “dangerous climate change” – is likely to be just “a nice Utopia”, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions.

Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009….

Professor Lord Stern of the London School of Economics, the author of the influential Stern Report into the economics of climate change for the Treasury in 2006, warned that if the pattern continued, the results would be dire. “…According to the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s] projections, such a path … would mean around a 50% chance of a rise in global average temperature of more than 4C by 2100,” he said.

“Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict. That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce.”

…John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace UK, said time was running out. “This news should shock the world. Yet even now politicians in each of the great powers are eyeing up extraordinary and risky ways to extract the world’s last remaining reserves of fossil fuels – even from under the melting ice of the Arctic. You don’t put out a fire with gasoline.”

The only other English language newspapers where Google News found this story are: * Australia’s The Age * Australia’s ABC News * Canada’s Gazette * England’s BBC * England’s Daily Mail * England’s Telegraph * France’s AFP * India’s Pioneer * Italy’s AGI * Russia’s RIA Novosti * Thailand’s Bangkok Post

New data on how rapidly we’re destroying the Earth’s future doesn’t register even a blip in U.S. newspapers!?!?! Are we just that ignorant and self-absorbed, or do we not want to upset oil and coal companies who run profitable green-washing ads in our papers and on television?

Posted by James on May 30, 2011

Why I (sometimes) wish I were a policeman

I’m regularly shocked by reckless, illegal driving, esp. people speeding through red lights and turning right-on-red without stopping. I sometimes wish I were a policeman because I would so enjoy severely fining these potentially deadly drivers and taking repeat offenders off our roads.

I assume most of these drivers are just self-absorbed jerks willing to endanger other people’s lives to get themselves to work a minute faster. But some are apparently drunk and/or not even legal drivers:

A man who police say was smelling of alcohol was arrested late Sunday morning and charged with running away from his car after crossing the double-yellow on West Ave., striking another vehicle head-on and sending three children to the hospital with minor injuries, police said.

Along with being charged with driving while under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident, Antonio Quintana, 33, of 73 Stillwater Ave., Stamford, was also charged with not having a license, driving a car with no registration, using the wrong license plates on his unregistered car, no insurance and violating his probation.

The grand slam of illegal driving — no license, no registration, no insurance, driving drunk, and hitting another car — right here in my city. Thank goodness the injured kids were not killed.

Posted by James on May 16, 2011