Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Scratch my Back, I'll Scratch Yours

Reciprocity -- Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours
Help another, and they'll [be more likely] help you.
(Source: Regis-AND from Deviant Art)

The amazing social power of Reciprocity.

#2 In the Series "Applied Social Psychology"

by Leo Walsh

What makes Cognitive Science and Social Psychology fascinating to me is that we are very much "hard wired" to behave in almost scripted ways. There are itches that, try as we may, we have to scratch. Some of it is how we were raised, but a solid majority seems to be inherited. 

Arizona State University psychologist dubs one of these tendencies "Reciprocity." Which is just a fancy way of saying "One good turn deserves another." Or, "Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Regardless of the content, if a person does you a good turn, you are much more likely to comply with a request from them. Because we seem to maintain an internal "tit for tat" scorecard.

This is great under normal circumstances. But people can use this knowledge to exploit our better natures. This article examines Reciprocity in some depth.

I. The case of the Hare Krisna's

In his famous book on social psychology, Influence, Dr. Cialdini uses the case of the Hare Krisnas to illustrate the Reciprocity Principle.

The Hare Krisnas -- popular name for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) --  are Hindu religion based upon that country's ages deep religious traditions. It became popular with many Westerners during the late 60's. For instance, former Beatles' member George Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord," is a hymn to Lord Krisna.

However, most people in America and Britain found the Krisna's religion foreign. This posed serious fundraising issues for ISKCON. That was before, of course, the group stumbled upon an ingenious way to increase it's haul.

It went like this....
  1. A group of devotees would gather in a public place, typically an airport.
  2. They would approach a person, and give the passer-by a flower. They would insist. "It's a gift," and refuse to take it back
  3. After they "gave" the "gift," the Krisna Member would proffer their top jar. 
  4. As a result, their donations increased markedly, allowing ISKCON to purchase several large communal farms.
Notice that few "donors" supported the Krisna religion. Even fewer knew who they were. Most found them a nuisance. In fact, the comedy classic Airplane spoofs their tactice, where Robert Stack fights through a phalanx of Krisnas and other groups collecting alms.

II. Dennis Regan's experiment on returning a favor

And yet they gave. Why? Cialdini calls this type of knee-jerk reaction to social stimuli "Click-whirr."

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Science and the "Experimental Method?" -- [un]Common Sense (Pt. 3)

Image: The bottle Louis Pasture used to detect bacterial activity
The bottle Louis Pasture used to detect
bacterial activity (Wikimedia Commons)
by Leo Walsh

A lot of science relies on experiments. But not all. Massimo Pigliucci, a professor at the City University of New York, examines this issue in his wonderful book,  Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk,

Pigliucci re-considers the notion of experimentation as the "end all" of science. He lists out a series of scientific disciplines that resemble detective work rather than mad scientist, surrounded by test tubes: examples include climate science and geology. In these disciplines, scientists gather data and then "connect the dots," but cannot not run controlled experiments.

The hard sciences, like chemistry and physics, deal with simpler systems according to the author. Biological, cognitive and social sciences, by contrast, study much more complex systems.

An electron, for example, will not have it's trajectory influenced by an argument with its wife. Humans, on the other hand, are messy. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Overvaluing Our Creations

Image: I luv my Eddite
I luv my Edditer (Source: Blogspot)

How the "IKEA Effect" illustrates why writers need editors 

Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely, in his book The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic, tells of an concept dubbed "The IKEA Effect." Which means that we overvalue what we make. Even when we assemble pre-fabricated parts -- like IKEA furniture. 

If you know anything about Behavioral Economics, it turns standard economics on it's ear. Traditional Economics makes models based on assumptions. It's corner-stone assumption is that economic humans are rational, and calculate the "maximal utility" of  their decisions. 

Of course, even a cursory look at economic history makes this idea suspect. Think of the housing and internet stock bubbles. Or drill down to simpler example. Blind taste-tests show that people prefer McDonald's coffee to Starbucks' brews, yet drop $1 extra at Starbucks. 

Irrational, truth be told. 

So, Behavioral Economics begins by questioning economics' basic assumptions, using experiment instead of theory. Here is a paper from Harvard's Business School that discusses a few such experiments.  

Like all good social science experiments, Behavioral Economists' experiments are set up like a confidence game. The experimenter is the Con Artist. His subject a Patsy.

So Ariely describes an experiment he used to test the IKEA Effect. The people involved are Conman, the experimenter, and his subject, Patsy. Bystander1 & Bystander2 are people Conman recruits straight-men.

The experiment runs as follows...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How the West Was Won -- Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am really not sure of what I think about Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian . It traces the time an abandoned youth, "the Kid," spends rambling with the Galton gang through the ultra-violent days of the Wild West. At times the gang works as soldiers in the Indian Wars, slaughtering even the innocent, because they were paid per scalp. At other times, the gang acts like pure outlaw adventures -- for instance, tearing towns apart, or fleecing travelers at a ferry crossing that they commandeered. In fact, the majority of the book is filled with so much malicious gore -- both sanctioned and illicit -- that, after a while, the violence becomes dull as the reader grows inured -- "Okay. I get it. The world is often bloody, and men cruel."

But the way McCarthy writes about the cruelty is stark and evocative. He manages to bring a biblical cadence to the writing, while making his descriptions as stark and stripped-down as Hemingway. For instance...
"They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds."

Indeed, McCarthy's command of language is part of the book's genius. But, unfortunately, not enough to save the book from "sagging" in the middle as the gang's catalog of atrocities grows. In fact, I left the book an my bedside for a couple weeks after getting about half way through, thinking, "where's the story?"

However, I am glad I finished. Because, like Melville before him, in McCarthy has written an evil little book, and you get the impression he feels spotless as a lamb. Indeed, Blood Meridian is even more stark than Moby Dick , and the antagonist -- the mindless cruel & sadistic, pederast & child murderer, and yet hairless and baby-like Judge -- is far more malevolent than the Great White Whale. Because, instead of representing a force of nature, the Judge is a human, who revels in humanity at its worst.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The High Price of Inequality

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do BetterThe Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An overall very interesting book that examines the negative impacts and/ or correlation of inequality on a variety social issues. While it seems to harp on the same theme -- inequality is bad for us, even the wealthy -- there are some times where I found myself thinking "correlation does not imply causation."

But the authors' case is very strong.

There seems little doubt that inequality, though, is driven by government policy. And thus reflects the hidden attitudes of those in power -- since the policies a nation's elite have followed across several decades and their effects are, rhetoric aside, the net effect of the power structures that run a country.

So what we are looking at is attitudes wrought in policies. Which impact people's lives, and come out as unequal distribution of income, with the rich getting richer, and the poor getting nothing.

The down side to this is that the United States is a negative outlier in nearly ever conceivable dimension when viewed against our peers. The rich get richer. Money flows into "cost-plus" military or engineers contracts given to influential contractors. And the profits flow to the wealthy shareholders, while those same companies move manufacturing jobs over seas.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

If the World was Perfect, It Wouldn’t Be

Photo of Yogi Berra
Yogi Berra (Wikimedia Commons)

Yogi Berra as the Greatest Philosopher of the 20th Century (an Idea I stole from Nassim Taleb's book "The Black Swan")

by Leo Walsh

I am a Cleveland Indians fan.

Which means that I am a "glutton for punishment," as my dad used to say.

It also means that I pretty much hate the Yankees. Because they buy up the best players in the Bigs, offering them huge salaries. Which drives up the salaries of all players, forcing the league to increase their pay scale to keep up. Which, in turn, makes it near impossible for mid-market teams like Cleveland to keep their stars. Which, then, makes easier for the Yanks to pick off the best players, increasing their revenue... Which drives up the salaries of all players... Etc. Etc. Etc.

This is because the Yankees are a "black swan." But more on that later.

My biases aside, I've gotta admit that "I love Yogi Berra." He is famous for saying things that seem completely wrong until you think about them. Here is a list of some of my favorites...

  1. “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
  2. “90% of the game is half mental.”
  3. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up some place else.”
  4. “Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.”
  5. “The future ain’t what it use to be.”
  6. “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”
  7. “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
  8.  “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”
Of course, some of these may be apocryphal. Which Yogi addresses, with typical grace and ease...
9. "I never said most of the things I said."
Yankee or not, Yogi had wisdom. And in his interesting, and often frustrating book on randomness,  The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb makes much about the wisdom of Yogi.

For instance, take this gem: "The future ain’t what it use to be.”

Monday, June 10, 2013

Pondering the Imponderable -- Philip K. Dick's "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch"

The Three Stigmata of Palmer EldritchThe Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My love of Philip K. Dick (PKD)'s novels has always confused me. There are parts that seem dated -- like the protagonist of this novel, Barney Mayerson, sleeping with his assistant in this outing, The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer . With full knowledge of his boss. And not one word about sexual harassment.

Quaint. And sexist -- though Dick really does not seem sexist.

And then there is the bad science, so typical of the era. On the surface, PKD's plots are similar to those of Frederick Pohl. Relying on easy space travel. Colonies Mars (possible, but very likely more difficult than most science fiction writers in the 50's and 60's imagined) and Venus (nearly impossible, and undesirable due to its thick atmosphere and green-house built-up heat). And, quite often, PKD's diction also seems like Pohl, Kornbluth, Smith, etc. Simple sentences. Snappy action.

And PKD's characters, in general, are flat. In this book, for instance, Leo Bulero is just a typical big businessman. Who has no ambition, no family connections, etc. His only concern is money. Another example is Mayerson's assistant, Roni Fugate. She is just a power-grabber, sleeping an manipulating her way "to the top."

But where PKD hits, he turns the trivial and campy into philosophical insights and inquiries that are, to me, captivating. He does this with wit, in a way similar to Vonnegut -- though PKD is less misanthropic. In The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer PKD toys with the idea of God trying to contact humanity. And he uses a hallucinogenic drug that has some wicked after effects to examine the question, "What would it look like if a human was actually possessed by God? And if that God, wearing the mask of that human, would be able to enter people's dreams and hallucinations at will?" Which leads to the infinite regress, "Our God hallucinates a hallucination; which is contained in God's God's hallucination. Which is contained in God's God's God's hallucination.... And so on and so on, ad infinitum.

No other science fiction author does these explorations of epistemology nearly as well as PKD. And few write with the snappy wit and easy, satirical eye. So, while perhaps dated, The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer was an enjoyable ride. Full of fun, with ingenious musings and an interesting concept examined in a neat way.

I would recommend this to both science fiction fans, and fans of postmodernist literature. Because, by and large, I find PKD as good as or better than most postmodernists. And a lot more fun to read due to the simplicity of style.

Leo Walsh is an author, living in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow him at http://www.leo-walsh.com/

View all my reviews

Friday, June 7, 2013

How Prevalent is Racial Profiling?

Ask yourself, "If I were to see a potential theft take place, would I treat a black perpetrator different than a white one? What about a pretty white girl"

Of course, most of us would say, "No." Mostly because most of us tell ourselves that are not prejudiced. 

That is what made this video so eye-opening. I wonder if Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaillo -- who has been ordered to shut down his illegal immigrant "hunting" operations -- had seen this video? Since it does point to a legitimate issue...

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

[un]Common Sense (Pt. 2) -- The Scientific Method

A woodcut from William Caxton's second edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in 1483 (Wikipedia)
A woodcut from William Caxton's second
edition of The Canterbury Tales
printed in 1483 (Wikipedia)
by Leo Walsh
I would like to start with a statement. That seems a bit too bold at first blush. But is quite profound...

"Science is not common sense. In fact, science often runs contrary to common sense." 

How can I say this? Well, let's run a little Thought Experiment.

Pretend that you suddenly wake up in an imaginary, long ago kingdom. Everyone speaks English flawlessly. But, unlike the Lilliputians, they have no fear of strangers. In fact, they embrace you, and take you in as one of their own.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Need for [un]Common Sense (Part 1)... What the case of Einstein and Eddington tell us about the power of science

Image: Albert Einstein in... Nikes?
Albert Einstein in... Nikes? (Flicker)

Observation--not Einstein's Rock-Star Status--Proves General Relativity: What does that tell you about science and scientists?

Albert Einstein was widely regarded as the sharpest scientific in the world when he published his General Theory of Relativity" in 1916. And yet, the theory was not immediately accepted.

Why? It was not verified.

General Theory, which reworked highly classical physics in the light of Einstein's verified Special Relativity, made some bold predictions. One was that the sun's gravity would displace weightless photons traveling from distant starts to earth. How could gravity effect something that is mass-less? According to the theory, massive objects actually "warped the space-time continuum."  Tough to swallow. Also, near impossible to test due to the sun's brightness.

In 1919, Arthur Eddington took advantage of a solar eclipse to measure the location of  stars, with known locations, whose light would pass near the sun. These meticulous observations confirmed Einstein's hypothesis.

As this and more evidence were collected and weighed against General Relativity's predictions, it became evident that General Relativity was an accurate model of the universe.

So what makes scientists different than most of us? 

Most of us believe what we believe, regardless of the facts. Or we tend towards "selection bias," and interpret data in a way that colors our perceptions.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Meet Author Tara Fax Hall: creator of the Lash and Promise Me paranormal series

Newest installment of Hall's Promise
Me series, "Taken for His Own"
Winding my ways through the labyrinth of writing a book, I've met a lot of interesting people who are bitten by the "writer's bug." These folks just need to write. It is an itch that they must scratch.

And these people come from all walks of life. Business people. Computer programmers. Impoverished waiters and  When I lived in Los Angeles, a couple of people in my writers' groups wrote for television. A job that they sort of despised.

Because their heart was not in it. It was just money. Sort of hearkening back to the sentiments that Seth Godin, the marketing 2.0 guru, stirred in me.

But one thing that all of these people have in common is drive. They have full-time jobs and lives. And yet they spend hours of their leisure time typing away.

And writers all have seem to have a desire to share their vision with a wider audience. And understand why others write, So, many in the writers' community spend much of their time helping other writers: critiquing drafts, suggesting changes, and helping each other get teh word about their books out. And Tara Fox Hall is no exception.

Not only is this graduate of  Binghamton University an active supporter of writers' community, but her own writing output has been prolific. In addition to working full time as a safety/ OSHA inspector, she has two multi-volume paranormal series to her name: Promise Me -- currently with 4 volumes -- and the 2 noevels and 1 novella  Lash series. And, in addition, has written some children's fiction.

Introducing Tara's newest Promise Me book. "Taken for His Own"