16
Oct
15

Roundup – THE BUTTON

Best of the Best:

Outlook: Negative [Jacob Burak on Aeon Magazine] (9/4/14)

Of all the cognitive biases, the negative bias might have the most influence over our lives. Yet times have changed. No longer are we roaming the savannah, braving the harsh retribution of nature and a life on the move. The instinct that protected us through most of the years of our evolution is now often a drag – threatening our intimate relationships and destabilising our teams at work. It was the University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, an expert on marital stability, who showed how eviscerating our dark side could be. In 1992, Gottman found a formula to predict divorce with an accuracy rate of more than 90 per cent by spending only 15 minutes with a newly-wed couple. He spent the time evaluating the ratio of positive to negative expressions exchanged between the partners, including gestures and body language. Gottman later reported that couples needed a ‘magic ratio’ of at least five positive expressions for each negative one if a relationship was to survive. So, if you have just finished nagging your partner over housework, be sure to praise him five times very soon. Couples who went on to get divorced had four negative comments to three positive ones. Sickeningly harmonious couples displayed a ratio of about 20:1 – a boon to the relationship but perhaps not so helpful for the partner needing honest help navigating the world. Other researchers applied these findings to the world of business. The Chilean psychologist Marcial Losada, for instance, studied 60 management teams at a large information-processing company. In the most effective groups, employees were praised six times for every time they were put down. In especially low-performing groups, there were almost three negative remarks to every positive one. Losada’s controversial ‘critical positivity ratio’, devised with psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and based on complex mathematics, aimed to serve up the perfect formula of 3-6:1. In other words, hearing praise between three and six times as often as criticism, the researchers said, sustained employee satisfaction, success in love, and most other measures of a flourishing, happy life. The paper with the formula, entitled ‘Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing’, was published by the respected journal American Psychologist in 2005.

The Uranium Sting: Did Homeland Security Catch a Smuggler or Create One? [Stuart A. Reid on Bloomberg Businessweek] (9/11/14)

Since Sept. 11, undercover operations launched in the name of national security have become a common tactic in U.S. law enforcement. Of the more than 500 terrorism charges the federal government filed from 2001 to 2011, about 30 percent came from stings. While critics have faulted federal law enforcement for making fake terrorists out of vulnerable young men, government officials argue that stings deter would-be terrorists and round up “lone wolves” who might otherwise fall prey to real terrorist recruiters. Yet Campbell’s case represents a particularly baffling twist to the controversial practice. He was hardly a threat. As his e-mails and conversations with Cruzcoriano make clear, he revealed himself early on as a remarkably unsophisticated businessman and a highly suggestible target. It’s doubtful he would have even taken part in the deal absent the constant encouragement he received. “This went beyond a fishing expedition,” says Mike German, a former undercover FBI agent and a prominent critic of federal law enforcement. “It’s fishing in a place where you know there are no fish.”

The Human Factor [William Langewiesche on Vanity Fair] (October 2014)

NASA talked the airline into lending it a full-motion simulator at the San Francisco airport with which to run an experiment on 20 volunteer Boeing 747 crews. The scenario involved a routine departure from New York’s Kennedy Airport on a transatlantic flight, during which various difficulties would arise, forcing a return. It was devised by a self-effacing British physician and pilot named Hugh Patrick Ruffell Smith, who died a few years later and is revered today for having reformed global airline operations, saving innumerable lives. John Lauber was closely involved. The simulator runs were intended to be as realistic as possible, including bad coffee and interruptions by flight attendants…It all depended on the captains. A few were natural team leaders—and their crews acquitted themselves well. Most, however, were Clipper Skippers, whose crews fell into disarray under pressure and made dangerous mistakes. Ruffell Smith published the results in January 1979, in a seminal paper, “NASA Technical Memorandum 78482.” The gist of it was that teamwork matters far more than individual piloting skill. This ran counter to long tradition in aviation but corresponded closely with the findings of another NASA group, which made a careful study of recent accidents and concluded that in almost all cases poor communication in the cockpit was to blame.

Documents reveal how poultry firms systematically feed antibiotics to flocks [Brian Grow, P.J. Huffstutter and Michael Erman on Reuters] (9/15/14)

Major U.S. poultry firms are administering antibiotics to their flocks far more pervasively than regulators realize, posing a potential risk to human health. Internal records examined by Reuters reveal that some of the nation’s largest poultry producers routinely feed chickens an array of antibiotics – not just when sickness strikes, but as a standard practice over most of the birds’ lives. In every instance of antibiotic use identified by Reuters, the doses were at the low levels that scientists say are especially conducive to the growth of so-called superbugs, bacteria that gain resistance to conventional medicines used to treat people. Some of the antibiotics belong to categories considered medically important to humans. The internal documents contain details on how five major companies  – Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, George’s and Koch Foods – medicate some of their flocks.

The calculus of contagion [Adam Kucharski on Aeon Magazine] (9/16/14)

[Kermack] and McKendrick eventually published their findings in 1927, in a paper titled ‘A Contribution to the Mathematical Theory of Epidemics’ in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Over the course of 20 pages, they tackled one of the most important questions in epidemiology: what causes an epidemic to end? From influenza to plague, the number of cases in a real epidemic often rises exponentially at first. After a while, the disease reaches a peak level, and then the number of new cases starts to decrease. When McKendrick and Kermack began their research, people generally gave two possible reasons for the decline. Either the epidemic faded away because the infection had become less potent over time, or because there were no susceptible people left – everyone had been infected and either died or become immune. In their model, McKendrick and Kermack assumed that the pathogen stayed the same throughout the epidemic; the infection did not weaken over time. And yet the model still produced an eventual decline in cases. When the pair compared the model to the 1905 outbreak of plague in Bombay, the predicted number of cases matched the real disease level. So was the decrease in infection caused by a lack of susceptible people? Apparently not: in the model, there were always some susceptible individuals remaining at the end of the outbreak. McKendrick and Kermack had demonstrated that epidemics don’t necessarily decline because everyone has been infected. They can also end because there aren’t enough infected people left to sustain transmission. Once enough people are immune, infected individuals are unlikely to meet another susceptible person, which means that they generally recover before infecting others. This effect is inevitable in the later stages of an outbreak, but it is also possible to force an epidemic into this situation. In Ross’s model, the reduction in infection came from getting rid of mosquitoes. During a vaccination campaign, it comes from targeting a large chunk of the susceptible population.

Engineer modifies Segway to invent hands-free wheelchair [Madhumita Murgia on The Telegraph] (10/20/15)

A Segway rebuilt into a hands-free electric wheelchair with a top speed of 20km per hour is on the verge of mass production. The Ogo, built in a shed in New Zealand by Kevin Halsall, is based on Segway technology that enables the user to move intuitively, more precisely and hands-free. Mr Halsall began designing the prototype when his best friend Marcus Thompson was left paraplegic after a skiing accident and took four years to develop. It is now a finalist in the National Innovators Awards and is in the process of being commercialised.

Unraveling the Many Mysteries of Tituba, the Star Witness of the Salem Witch Trials [Stacy Schiff on Smithsonian Magazine] (November 2015)

Portions of her March account would soon fall away: The tall, white-haired man from Boston would be replaced by a short, dark-haired man from Maine. (If she had a culprit in mind, we will never know who it was.) Her nine conspirators soon became 23 or 24, then 40, later 100, ultimately an eye-popping 500. According to one source, Tituba would retract every word of her sensational confession, into which she claimed her master had bullied her. By that time, arrests had spread across eastern Massachusetts on the strength of her March story, however. One pious woman would not concede witchcraft was at work: How could she say as much, she was asked, given Tituba’s confession? The woman hanged, denying—as did every 1692 victim—any part of sorcery to the end. All agreed on the primacy of Tituba’s role. “And thus,” wrote a minister of her hypnotic account, “was this matter driven on.” Her revelations went viral; an oral culture in many ways resembles an Internet one. Once she had testified, diabolical books and witches’ meetings, flights and familiars were everywhere. Others among the accused adopted her imagery, some slavishly. It is easier to borrow than invent a good story; one confessor changed her account to bring it closer in line with Tituba’s. There would be less consensus afterward, particularly when it came to Tituba’s identity. Described as Indian no fewer than 15 times in the court papers, she went on to shift-shape herself. As scholars have noted, falling prey to a multi-century game of telephone, Tituba evolved over two centuries from Indian to half-Indian to half-black to black, with assists from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who seemed to have plucked her from Macbeth), historian George Bancroft and William Carlos Williams. By the time Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, in 1952, Tituba was a “Negro slave.” She engaged in a different brand of dark arts: To go with her new heritage, Miller supplied a live frog, a kettle and chicken blood. He has Tituba sing her West Indian songs over a fire, in the forest, as naked girls dance around. Sounding like a distant cousin of Mammy in Gone With the Wind, she says things like: “Mister Reverend, I do believe somebody else be witchin’ these children.” She is last seen in a moonlit prison sounding half-crazed, begging the devil to carry her home to Barbados. After The Crucible, she would be known for her voodoo, of which there is not a shred of evidence, rather than for her psychedelic confession, which endures on paper.

The Science of Picking the Right Music at Work [Seth Porges on Bloomberg News] (10/26/15)

Research by Teresa Lesiuk, Ph.D, a professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, has found that when workers are engaged in complex, brain-intensive tasks, listening to the music of their choice can improve their mood and productivity. The musical advantage is greater for some workers than others, however. For folks who were either complete novices or experts in their field, Lesiuk found little change in productivity. It was the moderate-skill workers in the middle who got the greatest output bump from listening. So if you need to keep your spirits up because you’re a middling coder who’s been tackling a tough script for hours, the right music to choose is, simply, your favorite music (study participants had their choice of song to listen to). A note to any bosses tempted to put the kibosh on their employees’ headphones habit: This is one area where you may not want to intervene. In a study that looked at computer programmers (a group that’s used to listening to music while they work), Lesiuk found that, after several weeks of being allowed to listen to whatever they wanted to, turning off the tunes caused a noticeable dip in both mood and productivity.

Brooklyn’s Baddest [Sean Flynn on Gentlemen’s Quarterly] (8/4/14)

In 1973, when Scarcella was sworn in, 1,680 people were murdered in New York City, and about as many were killed the next year and the year after that, all through the ’70s and into the ’80s. And then crime got really bad, and Bernie Goetz shot those kids on the subway, and the Central Park jogger got raped and beaten nearly to death, and the New York Post screamed DAVE, DO SOMETHING! on the front page, meaning Dinkins, the mayor. The murders peaked in 1990, at 2,245—almost seven times as many as in 2013—and didn’t start to dip until 1995, when Scarcella was five years out from his pension. He is 62 years old now, with a heavy brow and shaggy hair that’s only beginning to thin. He’s fit and trim, muscles ropy under the tattoos staining his arms, and he still keeps a duplicate of his gold shield, which has the same number as his father’s gold shield, in his pocket. He doesn’t look like what the papers are calling him, a rogue. When he left the job, he was as famous as a street cop can get, because he broke some of the most heinous cases in a city that stratified crime between horrific and merely appalling…And the rabbi. That case made Scarcella’s name. Chaskel Werzberger survived the Holocaust only to get shot in the face in Williamsburg in 1990. A robbery went bad, the thief panicked and jacked Werzberger’s station wagon to get away, killed him in the street. Dozens of detectives worked that case for weeks, got nothing but dead ends. Six months later, Scarcella and his partner found two men who said they were accomplices, and they fingered a guy named David Ranta as the shooter. Scarcella spent hours with Ranta, coaxing. “You’re Italian, I’m Italian,” Scarcella finally said. “This is your chance to tell me. Tell me what happened.” Scarcella wrote a confession for Ranta on the only thing he had, a manila file folder…But then, in the spring of 2013, something unusual happened: David Ranta was let out of prison. What made Ranta’s release so extraordinary was that prosecutors asked a judge to let him go. In March 2013, after two decades of fighting appeals, district attorneys in Kings County re-evaluated whether Ranta ever should’ve been locked up. And they decided no, he should not have spent twenty-three years in prison, should not have been torn away from his family, should not have lost the prime of his life, for a crime he almost certainly had nothing to do with. Twenty-three years after the fact, a witness said a detective (he did not say which detective) had told him to “pick the guy with the big nose” from a lineup. One of the alleged accomplices, a convicted rapist, says he lied to get a break on his own legal troubles. He says the other accomplice, a junkie with five open robbery cases, lied, too. Take away those witnesses, and all that’s left is a confession that Ranta has always insisted he never made; he says he signed the file folder with his purported statement on it when it was blank, thinking it was a form that would allow him to make a phone call. Ranta’s release was a big story, maybe bigger, even, than Scarcella arresting him. The City of New York agreed to pay Ranta $6.4 million before he even had a chance to sue.

The Mysterious Case of the 113-Year-Old Light Bulb [Zachary Crockett on Priceonomics] (9/22/14)

Citing these advancements, Shelby claimed that its bulbs lasted 30% longer and burned 20% brighter than any other lamp in the world. The company experienced explosive success: According to Western Electrician, they’d “received so many orders by the first of March [1897], that it was necessary to begin running nights and to increase the size of the factory.” By the end of the year, output doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 lamps per day, and “the difference in favor of Shelby lamps was so apparent that no doubt was left in the minds of even the most skeptical.” Over the next decade, Shelby continued to roll out new products, but as the light bulb market expanded and new technologies emerged (tungsten filaments), the company found itself unable to make the massive monetary investment required to compete. In 1914, they were bought out by General Electric and Shelby bulbs were discontinued. Seventy-five years later, in 1972, a fire marshall in Livermore, California informed a local paper of an oddity: A naked, Shelby light bulb hanging from the ceiling of his station had been burning continuously for decades. The bulb had long been a legend in the firehouse, but nobody knew for certain how long it had been burning, or where it came from. Mike Dunstan, a young reporter with the Tri-Valley Herald, began to investigate — and what he found was truly spectacular. Tracing the bulb’s origins through dozens of oral narratives and written histories, Dunstan determined it had been purchased by Dennis Bernal of the Livermore Power and Water Co. (the city’s first power company) sometime in the late 1890s, then donated to the city’s fire department in 1901, when Bernal sold the company. As only 3% of American homes were lit by electricity at the time, the Shelby bulb was a hot commodity…Once settled, the bulb was placed under video surveillance to ensure it was alive at all hours; in subsequent years, a live “BulbCam” was put online. Last year, the bulb’s groupies (of which there are nearly 9,000 on Facebook), received another scare when it lost light…At first it was suspected that the light had finally met its demise, but after nine and half hours, it was discovered that the bulb’s uninterrupted power supply had failed; once the power supply was bypassed, the bulb’s light returned. The 113-year-old bulb had outlived its power supply — just as it had outlived three surveillance cameras. Today, the bulb still shines, though, as one retired fire volunteer once said, “it don’t give much light” (only about 4 watts).

Not So Foolish [Steven Poole on Aeon Magazine] (9/22/14)

The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time. Other versions of the message are expressed in more strongly negative terms. You Are Not So Smart (2011) is a bestselling book by David McRaney on cognitive bias. According to the study ‘Why Do Humans Reason?’ (2011) by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, our supposedly rational faculties evolved not to find ‘truth’ but merely to win arguments. And in The Righteous Mind (2012), the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the idea that reason is ‘our most noble attribute’ a mere ‘delusion’. The worship of reason, he adds, ‘is an example of faith in something that does not exist’. Your brain, runs the now-prevailing wisdom, is mainly a tangled, damp and contingently cobbled-together knot of cognitive biases and fear. This is a scientised version of original sin. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find troubling. A culture that believes its citizens are not reliably competent thinkers will treat those citizens differently to one that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? And we do have a choice. Because it turns out that the modern vision of compromised rationality is more open to challenge than many of its followers accept.

Fixing the Best Schools in the World [Amanda Little on Bloomberg Businessweek] (9/24/14)

Shanghai public schools placed first worldwide on the recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exams, which are administered every three years by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The average scores of Shanghai students in reading, science, and mathematics were more than 10 percent higher than the scores of students in the legendary Finnish school system, which had been top-ranked until 2009, when Shanghai was first included in the testing, and about 25 percent higher than those of the U.S., which ranked 36th. While some critics dispute the PISA rankings, arguing that U.S. schools are evaluated as a national collective, not city-by-city as Chinese schools are, most agree that China produces formidable test takers. The school system in Shanghai, the nation’s largest and wealthiest city, is widely accepted as the most rigorous education system in the world. But Qiu thinks it can do better. Throughout his career he has been pushing the system to improve and adapt alongside China’s fast-changing economy. Today, Qiu is an elder statesman among a growing number of younger, more radical pioneers who think the Chinese education system, for all its success, is archaic and in need of sweeping reform. Qiu and the others believe that test scores alone aren’t a reliable predictor of long-term success—for students or the economy at large…Jiang Xueqin, a teacher at a top Beijing high school who recently published Creative China, a treatise on education reform, stresses that the Chinese system still puts excessive emphasis on rote learning and memorization, and not enough on the skills students need to build careers and an economy that’s innovative and not derivative.

The Bacon Boom Was Not an Accident [David Sax on Bloomberg Businessweek] (10/6/14)

This incessant demand drained the volatility out of the pork belly futures market, and trading on belly contracts slowed to a trickle. In 2012, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ceased the trade in pork belly contracts, due to lack of volume. The shouts of the belly pit, where broad-chested men once made great fortunes on fatty pig parts, fell silent. “[Bacon’s] the reason the market died,” says Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics, a market research firm specializing in the pork business. “That market had a well-deserved reason for volatility. It was a speculators playground because it was so vulnerable. As the volatility shrank, the volume of the trades shrank.”

Mechanical Turk: The New Face of Behavioral Science? [Rosie Cima on Priceonomics] (10/15/14)

[I]f you’re doing a study of human psychology or behavior, and sample only consists of American undergraduate students who are either: (a) need beer money, or worse yet (b) are required by the same few professors to volunteer as subjects; you might come away with the mistaken impression that all humans are like western undergraduates. In these fields they’ve become the standard subject for the species at large, which is a status they might not deserve. In a study titled, “The Weirdest People in the World?” researchers conducted a kind of audit of studies that exclusively sample US college students — who, among other similarities, tend to hail from societies that are “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD)”. They found that American undergraduates in particular were vastly over-represented…They then compared the results of WEIRD-biased studies to studies that researched the same effect, but sampled subjects from non-WEIRD populations…“The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity.” The problem is, undergrads are easy — they’re around, they’re cheap, they have few qualms about sacrificing themselves for science. They’re at the “top of the vase”. This is called “convenience sampling.”  So how can researchers effectively, and economically, “shake the vase” and get a more representative sample of humans at large? Many think it involves the internet. And a growing number of them think it involves Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

The Little-Known Story of How The Shawshank Redemption Became One of the Most Beloved Films of All Time [Margaret Heidenry on Vanity Fair] (9/22/14)

Darabont, a “rabid and devoted” Stephen King fan, nursed a chimera: turning one of the writer’s stories into a film. Not many novelists have seen their work sail past as many movie-studio gatekeepers as King, starting with 1976’s blood-soaked hit Carrie. The author famously hated director Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel The Shining—King felt actor Shelley Duvall’s Wendy was “one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film”—but he didn’t punish other filmmakers. Instead, King maintains a policy of granting newbie directors in need of a calling card the rights to his short stories for one dollar. In 1983 a 20-something Darabont handed King a buck to make The Woman in the Room, one of the few amateur short films based on his work that the author enjoyed. But Darabont’s real obsession was a prison yarn, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, from Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas that represented King’s attempt to break out of the genre corner he’d written himself into over the years. With his ultimate goal a feature film, Darabont waited for his résumé to lengthen enough to support his aspirations before approaching King again. “In 1987, my first produced screenplay credit was A Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” says Darabont. “And I thought, Perhaps now is the time.” Once Darabont received King’s blessing, he set about adapting Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The 96-page story is anything but cinematic, consisting largely of Red ruminating about fellow prisoner Andy, confounding Hollywood’s predilection for high-concept “Harry Potter meets Die Hard” loglines. Even King “didn’t really understand how you make a movie out of it,” says Darabont. “To me it was just dead obvious.” Still, Darabont says he “wasn’t ready” to sit down at his word processor right away, and five years passed, as he focused on paid jobs writing scripts for The Blob and The Fly II. Darabont, who “wanted to honor the source material,” mimicked the novella’s narrative thrust in his screenplay and even lifted some dialogue verbatim. Other plot points were entirely his invention, sharpening the film’s themes and adding dashes of cinematic violence. In King’s story, a minor character, Brooks, dies uneventfully in an old folks’ home. The movie dedicates a poignant montage to the now more pivotal Brooks’s inability to make it on the outside and his subsequent heart-wrenching suicide by hanging. Tommy, a young con who can clear Andy’s name, trades his silence for a transfer to a minimum-security prison in King’s version. The script has Tommy “chewed to pieces by gunfire.” And Darabont condensed King’s several wardens into the corrupt Warden Norton, who eventually blows his brains out rather than pay Lady Justice for his sins. Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said some version of “To make a great film you need three things: the script, the script, and the script.” Robbins says of Darabont’s finished adaptation, “It was the best script I’ve ever read. Ever.” Freeman repeated a variation of that accolade—if not the best script, certainly among the top.

Stepping off the Golden Gate Bridge [Zachary Crockett on Priceonomics] (10/16/14)

Spanning just under two miles from San Francisco to Marin County, the Golden Gate is a grand, towering structure.  On the day it opened to public use in 1937, The Chronicle declared it a “thirty-five million dollar steel harp;” it’s since been deemed “the most beautiful, most photographed structure in the world,” and is a heralded as a marvel of engineering. But the bridge has a dark side not mentioned on its website: it is, by far, the most popular suicide destination in the United States — and the second most popular in the entire world, trailing only China’s Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Estimates of the number of Golden Gate Bridge suicides widely vary — mainly because many victims’ bodies drift out to sea and are never recovered — but in 77 years, over 1,600 have been confirmed. Until 1995, an “official tally” was kept by the media, but as publicity mounted for the 1,000th jump (one local radio host even offered a case of Snapple to the “lucky” victim’s family), the count was disbanded. Still, is it well-documented that between 20 and 40 people jump from the bridge every year…When a person leaps from the platform (220 to 245 feet high, depending on tides), he tumbles through the air for four seconds, before hitting the water at 75-80 miles-per-hour. Roughly 95% of jumpers die from impact trauma — crushed organs, shattered bones, snapped necks; most initial survivors find themselves paralyzed and quickly drown, or succumb to hypothermia in the frigid waters. Incredibly, 34 people have survived the jump, most by way of a fortuitous gust of wind, or a perfect entry (feet-first, at a slight angle). In post-trauma psychological assessments, nearly every survivor relates that the split-second he let go, he immediately wished he hadn’t.

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