Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for July 11th, 2010

We had a good run…

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Joe Keohane has an interesting article in the Boston Globe that got me thinking. Given the trivial “issues” over which the politicians, populace, and media obsess, and the incredibly strong resistance to scientific findings (especially when those findings conflict with ideology or economic interests), it seems obvious where we’re headed. Quite apart from the increasingly evident breakdown of the US as a democracy (indefinite detentions, secret prisons, torture, assassinations—all declared legal and part of the daily operation; the rise to power of transnational corporations so that, increasingly, corporations do not belong to a country, but rather the reverse; the inability of Congress or the states to respond effectively to true crises of increasing importance), the oncoming—and ongoing—catastrophe of climate change should just about end civilization, what with resource wars (which have already begun).

In a way, given human limitations, it’s amazing that we achieved as much as we did, until you recall that this very “achievement” is what ends our run—killed by our choice of at what to succeed. We picked a direction to develop, but given our natures it was the wrong direction. But did we really have a choice? Was the outcome inevitable, given the situation?

UPDATE: An interesting area of study and research at this point is what might be for answers to the question, “Where did we go wrong?” That is, what point of development set us irresistibly on the downward path to destruction? (I’m thinking the invention of agriculture is the likely culprit.) And the answer(s) found, if substantial, could provide a sense of closure.

UPDATE 2: I even have a name and a tagline for it: “Closure Studies: Going Out With A Little Dignity.”

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 2:26 pm

Trusting business: BP edition (ctd.)

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Brad Johnson at ThinkProgress:

A former contractor has come forward to denounce foreign oil giant BP and the “cutthroat individuals” running the oil disaster response. On Friday, contractor-turned-whistleblower Adam Dillon told New Orleans television station WDSU he was fired“after taking photos that he believes were related to the use of dispersants and to the cleanup of the oil.” As a BP liaison, he had rebuffed reporters’ attempts to observe cleanup operations in Grand Isle, LA, in June, before being promoted to the BP Command Center near Houma, LA. At the command center BP manages the private contractors running practically every aspect of the spill response. Dillon, a former U.S. Army Special Operations soldier, “has lost faith in the company in charge”:

There are some very great, hardworking individuals in there. But the bottom line is just about money. There are some very cutthroat individuals. They’re not worried about cleaning up that spill as it is. . . .

I will never have loyalty to this company. I will always have loyalty to my country. And my country comes first. What this company is doing to this country right now is just wrong.

Watch it:

Before he was fired, Dillon was “confined and interrogated for almost an hour.” WDSU’s Scott Walker will air more of his interview with Adam Dillon on Monday night.

Dillon’s troubling firsthand account joins other reports from the likes of wives of Gulf Coast fishermen and independent scientists who are breaking the media blackout on BP’s private army of contractors.

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 12:14 pm

Unconscious decision-making

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As readers know, I am quite convinced (through self-observation and through reading reports of scientific studies) that many (most?) of our decisions are made by our unconscious minds—and indeed many actions we take are unconscious from start to finish, a good thing: who wants to think through, every morning, how to tie your shoe—and then think it through again for the other shoe? And who hasn’t been immediately attracted to (or repelled by) someone’s personality without any conscious thought?

This is not to say that all decision-making is unconscious: it’s quite possible to make a conscious decision, deliberately following a specific process to reach the decision, including an entry in a "decision diary" about exactly how you arrived at the decision and the outcomes you anticipate as a result. (This is quite useful for later review, since our memories are quite deceptive and will tilt our memories once we do know the decision outcome, crediting us with much insight if the outcomes are good and, if not, reconstructing the memories to introduce doubts we had at the time. A decision diary cuts through this sort of self-enhancing editing.) I earlier blogged about deliberate and conscious decision-making and two books that describe a process and the most common errors.

Eben Harrell has an interesting article about the unconscious decision-making process—the one we commonly use for minor daily decisions. It begins:

Studies have found that upon entering an office, people behave more competitively when they see a sharp leather briefcase on the desk, they talk more softly when there is a picture of a library on the wall, and they keep their desk tidier when there is a vague scent of cleaning agent in the air. But none of them are consciously aware of the influence of their environment.

There may be few things more fundamental to human identity than the belief that people are rational individuals whose behavior is determined by conscious choices. But recently psychologists have compiled an impressive body of research that shows how deeply our decisions and behavior are influenced by unconscious thought, and how greatly those thoughts are swayed by stimuli beyond our immediate comprehension.(See why dreams may mean less than we think.)

In an intriguing review in the July 2 edition of the journal Science, published online Thursday, Ruud Custers and Henk Aarts of Utrecht University in the Netherlands lay out the mounting evidence of the power of what they term the "unconscious will." "People often act in order to realize desired outcomes, and they assume that consciousness drives that behavior. But the field now challenges the idea that there is only a conscious will. Our actions are very often initiated even though we are unaware of what we are seeking or why," Custers says.

It is not only that people’s actions can be influenced by unconscious stimuli; our desires can be too. In one study cited by Custers and Aarts, students were presented with words on a screen related to puzzles — crosswords, jigsaw piece, etc. For some students, the screen also flashed an additional set of words so briefly that they could only be detected subliminally. The words were ones with positive associations, such as beach, friend or home. When the students were given a puzzle to complete, the students exposed unconsciously to positive words worked harder, for longer, and reported greater motivation to do puzzles than the control group.(See why gut decisions may not be so smart.)

The same priming technique has also been used to prompt people to drink more fluids after being subliminally exposed to drinking-related words, and to offer constructive feedback to other people after sitting in front of a screen that subliminally flashes the names of their loved ones or occupations associated with caring like nurse. In other words, we are often not even consciously aware of why we want what we want.

John Bargh of Yale University, who 10 years ago predicted many of the findings discussed by Custers and Aarts in a paper entitled "The Unbearable Automaticity of Being," called the Science paper a "landmark — nothing like this has been in Science before. It’s a large step toward overcoming the skepticism surrounding this research."(Comment on this story.)

But Bargh says the field has actually moved beyond the use of subliminal techniques, and studies show that unconscious processes can even be influenced by stimuli within the realms of consciousness, often in unexpected ways. For instance, his own work has shown that people sitting in hard chairs are more likely to be more rigid in negotiating the sales price of a new car, they tend to judge others as more generous and caring after they hold a warm cup of coffee rather than a cold drink, and they evaluate job candidates as more serious when they review their résumés on a heavy clipboard rather than a light one.

"These are stimuli that people are conscious of — you can feel the hard chair, the hot coffee — but were unaware that it influenced them. Our unconscious is active in many more ways than this review suggests," he says.

Custers says his work demonstrates that subliminal-advertising techniques — which some countries have outlawed — can be effective. But he says people concerned about being unconsciously manipulated "should be much more scared of commercials they can see, rather than those they can’t see." Many soda commercials, he says by way of example, show the drink with positive-reward cues such as friends or beaches. "If you are exposed to these advertisements over and over again, it does create an association in your mind, and your unconscious is more likely to suddenly decide you want a Coke," he says.

But he also says that, at least when it comes to unhealthy food, policymakers are beginning to understand that "personal choice" may be a weak counter to heavy advertising. "We are starting to talk about ‘toxic environments’ with food and to understand how easy it is to mindlessly reach for a bag of potato chips. Removing such stimuli from the environment can be very effective," he says. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 11:44 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

The US needs a better immigration policy and program

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Marion Nestle at Food Politics:

Today’s New York Times reports:

The Obama administration has replaced immigration raids at factories and farms with a quieter enforcement strategy: sending federal agents to scour companies’ records for illegal immigrant workers. ..the “silent raids,” as employers call the audits, usually result in the workers being fired, but in many cases they are not deported.

What does this have to do with food politics?

Employers say the Obama administration is leaving them short of labor for some low-wage work, conducting silent raids but offering no new legal immigrant laborers in occupations, like farm work, that Americans continue to shun despite the recession. Federal labor officials estimate that more than 60 percent of farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants.

In my visit to Alaskan seafood processing plants this summer, I saw cannery workers imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe to work 16 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, for the minimum wage or close to it.

Residents of one remote cannery town said they all worked in canneries as teenagers for good wages.  But when the large cannery moved into town, it reduced wages, increased hours, halved the amount paid to fishermen, and imported the Philippine workers.  The canneries, they said, made it clear that they did not want locals working in the plants.

The result: near-poverty life for community residents and near-slavery conditions for the imported workers.

Our immigration system needs a fix to allow workers to come and go without fear of random arrests, firings, or deportations.  Farm working conditions need a fix.  Reexamining the minimum wage might be a good starting point.

Your thoughts?

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 10:59 am

The US income gap

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We really are starting to become a banana republic, in which corporations control the government and a thin veneer of the very wealthy strip the populace of all its wealth. Take a look at this chart:

income-gap_692cf

That is flat ominous. Laura Bassett at Huffington Post:

The gap between the wealthiest Americans and middle- and working-class Americans has more than tripled in the past three decades, according to a June 25 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

New data show that the gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest parts of the population in 2007 was the highest it’s been in 80 years, while the share of income going to the middle one-fifth of Americans shrank to its lowest level ever.

The CBPP report attributes the widening of this gap partly to Bush Administration tax cuts, which primarily benefited the wealthy. Of the $1.7 trillion in tax cuts taxpayers received through 2008, high-income households received by far the largest — not only in amount but also as a percentage of income — which shifted the concentration of after-tax income toward the top of the spectrum.

The average household in the top 1 percent earned $1.3 million after taxes in 2007, up $88,800 just from the prior year, while the income of the average middle-income household hovered around $55,300. While the nation’s total income has grown sharply since 1979, according to the CBPP report, the wealthiest households have claimed an increasingly large share of the pie.

Arloc Sherman, a researcher for CBPP, said the income gap is expanding not because the middle class is losing income, but because the wealthiest incomes are skyrocketing.

“If income growth had been shared equally among all income groups, the families at the bottom would have $6,000 per year more than they do now, and the middle would have $13,000 more,” he said.

Sherman said one key to closing the gap is a responsible tax policy.

“It would be a big step in the wrong direction to enact proposals like a big rollback in the taxes on the wealthiest estates,” Sherman said. “It would probably help to enact some of the middle class tax extender proposals advanced by the President and the Democrats, including things like the extension of the expanded child tax credit.”

The CBPP data do not show the effect of the recession that began in December 2007, but economists say that the recession has probably reduced the income gap only temporarily due to the severe drop in the stock market.

“Everyone, rich and poor, has been hammered in this recession,” Sherman said. “But in the past, the wealthy have rebounded more easily than the middle.”

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 10:53 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

The annual performance review: "Total baloney"

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And we all knew that, didn’t we? From NPR:

Employee performance reviews should be eliminated, according to UCLA business professor Samuel Culbert. "First, they’re dishonest and fraudulent. And second, they’re just plain bad management," he says

The problem with the practice, Culbert tells NPR’s Renee Montagne, is that periodic reviews create circumstances that help neither the employee nor the company to improve. As Culbert and his co-author, Larry Rout, write in their book, Get Rid of the Performance Review! annual reviews do not promote candid discussions about problems in the workplace — and their potential solutions.

Instead, Culbert says, when workers undergo a review, "They’re going to talk about all their successes — it becomes total baloney."

And management participates in the charade, as well, he says: "The boss already has heard [from] his boss what they want to pay the guy, or the woman. So they come up with a review that’s all backwards."

The process can frustrate employees, who may have a lot at stake — from a raise or promotion to the general arc of their career. And at the least, they want their contributions and talents to be recognized. Rather than using performance reviews, Culbert suggests that management "just tell the employee what he or she needs to do to become more effective."

Culbert’s book sprang from an article he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2008, which sparked a large response from readers.

Asked if performance reviews might be tweaked instead of eliminated outright — for instance, a manager might use statistics to measure an employee’s effectiveness — Culbert says that one-dimensional measurements can bring a new set of problems.

"Once you set up the metrics, that’s the only focus for the employee," Culbert says. "The problem with performance reviews is that the metric that counts most for the employee is the boss’s opinion. So the employee starts doing what he or she thinks is going to score in the boss’s mind, and not even talk about what he or she believes is necessary for the company to get the results that really matter."

For anyone who would like to gauge where they stand on the annual review issue, Culbert and Rout have posted a test on their site, with the slightly biased title of How Much Do You Hate Performance Reviews?

Excerpt: Get Rid of the Performance Review!, by Samuel Culbert and Lawrence Rout

It’s time to finally put the performance review out of its misery.

This corporate sham is one of the most insidious, most damaging, and yet most ubiquitous of corporate activities. Everybody does it, and almost everyone who’s evaluated hates it. It’s a pretentious, bogus practice that produces absolutely nothing that any thinking executive should call a corporate plus.

And yet few people do anything to kill it.

How could that be? How could something so obviously destructive, so universally despised, continue to plague our workplaces?

In part it’s because the performance review is all executives have ever known, and they’re blind to the damage caused by it.

In part it’s because few managers are aware of their addiction to the fear that reviews create amongst staff, and too many lack the confidence that they can lead without that fear.

In part it’s because HR professionals exploit the performance review to provide them a power base they don’t deserve.

And in part it’s because few people know an alter-native for getting the control, accountability, and employee development that reviews supposedly produce—but never do.

Don’t get me wrong: Reviewing performance is good; it should happen every day. But employees need evaluations they can believe, not the fraudulent ones they receive. They need evaluations that are dictated by need, not a date on the calendar. They need evaluations that make them strive to improve, not pretend they are perfect.

In fact, if firms did nothing else but just . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 10:46 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Obama hostile to science as well as civil rights

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We already know he blew off the economists who said that the stimulus was insufficient in the first place, and now he’s blowing them off when they point out that we need now to do the rest of the stimulus they recommended. And of course he’s fighting any press exposure of the Gulf oil spill (the Coast Guard is assisting BP keep reporters out). And now it seems that bureaucrats overriding scientific findings is going to continue. Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger report in the LA Times:

When he ran for president, Barack Obama attacked the George W. Bush administration for putting political concerns ahead of science on such issues as climate change and public health. And during his first weeks in the White House, President Obama ordered his advisors to develop rules to "guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch."

Many government scientists hailed the president’s pronouncement. But a year and a half later, no such rules have been issued. Now scientists charge that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reverse a culture that they contend allowed officials to interfere with their work and limit their ability to speak out.

"We are getting complaints from government scientists now at the same rate we were during the Bush administration," said Jeffrey Ruch, an activist lawyer who heads an organization representing scientific whistle-blowers.

White House officials, however, said they remained committed to protecting science from interference and that proposed guidelines would be forwarded to Obama in the near future.

But interviews with several scientists — most of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation in their jobs — as well as reviews of e-mails provided by Ruch and others show a wide range of complaints during the Obama presidency:

In Florida, water-quality experts reported government interference with efforts to assess damage to the Everglades stemming from development projects.

In the Pacific Northwest, federal scientists said they were pressured to minimize the effects they had documented of dams on struggling salmon populations.

In several Western states, biologists reported being pushed to ignore the effects of overgrazing on federal land.

In Alaska, some oil and gas exploration decisions given preliminary approval under Bush moved forward under Obama, critics said, despite previously presented evidence of environmental harm.

The most immediate case of politics allegedly trumping science, some government and outside environmental experts said, was the decision to fight the gulf oil spill with huge quantities of potentially toxic chemical dispersants despite advice to examine the dangers more thoroughly.

And the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based organization, said it had received complaints from scientists in key agencies about the difficulty of speaking out publicly.

"Many of the frustrations scientists had with the last administration continue currently," said Francesca Grifo, the organization’s director of scientific integrity.

For example, Grifo said, one biologist with a federal agency in Maryland complained that his study of public health data was purposefully disregarded by a manager who is not a scientist. The biologist, Grifo said, feared expressing his concerns inside and outside the agency. . .

Continue reading. Denying facts is a road to ruin, and this nation is well on its way.

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 10:37 am

Avocado Soup: fast, tasty, easy

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Mark Bittman describes a tasty soup—not on my diet, though:

It’s the weekend after the 4th, it’s hot, and you’re still stuffed with meat. Check out this unbelievably refreshing (and quick) avocado soup from How to Cook Everything. There’s no cooking required, but if you have any leftover cooked shrimp or crab lying around, definitely try the variation.

Fast Avocado Soup

MAKES: 4 servings

TIME: 10 minutes, plus time to chill

Creamy, with a gorgeous color, this soup couldn’t be simpler. If you like, dress it up with chopped cherry tomatoes, sliced scallion, chopped chervil or mint, or a dollop of crème fraîche (or any of those in combination). Or see the variation for some seafood additions.

  • 3 or 4 ripe avocados, pitted, peeled, and chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 3 cups milk, preferably whole milk
  • Salt and cayenne
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange or lime juice, or to taste (optional)

1. Put the chopped avocado in a blender. Add half the milk, a large pinch of salt, and a small pinch of cayenne and process to a purée. Beat in the remaining milk, then chill for up to 6 hours if you have time (press a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface of the soup so it doesn’t discolor).

2. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary, add the citrus juice if you’re using it, and serve—in chilled bowls if you want to be precise.

Fast Avocado and Seafood Soup. Before preparing the soup, chop some boiled shrimp (or if you have any leftover grilled, use that) or cooked crabmeat. If you like, toss it in a little vinaigrette, but a little salt and pepper and a squeeze of citrus is just fine. Chill while you prepare the soup. Serve a spoonful of seafood on top of each bowlful.

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 10:31 am

WEIRD subjects for psychological studies—or is it just us?

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Vaughn at Mind Hacks:

Neuroanthropology tackles a recent psychology article which highlights the fact that the vast majority of research is done on Western students, who, in global terms, are a very unusual subgroup of the human race.

This group has been given the catchy acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) although the problem is not so much that students are being studied but that researchers tend to draw conclusions about ‘human nature’ from this data, seemingly unaware of how unrepresentative they are of the world’s population.

The Neuroanthropology has an interesting take on the debate, noting that although important, the differences highlighted by the original article may also be a result of cultural bias themselves:

For example, when I brought one of my Brazilian subjects to an American university at which I previously taught, his characterization of the American students’ differences from young Brazilians with whom he had more contact focused on none of these traits (W. E. I. R. or D.). He was more struck by their large size (both height and BMI, to put it nicely), their frumpy androgynous clothing (anyone here not wearing a sweatshirt?), their materialism, their clumsiness and physical ineptitude, and their ethnic and personal homogeneity. If my Brazilian colleague were to characterize the oddness of the WEIRD, he wouldn’t focus on the traits Henrich and colleagues have chosen in their designation…

I don’t think that my point is a fundamental disagreement with Henrich and colleagues, but a concern that the parameter of difference we choose to highlight, even in the simplest designation, might itself be a culturally-generated bias. Anthropologists are well acquainted with having our subjects point to traits that are invisible to the Western research as ‘the crucial’ characteristic for understanding the gap. For example, ‘rich’ may seem an obvious contrast to poverty, but we know that not all ‘poverty’ is the same, nor are all ‘rich’ people able to experience in the same way their material situation. Some economists have argued that inequality is more crucial for understanding the experience of deprivation, for example, than absolute wealth. And poor populations often fix, not on their material deprivation, but on other qualities to describe their difference from the wealthy (or the WEIRD). For example, religious differences, family dynamics, or caste might be salient to people from other cultural backgrounds.

This blind spot seems quite pervasive which is only something that has become clear to me since working in Latin America. For example, most science is published in English and reviewers of scientific papers will often suggest tests or analyses which don’t exist or aren’t relevant to a Spanish speaking population.

Furthermore, journal editors rarely feel it necessary to recruit reviewers familiar with the culture in which the study was completed, assuming that American or European experience applies ‘globally’.

For example, a researcher from London or New York would never have their work assessed by someone who had no knowledge of psychological assessments in those countries but this happens all the time to cognitive scientists from the rest of the world, meaning much less of this work gets published.

There is also the ‘world music’ effect, where anything from America or Europe is considered mainstream where anything from the rest of the world is considered to be about ‘culture’.

The Neuroanthropology piece is an in-depth discussion of the whether psychology research has a truly global vision, and, most importantly, where our unrecognised blind spots may lie.

Written by Leisureguy

11 July 2010 at 10:27 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

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