Monthly Archives: December 2008

Presentation Theory: Against Highly Interesting Details

Robin Hanson cites a recent study relevant to anyone who gives presentations. The study examined how well students retained information about the cold virus. In one experimental group the students read a packet with various peripheral details that were not very interesting; the other group read a packet with various interesting details. Conclusion:

In both experiments, as the interestingness of details was increased, student understanding decreased (as measured by transfer). Results are consistent with a cognitive theory of multimedia learning, in which highly interesting details sap processing capacity away from deeper cognitive processing of the core material during learning.

In other words: Interesting but not-quite-essential details distract from understanding the core point.

One of the classic books in the field of multimedia cognitive theory is Richard Mayer's Multimedia Learning.


Speaking of presentations, I'm giving a free talk on January 14th at 12 noon at Foothill College (Appreciation Hall) in Los Altos Hills in the Bay Area. If you're local, come! No RSVP necessary. Email me if you have questions.

Would You Trust Less a Biz Partner Who Cheats on His/Her Spouse?

Someone asked me the other day: Would you trust less a business partner who was cheating on his/her spouse?

Related question: Do you draw a hard line between someone's personal / bedroom conduct and their professional trustworthiness?

My answer to the first question: Yes, I would trust the person less, but I would not dismiss working with him/her out-of-hand. Second question: No, I draw a "soft line" between personal/professional.

I recognize that some people simply lack self-control when it comes to sex but not when it comes to anything else, or so they claim. Still, to me character is character, and if someone can be dishonest in a romantic setting, what else might she be dishonest about in a professional setting?

Culture matters. I was raised in America and Americans seem to care more about fidelity than most people.

In the end trust exists on a spectrum and one must weigh various factors. In a business relationship fidelity is not a deal breaker either way, just a factor among many. In a personal relationship I care more.

[Definitional note on cheating: There's the technical cheat (sleeping with someone other than your monogamous partner) and then there's what Chris Yeh eloquently described to me as "something that's technically allowed but really is just fucked up" — like sleeping with your best friend's ex or sleeping around days after the end of a positive long-term relationship. In the end the semantics doesn't matter. It's about what a person's actions say about their underlying ethics, honesty, and self-discipline and whether bedroom actions speak to these attributes in non-bedroom environments.]

Bottom Line: I think less of a person who cheats on their partner, but in a professional context I do not distrust him/her altogether. I just trust them less.

Related Post: Trust and the Failed State

Assorted Wisdom from John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill's 1869 essay On Liberty deserves its fame. Last month I blogged about the essay in the context of Sarah Palin and elitism. Today I post the best excerpts from the essay. I've put them below the fold because I know many of you will not read them; they're long and dense. But those who slowly take in the sentences will be richly rewarded, I promise.

If you want an introduction to Mill you might find Adam Gopnik's review of a new biography helpful. (This sentence is a gem by the way: "The tribal nationalist is stupid because he fails to recognize that, given a slight change of location and accident of birth, he would have embraced the position of his adversary.)

Enjoy the excerpts below!

Continue reading

What I’ve Been Reading

1. Autobiography of Malcolm X. A very well written autobiography from a man I didn’t know much about. The story of his life as conveyed in this book is variously inspiring, deeply saddening, and infuriating. Recommended.

2. Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty. The first I’ve read of this late, great American philosopher. The title comes from Rorty’s view that liberals (like himself) see America as yet un-achieved and therefore it’s necessary to struggle and change to achieve those ideals. He distinguishes between reform liberalism and cultural liberalism. Recommend for those interested in political theory and/or two strands of liberalism but for anyone else I’d pass.

3. Back in the World: Stories by Tobias Wolff. I love Wolff’s writing but this set of short fiction stories didn’t do much for me.

4. Rigged: The True Story of an Ivy League Kid Who Changed the World of Oil, from Wall Street to Dubai by Ben Mezrich. The author of “Bringing Down the House.” He employs cheesy techniques to keep you turning the pages but in the end the book’s subtitle fails to deliver. All the main character did was set up an oil exchange in the Middle East? You expect something truly groundbreaking, and so it’s a let down.

I spent 20 minutes with Ted Turner’s new memoir Call Me Ted which has been on the bestseller list. A publicist sent it to me. The writing is terrible. Really, it appears he had zero editing. Not recommended. However I did learn in flipping through it that Turner was sent off to boarding school at age four. Yes, four years old. He says ever since he’s had problems being alone. It figures.

Beware of Comparatives (“Than”) Part Two

Few weeks ago I blogged the rule of thumb that compliments should never contain a comparative (e.g. “than”). Instead of saying, “You look much prettier than you did yesterday!” just say “You look pretty!”.

Recently someone told me: “Traveling to that country is harder than you think.”

My immediate reaction was: “No, it’s not harder than I think. I know it’s hard.” I got hung up on the other person assessing my own assessment of hardness.

The more effective line from him would have been: “Traveling to that country is hard.”

Bottom Line: Beware of “…than you think” when saying something. Beware of comparatives in general. Just say it!

To Be Totally Vulnerable With Someone

Here's a piece of a paragraph about being totally vulnerable with someone from a David Foster Wallace short story. The protagonist – Schmidt – is briefing a focus group:

… Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as like icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknowing and -knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he'd watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg's cap's public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under their left arm or the way after any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other's arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness …

Schmidt / Wallace says this type of intimacy and openness and display of vulnerability can only transpire in a good marriage. Whether it's a marriage or a very special friendship, it's clear only the most intimate relationships can play host to a person's confessional, private fears. Forming these relationships is hard: Some people never are able to find a person to whom they can be vulnerable in the way Wallace mentions (even if they're married).

I've blogged in the past about two related concepts. First, I've wondered whether you can be truly honest with anyone in your life other than a paid professional therapist. Other than some outside professional who's paid to listen to you, every other person in your life, no matter how close you are to them, has an agenda and bias and you censor yourself to respond to that agenda. Second, I've noted that the concept of a singular "best friend" seems limiting — the idea that one person can fulfill most of your emotional needs. Rather, the "composite best friend" means you have a handful of people who are close to you who stimulate you and engage you in different ways.

Bottom Line: Most people crave intimacy and an opportunity to share all their deep dark private insecurities. Those who can fulfill this need through a single soul mate or through close friends I think overall have a richer life. Cocooning against the world is not, really, a sustainable long-term position.

The Myth of Urban Loneliness

This interesting piece in New York magazine attempts to rebut the idea that big cities like New York, while buzzing with activity, are actually full of lonely people and that the size and pace of the urban environment contributes in some way to a sense of isolation. To the contrary, it argues that even though New York has one of the highest rates of single-dwellers (ie, folks with no roommates) in the country, they are “alone together”.

Here’s one graf about how loneliness, relationship status, and career stage are connected:

When the New Yorkers I know feel lonely—single women especially—it’s a product, too, of feeling asynchronous with their cohort. …[T]here’s a time in the lives of young professionals when they retreat deep into their silos, trying to make partner, get tenure, write their books, complete their residencies, or whatever it is that they’re hoping to do. If they’re lucky, they’re married, which helps sustain them through the work isolation. Then the next stage comes when they’re working hard in their newly minted careers (as partners, tenured professors, authors, doctors, or whatever it is they’re doing). And again, they’re fairly cut off socially, but they’re buoyed, one hopes, by the presence of a family at home. But if someone is out of step with this pattern—not partnered off, say, while still working really hard—New York can be a challenging place.

This seems right. I do think that if you’re entering an intense professional time being in a relationship probably beats being single, though this is oft-debated and depends on the situation.

Other nuggets from the piece include:

  • There’s also evidence to suggest that the religious people who live the longest are the ones who attend services most frequently rather than feel their beliefs most deeply. (It’s not faith that keeps them alive, in other words, but people.)
  • The relationship researcher Arthur Aron has pointed out that new experiences, rather than repeated favorites, are the best way to keep romantic feelings alive in a marriage, based on a series of six studies of hundreds of couples.
  • “The idea that you’re isolated when you’re online is, to me, just wrong…It’s an inherently social medium. What starts online moves offline, and what starts offline goes online.” Which explains why the people with whom you e-mail most frequently are your closest friends and romantic partners. “Online and offline life are inherently connected,” he says. “They’re not separate worlds.”

Michael Lewis and This American Life on Financial Meltdown

For those of you who enjoyed Michael Lewis’s piece on “job vs. calling,” and my follow up post Why So Many Struggle to Find a Job or Calling, I must alert you to another recent Lewis piece, this time on the Wall Street melt down.

It’s titled The End of Wall Street’s Boom in Portfolio magazine and it’s absolutely essential reading for understanding the financial crisis. There’s so much to read about on this topic — one must be picky. I recommend reading Lewis’s long, helpful chronicle of how we got here and why.

Interestingly, he opens by wondering why Wall Street entrusts 24 year-olds with no experience to dispense investment advice to grown-ups. Though he doesn’t explore this particular angle too deeply, it is worth wondering how much responsibility a young, money-hungry, recent college grad should assume for understanding the work he is doing and how it fits in the total picture. Certainly, the willingness of young bankers to re-package and sell essentially fraudulent mortgage-based financial products up the food chain contributed to the overall systematic breakdown.

The other great piece of journalistic reporting on the financial crisis happened on This American Life radio program. Turn up the volume, kick back on a couch, and listen. Prepare to be deeply disturbed and dismayed, but also grateful for at least a few people’s ability to explain what is going on in plain English.

Assorted Links and Musings

Quick links, cheap shots, bon mots….

Here’s a bit of wisdom from Marginal Revolution:

Spend time with little children and old people. One is innocent, the other is reacquainted with innocence. Their company is a world away from the drone and ruckus of all the furious humanity in between. At the extremes you will find perspective.

Agreed. I’ve spent a lot of time with old people. Probably need to spend more time with little children. Their innocence does provoke thoughts that the jaded adult does not. Also, though I am often touched by little children’s overall cuteness (especially when a baby takes her whole hand and clutches onto my pinkie finger) the cuteness has diminishing returns and disappears entirely on airplanes!

Who cares if finance professors are still teaching theory that’s been proven wrong? Seth Roberts relays this ancecodte:

“What happens when a professor is wrong?” he would ask. “When an engineer is wrong, the bridge falls down. When a doctor is wrong, the patient dies. What happens when an English professor is wrong?” The answer, of course, was “nothing”. Now we will find out what happens when finance professors are wrong.

These are two great paragraphs from n+1 on the writing career, via a review of Roberto Bolano:

Considered simply as a job, writing is erratically paid but with flexible hours: potentially not so bad, especially with the hedge funds laying everybody off. But as a vocation? Look around, and all you see is literature and publishing faltering in tandem. People read less and less; worse yet, they’re right to. It’s clear that, besides the occasional small or large check, most writers—ourselves included—write out of vanity and compulsion. One believes in being a writer more, it seems, than in writing. What is it, again, you once had to say? And who, supposedly, wanted to hear it? Still, Bolaño-like, you can’t conceive any redemption for you and your friends except through the production of masterpieces. Masterpieces, however, are always unlikely, and redemption impossible.

The whole thing’s hopeless and pathetic, not less so for being a reason to live. And this, finally, must be what literary people like so much about Bolaño: his career illustrates for the novel Gramsci’s famous slogan: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Bryan Caplan reminds us about the dubious connection between parenting / child development and brain development. As he says:

There is talk about the brain, followed by some hand waving, followed by advice to parents.

I am not optimistic that the nurture myth will be destroyed anytime soon. The narrative of the parenting industry is just too strong.

Biological age predicts maturity better than intelligence. (Here’s my post a year ago on defining maturity.) There are plenty of examples of a young person who’s smart beyond his years — a fierce intellect emerges at a young age, cultivated by ample books, good schools, and access to the internet / wikipedia. But it’s rarer to find a young person who’s mature beyond his years. To be unusually mature (emotionally, at least) takes among other things regular interaction with people who are emotionally mature at an adult level. That is, people who regulate their emotional state with sophistication, can communicate their feelings and ideas on difficult emotional topics, and less frequently hit the extremes of the joy-misery continuum. And it’s harder to obtain these adult interactions if you’re young and intellectually ambitious than it is to become a bookworm. Hence in general talented youth programs or selective colleges congregate very smart but still immature teenagers.

Fairness. We can’t bear the idea of being taken advantage of no matter how small the money involved. I learned this firsthand when traveling in poor countries. A year ago, my brother and I were in Quito and took a taxi across town. The cab driver proposed a $5 fare or something and, knowing this was too high, we negotiated it down to $4. In the grand scheme, a dollar doesn’t matter, but on principle we didn’t want to be ripped off. Similarly, during three weeks in Costa Rica over the summer, I went to a gym in La Fortuna which is the town at the base of the Arenal volcano. I showed up at the gym and the day rate seemed reasonable, so I committed in my head to paying and working out. Then the guy told me I’d have to pay $3 for a towel to wipe down the equipment. I couldn’t believe he was going to charge $3 for a thin piece-of-shit white towel. I refused to pay, even though it was the only gym in town, my schedule was tight, and I should have just ponied up. (Though I grew wiser overnight — I returned the next day!)

A good review of Susan Sontag’s diaries which have been released, one of many interesting grafs:

The determination she devotes to figuring out who to be, on the most basic and most sophisticated levels, is breathtaking. “Better to know the names of flowers than to confess girlishly that I am ignorant of nature,” Sontag writes. There is, in these pages, no sense of a woman comfortable in the world, a woman at ease. “Don’t smile so much, sit up straight,” she admonishes. “Think about why I bite my nails in the movies.” How is it possible that anyone is this self-conscious? And how is it possible that this degree of self-consciousness could be so fruitful?

Heightened self-consciousness — an on-going monologue inside one’s head about one’s own life — can make a person more reflective and thoughtful but in excess can paralyze and depress.

Quote of the Day: The Little Daily Habits

"If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.

Being in bed, having a shower, having breakfast in the kitchen, sitting in my study writing, walking in the garden, cooking and eating our common lunch at my office with my friends, going to the movies, taking my family to eat at a restaurant, going to bed again. There are a few more.

There are surprisingly few of these patterns of events in any one person’s way of life, perhaps no more than a dozen. Look at your own life and you will find the same. It is shocking at first, to see that there are so few patterns of events open to me.

Not that I want more of them. But when I see how very few of them there are, I begin to understand what huge effect these few patterns have on my life, on my capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for me, I can live well. If they are bad for me, I can’t."

— Christopher Alexander (via Gretchen)