Monday, April 20, 2009

On the importance of failure

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.
                                                   -John Dewey
I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300
games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and
missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is
why I succeed.                              
                                            -Michael Jordan (I love that he knows exactly how many times!)
I've been thinking lately about failure. 
It came up when I was reading this great book about Stanley Milgram, one of psychology's most famous researchers.  Milgram devised the famous "obedience experiments" where his participants continued to shock (or at least thoght that they did) their fellow participants into levels which would have been dangerously painful, just because the experimenter said to continue.
But he also discovered that people are generally 6 social connections from everyone in the world (six degrees of separation), by an ingenious random letter experiment.  And spent his career in New York's City College doing urban psychology studies, elaborating on the social psycholgocial consequences of living in cities.  There was one great study where he and his research assistants would go on the subway and ask strangers to give up their seats for no apparent reason.  One of them said it was the hardest thing they have ever done.  It made me wonder what he would have thought about Improv Everywhere (you have probably seen Frozen Grand Central, or the Food Court Musical, but a lot of the videos and stories are great.) or the other seemingly spontaneous crowds in public places singing and dancing phenomena. 
But that is a tangent
Also, just saw Milk, about Harvey Milk, who was clearly destined for greatness beyond his post on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (although he did have some national political victories even in that role).

And both of these (combined with my never-ending dissatisfaction with my own teaching) have led me to remind myself about how important failure is to learning, and to success, and how hard it is to have the courage to fail.  Success is a great, but it is essentially an anti-learning drug for our brains.  Succeeding, or to put it another way, happiness, tells our mind that there is no reason to change course, or do anything different, we are going along just fine.  This is not the way to learn. 

So, despite being an amazingly brilliant student, and doing his ground-breaking obedience studies while he was basically an assistant professor, Milgram failed to get tenure at Harvard.  Later, he failed (actually pretty miserably) on a two rounds of NSF grant submissions (in the second, a new program officer who happened to be his friend resubmitted it for him).  One reviewer wrote:

This is the weakest proposal that I can recall receiving in 18 years of reviewing proposals for NSF"

The movie Milk begins with Harvey Milk saying that he is 40 years old and hasn't done a thing he is proud of.  Then, he moved to San Francisco, set up a small business, and ran and lost for several elected positions 3 times, before winning his Board of Supervisors position, and vaulting to the national stage as the public face of gay America. 

As I have my own sometimes-crippling fear of failure, in grant submissions, or paper submissions, or trying any writing on my own (beyond this stuff, which I am not sure whether it is good or bad).  I try to remind myself that the opposite of success is not failure, but rather inaction.  In fact, failure is not an obstacle to success, but often a prerequisite.  Most things worth doing cannot be done well the first time.  That's why other people aren't doing them.

So, I sometimes think about one of the challenges as a teacher as providing a safe space for students to fail.  Students don't seem to get the importance of this, given that the word "failure" has such negative undertones (and overtones too).  For too many, "failure" means that you didn't perform adequately, and that you didn't learn anything.  But then we scientists go back to our lab and fail and fail and fail, learning a little bit each time.  Learning any skill is the same thing.  Every master carpenter or surgeon has become a master because they challenged themselves and made many many mistakes (Yes!  surgeons make mistakes!  Read Atul Gawande's Complications for an excellent reminder of that)  If it was possible to do something without making mistakes, than computers would be doing it by now.  But somehow we don't let our students in on this little secret, by expecting uniform excellence on assessments.  I think one key to doing this is separating early evaluations of learning from a grade.  In writing, I try to say: you have understood the article that you have read, and fulfilled the requirements of the assignment.  But you have failed in this way and can improve in this way (of course I don't use the word "failed") the writing needs improvement in this way.  Failure is important.  Acknowledging it, correcting it if we can, learning from it if we can't.  This is the key to learning.  I try to do this when a particular aspect of a lesson doesn't seem to work (and sometimes I tell myself that going in front of students with less preparation is ok for this very reason).   I stop and say: "Wow, that was confusing.  Did anyone actually understand what I just said?  Who thinks they understood half of it?" Then, maybe one person will rephrase.  Cognitive psychologists call this metacognition, and many memory studies have found that increasing this leads to increased memory. 

But the point is that success inhibits metacognition.  If you are succeeding, why ask why?  Everything is fine, don't think so much.

If a goal of a college education is that lovely buzzword "lifelong learning"  I think a good place to start would be lifelong appreciation of failure. 

A final thought, from Thomas Alva Edison, who I learned about from reading a kids book in the waiting room of the doctor's office a few weeks ago.  First, he was not a solitary genius.  He had an idea factory, where he employed many many engineers.  Second, the things he "invented" were not out of whole cloth, but mostly making things better.  Like a better switch for a telegraph (going from duplex to triplex, for example).  The ideas were really there, there were relatively few (if any) metaphorical light bulbs going off.  Just a lot of hard work and incremental progress.  And a lot of failure.  I'll leave you with one of his thoughts:

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.
                                Thomas Alva Edison

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Cedar's Digest Weekly Week

This is an old post, that I somehow didn't publish.  You thought you weren't interested in today's news?  Try three weeks ago!  In today' snews cycle, it's ancient!  It's so retro, it's back in style!

Jimmy Fallon is a nerd, he used his show to make a random guy a twitter celebrity

Stringing together 25 of these samsung hard drives can make your computer lightning fast.  How fast?  Open up all 6 Microsoft Office Programs at once.  In 0.5 seconds.  Nice.

A guy got his home broken in to, and he Twittered the news as it was happening (don't worry, the "burglar" passed out in his bathroom)


A description from WIRED of how a guy robbed the world's most secure diamond vault.  (via BoingBoing)


Great piece on how to save journalism but lose print newspapers by Mike Davidson.

No More Money

How the Crash Will Reshape America - fascinating piece in the Atlantic by Richard Florida on how the economic collapse will weigh most heavily on those least regions involved

Knowledge (Education)

The Smart Pen (a pen that records, but links the audio recording to what you are writing) could be great for tying lectures to lecture notes.  See pen demo, but also the application to an anthropology class (from Michael Wesch, that guy who did the anthropological introduction to YouTube)


Interactive map of NYC discontent  (via kottke)

More facebook findings of Cameron Marlow (facebook's resident scientist)


Pictures of grown up Calvin and Hobbes (via kottke)

Elmo and Ricky Gervais outtakes (via waxy)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

AIG bonuses and the constraints of human intelligence

AIG bailout = 178 billion
AIG bonuses = 165 million

As xkcd points out, there is a big difference between a million and a billion.

Many others have weighed in on the same point, the bonuses are only a minute fraction of what AIG got in bailout money. Others, Obama included, have pointed out that the amount of money is not really the point, but that the perception of those who got us into this mess being rewarded (with anything) is really stirring up the popular rage. I think also the very word "bonus" is also a problem point, which is why its defenders are trying to rechristen it "retention pay".

To me, this debate, and our popular understanding of the financial crisis also points out some limits of our national intelligence, but really about the constraints of human intelligence. In some ways, I think that this financial crisis is partly us flying too close to the sun, using the metaphorical wax wings of our limited number sense. I'll muse more about this in my next post, about why we are all bad at statistics.

Some of these points are taken from this piece by Jim Holt in the New Yorker on the work of Stanislas Dehaene (among others) in how our brain understands numerical concepts.

A few main points arise from the bulk of this work:

1) We are much better (faster, more accurate) at dealing with small numbers in our heads than big numbers. That doesn't sound like such bad news. But wait.... Big numbers start at 5.

2) The way that our brain represents addition and subtraction varies tremendously from how we represent multiplication and division (multiplication and division never come naturally).

3) The connection between number and physical space goes, as Dehaene puts it "very, very deep in the brain"

What does this mean for the financial crisis? Let's take number 1. The press can throw around "around 150 billion" and "around 687 million" and that actually means something very different to our brain than saying 1 or 2. Getting above 4 makes things more difficult for our brain, above 100 is like a second language you have a little practice on, above 1 million just doesn't really make sense. I think the big fuss about bonuses is because it is finally getting down to a scale that people can halfway understand. What much of the financial press, the politicians, and the financiers themselves do not understand, is that when they say the word "million" "billion" or "trillion" they are speaking in a different language than most of us understand. They have an understanding of these in the context of their business, in which they may have daily practice with scaling these numbers (it still doesn't come naturally to them, but they have extensive training). But most of us rarely think about numbers much larger than 20, and when we do, we probably need to sit down with a pen and paper. 1 billion is really more of anything than just about anyone ever has cause to think about.

For number 2, quick, what is 7 times 8? The only reason you know this is because you have memorized it as a fact. Just like the capital of North Dakota or what's the longest river in Africa. You may have memorized it well, but that doesn't make it any less arbitary to your brain that the other two facts. How many people in your high school class? How many of those would fit in 1 billion? Again, your brain has to go through a set of operations that you were taught, and this does not come naturally.

Number 3 illustrates why efforts to make us understand these numbers, like the example of your high school class above, will ultimately fall short. Our brain's understanding of number
is tied to physcial space (actually, our brain's understanding of just about everything is tied to something physical or related directly to our body). Which means, since your brain didn't evolve to understand what 1 billion is, it won't really help to tell you that it would be 20 million of your high schools. It doesn't help you all that much to understand that a stack of 1 billion one dollar bills would reach up to the moon (or wherever) and back. Why? Who can jump to the moon? Our understanding of physical space is related to our body, and again, anything over a small distance is quickly abstract and we need tools to understand it. What is a mile, really?

So, what is the message of all this? Well, first, people watching the news, etc, can't really understand what a billion or a trillion is. Maybe they can understand that in the past, when our government had to borrow money we had to borrow around 10 percent or so (oooh, percents, that we can understand, why? food). As the CBO says ( on "The Director's Blog" sounds like some awful DVD extra feature) :
Debt held by the public would rise, from 41 percent of GDP in 2008 to 57 percent in 2009 and then to 82 percent of GDP by 2019 (compared with 56 percent of GDP in that year under baseline assumptions).
Now wasn't that easier than me talking about trillions and billions?

So, using this as a model, I would really like to see a lot more pictures of numbers like this:

Here is one example. If more people understood this simple pie chart, I think we'd have a more honest debate about budget policy.

Or how about this one:

We have an Elements of Style for prose, which is built with around a sophisticated understanding of cognitive limitations for understanding language. Now what we need is an Elements of Style for presenting numbers with a similar understanding of our limited abilities.

Edward Tufte has been harping on this point for years (even trying to write that book), as are some out there designing great graphics. But I think there could be a lot more.

Again, this isn't necessarily because of a failure of our math education system (although it may be partly that) but it is at the root a limitation of the human brain. We should acknowledge that and try to design our expressions of numbers to be clear and to the point. In the same way news anchors and print journalists alike don't use five seven-syllable words in a sentence (see how that was actually much harder to think about than two three-syllable words?) they should stop using billion and trillion as if we all understand exactly what that means.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jon Stewart is NOT a comedian

After the latest Jon Stewart beat down of a media lowlife (in this case, an entire channel, CNBC, as represented by Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli) for providing entertainment and calling it news, a similar script is playing out that did when he went on Crossfire to tell Carlson and Begala "You are hurting America"

Here is the original Daily Show video collage of CNBC missing the boat on the financial crisis, Cramer going on Scarborough Country to complain, and the entire episode when Cramer came on, or only the full Jim Cramer interview (it had to be edited down). You must watch the entire interview. You just must do it. Honestly, it is just great great television. It also works very well because Cramer actually takes Stewart and the interview seriously and makes some of the typical media arguments well enough for Jon to very effectively skewer those ideas. In this interview (not having watched his show) he is actually somewhat sympathetic, in that he is genuinely regretful. That is an emotion that I don't think I have seen on television. Because Jon is clearly using Cramer as an example here ("this song isn't about you"), unlike Crossfire, but as an example of the whole us vs them attitude (in this case main street vs. wall street) and the assumption that we have the media is on our side, when, as Jon points out, not only are they not on our side, but they are sitting on the sides, watching us get cheated, and cheering for the other side. This really holds true for just about every bit of media out there, in terms of this crisis (or even the disaster of the last eight years). Maybe if they were actually on our side, we would be willing to pay for the content that they provide, seeing it as valuable, instead of just buying stuff that they happen to advertise next to the news.

But back to the Jon Stewart media takedown script:

The "victim" expresses disbelief that someone who is "just a comedian" could criticize them.
Jon Stewart responds by saying exactly, I am just a comedian (I follow a show where puppets make crank calls) , you are supposed to be a journalist, reporting the news, not entertainment that has some sort of arbitrary and loose connection to the facts.
Jon always wins (or at least so far).
But they are both wrong.

Jon Stewart (and his underappreciated staff) are satirists.

He takes the media to task for providing entertainment, and calling it news, but he is providing the news, and calling it entertainment.
His viewers know this. The Daily Show bits have a kernel of truth. In fact, they are not really funny if you are not aware of the truth being mocked. And sometimes, when it is really good, you didn't realize the truth until you saw it being mocked.
This kernel of truth is why he is actually more trusted than most "real" newsmen. It is not because people just think he is hilarious. This is why comedy is hard, because it is really a very delicate relationship which hinges on trust. Think about George Carlin.

Why can't we compare him to Mark Twain, or Jonathan Swift, and call him the satirist of our time? The Onion is called a satirical newspaper. Why are Jon's brilliant YouTube and cable news collages (by the way, a lot lower tech than you might think, scroll down to the 4th comment) not seen as incisive satire. It is high time we accepted that The Daily Show is a piece of media satire that would make Twain proud.

Acknowledging Stewart as a satirist would acknowledge his grasp of both political truths, but also that he has feelings about this. Given that his combination of these feelings (I think a bit of truth I remember about a long profile of him by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times was along the lines of "we wake up really really angry in the morning, and have to make it funny by the afternoon"). This is when satirists shine, when there is a lot of stuff to be angry about. And there is never really a shrotage of those things.

One of the common talking points of his "victims" is that he is applying some sort of double standard, by only attacking people who aren't on his side of the political spectrum. "Speaking truth to power" - Scarborough says this, and then say, hey, he picks on us little guys. But Jon Stewart's response is that the media has power.
"CNBC could be an enormously powerful tool of illumination"
These cable news networks have the eyes and ears of their countrymen, that is power. Just ask the most powerful character in Catch-22, ex-Pfc Wintergreen, who controlled the mail room. Rush Limbaugh is owning up to his power (as being the current leader of the opposition party in this country), but somehow whenever cable media figures are caught like this by Jon Stewart, they do the "awww, poor little old me" routine.

Jon Stewart has earned our trust, as a layman, as someone who wakes up angry about the same things we are angry about. So when he says to Jim Cramer
"It feels like we are capitalizing your adventure" - we buy it, we let him speak for us, even though we know that he is not a layman, he is a millionaire himself. He hosted the Oscars! But we don't call him a celebrity misusing his bully pulpit. Why? Because he earned his pulpit, by earning our trust. Not with pratfalls, silly faces and impressions (a running joke on the show is that his impressions are awful) but by waking up mad as hell, and making that anger into laughter, without patronizing us by side-stepping the truth of that anger.

I imagine Jon would say it doesn't quite work if you take it too seriously. If he did this every week, it would start to get tiresome (although there are plenty of worthy targets). And we can stomach the anger with the sugar coating of silly photoshop puns, and there are some cheap laughs.

Ultimately, I think Jon is saving journalism, not only by practicing it, but by policing it. It is good to see that someone is putting the trust that they have built to good use.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Twitter for teachers (Tweechers?), and some thoughts about social networking in education settings

Given that I am both an early adopter, and a college teacher, I have been thinking lately about integrating the latest social networking sites into my classes.  First, I am going to describe the best known (to me of course) social networking sites, how they function (very very briefly, for other better intros, check out this Social networking in Plain English video, this tongue in cheek video, this non-fanatical beginner's guide to Twitter, Evan William's (Twitter CEO)  recent 15 min TED talk or the NYTimes news pieces about Facebook and Twitter.  By the way, even if you don't want the intro, check out the Times links.  They are called "Topics" pages, and are basically wikipedia pages, focused on Times content, but not exclusively.  I think they are going to make it. ).   Then, I’ll debunk a few myths.  Then I’ll offer some general principles, and finally a few examples that have come to my mind about their application to teaching.  I would love to hear any suggestions or comments that you, the few, the proud, the 5 people and my mom that read this blog.

I’ll confine most of my comments to facebook and twitter (and address them somewhat separately), since these are going to win the social networking wars, when MySpace and the rest die out (google already gave up its entry into this field, ok, LinkedIn may continue as a professional social
network).  You can consult the numbers if you want, but facebook is growing amazingly, and its users actually use it.  Ditto with twitter.  Interestingly, they have very similar functionality on the surface, but some small differences in function result in relatively large difference in how they are actually used. 

First, social networking is not a place (despite the fact that some people waste time on facebook, these same people could also waste time on the phone), but a tool, a method of communication.   I think it is far more valuable to think of facebook and twitter as more like the phone, or email, than some sort of web destination.  In fact, what facebook does is consolidate several methods of communication that have been available for years.  This is also a useful analogy when someone gives the kind of reaction that John Stewart recently gave about Twitter:  Basically, why would we want more inane chatter, updating every second with the meaningless trivia of our lives?  I happen to agree that I don’t want more inane chatter.  But twitter and facebook don’t have to be this.  Just because personal
video cassette recorders mostly played porn in the 70’s and early 80’s doesn’t mean that they were useless, just that the real good uses hadn’t been discovered yet.

So, if these sites are communication tools, what kind of communication do they afford?


First, you can use it to email, or send messages.  These are simple messages (you can’t attach
files) but you can attach links and send to multiple people at once, and just about anything else that email does.

Second, you can chat online.  Facebook shows you which of your friends are online, and you can request a chat with any of them.

Third, you can post links or notes.  This is basically a blog.  You can link to a page and put a comment of your own.  Or you can write a note and post that. 

Fourth, you can update your status.  This is a very brief 140 characters (or so, I think) on what you are doing right now, thinking right now, etc.  See the NYTimes on status update style. 

Fifth, you can add photos and videos. 

Finally, there are any number of applications that you can “plug in” to your facebook page, whether it is tracking your travels, your reading habits, a scrabble game, or any number of virtual gift giving applications.

So, if each of these things is basically possible with just email, why join facebook?  Why the craze? Why bother using it with teaching?

Two things set facebook apart.

First, on just about any of the above things, you can comment about some piece of information that your friend has posted. Every single thing on facebook is the potential beginning of a (mostly small talky, chatty, but it doesn't have to be this way) conversation.   This is where the connections happen.  Just like our brain, the magic is in the connections.  By the way, our brain has 100 billion neurons,
but  0.15 quadrillion synapses (an average of 1500 connections per neuron).  This is like having 
571 facebooks, with everyone having  1500 friends).   Think of that next time you lose your keys.  Admittedly there is a lot of inane chatter on facebook (which I actually think is a lot more valuable than people might beleive, but that is for another time) but sometimes facebook absolutely shines as a communication medium.   Here are a few brief greatest hits from my friends (please share one if you can, I'd love to hear more):

First, I had a friend who was scheduled to leave on an international trip from DC, but had forgotten her passport in Milwaukee.  She changed her status update to that, with an "oh no" added at the end.  Within a few hours, someone had suggested getting someone to get let into her apartment and fedexing it to her overnight.  Then, someone else said they were in the neighborhood and could do that this afternoon.  They did it, and she was on her way a day later.  What's amazing to me is that the different friends who helped did not need all of the information, but that the value was in the sharing.

Second,I have a few academic friends who post queries, such as the poet who asks "what is the best way to lecture about Sylvia Plath" or the philosopher who asks "Is the tendency to redeem the bad a virtue of character?".  

Second, the news feed. The news feed takes any of the above pieces of information (excepting the messages that you send directly to a friend, but also including other pieces of info from applications) and randomly posts it to your friends’ news feeds.  You can then choose to hear more or less about certain friends, or about certain kinds of information (I personally like to hear all the status updates, but don’t care who my friends are friends with, or when they update their profile).

What about twitter?

Twitter, at first glance, is just the status updates function of facebook.  Only 140 characters.  That is how it started.  But now it has added the ability to post pictures.  And links. Here is a good beginner’s guide to twitter.

The key point to both of these tools, just as any previous communication medium, is how many people you know who are using it.  The first telephone really wasn’t that helpful.  Nor were the first 100 people who bought one all that enthralled with it. 
The telephone is only helpful if everyone has one.   This is what has happened with facebook.  When everyone is on it (and everyone will be, your parents, your grandparents, your kids) it will be amazing, and it will start to replace the phone.   Already, I haven’t seen any data on this, but I am virtually certain, it is the most permanent part of a college student’s online identity.  My students rarely use email, and may change email addresses often, or even change phone numbers (and addresses), but no one could imagine changing your facebook identity, and going through the trouble of re-gathering your whole social network.

A few myths to debunk. 

First, the internet is not a monolithic medium (hopefully we are beyond that, but it bears being
repeated).  Meaning, spending hours on the internet actually tells you very little about how someone spends their time, whether it is useful and cognitively demanding, etc.  One could be spending hours making stupid and mean chitchat on a discussion board, or participating in a real discussion about politics in Zimbabwe, or gathering expertise and skills and contributing to a bustling online

Likewise, facebook and twitter use is not monolithic.  Some update their status with a lot of meaningless moments about what they are eating, how long the commute was, how they are happy the weekend is here, etc. (no offense, I do this a lot too: sample recent status update: Hmmm, Brussels sprouts).   But there are also real problems that are solved, magically and miraculously, by a hive mind of one’s trusted acquaintances.  I personally have had face-to-face contact with a childhood friend who currently lives in Venezuela who casually mentioned in his status update that he would be swinging through the Bay Area.  He didn’t even know that I lived there, but we had dinner, reminisced about old times, and now have had several conversations online (via facebook, and this blog) about the death of

Twitter is also not monolithic, and while its beginnings are so simple and austere, its use has evolved to include some really interesting possiblities.  A plant can twitter when it needs water, a drawbridge can twitter when it is up or down.  It is only a matter of time before your parking space twitters when it is empty.  
So, some people use twitter as a way to exchange little thoughts with their friends about a great sandwich, and some use it for marketing (see LA-area Korean taco truck).  What interests me about twitter is its integration of your friends with celebrities and outside news sources.  In facebook, the only communication is two way. 
A friendship must be two way, so celebrities would not likely have 16000 friends, because each of these 16000 would have access to all of their status updates, some of which would be personal (although there is a way to tweak this, facebook doesn't make this easy - the become a fan mechanism doesn't integrate well with the rest of your facebook experience).  On twitter, the relationship can
be one way.   You “following” someone, and that person “following” you are separate things.  So I can get Shaq’s tweets without him paying any attention to me.  (What’s interesting, is that this actually is not as one way as it sounds, even though Shaq has 180,000 followers, he still manages to add a personal touch to his twitter usage, see great story about meeting some fans in a diner, after he announced he was there on twitter).

Ok, so general principles.  
Why should teachers care about these tools?  First, because students use them.  I am sure you could tune into a conversation in the teacher’s lounge ten (maybe fifteen) years ago about email and how it was something teenagers were using to send meaningless po trivia and vastly important teenage gossip, and how there was little use for zapping instant messages to students.  Second because
they can be very powerful tools for learning. 

How can they be valuable tools for learning?  Because interaction is central to these new modes of communication.  Facebook’s mechanism for comments make it so quick and easy to have conversations (again, based on any bit of information) that makes Blackboard style “forums” look very clunky in comparison.   Also, I think that students come in with an interactive frame of mind.  They come at
it as participants, not as passive viewers, and leveraging that in our teaching can help.  Just as turning off the lights and showing a video in class can put students in passive movie watching mode, I think putting class content on facebook and twitter can help students want to participate.

They integrate many media (websites, text notes, photo and video) in a seamless and easily usable way.

So 140 characters is a very small nugget of information.  As I tell my students who complain about 2 pages not being enough to summarize a 17 page article.  If I told you to do it in a setence, you could, if I told you you had a paragraph, you could.  I think condensing thought into such a small chunk can actually be really valuable, and encourage an attention to the detail of words (do you really need that "the"?) that is a great way to teach writing.  Think editing and grading tweets sounds ridiculous?  Why any more ridiculous than the standard 500 word essay?

They can be used to engage what I feel to be a vital part of critical thinking, which is perspective taking.

Ok, a couple of examples.

First, in my cognitive science class last semester, one of the student’s favorite classes was when the philosophy professor and I co-taught, and co-guided the discussion on the section on language. Seeing both the perspective of the cognitive psychologist and the philosopher, and seeing them interact, was really valuable to the students.   This could happen on facebook in the comments as a philosopher, cognitive scientist, etc, weigh in on a piece of reading (or movie, or link, etc), even if only in a few words as a comment.

Second, someone is twittering the diary of an 18th century farm girl.  Someone also began twittering masquerading as Shaquille O’Neal, with witticisms reminiscent of Shaq’s style.  This got me thinking that it might be cool to have historical figures twitter in a history class.  I am teaching history of psychology next semester, and I am imagining Sigmund Freud having a few tweets, (“Just got out
with a patient, Whoa, Anna O.”)  then Jung coming along and responding then a little back and forth (maybe even excerpts from the Freud-Jung letters), then Skinner.  Then later thinkers.  This could take place in concert with the discussion in class.  I was thinking of assigning each person in class a role to play. 
What would Freud think about Maslow? 
What did Skinner think of William James? 
What would either of them think of modern neuroscience?  These are really hard questions, but make you really understand the theories and worldviews of these thinkers.  I think that kind of perspective taking is at the basis of critical thinking, and could be a great use of twitter in class.  It could also be tremendous fun.

Alright, I’ll stop there.

I’ll leave you with a few tools that could help you with similar projects.  Tweetlater lets you schedule tweets to appear later, so you don’t have to go on every day, but you could write 40 one line tweets for Freud in advance, and have them appear twice a week.  Tweetvisor organizes into conversations, and helps with multiple accounts.  Tweetree also helps with conversations and embeds the multimedia so that you don’t have to click on a link.

Thanks for reading, I'd really love to hear what y'all think.  Naysayers welcome.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What's the big deal with Twitter (and Facebook)

What's the big deal with Twitter? 
This post is about the "latest" social networking craze of very short personal updates, sent fairly often.
People do this on Twitter, or on Facebook status updates.  Many people think these status updates are frivolous, trivial things that young people with too much time on their hands do.  I think that if you pay close enough attention, you can see the amazing potential that these tools have.

First, the small bit of emotional currency exchanged by sharing a bit of yourself to your acquaintances (that's who "follows" you on Twitter, or your "friends" on Facebook) is actually important, and real.  Increasing the strength of connections between you and your acquaintances is basically what facebook and twitter does, and to me it is really interesting how amazing this can be.

Two examples:
Me reading about a grad school acquaintance's exploits and witticisms (and responding to them, this is key) led her to ask me a more serious and personal question about the job search, which also led me to spend more time and energy answering it.  None of this took place over the phone, but our connnection is a lot better than if we had just gone our separate ways.  
A childhood friend sent a status update saying he was coming to the area to his facebook friends, and we ended up hanging out and catching up. 

Second: Keeping track of all your acquaintances, whether by twitter or by facebook, is a way of storing all their collective knowledge and wisdom, for whenever you need it.  James Pogue, the technology columnist for the NYT put it this way:
"I was serving on a grant proposal committee, and I watched as a fellow judge asked his Twitter followers if a certain project had been tried before. In 15 seconds, his followers replied with Web links to the information he needed. No e-mail message, phone call or Web site could have achieved the same effect. (It’s only a matter of time before some “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” contestant uses Twitter as one of his lifelines.)"
I've seen this work as well on facebook.  Every now and then, someone will post a question.  Friends will then respond.  I've seen some amazing group problem solving at work on facebook.  One was someone was in DC and forgot their passport in Milwaukee.  Within hours, one of her friends suggested a solution and another was in a position to implement it.

The third thing I see from twitter is the potential to mix personal and societal news sources.  A twitter account could include your mom and dad, as well as Shaquille O'Neal, Tina Fey ("I don't know why I bother chewing corn anymore") and other celebrities.  It could include links to your favorite blogs or columnists.  I am also intrigued by other uses of twitter, like letting you know whether a drawbridge is up, or when a plant needs water (each of these is now available).

Finally, I don't really use twitter.  Why?  I only have 8 followers and 8 following.  Facebook on the other hand, I have close to 200 friends (although most of my friends have much more), and I use it all the time.  These tools are only as useful as your social network. 

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Cedar's digest guide to the financial crisis

Ok, so, I am trying to post something every week now.  We'll see how long that lasts.  This week, a collection of thoughts and links on our financial crisis, with a psychological approach.

For beginners, or people interested in seeing a quick visual way of looking at how things went down, take a look at the long flow chart over at FlowingData.  I like it that it is a timeline, which includes both events and quotes.  I am sure that it simplifies some complex issues, but it is overall pretty good introduction.  Another excellent introduction is, amazingly enough, from This American Life, on NPR.

Second, I have been thinking a lot about Jared Diamond's book, Collapse, in relation to the financial crisis.  The book tracks the collapse of different civilizations, from the Anasazi, to Easter Island, to the Scandanavians in Greenland, to modern day Rwanda.  One of the central themes of the book is that people do not plan ahead.  Period.  Across cultures, across times, climate, weather, whatever.  If there is a 5 year period of great rains and crops, people feel great, they have more children, then, when it is followed by a 10 year drought, thousands (if not millions) of people die, whether by starving, or by killing each other.  This same pattern is evident in the way that the financial industry calculated and assessed risk (see NYTimes Mag on risk and VAR).  In short, the complex statistical model that was used, only used a few years in the past, and had no way of predicting how big the risk was (it could predict with reasonable accuracy 95% of the time, but it had no way of predicting how big the gain or loss could be the other 5%).  The other problem with the model was that it became the industry standard.  For an industry that purports to solve problems with competition, no one seemed to see anything wrong with a monopoly of risk models.  If competition and diversity is good, they should be good there too.

What about the psychology in these economic events?  I think it is most useful to apply what we know about psychology to three particular phenomena.  First, the securitization and separation of the mortgages from a relationship between lender and borrower to one between a complex and dispersed network of investors and a borrower.  Second, the attack on "corporate greed" and executive bonuses.  Finally, what to do in the future.

When the mortgages started getting sliced and diced and sold as securities, and later more like bonds, it effectively transformed something that was long term and low risk into something short term, with varying levels of risk (the NYRB has a good review of the history of this: Jeff Madrick on "How We Were Ruined and What We Can Do").  Combined with all of the de-regulation of the 90's, form my perspective, the chief effect of doing this was that a long-term loan now became a short-term security.  In doing this, it was in everyone's best interest to prop up the housing market, and in no one's best interest to evaluate the long term.  I think psychology research (and Diamond's book too) show that people do not need help reacting to short term incentives (there are various cognitive biases which show how our memories are short, our decisions are based on more recent events far more than they should be, etc), but what we need government, or rules, or groups of reasonable people to do, is help us keep our long term interests in mind.    The financial system was in effect an echo chamber for our worst short term impulses. 
This leads me to attacks on corporate greed, and the hubbub over executive bonuses (and bonuses in general) on Wall Street.  I think to label it greed is counterproductive, and seeking to "punish" the leaders of these companies is distracting from the real issue.  Punishing the people, and ignoring the incentive structure that drove their decisions, will just get us into this same mess again.  So, what were their incentives?  The "efficient markets hypothesis" would say that the stock price is all the incentive a company needs, and that things will work themselves out.  This is clearly not the case.  So what was the problem?  Was it a few greedy nakers who took too much risk and got caught gambling with more money than their companies had?  No, it was an entire industry that was encouraged to gamble.  We should have realized this with Enron (and many did, despite the "no one could have seen this coming" attitude that Greenspan et al take now).  When everything that the company was evaluated on was tied to the stock price, the very smart Enron people (Andrew Skilling especialy) figured out how to effectively make the stock price go up (again, mostly in the short term) without actually doing much else (i.e. generating anything else of real value).  Saying that they got personally rich misses the point, just as it does in the current situation.  The bankers, and the companies they ran, were only looking in the short term, because that is what the system they were in supported, in addition to the fact that this is the way people think.  Rather than attack corporate greed, or 40,000 dollar toilets, or whatever, I would hope that we would realize that this isn't just a few bad apples, or even a bad tree or two, but bad soil we are talking about here.

So, the future.  I have tried to learn enough about our money system to figure out what the proposed solutions are, but I haven't heard enough talk about the above in stark terms; that what supported this mess was a massive reliance on short term strategies, and in the market's ability to police itself.  We don't just need more effective policeman (to prevent future Madoff's) but we need an enitrely different incentive structure.   I can accept that entirely nationalizing the whole financial system might not be optimal, but neither is a situation where we have individual banks and bankers taking risks that they know will be insured by the federal government if they fail, but if they win they get the profits.  It seems like when talk gets to the terms of some of these deals, there gets to be some concern that if the deal isn't good enough, if there aren't enough incentives for the companies to participate, they won't want to, so we need to make the terms good enough for them.  I have been disappointed in is that no one takes the next step and says, well, the current incentive structure has gotten us into this mess, why are we still acting as if it works?  This smart guy (Sal Khan, he has over 700 youtube videos explaining math, finance, physics, and programming) has proposed that maybe the entire financial system is corrupted, and it might be cheaper and easier to invent an entirely new one.  In other words, the point of the financial system is to move money from people who don't need it right then (savings, investments, etc), to people who do need it (startup businesses, building projects, etc).  Why not invent a new system, knowing what we do now?  Sounds crazy, but I think that is a good start.  Recognizing that the system is fundamentally bankrupt, not just a few bad apples.  Michael Lewis and David Einhorn in the NYTimes
have a good long op-ed that I think everyone should read.
So, this post is far too long, obviously, but I think approaching the financial crisis like a psychologist yields the following insights: A) the bankers were not greedy and evil, just acting according to the incentives that were in their situation, B) to fix the situation, we will have to change these incentives, not just the personel, and weeding out "good" banks from "bad" banks.

Some other random links that I have found interesting about this: What a modern depression would look like... from the Boston Globe.
A brief piece about why money has no value, from Patrick Rhone.  I have been thinking about this idea more and more too, and how the financial crisis makes it more apparent what things have real value including obvious things like food, shelter and family and friends, but also less obvious things such as skills of making stuff that people can actually use.  As things become more and more expensive to get from China, a lot of things that were once disposable (like, say, shoes) now need fixing.

Thanks for tuning in.  Next post will be a light one, about how to get more out of twitter, or, for those of you who would never join in a million years, what the big fuss is about.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Impending Death of Newspapers

Lately I have been obsessed with the impending death of newspapers. While I don't sit down every day and read a newspaper, I just can't imagine life without the New York Times (here is a scenario by which the NYT goes bankrupt by May, from the Atlantic Monthly). And I have some nostalgia for newsprint, but really, not that much. So, here are a few thoughts, in random order, annotated with some of the sources that have led to these thoughts:

What is dying? The traditional print edition of the traditional hometown newspaper is dying. I think making it this specific is important, because news itself is not dying, just the version of it that many of us had become comfortable with. Interesting thing about it, is that newspapers knew this a long long time ago:
"The industry has understood from the advent of AM radio in the 1920s that technology would eventually be its undoing and has always behaved accordingly."
From Jack Schafer's great piece at Slate "How newspapers tried to invent the web and failed"
Here is also a cute little piece on the evening news about the newspaper delivered over the phone to a personal computer (my favorite bit is how the guy using this service is given a caption of "personal computer owner")

So, newspapers have known for along time that they were going to be done in by technology, and mostly their efforts have been to stall the technology, not to adopt it and change their business model. One interesting point I hadn't totally realized until I read this piece in Philadelphia Magazine was that while the editorial content obviously has more competitors now that everyone has a blog, the reason for the financial failure in newspapers is almost purely from the lack of advertising (although I suppose that does eventually come back to the fact that the eyes are going elsewhere, so advertisers follow the eyes). So, really, Craigslist is mostly to blame for taking down all these papers. Funny that craigslist founder Craig Newmark has made zero dollars on all his fame. But anyways...

Given that something is dying, what is going to stay? Will the freedom of the press become just as irrelevant as our freedom to choose our electric company? Will there be no more press? I think what will mostly happen is that newspapers will stop entirely doing those things that they have been not doing well for years now. (This point is made in more depth by Clay Shirky on newspapers and online media) Personal ads, reporting on things that others do much better, such as sports scores, etc. What I hope, and I think this is reasonable, is that they continue to do well those things that they have done well, which is to provide a good forum for the columnists and thinkers we have come to know and love (any look at the most emailed at NYTimes usually includes Krugman, Brooks, etc), deep investigative reporting, and organizing the mountains of information available these days to anyone with an internet connection.
Why newspapers should be endowed nonprofits, from the NYT

Regarding the first: Now that you can get an email digest of someone' s columns, or have an RSS feed in your personal page (iGoogle, or yahoo, or whatever), the brand of the person is getting to be bigger than the paper. Of course this did happen in the past, but not as much as now. There is no more paging to your favorite columnist, you just go straight to that, skipping the masthead. As times go on, I wonder if people will more and more simply subscribe to their favorites, and not bother with the traditional front page at all, until a big event happens. I find myself doing this now. I don't think this is a terrible thing, that the name recognition of the writer means more than the paper. Check out Christopher Hitchens on being waterboarded (I forget where from). Or Roger Ebert, a brand unto himself, and worth it. Great film critic, but also cultural commentator. The value of the written word persists. The Huffington Post recognizes this, and gives the byline a much much bigger font size than traditional media.

Regarding the second and third: Deep investigative reporting is not what it used to be. Cultivating sources and getting to stories that are neglected and not told elsewhere will still happen, but not with nearly the kind of frequency as it has in the past decades. What will increase, I believe, will be more opportunities to use a sophistication with data and multiple sources of information and consolidate it into one easy place. The NYTimes is finally discovering that there are more ways to add value than the text narrative, and they are expanding their definition of journalism to meet their readers.
Some good examples of this:
NYTimes introduces Congress API and an interactive visualization of all of the parking tickets for one year in NY. Also recently announced: The Best Sellers API, where programmers can take the data (and there is a lot of great data) of the NYTimes best seller list, and put it to good use, like a book suggestion program. There was a profile in New York Magazine of the new New York Times journalist/programmers. The NYT is now having a big fun "hack day" for programmers to come up with cool ways to use all the data that they have (they adopt an Open Source attitude, towards this at least).
The Boston Globe has filled a photography niche with its The Big Picture, a really nice website of news photos (check out their Earth from Above)

Part of the problem that newspapers have is that the public's trust in them has both eroded and splintered. Maybe people didn't entirely trust Hearst newspapers, but they were pretty much the only game in town, so they got all the trust that people could give to a media institution. Now you can instantly cross check the NYT, Wash Post, Daily Kos, HuffPo and Daily Kos. There are so many little niches that the one behemoth that provides everything just doesn't work anymore. This trend is accentuated by the ease of aggregation of content from many sources. It is actually very easy to pull together your own "newspaper" of sorts, with sports done by ESPN, politics by 538, everything else by Jon Stewart and Colbert . Of course what happens is a Big Sort, but for media, such that I could go a week without reading anything I disagreed with, which I don't think is actually a very good thing, convenient in the short run, but I think a long term bad. The other thing in addition to aggregation is the value of a trustworthy filter for the mountains of news and information that come from everywhere.
Some filters that I have found useful are: - quick links to interesting stuff, videos, news stories, etc. Has a nerdy flavor (some video games and comics and computer stuff) - Also very nerdy, but every third or fourth link is something fascinating
that you wouldn't have found anywhere else
Give me something to read, an aggregator that gives you a few things to read, based on what other people (who use a service called instapaper) have bookmarked. This is really interesting because it basically spits out at you an interesting or noteworthy piece from anywhere, but mostly The Atlantic, The New Republic, WSJ, NYT, WaPo, NYRB, New Yorker, the Guardian, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, which no one has the time to read all of them. The toread tag on delicious works similarly
There is also: the most emailed news, a site that aggregates the most emailed news stories across newspapers

I should just stop, and of course say that just about nothing from this post is original, but that I thought many of my readers (all 5 of you) might find some of this interesting given that some of it has come from sources that might not pass your radar screen. It is, after all, Cedar's digest.