Study Hard to Study Well

(p. D6) In a recent study published in the journal Cognition, psychologists at Princeton and Indiana University had 28 men and women read about three species of aliens, each of which had seven characteristics, like “has blue eyes,” and “eats flower petals and pollen.” Half the participants studied the text in 16-point Arial font, and the other half in 12-point Comic Sans MS or 12-point Bodoni MT, both of which are relatively unfamiliar and harder for the brain to process.
After a short break, the participants took an exam, and those who had studied in the harder-to-read fonts outperformed the others on the test, 85.5 percent to 72.8 percent, on average.
To test the approach in the classroom, the researchers conducted a large experiment involving 222 students at a public school in Chesterland, Ohio. One group had all its supplementary study materials, in English, history and science courses, reset in an unusual font, like Monotype Corsiva. The others studied as before. After the lessons were completed, the researchers evaluated the classes’ relevant tests and found that those students who’d been squinting at the stranger typefaces did significantly better than the others in all the classes — particularly in physics.
“The reason that the unusual fonts are effective is that it causes us to think more deeply about the material,” a co-author of the study, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton, wrote in an e-mail. “But we are capable of thinking deeply without being subjected to unusual fonts. Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully.”
Then again, so will raw effort, he and other researchers said. Concentrating harder. Making outlines from scratch. Working through problem sets without glancing at the answers. And studying with classmates who test one another.

For the full story, see:
BENEDICT CAREY. “MIND; Come On, I Thought I Knew That!” The New York Times (Tues., April 19, 2011): D5-D6.
(Note: the online version of the article is dated April 18, 2011.)

The forthcoming article that is discussed in the quotes above, is:
Diemand-Yauman, Connor, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, and Erikka B. Vaughan. “Fortune Favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of Disfluency on Educational Outcomes.” Cognition (2010).

With Wit and Wisdom Bryson Shows How Home Life Has Improved


Source of book image:

Bill Bryson is best known for his witty travelogues. In recent years he has become more ambitious, venturing into the history of science, and now the history of domestic life. He is a keen observer with eyes open to the unexpected, the important and the droll. His latest book, At Home, contains much evidence and some useful analysis of how ordinary life has improved in western societies in the past couple of hundred years.
In the next several weeks, I plan to quote a few of the more illuminating passages from the book.

The Bryson book:
Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

“Big Money Is Dumb Money”

“Other People’s Money” is a short story that appears in Cory Doctorow’s short story collection With a Little Help.

(p. C7) Venture capitalists? Forget them, says “Other People’s Money.” Big money is dumb money. Much easier, says one old-lady manufacturer to a smart young gigafund manager, for her to make and market her own product, and keep the money (just like Mr. Doctorow), than for him to find and fund a hundred products and take a rake-off. He only deals in six-figure multiples, and that’s no good: not nimble enough. And he has to get a return on all those billions, poor outdated soul.

For the full review, see:
TOM SHIPPEY. “The Author as Agent of Change; Cory Doctorow has big ideas about the future of technology–and how it can empower writers.” The New York Times (Sat., MAY 21, 2011): C7.

The book of short stories is:
Doctorow, Cory. With a Little Help.

The Secret to a Long Life Is Conscientiousness


Source of book image: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) Cheerfulness, optimism, extroversion and sociability may make life more enjoyable, but they won’t necessarily extend it, Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin found in a study that covered eight decades. The key traits are prudence and persistence. “The findings clearly revealed that the best childhood personality predictor of longevity was conscientiousness,” they write, “the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor — somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree.”
. . .
There are three explanations for the dominant role of conscientiousness. The first and most obvious is that conscientious people are more likely to live healthy lifestyles, to not smoke or drink to excess, wear seat belts, follow doctors’ orders and take medication as prescribed. Second, conscientious people tend to find themselves not only in healthier situations but also in healthier relationships: happier marriages, better friendships, healthier work situations.
The third explanation for the link between conscientiousness and longevity is the most intriguing. “We thought it must be something biological,” Dr. Friedman said. “We ruled out every other factor.” He and other researchers found that some people are biologically predisposed to be not only more conscientiousness but also healthier. “Not only do they tend to avoid violent deaths and illnesses linked to smoking and drinking,” they write, “but conscientious individuals are less prone to a whole host of diseases, not just those caused by dangerous habits.” The precise physiological explanation is unknown but seems to have to do with levels of chemicals like serotonin in the brain.
As for optimism, it has its downside. “If you’re cheerful, very optimistic, especially in the face of illness and recovery, if you don’t consider the possibility that you might have setbacks, then those setbacks are harder to deal with,” Dr. Martin said. “If you’re one of those people who think everything’s fine — ‘no need to back up those computer files’ — the stress of failure, because you haven’t been more careful, is harmful. You almost set yourself up for more problems.”

For the full review, see:
KATHERINE BOUTO. “BOOKS ON SCIENCE; Eighty Years Along, a Longevity Study Still Has Ground to Cover.” The New York Times (Tues., April 19, 2011): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated April 18, 2011.)

The book under review is:
Friedman, Howard S., and Leslie R. Martin. The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. New York: Hudson Street Press, 2011.

Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons Did Not Much Overlap: Evidence Against an Early Human Golden Age

In 2010 archeologist Brian Fagan published a book that used his read of the evidence to imagine the interactions between Cro-Magnon (us) and Neanderthal humans. He mostly portrayed the interaction as one of wary, but mainly benign mutual neglect. His broader portrayal of the lives of the hunter-gatherer Cro-Magnons did not completely place them in a Golden Age, but did much to praise many aspects of their lives.
Also in 2010, Matt Ridley published a book that discussed and dismissed the view that the hunter-gatherers were to be admired. He mainly pointed to the evidence of how common violent death was among hunter-gatherers, and hence how precarious and fearful their lives must have been.
Now there is additional relevant evidence. Apparently the period of overlap between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals was much briefer than had been previously believed. This implies (see below) that rather than benign mutual neglect, it is much more likely that the Cro-Magnons violently wiped out the Neanderthals.
Hobbes may not have been entirely wrong when he described early human life as “nasty, poor, brutish and short.”

(p. D4) An improvement in the dating of fossils suggests that the Neanderthals, a heavily muscled, thick-boned human species adapted to living in ice age Europe, perished almost immediately on contact with the modern humans who started to enter Europe from the Near East about 44,000 years ago. Until now bones from several Neanderthal sites have been dated to as young as 29,000 years ago, suggesting there was extensive overlap between the two human species. This raised the question of whether there had been interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals, an issue that is still not resolved.
. . .
Reviewing . . . Neanderthal dates ascertained with the new ultrafiltration method, Dr. Higham sees an emerging pattern that no European Neanderthal site can reliably be dated to less than 39,000 years ago. “It’s only with reliable techniques that we can interpret the archaeological past,” he said.
He is re-dating Neanderthal sites across Europe and so far sees no evidence for any extensive overlap between Neanderthals and modern humans. “There was a degree of contemporaneity, but it may not have been very long,” he said. A short period of contact would point to the extinction of the Neanderthals at the hands of modern humans.
“It’s very unlikely for Neanderthals to go extinct without some agency from modern humans,” Dr. Higham said.
Paul Mellars, an expert on Neanderthals at Cambridge University in England, said that the quality of the dates from Dr. Higham’s laboratory was superb and that samples of bone re-dated by the lab’s method were almost always found to be several thousand years older than previously measured. The picture supported by the new dates is that the interaction between modern humans and Neanderthals in Europe was brief in each region, lasting perhaps a few hundred years, Dr. Mellars said, until the modern humans overwhelmed their competitors through better technology and greater numbers.

For the full story, see:
NICHOLAS WADE. “Neanderthals and Early Humans May Not Have Mingled Much.” The New York Times (Tues., May 10, 2011): D4.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 9, 2011.)

The Fagan book is:
Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

The Ridley book is:
Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

Salem Issues Psychic Licenses to Protect Public from the Untrained

StathopoulosLoreleiSupportsFewerLicences2011-06-02.jpg “Lorelei Stathopoulos is concerned Salem will lose its “quaint reputation.”” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A11) SALEM, Mass. — Like any good psychic, Barbara Szafranski claims she foresaw the problems coming.

Her prophecy came in 2007, as the City Council was easing its restrictions on the number of psychics allowed to practice in this seaside city, where self-proclaimed witches, angels, clairvoyants and healers still flock 319 years after the notorious Salem witch trials. Some hoped for added revenues from extra licenses and tourists. Others just wanted to bring underground psychics into the light.
Just as Ms. Szafranski predicted, the number of psychic licenses has drastically increased, to 75 today, up from a mere handful in 2007. And now Ms. Szafranski, some fellow psychics and city officials worry the city is on psychic overload.
. . .
“Many of them are not trained,” she said of her rivals. “They don’t understand that when you do a reading you hold a person’s life in your hands.”
Christian Day, a warlock who calls himself the “Kathy Griffin of witchcraft,” thinks the competition is good for Salem.
“I want Salem to be the Las Vegas of psychics,” said Mr. Day, who used to work in advertising and helped draft the 2007 regulations. Since they went into effect, he has opened two stores, Hex and Omen.
. . .
Now, talk has started about new regulations that would include a cap on the number of psychic businesses, but the grumbling has in no way reached the level of viciousness that occurred in 2007, when someone left the mutilated body of a raccoon outside Ms. Szafranski’s shop and Mr. Day and Ms. Stathopoulos got into a fight.

For the full story, see:
KATIE ZEZIMA. “Witchy Town’s Worry: Do Too Many Psychics Spoil the Brew?” The New York Times (Fri., May 27, 2011): A11.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story is dated May 26, 2011.)

DayChristianSupportsCompetition2011-06-02.jpg “Christian Day, who owns two shops, thinks competition is a good thing.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

The Importance of a Picture

Pictures can be doctored, especially in the days of Photoshop. But a visual image still makes a story more memorable, and maybe sometimes more believable. This was so for Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984:

(p. 64) Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth. Just once in his life he had possessed–after the event: that was what counted–concrete, unmistakable evidence of an act of falsification. He had held it between his fingers for as long as thirty seconds.
. . .
(p. 67) . . . , in 1973, Winston was unrolling a wad of documents which had just flopped out of the pneumatic tube on to his desk when he came on a fragment of paper which had evidently been slipped in among the others and then forgotten. The instant he had flattened it out he saw its significance. It was a half-page torn out of ‘The Times’ of about ten years earlier–the top half of the page, so that it included the date–and it contained a photograph of the delegates at some Party function in New York. Prominent in the middle of the group were Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford. There was no mistaking them, in any case their names were in the caption at the bottom.
The point was that at both trials all three men had confessed that on that date they had been on Eurasian soil. They had flown from a secret airfield in Canada to a rendezvous somewhere in Siberia, and had conferred with members of the Eurasian General Staff, to whom they had betrayed important military secrets. The date had stuck in Winston’s memory because it chanced to be midsummer day; but the whole story must be on record in countless other places as well. There was only one possible conclusion: the confessions were lies.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: The New American Library, 1961 [1949].
(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

By Canadian law, 1984 is no longer under copyright. The text has been posted on the following Canadian web site:

To Burst Higher Ed Bubble, Peter Thiel Pays Students to Drop Out


“Peter Thiel.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B4) Parents, do you hope that your children have the chance to become like Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, Facebook investor and hedge fund manager? If so, Mr. Thiel suggests that you encourage them to drop out of school. In fact, he will help by paying them to do it.

On Wednesday, the Thiel Foundation, funded by Mr. Thiel, announced the first group of Thiel Fellows, 24 people under 20 who have agreed to drop out of school in exchange for a $100,000 grant and mentorship to start a tech company.
More than 400 people applied. The winners include Laura Deming, 17, who is developing antiaging therapies; Faheem Zaman, 18, who is building mobile payment systems for developing countries; and John Burnham, 18, who is working on extracting minerals from asteroids and comets.
. . .
Mr. Thiel, a contrarian investor and libertarian known for his controversial views, knows that suggesting that education is not always worth it strikes at the core of many Americans’ beliefs. But that is exactly why is he doing it.
“We’re not saying that everybody should drop out of college,” he said. The fellows agree to stop getting a formal education for two years but can always go back to school. The problem, he said, is that “in our society the default assumption is that everybody has to go to college.”
“I believe you have a bubble whenever you have something that’s overvalued and intensely believed,” Mr. Thiel said. “In education, you have this clear price escalation without incredible improvement in the product. At the same time you have this incredible intensity of belief that this is what people have to do. In that way it seems very similar in some ways to the housing bubble and the tech bubble.”
. . .
“What I really liked about this program is it’s giving a lot of people who maybe wouldn’t get into Harvard an opportunity to participate in something just as selective and just as valuable and just as educational,” Mr. Burnham said. “It’s giving them that opportunity even though their personalities and characters don’t quite fit the academic mold.”
His father, Stephen Burnham, said the decision for his son to skip college, at least for now, was uncontroversial.
“There’s a lot of other stuff that you get in college and I would say that would be useful for John,” he said. “But I would say in four years there’s a big opportunity cost there if you could be out starting your career doing something that could change the world.”

For the full story, see:
CLAIRE CAIN MILLER. “Changing the World by Dropping Out.” The New York Times (Mon., May 30, 2011): B4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story is dated May 25 (sic), 2011, has the title “Want Success in Silicon Valley? Drop Out of School,” and is longer than the published version. Most of what is quoted above appears in both the published and online versions, but some (most notably the paragraph on the education bubble and the quotes from Stephen Burnham) appear only in the online verison.)

“Surprisingly Weak Correlation” Between Measures of Maximum Performance and Typical Performance

(p. C12) In the early 1980s, Paul Sackett, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, began measuring the speed of cashiers at supermarkets. Workers were told to scan a few dozen items as quickly as possible while a scientist timed them. Not surprisingly, some cashiers were much faster than others.

But Mr. Sackett realized that this assessment, which lasted just a few minutes, wasn’t the only way to measure cashier performance. Electronic scanners, then new in supermarkets, could automatically record the pace of cashiers for long stretches of time. After analyzing this data, it once again became clear that levels of productivity varied greatly.
Mr. Sackett had assumed that these separate measurements would generate similar rankings. Those cashiers who were fastest in the short test should also be the fastest over the long term. But instead he found a surprisingly weak correlation between the rankings, leading him to distinguish between two types of personal assessment. One measures “maximum performance”: People who know they’re being tested are highly motivated and focused, just like those cashiers scanning a few items while being timed.
The other type measures “typical performance”–measured over long periods of time, as when Mr. Sackett recorded the speed of cashiers who didn’t know they were being watched. In this sort of test, character traits that have nothing to do with maximum performance begin to influence the outcome. Cashiers with speedy hands won’t have fast overall times if they take lots of breaks.
. . .
The problem, of course, is that students don’t reveal their levels of grit while taking a brief test. Grit can only be assessed by tracking typical performance for an extended period. Do people persevere, even in the face of difficulty? How do they act when no one else is watching? Such traits often matter more than raw talent. We hear about them in letters of recommendation, but hard numbers take priority.
The larger lesson is that we’ve built our society around tests of performance that fail to predict what really matters: what happens once the test is over.

For the full commentary, see:
JONAH LEHRER. “Measurements That Mislead; From the SAT to the NFL, the problem with short-term tests.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., APRIL 2, 2011): C12.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The classic article correlating maximum and typical performance, is:
Sackett, Paul R., Sheldon Zedeck, and Larry Fogli. “Relationships between Measures of Typical and Maximum Performance.” Journal of Applied Psychology 73 (1988): 482-86.

New Jersey Citizens Rebel Against “Ugly” Solar Panels

SolarPanelsFailLawnNewJersey2011-06-02.jpg “Solar panels along Fifth Street in Fair Lawn, N.J. Residents elsewhere were upset they had not been notified before installation.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) ORADELL, N.J. — Nancy and Eric Olsen could not pinpoint exactly when it happened or how. All they knew was one moment they had a pastoral view of a soccer field and the woods from their 1920s colonial-style house; the next all they could see were three solar panels.

“I hate them,” Mr. Olsen, 40, said of the row of panels attached to electrical poles across the street. “It’s just an eyesore.”
. . .
(p. A3) New Jersey is second only to California in solar power capacity thanks to financial incentives and a public policy commitment to renewable energy industries seeded during Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s administration. . . .
Some residents consider the overhanging panels “ugly” and “hideous” and worry aloud about the effect on property values.
Though nearly halfway finished, the company’s crews have encountered some fresh resistance in Bergen County, where cities, villages and boroughs are in varying stages of mortification. Local officials have forced a temporary halt in many towns as they seek assurances that they will not be liable in case of injury, but also to buy time for suggesting alternative sites — like dumps — to spare their tree-lined streets.
And here in Oradell, at least one panel has gone missing.
. . .
The case of the missing panel has been referred to local law enforcement.
“PSE&G takes a very dim view of people tampering with the equipment,” said Francis Sullivan, a company spokesman, “but that’s secondary to the fact that it’s just a dangerous idea.” All the units are connected to high-voltage wires.
Richard Joel Sr., a lawyer in town, said a panel close to his house had been removed, but demurred when asked if he knew details.
“I’m not saying what happened,” he said.

For the full story, see:
MIREYA NAVARRO. “Solar Panels Rise Pole by Pole, Followed by Gasps of ‘Eyesore’.” The New York Times (Thurs., April 28, 2011): A1 & A3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story is dated April 27, 2011.)

“Progress Depended on the Empirical Habit of Thought”

In the passage below from 1984 Orwell presents an underground rebel’s account of why the authoritarian socialist dystopia cannot advance in science and technology.

(p. 155) The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward. In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly, and efficient–a glittering (p. 156) antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete–was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person. Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural to assume that they would go on developing. This failed to happen, partly because of the impoverishment caused by a long series of wars and revolutions, partly because scientific and technical progress depended on the empirical habit of thought, which could not survive in a strictly regimented society.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: The New American Library, 1961 [1949].

By Canadian law, 1984 is no longer under copyright. The text has been posted on the following Canadian web site: