The Science of Disgust

This is a very interesting Q&A about the science of disgust. What happens, exactly, when we feel disgust? In the interview, Daniel Kelly (an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University) explains in his new book, Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, that it’s more than just a physical sensation…

Two questions and answers which caught my attention:

Do we have the ability to change the things we feel disgusted by?

People don’t exactly know how this works, but acute exposure to something can have the effect of decreasing our feeling of disgust toward it. For example, if you go to medical school, you have to deal with corpses a lot because you’re learning human anatomy. As a result, your sensitivity to death-related solicitors [i.e. things] drops off a little. The key part of this, however, is that it is only for death-related disgust solicitors that the sensitivity decreases. Another example is that over time, mothers become less disgusted by the dirty diapers of their own child, but they remain disgusted by the dirty diapers of other peoples’ children. But what’s happening there isn’t conscious. It’s automatic. In general, there’s not a lot known about the ways we can deliberately or voluntarily make ourselves not be disgusted by things.

And also:

Can disgust be dangerous?

It’s an indisputable fact at this point that disgust influences a lot of social and moral judgments in a variety of ways. An interesting question is whether or not feelings of disgust should play a part in deliberate decision making. If a large percentage of the population finds some social practice disgusting — like stem cell research or cloning — is that a good reason to think the practice is immoral? I argue that it should not. A practice people are disgusted by may or may not be immoral, but the fact that people are disgusted by it is totally irrelevant to that particular question. We shouldn’t trust disgust to give us reliable information about morality. We know the story of how it evolved and why it varies from one culture to the next. Investing the emotion with moral authority is extremely dubious, and we shouldn’t uncritically trust it.

More here.

Milton Glaser: Ten Things I Have Learned in Life

I can’t remember who pointed me to Milton Glaser’s essay about the ten things he has learned in his life, but it’s easily one of the best things I’ve read this year. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

My favourite lessons are below:

You can only work for people that you like. This is a curious rule and it took me a long time to learn because in fact at the beginning of my practice I felt the opposite. Professionalism required that you didn’t particularly like the people that you worked for or at least maintained an arms length relationship to them, which meant that I never had lunch with a client or saw them socially. Then some years ago I realised that the opposite was true. I discovered that all the work I had done that was meaningful and significant came out of an affectionate relationship with a client. And I am not talking about professionalism; I am talking about affection. I am talking about a client and you sharing some common ground. That in fact your view of life is someway congruent with the client, otherwise it is a bitter and hopeless struggle…

On avoiding toxic people in life:

And the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energised or less energised. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life. 

I want to surround myself with people that exhilarate me, that help me blossom.

Is less more? Milton Glaser doesn’t think so:

Being a child of modernism I have heard this mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I realised that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding. But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of the history of the world.

I applaud Glaser for understanding the importance of how environment shapes our development, particularly our brain:

How you live changes your brain. We tend to believe that the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind, although we do not generally believe that everything we do affects the brain. I am convinced that if someone was to yell at me from across the street my brain could be affected and my life might changed. That is why your mother always said, ‘Don’t hang out with those bad kids.’ Mama was right. Thought changes our life and our behaviour.

May I suggest you go back to the David Eagleman piece and learn more about how our brain is affected by environmental stimuli?

Do you approach things in life with, would you say, mostly unquestioning acceptance or doubt? I love this one:

Doubt is better than certainty. Deeply held beliefs of any kind prevent you from being open to experience, which is why I find all firmly held ideological positions questionable. It makes me nervous when someone believes too deeply or too much. I think that being sceptical and questioning all deeply held beliefs is essential. Of course we must know the difference between scepticism and cynicism because cynicism is as much a restriction of one’s openness to the world as passionate belief is. They are sort of twins. And then in a very real way, solving any problem is more important than being right.

Yes, there is nuance to the life lesson above. If you approach something with too much doubt, too often, you will become cynical. And that’s exactly what Glaser warns about in the essay. As for me, I have always been one to doubt first, accept second. Many times it appears as though I am trying to clash with someone’s belief on purpose, and I am perceived as obstinate and annoying. But those that can see through that personality quirk become my friends.

If you read through the end, the last lesson is: tell the truth. Milton Glaser is a designer, and his basic premise is that telling the truth is important no matter what field or practice you choose to go into. These are ten lessons to cherish.

Law Schools: A Rip-Off?

In a troubling New York Times piece, we learn how profitable law schools really are. They make graduate school look great by comparsion…

Legal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.

Whereas some departments are struggling to hire more professors, in law school it is a different story:

It is one of the academy’s open secrets: law schools toss off so much cash they are sometimes required to hand over as much as 30 percent of their revenue to universities, to subsidize less profitable fields.

In short, law schools have the power to raise prices and expand in ways that would make any company drool. And when a business has that power, it is apparently difficult to resist.

And a striking example from New York Law School (N.Y.L.S.):

N.Y.L.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all law schools in the country, but with tuition and fees now set at $47,800 a year, it charges more than Harvard. It increased the size of the class that arrived in the fall of 2009 by an astounding 30 percent, even as hiring in the legal profession imploded. It reported in the most recent US News & World Report rankings that the median starting salary of its graduates was the same as for those of the best schools in the nation — even though most of its graduates, in fact, find work at less than half that amount…

And the most damning fact in the piece:

From 1989 to 2009, when college tuition rose by 71 percent, law school tuition shot up 317 percent.

Run, don’t walk, away from law schools.

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Related: Is getting a PhD worth it?

Google’s Challenging Interview Question

Douglas Edwards was employee number 59 at Google. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, he provides an excerpt from his book I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.

The excerpt is interesting throughout, but my favourite part of the piece is the Edwards’ recounting of the so-called “hard question” given by Sergey Brin during an interview:

“I’m going to give you five minutes,” he told me. “When I come back, I want you to explain to me something complicated that I don’t already know.” He then rolled out of the room toward the snack area. I looked at Cindy. “He’s very curious about everything,” she told me. “You can talk about a hobby, something technical, whatever you want. Just make sure it’s something you really understand well.”

The author of the piece talked about the general theory of marketing. What would I say in the same position? Three items come to mind:

What would you talk about if you had five minutes? Sound off in the comments.

Stay Classy, Harvard

The extent of my knowledge about social interactions at Harvard comes from The Social Network. I’m only half kidding.

So I was pleasantly intrigued to read this piece in The Paris Review about social dynamics at Harvard. This paragraph grabbed my attention, for the way it conveyed the “classiness”:

A thing that’s very nice and very terrible is that those class differences are very rarely talked about at Harvard. So you might have some sort of movie image where the snobs are sort of looking down their noses at the poor kids, but the reality is that once you’re at Harvard, no one’s a poor kid anymore. You’re all, instantly and at that moment, in one of the most privileged positions of the American upper class.

Does the following apply to other Ivy League institutions? It’s very clever:

If you go to Harvard and then you live in New York, no matter what you do, the fact remains that you will have old college friends who are in the top positions in whatever field of endeavor you’re concerned with. If you’re twenty-five, you’ll know people who are getting their first pieces published in The New Yorker. If you’re forty, you’ll know people who are editors of The New Yorker. You will know people who are affiliated with every level of government. And across the board, just everywhere, you will know some people at the top of everything.

The interesting part about the piece is that it was written by Misha Glouberman, a native of Canada. So what does Harvard do for Canadians?

But in Canada, if you went to Harvard, it’s just a weird novelty, a strange fact about you, like that you’re a member of Mensa or you have an extra thumb. There’s no Harvard community here. There are equivalent upper-class communities to some degree, like maybe people who went to Upper Canada College prep school, but it’s not even remotely the same thing. I mean, partly there just aren’t the same heights to aspire to. There’s no equivalent to being the editor of The New Yorker in Canada, or being an American movie producer or anything like that. Partly, the advantages of class aren’t as unevenly distributed in general.

I have not met any Canadians that have gone to Harvard, so I cannot be the judge of the authenticity of that statement. Anyone?

Stephen King on Successful Novels

Stephen King was blown away by The Lord of the Flies when he first read it as a child. In this interview in The Telegraph, he goes on to explain how he found the novel and why it appeals to him. But the biggest takeaway are his thoughts on what makes a successful novel (emphasis mine):

To me, Lord of the Flies has always represented what novels are for; what makes them indispensable. Should we expect to be entertained when we read a story? Of course. An act of the imagination that doesn’t entertain is a poor act indeed. But there should be more. A successful novel should erase the boundary line between writer and reader, so they can unite. When that happens, the novel becomes a part of life – the main course, not the dessert. A successful novel should interrupt the reader’s life, make him or her miss appointments, skip meals, forget to walk the dog. In the best novels, the writer’s imagination becomes the reader’s reality. It glows, incandescent and furious. I’ve been espousing these ideas for most of my life as a writer, and not without being criticised for them. If the novel is strictly about emotion and imagination, the most potent of these criticisms go, then analysis is swept away and discussion of the book becomes irrelevant.

This is why I read fiction.

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Hat tip: @matthiasrascher

On Love, Facebook, Endings, and Epiphanators

Last year, I blogged about Brian Phillips’s incredible essay, “Pelé as a Comedian.” I wrote that it is one of those pieces that you read for the writing, and I absolutely still stand by my decision. If you haven’t read it, take ten minutes out of your life, and do so.

Why do I bring up Phillips’s essay from last year? Because I believe I found a piece, which for so far in 2011, would file under the same characterization: you read it for the writing. The piece is “Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?” by Paul Ford, published in New York Magazine. It’s about social media, Facebook in particular, and our connection (or disconnection) to those around us, but more importantly, with ourselves. It’s about beginnings and endings and the go-betweens. You read between the lines, and you discern so much. Your brain begins to flutter: I never thought of it like that. You will.

The writing is sublime:

I watched in real time as these people reconstructed themselves in the wake of events — altering their avatars, committing to new causes, liking and linking, boiling over in anger at dumb comments, eventually posting jokes again, or uploading new photos. Learning to take the measure of the world with new eyes. No other medium has shown me this in the same way. Even the most personal literary memoir has more distance, more compression, than these status updates.

What is The Epiphanator?

Social media has no understanding of anything aside from the connections between individuals and the ceaseless flow of time: No beginnings, and no endings. These disparate threads of human existence alternately fascinate and horrify that part of the media world that grew up on topic sentences and strong conclusions. This world of old media is like a giant steampunk machine that organizes time into stories. I call it the Epiphanator, and it has always known the value of a meaningful conclusion. The Epiphanator sits in midtown Manhattan and clunks along, at Condé Nast and at the Times and in Rockefeller Center. Once a day it makes a terrible grinding noise and spits out newspapers and TV shows. Once a week it spits out weeklies and more TV shows. Once a month it produces glossy magazines. All too often it makes movies, and novels.

This is my favourite part, probably:

At the end of every magazine article, before the “■,” is the quote from the general in Afghanistan that ties everything together. The evening news segment concludes by showing the secretary of State getting back onto her helicopter. There’s the kiss, the kicker, the snappy comeback, the defused bomb. The Epiphanator transmits them all. It promises that things are orderly. It insists that life makes sense, that there is an underlying logic.

Just read it. Paul Ford makes me want to be a better writer.

Ray Dalio’s Richest and Strangest Hedge Fund

In this month’s New Yorker, John Cassidy profiles Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, said by some to be the strangest hedge fund in the world.

I found the piece interesting, though I did think Cassidy could have done a better job explaining the nuances of Dalio’s behavior, such as evidenced in this paragraph:

Dalio asked for another opinion. From the back of the room, a young man dressed in a black sweatshirt started saying that a Chinese slowdown could have a big effect on global supply and demand. Dalio cut him off: “Are you going to answer me knowledgeably or are you going to give me a guess?” The young man, whom I will call Jack, said he would hazard an educated guess. “Don’t do that,” Dalio said. He went on, “You have a tendency to do this. . . . We’ve talked about this before.” After an awkward silence, Jack tried to defend himself, saying that he thought he had been asked to give his views. Dalio didn’t let up. Eventually, the young employee said that he would go away and do some careful calculations.

Do you believe the world is mechanical? Do parts come together to work as a seamless whole? Ray Dalio thinks so:

Many hedge-fund managers stay pinned to their computer screens day and night monitoring movements in the markets. Dalio is different. He spends most of his time trying to figure out how economic and financial events fit together in a coherent framework. “Almost everything is like a machine,” he told me one day when he was rambling on, as he often does. “Nature is a machine. The family is a machine. The life cycle is like a machine.” His constant goal, he said, was to understand how the economic machine works. “And then everything else I basically view as just a case at hand. So how does the machine work that you have a financial crisis? How does deleveraging work—what is the nature of that machine? And what is human nature, and how do you raise a community of people to run a business?”

So who invests in Bridgewater Associates, exactly? Not wealthy invididuals:

Part of Dalio’s innovation has been to build a hedge fund that caters principally to institutional investors rather than to rich individuals. Of the roughly one hundred billion dollars invested in Bridgewater, only a small proportion comes from wealthy families. Almost a third comes from public pension funds, such as the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System; another third comes from corporate pension funds, such as those at Kodak and General Motors; a quarter comes from government-run sovereign wealth funds, such as the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore.

A surprise about Bridgewater’s investing tendencies (no U.S. markets?):

Is Bridgewater really any different? Although the firm trades in more than a hundred markets, it is widely believed that the great bulk of its profit comes from two areas in which Dalio is an expert: the bond and currency markets of major industrial countries. Unlike some other hedge funds, Bridgewater has never made much money in the U.S. stock market, an area where Dalio has less experience.

While the piece makes it sound like working at Bridgewater is quite the challenge, I appreciated this nugget:

Dalio insists that money has never been his main motivation. He lives well, but avoids the conspicuous consumption that some of his rivals indulge in. He and his wife, Barbara, to whom he has been married for thirty-four years, own two houses, one in Greenwich, Connecticut, and one in Greenwich Village, which he sometimes uses on weekends. (They are currently building a new house on the water in Connecticut.) Apart from hunting and exploring remote areas, Dalio’s main hobby is music: jazz, blues, and rock and roll. Recently, he joined a philanthropic campaign started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, pledging to give away at least half of his money.

Ray Dalio is a man I’d like to meet. We could talk about books and music and photography. And oh yes, the financial markets (I do have a degree in quantitative finance, after all, and work in the financial sector).

On Winning

The notion of winning, as presented in this Newsweek piece:

Defined that way, winning becomes translatable into areas beyond the physical: chess, spelling bees, the corporate world, even combat. You can’t go forever down that road, of course. The breadth of our colloquial definition for winning—the fact that we use the same word for being handed an Oscar as for successfully prosecuting a war—means that there is no single gene for victory across all fields, no cerebral on-off switch that turns also-rans into champions. But neuroscientists, psychologists, and other researchers are beginning to better understand the highly interdisciplinary concept of winning, finding surprising links between brain chemistry, social theory, and even economics, which together give new insight into why some people come out on top again and again.

 I am not sure I agree with this, however. I would think it depends on one’s personality (do you have more or less empathy than the average individual?):

What’s better than winning? Doing it while someone else loses. An economist at the University of Bonn has shown that test subjects who receive a given reward for a task enjoy it significantly more if other subjects fail or do worse—a finding that upends traditional economic theories that absolute reward is a person’s central motivation. It’s one of several new inroads into the social dynamics of winning yielded by neuroeconomics, a trendy new field that mixes elements of neuroscience, economics, and cognitive psychology to determine why people make the choices they do—even, or especially, the irrational ones.

Also, the case study revolving around Agassi in the piece is interesting… Why do Americans love a winner? The last sentence provides the stimulating answer.

Thomas Jefferson on Patents

In a letter to Isaac McPherson, Thomas Jefferson writes (emphasis mine):

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.

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Via Chris Dixon.