On Mourners for Hire

From the “markets in everything” department, this is just sad (from The Telegraph):

For £45 an hour, the fake mourners can be rented to cry for the duration of a funeral service in order to swell the numbers at funerals.

Ian Robertson, the founder of Rent-a-Mourner, in Braintree, Essex, admits the idea may be unfamiliar to the British, although the phenomenon is popular in places such as Asia.

The mourners-for-hire are briefed on the life of the deceased and would be able to talk to friends and relatives as if they really had known their loved one.

Rent-a-Mourner has 20 staff on its books to hire out for funerals, which Mr Robertson said were friends of his rather than professional actors.

And apparently those hired don’t even have to cry; they only need show up!

Also, I didn’t know this was a popular thing in Asian countries…

On Animal Intelligence

New research shows that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal explains in the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal. This example on elephant intelligence is striking:

Experiments with animals have long been handicapped by our anthropocentric attitude: We often test them in ways that work fine with humans but not so well with other species. Scientists are now finally meeting animals on their own terms instead of treating them like furry (or feathery) humans, and this shift is fundamentally reshaping our understanding.

Elephants are a perfect example. For years, scientists believed them incapable of using tools. At most, an elephant might pick up a stick to scratch its itchy behind. In earlier studies, the pachyderms were offered a long stick while food was placed outside their reach to see if they would use the stick to retrieve it. This setup worked well with primates, but elephants left the stick alone. From this, researchers concluded that the elephants didn’t understand the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t understand the elephants.

Think about the test from the animal’s perspective. Unlike the primate hand, the elephant’s grasping organ is also its nose. Elephants use their trunks not only to reach food but also to sniff and touch it. With their unparalleled sense of smell, the animals know exactly what they are going for. Vision is secondary.

But as soon as an elephant picks up a stick, its nasal passages are blocked. Even when the stick is close to the food, it impedes feeling and smelling. It is like sending a blindfolded child on an Easter egg hunt.

On a recent visit to the National Zoo in Washington, I met with Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss of Hunter College, who showed me what Kandula, a young elephant bull, can do if the problem is presented differently. The scientists hung fruit high up above the enclosure, just out of Kandula’s reach. The elephant was given several sticks and a sturdy square box.

Kandula ignored the sticks but, after a while, began kicking the box with his foot. He kicked it many times in a straight line until it was right underneath the branch. He then stood on the box with his front legs, which enabled him to reach the food with his trunk. An elephant, it turns out, can use tools—if they are the right ones.

Worth reading in entirety.

Should Chess Be Taught in Elementary Schools?

A great story from Al-Jazeera on how Armenia has made taking chess a requirement for second, third, and fourth-graders.

A team of Armenian psychologists headed by Ruben Aghuzumstyan has been researching the impact of chess on young minds since last year.

Aghuzumstyan said preliminary results show that children who play chess score better in certain personality traits such as individuality, creative thinking, reflexes and comparative analysis.

I don’t have visions of chess reaching extremes in America (as described below), but I do think at least offering chess as elective courses in elementary school would be advantageous:

Yerevan Chess House, located in the heart of Armenia’s capital, bears testimony to the country’s chess mania. Every day dozens of chess players, young and old, spend hours here battling it out on their boards. Magazines, newspapers, books and DVDs about chess are on sale at the chess house’s newsstand.

Chess 64” is a popular TV show hosted by Gagik Hovhannisian that has been running since 1972. Earlier this year, the government introduced another programme, “Chess World“, hosted by 22-year-old Aghasi Inants, to attract youngsters to the sport.

My parents taught me to play chess at a young age, around five or six. I do think the game sharpens the mind and teaches you how to think.

On Plasticity and Social Connections

Barbara Fredrickson’s op-ed titled “Your Phone vs. Your Heart” in The New York Times this weekend hits a nerve (so to speak):

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

The human body — and thereby our human potential — is far more plastic or amenable to change than most of us realize. The new field of social genomics, made possible by the sequencing of the human genome, tells us that the ways our and our children’s genes are expressed at the cellular level is plastic, too, responsive to habitual experiences and actions.

The gist is that by alienating away from human connection, your brain chemistry/structure changes (the concept is called plasticity). But it can be changed (for the better, in terms of how you feel) if you spend meaningful time with others. So step away from Twitter, slow down on the text messaging, and make plans to go out for dinner with a friend.

On Quizzes, Movies, and Vladimir Nabokov

Edward Jay Epstein, in a piece for The New York Review of Books titled “An A from Nabokov,” recollects the fall of 1954 when he took a course at Cornell with Vladimir Nabokov as the instructor:

He [Nabokov] then described his requisites for reading the assigned books. He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

It’s a great story of how a pop quiz led Epstein to a side job watching movies and conversing with the great author.

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One of my all-time favorite books, listed in the Classics page on this site, is Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Naughty in Name Only: Sophia Amoruso’s Nasty Gal

I don’t really follow fashion trends, but I appreciate great stories when I read about the industry. The New York Times profiles Sophia Amoruso and the fashion company she founded, Nasty Gal:

“People say: ‘Nasty Gal? What’s that?’ ” Ms. Amoruso, now 28, said in an interview at her new headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. “I tell them, ‘It’s the fastest-growing retailer in the country.’ ”

Back in 2006, she toyed with the idea of going to photography school, but couldn’t stomach the debt. Instead, she quit her job and started an eBay page to sell some of the vintage designer items she found rummaging through Goodwill bins. She bought a Chanel jacket at a Salvation Army store for $8 and sold it for $1,000. She found Yves Saint Laurent clothing online on the cheap by Googling misspellings of the designer’s name, reasoning that anyone who didn’t know how to spell Yves Saint Laurent probably didn’t realize his value.

She styled, photographed, captioned and shipped each product herself and sold about 25 items a week. She named the eBay page “Nasty Gal” after the 1975 album by Betty Davis — not the smoky-eyed film star Bette Davis, but the unabashedly sexy funk singer and style icon Betty, whose brief marriage to the jazz legend Miles Davis inspired the song “Back Seat Betty.”

Now this is an example of a loyal fan base:

That constant conversation with customers created a loyal following. Nasty Gal has no marketing team, but fans comment on its every Facebook, Instagram, TwitterTumblr, and Pinterest post and regularly post pictures of themselves in their Nasty Gal finds. A quarter of Nasty Gal’s 550,000 customers visit the site daily for six minutes; the top 10 percent return more than 100 times a month.

Pretty incredible to start from a small eBay store and mature to a $100 million business in a few short years.

Paul Krugman on Google Reader

Paul Krugman has an interesting argument about Google’s decision to retire Google Reader:

I’ve been trying to think this through in terms of more or less standard microeconomics, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

First, it’s a well-understood though not often mentioned point that even in a plain-vanilla market, a monopolist with high fixed costs and limited ability to price-discriminate may not be able to make a profit supplying a good even when the potential consumer gains from that good exceed the costs of production. Basically, if the monopolist tries to charge a price corresponding to the value intense users place on the good, it won’t attract enough low-intensity users to cover its fixed costs; if it charges a low price to bring in the low-intensity user, it fails to capture enough of the surplus of high-intensity users, and again can’t cover its fixed costs.

The post is titled “The Economics of Evil Google.”

A commenter named “jev” makes a very good point:

There is even a simpler solution: Monopolists will eliminate a product or service, even a profitable one, if it can be replaced with a more profitable one.

A corollary: This is especially true with software, where it has been the habit of large software companies to purchase smaller companies, merely to “retire” the purchased companies products, but keep the software engineering talent.

How was the previously heaver user of Google Reader to trust the company won’t retire future products at the slightest whim? Good luck with that is right.

Chinua Achebe on Writing Stories

I learned today of Chinua Achebe’s death. His novel Things Fall Apart was one of the best books I read when I was in high school.

From this great 1994 Paris Review interview, Achebe shared what got him into writing:

I think the thing that clearly pointed me there was my interest in stories. Not necessarily writing stories, because at that point, writing stories was not really viable. So you didn’t think of it. But I knew I loved stories, stories told in our home, first by my mother, then by my elder sister—such as the story of the tortoise—whatever scraps of stories I could gather from conversations, just from hanging around, sitting around when my father had visitors. When I began going to school, I loved the stories I read. They were different, but I loved them too. My parents were early converts to Christianity in my part of Nigeria. They were not just converts; my father was an evangelist, a religious teacher. He and my mother traveled for thirty-five years to different parts of Igboland, spreading the gospel. I was the fifth of their six children. By the time I was growing up, my father had retired, and had returned with his family to his ancestral village.

When I began going to school and learned to read, I encountered stories of other people and other lands. In one of my essays, I remember the kind of things that fascinated me. Weird things, even, about a wizard who lived in Africa and went to China to find a lamp . . . Fascinating to me because they were about things remote, and almost ethereal.

Then I grew older and began to read about adventures in which I didn’t know that I was supposed to be on the side of those savages who were encountered by the good white man. I instinctively took sides with the white people. They were fine! They were excellent. They were intelligent. The others were not . . . they were stupid and ugly. That was the way I was introduced to the danger of not having your own stories. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.

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(via @longform)

Willa Cather on Journalism and Writing

In 1906, Willa Cather moved from Pittsburgh, where she had been working as a journalist, to New York City, where she established herself as a literary editor at the journal McClure’s. In this letter to the Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett written on Dec. 19, 1908, Cather describes her frustrations with journalism and her desire find more time to write on her own terms:

Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, [i]t has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story. In other matters — things about the office — I can usually do what I set out to do and I can learn by experience, but when it comes to writing I’m a new-born baby every time — always come into it naked and shivery and without any bones. I never learn anything about it at all. I sometimes wonder whether one can possibly be meant to do the thing at which they are more blind and inept and blundering than at anything else in the world …

I have to lend a hand at home now and then, and a good salary is a good thing. Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. …I would write a little — “and save the soul besides.”

This letter comes to light after a number of letters Cather penned in her lifetime are being published in a new book to be released next month.

A Reddit “Ask Me Anything” with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I really enjoyed this Reddit “Ask Me Anything” with Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A few of my favorites Q&A exchanges below:

Q: How should a person use and not use the internet to make his life better?

Taleb: Bring email down to 15 a day. Meet internet friends in person.

His thoughts on cancer:

Q: Can you tell us more about your brush with cancer?

Taleb: I despise (that is have a moral revulsion against) cancer survivors like Armstrong who trade on it (and I got shellacked for saying it before his demise). And I hate the idea of boasting “winning” the war on cancer: radiation rooms are full of people who are “losing” for no fault of theirs.

On the obesity epidemic in the United States:

Q: According to your principles, how would you deal with the obesity epidemic hitting the U.S.?

Taleb: The general problem is that we are not made to control our environment, and we are designed for a degree of variability: in energy, temperature, food composition, sleep duration, exercise (by Jensen’s inequality). Depriving anyone of variations is silly. So we need to force periods of starvation/fasts , sleep deprivation , protein deprivation, etc. Religions force shabbats, fasts, etc. but we are no longer under the sway of religions… The solution is rules…

On the most important thing in the world:

Q: What is the most important skill or trait a human being can have in the modern world?

Taleb: A sense of honor. It puts you above everything else.

On having “skin in the game:”

Q: Should judges, jurors, and prosecutors have skin in the game?

Taleb: Skin in the game is about being harmed by an error if it harms others. Managers of large corporations can be forced to lose money beyond their compensation should the firm suffer. As to judges, I don’t know, but hopefully they have sufficient eye contact to suffer shame.

A lot more here.

Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan is one of the best books I’ve ever read and has significantly informed my view of the world.