On Trustworthiness and Apologies for Rain

A paper titled “I’m Sorry About the Rain! Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase Trust” out of Harvard Business School explains how if you want to be perceived as more trustworthy, attempt to apologize for things outside your control (the terrible Atlanta traffic, the gloomy Portland weather, and so on). BPS Research Digest summarizes:

The most compelling evidence came from Alison Brooks and her colleagues’ fourth and final study in which a male actor approached 65 strangers (30 women) at a train station on a rainy day to ask to borrow their mobile phone. Crucially, for half of them he preceded his request with the superfluous apology: “I’m sorry about the rain!” The other half of the time he just came straight out with his request: “Can I borrow your cell phone?” The superfluous apology made a big difference. Forty-seven per cent of strangers offered their phone when the actor apologised for the rain first, compared with just nine per cent when there was no apology.

The field study followed three laboratory experiments. In the first, 178 students thought they were playing a financial game with a partner located in another room. They were told that on some rounds the computer would override their partner’s decisions. Later, if their “partner” (actually the whole thing was pre-programmed) apologised for a computer override, the participants tended to rate him or her as more trustworthy and were more generous towards him or her as a result. This despite the fact the apology was superfluous and for a situation beyond their (the partner’s) control.

In a second experiment, 177 adult participants (average age 28) watched a video of a stranger approaching a flight-delayed passenger at an airport to ask to borrow his/her mobile phone. The participants were to imagine they were the passenger and to decide how to act. If the stranger was shown apologising for the flight delay before making his request, the participants were more likely to say they’d agree to share their phone with him.

Another experiment involved 310 adult participants imagining they were heading in the rain to meet a seller of a second-hand iPod. If they were told the seller apologised for the rain, the participants tended to rate him as more trustworthy, likeable and empathic.

“Across our studies, we identify significant benefits to apologising,” the researchers concluded. “Superfluous apologies represent a powerful and easy-to-use tool for social influence. Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying ‘I’m sorry’ – even if they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain.”

Does this work too? I am sorry if you read something terrible on the Internet today.

Atlas Hugged: A Dating Site for Ayn Rand Fans

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the rise of niche dating sites. It’s pretty interesting, especially the description of Atlasphere, a dating site for fans of Ayn Rand and Objectivism:

A growing number of niche dating sites have popped up to serve people who think they know exactly the type of person they want. These includes Farmers Only, whose 100,000 users may have been attracted to the site’s tagline, “City folks just don’t get it.” More recently, GlutenFree Singles launched for love-seeking wheat-free folks.

Atlasphere founder Joshua Zader, 40, of Phoenix, says niche sites are more efficient than broader sites such as OKCupid or Match.com.

“If you assume that maybe 1 out of 500 people is a serious fan of Ayn Rand’s novels, on a normal dating site you have a 1 in 500 chance of someone sharing the same basic values,” he says. “On the Atlasphere, every profile shows you what you want,” he says. The 10-year-old site has seen a spike in membership in recent years—it has more than 16,000 dating profiles—after two “Atlas Shrugged” movies were released, says Mr. Zader, a Web developer. User handles include “Atlas in Arlington” and “ObjectivelyHot.”

He founded the site after attending Objectivist conferences, where the “open secret” is that most people are there to meet potential partners. “You shouldn’t need to fly to a conference to meet people with your values,” he says.

The site was efficient for Mr. Hancock’s now-wife, Stephanie Betit-Hancock, 33. Her now-husband messaged her 12 hours after she first put up a profile in 2007, and proposed after dating long-distance for six months.

Ms. Betit-Hancock, a schools special-needs coordinator, says she had been “kind of freaking out,” wondering how she’d find someone “rational” to date. She met a man at a meet-up group for fans of libertarian former congressman Ron Paul, but “he couldn’t explain why he supported Ron Paul and why the ideas behind his policies made sense.”

Mr. Hancock, an engineer, says he specifically wrote his profile to “scare people who weren’t serious Objectivists away.”

Read the rest of the piece here. There’s also GlutenFree Singles and Farmers Only dating.

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(via @mims)

Sergey Kolesnikov and Igor Rybakov: Russia’s Roofing Billionaires

Often you hear of the Russian “new rich” who’ve accumulated wealth through corruption or usurping some power. So it was refreshing to read this Bloomberg piece on Sergey Kolesnikov and Igor Rybakov, who built a multi-billion dollar roofing business in Russia. What’s amazing is that they were actually enrolled at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, one of Russia’s top research universities, and worked in roofing as a side business/project.

The roofing degree paid off. Closely held Technonicol, the company they founded while in college, is now the country’s largest roofing-supply company, with a network of 700 distribution outlets across the country, 180 of them wholly-owned. The business had revenue of 59.4 billion rubles ($1.9 billion) in 2012, up 25 percent from the prior year, according to financial statements provided by Kolesnikov.

The company is valued at $2.8 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, making the equal partners two of the youngest billionaires in Russia. Neither has appeared on an international wealth ranking.

“I always liked to solve puzzles, and to me business is a kind of puzzle,” Kolesnikov said. “Neither of us ever thought about earning money of such scale.”

The billionaires, both 41, had a well-timed entry into the market, catching the start of a wave of private homeownership and government upgrades to Soviet-era housing. The number of newly built private homes in Russia almost doubled to 205,000 from 2002 to 2012, according to data from the Federal State Statistics Service, and new apartment units increased more than two times during the past decade to 838,000.

Here’s how they got their business off the ground:

In 1995, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Kolesnikov and Rybakov used $40,000 in savings and debt to buy their first plant, a roofing factory complex constructed in 1918 in Vyborg, a city 75 miles northwest of St. Petersburg. They spent $15 million modernizing the facility, and have since built 36 more plants — 30 in Russia, three in Ukraine, and one in Belarus, Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

Important to note their casual culture:

Kolesnikov adheres to western and Japanese management philosophies and quotes management consultant William Edwards Deming, whose statistical theories are credited with inspiring the economic growth surge in Japan after World War II. When Kolesnikov visits Technonicol’s plants, he hands out copies of “The Toyota Way,” a book about the Tokyo-based carmaker’s principles for continuous improvement and respect for workers.

Rybakov, who declined to be interviewed for this story, uses a YouTube channel to post videos of his family on yachting and skiing excursions.

The company maintains an informal corporate culture. It publishes an annual swimsuit calendar featuring female workers. To celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary last December, the billionaires hired a heavy-metal band to record a rock song and created a music video starring Technonicol employees singing in the studio after a day of answering phones and eyeing the clock before grabbing their coats and dashing from the office…

Great story.

Amy Poehler on Her First Summer Job

A delightful piece by Amy Poehler, past cast member on Saturday Night Live and star of Parks and Recreation on NBC, on her first summer job and how it was a catalyst for her to go into acting:

Chadwick’s was one of those fake old-timey restaurants. The menus were written in swoopy cursive. The staff wore Styrofoam boaters and ruffled white shirts with bow ties. Jangly music blared from a player piano as children climbed on counters. If the style of the restaurant was old-fashioned, the parenting that went on there was distinctly modern. Moms and dads would patiently recite every item on the menu to their squirming five-year-olds, as if the many flavors of ice cream represented all the unique ways they were loved.

There was a performance element to the job that I found appealing, to begin with. Every time a customer was celebrating a birthday, an employee had to bang a drum that hung from the ceiling, and play the kazoo, and encourage the entire restaurant to join him or her in a sing-along. Other employees would ring cowbells and blow noisemakers. I would stand on a chair and loudly announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are so happy to have you at Chadwick’s today, but we are especially happy to have Kevin! Because it’s Kevin’s birthday today! So, at the sound of the drum, please join me in singing Kevin a very happy birthday!”

I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to be an actor. I was planning to go to Boston College as an English major and maybe become a teacher, like both of my parents. But when I stood in the dining room and demanded attention I was reminded of things I already secretly knew about myself. I wasn’t shy, I liked to be looked at, and making people laugh released a certain kind of hot lava into my body that made me feel like a queen.

I love this line: “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.”

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If you’re a subscriber to The New Yorker like I am, I highly recommend the entire series:

“Piano Man” by Jeremy Denk

“Caught Napping” by Nicole Holofcener

“Labors” by Norman Rush

“Pure Bleach” by Ed Ruscha

Do We Sleep to Clean Our Brains?

The purpose of sleep remains unknown. Using state-of-the-art in vivo two-photon imaging to directly compare two arousal states in the same mouse, Xie et al., in a paper titled “Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain” published in Science, found that metabolic waste products of neural activity were cleared out of the sleeping brain at a faster rate than during the awake state. This finding suggests an explanation for how sleep serves a restorative function, in addition to its well-described effects on memory consolidation.

From the abstract:

The conservation of sleep across all animal species suggests that sleep serves a vital function. We here report that sleep has a critical function in ensuring metabolic homeostasis. Using real-time assessments of tetramethylammonium diffusion and two-photon imaging in live mice, we show that natural sleep or anesthesia are associated with a 60% increase in the interstitial space, resulting in a striking increase in convective exchange of cerebrospinal fluid with interstitial fluid. In turn, convective fluxes of interstitial fluid increased the rate of β-amyloid clearance during sleep. Thus, the restorative function of sleep may be a consequence of the enhanced removal of potentially neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in the awake central nervous system.

So: we sleep to clean our brains (as the authors of the paper want us to believe).

This research is tentative, as it’s only been found to be the case in mice. The Guardian provides more commentary:

Maiken Nedergaard, who led the study at the University of Rochester, said the discovery might explain why sleep is crucial for all living organisms. “I think we have discovered why we sleep,” Nedergaard said. “We sleep to clean our brains.”

Writing in the journal Science, Nedergaard describes how brain cells in mice shrank when they slept, making the space between them on average 60% greater. This made the cerebral spinal fluid in the animals’ brains flow ten times faster than when the mice were awake.

The scientists then checked how well mice cleared toxins from their brains by injecting traces of proteins that are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. These amyloid beta proteins were removed faster from the brains of sleeping mice, they found.

Nedergaard believes the clean-up process is more active during sleep because it takes too much energy to pump fluid around the brain when awake. “You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time,” she said in a statement.

According to the scientist, the cerebral spinal fluid flushes the brain’s waste products into what she calls the “glymphatic system” which carries it down through the body and ultimately to the liver where it is broken down.

The importance of replicating this work is obvious, lest it be considered cargo cult science.

Richard Feynman on Cargo Cult Science and the Importance of Integrity

Richard Feynman’s Caltech commencement address given in 1974 is titled “Cargo Cult Science.” In it, he describes his experience in experimenting with various pseudoscience trends (extrasensory perception, PSI phenomena, and so on) and explains the difference between this “cargo cult science” and real science. It’s a fascinating read in its entirety. The story actually appears in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), which I highly recommend reading.

One notable passage I wanted to highlight was Feynman recounting of an experiment that was excellent scientific work:

There have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on–with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers that clues that the rat is really using– not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked up the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running the rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic example of cargo cult science.

Feynman’s closing remark on what is truly important—no matter where you work—is your integrity. Because that’s something that cannot be taken away from you:

So I have just one wish for you—the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Fascinating read.

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Further reading: why Richard Feynman is my favourite scientist.

(via @Longform)

One in Ten People in Iceland Will Publish a Book

This island nation of  Iceland, population of just over 300,000 people, has more writers, more books published, and more books read, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. An intriguing report in the BBC:

It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik. There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”. 

“Does it get rather competitive?” I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. “Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.”

Special saga tours – saga as in story, that is, not over-50s holidays – show us story-plaques on public buildings.

Dating from the 13th Century, Icelandic sagas tell the stories of the country’s Norse settlers, who began to arrive on the island in the late 9th Century.

Sagas are written on napkins and coffee cups. Each geyser and waterfall we visit has a tale of ancient heroes and heroines attached. Our guide stands up mid-tour to recite his own poetry – our taxi driver’s father and grandfather write biographies.

Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit.

The book buying and giving culture is strong in Iceland:

About now every household gets a book catalogue through the door. They pore over it like a furniture catalogue. Everyone receives books as Christmas presents – hardback and shrink-wrapped.

So if I want to publish a book in my lifetime, should I move to Iceland? Or at least, take an extended vacation there?

Advice on Writing from Susan Cain

I heard Susan Cain, author of Quiet, speak in person in 2012. I like her advice on how to quit your job and become a writer:

2. You Need a Safety Net. People are always celebrating the courage of those who chuck A in order to do B, but I am not a brave person and maybe you aren’t either. You probably need an alternative source of income. When I first quit law, I made writing the beloved hobby – but not the career — around which I centered my life. In the meantime, I set up a small consultancy, training people in negotiation skills. This gave me the chance to do meaningful work, pay the bills — and still have plenty of time for my “hobby”. That took the pressure off. (Taking the pressure off is a recurrent theme with me. )

3. In the Age of Social Media, Resist the Urge to Share: For many people, the things most worth writing about are also, inconveniently, too painful or embarrassing to talk about. The only solution to this tension is to write in your diary – to write as if no one will ever read it. Write exactly what you think and feel, with no fear of judgment. Eventually you’ll produce something so important that you’ll feel compelled to share it, despite your trepidations.

4. Writing is Not Supposed to Be Hard. You have probably heard that you’re supposed to leave drops of blood on every page. This is not true. Well, it’s sort of true. Writing does require tons of discipline and perseverance and concentration. But it should not be unpleasant. It should be the thing you itch to do every day. You can train yourself, in Pavlovian fashion, to feel this way, by making sure that you always write in conditions of pleasure. For me, that means writing in sunny café windows, with a latte and chocolate on hand. For you, it might be something completely different. But sunny windows and chocolate are a great place to start.

I think point #2 should be #1: it’s that important, in my opinion.

Between Moscow and St. Petersburg, a Disappearing Russia

At the edges of Russia’s two great cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, another Russia is present. This is the land of the broken road and poor residents. The New York Times, in a piece titled “The Russia Left Behind,” delves deeper, offering a look into this depressing state:

This will not be apparent at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, nor is it visible from the German-engineered high-speed train. It is along the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg — a narrow 430-mile stretch of road that is a 12-hour trip by car — that one sees the great stretches of Russia so neglected by the state that they seem drawn backward in time.

As the state’s hand recedes from the hinterlands, people are struggling with choices that belong to past centuries: to heat their homes with a wood stove, which must be fed by hand every three hours, or burn diesel fuel, which costs half a month’s salary? When the road has so deteriorated that ambulances cannot reach their home, is it safe to stay? When their home can’t be sold, can they leave?

A sad reality:

There are spots on this highway where it seems time has stopped. A former prison guard is spending his savings building wooden roadside chapels, explaining that “many souls” weigh on his conscience. A rescue worker from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl is waiting, 27 years later, for the apartment the Soviets promised him as a reward. Women sit on the shoulder, selling tea to travelers from a row of samovars. Above them, pillars of steam vanish into the sky, just as they did in 1746, the year construction on the road began.

On the state of the M10 Highway, connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg:

The M10 highway looks normal enough at the southern limits of St. Petersburg, but then, with a jolt, it begins to atrophy. For the next 430 miles the surface of the highway, while paved, varies from corduroy to jaw-rattling patchwork. Sometimes it has four lanes, sometimes two, with few medians and frequently no lane markings at all.

Traffic creeps forward behind a procession of 18-wheelers hauling goods from the port of St. Petersburg, passing villages with names like Cockroachville, Teacupville and Chessville. It is the most heavily traveled cargo route in Russia, and yet for truck drivers complying with safety regulations, it takes 24 hours to travel between the two cities, said Viktor Dosenko, vice president of the International Transport Academy. On a good road, he said, the trip should take 10 hours.

From time to time, the dismal condition of the highway has made national news. After a snowstorm in November, about 10,000 vehicles got stuck in a traffic jam that extended more than 70 miles, trapping some drivers for three days in subzero temperatures. Valery Voitko, who heads a trade union of long-haul truck drivers, described his drivers that week as “not even angry any more, but in a state of dumb despair, that year in and year out the same thing happens.”

On Russia’s disappearing villages:

Between the great cities are hundreds of disappearing settlements: towns becoming villages, villages becoming forest. The Soviets cut off support for them during efficiency drives in the 1960s and ’70s, which categorized villages as “promising” or “unpromising.”

But the death of a village is a slow process. A geographer, Tatiana Nefyodova, calls them “black holes,” and estimates that they make up 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s northwest, where Moscow and St. Petersburg act as giant vacuum cleaners, sucking people and capital from the rest of the country.

A really well-done piece that illustrates the plight of the Russian poor.

Alice Munro Wins the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature

Alice Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. This is pretty good news for fiction writers and readers. I must say I am somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t Haruki Murakami (I’ve read all of his fiction and non-fiction), but I understand the Nobel’s decision (they cannot award Nobel prizes posthumously, after all). Here’s the New York Times reporting on Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize:

Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy said that Ms. Munro is a “master of the contemporary short story.”

Ms. Munro, who lives in Clinton, a town in Ontario, told a writer from The Globe and Mail earlier this year that sheplanned to retire after “Dear Life,” her 14th story collection.

In a statement from Penguin Random House, her publisher, Ms. Munro said that she was “amazed, and very grateful.”

The best part, and the quote of the day, is her enthusiasm for her fellow Canadians:

I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians.

If you need a place to start, read Munro’s short story “Amundsen,” published last year in The New Yorker. Recommended.

Tyler Cowen also has a good recommendation: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories.