Archive for the 'diversity' Category

IMG_9551.CR2Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and author of Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently(UK)/(US), was interviewed this morning on Radio 4′s Today programme exploring the role of neuroeconomics in understanding the current crisis.  He’s in Davos for the World Economic Forum, with all the large fromages.

Back in the day, the Knackered Hack used to dispatch a team of reporters to Davos. Press places were then scarce.  Now I’m watching it all on Twitter, my very own self-organizing newswire, and tossing in the occasional iconoclastic observation of my own.  Who-da thunk it?  Everyone and his dog seems to be there; some shuddering, and not from the cold.

Berns message was about as negative as you can get when considering the current crisis.  He deftly applied the old-dog-new-tricks teaching heuristic to an entire generation:-

One thing that we know is when people make decisions that they are uncertain about is that they look to other people… We have seen along the way how other people’s opinions essentially pollute those judgments. Now,  modern markets are great. Now, economists like to talk about efficient markets and all of that, but the problem is that they are only efficient when people behave as individuals and render independent judgments.  Now I would probably go as far as saying the current crop of adults is a lost cause in that I think we should be focussing our efforts on the next generation and how to teach them to make judgment that are independent of each other and stop this crazy herd behaviour.

So there you have it.  All current adults are sheep.  Better cancel the Twitter account ;-) .  You can listen to the whole thing here.  I think it was edited, so there may be some context missing and the above quotation therefore not adequately representative. That’s mainstream media for you.

All that said, like a dog barking in the wind, I myself did tweet the following just a few weeks ago:-

Haunted slightly by counterfactual sense the boom promoted an entire generation of the wrong type of manager”

I’ll come back to that idea soon, I hope.  But in the meantime, given Berns’ imperative that we focus on the cognitive capacities of the next generation, it was a neat little coincidence that a review copy of a new textbook by David Hardman, entitled Judgment and Decision Making, arrived in the post yesterday from Wiley. US version available here.  Just take a look at the contents:-

  1. Introduction and Overview: Judgments, Decisions Rationality
  2. The Nature and Analysis of Judgment
  3. Judging Probability and Frequency
  4. Judgmental Distortions: The Anchoring-and-Adjustment Heuristic
  5. Assessing Evidence and Evaluation Arguments
  6. Covariation Causation, and Counterfactual Thinking
  7. Decision Making under Risk and Uncertainty
  8. Preference and Choice
  9. Confidence and Optimism
  10. Judgment and Choice over Time
  11. Dynamic Decisions and High Stakes: Where Real Life Meets the Laboratory
  12. Risk
  13. Decision Making in Groups and Teams
  14. Cooperation and Coordination
  15. Intuition, Reflective Thinking, and the Brain

Back of the net, as they say in soccer.

David Hardman's Judgment and Decision MakingDavid, with others, runs the London Judgment and Decision Making Group, whose seminars I’ve been lucky enough to attend when I’m in town.  If Berns is right, David should be needing a larger venue.  David assures me he will be blogging on the book before too long, so I’ll let you know when that happens.  We can definitely benefit from a regular dose of wisdom from this discipline.  Of course, it’s a little known fact that the Knackered Hack is already one of the leading decision science blogs on the web.  It says so here. And if you are wondering how that happened, the answer remains … well … uncertain.

Photo credit: stephenphampshire

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Lansdown Treetops

St Stephen’s tower through trees, North Bath (photographed, at least, on a Friday–@ 15:30, Nov 28)

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20/11/2008 Cropped

About a year ago I suggested I might post a fractal image each Friday. What was I thinking?

Well, a combination of guilty conscience about a commitment unkept and this sentence in Didier Sornette‘s cheerily entitled book Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems prompted me to revisit this partial promise:-

It turns out that many of the natural structures of the world are approximately fractal and that our aesthetic sense resonates with fractal forms.

Those who remember my misdirected concern about dangerous trees may appreciate that the oak has been safely pruned, and the only objects falling now are the autumn leaves and occasional acorn.

My recent routine interest in trees, and flora in general, seems closely correlated with a) the acquisition (for no financial outlay) of a Nokia N95 mobile phone containing a 5 megapixel digital camera and b) adherence to the paleo diet. The latter, you might think, is not seriously possible. But putting aside the confirmation bias, it has not been the only manifestation lately of a heightened sensitivity to fractal forms. Spooky.

More, if you can bear it, at my Flickr Photostream.

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If there is one thing to be disappointed by in Barak Obama’s US presidential election victory it is that a lot of people who previously despised America are now happily declaring the US to be likeable again. To fall out of love with America because of electoral accidents and occasional egregious foreign policy mistakes, or to believe in some glib caricature of the crass American, ignores the enduring value of the US to the rest of the world. And when I think of the US, its primary virtue invariably seems to be that it’s a country of rejects. I wonder sometimes whether those who do the most loathing of the US might well have been the types the average American ancestor would have had to run away from some decade or century earlier at the point of a bayonet.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with my two children: both newly minted US citizens. They had themselves been through a kind of virtual Ellis Island a couple of days before in the Federal Building near City Hall; after a nearly four-hour wait, they swore allegiance and in return received a certificate and letter from George Dubbya himself. As a special treat–because they were the last and seemingly the only children processed that day–they both got a little flag.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island, October 2008

For the forebears of about 100 million Americans, a five-hour wait at Ellis Island itself was often the final chapter in an escape from famine, humiliation, hopelessness, religious intolerance or full-scale pogrom. The facility closed in 1954, and–if the account of the museum is to be believed–it was a pretty humane place, all things considered, especially compared with other places of mass human transit the world has seen over the past century. While 12 million entered through Ellis Island, only 2 per cent were turned away.

Of course, if you were really posh your immigration details would be processed on board ship; only the cattle class passed through Ellis Island (including the likes of Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, Isaac Asimov and Max Factor). And today, one of the central arguments of our current politics is income inequality. I like to have my cake and eat it on the subject: on the one hand, it never bothers me what others earn, and I certainly believe there need to be good incentives for the creative and entrepreneurial to take risk; on the other, when it starts to be a hot potato you may surmise that something has started to get out of hand–as it has done on Wall Street and among senior executives over the past few years. All reward and no risk. The fuss was perhaps a leading indicator.

Pay differentials are a much less important determinant of long-term economic success (and health), as far as I can tell, than the uneven distribution of grandmothers. Obama, until the beginning of this week, had both grandmothers extant: extraordinary for a man of 47. He was mostly raised by one (his mother’s mother), confirming how important they are in loco parentis. The immigrant experience is not always so fortunate; a limiting factor on economic, entrepreneurial, academic or even sporting achievement can be the availability of extended family to provide logistical (let alone moral) support, especially in a childcare situation. In aggregate, this holds up the progress of the immigrant group. Of course, things may vary in individual cases, and there were indeed a few babushki apparent from the pictures at Ellis Island, along with touching stories of adult children being reunited with their parents.

Well, the youngest Chip Off the Old Hack is not so lucky. Both his grandmothers were carried away by cancer and were thus denied the opportunity to coo over his crib. But such is the wisdom of the US immigration authorities that, a few years ago, they decided that they will naturalize a child through his US grandparent, provided the grandparent meets (or met when living) the necessary residency qualification. So, there are now a couple of extra Obama supporters in the citizenry–not that he needs them at the moment, of course.

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I only know the one Georges Brassens song. But that one song, La ballade des gens qui sont nés quelque part (ahem, roughly translated: The ballad of those who are born somewhere), sprang to mind the other day, and I can’t shake it off. It is a satire on chauvinism in general, and tells the story of those who get too excited in relating the merits of their particular locale.

So it could be about me. I live in Bath, a World Heritage City, don’t you know. Beautiful stone buildings, wonderful museums, great shopping, and don’t get me started on the music festivals. Have I mentioned the Children’s Literature Festival?… I did? You’ll not be surprised then that, happy fool that I am, I think Bath is different!

Well, not really. Closer to the truth may be that the Knackered Hack’s somewhat nomadic path thus far is more characteristic of the Beatles’ Nowhere Man.

But the reason why we live in a place now has scientific form, according to researchers at Cambridge University:-

The authors of the new study argue that the strongest personality traits within a given population become self-reinforcing by influencing the region’s life and culture.

For example, where the population is creative, imaginative and intellectual (as was found to be the case in states including New York and California), one might expect to find people who are interested in art, literature and science. This may in turn lead to the establishment of institutions such as universities and museums. These institutions then influence the views and values of the local populace, encourage more creative and imaginative people to move to the region, and give people who do not fit that profile less reason to live there.

Dr Jason Rentfrow, who was also behind a recent paper The content and validity of stereotypes about fans of 14 music genres, is cautious but nevertheless fairly confident that the findings stack up:-

Obviously it’s not as simple as saying that a person is guaranteed to be more anxious if they come from West Virginia or more religious because they happen to live in New Mexico; but we did find pretty clear signs that there are meaningful differences in the personalities of people living in different areas of the United States.

What is particularly impressive is that the results show the effects of personality on people’s social habits, values and lifestyles are so pronounced that they have an impact on much bigger social forces.”

I wonder if this is specific to the US, where population migrations and the evolution city identities might be a little more recent. About Bath–joking aside–I’ve tended to think that it has historically sat at the cross-roads between “mainland” England and the more independent and remote Celtic parts of the British Isles, making it a kind of cultural cross-roads, where metropolitan money meets Glastonbury grunge. And that this probably goes way back.

Before you think this is all hokum, a little more about the methodology:-

Using an established framework called the “Five Factor Model” they divided personality types into five broad categories: “Extraversion” (sociable, energetic, enthusiastic people); “Agreeableness” (warm, friendly, compassionate); “Conscientiousness” (dutiful, responsible, self-disciplined); “Neuroticism” (anxious, stressful, impulsive); and “Openness” (curious, intellectual, creative).

Over six years, 619,397 people from across the US took part in an online test in which they were asked to read 44 short statements, such as “I see myself as someone who is outgoing” and “I see myself as someone who is very religious”. The respondents had to mark their level of agreement with each statement on a scale of one to five.

When I’m next in the States, I’ll have to consider carefully how to plan my trip around the geographical clustering of personality traits that the study revealed. Turns out it’s not random:

“Neuroticism” was, for instance, highest in the east along a line stretching from Maine to Louisiana, and lowest in the west, suggesting that the country has an identifiable “stress belt”.

The Wall Street Journal has more here (possibly behind the subscription wall). Below is Georges Brassens. Lyrics (in French) are here, including a reference to Montcuq, which I think is now a legal requirement of the Académie Française. Loosen your ceinture a notch, crack open a bottle of red, strike up a Gauloise, kick back and enjoy.

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