Monthly Archives: May 2008

The pen really is mightier than the sword

I heard of a moving story about how to make teens aware of the power of writing.

Cedrick Steele, an 18-year old student in the College Writing Class, at Bunker Hill Community College was killed by six bullets.

After his class met in stunned silence, Wick Sloane decided to use his class to channel his classmates’ emotion into writing about Cedrick. He indicated that they would not be graded on this effort. He asked the class to use their laptop to get out their emotions through typing. At the end of the class he announced that he was visiting Cedrick’s family and asked which students wanted to share their tributes or come along and many did.

Read a moving account of that here along with some of the writings.

The story also reminds me of another program that demonstrates the power of words. A couple that are friends help teach literature to rehabilitate prisoners through the Changing Lives Through Literature program.

It is testament to the fact, as we discovered in one of Saguaro Seminar meetings about the transformative impact of the arts in drawing us together. See also this chapter of our final report.

Gallup takes daily pulse of American happiness/Krueger’s interesting happiness research

Since January 2008, Gallup has surveyed 1000 people a day to gauge their levels of wellbeing. [Confession: We were asked to recommend social capital questions that should be included on this survey.] Gallup plans to continue the surveying indefinitely into the future.

Gallup’s first report came out and was picked up by the press. TIME calls it the *Dow Jones Index of Happiness*. The data is probably going to be less useful on a daily basis: i.e., *happiness off today in late-day profit-taking …* and more useful after months or years of this data has been gathered together.

This aggregated dataset could be used to construct county-level happiness estimates for most counties in the U.S. And then these aggregate happiness measures could be attached to other datasets to see how much individuals’ happiness is affected by those around them. For example, are the same individuals (controlling for education, ethnicity, years lived in the community, income, marital status, etc.), happier or not if they are surrounded by others who are happy. One could imagine that subjective wellbeing is contagious or conversely that if one is a lone misanthrope in a sea of happy neighbors that it heightens one’s depression (in the same way as New Year’s Day is a grim holiday for those who are not happy).

One could also use this aggregated dataset to determine how individuals’ levels of happiness relate to various activities (social activity, political activity, religion, sports participation, etc.).

Along the latter topic, Alan Krueger (a terrific economist at Princeton) and others have some of the most interesting new recent work on happiness. He used the American Time Use Survey methodology and privately gathered through the Princeton Affect and Time Survey (PATS). The individuals whose activities were being recorded through PATS had Palm-like devices and were randomly pinged on different days and at different times of the day and had to report their levels of happiness, what activity they were doing, and who they were doing it with. [I’m glad it wasn’t a picture-phone!] What was unique about Krueger’s data and approach is that he could compare levels of happiness for the same individual across the week. So some people (the Zen Masters or Buddhists) might be pretty happy doing everything from dish-washing to summiting Everest, whereas others are relatively unhappy even if their dream spouse has just said yes to their marriage proposal. The Time Use data enabled Krueger to measure the happiness of individuals relative to each individual’s baseline level of happiness and thus see which activities brought more happiness or less. And the most pleasurable activities (that I can write about) were….


and Sports and Exercise.

[Note: they chart happiness by looking at the percent of the time that happiness feelings in the activity exceeded stress, pain and sadness). On this score religion was highest with 92% of the experiences being pleasurable; pleasure is the inverse of the U-index they report where religion is low with 8% of experiences.]

The full study is called “National Time Accounting: The Currency of Life” and is written with Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (also of Princeton), David Schkade (UCSD), Norbert Schwarz (U. Michigan), and Arthur Stone (Stony Brook U.). For the results on religion, see especially Tables 5.2.b and 8.3 at the end of the National Time Accounting piece.

Quit your habit in groups and be more popular, say scientists

Nick Christakis and James Fowler made headlines recently for their study on obesity contagion (See Can your friends affect your weight?).

Now they’re back with analogous research that shows that you are far more likely to be able to quit smoking if you do it in groups (where those around you are also quitting). It’s scientifically-proven, but something that practitioners have known for a while: why do you think Jenny Craig has dieters work in groups, or why all the self-help groups (Alcoholics Anonymous and others of that ilk) use group norms to reinforce changes in behavior.

Study co-author Fowler notes that in tracking individuals and social groups (through the Framingham Heart Study) over 30-years, the average size of each cluster of smokers was of similar size, but Fowler notes: “It’s just that there are fewer and fewer of these clusters as time goes on.”

The social contagion of quitting smoking can extend to people that the quitter didn’t know. For example if Anne quits smoking, and Anne is friends with Barb and Barb is friends with Clarissa, Clarissa’s chance of quitting increases by 30%, even if Anne and Clarissa don’t know each other.

Christakis notes that smokers have moved more to the periphery of social networks, where they often were more at the center of these social networks several decades ago. While this doesn’t say that teen non-smokers will necessarily be more popular, it does suggest over their lifespan that non-smoking is more likely to be associated with popularity than smoking.

The obesity study appears in the May 22 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

See also, Clive Thompson, “Is Happiness Catching?” (NYT Sunday Magazine, 9/13/09)

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers [UPDATED 3/23/13]

Gladwell’s The Outliers (2008) focuses on success and the hard work, social context and cultural background that explains why some people excel and others don’t.  He has a related article in The New Yorker on genius (trivia note: a related post of his on this topic was rejected a long time ago by the New Yorker).  The Outliers seems better at explaining the success of some than in its prescriptions for how to get others to succeed.  [For more on his 2013 book, David and Goliath, click here.]

While The Tipping Point seemed to focus more on individuals and their power to change society, The Outliers focuses more on the social and cultural context of individuals to explain their extraordinary success.  As per vintage Gladwell, it takes a very eclectic path toward its subject, looking at everything from a genius who lives on a horse farm in Northern Missouri, to why Canadians are better hockey players (and which Canadians are the best), to why Korean pilots are more likely to crash planes.

In a nutshell, Gladwell believes The Beatles’ success was due to the fact that in their early years in Hamburg, Germany, they had to play very long sets at clubs, in a wide variety of styles, which both helped them to get in their 10,000 hours (see below on its importance) and forced them to be creative and excel at experimenting.  He notes the eerie correlation between who is a good pilot and what culture they came from.  He explores why a little town in Eastern Pennsylvania has had zero heart attacks.  He divulges that one 9 year stretch has accounted for more Outliers than any other.  He credits the success of Chinese math geniuses to the their harder studies and greater patience in problem-solving, stemming from a cultural legacy of long days of work in rice paddies; Gladwell contrasts the Chinese proverb ‘No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich’ with the American agricultural practice of letting fields lie fallow in winter, which led to a school year with summer vacations — a practice that works for children of the well-educated but fails children of the less-educated who give up many of their school-year academic gains over the summer. He credits Bill Gates’ success to early and sustained access to high-end computers.  As Edward Tenner notes on Slate: “Memo to overscheduling, hovering, upper-middle-class mothers and fathers: Keep up the good work.”

Gladwell gave a related talk at the New Yorker’s conference last year called “Genius: 2012”. In the talk Gladwell explains how success in the 21st century is less about sheer intelligence and more about collaboration and hard work to get to the level of mastery in a topic (which he says typically takes 10,000 hours).  Outliers describes how Bill Gates was able to get to 10,000 hours while still in middle and high school in Seattle due to 9 incredibly fortunate concurrences: among them, that his private school could fund a sophisticated computer in their computer club, and fact that he lived close to the U. of Washington, where he could use an even more sophisticated computer. Gladwell concedes that Gates is obviously brilliant, but still notes that many other brilliant youth never had the chance to become computer stars of Gates’ magnitude because they didn’t have access to these sophisticated computers.

In the New Yorker conference, Gladwell uses the contrast of Michael Ventris (who cracked the undecipherable code called Linear B of Minoans from Knossos on Crete) – and Andrew Wiles (a Mathematics Professor who solved what some thought might never be solved: Fermat’s Last Theorem).

Michael Ventris was the pre-modern genius: working mainly alone, in his free time, utterly brilliant and solving in a flash of insight after 1.5 years of free time during nights and weekends spent on the problem. Andrew Wiles, on the other hand, took about ten years to solve the theorem (close to those same 10,000 hours), and built on scholarly work over decades by a dozen other mathematicians. Gladwell notes that Wiles was less a pure genius and more a master at diligently working away at this problem, and building on the shoulders of other math giants. He also points to the important of hard work by showing that what separates better oncologists from worse oncologists was not intelligence or training, but how long they spent trying to find cancers from the colonoscopy results (*the mismatch problem*). [The mismatch was that oncologists often chosen for their brilliance and how fast they could examine the colonoscopies.] Gladwell notes that he thinks we need to think more about how to get a dozen Andrew Wiles than one Michael Ventris and thus we need to focus on *capitalization* (how some groups, like Chinese-Americans, are better able to translate given levels of IQ into managerial experience at 33% higher rates than White Americans.)

Speaking at a recent PopTech conference in Camden Maine in 2008, after explaining America’s abysmal capitalization rate, Gladwell’s gloom and doom gave way to optimism. “We have a scarcity of achievement in this country, not because we have a scarcity of talent. We have a scarcity of achievement because we’re squandering that talent. And that’s not bad news, that’s good news, because it says this scarcity is not something we have to live with. It’s something we can do something about.”

Gladwell: “Our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.”

As advocates of the importance of social capital, it is obviously self-validating that Gladwell shows how social networks (beyond mere brilliance) is one of the factors Gladwell tags as a key to success. Scholars like Ronald Burt and others have clearly showed that lifetime earnings is more clearly a function of social interconnections than of levels of education.

There is interesting parallel work to Gladwell’s which shows up in work by an economist named David Galenson in an intriguing book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses.

Galenson believes that artists fall into two categories:

1) conceptual innovators who peak creatively early in life. They know what they want to accomplish and then set out with certainty to accomplish this. (Examples include Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Wells).

2) experimental innovators who peak creatively later. They dabble, try new things (some of which succeed and some fail), learn from their mistakes, and make incremental improvements to their art until they’re capable of real masterpiece. Examples include Paul Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, and Jackson Pollock).

Galenson’s work parallels Gladwell’s in his belief that many “geniuses” are not born great but have the capacity to learn from others and learn from failures along the way.  See interesting talk by Gladwell discussing Galenson in “Age Before Beauty.”

Previewing  The Outliers in New York magazine, he talks about the case of Canadian hockey players:

Gladwell explains why the relative-age effect (a compounding of some initial advantage over time), explains why a disproportionate number of elite Canadian hockey players were born in the first half of the year (popularizing  the research of a Canadian psychologist). Because Canada’s eligibility cutoff for junior hockey is January 1, Gladwell writes, “a boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year.” Since the differences in physical maturity are so great at that age, this initial advantage in when one starts playing competitive hockey helps explain which kid will make the league all-star team. And similarly, by making the all-star team earlier, the January 2 kid gets another leg up in more practice, better coaching, tougher competition, that compound that difference. Gladwell says it explains why by age 14, the January 2 birthday kid  becomes so much better at hockey than the January 1 birthday kid. Gladwell says the solution is doubling the number of junior hockey leagues—some for kids born in the first half of the year, others for kids born in the second half. Or, as it applies to elementary schools, Gladwell believes that elementary and middle schools should put group students in three classes (January-April birthdays, May-August birthdays, and September-December birthdays) to “level the playing field.”

It’s interesting, as New York magazine points out, that at some level The Tipping Point was all about how one individual, taking advantage of connectors and influencers and the structure of social networks can move the world.  The Outliers starts at the other pole and argues that people’s opportunity to move the world and excel, while partly driven by talent, is largely structured by opportunities provided externally.  The Outliers is an invitation for governmental-policy to ensure that those who are talented can achieve, rather than be left to chance of who happens to be given the opportunities.  While Gladwell is quick to seize upon the accumulated advantages of those who succeed, he overlooks the role of persistance and motivation (which someones arises out of adversity).  Slate has a brief historical discussion of figures like Oppenheimer who overcame their disadvantages and quotes Sarkozy who said: “What made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered during childhood.”

N.B.: Interestingly, Gladwell, who is a rare breed of journalist-celebrity, such that Fast Company once called him “a rock star, a spiritual leader, a stud”, insists that he is not an Outlier; he says “I’m just a journalist.”  He does explain that he put in his own 10,000 hours at the Washington Post from 1987-1997, and it was only because of that investment in the craft of journalism that he could succeed when he moved to the New Yorker in 1997.

Read excerpts of Outliers here.

Related article “Genius: The Modern View” by David Brooks (NYT Op-Ed, 5/1/09).

The book, BTW, is panned by Michiko Kakutani of the NYT in “It’s True: Success Succeeds and Advantages Can Help” (11/17/08).

Interesting video of Gladwell presenting at AIGA’s Gain conference here; he discusses success via detailed story of Fleetwood Mac and shorter discussion of the Beatles. (PSFK)

Barack Obama overtaking Clinton in all demographics except 50+ women

An interesting post of Gallup, shows a sudden break in their polling towards Barack Obama in the last several weeks.

Obama now holds a 15% percentage point lead over Hillary Clinton overall, and more interestingly, given all the previous reports that the deviseness was causing an ever increasing number of Hillary supporters to indicate that they would not support Obama if he were the nominee.  While they don’t ask that exact question, they do show that among almost every demographic (other than women over age 50+ where Hillary clings to a narrow majority), a majority of likely Democrats in every demographic that they looked at support Obama.

I trust that Obama’s focusing on his differences with McCain is reminding lots of Democrats of the fact that they agree far more with Obama and his policies than with McCain and has thus started to help unify the Democrats.

Games with a purpose: a spoonful of sugar…

GWAP (Games with a Purpose) hopes to save the world (or at least make it easier to find out information about saving the world) through people playing games for free.


GWAP pairs individuals in games against each other to improve search algorithms. For example, in Tag a Tune, you try to figure out if you and an opponent are listening to the same song by trying to describe it (and in the process help search methods for MP3 files). Or the ESP Game shows you and a partner (in different locations) the same image and you try to guess what words your partner is using to describe this image.

Now, if only they can find a way to use game playing to increase social trust and collaboration outside of games…

We reported on other efforts to use the public to do tasks of public good (like Mechanical Turk to map the surface of Mars in this blog post) or here or here.

The Pay-for-Performance NYC schools experiment: the Social Capital Story

Roland Fryer, the up-and-coming Harvard Economics Professor, who at age 30 is on leave as the Chief Equality Officer for the New York City Public Schools, talked yesterday at the Taubman Center on State and Local Government’s Annual Meeting. [Taubman director Ed Glaeser commented on the apparent tension between the words *Chief* and *Equality* in Roland’s title, to which Roland noted that he’s all in favor of equality as long as he can be the leader!]

Roland has been on a quest to marry economics and social science with how to make a difference in the lives of the very poor. Roland himself comes from a poor family growing up in the South (in Daytona Beach, FL), and to some extent wants to enable more poor kids to achieve what he has. [Fryer noted that his grandmother’s sister and her husband, with whom he spent a lot of time. ran a crack ring, and he happened to be at the dog track watching greyhounds when federal agents arrested the two of them. And 8 out of 10 of his closest friends growing up had either died or served time in prison. And he would have gone to jail as he was planning at age 15 to participate with friends in a burglary, but got cold feet and chickened out at the last minute and his friends were all arrested and went to jail.]

His NYC schools experiment aims to marry cutting edge social science (and randomized intervention) with making a difference in these kids’ lives.

The program has a handful of different dimensions including incentive pay for principals, offering cellphones to high school youth who are doing well economically (called *The Million*), paying 4th and 7th graders to take math and reading tests that they were already taking several times a year (with higher pay if they get more right answers on them).

There has always been the most controversy around the *pay for performance* part of the plan, with some principals saying kids should be studying for the love of learning or claiming that when the financial incentive is removed in the future, any patterns of success will disappear. Roland noted that the media (originally negative) has turned positive with support for the plan in the Washington Post, USA Today and a handful of other papers. Interestingly, while white parents on Upper East Side or in Staten Island complaining that the pay-for-performance didn’t respect African Americans and played into stereotypes, there has been no such complaints among African-American parents of students in the pay-for-performance experiment.

Part of the way through the first year, the plan appears to be working for 7th graders, but less so for 4th graders. Roland notes that it is possible that the tests (every 5 weeks) are too far away for the financial incentive to mean as much, or that 4th grade is too young a grade to incent learning, although Roland is likely to try some tweaks to the program in the second year. Moreover, Roland is going to expand the 7th grade program to 8th grade randomizing who continues in the program and who does not (so they can see how the performance of those who do not get the program in the second year compare with those who never got the treatment or those who got it for two years). Among the 7th graders, those who got offered the treatment (pay for performance) were already 1-2 months ahead of their comparable peers after only 1/3 of a year in the program, although gains were higher in math than in verbal skills.

Hearing Roland talk, it was clear (even though he didn’t directly discuss this), the importance of social networks, trust and social capital to his success. He noted for example, that although principals think that they are in charge of these underperforming schools, that it is really probably 20 students who are running the place and his effort aims to change the culture of schools and create a demand-side for learning that can be spread through social networks. It is no accident that as part of *The Million* (his effort to brand student achievement and success), that he gives students state of the art cellphones, since the cellphones promote social networks where Fryer can communicate with the students or send a video (since he has their phone numbers), where teachers can text students about upcoming tests, and where students can spread the excitement of achievement through this program. And he notes that the payment can serve as a valuable foil for legitimzing studying hard; he hears about students claiming that ‘they don’t care about studying, that they are just in it for the money.’ Roland doubts this is true, but it protects them against the charge that African-American kids are “acting white.”

Roland also notes that social networks will play a role in the anticipated higher take-up rate in second year of program. In first year, many students failed to participate. Growing up in a culture and environment where many people couldn’t be trusted, many students thought the program was a scam. But now that students have seen payments deposited in the bank accounts that were automatically set up for them, word-of-mouth is spreading the messages that the program is legitimate.

Roland told a funny story –he has the look of a nerdy African-American with wire rim glasses and a three-piece suit, with a build of someone who might have played football at an earlier age). Yesterday, a group of wide-eyed NYC students had earned a trip to Harvard because of their performance. He asked the group of 7th graders how many of them expected to be professional athletes and 70% of them raised their hands. He then asked them which of them was the best athlete. They pointed to a 6 foot high kid. Roland made the kid a bet; he’d challenge the kid to a 50 yard dash in Harvard Yard. If Roland won, the kids would abandon their goal of professional athletes and focus on making it in academics since they were never going to be professional athletes if the best of them could be beat by a Harvard economics professor. If Roland lost, he’d wear whatever clothes they wanted him to wear for a day (they had decided it would be a frilly pink dress). Luckily for Roland, he won, although he said it was not easy.

Note: all of funding paid for in first year by foundations, with commitment that if the program shows results, NYC will pick up the tab of continuing this going forward.

For a description of Roland see this account by Freakonomics author Steven Dubner in NYT; for some accounts of this program see this NYT article, or “Cellphones as Incentives,” and this entry on “The Million

Wonderful 21st c. equivalent of barn-raising: building solar hot water systems together

In the 18th and 19th century, frontiers townspeople worked together to build neighbors’ barns, either for the first time, or for those who had the bad fortune of their barn burning down. Accounts here.


In a 21st century equivalent, townspeople in New England towns are scheduling energy raisers for the summer where volunteers come together to erect solar hot water systems for residents so they can save 80% on their fuel bills and help the environment at the same time.

“By eliminating labor costs, the New Hampshire group has been able to reduce the price from more than $10,000 for a conventionally installed system to as little as $3,000, organizers of the group say. Federal tax credits and local company rebates – such as those available in New Hampshire – can reduce the price even further, to as low as about $1,500, they say.”

In a nice variant on microcredit lending schemes, and building reciprocity into the approach, “…[n]eighbors who donated their labor at three energy raisers were eligible to have the technology installed at their own homes. Afterward, the neighbors would be expected to provide labor at additional energy raisers, to repay the favor.

Read Boston Globe story *Many hands make light work (groan!) of saving energy.*