Friday, December 23, 2011

Art, Authenticity, and Rationality

Most people can't recognize the difference between a genuine and fake painting, yet Oxford University scientists have discovered that people find more pleasure in viewing a work of art when they are told they are looking at an original painting rather than a fake. More from Science Daily:
Professor Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University, said: "Our findings support what art historians, critics and the general public have long believed -- that it is always better to think we are seeing the genuine article. Our study shows that the way we view art is not rational, that even when we cannot distinguish between two works, the knowledge that one was painted by a renowned artist makes us respond to it very differently. The fact that people travel to galleries around the world to see an original painting suggests that this conclusion is reasonable."

When a participant was told that a work was genuine, it raised activity in the part of the brain that deals with rewarding events, such as tasting pleasant food or winning a gamble. Being told a work is not by the master triggered a complex set of responses in areas of the brain involved in planning new strategies. Participants reported that when viewing a supposed fake, they tried to work out why the experts regarded it not to be genuine.

Andrew Parker, Professor of Physiology at Oxford University and the study's senior author, said: "Our findings support the idea that when we make aesthetic judgements, we are subject to a variety of influences. Not all of these are immediately articulated. Indeed, some may be inaccessible to direct introspection but their presence might be revealed by brain imaging. It suggests that different regions of the brain interact together when a complex judgment is formed, rather than there being a single area of the brain that deals with aesthetic judgements."

The Accuracy of Political Experts

Wharton professor Philip Tetlock on political experts:
The finding that people found most surprising from my work on expert judgement, and in particular the work on expert political judgement, was that there was somewhat of an inverse relationship between how accurate experts were and how famous they were, that the media tended to be drawn to experts who offered very short and sharp soundbites. And those tended to be experts who, in my study, were somewhat less accurate.
From this short interview:

An important reminder as the American presidential race heats up!

What will historians say about us?

Big Think recently launched The Floating University and has started posting excerpts from its first online course, Great Big Ideas. The site recently featured an excerpt from Larry Summers' lecture, "The Authority of Ideas: Decoding the DNA of Education in Search of Actual Knowledge." In the excerpt, Summers addresses the question, What will historians say about our time 100 years from now? His response—that historians of tomorrow will be shocked by our treatment of the poor, just as we are shocked by slavery and other injustices of the past—reflects his central argument, as summarized by the editors of Big Think, that "we are moving from a world governed by the idea of authority to a world governed by the authority of ideas. He sees history as progressive on a macro-level: a series of cultural advances leading—slowly, and with many interruptions—toward increased human empathy and collective understanding." The short video excerpt of Summers' lecture is worth watching.

On Historical Distance

In an essay published by Tablet Magazine earlier this week, University of Houston history professor Robert Zaretsky presents a reflection on his professional work as a "Holocaust expert." The depth of his introspection—really, his willingness to reveal his innermost doubts about his role as a professional historian of the Holocaust—makes the essay a worthwhile read. The essay also raises some interesting questions about the authority of professional historians vis-à-vis eyewitnesses. Zaretsky writes:
Normally, being "there" is not an issue for a historian. Only a lunatic would repudiate an account of, say, the fall of the Bastille or Battle of Marathon because the historian had been born one or one hundred generations too late to savor the sulfur or participate in a phalanx. In fact, historians have long assumed that not being there is a professional advantage. In an odd phenomenological twist, we have always claimed that the distance provided by time and space, along with the accumulation of documents and data, permits us to know the past even better than did an event’s contemporaries, who were stuck in the chaos as they happened. Anyone can make history, but it takes a historian to understand it.
He then goes on to discuss why some contend that the benefits of historical distance may not apply to the Holocaust—and how he's wrestled with this issue as an American Jew and historian.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

NYC Subway: On Waste and Wasted Money

Last night, I ventured into Manhattan to enjoy a meal with a friend in town for the holidays. While waiting for the subway, I noticed an emotionally intelligent sign on a trashcan:

Penn Station Uptown C waiting area, NYC
Playing on both the subway motif and the dictum "The Buck Stops Here," the sign is clever, convincing, and empowering—instilling a sense of pride in those who take their civic responsibility seriously. I've written before about emotionally intelligent signs and continue to enjoy the signs posted by Daniel Pink on his blog, but this is the first time I've spotted such a great example in the field.

On a related note, as I prepared to board the subway, I noticed that I had two old Metrocards in my wallet, and when I checked the balance on each, I discovered that both had just under fifty-cents remaining. (A one-way subway ride in New York City costs $2.25, and riders use a declining balance swipe card, a Metrocard, to pair the fare.) While I refilled one of the cards—and was thus able to utilize the balance on it—the other card seemed like a burden. I didn't want to carry it around in my wallet since I only ride the subway occasionally, yet I didn't want to throw it away. (And, unfortunately, the Metrocard vending machines don't allow riders to pull a partial balance from one card and apply it to another.)

This evening, I came across a fantastic idea (via The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal) for what someone like me could do with the remaining balance on a Metrocard. A group of student social entrepreneurs have developed MetroChange, a product that could allow subway riders to donate card balances to charity. Here's a video detailing their product:

As an aside, I wonder the extent to which the MTA benefits from subway riders tossing away cards with small balances—just as retailers benefit from unredeemed gift cards. Might widespread use of a device like MetroChange result in a fare hike?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Secret Life of Pronouns

Several weeks ago, students in one of my sections of Theory of Knowledge engaged in a spirited debate about the extent to which the words we use reflect our experiences, biases, upbringing, culture, and so forth. Some students posited that every word we utter is a reflection of ourselves—even answers to simple questions (e.g. What color are the walls in this room?)—while others argued that we can speak with neutrality, at least in some cases.

I was reminded of this debate today when I came across an interview with James W. Pennebaker, psychology professor and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, on the Harvard Business School website. The interview focuses (quite naturally) on the application of Pennebaker's research to business. Here's his take on what one can tell about a job applicant from a careful analysis of the words s/he uses during an interview:
It’s almost impossible to hear the differences naturally, which is why we use transcripts and computer analysis. Take a person who’s depressed."I" might make up 6.5% of his words, versus 4% for a nondepressed person. That’s a huge difference statistically, but our ears can’t pick it up. But hypothetically, if I were to listen to an interview, I might consider how the candidate talks about their coworkers at their last job. Do they refer to them as "we" or "they"? That gives you a sense of their relationship to the group. And if you want someone who’s really decisive in a position, a person who says "It’s hot" rather than "I think it’s hot" may be a better fit.
I haven't read Pennebaker's book, but I will add it to my reading list. As an aside, the article also includes this cool graphic—which may or may not be a word cloud—of the twenty most commonly used words in English:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"In Service"

This past summer I wrote an article for Outreach, Newark Academy's magazine for alumni and friends, about the Academy during the Second World War. My research gave me the opportunity to dig through the school's archives and to interview many alumni about their experiences during and after the war era. The article has now been published. I encourage you to check it out.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Comedy of Hubris

Today, an email from a colleague included this one-liner attributed to George Carlin:
Have you ever noticed that, when you're driving, anyone driving slower than you is an "idiot" and anyone driving faster than you is a "maniac?"
It reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cross-sensory Perception

It's not surprising that scientists are discovering the great extent to which our senses act in concert to help us make sense of the world. This weekend's Boston Globe Ideas section included an article that reviewed some recent research into cross-sensory perception. Some findings of note:
His [Oxford University researcher Charles Spence] recent work on the psychology of flavor perception, for instance, has shown that the flavor of your food is influenced by touch, vision, and even sound. A study from his lab a few years ago showed that people rate potato chips as crisper and better-tasting when a louder crunch is played back over headphones as they eat. 
A study published this year showed that people thought a strawberry mousse tasted sweeter, more intense, and better when they ate it off a white plate rather than a black plate. 
In some cases they [senses] compete with each other and one wins out (as your eyes win over your ears in the movies). In others, the information merges into something new; when people watch a video of a person saying “ga” while the audio is dubbed with a voice saying “ba,” they hear an intermediate “da.” 
I tried this last one with a group of students this morning, and while our experiment didn't yield the same results as the professional researcher, we were all quite excited to consider the complexities of our senses and the applications of this research to a variety of fields and professions, including cooking, marketing, and art.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hollywood's Constructed Languages

The New York Times today featured an article detailing the rise of constructed languages in Hollywood's recent sci-fi movies. The article is worth reading in its entirety, and the clips of spoken Dothraki, a language invented for an HBO series, applied to life in New York City are pretty cool. Here's an excerpt from the article that connects recent developments in Hollywood to the history of constructed languages:
There have been many attempts to create languages, often for specific political effect. In the 1870s, a Polish doctor invented Esperanto, meant to be a simplified international language that would bring world peace. Suzette Haden Elgin created Láaden as a language better suited for expressing women’s points of view. (Láaden has a single word, “bala,” that means “I’m angry for a reason but nothing can be done about it.”)

But none of the hundreds of languages created for social reasons developed as ardent a following as those created for movies, television and books, says Arika Okrent, author of “In the Land of Invented Languages.”

“For years people have been trying to engineer better languages and haven’t succeeded as well as the current era of language for entertainment sake alone,” Ms. Okrent said.