Halloween links: Superfreakonomics, Evolutionary Psychology/Biology, The Books of Brin, and more

* SuperFreakonomics has already generated tremendous and noisy controversy in the blogosphere, and Stephen Dubner responds on his blog: Global Warming in SuperFreakonomics: The Anatomy of a Smear.

I read the book, like approximately half the U.S. population, and thought it intriguing mostly in the first chapter, which is really about the changing social mores around women.

* A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.

* Kahlo, Trotsky and Kingsolver: The writer [Kingsolver] on dust, dirt, rain and her new novel set in 1930s Mexico. I’ve never gotten into Kingsolver’s fiction, but I like this interview.

* Dismantling the Calculus pyramid.

* The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English.

* Why do we rape, kill, and sleep around? Whatever the cause, don’t blame evolution for it:

Evo psych took its first big hit in 2005, when NIU’s Buller exposed flaw after fatal flaw in key studies underlying its claims, as he laid out in his book Adapting Minds. Anthropological studies such as Hill’s on the Ache, shooting down the programmed-to-rape idea, have been accumulating. And brain scientists have pointed out that there is no evidence our gray matter is organized the way evo psych claims, with hundreds of specialized, preprogrammed modules. […]

Like other critics, he has no doubt that evolution shaped the human brain. How could it be otherwise, when evolution has shaped every other human organ? But evo psych’s claims that human behavior is constrained by mental modules that calcified in the Stone Age make sense “only if the environmental challenges remain static enough to sculpt an instinct over evolutionary time,” Pigliucci points out. If the environment, including the social environment, is instead dynamic rather than static—which all evidence suggests—then the only kind of mind that makes humans evolutionarily fit is one that is flexible and responsive, able to figure out a way to make trade-offs, survive, thrive and reproduce in whatever social and physical environment it finds itself in. In some environments it might indeed be adaptive for women to seek sugar daddies. In some, it might be adaptive for stepfathers to kill their stepchildren. In some, it might be adaptive for men to be promiscuous. But not in all. And if that’s the case, then there is no universal human nature as evo psych defines it.

That is what a new wave of studies has been discovering, slaying assertions about universals right and left.

This should be mandatory reading in conjunction with Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior and The Mating Mind.

* In His Own Literary World, a Native Son Without Borders concerns Sherman Alexie . The money shot:

[Alexie] characterized the high-six-figure advance he is being paid for a subsequent novel, a thriller that is still at least a year away, as lucrative enough that it constituted “a pornographic deal.” He was quick to note that he meant nothing bad by that.

“No, I like porn,” he said.

* The Books of Brin—that’s Sergey Brin of Google fame.

* Eventually the U.S. will hit the wall on deficit spending. The result is not going to be happy.

* Apple releases new 27-inch LED Cinema Display, and it comes with a new Mac.

* Free Mac mini—you save the cost of the computer in the form of electric bills.

* Bob Higgs on understanding the government, which is really about understanding economics:

Until more people come to a more realistic, fact-based understanding of the government and the economy, little hope exists of tearing them away from their quasi-religious attachment to a government they view with misplaced reverence and unrealistic hopes. Lacking a true religious faith yet craving one, many Americans have turned to the state as a substitute god, endowed with the divine omnipotence required to shower the public with something for nothing in every department – free health care, free retirement security, free protection from hazardous consumer products and workplace accidents, free protection from the Islamic maniacs the U.S. government stirs up with its misadventures in the Muslim world, and so forth. If you take the government to be Santa Claus, you naturally want every day to be Christmas; and the bigger the Santa, the bigger his sack of goodies.

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* An interview with New York Review of Books Classics editorial director Edwin Frank. I love this quote: “Finding something lost gives us a sense of new possibility, don’t you think?”

* Slate has a fascinating take on Why gay marriage, getting high, and going to Cuba will soon be legal. The best parts come near the bottom:

For similar reasons, there is not likely to be any retreat on the basic legal status—as opposed to tinkering around the margins—of the right to have an abortion or own a gun. Conservatives would be wise to give up on the one, liberals on the other. In each of these cases, popular demand for an individual right is simply too powerful to overcome. The Internet has been a crucial amplifier of all such claims. With pornography, and gambling, the Web itself became an irrepressible distribution tool for indulgences that were once perforce local. When it comes to gay marriage, the Web has accelerated the recognition of a new civil right by serving as an organizing tool and information clearinghouse. More broadly, the freest communications medium the world has ever known has raised expectations of personal liberty. In a world where everyone has his own printing press, restrictions on private behavior become increasingly untenable.

Republicans face a risk in resisting these new realities. Freedom is part of their brand; if the GOP remains the party of prohibition, it will increasingly alienate libertarian-leaners and the young. But the party as presently constituted has very little capacity to accept social change.

* Nation’s morons march on Washington State.

* Seattle doctors try flat-rate no-limit primary care. If I lived there, I’d be tempted to sign up for $39 a month and no hassles.

* Student Loans and Payback Time: Student debt as the new form of indentured servitude.

* Want 50Mbps Internet in your town? Threaten to roll out your own. This is from Ars Technica:

ISPs may not act for years on local complaints about slow Internet—but when a town rolls out its own solution, it’s amazing how fast the incumbents can deploy fiber, cut prices, and run to the legislature.

* Obama’s right. It’s time to stop taking the network’s skewed news seriously. And I love the lede:

Last week, when White House communications director Anita Dunn charged the Fox News Channel with right-wing bias, Fox responded the way it always does. It denied the accusation with a straight face while proceeding to confirm it with its coverage.

* Attention retail establishments: noise costs you millions:

Based on personal experience and interviews with many shoppers I believe that many people turn around and leave before they even get inside a shop because of its noise. The eyes are being told: “Come in, hang out, spend your money”, but the ears are being told: “Leave at once, hostile environment, not safe”.

I agree: it’s unusual and refreshing to find stores/coffee shops that feel like entering an acoustical oasis instead of a hurricane. The most fascinating part of the post comes at the end: “Most shop soundscapes are arbitrary. Nobody designed them: they are the accidental results of design by people with no ears…”

* Beware the reverse brain drain to India and China. U.S. immigration policies aren’t discussed extensively in the piece but probably should be.

Product Review: Evoluent Ergonomic Vertical Mouse

EDIT: I’ve switched, full-time, to the Contour Mouse, primarily because the Evolutent Vertical Mouse reviewed below tapers at the top in a way that forces one to uncomfortably “pinch” the mouse. I didn’t notice this irritation before I wrote the review, but it became more evident over time and makes me recommend the Contour Mouse instead. I’m using a “large” size, but the size you need will vary for obvious reasons.

The Evoluent Vertical Mouse takes the shape of a traditional mouse and essentially rotates it 90 degrees. This probably means nothing without a picture:

evoluent stand-alone

You then grip it like this:

evoluent_vertical_mouse_2

evoluent_vertical_mouse_1

That contrasts with a traditional mouse because your forearm doesn’t rotate:

regular_mouse_1

The Evoluent posture is supposed to be more ergonomically sound. Judging the ergonomic claims is difficult, and I haven’t found any strong research to support them, as described in greater detail below. But the mouse, though it takes a little bit of time to acclimate, does feel better. The difference between a standard mouse and an Evoluent Vertical Mouse isn’t as great as the difference between a standard keyboard and a Kinesis Advantage, for example. That being said, it still seems like an improvement over a mouse design that seems to have come about chiefly by accident rather than planning.

The mouse retails for at places like Newegg, but you can find it for $53 from Google shopping as of this writing.

Research

With any exotic, expensive device that promises dramatic improvement, it’s worth considering what, if any, research backs it up. The answer, so far as I can tell using a combination of Google Scholar and the University of Arizona’s online databases, is “not much.”

The best I found came from two sources: The prevalence of neck and upper extremity musculoskeletal symptoms in computer mouse users (2000) and Can a more neutral position of the forearm when operating a computer mouse reduce the pain level for VDU operators? (2002; VDU is researcher speak for “visual display users,” or, as we might call them today, “computer users.”) Both articles are behind pay walls. The first finds that some pain in the upper extremities of mouse users tends to exist, and the latter essentially answers “yes” to the question of whether a neutral forearm position and reduce pain, although the study doesn’t really get around placebo effect problems—that is, merely showing users that one is interested in their problems can sometimes make users work faster or alleviate their ills.

You can see this in a slightly different context in Matthew Stewart’s “The Management Myth,” which appeared in the June 2006 Atlantic:

While a group of female workers assembled telephone relays and receiver coils, Homer turned the lights up. Productivity went up. Then he turned the lights down. Productivity still went up! Puzzled, Homer tried a new series of interventions. First, he told the “girls” that they would be entitled to two five-minute breaks every day. Productivity went up. Next it was six breaks a day. Productivity went up again. Then he let them leave an hour early every day. Up again. Free lunches and refreshments. Up! Then Homer cut the breaks, reinstated the old workday, and scrapped the free food. But productivity barely dipped at all.

The second study also looked at mice that were more like joysticks than like the Evoluent mouse. But it also demonstrates that keeping one’s arm in a more vertical position is probably superior to keeping it in a horizontal position, all other things being equal.

But the study doesn’t measure whether and how moving one’s hand from a horizontal keyboard to a vertical mouse might change the experience: since most of us probably type more than we use the mouse, we regularly switch from one input device to the other. The Evoluent mouse requires you raise your hand slightly as you go from the keyboard to the mouse because of the mouse’s instead of letting your hand fall onto the mouse. This might obviate some of the ergonomic benefits in real-world use.

Finally, a 1995 study called “Design Criteria of an Ergonomic Mouse Computer Input Device” by Richard Pekelney and Robin Chu mostly calls for more research and discusses some of the research performed up to that time. It doesn’t even consider the possibility of a vertical mouse. If anyone knows of better researcher on mouse design, send me an e-mail or leave a link in the comments section.

Sensors and Tracking

The mouse has three buttons on the right side (a lefty version is also available), with a scroll wheel between the top two buttons. In OS X, those buttons correspond to a traditional left click, a traditional right click (bringing up context menus) and expose, which shrinks all currently open windows. The layout is easy to use; the mouse is slightly too small for my hand, but scoop on the mouse’s left side offers a comfortable spot for my thumb. There’s also a button that will offer a rapid scroll in some programs, like Firefox, but which otherwise isn’t active. Textmate, for example, appears not to do anything with the other button.

The sensors are apparently a selling point for gamers. As Evoluent’s website says:

An Avago 3080 gaming grade infrared sensor tracks more accurately on many surfaces than most laser sensors. The Rev 2 has a button and indicator light on the bottom for cycling the true optical hardware resolution among 4 settings: 2600, 1800, 1300, and 800 dpi. This makes adjusting pointer speed easier and further improves tracking.

I have no idea what “An Avago 3080 gaming grade infrared sensor” is, or whether that description is merely speaking speak or a genuine feature, but I do know that the on OS X the mouse scrolled way too fast out of the box: I’d barely move my wrist, and the mouse would fly across the screen. Consequently, hit a button on the bottom of the mouse to lower its sensitivity, and I also had to adjust the mouse tracking and clicking speeds in OS X so that I could actually use the mouse for precision work. The out-of-the-box settings might not be very good for reasons discussed in the next section.

Lousy Mac Support Might Not Matter

One annoying part of Evoluent’s website: they have a section devoted to why they don’t provide good Mac support. Maybe the number of mice they sell to Mac users is small, but this seems unlikely since 12% of U.S. households now own Macs. In addition, given how many hackers are now starting to use Macs in earnest again, Mac users are probably important out of proportion to their raw numbers for the reasons Paul Graham describes. If you’re offering esoteric computer products that require a certain amount of openness and willingness to try new things, it would seem rather foolish to exclude a market that presumably overlaps substantially with yours.

Conclusions

I’m sticking with the Evoluent mouse rather than moving back to my old mouse. As I said above, there’s not a great deal of difference, but I spent a lot of yesterday scrolling as I edited a novel. I think the mouse made doing so at least somewhat easier. Considering the amount of time one spends using a computer, even marginal enhancements are probably worth the small cost of retraining and the somewhat higher costs of the mouse itself.

Malcolm Gladwell on Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

I have two fundamental problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker concerning To Kill a Mockingbird: one is philosophical/moral, and the other aesthetic. The philosophical/moral problem is that incrementalism is not necessarily an invalid approach to major social injustice. Gladwell says:

Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

That’s true: but it doesn’t mean that the James Folsom approach—who was progressive by southern standards in the first of the twentieth century—wasn’t an improvement over what came later as part of the unjustified backlash. Gradual change can set the stage for radical change, as it did with the Civil Rights movement, and pragmatism is sometimes more effective than attempting to radically alter social, economic or political life.

The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy describes the philosopher Richard Rorty this way: “Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy.” Rorty gives a convincing defense of those piecemeal reforms in his various books, and I’m not wholly convinced of Gladwell’s interpretation that To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic for that reason.

And this idea applies to more than politics. Megan McArdle just posted a piece on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke that ended, “As it says in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bernanke did the best he could with what he had. It was not perfect. But looking around at the mostly employed people on the streets, I’m glad he was there.” From what I understand of the recent financial crisis, I basically agree with her assessment: Bernacke and the other players in Washington did the best they could given the information they had at the time, which is based on pieces like The Final Days of Merrill Lynch in The Atlantic and Inside The Crisis: Larry Summers and the White House economic team in the New Yorker.

The second problem is aesthetic: like Nabokov, I don’t think novels need to play the role of social arbiter or champion. A novel that is sufficiently abhorrent—like one that actively praises segregation in the fashion that Soviet novels would advance inaptly named social realism, or one that shills for retrograde religious ideals—would probably be bad by virtue of their social commentary, but I think To Kill a Mockingbird is subtler than that, and to me the novel’s most interesting component is the development of Scout as a person. That’s inherently tied up with morality and politics, of course, but how and whether the novel succeeds in that respect ought to be the major consideration in evaluating a novel.

In other words, once the novel passes the relatively low bar of not being actively abhorrent, it should be judged on other principles than whether it conforms to what appear to be a person or age’s moral norms.

Malcolm Gladwell on Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

I have two fundamental problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker concerning To Kill a Mockingbird: one is philosophical/moral, and the other aesthetic. The philosophical/moral problem is that incrementalism is not necessarily an invalid approach to major social injustice. Gladwell says:

Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

That’s true: but it doesn’t mean that the James Folsom approach—who was progressive by southern standards in the first of the twentieth century—wasn’t an improvement over what came later as part of the unjustified backlash. Gradual change can set the stage for radical change, as it did with the Civil Rights movement, and pragmatism is sometimes more effective than attempting to radically alter social, economic or political life.

The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy describes the philosopher Richard Rorty this way: “Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy.” Rorty gives a convincing defense of those piecemeal reforms in his various books, and I’m not wholly convinced of Gladwell’s interpretation that To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic for that reason.

And this idea applies to more than politics. Megan McArdle just posted a piece on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke that ended, “As it says in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bernanke did the best he could with what he had. It was not perfect. But looking around at the mostly employed people on the streets, I’m glad he was there.” From what I understand of the recent financial crisis, I basically agree with her assessment: Bernacke and the other players in Washington did the best they could given the information they had at the time, which is based on pieces like The Final Days of Merrill Lynch in The Atlantic and Inside The Crisis: Larry Summers and the White House economic team in the New Yorker.

The second problem is aesthetic: like Nabokov, I don’t think novels need to play the role of social arbiter or champion. A novel that is sufficiently abhorrent—like one that actively praises segregation in the fashion that Soviet novels would advance inaptly named social realism, or one that shills for retrograde religious ideals—would probably be bad by virtue of their social commentary, but I think To Kill a Mockingbird is subtler than that, and to me the novel’s most interesting component is the development of Scout as a person. That’s inherently tied up with morality and politics, of course, but how and whether the novel succeeds in that respect ought to be the major consideration in evaluating a novel.

In other words, once the novel passes the relatively low bar of not being actively abhorrent, it should be judged on other principles than whether it conforms to what appear to be a person or age’s moral norms.

Commencement — J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement is a less accomplished version of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and it has all the narrative tension of an overcooked noodle. It shoots for modern-day Jane Austen and hits something closer to the chick-lit bulls-eye. I noted this to my girlfriend, who said that she could’ve told me it was chick-lit based on its teal dust jacket. I try not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case apparently my principles apparently wouldn’t have mattered.

The writing in Commencement isn’t bad, but it also isn’t good; I’m searching through pages, looking for a representative quote, or something that’s at least stylistically unusual enough to merit consideration and am finding… nothing. The prose conveys information effectively but without any pizzaz; it is what James Wood might call an efficient literary/commercial novel, having absorbed a few conventions of modernism while retaining a passionate eye and penchant for understatement. Wood says that “There is a familiar American simplicity, for instance, which is Puritan and colloquial in origin, ‘a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to the essentials,’ as Marilynne Robinson has it in her novel Gilead.” Sullivan doesn’t have that. She works for the New York Times, which might explain why Commencement reads like a long piece for the Sunday Styles or one of the other less rigorous sections.

I read Commencement based on a mostly positive review in the same paper. It says, for example, that “Sullivan’s characters are often motivated by urges that are taboo to admit in certain quarters: getting love and nurture from men, or staying protected in a cocoon of female friendship rather than confronting the larger world.” Outside of the Mormon church and some university Women’s Studies departments, I can’t imagine what those “certain quarters” might be. In an age of Sex and the City and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl (And I Liked It),” taboos aren’t very strong. One notable thing about the review is that while it comments extensively on the novel’s social content, it says virtually nothing about its style or prose. Perhaps that’s because the reviewer drew a blank, just as I did, and therefore fell back on sociology when aesthetics failed to rouse any feeling whatsoever.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,353 other followers

%d bloggers like this: