On Exercising the Mind

March 31st, 2015

We recognize the benefits of exercise — or practice — even beyond physical fitness, but not to everything:

In learning to speak another language, drive a car or play an instrument, we recognise the value of going over things again and again, of rehearsing, memorising and testing according to established principles. We willingly follow the advice of the tennis coach to take the ball a fraction earlier on the backhand or to overcome a tendency to maintain too upright a posture going into the shot. Ultimately what we are trying to do is to form good habits so that, with sufficient practice, we won’t have to think (for example) about how to reverse the car into a parking bay or return the ball from the left hand corner. It will simply be easy and natural.

However, for major cultural reasons, we are extremely selective in our enthusiasm for areas where we accept the utility of practice, teaching, systematic education, rehearsal and repetition. Very strangely and sadly, exercise has come to feel alien in the area of our intimate emotional and cultural lives. Jane Austen — for instance — would have readily accepted that people have to learn how to have conversations, that there are rules to be practiced in relationships, and that compassion is something that can be learnt. She spoke movingly about what she termed ‘the training of the heart’. But we have subsequently developed a highly negative take on the role of teaching, rules and exercises in emotional, social and cultural life. It has come to seem as if rules will always be oppressive. The idea of learning how to have a relationship, be a friend or have a conversation now sounds unbearably stiff, too formal, pompous or just fake.

[...]

There’s now a widespread dislike of generalisations and an assumption that no one knows the secrets of living well; we must simply make up the rules as best we can, there is no accumulated wisdom we can draw from. It’s about starting from scratch every time and cobbling together the answers through painful experiences, one mistake after another. Many influential 20th-century intellectual figures (Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Sartre to start the list) were supporters of such spontaneity, naturalness and authenticity — and equal opponents of anything that looked like an ‘answer’ derived from Other People.

The good life is something that can be taught, using exercises of clarification and exercises of reinforcement.

Building the H Bomb

March 30th, 2015

Kenneth W. Ford submitted Building the H Bomb: A Personal History to the Department of Energy for review, and they ordered 60 cuts, enough to destroy the book, in his opinion:

For instance, the federal agency wanted him to strike a reference to the size of the first hydrogen test device — its base was seven feet wide and 20 feet high. Dr. Ford responded that public photographs of the device, with men, jeeps and a forklift nearby, gave a scale of comparison that clearly revealed its overall dimensions.

[...]

In December, he told the department he would make a few minor revisions. For instance, in two cases he would change language describing the explosive yields of bomb tests from “in fact” to “reportedly.” After much back and forth, the conversation ended in January with no resolution, and the book’s publisher pressed on.

The government’s main concern seems to center on deep science that Dr. Ford articulates with clarity. Over and over, the book discusses thermal equilibrium, the discovery that the temperature of the hydrogen fuel and the radiation could match each other during the explosion. Originally, the perceived lack of such an effect had seemed to doom the proposed weapon.

The breakthrough has apparently been discussed openly for years. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 published a biographical memoir of Dr. Teller, written by Freeman J. Dyson, a noted physicist with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. It details the thermal equilibrium advance in relation to the hydrogen bomb.

At his home, Dr. Ford said he considered himself a victim of overzealous classification and wondered what would have happened if he had never submitted his manuscript for review.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said of the agency’s reaction to it.

Dr. Ford said he never intended to make a point about openness and nuclear secrecy — or do anything other than to give his own account of a remarkable time in American history.

Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband

March 30th, 2015

Disney is applying Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to its Magic Kingdom with its new $1 billion bet on magical wristbands:

Go to Disney World. Then, reserve a meal at a restaurant called Be Our Guest, using the Disney World app to order your food in advance.

The restaurant lies beyond a gate of huge fiberglass boulders, painstakingly airbrushed to look like crumbling remnants of the past. Crossing a cartoon-like drawbridge, you see the parapets of a castle rising beyond a snow-dusted ridge, both rendered in miniature to appear far away. The Gothic-styled entrance is teensy. Such pint-sized intimacy is a psychological hack invented by Walt Disney himself to make visitors feel larger than their everyday selves. It works. You feel like you’re stepping across the pages of a storybook.

If you’re wearing your Disney MagicBand and you’ve made a reservation, a host will greet you at the drawbridge and already know your name — Welcome Mr. Tanner! She’ll be followed by another smiling person — Sit anywhere you like! Neither will mention that, by some mysterious power, your food will find you.

“It’s like magic!” a woman says to her family as they sit. “How do they find our table?” The dining hall, inspired by Beauty and the Beast, features Baroque details but feels like a large, orderly cafeteria. The couple’s young son flits around the table, like a moth. After a few minutes, he settles into his chair without actually sitting down, as kids often do. Soon, their food arrives exactly as promised, delivered by a smiling young man pushing an ornately carved serving cart that resembles a display case at an old museum.

It’s surprising how the woman’s sensible question immediately fades, unanswered, in the rising aroma of French onion soup and roast beef sandwiches. This is by design. The family entered a matrix of technology the moment it crossed the moat, one geared toward anticipating their whims without offering the slightest clue how.

How do they find our table? The answer is around their wrists.

Their MagicBands, tech-studded wristbands available to every visitor to the Magic Kingdom, feature a long-range radio that can transmit more than 40 feet in every direction. The hostess, on her modified iPhone, received a signal when the family was just a few paces away. Tanner family inbound! The kitchen also queued up: Two French onion soups, two roast beef sandwiches! When they sat down, a radio receiver in the table picked up the signals from their MagicBands and triangulated their location using another receiver in the ceiling. The server — as in waitperson, not computer array — knew what they ordered before they even approached the restaurant and knew where they were sitting.

And it all worked seamlessly, like magic.

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary

March 30th, 2015

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary, James Somers suggests:

The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.

Indeed, if you look up those particular words in the dictionary that comes with your computer — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian:

example /ig?zamp?l/, n. a thing characteristic of its kind or illustrating a general rule.

sport /spôrt/, n. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

magic /?majik/, n. the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

Here, words are boiled to their essence. But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture. Which trains you to think of the dictionary as a utility, not a quarry of good things, not a place you’d go to explore and savor.

Worse, the words themselves take on the character of their definitions: they are likewise reduced. A delightful word like “fustian” — delightful because of what it means, because of the way it looks and sounds, because it is unusual in regular speech but not so effete as to be unusable, is described, efficiently, as “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” Not only is this definition (as we’ll see in a minute) simplistic and basically wrong, it’s just not in the same class, English-wise, as “fustian.” The language is tin-eared and uninspired. It’s criminal: This is the place where all the words live and the writing’s no good.

The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at dictionary.com: they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.

John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.

The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.

But where?

“Your destination is the dictionary,” he writes.

The dictionary McPhee went to was Webster’s — just not the modern one:

You can see why it became cliché to start a speech with “Webster’s defines X as…”: with his dictionary the definition that followed was actually likely to lend gravitas to your remarks, to sound so good, in fact, that it’d beat anything you could come up with on your own.

Take a simple word, like “flash.” In all the dictionaries I’ve ever known, I would have never looked up that word. I’d’ve had no reason to — I already knew what it meant. But go look up “flash” in Webster’s (the edition I’m using is the 1913). The first thing you’ll notice is that the example sentences don’t sound like they came out of a DMV training manual (“the lights started flashing”) — they come from Milton and Shakespeare and Tennyson (“A thought flashed through me, which I clothed in act”).

You’ll find a sense of the word that is somehow more evocative than any you’ve seen. “2. To convey as by a flash… as, to flash a message along the wires; to flash conviction on the mind.” In the juxtaposition of those two examples — a message transmitted by wires; a feeling that comes suddenly to mind — is a beautiful analogy, worth dwelling on, and savoring. Listen to that phrase: “to flash conviction on the mind.” This is in a dictionary, for God’s sake.

And, toward the bottom of the entry, as McPhee promised, is a usage note, explaining the fine differences in meaning between words in the penumbra of “flash”:

… Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.

Did you see that last clause? “To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew.” I’m not sure why you won’t find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won’t. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: “glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface .”

Somers points us in the right direction:

The closest thing you can get to a plain-text, easily hackable, free, out-of-copyright version of the dictionary McPhee probably used is Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 + 1828).

FOMO

March 29th, 2015

Facebook is giving us a new way to keep up with the Joneses, and a new way to worry that we may not be keeping up, the fear of missing out:

Today, where you are, how you are feeling, what you are doing, and what you have done have suddenly become valuable social currency — just as they were before the 20th century.

Then, most people lived in small communities. Everyone knew everybody else in the village. That meant everyone would just as likely know what you did with your time as how many possessions you owned, and how expensive and how good those possessions were. That meant, for signaling your status to others and establishing your place in the village’s social hierarchy, what you did was as important as what you owned. To signal status, the conspicuous consumption of leisure — that is, experiences — was equal to the conspicuous consumption of goods.

It was the arrival of cities that changed all that. The mass migrations of the 20th century, from small communities where everyone knew everyone else to large metropolises where you barely knew your neighbor, meant that what you did with your time became virtually useless as a way to signify status. In the relative anonymity of urban and, to a lesser extent, suburban life, your neighbors, friends, colleagues at work, and the people you passed on the street were much more likely to see what you owned than know what you did.

A material possession could deliver far more status than an experiential purchase. And so, in the 20th century, the conspicuous consumption of leisure was not nearly so effective as the conspicuous consumption of goods at telling others who you were.

Social media has turned this on its head. Now only a few people, relatively, might see your new sofa, or the car parked in your driveway. But with all your friends and followers on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram, many more will now know you are partying in Ibiza, are in the front row of a Jay-Z concert, or that you have just completed a Tough Mudder assault course. And these people are more likely to be in your peer group, the people, in other words, whose opinion you are most interested in.

Why Children Need Chores

March 29th, 2015

Parents today want their kids spending time on things that can bring them success — learning Mandarin, earning a varsity letter, etc. — yet they’ve stopped asking their children to do one thing proven to lead to success — chores:

Decades of studies show the benefits of chores — academically, emotionally and even professionally.

Giving children household chores at an early age helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance, according to research by Marty Rossmann, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. In 2002, Dr. Rossmann analyzed data from a longitudinal study that followed 84 children across four periods in their lives — in preschool, around ages 10 and 15, and in their mid-20s. She found that young adults who began chores at ages 3 and 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success and to be self-sufficient, as compared with those who didn’t have chores or who started them as teens.

Night Enhancement Eyedrops

March 28th, 2015

Chlorin e6 is a chlorophyll analog used as a photosensitizer in laser-assisted cancer remediation, but, when mixed with DMSO and applied to the eyes, the photosensitizer can enhance night vision, too:

The Ce6 (Frontier Scientific, CAS: 19660-77-6 ), was found to be a fine black powder which clung to all surfaces. To make manipulating the chemical easier, a large batch of the total solution was made and then aliquoted into separate containers for storage.

200mg of Ce6 was mixed with 400 units (4ml) of insulin (70/30 Lantus). To this was added 5.38ml of sterile saline solution (0.9% sodium chloride). The mixture was sonicated briefly (30 seconds) to allow for proper dispersal of the powder into saturated solution and then 625?l of DMSO (Amresco) was added. The solution was sealed with parafilm and sonicated for 150 seconds. The resulting liquid was thin and black in color. Solution was kept in glass aliquots wrapped in foil at 20°C.

For the application, the subject rested supine and his eyes were flushed with saline to remove any micro-debris or contaminants that might be present. Eyes were pinned open with a small speculum to remove the potential for blinking, which may force excess liquid out before it had a chance to absorb. Ce6 solution was added to the conjunctival sac via micropipette at 3 doses of 50?l into each eye. After each application, pressure was applied to the canthus to stop liquid from moving from the eye to the nasal region. Each dose was allowed to absorb between reloading the pipette, with the black color disappearing after only a few seconds.

After application was complete, the speculum was removed and black sclera lenses were placed into each eye to reduce the potential light entering the eye. Black sunglasses were then worn during all but testing, to ensure increased low light conditions and reduce the potential for bright light exposure.

Chlorin e6 Eye Drops

The Ce6 solution has been shown to work in as little as one hour, with the effects lasting for “many hours” afterwards3. After 2 hours of adjustment, the subject and 4 controls were taken to a darkened area and subjected to testing. Three forms of subjective testing were performed. These consisted of symbol recognition by distance, symbol recognition on varying background colors at a static distance, and the ability to identify moving subjects in a varied background at varied distances. Symbol recognition consisted of placing a collection of objects with markings on them (numbers, letters, shapes). Subjects were then asked to identify the markings, each viewing the objects from the same location at a distance of 10 meters. The markings were not made prior to the moment of testing.

For subject recognition, individuals went moved in a small grove of trees. They were allowed to chose their own location independently. Distances ranged from 25 to 50 meters from observation point and trees and brush were used for “blending”. Locations were chosen without being observed by the test subjects. The Ce6 subject and controls were handed a laser pointer and asked to identify the location of the people in the grove. After testing the Ce6 subject replaced the sunglasses which were not removed until sleep. Eyesight in the morning seemed to have returned to normal and as of 20 days, there have been no noticeable effects.

The Ce6 subject consistently recognized symbols that did not seem to be visible to the controls. The Ce6 subject identified the distant figures 100% of the time, with the controls showing a 33% identification rate.

Offense-Bullying

March 28th, 2015

It is rarely the truly oppressed who take offense, Devin Helton explains:

The truly oppressed are downtrodden and submissive. They know better than to take offense — they will just get smacked down.

[...]

[W]hen some campus activist group gets a speaker disinvited, gets a professor fired, or forces the administration to apologize, the activists have exercised raw power. The more the administration capitulates, the more grievance will be claimed, the more offense will be taken, the more the activists will flaunt their power. Current law forces colleges and workplaces to avoid creating a “hostile environment.” This law thus gives any member of certain groups the ability to bully the administration or speakers by simply pointing their finger and saying, “That person has offended me!” Does this sound familiar from history? The result has been an increasingly out-of-control, spiral of insanity.

How ISIS runs a city

March 28th, 2015

ISIS uses the city of Raqqa as a showcase for its efficient and benevolent rule:

According to witnesses, ISIS has maintained a relatively high level of local services by changing as little as possible in the areas it governs. Most of the civil servants who make the city function remained in their old jobs, still paid by the government in Damascus even though they are now effectively entrenching ISIS in power. School teachers, state telecoms company employees and municipal workers all remain at work, under ISIS control but paid by Damascus. According to several businessmen, activists and ISIS supporters in Raqqa, ISIS has placed its own members at the top of existing institutions, like schools or the municipal headquarters, to make sure employees follow ISIS’s new rules.

In the education system there have been major changes such as the cancellation of subjects like philosophy and the adoption of a new ISIS-authored curriculum for religion. In other ISIS-run sectors the only significant change is that employees must interrupt their work to pray.

[...]

Initially ISIS members impressed them with their piety and the effective way they policed Raqqa but he was won over by their generosity. ISIS gave the man’s brother an $800 grant to pay for his wedding in the Spring of 2014; it gave the man himself some free diesel; and gave his neighbor money to repair his damaged house.

“The Islamic State is walking in the Prophet Muhammad’s footsteps,” he said by Facebook chat. “They are protecting our boys and girls from vice. We don’t have those nearly-naked girls walking around like in Damascus. No one is smoking here, and it’s almost impossible to commit adultery. They are saving the Islamic community from vice and destruction.”

Another resident, named Abu Yasin, 58, spoke by Skype from Raqqa. He picks up a lot of local news from the customers in the kebab restaurant he owns. He says ultimate authority rests with the provincial emir or governor and with the Sharia court. Anyone who has a serious complaint or problem appeals to those authorities. He has to pay a set tax to ISIS and close his shop during prayer times.

Contra Dancing

March 27th, 2015

Brooklyn hipsters are now embracing the centuries-old tradition of contra dancing:

Derived from English country dancing — think of the long paired lines of couples crisscrossing and partner-swapping in all those Jane Austen country-manor balls, now press fast forward — contra offers young urbanites an inclusive atmosphere where they can work up a little sweat away from the gym and touch human beings instead of screens.

[...]

For those more accustomed to socializing in dark clubs with exotic cocktails and pounding music, contra’s wholesome, folksy culture can come as a bit of a shock.

“The first thing I thought when I walked in the door is, where is the bar?” said Dakota Kim, 34, an event producer who recently attended her first contra dance in Brooklyn. “But then it’s so fun you don’t care.”

On the dance floor, partners start out facing each other in long lines while a live band plays jigs and reels. With the cadences of a comforting auctioneer, the caller calls out moves to dancers on the floor. Partners clasp hands, spin and look into each other’s eyes.

We are talking about Brooklyn hipsters though:

Another change lies with the historical terms for partners—traditionally called “ladies” and “gents.” These days, when Mr. Isaacs introduces the dance, he says, “ladies and gents is a dance role, not a gender.”

Contra Dancing in Brooklyn

TIE Fighter

March 27th, 2015

Paul Johnson (MightyOtaking) produced his TIE Fighter short film over four years of weekends:

He describes it as “an Empire-focussed short Star Wars animation, drawn with the crazy detail and shading of classic 80s anime that’s all but vanished from Japan nowadays.”

With Zak Rahman’s guitar soundtrack, it has a very Heavy Metal vibe.

I never played the 1994 TIE Fighter game, but the project proposal references it.

Myopia

March 27th, 2015

East Asia is growing increasingly myopic — literally:

Sixty years ago, 10–20% of the Chinese population was short-sighted. Today, up to 90% of teenagers and young adults are. In Seoul, a whopping 96.5% of 19-year-old men are short-sighted.

Other parts of the world have also seen a dramatic increase in the condition, which now affects around half of young adults in the United States and Europe — double the prevalence of half a century ago. By some estimates, one-third of the world’s population — 2.5 billion people — could be affected by short-sightedness by the end of this decade.

[...]

For many years, the scientific consensus held that myopia was largely down to genes. Studies in the 1960s showed that the condition was more common among genetically identical twins than non-identical ones, suggesting that susceptibility is strongly influenced by DNA. Gene-finding efforts have now linked more than 100 regions of the genome to short-sightedness.

But it was obvious that genes could not be the whole story. One of the clearest signs came from a 1969 study of Inuit people on the northern tip of Alaska whose lifestyle was changing2. Of adults who had grown up in isolated communities, only 2 of 131 had myopic eyes. But more than half of their children and grandchildren had the condition. Genetic changes happen too slowly to explain this rapid change — or the soaring rates in myopia that have since been documented all over the world (see ‘The march of myopia’). “There must be an environmental effect that has caused the generational difference,” says Seang Mei Saw, who studies the epidemiology and genetics of myopia at the National University of Singapore.

There was one obvious culprit: book work. That idea had arisen more than 400 years ago, when the German astronomer and optics expert Johannes Kepler blamed his own short-sightedness on all his study. The idea took root; by the nineteenth century, some leading ophthalmologists were recommending that pupils use headrests to prevent them from poring too closely over their books.

The modern rise in myopia mirrored a trend for children in many countries to spend more time engaged in reading, studying or — more recently — glued to computer and smartphone screens. This is particularly the case in East Asian countries, where the high value placed on educational performance is driving children to spend longer in school and on their studies. A report last year3 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that the average 15-year-old in Shanghai now spends 14 hours per week on homework, compared with 5 hours in the United Kingdom and 6 hours in the United States.

Researchers have consistently documented a strong association between measures of education and the prevalence of myopia. In the 1990s, for example, they found that teenage boys in Israel who attended schools known as Yeshivas (where they spent their days studying religious texts) had much higher rates of myopia than did students who spent less time at their books4. On a biological level, it seemed plausible that sustained close work could alter growth of the eyeball as it tries to accommodate the incoming light and focus close-up images squarely on the retina.

Attractive though the idea was, it did not hold up. In the early 2000s, when researchers started to look at specific behaviours, such as books read per week or hours spent reading or using a computer, none seemed to be a major contributor to myopia risk5. But another factor did. In 2007, Donald Mutti and his colleagues at the Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus reported the results of a study that tracked more than 500 eight- and nine-year-olds in California who started out with healthy vision6. The team examined how the children spent their days, and “sort of as an afterthought at the time, we asked about sports and outdoorsy stuff”, says Mutti.

It was a good thing they did. After five years, one in five of the children had developed myopia, and the only environmental factor that was strongly associated with risk was time spent outdoors6. “We thought it was an odd finding,” recalls Mutti, “but it just kept coming up as we did the analyses.” A year later, Rose and her colleagues arrived at much the same conclusion in Australia7. After studying more than 4,000 children at Sydney primary and secondary schools for three years, they found that children who spent less time outside were at greater risk of developing myopia.

Rose’s team tried to eliminate any other explanations for this link — for example, that children outdoors were engaged in more physical activity and that this was having the beneficial effect. But time engaged in indoor sports had no such protective association; and time outdoors did, whether children had played sports, attended picnics or simply read on the beach. And children who spent more time outside were not necessarily spending less time with books, screens and close work. “We had these children who were doing both activities at very high levels and they didn’t become myopic,” says Rose. Close work might still have some effect, but what seemed to matter most was the eye’s exposure to bright light.

March of Myopia

Based on epidemiological studies, Ian Morgan, a myopia researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, estimates that children need to spend around three hours per day under light levels of at least 10,000 lux to be protected against myopia. This is about the level experienced by someone under a shady tree, wearing sunglasses, on a bright summer day. (An overcast day can provide less than 10,000 lux and a well-lit office or classroom is usually no more than 500 lux.) Three or more hours of daily outdoor time is already the norm for children in Morgan’s native Australia, where only around 30% of 17-year-olds are myopic. But in many parts of the world — including the United States, Europe and East Asia — children are often outside for only one or two hours.

Distraction and Teen Crashes

March 26th, 2015

Most serious accidents with teen drivers are caused by distractions, like phones:

Researchers analyzed the six seconds leading up to a crash in nearly 1,700 videos of teen drivers taken from in-vehicle event recorders. The results showed that distraction was a factor in 58 percent of all crashes studied, including 89 percent of road-departure crashes and 76 percent of rear-end crashes. NHTSA previously has estimated that distraction is a factor in only 14 percent of all teen driver crashes.

Researchers found that drivers manipulating their cell phone (includes calling, texting or other uses), had their eyes off the road for an average of 4.1 out of the final six seconds leading up to a crash. The researchers also measured reaction times in rear-end crashes and found that teen drivers using a cell phone failed to react more than half of the time before the impact, meaning they crashed without braking or steering.

The Null Hypothesis for Income and Wealth

March 26th, 2015

Arnold Kling shares the sort of evidence that Robert Putnam should confront, from a working paper by David Cesarini and others:

We use administrative data on Swedish lottery players to estimate the causal impact of wealth on players’ own health and their children’s health and developmental outcomes. Our estimation sample is large, virtually free of attrition, and allows us to control for the factors — such as the number of lottery tickets — conditional on which the prizes were randomly assigned. In adults, we find no evidence that wealth impacts mortality or health care utilization, with the possible exception of a small reduction in the consumption of mental health drugs.

Our estimates allow us to rule out effects on 10-year mortality one sixth as large the cross-sectional gradient. In our intergenerational analyses, we find that wealth increases children’s health care utilization in the years following the lottery and may also reduce obesity risk. The effects on most other child outcomes, which include drug consumption, scholastic performance, and skills, can usually be bounded to a tight interval around zero. Overall, our findings suggest that correlations observed in affluent, developed countries between (i) wealth and health or (ii) parental income and children’s outcomes do not reflect a causal effect of wealth.

Too Much Talent

March 26th, 2015

Researchers looking at basketball, soccer, and baseball found that more talent can hurt the team:

In each sport, they calculated both the percentage of top talent on each team and the teams’ success over several years. For example, they identified top NBA talent using each player’s Estimated Wins Added (EWA), a statistic commonly employed to capture a player’s overall contribution to his team, along with selection for the All-star tournament. Once the researchers determined who the elite players were, they calculated top-talent percentage at the team level by dividing the number of star players on the team by the total number of players on that team. Finally, team performance was measured by the team’s win-loss record over 10 years.

For both basketball and soccer, they found that top talent did in fact predict team success, but only up to a point. Furthermore, there was not simply a point of diminishing returns with respect to top talent, there was in fact a cost. Basketball and soccer teams with the greatest proportion of elite athletes performed worse than those with more moderate proportions of top level players.

Why is too much talent a bad thing? Think teamwork. In many endeavors, success requires collaborative, cooperative work towards a goal that is beyond the capability of any one individual. Even Emmitt Smith needed effective blocking from the Cowboy offensive line to gain yardage. When a team roster is flooded with individual talent, pursuit of personal star status may prevent the attainment of team goals. The basketball player chasing a point record, for example, may cost the team by taking risky shots instead of passing to a teammate who is open and ready to score.

Two related findings by Swaab and colleagues indicate that there is in fact tradeoff between top talent and teamwork. First, Swaab and colleagues found that the percentage of top talent on a team affects intrateam coordination. For the basketball study, teams with the highest levels of top performers had fewer assists and defensive rebounds, and lower field-goal percentages. These failures in strategic, collaborative play undermined the team’s effectiveness. The second revealing finding is that extreme levels of top talent did not have the same negative effect in baseball, which experts have argued involves much less interdependent play. In the baseball study, increasing numbers of stars on a team never hindered overall performance. Together these findings suggest that high levels of top talent will be harmful in arenas that require coordinated, strategic efforts, as the quest for the spotlight may trump the teamwork needed to get the job done.

This also applies in business, they suggest.