In simple tasks, practice brings people closer together

Sunday, May 9th, 2021

In 1908, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), Edward Thorndike — the father of modern educational psychology — came up with a test for whether nature or nurture dominated ability at a task:

He figured that the way to distinguish nature from nurture was to give people the same amount of practice at a certain task and to see whether they became more or less alike. If their skill levels converged, Thorndike reasoned, then the impact of practice was overwhelming any innate individual differences. If they diverged, then nature was overpowering nurture.

In one experiment, Thorndike had adults practice multiplying three-digit numbers by three-digit numbers in their heads as quickly as they could. He was astounded by their improvement.

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After one hundred practice trials, many of the subjects cut their mental computation time in half.

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But while Thorndike saw across-the-board improvement, he also noted what sociologists often call a “Matthew effect.”

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Thorndike saw that the subjects who did well at the start of the training also improved faster as the training progressed compared with the subjects who began more slowly.

Georgia Tech psychologist Phillip Ackerman has found that, in simple tasks, practice brings people closer together, but in complex ones, it often pulls them apart.

The only government program ever to cause a lasting change in the American diet was the organ meat push of the 1940s

Saturday, May 8th, 2021

America found itself short of meat, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), as World War 2 kicked into gear — but not all meat:

At the time, organ meat wasn’t popular in America. A middle-class woman in 1940 would sooner starve than despoil her table with tongue or tripe. So when the scientists recruited into the Committee on Food Habits met for the first time in 1941, they set themselves a goal of systematically identifying the cultural barriers that discouraged Americans from eating organ meat.

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For instance, when the Subsistence Division of the Quartermaster Corps — the people in charge of feeding soldiers — started serving fresh cabbage to troops in 1943, it was rejected. So mess halls chopped and boiled the cabbage until it looked like every other vegetable on a soldier’s tray — and the troops ate it without complaint.

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The secret to changing the American diet, the Committee on Food Habits concluded, was familiarity. Soon, housewives were receiving mailers from the government telling them “every husband will cheer for steak and kidney pie.” Butchers started handing out recipes that explained how to slip liver into meatloaf.

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One study indicated that offal consumption rose by 33 percent during the war. By 1955, it was up 50 percent. Kidney had become a staple at dinner. Liver was for special occasions. America’s dining patterns had shifted to such a degree that organ meats had become emblems of comfort.

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To date, the only government program ever to cause a lasting change in the American diet was the organ meat push of the 1940s.

This first exchange sets the tone for the novel’s famously sparkling dialogue

Friday, May 7th, 2021

In The Big Sleep, Marlowe’s wealthy client is “pretty far gone in years to have a couple of daughters still in the dangerous twenties.” He soon meets the younger one, and this first exchange sets the tone for the novel’s famously sparkling dialogue:

She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable. She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating. Her hair was a fine tawny wave cut much shorter than the current fashion of pageboy tresses curled in at the bottom. Her eyes were slate-gray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her thin too taut lips. Her face lacked color and didn’t look too healthy.

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to be.”

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I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.

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She bit her lip and turned her head a little and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theater curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.

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“You’re cute,” she giggled. “I’m cute too.”

The “tall” line presented a problem when Humphrey Bogart was cast for the film:

Bogart was only five feet nine. The problem was solved by rewriting Carmen’s line to read, “You’re not too tall, are you?” to which Bogie replies, “Well, I tried to be.”

The actor who most resembled Marlowe in Chandler’s mind was Cary Grant.

People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event

Thursday, May 6th, 2021

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains just how much data a store like Target collects in order to shift customers’ buying habits:

Also linked to that Guest ID number was demographic information that Target collected or purchased from other firms, including the shopper’s age, whether they were married and had kids, which part of town they lived in, how long it took them to drive to the store, an estimate of how much money they earned, if they’d moved recently, which websites they visited, the credit cards they carried in their wallet, and their home and mobile phone numbers. Target can purchase data that indicates a shopper’s ethnicity, their job history, what magazines they read, if they have ever declared bankruptcy, the year they bought (or lost) their house, where they went to college or graduate school, and whether they prefer certain brands of coffee, toilet paper, cereal, or applesauce.

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The company can link about half of all in-store sales to a specific person, almost all online sales, and about a quarter of online browsing.

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People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. When someone gets married, for example, they’re more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When they move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they get divorced, there’s a higher chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.

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There’s almost no greater upheaval for most customers than the arrival of a child. As a result, new parents’ habits are more flexible at that moment than at almost any other period in an adult’s life. So for companies, pregnant women are gold mines.

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One survey conducted in 2010 estimated that the average parent spends $6,800 on baby items before a child’s first birthday.

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“As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else, too,” Pole told me.

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One New York hospital, for instance, provides every new mother with a gift bag containing samples of hair gel, face wash, shaving cream, an energy bar, shampoo, and a soft-cotton T-shirt. Inside are coupons for an online photo service, hand soap, and a local gym. There are also samples of diapers and baby lotions, but they’re lost among the nonbaby supplies. In 580 hospitals across the United States, new mothers get gifts from the Walt Disney Company, which in 2010 started a division specifically aimed at marketing to the parents of infants.

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Disney estimates the North American new baby market is worth $36.3 billion a year.

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Expectant mothers, he discovered, shopped in fairly predictable ways. Take, for example, lotions. Lots of people buy lotion, but a Target data analyst noticed that women on the baby registry were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester.

Another analyst noted that sometime in the first twenty weeks, many pregnant women loaded up on vitamins, such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

Lots of shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls every month, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and an astounding number of washcloths, all at once, a few months after buying lotions and magnesium and zinc, it signals they are getting close to their delivery date.

Top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status

Wednesday, May 5th, 2021

Studies of athletes, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status:

According to the scientific literature, the average sport-specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are closer to 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000, respectively.

In a sample of Australian women competing in netball (sort of like basketball but without dribbling or backboards), arguably the best player in the world at the time, Vicki Wilson, had compiled only 600 hours of practice when she made the national team.

A study of athletes on Australia’s senior national teams found that 28 percent of them started their sport at an average age of seventeen, having previously tried on average three other sports, and debuted at the international level just four years later.

A wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose

Tuesday, May 4th, 2021

The London Underground was governed by a sort of theoretical rule book that no one had ever seen or read, Charles Duhigg explains (in The Power of Habit), and that didn’t, in fact, exist except in the unwritten rules that shaped every employee’s life. One of these unwritten rules was, don’t panic the passengers. Another was, stay in your lane. Then someone spotted the early signs of a fire:

Yet the safety inspector, Hayes, didn’t call the London Fire Brigade. He hadn’t seen any smoke himself, and another of the Underground’s unwritten rules was that the fire department should never be contacted unless absolutely necessary.

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Hayes, the safety inspector, went into a passageway that led to the Piccadilly escalator’s machine room. In the dark, there was a set of controls for a sprinkler system specifically designed to fight fires on escalators. It had been installed years earlier, after a fire in another station had led to a series of dire reports about the risks of a sudden blaze. More than two dozen studies and reprimands had said that the Underground was unprepared for fires, and that staff needed to be trained in how to use sprinklers and fire extinguishers, which were positioned on every train platform. Two years earlier the deputy assistant chief of the London Fire Brigade had written to the operations director for railways, complaining about subway workers’ safety habits.

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No one inside King’s Cross understood how to use the escalator sprinkler system or was authorized to use the extinguishers, because another department controlled them.

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The entire escalator was now aflame, producing a superheated gas that rose to the top of the shaft enclosing the escalator, where it was trapped against the tunnel’s ceiling, which was covered with about twenty layers of old paint. A few years earlier, the Underground’s director of operations had suggested that all this paint might pose a fire hazard. Perhaps, he said, the old layers should be removed before a new one is applied?

Painting protocols were not in his purview, however. Paint responsibility resided with the maintenance department, whose chief politely thanked his colleague for the recommendation, and then noted that if he wanted to interfere with other departments, the favor would be swiftly returned.

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Shortly after the explosion, dozens of fire trucks arrived. But because the fire department’s rules instructed them to connect their hoses to street-level hydrants, rather than those installed by the Underground inside the station, and because none of the subway employees had blueprints showing the station’s layout — all the plans were in an office that was locked, and none of the ticketing agents or the station manager had keys — it took hours to extinguish the flames.

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During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down.

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NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

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Airline pilots, too, spent years trying to convince plane manufacturers and air traffic controllers to redesign how cockpits were laid out and traffic controllers communicated. Then, a runway error on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 killed 583 people and, within five years, cockpit design, runway procedures, and air traffic controller communication routines were overhauled.

In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.

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Fennell began by interviewing the Underground’s leadership, and quickly discovered that everyone had known — for years — that fire safety was a serious problem, and yet nothing had changed.

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So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus.

He called for public hearings that lasted ninety-one days and revealed an organization that had ignored multiple warnings of risks.

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A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis — or create the perception of crisis — and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.

You never see the average novel

Monday, May 3rd, 2021

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” as my annotated The Big Sleep notes, Chandler establishes the genealogy of the form that he chose to work in:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic. Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them. Writers like Fielding and Smollett could seem realistic in the modern sense because they dealt largely with uninhibited characters, many of whom were about two jumps ahead of the police, but Jane Austen’s chronicles of highly inhibited people against a background of rural gentility seem real enough psychologically. There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.

The detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift. Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news. If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it. The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway. The detection of quality in writing is difficult enough even for those who make a career of the job, without paying too much attention to the matter of advance sales.

The detective story (perhaps I had better call it that, since the English formula still dominates the trade) has to find its public by a slow process of distillation. That it does do this, and holds on thereafter with such tenacity, is a fact; the reasons for it are a study for more patient minds than mine. Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that it is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

Yet the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Rather second-rate items outlast most of the high velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about that dull. This is very annoying to people of what is called discernment. They do not like it that penetrating and important works of fiction of a few years back stand on their special shelf in the library marked “Best-Sellers of Yesteryear,” and nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly and hurries away; while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue. They do not like it that “really important books” get dusty on the reprint counter, while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies on the news-stands of the country, and is obviously not there just to say goodbye.

To tell you the truth, I do not like it very much myself. In my less stilted moments I too write detective stories, and all this immortality makes just a little too much competition. Even Einstein couldn’t get very far if three hundred treatises of the higher physics were published every year, and several thousand others in some form or other were hanging around in excellent condition, and being read too. Hemingway says somewhere that the good writer competes only with the dead. The good detective story writer (there must after all be a few) competes not only with all the unburied dead but with all the hosts of the living as well. And on almost equal terms; for it is one of the qualities of this kind of writing that the thing that makes people read it never goes out of style. The hero’s tie may be a little off the mode and the good gray inspector may arrive in a dogcart instead of a streamlined sedan with siren screaming, but what he does when he gets there is the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.

I have, however, a less sordid interest in the matter. It seems to me that production of detective stories on so large a scale, and by writers whose immediate reward is small and whose need of critical praise is almost nil, would not be possible at all if the job took any talent. In that sense the raised eyebrow of the critic and the shoddy merchandizing of the publisher are perfectly logical. The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average — or only slightly above average — detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries, and it is read. There are even a few optimists who buy it at the full retail price of two dollars, because it looks so fresh and new, and there is a picture of a corpse on the cover. And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way. There are reasons for this too, and reasons for the reasons; there always are.

You can read the whole thing.

It would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy

Sunday, May 2nd, 2021

When An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change came out in 1982, Charles Duhigg notes (in The Power of Habit), few people noticed, but its message became quite influential:

“Much of firm behavior,” they wrote, is best “understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past,” rather than “the result of a detailed survey of the remote twigs of the decision tree.”

For instance, every big company gives its employees a handbook with the formal rules of how the company works:

Now, imagine what you would tell a new colleague who asked for advice about how to succeed at your firm. Your recommendations probably wouldn’t contain anything you’d find in the company’s handbook. Instead, the tips you would pass along — who is trustworthy; which secretaries have more clout than their bosses; how to manipulate the bureaucracy to get something done — are the habits you rely on every day to survive. If you could somehow diagram all your work habits — and the informal power structures, relationships, alliances, and conflicts they represent — and then overlay your diagram with diagrams prepared by your colleagues, it would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy, a guide to who knows how to make things happen and who never seems to get ahead of the ball.

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For an organization to work, leaders must cultivate habits that both create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge.

10,000 hours, plus or minus 10,000 hours

Saturday, May 1st, 2021

In The Sports Gene David Epstein tells a tale of two high jumpers.

Stefan Holm was inspired by the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which he watched on TV as a four-year-old in his native Sweden, to jump over the sofa. He broke his arm but was undeterred. When he was six, his father built a high-jump pit in their backyard out of pillows and an old mattress. He became obsessed with the sport. At 15, he won the Swedish youth championships.

But Holm was just 5’11″, not 6’7″, like his idol Patrik Sjöberg. To compensate, he developed a sprinting approach and started taking off from farther and farther away from the bar.

In 1998, he won the first of eleven consecutive Swedish national championships. He trained 12 sessions per week.

Without a running start, Holm’s standing vertical jump hovered around twenty-eight inches, which is perfectly pedestrian for an athlete. But his blazing fast approach allowed him to slam down on his Achilles tendon, which would then act like a rebounding spring to propel him over the bar. When scientists examined Holm, they determined that his left Achilles tendon had hardened so much from his workout regimen that a force of 1.8 tons was needed to stretch it a single centimeter, about four times the stiffness of an average man’s Achilles, making it an unusually powerful launching mechanism.

In 2005, a year after he won the Olympic title, Holm earned a qualification of the perfect human projectile: he cleared 7’10.5″, equaling the record for the highest high-jump differential between the bar and the jumper’s own height.

In 2007 he entered the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, as the favorite, and was facing a competitor he barely knew, Donald Thomas, from the Bahamas. Thomas had just begun high jumping, in the U.S. A friend at college had dared him to high-jump a 6’6″ bar, and he did. Then he cleared 6’8″. Then he cleared 7 feet. So they told the track coach:

Two days later, in a black tank top and white Nike sneakers and shorts so baggy they blanketed the bar as he passed over it, Thomas cleared 6’8.25″ on his first attempt, qualifying for the national championships. Then he cleared 7’0.25″ for a new Lindenwood University record. And then, on the seventh high jump attempt of his life, with rigid form akin to a man riding an invisible deck chair backward through the air, Thomas cleared 7’3.25″, a Lantz Indoor Fieldhouse record. That’s when Coach Lohr forced him to stop out of concern that he might hurt himself.

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In his first full season, Thomas cleared 7’7.75″ to win the NCAA indoor high jump championship.

Thomas won the 2007 world championship.