Quote of the Day 2009-12-30

You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues. Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. As I read the list I knew I had none of them. But I have other virtues, father. Ambition, that can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Resourcefulness. Courage. Perhaps not on the battlefield, but there are many forms of courage. Devotion, to my family, to you. But none of my virtues were on your list.

-Commodus, Gladiator

Lessons Learned 2009-12-13

Time to review what I learned this week!

1) Being a good leader means being a good recruiter, a good motivator, and putting people in the right places

It bears repeating because I think this sums up the entire job very quickly while at the same time still showing the magnitude of the job and why it’s so important; people who can do all three well are very rare. I think it’s also worth noting that the size of the job is also a big factor in leadership – not everyone can handle a grand task, and failing to lead in one instance is not a predictor that they will fail at an entirely different one (and vice versa). Sports is great because it often demonstrates this on a visceral and easy to see level. Athletes who are put into an uncomfortable situation often struggle, no matter their talent or work ethic, but they’ll shine if put on the right team.

2) Know your skill set

By the same token, I think this is very important. People often take a wild stab at what kind of career they’re suited for without ever really thinking about what skills they have and thus, what they might be most successful. I suppose it’s not easy, but it is something to think about and try to inventory. Some people like solving puzzles, some people like working with their hands, and others like creative thinking. Some are patient and don’t mind doing things thoroughly, others are impatient and like to think of shortcuts. In my opinion, there’s a job for every kind of quality, and there’s no “good” or “bad” skill set unless you’re gunning for a specific career. Obviously, if you want to go into medical surgery but you have bad hands, a slow mind, and can’t handle blood or death, it’s probably not going to work.

3) Ants don’t like spices or herbs

If you want to deter ants from coming out of a hole, they don’t like a lot of common spices and herbs. It has something to do with interfering with their ability to follow a scent trail. Black pepper, paprika, mint – ants hate these and will avoid environments rich in them. You could put them all over the ground, or simply cook frequently with them.

4) Let soups and stews simmer overnight

If you’ve got the time when you’re cooking, let a soup or stew simmer overnight. It evaporates a lot of the water and leaves a very rich taste behind, something you simply can’t do by boiling faster. I’ve noticed with most of my soups that they taste much better as leftovers the next morning than they do the night that I serve it. As a mini-lesson learned, butternut squash soup is a MUST during the fall or winter seasons. It tastes like autumn. Secondary is butternut squash risotto.

Goals from the week:
1) Skip rope 5,000 times – success and more!
2) Fitness regimen – not so much, just getting warmed up again
3) Study regimen – laced it, success
4) Tuck planche or handstand 10 sec – failed, close but no cigar
5) Job search – got a few apps out but no dice
Verdict: Pretty happy. Feel good about tightening up but man, the employment market is crap.

When generosity isn’t free

A lot of interesting research coming out of behavioral studies today from Slate, about moral sainthood and its costs:

But new research by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto levels an even graver charge: that virtuous shopping can actually lead to immoral behavior. In their study, subjects who made simulated eco-friendly purchases ended up less likely to exhibit altruism in a laboratory game and more likely to cheat and steal.

In an experiment, participants were randomly assigned to select items they wanted to buy in one of two online stores. One store sold predominantly green products, the other mostly conventional items. Then, in a supposedly unrelated game, all of the participants were allocated $6, to share as they saw fit with an anonymous (and unbeknownst to them, imaginary) recipient. Subjects who had chosen items from the green store coughed up less money, on average, than their counterparts. In a second experiment, participants were again assigned to shop in either a green or conventional store. Then they performed a computer task that involved earning small sums of cash. The setup offered the opportunity to cheat and steal with impunity. The eco-shoppers were more likely to do both.

It would be foolish to draw conclusions about the real world from just one paper and from such an artificial scenario. But the findings add to a growing body of research into a phenomenon known among social psychologists as “moral credentials” or “moral licensing.” Historically, psychologists viewed moral development as a steady progression toward more sophisticated decision-making. But an emerging school of thought stresses the capriciousness of moral responses. Several studies propose that the state of our self-image can directly influence our choices from moment to moment. When people have the chance to demonstrate their goodness, even in the most token of ways, they then feel free to relax their ethical standards.

In 2001, Benoit Monin and Dale Miller of Princeton published a pioneering study of this licensing tendency. The study investigated whether showing a lack of bias in one situation would free subjects to express prejudice later on. They found that people who had designated a woman as the best candidate for a gender-neutral job were then more likely to recommend a man for a stereotypically masculine job. Another experiment yielded similar results with regard to race.

Newer work has focused on morality more broadly. Earlier this year, researchers at Northwestern reported that subjects who wrote self-flattering stories later pledged to give less money to charity than those who wrote stories that were self-critical or about someone else. In another recent study, participants who recalled their own righteous deeds were less inclined to donate blood, volunteer, or engage in other “prosocial” acts. They were also more likely to cheat on a math assignment.

Why might this happen? According to Monin, now a professor at Stanford, there are two theories. One is that when we’ve established our rectitude, we interpret ensuing behavior in a different light: I just proved I’m a good person, so what I’m doing now must be okay. This reasoning, of course, works best in ambiguous situations, not with egregious sins. For example, in Monin’s experiments, it seems plausible that after participants have displayed a lack of prejudice, they see their next judgment call as based on sound analysis.

Another, potentially overlapping theory holds that we have a kind of subconscious moral accounting system. We like to think of ourselves as good guys, but sainthood has costs. So when we have done our mitzvah for the day, we cut ourselves some slack. In this model, “moral credits” are a kind of currency we accrue and spend.

I asked several experts on moral licensing how to avoid that fate. The most obvious advice was that being conscious of this potential reaction allows me to be on guard against it. They also pointed out that the licensing effect has a flip side. Some of the studies revealed an impulse for “moral cleansing”: When our moral self-image is threatened, we want to restore it—to add moral credits to the account. Research indicates that writing about our negative traits, or recalling our own sketchy behavior, prompts a surge of virtue. Reminding people of ethical ideals or of other people’s probity seems to have a similar effect. So in the wake of a noble act, we can try to curb self-satisfaction by thinking back on past transgressions or, more pleasantly, contemplating Gandhi or a personal role model.

Another strategy is to make worthy actions habitual. When volunteering at the soup kitchen—or turning off unused lights—becomes routine, you’ll stop basking in that halo every time. Cultural norms are also key. If everyone is driving a Prius and taking the stairs, I won’t feel so smug about doing the same. Now, for instance, I don’t feel heroic when I sort the paper and plastics and take the blue bin out to the curb. That’s just what people in my neighborhood do on Monday nights.

The interesting point that I walked away with is that the worst type of help is from the self-righteous, from people who consider themselves saints. I have found in my life that the meanest and cruelest actions come from people that think the most highly of their aid. The worst boyfriends are the ones who consider it a gift that they’re dating a girl and feel that they’re justified in taking the gift away, sometimes in brutal fashion. The pickiest friends always invoke their saintly friendship at any slight, as though others owe them something for that.

What’s really fascinating is that a person can turn a specific action into general morality. That if a person buys a Prius, they feel justified driving like an asshole or even worse, think they’re so much better than everyone else that they deserve a greater share of the road.

I also found the solutions to be intriguing. Maybe I should be confessing to more of my sins on the blog or in my private journal. Even though I don’t think of myself as much of a good person; at this point, if there’s a Heaven, I’m banking on repentance at the last possible moment. Mind you, I’m pretty sure I’m not a BAD person. At least, if I were a baddie, I’d probably just be a faceless thug that Aragorn unceremoniously kicks in the face while stealing his horse. Or in the movie Taken, I’m baddie #4 that Liam Neeson throws into the river – two days later, I find out he shot my employer and go back to the employment agency to see if any other bad guys need more anonymous henchmen.

On a random tangent, I’d like to write a short story about the life of a thug who goes through like eight employers in Lord of the Rings, and all of his duties are ended by Legolas. He starts off working in the Mines of Moria, dragging a reluctant giant blue cave troll around. They attack the fellowship of the ring and Legolas kills the cave troll by shooting about eight arrows in it, including three in its mouth. He gets a new job cooking for the Uruk-hai, but doesn’t like that they goddamn run everywhere. He’s just minding his own business when Legolas comes out of nowhere and kicks him in the face on his way to killing about twelve of his comrades. From there, he gets conscripted into the army to attack Helms Deep, where Legolas skateboards a shield into his testicles. Trying to escape, our thug then decides to move to Mordor, where he is again conscripted into the army since he has experience with large beasts. He leads an elephant team but is thrown off by Legolas again, who kills the elephant by shooting arrows into each of the poor creature’s eyes and six arrows into its mouth. He’s walking back home only to find the human army led by Aragorn is at the border gate, leading a fresh charge. He tries to anonymously flee through the gate when Legolas flying side kicks him in the back of the neck, then stands on him while shooting another twenty-eight dudes, counting aloud and joking to Gimli the whole time.

When Legolas gets off him, he looks down and says “Haven’t I seen you somewhere?”, then stomps on his face and runs away to kill more orcs.

Mathematical folklore: The Tale of Ferdinand Eisenstein

As written by Andre Weil, another great mathematician, in the foreword of his unburied works from the dark recesses of a library corner:

On the 16th of April 1823, a number of fairies, summoned by Ganesha, the god of mathematical wisdom, assembled in Berlin at the cradle of an infant, to grant boons and bestow blessings. This was the first-born of a not too prosperous businessman who had married in June of the previous year; both parents were Jewish but had been baptized into the evangelical faith. Alas, as in all fairy tales, one old witch managed to creep in and resolved to undo, if she could, the work of the fairies.

“He will have genius”, said the first fairy, “and will be a worthy successor of Gauss, Dirichlet, Jacobi.”
“His life will be short and unhappy”, said the witch.
“He will have many brothers and sisters”, said the next fairy, “and will be tenderly attached to them, while remaining his mother’s favorite.”
“He will lose them all”, said the witch, “seventeen years from now he will see the last one, a beloved small sister, die at the age of seven.”
“He will have brilliant teachers at the Gymnasium and will make giant strides in his mathematical studies.”
“But first,” said the witch, “his parents will misguidedly send him for four years to a private school whose rigid discipline will almost break his already fragile health and make him a nervous wreck for the rest of his life.”

“In his first year as a student at the University of Berlin, he will attract the attention of Humboldt, the grand old man of German science, and of Crelle, the editor of the leading mathematical journal of his time, and will have more than twenty papers accepted by Crelle that same year.”
“Maybe,” said the witch, “but first, for his support at the University, his mother will have to accept a paltry sum from the royal indigent fund.”
“So what?” said one big fairy with a strong American accent. “Soon Humboldt will get him a yearly grant of 250 dollars from the Royal Science Foundation, and will get it renewed when needed.”
“OK,” retorted the witch, “but uncertainties about the payment and renewal of this stipend will plague and humiliate him for the rest of his life.”
“No matter,” said the next fairy. “Gauss, one of the hardest men to please in the mathematical world, will invite him, still a first-year student, to a visit in Gottingen, and from then on will take the deepest interest, not only in his work but also in his well-being. Jacobi, intent upon making him a ‘privatdozent’ and anxious to cut bureaucratic red tape, will arrange for him to receive an honorary doctorate at the hands of Kummer in Breslau: surely an unheard-of favor to a second-year student! Gauss, while proposing Dirichlet for a coveted distinction, will let it be known that he has ‘almost hesitated’ between him and young Eisenstein.”

“Much good that will do him!” exclaimed the witch with a sneer. “It will so enrage Jacobi that he will practically accuse your darling of plagiarism, in a wholly unmotivated footnote in Crelle’s Journal.”
“Who knows not what the easily inflamed Jacobi can do once his temper is aroused?” said another good fairy. “This incident will deeply distress the young man for a while but will do him no further harm. Soon he will be a privatdozent, and the great Riemann will be one of his students.”
“Not for long! Riemann will migrate to Gottingen and forget whatever number-theory his young teacher thinks he has taught him. In the meanwhile, I will have seen to it that Kronecker and Heine leave Berlin; the young man will remain isolated without any congenial friend or companion.”

One fairy thought that Gauss’ name had such virtue that it would silence the malevolent creature:

“In 1847, the great Gauss will write a highly flattering foreword for a collection of his protege’s papers.”
“Hardly anyone will read them,” replied the witch with utter contempt. “Then he will be so beaten up by the Prussian soldiery, during the revolutionary upheavals of 1848, that he will have to keep to his bed for a week; for two years he will publish nothing, and the reputation of being ‘red’ will stick to him and threaten to jeopardize his stipend and his career.”
“He will not remain idle during those two years, in spite of all discouragement and ill health; his publications of the year 1850 will show him at the peak of his powers. Dirichlet, with Jacobi’s concurrence, will propose him for membership in the Berlin Academy, and he will finally be elected in 1852, as Jacobi’s successor, a young man of not yet 29 years of age.”
“And then he will die”, said the witch triumphantly.
“But his name will survive”, said a tiny fairy.

“Hardly so,” said the hag. “Following academic usage, Dirichlet will read to the Academy a beautiful and moving eulogy of Jacobi, and Kummer will perform the same service for Dirichlet. But no member of the Academy will ever bother about the memory of the melancholy young man who had died in 1852. Still less will it occur to them to provide for the publication of his works, while voting ample funds for those of Jacobi, Dirichlet, Steiner, and later for Weierstrass and Kronecker. He will be forgotten, once and for all.”
“It is lucky,” said one last fairy in a small voice, “that you remind me of Kronecker. For many years, your curse will indeed prevent him from remembering the companion of his youth. But I will cause him to rediscover his friend’s work before it is too late, and he will make it the theme of the main lecture to be given at the inauguration ceremonies of the German Mathematical Society.”

The witch laughed loudly. “It will be too late! I will kill Kronecker’s wife, and he will cancel his lecture.”
“He will offer to write it up.”
“Before he does, I will kill him too, and then that name, which I do not want even to utter, will sink into final oblivion.”

There were no more fairies; but Ganesha had the last word.

“You forget,” he said, “that all your curses are of limited duration; one hundred and fifty years from today, their force will be spent.”

The founders of modern mathematics.

And so it has been. Eisenstein’s works were unappreciated in their time and it is doubtful that mathematicians today have fully caught up with his ideas. A century before anyone else did, he kicked off the trend of combining algebra and geometry rather than treating them as separate disciplines. Sadly, his name continues to be buried underneath other contemporary greats like Gauss, Euler, and Dirichlet.

Quote of the Day 2009-12-7

I had a great many prejudices that have since dissolved. But what I still hate about the women’s movement is their insistence upon male piety in relation to it. I don’t like bending my knee and saying I’m sorry, mea culpa. I find now that women have achieved some power and recognition they are quite the equal of men in every stupidity and vice and misjudgment that we’ve exercised through history.

They’re narrow-minded, power seeking, incapable of recognizing the joys of a good discussion. The women’s movement is filled with tyrants, just as men’s political movements are equally filled.

What I’ve come to discover are the negative sides, that women are no better than men. I used to think — this is sexism in a way, I’ll grant it — that women were better than men. Now I realize no, they’re not any better.

-Norman Mailer

Bonus note about Mailer: He spoke once at UC Berkeley and started by inviting all the feminists in the crowd to hiss. When a good number obliged, he replied “obedient little bitches”.