Book Review: How We Decide

How We Decide

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking just from the title: another book about psychology, decision making, and behavioral economics. And yeah, that’s pretty much right. Author Jonah Lehrer clomps around at the intersection of rationality street and emotional avenue, trying to figure out what kinds of traffic is best suited for each byway. And like those other books, this is all placed well within the context of every day (or at least plausible) problems: how do fire fighters and airline pilots react to emergencies? How do you make a better television soap opera or game show? Do smarter people make better quarterbacks? Which stock should you invest in? Do you need rationality or irrationality to get really, really good at poker?

And like the authors of those other books, he constructs models of the human mind to explain why it behaves as it does, especially when it behaves badly and/or irrationally. He even uses some of the exact same situations and examples as those other books. So it’s more of that, but there’s a little bit of a twist.

Specifically, Lehrer is a neoroscientist instead of your typical psychologist, and so he looks at a lot of the same questions as I’ve seen in books like Sway and Predictably Irrational but he takes cracks at them with a different set of tools. For example, while a behavioral economist or plan-Jane psychologist would use terms like “subconscious” or “incidental coding of frequency information” to describe how people figure out which decks are stacked in their favor in a simple card drawing game, Lehrer uses terms like “neurons” and “dopamine releases” to explain the same thing. This is an approach more grounded in biology and biochemistry than it is sociology and economics. And what’s really fascinating to me is that both sets of scientists are right; they’re just using different models and paradigms to investigate the same stuff and it’s great to see where they compliment each other.

And independent of which branch of the great tree of science upon which Lehrer perches, I really liked his writing style. The writing is crisp and to the point, yet it doesn’t talk down to you. Every lesson and mental exercise is couched in terms of some fascinating context, like those fire fighters, airline pilots, poker players, stock brokers, and athletes I mentioned. It’s good popular science writing, which seems to be somewhat hard to come by.

Movie Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's A Wonderful Life

Note: This is #21 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Yeah, here’s another one I have to admit to never having seen, despite having absorbed a lot of it through popular culture. I wasn’t a minute into the film before I was yelling “Hey, they’re ripping off Futurama!” And actually, I really liked It’s a Wonderful Life.

The plot is that George Bailey (James Stewart) grows up in the small town of Bedford Falls and has big dreams of going to college and becoming an engineer. George is a boy and eventually a man of high character and compassion for others, and these qualities act to trap him in Bedford Falls, since there always seems to be someone there in need of his help. Mostly this takes the form of protecting his deceased father’s Building & Loan Association, which is critical to helping the town’s less fortunate citizens afford housing and which is constantly under attack from the nefarious banker Mr. Potter. Bailey’s life story thus becomes one of constantly deferred and inevitably lost dreams, with his his own hapiness and potential always taking a back seat to the needs of his fellow men and women.

This is a surprisingly deep and meaningful portrait of a good man, and the viewer always has to wonder if he/she would have the same moral fiber as Bailey and if his sacrifices are ultimately worth it. I loved James Stewart in this role, much more than any of the previous things I’ve seen him in, like The Philadelphia Story or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that George Bailey is actually a multifaceted and tragic character instead of a one-sided idealized character or stereotype.

And I have to admit, I got kind of misted up in the last 20 minutes or so of this life when Bailey’s dilemma comes to a head and he wishes he’d never been born. It’s a great story about the importance of community and sacrifice, much more effective than Mr. Smith was. So if you’re the rare breed like me that’s never seen it, you should check it out. I hear it’s on TV like every Christmas.

Trailer below.

Also this week, Jeremy reviewed The Circus.

Week 278: Farm, Fish, and Peach

Mostly pictures this week since I’m behind. We spent Memorial Day weekend out at The Farm, and despite the soggy weather the girls loved it. One day we all went down to the dock and went fishing. Not only that, both Sam and Mandy actually caught fish! There is photographic evidence below, even if you have to look closely. We’re all looking forward to going back.

It’s also worth mentioning this week that we’ve stared to graduate Sam up to “big kid books” this week. I was at the library returning some stuff when I saw a copy of James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. I grabbed it on impulse and gave it to Sam. Turns out she loved it and had no problem at all paying attention despite the book’s relatively few pictures. I’m open to suggestions on what to read to her next along these same lines. Thoughts?

Book Review: The Terror

The Terror

This novel by Dan Simmons about Sir John Franklen’s doomed expedition to the Artic is kind of hard to describe. I guess “historical horror” would come closest.

Most of the book is a straight up (though surely dramatized) retelling of how the crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus get stuck in the ice while trying to search for a shortcut to the Orient through the Arctic circle. You’ve got all the threats you might expect: the freezing cold, starvation, disease, mutiny, cannibalism, and the like. And Simmons does a pretty good job at making this all exciting in a classic adventure story kind of way. This is true even though the most cursory history lesson on the subject tells us that the expedition (which was quite real) had no known survivors. Two ships trapped in the ice of the Arctic and isolated from rescue by miles and years is a heck of a setup.

But apparently Simmons didn’t think that was quite enough, since the rest of the plot involves the men’s being stalked by some kind of supernatural killing machine on the ice. It’s a giant bear spirit monster …thing. So between scenes you might expect to see on a Discovery Channel special you get “gotcha” moments like those out of a horror movie book where the creature will pop up out of nowhere and bite someone’s face off.

On balance it was a pretty good book, if a bit long. The setting is cool (har har), novel (har har again) and interesting enough to keep my attention long enough, and Simmons does a great job of making many of the characters –every one of which is based on a real member of the expedition– deep and detailed so that the human drama shows through. Would the book have been sufficient (or even better) without the whole supernatural terror angle? Hard to say, but I think it could have been.

What I will say for sure is that the book falls flat on its face for a good long stretch towards the end when Simmons resorts to a stilted and lame literary technique for exposition, presumably because he didn’t want to leave a few mysteries totally unsolved. But his solution breaks so much from the style of the rest of the novel that it leaves you going “Huh? WTF?”

Still, on balance it’s a pretty good book just for the quasi-historical stuff.

Movie Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity

Note: This is #20 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

As far as examples of film noir go, I liked Double Indemnity a lot more than I did Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon, mainly because it’s so different and intriguing in the way that it tells a murder mystery from the villain’s point of view. The villain in question is Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), a shady insurance salesman living in L.A. When Neff tries to re-up an insurance policy on an old client, the lady of the household (blond and sultry, of course) tempts him into a plan involving the murder of her husband and not only cashing in on his fat life insurance policy, but doing so using the “double indemnity” clause that super sizes the settlement. The balance of the movie traces the unraveling of the conspirators’ plans.

There’s plenty to like about the movie. If I were doing this 52-in-52 thing from the perspective of a student of film, for example, I’d probably remark on the interesting framing technique that opens the movie with a bleeding Neff confessing his entire sequence of dirty deeds into a dictaphone machine so that the bulk of the movie is presented as a flashback. I’m guessing such a thing wasn’t nearly as common in 1944 as it is now.

But I won’t go into all that, because I think watching Double Indemnity in 2009 actually stands up fine just as entertainment outside of an academic exercise. MacMurray and Barbara Stanwick give great performances and in line with the whole film noir thing the hook is that it’s fun to see morally challenged people behaving badly while moping around starkly lit sets. And I liked how while the story was a straight-up murder mystery, the mystery in this case wasn’t who done it, but rather how Ness’s nemesis (a co-worker in charge of investigating insurance fraud) was going to figure out what we already know.

So, good stuff. Plus I got a kick out of every time Neff called somebody “Baby.” Trailer below.

This week Jeremy also reviewed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Week 277: Devils, Antagonization, and Ice Cream

I am often confused and frightened by the things that Sam picks up. I came home from work the other day to her excited announcement that she “has a devil on her shoulder.” Noting the lack of an actual imp on her person, I took her to mean it metaphorically, and was thankfully right. She’s like a cartoon character arguing with the little devil and angel in her ears telling her what to do, except in Sam’s case the little angel dude is conspicuously absent from her fantasy.

Now, whenever Sam does something naughty, she’ll shriek, “I’ve got a devil on my shoulder HA HA!” and swat at this imaginary purveyor of temptation. What’s even more unsettling is when she’s just sitting there, quietly thinking about something, and then suddenly blurts the same thing out. It’s somehow worse not knowing about something she was just thinking about doing.

As far as Mandy goes, I think she too is making room for a little devilry in her life. She’s at a point now where she apparently takes great joy in antagonizing her sister. Sam will be sitting and doing something like coloring or watching a show and Mandy will march over and start nudging Sam with her foot or poking her like a little scientist mixing chemical compounds until some kind of explosive reaction is achieved. She’s even sly enough to then burst into tears and cry “Sister’s mad at me!” while running to the nearest parent. If her mission was just get attention of any sort, she’s learned to execute it masterfully.

But as exasperating as they can be, my girls can also be really, really sweet. Mandy has learned to say “I love you” and she says it often. And the other morning I had gotten up a bit early to have some free time to myself before going to work when Sam wandered downstairs, obviously still half asleep. When I groaned and demanded to know why she was up at 6:20 in the morning, she walked over to lean against me before saying “I just wanted to spend some time with you before you went to work.”

So we sat and talked softly over peanut butter, bagels, juice, and coffee while everybody else in the house slept, including the little devil on her shoulder. It was an awesome start to the day.

Book Review: Opening Skinner’s Box

Opening Skinner's Box

The full title here is Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. Author Lauren Slater reviews 10 famous experiments from the various niches of psychology and attempts to understand them and their participants in new ways. It’s really not very good.

And that’s too bad, because these psychological experiments and the scientists involved with them are gold mines of fascinating stories –they’re famous for a reason. Examples include getting average Joes to shock other people to death, imprisoning babies in boxes constructed to shape their psyches, turning rhesus monkeys into antisocial lunatics, faking your way into a psychiatric hospital on flimsy pretenses, crowds of people watching impassively as their neighbor is stabbed to death, and inserting false memories into the minds of people who should know better.

This is crazy, fascinating, outrageous stuff! Slater devotes a chapter to each set of experiments and attempts to delve deeper into the concepts that each one left in the landscape of psychology. She usually does this by writing about the people underneath the lab coats, including their personalities, their drives, their flaws, and their humanity. Unfortunately when she’s short on information Slater had an annoying habit of just making details up, along the lines of “I imagined him blah blah blah” or “Did he look at this spectacle and blah blah blah?” Its an entirely ineffective literary technique that really only serves to yank you out of whatever flow you might have gotten into to be reminded that we’re resorting to conjecture in an attempt at spicing things up a bit and to live up to the dust jacket’s doubtful premise that there are great mysteries here to be revealed through personal research and fact checking.

In fact, this brings me to my major problem with the book: the author’s writing style. The prose is so purple, sloppy, and florid, so full of itself and laden with pointless metaphores and descriptors that it strains credibility for something claiming to be non-fiction. She also has a flair for the dramatic, as when she breathlessly drew parallels between Stanley Milgram’s subjects administering painful shock and his own doctors trying to revive him with defibulators.

It’s just not well done. It’s great source material (or at least I think so), but Slater just can’t hold a candle to better science writers like Bill Bryson or Mary Roach.

Movie Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Note: This is #19 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Well, my first real musical in this little experiment. Yankee Doodle Dandy is both a musical and a biographical picture. It tells the story of George M. Cohan (James Cagney), who was a man of many talents on the stage and who wrote a bunch of snappy songs about how totally awesome America is, including the eponymous “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Over There.”

The movie tells the story of Cohan’s life, starting with his early days in a family stage act through his rise to a major star and through his retirement. There are musical numbers scattered all through the biography, and what’s interesting is that the film makers don’t have to contrive any kind of reason for the actors to break into a song and dance. We just see the Cohans performing the stage productions before an audience. Some of the pieces were pretty elaborate, like the whole “Yankee Doodle Dandy” piece where Cohan participates in a horse race. And James Cagney, who I always thought of as “that guy in all those gangstar movies” was surprisingly good at singing and dancing.

Other than that, it’s a pretty standard rags to riches, American dream kind of biography. George Cohan rises through the top of his profession through a combination of talent, hard work, and smarmy self-confidence. Then the world passes him by after his career has peaked.

The main problem I had with the movie was that it was long at 126 minutes, and felt even longer than that. I know it’s attempting a relatively complete examination of Cohan’s life, but it really did drag at certain points. Still, that aside it’s not bad.

Also this week, Jeremy reviewed The Searchers.

Week 276: Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day was this last weekend, and while it was kind of low-key, everybody seemed to enjoy it. It started with Mandy’s wishing me a happy Mother’s Day, then after a short correction and new instructions, she wished Geralyn a happy Mother’s Day. I made breakfast and dinner (not at the same time) and Geralyn was given some car keys and released into the wild for a few hours. She returned with new shoes.

A few days prior to that Geralyn had gone to a “Mother’s Day Tea” or something at Sam’s preschool where the teachers lined the children up and let them shout at their mothers under the pretense that it was some sort of full throated singing. Geralyn captured the video below, and I think that given the established correlation between shakey camera movements and “folksy authenticity,” holding the camera sideways was actually a stroke of brilliance. It in no way diminishes the feeling of full body enthusuasm that Sam had at singing “something something something …HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!”

Don’t you agree?

And just to further prove the miracle of the season, here are a couple of pictures where Sam and Mandy actually cooperated and posed for the camera, OCASSIONALLY AT THE SAME TIME:

At any rate, Geralyn, something something something …happy Mother’s Day!

Book Review: Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett is the first of his Diskworld novels to make me go “Meh…” The idea is that an evil spirit breaks loose and starts putting ideas in people’s heads about how to make motion pictures, or “clicks.”. It’s got enough good lines, jokes, and parodies to make it entertaining, but the whole Hollywood lampoon seems so out of place on the Diskworld that I found it really distracting and jarring.
Indeed, Pratchett seems to anticipate this reaction in his readers and gives us this kind of half-hearted explanation near the beginning of the book:

…at least nine-tenths of all the original reality ever created lies outside the multiverse, and since the multiverse by definition includes absolutely everything that is anything, this puts a bit of a strain on things.

In other words, “I’m feeling a bit boxed in by this genre I’m working because it prevents me from using some of these ideas I’ve got.” He goes on:

Outside the boundaries of the universe lie the raw realities, the could-have-beens, the might-bes, the never-weres, the wild ideas, all being created and uncreated chaotically like elements in fermenting supernovas.

Just occasionally where the walls of the worlds have worn a bit thin, they can leak in.

Or, “So I’m going to do it anyway. Just roll with it.”

And to be sure, it’s not hard to roll with it. We get to see Victor Tugelbend, professional wizardry student at Unseen University turned “Holy Wood” actor and accidental savior of the Disk. We get to see the trolls a bit more fleshed out (so to speak) as a race, and Pratchett has a lot of fun playing off their stony nature. And, perhaps best of all, we get Gaspode the Wonder Dog, a flea-bitten mutt possessed of speech and above average intelligence, but no good way of making many people recognize it. Gaspode the Wonder Dog is awesome. I want to get a dog just so I can name him “Gaspode.”

And of course as you might expect we get tons of clever parodies of classic Hollywood movies, some of which rely on hundreds of pages of setup. In particular there was a bit at the end that sublimely mashed up King Kong and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

So, I’d probably rank this near the bottom of the Diskworld books that I’ve read so far, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not good. It’s just not AS good. And, as usual, it’s pretty quotable:

He gave Gaspode a long, slow stare, which was like challenging a centipede to an arse-kicking contest.

She was a beefy young woman and, whatever piece of music she was playing, it was definitely losing.

By and large, the only skill the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork had discovered so far was the ability to turn gold into less gold.

Azhural raised his staff. “It’s fifteen hundred miles to Ankh-Morpork,” he said. “We’ve got three hundred and sixty-three elephants, fifty carts of forage, the monsoon’s about to break and we’re wearing… we’re wearing… sort of things, like glass, only dark… dark glass things on our eyes…[It’s a Blue’s Brothers reference]

Movie Review: Casablanca (1942)


Note: This is #18 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Yes, it’s true. I’d never seen Casablanca, even though I’d picked up the gist of the story and all the famous lines through some kind of pop culture osmosis. Turns out I liked the movie, though didn’t think it was THAT great.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, the American in exile owner of a swanky saloon in the Morocan city of Casablanca. World War II is brewing and after the Nazi invation of France Casablanca is home to many refugees, all of them seeking to use the city as a gateway to safety. When Blaine comes into possession of priceless documents that could be used to get anyone out of the country no questions asked, he is torn between selling them and giving them to a new couple who shows up in town: his old lover Ilsa Lund (played by Ingred Bergman) and her new husband, a Czech resistance fighter on the run from the Nazis. All along the way, Blaine is checked and dogged by Louis Renault, friend to the Nazis and Captain of the local police force. In the end, Blaine has to get past his bitterness over how Ilsa left him and choose between doing the selfish thing and the noble thing.

What struck me most about Casablanca was what a strong sense of place it gave you. The set pieces and photography around the Moroccan city were very convincing, and the whole thing had a kind of exotic quality to it, which contrasted sharply with both the upper class fugitives trapped there and Blaine’s establishment of “Rick’s Cafe American.” The whole romance angle between Rick and Ilsa was kind of bland to me, but the rest of the story was more than interesting enough to keep my attention.

I also liked Bogart in this movie, much more than I liked his performance in The Maltese Falcon. Rick Blaine is a morally ambivalent man for most of the movie, and this is kind of an interesting contrast to what I’ve seen so far. I have to say, though, that it was actually the crooked Police Chief Louis Renault (played by Claude Rains) who stole every scene he was in. He was the most entertaining thing to watch in the whole movie.

So, good movie, worth seeing just because it’s a touchstone of popular culture.

Also this week, Jeremy reviews X-Men Origins: Wolverine..

Week 275: Playgrounds and Drums

Not much going on this week. We went to a combo First Communion / 8th grade graduation party (one kid for each event) on Sunday, and Mandy proved her ability to climb playground ladders and to dodge between moving swings like some kind of futuristic gladiator navigating Thunderdome. Sam was, of course, one of the children in the swings.

Then we went downstairs where the hosts had a drum set assembled for their son. Sam and Mandy both thought it was a little loud:

And that’s pretty much it. Like I said, slow week.

Book Review: Investing in People

Investing in People

In their book, Investing in People: Financial Impact of Human Resource Initiatives authors Wayne Cascio and John Boudreau hit on something I’ve written about elsewhere: making research understandable and meaningful to a wider audience, especially in the context of business. In other words, putting dollar signs in there.

After some introductions and defining of terms, the authors propose what the call a “LAMP” framework for approaching the measurement of Human Resources initiatives. LAMP is an acronym for a paradigm relating to planning and couching research projects in terms those folks in Operations or Accounting will actually care about. You must have a coherent Logic for the initiative and how it connects to the larger business, the right Analytics to make sense of the data, the right Measures to gather the data in the first place, and the right Processes to make use of what you discover.

This framework established, the next chunk of the book dealt with very specific questions that I-O psychologists working in the area of Human Resources are likely to be called upon to answer. How much does employee absenteeism really hurt the company? How worried should we be about our turnover? Is it going to benefit the company to put in a new fitness center for employee use or to pay for a smoking cessation program? Is it worth it to offer on-site day care for employees to use in emergencies? How concerned should I be about these employee satisfaction survey results? Just how bad ARE the hyena attacks on the third floor?

The authors provide logic, measures, analytics, and processes for each issue to educate the reader on how to approach each question as both a scientist and a business person. Good research methods, theory building, and scientific interpretation of results are stressed, but so is communicating the outcomes in terms of dollars (or whatever your local currency may be). If you need a formula for calculating the hourly cost of turnover or absenteeism, for example, you’ll find it here.

The next major part of the book dives head first into the complicated (and often controversial) concept of staffing utility. The authors provide information on measuring and using staffing utility, then its use in decision making processes for things like enhanced selection systems and HR development programs. This section of the book is not for the faint of heart as it contains some pretty complicated algebra and calls to do some pretty challenging measurement. Here, let’s look at Equation 11-10 here:

I mean, sweet jeebus, what is THAT? Well, they tell you, or at least try to. And utility (pun intended) of this kind of effort can’t be understated when you are trying to sell a program to key decision makers or to communicate the impact of a new program.

So in general I liked Investing in People, even if it bogs down from time to time and once or twice the reader is presented with instructions that basically amount to “just make a best guess and plug the number in to your model.” But the message of how to communicate and debate with stakeholders in their own language and on their home turf is an invaluable one if Human Resources in general and I-O psychology in specific is going to move forward and become a real driving force in business.