Thursday, November 29, 2007

Self-Help Tips

"Ways to Improve Self-Esteem:

- Identify the people you feel intimidated by. Learn to be assertive with them.

- When you fail at something, say: "That's okay. I'll do better next time."

- When you're feeling blue, say "It's okay. I will be alright."

- If your day was rough, relax in the evening or as soon as you can.

- When you try something new and don't catch on right away, give yourself credit for trying."

These were taken from Vassar College's "Minding Your Mental Health" booklet. Does anyone else find them hilarious? I think that the reason why is probably because they totally ignore the context of the situation. I mean, this is all good advice, but there's no way that somebody is going to remember to give themselves credit for trying when they suck at badminton (or something) and everybody is laughing at them.

The bottom line? Naive people can be funny, especially when you have to hand it to them because they make some good points.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dropping out... all of the cool kids are doing it

Recently I've realized more and more that all of the sweet people that are associated with Vassar came but never graduated. It has all the trappings of a good theory, especially surprise. But without data, it was going nowhere. So I looked at Wikipedia's List of Vassar College People, which includes those who attended but did not graduate, and I did a quoted google search of each person's name. Here are the top results:

1) Meryl Streep - 2,520,000 results, graduated. Two-time Oscar winning actress.
2) Jane Fonda - 2,270,000 results, did not graduate. Two-time Oscar winning actress.
3) Anne Hathaway - 2,150,000 results, did not graduate. Actress, ironically starred alongside Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Gorgeous.
4) Lisa Kudrow - 1,530,000 results, graduated. "Pheobe" from friends.
5) Anthony Bourdain - 1,240,000 results, did not graduate. Famous chef, hosts a show on the Travel channel.
6) Justin Long - 1,040,000 results, graduated. Actor in Waiting, among others. My boy.
7) Jacqueline Kennedy - 626,000 results, did not graduate. Wife of Jack Kennedy.
8) Neil Strauss - 555,000 results, did not graduate. Author of "The Game."
9) Noah Baumbach - 544,000 results, graduated. Co-Wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with Wes Anderson.
10) Hope Davis - 503,000 results, graduated. Actress, plays quasi-major role in many movies including About Schmidt.

All in all, I think that this was a solid experimental design. While the number of google search results is probably not the best way of determining popularity, it is blind to the nature of the study, and I would say that the top people on that list are probably the best known. The only problem with the google search is that it is hard to decide what is the most appropriate name to use. While Mike D could have been used instead of Michael Diamond, it may have given him too many results because "D" is so common compared to a normal last name. But he didn't graduate from Vassar, so if anything the results are skewed in the other way than I expected.

Either way, given that the Vassar College graduation rate after 6 years is 89% percent right now, the fact that 5 out of the top 10 most popular people did not graduate shows that there might be something in this dropping out business. Any thoughts?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Do you become happier as you age?

I somehow stumbled across this article about how happiness correlates with age, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. You should check it out. Money graf:

"In a study published in September in Psychological Science, Wood and her collaborator, neuroscientist Michael Kisley of the University of Colorado, recorded the brain activity of 63 adults, ranging in age, who were shown a series of negative and positive images, such as dead animals or a bowl of ice cream. Older adults were about 30% less reactive to the negative images compared with the younger adults."

Anyway, I figured that I could attempt to replicate this article's findings in my own life. I'm sending the article to myself using a 13-year time delay (I'll be 32!), reading it again, and deciding whether or not I agree with the results then.

Two key assumptions: 1) that I'll still have the same e-mail address and 2) that I'll still be alive. But as long as those two points are met, we could be in for some pretty sweet results. Bookmark this page, and come back in 2020.

Edit: By the way, the program I used to send myself the message in the future was called Time Cave. I've never seen a website with more incentive for people to donate.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Setting your own standards

On the basketball team here, our coach has set high consequences for tardiness to practice. If anybody is late, we have to do painfully taxing sprints for each minute that person is late. It has produced a culture where everybody is on-edge about showing up on time. This is undoubtedly a wise move by our coaches, as it stimulates efficiency and ensures that if somebody is late once, it is unlikely to happen again.

But on the individual level, one of the results of this strict policy is that every other situation of being late has lowered in priority. Lunch at the dining center? It wouldn't hurt anybody if I was late. Class? Nobody will care if I'm late. Work? At least if I'm late there, my boss won't make everybody else go out to the parking lot and do up-downs. If I am late anywhere else, the consequences pale in comparison to practice. The result is that I'm finding myself snoozing in the morning more and more, and arriving to commitments later and later.

In psychology this consequence for tardiness is known as positive punishment, because a stimulus (having to run) is added in order to deter team members from lateness. And it seems that when you remove that stimulus, the subject show up late more often, because the direct punishments for lateness have been removed. At least, that is what you would expect from a rat in an experimental design.

But if we as humans fancy ourselves on being more in control of our actions than rats, which I think that we do, we must overcome these outside forces. Other people may reward certain actions of ours, or punish certain other ones, but the true decision-maker will reject these outside stimuli. If you value being on time, then you should be on time for everything, regardless of the reward systems in place.

If you want to get something done, then you should set your own standards.

Dark meat is pretty much just as good for you as white meat

This quick article from the NYT is pretty relevant right now, given that Thanksgiving is right around the corner. While an ounce of dark meat has slightly more calories than white meat, 50 to 46, it's no reason to fret.

I would recommend telling this to people after dinner, unless you want the vultures to hawk even more of the dark meat the first go around. If you don't want anyone to know how much dark meat you've hoarded, smothering your turkey in stuffing and gravy has always worked for me.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blogging is literally blowing up

Seriously though, the blogosphere is more on fire at Vassar than Main building every year on Halloween . Here's some of the new blogs I've come across recently:

Blog Attempt #1 - My friend Joe, an alum from the basketball team, muses about books, sports, and his Will Bike for Food Organization, among other topics. His posts are astute yet poignant, a rare combination and almost certainly a result of his outstanding Vassar education.

Critical Flop - Vassar alum Aaron Terr writes articles in satirical onion-style form about celebrities, politicians, and anything else you can imagine. Very, very funny stuff.

Butterworth's Basketball Blog - My friend Brian, also from the basketball team, posts his thoughts about sports, especially from his perspective as a Bostonite (he is very Bostinian). Rather young blog, but you might as well jump on the bandwagon now before it fills up.

Mads Vassar
- Probably the most prolific blogger on the Vassar campus, Mads keeps you updated at a deafening pace of which parties were the most legit, and which speakers were worth listening to. Although it's run anonymously, we're pretty sure here at the bi-monthly that the author is a freshman and lives in Jewett. Beyond that, the mystery is a part of the appeal.

Just when you think that you're alone, you realize that there's people all around you. If you too would like to start a blog, please e-mail me at amckenz(at)gmail(dot)com, and I'll help you set one up.

Modern-Day Warfare

Excellent analysis of how terrorism will play out in the 21st century over at Robert Greene's blog. He references late 19th century Russia, which he claims spawned the first terrorist group, the Narodnaya Volia. Their goal was not to actually stage a coup but simply to cause strife and chaos in the country, in an effort to cause some sort of change in a desperate situation. While they were eventually disbanded by the government, the overreaction they caused was a contributing factor to the Russian revolutions in the 20th century.

Sound anything like today? Greene certainly seems to think so. Here's the money quote:
We have taken a situation that for us was manageable and stable, and have introduced tremendous insecurity and chaos into the region. The chances for conflict spilling over borders has been greatly increased. We might look back thirty years from now and see something similar to what had happened in Russia. In the end, if such were the case, the attack of 9/11 would have to be considered the most successful military ventures in all of history--based on the size of the attackers and the effects of their action.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The psychology of hating the referee

Any serious athlete or fan has had multiple experiences dealing with referees (or umpires, or whatever) that they thought had a vendetta against their team. In fact, you probably have dealt with a couple of refs whose faces you've have memorized in case you see them in a dark alley 10 years from now. We've all been there.

Having been on both sides of the equation, as a soccer referee, I can attest that it's not as easy as it looks. You have so many different things to keep track of--was that offsides, does that slide tackle warrant a yellow card, is that cute older sister in the stands talking to her boyfriend or just some dude, and all the while you just want the game to be over with so you can get paid.

Unfortunately, nobody takes any of that into account. I had parents--of 9 year olds!--yell at me from across the field well after the game, when they were walking back to their cars. One minute its, "here, Johnny, have a couple of orange slices, make sure you stay hydrated slugger," and the next its, "hey ref, you suck, take out your whistle next time, you blew the game!" It's crazy. But what you learn to realize as a ref is that everybody loves to vent some anger by getting out of control now and then. Reason #45357 why an iPod is the best money you've ever spent.

Anyway, I've come up with a few biases to try to explain why people get so angry at the refs at sporting events (all definitions from Wikipedia, the premiere source for information, whether broad academia is willing to admit it or not):

"Illusion of control — the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they clearly cannot."

This is a big one in sports, where people at home and in the stands believe that they have an impact on what happens in the games based on their cheering, whether or not they watched a given play, or whatever. While it's fun to feel like part of the team, it probably means that you take any referee errors a little bit too personally.

"Impact bias — the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of the impact of future feeling states."

When a referee makes a questionable decision in the game, people have the right to feel a little bit upset. Bill Simmons has a famous Levels of Losing column in which he pretty much talks about how awful it is to lose, and he's right. But generally nobody seems willing to admit that there will be another play, and another game. If they were, they might not care about a couple of bad calls, even if the ref does clearly need LASIK eye surgery.

"Actor-observer bias -- the tendency to attribute their own behavior to their circumstances, but tend to attribute other people's behaviors to their dispositions."

When a ref makes a call, we automatically assume that it must be their fault--they weren't paying attention or they are racist, even when it's just as likely that the ref had a tough angle or was forced to make the decision on the move in a split second.

Any other reasons why we chastise referees so much?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Your nice quick 2 hour depression-inducing read of the day

This long survey from the Economist on religion across the globe has blown up in the blogosphere, for good reason. It tackles important issues that every human has a vested interest in. One of the major themes seems to be an unfortunate lack of knowledge on all sides. Describing the Isreal-Palestine conflict, the Brits chide that,

Ignorance rules on all sides. Most Muslims seem totally unaware that Arabs can vote in Israel. Many Jews, even in Israel, are separated from the routine miseries of Palestinian life. American evangelicals are shocked to discover that some Palestinians are Christians.

Despite the plethora of reasons to despair, I am slightly more optimistic than I probably should be, for one reason: the internet. While knowledge is dead, access to information remains paramount, and my gut tells me that even the most enthusiastic proselytizers will not be able to lead people to violence in the face of cold, hard facts. My friend Jeremy co-founded a blog called Jews, Muslims and Dialogue that has attempted to bring together Jews and Muslims at Yale to have open discussion. Each one of their posts is a step towards peace. And there's no such thing as a small step in that direction.

The article is long, but it might be the most important thing you will read all month. You can't pass that opportunity up, even if you do have a statistics test you should be studying for.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Scott, American Gangster

This is undoubtedly a noteworthy flick, full of the requisite shotguns and sledgehammers that we expected. The ending was solid, as is the tendency for movies based on true stories, probably because there's nothing "unrealistic" for you to complain about if the events actually happened. Russell Crowe has swagger for weeks as the tough Jewish cop that can't be bought, and Denzel brings it as a entrepreneurial gangster that works the supply side to undercut the competition in true OG fashion.

However, this movie is not another mob classic, mainly because the rest of the characters were afterthoughts. Also, some of the side story lines, especially those with Crowe's character, were too predictable. They came off as reaching to develop the character instead of just telling the story. This would be OK if the movie was under two hours, but any time a movie is 2 and a half hours plus, every scene needs to be critical, and every second of screen time needs to be scrutinized.

Nevertheless, you definitely ought see this movie for two reasons:

1) The rapper TI plays Denzel's nephew, a pitching phenom who lacks direction. It's ironic to see TI in a movie about gangsters because he was just arrested for buying illegal assault weapons. He's not a bad actor considering his primary profession of rapping, but seeing him on screen gave me a chuckle every time.

2) It reaffirms one of Hollywood's biggest moral values these days: you cannot kill animals. Killing human beings seems to be OK, especially if they've talked behind your back or called you names, but shooting an animal is a grave error. I don't want to give anything away, but one of the characters ends up shooting a dog towards the end of the movie, and let's just say that he gets his just deserts.

Rated 8/10 on imdb.com (you also can check out my vote history if you'd like).

Not everything good is bad for you

We all start out our lives as children believing that anything that is said to be "good" for you, or more likely just what our parents want us to eat, will taste bad. The classic example of this phenomenon is broccoli, which has been shoved down the throat of children or used as a prerequisite for desert since Martin Luther posted his 99 theses.

However, as we get older, we begin to realize that broccoli is really not so bad tasting after all. Indeed, if cooked and tossed with a touch of Parmesan, it can be quite appetizing. Nevertheless, the thought process remains intact, seemingly disregarding a few solid counterexamples. For a long time now, if something is said to be good for me, my first presupposition is that I will find it impetuously disgusting.

Now that all of that nonsense is aside, I can describe to you the best possible test for proving this theory false once and for all. Anybody that has ever bought a multi-pack of Clif Bars knows that you are lukewarm to the Peanut Butter ones, you worship the Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch ones, and you learn to despise Oatmeal Raisin ones faster than you learn to hate Chris Wilton from Match Point.

So with such a healthy hatred of Oatmeal Raisin, and with such a longing for Chocolate Chip Peanut Crunch, one would naturally assume that the latter must be substantially less healthy for you. After all, if it tastes better, it must be worse for you. But this is when you compare the nutritional facts and learn one of the greatest life lessons you will ever learn.

Spoiler alert, dear readers. The nutritional facts for these two bars, which differ so tremendously in taste, are exactly the same. The consequences here are broad-reaching, and are probably beyond the scope of this blog to explore fully. So instead I will leave you with a simple forewarning. In the course of your adventures, gustatory or otherwise, do not assume that everything that good is bad for you. We'll all be better off for it.