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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Thought Experiments in Noticing

[click on photo to enlarge]

We were both gazing out the same office window, but it was my friend, a behavioral scientist, who in a blink, noticed the striking contrast in washed versus unwashed stained glass windows 50 yards away. Previously, neither of us had suspected stained glass.

The Quartet

Looking up from my morning coffee, it was me—not my three confederates—who noticed this unlikely quartet. The two guys—behemoths at around 6’5”—didn’t acknowledge each other; their unlikely juxtaposition must have been random, not due to networking via basketball or pro wrestling.

Each was framed by a significant other to his outside, adding symmetry to the intrigue. But it was a funky symmetry. The woman on the right looked like a reasonable match in altitude for her companion. But the woman on the left must have come up short by a full foot and a half, lending credence to the adage that love and a good step ladder conquers all.

The range of human height is one of many odds and ends that fit neatly into a normal distribution, with most of the data points clustering in the middle 2/3 of the curve. Typically, the distribution’s tails go only so far, dictated by unspectacular constraints of human height.  Much of my caffeinated response, then, must have been about the overall configuration—the added combination and permutation of its curious elements. I suspect I won’t be seeing anything like that again soon, especially since the principals never exchanged LinkedIn invitations.

Noticing Pays

From the Daily Hampshire Gazette October 1, Amherst Massachusetts:
A North Pleasant Street woman contacted police at 6:23 a.m. Thursday to report she could not find her husband at home, even though his keys and wallet were still there, and could not reach him by calling and texting his cell phone. She called back a short time later to let police know she had found her husband sleeping in a bed.


In her book, On Looking, Alexandra Horowitz takes separate strolls around Manhattan with an urban sociologist, a geologist, a physician, a sound designer, a dog, and six other experts. In their company, she notices a wealth of different things. The moral: seek out fellow travelers with different perspectives; different skills from your own. Inspired, I have a date this afternoon to tour local infrastructure with my urologist.

Half the Quartet returns for an encore


Monday, September 28, 2015

The Dalai Lama: Cancellation, Arbitrage, and a Gender Bender Announcement

Before its abrupt cancellation, the Dalai Lama’s prospective 44-day Fall American “tour” had created sellers markets on many college campuses. On my own, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. on September 16th for his October 25th appearance at the university’s Mullins Center. By the afternoon’s end, all 7,500 tickets had sold out at $10 a ticket to students and $32 to the general public.

To avoid abuse by resellers, tickets were restricted to two per customer.
Still, legit resellers like StubHub and* managed to secure a raft of tickets. The online reseller was offering nosebleed seats beginning at $100 and choice seats topping off at $6,000 within eye contact of His Holiness.

Like it or not, there will always be arbitrage at such high-demand events. The legally sanctioned resellers are necessary evils. In other words, anyone who patronized them for D.L. tickets got their money back—a fate far happier than returning a ticket purchased from a street scalper to the Mullins Center for its original value. (The night after the tickets went on sale, a friend saw two scalpers in the center of Amherst offering their wares for $500 a pop.)

Nothing Succeeds like Succession
It was exhaustion and advice from his physicians that convinced the Dalai Lama to gong the tour.  For any octogenarian, health and mortality are concerns. To these, the Dalai Lama must also add the challenge of succession, i.e., Who will be the next Dalai Lama?

To that end, it’s been refreshing to learn that His Holiness values the prospect of a female in that role. And one who is very, very attractive to boot.  

I would chalk up the very, very attractive job description to the Dalai Lama’s much-valued impish sense of humor.  But not the XX chromosomal pronouncement.  “The female biologically [has] more potential to show affection … and compassion,” he affirmed.

And escaping the press entirely in that story: The Dalai Lama may well be implying a next-life gender shift for himself. In Tibetan tradition, the same great soul returns as the Dalai Lama incarnation after incarnation. When a Dalai Lama has passed, an interregnum ensues until a recruitment cadre identifies a child who in turn identifies the D.L.’s former personal effects and other touchstones. So we now have proof positive that when the present Dalai Lama calls himself a feminist, he is walking that talk.

*Brett Goldberg of TickPick notes that his company is not a reseller but a clearinghouse where buyers and sellers negotiate. That means, he says, that the company does not secure the tickets if an event gets cancelled. It's all between the buyer and seller.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Forensic Candy Dish Blues: Mindless Eating Revisited

If you’re fighting the good fight against mindless eating, a no-brainer is to move that candy dish on your desk at work out of reach, or better still, out of sight. After reading Brian Wansink’s now iconic Mindless Eating—which offers insights and prescriptions for combating all ilks of alimentary oblivion—I repurposed the foodscape in my home. I also began advising friends at work about on-the-job foodtraps. That, of course, included recommending healthier candy dish deployment (which might ultimately be no candy dish at all).

So last week I took issue with the candy dish in the above photo. Taken aback by the in-your-face seduction on the front desk in my business school’s career center, I asked the woman in charge whether it might do more harm than good.

Crimes of Opportunity
I have a friend, a veteran forensic accountant, who likens embezzlement in the workplace to reaching into a candy dish. “Both are crimes of opportunity,” she insists. “Quite a few normal folks, when presented day after day, year after year with the opportunity to embezzle take the bait,” she explains. Translation: If the candy dish (or till) is always there, you may, in a weaker moment, reach in.

Slim by Design 
Seasoned with authorial wit and buttressed by his extensive empirical research, Wansink's latest book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions, is an operating manual for slimming down in five key settings: the home, restaurants, supermarkets, the workplace, and the school lunchroom.  In the home, he advocates smaller dishware that limits portion size. Plates should be 9 to 10 inches in diameter and sectioned or divided. Because consumers (and experienced bartenders as well) underestimate the volume of liquid that they pour into wide versus tall glasses, water glasses should be wider than  nonwater glasses, which should be tall and thin. 

Wansink systematically dishes out precise prescriptions for every room in one's house and for danger zones in his other "key" settings. Ultimately, he wants us to think strategically about physical and behavioral design so that we can continue to pursue our natural tendency to eat mindlessly--but more wisely--in design-proofed settings. 

Mindless or Mindful?
So did the candy dish in our career center do more harm than good? My education continues. The answer was--apparently not. "This is a career center and those 'candies' are breath mints," remarked the woman in charge. "They do wonders for our students when they get up-close-and-personal with company recruiters." 

Mindful breath mints