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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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mayhem in the Museum? The Downside of Neglecting Behavioral Design

The view from top to bottom

Watch your step when you descend the main staircase in the Jean-Noel Desmaris Pavilion in Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts! I nearly wiped out because there was no obvious cue that registers stair depth. The white bands at the front edge of each stair are supposed to signal their  front edge, but from the top of the staircase the arrangement pays greater homage to form (i.e., a cool design) than function (your safety). When I got to the bottom of the staircase, I looked back up the stairs. That’s when they revealed their true topography.

The view from bottom to top
That design choice seemed troubling given the museum’s predominantly older demographic. At the Musee des Beaux Arts, seniors typically pay full freight. Price breaks, in fact, target patrons under 31.  (Of course, if you sport a walker or are otherwise inclined, you take the elevator.)

The staircase would prove suitable grist for Don Norman’s seminal study, The Design of Everyday Things. It’s a deeply insightful marriage of behavior and design, of form and function. The author would no doubt consider those white bands as inept “signifiers.” Signifiers, he notes, deploy design to signal attributes, including what actions are possible and how to undertake them.
A social science classic, the book has received its due from behavioral economist Richard Thaler and social scientist Cass Sunstein, who credit it for inspiring elements of their own approach to creating conditions that nudge people in the direction of constructive behavior.

While many of Norman’s examples explore misplaced design that leads to awkwardness and inefficiency, he devotes less attention to design that is downright dangerous. The "Beaux Arts" stairs certainly qualify here. “Museums are repositories where form trumps function,” a friend remarks. “The Beaux Arts has certainly proved that here.”

*Designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the modernist Jean-Noel Desmaris Pavilion and its challenging stairway have greeted visitors since 1991.