Monthly Archives: July 2007

The Geography of Thought – Richard Nisbett (2003)

The Geography of Thought

I found this book among the remainders the other day, and I’m glad I picked it up. It’s an exploration of the differing perspectives and thought processes between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ (actually looking at data for Americans, Europeans, and East Asians). It’s an easy read, but seems grounded in real science, referring to multiple studies that point out these differences.

Very broadly, in the West people are more ‘object-oriented’; they identify objects, think about the properties of the object, and think of objects essentially as stand-alone (objects certainly includes people as well). In the East there’s apparently much more tendency to see ‘the field’; a set of related things in a certain context, where the individual objects have less distinct identity and more context-dependent behavior. These distinctive ways of seeing the world apparently start at a very early age.

I find such work very interesting, because it can help you identify some of your own cognitive biases, and just may help you to understand other ways of seeing the world.

Here’s a lengthy review that provides more details on the book.

Update: A few more interesting distinctions (note that these are all simply tendencies that are not followed by all members of the group, and through priming can be encouraged or discouraged):

Westerners: tendency to categorize, use either/or, right/wrong distinctions, and think of objects as having static properties (thus less likely to predict change).

Asians: tendency to focus on context and relationships, social importance on harmonious relations, less debate and rhetoric, more comfort with contradiction and complexity, more likely to see change as possible due to shifting contexts.

Nisbett also notes some interesting differences in culture that seem to flow from these different ways of seeing things; for instance, the preponderance of lawyers in the West vs. the East, the notion of holistic medicine in the East, the lack of scientific breakthroughs from the East.

Do people in their twenties need hearing aids?

Audeo gizmo

I saw this ad today in the New Yorker, placed right opposite the table of contents.  It’s essentially trying to sell new high-tech hearing aids (oh, sorry, it’s a “personal communication assistant”) to young hipsters, such as the tattooed dude pictured.

From their website, the pitch:

Audéo is a breakthrough for living life to the fullest, bringing back the speech understanding we can start to lose as early as in our twenties. Sleek, stylish and discreet, it is the ultimate high-tech accessory. You’ve always experienced everything the world has to offer. Why stop now?

Is there a big need for these things?  Are young people destroying their hearing in loud clubs, or maybe with loud iPods?  Will this take off as a hip new accessory?  Beats me!

More Yellow Line

Portland's yellow line

Here are a few more shots of the yellow line.  I somehow find the worn sidewalk patterns to be quite nice.

More yellow line

The Yellow Line

The Yellow Line

For a few years now I’ve been noticing a certain thin yellow line of paint on the sidewalks of an area in Portland, near the Pearl District.  Today I decided to follow the line.  By my count it covers about 16 block lengths, and I’m not quite sure how it was done.  The two endpoints that I found were at NW Everett & 17th, and right in front of the Gregory building on NW 12th between Glisan & Flanders.  In some areas it is almost disappearing due to traffic driving over it or new construction, but some parts are very distinct.  Here are a couple overview shots; I’ll post a few more later.

More Yellow Line

Neurogenesis – or, you can grow more brain cells!

Human brain

I remember back when I was young you would learn that you only had so many brain cells, and that you’d never get any more.  (Thus the danger of too many ‘brain cell killing’ outings).  Well, apparently all that was wrong.  Very wrong.

Neurogenesis as a field is only about 20 years old, and it studies the growth of new neurons in the brain, and the reasons for brain development.  Seed magazine ran a good overview story on neurogenesis called “The Reinvention of the Self” back in their Feb/Mar 2006 issue, which I encourage you to read in full.  The story centers on researcher Liz Gould at Princeton, who helped to launch the field and studies the effects of stress on brain development; here’s an excerpt:

Neurogenesis is an optimistic idea. Though Gould’s lab has thoroughly demonstrated the long-term consequences of deprivation and stress, the brain, like skin, can heal itself, as Gould is now beginning to document, finding hopeful antidotes to neurogenesis-inhibiting injuries. “My hunch is that a lot of these abnormalities [caused by stress] can be fixed in adulthood,” she says. “I think that there’s a lot of evidence for the resiliency of the brain.”

On a cellular level, the scars of stress can literally be healed by learning new things. Genia Kozorovitskiy, an effusive graduate student who began working with Gould as a Princeton undergrad, has studied the effects of various environments on their colony of marmosets. As predicted, putting marmosets in a plain cage—the kind typically used in science labs—led to plain-looking brains. The primates suffered from reduced neurogenesis and their neurons had fewer interconnections.

The story describes other efforts to get a better handle on neurogenesis to attempt to treat human diseases such as Parkinson’s.  I think the more interesting thread is what healthy individuals can do to influence their own neurogenesis!

Ernie Watts!

Analog Man

As of about a week ago, I don’t remember hearing of saxophonist Ernie Watts. But somewhere I read something about him, not sure where now, and have started digging into his music. He had a pretty commercial career to start, playing with big groups like the Rolling Stones, but in later years he’s pursued straight-ahead acoustic jazz, and I recommend it!

You can hear some of his new CD at, and here’s a review. I’m also enjoying his playing on Charlie Haden’s Quartet West recording, Haunted Heart.

Clever Cycles in Portland

Clever Cycles shop

This week I saw a story in the Portland Tribune about a new shop in the SE called Clever Cycles.  They are selling imported Dutch bicycles, a line called Bakfiets, that have built in wooden ‘buckets’ to carry kids, groceries, whatever.  I went over to the store yesterday just to check it out, and spoke to Dean, one of the owners.  He said they are trying to create a bicycle shop that’s a bit more friendly and less intimidating that the standard shop.

What’s nice about these bicycles is that they have some great built-in features, and they make the experience of practical urban riding a lot easier.  Portland’s a great biking city, and this is a nice addition to the scene.

Here’s a link to the story in the Tribune:  “Next generation spin cycle” by Kate Gowf.

No More Music Millenium in NW!

Music Millenium on NW 23rd Ave, Portland

I saw the news today on the front door of the Music Millenium shop at NW 23rd Ave and Johnson – the store will close at end of August. I have to say it’s a shame, because it’s a great local resource; good selection of all sorts of music, live performances, friendly people. So many times I’ve wandered over to look for something and it’s there, in stock.

According to the press release, the economics for the store are just not there anymore. Profitability has been going down since 2001, rents in the area have been going up, and it just doesn’t make sense for them to sign a long-term lease in the neighborhood. Can’t say it’s too surprising, but it’s never easy to lose an institution.

They will retain the store on the east side on Burnside, apparently that one is still making some money. I hope it can continue!

More on Prediction

Expert Political Judgement

I heard a podcast of a speech by Philip Tetlock, a professor at UC Berkeley who does work studying prediction-making ability.  While I’m simplifying considerably, he has done a long study (since 1984) tracking thousands of predictions made by experts in the political arena (all anonymous), and looked at how well they do.  For instance, if a person predicts that some collection of events are 70% likely to occur, then they are a good predictor if in fact 70% of those events do occur.  He also looks at how wide a prediction band a person is willing to commit to; for example a cautious person may say every event is from 40 to 60% likely to occur, whereas others may use a wider range.

He breaks the experts into two main categories, hedgehogs and foxes.  Hedgehogs are ideological – they have a theory, and they tend to see the world in terms of that theory, and fit the evidence into the theory.  Foxes on the other hand tend to pick and choose from various theories, picking what seems to work in each area.

His findings are that overall the foxes have a better record of prediction than the hedgehogs.  Hedgehogs are more likely to make very extreme predictions: that some event is 100% certain or that another event will never occur (0% likelihood). While some of these hedgehog predictions do pan out, many of them don’t.

Interestingly, even the foxes don’t do too much better than some fairly simple statistical prediction models (such as, ‘assume no change’).

I leave it to the reader to draw conclusions from this work.  Here’s one conclusion from an economist, Bryan Caplan.

Here’s a New Yorker review of Tetlock’s last book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?”

4th of July thoughts

4th of July kids

In a few prior posts (here, here and here) I’ve blogged on Taleb’s “The Black Swan”, which argues for an empirical skeptical attitude that regards knowledge about the future as inherently uncertain.  One of Taleb’s heroes is Montaigne, of whom he says:

“Montaigne is quite refreshing to read after the strains of a modern education since he fully accepted human weaknesses and understood that no philosophy could be effective unless it took into account our deeply ingrained imperfections, the limitations of our rationality, the flaws that make us human.” (p. 191)

Then the other day I came across this quote from Emerson about Montaigne:

“The superior mind will find itself equally at odds with the evils of society, and with the projects that are offered to relieve them.  The wise skeptic is a bad citizen; no conservative, he sees the selfishness of property and the drowsiness of institutions.  But neither is he fit to work with any democratic party that ever was constituted; for parties wish one committed, and he penetrates the popular patriotism.” (from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Montaigne; or, the Skeptic’)

Emerson’s words seem true to me.  Does this mean that we are essentially doomed to political leaders who at best are ‘hidden’ skeptics but are more likely believers in their own ability to see (and improve on) the future?  And should a skeptic ever be patriotic?