Saturday, May 21, 2016

Analytics: Short words are better in Scrabble

Nigeria is beating the West at its own word game, using a strategy that sounds like Scrabble sacrilege.

By relentlessly studying short words, this country of 500 languages has risen to dominate English’s top lexical contest. ...

Once, almost all of Scrabble’s champions hailed from North America or Europe. Most stuck to a similar “long word” strategy—mastering thousands of seven- and eight-letter plays like QUIXOTRY, a 365-point-move in American Michael Cresta’s record-breaking 830 point win in 2006. ...

Global competition and computer analytics have brought that sacred Scrabble shibboleth into question, exposing the hidden risks of big words.

Risk one: Every extra letter on the board is another opening for an opponent to land their own seven-letter blockbuster.

Risk two: Every letter played gets replaced by a random tile from the bag. A bad draw can—and often does—leave players stuck for several turns without vowels or decent letter combinations. After millions of computer-simulated games, Scrabble strategists have concluded that bad draws happen more frequently than previously assumed.

So while Scrabblers still fancy bingos, they increasingly hold off on other high-scoring moves, such as six-letter words, or seven-letter terms that only use six tiles from the rack. Instead, by spelling four- or five-letter words, a player can keep their most useful tiles—like E-D or I-N-G—for the next round, a strategy called rack management. ...

Also, thanks to a design quirk, the board is oddly generous to short words. Most of the bonus squares are just four or five letters apart. ...

Nigeria’s Scrabble ambitions date to the 1990s, when several local fans convinced the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha to make the game an official sport, a designation that brings funding. Nigeria was ostracized from the world then. Scrabble offered one area where the country could redeem its image abroad.

Nowadays, the country of 187 million stages daylong tournaments in stadiums on an almost weekly basis, often with small prizes on the line. Dozens of Scrabble clubs scout high schools for talent, sometimes poaching players. Several of Nigeria’s 36 states have a Scrabble coach on the payrolls.

Of them, Prince Anthony Ikolo was the first to glimpse the potential of the shorter-word strategy. In the late 2000s, the university mathematician had two apps—Quackle and Maven—that let him simulate tens of thousands of possible game scenarios that would result from a given move. The data showed how often a long word would leave the player vulnerable to a counterstrike or a series of bad draws.
--Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson, WSJ, on less being more. HT: Jeff Mosenkis. I also noticed for the first time that the WSJ has fully succumbed to the singular "their."

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Koreans don't have smelly armpits

With the weather getting warmer, one of the most common complaints heard from expats is that quality deodorant is near impossible to find in Korea. ... What’s with the lack of quality deodorant in Korea?

Basically, most Koreans don’t actually need deodorant.

Several years ago, scientists discovered a gene that was dubbed “ABCC11”. The team who discovered the gene found that it was a key determinant in whether a person will produce dry or wet earwax. Since then, it has also been discovered that people who produce “wet” ear wax also produce chemicals in their armpits that cause underarm odor when metabolized by bacteria. Those who produce dry ear wax lack these chemicals.

“This key gene is basically the single determinant of whether you do produce underarm odor or not,” Ian Day, a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Bristol, told ...

More than 97% of people who are of European or African descent have the version of the gene that causes smelly underarm sweat, while most East Asians and, according to the study, almost all Koreans do not. 30-50% of People from areas such as Southern Asia, the Pacific Islands, Central Asia, Asia Minor and indigenous Americans exhibit the mutation in their ABCC11 gene that saves them from stinky armpits as well.
--Jane Mahoney, 10 Magazine, on the genetic roots of B.O. HT: JC

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

You actually like the sound of your own voice

So you hate the sound of your own voice. This complaint has become something of a cliché...

...when you hear yourself talk, the sound also comes from an extra speaker of sorts: the bones of your skull. This is known as bone conduction, meaning that when your vocal cords vibrate to produce speech, that movement also causes the bones of the skull to vibrate, and this, too, is registered in the cochlea. Bone conduction transmits lower frequencies as compared to air conduction, so this is one reason why your voice sounds so unfamiliar when it’s played back to you. When you hear the sound through your own head, your brain perceives it as being lower-pitched than it really is, because the transmission via the skull made it sound that way. ...

In a fascinating study from 2013, researchers at Albright College and Penn State Harrisburg played their study participants a variety of different voices and asked them to rate how attractive they thought the unseen speaker would likely be. The twist, however, was that the experimenters did not tell the volunteers that they would also be rating recordings of their own voices. Their results showed that people tended to unknowingly prefer their own recorded voices; they rated their own voices as being more attractive as compared to the other voices they heard, and their ratings for the attractiveness of their own voices were on average higher than the ratings that other people gave them. The researchers note, by the way, that the volunteers were informed afterward that one of the voices they heard was their own, and that they were surprised at the knowledge.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Seasonal Affective Disorder may not exist

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression... The disorder, which like an early snow often first lands in late autumn and can hang around all winter, affects an estimated 10 million Americans...

Combating SAD can lead to any number of treatments, including light therapy, vitamin D supplementation, counseling or even antidepressants.

A recent study in Clinical Psychological Science asks a question that might perplex those who feel their own psychological climate changing with the seasons: Does SAD really exist?

According to analysis of a CDC survey of 34,294 U.S. adults ranging in age from 18 to 99, no evidence exists to show that a change in depressive symptoms along with seasonal patterns. Using a combination of self-reported answers to questions screening for depression, geographic location information and seasonal weather data, the researchers did not find any evidence for SAD either in the general sample or a subset of participants who scored within the range for clinical depression. ...

The latest research echoes past studies that considered SAD with some skepticism. A 2013 published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that people often overestimate the impact of wintry skies clouding their mood. The study doesn’t refute the existence of SAD, merely that the condition is overdiagnosed.
--Talal Al-Khatib, Discovery News, on evidence of absence

Microaggressions in South Korea

I know that when people look at me when I walk down the street that they think I’m American, they think that I eat hamburgers or pizza for dinner every night and I like to go out and get drunk most nights. Korean men, like the man earlier, think that I’m probably easy and promiscuous.

On more than one occasion I’ve tried to order food in a Korean restaurant and been told by the waiter that I can’t have it because it’s too spicy for me- how do they know what my spice limit is?

I’m complimented daily on my chopstick skills.

Everyone I meet asks me if I can eat kimchi and is shocked when I say yes.

My co-workers are always shocked when I tell them that pizza isn’t actually my favourite food and that I don’t like to eat fried chicken.

9 times out of the 10 times that someone approaches me in the street, they will choose to ask me if I’m American, rather than just asking where I’m from.
--Scottish immigrant to Korea Nicole Louise on the Korean analogue of “Your English is so good!”

Friday, April 22, 2016

Yale undergrads have 2.5 hours for 2 hour final exams

Dear Instructors in Yale College:

With the end of the term upon us, we write with reminders from the Faculty Handbook and the Yale College Programs of Study. ...

Students have 30 minutes of extra time for all final examinations. The Yale College Programs of Study explains that "final examinations normally last either two or three hours but, in either case, students are permitted to take an additional half hour before being required to turn in their answers. This additional time is given for improving what has already been written, rather than for breaking new ground." Please avoid confusion by announcing this policy and writing it on the exam, with language such as: “This is a two-hour exam for which you have two and a half hours.”
--Email to Yale faculty from the deans of the Graduate School, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Yale College, on Yale undergrad privilege

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Skydiving is no longer an extreme sport

These days, jumping out of an airplane with a parachute strapped to your back is hardly the death-defying feat it once was. ...

While people do get injured skydiving, the jump is generally less fraught than the drive to the airport. All skydivers now carry reserve chutes in case something goes amiss with the first one (it rarely does). Even if you find yourself paralyzed with fear in midair, you’re likely not going to plunge to your death. A small gizmo called an automatic activation device, or AAD, will blast the canopy open for you when you reach a predetermined altitude. ...

In 2014, the last year for which complete records are available, 24 people died skydiving and 729 were injured in a total of about 3.2 million jumps. The number of annual fatalities has generally hovered in the low 20s for years, according to the USPA.
--Jonathan Welsh, WSJ, on the taming of the freefall

Monday, April 18, 2016

Moral relativism is no longer a thing

Moral relativism has been a conservative boogeyman since at least the Cold War. ... But the prevailing thought of the second decade of the 21st century is not like the mid-to late-20th century. Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip. ...

Thoughtful conservatives who are less concerned with waging culture wars have begun to admit that such a shift is occurring. In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.

A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming. ...

Although this new code is moral, it is not always designated as such. As Brooks (echoing Andy Crouch of Christianity Today) said, “Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition.” No wonder many God-and-family conservatives dislike this new moral code as much as the relativism it replaced.
--Jonathan Merritt, The Atlantic, on a philosophical foundation of the new shaming culture

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lack of deadlines is deadly for researchers

In recent years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, has struggled with the logistics of evaluating a rising number of grant proposals that has propelled funding rates to historic lows. Annual or semiannual grant deadlines lead to enormous spikes in submissions, which in turn cause headaches for the program managers who have to organize merit review panels. Now, one piece of the agency has found a potentially powerful new tool to flatten the spikes and cut the number of proposals: It can simply eliminate deadlines.

This week, at an NSF geosciences advisory committee meeting, Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated. ...

The no deadline idea began several years ago with a small grant program for instruments and facilities within the earth sciences division of the geosciences directorate. After making the switch in 2011, the program saw a more than 50% drop in proposals—and that number has stayed down ever since.

But many people doubted that NSF would see the same effect if officials dropped deadlines for one [of] its regular science grant programs, says Alex Isern, the head of the surface Earth processes section. So she decided to test it out. She eliminated the twice-a-year deadlines for four of her grant programs, in geobiology and low-temperature geochemistry, geomorphology and land-use dynamics, hydrological sciences, and sedimentary geology and paleobiology. NSF sent out a notice about the change at the beginning of 2015, and after a 3-month proposal hiatus, the no-deadline approach began in April 2015. The number of proposals plummeted, from 804 in 2014 to just 327 in the 11 months from April 2015 to March. ...

Feedback from scientists has been good so far, Isern adds. In a field where many scientists do field work, having no deadline makes it easier for collaborators to schedule time when they can work on a proposal. “I think they like the flexibility,” she says. “They’re able to be more thoughtful about it.” However, one scientist told Isern that he was very busy and couldn’t function without a deadline. Her response? “I’ve actually given you 365 deadlines.”

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Peter Thiel: Startups shouldn't be looking to disrupt

Silicon Valley has become obsessed with "disruption." ...

However, disruption has recently transmogrified into a self-congratulatory buzzword for anything posing as trendy and new. This seemingly trivial fad matters because it distorts an entrepreneur's self-understanding in an inherently competitive way. The concept was coined to describe threats to incumbent companies, so startups' obsession with disruption means they see themselves through older firms' eyes. If you think of yourself as an insurgent battling dark forces, it's easy to become unduly fixated on the obstacles in your path. But if you truly want to make something new, the act of creation is far more important than the old industries that might not like what you create. Indeed, if your company can be summed up by its opposition to already existing firms, it can't be completely new and it's probably not going to become a monopoly.

Disruption also attracts attention; disruptors are people who look for trouble and find it. ... Think of Napster... Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, Napster's then-teenage founders, credibly threatened to disrupt the powerful music recording industry in 1999. The next year, they made the cover of Time magazine. A year and a half after that, they ended up in bankruptcy court.

PayPal could be seen as disruptive, but we didn't try to directly challenge any large competitor. It's true that we took some business away from Visa when we popularized internet payments... But since we expanded the market for payments overall, we gave Visa far more business than we took.
--Peter Thiel, Zero to One, on the real downside of a trendy buzzword

The hottest Ph.D. market in the world

Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford University professor who is an expert in computer vision, said one of her Ph.D. candidates had an offer for a job paying more than $1 million a year, and that was only one of four from big and small companies.
--John Markoff and Steve Lohr, NYT, on the brains arms race in artificial intelligence

Friday, March 25, 2016

Why are there so many one-word pop song titles?

Over the last several years, pop music has been inundated by massive hits with one-word song titles: “Happy”, “Fancy”, “Rude”, “Problem”, “Jealous”, “Chandelier, “Hello”, and “Sorry” are just a few examples of this trend. ...

We analyzed Billboard Hot 100 song title data and discovered a steady upward trend in the number of one-word titles. Today, the probability of a one-word title is two and a half times greater than in the 1960s. The average number of words per song title has also declined substantially.

We can’t be sure, but it is probably no accident that the shrinking of the song title coincided with the rising importance of single sales. ... With the single replacing the album as the most important commodity in popular music over the last twenty years, the music industry has become exacting about improving the chances of a song’s commercial success. ...

Why might shorter song titles be better commercially? Mostly because they are easier to remember, particularly if they are repeated over and over in the song. The last thing the music industry wants is for you to love a song but be unable to remember its name when you go to stream or download the song. But it’s tough to forget “Hello” or “Happy” when Adele and Pharrell keep repeating the one-word title throughout the song. ...

If our hypothesis that commodification led to the shortening song title is correct, then we would expect to see even shorter titles at the very top of the charts. And that is just what we found. The following chart shows the trend in single word song titles over time for songs that reached the top 20—and songs that did not.

--Dan Kopf, Priceonomics, on unforeseen consequences of the MP3

The emptiness of bucket-list living

As a therapist, I’ve talked to numerous seniors as both patients and colleagues. Rather than feeling exhilarated by a life of bucket-list adventures, they often end up feeling depressed and disconnected.

As they travel the world to soak up experiences, too many seniors inevitably lose track of what really matters—their connections to family, friends and community. They feel like strangers in their own homes. Eventually, the bucket list becomes something of an addiction: The high from an adventure doesn’t last, so seniors find themselves piling on experiences to keep the thrills coming, further alienating them from real life back home.

There’s a way out of this trap. Retirees should think about using all of the advantages that make a bucket list possible, such as wealth and vigor, to build something much deeper and more meaningful. Instead of taking a dream vacation to chase fleeting thrills, they should use their time to create something more lasting instead—whether that means building bonds with family or their community or reimagining travel adventures as an opportunity to share experiences and wisdom with grandchildren.
--Marc Agronin, WSJ, on doing what really matters

Monday, March 14, 2016

Gale-Shapley was rejected twice for being too simple

One of Mr Shapley’s better-known achievements is the Gale-Shapley matching algorithm, which he devised after an old university friend (David Gale) asked for help to solve a problem. Given two groups of people, each with slightly different preferences, is there a way to match them in such a way that people aren’t constantly ditching their partner? After much head-scratching, Mr Gale suspected there was no solution, but could not prove it. As Mr Shapley told it, the solution took him the best part of an afternoon.

The solution is as follows: imagine a hall full of heterosexual singletons, with equal numbers of men and women. They have done enough idle chitchat to know who prefers whom—everyone has their own ranking of people in the other group. In round one, a starting gun is fired, and each man approaches his favourite women. The women reject everyone apart from their favourite, and then the process is repeated in a second round. No man should look too smug having not been rejected; if a woman is made a better offer, she should ditch an earlier one. The rounds continue until everyone is matched. The outcome is ‘stable’; no two people would prefer to partner with each other than their current match, otherwise the algorithm would already have paired them.

Mr Shapley wrote up the paper with Mr Gale, proving without equations that this method would always yield a stable solution. After two initial rejections (for being too simple) it was published, and fifty years later in 2012 he won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences “for the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design” (see Free Exchange column here).
--The Economist on Lloyd Shapley (1923-2016)

Saturday, March 12, 2016

People in richer cultures cry more

In 1906, the American psychologist Alvin Borgquist considered the fruits of his own global survey of explorers and missionaries, and asserted that “tears are more frequently shed among the lower races of mankind than among civilised people.” Borquist’s terminology may not have survived the 20th century, but the assumption of Western emotional dryness proved extraordinarily durable. ...

The modern era was seemingly content with this narrative. Then, in 2011, a team of Dutch clinical psychologists produced a study that consigned it to the out-tray of history. Ad Vingerhoets and his team examined data from 37 countries – the results of interviews in which respondents had told stories of their lachrymal lives. ... “Individuals living in more affluent, democratic, extroverted, and individualistic countries,” they wrote, “tend to report to cry more often.” Although people enduring unenviable economic circumstances might be more plagued by depression, those from richer cultures shed more tears.

Australasian and American men emerged as the weepiest in the world; their Nigerian, Bulgarian and Malaysian counterparts the most dry eyed. Women in Sweden outcried those in Ghana and Nepal. The female populations of countries where gender equality was highest wept more copiously than those where it was lower. The evidence also showed – contrary to centuries of stereotyping – that the inhabitants of colder climates wept more frequently than those who lived in warmer zones. Tears, the study suggested, were not evidence of primitivism, as they had been for Darwin. They were not even good indicators of distress. Rather than being the habit of the wretched of the Earth, weeping appeared to be an indicator of privilege – a membership perk enjoyed in some of the world’s most comfortable and liveable societies. “If you live in really distressing and difficult circumstances, crying is a luxury,” says Dixon. “We know when we have been bereaved, we might be so shocked or traumatised that tears don’t come. So perhaps we should see tears as a sign of moderate grief, of bearable negative emotion. If you are enduring extreme distress or extreme hardship, that is not the time for tears.” ...

In 1890, the philosopher William James drew a distinction between the “crying fit” – a psychological event accompanied by “a certain pungent pleasure” – and the much less bearable sensation of “dry and shrunken sorrow”. Some experiences, it seems, are too bleak for tears. Former inmates of Nazi concentration camps have reported, sometimes guiltily, that they did not weep during their ordeal. At a war-crimes trial in May 2015, Susan Pollock, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, recalled her dry eyes as she watched her mother being despatched to the gas chamber. “I wasn’t crying,” she said. “I just wanted to recede into myself, never to be seen.”
--Matthew Sweet, 1843 Magazine, on the luxury of tears

Friday, March 11, 2016

The emergence of a new intelligence

At first, Fan Hui thought the move was rather odd. But then he saw its beauty.

“It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move,” he says. “So beautiful.” It’s a word he keeps repeating. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

The move in question was the 37th in the second game of the historic Go match between Lee Sedol, one of the world’s top players, and AlphaGo, an artificially intelligent computing system built by researchers at Google. Inside the towering Four Seasons hotel in downtown Seoul, the game was approaching the end of its first hour when AlphaGo instructed its human assistant to place a black stone in a largely open area on the right-hand side of the 19-by-19 grid that defines this ancient game. And just about everyone was shocked.

“That’s a very strange move,” said one of the match’s English language commentators, who is himself a very talented Go player. Then the other chuckled and said: “I thought it was a mistake.” But perhaps no one was more surprised than Lee Sedol, who stood up and left the match room. “He had to go wash his face or something—just to recover,” said the first commentator.

Even after Lee Sedol returned to the table, he didn’t quite know what to do, spending nearly 15 minutes considering his next play. AlphaGo’s move didn’t seem to connect with what had come before. In essence, the machine was abandoning a group of stones on the lower half of the board to make a play in a different area. AlphaGo placed its black stone just beneath a single white stone played earlier by Lee Sedol, and though the move may have made sense in another situation, it was completely unexpected in that particular place at that particular time—a surprise all the more remarkable when you consider that people have been playing Go for more than 2,500 years. The commentators couldn’t even begin to evaluate the merits of the move.

Then, over the next three hours, AlphaGo went on to win the game, taking a two-games-to-none lead in this best-of-five contest. ...

Rather unexpectedly, I felt this sadness as the match ended and I walked towards the post-game press conference. ... Oh-hyoung Kwon, a Korean who helps run a startup incubator in Seoul, later told me that he experienced that same sadness—not because Lee Sedol was a fellow Korean but because he was a fellow human. Kwon even went so far as to say that he is now more aware of the potential for machines to break free from the control of humans, echoing words we’ve long heard from people like Elon Musk and Sam Altman. “There was an inflection point for all human beings,” he said of AlphaGo’s win. “It made us realize that AI is really near us—and realize the dangers of it too.”
--Cade Metz, Wired, on childhood's end

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Super Size Me doesn't replicate

This is the movie that made you swear you'd never set food in a McDonald's again (until the next time you drove by one). For 30 days, Morgan Spurlock decided he would only eat food sold by McDonald's. He had to eat everything on the menu at least once, had to have three meals a day, and would only Supersize when offered. He documented the bizarre and terrifying changes his body went through while eating what according to science is not actual food.

In one scene, this nice doctor tells Spurlock he's been eating an average of 5,000 calories a day, even though he only Supersized 9 in 30 meals. At the end of the documentary, Spurlock had not only gained a bunch of weight and seen his cholesterol go through the roof (as you'd expect), but also had severe liver damage, as well as mood swings and depression.

Here's the thing: No one has been able to replicate Spurlock's results, and even basic math disputes the claim that his McDiet consisted of 5,000 calories a day.

As Tom Naughton points out in his documentary, Fat Head, there's simply no way Spurlock could have been eating that much food if he was sticking to his own rules. ... Naughton attempted to contact Spurlock to obtain his food log, but Spurlock (who makes a huge deal in his documentary about McDonald's never calling him back) never called him back.

Meanwhile, researchers from the Making Sure Movies Aren't Stupid department of Sweden's University of Linkoping tried to replicate Spurlock's experiment by tasking healthy college students with the challenge of eating 6,000 calories of fast food per day, inadvertently also answering the question "What's the easiest way to get guinea pigs ever?" At the end of the 30 days, the students had none of the liver or cholesterol troubles Spurlock reported. According to the guy in charge of the experiment (aka an actual scientist, not the guy who created MTV's I Bet You Will), the students' metabolism was able to adapt to the extra amount of food they were eating. They did feel more tired, but none of them experienced the mood swings and depression Spurlock claimed to have endured.
--Amanda Mannen, Cracked, on Hollywood science. HT: DB

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Many mutual funds now hold ETFs

Picking stocks has become so hard that some stock pickers have given up pretending to try.

Pry open the hood of a mutual fund, and you might be startled by what you find. In the past, you would have seen roughly 100 stocks, each painstakingly selected by a portfolio manager passionate about beating the market. Today, you increasingly are likely to find a few handfuls of exchange-traded funds, those autopilot portfolios that seek to mimic the market rather than beat it. ...

According to Morningstar, the investment research firm, 18% of stock, bond or “allocation” funds—which include the target-date funds popular in 401(k) plans and own a blend of assets—hold ETFs, up from 13% in 2010. The funds that own ETFs have an average of 20% of their assets in them.

Allocation funds that hold more than half their assets in ETFs charge an average of 0.6% in annual management fees, not much less than the 0.7% average for active U.S. stock funds, Morningstar says. That means some allocation managers are charging almost as much to buy a few ETFs as active stock pickers researching hundreds of individual securities.

USAA Asset Management Co., which runs about $66 billion in mutual funds, holds at least $4 billion of ETFs, says Lance Humphrey, a portfolio manager at the San Antonio-based firm.

As of 2013, USAA Global Managed Volatility Fund, which seeks to capture the returns of stocks around the world but with less risk during downturns, owned more than 600 stocks and bonds. Now, the nearly $200 million portfolio has all its money invested in 19 ETFs. ...

Global Managed Volatility is run “tactically,” shifting its holdings based on shorter-term considerations. Its management fees—0.6%—haven’t changed...

Yes, there are more ads on TV than before

For years, networks crammed in more ads, in part to offset lower ratings, said Brian Wieser, a media analyst at Pivotal Research. Commercials on broadcast networks accounted for 17.3 percent of programming time last year, from 16.8 percent in 2012 according to Mr. Wieser’s analysis of Nielsen data. On cable networks, commercials accounted for 20.6 percent of program time, from 19.3 percent in 2012.

Friday, February 26, 2016

What Google discovered makes a team good

In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative — code-named Project Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared. ... [Julia] Rozovsky, by then, had decided that what she wanted to do with her life was study people’s habits and tendencies. After graduating from Yale [School of Management], she was hired by Google and was soon assigned to Project Aristotle. ...

In 2008, a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon and M.I.T. began to try to answer a question very much like this one. ... As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’

Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues. ...

Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. ...

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.
--Charles Duhigg, NYT Magazine, on my former student Julia Rozovsky doing Yale proud