Monthly Archives: October 2013

the self-help enterprise is a lonely one

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Google, and the author of a book forwomen juggling their professional and family lives, "Lean In." NADINE RUPP / GETTY IMAGES

Feel Free to Help Yourself

Sarah L. Courteau

There is a booming market for self-improvement guides among Americans eager to redeem themselves from the sins of sloth, gluttony, or general discontent. But what qualifies one person to tell another how best to live?

Several years ago, I was living in Washington with one of my brothers, who had come to stay with me while he pulled himself out of a rough patch. Eventually, he got a gig selling memberships at a gym, part of a well-known national franchise. No one in our family is a natural salesperson, but it was a job, and at least the gym is one place where my brother is in his element.

He had the closing shift, and he’d get home in his regulation polo shirt and raid the fridge just as I was going to bed. Pulling in a paycheck straightened his shoulders, as it does for anyone. Some of his wry humor returned, and so it was that one night he came in and, standing at the kitchen counter, recited “The Affirmation,” the creed that new gym employees had to learn by heart:


I will win. Why? I’ll tell you why—because I have faith, courage, and enthusiasm!

Today, I’ll meet the right people in the right place at the right time for the betterment of all.

I see opportunity in every challenge.

I am terrific at remembering names.

When I fail, I look at what I did right, not what I did wrong.

I have clearly defined goals.

I never take advice from anyone more messed up than I am.

I never let a negative thought enter my head.

I am a winner, a contributor, an achiever. I believe in me.


We laughed until there were tears on our cheeks, in part because of the mock enthusiasm with which my brother belted out that last line, but mostly at the idea that such earnest propaganda could ever be received—much less adopted—with a straight face. What kind of chump did these corporate types think he was?

But really, what was so ludicrous about a company that makes its money burnishing the temple of the body applying that same approach to the mind? Sure, it isn’t exactly a tune you can dance to. Still, “The Affirmation,” crude as it is, echoes some of the time-tested ideas of the self-improvement canon, old and new. Back in 1936, in How to Win Friends and Influence People, a folksy businessman’s bible that is really just a useful guide to not being a jerk, Dale Carnegie admonished his readers to “remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” And in the 2006 blockbuster The Secret, various “experts” unrelentingly advocate using positive thinking to mobilize the “law of attraction” in your favor. “Your life is a mirror of the dominant thoughts you think,” but the law of attraction doesn’t register “words of negation,” says one of these authorities. (In other words, if you’re thinking “I don’t want the restaurant to give away our table,” what the universe hears is “I want restaurants to give away our tables.”) The Secretreminds me of another megaseller, The Da Vinci Code, with its pseudo-historical references and simplistic explanations peddled as deep insights. The law of attraction is bunk. But there really are some benefits to thinking positively.

The truth is, my brother could have done worse than take “The Affirmation” to heart. And at that point in my life, dating a string of men whom Dale Carnegie would have kicked to the curb, I could have, too. The main trouble with “The Affirmation” was the source—a company that wanted its workers to bristle with enthusiasm so they’d sell more memberships. That didn’t invalidate the message.

There’s a fundamental contradiction in our attitudes about self-help—a term that describes the broad category of products and ideas that are supposed to make us thinner, happier, smarter, and more efficient. We Americans accept protein powders, extreme diets, personal trainers, expensive gym memberships, and the Rube Goldberg exercise contraptions that litter our basements and garages as the necessary paraphernalia for the pursuit of physical perfection. We openly admire gym rats and envy their fit bodies. But anyone who dabbles in the improvement of the mind—even taking yoga that hasn’t had its spiritual roots bleached out completely—invites a raised eyebrow among those of us who consider ourselves serious people. We are above such lockstep platitudes, empty positivity, and pop psychology. Continue reading

Are we really connected in a Connected Age?

Ethan Zuckerman

The Internet has changed many things, but not the insular habits of mind that keep the world from becoming truly connected.

When the Cold War ended, the work of America’s intelligence analysts suddenly became vastly more difficult. In the past, they had known who the nation’s main adversaries were and what bits of information they needed to acquire about them: the number of SS-9 missiles Moscow could deploy, for example, or the number of warheads each missile could carry. The U.S. intelligence community had been in search of secrets—facts that exist but are hidden by one government from another. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, as Bruce Berkowitz and Allan Goodman observe in Best Truth: Intelligence in the Information Age (2002), it found a new role thrust upon it: the untangling of mysteries.

Computer security expert Susan Landau identifies the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as one of the first indicators that the intelligence community needed to shift its focus from secrets to mysteries. On its surface, Iran was a strong, stable ally of the United States, an “island of stability” in the region, according to President Jimmy Carter. The rapid ouster of the shah and a referendum that turned a monarchy into a theocracy led by a formerly exiled religious scholar left governments around the world shocked and baffled.
The Islamic Revolution was a surprise because it had taken root in mosques and homes, not palaces or barracks. The calls to resist the shah weren’t broadcast on state media but transmitted via handmade leaflets and audiocassettes of speeches by Ayatollah Khomeini. In their book analyzing the events of 1979, Small Media, Big Revolution (1994), Annabelle Sreberny and Ali Mohammad, who both participated in the Iranian revolution, emphasize the role of two types of technology: tools that let people obtain access to information from outside Iran, and tools that let people spread and share that information on a local scale. Connections to the outside world (direct-dial long-distance phone lines, cassettes of sermons sent through the mail, broadcasts on the BBC World Service) and tools that amplified those connections (home cassette recorders, photocopying machines) helped build a movement more potent than governments and armies had anticipated.
As we enter an age of increased global connection, we are also entering an age of increasing participation. The billions of people worldwide who access the Internet via computers and mobile phones have access to information far beyond their borders, and the opportunity to contribute their own insights and opinions. It should be no surprise that we are experiencing a concomitant rise in mystery that parallels the increases in connection. Continue reading

Transforming Singapore Education

Time to transform Singapore education

Singapore can consider a radical educational experiment: Set up a prototype full school that is more child-centric, and provides a genuine alternative to the existing system.

Published on Oct 19, 2013
By Laurence Lien, For The Straits Times
RECENTLY, I went to Finland on an education study trip. Much has been said about the Finnish education system, but it is only by being physically present, with all one’s senses and faculties engaged, that the potential lessons strike home.

I visited a full school, with classes from pre-primary to Grade 9, and was struck by many images.

First, the school was an oasis of calm. Teachers spoke in measured tones, while pupils were serenely animated. The joy of learning was evident, unpunctured by frequent graded assessments, which were prohibited for those younger than 12 years old.

A child-centred philosophy permeated the school. In the pre-school class I observed, each child had an individualised six-page development plan, jointly signed by parents and teacher. The first piece of information collected was the child’s comments, with questions like “Do you like to come to pre-school?”, “What things can you decide yourself in pre-school?” and “What would you like to learn?”.

A key emphasis is the parent-teacher partnership. Indeed, the Finnish national curriculum explicitly aims to support families in their parenting tasks, not vice versa.

Inclusivity is widely practised. Resources are directed at those in most need of them, with a high level of support for those with special needs. Children with special needs, accounting for some 10 per cent of the school enrolment, were mostly integrated into every class. Roving teachers work with the more physically and intellectually challenged ones separately, where necessary.

Obviously, Singapore cannot copy the Finnish education system wholesale. We do not currently have its egalitarian culture and its long-standing respect of the teaching profession.

But we can surely learn some things. They include the principle of the unharried child, child-centricity and inclusiveness. Ultimately, what is the purpose of education? What are parents’ aspiration for their children and development?

I can speak as a parent to three boys, aged 11, nine and six. I want my children to be developed holistically as whole persons. I wish for them to witness and practise values every moment, so that values become part of their being. I hope they will become lifelong lovers of learning, motivated to acquire new knowledge to serve and transform society. I desire their school to be a genuine community that reflects a society that I want to live in – warm, collaborative, inclusive and oriented towards the common good.  Continue reading

Gender inequality and poverty

By Vivienne Wee And Sarah Hill For The Straits Times

16 Oct 2013

ERADICATING poverty remains at the core of the United Nations (UN) development agenda. Indeed, International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is observed by the UN each year on Oct 17. In Singapore, however, poverty often appears to be a peripheral issue.

Singapore has not attempted to establish a national poverty line. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence of relative poverty, as manifested in a glaring wealth divide and an unequal remuneration system. Singapore’s Gini coefficient, a recognised method of measuring income inequality, has risen from 0.4 in the 1980s to 0.473 in 2011, and to 0.478 last year, indicating increasing income inequality. In fact, according to this measure, Singapore ranks as the second most unequal economy among the world’s advanced countries.

There is also a strong gender dimension to economic inequality in Singapore. Statistics from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) show that women earn less than men, even when they have the same working hours and qualifications as their male counterparts.  Continue reading

More issues on segregation and unnecessary sensitivities

Working together as volunteers

Published on Oct 20, 2013

When a photograph calling for grassroots volunteers made the rounds online this month, it sparked anxiety among some Singaporeans over the role of foreigners here – not in the workplace or the school, for once, but in a Residents’ Committee.

The picture was of a sign, written in Tagalog, which called for volunteers for a Filipino sub-committee in the Compassvale Villa RC.

Though the sub-committee was never formed, those who decried the idea had a point: Creating identity-based groups is not the best approach to integration.

But the kneejerk anger which greeted that picture may have missed another, more important aspect.

It was ultimately still an attempt to integrate, not to divide. And that cause is worth supporting, even if its methods can be improved.

The incident occurred months ago, with the poster only up for a few days until grassroots adviser Teo Ser Luck found out about it. When the photograph was circulated again earlier this month, it attracted complaints that a “segregated” group should not be formed.

Mr Teo himself had recognised this. Last Monday, he said that he had counselled the RC members that such sub-committees were not the right approach. “The best integration is to work together in the same group,” he said. And this point is one that critics of the sub-committee idea should take on board.

If they are genuine in their objection to segregation, then they should support having grassroots volunteers of different backgrounds.

After all, Residents’ Committees were introduced to “promote neighbourliness, racial harmony and community cohesiveness amongst residents”, in the People’s Association’s own words.

Neighbourliness cannot exclude some just because they grew up elsewhere.

So there should be no objections to the principle of calling for volunteers from other countries. But the call could have been better made, especially in the light of the rapid influx of foreigners in recent years and the attendant unhappiness that it has generated.

A better approach would be what Mr Teo suggested: for volunteers to work together.

There might be merit in, for instance, a sub-committee dealing with integration. But membership should not be restricted by background.

What else could be improved? Well, for a start, putting up signs in only one language is likely to alienate those who do not speak it.

A sign in an unfamiliar language, without translation, could reinforce a sense of “otherness”.

Calls for volunteers could also stress that all nationalities are welcome, rather than focus on one specific group.

Once volunteers have been found, what then? Simply working side by side on RC issues can help integration, as people see each other as fellow residents rather than as defined by differences.

If more proactive integration measures are sought, then the offending poster itself suggests a way forward.

It was illustrated with photographs of food and cultural performances. These are simple, accessible ways for cultural exchange to happen, whether it is over dishes at a block party or dance performances at a community celebration.

The poster provoked comments condemning segregation. Let us instead focus on the other side of the same coin: promoting unity.

Guard Against the Tryanny of the Minority

Lately, I have been very annoyed by the angry online mob. The mob that possesses the most pessimistic of views towards the government, towards fellow Singaporeans, towards anything that have a tenuous link towards special interest groups, race issues, religion…  the knee-jerk-mouth-foaming vitriol of the mob becomes an echo chamber riddled with bad grammar, and even worse ideas. There is no marketplace of ideas to talk about if they are not even ideas in the first place.   Then I read about Singapore Day, and I got even more feverishly annoyed (I actually prefer another word, but ‘annoyed’ will do) . It seems common sense that if an event is ticketed, and they turn people away, it’s because, you, good sir, don’t have a ticket. It’s like knock knock knockin’ on the door of a concert and crying RACIST! Someone please turn this into stand-up comedy material.  

Straits Times, 20 Oct 2013| Rachel Chang

Sometimes I feel like Tocqueville got it backwards. It’s not the tyranny of the majority we have to guard against, but that of the minority.

It’s one Australian – “James” – labelling a Singapore Day event in Sydney xenophobic because they turned him, a white guy, away.

Never mind that it was a ticketed, private event which he had neither been invited to nor registered for.

Logic will not stand in the way of those filled with the fervour of their own subjective, unrepresentative beliefs.

That’s nothing new, of course. But somehow, these isolated individuals – or groups – have now found it within their power to ruin things for everyone else.

I’m sure that those 6,000 Singaporeans in Sydney still had a good time, but it’s extremely dismaying that one person’s unresearched views could result in media coverage and become the only thing that some Australians have heard about Singapore Day in Australia.

At a sadder extreme are those Tea Party Republicans who first ruined things for other Americans by shutting their government down a few weeks ago, then almost succeeding in dragging down the entire world as well through a US debt default.

Never mind that their reason for doing so was hatred of a health-care law that has been passed by Congress and deemed constitutional by the United States Supreme Court.

What’s at work is a sort of overweening conviction in one’s own view as the be-all and end-all.

Whatever happened to self-doubt, or its good friend, a second opinion?

Here is where the tyranny of the minority has come into its own because some people or groups have somehow managed to wall themselves off from the moderate minority in a way that all the second opinions they get egg them on, or worse, escalate things.

The only reason these Republicans could carry on the way they were carrying on is that they never have to face a national, representative electorate: Some of the districts they come from have been gerrymandered into silos of ultra-conservative voters.

In the Sydney Singapore Day incident as well, the person truly at fault in my view was the radio DJ who reacted to James’ complaints about xenophobia by saying it was “disgraceful” – rather than, say, asking if it was a ticketed, private event that an unregistered, ticketless person had no business being at. Instead of holding a mirror up to someone’s idiocy, why not magnify it?

I blame a strange cult of self- empowerment and conviction that has developed in recent years. This is the one where we really, really over-valorise resolve, believing in yourself and “standing your ground”.

But what if you are wrong and the ground you’re standing on is riddled with inaccuracy?

The subliminal messaging is nestled deep in our pop culture. We are told, for example, to Just Do It, rather than Just Sleep On It and Consult Others such as parents and valued mentors.

We are told that a small, committed group of people is the only thing that has ever effected change – without the caveat that a lack of numbers should mostly be taken as a sign.

Somehow, it has become surrender to compromise and weak to hear out an opposing view and acknowledge its value. There’s very little room for self-reflection and self-improvement in all this.

I see it in myself and my peers. We have a tendency to meet criticism with defiance and defensiveness: “haters gonna hate”, rather than “haters may have a point and I should re-evaluate and try to address this area of weakness”.

It’s this kind of thing that has led people such as James the Australian to think of their opinions as valuable to anyone beyond their mothers and worthy of broadcast.

It seems strange that this is all unfolding in an inter-connected, globalised world. Surely being exposed to the reach, spread and scope of the universe should make us realise how truly small and insignificant we each are.

But as it turns out, it’s only made us think of our egos as having reach, spread and scope. It’s enough to make one wish for the days of mob rule.

At least then, we could go after James and those Tea Party Republicans with flaming torches and clubs or something.

How science goes wrong

Scientific research has changed the world. Now it needs to change itself

A SIMPLE idea underpins science: “trust, but verify”. Results should always be subject to challenge from experiment. That simple but powerful idea has generated a vast body of knowledge. Since its birth in the 17th century, modern science has changed the world beyond recognition, and overwhelmingly for the better.

But success can breed complacency. Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.

Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis (see article). A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research. Earlier, a group at Bayer, a drug company, managed to repeat just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers. A leading computer scientist frets that three-quarters of papers in his subfield are bunk. In 2000-10 roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties.  [read fullContinue reading

Unreliable Science and the deception of ‘statistical power’

Trouble at the lab

Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not

Oct 19th 2013 |From the print edition – Read full length here

I SEE a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace.

Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed. In April, for instance, a paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, reported that nine separate experiments had not managed to reproduce the results of a famous study from 1998 purporting to show that thinking about a professor before taking an intelligence test leads to a higher score than imagining a football hooligan.

The idea that the same experiments always get the same results, no matter who performs them, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to objective truth. If a systematic campaign of replication does not lead to the same results, then either the original research is flawed (as the replicators claim) or the replications are (as many of the original researchers on priming contend). Either way, something is awry.

To err is all too common

It is tempting to see the priming fracas as an isolated case in an area of science—psychology—easily marginalised as soft and wayward. But irreproducibility is much more widespread. A few years ago scientists at Amgen, an American drug company, tried to replicate 53 studies that they considered landmarks in the basic science of cancer, often co-operating closely with the original researchers to ensure that their experimental technique matched the one used first time round. According to a piece they wrote last year in Nature, a leading scientific journal, they were able to reproduce the original results in just six. Months earlier Florian Prinz and his colleagues at Bayer HealthCare, a German pharmaceutical giant, reported in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, a sister journal, that they had successfully reproduced the published results in just a quarter of 67 seminal studies.

The governments of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, spent $59 billion on biomedical research in 2012, nearly double the figure in 2000. One of the justifications for this is that basic-science results provided by governments form the basis for private drug-development work. If companies cannot rely on academic research, that reasoning breaks down. When an official at America’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) reckons, despairingly, that researchers would find it hard to reproduce at least three-quarters of all published biomedical findings, the public part of the process seems to have failed.  Continue reading

The misconduct of science

WOLLERAU, SWITZERLAND – Scientific fraud, plagiarism, and ghost writing are increasingly being reported in the news media, creating the impression that misconduct has become a widespread and omnipresent evil in scientific research. But these reports are more an example of sensationalist media latching on to a hot topic than a true account of the deterioration of scientific values.

This illustration is by John Overmyer and comes from <a href=""></a>, and is the property of the NewsArt organization and of its artist. Reproducing this image is a violation of copyright law.
Illustration by John Overmyer

Far from being the norm in scientific research, fraud and cheating are rare exceptions, and are usually quickly identified by other scientists. And the public seems to understand this. Indeed, trust and confidence in scientific research have not been seriously undermined by reports of misconduct. Nor have these rare incidents curtailed scientific progress, which is so valuable to humankind.

To be sure, even a few cases of scientific misconduct are too many. Scientists are expected to be beacons of hope in the search for knowledge – and clever enough not to try to get away with cheating. Preventive mechanisms are in place to hold responsible the few who take the gamble. But, while the scientific community – including academic and professional institutions, agency heads, managers, and editors – is often reluctant to handle cases of misconduct rigorously, the reputation of science as a whole is at stake, not just that of a person, institution, journal, or national science entity.



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How oreos work like cocaine

Now you know why you can’t stop!

Research made national news this week that the cookies are more addictive than psychoactive drugs. That claim may be exaggerated, but the neuroscience of junk food addiction is nonetheless fascinating and relevant—mentally, physically, and socially.
OCT 17 2013
Joseph Schroeder and student Lauren Cameron, in Schroeder’s lab (Bob MacDonnell/Connecticut College)

“Nothing gets me high as that sandwich cookie does. But I love the filling most. I rub it on my roast, mix it in with my coffee, and spread it on my toast. I love the white stuff, baby. In the middle of an Oreo.”

—Al Yankovic, “The White Stuff,” 1992


The rat stands in a plastic maze. At the end are two rooms, each decorated in its own unmistakably unique, gaudy fashion. The rat knows them both. Inside one room, he has received injections of morphine or cocaine. In the other, he’s gotten injections of a saline placebo. The rat has learned to prefer the drug room.

He even chooses to lounge in the drug room after the injection supplies have dried up. It’s kind of like how you might hang out in the parking lot outside of an old high school, remembering the glory days; or at the apartment of an ex-lover, befriending the new tenants. Your ex-lover is dead, but it still feels good.

This is a paradigm called conditioned place preference. It’s a standard behavioral model used to study the Pavlovian rewarding and aversive effects of drugs. Dr. Joseph Schroeder’s rats are not pioneers.

Schroeder is an associate professor of psychology and director of the behavioral neuroscience program at Connecticut College. Last year, Jamie Honohan was a senior student researcher in Schroeder’s lab and scholar in the college’s Holleran Center, which focuses on social justice issues, public policy, and community action. Honohan was interested in the obesity epidemic—specifically, why there is more obesity in urban, low-socioeconomic-status populations, and the role of a lack of nutritious food.

So Honohan came to Schroeder with an idea for some research based on the rat conditioning model. What’s a thing that both rats and humans like? Sewers, tunneling, hammocks, … Oreos. That’s it. Oreos are also cheap calories, widely available, and contribute to the obesity epidemic. Would feeding Oreos to the rats in this model have the same conditioning effect as giving them drugs?  Continue reading