30 October 2015

Eric Oliver at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Last night at the Chicago Humanities Festival we saw Eric Oliver, a professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, who gave a talk about American magical thinking. He sets up a dichotomy between what he calls “tangible” and “symbolic” thinking, which is best exemplified by a survey he describes, in which respondents are asked whether they would rather stab a photo of their family four times or stick their hand in a jar of slimy worms. Or spend the night in a beautiful house in which a family had been murdered versus spend the night in a seedy bus station. Would you rather wear pajamas that belonged to Charles Manson or pick up a nickel from the street and put it in your mouth?  

The gist of these questions is probably clear. The first items in these pairs are symbolically (and negatively) resonant but don’t cause actual harm, while the second items carry real risk. Oliver found that people who consistently choose to avoid the symbolic negative resonance (and bear the real risk) tend to have other magical beliefs, such as beliefs in angels, conspiracy theories, the idea that we are living in biblical end-times, or the healing power of crystals.

Oliver connects his work to that of Daniel Kahneman, who, in his Thinking, Fast and Slow describes how we frequently use cognitive shortcuts that lead to wrong results. For example, if a ball and bat together cost $1.10, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much is the ball? 

Did you come up with 10 cents?  Think again. 

Similarly, if the asking price of a house is $400,000 we tend to believe its value is something around that, but the asking price is not relevant to its value. Determining value from scratch, though, is very difficult question. Starting with the asking price is a convenient shortcut, even if we are effectively answering a different (easier) question.

Oliver traces the surprising post-enlightenment persistence of magical beliefs to uncertainty—which he sees as always at the root of magical thinking. For example, a tribal fishing culture he discussed had few magical beliefs around river fishing, which they understood very well; however, there was a whole set of magical beliefs arranged around deep-sea fishing, which was fraught with dangers and offered uncertain rewards.

Magical thinking, then, is a kind of cognitive shortcut we use when we are uncertain or uncomfortable. While this explains particular beliefs—for example, uncertainty and discomfort about the finality of death leads some to believe in reincarnation—it’s not as clear how such beliefs are effectively tackled. Indeed, Oliver was asked that question and didn’t have a good answer.

Because we have a political discourse that is plagued by magical thinking and the denial of science, this is very troubling.

27 October 2015


When I was in grad school, I remember a friend saying, “I wish we could just live on fruit.” Many creatures do, of course, live on mainly fruit. I’m thinking of certain berry-eating birds and tropical monkeys; no doubt there are others. But humans aren’t made that way.  We need our veggies, our protein and fat. Still, many of us probably don’t consume enough fruit, although we’re lucky, in this stage of human history, to have access to so much of it so much of the time.

Right now, for instance, there are two apples, an orange, a plantain, a mango, a lemon, and three limes on our kitchen counter. In the refrigerator, there is a bunch of grapes. Only the apples are seasonal now in the Midwest. None of the other fruits ever grow here. We’re already nostalgic for summer, when we feasted on peaches, nectarines, and plums that came from nearby states.  Even when they came from the West Coast, they tasted good.

(I’ve never had winter stone fruit—what my mom called “fresh fruit”—that tasted good.)

When I go back to the grocery store, I expect to pick up more citrus, maybe some berries, bananas, pears, more apples.  The apples and pears might be from around here; the rest will come from California, Mexico, or even further afield.

A lot is being written about our unsustainable food system. It’s kind of crazy that I can be eating mangos from Brazil and grapefruits from Texas, not to mention bananas from equatorial countries and citrus from wherever it’s warm right now.  It’s possible that in some years or decades, we’ll be back to a situation where oranges are a special winter treat (which I almost remember from my childhood—at least, I remember we had a relative in Florida who would annually send us a box of oranges and it was a big deal) and we almost never see papaya or pomegranates in Chicago.

But we are so used to having whatever we want, whenever we want it. Produce has gotten a lot more expensive in the past 10 years, but when you consider that you can buy a mango for a dollar—less than you spend for an apple from Michigan—you realize how ridiculously cheap food really is. One solution probably involves pricing food more realistically.  It doesn’t make sense that a pound of bananas from Honduras costs much less than a pound of pears from a local farm. 

Does it?

I guess issues of scale come into it. This is something discussed in the fine carbon footprint primer How Bad Are Bananas? (The answer to the title question is “not so bad, actually,” because they are transported in ships, which are pretty efficient.) Locally grown produce is transported in more and smaller vehicles, which may not be as energy efficient as a large truck—certainly not as efficient as a giant container ship.

So it’s complicated. For now, I remember to be grateful for the variety and deliciousness available and try not to let it go to waste.

26 October 2015

Waiting for the Bus

Waiting for the bus, I often find myself thinking about Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, who we saw when he gave a talk in Chicago in 2006. Lerner is well known for having transformed Curitiba, making it more livable, sustainable, and beautiful, and some of his key points about transit have stuck with me: how important it is that transit service be reliable, frequent, and beautiful. He called for a frequency of one a minute, which Victor and I actually experienced when visiting Mexico City.  It was awesome! 

The frequency of bus service where we live has declined over the 11 years since we moved to Chicago, though it is certainly better than many other places. Friends visiting from Austin told me few buses run more than once an hour—once every 20 minutes is considered excellent. In Chicago, we have a different standard, and waiting more than 10 minutes feels onerous. If the next bus is anticipated to arrive more than 15 minutes from now, we often make different arrangements—take care of an errand, get in a cab, or summon Uber.

Which is why Lerner called for such high frequency. When transit is not frequent, people tend to abandon it. Fewer riders lead to even less frequency and it becomes a vicious spiral. You need this critical mass of frequency and reliability (and beauty—don’t forget beauty!) to make the system essential to everybody (as the subway is in New York).

23 October 2015


Yesterday’s Benghazi hearing session with Hillary Clinton was likely a watershed moment for her presidential campaign. As one pundit (Jeet Heer) put it on Twitter yesterday:

Most Dems like Hillary but a sizeable minority have doubts. That changed tonight. Now almost all will want to be in her corner in a fight.
I was reminded of how I felt during the 2008 campaign, when the Clinton team was attacking Obama. I went from being ambivalent (thinking we’d do great with either as a candidate for president) to feeling very emotionally tied to Obama’s candidacy. Jeet Heer refers to a feeling of wanting to be on the same side as a winner in the tweet above, but for me this combines with wanting to stand with someone who is being bullied.  That sympathy is just crucial, and I hadn’t really had it before.

I’ve been a Sanders supporter—his politics are much closer to mine than Hillary’s are. And if you had asked me about Hillary last week, I would have shrugged and said I’d vote for her, but I didn’t especially like her.

Now I like her. I hope Sanders continues to run, but I doubt he’ll be able to overtake Hillary at this point. The hearing has provided her with an opportunity to act truly presidential (the kind of president we'd like to see): measured, unflappable, commanding.  

22 October 2015

A Small Irritation

I totally get that stores sometimes discontinue items to the inconvenience of past purchasers. You can't expect a store to carry an item forever, just because you might break or lose yours. For example, when we found wine glasses we liked at Crate&Barrel some years ago, we bought several extra, knowing they would likely be discontinued before long (and they were). So it is hardly surprising that Pottery Barn no longer carries the flatware we purchased around 1997. What annoys me is that Pottery Barn now carries a flatware set with the same name as ours, but which looks nothing like it.

So that I was forced to wonder if I had misremembered the name of our flatware. Through the magic of Google, however, I was reassured that my memory is fine: Pottery Barn has simply made a choice that I cannot understand at all. Why would Pottery Barn want to confuse its own customers? Why would Pottery Barn apply a Danish name (Tivoli) to a ridged and rather fussy flatware design entirely unreminiscent of Danish design?

To bug me, obviously. File under first-world problems.

(Very very very very very small first-world problems.)