Savage Spawn

The Book of the Week is “Savage Spawn” by Jonathan Kellerman, published in 1999. This short ebook, authored by a child clinical psychologist, discusses topics associated with violent children, including serial killers, psychopaths, psychology professionals, the nature/nurture controversy and violence in the media.

The cynical Kellerman writes that “profiles” of serial killers should be taken with a grain of salt: “Profiles are most effective as career builders for retired FBI agents seeking to be best-selling authors and consultants to the film industry, but they miss the mark as often as they hit.”

Kellerman believes that psychopaths (conscienceless people) cannot be rehabilitated because:  1)  “…no medication has been found that alters antisocial behavior” and 2) they do not respond to the treatment of traditional psychotherapy because they lack insight and the desire to change.

At least since the mid-twentieth century, due to competition with psychotherapists (who hold PhD’s) to treat patients, psychiatrists have been big advocates of attributing biological causes to mental health disorders in order to prescribe medication.

The author provides a real-life example of two boys, thirteen and eleven, who, in spring, 1998, went on a shooting spree at a middle school and killed four girls and a teacher, and wounded ten other kids and another teacher. Kellerman thinks that had the kids not had access to firearms, “…their misdeeds likely would have expressed themselves as some variant of schoolyard bullying, perhaps a knifing.”  He proposes one simple rule for “…preventing child criminality: Restrict access to firearms [to kids].” Teaching psychopathic kids “practical shooting” will result in their bullying other kids. After the occurrence of untoward events, adults who gave kids guns, even with training, should never wonder why such events occurred.

Obviously, it is hard to pinpoint all of the exact causes of violent incidents. Psychological research that would produce a general consensus on the causes of extremely violent behavior would require: a) a long-term study of a sufficiently large number of subjects, and b) other difficult, expensive measures that would minimize bias. Kellerman mentions that longitudinal biological studies of psychopathology have been performed in Scandinavia, but he fails to provide details.

It is inconclusive which, genetics or the environment, is the more responsible for violence committed by kids. The fact that “Genetic traits can make themselves apparent at any age.” throws more of a wrench in the works. The author opines that media violence is not a proximate cause of violent behavior; kids who injure or kill people would probably do so anyway, regardless of the movies or TV shows they had watched. The author’s own children consumed a large quantity of carnage on-screen, and were none the more physically hostile for it. However, Kellerman cannot resist saying, “…media violence is likely to endure as a fruitful source of research grants for social scientists…”

Read the book to learn:  a) the relationship between the heart rate of certain toddlers and probable future violent behavior;  b) three strong predictive factors of violence in teenagers; c)  the age before which, if there is an arrest record– a lifetime of criminality is likely, too;  and d) how to intervene in the lives of high-risk youngsters to try to head off violent behavior.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Word of Mouse” by John Riedl and Joseph Konstan, published in 2002.

It is about the concept called “Collaborative Filtering.” That means the ability to make product-recommendations to consumers based on a significant number of their self-reported likes of products via an algorithm in a computer program.

The authors claim that the program makes recommendations with a high degree of accuracy, once a subject provides sufficient data on likes and dislikes. Such data are superior to demographic data such as age, occupation and sex, when it comes to predicting future preferences.

Collaborative filtering can be applied to sales of clothing, books, movies and goods sold on the internet– simple products that are purchased according to taste. “Cultural tastes seem to run in patterns.”

This blogger theorizes that the algorithm would do poorly on complex offerings that involve customer service– restaurant meals, hotel rooms, flights or personal services, because they are an experience that varies every time and are more likely to be enjoyed multiple times. A singular product like a book or movie, is a one-time experience.

When polled by the computer program on a book or movie, consumers express their like or dislike only for the book or movie, not bookstore atmosphere or moviegoer rudeness. Consumers might rate a hotel room on hotel-staff friendliness, room decor, cleanliness, and a host of other variables; if they have stayed at the hotel more than once, the rating might also reflect consumers’ general vibe about the hotel for all their stays. On any given day, the consumer might have a good or bad experience at a hotel. Anyway, the algorithm might achieve the same degree of accuracy by recommending a hotel simply based on other hotels with similar amenities and features, as by recommending based on the consumer’s likes of other hotels.

The authors discuss an online business that was started in 1998, Priceline, which allows customers to name the highest price they are willing to pay for a product or service, and if their purchase is approved, (presumably) receive it at a deep discount. For the most part, this appears to be irrelevant to collaborative filtering. Nevertheless, interestingly, the “reverse-auction model” has turned out to be profitable for travel-related services but not for gasoline, groceries and financial services. The reason is that airlines and hotels suffer a total loss on each plane seat and hotel room unfilled on any particular flight or night, respectively. Recouping some revenue from passengers and guests, even at a deep discount, is preferable. The authors make a point about how Priceline displays local geographic expertise in selling its services. Displaying expertise is important for online selling.

The authors boldly proclaim, “We envision recommenders moving out more into the public and the bricks-and-mortar sphere… Recommenders can limit the number of items a customer needs to see on each [Web]page… Recommenders can also be used in voice interfaces where the limiting factor is low bandwidth…”  Clearly, Riedl and Konstan underestimated the algorithmic proficiency of Google.

Read the book anyway to see the authors’ enthusiasm for collaborative filtering and get numerous tips on online selling, marketing, and what we now know about the internet. 🙂

Antifragile

The Book of the Week is “Antifragile, Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2012. In this repetitive ebook, Taleb reiterates a few of the concepts from his earlier book “The Black Swan” and again appears to derive pleasure from pointing out human fallibility. He writes that “Uncertainty, incomplete understanding, disorder, and volatility are members of the same close family.” He shows how people generate inaccurate predictions and draw the wrong conclusions through spurious causality, or “epiphenomena.”

Taleb discusses a state of being he calls “antifragility” (or more often, a lack thereof) in the realms of politics, economics, science, academia and medicine, taking swipes at all of them as he goes along. He gives tips on how systems and individuals can make themselves more antifragile (the opposite of fragile), a good thing. The author also provides real-life and theoretical scenarios that perpetuate fragility.  Humans appear not to be learning from past scenarios, as they continue to make the same mistakes over and over. One example of a real-life scenario includes the economic bailout of certain big companies, by the United States government (and by extension, American taxpayers) in 2008.

Fragility is vulnerability to negative occurrences. Antifragility is the ability to withstand negative occurrences due to various measures taken to reduce risks; this state of being actually benefits from volatility and randomness.

Humans tend to overestimate their ability to predict shocks and rare events (like revolutions, crises or budget deficits), and when the worst happens, it is worse than the previous occasion. Taleb writes that after havoc strikes, blame incorrectly gets assigned to one factor of the big picture. “The focus is wrong even if the logic is comforting.” People need to study the system and its fragility, not events.

One general example Taleb provides of spurious causality includes the questionable, widely-held assumption that academic research is the generator of wealth because so much research comes out of countries that are wealthy. Taleb thinks it is actually the other way around. “We have no evidence that academia helps science and technology, which in turn help practice.” One narrow instance of this was the building of the atomic bomb, in which there was directed research. But in that, there was selection bias and confirmation bias.

Another example that Taleb provides– a theoretical one– is when an Ivy League university scientist lectures a bird on how to fly. The bird takes flight. The scientist hastily writes books, articles and reports stating that the bird listened to him. The university is now an authority on aerial transportation by the avian species. It will implement further studies with funding by the government. Unfortunately, birds do not write books and papers, so we cannot get their side of the story.

The author advocates interventionism in particular areas and not others. He thinks the government should impose restrictions on the size, concentration and speed of entities including itself (obviously idealistic of him) because bigness increases fragility and the probability of disasters. He thinks less is more (do nothing or implement minimal intervention unless a medical condition is life-threatening) when it comes to medicine.

Taleb says education is useful in that it helps a family retain wealth insofar as its descendants use their educations to enter professions that were more lucrative than those of their ancestors. Almost all projects take longer and cost more when an element of uncertainty is added. “We have never had more data than we have now, yet have less predictability than ever.”

Read the book to learn more about: a) errors in human reasoning that aggravate adverse situations;  b) why fragility is increased with fiscal deficits and awarding of prizes in the fields of literature, finance, and economics; c) which actions are helpful in promoting antifragility and d) an inopportune event caused by Taleb’s own fallibility and his reasoning in dealing with it.

In sum, “The problem with people who do not incur harm [suffer no punishment for their influential opinion-making that causes economic collapse or a war] is that they can cherry-pick from statements they’ve made in the past, many of them contradictory, and end up convincing themselves of their intellectual lucidity on the way to the World Economic Forum at Davos.”

In the Garden of the Beasts

The Book of the Week is “In the Garden of the Beasts” by Erik Larson, published in 2011. This ebook describes the ill-fated German ambassadorship of William E. Dodd, who was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A history professor at the University of Chicago for more than two decades, Dodd possessed no public-service experience. As a D-list candidate for other reasons too, he reluctantly accepted the post anyway. Nevertheless, he believed in speaking out against injustice, and in the past when he became embroiled in a controversial situation, he said, “…to remain silent is out of the question for a strong and honest man.” He moved his wife, teenage son and grown daughter to Berlin in the summer of 1933.

Part of Dodd’s job as ambassador at the time was to get the German government to pay its reparations to the United States from WWI. Germany owed more than $100 million in bonds through National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) and Chase National Bank. Dodd failed to do so.

Dodd was also ill-suited for other aspects of the position. Foreign Service officers were an independently wealthy lot– golf-club members with fancy cars and mansions– who threw lavish parties at their own expense, unconcerned with the cost. The German ambassador lived frugally.

As well, Dodd’s daughter caused diplomatic embarrassment, as she became romantically involved with a series of men of political intrigue through the years. These included the chief of the Gestapo, a Soviet political operative, and Fritz Haber, who first formulated the poison chlorine gas that was used at Ypres in WWI. He proved that cumulative exposure to small quantities of gas in the long run was just as lethal as large amounts of a short duration.

Sadly, Dodd and a colleague, George S. Messersmith, America’s consul general, were two of only a very few prescient government officials who understood that Germany posed a serious and growing threat to world peace. The U.S. government was more concerned with Germany’s war reparations.

In the mid-1930’s, lurid stories of extremely uncivil behavior of Germany’s law enforcement apparatus were leaked to the international press. People rationalized that the violent acts (mostly against Jews) were just isolated incidents because they did not want to believe that an evolved society such as Germany’s could be so evil.

Read the book to learn the details of how Dodd became the prophetic, tragic figure in an existentialist drama that set the stage for WWII.

Brooklyn Zoo

The Book of the Week is “Brooklyn Zoo” by Darcy Lockman, published in 2012. This is a personal account of an internship of a PhD candidate in psychotherapy.

Lockman started her internship in summer 2007 at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York State, the final leg of training before she got licensed to practice. Throughout the book, she reveals the lingo, issues and people encountered by clinical psychologists.

A few aspects of the personalities of humans include developmental level (psychotic, borderline or neurotic), and character applicable to it (“masochistic or obsessive or narcissistic or depressive, etc.”). Patients might be diagnosed with a thought disorder, mood disorder or personality disorder, or a combination thereof. These were documented in a reference guide for psychiatry, the “DSM IV.”

During her training, the author saw what she perceived to be a disturbing trend– of treating all ailments, even ones suspected to be psychological in whole or in part, by prescribing drugs with little or no accompanying psychotherapy. The psychiatric professionals at the hospital perceived part of their jobs to be to instill “medication compliance” in patients. Lockman was taught that treatment should include “the talking cure.”

However, it is controversial how effective psychotherapy is in treating addicts, because drugs and alcohol can permanently change the brain chemistry that controls learning. Lockman describes one alcoholic patient’s case: “angry young man plus bad neighborhood plus psychosis equals short life expectancy.”

Since psychotherapists themselves are human, they sometimes cannot help but become emotionally affected by their patients. One time, Lockman realized she was biased by the socio-economic level of a patient she saw: “…upper-middle-class and white… familiar to me.” Lockman later momentarily broke down in front of her supervisor, who told her, “Never apologize for having an emotion. Just make sure you give it some thought.”

Some patients, such as a narcissistic-borderline (personality disorders) married couple, recounted stories of extreme past behaviors, some of which were laughable. The two consisted of a male narcissistic ex-convict and borderline, pregnant female who had four kids total; the oldest two had a different father. The husband had been a pimp, and had committed adultery with one of his employees. The couple ended up at the hospital because they had become physically violent with one another. They had shamelessly revealed this information to Lockman. The husband said, “I’m a shooter, not a hitter.” The wife said she had committed a bank robbery to save her kids from starvation.

Another issue the author had to deal with was the hierarchical nature of the career field. ‘We all needed somebody to buttress our professional worth.” People in different specialties put other ones down. The medical doctors feel superior to psychiatrists; psychiatrists to psychologists; psychologists to social workers.

Read the book to learn the slew of other issues Lockman had to face in her quest for experience in clinical psychology.

 

Outliers

The Book of the Week is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2008. This short, repetitive yet fascinating ebook is a hodgepodge of commentaries on human nature.

The author argues that extremely successful people in specific areas of expertise, such as professional sports, computer programming, music, science and lawyering “…are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies…” that give them a helping hand with regard to pursuing their passions. He also touches on a few peripheral topics, such as cultures of honor, plane crashes, rice paddies, education and slavery, all of which involve complex systems of teamwork and communication.

Outliers take advantage of the chances they get over the course of about a decade, or 10,000 hours, in which they hone their abilities in one area that, at the time, happens to become valued by society.  An outlier is what some business commentators refer to as a “hedgehog” rather than a “fox.” The former becomes an expert in one or two areas–  the outlier mystique; the latter gains some experience in many areas– useful in times of crisis, but never conducive to outlier status.

Gladwell names real-life examples of various celebrities, mostly Americans, explaining why their incredible achievements were attained with assistance from fate. He writes that stories about outliers are often exaggerated, failing to mention the set of lucky circumstances that led to success.

For example, the nurturing of talent of young Canadian ice hockey players is based on a biased selection process. Players are grouped in leagues by their playing abilities within age ranges determined by their birthdates. The ones who are older, even by a few months, have a statistically significant advantage in terms of size and strength. Thus, it so happens that a large percentage of players are born in January, February or March. These lucky ones are provided with a superior experience, whose success feeds on itself, called “accumulative advantage.”

The maximally successful achiever is one who is both book-smart and street-smart, as was J. Robert Oppenheimer, project manager of the atomic bomb. According to Gladwell, street-smart consists of attitudes and skills instilled by one’s family. If one happens to be born into a wealthy, nurturing family, one is much more likely to become an outlier.

Read the book to learn: 1) which countries’ students are best at math and why; 2) the reason there is an achievement gap between high-income and low-income American elementary schoolers; and 3) other interesting findings.

Inviting Disaster

The Book of the Week is “Inviting Disaster” by James R. Chiles, published in 2002. This is an ebook that describes the causes of fatal mechanical failures in aviation and industry.

Human error is always a factor. There is never just one cause. “A disaster occurs through a combination of poor maintenance, bad communication, and shortcuts.” Taking shortcuts such as omitting the testing of newly manufactured machine parts leads to improper, unsafe modification by end users.

In the stages leading up to a catastrophe, when workers realize they are in trouble, most react with intense concentration, anger at the malfunctioning equipment, fear and even panic.

Hypervigilance is a form of extreme panic with trembling hands, hyperventilation and heart palpitations; the mind blanks on what one was taught in training, and perception narrows. Often this causes people to take a course of action with the best of intentions– that makes conditions worse.

Architectural engineers must make sure buildings are designed to withstand the natural disasters that typically hit the areas where they are located. About every sixteen years, Manhattan gets hit by a hurricane that might cause, say, a particular building to collapse. That was why, shortly after it was built in 1978, the Citicorp Building had to be structurally modified at great expense. However, many deaths were likely prevented.

A common chain of events precipitates disasters in third world countries. A light manufacturing plant might be erected in a lower-class residential area. As time passes, however, the owner might want to begin making hazardous products.

Certain conditions prevail:  There is a dearth of laws governing environmental impact; the local economy would suffer if the plant couldn’t expand; the local residents enjoy living there. Over time, people become sloppy about safety.

Before lots of accidents, internal memos warning of an unsafe situation go unheeded. “The bureaucratic solution is to let the memo sit in the inbox for a while– then send it back for more explanation.” It is easier than making trouble, and in the short term, economically advantageous.

One way companies such as Boeing are checking themselves from making the same mistake twice is by continually adding to a knowledge base– confidential archives of troubleshooting reports that are actually read by designers.

Read the book to learn about other ways deadly mishaps could have been, and can be avoided.

Thank You For Arguing

The Book of the Week is “Thank You For Arguing” by Jay Heinrichs, published in 2007. This is a book on debating. The author teases apart the differences between arguing and fighting, and logic and rhetoric.

There are three kinds of persuasive language:  blame, values and choice. Each is of a different tense. Blame is past tense. Values depict the present. Choice talks about the future. The author advises the reader to switch tenses if an argument gets heated. The future, though, is the tense most likely to bring about peace.

People in a courtroom recount past events that involve blame. However, to get their points across, lovers and politicians should try to stick to the present and future. Two useful questions to ask when a problem crops up are, “What should we do about it?” and “How can we keep it from happening again?”

Values, which involve morals, are undebatable. The author says, “Argument’s Rule Number One:  Never debate the undebatable. Instead, focus on your goals… If you want your audience to make a choice, focus on the future.” Also, “When you argue emotionally, speak simply. People in the middle of a strong emotion rarely use elaborate speech.”

One more tip:  When one is deciding on an issue to argue, the most persuasive issue will be the broadest one. For instance, in launching a protest against consolidating two departments in a workplace, one should seize upon the issue of productivity, rather than fairness.

The author sadly concludes that universities used to teach rhetoric, but stopped doing so in the 1800’s when “…academia forgot what the liberal arts were for: to train an elite for leadership.”

Read the book to learn more debating techniques.

Multipliers

The Book of the Week is “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wiseman with Greg McKeown, published in 2010. This repetitive ebook discusses two kinds of leaders:  “Multipliers” and “Diminishers.”

Multipliers positively influence the people around them so as to draw out almost two times what they previously believed their capabilities to be, as reported by senior professionals interviewed by the authors. “People reported actually getting smarter around Multipliers.”

A study conducted in a non-workplace arena showed that people who were lauded for their efforts rather than for their intelligence “actually increased their ability to reason and solve problems.” The book’s authors relate this to Multipliers, saying that Multipliers create a self-fulfilling prophecy of greatness by recognizing their colleagues’ accomplishments, spurring better thinking from everyone.

The authors cited many examples of this, including one in which a company did not hire additional talent in order to meet its goal of increasing sales quickly, but instead, utilized Multipliers to better leverage the brain power of its existing sales force. Another company used Multipliers effectively in that “They didn’t box people into jobs and limit their contribution… [they]… let people work where they had ideas and energy and where they could best contribute.”

In addition, Multipliers have a great sense of humor– the trait of a great leader– it represents security with oneself, and a lack of self-consciousness. Multipliers search for talent all over, identify and draw out the positive behaviors that come naturally to the people they influence, maximize performance, and remove obstacles.

Read the book to learn the many other ways Multipliers bring out the best in their coworkers, and how Diminishers negatively impact their coworkers.

Cracked

The Book of the Week is “Cracked” by Dr. Drew Pinsky with Todd Gold, published in 2004.

The author of this ebook, a doctor, recounts his experiences treating drug addicts in a rehabilitation facility. Many of his patients were subjected to various kinds of childhood abuse that “…caused them to feel helpless, powerless, and in grave danger.” They became distrustful, and had difficulty making social connections and processing emotions. Many had parents who were addicts.

Some people are genetically predisposed to becoming addicts. One fifth of people entering rehab are addicted to marijuana, and usually, alcoholism runs in their families. People may develop lesions on the brain after just a couple of exposures to the drug ecstasy. Many people turn to shoplifting as a substitute thrill to opiate abuse in trying to quit their addiction.

At the start of addiction, the nucleus accumbens in the brain changes so that the body thinks that controlled substances such as heroin, alcohol, cocaine, etc., are necessary for survival. Beating an addiction requires rewiring some of the noncognitive parts of the brain.

Sadly, American society pressures its citizens to derive emotional comfort from material possessions, an unhealthy practice. “We forget that people feel best when they’re interacting, talking, helping, and creating with other people… face to face, particularly in times of adversity or when they’re feeling threatened.”

Read the book to learn the stories of typical addicts, the detrimental behaviors of their loved ones, and of the author’s frustrations with his patients’ stingy insurance companies.