How Steady Is Your Moral Compass? (or Swedes with Meta-attitudes)

One of the neuro/psych blogs I follow, Mind Hacks, lead me to an interesting article about a recent study out of Sweden where researchers manipulated unwitting study participants into defending a moral position that was supposedly contrary to their true beliefs.

Respondents consisted of 160 volunteers (100 female) between the ages of 17 and 69 (Mean 29.5, Standard Deviation 10.8) picked “at random” walking through a park. They were asked to review statements on a variety of topics ranging from privacy to conflicts in the Middle East and then indicate on a scale of 1 to 9 how much they agreed with each one. The respondents were shown one set of statements while filling in their responses. When they were done, the researchers used a little slight-of-hand to replace those statements with another set of similar but slightly altered statements, while leaving the respondents’ choices unchanged. For example, if the respondent saw a statement that read, “Large-scale governmental surveillance of e-mail and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism,” the altered statement would have the word “forbidden” replaced with “permitted”, effectively reversing the meaning of the respondent’s choice.

What’s interesting is that supposedly, when shown the altered statements and asked to explain their choices, about half of the participants did not even notice the statements had been tampered with, and 69% agreed with at least one of the altered statements.

People were even willing to argue in favour of the reversed statements: A full 53% of participants argued unequivocally for the opposite of their original attitude in at least one of the manipulated statements, the authors write. Hall and his colleagues have previously reported this effect, called ‘choice blindness’, in other areas, including taste and smell and aesthetic choice.

While I think this study is interesting (and not a little scary), I’m not sure what the take-away is or if there even is one at this point. I’d want to dig deeper to learn what motivated the respondents to switch sides. Why would they not simply say, “Oh, that doesn’t look right. I must’ve picked the wrong choice, because that’s not how I feel!”

Was it just ego demanding they stick to their guns, even if it hadn’t actually been their original choices (or rather, their original statements)? Or do Swedes have a particular propensity for playing Devil’s Advocate? Or do they have an innate moral flexibility the rest of us don’t? Or was it some competing researchers who wanted to have a bit of fun and decided to pay a bunch of people to “randomly” walk through the park where they were delivering the survey, just to screw with them 🙂

The researchers themselves seem confused and not quite comfortable with the conclusions that could be drawn from what they observed:

… the notion of opinions instantly reversing through CB creates considerable tension…

Mmmm, tension indeed. So their conclusion was pretty safe:

… the current study challenges our basic conception of what it means to express an attitude, and demonstrates a considerable malleability of everyday moral opinions. Future studies will determine how our CB methodology relates to established meta-attitudinal and implicit response time measures [45], [46], and to further explore the role for self-attribution and post-hoc rationalization in attitude formation and change.

It would be interesting to see another group of researchers try to reproduce this.

Anyway, here’s the link to the full study report, titled Lifting the Veil of Morality: Choice Blindness and Attitude Reversals on a Self-Transforming Survey. Judge for yourself.

And here is a video from what’s probably my favorite Swedish band.

Unemployed? STFU!

Mohan (I think?), New Delhi (photo by me, the Bloodfreak)

In April 2010, I went to India. Apparently that’s one of the less ideal times of the year to go, it being the start of summer, and summers in India tend to be warm. I remember walking out of Indira Gandhi airport and being hit by a blast of heat like I’d just opened the door of a 400F oven. (It was actually only 46C according to local weather reports, but I was born in the US, so conversions, you know, I’m not so good at.) Anyway, while I was there, I saw many incredible things. This was the first.

Shortly after arriving in New Delhi and settling in at my hotel, I decided to go check out Connaught Place (officially renamed Rajiv Chowk Place, but still generally referred to by locals as “CeePee”). CP is a popular shopping district. Picture a strip mall that you’ve grabbed the ends of and pulled toward each other to almost form a circle and you sort of get an idea.

I was supposed to meet up with some local friends after they got off work and I had time to kill, so I wandered around a bit. Wandering without purpose as I was usually isn’t a good idea in New Delhi — or any other urban area anywhere in India for that matter — because you’ll be quickly identified as a tourist and targeted by a throng of people selling everything imaginable, even the unimaginable.

I have low tolerance for people in general and I had an especially hard time with the overly-polite “hello, sir!” spiel of the Delhi huckster. I managed to escape the riot of color and action and people of the underground market at CP and when I resurfaced, found this relatively quiet, greenspace in the centre of the circle. I decided to sit for a moment to catch my breath. Of course, that was a mistake. Not 10 seconds later, I was approached by this man — I believe his name was Mohan — who asked me where I was from. Resigned to my fate, I told him I was from Canada. He then asked me if I spoke French or English. Now, it was getting interesting. I told him both, in response to which he produced a ledger, which looked to be full with the scrawlings of previous victims — er, customers. He thumbed through it until he found several entries apparently by Canadians, in both official languages. I was impressed despite myself. Then he told me what he did.

For 20 rupees (less than 50 cents CAD/US), he will give you an ear-cleaning like you’ve never had before. I said, please, no thank you, but I offered him the same money if he let me take his picture. Even after that, he still wanted to clean my ears, but I begged off. I have my limits. But check out the video below to see someone else who went for it.

He’s an example of one of the things that amazed me the most about India: the resourcefulness of the people. As I travelled around a bit, I saw what people in North America would call abject poverty, but the people here were still making a living. They don’t stop to feel sorry for themselves because they just don’t have that luxury. They squeeze everything they can from the little resources they have. I was amazed and ashamed at my own wastefulness and grateful that I have the luxury of living in a place where I can be wasteful, embarrassing as that is to admit.

Yeah, I know travel bloggers say this shit all the time, but hey it’s my story. I did see much worse poverty in other places, but that’s another story for another time.

Shameless Buddy Plug

(Images from and Schlugggy)

As a thought leader, you don’t need to check behind you to see if anyone is following. But I suppose it helps to have a few followers if you’re trying to convince people that you are one.

A friend of mine started blogging about 6 months ago, around the time he was laid off by a major game development shop. Ostensibly, his blog is about game development and more specifically, his experiences as an independent game developer. However, I always find his posts extremely well-written (English is not his first language) and brimming with insight into the way of things in general. It’s all the more surprising, considering he was born under the Aries sun sign and they tend be about as smart as a box of hammers.

His post today is titled Games industry Booms and Busts, but you can easily ignore the games part and see that it applies to just about anything business thought leaders and coin-operated market analysts identify as a trend and that companies then try to cash in on. Usually, it starts with a couple unexpectedly positive results, which the so-called thought leaders then point to as “the way of the future” and almost as one, companies flock to see the new, shiny thing. Of course, they call it “strategic shift” or some similar crap, but it boils down to a cynical view of the customer. This is the quest for the ever-elusive repeatable success.

In a previous post, my friend observed that the truly great game companies — the ones whose titles captured the imaginations of gamers worldwide, whose enduring legacy was more than a balance sheet — are the ones lead by people who are passionate about games. Not by MBAs who talk bullshit like “value add” and “strategic goal re-alignment”. Now, don’t get me wrong. I got nothing against MBAs. Some of my best friends know people who are MBAs. But I think their value is in their understanding of business entities, how they are organized and how they behave. The problems start when we look to them as prognosticators, as if they understand the market and are therefore best suited to guide the organization to success. On the contrary, the people at the top of the organization need to actually care first and foremost about the product — not the bottom line — and they would care about it whether they were in that job or not. (Hopefully, they’ll have the presence of mind to keep a few of those MBAs around without turning the reins over to them.)

Anyway, if you can get past the fact that his blog is on Tumblr and his theme looks even worse than mine, please go check it out. Time well wasted!

The Presumption of Decency

Edward Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard who does research on urban growth and he’s written a short essay on a topic completely outside his area of knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting read. It’s titled The Presumption of Decency and I urge you to check it out.

I think he touches on a deep-rooted flaw in human thinking habits, one that frequently puts us on a path to a mindset that enables us to justify committing some the most atrocious acts against other human beings. And despite the remorse we may feel afterward, we do it again and again.

The fact is, our perspective-taking abilities are generally not very good. We also have incomplete access to the situational information of others. So when we try to understand the behaviors of others, we tend to assume it’s due to negative motivations or personality flaws. Social psychologists refer to this as a fundamental attribution error.

For example:

Ellen is ignoring me. She’s being a bitch.

Ummm, maybe Ellen is busy?

On the other hand, when reflecting on our own actions, we tend to be more forgiving. For example:

I have so much to do right now. I don’t have time to answer that email.

Are you really so busy, when you’ve already answered messages from several other people?

I suspect we are doubly likely to fall back on this heuristic when trying to understand those who are in conflict with us:

The police won’t let me take my bike through this gate. They are morons.

Maybe at one time, this was a useful heuristic, helping us to quickly identify potential threats so we could eliminate them before they became immediate dangers. But if something is not an immediate danger, shouldn’t we not be relying on a heuristic when we try to understand it? Shouldn’t we be making the investment of time to investigate more deeply to form a better conclusion?

Now that humans have armed themselves with weapons capable of death and destruction on a massive scale, perhaps it’s time to call this out as detrimental to us as a species. That is, if continuation of the species is important to us.

Let’s start by not always assuming the worst of others.

Walnut Burger

It’s not vegan. It doesn’t pretend to be a beef burger. It just tastes good and it’s easy to make.


  • 200 grams crushed walnuts (the finer the better, IMHO)
  • 200 grams cooked rice (jasmine is tasty, but brown is okay too)
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, chopped (or more, no such thing as too much garlic)
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 3 white mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 tsp pepper (more or less, to taste)
  • 1 tsp black sesame oil (use the real stuff)

(Makes 6-7 standard hamburger sized patties)


  1. In a large mixing bowl, add rice, crushed walnuts, and eggs. Mix thoroughly.
  2. Add garlic, onions, mushrooms, salt, pepper, and sesame oil. Mix thoroughly.
  3. In a heavy bottom skillet, put a couple tablespoons of canola oil (or some other high-burning point vegetable oil), enough to coat the bottom.
  4. Heat the oil to medium temperature. (Drop in a tiny bit of the burger mixture. If it sizzles, it’s ready.)
  5. Spoon the mixture into the skillet, creating small mounds. Then flatten them into patties. (Note unlike ground beef burgers, these do not shrink when cooked.)
  6. When the edges of the patties begin to brown, flip them over.
  7. When both sides are cooked, remove from heat.

You can serve on a bun with burger condiments or with rice. I like it crumbled into bits served with Sambel Cap Jempol Chilli Sauce.

A Throat Ripe for the Taking

Summer of 2012 passes into memory on a cool breeze, and a light fog draws in over the lowlands of the GVRD. A delicious night follows a gray, but not unpleasant day. The city does not smell of manure. Inside or outside is comfortable, though there’s some indecision over short sleeve or light sweater. I forecast the Richmond Lolitas will be wearing shorts for weeksmonths to come. And bonus, they haven’t yet put their smiles away for the season. A few even have one to spare for an old guy like me. Ah, the summers on the Wet Coast! “Thho gut!”

But all this was the sideshow. Tonight, the main attraction was the trip home. Back to my lovely suburb.

It was the Adam’s apple. Its owner, in the back seat of the bus, a belligerent drunk, not doing anything (yet), but defying everyone to do or say something — anything, so he could have an excuse to prove how much of an asshole he could be. Late night weekend public transit users know who I’m talking about. He reminded me of me twenty years ago, in some ways, but magnitudes more an asswipe. (I’m not a belligerent drunk.) But as far as drunken white trash goes, I’ve seen plenty worse. He was special because, though probably nearly half my age and in fairly good shape for a punk-ass construction bitch, I figured I could take him in his current state.

Alcohol has a wonderfully numbing effect. On feelings. On judgement. I remember the last time I was seriously beaten while seriously inebriated. How I’d felt absolutely nothing. Until the next day. My face lacerated. My nose broken for the umpteenth time (heh, that was muh dad’s word). My entire body ached. My testicles felt like they’d been in a vise. I walked with a limp for days.

I thought how wonderful that entire experience could be for him too, and how I could make it happen for him. I think it could have been special for both of us. How much sweeter this night could have been, to have that sharing moment. To put my elbow into the nose in the center of that curiously Daniel Sedinesque face. The spray it would have made! I wonder if the old Filipina woman sitting nearby has ever seen this level of violence up close. Probably not since coming to Canada (unless she’s a hockey fan). And from that point on, because of his position, I could have easily continued undeterred with blow after blow to the face. It would have been terribly messy for the people around him, traumatic for some, I suppose. Blood. Bits of broken teeth. I think many, if not most of bystanders, would have secretly applauded me. Including the old Pinay. But I would have had to restrain myself though, because the temptation to strike that lump in the windpipe would be great, maybe too great. And there would be no coming back from that choice.

Overall, for him, I think the experience would have been — interesting. He might have said to himself (as I have in those situations), “ah, I’m being assaulted. Did I do something foolish? It’s so weird. I don’t remember now.”

Friends IRL, this is why I don’t go to clubs. Please don’t ask me. If I turn off my humanity… My desire to do harm is intense. My capacity for brutality is endless. I’m scared of myself.

WTF, WordPress!

I’m quite irritated with my blog’s tag cloud. Some tags I used multiple times aren’t showing at all, while a couple I only used once are. I guess I could download the code and try to see how it’s supposed to work.
I’ve done some WordPress customization in the distant past, and though I have my own domain and could have easily set up my own WordPress instance on it, I chose to use because I use my domain for professional purposes.

Some people have no issue mixing their business with pleasure. Indeed, some people appear to make no distinction. But I may want to talk about a transgender I met recently that I found attractive and am fantasizing about on occasion. I may also want to talk about how I think blue collar workers’ unions in North America are an anachronism. I may also want to say religious fundamentalists are poor, unfortunate sheep, similar to those victims of the great Capitalist Ponzi Scheme, the US middle-class Republicans. And I may also want to speculate what Reshmin Chowdhury smells/tastes like.

Sometimes I may want to express opinions that are important to me and I want everyone to know. Other times I may want to turn off the filter and speak frankly, but not everyone necessarily needs to hear it (occasionally I don’t know what I’m talking about). And still other times, I may just feel like talking shit.

There are people in this world who cannot or will not make the distinction between these. I don’t write for them. I write for me. A typically arrogant and selfish North American attitude that is, and I know it. I am thankful I live where I do, with all the things I hate and love about it. Still, while I may enjoy this freedom, my freedom ends where yours begins. And I realize not everyone agrees with or wants to be subjected to my personal opinions. In my professional relationships, I want to be judged first and foremost by my work and my professional conduct. So what would happen if, on first contact with me, my professional contacts were dropped into my personal life and my opinions? Invariably, it would color their opinions. I wouldn’t want to be subjected to that, so I won’t subject others to that either.

So is discretion just another word for duplicity? Yes, to some degree. But if someone wants to challenge me face to face on anything I’ve said here, I think I’m comfortable enough with it to be able to explain and discuss it with them, assuming they are reasonable people. But there are many people in the world who are not, so I see no reason to advertise personal opinions that would put my business, my livelihood at risk.

But anyway, back, back to the tag cloud, the real purpose of this post. There’s nothing else to read here. I’m testing tags.

Renaissance Nerds

This past weekend, I attended a day-long unconference for freelancers. Having been a freelancer already for many years, I found the sessions I attended to be more useful as refreshers than anything else. Still, networking is good and events like this force me to do a bit of that.

By my estimation, attendees consisted of about 75% high tech/design professionals: web developers, graphic/web designers, social media marketing experts. Basically, lots of nerds, a sprinkling of cupcake girls, a dusting of headhunters, and a smattering of life coaches, for comic relief.

But the nerds, they aren’t what they used to be. They’re now what I like to call renaissance nerds. No longer the basement-dwelling social pariahs of yore, they’ve traded their pocket protectors for wetsuits. They do triathlons. They travel. They go to pubs and drink beer. They eat out at exotic restaurants and review them in their foodie blogs. They talk to girls! They do flash mobs. They speak eloquently and passionately at public events (though still about the same nerdy stuff). They appear to be fairly well-rounded individuals and generally they are. But of course, there are exceptions.

Sitting in on a couple of sessions, I had the misfortune of sharing the room with one of these. He happens to be a bit of a celebrity within the tech community and has words like “entrepreneur” and “hacker” and “infovore” attached to his various social media bios. In both sessions, he sat mostly staring at his phone, attending to his twitter account, but he did see fit to open his mouth on a number of occasions to tell various people (presenters and attendees alike) in no uncertain terms how wrong they were in their thinking and approaches. Furthermore, on each occasion, his volume was at least twice that of the person he was dressing down, making him doubly annoying.

Accepting constructive criticism is necessary for personal growth. If someone has proof or experience that’s contrary to yours, they should share it and you should consider it carefully. But there are ways to deliver constructive criticism to strangers on a public stage that I believe are more conducive to success.

I’m sure this individual likes to think of himself as a positive disruptive force. I assume he has some measure of entrepreneurial success (he no doubt has 20+ pre-IPO social cloud mobile API solutions between here and Silicon Valley, finalizing negotiations for third round funding blah blah blah), which he could point to as proof he knows his shit. And it’s true, that as much as I would have liked to tear him down, I agreed with the content of his message.

But form is important too. So is awareness of the context and audience. Most of the attendees and presenters at this conference were newbies (maybe not in their professions, but at least as freelancers). They are excited and scared, eager to learn and eager to share. At the point they are in their learning, they need some easy wins to give them confidence to keep moving forward. Taking an adversarial tone (“You’re doing it wrong!”) is a fantastic way to discourage them or shut them down completely.

See more on Know Your Meme

I’m not saying people need to be coddled. These are adults after all. But a person in defence mode may be too distracted to experience the learning moment you want them to have. If they’re too scared to share with other newbies because there’s some been-there-done-that know-it-all ready to tear them down, they may not bother trying in the future.

I’d like to say I hope I don’t have to come anywhere near him again. Unfortunately, he seems to attend a lot of these events. And unfortunately, if I cannot make a reasoned argument against him and I’m in the wrong mood, I may need to simply punch him in his fucking face.

I really don’t want to do that though. He may very well not be aware how much he came off as an ass. Nobody said anything, but then, most people wouldn’t in these situations. Drawing more attention to him would likely not have been helpful either. I’ve already touched a bit on the social issues my son has and what he may be facing some day when there’s no one providing play-by-play commentary for both him and the people around him. It is entirely possible that he could become one of these well-intentioned but socially inept individuals, but I sure hope not and I’m going to do whatever I can to make it not so.