L’esprit de L’escalier

L’esprit de L’escalier

Asked my sis to read Paper Menagerie (which I linked to a few posts back). She said she could not identify with the behaviour of the characters in the story, and introduced the story linked above instead. The aptest title for a story that I know of.

L’esprit de L’escalier – noun – literally “wit on the stairs” in French (when you fall down the stairs and then think of all the witty things you could have said but did not) – the feeling you get when, after something has happened, you think of all the things you could have said.

letters of note

I used to write letters, inspired by a friend who liked to write too.  I knew the exact sort of pen I liked to write letters with.  I remember the aching and crimped fingers at the end of a long one, and the lazier calligraphy that would accompany that tiredness.

Now she doesn’t, and I haven’t for a long time.

Recently I came across a blog called “Letters of Note”, after coming across this post about a letter that a kamikaze pilot wrote to his children

I read that letter, and I see a father’s love, and a conviction that, if passed on to his children, would not bode well for peace. 

Gran Torino: Eastwood is a monument

I read a bit about Gran Torino before I watched it, and I read a lot about it after I watched it with two colleagues who seemed to find it as moving as I did. The actress who plays the Hmong big sister just about lit up the screen with her sassy vitality. That is, until something dies in her, and causes something to die too in her neighbour Walt.

I agree with one reviewer, who wrote that only Clint Eastwood could have played Walt. When I saw his heart wrench – well, technically what he did was subtly change his monumental countenance – sadness made my breath catch in my throat. I don’t remember being moved by an actor’s art quite as much as I was in this movie.

The movie’s music – especially its suspenseful, expectant drum-rolls and its theme song (see previous post), a few bars of which Eastwood rasps at the end of the movie – is also one of its many joys.

[This is my first blog posting from a new computer I’ve had to buy because my old one was getting cranky, by which I mean there were times when it would boot up without any problems at all and there were times when switching it on would elicit a screeching whine dangerous to one’s ears. Good thing I’d set up a foolproof backup system that synchronised my files every night and every week.]

A pithy quote, a funny toon, tuning your finances with a scattergram and inspiring teachers

I came across some more interesting stuff that I wanted to share.

First up, what a thought: Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful. We all have an idea of how things work; scientists and economists call such ideas of theirs models.  Our ideas and their models approximate how things work – that’s all they can ever do – and something someday will come by to somehow cause us to review these approximations and fine-tune them.  I took away a couple of things from these nine words.  One, I should be prepared for that something someday, and be ready to graciously let go of my ideas/models when they are not so useful anymore.  Two, I should be aware of why my ideas/models are useful and what they cannot account for i.e. know their limitations – I think this would lead to better decisions.

I laughed out loud in disbelief at this cartoon.

Interesting idea – plotting your expenses on two axes of recurring/occasional and need/want.

Carnegie Mellon Prof Randy Pausch has died.  I wrote about him several posts back.  I didn’t know the man personally, but, if the reactions of others to him and his last lecture are any indication, then we’ve lost an inspiration.  My favourite part of the video clip is at about the 1hr 10mins mark, when he talks about focusing on others, and then as a concrete example of that he has some folks wheel out this cake for his wife (whose birthday was the day before) and leads a 500-strong singalong of Happy Birthday to his dear Jai.  What a guy.

And today I came across this list of inspirational (fictional, movie-only) teachers, which I hope you will enjoy.

Sorry, we can surf the net and tell you where you are, but we can’t pop corn… yet

I came across a post from David Pogue of The New York Times and found out that the video of mobile phones popping corn (featured in my previous post) was a hoax commissioned by Bluetooth headset producer Cardo Systems.  See this Wired article.

And, oh, heh – you may have noticed that I’m going for a new look for the blog :)

Mobile phones to the rescue

The New York Times magazine recently featured an article (you may need to be registered to nytimes.com to read this) about Jan Chipchase, human bahaviour researcher aka user anthropologist, and his quest to make user-friendly mobile phones for everyone who doesn’t yet have one, so that he/she can maximise his/her economic potential, the idea being that – like landlines before it and the Internet now – mobile phones enhance connectivity and help the different nodes in a web of traders and consumers reach one another more efficiently.  Enjoyed the article.

I mentioned this to a colleague, and he pointed out that the infrastructure for the mobile phone network – those towers and stuff – would need to be built first, and isn’t that expensive.  That didn’t cross my mind – but I guess the business model of those mobile network/service providers would be to build the infrastructure and then live off the services they can then offer to mobile phone users.  Wonder when the “break even” point is – five years?  Ten?  One?!

Paradox of choice

Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz makes a great point about why there can be too much freedom – that is, if freedom is about choice, then the typical person is faced with too many choices for his own wellbeing: choices about cereal, insurance products, investments, computers, mobile phones.  He is paralyzed by the mesmerising array of choices, and the promise of all these choices also – in a pretzel twist of logic – makes him disappointed in whatever choice he makes: with all these possibilities, he expects perfection, but invariably does not get that.  Schwartz posits that it is material wealth that has led to this glut of choices.

Now, although he ends by talking about redistribution of wealth as a solution to this, what I took away was that sometimes, having a smart authority limit one’s choices (e.g. paternal governments) can be the way to go.

Another thing: I wish I could speak this passionately and intelligently.

Updated: After re-reading it and realising I did very little justice to the point Prof Schwartz made, I tried to clarify the first paragraph.

"Disproportionate use of force"

This stuns me – it’s so obviously true, but I needed this New York Times article (to access it, you may need to register) to put it into words.

As a rule, when we are hurt and we retaliate, we tend to hit back harder. Now, apparently, this is not because we want to hit back more forcefully, but because the hurt we receive is felt to be more painful than the hurt we inflict.

An experiment described in the article was telling:

… pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.

The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on. The two volunteers took turns applying equal amounts of pressure to each other’s fingers while the researchers measured the actual amount of pressure they applied.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Wonder how many fights between brothers and lovers this “neurological quirk” causes…

How to wrap…

Been wanting to blog about this really cool way to wrap a gift. First, find a piece of square-ish cloth – a shawl can be ideal. Second, wrap the gift with it. Whatever shape the gift, you’ll be able to wrap it snugly and presentably. See below:

The best thing: the wrap becomes part of the gift; none of that crumply stuff that’d only end up in the bin :)

Here’s my favourite: a sneaky hide-the-knot wrap :)

Go to this link for the whole gamut.


So I came across this potentially life-changing article by Po Bronson, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise”. I think it makes a couple of points that I will try to paraphrase, but Mr Bronson probably makes those points better, so I’ll insert some quotes as well.

1. Children who hear constantly that they are smart tend to associate effort with a negative connotation. Adults typically praise children as for their intelligence because they did something easily – they solved a puzzle quickly, or they finished their homework before dinner, not because they spent a lot of time fixing a jigsaw. This conditions them to see praise as instant gratification – and if they don’t get praised upon an initial expense of effort, they give up. This in turn can lead to a lack of confidence in their competence, and a tendency to give up quickly or not persevere when gratification/success is delayed, and even risk aversion and being overly concerned about how one is perceived by others.

This passage from Mr Bronson’s article about a series of research is especially telling:

For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

2. Self-esteem was purported to be the most important part of a person by influential author Nathaniel Branden, and praise became a tool for educators and parents everywhere to motivate children. But it appears praise is essentially a blunt tool and needs to be sharpened by other factors. For it to be effective in helping children improve, praise should be (i) specific and behaviour-based (“I liked how you gave up your seat to that old lady”, not “That was very courteous”; “It’s great how you stayed focus all the way through that homework”, rather than “Good work”) and (ii) sincere. As Mr Bronson puts it,

Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

Mr Bronson also commented that praise – general, social sort of praise – has become the modern working parent’s way of “being there” for his/her child – a sort of verbal “angel on the shoulder”. I think that’s really pinpoint accurate and very well put.