Monday, February 28, 2011


Below is the abstract for "Investigating the Neural and Cognitive Basis of Moral Luck" (Liane Young, Shaun Nichols and Rebecca Saxe), a paper we read last week in CGSC 390.
Moral judgments, we expect, ought not to depend on luck. A person should be blamed only for actions and outcomes that were under the person’s control. Yet often, moral judgments appear to be influenced by luck. A father who leaves his child by the bath, after telling his child to stay put and believing that he will stay put, is judged to be morally blameworthy if the child drowns (an unlucky outcome), but not if his child stays put and doesn’t drown. Previous theories of moral luck suggest that this asymmetry reflects primarily the influence of unlucky outcomes on moral judgments. In the current study, we use behavioral methods and fMRI to test an alternative: these moral judgments largely reflect participants’ judgments of the agent’s beliefs. In “moral luck” scenarios, the unlucky agent also holds a false belief. Here, we show that moral luck depends more on false beliefs than bad outcomes. We also show that participants with false beliefs are judged as having less justified beliefs and are therefore judged as more morally blameworthy. The current study lends support to a rationalist account of moral luck: moral luck asymmetries are driven not by outcome bias primarily, but by mental state assessments we endorse as morally relevant, i.e. whether agents are justified in thinking that they won’t cause harm.
Although my focus within the cognitive science major has primarily been economic decision making, I'm becoming increasingly intrigued by research about morality and moral judgments. I found this paper particularly interesting (although some of the brain imaging material seemed unnecessary). Here's a diagram from the paper that represents the authors' model of cognitive inputs:

Reason (bad, unspecified, good reasons) and truth (false versus true beliefs) influence judgments of belief justification, which influence moral blameworthiness judgments (blue and purple arrows). Outcome (bad versus neutral outcomes) directly influences moral blameworthiness judgments, which in turn influence belief justification judgments (red arrows)

At the end of the paper, the researchers conclude:
Previous accounts of moral luck have attributed this asymmetry in our moral judgments to the asymmetry in outcomes (e.g., drowning versus no drowning), suggesting that bad outcomes lead to more moral blame (Baron and Hershey 1988; Nagel 1979; Williams 1982). These accounts have typically neglected an alternative possibility: unlucky agents are judged to be more morally blameworthy not just because of the bad outcomes they cause but because of their false beliefs. Traditional “moral luck” scenarios confounded false beliefs and bad outcomes, making it impossible to test for the contributions of truth (true vs. false beliefs) and outcome (neutral vs. bad) to moral luck asymmetries. To compare the contributions of false beliefs and bad outcomes to moral luck, we therefore introduced an “extra lucky” condition, in which the agent’s belief was false but the outcome was neutral (e.g., Mitch’s son climbs into the tub but ends up, luckily, fine). 
As predicted, we found that false beliefs contribute more to moral luck than bad outcomes: the difference in moral blame for false versus true beliefs was greater than the difference in moral blame for bad versus neutral outcomes. Agents with false beliefs were judged to be more blameworthy than agents with true beliefs, even when no bad outcome occurred. For example, Mitch was blamed more when his belief was false (e.g., his son gets in the tub) than when his belief was true (e.g., his son stays put), even when no harm came to his son in either case. We also found that participants judged false beliefs to be less justified than the corresponding true beliefs, and that it was this difference in belief justification that drove the corresponding difference in moral blameworthiness. Moreover, it did not matter whether Mitch’s reason for his belief was good or bad—Mitch was blamed more for false beliefs than true beliefs regardless of his reason for his belief. 
As we predicted, moral luck thus appears to depend primarily on judgments about the agent’s mental states. Importantly, however, we also observed an independent influence of bad outcomes on moral blame, which could not be explained by any influence on belief justification. As predicted by traditional non-rationalist accounts of moral luck, judgments of the agent’s moral blameworthiness were directly affected by whether outcomes were bad or neutral. We note also that our methods may have underestimated the role of outcomes on some moral judgments (Cushman 2008). In general, outcomes exert a greater influence on judgments of punishment (Cushman 2008; Rosebury 1995) than on judgments of moral blameworthiness (measured here) or moral wrongness. 
One possible explanation for why we found moral judgments to influence mental state judgments is that participants initially make moral judgments based partially on outcomes, and then spontaneously seek to justify those judgments to themselves by appealing to differences along a dimension they rationally endorse: belief justification (Kliemann et al. 2008; Alicke 2000). This phenomenon may thus converge with other evidence showing that people appeal to rationally endorsed principles when dumbfounded by their own judgments made on other bases. 
In sum, in resisting moral luck and its paradoxical nature, we might take solace in several aspects of the present results. First, while bad outcomes do lead directly to more moral blame (independent of factors that affect belief justification), such outcome-based moral luck appears to be most pronounced in the case of negligent or reckless individuals who are already unjustified to think they won’t cause harm. Second, moral judgments do appear to be dominated by factors we reflectively endorse as morally relevant: whether agents have good or bad reasons for their beliefs, whether these beliefs are true or false. When assigning moral blame, we care mostly about whether agents are justified in thinking that they won’t cause harm. To the extent that moral luck asymmetries are driven by such mental state assessments, we may be able to defend a rational approach to morality.

Friday, February 25, 2011


In Houston for BCG's offeree "sell" weekend. Promises to be interesting!

Listening to:
"Skinny Love" - Bon Iver

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Forbidden Gardens

Forbidden Gardens, an outdoor museum of Chinese history located off I-10 in a western suburb of Houston, officially closed this week to make way for the Grand Parkway's expansion. Listed by Time magazine as one of the 50 top U.S. roadside attractions, the Forbidden Gardens was built by Hong Kong real estate mogul Ira Poon to “help promote knowledge of ancient Chinese history and culture,” according to the museum’s literature.

Forbidden Gardens takes its name from two of its major features: a 1:20 scale model of the Forbidden City with hundreds of palace buildings and figurines under a 40,000-square-foot pavilion, and the landscaped grounds that surround the exhibits. Perhaps most impressive is the Terracotta Army, 6,000 one-third scale replicas of the famous sculptures guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang in Xian. (The replicas at the Forbidden Gardens were handmade in Xian using molds that were later destroyed.)

Additional exhibits at the $40 million privately funded museum include a detailed panorama of a scholarly retreat called Lodge of the Calming of the Heart; an indoor model of Suzhou, known as the Venice of China; and rooms displaying historical architecture and weapons. All of the models and exhibits were built in China and then assembled in Houston by model-makers who were flown into the city to complete the project, including painting all the details and applying gold leaf to many of the pieces.

Here are excerpts from a Wall Street Journal article with more information about the owner and his vision:
Forbidden Gardens' owner, Ira Poon, has tended to shy away from the spotlight. Little is known about him, and his lawyer says he doesn't want to talk to the press. A local weekly reported in 1995 that Mr. Poon was a U.S. citizen who made his money dealing in Seattle and Hong Kong real estate. 
The attraction's website says Mr. Poon opened the park here in 1996, in an isolated spot 30 miles west of downtown Houston, in rice fields that reminded him of China and were close to the city's large Asian community. 
His visits to the property were rare. Kim Stevens, a staffer for eight years, says she has met him once, and he was rather quiet. 
"He came, he looked, he left," she said. 
But the site now lies amid one of America's fastest growing suburbs and in the path of the planned expansion of a four-lane highway loop called the Grand Parkway. 
"Forbidden Gardens was constructed to be away from the hustle and bustle," Mr. Montague said. His client "was never in this for a profit. He was in it to offer something back to the community."
The WSJ adds that, in "one of America's oddest liquidation sales," everything is being sold, "from the delicately handcrafted the majestic cherry trees adorning the entrance" and even "the goldfish that inhabit its man-made lake."

Despite the bizarreness of Mr. Poon's project—I remember visiting Forbidden Gardens on a field trip in elementary school and being struck by the incongruity of the museum site—it saddens me to hear that it is closing down. Despite being off the beaten path, Forbidden Gardens was one of the random icons that represent the "anything is possible" attitude of the city.
Forbidden Gardens is already being mourned by fans of Houston's zany monuments, which include a house made out of beer cans and an amusement park dedicated to oranges. "It's one of my favorite attractions in Texas," says Wesley Treat, co-author of Weird Texas, a compendium of the Lone Star State's oddball pilgrimage sites. "Forbidden Gardens is really one of a kind."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Inovação Brasileira

Below is a draft of the article I'm writing for this semester's issue of Business Sphere magazine based on my interview with Dr. Álvaro Cyrino in December.

The Brazilian economy, represented by the first letter in BRIC, is unmistakably on the rise. The world’s fifth largest nation by both geographical area and population, Brazil is enjoying a period of unprecedented development. According to official estimates published last month by the Central Bank, GDP growth reached 7.8 percent in 2010, highlighting the resilience of its economy even in the wake of the global recession.

A confluence of factors is fueling the economic expansion: a wealth of natural resources, stable government policies, a sophisticated banking sector and a rapidly growing middle class that now comprises half of its 190 million-strong population. The economy is also benefiting from a surge in real estate and infrastructure development leading up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, both of which have been awarded to Brazil.

In the coming decades, this remarkable economic progress will propel the country, currently the eighth largest economy in the world, into the ranks of advanced nations; its economy is expected to become the world’s fourth largest by 2040, leapfrogging the economies of Japan, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Given this strong track record and rosy outlook, one might expect a national sense of complacence. Indeed, many Brazilian executives, optimistic about future growth, are reportedly in a euphoric mood at the moment. Yet business and political leaders are recognizing that the nation’s current economic model will need to undergo fundamental adjustments in order to ensure Brazil’s continued growth in an increasingly competitive global business environment. The missing ingredient, according to business and political leaders, is innovation.

Much of the economy is dependent on basic commodity exports, such as iron ore, soybeans, coffee and beef. These commodities continue to serve as the base of a tremendously successful development model that has reached deep into the country’s rural interior while also creating global corporate leaders: Vale, ranked the second largest mining company in the world, is the top producer of iron ore and also operates nine hydroelectric plants. Another prominent exemplar is Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run energy company that raised $70 billion last September in the world’s biggest-ever share offering. Thousands of smaller companies have capitalized in recent years on rising food prices in overseas markets, transforming Brazil into a breadbasket for agricultural products ranging from poultry to sugarcane.

Despite these successes, there is a growing concern that the economy lacks sufficient innovation to help it earn the coveted stamp of advanced nation. Brazil ranked 68th in the 2010 Global Innovation Index, an 18 point drop from the previous year. This lackluster ranking reflects, in part, weak government funding for research and development: Brazil currently devotes only 0.9% of its GDP to research and development spending, compared to 1.8% in Canada, 2.7% in the United States, and 3.0% in South Korea. Brazil’s paltry R&D spending trails behind even other developing countries, including all three of its BRIC counterparts, both in terms of net spending and as a percentage of GDP.

The fear is that this innovation deficiency could translate into long-term consequences that would limit the growth potential of the Brazilian economy. There is no denying the effectiveness of the current model, but serving a global appetite for minerals, energy resources and agricultural commodities will not be enough for continued economic expansion on a sustainable scale. Troublingly, Brazil’s ratio of basic-product to manufactured-product exports reached levels not seen since 1978, underscoring the nation’s dependence on commodity goods.

Business Sphere met with Dr. Alvaro Cyrino, Deputy Dean of EBAPE at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, the nation’s leading higher education institution and think tank, to hear his opinion on the matter. “Brazilians are a creative people,” Dr. Cyrino asserts, “but we are not very innovative. Brazil, in general, is not adept at translating creative potential into innovation.”

Much of the reason, according to Cyrino, is cultural. “We are still very much a culture oriented to the formalities of government administration. College graduates value stability and social relationships as guiding principles when making career decisions.” Indeed, young Brazilians overwhelmingly favor employment opportunities at large corporations or in public service over entrepreneurial risks. Cyrino states, “If we want to foster an innovation culture, we have to start by changing these patterns.”

The shortcomings of the national education system are a cause for major concern. Government efforts to improve education have been making some strides – the literacy rate has risen from around 82% two decades ago to 91% – but illiteracy remains more prevalent in Brazil than in most of its Latin American neighbors. Higher education is a further weakness of the current education system: only 13% of Brazilians between the ages of 18 and 24 are enrolled in higher education institutions, raising worries about the skill level of the country’s future workforce. Exacerbating the deficiencies of the education system are problematic social and regional disparities, which are masked in these national figures.

Another challenge to innovation is the lack of institutional support. “Brazil doesn’t have the right institutions to support entrepreneurship,” Cyrino says. “There are creative people with good ideas, but they lack the means to channel their creativity into a pipeline of products and services in the market.” Financing is particularly daunting in a country where, despite the sophistication of the banking sector, large-scale startup capital has remained, until very recently, a relatively underutilized mechanism.

It is not that Brazil is unfamiliar with the potential of innovation. The most famous example is perhaps the country’s successful ethanol economy, which has been hailed as the world’s first sustainable bio-fuel program. Conceived as a response to the global oil crisis of the 1970s, Brazil’s 30-year-old ethanol fuel program has become a policy model for other nations. At a time when the governments of many advanced economies are seeking to subsidize nascent alternative energy sources, 89% of cars sold in Brazil run on a mixture of ethanol and traditional fuel, thanks to domestically developed flex-fuel engine technology. Due to genetic modification and an advanced cultivation system, Brazilian sugarcane-based ethanol is six times more efficient than corn-based ethanol produced in the US and price competitive with standard gasoline.

While the magnitude of innovation that transformed Brazil’s fuel consumption has not yet been emulated by mainstream companies, there are clear signs that change is on the way. The 123 national institutes of science and over 400 incubators scattered across the country are humming with activity in fields ranging from cosmetics to genetics. The fact that many of these startup incubators are associated with universities represents, in itself, a complete reversal in the mindset of Brazilian higher learning institutions. “Universities here are very formal institutions,” explains Cyrino. “They were originally resistant to the idea of entrepreneurship.” Over the past several decades, however, higher learning institutions have increasingly provided support for entrepreneurship, with incubators such as the lab at Fundação Getúlio Vargas leading the way.

A large percentage of the successful projects developed in university incubators have been in the information technology sector. Brazil is widely overlooked as an emerging technology hub, especially when compared to “Asian tiger” economies or fellow BRIC members China and India, but the booming activity in information technology clusters across the country points toward the growing role of technology innovation in the Brazilian economy. IT is a particularly prominent sector in the economy of Florianópolis, the capital of the southern state of Santa Catarina, whose officials aspire to position the city as “a Silicon Valley with beaches.” Another important IT center is Porto Digital, located on an island off the coast of the northeastern city of Recife. Harnessing a ready pool of talent from the Federal University of Pernambuco, the Porto Digital cluster comprises small and medium enterprises specializing in developing software for export to foreign markets.

The country’s innovation potential is attracting the notice of multinationals. For example, Recife’s Porto Digital is home to regional offices of corporations such as Dell, Microsoft and Samsung. In another important vote of confidence, IBM recently announced that Brazil will be the location of its ninth research center; the first new IBM lab in 12 years, it will also be the company’s first research center in Latin America, reflecting the central importance of the Brazilian market. After construction of the new lab is complete, IBM is planning to consolidate its handful of researchers at existing locations in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in addition to hiring scores of new researchers from both Brazil and other regions.

Following the forays of multinational corporations into the country is an influx of new money. Venture capital is still filtering into the public consciousness, and the field is currently dominated by nine major firms, but new players are revolutionizing the capital landscape. By the end of last year, nearly $30 billion in venture and private equity capital had been committed to Brazil, compared to a mere $6 billion in 2004. While these may pale in comparison to figures in more traditional investment target countries, investors interested in geographic diversification are increasingly looking to Brazil, and the nation’s traditionally risk-averse business community is opening its eyes to the possibilities of harnessing the capital of investors seeking a share of profits from the region’s development.

This fresh mentality, backed by a rapidly growing pool of financing options, is fueling a wave of innovation, and not just in the information technology sector; even traditional industries have been transformed by new ideas. Most notably, the 365% expansion of the agricultural sector over the past decade is largely due to the efforts of EMBRAPA, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, which utilized innovative technology to help farmers convert vast cerrado savanna in the states of Goiás and Minas Gerais into some of the world’s more fertile farmland.

A new initiative in another commodity industry aims to increase the productivity of forests, an especially relevant issue in a country trying to balance economic development with environmental preservation. Financed by international partners, the ambitious project is creating a system that enlists the cooperation of tree growers and landowners in exchange for a greater share of profits. Many of Brazil’s pulp and paper companies are already industry leaders, largely thanks to natural competitive advantages – a eucalyptus tree here can grow to maturity in just seven years, compared to 15 years for similar trees harvested by the industry in the northern hemisphere – and the hope is that, by encouraging a more equitable distribution of gains, these companies will be able to maximize efficiency in a financially and environmentally sustainable manner.

These examples of successful innovation in traditional industries are significant because, as even the most optimistic forecasters understand, Brazil will not become a high-tech hub overnight. A commonly cited obstacle is that the nation lacks an ecosystem that encourages risk taking and creative thinking, due, in part, to the fact that the economy was closed until a couple decades ago, and there was little incentive for product innovation. When the country did begin to open up for trade, skyrocketing interest rates diverted corporate priorities away from meaningful innovation, with the exception of a few pioneers. 

In some ways, the continued lack of high-tech innovation is the product of the handsome profits that are available in more traditional industries. Never before have Brazilian coffee, soybeans, beef and paper products been in such high demand; the incentives in these industries are tremendously enticing for jobseekers and investors alike. As a result, the majority of the best new ideas, such as novel business models, remain confined to the agricultural and mineral commodity corporations.

Many native businessmen view this dual-track role of innovation as a national asset rather than a weakness. The long-term goal is to push the country’s exports up the value chain, but this does not require abandoning the industries that have brought the nation to where it stands today. Indeed, there is a growing conviction that Brazil can create its own developmental model by leveraging its natural competitive advantages and maximizing returns in traditional industries while laying the groundwork for a forward-looking economy based on homegrown innovation. And if the currently small but growing role of innovation in the national economy is any sign of what is to come, the future is bright for the Brazilian model.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

High Praise

"I don't even know what it is but I'm saying no because you're supposed to reject candy from strangers, and you're as strange as they come."
- A friend, after I offered an elderberry zinc lozenge
(which is delicious, by the way)

Listening to:
"Das geht ab" by Frauenarzt & Manny Marc

Sunday, February 13, 2011

McGurk Effect

Check out this BBC video on the McGurk effect. (Professor Phelan showed it to us in class last week during our dissection of Fodor's theory of modularity of mind.)

I don't really want to see anyone's mouth in this much detail (and Dr. Rosenblum kind of sounds like a robotic sheep) but the phenomenon is pretty interesting, don't you think?

Thursday, February 10, 2011


In my international studies capstone seminar (INTS 427 Social Enterprise in Developing Economies) this morning, we had the opportunity to meet and speak with Dr. Jordan Kassalow, founder and CEO of VisionSpring. Here's some information from the VisionSpring website:
VisionSpring is an innovative social enterprise dedicated to reducing poverty and generating opportunity in the developing world through the sale of affordable eyeglasses. Our goal is to create channels for the delivery of low-cost eyeglasses to ensure every individual has equitable access to the eye care products they need to live a full, productive life. 
VisionSpring trains local villagers to conduct outreach & vision screenings and sell high-quality, low-cost eyeglasses in their communities. Our Vision Entrepreneurs sell affordable reading glasses, sunglasses & eye drops and refer customers needing prescription glasses to a VisionSpring optometrist or a partner eye health institution. 
Dr. Kassalow explained that, by working directly with lens manufacturers and frame makers, VisionSpring has created a new, low-cost model for eyeglass distribution that has proven to be effective in developing markets around the world. To date, they've sold over 600,000 pairs of glasses, increasing average productivity and income among their customers by 35 and 20 percent, respectively, according to an independent University of Michigan study.

And because VisionSpring is a social enterprise, not just a non-profit organization doling out free goods and services, its growth has been driven by previously latent market forces that had long been neglected by traditional eyeglass distributors. Identifying and harnessing the power of this demand has enabled VisionSpring to maximize its social impact, currently estimated at $234 million.

As C. K. Prahalad states in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits (a book on the INTS 427 reading list), "If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recocgnizing them as resilient entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity can open up."


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


In response to my last post on Schubert's Lieder, a friend sent me the following link to Fritz Wunderlich's recording of Schumann's Dicterliebe. Dichterliebe (The Poet's Love) is a 16-part song cycle of poems from Heinrich Heine's Lyrisches Intermezzo set to music by Robert Schumann in the 1840s. Too good not to share; here it is:



(Link to original text and English translations)

Perhaps I'll eventually make it to the 21st century, two decades at a time.

« Doch kommt die Morgensonne / Zerfließt’s wie eitel Schaum. »

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Du bist die Ruh

As a counterpoint to the cynicism of my last post, I have a confession to make: I've been going through a Schubert Lieder phase addiction that might be light-heartedly romantic if it weren't so serious. It started with a minor crush on his 24-part Winterreise; I now have five separate iTunes playlists overflowing with Franz Schubert's Lieder, categorized according to stylistic or thematic differences. The literary inspiration, timeless themes and uncomplicated instrumentation of German Lieder—poems set to music for voice and, typically, piano accompaniment—form the basis of a genre that, at present, has me transfixed.

My favorite at the moment is Du bist die Ruh*, originally a stirring poem by Friedrich Rückert that Schubert's music elevates from passionate sensuality to reverent, almost religious worshipfulness.

*The title is a bit tricky to translate because of the nuanced meaning of Ruhe (rest, quiet, peace). Common English translations of the title include You Are Peace and You Are My Repose.

I was torn over which artist's version I should post. Click here for a stunning soprano rendition by Jo Sumi.

I haven't been able to find a satisfactory translation of the text, but here's one that captures much of the spirit of the poem, I think, while managing to maintain the original rhyme scheme. I'm also suggesting below a cruder but more literal line by line translation (which may be better for non-German speakers to follow while listening to the Lied).
Du bist die Ruh',
You are repose,
Der Friede mild,
Gentle peace,
Die Sehnsucht du
Yearning you (are)
Und was sie stillt.
And what stills it.

Ich weihe dir
I dedicate to you
Voll Lust und Schmerz
Full of pleasure and pain
Zur Wohnung hier
As a dwelling here
Mein Aug und Herz.
My eye and heart.

Kehr ein bei mir,
Come enter here (to me),
Und schließe du
And close
Still hinter dir
Quietly behind you
Die Pforten zu.
The gates.

Treib andern Schmerz
Drive other pain
Aus dieser Brust!
Out of this breast!
Voll sei dies Herz
Full is this heart
Von deiner Lust.
Of your pleasure.

Dies Augenzelt
This canopy of my eyes
Von deinem Glanz
By your radiance
Allein erhellt,
Alone is illuminated,
O füll es ganz!
Oh fill it fully!