[CASW New Horizons: Michael Marmor, Professor of Opthamology, Stanford]

This was a very interesting little talk by an opthamologist and art collector about what happened to two particular artists as they lost their vision — Degas and Monet.  Here is a link to the original article, with pictures.

Degas suffered from maculopathy, where his vision gradually deteriorated over a period of years. The fine detail of his work disappeared, the shading lines grew coarse and far apart instead of fine and close together, and features (like faces) because poorly delineated. Early work shows a lot of fine detail, but the later work is expressive only in its general posture.  Click here to see pictures of the evolution of Degas’ work over time.

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - The Tub - 1886

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

Degas - After the Bath - 1896

He showed us examples from early, middle, and late work, and you can clearly see the degeneration in his work. Below are examples, but his later work (which I couldn’t find examples of) is almost grotesque. Faces look frightening and postures are awkward. His friends and colleagues also told him that his work was not quite, shall we say, up to snuff. Dr. Marmor simulated for us what the paintings probably looked like to Degas, considering the state of his vision, and you can see that the course shading lines and awkward expressions disappear. He probably couldn’t appreciate how others saw his work in those years, because his poor vision erased the flaws in his own work in his eyes. Dr. Marmor looked at a variety of data (his handwriting, comments of friends, the spacing of shading lines) and reconstructed a relatively linear pattern of the decline of Degas’ vision over time. He eventually stopped producting work shortly before he died.

Monet suffered from cataracts, in which the lens hardens and yellows. The lens in our eye naturally gets more dense and yellow as we get old, but cataracts are an extreme example of this natural aging process. In about 1912 Monet complained of vision loss, and by 1922 he was legally blind.

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

Money - Woman with a Parasol - 1875

As an impressionist, Monet dealt with light and shadow, not detail, and so he was able to continue to produce work for quite some time despite his declining sight. However, cataracts affect your color vision, and this affected the quality of his work. He usually produced work with delicate colors and light, but examples of his later work showed almost garish use of orange and green, which was most likely his attempt to actually see the color on the canvas. In the years before he finally submitted to cataract surgery, he was painting almost entirely from memory, because he could no longer distinguish blues and greens, or reds and purples. Again, Dr. Marmor showed us simulations of what Monet’s work probably looked like to him, and the strong colors faded into muddiness. Click here to see images showing how Monet’s later water lily paintings would have appeared through a moderate cataract. The forms also became indistinguishable. Dr. Marmor showed us a late Monet painting and asked us to identify it. To me, it was a mass of blobs of color with a few blurry lines. It turned out that it was the bridge in Monet’s japanese garden. It was completely unrecognizeable to me.  Take a look at that picture here, as well as how it would have appeared to Monet through his now-severe cataracts.

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

Monet - Water Lily Pond and Weeping Willow - 1916-1918

He argued that the change in style wasn’t due to artistic changes, because Monet’s work returned to its former style after he underwent surgery.

One interesting tidbit that I liked, since I think perception is just so cool, was that in Soleil Levant, below, the reason that the rising sun against the blue sky is so striking is because the blue and the orange are of the same intensity. This makes it hard for our brain to place the sun clearly in space because we don’t have the contrast we usually rely upon to make boundaries between objects.

Monet - Soleil Levant - 1872[Monet – Soleil Levant]

It turns out that there is a Society of Blind Artists nowadays. Many of them, not surprisingly, are photographers, since the film will faithfully capture what they are unable to see clearly.

[CASW New Horizons; Baba Shiv, Professor of Marketing, The Frinky science of the human mind]

Note that all papers on today’s talks are at sciencewriters2008.stanford.edu

Baba Shiv is the guy who did the famous study on perception of the quality of wine being intimately connected to how expensive people thought the wine was.  This talk was a fascinating tour of the mind and how it relates to product marketing.

First, why is the economy crapping out?

Well, imagine the following situation.  You’re given $20 and you can choose to invest $1 in each round, or not.  If you invest, you have an equal chance of wining $2.50, or of losing $1.  What should you do?  Rationally, the answer is obvious – invest blindly.  You’ve got an equal chance of winning more money than you would lose.  But human beings aren’t purely rational creatures.  Emotion has an important role to play.  Winning is exciting, it feels good.  Losing… not so much.  It turns out that we tend to remember the emotions associated with the most recent investment round, and negative emotions tend to win over positive ones.  So when you do the stud, you find that subjects start out investing about 100% of the time, and drop to about 50% investment rate by the 5th round.  They’re remembering the negative emotions related o the times that they lost, it turns out.  And this is what happens with the stock market as well.  When things are going well, people get greedy and keep investing.  And when things tank out, like they are now, people pull out their investments, even though rationally we know that we should invest.  So what about people who have damage to the emotional circuitry of the brain?  He gave the same sort of task to people who have brain damage and found that they did better at this investment task, investing more rationally. So, quipped Jay Leno, if you’re banging your head against the wall about the state of the economy — keep banging your head against the wall. Here’s a great article on Shiv’s work, including this study.

How does price affect our perception of a product?   

When we buy a product there are two things that go into our perception of its value – its inherent quality, and its price.  It turns out that they’re inversely proportional.  That makes sense – if someone emphasizes how cheap their product is, we think that it’s not very good quality.  Marketers always assumed that the consumer’s experience with the reality of the product would trump this perception – once they tried it and realized that it was a good product, then they’d recognize its quality.  But he wasn’t so sure that people’s prediction of the quality of a product wouldn’t affect their actual experience of the product.  If you buy Advil on sale, for example, will you think that it doesn’t work as well?  The answer turns out to be yes!  He gave subjects a Red Bull drink, and some were asked to pay full price (almost $2!) and some were told the real price, but given it at a discount.  They found that those who paid full price solved more word puzzles than those who thought they’d gotten the cheaper version.  How would that work?  Turns out that it’s related to the activity of the striatum, which plays a role in anticipation of rewards. If I tell you that I’ll give you some chocolate, the striatum will light up.  The striatum is also related to motivation, such as persistence in a task like the word puzzles.  When people think that they’re getting the discounted drink, they give up more easily.  One writer asked – but what about the rush that we get from getting a good deal?  He said that it’s true, we do get such a rush from getting a bargain, but it turns out that we use the item we get on sale less than one that we paid full price for.  Weird.

And what about that famous wine study? 

You can find out more about it online, it got a lot of press. The basic idea was that when they gave subjects a wine that was priced $90, the pleasure centers of their brain (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) lit up more in an fMRI than when they thought the wine was $10.  So, our expectation of the quality of a product actually does affect our physical experience of that product!  One interesting aspect of this is that it suggests that blind taste tests are missing the point – our actual experience of a product requires the full context of price and branding.  Note that randomized placebo drug trials are, in essence, blind taste tests.  So, one could argue, this research should make us question how we go about determining the efficacy of drugs.  He did a study like this, too.  He gave subjects a sugar pill and told them it was pain medication, then caused them pain on their hand.  When he told them that the pill was $2.50, 85% of subjects said that they got pain relief, as compared to 61% of subjects when they thought it was 10 cents per pill.  Note that it was a sugar pill, and yet the majority of people reported pain relief, what a strong placebo effect!

The last study he told us about was what he called the IKEA study.

It was on the role of packaging and product returns.  This was dubbed the “fruit of labor study” because they found that when the consumer put a lot of effort into consuming the product, they like it more.  Obviously this relates to IKEA because there is a LOT of effort required to assemble their furniture once you take it home.  He found that those subjects who assemble the furniture themselves, instead of having it home delivered, were less willing to sell the furniture later.  What a boon to companies!  They offset their costs by making the consumer assemble the product, and the consumer likes it more.

[CASW New Horizons Briefing:  Sharon Long, PhD]

We were treated to a surprise visit from one of Senator Obama’s science advisors, Sharon Long of Stanford University.  She spoke for a while about bama’s science policies — nothing that hasn’t been written about ad-nauseum on the blogosphere already.  But there was one question, asked by David Ehrenstein of Physical Review Focus, that I found interesting.

He asked about Obama’s support of corn ethanol.  Scientists say that corn ethanol is a bad way to deal with energy issues — you create more carbon dioxide harvesting the corn than you save by using the ethanol.  Yet it tends to be supported because it helps farmers in corn states.  What is Obama’s vision, why is he supporting ethanol?  Dr. Long responded that, of course, Senator Obama currently represents the state of Illinois, so his platforms are influenced by the interests of that state.  She can’t speak to his campaign plans, but as a scientist she does agree that corn ethanol is not a sustainable solution.  There is too much energy input for amount of energy output. No scientist thinks that massive monoculture is a good idea.  As science advisor, she would give advice that supports the overall stability of croplands in the U.S.

I just thought that was interesting.

[Pitch Slam:  Meet the editors.  Ivan Oransky (Scientific American), David Corcoran (NY TImes), Adam Rogers (Wired), Bob Sipchin (Sierra)].

Every year at NASW, they have this wonderful event where  we get to meet the editors from major science publications and try pitching a story to them and seeing whether they like them.  It’s really interesting to see what kinds of stories the diferent publications are looking for and what angle they require.  The same story can be interesting to one publication for one reason, but interesting to another publication for a different angle.

For those of you not in the know, a “pitch” is a 200-300 word blurb on the article you’d like to write — a well-written catchy synopsis with some journalistic research backing it up.  Some common themes that came up about writing a good pitch were:

  • Make the news angle clear (what’s new?)
  • Make sure to research whether that publication has done a similar story before
  • Pitching a question, “What will the tourist reaction to the death of pine trees in Colorado be?” is not very effective because the answer might not be surprising (“they won’t come”), or the answer might be “nothing much.”  If, on the other hand the answer is something surprising, like “A rising industry in disaster tourism,” then that is an interseting story.
  • Back up the claims in your pitch with some research, and be ready to answer questions from editor

Scientific American, for example, features articles primarily written by scientists so there are not many places for freelance writing  But in the front of the magazine and on the web there are some sections where writers can break in; they really like top 10 lists, for example.  In general any ideas that come straight from the science news wire services (like Eurekalert) aren’t going to fly; their staff writers are covering those stories.

That was also true of the New York Times, which is a very difficult venue to break into.  They primarily use writers that they’ve been working with for a long time, except for the “Cases” section in the science section where someone writes about their personal experience with the health care system.

Wired of course has a very different market — they want articles on what is cool and hot, technogeek kinds of stories.  Many science stories can be Wired stories, but you have to find the Wired angle in them.

Sierra Magazine, of course, requires the environmental angle in a story, such as green living, light technology, and sustainable living.

To give you some ideas of the kinds of pitches that we heard, and editors’ reactions:

What we can learn from polar bears.  There are some very interesting aspects to polar bears health that could have implications for human health.  For example, though they are inactive during hibernation, they don’t develop osteoporosis.  They also develop insulin resistance during hibernation, but don’t develop diabetes.  These are good reasons to promote bear conservation.  Great story, right?  Well, said the Sierra Magazine, we’re kind of sick of hearing about polar bears!  Maybe this could be done instead as an infoporn graphic page, with a sillhouette of a polar bear and diagramming what we can learn from different parts of polar bears.  Readers are jaded about polar bears, so you have to find a new angle.

Another story was about the hospital of the future. Much research suggests that having noise privacy, views of trees, and other simple modifications in hospitals, can promote healing.  How will this research affect hospital design?  Scientific American didn’t like this story, they’ve done a lot of green and sustainable building articles in the magazine.  What is surprising in this story?  It seems obvious that a view of a tree is a good thing, but who will pay for this, what is the incentive for a hospital to implement these changes?  Is there a hospital that is doing this? The Sierra Magazine liked that pitch better, because sustainable design is a hot thing now. If that story about the benefit for the patient could be combined with the benefits for the planet, then that would be an interesting story.   Wired wasn’t too enthusiastic, since they’ve done similar stories.  A new story would have to have a specific focus or angle.  Plus, much of this research is based on small studies, and they would want to know the research had been well-developed.

I have been terribly remiss in my blog posts, and I apologize. These last two weeks it was tough to keep up with my day job, and engage in the “global conversation” through fabulous blog posts.

BUT, here I am, and “here” happens to be at the National Association of Science Writer’s conference in Palo Alto, CA. Following that conference is the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing New Horizons in Science Briefings, but I’m going to lump my blogs on the two conferences under this one “NASW” heading. If you hate science writing, just ignore my posts this week. But, I mean, who hates science writing? 🙂 Or, at least who that is reading this blog would hate science writing? You’re at the wrong place. Go read about beer brewing, knitting, or NASCAR instead. Actually, there’s science in all of those. So, never mind, you’re screwed.

Since I usually write about science education instead of communication and writing, I’ll take a quick minute to tell you about the Science Writers association and conferences. NASW is basically a trade organization for science writers, which includes magazine, radio, web, book and newspaper writers who write about science and medicine, as well as public information officers at universities who are charged with the onerous job of getting information about their institution’s researchers out to the general public by sending out press releases to journalists. The conference is delightful — a plethora of topics such as using social media to reach audiences, how to run a successful freelance business, telling story through video, and tech tools for writers. I’ll post some blog posts about the different sessions, and the graduate students at UC Santa Cruz are Twittering on the conference. It’s easier to understand the twitters if you look at the program for NASW and CASW to see what session they are twittering about. (The letters/numbers denote the program number, and initials denote the speaker’s initials).

One delightful side effect (or, one might argue, the main point) of the conference is that you get to see a bunch of people from your past. So, I ran into David Ehrenstein of Physical Review Focus (toughest editor you could ever love), Robert Frederick (podcaster for Science magazine), Erin Digitalis of Stanford (I did the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship with both Robert and Eri), Corinna Wu formerly of Science Update, Davide Castelvecci (formerly of Science News and now going to Scientific American), Mary Miller of the Exploratorium, Michael Riordan of UC Santa Cruz, and I think that’s it for now. . I saw Joe Palca from a distance (he’s at NPR, where I did my Mass Media fellowship), and saw author KC Cole from across the room.   It was fun, too, I asked one reporter if he liked the audio recorder I saw him using, and as he talked I realized he was Steve Mirsky of Scientific American – I recognized his voice from listening to the podcast.  It’s funny how weird it is to see someone’s face as they talk when you’re used to hearing their disembodied voice all the time.  Every field has its stars, and isn’t it funny how we get excited about meeting them, or having some foothold in the community? I do enjoy it.

But the most relevant (and perhaps the most fun) was getting to see Jen Ouellette of Cocktail Party Physics in person (hi Jennifer!). I’ve seen her before, when she gave a talk on blogging a few years ago, and I thought, huh, that sounds interesting. Since I started focusing on my blog we’ve done some cross-linking and some nice e-conversations. Seeing her at the conference felt like seeing an old friend. She’s also written a very nice post about the NASW conference, which I’ll link to in some more detail when I write my detailed session notes.

OK, back to the races, to learn about how talking machines can manipulate our minds!