Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Experiences at ANCA(R) 2004

The nice folks at the ANCA(R) Foundation in Vancouver, B.C., asked me to write a few words on my experiences at this year's autism conference and surrounding events. Some of the details are a bit specific to that community, but I hope you all will still enjoy my remarks that are reproduced below.




By Lars Perner
Blog: http://delightfulreflections.blogspot.com

This summer was the first time I did not have to rush back from the ANCA® summer conference to another conference or teaching summer school, so I got to spend two weeks this year. Two weeks sounds like a long time, but how fast they went by! To make a shameless commercial plug, I am greatly looking forward to November.

Before the conference, Leonora was scheduled to speak to a group of professionals and paraprofessionals in Maple Ridge. You all know better than I do where that is—I don’t have much of a sense of direction—but it involves some travel away from Vancouver in one of the four geographic directions. Well, I guess I can eliminate West for logistical reasons. Individuals in this group worked with people with a variety of conditions—not just those on the autistic spectrum. It is important, however, to try to share what we have learned in the autism setting with others who may be able to adapt the ideas to their needs. The world needs the best and the brightest to work on autism, but we can only spare the best and the brightest. Others are needed to work on other challenges. We, in turn, can benefit from what they bring from other settings, and the questions they bring and the points they raise in discussions can help inspire our thinking.

Leonora presented a number of ideas based on her experience and the group had some interesting discussions. One topic that came up was that of terminology used to describe our population. Some people feel that using the term “autistic” is too much of a label. Leonora pointed out, however, that few people in the group would feel all that uncomfortable being “labeled” as Canadians. My preferred term is “individual on the autistic spectrum” since, to me, this description seems to emphasize individual differences. But terminology, ultimately, is a matter of taste and it really isn’t something that should distract us too much from important issues. On other occasions, I have heard people object to the spectrum term, suggesting that this sounds like something from which one could fall off. I am not particularly worried, however, since gravity on the spectrum seems to be quite adequate. Not necessarily enough to be constraining, but enough for me not to be worried even though I have neither strings nor a safety net as backup.

We also had discussions of challenges faced with specific individuals. To be on the safe side with respect to confidentiality, I am not going to mention anything specific here, but suffice it to say that people seemed quite flexible in responding to individual needs. One parent, for example, raised a question about a son who was unwilling to dispose of an “obsolete” piece of furniture. She was quite content not to force disposal, but wanted to be sure inevitable problems would not be merely postponed by keeping the redundant item.

The autism community needs a variety of different kinds of people, and for my part, I am essentially a pure theoretician. I have little practice working with actual individuals although people often find my ideas useful. This is one of the reasons that I always learn a great deal at ANCA® events where the staff actually has to work with “nuts and bolts” issues of real people. I get to go home and relax after writing and talking, but not so for the staff or parents. So, I in turn get a little more insight—and a bit of a reality check—each time I see “the practitioners” at work.

Shuttling back and forth between Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast was an idyllic experience. Before the conference, we had the support group event and preparations for the reception and conference. Before the reception, we got to put the finishing touches on the new ANCA® headquarters and two client groups had their very creative presentations. We got to meet numerous interesting individuals at the reception. Isn’t it ironic that autism conferences are often major social events?

During the conference, Stephen and I offered a great deal of wisdom, and those who attended genuinely received a treat. In return, participants also contributed interesting ideas. The great news is that those of you who attend the November conference will get even more stuff crammed into the seminar. Stephen and I will try—and I emphasize the word “try”—to be a bit more concise. Leonora and Charlie will then address how some of the more theoretical ideas discussed fit into practical programs.

After the conference, we had a few days of respite, allowing Leonora, Charlie, and me to talk about new ideas. It was then off to the camping trip. Spending several days at a campsite that did not even feature Internet access wasn’t really all that bad—particularly since I got to check my e-mail once in the local shopping mall. Camping was a chance to see people in a different setting. We had some nice walks and talks. A lot of people participated in food preparations. Some misguided souls consumed a lot of toxic carbohydrates, but they seemed to survive the experience.

We had an interesting discussion about an advertising series that was running in the British media. There were some very grabbing ads dealing with issues such as literal thinking. The consensus seemed to be that the ads were a bit on the condescending side, but well intentioned. With some more enlightened explanatory text, they could work quite well.

As we returned from the camping, we were all exhausted, but Leonora, Charlie, and I still managed a bit more brainstorming.

This summer played at least a modest part in helping make this a better world. The benefits will be reaped for years to come!

Christmas in August

A few weeks ago, I saw an animated Christmas display in Wal-Mart. I wasn't sure if it was meant as a joke or whether they were trying to compensate for poor sales back-to-school sales by pushing up holiday merchandising a bit.

Then, last week, I noticed that Costco now has Christmas decorations and merchandise out. As I recall, they normally hold out until September, so maybe there is a trend.

What do I think of this? To be honest, my emotions are mixed.

When my family moved to the U.S. in 1978, my mother was rather indignant of the practice then of beginning Christmas merchandising "already" in early November. The Danish culture at the time certainly would not have condoned that. (By the way, I will ask my mother and sister to check, when they visit Denmark in two weeks' time, whether Danish stores have gotten a bit more "with it" these days). I, on the other hand, thought this was rather cool. It was a subtle way of rebelling against the system and I did not see any harm in extending the duration of the holiday spirit. In fact, I will sometimes wear Christmas ties in April--they really aren't much fun to wear after Labor Day, let alone in December!

Nowadays, however, I wonder about this Christmas merchandising. I am concerned about the environmental consequences of the excess consumption that is being promoted, and I worry about families spending more than they can afford. Yes, some marketers have a conscience!

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Monday, August 30, 2004

If God loved America

A current event in New York City reminds me of a button I bought when visiting Atlanta ("atLAna") some years ago for the American Psychological Association convention. At the time, Atlanta had just hosted the National Democratic Convention. The button asked a compelling question: "If God loved America, why did He create Republicans?"

The chicken and the egg

In my previous post, I referred to the "chicken and egg" problem: Who came first?

Marketing is full of chicken and egg problems (especially when it comes to the diffusion of innovation). I had used this metaphor for a long time and but did not really know the answer to the question.

Finally, I decided to e-mail my old biology professor from college. The answer: The egg came first. But this answer just postpones the question. The problem is that the egg can be traced in the evolutionary chain back to amphibian reptiles. So, what came first, the egg or the reptile? Then again, the reptile's ancestor likely came before either of the two.

Marketing is not just for greedy capitalists anymore!

Although business is usually one of the more impacted majors on most campuses, things are a bit different here at the Imperial Valley Campus of San Diego State University. We have a bit of a "chicken-and-egg" problem here since we need students to be able to offer more courses but need the enrollments to offer the courses.

Therefore, I am trying to market my courses to non-business majors as well. Not only do I hope that this will increase enrollments, but I also hope the knowledge will be used to make the world a better place.

Here is the text from a flier I am distributing. The "real thing"--with proper formatting and clipart--is available at http://www.larsperner.com/pdf/Greedy%20Capitalists.pdf .



TUESDAY, 3:30-7:10 P.M.

How families make decisions about health care and education
Getting people to pay attention to public service announcements
Influencing people’s decision to recycle
Understanding the impact of culture on how people interact with government employees
Reducing prejudice
The impact of demographics and social trends on future demand for public services
How do people find information about government programs?
What can we do to reduce deceptive advertising?
What can be done to reduce the effects of peer pressure?

WEDNESDAY, 3:10-6:50 P.M.

Making brochures for your non-profit organization
Using spreadsheets to keep track of your charity’s expenses
Using PowerPoint to make presentations to potential donors
Using databases to keep track of your members
Designing web sites to promote social responsibility
Getting your non-profit organization’s web site into the search engines

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Halloween plans

For the last several years, I have been treatening to hand out homework assignments to those greedy children who come to extort candy at halloween. Now that I have come to truly appreciate how evil carbohydrates are, I might actually follow through this year!

By the way, in Denmak there is an event similar to Halloween but one that is celebrated at another time during the year. That event also involves juvenile demands for candy and dressing up in scary costumes. When I arrived in the U.S., I thought the collection process was known as "trigger treating." One year in high school, we were challenged on Halloween to dress as the person we admired first. That was very easy in my case.

Good news and bad news

The good news, rumor has it, is that my ten year old nephew and his friend have been actively working on a web site of their own. The bad news is that, because of its links to certain games, access to the site is being restricted to those over age 17.

Naturally, I am pleased that my nephew is getting with it enough to have a web site. As a prude, however, I wish he would post more appropriate content. Why not discuss his uncle's wisdom instead?

On the merits of normality

In statistics, it is often quite convenient if a population is normally distributed. In multivariate statistics, special reverence is reserved for those joint distributions that are "IID normal"--independently and identically normally distributed.

When it comes to humans, however, normality is much overrated. Have you ever thought about the reality that "normal" is, in truth, merely a synonym for "mediocre?"

As I am fond of saying, "Being normal is not a badge of distinction." My "Words of Wisdom" page contains additional pontifications.

Back when I was in graduate school, a bunch of us were discussing eccentricity in academia. I said something to the effect that there are few, if any, normal people in academia. "True," said one of my classmates, "but some are stranger than others."

"Well," I said, "if you do a log transformation, I am not that much of an outlier."

The response: "I just proved my point!"

Figures of Speech

Through my work on autism, I became aware that many people on the autistic spectrum--myself included--will often tend to take figures of speech literally. If you are not interested in autism per se, please persist since I will only briefly "set the stage" to talk more generally about metaphorical figures of speech.

In my "Literal Detours" model (see http://www.highfunctioningautism.com/), I propose that

1. People in the general population will tend to go immediately to the socially defined meaning of the term. A reference to someone "putting his foot in his mouth" may immediately lead to the idea of social clumsiness or making a social mistake.

2. Individuals on the autistic spectrum are less likely to go directly to the socially defined meaning. Instead, through a "literal detour," the metaphor must be imagined. To be understood, there must then be a "bounce-off" whereby it is realized that the expression is not intended to be interpreted literally.

I discuss these issues in more detail in my paper, but let's "turn the tables" and evaluate the use of figures of speech in "neurotypical" society.

What I have suggested is that most people will tend to use figures of speech without really really bothering to think much of the metaphor that was intended. Few people know, for example, that "red tape" refers to the ribbons that attorneys used to bind lengthy legal documents in the old days in France. In order to work on, or "get to the bottom of," these documents, it was necessary to "cut the red tape" to open the packet. Today, with the Internet, it is easier to find possible origins of expressions--but it is, of course, also easier to be misinformed by all the unverified information available online. Nevertheless, it is time consuming to find word origins, and I will confess that I, too, use expressions whose origins I do not know. There are also expressions whose origins are not clear. There are many possible hypotheses on the origins of the term "Once in a blue moon," and none seems to be a favorite by any means.

There are some figures of speech that seem to be used with little thought to their origins. For many years (and "until this day," for that matter), people would suggest that I have a "dry" sense of humor. I could find a definition of the term in the dictionary, but I could not figure out the metaphor. Finally, one day it dawned on me that most people probably did not have one in mind when they used the term to describe me. I could say that many figures of speech have "sinister" origins, but I do not want to express a prejudice against left-handed people . Nevertheless, many word origins are troubling. The term "grandfather rule" conjures up an image of a nice old man who should not be forced to change his way of doing things late in life. The real origin of the term, however, is far from that "cuddly." The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race. Officials in many southern states, however, were not particularly interested in complying with this directive. At the time, states were considered to be entitled to require an individual to pass a literacy test before being allowed to vote. (The Civil Rights Act of either 1964 or 1968 severely limited this prerogative). Many whites, however, would not be able to pass this test, so such a means could not be used to selectively exclude non-whites from voting. Instead, officials came up to the idea that although one would have to pass a literacy test to be allowed to vote, an exception could be made to those whose grandfather had been eligible to vote before something like 1840. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court found the practice unconstitutional, but the term "grandfather rule" still has a very tainted origin. The term "rule of thumb" conjures up an image of convenience. After all, one's thumb is handily located right on one's hand. Unfortunately, the term has its origins in the English common law and allowed some men not to be held responsible for certain acts of domestic violence. I do not feel comfortable using that term, either, now that I know its origin.

Now, under what circumstances do figures of speech have merit? I don't mean to suggest that this issue should be resolved entirely (or even primarily) by the decree of eccentric, absent minded marketing professors (although they often have great insight), but let me put out for discussion a set of criteria:

1. The metaphor makes sense to both the speaker and the listener. In this context, the following choice is ironic, but the metaphor of two people "not seeing eye to eye" seems to make intuitive sense.
2. The metaphor becomes a private joke (see my previous entry on mathematics for more on this topic) between an "inside" group of people.
3. The metaphor contains a delightful element of irony.
4. Although the metaphor is not clear, it is so "cool" as to justify itself. In Danish, there is a term of "going cucumbers," for example, that refers to thinks going terribly astray. This slang, to a large measure, depends on the metaphor not making sense for its appeal. A language can afford a limited number--how large a number, I do not know--of these expressions. We must, however, guard against emperors' meaningless new metaphors that we think other people find cool even though the coolness, in truth, escapes all of us.
5. There is a historical context to the metaphor. It may or may not make sense on its own, but its origin in popular culture is clear. Expressions that originated on episodes of Seinfeld may qualify. (I never got into that series since I was very uncomfortable with the laugh track used in the show, so I cannot give examples.)
6. Other expressions that have a legitimate and compelling purpose (my "elastic clause" to allow for contingencies I have not thought of).

By the way, I previously made reference to a term referring to a socially inappropriate remark. If one were to say something awkward or embarrassing, wouldn't it actually be helpful (albeit not hygienic) to put a foot into one's mouth? The foot might actually muffle the expression so that fewer people would hear it.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Trying to make math delightful

Math was never my strong suit, but I am not going to pass up this chance to play on words. I also love inside jokes.

At our faculty meeting this week, the Dean made a remark--in some context--to the effect that the faculty was not differentiable. During a break, I then inquired with a math professor whether we could be integrated. The social scientist standing next to us was groaning. The irony is, of course, that integration tends to prove problematic much more frequently than does differentiation.

This reminds me of a story once told to me. During a break at a conference of mathematicians, one participant decided to play a joke on those who had left the room. He asked a server who was taking care of refreshments, "When I ask you a question, can you say 'x squared over two?''"

When the others had returned, the mathematician remarked, "You know, the state of mathematics education really isn't as bad as you all think. Let me demontrate." He then asked, "Young lady, what is the integral of x?"

To the mathematician's dismay, there was a pause as the woman seemed to be thinking. "Well, come on," he said impatiently, "what is it?"

The woman then seemed to take her cue as she responded, "X squared over two...." A slight extra pause ensued until the woman added, "plus an arbitrary constant."

The "question that only a psychologist could ask"

By the time I started college, I had been looking forward to taking my introductory psychology course for a long time. I was fortunate to get into the class during my first quarter.

I was able to get hold of the textbook several weeks before classes started. At one point, I came across a reference to "a question that only a psychologst could ask." What was that question? "Why does an infant love its mother?" I became even more intrigued--both with the subject and the author's way of putting things. Basically, the study showed that the monkeys needed not just to have their utilitarian needs such as food taken care of, but also needed bonding. Years later, in my dissertation, I would go on to ask a question that only a marketer can ask: "Why do people shop?"

The sad thing, however, is that the question was actually based on the Harlowe studies of monkeys. This is one example of the unjustifiably cruel studies that have been done on animals in the name of psychology. When I attend meetings of the American Psychological Assocation, I feel guilt by association when I see the animals' rights demonstrators protesting outside the convention. It is also saddening that textbooks often do not even bother to comment on these cruelties.

Friday, August 27, 2004

The non-spammer who cried "Lamb!"

Recently, I was faced with the need to write a subject heading for an e-mail that would come across as a legitimate message rather than as an unwanted piece of luncheon meat. I was not sure that the recipient would know my name, so a decision as to whether to open the message might be based largely on this subject heading.

It never occurred to me before attempting this task how difficult it would be. Spammers--just like I--have a compelling interest in using a subject that will get people to read.

I did the best I could to come up with a legitimate sounding--and intriguing at the same time--subject. A few days later, when I asked my sister how likely she would expect a message with this subject to be spam did I get the bad news: "Definitely!"

Friday, August 20, 2004

The stories behind the songs

Songs that contain a story have always fascinated me. Often, these stories are presented with limited, if any, context. One intriguing case is "Fire and Rain" by James Taylor. Who was Susan, and why did anyone want to "put an end" to her? And, at the risk of being a bit macabre, what kind of "end" are we talking about? From a more logistical point of view, how much advance notice had James Taylor expected, or at least hoped for?

In Elton John's song "Daniel" (written by Bernie Taupan), how did Daniel come to develop such a fondness for Spain? What is the origin of the pain that Daniel may or may not be experiencing today?

One of the most touching songs I have ever heard is "Mandy." The name of the character in the song was actually changed from "Brandy," the original one used in British version of the song, when Bary Manilov recorded his version. (This change was made because to avoid confusion with another well known song that had then made its mark on the U.S. music scene). The lyrics provide a hint of what took place in the past, but the details are far from clear. The song certainly is a reminder to value what we have.

Rod Stewart's song "You're In My Heart" is quite vague about what kind of room the woman initially entered. Since she spoke with a Dutch accent, it is likely that she was either from Holland or South Africa (or spent time in one of those locations), but what kinds of journeys ultimately led the two characters to the room in question?

One of my favorite singers is Jim Croce. What happened to the lovers in "Alabama Rain?" Jim does admit that the doesn't actully "know what happened," but could he at least propose some hypotheses? Why did they choose Friday nights for their drive-in movies? The song "Roller Derby Queen" at first seems a bit crude, but when one thinks about it, it really does focus more on the experience of one man's feelings. Did he ever get to understand how the feelings originated, and did they last? In a live album, Jim remarks that the story was in part inspired by a true story, to this raises an interesting issue of what the "real" background for the story actually is.

Even when the context specified is limited, these songs can be quite captivating and can inspire a great deal of feeling, if not outright empathy. (I will have a lot more to say about that last word in future posts.) It could be that the songs are actually so intriguing in part because of the ambiguity. Sometimes, the songs may inspire one to try to figure out the context. One of Elton John's lesser known songs, "In Neon," appears to discuss the life of an aspiring actress seeking fame. The song is touching in part because it offers hope (e.g., "... a glimmer of hope and delight") while at the same time alluding to sadness and disappointment ("... a promise that dies.")

Country songs often feature stories that are written from the perspective of--at the risk of being tautological--country music. For years, I wasn't quite sure why these stories often fascinated me. One day, a friend of mine, in discussing country songs, suggested that these actually "have a sense of humor." People who view country songs as being somehow intellectually deficient may find this hard to believe, but I actually have to agree. Many country songs do, indeed, come close to the stereotype of the theme of these genre, but sometimes I have come to wonder whether the songs were really intended as "genuine" or if they were intended as parodies. Perhaps there really isn't a clear line to be drawn. Ed Bruce sings a number of songs with "prototypical"--if not outright stereotypical--lyrics (e.g., "My First Taste of Texas") that receive a great deal of airplay on traditional country stations. Yet, his song "Girls, Women, and Ladies" must be either a "perfect" country song or intended as satire. David Allen Coe, in his song "You Never Even Call Me By My Name" does deliberately set out to create "the perfect country song." To remedy deficiencies in an earlier draft that left out some important themes, he very efficiently adds an anecdote (seemingly unrelated to the previous plot) about being "drunk the day my mom got out of prison." Nevertheless, he goes to pick her up in his pick-up truck, but tragically, before he can get there, she is "run over by ... a train."

In the interest of fairness, I should say that some songs do, in fact, provide a more complete context. Leann Womack's song "I'll Think of a Reason Later" is a good example here.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Negative political advertising

It is a matter of some irony that my first subtantive post of "Delightful Reflections" addresses something that is anything but--negative political advertising. Nevertheles, (1) irony can be a matter of delight and, (2) spreading a better understanding of this phenomenon may help lead the world toward a more constructive approach to political and other decision making.

Recently, private groups that are not officially associated with either the Bush and Kerry campaigns have run advertisements questioning the military service of their respective candidate's opponent. These ads have not been endorsed by the candidates or their committees, and the official campaigns have distanced themselves from, if not outright condemned, the ads. What is likely to be the effect of these campaigns, and what might various parties want to achieve?

First of all, with the polls tending to show that the candidates are so close that differences in percentages are within the margin of error, creating a small change in public opinion could have a large impact--especially in closely contested states. The question is, however, if these negative ads actually help the candidate running against the one being attacked or if they could actually backfire.

There is a considerable likelihood that these blatantly negative campaigns would backfire if they were, in fact, sponsored or even endorsed by a campaign. However, neither party can control the extremists within their ranks. It is not clear whether the campaigns are secretly happy with the ads or find them an annoying headache. The negative campaigns have received so much news coverage--perhaps more than the actual airtime of the advertisements--that those voters who follow the news may be aware of the separation from the campaign. Whether voters believe that the official campaigns have done enough to stop these ads is an empirical question.

The extremists groups may, in fact, not expect to impact the election much if at all. Instead, they may find it more important to get out their message with all its inherent rightiousness. The ads may be popular with fellow extremists, but these people's votes have almost certainly been determined anyway. The ad sponsors may, instead, be more interested in having their views heard. Some of these ads seem quite emotional.

In terms of impact, we would like to think that any effect would be negative. Yet, research findings suggest a less idealistic outcome. Although consumers view comparative advertising--which frequently makes negative statements about a competing roduct--very negatively, these when it comes to actual purchase behavior, comparative ads are, unfortunately, quite effective under some circumstances. There is also considerable evidence that shows that in making decisions, people tend to weight negative information much more heavily than positive information. In psychological jargon, negative information is viewed as being more "diagnostic."

Another possibility involves the phenomenon of the "sleeper effect." This is a controversial phenomenon that can be demonstrated in the laboratory, but it is less clear to what extent it occurs in the "real" world. (By the way, not to be cynical, but what's so real about the world out there, anyway?) Basically, what is hypothesized to happen is that people will see information from a low credibility source and will, when they first encounter it, soundly reject the information as being not credible or true. For example, one may read about a scandal or absurd "scientific" finding in the tabloids and know quite well at the time that the story is quite likely to be false. However, they theory goes, the memory of claim will tend to be more vivid than that of the source. Later on, then, people may be likely to remember the allegation but, without remembering the source, will be less able to dismiss it due to a low credibility source.

On a more basic level, the notion of classical condition suggests that negative affect may be associted with the candidate's name on a more unconscious level. Again, even if one does not believe the story, a negative association may persist.

A final possibility--albeit a rather spectulative one--is the possibility that the ads may help start rumors that take on a "life of their own." People may repeat at least part of the claims and may alter them to make them sound more credible or may add details to make them more vivid. Research on rumors is replete with cases where the "facts" of rumors change dramatically. By the way, Michael Kamins, Valerie Folkes, and I have done on rumors shows that people consider "word of mouth" to be more credible than "rumors."

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Welcome to my Blog!

Thank you for checking out this new blog!

As a deeply caring and compassionate individual, I have always felt a strong obligation to allow as many people as possible to benefit from my wisdom. My observations on issues such as marketing, international business, autistic spectrum conditions, and education will unquestonable enrich your life if you check back regularly.