The boy discovered the other day and said, ‘Hey, look what I found.”

Anyway, I’ve known about This Is Why You’re Fat for a while, and I didn’t share that link with him on purpose, because it would link into some sort of segue into a rant about fat Americans, because, after all, no Europeans are fat. Except for Germans. And his dad. (I didn’t say that. That’s what he said.)

So I told him that it was good old fashioned American ingenuity that paved the way for the deep-fried Twinkie Cheez-Whiz hot dog and he was just a wuss.
Twinkie Cheez-Whiz Hotdogs

This is technically a lie, because people have been doing questionable things to food for ages, especially in Europe. The Romans had a recipe for an ox stuffed with a pig stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with something all the way down to a songbird or a wine-drenched baby mouse. I hear it’s kind of dry but I still would like the opportunity to eat a peacock.

Anyway, four pages into the site and the turbaconducken later, he asked why all the food photos looked so incredibly bad.

The truth is that most food (particularly food I make–last night’s lemon salmon zucchini rice tasted pretty good but looked like slop) doesn’t look particularly good. And home photography isn’t great, and most of the pictures you see on TIWYF are taken with the now-ubiquitous phone camera.

But the real issue is that most of the food images that we see today are designed to look pornographic; the lighting is set high, the sides built from plastic, and the accessories carefully chosen to evoke particular looks. Much of the food is fake, and even the ones that are real are given the movie star treatment–even home food bloggers stage their shots to recreate their home-made images in the shape of food pornography.

TIWYF shots are unstaged. If anything, they’re like the paparazzi shots of celebrities on the beach: unedited, makeupless, and picked to focus on the fatty bits, to show that real life is nasty.

Heart Attack Sandwich

I hesitate to say it’s more real than Mark Bittman or Martha Stewart, because it isn’t. Most people — and most fat people — don’t go around eating the McGangBang (a McChicken sandwich between a Double Cheeseburger). I’m not quite sure whether people actually ate the Jello fruit cocktails from the Gallery of Regrettable Food in the 1950s.

If this were, in fact, reality — it would lose its power to shock. TIWYF is like a car wreck on the highway: compelling, terrifying, disgusting, all-too-common, but statistically rare.

And yet it’s busy asserting its own reality. The fact that it exists makes people believe in it, the way the unstaged camera focuses in on the drooping, oil-dripping fried egg makes it authentic. There’s a perverse and pornographic lust it’s playing on, with the link between food, sex, desire, and disgust half-spelled out–this is BBW porn,, wet-and-messy, the uber-pierced Suicide Girl to the blonde plastic Barbie. It makes me hungry and sick at the same time. It’s not real either.

No media really is, particularly media that attach to a different sense from the one it describes.

You know what’s real?

The things in the refrigerator right now.

Name the last five meals you ate.

Gouda cheese on Melba toast; salmon-rice leftovers rolled inside a nori wrap; oatmeal and muesli with whole milk, lemon salmon zucchini rice; an orange and an apple turnover


Sophie and Sylvie have decided that it is too much of a bitch to blog in a combined format. They’re going to make separate blogs from now on.

Sophie is at
Sylvie is at

They’ve got a point about the details being boring, and I admit that I didn’t keep up my end. And you know, I disappear from here for weeks at a time, because, obviously, no one actually reads this blog.



Americans are hunkering down and saving more. For a recession-battered economy, it couldn’t be happening at a worse time.

Economists call it the “paradox of thrift.” What’s good for individuals — spending less, saving more — is bad for the economy when everyone does it.

Some experts say consumers have been so shaken by how fast their wealth has shrunk, so burned by credit card debt, that they might not resume their robust spending for years, if ever.

“People are not saving; they are building financial bomb shelters,” said Mark Stevens, who runs a management consulting firm, MSCO, in Rye Brook, N.Y.

This article pertains directly to my master’s thesis: first, choices made by the individual that benefit the individual are not the same as those that benefit the economy and vice versa. Secondly, don’t frame the question as saving — frame the question as ‘not buying shit they don’t need and don’t have the money for.’ Americans had a negative savings rate on average for several years. We paid for stuff with credit card debt and leveraging against our houses, and I would receive six calls to refinance my mortgage per day. Every day. The article quotes Cornell’s Robert Frank, who mentions that this frenzy of consumption was unsustainable. Building a fortune on rampant consumer spending, in order to spend more yourself? Just another illusionary bubble that got popped.  And illusions die hard.

Now we’re saving hard to make up for it, and because the media tells us we should be worried (just like it told us to spend spend spend — and the ads are still there) — it reinforces the perception that we are in trouble, and that everyone else is saving, and that conformity effect is a subtle nudge towards not spending — even though the gist of the information here is that you should be spending for the good of our consumer society. Shades of 2001 with buying as a civic duty.

I don’t think that is going to work this time. This Prisoner’s Dilemma is brutal, and humans are conditioned to react twice as strongly to the idea of loss as to the idea of gain.

Matthew Conrad, a financial manager at Complete Wealth Management in Orange County, Calif., says he knows of people who drive a BMW or Mercedes and eat macaroni and cheese for dinner several nights a week. That suggests some are making an awkward shift from free-spending habits and are reluctant to give them up.

Grant McCracken theorized a remarkable idea about consumption, which he called the Diderot effect. The story goes that Diderot had a cozy little study, somewhat ramshackle but pleasing, and then he received a gift of a marvelous dressing gown from a dear friend. This dressing gown, of red velvet, made the rest of his study look shabby in comparison, so Diderot began to replace his study piece by piece until he had a fantastic room that matched the gown. And then he wrote about it.

The Diderot unity is a masterpiece of psychological connection: it asks that objects which are invested with similar qualities and meanings become grouped together and associated with each other, even if there is no actual linkage between them. For example, the BMW has more in common with the Rolex and the Bang & Olufsen coffeemaker than with Kraft Dinner; it implies that someone with a BMW should not be having to eat mac and cheese.

The Diderot effect is when the consumer decides that they need to obey the need for psychological consistency and commitment: when they choose to replace their existing goods with ones that match their lifestyle — or alternatively, reject new goods because they do not fit the existing Diderot unity. If you go down to the local farmer’s market and look for the people buying organic produce, you are going to find more Priuses than Hummers.

Diderot Unity Exhibit A: If I had a million dollars

But we would eat Kraft Dinner. Of course we would, we’d just eat more. And buy really expensive ketchups with it. That’s right, all the fanciest Dijon ketchups! Mmm. Mmm-hmm.

Diderot Unity Exhibit B: Stuff White People Like.

Vance Packard (no relation to Packard Motor Co.) wrote a book called Hidden Persuaders in 1957. It was deeply critical of market research and advertising and marketing, and topped the NY Times Best Sellers list. Reading his book (and the sequels The Status Seekers and  The Waste Makers)  is heartbreaking, because what it shows is that we’ve come so far, and yet we haven’t learned a thing. Women in 1956 bought 80% of consumer goods for the household, but marketers still aim ads towards men. A bigger car makes people feel safer, and people are ashamed to drive a car beyond three years old. Marketing put Eisenhower in power as the big daddy of the US, and fought the brand war between Republicans and Democrats with Nixon and Agnew. And advertisers aim their marketing to children on a reprehensible scale.

Packard identifies the usage of psychology in advertising, and catalogues the ways in which advertising markets things people do not need by manipulating desire. There are three things of particular note.

1.People don’t say they want what they really want. You can’t trust people to say ‘I want a smaller, more fuel-efficient car’ and then actually buy the damn thing.

2. Americans are peculiar because they automatically assume that bigger = better. They are also unable to stop working, and even during leisure time they must feel as if they are doing something. Hobbies and tours are big business. (This is particularly true, looking at the rise of virtual business in There, Second Life, WoW etc. The biggest dream of many people in virtual worlds is making a living from playing a game.)

3. People are irrational. Ridiculously, stupidly, easily manipulated irrational. But irrationality, Packard concludes, is luxury, and it makes people feel better that they can afford to  make irrational choices. He’s just suspicious of the amount of manipulation that goes on to influence people to make these choices.

Critiques of Packard basically state that it’s not that easy to manipulate people, and sometimes advertising doesn’t work, and our understanding of psychological buying is not perfect.

Sometimes advertising doesn’t work for particular products. But the world we live in is mad for buying and planned obsolescence, its economy is dependent on buying more and more, and that’s the world advertising and marketing helped make. Some dude got trampled to death at a Walmart during the Christmas rush by a mob that just wanted to buy a $388 flatscreen TV. This is a metaphor for all of us: we’re the security temp and the mob and the store and the Black Friday sale.

All right, it’s been a while since I last posted. The reason is that our class was supposed to work on a blog for class. Once that assignment was finished, we moved on to a new assignment. I don’t think the others are even updating, since they work us like dogs in this course and it has finally let up a bit.

However, the more you suffer to get into something, the more valuable you find the experience or the group. This is why aboriginal peoples have rites of passage to adulthood, and why fraternities haze new recruits.

The new assignment Hein gave us is to reinterpret Edward Bernays’ 1928 book, Propaganda, as a website. Bernays was the father of Spin and PR, and he was the first to translate the psychological theories of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, into advertising and propaganda. Bernays helped companies adapt the tools of mass communication to benefit mass production, and gave them the tools to turn needs into wants, turning America into a nation of consumers. Bernays is responsible for the success of IHOP and Denny’s, because he cast ‘bacon and eggs’ as the quintessential American meal and sold it to the public.

On November 20th, my colleague Melissa and I went to the Creativity World Forum in Antwerp, Belgium. It was a good set of speakers, particularly with David Heath and Chris Anderson.

I also discussed my ideas and background with Arjen Mulder in Amsterdam last week, in preparation for the December presentation of our thesis topics.

In short: I am interested in why people make choices. Logical self-interest, it turns out, is not the determining factor in decision-making.

For that, we go to James March’s Decision-making tree:

  1. What kind of person am I?
  2. What sort of situation is this?
  3. What does a person like me do in a situation like this?

Identity is the most important factor. So if you change the person or the situation, you can change the effects.

Body-Swapping as Psychotherapy

The evidence that inhabiting another’s perspective can change behavior comes in part from virtual-reality experiments. In these studies, researchers create avatars that mimic a person’s every movement. After watching their “reflection” in a virtual mirror, people mentally inhabit this avatar at some level, regardless of its sex, race or appearance. In several studies, for instance, researchers have shown that white people who spend time interacting virtually as black avatars become less anxious about racial differences.

VIDEO: Apollo Robbins at The Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness convention

I’ve recently become a bit obsessed with Apollo Robbins. 

Robbins is a pickpocket and Las Vegas magician turned security consultant; he’s featured on the US version of the TV show The Real Hustle on TruTV (formerly CourtTV). His magic is distraction and manipulating human behaviour.

Here are two articles from the New York Times: one a recent link describing the Science of the Five Senses convention; the other article a year old, written by the science writer Robbins steals blind in the video up top.

Also included: link to “Attention and Awareness in Stage Magic” in Nature Neuroscience. Authors include Stephen L. Macknik, Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, Teller, John Thompson & Susana Martinez-Conde. Watch the others — Teller talks!

Let’s go back to pickpocketing and the science of cognition. Robbins explains that pickpockets have an advantage over stage magicians in that thieves prey on the unsuspecting; magicians do tricks with everyone watching. 

Magic is about playing with basic human nature: attention/inattention, de/sensitivity, attraction/distraction.

Creative Commons image, Nate Steiner

Creative Commons image, Nate Steiner

John McCain’s Robo-calls (automated home phone calls) don’t work. Barack Obama’s text messages do.

Why is this?

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo answers the question: robo-calls are cheap and easy, but have no effect (other than annoying a ton of people); text messages are cheap, easy and effective, because they’re both personal and impersonal at the same time.

How does the text message have this sort of contradictory impulse? Because it’s on a cell phone, which is close to you every day, and because for the average user, text messages are like rare jewels, or limited editions–something you look forward to getting. Or a friendly reminder. For the Obama campaign, cell phones are like micro-targeting: if they have a cell phone they know where the person lives and whether they’re a likely voter.

And they’re currently unspammed. If you have a txt from Barack either you signed up for it…or one of your friends forwarded it on to you.

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