Saturday, February 18, 2006

When in doubt, sleep on it.

Want to make a complicated decision? Just stop thinking
· Tough problems 'best left to the unconscious mind'
· Psychologist questions merit of serious thought

Alok Jha, science correspondent
Friday February 17, 2006

Here's a suggestion for the next time you need to make a complicated decision: stop thinking. According to a new study, thinking too hard about a problem leads to poor choices - difficult decisions are best handled by our unconscious minds. While most people are happy to buy a new set of towels without much thought, they are unlikely to buy a new car or house without some serious thought. But Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, argues that we might be getting these methods of decision-making the wrong way around.
He asked volunteers to pick their favourite car from a list of four based on a set of four attributes including fuel consumption and passenger leg room. He gave them four minutes to think about their decision and most people chose the car with the most plus points. When Dr Dijksterhuis made the experiment more complex - 12 attributes rather than four - people could only identify the best car a quarter of the time. This result was no better than choosing at random.

However, when the researchers distracted the participants after showing them the cars (by giving them puzzles to do before asking participants to make their choices), more than half picked the best car. "Conscious thinkers were better able to make the best choice among simple products, whereas unconscious thinkers were better able to make the best choice among complex products," wrote Dr Dijksterhuis in a paper, published today in Science.

The problem with thinking about things consciously is that you can only focus on a few things at once. In the face of a complex decision this can lead to giving certain factors undue importance. Thinking about something several times is also likely to produce slightly different evaluations, highlighting inconsistencies.

"Participants who chose their favourite poster among a set of five after thorough contemplation showed less post-choice satisfaction than participants who only looked at them briefly," said Dr Dijksterhuis.

He added that unconscious thinking does not seem to suffer the capacity limit: "It has been shown that during unconscious thought large amounts of information can be integrated into a evaluative summary judgment."

Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver told Science that, while the new study builds on evidence that too much reflection is detrimental in some situations, he is not yet ready to dispense with conscious thought when it comes to complex decisions. "What I think may be really critical is to engage in [conscious] reflection but not make a decision right away," he said.

Dr Dijksterhuis said that when an important decision comes up he gathers together the relevant facts and gives it all of his attention at first. Then, he told Science: "I sit on things and rely on my gut."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

What does a product want?

February 19, 2006

The Story of O's


More than 60 years ago, CheeriOats were introduced to a cereal aisle far less abundant with choices than the one we know today. Cheerios — the shortened name, as of 1945 — remains a powerhouse. In a recent 52-week period, more than 95 million yellow boxes of Cheerios were purchased, to the tune of $288 million, making it one of the best-selling cereals in the United States, according to Information Resources, a retail data firm.

Can such numbers be explained by mere force of habit? David Altschul does not think so. "I think there's some deeper emotional resonance," he says. Altschul is the president and founder of a Portland, Ore., firm called Character, which does something called "story frameworks" for brands. This includes what Altschul calls "critter work" — helping marketers understand why a brand mascot is or is not working. A few years ago, after deconstructing the Honey Nut Cheerios bee, Altschul was asked to apply his methods to Cheerios itself, which made sense to him. To Altschul, character and story are at the heart of every brand that has an audience.

"Some marketers," he says, "think that 'story' is whatever they choose to say. People who understand story from an entertainment point of view would say 'story' is whatever your audience takes away from it." Everybody knows marketing stories frequently fail to connect, but the quest to solve this problem has tended to revolve around how best to study consumers — focus groups? Ethnography? Brain scans? Altschul's interest is on the storytelling side. For Cheerios (as for other characters and brands), the process involved "Character Camp." This three-day exercise, led by Altschul and his colleagues, is attended by marketers and ad-agency people who work with the brand. The guiding idea is to set aside the consumer data and learn to think of a brand as "a character." Crucial to this, Altschul says, is the idea of motivation: "What does this brand want? Not 'What does the brand manager want from it?' But if the brand were a character, what would it want?"

What do Cheerios want? Analyzing reels of old ads for the cereal led to discussions about how the brand was depicted in relationship to family members, particularly moms — who were curiously underrepresented, almost as if, like Clark Kent and Superman, they could never be seen together. Cheerios, it seemed, wanted to be Mom. "I think the brand actually wants to enable family connection," Altschul says. "Every brand that we've looked at that has any emotional traction is based on some fundamental human truth," he adds, and in the case of Cheerios this truth is: "Families are built on small, intimate moments of love connection."

Becky O'Grady, the General Mills vice president who oversees the Cheerios brand, says this process "evolved our thinking." Needless to say, she believes that Cheerios taste great and so on; yet even General Mills refers to Cheerios as enjoying "loyalty beyond reason" in fending off far cheaper store brands. But despite focus-group references to it as "the national cereal," there was still a certain caution to its advertising — the inevitable cutaway to the pure-rational sell of an arrow indicating cholesterol going down. The Character Camp vision of a heroic, beloved Cheerios, O'Grady says, "gave us courage to go to the next level." More recent advertising has dropped the cholesterol arrow in favor of more blatantly emotional vignettes about. . .family connections. Most strikingly, the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi produced a one-minute spot that made its debut in theaters about a couple adopting two children from another country; it shows the new family bonding by playing with Cheerios on the plane trip home.

The shameless movie-of-the-week tone verges on melodrama — but that's kind of the idea. After all, Altschul points out, the adoption ad's story line was borrowed from letters that consumers wrote to General Mills. Nobody would have written to a grocery chain about the amazing emotional experience they had with its store-brand circular oat cereal, he says, "and even if they did, nobody would believe it." That, in fact, is the real key to a brand's character: it's not what marketers can imagine their product doing, but what consumers apparently believe. As Altschul says, "We're not making this stuff up."


Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

A life more ordinary.

Connoisseur of the ordinary

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of Rembrandt. On the eve of a major exhibition in Amsterdam, Robert Hughes discusses the enduring genius of an artist who broke the rules, defied convention - and brought the everyday to vivid life

Robert Hughes
Saturday February 11, 2006

There are some great artists whose achievements we admire, so to speak, from the outside. They do not excite the sense of empathy: not, at least, in any personal way. You may admire Piero della Francesca, or Raphael, or Poussin. You may find yourself transported by the calm columnar beauty of Piero's Madonna del Parto or by the heroic and somewhat abstract grandeur of the figures who populate Poussin's Seven Sacraments; or by the overwhelming kingliness of Titian's portrait of Charles V, there on the wall of the Prado.

But what you are not likely to feel is a sense of community with these magnificent products of human thought and imagination. Were there really people who looked like this, who could be seen walking the streets of Rome, Arezzo or Paris? Who could be spoken to, and answer your voice? It seems implausible. We look at them for quite different reasons. We admire their difference, and their distance, from us.

But then there are artists whose work is not like this. They are the ones who acknowledge human imperfection and mortality. And not only acknowledge it, but in some sense glory in it, making it the prime subject of their art. For if men and women were perfect, mentally, physically, morally, spiritually, why would they need art at all?

Certainly Rembrandt van Rijn did not feel an obligation to make his human subjects noble, let alone perfect. That is why, though not always a realist, he is the first god of realism after Caravaggio. And why so many people love him, since he was so seldom rivalled as a topographer of the human clay. Yet for all that has been written about Rembrandt, we have remarkably little certainty as to what he thought about the domain of his genius, the art of painting. He did not theorise. Or if he did, his ideas about art itself have been lost - except for six words, whose meaning is still disputed by art historians. He aimed in his work, he wrote to one of his patrons, the Stadtholder, who employed his friend Constantijn Huygens, to produce die meeste ende die natureelste beweechlickheyt - the greatest and most natural movement.

But movement of what? The apparent movement of the bodies of the "actors", the figures depicted; or the stirring of the spectator's emotions? We do not know, though it seems more sensible, given the theatrical look and feel of so many of his paintings, to suppose the latter.

He came from the lower middle class of Holland. His father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn (c. 1568-1630) owned a half-share in a flour mill in Leiden, and his mother, Cornelia van Zuytbrouk (1568-1640), was a baker's daughter. He was the second youngest of 10 children, and although big families were more common then than now, the effort of raising such a brood must have placed an exhausting strain on his parents; it is written all over the seamed, lined face of his mother, whom he frequently painted in her old age. Nevertheless they were able to send him to Leiden's Latin school, where he would have studied Latin, classical literature and history. In later life he would not show a great enthusiasm for painting subjects from classical mythology - or at least the patrons of Leiden and Amsterdam did not commission many from him - but this would certainly not have been from ignorance.

He was a singular connoisseur of ordinariness, and some of his self-portraits are eloquent proof of this. His first self-portrait in particular: it is the artist as a young dog, an etching of himself snarling at the mirror, rejecting the viewer's (and by implication, society's) gaze. We see the same rebarbative snarl in other self-portraits and (most tellingly) in an etching that is not identified as being of Rembrandt, an image of a seated peasant, not identified as the artist himself but glaring at anyone who might be self-satisfied enough to pity him. The expressions seem no less intense when you realise that he was testing out dramatic expressions - acting for the camera that was himself.

Nor did he ever treat the human form as a means of escape from the disorder and episodic ugliness of the real world. Reality was always breaking into celestial events. How many other painters of his time would have been likely to show the soles of the bare feet of an angel as it flies up and away from the family of Tobit? Not for Rembrandt the ridiculous refinements of the female body one sees in late Mannerism - the smooth tapering, the swan-like necks, the preposterous elongations of torso and thigh. Women's bodies in Mannerist painting had the same relation, or lack of it, to reality as the bodies of today's runway models do: that is, they are absurd, hyperstylised goddesses who have nothing to do with experience. Rembrandt's own lack of interest in refinement and smoothness in the Italian manner - his rejection, in short, of the abstract - would cost him the loyalty of some connoisseurs, such as the "German Vasari" Joachim von Sandrart, who complained that for all his talent Rembrandt hadn't grasped "our rules of art, such as anatomy and the proportions of the human body", partly because he "always associated with the lower orders, whereby he was hampered in his work". This Dutchman just wasn't officer material, and didn't belong in the officers' mess, still less at court. And when you see some of the plebeian and ageing bodies of women that Rembrandt painted, and then designated as goddesses or Biblical heroines, you know immediately what Von Sandrart meant. Nevertheless, these were the bodies generally available to him, and they had a documentary truth.

But of course, that is not the whole story. To see why it is not, you need only look at that imperishable masterpiece in the Louvre, Bathsheba at her bath, his portrait of his wife Hendrickje Stoffels, naked except for a wisp of fabric hiding her pubis. A maidservant is washing and perfuming her feet, because she has just received a letter from the libidinous King David, summoning her to his bed. She is not entirely unadorned: she wears a necklace, there is a bracelet on her right arm, and hanging over her collarbone, a mere visual caress, is a madder-coloured ribbon.

If Rembrandt had tried to turn her into a glamour-girl all'Italiana, the image would have failed. But it succeeds because he portrayed a woman thinking while naked - an almost unheard-of achievement in the art of the nude. Bathsheba clearly has an internal life, not merely an external beauty. She is engaged in moral reflection - the fact that she is no longer reading the letter makes that clear - and her pensive expression has a gravity beyond that of any other Bathsheba. Will she? Won't she? Does she want to? If so, how much? The questions are left hanging in the air, but we are left intensely conscious of them - of the ambiguity, so to put it, that hangs over all beauty, all desire. But then, her beauty is of a different order to the conventional; those broad hips, those sturdy hands, connect her to the actual world we live and feel in. And what lends a further dimension to the subject is that we know, if we are Biblically literate, something that Bathsheba, inside the Bible story, does not: that the amoral King David wants her so much that he is going to murder her husband, get him out of the way by putting him in the front line of battle.

Sometimes Rembrandt's subjects are too connected to the commonplace world for everyone to like them. There is an extremely vulgar side to Rembrandt. This in itself is no surprise, given the bawdry for which 17th-century Holland was notable. It may well be that giving vent to it was Rembrandt's compensation for the anal obsession with neatness and cleanness that characterised Dutch domestic life. He did etchings of a man peeing and a woman defecating. A dog, tensely extruding a large turd from its backside, appears in the foreground of The Good Samaritan. And his large painting of the infant Ganymede snatched up into the sky by Zeus in the form of an eagle shows the child uncontrollably pissing in terror, which must be about the most anti-classical rendering of a scene from the classics ever given by a major artist - though it is certainly what you would expect a baby boy to do under the circumstances.

Cognate with this is Rembrandt's capacity for conveying unvarnished, unedited pain. In that he had something in common with the as-yet-unborn Goya, and with his own contemporary, the great Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652). Probably the most fearsome example in Rembrandt's work was that enormous canvas, The Blinding of Samson, a monument of sadistic fury which the painter sent as a gift to his friend and patron Huygens, secretary to the Stadtholder and author of the first memoir to heap praise on the as-yet-young painter. It is a perfect horror-show of a painting, fully in accord with Jacobean taste. "Tear up his lids," cries a villain in one of the English revenge-tragedies,

"And let his eyes like comets shine through blood -
When the bad bleed, then is the tragedy good!"

Such is the spirit of The Blinding of Samson, except that the good, or at least the not-bad, are doing the bleeding. There are soldiers pinioning the helpless strongman; there is Delilah, escaping with scissors in one hand and his mat of hair in the other; and there is another soldier, like some gleaming and malignant beetle in his armour amid the confused tangle of limbs and weapons, pushing the dagger into Samson's eyesocket. There is no record of whether Huygens liked this repulsive and enormous present, or hung it in his house; it remains a striking example of the diplomatic ineptitude which, in combination with Rembrandt's personal extravagance and his general financial incompetence, would eventually lead him to bankruptcy.

Rembrandt had a strange way of acting, sometimes, as though he were alone in the world, but the popular idea of the artist as solitary genius does not fit him at all: in fact it represents the opposite of the way he worked. He identified with "the people", from whose midst he knew very well he had come. He never for a moment seems to have shared the desire for nobility that had been such a theme in the careers of artists such as Diego Velásquez or Peter Paul Rubens. His life was crowded, rather than peacefully isolated, and certainly never of an Olympian detachment, even though he was capable of quite deranged gestures of show-offy extravagance - such as buying an enormous house, more suitable for a banker than a painter, on the fashionable Sint Antoniesbreestraat, for 13,000 guilders, a sum he must have known he could never pay off, no matter how many bread-and-butter portraits he turned out.

His working days were full of people, crammed with pupils and assistants, not because he wanted selflessly to give away his time to the young, but because he badly needed their time and money; at the height of his career he had 25 young people working for him and being taught by him, which, at the relatively high fee of 100 guilders a year - not all parents could afford so much for a son's apprenticeship - brought him 2,500 guilders annually. He actually had to rent a house on the Bloemgracht in 1637 to give them all working room. What did they do? They learned the nuts and bolts of the trade: grinding colours, stretching and priming canvases, and so on, to drawing the human face and body from models. They had the benefit of his sprawling Kunstkammer-like collection of art objects, curios, costumes and studio props. The inventory of his possessions made in 1656 lists dozens of paintings by others, folios of prints, scrapbooks, a dozen busts of Roman emperors, scores of "specimens of land and sea creatures", pieces of armour, old weapons, numerous musical instruments including "a wooden trumpet" - what on earth did that sound like? - and, rather touchingly, "two little dogs done from the life by Titus van Rijn", his son. Such things were collected, in quantity, to be used as sources for quotation and examples in an age that did not, as yet, know photographic reproduction.

All this was tremendously valuable for young talent, as were the living models he hired - one need only consider how difficult it would have been for a student to get the opportunity to draw a naked woman: young Dutch painters tended not to be married, for obvious reasons of poverty, but respectable unmarried girls did not pose naked, an activity which in 17th-century Amsterdam was considered fit mainly for prostitutes. Add to this the obvious prestige of working, even as a studio dogsbody, for a painter of Rembrandt's reputation and one can see why the master was never short of assistants and why they would pay top guilder to work for him. They came from all over the Netherlands: Samuel van Hoogstraten, Govert Flinck, Gerard Dou, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Gerrit Willemsz Horst, Ferdinand Bol, Carel Fabritius, Nicolaes Maes, Aert de Gelder and perhaps a dozen others. Some of these had no clear relation to Rembrandt except that they picked up some professionalism in his studio - Dou being the clearest example, since there seems to be no possible link between his ultra-detailed, nitpicking miniaturist's realism and Rembrandt's broader and more dashing brushwork. Some were mediocrities but others were remarkably good, due in part, no doubt, to what rubbed off on them from Rembrandt himself. Moreover, Rembrandt would hardly have wanted to take on duffers, since he profited from their work and had standards to uphold. If one of them did a painting he liked, he was quite capable of signing it with his own name, keeping it and selling it as an autograph work by "Rembrandt". Criteria of originality and authorship were much more relaxed in the 17th century than they are now. If the mighty Rubens could touch up student work, there was no earthly reason why Rembrandt should not.

But this, of course, raises problems for the modern picture-lover, which begin with the supposed supremacy of "handwriting" as a test of authenticity. Beginning with the pseudo-scientific physiognomist Giovanni Morelli, on whose work Bernard Berenson based his own criteria for identifying Italian artists of the distant past, it was assumed - often correctly - that a painter will reveal who he is in those very parts of the painting over which he takes the least conscious control: the "handwriting", the squiggles and tweaks, with which he semi-automatically draws an ear-lobe, a nostril, an eye.

This is all very well, and it is useful much of the time, but the curious thing about Rembrandt's disciples is that they so often managed to reproduce the characteristic hooks and crotchets of their master's line with astonishing and, it seems, convincingly unconscious fidelity. Hence the sharp and even embittered character of arguments about Rembrandt attribution. There can be few people left who believe he painted The Man with the Golden Helmet in Berlin's Gemäldegalerie, which was once not only accepted without demur but revered as a touchstone of Rembrandt's work by such authorities of yesteryear as Jakob Rosenberg, WR Valentiner and the much-feared Wilhelm Bode, but also by a huge public. Today the focus of Rembrandt insecurity is the Frick Collection's The Polish Rider, which has been "questioned" (as the ominous term has it) by the much-feared Rembrandt Research Project, an independent group of experts whose mission is to construct an unassailable corpus of genuine Rembrandts out of the welter of attributions inherited from earlier days.

Personally, I love The Polish Rider and I am certainly not the only one who does. But it is in certain respects unlike other Rembrandts - starting with the fact that Rembrandt's equestrian paintings are few and far between; in all the body of his work, there is only one other portrait of a man on horseback, the portrait of Frederick Rihel (1663) in London's National Gallery, and this prosperous-looking civic guardsman astride his baroque rocking-horse is a world away, both in looks and in feeling, from the bony, Rocinante-like nag that bears its young rider across the canvas on his urgent, inscrutable errand. The picture was found in a castle in Poland, hence its entirely gratuitous title; but nobody knows who the rider was, or even whether he was, in fact, Polish: probably he is wearing those clothes because Rembrandt had them in the heterogeneous clutter of costumes in his studio.

The art historians, from Julius Held to Kenneth Clark, who have argued that the starting-point of the painting was actually (or "possibly", or "probably", or "very likely" or "almost certainly") a skeleton man mounted on a skeleton horse that Rembrandt saw and drew in the dissecting-room of Leiden University may very well be right. Or not. There can be few paintings of comparable quality of which less is known for sure than The Polish Rider. But the doubts cast on it by the RRP are also guesswork. The efforts to reattribute it to one of Rembrandt's pupils, Willem Drost, about whose life and work very little is known, are quite inconclusive. They are like attempts to "prove" that Hamlet was really written by someone other than William Shakespeare - but someone who was still as good a writer as Shakespeare, for whose existence there is no actual evidence. Until such a phantom turns up, to imagine Rembrandt without The Polish Rider is rather like trying to imagine Wagner without Parsifal.

But there have often been doubts about the authenticity of Rembrandts - not just the obvious fakes or the minor pictures, but about works that were once (and perhaps, given the changes of fortune that reattribution brings, should be again) placed among the best of his work. David Playing the Harp before Saul in the Mauritshuis is to me a most moving painting, with that remorse-crazed eye of the king and its unideal but beautifully realistic-looking, concentrated young harpist. Why did the art historian Horst Gerson take it away from Rembrandt in 1968? Because he found the gesture of Saul drying his tears on his cloak (or perhaps hiding his face from David, whom he planned to murder) too theatrical. But Rembrandt is often theatrical. Indeed, his frequent nearness to theatre is implicit in his lighting and the concentrated eloquence of the way his figures pose and gesture.

Theatricality doesn't disprove Rembrandt: it is one of the things that makes him a great Baroque artist, as well as a great realist. Few gestures, after all, could be more theatrical than the marvellous one of reconciliation in the Hermitage's The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1662, where the delinquent boy kneels, burying his face in his father's bosom, while the old man's hands rest on the lad's back with such extraordinary tenderness. And the theatricality is heightened by the fact that the prodigal has fallen on his knees before his father with such emotional haste that his left shoe has come off, just as it might in real life, so that the sole of his foot is as bare as any foot in a Caravaggio - a none-too-subliminal image of the stripping of the spirit, of humility and repentance, in the soul's progress towards God, which is what the parable of the prodigal son is about. Indeed one may, without stretching things, see in the conjunction of foot and empty shoe a small figuration of the humble soul casting off the husks or coverings of the material world.

Rembrandt often used Jewish models, which is hardly surprising given that he illustrated so many Biblical scenes. He does not, however, seem to have immersed himself in the (mainly Sephardic) Jewish community of Amsterdam; as the art historian Gary Schwartz observes, his Jewish contacts "were limited to a few of the figures who ventured the furthest into the Christian world", chiefly the scholarly Rabbi Menassah ben Israel (1604-57), who ran the leading Jewish press in northern Europe and must, one presumes, have shown Rembrandt how to correctly write the Aramaic inscription Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin on his painting of Belshazzar's feast. What Rembrandt's own feelings about Jews may have been is difficult to guess. Certainly, however - since nothing resembling the "ignoble Jew" has ever been detected in his work - he was not anti-semitic, and he made no effort to dissimulate the obvious fact that the Old Testament heroes, apostles and prophets he was so often called upon to paint were Jewish. Moreover, since it is fairly clear from his work that he regarded the artist as an outsider, one may fairly suppose that the Jew-as-outsider in the otherwise solidly Christian communities of Leiden and Amsterdam would have engaged his sympathy as well.

He never enjoyed the institutional security of, say, Rubens. He was not totally reliable when it came to turning out big official paintings and satisfying the needs and vanity of major patrons, though he could certainly perform impressively when required to: one striking piece of evidence for this is his masterpiece The Nightwatch, that extraordinary re-thinking of the genre in which Dutch painters were expected to excel, the group portrait of members of a board, a club or a profession.

The Nightwatch does not, as has often been noted, take place at night - it acquired the name in the 18th century, when it was dark with grime. Actually it is quite evenly lit, for the good reason that everyone depicted in it felt entitled to be well seen and recognisable. What it depicts is one of the militia companies which, in 17th-century Amsterdam, had lost most of their military functions but retained their role as semi-military social clubs for the prosperous. Typically, they had about 200 members each. There were 20 or so of these companies, divided into three types: archers, crossbowmen and the musketeers or kloveniers. Each had its headquarters, the doelen - a club-house, with shooting-range and armory.

Rembrandt painted the men of one such musketry club, whose chief officer was a rich young man of 37 named Frans Banning Cocq, marching about and ceremonially preening themselves, deploying their banners, pikes and halberds and firing off their guns, just for show. It is a curiously disordered scene - art historians have shown that not even the uniforms and costumes of the militiamen are consistent, some apparently dating back to the 16th century, which suggests that they came not from the storage rooms of the doelen but from some costume-cupboard of Rembrandt's own. Pink, well-fed, self-satisfied, all leather, feathers, steel and swagger - the kloveniers do not look all that dangerous, but Rembrandt has done a wonderful job of memorialising their playful self-importance, which may be the point of the picture.

We think of him, primarily, as a great topographer of the human face, his own and others', Jewish and gentile, male and female, young and (especially) old. And so he was. Nowhere else in 17th-century art is there a more beautiful and respectful portrait of a woman in old age than Rembrandt's Margarethe, with that starched white ruff like an immaculate millstone about her neck. Nowhere will you see a more decorous but intimate loving couple than in the painting conventionally called The Jewish Bride, even though we don't know their names (it may, in fact, be a theatre scene with actors rather than an image of real betrothal). Nor would it be easy to find a wiser and more thought-immersed sage than Rembrandt's vision of Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer. (Why should Aristotle have been doing that? The answer points to Rembrandt's sometimes underrated familiarity with classical literature: he knew, as most men in the street certainly did not, that Aristotle did in fact think long and hard about The Iliad and The Odyssey, and composed a lost commentary on them. Moreover, Aristotle was the "official" philosopher of Dutch Calvinism, and was believed to have taught the young Alexander the Great about the art of war, based on his study of The Iliad.

Then there are the numerous self-portraits. Rembrandt would be remembered as an extraordinary self-portraitist if he had died young at, say, 45. But he lived much longer and it is the work of his old age that one most admires: that intimate, unflinching scrutiny of his own sagging, lined and bloated features, with the light shining from the potato nose and the thick paint: the face of a master, the face of a failure and a bankrupt. Life, and his own mismanagement of life, has bashed him but no one could say it has beaten him.

Such is the message of a work like the late Kenwood House self-portrait, 1661-62. By now Rembrandt was the supreme depictor of inwardness, of human thought, whether it is the self-reflection of Bathsheba or the meditation of Aristotle. He had done pictures of himself that fairly radiate a gloating success, but the deepest was saved for the last decade of his life, when he painted himself as a painter at work, holding brushes, palette and maul-stick. He has his back to a wall, or perhaps a large canvas. On the canvas are two large arcs, incomplete circles. What are these abstract forms doing there? They come from Rembrandt's reading of a well-known and indeed exemplary story in Pliny. The great Greek painter Apelles, so Pliny's story goes, went to visit an equally famous ancient master, Protogenes, on the island of Rhodes. But Protogenes was out, and so Apelles, rather than leave him a note, drew on his studio wall a perfect circle, freehand. Protogenes would realise that only an artist of Apelles' skills could possibly have done this. So Rembrandt places himself before the message that compares him to Apelles, king and ancestor of his art. Old age has at last freed him to make an incontrovertible, utterly simple proof of mastery. The circle has closed.

· Rembrandt-Caravaggio is at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, from February 24 to June 18

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

Friday, February 17, 2006

The best investment.

link to original piece.

How Is a Hedge Fund Like a School?

Hedge-fund guru Joel Greenblatt applied Wall Street principles—and $1,000 per student—to turn around a struggling Queens elementary school. And it worked, spectacularly.

By Robert Kolker

On a weekday morning in the spring of 2002, Joel Greenblatt took a radical detour from his usual commute. Instead of riding the Long Island Rail Road from his home on the North Shore to his office in midtown, the 44-year-old hedge-fund manager hired a car service to deliver him to P.S. 65Q, a small, struggling elementary school in working-class Ozone Park, Queens. Little about his past pointed to this visit. Over the previous two decades, Greenblatt had quietly built a reputation as one of Wall Street’s most successful stock-pickers: He had steered his fund, Gotham Capital, to a 40 percent average annual rate of return (it’s now worth about $1.6 billion), and as the author of investment manuals like You Can Be a Stock-Market Genius (Even If You’re Not Too Smart)—the predecessor to his current best seller, The Little Book That Beats the Market—he’d become something of a guru to a generation of elite fund managers. But that morning, Greenblatt was taking a break from Wall Street to focus on the less glamorous world of New York public schools.

P.S. 65Q had opened several years earlier to serve a growing population of extremely poor South American and South Asian immigrants. Housed in a former airplane-parts factory, the school sits on an industrial street with no homes in sight, in the shadow of the elevated A train. The vast majority of the school’s 540 students couldn’t read or do math at the proper grade level, and their parents were largely too beleaguered or disengaged to help.

At the time of Greenblatt’s visit, P.S. 65Q was staring down the loss of an important grant. Under Iris Nelson, the principal who had started at the school a year after it had opened, P.S. 65Q had secured government funds for a reading program called Success for All. The program had led to some promising gains in reading scores, but the grant was expiring at the end of the year. Greenblatt, who had developed an interest in public education only a few years earlier, had become a fan of Success for All and was looking for a school where he could introduce or broaden the program to boost overall achievement. The Success for All Foundation’s director, Bob Slavin, arranged a meeting between Greenblatt and Nelson to try and make a match.

The principal and her staff hadn’t been told much about Greenblatt—just that he was a wealthy banker interested in discussing a contribution. In Nelson’s office, Greenblatt didn’t let much time pass before making it clear his visit wasn’t about just a grant. “I want to keep spending money,” he said, “until everyone can read.”

Nelson struggled to contain her disbelief. Before long, she and Greenblatt were touring the school. About the only thing that didn’t get settled that day was how much money, exactly, Greenblatt would give. Before he left, he asked Nelson to put together a grant proposal.

For weeks, Nelson fretted over how much to request. Finally, she decided to take Greenblatt at his word: To keep everyone from falling behind, she calculated, it would take an incremental $1,000 per student per year for five years, or $2.5 million.

Greenblatt had clearly done his homework. “That,” he told her later, “is exactly what we thought you’d need.”

Today, thanks to Joel Greenblatt’s friendly takeover, P.S. 65Q is a turnaround story worthy of a Harvard B-school case study. Perhaps no school in New York City has ever bounded so swiftly from abject failure to unqualified success. From 2001 to 2005, the proportion of fourth-graders passing the state’s standardized reading test doubled, rising from 36 to 71 percent of the class—and since then, the students’ performance has only gotten better. Nearly every child who has been at the school for three years or more now reads and does math at their proper level or beyond—even the special-ed kids. Last spring, the school was one of fourteen statewide to win the public-school version of the Nobel Prize: a Pathfinder Award for improved performance. The city schools that usually win are in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods like the Lower East Side or Fort Greene—what one P.S. 65Q administrator calls “God’s country.”

None of this would have happened, of course, without Greenblatt. It’s true that a certain breed of civic-minded capitalist has argued for years that the public schools should be run more like private businesses. Mike Bloomberg and his school chancellor, Joel Klein, have prayed mightily at the altar of management reform, pushing for top-down accountability and Jack Welch–inspired leadership training. It’s also true that writing fat checks to city schools has become fashionable. Caroline Kennedy has helped solicit more than $300 million in private and corporate donations. And outsiders like Teddy Forstmann have gone the voucher route, paying to airlift kids into private schools. But Greenblatt’s plan is more ambitious. He wants to create an effective and affordable public-school prototype that could be franchised citywide—and fast. “I’m an investor,” he says. “I spend my time trying to figure out whether a business model works or not. I wanted to find a model that worked and roll it out.”

P.S. 65Q is the first school off the line. There, Greenblatt has expanded the Success for All program, brought in sophisticated data-analysis tools to track each child’s progress, and hired a staff of outside tutors to step in quickly when kids need help. But what makes the success of P.S. 65Q especially remarkable is how little, relatively, it has cost. The extra $1,000 per child Greenblatt has invested amounts to less than a 10 percent increase over the approximately $12,500 that the city spends on average per child—and well below what some private schools pay for the same kind of results. “Given all the negative costs of not educating the kids—more crime, fewer taxpayers, less productive people—it was less than free,” Greenblatt says.

Education experts are quick to point out that Success for All, which depends heavily on scripted material, is at odds with the more flexible curriculum Bloomberg and Klein have instituted. Greenblatt himself concedes that some ingredients of school success, like the experience and talent of an Iris Nelson, are difficult to replicate. And Greenblatt may have skirted some union rules by using his own money to hire outside tutors. Still, there’s an argument to be made that he has done in four years what many public schools have proved institutionally incapable of doing, period. Which raises the question: Should all city schools be run like a hedge fund? And should the mayor and his chancellor be taking notes?

Scrutinizing business strategies is second nature to Joel Greenblatt. Given the chance, he’ll happily go on about how Wal-Mart went on to clobber Kmart because it waited to roll out stores until its distribution model made sense. It’s lessons like this, he says, that have informed his decisions with P.S. 65Q.

Born in Great Neck and educated at Wharton, Greenblatt started Gotham Capital in 1985 with $7 million from investors, much of it from junk-bond impresario Mike Milken. He also founded the New York Securities Auction Corporation, a junk-bond trading firm, and for a time he chaired the board of a Fortune 500 aerospace-and-defense company called Alliant Techsystems. Like many other investors in the nineties, Greenblatt fell under the spell of Warren Buffett. He strayed from his hedge-fund perch to preach the back-to-basics gospel, teaching at Columbia Business School and running the Value Investors Club, an online community for high-level investors searching for undervalued companies. In 1997, Greenblatt published You Can Be a Stock-Market Genius, which sold a reported 38,000 copies and went on to become something of a cult classic among a growing coterie of hedge-fund managers.

By the time Greenblatt was entering his forties, Gotham had returned all its outside capital, and he and his partners were running their own money. In his charity work, he became drawn to the schools. “I think capitalism is a great system, but that’s if everyone has a fair chance,” he says. “And education is the most unequal system of anything I can think of.” About eight years ago, he joined the board of a nonprofit that focused on middle-school and high-school reform. Watching teenagers struggle, he started to wonder if his approach to business could help find a way to produce a decent, affordable public education before it became too late for kids to catch up. His core question—what would it cost to get every kid to the right level?—is the one policy-makers have been asking about the city’s schools for years.

Greenblatt had long taken it as self-evident that public schools are a creaking monopoly desperately in need of innovation. The infrastructure is woefully undercapitalized, for example, and the teachers are protected by a 200-page contract that turns hiring and firing into a bureaucratic nightmare. And the peculiar widget that the schools are supposed to produce—a decent education for 1.1 million children from every conceivable background—stubbornly resists standardization. Greenblatt was especially bothered by the seemingly universal acceptance of unambiguously low standards. Why, for instance, does the city celebrate every time test scores drift upward a few percentage points—when half the students are still reading below grade level? Numbers like that in his world would end in bankruptcy or a stack of lawsuits. The closer Greenblatt looked at the situation, the more bleak it seemed. Take, for starters, the fact that only 53.3 percent of New York City high-school students end up graduating within four years. And that doesn’t even count students who reenroll elsewhere. This could mean that something like only one out of every three entering high-school students bothers to stick around to get a diploma—and in certain poorer neighborhoods that number could be a lot lower. The M.B.A. in him saw a productivity problem, and a tempting challenge.

Greenblatt set to work on a business plan. From the start, he wanted a budget big enough to get the job done, but not so big that it would be implausible to roll out at more schools. “Sure, you could throw a lot of money at it and turn everything into a private school,” he says, “but that’s not a solution for very many people.” He grew attached to the idea of spending $1,000 per child—not a lot, considering the spending gap between wealthy and poor school districts in New York State is said to be more than double that. In the city alone, $1,000 per child would add up to $1.1 billion, or just 2 percent of the city budget, and only one fifth of what a court panel has ordered the state to pay the city in its long-awaited settlement with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity—the group that has famously and successfully sued the state for shortchanging the city schools for decades (Albany, naturally, is still contesting the decision). “If you can teach all the kids in America to read and do math for $7 billion”—$1,000 per kid for the 7 million or so kids in need—“then that would be a bargain,” Greenblatt says. “In an over trillion-dollar federal budget, that’s just not a big deal.”

His next step was to find a reading-and-math program to use at one school as his pilot project. “I wanted a model that was replicable, that made sense, that was cost-effective, and that wouldn’t run out of steam,” he says. In The Little Book That Beats the Market, Greenblatt makes much of identifying the right criteria to discover the diamond in the rough—the company that’s undervalued—then buying into it with conviction. “There, I define a good business as a business with a good return on capital,” he says. “Here, what I was looking for was to make the most difference with the least amount of money.” A friend and former superintendent of the Memphis public schools told him about Success for All.

Created in the eighties by Bob Slavin, a Johns Hopkins professor, Success for All is a reading-and-math curriculum used at about 1,300 elementary schools around the country. In New York, Success for All is best known as the highly structured curriculum used in the Chancellor’s District—a group of deeply troubled schools corralled together for special attention in the nineties by then-chancellor Rudy Crew. The Chancellor’s District did see modest gains from Success for All: From 1999 to 2002, the percentage of students passing the standardized reading test increased from 14.3 to 22 percent. But when the Bloomberg administration instituted its new math-and-literacy curriculum, Success for All was dropped.

Success for All immediately appealed to Greenblatt’s private-sector sensibilities. It was modular and standardizable: Each school day has a detailed script for teachers to follow for both reading and math; each kid, therefore, is assured of getting the same education at the same time. “Immediately it hit me as something you could really roll out,” he says. If, as Greenblatt likes to say, half the employees anywhere are by definition below average, “you could take a below-average teacher and make them an excellent teacher, because they have years of research behind every lesson plan.” The program also has a special focus on reading: For nearly two hours each morning, the kids leave their classrooms and join groups of other kids at their same reading level. It seemed like common sense to Greenblatt that a teacher can more efficiently help 30 kids at one level than 30 reading at a dozen different levels.

Success for All also played to Greenblatt’s fetish for data. While most city schools test their kids’ progress only once a semester, Success for All tests these skills every eight weeks. As he would with a business’s earnings yield, Greenblatt would be able to see clearly what needed improvement not just in every grade or every class but with every last kid, practically in real time. Any child who fell behind could quickly be given help. And the program had a track record: Success for All schools had outperformed comparable schools in dozens of studies and comparisons. Even so, Success for All had never come close in twenty years to getting every student at a school reading and doing math at the right grade level.

When Greenblatt asked Success for All’s Bob Slavin about that fact, Slavin didn’t contest the point—but he noted that the program had never been implemented without a school district watering it down or draining it of funds.

“Is the problem just money?” Greenblatt asked.

“Yes,” the professor said. “It’s just money.”

Greenblatt and Slavin agreed to create an amped-up version of Success for All at one school, with Greenblatt’s extra money going toward tutoring every struggling student. All that was left was to find the school.

The Success for All Foundation only allows its program to be used in a school where at least 80 percent of the teaching staff agrees to go along with it, so they had to find a school with a staff that was willing to dive into the deep end with Slavin’s program. After Greenblatt hit a few dead ends—a Long Island school system simply wasn’t interested, and a principal at a Brooklyn school seemed too harried to discuss the offer—Slavin thought of P.S. 65Q. Nelson and her staff had already bought into Success for All and had begun using it in the years before the city introduced the mandatory reading curriculum. Slavin knew Nelson could use more help and thought she might want someone to pay for the math program.

Greenblatt’s grant was given through the Success For All Foundation, and not directly to the city, leaving the school room to maneuver around education-department rules. “We provided the grant to Success for All, and they provided all services, including tutors, for free,” Greenblatt says. “You can’t argue with free.”

It was time for Nelson to start spending. Starting with the 2002–2003 school year, P.S. 65Q began receiving $500,000 extra for its budget for five years—or roughly $1,000 for each of the 540 students. Nelson could do anything, Greenblatt said, “if it was reasonable and fit within our budget.”

Nearly half the $500,000 annual budget would be needed to pay for Greenblatt’s plan to supplement Success for All with a dozen part-time tutors, enough to keep as many students as possible from falling behind (working 24 weeks at $22 an hour, each tutor cost Nelson $17,600, or a total of $211,200). That left Nelson with less than $300,000, and she still had to purchase the materials for the new Success for All math program and supplements for the reading program. Those cost about $100,000, bringing the Greenblatt kitty down to less than $200,000.

Next, Nelson hired two new full-time staffers: a facilitator to get the math program going and a tutor coordinator to track every student’s progress, at $50,000 a year each. The $100,000 in salaries, plus the associated benefits, left Nelson with a bit more than $50,000. With that money, she sent fifteen teachers and other staff to Success for All training conferences around the country (at $1,500 per teacher, or $22,500 total) and replenished the school’s empty library ($10,000). She used some of the remaining $25,000 or so on extra Success for All materials, like phonics DVDs and the equipment to play them. The additional manpower Greenblatt’s grant bought also made it possible for Nelson to repurpose staff members paid for by the city to become floating tutors in test-taking skills, helping make the children comfortable with the pacing and format of standardized tests. This cost her nothing.

Nelson and her staff began expanding Success for All immediately. (The school received a waiver from the standard city curriculum; waivers aren’t easy to come by, but Greenblatt’s $2.5 million was hard to overlook.) On a recent stroll through the halls, the teachers in three different reading classes were all using the exact same jargon with their kids. “Sound it out!” “Be a finger detective!” “Ask your partner!” “You got it right? Yeah! Kiss your brain!” Not every education expert believes in such rigid regimentation, and not every teacher would want to teach this way, but the P.S. 65Q teachers say Success for All provides important continuity from grade to grade. “Most of our upper-grade teachers use literature, they use novels, and there’s a lot of creativity involved,” says Beth Longo, Nelson’s former assistant principal, who succeeded her in the job last year. “Yes, SFA is more scripted in the roots, but if we want kids to be good readers, they need to know what the letters sound like, and that has to be taught the same way to everybody, because next year they’re going to be in a different class.”

The new tutoring program was more problematic. For the first year of Greenblatt’s grant, the school continued with a previously existing arrangement to have NYU graduate education students come and tutor during their available hours. But the NYU students never seemed to be available at times that were convenient for the kids. In the pre-Greenblatt world, Nelson would have had to tough it out and take what she could get from NYU—she couldn’t afford to fill the tutoring positions with salaried city employees, and bringing in freelance tutors during the school day might violate the teachers’ contract. But at the end of the year, Greenblatt persuaded Nelson to cut NYU loose and instead put ads in the paper for tutors. “You can’t fire teachers, but this is my money, and you can fire the tutors,” Greenblatt told her. “Let’s find some local people who we can train.”

Nelson was concerned about quality, but she wound up pleased. One of the tutors turned out to be a retired teacher who had previously worked for Nelson who answered an ad in the New York Times. “You have all of these people with years of experience,” Nelson says, “and we were able to get them at a price that we would not be able to get them for through the Department of Education.” When some tutors didn’t work out, Nelson could simply fire them and hire others. “We were no longer this New York City school,” she says. “We had the ability to do things that other people could only dream about.” Still, the first-year tutoring was limited, and although the school’s fourth-graders took an astonishing leap on their state math tests—from 63 to 81 percent performing at grade level or above—the state literacy-test results were sticky, staying level at 48 percent.

In year two, with Greenblatt’s encouragement, Nelson added to the tutor ranks by enlisting ten of the school’s full-time teachers to help students for 45 minutes every morning before the start of school. Much of this tutoring would take place in the cafeteria, before kids came in to get their subsidized breakfast. Those teachers would get $25 an hour, four days a week—they could earn an extra $4,000 over a 40-week school year. For ten teachers, Greenblatt was spending another $40,000, but without some of the year-one start-up costs, he was within his $500,000 annual budget. Once this tutoring was up and running, as many as 200 of the school’s 540 kids could be flagged for extra help at any time.

The tutoring became so plentiful that it was used preventively. Even a child who was reading at the right level but was having a tiny problem understanding, say, what an inference is, would qualify for extra help. “The twenty minutes of tutoring they get is scheduled minute by minute based on what level they’re at and what they’re doing in class,” Greenblatt says. By the end of year two, Greenblatt’s goal of tutoring on demand had been reached. The percentage of passing fourth-grade readers vaulted from 48 percent to 71 percent.

Greenblatt wanted to go further. How would he really know if what he was doing at P.S. 65Q was working if the kids who had been at the school for two weeks were lumped together in the same data with the kids who had been there two years? How could he achieve success for all if he couldn’t identify which kids weren’t succeeding? He decided to give P.S. 65Q the same sort of sophisticated data-management capability he used in his business. He compares the setup he has now to his Value Investors Club, the online community he runs. “We know the background of every member,” he says. “We have a little grid on the site for each member. We know every rating they ever made and how well their investment write-ups did. I didn’t think it was that hard to have something like that for each child.”

The new tutoring coordinator had already been outfitted with a spreadsheet program to track every student. Greenblatt had a software designer from Gotham Capital find ways of breaking down not just the state standardized-test data, but all the assessment information that Success for All coughed up. Acting on the eight-week testing data and information from the classroom teachers, Nelson and her staff could target the tutoring with remarkable efficiency. “We have listed under every child what their reading level is, how long they’ve been in the building, whether they are mainstream or special ed, whether they are English-language learners or whether they came from an English-speaking household,” says Nelson. “We could take information and say, ‘Our ESL children have made good progress, but they started behind in April.’ ” They also could examine the growth of a particular group. “Let’s say teacher A has this group, and we see at the end of the eight-week cycle that half of those kids didn’t go up what we expected them to. Then we need to look at what the teacher’s doing.”

With the new data, Greenblatt was also able to come up with a benchmark for overall success that made sense. “I said, ‘Listen, if a child has been in this school for three years and they’re not at grade level, that’s our fault,’ ” he says. “It doesn’t matter how they came in or what their family situation is. If they’ve been here three years, we should be as close to 100 percent as possible with those kids. That’s our goal, and that’s a fair way to be judged.”

By the spring of 2004, those “long enrollers,” as they’re called, were closer than ever to being considered entirely successful. Though the fourth-grade reading-test results showed 71 percent at grade level, the long enrollers were 84 percent. The math scores were through the roof—89 percent of all the kids, not just long enrollers, passed the state test. By spring 2005, the numbers inched up: Fourth-graders were up to 95 percent in math and holding steady in reading. Greenblatt had all but met his goal, a year early. Every year an influx of new kids threatens the school’s ability to keep up momentum, but the best sign of long-term progress is that, according to the school’s data, last year’s kindergarten had 99 percent of the kids at their proper reading level.

Last spring, Greenblatt and Nelson were recognized with a Pathfinder Award. Nelson arranged an assembly to celebrate in the school’s tiny auditorium. She invited all the local officials, the superintendent, the local paper. The fifth-graders, she decided, would perform for the parents, since it was their fourth-grade test scores that helped to win the award.

“They sang,” she says. “To know that you are getting an award based on your performance measured up against 3,000 schools in New York State—and that you were one of fourteen schools, not just for reading but for math too? That was like adrenaline pumped into everyone.”

The question, of course, is, can P.S. 65Q’s success be replicated citywide? Dissenters say that some of Greenblatt’s ideas simply aren’t workable on a large scale. The extra $1,000 per student may not be theoretically prohibitive, but barring a windfall from the CFE lawsuit, it’s difficult to imagine a mayor waking up one day and deciding to increase the $14.8 billion school budget by 10 percent. Greenblatt caught a break when the union didn’t complain about his placing ads in the Times for tutors instead of hiring union employees. “I constantly want things that work to stay in place,” says Randi Weingarten, the union chief, who adds that she admires what Greenblatt’s school has accomplished. Yet it’s hard to see her tolerating a similar maneuver in all 1,400 schools. Greenblatt was also able to cherry-pick talent. In Iris Nelson, he found an educator with a rare combination of experience and a willingness to try an unconventional curriculum. But what happens at a school where the management and staff simply aren’t as capable or adaptive?

Then there’s realpolitik. Joel Klein visited the school last fall with Greenblatt and praised his efforts; he, too, has worked to bring extra tutoring time into city schools, starting last week with a mandated 37.5 minutes for struggling students. But Klein is hardly ready to embrace Greenblatt’s plan as a blueprint for systemwide success. “I would be careful to generalize, when there are so many different variables, as to what the magic in the process is,” the chancellor says. “One school is always great. But it’s not a pattern of practice.” (If the chancellor were ever in a position to spend an extra $1,000 on every child, he says he’d spend it on providing prekindergarten for every child in New York. So, in a rare case of agreement, would Randi Weingarten.)

Even if the Greenblatt model could be replicated, should it be? Success for All, some educators argue, is too scripted. Although evidence shows that the program’s emphasis on basic skills does help kids learn to read, a generation of New York educators remains committed to a more inquiry-based, or “whole language,” approach, in which kids learn from context and read actual books earlier, developing an enthusiasm for reading that “drill and kill” strategies don’t foster, and picking up the technical skills of reading along the way. Klein has taken unprecedented steps to bring skills-based learning into the New York schools, but he remains unwilling to ditch his entire curriculum for something as rote as Success for All.

Soon enough, we’ll see if Greenblatt can crank out his next franchise. Next year, he and one of his Gotham Capital partners, John Petry, are planning to open the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school approved by the state in December. Early plans are for a school day that runs from 8:20 a.m. to 5 p.m. and includes an infusion of the arts—even yoga and karate classes. Success for All will be the curriculum, and the same sort of supplementary tutoring and data management will be used. Bob Slavin will be on the board. Iris Nelson has been hired as a consultant both at the charter school and at P.S. 65Q (her bonus from the Pathfinder Award bumped up her pensionable salary to the point where it made more sense for her to retire than stay working at the school). And the executive director of the charter school is Eva Moskowitz, the former City Council member who chaired the education committee and often proved a tenacious foil to the mayor, the chancellor, and the teachers union.

What makes the Harlem project especially interesting is that its budget is the same amount the city spends at its schools (the city gives charter schools 75 cents on the dollar; Greenblatt and Petry will make up the rest out of their own pockets). “P.S. 65 spends $12,500 per child without my $1,000,” he says. “What I’m trying to prove is that for the same money they’re spending in the city—not a $1,000 more—you can do what we’re doing at P.S. 65Q.”

Even if the Harlem school is as successful as P.S. 65Q, Greenblatt says that he doesn’t intend for every school in the city to do things his way overnight. But just as the mayor and other charter-school proponents aim to foster innovation that could be duplicated elsewhere (Bloomberg aims to add 75 charter schools in the next four years), Greenblatt hopes his experiments in education will act as a wedge. If he can produce excellence at one school—and another and another—with the same money the city uses to produce mediocrity, the public, he believes, will realize that there is a better way and begin insisting on it.

“If it can be replicated enough, people won’t be able to say this can’t be done,” he says. “The public schools will have to get better or public monies will have to be spent on other choices for students in failing school districts.” Then, he says, he’ll have leveraged the education marketplace. “They’ll either have to come up with another excuse, or they’ll have to fix the problem, too.”

Too late to the blog party.

link to original article.

Blogs to Riches
The Haves and Have-Nots of the Blogging Boom.
By Clive Thompson

Two years ago, David Hauslaib was a junior at Syracuse University who was, as he confesses, “totally obsessed with who Paris Hilton was sleeping with.” So he did what any college student would do these days: He blogged about it. Hauslaib began scouring the Web for paparazzi photos of Hilton and news items about her, then posting them on his Website, (Sample headline: PARIS HILTON SPREADS IT IN THE HAMPTONS.) “My friends got a chuckle out of it, but it didn’t get really big or anything—maybe a few hundred visitors a day,” he says.

Then one day Hauslaib took a good look at Gawker, a gossip site owned by the high-tech publisher Nick Denton. Gawker’s founding writer, Elizabeth Spiers, had pioneered a distinctive online literary style and earned a large following in the Manhattan media world. What really got Hauslaib’s attention, though, was Gawker’s advertising-rate sheet. According to Denton, the site received about 200,000 “page views” a day from readers. The site ran roughly two big ads on each page, and Gawker said that it charged advertisers $6 to $10 for every 1,000 page views—almost the same as a midsize newspaper. There was also a smattering of smaller, one-line text ads bringing in a few hundred bucks daily. Doing a quick bit of math, he figured that the income from Gawker’s ads could top $4,000 a day. The upshot? Nick Denton’s revenues from Gawker were probably at least $1 million a year and might well be cracking $2 million.

Not bad, considering the blog had no serious expenses other than its writers—first Spiers and now Jessica Coen and Jesse Oxfeld, all working for journalist wages—and Webhosting fees of maybe a few thousand bucks a year. “The rest of it,” Hauslaib points out, “just goes into Nick’s pockets.”

“And I was like, I can do that,” he says, laughing.

So in June 2005, Hauslaib packed his bags and moved to a sparsely furnished sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village, where he parked his massive Dell laptop on his kitchenette counter, installed a flat-screen LCD TV to catch breaking celebrity news, and began working on Jossip in earnest. He’d start each day at dawn, trolling the Web for dirt about celebrities and media stars. (“You gotta have something posted before people get to work,” he explains, “because my audience is people who hate their jobs.”) By the end of the year, Hauslaib’s site was steaming along nicely. He had almost everything Gawker had: He stalked the same celebrities, posted with the same speed and frequency, and wrote prose in the Spiers vernacular.

The only thing he didn’t have was Gawker’s audience. About 30,000 visitors a day, Jossip’s traffic is a mere 15 percent of Gawker’s. Hauslaib was generating a “comfortable five-figure income,” but certainly not millions. He’d hit a glass ceiling, in a medium where there weren’t supposed to be any limits.

By all appearances, the blog boom is the most democratized revolution in media ever. Starting a blog is ridiculously cheap; indeed, blogging software and hosting can be had for free online. There are also easy-to-use ad services that, for a small fee, will place advertisements from major corporations on blogs, then mail the blogger his profits. Blogging, therefore, should be the purest meritocracy there is. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nobody from the sticks or a well-connected Harvard grad. If you launch a witty blog in a sexy niche, if you’re good at scrounging for news nuggets, and if you’re dedicated enough to post around the clock—well, there’s nothing separating you from the big successful bloggers, right? I can do that.

In theory, sure. But if you talk to many of today’s bloggers, they’ll complain that the game seems fixed. They’ve targeted one of the more lucrative niches—gossip or politics or gadgets (or sex, of course)—yet they cannot reach anywhere close to the size of the existing big blogs. It’s as if there were an A-list of a few extremely lucky, well-trafficked blogs—then hordes of people stuck on the B-list or C-list, also-rans who can’t figure out why their audiences stay so comparatively puny no matter how hard they work. “It just seems like it’s a big in-party,” one blogger complained to me. (Indeed, a couple of pranksters last spring started a joke site called Blogebrity and posted actual lists of the blogs they figured were A-, B-, and C-level famous.)

That’s a lot of inequality for a supposedly democratic medium. Not long ago, Clay Shirky, an instructor at New York University, became interested in this phenomenon—and argued that there is a scientific explanation. Shirky specializes in the social dynamics of the Internet, including “network theory”: a mathematical model of how information travels inside groups of loosely connected people, such as users of the Web.

To analyze the disparities in the blogosphere, Shirky took a sample of 433 blogs. Then he counted an interesting metric: the number of links that pointed toward each site (“inbound” links, as they’re called). Why links? Because they are the most important and visible measure of a site’s popularity. Links are the chief way that visitors find new blogs in the first place. Bloggers almost never advertise their sites; they don’t post billboards or run blinking trailers on top of cabs. No, they rely purely on word of mouth. Readers find a link to Gawker or Andrew Sullivan on a friend’s site, and they follow it. A link is, in essence, a vote of confidence that a fan leaves inscribed in cyberspace: Check this site out! It’s cool! What’s more, Internet studies have found that inbound links are an 80 percent–accurate predictor of traffic. The more links point to you, the more readers you have. (Well, almost. But the exceptions tend to prove the rule: Fleshbot, for example. The sex blog has 300,000 page views per day but relatively few inbound links. Not many readers are willing to proclaim their porn habits with links, understandably.)

When Shirky compiled his analysis of links, he saw that the smaller bloggers’ fears were perfectly correct: There is enormous inequity in the system. A very small number of blogs enjoy hundreds and hundreds of inbound links—the A-list, as it were. But almost all others have very few sites pointing to them. When Shirky sorted the 433 blogs from most linked to least linked and lined them up on a chart, the curve began up high, with the lucky few. But then it quickly fell into a steep dive, flattening off into the distance, where the vast majority of ignored blogs reside. The A-list is teensy, the B-list is bigger, and the C-list is simply massive. In the blogosphere, the biggest audiences—and the advertising revenue they bring—go to a small, elite few. Most bloggers toil in total obscurity.

Economists and network scientists have a name for Shirky’s curve: a “power-law distribution.” Power laws are not limited to the Web; in fact, they’re common to many social systems. If you chart the world’s wealth, it forms a power-law curve: A tiny number of rich people possess most of the world’s capital, while almost everyone else has little or none. The employment of movie actors follows the curve, too, because a small group appears in dozens of films while the rest are chronically underemployed. The pattern even emerges in studies of sexual activity in urban areas: A small minority bed-hop, while the rest of us are mostly monogamous.

The power law is dominant because of a quirk of human behavior: When we are asked to decide among a dizzying array of options, we do not act like dispassionate decision-makers, weighing each option on its own merits. Movie producers pick stars who have already been employed by other producers. Investors give money to entrepreneurs who are already loaded with cash. Popularity breeds popularity.

“It’s not about moral failings or any sort of psychological thing. People aren’t lazy—they just base their decisions on what other people are doing,” Shirky says. “It’s just social physics. It’s like gravity, one of those forces.”

Power laws are arguably part of the very nature of links. To explain why, Shirky poses a thought experiment: Imagine that 1,000 people were all picking their favorite ten blogs and posting lists of those links. Alice, the first person, would read a few, pick some favorites, and put up a list of links pointing to them. The next person, Bob, is thus incrementally more likely to pick Alice’s favorites and include some of them on his own list. The third person, Carmen, is affected by the choices of the first two, and so on. This repeats until a feedback loop emerges. Those few sites lucky enough to acquire the first linkages grow rapidly off their early success, acquiring more and more visitors in a cascade of popularity. So even if the content among competitors is basically equal, there will still be a tiny few that rise up to form an elite.

First-movers get a crucial leg up in this kind of power-law system. This is certainly true of the blogosphere. If you look at the list of the most-linked-to blogs on the top 100 as ranked by Technorati—a company that scans the blogosphere every day—many of those at the top were first-movers, the pioneers in their fields. With 19,764 inbound links, the No. 1 site is Boing Boing, a tech blog devoted to geek news and nerd trivia; it has been online for five years, making it a grandfather in the field. In the gossip- blog arena, Gawker is the graybeard, having launched in 2002. With 4,790 sites now linking to it, Gawker towers above the more-recent entrants such as (with 1,549 links) and Jossip (with 814). In politics, the highest is Daily Kos, one of the first liberal blogs—with 11,182 links—followed closely by Instapundit, an early right-wing blog, with 6,513. Uncountable teensy political blogs lie in their shadows.

In scientific terms, this pattern is called “homeostasis”—the tendency of networked systems to become self-reinforcing. “It’s the same thing you see in economies—the rich-get-richer problem,” Shirky notes.

To see just precisely how rich blogging can make you, it’s worth visiting Peter Rojas, the cheerful, skate-punk-like editor of Engadget—and the best-compensated blogger in history. When I meet him one December evening in his bachelor pad on the Lower East Side, he’s sitting at an Ikea desk bedecked with three flat-panel screens and looking relatively fresh, considering he’s just come off another eleven-hour blogging jag. Like most A-list bloggers, he hit his keyboard before dawn and posted straight through until dinner. “Anyone can start a blog, and anyone can make it grow,” he says, sipping a glass of water. “But to keep it there? It’s fucking hard work, man. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Eighty-hour weeks since I started.”

For Rojas, the toil paid off handsomely. Last fall, AOL bought Jason Calacanis’s company Weblogs, Inc., which includes Engadget, for $25 million. Rojas himself didn’t disclose the precise amount he got from the deal, but he had a good deal of equity in the company and says that, technically, he doesn’t need to work anymore. Nonetheless, he’s still slogging away at Engadget because he’s still obsessed with cool new technology. His idea of a good time is hunting down samizdat pictures of the latest Palm Treo. “I didn’t intend to become a millionaire,” he says, “but I wound up there anyway.”

Very few bloggers have come anywhere close to Rojas’s struck-by-lightning success, of course. But putting that sort of good fortune aside, the blogosphere is slowly developing solid business models, which take roughly three forms.

The first—and most common so far—is the accidental tourist: A lone writer who starts a blog as a mere hobby but then wakes up one day to realize his audience is now as big as a small city newspaper. The liberal journalist Joshua Micah Marshall went this route: He started the Talking Points Memo blog during the November 2000 election recount “just for fun,” and his audience grew slowly, reaching 8,000 a day in the first two years. Then, in December 2002, he broke news of racially charged comments by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and his audience surged to 40,000 daily. The blog was eating so heavily into his paying gigs that Marshall began soliciting donations from his readers; in 2003, he signed up with Blogads, an advertising broker, and by this January he was grossing in the low six-figures. Talking Points Memo has become a small company with three full-time staffers and an office in Manhattan. His daily traffic is 150,000 page views, and he now charges advertisers up to $5 per 1,000 views. “When I started it, I had no idea it would become a source of income,” he says.

A variation on this theme is when a lone blogger teams up with the mainstream media. Andrew Sullivan is the first example of an endgame strategy that may become quite common in the future. In 2000, Sullivan started his blog, The Daily Dish, as a part-time sideline, funding it via donations and ads for five years. Then in January, Time magazine agreed to lease his URL for one year, making it part of its online offerings. Though Sullivan says “I didn’t get rich,” he figures the deal will earn him almost half his income this year.

For advertisers, the whole lure of blogs is that they’re cheaper than regular newspapers and TV. Plus, blogs offer tightly focused niches, which advertisers love. “You wanna reach New York, you buy on Gothamist. You want to reach mommies, you buy on Busy Mom. How does traditional media match that?” asks Brian Clark, an ad buyer who orchestrated Audi’s blogvertising last year. The Audi campaign—which ran online for three months, and got 68 million page views, and cost only $50,000—was cheap compared with the $500,000 for a Yahoo front-page banner that runs for only one day.

According to Henry Copeland, founder of Blogads, the first big wave of advertising emerged during the 2004 election season, when political campaigners and interest groups realized that advertising on political blogs was more powerful than direct-mail appeals. “It’s really the audience—younger voters who are motivated and interested,” says Michael Bassik, a political consultant who ran online ad campaigns for John Kerry and other Democratic candidates. Perhaps more important, blogs are buzz-creation machines: If an ad campaign appears on the blogs, it’ll often become a subject of conversation among the bloggers. “They’re social connectors,” Bassik says. Yet each blog has a different sphere of influence. To get a message out widely, he’ll buy on Daily Kos because it has the largest readership of any liberal blog (though it’s also the most expensive, at $4,000 a week). If Bassik needs click-throughs—someone who’ll click on a candidate’s ad, visit his site, and perhaps make a donation—he might buy Talking Points Memo instead, which has a smaller audience but a much higher click-through rate.

Since blogs set their own ad rates, each one offers a different value proposition, Copeland explains. A gossip blog like Perez Hilton has a huge readership—220,000 page views daily—but since the audience is broadly based, the rates are very low, costing $202 to run an ad for one week. Meanwhile, a smaller blog might have only 10,000 visitors daily—but if it’s a lucrative, tightly focused niche, the blogger could charge much higher rates per visitor.

How big and lucrative can an accidentally professional blog grow? The biggest so far is Boing Boing, a pioneering site run by five former Wired editors and writers. By posting wittily, and more voluminously than almost any other blog—up to several times an hour—they built up a devoted audience of 1.7 million readers. (Boing Boing is also the most-linked-to blog in the world, according to Technorati’s rankings.) The site began running ads two and a half years ago, and the expensive ones can currently command more than $8,000 a week, according to John Battelle, whose ad co-op, Federated Media, manages the blog’s finances. Despite those premium rates, the five Boing Boing bloggers still retain their day jobs, blogging only part time. “I always figured my life was fueling my blogging, so I didn’t want to be just a blogger,” says Cory Doctorow, a novelist, copyright activist, and one of the Boing Boing five. “We could make a living at this. I mean, we’ve got the circulation of a good-size magazine—better than a good-size magazine. And our overhead is much smaller.” Or as Shirky puts it, “The Boing Boing thing is, they have more readers than Wired and yet they have a part-time staff of five. That’s the new math.”

The second basic blogging business model is the record-label approach: Crank out dozens and dozens of sites and hope that one or two will become hits. The pioneer here is the new-media entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, who founded Weblogs, Inc., in September 2003 and began rapidly shotgunning new blogs into obscure niches: Tablet PCs, Microsoft Office, “telemedicine,” and the like. It is not, many note, a recipe for quality writing. “What do his bloggers get? Two dollars a post?” jokes Brian Clark, the advertising buyer. Nonetheless, Calacanis scored an enormous hit with Engadget, the second most-linked-to site on Technorati. “AOL basically paid $25 million for Engadget,” more than one envious blogger carped to me.

The third and final model? The boutique approach: a publisher who crafts individual blogs the way Condé Nast crafts magazines—each one carefully aimed at some ineffable, deluxe readership. This is Nick Denton’s modus operandi. Though he set up shop three and a half years ago, making his the oldest blog empire around, he has launched a mere fourteen blogs. They are all, however, in niches that target high-spending, well-educated readers—such as gossip, sex, and politics. The aim is to hit the sweet spot: big readerships, but not hoi polloi. Gawker even claims to turn away advertisers that are too low-rent; the site’s ad manager boasted to Mediaweek that it takes no Ford or Chevy ads because “we hate American cars” and no pharmaceutical ads because “our readers are healthy and beautiful.”

Denton is famous for spending months hunting for writers with the snark and wit that his audience likes. (Obligatory disclosure: Denton sometimes calls to pick my brain, and last year hired somebody I recommended.) He’s also equally famous for being tight with a buck: His bloggers work from home, get no equity, and make salaries that are by all accounts unremarkable, even by the paltry standards of journalism. (Health insurance starts on March 1.) Indeed, before Calacanis sold his company for $25 million, Denton was fond of proclaiming that there is little money to be earned in the blogosphere. “Blogs are likely to be better for readers than for capitalists,” he wrote on his personal site in 2004. “While I love the medium, I’ve always been skeptical about the value of blogs as businesses.”

But as his critics note, this is precisely what you’d say if you wanted to scare other people away from competing with you. “When Nick said you can’t make money at it,” says one of his frenemies, “everyone believed him.” Denton and partners, veterans of the dot-com boom, sold their last company for $50 million, so . . . why would he need any more money? “But that was just his strategy, and it works.” One terrific way to stay alone on the tall side of the power law is to discourage anyone else from trying to climb the curve.

Among bloggers, few things provoke more rancor than the subject of the A-list. Much as in high school, C-listers quickly suspect the deck is stacked against them, and the bitterness flows like cheap wine. No one knows this better than Elizabeth Spiers, the original Gawker girl. She is arguably the most famous professional blogger, since she invented its dominant mode: a titillating post delivered with a snarky kicker, casual profanity, and genuine fan-girl enthusiasm—sonnets made of dirt. Yet no good deed goes unpunished; the player-hater e-mail she received during her tenure at the gossip site was astonishing. “I’d get these e-mails saying, ‘You’re a dirty slut who can’t get laid,’ ” she recalls. “How can I be dirty slut and not get laid?”

The very subject of the A-list is so toxic that Denton refused to be interviewed for this story and told his bloggers to refuse interviews, too. (Calacanis also refused.) For her part, Spiers argues that Gawker is now so well entrenched that it is virtually unmovable.

“You’d have be a total fuckup to ruin that site right now,” she says. “It’s got so many links, you’re just going to have a positive growth rate.”

If the star system rankles the C-listers, it is partly because they have such a weirdly submissive relationship with A-listers. They envy them, but they need them, too, because one of the quickest ways for an unknown blog to acquire traffic is to feed scoops to an A-lister, in the hopes that the editors there will use the tip and include a thank-you link pointing back to the tipster. Even better is becoming so well loved that an A-lister puts you on his “blogroll,” a permanent list of favorite sites—the blog equivalent of Best Friends Forever. Over at Blogebrity, the gossip blog born out of the original A-/B-/C-list joke site, the writer Nick Douglas told me he’d often used another common trick: posting things about an A-lister—Gawker—to try and catch the editors’ attention.

“Any time I run something on Gawker, even if it’s a little mean, they’ll link to it and send me some traffic. They’re watching. All these bloggers are watching each other.” He laughs. “It’s a tricky balance there, because you’re trying to get a high-profile link but not be seen as a sellout. I get accused of sucking up.” (Indeed, Denton just hired Douglas to edit his new tech-gossip blog, Valleywag.) Less-sophisticated supplicants will simply e-mail an A-lister, begging to be linked to, a technique that’s about as successful as wearing a will you be my friend? T-shirt. “I’ll get these guys who start a blog and e-mail me like every single new post they put up, hoping I’ll link to it,” says Rojas. “It’s not polite! I’m like, ‘Dude, if you send me a really cool news item, I’ll totally link to you. But don’t spam me.’ ”

Yet one can understand why the tiny blogs are so hungry for approval. A single mention from an A-lister can provoke “firehoses of traffic”—as John Battelle describes it—that can help pluck a neophyte blog out of obscurity. (This has even happened to me. I run a small science blog—avowedly C-list, a pure vanity project—and the times that Boing Boing or Gizmodo have linked to me, my traffic has exploded.) When Gawker linked recently to a posting at Blogebrity, it nearly tripled the smaller site’s traffic, from 1,200 visitors a day to 3,500. Even a link from a smaller, B-list blog can help a struggling newcomer. In his first two years blogging, Trent Vanegas—the 31-year-old creator of the gossip site Pink Is the New Blog—barely rated 200 visitors a day. Then in January 2005, a few medium-size New York blogs—including Ultragrrl and Thighswideshut—gave him a shout-out, and his traffic doubled. The virtuous cycle began, and today he has 1 million page views a month, VH1 is calling to use him as a commentator, and he’s fielding job offers from E! and Bravo.

“It’s crazy,” he says, laughing. “After a point, you’re like, Where are all these people coming from?”

Regularity and relentlessness,” says Arianna Huffington. “That’s how you break through the static of the 5,000-channel universe.”

In May 2005, Huffington, the political columnist and sometime candidate for California governor, started the Huffington Post, a blog where her celebrity friends post their rants about politics and culture. By the end of the year, it was clocking 18 million page views a month and had become the fifth-most-linked-to blog in the world. Its ad rates are at the top of its class, about $10 to $30 for every thousand views. With financing from a slate of investors including Ken Lerer, former executive vice-president at AOL Time Warner, the Huffington Post launched with a full-time staff of four and an office in Manhattan—and the ability to post around the clock.

Huffington also neatly intuited the importance of linking, putting scores of A-list bloggers on her blogroll, realizing they would probably return the compliment. But even more important was the sheer force of the site’s famous names—not just Huffington but the spectacle of her friends Nora Ephron and Norman Mailer blogging merrily away on her site. Mainstream media lavished attention on the site’s every move, giving ever more publicity to the venture.

Huffington showed that it was still possible to quickly move up to the top of the charts. “You think the A-list is the A-list is the A-list,” says David Sifry, the CEO of Technorati. “But I’m telling you, boy, does it shift—and does it shift fast.” Cultural winds can drive blogs in and out of favor: When Sifry founded Technorati in 2002, many of the bloggers on his top-100-most-linked list were computer geeks, such as journalist Doc Searls and programmer Dave Winer. But as blogging grew to encompass politics and pop culture, Searls dropped to No. 96 and Winer to No. 126.

What’s more, a blog is like a shark: If it stops moving, it dies. Without fresh postings every day—hell, every few minutes—even the most well-linked blog will quickly lose its audience. The A-listers cannot rest on their laurels. Federated Media owner John Battelle recently published a book on Google, and while on the book tour, he neglected his own well-trafficked blog (No. 81 on Technorati’s rankings) for several days. “And suddenly I was getting all these e-mails going, ‘If you don’t get your shit together, I’m out of here,’ ” he recalls. He stayed up late that night frantically adding posts. “If you start sucking,” he says, “it’s through.”

Yet the rapid rise of the Huffington Post represents a sort of death knell for the traditional blogger. The Post wasn’t some site thrown up by a smart, bored Williamsburg hipster who just happened to hit a cultural nerve. It was the product of a corporation—carefully planned, launched, and promoted. This is now the model for success: Of Technorati’s top ten blogs, nearly half were created in the same corporate fashion, part of the twin blog empires of Jason Calacanis and Nick Denton.

“The good news is that it’s still possible to create a top-ranked blog,” says Shirky. “The bad news is, the way to get into the top ten now seems to be public relations.” Just posting witty entries and hoping for traffic won’t do it. You have to actively seek out attention from the press. “That’s how they’re jump-starting the links structure. It’s not organic.” Indeed, when Huffington announced her venture and her celebrity guests, bloggers grumbled that it weirdly inverted the whole grassroots appeal of blogs. Larry David and Danielle Crittenden are hardly what you’d call outsiders to mass media.

Will professionalization turn blogging into media-as-usual? Or will the idiosyncratic voice of the lone blogger prevail? Elizabeth Spiers thinks that both statements are true. After she left Gawker, she learned about the power of the first-mover advantage the hard way, by trying to repeat her success. Last year, she spent three months launching eight media-gossip sites for Mediabistro, a career-development site for journalists. They amassed an impressive 1 million page views a month, a healthy amount, but hardly Gawker-class. Then in January, Spiers jumped back into the blog pool with a splash, announcing that she was launching her own blog empire.

When I call her, she is at her desk in her new company’s offices in Tribeca. She’s being backed by two angel investors—Carter Burden, head of the Webhosting company Logicworks, and Justin Smith, president of The Week, a news magazine. Their first blog, launching in March, will be called Dealbreaker, and devoted to Wall Street gossip. Her advertisers would be? “For Wall Street? Pretty much everybody,” she says. “It’s a high-income demographic, pretty attractive.” The start-up money lets her pay for a full-time blogging staff, which she’ll need since she wants her writers to actually do reporting and break news. And this, she argues, is the future of the professional blogosphere.

“It’ll be more like the mainstream media, really,” she adds. “Blogging is increasingly becoming a survival of the fittest—and that all boils down to who has the best content. The blogs that are going to stand out are the ones who break news and have credibility.” Plus, it can’t hurt that Wall Street scuttlebutt is one of the last truly huge unfilled niches in the Manhattan blogosphere. “This is a business, and we’ll build business infrastructure from the get-go.” The age of the blog moguls is here. For Pete Rojas, blogging paid off handsomely. Last fall, AOL bought Weblogs, Inc., which includes his blog Engadget, for $25 million. “I didn’t intend to become a millionaire,” says Rojas, “but I wound up there anyway.”

Who is saying it may be more interesting than what is being said.

Another argument for independent scholarship.


Who We Are & Why

February 14, 2006


In 1998, a kindly grandmother living in New Jersey wrote a book about child-rearing that created quite a stir. In "The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do," Judith Rich Harris had the temerity to suggest that the most important influences on children were not their parents but genes and peers. This was heresy, and critics immediately attacked the book in reviews with titles such as "Parents Don't Count!"

Nonetheless, Mrs. Harris had made a very convincing argument, and she stuck to her guns. Now, with "No Two Alike" (W.W. Norton & Company, 352 pages, $26.95), she has expanded her thesis and has attempted to formulate a new theory of personality formation - the first, in fact, since Sigmund Freud. More specifically, she has attempted to solve the mystery of why people are different.

Why are we the way we are? Why do identical twins, raised in the same house by the same parents, turn out to have such different personalities? For years, psychologists and other professionals thought they had the answers, but this grandmotherly, iconoclastic outsider may force us to revise our thinking about these basic questions.

One way to understand the great changes in our attitude about the formation of personality is to consider two well-known cases, one from the 19th century, one from the 20th. Alice James (sister of William and Henry) and John Cheever both suffered from depression. Each sought to explain their condition in terms of the prevailing ideas of their time. James blamed heredity; she believed she had inherited the affliction from her parents. Cheever, on the other hand, blamed his childhood environment. His mother worked away from home and neglected him, he claimed.

Two events caused this fundamental shift in attitude. First, the advent of Freud and his child development theories (based on infant sexuality), which became wildly influential and popular during the first half of the 20th century. Second, the complete discrediting of behavioral genetics following the Nazis and World War II ("eugenics"). Thus the blank slate (that is, the infinite malleability of the brain) became the dominant model, and environment the explanation of all human behavior.

This bitter debate still rages on today, despite the fact that Freud has been discredited completely and genetic explanations for human behavior are now widely accepted. Accepted, that is, by scientists in such fields as evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics, but definitely not accepted by academic psychologists and child development experts. They continue to dispense advice about how we should parent our children (Benjamin Spock lives on!) and have continued to willfully underestimate the genetic role in human behavior.

This is where the indomitable Mrs. Harris has jumped into the fray. Here is how she describes the situation:

The developmentalists found that the children's behavior was correlated with the parents' behavior and attributed the correlation to the effects of the home environment. Though they realized that heredity might account for some of the correlation, they never considered the possibility that heredity might account for all of it. But that is exactly how it turned out. Once the effects of genetic similarities were estimated and skimmed off, the correlation declined to zero. The putative effects of the home environment disappeared.

This was not welcome news for developmental psychologists, and they responded with vitriolic attacks. Part of their problem was a lack of understanding of how genetics works, particularly with regard to its role in defining the behavior of the child's parents. Good parenting itself is largely a genetic characteristic.

But the larger question Mrs. Harris seeks to address in this book is how to account for differences in human personalities.As she puts it: "My goal was to explain the variation in personality - the big and little differences among individuals - that cannot be attributed to variations in their genes." This is not a simple matter. Her theory is not simple, either.

Basically, Mrs. Harris believes there are three "perpetrators" at work in the formation of the human personality, each associated with an aspect of a modular brain. One is the "relationship system," designed to maintain favorable relationships in society.Another is the "Socialization System," where the goal is to be a member of a group. The third is the "Status System," where we compete with our peers for status.

The interplay among these systems accounts for the emergence of differences between individuals. So it is that even identical twins develop different personalities because the members of their community see them as unique individuals and treat them differently. Their individual striving for status propels them into different modes of competing, which in turn differentiates their personalities.

By combining inputs from so many scientific disciplines - social psychology, developmental psychology, psycholinguistics, neurophysiology, anthropology, primatology, and entomology, in addition to evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics - Mrs. Harris has created a novel, holistic perspective. Even if it turns out the final explanation of human development is a long way off and still more complicated ("biological processes have turned out to be fancier and messier than anyone imagined," she admits), this book clears out much dead wood and will shape the debate to come.

Mrs. Harris is an amazing woman. Now in ill health and largely confined to her home, she nonetheless has pursued her interest in these subjects in spite of her many physical handicaps and the fact that she is not a formal member of any of the scientific disciplines involved. Ironically, this has been her main strength. As an independent scholar, she took a broader view of the issue than was possible for many of the certified experts. Perhaps that is why she has been able to see the forest, as well as the trees.