A couple of years ago Emily Yoffe wrote an article on narcissism for Slate. Reading it, one could readily conclude that Alexis de Tocqueville’s and Christopher Lasch’s warnings had finally come to pass. Then Yoffe appeared on the Colbert Report and made the argument that narcissistic behaviors had helped ignite the financial crisis. To which Colbert retorted: “But the economy and the market are really just built up on confidence. Why don’t we just recapture that narcissism that we had a year ago and just pretend that everything is OK? And won’t the market just come right back? Won’t we just rebuild the bubble?”
Friday, December 21, 2012
This is the title of a NYT opinion piece by Carolyn Chen, Director of the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern. In it, she argues forcefully for lifting the quotas for Asian Americans at top universities, the way those were renoved for superachieving Jewish students back in the 1960s. Of course, the Asian quotas can now only be secret, which makes their fallout all the more devastating: “At highly selective colleges, the quotas are implicit, but very real. So are the psychological consequences. At Northwestern, Asian-American students tell me that they feel ashamed of their identity — that they feel viewed as a faceless bunch of geeks and virtuosos. When they succeed, their peers chalk it up to ‘being Asian.’ They are too smart and hard-working for their own good.” And Amy Chua’s “tiger mom” bravado comes in for a beating since it “set back Asian kids by attributing their successes to overzealous (and even pathological) parenting rather than individual effort.”
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
An article in the NYT recently gave some advice on (ad)dressing a festering social wound: “How to Attack the Gender Gap? Speak Up.” My immediate thought was: how about creating a less competitive and fairer social environment? But this just shows how naïve I can be.
Saturday, December 15, 2012
These were the words of a visibly shaken Barack Obama yesterday as he fought back tears and parts of his face visibly trembled while he spoke. He was so emotional that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer appeared almost moved in his post-comment comments. Some will no doubt blame the president for failing to show the steely resolve befitting a strong Commander-in-Chief. As Antonio Damasio and others have demonstrated, though, lack of emotional input in judgment and decision making can be an even greater problem than uncontrolled emotionality. Which, by the way, shouldn't inspire much confidence in Angela Merkel's leadership style as described in Der Spiegel ("A Cold Heart for Europe: Merkel's Dispassionate Approach to the Euro Crisis").
Friday, December 14, 2012
The NYT carries two articles on different topics but with similar titles and even more similar messages: “Messi’s Brilliance Transcends His Numbers,” and “Dear Rafiki, You Are Not Your SAT Score.” I suspect Ethan Roeder, the chief quant of the Obama re-election campaign, would want to argue this point a bit. He would acknowledge that data cannot tell us everything about anyone; but would probably add that they, nevertheless, provide valuable information if analyzed properly.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Observers cannot stop scratching their heads and nodding in disbelief at the inept naïveté with which David Petraeus and his mistress-biographer Paula Broadwell tried to conceal their doomed escapades. Indeed, one would expect slightly greater sophistication from the spymaster of the Free World, and even from a West-Point-educated lieutenant-colonel from the U.S. Army reserve. I suspect, though, that their childish silliness has an easy explanation.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
If anyone doubts that the world is going to the dogs, a couple of recent engineering disasters in
offer the final and
definite proof. First, the opening of the Germany airport, initially scheduled for last June, has
been pushed back several times because of concerns over its fire-control system.
The current due date is October 2013. And this is only the latest of a series of
high-profile construction projects to be plagued by serious snafus: a couple of
train/subway stations, the new concert hall in new
Berlin , the building of the German CIA… Hamburg
Sunday, November 11, 2012
A review in the NYT says the main protagonist in the movie “Flight” is played by a “titanic Denzel Washington.” This prompted the natural question: if Denzel Washington is titanic, what was, say, Martin Luther King? Supermegatitanic? The linguistic inflation epitomized by such bombastic language has long been lamented by intellectuals. German writer and linguist Uwe Poerksen has bemoaned the spread of “plastic words” like “development” and “empowerment” which have lost any substantive meaning and can be used to describe and justify almost anything. In a similar fashion, writer Jennifer Egan has lampooned a fictional academic star who studies “the phenomenon of word casings, a term she'd invented for words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks” – like "friend," "real," "story," "change," “identity,” “search,” “cloud,” and countless others.
Friday, November 2, 2012
According to a story in the Guardian, "more than one in three men surveyed in the Democratic Republic of Congo's war-torn east admits committing sexual assault, and three in four believe that a woman who "does not dress decently is asking to be raped." If I recall correctly, a similar study done in South Africa a few years ago produced similar results. Such findings, though, seem to have made no impression on Steven Pinker, Joshua Goldsten, and other liberal intellectuals who have confidently argued that both large-scale violence and violent crime are fast becoming obsolete - this time for real.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
Last week, Maureen Dowd complained about the “mind-boggling phoniness of [Mitt] Romney” (“My Mitt Fantasy”). According to David Brooks, however, “Romney’s shape-shifting nature” could in fact help him push though Congress some sort of bipartisan reform if he were to become president. Hurray for inner emptiness and “The Upside of Opportunism”! The funny part is that Brooks passes for a “conservative.” The more bizarre part is that the majority of GOP supporters – and probably some opponents – don’t seem to sense Romney’s inner emptiness.
Sunday, October 28, 2012
This is the title of an interview on the Edge web site with Nicholas Christakis, a “Physician and Social Scientists” at Harvard. He hails the “biological hurricane approaching the social sciences” and “the era of computational social science.” He believes that by pooling all the relevant data “we” (or, rather, clear-sighted scientists like him) will soon achieve a clear understanding of previously murky aspects of human behavior – for example, of how “humans aggregate to form collective entities.” These new causal models will then allow for effective “interventions” at different societal levels.
To illustrate this new approach, Christakis points to a study he and others did on the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer population spread thinly on the Kenyan savannah. They created “a kind of Facebook for the Hadza” mapping the totality of their social connections. The result was quite surprising. As it it turned out, modern telecommunications and urbanization have absolutely no effect on the “structure of human social networks.“ In Christakis’s words, “Hadza social networks look just like ours. In every kind of way we could study these networks, mathematically, they didn't differ from ours.”
Sunday, October 14, 2012
The NYT features a profile of Glenn Hubbard, “Romeney’s Go-To Economist.” Hubbard is still dean of the
business school, and can well become Secretary of the Treasury if Romney
somehow sails into the White House. Once there, he would likely seek to revive
George W. Bush’s economic policy, i.e., return the Columbia to the economic course which once
led it to the precipice. Otherwise, Hubbard looks like another nerdy libertarian
economist who passes for a “conservative,” American-style. He has not shrunk
from raking in millions from industries whose practices he has justified in
academic papers and articles; and from corporations and executives accused of fraudulent
behavior, in whose defense he has readily provided “expert” testimony. US
Saturday, October 13, 2012
On one of the news channels there was some curious footage from
highlighted the plight of thousands of Tajik women who have been abandoned by
their husbands. Since Tajikistan Tajikistan
doesn’t offer an abundance of well-paying jobs, it turns out that perhaps 30
percent of Tajik bread winners have spent years as sometimes unwelcome gastarbeiter
As they were toiling away from home, at some point quite a few decided to call back home with a shocking announcement. They solemnly declared they were
divorcing their wives, often leaving them to shoulder the burden of raising
several children with very little income. Why has this trend taken such epidemic
proportions in recent years? I have another elegant theory explaining it all. Russia
Maverick feminist Camile Paglia has joined the chorus singing paeans to capitalism on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. In her contribution, titled “How Capitalism Can Save Art,” she argues there is a simple reason why art has lost existential ground over the last couple of decades – what elese could you expect, if “the most talented college students are ideologically indoctrinated with contempt for the economic system that made their freedom, comforts and privileges possible.” This, of course, is a refrain of the conspiracy theory embraced by all sorts of cultural/social “conservatives” – and Paglia has swallowed it as self-righteously, though she describes herself as “a libertarian Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.” This fatal attraction of conspiratorial thinking is in fact quite curious.
Friday, October 5, 2012
Today, Dr. Brook Magnanti is some kind of British research scientist. A few years ago she was writing – alongside her dissertation – a racy blog describing her exploits as a high-end prostitute in
Interviewed recently on the BBC chat show Hard Talk, she claimed that
prostitution had empowered her; and said she would do it all over again if she
had a choice. She also said she wished her daughter would one day follow confidently in
her footsteps. London
Following President Obama’s dispirited performance at the
debate, even many
of his ardent supporters tweeted a blizzard of grumbles. According to the NYT,
Andrew Sullivan, a liberal blogger, complained that the president was “boring, abstract,
and less human-seeming than Romney!” Denver
Saturday, September 29, 2012
Vanity Fair carries a fawning profile of President Barack Obama. Among the many vignettes it contains, one immediately caught my attention. Obama found in the Oval Office some bookshelves filled with china. Apparently, his predecessor wanted to illustrate his faux self-depricating point that you don’t need to be an enthusiastic (or even competent) reader in order to become President of the
Obama was mildly shocked, so he ordered his staff to throw the plates and
dishes out. What did he put on display as a replacement? United States
Friday, September 21, 2012
Der Speigel carries yet another article which revisits the lame debate: “”Is the Internet Really Making Us Dumber?” The article refers to a new book by James Flynn, of “Flynn effect” fame. The way I read him, it seems kids' abilities at some very peculiar forms of abstraction have indeed been improving; but their verbal prowess has been slipping. Which change is more significant?
Monday, September 17, 2012
A leak to the press a few days ago indicated that Bernard Arnault, the French ultrabillionaire (or “job creator,” depending on your ideological leanings), had applied for Belgian citizenship. This widely publicized move was his apparent counterpunch to President Francois Hollande’s plans to slap a 75 percent emergency tax on any French citizen earning over 1.1 million euro a year. Back in the 1980s, Arnault had temporarily fled to the US, the land of Reaganomics, when Francois Mitterand had launched a similar quasi-socialist experiment. This time, though, Arnault plans to remain in France as this will decrease his Belgian tax liability. And he claims – wink-wink – that he is not jumping jurisdictions in order to decrease his tax exposure.
Friday, August 31, 2012
Jane Brody, a committed middle-aged walker, biker, and swimmer, presents in the NYT some new ideas for the promotion of aerobic exercise (“Changing Our Tune on Exercise”). According to some health experts, the promise of better health in some distant future and even a postponed death does not provide a sufficiently strong incentive for most individuals to stick to an exercise routine. To them, such potential benefits seem “distant and theoretical” (with men, who often have a stronger penchant for detached abstraction, being a bit more inclined to take them seriously). And if some individuals took up exercise in order to slim down, the prospects can be even worse. As most are bound to fall short of any notable results, such body-conscious exercisers are likely to face disappointment and even lower self-esteem.
So, what is to be done in order to motivate more people to keep up an exercise schedule?
Saturday, August 25, 2012
#TheAtlantic carries again one of those “provocative” trend-spotting articles which have become its trademark. It’s called “Boys on the Side,” and is written by #HannaRosin. Here is the summary which appears below the title: “The hookup culture that has largely replaced dating on college campuses has been viewed, in many quarters, as socially corrosive and ultimately toxic to women, who seemingly have little choice but to participate. Actually, it is an engine of female progress—one being harnessed and driven by women themselves.”
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
In her recent op-ed, “Likability Index,” Maureen Dowd presents the
presidential contest as a clash of the introverts. This diagnosis may be off a bit, particularly in Romney’s case – as he seems singularly devoid of the rich inner life typically associated with introversion. Leaving that aside, Dowd also asks an interesting question: “Will Mitt’s new mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan of US , make his run more personable?” Wisconsin
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
This is the title of Jonah Lehrer’s penultimate blog post at The New Yorker. In the bitterest of ironies, it turned out this title refered to him. If anyone doesn’t know, Lehrer was on the path to a career in neuroscience when a few years ago he switched tracks to become the most lucid neuroscience popularizer – a best-selling author and a speaker commanding high fees at corporate events. Then, at some point, it all went fell apart.
Predictably, the Olympics opening ceremony unleashed a whirlwind of tweets, with twitterers competing to key in in real time the greatest punch line - ever. Then, multiple web sites rushed to compile lists of the funniest tweets. Then, other web sites compiled lists of the best lists of funniest tweets. Then – OK, I made that last one up. In any case, I combed through a couple of the lists, and I did find a clear winner. It came from an economist, Matthew Yglesias, who must have an uncharacteristic ironic streak since he writes for Slate. This is what he said: “Watching these open ceremonies, fairly confident that
will bury the west.” China
Monday, July 30, 2012
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
In November, Californian voters will cast ballots not only to elect the next president of the United States and members of Congress. They will also vote on a proposition to eliminate the death penalty, and replace it with life in prison without parole. Was this ballot initiative launched out of any humane concerns, including the possibility that impressionable juries are once in a while condemning innocents to death? Maybe, but the argument around the issue turns mostly on money.
Saturday, July 7, 2012
Here are the first three paragraphs from a NYT op-ed piece under this title by writer Kurt Andersen:
“This spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?
“There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.
“What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.”
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Yesterday, another great white went belly up in the muddy waters of London-based haute finance. As I was watching older footage of him giving testimony and sipping expensive whine, I called a friend so we could rejoice briefly over this rare downfall of a celebrity predator and strike for social sanity. My friend, however, immediately doused my gloating in conceptual cold water. He reminded me of a famous passage from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty.” In it, Mill described the development of various mechanisms for keeping down the “innumerable vultures” who would trample upon and exploit the week in any society – from the unlimited power of the ancient kings to modern “representative government.” So my friend asked (what sounded like) a rhetorical question: could this age-old struggle have finally ended – with the complete and total victory of the vultures? Who may need from time to time to ritually sacrifice one of their own, but will never ever give up their status of a collective top dog?
Friday, June 22, 2012
The prosecution in the Breivik case announced yesterday that they would seek an insanity verdict. Apparently, there were two psychiatric evaluations of the mass killer which contradicted each other, and the prosecutors decided to side with the one pronouncing him insane. There seems to be a circular logic at work here. Why did Breivik commit his egregious crime? Because he is insane. And why is he insane? Because he committed that egregious crime.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
I have often pondered the phenomenal success of "The Matrix" trilogy, particularly the first movie which came out in the distant 1999. I still haven't met a student who hasn't watched it, despite its ancient release date. The promotional web site created for it carried a few philosophical essays, and I read an additional philosophical collection which was published the old-fashioned way. There is now also "The Matrix 101" web site dedicated to "Understanding The Matrix Trilogy." Yet, nothing I read over the years provided a plausibe solution to the problem I was turning in my head. Until I had one of those miraculous flashes of insight Jonah Lehrer writes about in "Imagine."
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Philosophy professor Christine Overall directs the following appeal to the readers of “The Stone,” the NYT philosophy blog: “Think Before You Breed.” Under this heading, she is “arguing for the need to think systematically and deeply about a fundamental aspect of human life.” Prof. Overall believes that as far as kids are concerned, “the burden of proof – or at least the burden of justification – should … rest primarily on those who choose to have children, not on those who choose to be childless.” Why? Because “the choice to have children calls for more careful justification and thought than the choice not to have children because procreation creates a dependent, needy, and vulnerable human being whose future may be at risk.” Therefore, “the individual who chooses childlessness takes the ethically less risky path.” As I was reading this, I had two thoughts. First, the continued marginalization of academic philosophers in the Anglo-Saxon world, and the spread of these best practices to less advanced societies in the coming decades, may be essential to human procreation. Second, the Athenians who condemned Socrates for the kind of critical thinking he championed probably knew what they were doing. Pity they acted too late, only after their beloved city had fallen to the dumb Spartans.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
A couple of years ago the NYT started a philosophy blog, “The Stone” (this was a key piece of evidence cited recently by Carlin Romano in support of his provocative thesis that America, usually seen as an “ ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded, and iPhoned society,” in fact now “towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia”). Academic philosophers posting on “The Stone” have debated many topics, but one seems to have become a perennial favorite – the old dilemma about free will.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Ray Bradbury died yesterday aged 91. Science fiction writers are now routinely criticized for overimagining the technology of the future. As we now know, the first expedition to Mars did not take place in 1999; so Bradbury can be similarly faulted. Yet, in other ways he saw it all coming.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
The Atlantic carries an article (“Moneyballer”) about the new star in American college basketball, Harrison Barnes. In high school he was an honor student, sax player, bible aficionado, etc. When he had to make that crucial decision, he opted to go to college instead of jumping right into the NBA. He also chose to stay in college, at least for the time being, though after his freshman year he would have certainly been a top-five draft pick. Why did he do it? As a business major in college, Barnes has picked some key insights from brand-management theory. On the basis of these, “he believes remaining in college for at least one more year will eventually increase his endorsement potential.” In his own words: “The longer you stay in college, the better a brand you build.”
Friday, June 1, 2012
The title of a NYT article proclaims “wasting time is new divide in digital era.” It says efforts to give the kids of the digital have-nots access to computers and the internet have had a paradoxical result – they are wasting considerably more time online than the children of better-off families.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
This is the title of an essay by Jonathan Franzen published in the Guardian, apparently as part of the publicity surge around his new essay collection. In this piece, he explains how he “overcame a sense of shame, guilt and disloyalty” (to his former wife, mostly) in order to became a great writer. What he doesn’t seem to have overcome, though, is an awkward degree of self-absorption. It is this self-involvement which allowed Franzen to slam last year in the New Yorker David Foster Wallace, ostensibly a friend and undoubtedly a competitor, as a narcissistic jerk – someone who contemplated his suicide as an adulation-craving career move, committed as if to spite him, Franzen.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Terry Castle, a professor of English at Stanford, makes in the Chronicle of Higher Education ("Don't Pick Up") “the case for breaking up with your parents." She ridicules her own students a bit for being constantly in digital touch with mom and dad. She tells them that when she was a college student back in the 1970s, they DESPISED their parents.
Monday, May 21, 2012
According to the title of an article which came out in Der Speigel two months ago, a Dutch NGO “pioneers mobile euthanasia.” The plan is to initially bring death to the homes of people who are terminally ill and suffering. But the end objective is to increase public acceptance and eventually achieve the full legalization of assisted suicide – so that this service can become available to anyone who fancies to die, no questions asked. After all, if someone thinks it is in their best interest to die, why should they be persuaded otherwise?
Friday, May 18, 2012
Tetris is described in a NYT article on “stupid” video games (“Just One More Game”) as a “simple but addictive puzzle game.” It came pre-installed on Nintendo’s first-generation Game Boy. That, of course, was the device which launched the hand-held gaming revolution back in that iconic year – 1989. As it turns out, Tetris had been designed in a Soviet computer lab back in 1984 – another curious coincidence.
In a NYT interview, a 28-year old digital consultant shares tips about the countless cool web sites, “niche social networks,” apps, etc. she uses on a daily basis. Why is she almost continuously plugged in? Very simple: “Its [sic.] not just my geeky love for the Internet that keeps me trying new products,” she said. “It’s a quest to find things that will ultimately make my life more efficient and run smoothly.” This must be a truly epic quest. Self-betterment as self-optimization, if you will.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Harvard’s alumni magazine carries a feature article reporting on the lives of its undergraduate achievement freaks. Called “Nonstop,” the piece begins with a description of the crazy schedule of a female student who rises long before the sun has done so, has rowing practice at 6:00 a.m., attends multiple activities late into the night – and does this every single day.
Monday, April 30, 2012
A friend sent me that famous quote from “Romeo and Juliet”:
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
I knew it, but this is conclusive evidence that Shakespeare had never heard of branding, conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption, etc. Who says there is nothing new under the sun?
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
I knew it, but this is conclusive evidence that Shakespeare had never heard of branding, conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption, etc. Who says there is nothing new under the sun?
Sunday, March 11, 2012
David Brooks has long argued that Americans are becoming more conservative and reembracing older values. According to a recent NYT article (“The Go-Nowhere Generation”), this may be partly true. It says that even before the crisis young Americans had become almost twice less likely to move across state borders or to even leave the family nest. The authors argue it would be terrible for Americans to become risk-averse, and twenty-somethings should not think twice before hopping on a Greyhound bus that will take them to a neighboring state with lower unemployment numbers.
Friday, March 9, 2012
Nick Cohen passes for a leftist British intellectual. Yet he seems strangely oblivious to all those Gramscian allegations about an oppressive "ideological hegemony" suffocating the downtrodden in bourgeois societies. A couple of weeks ago he wrote a comment for Time Magazine criticizing political censorship in Europe ("The Right to Be Wrong"). His ire was provoked by the aborted French legislation meant to criminalize denial of the alleged Armenian genocide in the Ottoman empire. What is Cohen's main argument? He thinks "European judges and politicians have an aristocratic fear that if they grant the masses unrestricted debate, mobs will embrace revolution, racism or fascism. They do not believe that bad arguments can be defeated by better ones in a free society."
I am still thinking of Lehrer's point about the link between creativity and self-control (see previous post). If we take this seriously, then the tragic downward spiral of Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, and countless other creative types would hardly come as a surprise; to say nothing of the careerwrecks experienced by Mel Gibson or Lars von Trier who would rather direct their impulsive outbursts at others...
Sunday, February 19, 2012
“Moneyball” tells the story of a baseball franchise manager who places his faith in the statistical models developed by a recent economics graduate to recruit undervalued (i.e., cheap) players. They then, despite their coach’s doubts, go on to score the longest winning streak in baseball history against much more expensive opponents. My first thought on watching the movie was: “Isn't the timing here a bit awkward – why tell such an inspiring tale about the power of number crunching after blind faith in mathematical modeling helped almost destroy the global economy and Western civilization?"
This is the title of a NYT article written by a molecular biologist and a science journalist. They offer a response to all the hype surrounding the publication of “Bringing Up Bébé,” in which an American expat shares her admiration for the effortless way in which French parents project authority and help their kids develop patience and self-discipline. So, what is the American way?