Thursday, August 20, 2015
The NYT recently ran a feature (“Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”) describing the meat grinder through which Jeff Bezos puts his foot soldiers and lieutenants. According to the authors, “the company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.” Meanwhile, a study published in the Lancet medical journal has found that employees working long hours are more likely to suffer a stroke – by 33 percent for those logging in over 55 hours per week. And, as we all know, chronic stress can take a severe toll – unless you are one of those ultraperformers who somehow thrive on stress hormones. So here is a task for Bezos’s beloved big data, alongside the more pragmatic uses to which it is put within his empire: calculate how many employees have faced premature death as a result of the “purposeful Darwinism” pervading the company. On a different note, it’s remarkable how libertarian polemicists can still depict political institutions as the main force placing constraints on individual choice and self-actualization.
In an older NYT article (“Hijacking the Brain Circuits With a Nickel Slot Machine”), science writer Sandra Blakeslee offered a curious response to those old questions regarding the deepest roots of human motivation. She said neuroscientists were uncovering an inconvenient truth: “The number of things people do to increase their dopamine firing rates is unlimited.” Hypothetically, the human “executive brain” should know better. But, across a broad range of behaviors – from the intoxicating pursuit of money, power, and celebrity, to all sorts of physical and virtual overconsumption – it appears not to; and to know no limits to the rationalizations it will spin to justify all sorts of problematic behaviors.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Two days ago, the Pacific Standard web site carried two parallel stories – one on ultramarathoners, the other on mass shooters. Do these seemingly unrelated groups have in common? In a way, they do – both are mostly white males. The piece on ultrarunners mentions one part of this answer (“Who Runs 100 Miles?” – “Ultramarathon running draws a particular type of athlete – one who has plenty of free time, doesn't mind pain, and is also white.”). The other one points to the second part (“What Makes American Men So Dangerous?”). So what drives white American males to such physical and mental extremes? I am reminded of psychologist Fred Previc who has written about the “dopaminergic mind,” hell-bent on stereotypically male patterns of thinking and behavior – I sispect he might have part of the answer. It remains a bit unclear, though, how pale skin may be related to such supercharged ways of being-in-the-world...
Thursday, August 6, 2015
The riots in Baltimore reignited an old debate: Are members of a particular racial group disadvantaged because they lack the attitudes needed for economic success? Or because they face discrimination – which is the root cause for any alleged attitudinal problems, too? The same question has been asked about poor whites, but also about women – in general or in particular areas (like business or science). Of course, it could be both – but in some circles “blaming the victim” is seen as adding insult to injury. In this context, why not recall Martin Luther King’s immortal words from over 50 years ago: "T