Saturday, December 8, 2018

"A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley"

It looks like the best and the brightest have sown dragon's teeth – again. While the experts continue to cautiously debate the effects of prolonged staring at various screens, Silicon Valley execs have apparently seen the writing on the wall. If the NYT is to be believed, many are in panic over the effects of the technology they have unleashed on their own children. So they have taken to hiring nannies whose chief obligation is to not use any digital device while on duty – and keep their charges similarly unplugged. A time of reckoning, if there is one – pointing to a future when it will take tons of money to give kids a shot at healthy physical and mental growth. Why is so hard to not say, "I told you so"?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

How did Jordan B. Peterson become radicalized?

Until October 2016, Jordan B. Peterson was a little-known psychology professor. Then, a few videos in which he championed “politically incorrect” ideas went viral – and he shot up to unforeseen fame and fortune. The content of his doubt-proof pronouncements on everything has subsequently attracted much attention. There may be, however, a more revealing take on his transformation into a celebrity reactionary (for the liberal intelligentsia) and motivation speaker (among angry, mostly white young men). It’s an angle that places style on par with substance.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The gift of disinhibition

In her paean to Philip Roth in The New Yorker, Zadie Smith says his “central gift and the quality he shared with America itself” is unrestrained, “sheer energy.” In her Philp Roth Lecture two years ago, she said something slightly different – that reading Roth, she “felt something impossible loosen” inside. To her, it was an invaluable gift – “a gift of freedom.” Good for Ms. Smith, who went on to become a superbly creative writer. The gift she cherishes so much, however, might have had a larger fallout – related to the broader cultural trend Roth epitomized so powerfully. He apparently rode the crest of the “culture of narcissism” (or of “self-expression values,” if you the Zeitgeist calls for a less judgmental term). That tide has allowed, among other things, some exceptional individuals to make and keep what in the past would have been obscene amounts of money. This social group would include financial speculators, captains of the “attention economy,” and other “bad actors” (as Paul Krugman has dubbed them). They can now wallow in billions without the slightest sense of shame or embarrassment, and be a target of admiration rather than opprobrium.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Too bad the Wehrmacht did not win on the Eastern front!

I clicked through a video the other day – “The Battle of the Baltics” from “The Greatest Tank Battles” series. It is apparently produced for the History and National Geographic channels – yet could very well have been Nazi propaganda. It is all shot from a German perspective and features mostly interviews with German tank crew. Much of the footage is animation of mighty German panzer blowing up countless “Russian” T-34s. The culmination comes when 10 panzer valiantly open a corridor so 500,000 German soldiers can withdraw to fight another day for the Endsieg. I hope there is a parallel universe in which the authors of this video production can live under Nazi rule. If I were religious, I would have also added – thank God for Prof. John Erickson!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?"

This title looks very much like clickbait – but in fact it points to a long Atlantic article by Jean M. Twenge (of "narcissism epidemic" fame). She is pitching her new book, which is bound to be again "controversial" – iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us. She says all sorts of troubling statistics reflecting the mental lives of American teens took an abrupt upward turn about 5 years ago – the year when smartphone ownership reached critical mass. For example, “boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent." Also – and not completely unrelated, “three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys” (and “in 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate”). (see full post at 

Monday, August 14, 2017

“When Silicon Valley Takes LSD”

This is the title of a segment on CNN describing a curious phenomenon – the extent to which IT developers and entrepreneurs have become dependent on LSD as a “creativity” prop. One of them, Tim Ferriss, states flatly: “The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis." Why should this be the case? Perhaps they really, really need it. Even in neurotypicals, engagement in a task that requires focused attention or analytical thinking shuts down the default mode network – the seat of insight and intuition in the human brain. The Silicon Valley types, no doubt, are much, much better at this. So they would desperately need a substance allowing some key hubs of the DMN to continue to hum, no matter what. (see full post at

Friday, May 26, 2017

Who is most “academically adrift” – and why?

Seven years ago, sociologists-turned-education-experts Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published a book (under the same name) in which they made a startling argument. Unveiling a study involving 2,300 American students, they claimed they had observed very “limited learning on college campuses.” A majority of students were allegedly showing no or negligible improvement in their thinking after 4 years of higher learning. Arum’s and Roksa’s methods and conclusions attracted much flak from more optimistic experts and observers. There was one curious assertion, however, which almost got lost in the whole debate. Arum and Roksa had found that students majoring in business administration and education were making the least progress of all. To the extent that their data can be trusted, what could be a plausible explanation for this curious finding? I offer a counterintuitive explanation in my new book, Mental Penguins: The Neverending Education Crisis and the False Promise of the Information Age. And in the full version of this post on another, learning-focused blog I have started at

Friday, April 14, 2017

President Trump’s beautiful flip-flops

To the surprise of many, it took President Trump only 48 hours to suddenly change his mind about a host of hefty issues. He decided China was not a “currency manipulator,” after all; ordered a massive missile strike on a Syrian air field; cooled toward Russia and its perceived strongman; acknowledged NATO was no longer obsolete; and praised the U.S. Export-Import Bank – which he had pledged to shut down. One of the explanations given for this torrent of policy U-turns is that the country’s CEO is simply learning about all the issues involved – and finding out these may be more complicated than Fox News had led him to believe. For example, President Trump noted it had taken 10 minutes of conversation with the Chinese president (more like 5 – if the translation is not counted) to make him see China’s relation to North Korea in new light. Whatever the failing liberal press was saying, he seemed to believe his new “flexibility” only showed he was pragmatic rather than bound to rigid ideological commandments. There may be, however, a less charitable explanation for it.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Our startups, ourselves

In the NYT, John Herrman recalls an astute observation made by computer scientist John Dougman in the now distant 1990 (“New Technology Is Built on a ‘Stack.’ Is That the Best Way to Understand Everything Else, Too?” “Invariably,” Dougman wrote, “the explanatory metaphors of a given era incorporate the devices and the spectacles of the day.” The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, deployed hydraulic and pneumatic metaphors reflecting the technology they used to pump water. During the Enlightenment, the human organism was conceived as a sophisticated machine, not unlike the newly ubiquitous mechanical clocks, watches, and related mechanisms. With the spread of IT, terms borrowed from computer science – like programmed, bandwidth, or hack – become the new master metaphors. One of the trendiest among these seems to be the “stack” – a combination of elements arranged (as if) on top of each other, well integrated and assuring the smooth functioning of a company (or a human being).

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sincere blue eyes – wink, wink…

What do Donald Trump, Kelyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell have in common? Blue eyes. Blue eyes are, of course, very common among people of German and Irish descent. But the extent to which steely eyes have always been overrepresented in the upper echelon of American politics is quite striking. Thirty-one out of 44 presidents (including the 5 squeezed between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama) have had blue eyes. And the second most common color has been gray, with 6 distinguished representatives.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Narcissism works – really!

I posted this on Christmas Eve, 2014. I am still amazed how well life continues to imitates art, kind of:

"So the DJIA has pushed beyond 18,000. It may not quite get to 30,000 soon, but still – what a momentous achievement! Which reminds me of a remarkable #Colbert interview from March 2009. The guest was #EmilyYoffe who had just published an article on Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Slate. The previous week the Dow Jones had hit rock bottom at 6,547, and Ms. Yoffe explained somewhat sternly that the whole financial meltdown had resulted from Americans “binging on ‘I deserve it.’” After asking a few probing questions, the Colbert character retorted: “But the economy and the market is really all based on confidence. Why don’t we just recapture that narcissism that we had a year ago and pretend that everything is just OK, and won’t the market come right back? Won’t we just rebuild the bubble?” At the time this was meant as a joke, but now the joke is on the non-believers, or should I say – the non-narcissists?"

Monday, January 30, 2017

Machiavelli saw it all coming?

“Society cannot exist without inequality of fortunes and inequality of fortunes cannot exist without religion. When a man is dying of hunger alongside another who stuffs himself, it is impossible to make him accede to the difference unless there is an authority which says to him God wished it thus; there must be some poor and some rich in the world but hereafter and for all eternity the division will be made differently.”

Sunday, July 31, 2016

“Hilary Clinton Makes History”

This was the title of the NYT editorial celebrating Hilary Clinton’s official nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. According to it, “Mrs. Clinton’s nomination brings women a big step closer to the pinnacle of American politics.” Perhaps. What it does immediately is bring a real outlier closer to the presidency of the United States. The broader effects are yet to be seen – and become a topic of ideological strife. I am still wondering if a human being with “normal” emotional/visceral reactivity can survive the US presidential campaign. Perhaps President Obama is, indeed, the closest we’ll ever get.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

“Will Sanders Supporters Come Around?”

In this piece on the NYT web site, psychologists Yarrow Dunham and David Rand predict a positive outcome. They point to multiple psychological experiments (some with kids) indicating a common “human tendency to forge alliances as the context demands.” In other words, team spirit wins over contingent (and even some deep) divides. Except when it doesn’t – as the mutiny in the French football/soccer team at the 2010 world cup suggests.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

"There is no difference between computer art and human art"

This is the title of an Aeon piece by Oliver Roeder, a senior writer for ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight site. His basic argument is that since algorithms are created by humans, the art they generate is human art, too. This could well be a joke, but perhaps isn’t – which would be symptomatic in itself. My first reaction was to say there is a fundamental difference between real art and that produced by an algorithm (no matter how much “creativity” has gone into it). One requires, and evokes, a powerful emotional response; the other doesn’t. On second thought, artists, writers, composers, and others started to work on erasing this difference over a century ago. The cultured elite was initially abhorred, but quickly lost taste in representational art,  rhymed poetry, traditional narrative, tonal music, and the like – and embraced most forms of aesthetically neutral (or worse) art, poetry/writing, music, architecture, etc. This trend has recently been reinforced by the entry of tech billionaites into the prestigious art market. So perhaps we have reached the point where there is no meaningful difference between human and algorithmic artistic output.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Martha Nussbaum’ lessons for a life well lived – and conceptualized

The New Yorker carries a really chilling profile of the esteemed philosopher (“The Philosopher of Feelings”). It makes you think, “is this what it takes to achieve unrivaled success as a thinker and academic?” Also, much recent research has highlighted how much social judgment depends on proper emotional response, including gut feeling. So the article left me wondering about something else – how could someone so hardened, rationalizing, and detached become the preeminent philosophical authority on human emotion? Or perhaps this is a symptom in itself? I would be really curious about Prof. Nussbaum’s reaction to her profile, whatever that might be…

P.S. I keep thinking about this – an extreme, highly "weird" outlier, "monumentally confident" as she formulates universal principles valid for all of humanity? Or is this perhaps  refracted in a non-existing tear drop  the image of most Western social theorizing, despite the obligatory protestations of cultural sensitivity? I guess Prof. Nussbaum deserves all the sympathy she has tried to extend to the less fortunate  looking down from her elevated SES, fabulous apartment, plane windows, etc. In any case, it would be interesting to see some fMRI data for scholars who write about emotions – too bad I can't afford it myself...

Monday, July 18, 2016

Imagine … a digital afterlife!

On The Atlantic web site, neuroscientist Michael Graziano imagines a bright future when individual minds will be routinely uploaded on to some sort of IT hardware (“Why You Should Believe in the Digital Afterlife”). The vision he projects is surprisingly poetic—though not quite in the “machines of loving grace” tradition: “Think about the quantum leap that might occur if instead of preserving words and pictures, we could preserve people’s actual minds for future generations. We could accumulate skill and wisdom like never before. Imagine a future in which your biological life is more like a larval stage. You grow up, learn skills and good judgment along the way, and then are inducted into an indefinite digital existence where you contribute to stability and knowledge.” Of course, Prof. Graziano’s utopia could be another clever hoax meant to provoke silly comments from clever readers. In case it isn’t, it may need to be amended slightly: 1) machine learning could at some point take care of the accumulation of skills and knowledge commonly associated with humans—making the latter superfluous; and 2) the project could work only for individuals like Graziano himself, Ray Kurzweil (whose foresight the neuroscientist praises), the early Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Richard Hendricks, etc.—whose thought processes run along strictly logical/algorithmic lines.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The future is (almost) now?

Ruth Franklin has a great book review in the NYT (“Lionel Shriver Imagines Imminent Economic Collapse, With Cabbage at $20 a Head”). In the novel, American civilization has apparently collapsed under its own weight – ending la dolce vita for the 1%. Here are the last 2 sentences from the review: “‘The line between owners of swank Washington ­townhouses and denizens of his sister-in-law’s Fort Greene shelter was perhaps thinner than he’d previously appreciated,’ Lowell realizes late in the novel. The line separating us from our dystopian future may be equally thin. The curse of Cassandra, after all, was that she told the truth.” The trouble is – I tend to trust people who can write so well…

Saturday, June 4, 2016

We Have Become an Idiocracy

Joel Klein is the in-house satirist of Time Magazine. But in this piece he is only half-joking...

Friday, May 27, 2016

Geoff Dyer’s Creative Boredom

According to a book review in Time Magazine, the writer has two great gifts – he is easily bored in places everyone else finds exciting, and can cleverly convey his sense of insufferable boredom. Beijing’s Forbidden City? “Jeez, it went on forever, and every bit looked axactly the same as every other bit.” Time spent in a small Norwegian town promising a unique view of the northern lights? “It was like a lifetime of disappointment compressed into less than a week, which actually felt like it had lasted the best – in the sense of worst – part of a lifetime.” Polynesia? It “translates as ‘many islands,’ all of which you wish you were on instead of the one you actually are on.” Apparently, this goes on and on. So what would it take to get Mr. Dyer mildly excited? More dopamine binding in his mesolimbic pathway, I guess – though this could get in the way of his wry humor. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Individualism’s Final Victory?

A story on the NYT web site hails “The End of the Office Dress Code.” Its strapline clarifies the message: “In the sartorial battle between the individual and the corporation, the individual is winning.” I searched for the slightest whiff of irony in the text, but found none. So it must be true – for better or worse. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Matrix in reverse?

A team of psychologists have identified a mathematical network in the brain – distinct from the one recruited for language-mediated thinking. It is activated when we juggle or simply see numbers. Needless to say, this network must be more developed in mathematicians – or, more generally, in individuals who are better with numbers rather than words. Needless to say, this may be the network you need to have beefed up in your brain in order to be taken seriously as a social scientists these days (and soon it may give you a leg up in the humanities, too). So, unlike Cypher who says he sees people when he looks at numbers, you will be able to see numbers and equations when you think of people and social “interactions.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A gender gap that is here to stay?

I sent the other day an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Subtle Ways Gender Gaps Persist in Science,” to a friend. She pointed out that even in the “social sciences” the gender gap persists in a very obvious way, and perhaps for a reason. She thinks most research there has become so reductionist and quasi-autistic, that “extreme male brains” must be naturally attracted to and likely to excel at such work. And, of course, they also tend to hire and promote kindred souls (for lack of a better word), despite occasional bitter rivalries. According to my friend, this self and other-selection keeps even many men out – and only women who can at least imitate the modus operandi of the male cognitive outliers can put a foot in the door. Apparently, this problem is particularly acute in economics, where the proportion of female tenure-track and tenured faculty is lower than in computers and pure math.

P.S. A NYT piece says blacks and Hispanics are "conspicuously absent" from tech jobs - just as women are. It seems males from a few racial/cultural groups are overrepresented in nerdy jobs across the board - and, of course, in the high-stakes gambling that is now called "investment." So "the best and the brightest" won't go away, no matter how many satirical jibes they need to suffer.