Thursday, January 28, 2010


Apple finally displayed its eagerly, fervently, feverishly awaited tablet computer. It's billed as a platform primarily for the distribution and utilization of ebooks and maybe other textual "content." Yet, it is loaded with distractions that will be quite irresistible to many users: "web surfing, email, games, presentation software and various other tricks" (according to the Guardian article covering the momentous product launch). And it will also have cell/mobile 3G connectivity. here is how it will work. You download a book on the spur of the moment - one you don't need and probably won't like. At some point you pull it up on your screen, and halfway through the first page you succumb to an urge to check an irrelevant fact on the web. Twenty-seven hyperlinks and 2.5 hours later you still haven't moved past p. 1. You never finish the book - but Apple has reshaped another media business. You would have shelled out the $11.99 on some other impulsive purchase anyway - and GDP has grown by another tiny bit.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Up in the Air

The movie is touchingly brilliant in its depiction of the heartlessness of the corporate machine George Clooney serves with utmost competence and poise. Where it seems to falter emotionally are the few sequences meant to put a human touch on the reality he inhabits. This must be mission impossible – really. The female character, a top Cornell graduate who majored in psychology, exposes with merciless precision the clulessness of much cost-benefit analysis (mocked memorably by Michael Sandel in last year's Reith Lectures) and of reductionist psychology. What ticked me a bit was the amount of product placement in this movie – otherwise positioned as socially conscious: Hilton, Hertz, American Airlines, Chrysler… Granted, it’s not as bad as the merciless merchandizing of Avatar – whose mesmerizing 3D world has been reproduced in plastic and made available on Amazon to the last flickering blade of grass. No, there isn’t anything the matrix cannot swallow and digest with unyielding efficiency…

I can't get no satisfaction

A Slate article by Emily Yoffe from last August reveals why most of us will spend hours checking obscure factoids on the Internet. It turns out such “seeking” behavior gives us an agitated high – the force that drives rats with electrodes inserted in the appropriate part of their brains to keep pressing that proverbial lever until they collapse from mental and physical exhaustion. Oh, to what lengths the human animal will go in pursuit of a high… A recent New York Times article (“Choking Game No Mystery to Children…”) says over five per cent of kids in Oregon have tried “the activity, in which adolescents try to achieve a high by briefly depriving the brain of oxygen through strangulation” – a desperate kind of thrill seeking which has produced dozens of deaths in recent years. Still, the obsessive/addictive behavior described by Yoffe seems more troubling in the long run, since it affects 99.9 per cent of kids in areas enjoying the amenities of modern living. Another NYT article reports the finding of a recent study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the use of electronic devices by children 8 to 18 years old in t6he US. It turns out they now spend on average 7.5 hours a day plugged into such devices, not counting 1.5 hours of texting and 0.5 hours speaking on their cell phones. This is an increase of over an hour as compared to the previous study done five years ago – when researchers had concluded that the use of electronic devices could not possibly go up because there are only so many waking hours in a day. Now it has – as a result mostly of the recent advent “smartphone” which allow their owners to be constantly hyperconnected. Those devices in the hands of teenagers – and most adults – make the itch to constantly seek information and entertainment online virtually irresistible, with incalculable consequences for the brain development of coming generations. The biggest culprits here are, of course, Apple and Google. I am thinking of Google’s famous slogan: “Don’t Be Evil.” Having a business model aimed at breaking down any remaining inhibitions to the headlong embrace of incessant impulsive behavior in billions of people (how else can you generate those quazillions of billable clicks every day?) is maybe less evil than the Rwandan genocide. Still, this must be the most hilarious piece of corporate propaganda in history. I hope Brin and Page will be clutching their Nexus phones as they slowly turn on those giant pitchforks alongside other overly ambitious geeks - so they could check out online (after)life on the other side...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The wisdom of middle age (sort of)

Some hot cosmetic advice from actress Susan Sarandon: "Laughing does a lot for the face. Do the things you enjoy. Surround yourself with good people. Denying yourself is not good for the face. You can't be a bitter, angry person. Hatred is unsexy and not great for your skin." This after, aged 63, she proudly proclaims: "Yes, I am sexy."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

La dolce vita

Following our daughter’s birthday, we spent a night at one of the countless spa hotels that have sprung up across Bulgaria over the last few years. There were just a couple of people staying and using the facilities there. We went to several similar places around the city for coffee and deserts, and saw a similar picture – solemnly servile staff catering to a few customers in pompously decorated lobby bars. At the same time, the city was dotted with abandoned construction sites, including the concrete hulk of a performing arts center from the late 1980s in the central square. And we drove along a road consisting mainly of potholes to a lake on the outskirts of the city which had once been a familiar tourist attraction. What better illustration for the proverbial capacity of the market to channel resources and investment with unrelenting effectiveness? Pouring billions into the construction of all those spa hotels catering to a few nouveau riche entrepreneurs and well-paid professionals while the social infrastructure of the country is decaying beyond the point of no return...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Avatar: Welcome to the feelies

Avatar has been slammed by pundits on both the left and right. If you step back, the movie does seem quite formulaic and maybe disingenuous. The problem is, for me stepping back was not an option. The movie is so audio-visually overwhelming, it’s impossible to describe in mere words. And as the limbic system in the brain (involved in the generation of our emotional responses) is intimately linked to our senses, the movie is much more, well, moving than it should be on the strength of its predictable story line. My eyes even teared up a couple of times. The irony is that, from now on, anyone who wants to make a credible fantasy picture will need a gazillion dollars for that computer-generated virtual reality James Cameron has firmly set as a standard. Thus mega corporations will have stronger control over the making of the kind of anti-corporate propaganda that will bring Cameron incalculable profit. One critic said Avatar had broken the hold of the Matrix (the movie) over the making of sci-fi films. But what can break the hold of the matrix with a small “m”?
P.S. On second thought, I probably have an underperforming left prefrontal cortex incapable of inhibiting inappropriately strong emotional responses – as it should in any civilized person. There is an older Discover article covering this irritating cortical dysfunction (“Wired for Emotion,” April 2000). With this in mind, I won’t make a cool pundit. And I may be giving Cameron a bit of undeserved credit for his shock-and-awe, scorched-eyeballs creative strategy.

The spirit of Christmas

On Christmas Eve an elderly Italian lady left a bag containing $21,000, jewelry, and several international passports on the back seat of a New York cab. The police told her there was little chance of recovering the bag. But the cab driver, a 28-old Bangladeshi born student, drove 50 miles to hand back the money and turned down the reward he was offered. Corroborating theories which say that our moral decisions are guided by unconscious emotional reactions, he said his heart had told him he could not keep the money. Two years ago a violinist left his astronomically expensive Stradivarius in a cab near New York City, and the driver who returned it was also Muslim. So, the seemingly “oppressive” nature of strict Islamic beliefs may also be helping keep people’s selfish impulses in check. Christianity once played a similar role, before previous deadly sins were turned into an engine of economic growth. Now, selfless acts by poor cab drivers are now met almost with disbelief. And law enforcement and the provision of public goods become really thankless tasks.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Silent raves

I hadn't heard of these, which means that I must be really getting old: young people coming together in crowds to "dance" together while listening to personal selections of music over their headphones. What better metaphor for the blessings of modrn individualization? There are some curious clips on YouTube.

The wisdom of popularity rankings

For three days a story on keeping the middle-aged brain sharp topped the list of most e-mailed articles on the New York Times web site. It offers the following reassurance: “The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.” Judging from the challenges many of my students face, this may well be true. Still, the article kept its top ranking because baby boomers seem to badly need such reassurance after each episode when they (or should I say, we) cannot recall a PIN number or forget to turn off the stove.

The costs of wind power

Two Indian tribes in the US won the postponement of a project to build a wind farm off the Cape Cod. They claimed that the giant wind propellers would obstruct their ritual greeting of the sun. I would love to see a cost-benefit analysis on this.

Yet another refined form of torture

The New York Times reviews (“Oh, Just Answer the Question, Honey”) new reality show on Fox (“Our Little Genius”) giving knowledgeable kids a chance to “win life-changing money for their families” (according to Fox promotional materials). Responding to worries that the contestants might face unhealthy levels of psychological pressure, the producers respond that it will be the parent’s decision as to whether the kid goes to the next level and risks losing all or part of the prize money won. Indeed, human cruelty knows no bounds.

The end of disgust (again)

The Guardian carries an excerpt (“My Free and Easy Life,” Jan. 4) from a book by a 26-year old woman who lost her media job and decided to leave the empty life she was leading – to live money-free, squatting in empty buildings and scavenging for food and basic belongings. It all sounds very attractive 9at least for someone without a family), pity it’s so aesthetically challenging.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Happy moments

This morning I was looking at a Hummer stuck in a narrow, steep and icy street close to where I live - unable to either go back or move forward as it was sliding toward a parked SUV beneath. A lighter vehicle could easily have navigated its way down the slope, but not this ludicrous behemoth. As everyone who would drive a Hummer is obviously a sociopath and a public enemy, watching the miserable owner fret over his mishap was an early high note for the day.

Boot camp for everyone

Looking back to the ending of 2009: Tiger Woods and his golfing "harem"; another young actress dying after years of apparently abusing prescription drugs; other celebrities struggling to kick the same habit. If all these stories demonstrate something, it is this: it may be time to ditch the old liberal faith that, left to their own devices, most individuals can develop the sense of restraint and responsibility required to withstand all the temptations of modern living.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The price of freedom (again)?

The Guardian carries an excerpt (“My Free and Easy Life,” Jan. 2) from a book by a 26-year old woman who lost her media job and decided to leave the empty life she was leading – to live money-free, squatting in empty buildings and scavenging for food and basic belongings. It all sounds very attractive (at least for someone without a family), pity it’s so aesthetically challenging.

Voodoo solutions

We spent a few days around New Year's eve visiting relatives, and sampled several shows on Bulgarian TV we don't normally watch. The degree of vulgarity and obscenity we observed was truly breath-taking. Unfortunately, I don't have the obligatory policy prescription for this social scourge at my fingertips. As a first step, I have commissioned 16 voodoo dolls representing some of the most irritating Bulgarian TV "personalities" and advertising impostors.