Saturday, February 20, 2010

Childish worries

A Bulgarian TV broadcaster, aptly called Nova, is considering a new family edition of Big Brother which will feature several children in the house. I am sure that was already done many times over in more advanced countries, but there is still some needless fuss here. A few NGOs have expressed concern, and some people have even said “Shame on them!” But we now know, after decades of rigorous research, that shame is a highly unhealthy emotion and, as such, should be encouraged only in a few select pedophiles (unless they are creative types highly regarded by the liberal intelligentsia). So I hope all highly-skilled men and women toiling on the Big Brother franchise around the world will enjoy decades of positive thinking and good sleep. And I do hope I have at least one former student working on that Bulgarian project.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The platform in your pocket

It seems the future belongs to computer “platforms” used for incessant mobile or wireless online communication. The beauty of these gadgets is can carry them along everywhere, until you no longer have to do that because they have morphed into convenient implants similar to the ones now sewn under the skins of pet dogs. The word “platform” puzzles me a bit here. I recall how George Will was explaining on This Week with David Brinkley maybe 16 years ago that a potato chip is really a platform for delivering fat and salt to your mouth. Following this analogy, a smartphone or a tablet computer would be a platform for delivering... Yes, a stream of perpetual distraction which will one day seem as natural and indispensable as the air we breathe. But I am repeating myself here - better start adapting/adopting right now.

Cognitive upgrade

Over the last couple of weeks I looked at several articles pointing to absolutely irrevocable scientific proof that video games can improve the functioning of your brain. Researchers have established beyond reasonable doubt that gaming sharpens not only your hand-eye coordination and a series of knee-jerk responses to sensory stimuli, but also reasoning skills (as proven by scientifically valid tests). Too bad we have not pressed our daughter to play more video games. The other day I was telling her about some researchers (probably resembling the ones proclaiming the beneficial effects of video games) who have started using their own kids as experimental subject – filming them since their birth (sometimes round the clock) and asking them to perform batteries of cognitive tasks and tests. She cringed, and that’s too bad. If we had exposed her to the advantageous brain modification induced by video games, she would surely have been able to reason her way through this common-sensical family arrangement and understand what it really is - a true cost-benefit nirvana. I have a close friend who is an engineer with a Ph.D. from MIT. As we were once having a debate of some technological issue, he looked at the antique CD player in our living room and said something like: "You know, the amount of human ingenuity that has been built into this device rivals the highest achievements of modern civilization." I would go even further and say high-functioning geeks have done us a great service few people appreciate. They have kept and developed what's valuable in Western civilization, and discarded a host of silly taboos based on needless anxieties. They have thus been able to design mountains of electronic gizmos, rational-choice models of addiction, strings of risk-assessment equations, and what not. And many would use their kids as handy experimental subjects for the benefit of science and all humanity.

Freedom from false fatherhood

An article in the New York Times Magazine (“Who Knew I Was Not the Father”) describes the torturous dilemmas faced by thousands of men who have discovered, with the help of increasingly affordable (and carefully marketed) DNA tests, that they are not the biological fathers of their alleged children. One of them failed in his legal battle to renounce his fatherhood even after his ex-wife married the biological father of his ersatz daughter, and he has to continue mailing out his child-support checks. It turns out if a man wants to have a chance to be relieved from such an obligation, his only chance is to immediately cut off all contact with the child he previously considered his. A surgeon in Pennsylvania did just that and was allowed to walk out of the courtroom a free man, on the ground that he had been the victim of fraud perpetrated by his former wife. When the doctor now goes to pick up the daughter who is biologically his, the “son” he once co-raised turns his back on him (because his mother told him the man formerly known as his dad no longer wanted him). That’s off-putting a bit, but, hey, nothing beats the $1,400 the surgeon now saves each month by not writing a check to support the boy he renounced. I guess that desensitizing boot camp in medical school, when they had to handle body parts, cut up cadavers, and joke about the accompanying stench of formaldehid, really paid off. Well, let me guess – the callous win again. This is no longer news – after all those biblical vices have received recognition as virtues fueling our much needed economic growth, who can doubt any longer that the thick-skinned will inherit the Earth?

The new idols of the tribe

In a New York Times article from Nov. 2007 Dan Bilesky writes of a rush to erect statues of Tarzan, Bruce Lee, Rocky, a former Playboy bunny, etc. in different parts of what once was Yugoslavia. The latest addition to that list is Johnny Depp who recently unveiled a bronze statue of himself somewhere in Serbia (honoring him for his role in a minor Hollywood flick from the 1990s made by Emir Kosturica). After the previous set of idols those Balkan savages held high brought them so low, they still need something to worship, right?

Economic virtuosity to the rescue

Catherine Rampell reviews a book by Jerry Z. Muller on a touchy subject: “Capitalism and the Jews.” Muller describes how Jewish culture adapted to the intellectually demanding tasks of the financial operations Jews alone were allowed to perform when dark superstitions prevented Christians from practicing usury and proto-banking. Occupying that niche brought Jews much prosperity, but also an even stronger resentment among the masses of gentiles as “Judaism became forever fused in the popular mind with finance.” Rampell says that, according to Muller, “much anti-Semitism can be attributed to a misunderstanding of basic economics,” that is, to the ancient delusion (which clouded even Adam Smith’s brain) that only real labor is really productive, and purely monetary transactions could not possibly produce added value. Rampell concludes the review with the following lament: “For centuries, poverty, paranoia and financial illiteracy have combined into a dangerous brew — one that has made economic virtuosity look suspiciously like social vice.” I guess this generalization should also apply to the current generation of equal-opportunity financial virtuosos who, driven by what some might call “greed,” set the global economy on fire – if you believe the conspiracy theories spun by a few populist bozos.

Another myth usefully debunked

Jennifer Senior had an article in the Nov. 2008 issue of the New York Magazine asking if “urban loneliness” was just a myth (“Alone together?). Of course, this is a rhetorical question – how could it really not be? Senior says cities “are the ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves” – bursting with rewarding relationships and shared pursuits. Despite all the polling data she dutifully cites, there is a slight problem with her argument. Why are, then, 58.6 per cent of dating-age Manhattans subscribed to online dating services? Which creates a golden business opportunity for a few enterprising geeks to offer them scientific algorithms for finding the true romantic soul-mates waiting for them a few mouse-clicks away. This must be part of the vibrancy of city life omitted by Robert Putnam and a few other naysayers.

A higher freedom

I am looking at a review of Timothy Ferris’s book, “Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature.” He apparently argues that it was people with a “scientific frame of mind” who ushered in not only the scientific and industrial revolutions, but also the values we associate with democracy and universal human rights. Examples of such freedom-loving nerds include Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Thomas Paine, and others. I knew I should be thankful to nerds and geeks (who had been unjustly tormented by retarded jocks in school) for giving us the car, the jet liner, the personal computer, the internet, the smartphone, and other indispensable amenities of civilized life. But crediting them with the invention of political and personal freedom as well puts my gratitude at a whole new level. If they created from top to bottom the world we now inhabit, it must be theirs to break.

Who needs empathy?

“Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps,” proclaims reassuringly an article in the New York Times citing some recent neuroscientific research. But, if you think of it, why would anyone bother to nurture empathy in their kids? What benefits would that bring them, and look at the emotional costs they will likely suffer. I am sure most economists will know better.

Awe is awesome

John Tierney has quotes some research indicating that, above all, “readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe” (“Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” on the New York Times web site). The researchers define awe as an “emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self,” and give the following telling examples: “Seeing the Grand Canyon, standing in front of a beautiful piece of art, hearing a grand theory or listening to a beautiful symphony may all inspire awe. So may the revelation of something profound and important in something you may have once seen as ordinary or routine, or seeing a causal connection between important things and seemingly remote causes.” Here is a confident forecast: once the meanings of “awesome” and “awe-inspiring” finally merge in the minds of future generations, all this useless sharing of uplifting stories will grind to a halt. And no one will even notice

Nothing holy any more?

My daughter wanted to tell me something she read about the history of the iconic Hollywood sign, and I informed her someone had bought the land above it and was going to “develop” it, potentially spoiling the view. She was incredulous. “But it’s such a symbol,” she protested. I told her to send the contents of her piggy bank to the people who are now trying to put a stick in the spokes of development by buying the land and keeping it empty.

Beyond left and right

Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues in the Guardian that “socialism has been buried.” He points to opinion polls which indicate that while “liberal” attitudes have proliferated in the UK, they don’t seem to have the leftist tinge often associated with them. For example, “the proportion of British people who thought that homosexual relations were wrong had fallen to 36% from 62% in 1983. And yet those who supported redistribution from rich to poor had also fallen, from 51% in 1994 to 38%, and for the first time only a minority even of Labour voters believed in redistribution.” Wheatcroft doesn’t see any common denominator beneath these seemingly disparate attitudinal modifications. How about rampant individualism and the loss of any credible self-transcendent reference points in life? But, hey, look at how much life expectancy has increased with the embrace of such (in Engelhartd’s elegant parlor) “post-material” values.

The virtues of selling out

A provocatively titled essay on the Atlantic web site ("In Defense of Selling Out") argues that there is nothing wrong with artists "finding a way to steadily monetize [their] artistic output" by, for example, participating in advertising. If you have decided to produce art for a living, or if you have bought any bit of artistic expression, you have already acknowledged that art is a commodity. Why, then, not go all the way and put yourself up for sale completely, or almost completely? The author also says "I don't think anyone should have to be ashamed of wanting to be successful, recognized, and to live comfortably." I have to confess I always thought there should be some limits on the extent to which we seek to "monetize" or commodify our existence and achieve worldly success. I even naively suspected that the success of celebrities who earn tens of millions a year is somehow unhealthy for society, and even for the "winners" themselves. Now I get it, so let me think. There is nothing wrong with those young people who sell advertising space on their forehead, shaved skull, eyelids, or any other body part, right? And Ebenezer Scrooge's servant hypothetically undressing him after his death to take - I was going to say "steal," but let's not be judgmental - his best shirt? Dickens wrote about this in order to make some quaint point, and my 13-year old daughter thought it was spooky, but does a dead man really need a pricy shirt? I said the Atlantic piece was provocative, but on second thought it seems not nearly daring enough. I’ll go a step further and argue that not monetizing some of your skills to the full extent the market can bear (maybe because you are held back by some arcane Victorian "values") is plain stupid, even irresponsible. Mother Theresa toiling for free to help all those lepers in India? The dumbest failure to sell out ever. She should have received smarter career planning advice, that's for sure. Of course, some alarmists will say that if seven billion people around the world seize on the impulse to fully monetize their life potential and pursue the lifestyle aspirations promoted through advertising, then Mother Earth will be fully suffocated in maybe 30 years. Have these people learned anything from history? Well, yes, Cassandra was right, but there is a better analogy. How about those armchair/ivory tower doomsayers in ancient Rome who denounced what they one-sidedly saw as an orgy of profiteering and decadent indulgence? They darkly warned that, sapped of the civic virtue Marcus Aurelius futilely sought to resuscitate, the once proud city would one day collapse before those barbarians banging at its gates, but... Woops, bad example. It should be easy to think of a better one, but I have to go now...
P.S. No matter how sloppy my argument, the point I am trying to make should be clear. Imagine those hapless Trojans had listened to Cassandra. What would they have achieved? Most likely, they would have fretted futilely and missed the opportunity to enjoy themselves to the full measure of their potential - while they still could.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Civlizational meltdown?

Don Peck has a heart-wrenching article in the latest Atlantic ("How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America") describing the profound social and psychological effects long-term unemployment is likely to have in the United States. I am reading this alongside a story by Charlotte Allen in the Weekly Standard on the changing dynamics of dating ("The New Dating Game"). The two articles address different issues, and appear in publications with diverging ideological agendas. Yet, they point to a similar set of impending problems. They address the growing marginalization of masses of less educated men in the United States - a process driven by both economic and cultural factors which could lead to the erosion of marriage as a socializing institution and even to the collapse of civilized society. Hopefully, such worries are overstated, but this is the kind of connection I would like my students to make between issues and trends that may seem quite unrelated.

Defying gravity

I am looking at a picture of Shaun White, a celebrity snowboarder. He is suspended in midair doing a stunt which helped him win one of the events at the winter Olympics. I am wondering what I should think of his streetwise outfit: does it express (1) glorious youthful rebellion, or (2) another rush of turbo-charged self-expression that has been digested and harnessed by the matrix - woops, the market. Meanwhile, White is widely admired in the advertising industry as a true wunderkind for his ability to rack up a long list of endorsement deals (Burton, Target, Red Bull, Oakley, HP, Ubisoft…) without diluting his own personal brand. I( was scratching my head and sking myself why the McDonalds legal SWAT team have not nailed White for naming his signature stunt McSomething, as they have sued countless others, some of whom had the impudence to use their own age-old family names to brand the minor products or services they were peddling. Then I read somewhere that McDonalds were in complex negotiations as they wanted to become the 47th company whose brand name White has graciously endorsed. His head is apparently beginning turn from all that well deserved fame, so he is rumored to have requested $110 per every breath he breathes out over the next 35 years of his life. But the tough negotiators working for McDonalds want him to undergo upsula yoga training first in order to start breathing more slowly.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The futility of contemplation

An ad for the business school at Cambridge quotes Jacob Bronowski, a renowned mathematician and biologist, who once said: "The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation." I assume he meant "grasp" in the sense of "grab" or "seize." How lucky we should count ourselves that his uplifting advice was taken to heart by the legions of mathematical wizzes who truly transformed the financial industry beyond recognition.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The pursuit of happiness

The National Enquirer reports that John Edwards has proposed to Rielle Hunter, the actress/videographer with whom he had a child while his wife was fighting a relapse of breast cancer during the 2008 presidential campaign. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the NE is again right - as when it derailed Edwards's efforts to conceal his relationship with Hunter. Someone in his 50s leaves behind a former wife dying of cancer, with whom he had four children (the first died at 17 in a car crash); and moves on to remarry and have another shot at matrimonial happiness with the mother of his fifth child. I am wondering if psychologists and all sorts of therapists would see this as resilience and healthy coping with a life crisis.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The coming empathy tsunami

A friend sent me an article by Jeffrey Arnett from the Huffington Post. It carries a bold title: “’The Empathic Civilization’: The Young Pioneers of the Empathic Generation.” Apparently, polls indicate that for the young Americans belonging to that generation (18-19 year-olds) the whole planet is now their playground – woops, “playing field.” Almost a quarter of them see themselves working abroad, and maybe most “expect to be able to vacation, live and shop anywhere they like.” They “want people in developing countries protected from the depredations of multinational corporations and the destructive fiscal policies of multinational lending institutions.” And they are more tolerant and inclusive than any previous generation, easily reaching across “across boundaries of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic group, and religion.” Good for them, but this is almost too good to be true. If these young people care so passionately about the larger world and the inhabitants of distant places with unpronounceable names, why do they know next to nothing about anything surpassing their immediate experience - which is often encapsulated within a cocoon of peer-to-peer chatter and incessant electronic buzz? This is the rhetorical question asked by Mark Bauerlein in his recent book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). His title is a bit too provocative, but he does cite countless studies to prove his point.

I think I have a better label – I would call the young people carrying the attitudes described in Arnett’s article "the unmoored generation." There will always be wonderful exceptions, but are we really facing a future where masses of youngsters will effortlessly connect emotionally to people from different cultures around the world? I deeply doubt it. I think the research Arnett summarizes captures the last stage of a process Tocqueville once described. He observed that in modernizing societies "the bond of human affection is extended, but it is relaxed" – until at some point any discernible difference in the intensity of emotional connectedness to members of one’s own community (however defined) and to distant strangers evaporates. We may be approaching that point, and using the word “empathy” to describe this coming existential posture strikes me as quite misleading. I am reminded of Gert Gerken who back in the 1990s was already speaking of the “new indifference” which comes from the inability to place the deluge of stimuli and information inundating one’s consciousness into any coherent and meaningful framework. Until most fixed categories start to melt, and even once unproblematic things like gender identity become negotiable. So, an even more apt – and teasing – label could be the “whatever” (or “whatev,” as they prefer to express themselves) generation – a term thrown around by some marketers and trend spotters. Of course, the relaxed tolerance Arnett describes creates a much less tense and discriminatory environment for all kinds of marginalized groups, and this is to be welcomed. And having everything up in the air and being able to pick, choose, mix, and match at will an unlimited variety of things and experiences must generate an exhilarating sense of boundless personal freedom. But it all comes at a price. That price probably includes the ability of a critical mass of upcoming adults to build a coherent picture of the larger world and achieve a degree of emotional attunement to their social environment, even to their own true needs – despite the recent explosion of extracurricular and study-abroad programs aimed at mass-producing “empathy.”

Sucking the Quileute dry

This is the ingenious title of an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Angela Riley. She describes how various companies are now profiting from products using the name of that tiny Indian nation, made famous in the "Twilight" trilogy. For example, " sells items from Quileute hoodies to charms bearing a supposed Quileute werewolf tattoo." Riley says American intellectual property laws typically do not protect the "collective cultural property" of indigenous groups, so sucking in profit the way Nordstrom does, without sharing it with the natives, is "quite likely legal." So was slavery. Riley calls for a degree of voluntary profit sharing and involvement of indigenous peoples "in decisions regarding their cultural property." If the corporate executives making such decisions are sufficiently embarrassed, this may well happen in some cases, to some extent. Still, the mismatch between the legal protection extended to the intellectual property rights of corporations and those of nations and ethnic groups around the world is quite striking. Why should someone be free to call his cab company Karma Kabs and profit from all the fuzzy associations that name evokes, while anyone using the letters "Mc" or phrases like "and the city" and "in the city" faces expensive lawsuits? At least the Richard Branson brand lost that legal case lately where they were trying to establish proprietary right over the word "virgin" - preempting the Catholic Church.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The computer strikes back

A New York Times article ("The Dozens of Computers That Make Modern Cars Go") says "the electronic systems in modern cars and trucks ... are packed with up to 100 million lines of computer code, more than in some jet fighters." Even entry-level cars now have about 30 "electronic control units," and some luxury vehicles have as many as 100. As the recent Toyota fiasco demonstrates, the current generation of engineers may be losing their grip on this level of technological complexity - if they have to manage it at an affordable price. It also emerges Toyota have a history of recognizing and responding slowly in cases involving safety problems. There is some research suggesting that the ability of individuals to acknowledge errors and change course is related to their anxiety levels in response to the challenges they face. Apparently, neither the senior management (who would likely be thick-skinned at any company), nor senior engineers (with their can-do attitude) were prone to generating appropriate levels of anxiety in those cases. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Toyota's current problems will be only a blip which is unlikely to cause any long-term damage to their brand. If I had a stake in Toyota's rebound, I would have been way more anxious than that.

Creativity on steroids (or vodka)

Once in a while I give my students examples of creativity - mostly of creative thinking. This is something you cannot really learn in any course - how to see in a flash surprising links between things which are seemingly disconnected, even on different existential plains. I was listening a while ago to an old song ("My vrashchaem zemliu") by Vladimir Vysotsky, a Soviet bard who died young in the early 1980s. He sings about Soviet soldiers who were able to set the Earth in proper motion with their boots, after it had started rotating in the wrong direction and the sun had almost set to the east. And he describes a battalion commander who leads the push back leaning away from the Ural - with his foot set against the mountain. Unbelievably striking imagery! Too bad it doesn't translate into English.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wall Street fight clubs

A friend sent along a curious article from the Bloomberg site: “Bankers Enter ‘Dungeon of Pain’ to Cut Stress in Ultimate Fight.” It describes the training routine of a 26-year old Merill Lynch employee who “spends a couple of hours most evenings … kicking, throwing punches and tackling opponents, as they train to compete in mixed martial arts.” He is so much into it, that he often sports “a black eye or row of stitches” as he advises wealthy clients on how to manage their assets. It turns out such forms of “ultimate fighting” are increasingly popular among “finance guys” these days. Incidentally, these are the kinds of people on whom the existing socioeconomic system bestows some of the most extravagant rewards. And then we, teachers, are expected to preach to young people the virtues of moderation and social responsibility.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The end of peer pressure

In his blog, “The Frontal Cortex,” Jonah Lehrer argues that self-control should not be seen as a purely individual trait. He points to some recent research which indicates that the ability to control one’s impulses is in fact strongly enhanced by peer pressure. Lehrer also points to the effects that "rituals of discipline" can have on kids' "sense of their own potential" - which reminds me of that great New York Times piece from a year ago, "Making Room for Miss Manners Is a Parenting Basic." I have been mulling a question related to all this: What would happen in a society where it has become the norm to tolerate all sorts of personal self-expression and self-indulgence. And kids and grown-up rarely experience much social pressure to conform to any standards of propriety? I guess Tocqueville and John Stewart Mill got that one wrong.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Money talks

In the New York Times (“What is the First Amendment for?”), Stanley Fish praises the recent Supreme Court decision (reached alongside predictable partisan lines) to strike down a statute prohibiting corporations and trade unions from spending money to influence the outcome of elections. Though he agrees the decision could have harmful effects, he pronounces his “absolute love” for it as “a teacher of the First Amendment.” Though he mentions that equating spending money with political speech may be a bit of a stretch, this isn’t a consideration that can influence his own judgment. The distinction Fish makes between consequentialists (people who look at the consequences of applying a principle) and deontologists (those who insist the principle should be applied even of the hell might break loose) strikes me as a bit of a concoction here. I would put it differently. The main difference lies between those who believe sharks and guppies should be allowed to swim in the same tank and if some fish can open their mouths more widely and swallow others, that’s life; and those who see such arrangements as somewhat unfair. Or maybe between interpreters of the law who stick to its letter without much sense of its spirit; and others who have that larger sense. Recent research in neuroscience indicates that the ability to intuit unfairness or broader social meaning both stem from one thing – having appropriate emotional reactivity, or, to use a dated reference point, a heart. There is also a parallel explanation informed by neuroscientific research: Iain McGilchrist claims (The Master and His Emissary) that left-hemisphere predominance in neural processing results in lateralistic interpretations and focus on facts and statements detached from any broader context of meaning and experience. But, of course, individuals suffering from left-hemisphere predominance would dismiss this as an overgeneralization.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mission (half) accomplished

The other day we were playing Uno (a kids' card game) with my daughter, who just turned 13. At one point I jokingly expressed suspicion that she was cheating and she responded: "I no longer do this." "So, I said, you did in the past?" This was (roughly) how she responded, half jokingly: "Well, when I was younger I would sometimes look at your cards when you went to the bathroom leaving me to deal. Later, I started feeling remorse and I would switch our hands if I hadn't looked at mine. And at some point I felt even more strongly that I should not cheat and stopped doing it." This was one of the proudest moments in my life. I was going to say - because I realized that I and my wife had raised a really, really good person with a keen sense of propriety and responsibility. The truth is, though, we never ever taught our daughter not to cheat. In fact, we have often encouraged her to be bolder and defy social norms. The reason she now has a conscience and knows good from evil - and I am supremely confident that she always will - is that her brain has matured well. As a result, she no longer wants us to buy her expensive presents, does not accept small sacrifices like giving her the last piece of cake left, etc. Psychologists now say our moral sense stems largely from our emotional sensitivity to the outside world, and this sensitivity is generated by the brain as it processes sensual and internal information. Maintaining a close emotional bond to our daughter, reading to her and encouraging her to read, endlessly discussing all sorts of issues, and generally staying involved in her life has helped. Still, given the amount of unhealthy temptations kids face these days, this miraculous outcome is somewhat of a mystery to me. I would have sighed with relief, but now she faces an even harder task: developing a slightly thicker emotional skin so she can survive and move forward in our increasing - it seems to me - heartless and more careless world.