Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The end of decorum (among other things)

As reported in Der Spiegel, two German entrepreneurs recently received permission from the EU trademark authority to register the name "F***ing Hell" (spelled out in full)  to be used for the marketing of a new brand of beer. They explained in their application that in parts of Germany and Austria "hell" refers to a variety of light ale; and the word that goes with it is, in fact, the name of a small town in Austria. In the informed opinion of the EU trademark, the phrase was "an interjection used to express a deprecation, but it does not indicate against whom the deprecation is directed. Nor can it be considered as reprehensible to use existing place names in a targeted manner (as a reference to the place), merely because this may have an ambiguous meaning in other languages." In reality, the meaning of the name of that Austrian town is not overly ambiguous in English; and the two German entrepreneurs plan to use the innovative brand name to market clothing and many other items; and the Austrian town doesn't have a brewery; and its uptight citizens and mayor are not too excited about the attention their native town is attracting; and... But why should some petty objections be allowed to stand in the away of such creative, cheerfully subversive entrepreneurship? I can't wait to see the billboards. Oh, and Germany has a couple of other towns whose names have richly evocative meaning, like Kissing, Petting, and Pissing. There must be some products or services out there that can be joyfully branded with them, too  to help foster the self-expression values celebrated by successive waves of the World Values Survey.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Epic boast

Joe Brewer, a game developer, argues on TED that only a dramatic increase in the total hours of global video gaming (to some mind-boggling yet precisely accurate number) can save the world. She flashes the picture of a freakishly exhilarated teenager which, she claims, rather than capturing a gaming high or even climax, shows some optimistic wrinkles on his face. Those come from his sensation that he is on the verge of what is known in the industry as an Epic Win. The picture ostensibly demonstrates that gamers, as “super-empowered hopeful individuals,” are in search of “epic meaning” as they exit into parallel online worlds. All that is needed is to harness that ocean of energy for the solution of pressing global problems, like the coming shortage of oil. Brewer claims her Institute of the Future is doing just that – by developing a few video games immersing players into, say, a future of gasoline scarcity. She and her fellow game engineers thus want not just to imagine but to make the future. I thought self-serving delusion had reached its peak somewhere between 1933 and 1953 (later in China), but the flight of geek imagination appears to have raised the bar in this area – as in many others.


The Bulgarian franchisee of Big Brother has blanketed Sofia with billboards enticing viewers to check out the new Family Big Brother they are putting out. The ads refer to one of the participants as a caring wife and mother of two children – and lover to three neighbors. I dearly wish I could time-manage and multitask as efficiently.

Status anxiety squared

In his new book, “The Genius in All of Us,” David Shenk argues that talent has been overrated. It’s self-discipline and motivation that count, and even those can be cultivated – so every child is a potential genius capable of breathtaking flights of creativity and imagination. He draws on recent findings in neurobiology to send a message similar to the point made by Malcolm Gladwell who gave as examples famous “outliers” to demonstrate that anyone who clocks in 10,000 hours of practice can achieve supreme excellence in almost any area. The egalitarian spirit infusing such upbeat assessment of the potential for creative genius in “all of us” is something to behold and admire. The implications of embracing this new outlook, though, may be ironic. In his book and documentary, “Status Anxiety,” Alain de Botton argues that a belief in social equality makes those who have failed to achieve the “American dream” miserable and resentful as they cannot blame their failure on anyone else or on larger social forces. If this is taken seriously, a belief in neural equality could take the rat race to a whole new level. Wouldn’t it be a nicer and kinder intellectual gesture to allow the majority of people to lead a dignified life devoid of much creative flair? What is the point of dangling before everyone the promise of universal “outlier” achievements? By implication, those who have not become creative celebrities (like Gladwell) will then be branded as failures because they have betrayed their ostensibly limitless potential. Come to think of it, Shenk’s and Gladwell’s invitation to everyone to follow in their own footsteps strikes me as a bit smug – to say nothing of socially irresponsible.

Stop blaming McDonald’s

“The sizes of the portions and plates in more than four dozen depictions of the Last Supper – painted over the past 1,000 years – have gradually grown bigger and bigger, according to a Cornell University study published in the International Journal of Obesity (April 2010), a peer-reviewed publication.” The study was led by someone decorated as “the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing and of Applied Economics and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.” If the tendency to eat gargantuan portions grew only so gradually, then fast food chains and snack manufacturers synthesizing ever more irresistible items have been unfairly accused by the author of “Supersize Me” and other radicals. These fine companies may have even contributed to the unfolding of a higher stage in the onward march of human civilization away from the taste deprivation of the cave living. And researchers who help them fine-tune their branding messages are carryng out a noble public duty which should be more widely appreciated.

The end of satire (among other things)

Douglas Haddow is mobilizing resistance to a worldwide campaign to punch and kick read-headed kids on what has become virally known as “Kick a Ginger Day” (“A Red Light to Anti-Ginger Abuse”). The movement took shape after a South Park episode broadcast a few years ago which tried lamely to satirize various hate groups. In it, a young guy claims that gingers are something like zombies, and generally drowns them in hate speech. But then his friends dye his hair red while he is asleep, and when he wakes up as a member of an oppressed minority he raises the standard of a ferocious ginger rebellion. The problem is, some young viewers did not quite get the satirical twist. The plot line inspired a 14-year Canadian boy (could it really have been a girl?) to launch a Facebook group dedicated to the promotion of a much needed “Kick a Ginger Day” (Nov. 20). This is what happens when intended irony or satire fall flat in the face of literal thinking. The boy who started it all is now probably on some college campus attempting to absorb the intricacies of “critical thinking.”

Friday, March 19, 2010


Apparently, all the rage now in online video games is a principle dubbed “Variable Ratio Rewards” – showering virtual prizes on participants randomly, without any detectable pattern. Research with rats has demonstrated that this pattern encourages maximally addictive behaviour. Here is how a game researcher for Microsoft allegedly explains the formula for getting players hooked beyond the point of no return: “Each contingency is an arrangement of time, activity, and reward, and there are an infinite number of ways these elements can be combined to produce the pattern of activity you want from your players.” Really, what better way to capture the transcendental exhilaration a cool video game must induce.

The power of feeling nothing

Samantha Power once described how US officials who actively blocked any international intervention to stop the Rwandan genocide felt zero remorse. It’s quite refreshing, then, to read that an American policeman who a little over a year ago shot and killed in self defense a pet chimp caught in murderous rage has succumbed to something like PTSD (“After Shooting Chimp, a Police Officer’s Descent”). On a different but somewhat related topic, Robert Right writes in the New York Times (“Toyotas Are Safe (Enough)”) that there is no need to panic over those self-accelerating vehicles, no need even to take your car for the free repairs offered by dealers if you potentially own one. The reason? He has calculated that driving a Toyota increases your statistical risk of being killed in a car crash by only a negligible amount. A proud owner of a Toyota SUV, he states flatly: “Ever since I read of the case of the 63-year old Harvard professor [who died with two family members in a runaway Toyota], I have felt … well, nothing in particular.” This is precisely what top Toyota management and engineers felt when recalls for their vehicles started to rise steeply a few years ago, amidst Toyota’s determined campaign to become the biggest car company in the world; and when reports about self-accelerating Toyota vehicles started to catch the attention of the media and even regulators. For them, the ability to feel nothing is a job requirement – having this capacity leaves enough real estate in their brains to tackle those complex technology-related and cost-benefit equations. What struck me about Wright, though, is that he offers opinion on “culture, politics and world affairs.” I looked him up and he is an evolutionary biologist – which entitles him to the vaguely geeky reaction he brags about. Not feeling anything also empowers him, apparently, to offer expert opinion on everything. For example, he extrapolates his calculations to conclude that unnecessary anxieties could undermine the cool America needs to summon if it wants to fight terrorism effectively. And he argues that the kind of electronic throttle Toyota uses improves gas mileage, and the dollars it saves “can be translated into human welfare.” As Wright philosophically concludes: “Life is full of trade-offs, and sometimes trade-offs involve death.” Now I get it – cutting gasoline expenses by, say, five percent (more for those who drive the most) is clearly worth the lives of a few statistically insignificant motorists (and family members or others they will take to the grave with them).

The end of downtime (among other things)

A New York Times article (“Forget Goofing Around: Recess has a New Boss”) says schools are increasingly hiring recess coaches. Their job is to involve kids in organized games and activities and thus help bring down the number of incidents involving bullying, minor injuries, etc. The coaches are offered by an NGO which has received targeted charitable funding, and have initially been deployed to hundreds of schools serving mostly underprivileged children. While some of the kids (and particularly parents and principals eager to improve their statistics) love this “structured recess,” a few miss the good old days when they could run around and organized their own unsupervised games. This problem will be gradually resolved as in 15 years no kid will recall, or even be able to imagine, what downtime on school grounds looks like.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The end of authority (among other things)

The other day I had to walk to the building where I work along a narrow path through the snow that had fallen overnight. At some point, I came up against three teenage boys, maybe 14 years old, the tallest a little below my shoulder. Of course, they expected me to step aside and give way, which I obligingly did. Then, in class, a student got up and turned off the air conditioning without asking permission. A lot has been written about the perceived erosion of adult authority, but most authorities on the issue just scratch the surface. The usually emphasise the extent to which different “messages” or “lessons” can affect children’s attitudes. I would say Ekhonon Goldberg (The New Executive Brain) has a better grip on this. He argues that social and moral maturation is linked to the proper development of the brain’s frontal lobes, which can be influenced by the immediate and broader social environment. Something seems to be derailing this process on a mass scale now, and if it isn’t the chaotically complex and hasty social environment and the IT-related incessant excitement kids face, then it must be the socially seditious preaching of a few irresponsible intellectuals, teachers, feminists, social activists, etc. Or maybe the kids, as always, will turn out all right, and it’s a few grumpy adults who are out of touch – as they mourn their irreversibly lost youth.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The death of magic (among other things)

James Bowman (“Avatar and the Flight from Reality,” New Atlantis) lambasts James Cameron and other fantasists for seeking to play God and create a whole new reality as opposed to an artistic interpretation of the world around them. One reading of the kind of fantasy concocted by Tolkien and Lewis says that they were trying to recapture the magic of the Middle Ages and, in some cases, of early Christian mythology. Of course, someone whose right hemisphere inhibits unfailingly the emotional impulses processed through the right side of his cortex will be quite immune to the sense of wonderment such wreckers of the Western art canon sought to evoke. And he would fail to see in Avatar anything beyond the lame literal story it recreates. Shall I also mention that in an earlier article Bowman said it was stupid to think that Google was “making us stupid.” I do wish him countless hours on the web free of even minor brain impairment.

Friday, March 12, 2010

True lies

A new biography of the prominent Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński criticizes him for mixing indiscriminately fact and fiction in his books on third world personalities and events (published since the 1960s). In fact, Kapuściński himself readily acknowledged that he took descriptions of real personalities and facts, and regurgitated those using the tools and techniques of fiction writing. He hoped that such “literary reportage” could capture some larger truth about the social and political world which no amount of literally accurate information could convey. The trouble is, this rationale doesn’t cut it with those whose life-world emanates from a brain with marked left-hemisphere predominance. To them, there are only two alternatives: explicit, literal truth, or an outright lie. The author of the biography (a younger Polish journalist) thinks the greater tolerance in Polish society for blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction is part of the communist legacy, since there were all kinds of fictitious accounts circulating under the old regime; and Poland had not benefited from an open discussion of acceptable journalistic standards similar to that held in western countries. I have to say, this neat explanation doesn’t quite cut it with me. Here is a different theory: larger, metaphorical truths are more acceptable in less modernized societies – where patterns of left-hemisphere predominance are less common. This would explain why Poland never warmed up to Protestantism (and is unlikely to embrace the call to arms of crusading atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). The affinity for vaguer truths also has a darker side, though. It might have made it easier for totalitarian ideologies to achieve a degree of credibility in various countries in the 20th century. Kapuściński himself remained a true believer in the historical mission of communism at least until the early 1980s, despite the grotesque ineptitude of the “really existing” communist regimes he observed. And he was highly critical of western policies, including the invasion of Iraq, until his dearth in 2007.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A geek manifesto

A friend sent me a link to Temple Gardin's talk on TED. Despite her goofy outfit, she does offer some brilliant ideas, and will soon bask in the well deserved fame provided by a new Hollywood movie about her life. A diagnosed autist, she explains how she is able to think visually with perfect clarity and attention to minutest details, as the visual networks in her brain are not encumbered by wiring geared toward social skills. By avoiding abstract generalizations, she says she was able to think like a cow, a mental capacity which allowed her to develop some innovative facilities and managerial protocols for the more humane slaughtering of cattle. Gardin also makes a broader argument, saying things like: "the world needs people on the autism spectrum: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids." Those kids should be encouraged by teachers who understand them and can steer them toward rewarding scientific and Silicon Valley careers. Losing their contribution to society, she argues in an attempt to formulate a clear pro-autistic manifesto, would have devastating consequences for technological progress. It should be crystal clear that people in the autistic spectrum invented the first tools, and later spearheaded every scientific and technological revolutions, so losing their services would bring about a technological shipwreck (to use a handy visual metaphor). That's very enlightening, I just wanted to add another career path for the kind of gifted individuals Gardin describes - public finance. As Bulgaria's current finance minister (a former World Bank official in his 30s) demonstrates, there is a correlation between social awkwardness and a steely resolve to resist populist pressure for government payouts (like those demands that the Bulgarian government pay the one billion Euro it owes to private businesses for past contracts; or provide the money for timely payment of various benefits - all under the guise of calls for "stimulating" the economy in the midst of the current crisis, as other less responsible governments have done). So, the kind of nerdish/geeky inclinations Gardin describes (in an admirably self-deprecating way) can bring heaps of unsuspected added value to their carriers and society - not just the benefits of the visual thinking which worked so well for Gardin and the cows she empathized with (kind of).

Savor this - cheese made from breast milk!

A New York chef discovered that his wife (and restaurant co-owner) had frozen more of her breast milk than they needed for their baby daughter. There and then, he was then struck by one of those blitz associations which are the mark of real creative genius. Why not offer his customers and admirers a recipe which includes cheese made from breast milk? He did exactly that, and on his blog he invited anyone who was interested to try the new product on a first-come-first-served basis. He had some fleeting ethical concerns, but those quickly dissipated - what could possibly be wrong with giving away a rare product they did not need? But he cringed from selling the stuff, saying: "That weirds me out." That's a shame - such a unique offering would have fetched an hefty price; and it would have opened the door to countless single mothers to cash in on the one marketable resource nature has given them; and their babies would have been breast-fed for at least two years, as advised by natural health fanatics - the benefits are too many to list here. Anyway, even if he wanted to sell the cheese, the New York authorities would not allow him. They are frowning even on his attempt to offer his proud creation for free. Can anything beat this example of needless and mindless state oppression? It's a prime example of the excessive, allegedly benevolent intervention of state functionaries in the lives of American citizens once decried by Tocqueville.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Social Cohesion 2.0

An op-ed piece in the Guardian by two activists ("Sex workers are not criminals") makes the argument that prostitutes should not be prosecuted for soliciting potential customers. In the authors' view, "soliciting shouldn't be an offence and it shouldn't be classified as antisocial behaviour." Yes, indeed - how could the offer of sexual services for cash even remotely undermine social cohesion? Just the opposite. As Aldous Huxley demonstrated long, long ago, providing individuals with multiple outlets for the incessant gratification of their desires is, in fact, essential for the maintenance of social stability. The exact words he put in Mustafa Mond's mouth: "“You can’t have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices.” Indeed. And there is no such thing as society anyway - Baroness Thatcher was surely right on that count, as on most others.

ECO 101

An article in the Guardian says French nuns producing wafers used during holy communion were shocked to learn that the governing authorities of a major Catholic shrine contemplated buying a cheaper version from Poland. Traditionally, this occupation has been a major source of income for the nuns, and now they were outraged to learn they could be undercut by more efficient secular producers in another EU country. After a successful PR counteroffensive, the religious authorities gave up their efforts to find a more affordable substitute, but demanded a price cut from the holy sisters. I guess those clueless nuns could use a free subscription to the Economist (with the accompanying issues of Reason I hope subscribers are still getting as a bonus - as if the undermine the free-market maxim that there is no free lunch). Or, maybe, next time George Clooney should be flown in to deliver the bad news.

Rules are rules

A video posted on YouTube shows how a concert at the Roman Pantheon by Russian musicians is interrupted because the building needs to close at 6:00 sharp. members of the audience are urging the performers to carry on, but a determined attendant puts a determined end to the show. Who says Italians cannot enforce any strict rules?

Purpose of Life 2.0

A friend brought to my attention the quazi-pop group Pink Martini. Here are some inspirational lyrics from their latest album, "Splendor in the Grass":
All these years of living large
Are starting to do us in
I won’t say it wasn’t fun
But now it has to end
Life is moving oh-so-fast
I think we should take it slow
Rest our heads upon the grass
And listen to it grow...
On the other hand, in the same album their are extending their boundless love and gratitude to New York City - so, I guess, anything they say about the purpose or meaning of life should be taken with a grain of salt.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The miracle of creative genius

Chatroulette, a service which connects randomly individuals in series of anonymous online videochats, has really exploded. That’s hardly surprising – what could be more exciting than the chance to talk to strings of perfect strangers about trivial issues, when they don’t click on in search of someone younger or female? The service seems to have attracted a disproportionate number of – well, exhibitionists; but that’s a different topic. It’s a minor side-effect which should not be blamed on the creator of that amazing project. That creator was, in fact, a precocious 17-year old Russian student. Well, he has stopped going to school – but can school teach him that kind of creativity anyway? Now he is besieged by a Russian internet magnate, Google, and everyone else with the sweetest offers for collaboration, employment, induction into some hall of fame, etc. I truly wish I knew how to help some of my students develop this kind of boundless ingenuity in the service of all humanity.

Oscar fever

After winning the Golden Globe and BAFTA award, a stand-up comedienne known by her nom de guerre Mo’Nique is poised to become only the seventh African-American to receive an Oscar in seven decades – in this case, for supporting actress. She plays the overweight single mother of an overweight teenage single mother in Precious. She is therefore accused of participating in a plot perpetuating all the crudest negative stereotypes about black welfare moms. She drowns all references to such criticisms with positive babble, while also dismissing taunts that she doesn’t shave her legs with the defiant: “The only rules I can follow are mine.” This, at least, does strike me as an all-American attitude. She also says: “This movie is universal. And the people playing those parts just happen to be black people, but you can go into any community … and find those people.” She mentions an “Asian brother” who told her after he had seen the movie, “I am Mary Jones” (the name of her character in Precious). I knew it, I knew it – all those stories about Stalinist Asian-American parents locking their offspring up in iron cages and forcing them to sleep on broken glass after each B they receive, in order to get them a ticket into Stanford, it’s all a maliciously malign myth. Well, Stanford admissions do need to constantly fine-tune their standards and policies in order beat off those hordes of Asian geeks who would be superbly qualified to get in from a color-blind point of view. But there must be a different explanation for this kind of threat to racial balance on elite US campuses. In any case, I’ll hold my fingers crossed for Mo’Nique. And my heart goes out to the all those big Hollywood studios whose CEOs are now facing an unfamiliar challenge – of the 10 movies who top the list of contenders in various categories, only three have big names in leading roles to boast.

"Girl starved to death while parents raised virtual child in online game"

Here are a few quotes from the Guardian article: “South Korean police have arrested a couple for starving their three-month-old daughter to death while they devoted hours to playing a computer game that involved raising a virtual character of a young girl. The 41-year-old man and 25-year-old woman, who met through a chat website, reportedly left their infant unattended while they went to internet cafes. They only occasionally dropped by to feed her powdered milk. … Last September after a 12-hour gaming-session the couple came home in the morning to find their daughter dead. The baby's malnourished body aroused police suspicions of neglect that were was confirmed after an autopsy. … The case has shocked South Korea and once again highlighted obsessive behaviour related to the internet. … A 22-year-old Korean man was charged last month with murdering his mother because she nagged him for spending too much time playing games. After killing her the man went to a nearby internet cafe and continued with his game, said officials. In 2005 a young man collapsed in an internet cafe in the city of Taegu after playing the game StarCraft almost continuously for 50 hours. He went into cardiac arrest and died at a local hospital.” Oh, and the Dalai Lama has joined Twitter.

It’s never, ever too late

The BBC showed a cheerful “old” lady who wanted to celebrate memorably her 90th birthday by jumping from a plane (with a parachute). As her overly conservative doctor advised her against it, she settled for a ride on a white water raft (accompanied by a crew). This reminded me of the visceral terror that gripped me as my daughter took me for a ride two years ago on the least extreme adult-size roller coaster at Busch Gardens, the Africa-themed amusement park in Florida proudly carrying the name of the famous beer baron family. It turns out I still have a few decades to learn to appreciate the transcendental exhilaration a properly selected extreme sport can generate for my body and spirits. As the BBC editors probably intended, the Granny Inspiration will now be always with me.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The art of teaching

According to Doug Lemov, an athletic education consultant featured in the New York Times Magazine (“Building a Better Teacher”), there is no such thing. A self-confessed “data geek,” he has reduced good/effective teaching with razor-sharp precision to 49 techniques, all labelled and capitalized. In his view, almost anyone who is trained in these can “teach like a champion” (the title of his teaching manual). This reminds me of Iain McGilchrist’s argument (The Master and His Emissary) that in a world dominated by left-hemisphere-dominant perceptions and thinking any skill will be reduced to an algorithm. Unbelievably, he frets that such a world may await us in the future. I have some news for him – it’s here, and here to stay; until it falls apart. Again, the scary part in all this is that a critical mass of New York Times readers discovered some deep wisdom in the story introducing Lemov’s analysis of reproducibly good teaching, and it made it to the top of the list of most e-mailed articles.

Zuma the Magnificent

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s flamboyant president, decided to take only his latest wife on his trip to the UK. He (or his PR team) were probably apprehensive that landing with all three wives in tow could raise some eyebrows. And all that in the aftermath of his confession that he recently fathered his 119th child out of wedlock. They needn’t have worried. The Guardian prints a picture of Zuma and his heavy-weight harem, and asks its readers to consider being “more open-minded about non couple-based relationships.” According to the editors, “perhaps, in the context of polygamy, we should be able to discuss different models of relationships.” They invite readers to share their opinions on a string of teasing questions: “Should love and commitment between two people – the couple – really be the only approved sort of relationship in society? What about alternative living arrangements, such as open relationships and communes, let alone the extended families of polygamous unions?” It’s ironic that the New Left should have abetted to such an extent the erosion of any vestige of personal self-restraint and propriety over the last few decades. This is precisely the process which has shoveled the most high-octane fuel into the engine of what the typical Guardian aficionado would probably regard as a particularly creepy brand of zombified consumerist capitalism.
P.S. Woops - I shouldn't have been so critical of Zuma. It turns out the British tabloids did pick on him. The Daily Mail ran a piece colorfully headlined "Jacob Zuma is a sex-obsessed bigot with four wives and 35 children. So why is Britain fawning over this vile buffoon?" Of course, I don't want to be associated in the least with such opinionated, over-the-top bigotry. Particularly toward someone of different skin color - it's not for nothing that the whole South African press is up in arms against this thinly veiled eruption of neocolonial racism. It's high time we sincerely embraced the idea that any cultural practice branded immoral by a faux Victorian tabloid moralizer could be perfectly normal and even admirable in a different cultural setting.

The most shameless product placement ever?

My daughter just finished reading a book. She was put off by the trailer for the movie made after it, though. In the book (a fantasy), the protagonists meet Medusa and one of them – a boy – looks at her reflection in a crystal ball in order to avoid whatever happens to anyone who looks Medusa in the eye. In the movie version, the young hero watches the reflection of Medusa flicker on the shining back of his – yes, Iphone. I was going to say: This is probably the shameless product placement ever. But the race there is real tight – with all those TV episodes stitched around a product and who knows what.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Norway's high-yield social capital

David Brooks has an opinion piece in the New York Times (“The Hard and the Soft”) offering a potentially inspiring but somewhat sloppy explanation for Norway’s perennial success in winter sports (reconfirmed at the Vancouver Olympics). He retells the story of a Norwegian man who during WW II, as e member of the resistance, showed inhuman stamina and courage. He was also helped by numerous individuals, families, and villages who took deadly risks to help him evade for months the occupying Germans. Brooks concludes: “This astonishing story could only take place in a country where people are skilled on skis and in winter conditions. But there also is an interesting form of social capital on display. It’s a mixture of softness and hardness. Baalsrud was kept alive thanks to a serial outpouring of love and nurturing. At the same time, he and his rescuers displayed an unbelievable level of hardheaded toughness and resilience. That’s a cultural cocktail bound to produce achievement in many spheres.” Since the term “social capital” has a scientific ring to it, I am trying to imagine how a group of contemporary political scientists would go about studying the phenomenon Brooks describes. They would visit several villages, select representative samples, distribute survey questions, conduct in-depth interviews, etc. Then they would draft hypotheses and cobble together some kind of model establishing a causal relationship between dependent and independent variables, factoring in this and controlling for or abstracting from that. What better way to capture all the richness and glory of the astonishing human experience Brooks, in his elitist naïveté, wants to set up as an awe-inspiring moral paragon? But why worry about studying a minor incident that happened almost 70 years ago anyway? Political science has established definitively that history is mostly bunk, and we need to prioritize current incentive structures over just-so stories of past suffering, courage, or betrayal. And what can we learn from those Norwegian fishermen? They did have some psychosomatic resilience, a capacity for empathy, and a degree of, well, irrational courage. But - ultimately - they were a bunch of losers who were satisfied with a meagre, rather impoverished existence. What did they know of the intense lifestyle aspirations, vistas for unbounded self-expression, and all those other post-material values we have come to cherish so much (to say nothing of the handsome compensation packages handed out by banks and other post-material businesses)? Can you imagine what our world would have looked like had most people in civilized societies shared their parochial value system? As John Stewart Mill established long, long ago, burning dissatisfaction with one’s lot is the first and post important prerequisite for any human progress.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Forgiveness forever

Some time ago the recently appointed head of the German Protestant church (whose flock comprise around 30 per cent of the country’s population) was caught driving after she had consumed probably a bottle of wine (or its equivalent). Leading newspapers and commentators were unanimous in their conclusion that there is no pressing need for her to step down. What would happen, really, if society starts holding everyone responsible for every small lapse in judgment and responsibility? She did resign, but what's the point of such an empty gesture?


The other day an iceberg roughly the size of Luxemburg broke off the Antarctic coast. Here is the evocative language in which a leading oceanologist described the potential environmental impact of the momentous event: “Removal of this tongue of floating ice would reduce the size of that area of open water, which would slow down the rate of salinity input into the ocean and it could slow down this rate of Antarctic bottom water formation."

Values creating value

In a letter to the Guardian the CEO of a trendy company argues the perception that capitalism encourages “naked individualism” is grossly simplistic. He says now “(even) bankers call for a moral framework rooted in clear values as the basis of creating value.” There is a simple reason for this embrace of unadulterated ethics by the business community - it has become indispensable for “future business success.” Finally, the perceived tension between the pursuit of self-interest and the need for some shared norms restraining such pursuits – a clash over which countless philosophers and religious leaders have fretted since times immemorial – has been happily resolved.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The elusive pursuit of status

Alain de Botton’s three-part documentary (based on his book), Status Anxiety, offers an explanation to the perennial sociological puzzle: If in recent decades Western societies have become so much wealthier, why haven’t their inhabitants become proportionately happier? His title sums up the theory he espouses: status anxiety. In modern egalitarian societies individuals jostle for status, and as those on the top now claim they have risen as a result of superior merit, the unavoidable corollary is that the masses who fail to live up to the American dream of becoming superrich celebrities (be it in the US or elsewhere) must also be deserving of their fate. And the success of the successful is increasingly precarious, so the majority of people caught in the hedonistic treadmill end up vaguely anxious and less than fully happy. De Botton offers glimpses of some truly refreshing characters: a black minister who preaches to an eager audience the godliness of making heaps of money (his “church” is in a run-down neighborhood where the only prestigious object is his shiny Lexus, in addition to maybe a few high-end vehicles owned by drug dealers which are not shown); a war roomful of British tabloid journalist who spit out mock titles to stories that would convey some of the great tragic narratives of world literature; a bunch of, to put it mildly, unathletic middle-aged British nudists who on weekends gather together to strip away the vanities of society-mandated clothing; etc. My only gripe is that de Botton’s promised solutions to the problem of status anxiety (a few marginalized bohemian lifestyles, the consolation of traditional religion or of Schopenhauer’s “intelligent misanthropy,” grumpy socialism, artistic celebrations of unexceptional ordinary living and reminders of mortality) are all a bit lame. These are remedies that could all work mostly for people who don’t need them because they are not quite afflicted by the malady de Botton describes. If you go to his web site, though, you will find the real thing. His current grand project is the construction of a collection of modernist houses to be rented out to people who want to spend a holiday in a building imbued with a symbolic meaning. This experiment in what has been branded Living Architecture was inspired by “a desire for people to be able to experience what it is like to live, eat and sleep in a space designed by an outstanding architectural practice.” So, if you are eager to buy a timeshare of high status by shelling out the equivalent of Upper Volta’s GDP per capita for a vacation in the countryside, de Botton’s venture will soon offer you the chance. Oh, and that BMW featured in his documentary as an object of conspicuous consumption might have been the smartest product placement ever. On second thought, what kind of status symbol is that, really? A friend just forwarded some pictures from the weddings of a couple of coal magnates’ kids in a previously poor region of China. The motorcades are brimming with Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamburginis, Mazerattis, etc., with Porche SUVs reduced to the unenviable “status” of service vehicles. The dowry of one wedding, featuring a check, pieces of solid gold, fancy sports cars, etc. is definitely worth more than the whole GDP of what was Upper Volta, to say nothing of the diamond-encrusted fingernails of the bride, the huge grotesquely over-decorated reception hall, and so on, and so forth. The funny thing is, the majority of China’s less well-off citizens seem unperturbed by this display of what some might call obscene opulence. Recent polling data suggests that something like 76 per cent of the population are satisfied with the condition of their country, a figure roughly twice higher than the corresponding number for major Western states. De Botton might have a point here – since most Chinese do not yet dream the American dream, and realize that there are relatively narrow limits to high how they can reasonably expect to rise in a lifetime, they are generally satisfied with the washing machines and full fridges their sweatshop wages have bought.

Long live clinical depression

Jonah Lehrer has a hilarious piece in the New York Times Magazine (“Depression’s Upside”) which describes some new research framed in an evolutionary psychology vein (“The Bright Side of Being Blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems”). The authors depart from the assumption that, obviously, depression must have conferred on its “sufferers” over the millennia some evolutionary advantage – otherwise the genes creating a predisposition to it would have long been wiped out by the relentless march of evolution. So they conclude that the concealed usefulness of depression must consist in focusing the depressed persons’ minds on analyzing the causes of their downbeatness, and even facilitating the sustained effort that apparently lies at the heart of artistic and scholarly creativity. I have a different hypothesis, common-sensical yet maybe insufficiently falsifiable to qualify as credibly scientific. If your engagement with the larger world is choreographed primarily through input from the right hemisphere of your brain, you are likely to be more emotionally attuned to that world and to have a more holistic impression of it. As a result, your psyche may more easily crumble under the weight of the inherently tragic nature of human existence (accentuated by strings of more specific mishaps and afflictions), and you may seek to give metaphorical expression to your emotional escapades or to come up with a sweepingly counterintuitive “theory” of this or that. Of course, any such interpretation would fly in the face of the unapologetic utilitarianism guiding the researchers cited by Lehrer – a crudely self-confident existential posture made possible perhaps by the stunted right-hemisphere maturation typical of many allegedly “social” scientists. Reading their analysis of the advantages of depressed being-in-the-world feels like empathising with the efforts of a mole who has received research funding to come up with a definitive analysis of the navigation apparatus developed by bats in their efforts to move efficiently in a slightly different living environment. This is all to be expected. There are, however, at least three scary sides to this story: 1) Lehrer, whom I much admire, seems to take the theory he has chosen to popularize quite seriously; 2) the said theory apparently makes sense to the set of highly intelligent and cultured baby-boomers who still read the New York Times (it has topped the list of most e-mailed articles on the paper’s web site for a few days); 3) at least one of the two authors of the long research article cited by Lehrer has a clinical practice, i.e., has been licensed to treat living and breathing depressed patients – whose existential suffering is totally, entirely, utterly beyond his one-sided grasp.

Slap on Google’s wrist

A court in Italy found three Google executives guilty of abetting a crime and gave them suspended jail sentences. Their crime consisted in allowing a few years back a video showing the harassment of an autistic students by a few callous jerks to be posted on a web service owned by Google. The verdict was met with the predictable howls of disapproval by the liberal media. An article in the Guardian argued such outright censorship placed Italy on par with China as enemies of free self-expression, and the author (bearing an Italian name) berated the country for its failure to grasp a simple truth: it can ill afford to act unfriendly to the global business community. This whole worry about the impending crackdown on internet and real-world freedom by a newly emboldened moral police strikes me as a bit overblown. I am thinking of a new billboard for Penthouse plastered all over Sofia so gross I cannot bring myself to describe it. The proud young creatives who dreamed it up will cringe if they cared to hear this, but – in all my prudishness – I’ll say it. I would not particularly object if the power to censor, if nothing else, new advertisements is vested in the hands of a powerful public body comprising the first 11 people of any cultural, educational or ideological background who are stupid enough to volunteer for the job. Speaking of advertisements, the Hilton in central Sofia have leased one side of their building as a giant screen for the projection of commercials. A friend was telling me the other day he wished he had an RPG-7 with a round of ammunition. He wanted to use it to put a nice exclamation mark to the beer ad shown most often which made his mouth water real bad each time he passed by. I reminded him violence could never, ever be a legitimate response to even the most depressing personal or social problems. I have also been trying to drill into his obtuse forehead the simple truth revealed decades ago by that great contemporary visionary, Baroness Margaret Thatcher: “There is no alternative.”

Stop blaming the messenger

A New York Times article (“Banks Bet Greece Defaults on Debt They Helped Hide”) sounds an alarm that “bets by some of the same banks that helped Greece shroud its mounting debts may actually now be pushing the nation closer to the brink of financial ruin.” A senior banker even makes a curious analogy regarding the trading of credit-default swaps (derivatives whose owners stand to profit if the debtor – in this case Greece – defaults): “It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house — you create an incentive to burn down the house.” Hasn’t he opened the Economist lately? It has tirelessly explained for any dim-witted doubters willing to listen that all kinds of financial speculators do a most valuable service to the global investment community by pointing out that this or that king is, in fact, naked (or has pursued reckless fiscal policies). A recent article (“Bearers of Bad News”) lament the fact that speculators are often blamed for the financial fiascos cooked up by populist politicians. This undeserved skapegoating is rampant because “making money out of other people’s misery seems downright mean and unpatriotic” – and it shouldn’t. As we all know, in the 1990s a Chicago school economist won the Nobel-branded prize in economics three times in a row for proving incontrovertibly (if any one still doubted it) that money doesn’t stink. Oh, and we shouldn’t be as misguided as founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who once (as mentioned in the Economist piece) despised speculators for the shrewdly sociopathic form their pursuit of happiness was taking.

Freedom to pollute

A New York Times article (“Rulings Restrict Clean Water Act, Hampering E.P.A.”) describes the aftermath of another bold ruling by the US Supreme Court: “Thousands of the nation’s largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act’s reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law, according to interviews with regulators. As a result, some businesses are declaring that the law no longer applies to them. And pollution rates are rising.” Yes, another small step in the long march of humankind toward unfettered freedom,, away from the scary “road to serfdom” Hayek feared so prophetically.

Economists in denial

John Cassidy describe in the New Yorker (“After the Blowup”) the inability of some Chicago school economists to acknowledge that the current financial mess has exposed the catastrophic inefficiency of financial markets. One of them, Eugene Fama, maintains that financial markets have behaved exactly as predicted by the Efficient-Market Hypothesis he still champions. Such unyielding mental rigidity is a clear sign of severe left-hemisphere deficits, a condition which has become almost a job requirement for high-flying economists who must master mind-boggling mathematical equilibristics if they want to receive professional acclaim, or even a Ph.D. Here is an excerpt from Iain McGilchrist’s piece in the Wall Street Journal (“The Battle of the Brain”) pitching the main ideas of his new book on the effects of brain lateralization: “The left hemisphere has evolved to help us use the world to achieve our ends. But it is a specialist in denial. After a right hemisphere stroke, subjects will often flatly deny that anything is wrong, even when attention is drawn to the fact that half of their body may lie there useless. Or they may say it belongs to someone else, the guy in the next bed. The left hemisphere, ever optimistic, is like a sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as it ambles towards the abyss. Let's wake up before we free-fall into the void.” The trouble is, nerds suffering from the undiagnosed syndrome McGilchrist describes can never acknowledge there is something wrong with the way they analyze causally this or that “system.” If they could at least be taken off the pedestal from which they have for decades dispensed allegedly scientific expertise on the most efficient models of social and economic organization. In any case, these are the kind of links between seemingly unrelated issues (in this case, a theoretical debate in economics and findings in neuroscience) that I would like some of my students to make.

Useless expertise

Some time ago a neurobiologist in her 40s who had been denied tenure went to work armed, and during a departmental meeting opened fire killing three of her colleagues. She had suffered from recurrent fits of rage since her youth, and 24 years ago had even shot and killed her younger brother – an incident covered up by her caring family and local community. This seems like a variation of a common orbitofrontal syndrome resulting in emotional disinhibition and impulsivity. It is strange that she was unable to diagnose herself, despite that Harvard Ph.D. she boasted – maybe a sign of the extent to which brain dysfunction can cloud even expert judgment.

The sweet smell of virtue

New research indicates that when exposed to some pleasant smells individuals make more ethical choices – at least in the concocted experimental settings involving trivial moral dilemmas that are typically studies by psychologists. The authors speculate that scents can be used to encourage more altruistic behavior. Let’s assume that they have a chance to try this treatment on a large scale. On the other hand, the individuals they want to influence will continue to receive multiple reinforcements of the lesson that, at least in real life, ruthlessness mostly pays. Which influence is likely to be stronger? Let me guess…