Thursday, April 29, 2010

The mystery of the universe

Stephen Wolfram argues on TED that "our universe is the product of a simple computational rule." But, of course - what could be more logical than this?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Who said political scientists can't be hip?

Following my previous comment, I took a solemn vow of blogosilence. I decided I would not write ANYTHING for at least two hours, and use that precious time to reevaluate my whole take on blogging. If my scattered thoughts appeal to the wrong target audience, would any neurotypicals take interest in them? This required some careful analysis. But then I got in my inbox a piece of news so exciting I couldn’t resist the itch. Can you believe it – the European Consortium for Political Research is now on Facebook and Twitter! Finally! What took them so long?

I, Robot

Last week, during pre-registration, a student came by to check my body temperature. I didn't turn him back since I am always thrilled to see students who are genuinely curious. His curiosity stemmed from the following comment he had read about me on “He is a robot! Very knowledgeable, indeed, but also routine-driven to the extreme... at the same time, he maintains a pretty interesting blog.” I am still wondering if I should feel hurt. Like his pals, the author is a übergamer who humbly styles himself as “Gatekeeper” (for the uninitiated, this would make him a Doom junkie). He apparently wants to keep the civic spirit AUBG so cherishes alive by dispensing empowering knowledge to the downtrodden and inexperienced (he has posted something like 8,000 comments already). Judging by his writing style, I probably gave him a C-, if I was in good mood. I should have known that no good deed goes unpunished. Anyway, it seems the opening qualification shouldn’t bother me much. Really, how could I hope to come alive for someone used to the electrifying excitement of immersive gaming? I would need to be a creature out of Avatar to achieve this. Plus, it’s quite obvious that Spaceship Earth will soon be taken over by cyborgs who hide their empty eyes behind dark glasses. If this is the case, becoming an early adopter of Al Gore’s* presentation style could give me the sharpest competitive edge. Ergo, I should be quite OK with "Gatekeeper" calling me a “robot.” His praise for my blog, though, nags me big time. His brain has surely been toasted from those 10,000 hours** of gaming he must have clocked in his second life (that order may have been reversed if he is still stuck in some dreary Bulgarian city, chained to a job incommensurate with his bloated self-importance). Hm, if such a persson can still find what I write “interesting,” there is perhaps something I am not doing right...

* Al Gore is a former US vice president and current environmental campaigner. He was once rumored to have a winding key sticking between his shoulder blades. That bulge is no longer visible under his suit, so “he” must have upgraded to a more powerful source of energy.

** How do I know it’s 10,000? Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) has calculated that this is roughly the amount of practice it takes to achieve superb excellence in almost any area – even the silliest.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Saved by the geeks

On, the creator of "Heroes," a cross-platform franchise which in the past would have been a mere TV series, explains the beauty of "audience sourcing." You see, there are all those millions of kids (some over 20, even 30) who, as a matter of principle, would never watch TV but would rather download - hm, illegally - their favorite shows. This is a fact of life, so this fickle audience must somehow be tapped. How do you do it most efficiently? Very simple - by creating a string of clever web sites through witch the digital fugitives will click compulsively (after they see, for example, the address for one of them flashed on the screen - all ingeniously embedded in the plot line). And bingo - you have delivered millions of surplus eyeballs to the advertisers chasing after this elusive demographic. You must really admire such inventive genius. At one point the creator makes a reference to a new survey which says US kids and teens now spend on average 7.5 hours (11.5 if you factor in multi-tasking) glued to screens of different sizes. What is his first thought? Wow, what an opportunity to reach into the brains of all those young addicts! And you can do it incessantly, practically all the time while they are awake - on behalf of advertisers and anyone willing to invest into that all-out effort. You must admire such clear focus and determination, too. But if you think the guy is merely bent on making a quick buck from his creative brilliance, you will be completely wrong. His "heroes" are all involved in frantic efforts to save the world - and his stated goal is to inspire all young minds watching them to follow in their footsteps. This, apparently, is the only feasible way to avoid all those environmental and other disasters which would otherwise ruin human civilization in the future. This reminds me of another talk on FORA - by a young neuroscientist who lists "six easy steps to avert the collapse of civilization." One of those steps is linked to the way the internet opens the gates of education. A "motivated teen" anywhere in the world, he says, can have access to the totality of human knowledge collected since the invention of writing. There is a slight problem here - all that compulsive clicking may not exactly contribute to the development of the focus and motivation essential to learning. But, of course, we all know that the Luddites' resistance to the onward march of progress was silly and futile, and we don't want to repeat their mistake all over again.

Your monetized second life

On there is a round table on some exciting efforts to bring "smarter TV" to the masses. One of the participants works for a company which offers its customers the opportunity to point a remote at, say, the watch worn by a celebrity actor and buy it on the spur of the moment. He explains that this is part of an overall project aimed at monetizing all sorts of emotional communities of people - fans of this and that. It's curious how many companies build their business plans on inducing customers to buy impulsively and incessantly, for themselves or nagged by their kids. Some sullen conservatives still think, though, that decorum and self-restraint in modern society are undermined primarily by a few feminists and other liberal intellectuals. Of course, they reject all conspiracy theories as hopelessly naïve.

We've come a long way, baby

"At 40, Earth Day Is Now Big Business" (NYT):

So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”

Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.

For this year’s celebration, Bahama Umbrella is advertising a specially designed umbrella, with a drain so that water “can be stored, reused and recycled.”

In part, said Robert Stone, a independent documentary filmmaker whose history of the American environmental movement is being broadcast on public television this week, the movement has been a victim of its own success in clearing up tangible problems with air and water. But that is just part of the problem, he noted.

“Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.”

Taking the high road

Mary Billard, "A Yoga Manifesto" (NYT)

Yoga is definitely big business these days. A 2008 poll, commissioned by Yoga Journal, concluded that the number of people doing yoga had declined from 16.5 million in 2004 to 15.8 million almost four years later. But the poll also estimated that the actual spending on yoga classes and products had almost doubled in that same period, from $2.95 billion to $5.7 billion.

“The irony is that yoga, and spiritual ideals for which it stands, have become the ultimate commodity,” Mark Singleton, the author of “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice,” wrote in an e-mail message this week. “Spirituality is a style, and the ‘rock star’ yoga teachers are the style gurus.”

Well, maybe it is the recession, but some yogis are now saying “Peace out” to all that.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The freedom to smoke

The Bulgarian parliament has finally found an issue many MPs feel passionate about - the proposed lifting of the ban on smoking in public places before the latter even went into effect. The battle lines were drawn quite clearly between smokers and non-smokers - which must have been a coincidence since we know that MPs are solemnly committed to putting broader societal interests before their own narrowly conceived lifestyle preferences. One heavy smoker took a really principled stance: "As a free-thinking person I don't want to be told by law what to do and what not to do." If there is one sentence which brilliantly distills the whole dazzling complexity of modern Bulgarian political culture, this is it.

Friday, April 16, 2010


"Reaping Profit from Poland's Tragedy" (NYT):

"By 11:54 a.m. Saturday, less than three hours after President Lech Kaczynski’s plane had crashed in Russia, killing all 96 people on board, one opportunistic Pole had already manufactured 50 T-shirts emblazoned with the Polish flag and “RIP” and was peddling them on the Internet for $8.50 each, tax and delivery fees not included.

"Within hours of the crash, which also killed the president’s wife, Maria, the governor of Poland’s Central Bank and dozens of political and military leaders, sellers were hawking everything from commemorative plastic clocks adorned with images of the first couple smiling in front of a map of Poland to Internet domain names containing the late president’s name."

Here is the funnier part:

"Yet some Poles said the crass commercialism that also greeted the tragedy showed the extent to which Poland, 20 years after the revolution that overthrew Communism, had become a healthy capitalist economy, even as the free market was challenging the Roman Catholic Church as the new religion." No, I am not making this up. Maybe this kind of ruthlessly creative entrepreneurship can explain why Poland was the only EU economy which did not dip into recession last year.

Economists tried to predict the economic effect of the "commercial response to the crisis," but concluded it would be insignificant. But, who knows, a multitude of such entrepreneural ripples can perhaps merge into a tidal wave powerful enough to lift Poland's economy even further.

On the day of the accident, a woman selling Polish flags on the street in Warsaw said she had made a cool $700 in profit. The flags were $6.80 apiece, made in - where else? - China. So, a much needed boost to globalization, too. Every cloud must have a silver lining, indeed.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

No regrets

A New York Times article (“Facing a Financial Pinch, and Moving In With Mom and Dad”) says last year in the US “37 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds were unemployed or no longer looking for work.” As a result, 10 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 moved back with their parents. A young scuba instructor interviewed for the article now lives in a rent-subsidized apartment with his 90-year old grandmother. He says: “Part of me stays because of the financial benefits — I could never find an apartment like this one for even double the current rent — and part of it is that, while this might sound pessimistic, the truth is my grandmother is not going to live forever so I want to spend as much time with her as possible so no regrets later on.” It’s really neat to have such a clear focus on your own emotional needs without being much distracted by those of others – particularly if they will soon be dead anyway. As Winifred Gallagher argues in Rapt, the skillful management of attention and the capacity to maintain unrelenting focus form comprise the protocol for the good life which philosophers have pursued for at least 26 centuries.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Why hold anything back?

There is a piece in the New York Times about people who take pictures of everything – or almost everything they eat and then post the photos on the web (“First Camera, Then Fork”). For many, it has become an obsession/compulsion. And it’s now such a viral fad that N***n, O*****s, S**y, and F**i have all recently released camera models with designated “food” or “cuisine” modes (from now on, I have decided not to spell out any brand name for free). As I read this, I had a Eureka moment: if so many people are taking pictures of what comes in, why not photograph what comes out, too? This would be truly provocative – yet a logical next step toward the full digital self-baring so many seem to pursue. Then my enthusiasm cooled off as I thought some conceptual artist must already be doing this as part of some “project” with a cleverly mystifying name.

The true worth of things

Paul Krugman has a longer piece in the New York Times magazine on the challenges of “Building a Green Economy.” As a warm-up, he dispenses some Econ 101 axioms, like this one: “If there’s a single central insight in economics, it’s this: There are mutual gains from transactions between consenting adults. If the going price of widgets is $10 and I buy a widget, it must be because that widget is worth more than $10 to me. If you sell a widget at that price, it must be because it costs you less than $10 to make it. So buying and selling in the widget market works to the benefit of both buyers and sellers.” A few hours after I read this a saw a leatheresque jacket in a shop window worth around $700. Applying Krugman’s analysis, it’s easy to see why someone would sell the item at this price: it probably cost them $30 to – I was going to say “produce,” but we all know clothing companies don’t produce anything these days. The other half of Krugman’s observation made me scratch my head as I tried to imagine the kind of person to whom such garb would be “worth” the GDP per capita of Niger. My next thought was about a dose of cocaine – but let’s focus on the legal economy. I have only one explanation as to why Krugman can still use the term “efficiency” with – I assume – a straight face: he hasn’t watched Food, Inc. On second thought, putting hefty price tags on a few flashy items can probably help address one of the chief complaints John the Savage once made about “civilization”: “Nothing costs enough here.”

What is culture, really?

Four neuroanthropologists quote the following neat definition of culture: “Culture can be broadly defined as the repertoire of socially generated behaviors typical within a group of interrelated individuals.” Therefore, “behavior patterns exhibited by a range of social species are cultural – including location-behavior associations in fish, dialect variants of bird songs,,,, seed feeding and gathering procedures in rats,” etc. True, “culture is almost always exclusively discussed with reference to the one species that has made a virtue of cultural production, reproduction, and transformation, that is, the human species” – but the difference between the behavioural patterns of gupi fish and human beings appears to be one of degree. In my naïveté I thought “culture” was about weaving those webs of meaning older anthropologists claimed to study. But maybe “behaviour patterns” is all we are left with after all those centuries of disenchantment, desacralization, profanization, immanentization of existence – you name it. Or – this is all such contemporary “engineers of the human soul” can observe and study experimentally?

Monetazing the power of “people brands”

An upstart called OpenSky helps people who have built a loyal following in the blogosphere or on social web sites to recommend online purchases to their friends and fans – for a modest commission. I am looking forward to the day when it will be impossible to open one’s eyes without having some commercial message within your field of vision. Life will then become one blurred rolling temptation which will require an even more inhuman willpower to resist. That willpower, of course, will meanwhile be sapped as distractions become the water we – and particularly our kids – swim in. And then the only way to get rid of a temptation is to follow the Oscar Wilde Rule – just yield to it.

The elegant beauty of cost-benefit analysis

Writing on the Foreign Affairs web site (“Hardly Existential: Thinking Rationally about Terrorism”), an American political scientist and an Australian civil engineers offer the following “elemental observation”: “As a hazard to human life in the United States, or in virtually any country outside of a war zone, terrorism under present conditions presents a threat that is hardly existential. Applying widely accepted criteria established after much research by regulators and decision-makers, the risks from terrorism are low enough to be deemed acceptable. Overall, vastly more lives could have been saved if counterterrorism funds had instead been spent on combating hazards that present unacceptable risks.” I guess the geek squad working for Robert McNamara 53 years ago would have cheered such a clear-headed approach to existential threats. To be fair to the two respected scholars/experts, they do recognize that the psychological effect of terrorist attacks is slightly different from the anguish caused incidents like people drowning in their own bathtubs. Luckily, government experts in charge of putting some neat numbers on hazardous risks have already made some adjustments to reflect this awareness: “In order to deal with the emotional and political aspects of terrorism, a study recently conducted for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggested that lives lost to terrorism should be considered twice as valued as those lost to other hazards. That is, $1 billion spent on saving one hundred deaths from terrorism might be considered equivalent to $1 billion spent on saving two hundred deaths from other dangers.” To their credit, the authors of the Foreign Affairs piece do recognize that their “rational analysis” is unlikely to enlighten high-level deciders as Washington remains ridden with bureaucratic inertia and psychological rigidity: “The cumulative increased cost of counterterrorism for the United States alone since 9/11 -- the federal, state, local, and private expenditures as well as the opportunity costs (but not the expenditures on the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) -- is approaching $1 trillion. However dubious and wasteful, this enterprise has been internalized, becoming, in Washington parlance, a ‘self-licking ice cream cone,’ and it will likely last as long as terrorism does.” This probably points to the somewhat limited utility of number crunching as a policy crutch on issues which even number crunchers can recognize as existential – at least potentially so.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The bearable lightness of living on impulse

Between 2001 and 2006, Tom Bissell wrote several books and over 50 magazine articles. Then he discovered the Grand Theft auto series and cocaine - a perfect match. He spent the next four years playing, occasionally squeezing in some sleep between marathon gaming sessions. He seems to have few regrets because video games apparently enriched his life giving him the most intense experiences (though he does acknowledge some collateral damage). I do hope this spin is part of the marketing strategy for Bissell's new book. The lead character in GTA IV is Niko Bellic, seemingly a former Serb paramilitary with some blood on his hands. But, hey, he has a friend called Hassan - which is a nice way for the makers of that allegedly hyperviolent video game to promote the cause of diversity and multiculturalism.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ironic faith

This comes from Riazat Butt's blog on the Guardian web site:
St Matthew's in Auckland describes itself as a "progressive Anglican church with a heart for the city and an eye to the world". That's an understatement.
Last Christmas it offended and intrigued in equal parts with a Saatchi-designed billboard that depicted a deflated Joseph in bed with a disappointed Mary and the caption "Poor Joseph. God was a hard act to follow". Its attempt to provoke was more successful than expected and the poster was promptly attacked with a knife.
For Easter, the most important festival in the Christian calendar, the people at St Matthew's have come up with another ruse to get people engaging with their faith. This billboard shows Jesus nailed to a crucifix, thinking to himself: "Well this sucks. I wonder if they'll remember anything I said". The vicar at St Matthew's, Glynn Cardy, says the poster is a reminder that "Easter is about more than a rugged cross, a supernatural miracle, or a chocolate bunny".

I guess this is a response to Christians who take Holy Scripture literally - to the point of trying to calculate the volume of the blood that will be spilled when X billion individuals are slaughtered at Armageddon. The ad agency which designed pro bono at least one of the billboards apparently thought they were performing a public service – or at least pretended to.