Saturday, July 24, 2010

My rest über alles

The latest data says one quarter of American couples now normally sleep in separate bedrooms. Apparently, this is a recent trend which is expected to grow steadily. A former museum director offered the following explanation to a NYT reporter: “Not that we don’t love each other, but at a certain point you just want your own room.” As a sleep specialist observed, "what happened in the last decade, is that people are suddenly making their own sleep a priority. If their rest is being impaired by their partner, the attitude now is that I don’t have to put up with this.” Why, indeed, put up with any personal inconvenience if you don't really have to?

Good guys (and gals) finish last

Two researchers on child development comment in the NYT on new law in Massachusetts requiring schools to institute anti-bullying programs, investigate complaints, report serious cases, etc. They are concerned the new legislation will encourage schools to make mostly superficial efforts which will not produce real results. The title of the article proclaims: "There’s Only One Way to Stop a Bully" - and this is "to teach children how to be good to one another" and to instill in them "a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others." Let's say schools and teachers decide to make an all-out, determined effort to "instill" these laudable values. On the other hand, children cannot remain blind to the fact that in the jostling for social status going on everywhere around them - from school cliques to boardrooms - it is often the nice guys and gals who finish last. And existing social mechanisms for the distribution of material and non-material rewards often favor, in the words of Paul Krugman, "bad actors." As Donald Trump likes to reminds his "apprentices," you do need to be tough, sometimes even mean, if you want to play with the big boys. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this state of affairs - many will argue that this very harshness of the competition at all levels is at the heart of the dynamism which sets American capitalism apart from the more lethargic European versions. But it's quite obvious which lesson will leave a stronger mark on the minds of most impressionable kids and adolescents.

The revolution will be monetazied - well, maybe not this time

A web site called the Great American Apparel Diet invites visitors to commit not to buy any new clothes for a whole year. Since last September, 150 people have taken the pledge, though some have quit. Even the founder of the web site cheated twice, so going cold turkey on new apparel must be real stiff. More curiously, the pioneering dieter behind the website told a NYT reporter "she had thought about ways to make money off the diet." At the end, she decided to pass on the maintenance of the web site to future apparel dieters. One might sense a glaring contradiction between the spirit of the whole initiative and the urge to make money off its success. On the other hand, if we become overly sensitive about such cultural contradictions of capitalism, the whole economy could grind to a halt - like in North Korea.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Back to the future

I week ago, I came back frm Amsterdam. I arrived there on the eve of the Spain-Netherlands final game of the World Cup, and the whole city was overcrowded, euphoric, and draped in orange. The most striking sight I saw, however, were dozens of open-air portable urinals throughout the downtown area. Those were lined up not just on the edges of the Museum Square where the giant TV screens were set up, but also on other city squares, canal bridges, etc. - and were put to good use by mostly young men. I guess this is sound, pragmatic public policy, reflecting Holland’s famously utilitarian spirit – most of the male fans were carrying cases of Heineken, so they needed a convenient place to pass all that liquid out if they were not to pee on trees (which some did anyway). Such open-air urinals have also been deployed in Denmark, Britain, and a few other countries. In one Chinese city, the locals shunned the unfamiliar facilities, so municipal officials were instructed to use them in order to set an enlightened example. The whole issue, however, has another curious aspect. There are all these writings coming out about the erosion of the modern state and a return – politically – to the Middle Ages. I guess the return is also cultural. Several ages ago, people freely ate with greasy hands, belched, passed gas, urinated and did other things in public or semi-public settings. Then they gradually developed more “civilized” attitudes, at the core of which was an acute sense of embarrassment. That uncomfortable feeling drove such bodily functions underground, into an intensely private cocoon. Now all sorts of previously private activities are out in the open again, without any discernible sense of embarrassment or awkwardness. Any resistance or hesitancy, like in that distant Chinese city, will be whittled away. And most would see this as progress – a laudable pealing away of silly taboos and inhibitions.