Saturday, August 21, 2010

Creative destruction

The Pavlovsk experimental station outside St. Petersburg holds seeds from millions of varieties of fruits and berries. Most of the seeds there, which come from many countries, are not kept any place else in the world. They need to be planted in order to be preserved as they would not survive freezing. The station was established by an eminent biologist who died in a Stalinist camp in 1943. Now a Russian state agency has decided the land it occupies is not being used profitably. So they want to hand it over to developers who plan to construct luxury apartments on it. A court will rule on that decision on Monday, but is unlikely to find any legal grounds to overturn it. During World War II, twelve Soviet scientists starved to death rather than eat from the seeds which they felt a duty to preserve for future generations. With the benefit of hindsight, they should have known better. Though Putin may still ride in on a white horse and somehow save the plants. Which would cement further his reputation as a protector of ordinary Russians (and some sort of common good) from all sorts of greedy vultures – the only one on offer for some time to come.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In memoriam

A journalist writing in a Bulgarian paper called Tony Judt "one of the greatest contemporary historians and analysts." Employing the same word to refer to Judt that is commonly used with reference to TV pundits - it's hard to think of a greater sacrilege. His last piece in the New York Review of Books ("Words") composed as he was losing control of his vocal chords (after many months on assisted breathing) is a true tribute to the endurance of the human spirit. May he rest in piece...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Iron Mask

In an old episode of Mad Men (from its first season) Don Draper meets his younger brother. He hasn’t seen him in maybe 15 years, and has meanwhile started a new life under an assumed identity. One brother comes across as sincere and emotional, the other emits zero emotion and speaks with utter indifference. Guess who is the successful marketing executive and who is the janitor who lives in a cheap rental room. That emotional suppression comes very handy in the incessant verbal ping-pong the ad men practice exchanging wisecracks on all sorts of issues. Repressed emotions also help them maintain a credible façade as they cheat on their frustrated wives. Oh, the price of civilization…

P.S. A few episodes later, I am left with one lingering sensation – the emotional distance between the characters is just staggering. One of the young writers complains that his newly acquired wife is just another stranger - as they all are to one another. To be unable to reach out emotionally to another human being – this must be a truly unusual and severe punishment. This emotional deficit creates ubiquitous and incessant jostling for power and status, and thus a very treacherous and hostile social (and office) milieu - assumed by game theory to be most natural and ubiquitous. Of course, Tocqueville foresaw it all when he wrote: “not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” On the other hand, there seems to be a mismatch between the spirit of the costume drama and the Zeitgeist of the time as reflected in the style of the objects and ads from 1960. Who knows what those people truly thought and felt...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dual use

A NYT piece says "a professor of engineering and neuroscience at Brown University is studying how human brain signals could combine with modern electronics to help paralyzed people gain greater control over their environments." Obviously, the same technology could be used to help perfectly healthy young guys fly fighter jets and helicopters, guide missiles to their targets, etc., all without a "joystick." The Pentagon, of course, is working on this. I am wondering if it is also part of the engineer/neuroscientist's business plan.