Friday, September 24, 2010

Long live transgression!

The Venice film festival was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the awarding of the main prize to Sofia Copola – by a jury chaired by her former boyfriend Quentin Tarantino. What caught my attention, though, was another movie featured briefly in the “Cinema” segment on Euronews. I think the actors spoke German, though I am not quite sure. In one of the scenes, they showed a 20-something daughter and her 40-something dad sitting on a row of white chairs in some waiting room – a few feet apart in a spotlessly sterile environment, meant probably as a metaphor for their existential distance. Here is roughly the dialogue that ensued:
Daughter: “Have you imagined me naked?”
Dad: “No, I haven’t.”
Daughter: “Is it because it is some kind of taboo?”
Dad: “Yes. And such taboos exist for a reason among mammals – so that they can procreate.”
Daughter: “Well… I have imagined you naked.”
As that famous ad addressed to young women in the 1960s said, “You’ve come a long way baby.” Indeed. If anyone has doubts on that account, how about that German gunwoman who killed three people (including her five-year old sun and her former husband) before dying in a hale of police-fired bullets?

But the desire to transgress constraining prohibitions is neither gender, nor country bound. It has become truly all encompassing – a trend which comes through very clearly, for example, in a NYT article about a new strand of culinary experimentation (“Waiter, There’s Soup in My Bug”). It features a chef and artist who recently organized a feast with all kinds of insects and larvae – dead and alive – on the menu. He raises those in his own apartment in miniature houses designed by his girlfriend – also an artist. These are now on display in some gallery as a daring work of art. The event itself was billed as half meal, half performance art, with a modest 85-dollar price tag. A few of the guests could not overcome their narrow-minded prejudice or disgust and went home hungry. But most relished the treats they were served. And it wasn’t just the taste of it all – no, they were exhilarated that they had crossed such a difficult threshold. Now, some felt, anything was possible – nothing could hold them back in the pursuit of all kinds of life satisfaction. At a similar event some time ago, the intoxication produced by this act of culinary transgression apparently helped the participants overcome some unrelated inhibitions and they began hugging each other, a few even started groping and kissing in a corner. As the culinary artist says, once you see people eating insects as if it’s the most natural thing to do, “it turns your world upside down a little bit.”

I thought eating insects – in addition to inspiring that invigorating feeling of personal liberation – could solve some nutritional problems. Maybe it could unlock our access to a new locally grown, organic source of protein which is, after all, commonly consumed around the world. But an expert is quoted as saying the global population of edible insects is not that significant on a per capita basis, and people in places where malnutrition is a real problem already snack on all kinds of insects. So maybe we need to take a step further and consider some other organic substances which are currently off the menu – but could be nourishing and abundant if properly prepared and marketed. Even if some of these seem off limits now, maybe in 50 years no such silly squeamishness will stand in the way of technological, social, and moral progress. The kids in that famous psychological experiments who, at maybe four years of age, begin to wrinkle their noses in disgust at the sight of a giant cockroach floating in a glass of water? Maybe their grandchildren will just slurp it – or any other digestible item in its place – without the slightest twitch; and ask for more. A small step on the way to a more rational, or cost-benefit, analysis of what is now still a nutritional dilemma – which can help resolve humankind’s alleged Malthusian predicament once and forever. For now, though, let’s take things one transgression at a time…

Saturday, September 11, 2010

High on pixels?

Dr. Richard Friedman describes in the NYT (“Lasting Pleasures, Robbed by Drug Abuse”) how many of his patients who are addicted to drugs like cocaine seem to lose the ability to enjoy the small things in life. After a while, even the drug itself no longer gives them the same high. And these effects persist even many years after they have kicked the habit. Dr. Friedman explains that mind-altering drugs highjack the reward system of the human brain as they act much more powerfully on it than any natural stimuli. With time, neurons in the brain become less sensitive to all the dopamine being released under the influence of the drug, and pleasure fades away. Is this mechanism activated only by chemical substances, though? I am looking at a review of Fun, Inc. by Tom Chatfield. He thinks that video games are clearly the greatest invention in the history of humanity. Yet, even he recognizes that games are designed to tap into the same reward circuits that are activated by sugar, alcohol, and other drugs. Could they, then have a similar effect, desensitizing the brain to the smaller pleasures of life?

Karate wisdom

Our daughter took me to see Karate Kid the other day (a remake of the 1987 original). Some of the fighting sequences in the movie are a bit too graphic, but it has a great lesson at its heart: kung fu (which has now replaced karate) is not about beating up on the enemy; it’s about achieving internal balance and self-control. The Chinese bully knows all the moves, but cannot suppress his rage – so he must bow his head in defeat. Most of the critics reviewing the movie are completely missing this point, and make unfavorable comparison to the original movie which they probably saw in their own youth. This means most kids will probably miss the main point, too. I do hope, though, it will stick in the mind of Will Smith’s cute son who plays the leading role. He will need plenty of self-control as he is growing up in order to resist all the temptations and distractions bound to plague the life of a celebrity kid.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Liberation technology?

A recent Newsweek article has an ominous title: "The Creativity Crisis." It says creativity scores were rising among young Americans until the early 1990s. Then they started to slowly but steadily fall. Experts are scratching their heads, and most tend to blame the decline on educational reforms emphasizing standardized testing and rote memorization. Incidentally, the 1990s saw the spread of personal computers, video games, and internet use - all on top of hours of TV viewing. Could there be a link here? According to a recent NYT article, neuroscientists now believe the incessant use of electronic devices for instant communication, entertainment, and access to information (including hand-held computers masquerading as cell phones) may be depriving the brain of much needed downtime ("Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime"). This is an aspect of computer use left out of that famous Mac ad evoking Orwell.

"Does Your Language Shape How You Think?"

According to this fascinating NYT article, the short answer is "yes." The only problem with it is that the whole argument departs from a very disembodied understanding of thinking as a purely mental activity. So language "shapes" thought by inducing certain "habits" of thinking. It might be much more insightful to see the whole issue in a different light - to consider the way in which our native language must be influencing our brain wiring. From this point of view, it become clearer why being a native English speaker (a language which - quite unusually - does not assign gender to inanimate objects) may not exactly enhance your emotional connectedness to the larger social and natural world.