Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Harvard culinary show

Harvard has started offering a basic science course where the lab work is cooking. It employs a couple of celebrity chefs and is immensely popular. The idea is to introduce some formulas and concepts from chemistry and physics to analyze different processes students observe in the course of food preparation. A couple of years ago I read somewhere that as high school students were increasingly uninterested in basic science, they were being offered new courses in applied disciplines - like forensic science. Let me think - if Harvard is now using cooking as a way to make chemistry and physics more relevant to its students, what should Indiana University in Gary do to achieve a similar effect? Teach massage?

Just like you and me

There is a new German movie out on the life of the young Goethe. A young actress interviewed on Deutsche Welle TV described how she had been thrilled to find out that Goethe had, in fact, loved, drunk, and joked – just like her and her friends. My first reaction was: “Yeah, right…” But, on second thought, why put anyone on a pedestal, really? And why assume that 200 years ago celebrities – of any age – were any different from what they are today?

The importance of being earnest

Michael Kimmelman describes in the NYT a visit to the House of Humor and Satire in Gabrovo – a humorless, once industrial city in Bulgaria (“Take My Bulgarian Joke Book. Please.”). Most of the piece is quite condescending toward the place and the tour guide/PR officer who welcomed the author. Until at the very end he recognizes in what he sees a kind of earnestness he and his kind seem to have lost. Granted, approaching the outside world with a sense of irony and detachment is a sign of unmistakable sophistication. But being unable to leave your irony behind must be an utmost curse. Lord Chesterton once wrote: “Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.” By the way, the Don Quixote statue next to the Gabrovo satirical shrine is astounding – all made of iron scrap welded together to capture the true spirit of Cervantes’s otherworldly hero. Apparently, Mr. Kimmelman wasn’t sufficiently impressed to include it in the picture of the Gabrovo attraction accompanying his article.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The price of progress?

As the Chilean president was handing medals and flags to the 33 miners in his palace, he took time to hug each one of them. Emotions were clearly overflowing - no Pan Am smiles there. I was going to say - of course, this is the reason why even Chile, the Latin American tiger (if there is one), will never be Switzerland. But let's not stereotype.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The continuing conquest of cool

A NYT article (“Looking to a Sneaker for a Band’s Big Break”) says lifestyle brands are fast becoming the new recording labels. Converse, for example, has set up a studio in which young musicians can make new recordings for free. Companies will sponsor different aspects of the music production, marketing, and distribution process, and sometimes acquire songs to give away at the own web sites. The overall strategy is for the youth-oriented brands to become patrons of hip music stars and thus acquire “coolness by association.” In the past, such “arrangements would have carried a stigma for the artists,” being seen as a sellout to the evil empire. Now they are embraced with casual enthusiasm. A hot female musician confidently proclaims: “Music is everywhere now, and if you have it tied to a brand, there’s nothing wrong with that.” The article mentions that the new largesse Converse and others have adopted is part of a more general strategy aiming “to infiltrate the lives of their customers on an ever deeper cultural level.” But never mind, we cannot really expect young musicians to connect those dots, can we? Even if some boast college degrees.

Planet of the apes

Writing in the NYT, renowned primatologist Frans de Waal explains the utter feasibility of “Morals without God.” He bases his conviction on a theory of “continuity between human and animal,” or a denial of “human exceptionalism.” From this point of view, there is no qualitative difference between the way the human brain churns out an ethical judgment, and how a chimp’s brain motivates some altruistic behaviors. Nay, there isn’t really a meaningful quantitative difference in the structure of the human and the ape brain – “even our vaunted pre-frontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as …” Really? Reading Dr. de Waal’s expose, I would suspect that his and my brain click in qualitatively different rhythms, to say nothing of the brains of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Cheeky Charley.

De Waal’s focuses on the altruistic tendencies we share with our primate cousins. A chimp, you see, will sometimes help – without the promise of any reward! – an arthritic elderly female climb on a tree to hang out with her kin; or will console a male who has lost a fight. Though de Waal says we should see the whole package of human motivations and behaviors as a product of evolution and a legacy we share with the animal kingdom, it’s clear where his heart lies. He wants to revive the old tale of the “noble savage” once popularized by Rousseau – the altruistic, compassionate side of our psychological makeup is inborn or natural (and thus shared with kindly behaving animals); and the nasty aspects come from the way our natural goodness has been twisted by “civilization.” Forget about those allegedly aggressive drives Freud fretted over, ready to break through the ”veneer” of civilized “propriety.” But why forget about them? In an older article, de Waal drew a contrast between chimps and their close relatives, the bonobos. The latter have apparently invented the ape version of la dolce vita: they engage in constant mutual grooming and casual sex, and spend most of their time in leisurely companionship and relaxation. Chimps, on the other hand, live in troops with rigid hierarchies where status is won and lost by a combination of fierce fighting and Machiavellianism. Submissive families occasionally stage coups against dominant ones, and chimp platoons sometimes even wage “wars” against other colonies. In general, the lives of young males (who, after puberty, need to win acceptance in a new troop) are often nasty, brutish, and short. Females fare a bit better, but most also need to show deference for the dominant female. They can also be savagely attacked by raiding males from other troops. So, should we attribute human bestiality, not just those spurts of altruism de Waal highlights, to the natural endowment we share with chimps?

As I was reading de Waal’s incisive analysis, I repeatedly cringed at all those evocations of obvious behavioral kinship between “us” and apes. Apparently, he did not cringe while typing out the whole piece. This could be a matter of personal idiosyncracies, including presence of lack of the “left-brained” sharpness needed for a high-flying scientific career. I am trying to banish from my mind another heretical thought, though. Could de Waal’s attitudes, which betray some very peculiar patterns of brain activation, be partly attributed to his own biocultural heritage? He is Dutch, and if you look at Dutch society, it seems pervaded – even against the backdrop of rising xenophobic fears – by a kind of bonobo-style, relaxed permissiveness combined with easy-going utilitarianism. Soft drugs, harder drugs administered to addicts, prostitutes posing in display windows, euthanasia, open-minded attitudes toward teenage sex, open-air urinals events attracting large numbers of beer-gulping young men – please, help yourself, you can have it all. Could such broad-mindedness partly translate into cheerful praise for the natural goodness we ostensibly share with those good-hearted, altruistic chimps? But probably we shouldn't stereotype - neither the Dutch, nor the chimps.

The end of disgust (among other things)?

An economist recently complained in the NYT about the rise of inequality in the United States. After the furor caused by the publication of The Spirit Level, it has apparently become acceptable even for practitioners of the “dismal science” to frown at extreme inequality. If not to condemn it on the basis of a frivolous “value judgment,” at least to point to its troublesome social consequences – including its negative externalities for even some of the top dogs. Call it the “negative utility” of wealth. The NYT contributor draws a stark contrast between two ages in American history: the 1950s, when decreased income and wealth inequalities (and a marginal federal tax rate of 91 per cent for incomes over $200,000 – or two million in today’s dollars) went hand in hand with rapid economic growth; and the period since the 1980s featuring rapid economic polarization , much slower growth rates, and a series of financial hiccups. Incidentally, there are other contrasts between the two periods. In the 1960s, the majority of American Caucasians professed to feel disgust if forced to drink from a water fountain after an African-American person. Three decades later such squeamishness at even imaginary contact with in individuals belonging to a different “race,” sexual orientation, or subculture had miraculously evaporated. Could this amazing march of tolerance have also come to include tolerance of gross inequality, as a result of weakened disgust at the obscene salaries and profits reaped by the best and the brightest in some sectors of the economy? And their casual flaunting of extreme opulence?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The experimenter’s dilemma

A lengthy feature in Prospect (“Matters of Life and Death”) describes the multiple experiments carried out by experimental philosophers seeking to understand the nature of ethical judgment. Those all turn around the famous trolley/footbridge dilemma: a runaway trolley is racing down a rail track and is going to kill five people. Would you pull a lever to divert it into a different track whether it will kill only one? And if you have the same situation, but you are standing on a footbridge above the track and the only way to avert the bloodbath is to push a “large” person standing next to you in front of the trolley. Would you do it? In the first case, most experimental subjects respond “yes,” on the basis of a simple utilitarian calculation: it is well worth saving five lives at the price of one. In the second case, most participants say they will not do it. And often cannot explain why. In my naïveté, I thought these thought experiments demonstrated that ethical judgments can be influenced by our instinctive emotional reactions. This is most likely to happen in situations which feel close-up-and-personal – like pushing someone to his death (I hope the gendered language would be acceptable here). When we operate a mechanical device (like those drones hunting down those Taliban militants in Pakistan?), it’s easier to keep our emotions at bay and rely on utilitarian calculations. A new crop of experimental philosophers, though, are unsatisfied with this interpretation. They want to know on the basis of what ethical doctrine exactly most people can decide to pull the lever, but would not push a warm, breathing human body in front of the racing trolley. So they design increasingly clever experiments to tease this out – in dozens of versions. What if the person on the second track had been tied down there by bullies? What if those bullies, unknowingly, had also put themselves in harm’s way by picnicking on the first track? What if the second track looped and joied the first track – in which case you would need to wish that the single person be killed in order to save the others? One scientist (“scholar” doesn’t seem the right word to describe this academic occupation) explains the goal off her experiments (for some reason, most of these practitioners are women): “Real-life cases have a lot of factors going on, and it’s hard to test whether it’s this factor that’s crucial or that factor. You have to artificially construct cases to focus on the factors that are important. It’s like the scientist in the lab who has to figure out whether, say, the dust particle makes a difference to friction, and tries to hold everything else constant.” You know, as they do it in real science. As I was reading, I was increasingly thinking: “What is wrong with these people? Why can’t they just accept the ‘fox doctrine’ (after the fox from the Little Prince) or the ‘Pascal doctrine,’ both stating that certain things can be understood only through the heart?” One possibility is that to the uniformly cheerful researchers conducting the experiments the different scenarios don’t feel all that different. So finding some coherent doctrine seems the only possible explanation for choosing one course of action over other similarly unpalatable options. On the face of it, this seems unlikely – the article says responses among experimental subjects are uninfluenced by social status or educational level. But the article also mentions a dispute during WW II between Winston Churchill and one of his cabinet ministers on whether to try to have more V1 cruise missiles rain over south London. The minister, policeman’s son, “perhaps felt more keenly … the risk that the people in the working-class areas of south London would be running.” So maybe there are some meaningful differences in how individuals think and feel about ethical dilemmas – and the philosophers conducting the experiments (like Churchill) are overly clever and upbeat outliers.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Can we handle the truth?

Yesterday on CNN, Fareed Zakaria hosted a panel which discussed the tea party movement in the United States. On it, two liberal historians faced off a journalist from Wall Street Journal. One of the historians kept repeating that the movement had been fanned by Fox News and funded by a few angry billionaires. It’s funny how easily any trend we dislike turns into a shallow conspiracy. Milosevic once alleged that much of Albanian nationalism in Kosovo. And liberal Western intellectuals thought the same of Milosevic’s brand of Serb nationalism. Meanwhile, a New York Times article (“Voter Disgust Isn’t Only About Issues”) says independent voters participating in focus groups indicated they saw specific political and economic problems as part of a broader social malaise: “the larger breakdown of civil society – the disappearance of common courtesy, the relentless stream of data from digital devices,* the proliferation of lawsuits and the insidious influence of media on their children.” The Wall Street Journal woman retorted that the tea party in fact had a sensible economic agenda of shrinking a bloated government machine. The other historian lamented that all those stirrings around tea party populism were leaving aside a fundamental issue – the problem of social justice. Historically, governments have been charged with restraining the “innumerable vultures” John Stewart Mill thought could be found in any society. The tea party rank and file, though, feel quite happy to side with the sharks against the only force which could potentially control their predatory greed and “perpetual and restless desire of power after power.” Apparently, no amount of liberal hand-wringing can help the “government-is-the-problem” crowd start connecting the dots. Meanwhile, in Belgrade protesters tried to attack a gay rights procession and injured over 80 riot policemen. That outburst must have been another political conspiracy. You know, in the sense of politics is about “who gets what, when, how.” Except, it’s unclear what the rioters could possibly hope to “get” in this case. Such violence may raise a troubling question: can “civilized” political institutions function in a society which includes a critical mass of uncivilized young males? I guess most political scientists would answer in the affirmative. Some would discount the significance of political culture, arguing that political actors respond rationally to the incentive structures they face. Others would argue that an appropriate set of attitudes can develop as a result of learning within a democratic institutional framework. I do hope one of these theories is right.

* Ooops – the Google founders will probably be ticked that many Americans don’t seem to take their corporate slogan seriously

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wittgenstein did have a wonderful life!!!

In his book, The Temperamental Thread, Harvard developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan summarizes his findings from decades of painstaking research and hundreds of clever experiments. He describes two basic inborn temperaments: low-reactive and high-reactive. While low-reactive individuals are relaxed, high-reactives are uptight perfectionists who are easily disturbed by sights, sounds, and even minor incidents. In a couple of places Dr. Kagan expresses sympathy for the high-reactives whose lives seem to be one unending torture. “I confess to some sadness,” he says, “when I reflect on the fact that some adults, because of the temperament they inherited, find it difficult to experience on most days the relaxed feeling of happiness that a majority in our society believe is life’s primary purpose.” And since high-reactives tend to be deeply introverted, Dr. Kagan expresses sorrow that they “miss the joys that come from meeting new people and visiting new places.” Well, they do “have the advantage of living a few years longer than extroverts.” But how can this compensate for all the cheerless suffering they are destined to endure? And what if some high-reactives find their own life satisfying at some deeper level? Dr. Kagan thinks they should know better. He gives the example of Ludwig Wittgesnstein who suffered many personal misfortunes, “never put roots down in any one place,” and “was profoundly depressed and anxious his entire life.” At one low point he even confessed “that he could not imagine a future with any joy or friendship.” Yet, on his deathbed he said to an attending relative: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” Dr. Kagan’s verdict? “This comment provides sufficient reason to question the meaning and accuracy of what people say about their moods and behaviors.” So, Wittgenstein wasn’t really in his right mind. I wish Dr. Kagan could fathom what it means to lead a truly intense life like Wittgenstein’s; to say nothing of the lives of all those poets, philosophers, mathematicians, etc. who have descended into madness, committed suicide, or narrowly escaped such a fate. A book with an evocative title, Living with Intensity, offers a good introduction to this tricky issue once addressed by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski. But reading a book, or piles of psychological “findings” for that matter, won’t help you appreciate that extatic mode of “being-in-the-world” unless you can feel some of its emotional intensity in your own gut. Judging by the unfailingly reserved and even tone of Dr. Kagan’s writing, he has successfully avoided that developmental curse. He does recognize the usefulness of all those wretched high-reactives in his own work, though. He has regularly hired them as research assistants because they are oh so conscientious.