Thursday, December 29, 2011

Divisive Devices

Under this title, Pamela Paul complains in the NYT that the iPad her husband takes into the family bed was creating an invisible wall between the two of them. My first thought was that her ire was provoked by the devious nature of the device itself (whose purchase she tried in vain to resist). She says she can’t resist glancing at the bright screen at a time of the day when she is desperate to tune out. I even thought of marketing expert Martin Lindstrom earlier column (“You Love Your iPhone. Literally.”) in which he explained how one’s iPhone could evoke an unconscious response in the brain (and probably the body) physiologically indistinguishable from love. So maybe Paul saw the iPad as a potential romantic rival?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The case for moral capitalism

Under this title, the Guardian offers a reminder that Keynes was keenly aware of the potential moral failings of capitalism. He once wrote: “To convert the business man into the profiteer is to strike a blow at capitalism … The business man is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society.” But Keynes, who was not only an economist and speculator, but also an intellectual, feared the available alternatives to capitalism, so he wanted to save it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Events that changed the world in 2011

This is the main caption on the Guardian web site today - or at least was at one point this morning. Can you guess what picture the editors picked to put beneath it? But, of course - a shot from the royal wedding! The Guardian crowd are not exactly flag-waving monarcho-patriots. So they probably though that was what the market wanted. And who could argue with the market?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Create your own reality, or the upside of delusion

Cahrles Blow cites some statistics in the NYT pointing to increased social acceptance of income inequality in the United States. Here are the basics:

- the percentage of Americans who said their country is divided into "haves" and "have-nots" had been climbing slowly since the early 1990s
- according to a recent survey, that proportion has now shown a marked decline
- currently, nearly 1 in 2 Americans are classified as poor or low income
- 6 in 10 count themselves among the "haves" in society
- a third see themselves as "have-nots"
- another poll found out that most Americans think "the fact that some people in the U.S. are rich and others are poor does not represent a problem but is an acceptable part of our economic system"

Friday, December 16, 2011

The revolution is being tweeted as we speak

No, I am not talking about the youth in another MiddleEastern or Eurasian country trying to snatch freedom from the jaws of fundamentalist or tasteless tyranny. I have in mind a curious analogy Virginia Heffernan, an enthusiastic digital watcher for the NYT, makes between the liberating potential of 1) the social media, and 2) the disco scene of the 1970s (“Internet Geeks and Freaks”). Addressing a question Heffernan had long asked (“why do women, gay people and nonwhite people revel in the very forms of Internet culture that make some of the prominent straight white men who write about the Internet most dejected, fearful and furious”), Nussbaum had written simply: “Social media is disco.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

In Euro Era, Opening Bell Is a 2:30 A.M. Alarm

This is the title of a recent NYT article. It opens with the following observation: "As the European debt crisis roils the markets, American traders who once awoke at dawn are now rising in the dead of night to gain an edge when business begins in London, Paris and Frankfurt." After hastily rubbing their eyes, traders start their "workday" in front of the computer monitors (up to six of those) many of them have installed right in their bedrooms. No doubt, this chronic sleep deprivation will do wonders for their ability to gauge risk and make sound investment judgments. These are some of the benefits of competition, thanks to the megaincentives only a global marketplace can porovide!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Would Gandhi Do?

This is the title of an opinion piece in the NYT by historian Ian Desai. He thinks the efforts of the “occupy” movement to evoke Gandhi’s faith in nonviolent resistance are slightly misleading. With reference to the central slogan of the protesters, he says: “Gandhi would reject the division between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Gandhi did not believe in enemies: he worked on the premise that solutions emerged only from cooperation.” Indeed, Gandhi was quite consistent in this regard. For example, he advised Britain to bite the bullet and surrender to Hitler, and he thought the Jewish people should resist the Nazis only in nonviolent ways.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The attack of the 50 foot nerd

Though a tad predictable, I though this is the title Adam Curtis should have given to his latest three-part documentary (aired in May on BBC). Instead, he opted for the faux poetic ”All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace.” On second thought, Curtis’s choice does seem to convey a larger, poetic truth. Those eight words ring with such piercing absurdity that it is difficult to imagine they were strung together by a living, breathing human being.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Long live the nerd patriarch

A former student recently sent me a link to a piece in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Nothing warms my heart as much as receiving this kind of poke. The article describes the unceasing quest of biologist E. O. Wilson for a “theory of everything.” Seven decades ago, he started out as a boy hobbyist collecting with much excitement ants and other insects. Now in his early 80s, he doesn’t seem to have changed much. Only his intellectual ambition has grown. He now thinks the kind of science he pursues (dressed up in mathematical formulas and equations) is poised to finally resolve “the great questions of man’s nature” – the same questions that have bugged misty-headed philosophers for a couple of millennia.

A new day has come for the Lybian people

Below are a few quotes from an article in the Guardian, “Muammar Gaddafi's 'trophy' body on show in Misrata meat store”:

"Bloodied, wearing just a pair of khaki trousers, and dumped on a cheap mattress, Muammar Gaddafi's body has become a gruesome tourist attraction and a macabre symbol of the new Libya's problems.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

You Love Your iPhone, Literally

This is the title of a recent article in the NYT. It is written by Martin Lindstrom, a neuroscientist who dabbles in marketing research. He carried out some fun experiments using sophisticated brain scanning equipment, with astounding results. When he exposed his subjects “to audio and to video of a ringing and vibrating iPhone,” he observed a “flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Geek sarcasm

"The plural of anecdote is not data." LOL!!!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back to the future?

I recently posted a comment under this title on the new blog launched by our department (Politics and European Studies). It describes the coming end of all political accidents and uncertainty.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

First-person shooter

It has been reported that Anders Breivik spent many hours on social websites and playing video games. The discussion has focused on whether all the hateful propaganda spewed online and the violent games he loved helped turn him into an extremist and cold-blooded killer. I have a slightly different theory based on Marshal McLuhan’s famous dictum: “The media is the message.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Each man is an island

I watched the other day – with much delay – Terrence Mallick’s magnificently shot Thin Red Line. In it, Malick asks his usual sweeping questions, this time related to the carnage and destruction of war: “'How did we lose the good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered. Careless. What's keeping us from reaching out, touching the glory?” In word, how has humanity become so flawed and destructive? And how does Malick answer these momentous questions? By presenting war, in this case one of the most vicious battles in the Pacific, as the private experience of a few bewildered soldiers.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Recreational rioting

Pundits have scratched their heads to try to find a sensible explanation for the senseless violence in the streets of London and a few other English cities. Was it race, or poverty, or some other form of social exclusion that provoked the rioters? Was all that burning and looting a coded protest against something? Nothing seems to quite explain the nature and the extent of the brutality that was unleashed. Some commentators and bloggers have proposed a more plausible theory saying that the mayhem included a lot of “recreational rioting” – rioting mostly for the kick of it, plus some opportunistic looting.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Leading by example

I recently attended a high-profile international conference on teaching democracy. It was an eye-opening experience, for reasons slightly different from those intended by the organizers. On the bus from the airport, a 14-15-year old boy in the seat in front spent maybe 40 minutes on Facebook – scrolling up and down on his phone, typing comments, and doing whatever you typically do on Facebook. It was a vivid reminder that the information revolution was not necessarily enhancing interest in and perusal of information related to larger social issues. During the conference, however, I was amazed to see the kid's behavior replicated on a much grander scale.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Decivilization and its discontents

If anyone has any lingering doubts that Western civilization is slowly but surely winding down, here is the final proof. It comes in the form of an article from Der Spiegel: "Berlin Enlists Foreign Help to Tackle Dog Dirt." According to it, "more than 300,000 piles of excrement - around 55 tons - are deposited in the city by dogs each day... Yet not many owners are prepared to stop and pick up the mess."

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Matrix for real

The other day a friend was telling me about the son of a co-worker, a 17-year old boy. Outside of school, his world apparently consists of his laptop, the dinner table, the fridge, the bathroom, and his bed. He wouldn't go out with anyone on his own, and his parents had trouble dragging him with them to dine out or even for a walk in the park. Meanwhile, the boy seems to inhabit a dreamworld. In it, he sees himself one day as a drug baron, incredibly rich, riding in superluxurious cars with bodyguards, bending under the wight of massive gold jewellery, and surrounded by pretty women. Yah, right - he is the One.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In cold blood

A few days ago Mark Zuckerberg announced on the net that he had decided to eat meat only from animals he had slaughtered personally. That resolution, he explained, was a way to remind himself that a living being had to die in order for him to fill his stomach. Such reminders would help him be thankful for the food he eats. Killing his own food was also another annual challenge for him – after last year he had resolved to learn Mandarin, and the previous year – to wear a tie every day. Zuckerberg started by killing a chicken.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sweet, sweet freedom

I bought a bar of Camay soap the other day. It's from a line they call "Pure Freedom." It carries the following lofty description: "Beauty bar with liberating scent of rain-kissed grass and open neroli blossoms." I noticed it was made in Egypt, so I immediately thought: if only President Mubarak had ordered a few truckloads shipped and distributed at Tahrir Square! He could have easily avoided the whole series of unfortunate events that sent him packing. The soap was 50 percent off, so they must have an overstock. That opportunity to provide liberty cheaply has obviously been missed. But perhaps the authorities in Spain can quickly order a planeload of Pure Freedom to distribute among the sullen youth camped out at the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid. Some of them could use a good soap scrub anyway.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The personal is political, and vice versa

Gary Greenberg reviews (“My Monster, My Self: On Nicholas Carr and William Powers”) two high-profile books which make the same argument: all that surfing, searching, friending, poking, tagging, tweeting, communicating, etc. on the internet is dehumanizing us. While Powers's argument is more philosophical, Carr describes a bilogical process – as our brains are relentlessly rewired by the countless hours we spend staring at flickering screens, we develop a kind of artificial intelligence marked by emotional numbing and jadedness.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Marketing's bright new dawn

Martin Lindstrom says his book, Buy-ology, resulted from his realization that “something was rotten in the state of advertising.” I immediately thought that would be another tired diatribe against the evils of advertising. How wrong I was. No, Lindstrom was upset that traditional advertising methods were becoming ineffective, and “too many products were tripping up, floundering, or barely even making it out of the starting gate.” In his view, advertising can be saved only by “neuromarketing.” This is a new field which looks beyond polling and focus groups. Instead, it uses sophisticated imaging equipment to reach into the depths of the human bran and figure out what really makes buyers buy. As a side effect, such in-depth understanding of consumer behavior will give the consumers themselves a more profound insight into their own needs and desires, and thus empower them to make wiser choices. The true interests of market researchers and consumers may seem sometimes at odds, but in this case it’s so nice to metaphorically kill both birds with the same stone. And make some money as a sough-after marketing consultant on the side.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Politics and Pleasure 2

It turns out the IMF chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was to face a more formidable threat than the foodie underground – the American justice system. He was arrested the other day in NYC on charges of attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment. He allegedly assaulted sexually a chamber maid sent to clean his hotel suit. The police said after she broke free DSK fled in a hurry, leaving behind his cell phone and other personal belongings. He boarded an Air France flight bound for Paris, but was taken away minutes before take-off. Though the French media and pundit class expressed much shock over the arrest, they did not seem particularly surprised by the kind of behavior which had allegedly provoked it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Math as a vocation

A Business Week piece (“This Tech Bubble Is Different”) contains what must be the most depressing quote of the decade – short of references to mass murder or devastating natural disasters. It comes from the mouth of Jeff Hammerbacher, a math prodigy whom Mark Zuckerberg had appointed Facebook’s nimber-cruncher-in-chief. Just 23 at the time, Hammerbacher had assembled a crack team of other brilliant mathematicians and led them on a quest to uncover major trends in the way users were using Facebook’s multiplying features. He was remarkably successful until, at some point, gnawing self-doubt set in. Hammerbacher looked around Silicon Valley at the wiz kids toiling for booming internet companies, and what did he see? “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” Contemplating the apparent smallness of this endeavor, Hammerbacher decided it that kind of job “sucked.” He left Facebook to launch a start-up with a more inspiring business plan. The new company was to develop mathematical tools that could help different businesses analyze the mountains of data they were collecting. The efficient processing of all those terrabites of data could, say, help a company develop a new cancer drug; or direct drivers along less congested routes. Of course, these tools could potentially be used to – you guessed it – target ads more efficiently. Such questionable utilization, however, would not be on Hammerbacher’s plate. What is the likelihood of Zuckerberg himself succumbing to similar doubts? On the basis of my imprecise impressions from YouTube, I would say – zip. Unless he suffers a left-hemisphere hemorrhage similar to neuroscientist Jill Bolte’s famous “stroke of insight.” Which, by the way, she seems to have monetized quite nicely – judging by My Stroke of Insight, Inc.’ web site.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Politics and Pleasure

This is the subheading of an opinion piece by Geoff Andrews on the “new food movement.” He argues that “the movement around food in the US is one of the most significant of modern times, drawing as it does both on the traditions of the 1960s-1970s and the energy of the new social movements. Food has become - to use an older phrase now being recycled by contemporary activists - the ‘edible dynamic’ at the heart of mainstream economic and environmentalist debates.” So, the question of food should be our contemporary Vietnam – it’s that simple. Consequently, Andrews urges “the left” (or what’s left of it) to no longer consider food a marginal issue eclipsed by ostensibly weightier concerns. Predictably, he has on his side omnivore Michael Pollan whose “seminal article 'The Food Movement, Rising' (New York Review of Books, June 2010) reflects on the ideas of the ‘back to the land movement,’ Woodstock and the Diggers, to conclude that the current food movement encapsulates a similar focus on identity, community and pleasure. Andrews cites as a great illustration of this great observation Britain’s Campaign for Real Life. Promoted as Camra, a much catchier brand name, it “ocuses on a wide-ranging set of concerns that encompass support for local beers and historic pubs with opposition to the power of big breweries and defence of the pub’s community role (an issue which relates directly to the availability of cheap supermarket alcohol and it association with many social problems). Camra’s impact in mixing politics and pleasure has brought it over 100,000 members, 200 branches, sixteen regional associations, and 5,000 volunteers who organise 150 beer festivals a year..” And it gets even better. Networks like Camra, it turns out, are not alone in their brave fight to finally overthrow capitalist oppression and biological destruction. No, they are at the heart of a new constellation of anti-systemic forces “drawing in organic farmers, green activists, urban-guerrilla gardeners, and metropolitan gastronomes.” That latter group might look to some as self-absorbed hipsters, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if I was at the head of Goldman, the Fed, the IMF, or some such I would tremble with trepidation at the sight of this formidable newer social movement. Since that kind of people shun OpenDemocracy (an online platform for progressive academic analysis/opinion), they will remain blissfully unaware of the mortal danger threatening to engulf their empire – which, as we all know, is a colossus on feet of clay. Anyway – power to the ‘foodies” and all fellow travelers!

Unirritated young men (and women)

A NYT article (“All about the Invidious Irritants That Irk Individuals”) says some annoyances appear to torture not only the oversensitive crowd, but people of all colors and shapes around the globe: “Even members of an isolated African tribe appeared bothered by dissonant music.” Really? I am wondering if a similar musico-anthropological study conducted among the young of some globalized European tribes would yield the same results. I once showed in one of my classes a YouTube clip of “Crystal Castles,” monstrously dissonant “song” performed by Alice Practice. The effect of the “music” is heightened by random flashes of light and the shrieks of an extatic crowd. To my mild surprise, no one in the class seemed particularly annoyed two minutes into the clip, so I stopped it. One student commented knowingly that Alice were, in fact, a very good band and had some great music. Yet another case, it seems, where old “wisdom” has become so much useless drivel.

Yet another moral panic

Virginia Heffernan has done it again on the opinion pages of the NYT – dispelled another alarmist cultural myth (“Miss G.: A Case of Internet Addiction”). You see, some psychologists and psychiatrist have tried to invent yet another “addiction” – this time to the internet. Heffernan is unconvinced. What if a young woman has self-diagnosed as a very severe case, saying she sometimes stays up until 4:00 a.m. surfing the internet in search of useless information? If she sleeps with her laptop in bed? If she, while staying away from the computer for religious reasons one day of the week, spends most of that time thinking and talking of the internet? She strikes Heffernan “as a bright, self-effacing, religious young woman who keeps student hours and prefers logic games, jokes, graphic novels, trivia quizzes, music, Victoriana and socializing on Facebook to prefab pop bands.” In Heffernan’s view, “this kind of Internet use isn’t usefully described as an addiction, even if there’s some shirking of chores and insomnia to it. Fantasy life and real life should, ideally, be brought into balance — but no student who’s making decent grades needs to get off the Internet just because it would look more respectable or comprehensible to be playing chess, throwing a Frisbee or reading a George Orwell paperback. The Internet as Gabriela uses it simply is intellectual life, and play. She’s just the person I’d want for a student, in fact — or a friend, or a daughter.” So, no reason to worry whatsoever. And any effort by conservative moralizers to stoke yet another cultural panic would only serve to fan the flames of needless self doubt and self-repression, or maybe even of crushing societal oppression. Oh, and the GDP could suffer, too, if young hands start clicking on fewer ads and diversions.

How to Get a Real Education

Under this promising heading, Scott Adams offers some valuable advice to future entrepreneurs. Since he is the creator of Dilbert, I expected to find in his column some really, truly subversive insights. Alas, all it offers is a string of tired clichés. He says the part of his education (nominally, at a traditional liberal arts college) which prepared him best for a lifetime of bold entrepreneurship was a string of business-like extracurricular activities. Involvement in those taught him some invaluable lessons worth volumes of business literature: how to pitch a student business project involving the immediate redundancy of the whole staff of an inefficiently operated campus café; how to get a friend, an obviously incompetent bartender at that café, elected CEO of the whole operation; how to exploit loopholes in campus regulations by registering shell student clubs with himself as president; how to manipulate gullible fellow budding entrepreneurs into embracing his ideas as if those were their own; etc. Now Adams wants to join Peter Thiel in his crusade aimed at convincing ambitions students that a traditional college education is a waste of time, energy and money which rarely pays off. As I went down the list of pragmatic recommendations for career success Admas give, I initially cringed a bit. But I was quickly able to overcome this initial reaction and see the larger wisdom in his approach to what really matters in education. Once the line separating many forms of investing and entrepreneurship from what has traditionally been seen as white-collar crime become razor-thin, maybe this is precisely the no-nonsense acumen prospective business leaders need in order to get ahead. In any case, the old idea of education as a bookish quest involving a marathon of reading and writing doesn’t seem to quite cut it any longer.

Bright new dawn for the undertaking business

The funeral business in the US seems to be fairing much better than Canada, Inc. these days. Funeral homes have pioneered to very innovative, and quite promising, lines of service: streaming funeral services over the internet, and renting out their premises for more festive occasions. Funeral homes, it turns out, are particularly well suited for wedding receptions. As one “special events coordinator” at a funeral business explains, “the place wasn’t utilized because people had tunnel vision.” The people she refers to are other employees who had difficulty seeing the “funeral home” for what it truly is – a shining, multi-purpose “events center.” Many young couples planning their weddings are in fact less constrained by outdated prejudice. Some may be initially put off by the sight of grave stones, particularly the prospect of seeing those in the background on wedding pictures (as if PhotoShop couldn’t take care of this). But they typically overcome their hesitation when they tour the superbly decorated premises and see the knock-down price at which these are usually offered. In any case, those who allow to be creeped out of such a sweet deal will end up clear losers on the wedding facilities market; and will miss out on a great opportunity to participate in the construction of a proud new tradition.

Canada’s Cold New Dawn

This is the title of Heather Mallick’s comment in the Guardian on the stunning electoral triumph of Canada’s Conservative Party. She describes Stephen Harper, the slightly awkward Conservative leader who is now Prime Minister, as “a Canadian version of George W. Bush, minus the warmth and intellect.” Mallick may be a bit biased here, but this is clearly a stroke of rhetorical genius. The Liberals, the country’s traditional governing party which once helped beef up Canada’s image as a more humane little brother of the US, were trashed. Their leader, prominent intellectual and non-fiction writer Michael Ignatieff, resigned immediately. Another reminder, if one is still needed, that would-be philosopher-kings and socially ambitious intellectuals have been dispatched to the proverbial trash heap of history. So they won’t cause historical mischief any more.

Sexual Revolution 2.0

The Guardian reports a sharp rise in the use of online pornography by young women in Britain (“Why More and More Women Are Using Pornography”). A few years back that was almost unheard of; now almost a third of those seeking counseling for potential “porn addiction” are women. What are they getting out of it? That’s a no-brainer: “as porn becomes more pervasive, … women are now also using it as a quick way to have sex without emotional investment, just as men traditionally have.” Why should women be left behind? The expert who made the above observation points out that “it's important not to turn lone use of porn into a catastrophe”; and sex, as a very “natural function,” has no clear limit beyond which indulgence becomes abnormal. So, like other alleged “addictions” and other cultural maladies, this is just another baseless construct spun out by moralizing conservatives. Meanwhile, the NYT reports that vibrators are quickly becoming a mainstream personal appliance now commonly displayed on drugstore shelves (“Vibrators Carry the Conversation”). A TV sex therapist/personality (with her own line of sex toys) heartily greets the trend: “Women are getting less and less caught up on an unrealistic and puritanical vision of what a good girl is. When they can embrace their self-stimulation, they can take ownership of their sexuality.” So, the porn industry now has a powerful new ally in its quest to usher in complete and universal sexual liberation. I think I can see the bright sexual future beckoning just beyond the horizon. Increasing numbers of young men and women take their sexuality into their own (sometimes technologically-enabled) hands. And couplehood (to say nothing of procreation) will become just another countercultural lifestyle option – obviously less pleasurable/rewarding than the easily (and unfailingly) available alternative. Even if some (I still suspect – mostly women) do want to make such an idiosyncratic choice, finding a willing and committed partner will be an arduous quest. Technology, I guess, will again need to ride to the rescue.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The universal language

The reputation of mathematical modeling was slightly dented by the financial crisis. But that was a long time ago. Now, once again, clever mathematicians won't rest until they have quantified EVERYTHING. One has just developed a model predicting how tattoos will age over a period of 20 years or so. Finally, another previously disadvantaged group will be able to place life-changing decisions on a solid scientific basis.

The death of cursive (among other things)

The NYT carries an article lamenting the disappearing art of cursive handwriting (“The Case for Cursive”). Apparently, it is now taught very little in American schools, and most students have difficulty not only crafting but even reading text in cursive. The article quotes experts lamenting the loss of an aesthetic dimension, pointing to the difficulty young people will have reading their ancestors' diaries, and warning that hand-written text printed in block letters is easier to forge. The article also mentions that many students no longer have the fine motor skills associated with cursive drilling. As a result, even their non-cursive handwriting comes out sloppy and uneven. The loss related to the slow death of cursive may be much deeper, though. According to a previous article from the Wall Street Journal (“How Handwriting Trains the Brain”), during an experiment with schoolkids “sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory.” This effect must be strongest with cursive, weaker with printing, and is definitely gone with typing. Of course, 50 years from now no one will know what they have lost.

Post-modern royalty?

The pageantry surrounding the British royal wedding reminded me of Clifford Geertz's famous essay describing the “progress” through London of Queen Elizabeth I following her coronation. He empasizies the extent to which each gesture and street performance related to the queen's brief journey was pregnant with intense meaning, bestowing upon her a royal charisma which was not of her own making. How much of that rich symbolism is left four and a half centuries later? About 1.7 percent, maybe a bit less. On the other hand, post-modern superficiality and relativism have not quite won the day, yet. When I, my wife, and our daughter looked at a picture of William's two cousins in their grotesque outfits and make-up, we immediately had the same thought – don't they look exactly like Cinderella's evil sisters? Not much room for interpretation and the free play of signifiers there. Oh, and the NYT article covering the wedding ("A Traditional Royal Wedding, but for the 3 Billion Witnesses") is truly superb - a perfect balance of serious reporting and irony, astute direct observations and a wealth of background information. That could have hardly come from a blogger or citizen-journalist, I am afraid.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"The World Should Revolve Around Me"

This is the title of a pop song released in 2008. It is mentioned in a New York Times article, “A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics.” The title reminds me of psychologist Jean M. Twenge books and articles describing a “narcissism epidemic” among American college students. She based this claim on thousands of questionnaires students had filled out responding to questions from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. Those seemed to indicate rising levels of self-absorption – which Twenge attributed mostly to the exaggerated praise parents (and teachers) had lavished upon kids in an attempt to raise their self-esteem. She was immediately attacked by other psychologists who had crunched slightly different data sets and concluded her worries were misplaced – an example of the pointless hand-wringing over the “spoiling” of the young which could be traced back at least to ancient Greece.

The NYT article mentioned above says Twenge and a few fellow travelers have now struck back. They have used powerful software to analyze the lyrics of popular songs from the last three decades. They have found that in the 1980s most pop hits still celebrated togetherness and shared joy. In recent years, on the other hand, they have focused mostly on the feelings and desires of “one very special person” who stands above all others – the singer. Even if some of the lyrics are slightly ironic, it seems the self-congratulatory emotions they express resonate with a broader audience. Such a narrow horizon, of course, is bound to lead to a lot of frustration and righteous anger – since the world is often reluctant to bend and shape itself according to the wishes of even the most amazing pop star. That annoyance was, too, duly captured by the clever software Twenge et al. used. Who says ingenious number crunching cannot reveal some greater truths about life and the way we are living it? 

High School Classes May Be Advanced in Name Only

This is the title of a NYT article which says more high school students in the US are taking rigorous-sounding courses, but their results on national and international tests are lagging. The title betrays the basic spin of the story – many (maybe even most) of these courses are in fact not advanced at all: College Preparatory Biology is mere basic Biology, etc. On closer reading, though, a study (I assume, truly rigorous) found out that in only 15 per cent of advanced math classes “the textbook covered less advanced areas of math than the course name suggested.” Which indicates that 85 per cent of these classes were truly advance in content, yet most students were somehow unable to get much out of them. Oh, and in Arkansas 70 percent of high school students who took Advanced Placement classes scored 2.0 or below on a 5-point scale. Could it be, then, that it’s not the rigor of the classes that is lacking but something else?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why worry now?

I showed in one of my classes two brief excerpts from Koyaanisqatsi, a cult quasi-documentary from 1982. It starts with some (truly) breath-taking helicopter-view natural scenes, and at one point shifts dramatically to the man-made world. That is introduced by a few powerful explosions and the emergence from clouds of dust of a monstrous truck – the kind used in strip mining. Then there are some long takes on military hardware in and out of service (including an aircraft carrier with the equation E=mc2 plastered in huge letters on its deck). Most of the remaining two-thirds of the film depict traffic, city life, factory work, commuting, etc., with many time-lapse sequences. The music (a famous score by Philip Glass), starting with the appearance of the truck, grows progressively disturbing. The title is a Hopi word which means essentially “out of balance” – and I thought the message the film sent was (judging from the lump in my throat) both gripping and unambiguous. Still, I asked students what message they thought the director wanted to send. The first four responses were: 1) though we may have caused some environmental problems, we can still create beautiful things; 2) there are some patterns beneath the apparent chaos of city life; 3) the human race is truly great; 4) daily routines are worth observing. The fifth response did point to the contrast between the natural scenes and the rest of the film, but I am afraid my probing questions were not very effective. The sixth student suggested the music was misleading since it sought to create the impression of some cataclysmic build-up – which was unnecessarily alarmist; and, by the way, we should not necessarily equate nature with beauty and everything man-made with hideousness. I was taken aback a bit, so I tried a slightly ironic question: “So, for some people Manhattan might be more beautiful than the Grand Canyon?” The response to that was: “Oh, absolutely!” Another student pointed out how much freer we have become to choose between outings in nature and inhabiting urban environments. Ortega y Gasset once described how in the late 19th century the young intelligentsia quite suddenly lost their taste for representational art, harmonious music, rhyme, and the conventional narrative of the great novels. And Virginia Woolf famously quipped that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Then, of course, it flipped once again with Elvis’e gyrating pelvis and the flower children. In another half century, welcome to the latest disruption, which seems to go much deeper than a mere shift in “values.” And which this time around may indeed signal, gasp, the end of history. Or at least the death of the author once prophesied by a few jaded French intellectuals. Increasingly, it seems, the resonance (or the lack of it) is the message.

P.S. I am reminded of a similar example Zadie Smith gives in her quite brilliant review of the "Social Network" (published in the New York Review of Books):

Zuckerberg insists selves simply do this [evolve] by themselves and the technology he and others have created has no influence upon the process. That is for techies and philosophers to debate (ideally techie-philosophers, like Jaron Lanier). Whichever direction the change is coming from, though, it’s absolutely clear to me that the students I teach now are not like the student I once was or even the students I taught seven short years ago at Harvard. Right now I am teaching my students a book called The Bathroom by the Belgian experimentalist Jean-Philippe Toussaint — at least I used to think he was an experimentalist. It’s a book about a man who decides to pass most of his time in his bathroom, yet to my students this novel feels perfectly realistic; an accurate portrait of their own denuded selfhood, or, to put it neutrally, a close analogue of the undeniable boredom of urban twenty-first-century existence.

P.P.S. Come to think of it, this shift in sensibilities can also be related to Brave New World. There, Helmholtz Watson starts laughing uncontrollably when he hears the story of Romeo and Juliet. He is a bit of a dissident and a writer himself, yet he finds the plot totally ludicrous. Two young people willing to commit suicide for the sake of exclusively "loving" each other? And their "mothers" and "fathers" (dirty words) ordering them whom to "marry"? What could be more preposterous than that? Brave New World, however, is set in the indefinite future, and its characters' inability to relate to a play written many centuries earlier may seem natural. Could we now be witnessing a similar cultural and psychological disruption over the course of three short decades?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Liechtenstein for hire at $70,000 a night

If the Guardian is to be trusted, this is no joke:

Executives with cash to burn traditionally hire luxury yachts, secluded villas or expensive hotel suites to impress clients. Now they can take corporate hospitality to a new level by hiring an entire country, albeit a small one.

The principality of Liechtenstein has decided to make itself available to private clients, from $70,000 (£43,000) a night, complete with customised street signs and temporary currency. It's a big step for the country best known for its tax-haven status and exporting false teeth: last year Snoop Dogg, pictured, tried to hire it to use in a music video, but received a stern refusal from authorities.

Since then they have woken up to the marketing opportunities of their mountainous landscape. The price tag includes accommodation for 150 people, although the 35,000 inhabitants would remain. Any personal touches, such as an individual logo created out of candle wax or a customised medieval procession, come at an extra, undisclosed cost.

Upon arrival in Liechtenstein, visitors would be presented with the symbolic key to the state, followed by wine tasting at the estate of the head of state, Prince Hans-Adam II.

Incredibly, the Guardian says no one has yet taken advantage of the bargain. Again, am I the only one seeing some deeper symbolism here?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Lady Liberty 2.0

The NYT says a new stamp issued by the US Postal Service was intended to feature the Statue of Liberty. But there was a slight problem: "You might think that the post office would have just gone with the original, the one off the tip of Lower Manhattan that for 125 years has welcomed millions of New York’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Instead, they accidentally used the 14-year-old statue that presides over thousands of weary gamblers a week." When the post office were alerted to the mix-up by an avid stamp collector and Statue of Liberty fan, they kept their cool. Their spokesman said: "We still love the stamp design and would have selected this photograph anyway." The NYT article says the whole incident is just further proof "that New York is not the center of the universe," if any was needed. But could there be some deeper symbolism here?

Friday, March 11, 2011

With some help from my grandma

In his bestselling book, “Moonwalking with Einsten,” Joshua Foer describes how he transformed himself from an averagely forgetful 20-something into a mnemonic superathlete. The main technique he learned was to weave dry facts, numbers, playing cards, etc. into memorable stories. For example: “Michael Jackson defecated on a salmon burger and captured his flatulence in a balloon.” Why are such stories memorable? It turns out the brain remembers more easily really bizarre action sequences. And, apparently, nothing beats raunchy scenes like “indecent acts” involving one’s mother or grandmother. Who could think that brain building could be so much fun?

Monday, March 7, 2011

The power of positive thinking

Pete Alcorn talks on TED about the world in 2200. His main message is that a pessimistic outlook can result in some hasty decisions and suboptimal management of the complex social and technological transition the world will undergo. A positive mindset, on the other hand, results in creative solutions to even the most intractable problems. Yes, indeed, this is precisely what the Romans lacked in 410 AD; and the French knights in 1415; and British Light Brigade in 1854; and the Polish cavalry in 1939; and the bankers, plus all sorts of other "investors," in 2007...


According to a new study quoted in the NYT, "the average smartphone owner spends 667 minutes a month using apps. That is more time spent with apps than spent talking on a smartphone or using it to browse the Web." As it turns out, BlackBerry users launch much fewer apps than owners of iPhones and Android sets, mostly because they have access to a much smaller selection of those. Hm, those BlackBerry users are real suckers, missing out on the greatest revolution in the deployment of the "spotlight of attention" by countless users. They should really know better and buy immediately into the iWahatever dream masterminded by those great wizards at Apple.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Biggest Fish Face Little Risk of Being Caught

This is the title of a NYT article which seeks to explain why no CEO is likely to see jail time for his part (no need for gender-neutral language here) in creating the financial calamity of 2008. This is in marked contrast to the savings-and-loans fiasco of the 1980s. Following that series of unfortunate events, the federal government invested a lot of effort and money in prosecuting wrong-doers. As a result, over 1,000 felons were locked up. This time around, the federal government seems to have neither the resources nor the resolve to launch a similarly grand crusade. And financial operations have become so complicated that telling ingenuous creativity from fraud is all but impossible. Fraud is evident from top to bottom of the financial food chain – from CEOs withholding vital information from gullible investors, to mortgage brokers misleading clients about the terms of their loans and even encouraging them to lie on their applications. Still, the biggest fish have little to fear, and many have emerged from the debacle they engineered with increased net worth and unshaken self-confidence. What lessons should kids and all of us draw from this foreseeable failure to punish the criminal wrongdoings of those numerous vultures (who have not expressed the slightest regret or remorse)? I am not sure, but I guess conservative commentators will continue to blame the obvious erosion of the Protestant ethic on the usual suspects – an assortment of tenured and non-tenured liberal intellectuals, feminists, multiculturalists, gay rights activists, etc. This strikes me as a truly monumental failure to connect the dots by some otherwise intelligent, well-read, and generally nice people.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Planet of the nerds

A couple of years ago, the American Political Science Association launched a new journal, Perspectives on Politics. It was meant to provide an outlet - some grumpy skeptics would say a ghetto - for methodological transgressions and other hetherodox musings. Last year, it published an article by Laurence Mead called "Scholasticism in Political Science." It defined "scholasticism" as "a tendency for research to become overspecialized and ingrown" - in the pursuit of rigor and under pressure from the publish-or-perish dictum. Apparently, this trend has gathered pace in recent years, as political scientists have churned out countless articles with little real-world relevance. How does Mead know? He has done a rigorous study of little interest to anyone outside of APSA, and maybe even to the alleged scholastics. He has coded thousands of articles from APSA's flagship journal, and has found that most are very narrowly focused and are rarely cited. I have a somewhat different causal model explaining the outcomes Mead observes. The pressure to publish rigorous rigorous research surely exists, but over the years this has become the only kind of research most political scientists find meaningful and exciting. Over the decades, political science has gradually become populated by highly intelligent technicians who are engineers at heart. These are the kind of people who once kicked Nietzsche out of academia, invented the MAD doctrine, and gave the world freakonomics. Naturally, they regard more metaphorical analyses as so much gibberish. And weed out any job applicants suspected of producing those as thinly disguised impostors. Of course, they also rarely miss an opportunity to congratulate themselves on their progressive liberalism. Adam Curtis claims in the first episode of Pandora's Box that those were precisely the kind of people who ran the Soviet Gosplan. But he is only a director without an advanced degree in anything and has no scientific understanding of such complex issues. So what does he know?

P.S. A few years ago most of the students writing senior theses in Political Science at our department suddenly started to cobble together quantitative research designs. This happened without any faculty encouragement. Apparently, they independently reached the conclusion that only number crunching can provide some solid foundation for their young scholastic feet. There must be something in the Zeitgeist pushing young minds in this direction - apart from the schemings and mutual hyping of the geek mafia.

Reaching for the stars

Yesterday evening I felt really sick and miserable. As I was watching the heart-braking footage from Lybia, I accidentally flipped the channel to CNN. There, a puffed-up Barbie clone was hyperventilating over their latest "developing story": "Starry night in Hollywood." Can you imagine, someone's mother will tweet during the Oscars "ceremony"; and, for the first time ever, they will stream live footage from backstage celebrations over the internet! And all this is being revealed to us with only three days to go before the grand gala! I succumbed to all the excitement, ran to the bathroom, puked, and immediately felt better. Who says Hollywood and infotainment aren't healthy and wholesome?

Beauty will save the world

Over the last couple of years, Stanley Fish has published quite a few blop-ed pieces on the NYT web site offering a spirited defense of the humanities’ right to life. Facing severe pressures and sometimes even the ax from desperate academic managers, the humanities are now expected to prove their true value. At a time of austerity and diminishing expectations, why should research and teaching of sometimes arcane subjects be supported? Isn’t it an anachronistic luxury which should be sent the way of the three-piece suite and the feather hat? Fish recognizes that the public (and cost-cutting deciders) won’t buy the argument that studying Antigona or Chinese vases will boost the GDP or someone’s lifetime earning potential. Nor can such activities be credited with the dissemination of knowledge about the best artistic objects created by humanity or of paragons of moral excellence. As we have come to recognize, there is no uncontestable scale on which a Vermeer painting can be placed above Inuit embroidery or even a punk tattoo. And reading about the bravery of those hapless hoplites at the Thermopylae is unlikely in itself to inspire fearlessness among ROTC trainees. So, what justification does Fish offer instead? Pleasure, pure and simple. He says we should not expect the humanities to bring us or anyone else anything beyond aesthetic pleasure and appreciation. Sound great, and I would be the first to recognize the kick reading an uplifting story or a beautiful poem can give me. There is only one slight problem with this justification, and Fish knows it. Why should a country music lover be asked to subsidize the joy brought to some by atonal music or cubism? William Graham Sumner settled that one a long time ago – the “forgotten man” should be left alone and not asked to make even the smallest self-sacrifice; and the sum total of egotistical pursuits will create a better society. In the current Zeitgeist, Fish cannot possibly provide a plausible rebuttal. Instead, he says beleaguered academic aesthetes should employ a few Machiavellian tricks in the dog-eat-dog infighting university politics has become. And use their rhetorical skills to convince the top brass that they are the custodians of a sacred academic tradition dating back to the Renaissance. Yeah, right – this is surely going to fly. How about, then, a slightly different spin? Maybe keeping the humanities afloat could expose some students to works which sometimes inspire awe and admiration – an existential posture surpassing anyone’s instant needs and desires? An education empowering students to pursue such self-transcendence could perhaps be seen as a public good – as opposed to a private investment in the expectation of future individual rewards.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Under the iron boot of academic liberalism

At the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Jonathan Haidt asked his colleagues how many of them would describe themselves as other than liberal. Maybe 20-30 centrists or libertarians raised their hands, and three conservatives - out of around 1,000 present in the auditorium. To Haidt the result signaled the blatant discrimination practiced by the liberal majority toward any non-conformists. He apparently berated his arrogant colleagues for the hostile climate they had created for the few brave dissidents in their ranks, and warned them that their extremism would damage the public's faith in their scientific enterprise. As I read this I scratched my head. What's the big deal, really? Isn't it obvious that anyone who has an IQ above 115 and has read at least 20 non-fiction books from cover to cover cannot possibly be illiberal? Well, I do have two personal acquaintances who deviate from this rule - one in his 50s, the other in his mid-20s. But they must be the kind of rare exceptions which only serve to prove the rule. There cannot possibly be anyone else in the world who is quite like them.

The show must go on

On BBC and Al Jazeera (which uses much British talent) the anchors and most of the reporters are stern, as if seeking to convey the dramatism and enormity of recent events in the Middle East. I guess this is the reason why the British empire was so short-lived - it didn't last in full swing even 100 years. Because it couldn't generate sufficient faith and good cheer. I guess the stiff upper lip did them in - the latest research shows that putting on the fakest of smiles makes you happy, regardless of any nuisances served up by any series of unfortunate events. Thankfully, CNN is a whole different story. Most of their personalities have been effortlessly cheerful. And they do inject some much needed fun into what would have been slightly depressing news coverage. Yuppies enjoying themselves off the Dubai coast in an upbeat ad, longer yachting reports, golf, and - of course - that other most exciting "developing story" - the upcoming wedding of William and Kate. I couldn't wait to hear who is in and who is out, a mere nine weeks before the momentous event! And the beaming "royal commentator" they had invited was just superb - so polished and knowledgeable, yet appropriately discrete. I hope the sun will never, ever set on the Time Warner empire.

Equal opportunity

The Notre Dame Magazine carries an article and inspiring photos of the university's new women's rugby team in action. Now, this is real empowerment. It finally offers female athletes an equal opportunity to suffer the debilitating concussions (and the many more visible injuries) commonly associated with college and men's football.

Who gets what, when, how

This is Laswell's famous definition of politics - the subtitle of his 1936 book which saught to explain what politics is all about. As Encyclopedia Britannica observes, it "later served as the standard lay definition of politics." I am watching the dramatic footage from the Middle East, and I am thinking: what an elegant definition; it captures with such razor-sharp precision the motivations of all those multitudes braving the hails of batons, tear gas canisters, and sometimes bullets. How could we ever begin to grasp what makes them tick without the scientific study of political attitudes and behavior? Last July Stephen Walt asked on the Foreign Policy web site if political science was drifting into irrelevance. Where did he get that, really?

Monday, January 31, 2011

We, Robots

This is the title of Jonah Lehrer’s review (in the NYT) of Sherry Turkle’s alarmist new book, Alone Together. In it, she describes the Internet “as a corporate trap, a ball and chain that keeps us tethered to the tiny screens of our cellphones, tapping out trite messages to stay in touch.” Lehrer thinks these worries are clearly overblown. In his view, the Internet is “just another tool, an accessory that allows us to do what we’ve always done: interact with one other. The form of these interactions is always changing. But the conversation remains.” So, the form of human “interactions” is changing, but its essence has remained the same. In her review of The Social Network (“Generation Why,” in the New York Review of Books), Zadie Smith reaches a very different conclusion. She says the movie “is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called ‘Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore”; 500 million “members” who have adopted Zuckerberg’s definition of friendship as “the exchange of personal trivia.” Why has that happened? Nicholas Carr, who suspects that “Google is making us stupid,” offers the following hypothesis: “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” What is “artificial” about this new kind of sentience Carr describes? Apparently, a degree of emotional numbing as those countless hours interacting with flickering screens rewire our (and our kids’) brains. But these concerns would also seem misplaced to anyone who has always “interacted” with the larger world and others in the manner Zuckerberg does.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

10 Restaurants Worth a Plane Ride

This is a NYT article - and the restaurants profiled in it are not just in foreign countries; most are on other continents. The title says it all.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Science über alles

Jonathan Gottschall has argued that the only way to rescue literary criticism from marginalization and irrelevance is to put it on a solid scientific basis - which would involve the relentless application of statistics to all sorts of problems. The tag line for his article in the "Ideas" section of Boston Globe ("Measure for Measure") reads: "Literary criticism could be one of our best tools for understanding the human condition. But first, it needs a radical change: embracing science." Hm - what would be a simple hypothesis regarding the "human condition" which Gottschall could test using his favorite tools? How about: "God is dead"?

Towards the end of his essay Gottschall says: "The great wall dividing the two cultures of the sciences and humanities has no substance. We can walk right through it." Indeed - this is how things must look if you think all reality can be reduced to mechanical interactions, and equations reflecting those interactions. In "The Matrix," Cypher watches those greenish ones and zeros flowing down the computer screen and says that he can sees human beings behind them. With nerds, it's the other way around - they look at people, and all they can see is numbers.

When C. P. Snow wrote "The Two Cultures," his analysis had a clear class angle. The literature/humanities circles he criticized for their lack of scientific understanding came mostly from Britain's top "public" (that is, private) boarding schools and old universities. Hence, they were very much part of the traditional elite. Most of the scientists, on the other hand, were of lower-middle or even working class origins and came mostly from the new polytechnics. Fast-forward half a century, and the picture is quite different - nerds have taken over most of the commanding heights in society and the economy. There are still a few minor bastions of metaphorical thinking (for example, some sectors of literary criticism and some other fuzzy areas), but their days seem numbered. I bet Gottschall could easily calculate their rate of attrition.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

And the first will be last...

A NYT article says school districts in the US are scooping tens of thousands of iPads. They want to give those to to students, sometimes starting with kindergarten. What does this bold move demonstrate? Here is a suggestion: educators can now use only one last trick to attract and keep the attention of most students - put a screen under their nose. Poor communities which lack the resources to equip every child with a computer should in fact count this as a blessing. Unless the good Samaritans from One Laptop per Child Come Along. Judging from our daughter's experience, if Bulgarian education has one saving grace, it's the continuing reliance on hard copy and handwriting. There is research which suggests that printed matter evokes a stronger emotional reaction, and handwriting activates the brain in more beneficial way - as compared to reading from a screen and typing respectively. Oh, and some exciting statistics from the current issue of the Atlantic: the amount of time 15-to-19-year old in the US spent reading on a weekend day went down from 16 to 5 minutes in two years (between 2007 and 2009).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


A couple of months ago, the writers behind the Simpsons tried a couple of digs at Fox News. During the opening credits of one episode, they inserted a Fox News helicopter adorned with the slogan: “Fox News: Not Racist, but No. 1 with Racists.” At the start of the next episode, the slogan was changed to “Unsuitable for Viewers under 75.” Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly fumed, and the Simpsons bunch – supported by their loyal liberal followers – probably felt a sense of warm gratification at their own boundless courage. But the Simpsons are in fact subsidizing Fox News, and Fox News anchors must be secretly grateful for such satirical pricks which can nicely illustrate the nihilistic hubris of the liberal media elite. As Marx would have put it, this is the objective truth about the relationship between the two Fox brands; and any other interpretation must be a form of false consciousness.

The truth about suicide bombers

This is the title of a recent article from the “Ideas” section of Boston Globe. It describes the work of Israeli and American researchers who have founds a simple explanation for the seemingly puzzling phenomenon: many suicide bombers are merely troubled individuals looking for an excuse to commit suicide (as an outright taking of one’s own life is forbidden by the Quran). This strikes me as a lame attempt by academics to explain away and discredit a detestable practice - one of the very few left in the age of cultural sensitivity and tolerance. But it may also reflect the genuine inability of most number-crunchers to fathom any search for self-transcendence, no matter how misguided it can be. This is a deficit which may also underlie recent attacks on religion by a dream team of beautiful minds (including Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, and the like).

Monday, January 3, 2011

Living on for the ages

This is the start of a newspaper article published back in November:

Messy Mya, burgeoning rapper and YouTube sensation, identified as 7th Ward murder victim

By Brendan McCarthy, The Times-Picayune

Moments after gunshots roared through the 7th Ward on Sunday night, a lone snapshot appeared on the Internet.

In it, a 22-year-old man is lying cheek to the ground, crimson pooling around his neck. His eyes are closed, his torso curled.

Chaos explodes around him, with the arms of others pressed to the back of his head. And someone is holding a cell phone just inches from his face.

This is how the world learned of Messy Mya's death.

The last will be first...

A couple of weeks ago, a lengthy NYT article drew attention to the pitfalls of “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” It chimed with concerns expressed in previous articles, as well as a Frontline documentary, Digital Nation, aired last February. Of course, technophiles will remain unconvinced; some will even continue to argue that “everything bad is good for you.” But I am now mulling a mischievous hypothesis: maybe some societies which find themselves on the losing side of the “digital divide” will be able to give a better neurological head start to their young.

Call to arms

For a couple of weeks now, the bestseller list in France has been topped by a 30-page pamphlet (Indignez-vous!) penned by Stéphane Hessel, a 93-year-old former resistance fighter. He appeals to readers to become outraged and express indignation at the state of modern society: the growing gap between the rich and poor under Sarkozy, France’s callous treatment of immigrants, the plight of the Palestinians, threats to France’s welfare system and the environment, etc. Essentially, Hessel calls on French society to reembrace the values of the resistance. How nice when someone who has lived a truly rich and meaningful life really cares to leave such a precious intellectual legacy behind. As another example, take Gordon Murray, the dying banker who recently published The Investment Answer, a pamphlet advising investors to relax and give up on efforts to beat the market. Or Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon computer scientist who, after similarly being diagnosed with terminal cancer, gave several “last lectures” (available on YouTube) – advising anyone willing to listen how to achieve their childhood dreams, and how to manage their time more efficiently (by, for example, installing extra monitors on their PCs, avoiding long phone conversations, etc.).