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?