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.