Friday, December 27, 2013

Feminism for the 21st century

BBC World News aired a Hardtalk with Gloria Steinem earlier today. I watched diligently the first couple of minutes, and I was again struck buy the elaborate, nerdy way in which she puts together her sentences. Substantively, I still ponder the following question. Ms. Steinem remade a point she has raised countless times in the past: in the U.S., “if you count up all the people who were killed in 9/11, plus Americans who were , and you count up all the women who were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the same amount of time, more women were murdered by their husbands and boyfriends than were killed in those three events.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A formula for everything

I was looking yesterday at two articles which came out earlier this month, both holding a bold promise. One (“Simple Mathematical Formula Describes Human Struggles”) presents research done by an “interdisciplinary group” studying “complexity” (headed by a physicist) at the University of Miami. They believe they have found a formula which does just that – captures the whole dynamics of “a broad range of human struggles” – “from child-parent struggles to cyber-attacks and civil unrest.” The other article (from the NYT) describes research which has led to a similar success – the discovery of a “formula for happiness.” The author, Arthur C. Brooks, says happiness “has traditionally been considered an elusive and evanescent thing,” akin to a capricious butterfly. But Brooks claims social scientists now know better: they “have caught the butterfly. After 40 years of research, they attribute happiness to three major sources: genes, events and values. Armed with this knowledge and a few simple rules, we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us. We can even construct a system that fulfills our founders’ promises and empowers all Americans to pursue happiness.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

From Miley et al. – with self-love

The NYT ran an article last week covering the Christmas pop concert at Madison Square Garden. The average age of the chaperoned audience was maybe 9, at most 11. Many had come to see Miley, and she did not disappoint. The NYT piece starts with this remarkable paragraph: “The intensity for Miley is real, read an audience member’s live tweet above the stage during the Z100 Jingle Ball on Friday night. Stone truth. Up to the moment of Miley Cyrus’s appearance, whenever her name was mentioned the massed screaming had something extra, a sound of acrid immediacy, released into the air of Madison Square Garden like the smell of burning wires.” Further on Ben Ratliff, the NYT pop critic, says “everything preceding her felt secondary”; and goes on to present a graphic depiction of the singer’s preposterous outfit and absurd “dancing” routine. In his view, despite the obligatory ironizing, there’s an obvious earnestness in Miley’s public provocations, “an almost boring will to transgress.” Mr Ratliff notes that her singing “became a pointed rejection of the rhythm of Jingle Ball, in which the upbeat mood must rule” – an attitude problem which was already apparent a few years back when the star was still 17, and couldn’t quite “access the deep joy" in another song.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ambrose Bierce’s stroke of insight

I have always wondered how Ambrose Bierce could possibly come up with all his impossible, disconcerting witticisms and surreal plots. I assumed he might have suffered from what is now called PTSD, but I did not know if those four years in the Union army had left a more direct mark on him. And I never bothered to find out. Now it’s the centennial of Bierce’s mysterious disappearance into Panhco Villa’s Mexico, and stories about him are hard to avoid – courtesy of the imperative to maintain web traffic which even high-brow publications can hardly escape.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Those obscure objects of desire

A great piece on the NYT web site is, “The Agony of Instagram,” ostensibly addresses a new kind of “social media envy” cultivated by the Facebook subsidiary. It's blooming because these days “it’s not unusual to scroll through one’s Instagram feed and feel suffocated by fabulousness”  captured in perfect, slightly doctored images meant to relentlessly impress. But the article also points to a darker side of virtual self-actualization – which, for many, can raise the rat race to a whole new level.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Francis Bacon and the end of art, among other things

The record-breaking auctioning of Francis Bacon’s pathetic triptych had to stir yet another virtual tempest in a teacup, that’s for sure. And I thought that had already passed, as so many others have. But Jed Perl, who writes about art for the web site of The New Republic (and perhaps for the magazine, too – I haven’t touched it in maybe 15 years), still wants to fight the windmills. He has a new piece posted whose title cries out in large blue bold font: “The Super-Rich Are Ruining Art for the Rest of Us.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The 24/7 brain

There are now numerous brain studies which indicate that sleep can do wonderful things for you. Apparently, sound sleep affects positively gene expression and helps the myelination (or maturation) of neural fibers connecting distant brain regions (which is essential for neural and mental integration); plays a key role in neural restoration and washing away the toxins built in the brain during a stressful day; facilitates the consolidation of long-term memories; etc. All these findings should perhaps prompt the obvious question:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Historical Moneyball

Cass Sunstein offers on The New Republic web site a critical review a new entry in the bulging “digital humanities” genre – a new book in which Steven Skiena and Charles Ward present a statistical model for ranking the most significant figures in the history of humankind. Sunstein’s title speaks for itself: “Statistically, Who Is the Greatest Person in History? Why Quants Can’t Measure Historic Significance.” He describes how the two authors developed their model based on what they saw as “objective” indicators – taken from the latest constellation of entries in the English-language Wikipedia, and weighted with a version of Google’s algorithm. Skiena and Ward kept refining their formulas as those kept producing absurd results – until they reached a list of names which to them seemed credible, but Sunstein still finds quite ludicruous.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The “selfish gene” lives on…

– despite the express desire of David Dobbs and a few biologists he interviewed to “lay it to rest.” Dobbs (of “orchid kids” fame) describes their scheming in another great article on epigenetics in Aeon, “Die, Selfish Gene, Die.” In it, he explains why some biologists have offered a revisionist view, seeking to dethrone the “selfish” gene as the lead actor in the evolutionary show. Instead, they have tried to represent it as a member of a larger cast – featuring prominently epigenetic mechanisms. Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary hardliners, however, have refused to budge. Perhaps Dawkins’s fundamentalist stance on this shouldn’t be surprising since his reputation and personal fortune are so heavily invested in the “selfish gene” meme he let out of the bottle. What does seem a bit surprising, though, is the fervor with which in the comments below the article supporters of Dawkins and his fellow travelers accuse Dobbs, readers who like his article, and – be extension, the dissident scientists he quotes – of misunderstanding the gene-centric theory. They argue that the theory merely states that the gene is the elementary unit which gets selected and transmitted in evolution, nothing more than that. So should we conclude that the revisionist biologists who have converted to the epigenetics paradigm are similarly dumb?

Friday, December 6, 2013

The banality of overtheorizing

Richard Brody has taken another stab at Hannah Arendt's reputation as a thinker on the web site of The New Yorker  (“Hannah Arendt’s Failure of Imagination”) – this one occasioned by the release of a new book with interviews (including her last) and a new documentary. Unlike Arendt’s notorious diagnosis of Eichmann, Brody’s take-down seems spot on. He claims Arendt’s “mechanistic view of Eichmann’s personality, as well as her abstract and unsympathetic consideration of the situation of Jews under Nazi rule, reflect her inability to consider the experiences of others from within.” So Eichmann came out as a quasi-automaton and a mere cog in the machine, and Jewish leaders who were pressed to collaborate with the murderous Nazi regime appeared almost equally guilty of the tragedy which befell their community.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pro-social psychopaths?

Neuroscientist James Fallon, who some time ago delivered on stage a striking self-revelation, has a new book out, The Psychopath Inside. I haven’t read the book, but I did revisit the online talk which preceded it. In his routine, Fallows describes how a few years back he got around to doing a neuroimaging study of the brains of psychopathic serial killers; how he recruited himself and family member as controls; and how he found out that the brain which showed the most obvious lack of activity in its empathetic regions turned out to be – his own.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Everything bad is good – or bad – for you

A few days ago, Science Daily published two summaries of new neuroimaging studies whose findings seemed to point in opposite directions: Video Game Play May Provide Learning, Health, Social Benefits,” and “Teens Eat More, Cheat More After Playing Violent Video Games.” What are we to make of these divergent evidence-based conclusions?

Men and women, same but equal?

A brain study made front-page news the other day (at least in The Independent), and was splashed across countless information outlets across the world. A team of researchers scanned the brains of close to a thousand men and women, and uncovered “striking differences” (as one title put it) between the brain connectivity typical of the two genders. They found greater neural connectivity from front to back and within one hemisphere in males, suggesting their brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action." Women, on the other hand,  appeared to have stronger wiring between the two hemispheres,  indicating they were generally better at integrating analytic thinking and intuition.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Want to think like a nerdy detective?

It’s been almost a year since Maria Konnikova’s book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Homes, hit the bookstores – or, mostly, their virtual reincarnations. Since then, the author has produced countless articles and online video appearances aimed at hawking her thinking manual. They all leave, however, one vital question unaddressed: Why would anyone in her right mind want to think like Sherlock Holmes? So, here is how Arthur Conan Doyle once introduced Holmes:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Moscow Says Louis Vuitton Doesn’t Go With Red Square

This is the title of an article on the front screen of the NYT web site. The teaser below reads – next to the thumbnail of a curious photo from the provocative retail structure: “The luxury designer has built a temporary, two-story replica of a traveling trunk in Moscow, but to some officials, it is not temporary enough.” This makes you wonder: What century do these municipal bureaucrats live in, really? And what can be so “sacred” about this place anyway?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Collateral damage in Riga

After the collapse of that newly built supermarket which killed dozens of shoppers and three resquers, the president of Latvia described the tragic accident as “large-scale murder of many defenseless people.” Strong words reflecting much justified indignation – which also raise the obvious question: who was the murderer in this case?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Child's play

This morning, a title caught my attention on the front screen of the international edition of the NYT: “Sign of Hope: Children Playing Again.” That sounded quite extraordinary, so I looked at the teaser beneath. It started with: “The sight of children bouncing balls and using swings has given at least a glimpse of normalcy.” The rest of the sentence, though, indicated that the article was not about what I thought: it noted that those surprising signs of normalcy among children were on display “even if many are orphaned or burdened by awful memories of the storm.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

Of mice and humans

A couple of new neuroscientific studies were presented the other day at a press conference. On the basis of animal models, they were said to “reveal links between social status and specific brain structures and activity, particularly in the context of social stress.” One such study found that “adult rats living in disrupted environments produce fewer new brain cells than rats in stable societies, supporting theories that unstable conditions impair mental health and cognition.” On reading this, my first thought, of course, was: “Hmm, how would this finding about lab rats apply to a human society organized around a winner-takes-most rat race?”

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The true Copernican revolution

A slightly abridged version of this should probably have gone on Twitter, but I don't have an account there. Why? Because I don't want to generate "content" for yet another smug internet zillionaire; and because I would probably have 3 "followers" there. Anyway, I was in Torun a few days ago, in Poland. The old city there is quite impressive - in fact, the English adjective "impressive" doesn't quite begin to convey the feel of it. Ouitside of the old town there is, though, a big glitzy mall named after Copernicus - who was born here 540 Earth rotations around the sun.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The odds of scientific poiesis

Nautilus is a new journal which aspires to become the New Yorker of science writing - as if there can ever be such a thing. Most of the articles there are, indeed, finely written. But once in a while some overethusiastic prose does seems to slip in. Here is the teaser they emailed lately for an article festooned with the poetic title "The Odds of Innocence":

"Our group of astronomers took in the naked mountains by the sea. We had flown into the La Serena airport at noon, and found a parched landscape. What sparse vegetation there was survived by drinking coastal fog. Sleeping dogs melted in the sun and dotted the sidewalks beneath knotted telephone wires. In the busy town bazaar, an ancient man stood stooped by his cargo, dripping sweat, while two wolfish dogs sat on top of his empty car, a kind of primal security system."

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Nadal über alles?

An article in the NYT asks if Federer or Nadal is the greatest among the current generation of male tennis players. What does Nadal have going for him? Apparently, his “ability to crunch the best numbers in what remains the essence of tennis, a sport often referred to as boxing without the blood.” So, he “holds a 21-10 record over Federer”; “holds a winning record over every other Grand Slam singles champion who has crossed his path as a professional” (with one minor exception); has the same, this time perfect, “winning record over every member of the current top 30”; and the list goes on and on: “Nadal also has the best career winning percentage in tour history at 84 percent to Federer’s 81. Nadal also has the edge in Grand Slam winning percentage over Federer at 88 to 86 and in Masters 1000 winning percentage (84 to 77) as well as a better strike rate against top 10 opponents (69 to 65).”

Friday, November 1, 2013

The joy of lobbying for a good cause

Der Spiegel carries a probing interview with the spokesperson of the Professional Association of Erotic and Sexual Services – a newly founded lobbying group for prostitutes in Germany (brothel owners can join, too, but only if “they themselves are working or have worked as a prostitute”). Her profile says she was trained as a precision engineer, tried sex work while acquiring that kind of education, and has not yet given it up at 45. The new association will fight a misguided draft law which “lumps prostitution together with human trafficking,” contains some misguided new restrictions on the sex industry, and could force many brothels to close down. For this purpose, the lobbying group will work to correct “the public perception that thousands of women in Germany are being forced into prostitution.” Instead, the German public will be educated that “there are many good, clean brothels, and most of the women do these jobs independently and voluntarily.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

Blinded by science

Philosopher-turned-psychologist Joshua Greene, who once though up the famous “trolley problem” and is now at Harvard, has a new book out – Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. In it he addresses a curious question: if we are wired by evolution to have an aversion to harming others, why can’t we stop fighting along tribal lines? Or can’t we?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The age of unreality

I was looking at a couple of older articles lamenting an apparent loss of touch with reality on a mass scale. They have titles like “The Age of Bubbles,” “Welcome to the Age of Denial,” and the like. I thought for the sake of clarity and precision, they could have used a more technical heading: “Welcome to The Age of Subclinical Delusions.” Or perhaps of generalized “dissociation disorder.” Or just: “Welcome to the Matrix.”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today?

Grumpy social critics have long decried a perceived erosion of the famed “Protestant ethic” of old time and its replacement by a culture – or cult – of mindless wallowing in instant gratification. It turns out they needn’t have worried – or, more likely, they have deceptively fretted over an ideologically expedient myth evoked to justify outdated forms of social oppression or regulation. This is the somewhat counterintuitive diagnosis offered by humanities professors Patricia Vieira and Michael Marder in an opinion piece posted on the philosophical blog of the NYT. In its title, they ask the fraught existential and practical question: “What Do We Owe the Future.” Their response, apparently, is that we obsess way too much over such counterproductive concerns.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Weird neuropsychology

Alison Gopnik is a psychologist and the author of an acclaimed book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love & the Meaning of Life (plus a few other books on how babies think). Two years ago she also gave a TED talk dramatizing some of her own findings and those of fellow child psychologists. In much of the talk, she explains (with some striking examples) how babies and small children are much cleverer that they are usually given credit for, to the point of engaging in some protoscientific thinking (with a penchant for hypothesis testing, etc.). At some point, though, she makes an even bolder claim. She says babies and children are, in fact, even more conscious than adults. And she offers a simple neuroscientific explanation for this counterintuitive juvenile advantage.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Conceptual movie making, and beyond

I was looking the other day at some raving comments on Spring Breakers  by English professor and cultural critic Steven Shivaro. He says he found the movie “utterly ravishing” – “so gorgeous as to negate or suspend the uneasiness” he felt about some dubious ideological messages embedded in it. Prof. confesses he was “helplessly & successfully disarmed by Harmony Korine’s relentless audiovisual seduction: the sunsets, the colors, the slow-motion, the breasts, the throbbing but sublimated yearning of the electro score, the intellectual montage that layers Britney over thuggery, and gorgeous beaches over willful stupidity, the heartfelt spirituality of Selena Gomez’s voiceovers.” He takes in “all this as an almost didactic demonstration of the way that, in our neoliberal culture, there is no distinction whatsoever between hedonism and self-help, or between transgression and hypernormativity.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Long live debauchery!

Caroline Kitchener describes on the Atlantic web site the gross hazing rituals many female students submit to in order to join the “frattiest eating club” at Princeton (““There Is No Pressure for a Girl to be a Girl”). The club is known for the heavy drinking, and all the accompanying (often naked) shenanigans it encourages; and Ms. Kitchener (herself a Princeton student) says women already outnumber men among the aspiring applicants. What do all these exceptional young women pursue as they apply for membership in a club with somewhat questionable reputation? Apparently, they now want to “join for the debauchery, not in spite of it”; and few look back with any regret. So, why would this kind of debauchery be so attractive, even to stellar female students at Princeton?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The pursuit of meaningless happiness

Emily Esfahani Smith describes – and interprets – on the Atlantic web site a recent study according to which “people who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity” (“Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness”). The researchers term this kind of physiologically suboptimal, proinflamatory kind of happiness “hedonic,” as it is related mostly to pleasurable self-gratification; and they distinguish it from “eudaimonic well-being,” a more “meaningful” form of happiness derived mostly from being a worthy member of a community and contributing to the well-being of other. All this is nice and kind of inspiring – even if it comes from a designated “conservative” contributor (or content generator) at The Atlantic Monthly. But I am left wondering – is excessive self-indulgence really compatible with the “eudaimonic” happiness posited by positive psychologists?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The end of shame, among other things

Over the weekend, Peter Foster, US editor for The Telegraph, made an anguished pronouncement: “This was the week that the concept of shame finally seemed to die in American public life – as if the basic filters that everyone had assumed separated what is acceptable from unacceptable, had suddenly been removed.” What provoked this striking conclusion? In Mr. Foster’s words, “the low point in the lowest of weeks came when Mr. Weiner dragged his wife in front of the cameras to confess that he'd still been up to his creepy old ‘sexting’ tricks for months after he resigned from Congress in June 2011 vowing ‘never again.’ “

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Post-materialist values

My wife took me the other day to see Sophia Coppola’s latest movie, The Bling Ring. As everyone knows by now, it depicts – in a partly fictionalized and, according to the director, non-judgmental way, the daring exploits of a group of real high-school students (several young women and one young man) from the LA suburbs. Coming from well-off or outright rich families, a few years ago they achieved instant fame as they basked in streams of reflected Hollywood glitter. More specifically, they had walked into the lavish homes of celebrity actors and self-impersonators around Hollywood Hills while the proud owners were on business trips; and walked away carrying designer clothes and accessories valued at around 3 million dollars. Surprise, surprise – the gang were arrested after some of them were captured on surveillance cameras, and somebody (perhaps one of the many schoolmates who had heard them brag about their exploits and seen them flaunt many of the stolen goods) tipped off the police.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A life lesson from Nelson Mandela

Once in a while something striking and tremendously significant happens, and the major news outlets are utterly and totally preoccupied with it, neglecting scores of less interesting topic. To Al Jazeera’s credit, the last time this happened – with the birth of the royal baby the other day – they did make a valiant effort to address some issues which would undoubtedly evoke less burning interest – like Nelson Mandela’s legacy. A few days ago I accidentally caught two minutes from a conversation between a blond South African woman and a dark-haired man, both middle-aged and apparently some sort of experts or pundits. They were discussing Mandela as he seemed to be approaching the point when it is time for him to depart peacefully from the world he fought so hard to make a better place for everyone.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Business aesthetics

This is a small bank office on a major street in a well-off part of Sofia. The vigorous plants in front are, indeed, weeds. They were not cut off by anyone hired by the municipality, and nobody seems to care. This could, perhaps, be seen as a metaphor for a deeper collective action problem in Bulgarian society – which, I am afraid, won’t be solved by removing from power the current “political class.” 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Coming Out as a Porn Addict

This is the title of a piece by Isaac Abel on The Atlantic  web site. In the competition for clicks, The Atlantic seems to have done quite well by providing a steady stream of such provocative material. The article itself offers a mix of disarming self-revelation and quasi-scientific cliché (the latter reminiscent of Philip Zimbardo’s much discussed TED talk and accompanying ebook on the descent of young men). Abel’s chief concern, though, seems to be the shame internet porn addiction still seems to carry – a somewhat refreshing worry in our anything-goes day and age.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Noble lies, take two?

Boston Magazine has a profile of psychology professor Lisa Barrett. She is billed as the most prominent psychologist who has sought to challenge Paul Ekman’s long-standing “finding” that people around the world identify (and perhaps experience) a few “basic emotions” in roughly the same way. Like Barrett, I have always found Ekman’s theory of the universality of basic human emotions (which has propelled him into academic and consulting stardom) implausible and “cartoonish.” My intuition is that individuals in different cultures tend to have different patterns of emotional reactivity and concepts. To Barrett, though, this view would also be too constraining.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Noble lies (kind of) for the 21st century?

Sometimes you read a piece by an intellectual you admire, and you feel like you have uncovered a hidden vice in someone you considered a soul mate. This is more or less how I felt when I came upon Christine Rosen’s Commentary column “In Praise of Sheryl Sandberg.” What does Rosen praise Mark Zuckerberg’s second-in-command for? For recognizing that women have mostly themselves to blame for their collective inability to climb the corporate ladder, so they should stop whining about male oppression and crippling stereotypes (even if Sandberg herself recognizes that some stereotypes do persist).

Monday, July 1, 2013

Overanalyze this

The NYT carried recently a decent article on the continuing protests against the Socialist-backed government in Bulgaria (“After Political Appointment in Bulgaria, Rage Boils Over”). Of course, it had the obligatory quotes from participants and analysts. One participant stated the obvious: “If you read the biography of Peevski, [the political appointee from the title, who at 21 was once made head of Bulgaria’s biggest port, and a few weeks ago at 32 was put in charge of Bulgaria’s state security agency] he personifies all the problems of Bulgaria” – summed up by an anti-corruption expert as “state capture by oligarchs.” But Haralan Alexandrov, a social anthropologists who has labored tirelessly to legitimize Bulgaria’s noveau riche elite and to present them as victims of largely unjustified public bias, offered a different theory. In his view, an important factor explaining the public antipathy against Peevski is his physical resemblance to the caricatured “exploiter capitalists” presented once in communist-era propaganda.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Obama Campaign’s Digital Masterminds Cash In

This is the subtitle of a NYT article describing a new marketing company set up by several senior data analysts who helped President Obama win reelection. What is their sales pitch? “To deliver to commercial advertisers some of the Obama campaign’s secret, technologically advanced formulas for reaching voters.” Some companies apparently find this innovative sales strategy persuasive. The first client of the new marketing venture is a casino in Las Vegas which wants its customers to keep returning to it as opposed to sampling rival venues; and others will surely follow.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

“The wall belongs to history”

This is what President Obama proclaimed in Berlin earlier today. But, judging from the spooky televised images from his speech, bulletproof glass, and police cordons and snipers very much belong to the present – and probably to the foreseeable future; to say nothing of the big data state he has midwifed. Ironically, the fact that "the wall," indeed, belongs to the past, may partly account for this unfortunate turn of events...

Can fanciful fashion become a force for good?

This is the opening question in a NYT article covering a recent high-profile “music event” dubbed “Sound of Change Live. The concert “was organized by the Chime for Change women’s campaign and underwritten by Gucci, once known as a brand of soft shoes and hard partying but now aiming to bring attention to women’s rights to education, justice and health.” The event was promoted by Salma Hayek, whose husband, François-Henri Pinault, has made it a mission for his luxury group, formerly PPR, but now named Kering, to support best practices in his own empire — and to support Chime for Change, a women’s empowerment initiative.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Up: How a Positive Outlook Can Improve Your Life

This is the title of the latest book, this one by Dr. Hilary Tindle, pointing to the alleged health benefits and life-prolonging effect of chronic upbeatness. Since the “positive outlook” Dr. Tindle evokes is completely and utterly foreign to me, I envision a nightmarish scenario for the true optimist she wants everyone to be.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A super sad true book lover’s story

A famous professor of law and humanities once had a large – and cherished – personal library. When he finally retired, he decided to move from his house to a much smaller apartment. To do this, it seemed he needed to get rid of most of his books. So he sold off almost his entire collection, holding onto only a few items he knew for sure he would need in the immediate future. All this is quite understandable, and part of the road many retiring academics have taken. But here is the spooky part.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The riot will be monetized

So the inevitable has happened. The balaclava, or ski mask – a key element of the Pussy Riot look – was initially borrowed by a few performing celebrities as a sign of solidarity with the young Russian women (Madonna) or of their own complete lack of judgment (Justin Bieber). Now the provocative clothing accessory has been adopted by several fashion designers presenting their fall collections.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hannah Arendt, the movie

Margarethe von Trotta has, no doubt, tried to present the famous political un-philosopher as both 1) intellectually brilliant, and 2) sensitive, compassionate, and loving. As we all know, this is an exceedingly rare combination. And, occasionally, the movie does provides some hints that Arendt was somewhat emotionally detached: she hears the news that the man she loves is in hospital after collapsing with a brain aneurism, and her impulse is to go back into the classroom to finish her class; she intimidates over the phone the New Yorker editor who dares to most diplomatically remind her of her deadline; she is at a loss when a close friend turns his back on her as he is lying in his deathbed…

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Temple Grandin’s “Happy Aspies”

The NYRB carries a very sympathetic review of Temple Grandin’s latest book, The Autistic Brain. Towards the end, the article includes some quotes from the book in which Grandin argues that if “Aspies” receive appropriate support and opportunities to develop their specific strengths, they can make unique contributions to society (and perhaps receive proper recognition for these). As a prime example, she cites “all the undiagnosed Asperger’s cases in Silicon Valley” whom she calls “Happy Aspies.”

Monday, May 6, 2013

The joys of high blood pressure

A new study has found that “teenagers with high blood pressure appear to have better psychological adjustment and enjoy higher quality of life than those with normal blood pressure.” These results were a bit counterintuitive, so the researchers tried to come up with plausible explanations. Some of these are psychological, but one is mostly physiological in nature – they speculate that “high blood pressure may actually act to dampen negative emotions.”

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Michael Chwe, himself a game theorist/political scientist, has a new book out under this title. As the befittingly straightforward heading suggest, he argues that the English dame was the unacknowledged founder of the academic field in which he studiously labors. How did he make this discovery? As he was watching “Clueless,” a romantic comedy from the 1990s loosely based on “Emma,” he was struck by all the interpersonal manipulation and strategizing he saw unfolding on the screen.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The queen of happiness

A profile of Sonia Lyubomirsky in the NYT (“Happiness Inc.”) quotes another psychologist referring to her as just that – the “queen of happiness.” She has a new book on the subject, in which she argues that we all have a “set point” of happiness – a level to which we tend to return after pleasant or unpleasant experiences as we become habituated to these. So she is a bit skeptical of the longer-term happiness-inducing effects of counting one’s blessings, expressing gratitude, helping others, and other evidence-based prescriptions given by positive psychologists. She no longer even considers her a member of the “positive psychology” movement. Needless to say, she doesn’t believe material acquisitions are very promising either. All this raises an all-important question – can you, then, raise your happiness set point?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rudeness as self-empowerment

There has bee some fretting lately about the apparent increase of rude and inconsiderate behavior in all sorts of settings. I guess must be seen as yet another alarmist campaign targeting an which practically begs for a positive spin. And this is provided quite nicely by NYT humorist Joyce Wadler. She describes how she found herself suddenly transformed from being a ridiculously polite and courteous person to someone who would blurt out rude rebuttals, rebukes, turndowns, putdowns, etc. at unsuspecting strangers. At first she was a bit annoyed at her newly found verbal disinhibition. But then she discovered something amazing – it turned out this new mode of speaking up held a big promise.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Don’t worry – ever

Hanna Rosin has another programmatic article out in The Atlantic, “The Touch-Screen Generation.” It’s partly based on Rosin’s observation of her own kids growing up, and one could expect her to be slightly worried about all that touch-screening going on. This would only demonstrate, though, that you don’t know her. Rosin has opted to impose no limits on the use of touch-screen devices by her children. The younger one, her 4-year-ol son, is practically growing up with the technology, and she is happy that the tablet eventually became just a regular part of his toy rotation. Is Rosin’s blasé attitude evidence-based, a reflection of credible scientific research into the effects of touch-screen gadgets on the minds and brains of the young? Perhaps, since she quotes several researchers sounding progressively unconcerned as the article unfolds. I have a hunch, though, that her laissez faire attitude stems from something else – Rosin’s apparent inability to cringe from anything.

The poverty of hypnotic hyper-realism

Art critic and academic Roberta Smith reviews in the NYT (“Blazing a Trail for Hypnotic Hyper-Realism”) a traveling exhibition of the Pre-Rafaelites, an English artistic movement launched in the mid-19th century. The members of this self-described “brotherhood” sought to return to an earlier artistic expressiveness, which had allegedly been smothered by the classical poses and smooth compositions of Raphael and other Renaissance painters. Smith compares unfavorably the heavily ornamented paintings of the English artists to the less realistic and more innovative works of their French contemporaries Manet and Cezanne. She berates the hapless Pre-Raphaelites for the “moralizing and endless intricacies” marking their paintings, and for the way “they pile symbol upon symbol, detail upon detail and bright color upon color until the eyes beg for mercy.”


It seems the empiricist “brainset” #DavidBrooks described in his #EmpiricalKids piece has some peculiar side effects. The first among these is apparently broad-spectrum toleration, or social libertarianism. As another op-ed columnist, Charles Blow, writes in the NYT (“The Young Are the Restless”), 70 percent of American #Millennials now support gay marriage – an increase of 40 percent since 2003, while numbers have barely edged among the older generations (including the hapless Gen Xers). Curiously, Millennials are more likely to support some sort of gun control, though they were “the least likely to believe that the shootings in Newtown reflect broader problems in American society,” and “the most likely to believe that such shootings are simply the isolated acts of troubled individuals.” This obliviousness of the the forest, or the workings of broader systemic forces, may also explain the unbending optimism of most Millennials – despite the considered opinion of most experts who prophesy a bleak future for any generation which comes of economic age at a time of crisis and high unemployment (a view reflected in another recent NYT article under a rhetorical question serving as a title: "Do Millennials Stand a Chance in the Real World?").

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Planet of the nerds

The NYT magazine carries a profile of Adam Grant, an associate professor at Wharton. He is an experimental psychologists who, at 31, has published tons of articles on “organizational behavior” in per-reviewed journals, and has apparently become an academic celebrity. The secret of his success? He has done numerous clever experiments establishing a counterintuitive truth – that informing employees of the ways in which their work helps others is a more powerful motivating factor than material reward. And Grant applies tirelessly this finding to his own life – giving advice  to dozens of students and fellow academics every day (mostly by email, sometimes on the phone), and often allowing students to tap into his personal networks. This all sounds almost too good to be true. But, to me at least, it was a chilling read providing a highly inaccurate portrait.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Power to the most unmeek

The virtual tempest set off by Sanberg’s book and the PR blitz accompanying its release reminded me of a recent column by David Brooks in the NYT. It’s called “The Brutality Cascade,” and describes a painfully familiar phenomenon:

Let’s say you are a student at a good high school. You may want to have a normal adolescence. But you are surrounded by all these junior workaholics who have been preparing for the college admissions racket since they were 6. You find you can’t unilaterally withdraw from the rat race and still get into the college of your choice. So you also face enormous pressure to behave in a way you detest. You might call these situations brutality cascades. In certain sorts of competitions, the most brutal player gets to set the rules. Everybody else feels pressure to imitate, whether they want to or not.

Facebook feminism

Last week, Time Magazine had another provocative cover. It pictured Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO and author of a new book advising women to Lean In and seek positions of power in the corporate world. The photo had this admonition plastered across:



My first thought was: why hate Ms. Sandberg for that, when there may be some much, much better reasons?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The end of transgression, among other things

A NYT article from two weeks ago (“A Hush-Hush Topic No More”) describes how aficionados of kinky sexual practices, partly inspired by the 50 Shades phenomenon, are seeking to come out and join the social mainstream. They claim they are “normal” in every other way, and even taking pleasure in sadomasochism (a denigrating term in itself which will probably be replaced by the more neutral acronym mentioned in the article) should not be viewed with reproach when practiced by consenting adults. If the L.G.B.T. community has achieved it, why not the sadomasochists?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

21st century etiquette

A blog post on the NYT web site (“Disruptions: Digital Era Redefining Etiquette”) lists previously unproblematic behaviors which should be considered rude circa 2013: sending an e-mail or text message which just says “Thank you”; leaving a voicemail message instead of texting; asking for a fact or directions that can be googled. Apparently, forcing a phone conversation on someone can fall in this category, too, since the author brags that he now communicates with his mother mostly on Twitter. I initially thought the piece was a parody, but it isn’t.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Super Oscar

The cover of the latest issue of Time Magazine Europe is graced by a semi-naked photo of Oscar Pistorius. Across his hypertrophied upper body and thighs are pasted the words (in increasing font size): 
As I was looking at the striking image, I though that for some athletes this (or some other deviance) might, indeed, be a natural progression. How so?

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The pursuit of authenticity

An article in New Statesman asks: “Why Are We So Obsessed with the Pursuit of Authenticity?” Finally, an easy socio-psychological question – because we are suspended in a sea of fakery. The article focuses on the kind of clever branding which insinuates that generic products or services are supplied by inspired artisans – but this is just the tip of the ersatz iceberg. Keeping in mind the whole floating mountain is essential, by the way, for understanding the broad resonance of the first Matrix movie.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Business as usual

I just stumbled upon the following “inspiring” quote by Thomas J. Peters (whom Google identifies as some sort of business guru): “The magic formula that successful businesses have discovered is to treat customers like guests and employees like people.” The immediate association that went off in my brain was: “Oh, yes – and work does make you free.” 

Like fish in water

A NYT story reports that, according to a new study, " traces of a common psyciatric medication that winds up in rivers and streams may affect fish behavior and feeding patterns." The fish exposed to the anti-anxiety drug apparently "became less social, more active and ate faster." They also became visibly bolder - more willing to take risks and explore open areas. The researchers are concerned a bit about the possible effects of these behavioral changes on the fish's well-being and ecosystems. My first thought, however, wasn't of the fish - it was of the people who take similar medications at much higher therapeutic doses.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

John Lennon is overrated!

DavidBrooks has a column in the NYT highlighting the promise and limitations of what he calls “The Philosophy of Data.” He claims number crunching has helped expose the fallacy of some common intuitive beliefs. After the obligatory references to sports and politics, Brooks gets to deconstruct John Lennon: “We think of John Lennon as the most intellectual of the Beatles, but, in fact, Paul McCartney ’s lyrics had more flexible and diverse structures and George Harrison’s were more cognitively complex.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Politics and Orwell’s language advice

Steven Poole has a recent column in The Guardian offering his contribution to a spate of publications and broadcasts intended to mark 110 years since George Orwell’s birth. While making some nods to his famous critique of the vague wickedness of much political language, Poole also says Orwell’s “more general attacks on what he perceives to be bad style are often outright ridiculous, parading a comically arbitrary concoction of intolerances.” Poole accuses the famed writer of linguistic xenophobia and of inadvertently launching what later became “a philistine and joyless campaign in favor of that shibboleth of dull pedants ‘plain English.’” With the risk of revealing myself as a dull pedant, I am tempted to suggest that Orwell might have had a point.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Freud 2.0

A couple of days ago, the NYT published some advice on “Keeping Blood Pressure in Check.” The article describes three types of hypertension, one of which is “neurogenic” - produced by the sympathetic nervous system. Why would the latter be stuck in overdrive? Dr. Samuel J. Mann, a medical doctor, professor, and author of a book on the subject, Hypertension and You, offers an answer. He says that “neurogenic hypertension results from repressed emotions.” In his own practice, “he has found that many patients with it suffered trauma early in life or abuse.” This revelation reminded me again how wrong I can be when jumping to conclusions before consulting an expert.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The good life at the top

What is the good life? Philosopher have investigated this vexing question for millennia. Now, thanks to the advances of biomedical and social science, the conundrum has been solved. All you need is to become top dog in any area - if not in any social, professional or political area, at least among friends or in a romantic relationships. This is the main finding of a new study completed by a team of psychologists: “Power Helps You Live the Good Life by Bringing You Closer to Your True Self.” They “predicted that because the powerful are able to ‘navigate their lives in congruence with their internal desires and inclinations,’ they feel as if they are acting more authentically - more ‘themselves’ - and thus are more content.” This hypothesis which was borne out by a few clever experiments. So the researchers were able to disprove the romantic (or self-serving) “stereotype that power leads to unhappiness and loneliness.”

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The sweet smell of success

Camille Sweeney and John Gosfield are the authors of a self-help book on the feats of “superachevers.” As part of their promotional campaign (I assume), they offer in the NYT some insights into the “Secret Ingredient of Success.” Faithful to the conventions of the genre, they start with a catchy anecdote. They tell the story of Korean-American chef David Chang who was failing in his efforts to live off a small noodle bar in NYC. Then he had some sort of epiphany, and started to cook up strange fusionish dishes. Those quite unexpectedly attracted crowds of customers, followed by rave reviews and multiple awards - a course of events the newly minted celebrity chef still finds “kind of ridiculous.” Now Mr. Chang owns a mini culinary empire with 8 outposts (as of Jan. 19) spanning the globe. He also has “other thriving enterprises, including bakeries and bars, a PBS TV show, guest spots on HBO’s ‘Treme’ and a foodie magazine, Lucky Peach.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Action woman

Time Magazine carries a fairly flattering profile of Kathryn Bigelow, as if her new movie needs extra promotion. The title, “Art of Darkness,” is perhaps also meant to flatter the smart readers who are expected - wink, wink - to recognize the allusion to the Conrad masterpiece which once inspired another famous war movie (as I did!). The profile says the successful director “is an astonishingly youthful 61 and exudes a warm elegance, equal parts Northern California mellow and and Northeast patrician.” Putting the obligatory rhetorical overkill aside here, this strikes me as a fairly astonishing characterization. Warm? If I were to make the call, I would easily cast her as the Snow Queen in an HBO adaptation of the medieval tale. This hunch is based mostly on the two B&W photos gracing the profile - one on the artfully designed cover, the other - bigger - next to the big title inside. I haven’t seen any of her movies, but the Time article offers plenty of evidence to corroborate the fuzzy impression created by those images.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The right to bear assault rifles

After the Sandy Hook massacre, the Connecticut state legislature has started hearings on gun ownership. The shock and outrage generated by the shooting rampage were just enough to put laws regulating the ownership of powerful “assault rifles” on the agenda. It’s anyone’s guess what it would take to move beyond that. Predictably, opponents of new gun regulations far outnumbered proponents among the politicized crowd in front of the state capitol; and – as one gun opponent noted – men far outnumbered women. This is a curious correlation which is not always noted.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gender equality, finally?

The wheel of history keeps on turning. Its relentless movement forward has produced the long delayed – but unavoidable – decision of the Pentagon to lift the ban on female military personnel serving in combat roles. So women will now be given an improved chance to die – and to kill – in battle, in the pursuit of much desired “promotion opportunities”; not to mention the prospect of finally breaking some obstinate “gendered stereotypes about war as ultimately the business of men.” These points are made in a Foreign Affairs article which a few months ago urged – from a female perspective – the Pentagon to “let women fight.” If I were a woman, I would probably not mind that war be regarded as a mostly boys’ sport. But my thinking has perhaps been influenced too much by those entrenched gendered stereotypes. And, in any case, such qualms should not be allowed to block the career paths of women who are less squeamish than me. There is at least one area, though, in which men will not give up their superiority without – well – a fight. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Zapping the Taliban, and stuff

A few days ago Prince Harry tripped again – this time, repeatedly, on his tongue. In a string of interview he gave before flying home from a four-month stint in Afghanistan, he acknowledged he had killed some Taliban fighters. He also said firing missiles at them from the controls of his Apache gunship did not feel all that different from zapping the bad guys in a video game.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Love at first tweet

After swallowing the humiliation from the BCS championship match-up, the football program of my Ph.D. alma mater, Notre Dame, and its biggest star, Manti Te’o, are again in the eye of a media/social-media-spun turbulence they would rather have avoided. It turns out the story Te’o was telling of a girlfriend who survived a car crash and then died of leukemia – asking him to keep on playing for her – was all a tasteless hoax. The young woman was an avatar, reducible to a Twitter account and a stolen photo pasted there. How did this happen?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Dreaming the “Dreamliner”

Boeing’s 787 has long been in trouble. It was initially plagued by delays, and – since deliveries started in September 2011 – the much ballihooed plane has suffered from multiple technical glitches. The last week or so has been particularly nightmarish, so the US aviation authorities – and perhaps others – have now felt pressed to order detailed safety inspections. Which could lead to further production hiccups, delays, revisions of projected earnings, and volatility in Boeing’s shareholder value. Why has this happened? I am tempted to offer a neat anthropological theory.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The mentally sick animal

Norwegian professor of philosophy Lars Fredrik Svendsen is concerned about the gradual lowering of diagnostic thresholds in psychiatry. He worries that if this trend continues, being normal could become an unachievable goal – like being a supermodel. He thinks that some common human features – like grieving after the loss of a loved one – could be medicalized, and the thought that we are mentally ill (as opposed to considering ourselves as resilient, healthily adapted individuals) could add insult to injury. Why has this trend taken shape over the last few decades, if it is so detrimental?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Oh, those Russians!

Over a month ago, the NYT published a review of a run-away Russian bestseller, “America – What a Life!,” by longtime security pundit Nikolai V. Zlobin. Apparently, the book has tapped a Russian thirst to find out more about that strange life in the “American cul-de-sac.” In doing this it also dusts off some old cultural stereotypes - and I am still scratching my head over one of those. I have always thought that some stereotypes exist for a reason – but probably not all.

Teutonic shift

If anyone doubts that the world is going to the dogs, they must cast another look at Germany. Since the eurozone crisis broke out a few years back, the intransigence of the German government has often been explained by a cultural peculiarity – Germans would never ever cross a red line, even at the cost of much personal or collective misery. In Germany itself, the problems of Greece and the troubled Mediterranean flank of the EU have similarly been attributed to a proclivity to cheat and evade sacrosanct rules. As it turns out, though, the word “verboten” seems to have lost much of its traditional punch in Germany itself – or at least its medical establishment.

After identity

The NYT carries an article (“Generation LGBTQIA”) which describes young people for whom even traditional gay or transgender identities, until recently seen as transgressive, have become too constraining. Apparently, some have gotten to a point where they just don’t know in what kind of body they would fit; or see their “gender” as just one undefined, “amorphous blob.” Come to think of it, this must be very liberating, even if at times a bit confusing. In fact, such a mini “daily referendum” could be conceived as the logical next step in the Enlightenment quest for freedom.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Long live gender equality!

As I have noted in the past, some stereotypes may exist for a reason. On average, women do seem to be a bit less reckless and aggressive – particularly when engaging in potentially risky undertakings like driving. Unsurprisingly, this proclivity translates into car accidents caused by woemen. On the basis of such statistics, until recently insurers in many EU countries rewarded female drivers with substantially lower insurance premiums. The EU commission, however, decided to put an end once and for all to this blatant gender discrimination against male drivers. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Don’t read this book

Nassim Taleb, of “black swan” fame, has a new book out. It’s called Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, and purports to explain what makes financial and social systems robust. I haven’t read the book, and probably never will – for reasons that will become apparent below. But I am still tempted to say a few words regarding Taleb’s mode of analysis. In doing this, I’ll follow Pierre Bavard’s advice on “how to talk about books you haven’t read” – without, of course, having read his book either.