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.