Wednesday, December 24, 2014

#Narcissism works!

So the DJIA has pushed beyond 18,000. It may not quite get to 30,000 soon, but still – what a momentous achievement! Which reminds me of a remarkable #Colbert interview from March 2009. The guest was #EmilyYoffe who had just published an article on Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Slate. The previous week the Dow Jones had hit rock bottom at 6,547, and Ms. Yoffe explained somewhat sternly that the whole financial meltdown had resulted from Americans “binging on ‘I deserve it.’” After asking a few probing questions, the Colbert character retorted: “But the economy and the market is really all based on confidence. Why don’t we just recapture that narcissism that we had a year ago and pretend that everything is just OK, and won’t the market come right back? Won’t we just rebuild the bubble?” At the time this was meant as a joke, but now the joke is on the non-believers, or should I say – the non-narcissists?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The quiet #Mutti

The way #AngelaMerkel comes through in her lengthy New Yorker profile (“The Quiet German”) can provoke some mischievous thoughts. “She has always been,  ‘in her body language, a bit awkward’” (according to her long-time photographer); found public speaking “visibly painful…, her hands a particular source of trouble” – until “she learned to bring her fingertips together in a diamond shape over her stomach”; but still tends to speak in “toneless” voice, as if “reading out regulatory guidelines for the national rail system”; carries “an orange-red leather handbag that clashes with her jacket”; once worked on quantum chemistry, and still displays a “scientific habit of mind” (approaching “problems methodically” and with “scientific detachment” and empiricism – which makes her a sort of human “computer”); “was physically clumsy” as a child, and “could barely walk downhill without falling” (according to an earlier profile, she was five when she finally learned to come down stairs); looked “colorless,” as she wasn’t interested in clothes or in how her hair looked; her teacher had to “exhort [her] to look up and smile while offering another student a glass of water in Russian”; “is not a woman of strong emotions” (according to a prominent German journalist), and is hard to read due to her “emotional opacity”; doesn’t do well small talk; has “a reputation for accepting little criticism”; the way she stabbed her patron Helmut Kohl in the back “mixed Protestant righteousness with ruthlessness”; “is not from this world” (in the words of along-time political associate); has failed to develop “a fingertip feel for public opinion”; “plainness remains her political signature”; eventually came to appreciate the extent to which she and President Obama “were alike – analytical, cautious, dry-humored, remote.” These characteristics have been mentioned before, and previous articles can add some curious details – for example, about the way Frau Merkel left her first husband quite abruptly, taking away only the fridge from their Spartan apartment. And her eyes can look disturbingly empty in photos. But here the personality profile seems most complete.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Me, myself, and I

Among all the “10 best” lists rolled out before the holidays, the NYT offers a real gem: “The 10 Best Modern Love Columns Ever.” At no. 10 there stands “Somewhere Inside, a Path to #Empathy.” It was written back in 2009 by David Finch, an engineer who tells a most heart-warming story – how his wife, a therapist treating autistic children, diagnosed him with Asperger’s. And then applied unfailing tact and perseverance to bring him out of his mental shell so they could reinvent their faltering marriage. The essay is written with so much self-insight, sensitivity, and sense of humor that the diagnosis seems a bit off the mark.  So #Mr.Finch – unlike his fictional namesake from “Person of Interest” – must have come a long way. As he acknowledges, however, developing a degree of empathy was a hard act – “given that my Aspergerish point of reference is myself in every circumstance. How about, then, all those economists who – like James Buchanan – believe the notion of a “public interest” or “common good” can’t possibly be real; and even politicians like Clement Attlee or Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir must be pursuing their own, self-referential utility? As John Cassidy once showed in the New Yorker (“After the Blowup”), such cases are mostly untreatable. Or perhaps the French graduate students who at the turn of the century called for a "post-autistic economics" have merely lacked what Mr. Finch's wife had in such plentiful supply.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Rationalization and its discontents?

Yet another random attack in Sydney. It is tempting to explain all these incidents as part of some sort of rational strategy – which can be countered the way Soviet designs were ostensibly defused during the cold war. On the other hand, there is some research indicating that culture shock (as in the case of immigration) can push some vulnerable individuals over the edge and into a clinical expression of schizophrenia. I am wondering if a similar form of psychosis could be a better story explaining the recent spate of ISIS-inspired attacks. To say nothing of the whole idea of a global caliphate under the black flag – which is clearly delusional.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sisters are doing it for themselves

For someone with the right post-everything sensibility, it must be easy – and probably a lot of fun – to dismiss #ChristopherLasch as a white middle-aged male curmudgeon, overreacting to some sort of personal insecurity. It is curious, though, to what extent his anxieties resonated with those of one of the main ideologists of the “new left” quasi-revolution – #Marcuse. Both detested the soul/eros-draining drudgery modern labor had become – and neither was eager to see women drafted en masse into the capitalist meat, corporate/bureaucratic structures, the hedonic treadmill, etc. Which, of course, did not prevent “leaning in” and full-throttle self-expression from becoming the main plank of women’s lib (with some digital detox and meditation thrown in) – at least in some freedom-loving circles. Apparently, that was a more stimulating experience compared to the choke hold of the family nest. The way this total makeover was pulled off must remain one of the abiding mysteries of the short but eventful 20th century. And the caravan, indeed, must press on…

Monday, November 24, 2014

Life, liberty, and the #pursuitofoverstimulation

A few months ago #VivianGornick sought to rehabilitate American #self-absorption (“In Defense of #Narcissism”). The intellectual target she chose, though, was not psychologist #JeanTwenge. Rather, she sought to deconstruct #ChristopherLasch. An alleged “age of diminished expectations”? “That, unfortunately, was the way the world looked to a white, middle-class man without the gift of empathy who found all the social tumult depressing rather than stimulating” – or so Gornick thinks. In fact, Lasch did realize that the multi-pronged rebellion that broke out in the 1960s was quite stimulating. He described how the human quest for freedom turned mostly into an exhilarating pursuit of overstimulation – until meta-habituation (and relativistic non-judgmentalism) set in.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The post-cringe society

A former student sent me a link to a new video clip – #Only, by female rap “artist” #NikiManaj (featuring also some male collaborators). She had found the piece utterly appalling – offering final proof that there is, indeed, nothing sacred left anywhere anymore. This, of course, should hardly be surprising – given all the hand-wringing (or celebration) regarding the “desacralization” of the world since the 19th century. The “song” itself is a string of profanities set against the backdrop of a music-like sound track and stylized/computerized Nazi-like imagery. Of these, only the latter has apparently provoked some – no doubt anticipated – protests. The whole video project, meanwhile, has “received generally positive reviews from critics” – if the Wikipedia entry is a reliable source. This latest contribution to the neverending quest to shock, and shock, and shock the bourgeoisie seemed particularly grotesque – as I watched it after a CNN “story” featuring a young man lying dead in front of his shack in Freetown. So why do “artists” now need to go to such lengths to appear provocative and generate some buzz?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

#WitheringoftheState - finally!!

#PatrickBuchanan, who is apparently still taken seriously in some circles, recently made the following sweeping observation: “Many private institutions are succeeding splendidly. But our public institutions, save the military, seem to be broadly failing.” It is, indeed, hard to argue on behalf of any public institution these days. As for the private side, we seem to live at a time when RIO has become the measure of all things. So I guess Buchanan’s verdict would apply most forcefully to the most financially successful entities – the likes of Goldman and the other Godzillas of shadow banking (or “alternative banking,” as some aficionados prefer to call it).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

A rarely repentent foodie

#JohnLanchester makes in #TheNewYorker a rarely, almost incoceivably perceptive observation for a foodie: “If shopping and cooking really are the most consequential, most political acts in my life, perhaps what that means is that our sense of the political has shrunk too far—shrunk so much that it fits into our recycled-hemp shopping bags. If these tiny acts of consumer choice are the most meaningful actions in our lives, perhaps we aren’t thinking and acting on a sufficiently big scale. Imagine that you die and go to Heaven and stand in front of a jury made up of Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Your task would be to compose yourself, look them in the eye, and say, 'I was all about fresh, local, and seasonal.'” Not a happy thought – and it shoudn’t be. But what else is left for a humanitarian #intellectual, really?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

#PowertotheMeek, with some reservations

A little over a weak ago, a NYT opinion piece reported some studies according to which women tend to take better decisions under stress (“Are Women Better Decision Makers?”). Apparently, this advantage comes mostly from a tendency among men to take silly risks when stressed out. Under such conditions, women remain better attuned to others – and, apparently, to their own gut feelings. In one of the experiments, they performed better on a version of the famous Iowa Gambling Task. In fact, it could just be the case that it is individuals with better calibrated empathy and visceral sensitivity – as opposed to those detached and supremely cool – who make better decisions under stress. And, for some mysterious – mostly biological – reasons most of these individuals happen to be women. So much for the much vaunted superior self-confidence of men – which women are now often prodded to embrace in order to get ahead in the ever accelerating rat race.

Friday, October 24, 2014

#Cool and cooler

In the aftermath of the Ottawa attack, PM #StephenHarper made the obligatory utterances about maintaining Canadian resolve, liberties, etc. Substantively, his statement seemed well crafted. But he himself appeared removed and somehow untouched by all the drama that had unfolded – and after spending over 12 hours under lockdown in the parliament building. This, of course, could be seen as an expression of much needed, admirable, steadfast determination in the face of pure evil. Yet, I was reminded of #LewisMumford’s putdown of spineless #liberals at the start of WW II: “His first impulse in any situation is to get rid of emotion because it may cause him to go wrong. Unfortunately for his effort to achieve poise, a purely intellectual judgment, eviscerated of emotional reference, often causes wry miscalculations.Instead of priding himself on not being carried away by his emotions, the liberal should rather be a little alarmed because he often has no emotions that could, under any conceivable circumstances, carry him away.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

#Self-control for the masses

So what is the secret of effective self-control? According to psychologist David DeSteno (“A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses”), the first step would be to recognize that relying on mere willpower or cognitive control may not be the best strategy. These resources are easily depleted, and we have an almost limitless capacity to invent rationalizations for various lapses. Instead, we need to recognize the role of pro-social emotions like compassion and gratitude. As he and others have demonstrated, such “moral sentiments” can increase one’s capacity to resist unhealthy temptations by 12 percent or perhaps more. And how can we acquire such affective aptitudes? According to DeSteno, it can be taught “fairly easily.”

Friday, October 10, 2014

Dumb and dumber?

Vaughan Bell has hacked into yet another loony book peddling pop neuroscience, Susan Greenfield’s Mind Change (“Head in the Clouds”). Obviously, Bell disagrees with about 98 percent of what the baroness has to say. So why does she hold on to a different, obviously untenable point of view? According to Bell, the famed (if controversial) neuroscientist is basically a half-wit who can barely function at the cognitive level of an average undergrad. In any case, she is less mentally competent than a first-year graduate student who has been warned in a research methods seminar not to confuse correlation with causation. Now this is one curious causal explanation.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Long live #DelayedAdulthood!!

On the web site of the NYT, psychology professor Laurence Steinberg makes “The Case for Delayed Adulthood” (and also pitches his new book on that timely topic). The phenomenon of prolonged adolescence (a.k.a. “emerging adulthood”) is now well established, and psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists are busy making a positive spin on it the new cultural norm. Here is Prof. Steinberg’s hopeful conclusion: “If brain plasticity is maintained by staying engaged in new, demanding and cognitively stimulating activity, and if entering into the repetitive and less exciting roles of worker and spouse helps close the window of plasticity, delaying adulthood is not only O.K.; it can be a boon.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The year that changed everything?

#NicholasCarr has a new article out. It’s crowned by an ominous title (“The Manipulators: Facebook’s Social Engineering”), but in fact carries a hopeful message. Carr begins by with a look back at the founding and relentless expansion of virtual behemoths like #Google, #Facebook, #YouTube, #iTunes, #Twitter and the like – whose stamp on sentient life has been boosted exponentially with the rapid spread of hand-held devices. In his words, “it has been a carnival ride, and we, the public, have been the giddy passengers.” But don’t be dispirited, for “this year something changed” – courtesy of a scholarly paper exposing Facebook’s experiment involving the manipulation of users’ moods, plus the European court ruling obliging Google and its kin to erase information citizens might deem inaccurate or outdated. “Arriving in the wake of revelations about the NSA’s online spying operation, both seemed to herald, in very different ways, a new stage in the net’s history one in which the public will be called upon to guide the technology, rather than the other way around. We may look back on 2014 as the year the internet began to grow up.

Who needs meaning?

According to the programmatic statement published by a new European framework formed to study e-reading, “empirical evidence indicates that affordances of screen devices might negatively impact cognitive and emotional aspects of reading.” This may (or – more likely – may not) raise some curious questions related to the following “causal” chain: if e-reading evokes a weaker affective response, and neuroscientists say “meaning” comes primarily from this sort of neurosomatic arousal, would an evocative text read from a screen have a less vibrant meaning? Of course, the whole beauty of a screen-based life is that it can make you immune to sensing such minor deficits – and asking such potentially troubling questions. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

#CNN means business!!

This is how #HoraGorani, one of CNN’s own “leading women,” wrapped up her “show” the other day – much of it dedicated to the beheading of the second American hostage by the ISIS lunatics: “Stay with CNN – which means business is next.” Indeed – after the commercial break. Gorani also bragged CNN was showing only a still image from moments before the gruesome execution – but, of course, #QuestMeansBusiness had to show a moving image, just shy of the real thing, too. The strategy to overdramatize “stories” which are almost unbearable in their own right – with all available means, topped by the inescapable Richard Quest – may be a bit pathetic. But it has probably bumped up their ratings – as if to prove that no, there is no cosmic justice after all. Or who knows?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Charles Simic’s “Portable Hell”

In his latest NYRB article, Simic describes grimly the kind of hell “that can fit comfortably inside your head, despite the vast crowds of the damned and all that fire and smoke, is what you end up with after reading the world news these days.” Yes, the news these days can be a bit hard to digest, or even follow faithfully with so many depressing “stories” unfolding simultaneously around the globe. But there is an easy solution to this. All Simic needs to do is spend more time reading the “Fixes” blog on the NYT web site, and follow people like Bill Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, and Steven Pinker on Twitter, etc. – as opposed to watching obsessively all the endless images of dead children and grandparents he mentions.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

For Big-Data Scientists, ‘Janitor Work’ Is Key Hurdle to Insights

This is the title of a new NYT article reflecting the view from then data trenches. It says “data scientists, according to interviews and expert estimates, spend from 50 percent to 80 percent of their time mired in this more mundane labor of collecting and preparing unruly digital data, before it can be explored for useful nuggets.” One data executive, “whose sensor-filled wristband and software track activity, sleep and food consumption, and suggest dietary and health tips based on the numbers,” complains how little this aspect of data analysis is appreciated by “data civilians.” The solution? But, of course – (almost) full automation of data collection, an effort spearheaded by a few promising startups. And how about all the research suggesting that insight is linked to intuition, and excessive analysis and overthinking – and particularly formal modeling – tend to suppress these “softer” aptitudes? I suspect most “data scientists” will hardly worry about this.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tyranny of the #algorithm?

A NYT article carries the following ominous title: “As Work Shifts Vary, Family’s Only Constant Is Chaos.” And this is the teaser which appears online under it: “Increasing numbers of low-income mothers and fathers are at the center of a new collision that pits workplace scheduling technology against the routines of parenting.” No prizes for guessing the ultimate winner…

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Comedic genius and mental illness

The Scientific American web site carries an article/blog post under the following title: “Robin Williams’s Comedic Genius Was Not a Result of Mental Illness, but His Suicide Was.” The author, Scott Barry Kaufman, is a recognized authority on creativity. I am wondering why he didn’t think/write of Shelley Carson’s “shared vulnerability” theory to which he has referred in the past.  In a nutshell, Carson’s theory (which she recently outlined for the lay public in Scientific American) states that extremely creative individuals and those suffering from schizophrenia and a few other mental maladies have similar neurosomatic predispositions. I guess after each suicide or semi-suicide by a particularly gifted celebrity Shelley is tempted to sigh: “I told you so!”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

#Adolescence 2.0?

A few months ago, Slate published a review demolishing Stephanie Brown’s book, Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster—and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down. Here is a typical put-down: Brown “offers a portrait of a generation of teenagers 'holed up in dark, locked bedrooms, hooked to the computer, smoking dope and taking uppers and downers to regulate their attention and mood, when actual trends in teenage behavior are overwhelmingly positive. Today’s teenagers are less likely to smoke cigarettes, less likely to drink to excess, less likely to use cocaine, and less likely to get pregnant than previous cohorts.” It may be me, but I somehow fail to see the contradiction here. By the way, the cover of David Siegel’s latest book, Mindsight, suggests that “adolescence” now lasts until age 24. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The virtuous circle of #Narcissism

“Narcissism” has acquired a bad rap as a psychiatric term somehow capturing the #Zetgeist – a rhetorical trend which may not be entirely justified. A few weeks ago Anne Manne reviewed in #TheGuardian psychological research indicating “how wealth breeds narcissism” – generally speaking, the wealthier you become, the more likely you are to be a narcissistic prick. A recent study, on the other hand, has found that “companies led by narcissistic CEOs outperforming those helmed by non-narcissistic executives” (at least in the short run). Which means that giving top executives astronomical “compensation” packages should set off a virtuous psychofinancial circle: the more money CEOs get, the more narcissistic they become, the higher share price their company commands, the easier it becomes to justify even higher pay for the chief, the more narcissistic he become, and on, and on. Of course, the shoes of CEOs will need to be filled by ever more extreme narcissists as the overall personality syndrome becomes more widespread and accepted as “normal” in the age of the “selfie.”

Friday, July 25, 2014

The rescue of the drowning…

A recent epidemiological study has found “job loss linked with higher incidence of depression in Americans compared with Europeans.” The authors attribute this difference in mental health outcomes to the more generous benefits extended to the unemployed in West European countries. Part of the explanation, though, could lie in the stronger emotional and economic support the unemployed tend to receive from friends and family this side of the channel. The press release does not say if the authors think they have a solution – or “intervention” – up their sleeve to could help alleviate the plight of the laid-off. One colleague who commented on the study did venture a remedy, though.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The #singularity is near!

Last month, a computer program apparently passed the famous #TuringTest, convincingly presenting itself as a 13-year-old before a panel of judges – at least for a third of them. There has been much hoopla around this result – which should have been totally predictable. A few years ago #NicholasCarr sounded the alarm (based on his disturbing self-observations and some relevant research) that exposure to the incessant stream of cacophonous information related through the internet was inducing in users a kind of “artificial intelligence” – a mode of thinking marked by dampened emotional responsiveness and mechanical analysis. If this, indeed, is the case, then the thinking gap between human and machine is obviously shrunk, making it so much easier for a mega-app to reach over even without credibly mimicking a real human – and without Scarlett Johanson’s unmechanical, sexy voice.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pathological #optimism?

A recent pop-science article in the NYT says “debate continues on hazards of electromagnetic waves.” It points out that the first disturbing findings date back half a century, and it has been more recently established that kids living near high-voltage power lines have measurably higher rates of leukemia. There have also been some sporadic, potentially disturbing finding regarding cell phones and other equipment. So why hasn’t this become a burning public health concern? I would guess it’s the same reason which recently led a top military commander to testify to a US senate committee that things in Afghanistan were really, truly looking up, despite some apparent evidence to the contrary – chronic optimism, or what some psychologists call “positivity bias.” This is the mindset which can lead you to conquer the Aztec empire with a company of desperados, land a few men on the moon, and win some hot and a cold war. I would guess it can also lead you into Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and let you maintain confidence in a virtualized financial matrix (or, dare I say, fly a passenger airliner over a war zone).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

You’ve got talent!

An article in the NYT revisits the old nature-vs.-nurture debate (“How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent”). It is related to a new meta-study which appears to debunk the 10,000-hours rule made famous by Michael Gladwell. The piece starts with the following observation: “The 8-year-old juggling a soccer ball and the 48-year-old jogging by, with Japanese lessons ringing from her earbuds, have something fundamental in common: At some level, both are wondering whether their investment of time and effort is worth it.

Yes, indeed. I have no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what someone like 8-year-old Diego Armando Maradona would think, kicking a ball in some South American shanty town – no matter how “weird” it may sound.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Macht makes right

It’s no fun facing a real existential dilemma. Whom should I root for – the team which relies on the most pathetic and obnoxious football/soccer player in living memory; or the team representing (albeit imperfectly) the nation whose leaders twice sank the “world” in bloody conflict last century – and which provided thousands of gleeful executioners for the delusional and murderous Nazi regime? After much soul searching, I opted for the latter. Why? Because they seemed poised to score a rare victory for “civilization” in the early 21st century. And because I could not really suppress my dislike of Ronaldo – no matter how politically incorrect it might seem.

Revenge of the extrovert?

With all due respect, this must be one of the most groundless theories in the social sciences since Keynes famously mis-predicted the 15-hour work week. It is the “brain child” of Jennifer O. Grimes, a “Millennial” prospective psychologist bent on finally cracking the “introvert” walnut. She has developed an “energy theory” according to which introversion and extraversion can be related to fleeting self-representations (“If you think about planning and really putting together something in your mind, that could be argued to be introversion. But unless you act and channel the energy outward, it's not bringing to extroverted observable fruition the introverted plan.”); or the personality traits of introverts (if we take these to be a bit less transient) would place them on (or very close to) the autism spectrum – just dial these qualities up a bit, and you will get into typical Asperger’s symptoms. This is, I must say, a very extroverted way of analyzing introversion.

Don’t worry – ever…

On the Edge web site, Steven Pinker offers a scientific dissection of “writing in the 21st century.” Toward the end of his analysis, he slips in the following obligatory warning:

Another intellectual error we must be suspicious of is the ever-present tendency to demonize the younger generation and the direction in which culture and society are going. In every era there are commentators who say that the kids today are dumbing down the culture and taking human values with them. Today the accusations are often directed at anything having to do with the Web and other electronic technologies—as if the difference between being printed on dead trees and displayed as pixels on a screen is going to determine the content of ideas. We're always being told that young people suck: that they are illiterate and unreflective and un-thoughtful, all of which ignores the fact that every generation had that said about them by the older generation. Yet somehow civilization persists.

As I have noted earlier, someone could have made the same observation in Rome circa 400 A.D., and smirked at the Cassandra’s who fail to see the obvious truth. But the paper-vs.-pixels debate is worth revisiting, too.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Don’t be “good”

Much research in psychology and neuroscience has found that we have a virtually limitless ability to rationalize problems away. A case in point is the argument offered by Aaron Hurst on a few weeks ago (“Being ‘Good’ Isn’t the Only Way to Go”). He begins by noting that many members of the corporate work force apparently struggle to find purpose in their work, so they look for meaning elsewhere – often in volunteering. But they should not really need to do this. In Hurst’s experience, the “satisfaction” employees “expressed” from non-paid work “came from contributing to something greater than themselves, but was also about the opportunity for self-expression and personal growth that such work enabled.” The solution? Just give everyone the impression that they are achieving the latter part of this compound formula for job satisfaction, and they won’t be distracted by search for meaning elsewhere. And, by the way, work in the non-profit sector can be unsatisfying in its own way.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

“Depressed, but Not Ashamed”

This is the title of a column in the NYT by two high-school students who edit their school’s newspaper. They argue that depression should be completely destigmatized, so teenagers could freely discuss it as a serious health issue. Good point – which could be taken a step further by saying that perhaps it is the cheerfully adjusted to a depressing educational system (and larger social “matrix”) who should feel some shame. A few psychoanalysts made a similar argument back in the 1960s, but – as we now all know – that was an intellectual and therapeutic dead end. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Donald Rumsfeld of IT?

A few weeks ago, the NYT carried an article which asked an intriguing question: “If Steve Jobs were alive today, should he be in jail?” It seems the iconic entrepreneur was involved in some clearly illegal activities: a conspiracy to stop other companies from poaching Apple employees, a scheme aimed at boosting the value of his stock options, etc. Why did he do it? Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, says he “always believed that the rules that applied to ordinary people didn’t apply to him. … He believed he could bend the laws of physics and distort reality. That allowed him to do some amazing things, but also led him to push the envelope.” And this was his modus operandi in general: Over and over, people referred to his reality distortion field. The rules just didn’t apply to him, whether he was getting a license plate that let him use handicapped parking or building products that people said weren’t possible. Most of the time he was right, and he got away with it.” Am I the only one who sees an odd parallel here? Except that Rumsfeld wasn’t right about Iraq, and still got away with it – and remains in denial.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Power to the “pro-social psychopaths”!

Is Recep Tayyip Erdogan a hard-headed fundamentalist? Sure. But he seems to have a bigger problem which may eventually sap his power. A few years ago I wrote a paper on perhaps the central paradox of politics – but also in big business or the military . To rise to the top, “leaders” need to have very, very thick skin and unflagging determination; and, since good judgment requires apt affective response, such callousness often undermines their capacity for effective decision-making in crisis situations. This is what the Turkish prime minister had to say following the recent mining disaster: These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called ‘work accident' ... It happens in other workplaces, too. Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world.” What kind of person can say this, really?

Monday, May 12, 2014

The wisdom of spiders

The NYT covers a new study of a rare spider species, one of the very few living in colonies (“Spiders That Thrive in a Social Web”). The scientists who did the study kept some young spiders in the same group of older spiders, and moved others repeatedly from one group to another. According to the NYT article, “the researchers showed that spiders exposed to the same group day after day developed stronger and more distinctive personalities than those that were shifted from one set of spiders to the next. Moreover, the spiders in a stable social setting grew ever less like one another over time.” It should be hardly surprising that the socially mobile spiders were more alike, with less pronounced personal quirks. After all, the break-up of stable, small-scale human communities and social mobility have long been associated with the emergence of a “protean” self – superficial, malleable, and supremely adaptable. But the spider study also contains another lesson which I hope some of my students can take to heart.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The added value of pleasant vices

Almost a decade ago, economist Steven Levitt pronounced he had solved the biggest mystery in American criminology. Why had levels of violent steadily clime declined since their peak in the early 1990’s? Because abortion was legalized – so fewer unwanted babies, who would be more likely to become criminals, were born. It’s an elegant theory, but there is a slight problem with it. It can’t be proven – or refuted – through statistical analysis. Abortion is entangled countless other social “variables,” so its “causal” impact on crime rates can be established only within a crude abstract model – but this will tell us little about its significance in the non-abstract world of living, breathing, and killing or dying human beings. In fact, I am tempted to offer a different theory which may seem fanciful –and wouldn’t be amenable to empirical validation, either – but may well be more credible. Though someone with Levitt’s unrelenting empirico-analytic bent, however, would typically be impervious to dissuasion or self-doubt.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

On teen escapism - or empowerment

When the Divergent movie adaptation came out a couple of weeks ago, New Statesman put out an article with an appropriately ominous article: “No wonder teens love stories about dystopias – they feel like they’re in one.” So what is the true dystopia teens feel they inhabit? According to Laurie Penny, who wrote the piece, the young are now hemmed in by environmental doom and capitalist précarité – so they seek virtual escape through fantasies of teen empowerment. But why would such existential treats be reduced to some sort of grotesque totalitarianism, which itself is reduced pervasive adult sadism? It does not become quite clear, so Penny may have done something we all do – project her own anxieties upon the teen fans she ostensibly writes about.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The self-delusion gap

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, accomplished TV journalists and book authors, have written a lengthy feature for The Atlantic, “The Confidence Gap.” In it, they argue that highly competent women do not lean in because that lack confidence. As they worked on the article, Katty at one point shared her long-hel suspicion “that her public profile in America was thanks to her English accent, which surely, she suspected, gave her a few extra IQ points every time she opened her mouth.” Claire laughed, but it turned out she harbored excessive modesty, too. And they offer similar examples of other highly successful women in different areas who suffer from a mild form of impostor syndrome. No doubt, Kay and Shipman will be criticized for blaming women for their mostly subordinate position in the corporate world. I see, however, a bigger problem with their theory – the extent to which they take the exaggerated, chest-pounding self-assurance and will to power of Alpha, and even Beta, males as the norm; and think aspiring women should ape them in always charging upward and taking big risks.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Daddy Cool

The current issue of Scientific American Mind has an article on the potentially beneficial influence of fathers on their daughters (“Where is Dad?”). There are always outliers, but much credible research indicates that the physical or emotional absence of their father can predispose girls to earlier puberty and risky sexual behavior. So how does this work, exactly? Some of the psychologists profiled in the article seem to offer some slightly tortured arguments. Two female evolutionary psychologists claim that seeing their fathers leave “provides young girls with a cue about what the future holds in terms of the mating system they are born into.” The abandoned daughters infer that “men don’t stay for long” – hence “finding a man requires quick action.” On the basis of this inference, they make a rational, if subconscious, choice. They opt for an evolutionarily adaptive “reproductive strategy”– to rev up their own reproductive maturation and seek to get pregnant as soon as femininely possible.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

“Raising a Moral Child”

This is currently the most emailed article on the NYT site. It is written by Adam Grant, a übernerdy superstar in business psychology about whom I have written earlier. The piece offers a meticulous review of all the research. So, how do you do it? Apparently, by the relentless deployment of evidence-based “interventions” – for example, praise rather than reward (but make sure you praise effort rather than ability), model generous behavior, etc. As Grant judiciously concludes, “people often believe that character causes action, but when it comes to producing moral children, we need to remember that action also shapes character.” How about theories suggesting that moral development depends crucially on attachment, or the forging of strong emotional bonds between parents (or “caregivers”) and children, rather than on shrewd and systemic, quasi-behaviorist manipulation?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A star – or comet – called Lupita

The NYT carries an incisive analysis of the campaign to launch Lupita Nyong’o, the 31-year actress who won an Oscar for her role in “12 Years a Slave,” into much deserved – if slightly delayed – stardom. The title says it all, and captures the Zeitgeist better than tomes of “cultural studies” drivel: “Capitalizing on Her Leap to Stardom: Lupita Nyong’o Gains the Ultimate Prize with a Beauty Contract for Lancôme.” Still, I wanted to preserve a few extra memorable lines for posterity – or at least until “the cloud” is up in the air:

Monday, March 31, 2014

The end of euphemisms?

Jesse Sheidlower, president of the American Dialect Society and author of “The F-Word,” makes the case in the NYT for printing expletives in full (“The Case for Profanity in Print”). He says this is particularly imperative when said expletives are integral to a story (as in the case, among many others, of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland using the four-letter word to refer dismissively to the EU); or when reviewing works of literature and art with expletives in their titles. He thinks not just efforts to render the exact words that were used in a roundabout way, but also replacing some of the letters comprising these with asterisks or dashes, can only serve to obscure important aspects of what needs to be reported or reviewed – and harks back to a bygone year of unnecessary prudishness.

Sunglasses as moral blinders

A recent study found that partcipants wearing sunglasses offered a significantly less fair split of small sums of money to their counterparts. That result was attributed primarily to the sense of anonymity sunglasses seem to provide. A weakened concern for fairness could also result, though, from the reduced amount of light reaching the retina. As I wrote some time ago, there is some research indicating that stronger lighting sharpens emotional sensitivity (over the long term, light falling on the skin also affects the synthesis of vitamin D and other physiological processes, and triggers broad epigenetic adaptations). A reduction of the amount of light falling on the eye could thus induce partial affective dampening – and emotional attunement does appear to have significant influence on moral judgment.

Friday, March 28, 2014

O #Amanpour o mores

Earlier today on “Amanpour,” Amanpour introduced a video clip featuring Angelina Jolie. In her role as special envoy of the UN High Commissioner to Refugees, she was shown interviewing Syrian children in a refugee camp in Lebanon. They spoke of the terrible suffering they had gone through and their continuing nightmares. Next, Amanpour interviewed Jolie’s UN boss, Antonio Guterres. Her first question was something along the lines: “You accompanied Angelina Jolie during her trip to Lebanon. Tell me what made such a profound impression on her there.”

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The hyena of Wall Street

In his review of Scorsese’s latest, A. O. Scott asks a curious question: what is the movie, really – satire or propaganda? He apparently leans toward the second, with an important qualification (more on that at the end). He also faults Scorsese for his usual fascination and lack of critical distance from the exploits and protagonist he depicts – in this case, the Leonardo Di Caprio character and the bunch of evil clowns he has gathered around himself (who, Scott points out, are less violent than the “Goodfellas” mobsters – but also a lot less inhibited since they are unconstrained by professed loyalty to any code of conduct and traditional loyalties). I would add that the “debauchery” Scorsese presents to our senses is so grotesquely over the top, so absurd and often carnivalesque, that it takes a serious effort to take it seriously. Still, I would say the truth here is mostly in the eye of the beholder – an age-old truism which has also become a post-modernist cliché.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Let there be light!

A recent study has found that brightness levels of lighting in a room have an effect on emotionality. In a nutshell, brighter light makes individuals feel emotion more strongly – on both the negative and positive sides of the spectrum. The researchers offer a very narrow interpretation of their results: if you want to make a more cool-headed decision, better turn the lights down (and, if possible, avoid neon lighting). The study, though, may have some larger implications. There have been similar findings with respect to sunlight – which could perhaps partly explain why Italians are typically more emotional and impulsive than Germans.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The contradictions of #capitalism – resolved!

In his takedown on “mindfulness” #EvgenyMorozov quotes a curious piece by #ArianaHuffington, “Mindfulness, Meditation, Wellness and Their Connection to Corporate America's Bottom Line.” There, Huffington points to research indicating that mindfulness can make everyone more resistant to stress and thus happier and more productive – boosting both individual happiness and the corporate bottom line: “Stress-reduction and mindfulness don't just make us happier and healthier, they're a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one." 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Proud to be maladjusted

I am getting a bit tired of all the mental fixes peddled to keep us hapless proles pushing ourselves harder on our virtual, normally hedonic, treadmill. Two now ubiquitous pitches seem particularly irritating. The first is the prescription of “mindfulness meditation” for the purpose of developing single-minded focus and unbendable resilience – even if mental self-control may come at the expense of empathic sensitivity, intuitive associations, pattern recognition, implicit learning, touch with “reality,” justified “depressive realism,” etc. The second miracle cure is related to some research indicating that patients who received botox injections also experienced statistically “meaningful” mood improvement. This is given as an illustration that out facial grimaces – or lack thereof – affect how our brains click. The usual inference is that we should fake it until we make it – not necessarily get regularly botoxed as a cure for emotional dysregulation, but extend our facial muscles in a smile on a regular basis (in addition to bombarding ourselves with positive thoughts).

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Meet Noreena. She is the owner of web page Noreena is not a pop singer who has dropped her last name or taken on a catchy artistic pseudonym. No, she is a bona fide British economist who back in 2001 published a book with the ominous title, The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy. Her Wikipedia entry mentions that according to the UK media she “combines striking beauty with a formidable mind.” So we should be hardly surprised that Noreena has, at this point, achieved near celebrity status - and appeared on numerous chat shows.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Snowboarder's High

#TheCrashReel is a documentary describing snowboarder #KevinPearce ’s protracted recovery after a horrific crash a few weeks before the 2010 winter Olympics. He fell on his head as he was trying a particularly difficult jump – as part of the daredevil escalation started by archrival Shaun White. Pearce suffered massive brain damage and spent weeks in intensive care, slowly regaining consciousness and control of his body and mind. And what was his strongest desire once he could have any? According to the pitch for the trailer on YouTube, “when he recovers, all he wants to do is get on his snowboard again, even though medics and family fear it could kill him” – in an attempt to get back “that feeling” only snowboarding could give him.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

“My Goldman Sachs Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”

This is the title of a post by Bethany McLean, a former Goldman analyst turned journalist. She says that job gave her a wonderful start in her professional career as it taught her some useful lessons – for example, to always pay attention to detail. There was a downside, though. McLean has the following confession to make: “Today, when my fellow analysts with whom I’m still in touch bring up things that happened, or people we worked with, I’m too embarrassed to admit that I often draw a total blank. I think I have post-traumatic stress disorder.” This sentence drew much fire in the comments below – with some US veterans criticizing McLean for her casual use of such a serious diagnosis.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Edward Frenkel, math professor at UC Berkley, revisits on the NYT web site (which was recently revamped to make it “sleeker and faster”) the burning question: “Is the Universe a Simulation?” Apparently, there is a view among mathematicians that mathematical discoveries in fact reveal strings of the computer code underlying the “Matrix” we take for “reality.” Seriously? This immediately reminded me of Nicholas Carr’s now classic “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

In bad taste?

In an interview for Times Magazine, “fashion-industry titan Tommy Hilfiger talks about acceptance, autism and why nobody should wear florals.” The “acceptance” part is related to the unwillingness of other fashion law-givers to accept him as a fellow designer after he had started out as a retailer. Autism is relevant to him as two of his five kids have been diagnosed with the disorder. And the florals? Mr. Hilfiger is asked if after five decades in fashion he thinks there is “any trend that should never be revived.” His response is that people wearing floral prints “really don’t have great taste.” So he asks a rhetorical question: “Why would you want to wear a print you see on a bedspread or wall paper in an older person’s home.”

Friday, February 14, 2014

In cold blood

This went viral, so everyone should have heard about it. It’s about the hapless Marius who was shod dead, dissected in front of an audience, cut up, and thrown as food to the lions at the Copenhagen zoo. The young giraffe was deemed genetically unfit to breed within the breeding pool the zoo had joined – so he had to die. A complex utilitarian calculation established that this would be the best outcome for everyone, not just the lions. Marius’s execution went on despite all the virtual outrage and proposals for a non-lethal solution. The zoo then issued a statement describing the killing “as a positive sign and as insurance that we in the future will have a healthy giraffe population in European zoos.” Then, a few days later, another Danish zoo announced they might kill one of their male giraffes, too (also named Marius) – for the same reason. So what’s with the Danes?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The end of everything, this time for real…

This is part of the display at the cash register in a local “hypermarket.” So what is the item in the middle of the upper row of small merchandise?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This precarious life

David Brooks is worried (“The American Precariat”) that Americans are not packing and moving as often as they did 60 years ago – when about 20 percent of the population switched residence every year. Why have Americans become as sedentary as the typical West European, or even more so? Brooks points to different explanations, but believes this unfortunate shift can be attributed mostly to a loss of self-confidence. He says there is a now “growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards” – and bleak long-term prospects – which a British social scientist has dubbed the “precariat.” Apparently, the members of this group have lost some of their faith in capitalism and the “American dream,” and  have become more risk-averse than the part of the middle class they have replaced.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

After authority, too?

I teach an upper-level class on “Culture and power” which examines the workings of “power” outside of explicitly political institutions (but still mostly on a larger social context, not in private relations along the lines of “the personal is political”). At the start of the semester we talked a little bit about the power relation which exists in the classroom between the teacher/professor and the students. Then, the other day a student from next door stepped in at the start of our class and asked me if she could borrow my chair since they did not have enough chairs in their classroom.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Beyond style, too

The other day I caught a segment on Euromaxx (Deutsche Welle’s lifestyle TV magazine) about Dutch celebrity designer Marcel Wanders. He was introduced as a “rock star” in his field – who had diversified into interior design after starting out as a jeweler. His claim to fame? Strange combinations of unusual shapes and striking colors (including some sort of tapestry or brocade featuring the enlarged face of “the master”) – “a bold celebration of the senses”  according to the DW script. What did “the master “ himself  had to say about his artistic approach? “Style is for the insecure, and I think it’s very boring.”And who wants that?