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?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Beyond good, evil – and reading?

Mark Edmundson has another long essay out (“When I Was Young at Yale”) – describing his experiences as a rebellious graduate student at Yale’s famed English department. It’s again beautifully written, and provides a most sublime “reading experience.” I sometimes tell students that such texts give me a real high – and most laugh, but it’s true. Which does not mean I necessarily accept Edmundson’s assessment on all issues. Most probably, the lofty ideals explored in “the best that has been thought and said” in literature and the humanities were not set free of any moral restraint by the jibes a few “deconstructionists” pseudo-debunkers. In fact, 16.5 years ago Edmundson himself seemed to acknowledge as much.