Sunday, December 27, 2015

Edmund Burke was a closeted liberal!

Irish historian Richard Bourke has argued that, in fact, Edmund “Burke Was No Conservative” – so contemporary “conservatives can’t claim [him] as one of their own.” The evidence? Burke – who supported the American revolution and loved the American constitution – did not condemn all revolts against established authority; and his defense of religion, property, and government has been embraced by thinkers of “liberal” ideological stripes, too. Perhaps. Yet, Burke once saw something the liberal intelligentsia did not – and still doesn’t. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” he observed: “The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.

Monday, December 7, 2015

What a strapline!

A title appearing on the front web page of the NYT: “Her Films May Flop, but Kate Hudson Remains a Fashion Star.” The pitch beneath the title: “As the actress adroitly merchandises her perceived warmth and candor, she keeps an emotional connection with the public that designers find valuable.” Apparently, the irony here is lost on "the public."

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Give me liberty or death – or both?

A recent study has found a surprising spike of mortality/death rates among white middle-aged white Americans. This trend (which apparently does not affect those with college degrees) is not observed among other demographic groups or in other rich countries. The researchers attribute the surprising loss of human life they uncovered mostly to rising suicide rates and abuse of alcohol and drugs. Among these, heroin and prescription painkillers have been particularly destructive. Substance abuse, however, is generally increased under conditions of chronic stress, and drugs have become more accessible as their street price has dropped, so market forces over the last few years may have a role, too. Of course, all this is very sad news. Curiously, conservative curmudgeon Edmund Burke once had some relevant premonitions. Reflecting on the utopian project of the French revolutionaries, he sounded a cautionary note: “The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please: we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A recipe for true freedom!

It turns out the ancient stoics were right when they argued that personal liberation could come only from the right attitude – even if they did not always practice what they preached, and in some cases needed drugs to achieve the desired framework shift. This is at least the life lesson offered by financial planner Carl Richards in the NYT (“For True Freedom, Learn To Deal With Uncertainty”). He draws on the example of a guy working in the financial industry who was raking in huge sums and living a life of plenty, but found himself on the rocks when the financial crisis hit – until his boat was lifted when the financial tide eventually came back. It turns out this guy was Richards himself. Musing on his fickle fortune, he at one point told a friend, “If you fast-forward five years, I could end up homeless or own a private jet, or anything in between.” His friend, a life coach, retorted, “Yeah, and if you can get yourself to accept that, you’ll finally be free.” This seems to make a lot of sense – and perhaps some form of meditation could help everybody chillax along these lines. Yet, wouldn’t it be even more liberating not to face such extreme odds? Not to have to hope or worry that the “capitalist casino” (as someone impersonating an American presidential candidate calls it) can toss you up or down with such force? Could we then embrace a bit more easily the fundamental truth that “life is irreducibly uncertain”? Apparently, this thought doesn’t merit serious attention. Plus, Richards might not have the right incentives to entertain it. After all, he has a new book to pitch, offering “the one-page financial plan” that can reliably propel you on an upward trajectory. Perhaps the homeless need to read it, too.

Hilary Clinton’s progressive touch

In his comment on the Democratic presidential debate (“Hilary Clinton’s Democratic Debate Magic”), NYT columnist Frank Bruni heaps praise on the frontrunner, and mild disdain on her main opponent. In his words, “Sanders grew redundant, returning with questionable frequency to a single issue greed and income inequality that made him sound like a one-note candidate.” This is immediately qualified: He’s 100 percent right to question corporations and trumpet the plight of the middle class. But he does so as more of a firebrand, calling for a political revolution, than as someone who can be trusted to make meaningful progress.” Bruni then concludes that Sanders “evoked yesterday” – “with his slight hunch, his somewhat garbled style of speech, and a moment when he cupped his hand behind his ear, signaling that he hadn’t heard the question.” How true, even if a bit insensitive directed at a 74-year-old. During the debate, Hilary billed herself as a “progressive who likes to get things done” – and, as we all know, progressives moved on a long time ago – focusing on areas where they could, and did, effect meaningful change.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A surprising social dividend?

According to a recent press release, a new study “has found that the relationship between the economy and crime rates [in the UK] has varied over time. ... The association between unemployment and property crime – which was strong in the 1970s and 1980s – weakened after 1995 and became non-existent by 2005. These findings help to shed light on why the recorded crime rate did not rise following the 2007-2008 financial crisis.” Why has this link melted into air? The researchers have no clue: “We cannot be sure why fluctuations in economic conditions no longer predict the sorts of changes in recorded crime rates they used to. It may be due to differences between the sorts of economic shocks experienced by the UK in the 1970s and 1980s compared to today. It could be because of changes in the labour market dampening the effects of recent economic downturns -- or it could also be due to trends in crime prevention measures, such as growth in use of burglar alarms, CCTV and car immobilisers.” But what, exactly, is special about 1995 and 2005? Many things, but perhaps 1995 was the year when internet use became more widespread, and 2005 – when internet access reached a point of saturation? So, instead of savoring the thrill of petty crime, some potential young delinquents could get the dopamine flowing through “massively multiplayer online games” and other web-mediated excitement? So perhaps the internet doesn't make "us" less social in the non-virtual world, after all...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Who cares?

Anne-Marie Slaughter has another op-ed piece complaining about the “toxic” work culture pervading American companies (“A Toxic Work World,” NYT). In her words, “the people who can compete and succeed in this culture are an ever-narrower slice of American society: largely young people who are healthy, and wealthy enough not to have to care for family members.” So what can be done to change this? “To support care just as we support competition, we will need some combination of the following: high-quality and affordable child care and elder care; paid family and medical leave for women and men; a right to request part-time or flexible work;” etc. But can care really compete against competition? How about reducing a bit the competitive pressures on companies and individuals? Or the relative rewards bestowed upon non-attached hypomanic workaholics? This, apparently, isn’t in the cards. “We” will need to wait for a “culture change: fundamental shifts in the way we think, talk and confer prestige” – so “we would not regard time out for caregiving — for your children, parents, spouse, sibling or any other member of your extended or constructed family — as a black hole on a résumé.” Who knows – with enough proselytizing, the reigning (and aspiring) 1% could even realize that the bottom line and shareholder value are overrated.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Rush to the ethical bottom?

As announced in the title of a NYT article, “VW Is Said to Cheat on Diesel Emissions; U.S. Orders Big Recall.” Of course, some people will continue to believe that capitalism rewards virtue – and the erosion of traditional values is the work of liberal intellectuals and professors, feminists and gay rights activists, etc. That the financial crisis was caused by excessive government regulation – and what not.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

#CollateralDamage at Amazon?

The NYT recently ran a feature (“Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”) describing the meat grinder through which Jeff Bezos puts his foot soldiers and lieutenants. According to the authors, “the company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.” Meanwhile, a study published in the Lancet medical journal has found that employees working long hours are more likely to suffer a stroke – by 33 percent for those logging in over 55 hours per week. And, as we all know, chronic stress can take a severe toll – unless you are one of those ultraperformers who somehow thrive on stress hormones. So here is a task for Bezos’s beloved big data, alongside the more pragmatic uses to which it is put within his empire: calculate how many employees have faced premature death as a result of the “purposeful Darwinism” pervading the company. On a different note, it’s remarkable how libertarian polemicists can still depict political institutions as the main force placing constraints on individual choice and self-actualization.

The pursuit of increased #dopamine firing rates

In an older NYT article (“Hijacking the Brain Circuits With a Nickel Slot Machine”), science writer Sandra Blakeslee offered a curious response to those old questions regarding the deepest roots of human motivation. She said neuroscientists were uncovering an inconvenient truth: “The number of things people do to increase their dopamine firing rates is unlimited.” Hypothetically, the human “executive brain” should know better. But, across a broad range of behaviors – from the intoxicating pursuit of money, power, and celebrity, to all sorts of physical and virtual overconsumption – it appears not to; and to know no limits to the rationalizations it will spin to justify all sorts of problematic behaviors.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The white male’s burden?

Two days ago, the Pacific Standard web site carried two parallel stories – one on ultramarathoners, the other on mass shooters. Do these seemingly unrelated groups have in common? In a way, they do – both are mostly white males. The piece on ultrarunners mentions one part of this answer (“Who Runs 100 Miles?” – “Ultramarathon running draws a particular type of athlete  one who has plenty of free time, doesn't mind pain, and is also white.”). The other one points to the second part (“What Makes American Men So Dangerous?”). So what drives white American males to such physical and mental extremes? I am reminded of psychologist Fred Previc who has written about the “dopaminergic mind,” hell-bent on stereotypically male patterns of thinking and behavior  I  sispect  he might have part of the answer. It remains a bit unclear, though, how pale skin may be related to such supercharged ways of being-in-the-world...

Thursday, August 6, 2015

#Baltimore revisited

The riots in Baltimore reignited an old debate: Are members of a particular racial group disadvantaged because they lack the attitudes needed for economic success? Or because they face discrimination – which is the root cause for any alleged attitudinal problems, too? The same question has been asked about poor whites, but also about women – in general or in particular areas (like business or science). Of course, it could be both – but in some circles “blaming the victim” is seen as adding insult to injury. In this context, why not recall Martin Luther King’s immortal words from over 50 years ago: "There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.Should anyone be blamed really for failing – or not wanting – to adapt to social and economic conditions that are obviously problematic – even in the absence of any personal bias and discrimination?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

#Greece to pay any price, bear any burden?

According to an article in the Pacific Standard, a couple of studies have found a crisis-related uptick in suicides in Greece. The authors of one even allege that at least 10,000 additional economic suicides between 2008 and 2010” can be attributed to the country’s economic slump. The title of the PS article is meant to be a bit disturbing (“When Economic Instability Turns Deadly”), so it got me thinking. Has anyone tried to assess the human cost of economic transitions – for example, with the methodology used to calculate war casualties? And not just in a country like Greece where the economy has contracted so much. How about, say, Bulgaria – which Bulgarian political commentator and social entrepreneur Ivan Krastev recently included among the East European countries that had possessed the social preconditions for successful reforms (“A Greek Farce, Then Gloom,” NYT, 16 July 2015)? Or Ghana, which (with the help of a major debt write-off) has enjoyed a prolonged period of political stability and entered the club of middle-income countries – to recently face new financial and social woes? This, by the way, would be a fun topic for a quantitative Ph.D. dissertation.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

#Anomie? #Ennui? Problem fixed!

So it turns out the Brave New World of tomorrow may need not some mushy tranquilizer or opiate, but good old stimulants (to everyone according to his/her need):

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Der #Zeitgeist bites

Yesterday, I was sitting in a small city park. A few benches away, a young woman seemed to be drawing – intensely focused – something in a sketch notebook. Then she lifted the piece of paper to which she had applied her effort to take a closer look at it. It was a large scratch card.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The truth is in…

Two studies of the role of stress hormones in financial trading. One concluded that “the hormones testosterone and cortisol may destabilize financial markets by making traders take more risks, according to a study.” The other – that “high levels of the stress hormone cortisol may contribute to the risk aversion and 'irrational pessimism' found among bankers and fund managers during financial crises.”  What are we to make of such contrasting findings in “behavioral finance”? Perhaps, one way or another, allostatic overload will wreck financial speculation – which has become the lifeblood of Western civilization? Unless most trading is handed over to female recruits – since the second study also confirmed that women make slightly better decisions under conditions of chronic stress? As we were once told as teenage military conscripts, this is a prospect you can see only through a crooked tubino (its Bulgarian version, that is). 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Don’t #deepdream!

So a football/soccer player scores an own goal in the second minute of injury time – quashing dreams of world cup glory. And what is the immediate reaction of most teammates? Half of the team, including the hapless goalie, gather around the crying player, hug and try to comfort her: My own reaction on seeing this? If only the world of business, politics, education, science, etc. could be run by losers with such stereotypical female characteristics – regardless of the chromosomes they carry! Of course, I don’t even need to pinch myself...

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Germany’s #Grimm predicament?

Marina Warner describes in the NYRB how Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm once stripped German folk tales of much graphic detail (“Rescuing Wonderful Shivery Tales”). Which makes me think – could the insensitivity that the original versions betrayed have anything to do with problematic German theories and behaviors in the past? And help understand current German indifference in the face of so much austerity-related hardship elsewhere – and impending economic collapse in Greece?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The pursuit of #cheppiness

Yet another potentially depressing article on the opioid epidemic in the U.S. – this time in Time Magazine.  It says on average 46 people are dying every day from an overdose, with over 2 million addicted to the deadly painkillers and hundreds of thousands hospitalized for drug abuse every year. Many addicts have taken to shooting as a more efficient drug delivery method, and there have been outbreaks of AIDS and other needle-sharing diseases. So how did it get to this? The article says “it took a tragic combination of good intentions, criminal deception and feckless oversight to turn America’s desire to relieve its pain into such widespread suffering.” The FDA and medical associations trumpeted the benefits of opioid painkillers, and over 20 states passed legislation intended to boost prescriptions. So I was going to say “positivity bias” (a.k.a. "optimism") played a role, too – but perhaps it should not be overestimated. Even after the deadly potential of the drugs had become apparent, the FDA continued to approve ever more potent formulas. And the pharmaceutical companies producing them continued to engage in aggressive marketing practices, occasionally crossing into illegal deception. Their business plans, of course, depended on getting as many customers to use as much of their products as humanly possible. Back in 2012, the libertarian fundamentalists at Reason Online fretted that “the government’s medical meddling hurts pain patients.” Their more recent solution to the “problem”? Let marijuana free!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

#Automation is us

Nicholas Carr has another potentially disturbing amendment to “The Glass Cage” on his blog: “Media Takes Command.” Where automation is taking us, indeed! Just two minor qualms: 1) There has never been real “panic about automation” in the US, despite the dire warnings of a few smart “Luddites” – there is too much “positivity bias” around for that. 2) Automation will not just displace some and change the nature of work and the skill sets of others – it is already changing us, and particularly our kids, at the most basic neurosomatic level (this, I thought, was the central idea of the “Google making us stupid” piece – and it must make it easier for humans to be replaced by bots). And it can’t all be for the better – unless my Bulgarian “negativity bias” is way too strong…

Thursday, June 18, 2015

#TheEndofSatire, among other things…

“The Rise of Meritocracy” was the title of a British satirical novel that came out in 1958. And you have to pinch yourself occasionally to recall that “The Best and the Brightest” wasn’t coined as a compliment back in 1972. Now it turns out Carry Bradshaw’s exploits started out as satire, too. It’s news to me at least – but it’s hardly a surprise:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mechanical man

Saw Ex Machina a few days ago. Was the only viewer in front of a big screen, so at times it felt like I was interviewing Eva (though the flirting part felt less real). It’s a philosophically ambitious movie, meant to provoke some uneasy thoughts. The original Turing test was apparently premised on the idea that a true AI machine should be able to communicate like a real human being. But as humans (or at least a significant subset of humanity) are becoming emotionally number and thus more machine-like, passing the test must seem an increasingly realistic machine task.  Until, indeed, we are “all watched over by machines of loving grace.” And if it is seductive cyborgs vs. psychopathic geeks, it’s really hard not to root for the former. It’s also curious that in the movie the benchmark for AI is defined as the ability to manipulate emotionally another human being. But by this point this should come as little surprise. Even a sitcom like Modern Family that invokes a lost, extended-family-focused mode of living is built around such mutual manipulation. It’s assumed to be, as they say, in the water supply.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

To everyone according to her – what?

An article in Pacific Standard, the standard-bearer of pop (social) science, decries “The Hidden Sexism Lurking Behind the Pay Gap.” The teaser beneath clarifies the point: “Let’s stop arguing about how much of the pay gap is due to women’s choices. Those choices are often products of sexism hidden from view.” And what is wrong, for that matter, with women – or men, or those adopting any gender-non-conformist self-definitions – not choosing career paths which require mechanical drudgery, manipulating complex algorithms and abstractions, taking incalculable risks with imaginary “investment” vehicles, bossing underlings in the service of ethically dubious ends, etc.? And isn’t the bigger problem hidden in the vastly disparate rewards bestowed by the market upon more and less humane or caring service functions – to the point of sometimes rewarding socially destructive profit maximization? This is, at least, what British liberal theorist Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse was asking 100 years ago – but such utopian musings have now gone the way of openly professed “social Darwinism.” So all that is left is for everyone to get a shot at climbing as high as humanly possible on the existing socioeconomic food-chain – or ladder, if a less laden concept is in order. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Hearts and minds

Tim Judah has another longer piece on the Ukrainian conflict in the NYRB (“Ukraine: Inside the Deadlock”). A most seasoned war reporter, he this time asks a somewhat naïve question: “It is baffling  why the Ukrainian government has not sought to win over the easterners by trying to send them its own aid convoys, even if the rebels prevented them from crossing into their territory. To ordinary people in the east it looks like Kiev does not care much about them and considers them the enemy.” Could it be that the volksgeist on both sides includes such communally biased attributions? In any case, this is a predisposition which will forever mystify cosmopolitan intellectuals – who can hardly understand how “weird” their own perspective may seem. Ironically, 100 years ago British observers had no problem understanding such mutual animosities among the squabbling “races” of the Balkans – and Eastern Europe in general.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The illusion of empowerment

The BBC web site carries an article on “placebo buttons” which provide the illusion that those who press them control the operation of doors, traffic lights, thermostats, etc. (“Press Me! The Buttons That Lie to You”). Could planting them seem a bit creepy and manipulative? Perhaps not if, pressing such useless buttons, “people feel happier with the world around them, more in control of events and comforted by the apparent efficacy of their actions.” Some psychologists, however, have pointed to a darker side. The article cites an experiment involving financial traders: some exaggerated how much pressing a button affected the value of financial assets in a game, and they were the ones who tended to take uncalculated risks in real life. This “illusion of control” is heightened under conditions of cut-throat competition, and may operate on a broader scale – a tendency which could perhaps help explain the risky calculations that led to the financial crisis. And how about, one is tempted to ask, invading Iraq and exporting democracy to a historically troubled region? Or launching the Euro and facilitating subprime credit lines to governments? It seems a degree of fatalism may not always be a bad thing – but won’t come easily to the “weirdest people in the world”...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Women’s Liberation 2.0

Anthropology professor Melvin Konner proclaims in The Chronicle Review “The End of Male Supremacy.” The teaser beneath the title clarifies his claim: “Biologically, intellectually, socially, women are the superior gender, and society will increasingly reflect that. I am all for that – in fact, it recalls Ashley Montagu’s classic, “The Natural Superiority of Women.” It’s a book which ticks some feminists – but I do occasionally recall it as a most inspiring read. Konner’s treatment of the subject, though, is less sentimental. What does he celebrate exactly? How “millennial male dominance is about to end." And how “glass ceilings are splintering into countless shards of light, and women are climbing male power pyramids in every domain of life to a point where entrepreneurship has become the new women’s movement.” And what, then, happened to the older women’s movement which aimed to dismantle those hated “male power pyramids” and usher in a better world for the meek? It apparently went the away of so many male utopian projects – minus the blood spilled by some male saviors of humanity.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Atlantic Ocean is half-empty!!

Tonight, I surpassed my own record for uninterrupted TV viewing – 48 minutes (counting from 6:23 p.m. on July 9, 2011, when I joined the “quantified self” revolution). And it was time well spent. In addition to the more political spots I noted earlier, I particularly enjoyed the coverage of the “tide of the century” alongside France’s Atlantic coast. Euronews showed throngs of excited tourists, with some of them sharing on camera their thrill at seeing the sight of a lifetime (technically true, if they would not live past another 18 years or so). And how was the same “story” presented on Bulgaria’s most watched, private TV channel? Apparently, there had been forecasts for 15-meter waves. But the wind had died down, and the mini-tsunami had not materialized – so many tide-watchers had been deeply disappointed.

Soft power outage

Some time ago John Kerry complained RT had acquired too much global influence. For those coming out of hibernation this time of the year, RT is the Russian virtual mammoth Putin has unleashed to spew conspiracy theories and other propaganda in response the Western media’s carefully balanced news coverage. So I decided to check it out. The first segment that came up showed an RT correspondent asking a US state department communicator a simple question: why has the US condemned Russian military exercises within its own territory as destabilizing, while failing to recognize that NATO’s military deployments along Russia’s borders could have the same effect? Instead of giving a simple answer (like: Russia borders Ukraine), the State Department official got into a casuistic argument over what exactly his office had said in response to Russian saber rattling. So how could the free world counter Putin’s propaganda blitz? I was going to say: start by subjecting Sate Department spokespeople to some sort of psychometric test. But this, of course, would be a bit insensitive. So perhaps hire the creative personality that coined the phrase “soft power outage”?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A new science of terrorism – and of everything else, no kidding!!

An op-ed piece on the NYT web site makes the point that the study of terrorism in recent years has apparently been ineffective – as it has not informed policies that could successfully counter the increase in terrorist activity around the globe. The solution? More randomized experiments – as this is the only method which can produce scientifically valid evaluations of the effectiveness of anti-terrosism tactics. So research on terrorism needs to adopt the same approach that has produced such magnificent advances in other areas – where scientists have identified interventions that effectively prevent problems as diverse as antisocial behavior, depression, schizophrenia, cigarette smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, academic failure, teenage pregnancy, marital discord and poverty. Of course, some of these problems have not exactly declined either, but such a complaint would probably come across as petty. As I was reading, I was reminded of another op-ed I had looked up a few minutes earlier as it appeared just beneath the pitch for scientific anti-terrorism rigor. Called "If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Even Know?," it pointed out that a shocking amount of what we’re reading is created not by humans, but by computer algorithms - and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. To me, the research methodology op-ed surely looked like one - but, if the byline is to be believed, it is written by a human.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Shallow and shallower

Coming back from “Human Capital,” the official Italian entry for the Oscars (and the first one to make me shed real tears in a long time), I looked up a couple of reviews. My verdict? The NYT piece takes to a promising start, but then falls on its face by concluding: “the movie has a third chapter that follows Serena into some messy, rather tedious melodramatic complications and something of a coda that only restates the obvious. It’s all handsomely managed, polished and professional, but the pieces are too neatly manufactured to feel as if anything is truly at stake.” The pitch for the Variety review is similarly clueless: “This slick, stylish fusion of class critique and murder mystery confirms Paolo Virzi as one of Italy's more dynamic directors.” But the title in The Guardian, which still positions itself as socially conscious, is particularly damning – for the critic (“the UK leading film critic,” if the BBC is still to be trusted) rather than for the movie he casually dismisses: “Stylish Yet Shallow Oscar Nominee.” There is much research indicating that our perceptions and ideas reflect to a greater extent how we function mentally and neurosomatically – as opposed to the qualities of external objects and phenomena (an issue I addressed in a recent article, "Out of Touch"; case in point: “the dress”). Which makes me feel for all those movie critics (and others) whom the movie left deeply unmoved. This, of course, in itself must be a sign of the times “Human Capital” sets out to deconstruct – and perhaps the main reason why it has become so hard to imagine a more humane alternative.

Satire will save the world – or at least politics

Dannagal G. Young, assistant professor of communications and professional comedian, has an inspiring cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review. The title says it all: “Lighten Up: How Satire Will Make American Politics Relevant Again.” The rather long piece carries no date, but was apparently typed before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert decided they needed to break out of their beloved satirical moulds. Young dismisses the usual hand-wringing that their shows have become the central news source for most younger Americans. She concludes: “Increasingly, scholars of political entertainment are challenging the notion that this process is worth protecting from the bastardizing influences of emotion, humor, and fun; especially if rationalizing politics means leaving normal people alienated from the language and rituals of politics. The key is in finding ways to show citizens that politics is not separate from their lives. Politics is people. People are social, emotional, and playful. We want to connect with our world and with each other, and enjoy doing it.” And when that fails, we may want to engage in wishful thinking  all the better if slightly self-serving.

Planet of the moody bitches

“Moody Bitches” is the, apparently, marketing-driven title of a new book by NYC psychiatrist Julie Holland. A few days ago she published an op-ed in the NYT, “Medicating Women’s Feelings,” timed to land a few days before the book’s release. There, she argues that evolution has designed women to be more sensitive to their environment and to others. They are constantly taught and pressured, however, to suppress their emotional responses – and fed medications to maintain a “new, medicated normal … at odds with women’s dynamic biology.” This new normal may include artificially elevated levels of serotonin – resulting in emotional blunting and stereotypically male inperviousness, self-assurance, and assertiveness (providing, come to think of it, a fix for the “confidence gap” identified by TV personalities Claire Shipman and Katty Kay). While initially it all smacks of a conspiracy theory, at some point in the article things become more ominous.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Survival of the least judged!?

Aeon carries a fascinating article on #epigenetics (“Plastic People”) by Julie Guthman and Becky Mansfield. It highlights the way in which our physical and social environment can shape human bodies and minds across generations. The authors also stress the futility of “seeking biographical solutions to systemic contradictions” (as Ulrich Beck once put it), and call for a shift of focus toward related public policies. In the conclusion, they also suggest researchers and popularizers may be drawing the wrong lesson from epigenetic studies: “at the least, they argue, we ought to be more alike and ever more vigilant about our lifestyles to maintain that normality. More: we ought to strive to be even better – with biomedicine promising to eradicate some of the differences that frighten us.” And the worst case scenario? “A biomedical future in which the perfect human is engineered: thin, smart, outgoing, heterosexual, gender-conforming, lacking physical disabilities, able to sit still and work hard, and (given widespread preference for light skin) white.

Monday, February 23, 2015

To #Putin – with super little love lost

#GaryShteyngart, the celebrated author of #SuperSadLoveStory, recounts on the NYT site the lessons he learned from a week of binging on Russian TV (“Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth”). One of the highlights in his acerbic account is the way in which Russian programs portray the West as culturally and morally degenerate – which ostensibly leaves #Russia as the only true bastion of spirituality and civilization. No surprise there – but this leaves me mulling the role of some Western cultural skeptics in the new theater of ideological warfare. People like "TheodoreDalrymple, #J.G.Ballard, #ChristopherLash, etc. – who have long decried the alleged social and cultural decadence, cult of personal disinhibition-cum-liberty, and casual non-judgmentalism engulfing their own societies. Or some feminists critical of seemingly pornographic or disempowering scoops on the mass culture market (like the #50shades franchise). Come to think of it, such cultural hedgehogs could similarly be seen as providing ideological fodder not just for Putin’s propaganda machine. They could also be censured as unwitting contributors to the recruitment campaigns of ISIS, al Qaeda, and their smaller siblings and offshoots. Why does everything have to be so super complicated, really?

Friday, February 20, 2015

#God is dead, have fun!

An article on “Soft #Atheism” includes this “humanist” ad from the London tube. Of course, there can be no other logical reason for practicing much inhibition.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Proud to be #Bulgarian!

Law professor William Ian Miller describes oh so beautifully the beauty of living without hope (“May You Have My Luck”).  Reading his piece reminded me of a frequently evoked Bulgarian proverb: “Mnogo dobro ne e na dobro.” Which translates loosely as: “Too much good fortune doesn’t bode well.” And which conveys better than a thousand books and articles Bulgaria’s status as, according to #TheEconomist, the unhappiest place on Earth as proportionate to GDP (“The Rich, the Poor and #Bulgaria”).

Just focus!?

Half a year ago, #MariaKonnikova published some tips on “Being a Better Reader” – citing much authoritative research/opinion to illustrate the depth of the problem. Her takeaway? “Maybe the decline of deep reading isn’t due to reading skill atrophy but to the need to develop a very different sort of skill, that of teaching yourself to focus your attention.” Perhaps, but there may be a slight problem with heeding this advice. According to research done by #neuroscientists like Anthony Jack and Matthew Lieberman, the relentless focus needed for non-casual online reading could interfere with the dreamy, “trance-like state of mind” associated with #deepreading (and evoked by #NicholasCarr in “The Dreams of Readers”). 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Do our #gadgets make us stupid?

Apparently not, in neuropsychologist Daniel Willingham’s informed judgment (“Smartphones Don’t Make Us Dumb”). He says being glued to screens for most of our waking hours does not diminish our ability to concentrate – since “mental reorganization at that scale happens over evolutionary time,” not within the lifespan of any individual. Instead, we (and our kids) are losing merely the desire to concentrate as we are lured by endless entertainment opportunities. Prof. Willingham also points to research showing “that the amount of leisure reading hasn’t changed with the advent of the digital age” – and, besides, “brainier hobbies have never been all that popular.” This raises all sorts of interesting questions – is the absence of statistically significant experimental evidence reliable evidence of absence? And what about some studies which contradict Willingham’s statements? Caleb Crain [“Twilight of the Books”], for example, has cited studies showing that “we are reading less as we age, and we are reading less than people who were our age ten or twenty years ago”; that between 1992 and 2003 the proportion of [American] adults who qualified as proficient readers (who could, for example, compare the viewpoints expressed in two editorials) declined from 15 to 13 percent”; that in the  Netherlands in the mid-1990s, college graduates born after 1969 were reading less than people without a college degree born before 1950; etc. Let’s hope this time the majority neuroscientific opinion is on more solid ground than the near-consensus which produced the assault on dietary fat, for example.