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.