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Entries highlight mostly the dangers of audiovisual pollution – and other hidden costs of our technological “civilization” which may seem worrying to a few easily disturbed minds…

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To Be Continued… 8 May 2008

Looking back, I can easily see that most of the entries from these last three years are a bit too gloomy, and most of my students would be unable to relate to them. I will not post new entries until I develop the ability to see some of the issues and trends described below in somewhat brighter light. “Positive psychology” to the rescue…

What’s Love to Do With It 8 May 2008

The New York Times organized an essay contest inviting college students to convey “what love is like for them.” Of the 1,200 essays submitted, 700 came in the last day, and 400 in the last hour before the deadline (no word of how many were sent after the deadline). The essay that won the top prize (Marguerite Fields, “Want to Be My Boyfriend? Please Define”) was really heart-braking. In it, a young woman describes or mentions dozens of encounters with “guys” of all kinds of backgrounds who all shared one defining characteristic – a profound inability to form an emotional attachment which they rationalized by rejecting the whole concept of monogamy and “belonging to someone” (this is a central theme in Brave New World). I wish that US Anglican bishop (from one of yesterday’s posts) would read the essay. Psychologists still assume that forming attachments is a basic ability responding to a fundamental human need – if they read this in-between their clever experiments, they should think twice. A couple of years ago the last issue of the old Wild Duck Review carried the title: “The End of Human Nature?” I am afraid the answer to this question is increasingly clear. Kay Hymowitz wrote some time ago that very provocative piece, “Child-Man in the Promised Land,” in which she described the difficulty many young men in the US now have growing up and becoming mature and responsible, well, men – capable, among other things, of lasting commitments and a degree of self-denial; or, put in simple biological terms, capable of pair-bonding. The article is controversial, yet almost everyone commenting beneath it either seemed in denial or attributed the behavioral changes Hymowitz describes to rational strategizing in the sea of sexually available young women – a social context in which young guys can receive all the benefits of family life without incurring any of the liabilities. At least until that proverbial mid-life crisis hits them, if it does… Meanwhile, my very best wishes go out to Marguerite and the millions of young women (and a few men) who are facing the same frustrations.

Intellectual Idol 8 May 2008

I just received an e-mail from Foreign Policy inviting me to cast an electronic ballot for the “top public intellectual.” The announcement refers to the 100 “top public intellectuals … who shape the tenor of our time” – including some who are “at the forefront of modern finance, politics, and human rights.” That looks as a curious reworking of the old job description. Of the top 100, 36 come from the US, and 30 from Europe. Quite improbably, the two disciplines most hospitable to high-flying public intellectualizing turned out to be economics and, ranked first, political science (which in recent decades has largely mimicked economics in its grasp for scientific credibility). I had to write in Benjamin Barber who didn’t make the cut – and how could he, facing such formidable opposition from the likes the likes of Robert Kagan and David Petraeus (who are on the list; Petraeus is listed as a “defense intellectual”). I checked to make sure – the web site of Foreign Policy still says it’s the “flagship magazine of the … Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.” Still, how flattering – to be given a say in crowning the next Mr. Public Intellectual; ironically, at a time when intellectuals have largely lost their social function and no amount of marketing/rebranding can restore them to the pedestal they once occupied. On second thought, probably the high distinction should go to Steven Levitt – as the aptest incarnation of the growing irrelevance of the species. It would also help him market his Freakonomics, the book which so nicely illustrates what has gone wrong with the social sciences modeled on 17-the century Newtonian physics.But Levitt probably doesn’t need this extra boost – his book has already sold over 3,000,000 copies, as it has been eagerly embraced by masses of people seeking to rationalize their own bizarre behaviors – and those of others.

Addicted to Self-Injury 7 may 2008

A story in yesterday’s New York Times (“The Growing Wave of Teenage Self-injury”) describes a new addiction – after the eating disorders – sweeping US teenagers (with around 15 per cent now “practicing” various forms of self-injury). The experts come up with the usual explanation – it’s another rational strategy, in this case for managing emotional overwhelm or isolation (with some kids forming “cutting clubs,” online “communities, and the like). Something is definitely happening with the brains of most kids, and it is strange how no one seems to grasp the enormity of the problem Yes, I know – the usual response is that ever since Plato (or the pyramids, or the caves) there have always been these worries about the degeneration of the younger generation, and they have always turned just fine, thank you. It has all been one healthy psychological adaptation after another. I am afraid, this time it’s for real. The human brain, which once developed to handle the challenges and stresses of the stimulus-poor African savannah is finally reaching the limits of healthy adaptation. There is a German report from almost 20 years ago (Michael Kneissle, “Research into Changes in Brain Formation”) which indicates that adaptation to the exceedingly complex, fast-paced, chronically stressful, and technology-saturated contemporary world now involves changes to brain wiring analogous to the physical changes in the organisms of those fish which have adapted to life at the bottom of the deep sea. Ironically, this neurological adaptation entails a growing inability to grasp the darker side of larger technological and social trends. So we’ll most likely continue, in Neil Postman’s memorable phrase, “amusing ourselves to death.” Meanwhile, the “market economy” will continue to whirl, supplying ever more targeted remedies for the epidemics of ever weirder neural syndromes it is creating (see 17 Aug. 2005 entry).

Art for Art’s Sake 7 May 2008

I was looking at some student-made photos in the AUBG lobby – a selection from a new photo magazine published by students. One of the brightest and most curious students in my intro course came by and expressed admiration for the photography on display. I said the pictures were great, but they were all somehow asocial – depicting natural objects or single individuals outside of any social context; I would have liked to see some indication of a stronger engagement with the social world. She just looked back and said: “Oh, but this is the most professional AUBG magazine.” I knew I couldn’t explain what I meant in 30 seconds, so I didn’t try. Then another bright and earnest student from the same class (who had the third highest score on the mid-term – out 0f 32 students) came by to ask a few questions related to the final. One of his questions was: what does the term “trade unions” (mentioned by one of our authors) mean? I gave the Bulgarian word which means literally “professional union.” The student asked: “And what is that.” I have to say I am not blaming those students – I am really not sure what I would have known about and how I would have related to the larger social world if I had faced similar pressures, temptations, and distractions in my childhood and youth. And I do hope at least some of my students will develop – courtesy of brain “plasticity” – some of the neural connections that will allow them to make associations and see the relevance of larger issues and ideas as they explore their immediate social milieu.

Written in Stone? 7 may 2008

I was listening the other day to an interview on BBC World Service with a gay bishop from the US Episcopal Church. He was asked if he condoned promiscuity, and he was emphatic that gay couples should be held up to the same standards of lifelong faithfulness and commitment as heterosexual couples. The obvious question is: why? Why should anyone be faithful for life to anyone else ion the contemporary world where sacred commandments no longer hold sway? And do those standards exist at all if more than 50 per cent of first marriages end in divorce in the US (these are current numbers, no one would venture a long-term forecast on this). I am reminded of Code 46, a dystopian movie in which the male protagonist (who is 40-something) has an affair with a young woman on the other side of the world. The evil “authorities,” however, prevent him from leaving behind his family and starting a new life with that other woman who could be his daughter 9on the basis of detected “genetic incompatibility”). Apparently, the new “norm” extolled in the movie is fulfilling one’s desires and freeing oneself from the shackles of old-fashioned obligations (including that “faithfulness” the bishop was referring to).

It’s Not Just the Kids Who Are in Trouble 6 May 2008

A British couple (a little below/over 30) took their family on vacation to Portugal. One evening they drank so much that they passed out in the hotel and the kids had to be put in care by the authorities. A couple of months ago a 15-year old girl in the US hang herself as she was submitted to a personal attack and unprovoked ostracism on the internet. What happened was that a former friend with whom she had broken up, assisted by her mother, devised a fake online persona of a teenage boy who established a virtual friendship with the girl. Then at some point the virtual boy wrote a vicious message saying he was dropping her because she had been rude to her friends. Other teenagers who were linked to the girl’s online profile started to taunt her with messages, and she committed suicide. One of the psychologists who commented on the case said in the past adults (the mother who assisted her daughter in getting her revenge was in her 30s) were expected to function at a different mental level as compared to their kids. Apparently, this can no longer be taken for granted. There are now countless articles describing how much more difficult it has become for many young “adults” (particularly young men) to really grow up and become mature, responsible individuals (and members of society).

Why Are Girls Fighting Like Boys? 5 May 2008

This is the title of a brief article published in the BBC News Magazine. It says “the number of violent offenses committed by girls aged from 10 to 17 … nearly doubled in three years” (from 2003 to 2006), and gives some gruesome examples (like a 15-year old girl who filmed a violent attack on a barman in London and then delivered the final kick to his head; he died in the incident). A girl interviewed for the article says: “Girl on girl fighting, scrapping, it’s become the norm now.” Another girl points to the adrenaline rush she gets from fighting: “Even when I get hit myself I get a rush from it.” Most girls cite binge drinking and drugs as the main reasons for “getting physical.” How do the experts respond to the question posed in the title above? An academic criminologist says such “female displays of aggression” is considered “deeply meaningful” since it “serve[s] to maintain group solidarity, reinforce friendships, affirm allegiances, and enhance personal status within the group.” In other words, fighting is a rational strategy deployed by girls seeking all those things. An NGO puts the blame on the abuse suffered by girls in many violent homes. Another expert says “the increase in female violence merely reflects the general rise in violence since the mid-80s.” He puts the blame on “destructive households and more alcohol abuse” as general factors behind this increase, and says that instead of seeking particular reasons for the seeming explosion of female aggression one should be “asking why society as a whole seems to be tacitly encouraging violence.” There are some obvious question here: has the number of abusive homes doubled as well, and if so why?; and why do girls now so easily reach for the bottle? It seems the alleged encouragement of violence mentioned above is more strongly related to the general erosion of social norms in society, and of self-control in many young people who now have no sense of authority, propriety, and limits. On the bright side, 90 per cent of the violent crimes in the 10-to-17 crowd are still committed by boys, and the increase there over the same three-year period is only 50 per cent. And the erosion of social norms, social inhibition, and authority is apparently not only a Bulgarian, or post-communist phenomenon in European societies. The article says at the beginning that hearing girls describe how they violently attacked someone is “somehow more shocking” as compared to similar accounts by boys. This can be taken as implying that it shouldn’t be so – women/girls should not be subjected to any bias and stereotyping. I am again reminded of that old cigarette ad copy: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Professor Happiness 2.0 4 May 2008

“Happiness” seems now to be a really hot topic. It was addressed in another BBC documentary which started by looking at the alleged distinction between pleasure or reward and a deeper and more lasting sense of happiness. They had the usual interview with a psychologist who studies happiness, this time Professor Diener. He explained with utterly dry seriousness how they go about measuring the subjective well-being of people around the world. He admitted that the responses to the “happiness” questionnaires were subjective, yet claimed they provided a valid measure of happiness – at least as valid as the indices reported by economists (which probably isn’t saying much); similarly, they could “predict” all sorts of things. And these measurements now can provide a new benchmark for judging the performance of governments – how happy do they really make us? In the whole documentary there was the usual confusion between correlation and causation. Countries that have democracy, stability, prosperity, working institutions “tend to be happy” (Switzerland tends to come at the top, with Belarus stuck at the bottom). But what really comes first? Or, a woman with a higher happiness score is able to hold her hand in icy water (what wouldn’t we do for the sake of science and, in this case, a small financial reward) 12 times longer than a less happy guy. At this point the voiceover acknowledged that it wasn’t entirely clear whether positive emotions (which are now taken to equal happiness – so much for that ancient quandary concerning the true meaning of happiness – whether it should be equated with “short bursts of pleasure”) enhance resilience, or resilient people tend to be happier. The psychologist who conducted the experiment, though, clearly emphasized the positive effects of positive emotions. Referring a famous example (those nuns who in their autobiographies written in the 1930s expressed a more positive outlook lived longer) the authors concluded there was “scientific evidence” that if we count your blessings and are joyful on a regular basis, we would be likely to live longer (the psychologist said the difference in attitudes “causes” a difference in life expectancy of nine years, while smoking a pack of cigarettes a day is likely to shorten your life, on average, by only three years). Happiness (which, by the way, can be enhanced by doing things for others – rational-choice theorists would probably be surprised to hear that) thus brings as added bonuses better health, a longer life, and better performance at all sorts of tasks. Barry Schwartz says in his TED lecture (to an uproar of laughter) that the secret of happiness is low expectations – thus you avoid being constantly disappointed. I would add – a degree of open-eyed naiveté doesn’t hurt either. Unless you suspect that it brings, as Marcuse says, “euphoria in unhappiness.”

After Authority 2.0 4 May 2008

Another scene reminiscent of the Rihana concert. Six teenagers (four boys and two girls, maybe in ninth grade) were riding on a Sofia tram. They were talking and laughing really loudly, and at one point one of the boys dropped a large plastic bottle of beer which rolled around for a while. Two elderly women tried to scold them mildly them before getting off the tram. Their remarks were met with the usual nonchalance and derision. Then two of the boys started boasting how they would never validate a ticket on the Sofia public transport network, and would never ever pay a fine when caught. All laughed with knowing approval. At that point, they saw one of those elderly men hired to check the passengers’ tickets. It turned out four of the group did have passes provided for by their more responsible (or less fearsome) parents. The two boys who prided themselves on traveling gratis took tickets out and laughed loudly as they validated them before the eyes of the official, taunting him and requesting with mock respect to have their tickets checked. One took his cell phone to take a picture of – ostensibly – the only ticket he had punched in his life. Then they continued laughing and shouting, with one of the girls sitting on the knee of one of the boys (without any sign that they were romantically involved). To me it was a chilling picture. In an upper level course this semester we read Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism and there was a vivid illustration of what he described right there: that total self-indulgent impulsivity in the absence of any credible rules, and the related loss of any sense of authority. My next thought was how different our mental functioning was. Taking only the decibels they generated, the cliché “generation gap” doesn’t even begin to describe that difference.

Conspicuous Consumption Forever 2 May 2007

An article in the Wall Street Journal describes a watch introduced recently by a high-end Swiss company. It doesn’t show the time (indicates only if it is day or night), costs $300,000, and immediately sold out (the article doesn’t say how many were distributed). Quite strangely, almost all the readers commenting on the web page beneath the article are quite puzzled – apparently, they are unaware of the old concept of “conspicuous consumption.” The watch itself has some very complicated mechanics, and in the promotional materials the company in fact claims that it introduces a very innovative way to relate to time. I am wondering if “Professor Happiness” would consider buying one of these a really cool idea…

Concerned Social Scientists 1 May 2007

A British (or US?) psychologist was asked on BBC World Service if she thought the woman who had spent 24 years imprisoned by her father would be able to adjust and lead a “normal” life. She said she was usually optimistic about her patients, and so no reason not to be optimistic in this case. Yes, helping such a traumatized person wouldn’t be easy, but if she were put in a supportive environment where she could express her emotions without feeling threatened, she could very well achieve a degree of psychological well-being. The psychologist was all the time speaking in an even and confident voice which didn’t betray any emotion. On another program, a US economist was asked if the rest of the world should be concerned about any spillover effects from the continuing financial meltdown in the US. He responded: “Oh, sure…” But his voice similarly showed no anxiety or any other emotion. In a class we discussed an article written 11 years ago in which Mark Edmundson (“On the Uses of a Liberal Education,” Harpers, 1997) complains that his students are unable to relate to a complex tragic view of the world (similar to the one underlying Freud’s theories). So, maybe some of his students have gone on to graduate school and are now being interviewed on BBC? Or the social sciences have been taken over by people who, because they don’t have strong emotional reactivity to potentially disturbing “stimuli,” have a similarly limited ability to understand the tragic nature of much of human existence?

Building What? 30 April 2008

A BBC documentary describes the efforts of US troops in Iraq to promote “nation-building.” It mentions cases (it seems, quite typical) where local contractors received tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars to build a water treatment plant orb something of the sort, and disappeared with the money. As the US troops investigated such cases, some of the locals would lie to them about alleged misdeeds by other Iraqis against whom they had some personal vendettas. This looks like a metaphor for all those countries where Western-style institutions have been suspended into a quasi-traditional (in this case, what used to be called “tribal”) social context. The US troops, with their dark glasses and high-tech headgear looked as if they were from outer space. The way they communicated when their faces were exposed, however, similarly betrayed a very different mental and emotional life. Another BBC documentary looked at the experience of elite British forces in Afghanistan. The Brits definitely looked less extraterrestrial (a difference which is difficult to pin down) – but maybe this is the reason why they have been much more cautious in their military operations and have not really tried to accomplish much in places like Basra. An officer interviewed for the program initially boasted his experience in Afghanistan had been “everything [he] wanted it to be,” and said it would be “no problem coming back again.” He had the usual half-smile on his face as he described the adrenaline rush he gets from that experience.” Then he spoke of the extreme strains on his and other soldiers’ families, mentioned his wife Natasha and his two young daughters – and was overwhelmed by emotion. He took his head in his hands and bent it down, apparently to hide the tears running down his cheeks. It was really uplifting to see that someone in his position is still capable of displaying such strong emotions while speaking before a camera.

How Could That Happen? 30 April 2008

A BBC documentary looked back at the shooting rampage a year ago at Virginia Tech, trying to find out why someone would do something so senseless and unfathomable. The police looked for a personal motive, but did’t find any. The Korean-American student wasn’t insane, and prepared methodically for his shooting spree. In high school he has been very withdrawn (a pattern which persisted in college), and had been diagnosed with one of those countless new “disorders” – “selective mutism” (meaning, most of the time he wouldn’t communicate verbally). The head of the English department, a British poet, noted, however, she thought that diagnosis was ironic – apparently, his “mutism” was very selective, since he did engage in long conversations with her. The student came to Virginia Tech to study (as if to fit the stereotype of a quasi-autistic male student of Asian descent) Business Information Systems, but then developed an interest in “creative writing.” In fact, he wrote a novel which was rejected by publishers. This reinforced the overall sense of humiliation, injustice, oppression, and justified anger which was evident in some of his writings. In high school he had already developed a fascination and identification with the Columbine shooters, and now decided to act on those fantasies. In the videos he recorded he said something like: “You have forced me into a corner … the decision was yours … now you have blood on your hands.” The authors “the market for mediocre English “majors” was understandably limited, and the student chose a fantasy of victimhood before the reality of failure. But I am afraid that clear line between “fantasy” and “reality” is now a thing of the past. There were also some hints that the student’s troubles might have been partly exacerbated by his Korean upbringing, since in that society being modest and quiet was still considered – can you believe it – a virtue. I also expected some reference to the more fatalistic outlook typical of some non-Western cultures, but that apparently would have been too politically incorrect. Most of the students who had witnessed the shooting (and had themselves been shot at and wounded) spoke of their experiences with the usual obligatory smile which to me seemed a bit misplaced. (In one of our daughter’s favorite episodes of Hannah Montana a flight attendant is trying to discipline some misbehaving children. She says something like: “I really help you, but I must keep smiling…” As we were getting off the plane after one of the multiple legs we did during our recent trip to the States, our daughter commented looking back at the flight attendants standing at the exit of the airplane: “That’s must be a really stupid job – to have to smile at everyone leaving the plane.” At that point, she hadn’t yet seen the Hannah Montana episode – she discovered the show in the States. It seems she will one day need to make a real effort if she wants to become an American – as her birth certificate says she is. I am also recalling an old episode of George Carline’s (?) show in which he had some kind of facial paralysis and was unable to wipe that smile off his face, no matter how inappropriate it was in different situations.) One of the students casually explained how a bullet hit the wall two inches above her head, and as she was brushing away the dust she was hit by several bullets. Her whole manner of speaking was utterly casual: “He cam back a couple of times…” and the like.

Everyone Did It 29 April 2008

Fatih Akin, the young Turkish-German director, has another movie out. The German title, On the Other Side, has been jazzed up for international distribution, so in English the movie is publicized as The Edge of Heaven. It won Akin four of the German Oscars, yet it doesn’t seem so emotionally powerful as his previous Head On. Some interviews make more or less clear why the new movie is different. Apparently Akin is ticked by being stereotyped as “Turkish,” and wants to assert his individual creativity as the main source of his artistic success. The way to do it was to shift his attention from intercultural issues (the complexities of which he was able to convey with sometimes scary intensity in his earlier movie) to intergenerational themes (an ostensibly more universal topic – treated more blandly despite efforts to spice it up with abundant sexual references and imagery). To me, at least, such an attempt to deny the formative power of one’s cultural background and non-Western identity sounds a bit pathetic. Of course, we don’t want to be overly judgmental, but I won’t be holding my breath in expectation of Akin’s next movie. This latest one, though, does have its “delicious” moments. For example, this exchange between a German college student and her mother: The daughter, about to take off for Turkey, asks her mother if she ever went there. The mother responds something like: “Yes, 30 years ago, as I was hitch-hiking my way to India. Everyone was doing it back then.”

It Can’t Happen Here 29 April 2008

The papers are full of stories and comments about the 73-year Austrian man who kept his daughter in an underground dungeon and fathered her seven children. This untold tragedy unfolded over 24 years, with the neighbors – and his wife! – totally unsuspecting. This is the second similar case in two years, after in 2006 a 19-year old woman was able to escape from her captor who had subjected her to similar treatment (minus the children) for eight years. Curiously, some of the Austrian commentators hint those case could be an indication that there are some dark forces lurking under the clean orderliness of middle-class Austrian society. Still, most of the comments turn around why didn’t the neighbors – and the authorities – understand something wrong was going on for such a long time. Particularly the neighbors – why didn’t they alert anyone about the enormous quantities of groceries the family next door were wheelbarrowing daily into the house? What does it say about the detachment (the fashionable word once was – yes – “alienation”) and indifference that that seems to have spread in Austrian society? I would say there are some more profound questions here. Now Freud is of course considered passé, particularly the emphasis he put on sexual repression as the ultimate source of all kinds of neuroses. Could he have put his finger, though, on a dark side of Austrian bourgeois life which is still partly there almost a century later? What’s really striking is how much planning and effort it took that Austrian mechanic to carry through with his diabolical plan – to build that soundproof underground bunker, install that heavy, automatic door, lead that double life… He also provided ultraviolet light, vitamin pills, and a fish aquarium for his “downstairs family.” I wish I had the mental strength to be so focused and persistent in my more trivial pursuits. I rarely express categorical opinions on complex social issues, but now I am tempted to do it. I will repeat what Sinclair Lewis once says about the prospects of Faschism taking hold in the US – “It can’t happen here!” Luckily – in this case – it seems “our” “civilizing process” (which in Freud’s and Elias’s reading involves the gradual suppression/inhibition of various instinctive desires and impulses – sexual and others) has not made those vast strides – yet. And maybe, with the advent of ubiquitous social permissiveness, intense temptations, and multiple channels for instant gratification, it never will – for bad and for good. Meanwhile, Austria’s government has launched a crisis-management PR campaign seeking to rebrand the country (called in a British newspaper the “land of dungeons”). Both the chancellor and the president made statements that the horrible crime was perpetrated by an individual criminal, and the chancellor said his government would do everything to protect the reputation of the country. Oh, yes – in the global “knowledge economy” those intangible assets” have so incredibly important.

The Koreans Are Coming 28 April 2008

A New York Times story (the most-e-mailed article today) describes two Korean boarding schools which have specialized in preparing their charges for admission into US Ivy League schools. Apparently, this is now a big vogue in Korea, and the most ambitious students (and their families) would aim for nothing less. The regimen is really grueling – classes and activities start at 7:00 a.m. and run until 11:00 p.m., with many students cramming until 2:00 a.m., when the lights in the dorms are turned off. The results are seemingly impressive – one of the schools boasts a combined average SAT score of over 2,200 (out of 2,400, 200 points higher than the number for a comparable top US school). And, yes, most of the students do get into those top US colleges and universities. This is really ironic, though. Now there is all this talk of the “creative economy” ostensibly driven by the right hemisphere of the brain – properly unhinged from excessive left-hemisphere inhibitions. The son of Betty Edwards who in the 1980s wrote the highly popular Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is now teaching seminars at corporate headquarters advising senior executives on how to do precisely this. My guess is such lessons would be completely lost on those poor Korean students whose countless hours of chronic stress and lost sleep will probably leave their brains ill prepared for any excessive flights of the imagination. The latter, though, are probably better preserved for the alphas – and there will, as we know from Huxley, always be a need for numerous betas to do with untiring and unquestioning diligence the more mundane tasks needed to keep the wheels turning…

The Crisis of Understanding Mamet Didn’t Foresee 28 April 2008

One of AUBG’s student-run electronic bulletins, FlashNews, carries a story about a student performance of Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a provocative play by David Mamet. The students in the audience were intrigued and impressed – all that sexually explicit language, and – as a bonus – one of the student actors accidentally broke a chair – twice. Nedyalko Delchev, out theater professor, said he was very pleased with all the interest the play provoked, and if just one student in the audience would become a Mamet fan, he would be happy. I’ll put it differently. The FlashNews article mentions in passing that Mamet wanted to dramatize the moral crisis which seemed to be gripping American society in the 1970s. If a few students in the audience (and among the 22 students who took turns to play the four characters in the play) were able to see and feel that beneath all the spicy dialogue – that would have been a true accomplishment.

The Classroom as Playroom 27 April 2008
An article in The New York Times (“Study Suggests Math Teachers Scrap Balls and Slices,” 25 Apr.) says new research found that using real-world examples and “manipulatives” (cubes, balls, slices of pizza) to teach abstract concepts is probably counterproductive. Students seem to get hooked on the immediate examples, and those may obscure rather than reveal the larger concepts. I guess, though, the temptation to make virtue out of necessity will be just too overwhelming for such a skeptical lesson to sink in. I was looking at a piece by a prominent anthropologist who teaches large intro classes at a big state university. He says students face a “crisis of significance,” and he has a recipe for solving it. The recipe is simple: organize much of the course as one giant World Simulation. You are the Inuit, you are BP – now try to solve all those multiple problems “spaceship Earth” is facing. It all comes alive! The students quickly realize that – yes! – it is up to us to shape our own – and the world’s – future, and the whole crisis of significance magically vanishes… The professor has received several teaching awards for this innovative solution, and was recently invited to introduce its rationale on a popular anthropology blog.

Being There 26 April 2008

Back in January, it was revealed that Prince Harry had been serving in the Helmand province in Afghanistan, where some of the most vicious fighting against the resurgent neo-Taliban was taking place. His deployment had been a transparent propaganda/PR exercise, to which British editors had conceded in order to help protect the prince. Once Harry’s cover was blown, he was flown back to the UK, amidst torrents of news coverage splashed across TV screens, internet and newspaper pages. A typical comment from the prince himself ran like this: “It's just really nice to be out here.” And: “It's very nice to be sort of a normal person for once, I think it's about as normal as I'm going to get.” I wish I could say those niceties sounded like “normal” comments from someone who had been on a really vicious frontline for 10 weeks. Two months ago there was a lengthy report in The New York Times Magazine (Elizabeth Rubin, “Battle Company Is Out There,” Feb. 24) which painted a harrowing picture of the physical and mental torment suffered by US soldiers under similar circumstance (with many of them diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and prescribed medication). British soldiers have always been a lot tougher, but Harry’s casual remarks can also raise a curious question: to what extent is the human ability to adapt to inhuman environments “normal” and healthy – concerning not just combat zones but also aspects of the whole “civilizing process” and the high-paced, high-stress, simulated milieu it creates?

Freedom in Bulgaria 26 April 2008

I am looking at the web site of Sega, a pro-Russian Bulgarian “daily.” “Daily” is in “…” because, apparently, in this case it doesn’t mean what it is supposed to mean. The site says the next issue of the paper will be published on … May 7 – following the Orthodox Easter, Mayday, and St. George’s day (an official holiday). Almost ten years ago, during my first semester at AUBG, I was a bit taken aback when a bright second-year student stated confidently in one of my classes that most people in Bulgaria were in fact much freer than most Americans. It seems she was perfectly right – if we assume that freedom from toil does form a significant part of the larger pursuit of human liberty.

Beyond Politics 26 April 2008

As part of a cabinet reshuffle in Spain, the 37-year old, seven-months pregnant minister in charge of city planning was surprisingly given the defense portfolio (after spending seven months in her previous position). Also, the cabinet now has a majority of female ministers. Now, there is little doubt that in the future most important positions in most areas (except, maybe, for some at the very top) will be occupied by women. A look at the graduation numbers for high schools and colleges in the US easily testifies to that. Currently, though, such a bold political move probably doesn’t amount to anything more – or less – than another PR exercise. It sometimes seems politics has been emptied of any “content” to such an extent that it’s no longer clear what political science still studies – really.

Ethical What? 24 Apri 2004

I just noticed that The Guardian, an allegedly leftist paper, has a section peddling advice on “ethical fashion.” An item there pitches “sustainable chick.” Now, that’s a clever idea – extolling the joys of ethical/sustainable/green/fair… consumerism. Or of that diffuse (as opposed to Big Brotherly) “newspeak” from which there is no hiding place? Oh, and it turns out “the battle for the most ethical airline” is now taking off…

Professor Happiness 22 April 2008

The New York Times carries a profile (“The Smiling Professor”) of Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert who studies with true scientific rigor happiness. The article says Gilbert is known as Professor Happiness, and the title of his best-selling book on the subject, Stumbling on Happiness, also hints at a sense of playful improvisation. When Gilbert opens his mouth, though, he tends to utter the driest social science jargon: “The data shows that the best predictor of happiness is this and that” (or something of the sort). And get this: Gilbert claims that experiences bring more happiness than things. Is this meant to dissuade you from your next consumerist binge? No, just make sure that you buy experiences, not mere things. For example, Gilbert spent a small fortune on a first-class trip to Dallas, but it brought him so much surplus delight, that he thinks it was money well spent. Now that’s an excellent role model – for students and everyone else. I also have some news for Gilbert: the time when young people bought mere “things” are long gone. Now every little “thing” comes with some story/imagery attached promising the most exhilarating – yes, you guessed it – experiences and associations. That is, if you buy into that seductive dreamworld of marketing and advertising.

Neocon Nation 20 April 2008

Eminent neoconservative Rober Kagan argues (“Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776,” World Affairs, Spring 2008) that what is now misleadingly labeled “neoconservatism” is the same old doctrine of the “manifest destiny” of the US and its noble mission in the world – nothing less and nothing more. It has been at the bottom of everything good and everything bad that the US has done over the centuries on the global stage, and, by the way, neoconservatism/ves should not be blamed for initiating the invasion of Iraq. That invasion was, it seems, truly destiny, or at least an expression of everything America has always stood for, nobly or foolishly. The funnier part is that Kagan (foreign policy adviser to John McCain) is now senior associate – no, not at the Hoover Institution or the American Enterprise Institute – but at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Or maybe this is just another illustration of how mainstream neoconservatism has now become – even if it wasn’t in the past? Or of the Straussian idea that the knowing elite can legitimately spread falsehoods (oops, “noble lies”) that can glue society back together? By the way, the article appears to be part of a promo campaign for Kagan’s next book. Maybe this is the larger lesson here.

The Opportunity Cost of Making Money 18 April 2008

A review of one of the numerous books trying to apply mathematical modeling to real-world decisions (there is now an insatiable market for those – Levitt has already sold over 3,000,000 copies of Freakonomics) mentions that according to the author, the opportunity cost of reading a book that itself costs $10 is equal to its price for someone who makes $10 an hour – provided that he/she reads the book in one hour. For a more highly-paid professional, though, that opportunity cost could be $100, $1,000, even $1,000,000 (someone once joked that if Bill Gates dropped a 100-dollar bill on the ground – or something of the kind – the opportunity cost for him of picking it up would exceed its value; on a more serious note, last year the to 50 managers of hedge funds earned a total of $29 billion). That’s a really peculiar way of looking at the world – assuming that $ is the ultimate expression of value. How about someone saying that the “opportunity cost” of making all that money is n unread books, n hours spent away from your “loved ones,” n hours of downtime, etc. (where n often tends toward infinity – or whatever the proper math terminology)?

Old Sins, New Virtues 16 April 2008

P.J.O’Rourke pokes fun at efforts by the Vatican to publicize seven new, clumsily defined deadly sins – like “causing poverty” and (causing?) “social inequality and injustice” (“Seven New Deadly Sins Suitably Updated,” Weekly Standard, 14 Apr. 2008). In his view, while the new list is problematic, particularly from a PR point of view, an update as such may be sorely needed. In his words, “life has changed since Pope Gregory the Great scribbled his initial list in the sixth century. For one thing modern society has turned Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Sloth, and Greed into virtues: building self-esteem, dreaming your dream, exercising gourmet tastes, having satisfying sex for life, speaking truth to power, being relaxed and centered. And Gordon Gekko said it all about greed.” Funnily, even Gekko (who was supposed to personify greed on the screen back in the 1980s) now looks strangely old-fashioned.

The Simpsons Forever 15 April 2008

As a big ego boost, I was invited to give a little speech at this year’s AUBG honors convocation, and – being constitutionally incapable of saying “no” to almost anything – I agreed. I came up with a short (below four minutes), properly uplifting text which used as a humorous ice-breaker a reference to the Simpsons, praised students in the audience for how much they had accomplished in the area of liberal education, and then moved on to make an emphatic plea: please take seriously that sometimes forgotten traditional goal of liberal learning – developing a sensitivity to the moral complexities involved in using all those job-related “skills” you have acquired in the service of dubious economic and political goals. Needless to say, that latter point was illustrated by what I thought was a really catchy anecdote: an engineering professor once asked his students to design an improved electric chair, and then failed everyone who submitted the assignment. At the reception following the ceremony a few students complemented me on the Simpsons line. And the next day the story in FlashNews (one of the student-run electronic bulletins at AUBG) summarized my speech – completely omitting that ethical lesson I wanted to provoke students to consider really, really earnestly…

Trust and Distrust 13 April 2008

I was trying to explain to our 11-year old daughter the theory according to which trust of strangers and institutions is necessary for the proper functioning of society and economic growth. I was trying to hint that maybe she (who is generally more skeptical about anything than most of my students) should not excessively distrust people (in her case, children) she doesn’t know closely. She got the general idea, but remained unconvinced. She said: “Yes, but now I live in times when people do mistrust each other.”

Brave New World? 11 April 2008

It has been more than a month since I and our daughter returned from her first trip to the States – her native country, which she left with us when she was 18 months old. We stayed with friends in Chicago and Florida, and she was quite impressed – particularly with that picturesque and quiet suburb in Florida. There were, though, a few things that puzzled her. The first night we were alone in the apartment of our friend in Chicago and were trying to figure out how to work with the remote control (which, in this case, was supposed to control everything – the giant TV, some kind of digital box, the sound system, satellite radio, and maybe other things), operate the somewhat unusual shower, and a few other things. Her perceptive comment was: “Everything here is too complicated.” In Busch Gardens, a major amusement park on the outskirts of Tampa, we saw some parents keeping their toddlers on leashes attached to a fake backpack – admittedly, a very clever device. Our daughter was shocked that kids could be led on leashes like dogs – apparently, she had not yet grasped the deeper wisdom of utilitarianism. In the big bookstores we were amazed by all the vast displays of merchandize associated with popular TV series for kids and teenagers – particularly Hannah Montana. In one of the discount stores I was really unprepared to discover that even Miss Little Sunshine, ostensibly a social satire dsespite the obligatory Hollywood happy ending, has been merchandized – they were selling kids’ pajamas with signs reading “Miss Little” this and that (P.S. A few months later, courtesy of the wonders of globalization, the same stuff was available in Bulgaria . In one of the bookstores, they had on display a series of books carrying titles pointing to the age of the characters and/or the target audience: “11,” “12,” “13,” etc. On the cover of “13,” a boy had his arm flung around the shoulder/neck of a girl, a pose suggesting a degree of intimacy I don’t yet associate with that age – perhaps because I am old-fashioned. This is a syndrome that is fast coming to Bulgaria, though. A few months back I noticed similar suggestive scenes in one of the comics-style magazines our daughter is reading. Since the characters (and the target audience) seem to be in maybe fifth or sixth grade, I noted that it was perhaps premature for kids of that age to “fall in love,” and there might be story twists that would be more interesting to young (really young) girls. She said that in fact the earlier issues of the magazine did not emphasize so much those “love” themes, had real kids stuff in them, and were therefore much more interesting. I assume, though, the focus groups conducted for the publishers told them otherwise. I truly wish I could say the “transition” in Bulgaria has created a healthier environment for raising kids – and for them to grow up..

Massive Word Inflation 21 January 2008

I was listening to a segment about the opening game of the African Cup of Nations (the continent’s soccer championship hosted this year by Ghana) on BBC World Service. In a five-minute report, they used the word “massive” four times – and I didn’t count all the adjectives and adverbs like “amazing,” “absolutely,” etc. it’s a familiar problem for advertisers – to “break through the clutter” and grab/hold someone’s attention, or just make an impression, you need ever more bombastic language/messages. The problem is, at some point those overused words cease to mean anything – and then you need to move to the next level of verbal “shock and awe.” And then the cycle is repeated. My favorite in recent months is the word “delicious” used with all kind of non-food-related items.

P.S. A more recent book review in The New York Times describes a new novel by a young author as “ferociously beautiful.” Really, what comes next?

Mission Impossible 9 January 2008

There was a report on BBC World Service about the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. It featured an interview with Negroponte, the head of the One Laptop per Child charity. He complained about the attempts of Intel to undercut his project and market their own Intel-branded cheap laptop to third-world governments – a conflict which eventually ended their partnership. Negroponte’s punch line was something like: “They have to understand children in poor countries are a mission, not a market.” Really? Did he believe Intel were a missionary organization when he signed up with them? Another problem with Negroponte’s statement is that it sounds very much as clever PR for his own project – with the nice alliteration and everything; though maybe it wasn’t intended that way. But the bottom line is, we now live in a world where the market provides the dominant metaphor investing our lives with meaning – sort of. On a Bulgarian TV station last night there was also a segment on the Las Vegas trade show. The caption at the bottom of the screen read: “New Technologies for an Easier Life.” Apparently, this was meant in all seriousness. I am still thinking of that proverbial “digital divide.” My hypothesis would be that children who are just on the other side of it – that is, with access to some information technologies, but not fully wired; and more importantly, still used to playing outside rather than spending most of their time glued to any kind of screen, have a better chance to develop their brains and thinking.

Another Instance of Cool-Headed Analysis, Callousness, etc. 9 January 2008

Max Telecom, some kind of high-tech company created by a high-profile Bulgarian businessman, has recently launched the most vulgar ad campaign in recent memory. It features a young guy besieged by yarning young women, who at one points pulls away the front of his boxers and looks down at his “package” – whose size is the apparent explanation for his attractiveness and popularity. The same image features on billboard and on print ads, which urge potential customers to call a phone line and check the size of their “package” (the service package they would receive for the stipulated fee. I was curious to see if there are some comments on the net, and found a discussion among some advertising types. They see two main problems with the positioning strategy of the company: 1) the “lifestyle operator” slogan/label they have chosen does not reflect well the kind of communication services they are offering; 2) their prices are quite steep, which means that their target group are young men with suits, ties, and laptops; the crudity of the imagery, though, seems better suited for a product targeted at cab/bus drivers. Someone mentions that, at least, the ads got noticed; and a young woman says the ads did grab her attention. Is this really the biggest problem young professionals should notice when analyzing such a disgusting campaign? Apparently, they don’t find it all that disgusting – and this is the real problem. See the reference to the importance of some negative emotions (disgust, but, most of all, appropriate levels of anxiety) for social/economic/political functioning (Jan. 7).

Economic Newspeak 9 January 2008

An economist interviewed on BBC World Service mused whether the US economy could “start growing negatively.” There are also common references to negative “growth” in demographic analysis. If you ask me, this is recession/reduction/decline/… - anything, but not “growth ”preceded by any kind of qualifier.

Rational Choice as the Ultimate Analytical Tool 8 January 2008

At the trial of Charles Taylor someone described a horrible crime he had witnessed at the hands of rebels under Taylor’s ultimate command. The rebels had captured several dozen people, separated the men, and gunned them down. Then a group of child soldiers were ordered to cut their heads. An expert who was interviewed said the rebels had used such horrific actions “in order to instill fear” in the civilian population. This is a common tendency among experts analyzing such unfathomable crimes – executions, beheadings, mass rape, suicide bombings, etc. This habitual effort to rationalize violent extremes by extrapolating the utilitarian/instrumental logic of Western social action to all kinds of distant cultural contexts would have been almost amusing – if the vents involved weren’t so tragic. I am also thinking of the recent political violence in Kenya, committed mostly by young men. Is this another case of a carefully orchestrated political and executed political strategy?

Change in the Air 8 January 2008

Obama said in a speech earlier today that that the same old folks who had spent decades in Washington could not be trusted to effect the change everyone though was needed. His exact words were something like: “we cannot take the gamble/risk to elect them again,” apparently in response to Hilary’s warnings that voting for someone as inexperienced as Obama would amount to an electoral gamble. Now, this does look as real “change” – taking campaigning spin to whole new hights…

A Different Kind of Emotional Callousness 7 January 2008

The previous item reminded me of a different kind of display of a really thick emotional skin. Right after New Year, Bulgaria was buried under unusually heavy snowfall, and thousands of people were stranded in their cars or buses for many hours. During the first three days of the disaster, the minister in charge of organizing the response to such emergencies was on leave. When she finally materialized in front of the TV cameras, she claimed that she had been in touch with municipal officials in the worst affected areas (they denied there had been any such contacts when asked by journalists), blamed mostly reckless motorists for disregarding the perils of travel under snowy road conditions, and complained she had to cut her vacation short. The same thing happened over the summer when there were large-scale forest fires in south-eastern Bulgaria. Then it similarly took the minister a couple of days to take that complex decision – to come back from her vacation in Nice, were she was staying in the company of the wife of a high-profile businessman (which in the Bulgarian context usually means someone who has made a fortune using political connection, or even more questionable business practices).

Moving on 7 January 2008

There was an interview on BBC World with the father and step mother of a 20-year old young woman who had been gunned down at Virginia Tech. Both spoke with calm poise – apparently, they have been coping quite well with their loss. For comparison purposes, there was another interview with the mother of a two-year old girl who had died in a fire more than 20 years ago (in the case involving that hapless Brit who was released from death row in the states). Apparently, there are vast differences in the ability of individuals to cope and move on following personal tragedies (another case: as a graduate student I had a teacher who during a class was cracking the usual jokes and casting the usual smiles; after the class, a student who apparently had a closer relationship with her asked her how her father was doing; she responded: “Oh, he is dying” – he had been struggling withn cancer). I am reminded of de Zengotita’s stunning article, “The Numbing of the American Mind,” which came out in Harper’s a couple of years ago. In it, he decries the ease with which his “fellow Americans”have learned to move on after tragic events – even ones on the scale of Sep. 11. It seems though, this sensibility is spreading among the younger generation around the world. Last year I had an extremely bright student who tried to argue that such easy coping was mostly a blessing – what’s the use of wringing wour hands over those spilled beans? De Zengotita’s explanation for such newly found abilities is simple (in social science jargon, “elegant”). He says it all comes down to the kind of emotional numbing induced by the complexity and fast pace of modern life, plus all the sensory overload produced by the electronic media (I would say – any kind of flickering screen). I wish there was a more benign explanation. Obviously, the kind of human beings who emerged in the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago, cannot easily survive the stresses of modern life without developing an ability to dissociate – this now seems like a crucial social competence (there is a consultant who has coined the term “neurocompetitive advantage” – this is the kind of edge he is helping companies acquire). And an afterthought: there is a lot of neurological research suggesting that the ability to experience a range of appropriate emotional reactions (including negative ones) is a key ingredient of competent decision making both in everyday life and by politicians and other top “executives.”

D-Day 7 January 2008

Today (the first Monday of the year) is apparently the day when the largest number of people file for divorce. There is a lot of speculation as to why divorce rates have gone up by so much in many countries. Some even see this as another step along the long way toward human liberation. In the past, the story goes, many people (particularly women) would stay within unsatisfactory or even abusive marriages. Now they are free to move on and seek another soul mate. Here is a disturbing thought. In The Culture of Narcissism social critic Christopher Lasch describes – what else – the growth and spread of an extreme, to him self-defeating, form of individualism in the US in the 1960s and 70s. Since then, we have come a long way – maybe heading to a point where most people, preoccupied with their own psychological gratification, will be incapable of forming a life-long companionship with another human being. This is apparent from the essay of that female student who won the New Your Times essay competition on the topic of “contemporary love.” In it, she describes numerous encounters with young males as part of her quest to find a romantic partner. They had very diverse backgrounds and personalities, but had one thing in common: a total inability (rationalized as a rational choice, and even a requirement proceeding from mutual respect and tolerance) to engage in pair-bonding.

Bespredel III 7 January 2008

A 15-year old Chinese boy was kidnapped by classmates who planned to extort a ransom from his wealthy father. Meanwhile they beat and killed him.

The Right to Die Redux 6 January 2008

A polar bear at the Nuremberg zoo gave birth to three cubs. The problem is, she is a negligent mother and doesn’t breast-feed her babies who are crying out from their artificial cave in hunger. There is some public pressure to hand-feed the cubs, but the zoo administration are resisting. They are saying nature should be allowed to take its course, and any human intervention would prevent the adult bear from ever becoming a competent parent. In fact, they are prepared to let the cubs dye of hunger rather than hand-feed them. There was a similar story last year when the administration of the Berlin zoo decided to save Knut (now a mega-celebrity that has appeared on the covers of glossy magazines and has a movie deal offer from Hollywood) under similar circumstances. In that case, animal rights activists argued against hand-feeding him, apparently thinking that a small good now could lead to greater general harm to animals and their natural habitats. Sometimes I wish I had the heart (or stomach) to make such cool-headed and carefully considered decisions, though probably I shouldn’t.

Change in the Air? 6 January 2008

Here is a rare entry on politics. Barak Obama appears to have stunned the Democratic political establishment by the size of his victory in Iowa. It seems voters are eager for change, and he is keen to play to those expectations. Appearing relaxed yet engaging, he spoke before a crowd at a New Hampshire high school and was nearly mobbed by supporters. He stood under a huge banner condensing his overall message: “Change.” And the word appeared in almost every sentence he uttered – sometimes even twice. Here is a typical example: “The people of Iowa put American on the road to change and in four days' time in New Hampshire it is your turn to stand up and change America.” There is a “delicious” (another hyperbolic epithet that has become common in recent years) irony in all this. In addition to a mere change of face, Obama promises to restore America’s hope and faith in its ability to shape its own destiny. With opinion polls showing a rare 70+ percent of Americans saying their country is on the “wrong course,” this message, delivered with relaxed confidence, is bound to resonate. Here comes the irony part. Obama apparently wants to restore the kind of upbeat self-confidence and optimism which got the Bush administration into Iraq in the first place. (P.S. and the “American people” into the economic collapse that intensified in Sep. 2008)

“We” vs. “In” 5 January 2008

There was an interview on BBC World Service with a baggage handler at the Glasgow airport who a couple of months ago showed much courage. During the incident when suicide bombers tried to drive a SUV loaded with explosive, he helped a policemen who was being attacked by one of the terrorists, and then pulled an injured colleague away from the burning SUV. After those exploits, he was given many awards, including an Amrican award which contained the word “superhero” in its title. The BBC journalist asked the baggage handler if he felt like a hero. His response was: “No, that was a communal effort.” Compare this to George W. Bush’s habit of inserting multiple “I’s” even when speaking of national policies and global issues.

Highway to Empathy? 17 December 2007

Many stories are coming out describing how US universities are starting to place a much greater emphasis on study-abroad programs – to the point where some form of international experience is becoming a must for almost any student. This is intended to help students develop a degree of intercultural empathy. Here is a memo to the institutions which organize such programs: if you want to help your students develop any kind of empathy, you need to create favorable conditions for the balanced development of their brains (so that they are in touch with their feelings without being overwhelmed by them). If this doesn’t happen, one may spend many years in a foreign country without acquiring the slightest insight into what makes the locals tick. Or may even fail to get to know his/her spouse well. I know quite a few such people. Of course, that study-abroad stint would look really good on your resume, and until there is demand educational institutions will race to provide such opportunities; and AUBG would always gladly welcome a few additional exchange students.

Bespredel II 16 December 2007

The other day a 13-year old boy in another Bulgarian town stabbed in the back a 12-year old boy who, luckily, survived. They were involved in a dispute over some fireworks

Überuninhibited 13 December 2007

There was last night a debate on Bulgaria’s state-owned TV channel related to the plans of the ministry of education to introduce new standardized tests which all high school students will need to take in order to graduate. The idea is to have universities accept the results from those tests in place of the old-fashioned entrance examinations they are still holding, but there is little enthusiasm on the part of university administrators to do that. The most striking thing about the debate, though, was not its substance. The main participants were the minister of education, a deputy-rector of Sofia University, a prominent Bulgarian sociologist-turned-pollster-turned-pundit (who is probably close to 60), and a group of 5 high-school students. Of those students, one was male, and his behavior was truly extraordinary – or maybe this is the wrong word, as this will soon be the new normal. He was interrupting all the time the minister and the sociologist, making derogatory remarks, at one point started waving an improvised cartoon allegedly illustrating the problematic pedagogical doctrine and practice underlying Bulgarian education, then stood up and took the cartoon to the minister lambasting him for his failure to give satisfactory answers to the students’ questions, and was generally behaving like a clown – in a totally inept and grotesque manner. I am not questioning his general conclusion regarding the deep problems besetting Bulgarian education – that boy’s intellectual abilities were a good illustration of those, since he unable to follow the arguments directed at the students. But his problems were not just intellectual. Like those younger girls at the Rihanna concert I described earlier Dec. 1), he seemed totally unaware that the situation required from him to show some respect and restraint. And I do think this lack of the slightest respect for authority goes hand in hand with cognitive (and this means also neurological) immaturity and dysfunction. I am afraid the number of young people who will never step over that fateful threshold – having a mental age of 12 years or so – is growing. The real irony is that this is happening at a moment when “humanity” is facing ever more intricate problems and uncertainty requiring vision and decisive action…

Bespredel 13 December 2007

This is a loaded Russian word meaning literally “no limits/rules.” In the past it was used to describe the kind of extreme violence and abuse meted out by the hardened criminals who inhabited the Soviet gulag (which did not house only political prisoners). More recently, the meaning of the word has expanded to cover the general normlessness in post-communist Russian society. Now I am afraid it already describes a global phenomenon: not just juhadists, but Mexican drug gangs beheading the competition (in a few cases – women) to strike fear in their hearts; countries like Brazil, Venezuela, and South Africa probably registering more victims of violent attacks than Iraq; a gang of four robbers ramming the other day a stolen SUV into an Ikea store in Madrid while 200 shoppers (among them dozens of children) were still inside, taking away 5,000 (5,000!) Euro, and engaging the police in a firefight before escaping. And two days ago a 14-year old boy in a Bulgarian town (Razgrad) died in a schoolyard after he was savagely beaten by another student. I recall as I was growing in the streets of a small town in northern Bulgaria back in the 1970s (meaning, I had a home and loving parents, but spent most of my time outside), I sometimes witnessed fights among boys from the neighborhood (and even participated in a few; strangely, I had the undeserved reputation of being one of the two “strongest” kids in my class – among 20 or so boys). In most of those fights, participants in fact took care to avoid really hurting each other. There was just one boy, three years older than me, who was infamous for fighting really, really viciously – hitting others in a way intended to cause the most harm and pain. He was totally uninhibited, and that didn’t serve him well. He died in his thirties of an alcoholism-related illness – a sure sign that he had inadequate impulse control. Oh, the good old days… There was that article by Emily Nussbaum in the New York Magazine (“Say Everything”) describing how now kids have no sense of embarrassment and would put up almost any personal information about themselves on the web (this extreme extraversion finds all kind of expression in the “real” world as well – but this is a longer conversation…). The article’s subtitle proclaims: “The Future Belongs to the Uninhibited.” I am afraid the meaning of this phrase is more ominous than Nussbaum realizes. What makes the death of that boy in Razgrad particularly difficult to comprehend is the fact that both boys involved in the fight were ethnic Turks coming from nearby villages. This is an area with a sizable Turkish population, which has generally been more traditional in its attitudes and has held a stronger set of norms in all areas of life. Apparently, those won’t last much longer…

The Age of Amnesia 11 December 2007

Lee Sigelman quotes on the Monkey Cage blog a Washington Post article describing how White House Press Secretary Dana Perino (35) on one occasion was unable to recall what the Cuban missile crisis was all about. Sigelman also recalls a meeting with a US senator who was curious to learn a few things about the president of England. In political psychology, such people are referred to as “novices,” as opposed to the “sophisticates” who can recall some facts and personalities related to national and even international politics. John McCain, who ironically has branded himself as the “security candidate,” at one point claimed Iran was assisting al-Qaeda, a mortal Sunni rival. He wouldn’t like to fall back on his age as an excuse, but those Memento moments in the foggy minds of younger people (including George Bush) are much more striking. Looking back, the movie looks like a slightly exaggerated description of our current predicament. The protagonists, who was unable to hold in this memory anything longer than 5 minutes, had a damaged hippocampus – the part of the brain that shrinks under the influence of chronically elevate stress hormones.

Boxing as Assisted Suicide 9 December 2007

In another much hyped boxing match, the US defending champion knocked out a British challenger in the 10th round. There has been a lot of research lately suggesting that even relatively minor concussions can cause permanent brain damage – to soldiers who were near bomb blasts, American football players knocked down by huge linebackers, and (of course) boxers. But the show, apparently, must go on.

The Memorizer in Chief II 9 December 2007

The CIA has been under fire for destroying two years ago the videotapes of interrogations which probably involved torture or something close. The White House said President Bush had “no recollection” of being told about the existence of those tapes. As already noted (24 Oct.), President Bush seems to have considerable gaps in his memory, and this statement means very little. Compare his memory to that of people who lead simpler lives, less overloaded with often irrelevant information (12 Aug.).

Chavez to the Rescue 9 December 2007

Under orders from Hugo Chavez, Venezuela just set its clocks back by half an hour. Critics of Chavez say this is just another way for him to put his personal stamp on the country (after changing all the state symbols and many other things). They also think he is motivated primarily by the desire to set Venezuela in a time zone of its own, different from that of the “devil” in Washington. The Venezuelan government, though, says there will be health benefits for everyone (and particularly for children) from getting up half an hour later when it isn’t as dark. Whatever one thinks of Chavez and his style or politics, this is an argument worth considering. There have been many cases in the US where schools have pushed back the start of classes by one hour (say, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m.). In all cases, there have been marked improvements in test results. There is one particularly striking example. In one such school, the average SAT scores of the 10 per cent of the students who did best on the test jumped in one year from 1280 to 1500 points – a real qualitative difference. There is now a growing recognition that insufficient sleep can hinder the formation of new synaptic connections in the brains of children, and this is the neural foundation of all learning and personal maturation (the importance of sleep and the examples above are discussed in a New York Magazine article, “Snooze or Lose”). I truly wish the “daylight saving time” (which in fact covers much of the spring and fall, not just the summer) could be abolished. I lived in Indiana in the 1990s when most of the state did not adjust the clock twice a year, and I really enjoyed it. Yes, progress often takes sacrifices, but in this case the sacrifice seems excessive – not just the inconvenience of getting up an our earlier, but the delayed cognitive and emotional maturation of millions of children.

The Children of Our Brave New World 1 December 2007

Last night I was unable to convince our 11-year old daughter otherwise and took her to Rihanna’s concert in a central Sofia square. The concert was paid for by one of Bulgaria’s cell phone operators, and the organization was quite incompetent (a large screen and other structures blocking the view to the stage, a half-hour wait between the amateurish Bulgarian singers and the main performer under an irritating drizzle, pathetic attempts to promote the Bulgarian version of Survivor (carried by the main “media partner”of the event), a pathetic attempt to make the crowd chant the name of the mobile operator sponsoring the concert, etc. This, however, is a different story. I was most taken aback by the behavior of the young audience. The older part of it consisted mostly of 13-14 year old girls, many of them smoking and drinking bear, all wearing make-up. This, in fact, is already a familiar picture to which I am getting used. I was not prepared, though, for other things that followed. At some point groups of young girls (and a few boys among them) got on top of two cars left unwisely by their owners in the square (most of which is normally used as a parking lot). A few got up and started to dance, making the vehicles bounce up and down. A few adults tried to urge them to get down, but were met with touts, rebuke, and insult. The kids were totally composed and self-confident. It didn’t seem to cross their minds that they need to show some respect to the adults or to observe some rules. I see this as a reflection of what has happened in Bulgaria since the 1990s – the total collapse of all forms of authority. This is partly an international phenomenon (someone published a book maybe 10 years ago called After Authority) but the problem seems particularly acute in a troubled “transition” country like Bulgaria. The problem is that the only way for children to develop some internal discipline, impulse control, sense of responsibility, and maturity is to internalize some external forms of authority – there is no other way. If this doesn’t happen, they are set for a lifetime of infantile tastes and behavior, and cognitive paralysis. A couple of new international surveys have just come out showing that while Bulgarian fourth-graders are still doing well on reading tests, eight-graders are slipping back in the comparison tables (they are now 42nd out of 57 countries included in the natural sciences; reading and math scores will be calculated shortly). Well, educational success does take effort, perseverance and concentration – despite the current imperative to make it all “fun.” This is the reason East Asian kids are always close to the top of all comparative surveys; and I am afraid their Bulgarian counterparts will only continue to slide downwards regardless of all “action plans” for educational reform.

The End of Maturity? 28 November 2007

There is a story in the media of a 13-year old American girl who committed suicide after online harassment. She was apparently troubled (as many girls her age now are), felt ostracized, and needed to switch schools. In the process, she (girl A) dumped a girlfriend (girl B) from her old school living four houses away in a quiet suburban area. The mother of girl B then collaborated with her daughter to invent a profile on Facebook of a 15-year old boy who linked up to the profile of girl A. She apparently became infatuated with him, until at some point the “boy” accused her of mistreating her friends and said he wasn’t sure he himself wanted to be friends with her. Other kids who had linked up to the Facebook profile of girl A started sending harassing messages. At some point she broke down, ran into a closet and hanged herself. Her parents learned about the hoax from a neighbor who was aware of it. Meanwhile, the parents of girl B had asked the parents of girl A to store in their basement a fussball table they had bought as a surprise Christmas gift for their kids. The parents of girl A took a sledgehammer, broke the table into pieces, and threw the pieces onto the driveway of girl B’s house. The mother of girl B then filed a report with the police complaining about the destruction of their property. In the report, she admitted the hoax but said she did not feel as guilty after she learned (I think, during the funeral service) that girl A had previously tried to commit a suicide (which apparently wasn’t true; she had been taking anti-depressants, though, which some studies have linked to suicidal impulses – but this is a different story). Now, stop and think about it. How psychologically inept and emotionally numb is this kind of behavior? One psychologist commented that in the past “adults” were expected to function at a different psychological level as compared to their kids. Now many are almost as infantile. And it’s a terrible thing to say, but the behavior of the parents of the girl who committed suicide does not seem very mature either.

Infomaniacs Anonimous 11 November, 2007

A new book by Timothy Ferriss advises overworked cubicle-dwellers (and their bosses) to cut down on the information clutter inundating them (start an "information diet"), and adopt The 4-Hour Workweek (try to think of a catchier book title). Alas, it's like telling the alcoholic or other drug addicts to just ignore their daily dose.

Is Iraq Half Full? 4 November 2007

Ten days ago Thomas Friedman argued (“Remember Iraq”) that despite recent improvements in security, Iraq is still beset by its fundamental problems. It still suffers from sectarianism and clannishness, and there is no real effort to make governmental institutions work. Today The Observer reprints an article from the Washington Post (“US Buoyed by Fall in Iraqi Death Attacks”) which presents a “balanced” view – on the one hand there are improvements, on the other – problems persist; this could be the beginning of a long road to peace, or just a temporary lull. Still, the title and subtitle strike a positive note. How optimistic can US policy makers be? And what would be the best strategy in the Middle East. What I always try to impress upon my students is that you cannot do such “problem solving” just on the basis of technical skills or expertise. You need a wider vision, the ability to see general trends and patterns, to put things in context, to relate observable developments to a wider conceptual framework… Unfortunately, there are quite a few who cannot really grasp the relevance of such larger issues for addressing concrete problems. It’s a classic catch 22 – you need to be able to relate to larger issues in order to grasp their relevance. And can I really blame them if many top decision makers (and political scientistsJ) seem caught in empiricist thinking and are unable to see the proverbial forest behind he threes…

Freedom from Conscience? 28 October 2007

The creator of The Sims says worries that kids play video games too much are a sign of an excessive generation gap. They cause no harm, and will sooner or later be accepted into mainstream culture. This is the point in Idiocracy (if you can see beyond its gross vulgarity) – eventually, all kinds of activities and attitudes can become part of the cultural mainstream. And this is precisely what scares some cultural pessimists. I am wondering if the guy would extend this diagnosis to the more dynamic videogames played by young boys – the ones I see staring at computer screens in our local internet club at 9:00 a.m. Sunday mornings, not the girls engrossed in The Sims. Hours of intake of flashing and moving images must have some impact on brain wiring, and it cannot possibly be beneficial. In fact, too many hours before a glittering screen (instead of a book) may explain why so many college students from the current “video” generation seem to lack the neural architecture needed to relate to complex issues – particularly to connect concrete experiences to abstract ideas, and thus see them in a broader, coherent context. It’s about those missing associations, stupid!

Overkill in the City 27 October 2007

Reported in the Guardian: “When Jennifer Cassetta set up a small health and fitness centre in Manhattan, she landed on a name that she thought would appeal to the single women she was seeking to attract to her workouts: Health and the City. What she hadn't counted on was catching the attention of the legal hotshots from the cable television company HBO. With the film version of its show Sex and the City well into production, the Time Warner subsidiary is moving like an elephant on amphetamines to shut down any perceived threat to its premium brand. Unbeknown to Ms Cassetta, HBO's lawyers had already moved against New York companies wanting to call themselves Scents in the City, Flex in the City, Pets in the City and Handbags & the City.” Amazingly, some people still think intellectual property rights are set as clearly as car ownership rights, and any allusion to a copyrighted phrase amounts to robbery.

Brave New World? 24 October 2007

Jan Hoffman describes in the NYT (“In a Competitive Middle School, Triage for Aches and Anxieties”) the psychosomatic symptoms of overstressed kids at a US middle school. The emphasis is on how overscheduled kids are, and this is definitely important – spending too many hours in adult-supervised, institutionalized activities must be quite stressful (I see this in our daughter). But kids are now suspended in an environment bombarding them with all kinds of distractions and stimulation. There is a misleading truism which says we are using just 7 or 15 per cent of our brains – the implication being that we (and particularly children, whose minds are supposed to be fresher) can take in much, much more. No, we cannot – in fact, we may have already surpassed a biological threshold beyond which we cannot efficiently adapt. I now see in my students a level of confusion which is really striking, and even I and other people who grew up in a simpler, more structured environment have difficulties (see the entry below).

The Memorizer in Chief 24 October 2007

Mark Danner comments in the New York Review of Books (“The Moment Has Come to Get Rid of Saddam”) on the transcript of a conversation between President Bush and the then Spanish Prime Minister Aznar in February 2003, a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq. He highlights the fact that the president cannot recall how exactly the decision to disband the Iraqi military was taken – a crucial decision which has been much criticized in the media and a few books. Also, President Bush says Saddam will be brought before the International Court of Justice in the Hague – apparently not realizing that it does not have jurisdiction over individuals. Now, these gaps in the president’s knowledge are hardly surprising – he has in the past encouraged college students to follow his example of a “C student” who has made it to the top. It seems much more striking that Danner (a respected journalist with much experience and knowledge) doesn’t note the slip related to the court – he comments on many other problematic points in the conversation, but misses this one. Also, he says that a year after the invasion of Iraq “jihadists targeted the Madrid train station, killing nearly two hundred Spaniards and sending the prime minister to electoral defeat.” In fact, terrorists placed bombs on four commuter trains – some of them maybe went off at train station, but the central train station in Madrid (if there is one) was not blown up, as Danner implies. Curiously, none of the editors who must have read the article caught this either. It seems the information smog around us is getting so thick that it is no longer easy even for highly intelligent, well informed people to hold a clear account of important developments in their heads. What should our realistic expectations of college students, then, be?

The World Heating Up (Really)? 22 October 2007

A new study suggests that since the 1990s the amount of greenhouse gasses taken up by the North Atlantic has fallen by half. Apparently, as the ocean is becoming more saturated, it absorbs smaller amounts of these gasses – with potentially devastating consequences. How worried should we be? It depends on your level of anxiety – which appears to be partly genetically determined (see Sep. 28 entry)…

The Age of Distraction 21 October 2007

A curious story on BBC World: a US air force crew loaded by mistake 6 cruise missiles with live nuclear warheads onto a B-52 bomber which then flew with them across the country; several junior officers were disciplined for what a pundit explained was an inexcusable breach of procedure. His theory was that with the Soviet Union gone, the US military had taken its eyes off the ball – and need to refocus. I have a slightly different take on this: younger people are now becoming more easily distracted and confused because of the complex operational environment and the information overload they face; it becomes a real challenge to pay attention when you have, for example, live warheads and dummies lying side by side and you have to pick only one kind… Maybe even “friendly fire” incidents are now becoming more common as a result of such difficulties?

Brad Pitt on My Mind 17 October 2007

The other day kids in our daughter’s class (10-year old) had to write a brief story based on three pictures in their textbook. The pictures were of a boy fishing, a girl frying the fish, and then both eating. Another girl wrote the following story: “Brad Pitt caught some fish. Angelina Jolie cooked it. The couple had a delightful dinner.” In a similar exercise, yet another girl wrote a story about Tom Cruise and his latest wife. Older people have, of course, decried the perceived degeneration of their kids and grandkids since times immemorial – and then it turned out those worries were excessive. Could it be the case, though, that it’s finally happening?

Will to Power? 1 October 2007

One of my favorite authors, Christine Rosen, writes about the excessive narcissism driving many young people to post and constantly update their profiles on social web sites – making sure that they have as many “friends” listed there as possible (“Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism”). I truly wish Christopher Lasch was alive to read and observe this – what he thought indicated narcissism a couple of decades ago looks now so weak and unimaginative. Rosen argues that what drives youngsters to spend countless hours honing their profiles and adding “friends” is a pursuit of “status.” This is an old debate among philosophers and social scientists: what drives people to do all the stupid things they do in life? A pursuit of material well-being (as most economists assume)? Or a pursuit of status and/or power over others? This may look like a quaint question, but it has some curious implications. The belief of liberal economists that the social world is NOT a zero-sum game depends on the assumption that we crave mostly material things which would give us a comfortable existence. If, however, we chiefly pursue status and power, then these are goods which by definition can be distributed only in a zero-sum fashion. If yesterday I bought a granite counter-top for my kitchen, and now it is something that (through the marvels of globalization) is becoming more widely available, the only way to stand out is to order a marble one, or something even more exclusive. Maybe, as Burke believed, the promise of equality is, after all, just a cruel joke… On a different note, Rosen points out how much easier – and almost imperative – it has become now to maintain multiple social relationships. The lives of introverts have never been easy, but they are likely to take a sharp turn for the worse; if there are any introverts left a couple of decades down the line. Nussbaum’s article on internet-driven extraversion (mentioned previously) raises some doubts about this – to say nothing of all those kids in public parks who come along eager to speak to and play with strangers (to the continuing astonishment of our daughter).

The Four Boneheaded Biases of Smart Economists 30 September 2007

Brian Caplan argues in Reason (a libertarian magazine available online – and distributed as a free add-on to Economist subscribers) that most voters have 4 irrational biases about the economy and society – they irrationally: 1) distrust the market; 2) distrust foreigners; 3) want to preserve jobs; 4) are too pessimistic (“The 4 Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters”). Here is an anecdote illustrating why most intellectuals have shared those biases going back at least to ancient Greece – without necessarily being stupid. The other day our daughter (who is 10 years old) went on a short trip with her class and took along some snacks. She had two lollypops, and another girl wanted one of them. She asked: “For how much are you going to sell one to me?” Our daughter naively responded: “You can just take it.” The other girls said: “But for how much?” Some time ago another girl brought to class a special pen which someone had brought to her from Italy. Other girls were so impressed with it (the writing is invisible – but you can see it if you use a special light) that they offered 100, even 200 leva for it (roughly 100 Euro), but the owner said it was priceless. And these things happen all the time. I am wondering if economists are better judges concerning the effect of the explosion of the market economy on our societies – and on the minds (and brains) of our children. Almost half a century ago C.P. Snow wrote about the “two cultures” keeping the humanitarian intelligentsia and scientists/engineers apart. Now, however, the latter seem to have taken over most of the social sciences – particularly economics, but also psychology, political science, and other fields. I am not really sure this now predominant mindset (and its underlying brain wiring) will help us make better reasoned judgments about the huge dilemmas facing us in the 21st century. One thing I notice about friends and relatives who are engineers is that they are not as easily disturbed by excessive inequalities – and would thus be less susceptible to the anti-market biases identified by Caplan. And, like Lamborg (below) they don’t wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the approaching end of the world.

Chilled out? 28 September 2007

Bjorn Lamborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, has written a new book (Cool It) projecting positive economic trends into the indefinite future and arguing against excessive panic concerning global warming. I cannot help wondering how some people can be so exceedingly unanxious about anything – and it seems the explanation is partly biological (there is a serotonin-regulating gene with two versions – if you have one of those, you take difficulties in a stride; having the other makes it much more difficult to bounce back after setbacks – and maybe even before themJ Curiously, people carrying the first version tend to be concentrated in some regions – Nordic countries, the Netherlands, probably Anglo-Saxon countries. This must have all kinds of cultural, social, and policy implications.

The Startle Effect 26 September 2007

A review on the Dana Foundation web site (“Sturdier Brain Networks May Help Children Resist Peer Pressure”) says more sensitive children (this would probably apply to adults as well) tend to be more impulsive. On the bright side, an article in The New York Times on difficulties in identifying the precise health effects of hormone replacement therapy says conscientious people tend to live longer. It points out that such individuals (and they are the ones who would take any medication – including hormones – religiously) are a different kind of people – a difference which cannot be measured precisely. This is why it has so far been impossible to determine the causal effect of hormone replacement therapy.

Are We Having Fun Yet? 18 September 2007

A few days ago AUBG’s alumni coordinator sent out a message announcing an event in Sofia intended to bring together former AUBG students to play backgammon, card games, etc. – saying that people who are not interested in such things will have a chance to engage in other fun activities. Matt Labash addresses this recent rush to have “fun” in a funny article in The Weekly Standard carrying the title crowning this entry. He speaks of creeping “infantilization” pursued with the help of expensive “fun consultants” who try to conceal some of the drudgery of routine office work. Or maybe it’s just another step in the endless quest to formalize everything.

The Meaninglessness of Life? 16 September 2007

Anthony Kronman (“Why Are We Here?”, The Boston Globe) argues that US universities have abandoned their former mission to lead undergraduates in exploring the meaning of life because of a narrow preoccupation with research. He argues that this unfortunate trend needs to be reversed, at least in the humanities. Such a narrow explanation seems to suggest, though, that reading Shakespeare does not necessarily broaden one’s mind. There is all this writing about the disenchantment of the modern world, the “immanentization” of human existence, the spread of utilitarian attitudes, etc. – suggesting that we are now becoming less interested in exploring the meaning of life because, well, life has become less meaningful. I am wondering how someone like Kronman could have missed all this.

Radical Philanthropy 1 September 2007

A couple of days ago I caught an interview with Zell Kravinski on BBC World Service. He is someone who has made millions from real estate, and has meanwhile given much of it away. He even donated a kidney to a woman he didn’t know. In the interview, he argued that not giving help to someone who vitally needs it is equivalent to active killing. The curious thing is that in fact Kravinski has suffered from depression, and he said doing something selfless along these lines gave him a temporary “high” – a sense of euphoria, exaltation, even happiness. He was explaining all this very patiently, in a flat voice – without any vocal intonation expressing underlying emotions. There is some research suggesting that lack of emotional response can impair the moral judgment of individuals. Luckily, it doesn’t always work that way. What emotional inhibition does seem to foster, though, is strict utilitarian calculation. If you ask Kravinski, one life equals one life – it’s that simple. So he contemplates giving his own life in a situation where such self-sacrifice would save a dozen other people. And I assume he would easily pull the handle diverting the proverbial trolley from psychological experiments into a track where it would kill one person instead of five. I am wondering if he would push someone (in case he cannot jump himself) in front of the trolley to block its way and save those five people – in the other paradigmatic experimental set-up intended to assess moral decision making. Most participants in that latter experiment say they wouldn’t do it – even if they are willing to pull the lever in the first case. My bet is Kravinski wouldn’t have to do much soul searching – as he wouldn’t cringe emotionally (at least in an experimental simulation).

The Tyranny of Choice? 30 August 2007

Mark Stefanovich, professor of archeology and anthropology, spoke the other day of President Bush’s vision of a “society of ownership.” That would involve more choice in most areas, and thus more opportunities but also more risks for individuals – who would now be less dependent on the state. This is all framed as increasing individual “freedom” – a vision the Bush administration apparently wants to spread around the world. I am thinking of Bary Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice. In an article he wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education on the issue, he in fact spoke of a “tyranny of choice” – a situation where individuals are psychologically overwhelmed by an excessive array of choices in many areas of life. As a result, they tend to make suboptimal choices, to be dissatisfied with those choices (various versions of “buyer’s remorse”), and to become generally stressed out. Oh, that sweet word – “freedom”…

Where Will it All End? 22 August 2007

An 11-year old boy was shot and killed in Liverpool after football practice. Two suspects were arrested, 14 and 18 year old respectively. Reports say there has been a spate of gun violence in recent months in Britain, with 17 teenagers killed in London since the start of the year (plus a few adults who had tried to intervene and stop the violence they witnessed). I recall as kids we sometimes got into fistfights. There was only one boy in the whole neighborhood who would fight with utter viciousness, with total disregard of how badly he would hit the opponent. He died of alcoholism in his 30s.

Memento? 12 August 2007

The other day we went to pick up our daughter’s new school uniform. The lady at the small company making the uniforms recalled immediately our daughter’s name from our two previous visits (two and three weeks earlier, when they needed our daughter to try on the semi-stitched clothes), and brought the right outfit. I have had some similarly striking experiences in the past. A couple of years ago I brought my car to a body paint shop. The guy working there immediately asked: “What happened to your [VW] Golf,” since I was now driving a different car. The only time he had seen the “Golf” was two years earlier when I brought it for a minor painting job. Similarly, a hair dresser recalled that she had given me a hair cut several months earlier at a different place where she worked. I suspect all these people had fresher minds into their 40s and 50s because they worked jobs which did not expose them to so much information overload. Sometimes I do wish I had that luxury.

Brave New Brain? 2 August 2007

Two curious older articles from the New York Magazine:

In “Say Everything” Emily Nussbaum describes the extraordinary extraversion of teens who post intimate details and pictures of themselves on social websites – without any second thoughts. In “Up with Grups” Adam Sternbergh writes of ostensible adults who refuse to grow up – sticking to their juvenile tastes and habits. Again, this must all be related to changes in brain wiring. It’s curious to see how the generation gap has shifted over the decades. It first opened wide in the 1960’s, perhaps with the first TV generation coming of age. Then, in the 1990’s, kids and parents were supposed to be best pals, often enjoyed similar music and other entertainment, collaborated on college projects, etc. Now, the gap seems to be opening again, and may be diminished once more the kids of current “grups” grow up. Could it really be a matter of divergent/convergent patterns of brain wiring as a result of different/similar sensory immersion in adolescence?

Nietzsche on My Mind 30 July 2007

At the outset of an article on literary plagiarism Erik Campbell (“The Accidental Plagiarist”) quotes Nietzsche: “Many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good.” Then he starts his text by observing: “There comes a time in many a person’s life when things that N. said begin to make good sense.” Campbell also mentions a view of knowledge as inherently communal…

The Death of Politics? 28 May 2007

Today, the president of Bulgaria, Georgi Parvanov, and his wife attended with a group of kids from orphanages a concert by the three finalists in the Bulgarian version of Pop Idol (called Music Idol, the English pronunciation rendered with Bulgarian letters). Sometimes I am wondering if politics has now really been reduced to PR – and little else. And what does political science study then?

Total Extinction 27 May 2007

A 35-year old woman brags on the pages of The Observer that, contrary to the obsession with pregnancy and babies which seems to have gripped society and her friends, she has no desire to have children – none, zip, nil! Some time ago I also read about a new movement in the US by people who call themselves “asexuals” – they have no sexual desire, and want the rest of society to accept them as normal. Ever since Freud, it has been commonly acknowledged that civilization rests on the suppression of some normal natural human instincts (see May 20 entry). I am beginning to wonder – could it in fact totally extinguish a few of those?

The New Ineptitude 22 May 2007

The father of a female participant in the Australian Big Brother died of cancer. The organizers decided not to tell her, citing the express wishes of the family. Apparently, they did not want to spoil her chances to compete for the cash prize (there were even vague hints that her father would have wanted it that way). Or maybe they wanted to enhance her future celebrity status even short of winning the prize? Who knows… One thing is sure – there is a growing ineptitude in decision-makers in the face of such moral dilemmas. It is probably related to the “new indifference” addressed in the May 18 entry. I am groping for a proper term to describe this new ethical clumsiness, and the word “sick” readily jumps to mind…

The End of Disgust? 20 May 2007

A story in a Bulgarian paper presenting the lifestyle of the “freegans” in Western countries prompted me to think about the larger implications of this movement. These are people who want to totally boycott the market system and to consume as little as possible. They accomplish this ambition by scavenging for food and other items in trash containers. My first thought is – leaving their noble motivation aside, how aren’t they disgusted? There may be an easy answer to this puzzle. Since Freud, it has been acknowledged that civilization entails the gradual emotional repression of individuals (a theme developed provocatively by Andrew B. Schmookler in his Parable of the Tribes). For a few centuries, disgust seemed as an exception as people developed intolerance for previously natural behaviors like spitting (to say nothing of urinating) in public, eating greasy food with bare hands, or witnessing gory public executions (a spectacle deemed suitable for minors in the past). Now, however, disgust may be finally catching up with the general trend. This shift may be reinforced by the progressive emotional desensitization resulting from the onslaught of electronic overstimulation of the senses in today’s increasingly virtual reality (decried by Thomas de Zengotita in his article “The Numbing of the American Mind” in the April 2002 issue of Harper’s). As a result, we may be ending up with the near extinction of basic emotions such as disgust. There is a curious twist here. Disgust is often said to mutate into a social or moral emotion – for example, a disgust toward deviant behaviors or excessively opulent lifestyles. I am wondering what will happen to this moral emotion as the more immediate sense of disgust at rotten food and items discarded by others diminishes even further. On the other hand, young Americans are now more easily disgusted by things like smoking, cruelty to animals, and eating unhealthily. (P.S. On that last topic, an article in Policy Review argues that food and sex have switched places in the moral framework of young women – now sex evokes a morally permissive attitude once applied to food; and food has become “resacralized.”

The New Indifference 18 May 2007

A curious story I heard on BBC World Service : A 21-year old videogame developer in Australia posted on the net a new game called V Tech Rampage – modeled after the real rampage a few weeks earlier in which a mentally troubled student shot and killed over thirty people and injured many others. Predictably, there were numerous complaints about this apparent insensitivity (the strongest coming from relatives of those killed or injured). In response, the author of the videogame said he would pull it off the web in exchange for 2,000 US dollars, and offer an apology for 3,000. Social trend spotter Gert Gerken once spoke of a “new indifference” in the minds of young people bombarded by an avalanche of new sensations, challenges, and temptations. What an apt illustration…

Names Like No Other 18 April 2007

Our daughter (who is ten years old) and her classmates found four puppies in their school yard. One of the kids wanted to give the puppies names. She chose Dolce and Gabana, Gucci, Versace, and I forgot the last one – but you get the idea…

The Emptiness Inside 6 Feb. 2006
A few weeks ago my wife took me to see Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), a Spanish movie directed by Alejandro Amenabar. It describes the struggle of a man who broke his neck more than twenty years ago and has been totally dependent on his relatives ever since to be allowed to die. To me, this was one of the most moving films I had ever seen – on a few occasions I had tears in my eyes, and we spent hours dissecting the movie afterwards. Then I looked up some reviews on the Internet, and to my surprise found quite a few English-language ones harshly criticizing the movie. They argued it was too concocted and melodramatic, and generally “didn’t work” as intended. I thought: “If this didn’t work for you, what could have worked? Could anything have worked? Probably not.” It’s a truism that all civilization is based on affect regulation (which requires intricate rewiring of the human brain). But what happens when this kind of affect regulation goes too far? There is a big debate whether human emotions are universal or culture-specific. To me, it seems obvious that in some cultures some emotional responses can be all but extinguished – while still raging almost unabated in others. Are these the “same” emotions differing in degree or only in outward expression? It is difficult to say, but I am inclined to reply “not quite.”

Of Men and Boys 15 Dec. 2005
A few weeks ago I watched Zulu, a British colonial movie from the early 1960s starring Michael Cane. Most of the leading actors were apparently below 40 when the movie was shot. Yet, they looked a generation older than the likes of Brad Pitt and Leonardo di Caprio look today. This may be the result of brains sending different signals to the endocrine system now and a few decades ago. The obvious exception among today’s generally adolescent-looking stars seems to be George Clooney.

Mighty Mouse 5 Dec. 2005
A couple of months ago we bought our daughter a pair of pet mice (both female). From the very start one of them (Mary) was much more fearful and inhibited in her behavior than the other one (Kathy). In a few weeks, when they had completely grown up, Mary somehow squeezed between the bars of their cage, and disappeared behind the refrigerator and kitchen cupboards. In a few hours, she returned voluntarily to her “home” in the cage. Over the next couple of weeks, Mary made a few more of these forays into the unknown. Surprisingly, as a result of these exploits she became a bit less fearful and from time to time would eat or explore the cage even in our presence. This change in Mary’s behavior may demonstrate that a few powerful experiences can have a visible impact on the wiring of our brains.

Modern Girls 14 Nov. 2005
Maureen Dowd (“What’s a Modern Girl to Do,” New York Times, 30 Oct. 2005) complains that women who are successful professionally are unattractive to men. She seems to think that men prefer women who are inferior to them and do not threaten their ego. Could it be the case, though, that men are not turned off by a woman’s career success – rather, they are not attracted to the kind of women who can be successful in the rat race. If we look at strong, assertive women from Margaret Thatcher to Condoleezza Rice, they don’t seem particularly feminine in their approach to the world and people around them. In fact, some scholars suggest up to 20 per cent of women possess brains wired in a largely male fashion, and vice versa. Are these the women who are both likely to be powerful and assertive in their public lives, and to be avoided by men seeking a more feminine presence in their lives?

Emotional Stupidity? 25 Sep. 2005
As part of its series, "Who Runs Your World?", BBC World Service broadcast an interview with a couple who meet regularly to indulge in sado-masochistic experiments. While the guy (playing the submissive part; a married accountant with two children in his other life) showed some feelings, the dominant woman described how they "explore an alternative sexuality" in very precise technical language devoid of any human emotion. Could it be the case that such emotional numbing lies behind some more extreme bouts of sexual experimentation? Most people interviewed for the "Who Runs Your World?" series, though, tended to give pathetic answers like "I," "my family," etc. They were totally unwilling to admit that their lives may be largely driven by some outside forces. This looks like a complete opposite to the conspiracy theories common to many parts of the world.

Narcissist-in-Chief? 3 Sep. 2005
Maureen Dowd (“United States of Shame,” New York Times, 3 Sep. 2005) quotes George W. Bush in the wake of hurricane Katrina: "You know, I'm going to fly out of here in a minute," he said on the runway at the New Orleans International Airport, "but I want you to know that I'm not going to forget what I've seen." This is a curiously self-referential way to address a nation shocked by a major disaster. Dowd also alleges the Bush administration lack empathy. I am again wondering about the neural organization that makes such attitudes natural.

The genius of the market economy 17 August 2005
Today's New York Times carries an article ("A Business Built on the Troubles of Teenagers") about the boom of expensive rehabilitation programs for troubled teenagers. This is truly the genius of the market economy - it first pulverizes the brains of kids by bombarding them with temptations they cannot resist, then spins a cottage industry offering desperate parents help in remedying the problem. Psychiatry and all kinds of therapy for grown-ups follow a similar logic. The Washington Post carries an article ("In Retail, Profiling for Profit") on the use of customers databases and new software by retailers who want to determine the true value of shoppers by assigning them to various categories and extending appropriate treatment (hint - potential big spenders and serial returners are treated differently). I am wondering if my Intro to Politics students will see any problem with this new approach. I'll find out - if I don't forget.

The best and the brightest? 14 August 2005
On "The Interview" (BBC World Service) there was - what else? - an interview with Steven Levitt, often described as the most impressive and interesting young economist in the US. He asks concrete questions about everyday decision making by individuals and claims to have proven a few curious things: that swimming pools are more dangerous to kids than guns, that car seats are not safer for kids than seat belts, etc. His most famous theory is that legalized abortion has helped reduce crime rates by decreasing the number of unwanted children, a major predictor of criminality. This theory has been criticized on empirical grounds (the availability of legalized abortion has in fact increased the number of pregnancies, so the link between abortion and unwantedness is not clear-cut), but this is beside the point. To me, what seems interesting is that this stellar economist demonstrates a syndrome painfully familiar from my own classes - the inability of most young minds/brains now to relate to broader issues and to think in abstract (particularly moral) categories. He described himself as completely apolitical, "not an agenda type of person," and seems to think that the only good social science is applied science (a year or two ago there was an article in the New York Times about the teaching of science in US high schools; it said that since kids no longer had the interest or patience to sit through lessons in basis science, they were increasingly being taught applied science - for example, forensic science). When asked about the death of their first child at one, he spoke unemotionally about how he and his wife had probably erred on the side of perseverance and had moved on to have 4 children, including two girls adopted in China (as he explained, in China baby girls left for adoption tend to have a superior genetic profile as compared to the US). There may, in fact, be a link between excessive affect inhibition/regulation and the empiricist lack of transcendence and wider concerns in someone as Levitt - otherwise, a very clever young guy, the type of productive scholar coveted by prestigeous research universities (he is at Chicago). Oh, I forgot: of course, Levitt appeared on BBC World Service as part of the promotion for his new book. (P.S. Levitt and a co-author have argued is a US op-ed – part of a series of articles intended to keep alive interest in his uninspiring book – that political scientist vote (which they know is irrational) only in order to be sees at the polling stations (since there is an over norm whose breach would damage their reputations). Another article later argued that voting can be explained as part of efforts by individuals to construct a particular image in their own eyes.

One small step for Motorola 12 August 2005
Motorola announced that it had developed a cell phone integrated into the frame of sunglasses. One small step for Motorola, one big step closer to the day when people will have communication devices implanted into their brains.

Computing is real life 11 August 2005
A summer issue of Technology Review (published by MIT) contains an article called "Social Machines." It examines what's called "continuous computing" (aka "ubiquitous computing," "ambiet computing," etc.), to the poit where computing becomes the overall framework of our daily existence. Here is a nice example: "For one-to-one communications, Mayfield says, he uses the Treo, Skype's free VoIP service, and the e-mail system built into Socialtext's own software. To conduct company meetings and client calls, he uses the conference-calling services at FreeConference.com. When he's at a convention, a hotel, or a rented meeting room, he connects the Airport to the local network, which creates his own Wi-Fi zone and gives him access to the Web, Skype, instant-messenger software, and his company's always-on IRC channel. He also advertises his whereabouts by registering his temporary Wi-Fi zone with a service called plazes and by describing on EVDB the events he's attending. He uses Movable Type and TypePad to maintain multiple blogs, including one for his employees, one for the public, and several restricted to his customers. He bookmarks interesting Web pages on Delicious and sends them out on his personal link feed, titled "Linkorama." He reads the news and follows his favorite blogs using the NetNewsWire and NewsGator RSS aggregators, which also supply him with regular podcasts. Almost daily, he uploads photos from the Treo and the camera to Flickr, where anyone can view his photo stream. He even has a dedicated wiki [amendable web page] for his family." While the author makes some nods to potential dangers, the new technological cocoon is described mostly a set of "enabling technologies" extending, like earlier technological innovations, natural human capacities. Only this time around technology seems to induce a rapid rewiring of human brains, but those emerging new brains cannot really grasp their own predicament.

The beauty of old footage 8 August 2005
On Discovery Channel there was striking footage of the sinking of an Austro-Hungarian battleship on June 10 1918 by an italian torpedo boat. The crew were milling around on the deck of the huge vessel, as if in disbelief that it could soon sink. When it did, it took many seamen with it. Could this be a metaphor of our current state of mind on spaceship Earth?

I uber alles 3 August 2005
Individualization seems to pose one of the deepest and most puzzling questions to the social sciences. The other night I watched a Discovery Channel documentary which offered a glimpse at some embrionic efforts in this direction. It addressed the attempt of Amenhotep, an Egyptian faraoh, to replace the old set of dieties with a single new god - the sun. Few people were ready to embrace the new faith, but still this was a rather remarkable attempt to break out of traditional norms and understandings - probably made possible by some sort of neural modification in Amenhotep's brain.

Shaken, but not quite 23 July 2005
After a series of bomb blasts in an Egyptian resort (almost 100 killed and many injured) a BBC World presenter was talking to a British policeman on vacation there. He had earlier taken part in the police operation in London after the suicide attacks there; he had been only 50 meters away from one or two of the Egyptian blasts, and had seen all the carnage and mayhem they had caused. With all this in mind, the BBC presenter said something like: “You are obviously quite shaken…” The policeman confirmed, but he sounded totally in control and relaxed. What kind of brain can possibly generate such utter composure (other than the Sitting Bull’s)?

Celtic tigresses 10 July 2005
I am still thinking of Thomas Friedman's New York Times articles describing Ireland’s rapid rise to the position of Europe’s richest country (“The End of the Rainbow,” 29 June; “Follow the Leapin’ Leprechaun,” 1 July). He attributes this economic miracle to wise public policies in the context of Ireland’s embrace of globalization. I am wondering if he has seen the Magdalene Sisters, though. The movie describes an estranged society where everyday discipline based on general rules is enforced within the family and public institutions with utmost, almost sadistic, severity; the rules, meanwhile, are generally accepted by the victims of their enforcement. I am wondering if these cultural traits may offer a better explanation of Ireland’s success story; and whether societies lacking similar kinds of discipline and habitual submission can equally benefit from the policies Friedman describes.

3-D 6 July 2005
The New York Times carries an article (“Television that Leaps off the Screen,” 3 July 2005) on the advent of 3-D TV and computer screens. They would display vivid images swirling and twitching right in your living room. As if TV and videogames in their current form are not sufficiently addictive and mind/brain-altering.

Another round of France vs. US 2 July 2005
I am still thinking of that comparison between French and US culture. This time what comes to mind are a few differences between the 1973 British-French co-production The Day of the Jackal and its 1997 US remake. In the original, the Jackal is a slender, handsome guy (granted, played by a British actor) who sports a custom-made rifle holding one round of ammunition and fitting within a crutch. In the US version the Jackal is played by Bruce Willis who uses a laptop-operated remote control to target a giant machine gun or automatic cannon hidden in a mini van. This contrast feeds into familiar stereotypes, but could it really have been the other way around?

France and the spirit of capitalism 1 July 2005
In one of a series of articles on Ireland’s economic miracle (“Follow the Leapin’ Leprechaun,” New York Times, 1 July), Thomas Friedman argues that France and Germany will have to follow Ireland’s lead in adopting the less regulated Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism – or face economic extinction (“become museums”). This can be more easily said than done, though. Yesterday, I sat down to fill out a recommendation form for a former student. It came from a top French institute of international studies, and contained the usual list of qualifications I needed to assess. There was, however, a marked departure from the no-nonsense approach evident in similar forms issued by US institutions. The second item I had to evaluate was “culture generale” (something quite irrelevant in the US), followed by “esprit d'analyse” and “esprit de synthese” (literally “spirit of…”). I am wondering if there might be some cultures which cannot fully adapt to the rigors of free-market capitalism, even if their members are eager to follow Friedman’s advice. In addition to France and Germany, I am thinking Japan, India, South and Southeast European countries, maybe others I am less familiar with. But – this is how the relative success of all societies and cultures is going to be judged in the future that lies ahead.

Fiction and reality 20 June 2005
Frank Rich expresses hope that Americans are becoming fed up with the massive manipulations to which they are exposed (“Two Top Guns Shoot Blanks,” NYT, 19 June 2005). He says they are unlikely to take seriously Tom Cruise’s loud pronouncements of his love for a much younger co-star – in contrast to members of an earlier generation who in 1938 ran into the streets at Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds hoax. I truly wish Rich were right, but I have my doubts. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between different degrees of spin and removal from “reality” in all kinds of news/information sources (as made clear in Thomas de Zengotita’s brilliant article, “The Numbing of the American Mind” –Harper’s, April 2002). I am thinking, for example, of that movie starring Tom Hanks which ostensibly displayed God’s phone number (Bruce Almighty). In fact, this was the number of a radio station which received thousands of calls – many from pranksters, but some from people who really thought they could get in touch with God. Curiously, Hanna Arendt once thought that individuals who cannot distinguish fiction from reality – rather than ones who ardently embrace pernicious ideologies – are the aptest subjects of a totalitarian regime.

Dumb and dumber 28 April 2005
Science writer Steven Johnson claims watching TV (and contemporary popular culture in general) in fact make us smarter (“Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” NYT, 24 April 2004: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/24/magazine/24TV.html). He claims popular TV shows achieve this feat by inducing viewers to follow numerous and complicated story lines involving dozens of characters – providing them with a mental workout. Apparently, though, TV did not make him smarter. Research suggests TV affects our brains primarily through the drug-like, quasi-hypnotic effect of short cuts and flashes on the screen – not so much through its content. The media is the message, stupid… An older Scientific American article is a more reliable guide on this crucial public health/environmental issue (“Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor”: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0005339B-A694-1CC5-B4A8809EC588EEDF).

Infomania 26 April 2005
The April 22 issue of The Times contains an article (“Why Texting Harms Your IQ”: www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1580254,00.html) which says researchers claim the excessive use of SMS and e-mail temporarily lowers the IQ of users. I am afraid addiction to those information technologies (referred to as “infomania”) leads to permanent brain impairments – similar to the ones underlying various learning disabilities. One of the most depressing experiences for me on a Sunday morning is to walk into our neighborhood internet club and see scores of 10-12 year olds sitting transfixed before computer screens projecting fast-moving images and pulsating sounds into their brains.

The end of cultural complexity? 4 April 2005
The March 28 issue of New Yorker contains an article on new trends in advertising (“The New Pitch” by Ken Auletta: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/index.ssf?050328fa_fact). It contains the following confession by a former president of ABC entertainment: “Anything that is complex narrative storytelling—one-hour dramas, narrative miniseries, character-driven movies for television—advertisers don’t believe there is an audience under fifty for these kinds of shows.”

Our ancestors’ sacred language (Език свещен на нашите деди) 3 April 2005
Today’s issue of Sega contains an article bearing the following title: “Интегралната бюлетина елиминира корумпиране на вота” (literal translation: “The Integral Ballot Eliminates Any Corruption of the Vote; http://www.segabg.com/04042005/p0020009.asp). The title is in Cyrillic, but I am wondering if it is really in Bulgarian…

Liberation Theology 2.0 30 March 2005
In POS 101: Introduction to Politics we are reading and talking about the modern quest for liberty – a deeply tragic and sometimes misguided pursuit which can take strange guises. For example, today I received a piece of spam with the following subject heading: “Don’t let age determine your erection any more!” Of course, this isn’t entirely new – it goes back at least to the promise of “estrogen/hormone replacement therapy” which was made popular in the 1960s – and has fallen from favor more recently. I am wondering, though, if we are facing a future where it will be next to impossible to justify – or even contemplate – any general restrictions on individual “self-actualization.”

Hypomania 22 March 2005
In today’s NYT there is a curious article about “hypomania” (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/22/health/psychology/22hypo.html?8dpc) – a condition in which individuals feel energized, in an elevated mood, eager to overcome obstacles and launch new projects all the time (some refer to this as “exuberance”), without ever experiencing the emotional crashes typical of a manic-depressive state. I am wondering whether such a neurological abnormality should be rewarded by existing socioeconomic systems at the expense of others – as it is now. Oh, some will say, but through their efforts those hypomaniacs benefit others and the larger society, don’t they (Henry Ford is cited as a typical carrier of the syndrome)? Maybe to some extent they have, but what if we have reached a stage where restlessness and innovation in some areas (like neuroscience, nanotechnology, communications and information technology, etc.) are beginning to undermine common notions of what it means to be human? Plus, in a competitive environment there will be increased pressure on individuals to become hypomanic even if they have not been neurologically wired as such through their adolescence. What if I don’t want to be in overdrive all the time? What if I don’t want to be “normal” in this new sense of the word where an artificially created neurological/mental state comes to be seen as essential to competitive success, widely accepted, and thus – normal? The consequences are obvious – I’ll be punished with decreased income, status, etc. Is that right? Can a society of hyperactive hypomaniacs (or one dominated by such types) even stop to ponder similar questions? What about all those other kinds of performance enhancement therapies we’ll be pressured (or seduced) to embrace – from stimulant drugs to neuroimplants and genetic modification? What happens to individual liberty in a socioeconomic context which rewards what a blog pundit calls “neurocompetitive advantage” – as a vehicle for increased and ceaseless productivity?