Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Soft Science of Positive Psychology

Modern philosophy – and more recently science and psychology – have shared the revelation that reality is all in your head. Change your head, goes one line of thought, and you change your reality.

In psychology this has spurned positive psychology: The study of the positive mindset is implicitly carried out in contrast to the study of negative mindsets, which consist of most of psychology’s history.

Positive psychology, however, remains more of a movement than an area of study. It has yet to prove itself, and most of the innovation has occurred in semantics – where, for instance, exercise might have been said to treat depression, positive psychologists would say that it provides a buffer against depression. (I wrote a bit more on the topic here.)

And it’s not as if the scientists haven’t been trying – positive psychology remains a well-funded area of research, considered in academic circles to be fresh and forward-looking. It’s just lacked many groundbreaking findings.

In all fairness, it’s still considered a new topic, with roots that go back only one or two decades. Researchers are just warming up. But as a movement, it’s already starting to outstay its welcome.

As might be expected from any movement, it’s now undergoing a backlash. Cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich recently railed against the infusion of cancer treatment and positive psychology. After being diagnosed with breast cancer
She discovered that a positive attitude was more or less compulsory. Most of her fellow sufferers thought it would help them recover. Some even said that cancer was a “gift” that helped one find life’s purpose. Ms Ehrenreich disagreed…She complained about the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies and, most daringly, “sappy pink ribbons”…

More generally, Ms Ehrenreich sees an “ideological force in American culture…that encourages us to deny reality.”…At a confab for motivational speakers, she is told that anyone can achieve “infinite power” by resonating in tune with the universe. From a popular preacher in Houston, she discovers that God will give big houses and nice tables in restaurants to those who sincerely wish for them. After slogging through countless books and lectures, she learns that food doesn’t make you fat unless you think it will, and that you can solve many of life’s problems by avoiding negative people. (The Economist, 12/17/09)

Ehrenreich, along with a handful of other authors, have recently published books that mock positive psychology as a feel-good movement devoid of any true science.

Between the movement and the backlash, positive psychology has a very American feel: It has more connections to alternative medicine than to clinical science, and its practical pop-science-for-the-masses approach bears some resemblance to America’s 19th century Spiritualist and Evangelical practices.

Areas such as a positive psychology are why psychology is still – and will long be – considered a soft science. In almost any other area of science, the creation of a new field of study would be spurned by some scientific breakthrough. Not so in positive psychology. Here, the change has occurred in the researchers’ minds, where they have made a conscious decision to focus on the positive instead of the negative.

Yet in itself, explicitly redirecting your thoughts isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is what you do when you're testing assumptions: You change them and examine the consequences. This process can be powerful. It has given birth to non-Euclidian geometry and to Godel’s incompleteness theorems.

But in positive psychology it has produced very little. Highly studied emotions in positive psychology include flow, elevation, hopefulness, and appreciation. But in the current state of the things, these remain empty constructs and definitions, with few empirical connections.

The insight of empirical science is that, when increasing knowledge, we turn to the outside world. Reality is all in your head, but that does not deny the existence of a very real, concrete, palpable world outside of you. The stubborn inability to learn from this world, in politics, has led to true suffering; in business, has led to bankruptcy; in personality, has led to delusion; and in psychology, has led to positive psychology.

-KJ



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Media (in order of appearance)

Image: (1)Radioactive Happiness, 06/10/2006, Netsrot; (2) Woman getting massage, 12/08/2006, hop sungtrieu; (3) BP716 Rainbow and Bird, 07/14/2006, listentoreason.
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Things Fall Apart

England’s anti-drug department has spent the past two years denying a freedom of information request in regard to its domestic strategy to battle drugs. The Economist reported last week that this sort of behavior is symptomatic of England’s freedom of information act, passed in 2000, which contains 23 “get outs” in order to prevent bureaus from having to hand over classified information. Too often these requests get caught up in a legal quagmire and take up to a few years to grant. What separates this case, however, is the creative justification by the Home Office for not releasing the records:
The reason is that next March the National Audit Office (NAO), a public-spending watchdog, is due to publish a report of its own on local efforts to combat drugs. The Home Office says that to have two reports about drugs out at the same time might confuse the public, and for this reason it is going to keep its report under wraps.

The Economist calls this “the most inventive interpretation to date” with regard to the FOI act:
This is believed to be the first time that a public body has openly refused to release information in order to manage the news better. The department argues that releasing its internal analysis now “risks misinterpretation of the findings of the [National Audit Office] report”, because its own analysis is from 2007 and predates the NAO’s findings. The argument uses section 36 of the FOI act, which provides a broad exemption for information that could “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

It’s a bit ironic that a law passed to increase transparency is being enacted in a manner that’s anything but. Were this a bank hiding info from their shareholders, the public might be angrier.

But what’s more revealing about this case is the way in which laws breakdown overtime.

One of the most admirable accomplishments of the founders was to create a foundation that would stand the test of time. The constitution is in a sense radical, but it is also practical and realistic in its approach. A lack of long-term foresight is one of the largest underestimated factors playing into new legislation. Too often the debate surrounds the magnitude of the problem rather than on the solution.

The idea that we can fix deep problems like healthcare or the economy in one bill is not only unrealistic, but it underestimates the dynamic nature of the problem. A close analogy is found in large struggling firms which seek to rectify their problems with a silver bullet: They’ll hire an outsider CEO, pursue large mergers and acquisitions, or try extreme new strategies.

In a report this week on Toyota, The Economist discusses how often the best solutions are the least flashy and exciting. The subject of the report is Toyota, whose CEO worries they are on the path to failure and is working carefully to rectify the situation. He is reportedly working with tips from Jim Collins’ book, How the Mighty Fall. In the book, Collins
advocates old-fashioned management virtues such as determination, discipline, calmness under pressure and strategic decision-making based on careful sifting of the evidence. Often, the leader best able to halt a downward spiral will be an insider who knows how to build on proven strengths while simultaneously identifying and eradicating weaknesses.

In line with this, continues The Economist:
Mr Toyoda’s approach is not visionary. It is simple, incremental and requires painstaking attention to what the customers want. That is its virtue.


Occasionally I’ll be watching late night (or early morning) business TV, and news anchors will often ask CEOs “How did you do it? What’s your secret?” And by now it’s a cliché for the CEO to answer that there are no secrets and the only recipe to success is doing a good job, taking care of fundamentals, and perhaps an ounce of fortune here or there.

In a sense, the sentiment that there must be some secret to success is even more fascinating than the fact that there is isn’t. The sentiment is somewhat understandable, especially given how many perceived geniuses see the world in a radically unique manner.

But there is something different from such academic or theoretical smarts and business smarts. What distinguishes the latter is not clarity of mind and vision, but an ability to be completely in tune with the details of their products and with what people want. From this perspective, it’s obvious why radical shifts make the least amount of sense, particularly when it looks like they’re being done for the sake of change, rather than to alter the underlying content. Rather it’s a question of inspecting resources, using them to their full potential, seeing how they’ve worked in the past, and making the sort of detailed tweaks here and there that, say, an inquisitive public looking for an overarching secret to success wouldn’t be interested in.

It’s also, once again, an issue of focusing on the solution not the problem. A radical problem – even a crisis – need not always require a radical solution. An appliance that won’t turn might just have a minor wiring problem. Debilitating diseases are often rectified by targeting just one type of molecule.

Too often these sorts of small but effective solutions are confused with finding a silver bullet to solve a whole problem. The smarter solutions are distinguished however in their scope, their maximized use of available resources, and their ability to work within the system rather than to replace it. For instance, we do have an advanced healthcare system, and it can align patients’ needs with doctors. But we do not have enough doctors. An analogy is to a new computer which won’t turn on because it’s unplugged.

It is this sort of nuanced thinking which needs to be applied to legislation: An eye for the long-term effects – when deciding on item prices, Costco CEO Jim Senigal thinks about the effect they will have 20 years down the road – maximizing current resources, and a careful expert look at the details involved and how they work. Where these approaches can't be used due to the nature of politics - say, a lack of expertise in government, or an inability to be flexible - then the solution needs to be reformulated or dropped. A half-assed solution is the worst kind.

-KJ

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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Toyota Camry, 02/26/2009, ogieabatillas; (2)Akio Toyoda, 10/24/2009, Shimoken; (3)Weird Al in Line at Costco, 12/26/2006, Vaguely Artistic.

Video: (1)Video, MrAlstec channel, of the song "Things Fall Apart" by Built to Spill from their 2009 album There is No Enemy.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lateral Transmissions: Steam Engenious

The Beatles got it right at the end of Sgt. Pepper, ending A Day in the Life – the contemplative fragmented waltz – with a dissonant orchestral crescendo.

I think that the next great step in pop music will be to integrate dissonance.

It’s almost ironic that The Beatles were the first – and possibly last – band to have such a famous song centered on dissonance. And even though it's only the end of the track that's notorious, the whole song really is structured around that climax.

Pop songs have clean melodic structures that are as condensed as possible. No one knew this better than The Beatles. From Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da to She’s Leaving Home, they had an uncanny ability to immerse you in a whole world in only a few minutes, catchy, compact like poetry, almost dense, like a song from a musical but better.

It’s fitting that on A Day in the Life, they went to such lengths to try to snap you out of their pristine songs, ending on a nightmarish almost unsatisfying crescendo, as surreal and dirty as their songs tend to be pleasant and sweet.

Wrote producer George Martin about that famous last chord:
What I did there was to write ... the lowest possible note for each of the instruments in the orchestra. At the end of the twenty-four bars, I wrote the highest note...near a chord of E major. Then I put a squiggly line right through the twenty-four bars, with reference points to tell them roughly what note they should have reached during each bar ... Of course, they all looked at me as though I were completely mad.

This proved to be only the start for John Lennon, who later went to absurd lengths to embody a sort of over-realism: his experiment with psychotherapeutic primal screaming – it sounds as odd as it looks on paper – and posing nude on an album cover.

Dissonance is an odd term, at once technical and completely subjective. It simply refers to a combination of notes that sounds unstable or unpleasant. You know it when you hear it, yet what is considered dissonant shifts across culture and time. Like all things when you study music, it’s about context, structure and temporal relation. When it’s employed well, it can provide a sort of driving force to music. Roger Kamien (quoted on Wikipedia) has a stimulating explanation:
An unstable tone combination is a dissonance; its tension demands an onward motion to a stable chord. Thus dissonant chords are 'active'; traditionally they have been considered harsh and have expressed pain, grief, and conflict.
You can hear dissonance here and there on the radio, but surprisingly few rock and roll bands have really integrated it into their songs. Used well and it’s as if an artist is harnessing a wild force.
Used poorly and you have nails on a chalkboard.

Going back to Kamien’s definition, when I’m in the right mood – say, listening to the right song while driving my car at night – it seems like there’s an underlying dissonance which drives intelligence and clarity of mind. In a sense, the drive for knowledge is predicated on not being content with the current state of things. In a world of perfect contentment, there’d be no need to learn more. In this sense there’s a truth to the archetype of the happy idiot, though I’m not sure whether it says more about man or knowledge. The inability to just be content seems to have a biological correlate as well.

I just finished Robert Clark’s In Defense of Self: How the Immune System Really Works, and like the best of books it left me both satiated and thirsty for more. The first part of the book is theoretical – it lays down the general principles, introduces you to the main characters, etc. And the second, and longer, part is applied – it covers disease and immune conditions.

Naturally I assumed that the second part would build on the first, by applying the theory. On the contrary, the applied portion of the book simply went on and on like the theoretical portion. I doubt this is a shortcoming of the author, as it’s more likely a reflection of the beast itself. But I found it rather thought provoking that there should be such a sharp disconnect to begin with.

It was a bit like learning English – or what I imagine learning English must be like: There are principles, structures, and rules, but after you master them, you then spend even more time learning about nuances and exceptions.

Certainly there are theoretical principles and natural laws, but the impression that one gets is that based on some primitive defense-system, mother nature was just making shit up as it went along, constantly responding to new threats and stumbling upon new weapons, necessity giving birth some pretty wild inventions, a patchwork quilt of defense systems.

The analogy to dissonance of course is a stretch – but it’s not as much a stretch as one might think at first. Both lend creed to the a-posteri ever-changing being-at-work-staying-onself/coming-into-being approach to knowledge.

-KJ


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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Album cover of Beatles' 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; (2)Moon up, 07/05/2009, [kane]; (3)Ralph Steadman, self-portrait.

Video: (1)Music video of the song Forever by Drake; (2)Music video, Two-Headed Baby channel, of the song Steam Engenious by Modest Mouse from their 2007 album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank; (3)Music video, cdiamond channel, of the song A Day in the Life by The Beatles from their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thru Fragments of Cinema: History

The achievement of HBO’s miniseries John Adams is a visual one.

History can be difficult to portray on film. Too often what you get on screen is a display of technical prowess with characters that feel like toy soldiers and overdressed dolls.

On the other end of the spectrum is a backlash to this style – a sort of post-modern historical drama – which thrives by accentuating those aspects that are more likely to click with the modern mind. Most notably these include Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Romeo + Juliet, and 300, all of which received mediocre critical reviews despite strong box office performances.

Escapism

Both styles – at their best – provide escapist entertainment, as powerful and fun as the made-up worlds of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. But what makes this discussion about more than just aesthetics is the fact that these historical worlds actually existed. Their big-screen portrayals represent overlapping ways of looking back in time: That of immersing oneself in the past and understanding it from their perspective; and that of pulling distinctly modern lessons out of the past.

Real

The more traditional approach – deemed period pieces, costume dramas – take a prim and proper Jane Austin-like approach, with the tension emerging out of a patient, slow, and literary restraint. But what often limits these films is the director's inability to use more modern elements of filmmaking.

Another part of the problem is that, not only were many past societies more formal than the present, but our hindsight of them is crystallized as well. Once again, this reflects our inherent view of history as setting the seeds for today. As Henry VIII narrates in the opening to Showtime's The Tudors, we know how the story ends; the interest is in how it got there.

Surreal

The modern approach is often criticized for looking like a long music video. Critics, for instance, dismissed the use of songs by The Cure and Air in Marie Antoinette. But isn’t there something artificial about watching a period drama in a movie theater anyway? Mood music – be it pop, classical, or ambient – never existed in the real world to begin with, and neither did quick cuts or long takes.

Regardless of which style you prefer, the contrast betrays the value – and slight contradiction – of looking at history in the first place: That it is in the context of the past; that it is being scrutinized with a modern mind; and that it is informing a modern world.

History

I’ve recently been taking great joy in reading Paul Johnson’s History of the American People. Johnson capriciously flips between narrating the story of America and stepping out to discuss parallels to modern times. Afterall, it’s worthless – perhaps impossible – to analyze and not interpret. Interpretation without analysis, however, often comes off as empty opinion. The mix one employs is a choice of style, rhetoric, and taste, and it can make or break a non-fictional account.

Perspective

I’ve come to enjoy learning about history. In one sense, historical accounts make me feel lucky to be alive today, that I’m able to look back on such a rich history of man to take it in, as if I were sitting on a tall royal throne with the entirety of history at my disposal to learn from and hone my decisions. On the other hand it imbues me with a strong sense of humility that so many chapters of mankind have yet to be written, and that future generations will look back on our time with the same sort of curiosity, attention to detail, and awkwardness as Sofia Coppola looked back at Marie Antoinette. It reminds me of Pascal’s sentiment of being stuck between two infinite abysses.



In this context, HBO’s John Adams takes an alternate approach in which it is true to the details of the time –costumes, architecture, dialect, mannerisms, and all – while subtly eschewing the neat toy doll-look of films that do the same. It largely accomplishes this through a cinematography style that favors slanted planes and off-angles. The Constitutional Convention is held in an orderly wooden house with period furniture and right angles, but it is shot from an angular perspective, with camera tilted on tripod, to the point where it almost makes you seasick while remaining tasteful nonetheless. The characters, speeches, and passions seem set in time – they are just as what one might expect – but the visual style goes to length to remind the viewer that from their perspective, the future, along with its stakes, was just as unpredictable – if not moreso – as it’s ever been.

-KJ
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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Poster of John Adams, HBO Miniseries; (2)Shot from 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons; (3)Poster from 2006 film, Marie Antoinette; (4)Seeeking Solace, 11/28/2009, anjan58.

Video: (1)MaKn channel, Opening to Showtime's The Tudors; (2)jaa2010 channel, Trailer for HBO's John Adams.
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Friday, October 30, 2009

Academia, of Sirens and Irrelevance

It is a self-governing and largely closed community of practitioners who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields.
So writes Louis Menand of the academic institution. He continues
Since it is the system that ratifies the product…the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system.
Academia is a bittersweet institution. The cliché of the Ivory Tower pays testament to the pursuit of knowledge over superstition, dogma, and tradition, while at the same time being marred by the very same dogma it sought to remove. Nietzsche would have smirked.

Thomas Jefferson obsessed about creating a meritocracy. The backward aristocracy of Europe drove English colonists away, and despite our Anglo similarities with Europe, it still defines the primary difference between America and Europe.

The Economist drew out a practical example contrasting European aristocracy and American meritocracy. They write that Buffett’s inheritance wishes – after his death, he wants his money to be donated away from the family – would be illegal throughout most of Europe. These wishes by Buffett are completely American, intuitive, and they’re almost non-newsworthy; but as the Economist argues, they remain extreme when compared to the rest of the world, even Europe.



Academia is stuck between a few contrasting extremes. It’s attacked for its aristocratic structure – often by its very inhabitants – and yet it’s as American as baseball. The students being pummeled through it grow in number and yet tuition is constantly on the rise. It is oriented towards specialization and detailed knowledge, but it’s slow to adapt to real-time developments.

Imperfect it may be in many ways, however, history has borne out that one of America’s best strengths - like the marketplace – is its ability to self-correct its wrongs, no matter how extreme they may be. US historian Paul Johnson admires how time and again – from the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare – such ugly crises are marked not by the extreme and shameful actions that took place, but by the widespread guilt felt for years afterward.

Lingering examples of this are political debates over affirmative action; the heat of these debates makes it easy to overlook how uniquely American they are in the first place. In some cases, as in the Salem witch trial, those who carried out the heinous actions were the first to express their guilt; in others, like affirmative action, the guilt and reaction were much more insidious, extreme and long-lasting. In all, however, the underlying principle is a desire to right wrong.

Not to liken those events to academia, but the point is that its warts are correctable.

Oddly enough bits and pieces of it become more relevant. The speed of change in today’s economy – manifested by the accelerating frequency of personal career change – increases the import of basic knowledge, analytic skills, and a flexible mind. Euphemized as economic friction, these changes are the result of an odd marriage between technological improvement and material improvement, both constantly moving upward and one-uping the other.

My life often seems like a mixed bag of challenges and experiences. I sometimes try to make sense of their order, but whenever I do this it feels like I’m stringing together random beads, only to make sense of them later, so I can think they look nice and orderly. I imagine this is how Odysseus felt being thrown from one island and conquest to another.

I never enjoyed reading Homer that much, but I have to admire the historical progression from Iliad to Odyssey. The former is a primitive linear war tale, while the latter is a loose combination of fairy tale strands, one which – upon closer inspection – seems ready to unravel.

More and more this progression, from the former set of tales to the latter, seems like a parable for modern life, where academia is one of multiple strands vying for relevance. Multifaceted as its virtue and output may be, its future success – in way or another – will result from their merit, or lack thereof.

-KJ
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Thanks to Michael White at Scientific Blogging for turning me onto the topic here.

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)The Great Hall -Christ Church, Oxford, 09/14/2009, Lyon; (2)Terry MacMullan Classroom10, 03/06/2009, EWU; (3)Kaleidascope of Minnows, 10/26/2009, hadartist;(4)Head of Odysseus.

Video: (1)Moby - Porcelain, 07/03/2009, video, by LTUcronus, of the song "Porcelain" from Moby's 1999 album, Play.
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Sunday, September 27, 2009

How You Play the Game

I love the quick hook on a pop song. And I often pick up dinner at Chipotle or Quiznos rather than cook – or microwave – it. Such instant gratification is a part of us.

And yet I constantly find myself thinking that the only real value is long-term value, or more extreme, that the only thing that matters in the world is long-term value. This was my first thought upon seeing Redskin DT Albert Haynesworth facedown in the grass this Sunday afternoon. At a prime age of 28, 6 foot 6, and 350 pounds – mostly muscle – this made an impressionable image, albeit one that’s not uncommon in the NFL.

Albert Haynesworth

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder made Haynesworth his pet-project acquisition last summer, offering him $100 million for 7-years, the largest contract ever for a defensive free agent. And Haynesworth is an invaluable contribution to this NFC East defensive line – he is fast, huge, instinctive, and can plug the run and sniff out a QB.

As Haynesworth was carted off the field today, the broadcaster’s thoughts went to the "investment" made by Daniel Snyder, who is known for throwing around large sums of money, along with coaches and players as well. But it would do injustice to view the injury of Haynesworth – who arrived with a reputation for being injury-prone – as merely unlucky.

Dan Snyder

The problem lies not so much with unfortunate circumstance but with poor underlying philosophy. The real question is why Snyder put himself in a position where he was relying on one $100 million player, rather than 2 or 3 solid players who could build depth into the roster. It’s an issue of being myopic. Of foregoing long-term value for a short-term payoff.

George McPhee

By means of contrast the city of Washington has Capitals GM George McPhee, whose philosophy of building their hockey team from the ground-up may transform the way in which sports teams are run.

Hockey teams – unlike football ones – are much more prone to being transformed by one star player. And in 2005, that star player for the Caps was Alex Ovechkin. But underneath the media circus that followed him, McPhee focused on building his team from the ground-up.

In 2003, he scrapped the team’s premier line-up of aging veterans and fading stars. He acquired younger talent, particularly focusing on the Caps’ minor league team, the Hershey Bears. McPhee explicitly eschewed short-term success:
“For starters, I should say that rebuilding and talking about being patient is easier said than done,” said McPhee. “We had a plan. It was to tear down a team and build it back up.

“The program taken to ownership (Ted Leonsis) was a four-year plan. The plan was to be back in the playoffs by then and start to contend. We made it in three years, but we were prepared to need four.”
Snyder's Brand

Over Snyder’s first 4 years, he cycled through 3 head coaches; each acquisition of a new head coach brought promises of the start of a new era of Redskins glory. In reality, Snyder was merely taking potshots into the dark – as he did with new big-ticket players – hoping that one of his moves would hit the jackpot. Not only did that not occur, but the inconsistency only helped to further break down the franchise into a gathering of high-paid stars rather than a cohesive team.

The only break to his sporadic movements came in 2004 when he was able to lure former Redskins coach and local legend Joe Gibbs out of retirement for a few seasons. Following Gibbs’ second retirement, it is not clear whether we will see a return to Snyder's old ways.



The twist is that Snyder – a self-proclaimed longtime Redskins’ fan – is known as a shrewd businessman, his rise to the top marked by executive stints with Six Flags, Johnny Rockets, and Red Zebra Broadcasting. Over his tenure he has made the Redskins one of the most valuable football teams. According to Forbes’ yearly rankings, the Redskins are currently the 2nd most valuable NFL team; they are surrounded on the list by teams that actually win like the Cowboys (ranked first), Patriots (third), and Giants (fourth). And yet Snyder's attempts to build the Redskins are anything but business-savvy, resembling something like a series of get-rich-quick schemes.

Long Term Value

Buried in this expensive mess of a football team are a few life-lessons.

All too often, individual crises and incidents are mistaken as causes for subsequent misfortune, rather than effects of past doings. The collapse of the housing market – ingrained in the public’s head as a singular event – was seen as causing the financial collapse, just as the Great Crash is often seen as causing the Great Depression. Underestimated are the factors that led up to such incidents, such as poor housing regulation of the 90’s and irresponsible monetary policy during the 20’s. Some have blamed current circumstances on the government’s willingness to allow Lehman to fall. But as The Economist points out, a Lehman bailout would’ve strained some other part of the economy. An analogy can be made to medicine, which warns of mistaking symptoms for cause of illness.

Long term growth is particularly important in football, much moreso than in hockey. As player-size has increased, so has the frequency of injuries. A 350-pound QB-chewing gorilla on defense can no longer act as a franchise savior, particularly because the sheer size of his frame poses a threat to his own legs and joints.

Another piece of advice is that it is worthless to take individual pot-shots at one’s future. Playing the lottery everyday is never a sound strategy no matter how much money you have.

There is an intellectual component to this as well: Insofar as abstract intelligence contains any value, it should be used carefully and decisively to plan ahead, utilizing current resources as best as possible.

The phenomenon of the one-hit-wonder pop band epitomizes this view. On the one hand, it is possible to produce a singular piece, one moment of greatness, which can strike it big. On the other hand, there is social acknowledgment regarding the emptiness of a one-hit-wonder. A great band is distinguished from a one-hit-wonder in its ability to produce hit after hit after hit; their work comes from a novel group of artistic minds rather than an from an instance of luck. That’s why it is somewhat rare – but not unheard of – for a non-fiction writer to be a one hit wonder, as his art depends less on muses and spontaneity than on smarts and clarity of mind. It would have been rather odd – afterall – if following the publication of A Brief History of Time, Hawkins suddenly lost his pension for theoretical physics.

The discrepancy between luck and genius is often portrayed in movies like Oceans 11, where heroes will do anything for one last chance at greatness, one last opportunity to strike it big. Their failure in these stories is marked by their myopic view: If your whole future relies on one individual con operation, one publication, one game, one football player – or even just one decision, to be made by yourself or by someone else – then you cannot blame your failure (or success) on the outcome of that one event. Rather, you are to blame for putting yourself in the sort of situation in which so much rests on so little. This is why in the best of Aristotelian tragedies the fault lies with character, not with circumstance.

Inhibitions

Of course one cannot downplay the counterargument, particularly when it comes to living in the moment. People do win the lottery, corporations do get windfall profits, and individual athletes do save franchises.

Digging a little deeper, a primitive breakdown of the human brain reveals that its more advanced regions – the ones that distinguish human intelligence – are inhibitory in nature. In a sense, drug intoxication prevents these higher areas from functioning, leading to a lack of inhibitions.

The term lacking inhibition has cultural connotations, but it’s backed by science as well. It is a very awkward phrase when you think about it, as it implies that getting drunk or high doesn’t so much cause you to do stupid actions, as it prevents you from inhibiting those stupid actions. In the drunkard, inhibitory functions of the advanced brain are temporarily disabled; in an individual with brain damage, they’re permanently disabled.

This ties into constructs of depression and anxiety, which are often conceptualized as an over-activation of these parts of the brain: Stress is often caused by thinking too much and an inability to live in the now. Just as alcohol can turn off those advanced parts of the brain, so can other feel-good drugs, prescription or otherwise. This is all a simplification of course, but the point is to get a good look at principles that underlie long-term valuation.

Personally I tend to over-intellectualize things at times, but after seeing Haynesworth face down in the grass this afternoon, I couldn’t rid my mind of this notion of long-term value. Perhaps it is my way of not wanting deal with the Redskins’ pitiful loss to the worst team in the NFL.

'It's Not Whether you Win or Lose, But How you Play the Game'

This phrase is often seen as a euphemism to justify losing a game. And yet there is much about it that escapes the eye, such as its focus on process over outcome. The phrase usually refers to the team that loses a well-played game, but equally important is the team that wins a poorly-played game.

The latter was exactly the case last week, when the Redskins barely beat the Rams, a team whose mediocrity places them in the same class as the Lions. Embodying the phrase were the home fans’ boos to the Redskins following a touchdown-less 9-7 victory over the Rams, which was no less the home game opener.

Not unlike chess – albeit minus its us-them mentality – sound judgment and decision-making require a sober look into the future, combined with a gathering of relevant knowledge and resources, and a respect for dissenters. In many contexts - such as the price of a stock - current circumstance is only important insofar as it speaks to future value. In this sense, winning a poorly played game does more harm than good.

-KJ

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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Albert Haynesworth; (2)Daniel Snyder; (3)McPhee Scowls Down, 05/01/2009, by cyldeorama; (4)An Angry Jim Zorn; (5)IH161460, 05/21/2009, chickhawkdown; (6)Arizona Lottery and Powerball, 04/22/2008, by Monte Mendoza; (7)Poster from 2001 movie Oceans 11; (8) 20060508 - Carolyn's MRI - Image 8 of 15 - Detailed Carolyn brain, 08/26/2006, Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL); (9)Depression, 05/18/2008, stillstressed; (10)Lombardi Pride, 08/25/2007, akahodag.

Video: (1)Video of the song
Sunshine (Adagio in D Minor), from Space Ambient channel, song by John Murphy, from the 2007 movie Sunshine. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Parables and Parabolas

Maya Angelou recently spoke at the NIH, where she weaved stories of her life. The speech was well-attended, its topic nebulous (“An Afternoon with”), its tone heart-warming.

Science professors often advise their students to tell a story. This is meant to unstuck students’ spinning minds, to get them thinking on a human-level, and to get them to contextualize results. “What’s the story here?” is often asked in response to research proposals and developing ideas. The question works so well that it’s become a cliché. The presumption being that there’s always a story, it’s just a question of finding it.

But the deeper presumption is that research is akin to storytelling. This interpretation over-stretches the all-too-often well-intended “what’s the story here?”, but it also uncovers the underlying dissonance between stories and research: Namely that stories are experiential while science is analytic.

When discussing scientific findings with fellow human beings, telling a research story never hurts, and certainly stories can help us get a glimpse at nature’s hidden clockwork. But at the same time they remain relatively indifferent towards nature herself, whose eternal laws and associations are not so whimsical as to be formed upon experience.

In this sense, scientific truth – the pursuit of which involves upending paradigms, half-truths, and rigid minds, albeit with Heidegger’s vision of our convergence towards the truth as if it were just beyond the horizon, all making for quite a story – in and of itself couldn’t be further from a story. In handling such truths, we need be imaginative yet thoughtful and delicate, lest we crudely weld man-made constructs of nature to fit into man-made stories. The later unfortunately is done all the time, even in science, and after long enough it strikes reality with a harsh dissonance. It is called wishful thinking.

-KJ Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The World's 2nd Largest Economy

There are signs of what some call “a collective identity crisis” in Japan. Income disparity, growing numbers of impoverished pensioners and child poverty.
Tough economic times have highlighted the potential of developing nations, China in particular, while Europe is seen as bulky and traditional, struggling to keep up with the Jonses. Japan however is overlooked – still thought to be a victim of its ‘lost decade’ – and now – seen by some – as the setting for a modern portrayal of The Grapes of Wrath. The Economist goes on to say
Hamamatsu, a coastal town south-west of Tokyo, has its share of shattered lives. Workers were laid off right down the supply chain almost as soon as home-town outfits like Yamaha and Suzuki saw export orders slump last year. The lay-offs included many Brazilians of Japanese descent, who had flown to Japan because factories needed cheap, part-time labour rather than expensive Japanese workers on full contracts. The jobless Brazilians live with each other if they cannot pay the rent, and the church provides the neediest with food parcels. At a Catholic church recently, they were making soup to share among those, like themselves, eking out the last of their savings. That included homeless Japanese men, who, unlike the Brazilians, cannot face turning to friends or family for shelter.
Halfway through the feature, I was shocked to read that unemployment in Japan is 5.7%, “low by international standards but a record in Japan.”



Humans perpetually struggle to improve our lot in life – that’s half of the fun in living, at least half the time. When relating to fellow human beings, it’s unfair withhold empathy based on another's lot in life. Afterall, suffering is relative – no matter how bad things are they can always get worse – and suffering is subjective: Its existence cannot be denied.

And yet I could not get this 5.7 figure out of my mind. Unemployment in the US – considered dangerously high – is nearing 10%. The discrepancy points to the relative - perhaps subjective - nature of seemingly objective statistics. There’s a tendency to grasp for numbers as undeniable facts, as stable pieces of evidence which pin us to the ground in an ever shifting world. And used with care they're invaluable.

But consider now the size of this discrepancy – unemployment in the US being around 40% higher than in Japan – next to Japan’s parallel economic struggles and identity crisis: In some ways we are completely different from Japan and yet in other ways very like them. And don’t forget that Japan’s economy remains the second largest in the world.

KJ

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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Hamamatsu Castle, 11/12/2008, Pine 57; (2)Poster from 2003 film, Lost in Translation.

Video: (1) Music video, shpytahmon channel, by the Gorillaz of the song "Hong Kong" from their 2007 album D-Sides. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Right to Eat Unfortified Foods and Health Care Reform

Scientists have begun to question the benefits of consuming too much folic acid. Potential risks relate to new estimates on how long it takes the liver to convert folic acid (“56 times slower than previously thought”); its ability to mask particular types of anemia; and an increased risk in “accelerating the growth of existing cancers.” Unlike strained arguments for health care reform, this really is an issue that affects us all: The FDA requires folic acid fortification in staple foods like breads and cereals.

The FDA’s original report on the matter (from 1999) reasons that folic acid fortification prevents neural tube defects among pregnant women. Even if the risks of over-consuming folic acid are all made up, the logic still escapes me for why everyone’s daily bread has to be modified.

The controversy regarding folic acid is just unfolding, and in all fairness it remains on the fringes of mainstream medicine. But you can feel a strong uneasiness on both sides of the issue: The conventional medical opinion says that folic acid fortification is a miracle of public health and you shouldn’t scare the public into believing half-truths. The opposing view, well, implies that poor regulations actively poison us through our food.

It’s too soon to jump to conclusions, but the fear of scaring the public with new info is almost always unfounded. We’re smart enough to figure things out for ourselves. If there is true skepticism about the benefits of folic acid, then we need to hear it. Afterall, we’re the ones who are being forced to consume it.

The debate raises more fundamental questions however about medical regulation, the role of government, medical science, and the rights of food consumers. It is somewhat ironic that we scrutinize new prescription medications given to subsets of the population, and yet gloss over widespread regulations such as this one, which asks the entire population to eat a synthetic diet as if they were all expecting babies.

As the health reform debate rages on, expect similar shortcut solutions, which attempt to lower health care costs through such non-conventional interventions. Already we are seeing calls to increase vitamin D and folic acid in our diet, while decreasing other ingredients that medicine deems harmful, at least at the current moment. Such actions need to be scrutinized carefully and at all levels of action, including the chance that fortification will help those who need it most, and that it'll insure that the vitamins and minerals are actually metabolized. Large-scale epidemiological studies need to make sure that negative health correlates to low levels of vitamins and minerals aren't confounded by low consumption of products like orange juice and enriched flour.

In fixing health care, there's a strong push-and-pull between ensuring that patients have the personalized attention they need, and treating everyone the same. The solution however needs to err on the personalized approach, because treating everyone the same is no way to give people what they need. Indeed, the more we try to treat everyone the same – be it by putting us all on the same medical plan, or force-feeding vitamins and minerals – the more unintentional consequences will result.

-KJ

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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)[Wonder Bread], 02/21/2009, Werklife; (2)Big Brother, 01/03/2008, Ian Geldard; (3)Vitamin water + energy, 05/25/2007, Ryan.
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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Reagan Revolution 2.0?

Repetition of history is often a given. The question is not so much whether, but how and when. To the latter, our accelerated technology driven world might answer: “Sooner than you think.”

Of particular interest is the similarity between today’s pattern of economic-political events and those of the 1970’s and 80’s: Both involved broad Republican power leading to their by overreach and loss of power; the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression; England's return to conservatism. In the late 1970's, the last event preceded America's return to the Right as well. We've yet to see if the same shoe will drop today.

In 1974 Nixon left office on the heels of the largest political scandal in American history. He left the economy in sharp recession, and although you can’t blame a recession on any one person, his poor economic policy certainly didn’t help. Bitter aftertaste from Watergate allowed the Democratic Party to take charge with Jimmy Carter. The economy continued to slump over Carter’s term, while England grew restless and the conservatives took charge. Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979, and shortly thereafter Reagan was elected in 1980 – their combination sparking the “Reagan revolution”.

Today’s sequence of events, although not the exact same, shares some uncanny similarities: W Bush left office in 2009 widely unpopular. It was not due to scandal per se, but there was a palpable sense that, similar to what occurred under Nixon, the Republican Party had gained a whole lot of power and under his lead shot itself in the foot, a blow from which it’s still recovering. Similar to Nixon, Bush also left the economy in a state of disrepair; and although you can’t blame a recession on any one person, Bush’s previous policies (particularly on housing) certainly didn’t help.

England is also witnessing a hard and abrupt shift towards Conservatism, one of historic proportion. The immediate cause of this is the expenses scandal, but that can only explain for so much. It is important to view such developments as non-coincidental, particularly in a democracy: Sometimes people need a reason to turn against a party on a dime. Sometimes parties in power become complacent. In following sequence, it is worth asking whether, similar to the late 1970's, England's conservative shift will precede the same in America.

Although one shouldn’t jump to conclusions, it’s difficult not to compare today’s events with those of the 1970’s and ‘80’s. The speculative implication, of course, is that a conservative Reagan-like personality will emerge come next presidential election.

Avoiding such fantastical speculation, the analogy further likens Obama to Carter, a president who is frequently conceptualized as a failed idealist: Perhaps one with the right mind, but in the wrong place at the wrong time to use it to address crisis after crisis.



It is still too soon to judge Obama – and the public, likewise, is giving him his due time to perform. But emerging recently – and well written in a series of Economist articles focusing on areas in which his efforts have been stifled by poor execution and lack of detail and foresight – is a lingering suspicion that Obama will leave the country in no better shape than when he entered office.

This seed of lingering suspicion grows much bigger in light of the soaring popularity with which he entered office, particularly among young people. Such a failure should it occur would be seen as widely symbolic as his election. And such a failure should it occur would no doubt leave the Oval Office wide open for a rising Republican star (perhaps along the likes of Bobby Jindal).

At present Obama’s legacy remains to be written in stone. But time is running out. Much of it will rest on his performance over this upcoming year: “Crunch Time” as The Economist puts it. In the meanwhile Americans continue to hold their breath.

Judging from output alone, it took over 10 years for the US economy to return to pre-1974 levels. These sorts of recessions have a way of working themselves out but only in the very long run. Such is often the time required for an economy to unwind and reposition itself, a process which arguably took the whole of Reagan’s first presidential term. That the rate of job and capital loss will slow down is a given, but it’s very unlikely that we’ll see the economy prop itself back up over the next few years. The speculative implication is that the recovery won’t begin until at least the next presidential term.

The worst of the crisis is likely over. And yet we still find ourselves at a crossroads with little indication of where we might be heading. Only history will be able to tell us if we’ve been here before.


-KJ
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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Richard Nixon; (2)Jimmy Carter; (3)Ronald Reagan; (4)The Economist, April 1st 2009 Cover; (5)Hazy Trees, Katwingz20.

Video: (1)Carter Crisis in Confidence Excerpt from 1979 speech, 11/11/2008, metbans.
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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reality Check

For perhaps the first a time, a foreword to a book prevented me from buying it. I was pretty close to buying it. In fact, after thoroughly browsing it, I was bringing the book down the escalator to purchase it. I usually don’t even read forewords, but this one caught my mind. What follows is a discussion about my distaste of that foreword, proceeded by a wider discussion of what matters in life and what doesn't.

The book was Guy Kawasaki’s Reality Check: A compilation of his best work, intended to serve as a comprehensive business start-up manual, an update of his previous publications, and a scattered best-of writings collection.

Kawasaki was one of Macintosh’s first marketers, famous for creating Apple evangelism through ads such as his 1984 spin-off.



His idea, in a nutshell, is that you should try to change the world with your product. Don’t hold back. Don’t be modest.

Moreover, simply from browsing his work, he is undeniably quotable and insightful, a sort of philosopher for ADHD-driven capitalism.

Riding down the escalator, I couldn’t help but notice the foreword, titled Foreword 1.0 followed by Foreword 2.0, both written by “Daniel Lyons, aka Fake Steve Jobs”.

Explaining the reason for publishing an updated Foreword 2.0 for the first edition of the book is a sort of foreword to Foreword 2.0:
What follows is the best foreword in the history of business books. It came about because shortly after Dan wrote the first foreword, he announced that he was discontinuing Fake Steve Jobs. I begged him to write one last piece as Fake Steve Jobs – what an honor that would be for my book! Fortunately, he agreed, and so Reality Check has not one but two forewords.
As you can imagine, I was intrigued, and proceeded to read the 2 forewords. At first they seemed somewhat interesting. Lyons (or whoever) opens by describing Silicon Valley as “the American dream on Red Bull and steroids.” He proceeds to discuss how unique Kawasaki is, essentially asking the reader to take his word that he’s a great guy.

It was Foreword 2.0, however – “the greatest in the history of business books” – that thoroughly turned me off. In it, Lyons brags to the reader that he hasn’t read the book because he doesn’t read books. Elaborating: “I wish this book had been around when I was starting Apple in 1976. I’m sure I wouldn’t have read it, but still it would have been nice if it had been around back then…”

A more played out joke in Foreword 2.0 is that Lyons associates Kawasaki the person with Kawasaki the motorcycle company. In fact, this takes up the majority of Foreword 2.0’s two and a half pages, as Lyons tries to applaud Kawasaki but keeps coming back to motorcycles.

I’m not one to take life too seriously, but there is an underlying current to everything intellectual – I’d expect, least of all, a marketer such as Kawasaki to realize this: That you may glamorize or skew the presentation of any product, but the central piece nonetheless remains the product.

The foreword left a particularly bad taste in my mouth because too often in life people are prone to overlook the underlying content due to less important factors – like when people are more concerned about their ego than the truth, or when leaders become more concerned about power than their driving mission. Had Stalin really been pursuing communism for the common good of his people, then he would have remained in tune with their condition. Bill Gates is not famous because he harnesses the strength of thousands of employees; he is famous for his insight that personal computers may be of use to the average individual, and then acting on that. People come and go, and controlling them is easy; but the truth stays the same.

The distinction between such matters – although hardly clear-cut – is widely recognized in society. It’s reflected in the Biblical distinction between the wheat and the chaff:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke, 3:16-18)
There’s a sense of not only superficiality, but tragedy when one gets lost chasing the chaff, which is merely the outer cover of the kernel that humans inevitably seek.

Underlying the notion of marketing evangelism, or the bit that I understand of it, isn’t making your product out to be more than it is; rather, it is convincing people of its true worth and its wide-reaching potential impact. The point is not to do this in a kitsch manner – “buy this Hallmark card, it’ll change your life” – but to remain genuine, albeit while pushing the envelope. Afterall, insofar as typing on and programming a computer maybe a daily extension of one’s mind, an alternative operating system really might get you to “think different”.

But opening a book with a person joking around about how he hasn't read the book, but loves the guy, even though his name sounds like motorcycles, certainly does the exact opposite for Kawasaki what “think different” campaigns did for Apple.

I hardly need to expound on the tongue-in-cheek idea of evangelical capitalism - with it's implication being that rifts between commercial operating systems rival those between religions. But in the spirit of not selling ideas short, good products really can change lives for the better, even if they don't quite live up to the salvation of the human soul. Such ideas, if they are to be one's focus, deserve to be treated with a fair amount of respect.

-KJ
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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Cover of Guy Kawasaki's 2008 book, Reality Check; (2)EC-24MAR08 [103], 05/24/2008, by HYPE; (3)After the harvest, 10/08/2007, Lincolian(Brian);(3)Apple_logo_Think_Different, 12/16/2008, Ballistic Coffee Boy; (4)Baptist Church, 11/18/2006, Thomas Hawk.

Video: (1)1984 Apple's Macintosh Commercial, Sean Collier's channel.
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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Catharsis in the Middle East

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude...in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions. (1449[b])

-Aristotle, Poetics
Conflict in the Middle East will probably end in violence. It is difficult to see it going down any other way.

The Economist declares that the Arab World is awaking from a slumber to find itself in the modern world. Such views, common among Western thought these days, are poorly thought out. They may offer some insight, but they ignore the scope and intensity of the underlying problem. More importantly, they offer no solution to it. But however you conceptualize things, ignoring the problems won't make them go away.

The Patronizing View

The Economist writes in a special report on the Arab World:
Imagine an Arab Rip Abu Winkle who had fallen into a deep slumber some time in the early 1980s. If he woke up now, he would rub his eyes in disbelief at how little had changed.
Coming off of Iran’s recent election protests, the magazine’s writers see the Arab World as ripe for political and philosophical change. In the face of the region’s common religious-political charges of heresy, they challenge a Middle Eastern academic to spark an intellectual revolution. Jestingly they conclude:
It turns out the French thinker Voltaire probably never uttered the words so often ascribed to him: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” So the way is clear. Let some Western Muslim sage be the first philosopher to make that pronouncement, and mean it.
The Economist is right to point out the region’s state of transition, but it’s hard to see how the solution lies in a philosophical breakthrough. Furthermore, it's tempting to view the region as absent from the world’s rapid changes over the past 20 years, but the first half of the 20th century saw a similar stagnation in Europe.

Contemporary History

A European Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep after the First World War only to wake up during the Second undoubtedly would’ve had déjà vu. Many of the direct causes of the First World War can be traced further back to the late 1800’s, and its proper resolution lay in the Cold War - all of which arguably stretches the period of European unrest to just shy of a century.

During the years leading up to World War I, Europe has in retrospect been called a powder keg, waiting to explode into violence. It would not be far off to call the modern Arab World a powder keg. And despite the region’s residual violence and ongoing tensions, it doesn’t seem to have exploded yet.



The Arab Rip Abu Winkle who wakes up today should be gravely concerned, similar to the European Rip Van Winkle waking up around World War II. From an outsider’s view – such as The Economist’s – it’s tempting to conclude that nothing has changed in the Arab World; but this cannot be correct from an Arab’s perspective. Dealing with the same issues for nearly 50 years has likely built a huge amount of tension, which has only been released in small doses of short wars, border conflicts, and mini-massacres.



The Arab Rip Abu Winkle who awakes this year, unlike his European counterpart, is unlikely to think that little has changed, as if all of the strife is a trifle annoyance preventing him from getting on with his life. He is more likely to think, "Why do my bloodsucking neighbors still roam the earth?"

What Has Changed

In the meanwhile, the West has thrown all the resources and diplomacy into the region that it can, none of which has had appreciable effect. If the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again without meaningful results, then working on yet another treaty is certainly stupid. By this point wishful diplomacy further carries the risk of alleviating violence in the short-term while failing to solve the underlying problem. Indeed, the longer the underlying problem persists, the more powder is added to the keg.

Disregarding meaningless diplomacy or the rise of an Arab Voltaire, there are a few key factors at play that will determine whether the region falls into bloodshed.

First, the region is getting younger. The baby boomer phenomenon in the West has been echoed throughout the world through dramatic jumps in the average lifespan. Older generations throughout the world are yielding to younger ones. This transition is even further delayed in developed nations, where average lifespan is longest. But it has already occurred in 2nd world areas like the Middle East, where over half the population is entering their 30’s.

The world is just beginning to witness this transition, as seen in Iran’s election protests. The near future of the Middle East rests in the hands of the young. If the region erupts in bloodshed, it will be their doing. If nations lay down their arms, it will be their doing as well.

The protests might signal that the new generation is growing tired of the old regimes, and may consequently be less violent than their ancestors. Moreover, Israel’s culture, in many respects, is known as being surprisingly secular.

But forgetting such violent past grievances is easier said than done. Contemporary history doesn’t suggest that peace will do a good job at burying the hatchet.


A second but less critical factor is the global recession. The Middle Eastern economy is disproportionally reliant on oil, making it overly sensitive to fluctuations in world demand while eschewing other forms of internal economic growth (a phenomenon known as Dutch Disease). Unemployment is particularly high among Arab youth, which further worsens its prospects for peace.

Looking Forward

In a famous piece, American-Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy called Israel the opium of the Middle East; the statement was made in the same sense that Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. She claimed that the conflict has blinded the region from pursuing more virtuous goals by influencing each nation to play the victim.

The conflict certainly has taken their gaze off of more noble aims, but the region is hardly in a pain-free euphoric state, even be it artificially induced. The conflict with Israel is hardly intoxicating, and it hasn't trumped more noble other pursuits simply because it's easier. It's trumped these other pursuits because it has remained red hot with intensity for nearly half a century.

All hope is not lost for a peaceful solution. But whatever that solution may be, it will have to genuinely come from within the region; patchwork external solutions merely risk making things much worse. The greatest source of hope lies in the new younger generation, who are just beginning to take power. At the same time, their young hubris remains an even greater risk for volatility.

Catharsis

Modern day relations between European nations might not seem like anything special, but it's no coincidence that Europe's current peacefulness arrived off the heels of almost a century of cyclical violence and tension. The devastation of two World Wars, followed by the bitter taste of the Cold War, thoroughly purged Europe. The world will have to wait and see whether the Middle East need undergo a similar purging of her own.

But again, tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. (1449[b])

-Aristotle, Poetics
-KJ
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Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Issue cover for July 25th Economist; (2)MontageMain Page; (3)WWI ChartX: A diagrammatic illustration of European political alliances in the period leading up to the First World War, depiction of Europe's preWWI "powder keg" from Wikipedia; (4)Will it ever stop?, 06/28/2009, Clar@bell; (5)TL032318, 06/03/2008, Ava Pearl; (6)Oedipus at Colonus by Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust 1788 French Oil, 11/10/2006, mharrsch. for the World War I Wikipedia.

Music: (1)Video, 10/30/2007 Basketballerke, of the song "Broken Chord Can Sing a Little" from the 05/27/2000 album He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corners of Our Rooms by the band A Silver Mt. Zion.
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