Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Do You Really Want to Be a Porn Star?

Aurora Snow doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get why so many people are emulating her.

You see, Aurora Snow is a retired porn star, turned writer.  Her name, Aurora Snow, is a pseudonym, because, like many porn stars, she did not want to drag the family name into the business.

Anyway, Snow does not understand why so many young people seem to want to be porn stars. She kind of gets why a couple might want to spice up their sex lives by filming it for posterity. The danger of exposure might, for some people, be an aphrodisiac. (It’s the premise of a new and apparently boring movie called “Sex Takes.”)

Given her experience, Snow is well-qualified to warn people of the risks of doing sex tapes.

People know the risk, and yet they still do it. Why?

Perhaps they have overcome their sense of shame. After all, in certain segments of our culture, shame is the enemy. It is something that must be overcome… in the interest of openness and honesty.

Sexting is apparently widely practiced by adolescents. It is so widely practiced that it has lost some of its stigma.

We all know that some celebrities have garnered fame and fortune by doing their own private porn. Think: Kim Kardashian.

And yet, people must know that if they want to be respectable professionals and have real careers, if they do not want to become celebrities, such exposure will do them no good.

Though Snow does not put it in these terms,  many young people have learned about sex by watching porn. They believe that porn stars are setting a performance standard for sexual prowess. It is not bizarre that they would believe that they could improve their own sexual performance by doing having sex in front of a camera.

Also, if they have fetishized pornographic images, why should they not use their fetish by getting aroused by images of themselves? After all, it’s better than “cheating” by watching Aurora Snow.

Yet, porn stars know better than anyone the price of full frontal exposure.

Snow explains that anyone who is choosing to immortalize his sexuality on his iPhone should assume that, at some point or another, the images will escape their confines and enter the public domain.

She offers a word of warning:

So next time you’re feeling the urge to film, remember that a two-minute video is never just a two-minute video. Sex tapes aren’t always fun and fortune—they can be a disastrous embarrassment. And they can be used as video incrimination or provide for some good old-fashioned shunning.

A quick glance at the tabloids will let you know whose tape might become public next. Yet, as long as there is a thrill to be had or a long shot at fame, people will immortalize their sex for future generations to marvel at.

Advocating for Diversity

The opening line of this Wall Street Journal story can be read in two ways:

Dedication to diversity can be a liability in the workplace, according to a new study.

The reporter is going to tell us that when women and minorities appear to be advocating for other women and minorities, they are considered to be less competent.

Yet, the sentence can also be read to say that a company that dedicates itself to diversity might find that diversity undermines its bottom line. It is one thing to hire and promote based on merit, regardless of gender or skin color. Yet, it is quite another thing to promote based on gender or skin color.

The first practice will surely aid a business in its primary goal of making a profit. The second practice will undermine the business by promoting less competent people in order to fill a diversity quota.

The question is: equal opportunity or equal outcomes? Given the way people think today, someone who is dedicated to diversity will more likely seek equal outcomes.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Researchers at the University of Colorado found that women and non-whites executives who push for women and non-whites to be hired and promoted suffer when it comes to their own performance reviews. A woman who shepherds women up the ranks, for example, is perceived as less warm, while a non-white who promotes diversity is perceived as less competent. Both end up being rated less highly by their bosses, according to the paper, which is set to be presented at an Academy of Management conference next month.

One suspects that the term “non-whites” does not refer to Asians, but to African-Americans and Hispanics.

No one believes that Asian managers in Silicon Valley are rated more poorly when they try to mentor other Asian-Americans. The large numbers of Asian-Americans on the staffs of these companies suggests that the problem is limited to women and minorities.

One understands why a woman or a minority group member would want to advance others who look like him or her. It makes good sense for a talented woman to push for other women or for a talented African-American to try to advance the careers of other African-Americans.

Otherwise, these people will see themselves as tokens, hired and promoted in order to make the company look good or to garner business with government agencies that require a certain amount of diversity.

And yet, the rise of equal-outcome affirmative action had created the presumption that women and minorities are less capable than white or Asian males. Thus, any employee who seems to be favoring others for reasons of diversity quotas will be seen as less interested in what is best for the company.

We also recall the phenomenon that exists in professions like veterinary medicine, psychotherapy and, apparently, public relations. After the number of women reaches a tipping point, the profession will become a pink ghetto. Men will avoid it.

Does a variant of the same phenomenon exist in the world of management? If more and more managers are women, does that make it more and more difficult to hire and retain good male managers? And, is that a good or a bad thing?

After all, some of the most successful business in America, the high tech behemoths of Silicon Valley are notably lacking in diversity.

Monday, July 21, 2014

In Praise of Handwriting

When you take notes, whether in college or in a meeting, you do best to do it longhand. If you type notes on a laptop or an iPad, consider it a bad habit. Try putting the machine aside and take notes with pen on paper… preferably on yellow legal paper.

Why should this be so?

Since most people type faster than they write, they can transcribe words more quickly on a keyboard than on a legal pad. When you are typing your notes into a machine you are spending less time reflecting on what you are writing.

This will make it more difficult to recall and to understand the information. When you take extra time to write, your brain is working over the material, thinking about it, understanding it. You will have better recall and will be better able to grasp the issues at hand.

How does this apply to the act of writing… as in writing an article or a book or a column?

When you write directly on a computer are you thereby allowing your thoughts to flow more freely? Does keyboard writing suffer less self-censorship?

Most writers, even today, prefer to write their drafts by hand, not on a computer. More thought makes for better prose.

They also find that those who write on a keyboard are more prone to add lots of filler to their texts. Often you can tell if a text has been written by hand or by the computer by the amount of excessive verbiage. If you write drafts on a computer you will need to be a very good editor.

This raises an interesting question. Does the excessively wordy product of keyboard work represent a truer expression of your thought process or is it filler that you throw in to keep your fingers moving?

In three studies by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer recently published in Psychological Science, it was found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.

Mueller, a Princeton University doctoral candidate, says that one surprising aspect of the study was that even though someone can take more notes via a laptop, transcribing those notes verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning. In other words, you may write slower than you can type, but you’re also listening, digesting and summarizing what you hear.

But then, the researchers asked, if you take a pad and pen to a meeting you might also be more likely to doodle. They found that this is not such a bad thing:

Of course, toting along a pad and pen to a meeting also increases the chances that workers will begin doodling, which isn’t possible while typing on a keyboard. While bosses may feel that doodling signals the worker isn’t paying attention, research shows that isn’t the case.

The brain is designed to always be active (to ensure that a woolly mammoth won’t sneak up unnoticed), so if you don’t give it something to do, it will go looking. Daydreams of winning the lottery or dating a supermodel will begin to occupy you when you are bored, which can often happen in a meeting.

Apparently, if you do not set your brain to work, it will find something else to do… like daydreaming and being distracted. If you do not give it a purpose, it will find some purposeless activity to while away the time.

Christians Expelled from Mosul

Sadly, the Christian community in Mosul, Iraq is no more.

The Islamist terrorists who took over the city a few weeks ago have declared Christians persona non grata and have forced them to leave a city they had occupied for nearly two millennia.

The New York Times reports:

By 1 p.m. on Friday almost every Christian in Mosul had heard the Sunni militants’ message — they had until noon Saturday to leave the city.

Men, women and children piled into neighbors’ cars, some begged for rides to the city limits and hoped to get taxis to the nearest Christian villages. They took nothing more than the clothes on their backs, according to several who were reached late Friday….

Interviews on Friday with Christian elders and leaders suggest that in fact many had hung on, hoping for an accommodation, a way to continue the quiet practice of their faith in the city that had been their home for more than 1,700 years. Chaldeans, Assyrians and other sects, including Mandeans, whose Christianity is close to that of the Gnostics, could still be found in Iraq, and many made their home on the plains of Nineveh in the north of the country, an area mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Friday’s edict, however, was probably the real end. While a few scattered souls may find a way to stay in secret, the community will be gone.

So much for the religion of peace....

The Twilight of the Dollar

Most news outlets are not paying much attention to this story. It does not contain very much drama and no one understands it very well.

Still, the fate of the U.S. dollar is a large story, potentially an enormously important event. Thus, I have occasionally posted about it.

Ten days ago Liam Halligan explained the stakes, clearly and cogently in The Daily Telegraph:

Since then, global commerce has been conducted largely in dollars and leading economies have held the greenback as their primary reserve currency.

The same system remains intact today, with the lion’s share of commercial settlements worldwide still clearing the US banking system – even if the parties involved have nothing to do with the States.

The dollar’s hegemony continues to be cemented, meanwhile, by the operations of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Founded at Bretton Woods, they’re both Washington based, of course, and controlled by America, despite some Francophone window-dressing.

The advantages this system bestows on the US are enormous. “Reserve currency status” generates huge demand for dollars from governments and companies around the world, as they’re needed for reserves and trade. This has allowed successive American administrations to spend far more, year-in year-out, than is raised in tax and export revenue.

Thanks to the dollar’s status America enjoys enormous advantages:

So America doesn’t worry about balance of payments crises, as it can pay for imports in dollars the Federal Reserve can just print. And Washington keeps spending willy-nilly, as the world buys ever more Treasuries on the strength of regulatory imperative and the vast liquidity and size of the market for US sovereign debt.

It is this “exorbitant privilege” – as French statesman Valéry Giscard d’Estaing once sourly observed – that has been the bedrock of America’s post-war hegemony. It is the status of the dollar, above all, that’s allowed Washington to get its way, putting the financial squeeze on recalcitrant countries via the IMF while funding foreign wars. To understand politics and power it pays to follow the money. And for the past 70 years, the dollar has ruled the roost.

The situation is not likely to change in the short run, yet change is coming:

Something just took place, though, which illustrates that dollar reserve currency status won’t last forever and could be seriously diluted. Last week, seven decades on from Bretton Woods, the governments of Brazil, Russia, India and China led a conference in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza to mark the establishment of a new development bank that, whatever diplomatic niceties are put on it, is intent on competing with the IMF and World Bank.

It’s long been obvious the BRICs are coming. The total annual output of these four economies has spiralled in recent years, to an astonishing $29.6 trillion (£17.3trillion) last year on a PPP-basis adjusted for living costs. Thats within spitting distance of the $34.2trillion generated by the US and European Union combined.

America’s GDP, incidentally, was $16.8trillion on World Bank numbers, and Chinas was $16.2trillion within a whisker of knocking the US off its perch. The balance of global economic power is on a knife-edge. Tomorrow is almost today.

Consider also that the BRICs collectively hold sway over 50pc of global currency reserves, rising to almost three-quarters if you take the emerging markets as a whole. The G7 nations between them control only 20pc – and less than 8pc if you exclude Japan.

Among other reasons, the dollar enjoys its status because nations buy and sell petroleum in dollars:

The key to the dollar’s future is petrocurrency status – whether it’s used for trading oil and other leading commodities. Here, too, change is afoot. China’s voracious energy appetite and America’s increased focus on domestic production mean the days of dollar-priced energy look numbered.

Beijing has struck numerous agreements with Brazil and India that bypass the dollar. China and Russia have also set up rouble-yuan swaps pushing America’s currency out of the picture. But if Beijing and Moscow – the word’s largest energy importer and producer respectively – drop dollar energy pricing, America’s reserve currency status could unravel.

That would undermine the US Treasury market and seriously complicate Washington’s ability to finance its vast and still fast-growing $17.5 trillion of dollar-denominated debt.

Even though Russia still does most of its trading in dollars, the markets are moving away from the dollar:

Although the dollar’s reserve status won’t end overnight, the global payments system is now moving inexorably towards that outcome. The US currency accounted for just 33pc of all foreign exchange holdings in 2013, on IMF numbers, down from 55pc in 2001.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Empathy for the Palestinians

As war rages between Israel and Hamas, Jon Stewart and Nicholas Kristof believe that it’s just the right time to show off their superior capacity for empathy.

As the therapy world touts the transcendent virtue of empathy, Jon Stewart, a cult figure to America’s youth, a man who missed his calling as a propagandist, is trying to elicit empathy for the people of Gaza.

After all, the more we feel the pain of the Palestinians in Gaza the more we will pressure Israel into stopping its assault on the terrorist state. Stewart might not know what he is doing, but his empathetic approach can only help Hamas. He feels no such empathy for the Israelis.

Here’s Stewart on the Israeli response to Hamas rocket attacks:

Both sides are engaging in aerial bombardment, but one side appears to be bomb-better-at it. (Studio laughter at the wordplay.) Most Hamas rockets are neutralized by Israel’s Iron Dome technology, and Israeli citizens can even now download a warning app. (Cut to clip of Israel’s US ambassador Ron Dermer explaining how Israelis can know where and when they’re being attacked.) So Israelis seem to have a high-tech, smart-phone alert system.

The Times of Israel responded well:

Having falsely implied that Israel is as keen on killing as Hamas is, Stewart now seems to be criticizing Israel for not being as vulnerable as Hamas would like it to be to those Hamas rockets that are sent to kill us. He seems to be bashing us for having those tech smarts. It’s a bad thing that we developed a unique, astonishing Iron Dome missile defense system, without which hundreds of us would be dead? It’s a bad thing that we developed an app to warn us that the rockets designed to kill our citizens are heading this way?

Stewart’s remarks were widely attacked.  Having more than enough arrogance to be unmoved, Stewart returned to the same topic the next night with his guest Hillary Clinton:

Can we at least agree the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is overwhelming, and that the world must do more for the people who are trapped by this conflict?

Clinton was on her game—for a change—and clearly exposed the flaw in Stewart’s empathetic reasoning:

Yes, and they’re trapped by their leadership. Unfortunately, it’s a two-pronged trapping. They have leadership that is committed to resistance and violence, and therefore their actions are mostly about ‘how do we get new and better missiles to launch them at Israel,’ instead of saying ‘hey, let’s try and figure out how we’re going to help make your lives better.’

Of course, Stewart is nominally Jewish, which puts his efforts beyond disgraceful. Then again, so is Nicholas Kristof, a man who likes to regale us with his moral outrage about injustices around the world. In the current conflict between Israel and Hamas Kristof prefers to be more even-handed. Because, after all, when war is afoot, it is best to empathize with the losing side.

This morning Kristof took to the New York Times to explain that each side in the Israel/Hamas conflict has a point. Thus, he took moral equivalence to its absurd limit:

On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.

This paragraph shows how not to think. The Israelis are fighting terrorists who want to destroy them. The people of Gaza elected Hamas. Many of them were dancing in the street after terrorists murdered three Israeli teenagers. Many of them were dancing in the streets when the World Trade Center was destroyed. Should we feel empathy for their moral depravity?

Kristof continues:

And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.

As it happens, Kristof is echoing the points that Philip Gordon, representing the Obama administration, made at the onset of the conflict.

As for Palestinian rights, these have, as Hillary Clinton said, been taken away from the Palestinian people by the Palestinian leadership. Had that leadership been willing to renounce its lust for murdering Jews its people could long since have had a state. The offer has been on the table for decades.

As for living in freedom, where in the Arab Middle East does anyone live in freedom? When Hamas leaders took over Gaza they could have ushered in a new era of freedom. They could have built businesses. Instead they dug tunnels into Israel, the better to terrorize the Israeli people. And they amassed an arsenal of rockets and missiles. And, of course, they imposed Sharia law, not a practice of freedom. It's rallying cry is not construction, but deconstruction.

Like Jon Stewart, Nicholas Kristof is Jewish. He too should hang his head in shame.

Not to limit ourselves to Jewish intellectuals, let’s take a look at what thought leader Andrew Sullivan has had to say.

Sullivan has used the current conflict to defame the president of Israel. Does he recognize that during a war, such actions express solidarity with the other side? I doubt it.

In this paragraph he is comparing Benjamin Netanyahu to Vladimir Putin, the defensive incursion into Gaza with the shooting down of a civilian airliner:

Both have been riding nationalist waves of xenophobia – and have done their best to inflame it some more; both believe that military force is the first resort when challenged; both have contempt for the United States under its current president; both regard Europeans as pathetic weaklings and moral squishes; both use a pliant mass media to instill the tropes of paranoia, wounded pride and revenge; both target “infiltrators” in their midst, whether it be African immigrants and Palestinians or gays and Westerners; and both have invaded and threatened their neighbors. Perhaps most important of all: both have lost control to the even more enraged extremists to their right.

Is it not pathetic to see a champion of gay rights attacking the only nation in the Middle East that allows gays to live their lives freely? Why would Sullivan make himself part of the propaganda campaign defending a regime that sees homosexuality as a capital crime?

Strangely enough, Sullivan’s myopia echoes the attitude of another gay rights activist, Michel Foucault, who inexplicably found much to like in the rule of the Iranian ayatollahs.

As for the Arab governments in the Middle East, they have taken the opposite take. They are not rallying to the Palestinian cause. Quite the opposite.

The New York Times reports today, in the guise of a news article that offers a different sort of empathy for Palestinians who feel betrayed by their fellow Arabs:

Three years ago there was a hope that a growing movement for democracy might make Arab countries more supportive of the Palestinians, as governments grew more responsive to the people and their demands.

But during the latest bloodshed in Gaza, the opposite has occurred, according to supporters of the Palestinians, who found the official Arab reaction incoherent, at times providing cover for the Israeli military assault.

The governments were accused of dithering at critical moments during the recent Israeli military offensive, where in the past, Palestinians counted on them to at least muster some diplomatic pressure to make it stop. Their feuds broke out in public, and Egypt even blamed Hamas, the Islamist movement in Gaza, rather than Israel, for dozens of Palestinian deaths.

Obviously, Hamas counted on the diplomatic pressure exercised by the Obama administration, on the jihadis rioting in Paris, and on American Jewish intellectuals. In that, it did not miscalculate.

But, if it expected other Arab governments to come to its rescue, it was clearly wrong.

Egypt, in particular, has turned its back on Hamas:

The antagonism has continued under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led the ouster of Mr. Morsi and who has kept Egypt’s border crossing with Gaza all but sealed, further isolating not just Hamas but all the Palestinians trapped in the fighting there. A few hours before Israel launched its ground assault of Gaza on Thursday, Egypt’s official state news agency provided the Israelis with an unexpected boost.

In a statement, it quoted the country’s foreign minister as blaming Hamas for the deaths of at least 40 Palestinians. The statement, which also criticized Qatar and Turkey, said the deaths would have been prevented if Hamas had signed an Egyptian cease-fire initiative.

On Twitter, Anshel Pfeffer, a writer for Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper, encapsulated the surprise at the turn of events: “Incredible that #Israel is going into #Gaza and the greatest Arab state, #Egypt is not saying a word of criticism, just blaming #Hamas.”

One must add that President Erdogan of our NATO ally Turkey, an Islamist nation that President Obama likes, has declared Netanyahu to be worse than Hitler.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Should You Embrace Solitude?

As per my last post, social psychologists fully recognize the therapeutic benefit to striking up conversations with strangers. Human connections, they understand, are the cure for feelings of anomie, disaffection, isolation and rejection.

If you are practicing psychoanalysis, as Adam Phillips is, this call to connect with other people would threaten to put you out of business. In classical psychoanalysis patient and analyst do not connect. The process itself, as I have put it, doubles down on anomie.

So, a serious psychoanalytic thinker like Phillips knows perfectly well that he must explain how self-absorbed mental meanderings can benefit an individual.

In presenting Phillips’ argument, Maria Popova  begins by quoting Pascal, who said, as I translate it: “I discovered that all of man’s problems derive from one source: the inability to sit alone in a room in repose.”

Surely, this is a profound thought. And yet, it’s being profound and Pascalian does not necessarily make it true. Frankly, I do not think that this idea is even remotely true.

In the meantime, Phillips has developed concepts of “fertile solitude” and “productive solitude:”

A fertile solitude is a benign forgetting of the body that takes care of itself… A productive solitude, the solitude in which what could never have been anticipated appears, is linked with a quality of attention.

One accepts the concept of productive solitude, but “fertile solitude” is a clumsy metaphor. Surely, Phillips did not intend it, but “fertile solitude” seems like a euphemism for parthenogenesis.

Here, Phillips is speaking as a psychoanalytic patient, lost in his thoughts, letting his mind wander, spewing out whatever comes to mind, regardless of the response he receives from his analyst.

And he seems to recognize—how explicitly I know not—that Lacan was correct when he compared psychoanalysis to a mystical journey into the mind.

Of course, productive solitude is another story. A man sitting in a room ruminating about his children or his childhood is not really doing anything productive… unless he is collecting material for his next book. A man sitting alone in a room planning his new business is doing something productive with his solitude. Then again, if that is what he is doing, he probably does not feel very alone, in the sense of disconnected. He feels part of a team, perhaps actual, perhaps eventual.

True enough, solitude does not often feel good. For a child, solitude feels like abandonment. For an adolescent it feels like isolation.

And yet, aside from the fact that it might also be a respite from a day’s activities-- a moment to reflect over what happened and to plan the future-- solitude contains the sense of being rejected, of being disconnected.

Phillips declares that some people become phobic about solitude, but he should have added—and would have if he was not trying to encourage people to undergo psychoanalysis—that the objects of phobias, as Aaron Beck pointed out, are truly dangerous.

As I said in the previous post, the cure for anomie is connection. Discovering why you feel disconnected does not make you any more connected.

One might also ask whether there is such a thing as doing nothing. The man who is lying out in the sun working on his skin cancer is not doing anything productive. For all we know he might be engaged in a ritual worship of the sun god. If, however, he is thinking through his sales pitch or mulling over his budget, one would have difficulty saying that he is doing nothing.

If productive activity, solitary or not, involves directing oneself toward the future, psychoanalysis cannot be called productive.  It is about exploring the past… by disconnecting from the present and the future. If so, there is nothing productive about it, in the sense that it contributes to a work project.

For all we know, people who, when isolated, meditate over past experiences are simply telling themselves—perhaps not very convincingly-- that they are not alone.

More philosophically, Phillips quoted Nietzsche, a man who was not exactly a beacon of mental health and emotional tranquility:

When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody.

The least one can say is: don’t try this at home.

If you are a great philosopher, if you are a genius, then you incur a duty to cultivate your genius. This will, in many cases, make you fear social contact, especially if you believe that your genius must place you at odds with the rest of the world.

But, Nietzsche believed in creating himself as his own work of art. Many psychoanalysts believe that they can offer the same thing. Their frame of reference is aesthetic, not ethical.

Here we have a problem with definition. Ethically speaking, there are two kinds of solitude. There’s the solitude you feel when you understand that you and you alone are responsible for a failure. And then there is the individuality you feel when you and you alone are put on trial for having committed a crime.

As it happens, the criminal’s individual guilt is less difficult to deal with than is the shame of the man who has failed. The criminal and only the criminal is tried for his dereliction. And yet, he knows what he must do to pay his debt to society. Moreover, and not insignificantly, if he pays by doing time in a prison, he will join a company of other criminals. Thus, he will become part of a new social group.

Unless he is placed in solitary confinement, a punishment that is extremely painful, a criminal will enjoy the company of others.

The individual whose moral failings bring shame will have a harder time attenuating his pain. Since shame is about how he looks to other people, it is not very easy—short of mind control—to modify the way other people see him. In that he is not merely alone, but he faces a daunting task if he wants to recover from shame.

The feeling of isolation, of rejection of disconnection, of feeling ostracized cannot be papered over by lofty thoughts about solitude.