You think you meet people by chance, but when you look back on your life you realise there was nothing random going on at all
– Jerome Bruner
You think you meet people by chance, but when you look back on your life you realise there was nothing random going on at all
– Jerome Bruner
Really interesting research by Laura Van Berkel shows that people who are drunk, tired, or suffering other types of cognitive impairment such as distraction or stress are more likely to be vulnerable to “those in charge” and when asked, affirm that “control or dominance over people or resources” is a “guiding principle in your life.” Equality is something a calm, leisurely person is more likely to support. We revert to hierarchy under cognitive stress.
According to a 2009 review, conservatives tend to support hierarchy andauthority more than liberals do. Van Berkel, working with Chris Crandall and other colleagues, found that, in terms of how the hundred and seven subjects interviewed outside the bar thought about hierarchy, drunk people gave more conservative responses while sober people gave more liberal ones. Over the next few years, she and her team ran five more experiments, exploring the relationship between mental effort and support for hierarchy. In each case, they found that cognitive impairments, such as being stressed or distracted, made people more likely to favor hierarchy. Even encouraging “low-effort thought”—by forcing respondents to think quickly, say—made people more respectful of those in charge.
There may be some sub-category of people for whom being drunk arouses their own need to dominate. We’ve all seen belligerent, brawling drunks domineering drunks and aggressive drunks. And people who are stressed at work are also more likely to do what the boss says. Equality, the article notes, may be a state of mind.
Also mentioned in the New Yorker article:
Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior by Christopher Boehm. A 1999 book in which Boehm, an anthropologist theorizes egalitarianism is in effect a hierarchy in which the weak combine forces to dominate the strong. Domination does not disappear, it just gets distributed.
I was in a meeting the other day in which we went around the table and introduced ourselves to each other. We were meant to describe our personal, non-work lives, and some people named hobbies, or told about their recent vacations, but more than half of the people at the meeting said they were big readers, or enjoyed hang-gliding, but 60% or so said they were the chauffeur for their kids and their soccer obligations, and slave to their children’s sports schedules.
I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to invite friends with traditionally schooled children to do things spontaneously on weekends–picnic or go hiking on a beautiful day, go out for dinner. “Sorry, Tommy’s got baseball”. “Can’t today, Melanie’s soccer practice.” Fortunately homeschooled kids seem to do a lot less organized sport and seem less invested in conforming with suburban social expectations. If you live in the suburbs, participation in team sports seems to be all the social activity on offer.
What an astonishing loss of life. Is it worth it to lose all that time with family and friends? The losses are steep. In a post on Mom’s Team, a blog for “Sports Parents”, Jeannette Twomey lists the things her family has missed:
“Over the years, we saw one family activity after another bow its head to youth sports. Dinner at home, reading before bedtime, visits to grandma’s house, household chores, games in the backyard, picnics, weekend jaunts into the countryside, camping trips, school vacations – all casualties of the children’s sports schedule.”
The rest of the family generally bears the brunt of one kid’s involvement in sports. How much lost time together, how many things missed? It boggles the mind.
Generally team sports are not lifelong sports. You don’t see 50 year old men playing soccer or hockey. Lifelong sports are things like skiing, tennis, dancing, yoga running–70 year olds are still doing these. And the whole family can do them together.
Getaround is a new service that allows people to share their cars. The company installs software that locks and unlocks the doors using their app, enables the car to drive. I have used it twice now, it works well
But Getaround does something truly un-sharing-economy friendly: they force everyone, including car owners, to log in using a Facebook ID. There is no ability to log in using an email address. This goes against any kind of “sharing” that might take place between the car sharers themselves, as Facebook accounts go to a single person. A family, or car co-owners, cannot share their car on Getaround, unless they all use the same Facebook account. Having a Facebook account used by more than one person violates Facebook’s terms of service.
Worse, forcing people to subscribe to other company’s products in order to use their service–and sign the terms of service with another company, especially one with a dubious record of respect for their users–is user hostile behavior.
When asked, Getaround says they are doing this because they don’t want to be responsible for trust and safety themselves–they want to rely on Facebook to do that for them. The makers of Getaround don’t really understand how reputation systems work–reputations can’t move from one system to another. You can be an ax murderer in real life, but if you ship quality products on time, you can maintain an outstanding A++ WOULD BUY AGAIN reputation on eBay or Etsy. Nothing on Facebook determines if someone is a reliable driver, there are no mechanisms for feedback on someone’s honesty or responsibility, cleanliness or consideration of others. And you can make a new Facebook account as easily as you can make a new email address.
You can tell what company’s values are by what they focus on, and what they take the time to build. Getaround doesn’t seem to value user sharing and user reputation. Other sharing services put a higher value on users ability to share and on their users reputation. AirBnB, for example, allows email logins, and has built their own advanced and thorough reputation system specifically addressed to the needs of their community. Getaround car owners cannot share responsibility for a car on their service and absolve themselves of trust and safety responsibility as to their users reputation.
A better sharing economy service would not do that.
The annual announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature brings about an efflorescence of translations worldwide, and for this we should be grateful to those former weapons manufacturers, the Nobels. The granting of peace prizes and prizes for literature is a correction, of sorts, to their war-mongering past and a good way to spend and expend an ill-gotten wealth. Last fall Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexeivich was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature, a surprise, as the recipients often are; perhaps the Nobel committee was even making a political statement against Putin. She stands out from her fellow laureates in that she’s a non-fiction writer, a chronicler rather than a storyteller, a collector of oral histories, and not a writer of poetry or fiction. Bertrand Russell also won the prize, no poet he. So did Winston Churchill. She is not the first non-fiction laureate.
Alexeivich seeks out the tales behind the historical events, gives voice to those silence or obscured by history. In her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, she wrote the stories of women and World War II, of war not as a grand geopolitical triumph or national catastrophe, not as a vale of hero-making and striving, or a tale of strategy or tactical derring-do, but war as the backdrop for women nursing men from the battlefields, women working as snipers and killing enemy soldiers, losing their betrothed in battle. She followed this book with The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, war from children’s’ point of view.
In her book Chernobyl Prayer, available in the UK, and offered in the States as Voices from Chernobyl, Alexeivich talks to the survivors of the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986. To me, the disaster at Chernobyl had always been a news article, a terrible disaster certainly, one of the worst, but something I had only read about in newspapers and the occasional news magazine. I knew facts, I’d seen charts. I saw maps and commentary and analysis. But Alexeivich transformed what we experienced as news into something different, a real story. Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Storyteller, collected in the book Illuminations, explains the difference between what Alexeivich has done–tell stories– and the Chernobyl situation as we’ve hitherto experienced it: as news, as information, as something explained, analyzed and interpreted:
Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it… The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.
Alexeivich includes no maps, diagrams or statistics into Chernobyl Prayer. She explains very little of what was reported in the news–that’s been exhaustively covered already. Instead, she allows the wives of the cleanup crew to tell their stories, the parents of children who’ve grown up with terrible disfiguration after their parents were exposed to radiation. She talks to everyone from the region, farmers and professors, children and soldiers, university agriculturalists, scientists, Communist party leaders and secret dissenters. She lets both of the owners of pets that were rounded up and shot by the cleanup workers and the cleanup workers who were commanded to seek out and kill all the animals left behind tell their stories. Chernobyl Prayer tells of the returnees, going back to their homes, in spite of the killing radiation they will find there, and eating the beautiful vegetables that are, invisibly, hopelessly contaminated. It tells what it’s like to watch the people you love die deaths of great suffering. It tells of the country people from Pripyat and environs, trying to adjust to life in the city. It tells of their love of nature, and the difficulty of comprehending how flowers, trees and animals that were still so beautiful could be radiating death.
It’s not possible to overstate the power, horror and beauty of this book, its expression of humanity confronted with extremes of experience and catastrophe, the stories of people who were present at the end of the world, the primacy of love in the midst of disaster. It’s a remarkable document, an indelible book of slow death and demise, the story of a poisoned world, told by the survivors of an apocalypse.
I look forward to the other volumes of Alexeivich’s work that will follow, soon, in translation.
Only 3% of books published in the United States are translated from other languages, according to the introduction to The Door by Magda Szabo, which seemed a tiny number, especially when you consider a country such as Finland, where I spend part of every year, where many if not most of the books on the shelves are translations. Would give one a more sophisticated and international view, don’t you think? I couldn’t find any statistics, in English, about what percentage of books published in Finnish are translated from other languages, but I’m willing to bet the number is very high. Of course it is a small country, and so its own literary output is slim. But a side effect must be a more cosmopolitan world view.
Filmmaker Michael Haneke in a recent interview in the Paris Review, said film has devolved disappointingly into books about sex and material possessions, which is why, he said, the best films now come from foreign lands, the “developing countries” as we in the West are fortunate enough not to experience deprivation or pain, and know very little suffering. In literature we even have a term for this, the “ sex and shopping” novel.
When my daughter was very small, I tired of reading books about penguin and duck mamas loving their babies, or children going to the store with Mommy. In a used bookstore I found some amazing books that I read to her: an illustrated version of the Orpheus myth, a version of the myth of the Golem, and a beautiful edition of Aida by Leontyne Price. My daughter had apparently tired of the cuddling and shopping stories too: “Read me the one with the blood!” she would beg me, referring, of course, to the final pages of Orpheus, where in both image and text he is depicted stoned to death by revelers for refusing to sing, so broken was he by the second and final loss of Eurydice. She immediately knew, for all her youth, that these were real stories and the stories of the hugging penguins were not. If only there were more unbowdlerized translations of myth and history for small children, with illustrations.
Imagine finding yourself in love with an author’s work, so much so you have read everything she has written, and seek out more—only to find her books have not been translated into any language you can read, and are not likely to be any time soon. So what do you do? Commission a translator to translate more! That’s what Cristina Bettancourt did. She is a big fan of the work of Antti Tuuri, a Finnish writer. She contacted his publisher, who provided her with a list of potential translators. She commissioned the translation of a short passage, and then paid the 10,000 euros the translation cost! She is quoted on the (sadly discontinued blog) Books From Finland as saying, ‘I was startled when I heard the cost,’ said Bettencourt. ‘On the other hand you could spend the money on something silly like clothes. This way I would have something splendid.’
I’ve read three wonderful books in translation this past week. Nada by Carmen Laforet, Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexeivich, and The Door by Magda Szabo. All of them were wonderful, told in different ways and in different voices. I’ll write up a brief synopsis of each. Stay tuned.
I was interviewed by Chase Jarvis, the co-founder and CEO of Creative Live, an education company that has live education around the clock, every day, in creative fields such as design, filmmaking, photography and music. It’s a great company! I was on their board too.
Here is the interview, which was recorded last week, and is part of a series “30 Days of Genius”, which includes interviews with other folks such as Richard Branson, Swiss Miss, Arianna Huffington and other interesting and unexpected people. I had fun doing it, and, while I chafe at being characterized ONLY as an Entrepreneur and Angel Investor, was able to talk about my experiences along the way.
These are some of the books I mentioned in my interview:
A Blue Fire by James Hillman. Hillman is a student of Carl Jung, but focuses his work on the cultivation of the soul. Great guide for creative pursuits, but for anyone looking beyond success into fulfillment and magnanimity in the old sense: great-souledness.
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. A German writer, who spent most of his career teaching in East Anglia in England. Sebald writes movingly, is deeply learned. The Emigrants is his masterpiece: a study of men, their lives and failures, their deaths.