The Narcissus Society

“…Thrown together for two weeks at Brooklyn Supreme Court with 22 other jurors, I was struck by how rare it is now in American life to be gathered, physically, with an array of other folk of different ages, backgrounds, skin colors, beliefs, faiths, tastes, education levels and political convictions and be obliged to work out your differences in order to get the job done.

America could use more of that kind of experience. As it is, everyone’s shrieking their lonesome anger, burrowing deeper into stress, gazing at their own images — and generating paralysis.” — Roger Cohen (New York Times op-ed)


Most Babies Born Today Will Live 100 Years

Life Expectancy at birth (years) {{col-begin}}...
Life expectancy at birth

“More than half of babies born today in rich nations will live for 100 years as earlier diagnoses and better treatment of illnesses such as heart disease extend lives, scientists estimate.

Life expectancy increased by three decades or more over the 20th century in countries such as the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Canada and Japan, and that trend will continue, according to a review published today in The Lancet medical journal. Without any further improvement in longevity, three- quarters of babies will mark their 75th birthdays, the Danish and German researchers wrote.” ()


From ‘Bowling Alone’ to Diverse and Alone

‘It got nowhere near the publicity and caused nowhere near the stir of his 1995 essay “Bowling Alone,” about Americans’ increasing social isolation. But more recent work by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam is perhaps more controversial: his finding (2007 lecture here) that ethnic diversity isn’t an unqualified good — that diversity, “at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us,” as we withdraw from collective life, hunker down in front of the TV and distrust people around us, regardless of skin color.’ (New York Times )


Disease Mongering or Medicalization

MIAMI - MARCH 22:  Juan Ruiz (L) and Pablo Men...

“The medicalization of many social facets of our lives, multitasking pharmaceuticals and disease mongering are problems we should face head on…” via Sciencebase.


The Null Device

Margaret Thatcher, 1983

Every so often I remember to check in on The Null Device, and I am usually rewarded with a rich harvest of stimulation and idiosyncracy. For instance, right now, you’ll find:

  • a meditation on the reformation of Spandau Ballet and its relationship to Thatcherism;
  • a review of the state of the art in neo-Nazi haute couture;
  • a piece on anti-teenage lighting, the latest in Britain’s war on out-of-control youth;
  • a summary of Lord Whimsy’s essay on bizarre and grotesque fashions throughout history;
  • the revelation of the world’s most alienating airport;
  • how to tell how credit-worthy a person is by looking at their face;

and much more.


The Daily Me

“When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about.

Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that’s the trend, God save us from ourselves.

That’s because there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.” — Nicholas Kristoff via NYTimes op-ed.

Although Kristoff has seemingly only just discovered the ‘echo chamber’ effect, it has been a longstanding preoccupation of thoughtful observers of internet sociology. As newspapers morph into lesser online versions of themselves with less pretense to completeness and objectivity, however, is the situation about to get much worse?


The Roar of the Crowd

football player || larger than life || covers ...

Marx was wrong: The opiate of the masses isn’t religion, but spectator sports. What else explains the astounding fact that millions of seemingly intelligent human beings feel that the athletic exertions of total strangers are somehow consequential for themselves? The real question we should be asking during the madness surrounding this month’s collegiate basketball championship season is not who will win, but why anyone cares.” via TThe Chronicle of Higher Education.


In One Ear and Out the Other

Cover of "Laughter: A Scientific Investig...

Thank heavens someone is thinking about one of the most troublesome experiences I have — my inability to remember a joke I have heard, no matter how funny and no matter how determined I am to retain it to share with others later.

“Really great jokes… work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”

This may also explain why the jokes we tend to remember are often the most clichéd ones. A mother-in-law joke? Yes, I have the slot ready and labeled.

Memory researchers suggest additional reasons that great jokes may elude common capture. Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of The Seven Sins of Memory, says there is a big difference between verbatim recall of all the details of an event and gist recall of its general meaning.

“We humans are pretty good at gist recall but have difficulty with being exact,” he said. Though anecdotes can be told in broad outline, jokes live or die by nuance, precision and timing. And while emotional arousal normally enhances memory, it ends up further eroding your attention to that one killer frill. “Emotionally arousing material calls your attention to a central object,” Dr. Schacter said, “but it can make it difficult to remember peripheral details.” via NYTimes.

This may be a special case of something over which I have more generally puzzled — what is the difference between those raconteurs, who always seem to have a moving story or stories (funny or dreadful) to tell on any occasion, and others who are at a loss for words in social settings. I’m not talking about people who are shy or painfully inhibited so much as those who seem to have the material and those who don’t.

Is there that much of a difference in the content of people’s lives? Is it something about how observant they are? Or, again, something about memory function? I am fascinated by storytelling (for instance, I love the Moth podcast) and have always been intrigued by advertisements about storytelling workshops promising to develop attendees’ skills.

To some extent, there is a cultural influence as well. I suspect storytelling is a dying art, along with letter-writing and reading fiction, a way we used to interact and divert ourselves which is progressively and inexorably being supplanted in modernity. But there are still enough good conversationalists around to astound me.

Of course, other people may find it far easier than I do to talk about what happened to them during their workday, one of the important sources of our stories. As a therapist, I am privileged to hear in detail about a broad range of the lives of others, but all of what I am told, I am told in confidence. Perhaps I gravitated toward psychotherapy because I sensed myself to be a far better listener to the stories of others than I am a storyteller myself. In fact, some construe the work of psychotherapy as training our clients to become better storytellers about their own lives, as largely a matter of imposing coherence and pattern on their recollections and observations about themselves, making better sense of their lives, consequently appreciating and tolerating the humor and the pathos in their lives better, and developing an empathic connection to the life stories of those around them.


Japanese V-Sign

‘So why exactly do most Japanese folk do the V-sign when having their photos taken? According to Wikipedia, the earliest confirmed usage of the V-sign was by Winston Churchil during World War II – the V-sign meaning “Victory.” The Japanese Wikipedia for the entry Peace Sign however says that there is a theory that the two fingers mean that two nuclear bombs where dropped on Japan meaning that peace is near…

During the 1972 Winter Olympics in Japan, skater Janet Lynn (who was also a peace activist) was photographed by the Japanese media doing the V-sign. Although the V-sign was already recognized in Japan, it was apparently these photos of Lynn that popularized the use of the V-sign.

The Japanese entry in Wikipedia does not mention Lynn at all and instead says that the V-sign took off in the 80’s when usage of the V-sign was used when kids were having their photos taken.’ via Boing Boing.


The American Character

Progress of America by Domenico Tojetti

“Obama’s popular narrative, and the way he has told it, promises to revive interest in what scholars term American exceptionalism — the idea that the American story is somehow unique. Attempts to define that quality have led foreigners to these shores, generated countless commentaries, and after World War II helped give rise to an entire academic discipline — American studies. But the topic has been notably out of fashion in the scholarly world. Now, from the well-known historian Simon Schama, we have a new, contrarian view that looks at what’s unique in the American character, putting our past in the context of the election of the new president we are just inaugurating.” via ChronicleReview.com.


How To Be A Local Character

“Almost every community has one or two of them: persons who everyone knows, even if you have never spoken to them. Some local characters have gained nationwide recognition via internet. If your neighborhood doesn’t have one, you can follow a character from somewhere else! Here are five basic examples of different types of local characters.”

via Mental Floss.


How your friends’ friends can affect your mood

Recent research shows that our moods are far more strongly influenced by those around us than we tend to think. Not only that, we are also beholden to the moods of friends of friends, and of friends of friends of friends – people three degrees of separation away from us who we have never met, but whose disposition can pass through our social network like a virus.

Indeed, it is becoming clear that a whole range of phenomena are transmitted through networks of friends in ways that are not entirely understood: happiness and depression, obesity, drinking and smoking habits, ill-health, the inclination to turn out and vote in elections, a taste for certain music or food, a preference for online privacy, even the tendency to attempt or think about suicide. They ripple through networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, says Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has pioneered much of the new work.

via New Scientist.


Faith Equals Fertility

Clonmacnoise Co.

“Religious people have more babies than non-believers–and not just for the obvious reasons…

Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, has suggested several ways in which the experience of forming a family might stimulate religious feelings among parents, at least some of the time. She notes that pregnancy and birth, the business of caring for children, and the horror of contemplating their death, can stimulate an intensity of purpose that might make parents more open to religious sentiments. Many common family events, she reasons, might encourage a broadly spiritual turn of mind, from selfless care for a sick relation to sacrifices for the sake of a child’s adulthood that one might never see.

Eberstadt argues that part of the reason why western European Christians have become more secular is that they have been forming fewer stable families, and having fewer children when they do. This, she suggests, may help to explain some puzzles about the timing of secularisation in certain places. In Ireland, for example, she notes that people started having smaller families before they stopped going to church …

via More Intelligent Life.


The Young and the Restless:

Image representing Barry McCarthy as depicted ...
Barry McCarthy

Why Infidelity Is Rising Among 20-Somethings

“Why is there so much cheating? All of the scholars I spoke with point to the higher median age at which young people get married as the most likely explanation. Since 1950, the age of first marriage has risen to 25 from 20 for women and to 27 from 22 for men. “It’s more common for people to be hooking up or having relationships with multiple partners” before marriage, says Prof. Laumann.

Even young people who engage in monogamous relationships before marriage may be hurting their prospects for a faithful married life. The habits they form in those premarital relationships are likely to affect their marriages, according to Barry McCarthy, a psychologist and professor at American University in Washington. “The most common way that dating couples end a relationship is by starting another” — that is, by cheating on their current partner. Moreover, once people have gone through a couple of breakups of long-term relationships, they may not be as worried about what will happen at the end of their marriage. “The costs of exiting have changed,” says Mr. Laumann.”

via WSJ.com.


Alone Together

Under neon loneliness...

“Manhattan is the capital of people living by themselves. But are New Yorkers lonelier? Far from it, say a new breed of loneliness researchers, who argue that urban alienation is largely a myth.”

via New York Magazine

The author argues that loneliness is relative. Just as widows do better in a housing development with alot of widows, people living alone do better in New York, with the largest proportion of single-person households in any major city (around 1:2). And suicide rates, which since Emile Durkheim‘s classic sociological study Suicide have been tied to loneliness and isolation, run at a lower rate in New York than other urban areas.