Category Archives: Culture

What drives success? The Triple Package of traits

A SEEMINGLY un-American fact about America today is that for some groups, much more than others, upward mobility and the American dream are alive and well. It may be taboo to say it, but certain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.

Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies. These facts don’t make some groups “better” than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life. But willful blindness to facts is never a good policy.

Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.

The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class — rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.

Today’s wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. Although India and China send the most immigrants to the United States through employment-based channels, almost half of all Indian immigrants and over half of Chinese immigrants do not enter the country under those criteria. Many are poor and poorly educated. Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic or educational background.

Take New York City’s selective public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, which are major Ivy League feeders. For the 2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School offered admission, based solely on a standardized entrance exam, to nine black students, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among the Asians of Chinese origin, many are the children of restaurant workers and other working-class immigrants.

Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others — as measured by income, test scores and so on — is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.

There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians. Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.

Cuban-Americans in Miami rose in one generation from widespread penury to relative affluence. By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year. All three Hispanic United States senators are Cuban-Americans.

Meanwhile, some Asian-American groups — Cambodian- and Hmong-Americans, for example — are among the poorest in the country, as are some predominantly white communities in central Appalachia.

MOST fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations. Thus while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 — including a 63-point edge over whites — a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students.

The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment. Continue reading

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What suffering does

On a more contemplative note this weekend – is there any point to the ‘hard stuff’ in life? I resonate with Brooks when he writes about how when we look back, pain, suffering and failure have become particularly formative, even ennobling.  

David Brooks for the New York Times 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined

The Empirical Kids

My student Marc (thanks Marc!) highlighted to me this series of David Brooks essays on youth/children – how they grow up, cope and thrive.

OP-ED COLUMNIST By  Published: March 28, 2013 282 Comment

Twelve years ago, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic, called “The Organization Kid,” about the smart, hard-working, pleasant-but-cautious achievatrons who thrive in elite universities. Occasionally, somebody asks me how students have changed since then. I haven’t been perceptive enough to give a good answer.

But, this year, I’m teaching at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, and one terrifically observant senior, Victoria Buhler, wrote a paper trying to capture how it feels to be in at least a segment of her age cohort. She’s given me permission to quote from it.

Buhler points out that the college students of 12 years ago grew up with 1990s prosperity at home, and the democratic triumph in the cold war abroad. They naturally had a tendency to believe deeply “in the American model of democratic capitalism, which created all men equal but allowed some to rise above others through competition.”

Then came Sept. 11. That was followed by the highly moralistic language of George W. Bush’s war on terror: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

But Bush’s effort to replicate the Reagan war on an evil empire led to humiliation, not triumph. Americans, Buhler writes, “emerged from the experience both dismissive of foreign intervention as a tool of statecraft as well as wary of the moral language used to justify it.”

Then came the financial crisis, the other formative event for today’s students. The root of the crisis was in the financial world. But the pain was felt outside that world. “The capitalist system, with its promise of positive-sum gains for all, appeared brutal and unpredictable.”

Moreover, today’s students harbor the anxiety that in the race for global accomplishment, they may no longer be the best competitors. Chinese students spend 12-hour days in school, while American scores are middle of the pack.

In sum, today’s graduates enter a harsher landscape. Immediate postgrad life, Buhler writes, will probably bear a depressing resemblance to Hannah Horvath’s world on “Girls.” The hit song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “is less a fashion statement, more a looming financial reality.”

Buhler argues that the group she calls Cynic Kids “don’t like the system — however, they are wary of other alternatives as well as dismissive of their ability to actually achieve the desired modifications. As such, the generation is very conservative in its appetite for change. Broadly speaking, Cynic Kids distrust the link between action and result.”

A Brookings Institution survey found that only 10 percent of young people agree with the statement, “America should be more globally proactive.” The Occupy movement, Buhler notes, “launched more traffic jams than legislation.” The Arab Spring seemed like a popular awakening but has not fulfilled its promise.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Maybe this empirical mind-set is a sign of maturity, but Buhler acknowledges that the “yearning for definitive ‘evidence’ … can retard action. … The multiplicity of options invites relativism as a response to the insurmountable complexity. Ever the policy buffs, we know we are unable to scientifically appraise different options, and so, given the information constraints, we stick with the evil we know.”

She suggests calling this state of mind the Tinder Effect, referring to the app that lets you scroll through hundreds of potential romantic partners, but that rarely leads to a real-life encounter.

Buhler’s most comprehensive disquiet is with the meritocratic system itself. It rewards an obsessive focus on individual improvement: “Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

She wonders if the educated class is beginning to look at the less-educated class — portrayed on TV in shows like “Teen Mom 2” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” — as a distant, dysfunctional spectacle. She also wonders if the mathematization of public policy performs a gatekeeper function; only the elite can understand the formulas that govern most people’s lives.

I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.

And, yes, I gave her an A.

Mindfulness – Getting its share of attention

A lot of ink has been spilt lately about the idea of Mindfulness. Meditation has hit the front cover of Time and  describes it as a ‘revolution’… a new “science” of finding focus in our stressed out, hyper-kinetic world. The Wisdom Conference kicked off this year to the sound of… well, silent meditation and The Huffington Post has an interesting article on what it is and isn’t .

The columnist says the simplest definition of meditation is learning to do one thing at a time.

By DAVID HOCHMAN | NYTIMES

What is the sound of one hand texting?

As Soren Gordhamer patiently quieted a packed Wisdom 2.0 event in San Francisco in September for a guided meditation, a few in the communal meeting space known as the Hub couldn’t resist thumbing another message or two before pocketing their sacred devices. A willowy young brunette in a black T-shirt shot video of the crowd with her iPad from her front-row seat. Even after Mr. Gordhamer, who is tall with a sculptural face and Errol Flynn hair, urged the group to “come into presence,” his voice rising in emphasis, someone’s phone was buzzing like a dragonfly.

Mr. Gordhamer started Wisdom 2.0 in 2009 to examine how we can live with technology without it swallowing us whole. The wait lists for his panel talks and conferences now run into the hundreds.

The “Disconnect to Connect” meet-up was typical. The audience was mostly young, mostly from the Silicon Valley tech scene and entirely fed up with taking orders from Siri. “There was a time when phones didn’t tell you to do everything,” said Mr. Gordhamer, 45, as the conversation got rolling. “What’s work, what’s not work, it’s all become blurred.”

And yet, the problem may offer a solution. Loïc Le Meur, a French blogger and entrepreneur and the evening’s guest speaker, recommended a meditation app called Get Some Headspace. The program bills itself as the world’s first gym membership for the mind. “It’s a way to have a meditation practice without feeling weird about it,” said Mr. Le Meur. He was wearing Google Glass with only a hint of irony. “You don’t have to sit in a lotus position. You just press ‘play’ and chill out.”

Earlier that morning at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Chade-Meng Tan, a veteran engineer, was laughing about the demand for an in-house course he created called “Search Inside Yourself.” The seven-week class teaches mindfulness, a loose term that covers an array of attention-training practices. It may mean spending 10 minutes with eyes closed on a gold-threaded pillow every morning or truly listening to your mother-in-law for once. Google naturally sees it as another utility widget for staying ahead. “Whenever we put the class online, it sells out in 30 seconds,” Mr. Tan said.

This is not just a geek thing. Everywhere lately, the here and now is the place to be. George Stephanopoulos, 50 Cent and Lena Dunham have all been talking up their meditation regimens. “I come from a long line of neurotic Jewish women who need it more than anyone,” Ms. Dunham, who’s been meditating since she was 9, told a capacity crowd last month at the David Lynch Foundation for Conscious Based Education and World Peace in New York. Then there was the tweet last April from @rupertmurdoch, who announced: “Trying to learn transcendental meditation. Everyone recommends, not that easy to get started, but said to improve everything!”

The Marine Corps is testing Mind Fitness Training to help soldiers relax and boost “emotional intelligence,” the buzzwords of the hour. Nike, General Mills, Target and Aetna encourage employees to sit and do nothing, and with classes that show them how. As the high priestess of the fully aware, Arianna Huffington this year started a mindfulness conference, a page dedicated to the subject on The Huffington Post and a “GPS for the Soul” phone application with a built-in heart sensor to alert you when you’re calm or stressed.

The hunger to get centered is especially fervent in the cradle of the digital revolution. The Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz told Wisdom 2.0 audiences about modeling his current software start-up, Asana, after lessons learned in his yoga practice. At the same summit, eBay’s founder and chairman, Pierre Omidyar, shared the stage with Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s English interpreter, and pegged the auction site’s success on human goodness and trusting in complete strangers. At another, Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco, detailed analog weekends devoted to family, painting, photography and haiku.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist leader who introduced mindfulness to Westerners (Google got first dibs on him as a guest speaker), once said, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” Yet for the majority of sentient beings today, simply getting through an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” without tending multiple screens is a quasi-mystical triumph. Naturally, the architects of our electronic age approach the situation as if it were an engineering problem.

“This isn’t the old San Francisco hippie fluff,” said Mr. Tan, who started the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as an extracurricular program in 2007. More than a thousand Googlers have gone through the course, which uses scientific research and the profit motive to entice coders and programmers to be here now.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies verify the benefits of mindfulness training, and Mr. Tan appeared familiar with all of them. Meditation thickens the brain’s cortex, it lowers blood pressure, it can heal psoriasis and “it can help you get a promotion,” he said. Companies like Goldman Sachs and Farmers Insurance also hire Mr. Tan and his team to teach techniques like pausing before sending important emails and silently wishing happiness upon difficult co-workers.  Continue reading

Hollywood Linguistics – the art of inventing languages

Khal Drogo Khaleesi Daenerys
Dothraki King Drogo & Queen Daenerys © HBO

Nautilus | Jennifer Ouelette

Seven hundred people gathered at the University of California, San Diego, one day this spring to hear the creators of three fictional languages talk about how linguistics has infiltrated Hollywood, particularly when it comes to building believable make-believe worlds. When it comes to building make-believe worlds, inventing a language makes it seem that much more real to the audience, fueling the willing suspension of disbelief that lies at the heart of entertainment.

“The days of aliens spouting gibberish with no grammatical structure are over,” University of Southern California linguistics professor Paul Frommer told the New York Times in 2011. Frommer invented the Na’Vi language spoken by the tall blue native inhabitants of Pandora in Avatar, and was on the San Diego panel, along with David J. Peterson, who invented the Dothraki language for HBO’s smash hit series, Game of Thrones, and Mark Okrand, who created the Klingon language forStar Trek III: The Search for Spock.

People who create new languages as a hobby—a very serious hobby—are called “conlangers.” The oldest and most successful invented language is Esperanto, dating back to 1887. It hasn’t yet ushered in world peace, as it was intended, but between 10,000 and two million people speak Esperanto today, mostly concentrated in Europe, East Asia, and South America, with as many as 1,000 native speakers who learned it from birth. There is also a tradition of inventing languages in the science fiction and fantasy realm. J.R.R. Tolkien invented an Elvish language while writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Disney’s John Carter featured an invented Martian language called Barsoomian. Continue reading

Why we like watching rich people

INTRODUCTION

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”Mary Cybulski/Paramount Pictures, via Associated Press

Several Academy Award contenders like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” glorify white-collar criminals and scammers, and many reality TV shows embrace the wealthy, too. A new series, “#RichKids of Beverly Hills,” is the latest example of our enthusiasm for “ogling the filthy rich.”

Why are we so obsessed with watching the antics of the 1 percent?

NY Times, Feb 2014 | Alyssa Roseberg | Read more here 

America’s fascination with the ill-behaved rich, expressed in both reality television and this year in many movies that are contending for major awards, isn’t limited to the current recession. But the particular incarnation of our fascination seems intended to do something very specific: help us manage our covetousness, at a time when even basic financial security feels out of reach for many people.

It’s been fascinating to watch Bravo, which more than any other network drove the idea that programming should be “aspirational,” shift its brand from shows like “Project Runway” and “Top Chef,” which taught viewers about fashion and food, toward reality programming about the rich.

In “Blue Jasmine,” Cate Blanchett plays a wealthy socialite who falls on hard times.Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Classics

The purchasing power of the people who appear on the “Real Housewives” franchise may be enviable. But part of the appeal of those shows is the opportunity to judge their casts’ consumption choices and their conduct. If we had their money, we think, we wouldn’t spend it on hideous hotel suites and closets full of wigs. And when it turns out that Teresa Giudice, a star on “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” is financing her lifestyle on debt and fraud, we can congratulate ourselves for not sharing her desperation to appear wealthy.

When rich people we actually envy turn out to be criminals, the idea that wealth is inherently corrupting helps take the sting out of our envy. Gordon Gekko may have declared that “greed is good” in the movie “Wall Street,” but by chasing his example, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen’s character in the film) contributes to his father’s heart attack and earns himself a prison sentence, examples that help us map the limits of what we’d do for more money. We tell ourselves that we’d never be as pathetic or myopic as the heroine of “Blue Jasmine,” who ruins her own life by marrying a scammer. And we’d never be so foolish, as the titular hero of “The Great Gatsby,” remade again this summer by Baz Luhrmann, to think that wealth, no matter how it’s acquired, can purchase class, or ease, or revise personal history.

We may never stop wanting money, the worries it eliminates and the ease it can bring. But pop culture can issue very effective reminders that we value things like our freedom and our self-respect just as much.

the self-help enterprise is a lonely one

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Google, and the author of a book forwomen juggling their professional and family lives, "Lean In." NADINE RUPP / GETTY IMAGES

Feel Free to Help Yourself

Sarah L. Courteau

There is a booming market for self-improvement guides among Americans eager to redeem themselves from the sins of sloth, gluttony, or general discontent. But what qualifies one person to tell another how best to live?

Several years ago, I was living in Washington with one of my brothers, who had come to stay with me while he pulled himself out of a rough patch. Eventually, he got a gig selling memberships at a gym, part of a well-known national franchise. No one in our family is a natural salesperson, but it was a job, and at least the gym is one place where my brother is in his element.

He had the closing shift, and he’d get home in his regulation polo shirt and raid the fridge just as I was going to bed. Pulling in a paycheck straightened his shoulders, as it does for anyone. Some of his wry humor returned, and so it was that one night he came in and, standing at the kitchen counter, recited “The Affirmation,” the creed that new gym employees had to learn by heart:

 

I will win. Why? I’ll tell you why—because I have faith, courage, and enthusiasm!

Today, I’ll meet the right people in the right place at the right time for the betterment of all.

I see opportunity in every challenge.

I am terrific at remembering names.

When I fail, I look at what I did right, not what I did wrong.

I have clearly defined goals.

I never take advice from anyone more messed up than I am.

I never let a negative thought enter my head.

I am a winner, a contributor, an achiever. I believe in me.

 

We laughed until there were tears on our cheeks, in part because of the mock enthusiasm with which my brother belted out that last line, but mostly at the idea that such earnest propaganda could ever be received—much less adopted—with a straight face. What kind of chump did these corporate types think he was?

But really, what was so ludicrous about a company that makes its money burnishing the temple of the body applying that same approach to the mind? Sure, it isn’t exactly a tune you can dance to. Still, “The Affirmation,” crude as it is, echoes some of the time-tested ideas of the self-improvement canon, old and new. Back in 1936, in How to Win Friends and Influence People, a folksy businessman’s bible that is really just a useful guide to not being a jerk, Dale Carnegie admonished his readers to “remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” And in the 2006 blockbuster The Secret, various “experts” unrelentingly advocate using positive thinking to mobilize the “law of attraction” in your favor. “Your life is a mirror of the dominant thoughts you think,” but the law of attraction doesn’t register “words of negation,” says one of these authorities. (In other words, if you’re thinking “I don’t want the restaurant to give away our table,” what the universe hears is “I want restaurants to give away our tables.”) The Secretreminds me of another megaseller, The Da Vinci Code, with its pseudo-historical references and simplistic explanations peddled as deep insights. The law of attraction is bunk. But there really are some benefits to thinking positively.

The truth is, my brother could have done worse than take “The Affirmation” to heart. And at that point in my life, dating a string of men whom Dale Carnegie would have kicked to the curb, I could have, too. The main trouble with “The Affirmation” was the source—a company that wanted its workers to bristle with enthusiasm so they’d sell more memberships. That didn’t invalidate the message.

There’s a fundamental contradiction in our attitudes about self-help—a term that describes the broad category of products and ideas that are supposed to make us thinner, happier, smarter, and more efficient. We Americans accept protein powders, extreme diets, personal trainers, expensive gym memberships, and the Rube Goldberg exercise contraptions that litter our basements and garages as the necessary paraphernalia for the pursuit of physical perfection. We openly admire gym rats and envy their fit bodies. But anyone who dabbles in the improvement of the mind—even taking yoga that hasn’t had its spiritual roots bleached out completely—invites a raised eyebrow among those of us who consider ourselves serious people. We are above such lockstep platitudes, empty positivity, and pop psychology. Continue reading

The destabalisation of marriage

The Disestablishment of Marriage – NYTimes.com

nytimes.com  | by STEPHANIE COONTZ on June 22, 2013

AT first glance, the prognosis for marriage looks grim. Between 1950 and 2011,according to calculations by the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen, the marriage rate fell from 90 marriages a year per 1,000 unmarried women to just 31, a stunning 66 percent decline. If such a decline continued, there would be no women getting married by 2043!

But rumors of the death of marriage are greatly exaggerated. People are not giving up on marriage. They are simply waiting longer to tie the knot. Because the rate of marriage is calculated by the percentage of adult women (over 15) who get married each year, the marriage rate automatically falls as the average age of marriage goes up. In 1960, the majority of women were already married before they could legally have a glass of Champagne at their own wedding. A woman who was still unwed at 25 had some reason to fear that she would turn into what the Japanese call “Christmas cake,” left on the shelf.

Today the average age of first marriage is almost 27 for women and 29 for men, and the range of ages at first marriage is much more spread out. In 1960, Professor Cohen calculates, fewer than 8 percent of women and only 13 percent of men married for the first time at age 30 or older, compared with almost a third of all women and more than 40 percent of all men today. Most Americans still marry eventually, and they continue to hold marriage in high regard. Indeed, as a voluntary relationship between two individuals, marriage comes with higher expectations of fairness, fidelity and intimacy than ever.

But marriage is no longer the central institution that organizes people’s lives. Marriage is no longer the only place where people make major life transitions and decisions, enter into commitments or incur obligations. The rising age of marriage, combined with the increase in divorce and cohabitation since the 1960s, means that Americans spend a longer period of their adult lives outside marriage than ever before. Continue reading

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Where we are shapes who we are

Very interesting!

nytimes.com  | by ADAM ALTER on June 14, 2013

IN the early 1970s, a team of researchers dropped hundreds of stamped, addressed letters near college dorms along the East Coast and recorded how many lost letters found their way to a mailbox. The researchers counted each posted letter as a small act of charity and discovered that students in some of the dorms were more generous than others.

Nearly all of the letters dropped near uncrowded dorms — residences where comparatively few students lived on each floor — reached their intended recipients. In contrast, only about 6 in 10 of the letters dropped near crowded dorms completed the journey.

Apparently, the students in high-density housing, where everyone was packed close together, felt less connected to their college mates and this apparently dampened their generosity.

Later, when the researchers asked a different collection of students to imagine how they might have responded had they come across a lost letter, 95 percent of them said they would have posted it regardless of where they were living.

Most people, in fact, think of themselves as generous. In self-assessment studies, people generally see themselves as kind, friendly and honest, too. We imagine that these traits are a set of enduring attributes that sum up who we really are. But in truth, we’re more like chameleons who instinctively and unintentionally change how we behave based on our surroundings. Continue reading

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Artificial diamonds – a dilution of social distinction?

Back story: As 3-D printing gets increasingly scaled up industrially, IP law might well be fighting a losing battle. The foreseeable future is not one of just cultured diamonds aplenty but also imitation Lamborghinis a dime a dozen.

When cultured diamonds – produced in a chamber that replicates the extreme temperatures and pressures of the Earth’s interior which enable natural diamonds to be formed – become increasingly common, the latter’s distinctiveness may become diluted by the former. — PHOTO: REUTERS

A COMPANY called Algordanza Singapore claims to be able to make “memorial diamonds” for the bereaved, using the carbon found in the ashes of a loved one.

These sparklers are “cultured” in a chamber that replicates the extreme temperatures and pressures of the Earth’s interior which enable natural diamonds to be formed. Under such conditions, the ashes’ carbon can be turned into a flawless diamond, which is also a form of pure carbon.

Of course, any other source of carbon can be used to culture these artificial diamonds as well.

“Cultured diamonds” are different from “simulant diamonds”. The latter includes cubic zirconia, an artificial crystal made of a natural material called baddeleyite.

Zirconia looks like mined diamond to the naked eye but does not have its atomic structure, chemical composition or physical properties. The expert eye can discern zirconia from diamond.

By contrast, a cultured diamond has exactly the same atomic structure, chemical composition and physical properties as those of a mined diamond. Thus, even an experienced diamantaire may not be able to tell them apart.

In truth, diamonds abound in nature but their prices are set by a global cartel led by De Beers, the firm that has dominated the world’s diamond market since it was founded 130 years ago.

Since cultured diamonds cannot be told apart from natural ones with the naked eye, the latter’s distinctiveness may become diluted by the former. To fight this, the natural diamond industry issues certificates of authenticity.

Lately, however, it has also begun resorting to intellectual property (IP) law as well. In 2004, for the first time, De Beers began distinguishing its diamonds with a laser-inscribed trademark.

It is in this sense that some experts argue IP law may be doing the work of what are called sumptuary laws.

These were legislation that was actually passed by lawmakers in ancient times across cultures, to govern the consumption of high-value goods and fashions in order to limit them to certain social classes.

According to author Alan Hunt’s Governance Of The Consuming Passions: A History Of Sumptuary Law (1996), England passed a law in 1463 so that shoes of important persons may extend beyond the toes by no more than two inches (5cm). In 1514, Venice appointed a fashion police outfit called Provveditori sopra le Pompe, which sought to enforce its sumptuary laws. Ancient China and early 17th-century Edo Japan had similar laws too.

The distinctiveness of high-status, luxury items and fashions was what enabled the members of the upper classes to signal their similarities to one another and also their differences from those of the lower classes. That is, there was a system of social distinction based on consumption patterns. Continue reading