Archive for March, 2011

Why dissertations are great…

March 25, 2011

I was just thinking that if not for the dissertation process, I probably wouldn’t spend 10,000 hours thinking about the same subject.  (That’s a little Malcolm Gladwell reference for those of you who’ve read that book.)  Anyway, how awesome is it that I have this artificial imposition that requires me to focus so endepthly on one topic, which of course increases the chances that I might actually produce something of value?  Finally, a valid reason for higher education to exist.

I have had many thoughts in the past few days that I want to work out here.  While I’m certain they may be tedious for anyone besides me to sludge through, it’s so helpful to write them out.  This is the learning process for me.

1.  Revolution in Human Consciousness

Holy Crap, The Social Animal by David Brooks is amazing.  I got turned on to him through his TED talk (of course).  I’m part of the Ted-Ed initiative and will write more about that later, but I think it’s pretty cool too.   Anyway, Brooks’ book is about the revolution in human consciousness and…well, you should take a look if you get a chance.

2. Dream about the flaws of human capital

I had this dream about human capital the other night.  My dream was about how flawed it is because it’s based entirely on Adam Smith’s economic meta-narrative of industrialization.  It places 100% of the human capital value in the ecnomic meta-narrative:

“stock of competences, knowledge and personality attributes embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value”

and doesn’t mention at all the other realms of human existence that might be valuable, like social capital, psychological capital, physical capital, etc…  (And of course, there’s my original complaint with Mr. Smith in that his doctrine commodifies all human skill placing it squarely in the center of market norms and sacrificing all of the value that human skill can create via social norms, etc….).  Anyway…it was the kind of dream where you sit up in bed and say out loud, placing human capital in purely economic terms is so damaging and short sighted.  Good dream.

3.  Trip to Belgium

I’ve been thinking about this trip to Belgium.  At first, I just said, yes, let’s go and began passport applications.  Then, I began to think about it economically.  How much does it cost, what are the hidden economic costs, etc….  The immediate yes was predicated almost entirely on the economic reality that Google would pay for lodging thereby reducing the cost of the trip and making it worthwhile because it’s cheaper than the same trip at another time.  Then I began to engage the economic narrative of this event more fully to think about the other costs and to calculate opportunity costs, etc…

Then I was struck by the fact that once again, the economic meta-narrative of our culture was responsible for 90% of my decision making process.  So, I began to ask questions about the social and psychological capital of going to Belgium.

What impact does a trip to Europe have on a child who doesn’t remember it?  What are the social implications of a child who spent time in Europe from such a young age?  What are the social benefits of being a family who travels to Europe?  What are the benefits to a marriage and family to take a trip together as a family?  I think it might be Dan Pink who writes about the value of experiences over possessions with respect to happiness.  He talks about the importance of taking trips and having new and novel experiences.  And Dan Ariely and Michael Norton talk about the importance of conceptual consumption.  Like, how the foods you like give you more happiness than trying new things, but trying new things gives you social capital that becomes valuable in other ways.  Belgium is a big deposit in the social capital/psychological capital investment portfolio.

*interestingly, Google really seems to attempt development of many forms of capital among their employees.  I think this a good idea.

4. Market Economy Metaphor

I struggled with the capitalist metaphor for talking human flourishing for a long time and I tried on biological metaphors (which I haven’t give up on), but I’m thinking I might just try to embrace the capitalist metaphor and see what it does to the narrative.

5.  Philanthropic Marketing

I’m so CURIOUS about philanthropic marketing.  Anyone who watches Hulu has experienced this.  If you complain in their forum about commercials, the next 50 commercials you get are all philanthropic.  It’s so interesting.  You feel bad resenting a philanthropic commercial.  I really don’t know what to make of the whole movement.  I would love to hear people’s thoughts on this.  I’ve always thought of marketing as such a negative force playing on our desires toward consumption and these commercials just make my brain turn inside out.

6.  Google and Philanthropy

In thinking about philanthropy, I’ve been considering the Google effect.   Google matches employee philanthropy.  So, when I think of donating somewhere, I stop and say to myself that I should have Daniel make the donation so that Google will match it, upping the value of my donation.  Then I find myself feeling inadequate about the level of my donation.  If I want to donate $10, I feel that it’s not really enough and I might be a little embarrassed about the size of the donation and so I don’t really want to take it to Google.  Plus it gets a little out of proportion with the effort required for the donation.

7.  More on NPR Pledge Drives

Yes, I have something more to say about NPR.  At the end of the pledge drive, NPR was giving away a trip to somewhere.  I remember hearing the conversation on NPR and thinking, well, I can’t possibly go on that trip (for a series of reasons) and so, I shouldn’t donate now because I’m not really eligible for that prize.  Then I thought about all the people who had Ipads during that other pledge drive and I just basically marveled at the complexity this all causes.

8.  Is it worth $10 to drive across town?

Finally, yes, it will eventually come to an end, a word on the irrationality of humans.  Ariely is a behavioral economist railing against the traditional economists who assume rational behaviors among humans (again, see Brooks from above).  Ariely talks about how $10 off on a suit you are purchasing might be worth driving across town to get a better price.   But you probably wouldn’t drive across town to get $10 off on the purchase of a car.  $10 seems insignificant in comparison to the cost of the car versus the suit where it appears to be more significant.  He says this is irrational because either the drive across town is worth $10 or it isn’t.  It occurred to me, it’s such a simple idea yet took so long to surface, that there are many layers of capital investment in the two purchases (socially, psychologically, time, etc…).  When you buy a car, you dress a certain way, you build up the nerve, you do a lot of planning, it takes a lot out of you (aka, you’ve put a lot into it) that’s invisible.  The $10 isn’t worth it for the car because you are subconsciously weighing the other investments you’ve made that will be lost in the process of starting over elsewhere.

I can’t overstate how important this all seems to me now.


The human condition

March 18, 2011

I feel very strongly that both the best things and the worst things in human history are happening now.

NPR Pledge Drives

March 17, 2011

So, NPR was having one of their many pledge drives while I was driving to Boone yesterday.  A few pledge drives back or maybe longer they were having a pledge drive where they weren’t giving anything away.  The shtick was something like, “get what you’re paying for.”  They were saying things like, “we know that you are smart people and you don’t need this carrot (a prize drawing) to get you to do what you ought to be doing anyway which is donating if you’re listening.”   I listened for a while and ultimately did not donate.  The next pledge drive came up and they were back to giving away prizes (presumably because there weren’t enough takers on the no prize pledge) and the drawing was for an ipad.  I pledged, but ultimately did not win the ipad.

When I heard this pledge drive, I started thinking about the differences in those two times.  What made me pledge?  What made me not pledge?  Here’s the thing.  It’s not about the ipad.  It’s about the economic justification narrative that I need in order to live within the confines of our cultural narrative which is economically based.   Here’s what happens to me when NPR asks for money:

They tell me I’m listening so I should give.  I begin to think about the service they are providing and several things flash almost imperceptibly through my mind.  First I think about their public funding and as a result of paying taxes, I feel that I have already given a small amount to NPR (I do understand that this minuscule amount is absolutely insufficient, yet there is a deficit of having given present in my mind).  Second, I think about the service and the other ways that I might acquire this service.  I could listen to other stations for free right now.  I could get all of this information for free on their website or many other websites for that matter.

I compute a micro cost-benefit-analysis in my mind in the space of seconds.  (Our minds are awesome!)

In our culture, we are taught to make the best economic decision possible and with the justification narrative provided by NPR (you’re listening now and so should pay), I don’t quite get the narrative I need. This is why the ipad is so useful.  I actually want to give to NPR, but I need to be able to justify it and the opportunity of winning the ipad offsets the opportunity cost of giving.  It provides one of a variety of economic justification narratives that I need in order to donate.

I think a better justification narrative would look something like this:

yeah, you could change the station.  yeah, you could get this online for free.  But, if you change the station, your quality of life will be lowered because the programming is fluff and doesn’t provide you with the valuable content here.  Further, if you have to go online to look all this up, it’ll take a lot of time.  We are saving you time by providing this information during your drive.

This culture believes that time is something you can make and lose and buy.  I think that is where NPR should try to capitalize.

I’m gonna say something that feels a bit taboo here among NPR fans.  Why don’t they just advertise?  Advertising doesn’t necessarily conflict content.  And, really, they advertise already.  “This show is sponsored by Big Ass Law Firm in Winston Salem.”

*I’d bet $100 bucks that the pledge drive with the ipad following the pledge drive with no prize brought in more money than other pledge drives with prizes.  The absence of the prize in the first made the prize in the second seem more valuable than a typical prize pledge drive.


March 10, 2011

I recently watched the Freakonomics movie which is available for live streaming via Netflix.  I met Stephen Dubner once on a creative writing trip to New York.  He was lecturing at Columbia.  Since he’s an appstate alum, he was willing to talk to us.  Nice guy.  Really interesting story about his parents and Judaism and Nazi Germany.  I think this meeting was definitely before Freakonomics.  Anyway, something silly occurred to me during this film.  It’s some kind of compilation of TED and movies and the way education is shifting.

Traditional academic settings tend to reject the 10-20 minute idea bursts like you see in TED talks.  They prefer the long laboring of ideas and conversations that delve deeply into a subject.  It’s the academic model.  They look at the 10 minute sessions as a glossing over, a dumbing down, and rejection of depth and thoughtfulness.

My idea had to do with a guy names Matt Ridley who wrote a book titled The Rational Optimist.  (Not surprisingly, he has a TED talk).  His talk and the first chapter of his book are entitled “When ideas have sex.”  It’s all about ideas recombining in novel ways.  It’s really the fundamental driving theory of progress and development.  It’s R&D come to life.

Anyway, my idea was that it would be great to publish a series of social science books that have snippets of these great thinkers.

Malcolm Gladwell, Matt Ridley, Dan Ariely, Dennis Dutton, Stephen Dubner, David Orr and all the other million authors.  Anyway, it’s sort of a cliff notes of ideas, but more interesting and easy to read.  It creates an environment for ideas to do a lot of procreating (if you know what I mean).  It’s not tainted with ignorance like cliff notes.  It’s more of the realization that ideas are developing very quickly and books are often really long.  I read a TON and I don’t get a quarter of the reading done that I want to.

Freakonomics made me think of this because there were really only four ideas in the movie version.

1.  the name thing

2.  the sumo wrestler thing

3.  the abortion/lowered crime thing

4.  the financial incentives for grades thing

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s okay.  Just wait a few years until I have time (to finish the dissertation and raise the kids and vacuum the house in heels and pearls) to write the short shorts book of social theory for procreation and you can read all about it.

Candy and toys

March 10, 2011

So, Daniel and I don’t like for the kids to eat candy.  I haven’t read a tremendous about this subject, but intuitively, I know that fruits and vegetables are good for them and that processed, calorie dense, sugar laden candies are probably not so good for them.  Secretly, I believe that eating sugar and candy as a child dictates the way your body reacts to and processes sugars and fats.  Sure maybe it sets lifelong habits and that is a problem, but what worries me more is that it’s actually changing the structure of their bodies in some way.  Maybe in the greater evolutionary sense, on a million years, children will have evolved to process calorie dense foods and loads of sugar, but I don;t think my kids are ready for that and ultimately, I believe that it will lead to problems down the road like high triglycerides, diabetes and obesity.

Here’s the interesting part.  I actually believe the same thing about buying them toys and trinkets at the store.  We often go to town with my grandmother on Fridays.  She gets her hair done, we have lunch with my Uncle John, we get her groceries and then we go to Alleghany Cares.  Alleghany Cares is a local thrift store.  My grandmother likes to look at furniture for the barn and apartments.  I like to look at sheets which I use for fabric in sewing and my crazy daisy dishes which aren’t made anymore.  And the kids always get a toy.  They look forward to it all morning and it’s what makes them sit through the hour of hair doing at the beauty shop, the long conversation over lunch and the grocery shopping.

I just can’t help but wonder what happens to kids when they gets endless toys and trinkets to bring home from the world.  I really secretly believe that it changes their brains.  I believe it sets them up to become victims of consumerism.  They become people who go into the world and gather things to take back home.  I can see why we have that urge coming from a long line of Savannah hunters and gatherers.  But in a world where THINGS are everywhere, slowly taking over our homes, we really can’t afford to be this way and I wonder if letting them get that toy is starting them down a path consumption that will have a negative impact on their lives.  Maybe I am helping to hard wire them into consumerism?

I am comforted by Steven Pinker’s idea of the blank slate.  Also, after reading this post, you should refer to Annie Leonard’s book The Story of Stuff.  There is a 20 minute video here.  When I teach The Story of Stuff in my classes, I always give a lecture on postmodernism.  Someday I will post that lecture.


March 7, 2011

What is ethology?

Ethology (from Greek: ἦθος, ethos, “character”; and -λογία, -logia, “the study of”) is the scientific study of animal behavior, and a sub-topic of zoology.

Why would I use ethology to study art behaviors?

Two Reasons:

1.  “It is worth emphasizing how long we were “feral” or “natural,” and how recently we have been domesticated into separate cultures.  As aninmal taxa go, hominids are quite recent, becoming distinct only about four million yeas ago.  But 39/40ths of that four-million-year period, during all of which time we were gradually “evolving,” we inhabited essentially the same environment and lived in essentially the same way, as nomadic, savannah-dwelling, hunter-gatherers in small groups of twenty-five or so” (Dissanayake, 1992, p. 4).

Basically, we evolved to live in an environment vastly different than the one we currently inhabit and “given the mismatch between the speed of technological development and human evolution, the same instincts and abilities that once helped us now often stand in our way” (Ariely, 2010, p. 8).  So, like our bodies evolved to give us a little time to consume extra calories before signaling a full belly in order to cushion for the times when food was scarce, our bodies may have evolved in other ways (specifically aesthetically oriented, see flow) that are now incompatible with our lifestyles (like with respect to the abundance of calorie rich foods at our disposal).

It is worth looking at how we spent our first 3,900,000 years in the pursuit of understanding the decline of subjective well-being in market economy consumer cultures.

2. “All known societies practice at least one of what we in the West call “the arts,” and for many groups engaging with the arts ranks among the society’s most important endeavors” (Dissanayake, 1992, p. xiii).

This is a lengthy discussion with lots of explanations about the prevalence and value of the arts in human culture, ranging from sex selection to the development of cohesive communities.  There are lots of bio-behavioral anthropologists writing about the communal value of the arts (sort of in a sociological sense).  I am interested in the value of arts behaviors psychologically (with respect to flow and gratification) and physiologically with respect to reduction of stress hormones and neurological development).


March 7, 2011

Theoria, praxis and poiesis are the three elements talked about in the methodology of a/r/tography (which is a qualitative arts-based research methodology).

Theoria is Greek for contemplation and is about theoretical knowledge, thinking and cognitive knowing.  Praxis is to do with the practice of a skill and is related to doing, to enacting theoria.  Poiesis is to do with making things.  Aristotle held these as the three basic activities of man.  There is a subtle but critically important difference between praxis and poiesis.

The difference between praxis and poiesis is the difference between playing a flute and building a house.  Praxis is an activity that doesn’t have an end (a product).  The end is the activity.  (see the link to the random chapter on the right for further explanation).  Poiesis is production oriented.  This reminds me very much of Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.  His discussion of pleasures versus gratification is very much related to these notions.

My whole point here is getting to the term autopoiesis.  This word was introduced by a biologist (which I love since I am primarily engaged in a discussion of arts behaviors from an ethological, species centered perspective and since I am really using an evolutionary, Darwinian contextualization).  It means literally self-creation and is to do with the individual production capacity of humans.  I think this is important because it takes the production capacity away from the capitalist definition which is basically the Adam Smith – human capital language (which I abhor).

It’s so nice to have another language to use when talking about the cost benefit analysis, resources, opportunity costs, etc….  I hate framing this economically and biology is the perfect structure/language for this discussion.

Wedding Shower

March 7, 2011

So, yesterday I was at a wedding shower with a whole slew of crafty women.  Brenda was there and had made this cheese knife wrapped in metal wire and beads.  It was a knife that was discontinued when the airlines stopped serving food with actual silverware.  Anyway, she had adorned it with gens and was giving it as a gift to the couple.

I asked her about her experiences making these things and she said she adored making them; they really brought her a lot of happiness and joy to create.  She had made about 20 sets and had given many away as Christmas gifts.  She also had some in Phyllis’s store and had listed them on ebay and etsy to sell.  She had yet to sell any of them.  She said that Phyllis kept telling her that people were “looking” but no one had bought them yet.  She was obviously frustrated that none of them had sold.

Brenda is a retiree who can afford to “take the loss” on creating these items.  That is, the material resources required are not beyond her capability of absorbing.  I asked her why she was selling them.  Her first response was that she wanted to get rich.  She was joking of course.  We all want to get rich with any of our activities.  Then she said she was trying to get her money out of them.  I asked her if she might be trying to sell them as a justification for making them.  She said absolutely.  She enjoys making them.  They cost her something.  She’s trying to offset the negative financial impact of this behavior by selling them and she’s frustrated that it’s not working.

What will happen?  Most likely, she’ll eventually stop making them as they continue to not sell and as her need for the economic justification narrative increases.  She simply won’t be able to justify this behavior.*  I hope that my work will help relieve the pressure for the economic justification narrative with respect to arts and crafts behaviors.  As we take a deeper look at the social, psychological and physiological (yes, I’m talking biology) benefits of arts and crafts behaviors, we will be gin to see that these are actually sustaining behaviors and that the need for the economic justification narrative that disincentives these behaviors is damaging in all three realms.

More about these three realms another time.

I, too, had engaged my crafty nature in creating shower gifts for the couple.  I had created this black ladder back chair with gold leafing and a woven seat bottom made of neckties (which amazingly, I failed to photograph!).  It’s the second chair I had woven a tie bottom for and I really liked it.  The first person to see it was John.  He immediately said I should sell them.  Then, when the gift was unveiled, several people in the room also mentioned how I should sell them.  This always happens, was utterly anticipated, and not at all out of the ordinary.  A few things about it struck me though.

1.  Brenda and Jan did not mention selling the items.  This is interesting because they are determined crafters who could have made the item.  I don’t think that’s why they didn’t mention selling the item though.  I see lots of wonderful crafts and I never say, “you should sell that.”  I think it’s partially,”not-invented-here bias” that Dan Ariely talks about in Chapter 4 of The Upside of Irrationality, sort of a natural envy or something.  But, I also think there’s something deeper going on.  It’s like we’re engaged in this crafting and then we have the economic justification narrative deficit and then we try to sell the items to justify it and then we fail and then we’re a bit jaded by the whole notion.  I think, “yeah, you could try to sell it but it won’t work.”  It’s not so much envy as complacency or a subtle smugness with a deep understanding of the fragility of the economic structure of crafting.  That’s why crafters don’t suggest to one another that they should sell something.

2.  The other thing I thought was interesting about this exchange was that the people telling me I should sell the chairs were issuing a compliment.  In our culture the greatest compliments are economic.  The way you say you like something and that you think it has value is to suggest that it would sell.  They may have actually been suggesting that it would sell, but they were also (or maybe instead of) saying that they appreciated the skill involved and that they found the finished project to be aesthetically appealing.  Would any of them actually buy a chair like that?  Who knows, but probably not.

*How lucky is Mama Miller to have had the barn to dump her crafts in.  A built in justification narrative that allowed her to sustain the engagement of art making behaviors over time.

Happiness Economics

March 3, 2011

Happiness Economics as an emerging discipline or sub-discipline of both happiness studies and behavioral economics.