Pot Pourri 12/14/2008

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Sustainability seemed to fade a bit this week, in spite of the so-called good news about the apparent drop in consumer spending. The news media and the blogs were full of contradictory pronouncements as to whether the data indicated a change of values or, more directly, emptier pocketbooks and credit lines. The off-and-on-again bailout of Detroit will take a lot of money that might better go to transforming our relationship to the automobile. It is not just jobs that we would be preserving, but an old, outmoded form of mobility. A better policy would be some sort of transition project that would both retrain the displaced workers and invest in alternative forms of transit. Once the politics of the bailout are settled, I am afraid the long-term problem that remains will become forgotten until the next crisis.

Gas Stations—A New Media Center

Continuing my theme of “no place left on earth without ads,” here is another great example.

Used to be I had a few minutes to myself when I pumped my gas, and it was lovely.

As the fuel whooshed through the hose and the numbers ticked over, my mind wandered, free as a dainty butterfly, alighting on whatever topic took its fancy: My, this corner of Columbia Road and Dot Ave is trafficky. I wonder whether those yams in the fridge are still OK. Are newspapers doomed? Pie is good.

Lofty thoughts they were not, but they were mine, and I was quite partial to them.

But now those reveries are history, snatched away by the little screens that sit atop the pumps at my favorite gas station.

I can’t be alone with my thoughts anywhere, because televisions are everywhere. Not just at the gas station, but in malls and elevators, too. And in airport lounges, where the anchors continuously bleating their sorry headlines make me want to eat my own head. And in restaurants, where nobody seems to enjoy chatting with bartenders anymore, preferring to stare up at the screens in silence.

Gas Station TV sends “content” through 6,000 screens in 425 cities, and its reach is growing. Each month about 20 million hapless drivers see its screens.

Getting to Know You

“The paradigm has shifted. Dating is dated. Hooking up is here to stay.” says Charles Blow, offering a comment on changing patterns of relationships among young and unattached people.

To help me understand this phenomenon, I called Kathleen Bogle, a professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia who has studied hooking up among college students and is the author of the 2008 book, “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus.”

It turns out that everything is the opposite of what I remember. Under the old model, you dated a few times and, if you really liked the person, you might consider having sex. Under the new model, you hook up a few times and, if you really like the person, you might consider going on a date.

I asked her to explain the pros and cons of this strange culture. According to her, the pros are that hooking up emphasizes group friendships over the one-pair model of dating, and, therefore, removes the negative stigma from those who can’t get a date. As she put it, “It used to be that if you couldn’t get a date, you were a loser.” Now, she said, you just hang out with your friends and hope that something happens.

The cons center on the issues of gender inequity. Girls get tired of hooking up because they want it to lead to a relationship (the guys don’t), and, as they get older, they start to realize that it’s not a good way to find a spouse. Also, there’s an increased likelihood of sexual assaults because hooking up is often fueled by alcohol.

That’s not good. So why is there an increase in hooking up? According to Professor Bogle, it’s: the collapse of advanced planning, lopsided gender ratios on campus, delaying marriage, relaxing values and sheer momentum.

It used to be that “you were trained your whole life to date,” said Ms. Bogle. “Now we’ve lost that ability — the ability to just ask someone out and get to know them.”

Now that’s sad.

It’s more than just sad. Sustainability rests on restoring our caring for others. It is very hard to do this when society norms stand in the way.

Keynes and Complexity

John Maynard Keynes has, understandably, been in the news these days. He invented the idea that finds must be pumped into the hands of those who would spend them quickly so as to jump start an ailing economy. Ribert Skidelsky offers an intriguing insight into his thinking. What I find most interesting is Keynes’s segue from neo-classical economics into the world of complexity.

As George Soros rightly pointed out, “The salient feature of the current financial crisis is that it was not caused by some external shock like OPEC raising the price of oil… . The crisis was generated by the financial system itself.”

This is where the great economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) comes in. Today, Keynes is justly enjoying a comeback. For the same “intellectual edifice” that Greenspan said has now collapsed was what supported the laissez-faire policies Keynes quarreled with in his times. Then, as now, economists believed that all uncertainty could be reduced to measurable risk. So asset prices always reflected fundamentals, and unregulated markets would in general be very stable.

By contrast, Keynes created an economics whose starting point was that not all future events could be reduced to measurable risk. There was a residue of genuine uncertainty, and this made disaster an ever-present possibility, not a once-in-a-lifetime “shock.” Investment was more an act of faith than a scientific calculation of probabilities. And in this fact lay the possibility of huge systemic mistakes. (My emphasis)

The basic question Keynes asked was: How do rational people behave under conditions of uncertainty? The answer he gave was profound and extends far beyond economics. People fall back on “conventions,” which give them the assurance that they are doing the right thing. The chief of these are the assumptions that the future will be like the past (witness all the financial models that assumed housing prices wouldn’t fall) and that current prices correctly sum up “future prospects.” Above all, we run with the crowd. A master of aphorism, Keynes wrote that a “sound banker” is one who, “when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional and orthodox way.” (Today, you might add a further convention — the belief that mathematics can conjure certainty out of uncertainty.)

But any view of the future based on what Keynes called “so flimsy a foundation” is liable to “sudden and violent changes” when the news changes. Investors do not process new information efficiently because they don’t know which information is relevant. Conventional behavior easily turns into herd behavior. Financial markets are punctuated by alternating currents of euphoria and panic.

The conventions that Keynes speaks of are what I have pointed out in my book as the real core of rationality. We act more out of experience stored in the body than according to isolated facts that are manipulated in the mind.

Spotting Good Quarterbacks

Continuing the thought of the last paragraph above, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the difficulty in predicting how a college quarterback will perform in the professional football leagues. My reading of his article is that men who play this position do not execute their plays according to some rational model. Successful players act more according to an unconscious repertoire built up by experience on the playing field than by some innate intelligence.

Shonka looked back at the screen, where the young man he felt might be the best quarterback in the country was marching his team up and down the field. “How will that ability translate to the National Football League?” He shook his head slowly. “Shoot.”

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching….

A college quarterback joining the N.F.L., by contrast, has to learn to play an entirely new game. Shonka began to talk about Tim Couch, the quarterback taken first in that legendary draft of 1999. Couch set every record imaginable in his years at the University of Kentucky. “They used to put five garbage cans on the field,” Shonka recalled, shaking his head, “and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” But Couch was a flop in the pros. It wasn’t that professional quarterbacks didn’t need to be accurate. It was that the kind of accuracy required to do the job well could be measured only in a real N.F.L. game.

Similarly, all quarterbacks drafted into the pros are required to take an I.Q. test—the Wonderlic Personnel Test. The theory behind the test is that the pro game is so much more cognitively demanding than the college game that high intelligence should be a good predictor of success. But when the economists David Berri and Rob Simmons analyzed the scores—which are routinely leaked to the press—they found that Wonderlic scores are all but useless as predictors. Of the five quarterbacks taken in round one of the 1999 draft, Donovan McNabb, the only one of the five with a shot at the Hall of Fame, had the lowest Wonderlic score. And who else had I.Q. scores in the same range as McNabb? Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game.

It is not only football where expertise comes from embodied experience. No virtuoso of any kind can explain in rational terms why they are so skilled. It must be that practice does make perfect. And also the reason that artificial intelligence has failed to capture the exquisite skills of real human beings.

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