Friday, March 11, 2011

A Manifesto for Using Eroticism to Improve the Memory

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times entitled “Sexy Ruses to Stop Forgetting to Remember” was interesting. It was about a book written by a young man, Joshua Foer, called “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.” He comes from a family of writers. I remember (without arousal) his brother Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Everything Is Illuminated” very well. It was the story of a young man who journeyed to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi liquidation of his shtetl. It was made into a movie and it seems like Joshua’s will also.

Jonathan Safran Foer is a wonderful writer and if Joshua has his genes (why not?) the book must be good.It sounds fascinating and rightly so: it seems to provide a guidebook during our short-attention-span era of Twitter, constant Blackberry missives and the deluge of information that keep us from remembering. To quote her:

Our hunger-gatherer brains are swamped in a Twitter-blogger world.

Young Mr. Foer had a mentor:

Memory grand master Ed Cooke, a young Brit who claims to have an average recall, teaches Foer some strategies. If you have a lot to remember, you put the items through a path throughout a familiar place, like your childhood home. Imagine a person performing an act on an object. And try to throw in something lewd and bizarre. If you need to remember to get cottage cheese, picture a tub of cottage cheese at the front door and visualize Claudia Schiffer swimming in it.”

Ms. Schiffer is a gorgeous model and ripe for any erotic imagination. Even David Copperfield probably used her as memory tricks in his magic acts. But then the memory concept seems to move away from eroticism to simply bizarre. Think Woody Allen’s movie, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex,” and the scene with Gene Wilder and his love object.

”The technique [Mr. Foer] writes, “invariably meant inserting family members into scenes so raunchy that I feared I was upgrading my memory at the expense of tormenting my subconscious. The indecent acts my own grandmother had to commit in the service of my remembering the eight of hearts are truly unspeakable…”

I’m no psychology expert, but maybe imagining your own grandmother in erotic acts requires more time on the psychoanalyst’s couch, not the casting couch.

But hey, any porthole in a storm. Whatever helps the young people remember better despite the multitude of distractions is a godsend.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Blame the Victim-"Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town"

In today's New York Times print edition (can't access the online addition to post link on Facebook), I read an outrageous story the alleged gang rape in Cleveland, Texas, of an 11-year-old girl by at least 19 young men and teenage boys:

Five suspects are students at Cleveland High School, including two members of the basketball team Another is the 21-year-old son of a school board member. A few of the others have criminal records, from selling drugs to robbery and in one case, manslaughter. The suspects range in age from middle-schooler to a 27-year old.

Not only is the assault heinous, but the first question from the townspeople seems to concern the accused rather than the victim:

How could their young men be drawn into such an act? "It's just destroyed our community," said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. "These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives."

Not one word of sympathy for the young victim. Thankfully, she is not named and her whereabouts aren't given.

The allegations first came to light just after Thanksgiving when a child who knows the victim told a teacher she had seen a videotape of the attack on a cellphone, said Stacey Gatlin, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland Independent School District.''

The evidence of the gang rape were the pictures and videos taken by the perpetrators themselves.

Another note of sympathy for the victim:

"Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?" said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. "How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?"

It takes a village. Thank God the perpetrators had the presence of mind to record and pass around footage of this hideous crime. Otherwise it might never have come to light.

UPDATE: I just spoke to someone named Brian who answered the phone at 800-NYTIMES who told me the system was down and he couldn't log me into the Times online edition because there were technical difficulties across the board. When I told him I was already logged in, he was very surprised. Here is the link to the story.

Are Oil Prices Being Goosed?

The price of oil is rising. People are fearful about the hit to their pocketbooks because of the turmoil in the Middle East and especially Libya, where the Colonel seems intent on Custer’s Last Stand.

When I hear the words, “Turmoil in the Middle East”, I think of Casablanca and the words, “Round up the usual suspects.” No, I’m kidding. I think of Claude Rains saying, “I’m shocked! I’m shocked to find out there’s gambling going on here,” while he collects his winnings.

In today’s WSJ, in the column Ahead of the Tape, the writer wrings his hands over the impact of the rising price of crude on the nascent economic recovery. Gasoline prices are rising rapidly. People need their cars to get to work and often for work itself (truck drivers, taxi drivers, et al) so they’ll be squeezed further. More money for gas means less money for shelter, food and the kids.

One exacerbating factor is oil speculation. That is when there are barrels lying idle while traders gamble on the shrinkage supply. If there is x amount of oil available minus y amount stockpiled, then the supply left to bet on is x-y, not x.

Back in 2008, there was also turmoil in the Middle East and Libya. Oil speculation was considered to be a major factor. I wrote a diary on this phenomenon.

Check it out for a dose of historical context.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Stanley Fish on American Exceptionalism & The First Amendment

Mr. Stanley Fish, a writer for the Opinionator blog in The New York Times, made an interesting argument about a recent Supreme Court decision affecting free speech in today’s New York Times.

Back in January, he also reviewed Sarah Palin’s book on American Exceptionalism in an admiring fashion, which is certainly his prerogative. Ms. Palin, who has not yet announced her candidacy for president for 2012, is the pretty face of the Tea Party and its heavy hitting fundraiser. His admiration for her book (which I presume is not ghostwritten, which would of course make the book's words not her words—Mr. Fish knows the difference when he marks tests) compares her philosophy to that of Frank Capra movies. Here he analyzes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington:

The book opens with a celebration of Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith, the hero of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart) is an accidental senator who finds his idealism mocked and blocked by corrupt politicians, greedy industrialists and propagandistic newspapers. The climax of the movie is Smith’s filibuster, in the course of which he cites the Declaration of Independence, written by his namesake, Thomas Jefferson. At this moment Smith embodies Capra’s typical hero — a man who draws his strength from an internal reservoir of virtue, a man who refuses to deed his integrity to some impersonal structure of government or business, a man who is, above all, free.

But what if, for the sake of argument, she isn’t exactly who her media image presents her to be? What if she is actually functioning on behalf of an impersonal corporate structure or an invisible PAC? Is it possible that Mr. Fish could be misled?

It is such men who in Capra’s films at once represent and inspire grass-roots movements in which decent, average people come together not at the behest of a charismatic leader or a corporation, but at the behest of an idea. For Smith that idea is to love thy neighbor…

He is presenting the Tea Party movement as a grass roots, spontaneous coming-together of like-minded people who abhor the encroachment of government upon their liberties. I didn’t see any of these people around when W et al were crafting the Patriot Act, an act which enabled almost any "security" agency to surveill any citizen on any pretext without judicial consent.

In each of these films the forces of statism, corporatism and mercantilism are routed by the spontaneous uprising of ordinary men who defeat the sophisticated machinations of their opponents by declaring, living and fighting for a simple basic creed of individualism, self-help, independence and freedom.

Begging your pardon, Mr. Fish, but Capra’s films are a favorite of mine. Not because they present liberty over the fascist state, but because they show how corporate authoritarianism creates and uses mass movements (Meet John Doe) to control and crush the people.

Whom does she quote in her book, and whom does she remind him of:

· Martin Luther King
· De Touqueville
· Crevecouer
· John Winthrop
· Frederick Jackson Turner

[And] she might also have cited Emerson, Woodrow Wilson and the many Puritans who proclaimed that they were building a “New Jerusalem” on the American shores.

I am a person of faith, the Jewish faith, who was filled with the spirit when I found out I was diagnosed with possibly cancerous ovarian masses back in California in September 2010. I am a patriot also, concerned with the vox populi, the hoi polloi, or whichever Latin or Greek phrase you wish to use.

Not only have I worked for wages, I have also worked as a volunteer many, many times in my life for the vulnerable: teaching the illiterate and/or non-English speaking person to read, write and converse; teaching computer skills to people who had no other place to go, working not for money but for the sole purpose of helping people in need. And that was before I was struck down.

I don’t look for fame or fortune (and it hasn’t found me).

But when I went to a temple last Saturday, I was almost turned away at the door.

He goes on to praise Ms. Palin’s vision further:

In her view, we are free and equal because as children of God we have an inherent dignity that is inviolate: “We are free as a consequence of being made in the image of God.”

I wish I could take as much comfort in his vision, but that has not been my experience these last 4 months. Last Friday I found out I was precancerous. Everyone means well, saying such things as, "Oh, that's no big deal. Quit yer bitchin'!"

He strikes a different tone in his discussion of the recent Supreme Court decision Snyder v. Phelps, in which the Roberts Court found that scurrilous, hateful speech was protected by the First amendment. He asks a very good question for a non-lawyer:

Was the pain caused incidental to the production of speech — was the primary purpose to communicate an idea that just happened to be hurtful to some potential hearers — or was it the very point of the speech to bring the pain about?

The singling out of expression as a category worthy of special — even categorical — protection makes sense only if the work speech does is different from the work done by physical acts, if for example the effects of speech are limited to changing minds or increasing the store of information or enlarging the number of viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas, and do not include bodily harms.

I have been a New Yorker my entire life, and I’ve never experienced such active hostility (words spoken by strangers and familiars to my face) and great fear before. There were unfortunate rumors and pictures circulated about me and it has caused me bodily harm:

I have been locked up against my will, deterred from pursuing medical treatment, followed and badgered, forced to flee from my home because my computer was hacked with fake emails that caused me to blurt out knowledge that I never would have done in a million years if I weren’t under continuous harassment, and many other insults, most of which have nothing to do with free speech but may well extend from those “protections”. People who were to care for me were told false information and understandably acted on that knowledge.

My experience of the last four months has not shaken my faith entirely. I am not a political fundraiser or someone with any supporters, but I try to keep my head down and not despair.

These may be bright times for the New Jerusalem, but they are dark times indeed for me.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Some Comic Relief--Charlie Sheen: The Nexus of Corporate/Media Exploitation

It’s hard to know what to make of the Charlie Sheen circus which has been obsessing the major media for at least two weeks now. His meme has consumed almost every channel, from NBC’s Jeff Rossen to CNN’s new “Larry King”, Piers Morgan, to Charlie’s home, CBS, and his story has enflamed the minds of his fans which sprout newer fans every moment. I understand he is now in the Guinness Book of Records as having most Twitter followers ever.

But what is his story? What are the facts versus the hype? It’s hard to follow from day to day. As with many who consume enormous quantities of street drugs, a lot of what he says doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

As opposed to my sister, I always felt a little affection for Charlie. He was the Bad Boy. I watched his show, putting the knowledge that he was (to put it charitably) not nice to women, in the back of my mind. It was at one time a guilty pleasure.

In his latest
he was charged with second-degree assault, menacing and criminal mischief after allegedly attacking his wife Brooke Mueller in Aspen, Colorado.

This was how he celebrated Christmas 2010:

Sheen, 44, spent Christmas in jail after an alleged scuffle with his wife, Brooke Mueller. He is being held with no bond, and he will remain in jail until his court appearance due to Colorado law which mandates a protection order between those arrested for domestic violence and their victims.

He was also arrested in November 2010 for trapping an underage porn star, Christina Walsh, in a New York hotel room during a cocaine-fueled, sex-for-hire tryst.

Walsh is preparing to sue the Two and a Half Men actor, claiming she felt her life was in danger during the incident.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to Charlie’s private life. That is, until he popped up everywhere in interviews, opening his multi-million dollar home to TV cameras. It was a Roman bacchanalia! Kind of like a moth-eaten Hugh Hefner.

Charlie and two pretty young ladies he referred to as his “goddesses” (hey, that’s a better than some terms applied to young women in the sex industry) held court on a variety of subjects, including using what was written up in the media as applying anti-semitic terms to his show’s creator, Chuck Lorre (he called him by his given name, Chaim Levine). According to the interview I saw, his goddesses were caring for his young sons. Sort of like divine au pairs.

Now he’s more popular than ever. Someone surely is compiling his tweets and calling it “The Wit and Wisdom of Charles the First, the One and the Only”. This clown circus can only help raise awareness of his show “Two and a Half Men” for the production company, the network, and certainly, the syndicator. It’s tough to be the highest paid TV actor in show business.

The question then becomes: Is Charlie a role model? Or is he in need of rehabilitation? Or is the answer both?

Anyway, thanks for the bread and circuses. I always loved your dad, who had a heart attack at a very young age due the strain of shooting the brilliant Apocalypse Now (talk about putting your life on the line for show business), as the President in The West Wing and as a caring operative in Scorcese’s Oscar-winning The Departed. Just a short list. And this entire brouhaha also reminded me of his brother Emilio Estevez, who was so great with Harry Dean Stanton in the original Repo Man.

Hollywood royalty, indeed, however befuddling.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

John Bowlby: Father of Attachment Theory (or why teachers helped me survive)

John Bowlby: Father of Attachment Theory--excerpts

"I wouldn't send a dog away to boarding school at age seven".

His theories were very unpopular in his time, but are now held to be crucial regarding becoming a healthy adult.

[H]is interest was probably increased by a variety of wartime events involving separation of young children from familiar people; these included the rescue of Jewish children by the Kindertransport arrangements, the evacuation of children from London to keep them safe from air raids, and the use of group nurseries to allow mothers of young children to contribute to the war effort.

Melanie Klein as mentor/antagonist: She was his supervisor; however they had different views about the role of the mother in the treatment of a three-year-old boy. Specifically and importantly, Klein stressed the role of the child's fantasies about his mother, but Bowlby emphasized the actual history of the relationship. Bowlby's views—that children were responding to real life events and not unconscious fantasies—were rejected by psychoanalysts, and Bowlby was effectively ostracized by the psychoanalytic community. He later expressed the view that his interest in real-life experiences and situations was "alien to the Kleinian outlook".

Bowlby drew together such limited empirical evidence as existed at the time from across Europe and the USA. His main conclusions, that “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment” and that not to do so may have significant and irreversible mental health consequences, were both controversial and influential.

According to attachment theory, attachment in infants is primarily a process of proximity seeking to an identified attachment figure in situations of perceived distress or alarm for the purpose of survival. Infants become attached to adults who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with the infant, and who remain as consistent caregivers for some months during the period from about 6 months to two years of age.

Parental responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment which in turn lead to 'internal working models' which will guide the individual's feelings, thoughts, and expectations in later relationships. In Bowlby's approach, the human infant is considered to have a need for a secure relationship with adult caregivers, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur.

As the toddler grows, it uses its attachment figure or figures as a "secure base" from which to explore. Mary Ainsworth used this feature plus "stranger wariness" and reunion behaviours, other features of attachment behaviour, to develop a research tool called the "Strange Situation Procedure" for developing and classifying different attachment styles.

The attachment process is not gender specific as infants will form attachments to any consistent caregiver who is sensitive and responsive in social interactions with the infant. The quality of the social engagement appears to be more influential than amount of time spent.

I did not have a close relationship with anyone in my biological family, except perhaps my younger sister, who has often remarked upon how I helped protect her from the depredations of my brother. I did not have a caregiver. My mother tried but she always focused on my flaws and how they reflected on her. For some reason, although my brother manifested extraordinarily strange behavior [I won't go into specifics here], she didn’t define him by his pathology. She blamed herself, whereas I was responsible for my degraded situation.

In terms of snatching affection, I took catch as catch can. I did have many people who focused on me as an object of derision especially when my family moved to a more homogenous, very affluent community, but I felt pride in my academic and both academic and social achievements in college. My brother was a bully. He fully admits that, but he says he couldn’t help it because he was bullied by my mother. The reality is that people learn about love or lack of love from their parents and transfer that knowledge onto their own children, and so on and so forth.

Now that I think about it, I guess my teachers were my caregivers, who seemed to give me affection and praise which I so sorely needed. Sometimes, maybe a lot of times, teachers are the only adult figures that seem to care about their students.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chris Christie: Rising Star or Opportunist/Demagogue?

Matt Bai’s fawning coverage of the Governor of New Jersey and star stand up of the Republican party, Chris Christie, in last Sunday’s New York Times cover story, is leavened with unintended humor and leaves out some pertinent facts.

Matt Bai is being a little cute and/or na├»ve when he talks about Christie’s campaigning:

About the only thing [Christie] had going for him was that Corzine was pervasively unpopular. And so rather than come up with a lot of actual ideas, which Corzine would then be free to oversimplify and distort in a barrage of television ads, Christie simply offered up a bunch of conservative platitudes and tried to make the campaign a referendum on the Democratic governor.

I am bolding the pertinent clause for emphasis. First of all, all politicians oversimplify and distort in TV ads. That’s why their campaign contributors are the first persons who’s calls they take. They need the money for lots of ads. Secondly, Bai makes it sound almost as though it was preferable to have platitudes and nothing but attack dog ideas than actual long-term planning.

Another funny bit from Bai is:

[W]hat Christie has done, essentially, is to blast his way into the final frontier, taking on the public-sector unions that have come to wield enormous political power.

If he’s looking to find sources of “enormous political power”, I suggest he look at some of Christie’s contributors.

One major reason (the elephant in the room) there is a $1 trillion gap between what the states have promised in pension and benefits for their retirees and what they have on hand to pay for them is that pension plans were the fat dumb cows for Wall Street speculators.

One example is CALPERS (California Public Employees Retirement System), the largest public workers union, which provides retirement and health care benefits to more than 1.6 million public service workers in California. Its total fund market value as of 2/25/11 is $229 billion. Very tempting. During the go-go years of the 00s leading up to the economic collapse in 2008, CALPERS was sold land that turned out to be worthless and of course, the structured financial vehicles that turned out also to be worth pennies on the dollar.

Governors and others jumping on the band wagon will tell you that teachers, policemen, firemen and others are responsible for their budget shortfall. That is malarkey. The problem is that pension plans were irresistible. What entities do you think were the cash cows gleaming in the eyes of Wall Street financial wizards? Who do you think bought all the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), the pooled subprime mortgage-backed securities that were tied up in a triple-A labeled bow by credit rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, which were then downgraded faster than a bungee plunge?

Investors are suing banks to get their money back for being sold a bill of goods. Maybe Governor Christie and everyone else decimating the lives of public service workers for political gain should follow the lead of savvy investors and sue the banks. That will certainly make up for budget shortfalls (which in the case of Governor Walker of Wisconsin, didn’t matter anyway because the unions agreed to his cost concessions).