Thursday, October 28, 2010

Should we disconnect? Or just teleport to China?

My student James Fine brought the video "Disconnect to Connect" to my attention. What do you make of it, especially given the fact that it appears to be sponsored by Thailand's second-biggest cell phone provider?

Also worth viewing, on only a slightly different topic, Cisco's video starring Ellen Page (image to the right) contrasting the seeming joys of virtual field trip to China with the horrors of a real-world field trip (who knew cows could be so scary?)

(Also, note how Ellen is ACTUALLY in the classroom--she is not virtual.)

Could someone please explain these two videos to me and what they say about our current age of digital distraction?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

High Frequency Trading

This 60 Minutes story about how Wall Street traders are making money off of what are called “high frequency trades” kind of reminded me of Office Space.

The project has nothing to do with value, creating value, or even companies. It’s just a way to make a profit off of the slight fluctuations in stock price, but of course doing so with a high volume of stock.

Another interesting story from This American Life about the mentality these days on Wall Street, and why traders, analysts, and CEO’s feel glum. See Act One.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Chronemics: A Mini Science
Scenario: DC-born Judy is sitting in a café in Piazza Navona, in Italy, on an irresistible day of marauding tourists and Italian sunshine. She and her new Italian friend, Carla, had agreed to meet for coffee. Their exact words were: “How about Saturday afternoon, at three or four?” “Perfect, perfecto.” [Giggles] It is now 3:45, Judy has been waiting since 3:00 and Carla is still a no-show.
Carla’s tardiness incenses Judy’s annoyance and indignation. Alas! if only she knew about chronemics, she would spare herself the grief and sip her frappé more happily.
Chronemics is the study of the use of time in non-verbal communication (chronos is Greek for ‘time’). The way we perceive time, structure it and put it to use can carry meaning and color relationships. Interestingly, just like language and gestures require translation, so too does the cultural approach to time.
People from the U.S., Switzerland, Germany, to name a few, are called monochronic: they partition time into precise units according to the tasks they must complete. Appointment times are deferentially adhered to and work schedules have a precise start and finish. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall points out the importance of time management for the U.S. business person, for whom time is a precious commodity that requires respect in order for things to work: ‘time is money,’ ‘time is wasted,’ ‘time is of the essence.’
On the other hand, Latin American, Arabic, southern European and Indian cultures are polychronic. They focus on the relationship rather than the clock, striving for interactions that are good and look good to others. They don’t mind crossing time boundaries, which are fluid anyway:  they’ll get there when they get there. Theirs is a high-context form of non-verbal communication, meaning there are many codes and cues that they intuitively take for granted.
So, for Carla, it is not an issue that she will arrive as late as “three or four in the afternoon” allows, especially because she was lunching with family and it was baby Beppe’s birthday (he said “boopa,” people cooed). Judy expects an apology, but Carla won’t think of providing one…at least, until she sees how much redder Judy’s cheeks look than the day before.

That is not to say that a Chilean will be late for everything. In fact, business people on either end of the cultural spectrum will have to recognize and tweak their habits for the sake of effectiveness. But if your Italian client walks in late, the mini science of chronemics will help you understand why you’re so mad and she’s as cool as a lemon gelato.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Banned Books (For the Whole Family)

In honor of Banned Books Week, DC’s very own Takoma Park library hosted a Read-Out this past weekend, where volunteers read excerpts of selected children’s books that have been challenged. Examples of “misbehaved” books were Heather Has Two Mummies, Daddy’s Roommate, and Elbert’s Bad Word. (Visit for more spicy titles.)

For the record, “challenging” a book means attempting to ban it, but not quite achieving the goal. As for “banning” a book, sanctions come in degrees. Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf, for instance, is explicitly denounced in Germany. There, it cannot be republished, sold or even held under possession. The Netherlands, on the other hand, allows lending it and reading it but prohibitis people from selling it.

On the subject of book banning, there isn’t a prevailing consensus. Some people feel that the amorality of a book never, ever trumps the amorality of prohibiting free speech and free access to information. Others think that silencing these rights is worth it if a book threatens public health.

Really, it’s one thing condemning  The Catcher in the Rye for dropping f-bombs. That’s conservatism gone astray. But when a book like Mein Kampf is the building block for one of the most calamitous events in recent history, maybe banning is the good way, the only way.

Or how about The Global Bell Curve, by psychiatrist Richard Lynn, whose premise is that intelligence is racially inherited and that Sahel Africans are at the bottom of the…erm, race? According to loon Lynn, East Asians are the most genetically intelligent. Frankly, it reminds me of the scientist who claimed that Caucasians are more intelligent because he managed to fit more marbles in a Caucasian skull. I wish I knew more about this, but I also regret hearing about it at all.

The First Amendment does protect free speech. But in no way does it endorse the license to harm.

In my mind’s ear, however, I can’t stop myself from hearing German playwright, Heinrich Heine, whispering: “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.”