Recent Reading: 21 May: Advice, Reviews, Motives, Diversity, Signalling

Reading a lot online these days, and offline as well.  Still a bit surprised by the wealth of well-written, amusing stuff online, and the lack of same off-. I stood in the library for 20 mins today, looking for a good crime novelist/novel I haven’t read — scanned probably 20 book jackets, flipped through pages skimming — and found nothing. In the end, I borrowed two more Anne Tyler books.

Here’s what I’m reading and finding interesting in the virtual world:

>> HILARIOUS review of the Honda Insight 1.3 IMA SE Hybrid in the Times Online by Jeremy Clarkson.

“Of course, I am well aware that there are a great many people in the world who believe that the burning of fossil fuels will one day kill all the Dutch and that something must be done.” …

“But I cannot see how making a car with two motors costs the same in terms of resources as making a car with one.  The nickel for the battery has to come from somewhere. Canada, usually. It has to be shipped to Japan, not on a sailing boat, I presume. And then it must be converted, not in a tree house, into a battery, and then that battery must be transported, not on an ox cart, to the Insight production plant in Suzuka. And then the finished car has to be shipped, not by Thor Heyerdahl, to Britain, where it can be transported, not by wind, to the home of a man with a beard who thinks he’s doing the world a favour.”

>> ‘Tis the season for commencement advice:

“If you’re bi-curious, experiment now; that window is about to close.”

“Don’t install an Olympic-sized pool if you’re only going to swim the width.”

“Stars are made of dust. And gas. On fire.”

>> Not sure whether to laugh or cry reading Matt Labash’s “Everybody Is Disadvantaged:  Postcards from the diversity follies” in the Weekly Standard. But I did read it all the way through, because it was compelling and reminded me of places I’ve worked, people I’ve known. It describes his experience at a National Multicultural Business Conference held at DisneyWorld.

“I count a black one, an Asian one, a white one, a white one, a white one … For a moment, my spirit sags. It’s clear that no matter how far we multiculturalists have come, there are still high mountains left to climb.”

>> And this, about social signalling,  from “Messages in What We Buy, but Nobody’s Listening” in the NYT:

“Suppose, during a date, you casually say, ‘The sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term.’ Here’s what you’re signaling, as translated by Dr. Miller:

“‘My S.A.T. scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my I.Q. is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.'”

I had no idea that these are the “Big Five Personality Traits:”  openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability and extraversion. I’ll have to think about that!

In short,

“The grand edifice of brand-name consumerism rests on the narcissistic fantasy that everyone else cares about what we buy. (It’s no accident that narcissistic teenagers are the most brand-obsessed consumers.) But who else even notices? Can you remember what your partner or your best friend was wearing the day before yesterday? Or what kind of watch your boss has?”

I usually can’t, but I do know that some people notice and can recall brand names with amazing accuracy. But brand names and high-end goods aren’t the only things we ‘consume’ conspicuously that other people remember and judge us by. As alluded to in the article, a consumer action like “demonstrating your concern for third world farmers by spending extra for Starbucks’ ‘fair trade’ coffee,” or refusing to eat meat, or being a regular at the farmer’s market, is no doubt  noted, assessed, and filed away by some folks for evidence of the “Big Five.”

Update 9 June: See Competitive Altruism: Being Green in Public at Time magazine.

>> Speaking of which, Brendan O’Neill’s snarky article impuning Mia Farrow’s motives in fasting for Darfur (right before bathing suit season) both persuades me and disgusts me.

O’Neill says it straight:

“Farrow and Branson have taken celebrity self-promotion to a new low. This is not a hunger strike: it is a detox done under the cynical guise of helping poor Africans. It is yet another example of celebrities using an important issue to bring attention primarily to themselves and their pure moral values. In the process, Farrow and co have helped to warp public understanding and debate about Darfur.”

I know that if I were to fast for anything, my motives would be at best mixed, and always partly to lose a few pounds. If everyone knew I were doing it, as in Farrow’s case and that of other celebrities, my motives would no doubt be further adulterated by the benefits of conspicuous sacrifice (i.e., people thinking I’m so high-minded, generous, tuned-in to those ‘less fortunate’, self-sacrificial, compassionate, good).

On the other hand, does O’Neill really has more insight into Farrow’s motives than she does? And, anyway, sometimes mixed motives are the best we can come up with and to refuse to act until they’re 100% pure is both a recipe for personal paralysis and a foundation for social sanctimony.

O’Neill’s assertion, quoting Columbia Univ. professor Mahmood Mamdani, that Farrow and others reduce “a complex political conflict to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims” strikes me as a worthwhile topic of conversation.

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