Archive for March, 2008

Uncle Fred tells it like it is

March 30, 2008

I recently watched the disturbing 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp”, the entirety of which is available on youtube, and I’ve been quaking in my Converse ever since.

I’m not a religious person. That having been said, Jesus was a social radical who had some amazing ideas. Moreover, I received a Christian education from teachers and monks whose faith was earnest; these were genuinely good people. I guess I’m not only alarmed but positively perplexed that Christian doctrine has been so easily mangled into an ideology of ignorance by the political Right.

You may be wondering what difference exists between the “Evangelicals” and other sorts of Christian people who could be deemed more benign. Well, in seeming response to that very question, my conservative, devout ex-pastor Uncle Fred just sent out a long and detailed email to the Fam discussing why he has “such a problem with Jerry Falwell in particular and ‘The Evangelicals’ in general.”

Here’s the last section:

“At Trinity Lutheran Church in Kissimmee, Florida there is one confession of Faith.
But there are divergent views on how to live out our faith, what causes to support, who to vote for and the like…
Thank God for God, Scripture, our founding fathers. And for Luther.

That is NOT the case in the extreme right camp, basically, “The Evangelicals” (Horribly misappropriated word by the way)…or the extreme left for that matter. The vast majority of thoughtful and responsible Christians know that they are called by God to use their intellect, faith and discipleship to craft their social conscience based on the teachings of Jesus and the catechisms of The Church. They are also aware that they are accountable to their God and to their brothers and sisters for their attitudes and actions…ON THE OTHER HAND, AND THIS IS THEIR VERY BASIC DISTINCTION FROM THE REST OF US, the extreme right and left refer you to an inflexible, narrow and required code or set of rules and regulations or point of view that someone or a group of someones have fashioned for them.

If someone tells me I must believe in seven day creation and disavow the basic tenets of science which teaches evolution, I will likely say, “Excuse me. God gave me my brain to sort that out. And I have concluded that God did it all…from the beginning…and science helps me understand the process.” I love my God. I am uplifted by my science. Now go away.


Subway ads: the tragicomedy of urban life — addendum!

March 27, 2008

As the weather continues to improve, it becomes more and more obvious that “tragicomedy” is a winter genre. As spring is noticeably in the air, the “everything-is-hopeless-but-amusing” feeling gives way to the “zippadee-doo-da” feeling. “Waiting for Godot” is replaced by “Charlie’s Aunt.” Heavy, slow-cooked winter meals are gradually supplanted by lighter, summer fare.

Before I lose my wintertime appetite for melancholy *completely*, though, I thought I’d address another source of urban malaise: subway ads. The fact that subway ads are usually garish and idiotic comes as no surprise, really. Like laundry, it’s just a fact of life!

Repeat offenders of late include: “Lil’ Bit of Luck” for the NY lottery, “$1,000 Cada Hora!” for a popular Hispanic radio show called “El Vacimilon” and, of course, the hideous Dr. Zizmor ads.

They’ve been around for a while it seems–
[from “New York City subway ads, deconstructed” which appears to be a few years old]


“Ah, the nefarious Dr. Z, we meet again! Do you think I would entrust my skin care to a guy who doesn’t have a basic sense of design… or grammar? That client of his is hardly a recommendation, and the rainbow just scares me.”


“Would you let this man put acid on your face? WOULD YOU?!

My follow up question: What do Dr. Zizmor’s friends and family really think about him?

I was on the Franklin Avenue shuttle recently in a car sporting one side of all Bahamas vacation ads, the other side all multilingual Continental airlines ads. I guess it makes sense that denizens of Crown Heights might long for a Caribbean escape from the grind…
But the Contiental ad reads:

在 Beijing 做生意?
Fly Non-Stop with Continental!

So that’s “zai Beijing zou sheng yi?” = “Doing business in Beijing?”

Do you think that your average Hassidic Jew or West African store owner schedules face-to-face meetings with business associates in China? What the hell is going on here??

The most nausea-inducing subway ad that I can think of comes from the good people over at Icon Parking. It’s a pretty subtle design; matte black background with white lettering and the little orange Icon logo. Nothing offensive there. No, it’s the content that repulses. On the left is an ad for their theatre parking deal, accompanied by a picture of an elegant table setting with a place card indicating “theatre parking” in elaborate calligraphy. On the right is another ad (in Spanish) advertising hourly work parking cars IN MANHATTAN! along with a picture of a grinning multi-ethnic family with infant child. Some nerve!!

Waiting for Laundry — a tragicomedy of ubran life

March 20, 2008

VLADAMIR: What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Laundry to come—


The D-Train and myself staged an extremely surreal reading of Samuel Beckett’s most famous work Waiting for Godot at a Brooklyn laundromat earlier this week. Ostensibly we just wanted to kill two birds with one well-aimed stone: cleaning clothes and finishing library books. (Incidentally I was fined a fortune by the BPL recently– did you know that the late fee for DVDs is $2 a day??) Yet I’m starting to think that laundry and Godot are perfect for one another. The text of the play has been interpreted in a million different ways– I’m not familiar enough with it to do a close reading. But I can spot some of the major themes: ennui, absurdity, endless repetition, the foolishness of hope, etc. Doesn’t a trip to the laundromat evoke these kinds of themes as well?

You lug your clothes out to the perpetually open laundry place, load the washer, make sure you have enough change to run the machine, watch the clothes go round and round, sit around blankly until it’s time to put the clothes into the dryer, wait around again until it’s time to fold ’em up, trudge back to the apartment with your burden. Repeat x infinity, every two weeks or so — a classic Sysiphusian task.

Beckett is perhaps the most prominent playwright in the so-called “Theatre of the Absurd”…but what’s *absurd* about cleaning your clothes? Well, the same thing that’s absurd about life i.e. it’s meaningless. You need clean clothes this week, sure, but you’ll need them again in another two. The absurdity is how important you believe this need to be, against the background of nothingness.

Bizarrely humorous

March 11, 2008

So I’d been planning to lead a weekly discussion group for ESL students in the Adult Ed program where I work since, oh….September? Well, the first one finally occurred this afternoon. It went off pretty well; the idea is that it’s a way for students to practice English in an informal, non-class setting.

Today I prepared a bunch of hand-outs and tried to provoke discussion on the admittedly rather mundane topic of emergency preparedness. (If you live in NYC, go here for crucial info!)

Bizarre humor commences: There are several hajab-wearing Muslim ladies in the class, immigrants from various different Arab countries. After I had spent a lot of time talking about hurricanes, other severe weather, avian flu, toxic chemical spills, etc. I asked the class if they could think of any other emergencies or disasters that we should prepare for.

“Terrorism!” giggled the Arab ladies. Then the whole class laughed.

I couldn’t help laughing out loud too. But what’s funny about it? I guess they were able to take the negative stereotype surrounding Arabs and devout Muslims and turn it into a joke? Why is that funny? Very odd.

Bookstores and Behavioral Economics!

March 7, 2008

So I was hanging out in the Park Slope Barnes and Noble all day on Wednesday, thanks to a hilarious “Reach out and Read” fund raiser which I could pawn off as work. ROR is a literacy program based around giving out books and reading to children in hospitals and doctor’s office waiting rooms– community outreach for anything to do with health care should count as work, since I’m a Sunset Park Community HealthCorps member. Anyway, what’s hilarious about it is that we all got dressed up as books and wandered around outside giving out book vouchers in the bitter cold, to promote family literacy. The Community Programs director at B&N, who bore the ridiculous name of Peaches, shoo-ed us away from fund raising in the store or directly outside of it. (When one of our crew went in to B&N without removing her book costume, I was forced to admonish, “Wait dude! Take off your book! Peaches is going to get pissed off!”) In the afternoon there were a couple ear-splitting performances by the Harbor Hill Senior Center Chinese Choir; Believe me, there is nothing quite as amusing as 20 enthusiastic eighty year olds bleating Chinese songs in a key so improbable that dogs will come running.

While taking a break from all the RORing, I picked up a book by behavioral economist Dan Ariely entitled, “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions”. Why would a book like that warrant any level of excitement? Because it’s perfect fodder for blogging my debate with Bill!

The topic of the debate is this:How do people make choices?

The common sense idea that people decide things based primarily upon their preferences is the cornerstone of free-market economic theory, my understanding of which goes *a little something* like this:

In an effort to become better off, people constantly make choices concerning what to buy from and sell to others. The collective sum of these choices is known as the market. Given that possible choices are many, resources are scarce, and people are unencumbered in their choices, the market tend towards an equilibrium based on mutual satisfaction.

The mechanism which guides this tendency is called price. Price has very powerful and predictable effects on the choices of both producer and consumer: The Law of Supply states that the higher the price of a good or product, the more the producer will supply. Meanwhile, the Law of Demand says that the higher the price of said good or product, the less the consumer will demand. This is known as the Supply and Demand model. The result in this model is that markets tend towards equilibrium prices, a point such that both consumers and producers are satisfied.

Of course this only holds true in a situation of “perfect competition,” in which producers compete against each other and consumers have many possible choices.

Because firms are competing with each other to make production cheaper and more efficient, an unfettered, perfectly competitive market encourages creativity and innovation. It also elevates quality of life for the consumer, who is always provided with goods of competitive quality at a competitive price. Indeed, since the free market stimulates the growth of industry and the economy in general, which is good for everybody, the role of government should be simply to allow the market to thrive.

Shout outz to Prof. Richie Adelstein for your Econ 101 class, as well as to Bill and to the anonymous authors of Wikipedia for filling in the gaps in my memory.


So Ariely challenges this model by saying that what consumers are willing to pay can be easily manipulated; consumers don’t necessarily have a good handle on their own preferences when it comes to making decisions. This is because human decision-making behavior is often influenced by hidden forces. Now, sociology/anthropology types might think that when Ariely mentions invisible factors that cause you to make decisions contrary to your preferences, he’s referring to the myriad pressures arising from social structures like class, race, gender, etc. BUT NO! He’s talking straight up psychology.

Like the goslings in Konrad Lorenz’s famous work on imprinting, humans are suggestible. We are susceptible to all kinds of cues. Not only that! We are creatures of habit. So once we’ve accepted an idea, no matter how arbitrary, we’re inclined to believe it and base decisions upon it, like the baby goslings who accepted Lorenz as their mother and subsequently followed him around everywhere. We have a desire for coherence, even if it’s not based on anything rational; Ariely calls this “arbitrary coherence”.

Ariely provides a wide variety of examples of human behavior subject to arbitrary coherence, all of which are based on his own research. There’s one experiment in which students are asked to write down the first two digits of their social security number, then asked to give an appropriate price for a set selection of products. There was a strong correlation such that the kids who had the higher numbers as “anchors” put down higher prices; lower SSN’s went for lower prices. So choices are often affected by random initial anchors, rather than pleasure according to preference.

Because of this arbitrary coherence behavior, people are very susceptible to advertising. They also will adapt to higher prices in a way that the Law of Demand wouldn’t predict, as in the classic case of Starbucks– coffee goes from $1.00 a cup to $4.00 but people are OK with it because of plush couches, fancy french presses, and “hip” music. The point is that, according to Ariely, market prices readily influence the consumers willingness to pay rather than vice versa.

Free-market economic theory is based on the idea that we are in touch with our preferences such that we can estimate the amount of pleasure a trade will give us vs. its price. If we can’t accurately compute these pleasure values, then it is not clear that having the opportunity to trade is going to make us better off. Policies should take the fact that human behavior is irrational into account!

(Eventually I’ll continue to blog on this train of thought and critique capitalism for a variety of other reasons, including the following: corporate dominance, ignoring biodiversity, and encouraging so-called one-dimensional thinking.)

Signs point to Tyra Banks Show actually being interesting.

March 4, 2008

It’s both unlikely and unnerving, I know.

If you have a spare moment to entertain such a preposterous theorem, check out this video:

Racial prejudice just gushes so easily forth from the panel, it’s kind of sickening.

Yet, they all seem to be reasonable people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. I guess that prejudice and this tendency towards stereotype and bias lurk unconsciously within most people, no matter who they are. Those of you who didn’t take Scott Plous’ social psych class at Wesleyan should check out Understanding Prejudice for more info. The Implicit Association Test is particularly cool/disturbing.

I never thought I’d be one to give shout outs as such, but they are due to Sajita, who is one of the cutest and smartest little people I’ve ever met, and to her mother Linda, who is my friend and fabulous co-worker!

Linda says, and I have *extensive* reason to believe her, that she was barely able to restrain herself from dropping the f-bomb on the show. That would have put those panelists in their place, n’est pas?

Counseling the absent and hopeless?

March 3, 2008

Being a good career counselor is tricky: You want to be a goal-oriented, action-focused, “active listener”. You want to be savvy and professional, but also sympathetic and understanding. You need to be culturally competent and universally approachable (as clients range from Arabic speaking housewives who want to become nurses to Puerto Rican kids spitting hip hop lingo and trying desperately to stay in GED class) yet you must be conscious of boundaries. (see ‘The peculiar case of Mrs. H’)


Time and time again you see the same behavior: Clients are looking for a way out of the tough situations that have befallen them, they display initial enthusiasm, perhaps they even have an appointment or two of working with you, but then they up and disappear. Then I end up posting on my blog instead of doing other stuff I have to do, because it all consists of busy work. I’m unhappy because WORST CASE SCENARIO I should be getting paid AT LEAST twice as much to do busy work. Meanwhile, clients are unhappy because they are jobless and confused!


UPDATE: OK…I’ve calmed down now

The client whose absence sent me into psychotic spiral (see above) finally showed up, albeit 2 hours late. Resume was prepared, other clients were seen, I am now busy at work and as such most conclude this sad and rambling blog post. Phew.

Before I go, I should take a sober moment to talk about learned helplessness. This is the behaviorist theory that people can lose motivation after life has shat upon them for long enough. Perhaps, once they’ve succumbed to this feeling, showing up on time feels pointless.

I can understand that. It’s still annoying though.