Dynamist Blog

In the Classroom

If you've used either of my books in a course, I'd like to post the syllabus (see the TFAIE "In the Classroom" section for examples). Please email me a text or link. Thanks.

An Indian Perspective on The Substance of Style

Reviewing The Substance of Style in the Bombay-based Indian Express, Bharati Chaturvedi adds an Indian perspective on the aesthetic imperative:

If one was to accept this proposition, it is also interesting to see how the world around us constantly reiterates it. Forget sweet boxes at weddings, which are supposed to be decorated. Think instead of the tree with red lights enclosed in PVC winding around it. It's not a universal sign, but it is popular ornamentation for a range of service providers, from dhabas to taxi-stands. In part, it's there because it meets with the current trend of flashy, bright, bejewelled and sequinned. It attracts attention precisely because many of those who will see it are likely to find it visually appealing and react to it positively. Spray-painted blue carnations invite similar reactions and buyers, no matter how bizarre it seems to have bright blue flowers.

In India, carpenters, metal workers and a host of other similar professionals have traditionally known this anyway, resulting in stylised and ornamented products for daily use. Newer mass products now realise they need to actively invest in the visual. These cater to our fantasies, feed our imagination and make the aesthete in us dig into our pockets.

So then, is this consumerism, the evil vice of the last 100 years? No way, I would say. It's closer to a worldwide acknowledgement that the human species is a highly sensory one, with a particular affinity for the visual. We turn to our senses intuitively as guides, and many of our judgments are based upon this.

Speaking of reviews, I'm working on an update to this site. If you know of any linkable reviews that aren't on the reviews page (or if you can supply permission and text for any that aren't currently online), please let me know.

It's a Southern Thing

I've long maintained that many of the cultural characteristics and personal behaviors, good and bad, that Northern commentators (largely white) consider "black" are in fact southern. Being dissed makes the typical good ol' boy just as irrationally mad as it makes an inner-city black guy. And I'd suspect you'd find plenty of Bell Curve-like results if you could break out whites of southern origin, regardless of where they live now, as a separate ethnic group (even more so if you could exclude certain highly educated subgroups, notably the Presbyterians whose attitudes toward education and involvement in commerce have made them the souther equivalent of Jews or Chinese).

Apparently Thomas Sowell agrees. Here's a bit of what he wrote earlier this week in the WSJ:

The culture of the people who were called "rednecks" and "crackers" before they ever got on the boats to cross the Atlantic was a culture that produced far lower levels of intellectual and economic achievement, as well as far higher levels of violence and sexual promiscuity. That culture had its own way of talking, not only in the pronunciation of particular words but also in a loud, dramatic style of oratory with vivid imagery, repetitive phrases and repetitive cadences.

Although that style originated on the other side of the Atlantic in centuries past, it became for generations the style of both religious oratory and political oratory among Southern whites and among Southern blacks--not only in the South but in the Northern ghettos in which Southern blacks settled. It was a style used by Southern white politicians in the era of Jim Crow and later by black civil rights leaders fighting Jim Crow. Martin Luther King's famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was a classic example of that style.

While a third of the white population of the U.S. lived within the redneck culture, more than 90% of the black population did. Although that culture eroded away over the generations, it did so at different rates in different places and among different people. It eroded away much faster in Britain than in the U.S. and somewhat faster among Southern whites than among Southern blacks, who had fewer opportunities for education or for the rewards that came with escape from that counterproductive culture.

Nevertheless the process took a long time. As late as the First World War, white soldiers from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi scored lower on mental tests than black soldiers from Ohio, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. Again, neither race nor racism can explain that--and neither can slavery.

The redneck culture proved to be a major handicap for both whites and blacks who absorbed it. Today, the last remnants of that culture can still be found in the worst of the black ghettos, whether in the North or the South, for the ghettos of the North were settled by blacks from the South. The counterproductive and self-destructive culture of black rednecks in today's ghettos is regarded by many as the only "authentic" black culture--and, for that reason, something not to be tampered with. Their talk, their attitudes, and their behavior are regarded as sacrosanct.

The people who take this view may think of themselves as friends of blacks. But they are the kinds of friends who can do more harm than enemies.

For understandable reasons, Sowell condemns this "redneck culture" in his new book Black Rednecks And White Liberals. But this often-violent honor culture also gives America much of its backbone. It is, after all, the Jacksonian America that so fascinates bloggers and foreign-policy intellectuals.

Carnival of Tomorrow

The Carnival of Tomorrow, a roundup of future-oriented blog posts, is up and definitely worth a stop.

The Carnival is illustrated with an image promoting the 1939 World's Fair--hardly "tomorrow" but still a resonantly glamorous image of the future. In my research on glamour, I'm interested in exploring exactly how and why the 1930s produced so many enduringly glamorous images, not only the motifs of Golden Age Hollywood and "the future" but streamlined moderne (a.k.a. American Art Deco) styling, superhero comic books, and all sorts of transportation imagery, among others (feel free to send me additional examples).

Thirties glamour also had a very dark side, in which the aesthetic editing of unruly details turned from propaganda tool into totalitarian reality. Frederic Spotts's 2003 book Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics demonstrates that the famous "failed painter" was, in fact, an aesthetic pioneer. Here's Spotts introducing the book's thesis:

It was Hitler's aesthetic talents that also help to explain his mysterious grip on the German people. What Stalin accomplished through terror, Hitler achieved through seduction. Using a new style of politics, mediated through symbols, myths, rites, spectacles and personal dramatics, he reached the masses as did no other leader of his time. Though he took away democratic government, he gave Germans what they clearly found a more meaningful sense of political participation, transforming them from spectators into participants in National Socialist theater.

The book has photos of Hitler rehearsing his speeches, adjusting every gesture for maximum effect. Here's a good review by Jean Bethke Elshtain.

[I actually wrote this post yesterday but forgot to switch it from "draft" to "publish."]

Cell Phones on Planes

On Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen recently asked for arguments in favor of a government ban on cell phone use on planes: "Can I claim that cell phone calls are a socially wasteful means of signaling to your spouse that you care? Can I claim that commercial airplanes are modern (short-term) monasteries, and that markets undersupply such temples of silence?" His policy arguments may be tongue in cheek, but I share Tyler's objection to introducting more chatter into airline travel. I like to think, read, and sleep on planes (not necessarily in that order), and I already resent the constant chatter, some of it government-mandated, from the pilot and flight attendants.

I can't see any serious argument for a government ban, but that doesn't mean I foresee a future of yack-filled air travel. Airlines have ample reason to restrict or segregate cell phone usage, either by policy or suasion. Steve Portigal posts a comprehensive analysis of the various interests involved and concludes with a recommendation airlines could apply to all sorts of issues:

Could the airlines do anything to mitigate the impact of the doofus? [The doofus screaming on his phone, that is.--vp] If the airlines want to start changing behavior, they might take a cue from JetBlue, where the current seat back cards take a positive and humorous approach to creating a common experience. Rather than telling passengers what they are forbidden to do, they seek to engage everyone in a common goal of having a positive experience during the flight. Perhaps the most effective way of creating this type of change is not more warnings and admonishments, but to create a totally different experience, making it clear that the passengers aren't following the standard script for "trip on a plane" but reframing that experience into something new, where new rules, expectations, and social norms can be created from scratch. You might not litter in a small community, but perhaps you would in a big city. You wouldn't introduce yourself to someone in a grocery checkout, but you would at a party. Change the frame, and the behavior can change, too.

JetBlue sets the tone from the moment you board: on most airlines the flight attendants watch while you struggle to find space for your carry-on luggage. On JetBlue, they greet each passenger, take their bag, and hurry ahead of them, finding the next open storage space, optimizing space usage (just like a great grocery packer knows what they are doing, so do these guys), relieving the passenger of a frustrating task, and speeding the boarding process. Already the rules begin to be changed. Once you get to the seatback card (labeled a "guide to how to make the world a better place...one flight at a time.") you may begin to consider the flight experience differently. The card reads "Be nice. Attitude is everything on JetBlue. Kindness, respect and consideration are the way to a nice flight." Amusing graphics that evoke traditional flight safety cards depict passengers creating a common experience, for example introducing themselves to each other. Sure, many of us do that on a plane, but JetBlue takes some ownership of it, and encourages it, with just enough humor. Other graphics discourage people from bringing their own smelly fish on board, or sleeping on the shoulder of their neighbor, or removing their shoes when their feet are too pungent.

JetBlue (and some of the other newer, more innovative, and interestingly cheaper airlines) are rethinking the entire experience they are creating for passengers. A fresh look at air travel won't eliminate turbulence, of course, but they could easily extend this to help people manage their behavior. Rather than a turf war over knees, shoulders, ears, and mouths, creating a common experience could encourage coorperation, establish new social norms (and social sanctions rather than punitive ones) that would allow for polite cell phone usage. Sure, I'm skeptical too. Adding some verbiage to the pre-flight announcement and posting a few stickers isn't going to do it. A new approach to creating a relationship between the passengers and the airline, and between the passengers themselves is the key. The dinosaur airlines aren't capable of this (i.e., United's Ted is a cheaper United, with better graphic design; it's not a re-think of the flight experience the way JetBlue is).

And now, for a little excerpt from the glamour book proposal-in-process:

Treating glamour as a luxurious or nostalgic style, instead of an imaginative process, has more than intellectual consequences. This category error leads to futile efforts to restore lost glamour through aesthetic tinkering.

Thus airlines try to recapture the glamour of air travel by redesigning their flight attendants' uniforms. But flying is no longer mysterious, nor is it graceful. Fashion tweaks cannot overcome the public's ample experience with late flights, crowded seats, grumpy crews, crying babies, and minimal service. Giving flight attendants a stylish, slightly retro look may improve crew morale and make flying a little more pleasant, but fashion alone can't bring the glamour back. Glamour is not a quality that can be created with aesthetics alone.

Glamour and the Writer's Life

In his poem "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," Sir Walter Scott introduced the word glamour into English from Scots, where it meant a literal magic spell that kept the subject from seeing things as they really are:

And one short spell therein he read:
It had much of glamour might;
Could make a ladye seem a knight;
The cobwebs on a dungeon wall
Seem tapestry in lordly hall;
A nut-shell seem a gilded barge,
A sheeling [a shepherd's hut] seem a palace large,
And youth seem age, and age seem youth:
All was delusion, nought was truth.

Scott also used the word glamour in his diary, describing a phenomenon all too familiar to writers and editors:

August 12. -- Wrote a little in the morning; then Duty and I have settled that this is to be a kind of holiday, providing the volume be finished to-morrow. I went to breakfast at Chiefswood, and after that affair was happily transacted, I wended me merrily to the Black Cock Stripe, and there caused Tom Purdie and John Swanston cut out a quantity of firs. Got home about two o'clock, and set to correct a set of proofs. James Ballantyne presages well of this work, but is afraid of inaccuracies -- so am I -- but things must be as they may. There is a kind of glamour about me, which sometimes makes me read dates, etc., in the proof-sheets, not as they actually do stand, but as they ought to stand. I wonder if a pill of holy trefoil would dispel this fascination.

The word glamour is occasionally still used in the old sense, most recently (in my experience, that is) on the penultimate episode of Angel. I'm working on a proposal for a book on glamour, which is why you're getting etymology rather than discussions of means-testing social security. I promise some less esoteric entries (though not necessarily on social security) this evening.

iPod Quality

OK, folks, you can stop writing to tell me that I could have bought a replacement for my Apple iPod battery from a third-party vendor. I'm not sure I could have way back when, but what I didn't mention is that I'd already replaced my iPod three times under the warranty and was just disgusted with the thing. I'd also fallen for the Mini.

Reader Jim Bailey writes to note that Apple will in fact replace the batteries. For the low, low price of $105.95, that is. Unless you're really worried about batteries in the landfill, and don't trust third-party vendors, that doesn't strike me as a terribly good deal.

Reader Tom Jackson writes to praise the iPod competition:

I couldn't help writing to you after reading your item on the iPod. My wife, who once bought me an autographed copy of THE FUTURE AND ITS ENEMIES, gave me a Dell Jukebox as an anniversary gift last July. (I had noticed that it was cheaper, and the reviews had mentioned that it had a longer battery life than the iPod.) I have been using it it for about nine months now, and it has a really good battery life. I've never run out of power before I recharged it, so I don't know what the maximum battery life is, but I always seem to get many hours of use before I have to recharge it again. Of course, the other test will be how long the battery lasts before it wears out and won't hold a charge anymore. The Dell Jukebox never gets much in the way of praise, but it is reliable and seems to work well.

Unfortunately, Dell has a real problem with aesthetics, which limits the appeal of its products.

Reader Nick Schweitzer recommends the Creative Zen Touch:

I bought mine a few months ago and it is excellent from a hardware perspective... I think just as easy to use as an iPod with a few extra features. The software is not quite as good as iTunes... but the battery is great. I go a couple days between charging, and I have it on all day at work. There is also a smaller Zen very comparable to the iPod mini as well.

There you have it: Plenty of iPod competition, but nobody's got everything. If you're buying an Apple product of any kind, my recommendation from long years of experience, is to always buy the Apple Care extended warranty. You absolutely will need it.

A Buyers' Cartel

In theory, if all buyers of a product agreed not to pay more than a certain amount for it, they could keep prices artificially low. In reality, that doesn't happen because there's always an incentive to cheat, getting access to scarce supplies by bidding up the price. But what if you get a professional society, and perhaps the law, to deem paying market prices--or, for that matter, anything at all--unethical? Then you'd have a bit more enforcement power.

That's what scientists who want to do embryonic stem cell research are trying to do with women's eggs. A new report from the National Academies recommends ethical guidelines for stem cell research, including what Rick Weiss of the WaPost characterized as a surprising call for a ban on paying egg donors.

I'm not so sure we should be surprised. Scientists are as self-interested as anyone else, especially when it comes to stretching scarce research dollars. What the guidelines do is try to set up a buyers' cartel.

Eggs are the scarce resource for producing embryos, including clones, for research. Donating eggs is not the least bit like donating sperm. It's no fun, and involves lots of nasty hormone injections and more than a little risk. (One of my relatives, who was young and otherwise healthy, was once hospitalized because of complications from an attempted egg donation.) Women who donate eggs for fertility treatments are well compensated for their troubles. (This site gives a price of $5,000.) And these women get the psychological compensation of knowing they're helping a couple have a much-wanted child. For most people, contributing to the incremental progress of medical research just doesn't have the same emotional punch.

It's not clear where researchers think free eggs will come from. Either the no-payment plan is a subtle way to sabotage research cloning by depriving it of eggs, or it's an economically naive effort to exploit idealistic young egg donors. Neither motive strikes me as ethical.

The National Academies information page, including a link to the full report, is here.

Style, Trends, and Authenticity

In the new issue of I.D. Magazine, I interview Robyn Waters, the trend-spotter behind many of Target's pathbreaking design ventures. The published format is very short, though it hits the highlights of our conversation. Here's one more bit that didn't make it into print, following on her discussion of the Philippe Starck sippy cup:

Q: I have to be a little skeptical. My response to the way Target marketed the line was, "Target doesn't actually think its customers are going to like these things. It's not marketing the things. It's marketing Philippe Starck--oh, you should know who he is, you should be impressed that we have him." How well did those designs actually do?

A: It was definitely marketed to capitalize on the buzz. It was not a huge volume program. But the sippy cup in particular really became an icon for the program. I literally got faxes and emails from people in Germany and Japan and Italy. They were frantic to know how they could get one of these sippy cups. I have two samples of that product left, and I take it with me to some of my talks. I tell you, I could have sold those things 10 times over at a huge markup.

Part of the benefit to Target from the Starck Reality program was that we developed our staff. To get these products executed to the intense specifications of Philippe and his design team, we jumped through lot of hoops. The program gave our designers, young designers pretty new out of school, the opportunity to work with a master for a year, and to feel good about what they did ,and to be challenged constantly: "Not good enough, not good enough. We have to be able to do this." There were so many times when a vendor said, "Sorry we can't do that." Philippe's answer was, "Well, they can if they do it this way or look at it this way." Or, "Then we find somebody who can do it." That was a huge, valuable lesson for us in terms of how we--the design department and trend department--were going to work with merchants in the future. He was all about finding solutions, exploring all the possibilities, getting outside the box, and then finding different ways to do things. It was literally like sending your staff to graduate school.

She was right about one thing. Around the time of our interview, the sippy cup was going for around $15 on Ebay.

Is the iPod Good Design?

While I'm pointing out Apple's flaws, here's another one. Contrary to what I said in the paperback edition of The Substance of Style, I no longer think the iPod qualifies as good design. It's gorgeous and tactile, and the software interface is excellent--aesthetic and functional qualities lacking in most electronic products--but Apple has never been much good at the physical side of design. If only they didn't have to actually make things. In this case, the batteries are the problem. They're beyond terrible, and Apple won't replace them. My original iPod lasted about a year before the battery died and I had to throw it out. Worse, my iPod Mini has never really held a charge, except for the day it spent in the Apple Store.

And I'm not alone. Here's a protest video, and here's a non-Apple page of FAQ on the problem. Unlike many iPod users, I'm fairly environmentally insensitive and don't mind the disposable approach per se. But, given the price of the product, it should last a lot longer. For now, I'm sticking to plugging my Sony earbuds into my computer.

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