What’s wrong with TED talks – hint: quite a lot

I have almost certainly fulminated in various asides against TED talks on this blog, and even one full on cri de coeur against retail profundification. (I promised one on business class profundification but I haven’t managed to do it yet.

Anyway, a friend sent me this TEDx talk which is about what’s wrong with TED Talks. It’s terrific. Indeed, if you want to watch it you can, but you can also see the text of the speech reproduced on the speaker’s website and in the Guardian. It’s always annoyed me that transcripts aren’t provided as a matter of course. They save a lot of time.

My favourite quote on economics:

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?

Enjoy.

Happy little optimisers we

Maslow's hierarchy Not

I know I took the notion of optimising to heart as I learned it – implicitly – from my economist Dad. And there are those who might argue that the idea in economics came from the society around economists as the discipline came into being.

But now it seems optimising as the heart of life seems to have become ubiquitous. I just ran into a tweet which proudly displays the graphic to the left.

I also know that the advice, such as it is, embodied in the accompanying graphic is fair enough. A bit of prudence about life. One could do a lot worse. (Then again, is it not pretty obvious? Graphics induce a kind of ‘fake’ aha I’ve found – something I confess to exploiting in my own rhetorical tricks during presentations) But at the level of advice there’s also something strangely anodyne and sad about it as an embodiment of aspiration.

Traditional notions of how one might decide on one’s path in life or one’s career – at least since the rise of modern times and the idea of the self as a self-creation, it’s been pretty de rigueur to at least pay some lip service to following one’s heart or more recently, and more crassly, one’s dream. More dourly, Protestant ethics teach a kind of surrender to one’s ‘calling’. Each of these has the texture of life as an adventure and a story in which basic values are the foundation – one build’s on the rock to invoke Christian imagery – including bearing the burden of suffering in pursuit of one’s goal.

Even Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that, though one pays most attention to ‘the basics’, truth to oneself involves working up to ‘higher’ things. (I’ve always thought it wide of the mark by the way as things at the top of the hierarchy seem to turn up very early in human history and in many ways were more powerful influences in civilisations in which the vast bulk of people were pretty much at subsistence – but I digress).

In any event today alongside the hashtags “#Brand” and “#You” the tweet which brandished this insight into life, we lean in and regard our ultimate task as having it all. Even in the anodyne graphic, I’d have liked to see doing what one loves as being more important than being paid well, but there you go, though I’m all for it being important.

 

Meanwhile Gov 2 keeps surging in the GLAM Sector

GLAM highlights

Here are some headlines marking various milestones of progress and regress in the Government 2.0 agenda.

As we recommended in the Cutler Report donations to the global commons are growing apace.

Meanwhile it’s not surprising that the Scandinavians, who are some of the most impressive governors in the world – along with us and the Canadians – are moving towards their government becoming a purchasing aggregator of digital content for their citizens. Here’s the news on Norway.

The National Library of Norway is digitizing all the books in its collection, processing the text to make it searchable, and making them available to read online.

It’s similar to the mass digitization efforts in the UK and Finland, but Norway has taken the extra step of making agreements with many publishers to allow anyone with a Norway IP address to access copyrighted material.

The library owns equipment for scanning and text structure analysis of the books. It’s also adding metadata and storing the files in a database for easy retrieval.

Librarians estimate the digitization of the entire collection, which includes materials dating back to the Middle Ages, will take 20 to 30 years. The effort started in 2006.

 

Meanwhile our government does something like the converse, helping the firms of the world charge our citizens higher prices than those of other countries.

 

 

Rich countries and happiness: the story of a bet.

Do countries that are already rich become even happier when they become yet richer? This was the essential question on which I entered a gentleman’s bet in 2004 with Andrew Leigh and which just recently got settled.

The reason for the bet was a famous hypothesis in happiness research called the Easterlin hypothesis which held that happiness did not increase when rich countries became even richer. In my ‘Fred Gruen’ presentation on this matter in 2004 I used the following graph to illustrate the happiness income relation across countries:

gruen 2004 image

This graph shows you the relation between average income (GDP in purchasing power terms) and average happiness on a 0-10 scales for many countries. As one can see, the relation between income and happiness is upward sloping for low levels of income, but becomes somewhat flat after 15,000 dollars per person. I championed the idea that this was not just true if you looked across countries, but that this would also hold true over time.

Andrew Leigh’s thinking was influenced by other data, particularly a paper by Stevenson and Wolfers which – he thinks debunks the Easterlin hypothesis. Here’s one of their graphs: Continue reading

Mr Pip: and some things and people who give me the pip

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are the rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.

I went to see Mr Pip last night. I checked out several reviews before I went and they were not encouraging. But I liked the sound of the story and wanted to go to a movie and so there I was. I recommend it – though readers are warned that I am prone to strong views when seeing movies – particularly when I see them on my own which I did with this one.

It’s a film made in New Zealand and I have to say that based on a number of New Zealand films I’ve seen – most particularly Once were Warriors and In my Father’s Den these New Zealanders seem to be much better than us at making serious movies lately. Ours are so timid by comparison – so often focused on fairly cute comedies of manners – like Priscilla and Muriel’s Wedding and usually bathed in the treacle of our national preoccupation with asking “what does it mean to be Australian?” – sorry I nearly lost consciousness just contemplating that last question. Such an interesting one. Note: Henry Lawson and cousin Banjo were no doubt good guys, but can we please move on?

Continue reading

Accents

I love accents. I love pretty much everything about them. I love the way in which they actually convey things – sincerity, guile, sneering, superiority and their opposites and complements – all surreptitiously; all in a way that is at the same time so compelling to our intuition as to be obvious to all, and yet so subtle as to go entirely under the radar of the rational. Why should the Cockney accent sound cheeky to the point of criminality, the word “gov’nor” a study in irony making it anything from a mark of respect to a comprehensive put down? Why should an ocker accent imply the matey slapdash sensibility that it does. It doesn’t seem to me to be any more possible to answer those questions than it is to figure out why Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is so sad while the first movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony is so peaceful and lovely.

But there you have it. Continue reading

D H Lawrence: A Letter from Germany

Remarkable letter written from, and about, Germany by DH Lawrence in 1928. For all the beauty of his descriptions, it feels like divination rather than reportage.

Immediately you are over the Rhine, the spirit of place has changed. There is no more attempt at the bluff of geniality. The marshy places are frozen. The fields are vacant. There seems nobody in the world.

It is as if the life had retreated eastwards. As if the Germanic life were slowly ebbing away from contact with western Europe, ebbing to the deserts of the east. And there stand the heavy, ponderous round hills of the Black Forest, black with an inky blackness of Germanic trees, and patched with a whiteness of snow. They are like a series of huge, involved black mounds, obstructing the vision eastwards. You look at them from the Rhine plain, and you know that you stand on an actual border, up against something.

The moment you are in Germany, you know. It feels empty, and, somehow, menacing. So must the Roman soldiers have watched those black, massive round hills: with a certain fear, and with the knowledge that they were at their own limit. A fear of the invisible natives. A fear of the invisible life lurking among the woods. A fear of their own opposite.

He had been in Germany only a few years before but it now felt alien, utterly transformed. As if it were no longer interested in western Europe, no longer open to reconciliation or even trade. Even though the door isn’t quite yet closed, it might as well be. Continue reading

On Mr Rudds multitude of policy positions, or syntax without semantics.

 

“ they exert every variety of talent on a lower ground…and may be said to live and act in a submind”……

VS Naipaul  “The Air Conditioned Bubble”

Writing in 1984 about the republican convention of 1984 (the triumphant beginning of Ronald Regans second term), V S Naipaul wrote of the language used at the convention as ‘computerlike’.  He wrote of his sense of a ‘hollowness’ at its core and he quotes a number of speeches by delegates to the convention. Naipaul then goes on to write about English as a living language, one growing and deepening by internal references, allusive, full of references to itself – Shakespeare, the bible, popular culture etc; a language capable of making statements about itself , language capable of awareness of, being aware. The language of the speakers at the convention by contrast had, to quote Naipaul: “the same tone, the same personality (or absence of it), the same language unallusive, cleansed sterile, nerveless and dead, computer language”: a language incapable of ironic awareness: mindless and empty.

At the end of the essay Naipaul returns to and reflects upon his sense of a vacancy and inertness at the heart of the convention. Reflecting on the “imaginative poverty” he sensed at the centre of the great occasion he quotes Emerson’s reflections on visiting Britain at the height of its imperial power, in the mid 19th century. For Emerson it was, “as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy, existed anymore”. Emerson felt that English intellectual life was being choked by its consciousness of enormous power, wealth, rightness (inevitability).  He wrote, “ they exert every variety of talent on a lower ground…and may be said to live and act in a submind”.  Naipaul’s essay concludes thus: “like Emerson in England, I seemed in the convention hall of Dallas ”to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow.” ”

The unease I feel is that we too, are walking on a “floor where nothing will grow”.  Emerson was writing about a society much like our own, dominated by technique and by instrumental reason. The unease is that, “as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy, existed anymore”, has come true, and that all we have to look forward to is is a endless:

“denying of the past, fearful of the future”..”endless present of endless panic.”

The Crucible: go and see it if you can

crucible.jpgWarning: Enthusiasm Alert.

I’ve just got home from seeing the Crucible by Arthur Miller at the Melbourne Theatre Company. I thought it was a very good production. I thought I wasn’t going to like David Wenham much at the outset as he seemed a bit strained. But that’s perhaps because I’m familiar with him in very different comic roles, so perhaps it was just a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Anyway, I think I’ve seen the play three times in my life and each time I have been bowled over by it, but each time more so. I recall the first time I saw it, I remembered people in my year 12 English course talking about the play. I didn’t study it but they did and the general drum was that it was an allegory of the madness of McCarthyism. Based on this I expected to dislike the play as I expected lots of strained analogies and basically full on anachronism – something I really hate. Unless it’s pure costume drama like A Man for all Seasons or the Lion in Winter (which has dialogue like Eleanor of Aquitaine has an apartment and shrink on the Upper East Side) which is fair enough, really bad anachronism smacks of lack of seriousness to me. Anyway, it irritates me.

Anyway I recall first seeing it and marvelling at how much effort Miller had gone to to try to get inside the heads of his protagonists. The language seems right as does all the theology. There’s something very compelling about being taken convincingly inside something which looks trivially crazy on the outside. Yet the play is of course a contemporary play about classic themes, most particularly the dialectic of morality, the radical nature of any real commitment to goodness, the incredible maze through which good can be lost in and the upshot of that for those who must try to divine what is right and navigate their way through extraordinary times in which “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law”.

I’ve written before about jokes that get better with age. Well I guess Shakespeare’s plays get better with age because one appreciates the language a little more, sees more in them. But for me this play is without peer. After the introductory scene, each of the next three scenes that make up the play are just masterful. They meld drama and insight so magnificently I’m still in awe of it all.

Like I said; Go see it if you can.