Digging into Satisfaction

Quite a while back I reade a book called Satisfaction: the science of finding true fulfillment. The book is about the scientific escapades of its author, Gregory Berns, as he seeks the answer to a number of questions about happiness. The book varies from extremely technical descriptions of Berns’ research in neuroeconomics to extremely accessible stories and anecdotes that most people can related to. It’s a highly enjoyable read, and I recommend it to anyone who likes reading pop science.

I give a lot of love to authors that use footnotes. When someone can write a completely accessible book but still maintain depth by referencing all of the relevant literature in endnotes, they are a master communicator. Satisfaction has a number of interesting footnotes that I have intended to follow up on; as a service to myself I’m going to place them here as well.

Snakes out of the plane

Sure, I’ve got tickets to the 10pm showing of Snakes on a Plane tonight. With the help of Justin, we might be eating some dips and pretzles off of a blueprint-covered table (snacks on a plan). I’ve been impressed with all of the quite-savvy marketing done on behalf of the producers thus far, but I was a little confused when I ran across the Snakes on a Plane Quote Book a few days ago in a bookstore.

Snakes on a Plane Quote Book

Thumbing through the book I realized that these pages completely reveal the plot of the movie. How many Samuel L. Jackson quotes do you need to figure out the entire dialog? My first thought was that this was an error on the part of some publisher or distribution company, but then I realized that it may be yet another stunt to increase the buzz around the movie. How surreal will it be when I’m quoting Mr. Jackson in line waiting for the opening release of the movie? And something tells me I won’t be the only one in line with the same idea.

Teenage Wasteland

Donna Gaines in 1978Now that I have forsaken the academy (just kidding!) and have copious amounts of commute time, I’ve been trying to read all of the books I punted on over the past 6 years. I just finished Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland, an ethnography of the youth culture in the late 80’s that coincided with a number of suicides. In addition to descriptive biography and cultural criticism, Gaines’ book espouses young people as a cohesive social group, one with solidarity but not sovereignty. The book is largely focused on teenage suicide, a behavior increasing in prevalence over the 80’s. She concludes that this act comes from a state of oppression, not disenfranchisement:

In a now famous footnote in Suicide, written almost a hundred years ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim described fatalistic suicide as “the suicide deriving from excessive regulation, that of persons with futures pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline.” … Yet most experts attribute youth suicide to anomie—the opposit of fatalistic suicide in Durkheim’s thinking. In anomic suicide, the individual isn’t connected to the society—the glue that holds the person to the group isnn’t strong enough; social bonds are loose, weak or absent.

In other words, parents think that kids are detached from society and from themselves, when in fact they feel completely connected to each other, and disconnected from any concept of a future. This is not an area I know much about, but it seems that the parental view of “kids” or “teenagers” has been on a gradual decline since the baby boom. Take for instance Leave it to Beaver. In the light of today’s paranoid, parental propaganda, Beaver’s shenanigans would probably be interpreted as the actions of a conspiring gang instead of just some goofy kids. When Beaver got suck in the giant bowl of steaming soup, he was simply given a slap on the wrist, when today he would probably be arrested as a graffiti artist or culture jammer. Dude, it’s just the Beaver!

The book concludes with an afterward covering some cultural changes occurring during the 90’s, but it concludes long before the ubiquity of the internet. Gaines’ describes teenage fatalism as largely being associated with the geographic prison that many kids live in; she blames quite a bit of the “problem” on kids’ inability to get away from their home town. The internet has a huge impact on the concept of geography, giving people the ability to escape their immediate surroundings for other people and places.

The past few years have certainly seen a marked increase in youth adoption of internet communication tools; this has been the case since the onset of the web, and will probably be true for many years to come. We can assume that IM, blogs, Livejournal, MySpace, Friendster and the like are all helping support local relationships among kids, but to what extent are they allowing them to escape their hometown? When teenagers feel trapped, oppressed, and ultimately fatalistic, to what extent do they now turn to a kindred spirit somewhere far away? My guess is that today’s youth have even more solidarity than they have in the past, but it is certainly a topic that needs further exploration.

Any references to current research would be greatly appreciated.

Become a millionaire, get straight A’s

A team of MIT students under the direction of a quirky math professor moonlight as blackjack sharks, pulling a profit for investors by academically outwitting casinos. This has been a rumor I’ve heard on and off for the past three years; sometimes rumors are true, and they turn out to be bigger than you ever would have expected. This story is the subject of a new biography by Ben Mezrich to be released shortly.

For some reason the hype surrounding this book slipped past me. It’s the type of story that lingers in the air after someone has told it, a story about some nerdy kids no one would expect to have a social life, much less two or three consisting of invented identities and illegal behavior. And the best part, of course, is that they get away with it. A recent article in Wired by the author outlines the book, and left me asking for much, much more. [via b3ta]

Wired: Hacking Las Vegas

Amazon: Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six Mit Students Who Took Vegas for Millions

Cradle to Cradle

A story on OnPoint tonight, a story about William McDonough’s preaching environmentalism beyond recycling. In his new book Cradle to Cradle with co-author Michael Braungart, McDonough predicts another industrial revolution where materials move beyond the “cradle-to-grave” paradigm, where resources are created with their demise in mind. Recycling can perpetuate the life of a milk bottle, but it has an inevitable resting place somewhere in a landfill.

Their company, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry is trying to create products that have a natural place of reuse in nature, i.e. biological recycling. Edible grocery bags, shoe soles and tires that fertilize as they wear away. Oh, and flying pigs too.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I just finished one of the best pieces of non-fiction I’ve read quite some time, Jane Jacobs’ indictment of orthodox city planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This is one of those books I wish I was forced to read at an early age: insightful, motivating, and connected to so many ideas and disciplines. I’ll write an extended review sometime soon (after SXSW for sure), but in the mean time I need a bit of cathartic mind-dump:

“Statistical people are a fiction for many reasons, one of which is that they are treated as if infinitely interchangeable. Real people are unique, they invest years of their lives in significant relationships with other unique people, and are not interchangeable in the least.”

This passage cuts to the heart of what makes so many social studies sound like fingernails on chalkboard. Statistics can be a useful tool for parsing large amounts of data, but they are never a substitution for real people.