Archive for March, 2009

Don’t Fear the Reaper


In the Sunday Times Magazine over the weekend, I came across this incisive piece from A.A. Gill, whose acerbic and witty tv and restaurant reviews are always a fun read.

This article, however, is on a much sterner subject – the isolation and neglect of the aged on a societal and cultural level. Once dementia, Alzheimer’s, disease or simply lessening function sets in, our parents and grandparents, aunts and old friends are slowly tucked away in ‘homes’ or hospices. His article points out that (despite various NHS scandals) the care is largely good, but perfunctory, and is, he notices, often performed by people from cultures where the aged are more revered.

What damns us, he feels, is the way our (‘our’ being the comparatively young and healthy) fear of death and aging allows us to let these people fade from sight. We find it easier to ignore people who seem ‘old’, all the more so when they’re sent into care. They might not always be fully lucid, but loneliness and depression are rampant, and we sigh, visit less and less often, and pass the burden of care onto ‘professionals’.

To be honest, most working people would, I think, doubt their own ability to care for ill and aging relatives. It’s a full time job, akin to parenting, only backwards, as the likelihood is that dependence will increase. However, one suspects (as I’m sure Gill intends) that perhaps not everyone in care needs to be there. That, perhaps, one should choose a home close enough to visit, or consider having the relative visited by a nurse in one’s family home, where the bulk of care is still outsourced, but the companionship and participation in family life can remain.

Beyond simply thinking now that, perhaps, in the future, if my parents or aunts and uncles need help, I’d try to take them on, if I had enough money and support, Gill wants us to consider our larger, general attitude. Why do we no longer see the aged as sources of stories and wisdom? Just the other day someone told me that when crows build nests high in the trees, it’s a sign that the summer will be warm (they need the breeze). This isn’t someone I’d classify as old, simply older, but what a wonderful thing to learn. And I sincerely doubt that information is something I would have ever picked up otherwise.

It occurs to me that the lack of humanity with which we endow the aged in our minds is akin to the Victorians view of children, in that people weren’t really people before a certain age. Has the pendulum swung so far that, in our constant quest for perpetual youth, we’ve come to think that people aren’t really people once they are beyond a certain age or absence of signs of youth?

To want to stay young isn’t simply vanity, it’s fear of approaching death, of losing everything. But surely we can fear death while happily anticipating the amalgamation of stories, wisdom, and experience that comes with time?

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Resist Relationship “Math”

Newspapers love relationship science. So do women’s magazines and pop psych mags, because love (and sex) are, if not universal, certainly near-universally desired. And because we live in a scientific age, we keep hoping that there will be some magic formula that will dictate human interaction. I’m the same – the teen mags I read as a kid with ‘how to tell if he likes you’ quizzes and bizarre high school chat-up lines I read like a script. After three or four awkward moments, I decided that, following that sort of vague and romantic advice was ultimately unhelpful.

Now there’s a new study out that supports this kind of thinking. Marriages succeed or fail based on the couple’s “type” in terms of how they deal with conflict. And there’s a mathematician, so obviously it’s waaaaay more valid that those Cosmo quizzes. The Daily Mail article and an op-ed in the Times today (I couldn’t find it online) both started out comparing the simplistic thinking to those mockable magazine quizzes, then backing up the findings since, you know, it was a big, math-y, science-y, study.

Who doesn’t want to believe that by taking a simple quiz (or being observed by people with clipboards and labcoats while having a discussion on a heavy topic), one can determine the sort of person with whom one is most compatible? Or rather, whom one would be the least likely to divorce? Unless, of course, you’re ‘volatile’, in which case, it’s a crapshoot. That caveat alone should have sent off flares.

Because the methodology was 1) watch couples talk about a ‘fraught’ subject 2) judge their manner of discussion as one of 4 types of behavior 3) watch for several years to see who gets divorced.

All right class, who can point out the flaws here? Let’s start with

1) Choosing what is a fraught subject is highly subjective, and time sensitive. A couple just starting out on a tight budget might find talking about money a little more tense than one where at least one person has a massive savings account or inherited property. The selection of the matter under discussion presumes that everyone will find the subjects more of less equally important. Obvious logical flaw.

2) In coding behavior and speech in a discussion in one of 4 ways automatically presumes there are only four categories. If I say everything is either red, white, or blue, and something turns up green or black, they’re both going in the ‘blue’ column, even though that’s not necessarily accurate, it’s just as close to accurate as you can get given the methodology. Ergo, saying people’s behavior proves they fall into these categories begs the question.

3) Just wait? No checking to see if discussion styles change over the years? No looking for other parameters, like infidelity, depression, death, bankruptcy, etc?

It bugs me that people, and particularly journalists, don’t think critically about scientific studies (or reports thereof). The temptation to simplify people and relationships into types is significant, which is all the more reason to be logically cautious. What’s different between someone classifying themselves as ‘avoiders’ and therefore only seriously considering other ‘avoiders’ for long term bliss (when a ‘validator’ or ‘volatile’ could teach them to be less afraid to speak up and maybe have a better quality of life because they aren’t as afraid of confrontation, assuming these aren’t terribly simplistic categorizations anyway and highly unlikely to represent someone’s behavior all the time), and a Scorpio refusing to date an Aries because they’re just ‘too insensitive’?

image from Royal Holloway University of London

Newspapers Surprised that Readers Don’t Stay for Crap

Today on salon.com, David Sirota points out that while the internet had some effect on the collapse of the newspaper industry, part of it is self-inflicted.

The most preventable tragedy was the deterioration of quality. Downsized local publications were all but forced to rely on more national content, but that content didn’t have to become so vapid.

Good writing on local issues has been replaced with what is essentially wire coverage, meaning what you read gratis in those commuter rags (like metro) is at the heart of what you read in USA Today.

International news desks have downsized, the same story is reprinted everywhere, and there is no nurturing of the journalistic instinct – that inclination has largely migrated to the web, where it’s mixed in with all the blogs, and because it is motivated by interest rather than pay, the information is quite specialized. Of course, there is the problem with verification. Newspapers and journals have (or had) the wherewithal and duty to fact-check, as well as support their intrepid writers. While the web is where the writing has gone, the support hasn’t come along too. But then again, wikipedia is only a click away.

All is not lost, of course, as anyone who has read The Sunday Times can tell you. Some papers still provide the content that made them an institution in the first place. No kindle or free paper or weblog can replace the satisfaction and outright education received from devouring the Sunday Times, though it can certainly supplement the famous supplements.

Quality matters. With conglomeration and the business-ification of media outlets, cheap has become more important than the quality of service provided. It might not be too late to bring back the daring reporters, the dedicated fact-checkers, and the ballsy, loyal editors. Yes, content has gone online. But anyone will tell you they’d prefer to look at a page than a screen for two or three hours on a Sunday. I don’t care how portable the Kindle is – it’s still not a broadsheet.

Big Brother’s on Facebook

The Times reported today that social networking sites might be tracked by the police and various security forces (in the UK) as part of the ongoing attempts to keep up with potential terrorists. This comes on top of reports that existing and planned databases kept for “security purposes” are likely “insecure” by nature of their sheer volume, and have prompted protest about ever-shrinking privacy and questions of efficacy.

At the core of this debate, and many similar ones like it (as the proposed, and much-maligned, minimum price per unit of alcohol) is that the vast majority of people affected are not the ones ultimately targeted. While most people are not terrorists or teenaged alcoholics, they are dragged in as the net is cast wide.

While the alcohol price minimum likely would not have been noticed by your average drinker (because your average drinker is already shelling out a couple extra bob for a slightly nicer plonk or brew), the ‘big brother’ syndrome of law enforcement has the potentially wide-reaching side effect of catching the small fish, making for statistical improvements, while the big fish escape as they have the means and the motivation to try and outsmart the system.

Yes, it’s all well and good to say that the innocent have nothing to fear, as they have nothing to hide, but is it fair to tar all of England with the same brush, because a handful are sociopaths with a death wish?

But then again, what choice is there? How do you track and capture and prove the culpability of people who just don’t play by the same rules?

The difficulty with terrorists is, of course, that they tend not to dress in easily identifiable uniforms, and target exclusively military combatants on a chosen field of battle vying for physical space and/or resources. What they are aiming for (or what their directors are aiming for, as it’s reasonable to assume that the ones doing the damage are the pawns) is an ideological success – an influence on culture from the ground up, winning over the ever elusive “minds and hearts”, or at least sufficient power inspired by fear to establish control over general behavior and social practice.

If all this data is gathered, who looks through it? Are programs run to track suspicious characters (and how is that measured)? What counts as proof? What if someone simply used Facebook to vent some hyperbolic or sarcastic bigotry – would the legal system be able to tell the difference? What if that person was from the Middle East? Would they even have recourse to the justice system?

Privacy is a slippery thing, especially when the current zeitgeist is for perpetual oversharing and constant updates. Do we have a right to privacy? Or has technology, culture, and global politics brought us to a point where our lives must all be open books?


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