Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow Day

This is NJ’s most snowy winter since 1996. Today, I once again face the task of nailing up my mailbox, which Township of Mendham snow plows knocked down last night. It is the fourth time this winter they took it out. It would have been the fifth time, but on one occasion I didn’t re-erect the mailbox between snowfalls, which perhaps was unsporting of me.

As a kid, I loved the snow, as most kids do. One of my earliest recollections of cavorting in snow was playing with my sister in a makeshift snow house – not a snow-block igloo but a hollowed out snow pile complete with windows and a back door. This must have been 1956 or thereabouts. In later years, on schooldays, I enjoyed the excitement of listening early in the morning to WMTR, the nearby Morristown radio station, hoping to hear the name of my school in the list of school closings. Since then, I've grown almost as grumpy about snow as I recall my father having been when he went out to shovel walks and replace the mailbox.

I suppose I’d feel differently if I ever had taken to winter sports. I’ve always viewed such things as skiing and snowboarding to be unnecessarily roundabout ways to injure oneself. Other methods are more efficient and warmer. That doesn’t mean I’ve never allowed myself to be talked into doing these things, however. Not so very long ago friends urged me to join them on a jaunt to the ski slopes in Vernon.

Vernon is no Aspen, of course, but some of the slopes are more challenging than a non-native might expect to encounter in NJ. They are more challenging than anyone of my skill level sanely tries. That certainly was my thought when looking down from the top, even after two giggling children ignored the “Over 18 Only” sign and launched themselves down the trail ahead of me. I watched until they were out of sight. Pride alone induced me to give my poles a push. You know, if snow is icy enough, and if the skier is larger than properly can be called svelte, the snowplow method of braking doesn't really work. I continued to accelerate alarmingly. I switched to the horizontal turn method, only to find myself careening from one tree line to another at ever higher velocity. Soon, deliberately falling seemed a possibly lethal option; I nevertheless considered it rather than risk overtaking those kids and having to explain to someone, "Sorry, ma'am, I broke your child." I held the plan in reserve in case the kids came into sight. They never did. Perhaps they already were back on the lift by then. After what seemed a very long time, though it couldn't have been more than a few minutes, the bottom of the slope suddenly came into view. No one was on the trail ahead. The evergreens on each side of the trail at this point were dark green blurs. A painful spray of snow and ice pelted my face as my speed increased to something impossible. I had no idea how to stop at the bottom except by a spectacular wipeout or by shooting off into the parking lot and colliding with one of the SUVs. Then the green blur to the right turned white and I realized there was a clearcut hillside over there. I veered to the right and rapidly ascended the hill, slowing at long last. The braking techniques now were working, too. I stopped and fell. I took off the skis and walked the rest of the way back to the lodge. One of my friends was there.

"That was great, wasn't it?" she exclaimed.

"Yeah, great."

"I'm going back up. Coming?"

"Maybe in a while. Go on without me. I'll meet you guys at the bar when you're done."


That “a while” has yet to pass.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Bemoaning the character of “young people these days” is an adult pastime in all eras. They always are said to be worse than we were and to be trending toward something even more awful. In some ways this is always true, and in others it is always nonsense. There really are cultural fashions in behavior and attitudes that come and go like bell bottoms on jeans, and the young are always the most fashion-conscious. When social fashions are ugly, the young display them most of all. They also display appealing fashions the most, but somehow the rest of us are less inclined to notice those.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, for example, tales of rising juvenile crime and growing drug abuse were rife in popular media, and not without reason. Youthful crime and drug abuse in fact rose sharply in this period and seemed headed in A Clockwork Orange direction. Both have dropped in the past 20 years (the crime rate dramatically so) though you’d hardly know it from the news. So, too, with teen promiscuity, which, despite our peculiar (some say perverse) obsession with this subject in the US and our permanent state of alarm over it, has trended downward lately. The average age for first sexual experience is up in the past ten years, and the teen pregnancy rate is the lowest it ever has been since and including 1940 when the government started keeping track.

What is the latest cause for distress for professional worriers? It is the Empathy Gap. Like those other foci of despair, this problem, if such it is, is not wholly invented. It appears to be real. Whether (as is likely) it is a temporary fashion remains to be seen. The concern originates in a study by The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research which concluded there has been a 40% drop in empathy among the college-aged population since standard measures started to be used in 1979. Most of the drop has been in the past ten years. This is a remarkable claim when one remembers that the 1970s supposedly were the era of the “Me Generation” and the 1980s were the high tide of self-serving yuppie-dom.

How did the Michigan researchers identify this drop? Largely through the students’ own self-descriptions and answers to such questions as whether they are “soft-hearted” or whether they are disturbed by “other people’s misfortunes” (they aren’t much). Other less subjective tests indicate today’s students are much poorer than earlier ones at guessing what another person is feeling in various situations, whether or not they then care. Note that this is not a measure of the students’ abstract social ideology – this generation is more politically correct in that regard than any previous one – but rather a measure of their direct personal understanding, behavior, and interaction with other people. It is as much a measure of narcissism as of empathy – one rises as the other falls.

The authors of the study speculate that the increased connectivity of this generation may be the reason for the Empathy Gap. Even though young people are more connected to each other than ever before, they are so in a one-step-removed way through facebook, text messages, and other electronic media. Greater breadth is at the cost of lesser depth.

Maybe. Or then again, narcissism may be just the Zeitgeist, akin to the whole ephemeral Flower Child thing of my youth. Connectivity surely will continue to expand and to replace face-to-face contact in the years ahead, so we can see if the correlation continues to hold. If it doesn’t, I’m sure the next batch of youth will provide us with some other excuse to worry.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Diogenes Shrugged

The world is a difficult place.

(An old physics joke – yes, there is such a thing: First Law of Thermodynamics is “you can’t win”; the Second Law is “you can’t break even.”)

We ourselves are flawed and limited, and those of us not fortunate enough to be megalomaniacs are aware of it. Most of the time we feel outnumbered, outclassed, and (literally and figuratively) outgunned, and with good reason. It is not surprising that we are often are tempted to shorten the odds with dishonesty and to soothe ourselves with hypocrisy.

The reasons for dishonesty are not always – in fact, not usually – monetary. Researchers, who published their results in the Journal of Basic and Applied Psychology, taped random conversations among people who were interacting purely socially; they found an average of 2.92 lies per person every 10 minutes. Despite the pleasing precision of 2.92, this almost surely was an undercount, since it relied on the chatters themselves admitting to their lies when they reviewed the tapes afterward. The most common motive for a lie was simple social posturing.

Of course, sometimes the reasons are monetary. Experiments with ATMs show that, when they are rigged to give out too much cash, nearly all the recipients keep it, and the few who return the extra money to the bank prove primarily to be concerned about being caught by the security camera. Cheating an ATM is one thing, but what about a real cashier? Richard Wiseman, for a British television show called World in Action, tested this a few years back. Cashiers at a large newsagent (newsstand) were instructed to give change for one note larger than the one they were given by a customer: i.e. if given a 5-pound note, the cashier gave change for a 10; if given a 10-pound note, the cashier gave change for a 20. Every single customer kept the extra money without comment. Afterward the customers were intercepted by a “market researcher” who asked them questions about honesty in politics, business, journalism, and so on. The cash-pocketers continued to hold other people to a high standard of ethics. Similar experiments give similar results around the world. The size of the shop makes a difference. In small mom-and-pop shops, half the customers return the money, but, since customers are less likely to be anonymous in such places, this may be a type of social posturing.

Disheartening? A little, though it is easy to make too much of this. Despite those who claim a moral equivalence between stealing a dollar and stealing a million, the two are not the same. Someone who pockets a fiver really shouldn’t share a cell with Bernie Madoff. Yet, the results should give us pause. If money managers and politicos can benefit themselves on a large scale in the way that those newsstand customers did on a small one, it is likely many will. “Trust but verify,” the old mantra about arms control during the Cold War, has wider applications.

What about all those white lies, hypocrisies, and other economies with the truth we encounter in our daily lives from our friends, lovers, and associates at a rate of at least 2.92 every 10 minutes? When they do little actual damage, maybe we should try to be a little more generous toward the fibbers and their foibles. Glass houses, and all that.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

We’re Off to See the Quizard

The internet is full of pleasant diversions to distract us from boringly productive activities. Quizzes are particularly self-indulgent time-passers. Aren’t we our favorite subjects, after all? Besides, we can point to the dictum of the oracle at Delphi (know thyself) for justification.

Do online quizzes really help us know ourselves? Some may. The pages of tests at Psychology Today ( ) purport to do so. The political quiz at tagged me spot on, though it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know before.

Others don’t. Tickle’s “The Classic IQ Test” ( ) for example, scored me at 142. That is flattering, but no I’m not – unless on a scale invented by Tickle itself for the sole purpose of flattering test-takers. I know the results of more legitimate tests, and I regret to say they are not that. Flattering users was not enough to save Tickle, which officially is closed, though the test remains up.

Some quiz results make us hope they are wrong. A quiz at , for one, tells me the science fiction character I am most like is Kosh. That’s the Babylon 5 dude in the environment suit who goes around uttering cryptic pseudo-profundities such as, "Understanding is a three edge sword: your side, their side, and the truth." OK, maybe I utter the occasional cryptic pseudo-profundity, but I try not to make a habit of them. A Facebook quiz tells me the type of pagan I am is “heathen.” Other quizzes inform me the celebrity I’m most like is Jack Nicholson (well, we’re both from Jersey), the TV family most resembling mine is the Addamses, the Harry Potter character I’m most like is Hermione (!), and the horror movie villain I’m most like is Norman Bates. Hey, I hardly ever wear that wig and dress anymore.

Then there is the survey on “attachment styles and close relationships” at . According to this site, I’m quite the solid fellow romantically:

"Combining your anxiety and avoidance scores, you fall into the secure quadrant. Previous research on attachment styles indicates that secure people tend to have relatively enduring and satisfying relationships.”

I didn’t fib on the answers to this quiz, yet not one relationship out of my lifelong string of them (including one marriage) lasted as long as 4 years, and most were much shorter. Maybe it was the Norman Bates thing that scared them off.

Well, revealing or not, taking quizzes sure beats paying the bills.