Monthly Archives: January 2009

Barack Obama Won Because of His Appeal in Cities

Nate Silver analyzes how Obama won.  The urban vote carried him to victory.


In the Dumps

It’s incredible that some people live like this.

Distraction Leads to Dilettantism

When you combine the urban environment with the distractions supplied to us through our consumerist society, it leads to an enormous lack of focus and loss of mastery

I’ve been puzzled by the popularity of the game Guitar Hero, for what seems to me like obvious reasons. It’s like karaoke minus the trouble of having to hear the sounds you make. If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play? For the cost of an Xbox and the Guitar Hero game, you can get yourself a pretty good guitar.

Since, lamentably, what we do for a living tends to lack meaning for us personally, we rely more on our leisure and consumption time to supply our lives with meaning, to afford us opportunities for self-realization. But consumption and self-realization may be at odds. In his introductory book on Marx, philosopher Jon Elster (who I’d encountered before as a theorist of precommitment strategies) makes an interesting point about consumption versus self-realization:

Activities of self-realization are subject to increasing marginal utility: They become more enjoyable the more one has already engaged in them. Exactly the opposite is true of consumption. To derive sustained pleasure from consumption, diversity is essential. Diversity, on the other hand, is an obstacle to successful self-realization, as it prevents one from getting into the later and more rewarding stages.

Perhaps there is an optimal balance for these two impulses that, if Elster is right, are antithetical. But if living in a consumerist society subjects us to all sorts of marketing pressures (derived from the need to sell all the junk we make at our unmeaningful jobs), that balance tips precipitously toward consumption, and potentially destabilizes the economy and our own psychological well-being. (This is what Marx seems to be suggesting in his concern with alienation from “species being.”) Elster, paraphrasing Marx, writes, “In capitalism, the desire for consumption—as opposed to the desire for self-realization—takes on a compulsive character. Capitalism creates an incentive for producers to seduce consumers, by inducing in them new desires to which they then become enslaved.” (The word choice here suggests Elster’s skepticism.)

Here’s another take on this.

How the City Hurts Your Brain and What You Can Do About It

City living has both positive benefits and negative drawbacks.  According to research mentioned in this article, city living hurts your brain.   However, the effects of city living can be mitigated by exposure to nature.   It’s one reason why parks and greenspace are so vital.

Here are quotes from the article that highlight both sides of the issue:

Here’s part of the negative side:  (The frantic pace of the city can cloud your thinking.)

Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

Here’s part of the postive side:  (The density of the city can promote creativity and innovation.)

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge — one of the densest cities in America — contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

The key, then, is to find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits. Kuo, for instance, describes herself as “not a nature person,” but has learned to seek out more natural settings: The woods have become a kind of medicine. As a result, she’s better able to cope with the stresses of city life, while still enjoying its many pleasures and benefits. Because there always comes a time, as Lou Reed once sang, when a person wants to say: “I’m sick of the trees/take me to the city.”

Is Kindness Still Possible in a Consumerist Society?

Or has capitalism made acts of kindness seem to be duplicitous?

The gist is that the rise of rational self-interest under capitalism has made the inherent impulse to be kind seem suspect.

Toronto Bakeries Are a Part of the Soul of the City

If you want to find about bakeries in Toronto, then a great way is to check out Emily’s blog on BlogTO.  Emily and my friend Alyssa are documenting a new bakery every week!

The Story of the Individual in the Big City

The New York Times is venturing into a new form of journalism and story-telling using the digital medium.