Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nice Marmot??????

This blogger never met a Coen Brothers film that he didn't like. If this is a (fair & balanced) appreciation of cinematic genius, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Dissertations On His Dudeness
By Dwight Garner

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Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 movie, “The Big Lebowski,” which stars Jeff Bridges as a beatific, pot-smoking, bowling-obsessed slacker known as the Dude, snuck up on the English-speaking world during the ’00s: it became, stealthily, the decade’s most venerated cult film. It’s got that elusive and addictive quality that a great midnight movie has to have: it blissfully widens and expands in your mind upon repeat viewings.

“The Big Lebowski” has spawned its own shaggy, fervid world: drinking games, Halloween costumes, bumper stickers (“This aggression will not stand, man”) and a drunken annual festival that took root in Louisville, KY, and has spread to other cities. The movie is also the subject of an expanding shelf of books, including The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and the forthcoming The Tao of the Dude.

Where cult films go, academics will follow. New in bookstores, and already in its second printing, is The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies (2009), an essay collection edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe. The book is, like the Dude himself, a little rough around the edges. But it’s worth an end-of-the-year holiday pop-in. Ideally you’d read it with a White Russian — the Dude’s cocktail of choice — in hand.

More than a few of this book’s essay titles will make you groan and laugh out loud at the same time (“ ‘The Big Lebowski’ and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism”). But just as often, the writing here is a bit like the film: amiable, laid-back and possessed of a wobbly Zen-acuity.

In one essay Fred Ashe — he is an associate professor of English at Birmingham-Southern College — profitably compares the Dude to Rip van Winkle, for both his “friendly charisma” and what Washington Irving described as Rip’s “insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor.” Both men, Mr. Ashe notes, expose “the sickness of a straight society premised on the Puritan work ethic.”

In another, “On the White Russian,” Craig N. Owens — he teaches literature and writing at Drake University in Des Moines — divides the world into two factions: those who float the cream on their White Russians (“the floaters”) and those who mix it in (“the homogenizers”). He praises the Dude’s “middle way,” avoiding the hassle of “shaking and straining.”

At times Mr. Owens sounds as if he’s been hitting the minibar himself. He writes about how Leon Trotsky is “doubly implicated” in the White Russian, first because he helped defeat the anti-Communist White Russian army during the Russian civil war, and second because he later fled to Mexico, “Kahlúa’s country of origin.” Mr. Owens suggests that the Dude has a kind of “Trotskian positionality.”

Most of the essays in The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies began as papers presented at the 2006 Lebowski Fest in Louisville. Working at an unhurried, Dude-like crawl, it took the editors three years to wrap these papers up and usher them into print.

“When we first put out a call for papers, we received about 200 proposals,” said Mr. Comentale, an associate professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, whose previous books include Modernism, Cultural Production and the British Avant-Garde and T. E. Hulme and the Question of Modernism.

When putting the book together, Mr. Comentale said, he and his co-editor “immediately cut out all the papers celebrating the Dude as a hippie hero in a postmodern landscape.” That’s a sober choice. Admirers of the Dude are already dangerously close to becoming Internet-age versions of Parrotheads, the weekend-warrior Jimmy Buffett fans who tip back margaritas — and embarrass their children — while wearing flip-flops, board shorts, Hawaiian shirts and coconut bras.

“Trying to impress your academic colleagues and also make a dent in the popular market, that’s a fine line to walk,” Mr. Comentale added. “We wanted these essays to press the connection between the goofy and the profound.”

Reading The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, it’s hard not to recall some of the profound and not-so-goofy things the novelist Umberto Eco had to say about cult movies in his 1984 essay “‘Casablanca’: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage.”

“What are the requirements for transforming a book or movie into a cult object?” Mr. Eco asked. “The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared expertise.”

(If the phrases “Nice marmot,” or “You’re entering a world of pain,” or “I can get you a toe” mean anything to you, then “Lebowski” has entered your private sectarian world.)

Mr. Eco certainly seemed to presage the existence of “The Big Lebowski” when he wrote in his essay about “Casablanca” that a cult movie must be “ramshackle, rickety, unhinged in itself.” He explained: “Only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.”

The glue that holds “The Big Lebowski” together, as gloriously rickety as it is, is Mr. Bridges’s performance. Pauline Kael once observed that Mr. Bridges, who is gathering Oscar buzz this month for his performance as a down-on-his-luck country singer in “Crazy Heart,” “may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived.”

In an essay in The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, Thomas B. Byers — he is a professor of English at the University of Louisville — points out that more mainstream actors like Harrison Ford or Kevin Costner or Tom Hanks could not have pulled off the role of the Dude. “What makes Bridges less of a star is precisely what makes him perfect for ‘Lebowski,’ whose particular niche of success depends on its outsider, cult status,” Mr. Byers writes.

As a new generation of “Lebowski” fans emerges, Dude Studies may linger for a while. In another of this book’s essays, “Professor Dude: An Inquiry Into the Appeal of His Dudeness for Contemporary College Students,” a bearded, longhaired and rather Dude-like associate professor of English at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, named Richard Gaughran asks this question about his students: “What is it that they see in the Dude that they find so desirable?”

One of Mr. Gaughran’s students came up with this summary, and it’s somehow appropriate for an end-of-the-year reckoning: “He doesn’t stand for what everybody thinks he should stand for, but he has his values. He just does it. He lives in a very disjointed society, but he’s gonna take things as they come, he’s gonna care about his friends, he’s gonna go to somebody’s recital, and that’s it. That’s how you respond.”

Happy New Year, Dude. Ω

[Dwight Garner is a book critic for the New York Times. A former senior editor of the New York Times Book Review, he was the founding books editor of Salon. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Oxford American, The Nation, Slate, and Vanity Fair, and he is at work on a biography of James Agee.]

Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hey, Coach! Bite Me!

A long time ago, this blogger attended the Corrida de Toros (bullfights) in Juárez. In a conversation with a local man about the brutality in the ring, the local defended bullfighting by pointing out that the violence in Juárez was not nearly the equivalent of NFL football. Now, with a nod to Michael Vick, we see the parallels between dogfighting and professional football, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell. (Earlier this year, this blog featured two excellent reports on dogfighting in Texas here and here.) Now, Texas Technique (which welcomed Robert Montgomery Knight — a serial abuser of players, culminating in a choking incident — as its men's basketball coach in 2001) has another coaching disaster on its hands: Head Football Coach Mike Leach has been suspended for harassing a player with a "minor" concussion. Let Texas Technique put Knight and Leach in "the box" (as dogmen put it) at halftime of the Alamo Bowl game and fight until only one is left standing. If this is a (fair & balanced) modest proposal, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Offensive Play: How Different Are Dogfighting And Football?
By Malcolm Gladwell

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One evening in August, Kyle Turley was at a bar in Nashville with his wife and some friends. It was one of the countless little places in the city that play live music. He’d ordered a beer, but was just sipping it, because he was driving home. He had eaten an hour and a half earlier. Suddenly, he felt a sensation of heat. He was light-headed, and began to sweat. He had been having episodes like that with increasing frequency during the past year—headaches, nausea. One month, he had vertigo every day, bouts in which he felt as if he were stuck to a wall. But this was worse. He asked his wife if he could sit on her stool for a moment. The warmup band was still playing, and he remembers saying, “I’m just going to take a nap right here until the next band comes on.” Then he was lying on the floor, and someone was standing over him. “The guy was freaking out,” Turley recalled. “He was saying, ‘Damn, man, I couldn’t find a pulse,’ and my wife said, ‘No, no. You were breathing.’ I’m, like, ‘What? What?’”

They picked him up. “We went out in the parking lot, and I just lost it,” Turley went on. “I started puking everywhere. I couldn’t stop. I got in the car, still puking. My wife, she was really scared, because I had never passed out like that before, and I started becoming really paranoid. I went into a panic. We get to the emergency room. I started to lose control. My limbs were shaking, and I couldn’t speak. I was conscious, but I couldn’t speak the words I wanted to say.”

Turley is six feet five. He is thirty-four years old, with a square jaw and blue eyes. For nine years, before he retired, in 2007, he was an offensive lineman in the National Football League. He knew all the stories about former football players. Mike Webster, the longtime Pittsburgh Steeler and one of the greatest players in N.F.L. history, ended his life a recluse, sleeping on the floor of the Pittsburgh Amtrak station. Another former Pittsburgh Steeler, Terry Long, drifted into chaos and killed himself four years ago by drinking antifreeze. Andre Waters, a former defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles, sank into depression and pleaded with his girlfriend—“I need help, somebody help me”—before shooting himself in the head. There were men with aching knees and backs and hands, from all those years of playing football. But their real problem was with their heads, the one part of their body that got hit over and over again.

“Lately, I’ve tried to break it down,” Turley said. “I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you’d get into a collision where everything goes off. You’re dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.

“Then, there was the time when I got knocked unconscious. That was in St. Louis, in 2003. My wife said that I was out a minute or two on the field. But I was gone for about four hours after that. It was the last play of the third quarter. We were playing the Packers. I got hit in the back of the head. I saw it on film a little while afterward. I was running downfield, made a block on a guy. We fell to the ground. A guy was chasing the play, a little guy, a defensive back, and he jumped over me as I was coming up, and he kneed me right in the back of the head. Boom!

“They sat me down on the bench. I remember Marshall Faulk coming up and joking with me, because he knew that I was messed up. That’s what happens in the N.F.L: ‘Oooh. You got effed up. Oooh.’ The trainer came up to me and said, ‘Kyle, let’s take you to the locker room.’ I remember looking up at a clock, and there was only a minute and a half left in the game—and I had no idea that much time had elapsed. I showered and took all my gear off. I was sitting at my locker. I don’t remember anything. When I came back, after being hospitalized, the guys were joking with me because Georgia Frontiere”—then the team’s owner—“came in the locker room, and they said I was butt-ass naked and I gave her a big hug. They were dying laughing, and I was, like, ‘Are you serious? I did that?’

“They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting. But when you’re coming off an injury you’re frustrated. I wanted to play the next game. I was just so mad that this happened to me that I’m overdoing it. I was just going after guys in practice. I was really trying to use my head more, because I was so frustrated, and the coaches on the sidelines are, like, ‘Yeah. We’re going to win this game. He’s going to lead the team.’ That’s football. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads.”

Turley said that he loved playing football so much that he would do it all again. Then he began talking about what he had gone through in the past year. The thing that scared him most about that night at the bar was that it felt exactly like the time he was knocked unconscious. “It was identical,” he said. “It was my worst episode ever.”

In August of 2007, one of the highest-paid players in professional football, the quarterback Michael Vick, pleaded guilty to involvement in a dogfighting ring. The police raided one of his properties, a farm outside Richmond, Virginia, and found the bodies of dead dogs buried on the premises, along with evidence that some of the animals there had been tortured and electrocuted. Vick was suspended from football. He was sentenced to twenty-three months in prison. The dogs on his farm were seized by the court, and the most damaged were sent to an animal sanctuary in Utah for rehabilitation. When Vick applied for reinstatement to the National Football League, this summer, he was asked to undergo psychiatric testing. He then met with the commissioner of the league, Roger Goodell, for four and a half hours, so that Goodell could be sure that he was genuinely remorseful.

“I probably considered every alternative that I could think of,” Goodell told reporters, when he finally allowed Vick back into the league. “I reached out to an awful lot of people to get their views—not only on what was right for the young man but also what was right for our society and the N.F.L.”

Goodell’s job entails dealing with players who have used drugs, driven drunk and killed people, fired handguns in night clubs, and consorted with thugs and accused murderers. But he clearly felt what many Americans felt as well—that dogfighting was a moral offense of a different order.

Here is a description of a dogfight given by the sociologists Rhonda Evans and Craig Forsyth in “The Social Milieu of Dogmen and Dogfights,” an article they published some years ago in the journal Deviant Behavior. The fight took place in Louisiana between a local dog, Black, owned by a man named L.G., and Snow, whose owner, Rick, had come from Arizona:

The handlers release their dogs and Snow and Black lunge at one another. Snow rears up and overpowers Black, but Black manages to come back with a quick locking of the jaws on Snow’s neck. The crowd is cheering wildly and yelling out bets. Once a dog gets a lock on the other, they will hold on with all their might. The dogs flail back and forth and all the while Black maintains her hold.

In a dogfight, whenever one of the dogs “turns”—makes a submissive gesture with its head—the two animals are separated and taken back to their corners. Each dog, in alternation, then “scratches”—is released to charge at its opponent. After that first break, it is Snow’s turn to scratch. She races toward Black:

Snow goes straight for the throat and grabs hold with her razor-sharp teeth. Almost immediately, blood flows from Black’s throat. Despite a serious injury to the throat, Black manages to continue fighting back. They are relentless, each battling the other and neither willing to accept defeat. This fighting continues for an hour. [Finally, the referee] gives the third and final pit call. It is Black’s turn to scratch and she is severely wounded. Black manages to crawl across the pit to meet her opponent. Snow attacks Black and she is too weak to fight back. L.G. realizes that this is it for Black and calls the fight. Snow is declared the winner.

Afterward, Snow’s owner collects his winnings; L.G. carries Black from the ring. “Her back legs are broken and blood is gushing from her throat,” Evans and Forsyth write. “A shot rings out barely heard over the noise in the barn. Black’s body is wrapped up and carried by her owner to his vehicle.”

It’s the shot ringing out that seals the case against dogfighting. L.G. willingly submitted his dog to a contest that culminated in her suffering and destruction. And why? For the entertainment of an audience and the chance of a payday. In the nineteenth century, dogfighting was widely accepted by the American public. But we no longer find that kind of transaction morally acceptable in a sport. “I was not aware of dogfighting and the terrible things that happen around dogfighting,” Goodell said, explaining why he responded so sternly in the Vick case. One wonders whether, had he spent as much time talking to Kyle Turley as he did to Michael Vick, he’d start to have similar doubts about his own sport.

In 2003, a seventy-two-year-old patient at the Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, died, fifteen years after receiving a diagnosis of dementia. Patients in the hospital’s dementia ward are routinely autopsied, as part of the V.A.’s research efforts, so the man’s brain was removed and “fixed” in a formaldehyde solution. A laboratory technician placed a large slab of the man’s cerebral tissue on a microtome—essentially, a sophisticated meat slicer—and, working along the coronal plane, cut off dozens of fifty-micron shavings, less than a hairbreadth thick. The shavings were then immunostained—bathed in a special reagent that would mark the presence of abnormal proteins with a bright, telltale red or brown stain on the surface of the tissue. Afterward, each slice was smoothed out and placed on a slide.

The stained tissue of Alzheimer’s patients typically shows the two trademarks of the disease—distinctive patterns of the proteins beta-amyloid and tau. Beta-amyloid is thought to lay the groundwork for dementia. Tau marks the critical second stage of the disease: it’s the protein that steadily builds up in brain cells, shutting them down and ultimately killing them. An immunostain of an Alzheimer’s patient looks, under the microscope, as if the tissue had been hit with a shotgun blast: the red and brown marks, corresponding to amyloid and tau, dot the entire surface. But this patient’s brain was different. There was damage only to specific surface regions of his brain, and the stains for amyloid came back negative. “This was all tau,” Ann McKee, who runs the hospital’s neuropathology laboratory, said. “There was not even a whiff of amyloid. And it was the most extraordinary damage. It was one of those cases that really took you aback.” The patient may have been in an Alzheimer’s facility, and may have looked and acted as if he had Alzheimer’s. But McKee realized that he had a different condition, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), which is a progressive neurological disorder found in people who have suffered some kind of brain trauma. C.T.E. has many of the same manifestations as Alzheimer’s: it begins with behavioral and personality changes, followed by disinhibition and irritability, before moving on to dementia. And C.T.E. appears later in life as well, because it takes a long time for the initial trauma to give rise to nerve-cell breakdown and death. But C.T.E. isn’t the result of an endogenous disease. It’s the result of injury. The patient, it turned out, had been a boxer in his youth. He had suffered from dementia for fifteen years because, decades earlier, he’d been hit too many times in the head.

McKee’s laboratory does the neuropathology work for both the giant Framingham heart study, which has been running since 1948, and Boston University’s New England Centenarian Study, which analyzes the brains of people who are unusually long-lived. “I’m looking at brains constantly,” McKee said. “Then I ran across another one. I saw it and said, ‘Wow, it looks just like the last case.’ This time, there was no known history of boxing. But then I called the family, and heard that the guy had been a boxer in his twenties.” You can’t see tau except in an autopsy, and you can’t see it in an autopsy unless you do a very particular kind of screen. So now that McKee had seen two cases, in short order, she began to wonder: how many people who we assume have Alzheimer’s—a condition of mysterious origin—are actually victims of preventable brain trauma?

McKee linked up with an activist named Chris Nowinski, a former college football player and professional wrestler who runs a group called the Sports Legacy Institute, in Boston. In his football and wrestling careers, Nowinski suffered six concussions (that he can remember), the last of which had such severe side effects that he has become a full-time crusader against brain injuries in sports. Nowinski told McKee that he would help her track down more brains of ex-athletes. Whenever he read an obituary of someone who had played in a contact sport, he’d call up the family and try to persuade them to send the player’s brain to Bedford. Usually, they said no. Sometimes they said yes. The first brain McKee received was from a man in his mid-forties who had played as a linebacker in the N.F.L. for ten years. He accidentally shot himself while cleaning a gun. He had at least three concussions in college, and eight in the pros. In the years before his death, he’d had memory lapses, and had become more volatile. McKee immunostained samples of his brain tissue, and saw big splotches of tau all over the frontal and temporal lobes. If he hadn’t had the accident, he would almost certainly have ended up in a dementia ward.

Nowinski found her another ex-football player. McKee saw the same thing. She has now examined the brains of sixteen ex-athletes, most of them ex-football players. Some had long careers and some played only in college. Some died of dementia. Some died of unrelated causes. Some were old. Some were young. Most were linemen or linebackers, although there was one wide receiver. In one case, a man who had been a linebacker for sixteen years, you could see, without the aid of magnification, that there was trouble: there was a shiny tan layer of scar tissue, right on the surface of the frontal lobe, where the brain had repeatedly slammed into the skull. It was the kind of scar you’d get only if you used your head as a battering ram. You could also see that some of the openings in the brain were larger than you’d expect, as if the surrounding tissue had died and shrunk away. In other cases, everything seemed entirely normal until you looked under the microscope and saw the brown ribbons of tau. But all sixteen of the ex-athlete brains that McKee had examined—those of the two boxers, plus the ones that Nowinski had found for her—had something in common: every one had abnormal tau.

The other major researcher looking at athletes and C.T.E. is the neuropathologist Bennet Omalu. He diagnosed the first known case of C.T.E. in an ex-N.F.L. player back in September of 2002, when he autopsied the former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. He also found C.T.E. in the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, and in the former Steelers linemen Terry Long and Justin Strzelczyk, the latter of whom was killed when he drove the wrong way down a freeway and crashed his car, at ninety miles per hour, into a tank truck. Omalu has only once failed to find C.T.E. in a professional football player, and that was a twenty-four-year-old running back who had played in the N.F.L. for only two years.

“There is something wrong with this group as a cohort,” Omalu says. “They forget things. They have slurred speech. I have had an N.F.L. player come up to me at a funeral and tell me he can’t find his way home. I have wives who call me and say, ‘My husband was a very good man. Now he drinks all the time. I don’t know why his behavior changed.’ I have wives call me and say, ‘My husband was a nice guy. Now he’s getting abusive.’ I had someone call me and say, ‘My husband went back to law school after football and became a lawyer. Now he can’t do his job. People are suing him.’ ”

McKee and Omalu are trying to make sense of the cases they’ve seen so far. At least some of the players are thought to have used steroids, which has led to the suggestion that brain injury might in some way be enhanced by drug use. Many of the players also share a genetic risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases, so perhaps deposits of tau are the result of brain trauma coupled with the weakened ability of the brain to repair itself. McKee says that she will need to see at least fifty cases before she can draw any firm conclusions. In the meantime, late last month the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research released the findings of an N.F.L.-funded phone survey of just over a thousand randomly selected retired N.F.L. players—all of whom had played in the league for at least three seasons. Self-reported studies are notoriously unreliable instruments, but, even so, the results were alarming. Of those players who were older than fifty, 6.1 per cent reported that they had received a diagnosis of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease.” That’s five times higher than the national average for that age group. For players between the ages of thirty and forty-nine, the reported rate was nineteen times the national average. (The N.F.L. has distributed five million dollars to former players with dementia.)

“A long time ago, someone suggested that the [C.T.E. rate] in boxers was twenty per cent,” McKee told me. “I think it’s probably higher than that among boxers, and I also suspect that it’s going to end up being higher than that among football players as well. Why? Because every brain I’ve seen has this. To get this number in a sample this small is really unusual, and the findings are so far out of the norm. I only can say that because I have looked at thousands of brains for a long time. This isn’t something that you just see. I did the same exact thing for all the individuals from the Framingham heart study. We study them until they die. I run these exact same proteins, make these same slides—and we never see this.”

McKee’s laboratory occupies a warren of rooms, in what looks like an old officers’ quarters on the V.A. campus. In one of the rooms, there is an enormous refrigerator, filled with brains packed away in hundreds of plastic containers. Nearby is a tray with small piles of brain slices. They look just like the ginger shavings that come with an order of sushi. Now McKee went to the room next to her office, sat down behind a microscope, and inserted one of the immunostained slides under the lens.

“This is Tom McHale,” she said. “He started out playing for Cornell. Then he went to Tampa Bay. He was the man who died of substance abuse at the age of forty-five. I only got fragments of the brain. But it’s just showing huge accumulations of tau for a forty-five-year-old—ridiculously abnormal.”

She placed another slide under the microscope. “This individual was forty-nine years old. A football player. Cognitively intact. He never had any rage behavior. He had the distinctive abnormalities. Look at the hypothalamus.” It was dark with tau. She put another slide in. “This guy was in his mid-sixties,” she said. “He died of an unrelated medical condition. His name is Walter Hilgenberg. Look at the hippocampus. It’s wall-to-wall tangles. Even in a bad case of Alzheimer’s, you don’t see that.” The brown pigment of the tau stain ran around the edge of the tissue sample in a thick, dark band. “It’s like a big river.”

McKee got up and walked across the corridor, back to her office. “There’s one last thing,” she said. She pulled out a large photographic blowup of a brain-tissue sample. “This is a kid. I’m not allowed to talk about how he died. He was a good student. This is his brain. He’s eighteen years old. He played football. He’d been playing football for a couple of years.” She pointed to a series of dark spots on the image, where the stain had marked the presence of something abnormal. “He’s got all this tau. This is frontal and this is insular. Very close to insular. Those same vulnerable regions.” This was a teen-ager, and already his brain showed the kind of decay that is usually associated with old age. “This is completely inappropriate,” she said. “You don’t see tau like this in an eighteen-year-old. You don’t see tau like this in a fifty-year-old.”

McKee is a longtime football fan. She is from Wisconsin. She had two statuettes of Brett Favre, the former Green Bay Packers quarterback, on her bookshelf. On the wall was a picture of a robust young man. It was McKee’s son—nineteen years old, six feet three. If he had a chance to join the N.F.L., I asked her, what would she advise him? “I’d say, ‘Don’t. Not if you want to have a life after football.’ ”

At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt. Something like stock-car racing, by contrast, is dangerous, but not unavoidably so.

In 2000 and 2001, four drivers in Nascar’s élite Sprint Cup Series were killed in crashes, including the legendary Dale Earnhardt. In response, Nascar mandated stronger seats, better seat belts and harnesses, and ignition kill switches, and completed the installation of expensive new barriers on the walls of its racetracks, which can absorb the force of a crash much better than concrete. The result is that, in the past eight years, no one has died in Nascar’s three national racing series. Stock-car fans are sometimes caricatured as bloodthirsty, eagerly awaiting the next spectacular crash. But there is little blood these days in Nascar crashes. Last year, at Texas Motor Speedway, Michael McDowell hit an oil slick, slammed head first into the wall at a hundred and eighty miles per hour, flipped over and over, leaving much of his car in pieces on the track, and, when the vehicle finally came to a stop, crawled out of the wreckage and walked away. He raced again the next day. So what is football? Is it dogfighting or is it stock-car racing?

Football faced a version of this question a hundred years ago, after a series of ugly incidents. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt called an emergency summit at the White House, alarmed, as the historian John Sayle Watterson writes, “that the brutality of the prize ring had invaded college football and might end up destroying it.” Columbia University dropped the sport entirely. A professor at the University of Chicago called it a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” In December of 1905, the presidents of twelve prominent colleges met in New York and came within one vote of abolishing the game. But the main objection at the time was to a style of play—densely and dangerously packed offensive strategies—that, it turns out, could be largely corrected with rule changes, like the legalization of the forward pass and the doubling of the first-down distance from five yards to ten. Today, when we consider subtler and more insidious forms of injury, it’s far from clear whether the problem is the style of play or the play itself.

Take the experience of a young defensive lineman for the University of North Carolina football team, who suffered two concussions during the 2004 season. His case is one of a number studied by Kevin Guskiewicz, who runs the university’s Sports Concussion Research Program. For the past five seasons, Guskiewicz and his team have tracked every one of the football team’s practices and games using a system called HITS, in which six sensors are placed inside the helmet of every player on the field, measuring the force and location of every blow he receives to the head. Using the HITS data, Guskiewicz was able to reconstruct precisely what happened each time the player was injured.

“The first concussion was during preseason. The team was doing two-a-days,” he said, referring to the habit of practicing in both the morning and the evening in the preseason. “It was August 9th, 9:55 A.M. He has an 80-g hit to the front of his head. About ten minutes later, he has a 98-g acceleration to the front of his head.” To put those numbers in perspective, Guskiewicz explained, if you drove your car into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour and you weren’t wearing your seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be around 100 gs: in effect, the player had two car accidents that morning. He survived both without incident. “In the evening session, he experiences this 64-g hit to the same spot, the front of the head. Still not reporting anything. And then this happens.” On his laptop, Guskiewicz ran the video from the practice session. It was a simple drill: the lineman squaring off against an offensive player who wore the number 76. The other player ran toward the lineman and brushed past him, while delivering a glancing blow to the defender’s helmet. “Seventy-six does a little quick elbow. It’s 63 gs, the lowest of the four, but he sustains a concussion.”

“The second injury was nine weeks later,” Guskiewicz continued. “He’s now recovered from the initial injury. It’s a game out in Utah. In warmups, he takes a 76-g blow to the front of his head. Then, on the very first play of the game, on kickoff, he gets popped in the earhole. It’s a 102-g impact. He’s part of the wedge.” He pointed to the screen, where the player was blocking on a kickoff: “Right here.” The player stumbled toward the sideline. “His symptoms were significantly worse than the first injury.” Two days later, during an evaluation in Guskiewicz’s clinic, he had to have a towel put over his head because he couldn’t stand the light. He also had difficulty staying awake. He was sidelined for sixteen days.

When we think about football, we worry about the dangers posed by the heat and the fury of competition. Yet the HITS data suggest that practice—the routine part of the sport—can be as dangerous as the games themselves. We also tend to focus on the dramatic helmet-to-helmet hits that signal an aggressive and reckless style of play. Those kinds of hits can be policed. But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure. And why was the second concussion—in the game at Utah—so much more serious than the first? It’s not because that hit to the side of the head was especially dramatic; it was that it came after the 76-g blow in warmup, which, in turn, followed the concussion in August, which was itself the consequence of the thirty prior hits that day, and the hits the day before that, and the day before that, and on and on, perhaps back to his high-school playing days.

This is a crucial point. Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.

That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”

But if C.T.E. is really about lots of little hits, what can be done about it? Turley says that it’s impossible for an offensive lineman to do his job without “using his head.” The position calls for the player to begin in a crouch and then collide with the opposing lineman when the ball is snapped. Helmet-to-helmet contact is inevitable. Nowinski, who played football for Harvard, says that “proper” tackling technique is supposed to involve a player driving into his opponent with his shoulder. “The problem,” he says, “is that, if you’re a defender and you’re trying to tackle someone and you decide to pick a side, you’re giving the other guy a way to go—and people will start running around you.” Would better helmets help? Perhaps. And there have been better models introduced that absorb more of the shock from a hit. But, Nowinski says, the better helmets have become—and the more invulnerable they have made the player seem—the more athletes have been inclined to play recklessly.

“People love technological solutions,” Nowinski went on. “When I give speeches, the first question is always: ‘What about these new helmets I hear about?’ What most people don’t realize is that we are decades, if not forever, from having a helmet that would fix the problem. I mean, you have two men running into each other at full speed and you think a little bit of plastic and padding could absorb that 150 gs of force?”

At one point, while he was discussing his research, Guskiewicz showed a videotape from a 1997 college football game between Arizona and Oregon. In one sequence, a player from Oregon viciously tackles an Arizona player, bringing his head up onto the opposing player’s chin and sending his helmet flying with the force of the blow. To look at it, you’d think that the Arizona player would be knocked unconscious. Instead, he bounces back up. “This guy does not sustain a concussion,” Guskiewicz said. “He has a lip laceration. Lower lip, that’s it. Now, same game, twenty minutes later.” He showed a clip of an Arizona defensive back making a dramatic tackle. He jumps up, and, as he does so, a teammate of his chest-bumps him in celebration. The defensive back falls and hits his head on the ground. “That’s a Grade 2 concussion,” Guskiewicz said. “It’s the fall to the ground, combined with the bounce off the turf.”

The force of the first hit was infinitely greater than the second. But the difference is that the first player saw that he was about to be hit and tensed his neck, which limited the sharp back-and-forth jolt of the head that sends the brain crashing against the sides of the skull. In essence, he was being hit not in the head but in the head, neck, and torso—an area with an effective mass three times greater. In the second case, the player didn’t see the hit coming. His head took the full force of the blow all by itself. That’s why he suffered a concussion. But how do you insure, in a game like football, that a player is never taken by surprise?

Guskiewicz and his colleagues have come up with what they believe is a much better method of understanding concussion. They have done a full cognitive workup of the players on the U.N.C. team, so that they can track whatever effect might arise from the hits each player accumulates during his four years. U.N.C.’s new coach, Butch Davis, has sharply cut back on full-contact practices, reducing the toll on the players’ heads. Guskiewicz says his data show that a disproportionate number of serious head impacts happen on kickoffs, so he wonders whether it might make sense, in theory, anyway, to dispense with them altogether. But, like everyone else who’s worried about football, he still has no idea what the inherent risks of the game are. What if you did everything you could, and banned kickoffs and full-contact practices and used the most state-of-the-art techniques for diagnosing and treating concussion, and behaved as responsibly as Nascar has in the past several years—and players were still getting too many dangerous little hits to the head?

After the tape session, Guskiewicz and one of his colleagues, Jason Mihalik, went outside to watch the U.N.C. football team practice, a short walk down the hill from their office. Only when you see football at close range is it possible to understand the dimensions of the brain-injury problem. The players were huge—much larger than you imagine them being. They moved at astonishing speeds for people of that size, and, long before you saw them, you heard them: the sound of one two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man colliding with another echoed around the practice facility. Mihalik and Guskiewicz walked over to a small building, just off to the side of the field. On the floor was a laptop inside a black storage crate. Next to the computer was an antenna that received the signals from the sensors inside the players’ helmets. Mihalik crouched down and began paging through the data. In one column, the HITS software listed the top hits of the practice up to that point, and every few moments the screen would refresh, reflecting the plays that had just been run on the field. Forty-five minutes into practice, the top eight head blows on the field measured 82 gs, 79 gs, 75 gs, 79 gs, 67 gs, 60 gs, 57 gs, and 53 gs. One player, a running back, had received both the 79 gs and the 60 gs, as well as another hit, measuring 27.9 gs. This wasn’t a full-contact practice. It was “shells.” The players wore only helmets and shoulder pads, and still there were mini car crashes happening all over the field.

The most damaged, scarred, and belligerent of Michael Vick’s dogs—the hardest cases—were sent to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, on a thirty-seven-hundred-acre spread in the canyons of southern Utah. They were housed in a specially modified octagon, a one-story, climate-controlled cottage, ringed by individual dog runs. The dogs were given a final walk at 11 P.M. and woken up at 7 A.M., to introduce them to a routine. They were hand-fed. In the early months, the staff took turns sleeping in the octagon—sometimes in the middle, sometimes in a cot in one of the runs—so that someone would be with the dogs twenty-four hours a day. Twenty-two of Vick’s pit bulls came to Best Friends in January of 2008, and all but five of them are still there.

Ray lunged at his handlers when he first came to Best Friends. He can’t be with other dogs. Ellen lies on the ground and wants her stomach scratched, and when the caregivers slept in the octagon she licked them all night long. Her face is lopsided, as if it had been damaged from fighting. She can’t be with other dogs, either. Georgia has a broken tail, and her legs and snout are covered with scars. She has no teeth. At some point, in her early life, they had been surgically removed. The court-ordered evaluation of the Vick dogs labelled Meryl, a medium-sized brown-and-white pit-bull mix, “human aggressive,” meaning that she is never allowed to be taken out of the Best Friends facility. “She had a hard time meeting people—she would preëmpt anyone coming by charging and snapping at them,” Ann Allums, one of the Best Friends dog trainers, said, as she walked around Meryl’s octagon, on a recent fall day.

She opened the gate to Meryl’s dog run and crouched down on the ground next to her. She hugged the dog, and began playfully wrestling with her, as Meryl’s tail thumped happily. “She really doesn’t mind new people,” Allums said. “She’s very happy and loving. I feel totally comfortable with her. I can grab and kiss her.” She gave Meryl another hug. “I am building a relationship,” she said. “She needed to see that when people were around bad things would not happen.”

What happens at Best Friends represents, by any measure, an extravagant gesture. These are dogs that will never live a normal life. But the kind of crime embodied by dogfighting is so morally repellent that it demands an extravagant gesture in response. In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain. A dog that will not do that is labelled a “cur,” and abandoned. A dog that keeps charging at its opponent is said to possess “gameness,” and game dogs are revered.

In one way or another, plenty of organizations select for gameness. The Marine Corps does so, and so does medicine, when it puts young doctors through the exhausting rigors of residency. But those who select for gameness have a responsibility not to abuse that trust: if you have men in your charge who would jump off a cliff for you, you cannot march them to the edge of the cliff—and dogfighting fails this test. Gameness, Carl Semencic argues, in “The World of Fighting Dogs” (1984), is no more than a dog’s “desire to please an owner at any expense to itself.” The owners, Semencic goes on,

understand this desire to please on the part of the dog and capitalize on it. At any organized pit fight in which two dogs are really going at each other wholeheartedly, one can observe the owner of each dog changing his position at pit-side in order to be in sight of his dog at all times. The owner knows that seeing his master rooting him on will make a dog work all the harder to please its master.

This is why Michael Vick’s dogs weren’t euthanized. The betrayal of loyalty requires an act of social reparation.

Professional football players, too, are selected for gameness. When Kyle Turley was knocked unconscious, in that game against the Packers, he returned to practice four days later because, he said, “I didn’t want to miss a game.” Once, in the years when he was still playing, he woke up and fell into a wall as he got out of bed. “I start puking all over,” he recalled. “So I said to my wife, ‘Take me to practice.’ I didn’t want to miss practice.” The same season that he was knocked unconscious, he began to have pain in his hips. He received three cortisone shots, and kept playing. At the end of the season, he discovered that he had a herniated disk. He underwent surgery, and four months later was back at training camp. “They put me in full-contact practice from day one,” he said. “After the first day, I knew I wasn’t right. They told me, ‘You’ve had the surgery. You’re fine. You should just fight through it.’ It’s like you’re programmed. You’ve got to go without question—I’m a warrior. I can block that out of my mind. I go out, two days later. Full contact. Two-a-days. My back locks up again. I had re-herniated the same disk that got operated on four months ago, and bulged the disk above it.” As one of Turley’s old coaches once said, “He plays the game as it should be played, all out,” which is to say that he put the game above his own well-being.

Turley says he was once in the training room after a game with a young linebacker who had suffered a vicious hit on a kickoff return. “We were in the cold tub, which is, like, forty-five degrees, and he starts passing out. In the cold tub. I don’t know anyone who has ever passed out in the cold tub. That’s supposed to wake you up. And I’m, like, slapping his face. ‘Richie! Wake up!’ He said, ‘What, what? I’m cool.’ I said, ‘You’ve got a concussion. You have to go to the hospital.’ He said, ‘You know, man, I’m fine.’ ” He wasn’t fine, though. That moment in the cold tub represented a betrayal of trust. He had taken the hit on behalf of his team. He was then left to pass out in the cold tub, and to deal—ten and twenty years down the road—with the consequences. No amount of money or assurances about risk freely assumed can change the fact that, in this moment, an essential bond had been broken. What football must confront, in the end, is not just the problem of injuries or scientific findings. It is the fact that there is something profoundly awry in the relationship between the players and the game.

“Let’s assume that Dr. Omalu and the others are right,” Ira Casson, who co-chairs an N.F.L. committee on brain injury, said. “What should we be doing differently? We asked Dr. McKee this when she came down. And she was honest, and said, ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’ No one has any suggestions—assuming that you aren’t saying no more football, because, let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen.” Casson began to talk about the research on the connection between C.T.E. and boxing. It had been known for eighty years. Boxers ran a twenty-per-cent risk of dementia. Yet boxers continue to box. Why? Because people still go to boxing matches.

“We certainly know from boxers that the incidence of C.T.E. is related to the length of your career,” he went on. “So if you want to apply that to football—and I’m not saying it does apply—then you’d have to let people play six years and then stop. If it comes to that, maybe we’ll have to think about that. On the other hand, nobody’s willing to do this in boxing. Why would a boxer at the height of his career, six or seven years in, stop fighting, just when he’s making million-dollar paydays?” He shrugged. “It’s a violent game. I suppose if you want to you could play touch football or flag football. For me, as a Jewish kid from Long Island, I’d be just as happy if we did that. But I don’t know if the fans would be happy with that. So what else do you do?”

Casson is right. There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else—neither considerations of science nor those of morality—can compete with the destructive power of that love.

In “Dogmen and Dogfights,” Evans and Forsyth write:

When one views a staged dog fight between pit bulls for the first time, the most macabre aspect of the event is that the only sounds you hear from these dogs are those of crunching bones and cartilage. The dogs rip and tear at each other; their blood, urine and saliva splatter the sides of the pit and clothes of the handlers.... The emotions of the dogs are conspicuous, but not so striking, even to themselves, are the passions of the owners of the dogs. Whether they hug a winner or in the rare case, destroy a dying loser, whether they walk away from the carcass or lay crying over it, their fondness for these fighters is manifest. Ω

[Malcolm Gladwell is a British-born Canadian journalist, author, and pop sociologist. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He is best known as the author of three books: The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), and Outliers (2008). Gladwell graduated with a degree in history from the University of Toronto's Trinity College in 1984.]

Copyright © 2009 Condé Nast Digital

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Copyright © 2009 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Goofiest Person In 2009? Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino!

Tom Tomorrow concludes the Parade O'Wingnuts in today's strip. Want to know how a Nigerian terrorist could board a plane (twice!) with bomb-making material hidden under his clothes? The airport security people in Lagos and Amsterdam, like the rest of us, are stupid. As the patron saint of fatuity, Forrest Gump, said: "Stupid is as stupid does." If this is a (fair & balanced) national malaise, so be it.

[x Salon]
This Modern World — "2009: The Year In Crazy, Part The Second"
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Salon and Working for Change. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2009 Salon Media Group

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Get Your Sticky Memes Right Here!

Ah, this blogger — when people lived in caves and drew on the walls with charcoal — wrote his first research paper in the first semester of sophomore English in high school. The assigned topic was "Fear." This feckless sophomore interviewed a professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (as it is known today), but sophomoric research is what it is. Lo and behold, this blogger missed the boat back in the mid-1950s. However, Malcolm Gladwell has struck it rich with his "sticky memes." Gladwell ventures onto theoretical thin ice with his endorsement of University of California psychologist Paul Ekman'a lie detection methodology. In HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Larry David frequently squints into the eyes of a suspected liar. Inevitably, this lie detection technique comes a cropper. If this is (fair & balanced) show biz quackery, so be it.

[x Psychology Today]
Gladwell's Stickiness Problem
By Jeff Wise

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created at

The aughts been a good decade for Malcolm Gladwell. The reigning king of urban intellectuals has never not had a book among the New York Times's top 10 bestsellers since his first book, The Tipping Point, debuted in 2000. (Currently, he has four.) With so much success, of course, invariably come brickbats. The latest volley of slings and arrows has arrived from the direction of Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor who, reviewing Gladwell's book What the Dog Saw in the New York Times Book Review last month, declared that the author "unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and... occasionally blunders into spectacular failures."

As someone who has just published a somewhat Gladwellian tome myself, I have a somewhat different perspective. The problem, I've discovered, isn't just that Gladwell is wrong. It's that his formulations are so darn sticky.

I stumbled upon this realization when, last year, I began writing my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger. In the course of my research I delved into all the major manifestations of the emotion, including the phenomenon of athletes choking on the playing field. Gladwell, I already knew, had famously dealt with the subject in a 2000 New Yorker article entitled "The Art of Failure." He summed up the topic with breathtaking concision. Choking, he declared, is the opposite of panic. "Choking is about thinking too much," he wrote. "Panic is about thinking too little."

It was the epitome of a Gladwellian idea: counterintuitive, startling, yet immediately graspable. In other words, sticky — the supreme attribute for a successful meme. And thus it spread. Read anything about choking in the popular press these days and you'll likely get the Gladwell line. Here's Jonah Lehrer, writing in his book How We Decide: "Choking is actually triggered by a specific mental mistake: thinking too much." (Italics his.) And here's John Paul Newport, writing this February in the Wall Street Journal: "Choking... is essentially the opposite of panic."

The only problem is that, from a neuroscientific perspective, Gladwell's "choking is the opposite of panic" doesn't make any sense. It's like saying "dogs are the opposite of cats" — a stimulating proposition, perhaps, but logically unparsable.

Meanwhile, as it happens, a great deal of fascinating research has gone into figuring out how choking actually works. The phenomenon is an expression of a specifically social kind of fear, a variety of performance anxiety related to stage fright, panic attacks, and the "shy bladder" syndrome familiar to men at airport urinals. It has nothing to do with a negation or undersupply of panic.

Okay, so who cares? If half the United States is walking around with the erroneous notion that they are in possession of a really nifty insight into the nature of choking, so be it. No harm, no foul. But some bogus memes are less innocent.

One of the chapters in Gladwell's second book, Blink, concerns the work of the University of California psychologist Paul Ekman, a man who, according to Gladwell, has mastered the secret of lie detection. Thanks to a combination of innate skill and scientific savvy, Ekman has supposedly trained himself to detect fleeting "micro-expressions" on a liar's face and so can determine their true emotional state with stunning accuracy.

It was the best chapter of the book, maybe the best chapter Gladwell has ever written. When Universal Studios paid $1 million for the movie rights to Blink, this was the part they really wanted; when the deal was inked, the studio announced that Steven Gaghan was attached to the project to write and direct, and Leonardo DiCaprio would star as an Ekman-like character. That film is still gestating, but meanwhile the Gladwell/Ekman juggernaut has already steamrollered across the public consciousness through the Fox TV show "Lie to Me," currently in its second season. In the show, Tim Roth stars as Dr. Cal Lightman, the protagonist with Ekman-type powers. The real Ekman serves as a script adviser to the show and writes about each episode on his blog.

The chapter's most profound impact played out not on the screen but in the real world, when the Department of Homeland Security enlisted Ekman, soon after Blink's publication, to help implement a project to detect would-be terrorists in airports around the country. Called "Screening Passengers by Observation Technique," or SPOT, the program debuted in December, 2005. By 2008, TSA officers were pulling aside nearly 100,000 passengers a year for screening. (Of those, fewer than one percent were eventually arrested, and the TSA won't say how many were convicted.)

You might think, given Ekman's cultural ubiquity, that his discoveries on the subject of lying have laid the groundwork for a whole sub-field of research psychology. On the contrary. In fact, it has been well established by peer-reviewed studies that, Ekman's claims notwithstanding, no person can reliably tell whether or not another human being is lying simply by looking at them. "It's hokum," says Yale psychologist Charles A. Morgan III.

So SPOT, it turns out, was a $3-million-a-year waste of taxpayer money. So "Lie to Me" is scarcely more scientifically grounded than "Ghost Whisperer." Well, okay. Dumb TV shows and wasteful government programs are nothing new. What's really disturbing, though, is that once Gladwell had granted Ekman his intellectual seal of approval, no one in the popular media was willing or able to point out that the good professor's claims were spurious.

For four years.

That's the problem of Gladwell in a nutshell. He's masterful at brewing up memes so potent that they travel far beyond the realm of where the mere modest truth would go. They spread. And they stick. And having stuck, they proceed to affect the decisions that people make, the policies they implement, the laws that they pass. A normal person, when he is wrong, adds a little drop of erroneousness in the great sea of human conversation. Gladwell, when he is wrong, creates a tsunami of wrong.

And it just goes on and on. Ω

[Jeff Wise is a science writer, outdoor adventurer, and pilot of airplanes and gliders. A contributing editor at Popular Mechanics, he has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Popular Science, Men's Journal, and many others. His first book is entitled Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger (2009).]

Copyright © 2009 Psychology Today

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tweet O'The Day? Smart People Are Doing Wonderful Things!

Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University tells us that "Multitasking is not a distraction from our main activity, it is our main activity." An obvious fact should emerge from an examination of this blog. It is the product of multitasking. If this is (fair & balanced) cyber-inefficiency, so be it.

[x WQ]
Three Tweets For The Web
By Tyler Cowen

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The printed word is not dead. We are not about to see the demise of the novel or the shuttering of all the bookstores, and we won’t all end up on Twitter. But we are clearly in the midst of a cultural transformation. For today’s younger people, Google is more likely to provide a formative cultural experience than The Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22 or even the Harry Potter novels. There is no question that books are becoming less central to our cultural life.

The relative decline of the book is part of a broader shift toward short and to the point. Small cultural bits—written words, music, video—have never been easier to record, store, organize, and search, and thus they are a growing part of our enjoyment and education. The classic 1960s rock album has given way to the iTunes single. On YouTube, the most popular videos are usually just a few minutes long, and even then viewers may not watch them through to the end. At the extreme, there are Web sites offering five-word movie and song reviews, six-word memoirs (“Not Quite What I Was Planning”), seven-word wine reviews, and 50-word minisagas.[1]

The new brevity has many virtues. One appeal of following blogs is the expectation of receiving a new reward (and finishing off that reward) every day. Blogs feature everything from expert commentary on politics or graphic design to reviews of new Cuban music CDs to casual ruminations on feeding one’s cat. Whatever the subject, the content is replenished on a periodic basis, much as 19th-century novels were often delivered in installments, but at a faster pace and with far more authors and topics to choose from. In the realm of culture, a lot of our enjoyment has always come from the opening and unwrapping of each gift. Thanks to today’s hypercurrent online environment, this is a pleasure we can experience nearly constantly.

It may seem as if we have entered a nightmarish attention-deficit culture, but the situation is not nearly as gloomy as you have been told. Our culture of the short bit is making human minds more rather than less powerful.

The arrival of virtually every new cultural medium has been greeted with the charge that it truncates attention spans and represents the beginning of cultural collapse—the novel (in the 18th century), the comic book, rock ‘n’ roll, television, and now the Web. In fact, there has never been a golden age of all-wise, all-attentive readers. But that’s not to say that nothing has changed. The mass migration of intellectual activity from print to the Web has brought one important development: We have begun paying more attention to information. Overall, that’s a big plus for the new world order.

It is easy to dismiss this cornucopia as information overload. We’ve all seen people scrolling with one hand through a BlackBerry while pecking out instant messages (IMs) on a laptop with the other and eyeing a television (I won’t say “watching”). But even though it is easy to see signs of overload in our busy lives, the reality is that most of us carefully regulate this massive inflow of information to create something uniquely suited to our particular interests and needs—a rich and highly personalized blend of cultural gleanings.

The word for this process is multitasking, but that makes it sound as if we’re all over the place. There is a deep coherence to how each of us pulls out a steady stream of information from disparate sources to feed our long-term interests. No matter how varied your topics of interest may appear to an outside observer, you’ll tailor an information stream related to the continuing “stories” you want in your life—say, Sichuan cooking, health care reform, Michael Jackson, and the stock market. With the help of the Web, you build broader intellectual narratives about the world. The apparent disorder of the information stream reflects not your incoherence but rather your depth and originality as an individual.

My own daily cultural harvest usually involves listening to music and reading—novels, nonfiction, and Web essays—with periodic glances at the New York Times Web site and an e-mail check every five minutes or so. Often I actively don’t want to pull apart these distinct activities and focus on them one at a time for extended periods. I like the blend I assemble for myself, and I like what I learn from it. To me (and probably no one else, but that is the point), the blend offers the ultimate in interest and suspense. Call me an addict, but if I am torn away from these stories for even a day, I am very keen to get back for the next “episode.”

Many critics charge that multitasking makes us less efficient. Researchers say that periodically checking your e-mail lowers your cognitive performance level to that of a drunk. If such claims were broadly correct, multitasking would pretty rapidly disappear simply because people would find that it didn’t make sense to do it. Multitasking is flourishing, and so are we. There are plenty of lab experiments that show that distracting people reduces the capacity of their working memory and thus impairs their decision making. It’s much harder to show that multitasking, when it results from the choices and control of an individual, does anyone cognitive harm. Multitasking is not a distraction from our main activity, it is our main activity.

Consider the fact that IQ scores have been rising for decades, a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect. I won’t argue that multitasking is driving this improvement, but the Flynn effect does belie the common impression that people are getting dumber or less attentive. A harried multitasking society seems perfectly compatible with lots of innovation, lots of high achievers, and lots of high IQ scores.

With the help of technology, we are honing our ability to do many more things at once and do them faster. We access and absorb information more quickly than before, and, as a result, we often seem more impatient. If you use Google to look something up in 10 seconds rather than spend five minutes searching through an encyclopedia, that doesn’t mean you are less patient. It means you are creating more time to focus on other matters. In fact, we’re devoting more effort than ever before to big-picture questions, from the nature of God to the best age for marrying and the future of the U.S. economy.

Our focus on cultural bits doesn’t mean we are neglecting the larger picture. Rather, those bits are building-blocks for seeing and understanding larger trends and narratives. The typical Web user doesn’t visit a gardening blog one day and a Manolo Blahnik shoes blog the next day, and never return to either. Most activity online, or at least the kind that persists, involves continuing investments in particular long-running narratives—about gardening, art, shoes, or whatever else engages us. There’s an alluring suspense to it. What’s next? That is why the Internet captures so much of our attention.

Indeed, far from shortening our attention spans, the Web lengthens them by allowing us to follow the same story over many years’ time. If I want to know what’s new with the NBA free-agent market, the debate surrounding global warming, or the publication plans of Thomas Pynchon, Google quickly gets me to the most current information. Formerly I needed personal contacts—people who were directly involved in the action—to follow a story for years, but now I can do it quite easily.

Sometimes it does appear I am impatient. I’ll discard a half-read book that 20 years ago I might have finished. But once I put down the book, I will likely turn my attention to one of the long-running stories I follow online. I’ve been listening to the music of Paul McCartney for more than 30 years, for example, and if there is some new piece of music or development in his career, I see it first on the Internet. If our Web surfing is sometimes frantic or pulled in many directions, that is because we care so much about so many long-running stories. It could be said, a bit paradoxically, that we are impatient to return to our chosen programs of patience.

Another way the Web has affected the human attention span is by allowing greater specialization of knowledge. It has never been easier to wrap yourself up in a long-term intellectual project without at the same time losing touch with the world around you. Some critics don’t see this possibility, charging that the Web is destroying a shared cultural experience by enabling us to follow only the specialized stories that pique our individual interests. But there are also those who argue that the Web is doing just the opposite—that we dabble in an endless variety of topics but never commit to a deeper pursuit of a specific interest. These two criticisms contradict each other. The reality is that the Internet both aids in knowledge specialization and helps specialists keep in touch with general trends.

The key to developing your personal blend of all the “stuff” that’s out there is to use the right tools. The quantity of information coming our way has exploded, but so has the quality of our filters, including Google, blogs, and Twitter. As Internet analyst Clay Shirky points out, there is no information overload, only filter failure. If you wish, you can keep all the information almost entirely at bay and use Google or text a friend only when you need to know something. That’s not usually how it works. Many of us are cramming ourselves with Web experiences—videos, online chats, magazines—and also fielding a steady stream of incoming e-mails, text messages, and IMs. The resulting sense of time pressure is not a pathology; it is a reflection of the appeal and intensity of what we are doing. The Web allows you to enhance the meaning and importance of the cultural bits at your disposal; thus you want to grab more of them, and organize more of them, and you are willing to work hard at that task, even if it means you sometimes feel harried.

It’s true that many people on the Web are not looking for a cerebral experience, and younger people especially may lack the intellectual framework needed to integrate all the incoming bits into a meaningful whole. A lot of people are on the Web just to have fun or to achieve some pretty straightforward personal goals—they may want to know what happened to their former high school classmates or the history of the dachshund. “It’s still better than watching TV” is certainly a sufficient defense of these practices, but there is a deeper point: The Internet is supplementing and intensifying real life. The Web’s heralded interactivity not only furthers that process but opens up new possibilities for more discussion and debate. Anyone can find space on the Internet to rate a product, criticize an idea, or review a new movie or book.

One way to understand the emotional and intellectual satisfactions of the new world is by way of contrast. Consider Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The music and libretto express a gamut of human emotions, from terror to humor to love to the sublime. With its ability to combine so much in a single work of art, the opera represents a great achievement of the Western canon. But, for all Don Giovanni’s virtues, it takes well over three hours to hear it in its entirety, perhaps four with an intermission. Plus, the libretto is in Italian. And if you want to see the performance live, a good seat can cost hundreds of dollars.

Instead of experiencing the emotional range of Don Giovanni in one long, expensive sitting, on the Web we pick the moods we want from disparate sources and assemble them ourselves. We take a joke from YouTube, a terrifying scene from a Japanese slasher movie, a melody from iTunes, and some images—perhaps our own digital photos—capturing the sublime beauty of the Grand Canyon. Even if no single bit looks very impressive to an outsider, to the creator of this assemblage it is a rich and varied inner experience. The new wonders we create are simply harder for outsiders to see than, say, the fantastic cathedrals of Old Europe.

The measure of cultural literacy today is not whether you can “read” all the symbols in a Rubens painting but whether you can operate an iPhone and other Web-related technologies. One thing you can do with such devices is visit any number of Web sites where you can see Rubens’s pictures and learn plenty about them. It’s not so much about having information as it is about knowing how to get it. Viewed in this light, today’s young people are very culturally literate indeed—in fact, they are very often cultural leaders and creators.

To better understand contemporary culture, consider an analogy to romance. Although many long-distance relationships survive, they are difficult to sustain. When you have to travel far to meet your beloved, you want to make every trip a grand and glorious occasion. Usually you don’t fly from one coast to another just to hang out and share downtime and small talk. You go out to eat and to the theater, you make passionate love, and you have intense conversations. You have a lot of thrills, but it’s hard to make it work because in the long run it’s casually spending time together and the routines of daily life that bind two people to each other. And of course, in a long-distance relationship, a lot of the time you’re not together at all. If you really love the other person you’re not consistently happy, even though your peak experiences may be amazing.

A long-distance relationship is, in emotional terms, a bit like culture in the time of Cervantes or Mozart. The costs of travel and access were high, at least compared to modern times. When you did arrive, the performance was often very exciting and indeed monumental. Sadly, the rest of the time you didn’t have that much culture at all. Even books were expensive and hard to get. Compared to what is possible in modern life, you couldn’t be as happy overall but your peak experiences could be extremely memorable, just as in the long-distance relationship.

Now let’s consider how living together and marriage differ from a long-distance relationship. When you share a home, the costs of seeing each other are very low. Your partner is usually right there. Most days include no grand events, but you have lots of regular and predictable interactions, along with a kind of grittiness or even ugliness rarely seen in a long-distance relationship. There are dirty dishes in the sink, hedges to be trimmed, maybe diapers to be changed.

If you are happily married, or even somewhat happily married, your internal life will be very rich. You will take all those small events and, in your mind and in the mind of your spouse, weave them together in the form of a deeply satisfying narrative, dirty diapers and all. It won’t always look glorious on the outside, but the internal experience of such a marriage is better than what’s normally possible in a long-distance relationship.

The same logic applies to culture. The Internet and other technologies mean that our favorite creators, or at least their creations, are literally part of our daily lives. It is no longer a long-distance relationship. It is no longer hard to get books and other written material. Pictures, music, and video appear on command. Culture is there all the time, and you can receive more of it, pretty much whenever you want.

In short, our relationship to culture has become more like marriage in the sense that it now enters our lives in an established flow, creating a better and more regular daily state of mind. True, culture has in some ways become uglier, or at least it would appear so to the outside observer. But when it comes to how we actually live and feel, contemporary culture is more satisfying and contributes to the happiness of far more people. That is why the public devours new technologies that offer extreme and immediate access to information.

Many critics of contemporary life want our culture to remain like a long-distance relationship at a time when most of us are growing into something more mature. We assemble culture for ourselves, creating and committing ourselves to a fascinating brocade. Very often the paper-and-ink book is less central to this new endeavor; it’s just another cultural bit we consume along with many others. But we are better off for this change, a change that is filling our daily lives with beauty, suspense, and learning.

Or if you’d like the shorter version to post to your Twitter account (140 characters or less): “Smart people are doing wonderful things.”

[1] Not everything is shorter and more to the point. The same modern wealth that encourages a proliferation of choices also enables very long performances and spectacles. In the German town of Halberstadt, a specially built organ is playing the world’s longest concert ever, designed to clock in at 639 years. This is also the age of complete boxed sets, DVD collector’s editions, extended “director’s cut” versions of movies, and the eight- or sometimes even 10-year Ph.D. But while there is an increasing diversity of length, shorter is the trend. How many of us have an interest in hearing more than a brief excerpt from the world’s longest concert? Ω

[Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University. This essay is adapted from his new book, Create Your Own Economy (2009). He blogs at, and can be followed on Twitter at tylercowen. Cowen graduated with a B.S. from George Mason and received his Ph.D. in economics at Harvard, where he was mentored by 2005 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner, game theorist, and Harvard professor Thomas Schelling.]

Copyright © 2009 Wilson Quarterly

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Copyright © 2009 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves