"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Saturday, June 28, 2008
50 Habits of highly successful people
1. They look for and find opportunities where others see nothing.

2. They find a lesson while others only see a problem.

3. They are solution focused.

4. They consciously and methodically create their own success, while others hope success will find them.

5. They are fearful like everyone else, but they are not controlled or limited by fear.

6. They ask the right questions - the ones which put them in a productive, creative, positive mindset and emotional state.

7. They rarely complain (waste of energy). All complaining does is put the complainer in a negative and unproductive state.

8. They don’t blame (what’s the point?). They take complete responsibility for their actions and outcomes (or lack thereof).

9. While they are not necessarily more talented than the majority, they always find a way to maximise their potential. They get more out of themselves. They use what they have more effectively.

10. They are busy, productive and proactive. While most are laying on the couch, planning, over-thinking, sitting on their hands and generally going around in circles, they are out there getting the job done.

11. They align themselves with like-minded people. They understand the importance of being part of a team. They create win-win relationships.

12. They are ambitious; they want amazing - and why shouldn’t they? They consciously choose to live their best life rather than spending it on auto-pilot.

13. They have clarity and certainty about what they want (and don’t want) for their life. They actually visualize and plan their best reality while others are merely spectators of life.

14. They innovate rather than imitate.

15. They don’t procrastinate and they don’t spend their life waiting for the ‘right time’.

16. They are life-long learners. They constantly work at educating themselves, either formally (academically), informally (watching, listening, asking, reading, student of life) or experientially (doing, trying)… or all three.

17. They are glass half full people - while still being practical and down-to-earth. They have an ability to find the good.

18. They consistently do what they need to do, irrespective of how they are feeling on a given day. They don’t spend their life stopping and starting.

19. They take calculated risks - financial, emotional, professional, psychological.

20. They deal with problems and challenges quickly and effectively, they don’t put their head in the sand. They face their challenges and use them to improve themselves.

21. They don’t believe in, or wait for fate, destiny, chance or luck to determine or shape their future. They believe in, and are committed to actively and consciously creating their own best life.

22. While many people are reactive, they are proactive. They take action before they have to.

23. They are more effective than most at managing their emotions. They feel like we all do but they are not slaves to their emotions.

24. They are good communicators and they consciously work at it.

25. They have a plan for their life and they work methodically at turning that plan into a reality. Their life is not a clumsy series of unplanned events and outcomes.

26. Their desire to be exceptional means that they typically do things that most won’t. They become exceptional by choice. We’re all faced with live-shaping decisions almost daily. Successful people make the decisions that most won’t and don’t.

27. While many people are pleasure junkies and avoid pain and discomfort at all costs, successful people understand the value and benefits of working through the tough stuff that most would avoid.

28. They have identified their core values (what is important to them) and they do their best to live a life which is reflective of those values.

29. They have balance. While they may be financially successful, they know that the terms money and success are not interchangeable. They understand that people who are successful on a financial level only, are not successful at all. Unfortunately we live in a society which teaches that money equals success. Like many other things, money is a tool. It’s certainly not a bad thing but ultimately, it’s just another resource. Unfortunately, too many people worship it.

30. They understand the importance of discipline and self-control. They are strong. They are happy to take the road less traveled.

31. They are secure. They do not derive their sense of worth of self from what they own, who they know, where they live or what they look like.

32. They are generous and kind. They take pleasure in helping others achieve.

33. They are humble and they are happy to admit mistakes and to apologize. They are confident in their ability, but not arrogant. They are happy to learn from others. They are happy to make others look good rather than seek their own personal glory.

34. They are adaptable and embrace change, while the majority are creatures of comfort and habit. They are comfortable with, and embrace, the new and the unfamiliar.

35. They keep themselves in shape physically, not to be mistaken with training for the Olympics or being obsessed with their body. They understand the importance of being physically well. They are not all about looks, they are more concerned with function and health. Their body is not who they are, it’s where they live.

36. They have a big engine. They work hard and are not lazy.

37. They are resilient. When most would throw in the towel, they’re just warming up.

38. They are open to, and more likely to act upon, feedback.

39. They don’t hang out with toxic people.

40. They don’t invest time or emotional energy into things which they have no control of.

41. They are happy to swim against the tide, to do what most won’t. They are not people pleaser's and they don’t need constant approval.

42. They are more comfortable with their own company than most.

43. They set higher standards for themselves (a choice we can all make), which in turn produces greater commitment, more momentum, a better work ethic and of course, better results.

44. They don’t rationalize failure. While many are talking about their age, their sore back, their lack of time, their poor genetics, their ‘bad luck’, their nasty boss and their lack of opportunities (all good reasons to fail), they are finding a way to succeed despite all their challenges.

45. They have an off switch. They know how to relax, enjoy what they have in their life and to have fun.

46. Their career is not their identity, it’s their job. It’s not who they are, it’s what they do.

47. They are more interested in effective than they are in easy. While the majority look for the quickest, easiest way (the shortcut), they look for the course of action which will produce the best results over the long term.

48. They finish what they start. While so many spend their life starting things that they never finish, successful people get the job done - even when the excitement and the novelty have worn off. Even when it ain’t fun.

49. They are multi-dimensional, amazing, wonderful complex creatures (as we all are). They realize that not only are they physical and psychological beings, but emotional and spiritual creatures as well. They consciously work at being healthy and productive on all levels.

50. They practice what they preach. They don’t talk about the theory, they live the reality.

Add a habit or two of your own to the list.

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posted by R J Noriega at 11:47 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
David Mamet: Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'
John Maynard Keynes was twitted with changing his mind. He replied, "When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?"

My favorite example of a change of mind was Norman Mailer at The Village Voice.

Norman took on the role of drama critic, weighing in on the New York premiere of Waiting for Godot.

Twentieth century's greatest play. Without bothering to go, Mailer called it a piece of garbage.

When he did get around to seeing it, he realized his mistake. He was no longer a Voice columnist, however, so he bought a page in the paper and wrote a retraction, praising the play as the masterpiece it is.

Every playwright's dream.

I once won one of Mary Ann Madden's "Competitions" in New York magazine. The task was to name or create a "10" of anything, and mine was the World's Perfect Theatrical Review. It went like this: "I never understood the theater until last night. Please forgive everything I've ever written. When you read this I'll be dead." That, of course, is the only review anybody in the theater ever wants to get.

My prize, in a stunning example of irony, was a year's subscription to New York, which rag (apart from Mary Ann's "Competition") I considered an open running sore on the body of world literacy—this due to the presence in its pages of John Simon, whose stunning amalgam of superciliousness and savagery, over the years, was appreciated by that readership searching for an endorsement of proactive mediocrity.

But I digress.

I wrote a play about politics (November, Barrymore Theater, Broadway, some seats still available). And as part of the "writing process," as I believe it's called, I started thinking about politics. This comment is not actually as jejune as it might seem. Porgy and Bess is a buncha good songs but has nothing to do with race relations, which is the flag of convenience under which it sailed.

But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.

The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it's at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.

I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.

As a child of the '60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart.

These cherished precepts had, over the years, become ingrained as increasingly impracticable prejudices. Why do I say impracticable? Because although I still held these beliefs, I no longer applied them in my life. How do I know? My wife informed me. We were riding along and listening to NPR. I felt my facial muscles tightening, and the words beginning to form in my mind: Shut the fuck up. "?" she prompted. And her terse, elegant summation, as always, awakened me to a deeper truth: I had been listening to NPR and reading various organs of national opinion for years, wonder and rage contending for pride of place. Further: I found I had been—rather charmingly, I thought—referring to myself for years as "a brain-dead liberal," and to NPR as "National Palestinian Radio."

This is, to me, the synthesis of this worldview with which I now found myself disenchanted: that everything is always wrong.

But in my life, a brief review revealed, everything was not always wrong, and neither was nor is always wrong in the community in which I live, or in my country. Further, it was not always wrong in previous communities in which I lived, and among the various and mobile classes of which I was at various times a part.

And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

I'd observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.

For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

To that end, the Constitution separates the power of the state into those three branches which are for most of us (I include myself) the only thing we remember from 12 years of schooling.

The Constitution, written by men with some experience of actual government, assumes that the chief executive will work to be king, the Parliament will scheme to sell off the silverware, and the judiciary will consider itself Olympian and do everything it can to much improve (destroy) the work of the other two branches. So the Constitution pits them against each other, in the attempt not to achieve stasis, but rather to allow for the constant corrections necessary to prevent one branch from getting too much power for too long.

Rather brilliant. For, in the abstract, we may envision an Olympian perfection of perfect beings in Washington doing the business of their employers, the people, but any of us who has ever been at a zoning meeting with our property at stake is aware of the urge to cut through all the pernicious bullshit and go straight to firearms.

I found not only that I didn't trust the current government (that, to me, was no surprise), but that an impartial review revealed that the faults of this president—whom I, a good liberal, considered a monster—were little different from those of a president whom I revered.

Bush got us into Iraq, JFK into Vietnam. Bush stole the election in Florida; Kennedy stole his in Chicago. Bush outed a CIA agent; Kennedy left hundreds of them to die in the surf at the Bay of Pigs. Bush lied about his military service; Kennedy accepted a Pulitzer Prize for a book written by Ted Sorenson. Bush was in bed with the Saudis, Kennedy with the Mafia. Oh.

And I began to question my hatred for "the Corporations"—the hatred of which, I found, was but the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live.

And I began to question my distrust of the "Bad, Bad Military" of my youth, which, I saw, was then and is now made up of those men and women who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world. Is the military always right? No. Neither is government, nor are the corporations—they are just different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups, if you will. Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not "Is everything perfect?" but "How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?" Put into which form, things appeared to me to be unfolding pretty well.

Do I speak as a member of the "privileged class"? If you will—but classes in the United States are mobile, not static, which is the Marxist view. That is: Immigrants came and continue to come here penniless and can (and do) become rich; the nerd makes a trillion dollars; the single mother, penniless and ignorant of English, sends her two sons to college (my grandmother). On the other hand, the rich and the children of the rich can go belly-up; the hegemony of the railroads is appropriated by the airlines, that of the networks by the Internet; and the individual may and probably will change status more than once within his lifetime.

What about the role of government? Well, in the abstract, coming from my time and background, I thought it was a rather good thing, but tallying up the ledger in those things which affect me and in those things I observe, I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.

But if the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out?

I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own—take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.

The director, generally, does not cause strife, but his or her presence impels the actors to direct (and manufacture) claims designed to appeal to Authority—that is, to set aside the original goal (staging a play for the audience) and indulge in politics, the purpose of which may be to gain status and influence outside the ostensible goal of the endeavor.

Strand unacquainted bus travelers in the middle of the night, and what do you get? A lot of bad drama, and a shake-and-bake Mayflower Compact. Each, instantly, adds what he or she can to the solution. Why? Each wants, and in fact needs, to contribute—to throw into the pot what gifts each has in order to achieve the overall goal, as well as status in the new-formed community. And so they work it out.

See also that most magnificent of schools, the jury system, where, again, each brings nothing into the room save his or her own prejudices, and, through the course of deliberation, comes not to a perfect solution, but a solution acceptable to the community—a solution the community can live with.

Prior to the midterm elections, my rabbi was taking a lot of flack. The congregation is exclusively liberal, he is a self-described independent (read "conservative"), and he was driving the flock wild. Why? Because a) he never discussed politics; and b) he taught that the quality of political discourse must be addressed first—that Jewish law teaches that it is incumbent upon each person to hear the other fellow out.

And so I, like many of the liberal congregation, began, teeth grinding, to attempt to do so. And in doing so, I recognized that I held those two views of America (politics, government, corporations, the military). One was of a state where everything was magically wrong and must be immediately corrected at any cost; and the other—the world in which I actually functioned day to day—was made up of people, most of whom were reasonably trying to maximize their comfort by getting along with each other (in the workplace, the marketplace, the jury room, on the freeway, even at the school-board meeting).

And I realized that the time had come for me to avow my participation in that America in which I chose to live, and that that country was not a schoolroom teaching values, but a marketplace.

"Aha," you will say, and you are right. I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.

At the same time, I was writing my play about a president, corrupt, venal, cunning, and vengeful (as I assume all of them are), and two turkeys. And I gave this fictional president a speechwriter who, in his view, is a "brain-dead liberal," much like my earlier self; and in the course of the play, they have to work it out. And they eventually do come to a human understanding of the political process. As I believe I am trying to do, and in which I believe I may be succeeding, and I will try to summarize it in the words of William Allen White.

White was for 40 years the editor of the Emporia Gazette in rural Kansas, and a prominent and powerful political commentator. He was a great friend of Theodore Roosevelt and wrote the best book I've ever read about the presidency. It's called Masks in a Pageant, and it profiles presidents from McKinley to Wilson, and I recommend it unreservedly.

White was a pretty clear-headed man, and he'd seen human nature as few can. (As Twain wrote, you want to understand men, run a country paper.) White knew that people need both to get ahead and to get along, and that they're always working at one or the other, and that government should most probably stay out of the way and let them get on with it. But, he added, there is such a thing as liberalism, and it may be reduced to these saddest of words: " . . . and yet . . . "

The right is mooing about faith, the left is mooing about change, and many are incensed about the fools on the other side—but, at the end of the day, they are the same folks we meet at the water cooler. Happy election season.


posted by R J Noriega at 10:34 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, June 27, 2008
Tesla The Genius
Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5


posted by R J Noriega at 11:03 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, June 19, 2008
For Blacks in France, Obama’s Rise Is Reason to Rejoice, and to Hope

PARIS — When Youssoupha, a black rapper here, was asked the other day what was on his mind, a grin spread across his face. “Barack Obama,” he said. “Obama tells us everything is possible.”

A new black consciousness is emerging in France, lately hastened by, of all things, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States. An article in Le Monde a few days ago described how Mr. Obama is “stirring up high hopes” among blacks here. Even seeing the word “noir” (“black”) in a French newspaper was an occasion for surprise until recently.

Meanwhile, this past weekend, 60 cars were burned and some 50 young people scuffled with police and firemen, injuring several of them, in a poor minority suburb of Vitry-le-François, in the Marne region of northeast France.

Americans, who have debated race relations since the dawn of the Republic, may find it hard to grasp the degree to which race, like religion, remains a taboo topic in France. While Mr. Obama talks about running a campaign transcending race, an increasing number of French blacks are pushing for, in effect, the reverse.

Having always thought it was more racially enlightened than strife-torn America, France finds itself facing the prospect that it has actually fallen behind on that score. Incidents like the ones over the weekend bring to mind the rioting that exploded across France three years ago. Since it abolished slavery 160 years ago, the country has officially declared itself to be colorblind — but seeing Mr. Obama, a new generation of French blacks is arguing that it’s high time here for precisely the sort of frank discussions that in America have preceded the nomination of a major black candidate.

This black consciousness is reflected not just in daily conversation, but also in a dawning culture of books and music by young French blacks like Youssoupha, a cheerful, toothy 28-year-old, who was sent here from Congo by his parents to get an education at 10, raised by an aunt who worked in a school cafeteria in a poor suburb, and told by guidance counselors that he shouldn’t be too ambitious. Instead, he earned a master’s degree from the Sorbonne.

Then, like many well-educated blacks in this country, he hit a brick wall. “I found myself working in fast-food places with people who had the equivalent of a 15-year-old’s level of education,” he recalled.

So he turned to rap, out of frustration as much as anything, finding inspiration in “négritude,” an ideology of black pride conceived in Paris during the 1920s and 30s by Aimé Césaire, the French poet and politician from Martinique, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet who became Senegal’s first president. Its philosophy, as Sartre once put it, was a kind of “antiracist racism,” a celebration of shared black heritage.

Négritude and Césaire are back. When Césaire died in April, at 94, his funeral in Fort-de-France, Martinique, was broadcast live on French television. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his rival Ségolène Royal both attended. Just three years ago, Mr. Sarkozy, as head of a center-right party and not yet president, supported a law (repealed after much protest) that compelled French schools to teach the “positive” aspects of colonialism. The next year, Césaire refused to meet with him. Now here was Mr. Sarkozy flying to the former French colony (today one of the country’s overseas departments, meaning he could troll for votes) to pay tribute to the poet laureate of négritude.

That said, as a country France definitely sends out mixed messages. “Négritude is a concept they just don’t want to hear about,” Youssoupha raps in “Render Unto Césaire” on his latest album, “À Chaque Frère” (“To Each Brother”). A regular short feature on French public television, “Citoyens Visibles,” hosted by a young actress, Hafsia Herzi, celebrates French artists with foreign origins.

At the same time, it’s against the rules for the government to conduct official surveys according to race. Consequently, nobody even knows for certain how many black citizens there are. Estimates vary between 3 million and 5 million out of a population of more than 61 million.

“Can you imagine if French officials said, ‘Well, we’re not sure, the population of France may be 65 million, or maybe it’s 30 million’?” declared a somewhat exasperated Patrick Lozès, founder of Cran, a black organization devised not long ago partly to gather statistics the government won’t.

When he sat down to talk the other morning, the first two words out of his mouth were Barack Obama. “The idea behind not categorizing people by race is obviously good; we want to believe in the republican ideal,” he said. “But in reality we’re blind in France, not colorblind but information blind, and just saying people are equal doesn’t make them equal.”

He ticked off some obvious numbers: one black member representing continental France in the National Assembly among 555 members; no continental French senators out of some 300; only a handful of mayors out of some 36,000, and none from the poor Paris suburbs.

To this may be added Cran’s findings that the percentage of blacks in France who hold university degrees is 55, compared with 37 percent for the general population. But the number of blacks who get stuck in the working class is 45 percent, compared with 34 percent for the national average.

“There’s total hypocrisy here,” Léonora Miano said. She’s a black author, 37, originally from Cameroon, whose recent novel “Tels des Astres Éteints” (“Like Extinguished Stars”) is about race relations as seen through the eyes of three black immigrants.

“For me it was really strange when I arrived 17 years ago to find people here never used the word race,” Ms. Miano said over coffee one afternoon at Café Beaubourg. Outside, African immigrants hawked sunglasses to tourists. “French universalism, the whole French republican ideal, proposes that if you embrace French values, the French language, French culture, then race doesn’t exist and it won’t matter if you’re black. But of course it does. So we need to have a conversation, and slowly it is coming: not a conversation about guilt or history, but about now.”

“The Black Condition: An Essay on a French Minority” by Pap N’Diaye, a 42-year-old historian at the School for Advanced Study of the Social Sciences, is another much-talked-about new book here. “We are witnessing a renaissance of the négritude movement,” Mr. N’Diaye declared the other day.

The surge in popularity of Mr. Obama among French blacks partly stems from the hope that his rise “will highlight our lack of diversity and put pressure on French politicians who say they favor him to open politics up more to minorities,” Mr. N’Diaye said. “We in France are, in terms of race, where we were in terms of gender 40 years ago.”

He laid out some history: French decolonization during the 1960s pretty much pushed the original négritude movement to the back burner, at the same time that it inspired a wave of immigrants from the Caribbean to come here and fill low-ranking civil service jobs. From sub-Saharan Africa, another wave of laborers gravitated to private industry. The two populations didn’t communicate much.

But their children, raised here, have grown up together. “Mutually discovered discrimination,” as Mr. N’Diaye put it, has forged a bond out of which négritude is being revived.

The watershed event was the rioting in poor French suburbs three years ago. Among its cultural consequences: Aimé Césaire “started to be rediscovered by young people who found in his work things germane to the current situation,” Mr. N’Diaye said.

Youssoupha is one of those people. He was nursing a Coke recently at Top Kafé, a Lubavitch Tex-Mex restaurant in Créteil, just outside Paris, where he lives. Nearby, two waiters in yarmulkes sat watching Rafael Nadal play tennis on television beneath dusty framed pictures of Las Vegas and Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. A clutch of Arab teenagers smoked outside. In modest neighborhoods like this, France can look remarkably harmonious.

“Césaire is in my lyrics, and I was upset when people misinterpreted what I wrote as anti-white because négritude is the affirmation of our common black roots,” Youssoupha said.

Ms. Miano, the novelist, made a similar point. “There is no such thing as a black ‘community’ in France — yet — partly because we have such different histories,” she said. “An immigrant woman from Mali and another from Cameroon view the world in completely different ways. You also shouldn’t think there isn’t racism among blacks in France, between West Indians and Africans. There is. But ultimately we’re all black in the face of discrimination.”

Then she smiled: “Too bad I forgot to wear my Obama T-shirt.”

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posted by R J Noriega at 6:44 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
We are what we buy
Do the brands we buy and the things we own define who we are? Like it or not, two new books say they do.
By Laura Miller

Jun. 03, 2008 |

For a couple of years, I was regularly provoked by a magazine ad for a closet-design company that promised to organize "all the stuff that is your life." "There's more to my life than stuff," I muttered indignantly every time I saw it. I was a classic example of the kind of American who boasts to Rob Walker, author of the canny new book, "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are," that she's impervious to advertising; I, too, would have proclaimed, "I'm not much of a consumer" -- a statement that Walker, who writes a column called "Consumed" for the New York Times Magazine, hears a lot. I chuckled smugly when Sarah Jessica Parker's character on "Sex in the City" realized that with the money she'd spent on a closet full of overpriced shoes she could have made a down payment on an apartment -- I had 10 modest pairs and a co-op studio. And as for my susceptibility to the sleek, white, expensive gizmos produced by a certain company in Cupertino, well, I told myself that was really all about quality. Right.

Walker, too, once considered himself above the blandishments of Madison Avenue, along with the other 77 percent of Americans who believe themselves to be exceptionally perceptive when it comes to marketing pitches. Then Nike bought Converse, the company that makes those high-top sneakers beloved by "outsider heroes from Joey Ramone to Kurt Cobain." Walker, who'd been wearing Converse's Chuck Taylor All Stars since his teens, was astonished to find himself stricken by the news. His cherished hipster/underground brand had been swallowed by the Nike swoosh, "a symbol for suckers who take its 'Just Do It' bullying at face value." Maybe he was too smart to identify with the "all-style-and-image" Nike, but he'd nevertheless bought into the notion that some significant part of himself -- his "individuality" -- could be proclaimed by a pair of shoes.

"We can talk all we want about being brand-proof," Walker writes, "but our behavior tells a different story." Experimental subjects presented with two identical glasses of Coca-Cola, one labeled as such and the other presented as a mystery rival brand, routinely picked the one they thought was Coke as the better-tasting soda. Citing one cunningly designed study after another, Walker presents ample proof that we are only kidding ourselves if we believe we're impervious to the multibillion-dollar marketing industry. Nevertheless, we are not "obsessed" with consumption, as many critics claim. As Walker sees it, Americans prefer not to ruminate on that particular subject, even as we shop and spend our little hearts out. "To qualify as obsessed we'd have to really think about why we buy what we buy," Walker writes, instead of just telling ourselves that we, unlike the rest of the sheep, purchase things for purely rational, utilitarian reasons like price, quality and convenience.

If we thought about it, maybe we'd also realize that our relationship to brands and marketing campaigns has been undergoing a transformation. Marketers like to talk about the skepticism of the "new consumer," a smart young character fleeing the mainstream and adamantly resistant to all forms of advertising. Walker begs to differ. "The only problem with this theory was that it did not match up particularly well with the realities of the marketplace that I was writing about every week in the Times Magazine," he writes. Instead of being more hostile to what he calls "commercial persuasion," the consumers he observed seem very much involved with brands and products. If traditional advertising has become a less effective way of fostering that involvement, the commercial persuasion industry has in turn been fiendishly resourceful in coming up with alternative methods, infiltrating hitherto unexploited aspects of our lives. The result, as Walker sees it, is a culture in which there is a "secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are," a dialogue that shapes us even as we pretend to be untouched by it.

"Buying In" is an often startling tour of this new cultural terrain, taking in such iconic products as Hello Kitty, Timberland, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Red Bull, as well as Scion, a line of Toyotas that I, apparently, am too uncool to have known about before. Some of these brands, like Timberland and Pabst (or PBR, as the hipsters call it), were established, if small-time, entities before certain consumer subcultures adopted them. The hip-hop world took a liking to a line of boots that had been created for construction workers by a New England family company. Bike messengers in the Pacific Northwest made a Milwaukee beer the brew of choice in the indie-rock scene. In both cases, the manufacturers of those products were disconcerted by their new customers. What they understood to be the cultural meaning of their products -- footwear for working men, and cheap suds for the 45-to-65-year-old Midwestern set -- had been redefined by complete strangers.

This, Walker observes dryly, is what marketing managers mean when they talk of the need to "collaborate" with consumers. The CEO of Timberland became briefly notorious in hip-hop circles for seeming not to welcome the change in his customer base. (They've since patched things up and you can now buy pink versions of the classic work boots.) PBR was more sure-footed: The brewer carefully cultivated its image among the indie crowd by taking great care not to cultivate its image: no ads on local radio, no celebrity endorsements (despite nibbles from Kid Rock) and certainly no TV. PBR's divisional marketing manager, cribbing tactics from Naomi Klein's anti-corporate manifesto, "No Logo" (full of "many good marketing ideas," he told Walker!), worked to make PBR "always look and act the underdog." He was so successful at retaining the brand's cachet (or anti-cachet) that one 28-year-old Oregonian whom Walker interviewed had a foot-square Pabst logo tattooed onto his back. "Pabst is part of my subculture," the kid told the writer, pointing to the absence of Pabst advertising as evidence that "they're not insulting you."

Red Bull, on the other hand, set out to woo this sort of "collaboration" from the very beginning, and thus "became perhaps the quintessential example of how brands become established in the early 21st century." The energy drink (then a relatively new product category) was launched in the U.S. nearly 10 years ago, with "no announcement or even explanation as to what this new stuff was and who was supposed to drink it and why; there was no Big Bang." Instead, the manufacturer sprung for a variety of small events: break-dancing contests, extreme-sports tournaments, computer-gaming competitions, an electronic music workshop and free-sample distribution at gyms and nightclubs. Sponsoring so many of these efforts required what Walker refers to as "real money," yet any given function never came across as glitzy or corporate. "The perception that these events don't cost much to produce is good for us," a Red Bull executive told Walker. "We don't want to be seen as having lots of money to spend." Walker attended a kite-boarding exhibition in Miami (enthusiasts of this new, wind-boarding-like sport were aiming to ride from Key West to Cuba) and found that it looked (very intentionally) like a nonevent: no press releases, no onlookers, no news crews, no free samples. (A videotaped press release about the stunt did get picked up on by 40 local TV stations after the fact.)

Walker calls such tactics "murketing." In contrast to established advertising practices, which strive to communicate one, unified "Big Idea" with as much fanfare as possible, Red Bull's campaign seemed a collection "oddly unfocused and inconsistent" efforts that "never sent a clear message to the masses." And that turns out to be a very clever thing, since Walker has identified "projectability" as the key trait of successful new brands. Instead of telling consumers what the product is all about, the marketers invite many separate slivers of the public to define it for themselves, much as the hip-hop crowd did with Timberland boots. Red Bull "is" an extreme-sports beverage, a bar mixer, a midday pick-me-up, a workout booster, depending on whom you ask. "At worst," Walker observes, "each group simply thinks Red Bull is something for them, partly because they have never been told otherwise."

Younger consumers -- those often referred to as Generation Y and characterized by Walker as "the least rebellious generation since the youth concept was invented" -- have actually embraced the language of brands, so much so that some of them have begun inventing their own. "Streetwear," attitudinous apparel and accessories vaguely descended from the skateboarding culture of 1970s Southern California, is their preferred medium. One of Walker's subjects is a "professional Cool Guy" occasionally consulted on youth culture by corporations and determined to "turn my lifestyle into a business." He concocted a brand called aNYthing ("the only brand that matters"), whose accouterments included T-shirts and caps.

Walker regards such projects as a logical progression from youth cultures past; style has always been an important way of signaling both "individuality" and membership in a particular group. True, skater culture revolved around skateboarding and punk culture around music, but each eventually reached the point where Ramones T-shirts outsold Ramones albums and the demand for skaterly "soft goods" dwarfed the demand for skateboards and helmets. Why not just skip the preliminaries and jump straight to the stuff? "In this instance," Walker writes of the new streetwear product lines, "the symbols, products, and brands aren't an adjunct to the subculture -- they are the subculture."

If this strikes you as absurd, even contemptible, you're surely not alone. Even Walker, who generally gives these kids the benefit of the doubt, finds himself wondering of one "lifestyle" brand, "what, exactly, did the culture or lifestyle actually consist of -- aside from buying products that represent it?" Nevertheless the purveyors see themselves as "rebellious"; they're just communicating their defiance using "the grammar and syntax of commercial persuasion." And, Walker concedes, this is the language that "everyone has, for better or worse, learned to speak." Another young brand-maker he interviewed, the founder of an outfit called Barking Irons, which sells products vaguely connected to the "forgotten" history of New York City, considers his enterprise "a revolution against branding" -- by which he means not the rejection of commercial expression but "the elevation of commercial expression." Instead of big-time corporate logos with nothing to say, he offers boutique designs with a message.

This only makes sense if you argue, as Walker does, that commodities can have real significance. Some objects -- trophies, wedding rings, souvenirs from trips -- patently do stand for important aspects of our lives. (They have what Walker calls "authentic" meaning.) Most people, however, don't want to admit that they believe meaning can also be bought, that Converse sneakers make you a cool outsider or that a MacBook demonstrates one's creativity and unconventionality. Walker thinks we should acknowledge that the things we buy do carry meaning, as long as we also recognize that we're the ones who gave it to them. A wedding ring, for example, only represents the relationship between two people because those two people (along with the society around them) agree that it does. We are the ones who invest these objects with symbolic power, and, furthermore, to do so is a universal human activity. Kidding ourselves that we relate to the objects and products in our lives in a purely rational way (something scientists have disproved over and over again) leaves us open to unconscious manipulation by advertisers.

Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, also finds people's possessions revealing. His specialty is going into rooms and offices and drawing conclusions about the people who inhabit them based on their stuff alone. While "Buying In" nimbly walks the line between consumer enlightenment and marketing advice, Gosling's book, "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," presents itself as a helpful guide for honing largely uncalled-for skills. In the book's main experiment, Gosling's grad students conducted a careful study of strangers' dorm rooms to see what they could glean from the contents. The findings are often unimpressive, such as the revelation that women's rooms tend to contain "stuffed animals, candles and flowers" while men's feature more CDs and "substantial stereo equipment," along with "bills, visible laundry baskets and athletic equipment." Besides being obvious to practically everyone, this interpretation would only come in handy if you happened to be investigating the bedroom of someone you've never even met -- in which case, you don't need tips on personality assessment, you need lessons in elementary ethics.

Part of the problem with "Snoop" is that Gosling's adherence to academically quantifiable results makes for fairly broad and therefore uninteresting definitions of personality traits. Gosling uses a standard called "the Big Five," which assesses an individual's levels of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Some of his observations are piquant -- people who hang posters with inspirational mottos in their offices, for instance, are probably "neurotic" (that is, anxious) rather than upbeat; the posters are meant to reassure and encourage them despite their fears. You can see past superficial attempts to appear organized (like tidiness) by looking for harder-to-fake "behavioral residue" like unalphabetized bookshelves, neglected filing systems or messes stashed just out of sight. Still, most of this book's insights -- people with lots of family photos in their office value relationships, personal Web sites are full of information about the people who maintain them, etc. -- are self-evident.

"Snoop" could do with more demonstrations of Gosling's remarkable powers (if he indeed has them) and a lot less advice. His skill, such as it is, is more of a parlor trick than a practical tool. About the only occasion in which I can imagine needing to deduce someone's basic character by looking at their home is on a date. And if you can't figure out whether someone is extraverted or neurotic, agreeable or cranky, by the time he invites you back to his apartment and leaves you at leisure to poke around, I suspect that either you're incorrigibly inept at judging personality or you're so drunk you don't care.

On one point, both Walker and Gosling concur: When we speak the language of stuff, our primary audience is ourselves, not the proverbial Joneses we're supposedly trying to keep up with. Gosling notes that while we sometimes attempt to "doctor" our spaces to give a better impression, this impulse is always at war with a countervailing desire "to be seen as we see ourselves, regardless of whether those self-views are positive or negative." For his part, Walker holds up the example of Method dish soap, one of a line of cleaning products that comes in "sensational"-looking bottles and costs more than the average, ugly container of Joy. The people who buy Method, oddly enough, don't seem to care much about the quality of the soap itself, yet they can hardly be accused of showing off their trendiness, either. "The only thing less plausible than paying a premium for high-design dish liquid simply because you want to clean dishes," Walker writes, "is to do so because you think that any more than a tiny handful of people will ever see, notice and be impressed by the bottle." The people who buy Method like the way it looks (or, in my case, the way it smells), but whatever statement the product makes about their taste or affluence is mainly intended for the purchasers themselves.

We go wrong, Walker believes, not when we express ourselves through our possessions, but when we allow our possessions to take precedence. It's all too easy for people, under the influence of the siren songs of marketing (or murketing), to drift into a situation in which they use commodities "not to reflect who they are, but to construct who they are. Not to reflect a self, but to build a self." No object, of course, is meaningful enough to fulfill that role, and an endless cycle of chasing after glittering but ultimately unsatisfying products is likely to ensue. Pretending that the stuff in our life is simply, mutely functional might seem like an antidote to this cycle, but in its own way, it's just as delusional.

Your stuff is always talking about you, behind your back and to your face. To find out whether it's telling the truth, you have to listen.

-- By Laura Miller

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posted by R J Noriega at 1:46 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, June 06, 2008
10 airports install body scanners Devices can peer under passengers' clothes
By Thomas Frank

BALTIMORE — Body-scanning machines that show images of people underneath their clothing are being installed in 10 of the nation's busiest airports in one of the biggest public uses of security devices that reveal intimate body parts.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently started using body scans on randomly chosen passengers in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, Albuquerque and at New York's Kennedy airport.

Airports in Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas and Miami will be added this month. Reagan National Airport in Washington starts using a body scanner today. A total of 38 machines will be in use within weeks.

"It's the wave of the future," said James Schear, the TSA security director at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where two body scanners are in use at one checkpoint.

Schear said the scanners could eventually replace metal detectors at the nation's 2,000 airport checkpoints and the pat-downs done on passengers who need extra screening. "We're just scratching the surface of what we can do with whole-body imaging," Schear said.

The TSA effort could encourage scanners' use in rail stations, arenas and office buildings, the American Civil Liberties Union said. "This may well set a precedent that others will follow," said Barry Steinhardt, head of the ACLU technology project.

Scanners are used in a few courthouses, jails and U.S. embassies, as well as overseas border crossings, military checkpoints and some foreign airports such as Amsterdam's Schiphol.

The scanners bounce harmless "millimeter waves" off passengers who are selected to stand inside a portal with arms raised after clearing the metal detector. A TSA screener in a nearby room views the black-and-white image and looks for objects on a screen that are shaded differently from the body. Finding a suspicious object, a screener radios a colleague at the checkpoint to search the passenger.

The TSA says it protects privacy by blurring passengers' faces and deleting images right after viewing. Yet the images are detailed, clearly showing a person's gender. "You can actually see the sweat on someone's back," Schear said.

The scanners aim to strengthen airport security by spotting plastic and ceramic weapons and explosives that evade metal detectors and are the biggest threat to aviation. Government audits have found that screeners miss a large number of weapons, bombs and bomb parts such as wires and timers that agents sneak through checkpoints.

"I'm delighted by this development," said Clark Kent Ervin, the former Homeland Security inspector general whose reports urged the use of body scanners. "This really is the ultimate answer to increasing screeners' ability to spot concealed weapons."

The scanners do a good job seeing under clothing but cannot see through plastic or rubber materials that resemble skin, said Peter Siegel, a senior scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

"You probably could find very common materials that you could wrap around you that would effectively obscure things," Siegel said.

Passengers who went through a scanner at the Baltimore airport last week were intrigued, reassured and occasionally wary. The process took about 30 seconds on average.

Stepping into the 9-foot-tall glass booth, Eileen Reardon of Baltimore looked startled when an electronic glass door slid around the outside of the machine to create the image of her body. "Some of this stuff seems a little crazy," Reardon said, "but in this day and age, you have to go along with it."

Scott Shafer of Phoenix didn't mind a screener looking at him underneath his shorts and polo shirt from a nearby room. The door is kept shut and blocked with floor screens. "I don't know that person back there. I'll never seem them," Shafer said. "Everything personal is taken out of the equation."

Steinhardt of the ACLU said passengers would be alarmed if they saw the image of their body. "It all seems very clinical and non-threatening — you go through this portal and don't have any idea what's at the other end," he said.

Passengers scanned in Baltimore said they did not know what the scanner did and were not told why they were directed into the booth.

Magazine-size signs are posted around the checkpoint explaining the scanners, but passengers said they did not notice them.

Darin Scott of Miami was annoyed by the process.

"If you don't ask questions, they don't tell you anything," Scott said. When he asked a screener technical questions about the scanner, "he could not answer," Scott said.

TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said the agency is studying passenger reaction and could "get more creative" about informing passengers. "If passengers have questions," she said, "they need to ask the questions."

Passengers can decline to go through a scanner, but they will face a pat-down.

Schear, the Baltimore security director, said only 4% of passengers decline.

In Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, where scanners have been tested since last year as an alternative to pat-downs, 90% of passengers choose to be scanned, the TSA says.

"Most passengers don't think it's any big deal," Schear said. "They think it's a piece of security they're willing to do."

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posted by R J Noriega at 2:41 PM | Permalink | 0 comments

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