Saturday, March 28, 2009

Statistics: Watching Ourselves Into A Stupor: The Lure Of The Screen...

"I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air... and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a great wasteland."
-Newton N. Minow, ( Speech - National Assn. of Broadcasters, Washington., DC, 5.9.1961).


Adult Americans spend an average of more than eight hours a day in front of screens -- televisions, computer monitors, cellphones or other devices, according to a new study. The study also found that live television in the home continues to attract the greatest amount of viewing time with the average American spending slightly more than five hours a day in front of the tube.

The figure drops to 210 minutes a day of average TV viewing time among 18-24 year olds but rises to 420 minutes a day among those aged 65 and older.

The "Video Consumer Mapping" study was conducted by Ball State University's Center for Media Design (CMD) and Sequent Partners for the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence (CRE). For the year-long study, observers recorded the exposure of 350 subjects to four categories of screens: traditional television, computers, mobile devices and other screens such as store displays, movie screens and even GPS navigation units. The study found the average amount of screen time for all age groups was "strikingly similar" at more than eight-and-a-half hours although the type of devices and duration used by the respective groups throughout the day varied.

It found that people aged 45 to 54 averaged the most daily screen time at just over nine-and-a-half hours. The study did not include anyone under the age of 18.

Among other finds:
  • Computer video consumption tends to be quite small with an average time of just over two minutes a day.
  • Adults spend an average of 6.5 minutes a day with videogame consoles with the number rising to 26 minutes a day among those aged 18-24
  • Adults spend an average 142 minutes a day in front of computer screens
  • Adults spend an average 20 minutes a day engaged with mobile devices with the highest usage -- 43 minutes a day -- among the 18-24 age group
"What differentiates this study from all other attempts to measure video exposure at the consumer level is its scale, the range of media covered and the fact that it is focused on consumers first and the media second," said Mike Bloxham, director of insight and research for Ball State's CMD. "It’s not a study about TV or the Web or any other medium -- it’s about how, where, how often and for how long consumers are exposed to all media."


1. Watching:

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube
  • Percentage of households that possess at least one television: 99
  • Number of TV sets in the average U.S. household: 2.24
  • Percentage of U.S. homes with three or more TV sets: 66
  • Number of hours per day that TV is on in an average U.S. home: 6 hours, 47 minutes
  • Percentage of Americans that regularly watch television while eating dinner: 66
  • Number of hours of TV watched annually by Americans: 250 billion
  • Value of that time assuming an average wage of S5/hour: S1.25 trillion
  • Percentage of Americans who say they watch too much TV: 49
2. Children:
  • Approximate number of studies examining TV's effects on children: 4,000
  • Number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children: 3.5
  • Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680
  • Percentage of day care centers that use TV during a typical day: 70
  • Percentage of parents who would like to limit their children's TV watching: 73
  • Percentage of 4-6 year-olds who, when asked to choose between watching TV and spending time with their fathers, preferred television: 54
  • Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900 hours
  • Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1500
3. Violence:
  • Number of murders seen on TV by the time an average child finishes elementary school: 8,000
  • Number of violent acts seen on TV by age 18: 200,000
  • Percentage of Americans who believe TV violence helps precipitate real life mayhem: 79
4. Commercialism:
  • Number of 30-second TV commercials seen in a year by an average child: 20,000
  • Number of TV commercials seen by the average person by age 65: 2 million
  • Percentage of survey participants (1993) who said that TV commercials
  • aimed at children make them too materialistic: 92
  • Rank of food products/fast-food restaurants among TV advertisements to kids: 1
  • Total spending by 100 leading TV advertisers in 1993: $15 billion
5. General:
  • Percentage of local TV news broadcast time devoted to advertising: 30
  • Percentage devoted to stories about crime, disaster and war: 53.8
  • Percentage devoted to public service announcements: 0.7
  • Percentage of Americans who can name The Three Stooges: 59
  • Percentage who can name at least three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court: 17
- (Part I: "Americans Spend Eight Hours a Day on Screens," 3.27.2009, Part II: TV-Free America, 2008. Image: -SweetyViolence,, 2008 ).

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Moral Nihilism, Sadism & The Rise Of The Schizoid Machines...

The values that sustain an open society have been crushed.

A university, as John Ralston Saul writes, now "actively seeks students who suffer from the appropriate imbalance and then sets out to exaggerate it. Imagination, creativity, moral balance, knowledge, common sense, a social view-all these things wither. Competitiveness, having an ever-ready answer, a talent for manipulating situations-all these things are encouraged to grow. As a result amorality also grows; as does extreme aggressivity when they are questioned by outsiders; as does a confusion between the nature of good versus having a ready answer to all questions. Above all, what is encouraged is the growth of an undisciplined form of self-interest, in which winning is what counts."

This moral nihilism would have terrified philosopher,Theodor W. Adorno. He knew that radical evil was possible only with the collaboration of a timid, cowed and confused population, a system of propaganda and a press that offered little more than spectacle and entertainment and an educational system that did not transmit transcendent values or nurture the capacity for individual conscience. He feared a culture that banished the anxieties and complexities of moral choice and embraced a childish hyper-masculinity, one championed by ruthless capitalists (think of the brutal backstabbing and deception cheered by TV shows like "Survivor") and Hollywood action heroes like the governor of California.

"This educational ideal of hardness, in which many may believe without reflecting about it, is utterly wrong,"
Adorno wrote. "The idea that virility consists in the maximum degree of endurance long ago became a screen-image for masochism that, as psychology has demonstrated, aligns itself all too easily with sadism."

Sadism is as much a part of popular culture as it is of corporate culture. It dominates pornography, runs like an electric current through reality television and trash-talk programs and is at the core of the compliant, corporate collective. Corporatism is about crushing the capacity for moral choice. And it has its logical fruition in Abu Ghraib, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our lack of compassion for the homeless, our poor, the mentally ill, the unemployed and the sick.

"The political and economic forces fuelling such crimes against humanity-whether they are unlawful wars, systemic torture, practiced indifference to chronic starvation and disease or genocidal acts-are always mediated by educational forces," c
ultural critic Henry Giroux said. "Resistance to such acts cannot take place without a degree of knowledge and self-reflection. We have to name these acts and transform moral outrage into concrete attempts to prevent such human violations from taking place in the first place."

The single most important quality needed to resist evil is moral autonomy. Moral autonomy, as Immanuel Kant wrote, is possible only through reflection, self-determination and the courage not to cooperate.

Moral autonomy is what the corporate state, with all its attacks on liberal institutions and "leftist" professors, has really set out to destroy. The corporate state holds up as our ideal what Adorno called "the manipulative character." The manipulative character has superb organizational skills and the inability to have authentic human experiences. He or she is an emotional cripple and driven by an overvalued realism. The manipulative character is a systems manager. He or she exclusively trained to sustain the corporate structure, which is why our elites are wasting mind-blowing amounts of our money on corporations like Goldman Sachs and AIG.

"He makes a cult of action, activity, of so-called efficiency as such which reappears in the advertising image of the active person," Adorno wrote of this personality type. These manipulative characters, people like Lawrence Summers, Henry Paulson, Robert Rubin, Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, AIG's Edward Liddy and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, along with most of our ruling class, have used corporate money and power to determine the narrow parameters of the debate in our classrooms, on the airwaves and in the halls of Congress while they looted the country.

"It is especially difficult to fight against it," warned Adorno, "because those manipulative people, who actually are incapable of true experience, for that very reason manifest an unresponsiveness that associates them with certain mentally ill or psychotic characters, namely schizoids."

-Chris Hedges, (Excerpt: "America is in Need of a Moral Bailout," 3.23.2009. Image: -Spellbot5000, "Terminator,"Flickr, 2008).

Monday, March 23, 2009

Evildoers & The Authors of Our Misery: Financial Industry Lobbyists...

The popular urge to claw back the bogus bonuses paid by American International Group is irresistible and fully justified, but should the Treasury someday retrieve every single bonus dollar, that total of $165 million will make no difference to anyone except a few disgruntled traders. From the jaded perspective of the financiers, the uproar over the AIG bonuses may provide a welcome distraction from far more important (and lucrative) abuses in the world's offshore tax havens.

So rather than continue arguing over chump change, it is long past time for the United States, with its international friends and allies, to demand accountability from the long list of tiny countries and principalities, from Andorra and the Cayman Islands to Singapore and Switzerland, where corporations, wealthy clients and unrepentant evildoers hide their assets.

The big claw-back will reach into quaint islands and mountainous principalities, because the same banks, hedge funds and private equity firms responsible for the world financial meltdown keep their profits in those "secrecy spaces" -- alongside the ill-gotten gains of numerous drug dealers, dictators and delinquents of every description.

According to the Government Accountability Office, nearly all of America's top 100 corporations maintain subsidiaries in countries identified as tax havens. As the GAO notes, there could be reasons other than avoiding the IRS to set up branches in places such as Singapore, Luxembourg and Switzerland, where taxes are light or nonexistent and keeping clients' illicit secrets is considered a matter of national pride.

But what reason other than evasion could there be for Goldman Sachs Group to set up three subsidiaries in Bermuda, five in Mauritius, and 15 in the Cayman Islands? Why did Countrywide Financial need two subsidiaries in Guernsey? Why did Wachovia need 18 subsidiaries in Bermuda, three in the British Virgin Islands, and 16 in the Caymans? Why did Lehman Brothers need 31 subsidiaries in the Caymans? What do Bank of America's 59 subsidiaries in the Caymans actually do? Why does Citigroup need 427 separate subsidiaries in tax havens, including 12 in the Channel Islands, 21 in Jersey, 91 in Luxembourg, 19 in Bermuda and 90 in the Caymans? What exactly is going on at Morgan Stanley's 19 subs in Jersey, 29 subs in Luxembourg, 14 subs in the Marshall Islands, and its amazing 158 subs in the Caymans? And speaking of AIG, why does it have 18 subs in tax-haven countries? (Don't expect to find out from Fox News Channel or the New York Post, because News Corp. has its own constellation of strange subsidiaries, including 33 in the Caymans alone.)

When the cost of these shenanigans was last estimated two years ago, the U.S. government's annual loss in revenue due to tax avoidance by major corporations and super-rich individuals was pegged at about $100 billion -- considerably more than a rounding error, even today. But of course that is only a rough assessment, as is the estimate of $12 trillion in untaxed assets hidden around the world. Nobody will know for certain until the books are opened and transparency is established.

Whatever the accurate accounting proves to be, it is certain to exceed hundreds of billions annually worldwide. That is money every country will need badly for years, to repay debt, finance reconstruction, and fund services, as the world economy struggles to revive itself. Even in the developing countries, where incomes are much lower and billionaires tend to be scarce, the annual revenue loss could be as much as $50 billion -- enough to meet the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (if only the money were not stolen by local elites and wired away to numbered accounts in tax havens).

None of these tax havens could exist without the connivance or at least the cooperation of the world's most powerful governments, which remain dominated by financial industry lobbyists even now. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has sought greater transparency from the tax havens for years, hearing promises from most and defiance from a few.

But in reality almost nothing was accomplished until last year, when U.S. law enforcement authorities began to pursue Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) executives with criminal indictments. The UBS probe led to a settlement last month that included a fine of $780 million and an agreement to provide information about tens of thousands of American clients maintaining secret accounts at that huge bank.

Over the past several years, however, the trend has gone the other way, with abuse of bank secrecy and the expatriation of investment and profits growing rapidly. On the tiny island of Jersey in the English Channel, for instance, the authorities responded to political pressure from hedge funds, which have placed more than $80 billion in deposits there, by establishing a "zero regulation regime" last year that literally removed all restrictions and reporting on financial transactions. Jersey's counterparts in Guernsey and the Cayman Islands responded by assuring the hedge funds that they, too, would consider abolishing all regulation.

Perhaps the UBS case indicates a change in that unwholesome trend and a renewed willingness on the part of American authorities to crack the tax havens -- which was not a priority, to put it mildly, of the Bush administration. As a senator, Barack Obama supported legislation to break open the secret financial regimes, by retaliating against countries and principalities that refuse to cooperate. Now Congress and the White House should pass such legislation and make breaking the tax havens a high priority in partnership with the European Union, the OECD and World Bank. They could start by threatening to outlaw transactions between American banks and financial institutions in any country that rejects new rules for transparency and reciprocal information.

If Americans want to make the authors of our misery pay up, then the auditors must go where the money is, as Willie Sutton might have explained -- and take hundreds of billions back.

-Joe Conason, “AIG is chump change -- let's find corporate America's hidden billions”,, 3.23.2009. Image: - "Network," starring Peter Finch, directed by Sidney Lumet, 1976).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Truth Or Consequences: An Insatiable Appetite For Wealth...

“My God, the suburbs! They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory, and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split-level village where the place-name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew-off her head with a shotgun” -John Cheever, (Esquire, 7.1960).

“In the highly artificial and materialistic bases of modern civilization, with the corresponding arrangements and methods of living, the force-infusion of intellect alone, the depraving influences of riches just as much as poverty, the absence of all high ideals in character -- with the long series of tendencies, shapings, which few are strong enough to resist, and which now seem, with steam-engine speed, to be everywhere turning out the generations of humanity like uniform iron castings -- all of which, as compared with the feudal ages, we can yet do nothing better than accept, make the best of, and even welcome, upon the whole, for their oceanic practical grandeur, and their restless wholesale kneading of the masses -- I say of all this tremendous and dominant play of solely materialistic bearings upon current life in the United States, with the results as already seen, accumulating, and reaching far into the future, that they must either be confronted and met by at least an equally subtle and tremendous force-infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine esthetics, and for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness -- or else our modern civilization, with all its improvements, is in vain, and we are on the road to a destiny, a status, equivalent, in its real world, to that of the fabled damned.” -Walt Whitman (“Democratic Vista,” 1871).

" The United States will never be Europe. It was born as a commercial republic. It’s addicted to the pace of commercial enterprise. After periodic pauses, the country inevitably returns to its elemental nature.

The U.S. is in one of those pauses today. It has been odd, over the past six months, not to have the gospel of success as part of the normal background music of life. You go about your day, taking in the news and the new movies, books and songs, and only gradually do you become aware that there is an absence. There are no aspirational stories of rags-to-riches success floating around. There are no new how-to-get-rich enthusiasms. There are few magazine covers breathlessly telling readers that some new possibility — biotechnology, nanotechnology — is about to change everything. That part of American culture that stokes ambition and encourages risk has gone silent.

We are now in an astonishingly noncommercial moment. Risk is out of favor. The financial world is abashed. Enterprise is suspended. The public culture is dominated by one downbeat story after another as members of the educated class explore and enjoy the humiliation of the capitalist vulgarians.

Washington is temporarily at the center of the nation’s economic gravity and a noncommercial administration holds sway. This is an administration that has many lawyers and academics but almost no businesspeople in it, let alone self-made entrepreneurs. The president speaks passionately about education and health care reform, but he is strangely aloof from the banking crisis and displays no passion when speaking about commercial drive and success.

But if there is one thing we can be sure of, this pause will not last. The cultural DNA of the past 400 years will not be erased. The pendulum will swing hard. The gospel of success will recapture the imagination.

Walt Whitman got America right in his essay, “Democratic Vistas.” He acknowledged the vulgarity of the American success drive. He toted up its moral failings. But in the end, he accepted his country’s “extreme business energy,” its “almost maniacal appetite for wealth.” He knew that the country’s dreams were all built upon that energy and drive, and eventually the spirit of commercial optimism would always prevail.”

-David Brooks, (Excerpt: "The Commercial Republic," 3.17.2009. Image: -H. Armstrong Roberts,1960s).

VIOLETPLANET SAYS: But of course, nothing lasts forever now does it?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Numbers: Human Trafficking, Arms Deals, Sex, Drugs & Art...


Total value of the global slave trade:

$31 billion

Number of people enslaved today:

27 million

Price traffickers receive for a trafficked woman in Turkey:


Price of an hour with a woman from the Emporer's Club V. I. P., the online prostitution ring frequented by former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer:



Price of one kilogram of cocaine in Colombia, South America:


Price of one kilogram of cocaine in Miami:


Chances that a U.S. one-dollar bill contains traces of cocaine:

4 in 5

Percent of total world trade accounted for by the illegal drug industry:


Ratio of opium production in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007:


Percent of worldwide heroin production accounted for by Afghanistan:



Barter rate for an AK-47 in Kenya in 1986:

10 cows

Barter rate for an AK-47 in Kenya in 2001:

2 cows

Total value of illegal small arms and light weapons trade:

$1 billion

Percent of global weapons sales accounted for by the U.S.:


Ratio of guns to people on the planet:


Ratio of guns to people in the U.S.



Reward for stolen painting by Vermeer:

$5 million

Total value of the black market in art:

$6 billion

Number of pieces of art stolen in the U.S. in 2006:

14, 981

Number of pieces of art stolen in the U.S in 2007:

16, 117

-Lapham's Quarterly, ("Crimes & Punishments" Vol. II, Number 2, Spring 2009. Image: Screenshot - " Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne," starring MariaCasares, directed by Robert Bresson, 1945).

Monday, March 9, 2009

On Breeding: Eremozoic Humanity-Biological Wasteland Earth...

"If any other species behaves like Man we call it a plague." -Terminal Growth In A Finite World

"All measures to thwart the degradation and destruction of our ecosystem will be useless if we do not cut population growth. By 2050, if we continue to reproduce at the current rate, the planet will have between 8 billion and 10 billion people, according to a recent U.N. forecast. This is a 50 percent increase.

We are experiencing an accelerated obliteration of the planet's life-forms-an estimated 8,760 species die off per year-because, simply put, there are too many people. Most of these extinctions are the direct result of the expanding need for energy, housing, food and other resources.

Population growth, as E.O. Wilson says, is "the monster on the land." Species are vanishing at a rate of a hundred to a thousand times faster than they did before the arrival of humans. If the current rate of extinction continues, Homo sapiens will be one of the few life-forms left on the planet, its members scrambling violently among themselves for water, food, fossil fuels and perhaps air until they too disappear. Humanity is leaving the Cenozoic, the age of mammals, and entering the Eremozoic-the era of solitude.

As long as the Earth is viewed as the personal property of the human race, a belief embraced by everyone from born-again Christians to Marxists to free-market economists, we are destined to soon inhabit a biological wasteland.

The populations in industrialized nations maintain their lifestyles because they have the military and economic power to consume a disproportionate share of the world's resources. The United States alone gobbles up about 25 percent of the oil produced in the world each year. These nations view their stable or even zero growth birthrates as sufficient. It has been left to developing countries to cope with the emergent population crisis. India, Egypt, South Africa, Iran, Indonesia, Cuba and China, whose one-child policy has prevented the addition of 400 million people, have all tried to institute population control measures. But on most of the planet, population growth is exploding.

The U.N. estimates that 200 million women worldwide do not have access to contraception. The population of the Persian Gulf states, along with the Israeli-occupied territories, will double in two decades, a rise that will ominously coincide with precipitous peak oil declines.

The resources that industrialized nations consider their birthright will become harder and more expensive to obtain. Rising water levels on coastlines, which may submerge coastal nations such as Bangladesh, will disrupt agriculture and displace millions, who will attempt to flee to areas on the planet where life is still possible. The rising temperatures and droughts have already begun to destroy crop lands in Africa, Australia, Texas and California. The effects of this devastation will first be felt in places like Bangladesh, but will soon spread within our borders.

Overpopulation will become a serious threat to the viability of many industrialized states the instant the cheap consumption of the world's resources can no longer be maintained. This moment may be closer than we think.

A world where 8 billion to 10 billion people are competing for diminishing resources will not be peaceful. The industrialized nations will, as we have done in Iraq, turn to their militaries to ensure a steady supply of fossil fuels, minerals and other nonrenewable resources in the vain effort to sustain a lifestyle that will, in the end, be unsustainable. The collapse of industrial farming, which is made possible only with cheap oil, will lead to an increase in famine, disease and starvation. And the reaction of those on the bottom will be the low-tech tactic of terrorism and war.

James Lovelock, an independent British scientist who has spent most of his career locked out of the mainstream, warned several decades ago that disrupting the delicate balance of the Earth, which he refers to as a living body, would be a form of collective suicide. The atmosphere on Earth-21 percent oxygen and 79 percent nitrogen-is not common among planets, he notes. These gases are generated, and maintained at an equable level for life's processes, by living organisms themselves. Oxygen and nitrogen would disappear if the biosphere was destroyed. The result would be a greenhouse atmosphere similar to that of Venus, a planet that is consequently hundreds of degrees hotter than Earth. Lovelock argues that the atmosphere, oceans, rocks and soil are living entities. They constitute, he says, a self-regulating system.

Lovelock, in support of this thesis, looked at the cycle in which algae in the oceans produce volatile sulfur compounds. These compounds act as seeds to form oceanic clouds. Without these dimethyl sulfide "seeds" the cooling oceanic clouds would be lost. This self-regulating system is remarkable because it maintains favorable conditions for human life. Its destruction would not mean the death of the planet. It would not mean the death of life-forms. But it would mean the death of Homo sapiens.

Lovelock advocates nuclear power and thermal solar power; the latter, he says, can be produced by huge mirrors mounted in deserts such as those in Arizona and the Sahara. He proposes reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide with large plastic cylinders thrust vertically into the ocean. These, he says, could bring nutrient-rich lower waters to the surface, producing an algal bloom that would increase the cloud cover. But he warns that these steps will be ineffective if we do not first control population growth. He believes the Earth is overpopulated by a factor of about seven. As the planet overheats-and he believes we can do nothing to halt this process-overpopulation will make all efforts to save the ecosystem futile.

If we do not reduce our emissions by 60 percent, something that can be achieved only by walking away from fossil fuels, the human race is doomed, he argues. Time is running out. This reduction will never take place, he says, unless we can dramatically reduce our birthrate."

-Chris Hedges, Excerpt: "We Are Breeding Ourselves Into Extinction,", 3.9.2009. Images: -Michael Rougier, Munich, Germany, LIFE Magazine, 6.1958).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Defining Higgs-Boson: The Celestial Mechanics of The God Particle...

"There are children playing in the streets who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago."
-J. Robert Oppenheimer

The Higgs Mechanism:

"Imagine a cocktail party of political party workers who are uniformly distributed across the floor, all talking to their nearest neighbours. The ex-Prime Minister enters and crosses the room. All of the workers in her neighbourhood are strongly attracted to her and cluster round her. As she moves she attracts the people she comes close to, while the ones she has left return to their even spacing. Because of the knot of people always clustered around her she acquires a greater mass than normal, that is she has more momentum for the same speed of movement across the room. Once moving she is hard to stop, and once stopped she is harder to get moving again because the clustering process has to be restarted.

In three dimensions, and with the complications of relativity, this is the Higgs mechanism. In order to give particles mass, a background field is invented which becomes locally distorted whenever a particle moves through it. The distortion - the clustering of the field around the particle - generates the particle's mass. The idea comes directly from the physics of solids. Instead of a field spread throughout all space a solid contains a lattice of positively charged crystal atoms. When an electron moves through the lattice the atoms are attracted to it, causing the electron's effective mass to be as much as 40 times bigger than the mass of a free electron.

The postulated Higgs field in the vacuum is a sort of hypothetical lattice which fills our Universe. We need it because otherwise we cannot explain why the Z and W particles which carry the weak interactions are so heavy while the photon which carries electromagnetic forces is massless.

The Higgs Boson aka The God Particle:

Now consider a rumour passing through our room full of uniformly spread political workers. Those near the door hear of it first and cluster together to get the details, then they turn and move closer to their next neighbours who want to know about it too. A wave of clustering passes through the room. It may spread to all the corners or it may form a compact bunch which carries the news along a line of workers from the door to some dignitary at the other side of the room. Since the information is carried by clusters of people, and since it was clustering that gave extra mass to the ex-Prime Minister, then the rumour-carrying clusters also have mass.

The Higgs boson is predicted to be just such a clustering in the Higgs field. We will find it much easier to believe that the field exists, and that the mechanism for giving other particles is true, if we actually see the Higgs particle itself. Again, there are analogies in the physics of solids. A crystal lattice can carry waves of clustering without needing an electron to move and attract the atoms. These waves can behave as if they are particles. They are called phonons and they too are bosons. There could be a Higgs mechanism, and a Higgs field throughout our Universe, without there being a Higgs boson."

"I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics." -Albert Einstein (New York Times Magazine, 11.9.1930).

- David Miller ( Article: "Politics, Solid State and the Higgs," Dept of Physics and Astronomy, University College, UK, 2000s. Image: -Woman as Higgs Mechanism, 1930s).

Monday, March 2, 2009

The American Theory Of Life: A Crisis Of Belief...

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." -F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, 1925).

In the fall of 1933, Sherwood Anderson left his home in New York City and set out on a series of journeys that would take him across large sections of the American South and Midwest. He was engaged in a project shared by many of his fellow writers -- including James Agee, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, and Louis Adamic -- all of whom responded to the Great Depression by traveling the nation's back roads and hinterlands hoping to discover how economic disaster had affected the common people. Like many of his peers, Anderson had anticipated anger and radicalism among the poor and unemployed. Instead, he discovered a people stunned by the collapse of their most cherished beliefs. "Puzzled America," the title of the book he composed out of his journeys, said it all.

In particular, Anderson found the people he met to be imprisoned by what he called the "American theory of life" -- a celebration of personal ambition that now seemed cruelly inappropriate:

"We Americans have all been taught from childhood that it is a sort of moral obligation for each of us to rise, to get up in the world." In the crisis of the Depression, however, that belief appeared absurd. The United States now confronted what Anderson called "a crisis of belief."

As Anderson knew, the notion that the United States is a uniquely open society, where the talented and industrious always have the chance to better their lot, is a central element of American self-understanding. The notion has been a prominent feature of American culture since the days of Ben Franklin, and it remains a core feature of the national ethos to this day. Indeed, in recent months the election of Barack Obama has reminded Americans of the promise that in the United States opportunity can be open to all.

The Great Depression, however, subjected even the strongest convictions to stark challenge, revealing cracks in the vision of social mobility that the recent prosperity of the nineteen-twenties had managed to obscure. In truth, the notion that the U.S. was an open and fluid society had always been nearly as much myth as reality -- even when, as was necessarily the case, it was assumed to apply to white men alone. But the myth had come to an especially paradoxical stage in its development in the years leading up to the crash.

Never in American history had the vision of social mobility been more forcefully asserted than in the 1920s. And rarely had the image been so far out of keeping with reality. The Republican Party, which dominated national politics throughout the decade, extolled the twin virtues of economic competition and personal ambition, reminding Americans often that they lived, as Herbert Hoover remarked, in "a fluid classless society...unique in the world." That rhetoric was redoubled by a booming new advertising industry which promised that consumers might vault up the ladder of social status through carefully chosen purchases (often with consumer credit, a recent invention).

And yet, the United States actually became less equal and less fluid in the 1920s, as the era's prosperity increasingly benefited the wealthiest. By the end of the decade, the top 1% of the population received nearly a quarter of the national income, an historic peak that would not be approached again until this past decade. Indeed, the term "social mobility" was coined in 1925 by the sociologist Pitrim Sorokin, who used the phrase to identify a phenomenon in apparent decline.

"The wealthy class of the United States is becoming less and less open, and is tending to be transformed into a caste-like group."

The conflict between the American myth of a classless society and the reality of the nation's deepening caste divisions was the irony at the core of some of the greatest literary works of the 1920s, including Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." But it was not until the Great Depression that the traditional vision of social mobility imploded.

Traveling the country, Anderson and his fellow observers found a populace confused by a collapse they could not understand. Everywhere he turned, Anderson noted, he heard the same refrain, "I failed. I failed. It's my own fault." The documentary books that he and his contemporaries created provided a kind of counter-narrative to the conventional American story of personal freedom and individual ambition. These works featured a journey not upward toward wealth and progress, but back into the hinterlands of a confused and immobilized nation.

That journey was echoed by a whole genre of "road" novels, written by angry young writers like Nelson Algren, who depicted an itinerant population of bottom dogs lurching from one disaster to the next. These novels answered the classic American vision of opportunity by imagining a nation of wanderers rapidly going nowhere.

So, too, did the cycle of gangster films -- "Little Caesar," "Scarface," "Public Enemy" -- which reached the peak of their popularity in the early '30s. Depicting boldly ruthless young men whose quests for wealth and power were doomed to end in self-destruction, the gangster film cast personal ambition as a cruel delusion. Even the era's light-hearted "screwball comedies," such as "It Happened One Night" and "My Man Godfrey," were sometimes fables of downward mobility, where arrogant socialites were brought down a notch by their encounters with ordinary people.

The road novels, documentary books and gangster films of the 1930s depicted the myth of social mobility as a bitter cheat. The era's screwball comedies viewed it merely as delightfully laughable. But all suggested that the Depression had left a core feature of American ideology in disarray, and thus emphasized the extent to which the traditional American language of personal ambition was open to redefinition. That opportunity would be seized on by a cohort of artists and intellectuals who took the crisis of the Depression as a chance to cast the idea of social mobility less as a framework for individual striving and more as an occasion for collective action.

John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" made the Joad family's flight from the dust bowl into an emblem of people coming together to remake their world. A similar image was implicit in the very title of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor's documentary book "An American Exodus." Even works of light entertainment like the massively popular "Gone With the Wind" or John Ford's landmark Western "Stagecoach" were in keeping with the prevailing message of the times. All these works told of epic journeys in which a group of people overcame destructive competition in their discovery of a common destiny. Each called for Americans to act collectively to remake a democratic society where opportunity would be open to all.

In effect, such declarations helped lay the cultural groundwork for the New Deal, providing the ideological infrastructure for the new governmental institutions created during the '30s. It is not yet clear whether the current economic disaster will produce anything like the profound transformation that shook the U.S. during the Great Depression. Our own crises of belief are likely just beginning. If we are fortunate, however, we will have a generation of artists and intellectuals like those of the 1930s to help us imagine our way past confusion.

-Sean McCann, PhD ("Will This Crisis Produce a 'Gatsby'?", Wall Street Journal, 2.21.2009. Image: -Robert Redford as F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, "The Great Gatsby," directed by Jack Clayton, 1974 ).