Thursday, February 23, 2012

Orwell's Down and Out

Review of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. (Harcourt, 1933). You can read it online at
Warning: this book may change your view of Orwell (who was born Eric Blair in 1903 in India) and will most likely turn you off eating in restaurants. 

This book vividly illustrates Orwell’s first-hand experience of poverty. After running out of money in Paris and pawning what he could, he works as a plongeur, a sort of combination dishwasher and general help behind the scenes in a hotel or restaurant kitchen. That’s where you get the details about how very far from sanitary the conditions are – even at expensive establishments. 

Later on he returns to England on borrowed funds, but his new employer is not yet around, so he is reduced to tramping and staying at prison-like homeless shelters, which he calls casual wards and experienced tramps call a “spike.” He gives a glossary of such terms in chapter 32 and then proceeds to analyze the progression of swear words with contrasts between French and English usage. This is rather amusing in this edition because no word beyond “bloody” gets spelled out. Every other word is signified only by _, so the reader really does not know which word he has in mind when he says “For example, __” (p. 177). Here he also remarks on the surprising fact that “cow” is the worst insult for women in both France and England, despite the fact that “cows are among the most likeable of animals. Evidently a word is an insult simply because it is meant as an insult, without reference to its dictionary meaning; words, especially swear words, being what public opinion chooses to make them” (p. 178). He also notes that an Englishman will desist from swearing in front of a woman, though a Frenchman does not, and French women swear themselves.

Orwell does not just analyze language here, but the attitudes towards the poor. He concludes that the poor are kept down and wrongfully classified as being of a different order than those with more money. He is highly critical of the social policies set up for the homeless in England. He argues that both the French plongeur and the English tramp is cut off from what is considered normal life because he cannot marry. The working man doesn’t have the time or the money with 15 hour days being the norm and wages just adequate to keep him alive with an occasional night out drinking. The tramp, he says, also does not have access to women. He ponders why there are so few women tramps and concludes that a woman is better off because she has the option to attach herself to a man and not suffer as much from poverty. That conclusion astounded me because Orwell constantly refers to prostitutes and includes a story told to him in Paris in which a young man boasted of the pleasure he had in abusing a young woman who was likely sold into the brothel by her parents. Victor Hugo depicted the fall into poverty of such women very well in Les Miserables, but Orwell does not give any thought to their point of view with all his pondering on the wrongs of society and the mistreatment of the poor. 

The book is filled with numerous character sketches and anecdotes. In England, we meet a “screever,” a pavement artist. Though he can earn quite a bit when times are good, he earns nothing from his craft on rainy days, and his life is nothing like the sunny one Dick Van Dyke portrays in the character of Bert in Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins - Bert The Pavement Artist) . In Paris, Orwell teams up with the Russian Boris who recounts the rather funny way he got out of his vow to a saint – and he is a self-declared atheist. There are also characters who tell stories about other people. One involves an elaborate scheme to smuggle cocaine into England from France. When the police come, the ones who have it try to pass it off as face powder, and … well, I won’t give that away. But the mastermind of the scheme and the swindle in the story is a Jew. 

Any time a Jew is mentioned, it is to bring up a bad character. Orwell even quotes a saying in chapter 13: “Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don't trust an Armenian.” And he takes that as absolute truth in connection to a story about being cheated by a man he took to be an Armenian. The pawn broker who cheats his customers is a Jew. And Boris who is reduced to sharing the room of a Jew when he has no money considers himself to have descended to the lowest depths because Russians consider Jews too lowly to spit upon. Orwell also shows his prejudice toward other races. In chapter 22, when he insists on the equality of men of all classes in these terms: “Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor, as though they were two different races, like Negroes and white men.” He also seems rather appalled to see that blacks are allowed into the same casual houses as white. Though Orwell may be liberal in his view on the working poor and the destitute, they do not extend to women, minorities, or Jews.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hsieh on Happiness and Zappos' Success is often presented as the paradigm of branding success. In Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, Tony Hsieh, the company's CEO tells the story of  the creation and evolution of the distinctive company culture alongside a bit of his own life story. Of course, the only reason everyone applauds Zappos is because it has turned out to be a success, but it was on the verge of failure many times. Hsieh sank a lot of his own money into keeping it going when he could not find other companies willing to invest  in it. Hsieh does not focus on success as such but on attaining happiness.

 Hsieh's book reminded me of two others. One is Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the other is Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad.  Hsieh's account of his  parents' expectations for him generally fits the model that Chua presents for Asian culture. The goal was to go to Harvard and then acquire a PhD. Along the way, the child is not only supposed to earn top grades but devote time daily to practicing an instrument Hsieh's out of the box thinking was at work there to foil his parents' musical aspirations by recording himself and replaying previous practice sessions rather than actually practicing during the designated time. He makes it sound like they never caught on.

Despite the stereotyped expectations, though,  Hsieh's parents did allow him to indulge in his passions for business ventures, some of which failed instantly -- like a worm farm -- and some of which actually took off with great success -- like his mail order button business.  In that way, though they may not have taught him the "Rich Dad" lessons, they did let him find out for himself, and that is the education he gains in college -- not from his classes but his various ventures, like the pizza business he sets up.

He does graduate from Harvard and accepts a job at Oracle that pays very well but leaves him very bored. On the side he and and a college friend who also works at Oracle set up what becomes LinkShare, a business that they, ultimately, sell for millions.  Though his parents could not see the sense in leaving a secure position to start something new and risky, (which would be the "Poor Dad" kind of thinking)  in his case the risk paid off very well.  It is the same sort of approach that he carried over in starting other companies and in devoting himself and his personal assets to building up Zappos.

At the end of the book, Hsieh shifts his focus to discussing happiness. He says his goal in writing was "to contribute to a happiness movement to make the world a better place" (p. 239). Now that sounds utterly sappy, but the idea of fostering a certain type of culture is that you create a context in which such statements are acceptable. He also said that Zappos is about delivering happiness to the world" (p. 230). Hsieh believes that happiness can function as an "organizing principle" for businesses. While for an individual, passion and purpose combine to arrive at pleasure, in a business, those two goals combine for profit.  There is something that is undoubtedly appealing in that model, but I do not buy it altogether. There are many businesses that are far more successful than Zappos who developed different models for their own culture of success.

There is also the question of happiness that Hsieh brings up: "Most people go their lives thinking, When I get ___, I will be happy, or When I achieve ___, I will be happy" (p. 231).  There is the low level of happiness that fades as soon as the novelty of having that ___ fades, and one reverts back to a state of looking at what goal to set up next. Hsieh's own story shows that he feels happy while in pursuit of certain goals. When he finds the thrill is gone, he does look for new ventures. Though he has not admitted to getting disenchanted with Zappos, he has taken on a new challenge --trying to turn around a big part of Vegas, around the company headquarters. Perhaps he feels that fits into his stated goal of making the world a happier place in a more substantial way than wowing customers with service in delivering their shoes, accessories, and apparel.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What are little girls made of?

 The full title of Lise Eliot’s book really explains her intent: Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into TroublesomeGaps -- And What We Can Do About It. The way it is structured, she goes through the differences that are “hard-wired” or innate and how the difference set by nature tend to get exaggerated by the nurture effect. Each descriptive section is followed by a prescriptive list of things to do to counteract some of those stereotyped paths that can prove detrimental to both boys and girls.

In her introduction, Eliot asserts that the two sexes do not originate on different planets but on neighboring states: “’Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.’” The fact is that while “the mean male and female” ranks are not all that far apart, though “it’s only the extremes that make headlines.” Perhaps in the romantic spirit of vive la difference, most of what gets published about men and women highlights points of divergence beginning in childhood or even in the womb.

This book also ends up highlighting differences, though it does point out that some of them are completely due to parental and other response to a baby’s sex. Dress a baby in a pink outfit, and people will comment on how dainty, delicate, and pretty she is. Dress the child in blue, and you will hear altogether different types of comments. Experiments show people respond to the clothes cues rather than the child itself, for they do the same when the clothes are deliberately switched. Parents, of course, have the greatest influence on gender expectations, and already from the time a baby crawls, the boy is expected to be capable of greater challenges in slope than the girl (see pp. 66-67).

However, due to the fact that girls do mature somewhat faster, some parents feel their boys could be at a disadvantage in school with girls who have greater verbal development. Consequently, boys are more often selected by parents to start school later in the practice called redshirting.

In fact, school principals and teachers often promote redshirting for girls, as well, either by advising parents of children near the cut off dates to hold the child back for the sake of better competitive advantage or by forcing the effect on everyone by arbitrarily moving up the cut off date, say from December to mid-October or even September. Despite their claims of expertise, they could be setting people on the wrong track:

Whatever the motives, most research finds the practice of redshirting misguided. Although the older children in a class may have a modest advantage in kindergarten and the first few grades, their academic boost typically fades by later elementary school. There is also some evidence that children who were held back are more vulnerable to risk taking and other emotional and behavioral problems when they reach adolescence of their classmates.

Aside from that, it is possible that their on par performance that is due to being older than their classmates could conceal the fact that they have “true development delays or learning disabilities” that are better addressed earlier than later (144-145).

Eliot does take veer off a bit at times , as she seems to have it in for Leonard Sax.  Sax advocates educating boys and girls in separate schools, a concept that she devotes quite a number of pages to in arguing against it. Though she admits that boys do prove more aggressive and more competitive than girls and that they avoid playing together through most of the elementary school years, she maintains that they should work together in school in the same classrooms. The way she dismisses the records of success for women who have gone to all female schools is by saying that they were atypical – the best and the brightest in their day. Of course, once you start analyzing results in that way, you can dismiss the findings of many studies, including many of the ones Eliot refers to in her own arguments.

My particular greater concern here would be that the book’s premise can be turned on its head by those who would characterize themselves as conservative or “traditional.” Wouldn’t they be able to say that what her prescriptions demand is for people to work against the pink princesses and dolls for girls and superhero and construction toys for boys that they would naturally go for? That is exactly the type of thinking that gave rise to the Lego line “for girl,” which I discussed in a blog post elsewhere.  While I was reading Eliot’s descriptions of how girls play, it sounded to me like a corroboration of (should I say justification?) for Lego’s assessment that girls would not care to build unless they have dolls and accessories and feminine colors to work with.

That brings me to an even more fundamental question is something that Eliot merely touched on but didn’t really explore: the fact that the genders seem to have grown more polarized over the past few decades – just when you would think progress would have narrowed the gap. That is why people are so disappointed in seeing Lego tacitly characterize the standard sets as for boys. The pink bricks and “Friends” sets are supposed to be a godsend for girls who are assumed to otherwise never build once they outgrow the Duplo sets. Even things that were considered gender neutral now have to be labeled as either blue or pink. Based on the advertising and habits of children in the 1980s, people actually did not box boys and girls into such rigid categories as much then as they do now. I would really like to see when and why the road of girlhood started to curve back toward the 1950s .

Thursday, February 16, 2012

GPS, gender, and finding your way

I intend to post my thoughts on the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, and wanted to first provide some background to some earlier looks on gender differences as background. Back in 2005 I published the following piece on the differences between men and women with respect to asking for directions. The fact that many people now have access to GPS either built into their cars or on their mobile devices now allows both men and women to ascertain their route by asking a device rather than another person. However, the gender dynamics are still in effect, particularly in work situations in which women still earn less than men and in which men still hold over 90% of the  top positions.

Note: of related interest:

Why Don’t You Just Ask for Directions?     
Picture this:  You are on your way someplace that takes you through a neighborhood you don’t know.   What you read on your directions does not correspond to the streets you see in front of you.  You realize that you must have made a wrong turn.  What do you do next?  If you are a woman, odds are that you will try to call to someone or pull over in a gas station and ask for directions. But if you are a man, you will pull out a map to attempt to pinpoint your location and figure out how to get back on the road you were supposed to be on.  If you are a male driver accompanied by a woman, you may be pestered by companion as she urges you to ask someone how to go, especially if you had to check the map several times.  After numerous unsuccessful attempts to find the way on your own, you may grudgingly comply.  Who is the sensible one here, the man or the woman?  The answer is not so clear.  While the woman may succeed in getting on the right road faster by asking someone, she may also be given the wrong directions.   The man who tries to find the way himself may not always prevail, but he takes pride in not needing to turn to others for help.
            The stereotype that men never want to ask for directions is one that is well founded.  In her book, Talking from 9 to 5 (New York:  William Morrow and Co., 1994), Dr. Deborah Tannen recounts the story of one man’s refusal to admit he was lost, even when there was a real threat to his life and that of his daughter.   He was flying a private plane that was running out of gas and didn’t know exactly where the landing strip in the area was.  His daughter urgently called out, “’Daddy!  Why don’t you radio the control tower and ask them where to land?’” Of course, she meant that he should do just that but did not want to command her father.  Yet, he answered the question she expressed, saying, “’I don’t want them to think I’m lost’” (Tannen,Talking.25). 
While that is an extreme example, it is telling of the lengths men will go to maintain the appearance of being in control of the situation.  Yes, men do prove more adept at the spatial skills involved in using maps and more inclined to taking stock of their position with respect to compass points than women.  It is also true that women generally identify better with verbal directives than visual-spatial ones.  However, the difference in approach between men and women is not just due to gender differences in skills.   As Tannen explains, men’s refusal to ask directions stems from their concern to maintain their image as capable and independent drivers.  Asking for assistance undermines their status as self-sufficient individuals.   In contrast, women in the same situation prove to be only concerned with getting to their destination.  As women, generally, do not feel they have to prove themselves as navigators, they do not hesitate to seek assistance from others to attain their goal. 
            What is striking about this particular gender division is that it “runs counter” to the usual perception of the difference between “male and female styles.” The stereotyped view is that men are task oriented, “focused on information,” whereas women are more process oriented, and “sensitive” to the effects of their communication (Tannen, Talking 27).  As Audrey Nelson reports in You Don’t Say:  Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes (New York:  Prentice Hall, 2004), her survey results indicates that women are perceived to “’have a clear perception of the total picture of communication’” (Nelson 22).   However, that perception is out of the picture when it comes to asking for directions.  Rather than being process oriented and sensitive to the connotations of seeking information from others, they are completely focused on the task of getting to their destination.  In light of that, turning to someone else for information makes sense, for it is an efficient means to the end of getting where you wish to go. In the situation of finding one’s way, “the women who ask questions are more focused on information, whereas the men who refrain from doing so are more focused on interaction – the impression their asking will make on others.   In this situation, it is the men who are more sensitive to the impression made on others by their behavior (Tannen, Talking 28). 
Men recognize that in asking directions that they are putting themselves at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the person who grants them the information.  Tannen explains in  You Just Don’t Understand:  Women and Men in Conversation. (New York:  William Morrow and Co.,1990): “When you offer information, the information itself is the message.  But the fact that you have the information, and the person you are speaking to doesn’t, also sends a metamessage of superiority. . . . the one who has more information is” in a superior position  “by virtue of being more knowledgeable and competent.  From this perspective, finding one’s own way is an essential part of the independence that men perceive to be a prerequisite for self-respect.”  It is always better to give than to receive if the object in question is information because the giver demonstrates his superior status based on the wealth that most valuable commodity of all -- knowledge. “Insofar as giving information frames one as the expert, superior in knowledge, and the other as uninformed, inferior in knowledge, it is a move in the negotiation of status”   (Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand 62, 63).  The one who bestows knowledge has a one-up position over the one who must ask for it.  So if you do not want to enter into the inferior position, you want to be the one telling, not the one asking.  Resolving your logistical confusion through the aid of maps in your own possession rather than other people allows you to show not only mastery of navigational skills, but, more importantly, self-sufficiency.  You do not open the way for another to bestow information upon you and thus keep your status intact. 
While you may think it doesn’t matter how you end up getting back on route, so long as you get there, the male concern for image maintenance is advantageous in situations in which they are in fact being assessed.  The difference in approach between men and women has significant ramifications for the world of work.  As Tannen explains in Talking from 9 to 5, female conversational styles can make them appear less competent than their male coworkers.  Of course, there are the factors of quality of voice and body language conveyed by one’s stance.  Yet, another reason why women sometimes fail to make the favorable impression they need to is that they ask questions, seeking explanations from others.  Some women even ask questions about simple processes that they do in fact understand because they intend the questions as conversational openers, a form of small talk.  What they don’t always realize is their questions may be used against them as evidence of their lack of knowledge.   In contrast, men who are conscious that the questions are perceived to indicate ignorance, tend to refrain from asking.  They can then either look the answer up themselves, or, more dangerously, proceed in real, albeit masked, ignorance just as they may continue down the wrong road without asking directions.  In the world of work, the male strategy is more effective in presenting the right impression of competence.  Self-assurance can yield more rewards than honestly working at getting the right answers.  Ultimately, there is real logic to the apparent madness of not asking directions, and there is a lesson for females to learn from the male method.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

On the unexpected

It took me a while to locate the passage that lodged in my memory in high school, as I never reread the book and did not retain a copy marked with sticky notes as the books I read in graduate school were.  Credit for pointing out the passage does not go to the teacher but to another student who mentioned the soundness of the observation outside the context of class.  At the beginning of chapter 5 in Silas Marner,  the narrator observes:
This is the edition we read.

His legs were weary, but his mind was at ease, free from the presentiment of change. The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent. A man will tell you that he has worked in a mine for forty years unhurt by an accident as a reason why he should apprehend no danger, though the roof is beginning to sink; and it is often observable, that the older a man gets, the more difficult it is to him to retain a believing conception of his own death. 
This is really the essence of the argument Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in The Black Swan, a good century plus after Silas Marner was published. Modern audiences may find it easier to read  Taleb's book  George Eliot's novel, which is characterized by a rather dense style of prose. While Taleb appears to be well-read, he doesn't refer to English literature, as he does to French works, so it is quite probable that he has never read the novels of George Eliot. Still in those few lines, she distills a lot of his argument: People form their expectations, believing that if something that is unprecedented is not to be anticipated. If one breaks out of the limits of what one has seen and experienced, then they may entertain more possibilities, resulting in what Taleb suggests could be a "grey swan," an event that is not what you would expect but that does not take  you altogether by surprise.

Related post:  

Monday, February 6, 2012

Representing Randomness

 Two views of the same thing: what is it?
I posed the question to a couple of people who answered confidently that it represented something lost at sea, a shipwreck or treasure. They took their contextual clues from the sea scene set around the object and the appearance of being caught in a net.

In fact, what the pictures represent is what I put together during a visit to the Queens Museum. I followed the directions to "make a mess."  The idea was to gather up various items from the bins and attach them to a base without a set plan about the structure.  I have no problem with randomness. The reason I opted for the sea picture was really because it looked better than the gray cardboard, and it happened to be right near my place at the table.

Is this art? I would say not, except in the sense that it is quite as "useless" as Oscar Wilde declares art to be. But what this nonrepresentational product does represent is how the viewer frames it to give it contextual meaning.   That we impose narrative on randomness to make sense of and remember events is one of the concepts that Nassim Nicholas Taleb brings up in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

An observation on this state of human nature was made a long time ago by Marian Evans, when she wrote Middlemarch,  the novel considered her masterpiece. In chapter 27, she throws in this observation:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person...