Tasty Neuroscience, With a Dollop of Evolution and Anthropology, Please

Brain science is cool and getting cooler. Scientists from different disciplines are collaborating, researching, wiring brains up and proposing ever more provocative insights into how we think, why we think, and how we ended up the way we are. The pace of discovery is increasing and there’s every expectation that it will continue to amaze.

Within that ever-changing environment of what is known, suggested and considered, John S. Allen has written a solid book, The Omnivorous Mind. Accessible but not simple, the work grounds contemporary neuroscience with an anthropological understanding of evolution and change. Food is an important and relevant fulcrum for observation and argumentation. Eating is fundamental, yet carries with it so much more than basic biology. Allen uses the centrality of food as a framework for his book and to engage the reader. All in all, he is surprisingly effective at balancing tone, topic and narrative. It’s a fun read and imparts a sense of wonder and curiosity.

The book’s fundamental question is how do humans “think” food. We know how to obtain food, we know how to cook and to eat. What do we think about it all? And why? The ultimate answer that Allen proposes, a theory or network of food akin to a theory of the mind, is somewhat problematic. But that doesn’t discount the value of the journey. Allen enlightens on many subjects, from chimpanzee sex to the brain’s limbic system. He does so clearly, with a light but firm touch. It is a pleasure to read.

Starting off with an extensive discussion of “crispy” – which is different from “crunchy” – Allen sketches out linguistic, cultural, historical and anthropological frameworks for analysis. Crispy, for example, often carries with it cooked (a good thing for many reasons) or fresh (another good thing). Working more from a biological perspective next, Allen offers a high-level review of what the human body needs to eat and how it has gone about obtaining it. The senses figure prominently in this equation and they are part of what makes us want to eat more and more, and not necessarily wisely. Food decisions, too, are grounded in experience and memory. In fact, food memories may be more important than other kinds of memories as triggers. These memories and meanings, woven together, establish a food-view something akin to a world-view.

What this means in real life is that we think of some birds as food as some as not. Further, this distinctions exists across cultures and is not necessarily related to caloric output or taste. Whether we realize it or not, all potential “foods” are understood within categories of what is or is not good or tasty. These categories are richer, too, than what we think of as good or bad food, which are freighted with personal and cultural meaning.  Eaten any insects lately? Allen weaves these themes together in a discussion of how foods evolve, from the creativity of opportunity to the brilliance of chefs. His narrative here works less effectively as strays farther from the underpinnings of the book.

In building his conclusion, Allen goes deep into neuroscience and the approach begs the questions as to whether he is more interested in brain or mind. They need not stand in opposition, but it is clear that any theory of the mind has a profound impact on our thinking about any other systems, real or proposed.

My takeaway was not dissimilar from a tasty meal that doesn’t fill me up – really good fun but more is needed. I am very much looking forward to more works by Mr. Allen and more studies that render neuroscience digestible for the rest of us.

A Not-So-Grand Pursuit

Economics? Numbers and graphs spring to mind. As for economists, the image of dully older men in bow ties lecturing dominates. There are good reasons it is the most dismal of sciences. Silvia Nasar, a successful journalist and author (A Beautiful Mind was her last book) struggles to challenges these stereotypes in her latest book, Grand Pursuit: the story of economic genius. it’s a valiant struggle, but not wholly successful – it’s not really clear why she assigned herself the task.

Grand Pursuit is a social history of economists, from the early Victorian years in England through post-World War II in the United States. Nasar’s key figures include Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, Beatrice Potter, Irving Fisher, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich von Hayek, Webb, Joan Robinson, Milton Friedman, Paul Samuelson, and Amartya Sen. It is an interesting list. They are important thinkers and policy makers, to be sure, but it would be difficult to argue that there are the most influential economists. It is an argument that Nasar does not advance.

Nasar effectively sketches the lives of these men and women, highlighting their key works and their lives. Relationships figure prominently, as do breakdowns, health scares, and drama. The biographies are not complete, however; we only learn particular segments without a deeper understanding of context. Equally frustrating, Nasar never squares the circle with these people. A social history should not require ongoing reference to Wikipedia.

A deeper frustration, however, is that the ideas of these economists is never fully fleshed out. Particular aspects of their intellectual priorities receives attention, but it would be impossible to provide a high level synopsis of the key ideas of any of these men and women. More importantly, the development of economics as a professional field of study and its relationship to politics and history is bypassed.  That, in many ways, is the key to understanding the relative impact of these individuals. It is missing, sadly, even though the components of that theme occasionally surface in the narrative.

What remains? A well written social history of a select group of people who played an important role in economic thought over one hundred years. Good social history, however, demands careful attention to context. Nasar’s book may started with an interesting conceit – the lives of economists – but she never created a structure in which that focus could succeed.

Sad Stories

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” It is the famous beginning of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and it applies, too, to David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. Lyrically haunting and extraordinarily depressing, Finkel’s account of an 8-month im-bed with a battalion stationed in Iraq during the surge is an exercise in the horrors of modern warfare. The book captures the voices, the perspectives, and the kaleidoscopic disunity of war. The portraits of the soldiers are compelling.

Life, death, and disfigurement are random events, unconnected to training or preparation. The specter of IEDs undermine a soldier’s relationship with the environment. Everything can be lethal. In that environment, the very nature of what it means to be a warrior is problematic. It often means exposing of the self to an unseen enemy – amid millions of dollars of technology – and not fighting, trusting to a populace that neither understands nor can communicate. While physical heroism, in some imagined state, used to mean physically challenging and fighting an enemy, today’s courage is strangely more often about not fighting. But where does a soldier locate trust in Iraq?

Overlay that suspicion with the acute suspicion that there is no point, no telos to the conflict – a realization that is so powerfully undermining that it can never be voiced – and the pathos of these soldiers and their predicament is acutely rendered. They have to believe in the job. If they don’t, they can’t endure the horrors of the job.

Finkel’s prose is haunting. It is a difficult book to pick up and an even more difficult book to put down.

Each generation, I suppose, has to discover its good soldiers and to wrestle with the gap between nationalistic rhetoric and the carnage of the battlefield. It happened in Vietnam, it happened in Korea, and it even happened in the “Good War” – World War II. But perhaps it was most acutely rendered in World War I, as the late Paul Fussell repeatedly observed.

In fact, the acute chasm between romantic rhetoric and military action is a less-explored but fundamental component of modernity and post-modernity. Subjectivity gains greater agency even as its ability to affect outcomes, render meanings, or even to gain understanding is sapped.  Nowhere is that more clear than in war, when the manifestation of abject chance overwhelms induction, deduction, and even superstition. It is the ultimate black box – with an indifferent operand.

Deluxe – From Design to Bling and Back Again

Relentless branding and marketing extend luxury to the masses. But like America in the 1870s, famously called the “Gilded Age” and not the “Golden Age” by Mark Twain, our purchases are no longer quite so luxurious. Luxury has lost its luster, Dana Thomas explains, in Deluxe. Penned in 2007, when the luxury goods business grossed revenues of more than $157 billion, Deluxe chronicles a well-known capitalist arc. Initially an artisan works small, emphasizes quality, and grows a business. At a certain point, however, the business either stalls or is radically transformed through the injection of new capital and new models. It is the move from proprietary capitalism to managerial capitalism, a process that I’d wager is known by that name by Ms. Thomas but not stated in her book.

Within the luxury goods sector, the aggregation of “brands” under large holding companies, coupled with the advent of Chinese manufacturing, completes the story. Massive amounts of wealth are created by mass-market sales of what had been artisanal creations of clothing, luggage, accessories and scents. Luxury brands no longer are known by the quality of their components are manufacture. They are known by their branding, and ironically, it is easy to produce a counterfeit of a good whose primary distinguishing characteristic is ornamental, like a logo.

Thomas writes briskly. Her narrative, driven by a journalist’s curiosity, is tight and clean. She visits designer houses, factories, and board rooms. She talks with designers, sales people, marketers and consumers. Her arguments make sense.

And yet . . . nestled within this book is a better book struggling to make itself heard. The concepts Thomas presents are simplified, Cliff notes versions of oft-analyzed economic phenomena. The linkage of consumerism with mass markets and identity is a staple of economics, history and popular culture. One does not have to quote Marx or Veblen, but there are powerful ideas from the 19th century that support and scaffold much of Deluxe. Thomas, however, eschews the complicated or complex.

People appreciate and crave quality. They are willing to pay for it, too. The democratization of luxury without quality renders luxury an empty category, a ripe opportunity for the entrepreneurial.  The disruptive power of technology is facilitating multiple answers to the question of what the future of luxury will be. I believe that there are three paths: traditional luxury, internet-funded artisanal, and technologically transformed bespoke.

Traditional luxury will become ever more important as the luxury brands are challenged to retain the purchases high-end customers. Fashion houses are already familiar with the challenge of expanding couture just enough to make profits while maintaining a distinction from mass production. Brands respond by splintering into different labels, each of which is produced under different circumstances with different materials. However, consumers’ demand for quality requires something more than red and black labels. One strategy is to create an entirely new entity; another is to horizontally integrate by purchasing a smaller, more luxurious brand.  One fascinating new strategy is that some companies that have lost their way now create “heritage” or “legacy” sub-brands to make a commodified value statement. For these firms, the aim is to recreate quality from long ago and to reconnect with consumers.  Levi’s and Dickey‘s are two such firms, but examples are legion.

Another path to luxury comes from the ability of the internet to allow a manufacturers to control growth while maintaining quality. Competition is ruthless and relentless, to be sure, and customer reviews and the power of social media can whipsaw firms. That said, good quality and customer service can redefine a luxury good and be profitable. For the mid to lower end of the market, Etsy is primary marketplace for the hand-made, but many others – and a good search – will reveal multiple choices for inquisitive consumers. Artisanal firms in this environment can define themselves in different ways, too, offering an advantage over larger companies. Manufacturing only in America, or committing to sustainable manufacture, are two such distinguishing paths.

Finally, high-tech bespoke, be it from a 3-D printer or a fashion-site with made-to-measure clothing, is an increasingly viable option. The technology is not perfect, but it is getting steadily better and more reliable.

I used to believe that my desire for quality made me an outlier (interestingly enough, the name of a clothing company). After reading Deluxe and giving the matter some thought, I think that I’m on the crest of a trend: internet-enabled purchases from small, non-marketed companies with strong value-statements but no wide brand recognition. In other words, luxury will return to its roots.

Greed and Tech – a familiar refrain

The recent controversies surrounding the Facebook IPO show no signs of abating. Was there insider trading? Did NASDAQ folks down?  Did Morgan Stanley overvalue the company? Is it a reflection of a lack of confidence in Mark Zuckerberg? As it has been unfolding it sent me to the bookshelves to read about another technology company who never lived up to its hype, boo.com.

Boo.com was the creation of two young Swedes, Ernst Malmsten and Kajsa Leander, who had some success with a Swedish internet book site in the early 1990s.  They sold that site, pocketing a good payout, and then built an online fashion site with the help of a slew of investors eager to cash in on the e-tailing boom. Spending $135 million in 18 months, boo.com was created on the assumption of massive sales of fashion online. Sales were solid and improving, but not fast enough. When credit tightened in the late 1990s, boo.com went belly up in spectacular fashion. Malmsten wrote about the entire journey in Boo Hoo. It was a business failure of epic proportions.

Aggressively confident and self-confident, Malmsten’s account is a fascinating read when it comes to how money was made via finance, through borrowing and the hope of selling. The year-and-a-half recounted is a blur of parties, problems, pitches and solutions. They founders and those about them worked very hard, but towards what end?

The idea for the site itself – selling a particular kind of clothing – was neither innovative nor well considered. Barriers to entry were not about the site; they were about delivery of clothing and support. Malmsen does not spend much time on the technical aspect of the business; he lacked the knowledge or skills. Above all, the book and its author are surprisingly thin when it comes to a more old-fashioned way of making money: income exceeding expenses.

We are in the midst of a craze for social media – we read and hear about social media’s power and importance. As the largest social media site, Facebook is at the apex of this trend. But even with its millions of subscribers and the models of valuation, its underlying business model – how it makes money – is advertising. And unfortunately for Facebook, its advertising is a distraction from what it provides. Google, who at bottom is also another advertising company, integrates its advertisement into what it offers. Its power is that it provides a solution that is part of its service.

I have yet to meet someone who will admit to having clicked on a Facebook advertisement.  The “crisis” around Facebook isn’t new; it is another example of greed and the power of finance to obscure basic business functions.

Tasteful, but . . . .

Been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum lately? Or earlier?

When first locating in Boston, I visited the Gardner. And then I visited again, lunching in a small, cramped cafe. And then wondered if I could avoid visiting a third time.

It’s a stunning house and it has a fascinating story. The Gardner captures a special moment in collecting, when American taste makers and European taste setters were feeling each other out. But the Gardner museum was also a house museum stuck in time, and to be brutally honest, the art was not that that interesting. Despite a beautiful courtyard and internal flowering plants, my overwhelming sensation was of darkness.

Ambitious leadership, vision and fundraising led to a lawsuit and the expansion of the Gardner. Its new wing, designed by Renzo Piano, gives the Gardner a new entrance and a new feel, contextualizing the house within a modern organization of space and function. It’s extraordinarily tasteful in the way that contemporary museum architecture does all so well: light, clean lines and planes, expensive materials, but no detail or ornamentation that captures the eye or calls for attention. Instead it provides clean organization of space to highlight whatever is contained within. It is also relatively unexceptional – its functionality and tastefulness make it effective but not all that interesting.  What is interesting is the relationship between the old and the new.

One enters the old Gardner through the new Gardner. What used to be a door off the street is now more of a processional through the new, through a hallway, and then into the new and then a covered path into the old. The original house is no longer a house. The ordering of spaces make the house a relic, a collectible unto itself. That distancing is critical in establishing a different way of viewing and understanding the collection. It makes one re-question the very sense of it ever being a home.

And in tune with modern museum design, the cafe is larger, thoughtfully appointed and a good deal of care has gone into the food.  The folks running the Gardner know what matters – a good latte in tasteful surroundings.

Modeselektor at an advanced age

Modeselektor was recently in town and I was fortunate enough to catch their show at the Royale. Three musicians – two front and center, one tucked off to the side with a keyboard; two screens and a some hardware. All in all, very good, very dance inducing kind of show. Their music is neither harmonically brilliant or poundingly house. It’s a mixture of light hip hop and happy German dance. They’re funny and fun, meaning that above all, the show is fun, especially so when played loud with strobe lights. So while I didn’t leave humming any of their tunes (relatively short on hooks), I did go home sweaty, tired of dancing and quite happy – and I’m spotifying Modeselektor at the gym.

The wikipedia entry notes that Modeselektor is a favorite band of Thom Yorke from Radiohead, which made me think of the ways in which musicians plump for other musicians. They don’t write book jacket blogs and it takes a bit of digging to determine who likes who. And even if they do like [insert name of obscure band/musician here], that’s no guarantee that you will. In fact, musicians almost always go out of their way to celebrate a musician that often doesn’t fit. It’s as though when queried, most musicians feel obligated to name someone really different or really obscure. If not for other musicians, would any Captain Beefheart music ever be sold?

When I was a young man, I trucked in the lesser-known. Pick your punk, your new wave, your alternative to the alternative, and I more often than not had a mix tape. Fabulous Poodles, anyone? It takes time and effort, though, and rarely results in much social capital. As I’ve matured, my tastes have not – I tire very quickly of music that I heard 10, 20, or 30 ears ago – but my acceptance of what I like and listen to has shifted and broadened as well. So while I do still fancy the unusual (Afropop to German electronica), at long last I am completely at home and comfortable with much of the popular. Chris Brown may be a violent human being who doesn’t sing all that well, but he sure knows his hooks. I like Katy Perry and I think that Jessie J. is a fine song writer. Give me my Ludacris and Kanye. My street cred may suffer, but if music makes me smile, I have to like it.

I like Modeselektor.

Damian Hirst in Context

I did not see Damian Hirst’s show at the Tate Modern this weekend past. Selling out quickly, the throngs were teeming and I watched people. And I took this snap once I stepped into the sunlight. No genitalia on the other side, by the way, but it’s clear that the ass end belongs to the Tate.

One of the more traditional ways in which the art world assigns value – collectively, of course – to works of art is the extent to which they ignore the economies of everyday life. The work may embody the time and talent of its creator. It may aspire to transcend, reaching the sublime. And lurking in the background, however, when discussing works of art is its price. The cost of a thing is what someone will pay for it – and that is its price. But its value?

One of the things that I admire about Hirst’s work is his ability to make us think and to ground much of what he does in the complex interplay of price, value and cost. Like Jeff Koons, Hirst wants to make lots and lots of money. I wonder, though, whether or not he wants to make great art.

Context for Hirst’s work is critical. Without context, it become pastiche, kitsch, collections, assemblies, or something odd. We will not look at it if it is not properly sited, situated and considered. Shark in tank? Fascinating, but one only stops and stares in certain environs. There’s nothing wrong with generating artistic meaning from context, but it can undercut the value question and, ultimately, the issue of price. For one of Hirst’s work to maintain its value and price, it either must remain in a proper context or it must become so well-known, so famous that its value is eponymous – like his diamond skull known as the “love of God.”

Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?

Plus Ca Change

One of fashion’s few certainties is recurring change. What is in fashion one day is later not and the hot young designer is rarely the hot mature designer. Writing about fashion faces the same challenges and it is a rare look at this multi-billion dollar industry that lasts. Teri Agins’ The End of Fashion has legs. Dated legs, but the issues she addressed are worth considering today, too.

Penned in 1999 by Agins, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, the book is a from the ground up look at massive transformations in capital, process and reach in the fashion industry. Agins looks closely at the work of a limited number of designers. In the 1980s, it was still possible for a designer to create in an atelier-like setting. By the time the book was published, such models were rarities.

What happened? A confluence of factors led to the shift. The power of finance played a role, as did the growth of a middle class with the means to identify and purchase more. Most important, Agins notes, is the influence of marketing. Interestingly enough, the forces that transformed fashion also reshaped it from the inside.

Fashion, or at least haute couture, is about the commodification of time. A well-designed dress (and it’s almost always women’s clothes) represented the designer’s time and the time of those who put it together. The more ornate and the more carefully constructed, the greater the time – and the greater sense of exclusivity. A fine garment’s other exclusivity also stems from time, for a designer’s collection would be worn within a limited time, furthering its exclusivity. Extend a design to the masses and its exclusivity disappears, leaving questions and concerns.

Agins is less interested in these questions and more in the ways that designers and houses navigated these shifts; some sold out, some profited and some failed. She recasts the marketed brands as business enterprises facing particular challenges. The personalities are often outsize and the contingency of it all is tremendous. While people hunger to distinguish themselves – fashion itself matters – relative value any one designer or house is always contingent. All told, it is a very tough way to make a buck.

I’ll Take My Big Ideas Bite Sized, Please

I live in Brookline, MA, and before that I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Both are high-density urban environments filled with highly educated families keen on providing their children a good education. These kinds of environments feature specialized coffee stores, independent bookstores, organic food and many places to eat and drink. They are gay-friendly, supportive of the “creative class,” and better able to handle serious financial problems; they are cities central to Richard Florida’s conception of where the economy and society is headed. I like Park Slope and Brookline – as do many of my friends who share my demographic – but I’m not nearly as certain as Professor Florida.

The Great Reset is another opus in the ever-productive, market savvy Florida. His themes are well-known and juicy: the creative economy has overtaken the traditional manufacturing economy and that this urban, cosmopolitan, well-educated “class” represents the future. In Reset Florida takes the longer view, emphasizing how the Great Depression reshaped internal and external landscapes of work, home and values. He sees such a transformation resulting from the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

What happened? Housing values plummeted, many were thrown out of work, and different areas were affected differently. The larger, more “creative class” metropolises, he writes, weathered the storm more effectively. As for the consequences, people are starting to value conspicuous consumption less and instead seeks status through other means. It accelerated the decline in popularity of cars and cities dependent upon sprawl and housing prices. In contrast, the mega-regional cities, marked by large cities, government centers and the presence of large universities, fared relatively well.

The appeal of these big, broad statements is that they seem – at least to those of us who have graduate degrees and live near universities – is that they validate our choices. Florida’s future is in many ways our future. The difficulty with Florida’s arguments is that they are supported at times by the weakest of reeds. In this book, in particular, he jumps about without developing a sustained argument or marshaling facts in a systematic way.

For example, Florida posits the decline of importance of the car. Really? Just because some suburbs are emptying and a subset of younger Americans who live in certain cities are eschewing automobile ownership does not spell the demise of the automobile. I’d suggest that automobiles, in one form or another, will remain an extraordinarily important part of our economy and society for decades. They may be powered by alternative fuels, look different and ownership structures may change (more Zipcar options, for example) – but it would be foolish to think that the car-free future is around the corner.

Amid all the conjecture, however, are very worthwhile observations – about gender and jobs, and work and meaning, and about the broad shifts in our society. Further, his underlying assumption that something really important is forcing deep change in America is probably correct, too, though I believe we’re still way too early in the process to know what it means or where we are going. Florida writes well, too, and that cannot be discounted; you would want him on your panel, around your table, or at the bar. He would give you something to mull over, to chew on – just as he has done in this book.