On imagination


Using the visual and auditory areas to execute acts of imagination is a truly ingenious bit of engineering, and evolution deserves the Microsoft Windows Award for installing it in every one of us without asking permission.  —Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

As someone who spends what I imagine to be a disproportionate amount of time lost in the musings of my brain’s frontal lobe, the takeaway of Gilbert’s book is rather comforting:

  1. “The world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, almost –one might say –a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its moulding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli”*

  2. “The areas of your brain that respond emotionally to real events respond emotionally to imaginary events as well…”

  3. Our imaginations often neglect to include the negatives when projecting the future. 

  4. “The brain and the eye have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.”

So, why waste time in the present at all?

We can’t see or feel two things at once, and the brain has strict priorities about what it will see, hear, and feel and what it will ignore. Imagination’s requests are often denied. …when we ask our brains to look at a real object and an imaginary object at the same time, our brains typically grant the first request and turn down the second. The brain considers the perception of reality to be its first and foremost duty, thus your request to borrow the visual cortex for a moment is expressly and summarily denied.”

Not so. For instance, I don’t find it necessary to close my eyes in order to slip into the frontal lobe during earnings seasons when listening to management’s opening recitation of facts I’ve already read in the press release/supplement. My brain has simply adjusted so that I can simultaneously look as though I’m intently listening while imagining a chess game on the cliffs at Machu Picchu, details of my lover’s arms, etc. Of course, this means I can never answer questions during the call concerning that last fact that you just missed, because perhaps you too were dozing off. But, I consider the fact that my facial expression failed to give way to my frolicking in the virtual world to be a rather significant skill, and one that I’ve worked on honing since realizing the frivolity of sitting around a conference table with more than four people.

*Gilbert quoting historian, Will Durant

On the notion of time, and because some of us ate it yesterday

Time, he thought: I wonder how much more time I’ve got? I’m thirty-three years old; that’s the half-way point, really -I’m probably halfway through my life. What am I going to do during the other half, ride the commuters’ train, and read annual reports…and pride myself on working every weekend? Shall I make a full-time career of being [insert MD’s name here] ghost? Is that what I want?

I don’t know, he thought-who the hell knows what he wants? It’s ridiculous to think of the next thirty-three years stretching ahead like an endless uphill road. Don’t wish time away.

There’s something wrong, he thought. There must be something drastically wrong when a man starts wishing time away. Time was given us like jewels to spend, and it’s the ultimate sacrilege to wish it away.

–Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

In the news: Thursday

Fashion house, Chloe forces Topshop to destroy entire stock of a hideous yellow dressTopshop, Sir Philip Green’s British counterpart to Sweden’s H&M – or Spain’s Zara, but not quite that of America’s rather trashy, in comparison, Forever 21 – has been slapped with a lawsuit accusing the designer-replicas-trends-on-a-budget stores of copyright infringement. Chloe, the fashion house that put Stella McCartney on the map, claims that Topshop (whose version is pictured on the right) ripped off their original design of the sorry looking yellow rag you see pictured on the left. Topshop was selling the dress for about $70, more than 75% less than the cost of the designer original. Chloe has a zero-tolerance policy for knock-offs and is known for sending out undercover solicitors “to seek out pictorial evidence of counterfeits.” Thus far, the strategy has helped them to preserve the façade of originality worn by hedge fund and soccer wives. Because Sir Philip Green is a rational man, and one that knows to part with ugly when he sees it, Topshop  paid them £12,000 [for damages/legal fees] without any admission over whether it was or it wasn’t [a copy]…[and] felt it was easier to do that and get on with the rest of our lives.” [The Times]

New Zealand’s central bank raises key interest rate to 8.25%
Like pretty much every other country on the planet, barring Brazil and others known for their zests for life, New Zealand’s central bank raised its benchmark borrowing rate by 25 basis points to 8.25% in an attempt to contain inflation. Alan Bollard, the Bernanke of under down-under, appears to think that this will be the final rate hike necessary to reach the central bank’s comfort level, “we think the four successive rate increases we have delivered will be sufficient to contain inflation.” The hike is expected to push the value of the Kiwi north, while hurting domestic exports and helping retail forex traders (read: grandma, substitute teachers, Theatre majors and future actors of the Kabuki school of drama, etc.) in Japan. Though consumer confidence is waning, New Zealander’s are currently riding high on a skilled labor shortage, overall unemployment rate under 4%, and an international rally in commodity prices which has driven world demand for domestic products. [Bloomberg]

OPEC increased output (so far) this month
According to Petrologistics, a company that tracks tanker shipments, the OPEC consortium (barring Iraq and Angola) will have pumped an additional 100,000 barrels of oil per day when all is said and done at the end of July. However, “there’s no major opening of the taps…They fear that if they opened the taps, prices would slide.” While a lull in militant disruptions has allowed Nigeria to up its output, with Iran following suit, Saudi Arabia stands firm despite near-record highs in oil prices this summer. [Khaleej Times]

On art, culture, and a generation likely to be void of such appreciation


If you have children, I recommend reading the following — an abbreviated version of Dana Gioia’s, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts — commencement speech given at Stanford University this year: The Impoverishment of American Culture (excerpts below)

And father-Wall-Streeter-VC, Roger Ehrenberg’s reaction: here 

Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.

We need to create a new national consensus. The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

What are we to make of a public education system [ours] whose highest goal seems to be producing minimally competent entry-level workers?

Entertainment promises us a predictable pleasure — humor, thrills, emotional titillation or even the odd delight of being vicariously terrified. It exploits and manipulates who we are rather than challenging us with a vision of who we might become. A child who spends a month mastering Halo or NBA Live on Xbox has not been awakened and transformed the way that child would be spending the time rehearsing a play or learning to draw.

If you don’t believe me, you should read the studies that are now coming out about American civic participation. Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment.

The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out — to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.
What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn’t income, geography or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.

Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world — equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being — simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory and physical senses… And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, “It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget.” Art awakens, enlarges, refines and restores our humanity.

In the news: Wednesday

Budget hotel chain, Travelodge to get rid of porn
In a move that will eliminate many millions of dollars from Travelodge’s revenue stream, the hotel chain will remove “all pornographic pay-per-view TV channels from its 20,000 bedrooms, in an effort to become more family-friendly.” This move comes shortly after the budget hotel chain went above and beyond the law by banning smoking in all of its rooms. The company plans to distract its guests – because who doesn’t enjoy porn with loved ones while vacationing on a budget – with approximately $20m worth of flat screen televisions packed with family programming. Despite the fact that income from ‘adult programming’ amounts to 10% of an annual stream of hundreds of millions of dollars for the hotel industry, Travelodge hopes to attract more of the middle-class vacationers who currently contribute about 70% of the hotel chain’s sales. Considering that cheap hotels and porn are about as complimentary as peanut butter & jelly, and vacationers – as opposed to business people, traveling salesman, circus performers, etc. – are the first to drop out of the customer base on account of minor trifles such as recessions and the like, this seems like a risky move. [Daily Telegraph]

Italy forced to bail out Italian bank, Italease
Italease is reported to have lost approximately 75% of its value since April on bad – and leveraged, lets not forget – trades in the derivatives markets. In response Italy’s central bank plans to “install its own interim management after conducting a review (“very harsh criticisms,” apparently) of Italease’s disastrous bets on leveraged credit futures.” This situation is somewhat odd in that it spiraled out of control in a matter of weeks, and at a bank that went from generating none of its income in 2003 to roughly a quarter of its income in 2006 from futures contracts. A representative from the Italease told London’s Daily Telegraph, “These derivatives were very complex [duh, they’re derivatives] and suddenly turned against us. They started moving in a non-linear way [duh, not all movements in the market are linear], so the losses were rising exponentially.” If you don’t understand a product, or aren’t prepared to deal with its non-conforming feature in an erratic setting, then you shouldn’t bet the bank on it. [Daily Telegraph]

Surprise: Bank of Israel raises interest rate
In an unexpected move, Israel’s central bank raised its benchmark lending rate to 3.75% from 3.5%. Some describe the decision as “panic,” and are concerned about shekel appreciation and its affects on exports. BOI cited the following as reasons (note the persistent citing of ‘expectations’):

  • Rapid economic expansion –expected at 5.1% this year, after y/y growth of 6.3% and the lowest unemployment rate in a decade during the first quarter

  • Expectations for higher worldwide inflation, specifically in the energy and food-stuffs sectors, which will affect prices for Israeli imports. To which an Israeli economist aptly responds, “higher Israeli rates won’t offset the inflationary impact of higher world commodities prices.”

  • Israel’s current-account surplus is expected to reach $6.6 billion, falling from a record $8b. last year

  • Wages are expected to increase 3% this year after a 2% rise in 2006

  • Forecasters expect inflation to rise by 2.7% within the next 12 months [Jerusalem Post]

Toastmasters coming to Abu Dhabi: A beginning to the end of a once decent track for owning most of the world – Abu Dhabi’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ADCCI) plans to work with Toastmasters, a US company that encourages public speaking through local club membership, in order to develop some sort of communication/leadership program to serve government and local businesses. A representative for the ADCCI says that “the programme aims at supporting the society’s needs and requirements, so that it may add knowledge and experience to all those working for different government bodies, local companies, private and official institutions.” When thinking of Toastmasters, as I do never, impressions of global dominance and constructiveness almost never cross my mind. If you have to teach people to listen, then you have bad people. [Khaleej Times]

In the news: Tuesday, the stuff-that-can-be-ingested edition

Finally, cheap bread soon to grace Israeli supermarket shelves once again
 – After a bitter struggle between the Israeli government and its country’s bakers over using price ceilings on bread as a conduit to fight economic inequality, the government has agreed to back down through increasing the ceiling by 12.5%. Israelis on social security will receive monthly allowances to compensate for the increase, a crutch that undermines the 35-40% increase in the price of flour and other inputs in recent months. In an even wilder turn of events, a committee formed in reaction to the bread shortages may prompt the state to refrain from fixing the price of bread completely –though, not at the behest of the public, 77% of which believe that “basic foods such as bread should remain under government controlled price regulation.” [Jerusalem Post]

Onion exports backlogged due to Middle Eastern rains
Recent rains responsible for halting the onion trade supply chain between two cities somewhere in the Middle East have resulted in the loss of approximately 800 tons/week of onion that would have otherwise found their way to generally any place hosting both Indians and food. The monetary losses are expected to continue through monsoon season, and have reached several hundreds of thousands of dollars per week, which forgive us, but doesn’t seem particularly troubling.[Khaleej Times]

Diet soda and obesity: which causes the other, researchers duke it out – For every medical study that claims diet soda drinkers are more likely to be obese (31% according to this one), there’s inevitably a researcher that will say otherwise, and sometimes you won’t have to pay him. This study claims that health problems common to soda drinkers occur at the same rate of incidence despite whether the soda being consumed is sugared or sugar-free. So, depending upon your gullibility in the face of medical practitioners’ use of statistics, you may as well opt for the sugared variety –unless of course you prefer the taste of a beverage that evokes about as much sensory pleasure as a homeless man doused in Pine Sol. Though the study makes no claims of causation, “nutritionists say the study should be a wake-up call for soda drinkers, noting that a zero-calorie beverage can’t undo the damage of an unhealthful diet.” [WSJ]

In the news: Monday

Indian infrastructure: funds available, but few projects in the pipeline
 – India’s central and local governments are in disagreement concerning infrastructural projects in the pipeline, namely why there aren’t many. Considering most Indians abhor physical labor, and don’t understand what the western world considers to be so tragic about the situation posed in the Tragedy of the Commons, it should be no surprise that India has issues.  Upon the most recent counting of the beans, the country’s finance minister addressed the states: “Given the [$10B], I wonder why there is not an adequate pipeline of projects.” The states countered with something to the effect of ‘that isn’t true.’ [Times of India]

Prophecies peg oil at $95-100/barrel by the end of the year
According to analysts at Goldman Sachs and CIBC, not to mention old T. Boone Pickens himself, a $100 barrel is just around the corner. So far, the all-time high for crude oil futures occurred last year at just below $80/barrel. “At face value this market is strikingly similar to a year ago. What is different? Supply is down a million barrels a day, demand is up a million barrels a day. The market is in a deficit,” says a commodities analyst as Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile (global political tension, refinery capacity constraints, and hurricane season aside), OPEC’s head researcher was quoted in Kuwait Petroleum Corporation’s July newsletter as saying that “OPEC seeks to supply markets sufficiently at proper prices,” and that a “fair price for both oil producers and consumers for a barrel of oil would be around $60 to $65 a barrel,” according to Dubai’s Khaleej Times. [Bloomberg] [Khaleej Times]

Mentally ‘ill’ children in the UK: more than a few
Prescriptions written to school-aged children in Britain for afflictions ranging from depression to daytime fatigue have quadrupled over the last ten years. According to UK children’s charity, NCH, today 1 in 10 children suffers from a significant mental illness, a ratio which has doubled in intensity over the past decade. Politicians are upset and claim that the pressures forcing children into dubious mental states are further being fueled by chaos in the home, and by the liberal pens of family doctors. The Economist ran a similar story about suicide among students in Asia in a recent issue. The pressure for people of all ages, children included, to be lucky perfect is becoming pervasive as information finds faster and more efficient ways of traveling through the virtual world. Images and stories of success, or ideal ways of being – consider: the anorexiaischic campaign, the profiles of one or two jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none-but-that’s-what-makes-them-unbelievably-‘stellar’ teens who didn’t get into an Ivy league university and are made to be warnings for all successive applicants – around the globe that wouldn’t have five, ten, etc. years ago, now make it onto our radar, and are often paraded in front of our faces through longer media blitzes. Unfortunately, children are bearing the negative brunt, and to an extent we’ll only fully realize when in fifteen years or so that inevitable spike in [insert mind-numbing, buzz-inducing substance] abuse and/or suicide rears its ugly head. [Daily Telegraph]