Balance Restored, Shard by Shard


Ryan Collerd for The New York Times
The bowl, part of a Greek vessel dating from 750 B.C., and its unusual horses, lie awaiting restoration.

By RANDY KENNEDY
NY Times Published: March 27, 2013

PHILADELPHIA — The art collector Albert C. Barnes had no compunction about letting people know precisely how much he wanted things his way. In a 1939 letter to the auto scion Walter P. Chrysler Jr. he gleefully torpedoed a request — as he did frequently, especially from the rich and powerful — to visit his personal foundation near Philadelphia, where he housed his world-class works.

“During his present strenuous efforts to break the world’s record for goldfish swallowing,” Dr. Barnes could not possibly be bothered with such a request, he replied, writing in the voice of a fictitious secretary.

So just imagine how supremely unhappy Barnes would have been for decades about the state of a small gallery on the second floor of his foundation, whose collection was transplanted intact last year from the suburb of Merion to a sleek new home downtown.

Like many of the institution’s galleries, which feature not only a profusion of paintings but also enigmatic ensembles of sculptures and artifacts that became Barnes’s signature — a Gesamtkunstwerk, or room-as-art aesthetic — this gallery united a handful of lovely Matisses and Klees with rather odd roommates, like works by unknown folk artists depicting birds. And Barnes crowned the whole conglomeration with a glass cabinet in the middle of the room displaying one of the best Greek vessels he ever bought, an Attic pyxis, or lidded round box, from 750 B.C., topped with four expressive horses with oddly birdlike heads.

But shortly after Barnes’s death in 1951, while employees were documenting and photographing the collection, the earthenware pyxis shattered, either as a result of an accident or because it had become too fragile to handle. And the vessel, along with the case and all the other objects in it, including decorative American glassware and a French ceramic bowl, were taken off view, seemingly for good.

Now, more than half a century later, they are about to re-emerge from historical oblivion to bring the gallery, still called Room 17, back to its eccentric Barnesian counterpoise. The pyxis was rediscovered many years ago in pieces in a cardboard box, protected only by some wadded 1950s newspapers, after Barton Church, an artist and longtime Barnes Foundation teacher who died last month at 86, asked curators and conservators what had happened to it. (Mr. Church’s sole painting in the Barnes collection, the last one acquired by Barnes before his death, hangs in the same room where the pyxis once sat.)

The vessel was transferred to a more secure archival container. But in part because the conservation facilities in the foundation’s original home were so small and underequipped, the vessel remained a perpetual wish-list project. Now, in the new museum, a large, windowed conservation lab has become the locus of the first comprehensive efforts by the Barnes to take a hard look at its 2,500-object collection and assess what needs cleaning, stabilizing, conserving or even full-fledged restoration.

On a recent morning the foundation’s sole Claude Lorrain landscape, from 1644-45, was out of its frame and up on an easel, undergoing the first steps of a cleaning and varnish removal by Barbara Buckley, the Barnes’s chief conservator, to reverse the pronounced yellowing of the sky and darkening of the painting’s ground that has worsened over centuries.

In a room nearby the pyxis, the lab’s most ambitious project to date, was far along toward the kind of wholeness it had more than 2,500 years ago, when it might have been used to store cosmetics or jewelry and probably followed its owner to the grave. Margaret A. Little, senior conservator of objects, has been studying and working on the piece for more than a month now, removing weak adhesives and pieces of filler material used by earlier restorers, probably including one in the early 20th century, when the vessel made its way into the hands of a Parisian antiquities dealer.

“We have at least 75 percent of the original material of the vessel, which is really incredible,” Ms. Little said, sitting at a table with the lid of the pyxis fitted back together like a puzzle, its gaps filled with bright white dental plaster that will later be painted. Nearby lay the pieces for the next and one of the trickiest parts of the job — reattaching the four horses that adorn the lid, a figural motif thought perhaps to denote the wealth of the vessel’s owner.

“If you look closely, you can see small fingerprints on the horses” left by the hands of the sculptor before the pyxis was fired, Ms. Little said. She added, referring to the horses: “The way they’re formed, they’re really kind of goofy. I love looking at them.”

The story of the pyxis’s re-emergence is one the Barnes is eager to tell to demonstrate the benefits of the foundation’s move to downtown Philadelphia, which happened only after a bitter legal battle allowed the circumvention of a rigid charter and bylaws written by Barnes to ensure that no artwork would be lent, sold or even moved from the walls of the galleries he built.

The relocation, which recreates and preserves the arrangements of artworks as Barnes left them at his death, has largely been a critical success. But it remains a deeply divisive topic in Philadelphia and in the art world, as does the way the institution will treat the legacy of Barnes, who viewed his foundation less as a museum than as a school. (A group opposed to the move, Friends of the Barnes Foundation, issued a news release last week criticizing the foundation for ending a temporary exhibition that focused on Barnes’s life and complaining that the history of the Barnes will not be apparent enough to visitors.)

Judith F. Dolkart, the Barnes’s chief curator, said the return of the sculptural elements to Gallery 17 — expected to happen by summer — would not only bring the small gallery back to its intended state but would also re-establish a kind of balance on the foundation’s second floor, where Room 17 and others displaying Greek and Egyptian antiquities are echoed on the other side by galleries pairing Picassos and Modiglianis with African sculpture.

“I think this was part of Barnes’s overall idea of bracketing his modern works with things that he knew modernist artists were looking to for inspiration,” Ms. Dolkart said, adding that even after years of studying and looking at the foundation’s rooms she could not quite picture the pyxis back among them.

“No one here now has ever seen it in this space, and I think it might take a while for it to settle back in,” she said, standing where it would soon be. “I can’t wait to see what it’s going to announce.”

March 29th, 2013
Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms


Jim Wilson/The New York Times
A Disastrous Year for Bees: For America’s beekeepers, who have struggled for nearly a decade with a mysterious malady called colony collapse disorder that kills honeybees en masse, this past year was particularly bad.

By MICHAEL WINES
NY Times Published: March 28, 2013

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

A conclusive explanation so far has escaped scientists studying the ailment, colony collapse disorder, since it first surfaced around 2005. But beekeepers and some researchers say there is growing evidence that a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, incorporated into the plants themselves, could be an important factor.

The pesticide industry disputes that. But its representatives also say they are open to further studies to clarify what, if anything, is happening.

“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”

In a show of concern, the Environmental Protection Agency recently sent its acting assistant administrator for chemical safety and two top chemical experts here, to the San Joaquin Valley of California, for discussions.

In the valley, where 1.6 million hives of bees just finished pollinating an endless expanse of almond groves, commercial beekeepers who only recently were losing a third of their bees to the disorder say the past year has brought far greater losses.

The federal Agriculture Department is to issue its own assessment in May. But in an interview, the research leader at its Beltsville, Md., bee research laboratory, Jeff Pettis, said he was confident that the death rate would be “much higher than it’s ever been.”

Following a now-familiar pattern, bee deaths rose swiftly last autumn and dwindled as operators moved colonies to faraway farms for the pollination season. Beekeepers say the latest string of deaths has dealt them a heavy blow.

Bret Adee, who is an owner, with his father and brother, of Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota, the nation’s largest beekeeper, described mounting losses.

“We lost 42 percent over the winter. But by the time we came around to pollinate almonds, it was a 55 percent loss,” he said in an interview here this week.

“They looked beautiful in October,” Mr. Adee said, “and in December, they started falling apart, when it got cold.”

Mr. Dahle said he had planned to bring 13,000 beehives from Montana — 31 tractor-trailers full — to work the California almond groves. But by the start of pollination last month, only 3,000 healthy hives remained.

Annual bee losses of 5 percent to 10 percent once were the norm for beekeepers. But after colony collapse disorder surfaced around 2005, the losses approached one-third of all bees, despite beekeepers’ best efforts to ensure their health.

Nor is the impact limited to beekeepers. The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions, depends on pollination by honeybees. Fewer bees means smaller harvests and higher food prices.

Almonds are a bellwether. Eighty percent of the nation’s almonds grow here, and 80 percent of those are exported, a multibillion-dollar crop crucial to California agriculture. Pollinating up to 800,000 acres, with at least two hives per acre, takes as many as two-thirds of all commercial hives.

This past winter’s die-off sent growers scrambling for enough hives to guarantee a harvest. Chris Moore, a beekeeper in Kountze, Tex., said he had planned to skip the groves after sickness killed 40 percent of his bees and left survivors weakened.

“But California was short, and I got a call in the middle of February that they were desperate for just about anything,” he said. So he sent two truckloads of hives that he normally would not have put to work.

Bee shortages pushed the cost to farmers of renting bees to $200 per hive at times, 20 percent above normal. That, too, may translate into higher prices for food.

Precisely why last year’s deaths were so great is unclear. Some blame drought in the Midwest, though Mr. Dahle lost nearly 80 percent of his bees despite excellent summer conditions. Others cite bee mites that have become increasingly resistant to pesticides. Still others blame viruses.

But many beekeepers suspect the biggest culprit is the growing soup of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that are used to control pests.

While each substance has been certified, there has been less study of their combined effects. Nor, many critics say, have scientists sufficiently studied the impact of neonicotinoids, the nicotine-derived pesticide that European regulators implicate in bee deaths.

The explosive growth of neonicotinoids since 2005 has roughly tracked rising bee deaths.

Neonics, as farmers call them, are applied in smaller doses than older pesticides. They are systemic pesticides, often embedded in seeds so that the plant itself carries the chemical that kills insects that feed on it.

Older pesticides could kill bees and other beneficial insects. But while they quickly degraded — often in a matter of days — neonicotinoids persist for weeks and even months. Beekeepers worry that bees carry a summer’s worth of contaminated pollen to hives, where ensuing generations dine on a steady dose of pesticide that, eaten once or twice, might not be dangerous.

“Soybean fields or canola fields or sunflower fields, they all have this systemic insecticide,” Mr. Adee said. “If you have one shot of whiskey on Thanksgiving and one on the Fourth of July, it’s not going to make any difference. But if you have whiskey every night, 365 days a year, your liver’s gone. It’s the same thing.”

Research to date on neonicotinoids “supports the notion that the products are safe and are not contributing in any measurable way to pollinator health concerns,” the president of CropLife America, Jay Vroom, said Wednesday. The group represents more than 90 pesticide producers.

He said the group nevertheless supported further research. “We stand with science and will let science take the regulation of our products in whatever direction science will guide it,” Mr. Vroom said.

A coalition of beekeepers and environmental and consumer groups sued the E.P.A. last week, saying it exceeded its authority by conditionally approving some neonicotinoids. The agency has begun an accelerated review of their impact on bees and other wildlife.

The European Union has proposed to ban their use on crops frequented by bees. Some researchers have concluded that neonicotinoids caused extensive die-offs in Germany and France.

Neonicotinoids are hardly the beekeepers’ only concern. Herbicide use has grown as farmers have adopted crop varieties, from corn to sunflowers, that are genetically modified to survive spraying with weedkillers. Experts say some fungicides have been laced with regulators that keep insects from maturing, a problem some beekeepers have reported.

Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, said analysts had documented about 150 chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.

“Where do you start?” Dr. Mussen said. “When you have all these chemicals at a sublethal level, how do they react with each other? What are the consequences?”

Experts say nobody knows. But Mr. Adee, who said he had long scorned environmentalists’ hand-wringing about such issues, said he was starting to wonder whether they had a point.

Of the “environmentalist” label, Mr. Adee said: “I would have been insulted if you had called me that a few years ago. But what you would have called extreme — a light comes on, and you think, ‘These guys really have something. Maybe they were just ahead of the bell curve.’”

March 29th, 2013
Dairy Finds a Way to Let Cows Power Trucks


Mike McCloskey, an owner of Fair Oaks, at a refueling station that dispenses the final product.
Peter Hoffman for The New York Times

By STEVEN YACCINO
NY Times Published: March 27, 2013

FAIR OAKS, Ind. — Here at one of the largest dairy farms in the country, electricity generated using an endless supply of manure runs the equipment to milk around 30,000 cows three times a day.

For years, the farm has used livestock waste to create enough natural gas to power 10 barns, a cheese factory, a cafe, a gift shop and a maze of child-friendly exhibits about the world of dairy, including a 4D movie theater.

All that, and Fair Oaks Farms was still using only about half of the five million pounds of cow manure it vacuumed up from its barn floors on a daily basis. It burned off the excess methane, wasted energy sacrificed to the sky.

But not anymore.

The farm is now turning the extra manure into fuel for its delivery trucks, powering 42 tractor-trailers that make daily runs to raw milk processing plants in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. Officials from the federal Department of Energy called the endeavor a “pacesetter” for the dairy industry, and said it was the largest natural gas fleet using agricultural waste to drive this nation’s roads.

“As long as we keep milking cows, we never run out of gas,” said Gary Corbett, chief executive of Fair Oaks, which held a ribbon-cutting event for the project this month and opened two fueling stations to the public.

“We are one user, and we’re taking two million gallons of diesel off the highway each year,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”

The switch comes at a time of nascent growth for vehicles that run on compressed natural gas in the United States, as some industries — particularly those that require long-haul trucking or repetitive routes — have started considering the advantages of cheap natural gas, close to half the price of a gallon of diesel fuel for the same amount of power.

The American Gas Association estimates there are about 1,200 natural gas fueling stations operating across the country, the vast majority of which are supplied by the same pipelines that heat houses.

But the growing market is also drawing interest from livestock farmers, landfill management companies and other industries handling methane-rich material that, if harnessed, could create a nearly endless supply of cleaner, safer, sustainable “biogas,” while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

To be sure, no one is pretending that waste-to-energy projects will become a major part of the larger natural gas vehicle market. But supporters say it could provide additional incentive to make biogas systems, which have lagged behind other sustainable energy solutions, more commercially viable.

“You’re essentially harvesting manure,” said Erin Fitzgerald, a senior vice president at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, who says that farmers across the country are starting to think about whether the model tried at Fair Oaks will work for them. “It’s not glamorous. It doesn’t really catch your eye like wind and solar.”

Mike McCloskey, a co-owner of Fair Oaks, said he first started looking into renewable energy options for the farm more than a decade ago, when the smell of manure, used as fertilizer on his fields, started drawing complaints from some neighbors.

Today, the farm is running sophisticated $12 million “digester” facilities that process its overabundance of manure, capturing natural gas that runs electric generators or is pumped underground to a fueling station. The leftover byproduct is still spread on the fields as fertilizer.

While Mr. Corbett would not divulge how much money the farm saves by its switch to biogas fuel, he said the gas stations had already brought in new revenue from other trucking fleets.

Dennis Smith, director of the Clean Cities program for the federal Department of Energy, said about 8,000 large-scale dairy and swine farms across the country could potentially support similar biogas recovery projects. When coupled with landfills and wastewater treatment plants, he said, there is potential to someday replace as much as 10 billion gallons of gasoline annually with renewable fuel.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the time is ripe for more manure-powered vehicles, particularly when regular natural gas remains abundant and cheap.

“The market is just not firm yet,” said Michael Boccadoro, a bioenergy consultant from California who is finishing a study of the possibility of neighboring dairies in the San Joaquin Valley sharing a single digester. “It’s all a tiny bit premature.”

That has not stopped AMP Americas, a Chicago company that partnered with Fair Oaks on the fuel project. The company plans to build 15 more natural gas stations this year, with some in Texas and the rest along two major Interstates in the Midwest.

For now, each station will be supplied primarily by traditional pipeline gas, but the company plans to partner with more dairy companies along the way, getting help from Mr. McCloskey and the Fair Oaks story.

“I think the whole country is ready for this,” Mr. McCloskey said. “I think you’re going to look around in five years and be very surprised at what you see.”

Thanks to Jonathan Maghen

March 29th, 2013
idem paris

March 27th, 2013
Lebbeus Woods


Conflict Space 4, 2006; crayon and acrylic on linen

Through June 2, 2013

SFMOMA

March 27th, 2013
Mike Kelley


Animal Self and Friend of Animal, 1987

Through April 1, 2013

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

March 25th, 2013
Your Phone vs. Your Heart


Kristian Hammerstad

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSON
NY Times Published: March 23, 2013

CAN you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

Our ingrained habits change us. Neurons that fire together, wire together, neuroscientists like to say, reflecting the increasing evidence that experiences leave imprints on our neural pathways, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Any habit molds the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.

Plasticity, the propensity to be shaped by experience, isn’t limited to the brain. You already know that when you lead a sedentary life, your muscles atrophy to diminish your physical strength. What you may not know is that your habits of social connection also leave their own physical imprint on you.

How much time do you typically spend with others? And when you do, how connected and attuned to them do you feel? Your answers to these simple questions may well reveal your biological capacity to connect.

My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.

We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.

To appreciate why this matters, here’s a quick anatomy lesson. Your brain is tied to your heart by your vagus nerve. Subtle variations in your heart rate reveal the strength of this brain-heart connection, and as such, heart-rate variability provides an index of your vagal tone.

By and large, the higher your vagal tone the better. It means your body is better able to regulate the internal systems that keep you healthy, like your cardiovascular, glucose and immune responses.

Beyond these health effects, the behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges has shown that vagal tone is central to things like facial expressivity and the ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice. By increasing people’s vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy.

In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

The human body — and thereby our human potential — is far more plastic or amenable to change than most of us realize. The new field of social genomics, made possible by the sequencing of the human genome, tells us that the ways our and our children’s genes are expressed at the cellular level is plastic, too, responsive to habitual experiences and actions.

Work in social genomics reveals that our personal histories of social connection or loneliness, for instance, alter how our genes are expressed within the cells of our immune system. New parents may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.

When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.

If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.

So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.

Barbara L. Fredrickson is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of “Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become.”

March 24th, 2013
The Attachment That Still Makes Noise


Daniel Borris for The New York Times
By PHYLLIS KORKKI
NY Times Published: March 23, 2013

DO you have a stapler?

If you do, maybe it’s a little dusty in this age of PDFs. Or maybe it’s been missing for a while, after someone borrowed it and never brought it back. Or maybe you’ve affixed your name to your stapler with a piece of clear tape, so your co-workers know: you take this stapler, you die.

Even as data moves to computers and the cloud, staplers continue to help people keep it together. On the computer, we can file copies in folders and send messages to mailboxes. We can cut, copy and paste text and files. But which computer activity is similar to stapling? Sure, there’s the paper-clip icon that attaches documents to e-mail. But nothing, really, comes close to the satisfying ka-chunk of a stapler: it’s a sound that means work is getting done.

Paper receipts are supposed to be on their way out, but they continue to flutter their way through restaurants, stores and doctors’ offices. Staplers are there, attaching the receipt to the business card, the return receipt to the original receipt, the merchant copy to the bill, the receipt to the takeout bag.

If you have a stapler, the odds are fairly good that it was made by Swingline. Other companies, including Stanley-Bostitch, along with OfficeMax and Staples, also make staplers. But Swingline, now owned by Acco Brands, has long been the market leader.

Acco, based in suburban Chicago, sounds like the perfect name for a faceless conglomerate from the era of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” But it actually has a sterling office products pedigree — it is short for the American Clip Company, a manufacturer of paper clips founded by Fred. J. Kline of Queens at the turn of the 20th century.

Queens was once the center of the paper-fastening universe. In 1925, it was where Jack Linsky founded the Parrot Speed Fastener Company, later renamed Swingline. For years, the bright red sign of his Swingline factory was a beacon to Queens residents as they drove across the Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan.

Stapling devices have existed since at the least the French court of Louis XV. But before Mr. Linsky’s time, staples generally had to be laboriously loaded, one by one, into the rear of the stapler. Mr. Linsky helped revolutionize stapling by creating an easy way to fill the devices under a horizontal cap. He found an adhesive that could attach staples in rows so that they stayed together in a metal magazine until they were pushed out and bent individually to grip their paper quarry.

Swingline promised to make office work easy. In a newspaper ad from the 1940s, a young woman — presumably a secretary — loads a stapler and says: “Now we’re in the groove, boss! That Swingline Stapler loads quicker, works slicker because of its open, trouble-free channel.”

But Mr. Linsky wasn’t satisfied to serve only the office market; he helped increase demand for staplers by emphasizing their handiness in other tasks, like tacking shelf paper, fastening paper around sandwiches and constructing party hats. (“Swingline does the darnedest things!” another ad boasted.) He also expanded the business by making specialized staplers for carpeting, roofing and auto upholstery.

In 1970, Mr. Linsky sold Swingline to American Brands, and in the next decade Acco merged into Swingline. Amid the manufacturing crisis of the 1990s, American Brands closed the Swingline factory in Queens and moved its manufacturing to Mexico; nearly 500 New York workers lost their jobs, and the Swingline sign came down. Now most staplers are produced in Asia.

Swingline made Mr. Linsky very rich. He and his wife, Belle, were philanthropists and art collectors who once owned one of the largest collections of Fabergé eggs in America. Jack died in 1980, and in 1982 Belle donated a collection of the couple’s European art, then worth $60 million, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Staplers generally don’t rise to the level of prized collectibles, which is why a Swingline’s role as an object of obsession was so funny in the 1999 cult comedy “Office Space.”

In the film, a mumbling, superwide-eyed character named Milton becomes desperate after his red Swingline stapler is taken away during a frenzy of cost-cutting and downsizing at a soulless I.T. company.

You might assume that this stapler, not only cherished but central to the plot of “Office Space,” was a brilliant product placement move. In fact, Swingline had no hand in the story line. It had long stopped making that type of red stapler, and a black Swingline was painted red by the filmmakers.

At first, Swingline executives weren’t sure they liked being associated with such a dark parody of corporate life. But in 2002, recognizing the value of its pop-culture star turn, it released its Rio Red collectors edition 747 stapler. The company bills it “as the star of any office space.”

STAPLERS come in a range of colors, shapes and sizes and can vary in their staple capacity and in the number of sheets they can puncture. The ideal stapler is a perfect melding of heft and lightness that can accommodate either in-the-air or on-the-desk fastening.

Staplers are still such a fact of everyday life that we’ve lost sight of what a triumph of manufacturing they are. They can bend metal — no batteries or electricity required. They are similar to guns in that they contain magazines meant to be filled with metal objects that you load and release.

“The engineering of a stapler is not fully appreciated,” said Mike Parrish, director of product development for Acco Brands. Under the cap of a stapler, a pusher connected to a spring forces the row of staples forward. A special blade drives the first staple through a slot at the front of the magazine. A metal square with indentations at the edge of the open part of the base, called the anvil, helps bend the staple so it can grip the paper. The bottom of the completed staple is known as the clinch, and the top is the crown.

Without just the right alignment in the stapler, and the proper adhesive level and tensile strength in the row of staples, this delicate operation could go awry. You could end up with a jam (as with a gun), or an incomplete clinch (and maybe a bloody finger).

A Swingline stapler is designed to be “a fusion of form and function,” said Chris Cunningham, global design director for Acco. The design of a traditional model is meant to look streamlined, he added, and so robust and durable that even if the whole building burned down, one senses that the stapler would still be there.

INDUSTRYWIDE, sales of desktop and hand-held staplers (nonelectric) totaled $80.3 million in 2012, up 3 percent from the previous year, according to NPD, the market research firm. Sales of office products in general rose after a decline amid the recession.

Robert Keller, the departing C.E.O. of Acco Brands (he will remain as executive chairman), started his career at I.B.M. in the 1970s, when experts were predicting that paperless offices were just around the corner. Well, here he is, four decades later, leading a huge office products company with paper and staplers as its core products.

But Mr. Keller knows full well that computers will continue to eat into the business; that’s why Acco is aggressively expanding into global markets where technology is not as entrenched.

Time is a big threat to the stapler industry, and to office products in general. More people who grew up with staplers are going to retire and die. And the younger generation just isn’t as attached to staplers, said Lora Morsovillo, president of office supplies for NPD.

But there’s hope, she said, if stapler makers look at their products as decorative objects. “The growth is coming from uniqueness and personalization,” especially in home offices, she said. She puts staplers in the same general category as tape dispensers, and, she noted, there’s a tape dispenser out there in the shape of a stiletto heel.

Swingline has yet to produce a stiletto stapler, but it recently introduced a line of fashion staplers with bright colors and decorations. On the whole, though, staplers have been “drab and dreary,” maintained Randy Nicolau, the chief executive of Poppin, a new e-commerce company that aims to turn products like staplers, notebooks, pens, pen cups, trays and calculators into jewelry for your desk.

Poppin’s open-plan office is bright with the colors of its coordinated products, including white, black, yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, two shades of blue (aqua and “pool”) and lime green. “We consider ourselves to be a fashion company before anything else,” Mr. Nicolau said.

The company also cares about function, said Jeff Miller, vice president of product design. But in addition to making a product that performs well, Mr. Miller said, he seeks to create sleek, concise forms, and modular sizes — so that the stapler on your desk, for example, matches up with the tape dispenser.

The company’s staplers are made overseas, but its headquarters are in Manhattan, across the East River from where Jack Linsky once set up shop. The stylish staplers sold by Poppin look much different from the utilitarian ones Mr. Linsky once made, but some things haven’t changed. The staplers still have a magazine, a spring, a pusher and an anvil, and they still make a satisfying metallic sound when you press down on them, signaling that work has been done.

March 23rd, 2013
Treasure Island Trauma

By PAUL KRUGMAN
NY Times Published: March 21, 2013

A couple of years ago, the journalist Nicholas Shaxson published a fascinating, chilling book titled “Treasure Islands,” which explained how international tax havens — which are also, as the author pointed out, “secrecy jurisdictions” where many rules don’t apply — undermine economies around the world. Not only do they bleed revenues from cash-strapped governments and enable corruption; they distort the flow of capital, helping to feed ever-bigger financial crises.

One question Mr. Shaxson didn’t get into much, however, is what happens when a secrecy jurisdiction itself goes bust. That’s the story of Cyprus right now. And whatever the outcome for Cyprus itself (hint: it’s not likely to be happy), the Cyprus mess shows just how unreformed the world banking system remains, almost five years after the global financial crisis began.

So, about Cyprus: You might wonder why anyone cares about a tiny nation with an economy not much bigger than that of metropolitan Scranton, Pa. Cyprus is, however, a member of the euro zone, so events there could trigger contagion (for example, bank runs) in larger nations. And there’s something else: While the Cypriot economy may be tiny, it’s a surprisingly large financial player, with a banking sector four or five times as big as you might expect given the size of its economy.

Why are Cypriot banks so big? Because the country is a tax haven where corporations and wealthy foreigners stash their money. Officially, 37 percent of the deposits in Cypriot banks come from nonresidents; the true number, once you take into account wealthy expatriates and people who are only nominally resident in Cyprus, is surely much higher. Basically, Cyprus is a place where people, especially but not only Russians, hide their wealth from both the taxmen and the regulators. Whatever gloss you put on it, it’s basically about money-laundering.

And the truth is that much of the wealth never moved at all; it just became invisible. On paper, for example, Cyprus became a huge investor in Russia — much bigger than Germany, whose economy is hundreds of times larger. In reality, of course, this was just “roundtripping” by Russians using the island as a tax shelter.

Unfortunately for the Cypriots, enough real money came in to finance some seriously bad investments, as their banks bought Greek debt and lent into a vast real estate bubble. Sooner or later, things were bound to go wrong. And now they have.

Now what? There are some strong similarities between Cyprus now and Iceland (a similar-size economy) a few years back. Like Cyprus now, Iceland had a huge banking sector, swollen by foreign deposits, that was simply too big to bail out. Iceland’s response was essentially to let its banks go bust, wiping out those foreign investors, while protecting domestic depositors — and the results weren’t too bad. Indeed, Iceland, with a far lower unemployment rate than most of Europe, has weathered the crisis surprisingly well.

Unfortunately, Cyprus’s response to its crisis has been a hopeless muddle. In part, this reflects the fact that it no longer has its own currency, which makes it dependent on decision makers in Brussels and Berlin — decision makers who haven’t been willing to let banks openly fail.

But it also reflects Cyprus’s own reluctance to accept the end of its money-laundering business; its leaders are still trying to limit losses to foreign depositors in the vain hope that business as usual can resume, and they were so anxious to protect the big money that they tried to limit foreigners’ losses by expropriating small domestic depositors. As it turned out, however, ordinary Cypriots were outraged, the plan was rejected, and, at this point, nobody knows what will happen.

My guess is that, in the end, Cyprus will adopt something like the Icelandic solution, but unless it ends up being forced off the euro in the next few days — a real possibility — it may first waste a lot of time and money on half-measures, trying to avoid facing up to reality while running up huge debts to wealthier nations. We’ll see.

But step back for a minute and consider the incredible fact that tax havens like Cyprus, the Cayman Islands, and many more are still operating pretty much the same way that they did before the global financial crisis. Everyone has seen the damage that runaway bankers can inflict, yet much of the world’s financial business is still routed through jurisdictions that let bankers sidestep even the mild regulations we’ve put in place. Everyone is crying about budget deficits, yet corporations and the wealthy are still freely using tax havens to avoid paying taxes like the little people.

So don’t cry for Cyprus; cry for all of us, living in a world whose leaders seem determined not to learn from disaster.

March 23rd, 2013
Suzan Frecon


from 3 part composition, variation 2, 2012
Watercolor on Seisochan Japanese handmade paper

Through March 23, 2013

David Zwirner

Thanks to RS

March 22nd, 2013
We Aren’t the World

By Ethan Watters
Pacific Standard
February 25, 2013

IN THE SUMMER of 1995, a young graduate student in anthropology at UCLA named Joe Henrich traveled to Peru to carry out some fieldwork among the Machiguenga, an indigenous people who live north of Machu Picchu in the Amazon basin. The Machiguenga had traditionally been horticulturalists who lived in single-family, thatch-roofed houses in small hamlets composed of clusters of extended families. For sustenance, they relied on local game and produce from small-scale farming. They shared with their kin but rarely traded with outside groups.
While the setting was fairly typical for an anthropologist, Henrich’s research was not. Rather than practice traditional ethnography, he decided to run a behavioral experiment that had been developed by economists. Henrich used a “game”—along the lines of the famous prisoner’s dilemma—to see whether isolated cultures shared with the West the same basic instinct for fairness. In doing so, Henrich expected to confirm one of the foundational assumptions underlying such experiments, and indeed underpinning the entire fields of economics and psychology: that humans all share the same cognitive machinery—the same evolved rational and psychological hardwiring.
The test that Henrich introduced to the Machiguenga was called the ultimatum game. The rules are simple: in each game there are two players who remain anonymous to each other. The first player is given an amount of money, say $100, and told that he has to offer some of the cash, in an amount of his choosing, to the other subject. The second player can accept or refuse the split. But there’s a hitch: players know that if the recipient refuses the offer, both leave empty-handed. North Americans, who are the most common subjects for such experiments, usually offer a 50-50 split when on the giving end. When on the receiving end, they show an eagerness to punish the other player for uneven splits at their own expense. In short, Americans show the tendency to be equitable with strangers—and to punish those who are not.
Among the Machiguenga, word quickly spread of the young, square-jawed visitor from America giving away money. The stakes Henrich used in the game with the Machiguenga were not insubstantial—roughly equivalent to the few days’ wages they sometimes earned from episodic work with logging or oil companies. So Henrich had no problem finding volunteers. What he had great difficulty with, however, was explaining the rules, as the game struck the Machiguenga as deeply odd.
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

The potential implications of the unexpected results were quickly apparent to Henrich. He knew that a vast amount of scholarly literature in the social sciences—particularly in economics and psychology—relied on the ultimatum game and similar experiments. At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.
Henrich had thought he would be adding a small branch to an established tree of knowledge. It turned out he was sawing at the very trunk. He began to wonder: What other certainties about “human nature” in social science research would need to be reconsidered when tested across diverse populations?
Henrich soon landed a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to take his fairness games on the road. With the help of a dozen other colleagues he led a study of 14 other small-scale societies, in locales from Tanzania to Indonesia. Differences abounded in the behavior of both players in the ultimatum game. In no society did he find people who were purely selfish (that is, who always offered the lowest amount, and never refused a split), but average offers from place to place varied widely and, in some societies—ones where gift-giving is heavily used to curry favor or gain allegiance—the first player would often make overly generous offers in excess of 60 percent, and the second player would often reject them, behaviors almost never observed among Americans.
The research established Henrich as an up-and-coming scholar. In 2004, he was given the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for young scientists at the White House. But his work also made him a controversial figure. When he presented his research to the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia during a job interview a year later, he recalls a hostile reception. Anthropology is the social science most interested in cultural differences, but the young scholar’s methods of using games and statistics to test and compare cultures with the West seemed heavy-handed and invasive to some. “Professors from the anthropology department suggested it was a bad thing that I was doing,” Henrich remembers. “The word ‘unethical’ came up.”
So instead of toeing the line, he switched teams. A few well-placed people at the University of British Columbia saw great promise in Henrich’s work and created a position for him, split between the economics department and the psychology department. It was in the psychology department that he found two kindred spirits in Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan. Together the three set about writing a paper that they hoped would fundamentally challenge the way social scientists thought about human behavior, cognition, and culture.

A MODERN LIBERAL ARTS education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike.
If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so unmoored. The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.
Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.
Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game was an example of a small but growing countertrend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition. His new colleagues in the psychology department, Heine and Norenzayan, were also part of this trend. Heine focused on the different ways people in Western and Eastern cultures perceived the world, reasoned, and understood themselves in relationship to others. Norenzayan’s research focused on the ways religious belief influenced bonding and behavior. The three began to compile examples of cross-cultural research that, like Henrich’s work with the Machiguenga, challenged long-held assumptions of human psychological universality.
Some of that research went back a generation. It was in the 1960s, for instance, that researchers discovered that aspects of visual perception were different from place to place. One of the classics of the literature, the Müller-Lyer illusion, showed that where you grew up would determine to what degree you would fall prey to the illusion that these two lines are different in length:

Researchers found that Americans perceive the line with the ends feathered outward (B) as being longer than the line with the arrow tips (A). San foragers of the Kalahari, on the other hand, were more likely to see the lines as they are: equal in length. Subjects from more than a dozen cultures were tested, and Americans were at the far end of the distribution—seeing the illusion more dramatically than all others.
More recently psychologists had challenged the universality of research done in the 1950s by pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch. Asch had discovered that test subjects were often willing to make incorrect judgments on simple perception tests to conform with group pressure. When the test was performed across 17 societies, however, it turned out that group pressure had a range of influence. Americans were again at the far end of the scale, in this case showing the least tendency to conform to group belief.
As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies. When people are constantly doing business with strangers, it helps when they have the desire to go out of their way (with a lawsuit, a call to the Better Business Bureau, or a bad Yelp review) when they feel cheated. Because Machiguengan culture had a different history, their gut feeling about what was fair was distinctly their own. In the small-scale societies with a strong culture of gift-giving, yet another conception of fairness prevailed. There, generous financial offers were turned down because people’s minds had been shaped by a cultural norm that taught them that the acceptance of generous gifts brought burdensome obligations. Our economies hadn’t been shaped by our sense of fairness; it was the other way around.
The growing body of cross-cultural research that the three researchers were compiling suggested that the mind’s capacity to mold itself to cultural and environmental settings was far greater than had been assumed. The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do—the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like—but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception.
For instance, the different ways people perceive the Müller-Lyer illusion likely reflects lifetimes spent in different physical environments. American children, for the most part, grow up in box-shaped rooms of varying dimensions. Surrounded by carpentered corners, visual perception adapts to this strange new environment (strange and new in terms of human history, that is) by learning to perceive converging lines in three dimensions.
When unconsciously translated in three dimensions, the line with the outward-feathered ends (C) appears farther away and the brain therefore judges it to be longer. The more time one spends in natural environments, where there are no carpentered corners, the less one sees the illusion.
As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was remarkable: again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when compared to other populations—with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve.
In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” (pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”
Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.

NOT LONG AGO I met Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan for dinner at a small French restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, to hear about the reception of their weird paper, which was published in the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2010. The trio of researchers are young—as professors go—good-humored family men. They recalled that they were nervous as the publication time approached. The paper basically suggested that much of what social scientists thought they knew about fundamental aspects of human cognition was likely only true of one small slice of humanity. They were making such a broadside challenge to whole libraries of research that they steeled themselves to the possibility of becoming outcasts in their own fields.
“We were scared,” admitted Henrich. “We were warned that a lot of people were going to be upset.”
“We were told we were going to get spit on,” interjected Norenzayan.
“Yes,” Henrich said. “That we’d go to conferences and no one was going to sit next to us at lunchtime.”
Interestingly, they seemed much less concerned that they had used the pejorative acronym WEIRD to describe a significant slice of humanity, although they did admit that they could only have done so to describe their own group. “Really,” said Henrich, “the only people we could have called weird are represented right here at this table.”
Still, I had to wonder whether describing the Western mind, and the American mind in particular, as weird suggested that our cognition is not just different but somehow malformed or twisted. In their paper the trio pointed out cross-cultural studies that suggest that the “weird” Western mind is the most self-aggrandizing and egotistical on the planet: we are more likely to promote ourselves as individuals versus advancing as a group. WEIRD minds are also more analytic, possessing the tendency to telescope in on an object of interest rather than understanding that object in the context of what is around it.
The WEIRD mind also appears to be unique in terms of how it comes to understand and interact with the natural world. Studies show that Western urban children grow up so closed off in man-made environments that their brains never form a deep or complex connection to the natural world. While studying children from the U.S., researchers have suggested a developmental timeline for what is called “folkbiological reasoning.” These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many. Compared to Yucatec Maya communities in Mexico, however, Western urban children appear to be developmentally delayed in this regard. Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood.
Given that people living in WEIRD societies don’t routinely encounter or interact with animals other than humans or pets, it’s not surprising that they end up with a rather cartoonish understanding of the natural world. “Indeed,” the report concluded, “studying the cognitive development of folkbiology in urban children would seem the equivalent of studying ‘normal’ physical growth in malnourished children.”
During our dinner, I admitted to Heine, Henrich, and Norenzayan that the idea that I can only perceive reality through a distorted cultural lens was unnerving. For me the notion raised all sorts of metaphysical questions: Is my thinking so strange that I have little hope of understanding people from other cultures? Can I mold my own psyche or the psyches of my children to be less WEIRD and more able to think like the rest of the world? If I did, would I be happier?
Henrich reacted with mild concern that I was taking this research so personally. He had not intended, he told me, for his work to be read as postmodern self-help advice. “I think we’re really interested in these questions for the questions’ sake,” he said.
The three insisted that their goal was not to say that one culturally shaped psychology was better or worse than another—only that we’ll never truly understand human behavior and cognition until we expand the sample pool beyond its current small slice of humanity. Despite these assurances, however, I found it hard not to read a message between the lines of their research. When they write, for example, that weird children develop their understanding of the natural world in a “culturally and experientially impoverished environment” and that they are in this way the equivalent of “malnourished children,” it’s difficult to see this as a good thing.

THE TURN THAT HENRICH, Heine, and Norenzayan are asking social scientists to make is not an easy one: accounting for the influence of culture on cognition will be a herculean task. Cultures are not monolithic; they can be endlessly parsed. Ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, economic status, parenting styles, rural upbringing versus urban or suburban—there are hundreds of cultural differences that individually and in endless combinations influence our conceptions of fairness, how we categorize things, our method of judging and decision making, and our deeply held beliefs about the nature of the self, among other aspects of our psychological makeup.
We are just at the beginning of learning how these fine-grained cultural differences affect our thinking. Recent research has shown that people in “tight” cultures, those with strong norms and low tolerance for deviant behavior (think India, Malaysia, and Pakistan), develop higher impulse control and more self-monitoring abilities than those from other places. Men raised in the honor culture of the American South have been shown to experience much larger surges of testosterone after insults than do Northerners. Research published late last year suggested psychological differences at the city level too. Compared to San Franciscans, Bostonians’ internal sense of self-worth is more dependent on community status and financial and educational achievement. “A cultural difference doesn’t have to be big to be important,” Norenzayan said. “We’re not just talking about comparing New York yuppies to the Dani tribesmen of Papua New Guinea.”
As Norenzayan sees it, the last few generations of psychologists have suffered from “physics envy,” and they need to get over it. The job, experimental psychologists often assumed, was to push past the content of people’s thoughts and see the underlying universal hardware at work. “This is a deeply flawed way of studying human nature,” Norenzayan told me, “because the content of our thoughts and their process are intertwined.” In other words, if human cognition is shaped by cultural ideas and behavior, it can’t be studied without taking into account what those ideas and behaviors are and how they are different from place to place.
This new approach suggests the possibility of reverse-engineering psychological research: look at cultural content first; cognition and behavior second. Norenzayan’s recent work on religious belief is perhaps the best example of the intellectual landscape that is now open for study. When Norenzayan became a student of psychology in 1994, four years after his family had moved from Lebanon to America, he was excited to study the effect of religion on human psychology. “I remember opening textbook after textbook and turning to the index and looking for the word ‘religion,’ ” he told me, “Again and again the very word wouldn’t be listed. This was shocking. How could psychology be the science of human behavior and have nothing to say about religion? Where I grew up you’d have to be in a coma not to notice the importance of religion on how people perceive themselves and the world around them.”
Norenzayan became interested in how certain religious beliefs, handed down through generations, may have shaped human psychology to make possible the creation of large-scale societies. He has suggested that there may be a connection between the growth of religions that believe in “morally concerned deities”—that is, a god or gods who care if people are good or bad—and the evolution of large cities and nations. To be cooperative in large groups of relative strangers, in other words, might have required the shared belief that an all-powerful being was forever watching over your shoulder.
If religion was necessary in the development of large-scale societies, can large-scale societies survive without religion? Norenzayan points to parts of Scandinavia with atheist majorities that seem to be doing just fine. They may have climbed the ladder of religion and effectively kicked it away. Or perhaps, after a thousand years of religious belief, the idea of an unseen entity always watching your behavior remains in our culturally shaped thinking even after the belief in God dissipates or disappears.
Why, I asked Norenzayan, if religion might have been so central to human psychology, have researchers not delved into the topic? “Experimental psychologists are the weirdest of the weird,” said Norenzayan. “They are almost the least religious academics, next to biologists. And because academics mostly talk amongst themselves, they could look around and say, ‘No one who is important to me is religious, so this must not be very important.’” Indeed, almost every major theorist on human behavior in the last 100 years predicted that it was just a matter of time before religion was a vestige of the past. But the world persists in being a very religious place.

HENRICH, HEINE, AND NORENZAYAN’S FEAR of being ostracized after the publication of the WEIRD paper turned out to be misplaced. Response to the paper, both published and otherwise, has been nearly universally positive, with more than a few of their colleagues suggesting that the work will spark fundamental changes. “I have no doubt that this paper is going to change the social sciences,” said Richard Nisbett, an eminent psychologist at the University of Michigan. “It just puts it all in one place and makes such a bold statement.”
More remarkable still, after reading the paper, academics from other disciplines began to come forward with their own mea culpas. Commenting on the paper, two brain researchers from Northwestern University argued (pdf) that the nascent field of neuroimaging had made the same mistake as psychologists, noting that 90 percent of neuroimaging studies were performed in Western countries. Researchers in motor development similarly suggested that their discipline’s body of research ignored how different child-rearing practices around the world can dramatically influence states of development. Two psycholinguistics professors suggested that their colleagues had also made the same mistake: blithely assuming human homogeneity while focusing their research primarily on one rather small slice of humanity.
At its heart, the challenge of the WEIRD paper is not simply to the field of experimental human research (do more cross-cultural studies!); it is a challenge to our Western conception of human nature. For some time now, the most widely accepted answer to the question of why humans, among all animals, have so successfully adapted to environments across the globe is that we have big brains with the ability to learn, improvise, and problem-solve.
Henrich has challenged this “cognitive niche” hypothesis with the “cultural niche” hypothesis. He notes that the amount of knowledge in any culture is far greater than the capacity of individuals to learn or figure it all out on their own. He suggests that individuals tap that cultural storehouse of knowledge simply by mimicking (often unconsciously) the behavior and ways of thinking of those around them. We shape a tool in a certain manner, adhere to a food taboo, or think about fairness in a particular way, not because we individually have figured out that behavior’s adaptive value, but because we instinctively trust our culture to show us the way. When Henrich asked Fijian women why they avoided certain potentially toxic fish during pregnancy and breastfeeding, he found that many didn’t know or had fanciful reasons. Regardless of their personal understanding, by mimicking this culturally adaptive behavior they were protecting their offspring. The unique trick of human psychology, these researchers suggest, might be this: our big brains are evolved to let local culture lead us in life’s dance.
The applications of this new way of looking at the human mind are still in the offing. Henrich suggests that his research about fairness might first be applied to anyone working in international relations or development. People are not “plug and play,” as he puts it, and you cannot expect to drop a Western court system or form of government into another culture and expect it to work as it does back home. Those trying to use economic incentives to encourage sustainable land use will similarly need to understand local notions of fairness to have any chance of influencing behavior in predictable ways.
Because of our peculiarly Western way of thinking of ourselves as independent of others, this idea of the culturally shaped mind doesn’t go down very easily. Perhaps the richest and most established vein of cultural psychology—that which compares Western and Eastern concepts of the self—goes to the heart of this problem. Heine has spent much of his career following the lead of a seminal paper published in 1991 by Hazel Rose Markus, of Stanford University, and Shinobu Kitayama, who is now at the University of Michigan. Markus and Kitayama suggested that different cultures foster strikingly different views of the self, particularly along one axis: some cultures regard the self as independent from others; others see the self as interdependent. The interdependent self—which is more the norm in East Asian countries, including Japan and China—connects itself with others in a social group and favors social harmony over self-expression. The independent self—which is most prominent in America—focuses on individual attributes and preferences and thinks of the self as existing apart from the group.


The classic “rod and frame” task: Is the line in the center vertical?

That we in the West develop brains that are wired to see ourselves as separate from others may also be connected to differences in how we reason, Heine argues. Unlike the vast majority of the world, Westerners (and Americans in particular) tend to reason analytically as opposed to holistically. That is, the American mind strives to figure out the world by taking it apart and examining its pieces. Show a Japanese and an American the same cartoon of an aquarium, and the American will remember details mostly about the moving fish while the Japanese observer will likely later be able to describe the seaweed, the bubbles, and other objects in the background. Shown another way, in a different test analytic Americans will do better on something called the “rod and frame” task, where one has to judge whether a line is vertical even though the frame around it is skewed. Americans see the line as apart from the frame, just as they see themselves as apart from the group.
Heine and others suggest that such differences may be the echoes of cultural activities and trends going back thousands of years. Whether you think of yourself as interdependent or independent may depend on whether your distant ancestors farmed rice (which required a great deal of shared labor and group cooperation) or herded animals (which rewarded individualism and aggression). Heine points to Nisbett at Michigan, who has argued (pdf) that the analytic/holistic dichotomy in reasoning styles can be clearly seen, respectively, in Greek and Chinese philosophical writing dating back 2,500 years. These psychological trends and tendencies may echo down generations, hundreds of years after the activity or situation that brought them into existence has disappeared or fundamentally changed.
And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined. The historical missteps of Western researchers, in other words, have been the predictable consequences of the WEIRD mind doing the thinking.

via

March 20th, 2013
thomas nozkowski


Untitled, 2012

Through March 23, 2013

Pace

Thanks to RS

March 20th, 2013
wilhelm sasnal


Kodak Black, 2012
Oil on canvas
63 x 78 3/4 inches

Through April 6, 2013

Anton Kern

March 19th, 2013
Unwanted Electronic Gear Rising in Toxic Piles

Mark Makela for The New York Times
Discarded televisions and computers in Philadelphia.

By IAN URBINA
NY Times Published: March 18

Last year, two inspectors from California’s hazardous waste agency were visiting an electronics recycling company near Fresno for a routine review of paperwork when they came across a warehouse the size of a football field, packed with tens of thousands of old computer monitors and televisions.

The crumbling cardboard boxes, stacked in teetering rows, 9 feet high and 14 feet deep, were so sprawling that the inspectors needed cellphones to keep track of each other. The layer of broken glass on the floor and the lead-laden dust in the air was so thick that the inspectors soon left over safety concerns. Weeks later, the owner of the recycling company disappeared, abandoning the waste, and leaving behind a toxic hazard and a costly cleanup for the state and the warehouse’s owner.

As recently as a few years ago, broken monitors and televisions like those piled in the warehouse were being recycled profitably. The big, glassy funnels inside these machines — known as cathode ray tubes, or CRTs — were melted down and turned into new ones.

But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, decimating the demand for the recycled tube glass used in them and creating what industry experts call a “glass tsunami” as stockpiles of the useless material accumulate across the country.

The predicament has highlighted how small changes in the marketplace can suddenly transform a product into a liability and demonstrates the difficulties that federal and state environmental regulators face in keeping up with these rapid shifts.

“Lots of smaller recyclers are in over their heads, and the risk that they might abandon their stockpiles is very real,” said Jason Linnell of the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse, an organization that represents state environmental regulators, electronics manufacturers and recyclers. In February, the group sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking for immediate help dealing with the rapidly growing stockpiles of the glass, much of which contains lead.

With so few buyers of the leaded glass from the old monitors and televisions, recyclers have collected payments from states and electronics companies to get rid of the old machines. A small number of recyclers have developed new technology for cleaning the lead from the tube glass, but the bulk of this waste is being stored, sent to landfills or smelters, or disposed of in other ways that experts say are environmentally destructive.

In 2004, recyclers were paid more than $200 a ton to provide glass from these monitors for use in new cathode ray tubes. The same companies now have to pay more than $200 a ton to get anyone to take the glass off their hands.

So instead of recycling the waste, many recyclers have been storing millions of the monitors in warehouses, according to industry officials and experts. The practice is sometimes illegal since there are federal limits on how long a company can house the tubes, which are environmentally dangerous. Each one can include up to eight pounds of lead.

The scrap metal industry estimates that the amount of electronic waste has more than doubled in the past five years.

A little over a decade ago, there were at least 12 plants in the United States and 13 more worldwide that were taking these old televisions and monitors and using the cathode ray tube glass to produce new tubes. But now, there are only two plants in India doing this work.

In 2009, after television broadcasters turned off their analog signals nationwide in favor of digital, millions of people threw away their old televisions and replaced them with sleeker flat-screen models. Since then, thousands of pounds of old televisions and other electronic waste have been surreptitiously unloaded at landfills in Nevada and Ohio and on roadsides in California and Maine.

Most experts say that the larger solution to the growing electronic waste problem is for technology companies to design products that last longer, use fewer toxic components and are more easily recycled. Much of the industry, however, seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

Cathode ray tubes have been largely replaced by flat panels that use fluorescent lights with highly toxic mercury in them, said Jim Puckett, director of Basel Action Network, an environmental advocacy group. Used panel screens from LCD televisions and monitors, for example, do not have much recycling value, so many recyclers are sending them to landfills.

State and federal environmental policies have also become victims of their own success. Over the past decade, environmental regulators have promoted “take-back” programs to persuade people to hand in the more than 200 million old televisions and broken computer monitors that Americans are thought to have stored away in closets, garages and basements.

The same programs have courted businesses to divert their electronic waste away from landfills to avoid the hazardous chemicals in this toxic trash from leaching into groundwater. More than 290,000 tons of the high-tech castoffs are now directed away from landfills and toward recyclers each year.

“The problem now is that the collection of this waste has never been higher, but demand for the glass that comes from it has never been lower,” said Neil Peters-Michaud, the chief executive of Cascade Asset Management, a recycling company.

Roughly 660 million pounds of the glass is being stored in warehouses across the country, and it will cost $85 million to $360 million to responsibly recycle it, according to a report released in December by TransparentPlanet, an organization focused on electronic waste research.

The stockpiling problem is especially worrisome to electronics companies and to state and federal officials since they might have to pick up part of the tab if the stockpiles were abandoned and declared federal Superfund sites.

At least 22 states have laws that make electronics manufacturers like Sony, Toshiba and Apple financially responsible for recycling their old products. But lack of oversight of these programs has led to rampant fraud. In one tactic, quietly known in the industry as “paper transactions,” recyclers buy paperwork to indicate that they collected a certain amount of electronic waste that they never actually collected.

The Obama administration, more than any of its predecessors, has strengthened oversight of electronic waste. In 2012, the General Services Administration enacted rules discouraging all agencies and federal contractors from disposing of it in landfills. The federal government, which is among the world’s largest producer of electronic waste, disposes more than 10,000 computers a week on average.

Federal agencies are failing to sufficiently track their electronic waste, and large amounts of it are still being disposed of through public or online auctions, according to a Government Accountability Office report last year. In these auctions, the waste is often sold to a first layer of contractors who promise to handle it appropriately, only to have the most toxic portion subsequently sold to subcontractors who move it around as they wish.

Some of this waste is dumped illegally in developing countries, the G.A.O. found. Congress is considering legislation to ban certain types of unprocessed and nonworking electronics and electronic waste from being exported to developing countries from the United States.

Recyclers say there is still money to be made on processing the old monitors and televisions if companies charge a price that more genuinely reflects the expense of disposing of the glass properly. But practices like “greenwashing,” whereby companies pretend to engage in environmentally responsible disposal practices, hinder such progress.

“They’re skimming off the computers, cellphones and printers that can be recycled profitably because they have more precious metals,” said Karrie Gibson, the chief executive of Vintage Tech Recyclers. “Then they stockpile the CRTs, or dump it in landfills or abroad.”

The sheer quantity of the glass accumulating at some recycling plants has contributed to environmental and workplace safety problems. In Yuma, Ariz., for example, Dlubak Glass, one of the country’s largest recyclers of glass from televisions and monitors, found itself overwhelmed.

When state regulators visited the site in 2009, they found a mountain of the lead-rich glass, several stories tall. Dust from the shimmering mound of recycled glass had contaminated the surrounding soil, including a nearby orchard, with lead at 75 times the federal limit, according to state documents.

“We have it entirely under control now,” said Herb Schall, a Dlubak plant manager.

In September, California passed an emergency measure allowing companies to send monitors and televisions to hazardous landfills for the next two years.

Charlotte Fadipe, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, said her office’s investigation of the abandoned warehouse near Fresno is continuing, and investigators are still trying to locate Charles Li, the owner of the company, TRI Products.

Over the past four years, TRI has been paid more than $1 million by the state to recycle electronic waste from local schools, hospitals and federal agencies, including the F.B.I., the I.R.S. and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to state and company documents.

After a reporter found him to be running another electronic waste disposal company, Mr. Li did not respond. But when he was contacted online by another recycler and asked whether he was still looking to buy electronic waste, he immediately replied yes, with one caveat.

“Right now, we can take PC, server, telephone, printer and household e-waste,” he wrote. “I cannot take your CRT/TV as e-waste because we don’t have equipment to recycle the tubes.”

March 19th, 2013
Marches of Folly

By PAUL KRUGMAN
NY Times Published: March 17, 2013

Ten years ago, America invaded Iraq; somehow, our political class decided that we should respond to a terrorist attack by making war on a regime that, however vile, had nothing to do with that attack.

Some voices warned that we were making a terrible mistake — that the case for war was weak and possibly fraudulent, and that far from yielding the promised easy victory, the venture was all too likely to end in costly grief. And those warnings were, of course, right.

There were, it turned out, no weapons of mass destruction; it was obvious in retrospect that the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into war. And the war — having cost thousands of American lives and scores of thousands of Iraqi lives, having imposed financial costs vastly higher than the war’s boosters predicted — left America weaker, not stronger, and ended up creating an Iraqi regime that is closer to Tehran than it is to Washington.

So did our political elite and our news media learn from this experience? It sure doesn’t look like it.

The really striking thing, during the run-up to the war, was the illusion of consensus. To this day, pundits who got it wrong excuse themselves on the grounds that “everyone” thought that there was a solid case for war. Of course, they acknowledge, there were war opponents — but they were out of the mainstream.

The trouble with this argument is that it was and is circular: support for the war became part of the definition of what it meant to hold a mainstream opinion. Anyone who dissented, no matter how qualified, was ipso facto labeled as unworthy of consideration. This was true in political circles; it was equally true of much of the press, which effectively took sides and joined the war party.

CNN’s Howard Kurtz, who was at The Washington Post at the time, recently wrote about how this process worked, how skeptical reporting, no matter how solid, was discouraged and rejected. “Pieces questioning the evidence or rationale for war,” he wrote, “were frequently buried, minimized or spiked.”

Closely associated with this taking of sides was an exaggerated and inappropriate reverence for authority. Only people in positions of power were considered worthy of respect. Mr. Kurtz tells us, for example, that The Post killed a piece on war doubts by its own senior defense reporter on the grounds that it relied on retired military officials and outside experts — “in other words, those with sufficient independence to question the rationale for war.”

All in all, it was an object lesson in the dangers of groupthink, a demonstration of how important it is to listen to skeptical voices and separate reporting from advocacy. But as I said, it’s a lesson that doesn’t seem to have been learned. Consider, as evidence, the deficit obsession that has dominated our political scene for the past three years.

Now, I don’t want to push the analogy too far. Bad economic policy isn’t the moral equivalent of a war fought on false pretenses, and while the predictions of deficit scolds have been wrong time and again, there hasn’t been any development either as decisive or as shocking as the complete failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Best of all, these days dissenters don’t operate in the atmosphere of menace, the sense that raising doubts could have devastating personal and career consequences, that was so pervasive in 2002 and 2003. (Remember the hate campaign against the Dixie Chicks?)

But now as then we have the illusion of consensus, an illusion based on a process in which anyone questioning the preferred narrative is immediately marginalized, no matter how strong his or her credentials. And now as then the press often seems to have taken sides. It has been especially striking how often questionable assertions are reported as fact. How many times, for example, have you seen news articles simply asserting that the United States has a “debt crisis,” even though many economists would argue that it faces no such thing?

In fact, in some ways the line between news and opinion has been even more blurred on fiscal issues than it was in the march to war. As The Post’s Ezra Klein noted last month, it seems that “the rules of reportorial neutrality don’t apply when it comes to the deficit.”

What we should have learned from the Iraq debacle was that you should always be skeptical and that you should never rely on supposed authority. If you hear that “everyone” supports a policy, whether it’s a war of choice or fiscal austerity, you should ask whether “everyone” has been defined to exclude anyone expressing a different opinion. And policy arguments should be evaluated on the merits, not by who expresses them; remember when Colin Powell assured us about those Iraqi W.M.D.’s?

Unfortunately, as I said, we don’t seem to have learned those lessons. Will we ever?

March 18th, 2013
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