Friday, March 31, 2006

Maluma, Takiti, Booba and All That

For decades I’ve been thinking occasionally about Maluma and Takiti, two irregular pencil drawings I once saw in an undergraduate . One was a bulbous outline while the other was jagged, like a shard of broken glass. The book asked us readers to guess which was and which was Takiti. If you identified Maluma as the roundish figure, you joined an overwhelming consensus. About 98 percent of the population choose the same way.

But why? That question has haunted me ever since. I think about it at least once a month (about as often as I reflect on what it is that chevres cheese has in common with the husky voice of female blues singers). Now I’ve found a guy who can explain the consonance between such dissimilar perceptions – sort of. The figures that he describes have new names – and -- but you know without being told that Booba and Maluma are both roundish whereas Takiti and Kiki are both jagged.

The theorist who plays with this problem is not the Rev.Jesse Jackson, whom he seems to resemble in this photo, but Dr. Vilayanur S. , the director of the at the University of California, San Diego. He’s a brain man, in every sense of the word – one of the world’s leading researchers on . I’ve been engrossed this evening reading his dazzling , the most amazing of which by describing its impact on particular structures of the human brain. He’s quite a guy! And it turns out that this problem about Kiki and Booba is immensely important. I can’t do justice to his account, but I’ll be happy just to turn you onto his thinking.

His reasoning begins with a rare phenomenon: . About one person in 200 sees numerals in color, even if they are printed in black or white. A smaller number also see Monday as red, Tuesday as indigo, Wednesday as blue and so on. Some people also see months as distinctively colored – December as yellow, for instance. This synasthesia phenomenon seems to run in families and Ramachandran attributes it to a . He points out that numbers, days of the week, and months of the year have one thing in common: . And it just so happens that the part of the brain that processes color is right next to the part that is in the , the brain structure that handles ordinality. What’s happening here is like “crossed-wires” from adjacent parts of the brain. In fact, the kind of synesthesia symptoms that one experiences will depend on where the occurs. He calls some of the synesthetes “higher” and others “lower,” depending on where their respective “wires” are linked. This inference is pretty speculative, apparently, but I buy it.

But Ramachandran is only getting warmed up. He goes far beyond this, pointing out synesthesia is particularly common among artists, poets, and novelists – the “flaky” types who have this one thing in common: They are good at using – linking seemingly unrelated concepts. Suppose your mutant gene is expressed, not only in a local region of the brain, giving you purple and red numbers, but widely throughout the brain. You’ll have lots of things connecting that don’t go together. As he says, “If it’s expressed everywhere you get throughout the brain, making you more prone to metaphor, [linking] seemingly unrelated things…”

At this point in the lecture, Ramachandran claims that almost everyone in the audience is a synthete. To prove his point, he gives them the mental experiment that I had found in my undergraduate psych textbook – the bulbous amoeboid shape named Booba and the jagged shard named Kiki, aka respectively Maluma and Takiti. The jagged visual shape has a sharp inflexion and the sound ‘Kiki’ in the hearing centres of the brain also has a sharp sudden inflexion of sound. Ramachandran says that “the brain performs a cross-modal synesthetic abstraction, saying the only thing they have in common is the property of . Let me extract that property. That’s why they’re both ‘Kiki.’”

Ramachandran offers proof of his theory. Take some patients who have a small lesion in the angular gyrus of their left hemisphere and show them the two pictures. They are statistically random in choosing the names Kiki or Booba. What this means is that in this case, synesthesia is normal and the absence of it is a sign of brain damage.

Not bad. I wonder how far one can go with that, though. What is it that has in common with sultry, husky female voices? To be sure, my brain is performing some kind of abstraction in associating them, but I cannot discern anything as clear as the shared “jaggedness” of Kiki, the sound and the shape, or the roundness of Booba. Many of our mental associations are probably specific and unique or shared by others within our , but what Ramachandran is interested in explaining are the that result from the nature of the human brain. Apparently Kiki and Booba are universal perceptions. (Is that also true of my association between a kind of cheese and a kind of female voice?)

Anyway, I’m impressed by Ramachandran’s analysis of art in terms of the aptness of connections that are made between unrelated phenomena. He sees this as an aspect of the everyday work of the mind – to construct or simulations and then test their adequacy for depicting ongoing experience and keeping us oriented.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Black on Black: Afro-American Culture

The Black Harvard published an important op ed piece in Sunday's New York Times, asking why continue disproportionately to fail. He offers lots of questions and answers, all of which carry big implications. Yet there are troubling aspects to his analysis.

I do give him high marks for courage. He makes controversial pronouncements that are bound to infuriate lots of people – especially black Americans and most sociologists. (Not me, but the rest of them.) He and may not exactly see eye to eye, but both of them are provocative in the extreme and probably have paid a high price in the black community for their forthright comments.

Patterson asserts that many young black males display a self-destructive life style that social scientists can no longer explain by referring to socio-economic deprivation. There are plenty of nowadays, but black guys let them pass by, dropping out of school instead, hanging around idly, fathering children for whom they cannot provide, and spending years in . It’s who take the entry level jobs and begin climbing the social ladder. Patterson boldly asserts that social structural factors cannot explain this pattern. is the only explanation that holds water, though traditional social scientists dislike cultural accounts. This, he says, is mainly because any criticism of a group’s culture is regarded as “,” which decent people naturally avoid doing. But, he suggests, that’s nonsense. You can criticize black culture without criticizing blacks themselves.

Really? That’s a hard distinction to keep in mind, though surely Patterson could explicate it if pressed to do so. Probably he just means that a group’s culture comes from its history, and that no one can be blamed for the distant past. He himself is scathing in depicting black male youths’ shiftless ways, but he could trace that cultural pattern backward in time, showing it as the moral legacy of for males. Irresponsible habits may be transmitted for generations, long after the original conditions have changed. After all, continuity of custom is what we mean by . Fair enough; I can accept that argument. (But Bill Cosby may not. His own criticism of black culture is also scathing but, unlike Patterson, he frankly blames black parents for not holding their children to high standards.)

But Patterson leaves us with numerous unanswered questions. For example, why do young go on to when the males drop out? (Can the historical situation of female slaves explain this present cultural difference between the sexes?)

Apparently, however, it is not just the past that explains present culture. Patterson argues that some current factors lend appeal to black culture. The young males do not readily give it up because their lifestyle is regarded as “cool” even by the wider white culture. These irresponsible habits are characteristic of many famous black athletes and whom young white guys also admire, he says, though in a limited way. The whites are selective, knowing when to turn off the and study for their , whereas the black guys recognize no such limits. Indeed, the admiration of whites explains the puzzling , which is higher than among whites, regardless of their achievements or failures.

Nice try, Professor Patterson, but this argument is unconvincing. Surely black males do not harbor the delusion that their white classmates envy their leisurely, laid-back ways, their , or their frequent sojourns in prison. I cannot explain the high self-esteem of young black students (which I too discovered in research forty years ago) but it cannot plausibly be attributed to the high prestige that whites accord to blacks in America.

In defending his preference for cultural explanations Patterson makes one point that I do like. He writes that it is often assumed that cultural explanations are wholly deterministic, for cultural patterns cannot change. This is nonsense, he insists. “Indeed, cultural patterns are often easier to change than the economic factors favored by policy analysts.”

He’s right – and that’s a good starting point. What is needed most is sociology that shows how to in a predictable way. In fact, we need a whole new approach to sociology that will focus on the pragmatic of changing . Lots of studies have explained, after the fact, how a particular took root, but there are no handbooks advising practitioners how to accomplish such feats in a systematic way. What would such a handbook look like?

I think it would begin by exploring the psychoanalytic notion of the “.” Young black males will change when they identify with someone whose lifestyle they admire and believe that they can successfully emulate. If they don’t have in their own lives, they must have a different adult male to “look up to.” This will probably not be Bill Cosby or Orlando Patterson, who are both so far ahead that the working class youth cannot imagine following in their footsteps. is more likely a figure whom they could hope to emulate — and Tyson exemplifies the existing black American culture. Every major cultural change is started by a . What has to be established is how to make an outstanding man seem heroic to young black males, yet also potentially within the range of their own aspirations.

I think movies and television offer that potential. If black society offers too few living ego ideals to capture the imagination of boys, then it is possible to create new fictional ones on millions of across America.

Yes, culture is created by past history. And it’s also created by the future too – of a future possibility, images showing how a black man in America might live well.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Beyond Leipzig: The Future of Depopulation

is my favorite journalist. After three months in California, I have returned to enjoy his excellent columns in The Globe and Mail — especially today’s fine piece about . Doug has seen the future and it is . (See photo.) Unfortunately, it’s risky to predict much on the basis of extrapolating from one case. He may be right. Or not.

The problem with that East German city is that its population has shrunk by one-fifth since the Berlin Wall fell, party because people emigrated, and partly because of remarkably low Berlin Wallfell, both because its people migrated to the west and because of its remarkably low birthrates. The effects that he reports are all negative. Depopulation causes the tax base to decrease and to increase. In Leipzig, about half the stock of housing stood empty. Because the price of housing declined, people chose to ungrade by moving to larger houses in the At first the city tried to attract new businesses and new residents by building pleasant new structures, but these expensive new buildings also remained empty. It was prohibitively costly to service and police them.

Thus finally had to adjust to reality; no one would be occupying these buildings in the future, so the only solution was to tear some of them down. But which ones? Ideally, the outlying housing should be razed and people should return to compact city life, but this solution was unpopular among those who had relocated. Instead, the least desired living quarters were those above shops, and typically these were the apartments selected for demolition. As a result, the ground floor facilities — butchers, bakers, and child-care centers — also were destroyed, depleting the urban core of basic services and making it even less attractive. Where buildings had stood, new parks were created – though are expensive to maintain, especially since there hardly any children were now playing in them. Lately Leipzig has converted these vacant spaces to untended urban forests.

Saunders concludes that the rest of us will soon experience depopulation problems too. “Lower population,” he writes, “makes things more expensive, more sprawling, less ecological and far, far more difficult — but your city can still be a happy place.”

His predictions may be borne out, but social scientists have often been mistaken when they have foretold the future. Any number of alternative results can also be anticipated. I’ll mention just two. The first is the unexpected result of the , which depopulated medieval Europe. Demographic historians say that the population of Europe had already exceeded its optimum size for productivity. The death of so many people created a and strengthened the bargaining power of farmers in comparison to the nobility. The hierarchical relations of society were broken down, opening the way for a new, more productive type of social structure. To be sure, the Black Death was horrible, but some of its effects were benign.

Moreover, it is not at all clear that cities in general will go through the depopulation that Saunders has seen in , nor that the response will be the same in those cities that do lose citizens. For one thing, the empty apartments can always be filled with immigrants from Third World countries, which are still burgeoning. Not every society will accept the idea of increasing their levels, but that is nevertheless an option.

And besides, if there is a superfluity of housing, not all societies will opt to destroy their inner cities and keep suburbia. Indeed, that is likely to become impossible if the current projections about energy supplies prove correct. Within ten years we may witness the abandonment of monster-sized new homes on the outskirts of cities, and a new demand for compact housing in cities, where people can ride bikes or to work. is probably doomed. Leipzig may have been premature in razing the in its central core. It will need them again soon.

Or my predictions may also be wrong. There are too many factors to bring into the equation to permit precise predictions. We have to plan, but we’d better not bet the farm that we have guessed right.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

How Do You Know Before You Know? You Guess. (And You May be Wrong)

Trying to is a humbling experience. You find out very quickly that people don’t have time to look at or think about the work that took you eight years to produce. It’s clear why: the number of people and objects that want our attention overwhelms us all. I don’t take it as a personal rejection, for I know that I’m the same way. I cannot possibly respond to everyone who wants my attention. That’s not news. What I have learned from it, though, is to respect the importance of . As a civilized person of modest ambition, I’ve never admired competitive people who seek fame and glory. But now there’s something I do want people to notice, and I need to find a respectable way of catching their attention.

Unfortunately, people really do judge books by their covers. Or even by their titles. They think they know what it must be about, so they don’t need to open it. Nor do they care to have a conversation about it. Again, it’s pointless to blame them for this. It’s a normal, human way of managing time. If you’re lucky they’ll give you time for a “” – a one-sentence summary of your argument. I read a newspaper report some months ago about a fellow who had worked on the show, filtering out the people who might be suitable guests. He had gone into business training people to get onto talk shows. The first thing he’d do is to give all his workshop members the paper from a fortune cookie. Their assignment was to write on the back of it the message that they wanted to convey on the air.

I can’t do that very well. I’m having trouble promoting the book for that very reason. Give me a business card and I might come close — but a fortune cookie? No. I am painfully aware that a simplistic one-sentence pitch is bound to be misleading. At best, it can only open a conversation. I hope nobody ever assumes they know what is coming in the conversation before they hear it – but we all do. are a process of guessing and responding to what we think is coming, then letting our interlocutor clarify our misconceptions. In that way, our imagination shapes the reality that emerges in discussions.

Of course, imagination is the source of reality in quite a lot of different ways. We have to imagine what to do before we do it, and by doing it we make it into reality. But the proposition can be expanded beyond that.

The late communications expert advanced something called “the ” thesis. He pointed out that people who watch lots of (imaginatively created by smart Hollywood writers) are more likely to believe that crime is rampant than people who watch mainly comedies or other dramas. They act on the basis of their beliefs, by buying guns, for example, to protect themselves from the hordes of criminals who are, they suppose, preparing to break into their homes and assault them. According to some political scientists at Ohio State University, they also are especially likely to believe that crime is the number one problem for the country. They vote accordingly. Politicians take polls to find out what people worry about and respond to these opinions. Hence the crime show makes crime into a major , when it would not have been if voters had been reacting entirely to their own experience (or lack of experience) as victims of crime.

As I mentioned in a recent blog entry, the information imparted on medical shows such as ER make a great impression on people, for better or worse. Viewers may become preoccupied with their own possible ailments. If the show imparts accurate information, its influence is probably beneficial. Last night I watched an episode of House (see photo) that informed me about the differential diagnoses of hepatitis E, lupus erythematosis, and poisoning by some chemical used to kill cockroaches. I doubt that I’ll ever need this information, but the real message was more interesting. It showed how physicians have to take action in a context of uncertainty. They cannot be sure of their diagnoses, but they have to treat the patient anyway. They guess. We all guess.

Along with these sources of stress we receive messages about how we should learn to be serene in the midst of chaos, unattached to the fruits of our own actions. We believe somehow in modern versions of the . But we cannot really attain that insouciance. (Forgive me, you Eastern religious types, for referring to your spiritual with a term that belittles it.) I don’t want a doctor who is serene when I am dying from some unknown disease that may be hepatitis E, lupus, or an environmental toxin. Be tense, please. And try to listen to what I have to tell you without assuming you already know it. We cannot know before we have the relevant facts, however stress that fact causes. Peace be with you – if you can snatch a little of it now and then in between your . Peace.

How Many People in the World Watch Television?

? I had never sought answers to this question until Melissa Weiner, my publicist, wrote a blurb for me that left a blank for me to supply the correct estimate. It was a good blurb, so I made a good effort to fill in her blank. It was not possible, unfortunately, so instead of estimating the billions, I just said, “the great majority of the world’s population now has regular access to television." That is true, if woefully imprecise. Nobody has the numbers.

Even ballpark estimates are hard to come by, and the ones that have been published are out of date. And when I did find a good article, I deleted the author’s name by accident — and besides, I’m too well trained academically to want to base my own essay entirely on another single piece of research. But it was a good paper, so forgive me, whoever you are at Norwich University who wrote that fine article in about 1996.

The author writes, “Daya Thussu, in Electronic Empires, estimated that 2.5 billion people have regular in the South (the developing world)—meaning about half the people that live there…” But since the most recent date he mentions was 1996, the TV audience must have increased vastly since that time. I’ve seen the comment in several places that poverty has not kept people from owning television sets, and that the ownership increased threefold in about ten years, so it must have surpassed 2.5 billion quite a while ago.

Other figures that I’ve seen report that 2.5 billion people watched , that 1.1 billion still are watching (which I have never seen), and that an expected 45 billion probably watched the last soccer match. I can only conclude that the typist left out a decimal point between the 4 and the 5. Anyway, these soccer estimates are fairly recent and certainly soccer is the most popular sport, so 4.5 billion may not be far wrong.

Of course, access to television varies considerably from one area to another, with Africa definitely lagging behind all other regions. China, on the other hand, is doing well — at least if you consider it a good rather than bad thing to own a set. The unknown author from whom I am swiping my data reports that, “ CCTV claims to reach 84 percent of the population, with the number of regular viewers exceeding 900 million.” But his paper is probably ten years old, and I’ve heard more recent statements that “almost everyone” in China has access to television.

At that time (why don’t they put dates on Internet articles?) India was not doing quite as well. Mr. Anonymous wrote, “According to Arthur Andersen, which conducted a study for STAR TV, television reaches only about half of the population of India; 78.9 percent of the urban population and 39.8 percent of the rural population. In total, that is some 80 million television households in India (and probably many more), of which half can get cable or satellite.” But when I had lunch with Sonny Fox about two months ago in Studio City, he told me about his involvement in producing a soap opera in India that regularly reaches 150 million persons. Then he mentioned another in China that reaches, he supposes, about the same number.

I was impressed — even astounded. But most of the time when the numbers are estimated in discussions of the global impact of TV, it is by someone who's lamenting the cultural globalization caused by television shows. Often, however, the authors actually point out that the worries are exaggerated. Whereas it is true that in very poor countries most TV shows are initially imported from Hollywood, each country gradually asserts itself and begins producing local shows that are even more popular than the American imports. Besides, when it comes to imports, there are lots of other countries that offer their shows besides Hollywood. For example, the most popular show in Russia was a Mexican soap opera.

Anyway, I have never worried about . I see no justification for cultural protectionism for the sake of keeping old national traditions alive. I care about the quality of a show, not its origin. Personally, I have sometimes benefited from being Canadian, since many Canadians are nationalistic and gladly pay money to support their national culture. That's nothing to worry about, in my opinion. And in any case, the world is apparently not becoming homogenized, despite the fact that most people, even in poor countries (with the exception of some African societies) have ready access to television. They prefer different shows, and when they do watch the same Hollywood show, they notice quite different aspects of it. For better or worse, the world's countries are still diverse.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Neuroscience and Vicarious Stress

is a stylish, elegant science-and-culture magazine that I’ve discovered only today. Its February/March issue features an article by called, “The Reinvention of the Self,” that deals with current research in . The story’s protagonist is (see photo), who discovered – or at least proved – eight years ago that the primate brain produces new cells: a feat called . Other researchers had previously uncovered anomalous evidence of this that had been dismissed because it conflicted with the prevailing assumption that the brain cells you are born with is are the only ones you’ll ever get.

Now the research in Gould’s lab is just one part of a whole burgeoning field of neurogenesis that explores the medical implications of this discovery. Evidently the scientists previously often failed to find no new brain cells because the animals that they studied were kept in plain, boring environments where they did not, in fact, generate . This results from the circumstances of deprivation. A rat or monkey kept in a stimulating full of toys and novelties will produce new brain cells whereas it would not in a plain box.

The same goes for people. As it turns out, stress and deprivation of human beings, including during infancy or before birth, impairs the brain’s capacity for neurogenesis. or abuse leave lasting effects at the level of tissues. () had been known to diminish the size of the . Now the reason is known: the brain’s ability to renew itself has been ruined.

is now considered another manifestation of impaired neurogenesis, and that theory accounts for another puzzling finding. The drug does help lift depression, but no one knew how. It had been believed that depression was caused by low levels of , but when doses of serotonin are administered, it takes a while for the depressed patient to start brightening up. This should not be the case theoretically, for the serotonin should start working immediately. Now the true explanation has come out: Prozac restores the brain’s neurogenesis. Depression lifts when the brain has replenished itself with new cells, as Prozac enables it to do.

Again, though stress actually impairs the brain, there are ways in which it can to some extent heal itself – especially through something new. An enriched and challenging environment can restore neurogenesis previously impaired by , though there may be other conditions that affect these outcomes. The search is on for other drugs that repair the capacity for neurogenesis.

All these findings highlight an important new general conclusion: that the structure of the brain is shaped by its functioning. Stress and depression prevent neurogenesis, whereas pleasurable stimulation restores the brain's capacity to make new cells.

All this fits with the theories that famously proposed: that solving puzzles, playing , and following complex plots on can make you smarter.

What neither Johnson nor Gould and her co-workers seem to have considered is the signal importance of the . When they say that stress diminishes the brain's capacity, they mean the real stress of poverty and life’s hardships. But not all stress is based on one’s own predicaments. Sometimes it is based on with the stress of someone else. is just light and sound on a screen, which you can watch in a comfortable chair while drinking beer and snacking on popcorn. Your own situation is not stressful at all, but you experience stress vicariously, and it has physiological consequences. Your and T cells change. If Gould is right, your neurogenesis may be impaired too. Presumably even fantasizing will have a similar result, even if you are not watching a movie.

But fantasizing about is good for you, and perhaps watching a tender scene of mutual affection, , or joy will restore your brain’s ability to create new cells and repair the damage done by horror or action movies, or by watching the nightly newscast.

I am speculating, but I will bet $50 that when the research is done, we’ll find that the imagination is just as powerful as personal reality in creating or alleviating stress, and that the imagination will therefore be established as a major determinant of the structure of the human brain.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Entertainment and a Culture of Peace

The has officially declared this a decade for promoting a “.”

All right, I’ll go for that. But how can I do such a thing? Culture is not something to manage in a planned way — unless you’re and you’re running a “” which is not exactly what the United Nations intended. A , after all, consists of the ideas and customs of a whole society. Is there any way of influencing them without resorting to totalitarian measures?

Sure. do it every day. In fact, every is certain to influence the wider culture, whether or not she intends to do so. And the most powerful means of cultural change is through popular drama, either in films or (better yet) . To build a “culture of peace” we just need to demonstrate what peace looks like with plots shown on small screens around the world. That’s advertising, and it works.

But there’s one hitch: peace is boring. If you just show “peace,” many viewers (especially men) will immediately switch channels. (Maybe it’s the testosterone but, whatever the cause, men more often than women are attracted to “action” films.) Actually, holds everyone’s attention better than harmony. In every good drama, there has to be a character who wants something, and there has to be some obstacle that makes that wish hard to fulfill. Often that obstacle is another person with contradictory wishes of his own. The ensuing struggle is the basis for an engrossing story. Therefore, if we want a culture of peace, we need who can invent struggles to be waged passionately but nonviolently, with results that benefit everyone involved. Viewers may not regards such plots as “peace,” since they include conflict, but the United Nations General Assembly will approve of them, for they end with the participants unharmed.

Some individuals enjoy watching such stories — but not everyone. Individual preferences always differ. Some people (but I am not one of them) even have a particular gene that makes them crave excitement. Their sympathetic nervous systems do not respond readily to ordinary levels of or novelty, so they seek thrills that would make other people intensely anxious. These are the kind of people who race cars, skydive, or join the marines. Life around them tends not to be very peaceful, nor do they want it to be. They are attracted to situations of strife where, instead of feeling bored, they feel alive and fully engaged in a meaningful collective effort.

War is the most extreme example of such a situation, and it actually attracts thrill-seekers. As the thrill-seeking former (see photo) has acknowledged, during a war everyone becomes polarized and considers the adversaries as sub-human. Their heightened involvement is contagious. It is almost impossible, even for non-thrill-seekers, to be in a war setting without getting caught up in this collective zeal and commitment. Balance, neutrality, or objectivity are unsustainable.

Is there any way to create a gripping drama that demonstrates peace, yet satisfies thrill-seekers the way a war does? Can any other plot be as compelling as a war story? If so, what kind of struggle would turn a dull situation into high drama?

Of course, such plots are possible. For example, instead of portraying a conflict between a good person and an evil one, it is equally easy to pit two good persons against each other in a dispute over how to solve the same problem. Think of the last dinner party you attended where an argument broke out among nice people? I can immediately recall one about the depletion of the world’s oil reserves. One woman guest argued that we are facing catastrophe, whereas her host declared that energy will never be used up so long as the economy is run on the basis of a . There are definite policies that follow, as corollaries, from each of these positions. One could make an exciting drama about two neighbors who work in different organizations, each one promoting policies that run counter to the other’s. These are the kinds of real conflict we see in everyday life between good people who want the best outcome for the world but who disagree about how to get there. Such plots dispay a culture of peace, so long as both sides refrain from harming each other. The civilized waging of conflict is peace.

The plot need not even include any opponent. The conflict can take place within the person instead of between persons. It shows a character experiencing an about what she should do. This is a trickier basis for a thrilling story, however, since it requires the character to express both sides of his ambivalence aloud. Nevertheless, an inner struggle can make for a powerful story about, for example, having to decide whether to recant his scientific discoveries to avoid the Church’s punishment for his heretical views.

The quick-and-easy way of writing a screenplay today is simply to one’s enemies. The typical crime story illustrates what I mean. Instead of a culture of peace, it demonstrates the opposite: a culture of blame. The whole point of such a show is to identify a culprit and destroy or punish him. Viewers are not supposed to question the assumption that the cops are saving society by their thrilling chases after wrongdoers. In fact, however, punishing culprits solves nothing. The really dramatic challenge occurs only later, when they are released from prison and have to seek reintegration into society. War and conflict exclude and punish without solving problem or demonstrating redemption. A culture of peace emphasizes instead — rehabilitation rather than retribution. It is perfectly possible to write stories about conflicts between good persons acting in a context of uncertainty but with both working to solve the same problem.

As Chris Hedges pointed out, by the time war breaks out, it cannot be stopped. No one can be persuaded to abandon the polarized hatred of the other side. But before reaching this ultimate stage — actual organized fighting — people go through a preliminary psychological stage involving casting . At that stage, change is still possible. Writers can teach people that blaming is a useless orientation. Dramas can teach them to look for solutions instead. That would move the world toward a culture of peace. First, we have to decide whether that is what we want, and then we have to demand it of .

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Showbiz and Health Education

I went to “Miracle Mile” on Wilshire Boulevard recently to visit (right) and (left) at the headquarters of their project, “.” Though it’s part of the University of Southern California, it’s right smack in the middle of in a high, elegant suite that bears no resemblance to the university campus, which is on the other side of Los Angeles.

But considering its mission, their organization is located right where it belongs. Vicki and Mandy are proselytizers. They are enlisting Hollywood in educating viewers about issues in their scripts. Since that’s one of my objectives too, I’d sent them my book and they invited me in to chat about our common cause. Our enthusiasm was mutual.

Health, Hollywood and Society (HHS) is based at a center that the producer originated within USC’s . Vicki, the director, collects information and experts to help TV and film writers develop stories with accurate information about health issues. She creates tipsheets that are displayed on a web site, and upon request offers briefings to teams of writers working on a TV show. Mandy, the project manager, specializes in outreach to the industry, actively contacting them and encouraging the incorporation of accurate information into their plots. Their remarkable work is funded by the , the , and another agency whose name I don’t recall because I didn’t recognize its acronym. It’s apparently a new government body that aims to regulate and encourage organ donations for . Apparently nowadays screen writers are so familiar with their service that they call Vicki without being prompted to ask for her help.

I mentioned a recent episode of that had involved a story about organ transplants. They grinned and announced proudly, “We worked with them on that!” It seems that the writers had intended to write a story about the , but Mandy and Vicki told them that there is no such black market in the United States, but they went ahead with the story they'd already written about foreigners being imported for their organs. However, HHS was gratified about the last two minutes of the episode when the Eppes brothers are discussing their desire to donate their organs if the occasion should arise. Both Don and his father announce that they are carrying signed cards with pink dots in their wallets, but Charlie expresses his misgivings. {“Maybe they’ll take some part of me before I’m dead,” he worries.) But Don and Dad laugh and assure him that they will be around and won’t let that happen. That two-minute scene is far better than a .

I think I also recall a recent episode of about organ donations. One fellow was suing because a wealthy guy jumped the queue and got an organ that the plaintiff might have received otherwise. This topic is apparently a rich vein of gold that scriptwriters are now mining.

Besides cancer, the project has offered help with stories about , , , AIDS in Africa, in China, a bioterrorism threat, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, school violence, worker safety, , the impact of television on kids, the uninsured, youth mental illness, disease detectives, and the role of such as cancer. They bring in experts and real people with relevant maladies to chat with writers.

HHS already knows that their project is saving lives. Porter Novelli conducted surveys during 1999 and 2000 showing that over half of regular prime time and daytime drama viewers say they learned something about a disease or how to prevent it from a TV show. About one-third of regular viewers had even taken some action after hearing about a health issue or disease on a TV show.

In my follow-up note to Vicki and Mandy I suggested a new line of research that fits their mandate too: not just the educational, but also the direct, impact of TV and films on health. Besides informing people about diseases, entertainment stimulates emotions that are consequential for the viewer’s and systems. can make you sick, whereas love, erotic feelings, and laughter can make you healthier – and films can either stress you or give you more positive emotions than you’d experience otherwise all month. As I suggest in my new book , we need research on exposure as a public health issue. I hope the Norman Lear Center will sponsor such research.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Oscar’s Moral Messages

told his writers, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Nevertheless, every story contains a . Writers can no more help sending them than they can help speaking prose. Indeed, modern civilization may be more influenced by the taught by than by any other cultural institution, including religion. But some films speak more powerfully than others. For example, those five nominated for in the upcoming are unusually compelling. Their surface messages differ but they all explore a common moral theme: .

As I “read” them, their surface messages are as follows: Brokeback Mountain: “Everyone is better off if gays are free to form loving, monogamous unions.” Capote: “Journalists who write about real people may be tormented by conflicts of interest that compromise loyalty to their subjects.” Crash: “Everyone is racist, but on unpredictable occasions, everyone is also capable of surmounting racism.” Good Night and Good Luck: “Journalists have a responsibility to tell the truth, even when it is unpopular or when it challenges demagogues and powerful interests.” Munich: Revenge harms everyone and does not stop terrorism.”

The running through all five films addresses the moral implications of punishment. In the deeper message is: “Life’s circumstances and conflicting responsibilities may keep gays, like all other lovers, from spending their lives together. But, unlike others, gays must also expect to be punished cruelly, even violently, for their love.”

The punishment theme in is: “Capital punishment is unjust, even for the most vicious crimes, since the perpetrators have been so damaged by life that they are morally incompetent. Nevertheless, recognizing the unfairness of such punishment does not guarantee that one will want to prevent it. Even those of us who are normal and privileged may have our own motives for wanting to harm others.”

In the message about punishment is: “We sometimes punish others who have done us no harm because, out of prejudice, we expect harm from them and want to prevent it or retaliate before they have can do so. Deterrence thus may cause the kind of tragedy that it is meant to prevent.”

In the corresponding message is: “Punishment is sometimes both justifiable and necessary. The best way of doing it is by exposing the wrongdoer to public scrutiny — ideally by letting his own words and deeds speak loudly for themselves.”

is the story of a team of assassins on a mission to murder the eleven “Black September” terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in 1972. They mostly succeed, but in the process some are killed themselves, while the rest become uncertain that their victims were genuinely guilty and become terrified by expecting retaliation from the constantly replenished group. The message is: does not put an end to violence. As said, ‘An and a tooth for a tooth eventually leaves the whole world blind.’ Still, what else can you do when your people are killed? Turn the other cheek? Even though we know that punishment is no solution, we have no alternative.” (Although the producers and , the author, proposed no answer to this dilemma, there actually was a good one. realized that the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre had to be controlled. The PLO therefore offered an apartment with a fridge and TV in Beirut to every Black September member who married a Palestinian woman, plus $5,000 when their first baby was born. In response to these incentives, Black September was never violent again. That plot would have made a better movie than Munich.)

If these are ’s moral messages this year, how successfully are they influencing public opinion? We have no empirical before-and-after-viewing research, but communications experts have established three general principles by which to appraise the five films. A movie or television series is likely to persuade its audience if: (a) it induces us to with the protagonist right until the end; (b) its initial assumptions are those shared by the public, but it gradually reveals strong reasons for the protagonist to change his/her opinion; and (c) it states its message unambiguously, but without heavy-handed rhetoric.

An audience empathizes with a protagonist for two reasons: (a) he is basically moral, and (b) he expresses emotions that are appropriate to the unfolding situations. Clearly, the most admirable protagonist in the lot was in Good Night and Good Luck. Indeed, he is the only character who could be called a ".” However, he is not, so our respect for him never becomes deep affection. It is easier to love the two gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain – or least the expressive one, for the movie focused more on the taciturn one. Neither of them was inspiring or heroic, so our feeling for them was more one of compassion than admiration. Still, their plight touched viewers’ hearts.

Capote was probably less successful, though its protagonist had a certain charm and could even be forgiven for deceiving, then abandoning, the condemned man who had told him his secrets. The problem here was not a marked lack of empathy for the journalist but rather that the message was never stated clearly. Sophisticated writers have a maxim: “” They want the character’s beliefs to be revealed in his visible actions, but in this case, it was not clear what Capote believed. The book makes it only slightly clearer. Nothing exactly questions capital punishment here.

Crash’s message was original and was stated unmistakably — probably too clearly. The characters were too much like caricatures of racists to be believable, and the message came across as heavy-handed preaching. It was the least subtle of the films. Usually the characters started from such an extreme point of view that the audience would hardly empathize with them, and their transformation was not gradual and reasoned but sudden and often inexplicable. Whereas Crash fascinates, it does not convince.

Munich was a continuous display of violence. It does offer a few arguments, both for and against the protagonist’s beliefs, and by the end he has mostly given them up. However, his counterterrorist activities are so repellent that one cannot empathize with him even from the outset. Besides, the film offers no new or inspiring ideas. Its message is probably the least effective of the five films.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Prophet’s Cousin and the Ice in Antarctica

Everything is both cause and effect of everything else, said the Buddha. Everything is interdependent with everything else. Let’s take, for example, two issues that have arisen more than thousand years apart. On the one hand, we have the succession to the leadership or of , according to the intention of . On the other hand, we have the current disintegration of the at the . Now, can you connect those two dots? I can.

The two branches of Islam split apart shortly after the death of the Prophet as a result of a succession crisis. According to the , Mohammed did not name any . According to the (who are only ten percent of the Muslims in the world, but a majority in Iraq and Iran), Mohammed did appoint a successor: his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. This dispute is the only significant difference between the two Islamic communities; theologically there is no controversy. However, the split has gone on for so long that there is no hope of reconciling the groups. The best that can happen is to induce their leaders to cooperate and share their contested resources.

But a genie was released in the Middle East by invasion of Iraq and it is causing trouble. With the overthrow of the secular tyrant that had repressed their historic conflicts, the Sunni and Shia communities are on the verge of civil war. For its part, the strategy of the Bush administration has been to try to manage both groups by playing them off against each other. The downside of this strategy is that it may be impossible to induce both sides to share power in the new democracy. And this danger is growing. A few days ago on of the most sacred Shia mosques — golden shrine at , Iraq (see photo) — was destroyed by a bomb. Even Bush is acknowledging now that the country may fall deeper into civil war.

But of course the Sunni versus Shia cleavage is not the only important one in the Arab world. There is also the split within the Sunni community between the and similar groups — and the elites that have profited by cooperating with the United States. Until recently, the jihadists have refrained from destroying the oil or its processing plants or transportation arrangements, but now they are stepping up their attacks. A few days ago an al Qaeda group tried, but failed, to wreck an oil processing plant in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. It is not clear how far they are willing to go in destroying such a valuable resource, nor is it apparent that they can succeed anyway. According to Stratfor’s expert , it cannot be done easily. But even if oil exports cannot be stopped by al Qaeda’s sabotage efforts, a civil war between Sunni and Shia Iraqis will reduce the availability of oil and increase its world price.

Which, paradoxically, may confer some advantages on . The higher the price of oil, the more people will cut back. Indeed, it may have been Bush’s anticipation of a reduction of oil imports to the United States that induced him to propose that the country overcome its oil addiction and develop alternative fuels. The surest way would be to impose a , but no politicians are ready to take such a risky initiative, so any reduction of oil consumption must probably result from other causes, such as the strife in Iraq.

Yet it may already be too late for that to save the situation, considering the connection between and the use of fossil fuels. Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey, claims that the huge west Antarctic ice sheet may be starting to disintegrate. If that occurs, we must expect the sea levels around the world to rise by five meters. Scientists are not able to predict just how much melting will take place, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which will release its next report soon, will suggest that Earth’s temperature is increasing above the highest levels previously predicted. In three previous reports, the IPCC’s computer models projected an increase in average global temperature of between 1.5 and 4.5 C. Some scientists lately have been foreseeing possible increases as high as 11C. This extreme range will not be mentioned in the report because it is considered unlikely. In any case, the revised predictions by the IPCC will force governments to take seriously some devastating possibilities. According to one expert, Dr. Peter Cox, “The most probable thing is not the most important thing to worry about. The upper end is where the big problems are, because the impact rises as the temperature does.”

Anyway, my far-fetched connection can be established. An old dispute among Arabs over the proper authority of Mohammed’s cousin now influences the availability of oil and hence the levels of in the atmosphere, which in turn influences the disintegration of the Antarctic ice sheet. Everything is connected to everything else.