Weekend Readings

Early reading list this week.

I’m always interested in how cultures affect the way we organize ourselves politically and economically.  See how Germany, Norway, and Canada are faring this recession. The actions and reactions are results of something more deep-rooted than a wholesale application of capitalism.

Then I stumbled upon a number of older articles on what it meant to be an introvert.  A fellow Twitterer pointed me to more evidence that as a marginalized and misunderstood group, we have done pretty well as far as corporate ladder-climbing and entrepreneurships go.

And there’s Elizabeth Edwards, whom captivated my interest by going on an explicable press rampage.  A good wife, a manipulative and vengeful woman, a good mother and protective hen, or none of the above?

Moving on to the broader question of happiness, the Atlantic’s cover story lends a peek.

As a compliment to this existential and heavy topic, check out what the future has in store for us at WolframAlpha and Japan’s robotic nation.

1. Germans’ sense of order, Norwegians’ contrarian and frugal nature, Canadian’s conservativeness. The Lines a German Won’t Cross, Thriving Norway Provides an Economics Lesson, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

Germans practice their love of order much the same way its southern neighbours practice spontaneity.  Perhaps to compensate for its wartime chaos, perhaps to merely find another outlet for this distinct cultural characteristic, the Germans have carried out the same stoic application of rules in its current dealings with the financial crisis.  Economic and political decisions arise out of centuries of cultural back-drop, and are not something one easily transposes.

The Norwegians, on the other hand, have channeled their frugality and contrarian mindset to duck investments that many of its European counterparts have plunged themselves into. It helps that they are rich in oil. But not everyone is managing their oil revenue the same way.

It’s hard to believe how much things had changed in just ten years. In the late 90s, the predominant concerns amongst Canadian politicians and media was the issue of “brain drain”.  People were concerned that after receiving heavily subsidized and high quality educations, Canadian professionals – i.e. IT/engineers, doctors, etc, were migrating to the US en-masse.  Now with America tightening up its immigration policies, soaring health care costs and less than stellar economic fundamentals, the tide has turned.

2. Hello, I am an introvert. Caring for Your Introvert, Not all successful CEOs are extroverts

I am an introvert. I function better when I am alone.  I like good conversations and distain small talks.  I need a whole day to recharge after an evening of socializing. I am impatient when my boyfriend thinks out loud his problems.  I also have an overwhelming urge to hide such anti-social tendencies behind guises of friendliness and outgoing chatters.

I had suspected so during university, where I found it beyond awkward to have to go to parties and make myself sociable. Parties felt like beauty pageants, where each contestant performed for the attention and adoration of the crowd. I always wondered how people could keep up those mundane conversations with so much zeal, focus, and clever retorts, when I try to decide between feeling bored or annoyed.

I knew it for sure at my first job upon graduation, where training mandated our abilities to socialize. The only way I could kick up the gibberish and turn on the talking head was by consuming a copious amount of alcohol.  So I went to all the parties, many reluctantly, and put on my best drunk face.  It worked beautifully.  I was designated the party girl and the social animal.  Boy, did I have them fooled.

Clearly, that is hardly a long-term strategy if I did not want to end up at AA.  Eventually, I came to the same conclusion that the author did: introverts like me are not anti-social, we are not abnormal, we just are.

3. Elizabeth Edwards’ media blitz. Elizabeth Edwards’ walk of pain, A complicated question, Should we blame Elizabeth Edwards for husband John’s sins? The ultimate Good Wife

Surviving from cancer, the death of a child, and a cheating husband, Elizabeth Edwards should get a free pass for life.  And had she not gone on a sadomasochistic press tour de force, appearing on Oprah along with other TV interviews, nobody would have bothered.  Some say her sudden eagerness to talk had to do with 1) public atonement on behalf of her husband, which will re-habilitate at least his personal reputation, if not his political one, and 2) to bar “the other women” from ever entering into a relationship with him should she pass away.

But watching the interviews and reading through her responses, you can’t help but get the feeling that this is a woman that has occupied the space of the “good wife” for so long, she has become oblivious to human nature.  This is someone who asked her husband’s faithfulness as the only gift at her wedding 30 years ago (is fidelity not an intrinsic pillar of the marriage contract?), who was bewildered that a temptress like Hunter could deliver the line “you’re so hot”, who chose to believe that the affair was a one-night stand.  But amidst this naivety, this was also someone so ambitious that she supported her husband’s run for office despite her cancer and rumours of the affair.

Here’s something she said that tells me either she buys into the garbage that popular culture feeds the female population, or that she is clever enough to appeal to deep fears of every middle-aged housewife.  In her interview with Oprah, Edwards voiced how hard she worked to make her marriage and family work, and how Hunter could not just barge in and take her place.  She talked as if a family can be defended with such mental fortitude against husband stealer the likes of Hunter.  Maybe the blame does not lie solely with the girlfriend, but with the husband.  Girlfriend, it’s time to stop humming that Beyonce song in your head.

4. Lives and happiness chronicled. What Makes Us Happy?, Perfectly Happy

Without going into existential musings of happiness and all the ensuing discussions, the study cited by the Atlantic article reminds me of the 7Up series produced by the Paul Almond. Conducted in seven year intervals, the audience follows a group of British school children of various social backgrounds from the 60s, and track their lives throughout the years. The initial aim of the study was to examine whether class have a deterministic impact on one’s trajectory in life.

Not surprisingly, the study focuses more on the material aspects of those lives versus the emotional.  But the impact of a study of such magnitude and longitude is impossible to understate.  I have seen 7 through 49Up. And there is something very strange with watching this social experiment unfold at an accelerated pace on screen, while we sit on the other side, protected by time.  The journeys of those children is but a real reflection of what life holds for most of us: a series of poignant struggles that are, for the lack of a better superlative, heart-breaking.

The Harvard study is hard to read. Because lives that appear happy and fulfilled on the outside maybe still be full of regrets. Lives that were messy and met with tragic ends could in fact be heroic and daring upon closer examination. So in short, what makes a happy life?  No substance abuse, good mental health and connecting with people seem to be the only common factors.  Everything else is still unknown.

5. I have seen the future, and it is humanoid. See a WolframAlpha demonstration, and check out Japan’s robots.

WolframAlpha should come online later today.  And it will change the way we process information by allowing us to search by asking questions versus inputting keywords. This will humanize the web, the same way that the Japanese robotic industry is trying to humanize new generations of robots.  Is this robotic future for us?  I don’t know.

The Japanese population has been dwindling for 30 years, so there is already a smaller pool of people able to have children. Short of a demographic miracle, robots will be the future for Japan.  Interestingly, this video addresses a lot of my previous commentaries on Japanese society, where a fear of immigration has driven the country onto a path that will depend on the integration of robots into human society in order to survive.  And yes, this feels as futuristic to type as it probably looks on screen.

In the video, note how the Japanese’ preference to deal with machines versus humans are in many ways fueling “intimacy” issues in Japanese society, highlighted by sexless marriages. Lack of human contacts in turn exacerbate isolation, and further amplify the obsession with all things robotic.  Also note the attitude of working Japanese women that refuse to marry and have children.  Upon gaining economic freedom, they are unwilling to subjugate themselves to Japanese marriages/servitude.  With Japanese men unwilling, and perhaps unable to provide these working females with needed emotional support, many pay male hosts for stress-relieving entertainment.

Eye opening and mind boggling, highly recommended.

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