Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The Social Network" (Facebook) As “Das Rheingold”

See Lord of the Internet Rings by Maureen Dowd, from the NY Times, Oct. 9, 2010. She says that the movie about the creators of "Facebook" closely parallels the Wagner opera “Das Rheingold,” which is based on German and Nordic myths. She even throws in a funny line about contractors: "Never mess with your contractor, the contractor always wins," a moral lesson from the story. How's that for blending economics and mythology!

Here are two other key lessons:

"We are always fighting about social status, identity, money, power, turf, control, lust and love. We are always trying to get even, get more and climb higher. And we are always trying to cross the bridge to Valhalla."

"But the passions that drive humans stay remarkably constant, whether it’s a magic ring being forged or a magic code being written."

Here is her summary of the story:

"It didn’t take long, sitting with an enthralled audience and watching the saga of the cloistered jerk who betrayed those around him and ended up unfathomably rich and influential, to understand why it has been hailed as a masterpiece.

They had me at the mesmerizing first scene, when the repulsive nerd is mocked by a comely, slender young lady he’s trying to woo. Bitter about women, he returns to his dark lair in a crimson fury of revenge.

It unfolds with mythic sweep, telling the most compelling story of all, the one I cover every day in politics: What happens when the powerless become powerful and the powerful become powerless?

This is a drama about quarrels over riches, social hierarchy, envy, theft and the consequence of deceit — a world upended where the vassals suddenly become lords and the lords suddenly lose their magic.

The beauty who rejects the gnome at the start is furious when he turns around and betrays her, humiliating her before the world. And the giant brothers looming over the action justifiably feel they’ve provided the keys to the castle and want their reward. One is more trusting than the other, but both go berserk, feeling they’ve been swindled after entering into a legitimate business compact.

The antisocial nerd, surrounded by his army of slaving minions, has been holed up making something so revolutionary and magical that it turns him into a force that could conquer the world.

The towering brothers battle to get what they claim is their fair share of the glittering wealth that flows from the obsessive gnome’s genius designs.

The gnome, remarkably, invents a way to hurl yourself through space and meet up with somebody at the other end."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Metaphors And How The Brain Works

There was book review in the WSJ last week called Beyond Compare: Metaphor is crucial to the way the brain works. Is it also dangerous? by Eric Felten. He reviewed the book I is an Other by James Geary. This is important because metaphors are important in mythology (see below). The books says that:

"Metaphor works, most obviously, when we recognize a similarity between two different things. It is a matter of "pattern recognition," which may be more important in the working of the brain than logic. "Early human thought proceeded by metaphor," according to Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Gerald Edelman. And this imprecise sort of figurative thinking is "a major source of imagination and creativity in adult life.""

"He [Geary] is impressed with research demonstrating that, in laboratory experiments, people exposed to certain metaphors were more open to certain behaviors, an effect called "priming." "Subjects primed with words relating to cooperation," Mr. Geary says, "cooperated more on test tasks than those who were not primed.""

Now here is something about metaphors from the Wikipedia page on Joseph Campbell:

"Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (2001) — An exploration of the myths and symbols of the Judeo-Christian tradition

The first title in the series, this book compiled many of Campbell's ideas on the mythic underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In it he writes, "Mythology is often thought of as other people's religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology." In other words, Campbell did not read religious symbols literally as historical facts, but instead saw them as symbols or as metaphors for greater philosophical ideas. Campbell had previously discussed this idea with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth:

CAMPBELL: That would be a mistake in the reading of the symbol. That is reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry, reading the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation.

MOYERS: And poetry gets to the unseen reality.

: That which is beyond even the concept of reality, that which transcends all thought. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fake Authenticity

See 'Fake Authenticity' for Sale by Eric Felten. From the WSJ, 1-28-11. Below are the key passages. This reminds me a post from last December called The Myth of Authenticity Or The Story Behind Products. That was based on a BusinessWeek article about products like Bailey's Irish Cream. Here are some passages from that article

"Working the link between place of origin and product quality is the oldest trick in the brand book. It milks our thirst for mythology and plays mercilessly on our superstitious hope that special places have the power to revitalise and transform."


[some]"...brands that mingle fact and fiction in an imaginative fusion of make-believe and authenticity."
There was no Mr. Bailey who started the company. The founders just wanted to make it sound authentic and they were near the Bailey Hotel. There is a story behind the product that people buy into. It is made in Ireland, which has higher costs. But people are willing to pay extra for a good story. Same thing here in the WSJ with blue jeans. Now those excerpts:

"The main thing that distinguishes the Brooks Brothers 501s, besides their price, is that they are made in the U.S. No doubt the labor costs are higher, but I suspect the real reason for the inflated price is to create the impression that the jeans are somehow superior. This is the quirky luxury phenomenon that economists call a "Veblen good"—a product that is valued and desirable simply for being more expensive.

Making the jeans in the U.S. is also key to the marketing proposition behind the Brooks Brothers and Levi's partnership—that both brands are "staples of American menswear." Alas, Levi's doesn't have any U.S. factories anymore. It contracts with manufacturers around the world, and its list of suppliers, with one company to a line, goes on for 25 pages. The handful of factories Levi's still operates are in Poland, Turkey and South Africa. And so Levi's hired a shop in Los Angeles to cut, sew and finish the Brooks Brothers jeans. Such are the times that a "staple of American menswear" now has to outsource production even in the U.S.

The marketing materials proclaim Brooks Brothers and Levi's share a commitment to authenticity. Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers, touts the combination: "For generations nothing has conveyed the image of iconic American style more than a pair of Levi's jeans worn with a Brooks Brothers button-down shirt." An admirable combination indeed, an honest expression of America's democratic penchant for mixing high and low—and one that has the advantage of coming about organically over the years. But once you start talking about "conveying images" you are no longer offering authenticity, but what has been delightfully dubbed "fake authenticity."

"Whenever you find something described as authentic, you know that you are already in the realm of fake authenticity," says Andrew Potter in his recent book "The Authenticity Hoax." It's not unlike the "right stuff" Tom Wolfe described: No fighter pilot who had that elusive quality would ever think to say so. "Authenticity is like authority or charisma," Mr. Potter writes. "If you have to tell people you have it, then you probably don't.""