Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Hedgehog’s Array: May 20, 2016

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Noteworthy reads from the past (few) week(s):

“The Delightful Language of Commencement”
“Do these speakers, from such disparate backgrounds, have anything in common when it comes to giving advice to youth (or the confused at heart)?”

“Living Things,” Sarah Marshall
“More than evil, more then fury, more than any dark force beyond the human, Jeffrey Dahmer’s life seems to have been marked by an unbearable loneliness.”

“Expert Textpert,” James Ley
“A frank exchange of views ensued, during which it transpired that our dining companion held eminently practical opinions on all manner of topics. These included a general disdain for the various academic disciplines that fall under the rubric ‘humanities’, an unshakeable belief in the virtues of trickle-down economics, and a strong disinclination to educate poor people.”

“Sexual Freelancing in the Gig Economy,” Moira Weigel
“If you want to understand why ‘Netflix and chill’ has replaced dinner and a movie, you need to look at how people work. Today, people are constantly told that we must be flexible and adaptable in order to succeed. Is it surprising that these values are reshaping how many of us approach sex and love?”

“‘Writing Is an Act of Pride’: A Conversation with Elena Ferrante”
“And I’m talking about the past, about what we generally call tradition; I’m talking about all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. Our entire body, like it or not, enacts a stunning resurrection of the dead just as we advance toward our own death. We are, as you say, interconnected.”

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Brain Talk in the Age of Enlightenment

An MRI machine. liz west via Flickr.

A MRI machine. liz west via Flickr.

A new brain book has arrived on my doorstep, this one titled How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation, by Andrew Newberg, MD, and Mark Robert Waldman. The authors promise to “describe what happens in the brain as people work and move toward enlightenment” and to reveal “how the critical elements of enlightenment are reflected in different brain processes.” For this task, they explore the brain scans of psychic mediums, Sufi mystics, monks, nuns, and Pentecostals who speak in tongues. Newberg, who says he has been “mapping the neural correlates of spiritual experiences for nearly three decades,” also shares details about his own life-transforming experience and even provides functional neuroimages (fMRI) scans of his brain taken while he was contemplating “Infinite Doubt,” which is a lot of doubt. “The imaging results,” he reports, “were quite amazing.”

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain is another installment in the burgeoning genre of “brain-training” self-help books that explore the “political,” “creative,” “loving,” “ravenous,” or just fill-in-the-blank brain. We are told that neuroscientists can explain why breaking up is hard to do, why some people are more empathetic than others, and why multitasking is actually counterproductive. Whole social categories have different brains, including teenagers, criminals, and the addicted. And now we know that they can even tell us how to gain enlightenment. Continue reading

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Neither Hero nor Villain

Uber and taxi. Núcleo Editorial via Flickr.

Uber and taxi. Núcleo Editorial via Flickr.

On April 21, the ride-sharing service Uber reached a settlement in two class action lawsuits over the classification of its drivers as independent contractors as opposed to employees. The bottom line: Uber’s drivers (whom they call “driver-partners”) will remain independent contractors and so will not receive the minimum wage, health benefits, or other traditional workplace protections.

However, the drivers in California and Massachusetts—the two states where the lawsuits were filed—will each receive a small pay-out ($100 million to 385,000 plaintiffs). Uber will now support drivers’ associations, groups that bring together otherwise atomized workers to discuss common issues. And Uber has also promised increased transparency surrounding the ways drivers are rated by passengers and the ways the company “deactivates” the accounts of drivers.

Is this a victory or a loss for the drivers? A lot depends on how you look at Uber, which has, over the past five years, come to symbolize both the promise and the peril that the future offers workers. The service combines the seemingly magic operations of complex algorithms, the widespread use of smartphones, the promise of flexibility for workers, and a brazen disregard for existing regulations. There’s something there for everyone to fear—or praise. Remember Jeb Bush’s use of the service while campaigning in San Francisco this past summer? For a brief moment, the company became a “lightning rod” issue in the 2016 election, and unlike many issues, the dividing lines between candidates weren’t very clear: Is Uber part of a wave of services that are undoing the social contract between employers and their workers? Or is the “1099-economy,” in which more workers become independent contractors, a boon to individual entrepreneurship? Continue reading

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