The Increasing Effectiveness of Placebo

What does it mean when sugar pills are becoming more helpful in treating mental illness? Evidently anti-psychotic meds are losing ground against the placebos in drug tests. Maybe it’s more complicated than it seems, but this commenter seems to have nailed it:

"… the ineffectiveness of medications relative to placebo is seen as a problem that must be solved by means of ever-more-clever experimental design, rather than as a finding that should be understood in its own right."

Is the increasing utility of sugar pills evidence of growing societal faith in drugs? Is our faith in drugs starting to threaten our actual sugar pills?

Because the finding doesn’t leave a lot of room for the hope of better living through chemistry.

"From Distaste to Mockery"

I hope it’s less cliche than Tati’s Playtime and Punch cartoons…

"From Distaste to Mockery: The City and its Architectures Ridiculed"

Maybe it’s just schadenfreude, or boredom, but this conference looks like fun.

More at:
Style versus substance, oh, wait

File this under technology and spectacle, class and philanthropy. Or maybe, performance of substance. There’s something lovely about Patrick Stewart’s response to the group behavior phenomena, so suited to the era of auto-play videos on your facebook mobile app. Engage in this chain letter performance OR give money? Wait. If you care about the cause, shouldn’t you give money? If you feel social pressure / like the attention go for the ice bucket but make sure you post it on the internet! Charity must be taped to be real! Oh, wait, this isn’t charity, this is a video version of the old chain letter. Nevermind, logic and social media barely know each other and few have noted this gap.

So what is “lovely” about Stewart’s performance? What is the aesthetic of class depicted here? It’s not a corona on ice, it’s scotch. Though I am not classy enough to know the brand. And of course, had it been performed in a less cheesy hotel room, that would have been better. Even so, I’m intrigued by the way this is a performance of substance. Though I know that videos of humans writing checks will hardly go viral in the same way. Viva la social control of chain letters! Monkey see, monkey do!

On Brecht and Facebook

I quickly realized I’d be stuck in a related loop for eternity if I kept this up.

I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here’s What It Did to Me

By Mat Honan

One man explains what happened when he clicked ‘like’ for every ‘related’ story that facebook offered him. Quickly, his feed filled with content providers and not humans, Huff Po vs Uncle Moe. Reversing course, he chose to like a post about Gaza (no, this makes little sense, something about a guilty conscience or fear of being shallow?) and his feed veered far right. I guess he’d gone pro-Israel?

It is a very specific form of Facebook messaging, designed to get you to interact. And if you take the bait, you’ll be shown it ad nauseam.”

Now let’s all stop kidding ourselves that this is anything other than a reward machine for the lab rats at home. Hit that lever if you want your reward, but let’s keep our focus on reality and all the unwanted encounters, slips, falls, maintenance, warts, farts, and washing up after breakfast for the 198th time.

"Modernity is the sort of problem that’s both very old and very new."

It is always hard to hold two viewpoints in focus at once. Joshua Rothman’s piece on “What Colleges Can’t Do” does a lovely job of blending the individual, the context, and the structural. The piece also feels quite quotable, and that is fun too.

"It would be comforting, in a way, if the Ivy League were a particularly soulless place. … I tend to draw the opposite conclusion from Deresiewicz’s data: the fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college."

I loved my time in the Ivies, and now teach at a Big Ten. And I wonder what my undergraduate students would make of the article. What I know for sure is that the Big Ten is a bit more diverse, has more uneven training, and that means more of them would look at the article and say, wow, how many words. Those that are hungry for such things, however, would delight as much as any Yalie.

Rothman suggests that the Ivies hold onto a premodern view of the world, but perhaps, pre-20th century is more accurate. The Big Ten is much more suited to the mass society, whether or not that confers an advantage on its graduates. And I think it may not. I suppose it depends on what position you are aiming for when you leave. I don’t think it’s no longer possible to “build a self by reading books” in college. I think you still can and certainly should. But of course, some are not suited to auto-didacticism. Some are so much a product of the mass society public schools, even daycares, that they’ve grown up in as to need remedial free time first. Careerism, and dressing well, don’t conflict with having a soul. You just need to know which is the ends and which is the means, and not confuse the two. College can’t teach you that, but it can give you the space, shove you in front of the choices, that prompt those who are suited to it to turn and become. I don’t know about this ‘self’ business, I think the jury is still out on whether that is another modern alienation.


Rothman, Joshua. “What College Can’t Do.” The New Yorker, August 5, 2014.

Man is made by his belief

"I don’t give a shit about the Army"

"That’s your mistake."

See also Rohde, Joy. Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research During the Cold War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013.


"Devotion to place, community identity, and nature kills our craft."

Hey, that’s pretty rogue. Like it.

Oh, wait…

"Devotion to place, community identity, and nature kindles our craft."


Still, they do nice work.

So, what’s the trade-off here? In general, we are safer (automation makes airline flying safer, in general) except in the long-tail: pilots are losing both tacit knowledge of flying and some of its mechanics. But in general, we, as humans, have less and less understanding of our machines—we are compartmentalized, looking at a tiny corner of a very complex system beyond our individual comprehension. Increasing numbers of our systems—from finance to electricity to cybersecurity to medical systems, are going in this direction. We are losing control and understanding which seems fine—until it’s not. We will certainly, and unfortunately, find out what this really means because sooner or later, one of these systems will fail in a way we don’t understand.
of brick and bubble wrap


What is the best way to promote innovation in the era of the comfortable echo chamber? Eric Hoover of the Chronicle of Higher Education takes up the question. Raised on Netflix recommendations of things you might like, getting your news from the carefully chosen ‘like minds’ of Twitter, encased in suburban homogeneity, seeing your parents as your pals, what happens when the millennial generation encounters the brick wall of reality? How can colleges and universities help them add their own bricks to the wall? To paraphrase Audre Lorde, the master’s tools may well not dismantle the masters house, but if you have only seen the house through fog and bubble wrap, how can you be expected to go looking for better tools? 

The long answer probably involves the bubble houses of the 1960s, Ant Farm et al. A full answer would unpack how they were the product of a sheltered childhood, yet achieved radical output; emerging from the dawn of the plastic age and producing work that graces the white walls of galleries as a frozen image of a different world. The third act would contrast the inflatables with someone like Linus Torvalds… ahem.