Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Airplane reading and thinking

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‘back in Maastricht after the long trip back: arrived to steady rain and darkness that fit my mood re-opening the silent apartment.  A pile of mail was waiting; a couple of plants dried out over the week.  Airplane time is always good for a bit of reading: so this might be a good time to catch up on a few articles and observations.

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Intelligent Life featured an article about modafinil, an analeptic (brain stimulant) used in treating sleep disorders.  Students are taking it as an aid to concentration and students are using it to help them study.  The author reports that it made him feel more alert and focused, but didn’t improve the quality or volume of his work.  So, on balance, is this drug enhancement a good thing?

My thoughts, feelings, and personality are the things that make me who I am as an individual, unique and meaningful.  Chemically altering those qualities touches something fundamental. The claim is that modafinil simply enhances the qualities already there, a better sort of caffine.  My concern is that enhanced cognition carries side effects that change perceptions and actions, and that the drug will keep you from realizing that there have been changes.  I don’t think that a more focused, less feeling version of myself is a more human version of myself.

Aside:

This person record requires harvesting.  iTunes greeted me with this message when I tried to log in, somewhere between a database error and Soylant Green.  A bit of searching and I found that they were trying to tell me that my account information was incomplete: please go to Apple and fix it.

Another IL article concerned Polymaths, people who can reach expert levels of performance in two or more unrelated disciplines.  The author distinguishes it from Genius, reaching extraordinary performance in one domain, or Multitalented, dabbling in several domains and perhaps becoming expert in one.  Their signature example from previous times is Leonardo daVinci, from our own time is Nathan Myhrvold.

Myhrvold is a problematic choice to me: his second career as an author is expository, and the third as a cook is an enhanced hobby.  I would have chosen Pauling or Russell, people who went on to do distinguished work in unrelated social fields after great achievement in scientific ones.  I lead a more T-shaped life: deep in one area, knowledgeable in many, aware of most.  I’m happy dabbling in art and writing, challenging myself in technical, business, and clinical areas. The article notes that the expanding volume of knowledge and the resistance of professionals to outsiders makes it ever more difficult to become a true polymath.  That seems to beg the question of definition more than whether people have innate talent and motivation to become a polymath.  I do know a number of people who perform at that level: they are both delightful and rare.

Aside:

As I work to acquire proficiency in Dutch, a friend raised the question of how quickly it can be lost.  He recounted several instances where expats moved out of the country, then had lost all fluency within a year.  They could reacquire proficiency more quickly, but it seems unfortunate and surprising that the skill is easily lost without constant practice.  It argues for doing reading or listening when out of the country to keep the skill active.

The Wall Street Journal published a column discussing the proposed acquisition of Cadbury by Kraft foods: The Boundaries Facing Global Firms.  The article reviewed the impact of  globalization (good), noting that takeovers carry their own motivations for improving efficiency and competitiveness when established firms are acquired. Protectionism (bad) only perpetuates the status quo, preserving local jobs (temporarily) at the expense of local consumers (permanently).

Yet, the article concedes that companies tend to invest closer to home, reducing foreign subsidiaries to component suppliers and distribution conduits rather than using them for market analysis or as development centers.  And, for me, this crystallized a fundamental flaw in the argument for globalization: acquisition does not promote competition.

If a company creates a new division locally to compete with established firms, then the investment creates jobs, knowledge, and economic benefit.  True competition depends on creating better products and services, on finding a better business model, and on mentoring local talent.  An acquisition, by contrast, is about synergy and economies of scale: can the same job be done better by one owner than by another.

It makes me think that the true good in globalization can best be realized by making markets more open, while simultaneously making acquisition more difficult.

2 comments:

tay said...

Polymaths-
Historically I Would nominate that many faceted old charmer Ben Franklin. His house (museum) in London is worth a visit. In the art world perhaps William Blake and John Ruskin.
Currently Noam Chomsky would qualify

Dave Hampton said...

Great pick, Tay, I had thought abut Chomsky (and the article mentioned him too) but Franklin is good. I'm not as familiar with Blake and Ruskin...good reason to do a bit of background digging on them.

Have a good weekend, and thanks, Dave