I Think I Remember That Guy

My fiftieth high school reunion is coming up(!), which as you can probably imagine has stirred up some ambivalence. The website dedicated to the event includes a section where members of the class of ’69 can post a personal profile. I just put mine up:

I’ve explored alternate selves and alternate realities. With a few notable exceptions, things haven’t turned out the way I expected.

 

Advertisements

The Art Market

A 1986 sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million. Why is art so expensive? “The short answer,” Gaby Del Valle writes, “is that most art isn’t.”

The high-end art market is “driven by a small group of wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for works made by an even smaller group of artists, who are in turn represented by a small number of high-profile galleries.” A few newcomers break through, but first they’ve got to find a gallery to represent their work. Gallerists shop for promising new talent at MFA programs.

As Roberto Ferdman observes, “only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future.” Galleries sell mostly to the ultra-rich, for whom spending a few million on a painting signals their good taste in luxury goods while also providing them with a potentially lucrative investment if the market goes up for the artist whose work they’ve acquired.

 

 

I Re-Upped the Ficticities.com Domain Name

On the last day before expiry I walked it back from the brink by anteing up $18 to WordPress. I’m  not sure why — mostly it’s ambivalence about what to do next.

But also I’m outraged by the domain name reselling industry. If I let ficticities.com lapse, some reseller might have scooped it up for a buck or two, then offered to sell it back to me for a couple hundred. Most likely resellers rely mostly on sellers’ remorse — people like me who let their domain names lapse and who later, wishing they hadn’t, pay the ransom.

So I’ve gone ahead and re-rented the name, along with WordPress’s hosting service, for another year.

Small Plots Unfolding in the World

Passing under the pear tree on my morning walk I looked up at the branch that hangs over the chemistry grad students’ front door. Tightly clustered but quivering as it revs up for the day, the miniswarm is all that remains of the big swarm that showed up a week ago and assembled itself on the pear branch, a seething mass the size and shape of an American football.

Maybe a week earlier a persistent buzzing under the lawn chair had distracted me from the book I’d been reading. A bee swooped up past my face, then dove back under the chair. Yellow, but smaller and fuzzier than a yellow jacket — a honeybee? I’d not seen one yet this spring; for that matter I didn’t recall having seen any last summer. Then one afternoon the swarm showed up.

“Honeybees?” the office manager for our complex asked the next morning. I told her I didn’t know, that I wasn’t prepared to get close enough to verify. We’d googled it: it seems that only honeybees go in for this sort of swarming behavior. When the hive gets too big the queen sets out with half the workers and a team of scouts in search of a new home, leaving the old hive and the rest of the colony to her successor. It’s how honeybees expand their population. setting up shop temporarily in an exposed place, often a tree branch, until the scouts come to an agreement about the most suitable option for establishing a permanent hive. Beekeepers can be called in to capture a swarm, adding workers to the honey farm while diversifying the gene pool with the hardy resourcefulness manifested by a successful and expanding feral bee population. The office manager said she’d place the call.

That afternoon and evening it rained, hard. Next morning the swarm was still there in the tree, having shifted and rotated its position entirely to the underside of the branch. The previous day the office manager was supposed to have taken a photo and sent it to the beekeeper, confirming that the swarm was worth his while to come out and harvest, but what with the rain she hadn’t gotten out there to take the photo. I walked her to the tree. “Oh my God!” Bees, ten thousand or more, all piled on top of each other, the ones on the surface writhing and twitching, a few launching themselves into loose eccentric orbits around the living mass clustered on the branch. She took her photos and returned to the office. Later that afternoon when I went for a run I passed by the swarm: it seemed more energized, the bees on the surface flapping and seething and waggling. When I returned forty-five minutes later the swarm was gone. Had the beekeeper gathered them up? No: he’d come with his equipment, but by the time he showed up the bees had already gone. A hundred or so remained, a miniswarm: maybe they’d been out feeding and scouting while the coordinates for reaching the new location was being communicated through the swarm. By the time these outliers returned to the branch it was too late: they’d been left behind.

And there they are still, five days later, their numbers diminished a bit through the ordinary attrition of a short lifespan exacerbated by exposure to two more torrential storms. The tight cluster on the branch has reorganized itself a few times — once they formed an acrobatic chain, a few gripping the branch, some holding onto the backs of their anchored comrades, and so on and so on, until they’d contoured themselves into a dangling scaffold maybe twenty layers deep. Now they’re nestled in a notch underneath the branch, affording them at least some protection from the rain.

What will they do now? Their queen and their colony have gone away, leaving no forwarding address. Apparently they can’t return to the old hive from which the new colony splintered off — maybe they’d now be regarded as intruders, carrying the old queen’s pheromones into a population infused by the scent of a new queen. The worker bee’s usual lot is to find food, return to the hive, and regurgitate into the cells of the comb to feed the larvae. But the miniswarm has no princess queen it can nurture into maturity. There will be no eggs, no larvae, no need to feed them. What do worker bees do when they don’t have any work to do anymore? Do they lose their purpose, their will to live? There’s plenty of pine pollen in the air: do the hiveless bees continue to feed themselves even when no longer charged with feeding the next generation? I’d guess so — otherwise they’d likely have starved to death by now. Why don’t the scouts — there must be at least one scout left behind — find a more protected place for the retired workers to live out their lives of newfound leisure?

On my walk this morning I noticed, on the edge of the sidewalk about a quarter mile from here, a black mound roughly the same size and shape as the swarm had adopted when it was at full strength. More like half a swarm though, one hemisphere of a football, not seething but inert, a convex muddy dome rimmed with ragged edges. I nudged it with my toe: it wobbled, twice, before rocking back into its original position. I nudged it again: another rocking back and forth — was it a fraction slower this time? — then nothing. I walked on. Something about that wobble had seemed animated by more than mere mechanics. An inverted nest, fallen from a tree during the overnight storm, its hatchlings feebly pushing up from underneath trying to escape? Instead of following my usual course home I retraced my route, picking up a stick from the edge of the trail that I could use to probe the muddy mound. I passed back along the stretch of sidewalk: no sign of the black shape. I doubled back: nothing. Dropping the stick under a stand of trees I walked on

Reaching my front door I was buzzed by a solitary honeybee sweeping out from under the lawn chair. A scout from the miniswarm? But wait: wasn’t this bee already hanging around under the chair even before the swarm showed up?

 

The Power of No

no
– So far this one-word tweet on @dril, dated 15 Sept 2008, has generated 55,675 retweets and 90,837 likes.

Eileen Chou summarizes her key research findings in the title of her 2018 journal article: “Naysaying and Negativity Promote Initial Power Establishment and Leadership Endorsement.” The rationale:

Humans evolved as social animals, reliant on power hierarchies to preserve order. Power is a means of influencing others through the control of rewards and punishments. Therefore it’s adaptive for humans to be attuned to cues that signal power; e.g. expansive posture, height, the tendency to spring into action. Naysaying seems to be another signifier of power. Why? For one thing, powerful people are perceived as primarily concerned with getting things done, so they focus more on identifying and correcting mistakes that hinder success than on making people feel good. Two, powerful people are regarded as less constrained by conventional norms that serve to preserve group solidarity through mutual agreeableness, in part because powerful people can reshape group norms.

Do people view naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders? The participants in Chou’s experiments did. In the multivariate structural model derived from her empirical findings, people regard others’ negative judgments as indicative of their being free agents, able to express their true opinions unconstrained by social expectations. The free exercise of agency in turn implies the ability to wield social power over those whom they criticize. Consequently, people expect a naysayer to be a more effective leader than a cheerleader, even when the naysayer isn’t perceived as being more competent. People voluntarily follow the naysayers’ leadership, even if that means subjecting themselves to the naysayer’s negative judgment of themselves.

Chou’s experiments support the idea that people perceive naysayers as more powerful than cheerleaders. What about the naysayers themselves: do they feel more powerful? Chou conducted some additional studies in which participants were asked to invent arguments for or against some proposition about which they held no a priori opinions; e.g., positive or negative reviews for an imaginary restaurant. Afterward, the negative reviewers reported feeling more powerful than did the positive reviewers.

A positive feedback loop is activated here: Expressing a negative judgment not only makes you feel more powerful; it also causes other people to regard you as more powerful. Once you’ve been rewarded for your negativity, you’re more likely to repeat your performance, becoming a chronic naysayer and rising in the social power hierarchy.

Trump. Disagreeable workers who get higher-income and higher-status positions than their equally competent but more agreeable counterparts (Judge, Livingston, & Hurst, 2012). Publishers that reject 99% of submitted manuscripts without explanation, acknowledged as elite cultural tastemakers by the rejectees themselves…