Deadly Sins (a Sunday Sermon)

August 30, 2008  
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can you have too much sex? Yes, apparently. In the news this weekend, David Duchovny claims to be suffering from “sex addiction” and has just entered rehab. (Maybe it’s my age, but I think I might do an Amy Winehouse on this one and say no, no, no.) The Duchovny case history will no doubt be labeled “the x-rated files.” Or maybe it’s Californication as reality TV.

Lust, as we all know, is a deadly sin.  Desire is all right, but lust is “too much of a good thing.” It distorts the proper proportions. But what about the other deadly sins? In case you forgot them, here are all seven:
  1. Lust
  2. Anger
  3. Gluttony
  4. Pride
  5. Envy
  6. Sloth
  7. Greed
    Hieronymous Bosch - The Seven Deadly Sins and the Last Four Things
    Click on the image for a larger view
Does the same rule of moderation and proportion apply? Yes, but. In the words of the Sesame Street song, “one of these things is not like the others.”

No problem with sins one through six. We criticize ourselves or others for having too much sex, eating too much food, or lazily avoiding work. The same goes for the emotional sins. Some people need “anger management,” others need to curb their envy. We have a variety of negative words for those who are too proud – egotistical, narcissistic, conceited, etc.

With food, sex, self-esteem, relaxation, etc., we recognize that there are limits. But we give Greed a pass. Is it possible to have too much money? Apparently not. Those who amass more and more of it win the admiration of others, and as a society we do little to curb their passion. In fact, we encourage it, and not just with esteem; we grant it tangible rewards like tax breaks unavailable to those of lesser means. The tax code, especially in the Cheney-Bush administration, seems to have been written as an elaborate gloss on Gordon Gecko’s maxim “Greed is Good.”

The Seven Deadly Sins are sins because they distort the balance between the individual and the society. They all represent individual pleasures grown so large that they become detrimental to the society. But for some reason, when it comes to the unbridled pursuit of money, we don't see the sinfulness.  We don't even see any downside in the imbalance.

For example, elsewhere in the news, Joe Nocera in the New York Times details how billionaire Carl Icahn gained control of XO Communications only to use the company’s financial woes as a way to enrich himself.
As chairman, he could have tried to have helped the company rebuild — or sold the company to someone who was interested in doing so. But that doesn’t really appear to have ever been his motive.
It wasn’t easy, and Icahn met resistance, but through a combination of sneaky tricks and power, he got his way.
“Carl is very smart and acts very aggressively in his own self-interest,” said Robert Powell . . ., who has followed the XO shenanigans closely. “And if you get in the way of his self-interest, he will trample you.”
Icahn is already a billionaire and has been for some time. I have no idea why he needs more money. Nevertheless, he wants to screw a company in order to add still more to his bank accounts.
Yet nobody ever suggests that the Icahns of this world check themselves into rehab.

Big hat tip to Philip Slater, author of Wealth Addiction. The title says it all.

And You Think Textbooks Cost a Lot Today

August 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

  • A manuscript hand-copied book back in 1000 cost roughly the same share of average annual income as $50,000 is today.
  • Hence if you have a "normal" college--eight semesters, four courses a semester--and demand that people buy and read one book a course, you are talking the equivalent of $1.6M in book outlay.
That's from a post at Brad DeLong' blog, and he provides this information about college expenses to look at the rationale for the large lecture. His point is that back in those early university days, the large lecture made economic sense.
  • Hence you assemble the hundred or so people who want to read Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy in a room, and have the professor read to them--hence lecture, lecturer, from the Latin lector, reader--while they frantically take notes because they are likely to never see a copy of that book again once they are out in the world administering justice in Wuerzburg or wherever...
But with books now so cheap (O.K., relatively affordable), why do we still have large lectures? The reasons must be non-economic -- i.e., social.

The full post and many of the comments (40 at last count) are worth reading.

These Eyes

August 27, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Eyes – windows to the Soul. Also to the Rock, Alternative, Country, Metal, Folk, and most other genres, though not all.

Wired Magazine reports on a great bit of content analysis of popular music. The researchers, Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, are visual artists, not sociologists, but they counted up references to body parts in the lyrics of popular songs. Then they broke the data down by genre and created this chart.

(Click on the image to see the larger version.)

Even in this small version, it's clear that Hip Hop is the most body-oriented genre, both in frequency and diversity, and Gospel the least – earthy versus ethereal.

Eyes and hand run one-two in all genres except for Blues, where head and arms outrank eyes, and Hip Hop, where ass takes the gold and head the silver.

Go here for the original, which allows you to click on the genre and see a more complete breakdown, like this chart of Gospel.
I can understand why knee gets mentioned relatively often in Gospel (prayerful posture), but I was surprised that ass was mentioned with the same frequency as neck and tongue. Obviously, I haven't been listening to enough Gospel.

There's a wealth of data. Take a look at the site and see what ideas and associations it triggers for you.

Warning: some of the pictures in some of the genres (no surprises here) may be NSFW.
HT Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

College - The Material World

August 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was move-in day at college (the one my son is going to, not Montclair). The stuff of modern college life lay displayed on the sidewalk awaiting transshipment to the dorms.

Necessities have changed since I went to college way back in the previous century. It’s not just the computers and printers instead of typewriters, iPods instead of stereos, electric guitars far outnumbering acoustic. But televisions, once a luxury, are apparently nearing the level of a necessity (how else can you play your Wii or other games?) .

Cleaning supplies are much more in evidence. Even the boys were packing Dust Busters and Swiffers.

There were some things that surprised me but that the frosh took as commonplace.

Nearly every kid (or his or her roomate) came with a refrigerator (1). Microwaves (2) were nearly as common. And several kids brought cases of water. Yes water, as though this college that parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for were some third-world country where the stuff that comes out of the tap is dangerous to drink and you have to bring your own supply. (The Aquafina in the above picture, as you surely know, is merely Pepsi’s filtered version of that same tapwater.)

Of course, there's water, and there’s water.

And despite the cleaning-supplies thing, the cluster of stuff on the sidewalk sometimes announced the student's gender loud and clear.

That object circled in the upper right is a teddy bear, and the movie poster on the left is for Breakfast at Tiffany's (apologies for the bad angle of this photo). The pink sheet set is unmistakable. And it reminded me that just a few days before this, I had heard another girl, one about to head off to a different school, say that she had chosen bright pink sheets. Also a yellow rug, green towels, and maybe something orange. “I’m trying to have a theme – citrus.” When I asked about the pink, she immediately responded, “Grapefruit.” I guess she’d thought about this one before. I couldn’t imagine having this conversation with a college-bound boy.