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There is a fundamental problem with economics.  Well, actually I am sure there are many, many problems with this pseudo-scientific discipline of resource management (which is fetishistically concerned with money instead of value).  However, this particular problem lies at the crux of the discipline’s inability to predict human behavior or bring about valuable outcomes.   We will briefly explore why we should care about economics at the end of the post, but let’s get right to the thesis and baldly state the problem which economics does not appropriately address: humans are more concerned with status than with substance at least when they are not under mortal duress (and if they are in fear of their lives, their behavior will be irrational anyway).

The usual metaphor for rational economic thought involves pie (probably because the round pastry is irresistible and because it resembles pie charts, which economists love).  According to conventional economic theory: if you get an allotted slice of pie, what matters is how big your slice is, not who gets the rest of the pie.  If an economically rational being is faced with a scenario where he gets pie for some reason, he will happily take his pie and worry about how to make the pie bigger (even if a grotesque bully hogs the majority of the pie and then doesn’t even eat it).   From this reductionist fable we can then move on to other scenarios like increasing the participant’s slice relative to other participants (zero-sum pie?), contractual niceties of pie eating, seasonally adjusted pie indexes, or twisted game theory dilemmas…or whatever.

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Yet any parent can tell you that if one sibling gets one small slice of the pie and the other sibling eats the rest, it is going to be a problem.  Children understand that pie allotment is a proxy for social worth (which is worth more than the pie).  Economists get twisted up in unnecessarily complicated numeric models (or in facile metaphors of resource allocation) and tend to overlook the real thing people are after.

Kids innately understand that money is a red herring for status, and status is true currency.  A Hollywood A-lister can wander into a bar and never pay for anything and leave in a limousine with the best-looking person present.  Their status stands above money. Likewise, the pope or some slimy cult leader or the “communist” prime minister of a failed state does not really need to truck in naked dollars and cents.

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I was arguing about the affairs of the world with one of my college friends (he has an honors degree in economics from the University of Chicago and was managing George Soros’ fortune at the time).  He was worried that populism would vitiate the rewards of globalism.  “People will vote to get a bigger slice of a smaller pie rather than a smaller slice of a bigger pie (even if the latter is a much larger relative slice)!” he exclaimed angrily.

As moneyed interests capture all available levers of power in our troubled democracy and economic productivity drops, his words seem prescient.   I assumed then that he was talking about silly plebs, but I now wonder whether he was really talking about rapacious financiers. I guess it doesn’t matter: both these factions are now backing the current leadership’s agenda of corporate amalgamation, tax-giveaways to the super rich, isolationism, and protectionism—things which ultimately decrease the pie, but make it seem larger for the moment.

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Oligarchs and reactionaries both would prefer a smaller pie—so long as they have a bigger slice for themselves.  The pie doesn’t matter—it is not a metaphor for goods and services, like economists think, instead it is a metaphor for pecking order.  If someone tells you that you are ranked 300th among the 300 people who matter to you, what does it matter what is happening in China or whether tariffs will undo national prosperity? The fundamental metaphor is not apt, and thus economists are misunderstanding why people make the choices they do. Our fundamental problems: stagnant productivity, inequality, and political deadlock come from the fact that power brokers are busy making castes and setting them in stone…not baking pies.

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Human societies have always been hierarchical and probably always will be, so why should we care if the economists get this metaphor wrong? It matters because the pie actually should matter! The fact that everyone is jockeying for status by betting on short-term stock gains (or even scammier things) is impairing our ability to do important things. We are baking the wrong sort of pies   Our system is not producing medicines it is churning out drugs.  We are not researching, we are marketing.  The “makers” are busy making monopolies and cartels rather than space robots and immortality serums.  We really would be better with a small delicious pie made of summer fruit and real butter than with the monstrosity made of saccharine, corn starch, and cellulose.  This monstrous confection is the result of the fact that our system is some weird & debased celebrity contest (our leader is a conman and a reality tv star!). Economists need to wake up to the fact that we aren’t even baking pies…we are all in a bad reality tv show or a nightmarishly catty high-school clique.

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This past Friday/Saturday was the annual Pratt Drawathon, a 12 hour event which is one of the highlights of the New York City art year. I should clarify:  the event is not a highlight of the New York art world year. The drawathon is not a place where elite moguls drink wine from airport cups and buy multi-million dollar status-items to embellish their hegemony.  The drawathon is, instead, a draftsperson’s event where Pratt students and other people who love to draw get together and draw all night. Mostly the artists are young fashionable 18-20 year olds with fluorescent hair and strange stylish raiment who struggle away at capturing the likeness of the models within the media rubric of whatever undergraduate project they are currently working on.  Yet the greater New York art ecosystem knows about it too; so you also find peculiar outsiders dressed like janitors who draw like Raphael.

This year, I worked for 9 hours at my spreadsheet-themed dayjob and showed up to squeeze in among the miscellaneous artists and do some pencil sketches to stay limber as an artist (it is also nice to draw naked people sometimes instead of allegorical flatfish).  After midnight the event also features pizza, caffeinated beverages, and live drummers to keep everyone’s energy up. But alas, this year my energy was flagging and my back was sore as I squirmed on the drafting stool. I was feeling sorry for working all day and drawing all night. That’s when I a model I hadn’t seen before came in and gave me a new jolt of energy…not because they were a 19 year old beauty unstained by time’s cruel tutelage (although such models indeed participate in the drawathon), but for the opposite reason.   A man older than John McCain came in and then held stock-still for heroic long poses.  Holding perfectly still sounds easy in theory, but as anyone who has been to Methodist church can tell you, it is exceedingly difficult in practice. Yet the heroic model easily stood like a statue in the airless room.  At one point the man jumped up on a teetering bar stool and stood with his feet close together balanced and motionless for twenty minutes as the assembly gasped and begged him to be careful and not to fall and break something.  “You better draw fast then!” is all he said.

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Not only was this strange muse indefatigable and brave, he was also generous.  After the pizzas arrive the event loses its coherence until about one o’clock when the proctors dragoon it back into shape.  There are always some artists who wolf down their pizza and wait impatiently for things to get started.  The model (who was named Mike) came in and said, I’ll pose until things get started again, if anyone wants to draw.”

One has to be impressed by the fortitude and bravery of anyone who can pose nude in front of strangers at all (I am not sure I could).  To jump into such a career later in life is to truly overcome the prejudices of society and the indignant dictates of the aching spine. Mike seemed like he was having a great time.  He was friends with the models and the artists. Even more, he was a friend to art (though I am, naturally dissatisfied by my drawings…speaking of which,  I am sorry I cut off his feet on this last image–my scanner is only letter-sized).

So am I saying that my hero is a weird naked old man? I guess I am. The combination of strength, fortitude, generosity, and bravery are hard to gainsay.

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I am sorry that these pictures don’t do him justice, but my back was tired from sitting in a comfy office chair all day.   It’s a reminder that life is short, but opportunities are more diverse than you think.  And it is a reminder to get to work! If Mike can pose 12 hours straight, from dusk till dawn, all of us can get out of your comfortable ruts and accomplish anything.

Aplysia californica (The California Sea Hare)

Aplysia californica (The California Sea Hare)

Behold Aplysia californica–an extremely large sea slug which grazes on red algae along the California coast.  The mollusk is rarely found at depths deeper than 20 meters.  It grows to seventy-five cm (thirty inches) in length and weighs a whopping 7kg (15.4 lbs).  Aplysia californica belongs to a family of sea slugs known as the sea hares –so called because the two rhinophores (smelling organs) atop the creatures’ heads are fancifully said to resemble a rabbit’s ears.

Aplysia californica (photo by Chris Nelson)

Aplysia californica (photo by Chris Nelson)

Although this Pacific gastropod is interesting in its own right, the slug is of greatest importance to humankind as a research animal (like the regenerating axolotl).  Aplysia has only 20,000 neuron cells–as opposed to a human brain which contains between ten and a hundred billion–and the slug’s neurons are extremely large.  This allows neuroscientists to easily observe and assess physiological and molecular changes which take place in the cells when the slug learns something.  Aplysia research is thus at the cutting edge of neuroscience.  Nearly everything we know about the molecular basis of memory and learning started out as research with the humble gastropod.

A Cartoon of a Sea Hare Learning

A Cartoon of a Sea Hare Learning

A news piece on CNN today featured Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine & Physiology for neural research (mainly on these slugs) and made immense headway on what is probably the great cellular biology mystery of our time.  It is a pleasure to see a science article on CNN online but it was also somewhat dismaying to see how many comments were basically “why are we wasting money on studying slugs?”  In case it is not self-evident why we are trying to discover the fundamental molecular mechanisms of memory and cognition, here is a brief and not-at-all comprehensive list.

Understanding these underlying biological processes would probably help us find therapy for neuro-degenerative disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease).  It might also allow us to comprehend a number of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression.  At some point in the future, understanding the molecular basis of memories and thoughts might also allow for the engineering of some sort of bioimplant for the nervous system.  You could learn Sanscrit by popping a chip in your head or record your nightmares via wire!   Beyond such science fiction concepts, knowing about how the brain works is an end into itself—understanding the most complicated known structure in the universe is a necessary step to building structures of greater complexity.

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Although perhaps the politically polemicized commenters who object to studying the sea hare actually reject the creature’s sex life–which is indeed somewhat at odds with traditional notions of romance and propriety.

edus826016Like all sea hares, Aplysia californica is a hermaphrodite with both male and female reproductive organs.  Because of its physiology it can (and does!) use both sets of organs simultaneously during mating. Multiple Aplysia have been known to form chains of more than 20 animals (somewhat like pop beads) where each animal simultaneously acts as a male and female at the same time with its fore and aft partners.  Copulation lasts for many hours (or sometimes for days). One can see how the creatures’ amorous predilections might not sit well with puritans and fundamentalists, however for providing a window into molecular neurophysiology we owe this gentle sea slug a big round of thanks.

"Take a bow! Hmm, somebody teach the slug to bow."

“Take a bow! Hmm, somebody teach the slug to bow.”

Candace Profile (Jacob Collins, 2004, oil on canvas)

As part of my continuing effort to write and think more about good contemporary art, here are two paintings from one of the masters of contemporary realism, Jacob Collins.  Like me, Collins studied at the Art Students’ League of New York and, also like me, he has a BA degree in history rather than fine art (although his degree is from Columbia).  I feel his unusual academic background is apparent in his works which, despite portraying the same subjects which are always the focus of realistic paintings, have an extremely thoughtful and somber quality.  The quiet pensiveness of the nude Christian model at the top suggests a deeper truth about the meaning and brevity of life than the average studio nude.  The jagged tumult of red and green brushstrokes below is revealed to be a perfect realist still life of freshly dug beets.  Swift precise strokes of complementary color swirl together to suddenly become a mundane item.  Through the magic of Collins’ brush, making borscht becomes an experience of beauty.  One is reminded of Chardin, about whom Proust wrote “Until I saw Chardin’s painting, I never realized how much beauty lay around me in my parents’ house, in the half-cleared table, in the corner of a tablecloth left awry, in the knife beside the empty oyster shell.”

Collins was born in 1964 in New York City.  It seems he quickly learned the city’s lessons of social networking and constant hard work because he has a remarkable artistic resume (which can be found at his website along with  galleries of his lovely still lifes, landscapes, and portraits) and he is married to a very successful writer.  Perhaps I should learn not just from his bravura impasto but from his obvious diligence and organization.  It’s time to get back to painting and putting up my own art website!

Beets (Jacob Collins, 2009, oil on canvas)

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