Quarantine Conditions Conspire Against “Flow”

(p. A24) Because I’m a mother, and because I once wrote a book about modern parenthood, I’ve spent a lot of time these days trying to diagnose why it is, exactly, that the nerves of so many parents have been torn to ribbons in the age of quarantine.

. . .

. . . : “Flow” is that heavenly state of total absorption in a project. Your sense of time vanishes; it’s just you and the task at hand, whether it’s painting or sinking shots through a basketball hoop.

It turns out that flow is critical to our well-being during this strange time of self-exile. A few weeks ago I spoke to Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who recently collaborated on a survey of 5,115 people under quarantine in China. To her surprise, the people who best tolerated their confinement were not the most mindful or optimistic; they were the ones who’d found the most flow. She suspected it was why Americans have spent the last two months baking bread and doing puzzles. “They’re intuitively seeking out flow activities,” she said.

Flow, unfortunately, is rare in family life. The father of flow research, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, told me so point-blank when I wrote my book. When kids are small, their developing brains actually conspire against flow, because they’re wired to sweep in as much stimuli as possible, rather than to focus; even when they’re older, they’re still churning windmills of need.

And that’s during the best of times. Now, not only are we looking after our children, an inherently non-flow activity, and not only are we supervising their schoolwork and recreational pursuits — two things we used to outsource — but we’re working.

You need a stretch of continuous, unmolested time to do good work. Instead, your day is a torrent of interruptions, endlessly divided and subdivided, a Zeno’s paradox of infinite tasks. There’s no flow at all.

For the full commentary, see:

Jennifer Senior. “We’re Not Really Parenting. We’re Managing Parenthood in a Pandemic.” The New York Times (Monday, May 25, 2020): A24.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 24, 2020, and the title “Camp Is Canceled. Three More Months of Family Time. Help.”)

The book Senior mentions above, is:

Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.

“Can You Imagine Turning on Someone Who Saves Your Life?”

(p. A20) WASHINGTON — Alice Marie Johnson was watching the Super Bowl with two of her sisters on Sunday night [Feb. 2, 2020] when she saw her own face in an advertisement amid the commercials for Doritos and Audis.

Ms. Johnson was serving a life sentence in an Alabama prison for a nonviolent drug conviction when the president commuted her sentence in 2018. The reality television star Kim Kardashian West had discovered Ms. Johnson’s story on social media and personally appealed to him on her behalf.

And now the 64-year-old African-American woman was the star of the Trump campaign’s multimillion-dollar Super Bowl ad, . . .

. . .

“I’ve been such a source of pride for him,” she said. “Who doesn’t want to show something they’re proud of during an election year? That’s what all the candidates do. For him to highlight me, it makes me know he’s not only proud, he’s super proud.”

She described herself as “not an expert in politics” but someone fighting for “anything that advances my cause, anything that advances my cause of bringing people home.”

Ms. Johnson would not say whether she would vote for Mr. Trump if she could. “I can’t vote, and that’s part of what I’m fighting for,” she said. But as for criticizing Mr. Trump, she said that was simply out of the question for her.

“Can you imagine turning on someone who saves your life?” she said. “Just on a personal level, can you imagine?”

For the full story, see:

Annie Karni. “Life as the Face of Trump’s Super Bowl Ad.” The New York Times (Friday, Feb. 7, 2020): A20.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 6, 2020, and the title “What It’s Like to Be the Face of Trump’s Super Bowl Ad.”)

For 12-Year-Old, 10 Hours a Day in Mine “Really Meant Freedom for Me”

(p. A15) For Jack Lawson, “ten hours a day in the dark prison below really meant freedom for me.” At age 12, this Northern England boy began full-time work down the local mine. His life underwent a transformation; there would be “no more drudgery at home.” Jack’s wages lifted him head and shoulders above his younger siblings and separated him in fundamental ways from the world of women. He received better food, clothing and considerably more social standing and respect within the family. He had become a breadwinner.

Rooted in firsthand accounts of life in the Victorian era, Emma Griffin’s “Bread Winner” is a compelling re-evaluation of the Victorian economy. Ms. Griffin, a professor at the University of East Anglia, investigates the personal relationships and family dynamics of around 700 working-class households from the 19th century, charting the challenges people faced and the choices they made. Their lives are revealed as unique personal voyages caught within broader currents.

“I didn’t mind going out to work,” wrote a woman named Bessie Wallis. “It was just that girls were so very inferior to boys. They were the breadwinners and they came first. They could always get work in one of the mines, starting off as a pony boy then working themselves up to rope-runners and trammers for the actual coal-hewers. Girls were nobodies. They could only go into domestic service.”

Putting the domestic back into the economy, Ms. Griffin addresses a longstanding imbalance in our understanding of Victorian life. By investigating how money and resources moved around the working-class family, she makes huge strides toward answering the disconcerting question of why an increasingly affluent country continued to fail to feed its children. There was, her account makes clear, a disappointingly long lag between the development of an industrialized lifestyle in Britain and the spread of its benefits throughout the population.

For the full review, see:

Ruth Goodman. “BOOKSHELF; Livings And Wages.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, June 8, 2020): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 7, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Bread Winner’ Review: Livings and Wages.”)

The book reviewed above, is:

Griffin, Emma. Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020.

Like During the Great Depression, Wages May Now Be Sticky-Downward

Economists have sometimes claimed that the reason that the labor market did not quickly clear during the Great Depression, was that wages were sticky-downward. The result of sticky-downward wages can be long-term high levels of unemployment.

(p. 7) Much as now, in the Great Depression people were very focused on maintaining a “fair wage” in the face of economic distress. But this led to nationwide resistance to nominal wage cuts for anyone, even when retail prices were falling rapidly.

This appears to have had the unintended result of inducing employers, who could not afford to keep everyone working at their former wages, to lay off many people. The economists Harold L. Cole of the University of Pennsylvania and Lee E. Ohanian, of U.C.L.A., have shown that this may explain some of the extreme duration of Great Depression unemployment.

For the full commentary, see:

Robert J. Shiller. “ECONOMIC VIEW; Looking Back for Clues About What’s Ahead After the Pandemic.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, May 31, 2020): 7.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 29, 2020 and has the title “ECONOMIC VIEW; Why We Can’t Foresee the Pandemic’s Long-Term Effects.”)

The Cole and Ohanian paper mentioned above, is:

Cole, Harold L., and Lee E. Ohanian. “New Deal Policies and the Persistence of the Great Depression: A General Equilibrium Analysis.” Journal of Political Economy 112, no. 4 (Aug. 2004): 779–816.

Frustration of a Non-Expert Entrepreneur Inspired the Creation of Square

(p. B6) It was 2009, and Mr. McKelvey—a glassblower, computer scientist and serial entrepreneur—had lost a sale of one of his artworks because he couldn’t accept American Express cards. Though neither he nor Mr. Dorsey, now CEO of Square and Twitter Inc., knew much about the world of credit-card transactions, his frustration inspired the creation of Square’s signature white readers, a technology that would revolutionize payments by allowing anyone to accept a card with a smartphone or tablet.

In his new book, “The Innovation Stack,” Mr. McKelvey uses the story of Square’s early days, and its success in fending off a rival product from Amazon.com Inc., to encourage other potential founders with a dearth of credentials to fix unsolved problems and start novel businesses.

“If you’re going to do something that’s never been done, by definition, you cannot be an expert,” he said. “Take it from a glassblower who started a $30 billion payment company: You don’t have to be.”

. . .

“. . . there are no experts anymore. We’re living in a world without expertise, and that’s the world of the entrepreneur, like it or not.”

For the full interview, see:

Peter Rudegeair, interviewer. “Square’s Co-Founder Sees Openings in Recessions.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, May 26, 2020): B6.

(Note: ellipses, and quotation marks around last two sentences, added.)

(Note: the online version of the television review has the date May 24, 2020, and has the same title “BOSS TALK; Square’s Co-Founder: A Recession Is a Great Time to Start a Company.” The first several paragraphs quoted above are from Pter Rudegeair’s introduction to his interview of Jim McKelvey. The last couple of sentences are from McKelvey’s response to the last question in the interview.)

The book, mentioned above in the introduction to the interview, is:

McKelvey, Jim. The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time. New York: Portfolio, 2020.

Paul Marks Purged Old Guard in Order to Recruit New Talent for His Vision of Cancer Research

One important question, not addressed in the obituary quoted below, is the extent to which Marks’s vision for cancer research was farsighted and the extent to which it was misguided. Another important related issue is Marks’s role in support of Nixon’s centrally planned war on cancer.

(p. B11) Paul A. Marks, who transformed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center into one of the world’s leading institutions for research and treatment of cancer, died on April 28 at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

. . .

Memorial Sloan Kettering today is very different from the institution Dr. Marks joined in 1980 as president and chief executive. It was still reeling from a scientific scandal in the 1970s involving crudely falsified data. It was also behind the times, focused more on surgical interventions than on the developing frontiers of biological science.

“Frankly, it was an institution that really needed surgery from top to bottom, and Marks was the right guy,” James Rothman, chairman of the Yale School of Medicine’s department of cell biology, said in a phone interview.

. . .

The timing was ideal, said Richard Axel, a neuroscientist and molecular biologist in the department of neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Marks, he said, energized the institution to pursue the alterations in DNA that cause tumors, doing so at the very moment that it was becoming possible “to truly study DNA, to pet it, to clone it, to determine its sequence.”

What followed was a purge of much of the institution’s old guard, with attendant turmoil and alienation for many of those involved. Dr. Marks instituted a tenure system with a tough review process, and dozens of scientists left between 1982 and 1986. A 1987 article about Dr. Marks in The New York Times Magazine noted that “there are researchers who call Marks ‘Caligula,’ ‘Attila the Hun’ or simply ‘the monster.’”

The article described a scene in his laboratory during his Columbia days when Dr. Marks “grabbed a man by the throat and dragged him across a table.” His wife, Joan Marks, then head of graduate programs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., said in the article, “He can be brutal,” adding, “He really doesn’t understand why people don’t work 97 hours a day, and why they don’t care as much as he cares.”

In his memoir, “On the Cancer Frontier: One Man, One Disease, and a Medical Revolution” (2014, with the former Times reporter James Sterngold), Dr. Marks said he had been embarrassed to see the incident recounted in the article. While he didn’t deny that it had happened, he said that he had actually grabbed the man by both arms, not the throat, and shaken him.

For all of the sharpness of his elbows, Dr. Rothman of Yale said, there was also charm. Dr. Marks, he said, “projected at once a kind of a deep warmth and, at the same time, a formidable aspect.”

Dr. Marks was known for a sharp eye in recruiting talent. “He had an uncanny ability to attract these great scientists from all over the nation,” said Joan Massagué, the director of the Sloan Kettering Institute, the institution’s experimental research arm.

For the full obituary, see:

John Schwartz. “Paul Marks, 93, Administrator Who Pushed Memorial Sloan Kettering to Top-Tier Status.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 7, 2020): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated May 6, 2019 and has the title “Paul Marks, Who Pushed Sloan Kettering to Greatness, Dies at 93.”)

Marks’s memoir, mentioned above, is:

Marks, Paul, and James Sterngold. On the Cancer Frontier: One Man, One Disease, and a Medical Revolution. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2014.

Engineering the Bar Code “Was Fun!”

(p. A13) If he had followed instructions from his boss, George Laurer might never have succeeded in designing the Universal Product Code.

In 1971, a supervisor at International Business Machines Corp. told the electrical engineer to devise a bar code based on previous models involving circular symbols resembling dart boards. While the boss was on vacation, Mr. Laurer concluded that little circles wouldn’t do, partly because smears of ink left by printing presses could scramble the code. Instead, he and others came up with a row of stripes, whose varying width and spacing conveyed a reliable code.

. . .

. . . , as he noted in the title of his memoir, “Engineering Was Fun!”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Bar Code Designer Defied Instructions.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, December 14, 2019): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Dec. 12, 2019 and has the title “George Laurer, Defying Instructions, Created Universal Bar Code.”)

Laurer’s memoir, mentioned above, is:

Laurer, George J. Engineering Was Fun! 3rd ed. Morrisville, NC: Lulu.com, 2012.