>Using Puzzles in Job Interviews

Puzzles are the latest fad in the job interview process that the corporate world has taken on recently. A candidate for JP Morgan or Microsoft is subjected to a humiliating process of being asked to solve a really weird puzzle that has absolutely nothing to do with their area of expertise. Many people who have been through this type of interview compare it to hazing.

There are many examples of such puzzles. There is an entire book and website industry dedicated to preparing you for this type of job interview. The one you see on the left is particularly popular, although there are many others (How to Ace the Brainteaser Interview, The return of the brainteaser interview: puzzles that challenge your logical thinking are back. , Brain Teasers, Book of Puzzles & Brain Teasers, etc.). This is an example of such a puzzle:

Three men and one woman find themselves on a deserted island. They only have two condoms between them. How can these 3 men have safe sex with the woman?

Believe me, people, I am not making this up. This is an actual question people are asked during actual job interviews. I am not even going to address the entire set of nasty, hateful assumptions that inform this so-called puzzle. Like, who said these men are necessarily interested in having sex with this woman, as opposed to with each other. Or, why would the woman want to have sex with all of them.

The main question here is what is the purpose of making this type of idiotic puzzle the central part of the job interview process. Contrary to what Microsoft and Wall Street companies claim, the goal of introducing puzzles into the job interview process is not to find the most creative thinker among your candidates. The real purpose is to find the most obedient, robot-like one. No self-respecting person with a degree from a respectable university will tolerate being asked stupid, irrelevant, and often offensive questions like “How many piano-tuners are there in New York?” or “How to design a spice-rack for a blind person?” The goal of such companies is precisely to weed out self-respecting, intelligent candidates. All they need is employees who would obey any humiliating task they are given without questioning their bosses on the legitimacy of the assignment.

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part II

As I mentioned in the first part of this review, Bauman’s vision of today’s world is, at the very least, flawed. The impression his analysis often makes on me is one created by a person who is so afraid of certain aspects of life that he never ventures outside of his ivory tower. He hides from reality and theorizes about it from the
place of his fear. As a result, a lot of what he has to say bears no relation to reality. For instance, Bauman sees us as constantly moving away from coercion and towards freedom. He observes (or he believes that he observes)

the ever more evident dismantling of the system of normative regulation, and thereby the releasing of ever larger chunks of human conduct from coercive patterning, supervision, and policing, and relegating ever larger numbers of previously socialized functions to the realm of individual “life politics.”

I thought about this statement for a long while, but for the life of me I can’t see how anybody can say that the world today is moving away from supervision and policing. I don’t want to keep belaboring the point of those new airport scanners ad infinitum, but what about the US Patriot Act? If that is non-invasive and non-coercive, I honestly don’t know what is.

Bauman spends quite a lot of time attempting to construct an argument on the basis of this perceived disappearance of coercion and its substitution with something else:

Coercion is being replaced by stimulation, forceful imposition of behavioral patterns by seduction, policing of conduct by PR and advertising, and the normative regulation, as such, by the arousal of new needs and desires.

I have no idea why Bauman needs to present PR and advertising on the one hand and policing and coercion on the other as mutually exclusive. Coercion and advertising are part of the same system, two sides of the same coin. The arousal of new needs and desires is a product of both PR and policing. If we know that we will be policed (say, at an airport), we are very likely to provide ourselves with a kit that will make the process of being policed easier. People who travel a lot nowadays have a special personal grooming and make-up kits that come in small bottles and that are packaged separately. Before your trip, you can just grab your pre-packaged kits and head to the airport. In a similar fashion, one could give many examples of coercion and stimulation working together to impose new behavioral patterns. Advertising often serves not so much to provoke new desires as to give us a justification for accepting the needs imposed on us by coercion.
Another topic where Bauman’s argument is wide of the mark, is his description of an ideal employee for big corporations. For some reason, he has decided that in order to be competitive on the job market one has to be single, unattached, and not burdened with responsibilties:

Bosses tend nowadays to dislike having employees who are burdened with personal commitments to others-particularly those with firm commitments and especially the firmly long-term commitments. The harsh demands of professional survival all too often confront men and women with morally devastating choices between the requirements of their career and caring for others. Bosses prefer to employ unburdened, free-floating individuals who are ready to break all bonds at a moment’s notice and who never think twice when “ethical demands” must be sacrificed to the “demands of the job.”

Nothing in this statement makes sense. A commitment-free individual, unburdened with a mortgage and dependent family members, is the worst nightmare of repressive employers. Such an employee feels free to leave the second she feels unhappy with the conditions of her employment. A “free-floating” individual doesn’t scare as easy as the one who is the only breadwinner for a group of people. If I have several mouths to feed, I am more likely to swallow a lot of shit coming from my bosses in order to keep my job at any cost. If, however, I don’t owe anything to anybody, I will leave the company without a second thought and will have no trouble moving to a different city, state, or even country. This is precisely why we are so constantly brainwashed into marrying and having children. Free people pose the greatest danger to the system. Why Bauman would wish to claim the opposite is incomprehensible to me.
In his desire to signal his rejection of the way the world is today, Bauman allows his argument to become sloppy. For instance, the philosopher bemoans the lack of interest in politics in today’s world:

All over the “developed” and affluent part of the planet, signs abound of fading interest in the acquisition and exercise of social skills, of people turning their backs on politics, of growing political apathy and loss of interest in the running of the political process.

He fails to mention, however, when that happy age of political participation that is “fading” today actually took place. I believe that any argument about things getting much worse absolutely has to mention the time period with which today’s reality is being compared. Otherwise, there is no value to this line of reasoning.
To summarize, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? offers an insightful discussion of identity construction. However, as soon as Bauman begins to theorize about the subjects of ethics and consumerism, he cannot avoid the need to massage reality into the confines of his flawed system.

Zygmunt Bauman’s Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part I

Zygmunt Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. His interest in the mechanisms of identity construction is enough to make me follow his work with great dedication.

Bauman’s recent Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (Institute for Human Sciences Vienna Lecture Series) made a dubious impression on me. Everything Bauman has to say about identity is really good. Everything he has to say on other topics, however, is really not. This is unusual, since normally philosophers are provoked by the topic of identity into uttering strings of annoying platitudes. Bauman avoids this danger and talks about identity in a thought-provoking and profound way. The other subjects he addresses in Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? , though, are analyzed in a much weaker way. Unfortunately, a moment comes in everybody’s life when our brain cannot process change as effectively as it used to when we were younger. As a result, we see any change in our world as at worst terrifying and at best negative. This is, sadly, what happens to Bauman. His fear of today’s reality taints his analysis and robs it of any intellectual value. I have no patience with anybody whose sexism and racism do not allow them to recognize that life today is without a shadow of a doubt better than at any other point in history. Bauman’s lamentations about some unspecified past when everything was better, fresher, and sweeter are a testimony to his nostalgia for his lost youth. This nostalgia is so strong that it overruns the obvious ethical considerations that should have helped Bauman remember that the current historical period he dislikes so much is characterized by an incredible progress in the rights of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

In this review, I will first address the parts of Bauman’s argument that I really liked. Then, I will proceed to discuss the much weaker second half of this book.

Bauman starts his discussion of identity formation by observing how much the task of creating an identity is linked to fear, anxiety, and constant insecurity:

Identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation. Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation, turns into a lifelong task, never complete; at no moment of life is the identity “final” There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing. That built-in “nonfinality,” the incurable inconclusiveness of the task of self-identification, causes a lot of tension and anxiety.

The idea that identity today is negotiable, fluid, and non-static has, of course, turned into something of a favorite platitude among the theorists of identity. What is different in Bauman’s analysis is that his thinking does not stop there. He realizes that the qualities of fluidity and variability of contemporary identities do not in any way rob them of their potential to do harm. It is a given that everybody today moves seamlessly between identities. This mere fact, however, does nothing to alleviate the dreadful burden of identity.

By its very nature, collective identity requires a common enemy. The ever-growing complexity of today’s world makes the need for this enemy stronger, instead of weaker:

The act of selecting a group as one’s site of belonging in fact constitutes some other groups as alien and, potentially, hostile territory: “I am P” always means (at least implicitly, but often explicitly) that “most certainly, I am not Q, R, S, and so on.” “Belonging” is one side of the coin, and the other side is separation and opposition-which all too often evolve into resentment, antagonism, and open conflict. Identification of an adversary is an indispensable element of identification with an “entity of belonging”-and, through the latter, also a crucial element of self-identification. Identification of an enemy construed as an incarnation of the evil against which the community “integrates,” gives clarity to life purposes and to the world in which life is lived.

Consequently, when the world becomes less clear and more complex, a group needs to construct an enemy who is more and more evil with every passing day. Thus, those who believe that we live in a post-identity world are completely wrong. I have no idea whether these people even follow the news or turn on the television. There are no structures in place today that would dilute the strength of collective identifications. Just the opposite.

After this impressive discussion of identity, Bauman proceeds to talk about the actual subject of his book, which is the relationship between ethics and consumerism. And here, unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart. In order to introduce the topic of ethics, the philosopher comes out with the following bizarre statement:

In order to have self-love, we need to be loved or to have hope of being loved. Refusal of love-a snub, a rejection, denial of the status of a love-worthy object-breeds self-hatred. Self-love is built of the love offered to us by others. Others must love us first, so that we can begin to love ourselves.

It honestly took me a while to realize that the author was completely serious in this statement. When I finally saw that no punch line was coming and this is exactly what he meant to say, I felt pretty embarrassed for Bauman. You cannot proceed to theorize on the basis of your psychological insecurities and neuroses. Of course, we can never escape them, but the least we could do is avoid projecting them onto the entire world. The kind of self-love that is so dependent on the aceptance and approval of others is beyond unhealthy. A theory constructed on the basis of this vision cannot convince anybody.

Chris Hedges’s Empire of Illusion: A Review

The moment China, the oil-rich states, and other international investors stop buying U.S. Treasury Bonds, the dollar will become junk. Inflation will rocket upward. We will become Weimar Germany. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to simpletons like Sarah Palin to loudmouth talk-show hosts, whom we naively dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. . . There are powerful corporate entities, fearful of losing their influence and wealth, arrayed against us. They are waiting for a moment to strike, a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control. The tools are in place. These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the ruling elites, and the specter of left-wing dissent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy. And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross.

Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion

This long quote from Chris Hedges’s Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle demonstrates perfectly why I think this is a stunning piece of journalism at its very best and a book that any responsible citizen has to read. I absolutely loved this book (except Chapter 2, which seemed like it was taken from a completely different book and can be resumed as “Pornography bad, Dworkin good, sex scary, intimacy comforting.”) I suggest that this chapter be skipped altogether in favor of the brilliant political analysis of the rest of the book.

Empire of Illusion is an angry book. Hedges, one of the very few remaining journalists in the US who do actual journalism instead of regurgitating washed out mantras handed to them by their keepers, is not afraid of hurting the public’s tender sensibilities by the truth. He realizes the gravity of our current situation and is unafraid of telling the readers that our economic and political future looks bleak. The way our government tries to address the collapse of the economy, which it coyly terms “a recession”, by throwing taxpayers’ money at the problem is wrong and self-destructive:

We are vainly trying to return to a bubble economy, of the sort that once handed us the illusion of wealth, rather than confront the stark reality that lies ahead. We are told massive borrowing will create jobs and re-inflate real estate values and the stock market. We remain tempted by mirages, by the illusion that we can, still, all become rich.

None of these so-called measures are working. Endless bailouts and stimulus packages that have indebted us in an unheard of way have failed to jumpstart the economy and move the country out of this crisis. Still, nobody is proposing any alternatives to this failed system. The economy of the US operates in exactly the same manner as the unsustainable Soviet economy. Nobody, however, is willing to recognize it. People believe that if you call this perversion “capitalism” and “free market economy” often enough, it will actually turn into capitalism and free market economy. Reality has been substituted by illusion in so many areas of life, Hedges observes, that people often refuse to see and identify what is right in front of their faces. This rejection of reality in favor of illusion haunts all spheres of our lives:

Faith in ourselves, in a world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of negativity. The New Age mysticism and pop psychology of television personalities, evangelical pastors, along with the array of self-help best-sellers penned by motivational speakers, psychiatrists, and business tycoons, all peddle a fantasy. Reality is condemned in these popular belief systems as the work of Satan, as defeatist, as negativity, or as inhibiting our inner essence and power. Those who question, those who doubt, those who are critical, those who are able to confront reality and who grasp the hollowness of celebrity culture are shunned and condemned for their pessimism.

The reason for this resistance to acknowledging the reality that lies right in front of us is that the very few of us possess the intellectual, psycholigical, emotional, and linguistic tools needed to perform this task. Rather than decipher the incomprehensible, confusing, and often painful reality around them, people prefer to escape into the world of cliches and make-belief. Who wants to dedicate their lives to addressing complex, important issues, if you can happily escape into the world of triviality?

Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted by cliches, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country on earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities, and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either because of our own attributes or our national character or because we are blessed by God. In this world, all that matters is the consistency of our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition.

(I’m quoting so much because the way Hedges writes is so powerful, concise, and convincing that I don’t want to deprive my readers of the enormus pleasure of seeing the way a real journalist should write. This is a rare pleasure nowadays.)

One would expect, of course, our system of higher education to help students acquire the intellectual and linguistic tools needed to analyze the failings of our poitical and economic systems. This, however, does not happen. As anybody working in the higher education system knows all too well, our universities have been undergoing the process of transforming themselves into robot-churning factories. Hedges’s understanding of the way the higer education system has been appropriated by the military-industrial complex is profound:

The bankruptcy of our economic and political systems can be traced directly to the assault against the humanities. The neglect of the humanities has allowed elites to organize education and society around predetermined answers to predetermined questions. Students are taught structures designed to produce these answers even as these structures have collapsed. But those in charge, because they are educated only in specializations designed to maintain these economic and political structures, have run out of ideas. They have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system.

Our universities have become nothing but “high-priced occupational training centers.” Graduates are incapable of approaching their reality in a critical way. All they are trained to do is to service the system as efficiently as possible. Now that the system itself is in dire need of a rehaul, there are very few people around who would be at least capable of recognizing this fact, let alone do something about it.

For a while now, I have been discussing with my friends and colleagues the very scenario that Hedges describes in the first quote of this post. This crisis is not going away any time soon. People will start to get scared, restless, depressed, and angry. They will turn to the Evangeical fascists for consolation. It’s good to see that there are thinkers who realize that we are going in this scary direction and are trying to do something about it.

We all remember Obama’s insightful remark about bitter people clinging to guns, religion and hatred. I still remember what a relief it was to hear a politician say something so smart and relevant for a change. If the President is smart enough to understand that we are going in the direction of religious fascism, then why is he doing all he can to push us towards this horrifying prospect?

>Tana French’s The Likeness: A Review

>I just fnished reading http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=00FF0F&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&m=amazon&f=ifr&md=10FE9736YVPPT7A0FBG2&asins=0143115626. What an absolutely delightful book, my friends! I enjoyed every one of its 480 pages profoundly. Tana French is a young Irish writer. The Likeness is one of those really good books that its female author tries to masquerade as a mystery novel. The mystery itself is not bad, especially if you manage to get over a few of the initial premises that border on the fantastic.

Cassie Maddox, a young Irish policewoman, goes undercover among a group of PhD students who live in an old house they are attempting to restore. This premise is, of course, highly unrealistic. Graduate students in literature have a certain way of talking and acting that cannot be faked. In reality, un undercover police officer would have blown her cover during the very first discussion on why Lacan is wrong about everything and Eagleton’s new-found essentialism is annoying. Nobody can fake writing a doctoral dissertation convincingly. You have either lived through that process or not.

Having said that, however, I have to confess that French’s writing is so good that soon enough you forget about these inconsistencies and even forget to care about the identity of the killer. The Likeness is a beautifully written story about today’s Ireland. It offers incisive criticism of modern consumer society without falling into the trap of bemoaning the good old days:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their decor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on.

What makes this novel so enjoyable is that, in places, it reaches the level of insightfulness that is normally completely our of reach for the mystery genre writers. In The Likeness, the main conflict arises – and eventually leads to murder – because of a profound dissatisfaction that the characters of the novel feel with the very structure of society:

Part of the debtor mentality is a constant, frantically suppressed undercurrent of terror. We have one of the highest debt-to-income ratios in the world, and apparently most of us are two paychecks from the street. Those in power—governments, employers—exploit this, to great effect. Frightened people are obedient—not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. If your employer tells you to work overtime, and you know that refusing could jeopardize everything you have, then not only do you work the overtime, but you convince yourself that you’re doing it voluntarily, out of loyalty to the company; because the alternative is to acknowledge that you are living in terror. Before you know it, you’ve persuaded yourself that you have a profound emotional attachment to some vast multinational corporation: you’ve indentured not just your working hours, but your entire thought process. The only people who are capable of either unfettered action or unfettered thought are those who—either because they’re heroically brave, or because they’re insane, or because they know themselves to be safe—are free from fear.

Just this one paragraph makes the novel absolutely worth reading for me.

The Likeness is only Tana French’s second novel and an obvious improvement on her first one, In the Woods. I can’t wait to see how far this growing author will go. Her talent is undeniable and her command of the language is unique. Maybe one day she will feel strong enough to stop hiding behind the protective screen of the mystery genre and will write actual literature. I have no doubt that French has enough talent to achieve that.

>Tundra in the Midwest

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I will never understand what strange psychological problems lead people to drive this kind of total monstrosity in the Midwest of all places. Besides being an environmental nightmare, it is incredibly ugly and inconvenient. Getting into it and finding a place to park it must be quite a production. 

I keep wondering whether the proud owner of this coffin-like structure even knows what tundra is and whether he is hoping to find it in Southern Illinois. It is pretty cold here right now but we are still too far away from turning into a tundra.

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>Who Caused the Collapse of the Soviet Union?

>I have read several articles dedicated to the collapse of the Soviet Union recently. These articles attributed the breakdown of the Soviet Empire and the fall of the Communist system to a variety of the weirdest agents. There are analysts who are so uninformed as to believe that the Soviet system came to an end as a result of the actions of President Reagan or even the CIA (yes, the same CIA that failed in every single major operation it ever attempted to carry out.)

From somebody who saw the disintegration of the USSR from within the country, this is what happened: Forget Reagan, Bush Sr., the CIA, the FBI, and James Bond. They had nothing to do with the situation in question. There was a certain group of people in power in the Soviet Union. That group of people decided that the economic system of the Soviet Union couldn’t be milked for much more profit because it had worn itself out completely. So they introduced a new economic system (which, of course, had to be accompanied by a new political structure and a new ideology) that allowed them to remain in power and exploit that system a lot more profitably.

So, in reality, there was no real collapse, breakdown, or anything of the kind. The same people who were in power before, are still in power now in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It is funny how Americans, who have this weird delusion that they are the root cause of pretty much everything in the universe, keep trying to find reasons for what happened to a huge country on a different continent within the US.