Surrounded by Marshmallows

Joachim de Posada’s short presentation at TED really caught my attention the other day. It’s only a few minutes so, if you can, you should watch it before reading the rest of this post.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, basically, he talks about a number of psychological experiments where they put young children in a room with a marshmallow, told them that they would be left alone in the room for fifteen minutes and, if they did not eat the marshmallow, then they would get a second marshmallow at the end of the time. Two out of every three kids couldn’t resist and ended up eating the marshmallow even knowing that they could have doubled their amount of marshmallow enjoyment if they had simply managed to wait a while. The children were then tracked over time and there seemed to be a correlation between those who could defer pleasure and being successful in a number of areas.

The presentation makes it impossible to really get a handle on the details of the original studies and rubrics for “success” are always a bit dicey. I don’t think that if your kid couldn’t hold out for that second marshmallow that he or she is doomed to an unsuccessful life.1 However, I started thinking about my own predilection for choosing quick and easy pleasure over what might seem a harder, but possibly more rewarding, course. I also began to tally up some of the marshmallows in my life. Taking an hour every night to watch Scrubs is one, especially when I have so few hours outside of my day job to work on my writing and other projects. Choosing to skip physical exercise is another. Spending time reading RSS feeds or on Facebook instead of writing is another, as is eating too much ice cream in one sitting, or going back for seconds when I don’t really need more food. Then I think about all my credit card debt and realize just how many marshmallows I’ve eaten over the past few years. Not only do I not get a marshmallow at the end of the experiment, I now owe a whole lot of marshmallows.2

We are surrounded by marshmallows. We swim in a sea of marshmallows created by a materialist and rapacious capitalism that seeks to sell more and cheaper marshmallows for our consumption and damn the consequences. We are not faced with only one marshmallow for fifteen minutes, but dozens, possibly hundreds, of marshmallows each and every day. Some are dressed up to look like necessities. Some are so subtle that we don’t even notice that we are consuming them. Some appeal to our weaknesses and promise that we will be happier, stronger, better, more liked if we only bite into their gooey sweetness.

To make matters more complex, sometimes we only want one marshmallow. Constant deferral and asceticism in the name of future goals is not necessarily the answer either. However, de Posada’s talk has me reconsidering a number of the choices I make on a daily basis. From tv to procrastination, I have begun to question what I most want to accomplish and gain in my life. Every decision I make about my time and my money and my energy will either help me achieve my goals or they won’t. Knowing the difference is not necessarily easy, but if each of these choices represents a marshmallow, then I can make a more conscious choice. The trick, if choosing to eat the marshmallow and forgo getting the additional marshmallow, is to truly be in the moment and enjoy the hell out of that treat instead of wolfing it down in a second and not savoring it with all your attention. The other trick is figuring out which of the marshmallows in our lives are those that can wait, that can be deferred, and thus become a richer, more rewarding experience.

I have no answers and incorporating this lesson into my life will neither be simple nor easy. But I guess that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

  1. Also, is there a correlation between not eating the marshmallow and happiness? []
  2. And that’s not even counting student loans. []

Podcasts for Smart People – Welcome to Mars

Between 1947 and 1959, the future was written about, discussed and analysed with such confidence that it became a tangible presence. This is a story of weird science, strange events and even stranger beliefs, set in an age when the possibilities for human development seemed almost limitless. (Link)

I first discovered Ken Hollings’ Welcome to Mars on Boing Boing and can’t recommend this show enough to anyone who is curious about the intersections of science, popular culture, science fiction, and the nooks and crannies of American history from 1947 – 1959. From government agencies setting up brothels in San Francisco to test various combinations of psychedelic drugs, to UFOs, to the creation of suburbia, Hollings takes you on a ride through the kind of history that you won’t find in textbooks or in a Ken Burns documentary. Subtitled “On the Fantasy of Science in the American Half-century,” the series begins with an examination of Levittown, the very first of the modern suburbs and weaves a narrative that is both compelling and somewhat disturbing. Hollings’ narrative is also underscored by the electronic music of Simon James; music that alternates between haunting and jarring. On first listen, the music may seem extraneous, intrusive, or just plain annoying. In part, because Hollings’ story is so damn intriguing that whenever the music pulls focus, you think to yourself “get back to the real part of the podcast, I want to hear what’s next.” On second listen, however, the music and sounds of Simon James, these odd and jangling, ethereal and robotic sounds become a part of the narrative. James provides a non-verbal commentary that weaves together the various fantasies of science and culture that Hollings reveals.

This show tapped into my personal reservoir of interest in UFOs, science fiction and science fact. From fantasies of government conspiracy to conspiracies of government fantasy to the desperate desire for alien actuality, I have—since childhood and my reading about Betty and Barney Frank, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and the Bermuda Triangle—been intrigued and excited by questions of the paranormal, cryptozoology, and the possibilities of aliens among us. What sets Hollings’ discussion apart from the typical kooky claims, is that he approaches these subjects as a web of cultural and socio-political inferences. For Hollings, the question isn’t “do UFOs exist?” but rather “what does it mean for a culture to believe, disbelieve, and variously represent the existence of UFOs?” As an erstwhile academic influenced by performance studies and feminism, I believe that the connections between government policies, movies, television, architecture, music, and popular representations of science are tremendously important in the attempt to understand ourselves. Hollings offers a snapshot of culture that reveals a number of aspects of the American consciousness that, on the surface of things, may seems trivial, but are, in fact, the very warp and woof of our national identity.

Welcome to Mars is a twelve part series, with each show about thirty minutes in length. If you are anything like me, you’ll probably devour the series in only two or three sittings as you fall down a rabbit hole and find yourself in a strange world that is our own but that is refracted and off-kilter. Like how, when you put your finger underwater, your vision doesn’t quite match up with your physicality. A world of interconnections that rebuild your perceptions about American history and our cultural relationship to science fiction and science fact.

iTunes Link

Website Link

Hollings also published a book version of the podcast that is available on Amazon, Powells, or through Strange Attractor Press.

Hey Mr. Politician With Your Government Backed Health Care

I hear lots of GOP politicians being against government health care systems, but I don’t hear about them giving up their own government controlled and government backed and government run health insurance. I’ll switch my crappy health care for theirs if they really want to see what great and fabulous health care choices most of us have.

Bill in Portland Maine has some further thoughts and a handy list of rebuttals against the lies and misinformation regarding Obama’s Public Health Insurance option.

Sharing Some Stuff With You Because Gosh I Like You

Abandoned buildings, melted bricks, and a city’s despair: photo essays from a variety of sources, via BoingBoing.

You want some future? How about viruses as batteries, bionic eyes, surveillance that would put Big Brother to shame, and a whole new meaning to the phrase, there’s gold in them thar hills.

Need a break from reading? Check these out:

Dancing Science Thesis Project:

This is Science: Helena Reynolds from Matthew Chaboud on Vimeo.

In the Beatle’s Footsteps:

Short CGI animated film that’s long on talent and cool concepts:

Hemlock from Tyson Ibele on Vimeo.

Music You May Have Missed – Lisa Germano

Web Sites: Artist Site, Myspace, LastFM, Guillotine Love Most recent album release: In the Maybe World

Lyric of Note:

Are you closing down again? I know you Don’t you wonder how They make it through? But I like it when you’re sad I’m happier It’s just the wave you’re used to Are you really down? Tonight I’m there too All the way until we lose control Are you all alone? Oh, no Can you make a sound? Oh, yeah And the waves keep moving (“Tomorrowing” from Slide)

You know that feeling you get at 3 am when you’ve been drinking a little too much and are on the edges of a self-revelation that you really don’t want to make and the world is slightly fuzzy, and you can feel the edges of your self control begin to fray but not yet tatter. You feel like the world is smooth around you, almost too smooth and with the next shot of whiskey that smoothness will definitely turn into slippery and you’ll begin losing control. But you aren’t there yet. Not yet.

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