Sunday, June 22, 2008

Clash and the Titans

Let's commence with the first question from Gwydion,

Why doesn't the character of Superman resonate with modern audiences the way, say, Batman and Spiderman do? He's an immigrant (or a refugee), struggling to assimilate, adopting
"heartland American values" to fit in. It would seem to me that in a country that's transforming as much as ours is, he'd be a natural candidate for capturing our attention. Batman, on the other hand -- a self-made, technology-focused, angry white male -- does so much better at the box office. (You could describe Iron Man, another box office success, the same way.) Likewise Spiderman, a teenager going through a pseudo-adolescent transformation and struggling to control his changing body, also gets top billing. Even the Hulk -- a victim-of-modern-technology, seething-with-rage white guy -- seems to be more popular. So what gives?
My guess is that it has something to do with the complexity of characters like Spiderman and Batman who pull both from our aspirations and our insecurities. Superman, in a sense, is more one dimensional. He's good, but not so much complex or conflicted. He isn't human and while he may embody super-human attributes we desire or admire, he does so in a way that is more reminiscent of earlier, simpler times when we could pretend the world was more black and white.

Indeed, when I think Superman, I think black-and-white -- I think of George Reeves who was the man of steel but not abs of steel. Superman was American when pure evil like Nazis and Commies were the enemy. I think the associations with Superman are the associations of a view of the world that seems oversimplistic -- fair or not to the Man of Steel -- and that may be why we are drawn more today to superheroes who are flawed like we are, who live in more complex psychological worlds.

bill asks,
Should I stay or should I go? When things get tough, how do you know when it's time to leave -- a job, a marriage, a political movement, grad school -- rather than continuing to try to solve the problems? What's the difference between cutting your losses and quitting, and how do you spot it? Is there a metric, a litmus test, a way to know that you're getting out instead of giving up?
Of course, you should go bill, London's calling.

Man, this is a tough one. One could go the economists' route and bring in questions of expected value. You calculate the probability of succeeding and multiply it by the benefits you would receive and costs you would endure, and this is your expected utility for staying. Compare it with the costs and benefits of leaving and you pick the higher one. Of course, in real life, you can't actually make these calculations.

In the case of staying at a job, rouging this out though may be the appropriate line. I really need the benefits, so I have to stay even though the work is tedious and the boos is a jerk. Or, you know, there really is nothing keeping me here but fear of the unknown, so take this job and shove it. Something will turn up.

Of course, it also depends on the job. My grad school adviser once mused that you can never tell which grad students will be the ones who really do well in the long run. He said he had seen many stars burn out and that the ones who ultimately made it were the ones who simply had the tenacity to keep chugging away no matter what. So, certainly there is an advantage of being able to keep on taking it when other would throw in the towel.

On the other side, I had a beloved former student forced out of his grad program by a horrible adviser and it looks like it will turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. Doors he never imagined are opening for him and an incredibly exciting life seems to be unfolding that he never could have predicted.

But in cases that deal with interpersonal relationships, often the "rational" thing is not the right one. When you've made commitments to someone, how much do things have to change on the ground before you break them? How much should you expect to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship and how much sacrifice is too much? The easy way, is to simply go passive aggressive and let them determine when to dump you, but that probably is not a terribly helpful suggestion. The only think close to a metric that I could offer in such cases is the existence of the self measure. Are you still you within the relationship? Is the whole adding a dimension to you or taking one away? If you have lost your identity for the sake of keeping the relationship together, that seems pernicious and unfair. The problem, of course, is that the problems come in all shapes and sizes as do the relationships. Anyone else got a better answer?

More tomorrow.