2016-06-29

The Failure Of Modern Narrative

Here's a letter from the past, from four years ago to be exact, which means it was also an election year.

The challenge for me, two sentences into this blog post, is to choose the right excerpt from the above link. I need something that introduces the topic I want to write about, something that showcases the parallel between now and then beyond "it's an election year." But if I give the whole game away in the second paragraph, I'm going lose my audience, since I intend to challenge their beliefs. I don't want to lose you until I've challenged you.

Since this is a quasi-libertarian blog, I'll start with the passage that is most relevant to that group. Bold highlights are mine.
This is why blaming the dummy is pseudo-libertarianism. It seems that we don't want any restrictions on our freedom, we want to be free to do things even if they are harmful; but that freedom is always predicated on "some other omnipotent entity"'s supervision. We want our freedom to eat unhealthily as long as it is "USDA Grade A" meat from a "Board Of Health" restaurant, cooked not by Mexican illegals with no training in handwashing but by chefs-- sorry, not precise enough: "...cooked by Mexican illegals as long as they are called chefs." We want things to be as regulated as possible with two absolute conditions: 1. there must be symbols of the omnipotent entity's existence showing we are being cared for, like a Grade A seal or the absence of the 13th floor or the word "chefs"; 2. the implementation of the power must be invisible so we can disavow it. And at the very last step of a carefully managed outcome we can bask in the freedom of our pretend choice. In other words, the fact that we are allowed to choose something dangerous must mean that it isn't really that dangerous, which is more accurately but confusingly translated: the fact that we are allowed to choose something dangerous causes it to be safe. And thank God. "There is no God." Oh, that explains all the passive voice.
Think about that for a moment.

Not The Reality - The Connotations Of The Words

The post I've linked to and cited is about that old news story - remember the one? - about the guy who died of a heart attack after eating at The Heart Attack Grill. The Last Psychiatrist wanted to make the point that the name of the restaurant is not ironic, i.e. that if you eat there you really might have a heart attack, and that our nascent belief that the restaurant's branding was "ironic" was a defense mechanism deployed by us to justify our eating there.

Get it? If the restaurant's name is ironic, then that means the food isn't really unhealthy. It would only be unhealthy (says our subconscious) if the name were unironic. But it's not, right? Wrong: the name really is unironic, and the guy who had a heart attack proves it.

Aw, phooey, he says it so much better than I do (but again, bold emphases are mine):
"Hey dummy, what did you expect would happen if you ate at the Heart Attack Grill?" 
Why did you expect it? 
... 
Take an alternative headline and meditate: "Man Has Heart Attack At Hooters." Hooters food is poison but there the implication is that the waitresses' boobs were to blame. But the Heart Attack Grill has equally sexy waitresses and no one blames their boobs. 
So the expectation is exclusively the result of the names "Hooters" or "Heart Attack" and the connotations they carry. Not the reality-- the connotations of the words. But connotation is the purpose of branding. So "hey dummy, how could you go to the Heart Attack Grill and not know you'd have a heart attack?" reveals our secret hope about branding: that it is true, that it has power to affect reality.
Here's a quick re-cap of what I've written so far, before I move on:
  1. It's an election year.
  2. I'm going to challenge your beliefs.
  3. We only seem to want freedom if that freedom is predicated on the supervision of an omnipotent entity.
  4. Expectation "is exclusively the result of the names... and the connotations they carry. Not the reality - the connotations of the words."
  5. Connotation is the purpose of branding.

That's My Brand!

Not long ago, a professional photographer friend of mine shared some photos he'd taken at a recent Trump rally. More accurately, he took the photos outside the rally, where there were apparently two groups of protesters, representing the "pro-Trump" and "anti-Trump" "sides." The two groups had clashed outside the rally, and some of them had come to blows. One Trump supporter had reportedly called an African-American anti-Trump protester a "slave," and there were white supremacists in the crowd that day, making Nazi salutes and otherwise carrying on.

I thought back to those photographs this morning, when I happened to spot an African-American woman in a car, sporting a "Hot chicks vote Trump" bumper sticker.

Your reaction to the existence of that woman tells me something about your preferred set of branding.

I don't watch the news; I own a TV, but it only functions as a Netflix machine. So I don't have any exposure to the daily campaign rhetoric, i.e. the connotations of the words, the branding. I only know that it's Trump versus Hillary, and that their stances on the issues appear to be quite similar. Absent any other context, had I seen an African-American woman showing support for a political candidate whose positions were roughly similar to those of Hillary Clinton, I wouldn't have batted an eye.

But to those who see the President Donald Trump Brand as being little more than crass, racist populism, the idea that a black woman in the South would support such a man defies their sense of reason. That's because branding is more important to the anyone-but-Trump crowd than it is to people like me. And when I say "branding," I mean "the connotations of the words. Not the reality."
I think the key to understanding the success of someone like Donald Trump is to set aside the connotations of words for a minute and marvel at the salesmanship: Donald Trump has managed to sell large groups of crass, populist xenomists who only ever vote Republican on a set of policies that reflect the Democratic party platform. Hillary only wishes she had that much cross-over appeal!

Think about it.

I Did It In Self-Defense

Recently, I was trying to explain that our social narratives have failed to explain the bad behavior we witness in the world. Part of the reason is because our narratives - especially our political narratives - are, essentially defense mechanisms. They are designed to prevent the mental work of change.

While I'm on that, here's another excerpt from that four-year-old Heart Attack Grill blog post:
The purpose of defense mechanisms is to stop you from changing. So that after the trauma or the break-up or the loss you are still you. More sad/ashamed/impotent/enraged/depressed is fine as long as you're the same guy.

This is what makes treating narcissism particularly difficult: the pathology's Number 1 characteristic is identity preservation. "I want to change." Nope. You want to be happier, sure, more successful, feel love, drink less, but you want to remain you. But that won't work. The identity you've chosen blows, ask anyone. Change is only possible when you say, "I want to stop making everyone cry." The first step isn't admitting you have a problem but identifying precisely how you are a problem for other people. But I'll save you the trouble, you'll fail at this, too, because of the Number 2 characteristic of narcissism: inability to see things from the other's perspective. "This isn't really therapeutic, jerk. You call yourself a psychiatrist?" Mother's Day is Sunday, get her anything? I know, I know, she's a jerk, too.

You're Doing It In Self-Defense, Too

The reason I came back to this old blog post from The Last Psychiatrist four years later is because something doesn't jive with the active political narratives circulating in the press right now. A majority of voters in the United Kingdom elected to leave the European Union, against the advice of all the good, right-thinking people. This, apparently, is a clear parallel to the Donald Trump presidential campaign, they say, and the evidence they have presented thus far is this:

trumps
Get it? The political implications have to be the same because the two guys look the same. Except, that's not an argument, is branding. The reality is unimportant, only the connotation matters.

However, if this is in fact a rainbow ruse - a political narrative qua defense mechanism - then we have to be told both things at the same time. We have to be told that Brexit is crass, racist populism, but that it has a point. So, the explanation that has burst forth like a tidal wave is:
This narrative ought to strike you as being really odd because it means that the ones who insist they are saving you from despotism are the ones most passionately arguing for the strengthening of central authorities. Weird, right? "We have to assume control so that nobody assumes control." How dumb do I have to be to swallow that Orwellian howler? It turns out, not so dumb after all, because a lot of very intelligent people are regurgitating this narrative over and over.

It's equally as self-contradictory when you try to parse it. On the one hand, free trade is the rising tide that lifts all ships; on the other hand, "Leave" voters have been the losers of the globalization process. On the one hand, localized democracy threatens our freedom; on the other hand, the central E.U. authority is the archon of the post-Communist age. On the one hand, these neo-reactionary lunatics popping up around the world are ignorant economic losers; on the other hand, Trump voters are richer and better-educated than average.

Here's The Last Psychiatrist at ibid:
All psychological defenses have a common structure: that two legitimate but contradictory beliefs are held simultaneously, one consciously, one unconsciously, alternating variously. That way all possibilities are covered. Change is neutralized.

Not The Reality - The Connotations (Reprise)

So, if you listen to all the right-thinking people, the libertarians, the free-traders, the educated, and so on, society is facing a choice between free-market liberalism on the one hand - represented by the European Union and the Democratic Party - and ignorant Dark Ages anti-trade racism on the other hand - represented mostly by Donald Trump. And, as I've just shown, this is mostly branding - if the reality mattered as much as or more than the connotation, then it would be impossible to frame our choices that way. Our dominant political narrative would evaporate. But the branding is important, or as fellow Sweet Talker Randall put it, "rhetoric matters."
Well, perhaps it does. Maybe I'm wrong about all this. Maybe what's happened is that I've placed too much credence in an anonymous internet psychology blogger who seems to have retired. Maybe eight years of Barack Obama really haven't resulted in the same kind of drone strikes and mass-deportations and surveillance statism that defined the George W. Bush years... it's possible...
But if I'm not wrong, then the question we'd want to ask at this point is, "If this political narrative is insulating us against the hard mental work of change, then what change are we talking about here?" To answer that question, we'd all have to speculate. I'd welcome readers' thoughts on that, because I'm not sure I have a good answer, myself. 
I tend toward contrarianism, so when I read a full onslaught of opinion pieces in every major news publication worldwide, all giving more or less the same opinion, I start to wonder why that's the only message I seem to be getting. (Out of curiosity just now, I checked the headlines in the Opinion section of the Fox News website. I guess there's the other side of the story, but now I have another problem...) When I see firsthand reports of Trumpist racism, and then become a firsthand witness of Trumpist diversity, then I start to think that the dominant narratives aren't really doing their explanatory work. I thirst for a better explanation than what I'm getting, and I'm disappointed that I don't have one.
I do know, however, that Frank Zappa was right when he said "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible." Jeffrey Tucker reminds me that "No bridges have been blown up. Britons can still buy plane tickets. People from abroad can still visit and work."
The world hasn't come to an end, and while our freedom is not guaranteed, I'm not so sure that our political narratives have put a change for the better within our grasp. Maybe it's time for us all to think a little harder about this.

2016-06-28

A Musical Easter Egg

I did some Googling this afternoon to see whether I could find anyone else on the internet who has mentioned this thing that I am about to mention. I couldn't find a single person who had.

Now, obviously I'm not going to say that I'm the only person to have ever noticed this, but what I will say is that in a world where virtually every piece of information everywhere has been documented somewhere on the internet, it's very difficult to come across something that isn't on the first page of a Google or Bing search query.

Lucky me! I've found something. And now I get to share it with you.

"Jacob's Ladder" is a song written by John and Bruce Hornsby - you know, the famous Bruce Hornsby - and made famous by Huey Lewis and the News. It was, in fact, Huey Lewis' third number-one single and appeared on their fourth long player, Fore! 

The guitar solo starts at about the two-minute mark, and it begins with a melodic passage that may sound somewhat familiar to some music fans:


If you can spot the melody, give yourself a pat on the back. That particular melody is a quotation from a wonderful song by the band Traffic, called "Every Mother's Son." Here's the original, for context:


Huey Lewis and Bruce Hornsby are both famous for being pop music icons. Lewis has never pretended to be anything other than a working-class blues singer who got lucky. Hornsby made a name for himself by writing popular songs for many artists, including himself.

Traffic, on the other hand, is mostly famous among musicians and fans of progressive rock. They are critically acclaimed, but are not usually listed among the list of pop radio stars. They're cult favorites, excellent musicians, and highly progressive.

So pop rock and art rock don't often meet. If you've followed Bruce Hornsby's later years, you know he's gone deeper into more artistic forms of musical expression, and that's good for him as an artist, and for us as the audience. But it's nice to know that even way back in his pop writing days he was still giving a wink to the Steve Winwood fans out there.

2016-06-27

Some Links


  • Pushy parents make their children prone to depression.
  • This is interesting: A simple sugar called mannose is not susceptible to dietary intake; i.e., even if you eat a big piece of cake, your blood mannose levels shouldn't rise, even though your overall blood sugar certainly will. Anyway, a new study indicates that higher than normal blood mannose levels indicate type 2 diabetes risk. So they are getting more accurate at testing blood sugar now.
  • I'm not a betting man, but this article suggests to me that Conor McGregor may lose his rematch with Nate Dias. Why do I say so? Because he's still blaming peripheral things like "diet" for his loss, when it's obvious that he let his guard down and got caught by a surprise hit. His ego is as large as ever despite effectively losing the match to a single punch. Oh, Conor.
  • Microsoft loses a $10,000 case over the compulsory Windows 10 upgrade. The woman's experience with Microsoft customer service roughly reflects my own: First they try to deny your claims, then they make a calculated judgment to determine whether fighting back will cost them more money than simply giving in. If I had one piece of advice to consumers, it's: Don't give up at the first attempt with Microsoft customer service.
  • Here's an interesting fact I didn't know, found in this article about some considerations for running a marathon in the desert:
If traveling by airplane, drink water or sports drink during the flight. They started serving drinks in airplanes because they recognized early on that going up in the plane, at altitude, is dehydrating. The longer your flight, the more dehydrated you can become.

  •  This article on the health impacts of artificial light is interesting, even if I'm not sure about all the claims it makes.

2016-06-24

Various Brexit Stuff

Emily Skarbek:
Many of the people I have discussed this with in academic and policy circles want a freer, more open society. This led some to vote remain and others leave, based on divergent predictions about which course of action would lead to a more open society.
But in answer to Skarbek's point, Dan Sanchez has this to say:
Advocates of international unions and super-states claim that centralization promotes trade and peace: that customs unions break down trade barriers and international government prevents war. In reality, super-states encourage both protectionism and warfare. The bigger the trade bloc, the more it can cope with the economic isolation that comes with trade warfare. And the bigger the military bloc, the easier it is for bellicose countries toexternalize the costs of their belligerence by dragging the rest of the bloc into its fights. 
A small political unit cannot afford economic isolationism; it simply doesn’t have the domestic resources necessary. So for all of UKIP’s isolationist rhetoric, the practical result of UK independence from the European economic policy bloc would likely be freer trade and cross-border labor mobility (immigration). Political independence fosters economic interdependence. And economic interdependence increases the opportunity costs of war and the benefits of peace.
Now here's Russ Roberts:
Hard 2 fix something you don't control. Don't despair. UK (which includes 48% voting remain) will now create something new.
Now for a few thoughts of my own:

  • I did not short-sell anything, but looking at the markets this morning, it's clear that I should have. It's not that I could have predicted that Brexit would happen, it's just that it was likely enough to have justified a gamble in this case. I'm certain a lot of people are making some good money in the marketplace today.
  • Governments must compete, and more competition is a good thing; that's just basic economics. So to go from n = 1 (EU) to n = 2 (UK, EU) is a positive move, in my opinion. There are rumblings that Ireland and Scotland may opt out of the UK now, which would mean that, at least in the short run, there would be n = 4 (Ireland, Scotland, UK, EU), at least until the other two joined up with the EU.
  • I'm pleased that secession is still possible in the modern world. It's nice to know that a referendum can be held and that people can occasionally vote for greater levels of local sovereignty rather than lower levels. It's a big "philosophical win" for libertarians.
  • Still, I realize that nationalism and fear of immigration were driving forces in the vote, and so I'm not naive enough to suggest that Brexit is a clear win for liberty. Brexit enables a potential win, but it doesn't guarantee it. How the UK proceeds from here will determine what happens to freedom there.
  • Many of my friends are scratching their heads as to why the UK would want to leave the EU. I think these friends ought to reconsider the benefits of sovereignty. Sure, it comes at a price, but it's not immediately obvious that the price isn't worth the gain.

2016-06-23

Concert Review: Steve Winwood And Steely Dan

If you're as much of a music nerd as I am, then you know that the American concert event of the summer - or at least a strong contender for that title - is the tour Steely Dan has put together, featuring Steve Winwood as an opening act. Both acts are some of the most highly praised in rock music history, by fans and critics alike. To put both of them on the same ticket is a dream come true for people like myself.

I won't waste your time with a long-winded and unnecessary biographical introduction to the musicians. If you've heard their names, you know who and what they are. I'll get right down to business.

Steve Winwood


Although his band could have benefited from more involvement from the people in charge of stage lighting, Steve Winwood performed what has to be one of the top-three concert performances of my lifetime. There is no way words can do it justice, but I'll try to explain anyway.

I had never seen Steve Winwood perform before, so it's possible that at age 68 his stage show has lost a bit of energy. But what I saw last night was, as Steve himself told the audience, "something a bit more vintage" than what audiences are used to hearing nowadays. I have seen many old video clips of fans breaking down in tears upon hearing the great icons of the 1960s perform - this was the closest I will have ever come to such an experience.

So what makes a Steve Winwood performance so different, and so special? 

The band consisted of five musicians: guitar, drums, hand percussion, a multi-instrumentalist who played percussion, reed instruments, keyboards, and backing vocals, and of course Winwood himself on either his trusty organ or Fender Stratocaster. These five players filled the sonic space beautifully, with intricately arranged performances of Winwood's beautifully written songs. You'll notice there was no bass player in Winwood's band: Steve handled that responsibility himself by playing his organ's bass pedals.

Now, for those of you who might not know, bass pedals were once standard fare on organs, but gradually fell out of favor over time. Most modern keyboardists don't even know how to play them. In point of fact, playing bass pedals and keyboards at the same time is a very difficult thing to do, especially while singing lead vocals with a voice that, to my ears, sounded as fresh and healthy as it does on the old Traffic records. But it was an absolute treat - a truly rare experience - to see the "Jimi Hendrix of keyboards" playing bass pedals in his band.

Winwood played a mix of classic songs from his most critically acclaimed era and his more "modern" hits, such as "Higher Love." However, given the setup of the band - hand drummer, vintage organ, reed instruments - the songs were presented in a decidedly 60s way. Each song included extended jamming, and the band jammed along in a way that is almost foreign to modern ears. We're not talking about jazz sessionsists trading solos, nor did it sound like the music you'd hear on the "jam band" scene. These are classic songs presented exactly as you might have heard them "back in the day," where the players augment the songwriting with melodic lead work that doesn't scream "Look at me, I'm jamming! Look at me, I'm soloing!" This is the level of playing to which all musicians aspire. 

The crowd initially took to Winwood's set in a rather passive way. I'm not sure they fully understood what they were getting while they sat through the first couple of songs. But by their third, the crowd had come around to what was going on, and soon enough Winwood was receiving multiple standing ovations.

The performance moved me to tears. As a society, we are losing our ability to even recognize music like this, much less play it. Music has slowly devolved into repetitive chants hammered in between chunky, quantized, crude, elementary themes. None of today's artists - even at their best - could present a song like "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," with its slow and delicate, but deliberate rise from haunting softness, to the crushing emotional crescendo of its extended solo section, then back down to its eerie final tones. Music like this requires not just technical proficiency, but a deep understanding of what it means to play a role in a musical ensemble. Everyone puts a piece of their soul into the song, something bigger than themselves, and works together to perform a unified piece of music that is far more than the sum of its parts. There is a humanness to it, like the gravitas we feel when we keep extended eye contact with someone we love. If you don't bring that to your music, then you're merely pretending.

And we don't realize how much musicians are pretending until we experience performances like Steve Winwood's. It was wonderful.

Steely Dan


Next up was Steely Dan. You have to hand it to them, it takes some serious courage to take the stage after Steve Winwood. 

The band came out first, sans Becker and Fagen, and they performed a high-energy jazz instrumental that I didn't recognize. (No, it was not "East St. Louis Toodle-oo.") From the first note to the last, it was obvious that this was a band of very excellent and capable jazz musicians.

When they finished, the Dan duo themselves walked out on stage and struck up a two-punch combo with "Black Cow," possibly my favorite Steely Dan tune, and "Aja." So, the first three sets were an excellent foray into some of the more technically challenging Steely Dan material. Soloists from the band would walk up to the front of the stage as they did their thing, and the crowd was delighted. From there, the setlist ventured into more of "the hits." They weren't all there, and those fans who came to see "Do It Again" certainly left disappointed, but the band played for a long time, and every song was a major or minor hit. Sometimes I forget just how many they've had.

Of all the players in the band, the drummer definitely stood out. He played each song with an energy usually reserved for hard rock shows. That's not to say that he played like a rock drummer, he just played with that kind of energy - you could really tell he was loving it. And in playing with such energy, he elevated the rest of the band right along with him. He was definitely the MVP of the night.

But the story of the set, for my money, was Walter Becker. I don't think anyone would call Becker a bad guitarist, but he also isn't one to make the various lists of "100 Best Guitarists," either. This is a shame. From start to finish, Becker played like an absolute demon possessed. While it's true that he's not a specialist in fast guitar playing, his note choice is nothing short of genius. His complicated and melodic soloing weaved its way through each and every song in the set. It was truly impressive. I'd never heard a guitarist improvise with such inventiveness and with such ease in coming up with really unique and interesting ideas. I guess it's stupid of me to point out now, after 50 years of Steely Dan, that Walter Becker is one of the most unique voices in rock music, but better late than never. I was thoroughly impressed.

That said, Steely Dan, even with its army of hired guns and ingenious songwriting, simply couldn't live up to the stage set by Steve Winwood. Donald Fagen's voice was weary with age, the stage sound was heavily compressed and focused in the midrange, to try to squeeze as much sonic energy out of the performance as possible. Nothing they could do could match the musical gravitas of their opening act, a man who probably shouldn't be opening for anyone anymore.

So, on another ticket, I likely would have walked away quite impressed by the show Steely Dan put on. But you just can follow an act like Steve Winwood.

No one can.

2016-06-20

Some Links


2016-06-15

Compassion And Personal Responsibility

Yesterday, I wrote another piece at Sweet Talk Conversation, about the shooting in Orlando. Here's the bottom line.
My hope here is that, in reading this, you think back to someone you’ve known who didn’t deserve what you gave them. Think of someone you unfairly ganged-up on, and think about what a lifetime of receiving such treatment would do to a person. 
Would it turn someone into a killer? Maybe not. But what if it could? Would you change your behavior – your individual behavior – then?
Read the whole thing

2016-06-13

Diabetes And Migraines

A rather interesting piece of news came out today.

When I first began acquiring diabetes, a string of very strange things happened to my body. Most of these were eventually explained by my diagnosis, but a few of them remained mysteriously unexplained. Now, thanks to research, one of those mysteries may have been solved.

It all happened at work one day when I suddenly experienced a terrible ocular migraine. Ocular migraines themselves are common enough, except that I had never had one ever before, had never even heard of them, and didn't know anyone in my family who had ever had one, either.

Today, we learn that deficiencies in certain vitamins are correlated with migraines. Among the deficiencies is one in Coenzyme Q10, which has long been known to be correlated with better blood glucose control among diabetics.

Could it be that diabetes somehow contributes to deficiencies in coenzyme Q10, much as it does with calcium?

Life Is Difficult, Short, And Unfair

It's a fine line.

Life is difficult, short, and unfair.

Today, that fact is often obscured by how wonderful life is in the developed world. We don't have to struggle so hard to obtain food. Even the poor can afford some version of every basic necessity and most of life's pleasantries - perhaps not the state-of-the-art or must-current brands and designs, but they do have access to some version of pretty much everything. That's astounding. As if that weren't enough, things are getting better all the time.

As a result of all this, it's tempting to develop expectations about what life should be like. It's tempting to forget that life is difficult, short and unfair.

But then tragedy strikes, and we remember. To choose an example "at random," we might be nearing the crest of our marathon-running career and then suddenly develop a broken pancreas and a shorter lifespan. That might render our lives even more difficult, shorter-still, and frankly unfair. But such is life.

Or, we might go to work one day and never come home, leaving our families to grieve and then to struggle on without us. We might go out for a night of fun and get gunned-down or raped. We might take our perpetrators to court and lose the case, or win only to watch the judge hand down a token sentence. We might have set out the best-laid plans, only to have them thwarted by an act of nature or a competitor with stronger ambitions.

We can cry foul, we can call for change, we can draft new laws and invade new countries, we can elect new officials and scream at each other in social media. thump our Bibles or pound our pulpits. We can point accusingly at the world and shout, "You see? This proves everything I've been saying all along! If you had listened to me earlier, things would have been different!"

But that won't change the simple fact that life is difficult, short, and unfair. If you want to know why people shoot each other, rape each other, make bad mistakes, terrorize  each other, and so on, the answer is simply that life is difficult, short, and unfair. Changing the laws, sharpening our battle-axes, putting each other to the guillotine, will not solve anything; it won't even make anything better.

You cannot solve an individual problem by resorting to collective action. Each of us, individually, must assess our shortcomings, find the root of the problems within us, overcome them, and help our children learn from the mistakes we made. They, too, must overcome their own set of mistakes.

We can make the world a better place by being better people; but we have to try. I ask you, please, do not take the lazy way out. Resist the illusion that swift, collective action will somehow make life easy, long, and just - it won't. Let's be grown-ups; grown-ups solve their problems by doing the mental work of change. Let's do that, instead.

2016-06-08

Not-Quite-Useless Machines

While I am a huge fan of new and innovative technologies, and the glut of human utility they have brought with them, the truth of the matter is that some technologies are worth more in hedonic utility than others. 

Vaccines, for example, are some of the most precious technologies human beings have ever discovered, saving and improving the lives of billions. On the other hand, electric carving knives offer little utility, other than the novelty of owning one and using it a few times. For most of us, it's just as easy to grab a traditional carving knife - it's certainly easier to clean, and you don't have to position a big twenty-pound turkey close to the nearest electrical outlet.

Etc., etc. You get the idea. While I believe that all technology has positive total utility, only some technology has positive marginal utility. A fair number of inventions might even have negative marginal utility.

If you're familiar with basic economic theory, then nothing I've said so far will strike you as particularly controversial, and in fact many of you will go so far as to say this is as much a logical law as the general principle of diminishing marginal utility itself. 

At a certain point - I'm not sure when - I decided to try to reduce my use of what we might call "useless machines," of which electric carving knives are an excellent example. Clearly, though, not everyone agrees with me, since the market for these contraptions still exists. That is to say, the list of "useless machines" I make will surely look different from yours, but we can all certainly produce such a list.

Once I started thinking about myself, I came to realize just how many useless machines I've been using all this time: Elevators for one- or two-floor trips, electric tea kettles, electric coffee pots, moving sidewalks, digital watches, and so on. It's rather astounding how many commonplace items are electrically powered, but unnecessarily so in that the cost of the electricity powering them is higher than the marginal benefit I (personally) receive from them. It's just as easy to wind a watch as to replace a battery. I actually prefer coffee made in a rangetop percolator or a French press to coffee made in an electric coffee maker. Useless elevator rides are making our sedentary lives ever-more-sedentary and contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Thus, I've decided to make the conscious effort to reduce - that is, attempt to eliminate - my consumption of useless technology. There are, I suppose, environmental reasons to do this, but I'm less concerned with that than I am in maximizing my figurative utility functions.

I encourage my readers to join me.

Some Links

2016-06-07

Fatherhood As Expanded Human Experience

When is a towel animal more than a towel animal?
Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

I'm always trying to describe what it feels like to be a father. On Facebook, I recently said something to the effect of, "Fatherhood is meeting the coolest person you've ever met, and then realizing that they will be one of your closest friends for the rest of your life." That's saccharine, heart-warming stuff worthy of a Facebook post, but probably not a blog post.

Over the weekend, though, I had a longer-form thought about how to describe parenting. People always say, "Everything changes when you have kids," but they don't often describe what that feels like. The best they typically offer is a description of how "priorities" change, and more specifically, how the pursuit of entertainment changes as we go from young people who enjoy young-people-things to being young parents who would often prefer to just stay home and spend time with the kids. And, as I've written about before, these statements are typically wrapped up in the separate issue of having less free time once our families expand.

So what starts off as:

  • "Everything changes, for example I would rather stay home and teach my daughter new words than go out and watch a local band with my buddies. If I had more free time, I'd probably set aside some of it to see local bands, but since I don't, I choose to play with my daughter."
somehow becomes:

  • "Everything changes, I'd love to go out and see a concert with you guys, but I'm busy with the kiddo tonight."
Needless to say, something important is lost in translation. By the mere act of writing what I've just written, I've helped decode some of the loss, but that wasn't the thought I had over the weekend. Something else occurred to me.

It happened while staying at a hotel. Often, some hotels' room staff will leave towels on the bed, folded in the shape of an animal. In this case, it was a cat, and my daughter loves cats. When we first walked into the hotel room, I made the cat "meow," and say hello to my daughter, which made her smile and laugh. She played with the cat for a short while, and then the day went on.

At a certain point, I decided to go running while my wife and daughter opted to do something else. When I got back from my run, I went into the room to take a shower and change my clothes, spotting the "cat" on the way in.

My thoughts turned instantly to the way my daughter had played with the cat, the things she had said, how she held it, how she chose to animate it. My whole perspective on the cat had shifted from "towel animals are things that hotel staff leave in rooms as a little greeting to their guests," to "I remember the way my daughter plays with towel animals."

It's a lot like what we experience when we first fall in love with someone. Often we'll see something, and our thoughts turn to the other person. We think to ourselves, "Oh, she would think this is so funny! I can't wait to tell her about it."

So, parenthood is a little bit like that, except this happens with your relationship to the whole universe. The interesting thing about towel animals, now that I am a parent, is only how my daughter will choose to interact with them. Likewise, spinach is no longer just a delicious vegetable to me, but a delicious vegetable that my daughter doesn't want to eat. A rainy day is no longer a boring day spent inside, but a chance to sing "Rain, Rain, Go Away" together. I can't even see the color purple anymore without hearing her voice say, "Pur-ple!" It's her favorite color, but I'm ambivalent toward it.

I have both thoughts about everything now: What I think, and what she tends to think. I don't mean that I can read her thoughts or that I've become less of an individual. It's a supplement to my previous existence. I think all of the same thoughts I always have, only now, they come with an additional set of information: what she thinks, or at least what she has managed to communicate to me.

That's a higher plane of empathy, and one that can't easily be described to people who don't have children. I think it probably also has to be experienced in order to be properly understood. However, hopefully I have come at least somewhat close.

2016-06-01

The Temptation Of Punching Down

I almost published a blog post yesterday about a person whose politics differ from mine, who has recently blogged some personal details that would lead me to believe that those personal details are a significant driving force behind his-or-her politics. The post would have been a discussion of how one who had experienced those details would very understandably be lead to conclude XYZ, but that a more dispassionate analysis reveals that XYZ is incorrect; and finally, one shouldn't draw strong political conclusions from personal experience, as the blogger in question did.

Some days earlier, I almost published a similar blog post covering some surprising and erroneous philosophical beliefs held by an economist of note. I would have explained how one probably could not adhere to that economist's economic policy preferences without those underlying philosophical beliefs; and, since they're philosophically wrong, so, too, are the economic policy preferences held by the economist.

The reason I did not publish these posts is because I lost my ambition to write them about half way through writing each post. What I came to realize is that this is "punching down." It's one thing if somebody makes an honest mistake, hasn't come across recent developments in the literature, etc. It's quite another if someone has effectively convinced themselves of a lot of weak underlying ideas and bought into their own paradigms wholesale.

When my wife got pregnant, suddenly we were bombarded with a never-ending stream of folk theories about how to tell whether the baby would a boy or a girl. I don't remember them all, but you know... It's stuff like, "If you crave mostly salty snacks, then it will be a boy, if you crave sweet snacks, it will be a girl." That kind of thing. I remember realizing that the baby's sex was a 50/50 shot, which meant that there was as much evidence against each of these folk tales as there was for them. That's why people swear by these myths - one of them turned out to be "true" according to their own personal experience, hence "it seems to hold."

Put another way, we adopt certain paradigms more because we want them to be true than for any truly empirical reason. And we are clever monkeys who excel at quasi-logical rationalization, so we can very easily find a way to square the circle. It's no different than a theistic belief - faith without empirical evidence. We wrap our thoughts in a a paradigm and use it to explain everything. When the facts don't fit, we make clever use of language to enable the facts to be "true in a sense." This is very slippery, but ultimately it doesn't get us any closer to wisdom or happiness.

So, in a way, it's tempting to root-out these illusions in other people, call them out, and correct them. But it's also punching down. If someone is that invested in a such a deeply flawed paradigm then nothing I say or do - no point I make in a blog or elsewhere - will ever change their mind. It's more pitiful than it is objectionable. Why bother?

Yes, people can be wrong and ignorant. They can even be wrong and ignorant en masse and screw with the social, political, or economic landscape. But that can't be overcome by providing patient, logical explanations for their cognitive or psychological flaws. Adopting a given paradigm (or not) is a choice we make based on what we want outcomes to look like. People have a faith in god because they like what a theistic universe means. People subscribe to nutty economic beliefs because it seems to justify a set of ethical allegiances they hold. What good does it do to tell someone he's logically incorrect when he's making a leap of faith?

To be sure, there are also plenty of us who don't do this. We're a little more rare and a little more rigorous in our skepticism and our logic. I don't know if we're any "less wrong" than anyone else, but we're interested in trying. It's useful to engage such people, being the "honest truth-seekers" that we are. That's where the conversation should begin and end.

As for those who act mainly on paradigmatic faith, what can we do other than leave them alone?

2016-05-31

No, You Can't Have A Hug

I.

We were out with a big group of extended family, and eventually people started asking my daughter for hugs. Not "good-bye hugs," just hugs for no reason at all.

In its own right, this request upsets me. When small children feel relaxed and reasonably safe, they will do anything you tell them to do. This is the power of the trust they give you. Asking them to perform acts of cuteness on command, purely for your own personal entertainment, is an abuse of that power. Asking them to perform acts of emotional intimacy purely for your own personal entertainment is an abuse of the trust. I was among family, so I allowed it, but when the request came for a kiss, I put an end to it.

Someone asked why, and my wife explained that children shouldn't have to feel obligated to give hugs and kisses - and I agree. However, I added: If we were to make a routine of having her give out hugs and kisses, and then (god forbid) an adult ever tried to sexually abuse her, she'd have no idea where to draw the line. By abusing her trust, I would have left her physically and emotionally defenseless.

II.

Like so many other human relationships, the parent-child bond is made almost entirely of trust. It has to be, since small children are entirely reliant on their caretakers. As the first weeks and months of life unfold, they learn to trust us by virtue of the fact that we can be counted on to provide for them physically and emotionally. We parents help, and we do it consistently and reliably. This forms the foundation for our children's trusting us: If parents give them food, then it must be okay to eat it, if parents introduce them to people, then those people must be friendly, if parents take them somewhere, then it must be an okay place to go, if parents teach them something, then there must be value in that knowledge. If children didn't trust us to provide them with positive, safe, and relevant experiences, they would become basket-cases.

That's why it bothers me when I see videos of parents feeding their infants and toddlers lemons. We all know what will happen when the child tastes the lemon for the first time: s/he will make a surprised face, the parents will think the face is cute, onlookers will get a good laugh at it. There's just one question left to ask: What about the kid?

It might seem harmless, but on the other hand, such parents have now given their children a reason to second-guess their parents. The lesson is, "I can't always trust that what my parents will give me won't turn out to be an intolerably sour and acidic thing." The bond of trust is reduced just a little bit. When all we're getting out of this is some cute video footage, it just strikes me as being selfish. Wouldn't it be better for your child to know that not only are you looking after his/her best interests, but you're also keeping a high price on that trust; you won't sell it out for something as trivial as a good photo op?

If I feel this way about making a toddler taste a lemon, you can imagine how I feel about the many more elaborate versions of this, such as the Santa Claus lie. Teaching our children to genuinely believe in elaborate hoaxes, just so their parents can proclaim that the children's naivete is "cute," teaches them only to disbelieve their parents.

There is seemingly no end to the list of things some parents are willing to lie about: monsters, ghosts, elves, magic, anthropomorphism, and so on. Some mistakenly believe that this is how they instill in their children a rich and active imagination. But no, this merely forces the child to do extra work figuring out the difference between belief and the suspension of disbelief. Instead of telling a story about an imaginary character named Santa Claus, in which a child could safely fantasize and let her imagination run wild, the parents stamp out the imagination component of the process by simply duping her.

III.

This is lunacy. If we want our children to value our thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and advice, then we ought to commit to building a strong foundation of trust within the relationship. You might not get everything right, but it's not impossible to simply agree not to knowingly get things wrong.

As children age, they're bound to challenge every thought that occurs to us. Not only is that a wonderful and important developmental process for them, it is also a spectacular learning opportunity for us, since they might ask questions or wonder about things we haven't considered before. If so, we'll want to be forthcoming about that, too, so that our children learn a few additional life lessons, such as:
  1. Not every thought or belief withstands close scrutiny.
  2. It's okay to be wrong, as long as I'm open-minded about the truth and willing to accept it when I see it.
  3. Sometimes kids can be right, too, and if so, my parents will love and respect me for the knowledge I bring with me.
  4. Even when my parents are wrong, they are acting in good faith, subject to the knowledge that they have.

All this, without fostering a general sense of distrust. I won't always be correct about every single thing I tell my daughter, but it's important to me that she at least trust that I'm not trying to pull the wool over her eyes.

Nor should she ever feel that I'd tell her something just so that I had an excuse to observe her "being cute." I already think she's cute. She doesn't have to give strangers hugs or be duped into believing in a magical flying santa-god in order to look cute to me. She's cute when she learns to jump and then practices to get it right. She's cute when she discovers a new word and tries to use it often. She's cute when she expresses affection to me and others voluntarily. She's cute when she asks me to take her to the park, because she knows that as long as there isn't another, prior commitment, I am happy to oblige. And I don't need to feed her a lemon in order to watch her occasionally recoil from a food she doesn't like.

This is all in service of a trusting bond between us. I can't teach her things if she's skeptical of each lesson, and I can't keep her safe if she doesn't trust me to take care of her. Nor can I teach her the right way to be skeptical if I give her reason to believe her own parents are disingenuous. Healthy skepticism comes from evaluating good-faith information on its own merits, but a latent distrust of all claims made even by one's closest relations isn't skepticism. It's cynicism. That's the last thing I'd want to encourage in her.