Inspiration For Better Blogging

Tyler Cowen links to Gwern.

Upon first encountering his website, the similarities between he and I struck me immediately, but so did our many differences. Gwern appears to be an interesting fellow (unlike me), arguing for many Stationary Waves-isms (like me) such as an extended cognitive time-horizon and the use of daily blogging to categorize, build, and improve upon personal thoughts. Gwern also appears to be hopelessly lost in the “Rationalist” culture of Silicon Valley (unlike me, and about which I recently wrote here). A trip to Gwern.net is a journey inside the mind of Gwern (unlike a trip to StationaryWaves.com, which is more like a journey inside an hour or so of my daily thoughts). Gwern self-experiments with drugs, including illegal drugs; I don’t do that, and in fact I’m quite vocally opposed to the use of recreational drugs. I do, however self-experiment with nutritional supplements that have no recreational benefit (see posts here and here).

One important thing to learn from his website is Gwern’s criticism of blogs, which is that they are throw-aways meant to be read once and more or less instantly discarded. Gwern feels instead that blog posts should be written to serve the long-term future. This resonated with me right away, because Stationary Waves serves basically one main principle at this point, which is to catalog my ethical and philosophical views for the eventual benefit of my daughter, should she ever want to know who I was and what I thought.

I sometimes like to think of my blog as a sort of insurance policy. Suppose I were to die suddenly. My young daughter would spend most of her life not knowing who I was, and barely remembering what I was like as a person. She would never have the benefit of knowing anything about my adult thoughts. She would never benefit from the advice I would give to her as she grew older and encountered teenage and young-adult situations. Perhaps, like many people who lose loved ones, she would occasionally wish I were there to help. Were that to happen, my blog could provide her with some of that help. It wouldn’t be the same, but it would be better than nothing.

Beyond the mere insurance policy aspect of things, however, there is a real benefit to writing down your most philosophical and well-thought-out ideas, and that benefit is that they begin to fuse themselves into a comprehensive whole. Having a good idea is one thing, but having it, writing it down, and then referring to it later not only helps solidify the idea, but it also helps you understand the basis of your future ideas. In other words, I never realized what my comprehensive philosophy really was until I started writing it down. Had I never started blogging, I probably never could have fully articulated my moral philosophy. But I did start blogging, and eventually wrote it all out in four glorious posts here, here, here, and here.

This “body of work” concept is another thing we can learn from Gwern. More specifically as it applies to me, Gwern appears to do a much better job of cataloging prior ideas than I do. I think this Is something I could really stand to benefit from. Keep an eye on this space, then, because I’ll likely be rearranging things a little bit, to make it easier to find the most important information on the blog. I’ve done that a little bit with the links on the top bar of the page. I’ve linked to the best health and fitness information available on the site, and to my “lexicon,” and my album reviews. But I’ve dropped the ball when it comes to my philosophical ideas. I have some work to do there.

Finally, seeing how well-organized Gwern’s website is has inspired me to put more in-text links in my posts. I stopped doing that a while back, mainly because I figured that nobody clicks-through anyway. And for the most part, I believe that to be true. But in the interest of making it easier to navigate my ideas and understand where they come from, I ought to pick that habit back up again. That explains why you’re seeing so many in-text links in this particular post.


Human Progress Requires Openness To Change

Theories abound as to why modern human progress seems stagnant. Here’s a book by Tyler Cowen arguing that we should place a higher value on future generations than we currently do. Here’s a blog post by Scott Alexander arguing that human progress of all kinds is subject to diminishing returns. There are those who believe that America is less innovative today as a result of additional government regulations that discourage innovation. There are others who believe that America lacks progress specifically because the US government doesn’t invest heavily enough in new technologies. Some feel that our lack of progress is a result of insufficient virtue; others feel that our puritanical hang-ups are precisely what prevents us from flourishing as a cosmopolitan society. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in all of these explanations. Perhaps each theory is correct within a certain sphere or in a certain manner of speaking.

So, we’re in no short supply of two-penny theories about why there isn’t more human progress out there. Even so, I’d like to provide an explanation of my own.

Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” One way of thinking about progress involves noting that every invention is a divergence from a prior norm. For example, the advent of interchangeable parts was a divergence from the prior norm that all parts be tailor-made and hand-made for the specific product at the specific time. The advent of the internal combustion engine was a divergence from the prior norm that powerful engines must be steam-powered. The advent of air travel was a divergence from a prior norm of land and sea travel. Every new thing is new precisely because it hasn’t existed before. It’s a challenge to the existing way of doing things.

Not every innovation is a good one, of course. Trans fats are universally understood to be harmful to the human body, and confer no culinary benefits that we did not already gain from preexisting saturated and unsaturated fat food ingredients. The widespread adoption of the use of trans fats by the food industry was a mistake, a step in the wrong direction. We expect new food innovations to involve supply food of better quality, and/or in higher quantities, and/or at lower costs, with no significant nutritional downsides. Clearly, in the case of trans fats, that’s not what happened. The food industry adopted the wrong kind of innovation, making us all worse off.

This presents us with a relatively clear-cut model for progress. Progress must be the adoption of new ideas, inventions, and methods that tend to improve the quality of human life both in the long and short run. Regress, therefore, must be the adoption of new ideas, inventions, and methods that tend to reduce the quality of human life in the short and long run. It’s possible for something to improve life in the short run at the expense of our long-run quality of life, or for something to reduce our quality of life in the short run while making things much better in the long run. In those cases, we’d have to evaluate the relative benefits and determine whether what we’ve seen is progress or regress. Assuming we can make such an evaluation, though, we can say that the adoption of any new idea, invention, or method will tend to be an example of either progress or regress.

With that in mind, consider the issues being tackled by people like Cowen and Alexander. Their point is not that society is regressing, but simply that it is not progressing, or not progressing as fast as we would hope, considering the arc of human history. In other words, it’s not that society is adopting the wrong new ideas, it’s that they aren’t coming up with enough right new ideas. In truth, this suggests that there aren’t very many new ideas out there; we’re not being inundated by bad ideas, but we’re not progressing much, either.

Perhaps, therefore, there is a fundamental lack of novelty in the world? This would be a surprising outcome, considering first that the human population is larger and more interconnected than at any other time in history, and second that society is more individualistic than ever before. Wouldn’t we expect, in such a world, that society would be full of new ideas and people pursuing them?

Indeed, we most certainly do not come away with the impression that people aren’t innovating when we spend any time at, say GitHub, where programmers and students are cooperatively innovating new technical methods, insights, and software technologies almost constantly. It’s also not the impression we get when we dive deep into the world of YouTube videos, featuring people who make all kinds of gadgets out of common household objects, compose and perform all manner of new music, create visual arts in stunning time-lapse, capture heroic athletic feats with GoPro cameras strapped to their abdomens, and so on.

In light of all this, my conclusion is that people are innovating out there, but their innovations aren’t being widely adopted. People in general aren’t looking to change things in their own lives. We’re not looking for new kinds of music to listen to – by which I mean totally new sounds. We want the new songs to sound roughly like the old songs. We’re not looking for radically new forms of transportation, as past societies dreamed of air travel. We’re looking for our new travel innovations to be a lot like the old ones. We don’t want the technologies of the future to put employees out of work, we want the same employees to keep their same jobs, but just somehow making use of new technologies. We don’t want to create a new kind of football, we just want a better-quality version of the existing game of football. We don’t want to live in a new kind of house, we want to live in a house that fits in well with the other homes on our street, but maybe with nicer doorknobs.

This might even explain the rise of Silicon Valley and the various Internets-of-Smart-Things. A video doorknob doesn’t offer us anything that a good old-fashioned peephole doesn’t already give us. It enables us to have roughly the same experience we had before. The new song sounds roughly like the old song. I remember when tablets first hit the market. I remember laughing to myself, “So it’s a smart phone that cannot make a phone call.” The technologies we’re inventing today are not functionally different from the old technologies, in terms of a means-ends framework. They are, however, beautifully presented.

If society is to progress at rates similar to what we saw during the Industrial Revolutions or the first half of the 20th Century, we’ll have to become more comfortable with expressions of novelty. We’ll have to be more open to divergent musical sounds and artistic expression that bears no resemblance to the great works of the past. We’ll have to be more receptive to technologies that completely change our existing patterns of behavior by offering us something more than a coffee maker with internet connectivity, but an entirely new method of producing beverages from coffee beans. Better yet, we ought to be open to the possibility that other beans heretofore not roasted and brewed might also produce good breakfast beverages. We’ll have to open to the idea that, say, Christmas can still be Christmas without a tree or some house lights – not that those things are bad, but just that there might be a way of celebrating Christmas that we haven’t even thought of yet.

If we want to do better as a species, then we have to be open to what better might look like. As enamored with your own life as you might be, you might be better off by changing radically. If you’re not at least open to considering a radical change, then you’re in no position to lament a lack of human progress.


Fat, Brazen, And Self-Absorbed

Have you noticed it, too?

Have you noticed the rise of what I’ll call “livin’ large culture?” I’ve met a definitely-not-trivial number of wealthy people who seem to deliberately pursue a lifestyle that is sure to have them dead in their fifties. They weigh literally over three-hundred pounds, they golf a lot, they’re rich, and their main interests are whiskey and cigars. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with being rich or golfing a lot, but being morbidly obese while simultaneously binging on cigars and hard liquor is going to kill them. They know, and they don’t care. This is a mystery to me because these are highly intelligent, self-made men. If anyone would know better than to make a habit of ingesting large amounts of carcinogens voluntarily, it would be the group of people known as “well-educated millionaires.” I have no explanation for why these people exist. Does their success make them weary of additional years of life? Is there something about being a millionaire that causes a person to want to cut his life short? I don’t fault them for their tastes in alcohol and tobacco, but in the 21st Century, money can buy so much more than that: exotic vacations, less carcinogenic drugs, romantic liaisons, high-tech gadgets, or literally anything else that won’t waste your liver and lungs and give you seven kinds of cancer.

But, no.

Have you noticed “more is more culture?” This is perhaps best illustrated by American society’s current preoccupation with bacon. I like bacon. A couple of strips of bacon taste good to me, either crisscrossed on top of a hamburger or alongside a breakfast omelet. But “more is more culture” demands, well, more. Restaurants now serve things with extra bacon to the extreme. Up until a few months ago, at Chili’s, for example, you could get a regular bacon cheeseburger, or you could get this other thing that was decorated with about as much bacon as there was beef. Insane. Looking at their menu just now, I see that that burger has been replaced by something called “The Boss Burger,” which, according to Chili’s own nutritional information, clocks in at 1,660 calories ignoring the side of French fries it comes with. 1,040 of those calories are comprised of fat. That means that a full 2/3 of the burger is made of fat. The burger’s sodium content clocks in at 2,880 mg, or 25% more than a sedentary adult should eat in a single day. Again: this excludes the French fries. It goes without saying that eating such a thing will hurt your body. You will become inflamed and uncomfortable. You will likely experience insulin resistance. You’ll become tired and, if you’re not used to eating such things, you’ll get a headache.

Such menu items merely serve to feed “more is more culture” its food. There are many other ways this culture feeds itself and many different things it eats.

Cadillac Escalades, for example, were once about the biggest SUV you could buy, but today there are sundry Yukons and Suburbans that dwarf them, providing literally four rows of seating for average American households that have declined steadily for the past 60 years. It’s now possible for a middle-class family to purchase an eighty-six inch television for non-commercial use. Eighty-six inches is over seven feet of screen. Game of Thrones is just fine, but do we really need to the shape of the characters’ retinal capillaries? And while the average American adult weighs less than the three-hundred-pound guys who are “livin’ large,” the men now boast of “dad bod” and the women campaign on social media for the normalization of plus-size. That’s “plus-size” as in more than the regular sizes. Seemingly every aspect of the human experience is spreading out.

Everywhere I go, it seems that the principle goal of people is to occupy as much space as humanly possible, whether it be occupied with their plus-sized cars, plus-sized bodies, or plus-sized attitudes. Nearly each time I run or cycle on the road, cars honk angrily and people swear at me for having the nerve to be a non-vehicle on the shoulder of the road. Some even slow down, roll down their windows, and advise me to get off the road, knowing full well that I am both legally entitled to run or bike on the road and that I happen to have the legal right-of-way! You can’t go to any sort of public event like a music festival or an arts demonstration without the many space-occupiers spreading out their picnic blankets, folding chairs, nieces, and nephews out to occupy as much space as possible – before anyone else has a chance to occupy any space of their own! On a recent trip to a movie theater, I watched as a young boy and his sister positioned themselves on the two outermost seats of an entire row, “saving seats” for a whole row of their family members, who came much later and with great noise and fanfare. Meanwhile, urban sprawl consumes every last visible patch of green space imaginable, the bulldozers and backhoes mowing down every tree and filling every pond so that the next plus-sized family can populate that virgin 0.3 acres with a swimming pool too small to swim in, an outdoor grill too large to fully use, a dining room too expansive to have a conversation in, two or even three dining tables, a litter of iPad-surfing narcissists, and a surreptitious infestation of rats.

Look, I’m not merely being a misanthrope here. This is a real problem. It’s a problem when urban sprawl replaces a diverse ecosystem with a foreign one comprised of just five animal species: Humans, and dogs, rats, and house spiders they carry with them everywhere. That problem is made all the worse when the local homeowner’s association prohibits all but a list of 20 yard plant species. It’s a problem when cars are made so large that people feel uneasy driving down streets on which they might encounter a pedestrian. It’s a problem when the aspirational ideal of the human diet is something that will give you both cancer and type two diabetes if prolonged for more than about a decade. And it’s a problem when not even fabulous wealth can elevate you out of this mindset, when it actually embeds it deeper into your psyche such that you will cigar yourself to death.

It’s not consumption that I object to, nor is it over-population. There’s something brazenly wasteful about the way people operate, almost as if acknowledging the needs of other people diminishes the experience. When businesses buy up an acreage, mow down every tree on the land, and then leave it dormant for two years while they wait for the land to increase in value, the economic aspect of it doesn’t bother me. It’s the aesthetic part the kills me. Why mow down every tree? It’s as though the land were a freshly baked pie that someone decided to take five bites out of – from the precise center of the pie – and then leave it on the counter so that anyone else who wants pie is forced to have a badly misshapen piece, partially eaten by a stranger.

When you watch toddlers play, you’ll notice how they carelessly toss aside toys when those toys no longer captivate their attention. They’ll be playing with a ball, notice a train, drop the ball onto the floor, letting it roll wherever it may, and run toward the train. They have no concept of tidiness, and barely any awareness of the fact that someone else in the room may wish to play with the ball, or someone in the future might want to find the ball. They are simply, in that moment, finished with the ball and onto the train. Even if we teach the toddler to clean up the ball when playtime is over, we still haven’t addressed the fundamental issue, which is an awareness in the immediate moment of how our present actions might impact bystanders.

This – well, what is it? an emotion? an attitude? an aesthetic? – has begun to permeate all aspects of life. My interests, here, now, in the present moment trump not only every other person who is and who might be, but even the interests of my own future self! I smoke the cigar. I eat the bacon. I super-size the family cars. I lay my homestead across the middle of everything, uprooting animal, mineral, and vegetable and replacing it with a stone grotto pool and a “kegerator.”

It shouldn’t be illegal. But we as a society should voluntarily for more than this.


The Power Of Admitting You’re Wrong

Here’s something that I think we all already know: Failure, while unpleasant, is necessary for learning and growth. No one, for example, hits a home run their first time at bat. Over the course of many practice sessions, we reduce the number of errors we make until we arrive at some level of proficiency. But we’ll never reach that level of proficiency without the many failures that lead up to it.

Those of us who accept this truth live our lives a little differently than others. We try more things because we’re not afraid to fail. It’s okay if we don’t succeed, because most of the time “failure” just means we learn something. So we attempt to learn more languages, try to play more musical instruments, try out new techniques at work, and so on. We don’t succeed at everything we try, in fact, we typically fail more often than we succeed. But who cares? We’ll never grow if we don’t fail a few times.

This morning, I was thinking about how similar this is to admitting when you’re wrong. For most of us, admitting when we’re wrong is highly unpleasant. We are often emotionally invested in being right. Our society is highly judgmental and intolerant of “stupidity,” and so we don’t want to get caught being the “stupid” one. We’ve often built elaborate paper castles around our beliefs, too, so if we happen to get something important wrong, then that means we have to re-build the whole castle. That’s not pleasant. And also, we’re so proud sometimes; too proud to be bested in an argument by people we’re not always fond of.

But something magical happens when you start to admit when you’re wrong more often. To be sure, the first few times you do it, it can still feel exactly as humiliating as you supposed it was, especially if our interlocutors are unpleasant jerks who don’t mind rubbing our faces in it. But then again, there are always those who make a big deal out of other people’s failures, and once we grow comfortable with failure, those naysayers stop bothering us. Well, the same thing happens with admitting when you’re wrong. Eventually, even the naysayers don’t bother us anymore.

We cease to be bothered because we’ve developed a habit of readily discarding wrong beliefs and quickly adopting the correct ones. It’s nice to be right, but it’s even better to know more right things today than you did yesterday. So, first we stop being bothered by those who think it’s a big deal that we stand corrected; second, we start looking forward to the new things we’ll learn today.

Perhaps we still seek out the same kinds of debates and arguments we used to have, but instead of searching for ways to be right, we start to approach conversations as a form of confirmation.

“I think that X is true,” you say, “isn’t that right?”

The other person says, “No, you idiot, it’s clearly Y.”

You rejoin, “Well, here is the information I had in mind. Doesn’t this say that X is true? Do I have the wrong information, or have I drawn the wrong conclusion?”

“Here’s some information that says Y,” your compatriot retorts, “and I trust this information a lot more.”

You try again, “Now we have some information that says X, and some that says Y. How can we reconcile this information?”

It’s been my experience that, at this point, my interlocutor will either honestly engage in the reconciliation process, and we’ll both learn something new, or my interlocutor will continue arguing his point without any interest in engaging my questions. If the latter, I usually wind down my involvement in the exchange. You can’t beg someone to pay attention to what you’re saying if they’re committed to ignoring you.

But in the old days, before I was happy to admit when I was wrong, leaving the conversation would have stung. I was right, and that jerk didn’t see it! Now it doesn’t sting, I just move on with my life. Maybe someone else will correct me some time. Or maybe there’s nothing to correct. Either way, that other person won’t help, so why waste the mental energy on wishing that they would?

Of course, our personal relationships really improve when we’re ready to admit wrongdoing whenever it occurs. We never have to waste another moment of life being too proud to apologize and keeping distance between us. But we also gain confidence in the things we know to be true. That is, if our loved ones are definitely wrong, we don’t have to get mad and scream about it. We can simple, and calmly, and consistently, present the evidence in favor of our position. No matter how angry someone else gets, we can stick to the matter at hand, and lead the conversation toward our own undoing. “If I’m wrong, then show me how, and I will admit to it immediately.” Then the other person realizes that he doesn’t have to be mad, he just has to present his case.

And finally, we gain compassion for others. They themselves might be wrong, and they may have more trouble than you do admitting to it. Your compassion can show them that your relationship is a safe place to admit to being wrong, that it won’t diminish the love between you, and that your lives are better when everyone knows the truth than when somebody wins an argument.

The practice is worth it. Practice admitting when you’re wrong.


Child Discipline: Part Eight

Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.

Part Eight – Discipline Once A Rule Has Been Broken
Now your child has broken a rule, you’ve enforced the rule, and the child’s behavior is such that you must get them “in trouble.” How might we accomplish this?

In my view, it’s very important to first attend to the child’s emotional needs. You yourself might be quite upset that the child didn’t listen to you, or perhaps the child hurt someone or did something extremely dangerous, and that might be upsetting to you. No matter how important it is that you make the child see your point of view, none of that can happen if the child is screaming, crying, or throwing a tantrum. The one and only way the child will ever see things your way is if he or she is calm enough to hear you out. So, resist your urge to spank, to yell, to scold, or to rant.

Focus instead on helping the child to calm down. In some cases, that might mean merely sitting with the child until he or she has finished crying. In some cases that might mean holding on to the child tightly enough that he or she can’t squirm away and get into even more trouble. In some cases, that might mean talking calmly and soothingly to the child – yes, soothingly even despite the child’s misbehavior. I have found it quite productive to ask the child how he or she is feeling and why. “Are you angry? Are you frustrated?” Then express empathy: “I know it’s no fun when you don’t get to play with the things you want to play with.” Let your child know that you understand why he or she is upset. Don’t tell your children that they’re wrong to feel what they feel. Don’t contradict them. Don’t argue with them. Take the time to tell them you understand. After all, don’t you want them to understand you? How will they learn to do that if they never see patient listening, understanding, and empathy modeled for them in the first place?

Eventually, your child will calm down. Now it’s time to discuss the rules again. Ask your child if s/he understands why s/he got in trouble: “Do you know why you got in trouble?” Very young children will say no; as they age, they might guess wrong; once they get older, they will know what they did wrong, and they will tell you. Then, you can confirm, “That’s right, I asked you not to play with the scissors, and you did it anyway. Then you screamed and yelled at me.”

Next, ask your child why s/he thinks the rule exists: “Do you know why I didn’t want you to play with scissors?” The child may say no, in which case you need to explain very simply, “Scissors are dangerous and people can get hurt if you play with them. That’s why we never play with scissors.” The child might also say yes, in which case you should verify why s/he thinks the rule exists, and if s/he doesn’t have the right reason, correct him or her.

After that, you’ll need to establish a make-amends routine. In our house, making amends means apologizing, agreeing not to break the rule in the future, and potentially doing some minor corrective action like cleaning up the mess that was made or sitting down and finishing dinner without further incident. This doesn’t have to be your make-amends routine, but you ought to have some process by which your child can make things right again and everyone can go back to being a happy family. Put your child down and let him or her make amends, as agreed.

The final step in the process is also very important, and very easy to overlook. Once your child has made his or her amends, it’s not right to continue to lecture the child or be angry. That violates the agreement you just made to make amends. The child should be forgiven once s/he has apologized and made amends. So, drop it. And don’t bring it up again. Because it’s over.

In our household, this process takes no longer than five minutes. Very young children aren’t capable of understanding punishments or reprimands that stretch on and on for a long time. A good rule given by psychologists is “one minute of time-out per year of age.” Of course, what I’ve described isn’t a time-out. It’s a time-in. We never deprive our child of contact with us as a result of misbehavior. How would that serve to accomplish anything, anyway? We want her to make things right again and behave well. We don’t want her to simply feel bad about having done something wrong.


Child Discipline: Part Seven

Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.

Let’s Recap:
I began this series by establishing three conditions that a successful disciplinary philosophy must meet: Minimizing punishment, maximizing cooperativeness, and producing progressively more good behavior and less misbehavior. From these principles, I reasoned that there must be a fourth principle, that well-behaved kids are those who behave well voluntarily. A robust philosophy of child discipline, then is one that satisfies all four conditions.

Next, I discussed the nature of household rules. First of all, these rules should be rational, and following the rules should produce clear benefits for everyone. Second, everyone – parents and children alike – must follow the same set of rules, and the children must have just as much right to hold parents to the rules and parents have to hold children to the rules. Third, everyone within the household must entrust each other with their own moral agency; that is, we lay out the rules, ask them to be followed, and then allow each other the free will to take our own actions.

Finally, I established that actions have consequences, and that it is important to help children understand that when they take actions in a moral context, the consequences that then ensue are directly tied to the child’s actions.

Now that I’ve laid out the basic set of conditions necessary to establish before effective discipline can even occur, I can finally get to the actual process of discipline.

Part Seven – Enforcing A Rule
If we’ve done our parental work right, then “discipline” really amounts to reminding the child of what the rules are, why we follow them, what the child did to violate the rules, why it was a violation of the rules, and how to make amends now that the rules have been broken. Depending on how old your child is, this shouldn’t take much longer than five or ten minutes. If it takes much longer than that, you child may not fully understand the situation, and you may need to give up on the disciplinary action in favor of helping the child understand the rules first.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s suppose your child is misbehaving about something simple, but realistic: playing with scissors. I’d start by establishing what the rule is, and why: “Don’t play with those scissors, Tommy. You might cut yourself.”

If this is enough to end the situation, so be it. Problem solved. If not, proceed to the next iteration of seriousness: “You’re not to play with scissors. We don’t use scissors as a toy. They’re a tool. Please put them back in the drawer.” Notice that this second step does more than one thing. First, it reiterates the rule. Second, it establishes some sense of universality of the rule, i.e. that nobody plays with scissors, and that there exist a set of conditions in which Tommy might be allowed to have the scissors. (That, as opposed to the mere threat of having the scissors taken away “forever.”) Finally, it gives the child some agency to participate in the proper use of scissors, by putting them in the drawer. I like adding an additional sense of responsibility because sometimes just participating in the proper use of scissors is enough to satisfy the child’s desire to have the scissors. It also, of course, establishes that you trust Tommy to comply with his moral responsibilities.

If this is enough to end the situation, so be it. Problem solved. If not, we iterate again, perhaps for the final time. “If you don’t put the scissors away, I’ll have to take them away from you instead.” Notice that this is not an imposing threat. I’m not threatening to spank or punish the child, I’m not suggesting that this one act of disobedience will ruin his life, I’m simply stating the consequences of Tommy’s actions. Then I let him make the choice. Sometimes the child will make the right choice, and the matter ends there. If not, we move to the next stage of discipline.

If the child continues to disobey, then it is imperative that we enforce the rules and the consequences as we have outlined them. The child cannot be allowed to continue to play with the scissors (or whatever else they might be doing), otherwise the child will not understand that his actions have consequences. It’s easy to see how important this is when it comes to playing with scissors. But if Tommy were doing something less harmful, like making a very loud and annoying noise while other people are talking ,for example, it’s equally important to enforce the rules and consequences. Once you’ve established the boundary of the rules, do not let the child go undisciplined for crossing the boundary.

Suppose you take the scissors away. One of two things might happen next. On the one hand, the child might become agitated and find some new rule to break, in a display of being mad. (He might throw the scissors across the room, or make a mess somewhere, or some other thing he knows not to do.) If this happens, you might choose to start the whole process over again. (Use your judgment here.) But you might instead choose to move to the next disciplinary phase.

The second thing that might happen is that the child may begin to scream and cry as soon as you take the scissors away, throwing a tantrum and acting very upset. Clearly at this point we must move on to the next phase, which I will discuss next.


Child Discipline: Part Six

Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.

Part Six – Actions Have Consequences
If a baby reaches up and pokes you in the eye, you won’t likely scold the baby. On some level, you understand that the baby doesn’t mean any harm. In fact, the baby doesn’t really understand what your eyes are, let alone how sensitive they are. When that happens, we usually make a good-natured response, laughing, and moving the baby’s hand away repeatedly until the baby figures out that you don’t want her touching your eyeballs. The situation is much different when it comes to an older child. If an older child tries to grab your eyeball, you will likely take stern corrective action, and rightly so. The question on your mind is, What on Earth are you, someone who knows that grabbing eyeballs is hurtful, trying to do to me?

But what’s the real difference between the baby and the older child? When the baby tries to grab your eyeball, she’s not making a moral decision; she doesn’t really have any idea about how eyeballs work. When an older child attempts to grab your eyeball, knowing full well the sensitive nature of eyeballs, we view the moral context differently. Scolding a baby for being a baby is senseless, mostly because the baby isn’t equipped to understand the situation. First she has to understand the situation before she can process being scolded.

The final piece to the moral foundation of discipline, then is a child’s becoming aware of actions and consequences.

As with the principle of trust, this is one that is more important for children than for adults, and thus adults often skip this part of the disciplinary process. Allow me to explain why that’s a bad idea.

Suppose we never tell a child that it hurts every time she pokes our eyeballs. Suppose instead, we just scold her. Then, that child will learn the following principle: Every time I poke Mommy’s eyeball, she yells at me; I don’t want to get yelled at, so I will stop poking her eyeball. On the surface, this seems like the appropriate lesson to have learned, and that’s why so many parents stop there.

Now suppose instead that every time a child pokes our eyeball we say, “Ow! Please don’t do that, that hurts.” Then we leave the child to make the next decision. She decides to try it again, so again we say, “Ow! That hurts my eye. You don’t want my eye to hurt, do you?” Then we leave the child to make the next decision. She tries it a third time, so we say, “Ow! Now my eye really hurts.” We frown, and we walk away for a moment. In this case, the child will learn the following principle: Every time I poke Mommy’s eyeball, she says ‘Ow’ and tells me it hurts.

In the short run, the first option will probably correct unwanted behavior the fastest. In the long run, though, the second option creates a logical chain of events that forms the building block for future decisions about eyeballs. The child starts to learn that poking eyeballs makes people cry out in pain. Later, when asked not to poke eyeballs, the child will connect the request (the rule) with the knowledge that violating the request (rule) causes pain. When it comes time to enforce the rule, the full connection will be made: Every time I poke somebody’s eyeball, they cry out in pain; I’ve been asked not to poke anyone’s eye, because it hurts them.

Children need to understand that all actions have consequences, and that these consequences are tied to the rules in a very tangible way. We already discussed how all rules should have a rational explanation that highlights how living by the rules benefits everyone. Without this additional knowledge, that rules are invoked by the consequences of our actions, the child is less likely to learn about the full nature of moral action.

Morality isn’t merely a set of rules that we’ve decided “are good rules.” Morality is specifically a set of principles about how to maximize everyone’s happiness in light of the fact that actions have consequences on ourselves and on other people. If we are to successfully discipline children, we must begin by teaching them that morality isn’t about enforcing rules, it’s about making choices and living with the consequences. Thus, morality is about making choices that support the best possible set of consequences.

Let’s Recap:
I began this series by establishing three conditions that a successful disciplinary philosophy must meet: Minimizing punishment, maximizing cooperativeness, and producing progressively more good behavior and less misbehavior. From these principles, I reasoned that there must be a fourth principle, that well-behaved kids are those who behave well voluntarily. A robust philosophy of child discipline, then is one that satisfies all four conditions.

Next, I discussed the nature of household rules. First of all, these rules should be rational, and following the rules should produce clear benefits for everyone. Second, everyone – parents and children alike – must follow the same set of rules, and the children must have just as much right to hold parents to the rules and parents have to hold children to the rules. Third, everyone within the household must entrust each other with their own moral agency; that is, we lay out the rules, ask them to be followed, and then allow each other the free will to take our own actions.

Finally, I established that actions have consequences, and that it is important to help children understand that when they take actions in a moral context, the consequences that then ensue are directly tied to the child’s actions.

Now that I’ve laid out the basic set of conditions necessary to establish before effective discipline can even occur, I can finally get to the actual process of discipline.


Child Discipline: Part Five

Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.

Part Five – Rules Involve Trust
Here is our basic underlying agreement about behavior inside our home: You can trust me to comply with the rules, both in letter and in spirit, and I can trust you to do the same. It’s not enough that we all live according the household rules; we must be able to plan our lives under the assumption that everyone else is going to do so as well. Thus, not only can we all presume that nobody is going to jump up and down on the couch today, we can also treat each other as though they are not always about to go jump on the couch when our backs are turned.

This principle is far more important for children than it is for adults. Consequently, adults have a tendency to be very lax on this one, but they shouldn’t be.

Children never learn to be independent if they’re never trusted with responsibilities. Your child will never, for example, learn to clean her room if you never tell her to go clean her room, and then leave her alone to do it. You can practically guarantee that she won’t clean it properly the first time you ask, but the process of being entrusted to clean her room, make decisions about where and how to tidy things up, and submit her work for evaluation creates the necessary conditions for future success. It’s either that, or you clean her room by yourself, demanding that she watch, and hope that she learns about cleaning her room by watching you do it each time. She won’t, of course; she’ll just decide that “cleaning her room” means watching you do it.

My daughter learned to brush her teeth this way. Initially, tooth-brushing was a bit of a fight. She didn’t want to stop playing and she didn’t want to have someone jolt her face back and forth with vigorous parental tooth-brushing, and who could blame her? When she was old enough, I started letting her do it herself. I had already shown her how to brush, so she knew how to try. I watched her do it, made a few corrections when necessary, and that was that. She was so proud to be able to do it herself! It became a joy. Eventually, I transitioned more and more of the responsibility to her. Now I don’t stand next to her, ensuring that she brushes her teeth. Instead, I brush my own teeth in the adjacent sink. That way, she knows that brushing our teeth is something we all do at about the same time, it’s a responsibility we all have, and that I’m trusting her with that same responsibility. I’m still around to make corrections if necessary, but I don’t really have to. More recently, I simply tell her it’s time to brush her teeth, and she goes in and does it by herself. I’m outside in the next room, nonchalantly looking in to ensure that she’s doing it properly. She is. Eventually, I won’t need to watch at all.

It isn’t helpful to stand over her while she cleans her room or brushes her teeth, making micro-corrections when she deviates from perfection. For one thing, that isn’t pleasant for anyone. More importantly, though, what incentive does she have to try her hardest, if someone is waiting in the wings to pounce at the first sign of failure? In the end, it doesn’t really matter how she cleans her room, it only matters that she learns to do it on a regular basis. That involves trusting her to do as she’s asked.

Only after she falls short, deciding to play rather than to clean, should any disciplinary action be taken. Before we can even get to disciplinary action, however, we have to get to action.


Child Discipline: Part Four

Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.

Part Four – Because Rules Are Reasonable And Universally Beneficial, We All Follow the Rules
We’ve all seen those parents who are constantly staring down into their smart phones on the one hand, and constantly pleading with their children to go outside and play on the other hand. It is not controversial to suggest that children learn their behaviors by observing their parents. If you don’t live the rules to which you hold your children, you can pretty much give up on having your children follow the rules. This seems easy enough, but in practice this gets a bit tricky.

Consider the following recent example from my household. The other day, we received two early Christmas packages in the mail. Since the packages were couriered, I couldn’t tell what they were or who they came from without opening them. I opened one of the boxes, realized that it was a Christmas present, and immediately set the box aside to wait for Christmas. My daughter’s present was in the second box. When she saw the two boxes, she asked me what they were, and I told her honestly that they were Christmas presents. She asked me if she could open hers, and I said not yet, that she had to wait until Christmas. She immediately pointed out the contradiction: “But you opened your package!”

Pause here and reflect. This is the sort of situation that defines what morality is for your child. You can give an expedient answer, and such an answer will either avoid the question of what the rule is or cause the child to notice that you, the parent, operate under a different sort of rule than she does. Or you can give a more reflective answer that will help the child understand that we must all follow the same set of rules.

In my case, I explained to my daughter that I didn’t know that they were Christmas presents until I opened the box, and that once I knew, I set the packages aside until Christmas. I told her that I had to wait for what was in my box, just as she has to wait for what was in her box. I made a conscious effort to define the situation in terms of universal rules. I’m not asking her to do anything that I’m not asking of myself. It’s important that she understand this, because it helps universalize the rules.

This also has a flip-side: Occasionally we parents must reverse our own behavior when our children spot us breaking rules that apply to them. One such situation that often arises in our household is the fact that we cannot have treats, snack foods, or desserts unless we eat our vegetables. It’s obvious why a child must be held to such a rule, but it is quite common for adults to, say, skip breakfast in the morning to hurry out the door, and then avail themselves of the doughnuts laid out at work. You’re violating the rules! Sometimes, our children catch us doing so. My wife sometimes skips dinner if she has a heavy lunch; then, as my daughter and I eat our dinner together, my wife might wander over to the cupboard to munch on a few chips or something. There’s really nothing wrong with that, except that when my daughter sees this, she is more inclined to stop eating her proper, square meal, and say, “Mommy, can I have some chips?” Mommy says no, of course, and tells her to eat her dinner. Now we have a contradiction. If Mommy can skip dinner and just eat chips, why can’t daughter stop eating her vegetables and take the chips instead?

Unfortunately, in such a situation, my wife must give up her chips. The rules are too important to hand-wave away for a handful of chips. The same thing happens to me when I’m busily practicing my guitar in my music room, and my daughter wanders in, asking if she can try playing the guitar, or if she can play on the piano that’s in the same room. I can’t very well tell her no, just because I’m busy practicing. That’s not fair, that’s not a universal rule. That would tell her that might makes right. Instead, I have to acknowledge that if I can play music now, then so can she. And so I let her. The universality of the rules trumps my practice regimen, much to my chagrin. But such is my commitment to my disciplinary philosophy.

And my daughter is better for it. She knows she can expect to be held to the same rules that her parents are held to. She also knows that if she has to follow a rule, she can hold her parents to the same standard. The standard exists outside of any one of us, they are family rules. She can trust that they are applied equally and fairly. 

And that brings me to what I'll discuss in the next section.


Child Discipline: Part Three

Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.

Part Three – Rules Have Underlying Reasons, And They Make Us Better Off
It is absolutely vital that we provide our children with reasons for voluntarily choosing to behave well. For one thing, the research is relatively clear that children (and adults, for that matter) who believe that “the rules” are external forces that guide our actions are more emotionally well-adjusted than those who don’t. If a child is raised to believe that he or she must follow the rules merely “because I said so,” that child is likely to grow up believing that he who has the power sets the rules. This is one of the seeds of narcissism, especially if those rules change regularly at the whim of the parent. Even setting that matter aside, however, we want our child to consistently choose good behavior, and the best way to elicit consistently good choices is to provide our children with good underlying reasons for making the right choices.

We don’t, for example, merely want our children to “share,” in the abstract. Instead, we want our children to know what sharing actually is, and to voluntarily elect to share with others. That’s not possible for a child who doesn’t understand where the “sharing rule” comes from. In fact, if you’re a parent, your child has probably already asked you, “Why do I have to share?” If your answer was one of the following, you failed the test: (a) because I said so, (b) because it’s nice, (c) because that’s what we do, etc.

Here’s a better answer for why a child should follow the sharing rule: (d) People who share have more fun with their friends than people who don’t. The more fun you have with your friends, the more kids will want to be friends with you, the more fun you’ll tend to have. And also, a friend with whom you share is more likely to share with you, too.

Of the above options, which explanation for the sharing rule seems the most likely to produce a consistent, voluntary choice to share? I’d say (d), wouldn’t you?

For this reason, it’s important that all rules a child is asked to follow have rational, reasonable explanations, and it should be clear that living a life of moral rule-following produces better outcomes than not doing so. Sharing should be both more rational and more beneficial than not sharing. Looking both ways before crossing the street should be more rational and beneficial than running out into the road willy-nilly. Telling the truth should be more rational and beneficial than lying. And so on, down the list of rules you ask of your children. When they ask you why they must follow the rules, you ought to be able to produce a sound rationale for why that rule exists, and how it benefits us.

Note that I say “us.” “Us” is important. “Us” is what the next section is about.


Child Discipline: Part Two

Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline. 

Part Two – Good Kids Are Voluntarily Good
It’s nice to have an obedient, well-behaved child – it sure is convenient – but we as parents should agree that our efforts to raise a well-behaved child are about more than mere convenience or expedience. We have a loftier goal in mind, and that goal is to raise a socially functional, emotionally well-adjusted person. A child who behaves well isn’t merely a pleasure for us to be around. We at least operate under the assumption that a child who exhibits good behavior is a child who will grow up to be a good human being. As parents, we all hold his assumption, whether or not we ever formally articulate it. This raises the question: What is a good human being?

Well, that’s a very broad question, and out of scope of the present discussion, but one thing is clear at least: A good person chooses to do good things, and does so voluntarily. In light of that fact, and our three conditions above, a corollary condition starts to emerge. A successful disciplinary philosophy will produce a child who voluntarily chooses to engage in good behavior. This fourth condition is a natural extension of the previous three. A child who voluntarily chooses to behave minimizes punishment for himself or herself, minimizes contentiousness (by maximizing cooperativeness), and is actively engaged in exhibiting more good behaviors and fewer bad behaviors.

In short, we want doing the right thing to be a voluntary choice, such that it doesn’t have to be a question of discipline at all.

People have all manner of motives for making voluntary choices, from rational self-interest, to punishment avoidance, to social signaling, and more. In order for someone to voluntarily choose good, ethical behavior, he or she must have motives in place for doing so. 

This brings me to my next big point, which I'll discuss in the next post.


Child Discipline: Part One

Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.

Part One – Measuring Success: The Three Conditions of a Successful Disciplinary Philosophy
Let me begin by establishing three conditions that define a successful approach to discipline:
  1. Punishment should be minimized.
  2. Feelings of contentiousness, or competitiveness, or of a power-struggle between parents and children, should also be minimized.
  3. Applying the disciplinary approach should result in less misbehavior, and more good behavior, over time.
Many people only consider condition #3, since that is the ultimate goal of any approach to discipline. We want our children to behave. But that’s not enough for me, since after all, terrorizing children into never doing anything wrong would satisfy condition #3, but make the child miserable (and probably also the parents). So, we need the first two conditions to act as binding constraints on the over-arching goal. We should not go out of our way to punish our children, and in fact it shouldn’t even be the most-ready tool in our disciplinary tool kit. A well-adjusted and successfully reared child should want to behave well, and not merely wish to avoid punishment. Home life should also not be a constant competition between parents and children, where each party attempts to get as close to breaking the rules as possible without actually doing so. Life shouldn’t be a matter of maximizing “cans” and minimizing “can’ts.” Life at home should be cooperative, supportive, and happy.

As of this writing, it appears that my disciplinary philosophy minimizes punishment. I have thus far avoided having to punish my daughter at all – ever. I’ve been raising my daughter for four years now, and four years is a pretty good winning streak. I realize that perhaps the more challenging disciplinary scenarios are yet to come, but even so, I have a good track record so far. Moreover, my child and I, along with my wife, never feel as though we’re in contention with one another. We don’t argue with each other. We’re never trying to finagle good behavior from my daughter, and she’s never trying to finagle bad behavior or extra rewards from us. In other words, we feel mutually cooperative and loving, as a family should feel. That may not seem like much of an accomplishment to those of you who were raised in families that never or seldom experienced pervasive feelings of contentiousness. If you come from such a family, good for you! I really mean that. Not everyone has the benefit of coming from such a family, so the fact that my approach to disciplining my child avoids what seems almost inevitable to me is a marked success. And, of course, my approach to discipline seems to reduce misbehavior and promote good behavior.

Is it perfect? Have I worked out all the kinks? Am I perfect in applying my philosophy? No, of course not. None of that is ever possible. But so far, my experience gives me confidence in the future. I’ll continue to fine-tune my philosophy in coming years, but I seem to be on the right track.

In our next installment, we'll discuss what that track is.


The Two Key Rules For Moral Behavior

Inspired by a comment I left at Slate Star Codex, I’d like to present two rules that a robust moral system must satisfy. Let me begin by stating that I am under no illusion that these rules are original to me. The philosophical literature has already dealt with both of these rules in depth. Unfortunately, basic moral philosophy appears to be a set of narratives that human beings need to reinvent and re-state again and again across each generation. This probably serves a good purpose, namely that “no one ought to deprive you of your right to life” sounds a lot better to modern ears than “thou shalt not kill,” even though they articulate the same basic moral theory. Humanity thrives on the stories we tell ourselves, especially the moral stories we tell ourselves, and so it is our destiny to repeat our moral tenets over and over again, in evolving contemporary language, throughout time unto infinity.

But back to what I was saying. Every robust moral system must satisfy two rules: (1) Be a better person, and (2) Don’t be an evil person.

It’s easy to see how these two rules differ from each other. While (1) is primarily about elevating your moral standards and holding yourself to a higher sense of purpose, (2) is primarily above avoiding acts and behaviors that are almost universally understood to be terrible. Thus, a good example of (1) might be “spend more time with your kids,” while a good example of (2) might be “don’t ever physically hurt your children, neither intentionally nor through neglect.” We can see how spending more time with your kids would help us avoid hurting them through neglect, but neither statement on its own is enough to get us to a moral relationship with our children. By contrast, living both statements to the greatest extent possible gets us a lot closer to having a moral parent-child relationship.

I could provide additional examples, but I won’t.

Some moralists are very off-putting people. They scorn everyone who fails to live up to their moral preferences. I believe that people like this have a tendency to turn every moral guideline into some version of rule (2). Instead of advising caution and modesty in romantic relationships, they decry fornication. Rather than advocating for a reduced carbon footprint, they criticize anyone who drives an SUV. For such people, no one is moral unless they avoid the major prohibitions. It’s not about being honest, it’s about not lying; it’s not about being generous, it’s about not being greedy. Wherever such people go, shame and damnation follows them. No wonder we find such people off-putting.

But there are some people who have the opposite problem: they never apply rule (2) to their moral system, and thus everything becomes some version of rule (1). For them “I did the best that I could” shall be the whole of the law. These are the folks who are always rationalizing their clearly moral behavior. If they cut someone off in traffic, they figure that they either had no choice, or that everyone else was doing it, too. If they tell a lie, it’s always because they had a very good reason to do it. If they fail to save a drowning baby, it’s because they didn’t want to put themselves at risk since they have children of their own to worry about. Without any definite moral wrongs to avoid, they are free to engage in any behavior and, as long as someone out there is doing worse, they can reason that they never went too far.

A robust moral system – one that consistently guides you toward doing the right thing – will have a good blend of recommendations for being a better person, and recommendations for not being an evil person. A robust moral system will command you not to engage in that which is clearly harmful, and you will obey; but it will also inspire you to make small moral improvements every day throughout your life. In this way, it sets out the limits of moral behavior, and then asks us to improve our average behavior.

Living by a system that incorporates both rules will make you a moral person indeed.


Threatin Seems Alright By Me. What's The Problem Here?

Jered Threatin, real name Jered Eames, has earned himself the reputation of being a con artist. I myself, however, am conflicted.

For those of you who don’t have exposure to this world, let’s bring you up to speed.

Threatin is a “band” based out of Los Angeles. In truth, it is more of a musical project conceived, written, produced, and performed by Jered Eames under the stage name Jered Threatin. I have absolutely no problem with Threatin’s use of a stage name. That is a very common practice among both amateur and professional musicians. I also have no bones about the fact that Threatin the band is really just a creative entity that exists as more or less the solo project of Threatin the man. We’ve all heard Nine Inch Nails, and we all know that it is really just a Trent Reznor solo project. None of us care about that. Reznor is Nine Inch Nails, just as Threatin is Threatin. So, once again, the cast of characters in this story is really just a cast of amateur or semi-pro musicians doing things that are quite common for amateur or semi-pro musicians to do.

Threatin is not distinguished from the rest of us amateurs by the fact that he used bots and apps to gain fake likes on Facebook and Instagram – after all, tons of people do this, even people you know and like, and while we might roll our eyes about it once in a while, no one really thinks it’s that big a deal.

Threatin is also not distinguished by the fact that he invented record labels, promo, and management companies to help legitimize his act. After all, Devin Townsend created “Hevy Devy Records” way back in the nineties solely as a vehicle to promote Devin Townsend. Hevy Devy Records, you will remember, used to have its own separate website from Devin Townsend’s own artist website, and HDR used to list all of Townsend’s acts as separate artists on the HDR roster. At the time, must of us considered that clever. We knew all those artists were really just various flavors of Devin Townsend, but it all seemed fair enough. In fact, nowadays it is quite common for artists to self-publish their albums and invent a record label name. It’s so common that the fact that Threatin did this didn’t even strike me as being even a little odd. It’s just, you know, using the language of record promotions to self-publish your work. Big deal.

Nor, for that matter, is Threatin distinguished by the fact that he created YouTube videos that make it look as though he’s performing in front of a massive audience. Even the very earliest music videos from the 70s show well-known artists rocking out on stage in full regalia, as though they are putting on a big concert. In reality, most of those videos were filmed in studios designed to look like legitimate concert stages, and there was no real audience. I’m also aware of at least one major-label song – King’s X’s “live” cover of “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix – of an artist’s being recorded in the studio with studio tricks being used to make the listener believe that it was recorded in front of a massive, arena-sized audience. To my knowledge, no one has ever accused King’s X of being frauds or phonies for having done this – nor should anyone accuse them of this, in my opinion. This is all pretty blasé music industry practice, as far as I can tell.

Threatin does, however, appear to have done some things that artists before him have not done, or at least not successfully. He tried to create his own Wikipedia page about himself. He listed non-existent artists on his record label’s website, and that of his promotions company. He invented a fake music award and claimed to have won it.

And, most importantly, he leveraged the power of his manufactured social media presence to hire a pickup band, book a European tour, and actually play. From what I can tell, Threatin legitimately paid the booking fees for these venues. So we cannot say that he defrauded these venues, since he paid them fair and square. The only apparent problem here is that the venues were expecting a packed house along with venue booking fees, and Threatin merely paid the booking fees. The audience never showed up, because there was no audience in the first place. Because Threatin is not a famous band with enough clout or commercial appeal to justify a European tour.

But so what?

The metal music press is all a-twitter about this allegedly “fake” band and “fake” tour, but I’m left scratching my head. Threatin appears to be an artist who makes good on his contracts, even despite having very little popularity and a mostly manufactured media presence. First of all, good for him for making good on his legal and business obligations – not every artist does that. Second of all, being unpopular is not a crime. Third of all, point me in the direction of the “legitimate” music act that does not exaggerate its own credibility.

VH-1 used to broadcast a program called “Behind the Music,” which would tell the story behind the rise and success of a famous band. One episode I vividly remember was about the band Oasis. In it, Noel Gallagher is quoted saying, “Look, if you go around telling people you’re the best band in the world, fifty percent of them are going to believe it!” Perhaps Jered Threatin saw the same episode I saw.

In the end, Threatin’s rise to infamy-if-not-fame is certainly unorthodox in its whole, but no one thing that he did looks particularly unethical or screwy to me. Much of what he did has been standard practice in the music industry for decades. No one yet has remarked that Threatin’s music lacks credibility.

So what really is the controvery here? One of the richest and most famous celebrities in the world today is a woman who rose to fame by having her sex tape stolen. She has managed to leverage that fame into multi-million-dollar business deals for herself, along with multi-million-dollar business deals for each one of her siblings, and her parents. Sure, it’s certainly en vogue to hate the Kardashians, but their expert use of social media and self-promotion reveals a business acumen that many “Instagram Models” have attempted to replicate – some with greater success than others. Beyond that, I think he’s demonstrated a fair amount of social media savvy, and had some fun along the way. None of this strikes me as being wrong, or even lame.

I certainly admire his ability to have created a media circus. Perhaps his only misstep here was aiming too high. Rather than a European tour, perhaps he should have merely attempted to sell out the Viper Room, and then the House of Blues, and then perhaps leverage those appearances to gain an opening slot on someone else’s tour.

Or perhaps he really just wanted to have some fun playing some gigs in Europe while on vacation. I’ve certainly entertained similar ideas myself. Wouldn’t it be cool to book a week at a resort in Cabo, with my friends and bandmates, and while I’m down there, play a couple of shows in local venues? I’d jokingly call it a “tour,” and why not? It kind of would be. Some ten years ago, I even tried to book a few shows around town in a city a few states over, just so that I could play music with a friend of mine. We only managed to book one appearance at an open mic, but again: big deal. It was fun! I bet Threatin is also having fun playing gigs here and there while seeing the sights in Europe. More power to him, I say.

I haven’t heard any of Threatin’s music. Maybe I’ll go listen to some now. I hope I enjoy what I hear, because I hope a guy with that kind of creative streak has at least a little success.

ADDENDUM: I listened to his music, and while it's not the kind of thing I usually listen to, it's actually pretty good. He plays all the instruments, and plays them well. He sings, and his voice is just fine. His lyrics won't change your life, but they're good. To be sure, he's an above-average musician, in my opinion, and easily deserving of some success. Good for him.


Is There Anything About Manliness Worth Saving?

I came across this long essay about a man who wonders what it means to be a man. The piece is quite sad, overall. The poor guy hasn’t figured it out.

To wit, it never seems to occur to him that the actions of a man does need not impugn women, or comment on them in any way at all, really. The author criticizes the slaying of dragons or the fighting-off of purse-snatchers. But if I slay a dragon or fight off a purse-snatcher, I'm doing that because that’s what I think ought to be done by me, not because I don’t think women should do any of those things. If I save a drowning baby, it’s not because I think other people are weak and incapable, it’s simply because there is a baby that needs saving, and I’m an able-bodied potential savior.

This modern pathos has infected absolutely everything. People are petrified of declaring their morals or their beliefs, for fear of accidentally implying that this sets them asunder. It’s not true, of course. That we all agree that lying is wrong does not imply that “people who aren’t like us lie all the time.” If I tell my sister that I enjoyed the apple pie she baked me, I’m not insulting my wife’s apple pie. If I spend $20 on a new book, I’m not implying that anyone who spends their $20 any other way is somehow less of a person.

My values are not declarations about your values. This is pefectly obvious to everyone with a brain.

All we really learned from the piece is that its writer isn't any good at being a man, and so he has begun to wonder whether there is anything about "being a man" that is worth salvaging. The correct answer -- "Of course there is, you dolt!" -- never seems to occur to him.

All you have to do to find out what's great about manliness is to ask men what they admire most about other men. It's that simple. If you ask women what they admire most about women, you know what answer you'll get: They love that their friends are cute, witty, charming, and sociable; they love that their sisters are big-hearted and conscientious, and they love that their mothers and grandmothers could suffer through great emotional hardship even across generations that diminished women's abilities. I’m not saying that these are the qualities I think make a woman great. I’m saying that these are the qualities that women tell me are great about women. I can only conclude that they see these qualities as womanly ideals.

But, maybe not. It’s not for me to say. What defines a woman is a conversation to be had among women. I know what I like in a woman, but I make no claim that this set of attributes should be extended to all women as an ideal type. It’s just, you know, my type.

Well, what do men admire about other men, anyway? We admire when men can endure physical pain and hardship nonchalantly. We admire when men can win a contest. We admire when a man can best his fellows when we’re all telling jokes. We admire when a man assumes an important responsibility and carries it through. We admire when a man completes great feats of strength or ability. We admire when men humbly accept their lifelong responsibilities without complaint.

Thus manliness, according to men who admire other men, is physical strength and endurance, humility, merriment, responsibility, skill, and a reluctance to complain. None of this indicates that women can’t or shouldn’t do any of these things. This isn’t an implication about women. This has nothing whatsoever to do with women. Remember, this is what men appreciate about other men.



Ultimately, an increasingly narcissistic culture will stop being narcissistic all by itself. We should have realized this long ago; after all, the more obsessed we all are with our own image, the less important to us other people’s images become, the less narcissistic supply there is to be given. The narcissists will turn elsewhere for their narcissistic supply, but where will they turn? None of the other narcissists are interested in doling it out, and those that are are paradoxically less narcissistic since they seem to recognize the reciprocal and mutually beneficial nature of giving people respect.

Lately, I have seen small communities pop up that seem to be inhabited by small groups of narcissists. They take turns reaffirming the same set of principles, and thus any compliment they provide to others is, in effect, a way to gain narcissistic supply out of them. “You said what I said previously. This validates me.” “Oh, you said it, too? I knew I was right all along.” But this sort of thing will be short-lived and mostly self-contained. The more we are all interested mainly in ourselves, the less supply there is to go around, the less validating it is to be a narcissist.

This doesn’t suggest, however, that such a society is “out of the woods.” It is beginning to alarm an increasing number of people that human beings are turning inward for things that a social life used to provide. The Atlantic has a very remarkable recent article about that (H/T Tyler Cowen). Ostensibly, the article explores the mystery of why young people are less interested in sex. I think the author is asking the wrong question. Skin-on-skin is the ultimate social interaction. There is arguably no other thing that human beings do together that requires more communication – assuming they are doing it well. The article gives ample evidence, of course, that young people aren’t doing it well. In example after example, the author reports on many young people who find real-world (“meatspace”) personal interaction to be creepy at worst and awkward at best. Meanwhile, in example after example, these same young people engage in occasional romantic encounters only to be choked, jackhammered, genitally injured, and so on. (Yes. And so on.) What the author, and subsequently Tyler Cowen, focus on is the question of why young people are doing it less, but of course they would be doing it less if everyone were collectively getting worse at doing it at all. No one shies away from an encounter with an expert lover with whom they have already united. Toward the end of the article, the author explores how women are decided en masse to avoid painful and injurious intercourse, in favor of pretty much any other way of passing the time, and one can hardly blame them. Still, throughout time immemorial, human beings have always thought that marriage and family is worth it. Today’s young people are increasingly unaware of what they’re fighting for when it comes to romantic relationships, because they don’t know what romance is, they don’t know what the benefits of a healthy and self-affirming intimate relationship are, and they can’t seem to communicate with each other well enough to find anything that even approximates what they should be looking for.

Elsewhere on the web, you can find the blog of a widely read libertarian woman who uses her romantic life as a metaphor for state oppression. I’m not entirely sure if it’s meant to be taken seriously or humorously, but when I occasionally read it, it only makes me sad. Nearly one-hundred years ago, Franz Kafka made a name for himself describing the horrors of mankind’s relationship to the state, which is both impenetrable (The Castle) and suffocatingly omnipresent (The Trial). Bureaucracy, when you must make a request of it, is thoroughly and impossibly inaccessible. When it wants something of you, however, nothing you say or do can stop it. Imagine how a person must feel whose romantic encounters serve as plausible analogues for, not only either of those interactions with the state, but both of them.

A concerned onlooker might conclude that the woman has been hurt, terribly and often. However, another possibility exists. It could simply be that she is no more capable of communicating with a romantic partner than she is with a faceless bureaucracy. That is, the fault might well be hers. I’m not suggesting that it is her fault, because I have no insight into that. I’m merely a reader weighing all the possibilities.

I’ve written before about society’s transition in art, away from being a performance intended for community consumption, and toward and inward-looking expression of self. That is, when musicians take the stage today (and I’m talking about amateurs learning how to create art), they’re mostly focused on playing their parts. To the extent that they’re interested in the audience at all, it’s mostly for attention-getting reasons. They want adulation and applause. Well, performers have always wanted adulation and applause, but in the past it was more participatory. You played to the audience, and you fed off the audience’s energy. You didn’t just want them to think you were neat, you wanted to be the one who was capable of showing them a good time. You might have been in it for the chicks, but being in it for the chicks meant being the guy who was capable of pleasing the chicks. The metric of success was still very much external to the artist: the chicks decided if you were cool or not. You relied on their assessment, and to the extent that you could do so, you attempted to influence their opinion by tailoring your performance to them.

Today, though, you’re a rock star if you feel like one. You can buy Facebook likes and Instagram followers, and you can even leverage that into a world tour. In the end, nobody cares that he was never famous, because he’s famous now. Mission accomplished. He didn’t become famous by showing people a good time, he became famous by tricking people into believing that he was already famous. The metric of success is no longer the audience. The metric of success is your phone. If your phone says you have tens of thousands of fans, then you do. And let’s be clear about it: This is true even if you’re just using bots and AI apps to force your phone into displaying the numbers. The very idea that you would spend years honing your craft in front of a bunch of chicks (or, more generally, music fans who listen to you and provide you with actual “meatspace” feedback) when you can simply hire “The Russians” to boost your Spotify plays seems so old-fashioned.

This is not a narcissism problem. This is not something borne from the fact that we think too highly of ourselves or are too obsessed with presenting a false image of ourselves. This is rather a short-circuit in the basic wiring of human society. Each of us is supposed to be a node in a several-billion-strong network called the human race. We are supposed to be bound to each other by our interactions, by our participation in a common experience. More and more, our society is not bound by a common experience because people do not share experiences in common. We eat lone, make love alone, perform art alone. We are lonely and alone. We are increasingly incapable of having positive social interaction with each other.

Take close note of who it is that is writing this today. I’m the individualist, the guy who claims that being a strong and well-expressed individual is the key to happiness. When I’m the guy telling you that your society is so uninterested in being a society that it’s starting to crack and crumble, you know it might be time to go make some new friends and do something with them. In meatspace. You don’t have to make love to them, but judging by current trends, it might not be a terrible idea. Just make sure to look them in the eyes while you’re doing it.