Faster: the pace of modern life

August 27, 2016

imagesI picked up James Gleick’s book Faster and read it slowly – something it says people rarely do anymore.

The subtitle is The Acceleration of Just About Everything. I was hoping for some insight into the human condition as affected by modernity; our lives are radically different from what we evolved for. But the book reads more like a Seinfeld monologue than a sociology essay – a string of quickie observations, never connected into some over-arching theory or viewpoint. Unknown-1I was reminded of Churchill saying of a dessert: “This pudding has no theme.”

Yes, in many ways, life has gotten faster. We all know that. But what does it really mean for us? Gleick seems unsure, ambivalent – the book’s tone is bemusement.

He even contradicts himself at times. One chapter (“Short Term Memory”) starts, “As the flow of information accelerates, we may have trouble keeping track of it all.” Gleick explains that the media on which information is recorded quickly becomes obsolete. Tons of data are on floppy disks and microfilms – but can you find the machines today to read them? Et cetera. This is indeed a real problem. Yet then Gleick says: “amnesia doesn’t seem to be [our] worst problem. This new being just can’t throw anything away . . . It has forgotten that some baggage is better left behind. Homo Sapiens has become a packrat.”

But perhaps such contradictoriness really is the essence of this book, in exploring our modern relationship with time. Gleick returns repeatedly to the concept of “saving time,” and how slippery it is. Talking about the genre of self-help books on time-saving, he says this (his emphasis):

Unknown-3“[The authors] reveal confusion about what it means to save time. They flip back and forth between advertising a faster and a slower life. They offer more time, in their titles and blurbs, but they are surely not proposing to extend the 1,440-minute day, so by ‘more’ do they mean fuller or freer time? Is time saved when we manage to leave it empty, or when we stuff it with multiple activities, useful or pleasant? . . . when we seize it away from a low-satisfaction activity, like ironing clothes, and turn it over to a high-satisfaction activity, like listening to music? What if we do both at once? If you can choose between a thirty minute train ride, during which you can read, and a twenty minute drive, during which you cannot, does the drive save ten minutes? . . . What if you can listen to [an] audiotape . . . ? Are you saving time, or employing time that you have saved elsewhere . . . ?”

But Gleick doesn’t really philosophize about the nature of time. In physics, it is indeed a tricky and elusive concept. There seem to be fundamental particles of matter, and maybe of space, but not of time; no unit is the limit of smallness in measuring time. Unknown-5And while we all think we know what time’s passage is, we actually don’t experience it as a sequence of moments; “living in the moment” is impossible because as soon as a moment occurs it’s already in the past. The “now” sandwiched between anticipation and retrospect never actually exists as something we can experience.

Time is the one thing which, once lost, can never be replaced. That might not matter much once we achieve immortality (or near-immortality); but as long as we know our allotment is limited, we value every minute. While people may have a lot of mis-judged values, the quest to save time is not one of them.

In my coin business, I used to mail out price lists (very laborious); then take down all the orders on the phone (even more laborious). Now I post the list on the web, and print out the orders. The time savings is great.

One point the book makes is that time has become a commodity, and a lot of our economy concerns its allocation. A business often tries to get customers to pay not just with money but with their time – “some assembly required” – thereby relieving the business of some costs. images-2Buffet restaurants are another example, the customer doing some of the work theretofore done by restaurant staff. There’s a new buffet concept in Japan – instead of “all you can eat” for a fixed price, or charging by the ounce, this eatery charges by the minute. Diners punch a time clock, then rush to the buffet, and wolf down their food as fast as they can. Conversation among dining companions is a casualty (though they can eat with eyes glued to phones). The advantage to the restaurant is obvious – without gourmands lingering over their repasts, many more of them can be serviced. Yet the scheme is quite popular, Gleick reports; Tokyo residents wait in line for the opening gun.

Speaking of eyes glued to phones, Gleick quotes economist Herbert Stein: “It is the way of keeping contact with someone, anyone, who will reassure you that you are not alone . . . deep down you are checking on your existence. I rarely see people using cellphones on the sidewalk when they are in the company of other people.”Unknown-7

Reading this made me check the book’s publication date: 1999. Seems like ancient history now. Today many folks are fixated on their phones 24/7 – oblivious to people around them.

This is, again, a mode of existence radically different from our evolutionary antecedents. Some see it as dystopian; yet its extreme popularity tells us that it satisfies human needs in a very deep way. People always had a profound yearning for what their phones provide – but until recently, they just didn’t know it.

Mind and – or versus – brain – and “neuropsychoanalysis”

August 18, 2016

imagesThis book was a gift from my wife: In the Mind Fields by Casey Schwartz. I’ve written before how the concept of the self bugs me. I keep pondering: what, really, is this feeling that I’m me? David Hume identified why this is so hard – it’s using the self to look for itself.

The book is subtitled Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis. But it wasn’t persuasive that there even is such a thing.

It’s a tale of two disciplines. Psychoanalysis, the whole Freudian thing, tries to demystify the workings of the mind. Neuroscience tries to understand the workings of the brain. It’s interested in figuring out how the brain creates the mind. But, once you have one, the thoughts it produces are no concern of neuroscience. That’s psychology, the province of psychoanalysis. And, in turn, psychoanalysis isn’t much interested in the nuts and bolts of brain function that neuroscience explores.

imagesIndeed, as the book says, psychoanalysts are so fixated on the mind that they tend to forget it’s produced by the brain. They’re often actually somewhat hostile to neuroscience, seeing it as aridly divorced from the reality of human experience, as lived through the psychology they are concerned with. While neuroscientists tend to look down on psychoanalysis as unscientific, non-rigorous, subjective psychobabble.

Neuropsychoanalysis (as the name implies) seeks to bridge this chasm, by bringing the findings of neuroscience into the practice of psychoanalysis. However, while its leading prophet, Mark Solms, does use the word, the book left me unclear how, if at all, this marriage actually works in practice.

UnknownEventually, the author comes around to focusing intensively on one case: Harry, and his psychoanalyst, David Silvers. A normal, athletic man, Harry had a stroke in his thirties that partly crippled him and left him aphasic – i.e., largely speechless. (He fully understood language, but couldn’t put thoughts into words.) Unable to continue his tutoring business, Harry’s life became a cycle of medical appointments.

Now, this was quintessentially a neuroscience case. Harry’s problem was not psychological; his brain was physically damaged. Of course, he did have some psychological difficulty adjusting to his loss and new circumstances but that was certainly not mental illness. At one point, though, Silvers labels him “depressed.” That diagnosis seemed superciliously offhand. Depression is a particular pathology, apparently caused by brain chemistry effects. Harry was not “depressed,” he was responding to a rotten break, as any normal person would. If anything, he seemed pretty cheerful under the circumstances.

So what was Harry doing in psychoanalysis altogether? It works by talking through issues with the analyst. But the supreme irony here is that Harry’s problem was his inability to talk! He did manage to communicate, somewhat, sort of. But Silvers acknowledged that his sessions with Harry did not resemble his usual interactions with patients.

The book flap states that Harry “nevertheless benefits from Silvers’s analytic technique.” This assertion is key to the whole book. Yet I could not see how Harry benefited, therapeutically. He and Silvers did establish a human bond, which Harry seemed to value. But Silvers’s psychoanalysis did nothing to improve his situation. In fact, Harry was actually in worse shape at the end.

images-2Nor could I see how Silvers’s efforts could be labeled “neuropsychoanalysis.” He had no neuroscience training, and nowhere did he appear to be using neuroscientific insights to help Harry. This evokes the old saw, “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Silvers’s psychoanalytic toolkit was simply mismatched to Harry’s case.

Freud, who figures prominently throughout this book, had a lot to say about the self and its behavior – some of it wrong, though he himself would have acknowledged the tentativeness of his theories – but he had no clue what makes a self. Someday neuroscience may crack this very hard problem. images-1Then maybe I can finally know who and what I am.

My most popular blog post ever

August 14, 2016

UnknownI’ve been blogging since 2008, on WordPress, which provides a lot of interesting data. WordPress says I’ve done 645 posts and have had 224,000 visits, last year from 162 different countries. I have 3,582 subscribed followers (though many apparently signed up just to plug their own blogs).

What I find particularly interesting is which blog posts attracted the most hits. This must largely result from search terms people google. In some cases, it seems obvious why a post gets a lot of traffic – for example, the one titled, “Is consumerism bad?” In other cases it’s a mystery to me. (Like the one on Amartya Sen. Who?) Meanwhile, I’ll sometimes post something I feel is really interesting and should draw a lot of traffic, but . . . pfft, nothing. It seems that titles with question marks do well (see below).

Unknown-1So anyway, here, according to WordPress data, is my “top ten” list of most visited blog posts, in ascending order of popularity. Note, there is some bias in favor of older items which have simply had more time to accumulate hits, so more recent ones haven’t yet made the list. However, the rankings for the top ten have actually stayed the same at least since the beginning of this year. (You can click on each title to see the original post):

10. The marshmallow test

9. Unintelligent Design – Why evolution explains the human body and “intelligent design” does not.

8. Eckhart Tolle: The future is now

7. Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom

6. Why is there something rather than nothing?

5. Utilitarianism: Is killing one to save five moral?

4. Is consumerism bad?

3. Reason versus emotion?

2. Why religion and logic don’t mix.

And, finally, my most popular post ever, from 2009, which still continues to rack up hits and consistently maintains its top spot:

images 1. The Enlightenment and its critics

This one definitely falls in the mystery category. I am baffled by its popularity; would never have guessed this would get much attention, let alone the number one slot. Yet, year in and year out, “The Enlightenment and its critics” continues to lead the pack, with more visits than any other post.

Maybe I said something there more profound than I realized. Perhaps it’s worth a look!

This is my America

August 11, 2016

UnknownIlhan Omar spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, fleeing from the turmoil in her native Somalia.

On Tuesday, now 33, she won a Democratic primary for Minnesota state representative. Somali refugees have been drawn to Minnesota by welcoming programs, and are now estimated to exceed 40,000 there. Omar defeated the incumbent, who was the longest serving Minnesota legislator. She is favored to win the November election over her Republican opponent, who is also a Somali immigrant; and would be the first Somali-American state legislator.

In an interview, Omar explained she had sought the support of a broad coalition, not just people of African origin. “I hope our story is an inspirational story to many people,” she said.

Our HUUUGE new recycling bin

August 10, 2016
Who needs a hot tub?

Who needs a hot tub?

The City of Albany dropped off our new recycling bin. To quote a well-known local advertiser, it’s HUUUGE. I remarked that I could fit inside it. My wife said we both could. So we decided to make a picture.

This proved to be quite a tricky engineering challenge. A standard selfie didn’t cut it. And while getting into the bin was relatively easy, we needed an exit strategy.

I considered putting the old bin into the new one, for recycling, but then decided to keep using it, for smaller loads. However, when I tried that, the trash collectors took it away.

Payday lending and lawyer extortionists

August 8, 2016

imagesPayday lending has been in the news again, with do-gooders seeking a crack-down. These are businesses making small short-term loans, to mostly poorer people in a fix for cash. Their charges, if calculated as annualized interest rates, might seem exorbitant. What would be reasonable? An 18% limit? On a one week $100 loan at 18%, the business would clear . . . thirty-five cents. Would you make such loans? With all the costs and overheads, rent, wages, etc., all the risks of running a business, handling a lot of cash, in what may be a crime-ridden neighborhood? Plus the risk of non-payment and all the hassles of trying to collect? Do these businesses actually make excessive profits? That we’re never told.

But well-intentioned liberals want to protect the poor from victimization by payday lenders. Put them out of business. So poor people needing quick cash will have no way to get it. Isn’t it great that affluent “progressives” stand up for the disadvantaged?

UnknownHowever, some businesses are predatory. Like Trump University. A total rip-off. And prominent among the predators are lawyers – whose predation mostly targets legitimate businesses. I’ve written about the class action lawsuit scam. You find some business that has done something maybe, arguably, a little bit wrong, no matter how trivial, and you sue their butt off, forcing them to settle to avoid ruinous litigation costs. The lawyers typically get six or seven figures, while the consumers they’re supposedly fighting for get peanuts.

Unknown-1One such case involved a restaurant’s alleged failure to honor a free meal coupon. A consumer, to get anything, would have to produce that old $3.99 coupon (good luck). The lawyers got $515,000. Who’s more guilty, them or the restaurant?

The Economist recently highlighted another such scam – lawsuits charging businesses with violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA rulebook is hundreds of pages, so no business, however well-intentioned, can be in 100% compliance. And Congress, in its wisdom, instead of having a government agency police this, opened it up for private litigation. Maybe the lawyers’ lobbies had something to do with that.

UnknownAnd if you’re a business that’s sued — perhaps because a sign is not properly positioned – I’m not kidding – you might suppose you could simply fix it. Nope. No fun for lawyers in that. They get their pound of flesh just by showing a violation ever existed. And you have to pay their attorney fees too.

Not surprisingly, some lawyers have gone whole-hog into this ADA extortion racket – filing suits against every business in sight, shaking them down to settle rather than face even costlier litigation. Settlements typically run $3500-7500. But California has special rules even more skewed against businesses, so settlements there run $15,000-20,000. A California judge has ordered a Colorado retailer to pay legal fees likely to exceed $100,000 because its website didn’t accommodate screen-reading software for the blind. (There’s always something.) The Economist says some lawyers file dozens of these cases weekly.

So we target payday lenders, who provide a real service to needy people, but stack the deck in favor of predatory lawyers and against the legitimate businesses they victimize. And we wonder why small business growth in America is way down. Unknown-2All the yammering about “jobs, jobs, jobs” in political discourse seems disconnected from the fact that jobs come from businesses.

The narcissist

August 6, 2016

Having gotten much from Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, I picked up his 2006 book, Social Intelligence, and found the following passages, in a chapter titled, “The Narcissist: Dreams of Glory” –

“In the business world, such narcissists can end up as larger-than-life leaders . . . Such ambitious and self-confident leaders can be effective in the present cutthroat business world . . . Productive narcissists combine a justified self-confidence with openness to criticism . . . .

Unknown“But unhealthy narcissists crave to be admired more than loved . . . [T]hey are driven to achieve – not because they have a high internal standard of excellence but because they want the perks and glory that achievement brings. Caring little about how their actions affect others, they feel free to pursue their goals aggressively, regardless of the human costs. In times of great turbulence . . . such leaders can seem attractive . . . .

“But such narcissists empathize selectively, turning a blind eye to those who do not feed their striving for glory. They can close or sell a company, or lay off multitudes of employees, without feeling an ounce of sympathy for those for whom those decisions are personal disasters . . .

“Such leaders avoid even constructive feedback, which they perceive as an attack. Their hypersensitivity to criticism in any form also means that narcissistic leaders don’t seek out information widely; rather they selectively seize on data that supports their views, ignoring disconfirming facts. They don’t listen but prefer to preach and indoctrinate . . . .

“When they harbor unrealistic dreams, lacking any restraint and ignoring wise counsel, they drag a company down the wrong track . . . .

images“Even unhealthy narcissists can sometimes be charmers. The very name comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, who was so entranced by his own beauty that he fell in love with his own image reflected in a lake. The nymph Echo also fell in love with him, but she ended up spurned and heartbroken, unable to compete with his self-adoration.

“As the myth suggests, many narcissists attract people because the self-confidence they exude can lend them a charismatic aura. Though they are quick to put others down, unhealthy narcissists view themselves in absolutely positive terms. They are, understandably, happiest in a marriage with someone who will be unfailingly fawning. The slogan of the narcissist might be ‘Others exist to adore me.’

images-1“[N]arcissists . . . are blatant in their self-inflation and braggadocio – leavened with a necessary dose of self-deception . . . they take credit for successes but never blame for failure . . . .

“According to one standard test, a narcissist is someone who has a grandiose sense of self-importance, harbors obsessive fantasies of unbounded glory, feels rage or intense shame when criticized, expects special favors, and lacks empathy. That deficiency in empathy means narcissists remain oblivious to the self-centered abrasiveness that others see in them so clearly . . . Nonetheless, narcissists typically think of themselves as likable.”

Gregg Millett

August 3, 2016

GreggGregg Millett died August 1, aged 77. This was a shock. He was a friend of ours; in fact, he was responsible for our marriage, running Singles Outreach Support where I met my wife-to-be in 1988. We didn’t know him then; only many years later did we become acquainted through the local humanist society.

Gregg was a man of strong left-wing political views. He called himself an “old commie” and had spent time in Nicaragua during the Sandinista period living those beliefs. He also traveled several times to China and cultivated relationships with Chinese both there and in the U.S. He was always coming out with statements that I personally found absurd. So it might seem strange that we were friends.

However – unlike far too many people in today’s political landscape – Gregg was always humble about his views, a gentle and sweet man, always respectful of others, and always willing to listen to and consider other viewpoints. He was intellectually curious and wanted to learn and understand. He even invited me several times to speak to his group, and often said things I wrote made him re-think. Maybe he was just flattering me – but that was Gregg, always striving to be a good person toward others.

Communism aside, if all people were like Gregg Millett, this would be a better world.

John Cleese: So, Anyway

August 1, 2016

UnknownJohn Cleese’s memoir, So, Anyway, says, “I know this book is supposed to be an autobiography, but the fact is that most of you don’t give a tinker’s cuss for me as a human being or feel for the many different forms of suffering that make me so special. No, you are just flipping through my heart-rending life story in the hope of getting a couple of good laughs, aren’t you?”

Yes, I was. But any fans looking to revisit Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers probably will be disappointed. Unknown-1Those shows are mentioned only as future foreshadowing, since the book stops when Python started.

Nevertheless, Cleese does provide some good laughs. The quoted paragraph made me laugh out loud. And the antecedents of the dead parrot sketch, among others, are explained. Yet this is mainly a straight personal memoir (with no suggestion of co-authorship or writing help), chronicling not just Cleese’s early comedy career but his broader experience of human life, and how his career fit into it. The emphasis is very much on the person rather than the performer.

Unknown-2One reads such things with an eye toward one’s own life. And his actually had some resemblances with mine. Cleese too trained as a lawyer; he was just about to start a dull legal job when a surprise BBC offer came. And Cleese, like me, was very late to the party when it came to women. In his case it was partly down to male-only education, with scant exposure to females which, combined with British reserve, left him clueless how to relate to them.

Speaking of male-only, here’s an eye-opener. Starting at university, Cleese was a close friend of Graham Chapman (the future Python), they collaborated on projects, and even spent some weeks living together in Ibiza to write a film script.

Graham Chapman

Graham Chapman

Yet, when Graham finally came out as gay, Cleese writes, “I was very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very surprised.” (His emphasis, and his eleven veries.) But this was the 1960s, and tells us what a different planet that was. Homosexuality was so stigmatized that gays took great pains to conceal it.

The book does reprise some comedy bits, but not merely for yuks; its main theme is what goes into producing good comedy. Cleese quotes Sir Henry Irving, asked on his deathbed whether dying is hard: “No, dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” A real talent like Cleese can make it look easy, on the TV screen – but the book’s big take-away is how much art, and sweat, goes into it.

Like so many things in life, it should not be taken for granted, but cherished.

 

 

Hillary’s convention speech II; and more Trumpery

July 30, 2016

imagesWell, Hillary did use some of the draft I wrote for her (see previous post). But mainly she insisted on giving the Standard Model Democratic Speech – covering every policy, every voter niche, stroking every interest group.

It was a speech for the ‘90s.

images-1Not only is Hillary running as a Democrat, she’s running as a Bernie Sanders Democrat (though Bernie always called himself not a Democrat but a socialist). Yet if Clinton is running as a Sanders Democrat, you wouldn’t know it from listening to the Bernie-or-busters. While her stances are practically a carbon copy of his, they still talk as though it’s a saint versus a Satan. As Sarah Silverman told them, they’re being ridiculous. Of course, their candidate always was.

UnknownHillary (like Andrew Cuomo) seems to think orating means talking loud. As though that shows your speech is really important and you really really mean it. Hillary often sounds as shrill as a harpy. And often looks like smiling is painful for her. Trump spent his entire speech scowling darkly, as though he could spit bullets. Why did Hillary try to imitate that?

Meantime, Trump has endorsed – encouraged – the idea of an enemy nation engaging in espionage against us and interfering in U.S. politics. This is the man who says only he can protect us.

But he also says he won’t necessarily protect other nations against an attack by that enemy, notwithstanding our treaty obligations to do so.

images-2And when asked about America’s opposition to Russia’s grab of Crimea, Trump said, “We’ll be looking at that.” Which is Trump-speak for “I don’t know what the frick to say, but that doesn’t stop me from saying something stupid.” His answer has been interpreted as bowing to the Crimea crime. But I doubt he meant that – rather, his answer revealed he knows nothing about Crimea, doesn’t know where it is, or why it’s an issue.

When a man thinks he knows everything, he thinks he needn’t bother himself actually knowing anything.

(I’m voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.)


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