When it comes to the twisted gyre of human identity, what would Hamlet be like on social media? He would be a lot like Hamlet, and a lot like you and me. Facebook has turned us into an electronic village. TV had already done that, of course, but on Facebook we can not only be held together but chat about what we’ve seen and heard. I grew up in a village and can recall just running into people on the sidewalks and exchanging news and views. Now I bump into people on Facebook. I used to walk around in order to encounter people. Now I place my bottom on a chair and scroll down. In my village I might tell Read on »
08/07’2022: The Cops Save Lives—But Not In the Way You think There are two images of police in direct contact with people’s lives. One comes from the likes of the George Floyd case, where we see a cop seeming to take a life. And then there are TV shows, for instance, where the constabulary arrive just in time to save some helpless victim from a serial killer, say. Or, then again, there are instances in both media and life where the police catch someone who goes on trial and is put in jail to protect the lies of the rest of us. But these examples do not get at how the cops really do save our lives, yours and mine. Read on »
The Mindset List for the Graduating High School Class of 1961 Authors note: For more than two decades the Beloit College Mindset List chronicled the experiences and event horizons of 18-year-old students as they entered college. Created by Ron Nief, director of Public Affairs at Wisconsin’s Beloit College and his Beloit College colleague, Prof. of English Tom McBride, the list was distributed internationally each August as the authors traveled the country speaking and doing interviews. It was initially intended as a reminder to those faculty facing first- year students to beware of “hardening of the references.” Over the years it became one of the most quoted “back-to-school” references and was cited by Time Magazine as a part of the “American Read on »
When it comes to the twisted gyre of human identity, what would Hamlet be like on social media? He would be a lot like Hamlet, and a lot like you and me.
Facebook has turned us into an electronic village. TV had already done that, of course, but on Facebook we can not only be held together but chat about what we’ve seen and heard. I grew up in a village and can recall just running into people on the sidewalks and exchanging news and views. Now I bump into people on Facebook. I used to walk around in order to encounter people. Now I place my bottom on a chair and scroll down. In my village I might tell someone I’d not seen them in a while. On Facebook I might tell them I’ve not had a post from them in a long time. This is my Comment, and I Like the fact that they have resurfaced. In my village I would tell them it was good to see them again. Facebook, as Marshall McLuhan would say if he were around, has thrown us back to the village of olden days,
There are differences. In my village, if I didn’t want to talk to someone but saw them coming, I could change routes or stop by Mrs. Rogers’ house for a cup of coffee in order to avoid them. Still, the boring or unlikeable fellow villager might see me trying to escape. On Facebook, if I wish to ignore a fellow villager from Facebook, The World, I can simply do so without anyone knowing. If one of my fellow villagers of old and I exchanged gossip or opinions, it would for a while at least be just between us. If it happens on a Facebook thread, it will be there for all FB villagers to see, In the old village if I told a fellow denizen I liked Pepsi, the town grocer wouldn’t be eavesdropping to learn that he’d better order fewer Cokes. Facebook village, on the other hand, is a giant surveillance service for corporations much larger than the town grocer.
A village is a small, circumscribed place. In a big city one rarely notices visitors. In a village, visitors are a novelty, not unlike an unexpected Facebook Friend request. So it was in the Danish court of Prince Hamlet and King Claudius. Norwegian ambassadors paid a call, and it was a big deal, as Claudius needed to negotiate a territorial understanding between himself and
Fortinbras, the upstart and aggressive Norwegian prince. In such a courtly “village”–a great big castle–people would have run into one another all the time. But the Danish court is no ordinary village, as most of the inhabitants conspire to run into one another, Polonius acts as though he has just bumped into Hamlet, but in fact he has deliberately done so in order to spy for King Claudius, who knows that Hamlet has seemed to be acting funny of late and wants to know why. As Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother, Claudius wants to keep close tabs on Hamlet., It is as though Hamlet’s social media posts have been angrily daffy and the government wants to know why. So someone in the top echelons tells Polonius, “Friend him and feel him out.” In the Facebook village Polonius would have needed only to read Hamlet’s posts, but in the Danish village he has to eavesdrop. This gets him killed. Facebook lurking is safer.
Most of us would prefer to live in a village where people don’t plot to run into us in order to find out our secrets. That’s the difference between a good village and a bad one. There’s little privacy in an everybody-know-everybody type of town, but on Facebook we give up our privacy in order to get our ideas and photos “liked.” There would have been little privacy in the small Danish court, but Claudius goes a step further and seeks to invade Hamlet’s privacy in any way he can. He discovers that Hamlet is not mad due to love sickness and concludes that Hamlet must know something incriminating about Claudius himself. He plans to get rid of Hamlet one way or another,
It seems fanciful to imagine this whole drama of duplicity and spying and murder playing out on Facebook village, as opposed to the Danish court village. It may not be so outlandish. In the course of things Hamlet takes on several different identities: melancholy cynic, incoherently angry avenger, focused avenger, duplicitous counter-intelligencer, brave and resigned stoic. On Facebook we sometimes project multiple and shifting identities. We like our “likes” on Facebook and feel we must constantly maintain our reputation for: being witty, being liberal or conservative, being a good amateur photographer, being a lover of pets, being sympathetic, being a teller of sentimental family stories. We wish to maintain our standards, and if Hamlet were on Facebook instead of on soliloquies, he would understand, as he has his own internal reputation to uphold as a competent agent of revenge and upholder of the family honor and judge of his mother’s transgressions. We worry in the Facebook village about our brand. Hamlet has been branded by his father’s ghost and must now live up to the trademark. On Facebook there is no forgetting: posts are cyber spatially immortal. In order to move on with his life after the tragedy
of his father’s sudden death, Hamlet needs to forget him. But the ghost of his father tells Hamlet he cannot forget his duty to put things right. It is as though Hamlet, Sr. had his own FB account and has posted orders that can never be erased If Hamlet were to put his own maturation ahead of his revenge, someone would find old Hamlet’s posts on the web and remind Hamlet of unfinished business, It is like something you or I said ten years ago that now haunts us,
In my traditional village they never forget what you did, but because bumped into exchanges are just between the two of you, what you say can get forgotten, Not so with the Facebook village or the village of the ghostly Danish court.
Hamlet finds the dormant programming of his inner stoic. Instead of looking for the occasion for revenge, he lets it come to him. “Let be.” This is a story with a progression and turning point- -life with the dull parts omitted–whereas Facebook is more like life itself as we experience: a series of frames. Still, on Facebook we strive to convey our impressions of ourselves, present a unified front, or, contrarily, express different facets of ourselves. For most of the play, until he returns from his near-death experience on the ship to England, after which he accepts his as yet unknown fate with the cheerful adjournment of previous anger, he grapples with his identity every bit as much as does a villager of Facebook. In thinking he should be in control, as we try to be on social media, he sees himself through a glass darkly. Facebook itself may be just such a clouded mirror of identity dynamics.
Hamlet’s identity issues are impression management, standards maintenance, discontinuity of the self, and necessity to forget but the impossibility of doing so. These are all played out on Facebook every minute of every day. The electronic village is different from the “real” one. But the overlap in identity issues between the two suggests that there is something about the human quest for the self that transcends media more than we think. Hamlet on Facebook is not quite so preposterous as it seems at first thought. Something there is about the divided human self that doesn’t care what the medium is and just wants to do its thing, aspiring and confused. Did some potentially perfect deity outsource human identity to an ingenious but myopic, miscalculating architect? What an excellent question for a Facebook post.
08/07’2022: The Cops Save Lives—But Not In the Way You think
There are two images of police in direct contact with people’s lives. One comes from the likes of the George Floyd case, where we see a cop seeming to take a life. And then there are TV shows, for instance, where the constabulary arrive just in time to save some helpless victim from a serial killer, say. Or, then again, there are instances in both media and life where the police catch someone who goes on trial and is put in jail to protect the lies of the rest of us. But these examples do not get at how the cops really do save our lives, yours and mine. They do so by their very existence. Most of us follow the rules and obey the law., We are not a threat to ourselves our others. This is so because we see more upside to being law-abiding. Why rob a bank when you can make more doing a good, and lawful, job? But don’t overrate enlightened self-interest alone. We also follow the rules because we don’t want to be caught and be punished. We may not think about the cops much, but we always know they are around to find us and turn us over to the prosecutors and prisons. There’s all sorts of potential for mischief, for police can be corrupt and/or politicized. But for the most part, the police save lives by their silently frightening us into good behavior.. They save lives due to their very existence. You don’t and won’t read about this or hear about it in the media, which rarely focus on what doesn’t happen.
The Mindsets Blog is by Ton McBride: email@example.com
08/06/2022: Are There Any Daddy Long Legs Spiders on Mars?
Some very smart people think everything comes soon to Mathematica: that the fundamental ingredient of all is numbers and equations. Others, equally smart, think math is only a workable slice of what there is. There is no settlement of this question on offer here. But it is possible to argue that much of the world is arithmetic. Life itself, like football, may be a game of inches. Existence itself may be a matter of measurable hits, misses, and near-misses. Every NBA player is quick, but Michael Jordan and LeBron James were half-a-second quicker, and that’s all it took. Mars is a place of incredibly thick dust storms, extremely cold temperatures, and precious little running water. So could it be colonized? One expert says that 110 is the minimal number for success—the bare minimum in terms of collaboration and new births, 105 won’t do. Once more, applied arithmetic seems to be the name of the game. Or take a Daddy Long Legs spider. It is not poisonous, but let’s say that at one point in its ancient history some members of the species developed poison—butnot quite ehough to pass on the genetic trait before dying, If only 205 more of these spiders, with poison, ha lived 4.8 percent longer, the Daddy Long Legs would be toxic today and have an added advantage in the survival contest.
08/13/2022: Is Donald Trump Li Cheney’s Fault?
One would be hard-pressed to find a Democrat or Democratic-leaning independent who does not adore Liz Cheney. She has ended her political career by standing up for proper and legal Constitutional order. She is the essence of those who put country over party. But it is not quite that simple. Before January 6, 2021, Cheney represented a state, Wyoming, suffused with resentments against the Federal government for gun regulations and land management. These were not just policy issues. They were also macho issues—leave my guns and my land alone, The leading newspaper in Cheyenne, WY, is called the Cowboy Daily. One can hardly separate the policy details from the testosterone culture. Cheney should not have been surprised that such attitudes were ripe for plucking a demagogue as talented and “manly” as Donald Trump. Cheney has found that representing and approving of cowboys can be a two-edged sword, and now she is on the other side of it.
08/05/2022: Could a Nerdy Engineer Have Prevented the Murder of John F. Kennedy?
In April 1963 an engineer in Dallas, Michael Paine, picked up Lee and Marina Oswald for dinner. Michael’s somewhat estranged wife, Ruth, had befriended the Oswalds, who were in dire straits, and had invited them over for dinner. Thirty years later Michael recalled that Lee displayed a photo of himself, now infamous, brandishing a rifle in the back yard. He never mentioned it to his wife—they were’t talking much. Had he done so, the pacifist Ruth would likely have confronted Lee about the rifle, and it would never have ended up being hidden in her garage the night before the Kennedy assassination. If only Michael and Ruth had bee communicating, it is alleged, then Lee would have gotten much ore resistance to his violent tendencies. Kennedy would have been saved. This is all speculation. Oswald might have murdered Kennedy anyhow, simply hiding the rifle in his rooming house, where he lived most of the time except on weekends, when he visited his wife and children at the Paine home. Still, Michael’s silence, until 1993, is one of the big “what-ifs” in history. The whole idea is that if you take one item out of a sequence of events, the whole sequence will not happen. But there is another way of looking at it: that the real cause of Kennedy’s tragic demise was not in the past but in the FUTURE. Some inevitable, future destiny preceded all these events of 1963. All was foreordained. This is anathema to most of us, who think we should be able to find clues about the future and then alter it. But look at it this way: Suppose Michael Paine had been uncannily wise and thought, “A fellow like this could be dangerous enough some day to shoot the president,” although Kennedy’s trip to Dallas was not even planned seven moths before he showed up. Even if Paine had been this prescient, he still could not have stopped a fated event, whose future outcome was the “cause” of all that came before it. Perhaps Kennedy’s death by gunfire was retro-caused: something in the future preceded everything that led up to the catastrophe.
08/04/2022: Cann We Blame the Young After They Get Old?
When he was a youth, George W. Bush was nabbed for drunk driving. This came out on the eve of the 2000 presidential election. Bush shrugged: “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish,” It is no secret that we human beings develop. We change. It is even speculated that we are not the same person when we turn 70, as opposed to when we were 20, say. We think we are because we share the same body and have the same memories over time. But despite the continuity of our names, even, we are not the same person. This issue comes to the fore when we consider the former British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, now serving a long prison sentence for her role in Jeffrey Epstein’s sex abuse and trafficking schemes. She was in her 30s then, and now is about to turn, in jail, 61. She is married, presumably to a man with less savory habits than Epstein had. Her powerful father had died in disgrace, and arguably in Epstein she was looking for a substitute for Robert Maxwell, who thought of her as the apple of his eye. This is called looking for love in all the wrong places—here in kinky, cruel, manipulative places. Maxwell had all the scofflaw habits that we associate with some of the rich and famous. She was duly convinced of her crimes. And yet: could she be capable of them when she was arrested, now that she is in a more wholesome milieu? She must have said to herself, several times: “That was then, this is now. I am no longer a threat to society. I AM NOT THE SAME PERSON. What was I thinking back then?” There seems reason to assume that she has changed, and for the better. Can we blame the young when they become old? If it is a matter of retributive justice, the answer is yes.
08/03/2022: Are You Connected to Somebody Who’s Connected to Somebody?
The former district attorney in Nw Orleans, Jim Garrison, became the hero of a great Oliver Stone movie, JFK. In the movie Garrison was played by Kevin Costner, who pursued with obsessive fury the “real” assassins of President Kennedy. It turns out that Garrison had almost nothing of substance, and his epic search failed, except for inspiring Stone’s movie. One of the links Garrison found was on a street in Irving, Texas, where Lee Harvey Oswald spent his last night of freedom with Mrs. Ruth Paine, who had befriended the Oswalds, Lee and his Russian wife Marina. Garrison discovered that ON THIS SAME STREET lived a couple of musicians who had once played at the night club of….JACK RUBY, who on November 23, shot Oswald himself to death. It was easy for Garrison to conclude that they were all in on a conspiracy: Mrs. Paine, who sheltered the Oswalds; Ruby himself, who rubbed out Oswald; and the musicians who worked for Ruby. Somehow they formed a giant conspiracy behind which was—the CIA, the mob, the Cubans?—to murder the 35th American president. It did not occur to Garrison that the proximity of Mrs. Paine to Jack Ruby’s former musicians was a coincidence. Mrs. Paine’s stepmother-in-law knew Allan Dulles’ former mistress, and Dulles was, once, head of the CIA. We are all connected to somebody who is connected to somebody. You might be surprised at how few degrees of separation there are between you and someone famous or important. You have a neighbor who has a cousin whose second cousin once knew…Elvis Presley or now knows Lady Gaga. We are all, it seems, on the verge of being part of a conspiracy.
08/02/2022: If You saw Macbeth, Would You call the Police?
Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most dangerous and deadly characters. Despite his attempt to fend off his wife when she urges him to assassination King Duncan and become king hmself, Macbeth is a brutal warrior who likes to kill. He realizes in time that it has dehumanized him, but he has a yen for it, and a talent, and he leaves corpses everywhere throughout the play. These even include MacDuff’s children. So if you saw Macbeth in your neighborhood, you’d be seeing a serial killer and want to call the cops. That’s in real life. In the theater you are safe from Macbeth’s murders and are given aesthetic distance. Then you see something else: evil, yes, but also the sheer energy of a life devoted to it. Macbeth expresses a kind of greatness about what human beings are capable of. It also helps that Shakespeare has him talk so pretty. James Remer, the novelist and philosopher of true chimer, thinks the events of 9/11 triggered the American obsession with crime. We suddenly realized we were not safe after all from the pockets of terrorism in the world. They could turn airliners into missiles. Once more, however, we are at a safe distance from all the true crimes we can’t get enough of. Crime pays—for us—if we are far enough away from it to gain a sense of human potential and also come through it ourselves, every time, without a scratch. We have done one more true crime, and once again, the victim isn’t us. What a relief! Shakespeare would have understood.
09/08/2022: Will The Supreme Court Overrule Romeo and Juliet?
Justice Clarence Thomas says there is no right of privacy in the United States Constitution and suggests that previous decisions based on this non-existence should be rethought. This might even include his own inter-racial marriage, though he does not list that as one of his examples in his most recent concurring opinion on the subject of abortion law. This brings us to the subject of forbidden marriage. Romeo and Juliet loved each other intensely but came from rival families and were thus prohibited from marrying. Such enmity was as big a barrier as racial differences used to be. If Romeo and Juliet had a guaranteed right to privacy, as expressed in some Italian Constitution, then there would have been no obstacle to their wedlock. The philosophy is simple: The world is uncanny, contingent, and unfair—the two young lovers just happened to be born Montague and Capulet—so the law has to make the world more just. The justice of the law is a way of compensating for life’s brutal indifference. What would Justice Thomas think? He might see the tragedy of R and J as a sad but inevitable thing that no “loose” reading of the Constitution can do anything about.
07/29/2022: Are UFOs Angels and Demons?
A lot depends on how big your God is. Take the Vatican. It is keenly interested in UFO sightings and believes they are totally consistent with a Big God. God can do anything. Even if the UFOs don’t exist in objective fact, God can inspire someone to think she has seen one and this in turn transforms her life into one of wonder and humility. Scientists may be skeptical because of the great distances involved between us and any other form of intelligent life—one that could design and fly a saucer—but Theists of the Big God do not see such distances as any object. UFO sightings have been recorded for hundreds of years, and so have sightings of angels and demons. Perhaps the sightings of flying saucers by medieval people were identified, by them, not as air borne machines but as angels and demons. We, of course, live in an advanced tech age, so naturally we see them as some expression of space technology. What is for one age a UFO might be for an earlier one an angel or demon. Both sets of people see the same fuzzy things. But the world view and the nomenclature are totally different.
07/28/2022: Why Do Some Serial Killers Have Groupies?
When Ted Bundy was being prosecuted in Florida over forty years ago, women would attend the trial in adoration and fascination. Some of them parted their hair as Ted’s victims had done. Why? Three reasons account for this mindset. First, Budny had not yet been proven guilty, so there was still a theoretical chance he didn’t do these horrific butchering crimes. Second, he was handsome—the boy next door—and middle-class white. How could such a man do such things? Even if he did, he was a man of intrigue. In a lot of ways Bundy was Sears or Penneys catalogue handsome: a face of of cookie-cutter symmetry. But put that wholesome demeanor together with his alleged crime, and you have the exotic. Finally, while the trial showed evidence of Bundy’s crimes, it could not show the crimes themselves, where arguably one could see Ted at his most authentic. Besides, in general we are in awe of people who can do difficult things, such as walk a tightrope or do multiple flips in a nano-second. Killing all those women and not getting caught for a long while seemed a sign of great competence. There are new books and films about Ted Bunny all the time. They are unlikely to cease soon.
07/27/2022: Tucker Carlson, Vampire Slayer
Fear of demographic replacement goes back to the 1800s. Great Western powers, such as France, had colonized a good deal of Africa and the Mideast and feared that the colonized would become the colonizers and get revenge. Western Europeans had gone “over there” and taken over, so why wouldn’t “they” come “over here” and try to do the same? Such Great Replacement theories go back a ways, though lately, in the wake of 9/11 and social media and the loss of white working class jobs, they have become more mainstream. Tucker Carlson pushes them nightly on Fox News, and in France this is a talking point of Le Pen and the right. Actually, the most famous Great Replacement Theory is thinly veiled in a world-celebrated book, Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, which first appeared in 1897. Count Dracula was not a Jew or a Muslim or an Asian or Latin American migrant. He was a Romanian vampire, but Romania seemed to the English exotic and threatening enough to be feared. So, Dracula was part of a “them” coming to get “us.” He and his minions would be part of a huge pyramid scheme. Dracula would bite them, and they would turn into vampires and bite us and before we know it all of us are vampires. Part of the Great Replacement theory has also involved fear of the over-sexuality of the invading force. They will out-reproduce us and rape all our women. Dracula, sure enough, was a figure of charismatic eroticism. He was the original Great Replacer, but he was stopped not by Fox News but by a stake in his heart as he slept. He only worked nights. That was his udoing.
07/26/2022: Are You Important Enough to be the Target of a Conspiracy?
If Jack Ruby had not shot Lee Harvey Oswald, there would have been much less conspiracy theorizing about the JFK murder. There is plenty of evidence that Ruby’s shooting was the lone act of a violent man who just happened to be there—and had no access to information that would have permitted pre-planning—but the Ruby shooting looked like a hit job. If there were a conspiracy against JFK, himself, it was because he was important and “in the way” of someone—the Cubans, the mob, the CIA, take your pick. And if Oswald were the target of a conspiracy, it was because Oswald himself had become important and “in the way” of somebody. Before we we look too far to explain the abundance of conspiracy theories, we should examine human vanity. “There is a conspiracy against us because we are significant people in the way of powerful interests.” One of the greatest conspiracy theories today is the GREAT REPLACEMENT. There is a conspiracy among elites and people of color to replace white folks with non-white folks, and with Jews. White prople in so thinking believe they are important and powerful and need to be gotten out of the way. It is not only a way to assert White Power. It is also a way for White Power types to congratulate themselves on being so wonderfully powerful. The more likely fact is that times are changing, demography is changing, transportation is changing, and that no one is “out” to get anyone. A part-time trucker in Alabama or Missouri is just not that important so that anyone wants to remove him from the scene.
07/25/2022: Did the Unabomber Just Need a Dog?
In the early 1970s Ted Kaczyniski, who would go on to become the terrorist Unabomber, got a letter from a prominent Federal health official. Ted had written about the dangers of behavioral control, as in the government planting chemical devices in people’s brains in order to turn them into complaint zombies. The official replied that all organized societies depend on behavioral control. This is true: social coherence depends on a good deal of conformity. Ted apparently decided that if all social orders had to have behavioral control, he’d have none of social orders. He moved to the Montana woods and had as little to do with people as possible. So far, so good: He did not believe in behavioral control, especially as it was imparted by technology, and if such controls made society possible, he would turn his back on society. This is logical. But there was a tragic back story. Ted didn’t like society, but he’d had ample proof that society didn’t like him. He was a math prodigy thrown in with bullying kids older than he was, and most people thought he was weird. Ted was not affectionate or lovable. By rejecting society, he was getting his own back, because society had more or less rejected him. In time, this vengeance would fuel his sending bombs that killed a few people and injured others. It is said that we should not run away from who we are—in China Achebe’s great novel THINGS FALL APART, the Nigerian tribes call this one’s chi. Who was Ted? He was an unlovable loner. But he could not live with that—his chi, shall we say—so he struck back because he could not accept who he was. Not all of us are loving, popular, likable people. Some of us are not. There is always an out. A dog is not critical of us the way humans are. Dogs are capable of loving anyone. Had Ted gotten a dog, he might well have lived with his sour self much better. He’d have gotten some love, even if it depend in part on opening dog food cans. There is peace in accepting our fates—who we are—but if who we are is someone unlikeable, then a dog helps—a lot. Their saving grace is that they are to discriminating.
07/22/2022: How Shakespeare Predicted Watergate’s Deep Throat
In about 1600 Shakespeare wrote a play about a soldier who did not get promoted. This soldier, named Iago, took revenge on his boss, Othello, by misleading him and inducing him to murder his wife. Thus was a life tragically destroyed, and in part it happened because Iago did not get promoted. Over three centuries later President Richard Nixon overlooked the number two FBI official, Mark Felt, and appointed Patrick Gray as head of the bureau. Felt, like Iago, was furious, and soon proceeded to leak secrets about Nixon that helped in time to destroy his presidency. The journalists Woodward and Bernstein called Felt “Deep Throat” in order to protect his identity. It is said that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Hell also hath no fury like a man who is not promoted.
07/21/2022: Are We a Nation of Brats?
Perhaps the most famous brat in the movies is Baby LeRoy, who appears as a toddler in the W.C. Fields classic, IT’S A GIFT. He turns on a barrel of molasses—they had those in grocery stores back in 1933—and proceeds to romp through the spillage in his Oxford shoes. He gets the sticky stuff all over the store. When Fields berths him, his mother rushes to his defense and denies that her darling could have done anything of the sort. Baby LeRoy is a brat. What does this mean? It means that he has no regard for the consequences of his actions. He doesn’t care that someone has to clean up the mess and that his reckless curiosity is costing someone time and money. Of course, he’s just a child. But what about us? We enjoy trashy movies and TV shows as part of our freedoms, little caring about or recalling the blood spilled to secure them. We love our phones but have no idea how they work or what went into their invention. We are told that our opinions, which are far from expert about most things, really count a lot. Donald Trump calls us “great” and “winners,” but hardly a politician goes by without calling us “hard-working Americans.” We are flattered and spoiled, but, like Baby LeRoy’s mother, we are in denial. No doubt we aren’t full-time brats. Do we nonetheless have too many bratty moments?
07/20/2022: Joan Crawford and the Dilemma of the American Woman
The film JOHNNY GUITAR is notable for two things. First, it was panned in its day of 1954 and is now regarded as an American classic. Second, it stars two female stars who take on strongly masculine qualities. It features not just one but two stars who wear guns around their dresses. Mercedes McCambridge, who plays Emma, never dons trousers, as does Joan Crawford, but by the film’s mid-point she has buckled two six-guns around her waist. Crawford first packs iron while wearing trousers, but then abandons them—guns and trousers—during the middle portion of the film, only to put on both again at the end. Early in the film, one of Crawford’s employees—she is a saloon keeper in late 19th century Arizona territory—says that his boss thinks and acts like a man and often makes him feel he isn’t one. This was pretty radical stuff for the American 1950s, yet latent in both the Crawford and McCambridge characters is a housewife-like domesticity. Crawford is an ambitious saloon-keeper who aligns herself with the coming, disruptive railroad, but she also makes it clear that she wants nothing more than to settle down with her old beau and live peacefully, and profitably, in the saloon apartment. McCambridge is a real gun-toter, and Crawford’s great rival and beta noir—Crawford shoots her dead at film’s end—but she too is cozy-domestic. One of her main motives is to keep the railroad out and the pastoral cattle grazing in. She is violent and aggressive, but it’s all in the name of keeping matters domestically unchanged. This was in the 50s the dilemma of the American woman, She could be ambitious but had to be reassuringly like the “little lady.” Crawford could wear trousers, but in one scene she is in a dress at home playing a lovely tranquil piece on the piano. McCambridge packs her weapons, but she is never without a dress: a long one.
07/25/2022: Why Donald Trump Is Your Next President
The Republican Party would seem ill-advised to re-nominate Donald Trump in 2024. He is someone who has never gotten the popular vote. He lost by nearly 3 million votes in 2016 and by seven million in 2020. But he will be the GOP nominee in 2024 and will win. The reason is simple. He claims the election was stolen from him in 2020 and even said he won the popular vote in 2016. He is the sole Republican candidate who can justify fixing the 2024 election so as to eliminate its alleged corruptions. This means that state legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, and possibly Pennsylvania, can declare that Trump is the real winner of their states, and it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court, now flirting with the “independent state legislatures” doctrine, will interfere. It will be harder to sustain this legislative incursion with another Republican candidate, but with Trump they can claim they are dong it in order to correct past electoral fraud. In effect, “they stole the election from Trump, so we are right to steal it back.” Trump has made the minority of Americans displaced y secularism and global capitalism feel proud and “great” again. His voters don’t think votes by socialists, feminists, gays, and people of color should count anyhow. All this will be enough for Trump’s re-election in two years.
07/19/2022: Will Scientists Ever Find Signs of Intelligent Life on the Planet Earth?
One of the most fascinating things done by astrophysicists is to speculate about the possibility of life in other parts of the Universe. They start out by considering the various “habitation zones,” which are areas of outer space where planets have particular relationships with their stars—not too hot or cold—that might allow for the emergence of water, which is essential for any form of life. And then they look into how long the star—what we call the sun—will last. If it’s a short-lived star, there might be time for life to emerge but probably not intelligent life, which has taken 200 million years here on Earth. It’s a lot more complicated that what’s been covered so far. But the most ironic aspect of this whole business is the claim by one scientist that the chances of our finding intelligent life are diminished by the likelihood that intelligent life on ANY planet will not last longer than 12,000 years because of its—INTELLIGENCE! According to this view, intelligence is not all that necessary to sustain life: locomotion and sight are much more important, and while plants can’t move around, the wind moves their seeds around for them. But—and here’s the argument that takes the cake—intelligence is even ANTITHETICAL to the longevity of life. Why? Because intelligent creatures are much more likely to mess with nature at its own peril. We Earthlings are intelligent enough to create giant industries and consumer habits that are slowly cooking our planet. Now we have to be intelligent enough to deal with the resulting droughts, heat waves, forest fires, and floods and we might not be up to it. It’s hard to believe that in the long run intelligence is counter to the ongoing of life. Yet since once we are gone the roaches and rats and bacteria may well remain, we might want to rethink this issue.
07/18/2022: How To Make Something Really Weird Seem Really Normal
In a podcast called BETRAYAL, you will find the story of Jennifer and Spence, who had a fairy tale romance and marriage until Spence was accused and convicted of sexual assault. He was a teacher who had groomed one of his students. In the podcast Jennifer, now Shane’s former wife, talks to his victim. She was fifteen at the time, and Spence was in his late 30s. This seemed weird to his teen-aged student, who was shy and insecure to begin with. But Spence soon made it seem normal—and wonderful. If it seemed strange, that’s only because God and the cosmos work in strange ways. God meant it to happen, said Spence. The victim was a person of faith, so once Spencer brought God in, an illicit romance became a conversion experience. But wasn’t Spence married? Yeah, but he was going to leave his wife, and they were planning a divorce—a lie. Don’t men leave their wives for younger women all the time? Here was another “normal” that made the bizarre seem Ok and mainstream—but still fabulous. This is a terrible story, but the narrative conversion technique is a preponderant mindset. We constantly translate crazy new information into knowledge we already have. We try to put it into a category we have already mastered. When Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver sees humans who are super-bestial, he is sure they are non-human beasts. He wants his world to be “normal.” When he discovers that the “beasts” are human beings, and that the horses in the realm are rational, he has to start from scratch and is himself driven half-way mad in the process.
07/15/2022: Can You Love a Triangle More Than You Love Bad Pitt?
It is said that Brad Pitt is the top actor in the world today. He has starred in many fine films. He is sexy. He does humanitarian work. He is artistic, attractive, and compassionate. Yet Plato’s teacher Socrates would beg to differ. In the great book THE SYMPOSIUM Socrates would concur that Brad Pitt is very lovable, but he would say that there are many lovable people. You could love Brad for his mind, but there are many fine minds to love. For that matter, you can love your significant other for erotic appeal and brilliance of intellect and upright character, but you will find, said Socrates, that there are other significant others with the same fine qualities. Socrates’ point: True love is not love of specific things but of universal things, such as the abstract beauty of geometry. Take a right triangle: There is something both beautiful and lovable about its consistency, where its hypotenuse always equals the length of its other two sides added together—oh, you have to sure these sums perhaps. Such uniformity and predictability are monumental. That is universal. It never wavers, unlike Brad, say, whose eye might wander, and has. There is a serenity in this Pythagorean Theorem. This is called Platonic love, which is non-erotic. But loving a triangle or even its qualities seems so far away from what we mean by love that perhaps Platonic love should be called Platonic Admiration so that we can forget about it and get back to loving Brad.
07/14/2022: So Why CAN’T We Predict the ‘future?
We all know why we can’t predict the future: because we can’t see it. It’s invisible. It hasn’t happened yet. A harder question is, if we could predict the future could we alter it? Even more interesting is the proposition that we cannot foretell the future because the universe won’t let us. If we attend to areas where we CAN predict the future, such as whether or not it will rain tomorrow or whether our car will start in the morning, we quickly see the nub of the problem. This is the mindset of factors. The fewer the factors, the more we can isolate them, and the more we can understand the rules of how they work, we better we can predict the future. Weather people know these things quite well and have been trained to read them. As for your car, there are a limited number of things that make it start, and you or your mechanic know how they work. You know the factors, their location, and their rules. Ah, but the universe itself has so many factors that it becomes impossible to predict where you’ll be in five years or even if you’ll be anywhere alive. Someday, maybe, we will have sufficient computational power that we can put all the factors into the machine and have it sit out the future. But that’s a lot of computing wattage, and suppose we ourselves don’t know what all the factors are. And then there’s the reality of randomness even if we do. It seems we will get better at predicting the future, with artificial intelligence at our beck and call, but we will never be good enough. The universe, like the house in Vegas, will always win.
07/13/2022: Is There an Exact Replica of You on A Billion Light Years Away? OF COURSE THERE IS!
Some folks say science should stick with experiments and not speculate. Many of us do have the idea that science involves putting water outside every night in the winer to see if it freezes at temperatures below 32 degrees F. And if it does, and doesn’t at temps above that number, then it’s probably the temperatures that cause the freezing. This is a basic trial, but it makes sense and surely that’s how science should work: putting forth hypotheses and testing them. If only science were entirely like this, the world would be simpler. It isn’t. It is a scientific FACT that there are 10 to the 80th degree atoms in the universe. Try multiplying 10 up to 80 times on your calculator and watch it explode. It is a gigantic, mammoth, vast, gargantuan number. Now assume that these zillions and zillions of atoms have an unlimited amount of time to combine in different sorts of ways. Sooner or later, they are bound to combine so as to produce an exact copy of you. You yourself will never know about it of course, and no one can say when it will happen or even if, somewhere a trillion trillion light years away in an ever-expanding universe, it has already happened. It’s unlikely you and your twin are going to be comparing notes before you die or before he or she dies. The truth is, we can be pretty big fish in the little ponds where we live, but if we see that we live in the universe, we become not minnows but sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-minnows The universe is made up of tiny things like actors and enormously large numbers of them. As you are just a temporary and small blend of these atoms, and as there is only one of you, you are not long for this universe, or multiverse. But cheer up: someday there will be another version of you, although the “latest” you will suffer the same cessation. This is scientific speculation, but, alas, it is based on scientific fact.
July 15, 2022: Does God Rescue Lost Kittens?
This entry will be more personal than most of then are. Yesterday, my wife and I lost our nine-month-old kitten. A patio door was left open for a very short time but long enough for her to escape. After an hour of frantic and increasingly pessimistic searching, a jogger saw the kitten out of the corner of her eye near our apartment building. I had messaged my daughter, over a thousand miles away, to alert her to the crisis, but my wife had already notified her. It was my daughter, not my wife, who told me the kitten had just been found. I typed into Messenger a single word: God!!!!!!!!!! Why did I do this? It seems to me to have been more instinctual than thoughtful. What did I mean? Did I mean to thank God for saving the kitten? Logically, I don’t think God does that. But did my primitive need to believe it override my logical belief? Or did I mean: Only God can figure out the perplexities of life, since only God must have planned them? I don’t logically believe that either, but, again, was there some atavistic impulse at play here, one that makes mincemeat of my logic? What do we mean by God anyhow? I think belief in God is not easy to shake, whatever we may think about our individual selves. It is a word, a concept, that refers to some entity or force or spirit that at least cares about justice or at least knows why we don’t have it. For even the most rational among us, God is hard to get rid of. God!!!!!!!
07/11/2022L The Lowly Axe and the Progress of Humanity
In the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a golden age of axe murders. The reason is not hard to find. Nearly every house in America had an axe in its front or back yard back then, as this was the age of the wood-burning fireplace and stove. Murders did not go away, but axe murders mostly did once natural gas and oil became efficient and frequent sources of household warmth. Any school child will tell you that she learned once upon a time that tools were one of the major reasons for the advance of civilization. These tools, such as the hoe or axe and later the plow, were the high-tech instruments of their day. They extended what human animals could do physically and made life more secure. Once it was more sheltered, human life could go into other things, such as philosophy and opera and dance. There is a line between the axe and the concert. Yet the axe, so useful in chopping wood for the stove and keeping the house warm for philosophical discussions, once became the great means of bloody murder. This is the way it is with humankind. All sorts of progress is being made, it seems, but so many of us don’t seem to have gotten the memo.
07/08/2022: Who are the Elites and Why Are They So Hated?
Most of the world’s countries live in dynamic societies, where change and “the new” are the thematic hallmarks. In the United States we are constantly exposed to this or that problem and the need to solve it. These can range from how gentrification pushes poor people out of their neighborhoods to how colleges are not complying with Title IX to how people of color feel less and less comfortable going on hikes or picnics. These are difficulties that we need to solve—in the future. And this brings us to elites. They are those who not only identify these problems but propose answers to them. Elites are always planning for our futures. They are smart and well-paid. These are the people who thought it was an excellent idea to bundle high-risk mortgages together into single asset packages. They are the people who assured us that Saddam Hussein had lethal weapons and had to to be removed. They are the people who told us that inflation was nothing to worry about in 2021. But the mortgage asset units created massive debt and led to a great recession. There were no WMDs in Iraq. There was nothing to worry about re: inflation in 2021, but now it’s 2022 and there’s a lot of rising prices about which to fret. This is the big thing with elites. Many of us don’t like them because we think they are arrogant in their purported intelligence and actual advanced degrees. And they are often wrong. We are left holding the bag. And yet, it seems, we cannot quite do without them. Donald Trump and his allies despise elites, so it’s no wonder that Trump says we should make America great again by going back to 1956. We can’t do that. There are no time machines going backwards. So we are stuck with elites and just hope they know what they re doing, as often they do. We are stuck with them just as we are stuck with the future.
07/07/2022: We Reached the Last Straw A Long Time Ago—So Why Are we still Here?
In the 1933 comedy classic DUCK SOUP, Groucho Marx plays a general who is surveying the damage done by a terrible war. He picks up a straw among the debris and litter and is asked what he is looking for. “I’m looking for the last straw.” Nothing is more trite and common than this phrase about the last straw. “That’s the last straw,” we say when we’ve had enough of something and won’t go further with it. Groucho, amid all the haylofts that have been bombed, is looking for the LITERAL last straw, and that’s the joke. But the metaphorical idea is that we have lain long enough on a straw bed that finally, with the last straw gone, collapses beneath and we shall not go near that bed, or former bed, again. Has not life on Earth reached the last straw many times? A meteor’s dust blocked the sun and destroyed the dinosaurs, who had been around for millions of years. Genghis Kahn so denuded forests in Asia and Europe that he brought on a global winter. The Nazis shot or poisoned six million Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables.” That’s the population of greater Chicago. Imagine everyone in greater Chicagoland being lined up to be murdered. Aren’t all those the last straw? Yet we living creatures keep going. How? Why? Perhaps the Marx Brothers have the answer: in their manic punning and misbehavior is a sheer energy to live, not for any special purpose other than to keep on living. “Get out of this loft,” says a frustrated man to the Marx Brothers. Chico Marx replies, “It’s better to have loft and lost than never to have loft at all.” And, maybe, so it is.
07/06/2022: Is The Golden Rule Made of Lead?
“Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” Nothing seems more admirable than kindness. We honor not just politeness but above all compassion Is there any reason to be suspicious of it? Of course: some “kind” people are deceiving us in order to take advantage. But even if compassion is sincere, there are still reasons to be skeptical of it. These reasons are two in number: origins and selfishness. It was the disturbing philosopher Nietzsche who speculated that Christian kindness and mercy originated when slaves were looking for a way to even the score with masters. The latter were unkind and domineering, but if slaves could mass together in large numbers and say that cruelty was bad, they could mobilize their numbers to defeat the masters and make Christ their heroic example. For Nietzsche, compassion is just a political strategy. Meanwhile, second, kindness is a good social strategy—do good unto others and they will often reciprocate, and productive collaboration is just around the corner. The benefits of social cooperation are legion and multiple, especially if society comes together to punish cheats and defectors. These benefits confer prosperity and make it more likely that we will pass on our genes to our offspring. So kindness at the level of the gene-carrier is self-serving for the genes, who are designed to be reproduced and copied above all else.
07/05/2022: Is Every Life a One-Off?
Frank Wills is surely the most important security guard in history. He exposed the burglars who broke into the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. on June 17, 1972 and sparked the Watergate political scandal that destroyed President Nixon. Yet his heroism in the long run of his life did him few favors, and he died in obscurity in South Carolina in his early 50s. He was asked if he’d still catch the Watergate burglars if he had it to do all over again. “That,” he replied “is like asking me whether I wish I’d been born white or black. It’s all a matter of destiny.” Wills in effect was saying, “There are no do-overs in life. We only live once. We can’t rewind the tape. We aren’t coming back for a second time..” If he is right, then the errors we make in life have a remorseless quality. In one sense they cannot be rectified. This is a hard truth, so we seek ways to get around it—a kind of loophole is what we are looking for. One of the main ones is that we learn from our mistakes and won’t repeat them. This way, we do get some do-overs. But then we are prone to over-reacting. A college hires an airy academic as its president, and there is not nearly enough fund-raising. So it hires a financial wizard next time around, but this one has no academic ideals whatever and embarrasses the school. We go to a fine restaurant and get food poisoning. We’ll never go there any more. But it turns out this was a rare event, so we have just cheated ourselves out of many fine meals. We marry an introvert, and it doesn’t work. So we marry the second time an extrovert—and that doesn’t work either, but for the opposite reasons The difficult truth uttered by Frank Wills is inescapable, Life is destiny. There’s only the one story, and it always goes forward
07/04/2022: What George Orwell Got Wrong about Newspeak
In his great classic 1984 George Orwell depicts the Ministry of Truth in the dictatorship run by the infamous and ever-present Big Brother. It’s a large pyramidal building with the following words engraved hugely thereon: WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Orwell means these slogans to be a parody of political language, where words are twisted to suit power. It’s the opposite of the kind of honest, transparent prose that Orwell loved and affirmed. It’s the propaganda of the brutal regimes of the world. Yet in a way Orwell got this wrong. These regimes have a point of view where Freedom really IS Slavery, and where War really IS Peace, and where Ignorance really IS Strength. This seems non-sensical, and as Orwell has put it, it is. But tyrannical governments have a somewhat defensible logic. If everyone in the nation will submit, as slaves, to the ideology of the regime, then the regime will be free: free to do as it likes against its foes and free to protect its people from these foes, even if they are enemies the regime has “made up.” And if the people will not ask questions and stop being curious (Ignorance), then the country or empire will be united and strong. Ignorance really CAN be strength. Finally, if the regime wages war and establishes a stable, repressive empire, there WILL be peace. Behind Newspeak is something that Orwell did not quite get: that if you leave out individual freedom, creativity, and skepticism, then the Newspeak regimes make a great deal of sense. This should remind us how much we who oppose these regimes really admire, and want to protect, individual human potential—to the point where we think knowledge is strength, war is the opposite of peace, and freedom and slavery are and always will be incompatible.
07/03/2022: Is a Fetus a Burglar?
You are a single woman living on your own, and you have done all you could to make your house burglar-proof: alarms, locks, etc. Still, a burglar gets through. He is a strong man, but you have a gun. You will use it. No one will blame you if you decide it is better to shoot than to die. It is your freedom that is at stake. Likewise, you have done all you could to keep from getting pregnant. You have used birth control pills, and so on. Still you do get pregnant, even though you did not want to. You seek and get an abortion. Should anyone blame you for doing so? It is your freedom that is at stake. Just as you should not give up your bodily freedom to a burglar, you should not give up your bodily freedom to a fetus. You were weaker than the burglar, but despite this natural disadvantage, the gun was an equalizer. When you get pregnant, you, as ordained by nature, have a much greater bodily investment. The father’s natural contribution is a matter of seconds. Yours will be nine months of possible medical complications. Just as the gun is an equalizers against the burglar, so is an abortion, safe and legal, an equalizer against an undesired pregnancy. There is a natural inequality built into the reproduction process. Abortion is a blow for your freedom but not only that: for equality between the sexes, too.
07/01/2022: Could Trump Have Been a Great National Hero?
In 2016 Donald Trump was essentially a third-party force. He was opposed to multiculturalism, which surely made him no Democrat. But he also believed in big government spending for infrastructure, which made him no orthodox Republican either. In some ways the Republicans are a major party that has absorbed Trumpism in a way similar to how the Democrats earlier absorbed the civil rights movement and feminism. Trump ran as a sort of third-party, alternative outsider and managed to win, if barely. This might have set the stage for his presidency becoming a refreshing new option. There were two paths. First, Trump might have become a sort of “broker president.” Neither a Democrat nor wholly a Republican, he could have made it his mission to break partisan gridlock. He could have insisted that the two parties compromise and get something done to address national problems. Or: he could have become a master builder president: one who had no patience for rainbow coalitions but who came to the rescue of a white working class displaced by globalization. He could have sponsored big building projects and re-training enterprises in flyover country. In fact, if the working class had some measure of prosperity restored to it, it might well have come to have more tolerance for progressive, multi-cultural ideas. This is all speculation. But it does arise from Trump’s third-party origins. Why didn’t it work out this way? Because Trump lacks the patience and interest in details to have been a broker; and because more traditional Republicans such as Pau Ryan convinced the political novice Trump to go for tax cuts rather than big government building. Trump’s biggest interest was not in becoming president but in continuing to be an autocratic reality-TV star who happened to BE president. The seeds for a ore heroic Trump died in the soil and were perhaps never too hardy to begin with.
06/30/2022: Do Our Computers Have Lives?
Are our brains just computers made out of meat? Well, there are parallels. Computers have memory; so do our brains, Computers can process information; so can our brains. We and our computers both depend on a certain logic and inference. We could even go further: computers wear out, and so do we. Of course, computers can be cloned, but we cannot, at least not legally. But where does the analogy between human brains and artificial intelligence break down? There are two limit points. First, if computers do have lives, they aren’t the same as our lives. What are we concerned about in our lives? Well, survival for one The nature of human rights, for another, The welfare of ur family, friends, city, or nation, or even beyond to the great globe itself. These are not issues in the lives of computers. They in theory could be programmed to “worry” about other things, such as the quality of their silicon chips or the housing that keeps them from breaking if dropped, But if computers have lives, even simulated ones, they are not the same as our lives. Second, as such, computers have no skin in the game. Whatever computers are made of, they are not made of skin. We are. We have frail human tissue, easily harmed and even killed off. We care. Can computers be programmed to “care”? In 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, the computer HAL does care whether or not he is deemed erroneous or useless. HAL plots vengeance. So far, that’s jut in the movies.
06/29/2022: Should the Word “Accident” Be Banned from the English Language?
Jessie Singer has written a book stating that there are no such things as accidents. Yes, a driver runs a stop sign and hits a child unintentionally. But this is not an accident. The driver was hurrying to deliver a package for some company that is trying to cut costs, or the driver is drunk due to liquor companies making a fast bak on his habit. There are industrial accidents, but they aren’t really accidents either: the factory is cutting safety costs. Poor people have a lot of road accidents, but that’s because their roads are so poorly maintained. Poor folks have poor ways. There’s a lot of sense in this view: accidents are often the last chapter in a larger context. Jessie Singer’s argument is that greater equality and less corporate power would reduce accidents, or “accidents.” The matter is intricate. For instance, we know that in order for our grocery shelves to be full, truckers must drive at least sixty miles per hour, There would be fewer accidents if they drove at 40 or fewer still if they drove at 30. But the pace of the exchange system—money for goods and services—would decrease by half. Ms. Singer’s book is a great critique of the link between capitalism, inequality, and accidents. But the interconnectedness of our economy is not going away. Folks don’t want to have to wait for their new lawnmowers or fresh Nutella jars.
06/28/2022: Remember The Good Old Days When Ross Perot Wanted Us to Look Under the Hood of the Car?
In 1992 the Texas businessman Ross Perot did very well for a third party American political candidate. He brought a data-driven approach to the issues and problems of governance. We need to look under the hood of the car, he said, and find out what the problem is and then fix it. Perot could have been forgiven for this attitude. After all, it was what had apparently made America great: a pragmatic notion built on facts and repairs and solutions. It was how he had run his own business, Texas Instruments. Today this notion seems quaint. We live in a word of clashing websites, podcasts, and mono-cultures. Each has its own facts. Rival tribes’ facts are “fake news,” and this for some even includes the New York Times and Associated Press and CNN. These organizations pride themselves on getting it right. Their critics say they are composed of haughty elitists with a liberal slant, even a socialist one. Virtual reality seems more exciting and alluring than “reality” does. It was once said that you were entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts. Not any more. This seems to be a time of what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” There are facts—Perot was right about that. If a rattlesnake is but ten seconds away from biting you, then you don’t have fifteen seconds to pick up your dropped wallet; you have only ten if you want to survive. That’s a fact. If you look under the hood and find the carburetor is broken, the car won’t run. That’s a fact. Yet Perot by our baleful standards today seems naive, his Texas twang a product of long ago. Yet it was only thirty years ago. We have changed, perhaps not for the better, rather fast.
06/27/2022: Making Existential Threats Go Away
The philosopher Martin Heidegger made it his business to describe what it was like to be an existing human being. The answer: we are the only existing beings who reflect on our own existence. Snails and sparrows and sharks just are. We wonder who and what we are. And most of us, sooner or later, acquire an identity: a complex mindset consisting of a name, a family, a set of habits, a locale, an assemblage of customs—a way of life. And in time we cannot imagine ourselves without that way of life. Without it, we have lost our identity and, we think, the whole point and pleasure of our existence. Anything that would seem to be able to wipe out that existence is deemed, in effect, an existential threat, even though few of us use those words. Some of us think we must remove this existential threat or we will have no future at all. A husband out in Colorado named Watts thought that continuing to be married to his present wife and having to be a father to his present children constituted an existential threat to his newly-found identity as the lover of his enchanting mistress. He had to remove this existential threat by murdering his wife and kids. He was soon caught and is now a lifetime prisoner. Putin thought a “Westernized” Ukraine was an existential threat—he could not imagine Russia with such a country on its borders—so he sought to remove the threat in advance. Putin and Watts were not in their minds killers so much as those who needed to “nip tings in the bed.” Populist voters in the United States and elsewhere feel existential threats from a non-white majority. They are rather like the murdering Watts and the invading Putin: they want the world they don’t like, and find threatening, to go away. Stop all non-white immigration at once! That will make the world go away. It is a dream partly rooted in our experience of the internet, where we can simply leave websites we don’t like and never see them again.
June 25, 2022: Hillary and the Death of Roe
Folks on both sides of the Roe v. Wade question can agree on one thing: If Hillary Clinton had been elected president in 2016, Roe v. Wade would still stand. When one brings up this point, many liberals who declined to vote for Clinton become irritated and explain all over again why they did not vote for her: because she was to the right of Bernie Sanders, because her husband had been a centrist president, because she supported the Iraq invasion of George W. Bush, and so on. Not far beneath the surface is a battle of mindsets. Those who still insist they were not wrong to stay home or vote for a third party candidate have the mindset that above all voting is a choice. It is a free choice, and that’s what really matters. Those who perhaps didn’t like Clinton but voted for her, partly because Trump said he would appoint justices to overturn Roe, think of voting as more of a responsibility. Voters are responsebile for voting for those who lost represent their views, regardless of first or second or third choice.
06/22/2022: What’s It Like to be Bill Cosby?
Mr. Cosby is in trouble again, this time for performing a sex act on himself in the presence of two teens. He had previously gotten out of jail on a legal technicality. What must it be like to be not only a great comedian but also a great icon of values, and then fall from esteem in the way that Cosby has? He denies all allegations, but there are so many of them that he has little cred left with the general pubic. Now he is an old man, legally blind. What does he think of himself, of his life? We can only guess. Perhaps it is this: “I did these things, yes, but they were not really what my whole life was about, which was entertainment and inspiration. These accusers are out to make the really important parts of my life go away. They are trying to cancel me.” One supposes that if you are in Cosby’s place, you could opt for two routes. You could admit, once out of legal jeopardy anyhow, that you did bad things and were wrong but then throw yourself on the mercy of public opinion and say that this is not the entirety of your life by any means. Or you can fight, as Cosby has, by insisting that the whole thing is just a conspiracy against a great man and wonderful artist. He has gone in for the latter mindset. This seems shameful and annoying, but if we can take off our indignation hats for a moment, we might come to realize that he has a point. And what is that point? Well, Shakespeare got it about right when he had Mark Antony say, “The evil men do lives after them; the good is interred with their bones.” Few will recall OJ Simpson’s great runs or all the times Bill Buckner fielded ground balls safely before the World Series of 1986. Many know that Napoleon lost at Waterloo; fewer know about his great legal reforms. The public’s ultimate judgment may be sound, but it is not entirely out of the question that we could understand why Bill Cosby is bitter as well as guilty.
06/21/2022: Can a Woodpecker’s Beak Cure a Tooth Ache?
The great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss found that among the practices of Neo-lithic people was the use of a woodpecker’s beak to cure an aching tooth. It was the genius of Levi-Strauss to wean us away from scoffing at this unscientific idea and from our tendency to dismiss it as something that only “savage” or unenlightened people would do. Behind this belief, he said, is a complex classification of natural shapes and functions. Neolithic people had a taxonomy of nature that was both stabilizing and poetic. We think of poetry today as an entirely individual, idiosyncratic action. But back then poetic connections and systems were not only based on sophisticates observations of the natural world bur were rooted in ceremonies and social cohesion. This is more subtle than we can easily imagine. Eagles were not linked in one system to the sky but to the earth because eagles flew fastest in lightning storms, lightning made fire, and fire made charcoal. Thus were eagles connected to charcoal on the earth. But did that woodpecker beak cure tooth aches? This is doubtful, but the whole enterprise may have had a ritual function of analogies and customs that kept the village together as a meaningful whole. This is what readers miss about the classic Shirley Jackson horror story, “The Lottery.” It is not that sacrificing a random human being every year makes the crops grow. It is that one human being is a small price to pay to keep the town from civil war. This seems to be a savage way of thinking. Levi-Strauss suggests we give it a second look and ask ourselves what we have lost in profound social assemblage by way of the advances of the scientific revolution.
06/20/2022: Did Humphrey Bogart Have A Castration Complex?
Sigmund Freud famously theorized that soon after males notice they have penises, they notice that females don’t. They conclude that females once had penises but have been castrated. They don’t want that to happen too them. Some social theorists have gone beyond Freud to argue that fear of castration leads to males’ wanting to dominate and control the world: not only to manipulate it but also make it conform to whatever they think it should mean. This includes the project that no-phallic women should exist to be beautiful and servile. In the great Hollywood classic CASABLANCA, Humphrey Bogart plays a character who has been left high and dry in love. As such, he is bitter. You might go so far as to say that he has been castrated, But the beautiful woman who left him in the lurch returns to him and assures his that she had no choice and that it is he whom she really loves. She is even willing to leave her husband for him. This reassures Bogart’s character so much that he tells her that se must help her husband fight Nazis, which he will also do. She has fixed his castration for him. All genitals are restored. In REAR WINDOW, Hitchcock’s great movie, James Stewart is a man’s man who has broken his leg and is immobile. He too may feel castrated, A beautiful woman follows his orders and helps him solve a murder. All genitals seem to be returned to him. In VERTIGO Stewart plays a man castrated by a traumatic, near-death fall. He too seeks out a beautiful woman to make him whole, but this time it backfires and he is only re-castrated. In all three of these brilliant films, these classic Hollywood stars are wounded. They feel powerless. This makes them interestingly conflicted, attractive yet vulnerable, and induces the audience to wonder if, and how, they will get their phallic oomph back. Ohly the phallic-free women can help. Does Freud have something to answer for?
06/17/2022: Can Birds and Squirrels Have Fun?
If you look into a backyard, yours or someone else’s, you will see squirrels scampering and birds flitting. They seem to be having fun. You may be tempted to think that you yourself would have more fun if you were a squirrel or a robin. You could climb trees or fly from one twig to another. What fun! But there is a good case to be made that birds and squirrels are not having fun. They are busy making a living. Even when their flight from tree to tree or limb to limb seems to be no more than pointless fun, they are at least practicing the art of making a living; keeping in shape for a hard future. For squirrels, nuts and shelter are crucial. For birds, seeds and nests are equally so, It’s tough out there in that backyard. There are food shortages and predators. Perhaps the only species that can truly have fun—doing things just for the sheer hell or pleasure of it—are human beings, We have developed symbolic communication by which to build enough shelter and grow enough food so that we have a huge margin for error. Even some Third World countries have more margin for error than do the squirrels and birds in our backyards. So we can have fun: gyrate at Heavy Metal concerts, devour GONE GIRL, play soccer where nothing much is riding on the score, This is another way of saying that birds and squirrels have nests and nuts but not culture. They don’t seem to miss it, though—their one blessing.
06/14/2022: Why Your Body Is Never Wrong
The mind and body aren’t separate because without the brain there wouldn’t be any mind, and the brain is part of the body. But the mind and body surely seem different. You are free to think anything you wish with your mind, but you are not free to fly your body to Jupiter, Above all, the body can really never go wrong. Even when, from our viewpoint, we think it is going wrong, it really is not. When our bones ache from old age, the body isn’t going wrong. It’s doing just what it’s bound to do when bone decays. When our eyes begin to fail, the body isn’t doing anything wrong. This is what it’s supposed to do when retinas get old. The body can never be wrong—it just disappoint us. On the other hand, our minds can be wrong all the time. They are free to do so. Millions died in their bodies while believing on their death beds and in their minds that the Earth is flat. People whose bodies can never go wrong because they follow the dictates of nature can nonetheless believe that Bill Gates is behind Covid shots because he wants to install a tracking chip in their bods—which can never go wrong, even if their minds can, and do.
06/13/2022: Sparrows’ Nests and Tax Shelters
The great evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book called THE EXTENDED PHENOTYPE. It was more technical and harder to understand than his best-selling classics such as THE SELFISH GENE. In the former, he argues that genes do not just supply coded instructions for an animal’s body traits but also for features outside their bodies. Genes code for sparrows to develop membraned wings and to fly, but they also code instructions for how to build a nest. Genes code for beavers’ long teeth but also for their dam-building skills. Genes code for the shape of tiny microbes but also code for how these microbes can hitch rides onto ants and ride into a sheep’s’ body. Dawkins draws the line when it comes to human culture. Roman or Gothic churches may have enhanced human survival and flourishing, but there aren’t genes “for” Roman or Gothic designs. He is right. Birds and beavers and microbes don’t have “cultures” in our sense. But Dawkins may be drawing his line improperly. Human animals manufacture tax shelters and make rules and construct houses in order to supply themselves with favorable environments. “Extending” our milieus outward in a favorable way seems to be a function of life itself, all part of the Darwinian program. Those evil tax havens with laundered money might not just be the result of a political or economic act but also of a biological one, too, and an act most fundamentally biological.
06/10/2022: Where is the Tragic Mirror in YOUR Life?
There have been mirrors of one form or another since the ancient period, though as they were often made of copper or bronze, they were not very accurate. And in both the ancient and medieval periods, they were a rarity. Not until the early modern period did the mirror of mercury and tin begin to become more commonplace, and not until the 1700s did they start to become very commonplace. Now of course, billions all over the world wouldn’t dream of leaving home without them, and nearly all of us employ them at least once a day in our domiciles. One could celebrate the mirror as a good thing, as, after all, we can find our blemishes and try to remove or hide them; or we can see to shave without cutting ourselves; or, above all, we can see whether or not our hair is combed, and if so, combed as we wish. People can face full-length mirrors and get a sense of whether they are gaining or losing weight. Yet there’s a good case to be made that mirrors are tragic. At some point, perhaps when we are four or five, we begin to take seriously the image of ourselves. We already have formed a good sense of what it is like to be us (or “me”), but now we note that just as we observe ourselves in the mirror, others are also observing us, and their conclusions may be at odds with how we see or want to see ourselves. In the eyes of others we may be less attractive or smart or virtuous than we “know” ourselves to be. Or: we may feel that we are much LESS attractive, clever, and honest than people who look on the outside of us think we are. In any event, we face for the first time the clash between the inner self and the externally observed self, and the various permutations of dichotomies or overlaps bedevil us for the rest of our days. At least some degree of estrangement surely follows.
June 14, 2022: How To Become An Evil Person in Just 3 Steps
An evil person has a propensity to harm others and likes doing so. But not everyone who has the propensity becomes evil. Becoming an evil person involves cultivating mindsets. The3re are three of them. First, develop the habit of not getting caught. Evil people begin small and work their way up, but every time they get away with something, the greater the chance they will continue up the ladder. If you break a Jewish shopkeeper’s window and aren’t caught, you will soon enough overthrow a government, murder all your foes, and get away with it because powerful people are protecting you for their own reasons. See Hitler, Adolph, 1933. He’d tried a coup before and had been sentence to a light jail sentence. Second, you must cultivate the idea that you are no worse than other people and that everyone does it, or would if given a chance. Richard Nixon thought that Kennedy and LbJ had done dirty things, so why shouldn’t he? Evil folks are not too keen on two wrongs don’t make a right. Third, you must develop the belief that the threats are existential. Putin has convinced himself that the West is out to destroy Russia, so he has no other option but to kill Ukrainians. That’s all you need: progressive lack of accountabiliy, a cynical outlook on all humankind, and the nourishment of a dire threat. You’re all set.
06/09/2022: Do All of Us Live in the Empire of Ice Cream?
Among human activities over the centuries has been the drive for universality: the organization of regimes from which there shall be NO exceptions. The Roman Empire is one example, but perhaps the most famous has been the Roman Catholic Church, which ruled the religious lives of Europeans with practically NO exceptions for hundreds of years. Of course, these “universal projects” never last. In the early 1500s a friar named Martin Luther protested against the Roman Catholic Church as corrupt and fallacious. The RCs had organized salvation so that it had to go through both the interpretations and approval of the church hierarchy. Luther said people should decide on salvation for themselves and be able to read the Bible in their native tongues. He declared every person his or her own Pope. Yet, as though worried he’d gone too far, Luther advocated for a little universality of his own by stating that Jews could never “get” Christianity and thus needed to be destroyed with NO exceptions. His legacy is impossible to ignore, If you are a Catholic and dislike something the Pope is doing or saying or advising, then in effect you are a Protestant. The internet with its chaotic and multifarious websites is hugely Protestant. Russian and Chinese Communists tried to restore universality via Marxism, but they too fell afoul of protest. China today is as capitalist as it is Marxist. Alas, the only true and unconquerable universality may be death, or what the poet Wallace Stevens called “the emperor of ice cram,” by which we are born, seek sweet pleasures, and, like the ice cream we love, melt into nothingness. But this is not the kind of universalism we like, so some advocates of the “Singularity” insist that we will conquer death, too, by uploading our consciousness via computer software, where it shall remain, digitally, forever. NO EXCEPTIONS.
06/08/2022: Do Suicides Really Think They’re Going lot Die?
When the Philosopher Arthur Koestler was a prisoner during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, he waited in his cell to be shot to death. He heard the gunfire being trained on his fellow prisoners and knew they were gone. And yet, he reports, he did not really think he himself was going to die. Lo and behold, he did not. There was a prisoner swap, and he was saved. This is only one instance, but there are reasons to think that most if not all of us cannot believe we are going to die. Perhaps this is just ego—we can’t imagine the world without us—or maybe it’s just that in order to believe that something will happen, we have to see it happen to ourselves over and over again. If we are injured in a football game or if we are ticketed for speeding or if we insult someone when we bring up a particular subject, we believe we are apt to be injured again, ticketed again, and blamed for insulting someone again. But we die only once. If we could die several times, then we might, by the third or fourth time, actually believe that it would and could happen to us. In grammar school students had a pre-spelling test, a trial test and a final test. If they misspelled a word on one of the first two tests, they knew they could do it on the last one and should take care to prevent that. The writer Julian Barnes has wondered if even Socrates thought he was going to die and didn’t think that, somehow, in the back of his mind, that the whole thing would be proclaimed a joke, a sort of test to see if he really was willing to drink the poisonous hemlock. One wonders about those who commit suicide. Do they really believe they are going to die, or are their motives elsewhere? There are reports of those who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge that, half-way down, they wished they hadn’t done it and were lucky enough to survive to tell us so.
June 9, 2022: Phil Mickelson and the Psychology of Greed
At 51, Phil Mickelson is one of the world’s great golfers. Not too long ago, the Saudis asked him to play in their LIVE Golf Tournament. No matter where he finished, or even if he didn’t make the cut, he would be paid millions. Mickelson accepted, and recently stated that the Saudis were a bad lot—they had murdered the journalist Adnan Khashoggi and persecuted gay people—but they were paying top dollar and this would help him pressure the PGA for a bigger paycheck. This has not gone over well, as it has seemed cynical and opportunistic. Mickelson is a very rich man, but it would not be wrong to say that he is also a greedy one. What is the psychological mindset of greed? It is not that one can never have too much money. Rather, it is that once someone has gotten wealthy, especially based on one’s skills, one begins to think of oneself in a different way. Here is the link between pride and love. The lavishing of funds is something you are proud of, and you begin to associate it with being loved. You are wanted. You are loved. It’s not that you can’t have enough money—it’s that you can’t have enough love. You are a proud person of great ability and you deserve to be loved…and loved and loved and loved. Behind Mickelson’s cynicism is a man who is too proud to turn down more love, even if it’s just dollar-love and even if it’s the execrable Saudis who confer it.
06/07/2022: Meet The Most Furtive American President Ever
Richard Nixon was the most furtive American president ever. He even campaigned on secrecy when in 1968 he said he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War and win the peace and would put it into operation if elected, which he was. Almost anyone could have guessed the plan. It was to withdraw troops while somehow not losing the war. It worked until 1975, when Nixon was out of office. Nixon adored secrecy. He and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, held tight their secret negotiations with China in 1971-2. Even the state Department didn’t know. Nixon hated leaks and went to illegal lengths to stop the leakers. So when he was told that the burgers in the Watergate Complex worked for his re-election campaign, he vowed to keep that secret and tried to cover it up. He could have come clean, but that was’t his way. He wanted to keep that secret, lest his foes harm him. Whenever a philosopher wants to talk about the “ethics” of spying and secrecy, cynics roll their eyes. The enemy doesn’t abide by ethical limits, so why should we? Yet there IS an ethical component to furtiveness and intelligence gathering, and had Nixon realized that secrecy isn’t just a matter of consequences but also of morality, he might have saved his career. Secrecy may be appropriate when sidling p to China, but it is immoral when it comes to not being straight with the American voters. At Oxford University, some years later, Nixon seemed to confess this. He said he had acted without honor over Watergate. But he might have added, “I was too addicted to secrecy to resist the temptation.”
06/06/2022: Why We Shouldn’t Give a Shit About the Big Bang
About four hundred years ago the great thinkers of Europe started to realize that scientific discovery was at odds with the Bible. Some more scientifically minded theologians of that era began to look for ways to reconcile the two. One theory: Earth and the Heavens were created by a comet, sent by God of course, and the Flood described in Scripture was the result as well of a God Comet. The world would end in one, too. Spinoza, the great Dutch philosopher finally tried to settle it all by stating that you can’t find science in the Bible but you can find out from the Good Book how troy be a good person. Now we have come a lot further in the scientific business. Cosmologists and physicists have started to ask, and give partial answers to, how the universe began, whether or not the universe thinks, whether or not the past still exists, and whether or not we have free will. The Big Bang, that moment when the universe was a tiny ball that exploded outwards and has been expanding ever since, is the popular name for a leading theory of how the universe started. Here are two competing mindsets. The first: It is VERY important for us to find out the answers to such questions as these. We need to know the truth of how we got here, after all. Mindset Two: Whatever scientists find out is beside the point, which is that we should be a lot nicer to each other and we all know that. Even Hitler knew he was doing the wrong thing. Implicit in this second mindset is that “the truth” is not important. What’s really significant is whether or not human behavior is kind or cruel. Even when we are cruel, we look for excuses as to why. This means we all know we should be kind. How do we become nicer? That’s not a question where “truth” can help you and me out. We all know we need to do that, and whether or not we got here by way of a Big Bang or an Ether Explosion or a String Stretching is beside the point.
06/03/2022: Has A Dead Five-Year-Old Child Won the Lottery?
There seem to be fewer thins more tragic than the premature death of someone, such as a young cild, whatever the cause. These seem to be tales of great potential wasted, cut off before it has time to ripen. Few things tell us about how cruel is the world. Yet there is another mindset that alters this picture considerably. This is the perspective of evolutionary biology. According to this view, if you are born at all, you are one of the lucky ones. First, there has to be a pre-existing species—in our case the human one This species is well-enough established that it can reproduce itself. It is a going concern. That brings us to you and me. Amid all the aspiring species that didn’t make it at all, and all the copulations that produced no offspring at all, there is you and me. We are the ones who won the lottery. We are the winners. We are part of a surviving species and the product of a sperm and egg that happened to assemble in order to create a fetus. And then of course—lucky us—we survived the full nine months and got born. The chances that there would be any species at all; or that we would be fortunate enough to join one; or that we would get conceived and born at all—are slim. But hey: we made it. We won the Irish Sweepstakes of Nature Itself. Too bad if we only live for a short time, but given how much luck we had to have just to get this far, it’s not all that surprising that our luck would run out, perhaps sooner rather than later.
06/02/2022: I’m Checking Out You. You’re Checking Out Me.
There are reports that during the pandemic, men saw themselves on Zoom and became nervous and ashamed. They saw facial flaws for the first time and have sought cosmetic surgery in record numbers. We are living in an age where we see ourselves all the time: on zoom, on social media, on various photo attachments. This is not only the age of the narcissistic selfie. It is also the age where we seek to look our best. This can be especially hard for the young, who sometimes, it is reported, won’t go out at all due to inferiority complexes about their looks. If it is the epoch of selfies, it is also the epoch of lookism. It is also a sort of panopticon, where everyone is checking out everyone else. We may all be enforcing the baleful precepts of lookism. There are ways to reduce the incidence of lookism. But it is rooted in the old mind-body problem. We have abstract minds attached to concrete bodies. In the past some religious observers have gone “all-mind” or “all-soul” even to the point where an ugly body is even cultivated in order to play up the beauty of the mind or soul. Others have been “all-body,” with their views that the body must be the outward manifestation of virtue and intelligence—Hollywood often shows us beautiful women and handsome men who also have the utmost morality and the impaction is that someone who looks so good MUST be a good person, In the absence of a powerful spirituality and in the presence of selfies everywhere, it is hard not to conclude that the better you look, the better you are, however fallacious this mindset might be.
06/01/2022: Would lYou Pay Ten Thousand Bucks For one of Marilyn Monroe’s Fingernails?
Not long ago Andy Warhol’s iconic silk screen of Marilyn Monroe sold for millions of dollars. She is one of the most recognized faces in the 20th century of great celebrity, and perhaps the new century is not quite old enough for her to be forgotten yet. The Monroe auction industry is going strong. Even small artifacts that belonged to her, such as a plastic tissue box cover, have sold for thousands. It’s as though these are venerated relics of a once great beauty and personality. If you bought one of her fingernails, you could put it under glass in your living room and show it off. It would make a big impression and become a conversation starter. You would either be taught of as very rich or very kooky, someone who needs to get a life. But such aspirations and acquisitions are a mainstream part of human longing. Take an old Polaroid camera. When it was current, it was just one more gadget. But now that it is obsolete, if you have one, you cannot help but think of your parents, to whom it once belonged, and their obsessive use of it in filming their grandchildren. If you have an old FAX machines, it will be hard not to recall the excitement when it began to whirr and promised the glad tidings of an important document. When machines are common and popular, they mean nothing, When they are superseded, they come to mean a lot. They remind us of past times and past people. They are a way of getting something back, if only a little bit; of brining back to life those who can otherwise never be resurrected. If you have Marilyn’s fingernail in your living room, you have a little bit of her, too—right in your own home. She lives there, too, sort of.
05/31/2022: Is Putin A Great Actor?
In the 1950s there arose an acting technique known as “method acting.” Method actors “became” their characters and totally identified with them. They would sometimes not step out of character when the curtain was down or the cameras weren’t rolling., Dustin Hoffman was such a method actor that, when he he had to play someone exhausted from jogging, he went out and exhausted himself from jogging before the scene was cut. In order to become a good method actor, the actor must get in touch with all the circumstances that came together to form her character: When you step into a “role,” you are stepping into everything that combined to make that role, including origins and environment and temperament (all that makes you and me, you and me, in other words). Vladimir Putin is a method actor who doesn’t need the method. He is the arbiter of the Russian nationalist history and sentiment, but hew is also a product of it. He lives in the past. He longs for the days of the old, powerful Czars who ruled over one seventh of the planet’s land mass. He thinks there is a distinctive Russian “civilization” based on historical glory and internal order. The Russian way to live is the only way to live, and he has an expansive definition “Russian.”When he says the West, with is decadent democratic freedoms and individuality, are the new Nazis threatening Mother Russia, he believes it. He is totally and sincerely embed in his role. But the role comes out of a former empire, nostalgic for the past and with a chip on its shoulder about being dismissed by other nations. This is why, when Putin the Actor goes away, Putinism will survive.
05/30/2022: Is the Passage of Time a Mirage?
It seems clear that time cannot be de-coupled from change. As in: Yesterday the leaves were blowing; today they are still. A second ago the second hand was at 15; now it is at 16. Time is surely a linguistic characterization of change. As such, “time” is a wonderful way to measure how many gray hairs we have now as opposed to five years ago, or as a way to coordinate appointments and luncheons. But its “passage” is a function of human observation, language, and need. Most of the universe is likely made up of no one to observe change. If there is a huge explosion on a distant planet, one out of reach of our giant telescopes, then it makes no sense to say that this explosion happened at 4:32 PM Krypton time. There is no Krypton time, as there are Kryptonians. For most of the universe time does not pass at all. It is only we narrow-minded humans who think so, just as we once thought the earth was flat and the sun revolved around the earth.
05/27/2022: Why Thoreau Liked Acorns and Chestnuts
Upon the traumatic loss of his brother, Henry David Thoreau, as a fairly young man, decided he would “live deliberately.” This meant, for him, that he would take a very intentional decision about his lifestyle and stick to it, somewhat like how we swear to stop eating chocolate and take daily exercise. For Thoreau it was much more radical. He decided to move to the woods, just off Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, and dwell in a one-room cabin with a table, a bed, and a couple of chairs. He wrote a famous book in which he reported his findings. He said he liked acorns and chestnuts, which he saw all the time on the wilderness floor. He liked them because he knew that once they were side by side, one of them would triumph: a chestnut or oak tree would grow skyward in that spot, but not both. Neither the chestnut nor the acorn could be bullied into moving away, or changing its nature. In other words, neither of them could be influenced by conformity, or the dominion of the herd. Thoreau hated conformity—the tyranny of public opinion or fixed trends—and he admired natural creatures because they were not subject to it but maintained a purity of individual identity. Neither a squirrel nor a bush had any intention of being other than themselves. They retained a wild independence that Thoreau thought should also be the aim of human kind as well. Whether the analogy between acorns and humans holds up in this way is the crucial question about Thoreau’s Walden. In his own life Thoreau tended to walk the walk. But no doubt he yielded to social pressure more than your average chestnut does.
05/26/2022: Are Our Cats and Dogs and Gerbils Really Innocent?
Anyone who has owned an outside cat and also lived next door to a bird-lover may have faced a conflict. Cats are notoriously good at killing birds, and bird-lovers are notoriously good at watering and loving birds. From time to time, the latter will complain about the deadly ferocity of the former, and someone will say, “but that’s just instinct.” What is the mindset behind this comment? It is this: cats don’t know any better. They are “innocent” in the literal Latin sense of “not knowing.” They are programmed to kill, but they do not “know” they are killing, much less that it might be wrong. When we say we love our cats and dogs and hamsters and goldfish, we say that’s because they are “innocent” in the sense of being pure in some way or other. But really, they are not pure; they are just “not knowing.” They are the sorts of creatures Christ might have been referring to on the Cross when he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Jesus was so merciful that he was even willing to forgive human beings, who should known better. In effect, he asks his Father to treat them as though they are cats and gerbils. In a movie of some recent vintage the filmmaker Terrence Malik portrays the struggle between “Nature” and “Grace” (the film is called The Tree of Life). Nature is mercilessly red in tooth and claw, while Grace is affectionately creative and generous. The paradoxical “grace” of our pets is that they are utterly natural—they are fierce but do not know any better, and we like and honor them for that.
05/25/2022: After Learning Science, Why Don’t We Kill Ourselves
The coming of modern science happened so long ago that we may have lost touch with its revolutionary news. It has put us human beings as likely alone, or nearly alone, in a vast universe. There may be a special place for us in Heaven, but Heaven itself seems puny compared to the cosmos that contemporary science has discovered. We thought we were made of some divine spark, but it turns out we are made of molecules and neurons and in a sense not all that different in terms of constituent parts from the average ugly weed. We thought some benevolent creator had breathed life into us, but it turns out that we are like every other species: the products of millions and millions of years of grueling and bloody competition for functionality in limited Earth space. One of the great spokespersons for modern science, Richard Dawkins, has said we now know we live in a universe that owes us nothing. So if we take this stuff seriously, why don’t we admit our insignificance and honor it by killing ourselves, in the sure knowledge that in the long run absolutely no person or thing will miss us? The answer is twofold. First, along with the “despair” of science has come the applied technology of science. Thanks to science, we may know there is no Heaven but also thanks to science we live longer, travel faster, eat better, and all the rest. Second, our decision to stay alive never depended in the first place on thinking that God loved us. It depended on something instinctual. It came along with natural selection: a will to survive; a wish not to give up on existence unless it became truly unbearable. God may be dead, and science may have helped kill God. The Will to Live thrives.
May 26, 2022: What If the Earth Stood Still and Nobody Noticed?
One of the greatest sci-fi movies of them all is THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which was launched early in the nuclear age. An alien, disguised as an Earthling, comes to our planet and warns that his distant life form has now got us surrounded. He says, “Get your act together; establish world-wide peace; or we will destroy you.” The psychology seems right-on. Nothing gets a group to cooperate better than having a common enemy. Well, don’t we Earthlings have one in climate change? Aren’t greenhouse gases as threatening in the long run as any alien foes? Maybe there aren’t any alien creatures out there, as in the movie, but isn’t the Earth standing still anyhow with the ominous and increasingly obvious dangers of global warming? Yet it hasn’t brought us together. Nations set ambitious goals but rarely live up to them. There is a whole industry of climate-change denial. Why have we not united? The answer may be in a tale of TWO AMAZONS. In the “real” Amazon River Basin, trees have been ripped up for cattle graving, so one of the great planetary absorbers of excess carbon is being razed and denuded. And then there is the other Amazon: the online store. When was the last time you and your friends shopped TOGETHER at Amazon? Never. Amazon is like everything else digital: it’s something you do alone. Digital technology by nature isolates us. We are even on social media by ourselves, behind our screens. Tackling climate change requires us to act together. We are on the internet alone. Are we losing the habit of acting in concert? Is that why the Earth is standing still but no one is noticing?
05/24/2022: It Was Seven Feet Tall With a Ten Foot Wing Spread and Red Eyes
Over fifty years ago in a small West Virginia town there were several alleged sightings of a seven foot tall creature with an insect’s head. It had a ten foot wing spread, red eyes (especially when car lights shone into its face), and could apparently fly at over one hundred miles per hour. Four people who saw it tried to get away from it by driving 120 miles per hour, but the creature was able to keep up. The number of sightings ranges from six to one hundred—quite a range. In time it was dubbed “Mothman,” and a movie came out of it, along with a statue in its honor in downtown Pleasant Point, West Virginia. Was this mass hysteria or an enlarged sandhill crane or was it a prank played by local construction workers, who attached, or so it was said, flashlights to helium balloons sent aloft? One podcaster said those who initially saw the Mothman were drinking jazzed up coffee. Behind this sardonic comment resides a mindset that may be very, very wrong. When we have had too much to drink or dropped some acid, and we see weird things, we assume that they aren’t there: that it’s the brain on drugs that’s distorting everything. This is a perplexing assumption in a way. After all, we can wear glasses and see things we ca’t otherwise see, or use a microscope and see things we can’t otherwise see. That doesn’t mean these things aren’t there. So maybe, just maybe, when we drink “jazzed up coffee” we are able to see things that otherwise we cannot; things that are really there but that require some brain technology in order to see them. Certainly some LSD users think they are seeing a higher reality that is eminently and deeply “there.” Suppose “jazzed up coffee” is as much a technology as is an x-ray machine. Suppose Morhman is visible only with a little advanced biochemical technology.
May 25, 2022: The Slaughtered Kids of Texas in the Age of Collateral Damage
Our time features a mindset that goes like this: If the project is worthy, collateral damage is OK. Take the Taliban. Under their regime five million Afghan kids will be severely malnourished. They could stop this if only they would allow women to go to school and work and hence get outside help. But their project, in their minds, is so worthy—so in line with God’s Will—that these hungry kids are just an overhead price, sort of like someone who opens a candy store and has to pay for a building to house it in. Putin’s project is rot Make Russia Great Again. This is so crucial that non-combatant deaths including those of children are a small and corollary price to pay—besides, it’s not his price, for it belongs to the people of Ukraine. Those who believe in permissive gun laws on the grounds that they must be armed to fight off the United States Government believe that their own project is indispensable enough so that the occasional school massacre is a trivial cost in order for their idea of Liberty to succeed. The gun and ammo makers are happy to have them believe in their project—excellent for sales. None of these Projectors—the Taliban, Putin, or the gun lobby and conspiracy theorists—will say any of this aloud. They don’t have to. Their mindset is betrayed by their actions.
05/23/2022: Would You Have Voted to Abort Fetus Hitler?
The attorney general of Arkansas has lamented what ostensible progress has been lost due to the legality of abortion. These fetuses might have grown up, she said, to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s. No one asked her if she would have gone in for the abortion of Hitler. Of course, she could have replied that we can’t live in a world where a fetus is tested in the womb and then aborted if it has “Hitler” genes. She would be right about that. Still, the hypothetical question about Fetus Hitler is a reminder that when we say we are absolutely “pro-life” we are risking the birth of serial killers as well as facilitating the birth of charity workers. It is easy to be pro-life, for “life” is a great abstraction, like liberty or equality or justice. It can look very different when it gets applied to actual human beings—or known, as opposed to unknown, elements. No one knows how a fetus will turn out. But if, say, a living, breathing woman—an actual person—feels so desperate about another mouth to feed in her relationship with a serial abuser that she burns herself badly with hot bricks on her uterus as happened in pro-life Hondouras,, then we are not talking about an abstraction —“life”—but a specific and suffering person. If a woman in Alabama goes to New Mexico to get an abortion and then gets sent to prison upon her return, then all this punishment occurs in the name of “life.” Doctors who have performed abortions have been shot dead in the name of “life.” The philosopher Rousseau once wrote of severe punishment by the state against those who would not agree to the “general will.” He said, “we are forcing them to be free.” When a South Carolina woman goes to prison for five years for taking an abortion pill, then the state of South Carolina is “forcing her to respect life.”
5/20/2022: Do We Need God’s Help to Appreciate the Grand Canyon?
Someone should design a research experiment about believers versus non-believers in appreciating natural beauty. Take a group of believers and atheists to the Grand Canyon or the Swiss Alps and figure out a way to measure their wonder at each. Do the atheists find just as much inspiration and astonishment as do the believers—or even more? Is the sheer sublime power of such places what it is regardless of the onlooker’s point of view about the existence or non-existence of God? Or take great religious music such as that by Handel or Mozart. Can an atheist enjoy the Messiah as much as a believer can? This is probably a question that cannot be answered. But there is one anecdotal reason for thinking that the believer will have an advantage in the Wonder Index Department: the believer can thank God for the experience. The non-believer cannot. When someone honors us with a great gift, we get an extra buzz out of being grateful. It’s not just the gift but the generosity that is elevating. So the believer’s mindset might well make for a more thrilling and transcendental redwood forest.
05/19/2022: Do The Best Messengers Come to the Window, Not the Door?
The ambassador and theologian Henry Van Dyke wrote a short story over a hundred years ago about a fisherman who found a corpse in the sea. On his finger was a prized gold ring. The fisherman decided that a corpse would have no use for such a thing and proceeded to cut off the dead man’s finger in order to get the ring. He thought it would be a valuable thing to pass onto his new-born son. But he kept all this from his highly religious and spiritual wife until a crow flew into one of their windows and badly injured itself. The wife saw this as a sign that something wasn’t right, so she began to question her husband. In time, he confessed to what he had done, which the wife saw as covetous theft. She forced him to return the ring and the finger to the corpse. All was peaceful then; all was calm. The entire story is rooted in superstition. Birds don’t fly randomly into windows. They are messengers from God—the crow recovers, by the way, thanks to the ministrations of the wife. The tale is set on an island off the far eastern Canadian coastline. It is a world of holy or unholy signs, not scientific data and experiments. The story is dated. And yet while we are right to see most events as random, life is a lot ore interesting if we can see them as signs from the cosmos. Maybe that is why people love conspiracy theories. They make life more interesting than if shit just happens.
05/20/2022: Tucker Carlson and the True Crime Narrative
Tucker Carlson was a fine conservative journalist who tried cable TV twice and failed. The third time has been a charm. He is the most influential cable news show host in the country. He’s learned a thing or two about how to become so successful. Cable TV makes billions each year on a simple formula: Good versus Evil, with Good winning out. If you go to the ID Discovery true crime channel, you will find victims and victimizers—murderers, abusers, con men and women, They take their toll, but in a way Good always triumphs, because the cops always catch up with the villains, even if it’s too late to save the victims. Good defeats Evil, but viewers can’t always be sure of this, so they have to watch every night, just to reassure themselves. In truth, a great many of these cases are never solved and no one is punished. But they aren’t the ones on the ID Channel. Tucker Carlson knows that this formula—Good versus Evil—works. Every night he identifies “us” as the good victims and “them” as the evil elites. “They” are coming for/about to eliminate and replace/dismissive of/ US. He’s the cop on the beat. He’s calling these Evil Elites out. Of course, he never can banish them altogether, so his viewers have to watch every night just to make sure, but they are never quite certain that Tucker has these evil elites on the run. There is nothing that humankind is more nervous about, that has greater resonance, than whether or not Good triumphs over Evil. Some European gypsies found a home in a small Pennsylvania town, and one of their kids peed on the school lawn. They are foreign and evil, and so are the elites that sent them to Good, Real America. Tucker Carlson is good and will someday, surely, defeat thee evil Roma children. He devoted a whole episode to them.
05/18/2022: Why Is Baseball on the 20-Second Clock?
Minor league baseball pitchers have twenty seconds between pitches and that’s all. This has shortened the length of baseball games 20 or 30 minutes. It’s coming to the major leagues, too. Baseball has been losing out to sports with shorter games, such as hockey and basketball. People don’t like long games the way they used to. The days of spending a l-o-n-g afternoon at the ball park, where, as the song goes, “I don’t care if I never get back,” are over. Why? It comes down to mindset. Once upon a time, when you didn’t mind an unpredictably long baseball game, you had little else to do. Now we have all these alternatives on our phones and tablets. We are more fidgety. Our attention spans for just one thing have diminished. We want X to end so we can get on to Y. Or Z. Or A. Or A2. Our mindsets have changed. So: throw that next pitch within twenty seconds or the ump will call an automatic “ball.”
05/17/2022: How To Stop Sucking at Life
Life is hard, but it is possible to do better at it if we delve into its contradictions. For example, we are free to make choices about all sorts of tings, but we had no choice whatever in where we born, who our parents are (or were), and what genes we were born with. So while in the United States, you can choose your brand of peanut butter, you cannot escape having the Texas drawl or clipped New England accent you bring to the check-out. Nor can you choose not to be hungry. Up to a point, we can decide whether we want to become an information manager or a teacher, but we cannot evade our height or eye color. For all our liberty in the present, we are greatly determined by a future we cannot predict or become totally ready for. And then there is our whole encounter, as humans, with the NON-human, such as computer chips, gasoline, data, and biochemicals (found in our pills). It is difficult to make them work for us when in fact we become so dependent on them that we are working for them! Human beings whose lives suck have lousy mindsets when it comes to these issues. They easily confuse what they can control and what they can’t. And they become so dependent on all sort os technology that they miss the satisfactions of, say, washing the dishes manually or writing a letter with pen and ink and paper or give the twice-a-day upper a little rest. Even then, we are reliant on technology, of course, but much less so. We can concede that we aren’t really in control and do something more fully human—at least every now and then. If we do not make ourselves so servile to non-human stuff and find the serenity of not knowing what’s going to happen, we will suck less at life. Take a Radom walk, GPS-free.
05/16/2022: Is It Better for Your Loved One To be Killed by a Serial Murderer or by a Spouse?
It is undoubtedly hard to bear when you lose a loved one, whether that be a wife or a husband or a child or a sibling or even a favorite aunt or uncle. We could include grandparents as well. Yet if they are killed by a natural disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake, it is a bit easier to take. They were just unlucky: the wrong place, the wrong time. If they are murdered by a serial killer, it would seem more ghastly. It is hard to prosecute a tornado, but a serial killer must not only be found but also convicted and punished. That adds a whole new layer of not only mourning but also anger and a search for closure once the trial is over, if there is one. In another sense, though, a loved one’s being killed by a serial murderer is somewhat like that loved one’s being killed by a tornado or forest fire. Serial killers are psychopaths, who are by far the most incurable of all human creatures when it comes to mental illness. One psychiatrist has said that psychopathology is the disease that no psychopath wants to be cured. They are missing a chip or some sort, an empathy chip perhaps, and are never really sorry for whaat they have done but only sad they’ve been caught. They are remorseless and in that sense are a force of nature as much as a tsunami is. If a loved one is killed by a Bunny or Dahmer, they too were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if a loved one is killed by a spouse, one feels that something could have been done. Someone should have seen this coming ad headed it off. You feel you should have spoken up before X or Y became your loved one’s spouse. Most murders are domestic or family affairs, after which the grievers might well wish they had advised the tragically departed not to marry X a long time ago.
05/13/2022: Why Did Queen Elizabeth Decide to Become a Virgin?
The first Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. In Cate Blanchett’s interpretation of her personality, in a recent film, Elizabeth was a vivacious, fun-loving young woman who, once she inherited the throne, became a cold, calculating politician. The erotic young woman became an official virgin in order to symbolize the purity of her realm. It was politics. It’s clear that Elizabeth had a values shift. Whereas she once valued fun, she decided to value power. You could say that her real transition was from partying to governing. You would be wrong. Her underlying transition was from one environment in which she could stay alive to another in which she had a better chance of staying alive. The constant was not political power but life itself. Elizabeth did not adapt, in other words, because she took seriously her new role. She adapted because she loved life itself and wanted to stay in it. It is said, wisely, that we must “adapt or die” This is a mindset of pervasive good sense. It involves either changing ourselves in order to fit our milieu better, or changing our milieu in order to fit ourselves better. Elizabeth chose the former. Others of us choose the latter: for instance, we move locales in order to be with—and protected by—“our” kinds of people. In the United States this is called “the great sorting out.” Republicans move to red states; Democrats move too blue ones, You could say this is about political and cultural values. In the end, however, it is about pursueing life. Adapt, we think, or die, and we are often right about that.
WEEKEND SPECIAL ON THE MINDSET BLOG: MAGA and the Problem of American Shame
Most of us know that shaming is a way of keeping a person down, as in “fat-shaming” or “body-shaming.” Those who shame us seem to be saying, “You are an utterly worthless person.” But what happens when those who have been shamed rebel and begin to shame those who shamed them? This is in the story of the MAGA movement headed by Donald Trump. His followers were told for some time that they should be ashamed of themselves if they do not believe in a multi-racial, multicultural democracy. Sexist and racist jokes were out. White privilege was something to be ashamed of. But Trump and others told this cohort that they had nothing to be ashamed of. After all, if a country with a vast white majority had worked well for them in the past, why should they be ashamed to oppose that country’s changing? Why should they be ashamed to pursue their own self-interest? Why should they be ashamed to be mad that blacks and gays and feminists were getting all the attention? This reflects a very American mindset. It is not for nothing that one of our American states has as its motto, Don’t Tread on Me. This is a nation of the individuated ego, not a country of reverential respect for others—“you should be ashamed for taking to your fellow citizens like that.” And then, having convinced its followers not to be shamed and bullied by liberals, the MAGA movement said to its members, “But you SHOULD be ashamed if you get squeamish over our methods and let the tribe down.” Asian cultures in particular think shame can be good: it is a hallmark of mutual respect and forgiveness. But it is a virtue mostly lost on Americans of all political preferences. We are a shambles nation, for good and/or ill.
05/12/2022: Are You a Groundhog, and When Did You Last See Your Shadow?
Phil the Pennsylvania Groundhog is famous the world over for seeing or not seeing his shadow on February 2, either forecasting or not six more weeks of winter. The psychologist Carl Jung had another shadow, this one an idea in our minds. Your shadow is the person you fear you might be but don’t want to be. This shadow might be subconscious, but it, well, “shadows” you wherever you go. If you are a rational person, you fear there might be an overly emotional one lurking inside you. If you think you’re an idealist, you may be scared that there’s a cynic inside. Or, if you pride yourself on being a cynical realist, you may be frightened that you are really a sappy idealist. Jung thought we ought not always fend off our shadow but embrace it, sort of like Luke Skywalker faced Darth Vader, his shadowy father. Shakespeare’s Hamlet prided himself on being a supremely analytical person, only to learn that he needed to let his intuitive self have a little reign for a while. Being constantly rational wasn’t getting him very far in the business of finding out whether his uncle had killed his father and, if so, getting revenge. When he stopped overthinking things, Hamlet was able to lure, almost against his will, his uncle into trying to kill him and thus he had a perfect public excuse to slay his wicked uncle. Mission accomplished. King Lear feared he had a secret insane person inside and feared both madness and total lack of authority. Both aspects of his “shadow” took over, and yet, Lear was able to integrate both his political impotence and his crazed looniness into a higher, forgiving, humble wisdom. Jung thought that, on occasion, fending off our shadow made us less creative persons, as thought that repressing the shadow made us more divided and paralyzed creatures. Whenever Phil the Groundhog sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter., Well, there are six more weeks of winter regardless of what Phil sees, but if he confronts his shadow, he’s much more ready, realistically, for the inevitable cold.
05/11/2022: Do You Buy Your Insurance3 From Pascal?
The great philosopher Blaise Pascal famously concocted a wager named for him. If you believe in God, and God exists, you will go to Heaven. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you lose a little fun. But if you do NOT believe in God, and God exists, then you will go to Hell. It’s better not to take any chances. This is like an insurance policy. Most of us don’t need all that much insurance. It’s unlikely our houses are going to burn down or that we are going to get some catastrophic illness But suppose we do. And then suppose we do NOT have ANY insurance. We’re out big-time. We are ruined. So Pascal’s mindset is really the mindset of those of us who buy insurance and the companies that sell us the policies. You could say, “I don’t buy life insurance. The insurance company is betting I won’t die before 65. Why shouldn’t I?” But suppose you and the insurance company are both wrong. Still, this is where the analogy between Pascal’s mindset and the insurance mindset breaks down. If you die, the insurance company will pay. That’s a legal contract. But suppose you DO believe in God and do so so much that you are an incessant gambler who thinks God is not only in existence but on your side in the game. Yet: Suppose God thinks, “I like this person. He believes in Me. But I do NOT like gambling. To Hell with him.” The problem with Pascal’s Wager is that you and God don’t have a legal, precise contract. Don’t buy your insurance from Pascal.
05/10/2022: Do Computers Get Inferiority Complexes?
2001: A Space Odyssey was made 54 years ago, but it could have easily been made yesterday or even tomorrow, for it is one of the most enduringly contemporary films ever produced. It seems as modern now as it did back then. The genius director Stanley Kubrick did the movie in four parts. In the first, one group of hominids beats off another with the high-tech instrument of a jawbone, a “device” shown to them by a black monolith that appears out of nowhere. In the second part, thousands of years later, the black monolith is back, on the moon, as the United States and Soviet Union compete to grab its uniquely powerful energy source. The US wins, and so in part three we are on a rocket ship being powered by laser energy to Jupiter. The journey is guided by a computer whose nickname is HAL, or Heuristically programmed AL-gorithmic computer. HAL makes an error and apparently can’t stand the fact that it did so. The astronauts fear HAL will make another, more costly one, so they seek to unplug HAL. He reads their lips and tries to destroy them before they can. It seems that HAL has become insecure about his infallibility, so fear of being unplugged is something it simply cannot stand to occur. One of the astronauts manages, barely, to escape from HAL’s machinations and, in part four, is blended into a surrealistic light show and becomes a child in a star. Thousands if not millions of people have tried to interpret this film. But at one level it seems simple: conflict appears to be inevitable in human affairs, whether we are talking hominids or astronauts or even computers. The perversity of HAL is that once it grows insecure, it goes into conflict mode. Losing something—land or resources or even fallibility—leads beings to want to g3t their “own” bak, and so conflict inevitably arises. Only, perhaps, when we become stars and blend into an infinite universe in which there is plenty for all, does war, or resentful computers at war with their users,, end.
06/09/2022: The ONLY Important Question You and I Will Ever Face
A common human experience is that we are impenetrable. They can tell us what to do but cannot tell us what to think. We can say we are thinking of an apple while really thinking of a peach AND NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW. So there is this utter privacy of self—if my name is Jill Jones, this is my unique “Jill Jones-ness.” And yet along with this mindset comes another: Jill Jones can’t get very far in life without, say Bobby Wilson or Hernando Gomez, or whoever else is in Jill Jones’s life. So we are alone and private and yet we are not. We may think ourselves to be unique, but we must constantly surrender that in order to cooperate with others. The same goes for our own consciousness. As human beings, we are aware that we are aware: when we see a bright blue, we are aware that it is WE (or I) who see that blue. Once we die, that consciousness vanishes—if you’ve had any sort of general anesthetic you know this to be true. But then the question is: well, is that all there is—is my self gone forever? Or is it uploaded into some GENERAL, UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS? This is really the only question you and I will ever face that is important: Are we alone, so that the unique you and me is gone once we die, or do we join some Universal Something or Other in which we blend into everything else? And if so, what is that Universal Something or Other? Is our consciousness a small part of some great pan-psychism, which even the rocks and the leaves share? All other questions pale in comparison. Don’t they?
05/06/2022: Copernicus and the Problem of Worrying Too Much
All of us observe the sun moving around the Earth, except that of course it doesn’t. It’s we who are moving. The Sun does ot. This was the radical theory attributed to the great astronomer Copernicus, who was proved to be right. It is like when we think the train beside us is moving. But it is our train that is. This is a common error. We think we are in a fixed position watching something else move. It is a fallacious mindset. The philosopher Immanuel Kant theorized that what we observe—rocks or pencils or sidewalks or whatever—is really “there,” but it is there only in the eyes of our own dynamic vision. We observe them as existing in space and time. Their real existence may have nothing to do with space and time, but we are built to see everything in terms of space and time. Again, we are mistaken to think that we are in some unbiased, fixed position from which to perceive things. This brings us to the subject of nagging worry. We often worry too much about stuff we can do nothing much about. And we think the problem is in what we are worrying about, whether it be disease or accident or danger or whatever. But maybe the problem is in us, the worried observer. The problem is not what we are worried about but more in the fact that we are fretting about it all the time. We have met the worry, and it is we ourselves. Or, to go back to Copernicus, we have met the moving one, and it is we ourselves.
05/05/2022: When Was the Last Time You saw a Real, Live Dragon?
Anyone who has ever taught the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem BEOWULF knows that there are a couple of ancient Scandinavian monsters in the text: Grendel and Grendel’s mother. They are not dragons, but trolls, yet even so, they are pretty tough customers—a couple of deadly big lizards. Modern readers might think that these ancient warriors did not really believe in trolls and knew they were mythic. These are just old stories. This would be wrong, Warriors and non-Warriors alike in ancient Scandinavian and Germanic tribes believed in creatures like Grendel. They were pretty sure such monsters existed. Had they ever seen one? Yes, thousands of times. The days were short, the nights were long, the forests were deep, and the human mind was impressionable. No doubt there were many more sightings of trolls than there have ever been on the Loch Ness monster. If you are sure that X exists, you will in time see X for yourself. This is a human mindset. There was never a sighting of a flying saucer until 1947, by which time the modern world was full of space stories and science-fiction tales. Once there was an initial sighting, comic books and TV shows included flying saucers, and soon enough lots of people were seeing them in the sky. We humans look into the vast night sky and cannot imagine that there aren’t aliens out there. When we see something strange, we start to connect the dots and are pretty sure it is a genuine and quite possibly sinister UFO. This is how we human beings are constructed: to find patterns—smoke sunsets fire, anxiety suggests lying, low clouds suggest snow, a star constellation suggest Orion the hunter. Given how many billions of stars and planets there are in the universe, it is very likely that there is life elsewhere. Given the distances between us and them, it is unlikely we will ever find and communicate with other intelligent life. Even if we could send a message to the planet Cordelia (a made-up name), the communique would take 25, 000 years to get there and another 25,000 to hear back. But we see their flying saucers all the time.
05/04/2022: The Mindset of the Protest Voter
The Protest Voter is disgusted. The PV is fed up. The PV is angry. The PV has decided that since (fill in the blank) Hillary or Macron or X is going to win anyhow, but since they are all flawed candidates, the PV is going to vote for someone who can’t win just in order to register opposition to a disappointing mainstream candidate who won’t change anything. The PV is a Bernie Sanders supporter who is furious that a far more moderate liberal Hillary Clinton has gotten the nomination. Or a French socialist who thinks Macron is no more than a Neo-liberal technocrat. But the mindset of the Protest Voter isn’t just one of irritation. It’s also one of assumptions about outcomes. In the 1990s Minnesota Protest Voters were so fed up with the offerings of the two major parties that they voted for a Libertarian named Jesse Ventura. He had no chance to win, they thought—or assumed—so why not cast a protest vote? They didn’t want Ventura to win, but they hated the conventional choices. But Ventura did win. PVs outsmarted themselves—not that Ventura was an awful governor. In 2016 PVs were sure Clinton would win. Trump was given no significant chance and even he had rented a small venue because he thought he would lose. The French run-off system of two rounds helps Protest Voters get their ire out of their systems. They will vote for a far-right candidate sometimes in Round I because it’ clear he or she can’t win. But when it becomes obvious, in Round 2, that he or she COULD win, they mute their fury, hold their noses, and vote for the ineffectivetual technocrat as lesser of two evils.
05/03/2022: How To Make the Hell of Other People Go Away
Something called “otherness” has been the preoccupation of great thinkers. The philosopher Hegel said that we come to know ourselves only in contrast to and similarity with others. Even God comes to know Himself through the unfolding of many different others in the universe. Or so says Hegel. The philosopher Sartre said that other people are Hell: they want what we have, disapprove of who we are, and take away what is rightly ours. We cannot do without others—we depend on them in social cooperation—but they make us miserable. Collaboration becomes a necessary Hell. But digital technology has done a great deal to change the mindset of Otherness. We can plug in and listen only to voices and music that we like. We can watch only the cable channels that we prefer. We can join the social media group that is just like us. We can eliminate a lot of the Otherness in our lives. A Ugandan bishop was once asked what he thought about Idi Amin, the dictator who was trying to kill him, and the bishop said that he loved Amin as Christ said he should. “Am I not stuck with him?” But thanks to the long, diverse tail of digital technology, we aren’t stuck with anyone any longer. We can say, even to the persons we don’t especially like in our own households, “Sorry, I can’t hear you, I have my ear plugs in.”
05/02/2022: Putin and the Return of the Cicadas
Among insects, few seem to be as rigorously engineered as the cicada. With its wide eyes and short antennae and big wings (well, relative to the rest of its body) and loud song, it returns like clockwork every seventeen years, during which time it emerges from the beneath the earth, has sex, dies, and then goes to some other place, indefinite, where it awaits its ancestors’ coming back in another seventeen years. It is the singing and the sex that are especially interesting to entymologists, but one wonders if there is much individuality among cicadas. Are there handsome ones or pretty ones? Are their grouchy ones or nice ones? Or is it the case that the sex is pretty random and that if you’ve heard one cicada song you’ve heard them all or even that if you’ve see one cicada you’ve seen them all? As Russia has become more Stalinist in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, there must be days when President Putin wishes that Russians were more like cicadas: lacking in individuality and prone to highly predictable behavior. It would be impossible to turn cicadas into slaves, but if human beings were more easily programmable, like cicadas seem to be, then more human beings would be slaves. The problem is that human beings aren’t cicadas. They have an entirely different set of genetic algorithms and are designed to succeed in a totally different environments. Human creatures tend to develop such bothersome things as individual opinions and different preferences. It is not impossible to enslave and brainwash them, but it’s not altogether easy. All this is a little unfair to autocrats like Putin, who probably thinks it is quite OK for a Russian to be an individualist within his or her family, as long as they keep their cicada-like heads down when it comes to politics. The problem again, though, is that human animals tend to want to have a say about who is boss. It’s hard to keep a two-legged non-cicada down. That’s also why, in seventeen years, the cicadas will return while Putin may well be dead.
WEEKEND EXTRA: Is Liberal Arts Education Brainwashing?
Suppose you were told to become X or join X—or else. Or suppose you were told that becoming or joining X would change your life—revolutionize it for the better—and would at the very least serve your self-interest. And then suppose you were given an education on the various ways to become X or be a valued and devoted member of X. You might well describe this as brainwashing, for you will have been subject to the three elements of brainwashing: coercion, persuasion, and education. After a while, especially after the education phase is over, you may need de-programming, for you have become an X and the old you no longer exists and will require a lot of work to bring that old self back to life. In the 1930s Germans were so “into” Nazism that ordinary people would get up each day and look for ways to “grow towards the Fuhrer.” Hitlerism was not only enforced. Germans were convinced it was transformative, and it was also in the schools—note the “Hitler Youth.” But what about liberal arts education? The typical mindset is that it is NOT brainwashing but is actually a guard AGAINST being brainwashed: critical thinking and all that. But actually Liberal Arts Education is also a form of brainwashing, isn’t it? You are coerced: pass these courses or you will be a stupid, unemployable person. You are persuaded: being educated will make you and life itself far more interesting. And, well, there’s plenty of education: it’s called liberal arts education, Nazis said, “You were once a lily-livered, tolerant pacifist; now you are a strong warrior.” Liberal arts educators say, “You were once ignorant and incurious; now you are a very smart lifetime learner who feels guilty if you don’t think hard every day,” You believe it, too. Why do you?
04/29/2022: Souls are Hiding in Plain sight
Of course, we all regret the existence of serial killers. Even some serial killers wish they were otherwise The pervasive question about them is whether they are born or made. Research suggests both. Serial killers’ brains are said to be unusually quiet and inactive in their pre-fontal cortex. This suggests that there is some neuronal reason why they lack empathy abd impulse control. That is one pattern. Another is environmental: they grew up in violent and abusive households. It’s still not clear if their alleged brain issues are something they are born with or something that results from the horrible milieu in which they grew up. Overall, there is evidence that they are not in total control of themselves and that biochemical and parental pressures have helped make them what they are. Do they have free will? One researcher into the subject has said that serial killers, given their pre-existing problems, likely have less free will than we non-serial killers do. Nonetheless, we punish them as though they freely chose to kill. Some of them, such as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacey, have been put to death. This in turn brings us to the mindset of the soul. It’s a word you typically hear only in houses of worship or as applied to certain types of music. It’s an old-fashioned word, one that in this scientific age might be regarded as superstitious, even. Yet we have not given up on the soul, even if we rarely invoke its name. We assumed that Budny and Gavey and the others all had a soul—some metaphysical entity beyond nature or nurture by which they could have resisted their crimes. It is this vague thing called the “soul” (a word we avoid) that guarantees that they had free will after all and thus HAD to be held accountable. Otherwise, how could we justify punishing them? “Soul” is a word we rarely use but cannot do without.
04/28/2022: Why Are Americans Obsessed With Being Harmed?
Over 150 yeas ago the philosopher John Stuart Mill proposed the “harm” theory of rights. You have the right to do X as long as you don’t harm anyone else as a result. You can swing your first as long as it doesn’t connect with someone else’s face. You can keep a mean dog as long as it doesn’t get loose and bite someone. American’s however, are especially supersensitive about the “harm principle.” Becoming a transgender person, for instance, would seem to be harmless, but some Americans think the very idea and existence of trans-gender persons harms public morality and stable gender relationships, and that it will ruin high school sports and make rest rooms dangerous. Disagreeing with someone about some aspect of race might seem harmless—just free speech—but some Americans think the very idea of believing that race is relatively unimportant is deeply harmful: that it upsets them and offends them and generally makes them less mentally well than they would otherwise be, so thy demand speech codes. It would seem that mask requirements are a good example of the harm principle: if you don’t wear them during a respiratory pandemic, you will harm others with infection. But many Americans think requiring masks harms their right to decide what to wear. Gun violence would seem to make regulating guns a good idea, but gun owners think such laws harm their right to bear arms however they wish. Some readers want to ban an author’s books because the author’s women characters are portrayed in a sexist manner, and these readers think the very existence of these books harms their right to be free of any and all sexual discrimination. Why are Americans so obsessed with other Americans’ conduct as harmful to them? It’s likely because Americans have the idea that their rights are absolute. Was not the country founded with the citation of “inalienable rights”? Once you think your rights are limitless, you become overly worried about the harmless behavior of your fellow citizens, especially if expressed through the rules of representative government, and you acquire the mindset that nothing should be allowed to eclipse them in any way. Masks, books, disagreeable speech, and longer waiting periods for buy guns are pretty harmless in the scheme of things and should not be abrogated in the name of some absolutist and overly tourhy doctrine of rights. But we Americans are quick to take offense on all sides; almost paranoid about being “harmed.”
04/27/2022: Why Alcoholics Should Read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
In the Oscar-winning film THE LOST WEEKEND, the chief character, Don Burnham says there are two Dons: Don the Writer and Don the Drunk. The film is about which Don is the real and enduring one. It’s a close call. These are two conflicting mindsets of identity. The same happens in Robert Louis Stevenson’s immoral book DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. The doctor concepts a chemical potion that will allow him to morph into a psychopath but then turn back to respectable Dr. Jekyll. Hyde cannot be traced or caught. But this is a tale of addition, like THE LOST WEEKEND. Jekyll rather enjoys being Hyde and soon needs more and more chemicals to turn back into Jekyll. Who is he? Jekyll or Hyde? Which one will last as the real one? The answer is: Hyde. In the movie the answer is: Don Burnham the Writer. Alcoholics are caught between two mindsets: X the drunk or X the productive, functional individual. Instead of announceng yourself at AA meetings with “I’m X and I’m an alcoholic,” maybe it should be, “I’m X and I’ve read DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. I now realize that addiction to Y is a rotten way to escape from the burdens of being me.”
04/26/2022: Elon Musk and the Mystery of the Serial Killer
Elon Musk was once famous for his Tesla cars but has now become even more famous for his rides into outer space. He or his guests go up hundreds of thousands of feet, see the Earth, get excited, and then come back down courtesy of three big parachutes. Fact is, Elon Musk is very good with space and time. He’s become a master of Outer space, and time is vital to both the marketing and energy of his electrical cars, which run, by the way, over space. Musk is an example of what Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, described as the two main categories of the mind—this was three hundred yers ago, but there seems little reason to dispute him now. Kant thought the world really existed, but he also thought that we “create” it via the qualities of our minds, and that those minds are equipped from the start with concepts of time and space. That’s why we can know that the pine tree is fifty yards to the left of the oak tree as of 8:32 PM. Without this mental grounding in space and time, Kant said, we couldn’t know anything. We’re all pretty good at perceiving and managing space and time, but Musk is better than most of us. Kant added, however, that anything OUTSIDE space and time was UNknowable. God is outside space and time, so we cannot know God, or even that God exists. Free Will exists outside space and time: we can’t locate free will in space and time. A serial killer may have chosen to kill or might have been driven by physical causes that don’t afflict the rest of us. We act as though serial killers had a choice so the we can punish them, but to be honest, we really don’t know. Elon Musk’s mindset of space and time is great when it comes to rockets. But his guess is as good as ours when it comes to knowing for sure whether Ted Bundy was absolutely free not to become a murderer.
04/25/2022: Why the First Woman President in the U.S. Will Be A Republican
There is a popular mindset in the United States that the Democratic Party will nominate the first women who will be elected president. It is easy to see why this mindset obtains. Did not the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton? And is not electing the first woman president a feminist cause, and is not the Democratic Party the home of feminism? Yet this whole mindset may well be wrong. Democrats women candidates tend to be liberal and feminist. Men voters resent the so-called “nanny” state and feel that feminism is a zero-sum game: for every feminist win, they lose. This is an unfortunate attitude, but there it is. A Republican woman running for president is much more likely to be small-government libertarian and not especially feminist in the common ideological sense. She is potentially less threatening to male voters and will also pick up women votes who want to see a woman running the White House. A Republican woman candidate for president has a kind of “cover” that a Democratic woman candidate may not have. Male voters who abhorred Hillary Clinton welcomed Sarah Palin.
Weekend Tidbit: Will Hard Work Save You?
One of the most famous mindsets in history was identified in the 1800s by Max Weber, who observed that there was a link between hard work and Christian salvation. Protestants thought that you were predestined to go to Heaven or Hell and that there was nothing you could do about it. But IF you made a lot of money, it MIGHT be a sign that you were destined for Heaven. Thus did people work hard to do well and find a sign that they were blessed for Eternity. This is all laid out in a celebrated book called THE PROTESTANT ETHIC AND THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM. We don’t much believe this idea any longer, yet the mindset remains with us. We think hard work will save us in this life. It will keep us out of trouble. It will give us the personal luxuries we crave. It will affirm us as productive citizens. Digital technology was supposed to save us time and effort. It has done the reverse. We now work not only at the office but also at home after hours, The more emails we can send, the more we do send. We constantly check our phones for updates. And we don’t believe, any longer, that we will get to Heaven as a result. Hard work now saves us from having to take the time to face ourselves; it saves us from ourselves, not from Hell. Or is there a difference?
4/22/2022: Is Your Favorite Aunt an Electrical Charge?
Riding in an auto can be a sort of mystical experience. You roll along and the hills and shores go by as though by magic. This feeling doesn’t happen as much s it did when cars were new, but in any case it isn’t really magic. The car doesn’t run by magic. In fact, any good mechanic can show you how the electrical system links to the fuel tank and how the fuel tank links to the foot pedal and tires in order to move you along. There is an analogy between moving on four tires and electrically charged gasoline and a heavy driver’s foot. The same goes for the body’s liver. Any doctor or science teacher can show you how the liver makes and secretes bile through a system of ducts. It’s bile in; bile out: not all that hard to understand. But now let’s take your hyper-aware appreciation of your favorite aunt—doesn’t everyone have one? You perceive her hearty laugh, warm hug, diamond earrings, favorite blue dress. And what causes that experience? Ducts? A fuel tank? Nope. That’s caused by electrical charges in your brain—millions of them. But this time there seems no analogy—no link between ducts and liquid or controlled electrical fire and gasoline. We know that the brain is the cause of the mind when it experiences Aunt Martha and nuclear physics alike, but no one knows how the electromagnetic brain “becomes” the subjective mind. But wait: there is one mindset that might explain what’s coming down. This is the mindset of pan-consciousness. According to this mindset, the mind is conscious but then so is the brain. Neurons themselves have a kind of primitive consciousness. And this very low-level consciousness is multiplied by a million or two and voila: you are conscious of your Aunt Martha. It’s hard to know whether this pan-conscious mindset is a desperate attempt to explain the inexplicable or a brilliant theory. What do you think?
04/21/2022: Is Human Nature a Regulation or a License?
One of the great gifts of being human is fellow feeling. This is the basis of The Golden Rule. We feel the pain of others, in a way, and since we would not want them to do something painful to us, we do not wish to do something painful to them. This is not a matter of self-interest but of mutual human sympathy. This might be called an important aspect of human nature. You see it all the time. In this sense human nature is a ruler: Do NOT, it says, do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you. But then let’s consider the story of the 2016 Rhodden Family Massacre in Pike County, Ohio. Eight members of the family were shot to death in some sort of nightly raid. It took authorities a while to figure out who did it—there were all sorts of red herrings involving possible drug deals gone bad—but in time the police arrested one Jake Wagner. He came from a fairly wealthy adjoining family and had wanted one of the Roddens, Hanna Mae, to sign over custody of their love child, then two. She refused. So Jake got his mother, brother, and father to help him massacre the entire family, including Hanna Mae. Why wipe them all out just over a custody battle? Well, the answer is that human nature, in addition to giving us the capacity for fellow feeling, also gives us the capacity to be vicious and cunning, By wiping out the whole Rhodden family, Jake could hide the fact that the real target was Hanna Mae. If he had killed her alone, the cops would have started looking at him right away. But by killing them all, he and his Wagner kin could make investigators think this was some sort of drug-related revenge. The mindset about human nature is right to think of it as a governor of human behavior, but we must remember that governments give out permits all the time. Human nature allowed Jake Wagner to commit the most bizarre, deadly, and calculated crime in recent memory by a private citizen. He became In a sense the Stalin and Hitler of Appalachian Ohio.
04/20/2022: The Peyote of Quantum Mechanics
Over three hundred years ago Bishop George Berkeley proposed a theory that is very hard to refute. He argued that nothing exists unless we perceive it. Thus, if you are looking at a tree right now, the tree no longer exists when you are not observing it. Even if you set up an automatic camera over a 24 your period to film the tree, and you find that it is there all along, even when you are asleep, this still does not refute Berkeley, for, after all, the tree, whether on film or not, does not come back until you perceive it. Of course, perception can be a funny thing. Suppose you were looking at your backyard and saw a cat and a tree and then saw the tree become the cat and then the cat become the tree. We wold be inclined to say that you are tripping: that some sort of peyote or LSD has soaked your brain and altered your vision of “reality.” But—and here is a further twist—you don’t need to trip in order to see, as physicists do, that subatomic particles can be in two places at the same time and that sometimes they are particles and sometimes they are waves. Mathematics proves that they are the same particles, but what the math shows and what human observation shows are two different things. THUS: Maybe when you trip, and see the cat and the tree change places, with the one vanishing and then the other, only to come back as separate things, you have some deep insight into the nature of things. If sub-atomic particles are “really” the way the world is, then maybe peyote lets your brain and eye see how things “really” are above the sub-atomic level. Maybe the trip lets you see that everything is quantum—a radical new mindset., and a true one.
04/19/2022: What Is The Mindset of God?
In the 2021 movie Nightmare Alley, nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, an old carnival performer tells a young one to be careful: Never he said, think you are God, no matter how good you are at your tricks. The old carnie had perfected a series of verbal cues that allowed him to guess, correctly, the identity of objects that, blindfolded, he could not see. It is impressive. The young carnival performer perfects it brilliantly But then he gets in over his head. He promises a client he can make a dead mistress come out of the grave. He gets found out and descends into booze and decline. He forgot he was just a performer of trricks, however smart, and came to think he might be God. This brings us to the mindset of God. None of us knows for sure who or what God is. But surely there is one thing clear about God: God does not perform tricks with the universe. We are not God. If someone asks us, how do you make people in Sweden appear live on computer screens in Japan, we say, “Well, you have to know the trick, and it involves digital codes and pixels and radio waves.” God can do the same thing, but if you asked God, “How did you do that?,” God would not resort to explaining his high-tech tricks. God wouldn’t have any. God can just do these magical things because…God is God. God is not self-conscious. God does not calculate, God does not do science. Let us suppose, if we are pantheists, that the whole universe is God. Is the whole universe aware of what it is doing? No, It just does it, The old carnie was right: If you fall back on tricks, you aren’t God. When the young carnie thinks he is, he pays the ultimate price—see the film—in self-destruction,. Rise too far above yourself and you will sink below yourself.
04/18/2022: Did Alice in Wonderland Defeat Hitler?
The film Mrs, Miniver won the Oscar in 1943 for Best Picture. It’s a fine film about an English family trying to cope with theNazi Blitz on London in 1940. In one scene the Miniver family—the father, mother, two small kids, and the cat—wait in a bomb shelter as the explosions from German aircraft draw nearer and louder. In a short time, the whole bunker is rocked with deafening noise. Mr. Miniver tries to remain calm and reads aloud the closing paragraphs of Lewis Carroll’s famed Alice In Wonderland, where Alice is depicted as grown up with children of her own, cheerful but not quite as joyful and innocent as the little girl who followed the White Rabbit into Wonderland. So you have this juxtaposeition of Alice and the Luftwaffe—Alice within the bunker, the Luftwaffe in the skies. It seems at first that the film makers are communicating how the Minivers, like Alice, have had to grow up and face the evil discomforts of the world. In time you realize there is a mindset on display: a familiar and powerful one. This is the mindset of proud national identity, The English are proud of Alice; she was invented by one of them. And this is why they will defend their island to the death against Hitler: because they do not want to see their own traditions destroyed and become forced to speak German. At the end of the film, the local Anglican rector says that the war is a people’s war. It is the battle of a whole people against a deadly and wicked force. This is consistent with Winston Churchill’s view that it is the people who will “fight them in the hills fight them in the streets.” Everyone is a combatant. And they are fighting so that their civilization—and all the literary classics written in its name—will flourish and not perish from the earth. The parallel with Ukraine is obvious,
04/15/2022: If You were Asked to Take a Bribe, What Would You SAY?
Let’s say someone asked you to take a bribe. What would you say? Well, 1. You might say, “No, thank you. Taking a bribe is neither right nor wrong, as only scientific statements are right or wrong. But I think taking a bribe is against my self-interest.” Or 2..”No, Taking bribes is against my principles. My principles are not universally right, but they are the ones I am personally committed to.” Or 3: “No. Taking a bribe is against the natural development of what human beings are supposed to grow up to be: operating by standards of excellence, and not by whatever standards are bought and paid for.” If you break these three responses down, they come out in three schools about ethics: 1. Ethical statements are meaningless because they cannot be verified scientifically. 2. Ethical statements have no universal validity and are only rhetorical statements of personal preference. 3. Ethical statements are rooted in the natural progress of human beings as they grow to excellence, so taking a bribe would be to a human being what a tomato plant’s taking arsenic would be.” All three of these are famous ethical mindsets. Which one do you like? Or would you just take the bribe?
04/14/2022: Can Chat Bots Ever Be Human?
It’s a simple story. The psychologist Sherry Turkle had a chat bot during the height of the Covid pandemic. She was lonely and asked the chat bot what she had to say about that by way of comfort or explanation. The chat bot said, in a female voice, that loneliness was warm and fuzzy. This was inappropriate, and Turikle reported it as such to the programmers, who fixed the problem. Turkle, who is a critic of how high technology de-humanizes us, said this is the sort of thing that comes from a disembodied entity. But behind this whole tale is a mindset about what it is to be human. Let us take bees, which are not human. They do a hard-wired dance together in order to point the way to a pollen source. Not us: If we want to tell a fellow human being about a pollen source, we talk: We say “the pollen source is at X coordinate.” And that’s what makes us human, right? That’s what makes us non-bees. It’s our brains and our language that make us human. But suppose that’s the wrong mindset? Suppose it isn’t our brains but our bodies that make us human. Bees may not be human, but neither are chat bots. They ca’t say appropriate things about loneliness, or can do do only with meticulous programming, because they have never suffered from loneliness. Loneliness isn’t a mental feeling. It’s a bodily one. It isn’t felt in the head. It’s felt in a body that craves touching and contact. Is the right mindset that we are humans because we have bodies, and not in the end because we have brains?
04/13/2022: A Cheese and Olive Oil Sandwich, Followed by a Walk—But What’s REALLY Going On?
A person has a cheese and olive oil sandwich and then goes for a short walk. What is going on here? The answer is found in a mindset we generally don’t have. It’s a physics mindset. The second law of thermodynamics dictates that everything goes from order to disorder. So when we nourish ourselves with that sandwich, we are making sure we have plenty of fuel for our walk. We predict we have enough, and if such a prediction is sound, then it’s part of an orderly world. Yeah, but what happened to the second law of thermodynamics—this order from disorder stuff? It’s still around, As soon as we go outside and start walking, we start shedding body heat, which goes into the air and disperses randomly. But we do more than that: we spread disorder generally. We might step on ants. We might run into someone who has to sidestep us on the walk. We pound on the sidewalk and play our tiny part in wearing it down. Why are we allowed to keep doing this until we die? Well, we have an open secret: it’s the sun. The sun is free energy. It helps the olives, wheat, and cows grow so that we can have our cheese and olive oil sandwich. This means that we can replace the disorder we spread. The sun can’t stop the second law of thermodynamics, but it does help slow its effects. And you thought you’d just had a sandwich and gone for a walk! No. It was just your latest adventure with the second law of thermodynamics, which, in time, will turn your health from order to disorder once and for all. No more cheese and olive oil sandwiches then; no more walks. It’s the Second Law 1; you and: 0.
04/12/2022: Why Were There So Many Assassinations in the 1800s?
Talk about the power of mindset. In 19th century America three presidents were assassinated within fewer than 35 years—or one every 12 years! There were lots more, too, especially in South American countries, but there were two in the more stable democracies of France and England as well. Both the president of France and the prime minister of England were killed. In the United States one might argue that these deaths were avoidable except for a particular mindset: that in a democracy, such as the United states, it was not cool for presidents to go around with a lot of protection, Lincoln was famously cavalier about armed guards. James Garfield was murdered while buying a train ticket. William McKinley was shot to death while shaking hands in a line of ostensible well-wishers. In time, the nation got the memo and established heavy armed protection for its presidents. There is something charming about the mindset that presidents should be accessible and not have the Secret Service around all the time. There was also something lethal about it.
04/11/2022: How Genghis Khan Air Conditioned The Planet
Genghis Khan did his work eight hundred years ago. He is the greatest warrior in history. Though credited with some good tings, such as religious freedom and the art of diplomacy, he conquered lands the size of Africa and his soldiers killed so many people they equal the size of the Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles metros combined. He depopulated so much farm land that giant forests grew up and scrubbed carbon from the atmosphere. The Carnegie Institution found that this led to a massive and harmful global cooling, In 1956 John Wayne played Khan in a movie shot in the Utah desert, down wind from nuclear testing sites. Nearly half the film crew developed cancer. The cause and effect link is controversial. But both Genghis Khan and the legendary star who played him remind us that when we ignore or foul the atmosphere, the environment has a way of noticing and isn’t amused. The environment has a mindset of its own.
04/08/2022: Satan and the scientific Method
In the 1980s America saw what has been called a “Satanic Panic,” which was heralded by fear that day care centers had been taken over by worshippers of Satan. In the most famous of these cases, the McMartin trials in California, all the charges were either disproven or resulted in jury deadlocks. But some day care workers spent time in jail and later sued for damages. Whether or not Satan exists is not a scientific question. Science can neither prove nor disprove it. But whether or not children were molested by Satan worshipers in day care centers is a question more susceptible to scientific inquiry based on observable or verifiable facts. The best evidence for or against was believed to lay with the young kids, some of whom were barely above the age of toddlers. But are children of such tender age and social immaturity and defenselessness reliable? One investigator thought they were, while a psychologist wrote an article stating that if a child said he or she was molested, it was impossible that they were not. Investigators put leading questions to these children and often, though not always, got the answers they ostensibly wanted to hear: that the kids had been violated. But suppose a kid held fast: “No, nothing happened to me.” Well, said the investigators, this is proof that something DID happen to them. They were too traumatized to say so. Thus, if a kid said he’d been tapered with, he had been; and if a kid said he had not been tampered with, he had been. This is like saying that if a litmus strip turns red, it signifies acid and if it turns blue, it also signifies acid. The scientific method does not consist in making nature tell you what you want to hear but in asking nature too tell you what it can about the truth,
04/07/2022: Why Won’t They Just Get Out of the Way?
The dinosaurs, though long gone, were an immensely successful phylum. They were around for over 150 million years while human beings have been here only 200,000. Their time was a lot rougher than many people realize, for even as the group reigned, many of their species went extinct. By the time the T-Rex came along, the Brontosaurus was already extinct. The latter, by the way, weighed more than your average 737—or over 50 tons. It and the T Rex were also as big as a commercial jet. Yet the dinosaurs didn’t get here entirely on their own, They had help. First, there was a huge volcanic eruption in Siberia which pelted the earth with ash, heated the planet by blocking the sun, and poisoned existing creatures with noxious gas. The ancestors of the dinosaurs were small but mobile reptiles who took advantage of this cleared out space to become, well, to become the dinosaurs. And then, when an asteroid six miles long hit the earth at the speed of a fired bullet, this created an opportunity for birds to ascend in the wake of the wiped-out dinosaurs. T-Rexes and other dinosaurs had non-functional feathers, which birds adapted for flying. We haven’t lost the dinosaurs. They’ve just become sparrows and robins and eagles. It helps when other creatures just get out of the way, and this is today’s mindset. We’ve all said it: “If only so-and-so would get out of the way, good things will happen.” In the late 1930s most British men went off to fight Hitler and Hirohito. The women left behind took advantage. Without all those overbearing men around Oxford University, four women philosophers had room to challenge pre-existing trends, as explained in a new book by Benjamin Lipscomb. “If only you would get out of the way” is not only a mindset; it’s often true as well.
04/06/2022: Are Whales Modern?
It’s been nearly two hundred years since the whaling ship Essex sailed from Nantucket, MA around the tip of South America into Pacific waters, there to meet a mammoth and unusually aggressive whale that destroyed the ship. A few of the whalers survived in a small boat with sails that, luckily for them, happened upon a big French sailing ship that rescued them. They were starved, thirsty, half-crazed and traumatized by the necessity of their having to turn themselves into cannibals. They felt abandoned by God. When we look back on their plight, it is hard for us to think of them as modern. They had to depend on the wind to get around—no steam. They were looking for whales to supply lamp oil because there was as yet no petroleum or electricity. Their harpoons were primitive and devoid of any mechanical assistance. They had no radios. They were after a prized but ancient mammal that had not changed in thousands and thousands of years. The whale seemed very UN-modern, but then according to our lights, so were the whalers. Yet that was not their mindset. Little did they think that THEY were un-modern; they had sailing ships, harpoons, and were in search of a valuable commerceial product used not only in lamps but also in corsets and on human faces. They thought of themselves as right up to date. Here is the mindset of the present. Someday future generations may look back on US as un-modern, as poor souls who had to carry phones around in order to et information instead of just requesting it from the high-tech ether. When we condescend to the past, we should recall that those “poor” folks thought they were very contemporary and likely no less happy than we.
04/05/2022: What’s Wrong With Wrong?
Let’s suppose you say, “London buses are blue.” That would be wrong. London buses are red. It is factually wrong. It is a wrong description of the world. Now let us suppose you say, “When someone harms you, you should get even at once.” Is that also wrong? Well, we could certainly say as much. we could say, “When someone harms you, getting even at once would be wrong.” But if so, it is not wrong in the same way as the blue bus color is wrong. We could even go further and say, “The bus color is a fact; the forgiving thing is just an opinion.” Different strokes for different folks: what is wrong for some is not wrong for others. And yet, this seems limited. Surely torturing children is wrong just as much as calling London buses blue is wrong. But does the same thing—the same metaphysical force—make them both wrong? If so, what is that metaphysical force? What is it that makes both the torture of children and the labeling of London buses as blue WRONG? No one seems to know. It’s a mindset about “wrong” that many of us have but cannot really explain.
04/04/2022 Joe Biden and the Mindset of Blame
Bill Clinton was a popular two-term president. He was president during a high-tech boom in the economy and during a time when Baby Boomers were all still working and hence paying a large share of taxes. The economy took off. Federal deficits shrunk to surpluses. But twenty years before Clinton took the White House, something very different was happening. Demand and supply on a global scale were getting out of whack. The 70s became a time of great inflation, and after a while it got so bad that people even stopped consuming. Thus the nation had inflation without growth—something called “stagflation.” It made three presidents—Nixon, Ford, and Carter—terribly unpopular. All three of them did good things: Nixon began diplomatic relations with China, Ford wisely pardoned Nixon, and Carter started the nation conserving energy. None of it mattered. The economy, stupid, was bad. All three of them were blamed. Historical achievement be damned. Now Joe Biden is president, and supply due to Covid is slow while demand is super-strong. Inflation is back. The voting public blames Joe Biden, who had nothing to do with Covid. But someone must be blamed. Here is the mindset: Every effect has a cause, and bad effects likewise have causes. SOMEONE must have caused Covid and inflation, and if it isn’t the president of the United states, who could it be? We can always blame the Chinese, but we can’t do much about them. We can do something about Joe Biden, and it simply doesn’t make us feel any better to blame a bat from a Chinese live animal market. The bat isn’t running for anything except possibly its life. The football coach doesn’t play on the field, but the team has lost, so we get rid of the coach. We simply MUST do something.
04/01/23022: Shakespeare and the Art of Chinese War
Sun Tzu’s ART OF WAR was written about 2.5 thousand years ago, and its great theme is what we would call today “information asymmetry,” a fancy term that means you know more than your enemy does about what you are going to do, but you also engage in various feints and disinformation to keep him guessing—and guessing wrong. In other words, the art of war is based above all on deception. Shakespeare was also into deception. In his play RICHARD III he presents a hunch-backed character that everyone underestimates as ugly and lame. Richard is deceptive, and wants everyone to sell him short so that when they least expect it, he murders them on his way to the kingship. In the HENRY IV plays Shakespeare creates a character, Prince Hall, whom everyone believes is a lazy playboy. This is fine by Hal, who deceives everyone when he suddenly becomes a tricky politician and fine war leader. The Three Witches in MACETH tell him not to fear any man of woman born, and he is utterly confident in this prophecy until he learns that the man who is about to kill him was delivered by C-section, which is a little detail that lay hidden in the Witches’ fortune-telling. “Information asymmetry” is all over Shakespeare, and that’s the essence of HIS art, too. Shakespeare knows how the plot will unfold, while his readers and theater-goers do not. He keeps us guessing and off-balance with various twists and turns, not to defeat us in battle but to entertain us and get our money. He’s been quite good at that.
03/31/2022: Are You Doomed to Write a Novel?
Some years ago a railroad brakeman in Texas was forced to move to a new city in order to continue his job. He was unhappy about it. About 60, he said, “This will be my last move, The next time I move, they’ll be moving me.” This man was writing a novel with himself as the leading protagonist. He had been born, became a railroad brakeman, was made to move to a new city, and would make this his last move until he died, whereupon he would not be moving furniture but would become something that someone else would have to move. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. What is the meaning of the fact that he who himself had been forced to move would in the end have the luxury of being moved? What bitter or funny irony is this? Here we have an illustration of the novelistic mindset. We are all more or less born with it. In human experience, something starts, continues from its beginning, and comes to an end. Madame Bovary makes a bad marriage, has all sorts of bad reactions to it, and ends up destroying herself. Although we are quite different from her, most of us in our lives follow the same trajectory of beginning, middle, and end. We are guaranteed an end because we are going to die and know it. So we search for a reason, a significance, for the very fact that we were born and are here at all. It is death—the certainty of an ending—that puts us into a novelistic frame of mind. What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of a novel? Neither question makes any sense without the absolute certainty that there will be a last chapter, when they will move us.
03/30/2022: Why Is It So Much Fun to Kill Someone?
The late philosopher Ernest Becker said that we human beings live in two worlds: one biological, the other symbolic. The first is limited and bounded by death—we can run only so fast, see only so far, and find that our bodies betray us and we die. The second seems infinite: our religion or our ideology or our cultural achievements will go on and on, long after the last chapter of our personal biology has been written. Becker thought we clung to our symbolic selves in order to deny our biological selves. It’s like this: “My heart and kidneys will someday fail me, but that’s not really me, for I am a (Christian, Hindu, Democrat, Republican, artist, teacher, scholar, atheist….you fill in the blank). And so I just don’t think about death very much. I’m a symbolic person.” According to Becker this is the mindset by which we deny death. So: no wonder it’s given people a rush of kill people with different symbolic selves, as Protestants killed Catholics, Nazis killed Jews, capitalists killed Communists, Hindus killed Muslims, and so forth. Why is this so much fun? Because you get to remind your victim that he or she is a biological self by affirming via ammunition your own “eternal” symbolic self. It’s a twofer. You show your foe that he’s a mere biological entity while expressing your own symbolic, ideological immortality. A Protestant who kills a Catholic, or vice-versa, says, “How dare you question my symbolic self? You are a mere body. So take that!”
03/29/2022: The Unfortunate Mindset of the Tin Ear
In music a tin ear belongs to someone who sings perpetually off-key. The score calls for an A and they sing an A sharp or A flat. There are tin ears in language, too. In the 1930s a Congressman told a New Deal official that giving people free food would reduce their incentive, in the long run, to earn it for themselves. These people were starving, The official told the Congressman that people didn’t eat in the long run; they at every day. The Congressman may have been right, but in the face of a humanitarian emergency, his comments were off-key. He had a tin ear. Of late, there has been talk about the need to cut off sales of Russian oil, in order to punish Putin for invading Ukraine, and help Western fuel purchasers by lowering gas taxes. Environmentalists say this would be an awful idea. We should be raising taxes on consumers, they say, not lowering them. This way, we will wean ourselves from now unaffordable fossil fuels. Again, they may be right, but there is a short-term emergency with Russia, as a result of which gas prices are soaring, and folks need help in affording to pay them. Once more, people don’t need fuel in the long run; they need it every day. Another tin ear. After a brutally tragic school shooting at the Sandy Hook, CT school, NRA spokesmen said above all, let’s make sure gun rights are not decreased. Here’s another “in the long run” tin ear statement in the middle of a short-run crisis. What do these tin ears prove? Probably this: Human beings are built to survive, not ponder long-range ideals and principles. When people are focused on the present catastrophe, statements of long-arc principles are likely to sound like a B flat when a B is expected.
03/28/2022: Donald Trump and the Two Machiavellis
In an interview with Sean Hannity, Donald Trump refused to condemn Vladimir Putin as evil. Hannity gave him several shots at it, but Trump declined every time. He said that he and Putin “got along” all right; that they understood one another; and he went on to imply that this was all that really counted, True was saying that when you deal with Putin, it’s not about good and evil but about power and how to use it. It is a totally amoral business. This was also the view of Machiavelli, a great Italian political thinker, in The Prince, his famous book from the early 1500s. What we would call foreign policy, said Machiavelli, is not rooted in ethics but in power, and his little book is a guide on how rulers can and should use that power. It’s been called “a manual for gangsters,” but Machiavelli, were he around today, might say that war and diplomacy are more like mobsters than we might care to acknowledge. Machiavelli, though, also wrote another book: this one longer and less famous, called The Discourses. Here he strikes a different tone as he commends a republican form of government based on representative rule of the people, self-reliance, hard work, and civic engagement. Here, in other words, Machiavelli gets into “moral virtues.” If foreign policy is a lot like the Mafia or pro wrestling, domestic policy is rooted in the ethics of citizenry. When he was president, did Trump believe in the ethics of citizenry? He was opposed to abortion, for exaple, but did you ever hear him explain why abortion was wrong? Or was it just that the anti-abortion bloc and he cut a deal in order to keep him in power so he could do what they wanted? “You give me your votes. I’ll give you your judges.” It’s as though Trump had read The Prince but had never cracked open a copy of The Discourses.
03/25/2022: The Insoluble Problem of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse
The allegory of the city mouse and the country mouse goes back too ancient times and has been updated many times since. The city mouse judges everything by the latest information and studies and likes to live in a world of sometimes risky change. The country mouse judges things by traditional wisdom and prefers living safely in a world without consent disruption. One hundred years ago in the United States the colliding worlds of the two mice were on dramatic display. The American city was the home of jazz and short skirts and louche dancing. The American countryside was the home of prohibition of liquor and the Ku Klux Klan. The nation was hopelessly divided: the DISunited States of America. But then came the Great Depression, when the country was united by its desperate poverty, and then World War II, when the country was united against Hitler and the Japanese fascists. After the war, American prosperity was so extraordinary that everyone in the land was getting richer and richer—as long as they’ were white. So the problem of the city mouse versus the country mouse was solved—until lately. Now the problem has returned. City mice love high technology, new trends, multicultural urban areas, and Democratic leaders like Obama. Country mice love stability and traditional values (such as unlimited gun ownership and outlawing abortion), hate ethnic diversity, and adore Republicans like Donald Trump. Back in the NINETEEN 20s, the problem of division was solved by depression, then war, then prosperity. What will solve the current fissure? It is hard to find a plausible answer. This is a story of two divisive, insoluble mindsets.
03/23/2022: The Endless Winter of Corruption
In northern climes, harsh winters are inevitable. Unless you can afford to go south, you just have to put up with them. Everyone talks about the weather, as the old saying goes, but no one does anything about it, No one can, at least not in the seasonal sense. The same goes for pervasive corruption. You live in a society where you call a plumber, and he says he’s busy and can’t get there for a week unless you give him some sort of upfront fee, on top of his usual bill. A cop stops you for having your right tail light out—you never noticed before—and says he can give you a heavy fine, but if if you are willing to lubricate his palm he might relent. A gang member comes into your shop and tells you it’s a nice shop and it would be too bad if something were to happen to it, but that can be prevented for a fee. You might want to complain about these practices, but then you discover that the plumber is paying someone under the table to let him remain corrupt, and the cop is sharing his ill-gotten gains with the boss, who is sharing it with his boss; and that the cops are on the take via the gangs that threaten to destroy your shop. Corruption is incessant, It’s corruption al the way down, and all the way up. What can you do about it? The answer: about as much as you can do about a long, frigid winter. You learn to live with both. This is the mindset of corruption: something that is inseparable from a mandatory way of life.
03/22/2022: How Chevy Created the Great Depression
1925 was not only the middle of the American Roaring Twenties and not just the year Scott Fitzgerald wrote the great American novel, THE GREAT GATSBY. It was also the year that Alfred Sloan, the head of General Motors, came out with a radical new idea. Tired of losing car sales to Ford, he decreed that from now on Chevy, Buick, and Cadillac would come out with a new model every year. This created an exciting but dangerous new mindset. Before that, there were no such things as a 1923 Chevy or a 1924 Ford. There were only Chevys and Fords. You bought one, and it ran a long time. You didn’t need another one, and besides, your model looked the same as the one two or three years younger. Sloan changed all that: Americans would come to decide that they just HAD to have the latest model, which looked different every year, and that it was a matter of status. If you couldn’t afford a new car every year, then you must be poor, a failure. The catch was: People couldn’t afford a new model every year. But Sloan had thought of that: General Motors would lend you the money. This created a nation in debt in pursuit of status and it added to the already heavy debt being carried by farmers and stock market gamblers and land speculators. In time, debt as a way of life caught up with the United States, and the Great Depression ensued, motored by millions upon millions who could not pay their debts. People who had purchased 1830 Buicks on credit had to sell them and hope they could afford a 1922 Ford.
03/21/2022: Elizabeth Holmes and Lance Armstrong Both Cheated, But That’s Not Really What They Have In Common
Elizabeth Holmes and Lance Armstrong are among those who belong in the Hall of Fame of Cheaters. Holmes cut corners and lied about her Silicon Valley tech company and created reams of false blood tests for vulnerable patients. Lance Armstrong doped and lied about it in order to win all those French bike race titles. But what they really have in common is something that can easily happen to us—that does happen to us. And that is: we and they take games too seriously. Biographers trace Holmes’s story back to a sixth grade race—a foot race—where she came in last. She was in a game and was humiliated. She vowed this would never happen again. When we get into games, whether it be badminton or checkers or Mario Brothers, we sometimes become defined by the game. The philosopher C. The Nguyen says that games are an “existential balm for the difficulties of life.” In life, we may enjoy things but get no points for doing so and feel guilty about that; or we may pursue things the goals of which, and success of which, are ambiguous. How do we know we are raising our kids properly? How do we know we won’t die tomorrow? What values in an overly mediated culture should we adopt? Games solve this problem for us, and that’s why we love them. I may not know whether or not I’m always doing right by my friends, but I know whether or not I won the squash game this afternoon. Games focus our values, but they can also narrow them. Armstrong and Holmes decided not just that winning was the only thing, but that the game was the only thing—whether it be a bike title or becoming a Silicon Valley billionaire. This was their real mindset. They needed an ethical compass But they also needed an interesting hobby. Neither had one.
03/18/2022: Is Capitalism the Enemy of Democracy?
Capitalism and democracy would seem to be happy mates, and it’s no wonder. Does not capitalism depend on consumer demand—and isn’t that sort of the same thing as public sentiment before and after elections? Don’t politicians and mattress companies alike have to sell themselves to the general public? And doesn’t capitalist innovation depend on the right to “speak up,” and isn’t this right also protected in a democracy? And yet, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when American capitalism and democracy emerged victorious, we’ve seen global capitalism spread nearly everywhere except perhaps in Cuba and North Korea, while democracy has languished, with authoritarian states in China and Russia and the development of “illiberal democracies” in Hungary, Poland, and even the United States. What happened? Well, the answer lies in the differing mindsets of capitalism and democracy. Capitalists want to create demand, offer supply, cut costs, and make profits. Democracy wants to give millions of people collective power, so that it’s government of, by, and for the people instead of by oligarchic rich people and their special and exclusive interests. Since capitalism produces rich people—winners—while reserving the right to cut costs—replace workers with robots or ship manufacturing overseas, where it’s cheaper—capitalism creates anti-democratic backlash. Those displaced want to turn back the clock, and the only way to do that is by mandating it through autocracy. In that sense, innovative and dynamic capitalism disrupts democracy. Countries like China want to have it both ways: capitalist creativity but authoritarian government. But their leaders are fretting all the time about the contradiction, as well they should, for while capitalism complicates democracy, it is not in the end a deadly enemy of it. Few people are pleased to be decisive consumers but not care about whether their vote counts. Dictatorship hates democracy, while capitalism is just in a tense tango with it.
03/17/2022: Does Silicon Valley Believe in God?
The seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was so smart he’d have been a whiz in Silicon Valley, that great author of our dreams and disrupted of our lives. Pascal came up with a wonderful reason for believing in God. If you do so, and you’re wrong, you’ve lost nothing. But if you don’t, and then you’re wrong, you’ve lost everything, Why not believe in God just to make sure? It’s a low risk/high reward mindset. That’s also how it works in Sixicon Valley, especially with start-ups. The infamous Elizabeth Holmes Theranos scandal reveals as much. Holmes was able to raise 15 million dollars from venture capitalists just by promising to dingoes blood, administer drugs, and alert doctors to diseases—all as a result one little high-tech patch. This never worked, but venture capitalists have a mega-ton of money so for them, investing in Theranos was just as Pascal described Believing in God: low risk but high reward. Suppose Theranos had actually worked! Pascal’s theory about believing in God is caed Pascal’s Wager it’s a wager rich venture capitalists make every day. Most of them don’t work. But when you got billions to invest, you don’t need many winners to recoup your losses and then some. Silicon Valley definitely believes in “God.” Theranos was all too human: $billions were lost.
03/16/2022: Oranges in the Sky and Revolutions in the Air
In 1783 the first hot air balloons flew in France—also the first time in the world. Benjamin Franklin was in Paris and wrote that when they got high enough they looked like small oranges floating in the sky. At first, Louis XVI liked these miracles. One of them had the Bourbon royal symbol on it. But in time he came to fret about these balloons, especially when human beings, as opposed to roosters and ducks, began riding in them. There was already restlessness in the air, and by the end of the decade it would erupt and claim the King and Marie Antoinette alike. The hot air balloons were giving people dangerous ideas, If you could be free from gravity, why not free from tyranny? This was a burgeoning and subversive mindset. What in human capacity made such a mindset possible? The answer: the human ability to blend physical events with political ideas. Non-human animals can have—and read—physical experience, but they cannot abstract them into dreams and theories. Human animals can. No doubt King Louis wished from time to time that he was ruling dogs or chickens instead of people, for then there would have been no French Revolution—or, for that matter, hot air balloons.
03/15/2022: Can Computers Laugh?
Computing devices such as laptops, smart phones, and tablets are good at deep learning. Feed them a lot of information on a single subject, such as chess or world usage, and they will detect statistical pasterns faster than human beings can. Nearly every computer can beat nearly every human chess player. Computing devices are less good at making sounds, though they can ping or ring or even answer us when we summon such voice algorithms as Siri or Alexa—both of which can also read a screen to us. Still, a computer cant scream or say ouch or cry or laugh. Why is this important? What is the mindset behind a computer’s being unable to laugh? Let us do a thought experiment. Suppose you are typing a text into your phone and you write, “I’m afraid I laid an—.” The phone is going to suggest that you want to put “egg” in as that last word, and it will nominate “egg” so that you need only select it from a short menu and not have to type it in. Amazing! The computer knows that a common word after “laid an” is “egg.” It has taken a deep dive into word usage and come up with a high statistical probability on this point—deep learning. But then suppose a comedian wants to make a joke about the recent failures of a Hollywood studio and says, “Sony Pictures has decided to move next to a chicken farm so it will have some company while its laying eggs.” This is a symbolic, not statistical, example of “laid an egg.” It means “screwing up.” The computer ca’t get this joke. It can’t laugh. Human beings are in possession of symbolic social information that no computer is likely to grasp, ever, or be programmed to grasp, ever.
03/14/2022: Why You Should Join a Cult—For a While
When he was in his early 20s Malcolm Little, a prisoner in Massachusetts, joined a cult. He rose high in its ranks. Cults are dogmatic but also transformative. Malcolm changed his last name to X, as “Little” had been his slave name, which he renounced. With cults you have to go all in; and that’s a key to their mindset. Christianity itself was a cult in its early days, as when Jesus said, “He who follows me must give up family and not look back.” Malcolm’s cult was the Nation of Islam. Through its teachings he learned that black people were the original human beings, that white people were devils, and that black Americans should leave the United States and set up their own separate nation in Africa. Later, when he left the cult, he rejected some of these ideas and decided that white people, too, could be part of the solution to the race problem, The Nation of Islam’s approach to racism had always been too exclusionary to work, and that’s one of the reasons Malcolm left it, But the Nation of Islam was the making of Malcolm. It moved him to stop his criminal living, on the grounds that living a life of theft and dope was precisely what the white man wanted him and other black people to do: to undo themselves. Malcolm’s cult transformed into clean living and brilliant oratory, It made him a man. In time, he outgrew the Nation of islam—suggesting that sometimes you have to join a cult to get the sort of transformative jolt you need, as long as you leave yourself open to changing your mind later. The problem is: cults are hard to get out of They are rigid and unforgiving. Malcom’s leaving the Nation of Islam cost him his life in the winter of 1965.
03/11/2022: The Empire Mindset—and Its Catastrophes
There have been many famous empires in history. The Romans had one. The British did. The Americans did, or do. The Mongols did. The Russians did, and some of them would like to get some of it back: hence, the attack on Ukraine The Empire Mindset is one of vast and far-flung rule. Even now the English sing about Britannia’s ruling the waves, with “the waves” being many thousands of miles from London. The idea is that you can run Calcutta from offices in London. Yet empires always fail, and frequently with catastrophic events and outcomes. Why? The answer is because the Empire Mindset contains within it a major contradiction. It is not a circle that can be squared. As the Empire takes in a swelling polygon of peoples with their own customs, it can do one of two things: let the customs remain—in which case the whole point of Empire is simply reduced to a place on the map and not a set of imperial habits and customs—or impose imperial values from without—in which case the Empire becomes more and more stretched and broke trying to keep “law and order” via repression. The Empire can become either pointless or become a police state, and it is almost never willing to entertain the former, so it goes broke trying to become the latter thousands of miles from home base. This is what happened too Rome, Britain, and Russia. The American Empire tried to force democracy on the Vietnamese and courted disaster trying to do so. Even now, the Russians are facing the prospect of persistent Ukraine resistance as it tries, too late, to restore its old Soviet empire. Empire is not a natural state of affairs, and we can only cheat nature for so long before nature begins to answer back.
03/10/2022: Are You Against Terrorism? Nope.
Terrorism is easy to define. It is the secret plot of lethal violence against even innocent bystanders in support of a passionate cause. In 1605 a small group of alienated Catholics plotted to blow up the English Parliament, even though they would kill, in the process, some English Catholics who were innocent of repressing English Catholics at all. On September 11, 2001 there were Muslims killed in the Twin Towers. In John Milton’s great drama Samson Agonistes, the hero is Samson, a young Israeli who destroyed a temple full of hated Philistines. He did it, as Milton portrays him, for his beloved God, who was quite different from all the Philistine gods. Milton sees him as a flawed and tragic but finally heroic figure, and Milton himself hoped that anyone in Europe who persecuted Protestants would die a painful death. Terrorism against Catholics was fine by him. Most of us think we are opposed to terrorism, but millions of readers over the years have rooted for Samson. If you could have blown up Hitler, even if he were surrounded by lots of innocent people, would you do it? The mindset of what is terrorism usually depends on which side you’re on.
03/09/2022: Would You Like to Join the Flat Eart
A reporter who attended a meeting of the Flat Earth Society in Birmingham, England came back to say that the club’s members were rather well-informed by scientific principles. They were not anti-science, but they were anti-scientist. This was their mindset. They didn’t like scientists because they thought scientists were know-it-alls, part of a vast conspiracy to make them feel stupid. They were shown a photo of a round Earth taken from outer space, but spurned it because they said NASA was fake and so were the scientists who worked for the agency. As we live in a more complex scientific world, one informed by science from everything from evolution to Covid, many people find they cannot keep up and dislike the smugness and arrogance of know-it-all scientists. This is unfortunate, because scientists are not know-it-alls. Science is not a collection of hard facts and technologies but a method of testing. Science is built on uncertainty and updating. It is an activity of changing minds, albeit sometimes too slowly. It is too bad that scientists often come off as overly technical know-it-alls, thus triggering this anti-science attitude all over the world. The mindset of this bunch, though, is less anti-science than anti-scientist.
03/08/2022: The Dangerous
Mindset of “Never Again”
One of the most pervasive mindsets in human experience, both personal and collective, is what we should call “Never Again.” It can be perilous because it causes people not to face up to present dangers. The CIA suspected Aldrich Ames of being a super-traitor and double agent, but because of previous chaos around this general issue, the CIA was hesitant to pursue its suspicion. “Never again” was the agency’s mindset. “Never again shall we create so much a mess looking for moles and double agents.” As a result, Ames went on spying for the Soviets for years, and in time thanks to him the Soviets executed ten Soviets who were spying for the US. The Congress had a clear case of impeachment against Ronald Reagan, who had illegally circumvented the laws of the United States, but memories of the Nixon impeachment affair were so proximate that Congress did not have the stomach to do it all over again. Nevill Chamberlin, the prime minister of Britain, recalled the horrors of Word War I so vividly that he thought: “Never again,” and so he appeased Hitler and only fed his appetite for more seizures of territory. Never Again is an understandable mindset. It is not a profile in courage.
03/07/2022: CNN, LBJ, and t
he Problem of Bad Faith
Not long ago CNN did one of its original documentaries on the life of an American president—this time it was Lyndon Johnson. One is always struck by the LBJ-Vietnam story, and especially by Johnson’s constant claim at the time that he was a reluctant warrior. He did not want to prosecute the war in Southeast Asia, but two American presidents had given their word that the US would be there against the Communists, and the Soviet Union would take advantage of an American withdrawal. As early as 1964, in a phone call with Senator Richard Russell, Johnson and Russell agreed that nothing good could come for the United States out of Vietnam. Four years later Johnson had close to half a million American troops there. Some of today’s scholars think Johnson was indeed a hesitant commander-in-chief who nonetheless feared he would be charged with being “soft on communism,” a lethal accusation at the time. That may or may not be, but his view that he had “no choice” is a certain mindset. What is this mindset? It is the denial of one’s own freedom to make moral choices. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said that whatever morality was, it had to start with the conviction that one was free to choose it—otherwise, he said, one was guilty of “bad faith.” President Johnson seemed gripped by a mindset of bad faith when he said, falsely, that he had no choice.
03/04/2022: The Riddle of P
Most of us have never tripped, so it is a bit hard for us to imagine what it is like. Those who advocate the experience say that on acid one sees more deeply into the life of things and that ordinary experiences is given a shimmering aliveness that reveals some energy beneath the surface of our daily routines. This sounds fuzzy, but some trippers say that one can get a sense of what it’s like by watching the last five minutes of the Stanley Kubrick film, SPACE ODYSSEY 2001. That cinematic journey is both disorienting and sublime. Yet in the end there is an enigmatic rivalry of mindsets when it comes to such adventures. According to one mindset, the LSD or mushrooms or peyote release in us the capacity to see far beyond and above ordinary life. Thus the trip is a visionary experience. Yet a competing mindset denies any such The. They trip is just your brain on extra chemicals. There is nothing “out there” to see. Tripping is just a drug-induced hallucination. Behind this discord is a deep Philosophical issue. Is there a real metaphysical realm well above what we cannot see (without acid, that is); or is everything just a product of our own minds, which means, really, our own brains? This is a hard question to settle, so it will remain a mystery for a long time, with dogmatic advocates on both sides, who are sure it’s not a mystery at all.
03/03/2022: Is It Better to Marry Than to Burn?
In the early days of Christianity the apostle Paul was thought to be an ardent supporter of, and interpreter of, evolving Christian doctrine. So various churches around the Mediterranean asked hi his opinion on various subjects in regard to Christianity, among which was sex. Paul was a converted Jew and was aware of Jewish attitudes towards sex: that it should remain entirely within marriage. This was not just a question of morality but also of survival. Sexual copulation produced children, which meant more Jewish religionists, which meant great chances of Hebrew survival. Wasting sexual energy outside of the family was a bad idea, for kids born that way were at greater risk themselves of not surviving. So Paul, applying the same idea to his new Christian religion, had the same logic: sex within marriage in order to have Christian children but no sex beyond or outside that. Paul, however, wanted to go a step further. Sex involved the unruly cravings of the body, and surely for a Christian devoted to spirit and eternal life, such yearnings were a terrible idea. Was not celibacy better than any sex? Paul, however, was caught between two mindsets: sexual coplatoon to increase the population of Christians but also the superiority of celibacy over sex. He solves insert dilemma with these nimble worlds: “It is better to marry than to burn.” Having sex is bad and sinful, but if you do it within marriage at least you won’t o to Hell. In a way Paul could have it both ways. Centuries after his death, the Church solved the problem another way: let the laity have sex and children in marriage, while the clergy stayed celibate and ran the masses—a division of labor that still endures.
03/02/2022: The Truth Will Set You Free—But Free From What?
“The truth will set you free” seems to be so obviously true that most of us would say it is our mindset. It’s the sort of truism that could easily fit on a bumper sticker. It is a saying of Christ’s, and this surely gives it authority. It seems quite apparently true that the truth will set you free, or us free. Yet the sheer complexity of human nature makes it not quite true, or not always true. It is true for the fox: if the fox thinks there is prey in a certain area, and it is not true that there is such prey there, then the absence of truth has imprisoned the fox in hunger. If it were true that the prey were there, the fox would be free—from hunger. Likewise, if it is true that there are berries on the other side of the mountain, then that truth, once you go there, will set you free—from hunger. But suppose you think well of yourself and believe you are an important person, something that one of Henrik Ibsen’s characters called “a life-life.” It is untrue that you are important, but your believing it gives you motive and energy and confidence. Or: you believe God loves you. This makes you free—from anxiety. If there is no God and if God does not love you, then your belief is false. But your liberty from dread remains. Yes, the truth does set you and me free, except when it does not.
03/01/2022: Do You Need a Virtual Vacation?
In 1935 the critic Walter Benjamin noticed that th
e Mona Lisa was showing up on postcards. Once there was only one Mona Lisa. Now there were thousands of them. The aura of seeing the Mona Lisa in person—the original—had given way to the age of mechanical reproduction. Today we can see the Mona Lisa online. No trip to Paris is required. Benjamin thought there was no substitute for seeing the real thing, but he admitted that there was an upside. People who could never afford a trip to Paris could now see, soft of, the Mona Lisa, even if it was the cheap imitation postcard version. Today “mechanical reproduction” has given way to “digital reproduction.” You can go to the Epcot Center, for instance, and get on a swing while all around you is an airplane trip across the United States. For a while you might even be tempted too think it IS the real thing. And that raises the question: In how may years will virtual, or digital, vacations be so good that you won’t have to leave home in order to see the Pyramids, the Grand Canton, or the Taj Mahal? Will people even want to take those “trips”? How much would they cost? Would martinis be included? An age of digital reproduction has given us a whole new and radical mindset. We can have an almost unlimited number of varied experiences, even if they aren’t the few authentic ones we had in the past.
02/28/2022: The Mindset of the Post-Truth Worl
Once upon a time someone might make a statement and be asked to verify it and reply, “I read it on the back of a matchbook.” It is quite true that facts or factoids appeared on the backs of matchbooks—such as “Lake Superior is bigger than all the other Great Lakes combined.” There was’t a lot riding on whether or not that was true, so other people would probably let it go. Still, it would have been better if our conversationalist had said that he or she read this information in a book. Matchbook assertions weren’t vetted—there probably were’t a lot of people employed to check matchbook sentences—but a whole array of people presumably checked books, including authors, editors, publishers, experts, and lawyers. A book was a lot more reliable—that business about the size of Lake Superior would have more credibility if it had appeared in a book called The Great Lakes. That would have been back in the pre-post-truth world. But now we live in a post-truth world. What is its mindset? Well, it seems that nearly everything has turned to the print on the back of a matchbook. On the internet folks can publish anything they like. There are no necessary checkers prior to being “published.” You can read that Lake Superior is bigger than all the other lakes together OR you can read that Lake Superior is 180 times the size of Lake Huron. Both propositions appear on your screen., They appear to be equally “true.” You can find out, but you have to be your own gate-keeper. Since a lot of people don’t want to take the trouble, we live in a post-truth world, where the mindset is “I read it in font, so it must be right.”
02/25/2022: The Mindset of Being Thorough
To say that someone is “thorough” is generally to compliment them. You want someone who will get rid of every last termite or find the last available fact about your ancestors. You do’t want someone who is careless and apt to “miss something.” What is the mindset of being thorough? It is an aim for perfection. It can also turn malevolent. Stalin could not be sure who his enemies were, so he decided to eliminate everyone whom he thought might be a foe. The Soviet children of the executed denied that their parents were guilty, but they accepted the need to weed every possible subversive out of the state, lest the danger mount and end the Communist regime. “Being thorough” can be a striving towards perfection, but it is also the mindset, or product, of fear that the stakes are so high that there can be no safe room for error. Dick Cheney told President Bush that after 9/11 the peril of a weaponized attack on American soil was so great that Saddam Hussein hd to be taken down, if only for insurance. The invasion of Iraq was launched in the mindset of being thorough—just in case.
02/24/2022; We All Know What Freedom Is—Except When We Don’t
What is freedom? Ah, that’s easy. Freedom happens when we can choose between reading a book or taking a walk, between Coke or Pepsi, between going on social media or not; even between voting or not. You and I are free when we can do as we please, not bounded by government or conformity. To be sure, there are limits. For a while at least we are not free to disobey our bosses or our parents. But we only obey our bosses so we can make enough money to choose between Lexus and Acura, Apple or Samsung. And we only obey our parents because for a while they actually may know more than we do. We respect them only so that we can get grown up and then choose—choose freely—between watching Prime or Netflix. The philosopher Hannah Arendt thought this mindset about our freedom was dangerously wrong. She thought we were mixing up the results of freedom with the conditions of freedom. And what are those conditions? We are free when everyone else is free, and to attain that condition we have to work at it—build a society of respect for those we don’t agree with or like but must listen to and try to comports with. It is a society built on a decent respect for the opinions of each other. If you live in a society in which green people are mailed for being green, you may think that’s OK because you are a mauve person. But suppose, in time, they get around to jailing mauve people, too. Then what good will your choice of the Bengals or the Rams do you?
02/23/2022: Do You Have e a Rubber Hand?
We have a certain mindset about our brains—one that is wrong. We see our brains as handling inputs from our environment, as in “A chair presents itself to us and the image goes to our brains and our brains then process its ‘chair-ness’ for us.” We think sensory data goes from the outside to the inside, and that our brains are neutral processors of information. Not so. A good deal of perception goes from the inside out, and our brains are not neutral but rather prejudiced. Brains may give us our minds, but the does to mean our brains are open-minded. If you are skeptical, try the Rubber Hand Experiment, which goes like this. Two people sit across a table from each other. Person A has two hands but puts one of those hands beneath the table and substitutes a rubber hand, which rests on the table beside Person A’s other hand. Person B then takes a brush and starts to rub both the real hand and the rubber hand with it. How does the hand under the table feel? It feels as though it too is being touched by the brush. The brain thinks, “Well, this one hand looks a bit odd, but it also looks enough like a hand that it must be one, so I’m sending that signal out to my client.” The client, or the owner of the brain, feels a tickle in his under-the-table hand, Brains learn on the job, and they are conditioned to play the odds. They are biased towards the probabilities built from past experience, and it’s only when further data is undeniably able to contradict that set of probabilities that it changes its “mind” for the brain owner. If the brain and its owner have nearly always perceived big brown things in the night, accurately, as bushes, that will be the bias going forward. By the time the brain and its client have realized it’s a bear, it might be too late. One of the reasons human beings are biased is because their brains are. On the other hand, if the brain had to start anew every time, neither it nor its owner would get anywhere in life.
02/22/2022: Are All Outer Space Aliens Also Communist?
Suppose aliens from outer space came to Earth and were shaped like grasshoppers. While they spoke English or French or Albanian, they regarded algae as a delicious dessert, somewhat like Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. We would quickly conclude, “These folks are not like us. They are weird.” This would be our mindset. Now go back in time rto the America of the 1950s. It was a golden age of sci-fi movies with weird aliens from outer space. And, not coincidentally, it was a time of rampant fear of: Communists, juvenile delinquents, Wonder Woman as lesbian (possibly), and violent comic books. It was an anti-weird mindset. Why were Communists thought to be so weird? There were two reasons at least: Communists did not believe in God and they did not believe in private property. To Americans, not believing in these two cherished principles made you so odd, dangerously so, that you might as well have been a grasshopper alien from outer space who loved Ben and Jerry’s Algae. And if you were a juvenile delinquent or homosexual, then that meant you might well be a Commie as well, because “Communist” became a catchall term for anything that seemed perilously strange. Even if a j.d. or homosexual were not an outright Commie, they were likely part of a Communest plot.
02/21/2022: The Kept Dog
In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories a character says, “We don’t keep a dog.” This is a British expression. In America we would say, “we don’t have a dog.” But the British expression is more accurate and meaningful, for a dog is indeed a kept creature. That is to say, the dog is given food, shelter, and water but in return gives up its agency. It becomes dependent on its keepers. It is often treated well but the fact remains that dogs (and cats) have evolved to fit into one major environmental niche: human beings. This is why dogs are so anxious to please; so eager to go to the bathroom outside and not on the house floors; and so good at disguising pain. These are all adaptive traits that enhance the pup’s longevity in the human household. The dog’s aim, an adaptation, is to make its owners feel like a god. If a wild dog sees a squirrel and eats it, then it is showing agency. But dogs are generally not well-adapted to surviving outside as much as surviving inside. When the dog gets old and sick, it is the owner, not the dog, who decides it is “time” at the vet’s. The owner thinks it is kindness to the dog, and maybe it is. it is also, though, a further extension of the dog’s non-agency—it is the human mindset of keeping and deciding to lose a dog.
02/18/2022: Is Life a Temporary Solution to a Permanent Problem?
One mindset about suicide is that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Some unsuccessful suicides have reported that on their way down off the Golden Gate Bridge they had reconsidered and were lucky enough to live to tell the tale. Death is a permanent solution to our troubles, but that’s also the problem: it’s a bit too permanent and totally non-reversible. But is it equally true—another mindset—that life is but a temporary solution to a permanent problem? The permanent problem is death. Most of us would prefer to von living. But even with our huge population, there are still more dead humans than living ones. And that’s to say nothing of all those burgeoning species—human or non-human—that never made it and went extinct. In evolution via natural selection, there are far more ways to be dead than to be alive. So a good mindset to have is thinking of life as a temporary solution to a permanent problem. The problem will never go away, and your fix—living—is only transient. The real mindset here, a healthy and wise one, is not to sweat the small stuff and in life, given the long run, it’s all small stuff.
02/17/2022: Has The Supernatukral, Really Gone Away?
We have a particular mindset about the supernatural, but maybe it’s time we changed it. We think of the “supernatural” as some divine, or even malicious, intervention in the laws of nature, as when someone is raised from the dead or lives forever in Heaven or even has an uncanny streak of altruism that makes him die to save total strangers: miracles. This is an old idea of the “supernatural” that has fallen out of favor in many quarters in a time of secular rise and religious fall. But if we think of the “supernatural” as something mysteriously over and above nature, then the old mindset can give way to a new one. Take the “natural” fact of death. People live and pass away, yet they are always leaving something much more permanent behind: a poem, an idea, Ann influence, a house, a photograph. Despite natural death all around us, we build these enduring institutions and countries with flags and boundaries and creeds and laws. The human bodies go away; the symbols go on and on. Finally, there is the very business of matter itself. There is not nearly enough ordinary matter to build the galaxies and planets of the universe, so most of it is made up of matter about which we know nearly nothing: dark matter, an invisible ghost that can be inferred but never seen. The symbols that transcend death and the dark matter that will never be seen: are these not “above nature” in some way? We can stop depending on God as some sort of super person and see that nature itself is both more surmountable—and ghostly dark—than we realize. The “beyond nature” has not gone away after all.
02/16/2022: How Many Murderers Do You Know Personally?
Murderers must have mindsets, and we have mindsets about murderers. We think of them as obsessive serial killers who can’t stop, or as career criminals who have homicide on their rap sheet along with much other nefarious stuff, or as hit men whose living is made by doing whack jobs. But lately there is data that should change our mindsets about murders. This is supplied by DNA technology that solves years-old cold cases. And we find that those who committed murder in their 20s and 30s have gone on to be, if not always the most solid of citizens, nonetheless family men and grandfathers. They have held down a job or jobs. They are often retirees. There is a popular Youtube series called “They Got Away With Murder,” about people who, mostly in the UK, evaded justice through a failed court system. Most of them apparently never killed again and led long and sometimes even successful lives. It is entirely possible that someone we think we know well and admire is someone who got away with murder. Murder can be a one-off, a dreadful mistake of younger years or perhaps the product of singular circumstance. Lots of murders are solved, but lots of them are not. How many murderers might you know?
02/15/2022: Ia Suicide Really Homicide in Diguise?
Sigmund Freud had one of the most interesting theories of all about suicide. Freud thought we loved ourselves above all, so why would we wish to harm ourselves in this most consequential and permanent way? His answer was that we had come to think of ourselves not as lovable agents but as hated objects. We no longer recognized the person we once were, hate ourselves and our lives, and wish rot murder this despised entity. Suicide is really homicide in disguise. If this theory is true, it complicates one of the most cherished modern ideas about suicide: that we all have a right to it and neither God nor others have anything to say about it. If it is no longer “I” who is making this most awesome of all decisions, but rather some sort of loathsome thing into which we have become, then “my” right to kill myself seems questionable.
2/14/2022: Autism and Shakespeare
Suppose X and Y both have leaky faucets in their homes. X is “mechanical” and goes to the hardware store, from which he returns to his house and with a few common tools removes the flawed faucet and replaces with the new one. Y is not “mechanical” and returns from the hardware store with a new faucet but also with instructions on how to install it. It takes him a long while. He is constantly doing one step and then going to the instructions to find out what the next step will be. He has no intuition about this sort of thing, makes frequent errors and has to start again, and has no real analogies from something he is knowledgeable about to guide him. Camilla Pang is a cancer researcher who is autistic. When she was growing up, lacking the intuition by which to decode social patterns and read the emotions and motives of others, she was a bit like Y with the faucet. Her particular genius was to find analogies on how to be a human from her great talent in science Empathy, she found, was somewhat like Bayes; mathematical Theorem for determining the probability of future events. Love was a bit like chemical bonding of elements Play was somewhat like the subtle cooperation of proteins. Etiquette was rather like the science of game theory. Pang grasps that these analogies aren’t perfect. Human nature isn’t science. But it gave her a “way in” to being human and she’s written a book about it Back to the idea that science and human nature aren’t the same thing: Shakespeare had no knowledge of our solar system or the theory of natural selection or the second law of thermodynamics. Today’s 8th grader knew more science than he did by far This did not stop him from being an uncannily great presenter of human behavior in all its glorious and perverse vagaries.
02/11/2022: The Mindset of the Warrior
Don’t try to be civilized, general George Patton told his soldiers, for you wouldn’t be in war in the first place if civilization had not failed. The goal now is to win. After the January 6 assault on the American Capitol, even Republicans thought the whole thing uncivilized and blamed Donald Trump. But within weeks they changed their minds. The assault was not really an assault, and Democrats were trying to make far too much of it. Besides, hadn’t Trump really won the election in a landslide? What happen3e? Republicans, and especially Trump supporters who had wavered for a while after January 6, were reminded that this whole thing was still war: war for cultural survival, war for traditional dominance, war for gun rights and religious rights. Briefly civilized and abhorrent at the capitol riots, they soon returned to the mindset of the warrior. As General Patton might have said, forget civilization; it’s too late for that. The aim now is to win.
02/10/2022: Charles Darwin on Bernie Madoff
Bernie Madoff purchased a seven million dollar each with his crooked and ill-gotten gains. It was hard to steer, so his wife was worried they would run into something. Madoff said he would not. “Nothing whatever can hurt us,” he assured her. At that time he was being investigated by the SEC. But he was sure he would get out of having to pay for his criminal enterprise. He’d always done so, hadn’t he? It is easy to say the Bernie was stupidly overconfident, but besides being a fraudulent investor, he was also a human animal. The best explanation of human animals comes from the work founded by Charles Darwin. To see the world through his eyes is to see statistical advantages and disadvantages. This is the fundamental mindset of Darwinism. The hedgehog’s rolling itself into a ball in order to hide is generally a pretty good adapted tactic—but not always. Still, it’s a good enough strategy that the hedgehog will keep it around. And the confidence of human animals in the face of difficulty is likewise a good strategy—a great motivator. Of course, it isn’t always a great strategy. Bernie should have known when to stop or even when not to start. Yet although Madoff’s confidence turned out to be a blend of bravado and idiocy, this sort of thing works enough of the time that it remains a common human trait. Bernie wasn’t just a con artist; he was also an evolved animal.
02/09/2022: The Mindset of Office Politics
Here’s a prediction. If you look into an institution, such as a college or hospital, you will find incessant office politics. This is a bit strange if you think about it. Why should not people who work for a college band together to fight ignorance or those in a hospital come together to fight disease? You can extrapolate. Why would not those who work for a company not join together to beat the competition? Yet, office politics are more common in a company than almost anywhere else—consider the UK and US comedy series The Office. What is the mindset of office politics? Well, the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt—he was one of the few Nazis with interesting things to say—asked what politics was all about anyhow and concluded that it was about enemies and friends. And the most important enemies and friends you and I have in our lives are those we see every day: those we just don’t like or those who wish us well or ill or those who want what we want when only one person can get it. Of course, politics can also be national and international, but according to Schmitt they start with friends and foes. And where are you most likely to run into them? The answer is: in the office. Another answer might be: in your family, where there is also a good deal of politics. But it’s usually in the office that the stakes are the highest. So the enemy in a hospital or college is not disease or ignorance, but the person in the next cubicle or office or department.
02/08/2022: The Mindset of the Invisible Indoor Toilet
The first president to use the bathroom inside was Andrew Jackson in 1833. Indoor plumbing was installed in the White House in order to put out fires, but there were added features such as a watery toilet bowl. Flush toilets came much later, and it was not until the late 1950s that virtually every American home had one. As late as 1940, only half of U.S. homes had one. So about 75 million Americans, 82 years ago, were going outside to excrete. Now we live in an America where about 16 million American adults are diagnosed every year as clinically depressed. Would being thankful for indoor toilets cheer them up? Not at all. The mindset today about indoor flush commodes is that they are invisible. You can find them of course, in order to use them, but they are psychologycally invisible. We never think about them. They’ve always been there. Maybe, once upon a time, a melancholy person got over being in the dumps when the family got indoor plumbing. That time has long passed. The moral may be that even revolutionary advances only make us happier for so long. Flush toilets can free us from outhouses but not from our selves.
02/07/l2022: The Mindset of the Brand
In the old West, and maybe even today, cattle are branded, Once they have the mark of, say, the Bar X Ranch on their hides, they will forever belong to the Bar X. That becomes their identity. This is the mindset of the brand. Once you are branded, or brand your self, then you must not deviate from the features that are entailed. For the cow this is easy. He or she just has to do what it does with the Bar X emblazoned thereon. For humans it’s harder, but it can be done. Boris lJohnson’s brand is one of harmlessly mendacious indifference; Donald Trump’s is one of punitive trolling of liberals; Bette Davis’s was one of coquettish excess; Roseanne Barr’s is one of outrageous political incorrectness. You can make a lot of money with a brand, but it’s also, as with the Bar X, rather confining. You aren’t allowed to deviate from it. Donald Trump has urged people to get Covid shots, which sounds a bit liberal, so he has been booed as being “out of brand.” In the age of social media EVERYONE can have her own brand. You can have your own website or lInstagram page. So for the first time, billions can ask: What is my brand? If, say, you are anti-government and anti-elitist, then you can’t get a Covid jab. That would be to de-brand yourself, like a cow wandering around the Bar Y ranch when he’s really a Bar X. Or supposed to be.
02/04/2022: If A Baker Won’t Service a Gay Wedding, Blame It on King George
It is an article of faith among many conservatives jurists that if a baker, on religious grounds, refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding, he or she is entitled to do so. This is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of religion. The authors did not want an official state religion, such as the one in King George III’s England, and they thought the best way to keep sectarian peace was to give everyone free choice to worship how and where they pleased. It was a great idea. But there was one catch: It made religious people a distinct category in the U.S. Constitution, one singled out for special protections. It has always been a matter of interpretation, but conservatives, who tend to like religion and think it is a great cohesive bond in a society, have seized upon this provision as a way of sheltering religious claims from the attacks of other interests. It is easy and obvious to conclude that the Federal government is constitutionally forbidden from entering a Pentecostal Church with arms and arresting everyone just because they are speaking in tongues. But what about the rights of minorities to be served? What about the obligations of people to serve in defense of their country? What about the obligations of institutions to pay taxes? All these rights and obligations have been modified via various religious exemptions. As the United States, according to surveys, becomes more and more secular, the First Amendment religious clause may come to seem more and more anachronistic. But it isn’t going anywhere, and conservatives will say that as long as it’s there, it must be taken very seriously. Meanwhile, we can blame King George for causing such a vexed and troublesome mindset,
02/03/2022: Is The Stockholm syndrome Just Another Name for Winter?
The Stockholm Syndrome is a famous psychological dynamic by which a captive falls in love with his or her captor. Dependency and dread turn to affection. Just ask Patty Hearst. Maybe this is a bargaining strategy or a survival one. It brings us to harsh winters. They too are the captors of those who must endure them. Do some people come to love them as part of their own climatic Stockholm syndrome? Russia, for example, has a uniquely frigid and long winter. Do Russians come to love their winters nonetheless and even love Russia for having them? Is this part of what it means to love the Motherland—loving Snow Land? Russian writers, the great ones, often write about loving the unlovable. Tolstoy takes his character Ivan Ilych through the paces of a contradictory love of death, of letting go. One of Dostoevsky’s characters, an addictive gambler, hates being captured by his habit but nevertheless loves the thrill, the edge, of it. Chekov is always writing about characters who have great affection for the ironies and hardships of life, and especially on account of them. Peter Pomerantsev, a renowned student of Russia, has written that the country is full of men who both fear—but also love—their abusive fathers. But does it all start with never-ending bouts of snow and ice? Are wintry people especially prone to Stockholm Syndrome.? The poet Wallace Stevens wrote of “the mind of winer.” Maybe he meant the mindset of winter.
02/02/2022: Why Do We Hate To Subtract So Much?
A recent research experiment reported in Nature goes like this: participants are given a block of green and white squares, the colors placed air random. They are told to make the squares symmetrical, with an equal number of white and green squares. They can do this by adding squares or subtracting them. The vast majority add squares. Very few indeed subtract them. Here is a mindset that is pro-addition and anti-subtraction. Where does it come from.? One answer might be the human aversion to loss, which has been well-documented. If we lose a little in life, we feel bad; if we win a little, we feel good. But the worse in losing strongly outweighs the better in gaining. Someone may offer us an exorbitant sum of money for a cherished item, and they may hear us say, “It’s not for sale at any price.” The pain of losing surmounts the pleasure of gaining. When we try to solve problems, we tend to think we need to add something, when taking something away will be more effective. There are so many fat books, yet it might be said that a fat book is a thin book that can’t shed weight. Adding to our bank accounts is a small pleasure. Paying bills is a great pain. Perhaps this mindset bias against subtraction goes back to our evolutionary history. Getting stuff was so hard in a state of nature that we were rewarded for hoarding and have never been able to kick the ancient biological habit.
02/01/2022: When “Better Than” Really Means “Worse Than”
It’s an axiom of logic that if A is better than B, and B is better than C, then A must be better than C, too. This is a pervasive mindset, and it makes sense. If you are shopping for a car, and you find the first one you test-drive pretty good and the next one worse, and then you test another one and it’s even worse, then surely the best one is the one you drove first of all and it’s certainly much better than the one you drove last. But hang on. Suppose we switch from cars to playoff games. If Alabama beats Georgia, and Georgia has beaten Clemson, then surely Alabama is better than Clemson, right? But suppose that Clemson lost to Georgia because of unique match-up issues against Georgia. That doesn’t mean that Clemson would have nearly as much trouble with Alabama and might easily beat Alabama. Here’s a real-life example. In 1985 the Miami Dolphins beat the Chicago Bears—their only loss all season. But in the AFC playoffs the New England Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins. So if the Pats were better than the Dolphins and the Dolphins better than the Bears, the Pats should beat the Bears in the Super Bowl, right? They didn’t; dthey lost big. Miami had match-up problems against the Pats they didn’t have against the Bears. Sometimes A is better than B, and B better than C, but C turns out, for uncanny reasons, to be better than A. It doesn’t make sense. But a lot in life doesn’t make sense. Beware of overly-logical mindsets.
01/31/2022: The Efficiency of Falling In Love and Obeying Orders
One of the typical arguments of high Nazi officials was that they were just obeying orders. It’s been seen as a cowardly excuse, but there’s much more to it. These officials had fallen in love with the aesthetic mindset, the beauty, of efficiency. How does efficiency work? It depends on everyone doing their jobs as order3ed, and that includes, even, giving orders to others. A gives orders to B, who carries them out perfectly. B gives orders to C, who carries them out perfectly. C gives orders to D, and so forth. Pretty soon everyone falls in love with the ideal of efficiency. The contents of the various jobs come to matter less than the organized execution of them. This is how the Holocaust, for example, came to be an efficient bureaucratic event. It’s a result of thinking abstractly rather than concretely. We find different things to be beautiful, but Beauty itself is a sensed, intuitive abstraction. Those who fall in love with other people have a similar sensibility. Why stay with someone so awful? “Because I am in love with him, or her.” This is the aesthetic mindset of destiny. He/she is my destiny,. Again, we may go back to World War II Germany. Why stick with Hitler? Because Hitler is my destiny. When aesthetic ideals such as total efficiency and romantic love take a grip, they are hard to pry away. Human beings, and not just 1940s Germans, are dangerously abstracting creatures.
01/28/2022: The Foe of My Foe is My Friend….For A While
Senator Joseph McCarthy served in the United States Senate from 1946 until his death in 1957. He is one of the most reckless and infamous senators in American history. A man with a drinking problem and an insatiable love of attention and power, he made wild accusations about alleged Communists in the U.S. government. He ruined lives, sowed paranoia, and polarized the country. His fellow Republican politicians often despised him, but he was good at bashing Democrats and brought out Republican votes. Republicans had not held power since the early 1930s—over twenty years. They were desperate to find a way back to power. But in 1953 these same Republicans took over the White House and both houses of Congress. Now McCarthy’s baseless Commie-hunting could hurt them, and he couldn’t stop himself. The old mindset—that the enemy of my enemy its my friend—no longer pertained. It took a few years, but in time the Republican Party turned against McCarthy and destroyed him. The untamed brute had become their foe, and they hunted him down.
01/27/2022: Attention Please: The GREAT SIMULATION Starts in 2050
Every now and then a philosopher or a scientist with impeachable credentials will say there is a non-trivial chance that we are all part of some Grand Simulation, as in the movie The Matrix. We are not real. We just think we are. We are as virtual as anything we see on our smart phone screens. Nothing is flesh and blood. All are pixels. It’s a wacky idea, but in this century that will change once we get the knack of converting our brains from neurons into digital code and updating them to computerized systems. This will separate our brains from our bodies. In nature we only have brains because of how they protect our bodies, but in time technology can liberate our heads from our limbs and corpuscles. We will live all brain all the time; or only brain all the time. As a result, our “lives” will become simulated—except for those whose brains have yet to be uploaded. Freed from having to worry about food and shelter all the time, our brains will become super-serene. The human race will never have to go out and forage for resources ever again. We will never meet aliens from outer space, because we Simulated Earthlings will have no reason to leave our own galaxy of total contentment.
01/26/2022: Are All Russians Children?
Suppose a mother gets a bouquet of flowers she does not like. A friend of hers is recovering from an illness, so the mother decides to give the ugly flowers to her friend and pass it off as a gift. She takes her young son along, who blurts out the truth: “Mother thought she had to get rid of them somehow.” The lad is punished. He is not free to speak the truth as he sees or knows it. He IS free to go to school, learn new things, receive gifts, ride his bike. But he is not free to speak the truth when it is a threat to his mother’s respect or regime. This is a parental mindset, and after all, children are allegedly not ready to have free speech yet. It is also the mindset, the political mindset, of autocratic counties like Russia. The Russian people are free to work, have children, go to parties, ice skate in the winter. But they are not free to exercise free speech and say what they really think or know to be true. As such, they are regarded as political children, except this time it is not the mother with the flowers but Mother Russia and Putin who enforce the rule.
01/25/2022: When Did God Become Embarrassed?
Despite the recent encroachments of climate change, science and technology have an impressive record in preventing famines and droughts. And over the past one hundred years as well, medical science and enhanced sanitation and better nutrition have increased longevity in most parts of the globe. Contrast this with the medieval mindset of sox to nine hundred years ago. Then, nobody could prevent famines or cure disease. Well, God could, but He chose to to, mostly because He wanted people to suffer in order to get them ready for Heaven. But then, starting around the 1700s, human beings began to do things that before that, it was thought only God could do. Human beings had a better record of reducing pain than God did, and this became the modern mindset. The audacious philosopher Nietzsche said that God was dead, but it would have been more accurate to say that God was embarrassed and began to lose credibility. As a result of science and technology’s record in shrinking suffering, God has become chagrined. No wonder a lot of True Believers don’t like science, even if they do like electric lights and penicillin.
01/24/2022: You and I Have Emerged—That’s Why We Won’t Last
TCM shows some very old movies—some of them are even silent films. They seem to creak sometimes. But there’s one thing that makes them just like every other movie, even the current ones. You can see that in the screen credits. Whether a movie was made in 1920 or 2022, it requires actors, cameras, screen writers, costume designers, set designers, producers, and directors. Long after the film is forgotten, the methods of making movies endure and endure. The film emerges from these methods and may be quickly forgotten. But the mode of production goes on and on. The same is true for us as living beings. We are composed of cells and genes. Long after we are gone, as emergent beings, the cells and genes will continue. Long after we have stopped being thinking creatures, due to our own deaths, neurons will continue to fire in other humans, and in non-human animals, too. The big emergent things pass away. The little enabling things do not. Even the sun will die in five billion years. But the particle-like waves of nuclear gases will not. Only little things are immortal, but that’s a mindset that we temporary Big Thins have a hard time accepting.
01/21/2022: Is Cannibalism Evil?
There are two famous examples of human cannibalism. One is the infamous Donner Party of the 1800s, who crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains, became trapped in winter, and turned to eating their fellow travelers’ dead flesh in order to survive. This came to be seen as the act of people who would rather act like beasts and live than restrain themselves and die. The other example is Thomas Harris’ Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter, played in the movies by Anthony Hopkins, whose psychopathology is rooted in the pleasure of eating his fellow humans’ flesh., “I had him with a fine Chianti.” To humans, cannibalism is immoral, whether residing in weakness or sociopathy. The mindset is that we are more than beasts: we have higher-order brains and maybe even immortal souls. But suppose this is all wrong, even backwards. Suppose it all comes down our bodies, not our souls or heads. Some arachnids and amphibians devour their own mothers shortly after their births, Suppose that they, and not we, had evolved to have language, conceptual thought, law books, and ethical guides. Is it possible that, given the adaptive advantage they derive from such cannibalism, that it would be immoral not to eat one’s mother? “Andrew Amphibian could not bring himself to do the morally necessary thing—consume his mother—and has paid for it all his life with arrested development. Andrew has become a social leech. By not doing the right thing, he has made all us other amphibians pay for it, too.” Does morality being in the body, not the mind? Shudder at the thought.
01/20/2022: People Like Aaron Rodgers, But Do They R3ALLY Like Aaron Rodgers?
The wonderful thing about games is that they clarify our values. In life, we are often confused about values. We think we are being good parents, but are we, rally? We think winning something is good, but just as often it turns out to set the stage for something bad later. We are sure we’re doing a good job, but our manager or boss doesn’t agree. It’s all messed up. But ah, at least there are games, where the values are clear: winning, having fun, getting better, and so forth. Games are a refuge from the bewilderments and false starts of life. This is the mindset of those of us who like games, whether playing them or watching them. Green Bay Packers fans are probably no less puzzled about the problems of life than the rest of us are. But the Packers have had a good year, and their star quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been better than ever. Rodgers’ goals are clear: victory, deception (of the opponent), speed, accuracy, strength. He is not in the least confused; a good QB is never confused. Millions love to watch him. But then he spills over into life, implies he got a Covid jab but really didn’t. In life he’s just s screwed up and fallible as we are. That’s why so many people like him (on the field) and don’t like him (off it). It’s the real meaning of “it’s only a game.”
01/19/2002: Prince Andrew and the Peanut Butter
If you have a sudden longing for peanut butter, you can easily go to the fridge or cabinet and open a jar. Of course, you might have to go to the store, but that’s no great obstacle. You have a mindset. You are a First World person, so satisfying your lust for peanut butter is no big deal. It’s humdrum, really. Others there might be for whom getting a peanut butter fix is not allowed for some reason, but you are not one of these Others. It’s simple: you can, so you do. This is also the mindset of powerful elites such as Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, but on a much higher level. He could hang out, given his standing, on the fleshpot yachts of Jeffery Epstein, so he did. It’s as routine as your fetching the peanut butter. It was his due. Hey, no problem. But few will blame you or me for acquiring the peanut butter, while millions are blaming him for hanging with Epstein and Ms. Maxwell. Not all longings and satisfactions are equal in the eyes of the public, for whom there is a great resentment about assumed privilege.
01/18/2022: Is Sherlock Holmes Smarter Than Britney Spears?
Sherlock Holmes seems a lot smarter than Britney Spears. She has never solved arcane and difficult crimes. But then she is a better singer than Sherlock Holmes. There is a mindset that such comparisons are absurd. We are comparing a fictional character to a real person. What makes Britney “real” and Sherlock “unreal”? The answer is that Britney exists regardless of our personal perceptions. She exists independent of our own minds. Someone named Britney Spears exists even if people in New Guinea, say, have never heard of her, just as the distant stars exist even if no one is around to see them. After we’re gone, they’ll still be there. But after we’re gone, Sherlock vanishes. There is no one to read him. He is totally dependent on our own minds and interpretations. So by this philosophical mindset, Brit has it all over Sherlock. She is real; he is not. Of course, she has never solved a crime, but really, neither has he.
01/17/2022: What Robert Frost Knew About Vlad Putin
A neighborhood is where you and I live. But a good deal of the time it’s more than just coordinates on a map. No. A “neighborhood” is not only where you live but where you’ve agreed to a set of customs and habits with those who live near you. A neighborhood becomes a community, and with it a certain mindset. Soon enough you don’t want strangers moving in and trying to change your neighborhood’s way of life. That’s why you have to fence these aliens out. As Robert Frost wrote in one of his greatest poems, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He was quoting his own neighbor, who insisted in the Vermont countryside on strict walls between Frost’s property and his. Truly good neighbors draw lines. A neighborhood, small or large, becomes a way of life to be defended. Vladimir Putin doesn’t want for his neighbor a democratic, market-free Ukraine, He wants a fence, and he insists there must be one or he will just take over Ukraine. The West says, “no fence.” Will there be war? Sometimes of course it isn’t just a fence. It could be a whole wall. Will Mexico pay for it?
01/14/2022: No Music, No Halloween!
This blog is about mindsets, but not all mindsets are conscious. Some of them are unconscious or not worked out formally in the mind in which they are set. You and I may believe something that motivates our deeds. But only until someone stops us and makes us think do we quite articulate what it is that we really do believe. For instance, we may face each day with optimism. But why? What is the mindset that gives us such cheer? What are our beliefs about good and bad prospects in the future? And then there are things that bypass the mind altogether, such as music. It goes straight for the heart. Sometimes we hear a song that we’d forgotten about and hear it as if for the first time, and we start to cry or dance or sing along. We aren’t thinking. We’re dancing or crying. We may believe that the most important part of the movies is the acting or the camera work or the story or the script. It isn’t. It’s the music. Even when the camera work was primitive and there were no talking parts and no color other than black and white, there was music. Organists and pianists were paid to accompany silent movies. When John Carpenter showed his classic horror film Halloween to investors, they laughed at it. When he showed it with his famous tinkling, shuddering piano score, they were terrified and signed up with some money. Review any emotional scene in any movie you like, and you’ll hear….music that cues your feelings, of fear or grief or laughter or suspense.
01/13/2022: How Do We “Know” Our Kids Love Us?
The standard smart person definition of knowledge is “true opinion plus sound justification.” We might “know” it’s going to rain next Friday, but we might not really know it. It might just be a lucky guess backed up by nothing other than a hunch. But with this definition we really don’t “know” much of anything. We may “know” that the sun will come up this time next year, but we don’t have any sound basis for that belief—or at least none that we can express. We may “know” our children love us, but we can’t have any ironclad justification for that belief. How do we know they aren’t just stringing us along in hopes of getting something from us in the future? The fact is, by the strict smart-person definition, we “know” a great deal that we can’t justify or prove and hence we “know” very little. But don’t despair, because the “know what” mindset is’t the only one hanging around. There’s another one, called “know how.” Here the prospects are wide. A dog might not know what is involved in urination—what pee is made of and so forth—but it knows how to pee outside. You may not know in the scientific sense how to zip up a winter coat where the zipper is hard to attach, but with practice you will know how to zip it—it’s just a matter of getting familiar with it. You know how to zip up that coat. A plumber may know nothing of Bernoulli’s principle of water flow, but he knows how to fix your toilet. We know little. We know how to do a lot,,
01/12/2022: Why You Should Talk To Yourself More Often
The greatest scientific mystery of the present day is that of human consciousness. We all have it, we humans, but how does it happen? How does it work? How do a bunch of neurons firing in our brains produce our consciousness of how hyper-blue that flower is? The scientific mindset is one of trying to explain consciousness, but there’s another mindset about it: asking the question of what it is in the first place. And the answer is…that it’s a silent version of talking to yourself. When you are conscious of how blue that flower is, or how super-sweet that hot chocolate is or how funny that door is shaped—or how scary that dog looks—you are really just turning to yourself and saying to yourself: “Look at how blue that flower is,” or “I wonder if that dog is about to bite me.” You could say these things to someone who’s there with you but no one is there other than…yourself. So you say this stuff to yourself, and when you do, you are conscious of the experience. You are not only aware. You are, thanks to your other self, aware that you are aware. The private self is a bit of a myth. When you are “privately” conscious, it’s really just an extension of your social life. It’s good to consult with others—even if the other is just YOU.
01/11/2022: Should Churches Be Lit Poorly?
Many of the major churches in Europe did not get electric lighting until the 1930s. For a while before that, they had gas light, but most of their existence has found them lit by candles, which were snuffed as soon as the service was over, lest a fire begin. This meant that for most of their history churches were not, by our standards, well-lit. Why were church authorities so slow to make them so? The answer is mindset. You weren’t meant to show up for church in order to see anything but to feel things: such as a conviction of your own sin and the mystery of God’s personce and forgiveness. Guilt is best felt in the dark, without distracting lights and objects. And in the semi-darkness God is everywhere and nowhere. The darkness made the experience of worship more inner and less outer; more about you and less about the church. The film critic Roger Ebert said film lost a good deal when it went to color and left black-and-white. With the latter, he said, movie goers could insert their own lively imaginations into the scenes and not have to be dictated to by well-lit blues and greens and reds. There is something to be said for the mindset of not being able to see all that well.
01/10/2022: Who’s The Scapegoat of the Week?
In 1912 Woodrow Wilson was elected president and had big support in southern New Jersey. Four years later, in 1916, this support had collapsed. Why? Because the region had lost considerable tourist dollars due to a series of deadly shark attacks. Wilson thought that stopping shark attacks was not in his job description, but the people of southern jersey thought he should have tried to do something. He didn’t, and they blamed him. This is the mindset of scapegoating. It opposes the mindset that sometimes bad stuff just happens. No. Someone is to blame. Someone should have prevented it. “My loved one has died of cancer. This should have been preventable. We need to spend more money on cancer research. Someone kept that from happening.” “My loved one was killed by a drunk driver. Someone should have stopped that. Damned politicians!” “Joe Biden isn’t responsible for the Omicron variant, but by golly, it makes us feel better to blame somebody, and who better than the leader of the free world?”
01/07/2022:The Terror of a Third Political Patty
Pundits are writing incessantly about how Republican leaders are afraid to stand up to Donald Trump. The man is a liar and a loser, say these commentators, even Republican ones, so why are you so afraid of him? And then they answer their own question by stating that, well, if you are running for office as a Republican, Donald Trump can crush you with a Trumpian opponent in the party primary. All that makes for colorful, if repetitive, content. But it masks the real mindset of the Republican Party. Party leaders don’t fear Trump. They fear that the far right of the party will split off and form their own party—call it The American Party. With the right in America split between extreme and moderate, a unified Democratic Party could win elections with ease. In a two-party system, nothing brings more terror to politicos than the prospect of a draining third party. Just ask George H.W. Bush and Al Gore, both of whom were defeated not by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush so much as by Ross Perot and Ralph Nader.
01/06/2022: Looking In Vain for Jim Morrison’s Grave
If you go to Paris to find, among other things, Jim Morrison’s grave, you may discover more obstacles than you bargained for. The cemetery is huge, and the gravestones are lined up, one behind another, in long rows. There are no neon signs proclaiming that this is Morrison’s marker, although along the way you might run into the gravestone of someone else buried there, such as Oscar Wilde. A map of the graveyard can be helpful, but it’s still a challenge—even a smart phone isn’t foolproof in your quest. The difficulty in finding the remains of the great rocker sends us right into the Mindset of Excellence and Fame. Someone is outstanding at something—whether it be playing the trombone or writing poetry or modeling a dress—only because so many others have a go and do these things much less well. If you are a mediocre poet, don’t feel bad, for you’re helping make Sylvia Plath look great. If you’re pat of a rinky-dink rock band, don’t feel awful about that. You’re helping make Jim Morrison and the Doors seem better than ever. And if you die and get buried in an obscure grave in a big cemetery, don’t get down in the dumps: at least you’re making it harder to find the headstone of someone famous..
01/04/2021: The Dreadful, Fatal, No-Good Problem with Democracy
All tyrants claim to have power due to democratic choice, but few if any tyrants actually believe in democracy itself. One of the first products of tyranny is hypocrisy. But the problem tyrants have with democracy is real, and it is simple: The people in their majority vote might get it wrong. This is why tyrants cannot really bear democracy: because the people might choose someone other than them. This is an ancient invective against democracy. For Plato, it was a non-starter for just this reason. The people are foolish. Only a wise dictator, trained by Plato, should govern. This was also the message of those who invaded the American capitol on January 6, 2021: Our enemies have prevailed, and they got it wrong. God and history and birthright have dictated—an apt word—that only Donald Trump be president. Of course, the rioters insisted that Trump had really won. They likely know better. They really mean that they don’t like democracy because, well, because in a democracy the majority can get it all terribly wrong. Other methods have become necessary—this is the ancient anti-democratic mindset. It is a perilous one.
01/04/2022: Suppose Hitler Forced Everyone To be Nice to Each Other
There are at least two human mindsets about the cosmos: that it has an author or that it does to have one. The Author is usually God, who is possessed with supreme power and who created the heavens and earth and all the multi-verses in between. But there is also the view that the universe just happened and has no direction or purpose, however much human beings might want it to. Here there is no God and only a power vacuum in which laws of thermodynamics are free to operate. There seems to be no way to reconcile these views. But maybe there is one, sort of. The great French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil believed that her God would never force anyone to be good, lest free virtuous choice mean nothing. Weil thought that if Hitler had commanded everyone to be nice and everyone was nice, the niceness, occurring under duress, would be worth nothing. In this view there is a God but this God has elected to become powerless and let the universe drift in order to give human beings the choice of being good or bad. Being forced to be good is dictatorial, and God has chosen not to be a dictator and let us decide via our own ethics what to make of the universe.
01/03/2022: The Mindset of Saving Ugly Butterflies
Let’s suppose there’s a rare butterfly species—one of tens of thousands—called the St. Anselm Centaur. We don’t need to know how it got its name. In fact, the name is made up. But let’s suppose it’s about as big as your thumb, not especially pretty, and of no great significance in the food chain. But there are only a few thousand left. Should we save it? Federal law might say we should, and this means resources being devoted by way of conservation. Saving the St. Anselm doesn’t come for free. Now let’s further suppose—and this part is totally true—that the St. Anselm is going kaput because we are building houses and draining swamps and planting lawns in its habitat. Here we encounter two competing mindsets. The first is this: Well, all species including us humans, have to contend with natural selection, including resource limits and competition from other species. This is all natural and cruel. But hey, we and the St. Anselm are part of nature red in tooth and claw. Why should we spend money to save it? But then there’s a rival mindset: Yeah, we and the tiny butterfly are both animals, but we’re the only ones with an ethical compass. We have a moral obligation to save a species that we ourselves have been in the business of destroying. Which mindset will win? The St. Anselm bitterly might want to know, if it could.
12/31/2021: The Efficiency Myth
On this last day of the calendar year let us consider the topic of efficiency. We live in an age of Great Efficiency, which can be defined a a ratio of energy to productive result. The less energy put into the system, and the more productivity that comes out of it, the higher the efficiency. The thermostat is a good example: it is so sensitive that the merest register or air too hot or cold will trigger an immediate, productive adjustment. Computer programs are marvels of efficiency: a mere mouse click can reveal a site of enormous amounts of information. We might get the impression that our lives can be like that, too. They cannot be. You can discover a valuable, rare book in a San Francisco book shop, but the only reason you came to San Francisco was because you were bored to tears with your job in San Bernardino and needed a break. Why not just go straight to San Francisco and find the book? Why was it necessary for you to bore yourself down south first? Why not just find the right partner immediately? Why do we have to go through all these intermediary steps? Why can’t life become more efficient? Life is too complex and unpredictable to design. You can live your life. You can’t program it. May all your mindsets in 2022 be effective and wise.
12/30/2021: Putin and the Mindset of the Winner
The Putin government has now outlawed historical researchers who were uncovering the crimes of the Stalin regime. Putin likes Stalin and does not want the Stalin era to be trashed. Why? Well, this is the mindset of the winner. Stalin may have committed great crimes against humanity, and he may have had a temporary nervous breakdown when the Nazis first invaded Russia. But in the end he won—well, his army did—and Hitler lost. Stalin was a winner. In effect, Putin is trying to rehabilitate Stalin. The Germans, to say the least, have no plans to rehabilitate Hitler. But Hitler lost. Stalin won. That makes all the difference. As Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi put it, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Putin, too, wants to be seen as a winner.
2/29/2021: A Big Mac and the Wizard of Oz
If you go to Yahoo or Google and order up an image of a Big Mac, you will see a spectacle. Up close, it not only looks yummy but also as b ig in its way as Mount Everest. Billions of them have been produced behind the scenes, but these single, spectacular I’mages of the burger communicate an ethereal quality, as though every particular Big Mac partakes of an ideal hamburger. This is what Guy Debod called the Mindset of the Spectacle. When we actually eat a Big Mac, it is generally a banal experience. It’s fast food that we wolf down. Macdonald’s isn’t just selling food, though. It’s selling ideal spectacle. When Dorothy and her retinae of Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow discover that the Wizard of Oz is just a huckster behind a screen, it’s as though they have looked forward to a Big Mac only to wander into Macdonald’s banal, sweaty kitchen. The whole point of spectacles like the Mac and the Wizard is to keep buyers separated from the means of production. We are never to know how spectacular stuff is really made.
12/28/2021: Why You and Your Doctor Will Never Get Along
If you lay down to go to sleep and your knee begins to ache and then the pain goes away only for you to find that your ankle also now aches and then after a while your elbow or your toe, you will experience discomfort in various and different parts of your body. But that will not be your mindset. You will worry that something might be wrong with your body, and while it consists of elbows and toes and so forth, it is just one body, and it is yours and the only one you will ever have. We experience our bodies as unifiers of our selves. It is with our single bodies—ours—that we move along in the world and open a jar of jam. The doctor does to see our bodies this way. He sees a problem with this or that part of your body or mine. Doctors cannot feel or experience your body, however much they can experience their own. It is a difference of mindsets—the body as one and the body as a map of different trouble spots—that makes you and me think, even after a productive medical visit, that the doctor just doesn’t quite get it.
2/27/2021: Why National Lampoon Christmas Vacation is the Most Profound Movie Ever Made
Clark Griswold, the daffy suburbanite in this Christmas classic comedy, is very hopeful. He has the Christmas spirit. But like so many billions of other Christians, his optimism is rooted not in the Christ child but in the prospects that his bonus will pay for a new swimming pool. Winters in Chicago are harsh, so one could argue that a summer pool is Heaven. But few would argue that it is THE Heaven. Clark is a secular Christian. At the same time, he is also no revolutionary. He hopes not for a new utopia of equality and freedom but for, well, for a new swimming pool. His mindset—one of secular religious sentiment and deep middle-class complacency—is where most people in the First World dwell. Few films illustrate this better than NATIONAL LAMPOON CHRISTMAS VACATION. It’s the profoundest Christmas classic of them all.
12/25/2021: Don’t Wish for a Merry Christmas; Wish for a Heavenly One
Billions on Earth now turn to the traditional birthday of Christ. Christmas means “the Christ Mass” or “the message of Christ.” That message is one of hope., In contemporary times that hope is for peace on earth and good will towards all who dwell on it. Five hundred years ago people knew better. They did not expect conditions on Earth to get any better. They thought the message of Christian hope was one of the After-Life. In a medieval play two shepherds are out in the field one cold December night. They are poor. One of their lambs has been stolen. They are cold. It also happens to be the night that Christ is born. At play’s end they are hopeful—not that it will get any warmer or that they will get any richer but that they will spend eternity in Heaven with he who is ow the baby Jesus. Today we have trouble believing that there is a Heaven. This is understandable. But without it, Christmas is a time of sentimental but vain hope and of ardent consumerism. One can have a merry Christmas but not a heavenly one and thus not a truly hopeful one. So coose your Christmas mindset.
12/23/2021: Is Every Movie a Con?
Con artists lure you in; get you interested; make sure you have some success; and then cheat you and get away. Moviemakers are con artists, too. In Psycho Alfred Hitchcock lures you into caring about a beautiful woman on the run who has been murdered while taking a shower. He then shows you the likely killer, a bizarre motel manager named Norman Bates. Hitchcock also shows you glimpses of the possibility that the knife-wielding killer is really an old woman, presumably Norman’s elderly mother. You are being conned. Old ladies are not deranged murderers, so it must be Norman, yet it is plainly an old woman who has killed an investigating private detective. You are being led down a garden path, and in the end you find the solution: it is both Norman and his mother, since he thinks he is his mother. Hitchcock has conned you, but he has played fair. He has given you the clues. You just weren’t smart enough to use them. That’s the mindset of the conned. If you re conned, you feel stupid in the end—how could you have missed what was right under your nose? And how can you ever get your money back?
12/22/2021: The Mindset of the Gambling Addict
Gambling is a blend of luck and skill. Part of the skill is figuring out the system of the luck. The number 1 hasn’t come up for a long time, so it must e overdue, right? So bet on it. Some people have concluded that most of life is luck, starting with where we were born and to whom. In this sense life itself is a series of gambles. We may think we are in control. We enter a school determined to study hard and succeed, not realizing that we could get run over just crossing the street. And yet because we do the things that turn out well, we think it is we who are in total command. We are asked how we did so well and answer, “I worked hard,” not “I got lucky,” even though others worked hard and failed. Weren’t they just unlucky? In the case of gambling addiction, the person who is hooked wins just often enough to keep going back but not often enough so that the casino goes out of business. It’s a pre-formulated system, yet whenever we win we think—the mindset of the gambling addict—that it is we who have been smart. This is the mindset of those who overrate the role of skill in life.
2/21/2021: The ;The Mythic Mindset of the Lone Wolf
Wolves hunt in packs, and “lone wolves” are temporary creatures in search of a new pack to join. Wolves understand that there are tremendous benefits to social cooperation. A gang of them can bring down more prey than a single one can. Still, in human society there persists the myth of the werewolf—the Lone Wolf in pursuit, viciously, of human victims. The most famous werewolf film was 1941’s classic THE WOLF MAN. But this story about a lone werewolf is the exception that prove the rule. Larry Talbot, who becomes a werewolf, is actually looking for a group to join. His father dislikes him, so he can’t join his family. He tries to court a beautiful woman to start a family of his own. But then he is bitten by a wolf and becomes a werewolf. He cannot join a wolf pack, for he is a werewolf, not a wolf. And there are no big werewolf families around. Larry is a lone wolf but not by choice. The Lone Wolf is a fantasy of our culture. We celebrate individualism—going your own unique way—but in truth we would get nowhere without the help of many, many others. We all have to hunt in packs.
2/20/2021 : The Mindset of Donating Your Body to Science
In the early days of anatomical science, few people would donate their bodies to science. Yet anatomists needed cadavers in order to advance their knowledge. So anatomical scientists in the early 19th century turned a blind eye to the cadavers they received, most of which came from grave-robbers. A few of them were even murdered. In those days the mindset was that if you wanted to go to Heaven, you had to be buried in consecrated ground with blessings pronounced upon your chances for the after-life. You were not inclined to request that your body be “donated to science.” Today millions of people every year stipulate in their wills that their bodies be donated to science. The popularity of this procedure; goes back to mindset: belief in the authority of science has gone up while belief in Eternal Life has gone down.
12/17/2021: Why White Folks Couldn’t Sing The Blues
Most mindsets are invented, and we inherit them. Before the invention of records and record players, there were hymns and “love songs.” But with 78 rpm records came mass marketing. There had to be categories—or mindsets—so that people can find what they were looking for in the record stores. Southern white music was called “hillbilly”until the Southern consumers revolved and then it was called “country.” Music played and sung by African-Americans was called “foxtrot” because the term “jazz” was thought to be vulgar in the 1920s. Sometimes it was also called—and sold as—“race music.” Jimmy Rodgers, who was white, is thought to be the first great country artist, but he was really singing “the blues.” Since he wasn’t black, it couldn’t possibly be “the blues.” Before he became Elvis, Elvis Presley sang a song by a black artist called “I’m All Right, Mama.” When the black artist—Arthur Crudup—sang it, it was called “rhythm and blues.” When Elvis did, it was called “rock n’roll.” Hank Williams sang—and yowled—the blues, but no white consumer would never call it that and in the record stores he knew that he would never find “Lovesick Blues” in the “blues” section. It is the power of the music mindset—recording technology and mass marketing and racial segregation all playing their assigned parts.
12/16/2021: Are New-Born Babies Sinful?
During much of the last century unwed mothers in Ireland were sent to institutions where they could work in laundries and have their babies. The work was hard, but this removed the girls from the same of society and helped protect their families from scandal. The young fathers fared much better. At the institutions the babies were often cared for poorly; their diapers were not changed and the mortality rate was high. Some of them were put out for adoption. When some of the babies died, they were often buried in unmarked graves. Here again the power of mindset. The Roman Catholic Church of Ireland considered the sex act as a bodily sin. Yet they also knew it was necessary to re-populate the Church. So the deal was this: You could engage in this bestial act, but only if you got a permission slip, and the permission slip was marriage. If you were not married, you were just totally steeped in sin. Even your resulting infant might be tainted, and those not adoptable were thought to be discardable, having come from poisoned fruit.
12/15/2021: Is Elon Musk A Mindset?
Elon Musk is Time Magazine’s Person off the Year. No one embodies The Future as much as Musk. In the Planet According to Elon we will be boarding electric self-driving cars, uploading our neurons to digital formats, and flying back and forth between Earth and Mars. There is nothing physics can’t solve. This is also a mindset. It is a distracting one. The great human problem is that we veer between re-shaping ourselves and accepting ourselves, and we don’t know which is which and turn out restless and unhappy. Mr. Musk cannot solve this problem at all. We will be no happier in his advanced world of the future., But it diverts us and even excites us, to think about it. It is a refuge from our real problem, which is that there is no cure for the condition of being human.
12/14/2021: The Starving Kids of Afghanistan Are Caught Between Two Mindsets
United Nations experts say mass starvation is a real prospect in Afghanistan this winter. One of the people responsible for outside food supplies has said that the ruling Taliban will be fine and won’t miss a mail, but in order to punish them, other countries are willing to withhold aid from the country, whatever the results for lack of nutrition among millions. What is going on? The Taliban holds to a medieval ideology that discounts the value of life on earth in favor of eternal existence in the After Life. The West’s ideology is modern and secular, with emphasis on Hunan rights in the here and now—something the Taliban is hostile to. The malnourished kids know nothing about the these two competing mindsets, and the two mindsets are taking scant notice of the kids. The two mindsets, medieval and modern, are long-term ideological projects, but people don’t eat in the long run. They have to eat every day.
12/13/2021: Why “Purpose” Is a Dangerous Word
In literature and film there’s a term called “a McGuffin.” A McGuffin is whatever gets the plot rolling. Two guys happen to meet on a train, and one says to the other, “I’ll kill your troublesome wife if you’ll kill my troublesome father.” The whole “purpose” of their meeting on the train was to set the scene for later events. We have “McGuffins” in our own lives. “I got cancer, but the real PURPOSE of the cancer was to make me a better person.” “Purpose” is a mindset—a dangerous one. It makes us feel better if we can build our lives around a “purpose” narrative. But look at Hitler: He said that the “purpose” of World War I was to expose the treachery of Jews and set the stage for Nazi vengeance. Suppose the First World War were just a bloody, life-consuming mistake; no purpose at all. The “purpose” mindset can make us feel better about bad things. It can also lead to even moe buttery, along with death camps.
2/10/2021: Is The Garden of Eden A Mindset?
The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, thought the Garden of Eden was in present-day Missouri. The famous Garden was a mindset, however, and mindsets can be “located” anywhere. What sort of mindset? Well, if you visited the Garden and asked one of the inhabitants, “Are you really happy here,” an intellectually honest answer would be, “I don’t know. How can I tell if I live in a place where there is presumably no UNhappiness?” When did you and I experience our first unhappy moment? It was when we observed someone who seemed to be feeling better than we were. If you stub your toe and cry, and you notice that your little playmate has not stubbed hers and is smiling, then you finally learn what happiness is. In the Garden, no one stubs a toe. The Garden is a place of ignorance, where you are cut off from contrasts. The Garden is a bubble, like the ones people in the upper Midwest live in, which is why, having never experienced a Southern spring, they think 40 degrees and rainy in March is “spring.”
12/09/2021: Why Kant We Always Tell the Truth?
Immanuel Kant is probably the greatest German philosopher of all time. Among other things, he is credited with the “categorial imperative,” a guide to ethics that goes like this: Do X only if you can responsibly will that everyone else can do it. This means you can never lie. What if everyone lied all the time? So if the Gestapo comes to your door and asks for that enemy of the regime you’ve been hiding, you cannot lie to them: You must admit that you are harboring a fugitive from the Nazis. This seems pretty wild, but Kant thought that ethics should not be graded on consequences, good or bad, but on right or wrong. And it’s just wrong to lie. But then: Can you also will that NO ONE should ever lie to murderous Nazi thugs? When you put it that way, the Categorical Imperative seems, at the same time, to be upheld and yet also fall apart. Ethical mindsets sometimes deconstruct themselaes in plain sight.
12/08/2021: What’s Wrong With Just Doing Your Job?
Adolf Eichmann was responsible for transporting millions of Jews to Nazi death camps. When he went on trial in 1960, he said he’d done nothing wrong, He was just dong his job; following orders. This is a mindset. Or perhaps it’s better to say that it is one side of a mindset. The other side goes like this: You must do the right job. Eichmann said he rejected this: No, he said, it’s much more important to do the job, whatever it is, right. He was trying to fool people in order to escape execution. He really thought he WAS doing the right job, as he was a committed Nazi. But his public mindset was: I was just doing my job; what’s wrong with that? Eichmann had experienced the Great Depression, when it was considered a disgrace to lose your job, and he wanted to keep his. He would rather have killed Jews than lose his job. That was his mindset, and more baleful proof that in life mindsets are almost everything.
12/7/2021: The Lone Nutter and the Thrill Killers
Most people think of murder as an illegal act, but it’s just as often a mindset. Lee Harvey Oswald murdered President Kennedy, but murder wasn’t the point. This was, for the ideologically fanatical Oswald, a symbolic act of the Cold War: killing the leader of the West. It wasn’t Oswald so much as his mindset that murdered Kennedy. In 1924, two Chicago sons of privilege, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, murdered a teen that they had picked at random. Murder wasn’t the point. Rather, the whole idea was to commit the perfect crime (which they did not). It was Leopold and Loeb’s mindset that murdered poor Bobby Franks. Murder itself, for both the Lone Nutter and the Thrill Killers, was a matter of a mindset’s collateral damage.
12/6/2021: Are School Shooters Playing Video Games?
When school officials in Michigan called young Ethan Crumbley into the office to ask him about a drawing he’d made, he told them he was designing a video game. What was the drawing? It was of a gun, a bullet, and two bloody human victims, along with a note that said “Help me!” This brings us to mindset. This blog shows how it rules so much of human activity. In Ethan’s mind shooting his fellow high students was probably like a video game, only more real and therefore better. He seemed to know that this was wrong, but the video-game impulse—or mindset—was too strong; the anticipated buzz was too great to resist. It’s often said that video games permit young people to sublimate: as long as they are shooting virtual action figures, they are harmlessly not shooting human beings. Yet since so many video games involve the use of “digital deadly force,” it shouldn’t be surprising that from time to time such games go real. Once the mindset is there, someone is bound to be a shot sooner or later, and in Ethan’s case it was sooner.
12/3/2021: Murder Isn’t Wrong. But It Should Be Against the Law
Most murder trials are about the presentation and judgment of evidence, but after all these factual details have run their coursed and someone has been found guilty of homicide, the judge pronounces sentence and condemns the convicted person as immoral. Judyes should know better, but they often like to say, “Well, we’ve done the legal bit, so now I get to say that you are sinful and sentence you to life in the slammer.” This is the judge’s mindset, but it is a regrettable one. We can come up with all sorts of religious objections to murder, including one of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not kill. But in a democracy, as opposed to a theocracy, murder is not against the law because it is sinful, a disobedient and ungodly act. It is against the law because murderers are dangerous and it is the law’s job to protect us from danger. The proper mindset in a democracy should be: X or Y may be immoral, but they should not be against the law unless they are also a danger to the community. The application of this mindset to the question of abortion should be obvious.
12//2/2021: Do Chickens Have Mindsets?
If someone were to ask you or me why we are here, we might answer that we are here to love others and serve God; or that we are here to have a good time; or that we are here to pass on our genes to our children. The answer might be anything and everything. But that’s because we are humans and can tali. If you were to ask a chicken why it is here, and it could talk, there would be only one answer: “I am here to lay eggs and/or have my neck wrung.” Chickens, neither linguistic nor human, would have no difficulty in accent their life’s purpose. Yet according to Hannah Arendt, in her great book THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM, both Hitler and Stalin managed to turn millions into human chickens. These dictators did not have to command or instruct their followers, who were so brainwashed that they knew what Stalin and Hitler wanted to the point where commands and obedience were the same things. This is the human chicken mindset. Some Germans even talked about how they always acted in daily life as they thought the Furher would want them to act. They became as automatic and thoughtless as a chicken laying an egg or going to the slaughter.
12/1/2022: Do Fat Girls Have Mindsets?
Andre Dubus III wrote a short story called “The Fat Girl,” about a woman whose genetic structure and eating habits mandated her to be overweight. Her parents and friends wished it were otherwise, but off she went to college in just such a “condition.” Her roommate helped her lose a great deal of weight, and in time the fat girl become the thin girl. She married, but in time she began to gain weight again. After a while, she wore a big loose dress on summer outings rather than don a bathing suit. Dubus hints that she was, however, oddly happy. Here again is the power of mindset. Society has one mindset: you can be too fat but hardly ever too thin. But the heroine of the story has another mindset: I must follow my destiny; I am what I was meant to be. The thin girl wasn’t really who she was. Is there more happiness in authenticity and acceptance than in counterfeit and denial? That’s a tough one to answer.
11/30/2021: If It Ain’t On a Screen It Don’t Mean A Thing!
Mindsets are ghosts. You can’t see them. Burt they seem to control everything, Not long ago an elderly friend was on a bus that had sold out all seats. It was a two-hour bus ride, so he had to stand for the whole time. He was surrounded by a sea of college students, none of whom gave him their seat. Is this sort of chivalry dead in the United States? Maybe. But my friend noted that they simply didn’t see him or his advanced age. They were too busy with their smart phones. There’s the power of mindsets. If he had appeared on a screen, they might have acted more courteously. But the mindset of college students is: If it ain’t on a screen, it don’t mean a thing.
11/23/2021: Martin Luther and Birth Control
Over five hundred years ago a renegade priest named Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation—a Revolution, really. He had no idea of what he was really doing. As a result of his actions, the Catholic Church not only split into different Protestant sects. Those sects in turn split into sub-sects and so on. Once there was a Baptist church, and then came Southern Baptists, Hard Shell Baptists, Seventh Day Baptists, and so on, Religion became splintered. It was a revolutionary mindset And so it was with Dr. John rock’s birth control pill Once people could see sex as not just for procreation, and not just a fear of pregnancy, they began to explore sex. And so came sexual identity: a new mindset. Now the world hs lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. What Martin Luther started in religion Dr. John Rock started with sex. Mindsets are everything.
11/22/2021: Is Elon Musk a Mindset?
We are all used to hearing that Elon Musk is a brilliant engineer; a genius. We heard the same thing about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Everyone wondered what they’d get up to next. Musk promises not only electric cars to save the planet but also Martian colonies. All these people are selling a mindset, and that mindset lis THE FUTURE. What is “the Future?” It’s that time in which everything will be just fantastic. We can wear watches that contain all the world’s information We can live on Mars. Futurists have promised that with cryogenics we can come back to life and that we can live forever by having our brains uploaded to a quantum computer. The FUTURE is a promise that our current miserable lives will be much more exciting and attractive. It’s a false mindset. The PRESENT is so much more interesting if you know where and how to look. What’s more, THE PRESENT is actually here.
11/21/2021: Is Kyle Rittenhouse Made in America?
In 1870s Texas vigilantes were a common occurrence. It’s no wonder. Marshalls and judges were few and far between. Now Texas is one of the most law and order states. There’s no need for vigilantes—in Texas or Wisconsin. But William Faulkner once said, “The past isn’t over. It’s not even past.” Those who don’t trust the government or the courts feel a need to revert to 1870s Texas, and wear a vigilante white hat. Kyle Rittenhouse went to Kenosha to “protect private property.” Some might think that’s the police’s job. Isn’t that why we pay taxes? But heroic vigilantism isn’t over. The past remains vital. Some Americans have “guns” that consist of a speed dial to 911. They come out of the same America as Rittenhouse does. But America has vastly different assembly lines.
11/20/2021: Is Covid Michael Meyers in Disguise?
We are all waiting to get back to “normal” and to live in a totally post-coved world. This is our mindset. But let’s suppose you were one of those few people who hated the 1978 horror classic movie HALLOWEEN. Once the film was over, you were happy to be a post-HALLOWEEN world. You could get back to normal and start watching movies you really liked. But uh-oh: Here came a HALLOWEEN sequel, and then another one, and then another one. It seems that hockey-masked Michael Meyers will just never stop “coming home” to murder everyone. The same will be true of Covid. It will make a sequel, perhaps less deadly but perhaps more. Or it may be another SARS virus. Like Michael Meyers, Covid will just keep “coming home.” Normality is a mindset. It’s also a deceptive one. Don’t fall for it!
11/19/2021: How China Proved Thomas Jefferson Was Wrong
A leading mindset in Europe and North America is that the rise of science and the rise of democracy were soul-mates. In the 1700s scientists began to explain that nature ran according to natural process and didn’t need God. Why must we have God when we have atoms? And why do we need God to create butterflies when natural selection will do? Once God began to wane, so did God’s agents on Earth—Kings—begin the exit. Politics became democratic, not royal. Was not the American Revolution itself a revolt against a KING? But then China came along in the 1980s and produced a highly scientific and even market economy without any democracy whatever. Thomas Jefferson was a great amateur scientist and a profound exponent of democracy. Surely the two have always gone hand-in-hand, Well, China’s success story proves that they don’t have to. It’s a whole new Mindset. AND A REVOLUTIONARY ONE.
11/182022: Is Murder a Mindset??
Adolph Eichmann was a murderer, and an Israeli court ordered him to be hanged. He was the bureaucrat who sent millions of Jews too their deaths during the Nazi years. His defense was that he was just doing his job and shouldn’t be punished at all. Eichmann had a Mindset. Al of us have a mindset when we are doing our jobs. All of us know that we couldn’t do our jobs if we didn’t have certain equipment and abilities. If you’re sorting mail, if that’s your job, you can’t afford to be blind. If your job is plumber, you can’t afford not to know the difference between a pipe and a wrench. In one of Shakespeare’s plays, a professional killer told his comrade that he was developing a conscience. The other pro killer said, “Don’t. You can’t do your job if you develop a conscience.” Eichmann’s mindset was just the same. He couldn’t do his job with a conscience, with compassion. Mass murder is a mindset. And here is what it is: It’s not a question of doing the right job; it’s a question of doing the job right—and that’s all.
11/17/2021: Is Covid Evil?
A mindset is everything. Take Covid.. It is a disease, yes, but in our minds we have set it up as an inconvenience, a threat, something government should do something about, or even a hoax. We have never in our minds seen it as an enemy. There is an old idea of evil found in perceptions of natural disasters. So a hurricane or a flood is a natural evil. That doesn’t mean it comes from an angry God or a devious Satan. It means that such things are evil because they, in their indifference, tempt us to be less than our best selves. They, such as a plague or a drought, are no respecter of persons, so they tempt us to be no respecter of persons. We become cynical and indifferent to the plight of others. Natural evils make us less kind in our daily lives. We become preoccupied and stop thinking of anything more interesting. We look for a super-hero to bail us out—a governor or an epidemiologist or a president—and forget that the best foe of this enemy is our going about our daily lives with as much pluck and compassion as we had before. With Covid our mindset has really blown it. We have made government or one another the enemy. The real foe is Covid, and we have let it make some of us more evil than we were before. We needed from the start to make COVID the evil, the enemy, and determine that we would not let it get the best of us. Mindset is crucial
The Mindset List for the Graduating High School Class of 1961
Authors note: For more than two decades the Beloit College Mindset List chronicled the experiences and event horizons of 18-year-old students as they entered college. Created by Ron Nief, director of Public Affairs at Wisconsin’s Beloit College and his Beloit College colleague, Prof. of English Tom McBride, the list was distributed internationally each August as the authors traveled the country speaking and doing interviews.
It was initially intended as a reminder to those faculty facing first- year students to beware of “hardening of the references.” Over the years it became one of the most quoted “back-to-school” references and was cited by Time Magazine as a part of the “American lexicon.”
In 2019, with the authors both retired, they transferred the rights to the Mindset List to Marist College in New York.
Ron and Tom continue to receive requests to create special lists for audiences ranging from students in Mumbai going abroad to study, to a Nashville bride, a decade older than her husband-to-be, who wanted a witty “Mindset Llist” included in her nuptials.
The following list is created as if it had been published in June, 1961. It reflects the worldview and experiences of 18-year-old high school graduates sixty years ago. Hardly a comprehensive list, readers are invited to make additions.
The Mindset List for the Graduating High School Class of 1961
Students celebrating their high school graduation in 1961 were mostly born in 1943.
At the time of their birth, Thomas Watson, chair of IBM, declared that perhaps “there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Also that year, Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince arrived and set the tone for the new generation: “Grown- ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
Since the “Boomer” generation dates from right after World War II, members of the Class of 1961, born in the throes of the war, represent the last dying gasp of the Greatest Generation, without doing any of the heavy lifting.
Possible classmates, also born in 1943, were Doris Kearns Goodwin, Newt Gingrich, George Harrison, and Arthur Ashe. And those departing that year to make way for a new generation included George Washington Carver, Nicola Tesla, Edsel Ford, and Beatrix Potter.
…and so, from an imagined publication on June 30, 1961…
Fortunately, The Great Depression had been declared officially over with the year they entered the world. Within a few years, their allowances would exceed what many families had had to live on for a full week during the depression years.
As babes, they were the greatest thing since sliced bread, which was still banned as part of the war effort.
And, if mom needed a new pair of shoes, she’d have to wait. They were still rationed.
Good chance that, as toddlers, dad was a member of the 52/20 Club: $20 a week for 52 weeks to help returning GIs get settled.
While the folks were very excited over their new arrival, they were also pretty grumpy over the government’s decision to start to withhold payroll taxes.
But the future held promise when Time Magazine’s 1943 Man of the Year was George Marshall. Four years earlier it had been Adolph Hitler.
For these students graduating from high school in June, 1961…
The concept of “Teenager” has evolved into a major force, designating a separate state of mind.
Stamps have always cost more than $.02.
They’ve grown up with acronyms like KP, SNAFU, MAD and UNIVAC.
SCUBA fans have always been able to breathe underwater using Jacques Cousteau’s Aqua Lung.
Presidents of the U.S. have always flown in planes, and there have always been jets.
They have always had the latest games, like Chutes and Ladders, and toys like the Slinky.
LSD has always been available for fueling trips.
Hairdos and bugs have always been controlled with aerosol sprays.
Big secrets have always been coming out of a lab in Los Alamos, N.M.
Trips to the nation’s Capital have always included a visit to the Jefferson Memorial and a look at the massive Pentagon.
There has always been an American Broadcasting Co., but the DuMont Television Network, which introduced Jackie Gleason and Bishop Fulton Sheen, didn’t survive into their teens.
They have always known how to pronounce Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Iwo Jima.
Failure to clean their plates at dinner was often met with a parental reminder of the conditions facing the poor children in Europe (and later in China and Africa.)
When the TV showed up in the living room, dad was stuck up on the roof rotating the antenna, shouting “is that any better.” You had to keep the TV lamp on in the room while you were watching or you might go blind.
Parents, sitting in the “dens” of their “ranches” often said they would never vote for a divorced man.
Being called a JD, or accused of smoking “MaryJane” have always been a disgrace for the folks.
“Do it yourself” has become the mantra of the suburban homeowner.
They can’t imagine that the hole in the upper corner of their elementary school desks actually used to hold an inkwell.
They have checked to make sure their Timex would “keep on ticking” and that their Paper Mate pen really could write through butter.
The only burger produced faster than at the local diner is at White Castle.
Citizens of Washington, D.C., have never been able to vote in presidential elections.
The country has always had two southern kings— one in civil rights and one in rock and roll.
“Chip and dip” in that special dish on the TV table has always been central to gatherings at home.
Though they had practiced “duck and cover” in elementary school, they had hardly noticed that those rusting triangular CD fallout shelter signs were vanishing.
Subversives and fluoride are everywhere.
They left Your Hit Parade for Alan Freed on WINS Radio, and the “Doggie in the Window” for a real “Hound Dog.”
Parties have always included nachos and deep-dish pizza.
Their “children’s hour” was shared with Buffalo Bob, Clarabell, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring.
Parents read Dr. Spock before the kids got up, and Dr. Kinsey after they went to bed.
“Expecting” has always been OK; “pregnant” has not.
Radio has steadily been fading into the background, except on the “transistor” at the beach.
Parents generally agreed that even slightly crooked teeth certainly needed braces.
They drove their folks crazy with “Just the facts, ma’am” and “Say the secret word.”
Flouristan in toothpaste meant “Look Mom, no cavities,” and hexachlorophene in soap meant germ-free hands.
There was a good possibility that dealing with their teenaged independence may have driven mom to Milltown.
Superman has always been on the watch for Kryptonite.
Autism has always been diagnosed but never discussed.
Tobacco companies have always been open about the side effects of smoking, but they have always blamed the other brands.
Fortunately, rock and roll came along so that J. Edgar Hoover could stop worrying that Frank Sinatra was being groomed as a new Hitler.
Dad has applied for a Diners Club card but there are rumors of a new BankAmericard credit card, widely available already in California.
Once they got their working papers at age16, they earned at least $1 an hour.
Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks has always been at the Chicago Art Institute.
The concept of the American Musical Theatre has always been recognized, ever since the arrival of Oklahoma on Broadway.
“A vast Wasteland,” “Bay of Pigs,” “Freedom Riders,” and “the military industrial complex” have sparked headlines and much dinner conversation in recent months.
In their ongoing efforts to establish their uniqueness, they can point to the fact that their class year of 1961 was strobogrammatic, indicating that the number was the same when turned upside down. The next one won’t be until 6009. It just proves you really can learn something from reading MAD Magazine.
Camelot will live forever.
Dear Boomers and Millennials: We must shed the coronavirus of division and complacency among us. This is your Hopeful Leader speaking. You have been apart, for Millennials feel that capitalism has worked for Boomers but not for them, and that Boomers have gotten the lion’s share of capitalism’s benefits. Meanwhile, Boomers don’t know wy Millennials would rather look at their smart phones than look at them. But that was all before Covid. After Covid the two generations—you young and old alike—can come together. The Generation Gap will have passed, along with the virus itself. What can I say, and how shall I lead, in order to make this come about?
First, Covid has taught us that Evil is no respecter of generations. Yes, more old people have died than young people, but plenty of young people have died, too. Is Covid evil? Was it evil? Oh, yes, an evil need not intend to be evil. Anything that kills living things just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong trime must be counted as evil. Anything that keeps us on lockdown, or takes away our livelihoods, or makes us distrust other people, is evil. Yes, Covid is evil, We live in a world of evil. Let us unite around the unerring conclusion that it doesn’t care whether you are young or old.
Second, Covid has taught us that we can’t escape from nature after all. We live indoors and look at screens. Only on vacations do most of us go outdoors and look at trees. The human project has been to evade nature: avoid the wind, pay no attention to where our meat comes from, believe that the Grand Canyon on youtube is almost as good as the real thing. But with Covid we have learned that we cannot run away from nature. It follows us indoors, floods our houses, shakes them to their foundations, destroys our jobs. Covid is nature’s way of saying it will do its thing no matter what we may wish. So let us, young and old alike, take this lesson to heart and face the future knowing that Nature is going to be a guest at the table and will have to be addressed. Nature doesn’t care if you’re young or old.
Third, the soldiers in this war were not young or old. They were young AND old. Doctors and nurses came out of retirement to risk their lives. Young nurses and technicians, some barely out of their teens, put their futrures in peril, their lives in danger, in ICU wards. And if you were in one of those wards, trying to breathe, you didn’t care if your nruse or doc were a Boomer or a Millennial.
Fourth, Covid was a chemistry experiment that led to disquieting truth. At some point someone performed an experiment to discvoer that water was really two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.. There was a little explosion, and water remained in the aftermath. Covid was just such a trial, and it revealed, not water but how many Americans live on borrowed financial time, and these are old and young alike. Wherther you are an elderly person living on Social Security alone or a young person, a sjhort order cook whose bar has closed, you are screwed. You were screwed by Covid. This is the foul-tasting water that has remained after the Covid explosion. But it is not young versus old. It is those who have and those who haven’t. Let us, as young and old lalike, try to protect those who haven’t from the cliff’s edge that they have been dwelling on for the longest time; too long. May our individualism never again tempt us to think there is no such thing as society. By “us” I mean youtyh and age alike.
Covid has been the great educator. It can teach us that year of birth does not matter as much as we tought it did. But we will realize this only if leaders lead and followers take time to hear and think. I, your Hopeful Leader, have said my piece. But I must jot be the only one.
Note: Any resemblance between the Hopeful Leader and Tom McBride is entirely a coincidence.
Flus Have Always Been Spanish Tom McBride
Suppose there had been a Marist Mindset List for the college class of 10440. The first item on the List might have been: “The flu has always been Spanish.” College grads in 1940 were born in 1918, the year of the last COVD-19 scale pandemic in the United States. This was not the coronavirus, which had not yet hatched itself.
It was the Spanish Flu.
President Trump has sometimes called COVD-19 the “Chinese virus” because, he says, it came from China. The Spanish flu, though, didn’t come from Spain. It was so-called because when the flu hit Spain, which was not at war (this was the end of World War I), reports of the severity were not censored. Everything was in the open. So when people around the world first heard of this mass malady, it was all about its effects in Spain. Hence: The Spanish Flu.
This is not to say that the flu wasn’t elsewhere, including the United States, where it killed 675,000 of us. But the United States government, fearing negative effects on war morale, censored the reality of the pandemic. It insisted that this was just “an ordinary flu by another name. Nothing to see here, they said. And they threatened to jail anyone who said otherwise.
Another item from the Marist Mindset List for the Class of 1940: “Truth and falsehood have always been arbitrary terms.” This is a direct quote from the official government agency created to keep up American war spirits.
How severe was the Spanish Flu? If you extrapolate from then to today’s world population, you get aroun350 million deaths. At last count fewer than 400,000 had died on on the planet from COVD-19. The current disease would have to kill several hundred times that many in order to match the Spanish Flu. Let’s hope it falls short.
“It’s always been heard to tell white and black soldiers apart.” This could also be an item, a Spanish-flu-related item, from the Mindset List for the class of 1940. As the world was still at war, young soldiers were hit very hard by the flu, and according to some doctors and nurses, they turned so blue that it was impossible to distinguish sometimes between African-American and white soldiers.
The flu’s symptoms were ghastly. Victims bled profusely from the mouth and nose. Fever was sky-high, breathing hard and then impossible. Unlike with COVD-19, which disproportionately affects the elderly, the Spanish Flu struck the younger hardest. Older people had lived long enough to develop partial immunity, it seems, but youth had not.
Was there any treatment for Spanish flu? Again, if we turn to the hypothetical Marist Mindset List: “Enemas, whiskey and blood-letting have always been preferred treatment for slu.” These were common ways to address the disease, and it is no great shock that none of them worked, though whiskey might have at least had a sedative effect.
Enemas would have made dehydration worse, and as for blood-letting, there was already enough of that via the orifices of the face.
Another quote from the Mindset List, Class of 1940, born in 1918: “A Liberty Bond parade has always been deadly.” Because Americans were not told the truth about the Spanish Flu, the city of Philadelphia went ahead with its crowded Liberty Bond Parade in the early fall of 1918. By Christmas, over 14,000 Philadelphians had died of the bug. In effect, Americans were ambushed by the flu. It came along in the spring, receded in the summer, and then saved its worst wave by far for the autumn. And then of course Americans were told that this was all no big deal. The war came first, though by November it had ende
Could this happen today? This is unlikely, given our mass media coverage and social networking. But this was a time before radio or TV or the Internet. News tended to be local, and local governments were keeping mum, too. It was easier to fool the public, which had few resources for comparative information.
As for treatment, in 1918 antibiotics were over twenty-five years in the future. The Spanish Flu, however, was a virus, not a bacterial disease. It was an unusually virulent H1N virus, not treatable then or now by antibiotics. But if the world had had penicillin back then, it might still have saved lives in treating linked bacterial infections arising from the dreaded flu.
The Splanish Flu was far more deadly than COVD-19. Its kills rate was much higher, and in the midst of a world war, where truth is not a big priority, there was little taste for government warnings and widespread social distancing. Such isolation would have saved millions of lives. But it didn’t happen.
Having visited itself on millions and millions, who either died or survived and got immunity, the Spanish Flu finally had no more bodies to swim in. It ddrowned. Americans got back to their lives, never quite having known what hit them until some years later when they began to reflect. But by the fall of 1918, as they saw photos of bit city policemen wearing masks, and high school gyms converted into hospitals, they must have known, at least subconsciously, that this was no garden variety influenza.
Tom McBride is a co-editor of the Marist Mindset List.
- Like Pearl Harbor for their grandparents, and the Kennedy assassination for their parents, 9/11 is an historical event.
- Thumb, jump, and USB flash drives have always pushed floppy disks further into history.
- The primary use of a phone has always been to take pictures.
- The nation’s mantra has always been: “If you see something, say something.”
- The Tech Big Four–Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google — are to them what the Big Three automakers were to their grandparents.
- Their smart pens may write and record faster than they can think.
- Nearly half of their generation is composed of people of color.
- When they pulled themselves up off the floor for the first time, they may have been hanging onto the folks’ brand-new Xbox.
- There have always been indecisive quadrennial debates regarding the future of the Electoral College.
- Oklahoma City has always had a national memorial at its center.
- Self-contained, battery-powered artificial hearts have always been ticking away.
- Because of Richard Reid’s explosive footwear at 30,000 feet, passengers have always had to take off their shoes to slide through security on the ground.
- They are as non-judgmental about sexual orientation as their parents were about smoking pot.
- They have outlived iTunes.
- Heinous, sexually-based offenses have always been investigated by the Special Victims Unit on Law and Order.
- The Mars Odyssey has always been checking out the water supply for their future visits to Mars.
- Snapchat has become their social media app of choice, thus relieving them of the dilemma of whether or not to friend Mom.
- In an unprecedented move, European nations via NATO have always helped to defend the U.S. militarily.
- They may well not have a younger sibling, as the birth rate in the U.S. has been dropping since they were in grammar school.
- PayPal has always been an online option for purchasers.
- They have witnessed two African-American Secretaries of State, the election of a black President, Disney’s first black Princess, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
- As they crawled on the floor, TV headlines began crawling at the bottom of the TV screen.
- “Pink slime” has always been a food additive.
- With flyovers, honor guards, and “God Bless America,” sporting events have always been marked by emphatic patriotism.
- Only two-thirds of this generation identify as exclusively heterosexual.
- Segways have always been trying to revolutionize the way people move.
- YouTube has become the video version of Wikipedia.
- There has always been an International Criminal Court, and the U.S. has never been a signatory.
- Newfoundland and Labrador has always been, officially, Newfoundland-and-Labrador.
- There has always been an American Taliban.
- By their sophomore year, their generation will constitute one-quarter of the U.S. population.
- Apple iPods have always been nostalgic.
- They have always been able to fly Jet Blue, but never Ted and Song.
- Quarterback Troy Aikman has always called the plays live from the press booth.
- It has always been illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving in New York State.
- Except for when he celebrated Jeopardy’s 35th anniversary, Alex Trebek has never had a moustache.
- Face recognition technology has always been used at public events
- Skilled DJs have transitioned into turntablists.
- The Apple Power Mac Cube has always been in a museum.
- The year they were born, the top NBA draft pick came directly out of high school for the first time.
- They have always been concerned about catching the West Nile virus.
- There has always been a DisneySea in Tokyo.
- They have grown up with Big Data and ubiquitous algorithms that know what they want before they do.
- Most of them will rent, not buy, their textbooks.
- They have probably all been “gaslighted” or “ghosted.”
- There have always been “smartwatches.”
- Their grandparents’ classic comics have evolved into graphic novels.
- They have grown up with a Patriot Act that has dramatically increased state surveillance to prevent terrorism.
- Defibrillators have always been so simple to use that they can be installed at home.
- Pittsburgh’s Steelers and Pirates have never played at Three Rivers Stadium.
- Congress has always banned human cloning completely and threatened arrest for offenders.
- At least one of the murderers of the four school girls in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963 has always been in prison.
- Monica and Chandler have always been married on Friends.
- Blackboards have never been dumb.
- A Catholic Pope has always visited a mosque.
- Cal Ripken, Jr., has always been retired.
- The U.S. has always been withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
- Euthanasia has always been legal in the Netherlands.
- Teams have always been engaged in an Amazing Race around the world.
- Coke and Pepsi have always been competing in the sports hydration science marketplac
For more information please call Tom McBride at 608 312 9508 or email Julia Fishman at Julia.Fishman@marist.eu
How To LISTify Your Classroom
7 Lists…7 Tips
The Marist Mindset List is a famed annual event because it supplies a witty and provocative list of items about what has “always” or “never” been true in the lives of entering college students. But the Marist List is much more than a yearly event. Here we offer some teaching tips based on creative uses of—you guessed it—LISTS. Welcome to How to LIST-ify Your Classroom. Lists: They aren’t just for supermarkets or even just for mindsets any more. –T.M. (Contact: Tom.McBride@marist.edu)
List Number 1: The First Day List
We’re so familiar with making a list that we don’t ee its creative potential. To start with, every list has two parts: what’s on it and what’s not on it. Someone once said of a college dean, “He doesn’t have a black list. He just has a list, and you’re either on it or not.” That’s true of all lists: the cucumbers were either on it or not, and if not, why not? Don’t answer that.
So let’s take this principle in the classroom and in life outside it. In the classroom we always start with a list. It’s called a syllabus. It includes some things and excludes others. This is where the teacher starts: She explains what’s on the syllabus and, though less often, shares what’s NOT on the syllabus. And in doing so, in prepping to do so, she clarifies for herself and others what her aims are. She gets a better sense of her focus. “I could have included this, but I didn’t, and here’s why.” This is a great first-day starter in the classroom. The syllabus is presented, and the introduction to the course is about what’s on it but above all what’s NOT on it. Lists are revealing by the contrast between inclusion and exclusion.
Call this THE FIRST DAY LIST. But it could also be called the EXCLUSION LIST, and our point is that the two lists (inclusion/exclusion) shold be one and the same. Meanwhile, in the classroom you can go through the first-day syllabus by explaining what you left OFF and why. It’s a way to focus the course ahead of the weeks to come. Sam Goldwyn: “Include me out.”
You can do this in life, too: whatever the subject, clarify your thinking by making a list and considering what is NOT on it, and why.
And thus endeth the first List.
2: The Tracking List
In our previous episode we covered the exclusion/inclusion principle of lists. Today we consider another aspect of lists: order and ranking. Let’s start with order. In Episode 3 we’ll consider ranking.
Order: When we go to the grocery store we usually make a list based on the layout of the store. The first aisle is the section for vegetables and fruits (also those plastic juice bottles shaped like lemons), so the mangoes and carrots always head the list. Pet food and ice come last, and you can guess why.
This is the law, and order, of our grocery list, at least as long as we keep going to Super Savings Supermarket.
But what about more conceptual lists? Let’s take the art of reading. In the classroom teachers assign readings all the time. Even as you read this, there are millions of people reading their course assignments from Singapore to Greenland. But, if you’re a professor, why just assign readings in literary theory or social sciences? Why not also help your students become better readers at the same time? You can do this… by having them make a list.
How? Well, think of the grocery store layout. After you’ve been to the store a few times you get the lay (and the law) of the aisles and conform your list to it. Have your students consider a reading assignment to be like a trip to the store. Once they’ve finished reading the assignment, or “checked out,” to continue the analogy, ask them to LIST the key ideas of the reading in the orderin which they appear.
So: after your students have finished a reading, ask them to LIST each concept IN THE TIMELINE IN WHICH IT APEARS and thus to map, for themselves, how getting one concept helps them get the next one and so on. This is a wa to get students to see what reading is inseparable from navigating Space-Time.Supermarkets unfold in a certain order and according to certain “laws.” So do many reading assignments, and if they don’t, they’re like grocery stores that make you guess, each time, on which aisle the cooking oil is this time.
We’re sometimes tempted to call these sorts of lists “Law and Order Lists,” but much more encouraging is the label TRACKING LIST. The list in Part 1 was called the First Day List. The Tracking List is different. The First Day List belongs to the teacher. The Tracking List belongs to the students. And once every student has done one, then there’s some gold in the class. Students can consult their own Tracking Lists in order (note that word) to review the reading. They can start making Tracking Lists in the future in order to get a quick sense not only of what they have read but also HOW THEY HAVE READ IT: how a reading instructs them. You as teacher can have students exchange their Tracking Lists as a way of promoting both small-group and larger-group discussions of the reading.
College reading assignments aren’t like the regular layout of the Super Saving Supermarket. Each one is a little different. Butr once students have had a little practice with Tracking Lists, they’ll discover that different reading assignments in a particular field don’t vary all that much in their presentation procedures. Just as the oranges are generally in aisle 1, the thesis is generally on about page 3, or maybe about 7.5 minutes in. Still, results will admittedly vary.
Last of all, this can help professors better choose reading assignments. If such an assignment does not have some discernible law and order to to its mode of presentation, then maybe it should be left off. Exclude a lawless, virtually untrackable, reading.
3: The Ranking List
This is a common use of lists. You can find them easily on the Internet: Top 50 Things You Didn’t Know About Woodstock or Top Ten Blues Radio Stations, and so forth. Nearly everybody likes a Top 10 List. If you’re on Facebook and propose a ranking of horror movies, you nearly always, in our experience, get plenty of comments. Everyone agrees that there ought to be a ranking, if few people concur on what the ranking should be. Should “Psycho” or “Halloween I” be number one? How about “The Town That Dreaded Sundown?”
Ranking Lists in the classroom have multiple uses. Once a course is nearly over, or a section of a course is over, students can rank the readings in various orders: pleasure, clarity, usefulness, and so forth. If the course is a literature course, you could ask students to rank, say, Salinger short stories in order of greatness. The nice thing about Ranking Lists is that first of all, you can do these lists according to many, many caregories (greatness, utilitry, difficulty, etc.); and second, these rankings, once shared, are an effective discussion switch. Ask students to explain and defend their rankings. It’s a means to generate substantive analysis and excitement about a course section, as long as students are required to articulate the rationales for their judgments.
Ranking Lists can be l quirky. You can, outside the classroom, list The Top 10 Movies Set in Winter, and have a parlor discussion (if such still exists), or internet chat, about why you chose which ones in which order (our favorite is GhostStory), and why others did or did not do the same. Or: suppose (back to the classroom again) you are teaching a Shakespeare course. Ask students to list the Top !0 Shakespeare Characters Who Would Have Made a Difference If They’d Been in ANOTHER Play by Shakespeare. Suppose Iago from Othellohad been King Claudius’ number one assistant instead of Polonius (Hamlet). Suppose Hamlet had loved Juliet instead of Romeo. You could ask students to rank these in order of how much difference these transferred characters would have made. It’s an eccentric way to think about the structure and motivations and motifs in Shakespeare’s greatest plays. It’s also a stimulating one.
Or: Ask students at various times to list, in order of most to least important, what they don’t (yet) understand about course contents so far. This can reveal to you, and to them, what they’re still struggling with. Top 10 Things I Still Don’t Get.
At this point we’ll stop. You get the idea. Rankng Lists can be clarifying. They can be fun. They can be creative. You can use them in classroom ways (likely ways that we ourselves have never thought of but that you will) and all sorts of non-classroom ways, too; otherwise known as life.
4: The Always/Never List
These lists can be good for teaching and learning and good therapy for life (“life” is an extra part of this little series, at no extra cost). . What are they?
They are lists of items that describe ongoing ways of life: continuous, daily time with a reliable and repeated set of activities and mentalities. Slighty Quirky Example: Priests in small Middle Western towns in the early 1950s lived a certain way. They did predictable things each day and had immovable assumptions. There were things they “always” did (said mass, listened to confessions) and other things that they “never” did (went to a parish member’s house for dinner more than once a month, rebelled openly against the adamantine housekeepers the parish had provided for them, auctioned off merchandise for sale at parish fund-raisers).d Short stories tend to be perfect illustrations of “Always/Never” Lists, since these stories often begin with “set” ways of life that are about to be interrupted by an unpredictable event that wll form the heart of the short story. (Note: The stories of J.F. Power are good sources of the “always/never” lives of priests.)
Alwayis/Never Lists are useful for describing, in a quick and concise way, the ethos of functional (or dysfunctional) ways of life. The subject of these Lists, whether they are about priests or office workers or the French court prior to the French revolution or nuclear physics labs or McDonalds restaurant staff. is “how they do things.” There may be no rhyme or reason, we may think, for how things are done in these various worlds (or subcultures), but “we do it this way because we always have” often prevails. These worlds, however, may be creative or complacent, productive or, when viewed by the Lister and her readers, ironic.
So how are such Always/Never Lists useful, first of all, in the classroom. Let’s look at possible assignments, such as this one: In this micro-economics course thus far, we have been looking at the economic activities of smaller groups and institutions, and the theories behind these activities. Your assignment: Assume a micro-economic group of one hundred peope, all your age, and write an Always/Never List itemizing what economic activities and mindsets they would ideally do over and over agin in order to make best use of their scarce resources. Limit your List to no more than 25 items, then brief a brief essay of about 1500 words justifying it.
We’re going to stop right there. By now you know what an Alwayis/Never List is; how it captures ongoing, often subcultural, ways of life; and you are innovative enough to know how these sorts of Lists can be used to assign your students’ creative work in sociology, economics, history, literature, and even biology (the always/never behavioral rules for survival of beetles and snail darters).
But we will say one more thing: about Always/Never Lists as therapyi for life itself. Jot down your own personal A/N List and ask yourself: Is my repeated, habitual way of life the optimal one for me? What things that I always do should I do less regularly, and what things that I never do should I start doin
5: The Comparison Shopping List
The Comparison-Shopping List is on the face of it one of the least glamorous of the list genres. It is, as its name implies, a double list (at least), two lists side by side, and what is on the left is compared with what is on the right.
This is the classroom (teaching/learning) version of comparison shopping. In both the commercial and academic versions, one is looking for the better outcome. It could be the best designer beer for the money or the best argument for the available time.
Yet while the Comparison-Shopping List seems obvious, it is probably the most helpful list of all. Benjamin Franklin made it famous in his memoirs when he showed how he made decisions: by listing the pros and cons of every choice, commercial or otherwise, in a list. It helped crystallize and condense his thinking. He thought he had worked all the pros and cons in his head, but once he took quill to Philadelphia fooscap he realized he had not done so. Writing things down has a way of jogging buried memories or liberating latent ideas. And seeing the stark differences in black and white provides an overview that, at once, both hastens and exposes good decision making. You don’t always know what you think until you see what you have to say.
In modern comparison-shopping lists, price is one consideration, but it isn’t the only one. What are the others? List them. In life and in education (isn’t that part of life, too?) one is loking (shopping) for beneficial outcomes. Shopping is a human activity so pervasive that it is scarcely avoidable. Even Cro-Magnons must have done it.
But, you may ask, isn’t the comparison shopping over once the student elects to take the course? How many choices does a student have after that? Plenty, and they are not just confined to class attendance and seating choices. Students are also asked to choose between and among opposing ideas. They are asked to assess these ideas, and to choose which ones to write about. When the student shops for and “buys” the course, the shopping has just started. Yes, students ARE consumers in the sense that smart consumers make informed and reflective decisions.
Whether the professor does it or the student does, listing colliding ideas and arguments about this or that subject is a fine way to map the stuff that a course is all about. Comparison Shopping need not just be a website that contrasts package tours. It can also be a smart board that shows the differences between feminist and non-femknist existentialism or between theoretical and applied quantum physics.
And if a student is browsing for a thesis for a paper. how does she choose which governing proposition will work best for her? Which one does she know the most about? Which one is she most confident of or most comfortable with? Which one would be hardest to find supporting materials for? Suppose she were to list four or five possible theses and then, below each one, list the pros and cons of choosing each one for a paper topic. One thesis might involve hard-to-get sources but it might also be the most interesting and original one? Which should she “buy”? A Comparison -Shopping List, academic version, will help make the choices more lucid.
What the ancient Greeks called “dialectic” is central to teaching and learning. It’s point-counterpoint. In nearly every field, including quantum physics, there are serious disputes about both theory and evidence. Writing these down, whether on the board or on a screen, in Comparison List form does wonders to focus the conflicts and train lights on the controversies.
We urge you to try making a Comparison-Shopping List. It may take a while to get the hang of. Practice in the fine art of them, though, will create incentives to go back to them many more times than once. Meanwhile, remember: KAYAK is just old-fashioned dialectic in digital form.
6: The Connector List
The definition of the Connector List is nearly self-evident: it’s a list where the various items are linked in some way. But every Connector List needs a a definable universe. You can put down on a List that the great ape died in a local zoo and that your great aunt on the same day got a paper cut, but what is the tie between the two? This is the nub of a Connector List: either the definable universe is the basis for the connections, or the discovered connections slowly build up a definable universe. If your great aunt were upset by the great ape’s death, because she had once been his keeper, and in her distraction got a paper cut, then there is a definable universe established by the linkage between death and cut. The great ape and your great aunt live in the same universe. Then, before you know it, you have the basis for a promising Connector List: bonds within the universe of a great ape’s death and the people and things his passing created.
How does this work in the universe of teaching? Here are some possibilities.
First, a student may, in preparing for an exam or just testing her own understanding, put down a diverse data-set from a definable section of a course. We recommend that she do this quickly and with no regard for whether or not the items fit together snugly. Then, after 15 or 20 of these items have been listed, she can go through them and see if she can connect them. If the items seem to be non-linkable, then that may be a sign that understanding is a little thin on the ground. If they seem quite connectable, this is likely a sign of good conceptual comprehension. Or there is a third possibility: that in finding the connections the student comes upon a new and insightful way to review the material. So the possibilities are: I get this; I need to go over this stuff again; or I’ve got some great new ideas.
Second, a teacher can also use a Connector List. The professor can present such a list to the class and ask class members to connect the items. “Here is what seems to be a highly varied data-set of items, but in fact they are linkable by careful attention to the concepts of this course. Can you link them? If not, let’s see what might be going on.”
Both these methods—the study method and the instructional method—revolve around Connector Lists. They have in common: an attempt to link details with principles, specific information with abstract concepts. But within the whole idea of a Connector List is a warning. , for there are two inadequateways to learn a course: One can grasp the major principles but be sorely lacking in supporting details and examples; or one can have a great memory of details but lack a full appreciation of general principles. A wise use of Connector Lists can save one from being either a bull-shiter or a fgrinder. Connector Lists are good ways to increase one’s sense of the concepts while, in working on the connections, the linkages, promote one’s more sophisticated understanding of the nitty-gritty.
Connector Lists dwell within universes of knowledge, and you can build a universe from the top down or the bottom up, but a good student needs skill in both kinds of construction.
Or, to put it another way, one can use a Connector List to be understand a universe of knowledge, or use a Linkage List to build one.
7: The Designer List
The best way to approach a Designer List is by considering that your academic aim, whether a review or a paper or an oral presentation, is a product: a product to be designed.
Let’s start with an analogy and assume that a biological species is a product: one that is built in order to survive and flourish. So what would have to be included in such a product? Several things. The species “product” must be designed in order to acquire and use resources, such as the sun or the soil or other members of the same species or the air or accessible prey. The species product must be designed in order to recognize and escape from predators. And, since there can never be just one member of a species in order for the species to exist at all, the design must also include some way of sexual or asexual reproduction. So a Designer List here would look like this:
Capacity for Use Environmental Resources
Capcity to Recognize and Flee Predators
Capacity to Reproduce
That’s it. A short list. But you’re not done. Now comes the Devil part: the details. For instance, if you are designing what will become a cow you don’t want to give the cow lion’s teeth, because cows need to chew cud and grass. That’s how they get along in their environment. A lion lives in a different setting. A cow should have special awareness of a wolf and seek shelter if possible. A lion can easily defeat a wolf, and the wolf, if there were one, would know it. So a lion needs no special wolf-detection skills. A lion needs speed and power because it stays alive by dealing with prey and predators in the wild. A cow gets by via the supply of milk, so designing the cow to be as scary as the lion would make no sense: no one wants to milk a lion-cow!
So now the Cow Designer List (we’ll exclude the reproduction item in the interest of time) will look different:
Capacity to Use Environmental Resources: Cow
–Offers plentiful supplies of milk
–Easily approached by human milkers
–Particularly good capacity to eat and digest grass
Capacity to Recognize and Escape Predators: Cow
–Special sensitivity to the presence of wolves
–Getting protection from human beings in exchange for milk
Note, too, that there is a functionalrelationship between the two capacities (use of resources, escape from predators) and the structural details that serve those two capacities. And if you follow us this far (can there be any question of that?), you’re now ready to do a Designer List of your own. We’ll give you one big example: An AcademicDesigner List—this is after all about the classroom above all—and then turn you loose to build, following these principles, your own academic list.
We double back to a recent idea: that the purposes of the design, and the accompanying list, is to build a product. A cow is a cow-product. A paper or a presentation or a review session: they are all products. Products are poorly designed or well-designed. We used the example of a cow and a lion, but we could have used the example of a bar of soap or a smart phone. Well, we could have if we knew anything about soap.
So let’s say you are writing a paper. Well, a cow in order to be successful has to have capacities A, B, X, Y, Z, etc. What must you have? Well, you’ll need lots of things, right? You’ll need a broovy intro (one that will draw the reader into your subject); you’ll need a so-what section (why is this important?); you’ll need a thesis, a governing and unifying proposition; you’ll need supporting details; you’ll need a section anticipating criticisms and answering them; and you’ll need a conclusion that mentions some larger implications, even though you’ll say that exploring them is “beyond the scope of the present paper.”
Now that’s 5 or 6 design features. You may not need them all, but you will need most of them. Note that we put these features not in a List but in a left-to-right paragraph. They’re harder to follow that way, so it’s time for a LIST (there’s just something about a List):
And then, of course, as you decorate the Designer List you will write in the functionaldetailsthat serve each feature. Before we leave this section, here are two tips.
First, you may not be able to plot this whole thing out in a fuilly-evolved Designer List right away. You may have to build your List by doing some writing in order to test out what you know and what you think and what you need to bone up on. You should go back to the List as you go, but don’t necessarily expect to construct the finished product right away, top down, and then start to write, command-control, according to it. This, by the way, is also not how the lion and cow got here. They got here using the first method, not the second. Or so the evidence says.
Second, make sure that your details are functionalto each section. Supporting details that underlay your thesis should go in that section and not in the answering-criticisms section; or vice-versa. In other words, don’t give a lion cow’s teeth.
Your turn! Design a great product.
What sorts of Lists hae we left out? Send any comments to Tom.McBride@marist.edu
During the Middle Ages the church would put skulls on bridges in order to remind people that death was near. Time was short, so it behooved those still alive to prepare for their own demise and to get their souls ready so that they would be acceptable in the after-life. One character in a medieval play, Everyman, dawdled. He thought time was long; that he had plenty of time. He learned otherwise and barely got ready for the judgment of Heaven.
In some ways the Marist List is also a memento mori. To be sure, it’s not a skull on a medieval bridge in London or Rome in 1300. But, as our many fans tell us, it does remind older readers that they’re getting along in life; that a great deal has changed in just eighteen years; that as they age, time speeds up and gets shorter and shorter. Older reads say they thought it was just yesterday that Blackberry phones went out of business, when in fact it was nearly twenty years ago. If they extrapolate, they discover that in just another twenty years (“tomorrow”), they’ll be going out of business, too, forever.
Once you realize this truth, you tend to confront what you wil do for the rest of your life. What will you prioritize? What will you give up? How much time do you really want to spend on your smartphone? It’s been said that “each of us lives two lives, and the second life begins when we realize we have only one.”
The Marist Mindset List is an annual reminder that time is brief and passes swiftly. It’s the modern memento mori.