Sunday, July 18, 2004

People and power - two passages I noticed today

L E Modesitt Jr., The Ecolitan Operation, Chapter IV:
A man who believes in nothing will support the status quo, not oppose it.
A man who believes in himself first can be trained to support his society.
The true believer will place his ideals above action, because no action can attain the perfection of his ideals.
These are the people who compose most of society.

Mark Bowden, Tales of the the Tyrant, Atlantic Monthly, May 2002, reprinted in The Best American Non-required Reading, 2003:
A young man without power or money is completely free. He has nothing, but he also has everything. He can travel, he can drift. He can make new acquaintances every day, and try to soak up the infinite variety of life. He can seduce and be seduced, start an enterprise and abandon it, join an army or flee a nation, fight to preserve an existing system or plot a revolution. He can reinvent himself daily, according to the discoveries he makes about the world and himself. But if he prospers through the choices he makes, if he acquires a wife, children, wealth, land, and power, his options gradually and inevitably diminish. Responsibility and commitment limit his moves. One might think that the powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest.

Red squirrel

I saw a red squirrel in the park beside the Aachen casino a week ago.  It was more brown than red. I did a double take, and wrote in my mind the sentence, "I'm seeing a red squirrel. I thought they were extinct, out-competed by the grays.  It's small."
It was on the ground in front of the trees in a clearing, moving right.  Seeing a unicorn would've been scarcely less surprising. I didn't think I'd ever see a red squirrel, except in popular science stories about population dynamics. I wasn't sure what I was seeing, but I looked, and it was a squirrel, and more red than gray.
It startled away.  Though - it was so far away that it perhaps didn't even see me.  Seeing a red squirrel was a surprise for me, but seeing another human could be no surprise to it.  It's existence was a surprise to me, but not to it.
It must've moved into the green, but I didn't see it go.  My memory had fixed the moment, and my mind was thinking harder than my eyes were looking.  I stopped seeing it before it disappeared.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Too soon old, too slow wise

My father used to say, "Too soon old, too late smart." The trouble is that the evidence suggests that we get dumber as we age, not smarter (Over 30 and over the hill, The Economist, June 26th 2004, p60).

Our numerical and reasoning abilities are said to peak in our 20s and early 30s; the only abilities that get better with over time are knowledge-related ones like verbal fluency, which peaks in the early 50s (Age and individual productivity: a literature survey, Vegard Skirbekk, 2003). After that, its all downhill, at least as far as job performance is concerned.

The Sixties saying, "Don't trust anyone over thirty" may need to be recast as, "I'm smarter than anyone over thirty."

The only hope is that wisdom grows as rapidly as cognitive ability declines, or, with luck, a little quicker. If it doesn't, the kids might as well drop us oldies off at the water hole as lion bait and move on.

Garrison Keillor gets to the point: "Age does not always bring wisdom. Sometimes age comes alone."

Here, kitty kitty kitty...

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Forget about the raise, just get more sex

Cornell University Professor Robert Frank, cited in a Reuters story on the price of happiness that Tren Griffin pointed me to, says a majority of Americans, asked whether they would rather earn $110,000 while everyone else earned $200,000, or earn $100,000 while everyone else earned $85,000, chose option B.

In a recent memo to clients, strategist James Montier noted that, "Since the 1950s, people's happiness levels have been remarkably constant despite a massive growth in income-per-head over the same time horizon." Among the top 10 generators of happiness, alongside sleep, exercise and enjoying the moment, was sex. Economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of Warwick University studied 16,000 Americans and calculated that going from having sex monthly to weekly gave about the same happiness as a $50,000 raise.

Happiness, according to this kind of analysis, amounts to comparing yourself to people who are less well off than you. This ought not to hard, since there are so many ways in which people are different - surely there will be at least one way you're better off than any person you might pick. It doesn't work, of course; if it did, we'd all simply be happy, and consultants wouldn't make money writing inspirational memos and selling Happiness courses.

The catch? We're status-crazy little monkeys; for social animals, climbing the ladder is the key to having more offspring. There's also the gotcha that what we're good at, and what we want to be good at, are so often different things. It's in our nature to be dissatisfied.

The dissatisfaction is rooted in not having what we want. As Robert Schenck points out on Ingrimayne, there are two ways to solve the problem of scarcity: the utopian approach, which assumes abundance, and the way of the Buddha, which is to eliminate want. Westerners seem incurable utopians, especially Americans, and especially Americans in the IT industry (some keep betting on Moore's Law, and others assume that free software for all will solve all problems). I'm too cynical to be a utopian, and too unenlightened to be a Buddhist.

Which takes us back to sleep, exercise and enjoying the moment. Oh yes, and sex.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

On not being able to deal with strangers

I've just read a novel in two days, which is notable in three respects: it was a novel, I read the whole thing, and it only took two days.

I struggle with novels; they cut too close to the bone. I feel them too deeply, so I shy away from them. I'm much happier reading New Scientist, or history, or the Economist - not too different, in many ways, from Christopher John Francis Boone.

Christopher John Francis Boone is the narrator of "The curious incident of the dog in the night-time" by Mark Haddon. He's an autistic boy who's brilliant at mathematics and who cannot bear to be with strangers. He's fascinated by science, he dislikes the colors yellow and brown, he knows every prime number up to 7,057, he screams if people touch him, and he feels most comfortable wedged into small spaces.

I'm not autistic. However, I do have a Y chromosome. I prefer my own company to crowds. Just this week-end, a friend of S. has come up from LA visit her. S. clearly enjoys being with her. I can be sociable and chat happily along. But when I had the opportunity to go along on an expedition to Port with them, I opted to stay at home on my own.

Autistic people - boys, mostly; that Y chromosome again, or perhaps the single X - struggle to cope with sensory overload, particularly social overload. I don't experience this remotely as severely as Christopher Boone, and I'm not remotely as good at maths as he is. Still, I felt a kinship. We probably all feel like he does some of the time; if we didn't, Haddon's novel couldn't've been written, and wouldn't've been published.