January 01, 2018
Resolved to make notes every day plus find previous notes and post.
No matter how prosaic, every day.
This new years day I worked on my presentation for the Tree Farm Leadership Conference at end of the month. the going is slow. I am making slides for the 50 minute presentation. I have too many things to write and cannot make it fit.
It was very cold today, the kind of day when the wind hurts.
Went to the gym today and ran on the machine for around 30 minutes or 500 calories, while watching “the Great Courses” on Turning Points in Middle Eastern History.
Had Digiorno pizza for both lunch and supper, leftover the second time.
January 01, 2014
Stickin it to the Man
I have been complaining about how independent-minded people cannot get along in the big bureaucratic organizations as long as I have been working in big-bureaucratic organizations. It is getting to thirty years now and I have been getting along reasonable well in big-bureaucratic organizations. For an even longer time, I have been reading books about independent-minded reformers bucking the system to change the paradigms and make meaningful changes.
I always identified with the plucky outsiders. Most of us do. It is the American way. You can easily see it in the plots of so many movies and books. A group of misfits is picked on and oppressed by the powerful and/or popular people. They continue to do things their way and by the end of the movie are vindicated. As I said, most of us identify with the underdogs and misfits.
It can’t be right. There are more than 300 million Americans and ALL of us are rebels? If all of us are a little different and a little rebellious, who are we rebelling against? And if the group of misfits comes out on top, don’t they become the in-group. Maybe it is the nerds and the theater kids oppressing the jocks.
I have been reading another of those business-management-behavior books that gives another set of examples about the rebels working on their own turning the tables on the established and powerful. But, as I wrote, I have been reading these sorts of books for a long time. The names are changed and the exact circumstances are different, but the stories are the same. My study of old books tells me that this story has been going on for as long as people could write. Each of the new renditions makes it seem like it is a new discovery, but maybe this is just the way it is, has been and ever will be.
In my own lifetime, I have seen many of “rebels” turn into the establishment that needs to be overturned by new rebels. These erstwhile rebels in general did not “sell out.” They simply solved the problems presented them. Yesterday’s solutions are often today’s problem, which implies that today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems. This seems depressing at first glance and it could be, but I don’t think it is. It is simply a matter of growth and change.
Many of the problems of my youth have indeed been solved and the world is generally a much better place than it was back in 1973. Our generation actually did pretty well. I have reasonable confidence that it will be a better place in 2053 than it is today, i.e. the kids will be all right too. But people will still complain, because people complain. We can always imagine better.
I have been complaining about how hard it is for independent-minded folks like me to make it in the organization. People like me like to “stick it to the man.” But in the course of all my complaining, suffering and strife, I realize now that I have become the man, or at least one of them. People see me like I saw my bosses of the past. I now understand that my old bosses too were surprised by their own apotheosis or demonization, depending on who was doing the taking and when. These successful folks were – in their own minds – the plucky outsiders who had to push open doors and make the system change. Some were right.
It is a little deflating but nevertheless comforting to realize that we – we plucky outsiders – we are the system, maybe too much to say bricks in the wall but not too much to say links in a chain. It is a great strength of our American system that we can easily absorb good people and ideas from outside the current establishment. We actually live in a state of constant revolution, but w/o the nasty bits associated with those things that happened in France or Russia.
It doesn’t work in spite of us but because of us. We “rebels” sometimes don’t admit it or even see it. The system works with us and we work with it. The energy of our discontent is part of its lifeblood. We never get all we think possible because we can envision better than anyone can achieve and it is a moving target. As soon as we get to a place we thought impossible, we start thinking it is normal, deserved and maybe not enough.
Well, looking around on this first day of 2014, I see that things are pretty good. Can I envision better? Of course I can. Is it better than I envisioned by in 1974? Hell yeah. We solved the energy crisis, brought down world communism, reduced absolute poverty by 80%, cut cancer deaths, greatly improved water and air quality, brought back species such as wolves & eagles; the population bomb fizzled; Lake Erie turned out not to be dead and we even got rid of disco & leisure suits. Those were things I worried about back then, I thought there were no good solutions; fortunately, I was wrong.
And still can stick it to the man. Take a look at this clip.
January 01, 2012
How Violence Has Declined & Why we Didn’t Notice
Stephen Pinker is my favorite living philosopher of society. Some would correct me and say that he is a scientist and not a philosopher, but the two can overlap extensively. With all due respect to the ancient philosophers that I read and loved, many of the questions that perturbed them are now just “simple” matters of science. For example, philosophers argued back and forth for years as to whether humans were “blank slates” influenced only by their environments or whether they were determined by physical or genetic factors. Recent advances in science have made this argument mute.
People are born pre-programed. A variety of talents, abilities, habits are inherited to some extent. On the other hand, within these constraints human behavior and preferences are highly mutable. (Science proved what any perceptive parent of more than one child already knew.) I take this to mean that you can have a lot of freedom to change things if you recognize and work with nature, its gifts and constraints.
That is what I liked about Steven Pinker’s book the Blank Slate when I read it about ten years ago. At first you might feel a little discouraged. Pinker points out that human propensity to violence, intolerance & sloth were bred into us during evolution. Humans of the stone age who didn’t react quickly and violently to threats didn’t usually live long enough to become our ancestors. The good news is that institutions of civilization and social constraints can (and have) made us behave in ways that are – well – more civilized and socially acceptable.
I just started reading Pinker’s recent book, the Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. I suppose that good intellectual rigor would dictate that I actually finish the book before commenting on the ideas, but I have read several reviews and I just finished reading an interview with the author in Veja that got me thinking about this. There is a good recent interview here. The best quick background is Pinker’s TED talk. (BTW – TED lecture are really interesting in general.)
Pinker studied statistics on violent deaths. Of course, there are no statistics on Stone Age people in the actual Stone Age, but it is possible to study more modern Stone Age people. It turns out that murder rates among primitive people about which we have records are astronomical. It is a myth that people were good and later corrupted by civilization. Civilization civilizes, and it is better than the alternative “natural man.”
Historical records are spotty at first, but it is clear that life was much more dangerous and violent in any ancient or medieval period we study. Death was a penalty for all sorts of minor crimes. And was often inflicted in the cruelest way possible. Torture was common. Entertainments were cruel and bloody. But things improved, at least in the west.
Despite the great wars and murder on an industrial scale, the 20th Century has been the least violent in history. Of course, more total numbers of people have been killed, but that is because there are more total people. The proportions are way down.
Most people can vouch for this, if they think about it for even a short time. It is only in recent times that most of the population could expect to live a long-life w/o ever being the victim of the deadly violence that was common to all humankind in the past.
Pinker has to take a lot of crap for pointing out the truth. One reason is simply because most people like to think they live in the most challenging times. Beyond that, we have much better reporting. If a couple people are killed in nasty ways anywhere in the country and increasingly the world, we get graphic and memorable details on the news.
A counterintuitive reason might be that things are actually improving so quickly that it makes the remaining problems seem that much worse. We repent much more sorrowfully the fewer acts of terrible violence because they seem more personal. “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic,” is as quote attributed to Stalin, who understood how to kill individuals and millions. It is nasty, but perhaps accurate. We get inured to lots of violence and more afraid of a little.
Pinker also has to face what we might call the miserly industry. Politicians selling programs and NGOs seeking donations need to paint the in the direst colors. Pinker is a brave man to take this on.
Of course, why violence has declines is important. What goes down in human behavior could go back up. Pinker does not think the explanation is that humans have improved, or human nature has changed. He is too much a scientist to think these things. He does not try to make a comprehensive explanation, but he mentions some possibilities. The first is the rise of stable states. He doesn’t use the word strong, but prefers competent in the sense of keeping order and satisfying the basic needs of its people. Competent states must be strong, but not all strong states are competent. Nazis & communists had strong states.
Another explanation is free trade. In one of the interviews, Pinker quoted that “we can’t bomb the Japanese because they make my minivan.” Free trade goes with communications. The more we see people are being like us, the less likely we can treat them as sub-human.
We may be less violent because there is less incentive. Hunter-gatherers are always ready for violence. They sometimes commit violence because they fear violence from others and sometimes just to rip off their neighbors, which is one reason everybody fears violence from others. War used to be profitable, at least for the winners. Not so much anymore. Finally, there is a prosaic reason of habit. Many of us have lost the habit of using violent solutions.
I don’t think violence or war will ever go away, but we have seen less of it. I have never been a victim of serious violence. I felt it personally when Alex was a hate crime victim. This is the kind of senseless thing you cannot purge. His attackers didn’t know him or try to rob him. They merely acted out of the dark demons of human nature. I saw war in Iraq and like many observers, I was stuck by the banality of violence. I saw violence drop not because of persuasion but mostly because the Marines and our Iraqi allies established predictable order.
Violence and disorder always lurks under our veneer of civilization. The threat never is gone. We have to work all the time to channel the primitive passions and animal desires. I say “channel” not suppress. These impulses are sources of our energy and creativity. The uncivilized human is not evil or sinful, as was widely thought in some religious circles, but neither is there any such thing as a noble savage. Both these notions have caused great misery, as have the ideas that human behavior is determined by genetics or that humans are blank slates on to which society can stamp any design.
Life provides us with a never-ending series of constrained choices. It is certainly not true that anything is possible, but making good choices can expand our contentment as well as our ability to make more good choices. Some human problems are intractable, and some “problems” are not really problems in the sense that they cannot be solved. If we ask the wrong questions, we will come up with the wrong answers. We will never achieve a society where everybody is equal because people are not equal. We will never achieve a society w/o violence because people have propensity to selfishness which sometimes leads to violence.
But if we recognize constraints, we can achieve better results. “Going back” to a more primitive society is not an option. It would add to misery. Life was nasty, brutish and short in earlier periods. Going “forward” to a utopia is also not possible. Life is actually pretty good for most people in our Western market democracies and it is getting better for those in the developing world. Maybe we will just have to manage with what we have.
January 01, 2011
My father subsisted on pea soup and bean soup, more or less, for the last twenty years of his life, those things plus some Polish sausage and almost ripe tomatoes. Making them is easy and cheap. The biggest challenge is remembering to soak the beans/peas overnight. You can use leftover ham as a base, or the parts of the ham that you didn’t want to eat because they were too fat or too hard to pick off the bone. You can see why this is such a wonderful peasant food. It stays good for a long time. In fact, it improves with age. Nothing is wasted. You can also toss in whatever vegetables were laying around. It all turns into a kind of thick gruel that tastes pretty good if you put in a little pepper and salt.
I don’t make these soups as much as I did when I was in college. Back in college pea soup and bean soup were among the foods that had the three attributes I craved: they were cheap, reasonably nutritious and I could make them. That is probably why my father ate them all the time too. But my kids don’t like either, so they cannot form the basis of a family meal. As I recall, I didn’t like them either when I was a kid. I learned to like them when I was in college. No doubt under my father’s influence, I made it from scratch, the less expensive and better way, rather than buying the pre-made stuff in cans.
You can get pea soup at some nice restaurants, but it is kind of a specialty not common most places.
We had ham for supper and we have ham bone left over, so today I made bean soup. In a couple of days, I will make some pea soup with what still will be left of the ham. This week, we will dine like the old man taught me.
Oh yeah, he used to make cabbage soup too. I haven’t made that for a long time. No matter how much of this kind of food you try to eat, you really cannot get fat on it. These kinds of food fill you up before they can fill you out – the original diet food.
January 01, 2009
Unity & Sweet Liberty
We will never again be as united as we were in 1965. It was a time of an unusual confluence of factors. The older generations had the unifying experiences of the Great Depression, New Deal and World War II. Think of what those things did. Millions of young men and women came together in a common cause such as the CCC in the 1930s and the military in the 1940s. Never before and never since have so many people shared such intimate similar life-changing experiences.
They and the younger generation were further tied together (homogenized) by the miracle of television. The limited choice among TV channels ensured that large percentages of the population watched the same things at the same times. (Not many baby boomers know words to the “Star Spangled Banner” but most can sing the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island.”) America had also had successfully digested the waves of immigrations that hit our shores in the early 20th Century. Immigration restrictions and the Great Depression had limited new immigration and so America has a smaller percentage of immigrants among its population than at any other time in its history. Other “unity” things were also strong. Church attendance was very high. Most adult males had connections to the VFW. Membership in industrial and trade unions has never been higher. It seemed a golden age for the “ordinary guy.”
American dominance of the world was unique. We bounced out of the Depression after WWII at a time when most of the other world economies were in ruins. At some points, the U.S. produced around half of ALL the world’s production. Nothing like like that had ever been possible before and is unlikely to ever happen again anywhere. It resulted from the perfect storm of industrialization, depression and war. Communist domination of large parts of the world ensured that many places remained uncompetitive and backward for longer than necessary. Speaking of communism, we cannot forget the Cold War. The threat of nuclear annihilation focused the minds of those generations and facing a benighted, yet dangerous enemy together leads to shared identify.
When we look back at the two decades after WWII, we sometimes see stifling conformity and we unavoidably cast our glance forward to the divisive and challenging times to come. But we still look l back to the lost feelings of comfort and community and imagine how we could recreate it along with today’s diversity and options for individual expression. This is an impossible dream.
Above is Union Station in Washington DC. Such self-conscious permanence in public building is less common now.
First of all, the conditions that created the post-war unity were unique. They cannot be recreated and nobody would advocate going through the suffering of depression, war and totalitarian threats to try to foster the preconditions. Periods of growth following challenging ordeals are often pleasant, but you might not want to throw yourself into a pool of ice water just to feel the pleasure of warming up again.
But most important is that we don’t want it. Unity and diversity are both good things, but they are in tension. As in those economics curves, there is a point where you can maximize both, but you do have to trade them off against each other. We have chosen less unity than we used to want back in 1965. This has implications.
More choice creates more innovation and economic growth. But making reasonable predictions about the future becomes harder. It also complicates provision of insurance & welfare benefits, as diversity lessens trust. In a homogenous community, people understand each other. Homogeneous communities are also usually relatively small, so people can monitor and balance abuses. They are reasonably certain that their social outlays are, if not well spent, at least decently targeted. It is no coincidence that the most successful welfare states are/were in homogeneous Scandinavian countries and that they have begun to breakdown in the face of globalization and immigration of new and different people.
Talking about a “caring” (i.e. one that takes care of you as an individual) government in a place as big and diverse as the U.S. is an oxymoron. We gave that possibility up long ago and we should stop pretending that is what we want. Our choices have made that impossible. What we have demonstrated we want through the choices we have made is a government that ensures reasonable justice and the rule of law, provides for the common defense and provides options. If you want to put this into more beautiful language you might say, “… in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity …” it is astonishing how long that formula has remained viable.
So in this new year when it looks like we will be asking a lot from our government, we should pause to remember that we should not ask too much, and it is not only because we should ask not what our country can do for us, but ask what we can do for our country. Let’s not grab for that remembered unity that we never can recreate or ask for guarantees of prosperity that nobody can provide. If you give government the power to grant all your wishes, you also give it the power to take them away. It is tempting to trade liberty for security, but w/o liberty sustained security is impossible.