A comparisons test that most people flunk

February 5th, 2010

One of the worst things my current Boss ever said to me was “The best thing you have going for you is that you are such a gosh darn likable guy.” It is a lie of course. And what’s worse, it is a lie that my boss believes. Worse yet, he believes it in part because I sometimes deliberately foster the illusion that I am a likable guy.

At some point in my life, I learned that it was advantageous to make people believe that I was a likable guy. I learned that was the way for me to get ahead in life with the least effort. And I am by nature a lazy man.

Ironically, it is because of my laziness that relatively few people who have been around me for any length of time are under any illusions about how likable I am. It takes effort to disguise one’s true nature and I don’t like to put out effort for long. Indeed, for many people, I never even bother trying to make the effort. So my true nature quickly becomes apparent.

But my boss is not a very perceptive man. I don’t know how many years it would take for him to truly know me. I suspect that it might be impossible for him to ever understand me.

The ironic thing about this is that he is truly a likable man. He does not have mean bone in his body. Especially in comparison to me. But fewer people like him than like me because he does not understand people. This means that my boss cannot fake being something that he is not. And very few people like someone who is real all the time.

And for that reason, I don’t have much regard for what people like.

What I have been reading

February 4th, 2010

I have known for a long time that nobody really understands water. It pleases some evil part of me that something as common as water has stumped the best minds of men for so long. That confusion may or may not be over. Time will tell. But I still learned a lot I did not know about water’s weirdness from this article.

Speaking of water, it is now being blamed for 30% of Global Warming. Maybe this new bit of info will take some of the blame off the cows.

But my reading has not all centered around high minded things like water. I have also been following dark and mundane things like the rank fear that has been emanating out of Europe. It has gotten so bad that Hungary’s Minister of Finance is responding in full force to blog posts by Edward Hugh. Nothing against Edward Hugh, but when your country’s Minister of Finance fells compelled to address his arguments, you have serious problems. But as this Guardian article reminds us, Europe’s current problems are nothing considering what they are going to face.

Speaking of reading dark things, I have got some books by Gene Wolfe out of the library. I have seen his name splashed around here and there. But I don’t have much use for fiction these days. In spite of this, I was intrigued by the Wikipedia article about him. There was a lot of things that intrigued me. But they are all summed up in the first two lines…

Gene Wolfe (born May 7, 1931) is an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith, to which he converted after marrying a Catholic.

I don’t think I would have given the “dense, allusive prose” a second thought if had been for the part about being a Catholic. Something about the Catholic faith seems to be good at creating or attracting people who really get metaphor and symbolism. It will be interesting to see if Gene Wolfe falls into the same category or not.

They Could Come Back

February 2nd, 2010

Sixty seven years ago today, the German army surrendered to the Russian army at Stalingrad. That is still within living memory. But it might as well have been thousands of years ago.

Just about everyone pays lip service to that era. Some people even read about it. But who really thinks about that time long ago?

To think about it is to become depressed. It is to become afraid. Those are all unpleasant emotions. So no one really thinks about the German invasion of Russia.

The Germans could have won. Simply not invading Yugoslavia could have won the war for them. Many things could have won the war for them. That is a depressing thought.

What is even worse is who was fighting. You had Stalin on one side and Hitler on the other. The shear scale of what each man did boggles the mind. And it is hardly a great thing that Stalin won this particular conflict. He would go on to do many more horrible things. Any victory that left him in power could hardly be called a good thing. At best, it can be called the least bad outcome.

These are things that everyone knows. That is why nobody thinks about them.

To think about them is to realize that in seventy years the human race has not changed. What has been, could be again. And that is both scary and depressing.

A Silly Dream

January 31st, 2010

If we are smart, we keep most of our hopes and dreams to ourselves. Most of what we want is just plain stupid. And if we got it, we would find out that it is not what we wanted anyway.

That’s two good reasons to keep one’s mouth shout. Nobody needs to make themselves look like any more of a fool than they already appear to be without confessing to silly stuff. And if by chance some other fool actually listened to you and made your dreams come true, you would have to hate him for destroying your dream by giving you the reality. Since it is not good to hate, that would be a bad thing.

Having said all that, I do have a silly dream that I would like to confess. It’s a small and not very important one, so hopefully I wouldn’t hate anyone too bad if they go and make it come true.

My silly wish is that somebody would write a well-written and honest memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household and staying a fundamentalist Christian for rest of their lives. Or it can be a novel. I am not fussy about whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I just want it to be honest and well written.

After all, there are all sorts of novels, essays, and memoirs written by people who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household but then saw the light and became a rational atheist/agnostic/whatever. Many of these are well written and they should be more widely read then they are (especially by fundamentalist Christians). Still, it would be nice to have the other side of the story told.

Of course, there are various “How I stopped being evil and became good” stories dating all the way back to Augustine’s Confessions. Notwithstanding my cynical characterization of them, some of these are quite good as well. But they are not really about being a fundamentalist Christian. Rather, they are all about their past life and why they made the change.

What I really have in mind is a novel like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or a memoir like one of the many excellent memoirs of growing up black in the south (I have read a number of them but my mind is drawing a blank for a title right at this moment). Something that is honest and not shallow. Something that is about the problems and struggles of those who were both raised and stayed fundamentalist Christians.

Speaking or keeping silent

January 29th, 2010

The difference between what you want to say and what you do say can be a lot of things. It can be hypocrisy or it can be good manners. It can be cowardice or it can be refusing to cast your pearls before swine.

I am prone to bad manners and I am prone to being a coward. But I am also prone to being a hypocrite and to throwing my pearls before swine whenever I get the chance. I suspect that whichever choice I make, I make it for the wrong reasons and thus do the wrong thing.

Of course, feelings and suspicions are bad reasons for judging one’s own actions. I would like to have a purely empirical answer to which choice to make. And from a purely empirical point of view, it would seem that I should never say what I want to say.

I can’t think of a single time where saying what I wanted to say was beneficial to anyone. On the flip side of that, I don’t have any lasting regrets about keeping my mouth shut. Not saying anything never seems to cause any harm.

But if we stay with the purely empirical point of view, it is obvious that I can’t avoid saying what I want to say for any length of time. That is to say, I can resist the temptation to say what I want to say once. I can resist the temptation twice. Often, I can resist it for a number of times.

Yet in the end, I am always going to say it. And I don’t say it very well. One might be tempted to argue that I should let it out sooner. But empirically speaking, it does not seem to matter if it is sooner or later. It all comes out just as bad regardless.

Having said that, on purely empirical grounds I am still forced to conclude that I should never say what I want to say. The impulse to say those things is a character flaw that I should strive with all my might to avoid.

But I don’t decide these things on purely empirical grounds. There is also theoretical issues to consider.

For example, one has to wonder if it is really beneficial to have constant contact with someone and yet never say what is really on your mind. I will probably never get to find out, as it is impossible for me to imagine myself in this situation long enough to get any kind of empirical answer.

But I can observe people who do seem to be able to go through life and still keep their opinions to themselves even with those they come into contact with everyday. And I can say that I don’t like what I see. “Fake” and “Shallow” are some of the kinder words that come to my mind.

Strictly speaking, this not really an empirical observation. I mean, it is empirical in so far as it reflects my feelings based on my observations. But I don’t really know that it would make things better if those people would speak their minds. I certainly could not prove it based on my own experience.

And that is the nub of my problem. I cannot make myself believe that keeping silent is a good course of action with anyone that you have repeated contact with. Such an idea just does not fit with my theoretical ideas about how the world works and how relationships should work. On the other hand, when I never see anything good come of speaking, it makes me despair of ever wanting to talk.

Why this big blind spot?

January 27th, 2010

What is politically correct speech?

In a nut shell, politically correct speech is speech that puts the feelings of those listening above all other considerations. The “all other considerations” covers most of the things that used to be considered the bedrocks of good speech. For example, clarity is a famous victim of political correctness. There are many other things that we could list as well. But the bottom line is that politically correct speech is so often bad speech because it places feelings above all else.

Now, I don’t need to belabor this point. PC speech is routinely bashed by all sorts of people. But one thing that is not mentioned very often is how this focus on feelings is a natural outgrowth of how people are taught to read.

Granted, you could have a long argument over which is the chicken and which is the egg is this particular case. I would argue that they both spring from a similar root cause and mutually reinforce one another.

But whether that is true or not does not really matter. The important thing is that if you can understand how PC speech is bad, you ought to be able to understand why the modern method of reading is so detrimental to everyone involved.

Yet with all the people who complain about PC speech, you would be hard pressed to find people who are complaining about how kids are taught to read.

Why this big blind spot?

Learning to be blind

January 26th, 2010

Yesterday’s thought was unfinished and badly written, to boot. It was unfinished by necessity. A full exploration of the idea would require an essay at the very least. And it was badly written because I was tired.

Being tired is also why I wrote about a subject that I could not possibly do justice to in a blog post. When I am tired, I don’t have the energy to come up with a new thought. So I had to spit out one that I was actually thinking about during the day even though I knew I could not possibly do it justice.

But even granting that I can’t do these thoughts justice with blog posts, I still would like to poke at the subject a little more. However, I shall endeavor to do so in a more readable way then I did yesterday.

For today, I shall limit my observations to sketching out what is wrong with the modern way of reading.

The first problem with the modern way of reading is its obsession with how the material in question makes the reader “feel.” People have a natural weakness to value how they feel more highly than they ought, in any case. But this is exacerbated by the fact that modern teachers actively teach their students to obsess about how they feel. I have heard enough first hand accounts of college professors asking their students to explore how a written work makes them “feel” to believe that such teachers are now the rule rather than the exception. This ought to be a national scandal.

The problem with focusing on how you “feel” when you read something should be obvious. If you were talking to somebody who was focused on how your words made them feel as opposed to what you where trying to convey to them, you would think that they were not very good listeners.

And you would be right. A good listener is focused on the person that he is listening to, not on himself. The same is true for a good reader. By teaching people who read things to think about how they feel, teachers are teaching their students to be blind. And people don’t need any help learning to be blind.

The second problem with the modern way of reading is more scholarly and it is a little hard to articulate. Basically, it boils down to an obsession with demonstrating one’s superiority to the author of the work that you are reading. It typically involves “deconstructing” a written work to show what is “really” true about the work. Usually this involves relating everything to the author’s gender/race/economic station. But sometimes it also involves type casting the author by his place in time (i.e. people of this time period believed this, and thus the author is a helpless captive of those thoughts). It is analogous to somebody telling you why you “really” think as you do without paying any attention to your own explanation for why you think as you do.

This mindset was captured in by J. R. R. Tolkien in “Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics” when he wrote…

“I would express the whole industry in yet another allegory. A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.”

Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics was J. R. R. Tolkien’s only noteworthy contribution to the scholarly literature of his field. In it, he revolutionized the commonly accepted ideas that the scholars of his time had about the ancient poem Beowulf. And he accomplished that by simply taking Beowulf seriously as the expression of one man’s artistic vision.

Scholars previous to Tolkien had been obsessed with what was real about Beowulf. They tried to figure out what parts of Beowulf were newer and what parts were older. They tried to figure out how the older stuff was distorted. But they never put much effort into figuring out what the man who wrote Beowulf as we have it today was trying to convey.

The reason for this oversight was that they started their readings of Beowulf with the idea that they were superior to the author who wrote it. Thus, they focused their efforts on proving that they were smart enough to figure out which parts of Beowulf were “stolen” from earlier sources and as a result they failed to understand why the author used those earlier sources in the way that he did.

This is a common problem of modern “professional” readers (i.e. English professors and the like). They don’t try to understand what the author was trying to say. Rather, they focus their efforts on “explaining” what the author did not know about himself. From this arrogant starting point come the attempts to relate all aspects of an author to gender, race, or economic background. In doing so, they turn all authors into stereotypes and projections of their own ideas about people.

Basically, this is just a more sophisticated way of focusing on how a written work makes them “feel”. And its effects are the same. They teach themselves to be blind.

A half finished thought

January 25th, 2010

I have this weird wish to inflict books that I have liked on other people. This is a not very logical wish. Why should people like what I like? And more to the point, what difference does it make if other people have read what I have read?

I think that one of the wellsprings of this desire springs from a desire to communicate. Nothing makes communication easier then a shared body of literature that both parties have read. One only has to make a sly allusion or a half mangled quote and instantly a complex idea has been communicated with little effort. This is a great boon to those of us who are not very good at verbal communication.

Sadly, we seem to be losing our understanding of how valuable a shared body of literature can be. Part of this is because nobody reads anymore. But even those who do read and those who are supposedly teaching people how to read no longer even think of literature as something that helps one understand and communicate with others. Instead, reading has come to be a totally narcissistic act. We read and we are taught to read totally to benefit ourselves.

It was not always thus. To be classically educated meant to be familiar with the classical literature. To be familiar with classical literature was to facilitate communication with others who were classically educated. This in turn enabled the classically educated man to develop a broad range of knowledge and develop strong critical thinking skills that put most people educated in the “scientific way” (for lack of a better term) to shame.

This is because to be able to effectively communicate is a key skill to being able to learn. That is to say, if you can’t understand other people, you are not going to learn much. If you can’t communicate your ideas to other people, they are not going to be improved much.

A snap shot of China’s future

January 23rd, 2010

Some times it is hard to conceive of the changes that are going to take place in the near future. And I am not talking about all the things that we don’t know about. I am talking about the changes that we do know about.

This is not a new thought for me. But it was brought to mind by this quote….

First, the consistently low birth rate since the 1990s will cause a noticeable contraction in newly available labor. The section of the population between 20 and 24 years of age will decrease sharply from 125 million in 2010 to just 68 million in 2020, a 50 percent decline in only 10 years.

This is not a prediction. It is a statement of fact. The people who will be between 20 and 24 in 10 years have already been born. There is an outside chance that some disaster could happen to make the next decade’s number of 20-24 year old smaller then predicted. But there is no way to make that number larger.

Yet even though that number is absolutely certain (as an upward bound at least), few people seem accept the vast change that sharp drop in numbers is going to represent for China. It is hard to even wrap one’s mind around a change in population that sudden and dramatic.

Still, one would think that people would at least try to take those facts into account. But most projections of China’s future totally ignore the sea change that is going to take place in China.

No Fun

January 21st, 2010

Today I did a little bit of what I like to do best. Organize a tea party. Or throw a rodeo, if you prefer that term.

A rodeo is much more entertaining. But it is usually the result of a a tea party gone bad, and as such it generally reflects badly on the person who tried to organize it. So when I am organizing things I strive for a tea party, and when I am not I hope for a rodeo.

Unfortunately, my efforts at working out a plan for attack were all for naught.

I was told that insulated pool cover that I was getting (one of my energy saving projects) was going to weigh in at close to 400 pounds. Getting 400 pounds to the in ground pool would be a mildly interesting challenge given the poor access to the pool (at least, poor access if you are moving big heavy objects).

Sadly, they shipped the pool cover as two separate rolls. As such, I could move them to the pool by myself with the appropriate flat moving cart and a truck with a lift gate.

I am not going to do that, though. In the first place, it would give some people I won’t name a stroke if I did that. And in the second place, I arranged for enough men and machines to move a small mountain before I saw that they where two separate rolls. So it is a little late to tell everybody I don’t need them.

Oh, well.

I have been so bored lately, and I was looking for some fun.