Monthly Archives: September 2010

Last Words of the Day

In a profile of Roald Dahl, author of The BFG (one of my favorite stories of youth), there's this note on his last words before death:

The endings of Dahl’s stories are almost always surprising, even when we know the twist is coming. This talent, it turns out, applied equally to the author’s own life. In a hospital, surrounded by family, Dahl reassured everyone, sweetly, that he wasn’t afraid of death. “It’s just that I will miss you all so much,” he said—the perfect final words. Then, as everyone sat quietly around him, a nurse pricked him with a needle, and he said his actual last words: “Ow, fuck!”

Wonderful. (Thanks to Chris Yeh for the pointer.)

Speaking of last words, look at the power editors wield. The New Yorker's truly moving piece on the (apparently unjust) execution of Cameron Willingham closes with Willingham's last words:

The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne.

Except those weren't all of his last words. His full statement made a couple references to his ex-wife:

Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man-convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return-so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. I hope you rot in hell, bitch; I hope you fucking rot in hell, bitch. You bitch; I hope you fucking rot, cunt. That is it.

“I Know What It’s Like to Feel Thirsty”

This two minute clip from White Men Can't Jump is the best relationship advice for men from any movie, according to Brad Feld.

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Speaking of movies, I watched The Maid recently, a Chilean movie about one family's relationship with their maid. Excellent and highly recommended for anyone interested in the delicate dynamics of an outsider in the house, and especially recommended for those with experience living or traveling in Latin America. Finally, I recently re-discovered Alec Baldwin's famous scene on The Art of Selling from Glengarry Glen Ross. Awesome.

Book Review: The Element

A few years ago Ken Robinson’s TED talk about creativity and education circulated around the web. I watched it and loved it and bought his book called The Element: Why Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

The main point of the book is that each of us has a talent that we need to “discover.” If we discover our passion, happiness and success will be ours. His second point is that the formal schooling system prevents people from finding their passion. Schools drain kids of their natural creativity and talents.

On his first point, there is no discussion of developing a talent through practice and hard work. The focus is almost exclusively on finding. “She just needed to be who she really was” is a sentence from the book and a theme that repeats itself throughout. This is a view held by many people. A rebuke can be found on Cal Newport’s blog.

On his second point, about how schools squash creativity, he is more convincing. He discusses the problems in school curriculums. He talks about overly narrow measurements of intelligence. He presents a host of examples of folks who were told by teachers (or “the system”) that they wouldn’t amount to anything — folks like Paul McCartney or Gillian Lynne, the all-star musical theater producer. Lynne was almost medicated for ADHD until one wise specialist saw Lynne moving her feet to music; she was a dancer. Robinson doesn’t offer many specific, practical prescriptions for how to change schools to embrace rather than shun someone like Lynne, other than that arts programs should receive more funding and priority than they currently do.

The writing itself is clunky and cliche-ridden. In his TED talk, Robinson comes off as jokey and spontaneous. The book has none of that. Also, the title of the book causes confusion. “The Element” gets defined in various ways. I have a feeling that the book was titled something else, and in the late stages their publisher wanted a catchy one-word title, so they retroactively tried to insert references to Element.

All in all, this book disappointed me. We are still waiting for a book that gives passion the complicated treatment it deserves, above and beyond the easy advice to go “find” your talent. We are still waiting for a book that goes beyond diagnosing the education system as inadequate and rather dives into the practical challenges and approaches to changing it. Nevertheless, I support Robinson’s work in general and I hope he continues to deliver rousing public speeches that get more people thinking about these topics.

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My favorite sentences / excerpts from the book are below. All direct quotes.

Ask a class of first graders which of them thinks they’re creative and they’ll all put their hands up. Ask a group of college seniors this same question and most of them won’t. I believe passionately that we are all born with tremendous natural capacities, and that we lose touch with many of them as we spend more time in the world. Ironically, one of the main reasons this happens is education.

Another thing I do when I speak to groups is to ask people to rate their intelligence on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 being the top. Typically, one or two people will rate themselves a 10. When these people raise their hands, I suggest that they go home; they have more important things to do than listen to me. Beyond this, I’ll get a sprinkling of 9s and a heavier concentration of 8s. Invariably, though, the bulk of any audience puts itself at 7 or 6. The responses decline from there, though I admit I never actually complete the survey. I stop at 2, preferring to save anyone who would actually claim an intelligence level of 1 the embarrassment of acknowledging it in public. Why do I always get the bell-shaped curve? I believe it is because we’ve come to take for granted certain ideas about intelligence.

How are you intelligent? Knowing that intelligence is diverse, dynamic, and distinctive allows you to address that question in new ways.

I think it is because most people believe that intelligence and creativity are entirely different things—that we can be very intelligent and not very creative or very creative and not very intelligent.

Creativity is very much like literacy. We take it for granted that nearly everybody can learn to read and write. If a person can’t read or write, you don’t assume that this person is incapable of it, just that he or she hasn’t learned how to do it. The same is true of creativity.

So my initial definition of imagination is “the power to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses.”

My definition of creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value.”

You can think of creativity as applied imagination.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind. . . . If you change your mind, you can change your life.”

But good and bad things happen to all of us. It’s not what happens to us that makes the difference in our lives. What makes the difference is our attitude toward what happens.

Earlier, I argued that we don’t see the world directly. We perceive it through frameworks of ideas and beliefs, which act as filters on what we see and how we see it. Some of these ideas enter our consciousness so deeply that we’re not even aware of them. They strike us as simple common sense. They often show up, though, in the metaphors and images we use to think about ourselves and about the world around us.

Three More Litmus Tests

One way you quickly learn about a person is by obtaining a small, easy piece of information that tends to suggest a larger, more complicated trait.

For example, I’ve found that if someone blogs or reads blogs regularly, they are almost always above-average interesting. Litmus tests of this sort are especially helpful when reality collides with someone’s aspirational identity — situations where self-delusion dominates direct answers. If you ask someone, “Are you okay being alone?” most people will say, “Yes.” If you ask, “Are you concerned with how strangers might perceive and judge you?” Most people will say, “Not at all — I’m independent.” But then you might ask, “Do you mind eating at a restaurant alone?” Ah-ha! (Admittedly, there are obvious limits to these things.)

Here are three litmus tests I heard from other people which I found interesting:

1. In how much detail do you plan vacations?

Some people plan their vacations / adventure travel in hourly detail and book all hotels and flights in advance. Others book one roundtrip flight and figure out all the details once on the ground. Where you fall on this question is supposed to reveal whether you are a need-to-be-in-control planner or flexible and adaptable.

2. Do you like sharing your food and tasting others’ food at a meal?

If someone offers you food off their plate to try, do you tend to take it? This is supposed to reveal whether you appreciate diversity and are inclined toward experimentation.

3. Were you popular in high school?

High school is an awkward experience for many teenagers still trying to find themselves. Unless you’re a stunningly beautiful girl or a star athlete guy, to become popular in the treacherous hallways of high school requires strict fidelity to the moving target of what’s cool. If you were popular in high school, you probably took the easy path of conformity rather than the hard path of self-discovery. Or at least that’s my sense of what this litmus test implies.

All seem relatively reasonable, though I see myself as the exception to the first two. I happen to plan my trips more than most but I am also quite adaptable, or so I think. I’m not keen on sharing food at a meal because once a plate of food arrives I’m firmly focused on getting the job done sin ayuda. Yet I still see myself as highly experimental and appreciative of new experience.

It does seem generally true that popularity in high school is negatively correlated with intelligence and independent thinking. As far as I can tell, the only girls who are popular in high school are either really attractive or backstabbing mean girls. However, high school popularity for both genders seems positively correlated with networking and communication skills.

The comments in my post on litmus tests three years ago had some interesting other examples.

Feeling More Awake Than You Have Ever Felt

Jay Kirk's good travel essay on Rwanda last year in GQ captured one hard-to-describe benefit of traveling:

…There is no other place on earth where you can visit mountain gorillas one day, discover the true cosmic dimensions of the banana the next, feel haunted and overwhelmed and harrowed to your very brink, and for the same price of admission, feel more awake than you have ever felt.

Maybe it’s the cold bucket of history over the head. Maybe it’s the collective effort of everyone around you to stay conscious, the shocked look of so many people who are still just waking up from the worst nightmare of their lives to realize that, yes, it was all for real. And while it’s true that you may question whether or not you were fully awake before you got here, you will also probably spend an inordinate amount of time trying to lull yourself back to sleep, wherever you can find alcohol, because part of you will realize that being awake, really awake—well, it’s just not in your nature. That is, if you’re like me and you hail from the land of the Xbox, and you’ve become accustomed to—even begun to desire—the substitution of the virtual for the real, you probably prefer the dream to the directly experienced. But no matter how stuck you are in your digital simulator, however “experientially avoidant” you may be (as I was recently diagnosed by a cognitive-behavioral therapist), you will not remain immune to this odd sensation of waking up in Rwanda to discover, however disconcertingly at first, that not only do you have hair growing out of your arms, but your body also appears to possess these extra dimensions you had not taken into account of late. That you have been going around for some time a mere half-awake version of yourself. Just as you now realize that all along you’ve been eating these things that bear only a half-awake resemblance to a banana. And this is because, in Rwanda, a banana possesses at least seven dimensions, whereas in America, like most everything else, you get two at best.

The reason why travel is exhausting is because hyperawareness of surroundings and self is exhausting — and that's the mode you fall into when traversing foreign lands.

I loved the opening of the article:

On our seventh day in Rwanda…on yet another devastated dirt road winding through yet another breathtaking landscape, Darren informed us that the hair on his arms appeared to be growing much more quickly than usual. Not an alarming rate, but still, more growth than he'd ever noticed back in Los Angeles.

He put an arm between the front seats of the Land Rover so we could see for ourselves. Ernest and I agreed: His arms looked ape-y. One expected to be changed by travel; one looked for little symptoms in oneself, signs of alteration, but did this count as a valid transformation?

Ernest had never heard of such a thing. Once, he’d had a client who’d come all the way from Australia just to punch a mountain gorilla in the face, but nothing quite like this.

Assorted Musings

Your occassional dispatch of quick thoughts, cheap shots, and bon mots.

1. Why do fans yell at players, referees, etc. at sports games, even though they sit far away from the action? A few possibilities. First, yelling and chanting is fun, independent of any actual effect on the game. Same reason people yell at their television sets: let off steam. Second, the fan believes the player or referee will actually hear the encouragement or chide. This is unlikely, as anyone who’s ever played a sport knows, and especially unlikely at the professional level where fans are seated far away from the field of play. Third possibility, the fan believes other fans will be inspired to yell out as well, creating a collective sound that the players and referees will hear. This is a rational strategy and does sometimes happen. Fourth, and most interesting to me, the fan is trying to signal to other fans that he is informed, passionate, and not afraid to be (literally) the lone voice at times. I believe it explains the phenomenon of one fan yelling in an otherwise quiet section that is not ripe for some type of collective cheer. The yeller thinks to himself, “Not only do I care more about the game’s outcome than you, but I am sufficiently self-confident and independent to be the only person yelling.”


2. Studies show that attractive men and women benefit a great deal from positive discrimination. Here’s Penelope Trunk’s comprehensive run-down about why attractive people win in business. While much of your personal appearance is fixed, to the extent that you can do some things on the margins which increase your attractiveness — hygiene, exercise / lift weights, basic fashion — this may be one of the important yet least talked about ways to invest in your career prospects.


3. You see more men than women crying at high school and college graduation ceremonies. Why is this? In school it seems men hang out in packs more than women, packs which will unravel as its members move to different cities and pursue different jobs. Women seem to have more one-on-one relationships which do not depend as much on the total group being together. This may be one reason why graduation is emotionally harder for men than women.


4. “The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” – Leo Tolstoy, 1897


5. How will we cite pages from a book if books appear in formats (Kindle, Nook, etc) with different page numbering systems? I know on the Kindle there is no way to see what the corresponding page number is in the printed edition. Dave Jilk tells me: “It turns out that it rarely takes more than three or four sequential words to identify a unique signature for a location in a written work – even a long work. You can try it out by going onto Gutenberg and using your browser search. The advantage of this is that it crosses media and format boundaries.” Perhaps this will be the new citation standard?


6. Why are some people more enjoyable over email than in-person? The most obvious case is when a person is introverted or unusually intimated or shy in-person. A less obvious case is when a person is an original but slow thinker. Their thoughts can develop and unfold over email at a pace that works for them. Finally, self-absorbed people are better dealt with over email. If a self-absorbed person falls into the habit in an email (harder to do than in-person, but still possible) you can quickly skim and delete!


7. “Where you allow your attention to go ultimately says more about you as a human being than anything that you put in your mission statement.” – Merlin Mann. Replace mission statement with resume. It reflects poorly on a modern employer when they request a conventional resume as opposed to a record of how you’ve allocated your attention online.


8. How many Americans understand that Christmas as a snow white holiday — as a time of the year in which chestnuts roast over an open fire in the cozy indoors — is only true in the northern hemisphere? In Chile, Christmas is summer time. For most of the southern hemisphere it’s summertime. In my experience unless you’ve actually been in a warm climate during Christmas you don’t quite realize how local the American conception of the holiday is.


9. After I expressed detailed disagreement with another person’s ideas, the guy I was talking to said, “Ah, I didn’t know you didn’t respect [Person X.]” In fact, my hierarchy of respect is that if I don’t respect a person I’ll rarely expend the energy to issue detailed disagreement. It’s a sign of respect to engage in thoughtful disagreement. I think about this when I find myself routinely disagreeing with certain bloggers I read. And yet, I’ve been reading them for years, so on some level I respect them more than other folks with whom I may agree but don’t bother to read.


10. Hypocrisy, according to Samuel Johnson, is not failing to practice what you preach:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy (laura hetherington) him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself

Book Review: Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile

I haven’t seen the movie, but the book (upon which the film is based) is outstanding. Riveting from start to finish — a real-life CIA thriller. Crile presents a detailed, blow-by-blow account of how the United States congress came to fund the biggest covert CIA campaign in history and the actual on-the-ground effort in the 80’s to help the mujahideen defeat the Soviets. I found much of the book infuriating: the shameless usurpation of democratic processes by congressman Charlie Wilson, the win-at-all-costs mentality that infects the minds of warmongers, and especially the tragic irony that we armed the very people who are now killing us in Afghanistan.

One of the most haunting paragraphs of the book:

…the more dangerous legacy of the Afghan war is found in the minds and convictions of Muslims around the world. To them the miracle victory over the Soviets was all the work of Allah — not the billions of dollars that America and Saudi Arabia poured into the battle, not then ten-year commitment of the CIA that turned an army of primitive tribesmen into techno-holy warriors.

In other words, as they attributed their improbable, U.S.-backed victory against the Soviets to greater religious forces, the present-day insurgents carry a sense of invincibility fighting the current American soldiers in Afghanistan. Their resilience the past nine years backs up this point.

A few other quotes from the book:

“They are a nations of tribes with an extreme ethnocentricity which makes them not only hate or suspect foreigners but Afghans living two valleys away.” [BC: America is currently trying to train a “national army” in Afghanistan.]

“If you asked, ‘Did Charlie do it with my approval?’ No. But he did it with my consent.” – Speaker O’Neill on Wilson’s Afghanistan efforts

“Operating in the black markets is like trying to get laid in a city you don’t know. In a strange city, if you have enough money, you’re bound to find something, but there might be a disease contracted, you might get rolled or arrested, and there’s not telling how much it will cost. With your wife, it’s predictable and in a steady quantity.”

“…an old tactic of Muslim warfare: to leave one man to tell the tale.”

“The dirty little secret of the Afghan war was that Zia has a extracted a concession early on from Reagan: Pakistan would work with the CIA against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and in return the United States would not only provide aid but would agree to look the other way on the question of the bomb.”

“In Pashtun, the word for cousin also means enemy.”

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A more detailed analysis of the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001 can be found in Steve Coll’s excellent book The Ghost Wars. I reviewed it here.

Graciousness Here and Viciousness There: The Cordoba Mosque

Leon Wieseltier has a moving piece in the New Republic on the Cordoba Mosque proposal. It's short. It's impeccably written. And it captures my attitudes exactly, albeit with more eloquence and rigor than I could ever muster. Read the whole thing.

This part stood out to me:

There are families of the victims who oppose Cordoba House and there are families of the victims who support it. Every side in this debate can invoke the authority of the pain. But how much authority should it have? I do not see that sentiment about the families should abrogate considerations of principle. It is odd to see conservatives suddenly espouse the moral superiority of victimhood, as it is odd to see them suddenly find an exception to their expansive view of religious freedom. Everybody has their preferred insensitivities.

His last graf:

A night at the J. At the JCC on Q Street a few weeks ago, there was a family night for “kibbutz camp.” As the children sang “Zum Gali Gali,” an old anthem of the Zionist pioneers, I noticed among the jolly parents a Muslim woman swaddled in black. Her child was among those children! Her presence had no bearing on the question of our security, but it was the image of what we are protecting. No American heart could be unmoved by it. So: Cordoba House in New York and a Predator war in Pakistan—graciousness here and viciousness there—this should be our position. For those who come in peace, peace; for those who come in war, war.

(hat tip: Sullivan)

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Here is 20 minutes of very clear thinking on religion — on especially the similarities of the three Abrahamic religions — from Robert Wright on Charlie Rose.

What’s Remained Constant?

From a 1997 interview between Dan Pink and Richard Bolles of What Color Is Your Parachute? fame:

Pink: Despite all the things we've discussed so far, you're not totally sold on the idea that the world of work is awash in change, are you?

Bolles: No, I'm not. There is a basic truth about what a human needs in order to survive; our culture seems unable to understand that. Human nature survives and has survived through the ages by being able to hold on tenaciously to two concepts: What is there about my life or world that has remained constant? and What is there about my life or world that has changed or is changing? I have always argued that change becomes stressful or overwhelming only when you've lost any sense of the constancy in your life. You need firm ground to stand on. From there, you can deal with that change. Observing the constants in your life gives you that firm ground. The thing about the great faiths is that they talk about what's constant in the world: God, grace, prayer. But our culture, in general — and the profession of career counseling, in particular — gets absorbed with a single question: What's changing? Nobody remembers to ask the other question, What's remained constant?

Is Being in a Relationship a Time Sink?

Many people focused on building their career view being in a romantic relationship as a time sink. Several entrepreneurs have told me that they don't have time for a relationship. To evaluate whether this is true, we need to look at the three possible relationship states pre-marriage.

1. In a Relationship. A relationship takes a lot of time. You may spend every weekend with your significant other and one or two days during the week. During much of that time you are 100% with the other person. Sometimes you are able to double book time by watching movies, buying groceries, washing dishes, etc. but mostly this is maybe 15-20 hours a week (sometimes much more) of time you'd otherwise have free. (Obviously the "maintenance level," as they say, of the significant other affects time commitment.)

2. Single and Looking. You're dating around, or sleeping around. You're going on first dates, trying to impress, and following up on leads. (Using your preferred CRM system, no doubt.) You'd like to be in a relationship so you spend a bunch of time thinking about your ideal mate, comparing and contrasting the various folks you're meeting, and pining wistfully for the relationship of old or idealizing the relationship you someday dream of having.

3. Single and Not Looking. If you're not trying to go on dates and you're content being single, you'll have tons of free time. Weeknights and weekends are yours, and you profit from the power of low expectations.

My thesis is that In a Relationship is just as much of a time and energy sink as Single and Looking. There are various reasons, but one big one. With Single and Looking there's a great deal of emotional energy spent contemplating your lack of dating success, there's stress around existing dates, and of course, wondering, "Is she interested? Am I interested? Do I play like I'm interested?" You spend a lot of cycles thinking about your dating life even when you're not going on dates. The energy spent for In a Relationship, by contrast, tends to be concentrated to the time you're actually spending with the person. There's more certainty, less general / random anxiety and wondering. Easier to focus on work when you are working. So even though the "scheduled time" for a boyfriend or girlfriend is greater, the total energy commitment is about equal to the single but looking person.

Single and Not Looking is the best for those who want as much as time as possible for professional projects. Emotional wonderings are minimal since you're expecting to be single anyway. This is sustainable for a few years or so, or for lots of smaller chunks, but ultimately not a realistic long-term option unless you cut off your penis.

Bottom Line: Being single and looking takes just as much time and energy as being in a relatively low-maintenance relationship.

(thanks to Andy McKenzie for helping brainstorm this.)