Monthly Archives: November 2010

Personal Identity and Decisionmaking

In George Packer's scathing review of George W. Bush's memoir, there's this:

For Bush, making decisions is an identity question: Who am I? The answer turns Presidential decisions into foregone conclusions: I am someone who believes in the dignity of life, I am the protector of the American people, I am a loyal boss, I am a good man who cares about other people, I am the calcium in the backbone. This sense of conviction made Bush a better candidate than the two Democrats he was fortunate to have as opponents in his Presidential campaigns. But real decisions, which demand the weighing of compelling contrary arguments and often present a choice between bad options, were psychologically intolerable to the Decider. They confused the identity question.
I probably agree with the personal criticism of Bush, and I definitely agree that the identity question corrupts anyone's rational, honest analysis.
I am reminded of Paul Graham's brilliant essay Keep Your Identity Small.

The 30 Steps to Mastery

The commenter Onjibonrenat, on my post How to Draw an Owl, adds a few more steps to the process of achieving mastery:

1. Start
2. Keep going.
3. You think you're starting to get the hang of it.
4. You see someone else's work and feel undeniable misery.
5. Keep going.
6. Keep going.
7. You feel like maybe, possibly, you kinda got it now.
8. You don't.
9. Keep going.
10. You ask for someone else's opinion–their response is standoffish, though polite.
11. Depression.
12. Keep going.
13. Keep going.
14. You ask someone else's opinion–their response is favorable.
15. They have no idea what they're talking about.
16. Keep going.
17. You feel semi-kinda favorable and maybe even a little proud of what you can do now.
18. Self-loathing chastisement.
19. Depression
20. Keep going.
21. You ask someone else's opinion–they respond quite favorably.
22. They're still wrong.
23. Depression.
24. Keep going though you can't possibly imagine why.
25. Become restless.
26. Receive some measure of praise from a trustworthy opinion.
27. They're still fucking wrong (Right?)
28. Keep going just because there's nothing else to do.
29. Mastery arrives, you mistake it for a gust of wind.
30. Keep. Fucking. Going.

TSA Bumper Stickers


From here, and here's another link to underwear you can purchase that contains metallic ink that will show up in the scan.

Humor aside, I think all the attention to the TSA's body-search rule should instead be directed to the banning of liquids on carry-ons. I doubt the no-liquids rule thwarts a next generation explosive, and it's especially annoying for long, international flights bound for the United States. That's because the search for liquids occurs right before you board the flight, so it's impossible to bring water bottles onto the plane. (In the U.S. you can purchase water after the security checkpoint.) The searches that seize liquids from carry-ons for U.S. bound flights overseas also require several staff members specially assigned to this purpose — so it's expensive, too, for whomever is bearing that cost.

Overall, I am hopeful the debate about the body-search rule will spark a larger conversation about the security theater in America and the risk of overreacting to security threats.

FedEx Truth-in-Tracking (China Edition)

James Fallows bought a new laptop from Apple's online store to ship to his home in Washington D.C., and when he went to track the package on, he saw this:


The package has been "Picked Up: Shanghai, China." It is surprising to see FedEx be explicit about the true origin of the package. Surprising, but good. More Americans should know where their products come from. Especially when the product is not a piece of shit toy, but high-end, expensive gadgets from a company whose boxes list a California return address.


There were a lot of ugly ads this past campaign season (and a lot of unfortunate results, especially in California). One of the ugliest ads — for its anti-China xenophobia — was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's against Republican candidate for Pennsylvania Senate Pat Toomey. Here's the link. Adam Ozimek responds:

The goal of the ad to slander Toomey with a quote of his where he says “It’s great that China is modernizing and growing”. Gasp! Oh the horror!

The economic growth and modernization in China over the last 30 years has lifted literally hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and if you don’t think that’s an unmitigated great thing then fuck you, I hope a Chinese person does “steal your job”.

Live Together, Die Alone

As a follow up to my previous post on the Regrets of the Dying, a reader who worked in pallitive care wrote in to share an interesting anecdote: patients where she worked always seemed to die during the very brief moments when a family member or care worker stepped out of the room. This post on a Chicago Tribune blog contains similar anecdotes from a different hospice center:

In the 1990’s, Twaddle [chief medical officer at a pallittative and hospice center] and her colleagues noticed a strange phenomenon. "Families would be in vigil for days by a bedside, finally go to get some dinner, take a shower, and when they left, the person would die,” she said. "Then, racked with a sense of guilt, self-flagellation ensued as family members said 'I shouldn’t have left.' "

So they conducted an informal study and found that more than 80 percent of the time, Moms died alone. Dads, on the other hand, seemed to wait until everyone was there and died in the midst of the gathering, Twaddle said.

“Even when the family was in vigil, it was when they left that Mom died,” Twaddle said. “What does that perhaps indicate about 'wanting someone there?'”

Twaddle knows the study was scientifically flawed, but here's her larger point: “If there is a piece that is volitional in the death process, could it sometimes be in waiting for space, quiet, and aloneness for some?


Here's Robin Hanson's skeptical take on list of regrets I linked to (emphases my own):

Deathbed folks are usually far from their analytical peak – they are often in great pain, and rather muddle-headed. So why would we think their comments especially insightful? I suspect we attach unrealistic significance to deathbed words because we are terrified to think about death, and eager to show our devotion to the dead and dying.

But if deathbed regrets are less than reliable descriptions of reality, where might they come from? One theory is that they are like the famous interview question “What is your main fault?”, which evoke answers like “I work too hard” or “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” These are obviously attempts to brag about a good feature, but call it a “fault.” All but regret #4 above fit this directly – they basically say “I sacrificed so much for you people.” Regret #4 similarly declares how much the dying cares about others.


If all this talk of death is getting you down, here's a song from Glee that gave me goosebumps, and another one featuring Gwyneth Paltrow that got stuck in my head the moment I heard it. (You've been warned.)

Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware works in pallitative care — with patients near the end of their life. In this post, she writes powerfully about the the top regrets that have surfaced again and again from her patients on their death beds. I've pasted the list of five below.

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.  They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.

When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

(hat tip @bfeld)

How to Draw An Owl


One interpretation of the image and caption is that it reinforces how some folks perceive the progression from novice to expert:

Stage 1: You suck.
Stage 2: You're an expert.

In fact, mastering a skill involves hundreds of stages of incremental improvement over a very long period of time.

I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It's because they thought it would be easy.


Another interpretation of the image is that it's showing that step one is always "start," and step two is always "keep going and going and going until you've nailed it."

(image hat tip to Alexia Tsotsis)

Four Characteristics of the Outstanding Scientist

Arthur Koestler identified four characteristics of the outstanding scientist, but it could be applied to more than just scientists:

  • An oceanic sense of wonder
  • A curious mixture of skepticism and credulous precocity
  • Dual abilities, both to generalize and to concentrate on the particulars
  • Multiple potentials — enough to succeed in any one of several careers

I love the phrase “oceanic sense of wonder.” The ability to generalize seems rarer than the ability to concentrate on particulars.

I spotted this list in James Austin’s interesting book Chase, Chance, and Creativity.

Seeing What Everyday Writing Looks Like

Alexis Madrigal has a great, long post in response to Zadie Smith's essay. The whole thing is worth reading for insights on technology and society. I particularly liked his paragraphs on Smith's aesthetic revulsion to the the kind of writing one sees in social media. It's true that much of what's written these days in emails, blogs, tweets, are OMG so pooorly ritten dont u think? Just spend one night looking at Twitter trending topics. His money sentence explains it (italics are my own): "I think we confuse the [new] ability to see what everyday writing looks like — and probably has for a long time — with a change in how people write."

It's key to Smith's reasoning that Facebook implicitly creates more opportunities for people to say maudlin, ugly, or otherwise silly things. But we've been expressing ourselves in ways like that forever. Consider even good pop music. One of the best punk rock love songs of all time, "Ever Fallen in Love With Someone" goes like this, "You stir my natural emotions / You make me feel I'm dirt /And I'm hurt / And if I start a commotion /I run the risk of losing you / And that's worse / Ever fallen in love with someone?" And as we all know, this is just one example out of hundreds of thousands.

Perhaps I've been inured to this sense of a fallen English language because I've rooted around in the history of technology. I've read telegraphs between figures who were decidedly non-literary and engineers' papers. If your vision of the past language is mostly Melville — the stuff that's endured — then, yeah, English seems like it's in damn sorry shape. But if it includes all those other low and middle-brow writings, the bad letters, the telegraphs, the stupid poems, you end up with a spikier, less formal take on language. Consider that in 1870, 20% of the population was illiterate. Surely, on that basis alone, we now live in a far better place for words. Or consider the way dialect writers, like a Ben Brierley, tried to capture how normal people talked (and presumably wrote, whenever they did if they could). He would write things like, "They tell me these wenches con write books, play th' payano like angels, an' talk like saints. But I wonder what they'd do wi' a stockin ut's too much dayleet letten in at one window."

Perhaps this is an old argument, one about the sanctity of language, but I think it's newly important. When professional writers, especially ones trained in the literary arts, see horrifically bad writing online, they recoil. All their training about the value of diverse (or, you know, heteroglossic) societies and the equality of classes goes flying out the window. Social media acts as a kind of truth serum, as Marshall Kirkpatrick likes to say: This is how the masses of people talk. This is how the masses of people write. Not moonlighting bloggers. Not the 20 million NPR listeners. But the other 300 million people trying to LOL their way through boring days at office jobs or in Iraq.

I think we confuse the ability to see what everyday writing looks like — and probably has for a long time — with a change in how people write. Toss in that the traditional (usually religious) practices and sayings around serious topics like death or childbearing have lost valence, and you get people just saying what comes to mind. It's not always pretty.

(hat tip to Alex Mann via Delicious)

Zadie Smith on Technology and Philosophy

I love Zadie Smith, but her lengthy review of The Social Network movie is disappointing. She tries to do a macro cultural critique of the online social network phenomenon but gets lost pretty quickly. A sample paragraph:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

Say what?

Most negative pieces like Smith's are premised on the idea that Facebook and the web are changing our lives in a massive way. Most positive pieces are similarly premised except instead they argue that everything is sweetness and light.

Someone should write an article that argues the total impact (good or bad) of social networking technologies on an individual's identity, philosophies, behavior, and relationships may actually be overstated by the legion of recent essayists and filmmakers. And that it may be especially overstated even by those who claim it's been life changing — i.e., the piece skeptically assesses first-person testimonies. I'm not saying I hold this view, but it would be a refreshingly different way to frame the conversation.


Here's William Gibson on related topics in a recent interview. One line on globalization:

I’ve become convinced that nostalgia is a fundamentally unhealthy modality. When you see it, it’s usually attached to something else that’s really, seriously bad. I don’t traffic in nostalgia. We’re becoming a global culture.