What we are

I guess most of us are both bad and good.
Some people are mostly bad, some mostly good.
Where does it come from?
Partly nature, partly nurture,
Partly free will.
If we refuse to act on the basis of free will, we will be entirely subject to nature and nurture.

ARB — 5 March 2020

 

The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True

I think a lot about assertions, things that people assert as true, very often without acknowledging their personal bias. To be fair, most of us are so immersed in our ideologies that we’re not aware of how they are compelling us toward bias.

The title of this post refers to some of the kinds of assertions I hear, by which someone states something as a fact:

  • The way things are — some assertion about fact, whether it has to do with science, economics, politics, or some other sphere. One of my favorite manifestations is when someone begins an utterance with the stark word “Fact,” followed by a colon to emphasize the factiness of what follows, then followed by an unquestioned assertion.
  • The way things were — some statement about history or the past. For example, such and such Egyptian dynasty ruled in such and such time period, or some assertion about why humans came down from the trees to live on the savanna.
  • What is true — This is really akin to the other two kinds of assertions I’m pointing to, but maybe in this case I’m thinking about an assertion that goes beyond a mere statement of some fact. Some examples might be that God exists or that he doesn’t, or that evolution is an incontrovertible fact.

An assertion might be well supported, but what I’m trying to spotlight here is the common practice of making an assertion without acknowledging the background and context surrounding the assertion and the person making it. One result is that people get into fierce arguments even though they aren’t really arguing about the same thing.

Here are some of the kinds of influences that one might make clear to provide context to an assertion:

  • The lines of evidence behind the assertion — Is the assertion based on scientific or scholarly research? Sometimes a speaker will make an assertion, basing his or her statement on the consensus within a profession or academic field. (Academic or scientific consensus doesn’t always mean the same thing as the everyday understanding of what constitutes a consensus.) One of the problems here is that there may actually be a minority that disputes the consensus view. There might be a legitimate critique that isn’t getting acknowledged when the speaker makes the assertion.
  • Assumptions — Many assertions are based in part on ideas or constructs that are taken for granted. As with lines of evidence, there might be a legitimate minority critique of a given assumption. One example would be dating a past event based on the conventional chronologies hypothesized by historians and archaeologists.
  • Definition of terms — Often people get into arguments without establishing and agreeing on the meaning of the point they are discussing. For example, people argue about whether evolution is true without coming to a prior understanding of what they mean by evolution.
  • The ideological leanings of the speaker — For someone who wants to evaluate an assertion, it could be useful to know something about the speaker’s ideological convictions. Is the speaker a theist? An atheist? A free-market fundamentalist? An eco-socialist? One problem here is that many people don’t like to admit that they subscribe to an ideology or aren’t even aware of it.
  • The speaker’s authority for making the assertion — When evaluating an assertion, it can be useful to know the speaker’s credentials.
  • The speaker’s underlying agenda — As with ideology, many speakers don’t like to own up to their agendas, which are often political or ideologically-driven.

As is often the case with this writing project, my purpose here is to set out some basic ideas with the intention of coming back later to revise and add ideas and examples.

ARB — 3 Oct. 2013

Competition as a Form of Cooperation

Here’s a piece of business advice: Wherever you go, whatever you do, always act in such a way as to raise the bar.

In business, we frequently focus on competition. In the darwinian ideology, life is supposed to be about competition, and that idea often gets transferred into business. In reality, though, I think cooperation is more important in the way both life and business work.

Cooperation is much more fundamental to getting things done, and I think even competition can be seen in a way as a form of cooperation, in that when we compete, we make each other better by raising the bar.

ARB — 6 September 2013

 

Should a Murderer Be Forgiven?

Today on Facebook, grief expert Rob Zucker shared a fascinating article about Conor McBride, who was forgiven by the parents of his girlfriend, whom he murdered. The article asks the question “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” and discusses restorative-justice diversion programs, a movement that seeks to reconcile criminals and their victims — and to let victims’ forgiveness play a role in sentencing. Together, Conor’s parents and the parents of the murdered girl, Ann Margaret Grosmaire, consulted with Sujatha Baliga, who leads the Restorative Justice Project at the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. Working together with the prosecutor, the parents succeeded in getting a reduced sentence for Conor.

It’s a messy story about a horrible crime, but it does cause me to reflect on repentance, mercy, and capital punishment.

Years ago, I was struck by something said by computer scientist David Gelernter, who was maimed in 1993 by a package bomb from the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. How did Gelernter feel about the death penalty for Kaczynski, who also murdered three people? Here’s what Gelernter wrote in his 1997 book Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber, as quoted in a review of the book:

I would sentence him to death. And I would commute the sentence in one case only, if he repents, apologizes and begs forgiveness of the dead men’s families, and the whole world — and tells us how he plans to spend the whole rest of his life pleading with us to hate the vileness and evil he embodied and to love life, to protect and defend it, and tell us how he sees with perfect agonizing clarity that he deserves to die — then and only then I’d commute his sentence…

An unrepentant Kaczynski pleaded guilty in 1998 to escape the death penalty and is serving life without possibility of parole.

In 1999 in Utne Reader, Gelernter wrote an essay that is at the same time thoughtful and impassioned. The essay is titled, “What Do Murderers Deserve?” with the subtitle, “In a responsible society, the death penalty has its virtues.” In the opening paragraph he writes,

A Texas woman, Karla Faye Tucker, murdered two people with a pickax, was said to have repented in prison, and was put to death. A Montana man, Theodore Kaczynski, murdered three people with mail bombs, did not repent, and struck a bargain with the Justice Department: He pleaded guilty and will not be executed. (He also attempted to murder others and succeeded in wounding some, myself included.) Why did we execute the penitent and spare the impenitent? However we answer this question, we surely have a duty to ask it.

I have no essential problem with the death penalty. Often when learning about some abhorrent crime, I’ve found myself thinking, why not just save us all a lot of time a grief and put a needle in his arm right now? At the same time, capital punishment is unevenly administered in this world. You’re less likely to get executed if you can pay for better counsel. And what about the role of repentance? In a just world, I guess that would make a difference. But in the messy one we are stuck with for the time being, it seems likely that repentance and forgiveness will only be allowed to make a difference at the margins where you find ideas like restorative justice.

ARB — 6 January 2013

 

Economic Incentives, the Simple Life, and Freedom of Choice

Nearly all of us are actors within the economic system, and so we are driven by economic incentives to a greater or lesser degree.

I think I can make an argument that by living a simpler life, we can free ourselves to a greater extent from those incentives. That gives us greater freedom of choice.

Thoughts?

ARB — 20 December 2012

 

What the Climate Change Controversy Is Really About

I’ve discussed this question before over on ThomasNet Green & Clean — see my piece “The Climate Change Controversy — What’s It Really About?

However, I’m meditating on a somewhat different way to articulate it. I should say that I don’t think this controversy is essentially about science. I’m not persuaded by ill-informed or politically motivated assertions, but I don’t use terms like “hoax,” “anti-science,” “pseudo-science,” or “denialism” in connection with the argument.

My current thinking is the following:

The climate change controversy is about a high-stakes struggle between science in the service of eco-socialism and misinformation in the service of free-market fundamentalism.

I’m engaged in an ongoing development of my thinking on this topic and will no doubt circle back to it. But I just wanted to pin down that idea.

ARB — 2 Nov. 2012

The Creative Process – How an Intricate Stop-Motion Animation Project Came to John Frame in a Dream

I just heard a fascinating interview with sculptor and stop-motion animator John Frame, who explained how his long-term project “The Tale of the Crippled Boy” came to him in a dream. Frame had been a sculptor for decades but had hit a creative wall, or more precisely had run out of steam, to use another metaphor. He had reached a point in his creative work where he just couldn’t create anymore.

Then one night he had a lucid dream in which he imagined an entire world populated with characters in motion. He somehow recognized that these characters were his own creations, and in that dream state he spent several hours observing this world. When when he woke up early in the morning, he captured it all in drawings and notes and storyboards and began his current stop-motion animation project. Did I mention that he had never done stop-motion before? But now “The Tale of the Crippled Boy” has become his entire creative activity.

You can see Frame’s initial animations here on Vimeo:

I have to admit that I’m not drawn to the creative product, fascinating and detailed as it is — too bizarre to appeal to me. But what I am intrigued by is the way the idea came to the creator — seemingly arriving out of the blue in a dream state. Everybody dreams, and I suspect that lucid dreaming is fairly common. However, the important thing here is that Frame got up and captured it all so he could turn the idea into a creative product. It’s also significant that the stop-motion product draws on his many years of work as a sculptor.

This experience illustrates what I think are some important lessons about the creative process, and it follows the ideas set out in my favorite book on this topic — A Technique for Producing Ideas, by James Webb Young. Written in 1965, this is a brilliant treatise for anyone involved in creative work — Young was actually an advertising guy, but his ideas really apply to anyone in the arts. It’s only 36 pages. You can buy it for a few dollars on Amazon and read it in an hour or so.

Thinking about Young’s book and John Frame’s experience, here are some lessons I extract:

  1. Work very hard over the long term to develop your creative skills, whatever they are — design, writing, drawing, sculpture, painting, music — or skills that are creative but more commonly used in the business world, such as copywriting, graphic design, or art direction. I would also extend this lesson into areas such as innovation, science, engineering, and architecture.
  2. When you are up against a creative problem, put a lot of concentrated effort into analyzing the problem, doing research, brainstorming, testing ideas.
  3. When you are sick and tired of all that concentrating, take a break for an hour, a day, a week, or even longer. Do something else. Relax. Exercise. Go for a hike. Watch a movie. Read. Or go to sleep.
  4. At an unexpected moment an idea or a series of ideas will come to you. Be prepared to capture these ideas — have the tools you need always available to write down or draw out ideas that come to you. I always carry a pocket notebook and set of pens with me. Ideas often come to me when I’m out walking. Like Frame, ideas have sometimes come to me in dreams or just before sleeping or just upon waking up.
  5. After the idea comes to you, work with it and adjust it and figure out how to make it work in a practical way. It might be the solution to the problem you’ve been working on, or it might be the source of an entirely new and unexpected creative endeavor.

You can hear the interview with John Frame at The Story — his is the second part of that particular show.

ARB — 14 Oct. 2012

Why I’m Rude on the Telephone

I’ve been working hard to be more courteous when speaking by telephone with customer representatives. As part of that effort, I’ve been reflecting on what drives me to be rude and sarcastic.

One important factor is that I rarely call up some large company for a happy purpose — it’s almost always a problem. Whatever has happened — a billing error, a product failure, a problem with an order — 90 percent of the time, it’s the company’s screw-up.

So, when I have to call customer support, it’s an interruption to my work, and I’m already primed for conflict. The pressure to respond with asperity mounts to the extent that the customer-service experience stinks — having to navigate through phone-menu options none of which apply, having to wait on hold, encountering a representative who can’t help me with the problem or is poorly trained or is not empowered by the company to do the right thing for the customer.

Fortunately, I’m usually able to maintain enough perspective to recognize that the customer representative is usually as much a victim of the company’s abysmal approach to customer experience as I am. Like most of us, the rep is just a poor soul trying to make a living within the limits of the reality they are presented with. Unless the rep is as incompetent or uninterested in the customer as their employer is — in such case, the individual might warrant some castigation.

I often take the opportunity of the interaction to ask the representative to pass along my feedback about what is wrong with their company’s customer relations. Like throwing a stone into the ocean, but who knows, someone might listen.

I would have to say that most of the time my experience with telephone customer service is negative, but normally that doesn’t justify mistreating the human being who is trying to help me.

ARB — 6 April 2012