Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation by Roger Ames and David Hall

"Making This Life Significant"

This book is one of the fundamental texts of civilization. It is distinctly Chinese, yet it now belongs to the world. Or at least it should belong to anyone interested in a unique and inviting perspective on the world. Of course, English language readers have a huge number of translations to choose from, but of the several that I’ve read, this is my favorite.
Ames is the China scholar, while the late David Hall comes out of the traditions of process philosophy and pragmatism. Together, they bring a sense of scholarly precision about the source and context of the original texts (and sources and completeness always becomes an issue with a text this old and revered) along with a perspective about how we can understand this work in the contemporary world. For instance, they identify the concept of the focus and field as a central metaphor in the work. Their commentaries on each chapter often refer to ideas familiar to current readers as consistent with process philosophy and pragmatism. (Daoism isn’t consistently with a static metaphysics, that’s for sure.) The commentary helps readers grasp the often allusive words and implicit references in the text that would otherwise leave readers baffled and confused. For contemporary readers from the West, the text communicates in terms of metaphor and allusion that are alien to our normal way of thinking. This is how they define their project: 

We will argue that the defining purpose of the Daodejing is bringing into focus and sustaining a productive disposition that allows for the fullest appreciation of those specific things and events that constitute one’s field of experience. The project, simply put, is to get the most out of what each of us is: a quantum of unique experience. It is making this life significant.

Ames, Roger; Hall, David (2010-05-12). Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation (Kindle Locations 285-288). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
There are no doubt many fine translations available for this classic, and each one no doubt sheds insight and re-creates the intention of the text, but this one is my reigning favorite. I feel like I’m viewing a new field with two trusted guides who help me gain the proper focus.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Review of Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler

Hold it! I think your going to like this picture

Reading what for me is the latest installment from Eric Ambler (originally published in 1938), I can’t help thinking of a Hitchcock movie. Not any particular one—perhaps The Many Who Knew Too Much with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day or North by Northwest with Cary Grant would be exemplars—where ordinary persons become entangled with espionage. In this case, a person loosed from the protections of citizenship by the shifting sands of European nationhood suffers a problem, a big problem, when someone accidentally mistakenly takes his camera. The police become involved, and Mr. Vadassy must try to sort things out. However, he’s not a spy or an especially clever fellow, at least in this type of affair. He’s an ESL teacher. He must try to figure out who took his camera and the photos that led the French counter-espionage authorities to him. He must identify the culprit, in much like an Agatha Christie novel, from a small group of guests at a quaint resort hotel on the French Riviera. Vadassy is no Bourne, no Bond, not even a Smiley. He’s just a guy forced into a devilishly difficult task. 

Although this novel didn’t prove my favorite Ambler, it still has the atmosphere of pre-war Europe, the innocent plunged into fearful terrain, and the clean, clear writing and plotting that make Ambler a pro. The little society of the resort and the machinations of the authorities that try to make Vadassy their agent, prove more complex and baffling than a mere mortal can hope to manage. Thus builds the tension to the end, and in the end . . . well, you’ll have to read it to learn about that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Review of Time Warrior: How to defeat procrastination, people-pleasing, self-doubt, over-commitment, broken promises and chaos by Steve Chandler

This book serves as a fine companion work to Steve Pressfield’s The War of Art and Do the Work!. While Chandler focuses on the familiar theme of “time management”, both he and Pressfield focus on getting things done (and not necessarily as David Allen would have you do it). This book is pithy and easy to read. It could be shorter, and it’s no literary giant. But the message is worthwhile. In fact, in tight, short sentences, Chandler packs some wallop. His style, in addition to his quotes, tends toward the aphoristic. Accordingly, what follows are my quotes of him, his sources, my aphoristic thoughts generated by his insights, and my meta-comments [in brackets]. (I capitalize some words on my own accord as key terms taken from or inspired by Chandler.)

  • Non-linear time management involves three options: Now, Not Now (but a date certain), & Never. [I think he should include a fourth: Now Later. For instance, one can use almost any Now to take out the garbage or do the dishes, but some Nows are better than others for productivity. Some tasks are Labor (Arendt), which is by nature  repetitive and doesn’t need special attention. Chandler implies that all Time is equally valuable, but this isn’t so. Some, like me for instance, prefer to perform more demanding, creative tasks in the morning, with less demanding tasks—dishes, reading & answering emails, garbage, etc.—left to the afternoon.]

  • Empty the Mind about the Future because the Future = Fear.
  • Develop a bias for Action
  • Develop a laser-like Focus like Bruce Lee or Rocky Marciano (via Joyce Carol Oats).
    Joyce Carol Oats
    [Yes, you read that correctly. It seems she has a thing about boxing.]
  • Act as a Warrior, not as a Worrier.
  • Keep your Soul alive by not seeking to Please Others. Do what you choose
  • Make Time, don’t expect to Find Time.
  • Thinking makes it so. We act (or refrain) based on our beliefs. 
  • Sustain Focus. Avoid Distraction. Use the rifle, not the shotgun. 
  • “We use our crayons (our imagination) to scare ourselves instead of to create.” Chandler, Steve (2011-02-14). Time Warrior: How to defeat procrastination, people-pleasing, self-doubt, over-commitment, broken promises and chaos (p. 15). Maurice Bassett. Kindle Edition.
  • Use Process Goals, not big, long-term goals. [Compare Scott Adams of Dilbert fame: use Practices not Goals to create Future.]
  • “Be brief. Be swift. Be effective.” (19).
  • Create Now. 
  • “Don’t think in terms of patterns. None of this: “I always” or “I never” because those globalizing thoughts will never serve you. They will scare you and make you a pessimist.” (22).
  • Start small. 
  • Slow down. 
  • Don’t over value Information. “[I]t is active creation that will produce wealth and well-being. Not information.” (27).
  • Create Value by serving others. 
  • Incubation vs. Procrastination. Incubate but Act. 
  • “No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.—Alan Watts (30). 
    Alan Watts
  • The time warrior steals from the future. Then she pours her stolen gold—all of it—into the present moment.” (30). 
  • Don’t Know, Choose. Choosing is the key to Acting. 
  • “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life... and that's why I succeed—Michael Jordan (37). 
  • “It really isn't fear of failure that stops us from trying exciting things. It's fear of the appearance of failure. It's the fear of looking like a failure.” (37).
  • Theory is good for the intellect, but action is good for the soul. It's also good for your mental health, your physical health, and your pocketbook.—Robert Ringer (39).
  • Act, then Feel. Not vice versa. 
  • Serve, don’t seek to Please. 
  • Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.—Rumi (49). [I have to issue a small dissent here. My reading, especially in the morning (preferably after meditation) isn’t a passive act. It’s creative. I don’t just read, I Learn. For me, reading is a very creative activity. Besides, I don’t play a musical instrument & C would kill me if I started singing in the morning.]
  • Change Others through an Inspiring example.
  • Be in the Moment. Don’t cling to an Identity. I’m a . . . [fill in the blank]. You can be that—or more—or less. 
  • The question isn't, Who is going to let me; it's Who is going to stop me?—Ayn Rand (57). [I haven’t “been Ayn Randed”, but I can’t argue too much with this one thing. See, I’m not going to cling to my identity as knowing her to be full of . . . “well, never mind”.] 
  • Create, don’t React. 
  • Issue is Problem Management, not Time Management. Deal with a Project or Challenge, not Time. 
  • We love to solve problems—if they’re not ours. 
  • Problems of Time are often problems of Emotion (Feelings). 
  • Complete. Finish strong. Keep a “killer instinct”. 
  • Unfinished Projects become Worries that become Energy Vampires! 
  • Completion Creates Energy. Procrastination drains Energy. 
  • Don’t Feel like doing It? Do It! 
  • In the face of suffering, ask “How can I help?”, not “How to do I feel?”.
  • Not “How do I survive this [catastrophe]?”, but “How do I use this?”. 
  • Warriors make friends of deadlines, which seem (and sound) so ominous. 
  • “The human brain is a magical bio-computer. It sends us energy when we send it something clearly inspiring. But it drags us way down when we feed it something that is negative or depressing. The key to all of this is that we send it.” (88)
  •  “The breakdown of language foretells the breakdown of results. Always. . . .[If I don’t keep a commitment] I have misused the word commitment, and language no longer means anything. So now anything I say is just noise that conveys no power at all. My language can no longer make anything happen. It can still be descriptive (it can tell you how I feel, it can describe the past) but it can no longer be generative (it can't make things happen). . . . [A] commitment is something you keep, no matter what.” (90). 
  • What gets measured gets done.
  • Emerson has written many wonderful essays on [acting] and one of the things he said is “Do the thing and you shall have the power.”(110)
  •  “Creative people need some kind of structure. . . . Paradoxically, the best creativity comes from working with the most structure you can possibly impose on yourself.” (114).
  • “What do I feel like doing right now? That is the worst question I could ever ask myself during my workday. On a weekend that’s a fine question. “What do I feel like doing? I’ll watch a little baseball, I’ll play the guitar.” That’s fine, but in my workday, the feeling question is the worst question I can ask myself. The best questions are: “What do I want to produce?” and “What structure would guarantee that?”. (115). 
  • Create your own Urgent. 
  • Skip Willpower and simply Choose to Begin. 
  • Begin—to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.—Marcus Aurelius (121).
  • “Why do I want my lack of action to be about a “thing” inside me I don’t have? The answer is this: I would rather find and identify some defect in myself than take that first step. Isn’t that the easier, softer way to live? Identifying flaws and defects all day?” (122). [Pressfield names “the thing”: Resistance. But whether you name it to overcome it or you simple ignore it to overcome it, the only weapon that can work is Action. Do, do, do.]
  • “Whatever it is you are not doing, notice that you are choosing not to do it. There’s no defect in you! There’s the opposite of a defect. There is, instead, a power. A power to choose. Choose to, choose not to, same power. Always power.” (122-123). [My only quibble is that some people fail to recognize that they are making a choice (always making a choice) and therefore don’t exercise the conscientiousness or self-reflexivity necessary to realize what’s going on. I think that this requires a great deal of self-awareness. If not, why would Chandler have to teach this? Why would piles of books have ever been written about the Will and Willpower? (I know because I’ve read a lot of them.) Why would we worry about weakness of will? What if the choice is do or not do, such as whether to eat a Twinkie when you’re hungry? What if “not doing” is the best choice, then the default “Do” will fail us. We see weakness of will (akrasia) all of the time in ourselves and others. We discount the future hyperbolically. We make a choice—and we know damn well that we’ll later regret it. St. Paul and St. Augustine and others after them weren’t addressing a non-existent problem. So, grading as the Chinese might, I’d say Chandler is about 60% right on this issue.]
  • Love what you’re doing, whatever it is. [Can be challenging.]
  • “The perception you have of anything is always what drives your feelings and your actions and your thoughts.” (133). 
  • Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.--Vincent van Gogh (141). 
    Van Gogh
  • Fear is the absence of Love, as dark is the absence of light.
  • “Live Now, Procrastinate Later”: great title (Robert Holden). 
  • “I experience a stressed-out feeling whenever I think about the deadline for a creative project. But my stress comes from having that project be in the future. Non-linear time management doesn’t allow that line that stretches into the future. Because the linear thought process always produces stress. Unreasonable stress.” (175). 
  • “You can create the future—through process-goal-setting and achievement—without living in the future. Just like studying a map before you go somewhere. Or looking at a menu before the meal. You don’t walk on the map. You don’t eat the menu. Once you’ve created your goal and project you set the future aside.” (182). 
  • “All creativity emerges from inquiry.” (188). 
  • “Thought always comes before a feeling and causes the feeling.” (196). [A key component of Stoic thought per Richard Sorabji.]
  • Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.—Walter Elliott The Spiritual Life (202).
  • Stop lying to yourself.
  • Aristotle: “Whatever we learn to do, we learn by actually doing it. People come to be builders, for instance, by building, and harp players by playing the harp. In the same way, by doing just acts we come to be just. By doing self-controlled acts, we come to be self-controlled, and by doing brave acts we become brave.” (206-207). 

Let’s stop here. Lots of excellent ideas and perspectives. A fine and lasting tonic.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Krugman v. Buchanan: Escape from the Limits to Growth?

In this corner: Paul "No Limits" Krugman

In this corner: Mark Buchanan

Paul Krugman’s recent blog entry criticizing a blog by science writer Mark Buchanan on Bloomberg View raises some  interesting questions. While I’m taken with Krugman’s arguments on most topics, I’m inclined to think that he’s coming up short on this one. The contention is over whether there are any limits to economic growth imposed by physical limitations in our environment, especially whether limitations on the use of energy place a hard ceiling on the degree of economic development the world can obtain. The arguments are straightforward. Buchanan addresses Krugman by name in making his argument. Buchanan argues that energy resources (and by-products) limit economic growth. No matter how efficiently we use energy—and we have become much more efficient—we still have increased our gross energy use and with increased use has come greater pollution, greater carbon loading, and greater heat disbursement. He argues, borrowing a phrase from Econ 101, that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, and these limits are another example of this fundamental principle. Krugman, other the other hand, argues that technological innovation and better practices (another form of innovation) will allow continued economic growth. Indeed, in earlier posts he’s argued that the need for alternative (low-carbon) energy sources and systems will promote economic growth. 

Let me throw out some random thoughts on this debate. 

Buchanan is correct that there exist physical constraints on the growth of human activity, including population. Population can’t grow indefinitely, and with any population growth, you will have increased energy use regardless of how efficiently we use any energy source. Nothing on the horizon suggests that we can continue the current path—even under the best possible circumstances—indefinitely. Humanity (part of it anyway) has been a path of expanding energy use and economic growth since the late 18th century, and we’ve been able to off-load the negative by-products of that growth unto others—other people and other environments. (Check out the air here in China, for instance.) We will run out of safe places to dump our “waste” at some point. Of course, Paul Ehrlich made these arguments in the late 1960’s, followed by the Club of Rome report, and there predictions failed. Julian Simon won the bet. But nothing that’s happened negates the fundamental soundness of the limitations hypothesis. It’s sound science: the laws of conservation of energy and of entropy provide an immovable foundation. 

We might underestimate human innovation, but as Thomas Homer-Dixon argues, there are limits to our ability to innovate ourselves out of our dilemmas. In fact, the roll of “fallen” or “lost” civilizations or even “former greats” (Britain, Spain, France, Ming China, etc.) is a long one. Of course, many factors come into play, but many past civilizations (and hunter-gatherer communities) have failed because of physical constraints (and social constraints). Perhaps JosephTainter has the key in his sense of declining marginal return on investments in energy in an attempt to support increasing complexity within a society facing constraints. The label of EROI (energy return on investment) is an economic concept applied to an energy problem that has some impressive arguments in its favor. Krugman doesn’t address the limits imposed by complexity on a system. He shares the economists’ bias that we can innovate our way out of any problem. Often—and often to our surprise—we can, but not always. 

An economist might say that the physical constraints that Buchanan fears are too remote to be of concern. To borrow the much used (and abused) quote of Keynes, “in the long run we’re all dead”. But Buchanan argues that we’re not talking about “the long run”, we’re talking about now. Krugman, who knows the reality of global climate change, seems to think that the physical constraints are not relevant to this problem, but given the slowness with which humanity has responded to the signals, it shows that many tacitly believe that real change is required. 

Krugman gives the example of “slow shipping”, an innovation that was simply a change in behavior without any change in technology. However, for the same output it requires an increase in labor and capital. He fails to state whether the energy for creating and operating another ship in the fleet will be greater or lesser than the energy saved by slower operation of the current fleet. In other words, will a constant output (goods delivered in a year) require more or less total energy with larger but more efficiently operated fleet? Two cars operated at 55 mph still take more gas than one car at 85 mph (I think). I’d have to have this argument fleshed out further to buy it (or I’m just dense). 

One problem is “economic growth” understood as more stuff (as it means to as a practical matter to most people). The magnitude of stuff as a measure of well-being has lost its allure to some, but to the greater part of the world it’s still a kick. Alas, economics doesn’t seem equipped to deal with issues of quality of life as measure of well-being (although some are making efforts in this direction). 

 Krugman opens his blog with  a bit of ad hominem argument, suggesting an unholy alliance of “conservative” (pro-business) groups; anti-capitalist, anti-materialist types; and scientists to promote the idea that limiting global climate change and creating a safer environment mean less (or no) economic growth. As to the first group, they’re disingenuous. On the “lefties”, there’s some truth to Krugman’s appraisal, but their perspective has merit. I’m not anti-capitalist, but I believe about market capitalism what I believe about democracy: it’s the worst system except compared to all the others that have been tried. Market capitalism works far from perfectly and needs fixing. It’s a transition phase (although not with the successor that Marx predicted and desired). It’s a phase to allow something better. Consumer capitalism isn’t a good system for human well-being in many of its aspects. How does a system that depends upon ever-increasing human wants and acquisition keep going indefinitely? And what does it do the people that feed the system? The consumer-capitalist world we live in is at once terrific and awful.

As to scientists and their “imperialism” (and that of economists), Krugman has a point. But exploring other domains doesn’t require “imperialism”. Inquiry should be performed in a spirit of discovery and humility, respecting and gaining from the new domain and giving to it. This is the way of great thinkers. Academics who pay attention to turf boundaries within the academy are small-ball thinkers. The best explore and learn from new fields. Krugman and Buchanan both do this, and Krugman shouldn’t lump all forays into new domains into the same crowd. We need more of this cross-domain fertilization, not less of it. Among my favorite examples: Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jon Elster, Garry Wills, Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, Ken Wilber, Peter Turchin. These thinkers and others have done the study of the gnat’s ass required by an advanced academic degree and have then turned their attention to wider fields. If you’re not sure what label to put on a thinker (e.g., “philosopher”, “political scientist”, “classicist”, etc.) or what department they should be appointed to, then you’ve found someone likely to broaden horizons and deepen perspectives. Krugman shouldn’t knock this. He belongs in the club. 

Historian, archeologist, and classicist (another example of cross-fertilization) Ian Morris has it right: either we achieve “The Singularity” of control of energy and our future (an unprecedented development), or we hit a roof of development like all prior human civilizations have struck (at a lower height), and we collapse back into simpler social forms. Earlier examples of hitting limits and collapsing (or decaying) haven’t been the result of only physical constraints. The existence and history of Industrial Civilization has proven that the physical constraints can be altered, at least for a period. Industrial Civilization is unique in its level of attainment of social complexity and energy utilization. But although it’s gone far higher than its predecessors, we can’t conclude that a roof doesn’t exist. Where the roof lies and how we might move it is the challenge that we face.