Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Fail at Almost Everything& Still Win Big: Kind of My Life Story by Scott Adams

Good advice delivered with humor
I have a weakness for self-help books. The sad truth is that I’ve known for a long time that my self needs help—of all kinds. I also like to learn and try out new ideas and ways of living. This reading history—this quest—for an improved self hasn’t cured my many flaws, but on the whole, I think I’d be the worse off for not having tried some of the ideas that I’ve encountered. Of course, the quality of the advice that you get from what we call self-help books varies immensely. I think it appropriate, albeit unusual, to consider Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca—even Socrates—as a part of the self-help literature. The Greeks thought of philosophy as a way of life, with concepts, reasoning, and knowledge as tools for leading a good life. And this is the ultimate aim of the self-help literature, isn’t it? Religious practices (as distinct from limiting religion to a set of beliefs) all more or less seek to regulate and thereby improve the self (or soul). (Buddhists also might object to the use of “the self”, as they belief it an illusion, but I think most would agree its a handy one and something—if not someone—benefits from the Noble Eightfold Path). More recently, one can cite Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James as self-help gurus in the their literate and cultured ways. Just this morning I read excerpts and commentary upon Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, wherein the great mathematician and philosopher dispenses advice. 

Of course, a great deal of hokum and P.T. Barnum-like salesmanship pervades the field as well. From Norman Vincent Peale to Dale Carnegie to Napoleon Hill to Stephen Covey, we find a middle-brow sources of advice, often over-sold or simplistic, but good for nuggets of wisdom and for exercising the crap-detector. Some writers have helpful suggestions for improving morning rituals, getting more work done, and becoming a better conversation partner. Nassim Nicolas Taleb provides a good contemporary example of an intellectual who dispenses advice and opinions, not under the guise of self-help, but through thoughtful and entertaining essays that provide can provide benefits. One has to shop carefully, or you end up with a bunch of sale junk in your reading basket, but if you’re discerning, you can provide yourself (it’s who your giving a gift to, right?) some helpful mind-stuff. 

Scott Adams, author, cartoonist, advice-giver
This brings me to Scott Adams. Farnum Street (one my must-read blog list) posted an excerpt and commentary based on Adams’s combination autobiography and self-help book. In fact, the unique blend of personal story and insight into how to conduct a better life makes this a fun read. I’ve never read Dilbert cartoons regularly—Adams’s significant claim to fame—so I wouldn’t have read the book unless Farnum Street had included a blurb about how Adams denigrates “goals” and promotes “systems”. My inner Taoist had rebelled against goals in a way that I had never been able to quite understand. I’ve accomplished things in life, helped raise a family, succeeded in my profession, married well, and so on, without having been a goal-driven person. In fact, I had this inkling that goals were a rather abstract and perhaps in some way faulty way of going about things, and Adams clarified the issue for me. Adams writes:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal— if you reach it at all— feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 32). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
If you have your crap-detector on, you will think that any system as a system must have a goal or purpose, and that any goal must have a means or system for reaching the goal. Adams agrees. He recognizes the inherent relation of goals and systems, but he goes on the identify the fundamental differences in perspective between the two attitudes:

[T]hinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction. . . . For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (pp. 32-33). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
This is the gem that convinced me to read the book. I think that Adams is on to something. If my goal is to lose 20 pounds, I can do it and then what? If I’m like most people, I’ll put it right back on. But if my system is to eat smartly and keep myself healthy and fit, then that’s a daily set of tasks that allow to act (with success) each day. However, lest you think he goes to far, much later in the book Adams writes:

Humans will always think in terms of goals. Our brains are wired that way. But goals make sense only if you also have a system that moves you in the right direction.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 228). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Adams throughout the book proves himself a balanced and nuanced thinker, as well as displaying a fun sense of humor. 

As befits a cartoonist—who must get a message across in a small set of boxes with a few drawings and words—Adams praises the benefits of simplification, even at the expense of optimization. For him, the best way of doing things is usually the simplest because it is the most robust. (Although he doesn’t cite Nassim Taleb here, his reasoning tracks a key argument of Taleb about robustness and antifragility.) Adams goes on to list a number of different practices, acquisitions, and hacks to put yourself in the best way in this world. His list includes: 

  • Goals are for losers.
  • Your mind isn’t magic.
  • It’s a moist computer you can program.
  • The most important metric to track is your personal energy.
  • Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.
  • Happiness is health plus freedom.
  • Luck can be managed, sort of.
  • Conquer shyness by being a huge phony (in a good way).
  • Fitness is the lever that moves the world.
  • Simplicity transforms ordinary into amazing.
Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 3). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Adams details these fundamentals in the course of the book. As with the biggest points, his tips and practices usually make a lot of sense. On diet, I don’t agree completely—although he’s all over the simple carb problem. However, I’m not sure that any two people on planet Earth agree about diet (where personal bias and taste account for a great deal!). Also, if you follow through to the end the book you find that Adams believes in experimentation and observation: he’s in the pragmatic camp for dealing with the world. This attitude allowed him to locate a unique and crucial cure to a severe voice impairment that he developed. It also led him to recommend affirmations as a way of realizing goals (did he just use that word or was that me?). In other words, he’s dealt with some vexing and troubling issue,s as well as the day-to-day hassles and challenges of life that we’ve all encountered, and he’s enjoyed some success. He’s allowed observation and experience to overcome skepticism, as in his use of affirmations. I appreciate someone who is that open-minded. Sometimes things work in ways we just don’t understand or that don’t make sense to us. But working knowledge can—and should—come before theory. 

If you read one contemporary self-help book this year (sorry, he can’t go ahead of the Greeks, the Romans, or the earlier Americans) and you want some chuckles to go along with many helpful suggestions and insights, then I recommend this book. And, as one final gem, I’ll leave you with Adams’s own recap of his happiness formula:

  • Eat right.
  • Exercise.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Imagine an incredible future (even if you don’t believe it).
  • Work toward a flexible schedule.
  • Do things you can steadily improve at.
  • Help others (if you’ve already helped yourself).
  • Reduce daily decisions to routine.
Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (pp. 178-179). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Pavel Power: Simple & Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline & Easy Strength by Dan John & Pavel

Pavel inspecting his trainees

A recent fun and worthwhile podcast interview of PavelTsatsouline by Tim Ferris prompted me (reminded me) to write reviews of these two books. I read them a while ago, but they’re almost like reference books, which you can return to repeatedly for guidance, ideas, and motivation. Both books focus on fundamentals. After functional movement, strength is the most important physical attribute, Pavel argues. This makes sense, as endurance must always operate as a function of any activity undertaken. Also, as many sources suggest, you can cultivate cardiovascular endurance and health through strength training programs. It saves a lot of time on boring treadmills if you do it right. 

Basic program from the man who brought kettlebells to the New World
I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from books by Pavel. He combines learning, practice, and humor into his no-nonsense books. Born in Minsk, Belorussia, he served as trainer for Soviet special forces in the 1980s before emigrating to the U.S. He interjects Soviet and Russian (or Belorussian) humor in his books, which is good for a wry smile. But he also brings the knowledge that made Soviet and Russian (-speaking) athletes some of the most successful in the world. What they lacked in technology (which may have been a blessing of sorts) they made up with dedication to learning through science and experience. Thus, a rather blunt, clumsy looking apparatus like a kettlebell can serve as a terrific training device. I’ve gotten very serious about Pavel’s Simple and Sinister kettlebell training regimen since returning home from our trip over break, and it’s really paying off. If like me, you’re looking for general fitness and strength development, I’m not sure you could find a better place to start than with this program. Male or female, old (like me) or young. 

Covers a lot of territory
In Easy Strength, written in tandem with master trainer Dan John, you have an encyclopedic treatise on athletic and fitness issues and ideas. Written almost in the form of a dialogue, these two masters share a great deal of knowledge and insight about training issues. (By the way, as Pavel mentions in the Ferris podcast (that can serve as an excellent introduction to Pavel), he doesn’t “work out”, he “trains”. Big difference. As he might say, he wants to work “up”, not “out”.) While Simple and Sinister is a terrific basic program, this book allows you to consider more wrinkles to your fitness program and helps you dispense with a lot of nonsense and wasted time and energy. 

While I’ve greatly enjoyed other books by Pavel (Power to the People! and The Naked Warrior), these two books really cover the most territory, offering on the one hand simplicity, and on the other, breadth. 

Enjoy, comrade!

Monday, January 19, 2015

“Selma”, the Movies & History: Victories & Casualties

MLK facing a police mob at Edmund Pettis Bridge

C & I saw Selma last night, and it was a fine film in many ways. It celebrates a break-through in the quest for civil rights for all Americans. It celebrates the battles and sacrifices that success required in the face of the deep racism of Alabama and across the Deep South. (Attention to those problems in the North would come later.) David Oyelowo's portrayal of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the hero of the film and true hero in American history, was very well performed.(I haven’t most of the other best actor nominees this year, but it is hard to see how he could have missed out. The Golden Globes were certainly right to nominate him.) Playing a historical character of such charisma as Dr. King presents a terrific challenge, and he met that challenge very well. Tom Wilkinson portrayed President Lyndon Johnson, which, on a trivial note, raises the question of why two Brits play the must play the roles of these two seminal American figures. (This is an ongoing phenomenon. Wilkinson has portrayed Ben Franklin and former Secretary of State James Baker, while Daniel Day Lewis portrays Lincoln. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher hardly seems even the balance of trade.) Wilkinson’s acting captured LBJ only moderately well, but the portrayal of LBJ’s larger-than-life persona was the least of the problems. The greatest problem with the film is betrayal of truth in history. 

I almost didn’t write this blog because Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, David Kaiser in Time, and Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books have all written appropriate criticisms of the misrepresentation of LBJ’s role in these events. I was first alerted to the problem by this NYT article. I recommend all of these for your consideration. LBJ worked with King and the civil rights movement. These two leaders weren’t pals—each wary of the other (and eventually a deep rift developed over King’s criticism of the war in Vietnam). But in this cause, they were very much on the same team, working from different perspectives, but the contribution of each was crucial. LBJ was not an obstacle, but a player. And as the film portrays—and as any sense of reality dictates—differences of opinions and clashes of personalities and organizations (such as SCLC and SNCC) are inevitable and provide their own drama within the movement. Some defend the decision to portray LBJ as an impediment with the claim that a dramatic foil was needed, but the demagogue George Wallace and Alabama racists provided more than enough in the way of genuine bad guys to create the appropriate dramatic conflict. This libel (or would a film be a slander?) of LBJ is unnecessary and disheartening. LBJ is a figure of enormous complication and titanic flaws, but we don’t need to enhance his flaws nor pass over his great accomplishments in civil rights. In addition to making him an obstacle of civil rights, the film suggests that Johnson approved the use of Hoover’s salacious material about King. False. This material—an audio tape—was delivered to SCLC in December 1964 without Johnson’s knowledge or approval. Johnson, like Kennedy before him and Nixon after him, feared J. Edgar Hoover. The extent that Hoover exercised such a free hand was based on the fear these presidents felt about the material Hoover might have on them or their associates with which he could harm them.

Does this distortion of history (the truth) matter? Isn’t this just Hollywood? Yes, it does matter. And yes, Hollywood distorts history on a regular and continuing basis. But here, as in many cases before, to distort history not only does a disservice to unwary viewers (most viewers), it diminishes the film by suggesting that the film has an agenda. In this instance, the film, seems a reaction to Mississippi Burning and others like it that over emphasized white leadership in civil rights. In that light, this film seeks to portray the black actors as paramount and the whites as resistant, from those whites passive like LBJ to those aggressive like Wallace and the Alabama racists. To the extent that the distortion of Johnson’s role diminishes the film—and it does—it diminishes our appreciation of this crucial time and great accomplishment in American history. Hollywood does teach (oh, heaven help us!), and when a film of this gravity and significance fails in this regard—even partially, as the film gets a lot right—it rends the garment of our shared history and national life. No film, no book, can capture reality totally and with complete accuracy. But in the this film, the deviation is all the more disheartening because of the importance of the story told and the available historical record. 
The Politician & the Prophet celebrate a collaboration that resulted in the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965.

Will filmmakers learn? Not as long as the money keeps rolling in. In reading about Selma, I came upon discussions of another Oscar nominee, The Imitation Game, the biopic about the British genius and gay man, Alan Turing. As this NYRB article demonstrates, Hollywood (which really messes with reality in biopics) couldn’t tell the fascinating true story of this hero, either. This review, by Alex von Tunzelmann in The Guardian, points out that the film portrays Turing as committing treason (by failing to reveal a Soviet spy at Bletchley Park), when he most certainly did not know the man or of any such spying. As von Tunzelmann puts it: “Were the makers of The Imitation Game intending to accuse Alan Turing, one of Britain’s greatest war heroes, of cowardice and treason? Creative licence is one thing, but slandering a great man’s reputation – while buying into the nasty 1950s prejudice that gay men automatically constituted a security risk – is quite another.” Why these inventions? Apparently, screenwriters believe themselves more capable and interesting than history. 

The truth of history really is quite dramatic if you give it a try, Hollywood.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Transforming History: A New Curriculum for a Planetary Culture by William Irwin Thompson

Yesterday I reported on the educational ideas of Dorothy Sayers, who recommended a return to the Trivium. Today, I’ll review the curriculum of William Irwin Thompson, who, while not mentioning the Trivium or suggesting a return to any past curriculum, has created a curriculum that draws deeply on the past and that looks toward the future. I found it compelling and fascinating. Would it work? In fact, it’s the curriculum of the Ross School in Long Island, so it has current real-world application. 

Looks a bit like a leprechaun but don't be fooled!
For those not acquainted with William Irwin Thompson, he’s a rogue academic. After completing a doctorate at Cornell in cultural history and writing a book about the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin and how the literary imagination shaped those events, he went to faculty appointments at Syracuse, MIT, and Toronto. But Thompson’s interests were too big and too unorthodox to work in the academic mainstream, and he left academia to found the Lindisfarne Association, which worked to cultivate ideas outside the academic establishment. I was introduced to two of his early works, At the Edge of History: Speculations on the Transformation of Culture (1971)and Passages About Earth: An Exploration of the New Planetary Culture (1973) by Professor John S. Nelson, one of my political theory professors, who defined his field very broadly (and rightly so!). Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Thompson, although there’s much more I’d like to read (but little on Kindle at this point). Thompson ignites intellectual and historical fireworks in his writings. Put simply, Thompson looks deeply into the human past to develop some sense of where we might be headed. Thompson follows trails first laid down by the likes of Barfield and Gebser in his chronicle of changing forms of consciousness and culture. And as reflected in this curriculum, in later years he teamed with mathematician Ralph Abraham to bring a mathematical perspective to complement the literary. 

What Thompson outlines in Transforming History is a comprehensive K-12 curriculum that tracks both the development of the child and the development of human culture. Ontology recreates phylogeny? In Thompson’s sense, they seem to complement one another, at least. Thompson coordinates the developmental abilities of the children to match the curriculum. (He’s apparently aided in this by the perspective of his wife, who was a kindergarten teacher in Switzerland.) Complementing his appreciation of child development are this theories of “complex dynamical systems” and “cultural ecologies”.

We humans have moved from creatures of the African savannah to dwellers in the megacities of the 21st century connected by the internet. (N.B. I write this from the Chinese city of Suzhou that is building skyscrapers as fast as it can.) Thompson explains his perspective: 

A technological innovation is itself deeply embedded in various systems of values and symbols; a new tool can emerge synchronous with a new form of polity, as well as with a new form of spirituality. Cultural history, as opposed to the more linear history of technology, is concerned with the complex dynamical system in which biological natural drift, ecological constraints, and systems of communication and social organization all interact in a process of “dependent co-origination”. 

Irwin, Thompson William (2009-04-01). Transforming History: A New Curriculum for a Planetary Culture (Kindle Locations 170-174). Steiner Books. Kindle Edition.

Thompson, in responding to a paper by Ralph Abraham, describes the scheme he uses: 

I proposed in 1985 that “Western civilization” could be re-described as a development that proceeded through four cultural ecologies—Riverine, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the post-World War II aerospace cultural ecology of the Pacific Rim. Now, I would prefer to re-designate them as Riverine, the Mediterranean, the Oceanic, and the Biospheric. Each of these cultural ecologies was characterized by a mathematical and artistic mentality that brought forth a new worldview.
Id. 175-179

Thompson’s scheme looks at cultural change through a variety of lenses: changes in technology, language, identity, and mathematics. He summarizes: 

Each of the five cultural organizations of Culture, Society, Civilization, Industrialization, and Planetization can also be seen to be enhanced and reinforced by a matrix of identity.
1. Sanguinal [family/kinship] identity
2. Territorial identity
3. Linguistic identity (language and religion)
4. Economic identity (class and nation)
5. Noetic identity (scientific and spiritual) [arising since 1945]
Id. 287-292

Thompson believes that we’re on the cusp of further major changes, not all for the good, as the current industrial nation-state system of political economy begins to fray. Thompson believes that we face an “up or out” cultural transition. He writes: 

Religious fundamentalism and right-wing, nationalistic terrorist reactions to planetization are precisely the sort of heat that is released in these transitions. Like the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation, which sought to stop and reverse the modernizing forces of the Renaissance and the Reformation, these reactionary explosions can do much damage and deter cultural transformation for centuries. Whether humanity can move up to a transcultural identity in which science and a new kind of post-religious spirituality can reintroduce the fully individuated consciousness of the individual to a multidimensional cosmos is the question of our time. The cultural project of bringing forth this new mentality is certainly what Ralph Abraham and I have been seeking to do in all our books and cultural projects, such as the Lindisfarne Association and the Visual Math Institute.
[N]othing less than truth, goodness, and universal compassion are going to get us through this transition from a global economy to a planetary ecumené. Frankly, I have to admit that it will be easier for humanity to slide down into a dark age than accept such a cultural transformation.
Id. 299-304; 371-373

Having given us a brief tour of his ideas about cultural change and the possible futures that we face, he then turns to “transforming history”, and by this, he also means transforming the school curriculum. Thompson offers (in a nod to H.G. Wells) not an “outline of history” but a “miniaturization of history” to guide the curriculum. Looking at child development, Thompson designs to curriculum to follow certain intervals: 

Because human growth does not unfold in simple linear and accretive sequences, this curriculum is broken up into pulses of organic growth in three-year sequences. Each triad unfolds in a sequence of formative, dominant, and climactic. A formative movement introduces a new element of consciousness; a dominant movement establishes and develops it, and the climactic movement consolidates and finishes it.
Id. 450-453

It is here that that Thompson notes how this outlines tracks with the suggestions of Rudolph Steiner and the Waldorf school movement. (N.B. This book is published by Steiner books.) 

Thompson outlines how math and other subjects, how a “sacred language, like Chinese, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Classical Greek, Latin, or Arabic” can be introduced into the curriculum. So with stories and science. The degree of depth of study is matched the developmental level of the child all through the curriculum. 

In drawing upon his wife’s experience, Thompson sings to praises of the Swiss-German kindergarten. He writes: 

At the source of Origin (in the sense of Jean Gebser’s book Ever-Present Origin), knowledge is integral and not divided into disciplines and technologies. Science and myth, tools and rituals, art and understanding are all together in a cognitive bliss of the sense of the joy, wonder, and fun of being in knowing as a form of being in love—in love with life. Americans tend to view kindergarten as merely babysitting, a time you need to get through as fast as possible until you have got the kids up to speed through reading and computer skills so they can get down to the real work. This is just about as far from the truth as you can get. In fact, what the enlightened adult needs to do is to return to this earlier mind and reachieve it with all the powers that have come from intellectual development. Great scientists and artists have survived their education and have been able to do this, but most people have been beaten into submission and turned into used and abused tools.
           Id. 552-559

He continues: 

Kindergarten is a Zen-like place and time, in the sense that it involves a kind of “mind-to-mind transmission” from the teacher to the students. The being and soul of the parent or teacher is more important than pedagogic philosophy, whether Waldorf, Montessori, or Piaget. What truly matters is the sense of soul presence that embodies knowing and reverence. . . . Because knowledge is integral at this early level (as it should be again at the postdoctoral level), there should be no divisions into disciplines such as science, art, religious studies, and languages.
            Id. 592-598
Thompson, after spending a good deal of time on kindergarten, takes the reader on up through the grade levels, discussing the abilities of the child and the tasks and learning appropriate to each level. Thompson takes students on trips through time and space (i.e., all manner of cultures, civilizations, and times) to match learning and abilities. For the adult reader, it’s vintage Thompson, taking us here and there for insights into the human project. To have learned this as a kid? I think—although perhaps I delude myself—it would have been a real kick. We did something like this studying American Indians or other lands and times, but nothing with the depth and sophistication (age appropriate, of course) that Thompson suggests. Indeed, the remainder of the book, while outlining a very specific curriculum, also serves as a display of Thompson’s unique and fascinating world cultural history from the earliest humans to the present. That’s always a treat. 

Is education wasted on the young? Sometimes it seems so, but Thompson suggests that the seeds of a doctoral dissertation can be planted during kindergarten. Perhaps. While I read this book with great enjoyment as a work of history and cultural criticism, it is a series work of education as well. No system is perfect, there’s no one size fits all. But education, for anyone living, whether having completed formal education, whether with school-age children or not, must be concerned with what schools teach. 

It would be interesting to learn how Ross School graduates (that use this curriculum) fair in the larger world. Thompson reports he home-schooled his son Evan after grade school, and by all indications, that went well. Evan, now a professor in B.C., has just published another book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy that’s on my to-read list. Seems like a pretty good test run.

If you’re interested in education curriculum or where our world has been and where we’re going, I highly recommend this book and anything by WIT. And if you’re interested in both, you’ve hit the jackpot.