Saturday, October 03, 2015

How to be Happy

Yes, the secret of happiness is not complicated. In fact, I can reveal the secret to you in two words. The problem is that, while the secret is not complicated, there are two problems. First, it is very difficult to implement because it conflicts with our feelings and assumptions. Second, most people are unwilling to attempt implementing the secret because it runs counter to their beliefs and habits.

So, yes, I am going to tell you how to be happy, how to have a successful marriage, how to develop and maintain solid friendships, how to succeed in business--whatever  your current status in life. I'll tell you the secret, but you won't like it. In fact, you'll probably reject it out of hand and go on living your life as you have been, with perhaps less  happiness and success you might otherwise have had.

In two words, then, the secret of happiness is: Humble yourself.

You see, pride is the source of most of the misery we cause each other. More than that, it is an inhibitor, a preventer, even destroyer of every kind of human progress.

Perhaps you know someone who has to answer every comment, criticize every action, disagree with every suggested idea, always have the last word, and, of course, always be right. People who do these things, and who take offense easily, who always seem to be angry, are letting pride destroy their own and others' happiness. (And, yes, this sort of proud behavior can be the result of low self esteem as well as genuine belief in superiority.)

But pride goes further than one person acting out a negative life. Pride hurts us all.

Today's illustrative anecdote comes from the life of Ignaz Semmelweis, an obstetrician in 19th Century Vienna. He discovered, well before the germ theory of disease had been accepted, that his medical students were somehow transferring disease from the autopsy room to the women in the hospital. So he began the practice of hand washing before patient examination. The death rate among the women in the hospital dropped 90%, from about one in every five or six women to one or two in a hundred.

Did the medical establishment welcome this news, implement hand washing universally, and praise Semmelweis as a hero? Of course not. Many doctors were  offended that anyone could suggest that persons of their exalted social status would have dirty hands. Hmmph. Pride sinks another good idea.

Oh, and besides, Semmelweis' solution ran counter to the "settled science" of the time. So instead of   taking the humble road to hand washing, the disease problem was turned back on the women, where it was suggested that what the women needed was not a doctor's clean hands but a good laxative.

Arrogance, egotism, pride--these are enormously damaging to all of us and our social world. If you want to stop damaging others and bring yourself peace and joy, humble yourself.

Why Read Fiction?

In my book, Glimmerings II, I mentioned this anecdote in #1737. But I have another response I'd like to share.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I chose, from among the available requirements, a course in Introduction to the Theater. A major part of the course was to read and discuss various plays. One day early in the quarter, we were to discuss a Shakespeare play. The graduate student teaching the course put on his bright-eyed face and his hopeful tone, and asked, "Well, what do you think?"

After a bit of nonspecific interchange, ("I liked it," and "I couldn't understand it," etc.), a young woman, who had clearly already taken a course in race, class, and gender, announced in a deathly tone, "I can't relate to this. It's not about my people or about my experience." Now, since this was about 1970, it was probably the first time the teaching assistant had been confronted with this basis for rejection. He didn't  have much  of a response. But I have one.

I would tell her t his. Fictional stories, including plays, novels, short stories, and even some poems, are read for two reasons. The first reason is, "We read because we find ourselves there." That is, we relate to a character or situation or problem or crisis that is handled by the work of fiction, and as a result we feel a sense of belonging, being human, since our problems are encountered by others. We lose a sense of aloneness and alienation. Now, you have specifically rejected this reason, because you say that you cannot relate to the plot, character, or any other part of the play. We can let that go for now, with just the reminder that we sometimes must use our imaginations to translate a character's circumstances, words, and actions into something we feel as relevant to our own lives.

But there is another reason to read fiction. It is also said, "We read because we do not find ourselves there." Now, taken with the first statement above, that might seem like a paradox, but it conveys another truth. We read about characters and circumstances that are very different from our lives because we gain insights into ourselves and into the possibilities for additional life choices that we might make. Like travel, reading broadens our outlook and gives us a better, more circumspect view of life. We find options, possibilities, choices we never might have thought about otherwise. And with a little imagination, we can translate even very different circumstances into some idea relevant to us. We might not have a personal taylor who presses us to wear larger epaulets, but we can use the incident to reflect on dress and how clothing symbolizes something about ourselves, our attitudes, our values, and who we are. We might not see 18th century fops anymore, but we do know that some clothing styles send negative messages.

Suppose you read about a character who lives in a mansion and employs forty servants, Not your life experience, eh? But can you put yourself imaginatively in his shoes and ask yourself how you would live? How would you treat your servants? How would you run the household? What can these answers tell you about your own character?

If you don't yet have my book, Glimmerings II, get it from Amazon:

Friday, October 02, 2015

Why Do We Save Extra Parts?

If  you're like me, whenever you install a new system--an ice maker, garbage disposer, stereo system, or other item--you always have some parts left over. For example, perhaps you installed a new garbage disposer, but you didn't use the new sink flange because the old one was still in excellent condition. Or perhaps you tore out an old fountain and kept the water pump.You kept these items because, first, they would cost a lot of money if  you had to buy one for yourself, and second, you never know when you or others might need just this part.

But in reality, no one (and no one's brother) ever needs that part. So it just sits on the shelf and makes you feel as if your storage space is too limited.

I save screws, among the other items. I have five or six or ten jars each at least half full of assorted hardware items--screws, nuts, bolts, custom brackets, sockets, stuff  I'll never use because it's proprietary and fits only the one item I bought.

My excuse is that, "If you ever need one of these, you won't have to pay for a new one." And there is some rationale to that line of thought. A friend of mine needed a new capacitor for his home air conditioning unit. Now, I used to save old capacitors, so I took a look and discovered that my home collection was no more. However, I looked up the part he needed, a 35/5 microfarad capacitor, and Amazon had it for about $10. That is substantially cheaper than the air conditioner repairer's price of $105 plus his labor of $100 to $200.

Experiences like that make me wish I'd saved more parts. An so they mount. Of course, they are almost never needed, because either the part doesn't fit or it is no longer required, or it wears out too fast. Or the person doesn't want a used part.

So, over to the Salvation Army will go boxes of perfectly good items of all kinds.

Just for reference, here is an example of the type of capacitor I mentioned:

Monday, August 03, 2015

Two Mistaken Mental Models: Thermostat and Air Conditioning

It has been often said that we learn chiefly by analogy, by comparing the thing to be learned with something we are already familiar with. Thus, for example,  EEPROM (Electrically Erasable, Programmable, Read-Only Memory) is like a marker board: When you write on it, the information will remain until you erase it. Turning the power off does not erase it the way main memory is erased.

The analogy-based understanding you create is known as a mental model. It's your intellectual explanation of how the thing works or what it does.

It follows, then, that if you apply a wrong or inaccurate analogy to something you are trying to understand, you will construct a wrong mental model of it. Here are two common examples.

First misunderstanding: A thermostat is like an accelerator or a water faucet: As you press down on the accelerator or open the water faucet,  you get more heat or cooling volume. What's wrong with this mental model? Except for houses with multi-stage heating or cooling, a thermostat is actually just an on-off switch. If it's 60 degrees F in the house and you turn the thermostat up to 70, the heater comes on. If you turn it to 80, the heater also comes on, but at the same output capacity as at 70. It is true that many modern systems have variable heat output depending on the difference between current temperature and desired temperature, but if you are in a house with a system more than, say, five years old, don't assume that you are controlling heating power or output by turning the temperature up or down farther.

The second misleading mental model involves home central air conditioning. You might have seen ads for an "A/C tuneup," which in themselves seem to promote the analogy that central air conditioning units are like automobile engines. So if a technician comes to your house and ends up telling  you that your unit was a bit low on refrigerant, so he added a couple of pounds, you might be thinking that, just as your car sometimes gets a quart low oil, it's  understandable that your A/C unit might get low on refrigerant.

But this is where the model is wrong. Automobile crankcases are open systems, where oil can leak out or even be combusted if it gets past the piston rings.

Or suppose you reason a pari that, since your automobile's air conditioning system needed to have some refrigerant added, it's quite believable that you home system would, too.

But note what is in common with these analogies. The car needs oil because the oil leaks. The car AC system needs refrigerant because the refrigerant leaks out (at the compressor seals).

 A home air conditioning unit is a sealed system that cannot use up either oil or refrigerant. The only time a technician can add refrigerant could be (1) that the system was undercharged when it was installed or worked on or (2) that there is a leak. So, if you have your  unit checked and the service tech says your system needed some refrigerant, ask him, "Where is the leak?" or "Did you fix the leak? Show me where."

So, after all, the analogies are informative after all, if  you remember that the engine and car A/C need oil or refrigerant because of a leak, not because of normal use.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Is Neo-Darwinian Exposition Often a Case of Science Fiction or Fiction Science?

In my book, The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach, I referenced William D. Romey's article, "Science as Fiction or Nonfiction: A Physical Scientist's View from a General Semantics Perspective" (ETC, 37:3, Fall 1980, 201-207) in which Professor Romey says, "It is time to recognize the fictional dimension of all science and to acknowledge what is often thought 'pure' is a blend of fictional and nonfictional elements. . . ." He notes that inferences in science often involve "a leap across a gap of unknown dimensions," and that "any inference, then, may not be far from a flight of fantasy."

What brought these comments to mind was a book review by S. I. Hayakawa, that famed semanticist, discussing science fiction and L. Ron Hubbard's book, Dianetics. (ETC, 8:4, Summer, 1951, 280-293). In that review, Professor Hayakawa describes "the dangers entailed in the profession of science-fiction writing." How he describes the practice reminds me of how discussions of evolutionary "facts" and processes are often presented. Read Hayakawa's description  here and see if it doesn't resonate with a lot of Neo-Darwinist rhetoric:

"The art consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations far beyond what has even been conjectured. The danger of this technique lies in the fact that . . . the writer . . . may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself." As a result, adds Hayakawa, the writer's imaginings can "acquire so vivid a verbal existence that they may begin to  have, in the writer's evaluations, 'actual' existence."

From a semantics perspective, you could say that such writers have imprisoned themselves in their own verbal cage. Or, from a more ordinary perspective, it could be said that they have come to believe their own propaganda.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Problem Solving 101

I just read a review of a wireless router extender (the Netgear N300, which I own and enjoy). The owner said that the extender worked fine with his previous Internet service provider, but with the new provider,  he couldn't get it to work after "five or six hours" of trying. So he posted a negative review of the extender on Amazon.

Do you see the problem here? The rule is, If you change a variable in a working system, and the system stops working, look first at the variable you changed. Why blame another component in the system? That component worked fine before the change.

In the instance at hand, changing cable companies likely means a change in wireless routers. Maybe the new router (1) doesn't do WiFi well, (2) has the WiFi feature turned off, (3) isn't synchronized with the extender (unplugging the router for a minute has been known to work wonders). Or, perhaps the user is being impatient. A minute or two can be needed for the N300 to handshake with the router initially.

There is a tendency to blame the final link in any operational chain rather than investigate the upstream links. Here, the wireless extender is the final link and gets the blame. Come to think of it, the TV or laptop or BluRay player is probably the final link, so perhaps they should be investigated too.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Special Pleading

People who agree with my views have open, expanded, liberated, freed minds. They are intelligent, rational, and capable of understanding a good argument. People who disagree with me are either hardened, irrational ideologues, or victims of mind control. psychological manipulation, blindness imposed by society, or else they are simply evil people who love lies and darkness.

Have you noticed recently that there is such polarization among disputants that those with different views are no longer simply "wrong." They are now "evil."

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Missing Because

Our culture and even our educational system  has come to value subjectivity and personal opinion so highly--and has consequently come to reject fixed standards and even reason itself--that we now value every thought for its own sake, quite apart from any reason or evidence. We hear someone say, "I don't trust him," or "That movie was really great," or "That law is unjust," and then the speaker just  drops a period at the end of the sentence, It used to be that we would hear a "because" after such assertions. "That law is unjust because it treats minor offenses and major ones the same way."

Not now, however. In fact, when high school or college students are asked to supply a reason for their opinions, many of them grow instantly angry. They are offended, They take umbrage. The conversation goes something like this:

Teacher: What do you think about the main character's decision to leave town at the end?
Student: I think he's got another wife in another town and he's going to go to  her.
Teacher: And you think that because. . .
Student (growing angry): That's my opinion. That's just what I think.
Teacher: But can you point to a passage in the story that supports your idea?
Student: I don't have to. That's my personal opinion.

Postmodernists and their fellow travelers have helped bring about this state of affairs by asserting that a given work can yield dozens of different but equally valid interpretations. It's a free-for-all with interpretations of literature, poetry, history, and of course political science. But the phenomenon goes way beyond textual interpretations right to the heart of interpersonal communication on any topic. No one is required to have evidence or a reason for what they assert. We're just supposed to accept it.

But accept it as true or merely as that person's personal belief? I think we are witnessing the derationalization of the modern world. People want to hold beliefs without any reason or evidence. Case in point are some of the conspiracy theories and urban legends that are so preposterous yet so firmly believed. Example:

"Did you know that TWA Flight 800 was really shot down by a US missile?"
"But an extensive reconstruction of the wreckage showed no such evidence."
"Oh, it was hushed up and the fake story about frayed wires in the fuel tank was spread."
"But that would require the cooperation and lying of hundreds of investigators."

Here would be a good time to ask, "And you believe the missile idea rather than the official reports because...."

The answer to that leads to another discussion, about those who like to believe in the "true" explanations for our society's events.