Tuesday, April 29, 2014

On Persistence

So the guy calls 911. Fire department arrives, with truck and four firemen.
Guy: "He's been walking with little shuffling steps and has lost the ability to speak clearly. I think he has had a stroke."
Fireman 1: "I just did a stroke test, and I don't think he has had a stroke."
Fireman 2: "Yeah, I did the test, too. He hasn't had a stroke."
Soon the ambulance arrives, with two paramedics.
Guy, to paramedics: "I think he's had a stroke."
Fireman 2, to paramedics: "We did the stroke test and he passed."
Paramedic 1: "Yeah, I did the test and he passed, too."
Guy, at hospital, to doctor: "I think he's had a stroke."
Doctor: "I don't think he's had a stroke. His behavior is just the result of his illness. CAT scan shows no bleeding."
Next day.
Doctor: "We did an MRI and it shoes  he's had a stroke."

An Analogy
Guy: "Look at that duck over there. I say 'duck' because it has webbed feet and waddles like a duck."
Observer 1: "It hasn't quacked like a duck, so I don't think it's a duck."
Observer 2: " Yeah, it hasn't quacked, so I don't think it's a duck, either. I think it's a chicken."
More observers arrive. Guy to new observers: "Look at that duck over there."
Observer 2 to Observers 3 and 4: "We don't think it's a duck. It doesn't quack like a duck."
Observers 3 and 4: "Yeah, I've looked at it and haven't  heard it quack either."
Guy, at the veterinarian's office, to the vet: "Can you take care of the duck?"
Vet: "I don't think it's a duck."
Guy: "But it has webbed feet and waddles like a duck and has a bill like a duck."
Vet: "Strange deformities for a chicken, huh?"
Next day.
Vet: "The animal jumped into the pond and started quacking as it paddled around. It's  a duck."

Sometimes you need to get more than a second opinion. Sometimes you need a third or fourth opinion, especially if you have good reason to believe that the conclusions of others are just not right, because they are based on partial, incorrect, or distorted information. Quick, pigeonhole diagnoses should always be viewed with caution.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Acting in One Lesson

What separates a really good stage or screen actor from those who come across as somehow wooden or fake is the simple fact that good actors don't act. The high school kid in the play acts the way he or she thinks (1) the character would act and (2) the way actors should act. The really good professional actor, instead of pretending to be like the assigned character, becomes that character, embodies that character. The wooden actor imitates another person while the good actor develops an imaginative identification with the assigned character and lives the role.

Perhaps one way to convey this idea is to have you look at two versions of a song. Go to YouTube and watch and listen to Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey sing  "A Whole New World" from Disney's Aladdin. Then listen to the same song by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga.

Here are some links:

After you watch the faces listen to the singing, tell me who gets it and who doesn't? Which pair has become the characters and which pair is just singing a song? Who is genuine--no scratch that--who demonstrates the passion and feeling of the dramatic situation?

So, here's my Acting in One Lesson advice: Stop acting like the character, stop pretending to be the character, stop talking as the character would, and instead, let yourself become that character. And paradoxically enough, to do that you have to reference yourself. Don't think, How would this character say that, but How would I say that if I were in that situation and had those values or options? (For a bad character, for example, ask, What would I say if I were a liar or confidence artist or thug?  If  you want to be natural,  you need to imitate the most natural person you know--yourself.

In word then: Aspiring actors: You can become a good actor by becoming the character by putting yourself into the character in the situation. Connect  yourself to the dramatic situation, not just to the dialog. I hope that makes sense.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bragging Rights

Why do we brag? And what do we brag about?

Bragging or boasting is often done on the basis of mere association. That is, we have some peripheral connection with something that others admire, so we brag about it. "My team won! [therefore, I am great, too!]" Um, what, exactly, did you have to do with that performance? You assisted in that win and deserve credit how? You supported the team by watching them on TV and drinking beer? Or maybe you even bought a ticket? Wow, that is so amazing. Why, you practically won that game all by yourself.

"I drive a Mercedes! [therefore, I am impressive, just like M Benz!]" Um, the fact that you could buy or lease a Mercedes makes you impressive how? Shows that you have money? What  year is it? "Um, 1992. But I paid only $1700 for it! I got a super deal. So, I can brag about being shrewd!" Yeah, but save your money for that $4500 transmission repair coming up. Marketers say that the car you drive is a personal statement about who you are, an extension of your personality. I don't know. What if your lips say Lamborghini, but your wallet says Ford Fiesta?

"Well, my kid got kid of the month at school." And that reflects on your wonderfulness how? That  you are a great parent somehow responsible for  your kid's performance? Now, if you brag on behalf of your child rather than yourself, then you are on firmer ground.

"Well, the fact is, I'm [choose one: smart, rich, good looking, famous, influential]." This brings us to today's word of wisdom: "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" --1 Corinthians 4:7b

All of our talents, abilities, and personal attributes are a gift from God, so boasting about them is ridiculous. "I'm so great because I'm cute," doesn't cut the mustard of logic. You might boast about your parents' DNA that let you be cute, but that's a gift from the Lord via your parents.

Do we have so little genuine, humble self-esteem that we have to turn to loose associations with people and things that our short-attention-span peers find remarkable?

Let's see, what can I brag about? I once met a guy who knew the third cousin of a woman who shook hands with a guy who owned a store where a man shopped who had his hair cut by a barber who heard that the friend of a friend of a customer knew someone who once met Elvis Presley. I am soooo stoked!!! Me and
Elvis! We're just like this!

Do you admire me now?

Friday, April 25, 2014

How Flashlights Prove the Value of Objective Standards

Remember a few years ago when flashlights had no fixed, defined, objective standard for brightness, distance, or even how long the light would last before the batteries croaked?
Ads for those D-cell flashlights would say, "Super Bright!" "Max Brightness!" "One-Mile Range!" "Best Performance!" and of course, "Long-Lasting!"

This is the problem of a lack of objective, measurable standards. Without them, we are reduced to subjective opinion. And opinion is subject to bias and self-interest. "In my opinion, the light from this flashlight is indeed Super Bright." And, "In my opinion, my flashlight has the best performance."

[Interruption for advertising clarification. In real life, "best" is a claim of superiority. "I am the best!" But in the bizarre world of advertising, "best" is a parity claim. All marketers can claim their product is the best. And so everyone is the best and all are equal. Just don't claim your product is "better" unless you have tons of evidence because "better" is a superiority claim in the advertising world.]

So LED flashlights arrive and the wild claims continue. A few marketers start using "candlepower" which varies depending on how it is measured (how far from the bulb, for example). But still open to subjective manipulation. In other words, my 20,000 candlepower flashlight might be brighter or dimmer than your 20,000 candlepower flashlight.

Enter the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) FL-1 standard, which measures flashlight output in lumens according to a fixed protocol.

Yesterday, I just happened to be flashlight shopping and noticed the variety of light output. There were flashlights rated from 9 lumens (a traditional 2-D-cell flashlight, through 64, 120, 200, 700 and so on. Of course, the 9-lumen light was only $2.49 while the 700-lumen light was $39.99, but you now can make an informed choice.

[Last  caution. If you shop on the Web, be careful because lots of ads will claim huge lumen outputs for very low cash. They might not be measuring by the FL-1 standard.]

Philosophical conclusion: Fixed standards, like fixed values (hint: Ten Commandments) make decision making much easier--and with more reliable results.

Is Commerce Controlling Our Attention and Thinking?

I was just glancing over some Web stats regarding page views and advertising revenues and the thought occurred to me that, on the Web at least, our attention and thinking is being distorted in the direction of buyable stuff. Here's my simple reasoning, backed by some stats.

1. Web content creators in many cases are interested in monetizing their sites.
2. The way to make money on a site is to display advertisements.
3. The ads displayed are often linked to the content of the page.
4. People click on ads that offer things of interest, which are often tangible products.
5. The bigger ticket the tangible product, the more the click is likely to pay.
6. Therefore, Web content providers are rewarded more by content that lends itself directly ads offering related products than by content that does not.

Example: If I talk about cars, I might get car ads. If I talk about virtue or procrastination or Pascal's book Pensees, what advertiser will I interest? (I saw a list of top click paying phrases, and except for some oddball ones like "mesothelioma lawyers," most were about stuff you can buy.

So, should I be virtuous and discuss philosophy, the way I want to, or should I be more interested in making a buck and discuss toaster ovens or flashlights?

I suppose that the counter argument to the pretension that talking about stuff is a less noble thing than discussing philosophy is that many (most?) Web searchers are much more interested in reading about, say, the new Honda Accord (notice how cleverly I slipped that in?) that about, say, Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

Maybe I can do both. See the next post on flashlights.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Car Dealers Get a Clue

Now that I've ragged (deservedly) on Toyota dealers and cars, let me hasten to note that other dealers have accumulated their share of poor service and poor quality, too.

My dad bought a 1972 Pontiac Firebird, which was lots of fun to drive, except for a few problems. (1) The car  had only a two-speed automatic transmission, giving us 14 mpg. (2) From day one, the power brakes required that we just about stand on the brake pedal to get the car to stop. (3) The car began overheating regularly a few months after we bought it.

Naturally, the car was under warranty, so we took both issues to the Pontiac dealer. The brakes check out okay, they told us, and as for the overheating, well, it's summer now and the weather is hot. Lots of people are having overheating problems.

When the warranty was over, the dealer said, "Your brakes are crystallized and need to be replaced, and we'll look into that overheating problem, too."

That, and the fact that the original set of tires lasted only 14,000 miles (remember those cheap-o bias ply tires on American cars in those days?) caused my father to trade the car in.

The first car I bought myself was a 1977 Buick Regal. I was going to get another Chevy Nova to replace the 1969 Nova my dad had given me, but after price shopping, I discovered the Regal was only a few hundred dollars more. I ordered it through the mail, might  have been via Consumer Reports, (I've forgotten), and it was to be delivered to the Buick dealer in my town (Corona, California). The car arrived and the Corona Buick dealer refused to accept it. The $125 or so paperwork fee was apparently not enough. So, I got a call from a Buick dealer in Pasadena, and had to drive over there to pick it up.

On another occasion, I went with my dad to shop for a new car. We went to a Chevy dealer and found a reasonable car. However, the salesman wasn't very flexible. We made what I thought (and know now) was a very reasonable offer. The salesman left us to "talk to his boss" to see if the deal was okay. Unfortunately, my dad, not realizing that the sales booth was likely bugged, said to me, "You know, I'm not going to buy very many more cars, and I can afford this one." (He was getting up in years.) So the salesman and sales manager come back into the office, and the sales manager says, "Your offer isn't good enough. The best we can do is $----." I thought that was way too much, might even have been over sticker, so I convinced my dad to shop around a bit more. On our way out the door, the sales manager said, just loud enough for me to hear, "Next time, bring money."

More Problems with Toyota

I've been watching an auto refurbishing show, Wheeler Dealers, where Mike and Ed buy a used car and fix it up for resale. It made me wonder if I should try the same, only buy an old car to fix up for a runabout. That made me think back to my favorite car ever, a dark blue 1986 Toyota Celica. And that reminded me of yet more dealer disappointments, these from a different dealer.

1. The 86 Celica had a timing belt, not a timing chain, so it needed to be changed periodically. I was informed that the 1.8 liter engine was an "interference" design, which meant that if the timing belt broke, the pistons and valves would collide and destroy the engine. So I agreed to have the timing belt replaced. Long story short, the dealer stretched the wiring while lifting the engine, breaking an ignition wire. As a result, I'd be driving down the street or on the freeway and the engine would suddenly stop. On the freeway, this resulted in a desperate attempt to restart the engine, which was successful after several tries. I took the car back to the dealer, who (1) completely disowned all responsibility for the problem and (2) couldn't find out what was wrong, since the problem was intermittent.

I took the car to a third part foreign car electrical specialist, who couldn't find out what was wrong, either, but suggested replacing the igniter, which I did to no effect. I finally had to trade the care in when I changed to Honda because, even though I loved that little car (in spite of its lousy brakes and underpowered engine).

2. Earlier, I bought new tires at a tire store, and there they pointed out some inside-edge front tire wear, symptomatic of an alignment problem. So I took the car to the Toyota dealer and had the wheels aligned along with some other service, such as an oil change. Not too long after that, I noticed some inside-edge front tire wear appearing on the new tires. The dealer said there would be a charge to recheck it, so I took the car to a third-party alignment shop. "After they aligned your wheels," the service manager of the shop said, "did they give you a printout showing before and after settings on all four wheels?" I told him I didn't get any printout. "They probably didn't align your wheels," he said. I had the wheels aligned and got a printout and had no more unusual wear.

While I'm complaining about Toyota, I might add that the fly-by-wire design of the accelerator is problematic for two reasons. (Fly-by-wire means that there is no longer a mechanical linkage from the gas pedal to the fuel injector system: it's all electronic.) (1) it's very difficult for me to accelerate from a stop gradually; instead, the car tends to leap from a stop when I push down, trying ever so gently to get a smooth takeoff. (2) What's really bad is that when I take my foot off the gas pedal, the car continues to go almost the same speed for some time before it begins to slow down. With the old, mechanical system, when you take your foot off the gas pedal, the engine heads for idle immediately and the car slows down rapidly. That's the preferred driving experience.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Missing Parts

Why do we have to learn the same lesson over and over again and still not grow wise enough to make the same mistake even still yet again another time?

Lessons I have learned repeatedly:
1. When you ask for help finding an item, the store employee will grab the item on the top of the pile.
2. The item on the top of the pile of items is a returned item, brought back by a customer.
3. Returned items are always missing parts.

If you're like me, when you shop for an item, you make sure you get a box or package that hasn't been opened or returned. But when an employee walks halfway through the store, grabs the item you want and hands it to you, you sometimes accept it. We don't want to be impolite and say, I'd like an unopened one, please.

1. Drill driver, but missing battery charger.
2. Shower bracket, missing screws.
3. Towel rack, missing mounting hardware.

Word to the wise, avoid returned packages. Make sure the item is sealed, or lacking sealed packaging, that all the parts are there.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Notes from the Scratch Paper

The meteor attracts our eye, but it cannot direct our paths. For direction, we must rely on the fixed star, even though it sometimes might be hidden by fog or cloud.

The true depth of a pond cannot be known unless it is tested. So too is the true depth of human claims. How great, deep, or solid is knowledge, courage, love, perseverance, faith, integrity, and the like, we can know with certainty only when they are challenged.

Several members of a tour group were enjoying the sights of a waterfall in a popular tropical paradise when one noted a pile of trash littering the lawn nearby.
     "Isn't that disgusting?" one of them said.
     "Yes, that's terrible," said another. "What's wrong with people?"
     "That ruins the experience," said a third. "Someone ought to pick it up."
     "Don't look at me," the first one said. "I didn't put it there."
A fourth tourist, who had said nothing, quietly picked up all the litter--the cans, chip bags, crumpled napkins, even a soggy diaper--and put it all into a nearby trash can.
     "Good for you," one of the others said.
     "I don't know how you can touch that stuff," said another.
     "Why did you pick that up?" asked the third.
     "I've always believed," answered the quiet one, "that I should leave every place and every person a little better than when I arrived."
     "How quaint," said the third tourist.
     "I can't always make an improvement," the quiet one said, "but I must always try."
     "That's so precious, you little custodian," said the second tourist, not realizing that the quiet one was speaking about much more that some trash on the lawn.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Swahili Proverbs

What makes Swahili proverbs stand our it their musicality. Many of the proverbs convey the same message as our English counterparts, but they do so in delightfully rhythmic, often rhetorically balanced, and sometimes rhyming fashion.

Haraka haraka haina baraka.
Quick quick is without blessing.
English counterpart (also rhyming): Haste makes waste.

Hasira hasara.
Anger loss.
English counterpart: An angry man stirs up strife, and  hot-tempered man abounds in transgression. --Proverbs 29:22

Abufaaye kwa dhiki ndiye rafiki.
One who profits you in times of need is a true friend.
English counterpart:  A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Polepole ndiyo mwendo.
Slowly is the way to go.
English counterpart: Slow and steady wins the race.

Mganga hajigangi.
A doctor doesn't heal himself.
English counterpart: A doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.

Proverbs encapsulate the core truths of human nature, which is the same throughout every culture. They provide food for thought and anchor points for decision making.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Fear of Failure Is the Same as Fear of Success

"This doesn't work. It's broken, and no one knows how to fix it."
"Let me take a look at it."
"Do you know how to fix it?"
"Not at all. Never seen it before."
"Do you know what you're doing?"
"Then just what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. Try something."
"But what if you make a mistake?"
"Oh, I'm sure I'll make a lot of mistakes."
"You're planning to fail?"
"Of course. By learning what doesn't work, I hope I can get some insight into what will work."
"So your method of problem solving is based on vague hope and certain failure."
"That's right. That's the pavement on every heuristic road to success."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

That's Redundant, and You Already Said It

Writing teachers are quick to slash through repetitive, redundant language in their students' essays, and (except in marketing) so are business people.

However, we live in an attention economy, where getting people to focus on a message long enough to comprehend it provides a major challenge. To get someone's attention, the message has to be repeated many times. For example, did you ever count the number of times the radio ad repeats the phone number of the sponsor? Often, it's five times during a 30-second spot.

Redundancy can be even more useful than repetition, because it provides both an extended length of time to allow the message to sink in and alternate language that may get through when the original phrasing did not: "Room and Board included. We will provide a comfortable place to stay and all your meals."

Redundancy goes large when the message is critical: "Warning of fatal shock! You could be killed! Danger of electrocution! Keep ladder well away from overhead power lines. If ladder touches overhead wires, you could receive a fatal electric shock and die." Quibblers will scoff and ask, "So, um, could you receive "a fatal electric shock" and NOT die?" But the lawyers who work for the ladder company will not be budged. (By the way, did you ever count the warning labels on a ladder? One of my ladders has 11 warnings on it.)

Redundancy and/or repetition can be desirable when the information is very important or when the target audience needs reassurance about the fact. So we need to think of the emotional as well as the intellectual needs of the reader.

Finally, thee is the Coca Cola Rule. Why does Coke advertise? Is it to get new customers who have never heard of Coca Cola? "Coke, eh? Hmm. I'll have to try that sometime." Coke's constant repetition, like that of any aggressive brand, is not to provide new information ("Coke? Never heard of it.), but to maintain presence in the overflowing information economy--to reset attention, to remind you. ("Coke? Of course. Haven't had one for a few days. Let's go get a float.")

At a recent visit to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Samsung was all over the place continuing to build its brand image and awareness. The company had painted the entire side of a building with a huge Samsung logo on it, put up banners, attached signs to buses and taxis, printed various cards and brochures, put ads in the show publications, and, of course, had a large booth in the exhibit area.

Finally, in the attention economy, repetition is designed to make familiar the unfamiliar or even the unknown. That's why candidates for office put up signs everywhere with little other than their name on them: "Joe Freen for Congress." If nothing else, they will have name recognition on the ballot when voting time arrives. And we nearly always prefer the familiar or known to the unfamiliar or unknown.

Purposeful redundancy can be a positive practice.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Seek First to Understand

One of the things that irritates me substantially is the news or panel-style program where three or four people do nothing but interrupt and talk over each other, jumping on half a sentence spoken by someone they disagree with. A similar kind of disrespectful, instant judgment behavior is increasingly common in our ordinary social interactions.

Suppose we are in a small group and someone says, "Confucius made a significant contribution to Western civilization." Someone else in the group is likely to smirk and step in immediately with, "You mean Eastern civilization. Confucius was Chinese." Or perhaps simply, "Hellooo! Confucius was Chinese you know. From the East, not the West."

A polite audience would have simply waited for elaboration, or perhaps prompted, "In what way?" And here the answer could have been that the speaker thought the Latin translation of the Analects that was introduced into Europe in 1687 was influential for its views about the desired behavior of the gentleman.

Too often we jump all over someone's statement before we even know what they are talking about, but based on our assumptions about what we think they mean. It's also interesting that, since criticism is valued above agreement (because it supposedly shows better analysis or keener insight), hardly anyone interrupts with, "That's very true," or "I really agree." Instead, it's, "That's wrong," or "You don't know what you're talking about."

If we were really curious in conversation rather than interested only in "talking for victory," we would encourage those talking to elaborate, specify, exemplify, and delineate their views instead of cutting them off before we know what their views really are. We would seek first to understand.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Hunger for Truth

Blaise Pascal says that "man wants to be happy and to be assured of some truth" (Lafuma 123). Strange thing about that. It's true even in today's relativistic, postmodern world.

Note how people who argue that there is no such thing as truth (or Truth), that there are many "truths," that our minds cannot know truth but only the epiphenomena of our brain chemistry--all are adamant, even outrageously aggressive--to support and defend the truth of those philosophies. Of course, such positions are embarrassed by self-referential absurdity--self contradiction--but nevertheless it's telling how earnestly and  how strongly committed so many of these people are.

But Pascal is right. We want assurance of some truth. This explains why so many try so hard to locate evidence for the rightness of their beliefs, whether social, moral, scientific, philosophical, or religious.

"We have no free will or free thought," someone says. "Everything we say or do or think is predetermined."
"So, then, why are you telling me this?"
"To convince you."
"But if all our thoughts and ideas are predetermined, there can be no such thing as a change of mind independent of predetermined changes. Argument, reason, and conviction are illusions. But I guess your need to try to convince me is predetermined, so you can't help yourself. And unfortunately, I'm predetermined not to believe you."

The same comments could be made about man's search for meaning. Some people argue that life has no meaning, and they are earnest to convince everyone else that such is the truth. But if life has no meaning, why bother? Why care? Nor does it help much to say, "Well, we as individuals or societies construct socially agreed upon meanings." Doesn't that sound a bit arbitrary? As the saying is, In a land without steak, cardboard is steak. If the real thing is denied or missing, a counterfeit will be invented.

What Should We Value in Life?

Suppose I show you some object and say, "This is a flurnitron. Isn't it perfect?" What would you answer?

That's right, you'd ask, "What does it do?" or more skeptically, "What is it supposed to do?" But in either case, you want to know its purpose, because you cannot tell whether something is good or bad until you know its purpose and how well it fulfills that purpose.

Thus, your first question about the flurnitron would not be, "How much electricity does it use?" or "Is it made of steel?" or the like. Until you know what it was designed to do, those questions are irrelevant. What we value in an object is not what it's made of or how it's powered--until we understand the relevance of those answers.

So, when we think about our own lives, before we can answer, "Am I a good person living a worthwhile life?" we have to determine the purpose for which we exist. For if everything exists to fulfill its purpose, we can evaluate everything based on the extent each thing fulfills its purpose.

If, as the marketers seem to imply, our purpose is to consume products and spend money, then many of us do that really well. If we have no purpose, then it doesn't matter what we do, and there is no estimation of fitness to purpose possible. But if we do have a purpose--to serve God who created us and to be his hands in serving his children--our fellow human beings--then we can adjust our lives to align ever more closely with that purpose. That purpose, to steal a few words from Shakespeare, "is the star to every wandering bark," providing a fixed focal point for our behavior.

Therefore, we can see that finding the best steak in town or memorizing the names of all the players on a favorite professional sports team or driving the fanciest car on the block are activities that do not really speak to our purpose. I myself am rather embarrassed to think of the highly tangential nature of many of my own pursuits. These comments, then, are addressed to me.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Everyone Knows That

Some people object to being reminded of "obvious" truths, such as are found in proverbs: "A house is turned into a home one kind word at a time." But consider. First, we live in such an overwhelming information tsunami that unless we repeat common truths, they will sink into oblivion under the wash of everything else.

And often that everything else includes misinformation, disinformation, lies, half truths, urban legends, myths, conspiracy theories, ideological fabrications, spin doctor treatments, invented narratives, and  misunderstandings, not to mention simple errors, superfluities, and data smog.

In a word, lies are repeated endlessly and constantly. Lies are shouted from the housetops and pronounced solemnly by pundits and academics with many letters after their names. Lies drone on and on--wasn't it Hitler himself who said something to the effect that a lie repeated often enough will be believed?

So, if we don't repeat truth, it has no possibility of overcoming the lies. Error will reign and people will congratulate each other that "the controversy has finally been settled" because no one now opposes the ever-repeated wrong conclusion.

Online Address Forms Pet Peeve

Maybe I need to get a life if this is the biggest thing I can complain of, but here it is, anyway.

Whenever I have to fill out an address online, it usually goes like this:

Name: Blah Blah

Country: Here, I usually find a drop down list of countries, even on a site like Sally's Local Cupcakes. The United States half the time is listed near the bottom (alphabetical order, you know), so a huge scroll down is needed. A few sites have listed the source of 99% of their business (US, UK, Canada) at the top before the alphabetical list begins.

Street Address: Blah Blah

City: fill in

State: fill in

Zip Code: fill in

And that's exactly my peeve. Hello!!! If the site asked for the zip code right after the street address, then the Country, City, and State names could be autopopulated through a zip code/post code lookup. Is that so hard?

United States zipcodes, such as 98765 are quite different from UK codes, such as AB12 3CD and those differ from Canadian post codes such as T4B 1M5. So the country look up should work for the major players. At the minimum, go ahead and ask the country first and then the post code.

Come to think of it, any smart Web site can look back at the originating IP address of the browser, at least to the country level, and likely to the local POP (point of presence). When I used to use a VPN connection while working from home, I could browse over to Home Depot and see how much cheaper items were in Minnesota, where the company's servers connected to the Net.

Ok. Enough whining.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Old and Not So Old Books

"The only palliative [to the blindness of shared assumptions in the modern world] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books." --C. S. Lewis

"Truth that triumphs over all things . . . seems to remain more usefully and to fructify to greater profit in books. For the meaning of the voice perishes with the sound; truth latent in the mind is wisdom that s hid and treasure that is not seen; but truth which shines forth in books desires to manifest itself to every impressionable sense". --Richard de Bury, Philobiblon, circa 1345

Lewis was thinking about really old books, such as those of the ancient Greek philosophers, or even somewhat old books, such as Philobiblon, quoted above, but even slightly non-contemporary books can sometimes shed light on the blindness of groupthink that seems to possess every era to some extent. I have in my library an introduction to American literature textbook from the early twentieth century, listing Herman Melville in an appendix as an "also wrote," while featuring now-neglected writers such as Booth Tarkington.

An interesting example of a not-so-old book about the sources of modern and postmodern times is The Revolt Against Reason by Arnold Lunn. It was published in England in 1950 and by Sheed and Ward in New York in 1951. (You can still get copies, though. Just google the author and title.)  Here is some food for thought drawn from Mr. Lunn.

"[T]he success and enduring influence of a systematic construction of falsehood depends very largely on inexact terminology" (3). Consider how squishy and inexact are many of the terms over which bitter debates are fought: climate change, evolution, social justice, reason and faith, knowledge versus belief, what is fair, legislating morality. And of course we won't even go to love, need, fairness, and so on. When you can use a term, knowing that your definition is different from that of your hearer or reader, but allowing them to assume that their definition is yours too, then all kinds of manipulation are possible.

Thinking about the anti-rationalism of postmodernism and what I have called Type 2 people, we can find a relevant remark in Lunn: "The revolt against reason is in its ultimate essence the revolt of unbridled individualism against an external and objective code" (50). Reason favors objective measurements, which rely on a code of values and truth, which implies accountability external to oneself. The revolt against reason produces subjectivity of measurement, an existentialist operating method, and a solipsistic view of living for oneself.

But I should let Lunn continue: "The great leaders of this revolt have all been wishful thinkers who contrived to believe that reality could be forced to conform to the pattern shaped by their ambition or by their lust" (59). Doesn't that nicely describe the utopianism of so many of our elites?


Worldviews 101, Part 4

Continuing our differentiation between Type 1 and Type 2 people (which I realize is very general and subject to much qualification and many exceptions and variations),

Type 1 people tend to be more willing to submit to authority, even to the point of mistaking an equation between legality and morality.
Type 2 people tend to resist authority, and many times confuse the difference between authority and authoritarianism.

Type 1 people sing "Humble Yourself in the Sight of the Lord" when they drive to work.
Type 2 people sing "I Did It My Way" when they drive to work.

Type 1 people often keep their opinions to themselves, because Type 2 people are often so much more aggressive and vocal about their views.

Type 1 people believe that language, as imprecise as it is, is an ordering and structuring tool, a tool for understanding. Without this use of abstract symbols, we would find it almost impossible to share our beliefs about the structure of the universe, to analyze our perceptions of the external world, and to draw conclusions about the reality beneath it all.

Type 2 people, especially the postmodernists among them,  reject "totalizing narratives" (claims of absolute truth and objective reality), just as they dismiss reason and "privileged interpretations" of texts.

So. to an extent, the so-called culture wars represent a battle between authority and the self, or in starkest relief, between pride and humility, where humility is defined as the recognition of a higher authority than oneself. The message of classical Western philosophy is that happiness comes through the submission of personal desire and appetite to reason, a reason informed by transcendent, objective reality and absolute truth. In other words, self control for the sake of personal happiness and the social contract is the path to the Good.

Familiarity Trumps Accuracy

Why is it that whenever an airliner crashes, the media announce that investigators are searching for the "black boxes" to help them determine the cause of the crash--this, when the "black boxes" have been painted orange for, what, maybe 50 years? Why don't the media simply say that investigators are searching for the "data and voice recorders" to help them determine the cause of the crash?

Similarly, since the Richter scale was replaced by the Moment Magnitude scale in the 1970s, why do the media still refer to the Richter scale whenever we have an earthquake?

Someone opined that people are comfortable with familiar concepts. The logical conclusion to be drawn from that is that the news should tell people something they already know. That's an odd view of the news. Nevertheless, many journalists seem to write stories from templates, making the new details conform to the familiar script.

If a story is written as it is, rather than forced to grow on the trellis of stereotype, will the readers or viewers have to learn something new?

Is the news consuming public really like junior high school students who stop reading something just because they came up on a word they don't know?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why I Don't Admire Toyota

In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned the power of story to persuade. Here are some experiences I've had with Toyota. See what you think.

Experience 1. My wife's 2010 Camry turned on the traction control fault light. I hunted for my OBD II code reader for a couple of days, but couldn't find it. "So what?" I thought. "I spent over a thousand dollars for the extended warranty, so I'll just take it to the Toyota dealer and have it fixed." So I did.
     A few hours later, the dealer said the car was ready. "The gas cap wasn't on tight enough," the service manager said. "The code showed that."
     "Why was the traction control fault light on," I asked.
     "They do that sometimes," he said.
     "Thank you, Mr. Dealer."
     "That will be $112 please."
     "Just for reading and resetting the code?"
     "But I have the extended warranty."
     "Not covered."

Experience 2. I took the Camry in to a Goodyear store to have the oil changed and tires rotated.
     "Your left front and right rear struts are leaking," the dealer said. Since it's not good to replace only one strut because of uneven handling (in the same way you shouldn't replace only one tire), all four should be replaced."
     "Good thing I have the extended warranty," I said.
     So I took the car to the Toyota dealer and reported the analysis of the Goodyear mechanic. A few hours later, the dealer called and said, "We have permission from Toyota to replace one strut."
     "But two are leaking."
     "Well, according to Toyota, there's leaking and then there's leaking. Your right rear strut isn't leaking enough to be replaced."
     "It's leaking, but leaking is okay??!!"
     "But what about replacing them in pairs?"
     The dealer didn't have the part in stock, so I had to return a few days later.

Experience 3. A couple of days after the strut replacement, my wife pulled into a parking lot and the right engine under cover panel fell off. When she got home, I looked over (or rather under) the situation and discovered that the left under cover panel was dangling by only a couple of screws, instead of the eight it should have. I took the car back to the dealer.
     "Please first, check to see if the strut replacement was done correctly, with no bolts missing or loose, and then replace the under covers properly."
     "We'll look into it," the service manager said.
     The next day (when the "Red Team" is working again) I get a call.
     "The Red Team says that the panel that came off has nothing to do with the strut replacement and that replacing the under cover panels will be $347."
     "But the two panels share several screws in common. How can they have nothing to do with the replacement of the strut since those screws need to be removed as part of the left undercover panel removal? And why was the left panel left with only two screws installed?"
     "I don't know."

Experience 4. I've been thinking about adding a backup camera to my 2013 Tacoma (the last Toyota I will ever buy). Since the truck is already wired for a camera and the display is standard equipment for the radio, all I need is the camera unit. Similar units on the Web are available for $30 to $80 or so, CMOS, color, 170 degree angle, etc. So how much does Toyota want for a camera that will plug into the Tacoma wiring harness? The list price is $815.02, but some benevolent dealers will sell it for as little as $611.23.
     Note to Toyota: You'd make a lot more money, not to mention improving on the public's view of the company, if you offered a do-it-yourself kit that included the camera and instructions for, say, $99. Or an aftermarket install with camera and labor done by the dealer for $199.
     If I may generalize, car manufacturers and dealerships alike need to study up on their economics, particularly the lesson on elasticity of demand and price sensitivity. How many cameras has Toyota sold at $815? No doubt the insurance companies are getting soaked over rear-end collisions that knock out the camera, but how many cameraless Toyota owners have slapped down their Visa cards and had the camera installed? And how many would go for it for a reasonable price?

So, those are my stories. And they show why I don't admire Toyota.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Worldviews 101, Part 3

Because Type 2 people tend to believe that human nature is flexible and can be changed for the better, it follows that the right circumstances (read: government-imposed laws, regulations, morals, programs) can bring about a happy and healthy society, if not paradise on earth. The Marxists used to propose that eventually government itself would end after the social and economic order was appropriately reformed. Unfortunately, more than 150 million people have died during the process of trying to implement earthly nirvana along Marxist lines.

One of the few remaining Marxist experiments is North Korea, where the situation is so dire and the starving people so miserable that the Left in the United States has begun to claim that DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) is actually a Fascist state instead of a communist state. True, pictures of Lenin and Stalin have been recently removed from public buildings in North Korea, but the cult of personality (compare Mao in China) seems to fit the communist-society-on-the-way-to-paradise format, as does the idea that a fearless leader is the one to take everyone there.

The point is, however, that Type 2 people are utopians, who believe that controlling the structure of the world (society and nature) will bring about goodness, or at least alleviate much of society's suffering. Because type 2 people frequently either mock religion outwardly or relegate it to the privacy of one's home, they are unwilling to advocate personal reformation as a solution to societal or family problems.

For example. What can be done about the high percentage of children born out of wedlock and raised by only their mothers?
Type 1 response: Improve education about the risks of illegitimacy, advocate moral instruction, hold fathers accountable for their children, develop community support for marriage and family and discourage damaging behaviors.
Type 2 response: Offer welfare support to the single mother, avoid moral instruction or community support ideas, because those will be "blaming the victim," Implement government programs to assist the (now) poor women--who have three kids and no job.

Type 1 people, as mentioned, often worship God--together with all that implies about the supernatural. They look upon the process of metamorphosis, the complexity of the simplest single-cell organisms, or even the amazing qualities of water as testimony to a Creator.
Type 2 people may also believe in God. But both those who do and those who don't frequently channel their religious emotions into protecting and preserving the natural world. It's  something akin to the nature worship of old. Environmentalism, activism over climate change, opposition to oil pipelines, all these kinds of things reflect Type 2 people's concerns.

So, when someone wonders why an extra billion dollars needs to be spent to reroute a highway in order to protect the habitat of a rare frog or bird, you can understand the trade off if you understand it on the basis of the Type 2's religious commitment to the environment.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Worldviews 101, Part 2

So, what happens when Type 1 people interact with Type 2 people? Does a calm, reasoned discussion of disparate ideas result in a final identification of the truth? Consider these facts:

Type 1 people are often committed to Biblical values, which they identify as objective, unchanging truths not amenable to compromise, dilution, or adjustment.
Type 2 people often view their commitments and beliefs as moral imperatives that are not only unavailable for debate or compromise, but are the embodiments of righteousness, so that to oppose them is not simply wrong but evil.

Type 1 people often enter helping professions, to add their energies to the repair of others damaged by the coarseness of life. Type 1 people often work the Midnight Missions, food banks, evangelization organizations, disaster relief efforts, and so on.

Type 2 people often work in institutions that can influence change on the front end through social engineering: law, politics, government, political action groups, and the media. Indeed, Type 2 people dominate the mainstream media, the universities, Hollywood, and the Democratic party. As a result, Type 2 people tend to control the information environment, with the result that on a large set of issues, only one viewpoint is permitted. (After all, if your belief is a moral imperative and opponents are therefore in favor of evil, you see it as your task to suppress them.)

The positions held by Type 2 people are thus described in ways that prohibit variance or contradiction:

  • settled science
  • the debate is over
  • the only fair answer
  • justice
Opponents (such as Type 1 people) are
  • irrational
  • inhumane
  • beyond the pale
  • extremists
And the labels of opprobrium and excoriation:
  • racist
  • sexist
  • homophobic
  • classist
Because Type 2 people view their beliefs as moral imperatives, they often become angry when anyone questions one of their positions even a little bit. You might have noticed the anger from a Type 2 person when someone criticized or took the politically incorrect view of
  • global warming
  • gay marriage
  • Neo-Darwinian evolution
  • abortion
  • separation of church and state issues
  • environmentalist issues
Type 2 intellectuals often want to impose their viewpoints on everyone in an authoritarian manner, which is why they seek positions of power (government, academe, media), and why they use the courts to prohibit opposing ideas. 

These facts explain why Type 2 people, who think of themselves as liberal and open, are willing to implement speech codes and persecute dissent--because openness does not extend to the expression of evil ideas.

Worldviews 101, Part 1

I've often quoted the proverb, "The central work of life is interpretation," and that thought is a good one to begin a discussion of worldviews. Everyone has a worldview, which might be defined as a set of fundamental beliefs about reality (including humanity) that both filters and interprets all of our incoming knowledge and experience. Worldviews are slowly shaped by these same knowledge and experience inputs, but because of the power of the worldview as interpreter, change is often slow if it comes at all.

You might be thinking about worldviews such as Christian versus secular, and those are indeed good examples. But let's look at a foundational philosophical chain that helps explain how our worldviews are shaped.

Type 1 people believe that humans are fallen, sinful, and by nature up to no good.
Type 2 people believe that humans are basically good, and would be good if circumstances permitted.

Type 1 people believe that the solution to human misery, crime, and evil is to reform people, or in Christian terms, to bring them to salvation. Then they will be good and prosper.
Type 2 people believe that the solution to human misery, crime, and evil is to create enabling environments that will allow people to be all they can be.

Type 1 people are generally conservative, adhering to traditional values, morals, and beliefs. They emphasize following structures (law, decorum) and serving others as a means of happiness and fulfillment.
Type 2 people are generally liberal, believing that, since there is so much inequality and poverty, that traditional ideas must be jettisoned and replaced by new experiments that will (or might) lead to happiness.

Type 1 people believe in self-discipline and self-regulation--the traditional view of liberty. They tend to support capitalism because that economic system channels into mutual benefit the selfishness that's a fixed reality of human nature (except when suppressed by faith or moral training).
Type 2 people believe that, while personal morality is up to each individual (contra the traditional values of Type 1 people), government needs to regulate many aspects of life in order to protect the vulnerable or those who don't know better. Type 2 people tend to support big government or even socialism. Some are Marxists because they believe that human nature can be changed from selfish to selfless.

Type 1 people often see humans as created by a loving God, who provides an objective reason for living and for serving others.
Type 2 people often see humans as the result of countless undirected, purposeless, random mutations, whose meaning if any must be a product of mutable social consensus.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Story Again

One more note on story. Constructing a story from pieces of evidence is the principal way detectives solve crimes. Stories organize the facts of the situation and provide understanding. The story is incomplete but often leads to conclusions that reveal other clues or even the answers.

The broken window, the missing door key, the cigarette butt on the floor, the fact that the homeowner doesn't smoke, the size 12 shoe print, etc., all are combined to create a probabilstic story about what happened and who the likely perpetrator was.

What Is History

"So, how would you define 'history'?"
"That's easy. History is an account of what happened."
"But no one could give an account of everything that happened."
"Okay, then, history is an account of selected events that happened."
"But if historical events took place in the past, how can we be sure they actually occurred?"
"Okay, then, history is an account of selected events that the historian believes to have happened."
"You say, 'account.' Isn't there some judgment involved about what the events mean? Don't accounts differ?"
"Fine. Then history is an interpretation of selected events the historian believes to have happened."
"But why does he select and present just those events?"
"History is an interpretation of selected events the historian believes to have  happened, chosen to support the historian's point of view."
"What's 'point of view'?"
"The argument the historian is advancing about the meaning of the historical events, his ideology, his worldview."
"History is a little less objective than I thought."

Story Power for Good and for Bad

So, what about using stories to persuade? Good or bad?

The good is that stories allow an idea or concept to be rendered in understandable, everyday, concrete terms that allow the mind to form pictures, follow a linear plot, and gain easier insight into a situation than would be possible with mere pronouncements of wisdom. And, of course, stories are just more interesting than dry philosophy.

The usefulness and impact of stories for teaching or persuasion  is not exactly new. Remember Aesop's Fables, stories told by the Sufi, Chinese stories such as the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, and the parables told by Jesus. A well-liked book is Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies, translated by Moss Roberts (New York: Pantheon, 1979).

Stories have immediate appeal. For making an impactful presentation of philosophy, they work very well. And that is also the down side. Stories appear to be representing reality as it is or occurred. A character got into difficulty or faced a problem, engaged in a strategy to solve it, and came out a winner (or sometimes, a loser). Stories appeal directly to the emotions. And therein lies the problem. The emotions are much more easily deceived and manipulated than the reason.

This fact, by the way, explains why some of those who write history make sure that their narrative (there's that word again) presents evidence for the truth of their ideology. History is often presented in the form of a series of narratives--stories--and each one can be spun to favor the writer's preferred interpretation.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Story Is the Logic of This Era

If you have ever wondered why the postmodernists are always talking about narrative, as in, "According to the company's narrative, the defect was unknown until three months ago," that's because narrative--telling a story--is the mechanism of persuasion today. Arguments based on evidence or logical connections are not used very much now simply because first, fewer people understand them; second, many people are suspicious of them, and third, stories are a lot more compelling.

Fewer people understand them. Ask a friend to explain syllogisms to you, or to give you an example of the fallacy of accident or affirming the consequent. Unless your friend is an attorney, you might get a blank look. So what? People aren't likely to respond to arguments they can't parse. The cartoon character Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) once made a comment to the effect that if he couldn't understand something in two seconds, he didn't care about it.

Thanks to the pomos, who have "problematized reason," logical appeals are viewed with contempt and hostility by lots of people, especially college students. Another comic strip character, whom I have now forgotten, once remarked that reason was "thought control." Once again, those who cannot see the logical fallacies in arguments that draw conclusions they don't like--or who feel oppressed by properly valid logical arguments they don't like--attack the messenger and reject that sort of reasoning altogether. I recall once again a scene from a comedy movie (very roughly paraphrased from long-term memory):
"How can we deal with these people? They will stop at nothing."
"If they will stop at nothing, then if we do nothing, they will stop."
"What? That's preposterous."
"Please show the fallacy."

But the important point is that stories are much more compelling than reasons. Stories mount an argument or frame a moral proposition with all the power of vicarious engagement. We feel along with the characters, experience their issues and discover their successes or failures and the actions took or decisions they made that brought them success or failure. Samuel Johnson (Rambler No. 4, March 31, 1750) has an interesting take on the power of fiction. He says that the verisimilitude of novels (just then being invented) makes them potentially dangerous because readers who have little life experience will be likely "to regulate their own practices" when confronted with similar situations. Stories, especially in the form of video, but also even in the form of a narrated anecdote, can be intensely compelling.

So, since narratives are  more effective than evidence or reasons, and since Big Data is too complex for the ordinary person to figure out, the tale has replaced the head. As a result, business books are increasingly written in novel-like fashion, and those who can tell stories about events are heeded more than those who have only facts.

This Blog is Amazing!

Have you noticed that words that used to describe the normal in an acceptably way have now taken on negative connotations? Anything described as "adequate" is though of as inferior. "How do you like your new car?"
"Oh, it's adequate."
"Got a lemon, huh?"

We are led down the path by these terms. "Brake service, $79 per axle."
"I'll take your brake special."
"Well, that includes only standard brake pads."
"So they aren't very good?"
"Well, we recommend the Superior pads."
"How much extra are they?"
"$30. But if your daughter is going to drive this car, why not get the Premium pads?"
"Right. So that's $129 per axle."

Or what about  those automatic car wash machines? "Press 1 for Regular Wash, 2 for Deluxe Wash, 3 for Superior Wash, 4 for Ultimate wash."

We are, as Samuel Johnson might have phrased it, in a culture of "exaggeratory declamation," where hyperbole is the norm, and you must amplify from there on up if you are to express enthusiasm for anything.

The Virtual Salt Begins Again

Welcome to the new Virtual Salt blog. I should open by explaining what happened to the content about Howie, the mentally ill person that this blog was about. That content has been saved and will be the core of a forthcoming book, which I will promote on this site.

The next question is, What am I going to do with the new blog? I have, in the past, described myself as an "armchair philosopher," someone with lots of ideas and reactions to the world and the indulgences of its people. And, yes, like many others, I have been encouraged to have a blog to express these ideas.

If what you read here interests you, you might be interested in two of my books, Glimmerings I and Glimmerings II, each of which contains "1001 Thoughts, Ideas, Observations, Musings, Reflections, and Comments on Whatever Comes to Mind." Get your copies today, in Kindle or printed format on Amazon.com. The ideas in them are fairly similar to what you'll be reading here.

Now that the first commercial is over, we can continue with our blogging.