Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bertrand Russell on flow, selfishness, and death

This will conclude my blogging of Bertrand Russell's 1930 book The Conquest of Happiness (you can see all the posts at this link):

11. "A great deal of work gives the same pleasure that is to be derived from games of skill. . . . All skilled work can be pleasurable, provided the skill required is either variable or capable of indefinite improvement. If these conditions are absent, it will cease to be interesting when a man has acquired his maximum skill. A man who runs three-mile races will cease to find pleasure in this occupation when he passes the age at which he can beat his own previous record. Fortunately there is a very considerable amount of work in which new circumstances call for new skill and a man can go on improving." (165)

Those observations are uncannily reminiscent of Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who supported his theory with psychological experiments conducted around the world over 20 years. Russell understood it instinctively.

12. "The traditional moralist . . . will say that love should be unselfish. In a certain sense he is right, that is to say, it should not be selfish beyond a point, but it should undoubtedly be of such a nature that one's happiness is bound up in its success. If a man were to invite a lady to marry him on the ground that he ardently desired her happiness and at the same time considered that she would afford him ideal opportunities of self-abnegation, I think it may be doubted whether she would be altogether pleased. Undoubtedly we should desire the happiness of those whom we love, but not as an alternative to our own. In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world . . . disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves." (190-91)

It's all too easy to criticize someone's life decisions as "selfish." You have to have children -- it's selfish otherwise. Someone who doesn't want children can just as easily maintain that having children is what's selfish. Russell's paragraph is a good reminder that this word shouldn't have too much power. Everyone is selfish, and we need to live with this fact.

13. The book's final thought: "The happy man . . . feels himself a citizen of the universe, . . . untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him." (191)

Monday, March 29, 2010


"Across much of Africa."

Warning: very disturbing text.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Books that haven't influenced me the most

Now that I've taken stock of which books have most influenced me, I also want to look at what kinds of books haven't been as influential.

Most people would find the most striking omission from my list to be fiction. But I've gotten used to this. Fiction just doesn't reach me the way nonfiction does. Even when nonfiction tries to be engaging by using personal narratives, I often lose patience with the details and just want the writer to get to the abstract point.

What stands out most to me is the lack of history books, even though I own a lot of them. I've enjoyed reading these books and learning about history. In retrospect, though, I'm not sure they've fundamentally changed my views. I even wonder if anyone really "learns lessons" from history, or if we just interpret everything to fit our preconception of the world.

There's also nothing in my list about a huge interest of mine, music (except for parts of Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow). I have read illuminating books about music, but the reading process is subordinate to the everyday listening process. On the other hand, I can't say that the books in my list are subordinate to the everyday thinking process; it's often the opposite.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Challenging the premise of "the books that have influenced me the most" meme

Ezra Klein challenges the premise of the "books that influenced me" blog meme (which I picked up today), saying books haven't influenced him much:

I've written this sort of thing before. The mainstays on my list are John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," Tom Geoghegan's "Which Side Are You On?," Abraham Joshua Heschel's "Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity," Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" and maybe a handful of others.

But I always feel like a fraud.

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking -- particularly in my current thinking -- than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that's consistently present in my approach to new issues.

Much of my emphasis on the institutions of American government and the processes by which they work (or don't) came from my relationship with Mark Schmitt, first through his blog and then through his editorship at the American Prospect. . . .

So much as I love my favorite books, the biggest influences in my thinking have been the continuous intellectual relationships I've had with blogs, periodicals and other people.
One of the bloggers Klein cites as an influence, Matthew Yglesias, responds:
[I]f I look back at my list of books that influenced my thinking . . . these aren’t books that influenced my thinking “on the issues” the way blog posts and magazine articles do nearly so much as they’re books that influenced my thinking about my thinking. Like: What’s important? What’s it worth doing in life? What questions are a waste of time? What kinds of mistakes have I been making?

I feel like this is going to be the kind of thing books are still important for, simply because they’re more intense experiences. A solo encounter with a major work is a big deal in a way that sporadic engagement with blogs isn’t. Which is just to say that I hope and think digital media will mostly crowd out relatively low-value book-reading experiences and still leave room for some of the big deal reads.
Well, I agree with Yglesias. Klein seems to want to extend his reach as little as possible. Klein, Yglesias, Schmitt, and Drum share similar vocations (journalist-bloggers), and the same time period (right now), and the same country, and mostly similar worldviews (most of them are liberals; Cowen is a moderate libertarian). It may be comforting to draw your influence from this close by, and it hasn't stopped Klein from writing a top-notch blog. But his attitude seems cramped and a bit sad.

It's not that I'm surprised that Klein would have been more influenced by blogs and magazines than by books in writing his Washington Post blog about economic policy. But the question isn't "books that influenced my blog"; it's "books that influenced me." It's important to not just be your blog or your job but to be a complete person. That's hard to do if you're not willing to immerse yourself in worldviews that are far removed from your own.

The 12 books that have influenced me the most

Tyler Cowen started this meme, in response to "a loyal reader" who told him:

I'd like to see you list the top 10 books which have influenced your view of the world.

Will Wilkinson, Matthew Yglesias, and many others have given their lists. There's no required number of books, but most people seem to be giving around 10.

Some of the recurring authors are Plato, Nietszche, John Stuart Mill, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Hannah Arendt, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, Michael Walzer, Thomas Kuhn, Derek Parfit, Paul Johnson, and Thomas Sowell. This is all slanted by the fact that the meme was started by a libertarian economist, so the people who pick up his meme are going to be disproportionately libertarian.

Here's my list:

1. The View from Nowhere by Thomas Nagel. (Previously blogged by me and also my dad.) He looks at many of the classic philosophical problems (knowledge, free will, the meaning of life, etc.) in order to illuminate the frustrating interplay between the objective and the subjective, both of which are inescapably real. 

2. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume.
3. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. Kant's book is famously badly written, while Hume's book is pretty clearly written for the 18th century. Both of them have to be confronted by anyone trying to understand the limits of understanding. They didn't create enduring theoretical frameworks, but they still made progress by waking us up from our "dogmatic slumbers" (as Kant said Hume had done to him).

4. Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum. Emotions aren't the opposite of reason — they contain intelligent thoughts and allow us to rationally interact with the outside world.

5. What's It All About? by Julian Baggini. An argument that the standard solutions to the meaning of life don't work.

6. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Blogged.) How to structure all the activities in your life to maximize happiness.

7. The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell. (Blogged.) You could file this under philosophy or self-help.

8. The Moral Animal by Robert Wright. (Blogged.) I'm sure there are more recent books on evolutionary psychology that are better supported (at least because more research has been done since 1994), and Wright himself admits that the theory has its shortcomings. But this book offers a compelling explanation of human behavior.

9. Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel. He applies his dryly, lucidly analytical style to the kinds of questions that continental philosophy more often approaches with overwrought extravagance and obscurantism. The famous "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" is one of many highlights; others include "Death" (blogged), "The Absurd" (blogged), "Sexual Perversion," and "The Fragmentation of Value."

10. The Mysterious Flame by Colin McGinn. Why we haven't, and aren't going to, solve the mind-body problem.

11. Rationality in Action by John Searle. A refreshing look at the problem of free will. (His shorter follow-up, Freedom & Neurobiology, deals with similar themes but also extends his analysis into political philosophy.)

12. Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. As the back cover says, he makes the case for a revolution in our concern for animals by reasoning from beliefs most people already hold. This is the one book about which I can say it has affected my life every single day for the past 20 years.

Looking over the list, I seem to have been most interested in thinking about thought and its place in our lives, with more emphasis on the inadequacy than the power of rational thought. This emphasis is rather awkward since any such analysis is itself an attempt to think rationally. The View from Nowhere captures this awkwardness explicitly.

Feel free to post a comment either listing the books that have influenced you the most, linking to your blog post with your list, or linking to other people's lists that you've found especially interesting.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Kaus leaves Slate.

Mickey Kaus is leaving Slate for both legal and tactical reasons.

He has a new website, which is apparently going to be both a blog and a Senate campaign site.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Do addicts have self-control?

This book review about "addiction and freedom" is worth reading, and it's a good companion to the book review about medicating children that I blogged recently. The book is Addiction: A Disorder of Choice by Gene M. Heyman, a Harvard psychologist. The reviewer is a psychiatrist, Sally Satel.

Both this review and the one about children illuminate the same fallacy, which I'd paraphrase like this:

1. A certain behavioral/mental problem -- call it "X" -- is associated with brain activity in ways that can be observed and predicted.  
2. Therefore, the solution to "X" must take the form of psychiatric/medical assistance; the solution cannot be individual free choice. (Indeed, even invoking that concept may be detrimental.)
There's a lot that could be said about why this is a fallacy and why it's so common. The question of free will lurks under the surface of the discussion, though Satel understandably sticks to talking about science, policy, and history, and hardly touches the philosophical problem. Here's what she says about the fallacy:
[M]uch of the public, and a dismaying number of psychiatrists, psychologists, and neuroscientists, mistakenly believe that if a behavior is influenced by genes or mediated by the brain then the actor cannot choose his actions. While every behavior has a biological correlate (and a genetic contribution) and every experience that changes behavior does so by changing the brain, the critical question, Heyman wisely says, is not whether brain changes occur (they do) but whether these changes block the influence of the factors that support self-control. . . .

Heyman uses the phenomenon of addiction to make a profound point about neuroscientific progress in general. "The implication is that as we learn more about a disorder," he writes, "the more likely it is to be thought of as a disease" -- and, consequently, as a condition whose course cannot be modified by its foreseeable consequences. Indeed, reconciling advances in brain science with their meaning for personal, legal, and civic notions of agency and responsibility will be one of our next major cultural projects.

Progress in brain science will also force a confrontation with the fact that the common interpretation of pathological behavior is often informed by a primitive form of dualism. If biological roots can be found, then we reflexively think “disease”—as in the obliteration of choice-making ability. The mechanical “brain disease” rhetoric is a symptom of the growing tendency to privilege neuroscientific explanations as the most authentic way of understanding human behavior.
In addition to logically explaining why that's a fallacy, Satel also says that the people who came up with the idea that addiction is a disease and is incompatible with self-control were motivated by political and financial concerns (and probably emotional impulses):
In fairness, the scientists who forged the brain disease concept had good intentions. By placing addiction on equal footing with more conventional medical disorders, they sought to create an image of the addict as a hapless victim of his own wayward neurochemistry. They hoped this would inspire companies and politicians to allocate more funding for treatment. Also, by emphasizing dramatic scientific advances, such as brain imaging techniques, and applying them to addiction, they hoped researchers might reap more financial support for their work. Finally, promoting the idea of addiction as a brain disease would rehabilitate the addict’s public image from that of a criminal who deserves punishment into a sympathetic figure who deserves treatment.
Those concerns may be admirable. But having good intentions behind your account of reality hardly ensures that your account will be accurate.

Finally, I had never heard of this incident (which begins the review), and I'm surprised it isn't better-known:
In 1970, high-grade heroin and opium flooded Southeast Asia. Military physicians in Vietnam estimated that between 10 percent and 25 percent of enlisted Army men were addicted to narcotics. Deaths from overdosing soared. In May 1971, the crisis exploded on the front page of The New York Times: “G.I. Heroin Addiction Epidemic in Vietnam.” Spurred by fears that newly discharged veterans would ignite an outbreak of heroin use in American cities, President Richard Nixon commanded the military to begin drug testing. In June, the White House announced that no soldier would be allowed to board the plane home unless he passed a urine test. Those who failed could go to an Army-sponsored detoxification program before they were re-tested.

The plan worked. Most GIs stopped using narcotics as word of the new directive spread and the vast minority who were detained produced clean samples when given a second chance. More startlingly, only 12 percent of soldiers who were dependent on opiate narcotics in Vietnam became re-addicted to heroin at some point in the three years after their return to the states. “This surprising rate of recovery even when re-exposed to narcotic drugs,” said the epidemiologist who collected the data, “ran counter to the conventional wisdom that heroin is a drug which causes addicts to suffer intolerable craving that rapidly leads to re-addiction if re-exposed to the drug.”
Satel says our ignorance of this real-life experiment represents a case of "generational amnesia." It's easy to keep believing in a dogma if you don't look at any of the evidence that goes against it.

(Photo by Daniel Modell, a.k.a.

Monday, March 15, 2010

This blog's visits so far this month


(Here's a more readable version.)

That spike of wild popularity was from a post about Mozart, late-'90s British politics, and a philosopher's mid-life crisis.

Thanks, Mom and Instapundit!

(Graphic and data from StatCounter.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Why politics and policy are less important than music and art

I'm reading Confessions of a Philosopher, a 1997 book by Bryan Magee. It's the best long-form account I've read of how philosophical issues impose themselves on one's life. (I deliberately speak of the issues as animate things acting upon a passive person — this is a main theme of the book.)

In a chapter called "Mid-Life Crisis," Magee describes his anguished struggle with the problem of the absurd (which I recently blogged about at the end of this post). He says:

I used to look at people going about their normal lives with everyday cheerfulness and think: "How can they? And how can they suppose that any of what they're doing matters? They're like passengers on the Titanic, except that these people know already that they're headed for total and irremediable shipwreck. . . . Above all, I was baffled by the fact that the middle-aged, who were so close to death, tended to be even more cheerful than the young. . . .

Under the influence of these thoughts my values went through sea changes. Everything that was limited to this life and this world came to appear insignificant. Only what might possibly point beyond them, or have its basis outside them — beauty, art, sex, morality, integrity, metaphysical understanding — could even possibly be worth anything. . . . Success and fame were worse than nothing, because anyone pursuing them was actively throwing his life away. (253)
This leads him to contrast following politics (apparently as a hobby or an occupation) with experiencing art (again, apparently as an audience member or performer, amateur or professional). I was pleased to see his description, because it articulates why I've been feeling increasingly uninterested in politics:
Even on their own terms the politics and business of the world were absurdly evanescent. One week politicians, people who worked in the City, and people whose job it was to report their doings would all be kept out of their beds by a financial crisis which, six months later, would be little talked of. By that time perhaps there would be . . . a corruption scandal in local government, which would then be followed by a flurry of public concern over crimes of violence, which in its turn would be pushed out of people's minds by their fury over some proposed new tax; and so it would go on. Each of these things would seem important for a time, then each would pass away and scarcely matter again except to historians. In fact, the truth is that most of them made little or no difference even to the daily lives of most of the population living through them. People immersed in this stream of ever-changing events were filling their minds with . . . ephemera and trivia, what people in electronics mean by "noise." (254)
I should note that he was a Member of Parliament for about 10 years, so he's not simply apathetic about politics by nature.

Not only do I agree with that passage as a description of current-day American politics (even though it was written in the UK in the '90s), but I find it especially silly that people get so worked up about one tax or one appropriations bill without seeming to care much about what taxes are like on the whole, or how much the country spends on different kinds of things overall. The specific bills that happen to be pending in Congress can only be validly assessed against this backdrop of broader understanding. But the media rarely gives us this information for fear of seeming to lack "objectivity" (whatever that is). And those who aren't concerned about being objective are usually too unreliable to be taken seriously. A subtle, balanced analysis of the tax structure is never going to achieve the level of interest generated by a report on the latest dumb comment by Sarah Palin (for the left) or President Obama (for the right). Magee goes on:
It is not as if were no alternatives. Time spent listening to great music, or seeing great plays, or thinking about issues of lasting importance, was not in this category. In those cases the object of one's activities retained its interest and importance for the rest of one's life. If I spent an evening listening to Mahler's Third Symphony, that symphony was still going to matter to me in six months' time, or ten years, or thirty: it was part of my life, for always. In fact such things more often than not increased in interest and value with the passage of time. If I spent two or three months saturating myself in, let us say, recordings of Mozart's piano concertos, and then did not return to them like that for another four years or so, I would find when I came back to them that I engaged with them on a deeper level than before. And the same was true of most great art. . . .

There were times when I felt, after all, that I was living to the full in face of death. Many men of action who are also writers have described the bliss induced in them by the sound of bullets smacking past their ears, and said that it intensified their awareness of being alive to an intoxicating level. The things that came closest to doing this for me when I fully realized I was facing death were my love affairs and friendships, philosophy and the arts. Never have I reacted to these things more intensely than I did in my late thirties and early forties. It was as if Shakespeare and Mozart were addressing me personally. . . . Had it not been for my need to earn a living I would have immersed myself in them entirely. (254-5)
Although I was more than satisfied by this explanation, some would respond, "But what about political art?" His answer to this is, again, exactly how I feel:
Those that treated political, social or historical levels of explanation as fundamental now seemed to me to be treating externals and surfaces as if they were foundations, and to be superficial and point-missing. In the world as it was at that time the most conspicuous example of this was Marxism, though there were others too. Marxism had a complete explanation of the arts in terms of political power, economic interests and social classes, and this seemed to me a grotesque attempt to explain the greater in terms of the less. Not only was there a lot of Marxist criticism around at that time, there were innumerable Marx-influenced stage productions which had the effect of superficializing the works they dealt with for precisely this reason, that they treated social and political externals as fundamental, while remaining oblivious to what actually was fundamental. Arguing with people who produced or supported this kind of thing was a dislocating experience, because it seemed self-evident to them that the metaphysical, personal and interpersonal dimensions of things were of secondary importance compared with the social and political. Indeed, they often denied that there was any metaphysical dimension at all, either to reality or to works of art. (255)
Some people will respond: "But art should say something about society. It shouldn't be just meaningless fluff to make you feel good. It should disturb people and wake them up to social injustices." (Yes, I've heard all of this said.) Of course I agree that art can say important things about society and that this can be a fine thing to do. It's not that I totally dismiss this function, and I don't think Magee does. But these aren't the most important functions of art, nor are they requirements of great art.

And as for anyone who considers art "meaningless" if it doesn't contain a social critique, or if isn't "appreciated in the social context in which it was made," I feel sorry for them for what they're missing . . .

(That's Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, conducted and performed by Mitsuko Uchida.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Blogger of the Day: Mrs. Q, Fed Up With School Lunch

A school teacher is eating the cafeteria lunch every day and blogging it. The blog is called Fed Up With School Lunch (via).

Her Blogger profile sums up the concept:



Eating school lunch just like the kids every day in 2010
I love the blog's straightforwardly descriptive writing style, accompanied by a photo of each lunch. There's a similar aesthetic to Jim's Journal, the comic strip compiled in the book I Went to College and It Was OK. The entries should be boring, but instead they're fascinatingly ordinary, radically mundane.

For instance, here's the first lunch in the project:
As far as school lunches go, this one is pretty good. The meat sauce over penne was passable and the green beans were ok too. I ate all of main stuff, but I only took one bite of the breadstick, which was too chewy yet semi-hard, and the blue raspberry thingy....I took one suck and knew it was not for me. Of course I drank all the chocolate milk.

School lunch at my school/workplace always comes in these strange little packages. I have to say that it is very hard to open them. I have to stab them with the spork multiple times.
You can see the tags for each different food in the sidebar: " . . . milk . . . pear . . . salisbury steak . . . "

What do the vegetarian students do?
There is a vegetarian (or non-meat) option every day. If you want that food item, most days you have to request it specifically because it is not set out.
Mrs. Q had a physical exam right before starting the blog, and once she's done with it she'll compare the results of her next physical. But she isn't worrying about her health:
The other meals I eat during the average day are healthy. I have the money to make good meals for my family that are from fresh and frozen ingredients, many organic. So I actually think it's funny that people are concerned about me.
What she is concerned about is the lack of recess. The only physical activity is gym class, and that's only once a week. A commenter on Metafilter asks:
How can this be allowed? The parents should be up in arms at the school board.
Mrs. Q points out several ways the lack of recess is stifling to kids' development. I don't see how the kids are expected to focus in class, hour after hour, when the day is broken up only by lunch. And lunch is only "20 minutes to eat including getting through line and clean up"!

The blog seems pretty popular, and the comments sections are very active. She says she expected the blog to be utterly unknown, getting "5-10 hits per week"; instead, she's "averaging 1,000 to 4,000 per day." (By comparison, this blog usually gets between 100 and 200 visitors a day.)

In fact, she's worried that this popularity could cost her her job, which is why she's anonymous and reveals scant personal details about herself (she lives in Illinois and has a husband and child). She says:
I'm blogging anonymously because I like my job and getting a paycheck. But I'm still putting my livelihood on the line by speaking up. . . .

I feel a lot of guilt and turmoil about what I'm doing here. I'm waiting for the moment I'm called to the principal's office and let go. I do believe it's a matter of "when" not "if" they both find out and it's curtains for me and then of course the project. I want them to know that the project is not about individuals in one school, but about a country full of children who need better food models.

I'm getting a lot of requests for interviews from major newspapers and other news outlets (I have done other interviews for media with smaller distribution and/or all online). Many assure me of my anonymity, but if I get major attention even without my real name, well, someone is going to put 2 + 2 together. All that is needed is one person sending one email to all lunch room managers and asking, "Who's eating school lunch every day?"
After reading all that, I have to feel slightly guilty for drawing a bit more attention to her blog. But this is an important and oddly beautiful project. I find it hard to imagine her losing her job over it. If she does, she should be able to compensate for the loss of income by getting a book deal.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mickey Kaus to run for Senator from California against Barbara Boxer?


There's still some wiggle room as to whether he's going to be a candidate. But he's quoted as saying he's "taken out the nomination papers, to gather the necessary signatures," and "file[d] a 'candidate registration and qualification form.'"

I've been reading Kaus regularly for 10 years, and listening to him regularly for 4 years. ("Watching" might seem more appropriate since that link goes to his Bloggingheads video conversations, but I usually listen to them as podcasts.) I've often used his material on my blog.

Mickey Kaus is a great voice in American politics. He has a rare ability to convincingly blend moderation and skepticism with decisiveness and clarity.

So, I'm very excited about this possible run. I won't be able to vote, since I live in New York state. But I'll be keeping an eye on this race if Kaus does enter.

UPDATE: Kaus breaks the silence on his blog:

I did go down to the local registrar's office Monday and take out nomination papers to run in the primary for U.S. Senator against Barbara Boxer. If I return them in timely fashion with enough signatures, I should be able to get on the June ballot. We'll see what happens.

This isn't the place to make an electioneering spiel--I don't want to be a test case of campaign finance law if I can help it. But the basic idea would be to argue, as a Democrat, against the party's dogma on several major issues (you can guess which ones). Likeminded Dem voters who assume they will vote for Sen. Boxer The Incumbent in the fall might value a mechanism that lets them register their dissent in the primary.

UPDATE (3/12/10): He says he's gathered enough signatures and filed the necessary papers. Here's his opening statement.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Metablog: Follow

I've added a widget in the sidebar that lets you "follow" this blog with "Google Friend Connect."

To my surprise, I already had 3 followers before I added the widget.

I'm still not sure I see the point of this. But I'll see what happens.