Creatures of Habit?

Habit is a funny thing. It’s an amplifier. That can be good and bad. Washing your hands is a good habit. Doing it 50 times a day, not so much. It’s been said, and I think it’s true, that you can achieve great things if you control your habits. Discipline, in the form of habit, doesn’t feel like work. Exercise daily. Floss morning and night. Post to your blog every Sunday. (I was going to say, “post religiously,” but that would take this in a different direction.)

The idea seems to be: decide what you need to do to get where you want, train yourself to do those things habitually, then voila – you achieve your goal. Effortlessly! All you have to do is adopt The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and you’ll be, well, effective. At whatever you choose, presumably. Implying that otherwise you aren’t.

And no one wants to be thought of as an ineffective person.

Lately I’ve heard about some research on addiction that says it’s not chemical, it’s not genetic, it’s not a mental or physical dependency – it’s just habit! Habits cut both ways.

I have trouble with the concept of habit. That we do things without consciously making the effort to do them. I find it easier to believe that we do what we want. If we want to work toward a goal – and we ‘re not blocked by barriers of fear or time or expectation, or god knows what else (we all have our demons) – we do it and just may be “effective.” Likewise, washing your hands 50 times a day or drinking yourself blind every night might just satisfy some need, provide some pleasure greater than the damage it causes.

We never turn off our will power – we always choose. Whether it’s to post a blog or pick up a drink.

Take cats, for example. This entire post was inspired by the way mine likes to hang out in the tub after I get out of the shower in the morning. Is that a habit? Cats are mysterious. Dogs have habits. Cats do what they please and don’t give a damn about the rest. I like to think we’re more like cats.



THAT’S What I’m Talkin About

America’s Embrace of Ignorance

Politics, lies, religion, and “a new low in stupidity.”

UPDATE: No one embraces stupid like Sarah Palin…and whoever embraces her. Read “Sarah Palin’s American lobotomy: The Republicans keep making us dumber, and not even Stephen Colbert can save us

Disheartening. But there’s hope!

The American Psychological Association published a study that shows that Americans will stand by beliefs even when it is proven that their belief isn’t based on or can be proven by any kind of facts. This can be destructive, but that is up to the individual to change or not.

Politicians however, should be held to a higher standard because they make crucial decisions for the American people. …Barack Obama said it best when he said ‘You can ignore facts but you can’t deny the facts.’ The American people deserve honesty not deception, because that is the American way and it’s the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, you can’t expect a higher standard from politicians than that of the people who elect them. It’s hard to know where to begin. Preschool?


Dumbing Down

So I was going to write about profanity in the workplace as a sign of holiday stress, or death and dying, or some other upbeat subject, but I just checked my work email and saw this message to everyone in the office from the admin who organized the holiday dreidel hunt:

“The last one was found in HR who have 3 employees on top of a 3 whole punch.”

There are many things wrong with that sentence, but the lasting impact is visual: picturing three employees on top of a 3-hole punch. Some things just can’t be unseen.

This brings to mind “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss. Okay, so we are all punctuationally challenged at times, but what’s happening these days goes way beyond that. It’s not just that people can’t articulate clearly, it’s that they don’t care.

It’s possible for intelligent people to communicate sloppily. But I think it’s also true that low standards in the latter can dumb down the former. Call it a lack of critical thinking. You settle for sloppy writing and sloppy thinking naturally follows. The standard defense: “You know what I meant!”

Self-editing (or in the case of writer’s block, self-censoring) can be taken to extremes. The mind loops, indefinitely deferring the decision to act. That’s bad, too. I spend a lot of time there. But it’s better than the opposite. Because even if you’re paralyzed by the challenge of saying exactly the right thing, you can still appreciate good writing. You value people who think before they speak.

For example, you won’t vote for Trump.

Eschew sloppy writing. The nation you save may be your own.



The Peaceful Transfer of Power

I visited my daughter in Philadelphia a few weeks ago and we spent a day walking around downtown, making the obligatory stops at the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, other historical landmarks in the Old City. It was either that, or cheap thrills gawking at medical grotesqueries at the Mutter Museum.

I’m not a flag waving patriot, and have my doubts about the direction of this country. It’s become clear lately that our democracy is not immune to corruption, demagoguery, conspiracy fanatics, and special interests. You could say I’ve become a little cynical. So in the heart of Philly, where it all started, it was easy to resist the urge to put my hand on my heart and pledge allegiance, my country right or wrong. I was trying to feel the magic, but all I felt like was a tourist getting an ideological sales pitch.

We stood in line for the tour of Congress Hall, which was led by a member of the National Park Service. He was all business and not terribly charismatic, but he had facts at his fingertips. And something else. He knew what was most significant about the place and what happened there, and he focused on that and let everything else slide. Who cares about the carpet or furniture or architect or number of bricks in the walls. It’s all about the test of our Constitution: the peaceful transfer of power. The first test – Washington to Adams – and all the successive tests. Such a simple thing! And yet, how many nations can’t do it! It’s incredible. The war and suffering caused by the inability to transfer power peacefully, one person or party to another. It felt like a revelation to me. Suddenly I was in awe of what the founding fathers accomplished over 200 years ago, a process that much of the world is still incapable of mastering.

It was an inspirational experience. When I left the building, I saluted the nearest flag and dabbed my moistened eyes.

Then we caught the bus for the Mutter.



Running and Time

It’s age, I guess. Increasingly, the things I used to do to break the routine and defy the rat race feel like part of the rat race. Running used to feel like an act of freedom and rebellion. “Look, I’m doing something demanding that is not required!” It was a way of proving that the other demands of my life didn’t own me. I took some kind of perverse pride in the loneliness of long distance running. These days, it’s like, what am I trying to prove? And to whom? I’m a fair-weather runner these days, prefer running with friends, look forward to the post-run beer as much as the run itself. And almost never run on the dreadmill any more, no matter how many miles I haven’t run that week.

When running – or anything you used to love, or thought you loved – starts to feel like work, you need to question why you’re doing it. I’ve been questioning running lately, and writing, and other things that I did because I felt like I should. It’s a little scary to let them go. Does it mean I’m giving up? Losing my passion for life? But I can say that is definitely not the case. And you know why? Because I was far closer to putting a bullet through my head two years ago than I am today.

It’s dark and rainy and 50 degrees outside right now. It’s running night, but I’m not going to run in this. Just had a friend say, “Do the dreadmill – you never regret a workout afterwards…………only when you skip it.” Maybe so. But I’d prefer to do something I don’t regret during as well as after. Cleaning the garage, submitting job applications, reading a book, or even posting a blog. There’s an opportunity cost to everything, and running takes time.

Maybe that’s what’s changing. I’m more aware that time is running out.

“They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”

I reveal my literary paucity by admitting that only now, at this late stage of life, have I discovered the genius of Terry Bisson, who is responsible for the two sentences that title this post. I’ve only read two of his short stories so far (really short shorts, but I understand that he has a variety of work under his belt, including novels), but I’m already a fan. It’s like, if Russel Edson or Charles Simic wrote sci fi, it might read like Terry Bisson.

Shower Insights

Nine out of ten people say they have the most creative and insightful thoughts of the day while they are showering. I just made that up, but I dare anyone to prove me wrong.

I sometimes remember my dreams in the shower. I have the highest regard for people who dream about the future. I dream about the past. What I remembered dreaming, while showering this morning, was rummaging through my father’s desk drawer – the shallow one, above the knee hole. He had a heavy steel desk with a wood-grain Formica top. The drawer held the typical assortment of paper clips, rubber bands, pens and pencils – Dad was a fan of refillable “automatic pencils” (don’t see them much anymore). But he also had a fang-toothed staple remover, postage stamp dispenser, pipe-cleaning multi-tool, chrome-bladed letter opener, cigar guillotine, and other fascinating and in some cases mysterious implements and objects. To wake up and realize how long ago that was – how old yet vivid that memory is – was disorienting.

But that’s the way it is for most of us. The past is always getting bigger, the future always shrinking as we approach the end of our time line.

Which brings me to part 2, and I don’t have a segue for this, but it was somehow connected to the dream. We trust doctors with our lives. When we’re young, they remove the suspicious mole, set the bone, spare no expense to keep you alive and give you the best possible quality of life. And then, somehow, by the end of your life, they do nothing but advise “watchful waiting.” Caution that the surgery is more dangerous than the malady. Joke that if you live long enough, that brain aneurysm might kill you. My mother-in-law fell in the nursing home and broke her femur. The doctors didn’t even set it. My mother was given a death sentence instead of cure. And yet, we don’t think of this as betrayal of our trust. At some point in our lives, between the time they cut out our tonsils as a precaution and later, when they decide that setting our bones isn’t worth the trouble, we become a lost cause. And we accept it.

I think I’ve crossed that line with my MD. I’ve tried a lot of anti-depressants, to little effect. Now when I tell my primary I’m in the dumps, she just nods sympathetically and says, “Well, try to live with it.” Fortunately, most things do get better by themselves. And the things that don’t? Odds are, they won’t get better no matter what you do. Although, I have to say: getting the wax flushed out of my ears was an exhilarating experience. I felt years younger…for a couple days.

The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be

The opening of Plan 9 from Outer Space reminds us that “we’re all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. That must be why so many people write about the future. Especially science fiction writers. Duh, you might say, of course science fiction writers write about the future, they have to. But they don’t. Lots of great science fiction is set in the past. It might be about some fantastical invention or alien visitation or discovery that changes history as we know it. Or doesn’t, because the castle of the mad scientist went up in flames along with all his creations, or the aliens flew off, leaving nothing but scorched earth and a few unreliable witnesses, or the science sufficiently ahead of its time as to be indistinguishable from magic was merged into the evolving knowledge of the day.

But I’m talking future future here, the kind of “out on a limb” speculation that intrepid sci fi writers have been doing ever since the concept of progress collided with the scientific method. Think technology and space. And no matter how wildly off the mark predictions of advancements in science and technology prove to be, sci fi writers continue to write about the future. Because it’s so damn interesting.

I have open on the desk in front of me a yellowed paperback edition of “The Mote in God’s Eye,” written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and published in 1974. The chronology of events on pages 9 and 10 begin with Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969 and end with “First Contact” in 3017. It’s only 2015 as I write this, but already the trajectory of their predictions is seriously off course. For example, “2008: First successful interstellar drive tested.” Interstellar? And if that is not rapid enough progress, you can look forward to the first interstellar colonies just 12 years later. These guys were incredibly optimistic about the future of space travel.

I think we’ve evolved in our thinking about the directions science will take in the future, and how quickly. Discoveries and applications that are inexpensive in terms of materials and energy will precede those that require massive resources. Hence genetic research will probably advance faster than space travel. The “Sauron Supermen” predicted to appear 600 years after interstellar drive will likely, in reality, come first. Because manipulating DNA is cheaper than building generation ships and is based on extrapolations of current science and techniques (rather than the magic of faster than light travel). Ditto for computing and AI. We’re going to change ourselves and our planet long before we leave it. I’m not sure it makes for better sci fi than “The Mote in God’s Eye,” but it will probably hold up better against the test of time.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge…”*

This helps explain who rises to the top in politics and business: “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.” (

Unfortunately it’s only half the problem. Delusional incompetents are everywhere, all the time. Harmless baffoons, unless they rise to a position of power. Why would anyone elect them to office or make them corporate executives? Must be a syndrome that explains that, too. And if we’re lucky, a cure.

*Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Concerning Caitlyn and Rachel

My daughter has been home for two days and we’ve already had our first argument. She stomped off and went to bed before anything was resolved. Very upsetting to me, because, as my father used to say whenever emotion of any sort crept into a conversation, “I don’t want to argue!”  Which, for him, meant – I don’t want to have this conversation. The difference is (and I am constantly looking for differences between me and my father), I did want to have the conversation with my daughter last night. I just wanted it to end better.

In any case, it’s a thought-provoking topic – good blog material – so what else really matters?

I just finished reading “Three Days in April,” a novel by Edward Ashton (cancer researcher by day, spec fic writer by night). It’s a good read. Near future gumbo of nano-tech, gov conspiracy, biological modification, and the social challenges we will inevitably have to wrestle with as we continue to redefine what it means to be human. I say continue, because humanity is already making alterations, to the consternation of many.

It’s a great subject to explore in near-future spec fic – and, I thought, to explore with my daughter in after conversation. We were in the living room. I had just finished Mr. Ashton’s novel, and my daughter was browsing recent issues of The Week. She asked, “Did you read about Rachel Dolezal? That white women who was caught in the act of passing herself off as black.” And I thought about the growing capabilities for human modifications, and Ed’s novel, and, Caitlin Jenner, and made what I thought was sort of an innocent observation. That what science/tech makes possible, people will do. People will increasingly exercise the power (legal and medically sanctioned or otherwise) to change themselves into whatever form they like: one gender to another, one race to another, and soon perhaps, biological to hybrid. Look where we’re going with implants and prosthetics. They are doing head transplants in China. Brain wave control. They’ve sequenced the human genome, which opens the door to modifications at the genetic level.

I noted that Jenner’s transformation – and transgendering generally – has gained social acceptance. I said, if gender transformation is ok, then why not racial transformation? If I really feel like a black person trapped in a white person’s body, should I not be allowed to make that transformation? That’s when things went south. “Race is cultural,” my daughter said, not genetic. That kinda threw me off track, because it wasn’t really on point. Skin pigment, eye color, hair texture – these are distinguishing physical features that influence the way you are perceived and treated in society. Doesn’t matter if they are genetic or not – if they can be altered, there are people who will alter them. Consider leg extension surgery! Double eyelid surgery!

Anyway. The upshot seemed to be, transforming yourself from one gender to another is okay. Physically transforming yourself to exploit the cultural heritage or advantages of another racial group (because race is cultural, after all) is not ok. It’s a perfect example of the kind of issues we will have to deal with as human transformation – genetic, surgical, virtual – become more commonplace.

Which brings me back to Ed Ashton’s novel. The war between the Altered and the Unaltered. To the degree they can be distinguished. To the degree it provides unfair sympathies or advantages. To the degree it is deemed ethical. This is exciting stuff, people! Can’t wait to see where it leads…