Anti-Intellectualism

Isaac Asimov was a big hero of mine when I was a kid. He was the Neil deGrasse Tyson of that era, making science a cool thing. He also wrote excellent science fiction books and stories. I came across a quote from him on Facebook the other day that got me thinking. He said, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

This is at the heart of my problem with the current political landscape. No one wants to talk about facts any more. They want to appeal to emotions and arouse irrational fear. Emotions are a survival instinct. They serve quite nicely when you are being chased by a bear and don’t have time to think about whether or not you should run. They don’t have any place as the predominant motivating factor in a political campaign.

That is where anti-intellectualism comes into play. We seem to have a strong cultural bias toward glorifying ignorance and it will ultimately be our downfall. Unless we challenge our politicians to address the issues and debate them with facts not appeals to emotion, we will continue to elect shallow talking heads that have no idea what the issues are, much less how to address them.

It’s Not Funny Anymore, Where are the REAL Candidates?

The United Kingdom just voted to leave the European Union. That is a rather extreme thing for them to do but they certainly have the right to do it. The problem is, I don’t think most UK voters really understood the underlying issues associated with this action. I’m sure I don’t understand them but from what I see as an outsider they have been subjected to an emotional campaign based on lies and half truths.

This strikes a resonant chord with me. I think that the American voters are being subjected to a very similar campaign waged by the presidential candidates. I don’t know if the UK made the correct choice but I’m almost certain that, right or wrong, they made it for the wrong reasons. I’m afraid we are about to repeat that in the United States.

I’m not happy with either candidate. I could list my reasons but I think the most important reason is that neither candidate is addressing any of the real problems that we are facing as a country. They are both putting on reality TV shows and I hate reality TV.

I’m going to vote. And, just between you and me, I’m going to be voting against the other candidate more than I am going to be voting for anyone. I don’t feel comfortable with sharing my selection online, but I do feel compelled to express my disgust with a political system that can offer up such pathetic candidates.

A Manner of Speaking

Language is important. It is how we share what we think with others but even more importantly, it has become an integral part of how we think. If we have words to express something, it is easier to contemplate hypothetical variations on that thing. My dog is very smart but she has a very limited imagination. That is because she lives only in the present and does not think about things in language. Language is a puzzle that she decodes to gain approval not a tool that she uses to master her environment.

This insight was inspired by a You Tube video I watched where Dave Thomas, a popular computer consultant, writer, and publisher told how a bunch of clever people had transformed an adjective, “agile”, into a proper noun, “Agile”, and turned it into a gold mine. By taking a philosophical position statement, Manifesto for Agile Software Development, and turning it into the prescription for solving all the problems inherent in software development, they created an industry that sells books, training, and consulting, among other things, using fear and all the other modern marketing tricks so prevalent in our online society.

They did this by taking the adjective agile and turning it into a noun. I stopped and thought about the fact that this kind of abuse of language goes on all around us. My mother first pointed it out decades ago. She called it “verbing nouns” with her tongue firmly in cheek. It is not going to stop just because we catch people doing it. But we can become more aware of what is going on and think about what the intentions of people that are quick to coin new usage for words are. All we have to do is think.

And Now, the Rest of the Story

I love my Taylor GS-mini guitar. It is made of exotic Koa wood from Hawaii and it sounds fantastic and plays like a dream. It is also a beautiful piece of woodworking in its own right. I say this partially as a disclaimer. I am an avowed fan of Taylor guitars. I read a story in the latest issue of Wood & Steel, the marketing magazine that Taylor publishes for their owners. You get a lifetime subscription with every guitar.

The story was about a dark time in the history of acoustic guitar manufacturers. It was the mid eighties and acoustic guitars were waning in popularity. A certain famous musician had played a Taylor guitar on one of his studio albums and liked it. The local Taylor dealer called Bob Taylor and suggested that they make a custom guitar for the artist. The catch was, the artist insisted that there be no name on the headstock of the guitar.

Bob and his team of crack luthiers got to work and made a magnificent twelve string guitar and gave it a custom finish with the artist’s signature color. The artist loved it and used it in the video for one of his most famous songs. This may not have been the only reason that acoustic guitars rebounded in popularity. Such things are cyclical. But the purple twelve string Taylor guitar that was featured prominently in Prince’s video of Raspberry Beret will be an icon that will remain a treasured memory of Prince fans.

Learning to Think …

I read an interview with Charles Duhigg that helped me understand why I do some of the things that I do. To summarize what I gleaned from it, in order to be successful, we must challenge ourselves to think more about the things that we want to accomplish. We need to put ourselves in a position where we are outside of our comfort zone so that we will think about our goals in deeper and different ways.

When I started writing my seven hundred and fifty words every morning I wanted to learn how to transfer what I was thinking to the page effortlessly. I had discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Her first suggestion is to sit down every morning and write three pages. I thought about this and decided that I wanted to write on a computer.

I poked around the internet and discovered Buster Benson‘s 750words.com. Buster had done the math and figured out that three hand written pages were approximately seven hundred and fifty words. I signed up and started writing. Buster had made things interesting by collecting statistics on your writing, like how many days in a row you had written your words, and how many times you were distracted for more than three minutes while writing your seven hundred and fifty words. Your words are kept private and you can choose to share as many or as few of your statistics as you like. He also came up with badges for achievements like 30 consecutive days writing, not being distracted for a certain number of days in a row, etc.

As weeks and months went by, I discovered that I was learning to write more fluently and with much less attention to the mechanical aspects of getting the words on the page. At first I had spent much of the posts talking about how many words I had written so far and how many words I had left to write. I soon graduated to describing what was going on in the room around me. The sounds that I heard out the window. The demands of the cat and dog. My wife’s phone conversations.

I kept at it and discovered that if I could listen to music that was instrumental or so familiar that I could ignore the lyrics, I could block out distractions. Of course when I was struggling with myself about what to write, I would often start talking about the music.

Then at the beginning of June I read a blog post by C.J Shivers that advocated blogging every day. I have had a much neglected blog for years. I had even made several attempts to blog daily. This lasted for several days or several weeks. I always got distracted and quit blogging. This time when I decided to commit to blogging daily I new I need to have a plan.

I had managed to make writing daily a habit with 750words.com so, I decided to use my morning words as a way to generate drafts for blog posts. That would allow me to use one good habit to help bootstrap another. I wrote a blog post committing to blog daily and I was off.

I haven’t been able to think of something blog worthy while writing my words every day so far. Some days, I have other things on my mind. Things that are either too private or too boring to make into a blog post. When that happens, I have to make more time to write my blog later in the day. But when I do manage to write a good blog post while I’m writing my morning words, it is particularly satisfying.

The thing that originally caught my attention to read the Duhigg interview was the pull quote that said that you were using your todo list all wrong. I have been a long time believer in the power of making lists. I’m not as much in the habit of making them as I’d like but when I do, I seem to accomplish the things on them.

Duhigg advocates that you use your todo list to prioritize and motivate. In particular, he says to write your stretch goal at the top of the list and periodically ask yourself if what you are doing right now is contributing to that stretch goal. This is yet another way to force yourself to think more and differently about your goals. I’m going to give it a try.

The Dog Ate My Blog Post

It was a beautiful evening. I went for a walk tonight. I walked five and a half miles. The moon was full. The temperature was perfect. I got home and took my dog, Belle for her evening walk. She seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. Then I came back in to write a blog post.

First, I had to check my email. That took five minutes or so. Then, I had to check Facebook. That took fifteen or twenty minutes. Meanwhile, I got a couple more emails. Then I realized that I was just procrastinating.

I had a really good day today. I’m very thankful for my loving wife, my beautiful and sweet daughters, and my grandkids. I have a dog and cat that both love me, just don’t let the cat hear me say that.

I can’t think of anything else to write about tonight so I’ll just leave it at that.

A Call to Action

I have been thinking a lot lately. I suppose I am a fairly contemplative guy most of the time. I try to glean meaning from the things that I observe in the world around me. I have been struggling with that of late. I just don’t understand why the people that are the nastiest rise to the top. I understand that we are living in a world where we have more access to news than has been the case in the entire history of the world. We know more about what is going on in Europe than our ancestors knew about what was going on in the next state.

Is this a good thing? I think so. It depends on how reliable the information is. If we don’t trust the information it is worthless. If someone manipulates the news, filters it, slants it, it becomes propaganda. When I was growing up propaganda was an emotionally charged word. It was what America’s enemies, the Communists, told their people to hide the atrocities they were committing. It never occurred to us that our own government was guilty of similar cover ups.

In the modern world the problem has evolved somewhat. Sure, governments still spin their news releases but the big culprits are the rich. Corporations hire armies of public relations staff to craft the story that puts them in the best light and then see that it is delivered as written. For the most part, our news channels have become entertainment channels that are more concerned with delivering eyeballs to advertisers than reporting the truth.

And we, the consumers of this mislabeled drivel are not free from blame. We don’t think critically about anything any more. We were schooled by an educational system that has been on a downward spiral for at least fifty years. Educational standards were adjusted to fit the bell curve of the performance of the classes instead of holding them to absolute standards of achievement. Then, when those students were turned out as the teachers of the next generation, they let the standards slip further.

We have tried several strategies to address this problem, with little success. We mandate universal testing only to find that the students are not being taught the fundamental principles of their subjects but rather how to pass the standardized tests on them. Such rote learning does not engender the kind of critical thinking necessary for a democracy.

Then there is the fact that we are so bombarded by information and entertainment we have become complacent. It’s too much trouble to go to the local city council meeting and take an active role in the community. I might miss the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory or Survivor. That is clearly more important than first hand civic involvement.

It is easy to point out what is wrong. It is hard, and becoming harder, to come up with viable solutions to these problems. Again the problem is, we haven’t been taught critical thinking skills. And those of us that have developed them are typically using them in a narrow scope, namely our professional endeavors.

I feel like the old man yelling at the neighborhood kids, “You kids stay off of my lawn!” I doubt that anyone will listen or if they do that they will do anything about it. I know that I haven’t done anything myself other than write this indictment. It isn’t that these problems haven’t been pointed out repeatedly over the years. It’s just that we still haven’t done anything about it.

Here’s my proposal. Everybody pick one thing that bothers them about the world. Think of some way that you can help make it better. And then do it. If it helps, good for you! But if it doesn’t immediately help, think of something else that you can try. Because in the final analysis, we’ve got to all pitch in and keep trying or just give up and lay down and die.

You Start at the End

I just watched a wonderful routine by Penn and Teller in which they teach us the seven principles of magic. They tell us what they are doing and yet the still manage to mystify and amaze us. In case you were wondering, the seven principles are, to palm, to ditch, to steal, to load, to simulate, to misdirect and to switch.

I can’t help but think the same principles are an integral part of writing a truly great mystery story. Or singing a good song, or painting a good painting. People love to be surprised. They love to find layer upon layer of meaning in just about anything that you show them. And now, I finally understand how you go about creating something of this sort. I’d like to say I figured it out myself but actually, people have been telling my this my whole life.

If you want to surprise people, you have to create the effect backwards, starting at the ending and working your way backwards to the beginning. It’s the way you write thrilling stories. It’s the way you make thrilling speeches. It’s the way you write compelling songs. And, it is the way you do magic tricks.

No Plan Survives…

Helmuth von Moltke, a nineteenth century German Field Marshall once said, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” His point being that the act of executing a plan has immediate and often profound effects upon the assumptions upon which the plan was founded. Hence, to achieve the originally intended results, the plan must be continuously amended to account for the shifting state of affairs.

That about sums up the last several weeks of my life. It seems that every carefully laid plan that I have undertaken in the past several weeks has blown up in my face in fairly short order. For instance, I thought I had made a good plan for writing my book. I had a rough outline down and a plan for when and how I was going to write it.

As for when, I planned to sit down each evening at nine o’clock and spend an hour or so working on the book. I figured that I would split the time approximately equally between developing the example code and actually writing the body of the text.

Then I started my exercise program. The plan there is to average 13,000 steps per day for six weeks. The carrot at the end of that stick is a $100 Amazon gift card from my employer if I manage to do it. So far, I have managed to do it. I have come close to not meeting my daily goal several times. I found myself walking around at 11:45 finishing up my steps on more than one occasion.

Usually, I get a walk in after work and the rest of my evening is free. The problem then is, that when I do sit down to write, I am often so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open. So, I end up going to bed without getting any writing done.

What is worse, when I do manage to work on the book, I realize that I am going about it wrong. I can’t spend a little bit of each session developing example code and a little bit writing about it. I’m going to have to dig in and write the example code first so that I will know what I’m talking about when I do write about it.

Furthermore, my outline is going to have to be severely truncated and I am going to have to adjust my tone to better suit my target audience. The good news here is that the schedule to which I am working is self imposed. I have the flexibility to make these decisions. That is part of what I enjoy about working on a project without a boss.

These examples may seem trivial but they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Every aspect of my life lately, from work to hobby, from interpersonal relationships to my social life, such as it is, is experiencing the same sort of upheaval. I feel like I’m living the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

If Writing Were Easy

If writing were easy, everybody would be writers. I suppose it’s true but it is frustrating when you have things that you want to say and you have trouble finding the right words to say them. That was the situation that I found myself in this morning.

After writing for most of an hour on a topic I feel strongly about, I looked back over what I’d written and realized that it wasn’t conveying what I wanted to say. I was going to have to spend some time researching and rewriting it before it would be ready to be a blog post.

This was frustrating for two reasons. The first and obvious one was that I would have to continue working on it another time. The other was that I would have to find another topic for my blog post. Little did I suspect at the time that the very situation causing my frustration would be the remedy for that second frustration.

I don’t like to write too much about the process of writing. It takes time away from actually writing about the things that motivate me to write in the first place. But, on the other hand, everything that I write helps me learn to write a little bit better. And, more to the point, this piece helps me keep my commitment to post to my blog daily. I’ll try to keep these “meta-posts” to a minimum though.