Tuesday, October 26, 2010

That One Thing

Reading this article in the New Yorker about the nature of procrastination ("What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?"), I'm reminded of a story of a psychologist and a severely depressed patient who couldn't muster the energy to get out of bed. The doctor finally convinced the patient he could do exactly one small thing, but had to do no more: swing his foot over the edge of the bed. Once accomplished, things seemed a little more possible to the patient. The doctor got him to swing the second leg over the edge of the bed. Hey, things are looking up. In fact, the patient was now so optimistic about life he was able to be convinced to *sit* up. Each step was a little easier, and in 5 minutes he was walking down the hall.

For coping with unpleasant things we have to do and which we procrastinate about, break it down to it's simplest elements. For me, I hate paying bills. Hate. But I have it so well organized I can do it quickly -- I have a spreadsheet of accounts, weblinks, phone numbers, etc. So my simplest possible task is simply to open Excel. Just Excel. No files. That's way too much to handle as I approach this personal hell. I consciously commit to no more than opening Excel. And mean it.

But it's rare when, after seeing Excel spring to life that I can't do the next excruciating task -- open up my spreadsheet. And now, hell, I'm looking at it. There it is. What the hell. Let's at least look at what the most urgent bill is. Crap. It's the gas bill. I'm going to freeze when they shut off my heat. Better pay that one... All done. That wasn't so hard, was it? Massive feeling of accomplishment. Heck, the power bill is really easy to pay ... three clicks and I'm done. Two down. Wow. Do I really want to do another? Yes, I might have the energy for it. What the hell. I'll do three and feel really good about myself. Yes. So why not do that credit card?

And so it goes. I apply the same principle to anything unpleasant, but necessary, that I find myself procrastinating about. I ask myself what the one simplest possible thing I can do is, and most importantly, I commit mentally to saying I have the option of doing no more. (And sometimes I don't -- because that's how I prove it to myself.) But usually, I do more.

I hate to dilute this, but another thing for dealing with procrastination is that less important things *never* get done unless you allocate *some* time to them each day. 10%, let's say, for low priorities. So by imposing the 10% rule, you make them important enough to do. Learned that one from an old boss, and it works.

A friend remarked: "wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to play the thought games we do, in order to do the things we don't want to do."

My reply:

I wonder if the thought games are all part of the crow epistemology (the number of units we can hold in our direct awareness at one time, around 5  to 8), and a necessary part of our psychology.  The more overwhelming an unpleasant task feels, the less we want to do it.  I notice that mentally, when the number of steps to an average task goes much beyond 6 or 7, it transitions from being achievable to unachievable.  But the more unpleasant it is, the lower that number.  The more fun it is, the higher the number.  When a task is  fun, we tend to stay focused on just the immediate-- so we never get overwhelmed by too many things, even when there are too many things.  Less fun tasks, we tend to start fixating on the enormity before us. ALL the things that have to be done to complete the unpleasantness.  "Enormity"  seems related seems closely related to having more than a half-dozen unpleasant things to do.

A related anecdote:  I've noticed that undefinable mild depression or anxiety is also related to the *number* of things bothering us.  The same crow epistemology.  So I have a simple rule -- when I realize that I'm feeling down or uneasy for some undefined reason, I stop and make a list of all the things big and small that are bothering me.  All. (That's very important.)  Usually, I find it's a number over 6 or 7 when I have that undefinable un-ease. Most important, though, is that I make a physical list that I can hold in my hand and look at.  Wow...  that's a long list.  No wonder I feel like crap.  Just knowing it's a big list helps a lot.

But often, I realize that out of the (say) 12 or 15 things on my list, most are trivial (often related to procrastination) and only one or 2 are really important.  Again, I feel a lot better.  I know what's bothering me, or I know that what was bothering me was that I simply hadn't identified what was bothering me.  I had overloaded my crow.  Then I realize that the solution to my problem is manageable. Better yet.  That motivates me (and guides me) to make a focused effort to attack the things I need to.  Sometimes it's the one important thing, first, but sometimes it's all the little things first, to get a sense of accomplishment, and to get the number of things down below 6 or 7, because then the big things seem more manageable. 

By the way, I've tested this strategy on other people.  It works for them, too.  My sister once was getting extremely anxious about a zillion things -- school, work, boyfriend, etc.  So I told her to make a list.  She did that and -- crap.  No wonder she was feeling bad.  But it all looked manageable while staring at that list.
A little oversimplification, but not that much.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Manchurian Education

Roger Simon over at Pajamas Media has proposed forbidding the government from funding any news organization. This is a nice start, but his proposal barely scratches the surface of what the government should not be doing. What about the Department of Education and all the public schools and universities? National Pravda Radio and the Pravda Broadcasting System merely broadcasts ideas you might disagree with -- you can turn the channel.

The government schools are doing something vastly worse: they force you to pay them thousands of dollars per year to support the dissemination of ideas that are genuinely destructive of yourself and your country -- Marxism in a rainbow of flavors, and a re-written history that condemns the founding principles of America, for just a start -- and they force you to send your children to these brainwashing camps (for K-12, at least) and threaten you with jail or the loss of your children if you don't. And along the way, your kids don't even get educated.

Ayn Rand said that it's evil to make someone pay to support ideas with which he disagrees. It's beyond evil to make him pay for the creation of his own destroyers. But even beyond that, imagine making his own family the agents of his destruction? That is evil.

It's time to affirm an underlying meaning of the First Amendment: the government shall make no law establishing an institution of education. Shut down the entire Department of Education -- it is a vast bureaucracy that serves no useful function whatsoever. Privatize every public school and university. Get the government out of indoctrinating people and create a true free market in ideas.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Yoke of Regulation

In response to this article at PJ, I posted a comment:

The entire concept of “regulation” — rules for private action in the absence of a crime — reversed a basic principle of American law: innocent before proven guilty.

Or, to put it another way, no one should be born with a yoke of serfdom, slavery and indebtedness to the government around their neck.

Regulations also reverse the principle that individuals (singly or as members of groups such as corporations) have the right not to testify against themselves. Ie, any kind of reporting requirements under regulatory and tax rules.

Regulations also violate the principle of due process (5th and 14th amendments): the right to a trial, instead of the arbitrary power of a bureaucrat (a member of the Executive branch, not the Judicial!) to determine guilt, assess fines, seize property and impose further restrictions on actions.

Not that you could tell that to the Congress, who enacted the Health Care Act of 2010. Or to Barack Obama, who shut down all oil production in the Gulf.

The entire concept of regulation undermines the very *principle* of individual rights: it is a return to the “divine right of Kings” — the divine right to do whatever they damn well please.

Not that you could convince the Supreme Court, which has concocted an unending series of rationalizations now built into the legal precedent that carves out exception after exception after exception which have allowed regulations to proliferate to the point where they are now destroying our nation and our entire way of life.

This is what the principle of individual rights was intended to prevent: *rights* of the citizens that the government may not *ever* infringe.

There’s a lot to be learned by reading the original Constitution and early Amendments, prior to the corruptions of the late 19th, 20th, and now 21st century, and re-examining current law in that light. For instance:

Article III, Section 2:
“…The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury…”

5th Amendment (1791):
“No person shall be …subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

14th Amendment (1868):
“Section 1. …No State shall …deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws…

As a rational person who loves his life, liberty and happiness, is there any way to interpret those words to mean we are born with a requirement to obey proscriptions on our actions in the absence of any crime? Is there any way to interpret those words to mean we have placed our lives and fortunes in the hands of a *bureaucrat* who possesses the unlimited power to seize them or toss them away as he sees fit?

Unfortunately, those longing for the good ol’ days of “The Crown” (ie, the State as supreme) have twisted those words out of all rational meaning, and we are suffering for it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Re-wiring the Brain

That title isn't very clever, but brain "re-wiring" has long been a subject of great interest to me -- how the brain physically changes over time to reflect altered habits and learned behaviors, including one's basic psychology and abilities.  When a friend who is similarly interested in the subject recently sent me an email about his success in changing his running style after a lifetime of habit, I offered my own comments:

Let me approach his question of brain re-wiring from a very different perspective. When I was 34, I suffered a minor stroke from snapping my head back while going for a lob in a tennis lesson. A minor artery tear (a dissected right vertebral for the Doc's), a small clot formed, and a day later broke loose. I narrowly avoided going blind -- the clot zipped into my cerebellum rather than heading up the sub-clavian artery into my visual centers. The cerebellum controls automatic fine motor movement and balance. The damage was about 2cm of tissue -- gone.

I had problems making my eyes move together without effort, and at the beginning I felt like I was riding one of those roller coasters that spin you every direction. Complete disorientation. Day and night, no respite even when I slept. I could overcome this to some degree by intense, brain-cracking conscious control.

Over some days the symptoms alleviated perhaps 10 - 20%. After a week -- maybe another 9%. After a month -- another 8%. You can see the pattern: slower and slower, but trending better. The entire process was very up and down because after a stroke brain tissue continues to die from secondary effects. (Extremely demoralizing, and many fits of severe depression from first feeling better and then getting worse, over and over again.)

But all told: after about 10 years, my symptoms were almost completely gone. Fortunately for me, the cerebellum has about 10 times more neuron density than any other part of the brain, and "re-wires" itself more readily and quickly. But this is probably the part that my friend was re-wiring to run differently.

Ironically, at the time I had the stroke I was interested in exactly the question that my friend was interested in, and had been doing a lot of reading on brain function. So I was able to approach my injury from a somewhat intellectual perspective, and peppered my neurologist with questions. It kept me sane.

For non-motor "retraining" of psychological processes, I have a very rough rule of thumb: it takes about as many years to retrain a deeply automatized capacity as it took to form in the first place. Much depends on consistency and repetition, however. Or the complexity of what's being automatized. (Driving a car is a very simple skill, for instance.) Every time you slip, you regress.

For instance, if you were a severe introvert for 20 years, and then got a job as a salesman (though all introverts by definition would cringe at the thought), it pretty much requires the opposite psychology, and it's going to take you years before you feel comfortable and at ease and happy doing the job, under a best-case effort, even though you can consciously force yourself to do the job quite well in much less time. Just too much to re-wire. Introversion is really basic psychology. The same principle would apply if you developed a bad habit playing tennis or the piano or typing, though to a lesser degree.

I observe that with time the effort to overcome past automatization becomes gradually less and less. Eventually it becomes effortless. It goes from being loathsome, to unpleasant, to milldly distasteful, and finally to mildly pleasant and then really enjoyable when the automatization is complete. At that point, it feels natural and it feels like "you".

I think this is crucial to psychiatry. People tend to not want to change and do what feels "abnormal" to them; they have to understand that personality and psycho-epistemology can be changed to a great degree, but that it will feel unnatural and uncomfortable for years and years, though gradually lessening with time.

In my view, I think the same applies to intelligence, or should I say more accurately: intellectual capacity. To some degree, I think the very nature of a conceptual consciousness demands that we can become smarter over time by acquiring concepts and automatizing rational processes of cognition. Again, years are involved. I think of each concept we learn as a sort of new "third eye" for seeing things in the world, and those can be acquired relatively easily, but automatizing patterns of thinking is much more time-consuming.

The end result of all automatizing, however, is reflected in modified brain structure. New/deleted dendritic/synaptic connections. Re-wiring. Physical changes.

Some people will start out life with a nice set of synaptic connections. Things work a little more smoothly for doing certain things -- math, art, sports, what have you. We call them "smart". And because they're good at them, they often tend to put more effort into refining those talents -- remember, for them it's easy and fun. So their connections get even better and they seem even smarter by the time they're in their teens. We call them "genius". But if the smart ones didn't begin enhancing those connections, a more average person of greater diligence and passion might quickly pass them by -- making their brains re-wire to become smarter.

There are limits of course. The further your initial brain wiring is from what it needs to be, the longer it will take to get there, with more effort (like my stroke). That could get very tiring to sustain over years, but I'd say in principle someone of sufficient determination and insight and ruthless dedication to rational thinking could take an average intelligence and achieve great things later in life. (And they have.) Effectively, what we colloquially call "genius".

Of course, someone who starts out smarter will always be ahead of you with the same dedication. This is one reason that passion is so important to being good at anything. And part of one's initial wiring as a child is the passion you feel for certain things that are easy to do.

People do start out with vastly different capacities, and you may not be able to overcome a really crappy initial set of synaptic wiring for certain skills (not all of us are meant to be a concert pianist), and someone with abnormal brain formation at birth (say, Downe's syndrome) is going to have severe problems, but I've long thought the IQ tests were one of the most flawed and destructive concepts ever developed for average people. How many people gave up at something they loved because some idiot told them they didn't have the capacity or "aptitude"? It's the old "zero-sum" concept applied to intelligence.

Not that there aren't true "outliers" -- people of truly exceptional ability at some thing. But I don't think this is captured well in intelligence tests.

I'll give you another personal anecdote to prove the point. I could point out a lot of personal deficiencies in certain abilities -- I was absolutely horrible writer for half my life. Complete inability to grasp grammar, for instance. Terrible student. Average to lousy athlete. High school dropout (10th grade), though I read a lot. But I had very good "spatial skills".

In fifth grade, I was IQ tested. The tests were puzzles -- different shaped blocks that you had to quickly fit together. And a guy with a stopwatch measuring how fast I could do it. I was kind of fast. Maybe off the charts. They tested me over and over again over a period of some months, and I suppose I baffled them cause I didn't give a damn about school (I only put out when I respected a teacher, and by 4th grade that bus had left the station.)

Then years later I figured out why. Get this: my parents did puzzles. From when I was born. Many, and often. We always had a card table in the house dedicated to the latest puzzle. As young as I can remember, I was helping them do puzzles. We did small puzzles, big puzzles (5000 pieces or more), and I was always there, looking for the pieces that fit with the right shapes and patterns and colors, and being delighted when I could find a piece that my parents couldn't. The puzzles were fun (I still like doing them) and they got more fun as I got better at them. Some serious re-wiring going on, I suspect.

Then throw in the Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Legos and various other puzzle-type toys I always got for presents. (My father was an engineer, and guess what I do?)

Was I really "smart"? Or did I just learn how to do puzzles that closely matched the idiot IQ tests? I think I probably just started out a very normal, average kid and became "smart" at one thing -- at puzzles. Because I damned sure wasn't smart at much else.

I'm simplifying a lot here, but that's a little of my thoughts on the subject of "re-wiring".

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Pushing the Button of their own Demise -- or, the Mask Slips

I read this
"...no video has ever provided such a revealing and shocking peek into the mindset of the Global Warming alarmists...."
and thought it had to be a bit over the top in asserting that the Green Movement had completely discredited themselves with this movie they had made (with the help of the British Government, Sony, and other "green" companies) to promote the "10:10" campaign for "encouraging" people to reduce their "carbon emission" in support of global warming. Then I saw the video.

Believe me, the article is right. Don't watch if you have a weak stomach. It is extremely graphic. Friday the 13th kind of graphic, showing what happens if you aren't on their side. As the PJ article says,
"...final proof that the Green movement are a bunch of crypto-fascists with violent fantasies of exterminating their opponents, and who use threats to enforce groupthink..."

Dead on.
As James Delingpole put it in his column about the video, “Eco-fascism jumps the shark: massive, epic fail!” And just exactly how amusing is it to depict the graphic murder of children who refuse to march in lockstep with the Global Warming cult?
I even wondered for a moment if the people who produced this video were secretly trying to discredit the global warming movement, but I really don't think so. I think they were just revealing their true inner self, the self they've been wanting everyone to know about for a long time.

If this video doesn't spell the end of Global Warming as a movement, I don't know what will. PJ says the Greens pulled the video within minutes of release after the uproar began, but people are uploading like crazy to youtube and elsewhere on the web to make sure it doesn't disappear.

Postscript: here's a link to the "apology".
...Many people found the resulting film extremely funny, but unfortunately some didn't and we sincerely apologise to anybody we have offended. As a result of these concerns we've taken it off our website. We won't be making any attempt to censor or remove other versions currently in circulation on the internet. We'd like to thank the 50+ film professionals and 40+ actors and extras and who gave their time and equipment to the film for free. We greatly value your contributions and the tremendous enthusiasm and professionalism you brought to the project...

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Sum of All Tears

My first, last and only post on the Peikoff/McCaskey/ARI/Tracinski "crisis", with no background for anyone who doesn't know it, cause really, you don't want to if you have any kind of life at all.  As I told some friends:
Somehow, with imminent totalitarianism and the survival of the United States and the fate of the world at stake for the next 1000 years, or my own financial survival in the more near-term (I'm out of work almost a year now and facing foreclosure) I can't get too worked up about whether Peikoff was pissed off by a book review by McCaskey, or Tracinski was pissed off because Binswanger wouldn't print his email, or pick your insignificant difference of opinion that anyone of genuine self-esteem would shrug off.

There are things to criticize about Peikoff's behavior, which was childish and boorish, and things to criticize about Harriman's thesis, but at least as much to criticize in Tracinski's overblown characterization of this "crisis" (or his too often flawed analysis of politics or history or philosophy).  For one, he revels too much in it as a crisis, and is clearly delighted that he's had an opportunity to vent after years of holding back.  Shades of David Kelley.

For myself, it's all got a mild entertainment value, but I've got much bigger fish to fry.  I stay focused on fundamentals and my most important objectives, and I'll use anyone who advances that end, so long as their flaws don't get too much in the way.