Monday, December 27, 2010

The Best Songs from 2010

by Conroy

With only days left in 2010, it's time for my annual Top 10 Songs list. As with the previous versions, this list will count down what I consider to be the ten best songs from this year. There are a couple of ground rules for songs to be eligible to make the list:
  • If at all possible, I try to include only one song per artist. For instance, I could have included multiple songs from the album The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, but adhering to my rule, and because I wasn't overawed by the additional tracks, I've included just one song from the album. However, if we turned back time and I was writing about my Top 10 songs from say 1996, I would have included multiple songs from Weezer's spectacular album Pinkerton (after all, three songs from this album are included in my Top 100 Songs).  
  • All songs must be released in this calendar year (i.e. 2010). For instance, Vampire Weekend released an album, Contra, this year. The wonderful track "Horchata" leads off the album, and it would certainly have made the Top 10 for 2010 except that the song was released as a single near the end of last year (2009). Since it was released separate from the rest of the album and gained widespread airplay, I must disqualify it from consideration for songs from 2010. Alas, the late release last year meant that it missed making the list for a musically loaded 2009.
Also, as you read through this list I offer a caution. As with all annual lists, my Top 10 Songs is based on impressions from this year with only a limited amount of time to have heard and internalized each of these songs. Often it takes years or more for the significance of a song, album, or any other artistic creation to become clear. I publish these lists because I think it's fun, generates discussion, and identifies some of the outstanding songs from the past year. However, it could be that I look back years from now with different opinions of what really was best from 2010.  

Okay that's enough background, the list:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Special Place - Supplement

by Conroy

One of my favorite writers, Gregg Easterbrook, included a discussion of the size and composition of the universe in his most recent Tuesday Morning Quaterback column. It's under the "A Cosmic Thought" header at the end of the column. I'm highlighting it here because Easterbrook provides (an unintentionally timely) different take on how we may view the vastness and age of the universe, one that may give readers an interesting counterpoint.

I quote:
"To us, the universe seems immensely old; compared to itself, the cosmos glistens with the dew of morning. The present universe might exist hundreds of billions of years, if not forever. Creation contains at least 100 billion galaxies and far more stars than there are grains of sand. Don't let this make you feel small. Quite the contrary; it should make you feel important. Life is what grants the immensity of the universe meaning. Who can say what the purpose of the cosmic enterprise might be?"

I agree that merely being able to ponder the fact of existence and the reality of the universe speaks to the remarkable intelligence and curiosity of mankind. As Easterbrook eloquently notes, we cannot know the "purpose of the cosmic enterprise". However, is it too much to admit our apparent minuteness in the scheme of existence, and does that have to be a source of disappointment?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Post Number 3: A Special Place

by Conroy

This is my final post of three that outlines my personal philosophy, or as I've noted in both previous posts, my non-philosophy on man and the universe we inhabit. This post outlines my views about nature and the universe. Links to the first two posts on the nature of man and the purpose of society are provided here:

Post Number 1: The Start
Post Number 2: Smoothed Edges

The greatest achievement of humanity has certainly been our remarkable ability to (1) continually explore and better understand how the universe is composed and how it works, and (2) utilize that knowledge to facilitate the breathtaking explosion of technology. It is the continuous (and accelerating) improvements in technology more than any other human activity that has improved the lives of individual people and buttresses the belief that the future will be even better. Evolving technology, like all other human activities comes with negatives, think pollution or the ability to destroy our society through nuclear apocalypse, but all-in-all, technological development is the great success story of history.

However, what our scientific exploration and higher technology has not been able to solve - and does not seem destined to solve - is the answer to some fundamental questions; including these, which most intrigue me:
  • Where did the universe and everything in it come from?
  • How is the universe evolving and what is its "ultimate" fate?
  • Why is the universe composed of the "stuff" in it?
  • Why is the universe governed by the few physical laws that we've observed?
  • Why did life develop out of this universe?
  • Why are we mortal?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cliches - Part 2

by Conroy

Don't Reinvent the Wheel

I love cliches. I love speaking them as commentary on daily life, using them to communicate common but powerful truths, relying on them to simplify the complex thoughts I yearn to articulate. Does this mean that my writing, and by extension my thinking, is hackneyed and limited? By failing to explore new metaphors or unconventional word syntax does my writing lack the dynamism and inventiveness of a truly accomplished writer? I say emphatically - NO!

No, cliches are not unoriginal and stale drivel to be discarded and derided, but a valuable tool in any writer's (or speaker's) repertoire. Is there a better way to reduce complicated ideas into digestible and easily understood components? Is there a better way to communicate quickly and clearly? Doesn't a cliche used well, or dare I write - originally, add to the enjoyment of reading?

What better way to to explain the unique burdens of a life then, 'everyone has their cross to bear'? Are there another six words that can encapsulate this part of the human condition? How about a better five words to summarize the responsibilities and bonds of family then, 'blood is thicker than water'? Or a central and perhaps unsettling reality of this universe, 'better to be lucky than good'?

Much of the contempt for cliches may come from confusion with cliched writing. Writing that is derivative, regurgitates tired ideas, over-simplifies the complex, or states the obvious. Cliched writing is lazy, it fails to inform, it insults the reader's intelligence. It's fiction instead of literature.

Cliched writing is waste. Cliches are value. Let's not get the two confused.


Here are some of my favorite cliches (not counting the ones cited above):
  • 'Nothing lasts forever' and 'Everyone has to lose sometime'. I especially like to keep these in mind when it comes to sports.
  • 'The grass is always greener on the other side' and 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'. Readers of my first post will already know of my belief that the lure of what we may have can overpower the reality of what we do have.
  • 'Hope springs eternal'. Also in my first post, there are few things more human than our innate resiliency.
  • 'The perfect is the enemy of the good'. Perfection is impossible, and in seeking it we can lose all of the good results that are possible.
  • 'All's well that ends well'. Always liked the sound and sentiment of this expression. When times get stressful things can be done and said that cause resentment, but if things work out in the end, most slights can be forgiven.
  • 'Once in a blue moon'. For some reason I think the occurrence of a blue moon is really fascinating. I'm in the annoying habit of explaining what a blue moon is whenever this expression is uttered (even by me) or when I have Blue Moon beer.
  • 'Road to ruin is paved with good intentions'. So often intentions are immaterial to results - sometimes disastrous results.
  • 'Black as pitch', 'Down in the mouth''Missed the boat', 'Once bitten, twice shy', 'Shuffle off this mortal coil', and 'Whistle past the graveyard'. Just like the way these sound, read, and the ideas they express.

What cliches do you love to use?

Cliches - Part 1

[written by The Man and posted on his behalf by Conroy]

I Come to Praise Clichés, Not to Bury Them

Although style mavens deprecate clichés, it's important to know them—whether or not they make for fine writing, and whether or not you actually use them.  That's because clichés save time and often enhance communication: they provide ready-made formulations of common ideas, and are likely to be understood immediately by just about any listener.  In fact, most clichés were once successful, vivid metaphors, and so provide a model of what a superlative metaphor might look like.  Moreover, many clichés are rich with meaning, interesting history, and even uncommonly known facts about the world.  They are a treasure trove of rhetorical technique.  And if you don't want to use them as they are, you can always give them a surprising twist.  

So why do style experts deplore clichés with such utter contempt?  Because they are boring?  Perhaps.  But I would suggest that the primary motivation is snobbery—the snobbery of a literary elite.  After all, anybody can scribble a simple-minded cliché.  Avoiding clichés, on the other hand, means having to generate different ways of expressing ideas, which is difficult to do.  This gives those who can, something to crow about.  But perhaps sometimes it's not worth taking the extra time and effort that "being original" requires.  Sometimes it's better just to use the nearest cliché that does the job.  Style isn't everything; substance matters too.  And isn't it always a good idea to be cost-effective, even if that means falling back on a few tried-and-true clichés, every now and again, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel all the time?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Top 250 - Update

by Conroy

I have added youtube links to all (or all but two) of my Top 250 songs. You can now watch the associated videos, live performances, or just listen to the songs.

As I was adding these links, which required listening to the songs, I was struck by an emotional response to the music that I failed to emphasize in my post debuting the list. It makes sense that songs that would rank among my very favorite would have an emotional connection, after all music is the most emotional of arts. But I was also struck by how the music evoked memories of the period in my life in which I first heard or took a strong liking to each song. I mean, I've listened to each of these songs dozens of times (at a minimum), so I know them by heart.

You might think that familiarity would lessen the impact over time, especially as I mature, and my tastes and perspectives evolve. Certainly the list has seen songs come and go through it's many versions, but I had an insight when adding these links. I realized that I may have reached the point where my music tastes are what they are. Sure, there will be some modifications, but at this point I like what I like and this current list of 250 songs says a lot about not only my musical tastes, but more importantly about my emotional attitude towards my past experiences and towards the world.

Music affects people in ways that are not easy to articulate - and quite frankly in ways that I don't want to articulate. However, this lack of non-linguistic communication doesn't make it any less important, and the songs in my Top 250 list are vitally important to me.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reclaimed Dominance

by Conroy

O2 Arena - ready for tennis
This past week the ATP season was concluded at the O2 Arena in London with the World Tour Finals, which matched the Top 8 players from 2010. The event is little noticed outside of dedicated tennis fans, with almost all of the coverage aired in the United States shown on the specialty Tennis Channel. That's unfortunate, because the event's unique round-robin format guarantees multiple intriguing matches between the world's best tennis players.

To qualify for the World Tour Finals (the latest in a series of names for the year-ending tournament) a player must be ranked within the Top 8 based entirely on results from the current calender year (which coincides with the actual rankings at the end of the year), or be ranked in the Top 20 and win one of the season's grand slams (which is a rare scenario in the Federer-Nadal era). Usually, one or more of the Top 8 are injured and a substitute has to fill in, but this year all of the Top 8 were able to compete, which only upped the anticipation for high caliber play. The qualifiers were, in order:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Project: War and Peace - Post 2

by Conroy

I've finished Volume 1 of War and Peace, and as promised in my first post on this reading project, I'd like to discuss my impressions, reactions, and the general features of the novel that interest me. I'm taking a liberal approach to what I will discuss, avoiding a set structure for each post. I don't know what lies ahead in Volumes 2 through 4 and the Epilogue, and I may very well want to focus on different elements (characters, plot points, themes, etc.) after each volume as I feel appropriate.

War and Peace is massive in scope, both peace and war are covered in Volume 1 (the first 294 pages of more than 1,200), and Tolstoy is a master writer, fully in command of his creation. As such there is a plethora of interesting features to discuss and I am going to feel at liberty to write at length for each of these posts.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Into the Sky

by Conroy

A few years ago, while on vacation in Australia, I decided on impulse to go skydiving. Perhaps I was under the spell of being far away, off on an adventure, ready to experience whatever wild opportunity came my way. (Or maybe it was the girl from Dallas I met on the plane over from L.A. - and on the same tour I was on - that influenced me.) Whatever it was, I'd never really considered jumping out of a plane before.

We arrived at the airstrip early in the morning, and proceeded to wait for hours while the weather cleared. Finally, I suited up, received some basic instruction (I would be falling in tandem with an instructor), and signed a waiver noting my understanding that there was the (unlikely) chance of a catastrophe. Seven of us, three groups of jumpers and our pilot, climbed into a tiny single propeller plane. I was a little concerned that the pilot was wearing a wife-beater, shorts, and sandals, but after a half hour he managed to bring us to our jump altitude of 12,000 feet over the Gold Coast of Queensland. When we climbed above the clouds I felt butterflies in my stomach for the first time...I was about to jump out of a functional plane. We got the signal that we would be going in one of the instructors opened the door. I was to be the third of the three groups to jump. The first group...a panicky Aussie girl and her short but muscular instructor edged to the open door...with a simple shift to their side they were gone. Moments later the second group was in position and after a short delay vanished through the door. It was my turn...and then a sudden feeling flashed through me...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Emotions: A Survey

by Conroy

The range of human emotions is really incredible. I say human emotions because I'm sure other species have emotions, they just don't experience as many and with so much nuance. A dog certainly knows affection, and a deer knows fear, but I doubt either feel resentment or envy. Even really intelligent species like chimpanzees and dolphins cannot know nostalgia or ambivalence.

What are emotions? Well there are numerous involved psychological and biological theories none of which are very interesting to me. Emotions, what we "feel", are clearly part of the make-up of the complex human mind. They may serve some fundamental purpose in our existence, are manifestations of our high cognition and deep perceptions, or are just byproducts of our brain's particular neurological and electro-chemical structure. Most likely parts of each of these and more. What I am certain of is that emotions are one of the core elements that make humans special. Emotions can be good and bad, productive and damaging, subtle or overpowering. I couldn't imagine an existence without emotion, nor would I want to. Emotions can be dark and enervating but also bright and rejuvenating. Emotions remind us that we're alive.

In this spirit, I decided to get a handle on the spectrum of human emotions. Independent of any other taxonomy, I grouped emotions into ten categories. Psychologists will undoubtedly find my system contradictory and incomplete, but so be it. Interesting is all I hope for. In no particular order:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Law & Morality - The Man Responds

In his most recent post, Conroy responds to my assertion that law and morality are not co-extensive. He helps to clarify the relationship, makes some excellent points, and raises several fascinating issues. Here is my response:

First, it is true that adultery is not always immoral. The same can be said of killing, lying, and stealing. I would add, though, that the word "adultery" carries a negative connotation and a presumption that the exceptions mentioned by Conroy don't apply. In an open marriage, for instance, I doubt either spouse would describe their behavior as "adulterous," and independent observers may or may not agree. Consider the difference between the terms "murder" and "killing." "Murder" is an unjustified killing, by definition. According to the predominate moral code of our society, murder is immoral, but killing need not be: self-defense is not immoral. The term "adultery," like "murder," implies wrongfulness—in this case, deceit, infidelity, "cheating." People might choose a different  term to describe extra-marital sex in the examples that Conroy raises. The more neutral term "extra-marital sex" is an example; perhaps "swinging" for an open marriage would be another. It's also important to note that some cultures regard the act or practice of adultery as more or less immoral than others, which supports Conroy's point.

Law & Morality - Counter-Point

by Conroy

I felt compelled to respond to The Man's latest post where he argued that the law and morality are not co-extensive. Instead, the two systems can be modeled as a venn diagram where there is some overlap between what acts are covered by law and what acts (and attitudes) are covered by morality, and some exclusive regions of both, actions that are immoral but legal and actions that are moral but illegal. The Man's conclusion is that law and morality while addressing many of the same activities, are very different systems. I'd like to explore this argument further.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Law & Morality

The law, no doubt, embodies some moral values—it is, to a considerable extent, informed by moral intuitions. Unjustified killing, for example, is both morally repugnant and illegal. As is rape. But law and morality are not co-extensive. Law's aim is not to enforce morality. Consider the many immoral acts, such as lying when not under oath, or committing adultery (in most states), that go entirely unpunished by the law. Government peculations, too, are often shielded by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. And a man can sometimes stand by idly, despite being a good swimmer, and watch another man drown, yet escape any punishment. Osterlind v. Hill, (1928) 263 Mass. 73, 160 NE 301. To the court in Osterlind, it didn't matter that the defendant had a moral obligation to assist the drowning man—this poor man who held to the side of his capsized canoe for 30 minutes crying out for help while the defendant did nothing—the harsh fact was, he had no legal obligation.

Is the law, then, merely a subset of moral prescriptions and prohibitions? That is, does morality determine the content of the law? No. I don't think it does. Because in addition to leaving many immoral acts unsanctioned, the law also punishes some acts that are moral, or at least by most people's standards are not immoral. Many so-called white collar crimes fit into this category, such as insider trading, including the 6-month rule. (I mean, come on: Martha Stewart?! She didn't do anything immoral.) She does raise a social status issue, though, and it's worth noting that although buying, selling, and using illegal drugs may appear to be immoral activities, this is primarily because of the distasteful character of those who choose to engage in them despite their illegality. These activities are considered immoral, not because morality looks to the law for guidance, but because the law creates incentives for moral people to substitute into other activities, leaving the less moral to take their place. Then, the activity becomes distasteful—the result of a selection effect. Finally, note that morality among the "less moral" can itself be a crime. "Honor among thieves" is not condoned by courts. 

Although the law and morality overlap to a significant degree, they are two very different systems.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Post Number 2: Smoothed Edges

by Conroy

In my first post on this blog I presented my broad views of man, listing what I consider to be ten fundamental characteristics of our species as individuals. I promised to follow-up with two additional posts noting my views on society and the universe, respectively. Together, I intend for these three posts to constitute a personal philosophy (or as I prefer to term it a non-philosophy) about man and this world.

For this post about society, consider these song lyrics:
"...and when you're no longer searching for beauty or love / just some kind of life with the edges taken off / When you can't even define what you're frightened of / this song will be here..." - from the song "The Fear" off of the album This is Hardcore by Pulp.
This song, penned by the highly literate Jarvis Cocker and set to an off-key and eerie guitar line, is about an individual's choice in approaching the challenges of the world, but I think we can expand the point to encapsulate society: our collective attempt to take the edges off of life.

I have eschewed the Top 10 list format of the fist post in favor of a catechism, reducing the long, rich history of man and the complex, widely-varied institutions and achievements of our species to one desired outcome - taking the edges off of life.

What do you mean by taking the edges off of life?
The universe is indifferent to life in general and humankind in particular. If God exists, he isn't an active force in our universe (there will be more on this critical perspective of mine in my future post about the universe). All we can say is that life exists, and we exist. But critically, the life of the individual is temporary, we are all mortal. We will all die one day. Some of us will die young, some will die painfully, some will live to be old, some will experience many great things. There are none among us who can know what might lie beyond death, if anything at all. As a result, we have a fundamental desire to live. However, living can be hard.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Top 250 - Update

by Conroy

There is a new page on this site that lists my Top 250 (and Top 100) songs, which were initially provided in this earlier post. I'll periodically update this page as revisions are made to the list. Readers will be alerted to updates, including revised statistics and details of significant changes, through update posts like this.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Symbolic Voting?

"Modern politics is just as you should expect it to be when votes are cast by ignorant people taking advantage of a low-cost source of emotional gratification." - Jamie Whyte, "Fewer Voters Are Better Voters"
Americans across the nation will take time away from their busy lives today to do their part in keeping our democracy alive. But why? Many economists argue that voting is irrational—the costs outweigh the benefits. A lawyer can't rack up billable hours standing in line at the voting booth (at least not ethically!). True, voting doesn't take as long as it used to, but it still takes time away from other productive activities. And time is money. So the cost of voting is obvious and unavoidable.

The benefit, on the other hand, is less clear. One person's vote is unlikely to swing an election, so if the benefit of voting is the influence that one vote will have on the outcome, there's little point in doing it. That time would be better spent billing clients, browsing the Internet, or reading this blog. But people do in fact vote, despite the balance of costs over benefits, creating a puzzle sometimes known as the "paradox of voting."  A commonly suggested answer is that people enjoy voting; they're not voting for results; they're voting to vote. Hence, the "emotional gratification" referenced in the provocative quotation that prefaces this post. People vote for the same reason they eat potato chips—they like it.

But in his book "Law and Social Norms," Eric Posner argues that the common answer is wrong. In fact, people vote, not because they like it, not because it's fun per se, but because they care about their reputations. And voting, as a symbolic act, reinforces the opinions that their peers hold of them, as to whether they are cooperative, trustworthy people. That's why it's embarrassing not to vote. It sends a signal that you don't care to participate in our political system; that you aren't willing to pay the small price of a few hours of your time to help your country solve its problems. The effect that voting has on one's reputation tips the cost-benefit scale.

The hypothesis that voting is intrinsically enjoyable also tips the scale, so why should I believe the one over the other? Here are some supporting reasons and facts (suggested by Eric Posner) in favor of the voting-as-symbolic theory:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Project: War and Peace - Post 1

by Conroy

Over the next few months I am embarking on my next major reading project, Leo Tolstoy's monumental War and Peace. I've done major reading projects before. I've read James Joyce's Ulysses twice, and was overawed and enriched by the experience both times (and I'm going to read it again in the coming years). The Man and I simultaneously read Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a major disappointment.

I've been wanting to read War and Peace for a long time but been hesitant because, well, Tolstoy wrote in Russian, and I don't speak or read Russian. That means I have to read an English translation, which can be a dicey proposition. The power of a great literary work is a combination of character, plot, themes, style, and language. A good translator should be able to capture the first three, but the last two are far more difficult. A great writer is idiomatic, and his art cannot be separated from the particularities of his language. Only the most thoughtful and talented of translators can successfully convert style from one language to another. Moreover, the sound and flow of a work is inherently connected with the language in which it is written. I see no way that this aspect of a work can be fully realized in a translation.

That being said, there is a new (2007) translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that has been highly praised. The translators have made a concerted effort to maintain the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy's writing, staying as close as possible to his style, limiting the amount of interpretation, omissions, and substitutions (synonyms, colloquialisms, etc.). This new translation gives me hope that my reading experience in English will come close to reading in the original Russian.

Now my reading War and Peace is one thing, but why should I write about it? Well, I think many others are interested in Tolstoy's masterwork and perhaps my experience will be of interest. Few novels, maybe none, are as broad in scope and replete in developed, detailed characters. My goal in these posts will be to provide reactions to what I have read: story, character, themes, details, style. The book is divided into four volumes and an epilogue. I'll follow this structure and post after I've completed each volume and the entire work. As for now, I haven't read a page, so I have nothing more specific to say about the novel. However, a bit of background may be useful for me and my readers.

Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy was a genius, hopefully in my reading I will discover his supposed unmatched eye for insightful detail. His ability to master a wide tapestry of characters, plot lines, and themes; his broad vantage point and inimical eye for detail; and perhaps above all, his ability to imbue his book with true humanity. As I read I must also consider the artist. As Paul Johnson's biting biographical sketch reveals, Tolstoy knew of his genius. He thought himself better than men, an equal of God in his art. War and Peace includes many characters, including historical personages (Napoleon, Marshal Kutuzov). Tolstoy may attempt to be true to life (and mostly to history), but a careful reader must be aware that a man who thinks himself god in his art may feel that he can distort and interpret as his right. A man who is better than the rest of mankind could stray into didacticism and abandon what Joyce identified as the key to true art, stasis, genuine objectivity that presents without prejudice. Still, Tolstoy claimed that he was most at peace when deep in his writing, so the best of the man and artist may have been put down on the pages of War and Peace. I shall learn from the first word.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

To the Sky

by Conroy

Mount Kilimanjaro - rising like Olympus above the Serengeti
I've become obsessed with height, with high places, and with going higher. Just a few weeks ago I was in Boise, Idaho (elevation 2,700 feet). I was attending my cousin's wedding and had a free day so I went with a few others to hike in Bogus Basin, a mountain area about sixteen miles (and 40 minutes along a serpentine road) northeast of the city. We climbed to the top of the Basin (elevation 7,600 feet). I realized that this is as high as I had been since visiting Colorado in 1995 (not counting pressurized plane cabins). I live near Baltimore, just a few hundred feet above sea level - the highest point in Maryland is less than 3,400 feet in elevation.

When I was in Colorado I spent time in the Rockies and probably reached elevations as high as 10,000 feet, but no higher. Next year I plan to visit my aunt and uncle who now have a home in Colorado and hike to the top of a 14er (there are more than 50 summits in Colorado over 14,000 feet in elevation). After that, I'm going to climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (elevation 19,400). I had some pie in the sky (mind the pun) idea of climbing Mount Everest (elevation 29,029 feet) one day, but Jon Krakauer's excellent book Into Thin Air changed my mind. The idea of depriving my brain of oxygen for an extended period of time, exposing my self to crippling frostbite, and living in a tent for weeks (or months) is too unappealing. I am going to climb Kilimanjaro, though.

Why do I want to go ever higher, climbing these mountains? I'll give you a very male answer - because they're there.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Electronic Reading

by The Man

A friend recently bought me a Kindle 3G, the latest generation, so over the last week I've been busy loading it up with books, playing with the Kindle iPhone app with which it syncs, and shopping for a carry case and night light, which I bought tonight. Basically, I've been getting to know my Kindle. Now, I have no intention of writing a product review here, but I do think a couple of things are interesting about this electronic reader—things that are applicable to electronic readers in general—and worth writing about. To start with a few positive things, it's wonderful to be able to highlight text without having to worry about "ruining" the book, it's fun to be able to scroll through the text that you've highlighted (this is easier to do on the iPhone), and I think it's amazing that it's possible to do a word search across all of one's electronic books—it's like having a search engine for your own private library. It's no longer necessary to have to walk around looking for the right book, search through the index, etc. With the Kindle, I was able for instance to do a search for "anthropic principle" and find in just a few seconds the relevant sections of several books that addressed this subject. This is an immensely powerful tool, and it is aided by the fact that if, due to a sudden but overwhelming curiosity, you are studying a particular subject and wish to read a book that addresses it, you can rapidly obtain the book while your interest is still "hot," taking advantage of your motivation before it fades.

On other hand, I was struck by how confining the Kindle is when compared to a physical book. With the latter, one can very rapidly flip through pages—not just one at a time, but many at once. The Kindle also enables one to find one's way in a book quickly, and perhaps I simply haven't mastered its navigation system yet. There will undoubtedly be a technological solution that will enable electronic books to equal and probably surpass the ease with which one can maneuver through a physical book. But it isn't there yet, and I am more impressed by this aspect of physical books than before I used an electronic one. I also think there is an aesthetic aspect to books, having to do with their color, size, and weight, that I hadn't fully appreciated before. And I'm not talking about the status feature of possessing a book collection, which is a feature of physical books that a number of people have mentioned to me: "Now you won't be able to show off your collection." Well, I frankly think that's a bit shallow. Those who do possess such collections, however, will struggle with certain "Schumpteerian" anxieties, as the new technology diminishes the value of the old. What value is that old collection of music CDs when you have all your favorite songs stored in iTunes? I even found myself purchasing a book that I already have a physical copy of, just because I know how much I love having it with me. The problem of sharing is a real. My wife doesn't have a Kindle, but there's a book we would both like to read. If I get it electronically, my wife won't be able to read it (there's no way I'm "loaning" my Kindle to her just so she can read this book). But I think this problem will be solved, in the same way that Apple has enabled sharing of songs on iTunes.

By the way, Amazon has an incentive to solve that problem. If I'm selling something, I want to make it as easy as possible for people to buy. That also means eliminating or otherwise weakening any impediments to buying. So, if I hesitate to buy a book because I know I won't be able to share it, that's potentially a lost sale. There's another side to this, of course, which is that Amazon doesn't want me to buy the book and then make copies and distribute them to all of my friends: that may reduce sales. But couples and families are slightly different, because they tend to make purchases as a unit. So, it's a tricky business, but, again, I think there is a solution. Electronic books will continue to improve in quality, come down in price, and eventually they will eclipse the old-fashioned paper book.

This last point reminds me of something I've heard a number of people say, and which I think may be a very common misconception: fewer paper books, the argument goes, will mean fewer trees are cut down, and therefore electronic books are good for the environment. This argument isn't in the least bit compelling. Consider the elementary point that when the demand for a resource falls, other things being equal, the supply will also fall. Therefore, to the extent that the demand for trees is determined by the demand for paper, as the demand for paper falls so will the supply of trees. Yes, trees have an important ecological role to play, but the benefits flowing from that role are widely shared and so market forces will most likely supply too few trees for ecological purposes. That's all the more reason to be glad that there exist market goods, such as books and wood products generally, that require (for the time being, anyway) trees.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Neither Awake nor Asleep

by Conroy

Man sleeping...peacefully?
A couple of nights ago I had a terrifying experience. I was lying in bed drifting off to sleep. As consciousness was slipping away I suddenly became aware that I was falling asleep. My spontaneous reaction to this realization was to move my left arm, but to my arm didn't move. I tried again with the same result, no movement! I tried my right arm, and my legs...still nothing! I began to panic, I knew I wasn't paralyzed, I just needed to fully wake. I told myself to keep trying, keep trying, I could move...

Finally, after what seemed a long time, but was probably no more than a few seconds, my arms bolted from under to covers, I was awake and mercifully mobile.

This wasn't a dream, not in the normal sense anyway. I knew I was in my bedroom, I could see my room, I just couldn't move. This eerie state of semi-consciousness is something that I've experienced before, perhaps once a year since I became an adult. It has a clinical name, hypnagogia, and as I think my story conveys, it's a disconcerting experience. On other occasions when I've suffered these episodes, I have been convinced that "something" was in my room, that my legs were suspended above my bed, and like this most recent occurrence, that I was paralyzed. Often these sensations were accompanied by a confusing rush of sound. In all instances, once I regained consciousness (I won't say once I awoke, because, I guess technically I was awake, or at least not asleep) I am lucid, aware of my surroundings (always my bedroom, and always when I'm alone), but with a very strong memory of the event. It's nothing like a dream that fades upon waking.

Hypnagogia seems to occur at least once to a large percentage of people and chronically to a small percentage. It can be accompanied by dreaming and sleep paralysis, clearly symptoms I've experienced. I often dream immediately after falling asleep and during even very short naps, which is not consistent with the normal REM sleep / dreaming cycle. Perhaps my hypnagogic experiences are when my dreaming starts even before I sleep. Is this a possible explanation?

I would support the argument that the absurd claims of "visions", "hauntings", or "alien abductions" are all specious manifestations of this biological phenomena. I can attest that it sure felt like there was a "presence" in my room during one of my episodes, but wakefulness revealed a relieved solitude. Maybe others are more unsettled by these occurrences or maybe their experiences are more vivid. After all, why else would a normal-thinking person make the preposterous, laughable claim to have been visited by aliens?

Have you ever had a hypnagogic episode? What did you experience?


I know I don't sleep well, I often wake up multiple times at night, I sometimes have unpleasant dreams (rarely genuine nightmares). Hypnagogia may just be another symptom of my poor sleeping. Anecdotally, it seems that a great many people suffer from sleep problems. Why is this? I know I am productive and energetic when well rested. I can be taciturn and sluggish when chronically tired. How much more effective might we all be if we just slept better?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The End of World War II

by Conroy

As my readers will learn, I am something of an amateur World War II historian. It is my considered opinion, one that I share with more educated and experienced men, that the cataclysmic conflict was not only the overarching event of the last century, but perhaps the most significant calamity in human history. The world that existed before 1939 was irrevocably swept away and a new course established that has directly shaped the global community of the present.

Since the end of the War 65 years ago, it has been the subject of countless histories, biographies, novels, films, etc. Interest today is still keen. And in that vein, I want to praise the complementary works Armageddon and Retribution by British historian and journalist Max Hastings. These histories explore the final phase of the War in 1944-45 to defeat Germany and Japan, respectively. The books cover all aspects of the War's terminal period, which as the author powerfully evokes, was its bloodiest, most brutal phase. Hastings' writing is remarkably vivid and immediate, which is essential to the stories he tells. Hastings covers the war aims, political intricacies, and even broad military strategy clearly and succinctly, but doesn't linger over the grand individuals and larger strategic details that have been explored in so many other works. Instead, he focuses much of the narrative on the experiences of the common soldiers who had to fight the battles and the civilians whose lives were devastated. This approach yields two particularly effective histories, that go as far as any I've read of bringing the heartbreaking reality of the fighting to the modern reader.

The people of the United States, and to a lesser extent Great Britain, were spared the apocalyptic destruction that was faced by the people of Europe and Asia, and especially Germany and Japan. Armageddon and Retribution let Americans and Britons, or any modern reader that has the fortune to live in a (relatively) peaceful world, understand the plight of the civilians as the War tore to its ultimate conclusion.
Max Hastings

I will not burden the reader with a comprehensive list of the superlative passages or analysis contained in these works, but I've listed a few highlights below. I highly recommend these books to anyone interested in World War II, the realities of war, or the grim depths that humanity can sink to when the decency of society is abandoned.

Readers may be interested in:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Life on Another Planet?

by Conroy


Artist rendition of Gliese 581g. No one knows what it's really like.

Last week news came out about a new extrasolar or exo-planet - the sixth - orbiting the star Gliese 581. Accompanying the story of the discovery of the planet, dubbed Gliese 581g (the "a" through "f" suffixes had already been claimed by the previous five planets and the star itself), were speculations about the potential presence of life there. Based on the early calculations, Gliese 581g appears to fall within it's parent star's "habitable zone", the distance from the star where liquid water can exist on the planet's surface. It is widely believed that liquid water is the major prerequisite for life. Further, the planet's mass, diameter, density,and surface gravity all seem to be similar enough to Earth to support an atmosphere. The planet was discovered by a team led by astronomer Steven Vogt, a professor of astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. Vogt was so confident that the planet fit the criteria for life that he said the chances of life are "almost 100 percent."

100 percent?

Not 50 percent, 90 percent, or 99 percent, but 100 percent. Now how can Mr. Vogt be so sure? The planet is far too small and dim to be observed directly. The Gliese system is over 20 light years away. In fact, Gliese is such a dim star (a red dwarf) that it cannot be observed without a telescope. By comparison, an observer on Gliese 581g - maybe there are some right now - could easily see our sun with naked eyes. Lacking direct observation, the planet was discovered using one of the only techniques available, doppler spectroscopy. This approach utilizes careful computations of the star's movement to detect the gravitation pull of revolving satellites (planets). Other complimentary techniques can be used to estimate the orbital distance and mass of the planet. Most exo-planets have been discovered using this approach. That said, "planet hunting" is a relatively new (and let's admit, pretty amazing) project in astronomy and the discovery techniques are still being refined. In fact, there have been previous claims of life-sustaining planets orbiting Gliese 581, see Gliese 581c. More detailed analysis indicated the Gliese 581c was not a good candidate for Earth-like life. Prudence demands additional observations and analysis before judgment is made about Gliese 581g's suitability for advanced life.

To that point. In order to be within Gliese 581's habitable zone, Gliese 581g has to be very close to the star (red dwarfs radiate way less energy then stars like our yellow sun), 14 million miles away or so according to preliminary calculations (the Earth is 93 million miles from the Sun). Being so close, Gliese 581g is likely tidally locked to its parent star, meaning one side always faces the star and one side always faces away (the Moon is tidally locked to Earth). As a result one side of the planet would be exposed to blazing sun and the other to deep cold. Vogt has suggested that life could proposer in the "twilight zone" along the planets perpetual sunrise/sunset horizon. Perhaps atmospheric conditions could allow adequate heat transfer from the hot sunny side to the cold dark side. Perhaps. But tidal locking seems like a bad condition for a planet that hopes to support complex life (see more below). It's equally (or more) possible that all of the water on the planet - if there is any - is frozen in ice on the dark side and not available in liquid form at all.

Speculation about life on a single planet is one thing (literally), but generalizations about the prevalence of life in the galaxy is quite another. Mr. Vogt has postulated that the potential for life within the Gliese 581 system, a star that is so close to Earth (only 116 stars are closer), and one of the first systems where planets have actually been searched for, may mean there is a hyper-abundance of Earth-like, life-sustaining planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Vogt suggested that 10 or 20 percent of stars could have Earth-like planets. Considering that there are as many as 400 billion stars in the galaxy, that could mean tens of billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone. An astounding number, and one that would suggest that life could be common in our part of the universe.

Okay, that's one position. Call me a skeptic, but I remain unconvinced. There may be a great number of Earth-like, life-filled planets out there, but I think one must consider the myriad elements that allowed life (as we understand it) to develop and flourish on Earth before we gift other planets that distinction. The Earth, our blue marble, benefits from the following amazing confluence of phenomena:

Earth. The blue marble.
  1. Earth and the solar system are located in an outer band of the Milky Way galaxy away from other stars, gamma ray generators, and the galactic center where energy densities and radiation are inimical to life.
  2. Earth revolves around a stable, main-sequence star that has been burning for billions of years and will continue to burn for billions more, allowing life the time to develop and evolve. Further, the Sun doesn't emit gamma rays or x-rays in bursts that could jeopardize life on orbiting planets.
  3. Earth sits right in the center of the Sun's habitable zone, so liquid water can exist in the surface. The Sun's habitable zone has been extremely stable over time.
  4. Earth's orbit is far enough inside the big planets, especially Jupiter and Saturn, that the planet's formation was not disrupted by their massive gravities, while at the same time these planets act as a gravitational "shield" that attract potential planetary (and life) threatening asteroids, comets, etc. from deep space.
  5. Earth's orbit is far enough from the Sun to maintain planetary axial rotation (i.e. no tidal locking).
  6. Earth has a small enough mass and density to be rocky, i.e. have a surface for life to grow on.
  7. Earth has a large enough mass and density to (1) sustain an atmosphere and (2) maintain a geologically active metallic core, which supports plate tectonics and a planet-shielding magnetic field.
  8. Earth has a nearly circular orbit, which results in relatively consistent solar radiation reaching the planet as it revolves around the sun.
  9. Earth's axis is inclined just the right amount to promote seasons and overall higher temperature but avoid conditions where some of the planet is always facing the sun and some is always facing away (think of the heavily inclined axis of Uranus).
  10. Earth has a relatively consistent axial tilt due to the stabilizing effects of the Moon's gravity.
  11. Earth has significant tides, which may promote life through mixing of water and air, because of the proximity and size of the moon. The Moon may have formed from a freak massive collision of a small planet with the proto-Earth.
  12. Earth has a high abundance of life-supporting elements (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen). Earth's crust has a substantially higher proportion of oxygen than the universe in general. The oxygen may have been delivered by early random comet/asteroid impacts (or through the collision with the small planet that resulted in the Earth-Moon system).
Consider the chance and specificity of each of these elements. What are the odds that other planets will have the same congruence of elements? Maybe life-supporting planets, and by extension life is common throughout the galaxy. Or maybe Earths are very rare and special.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Top 250 - Debut

by Conroy

Well it's time for the unveiling of my eagerly anticipated Top 250 songs list. I consider this to be one of the most definitive rankings of songs...wait a minute Conroy, you're thinking, are you trying to pull a fast one on us? Is this really what your post is about? Top 250 songs, whatever that is? What do I care about your Top 250 songs? Maybe I'll surf to another page...but I say wait...before you go, understand that this list will be interesting regardless of your enjoyment, or even knowledge, of the songs I have included.

It's actually not a new list, I first put it together nine years ago when I was still an undergrad, at that time a ranked Top 100 list. Since then it has been revised dozens of times. The current Top 250, which also includes a ranked Top 100, represents my very favorite of a collection of nearly 6,000 songs (just more than 4 percent of the total collection). The nine years of refinement has resulted in a tight yet eclectic mix spanning the last fifty years (and seven decades) of popular music. I'm sharing it here because the best part of music is the experience of shared listening, discovering, and discussion. Listening to music with a few friends is always better than alone in your car. A concert is always more fun than a pair of iPod earbuds.

I won't write too much more, I'll let the list speak - or play - for itself (I've included links to listen to some tracks). I hope, and really I'm certain, my readers will find at least some of the artists and songs featured to be of interest. A few stats:
  • 157 artists are represented on the list
  • 39 artists have multiple songs on the list led by Rilo Kiley (10), Weezer (9), Bruce Springsteen (8), Pulp (8), Radiohead (8), Oasis (7), U2 (6), The Beatles (5), and Death Cab for Cutie (5)
  • In addition, Rilo Kiley has the most songs ranked in the Top 100 (5), followed by Bruce Springsteen, Pulp, Radiohead, and Weezer, all with four apiece
  • The songs per decade breakdown: 50s - 2; 60s - 9; 70s - 15; 80s - 56; 90s - 88; 00s - 79; and 10s -1
Without further ado, the Top 250...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The New Greatest Ever?...Not So Fast

by Conroy

On Monday Rafael Nadal emphatically won the U.S. Open to complete the career "grand slam." He became just the seventh man to attain this achievement and only the fourth to do it in the open era. Nadal's accomplishment is all the more noteworthy because he completed it at the relatively young (in tennis terms) age of 24. The last two men to complete a career grand slam, Andre Agassi in 1999 and Roger Federer in 2009, were 29 and 27, respectively, at the time.

Nadal's (or Rafa as he is affectionately known) career has been a case study in early promise, quick success, and continued accomplishment. He was a teenage phenom like Agassi and Bjorn Borg, and he has steadily improved his game to expand his undeniable skill on clay to a well-rounded and complete package capable of winning on any surface. He has modified his ground-strokes, serve, net play, and court positioning to expand his repertoire from the running and defense that has made him nearly unbeatable on the red dirt to an imposing presence on fast courts. His constitutional ultra-competitiveness and supreme fitness combined with new and improving skills promise continued success in the years ahead.

In fact, talk has already begun that Rafa may soon surpass Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player of his generation, and ultimately of all time, the proverbial GOAT. Here are a couple of opinions along those lines, (1) and (2).

The Federer-Nadal rivalry has been one of the great story lines of tennis since the Majorcan emerged as a force on the tour in 2005. They have played some of the greatest matches (watch perhaps the greatest ten minutes in tennis history here) and the underlying theme of Nadal getting the better of Federer has been the one peculiarity of the Swiss' career success (more on this below).

However, the argument that Nadal has usurped Federer's position I find unsupportable. Nadal's career achievements and 2010 performance are noteworthy without question, but they do not compare to the career achievements of Roger Federer. Grand Slam performance, overall record, and the number 1 ranking all fall decisively in Federer's favor. Consider the following 10 points:

Monday, September 13, 2010

500 Days...or One Year, Four Months, and Fifteen Days in a Life

by Conroy

I recently fell in love with the movie (500) Days of Summer [spoiler alert...critical details about this movie follow...]. Like Tom, the film's protagonist, I knew almost immediately that this was a great film. And fortunately, unlike Tom, the movie doesn't have to love me back. The tagline is:

"Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn't."

That's it, a short synopsis of so many post-adolescent relationships. The story is Tom's, but it could be anyone's. How many of us have been in meaningful relationships - to us - but not to our partner? It has to be most of us right? We've felt the cruel mix of excitement and uncertainty; hope and doubt; eagerness and indecision. This type of story has been told plenty of times in plenty of forms, but (500) Days rises above whatever genre associations you may be tempted to apply. Writer/director Marc Webb and co-writer Scott Neustadtler enliven the movie with fresh elements that visually express what so many of us have felt when caught in the whirlwind of a powerful romance.

I will not dive into all of the little moments, and all those days, that make up the movie (though I do love the hyper-specificity of the counting days). The particulars are those of Tom (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). They're moments we all recognize, we could substitute our own and the movie would work just as well. There's no great adventure, no wild action, no mystery to solve. Just moments of life. We experience the movie from Tom's perspective, and Summer stays at arm's length. We get to know her, but not well. That makes sense, this is a movie about how Tom saw, remembered, lived those 500 days. He never figured out Summer, never will.

The movie reminded me of another modern masterpiece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another movie of failed love, and memory, presented with haunting originality.

I could recommend much, but I want to focus on two aspects of the film that I find particularly effective, the narration (delivered by Richard McGonagle) and a wonderful, original use of the split screen. You can find a few samples of the narration below. The split screen is used more than once, but I am especially fond of a two minute sequence when we see Tom's sanguine expectations for an evening where he hopes to reunite with Summer, and the crushing reality of what actually happens. We see cold truth close out his dream. The sequence is hauntingly underpinned by Regina Spektor's "Hero." A portion of the sequence can be viewed here.

(500) Days of Summer, which starts early in January and ends in late May the following year, is not a perfect movie, but neither is love. It is a great movie, just not a happy love story.

For some examples of the splendid narration in (500) Days of Summer (transcribed from the film), use this link.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What a Piece of Work is Man

by Baxter Radcliff, aka "The Man"

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" - Hamlet, Act II, scene ii.

In reading through Conroy's fascinating list, I was reminded of Hamlet's speech, reproduced above, which greatly exaggerates the scope of human nature—and in the process ignores, denies, or contradicts the view that man is a constrained animal, which is Conroy's view as well as my own. Yet in one fell swoop it ironically demonstrates our self-interest (the important question for Hamlet is: what about me?); our false beliefs concerning our own capacities and limitations; our ability to suffer, especially from feelings of alienation; the fact that emotion can overwhelm our understandings; and, of course, our love of beauty. Despite my affection for the romantic idealism of Hamlet's speech, I believe that we may be the "paragon of animals," but we are far closer to the ape than the angel. And it is our peculiar curse to know it.

The truth is, we live in a world of limited resources—a constrained world. These limitations include our mental resources, our ability to acquire and process information. Our faculties are not infinite. These also include our social resources, our network of friends and family. We depend on others, and yet at the same time our social lives are riven with strife, for conflict is ubiquitous, not only in our social lives but in the natural world. Learning to understand and successfully manage conflict is therefore a worthy subject and one I intend to grapple with from time to time here on this blog. I may also take up the sword now and again myself, in order to cut down spurious, erroneous, or misleading arguments.

When I'm not brandishing my sword, I will discuss on occasion some fundamental game-theoretic concepts, which provide a structured way of thinking about conflict and a strategy. These concepts can help us understand non-obvious truths about the world. Sometimes, for example, the rational pursuit of self-interest can do damage to the broader society. The prisoner's dilemma and the tragedy of the commons provide patterns that can help us think about such situations. I may also discuss the methods by which legal structures attempt to correct and mitigate the weaknesses of human nature for the greater good; and how certain legal structures fail to do so. Sometimes, however, it is not social structures, but our own misjudgments that lead us astray. Fortunately, an awareness of certain well-studied cognitive defects may help us to reduce the number of our misjudgments. I will discuss these defects and how we can attempt to conquer them.

In any event, through posting to this blog I hope to learn a great deal from our readers, from Conroy, and ultimately from myself—for one of the benefits of maintaining a blog (I believe) is the self-knowledge that the act of writing gives to us, as we attempt the difficult task of composing our thoughts and responding to our most thoughtful critics. I look forward to posting again soon...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Post Number 1: The Start

by Conroy

Welcome to our blog! I should start by addressing two of your burning questions: Who am I and why am I writing (and hoping you'll be reading further)? The answer to the first question can be found in my bio, which is helpfully posted on our home page. The answer to the second question is harder to articulate. I can only guarantee the following - this blog will be home to the greatest writing; most original, groundbreaking insights; brilliantly entertaining repartee between its two creators, Conroy and The Man (aka Baxter Radcliff); and the timeless power of genius...okay, perhaps I indulge in hyperbole.

What I can promise is the energy of two men inspired by the complexity and variety of this universe and hungry to express that interest to our readers. We will cover topics from the esoteric to the mundane, but always with enthusiasm. We appreciate your patronage and hope you will respond with comments; I'm looking forward from this beginning. Baxter has prepared a welcome of his own, so please check out his inaugural post.


I decided to tackle a big subject with this first post: the nature of mankind. Pretty ambitious huh? Well, despite the grandiose statements above, I claim no original insights on this topic. Instead, I rely on the coherent ideas of brilliant thinkers coupled with my personal experiences and observations. This is the first of three companion posts. The second and third will be posted in the Autumn, and will explain my views on society and the natural world. Together (I hope) they will comprise a personal philosophy (or non-philosophy) that will explain my views of the universe and identify my perspectives, prejudices, and attitudes. Views that I hope will be consistent through all of my posts no matter the subject matter.

I'll present my understanding of mankind through what will be a recurring format, a top 10 list. I will use this format frequently because, to be frank, I like making and reading lists. Perhaps lists are one small way I create simplicity and order out of an ultra-complex reality. I've listed here in my standard 10 to 1 order, but in this case the number does not equate to a value. These are ten key aspects of mankind - the "very clever ape" as Baxter would say - and they all carry, if not equal, significant weight.

My beliefs stem from a conviction that man is fundamentally imperfect, or to use Thomas Sowell's term, man is constrained. I hardly think you'll get much argument from theologians or scientists on this point, but where my thinking, and that of other "constrained" believers diverges from so many other philosophers and social commentators is an acceptance of man's imperfections as intrinsic and uncorrectable. I could go on and on discussing this fascinating topic, but for now that's enough background on my perspective. On to the list:

10. Adaptation - we are the end products of evolution (so far), of the wide variety of life that has been naturally selected for survival. In a word, we know how to adapt to our surroundings and circumstances. Technological progress has removed much of the need to adapt to the vagaries of the natural world (at least for blog writers and readers), but we still must adapt to the social world that we inhabit. Most of us do this successfully and with little thinking. How many different roles do you inhabit? Husband/wife, father/mother, son/daughter, sibling, friend, boss/employee, lover, stranger. For each of these roles we take on different attitudes, act different, talk different...we adapt as needed to get by.

9. Social Dependence - it makes sense that we adapt to our social surroundings so well because ultimately we are social beings that need other people. We need others because the world is too tough for us to get by on our own. We need others to share thoughts, share experiences, share emotions. We need others to really be alive. Love, friendship, companionship, all are manifestations of our need for other people. Think of Tom Hanks' character in the movie Cast Away. As the character, Chuck, intimates after he is rescued. He was already dead on the would be too if left alone.

8. Misjudgment - it's probably a good thing that we are social creatures because even the most brilliant of our species just can't know all that much very deeply. For example, Sir Isaac Newton perhaps the greatest physicist of history, and a man who revolutionized our understanding of the universe was also an ardent believer in alchemy. On that subject he was as dumb as the rest of us. Too often we come to terms with our world by developing models, simplifications, theories, that give order to the complexity. Man has a tendency to draw conclusions from woefully inadequate data, we develop explanations for events and behavior with tenuous logic and little information. In a word we misjudge. We do this all the time and on so many subjects, from the large natural phenomena (think climate change) to everyday life (the crime we see on the local news). And what's more, we often do it arrogantly. How many pet theories and hasty explanations have you concocted for your day-to-day life and the events you're exposed to in the larger world?

7. Beauty - perhaps a manifestation of our tendency toward misjudgment is our attraction to beauty. I'll avoid a nebulous definition and just write that you know beauty when you see it. And when you see it, you cannot resist it. We melt before beauty, sexual beauty, natural beauty, artistic beauty. More than anything, we trust beauty. Men will lust forever over beautiful women, we are enchanted by a beautiful landscape, we will fawn over the majestic creations of other men. We have developed countless reasons to explain our attraction, to justify our attraction, but our response to beauty seems something deeper than these rationalizations.

6. Our Nature - one of my great beliefs is that our genetics and early life experiences (up to and perhaps through part of adolescence) form our personal nature. Like concrete, once set our nature cannot be changed. That's why we develop so many of the same patterns in our personal relationships, persist in behaviors that we don't like, settle into bad habits that are hard to break. Sure we can make changes in our lives, and perhaps a rare person does experience a sea change, but in general, we revert to our nature: a cheater will always cheat, a liar will always lie, someone betrayed will have difficulty with trust, someone kind will be kind no matter how much ignored, and someone optimistic will see the bright side no matter the disaster.

5. The Passions Rule - I want to challenge my readers to find the origin of this expression. The power of passion makes a farce of logical, rational man. We are ruled absolutely by our emotions. We may not always act on them, but anger, lust, love, joy, fear are the powerful feelings that can drive us to act rashly, foolishly, wrongly, violently, but also courageously, fervidly, devotedly. They can result in the worst aspects of our species - our ability to hurt others, and the best - our ability to love others. In the end the passions are what we live for.

4.Will to Power - but beyond the passions we have a drive to improve or increase ourselves. We are impelled to what Nietzsche termed the "Will to Power". In a simplified explanation, one more amenable to my intellect than Nietzsche's, this is our drive to realize our potential, to expand our abilities, knowledge, and influence. The will to power drives our acquisitiveness in all forms, and can only be checked by the will to power of others. For lack of a better term, those with greater achievements have a greater will to power, but big or small it's there in all of us.

3. Hope Springs Eternal - mankind has a remarkable resiliency. In the face of the largest setbacks we are still able to imagine a more successful future. Even the greatest cynics hope for a better tomorrow. My favorite example, because it's obvious and most of us have experienced it, is the broken heart. The broken-hearted will look again for love, no matter how painful the break. Our ability to move on, even when an event or circumstance deeply affects us, is intrinsically human.

2. Grass is Always Greener - perhaps a dark cousin of hope is our tendency to imagine things better than what we have. If better exists then better can be possessed. This view tends to be coupled by dissatisfaction with what we do have. Reality is rarely as colorful as imagination. How many good things (marriages, jobs, friendships, projects) have been lost in the search for something better. As John Fowles wrote in The French Lieutenant's Woman, "There are some men who are consoled by the idea that there are women less attractive than their wives; and others who are haunted by the knowledge that there are more attractive." [Italics is mine.]

1. Self-interest - and most fundamentally, we are driven by self-interest. That's why we look around for something better. Self-interest makes sense from a biological, evolutionary perspective. The great achievements in human history and the upward arc of humanity are the result of the selfish impulse, measured in what I term selfish success (esteem, fame, wealth, professional achievement). This must be so. Still, self-interest can be a great evil. Self-interest can lead us to abandon or betray those we love. Self-interest must at times result in hurting others. Self-interest, like so much else in our nature is a good and bad.


That's all for now. Look for a new post soon. Take care.