Arrogance, Competition, Friends, Human Nature, Intelligence, Judgementalism, Life, Loyalty, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Self-Knowledge

The Death of an Arrogant King

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul describes the strategy he used to beat a far brighter and more favored boy in order to become his high school’s chess champion.

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THE CRITICS IGNITE! “In ‘Death of an Arrogant King’ de Hunne of blogging, Paul Sunstone professes himself to be a grandmaster of chess.  Shame! Shame!  In sincerity, he is ein Hun who has pushed boredom to new and astonishing levels.  He has made boredom a form of  barbarism. He has weaponized it.  An orderly society would crucify Sunstone.  Crucify de Hunne just as he himself shamelessly crucifies human decency in the process of excreting his innumerable boring posts upon the world.” — Johanna Meyer, Der Blogkritiker, “Die Fussen-Welt”, Fussen, Germany.

Continue reading “The Death of an Arrogant King”

Authoritarianism, Bad Ideas, Competition, Democracy, Economics, Economy, Human Nature, Ideas, Ideologies, Political Ideologies, Political Issues, Politics, Quality of Life, Society

Are Dictatorships Really More Efficient than Democracies?

SUMMARY: The post addresses the question of whether dictatorships are more efficient than democracies on both the political and economic levels, and on the level of innovation and invention.

(About a 5 minute read)

“Mussolini got the trains to run on time.”

Many people even today think that was true.  Actually, it was a bit of Mussolini’s propaganda designed to justify his dictatorship.  It was based on the notion that dictatorships are more efficient than democracies — a notion that also persists to the current day.

The question of whether the Italian trains under Mussolini had really run on time might never have been resolved had it not been for the grandfather of an American historian.

Continue reading “Are Dictatorships Really More Efficient than Democracies?”

Allies, Altruism, Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Community, Competence, Competition, Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Evolution, Fairness, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Ideas, Justice, Life, Memes, Morality, Morals, Nature, Obligations to Society, Quality of Life, Science, Society, Values

Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider

(About a 6 minute read)

The spider had been stalking the fly for minutes.  There didn’t seem to be anything on the barren patch of ground to attract a fly.  I expected it to finish its investigations and leave.  But it would only buzz away a few inches when the spider approached it, then in a minute or two return.

Sometimes it would allow the spider to get very close before flying off.

Continue reading “Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider”

Allies, Brotherly Love, Capitalism, Citizenship, Community, Competition, Consumerism, Cultural Traits, Culture, Fairness, Free Market Capitalism, Friends, From Around the Net, Giving, Human Nature, Life, Morality, Obligations to Society, Philos, Society, Values

Never Break the Circle

(About a 1 minute read)

Years ago, there was Mike,
A Native American man who belonged
To the people of a Southwest nation,
And who was trying to teach his son
The people’s traditional values.

Can you imagine how tough that was?
Maybe the values are the same
But the world is not.
No, it’s not the same at all.
But Mike was determined,
Still made the effort.

Each weekend he drove his boy
Eight hundred miles South
To the villages where
He could play with his cousins,
Talk with his grandparents,
Learn from the whole village
How to walk with one foot on the earth,
And with the other foot firmly planted
In the spirit world.

His son made Mike proud.
Once the whole community
Gathered to share candy —
I think Mike called it,
“Halloween, Hopi style.”

Forming a circle of young and old,
The people tossed the candies around
For several minutes, catching and tossing
Back the candies, the people shared
A good thing in life, and stopped
Only when everyone had something sweet.

Everyone.

“Cooperation”, Mike told me,
“It’s how the people live.
Not like what he learns in school.
There it’s fight for yourself,
Live for your close kin alone,
And screw all the rest.”

Business, Competition, Goals, Life, Psychology, Sales, Science, Talents and Skills, Values, Work

How to Make Positive Thinking Work for You

(About a 9 minute read)

When I gave positive thinking a try some decades ago and it didn’t work for me, I concluded it was for the other guy.  That is, I didn’t write it off for everyone, because too many people were telling me that it worked for them, but I did write it off for me.  I didn’t know then that I myself routinely indulged in a kind or species of positive thinking.

I had a mental habit — and I still do — of first daydreaming about something I wanted, such as honesty in politics,  improving my painting skills, or — most often — to see Terri’s breasts in the moonlight once again.  I’d let my mind wander imagining her magnificently pleasing honesty in politics, etc, and all that those things meant or implied.  That was the positive thinking part of it.

Sooner or later, however, my mind would turn to assessing the problems and challenges involved in making those things happen.  How could I overcome those problems and challenges?  Sometimes I’d realize at that point that there were few if any practical ways of overcoming them (e.g. in the case of pure honesty in politics).  Yet, often enough, I’d come up with a workable plan to obtain my wishes.

That was and is my version of positive thinking.  It seems to be something that I long ago just lucked into, because I have no memory of it having been taught to me.   It turns out, though, that I’m not alone in doing it.

Gabriele Oettingen is a scientist who studies how people think about the future, and who writes about positive thinking, among other things.  Based on over twenty years of research, Oettingen has concluded:

While optimism can help us alleviate immediate suffering and persevere in challenging times, merely dreaming about the future actually makes people more frustrated and unhappy over the long term and less likely to achieve their goals. In fact, the pleasure we gain from positive fantasies allows us to fulfill our wishes virtually, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting challenges and achieving goals in real life.

In a New York Times article that is well worth reading in its entirety, she writes:

My colleagues and I have since performed many follow-up studies, observing a range of people, including children and adults; residents of different countries (the United States and Germany); and people with various kinds of wishes — college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, schoolchildren wishing to get good grades. In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.

But Oettingen does not recommend giving up on positive thinking entirely.

In a turn of events certain to astound and confuse my two ex-wives, I have actually gotten something right in my life.  I am sooo going to email this blog post them! Of course, I am far above gloating about it, but it happens that Oettingen and her colleagues have discovered that combining positive thinking about one’s wishes with realistically thinking about the problems and challenges to obtaining one’s wishes is an effective way to realize those wishes.  At least, those wishes that are basically realizable in the first place.  The psychologists call it “mental contrasting“:

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

I think mental contrasting can help with far more than meeting near universally felt personal goals such as weight loss, job promotion, skill improvement, or smooching with Terri.  I think it can also help with such things as developing a realistic politics.  In fact, I’d argue that several of the American Founders were more or less masterful at reconciling their idealism with both eternal political realities and the circumstances of their time.  It’s my guess they did so by intuitively employing some form of mental contrasting.

Now, as long as we’re on the subject of getting what you want, I’d like to add here a second technique that I have personally found helpful.  I don’t know of any science, however, that either supports or discourages this second technique.  But, for whatever it might be worth, I’ve found it to be efficacious in obtaining your goals.  This is not a technique that I came up with on my own, though.

Thirty-five or so years ago, I was struggling at a job in corporate sales.  I wasn’t even coming close to making my monthly quotas, and perhaps the only two reasons that I wasn’t fired for lack of performance were that most of my fellow sales people were in the same boat (it was one tough industry to be a salesperson in!), and that the management of the company were ridiculously old fashioned enough to care about their employees.  One way they showed that care for us was to, instead of firing us all, hire a sales coach.  An excellent coach, as it turned out.

Within about year, I’d turned myself around.  But I didn’t fully realize by how much I had improved until the Chief Financial Officer took me aside at an employee meeting to inform me that in the first quarter of the year I had added more revenue to the company’s coffers than all the other salespeople combined.  The quarter after that, I beat my own new record by such a margin that I, who have always been the most hard-working, dedicated, and conscientious of employees, was able to negotiate an immediate month long paid vacation.  “You sure don’t want me burnt out for the rest of the year, do you?  I needs me fishing time!”

I put my turnaround down to that coach, and to the fact I was one of the few salespeople who took his lessons to heart.  Maybe that was due to the fact he’d told me something revealing about the effectiveness of his methods: “Most people are either going to dismiss out of hand what I’m trying to show them, or they’re going to give it a single try, get their noses bloodied, and give up on it all.  The fact is, there’s a learning curve to these things.  You can’t expect to get it right the first time, nor even the second or third times.  It’s just like learning tennis: It takes a lot of practice to become good at it.”  I was determined not to give up on his lessons until I’d given them a fair shot.

I won’t go much into the first thing he taught me.  It revolutionized how I sold to people, and it’s probably the more important of his lessons, but it’s largely irrelevant in this context.  The second thing, though, is pertinent.

Simply put, my coach changed my thinking by defining a goal as “a lens through which one sees opportunities”.  I can no longer recall what I thought a goal was before then, but I do recall goals had always intimidated me.  Yet, after I began to practice his lesson in earnest, I no longer felt intimidated by them.

By “a lens through which one sees opportunities” he meant, in part, that you should become at least mildly obsessed with your goal.  You should start looking for ways to reach it everywhere and in everything.  Suppose, for instance, you sold furniture, and you were at a party during which someone mentioned to you that their girlfriend had just given them the ultimatum, “Get your books off the floor or I’m leaving!”.  If you were properly obsessing, you’d at once see that as an opportunity to sell them some of your shelving.

Besides making me alert to such straight-forward opportunities as that one, I found obsessing on my goal brought out my creativity.  I began seeing more and more obscure opportunities.  In the end, it was as if I couldn’t drive to work in the mornings without seeing at least a half dozen things that would pop ideas into my head about how to sell my service to some business or another.

Now to be sure, there was a downside to turning my goal into an obsession.  That was driven home to me in a WTF? moment one day.   I was waiting in my car at a stoplight, and I had just thought of a way my service could boost one of my client’s sales from repeat customers.  I wanted nothing more than to get the office and call him for an appointment.  An old woman with a walker was slowly crossing the street when the light turned green.  Without thinking of her, but only of my goal, I started honking the horn.  Abruptly, I realized what a jerk I’d become!

So I think that, when turning a goal into an obsession,  you should bear in mind the dangers of becoming ruthless in your pursuit of it.   But, apart from that, the practice has served me well over the years.

Of course, when adopting or creating a goal for myself, I perform mental contrasting to understand it and the problems and challenges to realizing it.   I regret that I have no science for you that suggests seeing your goal as a lens through which to spot opportunities actually works for anyone other than me, but it might still be something you should give a try.  Just don’t start honking at people when they’re trying to cross the street!

Capitalism, Class War, Competition, Economics, Economy, Political Issues, Politics, Quality of Life, Quotes, Socialism, Society

Does It Ever Change?

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Albert Einstein, Why Socialism, May 1949

Actually, perhaps it is worse today than it was in 1949.

Business, Capitalism, Community, Compassion, Competition, Economics, Economy, Extended Family, Family, Giving, Ideologies, Kindness, Obligations to Society, People, Quality of Life, Relationships, Society, Values, Work

A Late Night Thought on Capitalism

My building is an old house converted into three apartments.   Ordinarily, one neighbor lives across the hall from me, and the other lives upstairs.  But my landlord has recently been struggling to keep the other two apartments occupied.

I think he’s been trying to give people a break by renting to folks who are financially insecure.  Such as the couple and their kid who just moved out yesterday.   The lady had a job, the gentleman didn’t, and the family fell short of making the rent.  My landlord must surely have known only one of the adults in that family had a job, but he leased to them anyway.   That may be kind, compassionate and generous, but it is not a formula for keeping rental units occupied.

I’ve known my landlord now for between 12 and 15 years.   Before I rented from him, I worked for him doing odd jobs — mainly house and apartment painting.   He’s a very honest man, a very hardworking man, and, like everyone, he’s got his eccentricities.  One of his eccentricities is that he likes to treat his tenants to some large extent as if they were family.  He’s more comfortable thinking of you as a distant cousin than he is thinking of you as a profit center.

In terms of properties, he’s not a big landlord, nor a tiny one.  He owns about 30 rental units — most of them houses.   I wonder about his tendency to treat his tenants as family.  For the most part, that tendency shows up in his willingness to take a chance on the folks he rents to.  He doesn’t need a perfect credit score nor a perfect rental history.   My guess is he takes about the same chance with folks off the street as he would with a cousin or even sometimes a nephew.

That’s good for people.  And it’s good for the community.  But it’s not good business practice.   In business terms, my landlord’s tendency to treat people as family and take a chance on them results in reduced occupancy, reduced income, and less profit.  If he were in a highly competitive business environment, he might be out of business by now, weeded out by more profitable competitors.

I don’t have enough information to do a real analysis of my landlord’s business.  I don’t, for instance, know how his occupancy rate compares with the average occupancy rate in this market.  Nor do I know what any of his financial margins are. But I really don’t need to know all that stuff to know that my landlord is bucking the system by treating people the way he treats them.  He’s bucking capitalism.  At least, as we know it.

Capitalism is a beneficial system in several respects, but it comes with a huge flaw. It is obsessed with profit.

Now, there is nothing wrong with profit in and of itself. But there is certainly something wrong with an obsession with profit.

Anytime you maximize one and only one value, you create a system that denies other values. And capitalism, by maximizing profits, creates a system that denies other values — in fact, it denies all values that are in any way at odds with maximizing profit.  So, for instance, capitalism becomes the enemy of sane ecological policies in so far as those policies interfere with maximizing profit.  Or, it becomes the enemy of treating people as more than mere sources of income in so far as treating them as more than mere sources of income interferes with maximizing profit.

That’s one of the reasons — a rather small reason, however — that I think capitalism as we know it is a system destined for transition.  I can think of other, more important reasons, capitalism will change.  But at the moment, its obsession with profit has my attention.

If we could look 100 or 200 years into the future (and perhaps not even that far into the future), my guess is we would find a “capitalism” that is remarkably different from what’s practiced today.  Indeed, we will either do something to radically curb and regulate the obsession capitalism has with profit, or we will most likely live in something akin to fascist/feudal societies that have a relatively low standard of living and quality of life for most of their members.  That’s my hunch.  I could be wrong.  But I’m probably accurate enough to be annoying about this one.

Abuse, Competition, Liars Lies and Lying

Saying Goodbye to a Friend’s Mind

I usually find it a waste of my time to debate people, and I assume it’s a waste of their time too.  So, I rarely get into debates.  However, last night I got into one and, predictably, it turned out to be a waste of time.

Worse, it saddened me.

I discovered the person with whom I was debating has become quite the debater since she and I last had the pleasure of each other.  Some time ago, it was different.  She was once a research scientist with a doctorate in psychology.  When she tired of that, she took a masters in theology.  As you might expect from such a learned person, she was once rich with fertile insights.  She had the power and the magic to see an old thing in a new light, or to make sudden sense of stuff you might otherwise be wrestling with for years.

Well, now it seems she’s turned her interests to debate, and last night was like saying goodbye.  I guess she’s no longer into sharing ideas, because instead of sharing hers, she merely jumped on one of my opinions and “refuted” it by spinning it with the dexterity of a White House Press Secretary, a Creationist, or a bimbo talk show host.  It’s as if she’s decided conversation is all about scoring points — even when the points are obtained through intellectually dishonest means and can therefore matter only to her.

What I mean here by “debate” is the sort of stuff that too often passes in our society for reasoned debate nowadays.  Spin.  Trickery.  Intellectual dishonesty.  Fallacious logic.  The sort of nonsense that Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh pass off as “reasoned debate” to people who unfortunately don’t know much better.  She wasn’t as bad as them last night, but it seemed clear to me she’s become their soul mate.

I’m of the opinion that people who are honest about their knowledge and experiences can honestly disagree to their mutual benefit.  Let’s take the simplest possible example of that happening.  Suppose I tell you the sky is sometimes blue.  And suppose you then tell me the sky is sometimes white.  And a third person informs both us the sky is sometimes dark.  There we have three honest, but differing, opinions and yet each has contributed a truth to the conversation.

I’ll give a real example now.  The other day on this blog, Dana offered her opinion that people are much more physically attracted to youth than to age.  Now, I was somewhat clumsy in how I phrased my response to her.  The point I tried to make, however, was I agreed people are more physically attracted to youth than to age, but that when we get older we might find ourselves more attracted to such things as someone’s sexual confidence than we are to someone’s looks.

In other words, Dana and I were able to share our honest points of view without getting into a weaselly  pissing contest over who was right and who was wrong.  I don’t know whether Dana got anything out of that exchange, but in some small way it enriched my view of the issue.

Yet, it seems to me a debate seldom enriches — even in a small way.  To illustrate the point, let me take an petty example from last night’s debate, which was over — I shudder to say it — the Leibovitz photo of Miley Cyrus (if there is anything more worthless than debating someone, it must be debating someone over a celebrity).  In response to something said by the person with whom I was debating, I made the following statement:

What harm has come to her from this? People are used all the time and it is found perfectly acceptable so long as they are consenting and no harm comes to them through it. So what harm has come to Miley from this?

To which she responded:

Wow, so much for you previously stated admiration of Kant.

In other words, instead of actually addressing my point, she merely spun my point as being philosophically inconsistent because, about a year ago (She’s got a good memory!), I expressed a fondness for Kant’s categorical imperative but now seem to her to have abandoned that fondness.  So, I suppose score one for her!  Or, whatever.  But her argument is of no more value to me than an old tree stump.  It merely wasted my time to read it, and I felt used.

A debate is so greatly different from a good conversation.  I believe that when people are honest with each other while sharing their points of view, everyone can benefit, whether they agree with each other or not.  But sharing ideas does not seem to be the point and purpose of debate these days.  Instead, I would argue debate these days is too often about tricking — manipulating — people.

Of what value is that to anyone?

Authenticity, Competition

Don’t Tell Curtis My Secret, Uncle Paul!

I spent Christmas this year with my younger brother and his family. The day after Christmas, my oldest nephew, Victor (age 5), decided it was a good day to show his uncle how to race miniature cars on his brand new electric race track.

We sat down together on the carpet next to the race track, and I listened while he enthusiastically explained everything he’d already learned in one whole day of racing miniature cars.

He went over the track foot by foot, telling me how fast to race my car at each point. He even speculated about what forces were involved in keeping the cars on the track, and although he didn’t quite get the forces right, I found it interesting that he recognized something was at work there and that it demanded an explanation.

What most interested me, however, were his comments on the psychology of competing. “Focus”, he admonished me in his most serious little voice, “on your car to get more better. Don’t focus on what Al (his cousin) is doing. Don’t focus on what I am doing. When you focus on what you are doing, you get more better. That’s a secret, Uncle Paul. Don’t tell Curtis (his younger brother)!”

Of course, his actual speech was a lot longer than that because he repeated himself umpteen times. But you get the idea. One secret of competing well is to focus on your own performance, and what you can do to improve it, rather than to worry too much about what your competition is doing. As my nephew explained to me, he wasn’t getting any “more better” racing against his cousin Al until he quit watching Al’s car, and instead focused on his own car.

I’m not sure how comprehensive his advice is — there’s a lot more to competing than just the bit he now knows at age 5 — but his advice still struck me as at least somewhat useful to anyone of any age.

If you believe the ancient Greeks, the point and purpose of competition is to bring out your excellence. Or, as we moderns would say, the purpose is to inspire you to do your best — regardless of whether you win or loose. Of course, you can’t very well be doing your best if you are focused on imitating the other guy, if you are too narrowly focused on winning, or if you are too afraid of loosing. As the Gold Medalist Andrea Lawrence once said:

Competition can be a very intense experience and a very rewarding one, or it can be enormously destructive. External pressure, whether it’s exerted by a coach, a school, a ski club, or a country, is what can make it a negative thing. When they use you to satisfy their need to succeed, when they impose their value system on you, then competition isn’t personally rewarding anymore…. You’re either a winner or a loser…. There’s no way in my mind that you can divide humanity into those two categories.

The Greeks knew competition should never be used as an excuse to “divide humanity into those two categories.” Their attitude is not entirely understood by many people today, but they were somewhat more inclined to praise excellence — to praise someone doing their personal best — than they were inclined to praise mere winning or loosing.

It seems to me my nephew has perhaps taken a huge step towards learning how to compete in a manner that will long benefit him, provided he stays true to the lesson he’s learned this season and he builds on it.