Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kilroy Café #42: "In Defense of Placebos"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

In Defense of Placebos


In previous writings I have claimed that all addiction treatment is a fraud. I am referring not just to drug treatment, but also the weight loss industry, relationship counseling, Oprah, Dr. Phil, the DARE program and any kind of class or advertizing campaign intended to address an impulsive behavior. I contend that, in the long term, these products, programs and services do nothing to reduce recidivism rates or improve the health of their clients.

I admit my claim is impossible to prove in a broad sense, but it's fairly simple for individual products. You compare three groups of addicts: one receives the product (like the nicotine patch to stop smoking); one receives what looks like the product but without the supposedly active ingredient (the nicotine patch without the nicotine); and the third receives no treatment.

In the short term, there may indeed be positive results: The group with the nicotine patch may have reduced their smoking, as the patch provides the drug their body craves. More surprising, however, is that the group wearing the ineffective patch also improves, at least in comparison to the untreated group.

This phenomenon is called the "placebo effect." It illustrates the power of human belief: If people believe something will help them, it often does, regardless of its content.

In the long term, though, both patches fail to significantly reduce smoking. Two to five years down the line, any kind of addiction treatment offers at best only marginally better results than a control group. (Or at least that's my contention. I welcome research evidence to the contrary.)

This doesn't neglect the fact that many people do manage to quit their addictions over 2-5 years. Some drug addicts get sober and stay sober. Some obese people lose weight and keep it off. There are always success stories, and often they are attached to a specific treatment. "I owe my life to Alcoholics Anonymous," someone might say, or "I lost 50 pounds with Jenny Craig.

How do we reconcile this with the dismal epidemiological results for AA, which seem to contend, as I do, that long-term prognosis for new members is no better, and possibly worse, than a control group? There's no conflict, really. It's just that what successful AA members think has cured them isn't what really cured them.

There is only one thing that can be proven effective against addiction: consequential pain. If you get drunk and embarrass yourself at a party then get a splitting headache the next day, this is going to do far more than any product or service to discourage you from drinking again. It's not a 100% solution by any means. Plenty of people continue to drink no matter how much pain it causes them, but the recidivism rates for actual pain are much better than for any outside treatment.

Basically, people quit their addictions when they get so beaten up by the effects that they finally become ready to change. Once they are ready, almost any form of treatment will work, even a placebo or no treatment. If they are not ready, then no treatment will work.

If people need things to believe in during the transition, that's fine. Maybe Jesus got you through this hard time, or perhaps it was gardening or acupuncture or a voodoo charm. You're probably going to latch onto something as a substitute for the drug—a placebo—and that's okay. The real initiative, however, must come from within.

There are a lot more addictions in our lives than just drugs, drink, cigs and food. There are addictive relationships and activities that we know deep down aren't good for us. You can get addicted to video games or crossword puzzles or just about any other repetitive activity. Generally speaking, people don't stop these behaviors until they cause too much pain or are simply taken away.

In all addictions, there is a chemical component: the physical anxiety you feel when you withdraw from the activity. But the more powerful component is philosophical: a fundamental belief system that supports the activity. This private processing system is deeply engrained and cannot be educated away by cognitive means, only by actual effects.

Behind every addiction is some form of fatalism. The addict believes that he "has no choice" but to continue his behavior and that he isn't strong enough to overcome it by himself. This belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy whenever the physical pain hits. When hungry, he feels he has no choice but eat.

To stop the addiction, you have to overcome this internal fatalism, which by definition no external force can do. No one can really teach you to be more responsible for yourself; they can only encourage it by forcing responsibility onto you.

The central notion behind every form of treatment is outside rescue: "We are going to cure you." Even when the message is "You have to be more responsible", the program insists it can show you how. Almost every treatment program has a powerful motivation to sign you up—profit usually but also the egos of people already in the group. More important than actually curing you is making sure you buy the product.

But an outside product isn't what you need. All you really need is that little switch inside you to go from "I can't do it," to "I can."

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
This issue was released from the Colfax Public Library, Colfax, Iowa.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kilroy Café #23: "The Paradox of Protection"

Here is a fresh revision of Kilroy Café philosophy essay from January. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

You want to help others don't you? The problem is how to do it without inviting dependence.


Once you give someone protection or security of any kind, they tend to adjust to it and become less inclined to help themselves. Give someone a crutch, even a gentle and well-meaning one, and they may come to lean on it instead of on their own resources—especially when the going gets tough.

I call this the Paradox of Protection. It is an inherent risk in everything you try to do for others, from raising children to solving world hunger to curing disease to falling in love.

All forms of charity run the same risk: dependency. If you give someone a gift with no strings attached, they may come to expect this privilege in the future—from you or someone else—and this expectation can sometimes be more dangerous than the original threat.

For example, if you feed the pigeons in the park, they will quickly come to rely on your largess. Their numbers will grow, and they will fail to develop other food sources. If you then stop feeding them, they may face worse starvation than if you had never intervened.

The same applies to any kind of good work, especially where the need is open-ended. Eventually, your contribution is expected and you become imprisoned in it. The person or system you are trying to help may lose its motivation to change, and the total net improvement to the world may be zero.

So the question arises: Why give anything to anybody?

Because that's just what you do. Life is made for giving, for doing something to improve the world you live in. There isn't a lot of meaning to life otherwise. You just have to be crafty about how you go about it.

Obviously, there are cases where protection is necessary. You can't expect someone with a serious disability to climb a flight of stairs, and you can't tell a young child, "Fend for yourself," but there is always going to be a fine line between "protecting" and "enabling."

Look at how children work the system. Their helplessness increases when they know they can get something for it. They'll say, "I can't do that!" when they know you have provided for them in the past and will probably protect them now. Without pushback from you, they will always remain in a state of childish dependence.

Everyone claims to want independence, but each step in that direction is also frightening—for both the "child" and the "parent". Always, there is danger, both real and perceived, and protection usually feels more comfortable than responsibility.

No matter what the circumstances are or how powerful you may be, you cannot provide protection forever. All charity must end, and you are as responsible for the ending as you are for the beginning. You can't enter into any good work without an exit strategy. You must understand where it will ultimately lead and how you are going to get away.

If you feed a stray cat, where will its next meal come from? If you join the Peace Corp or some other noble sounding mission, what will happen to your clients when your mission ends?

Perhaps education is the solution: "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." Ah, but what about the depletion of local fisheries when you teach too many people to fish? There is no system that is immune to the potentially disastrous effects of good intentions.

The only lasting solution lies in local control. You can provide temporary protection for a specific purpose, but ultimately each person, family and nation must be responsible for its own economy. Only he can design the survival mechanism that is best for him.

It may not be a survival mechanism we approve of. If someone chooses prostitution, drug dealing or a religion we don't agree with, it is not our place to criticize it unless we are prepared to provide an entire replacement system. The most we can usually do is provide tools and boundaries.

A "tool" is an alternate survival mechanism that someone can use if they choose to. A public library is a tool. A job training program is a tool, and so is simple information provided at the right time. You can't force someone to use a tool, but sometimes its availability at the right time can make a huge difference.

A "boundary" is a limitation on another person's behavior enforced by what you yourself do. You may withdraw a privilege or exercise a right based on what the other person does, depending on what you think is wise for both your future and theirs.

Always, there must be strings attached. Even young children must not be given anything unless they pay for it. The form of payment can be tailored to their ability, but every act of charity must be paid for or it will lose its value and be taken for granted.

Charity is part of a system, like everything else in the world, and there are no isolated acts. You make it work only by understanding the system as a whole—not just what happens now, but what will happen years in the future.

—G .C.

©Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
Revised April 28, 2009 near Denver, Colorado.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Songs in Need of an Artist

I hope you enjoy my songs. I've gone as far as I can with them. Now it's your turn!

I can't sing and don't play an instrument, so all I can do is provide the outline of the song (the lyrics and primary tune). My song is like a screenplay: It tells the basic story, but there still have to be actors, a director, a cinematographer, etc. to produce a finished product.

If you have some musical background and are interested in doing something with one of my songs, I'd like to hear from you. Since I have little training or experience in music, I'm not sure what should happen next. Maybe you do!

I see myself as an "idea factory", and once the "skeleton" of a song is done, I am inclined to move on to the next project. (I never run out of ideas!) Nonetheless, I am willing to modify old songs to suit any new arrangement. I open to experimentation, and I encourage you to play with a song regardless of your background.

The MIDI file for any song is available upon request.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Kilroy Café #41: "Friend me if you wish; unfriend my if you will, but my friends are not your friends"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

Friend me if you wish; unfriend me if you will, but my friends are not your friends

finding healthy boundaries in the new media


It was a little complicated, but I've managed to block all of my Facebook friends from seeing my list of Facebook friends.

Huh? Does this mean I don't trust the people I call my friends? No, it means we've overrun an essential human boundary here and it's time to pull in the reins. No matter how much I may trust you or care for you, my friends are not your friends. We live in different worlds. We have to be free to regulate our own economies.

Social media are now in their Wild West phase. People are euphoric that they can "friend" just about anyone. Via Twitter, we can follow the daily errands of celebrities, housewives and college students. It seems there is no privacy anymore, and most people don't seem bothered by that. Everyone's a voyeur and an exhibitionist.

Ah, but this can't go on forever. Like any new thing, there has to be a backlash eventually, some sort of drawing back. You can't be intimately exposed to everyone's inner thoughts without burning out your own emotional circuits—and being bored to death! There has to be a place where I begin and you end. We just haven't figured out yet where that boundary is.

I believe one of the essential rules is what I just did: keeping my friends from seeing my friends, at least in a single list. This policy occurred to me as I was browsing the Facebook pages of some prominent local judges and politicians, noting their list of friends. Part of me was thrilled at the discovery, but another part was appalled. I shouldn't be allowed to see this information!

In the year I have been on Facebook, it has evolved from a novelty into something important to me. Since I am constantly on the road, it's the only stable community I currently have—at least that I interact with on a daily basis. Some of my Facebook friends have become pretty close to real friends, and I care what happens to them.

But I also find conundrums. I have Facebook friends who are not really my friends, who I have nothing in common with, who I don't fully trust and who have probably friended me in the belief that I am someone other than who I am? What do I do about these people?

Should I unfriend them? Should I refuse entry to anyone I don't already know? That seems draconian. Like most people, I will accept the friend request of just about anyone who asks. I do it because I am open to new points of view, and you can't really know people until you interact with them.

So now I have this community of people I consider my real friends, plus family members I have known all my life, along with strangers and people I am wary of. How do I manage them all, and how do I protect my true friends from people who could be annoying or damaging to them?

I don't have a complete answer yet, but my first step is to hide my friend list. This affirms what I call our "right of association." I believe each of us has the right to communicate with whomever we wish and not be obligated to share that communication with anyone else. This is true even if you have a romantic partner who you trust completely: You may summarize for your partner your exchange with someone else, but the exchange itself is still private.

You can't freely associate with others if everyone else knows who you are associating with. If you did, there would be political problems. "How can you talk to them?" one friend might say. The simplest solution is to just close the list to everyone.

This takes some getting used to, even for me. I was beginning to take some pride in the size of my friend list, as well as the prestige of some of my friends. Now, none of that will be known. Do I have 50 friends or 5000? I am no longer saying.

That's not what friendship is about. Each relationship has to stand on its own. If you and I find something useful between us, we will come together, and when the value ends, we will draw apart. Our relationships with others are irrelevant.

On my Facebook page, everyone can still see the comments my friends make—say, about one of my photos—but I'm comfortable with this. Each friend is choosing to go public with his opinions on this single issue. It's like a semi-formal social gathering where my friends can mingle and get to know each other but also have their guard up. Somehow that doesn't seem so bad.

But to parade ones friends around for others to see seems sordid. It is innocent in most cases, but in the long run it's going to hurt the quality of individual relationships.

A friend is a friend, and he needs to be respected for himself.

—G .C.

If you are a Facebook user, here's my note explaining how to hide your friend list.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
This issue was released from Las Vegas.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Kilroy Café #40: "The Responsibilities of the Victim"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

The Responsibilities of the Victim


No matter how carefully we plan our lives, bad things are going to happen. People close to us are going to die. We or people we care about are going to get terrible diseases. We are going to become the victims of crime or disfiguring accidents. These things are not anomalies. They are part of the normal course of life.

The chance of any one disaster happening is usually low, but when you add up all the possible things that can go wrong, you have to face reality: You are going to encounter some major unanticipated catastrophes between now and the end of your life. Are you ready for them?

Almost always, the tragedy was preventable. In retrospect, there was usually something you or someone else could have done to avoid any bad event, but the issue is moot now. You can't undo a traffic accident or prevent a heart attack after it has occurred. You can only adapt to the new course of events and find some sort of strength in it.

Sooner or later, you are going to become a victim, so you might as well decide right now what that means, before it happens. Will you handle victimhood gracefully, or will you make things worse?

In the legal system, there is a lot of talk about "victim rights." You hardly hear any mention of "victim responsibility." This concept may be hard to grasp at first. A victim can't just be a victim and expect to overcome the disaster. Within himself, he has to take responsibility for what happened, even if he didn't cause it.

This doesn't mean the perpetrator should get off the hook. It means that regardless of the cause of the disaster, the victim has to accept responsibility for its future outcome. Thereby, he stops being a victim and starts being captain of his fate. It is the difference between being tossed around helplessly by a storm and taking control of your ship. There's no sense in ranting about the injustice of the storm; you just have to meet the challenge.

Misfortune, regardless of its cause, does not give you the right to act like a child, to throw a temper tantrum, to hold a grudge, to demand that someone else fix the problem for you. Being at the center of the storm, it is your responsibility to return the world to a state of equilibrium.

Inside any misfortune is some kernel of good fortune, some silver lining, and your job is to find it. Instead of dwelling on the assets you've lost, you must focus on the ones you still have. If you look hard enough, you will probably find neglected skills you weren't even aware of. Maybe you will even find a simpler, deeper, more satisfying life than you had before.

If one of your dominant skills or activities is taken away, that gives others an opportunity to bloom. If you're a runner who loses his legs or an artist who loses his eyes, you are going to have to develop other skills. It's frightening to be pushed abruptly into a new world like that, but it can also be a fantastic opportunity for growth. Maybe the old assets were holding you back. Once we find success, we tend to become trapped there in suspended animation until some catastrophe comes along to liberate us. Every forest needs a forest fire occasionally to clear out the dead wood, and maybe this is it!

You would never think like this if your spouse were dying of cancer, but after they have died, you are free to reposition and realign yourself, to make the most of the situation no matter what it may be.

Victimhood is a disease you have to escape from as quickly as possible. You have to take control and move ahead. Anger, grief and grievances have to be left behind.

If someone did something bad to you, you may be responsible for bringing them to justice, but this is different from revenge. If you seek revenge, you are accepting victimhood and choosing to be defined by it. Justice, however, is more of an abstract concept. It's like you are engaged in a contract; a transaction has been initiated, and it is your responsibility to complete the transaction.

It is not necessarily your job to show up in court and argue for the maximum punishment, as most victims do. It may be your job to argue for leniency! The one certain thing is that it's your duty to participate in justice, to try your best to make it work in this one transaction you have been entrusted with.

There is nothing gained by hating the person who did this to you. You have a responsibility to understand them and to find compassion for them, even if you have to send them to prison. That's part of the therapeutic process of taking control.

You may or may not believe in God, but when disaster strikes, it is useful to imagine there is one. You ask yourself, "What is He trying to teach me?" and you try your best to figure out the plan. I'm not saying there is a plan. I'm only saying you should act like there is. Whenever something bad happens to you, you have to believe that there's a purpose to it, that it was meant to turn you into a better person.

That little delusion can get you through just about anything. What's the plan here? What's the test? Unless you care to give up on life altogether, that's the only route you can take.

—G .C.
For Darcy, 1970-2008

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
This issue was released from Las Vegas.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Screen Story #29: "The Smartest Chimp in the World"

In my latest short screenplay, a precocious primate has to deal with some common human problems. This 18-page screenplay is available only as a PDF file (66k).

It was clear from the beginning Lulu wasn’t an ordinary chimp. She rated very high on the Sheppard Scale. I mean off the charts for a primate, virtually the equivalent of a human infant in raw learning ability. Everything clicked. We were ready, and Lulu was ready, and the initial funding was there, so we brought her back here and essentially built the institute around her.
For all my other screen stories, see (scroll down past songs).

Kilroy Café #39: "The Tyranny of Law"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

The Tyranny of Law

The healthy functioning of society depends on rules. People can't just do whatever they want; they have to respect certain constraints on their behavior for the good of everyone. We can't have people murdering or robbing each other, or our society would break down. Once you have the rules written down as "law", you can begin to build a stable civilization, because everyone knows what to expect.

When you accept the rule of law, however, you are also making a deal with the Devil. Law provides structure but robs you of freedom. Law alone never built anything. It doesn't create new resources, only feeds off existing ones. Law cannot really solve people's problems, only displace them. If rule of law is your highest governing principle, you live an impoverished life, maybe even an immoral one.

To a policeman, lawyer or judge, the law is the word of God. To them, a decision is right because "It's the law." They rarely think about where the law came from—which is a messy political process rife with ego, greed, dogmatism, sentimentality, patronage, quid pro quo and occasional corruption. Law is not a perfect product by any means.

Laws are invariably passed under time pressure, usually in response to the public hysteria of the moment: child molesters, school violence, depletion of the ozone layer, etc. New laws are intended to address the Big Problem currently on people's minds, but little attention is given to the new problems the law might create. By and large, the people who write the law are cut off from its effects. As long as the problem of the day has been visibly addressed, they go home satisfied.

But law lives on long after the lawmakers have left the scene, even after they have died. Once the words have been written down, they are essentially set in stone, and modifying them is a slow, ponderous process akin to evolution: Many generations must perish before we get it right.

While the lawmakers were concerned only with solving their one Big Problem, society is now burdened with the law's secondary effects—those things the lawmakers never thought of. Every law creates new conundrums of some kind, sometimes worse than the original one. Welfare programs may actually discourage people from getting jobs. Mandatory sentencing for violent crimes may lead to prison overcrowding and perhaps worse crime overall.

There is no "free" law. Every legislative action, no matter how noble sounding it may seem at the time, has its eventual costs. Every justice has to be paid for with some injustice. The success of a law really comes down to statistics: How many people are helped by it vs. how many people are hurt. If, at the end of the day, a law saves 20 people and kills only 10, it can probably be called a success.

The law is not a precision tool, like a surgeon's scalpel. It is more a blunt instrument, like a sledgehammer. If someone does something offensive, hit them with a sledgehammer. If there's a social problem in the community, hit it with a sledgehammer. If someone is treated unfairly, hit the other guy with a sledgehammer. Sledgehammers are undoubtedly useful for controlling the great mass of humanity, but they are not sensitive to the moment or to the special requirements of the situation.

How do you really solve problems? You do it through your own analysis and your own moral choice. When you have a decision to make, you have to look ahead and intelligently predict, based on all the options available, which one will lead to the best results over time.

The law is no defense for a bad decision, because the law is not morality. The law is only a pseudo-morality, a crude caricature of it. To say "It's the law," doesn't get you off the hook for anything. Some of the worst atrocities of history, like the Holocaust, were the result of people obeying the law. Words on paper cannot justify an immoral act.

There is really only one reason to obey the law: the risk of getting caught and any punishment that may result. I'm not saying you should go out and murder someone if you think you can get away with it. I'm saying your reason for not murdering them must come from within, from your own private moral analysis, not from anything the law books tell you.

Once you have made up your own mind about what is right, the law is merely a nuisance, something to be outwitted and outmaneuvered. It is usually best not to openly defy it, but it's okay to quietly evade it when a higher calling is served.

You can argue, "If everyone evaded the law, society would break down." Sure, but you're not everyone. There's a balancing act here between the use of the sledgehammer and the use of the scalpel. The law is good for some things, but for delicate work you have to set it aside and rely on your own nerves.

—G .C.

Related Works

11:59 from Prescott - A short screenplay concerning rule of law.

Lawyers Can Be Saved - A Family Court newsletter from 2006

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
This issue was released from Las Vegas.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Kilroy Café #38: "Triage: Doing what you can with what you have"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

Doing what you can with what you have


On the fields of war, when casualties overwhelm the combat hospital, the medical staff has to make some hard decisions about who will be treated and who won't. If there are 100 wounded soldiers and resources to treat only 10, which 10 should it be?

The lightly wounded will be passed over, because they will survive without treatment, but the most gravely injured may also be ignored, because the resources they require are huge and they will probably die not matter what you do. Instead, the ten selected will probably come from the middle range of "savable" patients who will most benefit from the limited resources available.

This sorting process is called "triage." You may see that name on the first nurse's station you encounter in a big-city emergency room. The job of the triage nurse is to decide who needs attention immediately and who can be allowed to wait.

But triage applies far beyond medicine. Virtually any meaningful human endeavor involves some form of it, because needs almost always exceed the resources available to address them.

Do you want to save innocent children from hunger, abuse, illness or illiteracy? Sure, who doesn't? The difficult question, though, is which children? There are a lot of hungry children in the world, so who will get the food? More difficult still: Which ones will you deliberately not feed?

Humans are generally poor at these decisions, and governments are even worse. The child who gets fed is typically the one who screams the loudest or who happens to be the most visible at the time food is given out. This shortchanges all the other children, the less visible ones, who might actually benefit more from intervention.

It feels good to help others. It feels bad to not help others, which is what triage invariably entails. If you work in the combat hospital, you may be saving ten patients, but you're also rejecting 90 others, and this can be extremely stressful. Those 90 and their families are going to hate you for your decision, and you will always wonder whether you made the right call.

No one wants to look a dying patient in the eye and say, "I could treat you but I won't." No one wants to reject a needy child. We tend to evade such discomfort by closing ourselves off from the world—avoiding the patient and not seeing the child—but the dilemma is still there.

Triage is painful, but someone has to do it. If no one does and patients are taken in at random or on a first-come-first-served basis, then many more are going to die overall. In a triage situation, you have to be tough, cool and somewhat aloof, but above all you have to choose and not just let things happen.

Everything in life involves triage, even how you choose to spend your free time. Your days on earth are limited, and there are more worthwhile things to do than you can possibly get to, so you have to practice triage with your time, choosing the activities that promise the most reward for the investment.

If you’re a teacher in a crowded classroom, you must choose which students will most benefit from individual attention. If you’re a manager, you may have to decide which workers to let go so the organization as a whole works best. If you’re an author, you must choose which writing project is the most important to complete at the expense of all the others. It’s all triage.

People often justify the way they spend their resources by saying, "It's for a good cause." Unfortunately, that answers only half the question. The other half is, "Is this the best cause I can be spending my resources on?" If you don't ask that, over and over, then you're not getting the most from them.

Everything you choose implies other things you are not choosing. Hawaii may be beautiful, but vacationing there means you can't go to Europe, so which one will you give up? Every decision is like that. Is what you are choosing really the best of all the available options, or just the most visible one?

Triage is a hard, painful task, but you have to do it. If you don't, then fate will do the triage for you, which is no better than choosing patients at random. You'll end up saving only 2 patients out of 100, instead of maybe 8.

When you are a god, you have to make these fatal choices. It comes with the territory of having resources to distribute or power over others. No matter which way you go, people will suffer, so you must choose the path that minimizes the total suffering and makes the best use of the gifts you have.

All of us have to make those god-choices. We have to reject as well as accept. We have to break hearts. We have to let people down.

That's what you have to do to save the world.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
This issue was released from San Diego.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kilroy Café #37: "Accept Life! It's the only game in town."

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

It's the only game in town.
If you care about living, you’ll do the most you can with the opportunity.

What is the meaning of life? There isn't any. There's no instruction manual, no guiding force and no absolute criteria for success or failure. There's probably no cosmic reward or punishment at the end (although we can't know for sure until we get there).

So what's the point in living? Is life such an empty exercise that it's senseless to do anything with it? No! Life is a great opportunity!

Just because life has no inherent meaning doesn't mean you can't find meaning in it. It's remarkably easy! Life presents you with problems, and you do your best to solve them. It's the only game in town, so you might as well play!

We are all aliens. We mysteriously woke up on this strange planet, in an alien body, living with a really strange family. It's not truly our planet, our body or our family. We didn't choose our birth circumstances, but we're stuck with them anyway.

What do we do now? We respond to the demands of our environment. Just by virtue of living, we are presented with problems, and we learn quickly that not responding to them appropriately causes us pain. Certain other things seem to bring us pleasure, so we try to reproduce them.

It doesn't take any great cosmic plan to respond to pleasure and pain. Any laboratory rat can do it. What we aliens possess that rats don't is the ability to look ahead. After a bit of living, most of us come to realize that we can avoid a lot of pain in the future by taking some prudent actions today. Our pleasure and pain in the present soon becomes less important to us than pleasure and pain over the whole course of our lives.

Turns out, pleasure and pain are a lot more complicated than they seem. We soon find that things giving us pleasure in one circumstance may not do so in another. For example, one or two Oreo cookies: tasty! A whole package of Oreos? Not tasty! It may even lead to Oreo vomit! Every kid has to learn it on his own: Pleasure and pain cannot be predicted by a simple linear formula.

Life may be a virtual reality video game. It is possible that nothing we experience is real, but it certainly seems real to us, and that's good enough. Within the game, there are rules. For example, there is gravity, and you defy it at your peril. There are also "people" all around you—that is, sentient-appearing biologically based humanoid avatars—and these characters obey rules, too.

The world we are brought into is governed by its own preexisting rules that have to be actively discovered. What we want the rules to be has no bearing on what they really are. Other aliens may tell you what they think the rules are, but overall they are as clueless about life as you, so you have to probe the game-space on your own to test what really works.

You find meaning in life simply by playing the game according to the best rules you can find. You may be driven by pleasure and pain, but eventually you are dealing with them at higher and higher levels. Is it just your own pleasure and pain that's important, or should you also care about others'? If you hang out with "people" long enough, you eventually start empathizing with them, as though they really existed, and their pleasure and pain becomes yours.

Soon, you are dealing with some very complicated theoretical principles, like "justice," "morality" and "the good of mankind." You might even start caring about the world you leave behind, as though it were going to continue.

It's a no brainer: If you are forced to play a game, you might as well accept it, treat it as an art form and get as good as you can at it. What is the alternative? You can refuse to play. You might do this by committing suicide or by not cooperating with the world imposed upon you. What this means in practice is that you refuse to plan ahead but simply live in the pleasure and pain of the present, thus assuring more pain later.

Life becomes empty only when you refuse to play, when you decline to take the helm of your ship but simply let it drift. Yes, life is tragic, brutal and unfair, but you got to keep playing anyway.

You can strive to play the game well, based on what you learn along the way, or you can give up, go passive and play it poorly. It's your choice.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
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Monday, April 13, 2009

Kilroy Café #36: "Taste Inflation: Why We Can Never Have Enough"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

Why We Can Never Have Enough
Whenever excess resources are available to an individual or group, the surplus will eventually be absorbed by their insistence on ever-finer degrees of perceived quality.


People who are wealthy never see themselves that way. In their eyes, they never have enough. They can earn ten times the average local income and still have trouble paying their bills. In fact, it seems that everyone at every income level experiences the same stress over money. Why is this?

Taste inflation.

I have coined this term to try to describe a phenomenon I see throughout society: Greater resources don't usually result in greater happiness. On the contrary, they often set people up for a tragic collapse later on. There seems to be a hidden psychological process that neutralizes excess resources, so when people look at the freedom they actually have they never seem any richer.

Taste inflation means that whenever you have excess resources at your disposal, your tastes will naturally expand to absorb those resources. You will seek ever-finer degrees of perceived quality in the things you buy and do, and you are willing to pay an ever-higher price for them, until the limit of your resources is reached and you can do it no more.

Take drink. The simplest drink is tap water. It replenishes your bodily fluids, and it's free. If you can't afford anything else, that's what you'll drink, and your body will be satisfied with it.

If you have more money, though, you'll probably want bottled water or a flavored beverage, and your taste in these drinks is likely to expand with the money you have available. Is a generic bottle of filtered water enough, or do you need water from a romantic-sounding spring in the mountains? If you can afford the designer water, you'll probably buy it.

Maybe you go for wine instead, but if you have the money, the cheapest brand won't do. It has to have the right vintage, bouquet and rating. In wine, the perceive gradations of quality are indeed infinite. You can spend thousands of dollars on a bottle—and people do!

This expansion of tastes seems to be a natural human process across all cultures and social circumstances. I can't tell you exactly why it happens, but it does. It happens to sheiks who are suddenly blessed with huge oil wealth and must build ever-bigger palaces. It happens to teenagers who always insist on the most expensive fashions their parents can afford. If someone gets a pay raise, sure enough he's out buying a bigger house.

The natural consumer trend is always toward the bigger, fancier and more expensive. Our economy is driven by it and aggressively encourages it. The relentless commercial message is always to upgrade from what you have now to something supposedly "better."

If resources are available, any product once seen as a luxury quickly becomes a necessity. That's why rich people never feel rich. They commit themselves to bigger homes, more costly possessions and higher fashion standards until they don't have any perceived discretion left.

Typically, the process only ends when people reach the limits of their resources and simply can't afford any further taste expansion. Sadly, instead of the process simply stopping, it often reverses in a painful crash, as people commit themselves to products and lifestyles they can't afford in the long run.

Once you depart from true need (the glass of tap water), "quality" is subjective. If a better quality product doesn't exist, merchants will invent it for you. That's what occupies the vast bulk of our advertizing space: invented quality. You don't just need a car; you need a luxury car with a whole range of features you probably won't use. The person selling you the supposed quality always has selfish motives in doing so—either profit or the confirmation of his own emotional investments.

It's so easy to fall into the taste trap. It happens to all of us. Bigger, better, more—that's what everyone is always selling us, until we realize bigger isn't always better and our actual need was lost somewhere along the way.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kilroy Café #35: "Quality vs. Crap: The Enduring Struggle of Life"

Here is the latest Kilroy philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see my other Kilroy Café newsletters.

The Enduring Struggle of Life


All around us is crap: crap entertainment, crap products that don't do their job, crap food that isn't good for you, crap politicians saying one thing and doing another, crap "experts" giving crap advice, and good people wasting their lives on crap pursuits.

Where does all this crap come from?

Turns out, crap isn't just a phenomenon of today. It has existed throughout the ages. Nature is full of it. Crap is one reason why species evolve the way they do. Why does a peacock have such ridiculous and useless plumage? It's crap, of course, but the peacock knows, or at least his genes do, that crap sells.

Why does crap happen? Here's a simple case study: The bees and flowers have a mutually beneficial arrangement, right? The bee distributes the flower's pollen, and in exchange for this service, the flower provides the bee with nutritious nectar. To advertise its wares, the flower emits bright colors and enticing aromas to lure the bee in, but it's not exploitation, because both parties win.

But what happens next? Crap steps in! Some flower that produces no nectar learns how to mimic the colors and aroma of the nutritious one. The bee can't tell the difference without testing the flower, and in the process, it picks up the faker's pollen for distribution.

The poor bee wastes his energy for no reward, but from the flower's perspective, why not? Why spend all that energy producing nectar when you can merely promise nectar and not deliver? That's crap in its simplest form.

As the bee learns to detect the difference between flowers, the faker evolves to fool the bee's defenses, so crap is something the bee will always be struggling with. Is the product I'm buying the real thing or a clever fraud? He can't tell the difference without some real-world experience, without making some mistakes and wasting some of his resources on testing. You could call this the "crap tax".

Fast-forward to our own evolutionary state, and we see why crap is everywhere. We all have needs—for food, for meaningful relationships, for labor-saving tools to get us through life. Through our genes and our own past experience, we have come to associate certain signals with the fulfillment of our needs, but as soon as those criteria becomes known, some con artist will start mimicking the signals without solving our underlying problem.

For example, evolution has given us a taste for sugar, salt and fat, which were once rare commodities. Manufacturers respond by giving us exactly what we crave—all sugar, salt and fat—without supplying the nutrition we really need—and why not? That's what the market wants, so that's what it gets.

Wherever a stable signaling system develops, a usurper will try to exploit it. That's largely what modern advertising consists of: the presentation of false signals. They aren't necessarily "lies" because that would be illegal, but advertising is always carefully crafted manipulation where the consumer is rarely getting what he thinks he is.

The opposite of crap is "quality". Quality is something that actually fulfills the underlying need. A quality car is one that gets good gas mileage and runs for years with very little maintenance. A quality relationship is one that really works, not just promises to. Only time can prove quality, but unfortunately our time on Earth is limited, and we may have to run through a lot of crap before we learn what quality really is.

We all have to pay our crap tax.

Quality is rare in the modern world because crap is so much more profitable. Quality is hampered by the fact that it actually has to produce the nectar, not just promise it. The production of quality, in any field, is a lonely business, because the commercial world is probably going to pass you by.

But quality is still the best road. You may have to take a pay cut for quality. You will have to make sacrifices. The personal benefit of quality comes in the long run: in remaining healthy and productive, in being satisfied with yourself and in doing good for the world you leave behind.

There will always be fakers, and they may seem to win, but they usually win in the wrong race, a very short-sighted one. What counts is not the number of bees you've fooled but the nectar you've actually produced.

Over time, quality will usually prevail, but you have to be patient.

—G .C.

©2009, Glenn Campbell, PO Box 30303, Las Vegas, NV 89173. See my other philosophy newsletters at
This issue was released from Las Vegas.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main entry for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.