Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Limits of Selfishness

A long time ago, a chain smoker named Ayn Rand wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, which has been a favorite of college sophomores ever since. Her contention is that altruism is a sham. Even those who claim to care about others are just in it for themselves (reward in heaven, etc.), so you might as well give up the charade and just go for shameless self-interest from the start.

Sadly, Ayn is dead now, succombed to smoking-related heart failure. I harp on smoking because if she was so self-interested why couldn't she quit? The achilles heal of selfishness is that it doesn't really give your life meaning or motivate you to move one step beyond your hedonistic desires. If you know an Ayn Rand fan, they are usually isolated and emotionally restricted people, with a bent toward the paranoid, who don't seem to be taking much pleasure in their selfishness.

Say you accept selfishness; then what do you do? You can make a lot of money—Ayn's all for that!—but then what are you supposed to do with the money you've made? Is it really satisfying to buy another boat or mansion, and how many times can you visit Antarctica? You could give your money to charity, but—Oh no!—that would be altruism rearing it's ugly head.

Altruism may be an illusion or selfishly motivated, but there just isn't any other worthwhile objective in life. You will live and die on this planet, so you might as well do what you can to improve it. It may be selfish to think this way but you want people to say after you're gone, "He made this world a better place." It seems so much better than, "He screwed people over," or "He didn't make a difference at all." Your motivations may be less than pure—You want others to appreciate you, care about you and remember you after you're gone.—but even an illusion of altruism feels better than none at all.

It turns out that a lot of our self-interest is tied up in other people. To relate to others, we have to give them something they want, so we have to start thinking about other people's needs apart from our own. The Randian merchant—represented by Frito Lay and Coca-Cola—is going conduct marketing research and give the people exactly what they want, sufficient only to make them turn over their money. A more altruistic merchant is going to give people more of what they actually need, even if it is less profitable. Selling quality rather than crap is just more satisfying to the seller. It lets him sleep better at night than the Randian merchant.

Selfishness, processed through intelligence and foresight, begins to look a lot like altruism. If you care about other people, then they will care about you and often give back things that serve your needs. Ayn Rand may teach you how to make money, but if you want more subtle rewards like love and personal satisfaction, you have to start negotiating with others. You have to at least pretend to care, and after you pretend for long enough, you actually will care. In spite of your selfishness, it will matter to you what happens to others.

The main problem with altruism—wanting to help mankind—is how to go about it. There is very shallow altruism where you simply take every resource you have and give it to someone else. If other people are hungry, then you feed them, up to the point where you can no longer feed yourself. The trouble with this simple form of caring is that it doesn't work. It doesn't really improve the planet. Feeding people doesn't improve their self-sufficiency or address the underlying problems that made them hungry. Airlifting food and dumping it on hungry people has certain value in crisis situations, but in the long run it doesn't help them. For one thing, they're probably going to procreate and produce even more hungry people.

To really be effective in the world, you have to be clever and strategic, outwitting the many forces that work against altruism. That's where selfishness comes in. Before you can realistically help others, you have to help yourself. You have to build up your own resources, knowledge and skills. The smarter you are, the better equipped you are to help others. If you are significantly advanced and socially connected, then you're not just going to feed the starving people of Africa; you're going to marshall the diplomatic forces to stop the civil war that makes them hungry. That's a complicated task, and to address it you've got to become a complicated person. You have to make a huge investment in yourself before you get to the point where you can solve those higher-level problems.

So selfishness is good, at least in the sense that it's good to invest in your own skills and resources. Your body and mind are the tool by which you help others. For maximum effectiveness, you have to refine and maintain this tool, and this can involve a huge investment. Instead of spending 100% of your time and resources on others, you might spend 90% on building up yourself, on the assumption that the remaining 10% given to others is going to be more effective. One strategic diplomatic move—or one well-placed missile—can sometimes do more than billions of dollars in direct food aid. Deciding where that move should be made requires a long-term investment in your own education and social positioning.

Altruism isn't just feeding one hungry person but all of them. If a beggar comes up to you on the street and asks for money, the simple-minded altruist is going to give it to him. The smarter, more self-conscious altruist is going to say, "Wait, is this really the best use of my money?" Maybe the best use is to retain your funds, guard them for yourself, and invest them in your own education and skills.

Altruism may be an illusion, but so is selfishness. The best route is in the middle, using your selfishness to pursue higher altruistic goals. By this philosophy, you can quit smoking! If you care about others, then you'll have the motivation to change yourself.

Sad thing about poor Ayn: She just didn't have anything to live for in the end.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Just Hit the Ball! (The Philosophers' Football Match)

Do you remember The Philosophers' Football Match? It's a Monty Python sketch about a soccer game that pits the Greek philosophers against the German philosophers.

The ball is placed in position, and the whistle blows. Both teams then begin furiously debating amongst themselves, pontificating about what to do. This goes on for most of the game. As many theories are concocted on both sides, the game remains locked at nil-nil, with the ball still untouched in the middle of the field.

Then Archimedes with Greeks gets in idea. "Eureka!" he shouts, and HE KICKS THE BALL! After that, the game is all with the Greeks as they breeze past the dumbfounded Germans. The Greeks hit the ball into the net and win the game in the final seconds.

It's a perfect metaphor for one of the main problems of human behavior: taking initiative. Most people just won't do it. They dream of great things, but they won't take the steps to make them happen. They won't even take that critical first step: hitting the ball to get the game going.

People expect success to be delivered to them. They want to follow someone else's plan. Humans are basically sheep. It's in our nature. As long as we can follow a leader and a plan, we're reasonably happy. It's the leaders that are rare. Everyone has the opportunity to be a leader in his own life, but most just don't do it.

When people dream of success, the dream usually includes someone delivering success to them. They dream of being "discovered" for their latent talent. Someone else makes them a star or gives them funding or hands them a plan. Alas, the chances of this happening are extremely thin, because there aren't many "discoverers" out there.

If you want success, you have to make it yourself. You have to step out of your comfort zone and take the initiative. YOU HAVE TO HIT THE DAMN BALL!

Imagine there's a little structure in the human brain that controls initiative. If this region is damaged, people can still respond to events thrown at them, but they can't initiate events. (There may be some clinical evidence for this, but I'm just theorizing here.) Throw a ball at these people, and they'll catch it, but they can't throw the ball themselves.

In most people, this section is a tiny little pea-size thing. They can follow the plan, but they can't make the plan except in very limited circumstances. These are the sheep of society—i.e. the vast bulk of mankind. Give them some free time to use as they wish and they'll watch TV or do a crossword puzzle or engage in some other programmed entertainment. They can't intiate and maintain a productive plan for themselves otherwise.

This class of "low initiators" can include some very intelligent people, like engineers and college professors. In fact, especially engineers and college professors! A person can have brilliant mathematical skills, adept at solving any problem placed in front of them, yet be totally inept at deciding what that problem should be.

The world is full of pseudo-artists—people who claim to be writers, musicians, painters, filmmakers. What they really are, however, is technicians, people who follow the plan. They go to school, learn an instrument, form bands, go to gigs, but they never become what they intended to be: creators. They'll never write a great song, because they requires independent initiative, which they just don't have.

Give these people a great creative opportunity, and they'll let it pass. Dangle a carrot in front of them, and they'll sniff at it, but if it wasn't part of the programmed plan, they won't reach out and grab it.

They want to become great writers, but they won't write. They'll feebly do the assignment given them by their creative writing teacher, but if the opportunity arises—today, right now—to write something meaningful without the teacher, they won't do it. Their little pea-size initiative center can't push them to do it.

A few members of our species—and I mean very few—don't have this problem. They've got big, grape-size initiative centers. They just think about something, then do it. They don't dream about where they should go, what they should do or who they should be; as soon as they know, then it's done. They change course instantly and become that person.

Think of Leonardo da Vinci. That dude did stuff! Painting, sculpture, engineering. He just thought of things and did them. Within the contraints of his resources (primitive by our standards), he kept going and never stopped. The rest of humanity is more like those dithering German philosophers: talking endlessly about doing things but never actually doing them.

So how do you develop a grape-size initiative center? Easy: you just exercise it! You think stuff, then you do it. You hit the damn ball! Then you hit it again and again. The more initiatives you take, the easier it will become and the bigger that brain structure will get.

It sounds so easy, hitting the ball, but you have to do it yourself, you can't be led. That's where most human sheep can't pull it off. No college course can teach you to take initiative. No self-help book can do it for you, because if you're reading the book you're not acting.

There's a big philosophical connundrum here: If you think you have initiative, you'll have it, but if you don't think you have it, then you won't. The trouble with most of those pea-brain people is they've got a million excuses for not doing stuff. Give them a great opportunity, and they'll hem and procrastinate, like the Germans, and come up with some excuse why they can't reach for it. Once you recognize this in your fellow man, you see it everywhere: people who could change their life in an instant but don't, who prefer to suffer in a rote path when a simple course correction could change everything. They are addicted to the status quo, even if it is painful, and they won't change unless change is forced upon them.

Turns out, initiative is scary. Whenever you do something out of the ordinary, there's a risk of screwing up. Truth is, there's also the risk of disaster if you don't do anything out of the ordinary, but if you take the initiative, then failure is your fault; you have no one to blame but yourself. People hate this—being responsible for their own destiny—because it's so emotional and so damn important. They can take little initiatives, like eating when hungry, but the big, emotional initiatives overwhelm their little pea brain. They'd rather skip the stress and let others tell them what to do.

People also make investments in the way things already are, and taking initiative threatens those. If you try something new and it works, what does that say about everything you've done so far? It means you've been a failure! Change means you have to let go of the past and accept it as a miscalculation. To step into the future, you have give up something from your past, which most people are loath to do.

If you're smart, if you want to develop the skill of initiative, then you've got to use your initiative, not tomorrow but today, right now. If you screw up, so be it. The low initiators quit at that point, but the high initiators press on. At least you have exercised the initiative part of your brain, made it a little bigger and made bold moves easier next time.

It's okay to theorize, but to get the game going, you have to hit the damn ball!

Twitter post

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Crisis of Human Evolution

The state of human evolution appears to be in crisis. All the rules that were at work during most of our development no longer apply. It is no longer the best and brightest who breed but the dull and dumbest.

If we look at current evolution purely in terms of numbers, the poor, weak, impulsive and unintelligent now have the most babies, and thanks to our society's relative prosperity, most of those babies go on to breed as well.

The most intelligent and highest functioning are less likely to breed. They have careers that preempt child bearing. It is now socially acceptable for smart people to not have babies at all, and when they do, they have fewer of them than dumb people.

This would seem to put humanity on the fast track to oblivion. If the inept do most of the breeding for us, then humanity on the whole is going to become less intelligent with every generation.

Any attempt to control and manage human breeding is politically unacceptable in any country in the world except China and Singapore. So should we despair? Has positive human evolution ended?

Not necessarily. While humanity as a whole may be getting dumber, the best lineages of our species are probably getting brighter.

While the creative and intelligent don't breed as prodigiously as the dull and inept, they do, in fact, continue to breed, and they do it relatively wisely. Think about it: When an intelligent man or woman chooses to breed, he or she does it highly selectively, with someone similar in ability. Their children, then, are likely to be highly intelligent themselves.

Furthermore, there has never been more opportunity for talented people to find each other. High-functioning humansthe best of our specieshave virtually the whole world to choose from. No longer are arranged marriages acceptable; now people choose their own mates, which is probably far more effective than having Mom and Dad do it. More than any time in human history, the best and brightest are choosing the best and brightest.

What this suggests is a bifurcated evolutionary system, where the dumb breed with the dumb and the bright breed with the bright. Since there is less and less interbreeding between them, this could eventually result in humanity splitting into two species: a vibrantly evolving upper class, and a genetically moribund lower class.

There would be a lot more members of the lower class, but in the modern world, that doesn't matter. It is the best and brightest who write the rules, create the systems and come up with new innovations. As long as they continue to selectively breed based on ability, the rest of humanity will be pulled along.

If the dumb get dumber, it is probably going to result in greater suffering on the planet, but there will also be continued growth and innovation in the higher classes, and this highly talented gene pool will continue to drive culture and technology.

That is, until they give up breeding altogether and become purely virtual.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Kilroy Café #69: "Truth and the Art of Photography"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Truth and the Art of Photography


The world is full of lousy photos. You've seen plenty of bad snapshots: pets with glowing eyes, tiny people standing stiffly in front of tourist attractions, children and spouses just sitting there, surrounded by too much empty space. These snapshots may mean something to the people who took them but not to the outside viewer.

Anyone can take better pictures. The secret is simple: "See what's in the viewfinder, not what's in your head."

Your head says, "I'm having fun, so if I take a picture now, that fun will be preserved," but photography doesn't work that way. If you take a picture now, without seeing as the camera does, your photo will probably be lifeless and capture none of the fun. It may help you retrieve the memory of the feelings you had at the time, but those feelings won't be visible in the picture itself.

Looking through the viewfinder should tell you everything you need to know. Regardless of the camera you use, certain compositions are more effective than others. If you can clear your mind of needs, it's easy to improve your photos. In most cases, all you have to do is change your position or change the moment when you take the picture.

For example, little figures in front of Mt. Rushmore are boring. Big faces with a blurry Mt. Rushmore in the background are much better. It takes no formal training to experiment with composition, timing and the settings on your camera. With digital cameras, experimentation costs nothing, so why won't people try?

Because they are trapped inside themselves! They feel something at the time, and that feeling corrupts their vision. They expect reality to conform to their emotional needs and can't imagine how the two could be different.

More broadly, the problem is separating feelings from facts. Feelings are the fun you're having, the awe you're feeling, the vows you're making or the needs you're addressing. Facts are the images that actually appear in the viewfinder. Most people are so controlled by their feelings that they brush the facts aside. The facts, however, will win in the end, producing a dismal final product.

A good photographer—and a wise human—can detach himself from his own needs and follow the facts. It's nothing magical, just a matter of accepting the data right in front of you. The art of photography—and of life—is learning to see the world as it really appears, not as you want it to be. When you learn to see the world like a camera does, new opportunities appear all around you. It's like the blind learning to see!

But that's also when the lies begin.

You see, photography can be an avenue to truth, but only for the photographer. For the viewer, photography is usually the opposite. It is lies, distortion and deception! No medium is more false and manipulative.

What? How can this be? Photos don't lie! Aren't they just showing the physical facts as they are?

No, a competent photo is the artificial creation of the photographer, who is recording a highly selective slice of space and time. Whether this slice accurately reflects the reality is entirely at the photographer's discretion, and art usually demands that this discretion be abused.

When a politician holds a news conference, dozens of expressions will pass across his face. The supposed "photojournalist" will choose whatever moment in time suits his own needs and those of his editors. Whether the politician seems angry, resolute or deceptive depends solely on the moment chosen. A photographer can't create images that aren't there, but he usually has a wide palette of feelings to choose from.

Likewise, elements of a scene can be pressed together in ways they aren't in real life. Buildings can be pushed up against distant mountains. People can be seen to have relationships that don't exist. Any two things can be associated in the frame in ways that distort the truth.

It's amazing how well these scams work. People who would be skeptical of words will usually accept photography at face value. That's why it's such a critical element in advertizing. Absurd claims that would be illegal if spoken are swallowed easily when expressed in images. For the majority of viewers, image overpowers reality. What you see in the photo isn't what was really there at the time it was taken, but people still accept what the image tells them.

The only thing keeping the photographer honest is himself, but even with the best intentions photography is an illusion. The photographer is essentially creating reality, or at least molding it to his own aims. He captures a distorted slice of space and time, and that image, in turn, forms the basis for people's memories. Happy photos create happy memories, sad photos sad ones, etc.

The best that can be said about the photographer is that he created a good illusion serving a responsible purpose.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Orlando, Florida.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kilroy Café #68: "The Secret of Great Perfomances"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The Secret of Great Performances


The secret of a great performance, in any field, is seeing yourself as the audience sees you, not as you want to be seen. It sounds easy but it's not.

Any of us can sit in an audience and accurately evaluate the person on stage. One comedian is funny; another is not. If we don't know the performer, it's easy to be dispassionate about the performance and see it for what it is.

This detachment evaporates when it's you on stage. Then, your ego and your familiarity with the material distort your perception and keep you from accurately seeing the performance. You may start obsessing over details and miss the big picture. You may see your performance as better or worse than it really is and be drawn into fatal mistakes as a result.

Almost everything we do for others is a "performance". This includes every art form but also most business and social interactions. We are presenting a product to an audience and hoping they will buy it. The audience can be six million viewers on TV or just one potential customer in front of you. If you are the customer, you know what you want, but when you become the seller, your vision of what the customer wants is clouded by your own emotional needs.

It's a fact of life: Most performers are not very good. They make the audience cringe with what they think is a great performance, but everyone else knows it isn't. Diplomacy may require that the audience applaud anyway—in public at least. In private, though, they turn their attention elsewhere and don't come back to that performer again.

Why does the audience lie? We all do it because we don't want to hurt the performer's feelings. We know instinctively that if the performer knew how we really felt, he would get upset. In all likelihood, he would become either depressed or angry, maybe even vengeful and violent, so we all learn to hold our tongues. We'll talk freely to others about the performance we just saw, but we will be honest to the performer only if it was spectacularly good.

We might want to offer "constructive criticism" to the performer, but this is risky and costly. The great irony of performance is that the people who are most in need of advice are those least capable of accepting it. Their ego requires a positive evaluation, because otherwise they'll be crushed by shame. It's a self-defeating cycle: The fear of humiliation on stage drives people into delusions and denial which eventually result in their humiliation on stage.

The process can also work in the other direction. Someone can put on a fantastic performance, as seen by the audience, but then discard it as worthless. They dwell on microscopic imperfections in the show, while neglecting the fact that the audience loved the whole package.

Accurately evaluating your own performance is one of the hardest tasks on Earth. It's easy to do if you have no stake in the outcome, but as soon as you become invested in something, your perception gets skewed. Emotions instead of facts start dictating your evaluation.

In some cases, your audience will give you immediate hard feedback on how you are doing. Stand-up comedians operate in this environment. Either the audience laughs or it doesn't, and it's pretty easy to tell polite laughter from the uncontrollable kind. Making people laugh is a brutal business, but at least you know where you stand.

Most other kinds of performance don't provide such reliable feedback. When you lose a sale, you usually don't know exactly why. As soon as something valuable is at stake (money, a job, love, etc.), a wall goes up between the buyer and seller. The buyer holds his cards close to his chest and the seller can only guess what they are. Rarely are the cards laid on the table, even after the fact, so the seller can see what he did wrong.

If you ask most people what makes a great performance, they'll probably say "practice, practice, practice". Wrong! Practice often means just repeating the same dumb mistakes over and over. The key to success in any field is aggressively honing and fine-tuning your performance, seeking out accurate feedback and responding to it.

When no audience member is available to supply that feedback, you have to do it yourself. The great performers are able to sit in their own audience and view their performance with detachment. They radio their observations to the guy on stage, who adjusts his performance accordingly.

Most people are just too narcissistic and self-centered to pull it off. They can't step outside of themselves to see their behavior as others see it. They may succeed by dumb luck but not by skill.

There is no easy remedy for this. You can't make detachment happen in others, only in yourself. No matter how much may be at stake in your performance, you have to be able to release yourself from it, drift to the ceiling and see it from afar. If it wasn't you on stage but someone else, what would you be thinking?

It's both easy and incredibly hard.
—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Las Vegas. Inspired by a celebrity impersonators convention. (Photos)
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Kilroy Café #2: "BAN GAY MARRIAGE (heterosexual marriage, too!)"

Here is a repost of a 2008 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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed. This newsletter can be displayed on blogs and websites under the terms given here.

(heterosexual marriage, too!)


It is a polarizing political question: Should committed gay and lesbian couples be allowed to legally marry? Should the institution be restricted to "one man and one woman," or can it also be "one man and one man"? For that matter, what about "one man and two women" or "one man, one monkey, three sheep and a donkey"? Where are we going to draw the line?

In my opinion, everyone has the question upside down. Instead of lobbying the legislature or sponsoring voter initiatives to promote one side or the other, we should be talking to each gay couple directly. We should be sitting them down, perhaps in a Christian setting, and counseling them on the facts of life.

Why would you want to screw up a perfectly good relationship?

Research shows that most divorces are caused by marriage. Furthermore, science can also prove that gay marriage will inevitably lead to gay divorce, just as nasty as the hetero kind.

Marriage, in fact, is downright dangerous. It's like handing out guns to teenagers. Who among us, when afflicted by love, has the mental capacity to comprehend "Til death do you part"? Who among us is truly competent to say, "I have thought through all the implications, and this is the only path I will ever want for the rest of my life?"

Gay couples don't know how good they got it. They can never make the Big Step. They can never go down to the Chapel of Love one drunken night and throw away all future discretion. They can never just close their eyes and jump.

They have to think things through. Due to the protective restrictions in current law, they can only take their relationship one step at a time, in a process resembling reason. They must explicitly choose to share property, death benefits and child custody on a thoughtful, case-by-case basis, not as a single blind package. Yes, there are still a few retirement benefits that gay couples can't share, but most marriage services are available á la carte to anyone with some creativity.

Pity the poor heterosexual couple, living together in sin. To them, marriage is always the elephant in the room, the dark cloud hanging over their heads. When the relationship isn't perfect and you wonder what's wrong, it is easy to think that a lifetime contract must be the missing piece.

You can ask a divorcee: When did the relationship start to fall apart? A common reply is: "On the day we got married." Most relationships don't need and can't support the whole marital package. The most dangerous part is that individuality and self-responsibility often get suppressed, setting the stage for an explosion later on.

If you truly love someone and want to be with them, then why do you need the contract? If you are drawn together, so be it; if you grow apart, then you split up. Isn't the government contract, and all the economic and social baggage it carries, getting in the way of your free expression? If you're unmarried and you stay together, you know it's love. If you're encumbered and you stay together, you can never be sure.

If your particular insanity is to lust after the opposite sex, then government should tolerate your personal preference, but it doesn't need to sanction it. Marriage is, in essence, a form of religious expression that government ought to stay jolly well clear of.

Who is behind the marriage conspiracy? It's the Big Corporations, of course! They have fed us this delusion for years, because they know it is easier to sell useless products to trapped married people.

Only the gays are still free.
—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Las Vegas (March 28, 2008).
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kilroy Café #67: "Curiosity: The Hallmark of Intellect"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Curiosity: The Hallmark of Intellect


Curiosity seems pretty simple. When something unusual happens in your environment, you check it out. Children do it all the time. If they are walking in the woods and encounter a strange-looking mushroom, they'll examine it, poke at it and eventually submit it to destructive testing to see what's inside. It's bad for the mushroom but good for the child, who learns about the world through aggressive investigation.

Adults, as a rule, are not curious. They may turn their head in response to a novel stimulus, but they won't go over and check it out. They passively observe but won't actively investigate. Most adults are curious only within the bounds of the field they have chosen to be curious in: Naturalists may be sensitive to novelties of nature but not those of the human world. Adults, it seems, have a comfort zone and are loath to leave it unless forced to.

So what happened between childhood and adulthood? And what is curiosity anyway?

Curiosity is the impulse, when a novelty is detected in ones environment, to actively explore it until it is understood.

Relatively few animals exhibit curiosity. It is generally limited to the mammals and the young ones more than the old. Reptiles aren't curious, except as related to immediate food or threat. If something unusual appears in their path, they'll simply walk around it. Monkeys, on the other hand, are quickly attracted to changes in their cages and will investigate like human children do, even if they don't expect reward from it.

The benefits of curiosity are far-sighted and intellectual. It is the first step in learning. When something is novel, it means that we don't yet have a model for it in our head, so it makes sense to explore it in case this knowledge might be useful in the future. We don't need to know exactly how it will be useful; we only need to know that exploration, as a whole, is beneficial to our survival.

Curiosity can be dangerous. We know it killed the cat! Whenever you poke something, there is a risk it will bite you back. The compensation, however, is higher adaptability. Curiosity is one reason our species has come to dominate the planet. At least a few members of our clan have been drawn to things they don't understand, which has ultimately given us our technology and science.

But curiosity is also dangerous in a personal sense, especially to adults. Most adults have already committed themselves to personal and emotional investments based on certain assumptions about life, and unfettered curiosity runs the risk of disrupting those assumptions. That's why they don't dare explore.

For example, if you are committed to a certain career and have already invested 20 years of your life in it, you will resist any form of curiosity that might suggest that a different path would have been wiser. Curiosity is tolerated only to point where it generates anxiety, then it is turned off. The more boxed in you are by your past decisions, the less curiosity you can afford without triggering that most powerful of human emotions: regret.

There are four steps in the process of curiosity: Orientation, Exploration, Integration and Release.

Orientation is turning ones attention toward a novel stimulus. Almost everyone will do that: turn their eyes and head toward anything out of the ordinary. Most drivers will notice an oddity along the side of the road. Only a few, however, will stop the car.

Exploration is the next step. You actively investigate and experiment with this novel thing—poking, prodding.

Integration is when you absorb this new phenomenon into your internal theories, so it no longer seems unusual. This may take minutes, weeks or years, but eventually the novelty becomes routine and uninteresting because it is understood.

Release is when you let go of the previously novel object and move on. This step is very important because it leaves you free to be actively curious about something else.

Even if they get to the Exploration phase, adults often get stuck on the Release phase. If something is initially intriguing to them, they often try to own it and never give it up. All sorts of old novelties clutter up our lives like this, preventing new novelties from getting in.

An active and dynamic intellect dances continuously with curiosity. To be able to truly grow, you need to be uncommitted enough to allow random exploration and also be willing to let go of whatever you find.

Most minds just can't do it. They get trapped at one stage of development and curiosity dies shortly thereafter.

If the opportunity of a lifetime sat down beside them, they wouldn't know what to do. They would ask no questions, and the moment would pass.
—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Ontario, California.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Kilroy Café #66: "Life is Logarithmic!... Not Linear"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Life is Logarithmic!... Not Linear
An oddity of statistics may help you make better personal decisions.


Believe It Or Not!... If you collect a set of numbers from almost anywhere in the universe—such as sports statistics, heights of trees, incomes of workers or masses of stars—a bizarre phenomenon usually emerges. Far more of those numbers start with "1" or "2" than with "8" or "9".

Try it yourself: Open your local phone book and look at the house numbers (e.g. "342 Park Ave."). Make a tally of the digits that each of those numbers begin with (in this case "3"). Once you collect a few pages of this data, a pattern usually becomes clear: There are far more house numbers starting with low digits like "1" than high digits like "9"!

This statistical phenomenon is called Benford's Law, and it happens in most forms of collected data from nature and human activity—regardless of what you measure or the measurement system you use. It seems at first to defy all reason. Since each measurement seems random, shouldn't the leading digit be random, too?

The phenomenon arises because real-world data is never completely random. It is distributed in a certain way, typically weighted toward the low end of whatever scale you are using.

Take the phonebook example: In most of the world, there are far more short streets than long ones. All streets will have low numbers but only a few will have high numbers. Thus, on aggregate, there will always be more 1's than 9's, more 10's than 90's and more 100's than 900's. Get it?

The same thing happens everywhere: There are more short trees than tall ones and more average sports players than exceptional ones. People earning $15k a year will always outnumber those making $95k, and people making $100k will always outnumber those making $900k. That's how the digits get skewed.

Turns out, most things in life are not distributed linearly but logarithmically—on a rapidly diminishing curve approaching zero. No matter what you measure or how, there are many little things and few big ones. It is also usually true that when something happens repeatedly, the largest impact is at the beginning, with diminishing effect later. Once you understand these logarithmic distributions, you see them everywhere.

This isn't just a phenomenon of statistics but of human happiness, desire and need, all of which follow logarithmic curves. If you grasp the curve, you may see that you have been approaching life with inappropriate math.

For example, if a little of something makes you happy it doesn't necessarily follow that twice as much of the same thing will make you twice as happy. If that were true, it would be a linear relationship. Real life, however, abhors straight lines. It is more likely to give you decreasing satisfaction when you do the same thing repeatedly. Economists call this the Law of Diminishing Returns.

You may be happy if someone gives you $1 million, but you wouldn't be ten times happier if they gave you $10 million. Truth is, $1 million, thoughtfully used, is plenty for most of us. Any additional money only encourages us to be less thoughtful. In the end, the additional $9 mill will have only a marginal impact on our lifelong happiness, if any.

So why does anyone bother seeking more than they reasonably need? Good question!

People, it seems, are much better at thinking linearly than logarithmically. Linear conclusions are much easier to calculate and understand. Twice the chocolate must mean twice the joy. All you need for this math is addition and multiplication, not any fancy calculus.

It takes great maturity—and some bitter experience—to anticipate your own changing needs, especially if you are excited about something right now. Every kid learns his lesson: One cookie is good. A whole big package eaten at one sitting: not so good. On bigger issues, though, adults may take years to grasp the non-linearity of life, and by that time it is often too late.

The worst mistakes of individuals and nations are when they try to impose a linear prediction on a curve, cycle or feedback loop. They take the trend of recent events, project it forward in a straight line then make irrevocable commitments based on that prediction.

Reality, however, has no respect for our predictions. It does what it wants, which is usually to adjust to a stimulus and respond to it differently over time.

If you have committed yourself to a straight line, that's your problem.
—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Las Vegas.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Kilroy Café #65: "Taking Control"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The key to solving your problems is usually in your mind.


Everyone has problems. Sometimes they are severe: war, divorce, illness, unemployment. At times, we seem to be the victims of forces beyond our control. Even if our own misjudgment got us into this mess, that doesn't mean our own actions can get us out.

But still we have to try. As long as you live, you have to struggle for the best possible outcome regardless of your situation. If you learn you have untreatable cancer and only six months to live, you still have a responsibility to make the best of it. You have to see cancer not as a curse but an opportunity. An opportunity for what? That's for you to figure out.

Most of us face more mundane, non-life-threatening problems, but the challenge is the same: how to make the most of what we have. At this moment, you have both burdens and gifts and only a limited time left on Earth to work with them. What will you become?

In that struggle, your only enemy is yourself. All that stands between you and the "success" of making the most of yourself are blocks within you that you yourself enforce and maintain.

A block is a potential approach to a problem that you refuse to consider due to your artificial expectations about what life owes you. Blocks come in many guises, but they are usually expressed in the form: "I can't do X because of Y."

For example: "I can't fly overseas because I can't stand sitting in an airplane that long." Result: You never go. Or: "I can't quit drinking because I don't have the willpower." Result: You don't even try. Or: "I can't travel without my personal physician because of my delicate constitution." X and Y can be an endless number of things, leading to all sorts of artificial requirements in health, diet, lifestyle, fashion and entertainment.

If you collect enough of these "I can't" restrictions, soon all avenues for solving your problems are cut off. You feel trapped, but it's not your problems themselves that are trapping you as much as your refusal to consider some potential solutions.

You can argue that some things are non-negotiable. You wouldn't seriously endanger yourself or the people you care about, but nearly everything else is negotiable: your home, your possessions, your public image and all the silly restrictions you have placed on your own behavior.

The key to dealing successfully with your problems is replacing your "I can'ts" with "I cans". You can live without most of the things you thought were necessities. You can do many things you thought yourself incapable of. You can endure more pain than you imagined and still come out okay.

You know your self-restrictions are dubious when other people are functioning perfectly fine without them. Others are flying overseas and living without addiction, so why can't you?

That's where the excuses come in. You insist your situation is special, that different rules apply to you. You have sensitive skin, fragile self-esteem, an inadequate upbringing and a special lack of willpower. That's why you can't do what others can.

"I can't do X because of Y," is almost always based on flawed reasoning and distorted data. In most cases, you haven't experimented much or pushed yourself very far. You may have had one or two bad experiences with Y and simply given up, probably because you could afford to. It was the lazy way. Instead of facing your fears and using your creativity to overcome the challenge, you wrote an imaginary rule for yourself and started blocking yourself in with it.

This may work okay until a crisis comes along, like running out of money, and your elaborate structure of "I can'ts" becomes unsustainable. Something has to give! Either you'll give up some of your cherished restrictions or the crisis will break you. If you fail to change, real events may force change upon you, but it is always better to be pro-active and do it on your own.

It is amazing how many people die clutching their old dysfunctional habits until the bitter end. If someone has only six months to live, you'd think they'd give up some of their preconditions and actually live those six months. Instead, they cling in misery to every one of their original demands, as if they would be answered in the afterlife.

Dealing with problems and getting the most out of life is all about overcoming your own inertia. Are you going to control your problems or let them control you? Taking control of what happens to you really means taking control of yourself. It means recognizing that some barriers you thought were real were only in your mind and thus can be stepped right through.

You can't make cancer go away through force of will, but you can change the lens through which you are seeing it. At will, you can change what you expect from life and the very definition of what misfortune is.

Not a curse but an opportunity.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Denver, Colorado.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kilroy Café #64: "The Meaning of Life Explained at Last!"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Explained at Last!


One day, we woke up on a strange planet, in a body that wasn't ours, living with a family we didn't choose. That's all we know about life, but it's all we really need. Before us is our remaining life on Earth, which we can either do something with or squander. It's our choice.

There is no outside authority to tell us what to do. There is only the reality all around us, which appears to be solid and non-negotiable. Of course, this reality could be an illusion, but it's the best illusion we have, so we might as well work with it.

The thing we find out quickly about reality is that it can hurt! Stick your finger in a candle flame and you're going to get burned. Your body will let you know you've done something wrong, and if you have any common sense you won't do the same thing again.

If you want a purpose in life, a pretty good starting point is simply to avoid pain. In the beginning, you avoid it in the present (by keeping your fingers out of flames), but as you get more experienced, you start looking ahead and trying to avoid pain in the future. A little bit of planning and prudence right now can prevent a whole lot of discomfort later on.

Unfortunately, a lot of people can't handle planning and prudence. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you drink too much, blow all your money or ignore your own safety, you'll feel pain later, but most people just don't get it. They can't delay gratification or plan ahead. You are already ahead of the pack if you can anticipate reality based on what it did to you last time and act accordingly.

Once you start planning farther into the future, your plans evolve into principles. It's hard to predict the future exactly, so you rely on rational policies to protect you from pain. One policy, for example, is to always fasten your seatbelt when riding in a car. It may not make a difference on this trip or the next, but sooner or later it is probably going to save you a lot of pain. It's not immediate pain avoidance that protects you here, but a far-sighted philosophy.

The more sophisticated you become as a resident of Earth, the more you think about policies rather than immediate results. How do you achieve the best long-term outcome—i.e. the least pain over time? Sometimes, foresight says you must endure some pain now to avoid even greater pain in the future, and if you are disciplined enough, you'll obey.

Pain, however, comes in many forms, not all of them attached to the body. There is the pain of loneliness and the pain of seeing someone you care about suffer. It's painful when something you have built is destroyed, and it's almost as painful to see it happen to others. All of these different kinds of potential discomfort go into your calculations of what to do now.

When simply avoiding your own pain isn't enough to satisfy you, you can start to address the pain of others. Your fellow travelers may or may not be conscious, but they certainly seem to be, so you might as well treat them with respect. You know what it is like to have your finger in a candle flame, so if you can protect others from similar distress, why not? While you are imprisoned on this planet, you might as well help out your fellow inmates.

The next question is, What is the best way to help? Do you only address someone's immediate pain, or do you think about their long-term well-being? Again, policies soon become more important than immediate satisfaction. To save someone's life, you might have to cut off their arm. No one wants to be in this kind of position, but reality often gives you no choice.

Even if you know nothing about who you are or where you came from, reality will guide you. Reality is the environment you found yourself in when you landed here. It is the body you're in and the physical world all around you. You can close your eyes and dream of other things, but when you open them again, reality will still there, just as you left it.

Reality starts out as a great mystery, but eventually we learn its rules. For example, gravity is one rule. Step off an edge, and you'll fall and suffer. Other rules, like what makes us happy and how other people behave, can get very complicated, but the rules are always there, waiting to be discovered. The more we investigate, experiment and deduce the underlying mechanics, the better we can plan and predict.

There are a lot of things we'll never know, like "What is consciousness?" and "What made this all happen?" Without this knowledge, we have to find meaning and satisfaction in the world itself. Just by virtue of our being born, wheels are set in motion that we cannot stop. The noblest thing we can do with our life is master those wheels.

What is the meaning of life? Reality gives you problems, and you do your best to solve them. You need no more meaning than that.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Opelika, Alabama.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Kilroy Café #63: "Truth, Lies and Discretion"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Truth, Lies and Discretion
Honesty is not always the best policy.


As children, we are taught not to lie. At first it is because we fear we will be punished, but eventually we realize that lies are expensive in themselves. When you tell a lie, you have to remember what you said so you don't trip yourself up later. This entails keeping two sets of mental books—the true one and the cooked version—which requires a lot of internal energy. It is usually easier to deal with only one reality because then you don't have to remember anything.

But this doesn't mean you should always tell the truth. Just because you know or believe something doesn't mean you should blurt it out. Society is built on a delicate web of withheld information. Speaking the truth in inappropriate circumstances disrupts this web and can be as destructive as any lie.

Between truth and lie is discretion. That's the wisdom to know when a truth should be held inside and not spoken. The fate of nations can ride on discretion, and your relationships as well.

Why is discretion necessary? Two things: strategy and ego.

Strategy is important in any kind of competition. You don't want to tell your opponent exactly what you plan to do before you do it. This applies in war, of course, but equally in love, business, politics, management, child rearing—in virtually any circumstance of leadership or competition where information given to an opponent can be used against you. Discretion involves withholding information until such time as it is safe and appropriate to release.

If a spy sells a list of his own agents to the other side, he can't defend himself by saying, "I merely told the truth," because that truth is going to kill people.

Likewise, if you are bidding in an sealed auction, you don't want to tell your fellow bidders how high you are willing to go, because they will beat you by bidding one dollar more. After the game, it may be okay to show your cards, but during the competition—in virtually any kind of negotiation—you can't tell your opponent the hand you hold.

Why must this be so? It is simply the way of the world. As long as people have differing agendas, there will be negotiation, and that requires discretion at least until an agreement is reached.

Discretion is a lynchpin of liberty. It lies behind our most cherished right: that government stay out of our lives unless specifically authorized. Whenever we empower a government to protect us, we also empower it to hurt us. The law, as written by detached legislators, is never suited to every real-world circumstance, and discretion is often our sole means of limiting its destructive power.

Should you lie to law enforcement? No. Should you report every violation of law no matter how minor and obey every law regardless of the circumstances? No, also. A quiet evasion of rules is sometimes the most moral action, and that requires discretion.

The second reason for discretion is ego. We all have one, and it is usually a hornet's nest of sensitivities and inconsistencies. Discretion is necessary to avoid tipping fragile people over the edge, offending them and starting wars where they aren't necessary. In this venue, it is unlikely that anyone will die if you are indiscreet, but it can sure muck up your social relations.

Each person is a product of his investments, and whether or not his investments are working out, he is going to believe in them simply because they have already cost him so much.

You don't tell a fat lady she's fat. Little children may blurt it out, but adults shouldn't, because you'll offend the fat lady without accomplishing anything. There is usually little merit in telling people their obvious flaws, because in all likelihood you'll get a defensive reaction, not change.

If people ask for the truth about themselves and are truly open to hearing it, you can tell them. Otherwise, you are only going to stir up the hornet's nest and disrupt the relationship. Exposing people's weaknesses sounds good in theory—"How else are they going to change?" we say.—but in practice it usually prompts a backlash that is counterproductive to change.

One of the great fears of modern life is that a private email message intended for one person gets mistakenly sent to others, especially to the person the message is critical of. It's embarrassing because we know instinctively that the subject shouldn't be told his own flaws. If the boss knows what you really think of him, you could be fired, whether you tell it to his face or email it to a colleague. The politics of the world and the sensitivities of personality require that we keep this information to ourselves.

People who are comfortable with themselves have a thicker skin and are better able to process any truth you throw at them. Unfortunately, such enlightened ones will always be in the minority.

We know the people we should tiptoe around, would can't handle any kind of uncensored truth. They are walking landmines and discretion is necessary to keep them from going off.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Pooler, Georgia.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Kilroy's Rules of Twitter Style

I have a theory that you can tell whether a Twitter feed is worth following by reading only the five latest tweets. Below are the features I am looking for. These are the style rules I am trying to follow on my own Twitter feed (@KilroyCafe) and that maybe you should follow in yours.
  1. A stylistic avatar. The best feeds have an avatar (little profile picture) that someone has put some thought into and that reflect, in some simple way, the content of the feed. Less interesting feeds just have a bland picture of the author. To a certain extent you can judge a book by it's cover! Just by scanning through avatars, you can get an idea of what feeds might be worth following from how interesting the avatar is.

  2. Talk about universal truths rather than what you are doing. Do I care that you are currently at Starbucks on Main Street? Give me something I can use! Unless you intend your feed for only your five closest joined-at-the-hip buddies, no one really cares what you are doing.

    • Personally, I believe your "what I'm doing" stuff should go on Facebook. Even then, you should limit your updates to things that are somehow useful to others.

  3. Limit the use of "I" and "me". Again, what you are doing may be interesting to you, but the rest of us want information we can use in our own life. "I" and "me" should be used only sparingly in certain rhetorical situations or to distinguish your work from someone else's.

  4. All links should be explained. Don't just tell me to "Look at this!" You have to give me a reason to look (because clicking on each link takes time, especially on a mobile device).

  5. No wasted words. There should be not a single unnecessary word in any tweet. Even if you have extra space available in your 140-character allotment, the tweet should be as compact and efficient as possible. Before sending the tweet, read and re-read it to make sure you have cut it to the bone. Extra words just dilute your message.

  6. Interesting language. Don't say something in a bland way if you can say it in an interesting and stylized way, with clever and precisely targeted language.

  7. Only one idea per tweet. Don't try to insert multiple ideas into the same tweet. Know when to stop!

  8. Every tweet should stand alone. Although two adjacent tweets can be on a related topic, they shouldn't depend on each other for their meaning.

  9. Every tweet should be timeless. The best tweets should be just as meaningful when read ten years from now as they are today. If the tweet must comment on a current event, it should contain enough information about that event to allow the future reader to decode it (with some help from Google).

  10. Avoid hash tags. I think they just clutter up the tweet and make it less timeless. I admit I don't have much experience with them, but I doubt they help anyone find your tweet. (What sense is there in commenting on #obama if a million people are using that hashtag too?) I suspect that most readers rarely do searches by hashtag but merely read the feeds they are subscribed to; in that case the hashtag is just noise.

  11. Avoid abbreviations. I you have to use abbreviations to fit your tweet into 140 characters, your tweet is probably too long anyway. God gave us only 140 characters for a reason, and you shouldn't try to fudge His limit.

  12. Use proper punctuation and capitalization. It makes you look like you care.

  13. Low sexual content. Sex is the world's most overused topic. Tweets that consistently dwell on sex are a sign of weak imagination and are ultimately boring. Let it go!

  14. No moping! Even if you're funny, your readers don't need to know how badly your life is going. If you have a problem, solve it. Otherwise, don't expect affirmation from us for your drinking, career problems or lack of sex lately. Honestly, tweeting something funny about is just an evasion mechanism. Do something!

  15. Don't feel the need to be funny. Comedy can be a crutch and a prison, especially if your followers expect you to be funny in every tweet. It is more important to be observant and useful. Don't set up expectations for entertainment that you can't reasonably fulfill.

  16. Know your focus! Every feed should have a central topic. This is your central core - your Twitter personality - that you are always returning to. Over time, people should be able to distinguish your tweets from everyone else's from both their content and their style. There are plenty of "general" Twitterers out there, commenting on the news and celebrity scandals of the day. Your feed should have a unique identity that doesn't depend on these topics.
This last item is the toughest. How do you define your Twitter identity? It's like finding your unique identity in the real world: There is no easy formula. If nothing else, your identity will be defined by the topics you often return to. If your topics are consistently interesting, your feed will be too.

Here is some information on my own Twitter feed including my tweet archives. My best tweets respect the rules above.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Kilroy Café #62: "Fundamentals of Mental Nutrition"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Fundamentals of Mental Nutrition


When considering what to take into your body, there is "real food" and there is "junk food". Junk food consists of the tastes you crave but little else: sugar, fat, salt, carbohydrates, caffeine. Real food has complexity and substance and primarily serves your future health, not your impulsive tastes. If you care about your body, you'll eat real food, not junk.

The same principle applies to your mind: If you care about it, you'll feed it real, substantial input, not empty junk.

Unfortunately, junk input is what our culture mostly offers us: junk TV, junk video games, junk books, news, music and web content. Most of this sensory input doesn't advance our lives in any way, but we willingly ingest it because it tickles our nervous system in a certain way, just like junk food does.

One danger of too much junk food is obesity, partly because the junk is so available and appealing, and partly because it is so calorically dense and easy to digest that it goes straight to our waist. Likewise, when we ingest too much junk stimulation, we promote mental obesity. The brain doesn't become physically fat but it becomes more passive, chaotic and intellectually undisciplined.

When you have a stimulating mental experience, you need time to adequately digest it, to derive all the available nutrition from it. What just happened? Why did it happen? What does it teach me? You need time to think about the experience or most of its lessons are lost.

That's the thing most lacking in the modern world: thinking time. Because we are surrounded by junk input, easily available and actively peddled to us, our tendency is to ingest one entertainment after another, with little time between them for processing. Highly stimulating products are force-fed into our brain where they clutter up our mind-space. You don't learn much from these experiences; you merely stockpile them.

It's like binge eating. Most people wouldn't eat a whole carton of ice cream at a single sitting, but many will routinely watch 4-6 hours of television in one go. That's lost time that can't be used for one's own mental processes. If you string together enough of those daily input binges, eventually your life will be over, consumed by consumption.

Those 4-6 hours usually include some intense emotional traumas: murders, threats of violence, interpersonal conflicts of every kind. Because there's no time to process them, these intense pseudo-experiences collect in the brain like half-eaten meals, crowding out real experiences and diluting our emotional response to them.

Mental stimulation can be as addictive as any drug. You know you have an addiction when it's not the pleasure of the drug that keeps you using it but the anxiety you feel when you withdraw from it. Can you comfortably sit in a room with a television without the compulsion to turn it on? Can you drive a car without turning on the radio? Can you sit and think for an extended period without "boredom" or anxiety driving you to stimulation? If not, you're an addict.

With any addiction, there is always a cost. Input addicts don't usually rob convenience stores to support their habit, but they are still sad people. Input addiction is marked by passivity, shallowness of feeling and a short attention span. Addicts may be emotionally moved by what happens to them, but just like what they see on the screen, the feeling is fleeting, and they are unlikely to address it in any meaningful way.

If you have one intensely emotional real-world experience in the course of a week, you can deal with it. If you add a hundred intense pseudo-experiences, this has to degrade your response to the real experience. Instead of a measured, thoughtful response to the real conflict, the addict's response is more likely to be impulsive, stereotypical and ineffective, mainly because he hasn't had enough time to think things through.

Mental bandwidth is a precious resource. You only get so much of it in a lifetime. If you value your own mind, you have to take care what you feed it. Above all, you have to limit the quantity of your input to what you can reasonably digest.

Even if the input isn't "junk", you still have to control its quantity and pacing. There may be a lot of high-quality movies, songs and TV shows available, but that's not reason enough to string them together in a binge. You wouldn't go into a fine restaurant and order everything on the menu. One high-quality meal a day is enough, and if the experience is really extraordinary maybe you should go even longer.

A healthy diet of mental input is one carefully-selected, high-quality sensory experience followed by a long empty period of digestion. This empty space is probably the most critical time for growth and learning. If you don't have time for it or can't tolerate emptiness, then you're not living a full life. The input is controlling you and stealing everything you have.

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Charlotte, North Carolina.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Kilroy Café #61: "The Dilemma of the Public Restroom"

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 other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The Dilemma of the Public Restroom
A Microcosm of Social Policy


Sounds like good public health policy: Give people a place to do their excretory business so they don't have to do it in the street. In civilized societies, there are public restrooms in train stations, highway rest stops, shopping malls, restaurants, etc. Unfortunately, the condition of them is often deplorable. Without active and expensive maintenance throughout the day, things go bad very quickly.

Why? Because people abuse public restrooms horribly! They fail to flush the toilet. They urinate and defecate on the seats and don't clean it up. Drug addicts use the stalls to shoot up. Homeless people bathe there. Obsessive-compulsives and germaphobes use far more toilet paper than they need, layering the seat or clogging the toilet and leaving their mess behind.

The chief dilemma of the public restroom is that most people who use it have no stake in its cleanliness. It isn't "their" restroom but someone else's. They probably won't be back, so they won't have to suffer any direct consequences. Security cameras aren't allowed, so everyone is anonymous and no one can be held accountable.

It's nice to say we should all work together for the common good, respecting public spaces and cleaning up after ourselves. Most people probably behave this way, but it takes only a few dysfunctionals to ruin it for everyone else. Their behavior draws down the standards for everyone else, until even the good people stop caring.

The end result is that no organization is eager to provide restrooms to the public unless they are required to by law or profit. Business owners put up signs saying, "Restrooms for Patrons Only." They simply have no choice.

You could say that this problem illustrates conservative principles: If you give people something for free, they are bound to abuse it. The solution, the conservatives might say, is to not provide these public services. If you make people fend for themselves, they'll feel more responsible for their actions. (Unfortunately, it also means they'll start pooping in stairwells.)

But at another level, it could also illustrate liberal theories. If you give a corporation unrestricted access to a "public restroom"—that is, publically shared resources—then the corporation will abuse the privilege just like individuals do. If there is profit in it and only shared consequences, no self-serving entity would refrain from polluting the river that all of us drink from. Government has to set boundaries.

Both views are valid. Public restrooms have to exist and be actively regulated (liberal), but access can't be too easy (conservative). There are reasons it's hard to find a restroom in Manhattan. The natural restroom shortage provides "pushback" that encourages people use private facilities whenever possible. Public facilities in train and bus stations may have to be nasty to drive patrons to other options.

In a broader sense, whenever you provide a public service, it has to be costly for those who use it to discourage overuse. For example, if you impose long lines on people to obtain welfare payments or food stamps, a good portion will give up and get jobs instead. You can't make public services seem too easy or attractive, or people will take them for granted and start abusing them.

There is no technological solution to the restroom dilemma. Automatic pay toilets in New York were a failure because addicts and prostitutes treated them as rental units. Automatic toilet flushers seem like a good idea until you realize their long-term effects: training people not to flush toilets and making them even more detached from their own bodily processes.

The best of all possible worlds is probably what we have now. Public restrooms have to be unpleasant! They have to exist (to prevent disintegration of public health) but they can't be too available. There have to be regulations in place to prevent wide-scale abuse, and the police have to come by occasionally and sweep out the human garbage.

There is only one business with reliably pristine restrooms: casinos! Turns out, the obsessives, impulsives and socially irresponsibles—i.e. the cretins who mess up public restrooms—are the same irrational people who keep the gaming industry going! Along with buffets and flashing lights, ultra-clean toilet facilities apparently help draw them in.

So now you know where to go for a nice restroom!

—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
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First draft written at a rest area on Interstate 65 in Indiana.
Released from Providence, R.I.
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