Monday, 21 May 2018

I turned 64 last week. This is a song about that...

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Implicit Choice in the Maslow Hierarchy

"The hierarchy remains a very popular framework in sociology research, management training and secondary and higher psychology instruction.” So says Wikipedia. Judge an theory by the company that company that keeps it, and Maslow’s Hierarchy should be tossed in the bin for no more reason than that it is "a very popular framework in sociology research, management training and secondary and higher psychology instruction”. These are not reputable, hard-science, subjects. What they are, are normative theories disguised as descriptive ones. Morality passing itself off as science.

Maslow’s Hierarchy is the idea that people have a bunch of needs, some of which need to be met more or less well before we can go on to meeting the others. At the base of the pyramid he put physiological needs;: air, water, food, sleep, clothing, shelter. That’s the Rule of Threes: three minutes without air, three hours without shelter in extreme conditions, three days without water, three weeks without food. Those will kill you. Three days without sleep risks permenant damage to your mind.

Next is Safety, so that we’re not being raided by Vikings, dragged off to prison at two in the morning because we said something wrong, mugged when we take money out of an ATM, let go from work because the order book is looking thin, or getting beaten and abused by parents, teachers, policemen, or the other kids at school.

Given some safety, we can move on to Social Belonging as evidenced by having friends, intimacy, and being on good terms with our family of origin and our own family if we have one.

After that, we have Esteem, that our abilities and contributions are recognised by people whose opinions we care about, and that generally, the people around us think we are a Good Fellow. And then at the top, we have Self-Actualisation, which is realising one’s potential and abilities.

Notice that without the idea that these items are a) needs, b) ordered, and c) must be satisfied in order, this is just a list of stuff that we would like to have. It has no force.

The Hierarchy does not describe how we botch our way through our lives, grabbing an hour of self-actualisation at the gym, an hour of living death on the commute, eight hours of insecure employment (lack of Security) to pay the bills and the taxes that provide policemen and defence (Security, of a sort), before returning to a frugal meal and an empty bed (lack of Social Belonging), while trying to get a promotion, improve our professional networks (Esteem), and maybe get a drink with the Lads at the weekend (Social Belonging). Jeez, what a mess.

A number of things are not on the list: wealth or high income, exceptional athletic, artistic or intellectual achievement, religious vocations, or anything else that requires sustained, time-consuming dedication and the risk that all the effort might not lead to the winner’s podium or the award ceremony. These are examples of self-actualisation, but cannot be achieved without delaying other lower-order needs for so long it counts as abandonment. In other words, without some nifty verbal gymnastics, the Hierarchy is self-contradictory. You can’t have it all. Not without a lot of money, luck and a solid character.

But maybe decribing these compromises wasn’t Maslow’s aim.
Maslow studied what he called exemplary people such as Albert Einstein, Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Frederick Douglass rather than mentally ill or neurotic people, writing that "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.” Maslow studied the healthiest 1% of the college student population.
Maslow originally put sex in the physiological needs, and large numbers of puritans disagreed with him, or prissily said it was there because the survival of the human race. Some descriptions of the Hierarchy leave it out. Was Maslow on to something? Perhaps he thought that if a vigorous young man isn’t getting laid on the regular, he’s going to be distracted in the pursuit of his higher needs? I was a young man once, and I approve that insight.

That was what made me wonder if Maslow was pointing at something else, but happy to be lucratively misunderstood. I started this with the intention of explaining why the Heirarchy was nonsense. Then I wondered: what if Maslow was right? Not about how people manage to bodge and survive their way through the circumstances of their lives, but about what the circumstances of our life must be, to be satisfying as it is lived, rather than in retrospect when there’s money in the bank, awards on the walls and every Maitre d’ in town knows your name and face. What if the Hierarchy is actually a diagnostic tool rather than a truth about people?

C-Heads describes "the 21st century girl… a chick of many talents, one moment she’s in Europe, the next she’s in Asia. She’s working on several artistic projects at once and killing at every single one. She’s a mix of races – picking up different cultures as she travels. She’s the mysterious girl at the party you want to know her life story who everyone has their eyes on", and yet… what? She can go through the Maslow levels, tick or cross as applicable. When she finds herself arguing about whether this or that is really a need, that’s a cross. Now she can see what’s missing. And she may understand that, if she wants to go on killing it at every single project, then that's the price she pays.

Human beings are needy animals, and at any given time one or more of those needs will be going unmet. For many people, it’s far more than one and it’s every day of every week of every year. And the more lower-order needs go unmet, the shakier is the pursuit, and enjoyment, of the higher-order needs. The Hierarchy tells us where the structure of our lives and our selves is shaky. Reality tells us that the shakiness may just be the way it’s gotta be. Because The Hierarchy is impossible to satisfy from bottom to top. You have a choice: you can be satisfied and risk the occasional feeling that you haven’t made the most of what, if anything, God gave you; or you can aim to develop and exploit your abilities and talents, and accept the surety of dissatisfaction with this or that aspect of your life.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

What would you do with a million pounds?

We used to have a game at junior school called “What would you do if you had a million pounds?” Since one answer was always “buy a house” and for that sum you could have bought about eighty (!) of my parent’s houses, at today’s prices, make that “What would you do if you had eighty millions pounds”.

I’d buy my sister a house, and I’d give my nephew some money so he didn’t have to take the first job that came along just to pay the rent, but could go find a step on a career ladder. My mother already has a nice house.

That’s what everyone says, as well they should. I suppose I’d buy myself something in central London, maybe in Bloomsbury or Marylebone. Or maybe not. Maybe I would travel round the world, concentrating on large cities and villages by the sea, to find somewhere I really wanted to live. If there was such a place. Or maybe I’d find a university which would let me use their library and let me do a PhD. Or not, these days, given the state of the modern university.

Perhaps I’d back some start-ups, but I know that a lot of those are basically CV-enhancement schemes for BCBG Ph.D’s: the idea is that the start-up is flipped to a large firm who really wants the top talent. Anyone outside the in-crowd is a sucker who is not going to get an even break.

Establish a scholarship for a British philosopher of mathematics to study for a year abroad, to be awarded annually. Maybe.

I could buy art. That would give me a faux social-life.

What I would not do is buy a £15,000 watch. Or a £250,000 sports car. I might buy a few days at Silverstone driving fancy sports cars though.

I could become an eccentric recluse in my Amsterdam house by a canal, watching movies in a special screeening-room and having meals brought in from the nearby one-star restaurant. On the days I was not watching films, I would go to Zandvoort by limousine and walk along the beach. It’s a large beach. I’ve just spent a few minutes fantasising about a year spent working my way round the beaches from Italy, south of France, Spain-Portugal-Spain, France again, Cornwall and ending in Wales. Or something like that.

Maybe I’d get some sessions with a celebrity therapist just for fun and the possibility they say something that changes me. Jordan Peterson could tell me I deserve all the problems I’m having because I don’t have family.

We used to have fun with this game. It was exciting to think of what we might do. Not so much now. I have a feeling that I would do a number of worthy things with it, and get a decent flat in the upmarket section of a serious town. The catch with growing-up is learning all the downsides and costs: the young only see upsides and benefits.

Monday, 7 May 2018

You Can't Get Too Much Counter-Propaganda

Ever wonder why the religious person sitting opposite you on the train is reading the Bible? I mean, haven’t they finished it yet? Or why recovering alkies go to three or more meetings a week and read the Big Book? Or why people read one self-help book after another, or yet another book on personal effectiveness? Or why people go to Church every Sunday? Let alone pray five times a day (Fajr, Dhuhr, ‘Asr, Maghrib, and ‘Isha) or even seven (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline). Or why men check into dark corners of the Internet to read their filthy alt-right misogynist propaganda? Okay. The last one is obvious: they are filthy alt-right misogynists. It’s entirely different when liberals read the Guardian (or the Evening Standard, or the Financial Times) for the latest revelations about how Brexit is going to be a disaster.

No. It’s not because they are insecure aand need their thoughts confirming.

If you don’t fill your head with the thoughts you want to have, other people will fill your head with the thoughts they want you to have.

Advertisers using whatever current cliches they think will get your attention. Politicians, who don’t actually care about you, since they are talking to a very small audience of other politicians, major donors and businessmen. Left-wing journalists (a tautology) pushing their agendas. PR agents agitating hashtags for their clients’ benefit. Songwriters pushing Blue Pill sentimentality and Girlzzz Just Wanna Party. Scientists pushing out pop-science gee-whiz to get publicity to keep the grant money rolling in. The news telling you that awful behaviour seems to bring rewards, at least in this life. Not to mention Facebook propaganda from your fake friends, or faking friends. And let’s never forget those communications from management, with more spin than Nathan Lyon.

That’s what will pour into my head if I don’t put what I want into it. I can go looking for different opinions, and I can keep track of what The Enemy are thinking, but then I know what I’m doing. If I just wander through this media-soaked world, watching TV, reading the Metro on the train, and overhear whatever the girl singer du jour is pushing at the moment, I’m going to pick up mainstream ideas. I can tell myself I’m watching ironically, or that I don’t believe it, but there’s a part of my brain that, in the words of Gabriel Shear…

Some alcoholics ask why they have to go to so many meetings a week. The reply is: well, you went drinking every night, right?

You can’t get too much counter-propaganda.

Monday, 30 April 2018

And Now Here's Some Music...

I'm deep in understanding Cohen Forcing at the moment. Those who know what that is will understand, and if you don't, just imagine the thing you understood least about maths at school, and multiply it by a thousand.

So here's a gorgeous album by Paul Desmond

that turned a recent Sunday morning into something light and easy. Paul Desmond is the guy who played sax on Take Five. That West Coast Cool Jazz thing, when it was done well, produced some wonderful music.

And then for something completely different, here's a KM Channel video. If you don't know them, watch one.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

The Pseudo-Paradox of Toleration

I was goaded into writing this by a discussion of pluralism in mathematics by a philosopher I will not name because it would make you think ill of them.

The so-called `paradox of toleration’ is that the tolerant must tolerate the intolerant, who will therefore take over and install Sharia Law, burkas, compulsory short beards, take away votes for women and leave the sewers to fall apart in a decade...

Nobody could take this paradox seriously, yet some people do. It relies accepting the claim that to be tolerant means you have to tolerate anything and everything.

That’s not what tolerance means. ‘Religious tolerance’ means that the State does not actively stop people worshiping the God of their understanding in the manner their sect prescribes - within the limits of civil and criminal law (so no live sacrifices).

We don’t have laws on what cuisines can and can’t be served in this country, except for dog, cat and a few other Chinese delicacies, and that’s `culinary tolerance’ or something similar.

We do have laws against killing people, swindling them, assaulting or harming them, and various other things. We don’t tolerate that. If you think you can kill your daughter for making eyes at the wrong man, do it outside our borders or we will lock you up. Usually, even the grossly intolerant want laws about those things, involving steeper punishments, so there’s no clash.

And liberals, of course, don’t tolerate all sorts of things, but mostly a) anyone who disagrees with them, b) right-wing ideas and movements, c) nationalism and strict immigration controls. Except that doesn’t count as `intolerance’ because those are bad ideas and bad people and so outside the scope of tolerance. Tolerance is only for the good, if you’re a liberal.

Here’s a quote from a site about Islam, which to judge from what it says, is pro-Islamic.
...the reality is that Islam is meant to be a complete way of life for its followers. It includes a complete and logical set of beliefs, rituals, and a moral code that covers every action that a Muslim takes in their life.
Every action. Everything matters. Whether you swallow what you pick from between your teeth, or spit it out: that matters. When everything matters, there can be no tolerance.

Tolerance means that some things do not matter. What you wear on casual occasions, what you eat, what car you drive or even if you drive, how you style your hair, what church you go to, if your marriage partner is the same sex as you or different… these are things about which we have decided to be tolerant, in this country, and therefore do not matter to us, or at least, to the State.

What happens if the Sharia Law party gets started? The media choose the most rabid, least balanced spokesman and feed him questions intended to make it clear that women are going to have a hard time under SP rule, and it won’t be obvious how we will have a replacement generation of engineers when only rote-learned Koran is taught in schools. Nobody argues, nobody discusses, they just let him rant on. What nobody does is engage or argue, because that would suggest these might after all be reasonable people. Since they are their own worst enemy, and most extremists are, they can be relied on to do sabotage themselves.

Tolerance does not mean we have to make the intolerant look good or give way to their ideas and policies: it means we don’t lock them up for speaking. As long as we don’t do that, we can tell them to go hike on all the other stuff.

Monday, 23 April 2018

From Self-Improvement to Optimisation

Dom Mazetti has a good line about “The day you want to get big is the day you will be forever small”. Because no matter how big you get, something will always need working on, some bro will always have a bigger set of that muscle than you do.

I wonder. Is the day we go into self-improvement the day we will be forever unworthy? That we will have the nagging sense that we need to improve something else about us that is simply not good enough. Since we cannot be perfect, we can always improve. So how much improvement is enough?

Self-improvement has two purposes: first, to get rid of damaging or grossly sub-optimal habits and replace them with good habits; second, to take on new habits that will make us more informed, interesting, resilient, employable, healthier, better company and so on and on.

‘Lift weights’ contains within in the injunction ‘stop being a lazy slouch’. ‘Quit eating junk’ forces us to look for better food to eat. ‘Read books’ tears us away from the TV and the Internet. And so on.

Self-improvement stops when we’ve dumped the bad habits and replaced them with better, though possibly not optimal, ones.

Keep that up, and it’s maintenance mode. After that, it’s about optimising.

Getting your body fat down from 30%+ to around 20% is self-improvement. Getting down to 15% is optimising, and for looks at that. (Google it: Special ops have around 18% because any lower and you don’t have the reserves to wait for the submarine to come back the next night after the first pick-up has to be abandoned.)

Trying out for the local soccer or basketball team is more than exercising, it’s an interest. The work you will have to do to be good enough for a reasonable team will require some performance improvements and specific skills: this sounds like optimisation.

Reading some books on the history of food is maintenance. Reading a book on knife skills and using them is optimisation.

Throwing out garish branded clothes and getting some low-key trousers and shirts where the brand is tucked away inside, this is self-improvement. Custom suits are optimisation.

I suspect I’ve been in maintenance mode for a while now, and need to get a little optimisation going on somewhere. I’ll tell you this: it’s not going to involve the gym. As I’ve said before and will say again, call my nephew when you’re doing what I’m doing at my age. I feel the need for some optimisation in some new direction and that may feel gratuitous.