"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Artificial Intelligence–Nobody Cares Whether You Have The Real Thing Or Not

Brad Nichols had a very ordinary mind – nothing unique, special, or remarkable but serviceable, handy in tight spots but never up to strategy or grand plans.  Brad was no more limited than of the other millions Americans whose intelligence fell under the hump of the bell curve and who managed life without making much of a difference one way or the other.  He was never frustrated by his limitations because of course he didn’t know any different.  The bland, featureless, and routinely predictable life he negotiated must be the only one, the one everyone experienced. 

America is all about upward mobility, progress, and success; and Brad did at times wonder if his clerkish life was really all there was.  Couldn’t he have at least a taste of glamour if not a full meal? A ride in a cigarette boat? A woman a few years younger than his wife?

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How, he wondered, could he possibly give the reins a shake, speed up to a canter without worrying too much what lay ahead?

This of course was a familiar conundrum.  Who didn’t want to change their life, after all, if only some gussying up, a little living beyond one’s means, or looking good even though the tux and sedan were rented?

Everyone has a special intelligence, students are told in kindergarten. If you have trouble coloring within the lines, then you probably have a sweet voice or can jump high or run fast. There is no such thing as one intelligence – the cognitive one that figures out equations, deduces and infers – but many intelligences; and the trick is simply to find out which one you have.

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Brad was far too old to have benefited from this particular educational reform, but yet he didn’t need special attention to conclude that although he would never make any headlines as a mathematician, he must have some other abilities which would make people at least look his way if not stand up and take notice.

It was only by accident that he found that what he thought were minor talents – charm and a special glibness – were in fact significant.  People tended to listen to him because he paid attention to them, and because he responded so eagerly to their ideas and sentiments.  It made no difference that he never offered anything new, original, or insightful in his responses.  Just showing concern seemed to be enough. 

Surprisingly only to him, Brad found himself with a lot of friends who wanted his company and his counsel.  The more his advice was solicited, the more openly and easily he spoke; and the more he counseled  his colleagues and associates, and the more they appreciated his solicitousness, the more friends he had.  Before long, he was known as one of the most caring, insightful, and intelligent men on the shop floor.

It mattered to no one that his job could have been done by anyone, that his education had been third-tier, and his professional prospects almost nil.  It was Brad the human being that counted, and because of his special intelligence – uncanny personal insight – all else was overlooked.

At least for the time being; for it was not long before his colleagues assumed that it was only modesty and self-effacement that was behind his rather stagnant career.  He could have moved up quickly in the ranks of the corporation but demurred because he was not willing to subscribe or promote the bottom-line ethos of the company; nor to collude with senior management in a trireme mentality of work employees until they collapse on their oars.

When he did in fact move up because his superiors had taken notice of his calm empathy and rallying nature, his colleagues assumed that he had done it righteously; and that he would never compromise his ethics or his compassion. 

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Brad was a natural at middle management.  His presentations to the Executive Committee were enthusiastically endorsed and supported.  Even in an environment where budgets, win-rates, and competitive edges were all-important, Brad was welcomed.  As he had done all his life, he simply turned others ideas and suggestions into much more than they ever were; and he did it with such modest enthusiasm and genuine respect, that he was irresistible. 

The Executives were never disappointed because they avoided directing any technical questions Brad’s way – overhead percentages, profit margins, and the like – and asked for his opinion on softer, but critical management matters.  Staff morale, for example, job satisfaction, and just rewards and recognition.

Because of his singular talents – a peculiar empathy and a smooth, silver tongue – he became the Tony Robbins of his industry.  He told people what they wanted to hear, and flattered them to no ends.  He neither belonged in HR – that department was as bureaucratic and ink-stained as any – nor in Corporate Development, nor even in Public Relations, all positions considered by management. 

Instead they gave him a special title and position – in fact and very clearly if indirectly in his job description, he was indeed a lay preacher worth every cent of his salary to keep the peace among restive employees, convey the image of a a concerned, modern corporation to shareholders and deter the liberal press.

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Brad’s personal life was no less rewarding.  He was particularly successful with women because women need to be listened to and taken seriously; and Brad was a natural master.  This is not to say that he was indifferent women’s grievances about boyfriends, intrusive parents, abusive bosses, and idiot landlords – he was just not that interested.  Of course the degree of interest mattered far less to these young women than any interest, especially from a man who took them seriously.

He was so engaging, respectful, and patient that few women complained when he left them.  He, again with no agendas or forethought, made each woman feel that she had been the very best, the most accomplished, fulfilling, beautiful, and alluring woman on the planet. 

In fact, this was not far from the truth; for Brad had no high expectations of women or of anything for that matter.  He was a very satisfied person, satisfied with just about anything.

It just goes to show that perhaps the Cooperative Learning, Multiple Intelligence advocates are right after all.  People being what they are – needy, desperate for attention, respect, acknowledgment, and love – it doesn’t take much to satisfy them.  They will do all the heavy lifting.  Anyone with even the most modest abilities – not unlike Brad Nichols – can get ahead despite themselves if they understand this. 

Brad was lucky.  There was not one devious bone in his body.  He came by his simplicity naturally. Listening, as casual and unengaged as it might have been, was second nature.  Speaking smoothly, directly, and compassionately was a God-given talent.

Others have to work to achieve Brad’s success. It is hard to completely fake interest.  You can indeed fool most of the people most of the time, but with some you have to be ingenious; and the search for ingenuity always causes missteps and stumbles. In other words charm and a silver tongue will get you almost everywhere, but you still have to watch out for the odd pothole.

None of this is an indictment.  People are not so much gullible as needy; and if they buy the occasional snake oil they cannot be blamed.  If they are less rational and reasonable than some may wish, they compensate by true belief – belief in causes, preachers, and the well-honed compliments of men like Brad Nichols.  They are not to be dismissed for their lack of intellectualism.  On the contrary, they should be welcomed into the big tent as much as the super-smart, super-rich, and super-talented; if for no other reason that there are tens of millions of them, all waiting to meet a Brad Nichols before they die.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Misanthropy –A Much Needed Downer In An Age Of Balmy Idealism

Peter Henry always spoke his mind.  He was a ‘difficult’ child who never grew out of his scratchiness and whiny demands.  He never seemed content, was always irritable and complaining; and no matter how much his willing parents tried, they could never satisfy him.

So much wasted energy, they thought, in such a bright boy.  If only he could turn his complaints into ambition, he would be happier and far better off.

Peter, however, was intractable.  Some unfortunate combination of bad family genes and the luck of the draw gave him a sour view of everything.  It wasn’t so much that he was psychologically limited or frustrated.  He harbored no particular resentments or repressed hostility.  He was simply and impossibly irritated and annoyed and annoyed by absolutely everything.

This unfortunate attitude – or trait as his parents and everyone else had to admit – continued well into and past adolescence; but once Peter left home and started college, he seemed to find his voice.  It was still hopelessly complaining, irritating, and sniveling, but campus activists who were initially diffident about this very unpleasant, fractious classmate and wanted as little to do with him as possible, soon found his misanthropy appealing and took him in.  They ignored his general sniping and bad manners and used the narrow sections of his whiny criticisms of the school administration, campus conservatives, and military recruiters for their own ends.

Peter had no interest in either politics or social reform.  His unpleasant carping had nothing to do with meaning, and all to do with a prickly irritability that was innate and as natural to him as sneezing.  Somehow his emotional wires had gotten badly crossed at birth, the happy one short-circuited, and the nasty one  plugged in and sparking; and from that time on nothing could or would ever make him smile.
Although Peter would never admit satisfaction when he read his ‘Manifesto of Meaninglessness’, a cynical disassembly of every tradition, institution, character, and program of the university, it felt good.  Not that he was tempted by purpose.  His misanthropy was if anything even more hardened and absolute; but there was something good about shouting rather than grumbling.

He dismissed the hugs and handshakes from his colleagues as nothing but treacle, expressions of faulty and wearying idealism; retreated to his rooms, and came out only when summoned.
Eventually he became bored with the attention but even more so with the noisy idealism everywhere on campus.  There is nothing worse, Peter considered, than a balmy idealist masquerading as an angry young man. 

Revolutions have nothing to do with idealism.  The French decapitated Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette not because of a claim to a better, more equal, and more just world; but because of hatred of them, an arrogant and insular aristocracy, and a brutal and exploitative neo-feudalism designed to perpetuate enslavement and penury of all except princes.

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The Bolsheviks were no different; and only after the American revolution did a very idealistic political philosophy emerge.  Idealism never has nor never will incite men to arms.

Which is why Peter Henry left the university and returned to his eremitic life.  He never amounted to anything.  His awful and unmitigated misanthropy would never win him friends except the mentally ill who shared the same cynical view of life but who were tormented by it,  unlike Peter who grumbled and groused without any particular affect.

He was a true misanthrope, one who did not arrive at his cynicism through any misfortune or particular misery, but who was born with it.  No sooner did Baby Peter open his eyes than he quickly shut them.

The cynical philosopher Diogenes had nothing but contempt for society and its inherent moral corruption.  No one could escape such untrustworthiness.  There was no such thing as an honest man, and the only respite or refuge was a life of asceticism.  Diogenes reached his conclusion through objectivity and subjectivity – a historical appraisal of society’s events; and an intuition based on the unvarying selfish lives of its citizens.

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Peter Henry didn’t need a philosopher’s logic to conclude that the world was a miserable place, with no redeeming value. How could it be otherwise if – as Diogenes rightly assumed – an aggressive, self-interested, territorial, and authoritarian human nature was its foundation?

Peter left college before his misanthropy could brake the adolescent hysteria on campus.  His classmates were far too young, immature, and emotionally needy to appreciate him, his cynicism, and his unvarnished sense of random destiny.  In fact he was never able to attract any attention.  No one in a hyper-idealistic world is ever ready to give up an emotional attachment to purpose.  Chasing the phantoms of racism, sexism, and homophobia feels too good.  It is too emotionally satisfying, too appealing, too validating and justifying to be abandoned for rationality let alone cynicism.

America is an optimistic and idealistic place.  It is in our blood.  We cannot help but believe that not only will our lives be better, but the lives of all Americans.  Skepticism is a non-starter.  No European worldliness accepted here.  No weary Plus Ça Change fatalism.  No turning a blind eye, no lack of compassion, and above all no indifference.

Perhaps more people would have paid attention to Peter Henry if he hadn’t been so unremittingly sour.  He never had a bright moment; and who wouldn’t stay away from him?  Had he been simply historically wary; or philosophically primed to suspect over-ambitious ideas; or a social muckraker, he might have found an audience for his bitter antidote to exceptionalism and emotional idealism.

Identity politics – another name for an idealistic belief in the possibility of social reform – will always result in factionalism since, given human nature, there is no such thing.  History necessarily recurs and in the same expected, predictable ways.  Better to accept this recurrence, accept the competitive nature of individuals and societies, forget progress and a better world, and get down to business.  Right now we have too much idealism and not enough cynicism.

Moliere’s Alceste says in Act I of Le Misanthrope  "... Mankind has grown so base, / I mean to break with the whole human race".   Of course all ends well, Alceste rethinks his misanthropy, and returns to society; but for a moment he did what all misanthropes do – challenge the gooey idealism that leads nowhere but back on itself.

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It is understandable why idealism prevails.  In a random, purposeless world, a hope for a better future is very appealing indeed.  Yet we all could do with a taste of Peter Henry’s cynicism to ramp down the hysteria.  Things will never get better.  Adjustment is a more apt philosophy than idealism.  Realism leads to a better understanding of what’s what than any more inflated perception.  Better accept what’s what without trying to figure it out and to die before you are too soon old and too late schmart.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Regular Guy–A Disappearing Species In A Society More Deviant Than Average

One of the highest compliments that could be to a man in the 50s was that he was ‘a regular guy’, someone without edges who fit in everywhere.  An average Joe without pretense or high expectations, a man who could be trusted, who stayed on the rails, never became loose shunted, and was always predictable, comfortable, and reliable.

It was an era of averages, a unique aberration in a long history of rugged individualism, enterprise, wealth, and visionary territorial expansion.  There was nothing of the Old World left in America after a few generations.  None of Europe’s religious, social, and cultural traditionalism.  No looking back to Roncesvalles, the Crusades, Henry II, or Innocent III.  The old ways were dismissed, discarded, and left behind.   The nation would be become a unique, powerful, new, and dominant Western empire.

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Perhaps it was the war that that settled us down.  Four years of uncertainty and mayhem were certainly enough for generations.  Or perhaps it was the American victory that was responsible for the settled, peaceful postwar period.  There was no longer anyone who could challenge our sovereignty, our moral authority, or our right to reign.  Or perhaps the 50s were simply an interregnum, a collective relaxation from the war, the Depression, the predatory capitalism of the 20s and the lawless 30s.

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Bill Hadley was a regular guy, a businessman who owned a small but profitable clothing shop on Main Street in New Brighton along side of druggists, dry goods stores, jewelers, and novelty shops.  He was a member of Rotary and the Elks, was a parishioner and acolyte at St. James Church, a volunteer at the Boys’ Club, avid golfer, and card player.

He, the druggist, haberdasher, jeweler, and five-and-dime owner met every Thursday for poker night, five dollar maximum, win-some-lose-some; an affair of fellowship and business partnership.
He golfed with the same men, early tee times but after church on Sunday in time to be home for family dinner, a once-a-week feast of a roast, vegetables from the garden, and homemade pies.
Life was good for Bill Hadley – orderly, sober, and responsible – and he enjoyed good citizenship, friendship, and a not inconsequential influence in city affairs.

He was average in every way.  He was a moderate drinker; respectful, enterprising, but never aggressive in business; a stern but loving parent; and above all a faithful husband.  For him there was no greater sin than infidelity, a departure from responsibility, family, and perhaps most importantly a social dereliction.  One simply did not stray.

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Bill remained faithful, dutiful, and caring for his entire life.  He lived out his years in the same house on Adams Street which he had bought when he first moved to New Brighton after the war.  His children never moved more than 25 miles away, and he and his wife both lived well into their nineties.

He not only accepted the codes of behavior of the conservative Fifties; he embraced them.  For him life was meant to be one of rectitude, community, and belonging.  He was never tempted by the social revolution of the Sixties, never persuaded that anything other than faithfulness to home, family, church, and community was of any interest or value.  To the children of his friends and colleagues he was an anachronism, someone who espoused the patriarchal, oppressive, and corrosive habits of the past.  He never questioned or doubted.

Yet despite the criticism and his growing marginalization in a younger and younger community, he remained charitable and respectful. 

Bill Hadley’s story is worth telling not because of any social revisionism – the Fifties were not the idyll portrayed by political conservatives today, and few people, especially women, would really like to return to such a confining, limiting culture.  It is of interest because he seriously and truly valued regularity, habit, and average behavior when it was given only lip-service by everyone else.

Sexual adventure, deviance, and peculiarity were as common in New Brighton in 1952 as they were in the Castro, the East Village, or Venice Beach in the 60s.  They were simply subterranean and thus far more exciting than anything exposed.  What was the fun of cross-dressing if you could do it in public? Or getting stoned when nobody cared? Underground sex would always be better in hidden rooms, especially in a strictly conservative and intolerant era. Not only could you do shameless things, but in the face of such Salem-like hysteria, the felt good – really good.

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In the Fifties when most women were housewives, and the term ‘stay-at-home mom’ had no relevance whatsoever, extramarital sex was no less common than it is today in a much more liberated and tolerant world.  It was simply done much more discreetly.

In small towns of cultural homogeneity and income equality, liaisons with milkmen, plumbers, and carpenters were simply sexual encounters, not the cross-cultural, mixed-race, and ethnically diverse relationships they are today. Women let these men into their homes and into their beds without thinking twice about class or background.

They had nothing in common with famous fictional characters like Miss Julie, the heiress of an aristocratic fortune, but attracted to the valet of the the estate. She plays sexual games of dominance and submission, tempting and testing his virility and independence; but upbringing, status, class, and history destroy her and neuter him.

The women of New Brighton had no such conflicts.  They simply slipped under the covers for a brief interlude with the carpenter and a break from vacuuming, cooking, and changing diapers. 

Bill Hadley missed the cues because he was not looking for them.  He ignored the rumors about Mavis Parker, the ‘homo house’ on Corbin Avenue, Betty Andrews’ serial affairs and her husband’s dalliances in the North End; Sandy Burton’s black mistress; the Mulberry Street connections of the De Angelo brothers; the shysters, loan sharks, and gamblers on Arch Street; the complicity of City Hall, the police, and the courts; the vodka bottles piled in the trash every Thursday. 

No one has ever made a hero out of a regular guy.  Normality if anything is a backstory for people who have evolved, gotten an edge, an identity, or a purpose.  More than not is a throwback to a less definitive age, one with soft, pliable borders.  Few people look beneath the surface of regular guys because they are sure to find nothing there.  Surface people register nothing, express nothing, and do nothing except the expected and the predictable.

Bill Hadley would not have argued.  He never pretended to be anything but a regular guy.  He was neither proud of who he was nor defensive about it.  He never considered regularity to be anything more than a given.  Others may have imputed something more to his traditionalism – a moral foundation to which people would always return – but he demurred when asked to generalize.  It was not in him to reflect or to consider.

In a society more deviant than average, there are few Bill Hadleys left.  He and other regular guys will be missed not because they are remarkable but because they are unremarkable – moral and social foci in a centripetal world.  Dull perhaps, easily overlooked, never memorable and never feted, they will never disappear.  Without them, our naked individualism would never be clothed.