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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What’s The Difference Between A Chicken? How To Sort Out What’s What In A Complex World

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We live in a complex world in complex times and it is very difficult to know what’s what.  The simplest task requires deliberation, research, and choice; and the most difficult impossible to decipher.  Everything from pull dates to cancer risk is probabilistic.  Bread trucks, milkmen, old fashioned doctors, priests, and teachers are things of the past, relics of certainty.

Freedom of choice is central to every decision; but because few people have the ability or inclination to assess risk, they are either paralyzed with indecision, or choose on the basis of the most irrational assumptions.

The anxiety and fear of choice gets worse with age.  As cognitive skills decline, so does the ability to sort among alternatives which increase exponentially.   Not only does a product bought five years ago no longer exist, but its replacement has been so reconfigured, redesigned, and rebranded that it is unrecognizable.

Most older people have three pairs of everything in their closet – enough to last ten years or more –  to avoid the impossibility of bewildering consumer choice.

Doctors today are vetted, evaluated, and compared like any other serviceman – numbers of drains unclogged, hip replacements performed, or cataracts removed.   Bedside manner has no place in choice algorithms.

Patients are lucky if they still have access to a personal physician and any say in their medical treatment at all.  Modern medical systems have become more and more like complex factories.  Decisions are based less on professional judgment than on data-based outcomes.

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‘Medicalists’ are replacing attending physicians, doctors are employed by private hospitals and are held to bottom-line performance standards of patients-in-patients-out.  After hospital intake patients used to individualized care are quickly disoriented by work shifts, constant electronic monitoring, indifferent treatment, and little chance for personal interaction. 

As bureaucracies grow, they become more and more nightmarish.  Logic disappears, inefficiency increases, indifference is the rule not the exception, flexibility and individual concern factored out.  Perverse, illogical complexity combined with the arrogance of unaccountable authority, low-paid workers, and the vastness of the system makes survival impossible.

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Love is no longer an affair of the heart, now mediated by sophisticated interactive dating sites.  Everyone wants that certain indefinable spark, but it makes sense to narrow the field before looking.  Vetted, pre-selected mate choice is efficient, performance-based, and logical.  The poetry of Petrarch, the ancient poet of romantic love, seems antiquated and irrelevant today.
Those eyes, 'neath which my passionate rapture rose,
The arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile
Could my own soul from its own self beguile,
And in a separate world of dreams enclose,
The hair's bright tresses, full of golden glows,
And the soft lightning of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle…
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Yet such facilitated choice is not without risk and complexity. The Internet is, after all, a viral network of conspiracy theories and fake news.  Airbrushing, fabrication, and deviousness are common.  It is one thing to suss someone out at a singles bar – the cut of his jib may not be perfect but it is a start – another to trust algorithms which are far from foolproof.  Not only has valid and usually reliable instinct been neutered, but the electronic world is not one of certainty but probability – tricky to handle and hard to trust.

Politicians have benefited most from today’s complexity.  Never truthful, transparent, and forthright, they need to be even less so.  If half of what circulates on the web is fiction in the name of fact, and the other half distorted by viral massaging, then where is the value of just the facts. 

During his recent campaign Donald Trump was a master of image, affect, and principles simple enough to be interpreted a hundred different ways.  Patriotism, American values, national integrity, international strength – all are easy to grasp because they can mean anything.  

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Trump understood that most people are befuddled by the complexity of policy issues.  Who, really, can decipher either Obama’s Affordable Care Act or the Republican alternative? Figure out the economics of immigration? Or read the shifting sands of international affairs?

Even religion has become soft around the edges.  Gone are the days of the Catechism, the rosary, the moral authority of the Pope and the foundational advice of the clergy.  Today’s Catholic has to vet his priest as he does his doctor or lawyer, check  his background and bona fides, parse the new Pope’s verses on social and political affairs for spiritual guidance.  Francis might be the Vicar of Christ, but he has also chosen to weigh in on secular issues with only a gloss of spirituality.  Environmentalism is a positive good, he has said, because it reflects the same value and respect for life as protection of the unborn fetus or for procreation.

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Evangelist preachers are pumping the same pedals of salvation, personal epiphany in a joyful rendering of souls to Christ; and perhaps for that reason Protestant fundamentalism is the fastest growing religion.  No Augustine Confessions here nor Thomistic proofs of God, nor the logical ins and outs of Clement and Tertullian.  Luther left the Catholic Church and set up his own exactly because he was fed up with intellectualism, Vatican politics, and authoritarian mediation between Man and God.

Even retirement has moved out of the chaise lounge and onto the streets.  Marches, protests, volunteerism, and civic activism are fitting complements to productive lives.

For those less committed, retirement now provides the insights that busy work lives inhibited.  Older Americans are reading Proust, Dostoevsky, and Conrad like never before; enrolling in graduate courses in theology and Medieval History; writing their memoirs; or singing in the community choir.
Choosing from among the many alternative elder-lifestyles, however, can be confusing.  The chaise lounge, golf, Miami Beach, and floral landscapes – predictable, traditional, uncomplicated, relaxing pursuits – are no longer acceptable or respected.  One’s choice of retirement activities is as much about self-image as one’s previous career, financial successes, or professional recognition and as important; but if one has been too busy to bother with theatre, literature, or the environment, then what to do after the last paycheck becomes stressful.

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Even those who are quite happy to run out the clock are not on their own.  Adult children can be pests when it comes to their aged parents – when to go to a ‘facility’, which one, and under what conditions? How to revisit trusts, living wills, and estate plans. How to consolidate investments, sell off financially draining properties, and stop puttering and get busy.

No matter how insular or monastic one might wish to be, complexity intrudes.  The sink backs up, the plunger doesn’t work, and chilling choices must be faced – a new sewer line, retrofitting the plumbing, rerouting the pipes, or living with Roto-Rooter and every-other-month snaking of the lines.
You rear-end a Porsche.  The mailman slips on an icy patch.  Your dog bites the neighbor. 

Your child has ADHD or maybe not.  Maybe it’s dyslexia or a chemical imbalance or a fixable chromosome; or just putting up with a slow learner in a smart family and getting over it.  It used to be that you played the cards you were dealt, joined the union, the Elks, and the church, and were done with it.

No longer.  Everything is a choice and a bewildering one.

There seems to be no refuge from this particular storm.  Technology, social change, cultural reformation, and big data have intruded like never before. 

Monasticism might seem to be a good choice, but disengagement is not easy.  The Carthusian monks will not consider someone who is still jumpy and attached.

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Nihilism is a possibility, but after many decades of believing it is well nigh impossible to toss belief overboard and drive into a stiff headwind.


Most of us muddle through and deal with plumbers, bureaucracies, hospitals, and irritating, importunate children.  We regret that having to do so takes time away from more important things; but as has been illustrated above, that implies more choice and more stress; so we put up with things, happy enough in our minor pursuits, hopeful that we can remain upright and mobile.

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