Sunday, 30 April 2017

Saving the best for last

Heaps of cheese, and double the pepperoni. This is how I like to finish a pizza: with a mouthful I'd be embarrassed to be seen with in polite company. Hell, this is how I like to finish all of my food: on a high, having saved the best for last.

Not everyone feels this way. Some people I know are happy to end a meal with the dregs: a dry bit of crust, a piece of carrot, the last of the rice with none of the sauce or chicken.

Fine, you might think: horses for courses. But now science says my approach is the better one.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari summarises some experiments conducted by the Nobel-prizewinning economist Daniel Kahneman into people's recall of their experiences, which concluded that:

Every time the narrating self evaluates our experiences, it discounts their duration and adopts the "peak-end rule" - it remembers only the peak moment and the end moment, and assesses the whole experience according to their average.

So if you have take a great big bite of the teriyaki salmon at the start of the meal but then end with the seaweed, you're going to remember the meal as merely decent. Whereas, if you have that great big bite at the start and then cap the experience with an embarrassment-inducing mouthful at the end, you're going to remember the occasion as a glorious, succulent, flavoursome feast.

Save the best for last, peeps.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Life: the tl;dr version

Yesterday I published a post about some thinking I've been doing about the question "What should I do with my life?"

It was a bit long, so I figured a tl;dr version might be helpful. Essentially, it boils down to this:

People should have a hierarchy of moral rules to live by, in the form of an ideology or - in my case at least - a combination of ideologies.

I recently re-watched the Aaron Sorkin-penned film A Few Good Men, and last night it occurred to me that this film is about exactly the same thing.

Take the following scene:

Here's the script, from IMDB:

Yeah, yeah, alright. Harold, did you 
assault Santiago with the intent of 
killing him?

No sir.

What was your intent?

To train him, sir.

Train him to do what?

Train him to think of his unit before 
himself. To respect the code.

What's the code?

Unit Corps God Country.

I beg your pardon?

Unit Corps God Country, sir.

The Goverrment of the United States 
wants to charge you two with murder. 
You want me to go to the prosecutor 
with unit, corps, god, country?

DAWSON stares at KAFFEE.

That's our code, sir.

Dawson says Marines have a code - a set of moral rules by which to live - and Santiago didn't follow it. And this code is even a hierarchy: the unit comes first, then the corps, then god, then the USA.

Tom Cruise's character is exasperated by this, but the moral of A Few Good Men is not necessarily that having a code is wrong - it's that this particular code is wrong.

Here's the script from almost the final scene, after Dawson and his colleague have been found not guilty of murdering Santiago, but guilty of conduct unbecoming a Marine, even though they followed a direct order:


We're supposed to fight for people
who can't fight for themselves.

We were supposed to fight for [Santiago].

That is: their code should have been: people who need help, the unit, the corps, god, country.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Religion for athiests, or: how to decide what to do with your life

The problem

What should I do with my life?

It's a question a lot of people struggle to answer, and one I've been thinking about intensely for about a year now.

My thinking usually goes something like this:

1. What should I do with my life?
2. What do I want to do with it?
3. I don't know. I don't seem to want anything much specifically.
4. How can I make myself want things?

Reading Yuval Noah Harari's book Sapiens catalysed this struggle for me, because it caused me to change the way I thought about a lot of things, as I wrote hereSapiens culminates in a question - one intended for everyone but particularly pertinent to those struggling with what to do with their lives: "What do we want to want?"

I've just now finished reading Harari's follow-up, Homo Deus. I was hoping it would tell me what I should want to want...

Introduction to ideologies

It didn't. But like Sapiens, Homo Deus did disavow me of certain notions and provide me with certain other notions. And as I wrote here, I've come to think that notions might be useful for reasoning. So maybe now I can answer my question...

"What should I do with my life?" is a values-based question, Harari says in Homo Deus. As such, it can't be answered by science, because the scientific method is not values-based.

Values are the province of religions, Harari says.

I think of myself as an atheist. But Harari doesn't use the word 'religion' the way most people do. For him, ideologies like capitalism and communism are religions, because their adherents "believe in some system of moral laws that wasn't invented by humans, but which humans must obey" - in these cases, respectively, that free markets are the best means of solving the problems of supply and demand, and that capitalism necessarily creates class conflict.

Liberal humanism, which says that people should do what they want to do, has been the predominant religion of the western world for the past couple of centuries, Harari says. This seems uncontroversial, except in his preferred terminology, so let's just use the term ideology instead.

So how does this help me?

Growing up liberal

Looking back at my four-step thought process, it's now clear that step 2 is a liberal humanist question: it presupposes that the best way of determining what I should do with my life is to ask myself what I feel. This is not a given: Christianity would respond to the question "What should I do with my life" with the answer "Follow the bible and serve god".

I've been raised in the liberal humanist modern west, and so I tend to think along liberal humanist lines - it's just that I've never thought of it in those terms until now. So let's see whether a more self-aware, deliberate use of the liberal humanist ideology can help me with my question...

Happiness is...

Liberal humanism says that I should do with my life whatever I want to do with it. But I don't seem to want to do much. Is that the end of it? Maybe not, because I do want some things: I want to deeply want something, for example. That isn't very useful, but what else do I want, even if only weakly?

Well, what makes me happy? A few things. Here are 50, in a list I made earlier. Fifty things seems like a lot, and yet I'm dissatisfied. Why?

Items 1 and 3 on my list are sex and love, and I'm single, and have been for a while. And I do want to not be...

Has liberal humanism has presented me with my solution? Should I just stop being single?

Not so fast. Stopping being single isn't easy. It takes a second person, for one thing. And as I said, I've been trying not to be single for a while now - almost as long as my last relationship, if you don't count a few brief exceptions. Plus I have had relationships, and they didn't stop me wondering what I should do with my life.

What does this mean? Should I forget about items 1 and 3 and try to get more out of other things lower down the list instead? Maybe... plus, women often say they like a man who knows what he wants out of life, so doing this might even help me find a relationship...

Problem solved?

Well, here I have to make a confession: although I haven't thought about all of this in terms of ideologies before, I have nevertheless had pretty much these exact thoughts before - hence the existence of the list. It's not rocket science, after all.

And yet I'm still unsatisfied. So what's going wrong?

In Sapiens, Harari says that happiness comprises pleasure and satisfaction, which seems about right to me. Looking at my list, two things strike me: first, the items on it aren't very varied; and second, it's pretty heavily weighted towards pleasure, rather than satisfaction.

This suggests I might need to to expand my sources of happiness by trying out some potentially pleasurable and/or satisfying things I've never done before - such as, say, knitting, skiing and taking heroin, off the top of my head; or, to gain satisfaction, knitting an entire onesie, winning a skiing competition and establishing a heroin-dealing empire.

Job done?

The limits of liberal humanism

Hold your horses. How should I choose which new things to try out? Liberal humanism says I should do what I feel like doing, but that hasn't worked very well so far: I've developed only a narrow list of likes.

Now what?

Liberal humanism has been the dominant ideology of the west for the past couple of centuries, and I'm a product of it. But other ideologies also exist, so maybe one of those would be more helpful?

Ideology soup

What other ideologies are there? Loads.

Another ideology that has been popular in the west for the past few decades revolves around the instruction "just say yes". The sports brand Nike, for example, has adopted essentially this ideology as its advertising slogan: "Just do it".

Whereas liberal humanism advocates carefully searching your feelings to determine what you should do, the "just say yes" ideology says you should first do something and then examine how you feel about it.

So should I ditch liberal humanism and adopt this ideology instead?

Well, "just say yes" presupposes the presentation of simple choices, like "Would you like a free Lamborghini?" And maybe choices like these are presented to some people quite a lot, but most of us are usually presented with either no choice at all or far too many options to make a simple yes/no response.

What else have you got?

A similar one to "just say yes" is the ideology that says you should do things randomly or semi-randomly. This isn't a common ideology, but it was explored to brilliant effect in the novel The Dice Man, in which the hero and his followers live their lives according to the roll of dice. In the novel it works pretty well to begin with, but sadly its adherents don't tend to stay out of prison or alive for very long.

Other ideologies that spring to mind are the "be a good son or daughter" ideology, which is quite common but doesn't seem to make many people very happy; the "be excellent to each other" ideology from the Bill and Ted films, which sounds good in theory but seems somewhat limited in instruction; and the "greed is good" ideology from the film Wall Street, which has been adopted by the UK's Conservative Party and is therefore too partial for me, as a journalist (wink).

Let's get serious. What if, rather than asking myself what I want, I should instead ask other people for advice? We could call this the "wisdom of crowds" ideology or the "mentor" ideology. This seems more promising. But who should I ask? And could I really bother them every time I need to make a decision?

It's not all about you, you prick

In the last sentence of the previous section, I expressed a concern for the welbeing of another person. And - flawed liberal humanist that I am - it has occurred to me previously that maybe what's important to me shouldn't be the only factor in my decision-making. Shocking, I know.

So should I ask other people not only what I should do for my benefit, but also for theirs?

Quite possibly. But - damn you, liberal humanist upbringing! - I don't seem to want to ask other people what I can do for them. I don't like other people very much, you see.

So am I stuck with a choice between the limbo of liberal humanism, some half-arsed mentor plan, or gritting my teeth and being altruistic?

Why people?

Liberal humanism has other faults than merely not being very good at making me happy. As Harari points out in Homo Deus, and as everyone except Donald Trump knows, liberal humanism has put planet Earth on a path to catastrophic climate change. People don't want this, but they don't want to forego long-distance flights and SUVs more than they don't want catastrophe. So unfortunately, what people want might drive us extinct.

At this point we should consider what makes for a good ideology. A few thoughts: it should ideally be relatively simple and memorable, so that you can adhere to it easily under pressure; it should be broadly applicable, so that it's as helpful as possible; it should be robust to attack from competing ideologies; and, if it is to be successful, it should probably enable its adherents to survive and reproduce so that it can propagate.

Liberal humanism has been very successful for quite a while, but it's now in serious danger of failing in this last regard. So what ideology would be best for preserving our species?

Well, hang on a second. Why should we care only about our species? Liberal humanism is causing not only catastrophic climate change, but also catastrophic biodiversity loss. If we're abandoning liberal humanism, why don't we reconsider the human part as well as the liberal part?

Failures everywhere

There's already a name for adherents of the ideology that does exactly that. They're called "goddamn hippies".

I kid, I kid. But seriously, it's not that simple. An Earth-centric ideology might be able to tell me lots of important things, like what holidays, modes of transport and foods I should choose, but it wouldn't be very good at telling me whether I should go to the pub or for a run on a Friday night, buy the blue shirt or the red, or learn French instead of German, etc etc. Earth-centric ideologies fail the breadth test.

And while it might not matter to the Earth whether I go to the pub or for a run, it might matter to my reproductive chances, so it should matter to me and my ideology.

So what if every ideology is flawed? Should I look for the least flawed, and make do?

An answer, at last?

Crucially, ideologies are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Harari tells us. Liberalism and communism are, for example - the former says people should do what they feel like doing, whereas the latter says they should do what their party tells them to - but both liberalism and communism are also humanist, in that they both aim to do what's best for people above all else (in communism's case, the collective of people, or the party - a party without people ceases to exist).

So rather than seeking the best single ideology, maybe I should seek the best combination of ideologies? What would that be?

That should probably be the subject of another post, because this one is already much too long. So I'll just put down an initial thought here.

Liberalism and communism both seem to be entirely compatible with humanism, which is possible because humanism is so generic - its only real tenet is that people should come first, which leaves lots of scope for sub-ideologies with more specific rules.

By contrast, the ideology most ingrained in me, liberal humanism, and the ideology that seems to have perhaps an equal or greater claim to prominence, Earth-centrism, are often incompatible. Any time I have a preference for an option that is the most damaging for the environment, my liberal humanism is going to be in conflict with my Earth-centrism.

That doesn't mean I can't incorporate both into a personal mix of ideologies, it seems to me. But it does mean that I'm going to have to choose which one should take precedence. This could be either through a cast-iron ruling that one ideology always defeats the other, or on a case-by-case basis, depending on the depth of my feeling and the contribution to catastrophe.

So far, so blah, you're probably thinking - "I already do that when I decide whether to order the burger or the falafel".

True, but I at least have never thought about life as a whole in such systematic terms before. And the construction of a personal hierarchy of ideologies, I'm fairly confident, could actually be a really useful way of deciding how to live...

Monday, 17 April 2017

Quotes #5: Voss, Patrick White, 1957

Voss is a brilliant novel, of the utmost insight into human nature and character-building. Here are some highlights:

The terrible simplicity of people who have not yet been hurt.

I would welcome dangers. One must not expect to avoid suffering.

To explore the depths of one's own repulsive nature is more than irresistible - it is necessary.

Few people of attainment take easily to a plan of self-improvement. Some discover very early their perfection cannot endure the insult. Others find their intellectual pleasure lies in the theory, not the practice.

Places yet unvisited can become an obsession, promising final peace, all goodness.

As if to rot were avoidable. By moving. But it was not. We rot by living.

Perhaps true knowledge only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind.

I suggest you wring it [hope] out for yourself, which, in the end, is all that is possible for any man.

The mystery of life is not solved by success, which is an end in itself, but in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming.

Mediocrity is not a final and irrevocable state; rather it is a creative source of endless variety and subtlety.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Life at any cost?

Wandering around Zagreb's bucolic botanical garden today, my gently roving eye fell on the tree in the foreground of this picture.
I noticed the pale yellow young stems just above the trunk, with their needle-like leaves looking very much like defensive weapons, which they may well double as for all I know, and it occurred to me just how much this species had had to differentiate from trees in mild, wet climates and environments lacking large plant eaters in order to find an ecological niche. 
The thick, gnarled bark of the trunk, plus the rigid self-censorship of the spikey leaves. So far from the unconcerned gentle reach and sweep of northern European trees.
I may have been anthropomorphising somewhat, but I was struck by how much carefree abundance this species had been prepared to lose (from a genetic ancestor that I assume had life relatively easy), and how much stressful effort it was prepared to exert, in order to live. 
Gone are the genes for openness and abundance, while genes for toughness and restriction have appeared or been ramped up. 
And trees can feel stress, as the garden's visitor information detailed: exotic trees have shorter lives in the botanic garden than they would in the wild, for example, because of the stress of the unfitting climate. 
What carefree genes have been cast off or turned down in humans during our evolutionary history, I wonder, and what aggressive and ugly ones amped up? And in future? 
What stunted creatures are we? 
And how powerful is the drive for life! 

If I could code I'd #2

If I could code I'd ...

Make a stitched-together, regularly-updated whole-world map of the UK Foreign Office's travel advice.

... but I can't.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Modern guilt

I published a post in January called Born into Debt, in which I wrote "just by being born, we're guaranteed to have a negative impact on the world", and asked whether millennial culture will be plagued by "the cringe of innate guilt" as a consequence.

If I hadn't published that post in January, I'd almost certainly be open to the accusation of having plagiarised ideas from this piece by Wilfred McClay in The Hedgehog Review, in which he says:

Indeed, when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence.

McClay makes the point that the situation is even worse than I'd realised: not only do we now know that we're causing terrible harm to the environment and to the victims of globalisation, we also through technology and globalisation and markets have a chance to do something to rectify that harm - as well as naturally occurring suffering - in some way, but generally don't.

His piece then goes off in a different direction to my short post: rather than asking whether guilt would be a prevalent undercurrent in millennials' culture, he suggests that it has led to the rise of victimhood-claiming and sin-shaming:

claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself

He then goes on to suggest that the insolubility of modern guilt might be a reason to revive religion, since religion has systems of absolution that modernity does not.

I'm not convinced, personally: I think rather that we should in fact each be doing much more to reduce the genuine reasons for our warranted guilt, up to a point - beyond which we should simply accept that nobody asks to be born and life is bittersweet, including in the sense that while we can all be forces for good, we're also inevitably all forces for bad sometimes.

Perhaps there could even be a positive to that: it might teach us all a little humility and greater understanding of others' flaws.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Book review: Unreasonable Behaviour, Don McCullin, 1990

Don McCullin must have had about as many near misses, close calls and there-but-for-the-grace-of-god moments as anyone who ever lived.

As a war photographer for more than 20 years, he pushed deep into the heart of battle in the Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Beirut, El Salvador, Iran, Afghanistan and other hellholes, as bullets and bombs rained down from all sides. He says in Unreasonable Behaviour, his autobiography, that war photographers face even worse odds than war correspondents, because photographers have to "get out in the field where the risks [are] infinitely greater". The number of war correspondents who die on the job throughout Unreasonable Behaviour illustrates just how big these risks are.

People die either side of McCullin in this book, as well as ahead of him and behind him. I didn't count how many, but he makes clear that his survival on many occasions was little more than dumb luck, as in this extract on Vietnam:

There was no security in any of the different methods of covering war. Sean Flynn, the son of Errol, was said to go flamboyantly into combat on a Honda, toting a pearl-handled pistol, while Larry Burrows, the brilliant English photographer who worked for Life magazine, was the model of professionalism and polite diffidence. Both joined the list of the missing, presumed dead.

So why did he do it? Why did he leave behind the safety of England - and his responsibilities to his wife and children - for the dangers and irresponsibility of war?

For much of the book you have only the surface-level morality for an answer: "Your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help"; "I wanted to break the hearts and spirits of secure people".

Indeed, in the middle third of the book, as the Congo gives way to Vietnam, which gives way to Jerusalem, which leads to Biafra, with a return to Vietnam, which leads to Cambodia, and so on and so on, with little personal narrative linking the segments, the reading experience starts to resemble the act of idly flicking through a photobook in a shop, clumps of pages at a time, finding interest on each page you land on but little coherence.

And during the recounting of some of the earlier wars, McCullin's writing is at times as a little detached and flat - the written account of someone better suited to visual media, if you'll forgive the easy analysis - as in the following, which is not for the faint-hearted:

We were cowering under our helmets when the American said, "Godamnit, there's an awful smell here." I noticed that this hole was not firm underfoot. Even though we were in sand, it was too soft. I looked down and saw a row of fly buttons by my boots. We were both crouched on the stomach of a dead North Vietnamese soldier and our weight had caused the stomach to excrete. Despite the shelling, we both leapt out and ran off in different directions, to find other bunkers.

But there are also hard-won and convincingly expressed moral lessons, such as:

We all suffer from the naive belief that our integrity is reason enough for being in any situation, but if you stand in front of dying people, something more is required. If you can't help, you shouldn't be there.

And finally on page 216 we gain a clear insight into why McCullin thrust himself time and again into the inferno:

I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I've lived, is like an incurable disease [...] I cannot do without the head-on collision with life I have when I am working.

And as the account creeps closer to the present day, the writing becomes increasingly affecting, to the point where at times I struggled to retain my composure wherever I was reading, as for example with McCullin's description of being held captive in prison in Uganda, not knowing whether he or his journalist colleagues will be the next ones to be led to execution by sledgehammer down the hall, or this, on the death of journalist Nick Tomalin in the Golan Heights:

When I got nearer, I could see no shape in the car. Perhaps he had been thrown out. I made my way to the other side of it and found him lying there. I tried to talk to him, so far gone was I with terror and grief, though there could be no doubt that he was dead. Picking up his glasses from the road, I ran back in the same eerie stillness.

But staggeringly [spoiler alert], the biggest, most powerful and affecting shock of all comes in the last few pages, after the takeover of the Sunday Times by Rupert Murdoch has seen the paper's weekend magazine replace hardcore journalism with more advert-friendly fare ("Lifestyles rather than life were coming into fashion on the magazine."), and after nature has started exacting a human toll on McCullin's loved ones that is even more harrowing than that exacted by man upon his fellow man:

I realised that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.

As the final few paragraphs tick down, you yourself realise that McCullin is not at all in a good way as he's writing, and that the book is going to end with this legend of British journalism crying out in lonely anguish from a very, very dark place:

[...] mostly I'm alone in my house in Somerset [...] the ghosts of all those dead [...]

By the time I finished, tears were streaming down my cheeks...

But fortunately the book was republished in 2012 with a new preface, and if you read that first like I did, you know that McCullin managed to extricate himself from his loneliness and pain and find new life again ("twelve years on, I am extremely happy").

One wonders at what must have happened when the final section of the manuscript landed on the editor's and publisher's desks - had they known what shape McCullin was in? After they read it, did they try to buoy him up before going ahead with the publication? Did they consider altering the ending?

It's an enormously surprising end to the book, but perhaps it was this ending itself that helped to bring McCullin back to the light: he talks in the preface of being "truly staggered by the response [the book] received".

Either way, Unreasonable Behaviour stands as towering testament to an extraordinary life, one that perhaps wasn't easy on McCullin's family, but which captured evidence of and brought to public attention the most inhumane acts and moments of suffering, while also revealing something of the kinds of people who are driven to take such risks to expose the truth.

"If y'know what's good for ye," I was informed, "y'll do as ye're told an' clear off."
I stood my ground and said that I had never cleared off at anyone's behest in all my life, and wasn't thinking of starting now.