The Enlightened Caveman


Personality Paradigms?
March 17, 2005, 5:02 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
The time I spent recently in Canada got me thinking about some generalities in human personality. I have always found Canadians to be extremely accommodating and somewhat non-confrontational, and this trip was no different. They’re nice, even when I wouldn’t be, and even when most people I know wouldn’t be. I don’t mean they take abuse with a smile; I mean they go out of their way to be nice to people around them, even in cities like Vancouver and Toronto. Here in America? Not so much. I wonder what accounts for this?

It’s hard to say how it happened, but maybe there’s some amateur codification to be done here. Why are people nice? One reason – they want something. Sometimes what they want is concurrence, and sometimes they want something more tangible. Sometimes they want both. In Canada, I think they mostly want concurrence. That’s why they’re nice to pretty much everyone, even when there’s nothing to gain. What if we call this a concurrence personality paradigm? I don’t think this is what we have in America, at least not a lot of us, and less and less of us as you go back in history.

In cities in America, people are more business-oriented, more transactional. We talk to the people we know, but we interact with the people we don’t. In a sense, we’re nice to the former and not as nice to the latter. This distinction is less pronounced in Canada. We could call the American mindset the status personality paradigm. Our quest for concurrence is limited to a fairly small circle of people, but we’re not monsters out in the world. We’re nice, and the more we have to gain from it, the nicer we are (to a point, of course). This is because what we gain translates directly into status. When we gain wealth, we can acquire the goods and services that afford us membership in higher and higher social strata. The proceedings in lower-class situations, therefore, are understandably far less “cordial” than they are in upper class situations – no one stands to gain much of anything by being nice. And it is not coincidental that our economic systems are set up to promote this mindset bent on upward mobility.

With the emergence of innovative financial systems (including the fractional reserve system), the status-seeking fire has been perennially stoked. They make it possible to obtain status (through consumption), even when you can’t afford it. You can borrow and, if you’re good, create enough wealth to pay interest on the money and walk away with a profit. The end result is an elevation in status through nothing more than calculated manipulation of available resources – a skill not unfamiliar to the ancestral caveman.
If we accept the existence of these different personality paradigms, then there’s an interesting question to ask. Could it be that the intense presence of the status paradigm accounts for much of the socio-economic difference between America and many other nations? More status people equals more business and more financial prosperity. Look at countries like France and Italy. While they’ve been around far longer than the US and they have natural resources aplenty, they are nowhere near the US, economically speaking. This could be a manifestation of their majority paradigm.

I would say the concurrence paradigm is the default paradigm in these two countries. Sure, people in Paris can be very nasty, but my experience has been that most areas of France and Italy are inhabited by very nice people if you make an effort to communicate with them. You could descend into a conversation with pretty much anyone. And if the feeling overtakes them, they may act in a way that is anything but profitable – like keeping the bar open late night (for free) for some traveling and rambunctious Americans. In America, not so much. And the divergence in personality paradigm doesn’t just account for anecdotal and macro-economic differences. It may very well account for the disparity in national views about war.

The status paradigm, being not so nice to begin with, fares better in conflict. As the desire for concurrence begins on the back burner, judgement is not clouded when disputes arise. The status seeker is a cool negotiator. The bargaining benefactor of his status machinery is in charge, looking for the win-win, and when there isn’t one, there isn’t a nagging desire to get along. There is only a rational examination of the logical consequences of alternative actions. And as obtaining status is often risky, the status-seeker is courageous enough to follow through with the correct (i.e. profitable) course of action, even if it’s going to cost him. He’ll take his licks and cut his losses. In short, the status personality paradigm enables the willingness to go to war. This, I think, also explains much of the difference between America and many other countries. We fight when we have to; they resist till its too late.

So what can we do with this concept? Can we make any determination as to whether it is cultural or genetic? Probably not. That’s always tough, but maybe we can say that a good bit of it is cultural. Could we not say that the proportion of people with the concurrent paradigm to status paradigm is growing? This country gets more touchy, feely every day. That would seem to suggest that the mindset is at least partially cultural – if you grow up in a family of concurrence paradigm people, you’re likely to end up the same way. It would also suggest that the cultural shift toward the concurrence paradigm may have a tipping point, a point at which America would experience something akin to what transpires in Ayn Rand’s, Atlas Shrugged. So, here we come upon a serious question? Which paradigm is better?

Before we answer, we have to acknowledge that the two paradigms naturally clash with one another. Status folks don’t have much patience for concurrence folks, and concurrence folks are horrified at the shallow callousness of status folks. Indeed, differing personality paradigms could explain a lot of the difference between the “bleeding heart” liberal and the “evil” Republican. Now to the question. Which is better? I’d say you need a good helping of both. Though the exact proportion would be difficult to nail down, I think it’s fair to say that we need enough to status folks to keep our rights intact and to keep pumping out better and better Barcoloungers, and we need enough concurrence folks to remind us to get off our Barcoloungers and talk to each other.



The Lobby and The Appearance of Dignity
February 15, 2005, 4:42 pm
Filed under: Hijinks, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
Here’s my day – I learn (or maybe notice) two interesting things.

I wake up in DC for a meeting with a prospective customer, emerge optimistic but wary of the work involved in finding out, fly back home to Atlanta, arrive at 6pm, repack, apologize to my wife on her birthday, take my son to the basement so he can play my drums (which he can only incessantly call “bum” and which also includes my guitar – either me playing it while he endlessly motors around, or me holding the chord with my left hand while he attempts to strum.), much consternation on his part at the end of our impromptu “session,” and then it’s off to Philly for two days. An odd city, if you ask me, Philly.

The perimeter of it is depressing. More than a couple of times, the thought crosses my mind that I would be very distraught if I were suddenly informed that I’d have to live here. Just sort of cluttery, but desolate at the same time – I’ll pass. But then I cross over this river and go into some scary areas, where I think I would be very nervous if I was to suddenly have to live here. Abandoned buildings with broken glass all throughout, on streets that look like the video game, the shooting game, where villains pop out from behind every object and shadow. And it’s overlooking water! Truly puzzling from a real estate development prospective – seems like some Trumpionnaire would clean house and put up a revitalized waterfront district or something expensive-sounding like that. It’s like nobody cares, which is the first remarkable thing I notice today.

Almost as quickly as the cab and I enter into this archetypical run-down area of a city, we emerge into a Chicago or New York kind of downtown, with massive buildings right on the street, with shops at street level, and residences or offices (or both) going up into the heavens. Street vendors, convention centers, bars, restaurants, mass transit, hotels, shopping centers – all in about 3 square blocks – at least that’s what it seems like. The transition from ghetto to modern metro is like passing between two different worlds, not mutually exclusive, but recognizably distinct.

In one, folks care about looks. In the other, they don’t, at least not enough to take care of them. That’s what I notice tonight as my cab pulls up to my hotel. Kind of hum-drum, but that’s before a few rounds on the old cognitive spin cycle. The only minor-league, and I mean really minor-league excitement is my well-timed dart through the huge rotunda of a lobby to avoid colleagues who might be in the bar. One false move and I end up in there all night. It’s happened before and it ends up leaving me tired, hungover, and generally off the next day.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean shit. I can almost always be counted on to join in the festivities if people I work with are. I have what I call the party gene. (That’s another topic that’ll get its ink in due time.) Anyhow, that’s where the drama, minor league as it is, comes in. The inner conflict. You see, attendance at the professional, expense-account boozefest has a long record of benefiting my work environment, even though, these days, especially today, I am more apt to settle into my room, get online, and see what happens. A quandary you might say, settled by the half-assed, but probably still better than your average civilian’s covert lobby crossing. If he gets spotted – bourbon and ginger (plus requisite cigarettes) till two. If not, the tamer tour through the blogosphere, but the benefit of a feel-good tomorrow. Finkel. Einhorn. Finkel. Einhorn…

Being a master of compromise (and lobby crossings – it’s all about the diversion), I settle upon forcing myself to encapsulate the random, but not so random, thoughts that have crossed my mind on my three city tour. Then, I may see what’s happening downstairs. Whew. Glad that’s settled. Anyhow – let’s make this quick.

I keep coming back to this two cities thing. Think about how important appearances are in different socioeconomic settings. People with nothing could care less about how they look. They can’t afford to. And it seems like there’s a direct, but leading, correlation between taking care of appearances and achieving prosperity and predictability. It’s direct because the guy who cares about his appearance gets the job before the slob in most cases. Nothing shocking there. But, it is a leading (as in an economic leading indicator) correlation because the appearance change almost always precedes the achievement of prosperity.

As they say, you sometimes gotta fake it till you make it. This is why stock-brokers wear Rolex (would the plural be Rolei?) watches, drive expensive cars, and live in expensive houses, even when they’re just starting out and can’t make the money to support the lifestyle – it gives the impression that they’re successful at handling people’s money. The “he makes money if his clients make money” arrangement is understood, so the broker’s wealth means his clients must be doing well. Ergo, it makes sense to do business with him, to let him help you manage your money. In our terms, it makes sense to accept him.

Now, obviously, if the guy’s a total boob, he probably won’t do well. But if he’s not, and he’s persistent, that interpersonal acceptance will pay off. So, what I’m saying is that you have to start caring about what you look like before a lot of good things will happen to you in life.

Appearance becomes a sort of investment. You do the things you need to do to keep your person looking right – right clothes, right hair, right teeth – and you take an instant step up on the ladder of mass social acceptance. In essence, you’re decreasing your delta. Remember, the idea is that it is possible to have an appearance that virtually guarantees that, unless you’re a total jerk, the people you meet will accept you. They’ll be interested in you, and they’ll be hoping that you like them. Your delta is how far, objectively speaking, you are looks-wise from that point. The further you are, the more likely it is that the exact opposite will happen – the people you meet will not lock eyes with you or take any interest in you, and if you dislike them, they will not notice, nor will they care if they do. That’s harsh, but it’s reality for some people. Fortunately for most people, the delta problem is tractable.

Suppose there’s a figurative delta scale from zero to 100 – zero being the lowest delta (closest to mass total acceptance) and 100 being the highest delta (closest to mass total rejection). Something as broad (and purposefully vague) as an appearance delta would not have your typical bell curve distribution, would it? Yes, buuut, zero would be on the fringes of one side, say the left (arbitarily, lest any political notions enter into this). There are only a handful of folks at the zero delta point. They’re the ones who presumably have the life. They set the styles and dominate all visual media. But, relatively speaking, there aren’t many of them.

The numbers increase steadily as you move to the right, away from zero. Eventually, they peak and you have the average-looking person, not perfect, but not noticeably or distractingly flawed. Then, those drop off to the people who have something troubling about their appearance, something that causes people to be careful about looking. The curve ends at the other fringe with people who have it the worst in terms of human acceptance – maybe they’re shut-ins because they just can’t bear to go out, or maybe they’re just invisible. Even though, thankfully, there aren’t that many of them, there are still too many, and I hate to think about what that must be like. But I musn’t dwell, there’s booze to swill.
(That was the lamest rhyme ever. I have to admit that.)

Getting back to the point here, the delta scale is useful because we can imagine that one who has no interest in his appearance, somebody like your urban-variety bum, has a lot of easy ground to make up in terms of delta. A nice shower, a haircut, a trip to the dentist, some consistently good nutrition, and the guy can go from say a 70 to a 40. At 40, he may be close enough to the average person to start finding interpersonal acceptance fairly expectable. This, from some psychology I’ve read but honestly can’t remember where (told you this was vague), is the turning point for self-esteem.

The moment you start to expect that you’ll be accepted in interpersonal situations is the moment you begin to have self-esteem. Don’t know if it’s true, or if it’s possible to know, but it sounds about right. So, thinking back about my cab ride (but now with the Bill Conti music from Rocky as a soundtrack – ahh, editorial license), I’m wondering how many folks are living there who just don’t care about how they look, about how their house looks, or about anything like this. And I’m wondering, what if they did?

Socially sensitive people will answer that caring about your appearance isn’t going to suddenly make a job materialize. These people are in poverty, they’ll say. I’ll grant that this may very well be the case for many of these people. But what about the ones who could simply decide to care about their appearance? They live within walking distance of any number of mail room-level jobs, jobs that go to guys (and gals) with the same background, only they clean up.

Maybe it’s about dignity. Maybe this whole thing is just way to say that dignity begets pride in appearance, which begets acceptance. If so, I’m an idiot for wasting the festive hours in the bar downstairs on a single sentence. But that brings me back to the second thing I learned today. There’s a self-perpetuating cycle going on here. I might ordinarily have ruminated on this idea and forgotten about it until something cued it back up again. But, as the word “blog” is short for weblog, which connotes ship’s log or captain’s log, and since I don’t always have something particular to write about, I am informally committed to putting something down. In this case, it turns out that the whole thing is about information distillation and articulation, which happen to be the toolset of the writer. And duh, epiphany – that must be why I do this. Having written a book, I still don’t think of myself as a writer. But tonight, considering that I distracted, and then deftly out-manuevered the lobby threat, and now it’s too late to reconsider, it occurs to me – I am a writer. (It sounds gay to even type it.) Nevetheless, it’s a milestone, I suppose.

Then, reality sets back in, as I wonder if it ever really pays well.



Changing Your Cover – Appearances – Part 2
February 13, 2005, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Of course, sometimes you can, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Whether or not this statement is true, the fact is that sometimes, lots of times, people will try. Furthermore, it’s usually really tough to tell who’s “thin slicing” based upon looks, and who’s not. As I mentioned in the last post, I think there’s a real value in understanding that a unknowable, but significant, percentage of the population is actively caught up in judging books by their covers.

They’re deciding who they’ll be courteous with, who they’ll ignore, who they’ll be afraid of, and who they’ll open up to, all based upon appearances (at least initially). And, for the most part, these are not rogues and lunatics. These are not simply people who occupy the fringes of the depth bell-curve, people who can and should be dismissed. An unknowable subset of these people only use this technique as a filtering process. They are open-minded and intelligent enough to modify their assessments with the acquisition of more and more data. For whatever reasons – maybe they’re extremely busy, maybe they’re inundated with books that bear out their preliminary cover assessments, maybe they’re fearful of social situations – these people modulate their up-front human interactions using the shallowest of information. We could fault them for it. But what if, in doing so, we miss the chance for deep and meaningful concurrence? What if, and this applies most to high delta people, we limit those whom we take seriously so much that we’re virtually guaranteeing ourselves loneliness? Thankfully, just as it takes infinite courage to really be a pacifist, it takes more than most people are willing to give to take a truly hard-line against appearance-based prejudice. Most folks, myself included, give in.

So, here we have an interesting question. If we acknowledge that we play along with this shallow game in certain circumstances, in lots of circumstances, then the question is how much do we give in? How much should we be willing to change our covers to plant the judgement we want in the minds of the judges, the ones we secretly despise for operating in such a way?
In America, it’s pretty much accepted that our teeth matter, and not just for health reasons. How else do we explain the massive industry that is orthodontia? It’s a given, once you get to even a modest socio-economic level, that your kids will get braces if their teeth are screwy. (Sure, some people are against this. But I think most folks, if they can afford it, are happy to be able to do this for their children.) The point is that getting braces is expensive and not altogether painless or trouble-free. Yet, we do it. We cower to the shallow beast of appearance anxiety and tweak our covers. The same is true with respect to fashion.

The big fads come along, and the masses get on board. One friend, a sales executive in the medical device field, works for a guy who is about 50. This guy, the owner of the company, is always teasing him about his clothes, the square-toed shoes, in particular. He says they’re “trendy” and that my friend is a boob for buying into the trend. My friend, being 35, single, and quick on his square-toed feet, comes back with a witty retort:

Say whatever you want, Pal, but I’m hunting ladies at all times, and it is essential that I do not limit my selection. I’m after that long-term relationship, which means I have to sift through the market to find what I’m looking for. The fact is that the kind of girls I’m pursuing have guys after them all the time. They make the first cut based upon appearances. If I’m Mr. Traditional, like you, in cap-toed shoes and pin striped suits, I come off like a dud – an insurance salesman or an accountant. Any girl who’s gonna be able to handle me for the long-haul is going to write the dud off in two seconds. So, to make the cut, I look the part. Then, once I’m in the door, the tables turn, and I’m making the next cut. Get it? So, mock my shoes all you want. Just know that when you call me at 8am on a Sunday morning and you go straight to voice mail, it’s because I was up all night banging a hot chick that likes square-toed shoes. That’s the only trend I care about perpetuating.

Now that is one enlightened caveman. Say what you will about the morality of his endeavors, but there’s no denying that he has a good handle on how to manipulate reality to his own ends. Fashion is like that for some people. I’ll wear some conservative variation on the faded-front jeans, but not because I feel I just have to be in style, but because it sends the message that I care about my appearance and that I’m aware of what’s big these days. That shaves a bit off my appearance delta, you might say. And look at it this way, if my plan backfires and someone dismisses me because I’m wearing trendy clothes, then there’s a good chance they’ll really object to some of my more outlandish views on the world. It’s a self-correcting system, I figure. Anyhow, all I’m saying is that the cover change, in itself, isn’t shallow or the equivalent of selling-out. But what is?

Some would say cosmetic surgery is beyond the line. I know women with capped teeth who absolutely abhor the thought of getting breast implants. Hmm. Is there really that big of a difference? Like it or not, a female with a nice chest, all other things being equal, will get noticed more than one with a modest lower neck. And the surgery, silicon scare aside (yes, scare, as in, not real), is pretty routine and is cheaper than veneers. And what about liposuction? How many people have saddle-bags or love handles that will not go away no matter how much they diet or exercise? What’s wrong with them having a doctor wave a canula to make it all disappear? Of course, the funny thing is that many proponents of cosmetic surgery will say, “But I’m doing it for myself. I just want to like what I see when I look in the mirror.” Suuuure. Whatever you have to tell yourself. But again, their delusions aside, I’m saying it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to want to change your cover, strictly for the benefit of the cover judgers in society.

It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. What do you get in terms of delta reduction, and how does it compare to the costs? This is the part many folks miss, I think. There’s an aspect of the appearance delta concept that must now be revealed – the ideal appearance, the one to which ours is compared to compute the delta, the one that gets us a free ride in terms of interpersonal acceptance (in particular circumstances of interest), includes an assessment of how hard we’re trying. You get points off (that is, your delta grows) if it looks like you’ve gone too far in changing your cover. You look needy. This is why the girls who get the massive DDD boob jobs actually diminish the field of acceptance, rather than expand it. This is why the guys who shave every hair from their bodies, for no practical reason (like say an Olympic swim competition), come off as odd-balls. This is why massive lip jobs, repeated face lifts, and botox-induced expressionless faces rarely yield the desired return on investment. These people just end up looking funny. So what to do?

If you’re going to change your cover, and I’m not saying you should, you should aim to change it so that strangers can’t tell. Girls, get reasonably-sized boobs for your frame. If guys really can’t determine if they’re real, but they break their necks trying, you’ve probably hit the target. Same thing for guys – if you’re driving a 10-year old Toyota, you might rethink the giant fin on the back. (Yes, the appearance delta applies to cars, too. But that’s another discussion.) But there’s still more to this.

Another complication to consider is what people you know will think. If you conduct your inner-circle affairs with an avowed disdain for appearance-based prejudice, then you may find it hard to explain changing your cover in any dramatic way. Maybe you could acquaint your closest friends and family with your enlightened rationale for the change, and maybe they’d understand. Or maybe there’s nothing you could say to make them understand. Maybe their view of you would be tainted forever. Who knows? I would simply argue that no substantial cover change should be undertaken without reflecting on this.

In the end, if we’re going get what we want out of the social side of life, the side that, more than anything else, determines the tenor of our happiness, we have to decide how much we’re willing to give in to this shallow, appearance-oriented game. We have to decide where the line is drawn, and we have to be careful to get what we pay for. Even if we can rationally justify the desire to improve our frail and thin lips, there isn’t much to be gained by looking like a duck. Unless of course, our desire is to be accepted at the ritzy spa for desperate housewives. That, too, is another discussion entirely.



The Appearance Delta and Gimmick Theory
February 11, 2005, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, My Theories, Relationships

Original Post (with comments)
I’ve written, on occasion, about the influence of looks in our society. Let me attempt to codify my thoughts. The whole thing hinges upon the generalization that individuals in America (and elsewhere, but America, in particular) respond differently to people they perceive as physically attractive versus people who come off as unattractive. I believe this is largely genetic.

In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spends some time discussing the biases that we all have below the surface of consciousness. The point of the book is to put forth the notion that our minds are very good at “thin-slicing,” which is using a small amount of information to make decisions very quickly, and that, while this should often be embraced, it happens behind the locked door of our subconscious. He cites the intuitive behavior of successful art dealers, professional athletes, professional poker players, and military leaders to demonstrate the good side of thin slicing. However, he examines the dark side of thin slicing when he discusses how people respond to physical appearance.

In evolutionary terms, there are physical attributes that indicate fitness – tallness, healthy hair, healthy teeth, symmetry in facial features, good posture, a muscular and lean physique, and so on. Youth in females indicates fertility, so males prefer younger women. Conversely, size and brawn and chiseled features indicate virility in males, which is why females prefer “hunks.” (We’re talking about cavemen here.) The idea is that our evolutionary ancient emotions, the ones operating under the radar of consciousness, are tuned to be drawn to people with these attributes. Gladwell mentions the ex-president Warren Harding as a prime example. Here was a guy who was big with a Roman aristocracy kind of good looks, but he wasn’t especially intelligent, nor was he an impressive public speaker, and he had a long list of character flaws. Nevertheless, with the help of a clever senator, he was elected to office, presumably for nothing more than his good looks. A more contemporary example is the poll Gladwell conducted of half the companies on the Fortune 500 list.

He found that almost all CEOs are tall white males. Brevity, if I am capable of it, prevents me from detailing all of his caveats and conditions, but suffice it to say that his findings bear a stark contrast to normal demographic distributions. In short, it appears that upward mobility is easier for tall white males than it is for short ones or non-white ones or both (surprise, surprise). Of course, the argument can (and should) be made that Gladwell’s findings only betray the extent of in-group prejudice among the few who make it to the top. But, even if this is the case, how things got to be that way still warrants an explanation. For my part, I’m inclined to agree with the author that individuals whose physical appearance indicates fitness in an evolutionary sense enjoy an advantage when dealing with other people, an advantage that is largely unknown by the people conferring it upon them.

If this is true. If. Then, it means that looks do matter in society. It means that no matter how enlightened we may become, no matter how we may deliberately look beyond physical appearance, we are ill-served if we expect the same thing out in the world. We may choose to take the higher ground and assert that people who modulate their interpersonal behavior based upon something so shallow are to be ignored. But the notion that much of this appearance bias happens below the level of consciousness strains the sensibility of this approach. No, I think there’s a better option. Once again, I find myself in a situation where I need two sets of rules for how I operate. I’ve stumbled on another sort of dualist strategy.

I think of all people as falling into one of two groups – people I want long-term relationships with and people I don’t. When I first meet someone, I don’t know which category they’ll fall into, so they start out in the latter. Over time, however, if we get along, and it makes sense, they can transition into the former. The point is that I apply different interpersonal rules to the two different categories.

For the long-term relationship folks, I prefer enlightenment. I encourage looking beyond physical appearance because I know that the rewards are plentiful. Shallow people don’t make the cut. But for people with whom I have no intention or interest in any meaningful long-term relationship, I have no requirements whatsoever. I abstract them all into this group that, among other things, is defined by the least common genetic denominator. I assume that they’re all cavemen doing precisely as their genes instruct. Sure, I’m proven wrong a lot, but it’s better than assuming that they’re all highly aware of their genes’ negative influences and are compensating for them all the time. The consequences of getting this wrong are regular disappointment. Anyhow, things get interesting we we realize that sometimes we need things from these people.

I need to get one of them to like me enough to hire me for a job, for example. I assume that this person will form an instant impression of me simply by how I look, and that depending upon what he or she comes up with, I may or may not have an easy time in the interview. Just to venture into absurdity for a moment, suppose there’s a scoring system that is used by the interviewer to determine if I get a thumbs up or thumbs down, say from 1 to 10. It takes a 9 or better to get the job. If my appearance impresses him or her, I may start with a 6 or a 7. That means I only have to come up with a couple of points to ensure success. It may be my intelligence or my personality or my experience, but whatever it is, it will not be about my appearance. But suppose another applicant comes in and the interviewer is dazzled by his appearance. He may start with a nine, meaning that if he doesn’t do anything to cost himself points, the job is his. What I’m getting at here is the notion of an appearance delta.

I would define this as the difference between my appearance and the appearance that would grant me instant acceptance in any given social situation. Women like Elizabeth Hurley, for example, have no appearance delta. She’s so attractive that people fall over themselves to spend time with her. This is the bane of the beautiful but intelligent woman’s existence – she has a tough time being taken seriously simply because she’s hot. Similarly, a guy with Sean Connery’s looks experiences an entirely different version of life than I do. I’m not upset by this; it’s a fact of life. Indeed, I think recognizing this has a lot to offer in terms of enjoying what little time we have here.

It’s very useful to figure out what your appearance delta is, and I should note that it is somewhat situation dependent. To a heterosexual soldier coming home from two months of all-male field exercises, an average-looking woman has less of a delta than she does if she meets him when he’s been in the general population for a while. Nevertheless, knowing where you stand looks-wise in the minds of others has its benefits. We have to acknowledge that much of the enjoyment we get out of life has to do with interpersonal acceptance. It’s that concurrence thing I keep talking about. It’s an axiom in human endeavors that not being accepted in social situations is emotionally distressing. Sometimes, given the idea of subconscious appearance bias, the culprit can be how we look. Regardless of how distasteful this may seem, I just can’t see how there’s anything to be gained by being indignant or burying my head in the sand on this. It’s a matter of practicality.

The key to the usefulness of the appearance delta is in the notion that it can be overcome by non-physical attributes. All it takes is a gimmick, and there are all kinds. Being smart can be a gimmick, as can being funny or empathetic. Being an artist, such as musician or painter, can also serve as a gimmick, and being rich and/or powerful works, too. The point is that knowing your delta tells you how much gimmick you need in any given situation if acceptance is what you’re looking for. Harsh as it is to say, if you’re short, fat, and bald, you’re gonna need a lot more gimmick than the guy who’s tall, lean, and well coiffed. Now, you can object and refuse to participate in this ever-so-shallow game of human interaction, but you should do so at your peril.

As for me, I do what I can with what I have. I stay in shape and I try to look presentable when I’m in situations where acceptance among folks in the non-long-term relationship category will be of benefit. I pay attention to what I wear and how I carry myself. I estimate my delta and decide which kind and how much gimmick I want to employ. Shallow? You bet. Does it work? Yup. However, when I’m around members of the long-term relationship group, I’m less concerned about appearance. I don’t care if my hair is messed up and I opt for flip-flops and t-shirts instead of nicer clothes. And I don’t bother with gimmick; I’m just myself. That’s the beauty of the inner circle – you can rise above the bullshit and just live.

At the end of the day, we all want to be accepted. We all want to be in on the inside joke. And as much as we’d all (especially those who have a high delta) like it if acceptance were strictly a function of character, it just isn’t, at least not enough to sustain us. What can start as a relationship founded on looks or looks plus gimmick can turn into anything but. To close ourselves off to these opportunities simply limits the amount of acceptance we’ll enjoy in life. This doesn’t mean that we long for acceptance so much that we pursue it indiscriminately. That’s trading problems for problems. It only means that we play the shallow game to get our feet in the door and then let our criteria for separating long-termers from non-long-termers kick in. It ain’t pretty, but it works.



What Is Consciousness? A Trip Into The Mind
February 3, 2005, 4:35 pm
Filed under: My Theories, Philosophy, Science

Original Post (with comments)
I’m not trying to be a scientist. I’m really not. I’ve just read a wide variety of scientific topics, particularly those related to evolution, the brain, and thinking, and over the years and I’ve come to my own interpretation of, you might say, the gestalt of the mind. It’s sort of a general feel for the the physicality of it and how layers of abstraction are built upon that, a feel for its evolutionary history and the infrastructure it begat, and a feel for how all that translates into a wide swath of common behavior patterns. The probably sounds as arrogant and sure as possible. We’re inside my head right now, so bear with me. I’ll admit that if there are original ideas in my vision, they are the kind of originality you attribute to an editor. Nevertheless, if I’m being honest, my aim here is prove that my intuition is right. I really want it to be.

But I know that about myself. I’m conscious of it, and because of that, I’ve taken steps to insulate my curiosity from my bias. That’s why I’ve chosen critical rationalism as my method. I recognize up front that I can’t prove that I’m right, that I don’t have all the facts, and that my emotions could be, try as I might, confounding my conclusions. So I write; I throw out hypotheses and the evidence, shoddy as it may be at times, that I have for them. As time goes on, this gestalt is becoming clearer and clearer, which only means that I understand it enough to articulate it. I write more. The whole time, I’m hoping that people will come along and adjudicate my accuracy. (Of course, I’m hoping with arms drawn to my chest and clinched fists that it works out for me. That’d be great. I’d feel smart, or better yet, smarter.) Nevertheless, I have committed myself to finding out, one way or another, if I’m right. I figure the worst that can happen is that I’ll make a few adjustments and still end up with the satisfaction of feeling like I have a holistic, almost unifying, understanding of something seriously elusive.

The preceding two paragraphs just played out on a giant movie screen in my mind. And, as if experiencing a good movie, I was engrossed. I still am. And, like a movie, a lot of other things were and are going on that were and are escaping my attention. Interestingly, in thinking about the things that have been escaping my attention, I all of a sudden start noticing them. The sound of the heater. The visual flicker of the TV on mute. The sighs of my dog as he makes one of his countless tiny adjustments. The smell of the fireplace that still hasn’t been used this winter. My attention is flittering back and forth between the thoughts flowing from my fingertips and the surroundings I am still writing about. Scene after scene on a giant movie screen in my head. And this movie screen is, in my view, the key to consciousness.

I feel intrepid in this domain of consciousness, mainly because no one knows for sure what’s going on. In short, I like my chances on this. If I apply the knowledge I’ve gleaned from Stuart Kauffman’s work in, At Home In The Universe (self-organization theory), and apply it to the physical function of neural networks, and to the structural organization of the brain, and then I infuse all that into Daniel Dennett’s, Consciousness Explained, I come up with the following explanation.

Neural networks are the building blocks of mental organs. Some mental organs we share with other animals. They operate in the lower, simpler levels of abstraction, near our brain stem, serving to facilitate our basic survival and reproductive success. Examples would be autonomic body functions and basic emotions, such as love, fear, anger, sadness, and jealousy. These emotions are not feelings in the usual sense. They are physiological responses that elicit particular behaviors. Imagine that the mind is in a steady state when it is calm and nothing out of ordinary is perturbing it. Then, when something happens that requires a physical response, like say a tiger is approaching, these simple programs, these emotions induce physiological reactions, which prompt the impulse to assuage them, to get back to a steady state. Each physiological reaction elicits its own physical response. The collection of these programs is sufficient to keep us alive and reproducing.

They’re instinctive. Over eons of time, however, these survival programs have been co-opted and abstracted (via self-organization) into higher and higher levels of complexity, levels that call upon more and more information in their execution processes. The higher level networks are larger, more distributed, both vertically (in and out of lower levels and higher levels) and horizontally (pulling from a wider and wider body of data). They contain our cognitive programs and our complex emotions, and they store vast networks of information. The complex programs make it possible to override the basic programs, sometimes temporarily, just long enough to deliberate for a bit, sometimes permanently, allowing us to adopt a different course of action all together. The networks at this level also enable the use of logic and rationality. Then, and this is the best part, at the very top (figuratively speaking), all of these networks of networks self-assemble into the giant movie screen. Consciousness is upon us.

The movie, however, is really a gigantic closed-circuit TV. It’s as if a wide angle camera is mounted at the very top of this vast sea of neural networks in our brain, some of which are tightly coupled so as to resemble distinct entities (organs, you might say), while others, the majority, are stretched across multiple organs, serving as organs themselves. Interspersed throughout are countless relational and hierarchical databases of information. But the camera can only see so deep.

It doesn’t have access to the lowest levels, to the simplest of programs. It’s view is limited to the upper reaches of abstraction, where complex thought and emotions reside. Of course, the lower levels can manifest themselves in the upper levels (such as when we notice a loud sound), seeing as how they’re all connected, but the low-level data is edited at that point. The important thing is that where the camera is pointed is the result of a contest between competing information networks and the organs that exploit them.

Hordes of the complex programs below are shouting for their chance to be on camera. They’re always shouting. They’re always executing their programs at their highest voice. These mental organs are yelling out the input they’re receiving and the conclusions they’ve reached, which are often perceived as recommended courses of action. The heater is vying for my attention, and it has just gotten it. “The heater makes a low hum: think about my body temperature, think about the temp in the baby’s room, do nothing.” Before this, it was my concern for the words ahead that dominated the camera’s lens. It’s recommendation: read back over the last paragraph…

I’m back.

As I was saying, as the camera scans the networks below, it is drawn to the loudest network, and an interesting thing happens when the camera focuses on a particular network or set of networks – the shouting there intensifies. That means that when it latches onto it, it is held captive, if you will, staying on the screen until something distracts it off. That something might be a cognitive program that is ruminating over some past memories, or it might be the reverberations of a low-level emotional program that has perceived an itch on the arm. Whatever wins the competition gets screen time and the consideration of its conclusions and recommendations. It is the existence of the screen, the camera, and what passes through it that constitutes consciousness.

The beautiful thing is what happens when an amazing idea flashes across the screen – I can control the camera. I can control the camera! Free will is born. Now the conscious awareness, the camera, has turned to a remote spot in the data grid, that which corresponds to the concept of the self. High level programs instantly begin connecting to this new network, factoring the notion of self (including its newly discovered ability to control what appears on the screen) into their routines, into their conclusions, and into their recommendations for action. Suddenly, with free will at the helm, and a mind imbued with the awareness of self, the camera comes off of auto-pilot. The content on the movie screen becomes a matter of choice. But even then, the recommendations on the screen may not control the actions taken.

There are still low-level programs at work. They’re there all the time, perceiving, processing, and executing, just as they have in humans for countless centuries. And a key attribute of them is that they work very fast, so fast that they regularly spur us into action long before we realize why we’re acting or exactly what we’re doing. If a beautiful, sexy girl walks past a straight 16-year old boy, his eyes will saccade their way over her time and again before he ever actually thinks to stare at her. His low-level programs are doing their job. If he’s absorbed in a conversation, he may not even notice her, at least not consciously. His mind, however, knows she’s there. Similarly, if an intruder crashes through my door, it will not be free will driving my bus. Before the shape of his face ever passes over my movie screen, my body will be reacting. I will effectively be on auto-pilot, at least for a few seconds. But as the situation resolves, free will will once again take the helm, slowly but surely.

This is my conceptualization of the human mind, from neural network to consciousness. This is what pushes me insistently away from dualism. This is what makes me believe that understanding our lowest level emotions, by aiming the camera wherever they manifest themselves, is the key to harnessing and managing them. This is why I believe that enlightening the caveman is both necessary and possible. Our basic emotions – our fear, our quest for status, our affinity for cooperation (read: concurrence), and our sex strategies – have the advantage. They spur us to action while they’re below the level of consciousness, under the radar of awareness, unless we either inadvertantly develop high-level programs that override their recommendations or we deliberately scan the visible networks for evidence of their influences and we deliberately override them.

An example of the former would be a priest taking a vow of chastity. Even if he has no concept of human evolution and the sexual programming that resides down near his brain stem, the high-level programming that corresponds to his commitment to the cloth could easily suppress his response to a lovely female parishioner. (Unless he’s a…nevermind.) An example of the latter would be a sky-diver standing in the door of a plane. He realizes that it is perfectly rational to be afraid. He is aware of his elevated heart rate and sweaty palms, and he knows why they’re there. But he reasons that his parachute is safe and his training has prepared him, so he jumps. He deliberately overrides his lower-level survival programming.

There are two takeaways from this.

The first is that culture can tune our high-level programming, even if we never know it’s happening. School for young children does exactly this. There is no reason for this tuning to ever pass across a child’s movie screen. The more “cultured” the child becomes, the less the basic survival programs govern his or her actions. The reverse is also true. Children who are not instructed on how to be human beings in a modern world become an almost cartoon-like caricature of our cave-dwelling ancestors. You can see it on any busy playground.

The second thing, the important thing, is that the conscious intent to override basic emotional programming is extremely powerful. If we turn our camera upon our concept of self, and it includes an understanding of what is happening down below, on our screen flashes the idea that we can control much more than we ever knew – thus bringing more detail to the picture and a longer list of available options- regarding action and inaction. This is a good news story. Nothing is determined. We’re in charge. If we do not exercise this power, we leave our fate in the hands of our genetic heritage. But if we do, our genetic heritage becomes irrelevant.

The clock just passed across my movie screen. Recommendation: publish and crash.



Life, Einstein, and Texas Hold Em
January 15, 2005, 4:23 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Hijinks, My Theories

Having been in Las Vegas for the week on business, my mind has been swirling around gambling. Something occurred to me as I was watching some folks play cards in the MGM Grand. Actually, as my main objective was to get a bit loose, I was trying to do the math on which was the better financial move – dropping $10 a drink every half hour or losing money gambling while getting free drinks. This kind of absurd contemplation is not abnormal for me – I often don’t realize it’s happening until something shakes me from it. This time, it happened when I realized that there are insights to be found in thinking about life as a hand of Texas Hold Em poker (hereafter simply referred to as “poker”).

I’ll admit up front that this analogy is limited in its reach, however, the similarities are actually pretty interesting. In “poker,” players are dealt two cards face down. Think of those as genes. Then, the dealer proceeds to reveal three cards, known as the flop. Then another card, the turn, and then a final card, the river, are revealed. The flop, the turn, and the river are communal cards, so players combine any three of them with their two cards to make a hand of poker. In between each of these revelations, players have the opportunity to bet on their hand, even though they don’t know the outcome until they see the river card. Think of communal cards as the environment. So, essentially, the object of the game is for players to play their two cards in conjunction with the right combination of communal cards to win the hand. Here we see stark parallels between “poker” and life.

The first and most dramatic similarity is this – even if you start out with the best two cards available (two aces, for example), it’s still possible to lose. On the other hand (forgive the pun), you can start out with what appears to be nothing (say, a two of hearts and a four of clubs) and end up winning. Such is life. But before we get too far, maybe it’s worth considering what it means to win.

In poker, there’s no confusion about this. In life, however, not so. To some people, a lot of people, winning means getting rich or becoming powerful. To others, winning is being well liked. To still others, winning means nothing more than not losing. To me, winning means spending as much time as possible living the good life, which is living a life inspired by love, guided by knowledge, and free from unnecessary constraints. The love and knowledge part, which is the most uncommon of common sense, comes from Bertrand Russell (“What I Believe,” essay from 1925. Now found in Why I Am Not A Christian, Touchstone, 1957). The freedom from unnecessary constraint part comes from me.

I believe people erect all sorts of mental barriers to their enjoyment of life. They buy into social pressures and unreasonable traditions without fully examining them, which dramatically reduces their assessment of the options available to them. Take, for example, the notion that you must have a 9-5 job to be responsible. It is a rare case indeed for someone who chooses an “unorthodox” career to not be inundated with warnings and disapproving advice from people who supposedly have their best interests at heart. And these are the few who make it over the barrier. We’ll never know how many aspire to, but do not. But this is about “poker.”

Suppose you’re dealt two aces right from the start. This would be the equivalent of being born with natural talent and/or good looks. But in life, just as in poker, the environment ultimately tells the tale. You can be very smart and/or good looking and it will amount to nothing if you’re born into poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. In poker, two aces will end up yielding a measly pair if the communal cards don’t work with them. (It’s such a letdown to see 3,5,7,9,10 when you start out with such a bang.) But sometimes, you can start with nada and come out on top.

Say you’re dealt a two of clubs and five of hearts. This isn’t encouraging. Many people will fold, which is not at all insignificant. In life, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that winners are winners because they’ve had it good from the start. Sure, this is the case sometimes. But, especially in America, how you start out has a lot less influence than what you do with what you’ve got.

In “poker,” with a two and a five, if the flop shows three fives, you’ve got yourself four of a kind, regardless of what happens with the turn and the river. It’s very likely that you’re going to win, even though you started with pretty much nothing. Oh, if life could be so easy. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes it is, sometimes, for some people. But, usually, life comes with the following sinister complication: you may indeed have a winning hand (that is, your genes and the environment in which they find themselves), yet you may never enjoy the fruits of it. This is where the limitations of this analogy begin to reveal themselves. Luckily, however, other poker games offer the opportunity to further mix some already slightly pureed metaphors.

In Texas Hold Em, at least from what I’ve seen, after the river card is shown, you reveal your cards and it’s obvious who has won. If it isn’t, the dealer makes the call. But there are some poker games, like seven card stud, where you have to proclaim what you have in your hand. If you mistake what you have, you can lose, even if your cards are better than anyone else’s. As a silly example, if you claim three of a kind when you have a full house, you’ll get beat if someone has something better than your three of a kind, even if it won’t beat a full house. This is a lot like life.
I’ve known so many people with wonderful talents and attributes who didn’t recognize them because they were focused on the talents and attributes they didn’t have. Far from making the best of the cards in their hand, they spent their time lamenting that they did not have the cards they wanted. And in those occasional moments of truth, they looked down at their cards and saw a pair when they had a straight. They acted accordingly…and lost, which means they failed to realize their aspirations (which were misplaced to begin with). It needn’t have been this way.

The value of the poker analogy (strained as it is in places) is that we can infer two very practical rules about winning at life. The first is simple – it aint over till the last card is overturned. Things may not start out pretty, but that doesn’t mean we’re destined to lose. From this, we derive determination and hope. Conversely, if we start out with all the cards, we should take care not to assume that we will still have all the cards when the chips are pulled from the middle of the table. From this, we learn humility and an appreciation for accomplishment. The second big takeaway is a mandate of sorts.

In the card game of life, we must play the cards in our hand, not anyone else’s. We must play them; we cannot allow them to play us. Our environment will, in many cases, be beyond our control. Our best chances for winning come from working with it, not against it. Therefore, we must make the most of our cards, which, more than anything else, requires us to see them for what they are. If we start with a five and a two off-suit (or bushy eyebrows, crazy hair, and an ostensible inability to mentally focus on anything for long), we can’t be shooting for a royal flush (or a life on the red carpet). It will never happen, so any communal cards that offer false hope to that end must be ignored – better to see our cards for what they are and be on the lookout for communal cards that compliment them. Einstein produced some of his most remarkable work as a patent clerk in Switzerland. Had he lamented that a teaching position was not in his cards, he may not have had the motivation or energy to dwell on the toughest questions that have ever faced mankind. Instead, he exploited his environment to make the most of his extraordinary genes, and we are all the better for it.

As for me, I took a seat at the bar. The cards in my hand were shaped like dollar bills and I didn’t have enough of them to risk my buzz on bad luck. Such is life in pursuit of the option



Being Poor is Whose Fault? The Time Horizon of Maturity Reprise
December 20, 2004, 3:59 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, My Theories, Philosophy

Original Post (with comments)
Neal Boortz, my favorite radio guy, is fond of saying that poverty is a mental disease, that poor people are poor because they keep doing things that make people poor. It’s all about choices, says the talkmaster. I tend to agree, but there’s more to it than that. I concede that making bad decisions is the fastest way to get poor and stay poor. However, the question on my mind has to do with the culpability of people who consistently make bad decisions. What if the reason so many folks make consistently bad decisions is beyond their control? Then what? Then is it reasonable to advocate a social system that dooms these truly unfortunate souls to the perpetual motion machine of poverty?

I can almost hear the gasps. Here I am, one who pleads regularly for more personal responsibility, taking the blame off the individual. Allow me to elaborate. As I’ve mentioned before, a major component of human development is what I call the time horizon of maturity. This basically refers to one’s ability to project him or herself into the future to actually envision the consequences of actions that are being taken in the present. Children have a very short time horizon, and this is mostly a function of their limited understanding of the concept of time in general. As they grow up, however, they come to understand time, and if they’re raised in the right kind of environment, they come to be able to imagine themselves in the future. This is the key to making good decisions.

Many liberal-minded people think of conservatives as heartless because conservatives don’t often display a great deal of sympathy for people who have had the chance to do something with their lives but they simply haven’t. Indeed, as I myself have said many times, I went to public school. I could have kicked back and lived the high life (literally) every day , but I wanted a future that would not allow it. How is it fair that someone should be rewarded with part of my success (in the form of benefits that come from my tax dollars) for doing nothing, for contributing nothing? Though it has been a bit discomforting, the idea has been steadily dawning on me over the last year or so that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the libs have gotten this one right…at least partly right – they’ve correctly identified the problem.

Imagine an 8-year old white boy named Jimmy. His father left shortly after he was born. His mother, Lila, has tried to work but she’s been fired again and again for poor attendance – some due to looking after Jimmy, some due to looking after herself a little too much. Now she’s on welfare. She gets food stamps and a check every month. They also live in government housing. Jimmy’s neighborhood is tough, even for 8-year olds. Most of the kids hate school and ditch it whenever they can. Jimmy is no different. When the school calls home to notify Lila, she’s too engrossed in daytime TV to care. Besides, she never exactly liked school herself. Now, the question, the one I can’t shake is this: when 20 years goes by and Jimmy is a derelict in his neighborhood (if he’s still alive), was it his fault that he never got his act together?

The answer revolves around whether or not he possesses the ability to see the future…with himself in it. I am more and more convinced that most people in poverty simply do not. If you say to someone, “You must study for this test in order to pass this course,” it means nothing if passing the course means nothing to that person. Passing a course is not an end in itself. It is the means to an end. In order for one to be motivated by this line of reasoning, he or she must be able to internalize the personal significance of passing the course. More importantly, the significance has to be more powerful than whatever immediate gratification must be foregone in the studying. So you can’t just pound home the platitude that you have to stay in school to succeed in life. It’s like a foreign language to one who cannot see the future, and we cannot hold this person responsible for not speaking a language that they have no experience with. This, more than anything else, is the poverty problem, and our society is not addressing it at all.

What are we to do? This is the big question. Here, I must side with my fiscally conservative brethren in saying that income redistribution is not the answer, at least not as it is done today. You can’t give money to someone who lives for today and expect them to do anything but spend it as fast as possible. This is the phenomenon that explains the staggering number of lottery winners who end up in jail for failing to pay taxes on everything they buy and for defaulting on massive debts. No, money is not the answer. We need widespread prognostication education.

One way or another, we have to get to the people currently in poverty and teach them to envision themselves experiencing the consequences of their decisions. We have to teach them to teach their children the same thing. We have to go back to basics. It’s all about action and reaction. As we do when teaching anything complex, we must start small and work our way up. We need to be able to diagnose where people are and then get them in a program to see further and further into the future. When we have a nation of amateur prognosticators, we can feel justified in holding them accountable for their actions. Until that time, we should be careful with our judgement. We should thank luck and circumstance that it is not we who see tomorrow so much fuzzier than we see today.