Thursday, August 27, 2009

You are what you drink

I haven't yet had a chance to look them up (a polite way of saying I'm too lazy, and prefer the sound of my keyboard to that of my lips moving as I mouth the more difficult words of undoubtedly heavy academic texts), but I'm sure there are serious studies on the link between food and drink and other aspects of human civilization, such as religion and political system.
But instead of making this another illegible treatise, here is my little slurping and burping summary of Western history, as seen from the point of view of liquids.

It all started with water: the infant Democracy was raised on rain. Then, there was wine, which was great fun until it toppled the Roman Empire (the preservatives used in the wine apparently made them go mad). But the Catholic Church survived, and carried the wine, now sacred, along in silver and gold chalices. Islam tried to return to water (not much of a surprise here, considering their dry and dusty desert origins), and up north, where grapes don't grow, the beer belt belched forth the Protestants, quite a few of which escaped to plant their grain in another belt, in the U.S. And to complete my little overview, even further north and to the east, the Communist revolution was fuelled by "little water" (vodka).

Now of course, we all drink just about anything; the world has become one big drinks mixer. No wonder so many people's lives are on the rocks.

I'll have mine shaken, but not stirred, please.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Satellite dishes and foreigners

An article I read a while back in "352" (an English language periodical in Luxembourg) about the difficulties some people experience in getting their neighbours to let them mount satellite dishes on their balconies prompted me to write a letter about the underlying causes for the problems. Here, in slightly changed form, are the contents of that letter.

The most-used argument against satellite dishes is aesthetic. I agree that they make city streets even more cluttered than they already are, but I do think that within 10 or 20 years they will cease to bother most of us, much in the same way we have learned to ignore other things that were once reviled as eye-sores (such as trains and cars at some point in the past).

I think, however, that their perceived ugliness is just the surface of the problem, and that if you dig just a little deeper, you will very quickly come up against a more general resistance to change, and the desire of most people to control their own environment. Both are very human and understandable traits, and as such of course very difficult to do anything about.

But matters become even more difficult (and emotional) when you add the link between satellite dishes and foreigners. This is a touchy subject, but an important one. Where I come from (the Netherlands), you can easily identify big-city lower-class neighbourhoods with high numbers of non-Dutch inhabitants by the number of satellite dishes. Here in Luxembourg, satellite dishes are not linked to class, but they are definitely more popular amongst foreigners than amongst locals.

The problem, in such cases, is not only the fact that satellite dishes call more attention to the presence of foreigners (a cause of concern or irritation for some), but also that these satellite dishes - being a direct link to their respective countries of origin - can be seen as an indication of their not wanting to integrate. Irrespective of whether this is true, I can say from personal experience that having access to sources of information in my own language certainly diminishes the need to integrate. During my 13 years here in Luxembourg, I have only reached a limited degree of proficiency in French, but know virtually no Luxembourgish, mainly because I did not need it in my professional life, and because I know I will not be here forever. But I completely understand Luxembourgers (and especially the older generation) who are less than happy with the increasing numbers of foreigners who cannot really communicate in any of the languages of the Grand Duchy, and would not want to do anything that would maintain that situation, or even make it worse.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Controlling emotions

Something funny happened a while back. I got into an argument with someone about something that was not really very important, and it became quite heated. To me, it was so obvious that I was right, but he didn't seem to see my point of view. In the end, I spent several days after the argument fuming over it, and blaming the other person for my anger and frustration.

It took me quite a while to calm down and realise that - irrespective of who was right (me) or wrong (him) - the blame for my frustration and anger was all my own. And the funny thing was that - contrary to what I myself would have thought - accepting the blame made me feel better, not worse. But I couldn't figure out why, until a few days ago, when I realised that it is all about control. When I blame others for how I feel, I basically put them in control of my emotions, with of course very frustrating results. Accepting responsbility for my own emotions puts me back in control.

I am feeling so happy about this little discovery that I think I might go pick an argument with someone, just get some practice in controlling my own emotions. But it has to be relatively trivial. Ooooh, I know! I will try to convince the neighbour to stop practicing the piano at ten o'clock at night. And I will do so by practicing songs I do not know very well on my electric guitar, and aiming the amplifier towards the connecting wall, at the same time. That should get the discussion going quite well. If I can really control myself, we will soon be playing in four or five-part harmony: piano, guitar, doorbell, percussion (banging on the door when I don't answer the bell) and vocals (shouting).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Effort vs. results

Question: should you reward people for their efforts, or for results?

This sounds very theoretical, but it can cause big dilemmas. When my daughter makes me a drawing that I don't think is very good, for example, I will thank her for the gift, and try to find something positive to say about it, but I will not exclaim "what a lovely drawing!" if it is obviously below her normal standard (or far below that of children in her age group) for two reasons: (1) because children need to learn to distinguish between what is good enough, and what is not, and the only way to learn this is feedback from others, and (2) because false praise (which my children will certainly recognize as such, given how terrible I am at lying) teaches children that insincerity is normal, which creates another, bigger problem down the road.

So I will probably try to tell her - with the necessary diplomacy - where the picture might be improved, i.e. I lean towards the results side. According to what I have been reading lately about improvement processes, it is probably better to focus more on the process and not the results, but I am probably too old-fashioned to do that.

But how about adults? Where I work, we have a punch-clock that keeps track of our presences and absences, the rule being that you clock in when you arrive in the morning, clock out for lunch, then clock back in after lunch, and clock out again when you leave. All of this is designed to make sure that everyone works (or at least is physically in the office) during a certain minimum number of hours each month. Which is basically a measurement of effort.

Some colleagues argue that the number of hours should not matter, because they can finish all their work quicker than others doing the same type of work by working faster/harder/smarter, and they are not happy to have to sit in the office just because someone else is not as efficient/smart/hardworking as they are. Which reminds me of a beautiful episode of Dilbert, where someone yet again wins the employee of the month award because of all the hours of unpaid overtime she spent compensating her own inefficiency.

As far as I am concerned, the "reward" for minimum effort and standard work is the paycheck, and people that produce results that exceed the norm get something extra (a compliment, a raise in pay, a promotion). I would definitely not reward extra effort that is counter-productive. Which is not to say I would penalize the above-cited "employee of the month", because it is up to management to guard against the worst mismatches between skill and responsibility. So instead of giving her the award, the pointy-haired boss should give up his bonuses.

If I ever get to be a manager, I won't have that problem: my hair is not pointy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Taking things personally

Lately, I have been thinking a bit about how people react to the actions of others (individuals, groups, or organisations), and more specifically about how sometimes, people (myself included) may get upset about relatively minor things and "take things personally" even though that is not in their own interest. Examples abound: the world is full of drivers who obviously don't know the traffic rules, or worse, couldn't care less, people who make your life miserable by their constant nagging/whining/complaining etc. etc., rude and inconsiderate sales staff, incompetent colleagues, argumentative and incooperative civil servants, and family members whose very presence is an insult and an injury (just kidding, and please don't murder me in my sleep!).

But the main focus here is not on the perpetrator/initiator of the action, but on how it may in fact be possible to change the way you react by analysis. Here are some elements to consider, grouped as actions and reactions.

In the category actions, we need to consider

  • the focus or target of the action, if any: was it directed at you as an individual, at you as a member of a certain social or racial group, or was the action not actually directed at anyone?
  • the intent, if any: were the consequences for others part of the plan, was it just thoughtlessness or an inability to see the effect on others, or were such effects considered irrelevant (an example of which would be the oft-used phrase by silver screen gangsters "just business" - as if that makes you feel any better about being maimed or killed)?
  • (in some cases, such as insults): the type and intensity of the stimulus or action: was this normal or extreme behaviour, by the current culture’s or subculture’s standards?

In the category reactions, we need to consider

  • whether your/my interpretation of the stimulus was correct (did the person really call me a "blurque", or was I just hearing things that are not there? Was it perhaps a joke? Was it in fact not aimed at me, but at humanity in general, and if so, should that make a difference?), all of which in turn helps determine whether your/my reaction was appropriate;
  • the type of threat: is it just a question of personal pride or self-image, or is there a more tangible threat to your interests (e.g. your job, chances for promotion, etc.); and
  • the intensity of the reation: superficial, or does the hurt go deeper, even to the point of making you doubt your own abilities. And if so, is that really the fault of the other, or is it your own fault, for feeling so insecure?

On the whole, I would say that trying to answer the questions posed by each of the above should usually help to calm you down. It might take an hour, but it gets quicker with practice, and it is worth it. (Basically, this is an extended version of the “count to ten” technique, with the added value that you might actually discover something you didn’t realise you knew). Of course, that only works if you really try to be truthful, and that takes courage and some degree of calm. If you are really furious, you probably need a sauna and a massage first.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mobility and social change

The politic-economical history of our part of the world can then be summarized (and simplified) as (1) nomadic tribal life, (2) agricultural civilizations (including the Celts, Greeks, Romans, and other "classic" civilizations, and the feudal system of the Dark and Middle Ages), (3) industrial civilization, and (4) the information age.

In an earlier draft of this entry, I argued that what we now call the information age is not essentially different from previous history, because discoveries were already at the root of many historic events, including the change from each of the three phases mentioned. But then I realized that the information age does distinguish itself in one important aspect, namely the intended audience of information. In the past, although the most important ideas (making fire and weapons, the wheel, spoken language and writing, etc. etc.), probably spread like wildfire, they were not meant for everyone. Certainly within organized civilizations, information was guarded carefully within the various upper and middle classes (rulers, administrators, soldiers, priests, merchants and artisans).

The first clear example of a break in this tradition that I can think of (I am sure there are others) are the translations of the Bible into German, English, etc., thereby making it accessible to the common man. This was of course instrumental in the rise of the Protestants, and the fall of the Catholic Church. And over the course of the industrial age, the level of schooling for the middle and lower classes rose bit by bit, until we now have a situation where there is a certain degree of upward mobility. And I just saw the culmination of a very recent one, namely a proposal to give all U.K. citizens access to their own medical data, via Internet. You could in fact summarize recent socio-political developments as an upgrading of the lower classes (abolishment of slavery, voting rights for all in most countries), and a downgrading the upper ones (either in terms of power - royalty that is just there for show - or in terms of the amount of respect they command), and both are in my view very closely linked to increased access of information for the masses.

So why did I call this entry "mobility and change" (and not "information and change")? Because the exchange (or "mobility", if you will) of information is only one important driving force behind social change. An other, possibly equally important one is physical mobility. In the beginning, individual humans were limited to the distance they could walk. Then, they learned to ride a horse. Then came the wheeled transport (carts, trains, cars) and aerial transport (balloons, the airplane, etc). Each development increased the rate of change. And here again we see a similar trend as with information, with mass transport coming into its own in the last hundred years or so, starting (in some countries at least) with trains, and followed by cars and now cheap air travel. And this has had a profound effect on society. Language barriers have restricted mobility somewhat, but even that is becoming less and less of an issue. In the end, this mobility, and the ever-more global economy (or mobility of goods), will almost certainly contribute to the "harmonization" or "levelling" of cultures and the loss of certain aspects thereof, and of languages. This may not be such a bad thing as some make it out to be, but it does give pause, I hope.

One might be tempted to conclude that we have reverted to the hunter-gatherer stage. But there is an important difference: nowadays, families might move (and in some cases only one member the family), but not whole tribes. And the cost of this refound freedom is loss of social cohesion for society at large and rootlessness for the individual. Personally, I have moved house 15 times, and have never lived in the same house for more than 7 years in row, and though this has been an advantage in terms of language skills and the scope of my outlook on life, I do miss having long-term relationships that most people take for granted.