Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ranting and raving

There are lots of things that I can get upset about, but I have discovered that if I take the trouble to write my opinions down properly (by which I mean using rational arguments, as oppposed to just ranting and raving, spewing bile, regurgitating truisms and reaffirming cliches) I generally calm down quite a lot. It is somehow soothing to know that you can argue your case. So soothing, in fact, that winning arguments on the issue suddenly matters much less than before. And I think the reason for this is that "doing your homework" increases your confidence to the point that there is no need to be defensive. In the context of opinions, defensive behaviour ("Constantly protecting oneself from criticism, exposure of one's shortcomings, or other real or perceived threats to the ego", according to the FreeDictionary entry for defensive) is generally a attempt to cut off discussion and impose your own opinion, and many people do this when they are not too sure of themselves in the first place.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to know when someone is being defensive because they haven´t thought things through (for whatever reason, and there are many), or when they try to cut off discussion because they feel they have thought things through, have reached conclusions that need no further discussion, and resent having to explain things, or lack patience. Often, I expect, there is a mixture of both.

Of course it can take a lot of time to find good arguments for things, especially if you are already quite emotional about something (which usually means you have a vested interest in not asking too many searching questions about it). In some cases, you will probably have to admit there is no good reason for this or that opinion. I expect to be thinking things through the rest of my life, possibly up until the very last moment. And then, hopefully, I will just accept that it really doesn't matter any more, and finally get some peace of mind! (It can be really tiring thinking everything through ...) 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Funny transpositions

As the more faithful reader will have noticed, I like collecting stuff in lists. Here is yet another one, this time of funny transpositions. (Please note, that this one, like some of the others, is work in progress: I will be adding to it each time I find something, and additions are welcome).

The best pair so far is marital - martial, because they are both adjectives and can therefore be exchanged one on one, as in martial sex and relations, marital arts and sports. Tied at second place are  complaint - compliant, because of their psuedo-opposite meaning, and united - untied, especially when capitalized and linked with the word "Nations". Other examples, in decreasing order of perfection: from - form, Brian - brain, Daniel - denial, intimation - imitation, filtration - flirtation. 

Of course, this sort of thing occurs in all kinds of languages. My favorite Spanish example is como - moco (meaning "I eat" and "snot", respectively), but there are many many more. As individual words, they can be found almost anywhere, but when the mating season comes around, they all seem to migrate towards the notebooks of stand-up comedians and writers, as if these notebooks were some kind of Noah's Ark (which, come to think of it, could be paired to the word "car", to form a homophonic transposition).

And of course there are transpositions that are not much use to comedians, but quite interesting to linguists, such as crocodile (EN) - cocodrilo (ES)  kabeljauw -. baccalao which are almost homonyms and both mean "cod", but one is Dutch and the other Portuguese. (See this link if you are interested how this came about).

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ready, steady, ...

When my wife and I bought our house, the salesman told us he could see that we were ready, and that he could usually recognise who was ready to buy a house (not necessarily the house he was selling at that moment, just *a* house) within the first few moments of meeting them. He couldn't tell us exactly what it was, just that he knew somehow.

Something similar seems to happen in many different contexts. People looking for a job often get the one they think they won't get (possibly because they are more relaxed during the interview), childless couples who adopt, or consider adopting, are pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a biological child, and according to an oriental saying, the teacher comes when the pupil is ready.

Unfortunately, this is not something you yourself control, even though your own attitude may be the most important aspect. You just have to go through the process and wait patiently.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The allergy effect

Some while ago, I read an article that suggested that allergies might be the body's way of compensating for the fact that it no longer had enough enemies to fight: we have become so successful in eradicating or avoiding germs that cause diseases, that our body reacts by fighting things that are not a threat (pollen, spores, etc). I can't say for sure that this is true, but it seems likely, and it also made me think about other things our bodies are designed to do, but that we have less opportunity to do in modern society.

Physically, we are designed to fight or flee (that is what testosterone and adrenaline are for). But modern society only allows controlled outbursts of violence, in the form of sports, and provides a replacement for the occasional adrenaline rush that we used to get when being pursued by wild animals in the form of fairground attractions,  horror stories and thrillers (but not detectives - they actually have a soothing effect) on the big and small screen.

Our bodies also invite us to procreate more than is good for us, and for many centuries (and especially during the industrial revolution, when the means of supporting a larger population increased dramatically and more recently and spectacularly during the baby boom), that is just what we did. By now the population density in the Western world is high enough to give pause, but our bodies are still sending the same message, so we replace procreational sex with its non-productive recreational counterpart.

There are also psychological aspects to consider, but here, I am on uncertain ground. I think (but have no proof) that our love affairs with cars and travel may at least in part be a remnant of our nomadic life-style, but I cannot imagine how that tendency is passed on from generation to generation. But then, I do not understand how Monarch butterflies know how to travel the thousands of miles back to a certain spot in Mexico - a trip that takes three generations to complete, meaning that not a single individual does the complete trip - either. One thing I am more sure of is that the ever-increasing complexity of modern life is at the root of our tendency to look for simple (and even simplistic) answers: the more complex life gets, the less we can control anything, and we don't like being out of control. That also explains the longing to go back to the simple, primitive life.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Growth, or overgrowth?

When I was young everything had to be "bigger, faster and/or better". Nowadays, all you hear is "growth, growth, growth" - as if we haven't learned anything in the past 40 years! Western economies seem a bit like the little African girl still being force-fed milk to make her a more attractive bride, even though the reason for this custom (showing that your parents have more than enough food, because food is a scarce commodity) no longer exists. Economic growth (especially in terms of increased production of primary goods) is only necessary if the population increases. When the population growth slows down and the propulation grows older, as is the case in many Western countries, you need to consolidate, and become more efficient.

But I guess it's another case of mental inertia: once in motion, it is very hard to get people to stop doing the same things again and again, even if the reason for doing it in the first place no longer exists. This is especially true of people who become obsessed with order, but for them, of course, it really isn't about order, it is mostly about proving to themselves that they can control something, anything, in the outside world. And something similar is presumably true about people who spend the first half of their lives getting rich that in the end that is all they seem to be able to do - generate more wealth, without necessarily enjoying it very much. (Some people would probably claim that the satisfaction of doing something well is also an important part of this type of behaviour, and that is probably true, but possibly more important is whether they are able to stop and smell the roses).

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wanting without wanting

Thought for the day: to acheive something you really want, you have to overcome all kinds of emotions, such as fear of the unknown, of rejection, of failure (= self-doubt), but you also need to avoid wanting it too much, because that usually makes you try too hard to get it, or too quickly/easily (daydreaming will get you nowhere). The trick is to keep the end goal in mind, while focusing all the energy and attention you can spare on the process of getting what you want.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sitting high and dry, on the moral high horse

I have been infected by the Twitter-virus: the following "thought for the day" is less than 140 characters long (excluding this sentence). The thought is:

Virtuous behaviour might be its own reward for some, but others seem to need some kind of reward now, like getting to sit on the moral high horse.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

In and out of control

The other day, while watching an episode of "Monk" (an obsessive-compulsive detective), I started thinking about how important control is to us all. Monk (and presumably, many obsessive compulsive people) tries to compensate for the gap between what he would like to control (just about everything) and what he actually controls (very little) by imposing control where-ever possible, in the form of useless but comforting routines (touching all the lampposts along his way, etc.). Obviously, he is very aware of the gap, and he does not really accept the fact that very little can be done about it.

The three most important elements in the above description are the size of the gap between what we want to control and what we can control (which depends more on our own expectations and assumptions than anything else), our awareness of that gap (some people hardly seem to notice that there is one, while for others, it is crucial), and our acceptance of it.

As far as the real (as opposed to the perceived) size of the gap is concerned, we can only control a very little bit: we grow up to learn a certain degree muscle control, and we try to control our own emotions and our own thoughts, but most of us are only partially successful at that. Of the outside world, we can perhaps control small physical objects, and we can exert an influence over (but do not really control) the thoughts and feelings of others in our direct environment (friends, family members, colleagues), but very few of us are in a position to influence (much less control) larger groups of people, except in certain situations.

Awareness: I think fear has an important role to play in this. It is of course perfectly possible to be aware of the gap without being unduly concerned about it, but fear will definitely increase the awareness. Unfortunately, fear also tends to make matters worse, because it can make it very difficult to accept the gap, which is the first step towards any kind of control.

And as far as acceptance is concerned, knowing what is realistic helps a lot. Notwithstanding - or perhaps thanks to - many infantile attempts to fly, most adults find it relatively easy to accept that humans cannot fly without help from some kind of machine. In fact, a large part of growing up consists of exactly that: learning about your own limitations and in some cases finding ways to get around them.

And they say t.v. teaches us nothing!
Now if only it would teach me to accept my own limitations ...

Friday, May 18, 2012

Venus vs. Mars


The group
The individual
Art and Religion
Science and Technology
Friends talk to each other
Friends do things together
One thing at a time
Subterfuge, intrigue
Conflict, confrontation
Hide, private
Show, public
Gather and save
Hunt and eat
Progress (change)
Conserve (stability)

I'm sure most readers will have a preference for one column (or parts thereof) above the other. You need both, of course, (I even apply this to MacOS and Windows, albeit on different computers) and in most cases, one cannot exist (or could not have existed) without the other.

Since first writing this entry, I happened to read a book by Erich Fromm called The Forgotten Language, in which he discusses, among many other things, a theory by Bachofen, about the differences between patriarchal and matriarchal societies, which I will need to integrate into the above some day.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The rat race

When I was young, the main purpose of the professional "rat race" was to earn enough to keep up with the Joneses. This of course is a clear sign of an affluent society: as soon as actual survival (water, food and shelter from harm) ceases to be an issue and people are in their comfort zone, they focus on issues like status. And I would have expected this displacement process to have continued all through Maslow’s pyramid of needs. But in fact, people have shown themselves capable of simultaneously tending to their own immediate needs and looking to the longer term and the needs of others as well, by also caring about the environment, the poor, etc., and status seems less important now than 50 years ago. But there is still a rat-race: it is called life-long learning (one of my personal pet peeves).

Another thing that I seem to remember was that, although almost everyone wanted to climb the social ladder, most people also felt that “belonging” and remaining “true to your roots” was very important, and that the best you could realistically hope for was for your children to have a better life (you yourself would never really rise more than a few rungs of the ladder). Nowadays, many people I know still want to climb, but they seem to want to ignore the class factor altogether.

After almost half a century of doing that myself, I have come to the conclusion that although this idea (like communism) is a very nice one, it is not really very practical. Class differences still exist, and trying to ignore or hide them will not make them go away. The best we can hope for there is that people from different classes will treat each other with respect. And one way to make that easier is to keep in mind that in any society we all need each other, in the same way that each individual organism needs its organs and parts. You might have a personal preference for one specific organ above all others, but there is nothing inherently better to a brain, compared to a heart, or a muscle, compared to bone. You need them all to survive and thrive.

Of course, it is important to distinguish between an organ and a tumor. All areas of human activity - construction, retail, transport, financial services, management, the arts and the entertainment industry, etc. etc. could be seen as similar to organs, in the sense that each one has a specific function to fulfill within society. But they can all develop tumors, (such as has happened recently in the financial sector). And tumors are of course are different story altogether, because we may have to operate just to survive. And when we do, it would be nice if we could distinguish between the greedy, arrogant and selfish people who actively helped create the tumors, and those that just drifted into the situation by chance and are now hanging on to the only job that they know how to do.  It would be nice, but I don't think it is going to happen.