Authorvalentin

Heroes and Villains: The Wes Mantooth Philosophy

In the wake of an embarrassing game 3 playoff loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyle Lowry was asked about what it is that makes the Cavaliers a great team. He replied, “they’ve got LeBron James and no one can close the gap on him.”

Now, LeBron is indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But Kyle is trying to beat LeBron, and many people who heard these words (including yours truly) interpreted them as a sign that Kyle, and many of the Raptors, were mentally checked out. Defeated before the series is even over. After all, if “no one can close the gap on [LeBron]”, what’s the point of even playing?

This got me thinking. What is a good way of approaching your role models, those people that you admire, the ones you dare call your ‘heroes’? How do you maintain a healthy respect for their skills, without deifying them into an unreachable realm that makes you prone to excusing your own deficiencies?

I often hear the phrase ‘never meet your heroes,’ used in common parlance. Presumably this is meant to prevent the disappointing realization that one’s heroes are just people, with real emotions, real flaws and potentially very little to say to a star-struck fan. But why is this bad? Shouldn’t this realization be a beacon of hope that we too, someday, can accomplish the same things we admire in our role models, while still grappling with our own messy humanity? Shouldn’t Kyle look at LeBron on the court and say, he’s just another guy shooting hoops, drinking water, missing free throws. He’s not a God, he’s just a genetically gifted athlete with a Versa-climber.

Maybe not. Maybe really what we’re scared of is this very realization. The fact that our heroes are not Gods, and yet they still do what they do. How can you be that athletic, at that height, for so long?

Plato’s realm of ideal forms comes to mind. There are no perfect spheres in this world, but all spheres are an imperfect realization of the ideal Sphere. Is it better to keep imagining the ideal basketball player, or meet an imperfect (but damn close) manifestation of that ideal? What motivates you to improve? Despite Plato’s ideal realm, much of Greek mythology has distinctly anthropomorphic Gods, with human flaws. Presumably, the Greeks felt this made the Gods more relatable, and made their myths more effective. Yet, many modern Gods are undoubtedly much more abstract, and unhuman. (A clear exception to this is many sects of Christianity which accept the holy trinity, a resolution that combines aspects of both the ideal, and the human aspects of God).

Setting aside heroes, what about our enemies, our ‘villains’? Should we humanize them (exposing our common humanity, and holding hands to sing Kumbaya), but keep our heroes sterile, unsullied by the humbling reality of being a real, shitting, sneezing, tax-paying human being?

I think this unification is in many ways futile. It makes it harder for us to fight for any cause and traps us in a pit of nuance and indecision. It is much easier to hate the Bogeyman than it is to fight a man on the toilet (shout out to Tyrion for still getting it done).

Perhaps a reasonable approach is a good, healthy amount of respectful hatred for both our heroes and our villains. Perhaps what I really wanted Kyle to do was quote Wes Mantooth from Anchorman: “from deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, [LeBron] do I respect you!”

What say you, Rachit?

NFC Podcast #15 – Philanthropy, Deontology, and Effective Altruism: Mo money, mo problems?

The 15th NeverFromConcentrate podcast about philanthropy, charity and how best to express one’s ‘love for mankind’. We talk about Henry David Thoreau, Steve Jobs, and Yuval Noah Harari.

Slav, the Karma Auditor

Ok, so what exactly is ‘logical, effective, and morally responsible’? It’s nice to conclude this, but is it just highfalutin equivocation to make us feel better without actually doing much?

Even if we accept that we don’t need to burden ourselves with ‘empathy’, how do we know when our compassion is enough to please Dev? How exactly do we reconcile all of the different ways to account for our karma? Does Dev use GAAP or IFRS? Do we need ‘charity advisors’ that spend years analyzing different strategies towards maximizing our ROK (Return on Karma)?

Bloom’s argument seems logical – compassion is like empathy infused with the B word. We stay clear of the emotional pits of despair, while trying our best to solve the root problems that ail the people we are trying to help. Yet, of course, even the B word needs its own B word (it’s B word recursion!). Bloom himself agrees that empathy is still very useful in relationships: the trope of the man who is always trying to solve problems instead of just ‘listening’ is the first thing that I thought of when I read about his new book. Further, while empathy may not, like Bloom argues, scale well, it is nevertheless an incredible motivator. I remember more about the girl in Schindler’s List and Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan than any of my high school lessons on WW2.

Let me put on my deontological hat. What if a world filled with compassion leads to insidious side effects that a world with empathy does not? Perhaps we are a species that needs to empathize with stories on the level of the individual to truly be motivated to help? If everyone, in an act of true compassion, simply set a single recurring payment of $4000 a year to their favourite vetted charity – would that lead to a better world? Maybe in the short term, but is this really what we imagine when we think of ‘charity’ (the love of humanity)? Is the world really just filled with a finite set of problems to be solved, which upon being solved, will lead to some sort of utopia? I say no. We will always have problems, and we need empathy to constantly motivate us to help others solve their problems. Being compassionate may make us ‘feel better’ about just the act of helping, but being empathetic makes the human condition worthwhile.

A few weeks before he died in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher McCandless underlined a line from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: “an unshared happiness is not happiness.” I think the same applies to despair in the human race. We are comforted by knowing that other people understand our own condition. Take medicine: Bloom mentions that what we want from doctors is compassion, not empathy. But is it really? Or do patients ‘crave empathy’ and the compassion is actually perceived in a negative light?

Perhaps we humans need to imagine living the life of a Harambe or a Tilikum in order to actually do anything about animal captivity. Perhaps it’s exactly why there are laws against publishing images from factory farms (whereas there are no laws against publishing the statistics). The human species is built on empathy, and maybe, despite its faults, we need to work with it instead of trying to simply remove it from the equation.

So, after Dev is done with the Karma paperwork, make sure he consults Slav, the karma auditor and freelance karma collection consultant. I hear he knows exactly the right balance of compassion and empathy that gives you the best 5 year ROK.

Charity: The Slave Morality?

Here’s a thought experiment: a man is shopping on Black Friday and stumbles across an unbelievable deal on a 4K TV: $3337 off the sticker price! Unfortunately, there are only 10 units remaining, and the man sees a few people in line with more streaming in. Nearby the TV sale, the man also sees a small child playing close to a water fountain. Suddenly, the child loses balances, knocks their head on the concrete wall of the fountain, and falls into the water. No one seems to notice this fall except the man. From a moral perspective, is it ok for the man to ignore the child (knowing full well that he or she may die) in exchange for securing his spot for the TV?

It seems that for most people, in this scenario, the decision to save $3337 over the life of a human being is not a very difficult one. Of course the man should save the child.

Yet, we live in world where donating $3337 can save a life (GiveWell.org estimates that a donation of $3337.06 to the ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ will save a life in Africa.) So why don’t we feel morally obligated to donate as much as we can of our income for the benefit of other human beings?

This is the crux of the argument put forward by the effective altruism movement lead by Peter Singer, William MacAskill (both philosophy professors) and others. On Sam Harris’ podcast a few weeks ago, MacAskill talked about how he is now donating close to 40% of his income to charities and has been donating significant amounts ever since he was a PhD student (which gives me no excuse).

On the surface, I think I agree with this general movement, but have yet to put my money where my thoughts are. What’s your experience with charity, Rachit? Before you answer, let me note a few more thoughts that are applicable to charity in general (and not just effective altruism).

First, the modern concept of ‘charity’ feels bogged down by its ties to the distribution of abstract money (which then carries with it all the connotations of an Italian mob boss casually slipping an envelope into your suit pocket). The word itself seems to be originally free from such connections, originating in its modern form from the King James’ bible (as one of the Christian triplets ‘faith, hope and charity’) as the English translation of the French translation of the Latin translation of the Greek ‘agape’ (an unconditional love for others). The more high-brow term ‘philanthropy’ literally means ‘the love of humanity.’ Unfortunately it seems that we are ruled by the economic systems we create, and our language has now morphed these two words to be much more closely linked to monetary distribution, rather than their original abstract meaning. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing tendency to associate ‘philanthropic acts’ with a certain class of people, and rarely think about ways in which everyone can express their love.

Second: motivations. Does it matter whether you are driven to donate money out of a selfish need to parade your virtuosity to others or out of a genuine concern for the well-being of others? A consequentialist would probably say no. A deontologist would probably say yes, definitely. I would probably say, ‘it depends on the type of philanthropy.’ Does a child in Burkina Faso care whether their anti-malaria bed net was paid for by someone who then immediately shared their donation on Facebook? I don’t think so. But perhaps the motivations of a volunteer at a soup kitchen or an employee of a non-profit do matter.

Finally, charity as meaning. Christian theology has charity as one of its core tenets (as evidenced by the very etymology of the word). This may sound obvious from our current Western ideology, but is it? Although I haven’t read much of his work, Nietzsche called this approach a fundamentally weak ‘slave morality.’ By-and-large, nature does not have charity. Nature favours the most fit to survive, and uses instances of animals as mere cogs in the grand goal of creating a stronger species. Perhaps we are still struggling to reconcile older Christian theology, with many of the Nietzsche-an components of the 21st century world. It’s up to us to define what it means to be ‘charitable’, and whether we should all strive to be philanthropists.

NFC Podcast #14 – Politics, Writing and Trump

The 14th NeverFromConcentrate podcast with our guest, Hershal. We talk about politics, fame, and narcissism (and of course, digress into the subject of Donald Trump, and the role of the internet on our current ideology).

The Red-Delicious Truth

Here we go. I’m about to get the perfect, baseball-like rock, and throw my best Aroldis-Chapman-like 2-seam fastball right into the nearest glass wall. You ready?

Like a waxy red-delicious apple that falls on the supermarket floor, your ego, Hershal, may not appear bruised, but what does it really matter? It’s dead and flavourless inside – the sad result of the modern myopic pursuit of profit at the expense of true character and virtue.

Boom! Your ego, and my wall, shattered all at once. But now my wall is broken, and I feel cold and sad. Words hurt like 2-seam fastballs.

Let me rephrase my fire. One man’s trite musings are another man’s insight porn. And we, here at NFC, strive to be the very best pornographers we can be. Your first post, Hershal, was way too safe-for-work for my tastes. Of course, a true appreciation of the subtleties of fame requires a Steinbeck-esque tragedy epic set during the depression in the hills of Northern California. But (to continue this metaphor), we can still derive Cliffnote-climaxes from our 500 word posts, without having to set forth on a lifetime of love and true physical intimacy (in the hills of Northern California). What I’m trying to say, Hershal, is that your first post just didn’t ‘do it for me’.

Now on to your second, and definitely much more ‘NSFW’, post. Both of the categories you described: celebrity as ‘pathology’ and celebrity as ‘commodity’, teeter on the edge of tautology and science. I found the NPI questionnaire and completed it with a score of 13/40. I failed! US Celebrities scored a mean of 17.8 according to one study. The mean scores of American undergraduates seems to increase over time (from the 1980s to the mid 2000s), perhaps pointing to the rise of self-promotion on the internet, reality TV shows, and helicopter-parents that treat them as deities. Or does it? Like you alluded to, Academic publications have many flaws, and this particular ‘Inventory’ questionnaire is perhaps a first attempt at measuring ‘Narcissism’ that really just ends up begging-the-question (at least with the relation between narcissism and celebrity). For example, take the following statement pair (you are supposed to choose which of the two you identify with most):

1. I have a natural talent for influencing people.
2. I am not good at influencing people.

If you are a famous artist, you are, by definition, good at influencing people. You have succeeded at influencing some amount of people to watch your show, to listen to you music, or to purchase your merchandise. The same can be said (on a smaller scale) of local ‘celebrities’ who observe 200 likes on their Insta photo, and conclude the same thing. The ‘celebrity as commodity’ category you described is based on this fundamental property. So as a celebrity you either have to delude yourself into believing you’re nothing special, or you’re labeled a narcissist for correctly identifying what other people have already proven (i.e. you are good at influencing people, you like to be the centre of attention, etc.).

Celebrity as way to spur capitalism, while true, definitely also seems to be a part of the definition of being a celebrity. I like Bon Iver’s music. I buy Bon Iver’s merchandise. Justin Vernon does a commercial for, I don’t know, Snickers. I think, hey, Justin Vernon eats Snickers. Then I’m at the Gas station and have a sweet tooth and buy a Snickers because it makes me think of a cabin in Wisconsin.

But why should I care that Justin Vernon likes Snickers? Well, maybe I don’t care that Vernon or any other celebrity likes Snickers any more than you or Rachit like Snickers. But it makes sense for Mars to ask Vernon to endorse Snickers because a lot more people are familiar with him than you or Rachit. Again, not Rocket Science, simply a byproduct of being known by many people.

Perhaps we’re looking for some deeper reason to choose one action over another, and in Nietzsche’s Godless world, we deify celebrities like we used to deify monarchs. Or maybe that’s just a pornographic simplification that hides the banal, trite reality. Celebrities are people who are known by many people, and it is easier than ever to be known by many people and benefit from (or suffer due to) all of the associated side-effects.

The Parasocial Parasites

Welcome back, Hershal. First thing’s first, the word ‘abscond’. I have to be honest, I couldn’t understand what you meant by ‘absconding meaningful conclusions,’ so I had to look it up. This is what Mr. Webster tells me (the definition I assume is the most pertinent):

Abscond
\ab-ˈskänd, əb-\
to go away and take something that does not belong to you

Hm, well then. Are you implying you are an essayist hustler, stealing meaningful conclusions from us sucker NFC homies? Are you holding your verbal ‘gat’ to our metaphorical temple, yelling ‘you see this insightful shit? that’s mine, motherfuckers!’? Watch yourself- I’m about to spit fire onto your trite musings.

You’re right to be conflicted about fame. I think our society is conflicted about fame. The famous-yet-talentless artist is so much of cliche nowadays that I sometimes find myself surprised that anybody I have heard of has any real talent at all. It’s all autotune, TMZ, and good looks, right? Try this: go to an indie concert, or to some dive bar in the middle of yet-to-be-gentrified side street, or watch a youtube video of a cover artist with less than 1000 views. If the music sounds good, what does everyone say? ‘Wow, I can’t believe they’re not famous?!’

So which is it? Are famous people talentless-egomaniacs, or do we live in a meritocracy that promotes the talented to the top? My b-word-senses are tingling. Obviously fame comes from some concoction of luck, talent and determination. It seems, though, that when people get famous, they stay famous. And that I think is an idea worth talking about. Why do we care about some one-hit-wonder artist from the 90s?

That is where the science of social anthropology is relevant. There are several theories about the evolution of language in humans, and many of them revolve around gossip. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, do not use verbal cues to build one-on-one relationships, but instead engage in ‘social grooming’ where they sit together and literally scratch each other’s back. The language evolution theory hypothesizes that humans developed language by substituting this type of back scratching with verbally communicated gossip about other members of the tribe. The very structure of a sentence nicely follows from a single piece of gossip (the subject, Becky, the adjective clause, with long hair, the verb, stole, the object, my man). Juicy gossip would act as social capital, and those who were in-the-know were powerful members of the group.

A recent study showed that negative gossip about somebody can change the way your brain reacts to seeing their face (surprise, surprise). The reasoning is simple: we evolved to use gossip as a way to tell friend from foe. Information gleaned from gossip is therefore deeply ingrained into the linguistic and visual parts of the brain. We treat gossip about other people as “important,” no matter who they are. It’s just that it’s easier than ever now to communicate gossip across oceans, across racial and ethnic boundaries.

Did you know that the white wedding dress only caught on in the mid 19th century after Queen Victoria wore one? You think the Kardashian’s are good at being famous? Please. The royal family has been trend-setting for millenia.

Even hunter-gatherer societies have celebrities and status hierarchies. We have evolved to continuously obsess over the ‘top’, gossip about them to build relationships, and dream about making it big.

Perhaps the explosion of celebrity-worship in the last 50 years is different. It is easier than ever to substitute in person relationships with just constant second hand information about people you’ve never met. Fans develop ‘parasocial’ relationships with the famous, devouring the minutiae of their life like Remora fish (‘suckerfish’) devour the feces of their host-shark.

It’s gross. But it’s totally natural.

NFC Podcast #13 – Jiro Dream House

In this episode of the NeverFromConcentrate podcast, we talk about altruism, No Name kids, and the things we’d like to burn the most.

Usain Bolt’s Mitochondria

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance: the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, or as I knew of them before I googled their name: ‘the five stages of grief.’ How many of these have we experienced as we come to accept the inevitability of the b-word? We deny its existence by Voldemort-ing its name, we get angry at each other when we bring up dichotomies (no matter how subtle), we bargain on what constitutes an interesting conclusion, and we question the use of talking about anything given the inevitable appearance of the B. Are we ready to accept it? I don’t know. Everything in moderation, including moderation. Let’s work on it, and see how it goes.

Minimum guaranteed income is a wasp nest of interesting and controversial ideas. I’ve had a few conversations with otherwise really objective people who seem to dismiss it reflexively. “There’s no way we could ever pay for something like that,” is the usual response. I wonder if people had the same reaction to free public K-12 schooling in the early 20th century. Without getting into financial minutiae of MGI as a policy, it’s worthwhile to just explore its similarity to universal public schools. Both ideas place a significant fiscal burden on most of the populace, while only significantly helping the lower portion (I would imagine most middle class families would be able to afford some moderately priced ‘private’ school given a significant tax-break from not paying for public school boards). Similarly, they are not both obviously the correct solution to a difficult problem, and may stand to benefit only a portion of the population. In the U.S., as late as 1940, only 50% of all adults earned a high school diploma, and it wasn’t until 1965 that there was a significant federal bill passed that addressed access to primary and secondary education. There’s a big difference between these two initiatives though, and I think it’s the core reason why MGI will never be implemented in its current form in most western countries. That difference is one of branding. Public schools are branded as gateways to a better future. Minimum guaranteed income is branded as a cheat code for lazy parasites. I think we can make significant headway by simply changing the name to something like the “Poverty Protection Grant”. Public initiatives are always about branding (take a look at the renamed ‘Relief Line’ of the TTC, purposely omitting the ‘Downtown’ so as to not offend the suburb votes), and I think this one will take a significant shift in perspective to be palpable to a largely Puritan, ‘work is good,’ public.

The ‘paradox of work’ is also an interesting topic to discuss. Part of me thinks this is all quite straight-forward: we’re terrible at predicting our own happiness. As Jerry Seinfeld said in his interview with Howard Stern (which is great by the way, watch it if you have an hour and a half to spare) “no one wants to do anything.” Who wants to go to the gym? Or go meet new people? Or write a blog post? Psychopaths and 4 year olds. How tropy is the classic sitcom husband who-hates-doing-anything-but-watching-football-with-the-guys become? By the same notion, people think that doing absolutely nothing will be blissful, but end up stuck in a whirlwind of possibilities. I think many of us are not driven enough to just choose something and run with it. We evolved in groups of homosapiens, not independently, and we’ve come to depend on external social pressure. I like to imagine groups of people like a house of cards, each supporting each other, but useless alone.

As for your Jiro-Dream-Town, I wonder whether it’s a town or a ghetto. On many levels, the idea you bring up exists: they’re called maker labs, and Etsy shops, and youtube channels. People like Casey Neistat make a good living by ‘just’ filming themselves every day. With enough skill and hard work, it’s already possible to make a decent living with ‘hobbies, and bits of leisure’, but I wonder how society will look on these people when anybody can do that? With admiration? With disgust? Will it be like the scene from ‘Her’ when Joaquin Phoenix’s friend discovers he’s dating an ‘OS’. ‘Oh you don’t work? How is that? My brother-in-law doesn’t work!’

My favourite book of the last few years is ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Harari. In it he talks about how the most influential thinkers of the last two centuries were not Theologians scouring ancient texts, but philosophers like Karl Marx who observed the society around him, and wrote down what he perceived to be bad and good. One of Marx’s key criticisms of ‘modern’ (i.e. late 19th century) capitalism is that is divorces the worker with the final output of his work. We are part of a machine, but we rarely get to see the end product the machine spits out (if that product can even be defined). All of these low-level ‘jobs’ seek to go back to that direct connection of worker and product. But is that really what we need? Maybe, after all, we’re just like the things that make us up. We’re just like the lonely mitochondria that swims within one of Usain Bolt’s cells. Completely unaware that he just won the Olympic gold.

Brave New Perspective

What is perspective exactly? I think the analogy between a physical vista, and a metaphorical ‘stance’ on some issue may be a bit misleading (at least in clear weather). I agree – we shouldn’t lallygag over completely substance-free questions. That said, posing the correct question may be just as important as giving your own perspective – especially when that perspective may be completely mal-formed or missing. The first post can clear the fog, so to speak, so that we know where to drive to get the best view of the idea-landscape.

On a related note, I was listening to a podcast recently called ‘Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature)’ (recorded for a Stanford University radio show) that talked about Wittgenstein as a philosopher. One of the criticisms against him is that all he did was raise questions and outline criticisms of modern philosophical perspectives, yet provided no meaningful input into alternatives. Much of his work denigrated academic philosophy as a general pursuit, but his answer to ‘what should philosophers be doing?’ was essentially ’something else.’ So what use is there for scepticism without substantial alternatives? If we were all sceptics, there would be nothing to doubt (since no one would think of any ideas). Yet, if we’re all idea generators, then we can’t meaningfully communicate and share important ideas. Perhaps this is a (meta-)topic for another day, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.

Ok back on the topic at hand. You mentioned dirty jobs. I agree, currently those are needed. But inevitably automation will replace many of the human jobs within those fields, will it not? What happens then? Will we get a new class of dirty jobs, or will the landscape of ‘career options’ be forever changed. I would tend to go with the latter. I imagine a world where the large majority of the developed countries essentially contain modern-day aristocrats. A world in which we are even more removed from the ideas of hunger, bad harvests, and self-sufficiency. I like to imagine the Wall-E space-ship, but with more exercise (since I think we are much to vain to ever allow obesity to be the norm). In that world, how does one choose a job, if even the idea of having a job is optional?

In that world, I’m thinking the ‘true calling’ gives way to our affinity towards working directly with physical objects (i.e we strive to be Jiro, not Bono), since inevitably it seems that the ‘high-level’ issues will either be truly reduced to a marginal rate, or completely hidden away from anyone within the developed society. Come to think of it, this is sounding more and more like some sort of dystopian novel, but I can’t help but go along with it. If automation and science removes the need to think about our own survival, and we’ve automated away retail shopping, food production, sanitation, transportation, etc. what is there left? Only the two extremes: either we make like John in Brave New World and fight for some broad justice, or we reconnect with our hunter-gatherer DNA and make artisan food and accessories. Is there really an alternative?