Silver in the mine, jade unpolished

For the holidays, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which is by Benjamin Franklin:

Genius without education is like silver in the mine.

And because all grand thoughts are timeless, they must re-appear in an eternal return.

So this quote, too, must have antecedents. Let’s work backwards in time, to savor even more of the same wisdom:

First stop: Song Dynasty

From my daughter, who is currently reciting the 13th-century Sanzi Jing (the Three-character Classic, a Confucian poem-treatise), I hear the beautifully rhythmic:

Which means (Number 7 here):

Jade that has not been polished

cannot be used.

[a] Person who has not studied

cannot know righteousness.

Second stop: Rome

By Rome I mean Latin. Let’s see: to educate = ex-ducere = to lead out

Lead out? As in: get out what is already there, as in silver or jade? Where might that idea have come from?

Third stop: Socrates

We haven’t talked about Socrates for a while here on The Hannibal Blog. (Here are all my old posts about him. He is not in my book, by the way).

The old man had his own silver/jade/education theory: He called it (in the Meno and Phaedo) “anamnesis”. And he demonstrated it by … helping a slave to remember (= “teaching”) that the blue square below has twice the area of the yellow square:

The lesson

And now for Kluthian axiom number whatchammacallit:

It’s in there. Get it out.

Happy holidays.

Life reversals: the case of the White Moustache

And now: something completely different, and much more important — indeed, rather uplifting, in the spirit of the season.

We are, obviously, talking about … yogurt.

Way back in May, I wrote a story in The Economist called Red Tape in California: Beware of the yogurt. The title says it all, really. But if you need additional context, my favorite line from the article is:

The tale thus went from Kafka to Catch-22.

In a nutshell, it is the tale of a Zoroastrian father-daughter team (pictured above) in Orange County who make fantastically good “artisinal” yoghurt — or would make it, if it weren’t for California’s bureaucrats. Go read the rest.

Why do I bring this up now? Because there has been an epilogue, which is unfolding still.

A few weeks after the article appeared, Homa (the daughter) emailed me that

… we were requested by two news sources a Chilean newspaper “Las Ultimas Noticias” (a conservative daily based in Santiago), and Fox Business News “America’s Nightly Scoreboard” to give an interview…. We were written up in HaAretz, an Israeli paper, which was basically a translation of your article, except with the headline: “U.S. against Iran– now the scene of yogurt”… A film-maker has asked us for the movie rights, he wants to call the documentary: “The Curdled Crusaders” — Catchy. Tons of people have commented on our FB page and send individual e-mails of support. A few consultants who want to help us more to other states (Tennessee, Texas, Mexico). Some wanting to know where to buy the yogurt (clearly, they didn’t pay attention to the article).

Pretty good, don’t you think?

And now, just the other day, Homa emailed again:

Dear Andreas,

I hope this letter finds you well. There have been quite a few developments for us (specifically in the last three weeks) which most definitely relate back to the piece you wrote on us. Most pleasantly, Secretary of State for Oregon Kate Brown read The Economist piece in November and thought “This shouldn’t happen. Let’s get her to make it up in Oregon.” And so she invited me up, introduced me to regulators and business recruiters and even though their regulations are similar to California, their attitude has been: How can we make this happen for you?” It has been such a nice change.

Also, nine months of begging for an audience, Karen Ross of The CDFA has finally agreed to meet with us (today!) and tell us what exactly the public risk is of using already pasteurized milk.

Ironically, I’ve only made yogurt twice in this whole time. An ideal time, I figured, to experiment with the paleo diet.

Best,

Homa

Bill of Rights for Friends of Authors

1) Thesis

I was talking to my boss the other day about my imminent book launch. After a few glasses of wine, and in the company of other writers, he, an accomplished serial author with a very British sense of humor, told me, claiming to speak from experience, that

the only thing you’ll ever regret is that you didn’t prostitute yourself more.

He meant, of course, that I (and all authors) should, at least this once, get over the discretion that is native to people of manners, and just … market (verb). Because if we authors don’t, nobody else will, and we authors will be angry with ourselves later.

2) Antithesis

On the other hand, I have been around some authors who, for a period lasting months, turn into book-marketing robots, to the point where I can no longer have a normal conversation with them.

And so I understand fully the humanitarian need for limits.

3) Synthesis

So, in the spirit of mutual empathy between Authors and Friends of Authors, I (pictured above, seated) hereby promulgate a Bill of Rights — nay, a Magna Carta — to protect … you.

(Whoever you might be. But especially if you happen to be somebody I know, like, owe, am married to, have fathered, have been friends with…..)

Rights:

  1. There shall continue to be, as there have been since time immemorial, topics of conversation that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Author’s Book, and the Author shall respect said topics as such — ie, as inviolable.
  2. If the Author happens to moderate a panel about an interesting (or even a boring) topic unrelated to his Book, the Author shall refrain from name-dropping his Book in introducing the Panelists or while moderating their debate. If the Author violates this rule, the Audience shall be within its rights to boo Him off the stage, with the physical assistance of the Panelists.
  3. If thou had, in thy previous dealings with the Author, the sort of relationship in which thou could call Him a wanker, or to cast other aspersion upon Him with impunity and to humorous effect, thou shalt retain said privileges in perpetuity, whether that friggin’ Book of His is a hit or a flop, because that’s really not thy problem.
  4. When meeting the Author socially, especially if the meeting involves a Honig Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, thou mayest, with impunity, assert thy right to have a pleasant evening without being reminded of the darned Book at all.
  5. Thou shalt not blame, loathe or disdain the Author merely for marketing His Book to Others, being mindful that the Author is a prostitute only temporarily and on good advice, as wouldst thou be in His stead.
  6. Finally, thou hast the right, should thou find the Author’s presence insufferable nonetheless, physically to evade the Author for a period not exceeding the two months around the launch date, provided thou welcome the Author back into human society after the whole silly spectacle passeth into oblivion (which, remember, is a lot sooner than the Author thinks).

Audacity, Freedom, Captivity

Thank you to Jim M., a regular reader here, who emailed me a link to something that I had written but completely forgotten. It is this, which is itself part of this.

Here is how that came about: About a year ago, my publisher asked me to meditate, in less than 500 words total, on people in the news at that time, in the style of Hannibal and Me. The idea was not to regurgitate anything from the book, but to extend the approach as one might in casual conversation. The exercise was meant as a teaser for book professionals.

So I banged out three haikus, each with a theme, a person in the news, and a person from the book:

  • Audacity – Sarah Palin – Sempronius/Flaminius/Varro
  • Freedom – Hillary Clinton – Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Captivity – Larry Page – Albert Einstein

(Just to be completely clear: Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton and Larry Page are not in the book. My publisher and I were just having a bit of fun.)

Here goes:

Audacity

The best defense is a good offense, and Sarah Palin has adopted this principle as her own. Wherever she appears, she attacks. When she feels cornered, she attacks harder. Palin might want to study the Roman generals Sempronius, Flaminius, and Varro. Each was ruined by this strategy when he met a shrewder opponent, the Carthaginian Hannibal. All three had only one approach: audacious attack. All had a history of success. But this made them inflexible. Hannibal turned this inflexibility against them. In three separate battles, Hannibal goaded them into attacking, then waited until their forces, through their own momentum, lost their balance. When they did, Hannibal fell upon them.

Freedom

In one of her debates with then-candidate Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton said, “Everyone here knows I’ve lived through some crises.” She could only have been referring to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That humiliation could have shattered her marriage to Bill Clinton, his presidency, and her own life. That it didn’t and instead helped launch her onto a new path suggests that Clinton’s psychological journey paralleled that of another former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1918, Mrs. Roosevelt discovered love letters between her husband, Franklin, and her secretary, Lucy Mercer. She plunged into a deep depression. But in her rage and sorrow, she discovered a feeling of liberation. The Mercer affair freed her to redefine her life’s meaning and her options. It also freed her to view her husband honestly, and the two formed a new, very different but ultimately stable bond.

(Click for credits)

Captivity

At age thirty-eight, Larry Page takes over as chief executive of Google. He cofounded it with Sergey Brin when they were both twenty-five and students at Stanford, after Page invented his revolutionary PageRank search algorithm. In 2001 they hired an older man to be CEO, but ten years later the apprenticeship is over: It is Page’s turn to run the company. He might want to review what happened to Albert Einstein at the equivalent juncture in life: At twenty-six, Einstein had produced four short but revolutionary papers that transformed physics. Einstein then kept refining his insights until he was thirty-eight, when he discovered general relativity. Although he did not know it then, this was a turning point. His imagination became a prisoner of its very success. A perplexing conservatism seized Einstein’s mind and never let go. Page must make sure that this does not happen to him—or to Google.

The brain: How body makes spirit

We Westerners have traditionally viewed mind as separate from matter, spirit as separate from body. This assumption started with Plato and culminated in Descartes, who drew the sketch above. And the notion trickled down from the various philosophers into what we consider “common sense”. In the Graeco-Roman “leg” of our heritage, spirit and body were seen as equal in stature (hence Juvenal: “mens sana in corpore sano“). In the Judeo-Christian leg, body was seen as inferior. But the essential dualism between the two was mostly taken for granted.

Eastern traditions such as Hinduism, by contrast, have traditionally viewed body as arising out of spirit. So pure energy or collective spirit, Brahman, might take the form of individual spirit, Atman, and become the body of something, through the magic process of Maya. (Recall that the Sanskrit word Maya is the root of magic.) That magic could work in both directions, but the essential monism of spirit and body were and are mostly taken for granted.

Modern neuroscience lets us correct and refine both of these views. And this is the first of my tentative conclusions after studying the brain for the past year. We now understand that something as simple as a thought or an emotion or as complex as “consciousness” is an emergent phenomenon from a pattern of physical events.

Those events are action potentials, electrochemical signals that propagate through one neuron and jump across synapses to other neurons. The mechanics of such propagation inside each individual neuron and of the “hop” (or the non-hop) across the synapses are fascinating. But the magic, the Maya, arises — or emerges — when those patterns of action potentials become self-aware. And not just self-aware but “happy”, “aroused”, “aggressive” and so forth.

Dualism, in other words, is wrong. Monism is right, but runs in the opposite direction. Not from spirit to matter and back, as in the Vedantic model, but from matter to spirit and back again to matter.

This insight, once one gets used to it, is merely the beginning of a cascade of radical questions. Such as:

  • What is “personality”? Why and how is your emergent magic different than mine?
  • Do we have “free will”? When, and how much?

Those have to wait for their own posts.

Lessons in meritocracy from Gadaffi’s son

At a very stimulating dinner the other day, somebody told me an anecdote that happened to him “at Davos a few years ago”, when he was chatting (as one does) with one of the sons of then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

(I should say that the topic of conversation at the table was “meritocracy”, and whether the Chinese Communist Party might, surprisingly, be better at fostering it in its internal ranks than America’s allegedly transparent and hyper-democratic electoral systems.)

In any case, Gaddafi junior (I don’t know which one), said something like:

Do you want to know why Israel wins all the wars against Arabs? Because the Israeli army is meritocratic: they pick the generals that will win wars. In our armies, we pick the generals that will be the smallest threat to the boss.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it? And is applicable to a lot else, isn’t it?

The benefits of a blogging holiday

Without even having planned it, I have just taken a one-month blogging holiday. By which I mean: a holiday from blogging, not a holiday spent blogging. And what a healthy thing that turned out to be. I recommend it.

That the hiatus occurred during the dog days of August was pure coincidence. It was neither heat nor languor (in excess of the usual dose) that kept me from logging on. Instead, it was that larger category of reasons which we might call “life happens”. When life does happen offline, it’s sometimes best to stay there (ie, offline).

Only twice in the past month was I tempted to break this online fast by posting:

Once, when I read something that so outraged and offended and mystified me that I at once unsheathed my blogging sword to slice and stab and slay. This resulted in a long draft saved in my WordPress account that will probably never see the light of day. For I showed it to a family member or two, and these confidants — though agreeing with, and liking, my polemic — asked sensibly whether I needed to pick this particular battle just now, just so, or indeed at all. No, I didn’t, I realized. After all, picking one’s battles well is the secret to strategy as opposed to tactics (which, in a way, is the thesis of my book in one nugget.) So this particular battle will not be fought. (Except perhaps posthumously, as Twain might say.)

The second instance when I was tempted, I produced another draft, less controversial and quite entertaining. But I now felt that it was — in comparison to the polemic just left unpublished — banal. Why bother? Back to life.

So here I am again. The break allowed me to reflect where I want to take this blog in the coming months.

Recall: I started the blog rather prematurely three years ago, to write about my book. My editor subsequently urged me rather passionately not to divulge much from the book before publication. That left my blog without a purpose. So I began goofing off intellectually, with threads on:

and so forth. None of those had much to do with my book at all. I was just amusing myself.

So, in a couple of months, I’d like to return to this blog’s original purpose: as a journal in support of, and about, the stories in my book.

In the meantime, I might just tie up a few of the loose “threads” from the past three years. And I might just indulge myself with one new one.

(That’s because, for the past year or so, my new hobby has been to study the brain — human and animal, male and female, old and young, happy and depressed, criminal and healthy, et cetera. So the new thread would be about brain science and its implications for life, justice, love and everything else.)

But then, at the latest in December, it’s all book, all the time, for any of you who will still be around for the fun.

The clothes and slippers on Wilshire Boulevard

I was sitting in a cafe on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica when, diagonally across the intersection, the firetrucks, police cars and ambulances pulled up from all sides, sirens ablaze.

Another accident, said a customer near me.

One of my children goes to a little school on Wilshire, not far.

Often, as I sit in this cafe, I look up from my book and just look at the drivers zipping by. About half of them, maybe more, seem to be on their phones as they propel their heavy metal killing machines through this human hive. It’s so booooring to have to drive. Must talk or text to pass the time.

Later I walked to the ATM, then home. The ambulances were gone now. Only some clothes and slippers and what looked like a pair of sunglasses were left in the intersection, now guarded by cops.

Why did they not clean it up? I don’t know. Evidence, perhaps. The paramedics had cut the clothes from the two bodies, the better to try to save the lives.

I learned that a driver, aged 28, had plowed through two people, a man aged 61 and a woman aged 62 — perhaps a couple — at a crosswalk. They were walking on the zebra stripes, and the driver simply did not stop.

Was he texting or on the phone? I asked the cop. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say.

Did that matter? I wondered. Perhaps only insofar as the answer might, just might, make others change their behavior (ie, put their phones away in the car) and save lives not yet lost or shattered.

More than two lives had just been lost or shattered right here, while I was drinking a double latte across the street. Not just the two whose clothes I was seeing. All the lives they had touched. I walked home to my kids.

The sociological breakthrough of Google+

My last Facebook update said:

Too busy playing on Google+ to check FB

And that was five days ago.

The truth is that I’ve long been too busy doing anything to check Facebook. I’ve secretly, and increasingly, loathed Facebook since I joined it, which was relatively early (beginning of 2007, I believe), because my beat at The Economist back then was Silicon Valley, and it was simply part of my job to be fiddling with stuff like this. (I’m not the only one loathing FB, apparently.)

Ah, 2007. That seems like a distant era now. I still recall meeting Mark Zuckerberg, who was not yet used to meeting anybody, much less the heads of state and glitterati that surround him now, and who was awkward even by the standards of Silicon Valley’s skewed autism spectrum. (Here is the profile I wrote about him soon after that meeting.)

So anyway, I was and remained “on Facebook”, the way one just is. How could I not be? But I was almost entirely passive (observing incoming updates without sending outgoing ones). And I was proud of my wife, who is savvy in such matters and simply said ‘I’ll sit this one out’. She never signed up.

Why this skepticism?

Because Facebook is fundamentally (=unalterably) indiscreet.

And it is fundamentally indiscreet because it is architecturally indiscrete. (Forgive me that word play.) Meaning: you cannot distinguish easily between different degrees of intimacy among the people in your social graph. The various relationships are not discrete, not separate.

Mark’s vision (as he told it to me back then, and as I described it in my early profile) was to be a “mapmaker” (like the heroic explorers of the Renaissance) of human connections. To him that was an algorithmic challenge. I always knew that his premise was unsound sociologically.

Tell me: In real life, how often do you walk up to somebody and request to be “friends”, then begin “sharing” pictures of your naked baby?

How wonderfully warm and fuzzy do you feel when somebody (oh yes, wasn’t he on my soccer team 30 years ago? Or perhaps I vomited on him at that keg party in 1989?) stops you on the street, asks to be “friends”, then shares his baby pictures with you?

Mark has been asking us all to do exactly this sort of thing. I thought it was strange back then, and I said so in our pages. (The picture at the top of this post is from that old piece.) But — did I mention? — that was in 2007. A different era, as I said.

Facebook then put us all on a roller coaster of “privacy” policies. (We’ve discussed some of them on this blog.) It got more and more confusing, and simultaneously boring. Who wants to put in the time to learn what Mark is up to now?

Plus: the page started to look like Times Square in the 1970s. (Remember, aesthetics really, really matter to me.)

So now we have Google+. It has not even officially been launched yet, but seems to have passed 18 million users today. We all thought that sheer fatigue would keep all of us from filling out yet another profile. But lo, everyone I know is already there, and we’re playing happily. Even my wife is trying it out.

Google+’s crucial innovation (among many others existing or planned) is Circles. You can make as many of them as you like. They can contain 1 person, 2 people, the Dunbar number, or the entire web. Because there are things you want to share with just one person, or with 2, or with lots, or with everybody (as on WordPress).

Ergo: Discrete → discreet

You also don’t have to ask anybody to be your “friend”. Nor do you have to reply to anybody’s “friend request”. You simple put people into the discrete/discreet spheres they already inhabit in your life.

Quite a few of us — Nick Bilton at the NYT, for example — seem to be optimistic that this is the beginning of a good trajectory. (Nothing new should be evaluated by what it is today. What matters is what it will become tomorrow.)

Now, if you had asked me which company I considered least likely to come up with such a sociologically simple and elegant solution, I might well have answered: Google.

Its founders and honchos worship algorithms more than Mark Zuckerberg does. (I used to exploit this geekiness as “color” in my profiles of Google from that era.) Google then seemed to live down to our worst fears by making several seriously awkward attempts at “social” (called Buzz and Wave and so forth).

But these calamities seem to have been blessings. Google seems to have been humbled into honesty and introspection. It then seems to have done the unthinkable and consulted not only engineers but … sociologists (yuck). And now it has come back with … this.