Daniels on bogus illnesses

Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple) on “bogus illnesses” and their relationship to tort law.

Miracles are usually taken to mean that saints or relics cause miraculous improvements, but the tort law system causes miraculous deterioration in people. According to this law, if a person does you wrong by act, omission or negligence, and you suffer from it, you are entitled to compensation. And this sounds like a natural justice, but as we know – anything that can be corrupted by perverse incentives will be corrupted by perverse incentives.

It is in the power of any man to exaggerate what he has suffered, and continues to suffer. And in this case, the alleged injury – namely, whiplash – exists only in those countries in which the sufferer of it can be legally compensated for it. It does not exist in those jurisdictions where it is not recognized as an injury that can be compensated.

Apart from a slight soreness of the neck for a day or two, in other jurisdictions people get better straight away. But not in England or America.

Are you as busy as you think?

Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.

– Laura Vanderkam, Are you as busy as you think?

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. Most lives are lived with passivity toward death — it’s something that happens to you and those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

– Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

WikiLeaks spreads truth

This piece was published in The Collegian (Grove City College) on December 10, 2010. I was 19 years old when I wrote it. I’m 25 now, and it has once again become relevant.

WikiLeaks.org, media organization of journalist Julian Assange, came under harsh criticism last week for its recent and ongoing release of sensitive United States diplomatic cables. Firmly condemned by several prominent politicians, some called for Assange’s arrest, as secrets of American foreign policy are being made available to every Internet user in the world.

At first glance, it is easy to condemn the methods WikiLeaks employed as it exposed sensitive government material. Echoing the world’s most powerful political figures has always been the easy way out when faced with this sort of moral dilemma.

But the mark of the exceptional man has always been to look beyond first impressions to the underlying truth. In this case, even the most basic investigation of the WikiLeaks’ vision should be enough to convince the strongest critic of the vital importance of preserving and encouraging this new species of journalism.

A healthy free press has historically been the common man’s most powerful defense against the abuses of oppressive government. Indeed, the unique liberty enjoyed by the modern journalist has brought the poorest of people a medium of expression unparalleled in all world history. The dignity of the individual, human rights, and a vicious hate of injustice have no roots in despotic government or powerful regimes, but in the pens of sincere and concerned activists.

Julian Assange recognized this when he formed WikiLeaks in 2006. “The aim of WikiLeaks” he said, “is to achieve just reform around the world and do it through the mechanism of transparency.”

In this he has been very successful. WikiLeaks has received praise from such organizations as the Index on Censorship and Amnesty International for its work in exposing underground human rights violations. It has also served as a blueprint for other journalists seeking to use the Internet to breach the confidentiality of fraudulent establishments to protect human life and dignity.

But when WikiLeaks turned its sights toward the U.S. last week, revealing dishonesty at the federal level, its credibility as a media agency went down the drain. Almost unanimously, Western politicians condemned WikiLeaks, some even going so far as to call for Assange’s assassination. They argue that his efforts endangered innocent lives. Sarah Palin, for example, named him “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” and she was joined by others calling for his eventual execution.

But what is the press worth if its operation is subject to government regulation? If government is allowed to silence the press with the force of law, accountability is lost and the government becomes their own interpreter.

Many will argue, however, that secrecy in diplomacy is necessary to ensure an efficient international system. This is a reasonable argument in the modern context; the status quo rests on an intricate network of secrets and political back-dealing.

But as reformers, these journalists’ vision transcends boundaries, seeking a society free from dependence on fragile confidentiality. “It shouldn’t really be ‘should something be kept secret?’” Assange said. “I would rather it be thought, ‘who has a responsibility to keep certain things secret, and who has a responsibility to bring matters to the public?’ Those responsibilities fall on different players. And it is our responsibility to bring matters to the public.”

Just as international politics evolves, so must investigative journalism. WikiLeaks represents the next step in the evolution of the press to maintain its role as the guardian of truth in a world of increasingly intricate politics. If the national interest overrides the role of truth in the world, we are very hopeless indeed – the common man most of all. In this age when the plight of the individual can appear exceedingly insignificant amidst the web of excessive political activity, the free press is desperately needed.

It is only to be expected that the world’s most powerful regimes would condemn the revelation of truth. But it is up to us whether we will consider the facts as they exist, or refuse to accept all who might expose our faults. If we cannot compete with the truth, are we to kill its messenger? Truth is worthless if accepted selectively.

Congressman Ron Paul put it this way: “In a free society, we are supposed to know the truth. In a society where truth becomes treason, we are in big trouble.”

Me on the “uber of giving”

Me at FEE.org yesterday:

That’s the key here—the difference that makes DonorSee an actual revolution in the way people give to the overseas poor. The app crowdsources fundraising and rewards aid workers who devise the most rewarding and effective ways to raise money. Almost like Reddit, users promote posts and projects they like the best—a function of the uploaders’ creativity and the details of the project itself.

Read the full article.

How to find a lost Android phone

Ever lost your phone? It’s the worst. So frustrating.

Google to the rescue (at least, for Android users).

Next time you lose your phone, go to myaccount.google.com. Scroll to the bottom and click “Get started” under Find your phone. Select your phone from the list, and you’ll see what to do next. You can have it ring on full volume even if muted. You can locate it (though if it’s in your house, that’s about as specific as you’ll get). You can even lock your phone or erase the data. It’s amazing, really.

That’s it. Don’t lose your phone. If you do, find it this way.

Just a helpful hint!

 

Online search comes full-circle

From Matthew Capala at TheNextWeb.com.

In his recent takedown of tech culture, Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble, Dan Lyons writes about blogging purely for SEO optimization — basically, great content that is devoid of value but stuffed full of buzzwords to fool Google’s search algorithm.

It’s a funny and probably overblown passage, but it raises a serious point for content marketers; in the past, they’ve had to write around keywords, often at the expense of creating content and telling stories people want to read. The introduction of Google’s Rankbrain could put an end to all this, once and for all.

With it’s honed ability to collect and interpret massive user data from Google.com, Chrome, and Android, Google now allows readers to give feedback — in the form of bounce-backs, click patterns, pogosticking, and click-through-rates — on whether your content piece actually does what it promised to do.

So if you wrote a compelling, educational piece, including a lot of research and diligence, you’re in the clear; but if you wrote a piece that didn’t provide enough value, you could easily lose the top spot if enough readers felt like you were wasting their time.

In short, keyword search is maturing. Google is getting smarter, and “hacking” content to boost its search engine rating isn’t going to work anymore.

In a sense, this is web search coming full-circle. In the very near future, online content creators aren’t going to worry about keywords. They will worry only about providing actual value to real human beings with their content. They won’t think anymore about the medium – AI is taking care of that – and won’t have to optimize their content for anything other than their audience’s preferences.

This is the web, in a sense, becoming “invisible.” The medium of the internet will be harder and harder to detect in the future. I don’t mean we won’t need to connect to WiFi or that we won’t ever have problems logging on. I mean our interaction with web content will be more intimate. There will be less and less “calibrating” that goes on between us and the content we’re consuming. It will speak to us more clearly and more directly.

The effect of this type of AI extends beyond our life online. It affects the evolution of our language and how we communicate with each other. That’s another topic, but suffice it to say that as AI improves our experience consuming web content, which interplays tremendously with language, we’ll see changes (improvements, I think) in language itself. For example, we may search for X, but AI means Google knows that information on Y is actually what we want, even though we don’t know it, and gives us information on Y. This changes the way we think about X and helps us understand better just what it is we’re all trying to get at, and thereby, just what words we really ought to be using.

 

All is speculation

From Philip Carret’s The Art of Speculation:

It is unfortunate that the word “speculation” immediately suggests the word “stocks” to most people. When his neighbors gather at the 19th hole of the local country club and discuss the apparent prosperity of Henry Robinson, the local miller, their natural comment is that Henry is a shrewd businessman. It occurs to no one to say that Henry is a successful speculator, though the flourishing state of his business may be due far more to his correctness in judging the wheat market than to his skill as a manufacturer or merchant. Though the speculation involved in the miller’s operations is incidental to his main business, it is speculation nonetheless.

It’s important to consider the extent of any action’s speculative aspect in light of a risk-reward paradigm. Is something more “speculative” or riskier because it entails a higher likelihood of major loss? It’s likely that such an action also entails a higher likelihood of major gain. This is about expected outcomes – if it’s no lower than alternative, less risky investments, then is it any more “speculative”?

Go with the flow

An interesting selection from Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

For Csikszentmihalyi, the signature experience of experts is flow, a state of complete concentration “that leads to a feeling of spontaneity.” Flow is performing at high levels of challenge and yet feeling “effortless,” like “you don’t have to think about it, you’re just doing it.”

For example, an orchestra conductor told Csikszentmihalyi:

You’re in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. … My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out by itself.

And a competitive figure skater gave this description of the flow state:

It was just one of those programs that clicked. I mean everything went right, everything felt good. …it’s just such a rush, like you could feel it go on and on and on, like you don’t want it to stop because it’s going so well. It’s almost as though you don’t have to think, everything goes automatically without thinking.

Csikszentmihalyi has gathered similar first-person accounts from hundreds of experts. In every field studies, optimal experience is describes in similar terms.

Some efficiency tips for noobs

My biggest pet peeves are clutter, unnecessary details and logistical messes.

I hate digging around for things in my own home. I can hardly stand watching someone try to find some important “lost” file on their computer because they weren’t thinking when they saved it the first time. I go crazy listening to people stress out while making last-minute decisions about where to eat, which route to take or who’s picking up which kid with which car from which friend’s house.

These things drive me nuts – more than they should, probably. I’m self-employed, which gives whole new meaning to the phrase “time is money” – if I miss a day of work, I miss a day of pay.

So in my never-ending attempt to avoid these frustrating situations, I’ve learned a few things about how to declutter and organize modern life. The three tips below barely scratch the surface of what’s needed to truly be organized and efficient, but they are three things most people don’t do that would otherwise massively reduce their day-to-day stress levels.

Use one digital ecosystem.

I don’t have experience beyond Microsoft and Google (I guess that leaves out Apple), but going all-or-nothing with one company’s solutions is really the only way they will help you, rather than cause frustration and anxiety. For example, I use Google almost exclusively—Gmail, Calendar, Chrome, Maps, Drive, Play, etc. Because these apps are all under one umbrella, they talk to each other. They coordinate events on their own in ways that make life easier for me. After a while, Google even starts to predict my behavior and informs me of things like traffic on my morning commute and weather on days I plan to fly.

ecosystem

Speaking of flying, I booked a flight last week on Expedia. Gmail “noticed” the email was a flight itinerary, so it “talked” to my Calendar and automatically added the flight to my calendar. And the day of the flight, Google will send me a note about when to leave my current location to get to my flight on time.

These things would not happen if I used, say, Microsoft for email, Apple for calendar and Yahoo! for maps. Instead, I’d have frustrating coordination problems that have me spending valuable time copy-pasting information from one app to another.

Use a calendar religiously.

I use Google Calendar for everything—work, personal and whatever falls in between. Both my wife and I update it immediately upon scheduling any appointment, which means we can see the future in real-time—we don’t have to call back and forth to confirm with our respective doctors, employers or family members when we’re available to do something.

calendar.png

Sound cluttered? It can be. But what’s great about most calendars is you can code events to appear on one calendar or another (work vs. personal, mine vs. my wife’s) and filter your view to see as many or as few calendars as you want.

For example, I regularly block off most weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on my calendar as “Work.” I code this as “Personal” so my wife can see it. Inside these blocks, I add my work meetings, calls, etc. But I don’t share these items with my wife. I share with her only what she needs to see in order to know when she can, say, schedule a massage for herself (i.e. have me watch the baby). She sees that I’m working that day without having to sift through dozens of me-exclusive items that don’t affect her, and I see what I need to do at work that day without having to manage separate calendars.

Make use of Sunday evenings.

I suspect Sunday evenings are down-time for most people – time to catch up on TV shows, recoup from a fun weekend, or simply zone out before the work week.

But taking just 15 minutes on Sunday evenings to review your upcoming week can make all the difference in the world. Review your schedule for the week and be ready for what’s coming ahead of time. You may even find yourself needing to look at your calendar less often during the week. I do.

My Plan

If you’re married or living with a partner, sit with them while you review your week. Then you can ask questions about confusing calendar items or tentative plans right then as they come up, instead of playing phone tag later in the week just to learn some annoyingly tiny but vitally important detail about some evening plan or another.

My personal gains from these 15 minutes, in terms of reduced stress and time saved during the workweek, are immense. I have avoided entire hours of coordinating and logistical planning. And I’ll bet the returns on this time grow exponentially as family size grows and the number of soccer practices, piano recitals, play dates and other engagements increases.

Jesus as salesman. Relatable Jesus.

We really don’t know much about Jesus.

To show that, here’s a perspective on Jesus from Bruce Barton – a critical dissection of his method that, for unclear reasons, I don’t think Christians are usually willing to entertain:

Finally he knew the necessity for repetition and practiced it.

It has been said that “reputation is repetition.” No important truth can be impressed upon the minds of any large number of people by being said only once. The thoughts which Jesus had to give the world were revolutionary, but they were few in number. “God is your father,” he said, “caring more for the welfare of every one of you than any human father can possibly care for his children. His Kingdom is happiness! His rule is love.” This is what he head to teach, but he knew the necessity of driving it home form every possible angle. So in one of his stories God is the shepherd searching the wilds for one wandering sheep; in another, the Father welcoming home a prodigal boy; in another a King who forgives his debtors large amounts and expects them to be forgiving in turn – many stories, many advertisements, but the same big Idea.

Another selection:

His language was marvelously simple – a second great essential. There is hardly a teaching which a child cannot understand. His illustrations were all drawn from the commonest experiences of life; “a sower went forth to sow”; “a certain man had two sons”; “a man built his house on the sands”; “the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed.” The absence of adjectives is striking.

Jesus used few qualifying words and no long ones. We referred a minute ago to those three literary materpieces, The Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-Third Psalm, The Gettysburg Address. Recall their phraseology:

  • Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.
  • The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  • Four score and seven years ago.

Not a single three-syllable word; hardly any two-syllable words. All the greatest things in human life are one-syllable things – love, joy, hope, home, child, wife, trust, faith, God – and the great advertisements, generally speaking, are those in which the most small words are found.

Irreverent to speak of Jesus as marketer? Was he simply an advocate of a “big Idea?” Is it right to consider and judge his method, even if we find it flawless?

On that note, here’s another selection to consider – this time from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him.

I’ve read this over and over. I think it shows just how little about Jesus we really know.

As a kid in Sunday School, I remember watching animated movies about this episode — of Jesus calling his disciples to “follow me.” In them, he walks about seemingly unknown to the hoards of people living around the Sea of Galilee. He walks up to random young men that he seemingly didn’t know beforehand. He asks them to drop their things and follow him.

They obey.

If you really think about it, there are only a few explanations for this. People do not randomly leave their families and livelihoods behind to follow a stranger. Have you done this? Has anyone you know done this?

Even cult leaders develop a relationship with their followers before leading them away from their families and livelihoods. Perhaps they wrote a book that their followers have read. Maybe they demonstrate powerful understanding of things their followers care about. Whatever it is, cults don’t appear spontaneously–their leaders possess some characteristic or history that lends them influence in their followers’ minds before they make the decision to leave everything behind.

On that note, I see two possible explanations for Simon and Andrew’s bizarre behavior.

  1. They were influenced by some supernatural power to follow a man they knew nothing about.
  2. They knew something about Jesus that quelled their natural, healthy hesitancy to follow him anywhere.

The first one is, I think, the most commonly-believed explanation. Movie depictions of this episode often entail some majestic-looking bearded man walking, trance-like, toward Simon and Andrew, and calling their names in a hypnotic voice. They, also trance-like, drop their things and follow him as he continues walking down the lake-shore.

I can’t prove this explanation wrong. It’s plausible. It is, however, lazy. It forgoes any more relatable explanation, or one that might be more useful to one with a healthy skepticism of random, supernatural events. I don’t like such explanations. They don’t jive with what we know to be true about the human condition.

The second one is interesting because, if it’s true, it opens the door to further knowledge about Jesus’ life and influence prior to the beginning of his ministry. We don’t know much about Jesus’ twenties except that he was a carpenter. We don’t know if he had friends, where he lived, or how he spent his time.

Extra-biblical depictions of Jesus during this time tend to skim over it, often alluding to twenty-something Jesus as a sort-of “man in waiting” who knew his ministry was not to begin until later.

But such a depiction isn’t necessarily true. It’s conjecture. It’s possible that Jesus had a full life and was very influential among his contemporaries. Perhaps he was a profound speaker. Maybe he was exceptionally strong or tall or boisterous. Maybe he was a genius (see Luke 2) and engaged others with deep insights about God and the Torah.

What I’m really getting at is the possibility that Jesus was very relatable, and that we really know very little about him. Christians believe he is God, but they also believe he is “fully man.” So could others see in him a person they wanted to be? Could they relate to him? Did his boldness inspire them to live better lives? Did they aspire to be more like him? Did they even think that was possible?

Yes, I think, on all points.

My alma mater in the news

…well, maybe not the news, per se. Does The Atlantic count?

Grove City College reports demographic and some other information to the government on a voluntary basis, said its president, Paul McNulty. He said that—even though it doesn’t have to—the college also tries to adhere to the principles of Title IX to serve male and female students equally. “I think a lot of other colleges wish they were in Grove City’s position, because they worry that [government] requirements are going to fundamentally change the direction of the institution,” said McNulty.

“The issue has never been about discrimination,” he said. “We value our independence. We value the fact that we do not have to be subject to the evolving policy initiatives and prerogatives that come along from one administration to the next, and we don’t have to then shoulder the burden of the administration costs associated with those policy initiatives and requirements.”

Long story short, my alma mater (Grove City College) does not accept federal funding and, by implication, cannot accept students who finance their education with federal student loans. They do this on principle for reasons of financial and academic independence–as President McNulty states in the quote above, to “not have to be subject to the evolving policy initiatives and prerogatives that come along from one administration to the next.”

I’m not really sure why this is “controversial,” as the title of the article alleges. Colleges like Grove City College don’t want federal funding, and I’m guessing critics of such colleges’ missions and values don’t want taxpayer dollars to help fund their operations. If anything, the “controversy” is that the government places values-based controls (vs. financial/administrative controls) on colleges who accept federal funding.

Yes, I understand that it seems “controversial” for a college to have rules regarding sexuality and on-campus behavior that are mainstream “discriminatory,” but where does the government’s control end? No student is forced to attend Grove City College (or any college that doesn’t accept federal funding) nor do these independent colleges use taxpayer dollars to further their religiously-oriented missions. Who’s hurt?

Sell solutions, not deliverables

Something I’ve learned since starting a business:

When selling your products or services, focus on your potential customers’ stated problems/painsand not the product or service they think they need. Decide whether you can fulfill their expectations based on whether you can address and solve whatever problem they’re facing–not whether you can deliver the specifications they claim to need.

For example, I recently had a potential client (now an actual client) show me an example of what he wanted–a particular data dashboard for a particular application, similar to the one his predecessor used. He asked if I could recreate that dashboard for him with updated data.

If I were to answer his question directly, it would have been a definite “no.” Truth is, I have no idea how to create that dashboard, nor would I attempt to–it was outdated, cumbersome, and rather unhelpful to him (though he didn’t realize it).

But of course, I didn’t say “no.” I knew what his goals were, and that I could help him get there. So I said exactly this: “I can do much better than that.”

He was impressed. I got the job. They never knew that I couldn’t do exactly what they said they wanted, but it didn’t matter–I knew I could do what they really wanted.

Successful selling is about solving problems and relieving pains. It’s about managing expectations and thinking creativelyIt’s not about doing everything your client says they want, line-by-line, because the truth is: No one can fulfill every client expectation exactly as they initially conceive them.

To be honest, this is rather basic advice. I knew all this before I started selling research. But it means so much more now that I’m in the thick of things. It’s easy to be intimidated by a client’s request when you’re not sure if you have the tools to complete it. Under-delivering is enemy #1, after all. But think long and hard before saying “no.” What is it the client really wants? What problem are they trying to solve? Do you have a solution they never would have thought of–maybe something better, even different, than what they think they need?

On speaking clearly

Gosnell’s behavior was terribly wrong. But there is no reason to believe that an extra layer of regulation would have affected that behavior. Determined wrongdoers, already ignoring existing statutes and safety measures, are unlikely to be convinced to adopt safe practices by a new overlay of regulations.

This is the liberal Supreme Court’s argument against more abortion regulations. Ironically, it’s also conservative’s argument against more gun control.

In general, I think this type of confusion happens when people talk too much — when they go on and on about their position, using every possible reason to defend some ideal. We end up far from our original position, saying things we don’t really mean.

Better, and more effective, I think, to stick to one line — to get to the bottom of things and stay there. Why pro-choice? Because every woman has the right to control her body. Why anti-gun control? Because everyone has the right to bear arms.

And instead of pile argument on top of argument, dissect just one. Get hermeneutical. Explore the philosophical underpinnings of your fundamental position and dig deep into its history–even to pre-modern or ancient originators. Commit to speaking clearly and basically about what you know, and remember that fruitful debates are not combative, but investigative, and even exegetical, in nature.