Friday, December 30, 2011

On the history of language...

I have spent a lot of time thinking of language. Stuff like, why is it that words often have sounds that literally evoke the meaning in a phonetic way.

"Hush" sounds like a soft "shhh."

"Whisper" sounds like a gentle whisper.

"Rock" sounds like a singular hard object.

And is it coincidence that "God" is so close to "good" or that "Devil" is so close to "evil"?

I sometimes see connections between words that make me thing their phonetic similarities reflect a deeper, meaningful connection that tells us that deep down -- perhaps on a subconscious level -- evolving humanity has recognized and signified a relationshp between those words (or the meanings they carry) that we may no longer consciously recognize. And if we do consciously recognize and appreciate it, we may gain some insight and wisdom about the world around us. Basically, learning about the nature of reality through hidden clues left by our ancestors in the dipthongs and sounds that evolved into our modern language.

But then I recall that there are languages where this stuff probably does not carry over. Like African language based on clicks and such, or Asian languages that sound very warbling and gurgling. What does this do to my theory that we naturally choose words that have a sound that evokes the spirit of the meaning of the word? I don't know. Alas, I am not a linguistics major, so this is like "armchair linguistic philosophy" and could be laughable to a real expert.

One thing that did occur to me, in thinking about the different kinds of languages in the world, is how language evolved to be different in different areas of the world. And it immediately struck me that language evolved as humans were making a shift from animal intelligence to human intelligence, and so on that cusp of evolution our ancestors used more and more sound to communicate ideas to help hunt, gather, wage war, whatever.

And at that time, the world was still a very untame place. People were not the "cock of the walk," but had to fear predators and such, at least in some parts of the world. So I assume one major decision made in choosing how to speak and communicate was to BLEND IN. You wanted to make sounds that predators might view as natural sounds of the trees or the rivers or the wind, not as sounds made by potential prey. So in a forest setting with crunching leaves and branches, people might use sharper, crunchier sounds for language. In a desert setting with howling winds, words might be less consonant. In a very watery place with rivers and marshes, the language might be very gurgling and soft. In a very rainy place with droplets coming down almost constantly (and even after rains, canopies of leaves hold water that drip drops for hours) language mght be more rhythmic. For similar reasons -- camoflauge, basically -- people might choose sounds that mimick other creatures with whom they live, the growl of a bear, the chirp of a bird, etc.

Now, that is only one side of the coin. The problem with using sounds that blend in is that, if they blend in, they may be hard to be heard and recognized by those you want to hear them. So there is a counterbalancing need to use sounds that will cut through the sounds of your natural world, that will be unique. The extent to which people chose sounds for camoflauge (i.e., that blended into their environment) or that stood out as unique (i.e., to better be heard and recognized) was probably affected by how predatory the environment was. People living in areas with little or no natural predators probably adopted linguistic sounds that were more unique and contrasted to the environmental sounds, while people living in areas with more predators probably chose linguistic sounds more in tune with environmental sounds.

There could also be shifts in time. People living in an area full of predators might have started out using linguistic sounds that were very camoflauged and blended in, but as their tribes and strength grew, they might have found they were kings of the land and had less fear of predators and then felt free to shift to sounds that carried better and contrasted more. So as language evolved over time, there may have been shifts in what influenced the choice of sounds and dipthongs from which to create language.

Any linguistic experts, feel free to chime in or correct me.


Raising children as psychotherapy and spiritual guides.

I learned to use a French Press a week ago. You fill a cylinder-shaped tube with coffee grinds and hot water, then shove a slightly smaller cylinder-shaped tube through the first, and it causes pressure that forces the liquid through a filter covering tiny holes on the far end of the first, larger tube. The liquid is forced out as soon as the smaller tube starts entering the larger tube, because of the push of air pressure, like an invisible force, before the end of the smaller tube even reaches the water-coffee grind mixture. But you keep pushing to get all the liquid rung out.

This serves as a nice visual analogy for how raising children evokes therapeutic events in parents. As my children grow older and move through different phases of their childhood, it reminds me of my own experiences at their age, spontaneously bringing up memories -- including traumatic memories. Or, sometimes, it does not bring up particular memories, but it does evoke feelings, almost like deep within us is the person we were at 5, at 7, at 9, at 15, etc., and as our children move through those ages, it resonates within us and gives power to those parts of ourselves and we find ourselves somewhat "possessed" by the person were were at that age.

This means if you were dealing with a particular abandonment issue at age 5, then when your kids reach age 5 you may not recall any particular event when you were 5, but you damn well are going to by more sensitive to abandonment issues in ways you may not even recognize, causing you to feel different, act different, and react different. It can cause issues with your spouse, with your views about life or your career.

So, basically, as my children age, they are evoking spirits within me of my past selves, which effects a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) transformation on myself. People are always transforming to some degree, based on outside influences, current-day experiences. But this is an added wrinkle and complication, a transformation evoked from within, and a transformation that in some sense can be called a regression. I'm not saying it is overpowering, or that we all revert to the maturity of a 5 year old when our kids are 5. It is not so simplistic or all-powerful as that. But it is a force to be recognized or, unrecognized, it can have more power than it otherwise would.

I see two main benefits of recognizing this phenomenon. First, as our children move through ages where we ourselves had some trauma -- anything from teasing in school, parents' divorce, an injury, death in the family -- and that part of ourselves gets "evoked," we have an opportunity to reflect upon it in a way we probably never would have done if we had not had a child pass through that age to evoke it within us. When this happens, our reflection can lead to coming to mature terms with that event, eliminating the skewed memories and flawed blame and/or guilt that attached to us when we first lived through those experiences. Basically, we work through the trauma and reach a healthier state of mind about the event, letting go of negative emotions that hold us back, and limit our current maturity. (As we mature, earlier traumatic events that have "stuck" with us can be like anchors or hooks in time that hold back our ability to spiritually or emotionally mature, which is one way you can get a 40 year old with the maturity of a 12 year old.) So, basically, raising children can be an unique therapeutic event, as our children evoke and transform us and give us unexpected opportunities to heal and mature.

A second benefit, perhaps more spiritual in nature, is that as our children pass through ages we have already lived, and evoke in us the spirit of our younger selves at those ages, it is sort of like we relive those ages on a level we could not otherwise have done. I see this as a form of immortality, or at least significant life-extension. People chase plastic surgery and medical solutions to help them stay young, trying to recapture youth, but none of it is ever so complete as the youth that is recaptured when you are bonded to a child who evokes in you your own youthful spirit.

I guess the point of recognizing all this is happening is that if we are ignorant of it, I think that makes it much less likely we will actually reap the benefit of trauma resolution and will, instead, simply act out the traumas of our evoked younger selves in ways that can be meaningless or even destructive.

I suppose people without children may find alternative paths to evoking their younger selves and resolving traumas from younger days, such as psychotherapy, hypnosis, meditation, etc. However, I'm not sure any of that can be as thorough or complete as the way my children, as they age, are effortlessly evoking from me the defining moments of my own childhood, the way the smaller tube in a french press thoroughly and completely pushes out the liquid from the water-coffee grind mixture in the larger tube.

Well, that's my view at the moment. My opinions are subject to evolution and revision, and bear in mind everything is relative.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Playboys and Patriarchs

I've created a theory of romantic compatibility.

I see men as basically divided into two types: Playboys and Patriarchs. Women can similarly be playgirls or matriarchs.

Playboys / playgirls want to have fun while they live. Play is their priority.

Patriarchs / matriarchs want to create something that will live beyond them, whether it is a family dynasty or a social cause or even a business enterprise.

The difference between these two types of people is simple: spiritual maturity. No one (at least I cannot conceive of anyone, though I could be wrong) ever starts out as a patriarch or matriarch. We ALL pass through a stage of being playboys or playgirls as we spiritually mature from infancy and early childhood. Some of us either get spiritually stuck at that stage and cease maturing. Others might mature but then have experiences that make them regress.

There is absolutely NOTHING inherently wrong with being a playboy or playgirl. I'm not here to say that one level of spiritual maturity is inherently "better" than another. That sort of "holier than thou" thinking is counterproductive. It leads to anger and resentment and trying to argue people into becoming more mature, which (in my experience) never works.

There is a very common saying that people who enter a relationship expecting to change the other person are doomed to failure and disappointment. I am not quite so pessimistic. I do think it is probably best and easiest to enter a relationship with some one of the same spiritual maturity level as yourself. In fact, I think this is the source of fastest, deepest love and compatibility.

However, it is simplistic to talk about people trying to "change" their loved oen when they have linked themselves to a person with a lower level of spiritual maturity. A better word than "change" is "mature." It is not like trying to change a person from hating broccoli to liking broccoli. What you are trying to do is get some one stuck at a particular level of immaturity to get past the issue that is blocking their natural progress and ascendance, so that they can mature spiritually.

I am optimistic (idealistic?) that with the right approach, people can help their loved ones get unstuck from a low level of spiritual maturity and ascend to a higher level of maturity. However, it is not easy. It takes enormous patients and time, and frankly I'm not sure most people are up to the task, as it is easier to slip into anger and resentment and perhaps even let your own maturity level sink to match that of your less mature lover, to create more compatibility and less conflict.

If you are going to attempt this, the first key is NOT to blame the other person for being less spiritually mature, for acting out as a playboy / playgirl. Again, you are not to judge the person as lesser than you, or imperfect due to their lower level of maturity. WE ARE ALL FREE TO CHOOSE OUR OWN LEVEL OF SPIRITUAL MATURITY.

The key is not to scold or guilt the person into achieving greater maturity. They key is to EDUCATE the person into achieving greater maturity. I believe (again, this is based on gut level feeling and personal optimism, not scientific studies) that deep down we can all appreciate maturity, and we all would welcome ascending to the stage of being a matriarch / patriarch because it has rewards that surpass the immediate gratification of the hedonistic playboy / playgirl. I think there is a fundamental sadness and loneliness in the playboy / playgirl because they sense a meaningless to their existence that they try to escape from with fleeting pleasures.

So what you need to do to get them to mature is to simply talk to them about deep issues, about death and god and spirituality and social causes. I think deep down in these people, you will find an idealistic soul that does desire to ascend, but is stuck or lost or ignorant about how to do it. Simply having non-combative conversation combined with leading by example can, over time, cause the stuck person to find a way to unstick himself/herself and begin the ascension.

The playboy / playgirl can mature into a patriarch / matriarch. This is a fact because every patriarch / matriarch was, at one time, for however brief a time, a playboy / playgirl who made this very same ascension.

The resistance to this ascension can be huge and, again, it can be such a burdensome task that it may simply not be something the more spiritually advanced person in the relationship is prepared to tackle. That's fine. Know your limits. You have no obligation to help the other person ascend (unless, perhaps, you are married with children, in which case there may be an obligation to the children to give them two spiritually mature parents, but let's set that aside for now).

Again, if you are a patriarch / matriarch in a relationship with a playboy / playgirl and you find yourself continually suffering anguish and/or anger at how the person seems selfish, inconsiderate, and immature, LET IT GO. If you do not or cannot take a PEACEFUL AND LOVING approach to helping that person see why maturity is better, and help them find their own path to getting unstuck and reaching a higher level of maturity, let them go WITHOUT ANGER OR JUDGMENT. Because, as I said before, it is wrong to label it bad or wrong or evil to be a playboy or playgirl. It is a choice people are free to make and you cannot condemn people for that anymore than you can condemn a person who chooses to wear silly hats. It may not be your cup of tea, but they are not hurting anyone.

The playboy / playgirl is not hurting you by their immature conduct. They are simply acting out their own nature. It is YOU, the patriarch / matriarch, who CHOSE to be in a relationship with a playboy / playgirl, who is to blame for the friction that results. Embrace your choice and live with it (and trying lovingly to encourage the person you are with to mature), or choose differently. But in neither case is anger or blame the correct response. And it will not do a damn bit of good. Frankly, the most likely outcome is that your own spiritual maturity will diminish.

Ken Myers

Monday, August 8, 2011

A pitch for Randomocracy rather than Democracy

I have a secret. I don't believe in democracy. Well, to clarify, I do not believe democracy is the best form of government. I am not suggesting that I prefer theocracies or monarchies or any other form of government. However, I have a firm belief that there are better forms of government that have not yet been implemented.

It seems appropriate here to note that Winston Churchill once said something along the lines of, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried." Well, in context, it is not clear whether Churchill was seriously espousing this view. However, that is really a non-issue.

Let's look at it objectively. Can anyone truly say it is impossible for humans to ever conceive a better form of government than democracy? Is this not akin to people claiming 100 years ago that the 4 minute mile could never be broken? What hubris! What vanity!

So let's start with the very simple, very reasonable position that there might actually be a form of government superior to democracy. Let's try to imagine what that might look like by initially identifying the problems inherent in democracy:

1. Limitations on Knowledge. Democracy holds open the hope that people can look around and put the best of humanity into positions of power. However, as a practical matter, very few voters have any significant first-hand experience with candidates for high office, and the rest of us are forced to settle for advertisements. Advertisements for and against the candidate. And I do not mean actual television, radio or print advertisements. Literally everything a politician or his/her adversaries say surrounding a campaign is a form of advertisement. A politician is constantly having to sell himself. And so they learn to guard what they say at all times. How many jokes exist about how hard it is to get a straight answer out of a politician? Because they are always hedging their bets, protecting their images. Democracy may work well if voters are well-informed, but there is virtually no way for voters to know who to trust for the straight dope on a politician for high office.

2. Monetary corruption. Campaigns cost money. And, as a general principle, advertising works. So, to some degree, elections are bought and sold based on what candidate has the most financing. This creates a fundamental corruption in any democratic system. There is always lots of talk about campaign finance reform, as if this fundamental flaw in democracy can be fixed with the right legislation. However, (1) that reform is just talk and it never gets passed, and (2) any reform is limited and there will always be new ways for money to equal votes come election time. Any reform is like plugging one hole in a damn, which increases overall water pressure which, in turn, creates a new hole elsewhere.

3. Individual corruption. Individuals are imperfect and are inherently corruptible. We have all heard the saying, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Though some of us might idealistically cling to a belief that there can be exceptions to this maxim, most of us agree this has a degree of truth. Part of the problem is that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. By that, I mean that we all have our world view shaped, to some degree, by our position in life because that is the prism through which we see a subjective view of reality. Being a career politician is a very unique job, and a unique prism. Part of that prism includes the effect of sycophancy (i.e., people kiss up to those in power and that, in turn, is bound to affect how those in power view things). Part of that prism includes walking a constant, stressful tightrope knowing the wrong word can be fatal to your career. I cannot imagine how living with that kind of pressure can affect a person, but I am quite sure it must have SOME effect. The end result is quite simply that politicians evolve into people who are quite dissimilar to the general population, much like soldiers who go to war and live with unique stresses and in unique environs, and who return to find they cannot fit in or find common ground with their fellow man during times of peace. I think it's pretty clear our career politicians in high office are frankly just OUT OF TOUCH with the values of the common man.

An additional force that leads to inevitable, individual corruption is personal survival. Politicians are constantly having to re-apply for their jobs -- applying to their constituancy for re-election, or for election to higher office. This means they must spend a lot of their time and energy focused on what decisions and actions will best sell them in the next election, rather than what decisions and actions are truly best for the nation. You get politicians who defer to polls and lobbyists and special interests rather than acting out on their own personal sense of what is best, what makes sense for the nation. I've had enough job insecurity in my life that I cannot begrudge politicians for taking steps they think are reasonably necessary to ensure their continued prosperity, so they can provide for their families. This is an aspect of corruption that I blame not on politicians but on the democratic system in general, because it inherent in it.

Now that we have identified some problems inherent in democracy (note, there may be more), what form of government might address these issues?

1. Limitations on knowledge. The only way voters will ever be secure that they have a true picture of a politician is if they have access to their lives on camera 24/7. Unless we think there is any chance we can get our politicians to agree to live under that kind of scrutiny, we have to surrender any notion we may know the "truth" about any politician. And if we agree the majority of voters will never know for sure whether the image of a politician that is being sold by that politician (or that is being sold by his opponent) is truthful, all of this knowledge is useless. We may as well vote without any knowledge of the respective politicians. Our politicians should be anonymous until elected. A randomocracy -- selecting our politicians randomly from the population at large -- accomplishes this.

2. Monetary corruption. Money primarily corrupts candidates through (1) campaign financing, and (2) lobbying. A randomocracy eliminates the proble3m of campaign finance corruption because we have no election campaigns. People who find themselves in office have no obligation to any financial backers because there were none. Now, these people are still corruptible and could still be subject to being bought off, under the table, by lobbyists, but I think your average American Joe is simply not savvy enough in the ways of concealing payoffs to risk this. And I think our FBI and other law enforcement will have a much easier time catching novice politicians on the take rather than career politicians with a lot of clout, a lot of connections and a lot of experience in hiding payoffs. The bottom line is, randomly selected politicians may still try to take payoffs, but they will probably be much worse at doing it and worse at keeping it secret. And this, in turn, will probably make most of them too scared to even try it. Overall, I think random selection of politicians will necessarily result in a decrease in politicians selling out their votes.

3. Individual corruption. The randomly selected politicians should, statistically speaking, represent a true cross-section of the American population. Every gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and profession should find that it has truly proportionate representation. Now, random factors being random, this may not always work out perfectly. But over time, it will necessarily equal out. So we get rid of having our country run by people who are not in tune with us, who do not share our values. Surprisingly, this seems like it would effect a more representative government than what we get from a democracy where we are run by elitist career politicians.

The randomly selected politicians would, once selected, be subject to sycophants and the general pressures that can lead to corruption and skewed world-views, and out-of-touch thinking. However, that is why we have term limits and period, new random selection. Basically, before the current crop of randomly selected politicians can get too corrupted, we trade them out for a new batch of "fresh" randomly-selected politicians.

Note since these politicians have absolutely no hope of re-election, they will never have to split their energy or time between their job and their re-election efforts. This, too, helps ensure these politicians govern from their true consciences, not from any concern about job security.

Now, the notion of a randomocracy is not without its own inherent problems, but corruption does not seem to be one of them. The main problem with randomocracy, as I see it, is ignorance and inexperience. We get a fresh crop of uncorrupted politicians who do not know much about being a politician. Which can be like having a banker who does not know math -- it just won't work no matter how well-intentioned the banker may be. I have two solutions for this.

First, if a society ever implemented this type of government, it should simultaneously implement education in the form of civics courses in public school so that kids growing up would have a much better idea, by the time they turn 18, how to be a politician. For example, Roberts Rules of Order and Speech and Debate may be required courses. We would end up with a much more politically savvy population across the board.

Second, I would include a lengthy education program for newly chosen politicians. I think current, when new legislators are elected, they get maybe a month or so of orientation. I envision giving randomly selected politicians something closer to 6 - 12 months of orientation (maybe have this vary, longer for higher offices and shorter for lower offices).

The above two measures should easily avoid any situation of having politicians governing us with no idea how to govern.

I can see some other issues people might have. For example, are some people just by personality better situated for leadership positions? Can we truly risk having a total anti-social shleb randomly chosen as our president, for example? This actually has a surprisingly easy fix. We randomly select the number of people we need for Congress and for President, but we do not determine precisely who will be president. We let the people themselves vote for that midway through their educational period, sort of like picking a class president in school. For anyone who recalls school elections, they actually were pretty good at identifying who was that kind of "people person" who would make a good figurehead. Let's face it, 99% of politicians are not "leaders" because they are not the one making the decisions. To the extent we have a system that funnels very egotistical, type A leaders into Congress, it is probably a bad system that is somewhat to blame for having people who do not work well in a group setting, because they all want to be the leader of the group.

I'm not delusional. I don't pretend there is a realistic chance Americans will "wake up" and replace democracy with randomocracy. Nor do I think the powers-that-be will ever let that happen. I think the best hope is that, when societies collapse and new societies arise, there might be some window of opportunity for something along these lines to be implemented. And, as a precursor to that, I think it would be useful for learned minds to consider and discuss this potential form of government. I'm quite sure there are countless issues and problems it might cause that I have not addressed here. But let's address them. And if we find there are insurmountable obstacles to this EVER being a good form of government, let's then start looking for ANOTHER alternative to democracy. Let's not just side idly on the assumption that there cannot be anything better than what we've got. That's a sure fire way to be sure we never DO find anything better than what we've got.

Lastly, I do not want to take too much credit for this governmental system. First, I am sure some one must have thought of it and written about it before. Second, it is actually an existing system that is in limited usage right here in America -- on juries. We do not have career jurors. Instead, we randomly select people from the community to decide our legal cases. As a lawyer, I am aware that the jury system is often criticized on the grounds that most jurors are not savvy enough to follow all the legal principles or complex disputes put before them. However, I am also aware that judges generally think very highly of the honor of jurors, and that whatever else you may say about jurors, they tend to feel a sense of obligation to act justly when they are called upon to decide cases. And I, for one, wish our politicians were more just and honorable, even if it means they are somewhat less savvy. (To go back to the banker analogy, what good is a banker who is great at math, but is also corrupt and trying to embezzle from your accounts? I'd rather have a well-meaning and honorable banker who is merely adequate at math.)

Ken Myers

Monday, July 25, 2011

Remodelling America

I'm in the middle of a home remodel. Well, more of a never-ending series of home improvement projects, some larger than others. Frankly, I am beginning to suspect there is no end to this process, that it is a never-ending endeavor that is part of the price (perk?) of home ownership.

Some of my projects involve re-doing, or simply undoing, prior projects that were ill-conceived. (Sometimes paint that looks great in the can does not work so well on the wall.)

Repainting (for a third time) a certain wall in my home had me thinking about the ability to re-do, or to undo, aspects of my home remodelling that seem to have gone awry. This, as usual, led to me reflecting on how this might analogize to larger societal issues.

In a prior blog, I have lamented the lack of advanced planning and conscious, goal-oriented development that has impaired the evolution of America. I have suggested that consumer-oriented capitalism, which allows market forces to dictate the course of our nation, is not to be trusted and is a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach. In this blog, I express my view that this can be addressed and redressed by the choice of concious remodelling.

As one example, I think Americans (and most Westernized nations) have allowed personal transportation to evolve in a way that has resulted in a system that is very ineffecient, expensive and bad for the environment. Now, we cannot simply throw all cars in a junk yard and replace them with emissions-free public transportation systems. However, we CAN have a contest asking scientists (or the public at large) to propose what they believe would be the best, most efficient transportation system for a society such as ours if they were to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. I mean, I think with the wealth of technology at our disposal, there might be transportation solutions that we have not thought of. Does public transportation have to be limited to subways, trains and buses? Is there some way to develop a public transportation network that could meet the needs of individuals for personal transportation to visit family, go on an outing, haul furniture, or go on a date?

The point is that I do not personally have in mind any specific vision for a system of personal and public transportation system that would surpass what has evolved naturally as a product of market forces in modern societies such as ours. However, I am optimistic that if hundreds or thousands of the brightest and most educated minds are addressing this issue, that they could (and probably would) conceive transporation options and solutions I would never have thought of.

Though I discuss transportation, this same approach could be taken with other aspects of society from housing to social welfare. I would like to see a contest, similar in spirit to the Nobel Prizes, which perhaps once a decade awards a $10 million prize for the best and most thorough proposal for re-visioning some aspect of society.

The end goal is to inject idealistic and solution-oriented thinking into addressing societal problems, with the notion that we may generate solutions and proposals so sound that people are compelled to demand we implement a course of societal change that moves towards those solutions and proposals.

Yeah, I know we have think tanks and universities that have people focused on solving various problems. But do you know what problems they are addressing? Do you know what limitations are placed upon them? Do you know how many people are working on any given problem at any give time? Do you know to what extent governmental bureaucracy or business interests or personal ideosyncracies are limiting or impairing those efforts? We are facing a potential armageddon in the form of a society whose development races forward like a runaway freight train with no engineer aboards, and I do not think we can sit on our hands and trust that our leaders are ensuring everything is being handled appropriately. I personally have seen no evidence we can trust the powers-that-be for creative societal solutions, particularly when the best solutions might be inimicable to the economic interests of those presently in power. Thus, I think appealing to the masses in a public manner is the best, and perhaps only, approach to take.

Now if I only had $10 million...

Ken Myers

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

America's Life Plan

I have read (okay, perused) many self-help books. You know, the books on how to get your life in gear, achieve your dreams, etc.. I actually think these books can be very useful, but for me they provide only a short-term sense of efficacy. For a few weeks after I read (or peruse) such a book, my mind is awash with plans to re-do my life. Then time passes, life gets busy, I fall back on my habits, and not much has changed. Anyway, for some one more receptive or committed to change, I expect these sorts of books could be very useful at helping provide guidance and tools.

So, basically, I think these books have great advice, but the audience must be willing. One common piece of advice from these books is to have well-defined goals -- both short and long term. The better you can visualize where you want your life to go, the easier it is to get there (and the easier it is to remain focused on getting there, rather than getting distracted by all sorts of other destinations or opportunities).

I have read suggestions for five year plans, ten year plans, retirement plans. You are free to adjust these plans if you reach the conclusion your goals have changed and the old plans no longer fit. You then create new plans and work towards THOSE new goals / destinations. In this manner, your life is always about working towards certain well-defined goals rather than drifting, surviving, following the path of least resistance, or running toward the latest short-term goal-de-jur.

As you might be able to tell, I think very highly of this plan-oriented way of living (even if I have not been the best at implementing it in my own life). Recently, reading about America's national debt and reading about politicians fighting, the recession and all that stuff, I have begun to ponder the notion of a life plan for America. The more I think about it, the more it makes very little sense to me that we as a nation have no concrete vision of what we want our country to look like in 50 years, or 100 years, or 500 years.

For example, in 50 years, what should our population be? Double? Triple? What percentage of our population should be working in health care? Manufacturing? Farming? What types of goods should we be exporting? Importing? What should our obesity rate be?

There are a few specific issues where we make long-term plans, such as for carbon emissions. But that's about it. As a nation, we are adrift, following the path of least resistance, or allowing market forces to determine our societal course.

This is a flaw I see with capitalism. We do not conciously decide, as intelligent beings, how we should allocate our societal resources to move towards a pre-determined vision of the future. Instead, we abdicate any collective, conscious choice for the future and leave it to market forces to determine where we go.

People who defend capitalism generally point out how much more efficient it is than communism. To me this is like saying, "If we don't steer the car, we find it goes faster and gets better gas mileage." Or, to put it another way, we don't know where we're going, but were making good time.

To any rational person who gives it some thought, it is clear this approach is penny wise and pound foolish. It is far better, in my estimation, to go twice as slow toward a POSITIVE vision for the future, rather than to go twice as fast in whatever direction the winds may be blowing.

There are those who might argue that market forces are not inhuman, but represent a collective vote by humans through their spending habits. It is people who dictate the market with their buying and selling, after all. The problem I see with this -- and this is my gut feeling, not the product of a comprehensive study -- is that people in the act of consumerism are generally much more short-sighted than, say, if they are asked to sit down and ponder where they want the future of America to go.

Take the analogy of human evolution. Every act of procreation is a human vote concerning what the future of our species should look like, should act like. We are an evolving species, and the course of evolution depends upon who has babies with whom. But do people about to procreate think in these terms? Rarely, in my experience.

Another analogy might be recycling habits. You could watch 1,000 people throw away a soda can, see how many of them make sure it goes into a recycling bin, and take that as equivalent to a collective human vote on how we as a society should prioritize recycling. However, when a single person is faced with a single can, that person may very well make a choice not to bother with recycling even though that same person, if asked about how society should address recycling, would strongly favor ramping up societal efforts in this regard.

The point is, to the extent market forces are characterized as allowing people to conciously vote upon and direct the course of humanity with their consumer choices, the results are very much skewed towards our basest nature and our selfish and lazy instincts. Look around at how America has evolved over the past 100 years and tell me this is not true. As a society, we have been moving fast -- faster than all of our competitors -- but where the hell are we going?

Which brings me back to my thought that we need a much clearer, more comprehensive plan for our future. For how we as a society will utilize our adult population when that population is double what it is now. For what our ratio of lower to middle to upper class should be. There are lots of things we can plan for, and then try to realize those plans. This need not involve a shift from capitalism to socialism, but merely some conscious thought about the way we are living, the way we want to live in the future, and the obstacles that we will need to overcome to get from point A to point B.

Where should such a plan come from? Anywhere. As much as I distrust politicians, I would certainly have more faith and trust in a politician who proposed such a plan, who at least gave lip service to taking the long view of societal progress, and who was willing to give some long-term, concrete goals for our nation.

Ken Myers

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Paleo Diet Dilemma

A friend informed me that he had lost about 30 pounds over the last year on the Paleo Diet, and felt better than ever. I did a bit of research and the concept seemed appealing. Apparently, human ancestors had a fairly homogenous diet for millions of years in the Paleolithic Era, until about 10,000 years ago when humans became civilized and started farming. Our diet now is radically different from what it was during the Paleolithic Era.

The logic behind the Paleo Diet -- and I'm a big fan of logic -- is that it seems reasonable to expect that our bodies had time, over the course of the millions of years in the Paleolithic Era, to evolve such that we became biologically optimized for that diet. The subsequent 10,000 is the blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms, so it stands to reason that we have not significantly evolved over that time to optimize our bodies for our present type of diet.

The Paleo Diet generally consists of av0iding grains, grain-based oils, processed sugars, processed foods, and salt. And trying to eat meat that is not grain fed. Well, there are different versions of it. The net result is rather similar to the Atkin diet, IMHO.

Though I find the concept appealing, I see at least three flaws in it.

First, it places personal health above global sustainability. Even assuming the Paleo Diet is needed for a person to achieve optimal health, is it possible for our planet to generate enough non-grain foods to feed a population that is over 6 billion strong and growing? Particularly if you want to insist that the animals we eat are not grain fed? Without doing the math (I'm more of a "big picture" debater), I am fairly confident in saying it would take the resources of multiple planets to allow everyone to embrace this diet.

In fact, I'm pretty sure it is the population increase that prompted humans to embrace an agrarian and largely grain-based lifestyle and diet 10,000 years ago. It seems rather naive to think that after our population has grown immensely, we could then abruptly switch gears and return to the kind of diet that seems premised on the notion that, for optimal health, we all need a hunting range full of juicy animals at our disposal.

I imagine a Paleo eater might respond, "Oh, I did not mean for everyone to eat this diet, just me and whoever else wants to be healthy..." First, I'm pretty sure everyone wants to be healthy (healthier, in fact). I'm also concerned about embracing a diet we agree must be limited, by natural resources and economic realities, to a fraction of the populace. It seems very...elitist. Okay, Ayn Rand would be proud, but I'm not quite so cut-throat.

I think a better approach would be to create one's personal diet based on a balancing of various factors including not just one's own optimal health, but also global sustainability. It's not as if everyone who fails to follow a Paleo Diet sinks into a morass of disease and dysfunction. (Along those lines -- though somewhat off-topic -- I do believe it is a moral imperative to try to maintain one's own health due to the cost and scarcity of medical resources on the planet. Thus, I'm not suggesting we eat whatever is most sustainable no matter how unhealthy it may be.)

On to my second issue with this diet: It is a blatant step backwards. Hell, this is the whole point. It's right there in the name. Are we to go back to living average life spans of 35 years, too? To put it another way, the underlying logic -- that 10,000 years is not enough time for our bodies to evolve to become optimized to a new diet, as compared to the millions of years our ancestors ate the Paleo Diet -- necessarily assumes that if we stick with our grain-heavy (and dairy heavy,, and even processed food-heavy) diet for a few millions years, our bodies WILL evolve so that our descendants' bodies achieve optimal health based on whatever diet we are following, so long as we stick with it.

I mean, by the reasoning of the Paleo Dieters, what if you were at the dawn of the Paleolithic Era, 10,000 years into it, when human ancestors had just begun to live and eat a Paleo Diet... Could you go to them and say, "No, your bodies aren't evolved to optimize lean meet and vegetables...go back to eating grubs and roots [or whatever]..."

Evolution is not a force that exists outside of us, but is largely a product of OUR OWN CHOICES. If we all CHOOSE to follow a Paleo Diet, we then have DECIDED that we will not allow our bodies to evolve in a manner that optimizes any other diet. On the other hand, if we CHOOSE to follow a different diet, then the very reasoning underlying the Paleo Diet indicates our bodies will adapt to it so that it becomes our optimal diet. Sure, this may not happen in our lifetime, or in 100 lifetimes, but it is as inevitable. As inevitable as evolution.

Pretty much any life coach will tell you one of the most important, if not the most important, tool to get a person's life on track is a plan, a goal. Otherwise, people simple drift along, following the path of least resistance, which rarely leads where they want to go. Funny, how everyone nods and says, "Yes, that makes sense," when you are talking about a person, but they don't apply the same reasoning to our species. Humanity needs a plan. Not just af 5 year plan, but a 500 year plan. Maybe a 50,000 year plan.

Eating a particular diet simply because it's what pre-historic cavemen ate such that evolutionary forces may have optimized it for our bodies, is abdicating personal responsiblity for effecting a biological and evolutionary change.

My third issue is more nit-picky. I have no evidence that evolution necessarily would have caused our bodies to evolve such that the Paleo Diet was optimal. In evolutionary terms, consider a particular characteristic as an axis on a graph. Evolution may cause significant movement along that axis, over time, if that particular characteristic is a significant predictor for survival or procreation. Animals, plants and humans have many characteristics that may be largely irrelevant in terms of these issues, so we see no evolutionary push one way or the other as to these characteristics. Did one's ability to thrive on a Paleo Diet a SIGNIFICANTLY improve one's rate of survival or procreation compared to others from the same era? Maybe, or maybe not.

From what I read, food was scarce during that time period, and one's ability to survive and perform without food (i.e., fasting ability) was likely more significant for increasing one's chance of survival and procreation. So humans probably evolved to be able to fast longer and longer time periods during the Paleolithic Era. That axis could have largely swallowed any other diet-related axis.

And even assuming the extent to which one's body was optimized for the Paleo Diet was a significant evolutionary axis, that would only establish that people at the beginning of the Paleolithic Era would do worse on a Paleo Diet than those at the end of the era. It in no way establishes that these people would do worse on any other diet.

So, to summarize my third point, on further reflection, I find the logical underpinnings of the Paleo Diet to be seriously flawed. I think the health benefits and weight loss experienced by those who stick to this diet is probably more a product of reduced overeating, being more mindful of what one eats, reducing sugars and fatty oils and processed foods, and other healthy changes that could have been made while still eating grains and otherwise embracing a diet that is more ethical and sustainable for the species and planet.

Ken Myers