Category Archives: Life

Feeling guilty for needing help?

We all have this image of those that depend on government assistance, stereotyped by the so-called welfare queen, who is trying to milk the system as much as possible; someone who epitomizes laziness and wants someone else to care for them.

However, a recent NY Times piece points out that all of us are depending more and more on government assistance to get by and, ironically, it is in precisely those places where opposition to government aid is greatest where dependence on that aid has grown the most. In particular, the article describes research by a professor at Dartmouth College, Dean Lacy, who has found:

Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates.

That is, the places that give more than they get tend to be Democrat, and those that get more than they give tend to be Republican. This isn’t new, it has been discussed before. It always struck me as strange. Those that rail most against taxes and big government are those that receive the most benefit. Whether this is from farm subsidies, food stamps, or whatever, the fact that the objections to government helping people come most from those getting that help strikes me as odd.

The article doesn’t give much insight into why this is the case. It does allude to the fact that maybe some of those receiving benefits are somehow ashamed of that and would rather that it not be so easy to get government assistance. That is, they’d almost rather be forced to take a harder road where they are more self-reliant. That the government helps them is almost a failing on their part, which by extension is a failing of the government.

I guess I don’t quite understand fully. Maybe it is related to the so-called American dream which provides us with the comforting notion that if we just work hard enough, we will have that nice suburban house with the white picket fence and the 2.3 children in an idyllic neighborhood. The reality, in my opinion, is not so clean. There is no way our system can support all of us attaining that ideal; as I’ve written about before, it seems to me that a large number of us have to fail in achieving that dream in order for our system to function. We need people at the bottom of the ladder to perform those jobs that the majority of us don’t want to do.

So, is it a failure to attain that dream, a failure of being self-sufficient and thus needing government help the reason for this contradiction in people taking government resources but at the same time wanting to cut them? Do they feel guilty for having to take them? Do they resent having to, in some sense, rely upon those that are willing to pay more taxes to support them? Do they resent that they even have the option, that government isn’t forcing them to struggle heroically in face of adversity, in the fashion that so much of American mythology is based?

I guess, in the end, I don’t have an explanation and I really don’t understand this dichotomy. If we do end up electing politicians who do cut the safety net, it is those very people who want it cut that will be hurt the most. Ironically, it is those that support having the safety net that can best deal with it being cut. Not much of politics seems rational to me, and this particular issue epitomizes, for me, the irrationality of politics in America.

Company by Max Barry

Jones is a new hire at Zephyr Holdings, a company in Seattle.  His very first task upon arriving at the office is to find out who ate his boss’s donut.  From there, Jones begins a quest to find out exactly what it is this company he works for does. I mean, what is their business.  The answer is both surprising and a bit unsettling.

Company is the third book I’ve read by Max Barry (Jennifer Government and Syrup being the other two). Company follows right on the heels of the others, exploring the relationship between the corporate world and everyday life.  In Company, Barry focuses on the employees, the worker-bees in any corporation, and their role in the company’s successes and failures.  In particular, he examines how the different aspects of the company — marketing, IT, procurement, etc — work together — or don’t — for the betterment of the company.  But, he also explores how corporate culture demands personal sacrifice from the employees in order to maximize corporate success.

Barry explores corporate culture by taking it to absurd extremes — or, at least, I hope he does.  I can’t imagine working in an environment that he describes.  At the same time, while reading Company, I couldn’t help but think that “that’s a lot like where I work.” For example, regarding the different organizations in the company and their relationships to one another, I’ve often thought that there must be someone where I work who’s sole job is to make up new forms, just so I have new ones to fill out.  Not because it leads to more productivity, or makes it easier to do my job, but just because.  Just because someone has a job to make forms.

By lampooning corporate culture, Barry exposes some of the trends that are really disturbing once you think about them.  I won’t go into details because I think it would spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that by painting corporate life in an absurd extreme, Barry offers insight into just how corporate culture is affecting us, both as individuals and as a society.

I really enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, both for its entertainment value and its perspective on our market-driven society. I’d really like to hear what people who are in large, multinational corporations think about this book.  Barry himself used to work at HP. Any HPeons out there willing to give their thoughts?

Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham

I heard about Catching Fire on NPR and thought the premise intriguing, so while on vacation I picked it up.  This book is full of fascinating ideas and the central tenet promises to shake up the current picture of human evolution quite a bit.

In Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham argues that the invention and adoption of cooking by our pre-homo sapien ancestors is a, if not the, key reason for our evolution into homo sapien. Cooking is an easy way of processing food such that our bodies can more easily digest it, and thus not spend nearly so much energy.  That energy, instead, is redirected to our brains.  That is, cooking freed our body from using energy for digestion and was able to use that energy to power our brains which could thus evolve into what they are today.

Much of Catching Fire offers various arguments to support this thesis, from the fact that raw diets result in drastic weight loss as the energy from the food cannot be extracted efficiently by the body; to evidence that processing food, even simply adding air to puff it up, makes it easier to digest; to the fact that in many cultures, cooking and sharing meals is a much more important sign of bonding between men and women than sexual relationships.

In addition to offering a new view of human evolution, Wrangham also points out some secondary effects that should resonate with our modern society.  First, the more foods are processed, the more easily our body can extract calories from them.  This, Wrangham speculates, is a key reason for the obesity epidemic: our foods are so processed that our bodies are getting way too much out of them.  Second, cooking has lead to a nearly universal subservient role for women.  In almost all cultures, women are tied to the kitchen, the cooking fire, the pit, and their lives are strongly centered on that role.

I’m still trying to figure out what the implications of the processed food argument are for my own life.  For example, is it better for me to get that steak medium rare or well done?  If well done, I will get more energy out of it, presumably giving me more energy myself and helping me feel overall more energetic. But, it also means it’s likely to add to my beer gut more than the medium rare steak, which my body will have to spend more work digesting.  Not sure which is overall better.

It is interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter if the diet contains meat or is vegetarian, but more important if it involves cooked or raw food.  Wrangham argues that our bodies have evolved to essentially need cooked food; they aren’t designed to process raw food.  Our brains are too expensive, energetically, to be able to function on a raw food diet.

I felt that the book dragged on in places, with Wrangham padding his argument a bit more than he needed and sometimes offering evidence that was tenuous at best, but overall I thought that his ideas were fascinating.  I certainly learned quite a lot, both about humans as a species and about how I might want to approach my own diet.  I certainly recommend Catching Fire.

We like to think that things happen for a reason, that the good — and bad — things that happen to us aren’t just random.  We like meaning and some sense of control in our lives.  However, as Leonard Mlodinow points out in his book The Drunkard’s Walk, the reality is that randomness plays a much bigger role in our lives than we are often willing to admit, or are even aware of.

The Drunkard’s Walk is a tour of the history of our understanding of random processes, with the goal of showing how randomness infiltrates our lives.  From clear demonstrations of this randomness, such as the lottery, to less obvious ones, such as the success of a movie or song, Mlodinow shows us how things all around us are quite often the consequence of randomness.

I took from this book two main conclusions.  First, humans have such an overarching need to feel in control, to see order in the universe, that they often see paterns in what is really random data.  Mlodinow points out that one of the biggest causes of stress in humans is a feeling of not having any control.  Indeed, research has shown that people who don’t have control of even simple things — like watering a plant — give up more easily and, consequently, die at a faster rate than those that have the purpose of watering a plant.  Stress is certainly one of the biggest factors in health and feeling out of control, in the sense that you have no control of your life or destiny, is a big contributor to stress.  This clearly suggests to me that micromanaging is overall a bad way to run an organization, as it does not let the lower rungs of the ladder have any control of the processes they are involved with and, as a consequence, will be more stressed and less healthy.

The second point is that success is often as much influenced by randomness than not.  In fact, Mlodinow implies (if not outright argues) that random factors are often more important that pure skill or talent.  Many talented people succeed simply because they were at the right place at the right time, through no conscious planning or act on their part.  Conversely, many talented people fail because they didn’t get the big break.  This is true at all levels of society, from the homeless guy who had a string of bad luck, to the CEO who essentially got lucky overseeing a company when it hit big.  Mlodinow uses a number of examples that show how the success of baseball teams has, in the end, little to do with the manager and are really just a consequence of randomness associated with whether a batter gets or doesn’t get a hit.  He also highlights how past performance of CEOs or movie moguls has little bearing on future performance and it is essentially a random process.  And how what song becomes the most popular is a lot of random luck and not necessarily a measure of how “good” the song is. In the end, persistence is a much better indicator of success than talent, indicating that we shouldn’t reward successes and punish failures, but we should reward effort, regardless of the outcome.

An important point he makes is that we are so hardwired to attribute success to our abilities that we automatically become condescending to people who fail.  Mlodinow describes experiments in which subjects watch people being punished, either for their supposed failures at some task or because of their supposed suffering for some more noble goal.  The consequence is the same: simulated electric shocks, but the explained reasons are different.  In the cases in which the punishment and resulting suffering are viewed as a consequence of the person’s failures, subjects very quickly form a negative opinion of the person, attributing some shortcoming of the person.

This has consequences for social policy.  If who ends up as a CEO or movie star versus homeless on the street is a much a consequence of random factors as any intrinsic talent or skill, then it could be any one of us that ends up in one or the other.  It isn’t a result of our abilities, it is a result of random factors none of us can control.  Thus, there is little that separates the highest from the lowest and we should do more to help those who, due to an unfair amount of bad luck, fall through the cracks.

I have discussed the role of randomness on success in the past.  It seems that moer and more evidence points to the fact that randomness plays a bigger role in our lives that we readily admit.  In a society that automatically assumes that success is the direct consequence of ability, should we perhaps reevaluate some of the resulting social apperati that has been built around that assumption?  I’m not saying we don’t reward those who do well, but maybe we also reward those who try hard, even if they don’t always succeed?

Las Conchas from our bedroom window

The Las Conchas fire started yesterday around 1PM and already has burned about 50,000 acres.  Consider that the Pacheco Canyon fire, just north of Santa Fe, has been burning for 10 days and has only burned about 10,000 acres gives you an idea of how fast this one is going.  And, consider that the Los Alamos area had a huge fire just over 10 years ago in the Cerro Grande to understand how tense things are around here. The Cerro Grande fire took about one month to be fully contained and burned about 48,000 acres by that point (the Las Conchas fire officially has burned about 43,000 acres as of this writing).

We had a pretty good view of the developing fire from our bedroom yesterday.  Here are some photos from late afternoon-early evening when the fire had “only” burned about 5,000 acres.  We woke up this morning to a dusting of ash all over everything.