Friday, February 27, 2009

Safety Experts

"You can never be too safe."

That's the proposition peddled by safety experts. There are threats everywhere, and you've got to be constantly vigilant against them. Predators lurk on the internet, rapists at every highway rest stop, germs on every bathroom surface. Identity theft will rob you of everything you have. Impurities lurk in public water supplies and deep within your intestinal system. Carbohydrates should be avoided, or is it fat or sugar? All around you is danger, danger, danger...

Unless you buy the safety expert's product or service.

There is no shortage of people eager to give you advice on how to protect yourself—some of it no doubt wise. Each expert, however, inevitably goes overboard in promoting his own chosen threat. A terrorism expert is going to pump up the threat of terrorism, even though the actual chance of it happening to you is infinitesimally small. Police officers will tell you horror stories about crime. Dentists give you unending lectures on dental hygiene, while home security experts will inevitably recommend home security systems. The experts' livelihood and ego are tied up in making his threat seem bigger than it is and convincing you to attend to it more than you normally would.

The fact is, there is no safety. It's an illusion. If you obsess over one safety issue, you are inevitably creating an opening for another, which tends to sneak up on you unannounced and grab you from behind. For example, if a nation dwells too much on terrorism, problems with its economy might go unattended and ultimately cause far worse suffering than any terrorist attack.

Instead, life is a game of probabilities. You can reduce the chances of a certain calamity happening, but you can never eliminate it, and it is unwise to try because attempting to purge that last sliver of risk can be enormously costly and distract you from much bigger threats.

Life is a dynamic balance of risks and opportunities, and it is this balance that the experts rarely seem to grasp. They always want you to attend to their risk above all the others, but if you do so you'll probably end up less safe overall while your real quality of life deteriorates.

Safety is always a double edged sword. You need it to stay alive, but if you focus too much on any one threat, you're going to pay a price in freedom. Every lock you place on your life to keep the bad things out is also going to trap you inside and make it more difficult for you to move and adapt. A life of perfect security is also known as "prison," and even a prison is never as safe as it seems to be.

Everything you do in life presents risks, and you've got to calculate those risks whenever you choose a course of action. It's okay to listen to an expert's advice (or a friend's) but you have to understand that it is a skewed assessment of risk based on the adviser's own personal investments. Your job is to evaluate all the risks, not just the one the expert is peddling.

After you've calculated the probabilities, you're going to have to accept some risk. There is no safe path through life. You will have to make a safety compromise, take a chance and plunge ahead.

Also see Kilroy Cafe #20: Kill the Experts!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mental Clutter

Back in the early days of computers, every second of computing time was considered precious. On mainframes, users were billed for the CPU time their program used. Computing time was horrendously expensive, so people wrote their programs to use as little of it as possible. Each program was run in sequence (or "batched"), and when the computer got to your program (stored on punch cards or paper tape), it performed the task quickly then sent you the bill.

Today, computing is ridiculously cheap. Today's personal computers can do more that a multimillion dollar room-size computers a few decades ago, so no one thinks much about CPU usage. As long as your own computer has sufficient capacity for the task at hand (say, the word processing program I am using now), no one cares how efficient the program is or what empy processes are running in the background.

Unfortunately, the same oversupply of computing power does not apply to the human brain. If you think of the brain as a biological computer, its physical capacity hasn't changed in thousands of years. "CPU time" is still extraordinarily precious. Everything though you think takes time. You have think about things sequentially—first about one problem, then another—and at the end of the day, there are only a limited number of thinking units available to you. The physical machine also has a limited lifespan—longer that a typical PC but certainly not infinite.

In your own universe, your brain is the most expensive and valuable mainframe you have. Why, then, would you want to throw any of its capacity away?

People can be very efficient with their thinking time when they are focused on an important task, like writing a report or bringing an airplane in for a landing, but as soon as you give them the freedom to use their brain time as they wish, they seem intent on wasting it.

It is not a waste of brain to just sit and think, as long as the topics covered are important. Daydreaming is not necessarily a misuse of the brain's CPU time either, because that's often how you solve real-world problems. There is nothing wrong with staring into space and free-associating, because this is the way we process our past experiences and plan our future actions.

What is a waste of mental resources are all those millions of outside products and diversions that do nothing for us except soak up CPU time. Crossword puzzles and video games are prime examples. Vast swathes of brain time are absorbed by these devices with nothing to show for them in the end. Come to think of it, just about everything marketed as entertainment is a mental time waster of some kind. People are always seeking "stimulation" in their entertainment—that is, a high occupation of mental resources—but it isn't usually meaningful stimulation that contributes anything to their lives.

It seems as though most people want to waste their own brain capacity. They drink to avoid using it. They "party." They watch meaningless TV shows for hours every day. They have those iPod thingys stuck in their ears at all times so there's no possibility of any conscious thought intruding.

Perhaps this is the most destructive addiction of all: the addiction to thought avoidance.

This disease manifests itself as "boredom" whenever ones mental time isn't fully programmed. Boredom is like the smoker's craving for a cigarette or an alcoholic's lust for drink. As soon as most people have "nothing to do," they panic and try desperately to fill the mental space with something.

And it isn't just video games that fill the void. A voracious reader can be just as much an addict. Is he reading because of the real benefit he is getting from the content or because of the anxiety he feels whenever he sits alone without anything to process?

Why do people avoid their own thoughts? Perhaps it is because those thoughts keep leading them to unpleasant conclusions. If you feel, deep down, that you are worthless or have made mistakes you can't deal with, your unhindered thoughts are always going to lead you back there. If you keep your brain continuously occupied, then you never have to think those thoughts. When the amusements run out, though, that's when panic strikes and you look for something, anything, to keep the bad thoughts at bay.

If you care about doing something useful with your own mental capacity, you can't be swayed by boredom or panic. Instead, you must only do things with your brain time that make sense. Like CPU time on a mainframe, your "thought space" is something you need to protect and never waste. Like any other precious resource, it has to be carefully managed.

You can never tell your brain exactly what to think, but you can manage the environment in which it operates. If there is too much clutter in that environment, you're not going to get a lot of useful thinking done. If you are constantly being interrupted by outside stimuli, it is going to be difficult to accomplish much complex higher-level creativity. If you turn off the radio, remove the Bluetooth from your ear, turn of the laptop and withdraw temporarily from people, the quality of your thinking processes will probably improve.

Those are exactly the conditions that most people equate with "boredom," but if you are wise, you will learn how to work with boredom and make it your friend. Only by being comfortable with your own thoughts can you make the most of your brain capacity.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Automatic Toilet Flushers

Since the dawn of the technological era, the marketing emphasis has been on "automatic"—automatic toasters, automatic clothes washers, automatic transmissions, etc.—that is, devices designed to reduce human labor and attention by performing routine and repetitive tasks without complaint. In fact, some of this contraptionology is highly USEFUL, allowing you to spend minutes on a mechanical chore that once took hours. There comes a point, however, where automation goes too far, when it starts to become a false substitute for human responsibility.

Take the automatic toilet flusher. It sounds like a good idea: As you approach the bowl or urinal, the device senses your presence, and as you draw away it graciously flushes the waste for you, no touch required. It seems like another brilliant labor-saving and health-preserving device, since the customer no longer has to exert pressure on the handle and contact any potential "germs" that might reside there.

Unfortunately, the net effect of these devices is to train the public not to flush toilets, so when they encounter an old manual device they decline to activate it. The automatic flushing of some well-heeled toilets results in the net unflushing of less heeled ones and probably a reduced rate of courteous flushing overall.

This is due to both trained sloth and overactive health consciousness engendered by the automatic devices. People who are used to automatic toilets may simply forget to flush manual ones, but they may also become squeamish about touching something someone else has touched, given the implied message that touching is bad.

The same problem applies to automatic light switches that turn on when you enter the room and turn off when you leave, thus training people to never turn off a light switch on their own. These devices don't necessarily improve our lives overall because they disengage us from fixing problems that our own actions create. They just add another layer of maintenance and technological complexity to our life with no net improvement to its quality.

The old manual devices were pretty reliable, performing their tasks for years with little complaint. The new products are less stable, require far more maintenance, and are more often found broken. In places where they seem to work flawlessly, like in hotels and airports, there is usually a well-funded maintenance structure in place to keep them that way. In "ordinary" restrooms, homes and public places, these automatic mechanisms are just another thing to go wrong.

And what about the "germs" supposedly contacted by manual use of these devices? Whatever a "germ" may be (since this is a marketing term, not a scientific one), they are everywhere and you can't avoid them. The paper money and coins you touch every day probably carry more potentially disease-causing agents than any toilet handle, but these agents rarely cause disease because the human immune system guards against it. In fact, the immune system needs regular contact with threats to keep it healthy and active.

There is an endless array of such supposedly "labor-saving" devices on the market, from automatic can openers to automatic kitty box strainers. Many of these products requires more effort to set up and maintain than any labor actually saved—plus they cost money and take up space! Sometimes, they are only used once or twice until their uselessness becomes clear then they are set aside in semi-permanent storage.

As useful as it may sometimes be, automation usually has the effect of isolating people from their environment and from the effects of their own actions. For example, when a toilet gets flushed, by any means, where does the waste go? Most people don't have a clue. It just "goes away." Therefore, they feel comfortable flushing anything down the john, knowing that it will somehow be taken care of.

The word "automatic" ought to be a warning sign. It could be a device that saves a trivial amount labor in the short term but invites substantial dysfunction over time.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Addiction Treatment

Once you recognize that you or someone you care about has an addiction—be it to drugs, alcohol, pornography, shopping or any other destructive habit or attitude—what's the treatment for it? In short, there isn't any.

Addiction treatment is a huge industry ranging from smoking cessation patches to expensive residential rehab programs to educational classes designed to teach addicts or potential addicts the dangers of drugs. Nearly all of it is ineffective by any statistical measure. Lots of programs can provide short term relief—if nothing else by separating the addict from his source of drugs—but in the long term, most programs are no more successful than a placebo in preventing relapse. Even when a program can statistically prove success, the results are so marginal that they hardly justify the huge cost.

Addiction treatment, of any kind, is a fraud. It simply doesn't work.

You can wear a Nicoderm™ patch to stop smoking or take methadone to get off heroin, and they seem to work at first, but then how do you get off methadone or Nicoderm? So much of what is called "treatment" is like that: just substituting one addiction for another.

This grim assessment may seem to be at odds with the many ex-addicts who claim that Alcoholics Anonymous or some other treatment system saved their life. They honestly believe this, but that doesn't mean it's true.

You could test the hypothesis by assigning addicts randomly to one of two different groups: Alcoholics Anonymous and some other "placebo" social group, like a hiking club, with no treatment component. In that case, research seems to show that there would be no substantial difference in relapse rates, and some people in the second group would claim that the hiking club saved their life!

The people who praise AA are the ones who succeeded, who already made the commitment to change and who would have latched onto any program available to them. AA may seem to be the cure, but really it came from within.

The only real cure for addiction is the addict getting so beaten up by the bad effects of his behavior that he makes his own decision to change. No outside "program" can do that for him. In fact, the availability of treatment may only serve to give the addict one more excuse not to quit: "I have a disease; someone else has to fix me."

Addiction is a philosophical disease as much as a chemical one. It's the natural consequence of fatalism. The central issue is a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you think you can kick the habit and decide to do it, then you will. If you don't think you can do it and choose not to, then you won't. It seems like a simple little switch in the brain that could go either way, but people become emotionally invested in fatalism, and those investments are the main barrier to change, not the chemistry per se.

If I decide to take control of my life now, then I have to accept that all those stupid things I did in the past were my own damn fault, not someone else's. People aren't comfortable with that kind of regret, so they resist changing their philosophy.

No outside force can make you more responsible for your own actions. Other than the molding of childhood and the hard lessons of experience, self-responsibility is simply unteachable. There are, however, plenty of ways to make people feel less responsible for their own actions, and one of them is offering cures from the outside.

All forms of addiction treatment send a philosophically defective message: "We will rescue you." Given such assurance, the addict has no reason to exert his own control. That's fundamentally why treatment doesn't work.

What does work? As a friend or family member, your options are limited. One route is to completely remove the addict from the environment in which the addiction takes place. If you take a child out of the home of addicts and place him in a home with no culture of drug abuse, you are likely to change his own propensity for addiction. Unfortunately, this really only works with children, since adults tend to carry their addictive philosophy with them and will reconstruct new addictions to replace the old ones. If you move your spouse to a new city to try to get him away from a bad crowd, it means you are treating him as a child and are giving him a free pass to act like one.

The only other thing you can do is withdraw your protection for the addict, so he experiences the effects of his behavior as directly as possible. If he gets falling-down drunk, then he needs to fall down, with no one there to catch him. If painful consequences happen to him enough times, he might change or he might not, but it usually offers better odds than any treatment program.

The barriers you encounter in this second option may be inside you as much him. Are you willing to let your spouse or family member fall? What will happen to your investments together? The key problem may be your own addiction to enabling his addiction. "I must rescue him," you tell yourself. "I have no choice."

As soon as you say, "I have no choice," you're doomed. There are always options, just not pleasant ones. Escaping from addiction always involves pain, but so does not escaping. If you choose less pain overall, then you will take whatever unpleasant actions are necessary now to achieve a better long-term outcome.

If you believe you "have no choice," then you're an addict yourself!

Also see: addiction, caffeine.

Also see Kilroy Café #22: "Words Don't Work"

Also see my comments on an L.A. Times article: Shaming Johns (another dubious "scared straight" program).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


We live in a society that actively promotes addiction. It isn't just chemical dependencies that seduce people, but behavioral addictions of all kinds. Obviously, you can be addicted to cocaine, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, but also to television, fashion, running, travel and mountaineering. Any behavior that is repeated impulsively detracts from one's quality of life, not matter how harmless it may seem on the surface.

Addiction lies at the core of the commercial agenda. It is the mode of human behavior that advertisers are always trying to promote. They want you to get hooked on their product—Diet Coke™, Playstation 2™, Major League Baseball™, etc.—and lust for it just as automatically as a smoker longs for a cigarette.

People may also say, with some pride, that they are addicted to apparently healthy things, like exercise, volunteer work, gardening or listening to National Public Radio. Aren't these good addictions to have?

I say, no, nearly all addictions are bad for you in the long term, even running or NPR. We all engage in addictive behaviors during the course of our lives, but our ultimate goal should be to live without them.

How do we define an addiction? It is a repetitive behavior that serves no functional need (at least compared to the alternatives) and that provides no real satisfaction when repeated. The behavior is engaged in not for its positive effects but mainly because of the anxiety one feels when not doing it.

Why does a smoker have to light up every hour? It is because of the anxiety that overwhelms him when he doesn't smoke. This is due to the reduction of nicotine levels in the blood, but all the smoker knows is that he is starting to feel really bad. The cigarette itself doesn't provide much pleasure, except in the sense of ending pain, but it relieves the smoker's unpleasant feelings by restoring his blood nicotine levels.

Smokers may say that the cigarette gives them "pleasure" or "relaxation," and for years cigarettes were marketed on those terms, but any smoker who is honest with himself (and any spouse of a smoker) knows that isn't true. It's the anxiety of deprivation that drives the activity, not the purported reward.

It's not much different with the addicted runner, traveler or public radio listener. They may talk about the pleasures or practical benefits of the activity, but it's really anxiety that pushes them to repeat it over and over.

All addictions are powered by the primitive parts of the brain that regulate emotion. At the basic neurological level, the runner's anxiety when he is blocked from his activity is similar to the cocaine addict's feelings when deprived of the drug. This brain circuitry exists because it regulates sex and human bonding. The unpleasant feelings of the runner or drug addict are similar to the anxiety of a young child separated from his mother or lovers separated from each other.

The longing for sex can be as powerful and addictive as cocaine, and for good reason: Nature wants to hold a man and woman together long enough for them to raise children. Couples have far more sex than is necessary for procreation because it is a bonding device designed to keep drawing the partners back to each other. In fact, love can be thought of as addiction in its purest form.

Love, sex and bonding are "good" forms of addiction—or at least they are so integral to the human species that they cannot be separated from us. All of those other addictions, however, are parasitic ones, riding on the same circuitry but not doing any useful work.

How do you identify an addiction? You know it because (a) the behavior deviates from functional need, and (b) you are drawn into it by an unnamed anxiety, not by reason.

"Functional need" is what you must do to survive and pursue positive goals. For example, your need for food isn't an addiction. You truly need it to survive, and your body is eventually going to shut down if you don't have it. Cheesecake, however, is not a functional need. You aren't going to die if deprived of it (provided you have other food available). The need for cheesecake is, in a sense, all in your head. It's a neurological problem, not a physical one.

Why do you eat cheesecake? You might say that the pleasurable taste draws you in, but this is true only for a while. True flavor is never sustained when you eat the same food over and over. Any food addict knows that it's really anxiety that drives him to eat: the unpleasant feelings when he thinks about cheesecake but tries to deprive himself of it. After he has broken down and eaten it, he doesn't feel good about himself, and he may acknowledge that the taste wasn't that thrilling, but at least the anxiety is reduced.

As long as you are obeying your anxiety and not what you "know" is good for you, you are going to be hurt by an addiction. The addictive behavior may not cause direct damage, but invariably it will displace more productive activities.

This is true even with seemingly good addictions. If you run for hours every day, you have far exceeded any true health benefit and are instead stealing time from the more important activities of living.

Are you listening to public radio because of all the useful information you are receiving or because of the anxiety you feel when the radio is turned off? Only you can say. The cost of a radio addiction is the opportunity to think your own thoughts and work through the problems of the day.

Even useful activities can be bad if repeated blindly, because you aren't exercising of your experience and wisdom. Just because the activity looks healthy doesn't mean it's the most important thing to do at the time.

Also see my essay on addiction: Words Don't Work.

Also see: caffeine, soft drinks, addiction treatment.

The illustration above is from a New York Times article: A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects (2/6/07)

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Caffeine is an addictive psychoactive drug like any other. The fact that it is legal and is used by the majority of humans doesn't make it any better for you. It's a space-filler: It soaks up your time and money and may indirectly damage your health while giving you nothing in return.

Like all addictive substances, the problem is acclimation. You may get a jolt of "energy" from your first caffeine experience, but the high becomes less and less the more you use it. Soon, you are using the drug not to feel good but just to avoid feeling bad.

Yes, caffeine may help you get started, but it also invisibly creates the condition where you can't get started without it. There is no free lunch in the brain: Every "high" at one point in time must be paid for with a "low" or painful withdrawal at another time. Those are just the laws of physics.

There is a huge economy based on caffeine addiction. The massive soft drink and coffee industries depend on it. As with any other drug trade, the profit margins are huge. This supports ubiquitous advertising campaigns to convince us we are consuming the drug for some reason other than addiction.

Is caffeine a "harmless" drug? People don't usually kill each other over it, and there is no substantial evidence linking it to direct health damage, so why not?

It's unnecessary, for one thing. Why invest in an expensive habit that does nothing for you? The cost of caffeinated drinks, in both money and time, is substantial. $4 lattes and $1.50 sodas add up over time—equivalent to a smoker's outlay for cigarettes. $5 spent on caffeine every day is $150/month or $1800/year, a non-trivial amount in anyone's budget.

The health effects of caffeine are indirect, arising from the drink that carries the drug. Sugared soft drinks and sweetened or creamed coffee can contribute to obesity and tooth decay and displace healthier foods.

When you are addicted to caffeinated beverages, you also take in much more liquid than your body needs. The craving for the drug is often mistaken for "thirst" and encourages drinking even when the body is well-hydrated. While there is no proven health damage from taking in too much liquid, it certainly means you have to pee more often. Instead of 3-5 times a day, you might have to go every hour or more. All these pit stops add up and can be a real burden to your daily activities. (If your pee is more clear than yellow, you are obviously drinking more than your body needs.)

If you're a caffeine addict, maybe you should just admit it and start taking caffeine pills instead (NoDoz™ or similar). That would be cheaper and would strip caffeine of its veneer of respectability.

Probably the most costly effect of this or any other drug is simply that you become a slave to it. Instead of living the best life for your own real needs, you are arranging your life to serve the addiction. This can happen in many subtle ways. Maybe you can't get any work done until you have your morning fix, which means you can't work just anywhere. You have to have the caffeine delivery infrastructure in place, which may not be available everywhere you go.

How do you kick caffeine? It's just like quitting any other drug. You decide to quit, then you do it. There is no easy way. The initial detoxification period is going to be difficult, but as you get over the hump and your brain chemistry adjusts, it gets easier and easier. Soon, you might even find the effects of caffeine unpleasant and avoid it without any difficulty.

In a culture steeped in caffeine, there's always a chance of backsliding. Caffeine is often seen as fun and trendy. People freely admit their addiction like it's something to be proud of, but that doesn't mean it's right for you. Is that what you life is all about: just serving your addictions? If not, then you have to change.

Also see: soft drinks, addiction, addiction treatment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Sex happens, typically followed by, and sometimes even preceded by, pair bonding. It seems a natural human inclination to pair off in twos, with both parties emotionally attached to each other in the same way a child is bonded to his mother. It's not something that you have to have, but it can be USEFUL at times. You can potentially gain another set of eyes and ears on the world through the close communication that pair bonding fosters.

What you DON'T NEED is a public contract stating that the bond is permanent. Nor do you need a legal merging of your finances that erases the economic boundaries between you—i.e. marriage.

I'm not saying that a pair bond can't become permanent of its own accord. I'm just saying that you shouldn't declare contractually that it will be, because as soon as that happens, the relationship ceases to be a free-will choice. Are you there because you want to be, because the relationship continues to prove itself on a daily basis, or are you there because you have to be, because the practical costs of breaking the contract are so high. With the outside contract hanging over you, you can never really be sure.

Legally, marriage is primarily a financial agreement—essentially an incorporation. It is saying that your separate economic lives have ended and have been replaced by a single "community". Henceforth, any assets your spouse obtains are also your assets, but any debts and liabilities he incurs are also yours.

In theory, it sounds nice to share everything you have with someone special, but in practice, marriage suffers from the same problems as Communism: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Whenever this arrangement is implemented in the real world, it usually ends up that one party starts taking more than his share, while the other party has to give more to compensate.

A marriage might coast along nicely as long as there are plenty of resources to go around and no big changes, but whenever the going gets tough, it seems much easier for one or both parties to fall back on the community to solve their problems rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.

A "joining of two hearts" seems harmless enough, and if you want to have a ceremony and hold a banquet to celebrate your relationship, that's fine. It's the "joining of two pocketbooks" that is really destructive. Unfortunately, that's the legal essence of marriage in every jurisdiction, even if you maintain separate bank accounts after the wedding. Money will always be an important part of each person's identity in the world. It is a measure of one's labor and of control over one's own life. If you erase this essential boundary between people, then you may have pushed intimacy too far.

In our interactions with others, we must always balance two opposing forces. One is loneliness, or the urge to merge with others. The other force could be called "engulfment," or the unpleasant loss of personal control to others. No one wants to be alone, but it can be equally painful and damaging to have lost control of your own destiny to outside forces, even to someone you love. Young people who are just starting a relationship can only see the benefits of merging; they don't yet grasp how quickly the pendulum can swing in the other direction: to where you feel trapped in a relationship because you have given up too much of your own discretion.

The most essential tool in maintaining this balance is negotiation. You need to negotiate, on a case-by-case basis, what you are going to share and what you are going to keep separate. This can be awkward sometimes, like when deciding who should pay for dinner, but this kind of interaction is really the essence of what a relationship is: "Ongoing negotiations." If you give it all away in a single "I do" you may also be inadvertently giving up the very life and substance of your exchange.

If you ask divorced people when their relationship started going bad, their answer is often, "On the day we got married." This is not surprising, since the boundaries that people have known all their lives have been instantly erased. Now you may think you have "security," but every student of history knows that security is a double-edged sword. Always there is a loss of individual liberty, sometimes much greater than the perceived threats that security was meant to address.

Are many married relationships successful? Sure, but I contend that it is in spite of marriage and not because of it. These people have established healthy boundaries and productive negotiations within the bounds of the traditional structure, but perhaps they would have done so regardless.

More often, if you look closely at real marriages, you see dysfunction. One partner becomes the child and the other the parent—or maybe they BOTH regress to childishness. What could they have become without each other? They can't imagine it themselves, but we can. Sometimes, marriage just isn't healthy for the personal development of either party, even when the marriage lasts.

Clear boundaries between people are an essential part of our healthy functioning in the social world. We would be unwise to give them all up with a single wave of a magic wand.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Latest Technology

It almost never pays to be the "first on your block" with any new technology. Whether it be a computer, or certain kind of cell phone, a new version of Windows, a new kind of can opener, a new line of cars or anything other "new thing", if you buy it too soon, you may pay too much for a unreliable product. It is much better to drag your feet until the technology stabilizes and proves its value and the price comes down.

A case study: When digital wristwatches first came out in the early 1970s, they were awkward and ugly LED devices selling for $3000. (I remember Bill Bixby using one on the television show The Magician, which was considered chic and James Bondish at the time.) Then they dropped to $1500 a few months later, then $700, and with each price drop, the product actually got better. Today, you can buy one at the 99 cents store, and it's probably more accurate and reliable than that $3000 model was.

That's what happens with all new technology. An additional risk is that if you start investing in an untested "cutting-edge" standard, like Sony Betamax video tapes, the rest of the world may start adopting a different standard (VHS) and leave you in an evolutionary dead-end.

When it comes to electronics, cheap is good! A laptop computer for $500 does almost everything a $2000 model does. Marketers always want to sell you the more expensive one because the profit margin is higher. They can list all sorts of "enhanced features" it has that the cheaper one doesn't, but the practice benefit of those bells and whistles almost never matches the extra cost.

Technological items are essentially perishable, like milk and eggs. If you can't get enough value out them by the expiration date, then don't bother buying them.

There is often some benefit in being a Luddite: one who distrusts technology. If there is a simpler, low-tech way of doing things, you should try it. It just might work and save you a bundle.

High Definition

These days, everything is supposed to be High Definition—television, radio, cameras, lip gloss, etc. If you can't see every pore on an actor's face, you aren't getting the "full experience." So say the marketers, because they're the ones pushing this whole High Def craze.

I say it's all nonsense. High Def, in almost any field, just complicates things and rarely enhances the "experience" of anything you do. There is a certain optimal "definition" for any art form, and if you exceed it, you aren't getting any additional benefit.

Let's look just at video: Most of us were raised on ordinary Low Def television screens, 480 lines of resolution, first in black and white (if you are old enough), and then in color. You could argue that color was a significant advance, because most of us see in color, so it makes the image more lifelike.

But do you really get more out of a television program in color than you do in black and white? The experience as you remember it (like a movie you saw long ago) is really no different. You remember what happened in the movie, not the colors. (Do you remember if Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was in black-and-white or color? I don't, but I vividly remember scenes from the movie.)

Likewise, there is really no difference in your memory of a movie seen on a small Low Def screen vs. a big High Def screen. It's the story you remember—that is, what happened and what was said.

The fact is, your brain and eyeball are Low Def devices. They don't really process all those millions of pixels, only the broad outline of what is happening. What is processed and stored in your brain—the consciousness and memory of what happened—is as Low Def as you can get. You remember only the essentials, mainly the portions of the scene that were important to you at the time.

It is totally pointless to have an output device that far exceeds the resolution of the input device. For example, if the resolution of your eye is X dots per square inch but the resolution of a video monitor is 10X dots per inch, all that extra resolution is wasted on your eye.

A High Res monitor could be useful for a static display such as a computer screen, where you might glance at different parts of the screen, but it is meaningless for movies and dramas where an active story is being told. In that case, images pass quickly across the screen and the filmmaker is supposed to be directing you to what is important. If you become aware of the pores on the actor's face, it means that the story itself has lost you.

Think of the great movies of the past, like Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Would they be any more powerful if filmed in High Def than they are when you see them on a tiny black and white screen? I think they would be LESS powerful.

The same applies to almost every other art form. Do you get any more out of a song if you hear it in rich bass-boosted Dolby stereo than if you heard it on a scratchy AM radio? Arguably, the sound is richer and more layered at the time, but your memories of it aren't: You remember the tune, the words and the musical theme in the background, that it!

The function of art, in any form, is to distill the human experience into a few broad strokes. All great art simplifies reality so we can more clearly understand it. High Def goes in the opposite direction: making art more complicated. To make art work in a new High Def medium, you actually have to obscure the definition—say, by blurring all but the most important part of the image. The job of the artist is essentially to get rid of all that definition that technology has given him.

Who is behind the High Def conspiracy? Of course, it is the people trying to sell you the latest Thing You Don't Need. They have to sell you something, and if you already have everything they sold you last year, then they'll have to create a new imaginary need for you to fill this year. "You're not getting the full experience until you see it in High Definition." Baloney!

It is no mystery that crappy television in Low Def is just going to turn into crappy television in High Def. More pixels don't add quality of any kind.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Live Music

Assuming that you find music to be USEFUL (which is a more complicated question than it seems), what is the best form of music: recorded or live? In other words, if there was a song you liked, that you somehow found germane to your life, what is the most authentic way to listen to that song: played on the radio from an old recording, or played in front of you by the artist himself live in concert?

I say only the recording is genuine. The concert is the fake!

Here is what music mainly consists of: sound. All that really matters is the sound that comes into your ears and what it means to you. It doesn't matter how the sound was produced, what the artist looks like, whether he perfored it naked, what his original intentions were, whether he can dance, or whether you are surrounded by 10,000 people at the time you listen. If you believe that music itself is useful to you, all that really matters is the sound.

At concerts, the sound usually sucks.

It is not just that the acoustics of the sound are poor, but any true feeling that the artist ever had for the song is long gone by the time it gets to the stage. At that point, he is merely faking it, going through the motions for the audience but not really feeling anything for it inside. If you are astute, you can hear the difference in the singer's voice: The concert version almost never lives up to the much more refined and subtle studio recording.

There have been scandals in the past when some big-name singer has been found to be lip-syncing all or part of their concert. I say what's the big deal? It's all essentially lip-syncing anyway. A concert is a vain attempt to reproduce the definitive version that was already made in the studio, strictly as a way to make money.

I do have some sympathy for the musician here, because there aren't many ways to make a living in the music biz. The artist doesn't get anything if someone merely hums the song and holds it forever in his head. If the artist wants to stay alive, he has to sell the consumer something, and a concert is one exploitation mechanism. Unfortunately, it will always be a "show", and like other forms of entertainment, it is more a burden to the listener than a benefit.

The studio version, on the other hand, was probably recorded shortly after the artist wrote the song, during a period where he was still trying to get it right and still had some feeling for it. It is a moment in history that can never be reproduced. When the artist tries to reproduce it onstage, he is essentially doing a fake "cover" of his own song.

A concert is more of a religious experience than a listening one. People are gathering together to pay homage to their spiritual leader, but in the process I think they are losing touch with the music itself. What counts is not all the culture, theatrics and personalities of music. It's just the sound.

Like the stoners say, "It's all about the music, man!"