Subtlety

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I am currently reading War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, long considered one of the great novels of all time. Published in 1869, I am literally overwhelmed with impressions, almost all favorable.

One of them is Tolstoy’s ability to communicate through description. He extrapolates a mere impression into an expansive awareness and understanding.

“Helene was so good-looking that there was not only not a trace of coquetry to be seen in her, but, on the contrary, it was as if she was embarrassed by her unquestionable and all too strongly and triumphantly effective beauty. It was as if she wished but was unable to diminish the effect of her beauty.”

The reader knows Helene in an intimate way before she has even opened her mouth.

For a novel that communicates so much it is amazing how little is actually said through dialogue. And how much of what is said is oblique and suggestive. By today’s standards it appears that the characters are speaking in riddles. We are left with the impression, however, that they are riddles that all of the other characters understand completely.

How many more words we use to communicate today. We are drowning in words. Yet, our understanding seems to be greatly compromised.

What has been lost, of course, is our ability to both communicate and comprehend subtlety. Subtlety takes time and practice to master and our time is our most precious resource.

What came to be known as the 7/38/55 rule came out of late 60s research conducted at UCLA. It held that the words themselves only account for 7% of the effectiveness of communication. Tone and body language account for 38% and 55%, respectively.

Technology, of course, has revolutionized our ability to generate and deliver words, but actually impedes our ability to communicate through tone and body language. It’s no wonder that few readers today appreciate Tolstoy. He is speaking a foreign language (i.e. the language of subtlety).

Think of the implications of a world without subtlety. It obviously moves fast. But in doing so our day-to-day existence loses any sense of contour or texture. Everything is sharp edges and hard angles. A world without subtlety is a world without shades.

I wonder if subtlety isn’t also an engine of curiosity. In a world of sharp angles there is “know” and “don’t know”. There is little room for wonder. What will that do to future discovery?

And what about the arts? Can there be great novels without subtlety? And doesn’t the lack of subtlety explain a lot about modern music. Without subtlety is there anything between anger and sensual abandonment, both of which seem to define much of contemporary music?

And in the graphic arts, Warhol was modern in his approach, but he understood and appreciated subtlety. Many contemporary artists apparently do not.

Subtlety is under-rated. But subtlety takes time. Yet another reason to slow down. Yet another reason to sit down with a good book this summer. Preferably, an old classic.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@gmoreau.com

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A simple, practical guide to getting the most out of life without the orthodoxy of organized religion or political correctness.

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Abstract Thought

Watercolor Head Logical Vs Creative Thinking
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My teenage daughters, I must admit, don’t like to talk with me. And the reason is that I like to talk about abstract things, and they hate abstraction. Their world of Instagram and text messages is the opposite of abstract. The online world is a binary world.

My oldest daughter often says, “Please stop talking, Dad. You’re giving me a headache.” And I take her at her word. But that, of course, has given me a lot to think about in the abstract. Why does abstraction give her a headache?

I think part of the answer is the very non-abstract world of digital media. Their brains are turning into binary processors that work the exact same way that a computer or an algorithm does. They can only process linear computations of two-dimensions.

I also think that the language of political correctness is contributing. Without getting into whether or not political correctness is a good thing or not, the way that language becomes politically correct is through the elimination of abstraction—or the addition of specificity, if you will. We add meaning to words. If you refer to someone using an ethnic slur, for example, you are no longer identifying a person of that ethnicity; in the language of PC you are further identifying yourself as a bigot and making the description judgmental.

Said differently, digital technology and political correctness are making the world more localized at a time when our interests are expanding beyond our own universe. The reason we have trouble understanding the observations of people like Einstein is the same reason we don’t like to talk about the philosophy of Nietzsche or Rousseau. Both require us to think abstractly.

The problem is complicated because our language has not kept up. It was developed over a period of time when we lived in our local village and our world was largely a local one. Our language didn’t have to support much abstract thinking. “Did you milk the cow?” “Did you plant the corn?” “How is the goat doing?”

Einstein and Hawking and their ilk are not limited by language because they are naturally able to think in the abstract. Most of us don’t come by it naturally, however. Nonetheless, if we were taught to think abstractly from a young age I believe their theories would be much easier to comprehend and our understanding of the universe would expand at an unprecedented rate.

This is why I am so concerned about the educational focus put on the STEM subjects. We should be teaching our youngest children philosophy, history, and art. We should be teaching them to think abstractly. Without the ability to think abstractly they will only feel further and further alienated in the world of scientific discovery.

Even our most progressive schools don’t teach abstract thinking. They teach self-esteem and creativity, but not abstract thought. Abstract thought actually requires a fair amount of discipline and structure. And it just might give you a headache.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@gmoreau.com

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A simple, practical guide to getting the most out of life without the orthodoxy of organized religion or political correctness.

click here for the paperback

click here for the electronic version

Hindsight is 20-80

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It is perhaps the most well worn cliché that hindsight is 20/20. Retrospection always provides clarity.

With a more thorough accounting of history, however, it is obvious that the “accident of history” defines much of past reality. The true path of history is defined one degree at a time, in small ways, each largely a product of happenstance and seeming inconsequence. Only in the aggregate do they look like a path.

I am not a fatalist. Nor do I believe in destiny. I am increasingly struck, however, by the complexity of the reality we experience. Each element of reality, with the distillation that occurs with the passage of the moment, is rather simple. Collectively, however, those individual elements form a complex decision tree—a maze of choice, if you will—that is beyond our abilities of comprehension.

It is often fatal, as a result, to draw too many conclusions from history. The context of the innumerable components that contributed to the eventual reality is vast and, to an extent, indefinable. Whenever we extrapolate the past into the future we invariably get it wrong, like driving your car by looking only at the rear view mirror. It works only until it doesn’t; until we encounter the next curve in the road.

There is, as always, more than one lesson to draw from this insight. The most obvious, of course, is not to draw too many conclusions from what is, in the end, a mere sampling of history. The other, and more important, however, is to avoid, whenever possible, the lure of judgment.

Judgment, however, covers a wide spectrum, from the moral, which many find easier to avoid, to the seemingly inconsequential. In our “can do” culture of positive thinking and amidst the cult of personal accountability that flourishes in the modern workplace, we are more than prone to judgment. We are dedicated to it.

The many prophets of make-your-own-success, of course, can find no shortage of evidence that our future history is of our own making. Such selective mining of history, however, is built on the fundamental belief that hindsight is, indeed, 20/20.

But it’s not. It’s 20/80. When we look at the past through the lens of the present, it only appears to be vivid in color and detail. The clarity is an illusion. It is, to some degree, a figment of our imagination constructed out of our own past experiences and the biases they have created.

But, of course, everything is a duality. That is not to suggest that we should just live and work with a “come as may” resignation. It is to suggest, however, that we seek balance in all things, recognizing full well that hindsight will accentuate the opportunities we might have missed. In the end, they weren’t really there for the taking at the time.

It’s a less stressful way to live. And our future personal history will probably be no worse and is likely to be much improved.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@gmoreau.com

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A simple, practical guide to getting the most out of life without the orthodoxy of organized religion or political correctness.

click here for the paperback

click here for the electronic version

Me Mum

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We’ve long known that it takes two to tango and a man and a woman to make a human baby. No one really knows why, though. There are theories relating to the pace of genetic diversity and the benefits of recombinational repair of damaged DNA, but they’re just theories.

So, what about dear old Mum? As I’ve gotten older I’ve stopped worrying about questions that can’t be answered—like why we don’t reproduce asexually. It is what it is and that’s a good thing if you let it be.

This has, quite unexpectedly, also changed my perspective about my mother and our relationship. She left us long ago, unfortunately, but her memory seems to grow stronger by the day.

She was “raised”, if you can call it that, in a dysfunctional Irish/Scottish family in pre-war Boston. Her remarried father worked in one of Boston’s then ubiquitous shoe factories while her single mother worked as a bookkeeper for GE. My mother, in turn, raised her two younger brothers, both of whom went on to become engineers with NASA during that institution’s golden age in the 60s.

She joined the US Navy’s Nurses Corps immediately following her graduation from high school and became a Registered Nurse. My father also joined the US Navy and served on a destroyer escort in the Mediterranean during the war. Following the war he went on to earn an accounting degree from Northeastern, the first member of his extensive French Catholic family to ever attend college.

My mother wasn’t Catholic, however, so my grandmother refused to attend their wedding. Strange how my own daughters seem to believe that religious intolerance is something new.

My siblings and I were all Boomers, and ultimately part of the new middle class that defined the post-war era. My mother took a hiatus from nursing to raise her family (yes, father included) but ultimately went back to her career, taking a job as an elementary school nurse following my father’s premature death from cancer. (She always said that the wounds were worse during the war, but the nursing was the same. People are people.)

But I have a self-imposed limit of 500 words so I had better get to it. I am deeply ashamed that I didn’t appreciate my mother more during her lifetime. She was and is, to this day, the kindest person I have ever met. She lived to serve others, no matter who they were, and she did it without ever asking for anything in return. She would have been very out of place in the ‘likes’ digital culture we live in today, where the expectation of reciprocity drives behavior.

I often thought of her as a little old-fashioned; a little out of place. And it was, I must admit, a pejorative judgment at times. If only, I thought, she could see the world the way my generation did.

But she could, of course. She just chose not to. Not for me or for anyone else. She knew who she was and what she believed and that, in the end, is the essence of courage.

I miss you, Mom.

(And, yes, I violated my self-imposed 500-word maxim. My mother deserves it.)
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66778099_Kindle Ready Front Cover_7396632

A simple, practical guide to getting the most out of life without the orthodoxy of organized religion or the impersonization of political correctness and the “you must” movements.

click here for the paperback

click here for the electronic version

The Binary Fallacy

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I recently read a fascinating book. It’s called Artificial Unintelligence, by Meredith Broussard, a mathematician/computer scientist turned journalist. Her CV is unimpeachable as a tech insider. You can find my complete review in the Book Review section listed on the left side of the page.

Broussard’s basic contention is that technology is great, but that we have elevated it to the level of religion and well overshot the mark of what it can do. We have a utopian perception that the sentient, conscious machine is just around the corner and it is a myth. We will not see a black box machine like Hal, the computerized brain in Stanly Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in our lifetime. Nor our children’s.

The problem, as Broussard so thoroughly and simply explains, is that all computers are binary processors. That means that in order to answer a question the question must be converted to a binary computation. Most of the big questions in life, however, cannot be. They are questions of an infinite number of dimensions. Even the human mind, which is binary to the power of ten, at least, cannot fully answer them despite millennia of trying.

We’ve been lulled into believing that computers are “smart” through the use of mathematical algorithms. An algorithm is a recursive mathematical procedure that uses binary computations to approximate an answer to questions that are not binary. An algorithm, in other words, provides a probability, not an answer. It may or may not be right.

As is always the case, language just confuses the issue. The buzz phrase of the day is “machine learning,” whereby, it is implied, a sentient machine can teach itself. It can’t. The machine can only execute binary computations. The human programming the machine can use this awesome computing power to fine tune their algorithms in search of a higher probability that the machine can predict the right answer, but neither the machine nor the human is learning in any literal sense of the word.

Our infatuation with technology has created a lot of potential risks. The first, of course, is fake news, which Broussard claims is no surprise to anyone in Silicon Valley. The second risk flows from the push to automate commercial processes, like customer service, that simply can’t be automated because they can’t be defined in binary terms.

The biggest risk, however, is that we blindly push ahead in the application of technology in areas that actually threaten our physical safety—like autonomous driving cars. And the risk is real, Broussard argues, because the DNA of the tech entrepreneurs is wired in the ideology of libertarianism and they have clearly demonstrated their willingness to accept huge risks in the “advancement” of their glorious technology. (Tech is the only industry on the planet where companies routinely issue new products that they know don’t work and will require a constant stream of upgrades.)

It’s a fascinating book. To read my full review, click here.

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My latest book is now available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon. Click here for the paperback. Click here for the Kindle version.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@gmoreau.com

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Trust

Woolly Mammoth Trap
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If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.

Charles de Montesquieu, French philosopher, (1689-1755)

This, of course, is one of the problems with social media. Our Facebook posts are like our resumes. Some people lie; everyone, at least, puts their best foot forward.

Research has also shown that we are naturally inclined to have higher trust within our clan. Trust is assumed, experience being equal, on a declining scale that starts with immediate family and moves on through friends, other common identifiers, etc. And, of course, these are precisely the people we tend to communicate with on social media. It’s just another dimension of the “echo chamber” effect that reinforces our political biases.

More and more researchers have begun to wonder, as a result, if social media isn’t so much connecting us as depressing us. We see everyone’s celebratory moments. We see their best pictures of the best places, often posed and artificially enhanced for maximum effect. We hear them telling us, in effect, what great lives they lead.

I wonder if the real impact of all this very choreographed sharing, however, isn’t a loss of trust. Is the inverse of Montesquieu’s observation also true? Are we inclined, as a Darwinian survival/selection mechanism, perhaps, to distrust those who we conclude are happier?

Is social media, as a result, accelerating the disintegration of the family and the community? It has been well documented that we all have fewer close friends than we had a generation ago. And it’s been assumed that largely reflects issues of geography and the modern demands of work. But is it?

A man once told me that whenever he was concerned about the amount he was drinking he would walk a couple of doors down on trash day and peer into the trash of his neighbor. He knew from experience that his neighbor’s trash would be full of empty liquor bottles and this affirmation made him feel better about his own habits.

Negative validation, of course, is a terrible way to go through life. It’s a downward spiral.

But if life is full of dualities, we always have options. Philosophically, Darwin’s laws of natural selection imply, by definition, that we have choice at some level.

What if we chose to trust? Would we be less inclined to assess our own happiness by the standard of those around us? And is that a question of trusting those around us or trusting ourselves?

Either way, natural selection is a very slow process. And, after all, the chance of a saber-toothed tiger jumping out of the bushes when you go to get the mail is rather remote. What is the real downside to trust in this day and age?

A question is often a statement. But sometimes a question is an answer.

Think about it. Would you be happier if you trusted more?

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My latest book is now available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon. Click here for the paperback. Click here for the Kindle version.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@gmoreau.com

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Brrr! (Why do I live here?)

Woman hand holding the cup of coffee or tea on rainy day window background
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It has been a trying spring in the upper Midwest. Cold, wet, and colder. And, ultimately, after a long delay, still cold, just for good measure.

It really is strange how much the weather affects our mood. The psychiatrists say it has a lot to do with the amount of daylight. The evolutionary biologists say it is has something to do with our ancestral success at natural selection, but they say that about everything. (If Darwin was right, why don’t all the men look like Brad Pitt?)

But is it the deferral of spring or the retention of winter that gets us down in the dumps? And isn’t that always the question? Do I prefer the color blue more or the color green less? Am I happy, or just not so despondent that I want to go out and fertilize the grass so it will grow faster?

There have been a lot of new books of late probing our global geo-political malaise. My own book has languished on the shelves, but that’s okay. I’m more bothered by the weather, to be honest.

Growing up, the older folks always told us that if we didn’t like the weather we should just wait a minute and it will change. It’s a lie. And when the great weather does finally arrive you’ve got to go to work. That is an injustice if there ever was one.

Have you ever noticed, however, that people who live in places where the weather is great ultimately take it for granted. It’s 80-degrees and sunny and they go to the mall.

And who invented window screens? Are we keeping the bugs out or trapping them inside?

And what about putting fertilizer on your grass? Do you really like to mow that much? It’s the first nice day and you’re stuck mowing because you thought your neighbors might notice your beautiful lawn. They don’t.

Come to think of it, the weather really is the perfect metaphor for life. It’s all one giant duality. As the classical Greek philosopher, Pyrrho of Elis, warned us, you can’t establish a rule without opening the door to an exception. Why bother? You’re going to wake up tomorrow and it will be cold and rainy outside.

Or maybe it will be nice this weekend so you can mow your lawn again. Or pile the kids in the car and sit in traffic heading out of town.

In a famous line from Caddy Shack, Carl explains that he bagged for the Lama one time. “Big hitter, the Lama.” But he stiffed Carl on the tip and said that when Carl was on his deathbed he would achieve eternal consciousness instead. “So I got that going for me,” Carl notes.

Always the duality.

So, if the weather has you down, sit down and think hard about your eternal consciousness and at least be thankful you’re not out doing something silly like fertilizing your lawn.

At least you got that going for you.

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My latest book is now available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon. Click here for the paperback. Click here for the Kindle version.

Contact: You may reach the author at gary@gmoreau.com

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