Sunday, October 30, 2011

Junot Diaz Challenge: (100 books in a year): #5

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Favorite themes in this one:
  • The role of the narrator and author in the creation of a story:
    • Analogy between "It's a Good Life" Twilight Zone Episode set in Peaksville, Ohio and any author and especially evil dictators
  • Spiritualism and magical thinking a waste of good time
    • There are really good examples of people who are convinced that their destiny is determined by an evil spell (fuku) instead of perhaps the more banal (more insidious) existential curse of living itself (randomness). Oscar and his family were doomed from the start of their adventure. Of course, they also participated in their downfall, but if they had done nothing, they would have also lived lives filled with suffering and pain. 
    • Ultimately the character's focus (past, present or future) and their mindset (optimistic, realistic, spiritual, pessimistic, etc.) are what they have some degree of control over.
    • Oscar is ultimately satisfied when he achieves intimacy (connection) with another person. And, at the end of his life, in his letter to Yunior, he says, "He couldn't believe that he'd had to wait for this so goddamn long...The beauty! The beauty!" In waiting, with his future outlook, he had lived his whole, short, life away
  • Narrator - Who is the Yunior? Why would he write this book? To understand his fate/history? Still owes it to Oscar/family/fuku? Fear? Love? Perhaps he is just a thinly veiled Junot.
I can't wait to see what the VI formers have to say about this... and am hoping to join their discussion.

In other news...

In case you are counting, you will notice that I am a bit behind my pace: we are one month down and I have read 5 books (off my 6 books a month pace while teaching). Not to worry, I am still working hard on this project and will be back on top of my rate in no time. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Junot Diaz Challenge (100 Books in a year): #4

Advice to Satisfice

In America, if you put your mind to it, you can have anything you want; you just can't have everything you want. -Bernard Baruch  

Book 4 was a treat. Some of the most interesting topics included discussions of questions like: If choice and money are supposed to bring happiness, why hasn't general well-being risen over the last thirty years concomitantly with the significant increases in choice (in our market economy) and GDP?

Schwartz is not the first person to discuss this problem, but his answer is perhaps unique. He arguses that most of our unhappiness comes from too much freedom to choose in areas that are not worth spending time choosing. In particular, when given more choices, we tend to spend more time thinking about our options. This can have unintended negative consequences: we spend longer choosing and not doing the things we really love (opportunity costs); we do mental acrobatics which cost us emotionally as we weigh the options which can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction before and after (anxiety about a bad choice and later, buyers' remorse) our choice; we fall into the trap of believing that materialistic goals can lead to happiness (hedonic treadmill); and by considering more choices, the thing we ultimately choose will necessarily, be a decision not to choose others (we can't have it all) and our choice will suffer by comparison at least in one regard, if not many.

As you might expect, there are others who have thought about how people find happiness, and there has been lots of research on this subject. Nobel Laureate, Herb Simon first coined the portmanteau "satisfice," an amalgam of satisfy and suffice, which describes the strategy of choosing that which is "good enough" as opposed to "the best." Herb Simon suggests that when all the opportunity costs (time spent), real costs (money) and emotional costs (anguish) are considered, satisficing is generally the maximizal strategy. The best solution to (interesting) problems are solutions that are sufficient and satisfactory; they are NOT the objective "best" solution.

Schwartz has identified through his "Maximization scale" (a quiz you can take in the book) who among us are likely to be maximizers and who are satisficers. Furthermore, he finds that satisficers tend to regret their decisions less and enjoy life more, and more worryingly, an abundance of choice can turn a perfectly happy satisficer into a maximizer. If Simon and Schwartz are right, it behooves us to work to become better satisficers and be vigilant against too much choice leading us down the maximization road.

For people like me, who spend so much time thinking about the big decisions: marriage, career, religion, or which stereo to buy, this is welcome advice. I look forward to constraining my decisions in the future to two choices at most (one of the recommendations Schwartz suggests among other good ones in the last chapter of his book). If the options represent satisficing solutions to a given problem, then I can feel comfortable going forward with the one I choose. Philosophically, with the really big problems I have found that I can ameliorate my anxiety about not getting everything in life by appealing to the possibility that all universes exist and my observations are confined to the me living out the (admittedly wonderful, yet contingent) life I have in this universe.

There is an excellent and very watchable animated lecture on motivation that square with the work of Schwartz (and the research he cites) that provides a fuller understanding of why we are not satisfied with material goods. The lecture is given by Dan Pink, another popularizer of scientific research done on motivation, and author of the book Drive, which may be a future blog post. I encourage you to watch this video! In retrospect, this crisis of motivation was a big reason for why I left my job in the financial world.

Finally, if this work interests you and you want to read more, check out Ed Diener's and his son's, Robert Biswas-Diener's, work on subjective well-being (Will Money Increase Subjective Well-Being). The Dieners' are leaders in this field of work and they have many interesting things to say. For example, they have found that the extent to which a person preferences love to money is correlated with subjective well-being.

There are good, subtle arguments in the link above regarding considerations whether the causality flowing in both directions (if am satisfied with my life, might I be more likely to be a good mate choice and thus preference love to money; similarly, if I am not satisfied with my life, might I believe that I can solve my problems by focusing on money?).

Much of this work is interesting and of course we cannot read it all; I hope that my summary has been satisfycing for you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Junot Diaz Challenge (100 books in 1 year): Book 3

A Small Book - A Small Place - A Large Joy

The third book I chose in this challenge turned out to be very good. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid was recommended to me by my wife, a ninth and tenth grade English teacher at our school. The book's assets for me included its high recommendation and its very short 81 pages of text. During a long weekend of student comments and advisee letter writing together, these were both important.

The action in the book is set in Antigua. The book's winding path considers both the legacy of corruption, which colonialism has bequeathed to the narrator's island culture, and the identity of its descendants. The tension in the book arises from ubiquitous boredom - an existential fact of life - that lead tourists to far off places. It is a source of double-suffering for natives, who cannot leave and are reminded of this fact daily in their lives when it is also personified in the form of the tourists.

Under other circumstances (see note about comments/letters above), I would love to write an essay on the work. However, I will quote from the book regarding the narrator's apprehension of the underlying banality of life as the motivation for the tourist and a dual source of suffering for the native:
That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives--most natives in the world--cannot go anywhere. They are poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go--so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
The theme of banality in the tourist/native drama plays out, in miniature, the larger theme of corruption in the colonizer/slave relationship. An essay drawing out these parallels would constitute a very interesting and engaging challenge. Perhaps I will get to this once the other projects I am working on are done.

This book reminded me of some of my favorite ethical arguments against luxury purchases put forth in the excellent documentary "Examined Life" and some of Peter Singer's academic work and social work.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Junot Diaz Challenge (100 books in 1 year): Book 2

For those in education (students/teachers) wondering how to read a 100 books in a year, I calculate that one and a half books a week during the semesters (8 months) and two and a half books a week during the breaks (4 months) should be about the right pace to follow:

(8 months/12 months) (1.5 books/week)(52 weeks/year)+ (4 months/12 months)(2.5 books/week)(52 weeks/year) = 95 books/year

Which brings me to my second book (just finished yesterday), Brian Greene's "The Hidden Reality"

The Hidden Reality is an excellent book for anyone.  It is by no means a prerequisite that you must have taken a college-level physics course, and if you have ever wondered about the physical basis for believing in other worlds, other versions of you, or vast distances in space or time, this is a wonderful book for your consideration.

Timely note: This book contains an excellent discussion of the work showing that we live in an inflationary universe, which was honored three days ago with the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics.  This work shows that space in the universe is expanding at an increasing rate.

Some of my favorite ideas that were discussed in the book include:
1. Quantum multiverse - one interpretation of the mathematics that describes events on the smallest scales is that every event is not preordained but is probabilistic and each of the realities (of all that could happen) actually are realized in alternate universes.

2. Ultimate multiverse - that if we can think it, it exists.  This idea is based on the principle of fecundity and was proposed by Robert Nozick in his "Philosophical Explanations."  I have referenced Nozick and his Epistemology before here.  It is a mind-bending take on reality, but together with it and the anthropic principle, an argument can be made that the construction "every possible universe" is actually "every actual universe."

Max Tegmark proposed the following (highly paraphrased) argument for this kind of multiverse:
  • A. Assuming that there is a Theory of Everything (a physical theory that can be used to describe all events in the observable universe), it must be writable in a formal system; otherwise, it would not be a theory.
  • B. But if it is a logical statement, it must itself be subject to the rules of mathematics/logic.
  • C. Therefore, there is no difference, in principle, between the mathematics associated with the theory of everything and everything itself.
  • D. Therefore math is reality.
The Ultimate multiverse is then the set of all the (different) universes which correspond to each mathematical idea/statement/system anyone could dream up.  The universe which we are in is just the universe for one particular mathematical system.  We happen to observe this one and think it is unique because it is just the solution to a mathematical equation which supports galaxies/planets/intelligent life.

This reminds me of the lyrics to "Neverending Math Equation" by Modest Mouse: "The universe works on a math equation / that never even ever really ends in the end"

Check out the Wikipedia Entry on Multiverse's here if you have a moment!
  • catoptric - of or relating to a mirror, a reflector, or reflection.
  • eyetooth - canine (tooth)
  • apoplexy - unconsciousness or incapacity resulting from a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke.
  • MacGuffin - A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction".[1] The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained.
  • cynosure: a person or thing that is the center of attention or admiration : the Queen was the cynosure of all eyes.
  • mellifluous - sweet or musical; pleasant to hear: the voice was mellifluous and smooth.
  • fecund - producing or capable of producing an abundance of offspring or new growth; fertile : a lush and fecund garden | figurative her fecund imagination.