Robert D. Hare: Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

Robert Hare is a psychologist who has worked with inmates in Canadian prisons for a considerable period of time and estimates that as many as 25% of inmates are psychopaths (basically interchangeable with sociopath), though most psychopaths aren’t necessarily convicts.  One thing I’d never considered is that prisons are the only place a psychologist will get to work with adult psychopaths since, unlike most other psychological problems, psychopaths are quite comfortable in their own skin and would never see a need to seek help or try to change.  Why would they? They experience minimal anxiety, do whatever they want without regret and have little fear of social judgement or even physical harm. It’s like a robot wanting to see a shrink.

Hare uses his own experience working with and observing psychopaths in prisons to write this book. The verdict is bad: there is no effective treatment, the cause isn’t fully understood, they never change (aside from mellowing out in old age), have no conscience or moral center and enjoy lying, defrauding, conning and risky behaviour.  They do all this as expert chameleons, deftly able to read people and act in whatever way gets them what they want (money, sex, power etc.).

One cliche I’ve often heard is that psychopaths would make excellent businessmen, spies or militants as their lack of conscience would enable them to do a better job than their hesitant normal human counterparts. This isn’t accurate though as Hare explains that they also have no attention span and are unable to commit to any form of long-term planning. Their appetite for taking extreme risks will also sabotage their own work. It’s more likely that they won’t do any actual work, ruin a project and then leave a job to do the same thing elsewhere.  Same goes for relationships.

From my own personal experience I’ve encountered one individual that I’d wager a lot of money is a psychopath. This was a co-worker who was extraordinarily charismatic, capable of turning on extreme levels of charm in virtually any setting. Others admired him because he was able to go to a meeting while knowing next to nothing whatsoever and spin a bunch of bullshit convincingly. On the flip side his decisions often made zero sense, he would gladly destroy subordinates if it helped him, was involved in petty criminal activities (which he often bragged about) and had no hesitation to lie or cheat to help himself out, including launching fake accusations at others. Even knowing all that many people still liked him because of said charm.

Another guy I knew was eerily similar in the charisma department.  However, he was a habitual liar, engaged in petty frauds that weren’t necessary and was ultimately fired from his job, though he didn’t tell his wife for months on end, pretending to go to work every day while defaulting on his mortgage. None of it seemed to bother him too much.

Both of the above individuals ended up in senior positions at their companies, but were inconsistent, devious and left their jobs in a shit storm of their own making. They seem to fit with Hare’s description of a psychopath.

Personally I think the ideas in this book are essential for everyone to read and understand. It is the only real protection against people that are human zombies that look like us, talk like us, often seem better than us, but will happily destroy your life without hesitation.  There are some people who are beyond redemption, treatment and will never change.  The more that this affliction is understood the better others can identify it and stay far far away. A similar book in this genre is the popular Confessions of a Sociopath, which gives a glimpse into a psychopath’s internal logic. It’s a sickening read, though that’s kind of the point.  The book Columbine is another detailed profile of a psychopath and enters the psyche of spree killer Eric Harris via his own words care of a journal he left behind. Harris fooled psychologists, his parents and judges as he was able to read them, tell them what they want to hear and get them off his back. Lying wasn’t hard for him, like a normal person, he enjoyed it. In an ideal world his parents or the police might have understood that he was a textbook psychopath. There wouldn’t be anything they could do to fix this, but they wouldn’t have been played for suckers and taken actions to correct his behaviour that had literally zero chance of succeeding. What to do with psychopaths, especially child psychopaths, is a thorny ethical conundrum with no obvious answer.

 

Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots

Lets say you can wash the dishes twice as fast as you used to. You finish in 30 minutes instead of the old 15 thanks to buying a dishwasher. That extra 15 minutes you can now spend watching television, going to the gym or just about anything. Fantastic.  But what if you are a dishwasher and those 15 minutes are time that you’re paid for.  In the past those 15 minutes have party been replaced by other work, so instead of washing dishes you might be a computer programmer or man a call center . You don’t get free time, you simply free up time to do a new type of work and most importantly get paid.

This book posits that for the past 30 years or so this balance has been out of whack and increasingly our dishwasher can’t find new work, he just works far less than he used to and has a smaller income. As Ford notes productivity has skyrocketed, but real wages have declined precipitously. Offshoring and globalization have contributed, but the real enemy isn’t people in China, it’s your computer.

Computing and information technology have improved at an exponential speed, roughly doubling their abilities each year, which continues unabated. We aren’t at the end, we’re arguably at the beginning. This is the cue for a million dystopian sci-fi plotlines, which I’m sure we’re all aware of, but the main question Ford asks is what happens when we have far too few jobs?

For me the main question that Ford doesn’t much attempt to answer is how efficient would robots be compared to a human employee? Let’s say a human gets paid $7/hour, what would the equivalent robotic alternative cost? If it is cheaper but still relatively high, say $5/hour (parts, updates, fixing or replacing robots), then productivity will increase, but not exponentially.  If it is 0.1/hour then it’s an entirely different ballgame and productivity would skyrocket.  If Ford’s law of IT expansion (double every year) holds true then this is the probable end-state. The difference, to me, is that the cost of goods would plummet to match our diminished incomes. If the robots replace us, but are only marginally better in a big picture view of things, then goods wouldn’t be any cheaper. That’d be a big problem as nobody, save the owners of robots, would have much of an income to pay still high prices. That’d be economic catastrophe. If there’s a middle stage where robots are cheaper to employ than humans, but not drastically so, the economy would be in ruins and we might never reach that end state or at least not without mass poverty.

The biggest hypothetical benefit that I can foresee from increased automation would be helping out our beleaguered environment by way of increased efficiency.  If we can’t last another hundred years because the planet is destroyed robots will be the least of our worries. One tiny example would be eliminating commutes to and from work.

Freeing up more time is of course a double edged sword as many people would feel liberated, even if they didn’t have substantial incomes, not to have to slog it out at a job they hate and would have enough hobbies to fill their time. I’d wager though that over 85% of us would feel directionless and lose any sense of value of purpose. Our own minds would eat away at us. Evolution didn’t prepare us for lethargy and I’d picture us like an animal in a zoo going crazy from boredom and being removed from our natural environment (physical and mental exertion). The biggest antidote to depression is often “action over inaction.”

I’ll insert some song lyrics that I think capture this better than I can. Here’s Titus Andronicus’ Ecce Homo:

I heard them say the white man created existential angst
When he ran out of other problems
Cause the thing about those problems was
Typically, more money would solve them
We’re breaking out of our bodies now
Time to see what’s underneath them

 

 

 

Stewart Bell: Bayou of Pigs

Legend has it that when he returned to Europe Christopher Columbus was asked to describe the small Caribbean island that he named Dominica, picked straightforwardly for the day of the week, Sunday, when he found it.  As an answer Columbus supposedly took a piece of paper, crumpled it up and threw it on the table.

This description of the island’s steep cliffs and mountainous jungles, which rise to a height of 4747 feet, despite only a total size equal to two Central Park’s, provides an explanation as to why, in 1981, a rag tag group of neo-nazis, criminals, dirtbags and (self-declared) mercenaries thought they could invade the tiny island and set up a criminal’s paradise.

Unlike its more developed neighbours in the Lower Antilles, Dominica has dark volcanic sand, few beaches and the steep cliffs are hostile to large plantations of sugarcane or virtually anything else. If you travel just a bit further East to Barbados you’ll find a miniature Britain with bustling restaurants, packed beaches of tourists and cruise ships, loud music and high-end stores of all kinds. Even the occasional traffic jam. Likewise nearby Martinique, still a part of France, feels like a slightly warmer version of the mother country.  Absent beaches, profitable crops or dodgy banks, the country today is the poorest in the Eastern Caribbean. It remains a largely rural country of 70,000 and well into the eighties much of the island lacked conventional roads, with locals still travelling to neighbouring villages by hiking through the jungle. Many people still make do by simply eating whatever fruit, yams or coconuts grow in their immediate vicinity.

In 1981 the little nation of Dominica was newly independent of Britain, flipping between democratic governments. Most important to this story its distant neighour four islands to the South is Grenada and a coup in 1979 put Leninist-Marxists in charge of the island.  In the Cold War, despite being utterly irrelevant, this represented a big problem to the U.S.A Cubans and Russians were flooding in to help out and the domino theory held that, were nothing done, communism would soon take over the entirety of South America and the Caribbean. In 1983 this problem would be stamped out by a U.S.A. invasion, but in the intervening four years America viewed the Caribbean with anxiety.

Some, however, saw opportunity. Enter Mike Perdue, a Vietnam vet and self-styled soldier of fortune with connections to the Ku Klux Klan and the far right. Perdue imagined that his government wouldn’t exactly be adverse to a change of government in Grenada. Why not put together a mercenary force, topple its tiny government and then live there as a quasi-ruler enjoying all the Caribbean has to offer? He’d be living the high life and doing his own country a favour at the same time. The idea was put in motion, but as it developed Cubans began flooding in to help preserve the communist government. John Rambo himself wasn’t going to be take out Soviet trained Cubans, so the invasion had to be shelved. Perdue’s Pandora was out though and he didn’t want to go back to just being a poor nobody.  The plan had been to invade Grenada by boat from Dominica, but what if he just invaded Dominica instead?

The story gets stranger as Perdue taps his far-right connections, namely former Grand Wizard David Duke and the Canadian Nazi Party to raise the capital and men to mount his invasion. The plan is a testament to stupidity, with a rag tag group assembled to invade for reasons entirely nonsensical. The white supremacists intended to work with local rastafarians and the ex-Prime Minister, all black, to govern.  There was no pretext for invasion since Dominica wasn’t remotely communist and as far as pillaging is concerned a hurricane ravaged island that has only bananas, yams and handmade soap isn’t much in the way of booty.  Most the men talked in to the invasion barely knew where Dominica was or ignorantly thought they were somehow fighting on behalf of the CIA. You get the sense that most of them just had nothing better to do and this was their lottery ticket to being a somebody.

I won’t ruin the story, but this is foremost a story about a con. A big convoluted and moronic con, but one that was almost pulled off and managed to ensnare a good many people. Someone acting confidently playing on the fantasies or insecurities of others can put together something nuts touching an entire continent. Kinda impressive. It’s a good thing that the plan didn’t go into action, but I wish I could know what on earth would have gone down if either a) neo-nazi losers reenacting a Frederick Forsyth novel invaded the island  OR b) what the heck they would have done if they won.

Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

I swore that I’d read more fiction and as this blog shows, I’ve failed miserably.   I was at a used book store when I came across this book, an alternate reality to WWII where the Allies lose and the United States is occupied by the Japanese and Germans. Seemed like a good way to dip my toe in the water after a lifetime of reading about actual wars.

The first hundred pages were all I’d hoped for. Himmler, Goebels and Gorring competing for power, Africa destroyed by Nazi genocide, the Japanese colonizing the West Coast. Just as Americans picked over the cultural corpse of Native Americans by collecting trinkets like dreamcatchers or feather headdresses, the Japanese create a market around kitschy relics of a lost American civilization in the form of Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War muskets.

What would it be like to be on the other side of history? The vanquished instead of the victor, learning some other language, worshiping a foreign God and having to carefully show reverence to your new superiors and their customs. Something as simple as handshakes replaced with bowing would constantly irritate me I’m sure. What if the West were obliterated? I felt a bit queasy just reading about it, which naturally gives way to empathy for any conquered or oppressed people.  I’m as self-absorbed and unimaginative as anyone so it’s easier to empathize when the hypothetical scenario involves me or people like me.  So far so good.

This book was like eating a five star restaurant, beautifully decorated, impeccable service, top flight chef, but then the food comes out and it’s a Big Mac. That’s what the story felt like to me, a long winding intricate road to nowhere in particular. Or in this case to the High Castle.  An A+ concept and setting, with a D- narrative thrown on top.

The literary equivalent of the Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie with near perfect actors, scenery, casting, music and costume, but a story that doesn’t ask the viewer to give a damn about Tom Ripley or any of the other characters, much less the outcome (if there even is one)?

Back to real wars for a little while.

Malcom X: The Autobiography of Malcom X

Do you know what white racists call black Ph.D’s? He said something like, ‘I believe that I happen not to be aware of that’ – you know, one of these ultra-proper talking Negroes. and I laid the word down on him loud: Nigger!”

Malcom Little grew up in rural Michigan. His grandmother was likely raped by a White man, resulting in fair skin and Malcom’s red hair. His father was murdered by racists and his mother was shortchanged on his life insurance, reduced to extreme poverty and ultimately institutionalized when she went insane, with Malcom and his many siblings dispersed to foster care. When young Malcom said that he wanted to be a lawyer his teacher told him to pursue something realistic for a black person, like a trade. It wasn’t unusual for a teacher, in the 1930’s, to openly call him a ni**er or a coon.

As Malcom now X states: “why, when all of my ancestors are snake-bitten, and I’m snake bitten, and I warn my children to avoid snakes, what does that snake sound like accusing me of hate teaching? No sane black man really believes that the white man will ever give the black man anything more than token integration.”

Fifty years later a black man has been elected President, but was Malcom X wrong? Was integration a hopeless idea? Does the USA remain a place where “a thousand ways every day the white man is telling you ‘you can’t live here, you can’t enter here, you can’t eat here, drink here, walk here, work here, you can’t ride here, you can’t play here, you can’t study here.”

The current President started his foray into politics with a campaign to prove that the first black President was not an actual American, as if a black man could only achieve the Presidency through lies or trickery. This wasn’t a hindrance, a black mark on his candidacy, it was his candidacy. Blacks and whites today don’t usually live together, study together and remain, in many ways, segregated.  One group is five times more likely to be in prison.   They don’t appear to be separate, as the Nation of Islam wanted, but segregated, the difference explained as “when your life and liberty are controlled, regulated, by some-one else.”

Was integration hopelessly stupid?  What would life look like for black Americans if, as Muhammad demanded, they were given a separate territory, true reparations and allowed to lift themselves out of poverty by sticking with their own kind? What if black America had its own country, factories, fields and businesses, left “free to find out what we can really do“?

Ultimately the question is whether 270 million people will ever be truly willing to unite with the other 30 million.  Undeniably there’s been progress, but that question remains as unanswered as in 1962. That means going to school together, living next door, dating and marrying one another.  Is there some defect whereby your average white person has “deep in his pysche, absolute conviction that he is superior”?

Malcom X was a born extremist. When he was a hustler in Harlem, he was the loudest, wildest, most outrageous criminal in New York. In prison he took to educating himself through books, reading for 18 hours a day for years on end. As a Black Muslim he was the most pious, dedicated and outspoken member. It isn’t surprising then that his life ended prematurely, not that this was in any way deserved.

All told this book transplants the reader into the mind of someone that suffered immense pain as a result of racism and it’s impossible not to come away with sympathy and understanding for his anger. As he states it’s a miracle that more people aren’t as angry as he is. The saddest thing in the entire book is that young Malcom wanted to be a lawyer, but was discouraged from it due to his race and never even finished high school. If anyone on this planet, past or present, was a perfect fit for being a lawyer it was probably Malcom X, but he never became one. Nothing speaks more to the tragedy of racism than the incompatibility of those two simple facts.

 

 

 

Daniel Smith: Monkey Mind

Recently I’ve become more interested in psychology due to chronic illness and my own challenges dealing with it. Buddha’s Brain was a fantastic read and purchased at the same wonderful bookshop (Buxton NC, great shop!) as Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith’s memoir to  anxiety.

Anxiety is a state of hyper-arousal and vigilance disproportionate to the threat posed, a “cognitive appraisal of imminent threat or danger.” We all have anxiety. If I’m in the woods on a hike and I start feeling like I’m a bit lost, I immediately start to get anxious. Being lost is not safe and the senses start kicking into overdrive. I’m highly attuned to everything around me, both for danger (a bear, a hole where I might break my ankle, signs that support the thought that I have no clue where I am) and to solving this problem. I check the map or my compass every two seconds. Each hill is compared to a possible contour line on the map. The mind wanders to worst case scenarios: is my compass broken? Did I walk straight over a trail and not notice? Subconsciously I’m thinking of dying of thirst or the humiliation of a mass search and rescue team bailing me out.  The fear guides me to safety and eventually I’m on a trail or clearly know where I am on my map. Game Over for anxiety.  Anxiety is my friend – it led me to safety.  I might feel intense relief or jubilation, a better feeling than if I hadn’t been temporarily stuck in that anxious state at all. I get a little high from extinguishing it.

But what if every mole hill is a mountain in your brain? Not just mortal threats, like a bus running you over, but the complex social interactions we rely on that involve subtle cues with loads of room for interpretation.  What if you’re highly attuned to making a horrible error at work, or alienating a friend, even when these things are entirely improbable? At this point of mental illness your brain is lost in the woods and everything is a bear attack or a slow death wandering in circles. There’s no relief, jubilation or high, because the attentive vigilance never stops. Not only do you never find your way back to safety, but the over-anxiousness is acknowledged as a problem in and of itself. The hyper vigilance turns its guns on itself, producing anxiety about anxiety.

Feeling stressed out yet? Me too. This book was a deep dive into one person’s unrelenting neurosis. It’s an awful place for Smith to have to live. He tries to lighten up his dungeon with accent pillows and a fresh paint job in the form of humour and with, but it’s still clearly a dungeon.

Smith is a gifted writer, though the style is effete and overwrought, in my humble opinion. The humour is 50-50 at hitting the mark.  The book is not a comprehensive review of anxiety as mental illness, it’s an exposition of Smith’s anxious life. As a memoir Smith’s life story is profoundly boring at any point where anxiety isn’t playing a lead role. I can’t imagine a highly anxious person taking many (if any) risks, so the most dramatic moment is Smith smoking some weed at a phish concert and losing his virginity to an older ugly woman.

Still, as with Confessions of a Sociopath, the weakest point of this book (in that case her endless bragging and lack of insight) is also a weird kind of strength.  The fact that a bumbling teenage sexual experience is the apex of Smith’s life, his weirdest and wildest Girls Gone Wild moment, an internal obsession, is annoying to the reader. It’s also a telling insight into his own mental illness. We might not like it as a conventional reader since it’s kinda dull, but how can you complain when you signed up for a trip into the mind of someone with crippling anxiety? It’s genuinely annoying, but that’s Smith’s life and he’s annoyed at it too. At least most of us get to put the book down or find our way out of the aforementioned woods. Smith doesn’t.

Steven Callahan: Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea

This book is Steven Callahan’s account of his time adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after the small sail boat he was racing from Europe to Antigua sank in the night in the middle of the Ocean, struck by an unknown force, perhaps a rogue wave or a whale.

I’ve read my fair share of books on survival/adventure, most recently the Little Prince author’s plane crash in the Sahara and the days he spent wandering and baking in the sun thereafter. These stories follow a pattern: risky activity, bad fortune, perseverance, good fortune, survival. There are always unknown questions gnawing at the minds of those in distress. Where am I? Where am I headed? What are potential rescuers doing? How much more can the human body take before it fails? How much pain, fear, regret and uncertainty can the mind take?

The most unique aspect of Callahan’s experience is the extent to which he had to use his brain while attempting survival. Adrift on a rubber dinghy he had to constantly patch up holes, repair the solar still that made sea water drinkable and devise new tools to hunt for fish, all with only meager scraps he happened to have on hand. At one point he was barely able to move and near delirious, but was forced to conceptualize an intricate blueprint to attach a fork to rubber and twine to patch a hole in his sinking rubber raft. His imagined blueprint must work; he hadn’t the energy for trial and error.

Usually survival seems to be more a test of raw will, whether staggering back from a desert or crawling down a mountain. Take another step. Don’t fall asleep. Keep moving. Rarely is one also developing blueprints while physically spent. I’d like to think I could will myself onward, it seems like an extreme extension of demanding exercise, which I always seem to persist through. I’m far less certain I could think my way out simultaneously.

Thrust into this battle Callahan observes that his mind, emotions and body, which used to act as one in harmony disengage and “the distinction between the parts of myself continues to grow sharper as the two-edged sword of existence cuts one or another of them more deeply each day.” Later he notes that “my mind applauds my performance while my body boos.” Every action, decision or thought pits one part of him against the other.  The dorado fish that follows his raft become objects of intense jealousy, as they live a “simple, unmysterious, unapprehensive life.” Unlike humans there is “no plague of politics, ambition, or animosity.” His mind is saving him, but he recognizes it is also the source of his own torture.

On the TV show Alone, where people must survive by themselves for as long as they can, one of the contestants notes that you better be OK with yourself before you go out there. Your time will be spent in pain, not doing, just existing. When we stop progressing forward it seems all our mind can do is look backwards to our past. Some crack up, some have regrets and change and some are fine, exiting as they entered. Callahan fits in the second category. Reflecting on his life and his ex-wife he realizes his inflexible, unloving and cold nature were barriers to happiness, not strengths. He resolves to “embrace humanity despite its weaknesses and to forge new and meaningful relationships.” Humbled, he realizes that he is but a tiny part of the world and humanity and comes a bit closer to reaching the peaceful state of mind of the dorado, the simple-minded fish he looked at with such longing.

There is little regret expressed over the idea to sail solo across the Atlanic Ocean in a tiny boat. Life is defined by quality, not quantity. Callahan mentions that he does sail, but there’s no mention of traversing oceans or racing.  This past week Rich Piana, a roided up bodybuilder who was addicted to being absolutely massive, died from what he put his body through at the age of 46. He went into a coma, but unlike Callahan he never came back. He knew the risks, but he genuinely loved that life and the money, fame, hot young girlfriends etc. Was the risk worth the reward?