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.

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.

Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

The quote on the cover is apt: “a staggeringly good book.” This is a cutting political dissection of Rwanda from before it was even conceived of to modern times, with the horrific genocide of 1994 the unfortunate climax in this story.  The salient point is that Rwanda and by extension Africa isn’t a hapless mess, but a complex web of competing interests. In the case of Rwanda the country didn’t succumb to barbarism, there is a clear party at fault which is the Hutu supremacists, the perpetrators of the genocide.

There’s a tendency to write off the continent altogether since it seems blighted by war, poverty, dictators and dysfunction. There’s truth in that, but the reality is that the people aren’t amoral savages destined to Hobbesian brutality; they just happen to live in places with a web of competing and conflicting groups and interests, not unlike a Europe of  500 years ago (or even 25 years ago in Yugoslavia). Even an insane situation like genocide can’t be attributed strictly to homicidal barbarism. There is a logic to it and a brutal pursuit of self-interest at play.  Rwanda is decipherable if you pay close attention and anything decipherable is also workable, which is the good news.

The unfortunate truth is that no country and even no individual person can rely on others to save them when in need. To quote The Streets:

“No-one’s really there fighting for you in the last garrison. No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.  You are the one who’s got your back ’til the last deed’s done.”

When staggering evil is unleashed and you assume that surely someone will realize this and do something, that something might not happen. In the case of Rwanda there was an assumption, or at least a hope, that individual Hutu’s might restrain themselves from killing, that other African nations, the United Nations or the USA would intervene.

Unfortunately it was not in the interest of anyone to risk anything to prevent the Tutsi from being slaughtered, aside from themselves. Individual Hutu found it safer to follow orders, even when it meant hacking your in-laws to death with a machete. The United Nations did not have members willing to fight for the Tutsi, nor did the USA, which was still reeling from the killing of 18 marines in Somalia. The French even sent in troops to aid the butchers as it was somehow calculated that it was in their self-interest. The only salvation for Tutsi’s were other Tutsi’s, as those exiled in Uganda were able to mount a successful invasion of Rwanda and come to their rescue.

The conundrum for Rwandans today is that they must cooperate and identify first as Rwandans, not Hutu or Tutsi, if the country is to function and anyone is to prosper.  This requires an enormous level of trust, especially when you know the other side has the potential to obliterate you and has tried to recently. If you can’t trust anyone else, how do you then build trust? The good news for Rwandans in all of this is that they at least know they can’t count on the USA, the United Nations or anyone else for guidance or salvation. If they want the country to work and to prosper, only they can truly figure it out.

Currently the country is a dictatorship run mostly by Tutsi’s, who form only about 15% of the population. The human rights record is poor, as opposition and free speech are not tolerated. However, the life expectancy rate has doubled, the economy is doing well and child deaths are much lower. It isn’t an ideal situation as people should be able to speak freely or run for office.

At the same time it’s a logical arrangement as it’d be asking a lot of Tutsi’s to cede power to Hutu’s, akin to Jews handing the reins to Germans in 1955, as would be the case if a free election were held. The objective is to create and instill a Rwandan national identity that supersedes an ethnic identity. When this project is complete and a level of trust is established, there’d be minimized risk that more freedom would lead to violence. In the meantime a Tutsi government ensures the Hutu, if tempted, can’t repeat their mistakes of the recent past.  As with Europe post-WWII the solution to unbearable violence is to expand the concept of who “us” is and hopefully there will be a realization that violence is in nobody’s interest. It isn’t perfect, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and it seems like a Rwandan solution from those who know best the realities of their own country.

I can’t rate this book highly enough if this is a subject that remotely interests you.

Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything

The two previous books were intentionally easy reads as I was prepping to tackle this big boy and stick to my 1/week average. It is after all a summation of all important scientific knowledge known to mankind. Tectonic plates, astronomy, evolution, bacteria, the atom. All that and more.

I admit that when it comes to science I am an ignoramus. I consume a ton of politics, history and even psychology, but scientifically I’m the equivalent of the 11% of Americans that can’t even place their own country on the map.

Why don’t I care about science? I find people interesting, for one. I also don’t much care how scientists came to know something to be true, which is to say all of the computations required to arrive at a conclusion. I don’t know enough to value this work or have an opinion, so it is basically gibberish. Whether it is carbon dating or the theory of relativity, the end result is fascinating, the process less so. The other reason is pure vanity – thinking about the natural world makes me feel small.  I am but one organism among trillions that have existed on Earth over 4 billion years and our planet is potentially just one of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in the universe. My body is an assemblage of atoms that will disperse and take other forms. The light I view from a star is actually 800 years old and my most important star, the sun, will eventually burn out entirely.  It’s enough to make anyone feel insignificant, which is probably why most religions imagine a world centered around the Earth and humans.

Still, when learning more it appears we are extraordinarily lucky. It is totally possible the big bang might not have produced matter or that gravity could have collapsed the universe. The Earth could be a few degrees further from the Sun, rendering it a frozen wasteland. The atmosphere might not have arisen and cosmic rays would enter Earth, burning my flesh (or whatever little bit of algae or mollusk that might become me). Bacteria, asteroids, cooling or heating of the Earth, massive volcanic eruptions, neanderthals bashing homo sapiens to death with clubs. All would mean no me.  If a piece of Earth hadn’t chunked off and reassembled as the moon the sun would be setting on me as I type this as a day would only be about 8 hours long.  It isn’t fate that I’m here, just luck. I’m extremely fortunate for that and I’m grateful. That extreme fortuity makes me feel less small in the scheme of things.

This book is fantastic if you mostly want a history of scientific thought, with just a bare bones explanation as to how scientists arrived at their conclusions. Bryson sprinkles in the stories of the scientists themselves, which are often hilarious, bizarre, sad (those who pursued theories for their entire life that were wrong or those who were never recognized in their time) and often inspiring. Nearly every new discovery was viciously opposed as status quo scientists dug their heels into existing paradigms for reasons of inertia, power, money or lack of imagination. This book is great as it is as much a story of the humans who have uncovered some of the universe’s secrets as it is a list of what they found. We owe them all, even those who failed, a tremendous debt.