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.

Robert Sutton: The No Asshole Rule

I’ve been buying used books lately and because they are cheap I often buy books I wouldn’t shell out $20 for. If they stink, no big loss. Also helps when they are short. Enter The No Asshole Rule.

This book is focused on the business world, but the same rules apply in any area of life. This management guru takes a Buddhist approach, arguing that not only does treating people well produce better results (for a business), but is also just the right thing to do since it makes people happier and improves the lives of them and those around them.

I think the biggest misconception that this book dispels is that being an asshole is necessary to produce results. It will often benefit someone short-term in moving up the corporate ladder, but it produces negative results for the organization. Employees quit, spend more time protecting themselves then doing a good job (they don’t report mistakes that can help improve efficiency), become disengaged (steal more, do poor work), it becomes harder to hire people or a “premium” is required (i.e. you have to pay people more) and managers and human resources spend time resolving conflict or even lawsuits.

The supposed superstar, who is a raging jerk, when you tally up the costs of them being an asshole is actually incompetent. A single salesperson, who was good at sales, was shown to have cost his company $160,000/year through being an asshole. His success was also inflated since he stole easy sales from other employees.

The other example is a surgical team. The surgical team led by a tyrant has no reported errors. Was everything done perfectly? No, the errors just weren’t reported by underlings out of fear. The mistakes persisted. The surgical team lead by a non-asshole reported ten times as many surgical errors because no one feared the boss, allowing the team to fix the problems and becoming more efficient. The bottom line is that ruling through fear, on the whole, doesn’t work, especially in larger organizations.

The New Zealand All Blacks were the most talented rugby team in the early 2000s, but the results didn’t show it. They failed to win the rugby world cup repeatedly, despite having the best players. An assessment of the culture found that the players were talented, but were arrogant, self-absorbed and partied too much. A major culture change was instituted, culminating in the No Dickheads rule. The team requires an attitudinal change and they back this up with action. No matter how good you are they won’t select you if you have a poor attitude. I’m sure a few NFL coaches would have been happier with a no T.O. rule.

The result for the All Blacks has been unparalleled success, winning world cups and setting records for most wins. On the field they never bicker, argue with the ref and rarely have off field drama.  A star player recently got caught having sex in an airport, landing him on the bench for an extended period despite his talents.

The disturbing part of this book were studies showing that power causes most people to treat others beneath them poorly, the “kiss up, kick down” effect. This isn’t surprising to anyone that has worked in an office. I had a boss that was a disgusting sycophant with higher ups to the point where he literally would never disagree with them, even on a minor insignificant point. He’d agree to incorrect facts knowingly, which might have helped him, but caused great harm to the organization. Sadly he was promoted, but I recently heard he is now engaged in constant conflict. Not surprising.

The other point made in the book is that the jerks themselves inevitably suffer for their own arrogance. Michael Eisner of Disney was fired for being an asshole. Others accrue enemies who pounce when a moment of weakness is detected. Stephen Harper, the Canadian PM, governed like a dickhead. When he was weakened people didn’t hesitate to turn on him and he was trounced in the last election. In the extreme case of Steve Jobs he was so arrogant that he believed an all juice diet would defeat cancer. Many assholes think this trait gives them success, but that is usually just confirmation bias. They typically have the skills needed to succeed without acting that way. In the end they suffer for their behaviour.

My old rugby team had a few players that were self-declared assholes. They were rude to new players, insulted or ignored others and blamed everyone else. They managed to be key leaders, deciding things like who gets playing time. As a result of being dicks they had to spend a miserable season losing badly and playing a full 80 minutes every game. Other players had quit, new players didn’t join and nobody played hard.  Two don’t play anymore though they’d like to and one guy plays for another team where he has no status whatsoever. They tried to put together a team to play in a tournament, but found they didn’t have enough friends to field a decent side. Being an asshole may have been fun, but they didn’t benefit from it in the end.

Highly recommend for a short read, especially if you work in an office setting. Also, take the asshole test yourself to make sure you aren’t part of the problem: https://www.electricpulp.com/guykawasaki/arse/.

Gwynne Dyer: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East – Don’t Panic

Gwynne Dyer is a Middle-East expert and long standing owner of the most ghoulish head shot in print media. Seriously, they can’t find a better picture? Guess not. Makes Rex Murphy look handsome.

Like practically everyone I’m a bit Jihaded out. It’s like reading a comic and no longer caring that Nick Fury is about to go back in time to kill Hitler. The invisible woman and the guy with super long arms, you had me, but this is too much! Osama Bin Ladin wanting the United States out of Saudi Arabia, fair enough, but the messiah riding in on a white horse to drive back the anti-christ, after defeating the Roman Empire? Really?

Or, as a dude (it has to be a dude) that maintains creepybasement.com wrote about serial killer BTK wearing his victims underwear: “Normally, I try not to pass judgment on the people I write about, even killers. However, this is just too disgusting…I don’t understand it, and I hope I never do.”  Whatever the reason for shooting teens at an Ariana Grande concert, I take the CreepyBasement.com approach that sometimes something is so odious that you know it’s sick and the particulars of why are irrelevant.

If I have to keep up on something so odious, I’d rather read a detached and contextualized account, as Dyer presents here. It isn’t sensational like your average CNN ISIS update on some poor hostage getting his head cut off or threat #1592 to slaughter the infidel.

Gwynne Dyer senses that there is a need for some perspective rather than daily insanity and Don’t Panic, a short history that traces the origins of ISIS from the Iraq War (II) up until 2015, provides this.  The central thesis is that the Islamists require a foreign intervention or hatred of Westerners to inspire Muslims to take up their cause. Whether it’s Russia in Afghanistan, the U.S. in Iraq or Jews in Israel, he argues convincingly that the Jihadists want and need infidels to meddle so they can rally the population to their side.

I think there’s obvious truth in this argument and it is important not to take the Jihadist bait at every cast. Still, even if the West basically ignored them and stayed out of the Middle-East, the Jihadists will always manufacture some sort of grievance, legitimate or not, and attempt to kill and antagonize. After the first Iraqi war the Americans did not occupy Iraq for Dyer’s stated reasons and they defended Muslims in the Balkans. In return they got 9/11. So the question is how to slow down the Islamists without also inspiring more people to join their cause? The best argument I’ve seen is to allow secular thugs like Sadaam or Assad to suppress them. Not an admirable position, but as Obama learned in Syria, there’s no third option available. Maybe provide an air strike if things get real bad, but that’s about it.

Personally I think the battleground is one of ideas and I think the West has done a horrible job articulating the merits of liberalism. Liberalism is not about iphones and strippers, it is about freedom.  George Bush II attempted to make this argument and I think he was sincere, but the freedom he preached was hard to square with a massive invasion. Likewise Steve Bannon sees a war between Christianity and Islam, but there is nothing underpinning his side of the war, since the majority of the West is no longer even Christian. Trump himself isn’t Christian and he is a manifestation of everything rotten that liberalism allows: materialism, ego-centrism and vacancy of mind and purpose.  Suicidal post-modernism is also not useful as shooting teens at a pop concert or removing girls genitals isn’t alright and believing it is amounts to suicide.

This is where I think Dyer goes astray. His argument is that the Middle-East is a tiny portion of the Earth and insignificant to the West. We should just ignore it like you’d ignore a bee and it won’t bother you. Even if you get stung, best just to move on. Terror attacks aren’t car crashes or bee stings though, they are political acts.

If it is a war of ideas you need to offer up a strong counter-point and some of the ideas, for example, held by British Muslims, population 2.7 million, are horrific.  Terror attacks stemming from such ideas aren’t meaningless like a car crash, they are the outward manifestation of political beliefs. If these ideas gain sway there will be sectarian violence, as we see in the Middle-East and now frequently in France and Britain.  To call out these ideas, as citizens do, is derided as racist, but I’ve yet to see a Western politician articulate their side of the argument with conviction. Dyer doesn’t seem to see this as necessary either.  It shouldn’t then be shocking that, when this responsibility is abdicated, the worst manifestation of liberalism, who happens to be speaking truthfully on this issue, is elected.

Julius Caesar: The Gallic War

In his early thirties Julius Caesar is said to have looked upon a statue of Alexander the Great and felt miserable. At the same age Alexander had already conquered much of the known world. What had Caesar accomplished? He’d served as a priest, raised a fleet to crucify pirates, had a gay love affair with a foreign king (allegedly), and was responsible for governing part of Spain. If your benchmark is Alexander though, this is small potatoes. What kind of person is so ambitious that their standard is the greatest conqueror ever known?

Caesar left that statue and went back to Rome, where he was elected consul, serving with two others as rulers of Rome.  As happens in politics things got tense and Caesar deemed it wise to leave Rome to earn glory and money (he was a bit broke) as Governor and military commander of Gaul . I’d equate this to the modern politician who leaves office to do speaking tours, write a book and be on the board of directors for a few companies. Raise your profile and make lots of money, but stay out of the fray.

Thus in 58 BC Caesar exits politics to cement Rome’s authority over Gaul, which is basically all of modern France, Belgium, Northern Italy and parts of Spain. Rome had been in Gaul for over 70 years, but did not exactly have a firm command of the territory. Only 50 years previous a barbarian tribe, the Cimbri, had marched from northern Europe through Gaul and terrorized the Romans.

This book is Caesar’s account of his attempt to conquer and subdue Gaul from 58 to 52 BC and to gain the sort of glory that would put him in the echelon of Alexander. Caesar recounts numerous wars with individual Gallic tribes. When I hear the word tribe I think of a few thousand people, but the Gallic tribes were massive, often able to deploy nearly 100,000 men for a single battle. This is real life Game of Thrones as everyone involved, within their own clan or externally, vies for dominance over the others through all manner of subterfuge and gamesmanship.

Caesar is able to crush individual tribes in huge battles, but must use all of his political savvy to attempt to control them and prevent future wars. It is impressive how adaptable he is and how well he understands the human psyche. When he catches a tribe leader plotting against him, Caesar has the sense to simply forgive him, as the alternative leader is worse. In another instance he cuts off the hands of an entire rebel army rather than kill them, so as to leave a permanent reminder to their neighbours not to mess with Rome. In a siege he has the sense to divert an entire river, cutting the enemy town off from water. Whatever the situation calls for he adapts and uses all of his abilities to solve the problem.

With his own troops, often fighting far from home and against long odds, he is a true leader. When he senses that they are fearful, he knows what to say. If words seem insufficient, he picks up a a sword and shield and leads them to battle.  He knows when to push and when to ease off. He often references the advantage of battles where those fighting can be seen by their own side since the peer pressure prevents cowardliness and inspires bravery.

In the end the Gallic tribes fighting individually fail to defeat Caesar.  Vercingetorix, a tribal leader appeals to the Gauls to join forces behind him. As he states, it was accepted that one tribe would attack another; the Cimbri had sacked most of Gaul not long ago. The difference though, is that while they raped and pillaged, they also left. The Romans didn’t intend to leave though, they intended to rule.  Gaul, always warring with one another, stood together to fight the Romans, their own White Walkers. The final battle is as massive as it is conclusive.

What is striking is how terrifying living in this era would have been. As Caesar states “what is out of sight disturbs men’s minds more seriously than what they see.” Damn near everything in this era is out of sight.

One tribe, the Helvetti, feel like they are geographically constrained, so burn all of their own villages and crops (so they can’t change their minds) and decide to migrate. All 300,000 people give up everything they have and simply march in another direction, hoping for good fortune. Imagine all of Switzerland burned to the ground, its citizens simply picking up and walking East. Except most of the ancient Gauls probably hadn’t traveled more than 50 kilometres and were entirely ignorant of what existed in the world outside these limits.

Caesar at one point decides that tribes in Britain are helping his enemies, so builds boats to take an army across the English Channel. The unknowns involved are incredible. This mission involves traversing an unknown ocean with rudimentary ships, finding a safe harbour to land over 50 ships and then fighting whatever people live there, with almost no food. At one point all of the Roman ships are shattered due to weather.  So the Romans are stuck on a British beach with minimal food and the enemy literally swarming above them. The only option is to fight these unknown people of unknown numbers. Oh and these people are blue (they dye their skin) and fight on horses equipped with a kind of chariot sidecar nobody has ever seen. When the Romans first fight Germans it is noted that they are physically massive compared to the shorter Romans and are half-naked, the rest covered only in animal skins.

Imagine being an average person in Uxellodunum and the Romans are besieging your city. You know that a previously besieged city ran out of food, but your leaders have planned ahead and you have enough food to last years, if need be. One side of the town is mountain and the other a river, behind which are massive fortifications. The Romans shouldn’t be able to breach the walls. You should be safe. But a short while into the siege there is less and less water. Eventually the spring running under the city runs bone dry. The options are to die of thirst or open the gates to the Romans.

Overall the book doesn’t provide much in the way of historical context so it helps if you know a bit about Roman history already. Dan Carlin’s podcast series on Rome is a perfect prelude to this if that’s your thing.  In the book itself you don’t feel as though you are reading something written by Caesar as it isn’t written in first person and doesn’t provide insight into his own internal thinking, only what he did and the rationale for these actions. It was easy to get lost in repetitive minutiae at times.

The ambition of Caesar is incredible. Whenever an option presents itself he opts for immediate action, often taking insane risks in pursuit of greater glory.  Alexander did more at a younger age, but Caesar left a much larger imprint. He likely wouldn’t be dissatisfied that someone 34  is blogging about him in 2017 and feeling a bit inadequate.

George Monbiot: Heat

George Monbiot is a writer I’ve sadly only discovered recently; but that’s fantastic as it means I’ve got an extensive back catalogue of excellent writing to work through. I liken it to my belated discovery of Game of Thrones and the Sopranos this past year.

I’ve chosen Monbiot’s Heat (2006) as a starting point for this site as climate change seems timely given that my own province is in the thrust of skyrocketing electricity costs related to renewable energy and as President Trump has just withdrawn from the Paris Accord, proclaiming climate change a GIANT BIG FAT HOAX.

Monbiot’s Heat takes for granted that climate change is real and tries to figure out how we can go about fixing the problem, using the UK alone as his petri dish. It’s an interesting and near impossible exercise, but Monbiot deserves credit for taking a crack and coming up with, theoretically, a workable solution.

I won’t go into the fixes he suggests as I’m no expert on these subjects and as a lot has probably changed since 2006, but he finds the required reduction of emissions through a mixture of energy efficient homes, better public transit, renewable energy and buried carbon dioxide.

All of this is wonderful, but it doesn’t get to the Faustian pact that Monbiot uses as a theme throughout the book. If Faust could agree to damn himself in exchange for temporary worldly delights, what chance is there that humans wouldn’t choose these same delights in exchange for damning someone else? The damned aren’t “us” they are our grandchildren, people in very hot or low lying places, and of course, the poor.

I see no chance of this, not because Monbiot’s proposals would take us back to the stone age, but because the level of privation proscribed would still be deemed unacceptable to those who won’t personally feel the impact of climate change.

To get a glimpse at human nature, look no further than the world’s most powerful man. He’s an unmitigated narcissist, unable to even momentarily consider someone other than himself. A powerful nation, with more information available to it than at any other time in history, freely chose him as their representative.

Monbiot’s riddle is theoretically solvable, but I’m afraid humanity’s is not.

As an aside I thank Monbiot for identifying other environmentalists as part of the problem. Many do wish to see a return to the stone age, which I consider inadvisable – others are hypocrites who enjoy luxuries they wish to deny others. Some, like Paul Ehrlich, ply fictions as fact in exchange for prestige and notoriety. In my own province the Government has transferred billions in exorbitant contracts to specific companies building windmills as, for all intents and purposes, these politicians and companies are one and the same.  Meanwhile the elderly go without heat and people lose their homes as their money is transferred to the wealthy.

Human nature will damn us all to hell it seems and this is a far more intractable riddle than the one Monbiot solves in this book.

As with all of Monbiot’s work this book is extraordinarily well written and researched. He does an impressive job of taking a massive complicated mess of a problem and breaking it down into manageable parts. Most of all I appreciate that he comes off as sincere and well meaning.