Christmas, It’s In The Aire

It’s that time of year.  Time to haul out the Christmas decorations, the ornaments, the tree.  A time to create the atmosphere through active decorating, followed by passive, relaxed atmosphere enjoyment.

Except for this year.

We are in our new townhouse, which, by the numbers, has more square footage than our previous one.  However, by a quirk of not-well-thought-out architectural design, actually lives smaller than the old one.

No obviously convenient place for a tree.

Not near the entry next to a front window, a normal place to have a tree, as this would entail relocating the dining room furniture (notice two “quirks” here).  Not in the back in the “living space,” as that would entail shrinking the living space until any guests would be sitting knee-to-knee and become almost pinned between the television and the fireplace (another “quirk”).  The additional square footage is actually located upstairs in the master bedroom, where we once had the dining room table situated with room to spare.

So, while we eventually decided on how to create a spot for next year’s tree, we reluctantly decided not to do one this year, not only for the logistical reasons above but also for the reason that we will be away longer over the holidays.  Not that we will be relaxing at a lodge for three days hoping for a white Christmas. No, this year we will be traveling to Southeast Asia for three weeks, celebrating Christmas at 85 degrees and 85% humidity.  Ornaments on a mango tree.

(We reached the stage of life where we would be up-and-traveling in any case as our sons and their families have relocated to the west coast.  Last year we were all together over Christmas so this is the year where they gather with their wives’ families.  This makes this year our “away-game.”  But it, too, is for family: the family of our “spiritual daughter,” the single mother who came to live with us years ago.)

This left the issue as how to create a short term Christmassy atmosphere with little to work with.

Out came the boxes and with a little time and effort the complete collection was culled down to small favorites sprinkled around the townhouse.  One still has to look closely to see them, but at least they’re there.

The sole remaining element to our traditional Christmas atmosphere is the music.  Set at low volume, of course, but there.

I retrieved the little steel box that housed our collection of Christmas and holiday CDs and pulled out the 3CDs that have become known as The Collection.  I looked at one of the labels and noticed the date: Christmas 1998.

Twenty years ago they were a Christmas present for each of us, parents and three brothers, carefully and secretly created and burned on his computer by our youngest son.  A task of love to continue a tradition and to make it available to all of us.

You see, he didn’t curate a number of current holiday CDs, he went to a reel-to-reel tape that I had created years before when all the boys were very young.  In about 1975 to be exact.  I had then been finally able to assemble a home stereo system, complete with a Pioneer RT-707 tape deck.  This let me create listening tapes that would last up to 3 hours (the deck would reverse, playing in both directions).  This was a huge benefit, as it eliminated the mandatory flipping over of vinyls on the turntable.

I created The Collection from current Christmas albums we all had come to enjoy: Jose Feliciano, The Kingston Trio, Nat King Cole, and The Philadelphia Orchestra.  It became the go-to tape once Thanksgiving had passed, and survived uncounted plays every year.

I popped the first CD into our current “device” (a home theater system), and it all began to come back.  Memories of all the years past, that Christmas in 1998 and talking about the effort to transfer from tape to CDs via a PC, and even memories of carefully creating the tape in the first place.

And the Christmas atmosphere was finally In The Aire. All around.

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Let’s Eat Out Tonight

“Good food, good company, great listening music and a wonderful atmosphere.  You can’t ask for anything better.” ― Anthony T. Hincks

My thoughts exactly.  Although I have found that it’s getting more difficult, primarily because of an increasingly common phenomenon: a very intentional and overly aggressive acoustic environment.

In other words, too loud to enjoy anything, even the food.

I decided long ago, probably before your time and before I began to experience a tinge of hearing loss, that the experience of enjoying a quiet, romantic meal out with my wife or a comfortable gathering with friends was gradually slipping away. And I had a theory as to why.

When I mentioned the loudness to others, most had to think for a while before concluding, “Yes, restaurants are getting more noisy.”

I concluded that I was going to have to continue to suffer in silence.  Just not at a restaurant.

But, no longer. It appears someone else noticed the same trend.  The result is this recent article by Kate Wagner in The Atlantic, How Restaurants Got So Loud.

I had a bottom line to my earlier theory, and it was so satisfying to see someone else work their way to a similar conclusion while bolstering it with added detail.

First of all there has been a slow drift from plush opulence into modern and fashionable minimalism.  Sort of like a postmodern abandonment of stuff that had substance, in this case, furniture, wall and ceiling conditions.

As a consequence, restaurants designed for fashionable minimalism were not designed to be quiet but convenient: inexpensive to furnish; easy to clean; while still conveying the appearance of luxury.

“… sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears.“

The author reports measuring sound levels of 85 dB and above in various establishments, levels that are generally not harmful for less than 2-hour exposures but certainly uncomfortable for the duration.

Another consequence of this shift to “luxurious minimalism” and the resulting atmosphere is the loss of something important,

“… it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.

Newer construction materials, furniture, and designs indeed look fashionable, modern, and very often, luxurious.  The unintended consequence that can’t be seen is what they do.

Older, plusher materials tended to absorb sound, and indeed certain materials were designed to absorb sound—soaking up sonic energy rather than reflecting it.  The result was often an environment that enhanced the dining experience (what Anthony T. Hincks was referring to).

Besides materials, another impact was moving the kitchen and food preparation out into the open where they became a visual part of the dining experience.  Nice, but at the same time adding additional sounds from the clanging and banging of pots and pans and the yelled orders among the cook staff (which they needed to overcome the kitchen noise).

All this contributed to an unintended consequence: restaurants became overly loud.

What to do? It would take more hard capital to overcome everything that the invested hard capital had already created.  A soft solution was needed.

Marketing!

It’s not a bug; it’s a feature!

This was my theory some years ago.  It basically boils down to human nature.  What do we think when we walk into a noisy party with lots of people?  They’re having fun.  We can have fun too.  And people having fun eat and drink more.

Referenced in the article is a book by the design historian Alison Pearlman, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, in which she concludes,

… the haute-casual dining trend also helps restaurateurs run bigger and more successful businesses.  Constructing interiors out of hard surfaces makes them easier (and thus cheaper) to clean.  Eschewing ornate decor, linens, table settings, and dishware makes for fewer items to wash or replace.  Reducing table service means fewer employees and thus lower overhead.  And as many writers have noted, loud restaurants also encourage profitable dining behavior.  Noise encourages increased alcohol consumption and produces faster diner turnover.  More people drinking more booze produce more revenue.  Knowing this, some restaurateurs even make their establishments louder than necessary in an attempt to maximize profits.

It’s a business plan!

Loud restaurants are more profitable.

(But, of course, most restaurants don’t last long; they come and go quickly because it is so difficult to make a profit.  So a winning business plan makes perfect sense.  Just not so much for that romantic date).

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The Tourist’s Dilemma

“A good seaman weathers the storm he cannot avoid, and avoids the storm he cannot weather” – Unknown

There was a town, of no small size, that was located by the sea. There were merchants, craftsmen, tradesmen, and, as you can imagine, a number of townsfolk who made their living by fishing, as had their ancestors.

(You will remember this town as it was the focal point of a previous post, The Fisherman’s Dilemma, here.  Let us return, sometime later, as it becomes the focal point for yet another dilemma).

The economy had begun to recover and many traditional jobs returned.  The town had also taken on a quaint aurora and begun to attract tourists and vacationers, drawn by the sea.  This spawned new opportunities to cater to their interests.

Dropping by the Visitor’s Center, a tourist inquired, “We’d like to spend a day on the sea.  Can you recommend any options?”

The host replied, “There are a number of places in town that provide sailing adventures, and they’re all good.  But if you want an experience for your life, try Crusty Jim’s.”

“Great!  Thanks!”

The following day, by chance they crossed paths again.

“Did you take an excursion?  Who with?”

“Yes,” came the reply, “with Crusty Jim’s.”

“And how was it?”

“Hard to say.  We’re still not quite sure.  There was so much information.  He kept up a constant chatter, pointing out this, that, and the other.  It was almost overwhelming.  Almost no chance to take pictures, or really relax.  He did have a smile and a twinkle in his eye, though. Today we just need a break.”

“Yep, that sounds like him.  Any particular memories?”

“Well, before we even left the harbor, he says, ‘A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.  Let’s go experience the sea!’  Then he put us to work.  Untie this, coil up that, loosen this, tighten up that!”

“Uh, huh.  I am suspecting there’s more.”

“Indeed.  Told us more than I thought we’d signed up for.  First, there’s the tide.  ‘It rolls in, and rolls out, and even if we know it’s coming we can’t control it, but we do have to sail through it.’ “

“If there’s a first, there must be a second…”

“Oh yes.  ‘There are rocks and shoals, hidden in a rising tide but revealed when the tide is ebbing.  You always need to know where they are.  Tide’s ebbing.  Keep a sharp eye.’ “

“And … ?”

“And on it went.  ‘Tides and shoals cause currents.  These might be predictable, but can’t be known exactly.  They are only seen by their effects.  Watch how the surface of the waters move, and tell me which way you think the current’s moving.’ “

“My, he’s got you nearly sailing by yourself.”

“Oh, he suggested that later, but not before he had us also reading the wind.  ‘You can’t see it, but you can sense its effects in your face, in your flags, and on the water. “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” Tighten the outhaul and watch the telltales!’ “

“Wow, you’ve picked up a lot.”

“No, I just followed orders.  The kids picked it up, though.  He told them, ‘Life’s just like sailing.  You always have to be aware of conditions.  You also have to know yourself, just as you have to know your boat.  You have to recognize conditions, your boat’s characteristics and capabilities, and adjust course appropriately.  Takes time, practice, effort.’ “

“Would you go out again?”

“The kids would, but I don’t think so.  I think I’m one who would like to sail only when the wind is calm, the sun is shining, the tide is in and the water’s smooth.”

“Yeah, we’d all like vacations like that.  It’s always nice in life to take a vacation, but a vacation isn’t always Life.”

Consider …

Somehow there’s another point, probably this one: it’s rare that we like to ‘sail’ alone, so there are no doubt others along for the ‘outing.’  They’re either crewmates and helping, or they’re along for the fun, not knowledgeable. In either case, we’re ultimately responsible for them, too, as well as for ourselves.

Life: Finding Purpose (your why); developing Process (your how); and then Passing it on.

 

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‘Tis the Season

“Buy, Baby, Buy” (No, that’s not Buy Buy Baby©)

We are fast approaching the 2018 holiday season, when for decades the emphasis in America has been increasingly more on shopping than on thanksgiving, reflection, contemplation, and relationships.

It’s been a slow evolution, if not erosion.  And we are all guilty of complicity one way or another, even if we justify it by thinking it’s about buying so that we can give.  (That comment has more to do with consumer purchases.  In the corporate world year-end purchasing often has more to do with the end of the capital budget year, in which case it’s more like buying so we can receive (and not lose the funds)).

A timely article in The Goods on Vox triggered my thoughts and bon mots that follow, since I, too, had spent a number of years on the marketing side of business and am no doubt “guilty” of pursuing some of these “approaches” (i.e., tactics).

First, recognize that “it’s not so much tricking shoppers as it is laying out a trail of breadcrumbs to lead them to believe they’re scoring time-sensitive deals.  These strategies are especially evident during the holidays, but companies also use them periodically throughout the year.”

Therefore, the thought for what follows is, “Buyer Be Aware!

And then respond appropriately.

Of a number of “techniques” listed in the article, there are a few that are missing.

Hallmark Holidays

This is the slow, intentional development of what are known as Hallmark Holidays.  These were the creation of and popularization of special “Card” days, first such as Mother’s Day, and then Father’s Day, followed later by Grandparents Day, Sweetest Day, Boss’s Day, and Secretary’s Day.

The Hallmark Corporation maintains that it “can’t take credit for creating holidays” (that would be due more to the sheep-like cultural response to an external stimulus of a public who wishes to avoid unnecessary guilt-trips).  The benefit to manufacturers of greeting cards, however, is clear.

The Disney “Magic”

I think one of the earliest intentional marketing “brandings” was labeling Disneyland the Magic Kingdom.  It worked.  The place was magic not only for kids with vivid imaginations but parents who experienced the magic of their kids being over-the-top enthralled.

Of course, like all magic, what we didn’t realize was what we didn’t see, the slight of hand that made it all possible by increasing the magical experience. And what Disney perfected, the Disney “Magic” that is not mentioned in the article as being seasonal, actually comes in two flavors.

The first flavor is the Disney “Slight of Queue.” This dates back to the late 1950s when the original Disneyland opened.  Certain rides were very popular but no matter the time of day, the waiting line always seemed remarkably “reasonable” and so you would get the family into the line.  While the line moved reasonably fast, you quickly discovered that it entered into a building, unseen from the outside, and snaked back and forth until it emerged at the entrance booth.  Wait times could actually be over 45 minutes, but once in line, you were captive. Especially if you had little kids expecting that ride.  This is now more or less a standard in most entertainment parks.

The second one should be called the Disney “Slight of Exit.” This is more recent, but involves the exiting of people from a venue by snaking them through the gift shop (the direct route to the Exit is not exactly a straight line).  Museums use this to great advantage.

Now to the holiday list from the article.

“Christmas Creep”

We all recognize “Christmas Creep.”  That’s when, well before it’s chilly out, “stores start blaring Christmas music over the loudspeakers.  Black Friday isn’t until the end of November, yet retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart are starting to mark down prices — and notify shoppers about them — as early as November 1.  Target ran a “Black Friday” deal on November 1, and Newegg ran one on November 2.  Lowe’s has declared, paradoxically, that the entire month of November is “Black Friday.” (Avoiding any backlash that might come from calling it “Black November.”  But, to be fair, remember Lowe’s is currently closing stores and trying to avoid the “Sears Syndrome.”)

Sales that are tied to a specific “Named” day

The slow evolution of consumerism, impulse buying, and our general craving for a good deal has led to the creation of countless shopping days that have basically become national holidays.  No longer is there just a Black Friday — now, there’s Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Green Monday, and Super Saturday, “all trying to capitalize on our collective case of the shoppies” (that’s the article author’s label, not yet medically recognized).

While Black Friday is the biggest US shopping (and headache) day of the year, these other “holidays” procure huge sales too.  Last year, Cyber Monday turned into the largest online shopping day in American history, hitting a record $6.6 billion.  Added to these are Amazon’s Prime Day and, in China, Alibaba’s Singles Day.  The latter, which occurred on 11/11 (the reason it is named “Singles” is due to the “1’s”), eclipsed Prime Day by netting over $30 billion in sales.

The driving force of course is that, while the last two months are just 2/12ths of the year (16.7%, not eliminating holidays), they produce nearly 30% of a retail companies sales.

Herd mentality and the Fear Of Losing Out play a strong psychological role in our buying.

Putting credit in your store account

This is a variation on time-limited coupons (only 3% of which, statistically, are ever used), in-store time-limited discounts, and loyalty programs.  This tactic, however, involves crediting customers store accounts with some amount of purchase dollars.

This is actually a much savvier method for a company to ensure a shopper will spend money than offering a discount.  “If you offer a heavy promotion, the shopper will be trained to buy things on sale,” (Blog: this was the bane of J.C. Penney).  Further, “giving someone a credit instead maintains the sanctity of a brand’s price and value.  Plus, it lets the brand put a cap on their discount.  A brand will make more money off you if they give you $25 to spend, as opposed to someone like J. Crew (Blog: or J.C. Penney), which marks things down to 30 percent to appeal to shoppers.”

Use it or lose it, even if it’s not actually there.  The expiration date creates a sense of urgency.

Buy one, get one free

BOGO is a tactic we are all familiar with (especially in America).  It works because “the most significant effect” on customers is that it convinces us we’re getting something for free.

It also works well during the holidays since we’re buying for others and think we’re getting something for ourselves to boot.

“Studies have found that BOGO is the promotion shoppers like most and the one that gets us to spend the most money.  But watchdog shopping blogs have pointed out that products promoted through BOGO are often the things stores are trying to get rid of.  Shoppers who’ve done the math have also found that BOGO items are actually overpriced, so in reality, BOGO means, ‘buy two at the regular price.’  “

The bottom line is that stores know shoppers aren’t thinking too hard about the value (and certainly not the math) since they’re in deal-hunting mode, and so they often fall prey to BOGO sales.

Selling things in smaller sizes

The holiday season is a time for “gifts,” so what could be more practical and appropriate than a Gift Set?  Besides, these sets proliferate like rabbits and are most often placed on aisle end caps or check out lines where they cannot be missed, especially in beauty departments.  The advice to shoppers is to research the price of the larger sizes, as customers are often duped into buying overpriced smaller bottles and thinking they’re scoring a deal because they come in sets.

In other words, look at, or figure out, the “price per ounce” or whatever unit of sale is being used.  This is now by law common in grocery stores for price comparison for different sale quantities, but isn’t in the beauty or other areas.  It is shocking to see two different sale quantities of a product, side-by-side in an aisle, with price-per-ounce differences of $6/oz for the “large” size and $45/oz for the “convenient” size.

Free gift with purchase

This is another common but not recent Beauty Department approach (i.e., tactic).  Department stores have been offering little makeup bags and beauty samples to customers who hit a certain spending threshold — they know it’s practically a no-fail tactic to get shoppers to spend more.

This strategy “taps into the human desire to win,” since there’s a reward factor to spending money (this may be a unique American cultural effect).  The gift often entices shoppers to drop extra dollars — you could spend $50 OR spend $80 and get something for free!

It works for me, too.  Not in the beauty department, but in the hardware store.  The corporate “cash discount” (time-limited) coupon applies only if you purchase at least $25.  You don’t know how painful it is to stop at a $15 purchase and let that $5 coupon die a slow, pitiful, lonely death.

It all started with…

Discounts, of course.  Sometimes stores used these to move discontinued merchandise (their rationale, basically, was “sell it or lose it,” referring to their wholesale capital investment.  Better to “discount” and sell it near cost than to write it off.)  “Going Out of Business” sales also fall into this category (even the off-price businesses that have been “Going Out of Business” for over 10 years).

Alternatively, they might use an “introductory” price with a new product the manufacturer wished to promote (here the manufacturer absorbs the “lost sales margin”).

Speaking directly to American cultural shopping psychology is a very old story (and, yes, it is misogynistic, sexist, and stupid. But bear with me, I won’t be finished yet).  The story concerns the woman who comes home from shopping and tells her husband, “Honey, I saved $250 shopping today!”  “How’s that?” he replied.  “I bought a $500 dress on sale for $250.”

The story’s counterpart deserves to be told.  My wife and I recently spoke about personal finances to a women’s group in central Pennsylvania.  We specifically addressed the need, particularly as couples, to carefully identify and agree upon the differences between wants and needs and to set agreed upon priorities.

One woman asked the question, “How do you handle a case where the husband bought something he wanted when there were still important family needs?”

As I am often prone to doing, I spontaneously generated a more specific and vivid example, I thought, to help make the question more real. I replied, “You mean, for instance, the husband came home and said, “Honey, you’ll never guess.  I saved $1000 today when I bought a new Remington over-and-under 12 gauge shotgun for my collection!”

The woman actually leapt off of her chair and screamed, “That’s what happened!  How did you know?!”

There, now I’m done.

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My, That’s Interesting!

“Be willing to step outside your comfort zone once in a while; take the risks in life that seem worth taking.  The ride might not be as predictable if you’d just planted your feet and stayed put, but it will be a heck of a lot more interesting.” – Edward Whitacre, Jr.

That’s a connection very few people make, connecting “interesting” with “risk.”  It is, however, a valuable truism, and one worth exploring.

Most of us feel “interesting” is a bit like adding a touch of whipped cream to a healthy serving of apple cobbler – it’s still mostly about the apple cobbler.

Pursuing “interesting” a bit further might not seem an interesting exercise until you come across an article entitled, “What does it mean to be ‘interesting?’ “ (Lorraine Besser, in Fastcompany, reprinted from Aeon), a very worthwhile and, wait for it, interesting read.  This triggered a number of deeper thoughts that seemed worth sharing.  Following a well-trod path, quotes from her article are indented.

Most of us know and value pleasant experiences.  We savor the taste of a freshly picked strawberry (Blog: or apple cobbler).  We laugh more than an event warrants, just because laughing feels good.  We might argue about the degree to which such pleasant experiences are valuable, and the extent to which they ought to shape our lives, but we can’t deny their value.

One of the reasons we search out pleasant experiences is because much of our lives can be focused on adding value to someone or something else.  Once in a while it’s nice to be on the receiving end, even if short lived.

What we probably don’t consciously realize is that those experiences land very close to the center of our Special Bubbles, the very center of who we are.  They tend to reinforce that center, to reinforce our picture of our “world” (i.e., Special Bubble) and of ourselves.  In a way these are our Confirmation biases physically playing out.

So pleasant experiences are necessarily valuable, but are there also valuable experiences that are not necessarily pleasant?  It seems there are.  Often, we have experiences that captivate us, that we cherish even though they are not entirely pleasant.  We read a novel that leads us to feel both horror and awe.  We binge watch a TV show that explores the shocking course of moral corruption of someone who could be your neighbor, friend, even your spouse.  The experience is both painful and horrifying, but we can’t turn it off.

These experiences seem intuitively valuable in the same way that pleasant experiences are intuitively valuable. But they are not valuable because they are pleasant – rather, they are valuable by virtue of being interesting.

Rather than just being confirming, these experiences become interesting.  The explanation follows,

What does it mean for an experience to be interesting?  First, to say that something is interesting is to describe what the experience feels like to the person undergoing it. This is the phenomenological quality of the experience. When we study the phenomenology of something, we examine what it feels like, from the inside, to experience that thing.

In other words, how is our core being reacting to the interesting experience?  This is an experience that doesn’t exactly resonate pleasantly with the center of who we are, but pushes towards the edge of our Bubble.  Perhaps not strongly challenging us, certainly not to revulsion, but pushing up against our Bubble in a challenging but not quite offensive way.  It’s interesting.

Trying new foods comes to mind, and the author further explores this type of experience among others we commonly encounter – books, a sunset, and often other people.  A key point is,

… we aren’t describing the thing itself, but rather our experience of it. … The interesting is just like this.  It is a feature of our experiential reaction, of our engagement.

While wrapping our head around the interesting might be challenging, it is important to acknowledge the value intrinsic to interesting experiences.  Recognizing it as valuable validates those who choose to pursue the interesting, and also opens up a new dimension of value that can enrich our lives.

The point here is that, visually speaking, we’ve got both feet firmly in the midst of our Bubble but are leaning against an edge. We can choose to stretch the edge of our Bubble a bit and embrace the experience and the newness it provides, or we can step back without feeling unduly threatened.

For most of us, however, cutting close to the edge is uncomfortable, even threatening.  We regard anything that is outside our Bubble through the filter (defense?) of Fundamental Principle 6 (Missing Information):

 

 

Choosing to stretch our Bubble and embrace both the growth and added value that comes with the new experience is itself a tremendous added value,

For many of us, though, interesting experiences are more rewarding than pleasurable experiences, insofar as their intrinsic value is a product of multifaceted aspects of our engagement.  Interesting experiences spark the mind in a way that stimulates and lingers.  They can also be easy to come by – sometimes just a sense of curiosity is needed to make an activity interesting.  Look around, feel the pull, and cherish the interesting.

Below the surface is another truism,

When we embrace the interesting and stretch our Bubbles, we influence others to do the same; when we reject what’s outside our Bubble and throw up our defenses, we influence others to do the same.

Don’t just cherish, but embrace the interesting.

Posted in 00: Bubbles, 02: Value Added, A Definition, 06: Incomplete Information, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 11: Growth | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Music – Expressing What Cannot Be Said

“If Music is a Place — then Jazz is the City, Folk is the Wilderness, Rock is the Road, Classical is a Temple.” ― Vera Nazarian

Realistically speaking, my exposure to music began in an odd way.  In the late 1940s my parents had a “radio and recording record player” which survived into the 1960s when I went off to college.  Its uniqueness involved a turntable with two arms: one for playback of 33 1/3 rpm records, and another heavier arm which was used with blank discs to cut a direct recording of a “live event.”  Since it was the size of a large piece of furniture, the “live event” usually consisted of a group of friends reading lines from a short script of a murder mystery or comedy piece.  It had to be short because the disc got full very quickly.  It took a great deal of effort to set the system up, much rehearsal time for the group to get their lines right, and it only made one disc.  It rapidly gave way to charades.

But its other capability lasted for years. My mother would play music often, enjoying the sounds of Glenn Miller’s orchestra (I still have the original 33 1/3 recordings), and “The Chocolate Soldier,” which I learned was a 1941 film and light opera (but at my age then, not my thing, love story with soprano warbling).

My breakthrough, or revelation, came at age 11 after we visited the Grand Canyon and rode the mules down to Phantom Ranch (yes, I was underage, but close enough to being 12).  Soon after getting home I came across a 45 rpm set of the Grand Canyon Suite.  Never heard of it, never heard of the composer, but, clearly, I had to have it. It was eye opening, evoking visual memories of the Canyon and the ride down to the Colorado River and the Ranch. And the thunderstorms.  And my father getting bit by one of the mules.

The five sides of that three record set remained a favorite.  My only set, played repeatedly.  Until the day I left the records sitting on the little 45 rpm player in the sun, and the heat softened, distorted and ruined one of the discs.  S**t.

The bonus revelation was the sixth side. That was Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico.  With that music came visions that were not memories.  I was hooked.

So when our local grocery store ran a promotion for Classical Music, spend something like $25 and get the week’s 33 1/3 classical disc for free (or $1, I forget which), I joined my mother for the weekly grocery run and politicked for the newest promotion disc.

I built a reasonable collection.  I learned that there was a lot of stuff out there, greatly extending my concept of what “classical” meant, but that “promotional grocery store offerings,” while being pretty good, were stripped of the names of the conductor and orchestra (that’s why they were free or $1 rather than the going $4-$5. This was a long time ago).

I also discovered that certain pieces were very calming and soothing and very beneficial when I had to study, much more beneficial than others (e.g., one’s first exposure to 12 tone music, or any rock and roll).  So my having a background of classical music became a cherished norm.  Oddly enough, it greatly aided my ability to focus under certain circumstances (such as now, as I am writing this).

So it was with a certain joy that this past week I received a Quartz Obsession piece on Listening to music at work.  Ever since Muzak became a “thing” (i.e., elevator music), there’s been music at work. (In 1953 Muzak was wired into the White House; perhaps that’s what started some things…).

This at least reaffirmed for us that all music is not created equal.  One size does not fit all (especially in the elevator), but for each of us there are no doubt specific, task-targeted benefits.  Some like their music for “relaxation,” while others mentioned “concentration.”  On the low end of the spectrum were those who mentioned “enjoyment.”

Interestingly, 63% of doctors and nurses indicate they listen to music in the operating room.  This was not a surprise to me as I had direct evidence of this (no, not when I was under the knife, but when someone else was.  I once was calling a consultant and was patched through into his operating room.  Needless to say, I made that conversation very short).

Even more interesting is that 49% of doctors indicate they listen to rock in the operating room.  (I am sorry, but if I ever need brain surgery, I want a doctor who does not claim multitasking as a strong point while listening to rock while I’m under the knife.)

I’m not just sayin’ this.  Research reported in the article shows that while music helps with repetitive tasks that require focus and not much higher-level cognitive attention (i.e., not my brain surgery), listening to music is indeed multi-tasking and any cognitive resources expended on listening to or understanding lyrics won’t be available for the work.

Also mentioned is research that indicated, “Complex managerial tasks are probably best performed in silence.”  (For the good order, I did not play music or use Muzak when managing; only at home when trying to recover from said managing).

A further insight is that, “The outcome of relaxation, reflection, and pausing won’t be captured in minute-to-minute productivity metrics.  In moments of extreme focus, our attention beams outward, toward the problem, rather than insights.”

It’s clear that, if we are going to listen to music most of the time, we should match our tunes to our tasks, create our playlists to be task specific.

On the outward focus, my oldest son used to listen to “Eye of the Tiger” before every wrestling match; he does triathlons now and no doubt has his select playlist.  Most athletes prepare with their own personal playlist.

The inner focus is what resonates deeply with me (there is an intended pun here); a resonance that seems to involve holding two things in the mind at the same time.  “For a cognitive boost, pick music that doesn’t have lyrics, especially if your task is word-related.”

Ironically, there is indeed an apparent connection with puns, at least according to a recent article by Ephrat Livni in Quartz,

“Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit.  Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time,” (James Geary, author of Wit’s End, quoted in the Livni’s article).

While I’d also like to believe A. D. Posey, “The power of classical music turns my words into fire,” what happens for me is that classical music settles subconsciously while simultaneously opening up pathways that permit words and thoughts to mix together smoothly and more effectively.

At least that’s what I think.  The output may be judged more harshly.

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Life in the Time of Postmodernism

“(It) may be the most loathed concept ever to have emerged from academia” – Aaron Hanlon

A right nice recommendation, one might say.  Even the title of this recent article from Quartz, “Everyone hates postmodernism – but that doesn’t make it wrong,” paints a nasty picture.  Perhaps a deeper look might be in order, especially in light of my post just days earlier on the General and Special Bubble Theories.

The Quartz article by Ephrat Livni (@el72champs) warrants a complete reading, but in the interest of speed and time, I will just quote some relevant passages, adding some commentary and noting which lengthier portions of the essay merit some attention.

Postmodernism – What is this?

Livni bluntly summarizes it as “the messy and bewildering philosophy that emerged in the late 20thcentury – which considered everything relative and the meaning of all language subject to debate – (and) led to the breakdown of reality, according to its critics.”  Aaron Hanlon’s perspective (above) follows immediately thereafter. They have a valid point.

Postmodernism1, generally speaking, is

Defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward the overarching beliefs and ideologies of modernism, most often calling into question various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality (Blog: basically the fundamentals of Western civilization we’ve all been taught).

Common targets of postmodern criticisms include the notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human naturereasonlanguage, and social progress.

Postmodern thinkers frequently call attention to the “contingent” or “socially-conditioned” nature of knowledge and value systems, viewing them as the results of particular political, historical, or cultural (societal) attitudes and hierarchies.  (Blog: in other words, Regression to the Cultural Mean).

Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by its tendencies to self-referentiality (Blog: i.e., naval contemplation), epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, subjectivism, and irreverence.

In other words, the rejection of any and all existing cohesive and overarching group values and their foundations.  The vacuum thus created then begs to be filled by the only remaining seemingly important entity: the individual.  You.  Solipsism (“What About Me?!?”) on steroids.

The frightening truth is that, when thoughtfully considered and as Livni states, postmodernism is not wrong.

It’s just that it is incomplete.  And no one would realize it unless they understood The General and Special Bubble Theories.

Some observations from the article follow (indented), along with my thoughts.  The article itself is well worth a full read, if for no other reason than to better understand what’s happening in the world.

“How is it that we can share a common reality, yet experience it so differently from one another?”

That is THE question.  It is a puzzling question if one assumes we all share one common reality, and that reality is the only one.  In this case, it makes sense to regard one’s own perception of “reality” as “truth,” and everyone else’s as incomplete, erroneous, or just plain false. This is a prime example of our innate Either/Or way of thinking being reinforced by the acceptance of a simple but incorrect assumption.

However, becoming aware that there is one common physical “reality” (the General Bubble) and that each of us individually experiences his/her own cognitive “reality” (their Special Bubbles, embedded within the common General Bubble) helps answer the question.

There is then the possibility of multiple and incomplete perspectives, whether overlapping or not.  As a consequence, we should move into the more complex and challenging growth mode of And/And thinking and learning to accept the limitations of Incomplete Information.  Alas, most of us are unwilling or unable to try this.

The article continues,

“But postmodernists didn’t create the new fractured reality; they merely described it.  The French academics of the 1970s, particularly Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard, saw the flaws in modernist thought – that old-timey Enlightenment-era notion that we all shared values, approved the same truths, and agreed on the facts.

Instead, they acknowledged that reality is complicated. They recognized the changes happening in the late 20thcentury – the erosion of authority, the ascendance of individual perspective – and developed the vocabulary to describe it.

This relativist view … is as close to a description of reality as we can muster …”

Trying to describe a multi-Bubble reality starting with the assumption that there is only One reality (and not even a Bubble at that) would of course be difficult and unnerve everybody.  However, this option seems to be the only one considered to date by all concerned, with inevitable inconsistencies showing up,

“But after two world wars and the collapse of colonialism, budding postmodernists saw that the assumption of inevitable human progress (due to science and technology) was false.

Likewise, the concept of universal truths no longer applied in transforming societies where language didn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

They searched for ways to describe an emerging world with a din of voices and viewpoints, in which biases based upon backgrounds and experiences dictated alternate realities and undercut the supposed shared vision of what is right and good.”

If one means by inevitable human progress a rising tide that lifts all boats uniformly, then indeed there is an issue.  Historically, all boats haven’t risen the same amount, but they have risen.  And historically, the thinking is that if my boat hasn’t risen the same as your boat, I’m going to grumble, especially if the expectation is equal outcomes as opposed to equal opportunity.

Another eye-opener was postmodernists concluding that all truths and values weren’t universal, especially where languages differed (and therefore expressed things differently) and “shared values” differed even on a local basis.

If the basic assumption is that there is only One common reality, this becomes an issue.  Either/Or thinking leads to a downward spiral: either there are shared fundamental values and truths, or there are not.  Since we experience many differing values, the conclusion must follow that there are not any fundamental shared values or truths.

“… this also conceals the fact that there is no shared reality; actually there isn’t a single thing that can be called this American life.”

While historically there have always been individualistic thinking and self-interested behaviors, these have mostly been fairly contained and subdued by a general belief and attempted adherence to broader common values and truths geared for the greater good.

With the advent of postmodernism, however, there arose a philosophy that justified the unleashing of the dogs of hell: full frontal self-justified individualism and associated behaviors.

In essence, this is the perfect (but unrecognized) description of the outcome of Special Bubbles.

However, the concept of Special Bubbles does not require the abandonment of shared values and truths purposed for the greater good, but that seems to be the single conclusion derived from the assumption “One Bubble for All.”

The utilitarian concept of the greater good does allow for the fact that some people will not immediately benefit – but the expectation of equal outcomes precludes that. Utilitarianism does not preclude additional approaches to address those outside the greater good.  Our education system attempts to lift all boats, but also includes specialized tracks, both remedial and accelerated.

The result of this One Bubble for All, and All for One Bubble approach is that instead of working to grow our reality based on the facts we continue to experience, we flipped to generating facts to fit the “reality” we are comfortable with.

A very interesting and timely example from the article is the following,

“Take an incident that arose at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in the Senate this September. The judge’s former law clerk, Zina Bash, sat behind him.  On the first day, some viewers accused her of making a white power sign while resting her hand on her arm.  (To people unfamiliar with the sign, this just looks like an “ok” symbol.)”

I am unfamiliar with this interpretation of a common sign, much less to the brouhaha and Twitter storm that erupted around it.  The incident as related in the article is worth the read to see what some people are willing to distort in order to coerce “truth” to fit their limited Special Bubbles.

“Reality, then, is a kind of literary fiction which we all create based upon our experiences and the (Incomplete) information we encounter.”

Through a glass darkly, and even looking deeper, one can see the literary fiction (Special Bubble) that results when we only consider our own limited experiences and information, choosing to ignore all that is Missing.

This does not mean our Special Bubble is wrong, just decidedly incomplete.  And we are unwilling to accept that.

Final example,

“In The Atlantic’s October issue, editor Jeffrey Goldberg admits that this is “a moment in which truths that seemed self-evident are in doubt.”  He writes that US democracy is in crisis, but cites the nation’s founding fathers and constitutional principles as a source of hope. Americans at one point held certain truths to be self-evident, or so wrote the powerful white men who drafted the Constitution.

But when you look at the facts, matters were complicated even back in the day.  No one asked the slaves in the US about their values or their definition of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The powerful were indifferent to women’s rights, too.  Our shared values were espoused by people out of touch with many of us. …

That doesn’t mean we should trash the Constitution. But it does highlight the fact that the relativism of postmodernism existed before the vocabulary for its discussion formed. …”

Lots of thoughts here.

I think most of us still hold to the belief and common value that certain truths are self-evident.  We could talk of truths that are self-evident in the physical General Bubble (things such as gravity, Newton’s Laws, sun rise, sun set; things that cannot be denied to us), but I think it is self-evident that these are not the self-evident truths meant by the founding fathers.

We are more focused on truths in our cognitive Special Bubbles; truths that could be subject to availability and variability depending upon outside forces (events, and in particular, other people), and internal forces (opportunity, motivation).

These truths are still self-evident; they just might not be uniformly achieved.  Equal outcome isn’t in the Constitution; equal opportunity is.

The rising tide has lifted a lot of boats.  We have the world’s strongest economy (although it is still subject to storms2), and enjoy a world of freedom and opportunity the envy of the rest of the world (but also stormy).  Our focus on human rights around the world is example of our still holding to certain unalienable self-evident truths and values. And continued belief in these truths, values, and opportunities is why more people still want to come here than we want to go elsewhere.

Don’t blame the tide because not all the boats float.  (Yes, we have to accept that there will always be bad actors, some of whom scuttle boats; there certainly must be ways of dealing with these.  But the solution is neither to stem the tide nor to continuously replace all the ill-attended boats).

Yep, don’t blame the Constitution (too easy), or conclude from a plethora of “truths” and “values” that there are no fundamental ones (mindboggling, but still easy).

We have to remember that we were not born with shared values; they are not innate.  We were taught these by Regression to the Cultural Mean within the families and cultures in which we lived.

Remove these fundamental truths and values and you deny the existence of any bedrock to build upon. Building upon bedrock to withstand wind and storm is not a new idea or new value.

[Tent Rocks, NM: Still standing after windblown sand storms and flash floods]

We need to understand the bedrock upon which we built (“shared values”) and continue building upon that.

One bedrock foundation is that democracy was to have an educated populace who could read (and understand and thus make informed decisions).  We worked (and still work) to achieve that.  Now we have a populace that can read, but the majority of whom only read (and write on) Twitter and Facebook.

Where it once took months, weeks, or days for information to become available, what passes for information is now available instantaneously via the internet, and any processing it to reach understanding is ignored. This is Confirmation Bias run amok, and a major factor in people reinforcing their own Special Bubbles.

Only a few risk the chance to enlarge their Bubble, and not only grow themselves but contribute to the rising tide that, overall, can contribute to humanity’s progress.

Science celebrates people who intentionally notice, pursue and discover Missing Information, and thereby fill holes in our understanding of the world.

The bane of (incomplete) postmodernism is that it provides justification for people to live in their reinforced Special Bubbles and encourages them to pillory other Special Bubbles who may not yet have noticed or discovered Missing Information, and then to “Borkthem ostensibly for intentionally ignoring it.  The ultimate irony: postmodern thinking that has succumbed to postmodern thinking.

The plea that resonates through The Righteous Mind is, while recognizing we live in Special Bubbles, to stretch them by intentionally engaging in dialogues with others.

And to become the calm that steadies the inevitable storm.

Notes:

Wikipedia.  I generally tell my students that Wikipedia is a great place to start (preliminary research), but a lousy place to finish (as a referenced source).  I violate that philosophy here for brevity (sic), and admit to using the only two paragraphs of information in the larger article that were not specifically accompanied by an explicit call for further editing and clarification – which is needed: both for the article, and postmodernism.

Thoughts on Capitalism will be the subject of a future post.

Bork (Oxford English Dictionary), verb: To obstruct (someone, especially a candidate for public office) by systematically defaming or vilifying them. Origin –1980s: from the name of Robert Bork (1927–2012), an American judge whose nomination to the Supreme Court (1987) was rejected following unfavorable publicity for his allegedly extreme views.

 

 

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