263. When an Arm is not an Arm

An arm is not an arm until it attaches to a body and moves in cer­tain ways. It is the rela­tion­ship between the arm and the body which makes it an arm, not a cer­tain weight or shape of blood and bone. This is really impor­tant. Even appar­ently sim­ple things are more than the sum of their phys­i­cal parts. Dur­ing the course of the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion – say the last 300 years – we have squeezed quite a lot of knowl­edge out of ana­lyz­ing the parts of things. But this kind of frag­mented knowl­edge has lim­its, and we have almost come to the end of it. As a lin­guist I can tell you about phonemes and mor­phemes, or nouns and verbs and all the rest. I can’t quite tell you how their rela­tion­ships all fit together to make a func­tion­ing lan­guage. Any lin­guist who says he can is a hum­bug. There are armies of hum­bugs (not only in lin­guis­tics). A “lan­guage” is an indi­vis­i­ble array of incred­i­bly com­plex dynamic rela­tion­ships. (An aver­age speaker has no con­cept of this). A human being is also an indi­vis­i­ble array of incred­i­bly com­plex rela­tion­ships. If you pick up a sev­ered foot or head, it is no longer a part of a human being. It is a piece of meat. The mas­sive com­plex of rela­tion­ships we call a human being cre­ates con­se­quences which could never be pre­dicted from the sev­ered head and foot. And so it goes with the orga­ni­za­tions and insti­tu­tions which human beings develop. A dance floor is not a dance floor until there are peo­ple to dance on it. It is the rela­tion­ship between the peo­ple and the floor which makes it a dance floor. Nor is a king a king until there are peo­ple who are will­ing to obey his rule. Until then, he is just a fool in a funny hat.

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262. The Factory Makes Six Million Left-Footed Shoes

From early in the Cold War era it became a habit to lam­poon the idio­cies of cen­tral­ized com­mu­nist plan­ning in the Soviet Union. There was plenty to lam­poon. George Orwell’s “Ani­mal Farm”, and later “1984” became eerily pre­dic­tive. What we never noticed though, deaf­ened by all the ide­o­log­i­cal shout­ing, was that the strengths and weak­nesses of col­lec­tive activ­ity are found every­where there are humans. The United States is on the cusp of decline as a suc­cess­ful civ­i­liza­tion exactly because, for ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons, it man­ages col­lec­tive activ­ity very badly and at vast, waste­ful expense. Self­ish­ness and greed, in the end, don’t come cheap. For exam­ple, 62% of the bank­rupt­cies in Amer­ica occur sim­ply because there has been no well-man­aged uni­ver­sal health care. That leads to huge per­sonal and national losses. Not smart. On the other hand, it remains true that any orga­ni­za­tion will mul­ti­ply indi­vid­ual errors, and resist cor­rec­tion of the prob­lem. If the orga­ni­za­tion is a com­mu­nist state, that mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of error can be cat­a­strophic (as we saw, for exam­ple, in China’s so-called Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, which came close to destroy­ing the state alto­gether). Even in our mod­est “cap­i­tal­ist” democ­ra­cies though, this is a daily prob­lem. We may have mil­lions of com­pa­nies, but as in the planned state, they lock indi­vid­ual faults into a col­lec­tive frame­work, and even imi­tate the errors of other orga­ni­za­tions. Count­less mil­lions are trapped in soul-destroy­ing work­places where some brain­less “author­ity” fig­ure micro-man­ages his small king­dom into a paral­y­sis which can go on for years. The indi­vid­ual meet­ing an orga­ni­za­tion of any size is always at risk. Recently I had rea­son to spend a lit­tle time in a hos­pi­tal. On dis­charge I was given a doc­u­ment which listed my “co-mor­bidi­ties” – a cat­a­logue of ter­ri­fy­ing con­di­tions sup­ported by a col­lec­tion of life-threat­en­ing pills to take every day. It was all pure fic­tion, appar­ently man­u­fac­tured by some bored mup­pet in an off-moment. I protested, and was ignored. The patient is always stu­pid. The “med­ical record” had been cre­ated and was sealed with the author­ity of the orga­ni­za­tion. I con­sulted a GP. We agreed that the hos­pi­tal was insane and trashed the pills. I wrote for­mally to the hos­pi­tal and osten­ta­tiously signed it “PhD” for effect. Into the void. The hos­pi­tal con­tin­ues to send let­ters assum­ing my pend­ing “mor­bid­ity”. This is the story of orga­ni­za­tions every­where, and why, occa­sion­ally, there are rev­o­lu­tions.


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261. Boo! So What Are You Afraid Of ?

What are you afraid of? If you are under 30 you are prob­a­bly afraid of being laughed at by your friene­mies, but prob­a­bly not afraid of burn­ing half your brain cells and poi­son­ing your liver with booze, or get­ting an STD from bad sex. At younger than 30 you are immor­tal, so you expect to live with your friene­mies forever, but don’t expect to wind up in hos­pi­tal on an oxy­gen ven­ti­la­tor, racked with pain and depend­ing for sur­vival on a daily packet of deadly pre­scrip­tion drugs. If you are older than 30 your fren­e­mies are prob­a­bly already mar­ried, and too busy com­plain­ing about their mort­gage to worry about your hair­cut. By now you are not quite as fit as you used to be, and you’ve had your first hints of future death. You begin to worry vaguely about pains, pills, next week’s salary, and how you might not be master/mistress of the uni­verse after all.

No mat­ter, if you are older than 15 and younger than 60 you are scared wit­less of talk­ing about any­thing but the weather, the foot­ball and your favourite movie star. After all, who might be lis­ten­ing? Your Face­book page is a total threat if it con­tains any­thing except pho­tos of you on a sun­set beach, or your favourite pet. Why the ter­ror? That’s easy. Peo­ple used to be afraid of a venge­ful God, the Devil or the Lord of the Castle. Now Godzilla’s alias is HR. Sur­viv­ing HR per­mits you to have a “career”. Per­ish­ing from an attack of HR con­demns you to the char­nel house of pub­lic char­ity and pity. HR is a poi­so­nous cloud which hov­ers forever between you and the sun. This HR cloud is made from the acid vapours of sta­tis­ti­cal aver­ages and mas­saged employ­ment prej­u­dice. The once-were-human shapes which come out the other side of the HR cloud are bleached skele­tons, draped in the rags of fash­ion, dan­gling from pup­pet strings, fit­ted with voice boxes from the com­pany store. Of course, none of this is dis­cussed in polite cir­cles. A Mar­tian might find it hard to under­stand why the high­est aim of Earth­lings is to grad­u­ate as bleached bones dan­gling from pup­pet strings. The Mar­tian might not be aware though that the entire edu­ca­tion sys­tem, pop­u­lar media and weight of pub­lic opin­ion is focused on per­suad­ing young Earth­ling per­sons that their finest achieve­ment will be to qual­ify as bleached pup­pet bones on a respected pay­roll.

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260. Trust

Do you trust me?  That’s a hard call, isn’t it. With­out trust life is not easy. Oxy­tocin is the brain chem­i­cal  which gives the  feel­ing of trust. Some peo­ple, and maybe some cul­tures seem more hooked on it than oth­ers. (Whether dif­fer­ent cul­tures are dom­i­nant for dif­fer­ent brain chem­i­cals like this is a really fas­ci­nat­ing puz­zle). So how far can you trust another per­son, or insti­tu­tion?  It depends on the answers to a lot of ques­tions. If some­one under­stands some things about you, they have at least the foun­da­tion of trust. They can decide to trust your skill to kick a foot­ball, or reli­a­bil­ity to turn up at work on Mon­day morn­ing. If they don’t under­stand your think­ing at all, they will hes­i­tate to trust you for any­thing impor­tant (sigh, lots and lots of peo­ple don’t seem to under­stand my think­ing at all …). In that case, they can only trust from your rep­u­ta­tion, and rep­u­ta­tions are frag­ile. In some jobs, like the police force, they are paid to trust nobody. Some peo­ple, like doc­tors, we hope we can trust, but expe­ri­ence might under­mine that. In some coun­tries, like Aus­tralia, peo­ple gen­er­ally trust the good inten­tions of the gov­ern­ment (though often dis­trust its com­pe­tence), and often trust the good­will of strangers. In some coun­tries, like China, peo­ple gen­er­ally do not trust the inten­tions of the gov­ern­ment, and don’t trust any­one they don’t know well. The gen­eral trust between employ­ers and employ­ees seems to have changed quite a lot in my life­time (or maybe expe­ri­ence has just taught some hard lessons!). Look­ing back, I have to say that most of my employ­ers have been untrust­wor­thy when it comes to build­ing a future together. Some­times they didn’t trust me to be cheats like them! Gen­er­ally the employ­ers, or their agents, have only been inter­ested in some short term advan­tage, often wran­gled by lying, like a bad lover on a one night date. What a pity. Speak­ing of which, the hard­est thing to find of course are good friends to trust in stormy weather.

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259. What is Your Greatest Weakness?

A favourite ques­tion in job inter­views is “what is your great­est weak­ness?” I always find the ques­tion puz­zling. It is puz­zling because nowa­days the per­son who inter­views you is rarely, say, a hard drink­ing build­ing super­vi­sor who wants to know if you really can lay bricks. No, it will be some half-formed cream puff who has never laid a brick, and thinks that a ‘C’ pass in Psy­chol­ogy 101 has given them the key to the human soul. Part of the text book clev­er­ness of these HR per­sons is to assume that every per­son being inter­viewed is lying. There­fore, to give a good inter­view is to impress the HR per­son is that you can lie cooly, with­out a flicker of embar­rass­ment. If you can lie in your own inter­ests, pre­sum­ably you can lie in the inter­ests of the com­pany too. So this is the prob­lem with “what is your great­est weak­ness?”. The proper answer actu­ally depends upon the fetishes, fears and fan­tasies of the HR per­son. Does he secretly pull the wings off but­ter­flies, or does she have night­mares about break­ing her stiletto heels in an esca­la­tor? Until you have such crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion, you don’t really know which lie will make him/her feel all warm and fuzzy inside…

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258. From Small Beginnings …

Habits are effi­cient (.. decide daily which side to part your hair on?). Habits are restrict­ing (.. do you really need to check Face Book every ten min­utes?). Har­vest­ing the ten­sion between effi­ciency and restric­tion gives life pur­pose and direc­tion (.. doesn’t any indus­try do just that?). An imbal­ance of habit, out of pro­por­tion to real need, becomes a fetish (.. do you really need to carry a lucky charm to that job inter­view? Will mem­bers of X reli­gion really go to Hell if they eat A or drink B? .. do you really need to fan­ta­size about Y to get off on sex?). Shared fetishes may become a cult (.. so do you gather to dance around a tree on moon­lit nights? .. are you com­pelled to gather in a TAB bet­ting shop on Sat­ur­day after­noons? ). At a crit­i­cal mass of mem­bers, a cult becomes a reli­gion (.. one believer is a men­tal case; a mil­lion believ­ers are sure they are right). A reli­gion is a social tool which com­forts the timid and sanc­ti­fies the ambi­tious. A per­son both sanc­ti­fied and ambi­tious feels no restraint. God or the Party is always on their side of the war. Any atroc­ity is pos­si­ble.

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257. Feeding the Uninvited Guests – Why putting on weight is so damned unfair

This is com­pletely unsci­en­tific. I don’t know the vices of microbes. I am told that I have tens of tril­lions of the bug­gers in my gut, and through my body. “Accord­ing to a recent National Insti­tutes of Health (NIH) esti­mate, 90% of cells in the human body are bac­te­rial, fun­gal, or oth­er­wise non-human” (http://mpkb.org/home/pathogenesis/microbiota ). So there are way more of them than all the cells which make me into me. I didn’t ask them in, and clever sci­en­tists insist that I’d cease to be me if whole armies of these layabouts didn’t hang out in the draughty cor­ri­dors of my frame. OK guys, so appar­ently we need each other. But I have deep sus­pi­cions about your habits. You, my fren­emy microbes, get a lit­tle peck­ish and push the but­ton for a bell-hop to bring in a snack, then another and another. It’s worse than that. You have the hotel man­ager (ergo, me) so trained as a slave that I bring you more goo than you know what to do with. By rights that should go straight down the dis­posal chute, but no, I stuff it away in every spare cor­ner, just in case you greedy lit­tle sods press the ser­vice bell in the mid­dle of the night. Now I’ve got your num­ber though, I’ve sussed you out. You just love bread, or what­ever bread turns into – prob­a­bly sugar. I eat a slice of bread and you’ll dou­ble its weight in my gut. What are you doing? Breed­ing like house flies? I dunno’, but I’m damned if I’m going to feed your bread lust. O.K., just a slice now and then before I rush off to clean my teeth and get the deli­cious taste out of my mouth. Hey, I’m win­ning, you are los­ing. I’ve kept us both pretty trim.


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