Category Archives: Comment

Insight, Meditation, and The Usefulness of Strip Clubs

The July 28 issue of the New Yorker (still the finest magazine in the world, despite the ill-advised, un-satirical Obama cover) had an article about the scientific inquiry into insight that got me all hot n’ bothered. In “The Eureka Hunt,” Jonah Lehrer writes about kick-ass neuroscientists who are tracing the hidden pathways of ‘the insight experience,’ and finding that although we can’t feel it, our minds can subconsciously prep an “ah-ha!” moment when confronted with a difficult problem (The article isn’t available online, but you can find an illicit copy here.)

This sets the context nicely:

There is something inherently mysterious about moments of insight … like Archimedes shouting “Eureka” when he saw his bathwater rise, or Isaac Newton watching an apple fall from a tree and then formulating his theory of gravity. Such tales all share a few essential features, which psychologists and neuroscientists use to define “the insight experience.” The first of these is the impasse: before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a mental block.

Then, the insight arrives, instantaneously, in a flash of connected threads…

This is another key feature of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the idea.

So, a few very smart and hardworking researchers started running simple, phrase-based experiments to tease out exactly how the insight experience works. If you were looking reason #248 to sit your ass down and practice, I give you this, the money quote for meditators:

Kounios [a researcher] tells a story about an expert Zen meditator who took part in one of the C.R.A. insight experiments. At first, the meditator couldn’t solve any of the insight problems. “This Zen guy went through thirty or so of the verbal puzzles and just drew a blank,” Kounios said. “He was used to being very focussed, but you can’t solve these problems if you’re too focussed.” Then, just as he was about to give up, he started solving one puzzle after another, until, by the end of the experiment, he was getting the all right. It was an unprecedented streak. “Normally, people don’t get better as the task goes along,” Kounios said. “If anything, they get a little bored.” Kounios believes that the dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focussed, so that he could pay attention to those remote associations in the right hemisphere. “He had the cognitive control to let go,” Kounios said, “He became an insight machine.”

Ok – mega-cool!

As a recovering hyper-rationalist, I simply adore it when science and my spiritual practice intersect, and this anecdote suggests that the razor-thin line between Too Focused and Daydreaming that meditators cultivate can lead to a heightened ability to tap insight. The insight experience itself cannot be learned, but dwelling in the conditions leading to it might be teachable.

In other words, insight seems to happen at the intersection of relaxed concentration and non-attention – closely related to, but not quite what scientists call “flow.”

I’ve written about the benefits of daydreaming-enabled living for the One City blog before, and another passage from Lehrer’s article speaks to the helpfulness of Just Not Forcing It:

Although we often complain that the brain is too easily distracted, Schooler believes that letting the mind wander is essential. “Just look at the history of science,” he said. “The big ideas seem to always come when people are sidetracked, when they’re doing something that has nothing to do with their research.”

And the utility of strip clubs:

RIchard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7 UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

Pole-dancers aside, the thing I find so exciting about this article is the same thing that I find so inspiring about a vivid dream: my subconscious mind is often more flexible, creative, and able to form unexpected connections than I am. It just might be that, paradoxically, the best way to solve a difficult problem is to simply ignore it and go sit in your bath or under an apple tree. Who knows, you might get lucky.

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Idle is the New Ambitious

Scribblerist is a Senior Fellow at the Ida May Gurkis Institute for Idleness. He has not published since 1983. [Note: Originally posted on One City]

For graduation last year I was given Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle, a somewhat-revolutionary, pseudo-intellectual, rather-Marxist treatise on idling, creativity, and how to live life. My friend bought it for me because, he claimed, “you kinda look like the guy on the cover.” Translation: you’re the type to hob-nob at cafes, chatting about whatnot, procrastinating that novel you’re endlessly writing about Small Town America. He was, of course, dead on.

In the frenetic haze of post-graduate life, How to Be Idle was tonic. It often gave me that particular sensation that comes only from reading a good book, the feeling that “this book gets me.” I’ve zealously defended my idleness ever since.

At it’s core, How to Be Idle is a critique of capitalism in Western societies (what I heard Thom Yorke refer to as “Advanced Capitalism,” which made it sound like some kind of terminal illness that had nearly run it’s course). Hodgkinson is saying: industrialization came along and robbed us of leisure time, and all our various and sundry problems with stress, obesity, depression, and lack of agency could be solved with a little idling. Work, particularly in an urban office, is de-humanizing drudgery and should be avoided. We are so caught up in acquiring, scheduling, meeting, climbing, envying, and wanting that we have forgotten the art of simply doing nothing.

In fact, idling enables you to accomplish fewer things better, with a greater sense of reward because you have time to enjoy the doing of the thing. Dear recent and striving graduates: Idle is the new ambitious.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Hodgkinson lays out the basic tenants of his philosophy of non-doing, and I highly recommend it. He says:

MJ: When I first picked up the How To Be Idle I thought it was a self-help book, which in a way it is–but it’s actually more of a social commentary and a look at the history of overwork.

TH: I gave it that title slightly deliberately because it sounded more commercial. I didn’t want to call it A Disquisition on the Benefits of Idleness. The title How to be Idle, as you say, is self-help, but it’s a slightly satirizing self-help. The self-help thing always seems to be something like, “Ten Ways to be More Efficient,” and it’s so depressing. I used to try to do those things, and could never remember what the ten ways are. A lot of that adds to your pressures: now there’s a whole new set of rules you’ve got to try to remember and live up to.

MJ: Can you offer some practical first steps on how to be idle?

TH: Part of this individualism is you feel this pressure that you alone have to conquer the world, and if you don’t work all the hours God gives then you start feeling really guilty. If you can stop feeling guilty, then I think it’s easier to start doing what you want to do. The way to stop feeling guilty is to read stuff–I’m not saying my book, but works by Bertrand Russell or Oscar Wilde, people who weren’t losers but who didn’t believe in the work ethic, and argued this thing about guilt or wrote philosophy about idleness.

And I like his vision for an idle society:

TH: Hopefully it would be full of people bicycling along the streets and whistling and raising their hats to each other [laughs]. Going for long walks in the countryside, and mucking about each day. What would it take for that to happen?

It struck me that Hodgkinson’s thoughts on idling dovetail nicely with the hoped-for consequences of Buddhist meditation, if not the actual method. Idling is a gateway to a restful mind, where inspiration has space to arise naturally; Strolling in the park lends a connection to the natural world; sleeping in and waking slowly sets the tone for a calm day; free time lets you become involved in local politics or activism; myriad simple pleasures, instead of material or chemical stimulants, become paramount.

I’m taking up Hodgkinson’s banner. I urge you all to quit your jobs (or take a day off), spend a week in bed (or sleep late on Saturday), and devote yourself a simple art, such as playing the lute (or stay in tonight and cook dinner with your partner instead of seeing another big-budget Hollywood Suck-a-Thon).

Opportunities for idleness are all around – you just have to stop and take notice.

The Interdependence of Illicit Trade

Scribblerist has been on sabbatical from this blog while researching a book he is co-authoring with Sean Hannity. The working title is Liberals and Other Single-Celled Organisms. He is happy to be back.

A few Sundays ago I met some friends near Confucius Square for dim-sum at the Golden Unicorn, a restaurant famous for a dining area spanning three floors and gaudy ball-room style décor (replete with massive green plaster dragons breathing dry-ice mist) There were crowds of tourists and swarms of sullen wait staff and a never-ending stream of dim-sum dishes filled with flavorless, low-quality meat. It was an experience, but certainly not because of the food.

Leaving the Golden Unicorn (to my mind, an already-improbable creature rendered ludicrously unlikely if composed of a precious mineral), I strolled leisurely down Canal, past Lafayette and Broadway, admiring the relative calm of a Sunday afternoon in New York.

Let me repeat that: I strolled leisurely down Canal street on a Sunday afternoon in spring. The Canal street, the seething nexus of knockoff handbags, belts, sunglasses, umbrellas, shoes, shirts, jeans, and custom-stamped license plates, and probably second-hand kidneys and eyeballs if you bother to leave the street stalls and enter the warren of back-alley shops and dumpling stalls that are Chinatown. Most days, the bargain hunters clog the sidewalks of that stretch of Canal like locusts, making it impossible to walk at a normal pace – If I’m unfortunate enough to find myself at Canal & Centre at noon on a Sunday, I take my chances with the cabs and walk down the middle of the street. At least, I figure, I’m moving.

On this particular Sunday there were no crowds because there were no stalls. The little nooks and street-closets normally bursting with fake Prada and Versace were shuttered and locked with heavy padlocks and sealed with NYPD notices that read, in part, “Closed due to Copyright Infringement.” The fashion industry, or some Elliot Ness-like task force within the NYPD, or perhaps both had done the impossible and shut down, at least for now, the heretofore unchecked flow of illicit goods from China to Chinatown to the hands of tourists and New Yorkers looking for fake designer labels.

I was impressed not because it is particularly difficult for the cops to shutter two dozen street vendors selling fake luxury products, but because, for as long as I’ve lived here (4 years), Canal street was like the aging gay uncle who hadn’t yet (and probably wouldn’t ever) come out of the closet: everyone knows it’s there but no one addresses it directly. Canal street’s illegality was harmless and understood and useful. Everyone participated, even me – I never purchased anything but I accepted it as a necessary facet of capitalism. It’s there, it’s fine, no one really cares.

Apparently, people do care. Writing in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki described how much the fashion industry cares, very much:

And almost as soon as hot new designs appear on the runway, photographs and drawings of them are on their way to Chinese factories that can produce reasonable facsimiles at a fraction of the cost. Designers are as annoyed by this as their prewar forebears were, and so Congress now finds itself considering a bill, pushed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, that would give original designs a legal protection similar to copyright.

Which brings me to the point of this post: We are all inter-linked by the tendrils of the environment and our emotional states and our politics, media, and governance, but we’re also interdependent when it comes to the illicit, the subterranean, and the unlawful. In fact, the illicit trade in guns, drugs, people, and fashion knockoffs connects us more than we care to admit or understand.

I’ve been thinking about this kind of interdependence since reading Illicit, by Moisés Naím, an editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. In it, he traces the tangled, intermingling webs of illicit global trade, from failed states like Moldova, where organized crime takes over the traditional roles of government, to a brothel run out of a suburban home in Florida and staffed with prostitutes trafficked from China and eastern Europe. Writing in an urgent, even tone, Naim connects the local and the international, revealing just how pervasive the illicit trades have become. Naim begins the book by addressing three illusions the public has about illicit trade. He writes:

The third illusion is the idea that illicit trade is an “underground” phenomenon. Even accepting that trafficking has grown in volume and complexity, many — not least politicians — seek to relegate it to a different world than that of ordinary, honest citizens and constituents. The language we use to describe illicit trade and to frame our efforts to contain it betrays the enduring power of this illusion. The word offshore — as in offshore finance — vividly captures this sense that illicit trade takes place somewhere else. So does black market, or the supposedly clearly distinct clean and dirty money. All signify a clarity, an ability to draw moral and economic lines and patrol their boundaries that is confounded in practice. This is the most dangerous of all these illusions, because it treads on moral grounds and arguably lulls citizens — and hence public opinion — into a sense of heightened righteousness and false security.

Canal street is, in my mind, the perfect illustration of the kind of false moral grouping that most people, myself included, participate in. We say, “I know it’s out there, but not in my neighborhood.” We can no longer afford to draw these distinctions because trafficking networks have become too complex and embedded in the legitimate flow of goods.

For example, many (if not all) trafficking organizations have diversified, trading in not just guns or drugs, but people, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, and pirated software, often transporting them together. Naim writes about a particular tactic used by the Italian Camorra: Speedboats are loaded with drugs and trafficked women (often eastern Europeans) bound for the Italian coast. If they are spotted by the authorities, the women are simply thrown overboard, forcing the coast guard to stop and rescue them while allowing the traffickers to escape with the product of greater value. And this is simply a dramatic example. Pirated software or knockoff industrial parts can be smuggled in the same shipping container as legitimate goods, used as a screen.

It is therefore not inconceivable – in fact, it’s likely – that the same smuggling networks that bring rural Chinese workers to New York to work as indentured slaves in illegal garment workshops are the same ones transporting bogus prescription drugs and knockoff Vuitton handbags. You, me, your friend who likes to shop in Chinatown – we are all connected by ebb and flow of global illicit trade.

As I left Chinatown that afternoon, my stomach beginning to ache from eating too much dim-sum, I tried to figure out what I owned that was likely the product of trafficking, but I gave up. I don’t own any guns and I don’t patronize sex workers, but what about the generic prescription drug I take for heartburn? Or the pirated copy of Superbad my friend lent me? And what about my clothes – what else was in the shipping container that brought my favorite gray GAP t-shirt from China or Cambodia?

If you want a good, alarming read, check out Illicit, or the excellent PBS show about it. It’s one of those books that will change the way you look at your material world – as not simply impermanent, but interrelated by the grey and illegal.

Highway to the McCain (Danger) Zone

In case you’re one of the four people in America who honestly can’t make up their mind between McCain, Hillary, and Obama, here is another factor to consider: campaign music. Marc Ambinder writes:

John McCain — As I type, the speakers are whispering an instrumental version of “God Bless America”. To warm up the crowd, his advance team mixes John Phillip Sousa marches (although not The Stars and Stripes Forever …) with John Williams fanfares. Before Navy audiences, they play Steve Smith’s Top Gun anthem and Kenny Loggins’ Highway To The Danger Zone.

I love that McCain plays “Highway to the Danger Zone.” It’s classic cheese (check out those olive-drab shades!). He may not know anything about the economy, but he certainly understands rock. 

Cutting Through the Hype

Originally posted on One City, blog of the Interdependence Project

Regular readers know I’ve been swept up in the cacophony of chatter surrounding the race for the Democratic presidential nominee. Some of my commentary, I feel, has been worth reading, mostly for it’s entertainment value. Some, not so much.

On my morning blog cruise, I read this post by Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic. He says,

Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal has got me all guilty about reading meaning into randomness.

Curious, I read Blumenthal’s analysis of Gallup and Rasmussen’s polling data for the last 8-odd weeks (a warning to liberal arts types – it’s not technical, but it does contain numbers), and I realized just how wrapped up in the media hype I’ve been. I came away with the following conclusions:

1. Accounting for statistical methods, Obama and Clinton are essentially tied in the polls. They have been for weeks. This means:

2. The media has been using meaningless ups and downs in the polls to create fake news. Example: Last week’s mini-media-storm on Obama’s poll numbers immediately before and after his speech on race (given to address the also-meaningless Rev. Wright controversy).

3. Conclusion: Don’t trust the media. And don’t trust me. Discourse about actual policy has been hijacked for the past several weeks by empty drama.

A corollary observation: Obama’s oft-touted momentum may also be largely illusory. It feels real because I’m surrounded by ObamaHeads; I also seek out campaign videos and visit Obama’s campaign website (what better place to shore up my feeling that my guy is winning?). The reality of the race, however, is told in the popular vote and the delegate count, and Obama is winning both (although not by a great margin).

Endgame: It is mathematically extremely unlikely that HRC can catch up in pledged delegates, and politically highly unlikely that Superdelegates will defect to her en masse, thus handing her the nomination. In other words, it’s not a close race, it’s a done race. Everything else is narrative.

I’m no longer worried about Hillary rising in the eleventh hour like a zomboid Obama-killing robot; I’m worried about my own impressionable brain soaking up spin like a dry sponge. I am the liberal blogosphere’s ideal consumer and, in a way, I feel like I’m just waking up from a bad dream, where the landscape is constantly shifting, voices are shouting discordantly, and advertising is the only real constant.

Bio: Scribblerist writes for whoever will read him, like an ugly puppy that nobody wants. He holds no degree in Political Science from Harvard and is singularly unqualified to comment on matters political.

Update: The incomparable George Packer cuts down the hype with style.

Crush? Apply Poetry, Rinse, Repeat

This morning at work, bored as usual, I started Googling. I tried “Best Angry Song Ever,” but the only results were for bands with names like Puddle of Mud, DeathCoxxx, and Mothers of Holy Darkness. Not what I was looking for. Next, I tried, “Greatest Love Poem Ever,” and this page on Poetry.com was the first hit. Poetry dot com may have started out with genuine artistic aspirations back in 1995, but whoever owns the domain name has since retired to the Bahamas, supported by revenue from the ads plastered all over the homepage. I wish I had possessed the foresight at 13 to buy up simple, broad domains like air.com, bigbooty.com, and hybrid.com. I, and every other person with internet access, was sitting on gold and we didn’t even know it.

It’s not really our fault, guys. No one knew how big this interweb thing would get. Witness: Newsweek circa 1995.

Anyway, the above-embedded page of poetry may be on a site for hacks and stupid people, but it has some legitimate poetry. Check it out. Mend that aching heart with the balm of words. Or whatever.

The Next President Will Be Left-Handed (Like me)

And to think, back in Hester Prynne days, I would’ve been burned at the stake.

Read it here.