An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought

Not having come close to saving the world (since 2012) and finding that, in recent years, this blog has mainly dealt with things I’ve read, I’ve decided to stop posting here, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently.

Instead, I’ll continue to update a blog I’ve had since 2010 called “An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought”. Up to now, it’s consisted of brief comments on books I’ve read. I might as well use that blog to discuss other things as well, including other things I’ve read, instead of discussing them here.

Thus, I might discuss these recent articles over there: 

“Scientists Identify Four Personality Types: Sophisticated Psychological Algorithm Confirms That Some People Are Jerks” at The Washington Post

“The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience” (on TV, in college lecture halls or elsewhere) at The New York Times

“Are We All ‘Harmless Torturers’ Now?” also at The New York Times

“Civility as a Reciprocal Public Virtue” at 3 Quarks Daily

“My Modest Proposal for Solving the ‘Meaning of Life Problem’ — and Reducing Global Conflict” at Scientific American.

I could discuss them over there, but probably won’t.

If you’re interested in following An Ingenious Device, or just want to give it a look, please click here.

Only Some Professional Writers Are Professional

Of course, I’m not one of them, if only because I’m not getting paid. You might see an occasional advertisement on this blog (I never do – they just remind me that you guys might), but not a dime comes my way. In fact, I’m paying WordPress more than seven cents a day just to keep reasonably operational. 

But back to my topic: If you can stand it, Fred Kaplan of Slate has an excellent little summary of the email situation: “The Hillary Email Scandal Was Totally Overblown”. The whole thing is here. The “top comment” says “this is the most level-headed piece I’ve read on the email ‘scandal'”.

To quote one little bit, this is Mr. Kaplan writing about Patrick Healy, the New York Times reporter who produced a “news analysis” article in the form of an attack ad that Trump can use if he ever runs out of insults:

And yet, here is New York Times political reporter Patrick Healy, in a front-page news analysis, paraphrasing Comey’s rebuke of the current presumptive Democratic candidate for president: The FBI director, Healy wrote, “basically just called her out for having committed one of the most irresponsible moves in the modern history of the State Department.” I defy anyone to pore through the most scathing passages of Comey’s remarks and find anything that remotely resembles this description.

Wow. I would have thought that Hillary using a private email server couldn’t possibly make the list of irresponsible Secretary of State “moves” that includes things like Colin Powell selling Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But I’m not a professional writer like Patrick Healy.

Fortunately, neither is Fred Kaplan.

Dog Days, Blog Days

“Dog days”: the hottest period of the year (reckoned in antiquity from the heliacal rising of Sirius, the Dog Star). Also, a period of inactivity or sluggishness.

It’s hot and sultry here, but summer is only a week old. The weather doesn’t explain why this blog has entered a period of inactivity or sluggishness. Yet it has.

Yet I don’t want to let it die.

Therefore, I’m going to try something different: fewer words from me and more words from others whose thoughts deserve to be shared.

Coming soon: “Whereof One Can Speak (or Quote)”.

PS: The heliacal rising of a constellation [or star] is when it comes from under the rays of the sun, and begins to appear before daylight.

A Clear and Present Danger

The title of this post might have been “Ignoring the Next Six Months – Day 21”, except for two things. Our Presidential election is a little more than five months away and my plan to ignore the campaign has been a complete failure.

In fact, I’ve paid so much attention to the campaign that I haven’t gotten around to doing a few other things, like updating this blog. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time reading political news and commentary. I’ve left a few of my comments here and there (actually, all of them have been there). I’ve sent a few emails to a New York Times reporter who is assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. For heaven’s sake, I’ve even tweeted (@SomeGuyFromNJ). 

In case you missed it, Donald Trump now has all the delegates he needs to become the Republican nominee for President on the first ballot at their July convention. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: Unless he drops out or drops dead, Donald Trump will be the Republican’s 2016 nominee for President of the United States of America.

That means the question before us is: What should each of us do to stop this person from becoming President?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know this: There is no sense in filling a blog with random thoughts and commentary when we’re this close to a disaster.

For now, I’ll leave you with the photograph at the top of this page, a few words from Senator Elizabeth Warren, and my favorite quote from the past few weeks. First, Senator Warren:

Let’s be honest – Donald Trump is a loser. Count all his failed businesses. See how he kept his father’s empire afloat by cheating people with scams like Trump University and by using strategic corporate bankruptcy (excuse me, bankruptcies) to skip out on debt. Listen to the experts who’ve concluded he’s so bad at business that he might have more money today if he’d put his entire inheritance into an index fund and just left it alone.

Trump seems to know he’s a loser. His embarrassing insecurities are on parade: petty bullying, attacks on women, cheap racism, and flagrant narcissism. But just because Trump is a loser everywhere else doesn’t mean he’ll lose this election. People have been underestimating his campaign for nearly a year – and it’s time to wake up.

People talk about how “this is the most important election” in our lifetime every four years, and it gets stale. But consider what hangs in the balance. Affordable college. Accountability for Wall Street. Healthcare for millions of Americans. The Supreme Court. Big corporations and billionaires paying their fair share of taxes. Expanded Social Security. Investments in infrastructure and medical research and jobs right here in America. The chance to turn our back on the ugliness of hatred, sexism, racism and xenophobia. The chance to be a better people.

More than anyone we’ve seen before come within reach of the presidency, Donald Trump stands ready to tear apart an America that was built on values like decency, community, and concern for our neighbors. Many of history’s worst authoritarians started out as losers – and Trump is a serious threat. The way I see it, it’s our job to make sure he ends this campaign every bit the loser that he started it.

I wouldn’t say that America was only built on values like decency and community. America was also built on greed and inhumanity. Senator Warren would certainly agree. But her main point is unassailable: In the 228 years that we have been holding elections, Trump is the absolute worst person who has ever come this close to becoming President of the United States. The worst ever.

And lastly, a quote from Michael Vlock, a rich Connecticut investor who has given a lot of money to Republican candidates, but who says he won’t support you know who. Why?

He’s an ignorant, amoral, dishonest and manipulative, misogynistic, philandering, hyper-litigious, isolationist, protectionist blowhard…I really believe our republic will survive Hillary.

Vlock left out “narcissistic” and “authoritarian”, but it’s not bad for a Republican.

It’s My Blog and I’ll Rant About My Visit to the Doctor If I Want To!

Yesterday, a friend and I happened to get on the subject of restaurants, waiting rooms and (yes) elevators that have televisions. We agreed that the relatively recent practice of putting a TV everywhere possible in order to entertain or distract us is annoying. Obviously, some may enjoy watching TV while they’re waiting to see their doctor or eating lunch in a cafe or riding in an elevator. Also obviously, some people don’t. 

So I was psychologically primed when I entered a doctor’s office today and found a TV in the far corner of the empty waiting room. It was tuned to a talk show about cooking. Even worse, the sound was extremely loud. Instead of politely asking the staff if it would be possible to turn off the TV, I did it myself. In retrospect, I should have asked, but since I was the only one in the room, pushing the “off” button seemed like an acceptable thing to do. (Have you ever noticed that they never leave the remote control next to the television, a courtesy we patients might appreciate? Given how loud that TV was today, I think it’s really there for the office staff, who happen to be in a different room.)

After a while, one of the staff noticed that the TV was off and used the remote to turn it back on. I objected, saying that I had turned it off. We went back and forth a bit, and I raised my voice a little (no personal attacks were made). The staff member said the TV was there “for the entertainment of the patients” and having it off was merely my preference. Since another patient had entered the waiting room by then, I gave up. Even when I was alone again, the TV kept going, albeit with reduced volume.

Eventually, I got to see the doctor. He seemed upset about something. He spoke very fast and not very clearly. He was brusque, interrupted me when I asked questions, and kept telling me I didn’t understand his precise reasons for doing an MRI of my hip. Near the end of the examination, I said “Well, it will be good to find out what’s going on in there” (referring to my hip). I thought that was a pretty innocuous thing to say, but he insisted on again repeating why an MRI was a good idea (it was merely to rule out the presence of an anatomical abnormality or a tumor, not “to find out what’s going on in there”).

Having agreed about getting an MRI, I then made the mistake of asking about a different bone-related issue, since this doctor is an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in knees and shoulders and similar bones. My question was “Is surgery often done for bone spurs in the foot?”. He told me in no uncertain terms that asking a doctor a question like that is the worst thing a patient can do. He gave me a brief lecture, explaining that you should never ask a doctor about anything the doctor isn’t prepared or qualified to talk about. He seemed quite upset and left the room. I called after him “Should I follow you?”, he made a noise and I did.

While waiting for the MRI to be scheduled, I asked him if I could speak to him about something else. He said “No”. I then said I wanted to discuss the TV issue. I said that if a patient wants the TV off, it would be a good thing for the staff to honor that request. In response, he severely criticized my failure to initially ask the staff to turn off the TV, instead of pushing the off button myself. “How would you like it if I came to your house and drove your car? Or came into your house and turned off your television? It’s not your television. It’s ours.” (Gosh, I thought the TV was for the entertainment of the patients.) I admitted I would have asked if there had been anyone else in the room, but still felt what I had done wasn’t so bad.

At this point, I told the doctor that he had the worst bedside manner of any doctor I’ve ever visited (and I’ve visited a lot). Talking fast, interrupting, constantly correcting my choice of words, saying he didn’t “give a sh@t” about something and generally looking and sounding pissed off. He said he was still willing to treat me. I said “I don’t think so” and left. (This area isn’t short of orthopedic surgeons.)

Now, I assume this guy was angry about the TV thing when he entered the examining room. Maybe he heard my exchange with his staff. Maybe one of them mentioned the difficult patient in the waiting room. But if he was already angry with me, it would have been much better (and more “professional”) if he’d said so up front. He might have even declined to treat me. I would have been surprised but would have left quietly. Instead, he behaved like a jerk (another word came to mind, but this aims to be a family-friendly blog). Or maybe he treats lots of patients that way and it had nothing to do with the television.

So here’s a good part of this story (ok, this saga). I thought it would be appropriate to share my strange experience with the rest of the world (meaning the part of the world that, for some mysterious reason, doesn’t read this blog). Since we now have the internet, I went to a couple of those doctor-rating sites, Healthgrades and Vitals. That last site allows you to enter comments. So I did.

My conclusion was that this doctor might be very good, except for his personality. The treatment plan (the MRI) he recommended made sense. But I wouldn’t recommend him and would never see him again. 

After entering my comment, it occurred to me that maybe I was being a little unfair to the guy. Maybe he was having a bad day. So I looked at the other comments. These are some of my favorites:

Only drawback – he is very hard to talk to or get understandable information from. He gets very impatient with explanations.

He has a big ego. He does not like being questioned…. Instead of giving you understandable answers and showing that he cares, he gets impatient and annoyed very easily.

AVOID [Dr. X] AT ALL COSTS. There is not enough room for his ego and the patient in the exam room.

My experience with [this doctor] was disastrous.

... a horrible and unprofessional surgeon… As [the vomiting] got progressively worse I decided to page [Dr. X]… His words went something like this (and keep in mind I could barely talk because I was vomiting so often) He basically told me that I was interrupting his dinner and that it was not right that I was doing so….I actually started crying so my amazing sister took the phone … This is but one of my horrible experiences with [Dr. X]. Please Please Please Please, I beg you not to see this Doctor!!! 

One of the worst experiences of my life… I told him about the problems I was having after the surgery. He went off the handle and acted very unprofessionally by yelling at me. His behavior made me cry and I never went back to him.

I echo all of the negative comments already posted here: he is impatient, belligerent, insulting, difficult to comprehend, excessively … antagonistic when you explore his incomprehensible answers, actually told me one of my questions was “Bullsh-t”, and that I was wasting his time by asking questions…I would not feel comfortable going under the knife of such a disordered personality. I think he’s sociopathic.

Of course, there are glowing reviews as well. But the lowest grade he gets is for (surprise!) “bedside manner”. All I can say is that if you’re ever in the market for an orthopedic surgeon in or around Springfield, New Jersey, be careful. It’s a jungle out there!

PS — Other people object to all these televisions. From a doctor:

Welcome to the world of the “captive audience… Take them out. Take them all out. That includes the four flat screens on different channels at the local restaurant. I can’t find a single study that shows any legitimate health benefit to support their presence in a doctor’s office, but I can think of 100 reasons to take them out.

From an educational site for doctors:

An informal survey conducted in a variety of waiting rooms found that the presence of television adds to stress, especially when people believe they are unable to control the volume or programming…. If your waiting room includes a television, consider offering patients options. Rather than exposing them to specific programs at a certain volume, for instance, offer television with closed captioning or hygienic headphones on loan from the waiting room desk.

And keep them out of the damn elevators too!

Young Thoreau on Thinking and Writing

In his journal, Thoreau (age 23) explains why thoughts don’t usually come to us in smooth succession:

…the flow of thought is more like a tidal wave than a prone river, and is the effect of a celestial influence, or sort of ground swell, … each wave rising higher than the former and partially subsiding back on it. But the river flows, because it runs downhill, and descends faster, as it flows more rapidly. The one obeys the earthly attraction, the other the heavenly attraction, The one runs smoothly because it gravitates toward the earth alone, the other irregularly because it gravitates towards the heavens as well [January 22, 1841].

Furthermore, if there are any valuable thoughts expressed in a journal (or in a blog?), they’re most likely hidden amid the clutter, only to be found later: 

Of all strange and unaccountable things this journalizing is the strangest. It will allow nothing to be predicated of it; its good is not good, nor its bad bad. If I make a huge effort to expose my innermost and richest wares to light, my counter seems cluttered with the meanest homemade stuffs; but after months or years I may discover the wealth of India, and whatever rarity is brought overland from Cathay, in that confused heap, and what perhaps seemed a festoon of dried apple or pumpkin will prove a string of Brazilian diamonds, or pearls from Coromandel [January 29, 1841].

Thoreau’s Journal and Modern Equivalents (with Apologies to the French)

Henry Thoreau wrote a lot more than Walden and Civil Disobedience. Among other things, he wrote two million or so words in his journal. Here’s the first entry, dated October 20, 1837, when Thoreau was 20 (the “he” is probably Thoreau’s friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson):

“What are you doing now?” he asked, “Do you keep a journal?” — So I make my first entry to-day. 

A week later, Thoreau described two interlopers at Goose Pond:

Two ducks, of the summer or wood species, which were merrily dabbling in their favorite basin, struck up a retreat on my approach, and seemed disposed to take French leave, paddling off with swan-like majesty . They are first-rate swimmers, beating me at a round pace, and – what was to me a new trait in the duck character – dove every minute or two and swam several feet under water, in order to escape our attention. Just before immersion they seemed to give each other a significant nod, and then, as if by a common understanding, ‘t was heels up and head down in the shaking of a duck’s wing. When they reappeared, it was amusing to observe with what a self-satisfied, darn-it-how-benicks-’em air they paddled off to repeat the experiment.

According to the usual sources, a “French leave” is an old expression that means leaving or taking your leave without permission or without an announcement. You just go, like two ducks quietly paddling away from a naturalist or a birthday part; or  like a soldier going A.W.O.L. or even deserting. In some contexts, a “French leave” is a pretty bad thing, which is why the French call it “filer à l’anglaise or “to leave English style”. (By the way, I couldn’t discover what “darn-it-how-benicks-’em” means, or I’d have shared that too.) 

When I picked up my unread copy of The Journal 1837-1861 this afternoon and read those two entries above, I was impressed. Thoreau was a damn good writer, even at the age of 20. Then I asked myself a standard question. Would Thoreau have written a blog instead of a journal if he’d had the opportunity? People do write journals today. Some even write millions of words, despite the modern world’s distractions. But why write a journal instead of a blog? (And why in the world write a blog?)

It seems like the basic difference between journals and blogs is that journals are private and blogs aren’t. In theory, you can write whatever you want in your journal and nobody will be the wiser, at least until you make it public or your grieving family resurrects it. But on a blog, there are restrictions. Usually, anyone with the necessary technology can read your latest post, so you watch what you say. You want to be interesting, but not too interesting.

On the other hand, you can give yourself much more freedom on a blog by writing anonymously or using pseudonyms. But if journals can be made public and blogs can be made private, perhaps ease of access isn’t the fundamental difference between journals and blogs. Maybe the key difference is the intended audience. In writing a journal, you are writing to and for yourself. Someone else might eventually read your journal, but journals are self-directed. Blogs, on the other hand, are other-directed. It’s assumed there is an audience of actual human beings out there. Hence, you write a blog with an audience (you guys) in mind, even though by doing so, you are writing for yourself as well.

On this blog’s “About” page, I used to say that writing is a way to find out what you think. In the case of a blog, however, it’s a way to find out what you think and then share it. Your words could even save the world one day. (Hey, it’s not completely impossible!) As for Thoreau, I think he would have been a blogger, because, despite his time alone in the woods, he wanted us all to live better lives.

But let’s get back to those ducks. You’ve probably noticed that many blogs display a certain statistic. Here on this blog, as of this moment, you the reader are invited to join 313 other followers. The idea behind that statistic, of course, is that a large number of followers demonstrates that a blog is worth following (50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong). What you probably haven’t noticed, however, is that the number of followers (on WordPress blogs anyway) never goes down! At least, this blog’s number has never gone down (jeez, I must be almost as good as Thoreau).

Now, assuming it’s just possible that somebody who decided to follow this blog once upon a time may have lost interest, or that someone who followed this blog only did so in order to tell me about their blog, I should see my number of followers fluctuate. Somebody stops following – the number goes down. Somebody starts following – the number goes up. I’m forced to conclude, therefore, that “join 313 other followers” should really say “join 313 other people who followed this blog for whatever reason and may or may not be following it now, with the emphasis on ‘not'”.

I know that at least five people, well, maybe four people, read this blog regularly, because they tell me so (I prefer to believe them). And there are statistics indicating that other followers visit now and then. But when you think about it, a blog that is only read by its author is basically a journal. A blog with no readers is about as self-directed as one of those fancy notebooks that come with a lock and key.

Despite the impressive statistic, therefore, many “followers” have, yes, taken French leave! They’ve quietly departed, even more quietly than (here they are) those ducks on Goose Pond.