The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

The English translation of Houellebecq’s best-known novel was published 20 years ago. It was widely-discussed, even controversial. I can see why.

It’s the story of two French step-brothers, Michel and Bruno, from their school years into adulthood. Michel is brilliant and becomes an important molecular biologist. But he is extremely emotionally detached. Bruno is bullied in school and very self-conscious. He becomes a writer and is mostly concerned with sex.

I’d say the theme of the novel is the decline of the human race. It includes a lot of science and a lot of explicit sex. Michel and Bruno don’t live happily ever after. Neither does humanity. Yet the story ends on what seems to be a positive development. Houellebecq is suggesting that things can only get better from here.

Learning to Deal with the Modern World (you know, the www)

Many years ago I created a Yahoo email account with an alias. I thought that was the wise thing to do in order to protect my privacy (as I said, it was many years ago). I still use it for junk email. For example, I give it to websites that don’t seem to deserve a lasting relationship.

Last week, I tried to look at the account and couldn’t. I was sure I had the correct password but Yahoo didn’t agree.

Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me reset my password using any of the standard online methods. The reason given was that they thought my account might have been “compromised”.  Hence, I was told to contact Yahoo Customer Care.

Unfortunately again, the only contact information they provide is a phone number. If you have some time to kill, you can call it yourself (it’s 1-800-318-0612). The first recording you hear is the usual one about “heavy call volume”, but it goes on to say that the volume is so heavy that they may not be able to answer your call. Ever, I guess. 

If you choose to wait, you hear the usual announcements, including one that suggests that if you’re having a password problem, you might visit, where you’ll be able to fix the problem and get on with your life. Being an optimist, I tried that, thinking it might be a special password handling page. The end result, of course, was that they told me to call 1-800-318-0612 (the “we may not be able to answer your call” number). This is the kind of thing you could do to a rat if you were a really mean psychologist and wanted to drive it crazy. 

What Yahoo means by “not being able to answer your call” is that after a while, if you haven’t hung up already, they hang up on you. 

But today I was invited to leave my phone number so they could call me back. They said there were 289 calls in front of me, but the average wait time was only 20 minutes and they’d keep my place in line. Since I’ve used the call-back feature with other companies and found it to be relatively pleasant, I gave it a try.

Unfortunately yet again, four hours passed and they didn’t call. I was beginning to think that Yahoo doesn’t really care about “Customer Care”.

Then I did what I should have done earlier: use Google (not Yahoo?) to search for “Yahoo email password problem”. It turns out they’ve had a few. But among the sad stories was a link to the famous Get Human site. Yet something else I should have done before! Why didn’t I remember to use Get Human?

Among Get Human’s helpful suggestions was to contact Yahoo via Facebook or Twitter. This is an option that hadn’t occurred to me at all. First, I went to Facebook. Although I didn’t try to get in touch with them that way, I did read some of the emotional messages people have left on Yahoo’s page. “I can’t get access to Yahoo email and we use it for our business and you don’t have an email address and never answer the phone!” and “I would use some other email but hundreds of sites already have my Yahoo address!” and “You should rot in hell!” (or words to that effect). One person even made the ultimate complaint: “Yahoo’s customer service is even worse than Comcast’s!”.

I then visited Twitter. Easily locating the official Yahoo Mail Team page (@yahoomail), I quickly fired off my own (brief) cry for help, being polite but not supplying any personal details, since I didn’t know where my tweet would appear.

Well, it was quite a surprise when someone on the Yahoo Mail Team responded within the hour. They sent a very nice message, inviting me to visit a certain link that would allow me to submit an incident report to their technical support group. Which I did.

Whether I ever hear from Yahoo or not, this experience wasn’t a total waste of time. First, I reminded myself to try Get Human as soon as things go bad this way. Second, I learned that big companies like Yahoo apparently pay more attention to the relative few who contact them by Facebook or Twitter than the hundreds of poor souls who call them up and then sit on hold listening to lame music, “Your call is very important to us” and, in Yahoo’s case, the occasional “Yahoo-oo-oo!” rebel yell. 

Lastly, I was reminded that our dependence on these massive companies for so much leaves us vulnerable. You can get an email address in a minute or two without spending a dime, build much of your life around it, and then have it disappear with no warning and for no apparent reason. Or keep lots of stuff on your hard drive or in the cloud and have that be “compromised” or become suddenly unavailable. People are working on better internet security methods, but there’s still a lot to be said for storing stuff the old-fashioned way, like on paper, and also for keeping your eggs in more than one basket.

Update: Ok, they sent an email with a temporary password to my main Yahoo account. I clicked on the link and tried to create a new password. They didn’t like it because they said it was too similar to my account name. In fact, it wasn’t similar at all, except for sharing a few letters of the alphabet that were arranged differently. So I get past that hurdle and create a new password and then discover that I’ve now changed the password for my main account, not the account I was having trouble with. So I logged off that account and went to the troubled account and repeated the process, starting with the temporary password. That was easy. 

I’m OK, But I’ve Got My Doubts About You

“Sapient” means “wise or knowing”. That’s why Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, called our species “Homo sapiens“. In fact, we’re all members of the sub-species “Homo sapiens sapiens“. We must be really smart (given the competition).

On a less optimistic note, however, studies show that our species suffers from various cognitive impairments. For example, there is “motivated reasoning”: our emotions often affect the conclusions we reach. The existence of the “backfire effect” is especially counter-intuitive: when our deepest beliefs are confronted by contrary evidence, our deepest beliefs can become even stronger. It’s a cognitive defense mechanism frequently on display at family gatherings and in the House of Representatives.

Once we accept the widespread irrationality of Homo sapiens sapiens, it’s much easier to understand why certain politicians say such crazy things. They aren’t necessarily lying. Too often, they actually believe what they’re saying.

Yesterday, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas criticized the agreement to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling: “Unfortunately, once again, it appears the Washington establishment is refusing to listen to the American people”. The Senator may really believe that most of America was enjoying the shutdown and looking forward to the government running out of money. Public opinion polls indicating that most of us weren’t happy about it at all must be non-existent or seriously flawed.

Somehow it’s comforting to know that our political opponents aren’t lying bastards. They’re merely irrational, like so many of our species.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that all of us are equally irrational. Some people are more in need of cognitive defense mechanisms because they feel more threatened by what’s going on in the world. If you strongly prefer how things were back in the 19th century, when we didn’t have things like an income tax or child labor laws, you’ll have a lot of mental defending to do. Having that black guy in the White House clearly bothers a lot of people, who conclude that he must be the Antichrist or at least working for Al Qaeda. The Affordable Care Act scares the hell out of some people who think the government is becoming too powerful, so they hold on to the idea that death panels will soon be deciding who should live or die.

Of course, you might point out that many of us feel threatened by the radical Republicans among us. So maybe we are being irrational about them?

That’s possible, but it’s not what the evidence shows. Those people really are crazy! It’s just that their behavior is more common than some of us (the optimists among us?) would like to think.

For more on the backfire effect and whether journalists can do anything about it, here’s an article in the Columbia Journalism Review: