Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Narcissism Epidemic

Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W.Keith Campbell

About twenty years ago in the Chicago suburbs I saw a bumper-sticker that read “Prosperity is My Birthright” and I shuddered. Attitudes have gotten worse since then.

The authors see the same thing, and give it a name: narcissism. They trace its growth and show what has been driving it. They show how it manifests in things I haven’t had the time or the stomach to attend to: “Sweet Sixteen” or “My Beautiful Mommy.” They provide solutions that are of no use whatever unless and until we take a good hard look at ourselves.

Classic narcissism is a mental disorder, of course. The authors describe a kind of “acquired narcissism” (my term, not theirs), which in extreme cases is indistinguishable from the old kind. Unfortunately extreme cases are not hard to find, and they suggest that the machinery of entertainment and education is set to magnify and glamorize narcissism, resulting in even more cases. Even moderate narcissism hurts relationships.

Do narcissists (always about me me me) suffer from low self-esteem? No way: “down deep, narcissists think they are awesome.” So does training in self-esteem help or hurt? It makes things worse.

The authors do not inflict a lot of statistics on the reader, which is in one way unfortunate. The bell curve diagram helps show why shifting the mean can deeply magnify problems on the fringes. And if the problematic extremes are glorified and held up as role models, the feedback shifts the mean more and more.

The authors show connections between inordinate self-regard and the “I want it now” culture of debt, the more and more extreme exhibitionism on Facebook and sexting, and the increasing materialism and superficiality of our culture. I’m not sure the relationships are always directly causal, but they are clearly related.

They studiously avoid commenting on current politicians. I don’t know how they resisted.

Not that long ago, self-admiration was not a core cultural value in the United States. If the 2007 NBC public service announcement saying “everyone is born with their one true love . . . themselves” had been broadcast during an episode of Leave It to Beaver in the 1950’s, viewers would have been baffled and perhaps even disturbed.

Bad philosophy has consequences. Nathaniel Brandon was the prime mover—one might call him the founder—of the self-esteem movement. His mentor and “lover” was Ayn Rand of Objectivism fame.


  • Narcissism is “really high” self esteem. They’re related, but narcissists “don’t brag about how they are the nicest, most thoughtful people in the world, but they do like to point out that they’re winners or they’re hot.”
  • Narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem. Not close.
  • Narcissists really are great/better looking/smarter. They just think they are, and sometimes they snow others.
  • Some narcissism is healthy. Nope.
  • Narcissism is just physical vanity. No, it is also feeling entitled, getting excessively aggressive when insulted, uninterested in emotional closeness, and so on.
  • Narcissism is beneficial in a competitive world. Sometimes in the short term it seems like it, but long term nobody wants to work with you.

Read it.

Science Fiction vs Sleep

The better half went to the sleep clinic for a minor apnea problem, and they suggested she try a machine for a month. It consists of an air pump, humidifier, very long hose, and a face mask contraption. If the mask slips at night it makes quite the whistling noise. The long hose alone would tell me that this is at least a second generation machine: it is long enough to fit the mask and let you get up to turn the light out. This Junior Vader kit is transparent instead of black, and unfortunately does not yet come with a light saber. In a few more weeks we find out if it has been helping.

What’s a video game for?

If the game is single-player, the object is to master all the levels until you have reached the goal, right? Of course, each level is supposed to be fun to play, but you finish them and press on.

But suppose you really like the game at one level, or in one section of Myst.

Both sons like particular regions of Myst-land, and youngest son likes to replay one level in a game he mastered long ago, because he enjoys the scenery and the particular challenges in that section. Is that a little like re-reading a favorite book? A very short book . . .

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

I enjoyed his I, Claudius and Claudius the God, set in first century Rome. I have very little feel for what Byzantium was like, and figured that this would give a flavor of that world, assuming Graves did his homework correctly.

Naturally I can’t swear that Graves’ portrayal of Justinian’s era is accurate—in fact I get the impression that some of Graves’ own skepticism infuses attitudes in the book. But the characters and attitudes are suitably alien, and generally drawn with skill. The usual thumbnail description of the Blues and Greens of Constantinople as chariot team fans brings to mind British soccer hooligans, but the ancient groups as Graves shows them were amalgams of many different divisions: not just sporting. The sporting divisions, in a land without our freedom of speech, gave cover to political and religious partisans as well.

The title character suffers somewhat from his success: he was apparently such a dedicated and able general that not much of his personal life shows—quite possibly because the dedication that made him great demanded so much of it. And had he been less devoted to Rome and his duty he’d undoubtedly have become emperor himself, and not achieved so much on the battlefield—expanding Byzantium’s empire by almost half. The unfortunate side effect of this is to make the character less engrossing than he might otherwise have been—though Graves tries.

Much of the book is set on the field in wartime, and although the ways of ancient armies are sometimes odd—army groups change sides, and the rivalries of other generals sabotage the campaign common to them all(*)—some things are very similar: armies run on money, and training beats numbers.

Justinian is described alternately as nearly a demon and as a superstitious and irresolute man who cannot abide owing favors to anyone. If the details of his handling of the wars and the generals are accurate (and I assume a lot of that info is still available), he was a disastrously bad leader.

If you’re interested in the era, read the book.

(*) OK, maybe that’s not so alien, with the State Department against the CIA against the Army against the White House sorts of things we’ve seen in the past few decades.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Internet Monk

Pray for Michael Spencer and his family. He has entered hospice with terminal cancer. He was for years a pastor and a wise and open blogger writing about the faith and keeping your eyes on Jesus. I never met the man and he doesn't know me from Adam's off ox, but I've learned from him and will miss him.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Lies Have It

Of what possible use is an ephemeral executive order as a guarantee?

Cell phone curiosities

We all know that cell phones run down their batteries in a hurry if you're in a no-signal zone, as they vainly search for signal over and over again.

I recently replaced my failing phone with a new Samsung Propel. I've noticed that it is down to about 2/3 charge in 2 days, and less than half charge in 3.

I took it with me to Switzerland and used a Lebara SIM chip to give me a local phone number. That's a pretty generic setup, for a pre-paid cell plan that doesn't provide a lot of features. It took 4 days to drop to 3/4 charge. I guess all the extra features in the ATT programs eat up CPU even when you're not actively using them.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Travel Trivia

Apparently some other people have had trouble understanding how to use the laundry cards at CERN. You insert the card and an initial charge is withdrawn. After a use you reinsert the card and press R for recuperation ("R" does not mean Run) to retrieve the unused balance from your wash or dry cycle. To wash is about 3.6sf and to dry about 3.6sf, so a load of laundry is apt to run you over $7. I had 10 sf balance on the card when I started, and 8.4 when I was done—so I must have picked up several people's un-recuperated balances. Curious. The balances must have accumulated over several users, since I generally don't get reimbursed more than a franc.

The deicer fluid sprayed out of those phallic hoses at O'Hare airport is pale green. Coming so soon after St Patrick's day I wondered if it was leftover beer.

Everybody (except the business class fliers) was being patted down and had their hand luggage searched before boarding the flight to Chicago from Brussels. Boarding has to start very early...

One of the shows on the in-flight entertainment was something called “Millionaire's Club” about a matchmaking service for the rich—or at any rate an attempt to find compatible ladies for the rich men. The proprietor is a fake tanned, puffed lips and inflated bosom type, which wouldn't inspire me to wonderful confidence in her taste or selection. The show features several rich men and a set of young ladies and follows their selection and interaction. Without sound (I use earplugs—very much cheaper and easier to carry than sound-canceling headphones), I couldn't make out the nuances, but the young ladies all struck me as off somehow—they set off the old bogosity alarm. Sometimes they were overinflated and miniskirted to the current style, and sometimes looked more normal—but none of them acted normally, and all would have left me hunting for the exit. The “Aha” moment came when I remembered that there was a camera crew with the couple—nobody is going to act naturally in that situation. Let's hear it for “reality” on TV.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

You get out what you put in

When landing in Geneva, tired and annoyed and stressed with unmeetable deadlines, I saw the Alps stretching up through the clouds, and they looked like broken teeth gnashing vainly at the sky.

After a minor breakthrough, on a walk alone by a park, Mont Blanc in the haze looked like it was relaxing back into a recliner.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Compare and Contrast

From last year:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President-elect Barack Obama's choice to run the Treasury Department and lead the nation's economic rescue failed to pay $34,000 in taxes from 2001 to 2004, but the last-minute disclosure didn't stop Senate Democrats from moving forward with his nomination.

Timothy Geithner had paid some of the back taxes in 2006 after the IRS sent him a bill. When the Obama transition team discovered he owed even more back taxes, Geithner paid those additional taxes days before Obama announced his choice in November, according to materials released by the Senate Finance Committee considering his nomination.

From this year:

Sacramento Bee, IRS Visits Sacramento Carwash in Pursuit of 4 Cents:

It was every businessperson's nightmare. Arriving at Harv's Metro Car Wash in midtown Wednesday afternoon were two dark-suited IRS agents demanding payment of delinquent taxes. "They were deadly serious, very aggressive, very condescending," says Harv's owner, Aaron Zeff.

The really odd part of this: The letter that was hand-delivered to Zeff's on-site manager showed the amount of money owed to the feds was ... 4 cents. Inexplicably, penalties and taxes accruing on the debt – stemming from the 2006 tax year – were listed as \$202.31, leaving Harv's with an obligation of \$202.35.

Zeff, who also owns local parking lots and is the president of the Midtown Business Association, finds the situation a bit comical. "It's hilarious," he says, "that two people hopped in a car and came down here for just 4 cents. I think (the IRS) may have a problem with priorities."

You may have heard about this sort of thing before


Someone at the Times is generating curious iconography for Obama. Halos have been popular for a while, but this is new to me. From the New York Times: is the White House at the foot of the cross or of Obama? His gesture is of a preacher bringing the word of the Lord, though the location and lighting makes him more prominent than the cross.

So far

To build new CSC and RPC chambers for the upgrade, we need a place to build them, and CERN will remodel 904 to handle the two factories. The plan is accused of being gold-plated, though perhaps this is merely the result of a longer-term view that wants the facility to be robust for future use. The remodeling project has had a full boxology for several weeks, and a target completion date said (but not written) to be the end of summer 2010—but no schedule. Fair is fair, I suppose—DOE hasn’t committed to the upgrade, so we have little budget, and there’s a long lead time on getting parts from commercial vendors—so we don’t know when we’ll be building.

The alignment talk did not describe the hardware system use as precisely as I would have wished—left some things out. I’m not sure if this is because I was unclear in my explanation beforehand or if this was his evaluation of the prospects of the system. We missed one deadline already, so maybe, if it was an evaluation, it has some support.

There are 4 event displays: fireworks (new), Iguana (in progress from 98), iSpy, and FROG. The latter has no support, was created by one person and used by a second, and sounds familiar. Foster’s DF display for CDF was originally a one-man project, used simple methods and avoided carrying around a lot of event information. Iguana and iSpy are integrated into the CMS framework, and there are calls to integrate Fireworks too. I tried Iguana, though it was probably not a fair test since I was running it on another system to display on my workstation—it was a dog, with response time in the dirt.

The magnetic field is not simple (not as bad as Atlas’, though), and it would be nice to be able to pick a particle track and follow it. What did the particle see as it moved? This wouldn’t help analysis much, but it would be a good thing to show students. Maybe we could fiddle with Fireworks to do it.

Ah, the things you discover at the plenary meeting. We hit the beampipe, and shoved it up by 60mm! Nothing broke, but the checking that followed messed up the Link alignment disk. There were also some large movements in the last few amps of the magnet ramp—the HF jumped. Also a vacuum pump broke apart at some point, luckily not breaking the vacuum—possibly a fringe magnetic field is making the turbo-pumps fail. I am, of course, asleep on my feet, and haven’t had lunch yet. So is it better to snore with your head on a pillow or fallen forward in a plate?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Ok, that was truly weird. Eyestrain from staring at a monitor all day is one thing, but when I got up and walked down the hall suddenly my eyes "crossed" for double vision. Dizziness, yes. Numbness or paralysis, no. Lasted less than 2 minutes, and only with both eyes.

Google is not very helpful. Alternately TIA and see to it, a migraine symptom, not a migraine symptom, and only worry if it recurs. Merck has fatigue way up there on the list.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Worship Team Training

For those not aware, a lot of Protestant churches chucked choirs in favor of bands called “worship teams,” consisting of a few vocalists, guitar players, bass players, piano player and drum man—and a sound system. The performers vary somewhat, of course, and there are generally several teams that rotate every few weeks.

At the church we used to go to one of the teams had a leader who'd had extensive musical training, including a class on conducting. He was good—his only flaw being a tendency to sing some passages very loud. I had to keep a finger on the fader for his mike. Luckily his conducting habits signaled what he was about to do, so I could make the adjustment seem natural. He made “body conducting” seem so natural that I came to take it for granted—everybody on his team got their cues just as though there'd been somebody with a baton out front.

Working with a different team at a new church leaves me missing that caliber of training. The lead singers tend not to move around much, so the bass player has to swing around and give the drummer his cues (sort of like marching band practices with conductors at each end of the field?). Recently we had a lead singer who (though she sings far better than I!) tends to drop the final consonants of syllables. That kind of muddiness in direction isn't disastrous if the congregation knows the songs well, but they introduced a new one that week.

The folks are dedicated, practice hard, and worry about details that I cannot distinguish. Rendition A sounded a lot like rendition B—maybe a hair faster, maybe not. Is is reasonable to suggest additional work? Probably. Is it chutzpah to have the suggestion come from somebody who can't tell C-sharp from J-flat?

I have my own ideas how bands are used, but they let me work there anyway...working within the system, so to speak.