To Empathize Or Not

There’s an interesting line in Netflix’s new Bernie Madoff docudrama trailer. Something to the effect that, for Madoff, being a serial liar was much easier to accept than ever admitting to being a failure.

Probably holds for George Santos too. But if serial lying is a mental illness of sorts, why isn’t our response more empathetic? Imagine disliking yourself so much that you work nonstop to create a new/imaginary/inflated self. How exhausting. How sad.

Consequently, I could definitely be empathetic towards private people dealing with personal demons of that sort. Making up stuff about your private self, such as I’m a single-digit handicap in golf, is a victimless crime. Everything changes though when serial liars go public and ask people to invest in their Ponzi scheme, say an election was rigged, or con people into voting for them in national elections.

If you’re going to steal people’s money, undermine democracy, or deny constituents competent representation, don’t expect empathy. Expect vitriol.

Santos should be tarred, feathered, and forced to resign.

Salinger Documentary (2013)

A bevy of blockbuster movies are premiering, but I recommend an under the radar mindbuster. Salinger is an intriguing meditation on literary genius, fame, privacy, and mental illness.

About midway through the lengthy documentary, I became convinced that Salinger was mentally ill. The filmmakers convincingly argue that his WWII military service had an indelible impact on his psyche and his writing. If he knew what the first 48 hours on the ground would have been like, June 6-7, 1944, I wonder if he would have volunteered. He was fortunate to survive the first two days. 

Salinger’s was not a dangerous or violent mental illness. The truth be told, no one is “normal”, most of us suffer from mental abnormalities or quirks of some sort. Salinger’s imaginary characters and families took precedence over his living, breathing family and friends. He only harmed people who competed with his imaginary characters for his attention. When they interfered too much, he banished them from his life.

One form our mental illness takes is thinking accomplished artists or athletes owe us more than their art or public performances. Oddly, more and more people are following public figures on Twitter. Receiving tweets directly from celebrities seemingly deludes people into thinking they’re in some sort of relationship with them. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, many people so identified with Holden Caulfied they felt entitled to know everything possible about his creator. Sometimes to the point where they’d drive to rural New Hampshire and knock on Salinger’s door.

Maybe because people are so desperate for notoriety, they’re offended when someone like Salinger consciously rejects fame. Salinger practiced Zen Buddhism for many years and became an adherent of religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna and Vedanta Hinduism. Fame was another intolerable distraction from the imaginary, literary world he greatly preferred.

How should we live with present and future Salingers, single-minded geniuses whose work isn’t just the most important thing in their life, but the only thing? By leaving them mostly alone to write, to compose music, to draw, to sculpt, to fulfill their specific life purpose.

One additional thought. It was fortunate that Salinger never needed to teach writing at a University because he never could have controlled his affinity for women decades younger than him. He would have kept a few university attorneys employed all by himself.

Young People and Anxiety

Recent research suggests that as many as 1 in 6 young people will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives, this means that up to 5 people in a typical 30 person class may be living with anxiety, whether that be OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), social anxiety and shyness, exam stress, worry or panic attacks.

That’s borrowed from this excellent overview on young people and anxiety.

And carve out eight minutes to watch this moving and educational documentary about a rookie professional basketball player who suffers from an anxiety disorder.

Innovations That Will Change Your Tomorrow

I acknowledge it’s odd, but despite being a late adaptor of technology, I’m an amateur futurist, by which I mean I like to read real futurists. As a result, I found the New York Times Magazine’s 32 innovations that will “change your tomorrow,” interesting reading.

A subset of the 32 will accelerate automation making it even more challenging to create enough jobs that pay livable wages. The people working in the labs creating the innovations will of course be well compensated. The people cleaning the labs at night not so much. There will be fewer middle class jobs that pay something less than scientists and more than janitors.

I’ve evaluated all 32 innovations for you and identified the five most promising and the one most ridiculous. Of course my choices reflect my subjectivity.

The five most noteworthy in increasing order of promise.

14. THE SHUT-UP GUN. By Catherine Rampell. When you aim the SpeechJammer at someone, it records that person’s voice and plays it back to him with a delay of a few hundred milliseconds. This seems to gum up the brain’s cognitive processes — a phenomenon known as delayed auditory feedback — and can painlessly render the person unable to speak. Kazutaka Kurihara, one of the SpeechJammer’s creators, sees it as a tool to prevent loudmouths from overtaking meetings and public forums, and he’d like to miniaturize his invention so that it can be built into cellphones. “It’s different from conventional weapons such as samurai swords,” Kurihara says. “We hope it will build a more peaceful world.” Years away: 2-4. [The promise of this innovation leaves me speechless.]

The 28. MICHELIN-STAR TV DINNERS. By Michael Ruhlman. Frozen food may soon be on par with anything you can get at a three-star restaurant. Sous vide — a process in which food is heated over a very long period in a low-temperature water bath — has been used in high-end restaurants for more than a decade. (Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud were early proponents.) But the once-rarefied technique is becoming mass market. Cuisine Solutions, the company that pioneered sous vide (Keller hired it to train his chefs), now supplies food to grocery stores and the U.S. military. Your local Costco or Wegmans may sell perfectly cooked sous vide lamb shanks, osso buco or turkey roulade. Unlike most meals in the freezer aisle, sous vide food can be reheated in a pot of boiling water and still taste as if it were just prepared. And because sous vide makes it almost impossible to overcook food, it’s perfect for the home cook. Fortunately, sous vide machines are becoming more affordable. “It’s like the microwave was 30 years ago,” Keller says. Years away: 0-2. [I love that I can’t screw up the Osso Buco, whatever that is. Hope for the culinary challenged like myself.]

24. SLEEP MINING. By Howie Kahn. Wearing a small sensor on your head, at home, while you sleep, could be the key to diagnosing diseases early and assessing overall health. “This tech,” says Dr. Philip Low, the founder of a medical technology firm called NeuroVigil, “enables us to look for faint signals of, say, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, depression or Alzheimer’s in the brain, even though there may be no obvious symptoms.” Thus far, Low’s device has found a number of applications: evaluating children with autism, studying the efficacy of trial-phase drugs and assessing traumatic brain injury in soldiers. Currently, Low is working on a newer version of the device, which will be the size of a quarter and will transmit brain scans directly to smartphones and tablet computers. “We’re using sleep,” Low says, “as the gateway to the brain.” Years away: 0-2. [This one and the next are the most substantive, but some may not want to know that their future includes a debilitating illness.]

25. A BLOOD TEST FOR DEPRESSION. By Elizabeth Weil. This year, Eva Redei, a professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, published a paper that identified molecules in the blood that correlated to major depression in a small group of teenagers. Ridge Diagnostics has also started to roll out a test analyzing 10 biomarkers linked to depression in adults. “Part of the reason there’s a stigma for mental illness, including depression, is that people think it’s only in their heads,” Redei says. “As long as there’s no measurable, objective sign, we’re going to stay in that mind-set of ‘Just snap out of it.’ ” Blood tests will take mental illness out of the squishy realm of feelings. And as Lonna Williams, C.E.O. of Ridge Diagnostics, says, they’ll help people understand “it’s not their fault.” Years away: 4+. 

6. THE CONGESTION KILLER. By Tom Vanderbilt. Traffic jams can form out of the simplest things. One driver gets too close to another and has to brake, as does the driver behind, as does the driver behind him — pretty soon, the first driver has sent a stop-and-go shock wave down the highway. One driving-simulator study found that nearly half the time one vehicle passed another, the lead vehicle had a faster average speed. All this leads to highway turbulence, which is why many traffic modelers see adaptive cruise control (A.C.C.) — which automatically maintains a set distance behind a car and the vehicle in front of it — as the key to congestion relief. Simulations have found that if some 20 percent of vehicles on a highway were equipped with advanced A.C.C., certain jams could be avoided simply through harmonizing speeds and smoothing driver reactions. One study shows that even a highway that is running at peak capacity has only 4.5 percent of its surface area occupied. More sophisticated adaptive cruse control systems could presumably fit more cars on the road. Years away: 0-2. [Why is this innovation deemed even more promising than the two previous ones? Because freeway traffic is slowly killing me.] 

And the most ridiculous innovation that someone offered up when the editor sent out an email titled “Come on people, stuck on 31, have to have a 32nd.”

3. ANALYTICAL UNDIES. By Gretchen Reynolds. Your spandex can now subtly nag you to work out. A Finnish company, Myontec, recently began marketing underwear embedded with electromyographic sensors that tell you how hard you’re working your quadriceps, hamstring and gluteus muscles. It then sends that data to a computer for analysis. Although the skintight shorts are being marketed to athletes and coaches, they could be useful for the deskbound. The hope, according to Arto Pesola, who is working on an advanced version of the sensors, is that when you see data telling you just how inert you really are, you’ll be inspired to lead a less sedentary life. Years away: 0-2. [Imagine the convo. Dude! You look great. Have you started working out or something? Yeah, thanks. It wasn’t until I started pouring over my undie data before bed each night that I realized I’d become a sedentary sad sack.]