I mentioned yesterday that Jacques Barzun’s distinction between problems and difficulties has been an important one for me. But it took a long stretch of practicing the distinction before I saw the genius at the heart of it—problems call for changes in the external environment to reduce or eliminate the challenge, while difficulties call for adjustments in how one deals with the challenge, which may or may not change objectively as a result.

Twenty-five years ago I developed Reiter’s syndrome, an odd form of rheumatoid arthritis which is triggered suddenly and can disappear just as suddenly, but has no known cure. Initially the effects were pretty bad—I could barely walk 100 yards, climb a staircase, or hold my newborn son. I was diagnosed and put on a combination of methotrexate (a chemotherapy drug!) and massive doses of ibuprophen, which got the pain and swelling under control but by no means eliminated it.

Soon after the diagnosis and initial treatment we relocated to the Austin area, and I found a rheumatologist there. He checked me over, ran down all the possible treatments (gold injections, surgery, …), and asked me if I wanted to pursue any. I asked him in turn: what would you choose to do? He said that since the chances of improvement were small and the risks of making things worse were significant, as long as he could stand the pain he’d leave things alone. Excellent honest advice, which I took.

What I noticed over the next ten years was that although my condition didn’t improve, by constantly working to accept it my attitude towards it did. The pain and swelling, and the limits it put on me, became the new normal. The difficulty eventually became a non-difficulty. So much so that it took me awhile to notice that the pain was ebbing. Something inspired me to eliminate the methotrexate, and then gradually cut back the ibuprophen to nothing. I still have pain and limitations, but due to the joint damage which the arthritis did—the arthritis itself is gone.

I like the idea of the new normal. It reminds me of a point Scott Adams made in his book about failing one’s way to success: goals are for losers. Literally. If you set yourself a goal, the only end states are winning and losing—usually losing. Adams suggests adopting systems instead of goals, and by systems he means a methodical approach to a situation. In which case (he claims) you always experience improvement: your approach helps you to handle the situation better, or you tweak the approach until it does, or you decide it won’t and abandon it after having learned something important.

This is a secular engineer’s version of what I think is the path to shalom, as defined by Cornelius Plantinga:

In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

May the shalom of Christ be with you!


I know I took new philosophical and theological studies off the table, but the work of René Girard barely made it under the wire—I first looked at it about a year ago—and if I was going to relax my determination for anyone it would be Girard. (Oh, and Ivan Illich … how many exceptions am I allowed again?)

This FAQ gives a very quick overview of Girard’s mimetic theory. By itself it isn’t enough to fully convey what Girard is getting at, but if you’ve already had your own suspicions about the phenomena which Girard explains the FAQ may inspire you to explore his thought further.

Problems vs difficulties

A month ago I thought I would be returning to regular writing on this blog, but then life intervened. It may still happen, but in the meantime here’s an email to a friend that is worth sharing.

Thanks for this. I thought the video was very good, as well as the website describing their Time Well Spent project. And the practices they recommend sound good to me, though I can’t give first hand testimony (except for ad blocking, a critical tool!) since I don’t have a cell phone.

I also like the idea of a “hippocratic oath” for designers, with caveats–I can’t imagine that companies will embrace the idea unless they see profits in it … but that could happen if people want it. And promoting the idea will increase people’s awareness of the possibility.

There’s a touch of historical ignorance at work here. Technology broadly defined has presented us with similar challenges for hundreds of years, which we’ve mostly failed to meet (or even recognize). Looking more deeply at some of those, e.g. the rise of the advertising model since it was invented in 1830 or so, would add some important perspective.

The proposed response reminds me of a distinction I first ran across in Jacques Barzun, one that has become a credo for me. Here’s a description (from someone writing about Barzun) that’s worth quoting at length (boldface is mine):

There is, however, a philosophical–even an existential–component to Barzun’s writings.  “The purpose I gradually fashioned took the form of a resolve to fight the mechanical,” by which he means any ossified system of beliefs and the behaviors based on them. Our great mistake, according to Barzun, is that we try to affect mechanically what is actually a condition–the human one: “The supposition is that what we face is a problem to be solved; and it is a foolish supposition. Human affairs rarely contain problems with solutions. They contain predicaments and difficulty, which is a very different thing.” And because life “overflows ideologies and coercive systems” and makes everything possible (including ideologies and coercive systems), he views our span on earth not as something to engineer to our advantage, but as a natural state whose unpredictability we must adapt to.

That’s an important two-kinds-of-people distinction for me: some folks think that life presents us only with problems to be solved–“just tell me what to do”–while others (a few, anyway) see the great majority of challenges as difficulties to be addressed on an ongoing basis. Here’s how Barzun put it:

A problem is a definable difficulty; it falls within certain limits and the right answer gets rid of it. But the difficulty–not the problem–the difficulty of making a living, finding a mate, keeping a friend who has a jealous, cantankerous disposition cannot be dealt with in the same way–it has no solution. It calls for endless improvisation, some would say “creativity”.

I thought about that when I read this answer in the Time Well Spent FAQ:

We don’t need more apps or technology, but we need to change the fundamental design for how devices orchestrate the interactions between us and the things that want our attention. Today the Attention Economy is like a city with lots of pollution and accidents. We don’t fix the city by telling residents to leave (turn devices off). We also don’t fix the city by extending the same structure of the city that led to the problems. We fix the cityby adding bike lanes, blinker signals and crosswalks to restructure people’s interactions so there’s less pollution and fewer accidents. We can do that with Time Well Spent.

I think the assumption here (a very common one) is that when difficulties exist in the environment, our job is to eliminate the difficulties rather than equip the inhabitants to deal with them. When they say “We don’t fix the city by telling residents to leave”, they locate the work to be done in the environment, not the inhabitants. As long as we adopt that attitude, we leave people prey to difficulties that are not solvable–which is most of them.


51sqvxnwhhlCartoonist Scott Adams (Dilbert) has a unique take on, well, just about everything. I’m reading his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, which articulates some things I’ve suspected and taught me some new ones.

Adams’s approach in this book may itself be unique—at least I don’t think I’ve encountered it before. What he does quite deliberately is to lay out his thinking about life together with the events in his own life which led to that thinking. The result is a sort of intellectual memoir, but of an everyday practical sort—as he says, kind of the story of his life, but only the parts which ground his outlook.

One anecdote he tells I just love. It happened during a Dale Carnegie public speaking course:

Eventually someone volunteered, and then another. Our speaking assignment was something simple. I think we simply had to say something about ourselves. For most people, including me, this was a relatively easy task. But for many in the class it was nearly impossible.

One young lady who had been forced by her employer to take the class was so frightened that she literally couldn’t form words. In the cool, air-conditioned room, beads of sweat ran from her forehead down to her chin and dropped onto the carpet. The audience watched in shared pain as she battled her own demons and tried to form words. A few words came out, just barely, and she returned to her seat defeated, humiliated, broken.

Then an interesting thing happened. I rank it as one of the most fascinating things I have ever witnessed. The instructor went to the front and looked at the broken student. The room was dead silent. I’ll always remember his words. He said, “Wow. That was brave.”

My brain spun in my head. Twenty-some students had been thinking this woman had just crashed and burned in the most dramatically humiliating way. She had clearly thought the same thing. In four words, the instructor had completely reinterpreted the situation. Every one of us knew the instructor was right. We had just witnessed an extraordinary act of personal bravery, the likes of which one rarely sees. That was the takeaway. Period.

I’m with Adams. I wouldn’t have seen it that way. And I’m glad for the young lady, and for the lesson it teaches me, that the instructor had been trained to see more deeply than me into such a situation.

Talking to children

It’s been a long, long time since I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds all the way through. But last year while visiting my dad I watched about half of it on Turner Movie Classics (great channel!)—something came up, and I never got back to it.

It’s a good movie, but what struck me this time around is a snippet of dialog that is not really connected to the story, except maybe to throw a bit of light on Lydia (Mitch’s mom, who is none too thrilled about the budding relationship between Melanie and Mitch).

I’m not this way, you know. Not
usually. I don’t fuss and fret over
my children.
When Frank died…
You see, he knew the children, he
really knew them. He had the knack
of being able to enter into their
world, of becoming a part of them.

That’s a rare talent.


I wish I could be that way.

Maybe I don’t get out enough, but I’ve never seen that mentioned as a desirable parenting skill. And yet I’d say it’s at the core of how I relate to children, my own and anyone else’s. I don’t think I developed it until I had kids of my own—no opportunity to exercise it, really.

But since then I’ve learned to have long, respectful conversations with children of any age. Once I was working the sound system at a church, and after the service the pastor told me that he had come over to tell me something, then come back a few minutes later, then come back later a third time—and finally given up because while I was setting up I was also chatting with a seven-year-old whose father was out of town for the week. I was able to enter into her world enough to have a substantial conversation about what was going on in her life at the moment. It didn’t strike me as unusual, but it seemed very unusual to him (in a good way).

Put down that Flaming Sword of Righteousness!

I have a very short list of writers I treasure for their common sense. (These folks also write in a spare, flowing, lucid, and generally delightful way that I admire—I think there’s a connection.) I expect I’ll cite them often in the months to come, basing my own thoughts on things they’ve written.

Megan McArdle is one of them. I began reading her pieces in The Atlantic, and followed her when she moved to Bloomberg News. She writes about economics from a libertarian viewpoint, but never lets theory get in the way of practical, sensible thinking. And she is fearless about drawing illustrations from everyday life, so much so that they often interest me more than the political or economic topics she applies them to.

In a recent piece about political divisions and how to heal them, she began with this:

Shortly before I got married, I received a piece of sterling advice that I have been mulling a lot over the last year: “You have a big decision to make: Do you want to be married, or do you want to be right?”

Even a good marriage offers a lot of opportunities for grievance. Suddenly, you cannot make any major decision without consulting this other person — who will, inconveniently, often have very different ideas from yours about where to live, what to spend the money on, how to raise the children, and whether to turn the basement into a home theater space or a library. (The correct answer, for those who are wondering, is “library.”)

Although I grant that this leads solidly into her main topic, the illustration is way more interesting to me than political divisions. Marriage may be where we first confront this dilemma, but it really encompasses all relationships in a life—in the case of conflict what should be more important to us, peace or victory?

If you spend your marriage trying to ensure that everything is always rigorously fair and just, and grabbing the flaming sword of righteousness every time some minor wrong is done to you, you may soon find that you spend more time fighting than you would have picking up their towels or going into the other room to watch a movie because your spouse is in a bad mood. Or you may find that you have a peaceful, clean house that’s exactly as you want it — because you’re living there alone.

I can’t say when the shift began for me, but by now there is hardly any situation where I will insist on getting my way, or that someone else meet my standards. Which isn’t to say that I never steer things in a preferred direction, but only after due consideration of the needs and wishes of others. And I am always on the lookout for potential conflict, and will concede just about anything to avoid it.

A related point I’ve lately been trying to convey to my kids: too often we only bring fairness and justice to bear when it will gain us something. That is, I never hear “That’s not fair!” from the person who got the better part of the deal. Which is also why I’m reluctant to resolve any such conflict between kids with “fairness”. There’s a real temptation to dole out justice as a means of exercising power, making it clear that the household must be run according to my standards—something that itself could do more damage than the wrong I am supposedly righting.

One final observation: where McArdle writes “… do you want to be right?” I can only read it as “… do you want to win?” I’ve found it very helpful to remember that being right doesn’t require that anyone acknowledge I am right. And it is often more gracious and loving to yield to someone else’s notion—it’s rare that following any path forward, however suboptimal, will do more damage than wielding the flaming sword of righteousness against it.

The year ahead: 2017

After nearly a year of not writing regularly on this blog, I’ve decided I miss the exercise. I had vaguely hoped that not writing in public would spur me on to write in private, but it never happened. And recently I was reminded by some old blog posts that the steady practice yielded major benefits—I think more clearly now than then, and learned to convey those thoughts more clearly and directly. So I want to return to that frame of mind somehow. And I suppose that gives me my word for 2017: write!

Am I allowed more words? I’ll claim them anyway. The grandest one, lurking in the background and coloring all the rest, is mortality. I don’t know that I gave it much thought until I turned 60, but since then it has loomed ever larger, taking its place in my word pantheon alongside humility. In fact I suspect it was my long obsession with humility that enabled me to confront my mortality, even to begin getting comfortable with it—at least to move on from study to submission, getting on with the job of pulling together the threads of my story into some coherent whole. And so prune will be another word for 2017, looking at my too-scattered interests and whittling away those that won’t play a part in bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. Goodbye, theology! So long, philosophy! Studying you has been helpful, but rather than seeking out new knowledge I now need to take what I’ve already learned and practice it.

This year I won’t chart an elaborate plan as I did in 2016. It was a useful exercise then, but isn’t a comfortable fit right now. I’ll just note that my practical efforts will center on my health, physical and mental and spiritual. I will also be devoting much of my spare time to getting back into programming, in part to teach my kids how to do it, but also to prepare myself for (maybe) doing pro bono work when I retire in seven years. Those projects likely won’t yield much to write about, so I’ll need to lower the bar a bit when selecting topics. What I write will be lighter fare than in days past, but I’ll try to keep it helpful and at least mildly entertaining.