An existential dilemma?

Imagine something bad happens in your life. In fact, imagine that it is the worst thing that has happened to you so far.

Now you can think about this event, and respond to it, in two basic ways. Two ways which both offer something, but which also each extract a price. They contradict each other, so that you can’t hold both perspectives at the same time.

The first way of thinking about things is to rationalise. To get a sense of perspective. To say to yourself “It could have been worse”. Now this is essentially looking at your life from the outside and evaluating the meaning of things in a wider context. “I’m still alive”, you say. You look at the news and are grateful. “I could have just had boiling engine oil squirted over my face” or “At least my entire family haven’t been killed in a brutal and senseless tribal war”. This can work – you realise that compared to the sufferings of the rest of humanity, and compared to those sufferings you could potentially undergo, your trials are minor. They do not mean as much as you feel they do, you realise, and so you can feel more phlegmatic about them. And then you look at the whole of your life, and you judge it on the same scale, and you realise that to look at your life from the outside derives it of meaning. Not just this event, but all events in my life are minor. My sufferings, and my joys and my achievements do not count for ought on this cosmis scale. I win, I lose, I live, I die. So what. Your life becomes so trivial in its significance that it is effectively meaningless. This is depressing.

So you come to realise that the only way your life can have meaning is to evaluate it from the inside. To say “Yes, there are billions of lives like mine, billions that might be more important in the grand sense, but only this one is mine. Only I stand on this spot, only I can do the things I am uniquely positioned to do, and only I can feel the wind on my cheeks and turn my closed eyes to the morning sunlight, here at this moment. Only I can experience myself and so I must regard my life – I must value my life – in terms which are defined from the inside, on the scale of my own experience”. But now you have changed your perspective to give back meaning to your life, you are assulted by the disaster that started you thinking on this track in the first place. If you give meaning to events according to your experience, you may have the feeling of meaning in your life, but the events in your life mean you are sad. They are the worst thing(s) that have ever happened to you, remember. This is depressing.

But maybe you have a suspicion – or someone offers some sage advice – so you try and get a sense of perspective, but then you are back again to draining your life of meaning entirely. You revolve between the two point of view. Meaning and suffering, suffering from meaninglessness. You twirl and spin, exhausting yourself.

Now this paradox works however trivial a disaster has beset your life. Perhaps my goldfish dies. I loved my goldfish, and until he died my life was uninterrupted joy. Now this event has blackened my existence and I try and make sense of my pain. Obviously, compared to being locked in a cellar for the first fourteen years of my life, seeing daylight only when my abusive father comes into the room to beat me, the goldfish thing isn’t that important. Realising this I feel better. Then I realise that my so far pampered existence is equally trivial. I am sad. And so it goes on.

Disclaimer: I am fine. My family, including my father (non-abusive), are fine. My goldfish (non-existent) is fine. The worst thing that has happened to me today is that I have come to work wearing a t-shirt which has a wine-stain on it.


Nothing I Can Lose

Nothing I Can Lose

When I left my father’s house
the sun was halfway up,
my father held it to my chin
like a buttercup.

My father was a snake-oil man
a wizard, trickster, liar,
but this was his best trick,
we kissed goodbye in fire.

A mile above Niagara Falls
a dove gave me the news
of his death. I didn’t miss a step,
there’s nothing I can lose.

Tomorrow I’ll invent a trick
I do not know tonight,
the wind, the pole will tell me what
and the friendly blinding light.

– Leonard Cohen



From a brilliant Zoe William’s essay on irony from 2003

Our age has not so much redefined irony, as focused on just one of its aspects. Irony has been manipulated to echo postmodernism. The postmodern, in art, architecture, literature, film, all that, is exclusively self-referential – its core implication is that art is used up, so it constantly recycles and quotes itself. Its entirely self-conscious stance precludes sincerity, sentiment, emoting of any kind, and thus has to rule out the existence of ultimate truth or moral certainty. Irony, in this context, is not there to lance a boil of duplicity, but rather to undermine sincerity altogether, to beggar the mere possibility of a meaningful moral position. In this sense it is, indeed, indivisible from cynicism. This isn’t to say that “truth-seeking” irony has evaporated – many creative forms still use irony to highlight the sheer, grinding horror of pursuits or points of view that are considered “normal” (like The Office, for instance; and much of American literature is masterfully good at employing irony with a purpose – to choose at random, Pastoralia, by George Saunders, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, anything by Philip Roth, The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen).

But other strands of media use irony to assert their right to have no position whatsoever. So, you take a cover of FHM, with tits on the front – and it’s ironic because it appears to be saying “women are objects”, yet of course it isn’t saying that, because we’re in a postfeminist age. But nor is it saying “women aren’t objects”, because that would be dated, over-sincere, mawkish even. So, it’s effectively saying “women are neither objects, nor non-objects – and here are some tits!” Scary Movie 2, Dumb And Dumberer, posh women who go to pole-dancing classes, people who set the video for Big Brother Live, people who have Eurovision Song Contest evenings, Char lie’s Angels (the film, not the TV series) and about a million other things besides, are all using this ludic trope – “I’m not saying what you think I’m saying, but I’m not saying its opposite, either. In fact, I’m not saying anything at all. But I get to keep the tits.

and, later

To know inauthenticity isn’t the same as being authentic. Or even, just because you ironically know you’re wrong doesn’t make you right


links for 24th of March 2006


Quote #142

Like all young men I set out to be a genius, but mercifully laughter intervened

– Lawrence Durrell


Quote #141

We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men

– George Orwell

events politics technical notes

Delocator UK

Mike Dewar has got the Starbucks Delocator UK to beta and the database now needs populating – so if you know of any cool indepedent cafes, get yourself to and add them in.

In case you don’t know about the Delocator family (US, CA), the way it works is this: you put in a post code or a description (e.g. “Sheffield City Centre”) and the Delocator shows you were the indepedent cafes are, so you don’t have to visit starbucks and encourage that pestilence in your city.

Well done mike!

Update 20.3.06: I asked mike if the results could provide an emailable URL and he’s done it. Look – here’s the results for near where I work – how’s that for user-responsive development!


Comments closed

For the foreseeable I have closed comments on this weblog. If you’d like to say something about a post please email me on tom [at] idiolect [dot] org [dot] [uk]. If you put ‘comment’ in the subject line I will update my post with your comment put below. The technical problems caused by comment spam are just too much for me to deal with and I don’t have the time and ability to easily sort things out. I will open the comments again if anyone brings me the corpse of a comment spammer (preferably mutilated)


links for 12th of March 2006

  • India Knight reviews ‘Female chauvinist pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture’ by Ariel Levy
  • How we move ever closer to becoming a totalitarian state (starkly titled Obverser article about The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill which will allow ministers to enact laws without the scrutiny of parliament)
  • God loses faith in Tony Blair
  • Where does cheap stuff come from (Guardian article)
  • ‘it’s clear that much of the lore underlying both modern ninja movies and modern ninja schools has both a long history AND little basis in reality outside the theatre.’
  • ‘I believe there is a dimension where / each one of us can be understood’
  • Jeremy Mercer’s top 10 bookshops
  • a database of independent bookshops compiled by bookworms for bookworms.
  • the straight dope behind the story of native americans working on skyscrapers
  • ADHD and the knowledge economy (New York Times)
  • ‘It is a much-quoted maxim that there are only seven stories. They are, apparently, Orpheus, Achilles, Cinderella, Tristan and Isolde, Circe, Romeo and Juliet, and Faust. All other stories are adaptations of these.’
  • =’The Gift taken Away’, ‘The Fatal Flaw’, ‘Unrecognised virtue’,the love triangle,spider and fly, boy meets girls/boy loses girl, The Debt That Must be Paid’. Plus ‘The Hero Who Cannot Be Kept Down’
  • Categories

    you’ve never seen eyes so blue before

    NICK: I really fancy Ruth, what shall i do?

    TIM: This is what you’ll do.

    You’ll go in to where she works.

    It’ll be a normal day, and you’re sort of testing yourself by looking for an excuse to talk to her. It’s a nothing day in most ways. You’re thinking about some piece of code your writing, or how to improve your bike. It’s just a nothing day

    Then you see her.

    And she sees you. And she walks right up to you and takes you by the shoulders with both hands

    It’s not an affectionate touch, no. It’s a grip. There’s an anger there, and, yes, passion. It’s full of passion

    She looks you in the eyes and you look back and you’ve never seen eyes so blue before. There’s a universe as wide as the sky there, and in the centers spinning stars and planets. Enough vast, empty, space for you to be completely lost

    Before you can speak she says

    “Nick – this is all there is. Me, and you, and now. This is everything. Just us and this moment. And if we can enjoy this moment, really totally live in this moment right now then we’ve won. We’ll be protected for all time against whatever the rest of life can throw at us, because all that life can do is throw more moments at us. And if we can be totally alive in one moment – precisely because it is just one moment, and because though we know it is passing we also know that we can commit ourselves to it fully – if we can do that then we’ll know how to deal with all the other moments that can ever come.

    “Nick”, she’ll say, “i need you to help me suck the juice from life, right now, in this moment”






    the dreaming brain

    From Dreaming and the brain: Toward a cognitive neuroscience of conscious states by J. Allan Hobson, Edward F. Pace-Schott, and Robert Stickgold in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2000), 23: 793-842

    3.1.3. Selective deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in REM sleep.
    Relevant to the cognitive deficits in self-reflective awareness, orientation, and memory during dreaming was the H215O PET finding of significant deactivation, in REM, of a vast area of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (Braun et al. 1997; Maquet et al. 1996). A similar decrease in cerebral blood flow to frontal areas during REM has been noted by Madsen et al. (1991a) using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and by Lovblad et al. (1999) using fMRI. Dorsolateral prefrontal deactivation during REM, however, was not replicated by an FDG PET study (Nofzinger et al. 1997) and this discrepancy, therefore, remains to be clarified by other FDG as well as H215O studies. (A potential cause of this discrepancy arising from differences between FDG and H215O methods is discussed further in sect. Nevertheless, it seems likely that considerable portions of executive and association cortex active in waking may be far less active in REM, leading Braun et al. (1997) to speculate that


    All Marketers are liars

    There’s a video of Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing, talking to folks at google (here). He’s entertaining and interesting for about 30 minutes (“chanel costs 2500 dollars a gallon, you don’t need it, you’re buying the story”) about his theories of marketing and why google is wonderful. His new book is All Marketers are Liars has this scathing review in Publisher’s Weekly (found at amazon)

    Advertising’s fundamental theorem-that perception trumps reality-informs this dubious marketing primer. Journalist and marketing guru Godin, author of Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, contends that, in an age when consumers are motivated by irrational wants instead of objective needs and “there is almost no connection between what is actually there and what we believe,” presenting stolid factual information about a product is a losing strategy. Instead, marketers should tell “great stories” about their products that pander to consumers’ self-regard and worldview. Examples include expensive wine glasses that purport to improve the taste of wine, despite scientific proof to the contrary; Baby Einstein videotapes that are “useless for babies but…satisfy a real desire for their parents”; and organic marketing schemes, which amount to “telling ourselves a complex lie about food, the environment and the safety of our families.” Because consumers prefer fantasy to the truth, the marketer’s duty is to be “authentic” rather than honest, to “live the lie, fully and completely” so that “all the details line up”-that is, to make their falsehoods convincing rather than transparent. Troubled by the cynicism of his own argument, Godin draws a line at deceptions that actually kill people, like marketing infant formula in the Third World, and elaborates a murky distinction between “fibs” that “make the thing itself more effective or enjoyable” and “frauds” that are “solely for the selfish benefit of the marketer.” To illustrate his preferred approach to marketing, the author relates a grab bag of case studies, heavy on emotionally compelling pitches and seamless subliminal impressions. Readers will likely find the book’s practical advice as rudderless as its ethical principles.


    Quote #139

    Because we also are what we have lost

    Amores perros


    Quote #138

    There was an excellent In Our Time on friendship last week. This quote was in the post-show newsletter

    A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.



    the endowment effect & marketing

    The endowment effect is that we value more highly what we already have. It’s a variation on the status quo bias that we talk about in Mind Hacks (Hack #74). This cognitive bias is of particular interest to economists, because it has implications for how eonomies work. If it is strongly in effect then people will trade less than is required to bring about the optimal resource allocation that free market’s are theoretically capable of. The most famous demonstration of the endowment effect directly addresses the operation of the endowment effect in a market trading situation [1] – showing that even though preferences for a small arbitrary item (a coffee mug) are randomly distributed, if you give half of the group one and allow them to trade less trading happens than you would predict. In other words more people want to hold on to their mug now they’ve got one, than people without a mug want to get hold of one. The preferences of the group have been realigned according to initial resource distribution.

    This is all relevant to marketing, as well as economics of course. You can see why car-salespeople are keen for you to take a test-drive before you purchase, or why shops are happy to offer a money-back-with-no-questions-asked option. You figure the money-back option into your cost-benefit calculation about whether to take something home, but once you’ve got it home your preferences realign – that item is now “yours”, so you’re far less likely to take it back to the shop, even if it doesn’t turn out to be as good as you thought when you bought it.

    Refs and Links:

    [1] Kahneman, D., J.L. Knetsch and R.H. Thaler (1990). Experimental Tests of the Endowment Effect and the Coase Theorem. Journal of Political Economy. link
    Wikipedia: The Endowment effect: : link
    Experienced traders can overcome the endowment effect : Economist article
    References at

    [Cross-posted at]


    who do you trust

    This seems important, although not very cheerful

    On January 23, Edelman released survey findings that shows (in the U.S.) trust in


    5th of March 2006 links


    Quote #137

    Alas! what are you, my written and my painted thoughts! Not long ago you were young and malicious and full of thorns and secret spices- you made me sneeze and laugh- and now? You have doffed your novelty, and some of you, I fear, are ready to become truths, so immortal do they look, so tediously honest! And was it ever otherwise? What then do we write and paint, we mandarins with Chinese brush? Alas, only that which is about to fade and lose its scent! Alas, only birds exhausted by flight, which let themselves be caught with our hand! We immortalise things exhausted and mellow! And it is only for your afternoon, my written and painted thoughts, for which alone I have many colours; but nobody will divine how you looked in your morning, you sudden sparks and marvels of my solitude, you, my old, beloved- wicked thoughts!

    Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

    advertising links

    A quick and miscellaneous list of advertising links

    Metafiler: “Why do companies advertise?”
    Stayfree’s media literacy curriculum
    Vaughan on does some smackdown on neuromarketing
    Guardian special report on loyalty cards
    A brief guide to the concept of ‘priming’

    Three from the BPS research digest:
    When sex doesn’t sell (either because it distracts or provokes negative associations)
    Experimental confirmation that music affects the power of (political adverts)
    looking for the best option, rather than a good enough option can make you unhappy

    Pledgebank: art not ads

    Icarus Diving on my decoding advertisements post

    Experienced traders seem to overcome the endowement effect (a common cogntiive bias)


    authors attack Reed Elsevier over arms fairs

    BBC News story: Authors make book fair protest

    Authors including Will Self and Ian McEwan have protested against the organisers of the London Book Fair being involved in the arms trade.
    In a letter published in The Times Literary Supplement, the writers called for Reed Exhibitions to stop holding arms fairs around the world.

    We are appalled that our trade should be commercially connected to one which exacerbates insecurity and repression, and which props up regimes inimical to free expression,” stated the letter.


    Consciousness exists to make itself unnecessary

    While we’re thinking about the nature of free conscious choice, this is extremely relevant. John Bargh, in this chapter – Bypassing the Will: Towards Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behavior [1] – takes evidence from several different subdisciplines and argues that consciousness – that thing which gives us our experience of deliberate control – exists exactly to make automatic, ‘unwilled’, behaviours possible.

    Bargh talks about cases where the individual


    Does advertising erode free will

    Ah…now here’s the nub of the argument: advertisements erode free will, they are manipulations designed to subvert conscious judgement (I paraphrase Clay Shirky at Shirky mentions one particular judgement bias, that of super-sizing, but the general form of bias should be familiar to anyone who has been reading Mind Hacks, and/or my recent posts about avertising (like this one). Quoting Shirky

    Consider the phenomenon of ‘super-sizing’, where a restaurant patron is offered the chance to increase the portion size of their meal for some small amount of money. This presents a curious problem for the concept of free will


    Quote #136

    I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.

    Jack Kerouac (attrib.)