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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Back in the Woods Again, Part II

Cutest FOOT!

As this is Part II, you may want to refer to Part I to compare some of these. My top photograph here, for instance, is a single track in the same trail as the two prints I called the "dearest" in Part I. This one is dear, too, don't you think?

The animal double-registers, i.e., steps in its own tracks.

Another hopper--this one obvious, eh?

Remember the foot-dragger? Here is the length of stride.

Little underground trail revealed

Back down the hill
All in all, this was one of my most exciting and satisfying days in the woods ever. And then it was back down the hill and back home to inspect photographs more closely and open my tracking book for another kind of excitement. Life is good! It's good to be back on my feet and back outdoors again.

Back in the Woods--At Last! Part I

Up the hill we follow the tracks
What with one thing and another (David's cold, my sprained ankle, my cold) it’s been weeks since I’ve been up the hill. Finally came a sunny day when I felt well enough to tackle it. Sarah has been ready all along--no need to ask her twice!

Another pair of strollers had been on the slope before Sarah and I arrived on Monday afternoon. Those are the tracks we saw on our way up the hill.

So who else has been in the woods lately? I’m not confident enough to claim to identify in a public forum the tracks I saw, even the easy ones, but here is a sampling from one exciting expedition, and let me say that the traffic patterns in the snow were incredible—armies of mice, volumes of voles, squadrons of squirrels, rabbits and birds everywhere, and maybe? Maybe? Maybe a bobcat, and maybe a woodchuck? What do you think?

Can you say "foot drag"?

Hopping, hopping, hopping

This busy intersection blew me away!

These, I thought, were the dearest tracks....
End of Part I. I'm stopping here because I seem to have reached my photo limit for one post, due to not having resized as I usually do....

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Saturday's Most Stately Visitor

She's quite a lady
This is Sadie, a 10-1/2-year-old Great Dane. If only I'd had camera in hand when she sauntered over to the cases holding new books and raised her head to inspect them, looking back and forth as if scanning the titles--now that would have been a picture!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

February Fun in Northport

Friday morning coming into town
Snow! How can there be fun in February without snow? In Northern Michigan there hasn't been much we could do about it this year, so most locals were relieved when the snow arrived on Friday, in time for the weekend.

Nothing goes together like kids and a sled

Looking north on Mill Street from Tom's Market

That's because today, Saturday, the main action will be north of town, where Winter Carnival will be taking place at Braman Hill from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Go north on Mill Street and turn left at the corner where you see North End Restaurant. Go up past the Old Mill Pond B&B. Look for the cars!

Forced forsythioa
As for me, I will be indoors at my bookstore, as usual, for anyone who gets too cold or too tired or just can't resist a quiet, sunny bookstore afternoon. Each of us has a role to fill in the community, and I chose mine nineteen years ago. Dog Ears Books is where you'll find me, even on a winter day.

Tonight? You want evening fun? The Garage Bar & Grill on Waukazoo Street has arranged for that! Beginning at 9 p.m., two bands will be playing in a specially constructed warm area, with tables cleared out of the restaurant to make room for dancing.

George is getting ready

Space under transformation
By tonight the drafts will be all sewed up, and the fun can begin. It's the first gig for the Droogs, so tonight will give new meaning to the term "garage band." Absolutely Nothing--that's the name of the other band--will be the pros on the bill.

And there! I have done my part, composing online (which I don't usually do), not proof-reading, not going for the fancy capitals at the beginning of paragraphs, all to get the word out that today is the day for fun in Northport!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Oddness of a Small Italian Coincidence

Up, up from the Inferno and through the Purgatorio we climb with Dante, our fearless tiny band of readers, and as we climb I realize more and more the aspects of this work that speak most clearly and compellingly to me. They are not the long inventive passages, the pictures conjured out of the poet’s imagination. No, those I labor through, like one lost in a dark wood, but from time to time I fall upon a sunlit clearing where fresh breezes play.
Even as sheep that move, first one, then two,
then three, out of the fold—the others also
stand, eyes and muzzles lowered, timidly;
and what the first sheep does, the others do,
and if it halts, they huddle close behind, 
simple and quiet and not knowing why....
Do you see them, the simple sheep? What about these gamblers?
When dicing’s done and players separate, 
the loser’s left alone, disconsolate— 
rehearsing what he’d thrown away, he sadly learns; 
all of the crowd surrounds the one who won....
Whenever Dante describes something of this world, our world, it rings familiar and true to me, though I am no more a sheep farmer or shepherd than I am a gambler. The parts of the Purgatorio that mean the most to me are not otherworldly at all but this-worldly, as when in the Inferno he recalled a busy shipyard or used the analogy of Italian rivers to drive home the point of his vision. So too when in Canto VI of the former he apostrophizes his native land--
Ah, abject Italy, you inn of sorrows,
you ship without a helmsman in harsh seas,
no queen of provinces but of bordellos!
--it is his native land on earth that grieves his spirit, just as Wordworth poured out his sorrow in “” when he wrote--
MILTON! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart; 
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way, 
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart 
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
Harsh seas or stagnant marshes, both poets turn to nature—earthly nature—to express their desperate feelings for their governments and the politics of their times, and however little we know of the details of those periods we have a sharp sense of the writers’ discontent and longing from the figures of speech they use, for nature is nature from one century to the next.

The small coincidence came yesterday, when David picked up some magazines left behind to be picked up by anyone who wanted them in the lobby of our public library. One of them that caught my eye on the table last night after dinner was the September 2011 issue of Harper’s, its cover promising something on Dante within! Opening eagerly, I turned to a piece by Elif Batuman, the story of her participation in a “Danta Marathon” in Florence in the spring of 2009. As I read, I was wondering if this would be something to take to our group meeting on March 1, something to share with the other toilers through Dante’s three-tired afterworld, but then, near the end, the writer turned on its head what has been written by a couple of famous Dante interpreters:
For both Luk√°cs and Auerback, meaning and truth in Dante’s world reside in the afterlife, where figurae are fulfilled and totalities formed. Mortan existence is, by contrast, incomplete, illusory, secondary. But I think the opposite can be said, with equal accuracy: it’s the afterlife that is a tissue of illusions. Dante’s afterworld may be highly structured, but he invented that structure himself, synthesizing classical mythology, Christian theology, and medieval demonology. Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes—it’s Dante’s afterworld, based in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life—all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?
Batuman’s view is not at all a denial of Dante’s poetry. She simply points out that what gives the poem life springs from this world and are ever part of it.


I used to think it was a shame that my own beautiful part of the world is not better known, its lovely corners and vistas not as famous as those of the Italian hills or the English lake country or even the states on the American Eastern seaboard. In my view, northern Michigan lacks nothing in a comparison of beauties. What is absent here are the associations: We have no centuries of battles, no lives of world-famous, no buildings dating back centuries. But if we did? Would life be better for those of us who live here?

Now I've changed my mind, and it isn't resignation. I am thankful for the historical and literary obscurity of my home ground. In the woods I may come upon an old rock that looks to me like a grindstone from pre-European times, or a former small clearing now filling in with young trees may reveal, among the weeds, an old iron tractor wheel, and those signs of earlier lives are quite enough. They are quiet signs. No stone fortresses on hills, no rivers running with blood or fields littered with ghosts of fallen bodies. Just woods and orchards, seeps and creeks, people now as then quietly going about keeping themselves and their families alive. We have stories here, but they are stories of ordinary people.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How Much (Snow, Winter) Is Enough?

Shouldn't we have had more days like this? And deeper snow?

It’s no secret that northern Michigan has had a surprisingly small amount of snowfall this winter, and that, like everything else in life, is a double-edged sword. For farmers, winter sports enthusiasts, businesses that depend on snow, and for much of nature, too little snow means bad sledding. For other animals and other human endeavors, life is easier with bare ground. But easy or hard, we get what we get, and we have to make do with it.

There’s a certain irony at work here Up North when it comes to winter books this year. We went into the fall with a new book from Jerry Dennis, The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes, memoir essays that had us all smiling in anticipation of cold and snow, looking forward to it for a change, despite the certainty of heat bills and icy roads. Then—where was winter? Have we had it? Are we having it?

Winter would be the perfect time to read a new adult novel that’s been getting a lot of press this season, The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, and perfect as well for a new children’s book, Under the Snow, by Melissa Stewart and illustrated by Constance R. Bergum, a delightful look into some of the winter worlds of nature hidden from our surface view.

Fortunately, as readers we are readily “carried away” by books, with or without pictures, and if there is not enough snow outside the doors of our houses there can still be blizzards in our imaginations. That is the magic of reading!

Still, I was fighting disappointment on the outdoor front until  I discovered Tracking and the Art of Seeing, by nature photographer Paul Rezendes. The book is now available in a revised edition, pictured here; all quotes are from my older copy.

Any guesses or ideas?

I have a hunch!
Does a close-up help?
The countryside where I live, you see, is occupied by all manner of wildlife. Their tracks in the snow have set me puzzling and wondering for years, but field guides on tracks and scat didn’t seem to take me very far; also, like field guides to rocks and minerals, those little books on tracks, irresistible and indispensable as they are, always left me wanting more. Then I found Rezendes.
Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal. It is an educational process, like learning how to read. In fact, it is learning how to read. Following the animal’s trail may bring you closer to the animal physically, but, more important, it brings you closer to it in perception. The longer you follow the animal, the deeper you enter into a perceptual relationship with its life.... 
You will also know yourself better. That is another kind of survival knowledge. The more intimate we become with other lives, the more aware we are of how those lives connect with and affect our own. There may be only a few obvious connections at first—two animals in the same woods, hearing the same sounds, smelling the same smells—but as we track the animal farther, we find that its trail is our own trail. As it moves, it affects its surroundings. What changes the animal changes its environment, and thus changes us. There is no separation; its fate is our fate. We are tracking ourselves.... 
So, lots of snow, lots of tracks, but--no or little snow.... Sigh! --But wait! There is much more to the “art of seeing” than merely following tracks, and that in itself is a whole course of study.
We don’t need tracks to track an animal. For much of the year, the forest is far richer in sign than it is in tracks. Sometimes there are no tracks at all, but there is never a square yard in the forest that does not tell us something about the wildlife within it. The forest is speaking to us all the time.... Ultimately, tracking an animal makes us sensitive to it—a bond is formed, an intimacy develops. We begin to realize that what is happening to the animals and to the planet is actually happening to us. We are all one....
Piles of scat or droppings. Sawdust at the base of a tree. Scratched bark, broken branches, nibbled bids and twigs. A track is the imprint of an animal’s foot on the ground, a trail the line of tracks left behind. Sign is everything else—everything that tells that an animal was here, what animal it was, what it was doing. “For much of the year, the forest is far richer in sign than it is in tracks.” I take heart in that sentence. I think of the squirrel tracks at the edge of Claudia’s woods and remember the broken acorns littered in the same area. During a thaw, the signs of the squirrels’ feeding will still be there.

Learning to read the signs, Rezendes believes, is still, in the 21st century, a matter of life and death. It is the difference between knowing ourselves in nature and falsely assuming that we can live apart from it. As one of my customers (who is also a friend, as is so often the case) agreed after he'd had Tracking and the Art of Seeing at home for a while after purchasing it at Dog Ears, this is a book for the Up North Lifetime Library. --What else would go in that library? There's a fruitful topic for another day.

As for tracking, once again, it is all about being present and paying attention, which to me is also giving thanks for life and the world.

Postscript February 25: 

Since this post has been up, I've looked at more tracks, talked to more people, and have received e-mails with guesses and suggestions. Amy-Lynn Bell from Nova Scotia thought the track and trail above looked like that of a fox, and today two friends whose yards are frequently visited by foxes concurred. At left is a photograph from this (Saturday) morning, and below is the shot that clinched it as far as my friends Deborah Ebbers and Susan Cordes were concerned. Fox feet are cat-sized, but no domestic cat or skunk has legs long enough to leave this kind of trail, they agreed. Along with lessons in tracking, I am receiving lessons in humility--from life, not from my friends, who are very kind when instructing me.

Friday, February 17, 2012

I Was “Laid Up” a While, But Now I’m Back

First there was a twisted ankle that kept me off my feet as much as possible, also keeping me indoors. Sigh! Then there was the "technical difficulty" (failure to recharge) necessitating a total of three round trips to Traverse City. Good parts of all this bad stuff were getting more reading done, writing several letters and notes to friends, and having meals cooked and served to me, but I missed time outdoors with Sarah and my virtual connections. And photographs! Taking, reviewing, posting! So I have a lot of catching up to do.

This morning I got new posts up on “A Shot in the Light” and “Home Ground,” my photo and outdoor nature meditation blogs, respectively. Sarah’s cuteness (in case anyone missed it) served here on “Books in Northport.” She is more than filler, after all: she is, for many, the heart and soul of my bookstore, and certainly she is my constant companion here, as everywhere else. But what direction to take now as I get back into the groove? Maybe a partial review of what people are ordering these days at Dog Ears Books? Sure, why not?

Looking at my recent special order lists for new books, I see that they fall into a few unsurprising categories: fiction; food/health; and history/politics.

Under the fiction heading, here are some of the titles requested by customers since the first of the year: Betraya;, The Tenderness of Wolves; Dead Man’s Brother; and The Tiger’s Wife. In the food and health category, representative titles include Weightwatchers’ One Pot Cookbook; The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook; Healing Spices; and The Patient’s Checklist.  Among requested historical and political titles were In the Garden of the Beasts; The World America Made; and What It Is Like to Go to War.

A few people have ordered children’s books, including Extra Yarn and Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which was so charming that I put another copy on my next order to have on hand for someone else. I also ordered both hardcover and paperback 50th anniversary edition copies of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Oh, and then there are the nature and nature drawing books I’ve written about before and ordered for store stock, hoping others will be enchanted by some of the same things that enchant me. And last but not least, by any means, let me mention the book I have presently in my new “Highlight” feature in the right-hand column, The Heirloom Life Gardener, by Jane and Emilee Gettle, cofounders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. It’s food, it’s farming, it’s nature, it’s gardening! Sections on individual vegetables feature, besides growing advice, seed-saving tips and how this vegetable fits into meals. It’s a book and pursuit for the rest of your life! That’s how I feel about it, anyway.

Now, since I’ve made that smooth segue from books to gardening, let me close today’s post with more of the wisdom of Wendell Berry:
...In a healthy community, people will be richer in their neighbors, in neighborhood, in the health and pleasure of neighborhood, than in their bank accounts. It is better, therefore, even if the cost is greater, to buy near at hand than to buy at a distance. It is better to buy from a small, privately owned local store than from a chain store. It is better to buy a good product than a bad one. Don’t buy anything you don’t need. Do as much as you can for yourself. If you cannot do something for yourself, see if you have a neighbor who can do it for you. Do everything you can to see that your money stays as long as possible in your local community. If you have money to invest, try to invest it locally, both to help the local community and to keep from helping the larger economy that is destroying local communities....
 -      Well Berry, “Conservation Is Good Work” (1991)
We still have a local school and preschool in Northport. We have a hardware store and grocery store, a post office, bank, library, several churches, and many, many other businesses and services. Soon spring will be here, with the return of our local farm market, a sign both of dedicated new growers and a responsive local public. We are so, so fortunate! Becoming and remaining fortunate is in our hands to a greater extent than we sometimes think!

This message comes to you from your local neighborhood bookstore!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Puzzling a Dog

David thought we should get Sarah to pose at the jigsaw puzzle table.

Puzzlers at the Super Bowl Escape Party got two of the six puzzles put together. Would Sarah be able to make any progress on a third?

She is a willing little poseuse, notre charmante cherie!

That's it, girl! You're starting to get the idea!

Sarah will probably need a bit more help, so stop by Dog Ears Books soon during our winter hours, 11-3, Wednesday through Saturday. There are still more puzzles to be put together.

And Charles Dickens? Yes, we have him, too--and much more besides!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Who Wants to Read About Habermas?

Sorry, I can’t help it, even though I know from experience how my readership plummets whenever philosophy shows its stern face. But it’s part of my life, and part of who I am, and that’s that. You are forewarned! Actually--please give this a chance, because my conclusion is that philosophy should be part of everyone's lives, and if it isn't, it's philosophy's fault. There--conclusion first, now back to the beginning.

Recently one of my old graduate school friends made a reference on Facebook to a Habermas essay, “An Awareness of What Is Missing.” The essay begins with a reflection on a friend’s memorial service, held in a church but with no religious expression—no prayers, no blessing, no liturgy--so the first natural interpretation of the title is that religious content is what’s missing from a memorial service. But this is Habermas, and he has another point to make, more distant and complicated. His concern is not with funerals but with the chasm between science and religion.

Across this chasm, he notes, as have many of us, there is little communication or respect. Tolerance, or the politically guaranteed freedom of noncoercion that we enjoy in the West, is an insufficient support for meaningful dialogue, and thus freedom itself lacks solidarity. In a different tradition of discourse, one might identify the lack of solidarity as the contradiction to be resolved if freedom is to survive.

Habermas says explicitly that “what is missing” is a common normative foundation shared by both science and religion. A positive foundation? (Noncoercion is negative, an absence.) A substantive foundation? What would it look like? What would be involved?

Here are the moves I see in the brief essay:

(1)      It is not enough for the liberal state to be neutral (noncoercive) toward science and religion.
(2)      Legal protection of different views is not enough.
(3)      The legitimacy of the liberal state itself demands normative foundations justifiable by various world-views within a pluralistic society, from within those world-views.
(4)      Both religion and science, therefore, must “open up” to recognition, for reasons of their own, to equal freedom for the other.
(5)      Neither religion nor science should be claiming an exclusive rational or revelatory perspective.

As far as I can see, that does not answer but brings us back to the question of what normative foundation the liberal state can and should provide as common ground for opposing points of view. The essay hints at a Kantian solution, with each participant acknowledging the equality and rationality of every other.

The very large question is important, as is, for many of us, the small, original question of how to pay recognition to the ending of an individual life. And yet—I am so unsatisfied with the essay. When philosophy (much poetry condemns itself to the same fate and in the same way) sidelines itself, relegates itself to academic-only arenas, what contribution does it make to the rest of the world? Very little that I can see.

I am not asking for a “dumbing-down” of the conversation, but I don’t see any reason why it cannot be conducted in ordinary language, either. Rene Descartes, David Hume, and Henri Bergson (Bergson in the 20th century!) spoke to everyone, not simply to lecture halls of academics. (Bergson spoke in lecture halls, but when he lectured the hall was crammed to overflowing with non-academic crowds.) For me, this is what is missing. What is missing is language that speaks directly and comprehensibly so that nonphilosophers will listen and read and feel welcome in the conversation. When philosophy sits on its academic “high horse,” neither theologians nor scientists, neither people of faith nor atheists give it two seconds’ attention.

Is it any wonder that the most vibrant philosophical activity these days is taking place in the intersection of ethics, economics, and psychology? Writers at that intersection speak to us where we live.

Not long ago—perhaps in the New Yorker—I read an article about women on opposite sides of the legality of abortion question coming together in an exchange of views and a search for mutual understanding. As I recall the story, the women quickly put aside epithets when they met face to face. Speaking together, they came to respect one another. A fascinating outcome of the conversations was that very few of them changed their opinions: most, in fact, were more firmly convinced after the encounter of their original positions. Organizers, however, regarded the entire event as a success, since the aim was not to win converts to one side or the other but to find understanding and common ground. It seems...that the common ground the women discovered was mutual respect and humanity.

So might it be that mutual respect is an outcome of conversation rather than a necessary condition for the beginning of conversation? Or is neither a “beginning”? Perhaps, like thought and language, the two co-evolve?

If anyone has read to the end of this post, I would be delighted to have partners in this conversation. And please note that today's offering has not been proof-read for error. My battery recharging problem was not solved by a new power unit....

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dickens--Zing! Kahneman--Zing!! Winter--Zing!!!

1. Where the Dickens Did We Get That Phrase?

Cute as the dickens” describes my dog Sarah pretty well. But why do we say that?

What the dickens--?” (my mother's phrase) is obviously a way of asking “What the devil?” without mentioning the devil, but again—why?

These questions never occurred to me until this year’s big Charles Dickens birthday started a tsunami of smart-aleck headlines. Bruce found one of them and brought it to the bookstore to use for a display. (SORRY--no pictures today--technical difficulties!)

So how did this popular author’s name come to be substituted for one so very, very unpopular? If you already know the answer, go to the head of the glass. (Steve, that will probably be you.) It had nothing to do with Charles and something (I hesitate to say “everything,” because who knows?) to do with Shakespeare. And, knowing him, don't you suppose he borrowed it from somewhere else? Be that as it may, February 7 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

2. I Was of Two Minds

This is embarrassing, but if Daniel Kahneman can confess errors in his thinking, who am I to sweep mine under the rug? The morning after my most recent post, I looked back at it and saw with a shock that I had introduced egregious errors into the story of business failure rates. I correctly reported Kahneman’s 35% success statistic, but then in my commentary somehow converted that to a 35% failure rate, effectively cutting the statistical failures in half! It was as if, at the same time I was passing on figures showing that two-thirds of new businesses fail in the first five years, I couldn’t quite believe it and softened the bad news, reinterpreting and misinterpreting, unconsciously, the very clear data, making it look as if only a third (which seemed like a lot to me) failed in that period. Having introduced one error, I went on to compound it in another sentence. It’s fixed now. I think I’ve eliminated the errors. But please check me.

Okay, bad enough, but that isn’t the whole story. Yesterday I got an e-mail from my sister, asking for clarification in the post previous to the one I’d found errors in, and—sure enough!—I’d done something similar there. In my discussion of regression to the mean, I had both golfers doing better on the second day! It should have been only the golfer who did poorly the first day who did better the second, the one who did well the first day doing less well the second day. Again, I think my unconscious mind did not want to accept the statistical truth and was rejecting regression to the mean! Unconsciously I was perfectly willing to see improvement in the one golfer’s game but was not willing to see deterioration in the score of the other. I wanted to think he was “better” than that, not merely lucky on the first day.

When I found my mistakes on business failure rates, my first inclination was to berate myself for making errors in simple math (percentages and subtraction). I should never try to breeze through numbers, I told myself, and should always proof-read such material several times over. Numbers are my nemesis! Then my sister pointed out the other error, and it was like a lightning bolt. My problem wasn’t math! My problem was that the statistical evidence is so counter-intuitive that even when I believed it and wanted to tell others about it, I didn’t want to accept it fully myself!  No wonder these errors are so persistent!

Kahneman says of himself that while he is very aware of certain common errors in statistical thinking, it will never be “natural” to him to see the correct version first, that he will always have to be vigilant and correct his original thinking. So I sigh, make my corrections, and tell myself that I’m in good company....

3. Winter, Having Neglected Us Recently, Makes Another Appearance

At least, that’s what the forecast says. Already temperatures have dropped. Will we really get three days of snow? And what then? Cold and snow make winter more expensive (heat, plow) and more hazardous (slippery roads and sidewalks), but in the bigger picture we need the cold and snow cover. Without snow’s mulching effect, the ground would freeze too far down. Without cold, trees would bud out too early.

To every thing, there is a season, and snow and cold serve purposes both of nature and man here Up North. It's snowing and blowing like the dickens up here today!

Apology: If you need to contact me in the next few days, try phone instead of e-mail. Yes, more of those pesky technical difficulties to be addressed....

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Are Some of Us Just Plain Crazy?

Reality can be cold!
Have you ever dreamed of opening your own little bookshop? How about a restaurant or even a small coffee house? How would you rate your chances of success?

This is only one of many, many fascinating topics in Daniel Kahneman’s new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. (Here is a synopsis by Jason Gots.) Time and time again, his research demonstrates that human beings do not make decisions by accurately assessing probabilities or even forecasting with reliability their own future satisfactions. Instead, we decide on courses of action and choose among alternatives with unwarranted confidence in our own judgment. Going into new projects, we overestimate our own abilities and skills and underestimate those of others. We have little idea what gives us a day-to-day sense of well-being. Our minds take the easy way out, retrieving easily available information and leaping to hasty conclusions; even in reflective mode, what Kahneman calls the “System 2” mind is generally only analyzing what the impulsive, get-‘er’done “System 1” mind came up with in the first place.

Let’s take just one of those weaknesses in our reasoning, overconfidence, and apply it to the business of business.
The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. A survey found that American entrepreneurs tend to believe they are in a promising ine of business: their average estimate of the chances of success for “any business like yours” was 60% -- almost double the true value. The bias was more glaring when people assessed the odds of their own venture. Fully 81% of the entrepreneurs put their personal odds of success at 7 out of 10 or higher, and 33% said their chance of failing was zero [my emphasis added].
A third of the entrepreneurs said they could not fail, despite the fact that over two-thirds of the group will fail! Here it may be tempting to think that the failures were all in the two-thirds who admitted that failure was a possibility, but statistics do not bear this out. A very real advantage of optimism, on the other hand, is that an entrepreneur can survive repeated failure, always believing that he or she will be successful the next time around!

The 65% failure rate within five years is given for small businesses in general. What is the failure rate for independent bookstores? For restaurants (another dream business), 60% are out of business after only three years, and yet new restaurants open much oftener than new bookstores, a triumph of hope over—something! (Experience--that's the word I couldn't think of yesterday.)

Is overconfidence alone at work here? Kahneman says there is more to this failure of objective reasoning than emotion, that cognitive biases are at work, too. We focus on our own goals and plans, ignoring the base rate of success (he calls this the “planning fallacy”); focus on what we ourselves want to and can do, “ignoring the plans and skills of others”; think more about skill than about luck, so that we have the “illusion of control”; and, finally, we are overconfident because we focus on what we know and don’t take into account what we don’t know.

One of the charming traits of Daniel Kahneman as a writer and as a psychologist is that he is more than willing to tell stories on himself to make his points. Leading a group on a long-term education project in Israel, he began to wonder how long it had taken other groups to achieve their goals. (The goal was a textbook in the field.) His group thought they could complete their work in two to three years, but when Kahneman asked how other groups had fared, he was told that similar groups, when they had completed their work at all, had taken from seven to ten years. So what happened? His group stayed at their project without altering their time estimate. They took eight years to complete their project, which was never used.

For years, Kahneman says, when he told this story he was the hero, the only one who had thought to ask the question about other groups’ results. It took him a long time to see that he had failed in his leadership role, because having the facts changed no one’s beliefs, and the facts were not incorporated into the plan. “We should have quit that day,” he says now. Everyone on the project, he says, was taking the “inside” view, biased in their group’s favor; the “outside” view that showed a very different picture was ignored. All group members, including the leader, had the information, and all failed to process it.

Of course there is more to life than applying statistical algorithms, and the latter chapters of Kahneman’s book discuss happiness research: what makes people happy vs. what they think will make them happy, the surprising effects of the tiniest piece of luck (e.g., finding a mere dime planted by the researchers!) on mood and outlook, and how much our day-t0-day sense of well-being depends on where we focus our attention. How much money people need to be happy--barring poverty that makes every other crisis more difficult and dims ordinary pleasures—depends on individuals’ financial goals and how important money is to them, but even then, beyond a certain point (he says $75,000) happiness does not increase with income.

How much of any person’s day is spent in pleasurable, rewarding activities? How much time must be spent handling annoyances or crises? Are the surroundings harmonious or stimulating, confining or irritating? Much is in the eye of the beholder, but certain factors detract from anyone’s happiness—loud noise, pain and depression.

In one of Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey, the unlikely heroine (for so the author describes her) remarks that she has “learnt to love a daffodil,” and the hero’s response (I paraphrase) is that “It is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible.” The latest psychological findings support Henry’s view.

Kahneman denies that his research shows human beings to be “irrational.” All that it shows, in his opinion, is that there is more to us than machine-like computation. That old model of “rational man” was pure invention, and now that we’re getting closer to reality and learning who we really are, we can also learn to make better choices and decisions.

I don’t know any bookseller who went into the business expecting to become rich. Everyone knows that bookstores close every day and that “bigness” is no guarantee of success. I’ve been lucky. Dog Ears Books, now in its nineteenth year, has beaten the odds. I’ve been happy, too, and continue to be so. Even during the quiet days of winter in a little summer resort town, I am surrounded by books. I am in a little world of my own designing. I am my own boss. My dog comes to work with me. Reading and writing are part of the job description I give myself! And whatever the future brings, I have had this life for almost nineteen years!

Crazy? Irrational? Do you think so?

Spring will come again to Northport

Monday, February 6, 2012

Christianity and Cruelty

Yes, that’s a contentious headline for today’s post, but what I have to say may surprise anyone looking for an indictment of religion, this or any other. Read on. Agree or disagree? Let me know.

This is Black History Month. If I ever read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, it was a long time ago, so that’s the book I chose to begin in this first week of February. It is not pleasant reading: Douglass tells stories of life under slavery that rival the horrors of 20th-century concentration camps. It’s hard to say what the “worst” of these horrors might have been, but the author singles out religious slave-owners as the cruelest:
In August, 1832, my master attended as Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county [Maryland], and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.  – Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
When young Frederick’s ownership passes out of the family following several owners’ deaths, and when after that he is released from bondage to a cruel “breaker” of slaves, he eventually comes to “the best master I ever had, till I became my own master,” a certain Mr. Freeland.
Another advantage I gained in my new master was, he made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion; and this, in my opinion, was truly a great advantage. I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most appalling barbarity – a sanctifier for the most hateful frauds – and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholding find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me.
This apparent indictment of religion comes from the first-hand experience of one born into slavery, who knew various masters, and who did not escape to freedom until his 21st year. 

Is religion then to be cited as a cause of cruelty, a logical rationale for slavery, just as many indict it as a cause of war? I have written about religion and war on another occasion, so anyone who knows me or has read this blog will not be surprised by my position, which is that while certain teachings may, under the guise of religion, help rationalize slavery or war, religion itself, Christianity or any other, does not provide the initial idea or impulse. If it did, how to explain the Abolitionist movement in the North, predominantly inspired by religion, “professing that slaveholding was incompatible with Christian piety”?
How to explain the deep faith felt by Frederick Douglass himself?

In order to make my case, I must briefly leave the slave narrative and even the issue of slavery in American history and turn to a field of current research that will at first seem far removed from my main subject. The research field is that of reasoning and statistics and how our intuitions lead us into hasty conclusions we are persuaded to abandon only rarely and reluctantly. The book laying out this story (less dramatic from one point of view but relevant to every single living human being) is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).

Let’s start with Kahneman’s statement that our minds prefer causal explanations to statistically more accurate explanations. In a golf tournament, for example, a player who does well on Day 1 will generally not do as well on Day 2, whereas a player who performed badly on Day 1 will generally improve on Day 2. Statistically, this is explained by a law called “regression to the mean,” a law of demonstrated predictive value that runs so counter to our intuitions that we invariably prefer to “explain” the deterioration or improvement with causal stories. During one Winter Olympics, Kahneman writes,
I was startled to hear the sportscaster’s comments while athletes were preparing for their second jump: “Norway had a great first jump; he will be tense, hoping to protect his lead and will probably do worse” or “Sweden had a bad first jump and he knows he has nothing to lose and will be relaxed, which should help him to do better.” The commentator had obviously detected regression to the mean and had invented a causal story for which there was no evidence.
The less evidence we have for a prediction, Kahneman instructs us, the more we need to realize the bias of our expectation that the future will replicate the past, and the more we need to moderate predictions by allowing for regression to the mean.

The business of predicting sports outcomes seems very far, I realize, from any story about religion and cruelty, so I need another piece from the statistician’s bag of tricks, namely that the more extreme a case, the greater likelihood of regression to the mean. Kahneman makes up a news story, “Depressed children treated with an energy drink improve significantly over a three-month period” and says the claim it makes is perfectly true. Because depressed children constitute an extreme group, there is every likelihood that they will show improvement three months later, and this would be the case no matter what they did during those three months. It is only our human preference for causal stories that makes us want to attribute improvement to the energy drink. This is the reason that a control group is necessary to establish a causal link.

Returning to the original question about cruel slave-owners professing Christianity, I am certainly not going to try to explain them out of history, but I want to contrast them, one extreme group, with another extreme group, the Quaker Abolitionists in the North. If we look at a group comprising all professing American Christians during the 1830s, both the Quaker Abolitionists and the cruel slave-owners can be seen as extremes on opposite ends of a Christian continuum of reaction. Obviously, then, Christian principles and beliefs alone cannot be said to cause both a defense of the cruelest practices of slavery and a spirited and dedicated attack on the same institution (and neither would the cool-headed, rational statistician be surprised to find the most behavior change at the two extremes).

But this is unsatisfying, isn’t it? Statistics, while demonstrable, give us no explanation at all and leave us with nothing whatsoever to conclude about the relation of religious belief to behavior. This is where I want to put forward my own theory--untestable but not incongruent with either the experience of Douglass or the research of Kahneman—that it was the cognitive dissonance created by the conjunction of Christianity and slavery that drove one group of slave-owners to outrageous cruelty while simultaneously driving religious Quakers to take up the Abolitionist cause.

The term ‘cognitive dissonance’ does not appear in Kahneman’s book, but he does discuss cognitive ‘ease’ and ‘strain.’
Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs. A reliable way to make people believe falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.
The reflective mind, in an attempt to resolve a contradiction or eliminate dissonance, will always reach first for a familiar bias. Slaveholders and Quakers began with different biases and thus naturally reached different conclusions, just as those who initially believe religion’s effects are beneficial will reach different conclusions from those who initially believe religion’s effects are harmful. Is religion, then, neutral? What do you think?

The institution of slavery was decidedly not neutral. Douglass describes his yearning for knowledge and freedom, his feeling of being “broken in body, soul, and spirit,” and then finding within himself the strength again to resist.
The battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection....
Both the slave and the slave-owner lived slavery’s contradiction in the mind, but the slave lived it also in his body. Little wonder that daily experiencing of such a contradiction would drive many masters to cruelty, alcoholism, or both; less wonder that the hunger for freedom could never be eradicated in the slave.

Douglass remarks that while some think there could be no fellow feeling among slaves, he found his fellow slaves “noble souls.”
We were linked and interlinked with each other. I loved them with a love stronger than any thing I have experienced since. ... I believe we would have died for each other.
Common experience, recognition of one another as human beings, and their shared desire for freedom for knowledge and freedom bound them to each other.

-- Here I must leave off for today. I am less than halfway through Douglass’s and Kahneman’s books, and my whole tying together of the two is probably premature, but I cannot help trying to bring together these two very different books I am presently reading, going from one to the other with a fascinated mind....