Archive for November, 2010


Curb Your Enthusiasm

I posted here about my take on what makes for good humor by looking at 30 Rock and Seinfeld, two shows that I consider funny and that many other people do as well. Even if you don’t think these shows are funny, you have to admit that given their success and popularity, there is something about them that intersects an important component of humor.

I thought that I could build on what I said there by looking at Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I’ve been watching lately. I think this show offers a rare opportunity for understanding humor because its done, as everyone knows, by Larry David, one of the creators of Seinfeld. So, it offers a way to see two manifestations of humor that come, more or less, from the same mind. The comparison might be fruitful.

And I guess it is, but mainly I just don’t like the show very much. I’m not sure what about it ruins its humor potential.

I thought at first that maybe I just had different concerns from the people on the show. They’re all considerably older, in fact, I think everyone on the show is over 40  and they have kind of old people concerns. I mean there’s stuff about golfing and which country club Larry is going to be part of and certain health issues. So at first I thought maybe that’s why I didn’t like it. But then I realizes that seinfeld is a pretty cross generational show as well. In fact, there are many recurring VERY old characters on that show, and though I guess all the characters are singled, they are dealing with solidly grown up issues. Maybe its that everyone is MARRIED in curb your enthusiasm. That’s seems like a pretty weird thing to wreck the humor of something though. So maybe it’s something else.

I tried to hone in on what it was, but I just never really got that far. I mean one thing that I think gets very annoying is the use of almost the exact same pattern for most episodes. Larry does something extremely insensitive and then has to apologize. Then the apology goes badly because Larry hedges it and isn’t genuine. That is like 90% of the episodes. Not only is that the pattern, but it’s often combined another one, which is that Larry interrupts some incredibly sacred institution with a ridiculously contrived mistake. Larry’s at a baby shower and says the doll that he gives to the wife and husband is “mulatto,” because he’s told its biracial. It’s not that that joke is offensive, it kind of is, but its also just not funny. I mean does Larry really not know that word is inappropriate?

Or, Larry goes to a baptism, but is late and so only gets a bad look at what’s happening. He doesn’t know how a baptism works and so thinks the priest is drowning the person getting baptized. So he interrupts and the ceremony is ruined. It’s not funny because you spend your time just absentmindedly agreeing with Cheryl, Larry David’s wife who spends most episodes just berating him for being so ridiculous. Boy, I would to after the dumb stuff he does.

There’s also a lot of “neurotic Jew” jokes, and I just don’t find them funny. Like Larry is always talking people to death, and its weird because it SHOULD  be funny, because its the type of jokes I like from Seinfeld. Someone gives a cut name to something, “o, she’s a blankety blank” “yea, a blankety blank” “can you believe it, blankety blanks” “yep, can’t help those blankety blanks.” Like when Elaine needs toilet paper and keeps yelling out in desperation, “you can’t spare a square.” Maybe it really does just come down to the acting. For some reason, when Larry does it, it’s just annoying, maybe because the setting is more realistic and maybe because none of the other characters get in on the act. It’s like Larry is stranded in sea of incredibly normal, boring, average people, and he’s the only one stupid enough to repeatedly say racist, blatantly sexual, or obviously offensive things all the time.

Or maybe it has something to do with the chemistry. Larry is the focus, everything is about him and so there’s no way to intertwine the destiny of the characters like in Seinfeld. For instance, when Kramer and Jerry run into each other by chance in a women’s dressing room after Kramer sells his suit to Banya (sp?).

All of this is in contrast to the office, which I’m liking more and more. I wish I knew what it was about these shows, but it’s something to do with the characters and how they are genuinely built up with a purpose in mind.

For example, Michael Scott is an egomaniac with a kind heart underneath. He really does work to undermine any attention that goes to other people. He runs the office not with an iron fist but with an inescapable ego-lust. Dwight nicely fits in this picture as the servile and mildly sycophantic acolyte. I think the large cast helps too because there’s always someone that can be the target of a joke or a subplot. The minorities are all covered, fat (kevin), gay (oscar), and stanley (black) and they are put to use in all sorts of ridiculous comments by Michael.

Also, I guess there’s the idea that the office is a documentary. The fact that the characters all smile, frown, snicker, and roll their eyes at the camera really adds a lot. They’re all very talented to put on the faces that they sometimes need to communicate what they’re thinking.





This is probably some of the most interesting newspaper reading you’ll do all year. Basically wikileaks got a hold of a bunch of diplomatic cables and they are all inflammatory. There’s stuff making fun of various leaders and alluded-to plans for future realpolitik, and the NYT collected the “best of” for its readers.

Usually, stuff like this comes out years after its relevant, but some of these cables are from the current administration. Uh oh. The real interesting thing about this though is that I think it’s kind of short sighted. What value do these leaks have? Wikileaks wants to promote citizen understanding or something like that. Please, spare me. Average citizens don’t read DIPLOMATIC CABLES. But you know who does, other world leaders and governments. The president is supposed to have some executive privilege to consult with his advisors without having all the conversations subpoenaed and brought out into the open. Why is that? Because the government is secretly plotting against us? No, because the president needs to be able to hear honest assessments from people about dangerous and important situations without the fear that their candid assessments will be all over the NYT the next day.

Am I against “open government.” Hardly, but we need to think more carefully about what counts as an open government and a closed or secretive government. Diplomatic cables seem to be something that is straightforwardly not that important to disclose. Are Americans being abused in secret or are public officials taking kickbacks? No, diplomats all over the world, some living in hostile countries are trying to provide information to the executive who makes almost all the foreign policy decisions for this country anyway. In fact, the founders made things this way because they saw that a country will soon fall into ruin if it tries, as wikileaks is doing, to turn foreign policy into a democratic enterprise.

Changing international situations require quick and decisive action. One simple example, its very hard to bargain credibly with other powers (N. Korea anyone?) if the other powers think that everything you do and say can be grounds for a second-guessing media storm when it comes out on wikileaks six months later.

Will a more respectful approach to state secrets results in an a loss of democratic accountability? Not really because the president gets to see and hear all these decisions and if he responds to them poorly, then he and his branch will be accountable. Citizens are in control of foreign policy INDIRECTLY, just as they are for normal pieces of legislation. I didn’t vote on healthcare reform but my REPRESENTATIVE did. Same with Obama, we don’t get to vote on every foreign policy decision, but we do get to vote the president in and out after seeing the results of his handiwork. Trying to maintain democratic control WHILE he’s trying to do his job would just be a sloppy way to run government. Better to wait when international affairs are not so sensitive and then rearrange the executive branch with commissions, laws, reporting requirements, or whatever. Just blasting leaks though doesn’t help anything.

Not only do I find the whole thing pretty irresponsible, but I find it completely EMBLEMATIC of our facebook culture. Wikileaks is just an adult, high stakes version of sharing a link or updating a status. The metaphor seems so appropriate to me. Just as we feel the need to share our every move with other people, as society we feel the need to share our government’s every move with the citizens. The metaphor goes further though. Just as we share the most trivial and insipid details of our own lives, we now want to share the most trite and scandalous snippets from the workings of government. We are quite literally turning our own government into a celebrity from PEOPLE magazine.

Sociologists and psychologists have often remarked on how solitude is important for personal growth. People must be alone with their own thoughts to digest and reflect on the social world they go out into each day. In the same way, the government must have alone time too. No one thinks that citizens should know the codes to nuclear weapons or the locations of our CIA agents all over the world, but we are eroding the barrier between government business to a dangerously thin level, just as we are eroding the barrier between self and society through the daily promulgation of our lives.


Philosophy, Contradictions, Asperger’s

I read this article and  found that it expressed a truth so well that it matched my own thoughts perfectly. In fact, it not only agreed with my thoughts, but helped me express them to myself more clearly.

The point of the essay is to intersperse some very provocative speculations about the attitude of philosophers with some interesting additional data points thrown in.

To start with, the essay has several quotes about Asperger’s syndrome which were pretty interesting. The author quotes a few people saying that Asperger’s might be caused by being exposed to excess testosterone in the womb, and that, in any case, the condition can be understood as a kind of hyper-male way of viewing things in that it renders ordinary conversation into a flat exchange of facts.

The author continues to argue by example. Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and probably many other philosophers, were all weird people. One could say socially defective, if one wanted to be blunt. Not only that though, but there is a further pattern which is that most philosophers are (were) male.

From this the author takes a long leap of logic (he seems to understand that it’s a stretch) to say that perhaps the predilection to philosophical thinking is a kind of advanced Asperger’s syndrome. After all, the pieces seem to fit, philosophers are male, anti-social, and extremely analytic. The author of this article goes further and analyzes some philosophies of language to make the point. Philosophers are high-functioning, in the sense that they are capable of reading, writing, and leading an independent life, and in fact, getting along with other people.

The point is that philosophers, as I have always suspected, are a step behind ordinary conversation, ordinary thought. People without a philosophical outlook on things (and you don’t have to read many of my other posts that I don’t think its necessarily a good thing to have a philosophical outlook) slide over cliches, through turns of phrases, and beyond mistakes or vagaries.

The excruciatingly analytical person on the other hand stops and hangs on sentences, and processes them in real time, wondering to him or herself “huh?”

I find this to be utterly convincing, not necessarily for the reasons given in this article (though I think they are suggestive), but more from my own experience. What I mean is that this characterization of the philosophical mindset seems to be very faithful to my life.

For example, I have a very social streak that comes from my mom and a very theatrical conversational style which comes from my dad. However, when you get right down to it, I’m very analytical in social situations. In fact, when I was younger, I had a hard time having conversations with people. However, I was lucky enough to go to a school that — and you could put it this way — gave me a lot of data for my mind to work with. You see, most people just talk with each other, easily and unproblematically, but when I talk to someone, I’m building a model in my mind in parallel to the conversation. On the one hand, I’m just talking and at the other, I’m wondering, wandering and thinking. This isn’t really that weird. Everyone does it from time to time. You’re thinking to yourself “what doe this person want from me” or “why is he talking about this” or “that is totally ridiculous” For me, though it’s kind of an al the time thing. I’m developing and revising a model about the person’s personality. I’m constructing what philosophers think their job is: to create theories.

So, going to a high school with only guys, and a small number of them at that, I was able to refine my models and theories of different people over  a very long period of time (in some cases more than 8 years). And so, my theories became very advanced, and I could exploit them in such a way as to be ALMOST normal. I was a fairly awkward kid in high school, but I don’t want to exaggerate. Everyone is awkward then, and for the most part I DID feel like I fit in.

The real world is a little different.  There isn’t as much time to develop good theories so I have to play off my general knowledge and general patterns of sociality that  I’ve learned. It works out ok, but what I want to emphasize is that it’s sub par, like a really good hearing aid instead of just having functioning ears. This comes into play with a vengeance when I talk with girls. Since a vast majority of my social data came from male counterparts throughout my childhood, I was woefully underprepared to talk with girls. But not only that, when I talk to girls, it’s very often a very puzzling experience for me (a  parallel this author exploits, FYI). I find myself not knowing what to say, not knowing when to laugh, and CERTAINLY making very bad decisions about what comments would be appropriate, funny, sexy, whatever. By contrast, my humor with guys though has always been very versatile and effective.

So according to this author, the philosopher sees LIFE, and daily routine as puzzles. Rather than just living those routines and acting out social conventions, the philosopher is always asking why, and developing a model to go along with these daily tasks. The reason this usually becomes a problem is that human life is deeply contradictory. I don’t mean in this in the trite “o people are all very different” kind of way. I mean it very literally. Take english. English is, as many philosophers have noted, filled with semantic paradoxes. Try this one:

This very sentence is false.

If the sentence is true, then it is false. If it is false, then it is true. This is logical problem with teeth. So, in a very literal sense, english is incoherent. Of course, there are parts of it that are coherent, and that’s how we communicate, but if you look at all english sentences analyzed as a whole, the result is a logical system that prove any sentence AT ALL to be true (since anything can be derived from a contradiction).

So, if ordinary life is contradictory, then the philosopher has  a big problem facing him (or her), which is how to make sense of humanity, broadly understood. This is precisely what interests me about philosophy and keeps me thinking all the time, but on a smaller scale, I run into this problem when I’m talking with ALL SORTS of people, and especially groups of people I have no data for, no THEORY for.


Holidays 2010

I wrote this post about this time last year, and in it I discuss the meaning of Christmas. Since one of my most recent posts about holidays / culture has been very well received, I thought I would review some observations about holidays.

Harvard plays Yale on saturday, and my college friends are all visiting Boston to come to the game and celebrate another year gone by. The point of mentioning this is not to dwell on ivy league standards of what counts as fun; they are very low. The point is about how people keep friendships alive despite leading very busy lives. For my friends and me, the Harvard Yale game is sacred. It’s a time that everyone plans for automatically, without having to check with other people. This let’s everyone start thinking about the game far in advance, which in turn allows for much cheaper and more successful travel plans. Without this self-initiating aspect, we would probably need (and in the past have needed) in upwards of three months to plan a simple trip.

At other time of the year we are all just too busy to really make group meetings a reality, despite not living that far from each other. It’s incredible how aggressively life’s routines can grab you and not let you deviate from them. Anyway, thanksgiving is really the reason that we can make things work. See, not only does everyone know to plan to come to the game (wherever it is), but they can usually do so because it precedes thanksgiving, which is kind of a break anyway.

This pattern is significant. More than ever I think that people have unorthodox moments of rest from their schedules. There’s plenty of leisure time these days, but it’s hard to find leisure time when other people have time as well, and big national holidays are like oases on the calendar that every one automatically knows to plan for. Without these guaranteed times off, it would be hard to get together with diverse groups of people.

Christmas fulfills this social role more than ever.  There is no other time when I can see my friends from home. For me (and I’m generalizing to my generation a little bit), Christmas has NOTHING to do with gifts, food, or family (but that’s cause my immediately family keeps to  itself I suspect). All it really has to do with it for me is just not working at the same that many of my closest friends are also not working.

What really interests me though is how obsolescent these moments of SOCIETY WIDE leisure are becoming. They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to. Sure, there are coordinated days of leisure on a smaller scale all over society. Spring break is for college kids to invade economically depressed beachfront property the world over. Sundays are for watching football (if you’re into that type of thing, I mainly work). 5pm is for happy hour if you’re a professional of some type.

Think of how amazing it is that Christmas is even a holiday AT ALL. More than a thousand years ago, a person died, and this person’s death was imbued with such meaning that many Christians would become martyrs in the years following. Moreover, a massive, perhaps the most massive, institution in the middle ages — the Catholic church — rose up to declare holidays, decide doctrine, raise armies, punish those who violated church law, and commit all manner of sexual depravities (I’m thinking of the Popes of course).

A lot of this stuff seems kind of silly now (silly is the wrong word, I’ll be more neutral: it holds no appeal for me), but notice that for five days at the end of the year, most of the United States, and I believe most of Europe, puts EVERYTHING ON HOLD. The stock market is closed, people barely work, there’s not voting, no meetings are held. What I want people to appreciate from reading this post is the unbelievable amount of social control, energy, money, suffering, and raw cultural capital that went into getting people to celebrate something so intensely, so completely, and for so long throughout history.

To a lesser extent, the same is true for the 4th of July and Thanksgiving. There is a whole system of value and implicit social organization behind these holidays that is not likely to be matched anytime soon. Indeed, I think the age of such comprehensive and powerful cultural symbols if fading fast in all areas of life (we’re drifting away from marriage as an institution. Should we freak out about this fact or try and adapt ourselves to new norms regarding sex, childrearing, and commitment to other people).

In short, we aren’t making any more Christmases. To make Christmas requied a type of enforced intellectual unity and social stratification that isn’t even comprehensible to our liberal, laissez-faire imaginations (and for that I’m grateful). We often marvel at what it took to create buildings, or nations or trips to the moon, but we forget what lies behind something as simple as going home to see the family over the holidays.

In the future, all holidays will be local, provisional and small. All Christmases in the future will be nothing but Harvard-Yales, brief stopping points for a small group of people. Rather than finding an old custom sacred, will have to invent our own sacred times and traditions. It’s a bigger task than we realize, and sometimes we cling to older traditions rather than create our own. There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s hard to build traditions and sometimes daunting too.

However, I think society-wide, there is an obsession with social networking, which is none other than anxiety about having to create our own sacred times and spaces. The allure of social networking sites and thousands of invisible “friends” should be obvious if my reading of holidays is true. We are coming to a time where we cannot rely on powerfully enforced traditions to keep us in contact with the people we care about (will my kids even “come home” for Christmas, for how much longer will our culture encourage that?). Instead, as I already said, we have to roll up our sleeves and build things worth celebrating.


Ben Franklin and Time Travel

For some reason, I sometimes (not obsessively) think about what would happen if one of the Founding Fathers could travel in time to visit the U.S. as it exists today. I think these sorts of bizarre flights of fancy are brought on by political rhetoric, some of which I must have picked up, that discusses what our founding fathers intended. It might also have to do with the fact that I sometimes think about the Constitution, and debates about it concerns what the original intent of the document was.

In any case, I start out thinking that if Ben Franklin came to the present, he would in many ways be thrilled by what we’ve accomplished. Then I think a little longer and I realize it would be hard to have a conversation with him.

It would be hard for two reasons. The first reason is kind of the normal one. He doesn’t really speak our type of English, his sense of humor is probably pretty weird, and he would have a hard time understanding anything you were talking about.

But what is more interesting is a philosophical point. When I say “he wouldn’t know what we were talking about,” the usual way to interpret that would be something like “he doesn’t know about planes or computers, or whatever.” But in reality, the communication problem might be much  deeper, and the reason is something that philosophers of science are concerned with, which is conceptual change. In other words, concepts change. We used to believe, as a scientific community (not lay people) in absolute time, but now we know there is no such thing. There is only observer relative time (that’s why time travel is possible). A lot of other CONCEPTS changed entirely between our time and Ben’s. The issue would not be translation, as if we could translate our scientific words into his, the issue would be conceptual reinvention on his part.

Kids go through conceptual change too. They start with wrong or crude understandings of things like mass and nothingness, and the same with numbers, but they slowly develop facility with new concepts, and for example, learn thins like the concept of infinity, which is required to do math. When they get infinity, they get “how math works” and then can go on and respond to any math problem put in front of them. They understand, as Wittgenstein would say “how to go on.”

But Ben Franklin, though obviously not a kid (he was genius) would be like a kid to us. A kid will sometimes say something to us and it makes no sense but researches suppose that this phenomenon is due to different conceptual schemes (not simply different languages, French has all our concepts, though not our words).

This would happen with a lot of things, not just hard science terms, but with “thick” words like “funny,” “cruel.” In time travel movies, there is always a scene where the person who is out-of-time makes an endearing mistake as they pick up the argot of the era (like the world “cool”) but then gets along just fine.

I’m suggesting something more radical, and that for a while, we might be sealed off from really understanding much of what Ben was saying at all: the relevant background assumptions and community standards would not be in place. There wouldn’t be a fiercely intelligent but tottering old man, but rather an interloper from another time that we would have to work very hard to relate to.




Trolling the Cultural Trashcan

I have several points in this post, and most of them are about the same subject, which is the movement of time, specifically to our perception of it, and to nostalgia. You see, I worry a lot that our culture is bored of itself, and that we have nothing to be excited for anymore. I don’t mean to come across as  an emo creepster who is angry at everything. I’m not, but I think we can do better as a culture and should be on guard for the dissolution we’re wreaking on ourselves.

Consider some examples. Amateur sociologist that I am, I’ve watched a lot of youtube videos of songs from older bands, Boston, Zeppelin, the Cars, etc. On almost every song there is some reference to hating Justin Bieber or rap (check for yourself). Then there is someone saying something like “hey, just listen to the music and relax” and then there are usually a hundred comments after that telling this calm, level-headed person to fuck off and to kill themselves, etc. etc. This is distressing to me, because it indicates an undercurrent of not just nostalgia, which has its place, but angry, aggressive, insecure nostalgia, which does seem to me to be a very dangerous substance to be  pouring into the cultural pool.

I mean first, it’s a little ridiculous to even compare a 16 year old pop sensation to some of the movers and shakers of music tradition. Or actually, these bands I referenced weren’t really all that artistically high minded either. They were popular sure, and they were good, true. But in their age, they were successful and well-known. Anyway, the point of all this is that people, in a big way, are living in the past.

You see it everywhere. Around the Christmas season, reminders of the good ole’ days (you see the good ole days showing up all the time really) are nauseatingly present. Old Christmas movies re-released that no child wants but 70 year old people think it would be nice for them to have. Talk about family when we all the family unit is undergoing a massive shift in its function and cohesion in this country (nursing homes r’ us?)

Friedrich Nietzsche hypothesized that all cultures move toward nihilism: the destructive of their creative and artistic energy until life becomes a cold routine, devoid of verve and danger. His analysis is wrong in many ways, one of those ways being that, unlike what he thought, we are not moving toward some apocalyptic end point to all culture. A final resting place for creativity. Instead, we are going through what I think is a slowing point and a hump that must be gotten over. Compare things to the turn of the century (1900s). Optimism was in the air. Technology and capitalism were thought to be the solutions to all things. Not saying this was right. It wasn’t. WWI happened and shattered Enlightenment fantasies about unlimited progress. But there were, in teh 1870’s and 80’s and 90’s, robber barons, tycoons, and magnates all filled with the spirit of optimism. People were looking AHEAD. Now, as the 20th century closes, we are looking back, down at the ground, into ourselves.

TV started to obsess over reality, because except for “the wire” and “lost” we’ve lost the ability to create meaningful worlds of our own. It’s like all our collective imaginary world are being slowly destroyed until all we have left is this world: ourselves and our miserable little status updates and daily boredom. We’re trying to generate excitement out of boredom, and that scares me. When will look forward again, toward new cultural productions and new experiences?

This brings me to another deep point though, about Holidays. When was the last time a Holiday was created? Probably the closest thing in the U.S. is independence day created by an outpouring of liberal achievement about 200 some years ago. The most powerful holiday in the western world is more than 1000 years old. Where are our reason to celebrate?

What I think it’s important to notice is the power and energy needed to create a holiday that is celebrated so passionately for so long (even for me who’s not very christian at all). I see friends and take time off from work and on and on. I celebrate Christmas a secular solution to a coordination problem: how to get all my friends to have off work at the same time.

What this suggests to me is that culture is essentially lazy. We prefer to subsist on the traditions given to us, and we should stand in awe of how powerful they are. Will any holidays come from our world? It seems not. It seems that interests and beliefs are so fragmented that there will never be another day that unifies so many people so powerfully. Again, we’re running on the fumes of more energetic times, and as we turn to the holidays to invigorate ourselves with 1000 year old traditions, watch reality TV, check our facebook, we have to wonder, how dangerous is nostalgia and when will we create something again?

Nietzsche thought we needed to create the Overman, and such a creation would be celebrated for thousands of years to come. The creativity of the specimen would catapult us out of boredom and into a new level of self-actualization. I don’t think we need something so dramatic (or so utopian, or so..a lot of things).


The Precarious Position of Routine

I sometimes wonder how people can make certain decisions. People who have read this blog know that I used to have a roommate who would routinely make very poor life choices. He would refuse to buy a real mattress. Instead he bought inflatable mattresses which would break and then he would have to buy a new one, not to mention never being able to sleep. He wouldn’t rent movies,  instead he would try to pirate them from the internet. The result was many viruses and in the end, a destroyed computer. In other words, he tried to cut corners at every turn, and at every turn, his attempt to save money just ended up costing him more in terms of both money and personal difficulty.

The other thing is that he would always be moving jobs, searching for more money. As a result, he never advanced at any one job or gained a reputation for dependability.

I want to diagnose this problem as a misunderstanding about routines. In economics, the price of something seems like a simple number, but it ENCODES a lot of information about the cost of various inputs, the level of demand, and the relative value of the good compared to others. In the same way, and people often don’t realize it, routines encode a lot of information. Specifically, a routine is a finely tuned equilibrium that optimizes time, money, and psychological labor. There are returns to experience and returns to scale, but there are also returns to routinization because an equilibrium routine drastically lowers the information one needs to assess in making decisions while economizing on time and money. Another simple example: my routine often gives me blocks of time on Tuesday so that I know I can slot emergency activities or random duties for that day without any cognitive work. I just know Tuesdays are free.

When you move cities, you incur many costs like: finding out where roads go (a very high cost in Boston), when the garbage comes, where the nearest laundromat is, and the cheapest grocery store within the area. On the other hand, if you commit to staying somewhere, you can make money saving commitments, you can get a parking space for a year at a time, you can get a costco membership for a year as well, you can get a bank account at a local  bank, etc.

The underappreciation of routines, I claim leads to big life mistakes, like always chasing higher pay at a new, fly-by-night job offer, or by planning excessively for the short term. I’m not sure if long term planning is related to discipline or not, but it has undeniably large benefits.

What is more interesting is that I think routines are important moral tools. Hegel thought that all morality was essentially the inculcation of moral routines. He thought that explicit moral reasoning was just a kind of vainglorious and treacherous pastime. Rather, a good society is one that builds in good routines. There is some real truth to what he’s saying (though I disagree with his extremism) because I think a lot of immoral actions get undertaken for a lack of appreciation for how they will affect the person doing them by disrupting a very precise and fragile ROUTINE. Take lying. Telling the truth is a kind of routine in that if we tell the truth, we can always tell new people the truth without getting ourselves into a contradiction. We also build trust that way. But if we lie, the routine of saying whatever is true is disrupted. Drugs is another example. For some reason, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson popped into my head (no idea why) and I wondered how they could be so psychologically deranged to throw away their successful lives with drug use, and my answer, tentatively, was that maybe they thought it was no big deal; that it would not throw a monkey wrench into everything they were trying to do.

This marks an important distinction between activities that are fairly modular, and those that ripple through a life. Playing basketball is fairly modular. I need one hour and it can fit in a variety of days and life plans. It has minimal collateral damage to other things I care about (except if maybe, I hurt myself). But things like using drugs are not modular; they can quickly take over an entire life and ruin relationships commitments and financial stability. People can get thrown off their horse.

What’s really tragic though (tragic isn’t really the right word, maybe profound) is that humans need spontaneity as well. For everything I just said about routines, we know that routines can be depressing, boring, and PRISONS all to themselves. Sometimes the biggest problem we have is GETTING OUT of a routine that is very destructive, whether it be a a job or a relationship.

For that reason, I think each person is balancing on the edge of a razor. We need routines for the vast benefits they provide and when we don’t heed their value, we can royally screw things up. However,  excitement and personal development requires that every once in a while, we do just that. In other words, to vindicate Aristotle and other philosophers, we have to, sometimes, think carefully about how to live.