Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Decision Fatigue, Anyone?

Among the several enlightening articles around last weekend, one stood out for me: John Tierney’s 8/17 NY Times piece on Decision Fatigue. It’s something everyone feels, but few of us understand that it’s a real syndrome, with roots in brain chemistry. That means that it’s not just some anecdotal phenomenon of people who complain, after shopping till dropping, that they’re exhausted—although that’s probably the most common experience for most of us. It’s far more general than that, and, apparently, far more universal (I always thought it was just me who hated shopping at whatever time of the year.) What this means is that the brain actually gets depleted of energy when it has to make lots of decisions—whether or not to eat another donut; whether or not to go online for a few more minutes; whether or not, as a judge, to grant parole to an inmate before you.

According to Tierney, the latter situation was a key one examined recently. In a report this year, two researchers looked into the decisions judges make, in an effort to account for why they rendered different judgments for defendants with identical records. After looking at the usual suspects (racism, other biases), they started to zero in on the time of day the judges made their decisions, and found that judges who made their rulings early in the day were far more likely to grant parole than those who saw a defendant late in the day. Looking even more closely, they found that if you were unlucky enough to appear before a judge just before the noon break, or just before closing time, you would likely have your parole plea rejected; if you saw the judge at the beginning of the day, or right after lunch, you were more likely to get your parole granted. The cause: decision fatigue. As the researchers noted, “the mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever their individual merits, wore them down.”

What this and other experiments have demonstrated is that each of us possesses “a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.” And self-control requires that old bugaboo “will power”—a form of mental energy that can, and often is, exhausted. If you’ve spent your day resisting desire—whether it’s a yen for a cigarette, a candy bar, or a trip onto the internet—you’re less capable of resisting other temptations. Nor is this just a curious finding. What researchers argue is that this kind of decision fatigue is “a major—and hitherto ignored—factor in trapping people in poverty.” People who are poor, that is, constantly have to make that hardest of decisions, the trade-off (can I afford this? can I afford that? Should I pay the gas bill or buy good food?), and such decisions sap their energies for other efforts like school, work or improving their job prospects. This is confirmed by images that have long been used to condemn the poor for their failure of effort: welfare mothers buying junk food, or indulging in snacks while shopping. Far from being a condemnation of “weak character,” however, such activities often indicate decision fatigue, which the poor experience more than the rich because of the increased number of trade-offs their lives require, and hence the decreased willpower left them to resist impulse buying.

The big surprise in this research, though, comes with the brain studies. Everyone knows that the brain is a great consumer of sugar, or glucose, for energy. But what no one had expected was the specific connection between glucose supply and willpower. In a series of experiments, researchers tested this by refueling the brains of some subjects performing tasks with sugary lemonade (glucose), and some with lemonade sweetened with diet sweetener (no glucose.) The results were clear: those who got the glucose found their willpower restored, and thus their ability to exercise self-control augmented. They made better choices, and even when asked to make financial decisions, they focused on long-term strategy rather than opting for a quick payoff. In short, more mental energy allowed them to persist in whatever task was at hand. Even more to the point, the researchers found that the effect of glucose was specific to certain areas of the brain. As Tierney puts it:

Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards, and pays less attention to long-term prospects.

This is critical information, especially in our choice-and-distraction-filled culture. Yet another study in Germany, where subjects were monitored by frequently reporting their activity via their Blackberries, concluded that people at work spend as much as 4 hours a day “resisting desire.” The most common of these desires were “urges to eat and sleep, followed by the urge for leisure” (i.e. taking a break by playing a computer game, etc.). Sexual urges were next on the list, slightly higher than checking Facebook or email. The most popular general type of desire was to find a distraction—and of course, the workplace of large numbers of people these days centers on the computer, that click-of-the-mouse distraction machine.

And the trouble with all this is that willpower depletion doesn’t manifest with a specific symptom, like a runny nose, or a pain in the gut. As Tierney says:

Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful.

Perhaps this is why tired politicians so often say, and do stupid things. Not to mention the howlers of our physicians, our generals, our corporate execs, and our media pundits. Perhaps, too, it explains why Ronald Reagan always kept a jar of jellybeans on his desk—though it is true that his decision-making stemmed from a malady of a different sort.

In any case, the lesson from all this might be: take breaks. Eat candy (or better still, protein). And don’t make important decisions when you’re exhausted (like responding to that nasty email). Most decisions can wait, and will profit from a glucose-rich, rather than a glucose-depleted brain.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Growing the Economy

I’ve just finished watching the PBS News Hour (8/16), with a major segment on the problems with Europe’s faltering economy. Sheherezade Rehman, an economics professor from George Washington University, stated the conventional wisdom:
“The real long term issue is growth,” she said. “Without growth, there is no way out of this crisis.”

Barack Obama has been saying the same thing, adding that the growth in jobs can’t come from the government; it has to come from business. And everyone nods, and agrees, and reinforces the point in whatever way possible: our system, corporate capitalism, requires growth. Constant and incessant growth. If growth stops, our economy is in trouble, capitalism is in trouble, capitalism dies.

But wait. What kind of system can sustain constant growth? Is there anything in nature that’s like that? Don’t most systems have limits, lemmings for instance, which grow and grow and then hit a certain point of overpopulation that strains the resources lemmings need, and then they stampede off cliffs in a kind of mass suicide? Or don’t natural systems all have predators which, when a population grows too fast, fatten up on the growing population, thereby cutting it back to a sustainable or balanced level? They do. But not humans; not capitalism. It’s as if capitalism is a kind of cancer: it has to grow and keep growing without cease, without limit, no matter what. Until, that is, the host organism dies.

Many thinkers have noted the logic in this. The constant growth demanded by capitalism drives us to the brink of disaster. With the human population out of control (only in the last few hundred years) we humans are drowning in our own waste, we are destroying the resources (like fossil fuels or rare minerals) needed to keep growing, our oceans and rain forests are being devastated, our water sources are being polluted or emptied. And then, there’s the carbon we’ve poured into our atmosphere, producing a little tent for ourselves that traps heat, leading eventually to a deadly rise in the temperature of the planet. Growth, in a word, is fatal to our planet. One of my neighbors has a bumper sticker that sums this up:
Growing the economy is Shrinking the ecology.

The people who are urging more growth, or lamenting the lack of enough of it, then, are either ignorant or insane. They are ignoring the fact that our only salvation, not as individual communities or nations, but as a species, as a planet, is to stabilize growth. To reduce growth to a sustainable level. And one way to do that, perhaps, is to distribute the wealth we already have more equitably. Since that is unlikely to happen, however, (and this is another subject that’s been getting increasing attention: the astonishing inequality of wealth in the United States, with the top 1% controlling upwards of 90%, and the bottom 40% controlling essentially ZERO—see the same PBS News Hour, 8/16/11), I see only one solution (aside from a mass revolt aimed at killing the obscenely wealthy among us, that is.)

Indeed, in some ways, I think that solution to reduce or stop growth is already under way. People, consumers are not doing this intentionally, of course. They are limiting their buying to absolute necessities because that’s all they can afford: a bit of food, a bit of transportation to jobs, a bit of clothing to cover their asses. And that is precisely what we need. In fact, though, we need even more radical action than that. We need a mass movement, an intentional movement, of outright refusal.

We refuse to take part in this global insanity. We refuse to buy more gadgets we don’t need, faster computers we never asked for, bigger cars we can’t afford to fuel, more elaborate toys to keep our minds off the real issues of life, including our enslavement. We refuse it all. We are boycotting the idiocy of modern capitalism, of planned obsolescence, of disposable diapers and clothes and shoes and packaging for our gadgets and toys and foods, of more and more automation that eliminates jobs for real people so corporate pigs can make more profits, of more and more hospital procedures that extend life beyond the point where it is bearable so hospitals and doctors can get rich. We refuse. We see through the brainwashing (buying beyond what we need is a fairly modern ploy of U.S. capitalism, designed by a few market researchers in the 1920s alarmed at the prospect that mass production had become so efficient that people would soon satisfy all their needs and corporations would drown in un-bought products, and who therefore invented campaigns to stimulate endless psychological desires for useless crap (see the documentary The Century of the Self, by Adam Curtis), we know what brainwashing portends and who profits from it, and we have had enough.

This is what millions need to say directly to corporations, especially those who have moved their “offices” to foreign countries to avoid U.S. taxes. CBS’ 60 Minutes had a segment on this issue Sunday night, and it had me screaming at my TV set where the CEO of Cisco Systems not only admitted that Cisco had moved its corporate headquarters and thousands of jobs to Ireland, but glorified it into a threat that either the United States lower its tax rate to parity with countries like Ireland and Switzerland, or face losing even more corporate taxes. In essence, he and his ilk are holding a gun to our heads, saying if you don’t lower our taxes (already at the lowest point in almost a century), we’ll all be leaving.

If there is a crime called 'treason', this is it.

And my answer, and every refusing American’s answer should be: GO. Take your shit headquarters to whatever country you like, take your shit products with you, and don’t bother coming back. And don’t bother trying to sell your products here either because we will slap a boycott or a tariff upon you and all you produce.

There’s a lot more that I’m thinking, of course, such as the fact, brought up on Yahoo News today, that Pay Pal founder Peter Thiel, one of our wonderful billionaires so incensed about high taxes, has been revealed as a “big backer of the Seasteading Institute.” Guess what this utopian innovation, to which Thiel has recently donated $1.25 million, proposes to do? Well, given that even all their bought-off lackies in Congress may not be enough to protect these money hogs from government intrusion, Seasteading seeks to “build sovereign nations on oil rig-like platforms to occupy waters beyond the reach of law-of-the-sea treaties.” It’s the ultimate libertarian wet dream. Set up safe havens in international waters
free from the laws, regulations, and moral codes of any existing place. Details say the experiment would be "a kind of floating petri dish for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons."

Nor is this some pie-in-the-sky venture. One rep from the Institute is quoted as saying the group actually plans to launch an “office park off the San Francisco coast next year.” (To see that this isn’t an urban myth, check out http://seasteading.org/ )
And these are our sunshine patriots, tearfully singing America the Beautiful.

So think about it next time you are inclined to buy something. Do you really need it? Can you do without it? Patriotism--not national patriotism but planetary patriotism--demands a short, simple response: I prefer not to. (for more on this, see my “Bartleby Option” at www.lawrencedistasi.com.)

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Waka in Bolinas

I was just finishing morning meditation when my neighbor Walter knocked on the door. Toting two cameras, he said, “Come on. You have to see this.” I asked what, as I was getting my shoes on, thinking it might be a large yacht or perhaps some monster pieces of the Bay Bridge nearing completion (we saw some heading to the Golden Gate a couple years ago, shipped in from China where they’d been fabricated). He said nope, and we walked across the field to the cliff overlooking Bolinas Bay. And there lined up was a fleet of seven boats, with these strange double sails that looked a bit like felucca sails on the old fishing boats Italians used to fish San Francisco bay with. Walter had his high-powered binoculars on a tripod so I was able to get a pretty good look. We could see crews on board each strangely marked boat, plus a white yacht accompanying them. At least one Bolinas fishing boat motored out to talk to them and, I found out later, bring them ice cream. Then it became apparent that these were catamarans, double canoes of traditional Maori design, their red sails and prows decorated with fantastic Maori art forms.

Walter explained what he knew. The boats were from New Zealand, and they were on a Pacific voyage to try to draw attention, via traditional sailing craft, to the plight of the oceans and the related plight of many Pacific Islanders threatened by global warming. They were sailing to San Francisco today, to take part in a World Oceans conference for a week. Then they’d head back to New Zealand, probably stopping again at Hawaii where they’d already been, and other Pacific islands from which their crews had come. That they’d decided to stop in Bolinas for the night added a bit of local pride to the visual thrill. Walter had actually seen them yesterday when fishing for salmon (some of which he gave me) out beyond Point Reyes.

I did a little search on the web and eventually found several accounts of what now seemed an almost magical voyage. What I learned was that the Waka (or vaka; the name of their boats) voyagers had left New Zealand on April 13, after traditional ceremonies, and headed for several other islands as well as Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. According to Hoturoa Kerr, chief of the Haunui waka:
“We’ve got people here whose islands have been covered by rising water levels and their fishing grounds are no longer as abundant. We’re trying to raise awareness to people who live thousands of miles away that what they do affects ordinary people who are, in some cases, subsistence living.” (Otago Daily Times, April 13, 2011).

Kerr also pointed out the “eco friendly” nature of the boats, constructed of carved wood and twine, and which use sail power supplemented by solar-powered motors for harbor navigation. Their food would consist of a great deal (they hoped) of caught fish, plus canned and dried goods plus locally-produced organic food. They intended, said Dieter Paulmann, filming the voyage for a documentary, to “map their way in the wake of their ancestors, using the stars, sun, wind, and wildlife as their guides.” The plan was to reach Hawaii by early June where the crews would attend the Kava Bowl Summit 2011 for discussions with scientists, media, political and corporate leaders to create ways to move toward the sustainable use of the ocean’s resources. Then it was on to San Francisco for another ocean conference on Treasure Island, with the return via numerous other Pacific islands, and the 11th Pacific Arts Festival on the Solomon Islands in 2012.

By the time we saw them in Bolinas, the wakas had already labored through the Pacific gyre where a revolting “continent” of plastic debris has taken up residence (see my June 6, 2008, blog, “Plastics etc.”). They had been through storms and food deprivation, as well as space deprivation (16 crew members on each 22-foot craft don’t have much space). But they were clear about their mission. The voyage was a kind of dress rehearsal for what humans were going to have to do on a larger scale:
adapt to dwindling natural resources. Here are a few entries from their website--http://www.pacificvoyagers.org/-- blogs:

After a few minutes of deep breathing and relaxing my mind I got the image of a whale’s tail in my head.
It slapped the water.
Listen to the breathing of the tides and know that all the world beats with one heart, breathes with one breath.
I started getting distracted by the music and noise behind me.
Slap, slap, slap.
“Listen, listen, listen!
You (humanity, the waka crews, us as individuals) have a special place.
You are the Key….
We do have a special place. It is by our hand that the world and the creatures in it will live or die….
We’ve been becalmed for two days and for two days we’ve been surrounded by all the Life in the sea. Well, seals, dolphins and whales, lots of them. Last night the seals were coming in like aquabats (acrobats with a speech impediment) zigzagging in formation thru the phosphorescence leaving trails of stars behind them. They’ve scared the girls by popping up beside the canoe and barking loudly. They’ve entertained us with their showing off, leaping and jumping, one even going so far as climbing on board the Samoan canoe and sitting on the bow doing nothing and barking at the captain whenever he talked to it (just like the rest of the crew so he tells me)….
And if we hadn’t been halted by the wind we would’ve missed it all. We would’ve zoomed on thru as we do for most of lives, distracted by the music and the white noise of the modern world and really just missing the point.
“Listen, listen, listen!”

and another:
We were told today in an email (thank you Shantparv) that our entry has coincided perfectly with a phase described in the Mayan calendar wherein a great unfolding of consciousness is seen for the first time. I’m all for that! I think a great unfolding of consciousness is somewhat overdue. I think our consciousness has been folded for a very long time. It’s time to take out the creases and realise we’re all on the same page! The healing of the planet will by necessity include the healing of ourselves. We are all essentially the same. We experience all the same stuff in human terms. The words we use to describe Life, the Universe and Everything don’t really matter.

Some lovely photos and quite a few videos are available for viewing on the Pacific Voyage website (http://pacificvoyagers.org/). That’s probably the best way to get a sense of the visual impact these boats and their crews make. Indeed, it’s something no one should miss—though I have to admit that seeing them off my own home coast gave it added juice for me. But you can also “join” they voyage by following along online and sending messages to the crew; they truly appreciate the support and the knowledge that someone is paying attention. And hadn’t we all better do that? The time for action is getting very very short.

Lawrence DiStasi
Image 9/23 Uto Ni Yalo © Tanja Winkler