My favourite bit of "meta-advice" – advice on how to deal with the advice that rains down on us from friends, books, columns like this – comes from the novelist Rick Moody. He happened to be talking about writing routines, a topic with which I'm dangerously obsessed, but his wisdom applies to any work, and to relationships and life in general. "The insight I offer you is this," he told the Writeliving blog. "There's no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start over." If, like me, you're always fiddling with your work systems, reorganising your stuff, testing new tricks for cultivating habits… take comfort. One tactic works for a while, then the self-sabotaging part of your brain gets wise to what you're doing, and the cycle begins again. The problem isn't that you've failed to find the One True Secret of productivity, happiness or love. The problem is believing you ever might.
Ethical philosophy isn't the most scintillating of subjects, but it has its moments. Take, for example, the work of the US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who's spent a large chunk of his career confirming the entertaining finding that ethicists aren't very ethical. Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books. Ethics professors are more likely to believe that eating animals is wrong, but no less likely to eat meat. They're also more likely to say giving to charity is a moral obligation, but they were less likely than other philosophers to return a questionnaire when researchers promised to donate to charity if they did. Back when the American Philosophical Association charged for some meetings using an honesty system, ethicists were no less likely to freeload.
I interviewed Malcolm Gladwell for the Guardian on the occasion of the publication of his new book, David & Goliath:
Malcolm Gladwell is in his natural habitat – a cafe in New York's West Village, down the street from his apartment – engaged in a very Gladwellian task: defending Lance Armstrong. The bestselling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers, who despite all appearances just turned 50, has a tendency to hoist both arms aloft like a preacher when a topic inflames him. And the topic of doping in sports does. Why, he wants to know, is it OK to be born with an abnormality that gives you surplus red blood cells, like the Finnish Olympic skiing star Eero Mäntyranta, but not OK to reinfuse your own blood prior to competing, as Armstrong apparently did? Why are baseball players allowed performance-enhancing eye surgery, but not performance-enhancing drugs? "Imagine," Gladwell says, "if all the schools in England had a rule that you can't do homework, because homework is a way in which less able kids can close the gap that Nature said ought to exist. Basically, Armstrong did his homework and lied about it! Underneath the covers, with his flashlight on, he did his calculus! And I'm supposed to get upset about that?"
You can read the whole thing here.
It's often been observed that the future didn't turn out as predicted. By now, thanks to technology's advance, we were supposed to be working 15-hour weeks, spending the rest of our time on great literature, conversation, and leisurely jetpack trips to the dome-covered shopping mall, to check out the latest range of 1950s horn-rimmed spectacles. Instead, we're busier than ever. But it's worse than that, according to David Graeber, the anthropology professor credited with helping to launch the Occupy movement: much of that busyness is completely pointless. Entire professions, he argued in a recent essay in Strike! magazine, consist of "bullshit jobs" that the world just doesn't need. If nurses and rubbish collectors disappeared overnight, we'd be in trouble; but "it's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish". What explains this proliferation of pointlessness? Graeber concludes, true to his anarchist beliefs, that it's all about social control. A population kept busy with bullshit has no time to start a revolution.
Recently, on my first trip to Australia, I finally tasted Vegemite. At the time, I didn't realise I was having a philosophically significant experience, but according to the American academic LA Paul, I was. She uses the example of Vegemite to illustrate something that seems obvious, but that's actually rather intriguing, about "phenomenal knowledge" – the knowledge of what it feels like to experience something. The intriguing point is this: you can obtain such knowledge only from experience. No matter how much information I might be given by others about what Vegemite tastes like, that information can never amount to experiencing the taste itself. By the way, Vegemite tastes a lot like Marmite. I know: major anticlimax.
Anyone born in the 70s to parents of an even slightly knit-your-own-muesli disposition must have encountered the horror of "non-competitive games". The intention was excellent – to show that vanquishing other people needn't be life's guiding value – but non-competitive games fall short in one crucial respect: they're no fun. (Sorry, Woodcraft Folk, but you know it's true.) Recently, by contrast, I played Gears Of War: Judgment on a friend's Xbox, performed atrociously and had a brilliant time.
An economist walks into a bar. This is a true story; it's 2002, the bar is the Lava Lounge in LA, and the economist is an academic named Glen Whitman. He gets chatting to a fellow patron and mentions his line of work. "So," asks the stranger, "what are the Two Things about economics?" "Huh?" Whitman replies, confused. "You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important." Whitman thinks, then replies: "One: incentives matter. Two: there's no such thing as a free lunch." Which is arguably a pretty good summation of the whole of economics.
The narrator of Joseph O'Neill's 2008 novel Netherland, a banker who has lived in both London and New York, seems permanently torn between the two – not merely as places to live, but because they embody different approaches to life itself. In London, he observes, people older than 40 considered themselves "over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of [life]", as if all the exciting stuff were behind them, whereas in New York "selfhood's hill always seemed to lie ahead, and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks". That makes New York sound more fun, but on closer inspection both are depressing. Would you rather feel your life is over, or that the real you remains out of reach? Maybe O'Neill's globe-hopping banker would have been happier in some less self-regarding world city: Brussels, say, where they have good beer and shellfish, and probably – I'm guessing here – less existential angst.
One of the great strengths of the English language is the number of ways it provides to describe people who annoy us. True, German has the word "Backpfeifengesicht" – "a face in need of a punch" – but English overwhelms us with options, thanks partly to its abundance of vulgarisms. If I call you a "wanker" I mean something subtly different from a "dickhead". (It can be hard to pinpoint these nuances without resort to further swearing, as demonstrated by users of urbandictionary.com, as they struggle to define a "prick": "An all around fucktard, dickweed, assrat bastard.") These differences aren't just a matter of intensity. We can presumably all agree that Simon Cowell is a bit of a tosser. But his success makes it hard to dismiss him as a fuckwit, while it's not clear he's guilty of the malice that would condemn him as a shit.
It's a fairly well-established fact, in political psychology, that leftwingers report lower levels of happiness than rightwingers. (This fact, you may have noticed, is self-reinforcing: learning of it makes leftwingers even gloomier.) What's much less clear is why. Conservatives like to argue that it's because the things they value – traditional families, faith, free markets – make people happiest. Liberals prefer to think conservatives are blinkered, clinging to an ideology that lets them avoid confronting life's grim truths; it's even been proposed that conservatism might be a mental illness. And there's an added complication: the social psychologists who study such questions, as the American academic Jonathan Haidt has complained, tend to lean left. But does that mean they are biased – or that, when you closely study the real world, you usually end up liberal? ("Reality has a well-known liberal bias" – Stephen Colbert.) It's all very murky – though if you're a liberal, like me, that's less of a problem, as studies suggest we might have more capacity for tolerating uncertainty. So there's that.