Saturday, April 30, 2016

Notable & Quotable

The Venerable Wall Street Journal has a feature that appears on their editorial pages, dead trees as well as digital editions, called Notable & Quotable. It's exactly what it sounds like. A quotation from someone or something that's worth noting. A given quote, presented without comment, often serves to lampoon the source of the quote, which may be from a report or document of some sort, not necessarily a particular individual. Being a smarty-pants, by nature and by nurture, as well as a lover of mordancy, I thoroughly enjoy that particular angle.

However, the quote that follows, which is a quote of a quote that they recently quoted, is neither inspirational or mordant or something in between. It's a comment on the downside of life in the information age.

"The vast accumulations of knowledge—or at least of information—deposited by the nineteenth century have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance. When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts."

Notice the phrase nineteenth century. This quote is from an essay entitled The Perfect Critic, written by T.S. Elliot --  in 1920 -- and refers to the numerous advances in knowledge made in the 1800s. Fast forward nearly a century and change the word nineteenth to twentieth and it still works. At this point I'm tempted to place another quote, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," the English translation (as everybody knows, GRIN) of an epigram penned by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (now that's a cool name dude). But that's too easy, obvious and cliched, so I won't.

The quotation in question begs a question. If Mr. Elliot is right, and he is, now more than ever, what should I/we/you do about it?

[I don't know if I can, or should, do something about it, says my imaginary gentlereader, after all, my life is complicated enough without...]

Read it again, please. It's only 99 words. Note the last sentence. "And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts."

Or, GFBL -- gut first, brain later -- is triggered. I coined this phrase a while back and promised to expand on it at some future date, but never got around to it. It needs an entire column, but for now, I'm just going to repeat my original grossly oversimplified explanation. Science confirms that under most circumstances we react emotionally first, rationally later. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, would add that in fact, often what we think of as being rational is just rationalizing our not necessarily optimal, sometimes downright goofy emotional behavior.

From Final Jeopardy, Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything by Steven Baker, "...Daniel Kahneman of Princeton redefined these cognitive processes as System 1 and System 2. The intuitive System 1 appeared to represent a primitive part of the mind, perhaps dating from before...our tool-making Cro-Magnon ancestors forty thousand years ago. Its embedded rules, with their biases toward the familiar, steered peopled toward their most basic goals: survival and reproduction. System 2, which appeared to arrive later, involved conscious and deliberate analysis and was far slower."

Or, it's perfectly normal, when confronted with the deluge of data available via the click of a mouse or a tap on a touchscreen, to feel like you're drowning and just go with your gut. Or grab your, um, well, I'll leave that up to you, and jump. Or, just turn the dang thing off and go take a _____ break.

[Okeydoke, but I still...]

...Need to be aware, I would gently suggest, of informational overload in order to improve your chances of not being a victim of your own emotions. This will serve to also dramatically reduce the possibility of walking in front of a bus while hypnotized by your smartphone and going viral on Youtube via some other jokers smartphone.

Now, how, or even if, you try to accomplish this, is up to you. Perhaps you're a happy camper, a world-class multi-tasker, a type A that loves the frantic pace of the culture. A culture that's fragmented, and continues to fragment, into seemingly endless subcultures. Good on ya'! Take care.

However, if you're like me, and often feel like you're smothering from informational overload, may I make a suggestion? Seek out a news source that you trust, one that has the resources, and the integrity, to tell you what's really going on in the world. I'm talking straight news and informed opinion that's clearly labeled opinion, and that strives to maintain a "Chinese wall" between the two.

What we have is mostly infotainment. And it occurs to me it's going to take an entire column to explain what I mean by the term, and why I have a big problem with the phenomenon. An edited stream of consciousness gets ugly sometimes. See, what follows is an homage to the Wall Street Journal and I'm very happy with it and loath to change it. So, forgive me gentlereaders, if I've placed the cart before the horse. Infotainment will be the subject of next week's column.

Which brings us to why I love the Wall Street Journal. If you've read what can be found by clicking on the Just Who Is This Guy Anyway tab of The Flyoverland Crank you know that I call the WSJ my paper of record. If you're not familiar with the WSJ, there's a good chance it's not what you might think. Obviously, I have no way of knowing exactly what that might be, but I've encountered numerous folks over the years that are certain it's the boring, stodgy, house organ of corporate weenie, country club, crony capitalist, evil 1% Depublicans -- which it ain't.

[Being a current events junkie and your DAT (dilettante about town) I read all sorts of things, on a daily basis. But if I were to be tossed into Politically Correct Prison (which seems inevitable) by a kindly judge that decreed I could have access to one source of current events, it would the WSJ.]

What it is, is a newspaper that's been around for a very long time with very high standards. While it's editorial policy, self-described as "free people, free markets," is unashamedly center-right (many of its detractors would say far-right) this policy is restricted to its editorial pages which take up three full pages of the high priced dead trees edition. The rest of the content is well written and objective as possible. This was what I was taught a good newspaper was supposed to be when I went to school in the dark ages.

There's a catch though. I was taught that newspaper articles are written so that a 12-year-old can understand them. The WSJ assumes its readers are a bit more mature and intelligent than that. I have 39 certifiable college credits and even I have to sometimes intellectually stretch to fully understand a given article or editorial. And speaking of the editorial pages again (sorry, it's my favorite part of the publication) there's an intelligent, well spoken, token liberal with a weekly column. Also, nationally and internationally known progressives are regularly given space.

It's not cheap, but the online edition ain't too bad. Considering the quality, it's worth every penny. The thing I like about a dead trees newspaper is that for 24 hours or so it helps me foster the illusion I have a clue. Online editions of national, and many local papers, are different every time you take a look. More on why that's not necessarily a good thing next week.

Have an OK day.

[P.S. Gentlereaders, I've experimented and will continue to experiment with various formats, column lengths, and the like. While my primary motivation was/is developing my writing style, I've always given (minimal) consideration to what I thought a potential publisher and/or advertiser might want to see. 

One of the reasons I don't run ads on my website anymore is the fact I've decided to just let the column happen and go where it (and Marie-Louise) wishes it to go. 

If there are some readers out there that think my shtuff is worth sharing and/or worth a buck or three, fine. If not, so be it.]

©2015 Mark Mehlmauer   (The Flyoverland Crank)

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