26 November 2010

Some (un)conventional advice

Shop for groceries when you are hungry

Granted, everyone responds to hunger and grocery stores differently. But if you are a young person living on your own for the first time, the conventional wisdom -- "Don't go shopping when you are hungry" -- doesn't work.

When I did it this way, I ended out purchasing the ingredients to cook smart, healthy meals. The vegetables rotted within a few weeks and the pasta gradually morphed into part of the cupboard. By separating the act of shopping from the anticipation of eating, I was making purchases based on an idealized (and therefore unreal) version of my culinary self. But in reality, I did not have the patience or interest in cooking.

After changing habits, I did purchase some junk food, but not that much, and at least I ate it. But by shopping hungry, most of what I purchased was marginally healthy stuff that I would actually take the time to eat-- bagels, deli turkey slices, microwavable breaded chicken, etc.

Once you've established that routine, you can then evolve superior habits by deliberately indulging cravings for more complicated meals. A good intermediate step here would be pre-formed hamburger patties that you can slap into a pan and eat within minutes. From there, you can move on to pasta dishes, omelettes, or whatever moderately simple stuff suits your taste.

It's OCO, not OCD

Yes, some people really do have an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But like most behavioral disorders, it's a misapplication of an evolutionarily advantageous behavior. More to the point, people who are often referred to as 'OCD' (even by themselves) are really just orderly people. It's a personality trait that serves a purpose-- just like being creative, stubborn, or social. People establish routines for a reason, and although any one instance of action might seem pointless, every instance contributes to the maintenance of a near-perfect habit.

Once upon a time, I was wearing some sideways-pocketed slacks when I sat down in a bank while waiting for a friend. My keys slipped out, all unnoticed. Ninety seconds after leaving the bank, I went back for my keys.

How did I know they were gone? Obsessive-compulsive pocket-checking. It's one of several OC behaviors that I engage in, and it saves me a hell of a lot of trouble. And even if you don't much care about your keys, isn't that obsessive routine mainenance the sort of thing you'd like from the guy running a power plant? Or the pilot of your airplane? Or your physician?

Of course it is.

Don't use gadgets to teach children language skills.

This may surprise you, but anyone with a factory and a marketing team can slap together a bunch of crap and call it "educational". Not all of it is necessarily crap, and if you buy some software and/or videos to teach, say, history & science, it might even be useful.

But language skills are not information. The are part of the very process of thinking. And the mechanisms for learning language skills are both incredibly sophisticated and complex beyond our current understanding.

So-called "educational" videos that purport to teach kids new words have actually been shown to make things worse than just leaving the television off and letting the kids listen to adults. Sitting a kid in front of a computer, or some electronic reading assistant, to teach him how to read is the equivalent of strapping robotic servos onto your baby's legs and then putting him on a 30-degree incline while he's learning to crawl. He'll learn to do one thing using specific tools, but his ability to apply that learning to the next level (walking, running) will be utterly devastated.

Children who learn to read out of books (or off a computer screen, if necessary, but without any software assistance) can apply their language skills elsewhere. They can read signs, they can read notes, they can learn to write, type, and text, and-- of course-- they can learn to interact with a computer. But it doesn't work the other way around.

Honesty Is Power

Humans are naturally good liars. Unfortunately. I have occasionally pondered why we evolved such a destructive skill. Partly, I think it's a necessary consequence of the theory of mind. After all, without a concept of untruth, we wouldn't wouldn't be able to imagine hypothetical situations, plan for various possibilities, or even tell stories. In addition, it seems to be a necessary skill for everyone to have if even one person has it, lest we be too easily deceived.

But in practice, it's not a good practice. Let's say I don't want to go to your birthday party because I'd rather hang out at the bar; but I tell you that I'm helping a friend move. Because of the lie, I am forced to spin off an entire alternate reality, one that I-- not you-- have to work to maintain. When the subjects of parties, bars, and my fictional friend come up, I am forced to steer the conversation away, cut things short, or invent new lies to cover the first.

Lying is a response to weakness and fear. In some bizarre hypothetical jungle scenario, that might be useful, but in the modern social world it is not. In the real world of adult interaction, lying causes the weakness and fear, not the other way around.

If you admit your own shortcomings ("sorry, I like to drink too much") you destroy the grounds others have for judging and attacking you based on those shortcomings. At the same time, you make it more difficult for them to deny their own shortcomings. If you are frank about your reaction to a situation ("that party sounds like it's going to be boring"), you make your word more trusted and therefore more valuable. In the party vs moving vs bar scenario, the next time your friend plans a party, he will be especially eager to hear your opinion, and doubly pleased if you think the party is interesting.

I pride myself on being honest, but if there is one person I can identify who exceeds me, it is my mother. She is a frail-seeming woman of 61 years with a mild speech defect. But because of her reputation for truthfulness, she can be downright intimidating. People with more apparent skills, stature, or youth, and even her own workplace managers are wary of crossing her. She is immune to counterattack and deflection because she has no deceptions or embarrassments to defend. If she offers complaint or criticism, it cannot be dismissed as random griping or vindictive falsehood, because she never engages in either. And when she gives suggestions, praise, or offers, she draws a much more attentive response because her words are known to be genuine.

Naturally, the ability to "intimidate" through honesty is not something that can be wielded haphazardly. It's a trait you can only abuse one time. Thankfully.

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ViolaNut said...

Can I borrow your mom? I have some people I need to cut down to size. ;-)

And as for the shopping-while-hungry-thing - oh hell yeah!

Jan Morrison said...

telling the truth IS power because you don't need a good memory. Just your regular one and besides all those little white lies add up and become WHITEWASH and who wants to be painted with that? Not me.

CA Heaven said...

That's some interesting thoughts and ideas. Great post, to the point. I really liked the "If you admit your own shortcomings ... "

I agree that lying is not a good thing (unless you're a writer or storyteller), but in some situations I can be in favor of leaving a few things unsaid.

Cold As Heaven

Dunx said...

The OCO observation rings very true for me. I once started developing a Pedant Code - like the Geek Code, only more accurate - and in my justifying remarks I said that most of the modern world would not be possible without pedants.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting observations! I agree about telling the truth making life a whole lot easier. Although one of my favorite writing craft books is titled, "Telling Lies for Fun and Profit." :)

Shaharizan Perez said...

Jason, you have articulated so eloquently what I have been telling other educators and parents for years, concerning teaching language skills.

Take "Hooked on Phonics," for instance. It teaches children to decode words but it doesn't account for those irregular sight words or learning words in the context of a story or paragraph. Kids won't be able to adapt and problem solve the learning of language skills just by sounding out words.

I'm not saying that I don't approve of teaching children phonemics but it must be accompanied by other methods of learning language skills.

Hart Johnson said...

This was great, jason!@ I think that last--the point about the disarming honesty, may be part of why I get along so much better as a writer than a ... erm... person. I'm just not brave enough to announce my shortcomings in real life (maybe one on one, but not to a crowd) but online... NO PROBLEM, and I think you're right... people respond well because they believe they know YOU rather than a facade, if you are open like that.

Ca88andra said...

I must admit I'm better at food shopping when I'm not hungry. Being hungry just makes me pile unnecessary items into the trolley! But what works for one doesn't always work for another.