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On Happiness

Lately I have been thinking a lot about happiness. That elusive state of grace that happens serendipitously, sneaking up to us when we least expect it and suddenly changing the way we see the world and the way others see us. It’s a state of mind when, at least for me, is the easiest to experience what mindfulness and self-awareness might mean. It’s a heightened sense of perception, which can put you in contact with your inner self in the most deep, raw level, exposing one’s soul to oneself in ways that we usually don’t experience.
It’s almost painful.
It can make you cry with the feeling of being overwhelmed by every little thing we experience, as if our senses all of a sudden were in hyperdrive. It’s not just stopping and smelling the rose. The smell of the rose becomes so intense that it overwhelms us. As Claudio Baglioni aptly puts it: “imparerai che per morire ti basterà un tramonto in una gioia che fa male di più della malinconia” (C. Baglioni, La Vita E’ Adesso) A joy that hurts more than melancholy.

I found that more often than not a state of happiness is accompanied by a sense of expectation. The following quote, from the movie ” The Hours” summarizes it very well:
“I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.” ( Clarissa Vaughn – The Hours)

“It was the moment. Right.Then”. And yet, a sense of something more to come, of possibility and opening to something new. Un vento nuovo tra le braccia, to quote Baglioni again. So, it makes sense that it might be a a state of high instability, of an unstable equilibrium of our inner senses and perception, which can be pushed in any unpredictable direction at any given time.

I finally saw the movie Rush yesterday, and this quote from the Niki Lauda’s character struck me:
“Happiness is your biggest enemy. It weakens you. Puts doubts in your mind. Suddenly you have something to lose.” ( Niki Lauda – Rush)

Somebody might argue that a state of happiness might make us less productive, interpreting Lauda’s quote as coming from his fear that his newly found happiness would diminish his determination to win races ( see for example http://petrakidd.com/2013/09/19/is-happiness-the-enemy/)
I don’t think happiness will make us less productive: in my opinion it might actually do the opposite. If we see happiness as a heightened level of perception about the preciousness of life, of living in the moment and absorb the experience with the widest spread of senses which we can use, it might make us want to do more and more and more. Because it’s inevitable to realize that this state is not stable and will disappear as morning haze and the fleeting glimpse into new possibilities will cede control to the more mundane tasks of every day life.

In ancient Greece, happiness was deemed a rare occurrence and reserved only for those whom the gods favored. The idea that one could obtain happiness for oneself was considered hubris, a kind of overreaching pride, and was to be met with harsh punishment. Probably because a state of happiness can put us in contact with that elusive deeper meaning of life, and make us feel gods-like (in a good sense) Finally being able to grasp reality for what it is beyond out everyday flatness. Apparently too extreme and something that the society of that time, with its aptly crafted religion, could not control. After all they killed Socrates for saying, among other things that happiness is obtainable by mere human effort..

Recognizing and living in a state of happiness happens rarely. Once a in a blue moon. At least to me. Most likely because I am not practicing mindfulness enough. But lately I have been thinking a lot about happiness because something else happened that has to do with my perception of time. Time is rushing forward at a speed that I don’t seem to be able to control anymore. I measure time in months, propelled forward by a continous sense of urgency and expectation. However, despite this feeling of being on a bullet-train, I spend an incredible amount of time just being “in the moment”, day in and day out. I wasn’t able to do it just a few years ago. Maybe it’s because I am at a moment in my life when I can start looking back and connect a few dots, and make sense of many things that have happened. But at the same time I have this strong feeling that this is just another beginning. Is this the feeling of being “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” ?

Atlas Shrugged

I finished reading Atlas Shrugged last night. The third part was much different than the first two and much more captivating. It allowed me to go on, with these 1069 pages, being glued to the last chapters, until 2.00AM.

So, what is Rand’s philosophy? As she said: “in essence, it is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

She is strongly opposed to what she calls the mystics of the spirit ( those who try to stop our capacity to use our rational mind by invoking faith) and the mystics of the muscle ( those who are clouding our capacity to use our mind by invoking the greater social good)
Use your mind, always, because “an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. In place of your dream of an omniscient automaton, accept the fact that any knowledge man acquires is acquired by his own will and effort, and that that is his distinction in the universe, that is his nature, his morality, his glory.”
and “Life is the choice—the dedication to one’s highest potential”

The chapter “here it’s John Galt speaking” is her 70-pages manifesto. Many of the things she says, I agree with, wholeheartedly.

There is a vision of humanity divided in two broad categories: doers ( people of the mind) and takers ( people who have given up on using their minds and rational aspect)
A “corrupted moral system” has been put in place by the latter, which uses the sense of duty of the doer (who is the one carrying the world on their shoulders, the ATLASes of this world) and his/her love of for this world, for Life, for making things work. The takers have put in place a system that victimizes the doer and make him/her keep doing things, out of a sense of pity, duty, honor…. Hank Rearden’s character represents this, until he finally finds out what this travesty really is and accepts the responsibility of having being the first to act this out allowing the parasites to feed off him, so to speak.

A few notable quotes, on the incredible importance of the people of the mind:

“In proportion to the mental energy he spent, the man who creates a new invention receives but a small percentage of his value in terms of material payment, no matter what fortune he makes, no matter what millions he earns. But the man who works as a janitor in the factory producing that invention, receives an enormous payment in proportion to the mental effort that his job requires of him. [] The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains. Such is the nature of the ‘competition’ between the strong and the weak”
“the man who produces an idea in any field of rational endeavor—the man who discovers new knowledge—is the permanent benefactor of humanity.”
“The better the mind, the longer the range. A man whose vision extends to a shanty, might continue to build on your quicksands, to grab a fast profit and run. A man who envisions skyscrapers, will not. Nor will he give ten years of unswerving devotion to the task of inventing a new product, when he knows that gangs of entrenched mediocrity are juggling the laws against him, to tie him, restrict him and force him to fail, but should he fight them and struggle and succeed, they will seize his rewards and his invention.”

Isn’t this what is happening all around, isn’t it the struggle of an Obama vs the mediocrity of Tea Partiers  and all the clowns with them?
They managed to sell ATLAS SHRUGGED as right-wing propaganda, when in reality this is a cry to the horror for a society ruled by mediocrity.

On faith and un-checked, irrational beliefs:
“What, then, is his standard of knowledge and truth? Whatever others believe, is their answer. There is no knowledge, they teach, there’s only faith: your belief that you exist is an act of faith, no more valid than another’s faith in his right to kill you; the axioms of science are an act of faith, no more valid than a mystic’s faith in revelations; the belief that electric light can be produced by a generator is an act of faith, no more valid than the belief that it can be produced by a rabbit’s foot kissed under a stepladder on the first of the moon—truth is whatever people want it to be, and people are everyone except yourself; reality is whatever people choose to say it is, there are no objective facts, there are only people’s arbitrary wishes—a man who seeks knowledge in a laboratory by means of test tubes and logic is an old-fashioned, superstitious fool; a true scientist is a man who goes around taking public polls—and if it weren’t for the selfish greed of the manufacturers of steel girders, who have a vested interest in obstructing the progress of science, you would learn that New York City does not exist, because a poll of the entire population of the world would tell you by a landslide majority that their beliefs forbid its existence.”

To all those people who in this era claim that their opinion their ignorance has the same value of my knowledge, of my earned years of studying science. Comes to mind the silly ones talking about  the uselessness of vaccines… what do they know, without being trained??? Try and get it!

“Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator. A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement. He wants them to surrender their consciousness to his assertions, his edicts, his wishes, his whims—as his consciousness is surrendered to theirs. He wants to deal with men by means of faith and force—he finds no satisfaction in their consent if he must earn it by means of facts and reason. Reason is the enemy he dreads and, simultaneously, considers precarious: reason, to him, is a means of deception, he feels that men possess some power more potent than reason—and only their causeless belief or their forced obedience can give him a sense of security, a proof that he has gained control of the mystic endowment he lacked. His lust is to command, not to convince: conviction requires an act of independence and rests on the absolute of an objective reality.
[] he is a parasite in spirit, who plunders the ideas created by others—so he falls below the level of a lunatic who creates his own distortion of reality, to the level of a parasite of lunacy who seeks a distortion created by others.”
“Make no mistake about the character of mystics. To undercut your consciousness has always been their only purpose throughout the ages—and power, the power to rule you by force, has always been their only lust.”

“It is a conspiracy of all those who seek, not to live, but to get away with living, those who seek to cut just one small corner of reality and are drawn, by feeling, to all the others who are busy cutting other corners—a conspiracy that unites by links of evasion all those who pursue a zero as a value: the professor who, unable to think, takes pleasure in crippling the minds of his students, the businessman who, to protect his stagnation, takes pleasure in chaining the ability of competitors, the neurotic who, to defend his self-loathing, takes pleasure in breaking men of self-esteem, the incompetent who takes pleasure in defeating achievement, the mediocrity who takes pleasure in demolishing greatness, the eunuch who takes pleasure in the castration of all pleasure—and all their intellectual munition-makers, all those who preach that the immolation of virtue will transform vices into virtue.”

And so the John Galt of this world can see that:
“You propose to establish a social order based on the following tenets: that you’re incompetent to run your own life, but competent to run the lives of others—that you’re unfit to exist in freedom, but fit to become an omnipotent ruler—that you’re unable to earn your living by the use of your own intelligence, but able to judge politicians and to vote them into jobs of total power over arts you have never seen, over sciences you have never studied, over achievements of which you have no knowledge, over the gigantic industries where you, by your own definition of your capacity, would be unable successfully to fill the job of assistant greaser.”

“They are taking you back to darker ages than any your history has known. Their goal is not the era of pre-science, but the era of pre-language. Their purpose is to deprive you of the concept on which man’s mind, his life and his culture depend: the concept of an objective reality. Identify the development of a human consciousness—and you will know the purpose of their creed.”

“Take a look around you, you savages who stutter that ideas are created by men’s means of production, that a machine is not the product of human thought, but a mystical power that produces human thinking. You have never discovered the industrial age—and you cling to the morality of the barbarian eras when a miserable form of human subsistence was produced by the muscular labor of slaves. Every mystic had always longed for slaves, to protect him from the material reality he dreaded. But you, you grotesque little atavists, stare blindly at the skyscrapers and smokestacks around you and dream of enslaving the material providers who are scientists, inventors, industrialists. When you clamor for public ownership of the means of production, you are clamoring for public ownership of the mind. I have taught my strikers that the answer you deserve is only: ‘Try and get it.’ “

“The only value men can offer me is the work of their mind. When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.”

As for helping your neighbor:
“Do you ask if it’s ever proper to help another man? No—if he claims it as his right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes—if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle.”
I was always told  “Aiutati che Dio ti aiuta”, ” Help yourself and God will help you”. Do not expect somebody else to step in, take responsibility!

“Use your mind and skill in private, extend your knowledge, develop your ability, but do not share your achievements with others. Do not try to produce a fortune, with a looter riding on your back.”

And a proposal, for a different, more just society:

“The political system we will build is contained in a single moral premise: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force. Every man will stand or fall, live or die by his rational judgment. If he fails to use it and falls, he will be his only victim. If he fears that his judgment is inadequate, he will not be given a gun to improve it. If he chooses to correct his errors in time, he will have the unobstructed example of his betters, for guidance in learning to think; but an end will be put to the infamy of paying with one life for the errors of another.”

The heroes here are characters with the accents of late nineteen century industrialists. And here, in my opinion, Rand’s economic vision and philosophical vision clash with an incredible naiveté. Did she not understand?  Or what did she really understood when portraying another group of industrialists, the Jim Taggarts and Orren Boyles, the ones who are really plunders of wealth and spirit and so resemble the ones ruling us now?

How could Hank Rearden or Dagny Taggart survive in an economy that is disastrously sinking, after the minds have gone on strike? How could they still have wealth, when what they do is going relentlessly against the mediocre majority ? How about these masses she describes, at times becoming aware and disappearing as well, at times a blind mob with no mind…Here it’s what I think she misses: the main characters keep going as super-heroes, but in reality they would have been defeated over and over. An error of logic ? Or a calculated way to open the door to the blabbering about socialism and statism etc etc, when in reality her socialism and statism is embodied by the same class of corrupted industrialists, the Jim Taggarts, Orren Boyles and the hedge fund managers of today?

And here it’s the joke of the right-wing mediocrity of these day, who fails to see that they are Jim Taggart and Mr. Thompson  and never, never they will be the Hank Rearden and Ellis Wyatt and Ken Danagger.

How could a person who is intellectually honest not see that this book is not what it has been portrayed?

Finally the Love story: Dagny and John Galt.
A love story that is giving hope to find those who are truly above the mediocrity, that one, as Dagny describes, who always inspired her, even before she knew him. A John Galt who is a perfection of rationality, intelligence and an almost super-natural demeanor, like an R. Daneel Olivaw’s quality. The love story is tender, incredibly beautiful, with super-heroes characters that soar: Francisco, Hank, Galt and Dagny. The love story is also super-human. Like a Kathryn Janeway character. The first chapter of part III, describing  the period Dagny spends in the Valley is one of the best science-fiction chapters I had ever read. The awe of a new society, when finally people are at peace: with themselves, with their rational being, with their loving being.

“their persons filled each other’s awareness, as the sum and meaning of the future—but the sum included the knowledge of all that had had to be earned, before the person of another being could come to embody the value of one’s existence.”


since

“The only value men can offer me is the work of their mind. When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter; if I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.”

As each of these heroes pledges that
“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Because:

“The symbol of all relationships among such men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws. A trader does not squander his body as fodder or his soul as alms. Just as he does not give his work except in trade for material values, so he does not give the values of his spirit—his love, his friendship, his esteem—except in payment and in trade for human virtues, in payment for his own selfish pleasure, which he receives from men he can respect.”

And so:

“The last of my words will be addressed to those heroes who might still be hidden in the world, those who are held prisoner, not by their evasions, but by their virtues and their desperate courage. My brothers in spirit, check on your virtues and on the nature of the enemies you’re serving. Your destroyers hold you by means of your endurance, your generosity, your innocence, your love—the endurance that carries their burdens—the generosity that responds to their cries of despair—the innocence that is unable to conceive of their evil and gives them the benefit of every doubt, refusing to condemn them without understanding and incapable of understanding such motives as theirs—the love, your love of life, which makes you believe that they are men and that they love it, too. But the world of today is the world they wanted; life is the object of their hatred. Leave them to the death they worship. In the name of your magnificent devotion to this earth, leave them, don’t exhaust the greatness of your soul on achieving the triumph of the evil of theirs. Do you hear me . . . my love?”

 

On education loans…

Another disaster unfolding…
Today article from Gail Collins is spot on! I really like her!

There was a time when kids whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for college just worked their way through. But the price has gone up so fast — more than twice as fast as inflation over the last two decades — that it’s not an option any more, unless the student in question is planning to be a sophomore through 2020, or is exploring the possibility of part-time employment in armed robbery.

Students borrowed $19 billion in private loans last year, from a bewildering array of options. (Does anybody find it strange that Congress is patting itself on the back for passing a law that protects college students from being offered credit cards, while they’re encouraged to commit themselves to tens of thousands of dollars in education debt?)

Read more at the full article, and the comments section!

This is the same problem as health care….
As one comments noted:

Higher education (I get a laugh out of the fact that undergraduate education is considered higher education now) is no longer a right of all, it is a privilege. A privilege that either leaves kids indebted for life (after school payments they take on other loans like house mortgage etc.) or for which parents save money all their lives, change their retirement plan and put up with abuse at work aso they can send their kids to college.

Why can’t we have health care and higher education not being a privilege anymore but a right to all?

Credit Cards…

This article today on the NYT is interesting… credit cards are after good customers!
As one of those customers who pays in full every month and enjoys cash back (1%) for each dollar spent and no annual fee, I always knew that the perks were a result of penalizing with usury laws those who cannot manage their credit.
I, as many others, was not the best customer for my credit card companies, since I was probably costing them, instead of feeding their revenue.
So, it does make sense that this “free ride” might come to an end.

On the other hand, if my card companies thinks that I’ll accept no grace periods (!!!) they’re well off track…I’ll revert to my debit cards instantaneusly.
What was the point of paying in time, if not avoiding interests? Why should I start paying interests now?

I might accept a yearly fee, for the convenience of having a card that could be used in emergencies, but that will be it. And if online companies will not accept debit cards, we will revert to non-online companies (remember those travel agencies down the street?) and that bubble will also disappear (and maybe some local job will come back).

If the credit card companies think that now they can force on those who can manage their expenditures and credit no grace periods they are wildly wrong.

There will always be people in need of credit and if the current credit card companies will not be able to make obscene profits by charging usury interests anymore and will not realize that their good customers are an asset, they will disappear, as the auto industry dinosaurs. Somebody else will step up, maybe willing to accept less profit, but able to adapt to a new business model.
These tactics aimed at good customers are only meant to scare the public, but the good customers are smarter than the credit card companies, because we know how to live without them. They will only loose those customers. So be it….

And here it’s Jon Stewart last night… a good lesson for CNBC….
From the AP:

Stewart said he and Cramer are both snake-oil salesman, only ”The Daily Show” is labeled as such. He claimed CNBC shirked its journalistic duty by believing corporate lies, rather than being an investigative ”powerful tool of illumination.” And he alleged CNBC was ultimately in bed with the businesses it covered — that regular people’s stocks and 401Ks were ”capitalizing your adventure.”

For his part, Cramer disagreed with Stewart on a few points, but mostly acknowledged that he could have done a better job foreseeing the economic collapse: ”We all should have seen it more.”

Cramer said CNBC was ”fair game” to the criticism and acknowledged the network was perhaps overeager to believe the information it was fed from corporations.

”I, too, like you, want to have a successful show,” said Cramer, defending his methods on ”Mad Money.” He later added: ”Should we have been constantly pointing out the mistakes that were made? Absolutely. I truly wish we had done more.”

Happy Birthday WWW!

From an e-mail that the CERN director sent out today:


Date: Wed, 11 Mar 2009 17:51:31 +0100
From: Rolf Heuer
To: cern-personnel
Subject: 20th anniversary of WWW


Twenty years ago this month, something happened at CERN that would change the world forever: Tim Berners-Lee handed a document to his supervisor Mike Sendall entitled “Information Management : a Proposal”. “Vague, but exciting” is how Mike described it, and he gave Tim the nod to take his proposal forward. The following year, the World Wide Web was born.

With 2009 being declared the Year of Creativity and Innovation by the European Union, the 20th anniversary of the Web serves as a timely reminder of the powerful role that creativity in basic research plays as a driver of innovation.

Right to Bare Arms…


Not only we have a smart President, but also a beautiful First Lady! Go, Michelle!

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