Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Email Me at Your Own Risk

If I email someone I don't necessarily expect to hear back right away. Maybe they are busy. Maybe they are in the middle of a break-up or a health crisis. Maybe their son was caught smoking pot and is about to be suspended from school. Maybe they're at a Buddhist retreat or in the middle of a good book. If what I want to communicate is vital, I can always pick up the phone.

I have noticed, though, that this is not everyone's expectation. Take an extra day to answer your personal email and half of your correspondents start to wonder if you're still breathing. Why is this? Back in the horse and buggy era, when people wrote letters, no one thought they had to be answered the second you got them. You had some time to get around to it.

There is no chance that this leisurely timetable will ever be applied to email communications. The accepted practice is, you get it, you answer it. And if you don't the person who sent it thinks that you do not like them anymore, or that you are dead.

So I am working on a new a "Away" message that will explain that I am not dead but merely taking an email holiday:

Ann would really like to get back to you, but all of her circuits are temporarily busy. She is assisting other customers. She has no more available memory, and will resume communications when she has shut down some other operations. She's out of bandwidth and your message will have to wait until she has installed an optimizer, whatever that is.

In short, she is on overload. So, dear correspondents, would you be willing to help by going on an email diet? Nothing too stringent, just a few simple restrictions.

* If I have answered a question you asked in a previous email, it isn't necessary to write back and thank me. It is thanks enough not to have to open an email that simply says, "Thanks."

* No need to forward an article that appeared in a newspaper that I read everyday.

* If you are a member of my book club and you agree with a critical opinion that someone else has expressed in an email, it doesn't really add much to write back, "Me too"

* While I am delighted to be invited to your party, once is enough. I don't have to be reminded via who else is coming.

* And, finally, if we are both on the same email listserv, and you have something to say to one other member, please do not click "Reply All." "All" will thank you, especially me.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stupid Smart People

Stupid smart people. Who are they? I don't mean "Smart People Who Do Stupid things," as in the title of a book by a Yale psychologist. Everyone sometimes does dumb, self-destructive things, including smart people.

I'm talking about people who are widely believed to be smart and yet who are, in fact, really stupid. Stupid smart people typically boast impressive credentials, yet promote concepts and policies that ultimately prove to be false, and even dangerous. Think of them as "idiots who went to Yale."

I'm not referring to a certain White House inhabitant who also attended the Harvard Business School, courtesy of family connections. I mean people who actually qualified for admission to distinguished institutions.

(There also are people who are very bright, but are generally underestimated because they don't have posh educations, or even much education at all. Smart stupid people, if you will. Sadly, members of this group are rarely in a position to influence the public - though they are masters at detecting the bullshit produced by the stupid smart people.)

You will find stupid smart people everywhere, but especially in fields where talking the talk is more important than walking the walk. Politics and academia, notably. Also in foundations and think tanks, home to many has-beens and wannabes in the same lines of work.

Start with Donald Rumsfeld. He graduated from Princeton and was admitted to Georgetown Law School - yet for all his credentials, as Secretary of Defense he clung to his misguided Iraq policy, even when confronted with its disastrous consequences. His famous "I'm not into this detail stuff" illustrates another common characteristic of stupid smart people: they arrogantly defend and excuse their own incompetence.

Academia is a great bastion of stupid smart people. The highest concentration on any given campus is often in the social science buildings. Harvard's Daniel Gilbert, to name one, is a Harvard psychology professor whose recent book on happiness research has been getting a lot of attention. His premise is that both happy and unhappy events have only a brief effect on our sense of well-being. The 2004 presidential election is one of his prime examples. Gilbert contends that we on the losing side may have imagined we'd be miserable if John Kerry lost. Soon after, though, we would seldom think about it.

I don't know about up in Cambridge, but around where I live the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the current administration hasn't let up for a single day. If anything, my friends and acquaintances are MORE unhappy about the election than we ever would have thought possible, thus disproving Gilbert's supposedly ground-breaking theory.

Then there is Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton, and possibly the stupidest smart person alive. His utilitarian approach to ethical issues has led him to conclude that senile old people and other "non-persons" should be euthanized to conserve resources for the young. He has long urged readers to "put feelings aside" when dealing with dispensable family members.

Then his mother developed Alzheimer's. He was shocked to find himself unable to follow his own recommendations -- because, he said, "It's different when it's your mother."

Talking the talk carried Singer to a named chair at Princeton. But when it came time to walk the walk, the professor was unable to practice what he had so successfully professed. People do have special relationships with their families, he belatedly came to understand. It is different when it's your mother,

Any smart stupid person on earth could have told him that.

The Truth About Rudy, pt 2

What is the truth about Rudy? Well, that depends on whether you happened to read page 6 or page 35 of the New York Post last Friday. On page 35 he's gaining on Romney in New Hampshire and very likely to take the nomination. On page 6, he's fast wearing out his welcome among the Republican conservative base. It seems they recently have encountered the flaky (to put it politely) Rudy. Here in New York, we know him well.

Never mind his political positions (which seem to change from week to week anyway), he considers himself exempt from having to behave in socially acceptable ways. All his recent pandering to the Right may be undone by the latest much-reported episode of boorishness. The assembled gun fanciers of the National Rifle Association were not happy when he broke off right in the middle of addressing them to take a cell phone call from his wife.

And then attempted to justify this lapse by (what else?) invoking 9/11. Inappropriate? Arrogant? Bizarre? Yes, yes, and yes. Also, overweening, peculiar and off-the-wall.

In my post a couple of months ago, "The Truth About Rudy," I repeated an ex-constituent's harsh take on "America's Mayor." Columnist Jimmy Breslin spoke for many New Yorkers when he wrote that Giuliani is "seriously miswired."

This latest cell phone incident helps explain why we New Yorkers are more likely to diagnose Rudy Giuliani than to support him.

9/11 Fatigue? A Modest Proposal

As it has been for past five years, the 6th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center was much in the news. This year, though, there is a public debate about whether the time has come to move on. Yes, says Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, who has been pushing the city to let go of its grief. No, says Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security. “Some people ask the question: . . . has the time come to move on? I will tell you that as long as I draw a breath, I will not move on and neither will the . . . people in my department.”

I’m with the mayor. I feel sympathy for the victims’ relatives, and believe they should have fitting ceremonies to commemorate the tragic day. But I don’t think they are well served by perpetually channeling their grief into disputes over how their loved ones will be memorialized. And I don’t think anybody is well served by massive granite monuments dedicated to the 9/11 dead. (In general I think all memorials should either be impermanent or in the form of parks that encourage quiet contemplation.)

The attack on the World Trade Center already has the most affecting memorial I have ever seen anywhere. Every year, during the days surrounding 9/11, twin towers of light are beamed into the sky over New York. Every time I see them they take my breath away and I remember.

I have another idea for a memorial, one that might also help the victims’ families to move on. Instead of funneling huge sums into concrete remembrances, why not use those funds to succor the living, the men and women who risked their lives at Ground Zero and who are now gravely ill. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to those who perished would be to care for the people who tried to save them.