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51 Tips For a Successful Life

(1) Get married.  Then get divorced.  Then get remarried. (2) Every day, ask yourself, do I feel like showering today?  If the answer is, “yes,” shower. (3) Be in environments with the right amount of light. (4) Subtly vary your bedtime and waking times every day, so that you never quite settle into a pattern. Same for mealtimes. (5) Respond to emails immediately, except if they seem important, then trust that you’ll remember them at some indeterminate moment in the future. (6) Be afraid for your children: Will they become good people?  Will bad things happen to them? Will they love me when they grow up? These are good questions to ponder. (8) Floss for the first few days after every dentist appointment. (9) Sometimes, write all day, from morning to night.  Other times, read all day.  Yet other days should be nothing but meetings, as payment for the days of the first two kinds. (10) Make sudden, unexpected changes in your appearance every few years. (11) Allow yourself to admire (som…
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What Fake Money Can't Buy

Recently I emailed a friend a question, and he wanted to know what I would pay for an answer.  There was no prospect of actual payment: so long as I put a number on how much the answer was worth to me, he would answer.  His ‘price’ for answering was the knowledge of how much I wanted an answer.  As a matter of fact, I really wanted him to answer, so at first I was relieved to think that I could extract one so easily.  All I needed to do was produce a price, and I’d get my answer. 
I discovered, to my surprise, that I was unable to put a number on the value of the answer.  I couldn’t even fix a range: I was unable to rule out $1 as being too low, or $100,000 as being too high. I went as far as typing a dollar sign into an email, in anticipation that I would just write down whatever number flitted into my head. None did.  This was frustrating.  Why couldn’t I force myself to just write down some number?  
I found myself blankly incapable of proceeding—like those times when someone asks yo…

How Much Longer Till We Get There?

How Much Longer Till We Get There?
What’s the most annoying thing that kids do?  This is a tough contest, but for me, the prize goes to insistent repetitions of my title question on cross-country drives.  What do I hate about it so much?  Is it that it’s an expression of impatience dressed up as something beautiful, a question?  Is it the fact that the demand—I need to be there now!—is one I cannot meet, and the kid knows full well I cannot meet?  Is it the prospect of bottomless possibilities for repetition that stem from its re-askability at every “now”?  Is it, perhaps, that I am wondering the same myself, and grumpy that there is no one can nag?  (When one of my TAs came to my office to cry about having made a student cry, I wondered, “Whose office do I get to cry in?”)
It doesn’t really matter why I hate this so much, the important thing is that I do.  And I have three children, all of whom are genetically related to me, which is to say, none of them is a paragon of patience. …

The American Conversation Problem: Three Proposals

Tonight over dinner, my family was pondering the fact that, like most families, we lie inside an ideological bubble, shut off from understanding the points of view of many Americans.  We have not engaged much with people who live in different parts of the country, or differ from us with respect to ethnicity, socio-economic status, or religion.  Or what about Americans who face (or don’t face) various disabilities that we don’t (or do) face?  And my children were alarmed to learn that conversations of this kind online often do not go well.  
Call this, “the American Conversation problem”: how can we get better at talking civilly to people who are very different from ourselves, and whose points of view we are thereby likely to caricature?   
We came up with three proposals.  
(1)  Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Arguments App
This is an app that would anonymously pair demographically different people for a brief argument about some political issue of their choice.  Think of it: you are waiting for t…

Are Leaders Altruists?

“Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 32:52)  
Moses doesn’t get to enjoy the happiness he creates for his people.  This is a fact about leaders more generally.  Plato comments that citizens in a good city “would fight in order not to rule”; for they would understand that a ruler “doesn’t by nature seek his own advantage but that of his subject. And everyone, knowing this, would rather be benefited by others than take the trouble to benefit them.” Leaders are altruists.  
In fact, I will defend an even stronger claim—leaders are the only systematic altruists—as well as one I take to follow from it—leaders must be unemotional, detatched, and rational. You might think I mean that leaders must resist or ignore emotion. Instead, I mean that leaders must learn to operate without the emotional bonds that govern most human relationships, because of the asymmetrical and distant—altruistic—nature of …


When I’m alone late at night on a deserted road, I like to walk on the double yellow lines.  One time I decided to stop and lie down, right there in the middle of the road.  I kept myself narrow, arms pinned, so cars could pass on either side.  But I wasn’t invisible, and I alarmed a kind policeman who happened to drive by me.  After determining that I was not dead, drunk or high, he concluded I was suicidal.  We had a long talk. It didn’t help for me to explain that if I had wanted to be run over I would’ve moved several feet in one direction or the other.  And picked a busier road.  He wanted to know, why, if I didn’t want to be run over, was I lying in the middle of the road?  
There were so many reasons. I wanted to see the night sky from the perspective of the road; I wanted to be in this secret spot that always got passed by and never occupied; most of all, I just wanted to feel what it was like to lie there, with the double yellow lines running under me from head to heels.  But …