The Word for Today: Paraprosdokian

Dave AvatarKnowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit: wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. This sentence is an example of a paraprosdokian.

Look the word up in your dictionary: “p-a-r-a-p-r-o-s-d-o-k-i-a-n.” If you can find it, let me know where you found it. I tried, and I can’t find it in any traditional dictionary, including the Oxford English Dictionary, which I rely on as my my trusted reference work for the meaning of words. I was able to find a definition in the Urban Dictionary, a web-based, online dictionary, originally intended as a dictionary of slang or cultural words or phrases not typically found in standard dictionaries, but now used to define any word or phrase. According to the Urban Dictionary, paraprosdokian is:

The term for a figure of speech in which a sentence or phrase has an unexpected or surprising ending. Often used for humorous effect, and thus heavily used by comedians.

I prefer the definition I found in Wikipedia:

paraprosdokian /pærəprɒsˈdkiən/ is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists. Some paraprosdokians not only change the meaning of an early phrase, but they also play on the double meaning of a particular word.

According to Wikipedia, the word  comes from the Greek “para“, meaning “against” and “prosdokia“, meaning “expectation”. Canadian linguist and etymology author William Gordon Casselman argues that, while the word is now in wide circulation, “paraprosdokian” (or “paraprosdokia”) is not a term of classical (or medieval) Greek or Latin rhetoric, but is a newly coined term from the late 20th-century.  [It’s relatively recent introduction to the lexicon may serve to explain its absence from the O.E.D.] Other students of language argue that the term appears, albeit infrequently, in at least a few 19th century volumes, and may have actual roots in early Greek writing on rhetoric.

churchillI’d certainly never heard of the word before, but encountered it in an email from a friend, who forwarded a list of twenty or so examples of this delightful figure of speech. Winston Churchill was apparently a fan of the paraprosdokian, though if Mr. Casselman is correct, Sir Winston would never have referred to these classic lines as such:

“A modest man, who has much to be modest about.” —Winston Churchill on Clement Atlee

“There, but for the grace of God, goes God.” —Winston Churchill about a pompous fellow politician.

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.”

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Here are my Top Ten Paraprodokians:

top1010. Everything comes to those who wait… except a cat.

9. I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it. – Groucho Marx

8. Don’t argue with an idiot; he’ll drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

7. I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather, not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

6. Light travels faster than sound; that’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

5. If I agreed with you we’d both be wrong.

4. Some cause happiness wherever they go. Others, whenever they go. – Oscar Wilde

3. Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

2. We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

And my all-time favorite:

1. The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits. – Albert Einstein

What are some of your favorites?

Ode to Doughnuts, in Infinite Variety

Dave AvatarWhat is it that is so appealing about doughnuts? At their essence, doughnuts are lumps of sweet yeast dough, sometimes with holes cut into the middle [more on the doughnut hole later], usually deep fried, then rolled in sugar. They go great with coffee, but they’re also great with a  cup of tea or a glass of milk. And if you don’t have coffee, tea or milk,  not to worry. Doughnuts go great with anything, or with nothing. Skip the beverage and help yourself to another doughnut.

Of course doughnuts in some form or other have been around for what seems like forever. Archaeologists keep turning up fossilized bits of what look like doughnuts in the middens of prehistoric Native American settlements. How these early Native Americans prepared their “donuts” is unclear. Other than their shape it’s unclear whether the prehistoric fried dough was actually a distant ancestor of today’s doughnut, or simply an anomaly. But the doughnut proper (if that’s the right word) supposedly was brought to America by early Dutch settlers, under the unappetizing Dutch name of olykoeks–“oily cakes,”

doughnutsThe doughnut–now frequently shortened to donut–is said to have got its name in the mid 19th century from Elizabeth Gregory, a New England ship captain’s mother whose recipe for deep-fried dough  took advantage of her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough might not cook through, and in a literal-minded way called them “doughnuts.”

The Gregory family’s role in doughnut lore goes even further. As reported by Mr. Breakfast (aka Eddy Chavey), Elizabeth’s son, sea captain Hanson Gregory is responsible for the now universally recognizable torus-shaped confection:

“As legend has it, Mrs. Gregory sent her son Captain Hanson Crockett Gregory on one of his sea voyages with several dough-nuts and her recipe to make more. It is here that one legend branches off into several versions. In one variation, Captain Hanson found himself having difficulty steering his ship and holding his dough-nut at the same time. The quick-thinking swabby impaled his dough-nut on one of the spokes of his steering wheel. Satisfied with his new dough-nut holder, he ordered his cook to henceforth prepare all dough-nuts with holes in the center. Another variation of the legend might be easier to swallow. Simply stated, the Captain didn’t like the nuts and he poked them out. Acting on his Captain’s request, the ship’s cook created all subsequent doughnuts with the centers removed using the top of a round tin pepper box as a cutter.”

donutlassieThe first real boost to the doughnut’s popularity began in World War I, when homesick American GIs ate millions of doughnuts in the trenches of France, served up by female Salvation Army  volunteers who  brought them to the front lines to give soldiers a touch of  home. The invention of the mechanical doughnut maker in 1920 by Adolph Leavitt, a refugee from czarist Russia, allowed for mass production of the tasty treats, and opened the door for the eventual introduction of doughnut chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme. I’m sure my two daughters still fondly remember stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts after church on Sunday, when they got to pick the three doughnuts that they would devour before the day was over, usually before lunch! I remember, not so fondly, the sometimes agonizing decision process–cherry-jelly filled or maple glazed, chocolate-glazed or French cruller, vanilla with sprinkles or blueberry, the seemingly limitless choices that had to be evaluated, all while the line of customers behind us grew more and more agitated. All worthwhile when we took the first deliciously sweet bite.

struffoliDespite the ubiquity of the venerable doughnut,, Americans have no special claim for primacy in the realm of fried, sweet  dough. Almost every culture has its own version of or variation on the doughnut. Wikipedia lists 83 countries with special fried, sweet dough confections. Growing up in an Italian-American family, I, of course, enjoyed struffoli [shown at left] at Christmas and Easter, and zeppole at festivals and fairs.  I’ve also tried and enjoyed Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cakesMexican churros, and French beignets. I still have over 75 versions to try, but so far, my favorite is the malasada.

Malasadas  were brought to the Hawaiian Islands by early Portuguese settlers and are a variation on Portugal’s filhós. They are small balls of yeast dough deep fried and coated in sugar. As the story goes, Catholic Portuguese workers who immigrated to Hawaii in the mid-19th century [a decade or two after Captain Hanson Gregory was inventing the hole in the doughnut] wanted to use up their sugar and butter before the season of Lent, so they cooked up huge batches of malasadas and shared them with their neighbors. The malasadas were so popular that Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of the Lenten season, is called Malasada Day in Hawaii.

300px-Leonard's_malasadasI first tasted a malasada while on vacation on the Big Island, Hawaii, a few years ago, while driving from the Kailua-Kona area to Hilo. Outside the little town of Honokaa, we stopped at Tex Drive-in for a taste of their “world-famous malasadas.” We bought a half-dozen, each freshly cooked in hot oil, filled with a fruit jam, and dusted with powdered sugar. They were awesome. When I finished wolfing down my fourth malasada, I realized I should have stopped at two, but despite some minor indigestion, I knew I’d want to come back some time and try some different varieties.

We haven’t returned to the Big Island for several years, but earlier this month we were on Kauai for a few weeks, and went hunting for malasadas. We found that the most popular spot for malasadas was a pop-up stand outside the front entrance of the K-Mart in Lihue, called Kauai Malasadas, operated by the delightful and personable Marlena Bunao. She offers only two varieties,  sugar-coated and cinnamon sugar-coated, and sells three for $1.50. The posted hours of operation are Monday through Friday from aboDSC00799ut 10:00 am until the malasadas are all gone, but the first two times we stopped by, once around 2:30 pm and a second time at 10:15 am, the stand was closed. We almost gave up and shelled out $11 for a plate of four custard-filled malasadas with chocolate dipping sauce at Merriman’s in Poipu, but decided to hold out for the real deal from Marlena.

Two days before we headed back to the mainland, we were rewarded for our patience. It was almost 4:00 pm, but as we were driving back to our villa from the beach at Poipu, Debbie noticed that the stand was open. I wheeled our white, Chevy Impala rental car into the K-Mart lot and raced up to the stand. I anxiously waited in line while each of the three people ahead of me ordered a box of 12 or a bag of six, and the supply dwindled to almost nothing, but when I got up to the stand, Marlena was happy to give me six malasadas, three traditional and three cinnamon. I took them back to the car and Debbie and I started eating them. They were freshly-made and still very warm, golden brown and crusted with sugar, airy yet slightly chewy, in a word, they were wonderful. I went back to talk with Marlena and she was graceful enough to pose for the photo on the left. Marlena told me she usually arrives around 10:15 on weekdays, taking about 45 minutes to heat the oil and get everything ready, so if I wanted to come back, she’d have some ready to serve after 11:00 am. The next day, on the way to the beach, we stopped again, and the stand was open, so we shared three malasadas, getting our day off to a delicious, if not very calorie conscious, start.

If you get to Kauai, find a way to get to Kauai Malasadas, say hello to Marlena, and treat yourself to a few of her malasadas. They’re the best deal in town. And if you have a favorite variety of sweet, fried dough, tell me about it. I’ll be happy to give it a try. As you’ve probably guessed, I love doughnuts.

The Gambler’s Folly

Dave thumbnailOn a recent trip to Las Vegas, I noticed something in the casinos that I hadn’t seen before. Now, I should point out that I don’t spend a lot of time in Las Vegas; my wife and I go there maybe once a year. And while there, we do very little gambling, usually limiting our contributions to casino profitability to about $20 dropped into a slot machine in return for fifteen minutes of hope followed by an hour or so of disappointment. But we do spend time wandering through the casinos, people watching and enjoying the lights and sounds, until the accumulated effects of the dry, smoky air-conditioned atmosphere send us back outside in search of some fresh air. What struck me as peculiar on our most recent visit was the digital displays at the roulette wheels, showing the results of the last 50, 300 or 500 spins of the wheel–indicating which numbers had come up most frequently.

What seemed so curious to me is that, if a roulette wheel is, in fact, a “fair” device, that is, not rigged in any way to provide an advantage to the house, why would anyone pay attention to the fact that the ball had dropped into slot number “11”  eighteen times in the last three hundred spins, and was the third most frequently hit number in those 300 spins. In a fair game of roulette, the result of each spin is completely independent of the results of any previous spins of the wheel. Each spin is a random event, during which the chances are identical that the ball will drop onto any of the 38 numbers on the wheel [the numbers 1 to 36, plus “0” and “00”].

rouletteIn spite of the randomness of the roulette wheel, apparently many gamblers think that they can use the results of recent spins of the wheel to help them guess which number will come up next. It’s not clear to me whether they think that certain numbers are “hot” numbers, and since they have come up frequently on recent spins that there is a greater than 1 in 38 chance that these numbers will come up on the next spin; or, conversely, since the numbers have paid off on recent spins, the odds would favor some different numbers paying off on the next spin.

Don’t they realize that each spin of the wheel, like each flip of a coin, is a completely independent event? If you’ve flipped a coin and it has landed on “heads” ten times in a row, the odds that on the next flip of the coin it will land on “tails”, is still 50%, just like it was for the previous ten flips, and just like it will be for each flip in the future. Sure, you can get funny, non-random appearing patterns of results; but in the long run it is foolish to bet against the odds.

the Strip

There’s another side to this story that bothers me, though–a sort of flip side of the roulette players mistake. Because it isn’t simply the statistically unsophisticated roulette player that mistakenly relies on the seemingly straightforward Yellow-Brick-Road marked out by “data” to show her the path to success. It happens all too frequently in the business world, where managers and executives pore over historical data, laid out in beautiful, organized arrays, seeming to structure the world into predictable patterns. They are seduced into thinking that thorough analysis of historical data might allow them to unerringly predict the future. They fail to consider how much of life is simply random, unplanned, and unpredictable. They go on their merry way, certain of success, since they are guided by data,–forgetting that they are really doing nothing more than making a bet on future events–and all too often their projects crash and burn, derailed because of some “random” event. Like the roulette player, data couldn’t protect them from the effects of randomness.

Apparently, my old friend, Fred Monti, had it right when he said, “The one thing that you always know is that you never know.”



At the Vortex

Dave thumbnailSedona, Arizona is a very special, singularly beautiful place, with its spectacular red rock canyons and hills literally leaving you speechless. Over millions of years, layers of sandstone and limestone were left in the area by a receding ocean. Iron oxide eventually covered the grains of sandstone and, in a natural process, rust formed. The stunningly beautiful red rocks of Sedona are the result of this process.

DSC00038Humans first arrived in the Sedona area about 4000 BC, when hunter-gatherers roamed and settled in the Verde Valley. Between 900 and 1350 AD, a more advanced civilization began building pueblos and cliff houses. Known as the Sinagua (without water), their cliff dwellings are still evident today. One of the most beautiful is Montezuma’s Castle [photo at right], not far from Sedona. If you hike the red rocks, you can find petroglyphs and pictographs they left behind.

The awe inspiring vistas, along with the magnificent views of the crystal blue sky, have acted as a spiritual lure for centuries, and Sedona has become associated with spiritual power that matches its physical beauty. That metaphysical power is said to manifest itself most strongly at specific locations called vortexes. No, it’s not vortices. In Sedona, the plural of vortex is vortexes. You may be unfamiliar with the term, vortex, but you’ve almost certainly seen them in everyday life.  If you have ever seen a whirlpool in a river, or observed water spiraling down the drain in the bath tub, or watched a dust devil kick up in the desert, you’ve witnessed a vortex.

Energy-VortexThe common dictionary definition of vortex is: “A spiral motion of fluid within a limited area, especially a whirling mass of water or air that sucks everything near it toward its center.” Here, we are more interested in its less common definition: “A place or situation regarded as drawing into its center all that surrounds it.” Since Sedona as a whole is said to be a spiritual power spot, a vortex site in Sedona is a place where  Sedona’s spiritual energy is most strongly concentrated. Page Bryant, a medium, came up with the term in the 1980s while investigating supposedly sacred locations in the area.

According to Bryant, the Sedona vortexes are created from spiraling spiritual energy. The vortexes of Sedona are believed to be spiritual locations where the energy is right to facilitate prayer, mediation and healing, with energy flow that exists on multiple dimensions. The energy flow of the vortexes supposedly interacts with a person’s inner self. Pete Sanders, Jr., an M.I.T grad and the founder of Free Soul, an non-profit organization located in Sedona, believes that scientific string theory can help explain what happens at vortexes in dimensions beyond ordinary perception. In his book, Scientific Vortex Information, Sanders  writes,

“Even though we cannot measure those dimensions yet, you can still experience them because you exist in them. …and so do the vortex sites.  What is happening at the vortex sites is energy flow in those deeper dimensions. You have the inner ability to measure, feel, find and tap that energy.”

The vortex phenomenon isn’t easily explained; obviously it must be experienced. The first step is, of course, locating the vortex. No “X” that marks the spot; the entire area is considered to be a vortex, which makes it much more accessible. So, on a recent trip to Sedona, my wife and I visited all four of the commonly identified Sedona vortexes, searching for whatever sense of physical or spiritual well-being we might be able to find.

DSC00077Bell Rock [photo at left], adjoining the Village of Oak Creek, has an easily identifiable bell-shape formation, and was our first vortex stop. The rock formation itself is fascinating, but neither of us felt any special forces at work, other than the spectacular beauty of the site.

DSC00125We next went to Airport Mesa  at sundown, joining with perhaps eighty other visitors. We enjoyed the panoramic views of the red rocks to the north of uptown Sedona [photo at right], but felt no special surge of energy from the vortex. Maybe the windy, cold, late day weather interfered with the metaphysical forces of the vortex.

DSC00331On another day, Boynton Canyon, located off Dry Creek Road in West Sedona, required a six mile drive over dusty dirt and gravel roads to a spectacular box canyon [photo at left] with some well-preserved Sinaguan ruins. Beautiful, yes. Fascinating, yes. But again, no physical or mental tingle from the vortex.

DSC00367Cathedral Rock was the last of the four vortexes we visited. Located on Lower Red Rock Loop Road, it is the most photographed site in Sedona, and I added myself to the long list of photographers by taking the photo shown to the right. The cathedral-like red rock structure rises above Oak Creek, and couples often choose the site to exchange their wedding vows. We chanced upon a small wedding taking place during our visit to Cathedral Rock, but beyond the excitement of being wedding crashers, we felt no buzz of any kind.

imgresWe checked out two other special places in our attempt to connect with the sacred energy of Sedona,   The Chapel of the Holy Cross [photo at left] and Oak Canyon Lookout [photo at right]. Slightly disappointed, we left both of those beautiful spots still wondering what a vortex experience is supposed to feel like. When we talked to Sedona DSC00234couple that we met later in our trip, the woman told us that she had clearly felt the power of the vortexes, but that each person experiences a vortex differently with possibilities including new insights, intense feelings of joy or release, a heightened sense of well-being, a physical healing, or a new or heightened spiritual awareness. Her husband pooh-poohed the whole thing, saying he’d never felt a thing at a vortex.

So why doesn’t everyone feel the same effect? Is the experience real or illusory? According to the believers, everyone is different, and so are their experiences. While one person might see colors or energetic swirls, another might simply feel more supported and uplifted. Moreover, people will try in different ways to interact with a vortex. Sitting quietly and experiencing what the site has to offer is the simplest and most direct way to interact with a vortex. Some people try meditations, breathing exercises, ceremonies and visualizations to enhance their experience at Sedona’s vortexes.

I should be more than a bit skeptical about the existence of the Sedona vortexes. There’s probably no way to prove definitively that they exist, or that they don’t exist. But I’d rather believe that there are places on this planet that are truly special, that have the power to uplift us, and connect us in some special way to the whole of existence. Sedona’s natural beauty provides an extraordinary backdrop for that kind of metaphysical connection, and that’s enough for me.

All About Aces

Dave AvatarOpposite the Pro Shop at Aliso Viejo Country Club, hanging on the wall in the long, first floor hallway of the clubhouse, hangs a very large, wooden plaque, 72″ wide and 77″ high. On the plaque, 228, 2.75″ x 1.00″ brass plates are positioned  in 12 columns with 19  plates in each column. 46 of the brass plates are engraved with a name and a hole number; the rest are blank, awaiting inscription. In the second column of brass plates, if you count down to the 14th plate from the top, you’ll find a plate that reads: Dave Franzetta, Hole 12. It commemorates the first and only time I achieved the pinnacle of individual golf success, a hole-in-one on June 20, 2011; my one and, so far, only ace.

The 12th at Aliso Viejo is a 143-yard par three. The yardage is a bit misleading, since the tee is elevated about 75 feet above the green, so the shot plays downhill and is actually much more like a 115-yard shot. That day, as I almost always do on hole number 12, I hit a pitching wedge. The ball sailed high, and curved gently to the left as it carried over the large pot bunker that fronts the green, flying straight at the flagstick. It was shortly after one o’clock so the sun was almost directly overhead, and the shadow of the flag hung right over the hole. I knew it was a really good shot, but couldn’t see if the ball had gone into the cup, or was merely hidden from view in the shadows or behind the flagstick. One of my playing partners, my good friend Linda Gruver, also hit a terrific tee shot, with her ball finishing about 15 inches behind the hole. I raced down the hill, set my golf bag on the edge of green and looked in the hole. There, happily resting at the bottom of the cup, was my TaylorMade model Tour XP ball, stamped with the number “0,” with the four red dots I had inked on the ball before starting my round that morning. It had taken me almost 50 years of trying, and I had finally done it. The rest of the round was a bit of a blur. When I arrived at the clubhouse, ready to buy drinks for everyone, my wallet got a great break, since it was a Monday, the bar was closed, and only a few other golfers were there to join my celebration. I’ve kept trying, and though I’ve witnessed several other aces, this is still my one and only ace. [If you ever find me bragging about my ace, you can remind me that it was one of the 15 or so holes-in-one recorded at my club that year, and one of approximately 40,000 reported in the US in 2011.]

I can still remember clearly the very first ace I witnessed. It was at Duquesne CC in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania,  during a high school golf match between my school, Bishop Boyle HS, and Pittsburgh South Catholic HS. My opponent was named Greg Huigens. [Strange that I should remember Greg after so many years, but he was my nemesis, beating me handily at both golf and bowling, my two high school sports.] Greg had built a 3-up lead after nine holes in our match, but I had battled back on the inward nine, and we were all square when we came to the 15th, a tricky, sidehill par-3 hole of about 160 yards. I hit my tee shot into a large bunker to the right of the green. Greg stepped up, took his stance and launched a beautiful 5-iron directly at the hole, the ball landing a few feet behind the hole and spinning back into the cup for an hole-in-one. Totally deflated, I lost two of the next three holes and dropped the match.

ace jumpGolfers have always been fascinated by holes-in-one. Perhaps it’s because even a beginner can make a hole in one, since an ace is always the result of some incomprehensible combination of luck and skill. Young Jake Paine was only three years old when, in 2001, he made a hole-in-one on a 66 -yard 6th hole at the executive length, 9-hole Lake Forest Golf and Practice Course in Lake Forest, California. [Before you start shaking your head and calling it nothing but luck, take note that Jake scored his second ace two days before his thirteenth birthday.] The oldest golfer, man or woman, known to have made a hole in one is Elsie McLean, aged 102. On April 5, 2007, Ms McLean holed out with a  driver on the 100-yard 4th hole at Bidwell Park, in Chico, California. Because the green sloped away from the tee, she couldn’t see the ball drop, and  learned she’d aced the hole when her playing partners found the ball in the cup. She later said, “For an old lady, I still hit the ball pretty good.” It was the first hole-in-one of her life, providing a ray of hope for those golfers who have passed the age of sixty and not yet made an ace.

Some golfers seem to have an amazing proclivity for putting the ball in the hole on their tee shot. Norman Manley, an amateur from Long Beach, California is credited with 59 aces, including extraordinarily rare successive holes-in-one on par 4s, a feat he achieved in September 1964 at Del Valle Country Club, Saugus, California on the 330-yard 7th and the 290-yard 8th, both being dog-legs and downhill. They were part of a course record 61 (10 under par) he shot that day. Art Wall, Jr. holds the record for holes-in-one by a PGA Tour professional, with 45 or 46. [Apparently Art was so prolific making aces that his record keeping got a bit lax.] To put these feats into perspective, Tiger Woods has 19 aces and Jack Nicklaus has 15 holes-in-one.

Given the relative rarity of holes-in-one, I was curious about the actual odds of making an ace. In 1999, Golf Digest magazine commisssioned a study by Francis Scheid, Ph.D., retired Chairman of Mathematics at Boston University, using all the available statisitics for holes-in-one, both amateur and professional. In 2005, Dr. Schied updated the study and came up with the following estimates:

  • Professional Tour player making an ace: 3,000 to 1. Rounds needed to do it: 900
  • Low-handicapper making an ace: 5,000 to 1. Rounds needed to do it: 1,250
  • Average player making an ace: 12,000 to 1. Rounds needed to do it: 3,000
  • Average player acing a 150-yard hole: 80,000 to 1. Rounds needed to do it: 23,000
  • Average player acing a 200-yard hole: 150,000 to 1. Rounds needed to do it: 40,000
  • Two players in the same foursome acing the same hole: 17 million to 1. Rounds needed to do it: 17 million
  • One player making two holes-in-one in the same round: 67 million to 1.

ImageBased on the data, the best formula for getting an ace seems to be to play a lot of golf on courses with par-3 holes less than 150-yards in length. Playing golf twice a week on a course with three or four short par-3 holes, you shouldn’t need more than about 30 years to record an ace, or at least even the odds of doing so. When you do make your ace, remember to have someone take a picture of you pulling the ball out of the cup. It will make you happy every time you look at it. And don’t forget to register your ace with the USGA’s official Golf Register. That way you can prove to your grandchildren that you really did make a hole-in-one!

A Lowcountry Paradox

Dave AvatarThey call it “the Lowcountry” for good reason. The coastal regions of southern South Carolina and northern Georgia, roughly from Charleston, South Carolina to the north and extending to Savannah, Georgia to the south, a stretch of about 120 miles of coast–assuming it was a straight line of coast–has an average elevation of about 2 feet above sea level. Marshes, swamps, creeks, rills, runs, inlets, streams, and even a few rivers are the most prominent features of the landscape. The other is the pine forests that dot the landscape. From the air, apart from the carveouts of civilization–seaport cities like Charleston and Savannah, where wide river mouths form wonderful, natural harbors; smaller cities like Beaufort and Bluffton, South Carolina; and the numerous small towns where early settlers built their homes, and today retirees from colder climes in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, the Midwest, even Canada, make their homes for their Golden Years–it all looks like trees and water.

Francis MarionBut the land is alive with history. General Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, led British troops on many a merry chase through the Lowcountry forests and marshes during the American Revolution. The first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, built on an island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Present day Charleston and Savannah both offer many and varied possibilities to explore ante-bellum architecture, providing a glimpse of life in the plantation-driven economy of the mid-19th century American South.

Amidst the Lowcountry forests and wetlands, lying about 90 miles southwest of Charleston and 20 miles northeast of Savannah, is Hilton Head Island. Shaped roughly like a left-facing right triangle, it’s bottom leg a 12 mile sandy beach along the Atlantic Ocean, Hilton Head is to me a paradox.


Hilton Head has a rich history that began with seasonal occupation by native Americans thousands of years ago, and continued with European exploration and the Sea Island Cotton trade. It was an important base of operations for the Union blockade of the Southern ports during the Civil War. After the island fell to Union troops, hundreds of ex-slaves flocked to Hilton Head, which is still home to many ‘native islanders’, many of whom are descendants of freed slaves known as the Gullah (or Geechee) who have managed to hold onto much of their ethnic and cultural identity.

The Town of Hilton Head Island incorporated as a municipality in 1983 and is well known for its “eco-friendly” development. The town’s Natural Resources Division enforces its Land Management Ordinance, which minimizes the impact of development and governs the style of buildings and how they are situated among existing trees and marshlands. As a result, Hilton Head Island enjoys an unusual amount of tree cover relative to the amount of development. The town residents have even approved several multi-million dollar land-buying bond referendums to control commercial growth.

Yet Hilton Head is, first and foremost, a tourist and vacation destination. During the summer, the island’s year-round population of under 40,000 swells to 275,000 or more. Almost every major hotel chain has a presence on the island, with Omni, Weston, Marriott, Disney, and others offering thousands of hotel rooms to cater to vacationers’ needs. Add to that the thousands of condominiums and timeshare units on the island–Marriott alone has eight properties with almost 2,000 timeshare units on Hilton Head Island–and it is obvious that the tourist population vastly outnumbers that of permanent residents during the warmer months.

imgres24 or 25 golf courses dot the island [depending on how you count the various combinations of the three, 9-hole layouts at Shipyard GC], including Harbuor Town Links, home of the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage Classic. Each course has it’s own personality, but they all share the ever-present trees and water that beguile or plague those who choose to golf, depending on how straight they are hitting the ball that particular day. But we don’t go to Hilton Head Island in the summer. We go in winter, usually at the end of January.

January on Hilton Head is nothing like the summer. The bugs are nonexistent, for sure, and the air temperature is probably in the 50s or 60s rather than the 80s. The ocean, though beautiful to look at, is too cold to even think about swimming in without a wetsuit. But what is most striking is the relative absence of crowds. The beaches, the restaurants, the golf courses, and the roads are all uncrowded. And it’s not only crowds that you won’t see. You won’t see many children: the average age of people on the island is probably 65 years or older.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Besides the less crowded atmosphere and slower pace, everything is much less expensive in January than in July. It is microeconomics at work, supply and demand playing out in the vacation market. Retirees looking to get away from the snow, ice and bitter cold of winter in the Northeast can get to Hilton Head Island by car, usually in a one or two day drive, saving hundreds of dollars on airfares. Hotel rooms and resort rentals are available for a fraction of the summer, high season rates, often for little more than the cost to the hotelier or resort manager for making up and maintaining the room.

The same supply and demand economics apply to dining and golf. With so many facilities built out to handle the maximum capacity demanded by the summer tourist onslaught, restaurant owners and golf course operators do the same things that hotel and restaurant managers do around the world to try to drive traffic to fill at least some of their rooms or suites (or tee times for golf courses). They offer discounts. They sell multiple visit packages. They make it very attractive for even the slightly cost-conscious traveler to choose Hilton Head Island in the winter.


Our most recent visit coincided with the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce Restaurant Week–a wide scale restaurant promotion where participating restaurants offered special fixed-price menus at significant discounts to normal prices. Golf courses offered similar values. In one instance, Heritage Golf offered a 5-round package for only $195. In the summer, some of the Hilton Head courses charge $195 or more for a single round of golf.

But everything is not perfect about winter visits to Hilton Head. The weather can be very iffy; you are as likely to have three rainy days of 50° temperatures as two days of sun and 70° temperatures during a week in January at Hilton Head. And, with so many old folks on the island at the same time, prepare for slow-moving Buicks and Lincolns. You’ll also have to deal with sticky, green pine pollen covering your car and anything else that sits outside for more than fifteen minutes without moving.

But the pluses far outweigh the minuses. So go to Hilton Head next winter. Just don’t go the same week that we will be there. We don’t like crowds.

Cluelessness–What We Don’t Know (Part III–Are We Hopelessly Clueless?)

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At a press conference on June 6, 2002 at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in response to a question about the quality of intelligence about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered his now-famous quote about “unknown unknowns:”

There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld was talking about military intelligence, but the concept extends to every realm of life. None of us would argue with Rumsfeld, because we realize that there are lots of things we don’t know.  These are our “known unknowns.”

Phang_Nga_Bay_Phuket_ThailandI don’t know the distance from Laguna Niguel, California to Phuket, Thailand [photo at left], and I know that I don’t know it; but I can easily look it up. [I just now typed “Distance from Laguna Niguel, CA to Phuket, Thailand” into Google Search and learned that the distance is  8,743.9 miles–14,071.9 kilometers if you use the metric system of measurement–so I guess it’s no longer a known unknown.] Of course, there are millions of other things I don’t know, and I know I don’t know them; but I’m not clueless about them. With some diligence I can find out about practically any known unknown.

Many tasks in life contain uncertainties that we know about—our “known unknowns.”  While these challenges exist as potential problems, they are at least problems that we can be on the lookout for, prepare for, insure against, and, when we are lucky,  head off at the pass. The challenge is, in most cases, to frame and ask the right questions.

ExhibitionBut what about the unknown unknowns?  How can you find an answer when you don’t know the question? Or worse, you don’t even realize that there is a question you should be asking. In engineering, the term “unk-unk” was coined to describe something, such as a problem, that has not been and could not have been imagined or anticipated, much like the unanticipated happenings described by Nassim Nicholas Talib in his 2007 best-seller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. We simply aren’t very good at anticipating the unexpected. Unfortunately that fault doesn’t slow us down the least bit when it comes to making predictions about the future–we expect tomorrow to be much like today.

It would seem that if the hallmark of an intelligent person is knowing what we don’t know, then most of us aren’t very intelligent. The Dunning-Kruger effect, which I wrote about in Part II of this three-part post series, suggests that we are perhaps hopelessly confounded by our own cluelessness.  Even if I were just the most honest, impartial person that I could be, I would still have a problem — namely, when my knowledge or expertise is imperfect, I really don’t know it.  Left to my own devices, I just don’t know it.

Cluelessness, in general, seems to shape our lives in ways we are not even aware of.  We tend to do what we know and fail to do what we have no idea about.  As a result, cluelessness profoundly directs the paths we take in life. We often come up with answers to problems that  seem to be okay, but are not the best solutions.  We don’t come up with better solutions because we are not aware that they even exist. We fail to reach our potential as professionals, friends, parents and people simply because we aren’t aware of what is possible.

Cluelessness Venn DiagramIn an interview with Errol Morris, excerpted in Morris’ essay “The Anosognosics Dilemma,David Dunning described the relationship of Cluelessness, Self-Deception and Denial as sets in a Venn diagram, where:

Cluelessness is clearly the biggest circle, in that there is so much knowledge and expertise that lies outside everybody’s personal cognitive event horizon.  People can be clueless in a million different ways, even though they are largely trying to get things right in an honest way. Deficits in knowledge, or in information the world is giving them, just leads people toward false beliefs and holes in their expertise.Psychologists over the past 50 years have demonstrated the sheer genius people have at convincing themselves of congenial conclusions while denying the truth of inconvenient ones. You can call it self-deception, but it also goes by the names rationalization, wishful thinking, defensive processing, self-delusion, and motivated reasoning. There is a robust catalogue of strategies people follow to believe what they want to, and we research psychologists are hardly done describing the shape or the size of that catalogue.  All this rationalization can lead people toward false beliefs, or perhaps more commonly, to tenaciously hang on to false beliefs they should really reconsider. Denial, to a psychologist, is a somewhat knuckle-headed technique in self-deception, and it is to merely deny the truth of something someone does not want to confront.

Asked by Morris about the possibility of escaping from what Morris called our “prison of cluelessness,” Dunning suggested that the road to self-insight runs through other people, so getting good feedback is critical. You need to ask yourself whether the world is telling you good things;  whether the world is rewarding you in ways you would expect a competent person to be rewarded. If you watch other people, you often find there are different ways to do things; there are better ways to do things.  You want to surround yourself with smart, competent people, so you can compare what you do with what they do. Maybe you’ll observe that you aren’t as good as you thought you were, that you have something to work on. 

h74688619Unfortunately, as we learned in the previous post, the less competent you happen to be, the less likely you are to be able to see that what others do is superior to what you do. If you are at the bottom of the competency totem pole, and you see what people at the top actually do, you won’t get it.  You won’t realize that what those other people are doing is superior to what you’re doing.

And what if the the people that you’ve picked to give you feedback or advice are, themselves, incompetent nincompoops.  If you lack the ability to discriminate between nincompoops and non-nincompoops, between good advice and bad advice, between what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense, the feedback will do you no good.

I suspect that we’re doomed to be clueless. But cluelessness provides it’s own saving grace–we’ll never know how bad off we really are!


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Cluelessness: What We Don’t Know (Part II–Everyday Anosognosia?)

Dave Avatar A news story, reported by Michael A. Fuoco in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1995, began:


At 5 feet 6 inches and about 270 pounds, bank robbery suspect McArthur Wheeler isn’t the type of person who fades into the woodwork.  So it was no surprise that he was recognized by informants, who tipped detectives to his whereabouts after his picture was telecast Wednesday night during the Pittsburgh Crime Stoppers Inc. segment of the 11 o’clock news.”

jugo_limon_Apparently what happened is this. Mr. Wheeler, encouraged by friends to rob a bank or two, balked at first, afraid that the ever-present video cameras would capture the robbery on tape. His friends told him that he could render himself invisible to the cameras by covering his face with lemon juice. Not a complete fool (?), Mr. Wheeler tested the concept by first applying lemon juice all over his face, then taking a Polaroid picture of himself. When Mr. Wheeler examined the photo and saw no evidence of his own presence, he blithely went on his brief robbery spree, safe in the belief that the lemon juice would work its magic. It didn’t, of course, and the resulting bank videotapes pointed the finger at the befuddled Mr.Wheeler. Obviously he wasn’t simply an inept bank-robber; he was also an incompetent photographer, and perhaps blinded by the lemon juice he’d squirted into his eyes, he took a photo of the ceiling, or somehow or other ruined the shot.

Inspired by the story of Mr. Wheeler’s  incredibly incompetent bank robbery attempt, David Dunning, a professor of social psychology at Frog_diamagnetic_levitationCornell University, and his research assistant, Justin Kruger, began a series of research projects  that resulted in the publication in 1999 of a research paper  titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” which was awarded the satirical Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for the year 2000. But we wouldn’t want to overlook Dunning and Kruger’s research simply because it was awarded a prize by a group that singles out research that contains a humorous or unexpected result. After all, Andre Geim won the Ig Nobel prize in Physics that same year for levitating a frog with magnets [see the photo at left], then won the actual Nobel prize in Physics in 2010 for his research on graphene.

Geting back to Dunning and Kruger, their research identified a psychological phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, neatly defined for us in Wikipedia as “a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.” (Don’t be put off by the five-syllable word. Metacognition refers to your ability to know how well you are performing, when you are likely to be accurate in judgment, and when you are  likely to be in error.) People fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And, since overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence from incompetence, people get stuck in a vicious cycle. As Dunning and Kruger state in their paper:

“The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.”

We, of course, know that we aren’t really good at everything. Most of use would rate ourselves fairly low on our knowledge of quantum mechanics, our ability to translate Sanskrit fables, or any other area where there is some minimum threshold of knowledge that has to be attained to be even minimally functional. Without that basic knowledge level, we face an undeniable reality constraint, and thus rate our skill levels very low (we actually tend to mistakenly rate ourselves worse than our peers). That same type of reality constraint often appears in physical domains, where it is clear that we simply lack the necessary talents to, for example, drive a golf ball 300 yards, in spite of our in-depth knowledge of the bio-mechanics of a perfect golf swing and the physics of golf ball flight.

clueless hatBut in everyday domains, such as business decision-making, parenting, social relationship skills, constructing a logical argument, or most other common tasks of life, we take it for granted that we are good at it. None of us are immune. In his 2005 book, Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing Thyself (Essays in Social Psychology), Professor Dunning writes about this effect in the essay titled “Ignorance is Bliss,” referring to it as The Anosognosia of Everyday Life, a sort of psychological analogue to anosognosia, where incompetence, like anosognosia, not only causes poor performance but also the inability to recognize that one’s performance is poor. This is where it gets to be a bit scary. The research tells us that if we really lack skill in some specific performance domain, the likelihood is that our own incompetence will act like a set of psychological blinders, preventing us from recognizing how really bad we are at it. And worse, the more incompetent we turn out to be, the larger the gap between our actual and our perceived performance.There is a converse to this, as might be expected. Top performers–those who really understand what is involved in performing at the highest levels–have a tendency to underrate themselves, largely because they assume that everyone else is actually better than they turn out to be.

You might think that if we saw our own performance scores on a task, along with the scores of others on the same skill set, we might do a better job of rating our own performance. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Knowledge of how well others might be doing doesn’t improve the  ability of an incompetent to evaluate her own incompetence. Maybe that’s why we think we are better than average drivers, better than average managers; we think we are better than average at just about everything!

Over two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson wrote

“The wise know their weakness too well to assume infallibility; and he who knows most, knows best how little he knows.”

In Part III of this series on Cluelessness, I’ll write about what, if anything, we can do to be a little less clueless.

Cluelessness: What We Don’t Know (Part I)

Dave AvatarPhilosophers  spend a lot of time wondering and worrying about questions like: what CAN we know?, what DO we know?, and how do we KNOW what we know?; so much so that an entire branch of philosophy, known as epistemology, deals with these and related questions about knowledge, and what exactly knowledge might be. Epistemological philosophers have also had a lot of fun categorizing different forms of knowledge, such as distinguishing “knowing that” from “knowing how.

what we knowMy first encounter with the distinction between knowing how and knowing that came courtesy of my good friend and philosophical mentor James Wilk, who introduced me to Gilbert Ryle and his famous work, The Concept of Mind, where, in Chapter 3, Professor Ryle provides a brilliant, plain language exposition on the How and the What of Knowing How and Knowing What (my description, not Ryle’s). A rather clever, and much briefer, explanation of  this distinction can be found in Personal Knowledge,  by Michael Polanyi, who uses the example of the act of balance involved in riding a bicycle, suggesting that the theoretical knowledge of the physics involved in maintaining a state of balance can’t substitute for the practical knowledge of how to ride a bike, and that it is important to understand how both are established and grounded.

Classical-Definition-of-KnoOf course, the idea that we can know something, leads inevitably to the notion that there must be some category of things that we know, ergo, we have knowledge.  Plato is said to have defined knowledge as “justified true belief.” The Euler diagram to the left attempts to depict the concept. For any proposition to qualify as knowledge, it has to be true (the red circle represents all true propositions), you have to believe the proposition to be true (the blue circle represents all propositions you believe to be true), and you have to be justified in your belief that the proposition is true (the yellow circle represents the subset of believed truths where the belief is justified.

Unfortunately, no single agreed upon definition or theory of knowledge exists.  This quote from Bertrand Russell‘s “Theory of Knowledge” sheds some light on the difficulty in defining knowledge:

“The question how knowledge should be defined is perhaps the most important and difficult … This may seem surprising: at first sight it might be thought that knowledge might be defined as belief which is in agreement with the facts. The trouble is that no one knows what a belief is, no one knows what a fact is, and no one knows what sort of agreement between them would make a belief true.”

knowledgeNot to put too sharp of a point on the pencil, let me simply take a break here and note that these are B-I-G questions, and that philosophers have struggled with them for almost as long as people have been able to walk on the earth without spending every waking minute either looking for their next meal or trying to avoid being some hungry critter’s next meal; and they will still be arguing about the same questions when our Sun explodes into supernova and smashes our planet and everything on it into dust particles that drift to the outer reaches of our galaxy.

Today, I’m much more interested in what we don’t know about ourselves, and more specifically, how we can be so clueless about what we don’t know about ourselves.

Nearly everyone is aware of the problem. I wrote in an earlier post, “What Is It About A$$holes?,  that an integral part of the definition of an asshole is the inability/unwillingness to recognize the defect. In a more tragic context, many people with mental illness or brain injuries deny that they are ill, and  refuse treatment. This goes far beyond what most of us understand as the psychological concept of denial–a refusal to believe an uncomfortable truth. We all know a heavy drinker, eater, smoker, or drug user who says, “I can quit any time I want.”

But this special type of cluelessness–the medical term is an obscure word, anosognosia, which is pronounced “uh-no-sog-no-zha,” and loosely translated from the Greek means “unawareness of illness”–is quite different. It is not simply denial of a problem, illness or defect, but a genuine inability to recognize that a problem, illness or defect exists.  It is a common consequence of brain injuries, and occurs to varying degrees in disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Someone who has anosognosia isn’t being difficult, or refusing to face the truth. She is literally unable to believe that her illness is, in fact, an illness. It is a form of self-deception, perhaps neurologically induced, but a self deception nonetheless.

Te'oBack to current reality, the story about Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o and his “fictional” girlfriend certainly appears to have some markers of self-deception. When you read about the young linebacker’s story, you can’t help but wonder, “How could he be so clueless?”

I’ll have more to say about  cluelessness in the next installment of this essay on Cluelessness: What We Don’t Know.

What is it About A$$holes?

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You are driving down the highway, travelling with the flow of traffic as you near a construction zone where the traffic narrows from three lanes, then to two, and finally to one lane. You’ve merged into the single lane, when you see, in your side-view mirror, a black Dodge Ram pickup truck blithely cruising along the shoulder of the road, passing at least 70 or 80 crawling vehicles, then stare in amazement as the driver of the pickup jerks the steering wheel to the left and cuts in front of you inches before the shoulder is blocked by a concrete barricade. Unbidden, the word “asshole” leaps to mind.

Minding your own business, working out on the StairMaster at your health club, you hear, over the sound of Mumford and Sons new album playing through your earphones, the unmistakable sound of a not-very-subdued cell phone conversation. Annoyed that your exercise reverie has been disturbed, and armed with the knowledge that there is an absolute prohibition of cell-phone use in the fitness center–with signs to that effect posted on every wall–you suggest to your fellow exerciser that he take his conversation outside, since you really don’t need to know every detail of his latest sexual encounter. When he, instead of leaving or shutting down the phone call, demands of you, “Who made You the Cell Phone Police for this gym?” and then goes right back to his phone call, even louder than before, I don’t have to tell you what common pejorative label you instinctively attach to him at that moment. A clue: it’s a seven-letter word that begins with the letter “a.”

You are standing in the fairway, waggling your 8-iron, preparing to hit your approach shot to the 13th green, when you hear the unmistakable whizzing sound of a golf ball flying past you within 15 inches of your head, then thumping to the ground mere yards from where you stand, now completely flummoxed and certain to duff your shot, once you recover from the shock of a near-miss skull injury. When you look back toward the tee in an attempt to discover the perpetrator, no word is more appropriate to describe the individual who ignored golf etiquette, to say nothing of common courtesy, and drove his 1.62 ounce, round, white missile toward your head without even a warning shout of “Fore!” than that perhaps overused epithet, “asshole.”

1210_SBR_Aword_COVERConsidering how commonly this word is used, or is at least being considered for use, you might, like me, think that it has been in common usage [adjusted for changes in the vernacular] since the time of Ugg and Mug the cavemen. Not so, according to Geoffrey Nunberg. In his book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, The First Sixty Years, Mr. Nunberg, a linguist and professor at UC Berkeley, traces the lineage of the word [in the non-anatomical sense] only as far back as World War II, where the term in question originated as a GI’s term for an officer who thinks his status “entitles him to a kind of behavior—to either abuse his men, or make him more important than he really is.” When GIs came home, they brought the word with them.

The word appeared in printed literature for the first time in Norman Mailer‘s 1948 magnum opus, The Naked and the Dead, when Mailer used the word to describe a Naval officer named Dove attached to the Army unit central to the story, and, like the person described, the word has been with us ever since. Mr. Nunberg says that Dove was much like the iconic asshole character Greg Marmalard in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” one of my all-time favorites in the category.

It’s not as if earlier ages didn’t have appropriate pejoratives to apply to the social undesirables of their day. Our forebears did so, sometimes obsessively, and we follow their lead. According to Mr. Nunberg,

“… indisputably there’s an interest in the asshole phenomenon. Every age creates a particular social offender that it makes a collective preoccupation—the cad in Anthony Trollope’s day, the phony that Holden Caulfield was fixated on in the postwar years—and the asshole is ours…… But the preoccupation also reflects the modern creation of new and unprecedented settings for acting like assholes…”

Before going much further, it might help to get a very clear idea in mind about what we mean when we describe someone as an asshole. Mr. Nunberg decries the lack of a suitable dictionary  definition of the term, suggesting that “asshole” has a specific meaning that distinguishes it from other scatological and anatomically based insults or invectives:

“When we call somebody an asshole, it’s because we’ve decided that that’s the shoe that fits him best. You wouldn’t say that the meaning of the word is precise, but then the words that express social evaluations almost never are. When you come down to it, asshole is no vaguer than boor or scoundrel, or for that matter than the notoriously elusive word gentleman.”

AholesBut perhaps there is an answer to the problem of defining an asshole, beyond the “I know one when I see one” non-definition. To the rescue comes Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Irvine and the author of Assholes: A Theory, which was published a few months after Nunberg’s book. Mr. James, in explicating his theory of asshole behavior, specifies that an asshole:

  1. allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2. does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
  3. is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

Although Mr. James goes on to provide a veritable Linnaean taxonomy of the species of the asshole kingdom, along with naming names of contemporary examples [the boorish asshole, who willfully flouts basic standards of decency (Rush Limbaugh); the smug asshole, who is certain of his intellectual superiority (Larry Summers); the asshole boss (think Michael Scott on television’s The Office); the corporate asshole (Steve Jobs); and the reckless asshole (Dick Cheney) are only a few], we don’t really have to go beyond his definition to begin to understand why we are so infuriated by the assholes that we all too frequently encounter. It is not that they cause us great harm. Their actions, taken alone, are generally petty annoyances as in the traffic, health club and golf course examples cited above. All of us, in fact, have been guilty of such behaviors now and again. We all have our asshole moments.

What separates the run-of-the-mill jerk from the true asshole is that, for the asshole, every moment is an asshole moment.  Their behavior  comes from a sense of entitlement; the asshole is special, and we are NOT; the asshole deserves special treatment, and we do NOT. And when we try to assert our rights to equal treatment, the asshole is dismissive of us–because we just don’t “get” him.

Before-you-diagnose-yourself-with-depression-or-low-self-esteem-first-make-sure-that-you-are-not-in-fact-just-surrounding-yourself-with-assholes-quote-William-GibsonFor myself, I don’t really want to understand assholes; since there is almost no hope that they will ever understand me. I guess the best strategy is to avoid them as much as possible, and try not to let them get under my skin when I do, inevitably, meet up with yet another asshole. And of course, do my best to keep my own asshole behavior to an absolute minimum.