Random Reflections About This Blog/Site   (July 30, 2011)

Somewhat-related ideas are bandied about:"idea sluts," the bipolar spectrum, and those famous deckchairs on the Titanic.

I'm going to say a bunch of stuff about this blog, and blogging in general, which I hope to weave into semi-coherent reflections. If I fail, then it will simply be semi-random reflections.

There may not be much apparent connections between these bits; hopefully the process of making the connections will be mildly interesting.

I'm a little tired of the blog right now. Part of that stems from the fact that I've written about 300,000 words of "unique content" in the past 7 months: about 35,000 words as a paid free-lance writer, about 20,000 in the Weekly Musings for the site's 360 subscribers/ major contributors, about 150,000 words in 180 blog entries (a few being guest essays), and 100,000 words of An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times, which was pared down to 74,000 words.

I actually think 300,000 words is being conservative; maybe it's more like 325,000 words. Whatever the number, it's a lot.

I also wrote a few thousand emails, many of which were substantive.

Although I refer to this site as a blog out of convention, it is not really a blog; it is a website. I will say more about this later.

A reader recently pointed out that this is a Page Rank 6 site. Page Rank is Google's core algorithm; it essentially ranks the reach and influence of websites, including blogs. It is not a coarse measure of traffic (visitors) but of the "weight" of incoming links to the site. If your site has a lot of links from other influential sites, then your Page rank rises.

A lot of people try to game this algo but Google adjusts it constantly, and it's difficult to game. You can game traffic and the number of pages on your site, but you can't game the number of incoming links from influential sites.

So Page Rank is a pretty good measure of a site's reach and influence. The best way to understand PR is to do a search for the PR of the sites you frequent. Google itself is a 10, sites with few visitors and incoming links are 1. It is extremely difficult to reach a PR 6, especially if you're doing the whole thing alone. This may sound like self-congratulation but it simply a statement of fact. I do not really understand this site's reach and influence.

Another simple metric is to enter a unique string from the site into Google and see how many links come up. Entering "Charles Hugh Smith" (with quotes to make it a unique string, i.e. so links containing "smith" are excluded) returns 1.6 million results. I don't have any objective way to assess that, but it seems pretty high.

This site serves up over 120 gigabytes of data monthly, and since much of the readership is on sites such as Zero Hedge and Seeking Alpha, I have no measure of its full readership.

I recently had several very interesting conversations with my blogging colleague Gonzalo Lira. Gonzalo is a very engaging, witty, intelligent guy, and so it was easy to talk with him for a couple hours before and after his "Week in Words" webinar that he had graciously invited me to join as a guest.

(Gonzalo, please forgive me if my paraphrasing of your ideas is not quite accurate; they were of course filtered through my semi-coherent brain.)

Gonzalo said a number of things which I have been pondering. One was that he was not sure why he was blogging. Now I need to stipulate here that Gonzalo has built up a very influential blog; he has a high visitor count (10,000+ daily) and has established a high visibility. As noted above, this is not at all easy to accomplish. You don't just rush out and build a PR 5 site with 10K visitors; it takes a lot of engaging content and perseverance.

I suggested that perhaps blogging was a form of self-expression; he thought that was not quite it. I suggested creative outlet; that also didn't hit the mark. His refusal to accede to an easy answer struck me, for typically humans feel great unease with ambiguity and quickly choose a "boxed" answer to relieve the anxiety created by contingency and/or ambiguity.

Gonzalo was comfortable with an incomplete answer. That impressed me.

It turns out we share at least one commonality: we both have university degrees in philosophy. You need to know that to appreciate another thing he said, which I paraphrase thusly: It's not enough to have a conviction; you have to be able to explain the logic of your conviction, to build a case for it. Lots of people have convictions but few people are able to logically account for their convictions.

Based on the thousands of emails I have read--more like tens of thousands--I would agree. Humans prefer prefabricated "boxes" of ideas and convictions because it's easier to slip into a box with a herd of others inside. This is easier on two counts: humans are social animals, and the herd instinct is not only powerful, it offers selective advantages. The other is that it is irksome to think through an independent analysis with a coherent, fact-based internal logic. Our minds are not constructed to do this easily.

Ideologies are prefabricated boxes. They come with a ready-made self-referential internal logic: B follows from A because I believe in A. Facts are "cherry-picked" to support the internal logic, but the truly key component in any ideology, Left, Right or Libertarian, is magical thinking, i.e. wishful thinking.

I can illustrate this very simply.

The basic assumption of any ideology or "ideological "debate" (quotes explained in a moment) is that all problems would be resolved if only the "other side" came round to your conviction.

So let's follow that through: if all Republicans suddenly agreed with Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, would Peak Everything be resolved? Would the U.S.A.'s dependence on exponentially rising debt and imported oceans of oil magically go away? Would the consequences of The End of Work vanish? Would the consequences of 72 million (or 79 million counting legal immigrants) Baby Boomers retiring, fully 25% of the entire population, magically disappear?

Now repeat the question for the flip-side of the coin: if Democrats suddenly saw the light about free markets, low taxes, etc., and became die-hard Republicans, would any of these structural problems suddenly go away? No.

Though each ideology claims to have the "answers," the "answers" are all magical thinking: if only the wealthy would pay more taxes, if only taxes were lowered, if only those SUV drivers would buy a Prius, if only we cut Pentagon spending, etc. etc. etc. All of these ideology-generated "solutions" are just tweaking the parameters of internally doomed systems.

It's interesting what makes people angry enough to write me accusatory emails. Questioning that the U.S. dollar is heading straight to zero angers people, wondering if gold might drop a few hundred bucks per ounce angers people (even though such a drop would be well within its decade-long upward channel), and questioning the solvency of Social Security angers people.

Clearly, these are "hot buttons" within various ideological boxes.

Strangely enough, nobody gets angry when I discuss the structural changes termed "The End of Work" by author Jeremy Rifkin, a topic I have covered here many times. Nobody gets angry when I address the demographic realities of 79 million people retiring. Nobody gets angry when I talk about America's extreme dependence on the extreme leverage provided by oceans of cheap imported oil (roughly 12 million barrels a day). And nobody gets angry when I discuss America's addiction to low-interest debt.

But if you put these together, then the only logically consistent result is the implosion of the Savior State. And this angers people, because they have a stake in the Savior State, and its continuance, or even rightness, is a key component of the box they have chosen to inhabit.

What I write about on this site is not the world of today, but the world five years out and ten years out. That world does not yet exist, and its precise shape is of course unknown and contingent on a great number of causal factors. But the rough outlines are already predictable because the current consumption of oil and other resources, the dependence on ever-rising cheap-to-service debt, the End of Work and demographics are systemic, structural dynamics which cannot be reversed or addressed without the system collapsing. Tweaking parameters, a.k.a. rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, is not going to resolve any of these fundamental causal factors.

But it is psychologically appealling to nail down one's convictions and "solutions" and fill in the blanks with magical/wishful thinking.

A number of people write me to complain about the lack of a "comments" section that is a standard feature of 99% of all blogs. Some complain that I am merely a "preacher" who dares not "debate" them. Others claim they are so frustrated they are considering giving up reading the site.

My esteemed blogging colleague Jesse of Jesse's Cafe Americain recently explained why he has no comments section: it's too time-consuming and unrewarding.

I find it interesting that even though there are 10 million, or perhaps 100 million, blogs and sites which enable your comments, indeed, solicit them, the handful which do not enable comments draw some sort of special ire.

It seems there is an implicit assumption that having a public site requires one to host a forum available to all. This has made me realize oftwominds.com is not a blog; it is a website. There is no agreement, implicit or otherwise, that a website is also a public forum.

Here is an alternative perspective: there is a public forum available to all called free blogs. It takes about 3 minutes to set up your own blog on Blogspot or other free blogging sites. Everyone is free to open their own blog and post whatever content they wish. They can "debate" whatever they want, as often as they want.

I put "debate" in quotes because it seems the vast majority of people who want to "debate" me actually want to persuade me of the rightness of their convictions, and they prefer to do so without having to build a public readership of their own.

The vast majority of these convictions are prepackaged, self-referential ideologies. Thus these "debates," when stripped down to their essence, are chiding someone for their wrong-headedness. They are simulacrum debates, as no ideas are truly built upon a fact-based internal logic, and there is no contingency or ambiguity in the mind of the "debater." He is right by virtue of his conviction, and you are wrong.

I have also noted that it is virtually always men who are angry with something I've written--female readers disagree, but do so politely and with a degree of contingency. Males seem prone to getting locked into convictions of one sort or another, and if they perceive that you might have one foot in the wrong box, they get angry.

Gonzalo said something which (with a bit of witty vulgarity) captures living outside these prepackaged ideological boxes: being an "idea slut." That is, embracing various ideas and getting to know them intimately, not with a single-minded fury to discount them because they threaten one's established convictions, but with a desire to understand their assumptions and internal logic.

Being an idea slut flummoxes, confuses and infuriates everyone firmly lodged in their respective boxes. I am often reamed out as "leftist" and "right-wing" in the same week. People literally cannot make sense of independently assembled thinking. If you remove the self-referential aspects of convictions, i.e. "I believe in A which is the basis of my belief in B," then each topic loses the emotional baggage which is the essential coin of ideology.

Gonzalo related that he infuriates one slice of readers by seeing nothing intrinsically unworkable with fiat currencies; since he is a big proponent of owning physical gold and hyperinflation, this seems to contradict what he "should" believe, i.e. everyone who values gold as "real money" must also dismiss fiat currency of any kind as fundamentally flawed.

What if all ideologies have failed, completely and utterly? This is unacceptable to ideologues; we simply need to do more of what isn't working, and then it will magically start working.

There was an exceedingly interesting article on WSJ.com about the value of what psychologists call the bipolar spectrum: Depression in Command: In times of crisis, mentally ill leaders can see what others don't Their weakness is the secret of their strength.

The basic idea of the article is that conventional leaders do OK in conventional times, but fail miserably in uniquely troubled times. In those eras, then leaders from somewhere on the bipolar spectrum--manic-depressives, to use another term-- excel, because their internal worlds and perceptions lie outside conventions. They also tend to be far more empathetic than conventional "normal" people, which qualifies them for leadership above and beyond politics as usual.

I am not a leader, and have no desire to be one, but I am manic-depressive, and that spot on the bipolar spectrum certainly powers this site. Manic-depressives tend to be very productive and then crash; they are prone to debilitating depression. Maintaining some sort of balance requires a lot of self-management.

It has been estimated that about 6% of the populace is somewhere on the bipolar spectrum. Some require medication to lead "normal" lives, others are disagreeable and difficult to be around, and others are quirky charismatics. There are no generalizations which fit the entire spectrum, other than the commonly observed one that madness and genius are two sides of a single coin.

It isn't all "good" or "bad," but a mix of contingencies, uncertainties and ambiguities. A great many poets, writers, musicians, etc. have been manic-depressives, as well as the unconventional leaders mentioned in the article: Lincoln, Churchill, et al.

Some on the spectrum have trained themselves to interact seamlessly with "normal" people, to the degree that their "normal" friends are shocked to discover they are prone to severe depression. Others self-administer drugs such as alcohol, usually to poor effect.

I suspect General and President Ulysses S. Grant was bipolar; when he was depressed about his post in the remote northwest, he drank, and the reputation haunted him from then on.

But he was also able to switch from being a mediocre has-been shop-clerk to a brilliant general in a few months. He was unable to translate his military brilliance into his presidency, which shows the limitations of the bipolar spectrum.

I suspect the last "non-normal" president was Richard M. Nixon, and his gifts and sins were both outsized. No one who knew him would reckon him conventional, and his attempts to mimic "normal" behavior came across as stilted and phony.

The presidents since Nixon have been "normal" in the sense that whatever you think of them or their politics and decisions, they were outside the bipolar spectrum. The current crop of leaders are all remarkably conventional. This may explain their inability to provide leadership in uniquely challenging times.

Unconventional leaders are generally unelectable; if we cannot grasp the value of unconventional leaders, that is ultimately a choice of self-destruction.

You can't "choose" to be manic-depressive; you are, or you're not. If you are, then you manage it more or less successfully or unsuccessfully. Manic-depressives cannot stop doing what comes naturally to them, and some are remarkably creative. A "normal" person will learn an instrument and find pleasure in learning songs and other pieces. In contrast, new songs will come to these troubled creative types from nowhere, lyrics and melodies plucked as if from the air itself. We know these creations spring from their brains, yet they experience them as spontaneous discoveries.

As the article notes, the bipolar mind works differently from the "normal" mind. I suspect that Nature generates the 6% on the bipolar spectrum as a selective advantage for the species, as these few generate the preponderance of the intellectual and social mutations that provide the diversity of ideas needed in times of profound change.

These people tend to pay a high price for their role as unconventional generators of ideas, art and leadership.

OK, here's the wrap-up. There is no way to arrive at an unambiguous answer, but I suspect this website has an influential audience precisely because my goal is always independent thinking and independent journalism. I suspect that we understand, perhaps in the collective unconscious, that conventional "solutions" and thinking are failing at a profound level, and that our only hope is independent, unconventional ideas and thinking. Such thinking is flexible, unattached to emotional certainty, unafraid of contingency and ambiguity, and revels in embracing new ideas and exploring their inner workings.

If this site isn't part of that, then I have no other explanation for its reach and influence. As an individual, I am boringly conventional; as a "Channel of Me," I don't even rate a Page Rank 1.

If there is a central irony to this site, it's that living the life I promote here takes up most of my time, and so the site is a very part-time endeavor. Some readers seem miffed that I'm not in front of a computer 12 hours a day to enable and read their comments, but nobody pays me to do that, and I would refuse that "job" if offered it. That is not the "job" I do here. A generous reader maintains the DailyJava.net forum on his own; anyone is free to respond to anything they read here on that reader-moderated forum or on their own blog.

I have some other things to do over the next few months, so I'll be posting perhaps 10 entries a month rather than 25 per month. I will oft-times be unable to read or reply to emails.

Thank you for your readership and support of the site. I have learned a lot from you, and that's the value of the site to me--a value I try to share.

Readers forum: DailyJava.net.

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