Monthly Archives: January 2024

Go clean your room!

Admonishment as curative in “Dopamine Nation”

This was definitely a “No Malarky” type of read.

Anna Lembke seems compassionate but limits herself to dispensing the kind of old-fashioned advice you might get from George Will. Just stop doing the bad thing! Throw out anything that helps you do the bad thing! Now experience some sort of discomfort to reset your dopamine. Be honest with people about all the bad things you do.

It’s sort of like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, which basically just says “Be Effective”. Or Jordan Peterson saying “Clean up your room!”. We are in an era of dopamine-seeking dysfunction. But the book’s solution on how to fix this seems limited to personal responsibility. Not much on how well that actually works. Does AA work? The organization says 75% of adherents remain abstinent, other studies put it at more like 30%.

I would have liked to read suggestions at the societal level, and also a better ranking of which actions at a personal level have the most science-backed effectiveness and durability.

“A Christmas Carol” – Prioritizing threat-associated sensory information

I recently saw a local musical adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (“A Ghost Story of Christmas”) in which Scrooge seemed to magically change from a curmudgeon into jocund benefactor. It seemed abrupt and unearned, so I returned to the novel to try to figure out what specifically changed him.

Scrooge is someone who lives in scarcity, he prides himself on being impervious to any creature comforts: “

“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm nor wintry weather chill him”……”Foul weather didn’t know where to have him.”
(“A Christmas Carol”, Dickens, chapter 1)

Three spirits visit Scrooge. I thought the first, The Ghost of Christmas Past, would be the main catalyst, since it show’s Scrooge as a sad abandoned boy, eventually welcomed back into the family. Victorian-era PTSD.

Everyone (except me) loves the Ghost of Christmas Present, with all the food porn and grocer’s shop porn. Also everyone super-merry, hyper-merry, maniacally-merry, especially the poor. I’m sure that in the 1840’s this part of the book would be read and reread, but I found it unrealistic. I think Victorian England was going through a “Christmas Boom” at the time, it reads as aspirational and forced to me. Contrast this section with the early scalpel like description of Scrooge. “Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained and solitary as an oyster.”

This comparison with an oyster reminded me of The Book of Job, where Job describes his degraded state in terms of other creatures: “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.”

It’s the last Spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Future, that causes Scrooge to change. How sobering would it be to hear estate robbers brag about stealing the bed-curtains off of your deathbed, as you lay dying in it? Dark! The only people who express any emotion at your death are people who are happy you died because they owed you money. And finally seeing your own neglected gravestone.

Dickens was tying into human’s “attentional threat bias”, a gift from evolution that causes us to prioritize perceived threats over other types of stimuli. Although Darwin was a contemporary of Dickens, I’m sure this was a later-developed theory, so one might say Dickens was operating “on instinct” by including towards the end of the novel (taking advantage of “recency bias”).

The end result is that Scrooge is basically scared into an abundance mindset. This could be viewed through economic theory as well, he wants more value from his money. Or sociologically he was doing a sort of potlatch, seeking to inflate his status, being altruistic for purpose of pure gain. That would not have sold many books though.

In order not to be a total pre-transformation Scrooge myself, I am providing some fun definitions of Victorian-era terms that I had to look up:

withal: in addition, besides, or as well. It can also mean despite that, notwithstanding, or nevertheless. 

The Treadmill: The treadmill was a feature in prisons where inmates would walk endlessly, pushing a huge wheel while holding bars at chest height. With every step, the wheel would turn, grinding corn. Prisoners were allowed 12 minutes of break every hour. (Wikipedia)

St. Dunstan: Dickens refers to the harsh weather by comparing it to St. Dunstan using his blacksmith’s tongs to grab the devil by the nose

negus: a hot drink of port, sugar, lemon, and spices such as nutmeg

Cold Boiled: “There are disagreements as to whether it is boiled beef, pork or chicken.” (

“Martha dusted the hot plates”:  Cannot find anything on this, my uneducated guess is that plates were warmed by the fire and then were brushed off to remove any ashes

Smoking bishop – A hot drink made from port, red wine, lemons or Seville oranges, sugar, and spices such as cloves. The citrus fruit was roasted to caramelise it and the ingredients then warmed together. A myth persists[citation needed] that the name comes from the shape of the traditional bowl, shaped like a bishop’s mitre, and that in this form, it was served in medieval guildhalls and universities. (Wikipedia)

Barbie: Dolls playing with humans

After seeing the Gerwig/Bambauch toy epic “Barbie” I was left with the question “Where are the girls who play with the Barbies?”  The only girl character (Ariana Greenblatt) is yet another Hollywood proto-adult, who coolly condemns Barbie as “fascist”.  Aside from the comic opening which pays homage to “2001” the only actual scene of a girl playing with a doll takes place in an adult’s (America Ferrara’s) gauzy flashback scenes.

Barbie is a pink fantasy version of the latest Marvel movie.  Critics seem to be responding to the high concept, the tip of the hat to “camp”, without think going much deeper.  I can see a Barbie franchise in the offing “Barbie XV – Skipper’s Revenge.”

This movie goes beyond action, it addresses social issues, just  not in hearts and minds of girls.  The movie tries to compensate by finishing with Barbie becoming more “human”, but it’s a tacked-on solution.  Barbie is popular because she is not human, and although in real life Mattel offers a Barbie with a wheelchair, and a “Down’s syndrome Barbie”, those don’t sell.

The essential contradiction embodied by Barbie dolls, that they are simultaneously liberating and oppressing, must endure, because it echoes the human condition. Liberating, because Barbie shows girls that they can be anything they want to be.  Oppressing because if Barbie were blown up to human-size, her waist would be so small she would not have enough intestines to digest enough food to survive.    Women face the dilemma of “I want to be like that; I can’t be like that.” 

 Kierkegaard addressed something similar in his concept of “despair”.  

“The self is a synthesis of elements which are, and will always remain in opposition.  These elements are “held together” by the person and involve a tension or an anxiety which is a constant temptation to the person to “let it go”.  This would be a cowardly act, destroying the self in order to escape the anxiety.  The forms of “letting go” are the forms of despair.” (p. 58 Kierkegaard’s Philosophy – Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age, by John Douglas Mullen).

The Barbie movie focuses on “Barbie’s” realization of this opposition.  Problems start to occur when a Barbie designer attempts to avoid Kierkegaardian despair by integrating Barbie’s shadow-side via sketches and darker character ideas.   

Just as Kierkegaard described those most in despair (most in normative fantasy) as seeming “in the pink of health” (pink Barbie), when Jungian undercurrents begin to flow, Barbie unpinks: she gets bad breath and flat feet.

Barbieland is veritable “Lord of the Flies” struggle for gender domination.  At first the Barbie’s rule: they occupy the top echelon of society, without effort.  The Kens are literally accessories.  The Barbies seem to have no problem with this injustice, and a reference is made in voice-over that this is the converse of the “real world”.   

After Barbie’s trip to the “real world” including visiting Mattel headquarters, populated by harmless corporate-suit dolls, Barbie returns to Barbieland only to find it now ruled by Ken dolls.  The Kens have become the oppressors, forcing the Barbie’s into abject supportive roles

Two points are overlooked here.  First, the comic version of hypermasculinity which the Kens embrace dilutes the parallel dilemma that boys now face.  Over time boy’s “action figures” (dolls) have become more and more unrealistically muscular, to the point where they look like steroid-using bodybuilders.  The dilemma of being oneself and meeting an unrealistic ideal is one shared by both genders.  The male box was played for laughs.

Second, female internecine norm enforcement is ignored.  The fact that it’s “impossible to be a woman” is in no way tied to female aspiration to be part of the Barbie crew. If Barbie steps out of line (plays too much) the other Barbies ostracize her as “weird Barbie”, Barbie never nurtures, Barbie never IS nurtured.

I can imagine a more interesting Nietzschean take with hyper-Barbies running amok, openly oppressing any weakness, yet succumbing to the inevitable consequences of Kierkegaardian despair: loss of meaning, identity, self.  Similarly the Ken/G.I. Joe identity-havoc-wreakers would create their own personal Armageddon.  The only hope, in this future and perhaps our own, would be a small girl and a boy who picks up a broken doll, strokes their synthetic hair and tells them it’s going to be OK.