The Samuel Johnson
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March 28, 2004:
From anger, in its full import, protracted into malevolence, and exerted in revenge, arise, indeed, many of the evils to which the life of man is exposed. By anger operating upon power are produced the subversion of cities, the desolation of countries, the massacre of nations, and all those dreadful astonishing calamities which fill the histories of the world...
— Samuel Johnson: Rambler #11
The vehemence of the White House response to claims made by Richard Clarke has been surprising. The White House has hosted vigorous defenses from VP Dick Cheney; NSA Condoleeza Rice and her assistant Stephen Hadley; communications director Bruce Bartlett; and press secretary Scott McCellan. Their reactions have been firm, unbridled, and inconsistent.
It has basically been a no-holds-barred effort to discredit Clarke, and thereby shed doubt on his accusations, by questioning his motives (he's selling a book, it's election year politics, he knows Democrats, he's angling for a future job under John Kerry, he's disgruntled about being demoted, and so on and so on) or his authority (Cheney oddly claimed he was "out of the loop," odd because Clarke was the loop, this was his job). Rice tried to argue that the Bush commitment to fighting terrorism was obvious because of budgeting increases, but this was quickly shown to be misdirection (if not an outright lie) on her part. (Good reading here, by the way.)
It has bled into supposedly independent bodies like the US Senate, and the 9/11 commission. In the Senate, majority leader Bill Frist suggested that Clarke had given conflicting testimony under oath to the Senate in 2002 (a dangerous charge to hurl, since Frist also said he was unaware of any conflicting testimony when asked about it later). The 9/11 commission quickly became partisan when Clarke testified last week, with Republican members expressing shock, shock, that while Clarke reported to the President he sought to put the President's policies and achievements in the best light possible without changing the truth.
Obviously, the Republicans are pretty angry about Clarke's claims — the entire re-election strategy is apparently built on Bush's performance in response to 9/11. The sad thing is the way this represents a continuation of the smear tactics they pull on their critics. Just a couple recent ones will suffice: the attempted discounting of Joe Wilson's op ed on the Nigerian Yellow Cake by suggesting he only got his job through his wife, who works for the CIA (never mind that leaking that tidbit meant blowing her cover), and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, whose book earned him an investigation into whether or not he'd been spilling classified data into the press.
But the extent with which they've reacted in this is surprising, since a lot of Clarke's charges could be cast as an issue of degree rather than black-white. For instance, Colin Powell's measured response treats Clarke's points as an issue of degree, that the Bush Admin was less concerned, not unconcerned: "Now, Mr. Clarke has said it was important, but not urgent, and I'm not sure what he means by that or what urgency he thinks we should have attributed to it that we didn't."
Contrast that with what most of the others are doing: in their anger they are literally betting the (White) House, and they are happy to compromise lives and national security to do so. (Senator Frist has asked that classified documents be released, for instance.)
March 21, 2004:
Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.
— Samuel Johnson (Quoted in James Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson")
Johnson was up-to-date, and a firm believer in the scientific method. That meant you couldn't draw conclusions simply from observations, you could only develop hypotheses. And hypotheses couldn't be developed without a firm grounding in observations, or else you'd be conducting experiments into perpetuity. A good scientist watches the world, develops hypotheses, and conceives experiments which will test those hypotheses. If the experiments provide confirming results, you don't stop there: you have to be aware of competing explanations, and either water down the strength of your conclusions or develop experiments which will help you choose between competing explanations. If your hypotheses are not borne out after conducting your experiments, then you learn from the disconfirming results. It's not a difficult concept: it's been around hundreds of years.
Perhaps from the idea that we really did have a "new economy" where old principles no longer held (an audacity which has been disproved), an arrogance developed among our leaders.
It's long been known that on the afternoon of September 11, Iraq was already Rumsfeld's suspect number one, without any supporting evidence. In addition, an insider's view of the decision processes shows that there was an interest in targeting Iraq because it provided better targets than Afghanistan did. In an interview with CBS, former White House terrorism advisor Richard Clarke said:
"Rumsfeld was saying we needed to bomb Iraq....We all said, 'but no, no. Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan," recounts Clarke, "and Rumsfeld said, 'There aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq.' I said, 'Well, there are lots of good targets in lots of places, but Iraq had nothing to do with [the September 11 attacks].'"
Amidst this, the New York Times reports that this coming week, Clinton's security advisors will tell the US 9/11 commission that it briefed the incoming Bush administration, in no uncertain terms, about the severity of the threat which Al Qaeda represented:
(By the way, it's not news that the outgoing Clinton administration briefed the incoming Bush administration; this was in Newsweek about a year ago. I guess it's the upcoming 9/11 testimony which brings this to the fore again.) So here we have a clear example of the failure to apply proper scientific thinking: two competing hypotheses about responsibility for September 11, and the Administration decided to focus in Iraq at least initially just because it was easier. (At this point it's becoming clear that Aznar was trying to use misdirection on the Spanish press regarding the likely culprits on the Madrid bombings, but one has to wonder what he himself thought.)
This is not the only instance, of course, where we went off to milk a bull. This past week on PBS Newshour, Hans Blix reminded us of our failure to detect forgery in the case of the Nigerian purchase order for yellowcake; it took the IAEA just a day to see the shabbiness of the deception, when we'd had it for months. (In the same interview he pointed out a general failure of critical thinking throughout the entire process, including evidence like the aluminum tubes meant for missiles, that Powell positioned as intended for uranium refinement.)
A similar problem occurred immediately after the war while hunting for the WMDs which our informants had misled us to believe were there. Remember the mobile "labs"? These were trumpeted by Bush and Blair as definitive proof of WMD programs, before they had been adequately examined. And once that examination took place, of course, it wasn't the case.
I could go on, but the point is to remember: even the great leaders of the world don't always think critically enough when they search for bulls to milk. But that doesn't give you an excuse to do the same. Put up your skeptic antennas!
March 14, 2004:
Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.
— Samuel Johnson: Pope (Lives of the Poets)
That proposition, they might say, is none too shabby. Without sufficient probability of success, who would venture it? (Although Gimli's line in the movie "The Return of the King" is admittedly cute: "Certainty of death... Small chance of success... What are we waiting for?")
In many of his writings, Johnson points out the need for risk taking in order to achieve an outstanding success. A number of his Adventurer essays deal with realizing our potential and taking risks; one of my favorite quotes in this regard is from number 81:
From torpid despondency, can come no advantage; it is the frost of the soul, which binds up all its powers, and congeals life in perpetual sterility. He that has no hopes of success, will make no attempts; and where nothing is attempted, nothing can be done.
And yet, while it is important to make attempts, one has to accept the possibility of failure in advance (the character in "Rasselas" who donned man-made wings and fell into a lake told Rasselas that "Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome"). Additionally, vision and will are not enough. There are numerous essays where Johnson cites the need for perseverance and planning.
Johnson has almost no respect for those who are overly cautious; if you can, dig up a copy of his essay Idler #57. In that essay, he creates a character named Sophron who remains neutral in everything, uninvolved, and sterile. Into Sophron's mouth Johnson puts this maxim: "He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty." Johnson clearly feels otherwise.
March 7, 2004:
To some frames of mind almost every thing is wrong.
— Samuel Johnson (letter to John Taylor; 14 March 1782)
Some people are grabbed by a single idea, and it not only gets hold of them, but it provides the context for interpreting everything they see. Others can have their world views colored not by an idea so much as a disposition. In fairness, we expect people to learn from their surroundings, and apply their learning when they go out into the world; otherwise, we would be suggesting that someone constantly approach the world like an infant.
So much of our wholesomeness depends on knowing where to draw the line between the open-mindedness of an infant and the closed-mindedness of someone who no longer interacts with the world. The idea of the infant is easily understood, but where can we go to for examples of how distorted viewpoints can get?
U.S. political web sites already offer a caution. Both on the right and the left, there are splendid examples of views which have become so extremist that, if not consistently absurd, at least offer occasional examples of thinking gone wrong. (And, as we head into selecting a new president in November, it's important for voters to not only understand the issues, but also the rhetoric, so as to differentiate between the concrete and the hot air.)
On the right, spending a little time reading the forums at freerepublic.com will give you a quick idea of how anti-Clintonism continues to taint the world view of those conservatives (references to Hillary as "Hitlery" are not difficult to find, for example). I'm sure there are similar examples of liberal web sites where people have knee jerk reactions to practically everything that emanates from the Bush administration, too. But there are also other instances you can see at sites where the owner isn't consistently rabid, but lapses into such a fit. Today, for instance, I saw a post where the owner noted that neither the President nor his brother Jeb attended the recent wedding of their brother Neil, and interpreted that as frigid behavior from W and Jeb. Kinder interpretations are readily available — that W and Jeb might have been showing the disreputable Neil some tough love. At any rate, the site owner had a predisposition to see W's and Jeb's actions negatively.
We do ourselves a disservice if we're not awake to that behavior in others, and a greater disservice, of course, when we don't caution ourselves against our own failures in this regard.
February 29, 2004:
Books without the knowledge of life are useless; for what should books teach but the art of living?
— Samuel Johnson (as told in Hester Thrale Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson)
Some very smart, respected writers — Samuel Johnson, Henry David Thoreau, and Neil Postman, for instances — have taken utilitarian views about what we read, and argued that if we don't integrate what we read into our lives, and act on the information, then we are wasting our time doing that reading.
I'll leave aside the entertainment value of reading for now, and maybe come back to that in another week, and just deal with the realm of "non-fiction" for now. Thoreau's comments on our enthusiasm to read newspaper accounts about what happened halfway around the world are well-known, and Postman build on them in "Amusing Ourselves to Death." Johnson's thoughts are similar: what use is abstract reading, if it goes unapplied?
Postman's criterion of "unapplied" is fairly strict: if what we read goes no further than adding fuel to our water cooler conversation, has it done anything? He accepts the value of news reading if we take it a step further and write our government representatives, etc., but if it falls on infertile ground we're better off spending our time doing something else.
You may not be aware of some of the latest controversies, and may not even give a hoot about issues such as gay marriage or whether or not Aristide left Haiti under U.S. threat. But let's say you are aware about these and other issues... That qualifies you to become an informed member of the populace. And your water cooler commentary might cause others to become more informed also.
A citizenry which is oblivious to the goings on in the world is, as they say, ripe for the picking. I can't help but wonder if both this and the previous administration have depended on a sedated, oblivious nation, one which will not care and can be easily fooled. Sometimes it certainly seems as if the press isn't even doing it's job to manage the information, which means that we have to try harder ourselves.
Like the campaign song sang, Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow.
February 22, 2004:
All quarrels grow more complicated by time, and as they grow more complicated, grow harder to be adjusted.
— Samuel Johnson: Letter to George Strahan (10 October 1782)
I was glad to be able to hear Walter Jackson Bate speak before he died. Many Bate fans knew him from having taken his class at Harvard, but I was among a much larger group of who had read his biography of Johnson. One point Bate said stuck with me — and in all honesty I think he attributed it to someone else. It was that Johnson may have had original thoughts only rarely, but the way he expressed what he wrote or said was not only original, but with a raw clarity that seldom failed to stop you in your tracks and make you see the sense of the argument. (I'm paraphrasing what I heard years ago, but that was the essence.)
I think we've all experienced what Johnson was cautioning Strahan about — an argument which grows needlessly greater unless it's addressed, like a tangle of monofilament which seems to grow greater on the reel before your eyes. Sometimes the explosion is not so rapid or extreme, but it is tangible. And even if you have the gumption to step in and resolve the issue, a strong fear makes you slow to do so.
Strahan, I'm sure, was of as broad experience as we are. Yet the quarrel Johnson referred to, between Strahan and his father, had been going on for a couple months, and even though Strahan might have been able to step outside himself and pronounce the same truth, this was definitely a case where someone needed to be reminded of something they already knew. Yet both disputants had aggravated the issue by going public with their grievances, meaning that both sides were considering not only the equity of a solution, but saving face (whether or not they admitted it).
Certainly, Strahan and his father were not unique in letting an issue worsen. I suppose the question for us all is whether or not we think we are faced with such unique circumstances that we think it's justified on our part.
February 15, 2004:
Vanity inclines us to find faults any where rather than in ourselves. He that reads and grows no wiser seldom suspects his own deficiency; but complains of hard words and obscure sentences, and asks why books are written which cannot be understood.
—Samuel Johnson: Idler 70
Our ability to think and understand the world is largely dependent on our vocabulary. With a child's vocabulary, it's difficult not only to describe adult experiences (and I'm not talking about "wardrobe malfunctions," but more useful concepts like loyalty, ambivalence, etc.). And because referring to these larger concepts becomes more difficult with a limited vocabulary — you need many more words to do so — it's far more difficult to consider a number of them at once. Cognitive psychologists found long ago that we can remember far more when we can "chunk" tiny bits of information and remember the chunks; you can remember as many chunks as you can tiny bits.
So, with a limited vocabulary, we do ourselves a disservice: we are inarticulate, and our ability to hear and understand others is constrained. Vocabulary, of course, is not limited to the number of words but also the number of connotations associated with those words. For instance, on another web site I saw a debate about a recent statement by Al Gore that Bush had "betrayed" the US over the Iraqi invasion. By some definitions of betray (connoting treason) this sounds shrill, but by others ("To be false or disloyal to;" "To lead astray; deceive") it sounds far less so.
The desirability of a "light" read — one which is pure entertainment — is attested to by the sales of a potboiler like The DaVinci Code. (If you want to read it, go ahead and order it through that link, and I'll get a little change.) That kind of book is certainly no new phenomenon; it's something Johnson noted in Idler 30 ("One of the amusements of idleness is reading without the fatigue of close attention; and the world therefore swarms with writers whose wish is not to be studied, but to be read"), but just because we like chocolate cake doesn't mean it should be our only food.
Reading a book that stretches our thinking or our vocabulary is practically an obligation. Our brains were given us to be used, not coddled; and, to return to the metaphor of a child, it's one thing to push a toddler around in a stroller, but to do so with a capable adult would be preposterous. Why would you treat your brain any differently?
February 8, 2004:
Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.
—Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell's Life of Johnson
When people are in a mood to point out Johnson's mistakes, this one is usually high on the list. Not only has Tristram Shandy lasted, but it's easy to point to similarly innovative 20th century books like Joyce's Ulysses, or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and say "Hah! Johnson was wrong."
Well, truth be told, he was wrong. But it's easy to see why, because Tristram Shandy did not revolutionize fiction in the way that Ulysses did, so its influence wasn't nearly as strong... But perhaps we shouldn't bemoan the quality of Tristram Shandy (I don't) so much as the rarity of the type of genius that it takes to create such a work? And, if Johnson found it "odd" in his century, it is partly due to the inability of contemporaries to build on what Sterne had accomplished.
It's not that Johnson was resistant to innovation: he just needed to see its impact before he would accept it as something beyond mere singularity. He thought negatively of singularity (read this quote, for instance), but thought differently about innovation; his dictionary definition of "innovate" sounds neutral ("to bring in something not known before"), but a quotation he provides from Bacon to illustrate the word demonstrates the value of progress: "Men pursue some few principles which they have chanced upon, and care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences."
These thoughts occurred to me because of the attention this weekend to the 40th anniversary of The Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It's well known that a number of record labels passed on signing them — "guitar groups are one the way out," and all that — and it's fun to speculate on how Johnson might have reacted to the Fab Four. Sometimes one hears about how the Beatles were defended by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, and to think that, well, Johnson would also have embraced them, but I don't know how early Bernstein and Copland accepted them. Bernstein and Copland may have needed time, themselves, to see that the Beatles were truly innovative. Besides, the Beatles weren't universally applauded by serious musicians; Thelonious Monk felt insulted when his label asked him to do an album of Beatles music, and left the label shortly afterward. This was in 1969, well after the world had heard standards like "Yesterday." And Glenn Gould preferred Petula Clark over the Beatles.
So, it's idle speculation as to whether or not Johnson would have liked the Beatles: one doesn't really think more of Bernstein and Copland for having done so, nor less for Monk and Gould for having not.
I guess it's a fairly safe bet, though, that he would have frowned on the whole Beatlemania aspect. At a dinner party, a musical concert series was being discussed:
"Pray," said he, gravely, "Madam, what is the expense?"
February 1, 2004:
The prosperity of a people is proportionate to the number of hands and minds usefully employed.
—Samuel Johnson: Idler #22
There are few statistics which can be more misleading than averages. One has to look at the nature of the numbers and how they are distributed across a population in order to understand what really goes on: for instance, it would be disingenuous to say that the average happiness is improved if only one small group in the population experiences an uplift.
Johnson recognized that prosperity could not be true unless it was widespread. This thought was echoed in an end of year column by Paul Krugman, who noted that economic growth in the third quarter was concentrated among the already wealthy, with very little of the boom being shared by middle and lower class workers. One of the chief barometers leading him to his conclusions was the lack of jobs growth — again, echoing Johnson's point about the need for useful employment.
Johnson frequently saw demand as a spur for the economy; you can hear "trickle down" theories in statements such as:
The truth is, that luxury produces much good. Take the luxury of building in London. Does it not produce real advantage in the conveniency and elegance of accommodation, and this all from the exertion of industry? People will tell you, with a melancholy face, how many builders are in gaol, not for building; for rents are not fallen. — A man gives half a guinea for a dish of green peas. How much gardening does this occasion? how many labourers must the competition to have such things early in the market, keep in employment? You will hear it said, very gravely, 'Why was not the half-guinea, thus spent in luxury, given to the poor? To how many might it have afforded a good meal?' Alas! has it not gone to the industrious poor, whom it is better to support than the idle poor? You are much surer that you are doing good when you pay money to those who work, as the recompence of their labour, than when you give money merely in charity. (In Boswell's Life of Johnson)
But note that the growth needs to trickle down to the industrious poor. Johnson did not speculate on the possibility that it wouldn't, and it's difficult to imagine how he would have reacted to the Reagan 80's, when trickle-down did not work. Johnson might well have ascribed limits to his economic theory, and seen a need for society to step in, in some fashion, for he also said to Boswell, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."
January 25, 2004:
To fix the thoughts by writing, and subject them to frequent examinations and reviews, is the best method of enabling the mind to detect its own sophisms, and keep it on guard against the fallacies which it practises on others: in conversation we naturally diffuse our thoughts, and in writing we contract them; method is the excellence of writing, and unconstraint the grace of conversation.
—Samuel Johnson: Adventurer #85
Adventurer 85 is a marvelous discussion of the proper balance of conversation and writing in achieving progress in thinking. Johnson recognized that each medium had its limitations, as well as strengths; without conversation, writing about complicated ideas could be too deformed, because it would grow without an interaction with broader society; and yet, for ideas to progress, they need to be examined. You can subject dinner conversation to the same kinds of rigorous examination which you can give to an article in the Atlantic Monthly, but would that be a worthwhile exercise?
Belatedly, I've been reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, which compares the intrinsic characteristics of television and what it can communicate to those of print, as well as other media like oral speech. It's a very readable history of the progress of communication and what the progress from one medium to the next implied. For instance, an early, compelling example is smoke signals:
"While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom."
To communicate complex ideas, you need writing — and a public that is attuned to thinking about complex ideas as well. Postman notes that Lincoln and Douglas could debate, orally, for seven hours, but they were working with a public for whom the written word had such value that they were happy to read, and think about what they read, and attend to complex speeches which mirrored written sentences.
Published in 1986, it's from an era when politicians' speeches were not widely available as transcripts. That's a bit different now, of course — you can go to the White House's web site and get not just the President's speeches, but even the daily briefings by his spokesperson. Some people carefully parse the statements made in such contexts and draw broader inferences, but most people do not, even for the Presidential speeches. The high percentage of the American public which concluded that Iraq was behind September 11 is doubtless due to listening to what the Administration said orally, and not recognizing that an explicit connection was never drawn but only suggested.
I'm grateful that we live in an age where the speeches of politicians can be re-examined, and we are no longer limited to our collective memories about what was said. It's only through careful scrutiny that we can understand the large issues we face; hopes that we will come to a greater understanding of the intricacies of the environment, the economy, international diplomacy, and so on, through a half-hour newscast must remain hopes, and idle ones at that.
January 18, 2004:
Not only in the slumber of sloth, but in the dissipation of ill directed industry, is the shortness of life generally forgotten.
—Samuel Johnson: Rambler #71
Last week, I wrote about how Johnson stressed that we can't lose sight of eternity when we choose how to live our lives: that in our final hours, everything will pale in comparison to our ultimate salvation or damnation.
It's important to note that Johnson never thought that we should lose sight of the time we've been given. Knowing that life is a blessing from God, he warned against our frittering it away.
The quotation above cites two threats, but he saw a number of others. They include:
There's a biblical passage which Johnson was fond of quoting: The night will come when no man shall work. It was an apt reminder to us all — eternity is one thing, but don't squander the time you've been given.
January 11, 2004:
It is not therefore from this world that any ray of comfort can proceed to cheer the gloom of the last hour.
—Samuel Johnson: Rambler #203 (February 25, 1752)
Johnson's conclusion follows a thorough examination of how happiness is diluted by time. Frequently, he points out, those whom we loved and grew up with have died and cannot share our triumphs; so too with the enemies we expected to humiliate. And even if we succeed in achieving fame (something which very few can accomplish), our celebrity quickly fades and we are replaced by the next phenomenon. "New favourites are adopted by fashion," he writes.
Johnson notes that due to the ways in which our temporal pleasures become tarnished once we possess them, it's not uncommon to seek happiness in reveries. But even this is no solution, because in the process of remembering our glories of the past we frequently unearth accompanying unpleasant memories. And resorting to speculations on the future can lead to unsupported hopes which will disappoint us in the end.
The shallow value of our earthly happiness falls apart when considered in the light of our "last hour" — it is the state of our souls in the last hour which will determine our salvation, and through that our true happiness. What pursuits will seem worthwhile then?
Because the world is so diverse, Johnson doesn't presume to tell us how we should manage our lives in specific terms, but he does want us to think about our end more frequently. Perhaps he is confident that we don't need such direction, not beyond the reminder that we wake up. But it's a recurring theme for him. Towards the end of Rasselas, after the four travelers have seen enough of the world to know that each choice of life is flawed, the Princess Nekayeh pronounces, "To me the choice of life is become less important; I hope hereafter to think only on the choice of eternity."
January 4, 2004:
There is, indeed, something inexpressibly pleasing in the annual renovation of the world, and the new display of the treasures of nature.
—Samuel Johnson: Rambler #5 (April 3, 1750)
The New Year no longer accompanies Spring — in Johnson's time the New Year began on March 25, less than two weeks before Rambler #5 was written — but spring-like hopes occur nonetheless.
A window in my neighborhood with Christmas lights in the shape of a peace sign reminded me of my complex feelings about the war in Iraq, and how I hope for a more public Administration than the one we now have. (A recap, if you don't know: I supported invasion for humanitarian reasons but only if that was what the debate was about; even though the outcome for Iraq is beneficial, I feel America suffered because we went into war for the unsupported reason of stanching WMDs; to justify it retroactively as having been for humanitarian reasons ignores the importance of the public square and the determinacy of the populace.) So, while I pray for a world which will make such invasions unnecessary, I also pray for an Administration which will be more candid with the public: it is the public which has sovereignty and merely entrusts it to elected representatives.
The Spring which Johnson wrote about was in contrast to Winter's cold barrenness. The turning of the season from Winter to Spring may give greater refreshment than one can expect from merely turning to a new calendar, but it would be foolish to not hope for more than we already have. And while the current disingenuous Administration will be with us for at another year, the need for accountability is great. Every patriotic American should demand that, whether or not they voted for President Bush. Every New Year's Day should remind you that a year is too precious to waste.