Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Out of Time

timehasrunout

This is it.

As promised over a year ago, this will be the final post for this blog. The reasons for this are primarily:

  1. I think it has reached a point where I am saying many of the same things over and over, only differently. Not useless, but less than ground breaking.
  2. It is time for ME to move on, which has been one of the underlying themes as well.

I figured the last day of the year would be a good time to make the change, but one thing led to another, and I couldn’t get it done. So here we are. It is not easy. I like doing this, but, in addition to the reasons above, I don’t really have time for it anymore.

My plan a year ago was to work through all of the posts I had in a draft state to get them online before signing off. I failed. Just like what happens in life, time caught up and I didn’t get everything done I wanted to do. There are dozens still sitting incomplete. I have decided to let them go. I’m not a big fan of symbolic actions because I think they ultimately don’t work. We know we’re doing it symbolically, which belies our sincerity and speaks as much to a need for drama. Show business can be powerful, but the power is often fleeting. All of that is true in this case as well. So…I’m not suggesting I will not write again. Only that it’s time for this blog to rest in peace.

On the occasion that I go back and read previous posts I am at once astounded and proud of how good and insightful some of them are, and also disappointed at how incomplete or lacking in any innovative thinking others are. To the astute reader, I have revealed a lot here, about myself, and human nature in general.

It was never for anyone but me. I never promoted it or cared how many people looked on. It’s simply my art, and started as a way to get some basic thoughts down. Something about writing things down codifies them, forcing the writer to think rationally in complete sentences and to ground statements and feelings. A worthy exercise, and one I think I got better at over the seven years of posts.

It evolved, as I knew it would, though I found myself surprised at how it evolved. I don’t know how obvious it is, but there was actually a turning point in the nature and presentation of the subject matter. It would be interesting to bring someone in to read through it all to see if that stands out. It’s blatantly obvious to me when I read many of the posts before and after that time. It happened over a number of months, but began here (not coincidentally, that post is the most linked to throughout the rest of the blog, barely beating this one.), and began to get momentum here. Life changes, sometimes in ways that there is no undo button for.

As a sort of farewell gift, I offer up my top 50 favorite posts (not already linked elsewhere in this one), which was an agonizing process that probably wasn’t worth the time it took, especially since the list would likely be different if I did it again next week. I hope that for those who come along later, this might get you started with what’s behind the scenes here. In chronological order…

  1. Common Sense
  2. If the Voltage Gets High Enough…
  3. Boundaries
  4. Start by Doing a Good Job
  5. Religion and Politics
  6. Hierarchy of Money
  7. Science Has a PR Problem Too
  8. Policies
  9. Brass Tacks
  10. Battle of the Unknown
  11. Compromise
  12. Love Will Find a Way
  13. Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
  14. The Curse of Perseverance
  15. Love and Trust
  16. I See Dead People
  17. Serendipity
  18. Dedication
  19. The Drain of Friction
  20. The Value of Images
  21. What Life Really Is
  22. Ideal World
  23. The Chosen Ones
  24. Forgive
  25. A Metaphor for Life
  26. The Result of Answers
  27. Creativity
  28. In the Flesh
  29. Move Past Go
  30. The Pretty Girl Gets Kissed
  31. A Beautiful Story
  32. Hope is Not a Strategy
  33. Morality
  34. Caged
  35. Free Will is Fake
  36. Burning Ships
  37. Blind Spot
  38. Delusions
  39. Why Love Wins
  40. Strength
  41. One Step
  42. Trust, the Hidden Part
  43. Probability: Facts, Statistics, and Reality
  44. Changes
  45. Pride and Face
  46. Comfort
  47. Atheism: Instrumental versus intrinsic
  48. Reasons or Excuses
  49. New Information
  50. The Opposite of Success
  51. Bonus: the whole Happiness series

 

And here are a few random facts.

  • The most visitors to the blog in one day was on 1/6/2015, after this post.
  • 2015 was the busiest year for visitors, with 2011 close behind.
  • 2015 also has the most published posts, at 81.
  • Nearly 2,000 unique people visited the blog throughout 2015.
  • After the United States, Germany had the most visitors.
  • The most viewed page, by far, was the home page.
  • The most looked at post was this one, followed by this. It appears traffic to the site was more influenced by my use of a couple of popular terms people search for than the actual content of the blog. Humbling, though not surprising.
  • The longest time gap between when an entry was started and when it was actually completed and posted was 56 months.
  • There are almost 1,000 comments posted across the 493 blog entries.
  • There are over 22,000 comments not posted, as they marked as spam. Unfortunately some of those are/were legitimate comments. I never got to sorting them all out. Sorry about that.
  • There were 520 images posted over the course of the blog. The images are very important, and often contained additional information/meaning.

To quote a friend, “It’s time.” I could drone on about all that I’m thinking as the final letters get typed, and the unused material gets trashed, but it’s a frivolous delay of what I have decided.

It’s a lot like life. Time runs out while we still have things on our to do list.

I do have another potential endeavor in the works. If anything gets going on that I may return here to leave a trail of bread crumbs to it.

And with that, I bid you adieu.

All the best,

David Stewart

 

 

 

 

Conservation of Energy

conservationofenerty

In physics, the law of energy conservation states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant. It can’t be created or destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another. Our understanding of the universe relies on this principle.

It often (not always) applies to people and relationships, too.

If you escalate (cut off in traffic, angry at the gate agent, frustrated at your boss), you’ve just added (negative) energy to a conversation.

If you escalate (enthusiasm, a hug, encouraging words), you’ve just added (positive) energy to a conversation.

Once the energy is added, it has to go somewhere. Often, the person you’re engaging with throws it right back, or even increases it. The problem with taking offense is that it’s really hard to figure out what to do with it after you’re done using it. Better to just leave it on the table and walk away. Umbrage untaken quietly disappears. A talented, mature person might take your negative energy and de-escalate it, or even swallow it and permit the conversation to calm down or end. But don’t count on it.

You can ‘win’ a conversation by overwhelming your opponent with energy they can’t handle. But of course, they’re not your opponent and you don’t really win. Being aware of the energy you add or take from interactions is a sophisticated technique that radically changes the outcomes of the conversations that fill your day. Add the good stuff, absorb the bad stuff and focus on the outcomes, not the bravado. Winning isn’t the point.

Two Kinds of Argument

science-vs

Scientific -vs- the other kind. The scientific kind relies on what the facts say. The science can be proven wrong by better science. The other kind relies on what emotions say or pride.

If you need to convince someone who refuses to act like a scientist (listening to facts), making better science isn’t going to help you very much. The person you’re arguing with (who might be a scientist during the day, even, but is merely being a person right now) is not going to be swayed from a firmly held opinion by your work to make better science. It’s more likely that it will take cultural pressure, shame, passion, humor, connection and a host of unreliable levers to make your point.

The easy way to tell the two varieties of argument apart is to ask, “what evidence would you need to see to change your mind about this?”

Don’t argue about belief, argue about arguments. The essence of a belief is that we own it, regardless of what’s happening around us. The key to making a rational argument is that your assertions must be falsifiable.

“I believe A because of B and C.” If someone can show you that “C” isn’t actually true, then it’s not okay to persist in arguing “A”. The statement, “All swans are white” is falsifiable, because if I can find even one black swan, we’re done.

On the other hand, “Aliens are about to take over the world with flying saucers,” is not, because there’s nothing I can do or demonstrate that would satisfy the person who might respond, “well, they’re just very well hidden, and they’re waiting us out.”

If belief in “A” is important to someone’s story, people usually pile up a large number of arguments that are either not testable, or matters of opinion and taste. There’s nothing wrong with believing “A”, but it’s counterproductive to engage with someone in a discussion about whether you’re right or not. It’s a belief, or an opinion, both of which are fine things to have, but it’s not a logical conclusion or a coherent argument, because those require asserting something we can actually test.

You can’t argue with feelings. The key question is, “is there something I can prove or demonstrate that would make you stop believing in ‘A’?” If the honest answer is ‘no’, then we’re not having an argument, are we?

Before we waste a lot of time arguing about something that appears to be a rational, logical conclusion, let’s be sure we are both having the same sort of discussion.

Organization’s Effects

artguy

If you take a group of people, a subgroup of the larger population, and expose them to focused messages again and again, you will start to change their point of view. If you augment those messages with exposure to other members of the group, the messages will begin to have ever more impact.

We generally tend to align ourselves with those we’re around. We don’t fully understand why. There is a lot of psychology we know, and then other stuff we can’t explain. Yawning, for instance, can be statistically shown to be contagious. It has been studied for years, yet we don’t know why it happens.

Once a group starts to become aligned, and starts acting like a tribe, the messages of the tribe will become self-reinforcing. When someone is born into that tribe, there is a very high probability she will never know the difference. It is simply her common sense about the way the world works.

Programmed.

The Racket of Education

educationracket

The government doesn’t do a great job of educating our children, mostly because there is inherently some level of corruption, and people and organizations think they need (more) money to do the great work. So it all ends up gamed, and the blame diffused. There’s a lot of good, mind you. I’m not advocating tearing it all down. But we do need to learn to see through the B.S. and maintain accountability.

The Show versus Reality: For the most part teachers are evaluated primarily on observation and test scores. For the first few years performance is evaluated by an administrator who comes into into classroom to watch. It happens about two or three times a year, and they generally know when it’s going to happen because either the admin team wants to be sure the administrator is there on a day and time that makes sense for getting the evaluation done (not wasting his or her time) or simply to give the teacher a chance to shave up the dogs and ponies as a favor. I don’t mean to imply that all teachers get a pass all the time. The principle usually figures out who the good and bad ones are, but this process, which could be instrumental, is only incidental toward that end. It lets them put the right things on a checklist, and takes the pressure off of them to take significant action that would otherwise be warranted.

Standardized testing is a measure that’s semi-objective, at least on the surface, but is fraught with its own problems. One of the big ones is that many teachers will teach to what they believe the test is, rather than to the overall betterment of the student. It makes the teacher look better, and again removes the burden for anyone to take more difficult action.

The other concern is establishing what the standards should be that are tested. This process is inherently filled with bias, whether cultural, demographic, religious or otherwise. “Standard” by definition ignores the individual. How much of this makes sense is debated. One problem I see everywhere that I’ve spent years talking about in this blog is how programmed we all have become. We’re made to think and act in certain ways so as to more easily fit or conform to society and be good workers. Of course, this mindset comes from a time when we needed people to show up for work every day and be good, consistent, quiet workers who don’t upset the way things are done or challenge anyone or anything. To conform. These days we struggle because the world has moved on, and this deeply ingrained training no longer serves us. We can’t figure out what to do. Schools have been very slow to respond to these changes.

Principals and superintendents shave the dogs and ponies for their shows as well. Schools and districts are compelled by honors and accolades from various sources. From Lighthouse Schools to National Board Certification for teachers to publisher rankings to accrediting agencies, school leaders are compelled to score high. Competition is good and it makes us better, but the problem here is that schools are going through the motions. While accolades from publishers or high scores from accrediting agencies seem great, they’re merely snapshots. If you look good that day or that week, by teaching something that will impress them (in spite of what lesson really should be taught in the context of the course material), it creates a perception that’s not reality.

You may have heard of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which in many ways is an organization that tries to help. Teachers who receive NBPTS accreditation have done good work and have done a LOT of work. I’m sure many people have been through the process and found it to be incredibly effective and rewarding. However, some get the certification and the promised increase in pay only until the next time the state decides budgets need to be cut. The state got the appearance they were looking for and moved on.

It’s not just firms like NBPTS that cash in on education. Publishing companies write textbooks specifically for large districts or large states. We’re talking big money here. Once books are adopted, many firms have a leg up on their competition. Textbook adoption is usually a district level decision. I’m not going all the way down this rabbit hole here because this one topic is covered quite a bit elsewhere, and one would truly have to have her head in the sand to not have an inkling of how gamed it all is, but suffice to say that the values of a few in power impact the many in unusually profound ways given how few controls there are in place to manage the merits of texts. It reminds me of the phrase, “History is written by the conquerers.”

Software developers also benefit from this situation. Schools are eager to adopt a new program or system to manage grades or attendance or all sorts of student data with only a cursory review. Sure, they talk a good game: peer review, teacher and parent consultation, blah, blah, blah. What it often amounts to is a five or six person panel calling the shot for the whole district.

None of this compares to the accrediting boondoggle. These are for profit companies hired to manage…accreditations. Their agenda is to produce sales. Each time the accrediting agencies show up, the school puts on a nice show and blows a nice chunk of change on wooing them. They usually don’t even eat or spend time with students. Teachers, have you ever seen anyone from an accrediting agency so much as eating in the same cafeteria with the students?

Then there is the Cool Stuff Arms Race. Interactive white boards that barely can be kept working, or are so difficult to use they end up wasting more time than they are worth. Never mind that the school asks teachers to be careful about using it because the bulbs are expensive!  iPods (not pads, “pods,” the music players) were rolled out at many schools a number of years ago. Hardly used. Eventually dropped. Districts don’t seem to understand what it takes to feed and clothe these technological wonders they bring home. Each school seems to have its own handful of things, but the teachers are rarely consulted about what they need, and once they have (what they don’t need) they struggle with a less than fully trained IT staff to keep it running. It ends up being not worth the effort, and traditional means are often used, which in most cases work just fine anyway. It’s all up to whether the teacher is committed and good at it, not so much the technological pyrotechnics involved. Cool new stuff keeps getting added to look good to parents, the media, and accrediting agencies.

This is not to say it is all bad. Good schools do well overall. It’s just frustrating to watch the massive amounts of waste in the process. Waste that results in no money for things that matter. Like the teachers. They are treated like the same commodity pens and paper are in a lot of ways. We try to build a structure that forces them into a paradigm that some idealistic administrator visioned without really understanding that it’s nearly impossible to manage that type of human interaction so systemically. (The medical profession, by the way, suffers from the same thing.) Instead, we should be taking every possible step to build the competency of the teachers, and then paying them accordingly so that once they become brilliant and skilled, they will actually want to remain in the profession, rather than going out to get a real job where they can earn a professional living.

Nobody wants to pay more taxes, and it really shouldn’t take more, but the reality is it probably will. Government is horribly inefficient, but it’s the best thing we have. Until people get serious about (first) understanding what education is needed for kids and then (second) demanding it, I doubt things will change significantly anytime soon.

Meanwhile, how do you know if your kids’ teachers are doing a good job and the district is a good one? You can start by asking your kids and watching what’s going on with their scores on standardized tests. Look deeper. Ask your kids’ teachers what the kids are supposed to learn and ask the kids about those topics. Talk to your kids about the content of their courses. If you’re kids’ teachers are worth their pay, they’ll be glad you did. There’s no substitute for being an involved parent. Not an overbearing, annoying one. But one whose head is in the game paying attention, and talking with the teachers.

Some take this to the extreme of homeschooling. In some situations this may be a viable alternative, and I absolutely applaud folks who can do it, but I expect there are precious few qualified to teach their kids AP subjects in multiple disciplines. Private schooling can be a good answer answer. Certainly many of the inefficiencies and half-baked decisions are minimized, not to mention the elimination of the grindingly slow pace of any kind of change in any governmental body such as eduction. The good private schools can’t game their reputations as easily because they are accountable for what happens to the kids once they leave because they are populated by kids whose parents have resources and talk to each other in the community, not to mention many of them knowing themselves from experience what a good education looks like. But that’s the elite. Below that, it’s still going to require diligent parenting to ensure success.

Hands on. No escaping that. Look past the BS for reality.

 

 

The Marketing Drug

marketpharmasl

Every time I see my dentist he tries to sell me stuff. Various services they provide that will in some way (they claim) improve my life by addressing some shortcoming or concern taking place in my mouth. I never knew my mouth had so many problems!

I’m all for selling people on things that can help them take care, even if they are merely for pleasure or aesthetics (vanity), but like everything else, there can be a tipping point where we sometimes take it too far, or are too manipulative.

It reminds me of how food is marketed. The marketing has become so powerful that some of the people being hurt actually are eager for it to continue. This creates a cultural feedback loop, where some aspire to have these respected marketing jobs, to do more marketing of similar items. It creates a society where the owners and leaders of these companies are celebrated as risk-taking, brave businesspeople, not as the modern robber barons that they’ve become.

The cultural feedback loop can’t be denied. The NAACP, which represents a population that is disproportionately impacted by the health costs these products create is actually allied with marketers in the fight to sell ever more and bigger portions to its constituents.

The crime continues because the money taken by corporations that change our culture is used to fund campaigns that conflate the essential concept of ‘freedom’ with the not-clearly-articulated ‘right’ to respond to marketing and consume stuff in quantities that would have been considered literally insane just three generations ago. And we like it.

[I’ll write the previous paragraph’s point again here to be clear: we’ve decided that consumers ought to have the right be manipulated by marketers. So manipulated that we sacrifice our long-term health in the face of its power.]

We ban accounting that misleads, and we don’t let engineers build bridges that endanger travelers. We monitor effluent for chemicals that can kill us as well. There’s no reason in the world that market-share-fueled marketing ought to be celebrated merely because we enjoy the short-term effects it creates in the moment. Every profession we respect has limits created and enforced by society. These rules make it more likely we don’t race to the bottom as we cut those corners or maximize our profits.

The question is this: are you responsible for the power in your hands? If so, then we need to own the results of our work. If not, someone else needs to step in before it’s too late. No sustainable system can grant power without responsibility.

Just because marketing works doesn’t mean we have an obligation to do it. And if we’re too greedy to stop on our own, then yes, we should be stopped.

And don’t even get me started on the marketing of drugs. The pharmaceutical complex is as out of control as anything humanity has ever witnessed. It’s capitalism, and the battle is to win. At all costs.

 

Reasons or Excuses

newtonsreasonsexcusesflat

When something goes wrong we quickly build ourselves a narrative about it. The story we tell ourselves isn’t objective, and often doesn’t even mesh with reality in more than a cursory way. Let a little time pass and that story becomes the totality of the event. It includes our interpretation of the circumstances, rationalizations for what we did, how we perceive others behaved or reacted, etc. We develop for ourselves a reason that satisfies our need to make sense of it.

Reasons or excuses? What are they, and what differentiates these emotionally loaded terms? Culturally, reasons feel to us like valid explanations, whereas excuses feel invalid and lacking in accountability.

Let me give you some examples. Common excuses for why restaurants, or other businesses, fail include:

  • Our purveyors were cheating us
  • Our concept was too progressive for the market
  • The market didn’t appreciate good food
  • Our landlord was unreasonable

The list is much longer than these few highlights. There are as many excuses for failure as there are failed businesses. If a person were to take accountability for their decisions and their actions, those excuses could be seen as the real reasons for failure, and they would look more like this:

  • We didn’t know anything about negotiating purchasing, and ended up paying prices we couldn’t afford to pay
  • We didn’t research our market well enough to find out what the market wanted, so we ended up giving them what OUR idea of good food was, not theirs
  • We failed to communicate what made us special compared to the competion, and the market didn’t respond  – or – We didn’t realize that our market doesn’t have the same ability to notice quality that we have, and we were really banking on them realizing our food was better
  • We didn’t negotiate a good lease – or –  we didn’t learn enough about leases going in to be able to effectively negotiate a favorable one

Recognizing the lack of accountability in the first set relative to the second is the easy part. Culturally, we seem to lump excuses into a morally questionable realm, almost as if they are lies. Excuse, by definition, connotes an attempt or request to not be held accountable.

“I was late for class because I was held up by a train.” Assuming the statement is truthful, is it an excuse or a reason? As a statement of fact, it fits with being a reason. If there is an implied request to not be penalized in some way, then it starts to feel like an excuse. The moral attitude (with its limitations) starts to surface here: you should leave in time to allow for being held up by a train. Of course, what if the person did, but the train was unusually long? We don’t have to go far down these technical rabbit holes to see that the language and implied meaning can be broken. Suffice to say that they are contextual and judged in the perception of the speaker and hearer, who are not always on the same page because communicating the nuances thoroughly can be difficult and time consuming, not to mention emotionally taxing under some circumstances. Sometimes one party just doesn’t care enough to worry about it.

“I can’t.”  As I have written before, this is often code for, “I don’t want to enough.” Again, the easy ones are statements such as, “I can’t seem to lose weight,” or “I can’t make it to your important event.” The former feels like an excuse, even though we know there can be very valid reasons. The latter feels like it probably has a reason behind it. Thus is how culture and context drives meaning. The trickiness of the second example is often in the desire not to hurt people’s feelings. We dance around and make excuses, when the cold, hard truth probably is, “I don’t care enough about your event to miss out on the other thing I have to do.” Now it sounds even more like a reason (though not very tactful).

There are some things we simply can’t do in life, but most are choices we make.

“I can’t go out with you because I am already dating someone.” Most would be satisfied that this sounds like a reason, but is its really? The word “can’t” adds a weird layer of a lack of accountability, and therefor moves the statement toward feeling like an excuse, even if it’s deemed to be a valid one.

“I do not want to go out with you because I am already dating someone.” That’s closer to owning the accountability of it.

“I don’t want to go out with you because I believe that the risk of hurting the relationship I am in outweighs what I assess to be a very small chance I would be happier with you.” Or, “I don’t want to go out with you because I don’t feel attracted enough to break a date with this other person I like.”

Do you feel how these are getting uncomfortable? Excuses are often an (empty) attempt to keep comfort in tact by avoiding accountability. Reasons cut to the real truth of the matter.

It could also simply be, “I do not want to go out with you.” Sometimes what gets us into trouble is trying to provide a reason, and usually the reason is where it starts to feel like, and often is, an excuse.

Oh, but there is more.

Truth and trust become important currency when you’re in some type of valued relationship with someone. It’s easy to find ourselves caught between two valid concerns:

  1. I want and need to be honest with this person because…
    •  It seems like the ‘right’ thing to do
    • I want to maintain an assessment of trust;
      • It makes me feel good
      • I hope they will respond in kind
    • I believe it is in their best interest to know the truth
  2. I want to be dishonest with this person because…
    • I want them to feel validated, or not be hurt
    • I want to maintain the good feelings we have between us
    • I want to avoid conflict
    • I don’t want them to negatively assess me (as being rude or insensitive, a jerk, an idiot, etc.)
    • I believe it is in their best interest not to know the truth

You’ll decide to lean more toward one than the other, as conflicted of a choice as it may be. We can weigh it all out and try to do the least worst thing, but so much of what we often choose to do really boils down to our own comfort and desire to be liked.

An additional complexity of either of them is that sometimes the hearer just doesn’t buy it, and will believe you are operating in #2 whether you are or not. Now the speaker has lost the assessment of trust, the hearer is hurt, there are bad feelings, and potentially bad characterizations. Thus is the risk of the dishonest route, or is one of the nasty consequences of a weakness in trust and/or a weakness in the hearer’s self-esteem. It could also just be a misunderstanding or faulty assumption on the part of the hearer. In either case, now the tables are turned (insert dramatic music here). Now it is the hearer who must decide between #1 and #2. He can call out his concern to the speaker, or he can move along quietly with the bad feelings. Let it go, or ferret the truth out of it? Tough choice with the same pitfalls.

So this just turned into a post about how vital communication is between people who care about each other. It’s about how we have to accept the flaws in communication, the mistakes we make, and to a degree even the flaws in each other that lead to these mistakes. We need to give the other person grace, to empathize with how difficult it can be to parse through it all to find the right balance on the continuum between brutal honesty and smarmy validation, or between letting the other person save face versus the value of holding them accountable, all in the unavoidable context of our own comfort.



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