Posts Tagged 'Refinement'

Infinite Game

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Short term thinking sometimes causes us to betray ourselves in the long run. It could be from making a bad, if convenient or safe decision. Often it’s from making no decision. How long is the long run? It’s hard to know, and seems to depend a lot on context. Some people tend to measure the world in flashes, and they’re happy to do something they call generous for a few seconds, as long as they get a payback before a few minutes up. More common and more celebrated are people who play a longer game. They build an asset, earn trust, give before getting, and then, after paying their dues, win.

There’s something else available, though, something called an infinite game.

In finite games (short and long) there are players, there are rules and there are winners. The game is based on an outcome and is designed to end. In the infinite game something completely different is going on. The point is to keep playing, not to win. In the infinite game, the journey is all there is. And so, players in an infinite game never stop giving so they can take. Players in this game throw a slower pitch so the batter can hit it, because a no-hitter shutout has no real upside.

A good mom, of course, always plays the infinite game. But it’s possible to build an organization or even a society that does this as well. Build hospitals and schools instead of forts and barricades…

You probably know people who play this game. You may well have been touched by them, inspired by them and taught by them. The wrong question to ask is, “but how do they win?” The right way to understand it is, “is it worth playing?”

New Information

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What do we do with it? New information likely means it’s time to consider or evaluate change, which is often more difficult than it sounds.

To some people, it means admitting you were wrong.

But of course, you weren’t wrong. You made a decision based on one set of facts, but now you’re aware of something new.

To some people, sunk costs are a real emotional hot button, and walking away from investments of time, of money, and mostly, of commitment, is difficult. Add a moral component to this and the weight of change can get dramatically greater.

But of course, ignoring sunk costs is a key to smart decision making.

And, to some people, the peer pressure of sticking with the group that you joined or reinforced when you first made a decision is enough to overwhelm your desire to make a better decision. “What will I tell my friends or family?” “What will they think of me?”

The moral component, if it’s really valid and not just something to hide behind to stay comfortable, is another issue.

A useful riff you can try:

Sure, I decided that then, when I knew what I knew then. And if the facts were still the same, my decision would be too. But the facts have changed. New facts mean it’s time for me to make a new decision. This is not done lightly, without regard for what I was busy doing yesterday, without concern for the people who might disagree with me. It is done because it is right and best for everyone involved that me and my actions be congruous with what I know now. My supposition is that once they realize these new facts, they would be likely to make the same new decision I just did, or to at least understand why I need to. If they truly respect, value and even love me, then they’ll give me the space to make this course correction.

This decision is more important than my pride.

Love and Respect

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What are we supposed to do in life? Make babies? Be good?

Two of life’s most fundamental pursuits, apart from self-preservation, are to earn love and respect. Nobody ever told me this. Not religion, not school, not mom or dad.

It aint easy.

Love is often given to us, but the path to earning it can be elusive. Respect is just as complicated, though it may be a little less subjective. It starts, of course, by loving and respecting ourselves.

That’s tricky. Most of us aren’t as happy with ourselves as we often pretend. Self respect and love in ourselves is a lifelong pursuit. We never fully arrive, in part because we, more than anyone else, see our imperfections up close. So we seek the love and respect of others as validation — a kind of Catch-22.

Being good is a start. However, defining what ‘good‘ is can be awfully difficult when circumstances get complicated. You might be able to use as a guide what gives you love and respect from the people you care most about. But that’s a trap if you’re trying too hard to please them. They have their own agendas.

An artist trying to write a hit song will rarely succeed. An artist writing from the heart can catch the magic, and it just comes. Organic and pure, like good art.

This is why people say to follow your heart. So much stuff out there trying to dissuade us from that, but in my 53 years on this earth I can safely say that the ones who follow their hearts in general tend to be happier than the ones who try to follow the rules. It’s not an absolute, but the correlation is clear. And with that happiness comes love reflected back, because this is a person living true to and being honest with themselves. Just as imperfect as anyone else, but more accepting of what is, and more open to being in the moment and not clinging to things that no longer work.

Like a great song, it often seems to come to you when you aren’t looking for it.

More Perspective

 

Is perspective something you can have more of?

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The seventh post ever penned in this blog dates back to a time when it seemed the message could be powerful and clear enough when presented succinctly. It was about perspective. As with this one, and some others, it highlights that seeing things differently is at once something we understand, but don’t always really get. Thus the decisions others make sometimes seem like major head-scratchers to us.

One man’s junk is another’s statement. One man’s friend is another’s enemy, one’s debilitating frustration, another’s challenge, one’s psycho-bitch girlfriend another’s soul-mate, one’s insensitive asshole another’s hope for change and progress, and one man’s moral corruption another’s necessity.

There are very few bad people in the world. There are plenty of people who don’t see and process the world the way you do. How hard is it really to put yourself in another’s shoes and genuinely try to understand their perspective? When the distance between our sensibilities seems far enough apart, the effort wanes because we don’t perceive a compelling need to do it. We have enough people around us who are like us that we feel validated; it rarely even occurs to us that those other weirdos (assholes) are like us in some other, maybe not as easy to identify ways.

We can accept it academically. But add a feeling that they want something of mine, and now it’s a big problem.

Our perception is our reality, until we stop long enough to realize it’s all just perception.

 

Religion’s Social Reinforcement

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Once culture or set of behaviors becomes intertwined with our lives for a period of time its distinctiveness fades. In the United States, religion is a part of our way of life. While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of “the American Way of Life,” only recently have many realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.

We celebrate some religiously based holidays in an official (governmental) capacity. Many of us share some fundamental beliefs and values in terms of how our society is organized and operated. They are based on, parallel to, but independent of the the theological tenets of each specific denomination or religious belief. This dates back to the early notions of the nation as religiously diverse by design (free from religious tyranny), but while not being too overtly biased in any one tradition, it clearly was based primarily on the Protestant ethos and set of values.

So here we are, a religious country that while presumably based on freedom of religion, doesn’t necessarily subscribe to freedom from religion, and certainly doesn’t appear to honor its own tenet of separation of church and state. (All of which varies somewhat according to your geographic location in the country.) This produces a bias worth briefly pointing out.

  1. Religious Bias – If your chosen set of beliefs happen to align well with the Protestant framework the country and society was built upon, you have it easy. Things invisibly make sense to you, and you probably don’t even see how biased and gamed it all is. Of course, if you happen to be of some other religion, lots of things stick out and seem to fall somewhere on the continuum from weird to downright unfair or discriminatory.
  2. Anti Religious Bias – In recent decades the pendulum has swung more towards an increasingly forceful resistance to all things in our culture that reek of being driven from a religious notion. The divide has widened. It has at times appeared to reach a point of near irrationality. Unfortunately, the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bathwater here. There is a history of statesmen who happen to fit well within this parallel civil religious state, but who are great and effective leaders first and foremost. They can get tossed aside, which seems to leave even more room for the more dogmatic to get their voices heard and rise into a consciousness of a generation that otherwise would have recognized them as extreme.

Certainly the chasm between the different religious groups, not to mention those who do not believe in anything religious being part of our government, stands in stark relief these days, largely due to our ability to consume the media that paints these pictures. Often people on or near the fence are pushed away in the crossfire.

Perhaps we would be better off it it wasn’t so blatant. Things would be a little less cozy and comfortable for those who’s values align with the prevailing values of the society we have now, but if the overall populace were more validated and respected, the chasm could close. I argue that if we’re smart, in a rising tide lifting all boats way, the WASP’s would proactively give up the bias to help produce an environment of better dialog and growth. This is one where meeting half way may not be enough. Things have been too skewed for too long, and aside from arguably not being right, it’s obviously just not going to work effectively anymore.

Civil religion (“civility” being the operative concept) can be a great way to build a society, but in order to work it must walk a well thought-out line between being too biased towards one group versus being too watered down to be meaningful. That’s a big challenge for some capable leadership. Without it, things will continue to degrade.

Ominous.

 

Getting to the Change

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One of the most difficult skills to master in life is helping people  (ourselves included) make changes that will benefit them in the long run – even if it means annoyance or sacrifice in the short term. That could mean anything from getting a child to clean his or her room to convincing a customer to switch from a competitor’s brand to yours.

We’re all selling something, but you can’t force anyone to buy it. Worse, if someone feels you are pushing it on them, emotions will take over and they will resist buying it even if it hurts them not to.

That’s why the best salespeople see themselves as trusted service providers and advisors, not product pushers. They understand that change isn’t easy, and that’s what makes them effective in creating strong relationships with customers. Regardless of the context or gravity of whatever the situation is, these basic questions apply:

  1. What does the person want to change?
  2. Why does the person want to change?
  3. What does the she really want? What is the ultimate goal?
  4. What is preventing someone from changing? Why has he or she not already changed?
  5. What motivates the him? What makes her tick?
  6. What is involved in making the change? What will it take?
  7. How will the person behave before, during, and after the change?

You can practice this almost anywhere you encounter people, even picking random ones out of a group at a restaurant or park. See what answers you can come up with: Why is this person here? Where does that person want to go in life?

To quote Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” How many times a day do other people ask you to do something without going to the trouble of outlining how you’ll benefit from taking on the task? People need to feel ownership over change, even if the idea doesn’t come from them. Before you ask someone to take a step in a new direction, be sure to communicate your vision of a new and great experience.

Stuck

ManandWomaninCupEverything that happens to us is generated from something we did, something someone did to us, or just a chance occurrence. Regardless of which it is, the ball is in our court to act, or wait until someone or something changes things. We generally would prefer to take action, but sometimes we can’t see the way out. We are stuck, unable to move forward, or to move it off center. It happens to nearly all of us on occasion. We get stuck for a variety of reasons. Three that come to mind are:

  1. We can’t see the forest for the trees or just don’t see the problem for what it really is.
  2. It’s scary to change our current situation because it’s serving us in some way, or there is a fear of the unknown. What if the change makes things worse?
  3. We are in a double bind, which means we feel damned if we do or don’t.

To get unstuck, there are a several techniques to try. I think these are somewhat obvious, but seeing it in writing can help provide clarity.

  • Play out the fear of change all the way to the worst case scenario and then evaluate if it’s really all that bad or if there is anything good about it. If there is some good (this is the key), move towards it. Just try it and feel good about your courage to grow in the most positive direction possible. You will work the rest out.
  • Ask what the costs are if you stay stuck, and play it out to the worst case scenario. If nothing changes, who will be hurt and how bad can it get? You may be able to continue to be dissatisfied, though it’s not good for you, which probably means others are being negatively affected.
  • Ask yourself what someone who truly loves and wants the best for you would advise. Sometimes, we aren’t as compassionate with ourselves as we are with those we love. Hearing and trusting their voice in our head can be used as a guide for what to do. But be cautious. This can easily turn into you choosing what will make others happy. That’s not the point. And keep in mind…they are afraid, too. Not objective. You have to weigh the agenda of the source, but it is worth considering.
  • Look at how the current situation is serving your needs, even at low levels. Sometimes we settle for low level fulfillment instead of going for the thing that will really fill us up because it feels safer to stick with the devil you know instead of the one you don’t. Consider the positive benefits of raising your standards. I was once told that “it’s never a bad thing to raise your standards.” This goes for yourself and for who you’re with.
  • Ask yourself if you have a true commitment to growing. If you do, and you recognize that if you aren’t growing, you’re dying (inside), then consider what you’ll do to grow. Will you take a chance and try something new, even if its scary and there is no guarantee it will work out? Can you feel good about yourself for being brave enough to just try it and course correct later if need be? (Hint: Yes)
  • Consider that there is a life lesson in this situation, and determine what it is. Ask yourself if you are ready to learn it now, and if not, why. Are you hoping the Universe will take over and make the change for you? Not choosing is still a choice. And if you don’t make a change, something happens that’s not your choice and you have to deal with it anyway. Isn’t it better to make the choice on your own and feel like you have some semblance of control over the situation? When you don’t, you open yourself up to something happening that takes the control away from you, requiring you to put the pieces back together and move on with your life, the hard way. You also open yourself up to the problem repeating until you show up for it and “walk through the fire” by making the choices that are authentic to you.

As with many things in this blog, it’s easy to say. Easier to read and understand. Hard to do. Sometimes you have to push harder.

Changes

Continued from yesterday’s Fit or Adapt.

changes

Things change. The world, and our view of it. Some of us are more accepting of change than others, though it depends on the type of change as well as how much we’ve become invested in the status quo.

Once we are adults, the underlying core of who we are is pretty well fixed. It mostly forms in our early years, and then elements are added to it as we learn and grow through adulthood. I’m referring to the core of who we are, not so much our behaviors and ways we interact with the world. Those are informed by our core, but there are layers of conscious and subconscious actions, thoughts, beliefs, and memories in between.

But we can still change in ways that matter. It’s usually pretty slow. Triggered by our experiences and desires, or sometimes through shattering realizations. We usually don’t control it. It just happens to us, though one can do it consciously with great discipline.

Though we aren’t going to make major changes to who we fundamentally are, we sometimes have to adapt to differing circumstances. True adaptation requires often difficult transitions in how we perceive ourselves, which informs how we interact. This type of big change does occur with people sometimes, though it’s pretty rare once we’re adults.

While you may change in ways that make you fit into a situation better, you may at once be changing in ways that cause you to not fit as well into another. This may be by design, and could be a good thing. But it can also be disruptive, especially when you aren’t aware of it.

You change jobs, and move to a different city. After a time, the old place and people may not resonate with you nearly as much. You changed. They didn’t. Everyone is still fundamentally the same at the core, but the layers of things in between that were making it work before have now changed in your case (not theirs). You move on. They move on.

You get married, and have kids. The old relationships and sensibilities no longer work or make sense for you. You changed. Some change more than others through this transition. The ones who don’t get all the way there often struggle with the responsibility of a family.

You experienced things growing up (we all do) that caused you to build layers of boundaries and idiosyncrasies in how you process reality. You are programmed, and some of that programming is a function of you protecting yourself from negative events, feelings, and perceptions earlier in life.

These complicated layers are built on top of the core of who you are, but over time become indistinguishable from it. Until…sometimes…

It unravels. We get a new job, and a new place, but hate it. We long for the old relationships. The marriage changes. The kids grow up, and it’s discovered that a life devoted to that has now left a void. Or, we may find, through a series of events, that we added layers to ourselves that aren’t true to who we are (or want to be) at the core. Once we begin to grapple with all of that and see it more clearly, we begin to change in meaningful ways, even fundamental ones. I maintain that we are still fundamentally the same, but when enough of the extra junk gets stripped away or modified, it’s as if we have fundamentally changed.

I make no qualitative assessment of whether this is good or bad, a step forward or backwards. It simply is a thing that can happen, and may be a double-edged sword.

Suppose a person gets a job in which she is challenged in new ways that never so much as existed for her before, and is able to rise to those challenges, and feels a deep satisfaction relating to it. Self-esteem is at a new high. She wants more. Most of us have reached some new plateaus like this in life. They can bring about a lot of changes. It’s just that for most of us they usually happen when we’re relatively young, and still forming what our lives will be about. Anyway, she soon finds herself running with a different group of people, and is stimulated in ways unimaginable before. She begins to change in ways that go deep. The fundamental kind. Soon, the old life doesn’t satisfy the way it once did. It begins to seem flat and uninspiring. Well, that old life has a spouse and a family. What of them? They didn’t change, nor do anything wrong. Those relationships are now different, and there is probably nothing anyone can do about it.

Or suppose a person realizes through a series of emotionally trying events that his way of interacting with the world had been contrived, based on stuff built up from earlier events. Suddenly he begins to break down walls that were constructed as protection before. More vulnerable now, but also more sensitive to his surroundings. More affected by them. Ways of interacting that were comfortable before now seem hollow and devoid of meaning. Instead he begins to prefer, even needs, a different, perhaps more intimate way of interacting. The old people didn’t change. He did. But that doesn’t make his needs any less valid.

These types of big changes can be great (or not), but they can mess with the lives we have constructed for ourselves in the process. Some may be more or less profound than others, and thus the stress they can introduce varies, which also depends on how others react to it.

These changes aren’t easily avoided (assuming we’d even want to or think it a good idea) because we often don’t see them until we are in a new place looking back. By then it’s too late. We have a new reality now. We are different. Changed. Past tense. It has already happened. The stuff we actually observe as the changing is really just the fallout.

In many situations, especially where close friends, coworkers, family or spouses are involved, one will experience pressure not to change. They are there because they like (the old) you and are comfortable with the way things were. You feel the pressure to stay in it. In some cases these changes force us to grapple with our morality, the stuff we’ve been programmed with that seems unchangeably “right” or “wrong.” Others have put this on us in part so that we don’t approach life too frivolously, but as your awareness increases, it can become a cage. What we’ve previously concocted for ourselves starts to break down as we struggle with thoughts that we’re wrong, bad, evil, immoral, messed up, insane. It is possible we could be any of those things, so a good hard look is in order, but it’s also quite likely we have simply changed and nothing is really wrong, even though it may feel as such. Hopefully things that were barriers have been removed or modified. Change takes different forms, but in any of those it’s not at all easy, or sometimes even feasible to control. It happened, and now you have a new reality you have to work within. It also comes with a new space of possibilities.

What do you do?

  1. Sometimes we can undo it all, if we work hard enough. But usually what we’re really doing is adding another modifying layer on top of it. Life is additive. In time that layer can become pretty real to us, especially when we aren’t aware that’s what we’ve done, but we’re vulnerable to things coming along and stripping that contrived reality away.
  2. I say it’s usually best to take your lumps and move on from the old and into the new. It sucks sometimes. But it’s probably for the best in the long run. This is usually referred to as growth when looked at later.
  3. The option often chosen is to stick it out. Make it work. That’s the caged way. It can be pretty miserable sometimes, or not that noticeable. Think of the people you see who seem complacent in their lives. Some are great at compensating and seem really bubbly on the surface, but when you get closer the angst becomes palpable. Sometimes it can be manageable. It depends on your temperament and how much you are able to push yourself down in favor of avoiding the stress and consequences of the underlying changes. The biggest problem with this is it robs you of happiness. On some level you know it, but many of us are pretty good at glossing over it on the surface. Other things start to affect you in unpredictable ways. The tension may mount, which causes issues, or you may eventually become resigned to it, and even content, but there will always be some unrest in there. Or…it may bubble up enough periodically that you eventually realize you need to opt for #2, which could mean that you just wasted years of your life (and maybe that of others) or possibly passed opportunities by that no longer exist.

Each of these “solutions” kind of sucks in its own way, but #2 has the highest probability of getting you to the other end of the tunnel. The other two may look like tunnels, but aren’t. They are caves with a light in them instead. You can probably survive in there, but you’re never going to see the actual sun.

Change of this type happens to all of us at times in our lives. Usually we’re young enough that we don’t fear following through or just roll with the punches. But when we’re older, more set in our lives, and believe we have more to lose…

changes2flower

 

Fit or Adapt

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Working, living, being in close proximity to others for an extended period is dynamic, and has its challenges (**). Some people fit right in to our sensibilities, or at least challenge them in ways we appreciate. Others, not so much. Yet so much of getting along and making things work is about attitude. Attitude can get you a long way. You are 100% in control of your attitude.

You can adapt. You can make almost anything work if you really want to. But how far should you go?

I used to believe in making it work almost no matter what. There’s certainly no reason not to be kind. But as you move through life and experience different people, one begins to realize that sometimes it’s a lot harder than it needs to be. Sometimes it’s harder than it’s worth. Some people just don’t fit quite right, or in a way that’s productive and mutually beneficial, and it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. It’s easier to adapt to others in a general work environment, but when it is someone you have to live with all the time or work very closely with regularly, it can really wear you down.

Should you adapt? Should you make it work?

You can adapt if one of you is a morning person and the other is not.

You can adapt if you don’t have many television shows you both like.

You can usually adapt if you have different religious or cultural sensibilities.

You can usually adapt if one is a risk taker and the other is conservative.

You might be able to adapt if one prefers the mountains and the other the sea.

You might be able to adapt if you only have a few foods in common you enjoy.

You can’t truly adapt if…

You are a cooperator and the other a bully.

You have conflicting goals for your lives (the business, the band, etc.).

You are a happy, easy person and the other is permanent mood swinger.

You want freedom and independence, but the other wants to keep very close ties on you.

You perceive that you’re always on a significant moral high ground relative to the other.

You like to cuddle and your partner hates affection.

You hate to fight over stupid little things, but the other searches for fights.

You do not want children and the other wants a big family.

You want a rewarding career, but the other wants you to stay home, or monopolize your time.

One would have to make big sacrifices to make some situations work. It can be done. Is it healthy? What happens in the long run? Why would one do it?

These (above) don’t really address the complex and often nuanced areas of emotional and intellectual compatibility, not to mention the erosion of those as certain of these types of issues are in conflict.

There are so many people in this world. Why live even a borderline miserable/compromised life, especially if you can find someone who is a much better fit? Being in a relationship should not be hard; it should not drain your energy; it should make you happy. Some people do not match. It’s as simple as that. To try to push it is a desperate cry to not be alone.

It always, always comes back to the fear.

It’s not always easy to sort out, but eventually it’s relatively straight forward to assess when viewed through the intuitive feelings we get around others. We know what the fit is, but there is a wicked-nasty curve ball life throws at us. Stay tuned for part 2, tomorrow.

 

(**)  I speak from the experience of having siblings, a large extended family, being married (twice), teaching, working in small (3 people) and medium sized (1,100 people) companies, being in bands (which is like being married to five people at the same time), working solo, and maintaining long distance relationships. 

 

 

Probability: Facts, Statistics, and Reality

What is reality? Statistics are based on facts. We can’t deny or ignore them. But they aren’t always factual, or even meaningful.

I am a statistic and so are you. I drive a car. I eat. I buy things. I have an education. I don’t smoke. I was born at a place and time. I am programmed by my surroundings and DNA.

We use prior facts and statistics to reason with uncertainty, to get at probability, but we suck at it. In general we are really, really, staggeringly incompetent at processing all but the simplest statistical data in ways that produce meaningfully accurate evaluations. This is partly because it is much more difficult than it appears on the surface. We aren’t rigorous enough. But it’s also because our intuitive way of understanding complex relationships is…well…it’s too simplistic.

A Quick Lesson in Photography (It’s relevant, run with me)
In photography one learns about the relationship between the glass of a lens, the distance to the subject, and the focal point, which is where the image passing through the curved glass is in focus. The curvature, or varied thickness of the glass, bends light. Distorts it, providing a means to get a reasonably coherent image on to a sensor (without this, all light from all angles will hit the sensor, producing nothing more than a gray blur).

BasicLens

So a lens allows us to pick an area to capture, just like the position of your eye picks an area of the overall scene to project onto your retina through its lens (your brain further filters this into what it chooses to focus on). The focal point is where the image comes into focus after passing through the lens. The focal length is the focal point’s distance from the lens.

Modulating the distance between the lens and the subject changes focal point.

FocalPoint

In short, there is a relationship between the shape of the lens, the distance to the subject, and the distance where light reflecting off of that subject that passes through the lens will come into focus. Five minutes playing with a magnifying glass gives one an intuitive understanding of this. Note: the eye changes focal length by changing the shape of the lens, whereas a camera does it changing the distance between two (or more) lenses. All of these ingredients, and others to follow below, interact with one another to vary the result.

Simple? Well, it’s not that simple. There is more. (Hang in there.)

In around 1000 A.D., Arabic physicist, Ibn el-Haitam penned the first known accurate and comprehensive description of how light is refracted by shaped glass. This led to the development of a myriad of mechanical devices that provided augmentation for human vision. Through a combination of lenses, we can “zoom in” on specific parts of a scene, bringing things far away closer to us for better examination.

ZoomMicroscope

In Astronomy, however, the concept of “zooming in” isn’t as significant, even though it would be cool if we could zoom way in to distant objects. At those great distances our earthly lens ratios don’t accomplish much. And we can’t change the ratios too much due to diffraction. Diffraction, or the scattering effect of light, always exists when light passes through or around something, or is reflected. Diffraction essentially acts to defocus the image, which means that as the magnification or zoom increases, the sharpness and clarity of the image breaks down. This defocusing is inversely proportional to the diameter of the lens, not to mention the optical quality, but is always an issue. It’s one reason why the best telescopes have a large diameter.

DiffractionDiagram

DiffractionImages

Larger f numbers indicate smaller openings. Intuitively one can see that zooming in to any of these images would cause an increased breakdown in apparent focus.

The other reason for wider lenses is because they are inherently able to gather more light, which is pretty important for looking at far away stellar objects, some of which are so faint they cannot be seen by human eyes or conventional optics.

StarsTelescopeLightGathering

Gathering more light is also useful in earthbound photography. More light reaching the sensor allows it to record the scene quicker, which makes it easier to freeze the motion of moving images. Aesthetically this may or may not be desired. Note how these different capture speeds reflect different interpretations of “reality.”

WaterfallShutterSpeed

As capture speed slows, the motion of the water is revealed in different ways. The image on the left shows the exact position at an instant in time. The rightmost image shows the average position across a period of time.

PinwheelShutterSpeed

The actual speed of the pinwheel was the same in all instances.

Wider lenses come at a cost beyond the expense of manufacturing them. As we let more light in, and reduce diffraction, we simultaneously narrow the range of distances from the source to the camera that will appear in focus because light is hitting the sensor from wider angles off dead center.

BasicDOFDiagram

Photographers refer to the range of distances that will appear in focus at the focal point as “depth of field.” With larger apertures and lenses more precision in focusing is required, which is generally manageable, but the impact it has on the resulting photograph can be significant.

AperturDOFDiagram

More or less of it my be desired, depending upon the look one wants. Like speed, the depth of focus also serves to depict different views of “reality.”

DOFBulbs

DOFGirlBoy

It is a very useful consideration for pulling the attention of the observer to a specific part of an image.

DOFExample1

DOFBass

One can look broadly at an image and not see the distortions in the domains of time and clarity, but careful examination will reveal them. They can’t help but be there. We can capture a scene in a way that emphasizes or de-emphasizes certain of those, but in the immortal words of Scotty, “You can’t defy the laws of physics.”

We trust what we see with our eyes, too much. No doubt the reader has now surmised there is a matrix of trade-offs in what we “see” when we capture an image based on these parameters. Photographers make choices, intentionally and unintentionally, that affect the outcome. Observers usually take the photo at face value, with no regard for the actual reality of the scene, instead letting the photo determine the reality we believe existed in the moment.


Now, apply that same thinking to statistics and one can begin to see why it is so commonly held that statistics can be used to support nearly any conclusion. Unfortunately what often happens is that they are used too generally. Reputable (*) sources say things like…

  • 10% of our brains are used
  • 50% of marriages end in divorce
  • we share 99% of the genetic code
  • left handers die an average of 9 years younger than right handers
  • 18% of social media users use snapchat
  • 77 cent wage gap between women and men
  • 20% of women are sexually assaulted before they leave college
  • 0.0024% of deaths are from electrocution
  • men think about sex every seven seconds
  • The religion of Islam is growing at a rate of 2.13% per year
  • spousal abuse skyrockets on Super Bowl Sunday
  • The average household income in the U.S. is $70,000, or…
  • Any of the stats that show that the top X% earn [staggeringly large number]%
  • 80% of convicted sex offenders repeat the crime
  • 50% of 18-24 year-olds go on Facebook when they wake up
  • 30.5% of all desktop search traffic between 6/10/16 and 7/7/16 came from searches with the term “pokemon” in them
  • (my personal favorite – LOL) 90% of statistics can be used to say anything 50% of the time

There are so many more I could use: Crime Rates, School Quality, Unemployment, Mortality, Cost of Living, Obesity, Literacy, Birth Rate, Gun Control, Teen Pregnancy, on and on…

They are all generally accepted as true, yet none are precise across the board (stay tuned for a future blog post delving into the difference between precision and accuracy). There are nuances in specific ages, cultures, geography, time, education, temperament, weather, situations, and any of dozens of other variables that come into play. They are generalizations. Averages. Broad snapshots, or maybe narrow ones. Very useful as shortcuts to learning and not basing too much on mere assumptions, but also misleading in some ways. Many sound plausible. Some we believe. Some we would question. Some are subject to varied interpretations. Some are patently false. I’m not just referring to the inevitable weird exceptions that are in the noise of any statistical model. Noise is random. I’m talking about correlatable things with some significance that are missed, ignored, or misinterpreted.

For instance, Psychology Today based an article on the 10% of our brains get used statistic. We’re easy prey for this because we’ve been hearing variations on that number most of our lives. None of them account for what the data really says, which is that a small portion of our brains are used at any given moment, in a given activity, or for a given purpose. Other activities and functions require other parts of our brains to be used. The real number is significantly higher than 10% when all of this is factored in.

I can, to some extent, debunk every one of the above listed items with rigorous research, but then who says my facts are really correct? More significantly, is the interpretation of the data correct? For instance, the divorce rate of 50% seems pretty concrete. We have records to prove it, so there is no questioning the data, right?

If that’s the case, then why are the quoted stats sometimes so “approximate?” The APA website says “40 to 50%.” That’s a massive difference for something that seems so concrete. Further, we all seem to believe it, or do we? We accept it. But…most of us get married anyway!!! If you knew that you had a 50% chance of getting struck by a bus while crossing a street, would you dare to cross in spite of it? A little thinking and reading quickly leads us to realize there are tons of potential nuances to a statistic like this. So many it isn’t practical to try to list them all.

But there are also fundamental issues that skew the data. How is it calculated in the first place? Often the number is reached by simply comparing divorce filings to marriages over a given span of time. Make sense? It does on the surface, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us much because over time things change. Okay, well, what if we compare divorce and marriage rates in a given year? That’s a pretty short span of time and would seem to be a suitable snapshot. So, let me get this right…you want to add up all of the divorces in a year, no matter how many years all of those people have been married, with no consideration to when they were married or under what circumstances, and compare them to marriages this year? Doesn’t really work. As with photography, anytime you capture something moving in a static “image” or focus on a part of it, you’re forced to make decisions about how to present it to meaningfully convey the result. If anything, we should be comparing all people who are currently married to those getting divorces in a year, but it’s almost never done that way.

Yet we buy in. We’ve all heard the statistic so many times that it rings true to us, to the extent that nowadays any data showing something different would be called into question. We have become biased, mostly (in this case) by our own inability to effectively pick the data to look at, or in interpreting what it really means. And yet most of us decide to roll the dice and get married anyway.

We often apply statistics to provide probabilities about how the future will turn out. Seems simple enough. If 20% of children outgrow a childhood allergy to peanuts, then you could assume your peanut allergic child has a 20% chance of doing the same. It’s also easy to see there could be many subsets that could introduce other variables. Is the percentage the same across race? How about across a range of medical treatments or diets or subtle variations in DNA? That’s just scratching the surface – the basics.

Consider this test. Two groups of people engage in a coin flipping exercise. Group A looks for the pattern H-T-T (Heads, Tails, Tails), and Group B looks for the pattern H-T-H (Heads, Tails, Heads). Each member of each group records how many coin tosses it takes before the desired pattern occurs. The two groups then average their respective results. Do you think the average number of tosses between the groups will be the same, or will one of them happen sooner on average? (Don’t worry, most people, even very smart ones, get this wrong.)

It turns out it’s statistically provable that the average number of tosses to reach the pattern H-T-H is 10, while the average number to reach H-T-T is only 8. How could this be? It butts up against our common sense on the matter. If anything we would think that H-T-H would be easier to create, since it overlaps itself. Throw a T between any two occurrences of H, and viola!

But think about what happens the first time you get an H followed by a T. At that point, either of the two results can now occur.

Group A: you’re looking for H-T-H, and you’ve seen H-T for the first time. If the next toss is H, you’re done. If it’s T, you’re back to square one: since the last two tosses were T-T you now need the full H-T-H.

Group B: you’re looking for H-T-T, and you’ve seen H-T for the first time. If the next toss is T, you’re done. If it’s H, this is clearly a setback; however, it’s a minor one since you now have the H and only need -T-T. If the next toss is H, this makes your situation no worse, whereas T makes it better, and so on. Even when you lose you’re 1/3 of the way to winning.

Put another way, in Group B, the first H that you see takes you 1/3 of the way, and from that point on you never have to start from scratch. This is not true in Group A, where a H-T-T erases all progress you’ve made.

People write articles and make declarations every day who do not understand these types of relationships. We read them, and we usually believe them so long as they sound credible (often through citing studies and statistics) and/or match sufficiently with our common sense or already held beliefs.

Bipolar Disorder affects 3% to 5% of the population according to Gary Sachs, director of the Bipolar Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. It affects 2.6% of the population over 18 years old according to WebMD. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has been summarized as saying that it occurs more in women. The DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) say it occurs equally in women and men, but women tend to cycle faster. Closer examination, however, reveals that Bipolar II (a predominance on the depressive side) occurs more in women. These are basic examples of statistics being in general agreement, but presented in ways that show differences.

What about clinical testing? What if there is a test that is 99% accurate. When it returns positive, you could assume that there is a 99% chance the positive result is true, no?

Two problems…

  1. I have pointed out that there is almost always a higher level of detail or granularity that can be considered to further classify and characterize the risks of different individuals.
  2. It also depends on how common or rare the condition is. Suppose the condition affects 1 of every 10,000 people. If we sample a million subjects, the test will get the 100 who do have the condition right 99% of the time. 99 of them will test positive. Amongst the 999,900 who do not have the condition, the test will get it right 99% of the time, which means it will improperly show that 9,999 of them have the condition, when in fact only about 99 of them really do. So, less than 1% of the people who test positive actually have the condition!

Consider the case of Sally Clark. She was convicted of murdering her two male children, one of which died in 1996, and the other in 1997. Defense claimed it was likely SIDS that took them, but the prosecution, through expert witnesses, won, in part by showing that there was only a 1 in 73,000,000 chance that SIDS would affect two children in a single household.

Wrong, in two ways.

  1. The calculation was faulty. It was based on the probability of SIDS affecting a child of affluent non-smoking parents being 1 in 8,543, so therefor the odds of two children suffering from it are 1 in 73,000,000 (8,543 x 8,543). But this doesn’t allow for the fact that we don’t completely understand what causes SIDS. There are clearly unknown environmental and/or biological (hereditary) factors. It’s quite likely that if a child dies from SIDS that some of these unknown factors are in play, and may increase the likelihood of it affecting other children by a factor of 5 to 10.
  2. Even if 1 in 73,000,000 is correct, the statistical analysis of murder suffers from the same flaw as the medical example above. There are two parts to the explanation that must be considered independently. 1) That Sally was innocent – which is likely considering most mothers don’t murder two children – and she suffered an incredibly unlikely event. 2) She is guilty, which is unlikely, but if she were trying to kill them, she succeeded.

Figuring that out statistically is much more complicated, and in fact there are significant factors that could have and should have been considered from the get-go, such as the details that boys are more likely than girls to suffer from SIDS. She was eventually released from prison after the second appeal, which more carefully broke down the statistical odds of a double murder to between 4.5:1 and 9:1. Still likely, but hardly conclusive enough for a life sentence based on weak circumstantial evidence.

We can be pretty good at questioning conclusions from people who we believe are unlikely to have competence in a particular area. If the subject matter expert of the court had tried to present arguments about diagnosing an automotive problem, no doubt there would be suspicions. But this expert was in the field, and presumed to understand the data upon which he was drawing conclusions. Yet he got it way wrong, and nobody questioned it.

Sally, after spending a few years in prison as a convicted murderer of her two children (probably not the most enjoyable of prison stays, as far as prison stays go), died of an alcohol overdose a few years later. Her husband said she was never the same after that experience. There is more nuance and information on this story, but the takeaway here is that facts and statistics as used severely mischaracterized the likelihood of a natural death.

Data and stats should be subject to much more scrutiny than they commonly are. But we need them. We need the shortcuts, assumptions, and predictions they provide. It’s a shame we so often get it wrong, because it skews our perceptions and causes faulty decisions. But even where the data and conclusions are relatively good, which as laypeople we often have no way of knowing for sure, we often fail to see into the exceptions.

A whole pile of data can suggest that something is generally true, yet in certain circumstances it isn’t. We don’t or can’t always quantify those circumstances, but we know they exist. Marriage is an example where there appears to be a lot of opportunity. Can we study a detailed matrix of characteristics that will lead us toward better outcomes based on empirical results? I suggest that the big dating sites have an opportunity to do this with the big data they could be collecting. Employers already do it to some extent.

We can do better and learn more, but until then, you have to ask…

What about the exceptions? Now you have to decide. Do you trust what the data is telling you? It’s a lot more tempting to trust statistics at face value when they appear to align with what you already believe. But are you really looking at it the right way? Does it really apply to you, in your unique circumstances?

Is it a big decision? How does the upside balance with the downside, and how does that impact how you think about the stats? Here is where the dreaded lizard brain of fear steps in. We look at it through the filter of what we are in and interpret the facts accordingly, or by finding another’s interpretation that resonates through us, in some cases by stimulating a fear we already have. Fear is so powerful. It can even make us interpret unmitigated facts in a misleading way.

Sometimes you have to trust yourself. Nobody ever got anywhere important through only listening to others, and that includes the stats, the so called experts, the masses, and the common sense. That stuff is useful up to a point, but somewhere along the journey you have to pave your own way, lest you become a different kind of statistic: the person who is eminently forgettable (ironic oxymoron), not happy or satisfied.

Against All Odds

Invariably someone comes along who defies what others believe. The journey that brought them there can later be quantified. We just need the right lens and some effort and skill to be able to see it. It’s much easier, however, to divine it as mysterious or destiny. We look on from the outside with wonder, not always recognizing there is a quantifiable method to the madness. We tranquilize ourselves with belief that the person was lucky, or blessed.

Few achieve the big goal, or true happiness from solely following others, or common sense. Each of those success stories has a foundation of paving one’s own way.

So much of the past five years of this blog has been about the willingness to make a leap of faith. Not in some external force, but in yourself. As I continue to wrap things up and finish off all of the work that has been started, I still find I am frustrated and even hurt by how little progress has been made. I marvel at those who do it better than me, and hurt for those who continue to find excuses to wallow in the status quo. That’s not what life is about. But then, who am I to say? I’m just a guy with a camera and a blog.

Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say. ~William W. Watt

(*) – I can substantiate every claim and example used here, along with my rebuttals, if necessary (just ask). I chose not to burden the reader with too many links and wild goose chases in the interest of focusing on the heart of the message.

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