Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

6.30.2017

Of Power and Tribalism

Busy collecting thoughts; not at a place to produce any at the moment. Everything that follows is quoted excerpts.


Power Causes Brain Damage

How leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise

 . . . Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviors, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place. . . .

Power, the research says, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. In most situations, this provides a helpful efficiency boost. In social ones, it has the unfortunate side effect of making us more obtuse. . . .

Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation. . . .

“Hubris syndrome,” as he and a co-author, Jonathan Davidson, defined it in a 2009 article published in Brain, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Its 14 clinical features include: manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence.


What Was Volkswagen Thinking?

On the origins of corporate evil—and idiocy

The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster . . . Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself. . . .

Twice, Gioia and his team elected not to recall the car—a fact that, when revealed to his M.B.A. students, goes off like a bomb. “Before I went to Ford I would have argued strongly that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall,” he wrote in the Journal of Business Ethics some 17 years after he’d left the company. “I now argue and teach that Ford had an ethical obligation to recall. But, while I was there, I perceived no strong obligation to recall and I remember no strong ethical overtones to the case whatsoever.” . . .

Executives are bombarded with information. To ease the cognitive load, they rely on a set of unwritten scripts imported from the organization around them. You could even define corporate culture as a collection of scripts. Scripts are undoubtedly efficient. Managers don’t have to muddle through each new problem afresh, Gioia wrote, because “the mode of handling such problems has already been worked out in advance.” But therein lies the danger. Scripts can be flawed, and grow more so over time, yet they discourage active analysis. . . .

This sequence of events fits a pattern that appears and reappears in corporate-misconduct cases, beginning with the fantastic commitments made from on high. . . .

We know what strain does to people. Even without it, they tend to underestimate the probability of future bad events. Put them under emotional stress, some research suggests, and this tendency gets amplified. People will favor decisions that preempt short-term social discomfort even at the cost of heightened long-term risk. Faced with the immediate certainty of a boss’s wrath or the distant possibility of blowback from a faceless agency, many will focus mostly on the former. . . .



Why Your Brain Hates Other People

And how to make it think differently.

Humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, language group, religion, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. And it’s not a pretty picture. We do so with remarkable speed and neurobiological efficiency; have complex taxonomies and classifications of ways in which we denigrate Thems; do so with a versatility that ranges from the minutest of microaggression to bloodbaths of savagery; and regularly decide what is inferior about Them based on pure emotion, followed by primitive rationalizations that we mistake for rationality. Pretty depressing. . . .

The strength of Us/Them-ing is shown by the: speed and minimal sensory stimuli required for the brain to process group differences; tendency to group according to arbitrary differences, and then imbue those differences with supposedly rational power; unconscious automaticity of such processes; and rudiments of it in other primates. . . .

Across cultures and throughout history, people who comprise Us are viewed in similarly self-congratulatory ways—We are more correct, wise, moral, and worthy. Us-ness also involves inflating the merits of our arbitrary markers, which can take some work—rationalizing why our food is tastier, our music more moving, our language more logical or poetic.

Us-ness also carries obligations toward the other guy . . .

Among the most pro-social things we do for ingroup members is readily forgive them for transgressions. When a Them does something wrong, it reflects essentialism—that’s the way They are, always have been, always will be. When an Us is in the wrong, however, the pull is toward situational interpretations—we’re not usually like that, and here’s the extenuating circumstance to explain why he did this. . . .

Despite that role of cognition, the core of Us/Them-ing is emotional and automatic, as summarized by when we say, “I can’t put my finger on why, but it’s just wrong when They do that.” Jonathan Haidt of New York University has shown that often, cognitions are post-hoc justifications for feelings and intuitions, to convince ourselves that we have indeed rationally put our finger on why.

This can be shown with neuroimaging studies. As noted, when fleetingly seeing the face of a Them, the amygdala activates. Critically, this comes long before (on the time scale of brain processing) more cognitive, cortical regions are processing the Them. The emotions come first. . . .

In other words, our visceral, emotional views of Thems are shaped by subterranean forces we’d never suspect. And then our cognitions sprint to catch up with our affective selves, generating the minute factoid or plausible fabrication that explains why we hate Them. It’s a kind of confirmation bias: remembering supportive better than opposing evidence; testing things in ways that can support but not negate your hypothesis; skeptically probing outcomes you don’t like more than ones you do. . . .

Different Thems come in different flavors with immutable, icky essences—threatening and angry, disgusting and repellent, ridiculous, primitive, and undifferentiated. . . .

If we accept that there will always be sides, it’s challenging to always be on the side of angels. Distrust essentialism. Remember that supposed rationality is often just rationalization, playing catch-up with subterranean forces we never suspect. Focus on shared goals. Practice perspective taking. Individuate, individuate, individuate. And recall how often, historically, the truly malignant Thems hid themselves while making third parties the fall guy.

Meanwhile, give the right-of-way to people driving cars with the “Mean people suck” bumper sticker, and remind everyone that we’re in this together against Lord Voldemort and House Slytherin.


Government Paid for Poor Citizens' Health Care Some 300 Years Before Obamacare

The British colonists brought taxpayer-funded services with them to North America. For centuries after, government’s role in serving the needy wasn’t questioned.

 . . . By the time New Deal programs began to augment poor relief in the 1930s . . . the oldest American states had been using the Elizabethan Poor Law, more or less, for 300 years.

The details varied from one state to the other, but four principles of the poor law were the same. First, parents and children were legally required to help each other when they were in need. If they could not, then the local government was legally required to step in. Second, poor relief was a function of that local government—whether a town, municipality, city, county, or parish—and not state or national officials. Third, all those who required aid had to be provided with basic provisions: food, shelter, warmth, and medical care. Fourth, all those in need who were not from the town where they sought care or shelter could be banished, with the intention that they return to their hometowns where they would be guaranteed assistance. Until the Great Depression, most Americans paid for health care out of pocket; it was only if costs were too great that they appealed to poor relief for help. . . .
Poor relief was the single largest expense in almost every local-government budget until schools and roadwork caught up in the mid-19th century. . . .

This all meant that local taxes were by far the heaviest tax burden on Americans from the Revolution through the Civil War . . .

But it wasn’t just the needy who benefited from this tax money—so did the townspeople who provided shelter, goods, or services. These included grocers, clothiers, firewood providers, doctors, nurses, and homeowners who housed the homeless. Each of these various townspeople contributed to their own sustenance by being part of what one historian, Elna C. Green of San José State University, has called “the welfare-industrial complex.” . . .

Americans seem to have lost an understanding of government’s historical role in health care, as most of their political battles target programs just a few years old. Also lost is the promise the poor laws made for more than 300 years: If you need health care, you will receive it, thanks to the people you belong to.

5.26.2017

Models are Opinions Embedded in Mathematics


I just finished a most timely book: Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O'Neil. Here's the description of the book at Goodreads:
A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on mathematical modeling—a pervasive new force in society that threatens to undermine democracy and widen inequality.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated. But as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this shocking book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can’t get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his race or neighborhood), he’s then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a “toxic cocktail for democracy.” Welcome to the dark side of Big Data.

Tracing the arc of a person’s life, from college to retirement, O’Neil exposes the black box models that shape our future, both as individuals and as a society. Models that score teachers and students, sort resumes, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, target voters, set parole, and monitor our health—all have pernicious feedback loops. They don’t simply describe reality, as proponents claim, they change reality, by expanding or limiting the opportunities people have. O’Neil calls on modelers to take more responsibility for how their algorithms are being used. But in the end, it’s up to us to become more savvy about the models that govern our lives. This important book empowers us to ask the tough questions, uncover the truth, and demand change.
Here's what I wrote for my review:

You are prey. The predator is numbers. Numbers that have been carefully designed to turn you into prey. Numbers wielded by marketers, politicians, insurance companies, and so many others. The problem with these particular numbers is that they give those using them the illusion of knowing you when all they really manage is a proxy, a mathematical approximation that may or may not be accurate. And they are built into self-feeding, self-affirming, reinforcing loops that make them ever more restrictive and controlling. They don't simply feed on us, they increasingly define us.

Cathy O'Neil has been a mathematics professor and has worked in the data science industry in a variety of businesses and roles. She knows how the numbers work and has seen them in action from multiple perspectives. At the start of her conclusion in Weapons of Math Destruction, she writes:
In this march through a virtual lifetime, we’ve visited school and college, the courts and the workplace, even the voting booth. Along the way, we’ve witnessed the destruction caused by WMDs. Promising efficiency and fairness, they distort higher education, drive up debt, spur mass incarceration, pummel the poor at nearly every juncture, and undermine democracy. It might seem like the logical response is to disarm these weapons, one by one.

The problem is that they’re feeding on each other. Poor people are more likely to have bad credit and live in high-crime neighborhoods, surrounded by other poor people. Once the dark universe of WMDs digests that data, it showers them with predatory ads for subprime loans or for-profit schools. It sends more police to arrest them, and when they’re convicted it sentences them to longer terms. This data feeds into other WMDs, which score the same people as high risks or easy targets and proceed to block them from jobs, while jacking up their rates for mortgages, car loans, and every kind of insurance imaginable. This drives their credit rating down further, creating nothing less than a death spiral of modeling. Being poor in a world of WMDs is getting more and more dangerous and expensive.

The same WMDs that abuse the poor also place the comfortable classes of society in their own marketing silos. . . . The quiet and personal nature of this targeting keeps society’s winners from seeing how the very same models are destroying lives, sometimes just a few blocks away.
O'Neil has crafted a broad overview that introduces the complexity of the topic with numerous examples, and through it a call to wield those tools more ethically and morally. The book is highly accessible, intelligent without being difficult and entertaining without being frivolous. This is a book that deserves high readership and a topic that needs extensive discussion.
Predictive models are, increasingly, the tools we will be relying on the run our institutions, deploy our resources, and manage our lives. But as I’ve tried to show throughout this book, these models are constructed not just from data but from the choices we make about which data to pay attention to—and which to leave out. Those choices are not just about logistics, profits, and efficiency. They are fundamentally moral.
And here are some other quotes I pulled out for sharing:
Models, despite their reputation for impartiality, reflect goals and ideology. . . . It’s something we do without a second thought. Our own values and desires influence our choices, from the data we choose to collect to the questions we ask. Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.

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The modelers . . . have to make do with trying to answer the question “How have people like you behaved in the past?” when ideally they would ask, “How have you behaved in the past.

-----

Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide. We have to explicitly embed better values into our algorithms, creating Big Data models that follow our ethical lead. Sometimes it will mean putting fairness ahead of profit.

-----

All too often the poor are blamed for their poverty, their bad schools, and the crime that afflicts their neighborhoods. That’s why few politicians even bother with antipoverty strategies. In the common view, the ills of poverty are more like a disease, and the effort—or at least the rhetoric—is to quarantine it and keep it from spreading to the middle class. We need to think about how we assign blame in modern life and how models exacerbate this cycle.

-----

From a mathematical point of view, however, trust is hard to quantify. That’s a challenge for people building models. Sadly, it’s far simpler to keep counting arrests, to build models that assume we’re birds of a feather and treat us as such. Innocent people surrounded  by criminals get treated badly, and criminals surrounded by a law-abiding public get a pass. And because of the strong correlation between poverty and reported crime, the poor continue to get caught up in these digital dragnets. The rest of us barely have to think about them.

-----

We’ve seen time and again that mathematical models can sift through data to locate people who are likely to face great challenges, whether from crime, poverty, or education. It’s up to society whether to use that intelligence to reject and punish them—or to reach out to them with the resources they need. We can use the scale and efficiency that make WMDs so pernicious in order to help people. It all depends on the objective we choose.

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The model is optimized for efficiency and profitability, not for justice or the good of the “team.” This is, of course, the nature of capitalism. For companies, revenue is like oxygen. It keeps them alive. From their perspective, it would be profoundly stupid, even unnatural, to turn away from potential savings. That’s why society needs countervailing forces, such as vigorous press coverage that highlights the abuses of efficiency and shames companies into doing the right thing. And when they come up short . . . it must expose them again and again. It also needs regulators to keep them in line, strong unions to organize workers and amplify their needs and complaints, and politicians willing to pass laws to restrain corporations’ worst excesses.

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Insurance is an industry, traditionally, that draws on the majority of the community to respond to the needs of an unfortunate minority. In the villages we lived in centuries ago, families, religious groups, and neighbors helped look after each other when fire, accident, or illness struck. In the market economy, we outsource this care to insurance companies, which keep a portion of the money for themselves and call it profit.

As insurance companies learn more about us, they’ll be able to pinpoint those who appear to be the riskiest customers and then either drive their rates to the stratosphere or, where legal, deny them coverage. This is a far cry from insurance’s original purpose, which is to help society balance its risk. In a targeted world, we no longer pay the average. Instead, we’re saddled with anticipated costs. Instead of smoothing out life’s bumps, insurance companies will demand payment for those bumps in advance. This undermines the point of insurance, and the hits will fall especially hard on those who can least afford them.

-----

The convergence of Big Data and consumer marketing now provides politicians with far more powerful tools. They can target microgroups of citizens for both votes and money and appeal to each of them with a meticulously honed message, one that no one else is likely to see. It might be a banner on Facebook or a fund-raising email. But each allows candidates to quietly sell multiple versions of themselves—and it’s anyone’s guess which version will show up for work after inauguration. . . .

As this happens, it will become harder to access the political messages our neighbors are seeing—and as a result, to understand why they believe what they do, often passionately. Even a nosy journalist will struggle to track down the messaging. . . .

The political marketers maintain deep dossiers on us, feed us a trickle of information, and measure how we respond to it. But we’re kept in the dark about what our neighbors are being fed. This resembles a common tactic used by business negotiators. They deal with different parties separately so that none of them knows what the other is hearing. This asymmetry of information prevents the various parties from joining forces—which is precisely the point of a democratic government.

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Our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, means “Out of Many, One.” But WMDs reverse the equation. Working in darkness, they carve one into many, while hiding us from the harms they inflict upon our neighbors far and near.

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Predictive models are, increasingly, the tools we will be relying on to run our institutions, deploy our resources, and manage our lives. But as I’ve tried to show throughout this book, these models are constructed not just from data but from the choices we make about which data to pay attention to—and which to leave out. Those choices are not just about logistics, profits, and efficiency. They are fundamentally moral.

5.06.2017

Really Seeing Someone. That's Love.


A few years back I wrote a post titled I Wanted to Capture the Quotes about a book by Benjamin Alire Saenz, who has become one of my favorite authors. I've recently finished his latest, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, and am inspired to do the same. Here is a short description of the book followed by my review, a few extra quotes from it, and some other quotes I've liked from recent reads:

The first day of senior year. Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and their loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief. Suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and discovering that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?
“You don’t have a high opinion of human nature, do you?”

“Your problem, Sally, is that you think everybody is like you and your dad and your Mima. I got a news flash for you.”
A third of the way into this book I was liking the story well enough, but I was feeling the characters were just a bit too nice. Their ease with each other and their problems, their lack of negative reactions and mistakes, their ability to love and take care of each other, while good, didn't seem to provide enough conflict and drama for a moving story. I was underwhelmed.
“As I’ve tried to impress upon you in the past, there’s a sad story behind every item that’s for sale in pawnshops.”

“Impress upon me,” I said. “How could I forget? So we’re into sad. No, even worse, we’re into voyeurism? Looking in on or making up other people’s tragedies. Great.”
Another third of the way through and I realized my feelings had changed. I became aware that every time I read a portion of the book my mood improved. I felt more general happiness, more easily accepted hardship, and thought more often of my loved ones. I felt more love.
“Anger is an emotion. But there’s always something behind anger. Something stronger. You know what that is?”

“Is that a trick question?”

“It comes from fear, son. That’s where it comes from. All you have to do is figure out what you’re afraid of.”

Oh, I thought. Is that all?
Don't think that means the book is free of conflict, hardship, anger, and fear, or that the characters don't suffer and hurt each other. They are believably real people dealing with more than their share of tragedy. It's just that those characters also know how to take care of each other. They are extraordinary in their ability to be vulnerable and to love, particularly protagonist Salvador. And that makes this book particularly affecting by example.
I knew why people were afraid of the future. Because the future wasn’t going to look like the past. That was really scary.
This is an introspective story with a more leisurely pace than many. It's not necessarily one I would call "clean" or devoid of rough content, but it's definitely one I would call positive. Without any saccharine elements or forced optimism or anything didactic, this story gently demonstrates how to become a better, more wholehearted person.
I’ll always remember that look on your face. You saw me. You’ve always seen me. And I think that’s all that anyone wants. That’s why Fito loves coming over here. He’s been invisible all his life. And all of a sudden he’s visible. Seeing someone. Really seeing someone. That’s love.
The extras:
Words exist only in theory. And then one ordinary day you run into a word that exists only in theory. And you meet it face to face. And then that word becomes someone you know. That word becomes someone you hate. And you take that word with you wherever you go. And you can't pretend it isn't there.

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If there’s no heaven, I don’t really care. Maybe people are heaven, Dad. Some people, anyway. You and Sam and Fito. Maybe you’re all heaven. Maybe everyone’s heaven, and we just don’t know it.
Speaking of inexplicable logic, here's one from We Are Okay that calls to mind the book Nonsense by Jamie Holmes and two previous posts that featured it: Doesn't Look Like Anything to Me and Um, Maybe . . . Kinda . . . I Dunno: Or, Ambiguity:
Each time I thought I may have understood, some line of logic snapped and I was thrust back into not knowing.

It's a dark place, not knowing.

It's difficult to surrender to.

But I guess it's where we live most of the time. I guess it's where we all live, so maybe it doesn't have to be so lonely. Maybe I can settle into it, cozy up to it, make a home inside uncertainty.
Speaking of trials and not knowing, sometimes it's all a matter of pretending. From Of Things Gone Astray (a lovely book):
"No matter how old we get, we somehow can never convince ourselves that whatever trial we're in the middle of is only temporary. No matter how many trials we've had in the past, and no matter how well we remember that they eventually were there no longer, we're sure that this one, this one right now, is a permanent state of affairs. But it's not. By nature humans are temporary beings."

"You're saying I just have to ride it out until it goes away."

"Not at all, my dear. I'm saying you have to strive for a solution and trust that eventually there will be one."
And from Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs:
Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever at one but which maintains chapters in every city -- in every cranium -- in the world. Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.
Speaking of trials and works of art, I really like this one from Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson:
That's the difference between artists and the rest of us, I think. Artists know where to put the shadows.
In context that was referring about literal shadows on a drawing, but I like it even more as a figurative statement about dark and difficult moments in life. Artists know how to portray those things in ways that are useful and meaningful. Much the way I understand, People in brightly lit places cannot see into the dark, a quote about windows, as a more powerful statement about privilege.

Which leads to this nice bit of advice from Yaa Gyasi in Homegoing, expanding on the thought that "history is storytelling":
We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.
And, finally, back to the topics of love and finding heaven in each other, another one from Of Things Gone Astray:
There's nothing like forgiveness for making a person feel guilty. There's nothing like understanding for making a person feel undeserving. Because if someone is willing to forgive a weakness, they deserve better than to have put up with it.
That's all that anyone really wants. To be seen.

5.02.2017

We Need Storytelling to Capture That Kind of Complexity, That Kind of Incomprehensibility


I really like what this writer has to say. I had a somewhat similar moment in my college experience, when I went from my naturally analytical bent toward science to literature.

When I was a senior and investigating schools, I thought I might do something related to physics and engineering. Yet I didn't want to be too obsessed with the mechanical, and considered bio-engineering at one point. The labs I saw on school visits just seemed too sterile and removed from life, though, so I ultimately decided to be pragmatic; the first two years will be the same general classes no matter where I go, I reasoned, so I'll save money by living at home and getting those classes out of the way at the local community college. The advisor I landed wasn't much help, so I enrolled in classes that reflected what I was used to in high school--some math, some literature, some science, etc.--and after two years I found I had earned a degree.

Unfortunately, I still didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. So I took a semester off from school to work, which was enough to convince me to make my mind up about a major and get back at it. After much hair pulling, I finally decided I would study wildlife biology with the intent of becoming a park ranger or something similar. I enrolled in another round of courses at the community college for the spring semester with the plan of transferring to one of our state universities the next fall.

That was the plan. The first day of classes, though, I had to come up with a new one. The first session of my Chemistry II class, which I was taking as a requisite of my newly chosen major, reminded me how much I had hated my Chemistry I class. It met once a week for three hours. I spent the first hour-and-a-half stewing and reflecting, then made an uncharacteristically impulsive decision. At the break, I walked over to the admission office and unenrolled from the class. Just like that, I was no longer going to study wildlife biology.

So. There I was, in need of a new plan. The chemistry class had been my only practical one for the semester--I had enrolled in other things that sounded fun so I was a full-time student, but it had been the only one with a purposeful endpoint. Still, I started looking at the other courses I was taking. One was Shakespeare and another was the Oral Interpretation of Literature. That's what had sounded most interesting and engaging to me out of everything on offer. With a little thought, the common theme became apparent to me, and I realized more than anything what I enjoyed doing was reading and talking about books. And that's when I knew I was meant to be an English major.

From The Atlantic:
'Life Keeps Changing': Why Stories, Not Science, Explain the World

Jennifer Percy: The lessons my father taught me as a child all revolved around science. . . .

Still, I found the brutal immensity of the universe frightening. My brother and I, like many kids, were shaped by poking through the books we had at home, and we had just two kinds: physics books and Stephen King books. Both were terrifying. So we had to choose what kind of fear we liked best—the terror of the universe or the terror of the clown that lives in the sewer and is going to kill you. I think my brother chose Stephen King and I chose Stephen Hawking.

I pursued a career in science, and in college, I studied physics. I worked with those guys that make Mars Rovers and understand the properties of crystals and who ride in the Vomit Comet over the Gulf of Mexico, imagining themselves space-bound. But I was unhappy.

The language of science was unsatisfying to me. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible,” Einstein said. But I don’t think human relationships are ever fully comprehensible. They can clarify for small, beautiful moments, but then they change. Unlike a scientific experiment with rigorous, controlled parameters, our lives are boundless and shifting. And there’s never an end to the story. We need more than science—we need storytelling to capture that kind of complexity, that kind of incomprehensibility. . . .

The language of physics didn’t help me bridge that gap. There was an emptiness that physics couldn’t help me dispel. Stories could, though. Talking to people wasn’t enough, but if I could visit a world, and be held there in its arms, then I could invite others inside and maybe they could be held there too.
Really? The first word you put on a monument with that particular shape is "erected?"

And, while I was especially interested in this article as a parent, I think the advice applies to most everyone in most every circumstance.
No Spanking, No Time-Out, No Problems

A child psychologist argues punishment is a waste of time when trying to eliminate problem behavior. Try this instead.

So you're really desperate. You shout, you try to reason, you think you're a wonderful parent. You think that you're just the greatest parent in the world. You sit down and say, “No, we don't stab your sister, she's the only sister you have and if you stab her, she won't be alive much longer.” It's always good to do that with your child, to reason, because it changes how they think, it changes how they problem solve. It develops their IQ, but it's not good for changing behavior.

So it's good to do that, but apparently it doesn't change behavior. And once that fails, and we know it fails, because parents have this wonderful expression, sadly, “If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times.” What the research shows is that telling an instruction does not change human behavior very well. . . .

For example, there's probably not a cigarette smoker on the planet who would say, “What?! Smoking is bad for me, why didn't you tell me that?” Telling people, it can help, but it usually doesn't change much behavior.

Parents might start out reasoning, but they're likely to escalate to something a little bit more, like shouting, touching, firmly dragging their child, even if they're well-intentioned. The way to get rid of a child's negative behavior is not to do the punishment. Even a wonderful punishment, gentle punishment like time-out, or reasoning, those don't work. . . .

What it amounts to is an area of research that's called applied behavior analysis, and what it focuses on are three things to change behavior: What comes before the behavior, how you craft the behavior, and then what you do at the end. . . .

So what comes before the behavior?

One is gentle instructions, and another one is choice. For example, "Sally, put on your,”— have a nice, gentle tone of voice. Tone of voice dictates whether you're going to get compliance or not. "Sarah, put on the green coat or the red sweater. We're going to go out, okay?" Choice among humans increases the likelihood of compliance. And choice isn't important, it's the appearance of choice that's important. Having real choice is not the issue, humans don't feel too strongly about that, but having the feeling that you have a choice makes a difference. . . .

And now the behavior itself. When you get compliance, if that's the behavior you want, now you go over and praise it ... very effusively, and you have to say what you're praising exactly. . . .

The basic fundamental approach is, what is going on before the behavior that you can do to change it? Can you get repeated practice trials? Can you lock it in with praise? What happens is that parents think of discipline as punishing, and in fact, that's not the way to change behavior. . . .

So how do we get rid of teen attitude? We call it positive opposites: Whenever you want to get rid of something, what is it that you want in its place? Because getting rid of it is not going to do it. . . .
Now, how to apply that to myself in addition to my children?

4.25.2017

A Draft

Since I've been reading more poetry for April National Poetry Month and the book I'm in the middle of seems to have inspired me, here's a stab at something that might be poetic.




I was late to fatherhood.
A second marriage for both of us.
A second chance,
A second life
To live differently.

I’ve lived two lives.
Two marriages, anyway.
And the first one wasn’t short.
I’m sure I’ve learned much
About how to be,
Who to be,
In a relationship.

I’m still learning how to be a father,
Though I’ve spent my life in education:
My parents were both teachers;
After growing up a student,
I spent nine years in college,
Plus four more part-time once working,
Left with two postgraduate degrees;
Professionally,
I’ve been an educator since.
(Not to mention the side gigs
While still a student.)

An educator
In a high school,
In early childhood education,
And in-between.
I’ve done rural, urban, and suburban.
All as a librarian—
So not just an educator
Who teaches others what to learn,
But one focused on teaching them
How to learn.

My first wife was an immigrant,
So I’ve been to gatherings where I
Didn’t speak the language
And stood out as the other
(Though not truly a minority,
Given my whiteness, maleness).
I’ve tried my best,
In this way and many others,
To learn what it is like
To be not me.

I read constantly,
Explore the human condition
Through stories and studies:
Philosophy, psychology, sociology,
Anthropology,
Theology.

I’ve been trained as a leader
In multiple settings.
I have strong opinions
That I voice often.
I’ve been called pedantic.
I embrace the label “nerd.”
I love knowing things,
And it shows,
Even though, most of the time,
I try not to let it.

I own my own
House, car, hoard,
Mistakes (I hope).
And have for years.

I can do my own taxes.

I’m told I am a great parent.

By every measure,
I am a
Capable,
Responsible,
Successful,
Highly-educated,
Highly-knowledgeable*
Adult.

And still,
Almost all of the time,
I feel like
A little boy
Who doesn’t know
Anything
About anything
That really matters.

The rest
Is just bluster
To hide that
Ever-present
Anxious
Insecurity

In the hopes of
Convincing myself
I’m not just a fraud.

*(I even know this poem
Is largely a cliché.)

4.20.2017

The Mind Is Built for Collaboration


To repeat the beginning of my previous post, The Self Is a Society:
Interconnection and interdependence are unavoidable, independence an illusion. Cooperation is self-interest.

Those ideas are foundational to all of my thoughts about morality and ethics, politics and justice. At the heart of the "credo" paper I wrote at the culmination of my Master of Divinity degree was the idea of a relational theology, that we know God and the divine through our relationships--to self, others, and creation. I've said on numerous occasions that one of the big problems I see in U.S. society is the cult of individualism.
I repeat myself mostly because what follows belongs in that post, is a continuation of the ideas it contains, I simply came upon it after that was finished (to be fair, it was published 3 days after I published mine). It speaks pretty clearly for itself.
Cognitive science shows that humans are smarter as a group than they are on their own

As individuals, the amount we know about the world is miniscule. . . .

Even within our domains of expertise, ignorance is a fact of life. . . .

So how is society able to accomplish so much if each of us knows so little? The answer is that we divide up cognitive labor. We each have our narrow area of expertise, and we each make a small contribution. By combining our knowledge, we can tackle complex problems. . . .

This ability to jointly pursue complex goals is central to what makes us human. An influential evolutionary theory contends that our large brains developed to cope with the increasing size and complexity of our social groups. As our social groups grew, we developed the mental machinery to share knowledge, which in turn allowed us to respond to our environment in more complex and adaptive ways. Research in comparative psychology supports this story. One of the key skills that sets people apart from other primates is the ability to share intentions with others and jointly pursue goals.

The mind is built for collaboration, yet we lionize individual achievement. We imagine our heroes toiling in isolation, mastering all necessary skills, and solving critical problems before moving on to their next world-altering pursuit. This is a myth. Great accomplishments demand the ability to share knowledge and work together to solve problems. . . .

Our conception of intelligence should place more emphasis on how much an individual improves a group’s ability to solve complex problems. . . .

The myth that we can do it all alone—that we can master the world solo in all its detail and complexity—may be comforting, but it is not only wrong: It is also counterproductive. Rather than hiding from our individual ignorance, we should accept it and celebrate our collective wisdom.
Since that is largely an addendum to a previous post, I'll add a couple more thoughts related to the ideas of collective consciousness and learning from each other.
Medieval Medical Books Could Hold the Recipe for New Antibiotics

I am part of the Ancientbiotics team, a group of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists from multiple universities and countries. We believe that answers to the antibiotic crisis could be found in medical history. With the aid of modern technologies, we hope to unravel how premodern physicians treated infection and whether their cures really worked.

To that end, we are compiling a database of medieval medical recipes. By revealing patterns in medieval medical practice, our database could inform future laboratory research into the materials used to treat infection in the past. . . .

During our eyesalve study, chemist Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of a new therapy for malaria after searching over 2,000 recipes from ancient Chinese literature on herbal medicine. Is another “silver bullet” for microbial infection hidden within medieval European medical literature? . . .

With our database, we aim to find combinations of ingredients that occur repeatedly and are specifically used to treat infectious diseases. To achieve this, we are employing some common tools of data science, such as network analysis, a mathematical method to examine the relationships between entries. Our team will then examine how these patterns may help us to use medieval texts as inspiration for lab tests of candidate “ancientbiotic” recipes. . . . 
And (I'm in more of a consuming and digesting mood today than creating):
Earth Day And The March For Science

 . . . It's like we're giving up the Industrial Revolution to China or some other country. The people who own this [green] technology will end up owning the world just like in the Industrial Revolution. And whether anyone likes it or not, the world is heading in that [renewables] direction. So it makes no sense from a business perspective. For solar and wind the market numbers are stunning. So why aren't we owning it?

Earth Day is about that, too.

India, Oman, Italy, Morocco and all these other countries that are moving in the direction of [renewable energy systems] are interested in promoting environmental, climate and technology education. Why are they doing this? Because they want investments. They see all of it in terms of jobs for the future.

So whether you're talking about health or jobs or landscape values, mining coal and burning oil is just so 1800s. It's like refusing to give up the horse and buggy for the car. If you want to create the next generation of Carnegies, Rockefellers and Edisons you have to go this way — or you are going to lose. . . . 
And, finally:
How (And When) To Think Like A Philosopher

As an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy — a purportedly useless major, except that it teaches you how to think, write and speak.

The skills I was learning from working through papers and arguments extended well beyond the coursework itself, yielding habitual patterns of reasoning that made me a more discerning scientist, a more careful writer and a better thinker all around. Within and beyond philosophy, I was learning to spot poor arguments, uncover hidden assumptions, tease out subtle implications and recognize false dichotomies. . . .

In a new article published in Aeon, philosopher Alan Hájek presents a "philosophy tool kit," sharing some common philosophical moves that apply both within and beyond academic philosophy. . . .

If these thinking tools are so useful, why do we need special training to acquire them? Why aren't they built into our cognitive machinery, or acquired through our years of experience evaluating claims and arguments in everyday life? . . .

Here's a second (and more speculative) hypothesis for why many habits of philosophical thinking might not come naturally. The hypothesis is that some tools for critical evaluation run counter to another valuable set of tools: our tools for effective social engagement. These tools help us make sense of what someone is saying by encouraging us to interpret underspecified claims in the most positive light; they help us coordinate conversation by establishing common ground. . . .

If this is right, then some forms of critical evaluation and philosophical thinking are hard because they force us to suspend other habits of mind; habits that serve us well when our goal is to engage or persuade or befriend, but less well when our goal is to arrive at a precise characterization of what's true, or of what follows from what. The trick, then, is not only to acquire Hájek's philosophy tool kit, but to know when to use it.
It doesn't take more than a rudimentary bit of reflection and introspection for me to conclude I instinctively err on the side of too much philosophical thinking and not enough social, and probably explains why I'm so often described as things like devil's advocate, contrarian, and pedantic. Hmm. Interesting.


4.15.2017

The Self Is a Society

Interconnection and interdependence are unavoidable, independence an illusion. Cooperation is self-interest.

Those ideas are foundational to all of my thoughts about morality and ethics, politics and justice. At the heart of the "credo" paper I wrote at the culmination of my Master of Divinity degree was the idea of a relational theology, that we know God and the divine through our relationships--to self, others, and creation. I've said on numerous occasions that one of the big problems I see in U.S. society is the cult of individualism.


I'm sure these ideas in one form or another are present in most of my posts. Three that stand out as particularly complementary to what follows, though, are:

  • Cooperation Is Self-Interest - " . . . Milinski's evidence, published in 1987 in the journal Nature, was the first to demonstrate that cooperation based on reciprocity definitely evolved among egoists, albeit small ones. A large body of research now shows that many biological systems, especially human societies, are organized around various cooperative strategies. . . . " And " . . . Entities cooperate because it increases their fitness—their chance of passing on genes to the next generation. Even from the supposedly pure self-interested perspective of hard biology, the best strategy is often not pure competition but cooperation. . . . "
  • Morality & Empathy: A Chain of Associations - " . . . So. Punishment can be for the good of everyone or it can be about revenge (or both), and group interaction--whether in the form of religion, the internet, or other--is likely to accelerate and amplify that effect. How can we keep a beneficial morality as our framework? Consider: What makes you feel disgust? . . . "
  • Cross-Pollination - " . . . That metaphor of seed cross-pollination elegantly captures much of what I hope to get across in so many of my posts on this blog.  Why competition, while a good ingredient, can't be our foundation.  Why we need to take care of each other.  Why cooperation is self-interest. . . . "
Now, on to today's addition to the theme. We start with more examples from biology, an article from NPR by David George Haskell sharing the core ideas in his new book The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors:

Life Is The Network, Not The Self

By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. In some species, the network changes through the seasons, starting in spring with bacteria that resemble those of the soil, then shifting through the growing season to bacteria that can process the complex mix of nutrients inside a leaf. Fungi inside the leaf protect against herbivorous animals, encourage growth, and confer drought resistance to the plant. Bacteria also promote growth by processing nutrients, cleaning wastes, signaling to plant cells, producing growth hormones, and combatting pathogens.

The leaf network is also a place of tension, its members caught in the evolutionary struggle between cooperation and conflict. Pathogenic bacteria and fungi continually threaten to overwhelm and destroy the leaf, a tendency held in check by a combination of plant defensive chemicals and competition from other microbes. The leaf community contains the seeds (or fungal hyphae) of its own mortality: When leaves weaken, fungi engulf the leaf and start the process of decomposition. This rot isn't always a disadvantage for the rest of the plant. Death can prune shaded leaves, stopping them from draining the plant community's energy. . . .

Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. . . .

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the "self," but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship. . . .

When we gaze at a maple leaf, we now see not an individual made of plant cells, but a thrumming conversation, an embodied network. The "self" is a society.

I want to repeat that because I love the language:

The fundamental unit of biology is the network, a plurality.


Keeping that concept in mind allows me to proclaim what follows with full confidence. I was asked once, years ago, if I felt there was something wrong with my being privileged, why I wouldn't fully embrace and enjoy all the benefits that come from being a straight, white, Christian male in our society, and the response that immediately popped into my head was, "Not if others have to suffer for the sake of my privilege." From Current Affairs:

It's Basically Just Immoral to be Rich

Here is a simple statement of principle that doesn’t get repeated enough: if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person. The same is true if you possess hundreds of millions of dollars, or even millions of dollars. Being extremely wealthy is impossible to justify in a world containing deprivation. . . .

Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others. . . .

What I am arguing about is not the question of how much people should be given, but the morality of their retaining it after it is given to them.

Many times, defenses of the accumulation of great wealth depend on justifications for the initial acquisition of that wealth. . . .

But there is a separate question that this defense ignores: regardless of whether you have earned it, to what degree are you morally permitted to retain it? The question of getting and the question of keeping are distinct. . . .

It’s one thing to argue that you got rich legitimately. It’s another to explain why you feel justified in spending your wealth upon houses and sculptures rather than helping some struggling people pay their rent or paying off a bunch of student loans or saving thousands of people from dying of malaria. . . .

Of course, when you start talking about whether it is moral to be rich, you end up heading down some difficult logical paths. If I am obligated to use my wealth to help people, am I not obligated to keep doing so until I am myself a pauper? Surely this obligation attaches to anyone who consumes luxuries they do not need, or who has some savings that they are not spending on malaria treatment for children. But the central point I want to make here is that the moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have. . . .

We can define something like a “maximum moral income” beyond which it’s obviously inexcusable not to give away all of your money. . . . everyone who earns anything beyond it is obligated to give the excess away in its entirety. The refusal to do so means intentionally allowing others to suffer, a statement which is true regardless of whether you “earned” or “deserved” the income you were originally given. . . .

Of course, wealthy people do give away money, but so often in piecemeal and self-interested and foolish ways. . . .

The central point, however, is this: it is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.

When the self is society, then taking care of society is taking care of the self.

As an example that John Green somewhat famously shared, in terms of being taxed for public education:
Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order.

We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day of your life, you benefit from public education.

So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don't personally have a kid in school: It's because I don't like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.
On a related note, the principle applied to a current topic in the news from the magazine America: The Jesuit Review:

The United Airlines debacle isn't about customer service. It's about the morality of capitalism.

Here is why United Airlines kicking off and countenancing the assault of a paying customer is a big deal: It helps to reveal how corporate America often puts rules before people and how capitalism often places profits before human dignity. (I am speaking not only as a Jesuit priest but as a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, someone who considers himself a capitalist and a veteran of several years in corporate America.) . . .

When we watch the video of the event something in us says, “That’s not right.” Pay attention to that feeling. It is our conscience speaking. That is what prompted the widespread outrage online—not simply the fact that people who have been bumped from flights share in the man’s frustration but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity. If corporate rules and the laws of capitalism lead to this, then they are unjust rules and laws. The ends show that the means are not justified.

Someone in authority—pilots, stewards, ground crew—might have realized that this was an assault on a person’s dignity. But no one stopped it. Why not? Not because they are bad people: They too probably looked on in horror. But because they have been conditioned to follow the rules. . . .

Is this a “first-world problem”? Yes, of course. Most people in the developing world could not afford a ticket on that flight. But it is very much a “world problem” because the victims of a system that places profits before all else are everywhere. The same economic calculus that says profits are the most important metric in decision-making leads to victims being dragged along the floor of an airplane and eking out an existence on the floor of a hovel in the slums of Nairobi.

The privileging of profits over people leads to unjust wages, poor working conditions, the degradation of the environment and assaults on human dignity. . . .

What is the solution, then, to a system that gave rise to such treatment? To recognize that profits are not the sole measure of a good decision in the corporate world. To realize that human beings are more important than money, no matter how much a free-market economist might object. To act morally. And to respect human dignity.

Because, when I am my network, a system that regards individual wealth accumulation over the care of other parts of my network is a system, ultimately, of self-harm.


Finally, a recent example of a network spontaneously working, surprisingly to many, to benevolent rather than destructive ends, with a complex set of dynamics like coalitions and negotiations in the mix:

When Pixels Collide

Last weekend, a fascinating act in the history of humanity played out on Reddit.

For April Fool's Day, Reddit launched a little experiment. It gave its users, who are all anonymous, a blank canvas called Place.

The rules were simple. Each user could choose one pixel from 16 colors to place anywhere on the canvas. They could place as many pixels of as many colors as they wanted, but they had to wait a few minutes between placing each one.

Over the following 72 hours, what emerged was nothing short of miraculous. A collaborative artwork that shocked even its inventors.

From a single blank canvas, a couple simple rules and no plan, came this:



Each pixel you see was placed by hand. Each icon, each flag, each meme created painstakingly by millions of people who had nothing in common except an Internet connection. Somehow, someway, what happened in Reddit over those 72 hours was the birth of Art.

How did this happen?

While I followed Place closely, I cannot do justice to the story behind it in the few words here. There were countless dramas -- countless ideas, and fights, and battles, and wars -- that I don't even know about. They happened in small forums and private Discord chats, with too much happening at once, all the time, to keep track of everything. And, of course, I had to sleep.

But at its core, the story of Place is an eternal story, about the three forces that humanity needs to make art, creation, and technology possible. . . .

It's not a simple process, but from even the most unlikely networks cooperation can emerge in ways that benefit the entire pluralistic organism.