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.


The Fictions That Give Meaning to the World

The crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers. Intelligence and toolmaking were obviously very important as well. But if humans had not learned to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, our crafty brains and deft hands would still be splitting flint stones rather than uranium atoms. . . .

To the best of our knowledge, only Sapiens can cooperate in very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. This concrete capability--rather than an eternal soul or some unique kind of consciousness--explains our mastery of planet earth.


Most people presume that reality is either objective or subjective . . .

However, there is a third level of reality: the intersubjective level. Intersubjective entities depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans. Many of the most important agents in history are intersubjective. Money, for example . . .


Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination. This web allows humans alone to organise crusades, socialist revolutions and human rights movements.


As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.


In the twenty-first century we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds, and to create entire virtual worlds complete with hells and heavens. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.

That long series of quotes is from the book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. Here's what I wrote in my review:
Absolutely fascinating. Daring and provocative. Complex, philosophical, and thoughtful. Engaging, absorbing, and relatively easy to read. This is science nonfiction: extrapolating the history of humanity in light of current scientific, technological, and political trends to make predictions about what might come next.

The basic premise: the great challenges of the twentieth century were overcoming famine, plague, and war, and in the most general terms those pursuits have been successful. They were aimed at safeguarding the norms of human existence. With those goals met, we have moved into the new territory of surpassing those norms, and thus the new projects of the twenty-first century are gaining immortality, bliss, and divinity.

Those are bold claims that immediately riled up my natural skeptic, but Harari hooked me enough that I gave him a chance to convince me. I'm glad I did. This is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto, he writes in the introduction. It is food for thought, not a road map, meant to raise questions and create thoughtful intercourse more than provide answers. And it offers a feast to mull and consider. Absolutely fascinating.
In broad terms, the book describes how this intersubjective storytelling ability combined the past few centuries with Humanism--the only true recent religion, through which all other religions and political systems have interpreted themselves--to bring us to our present reality. The foreboding conclusion is the possible rise of Dataism as a new religion that could replace Humanism, which would understand existence and meaning as mere numbers and algorithms, and could lead the potentially benevolent pursuits in sinister directions. As I said, there is much food for thought.

A few more random quotes that I liked:
Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.

Some scientists concede that consciousness is real and may actually have great moral and political value, but that it fulfills no biological function whatsoever. Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes. . . . consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks. It doesn’t do anything. It is just there. If this is true, it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution. This is certainly a thought worth thinking, even if it isn’t true. But it is quite amazing to realise that as of 2016, this is the best theory of consciousness that contemporary science has to offer us.

People feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don't understand my feelings and don't care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by a hundred to one I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bond, such as shared religious beliefs or national myths. They are a method to settle disagreements among people who already agree on the basics.


On My Mind

From Grandfather and the Moon

Nothing too prosaic on my mind lately, so here are some random thoughts and images.

Recently I was asked to do a little exercise in preparation for an upcoming discussion at work:

The list on the back page is a list of individual values. It is not an all inclusive list and you may have additional values to add. Begin by circling 10 or so values from the list that reflect what is important to you.

Focus on those 10. Which are the most important? Which are least important? Which can you let go? Reduce your list by 5 values.

Can you remove 2 more? If you struggle, rank the remaining values and focus on the top 3. Define and describe that those values mean to you.

I didn't spend a ton of time fretting over it, just quickly went with my gut. A few were easy to immediately eliminate. My initial list of 10 or so:

  • Caring
  • Compassion
  • Competence
  • Democracy
  • Empathy
  • Excellence
  • Helping Others
  • Integrity
  • Public Service
  • Responsibility
  • Spirituality
  • Trust
  • Wisdom
I found I didn't have to gradually reduce the list from there, but could pick out three that were most vital and, as much as possible, incorporated the spirit of the ones I'd have to eliminate. My top three:

  • Empathy
  • Responsibility
  • Wisdom
The idea being that if you're responsible, you'll hopefully also strive for competence, integrity, and excellence. If you have empathy, you'll also have caring and compassion. With wisdom comes spirituality. If you have wise, responsible empathy, you'll be motivated to help others and enjoy public service. And if everyone demonstrates those values, we should be able to build trust and democracy. In theory, anyway.

It’s in those moments of admitting and accepting your own terribleness that you realize other people can be terrible too. And if they can be terrible too, then maybe they can be vulnerable too, caring too, and all the things that you are and hope to be.
― Aaron Starmer, Spontaneous

Speaking of random thoughts and images, lately I've really been enjoying playing around with InspiroBot, which describes itself with:
I am an artificial intelligence dedicated to generating unlimited amounts of unique inspirational quotes for endless enrichment of pointless human existence.
I found it through the article AI Trying To Design Inspirational Posters Goes Horribly And Hilariously Wrong. InspiroBot was apparently created to invent inspirational sayings and share them with accompanying images, assuming it was fed a plethora of real examples to learn from. The random combinations it produces, though, are hilariously skewed and sometimes quite scarily dark. Every so often, one comes up that's actually profound. Here are some of my favorites, starting with wonderful nonsense:

And now for a few that are particularly inspirational:

Here's one for cooks and chefs that's quite accurate and true:

I think these contain some pretty meaningful philosophical thoughts:

Though if I could cut off my addiction to the infinite possibilities, I wouldn't keep obsessively visiting InspiroBot.

Speaking of empathy, this one says so much:

Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out.
― J.K. Rowling

And, finally, the truest, most accurate piece of inspirational advice ever:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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;
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,

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

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

The rest
Is just bluster
To hide that

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

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