Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why Quotes And Statistics Are Dangerous If You Don't Know What You're Doing

Note: As an editorial follow up, and to clarify I offer this initial statement. It is clear that I have an agenda. Anyone who writes anything from their heart has one, even the most neutral of journalists do. What I hope I've pointed out with the below ramblings, is that you have to at least make *some* effort at understanding complex issues before you form opinions of them.

I noted with a bit of irony during a discussion of "values" on a social networking service that most people take their convictions and project them onto the facts around them, rather than use factual truths to develop their convictions. This isn't a new revelation however, just one that has come up quite a lot recently in my discussion with others.

One of the most important principles to live by, in my view, is intellectual honesty. What this does is force one to not only be critical of answers but to also be critical of their own questions. Many people mistakenly get this wrong.

As an example, the SNS network discussion thread was one that started about hatred and the reasons behind it. It then (almost naturally) slid into a discussion about personal beliefs and morality, and inevitably to the question of homosexuality. One respondent made a comment about how homosexuals should just keep to themselves, and then spoke about and linked a statistic from WebMD about the high levels of HIV infections present in the gay community.

What it seemed the respondent was trying to do, and I could be mistaken, was to make some sort of causal link appear between sin, homosexuality, and HIV infection rates. While most who read my blog would probably conclude that I'm firm in my conviction that "sin" is a man-made concept (and a particularly aggregious one), I'm open minded enough to entertain as to whether someone's arguments indicate causality.

One truism of intellectual honesty is that correlation does NOT equal causation. The way intellectual inquiry is supposed to work is like this. You come up with an assertion, say for instance "is bacon bad for you?" What do you do next? The seemingly logical answer would be to find proof that bacon can be bad, but THIS IS WRONG.

In order to guard against our own innate biases, we have to approach an inquiry from the other side and, in my stupid example (because bacon is clearly awesome!!! :D), search for evidence to the CONTRARY. Truths only arise when we eliminate all other possibilities, INCLUDING the fact that we might be deceiving ourselves.

The historical linkage between HIV and homosexuality is tenuous when you look at the larger picture. When you *do* take the time to look at more than one statistic that fits in to your world view what you find is a complex problem with some simple root causes. For instance, though it may be true that, at least according to WebMD, perhaps nearly 1 in 5 homosexual males in the United States is HIV positive, this statistic does not play out consistently everywhere else in the world. Worldwide most people infected by HIV are heterosexual women, with the largest growing group being a tossup between heterosexual females and children (depending on where you get your statistics from, the numbers are very close). More than 68% of all HIV cases worldwide are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

On the surface of this, it seems we have a quandry. In our country HIV cases are dominated by homosexual males, whereas elsewhere in the world they are the abject minority. Why is this? What is the common thread?

As we've dealt with the HIV situation for decades now, the common thread is now quite well known and borne out through countless statistical and lineal regression studies. It all comes down to irresponsible sexual behavior. The reasons why these behaviors play out differently in different places in the world are a little complex, but the general gist revolves around religion, cultural acceptance, and cultural exclusion. For instance, in sub saharan africa condom use is almost unheard of, because the Catholic Church vehemently opposes all forms of contraception and has vast power in the region. This stance results in many tragedies, not the least of which is the return to the days of centuries past as nearly 1/4th of the women in the region die from the complications of childbirth, a phenomenon that is far more rare in western countries. Despite the strong religiosity in a country like ours, we thankfully do not always get our precepts about public health from 2000 year old books that were not about medicine and biology.

In America, the situation is similar but plays out very differently due to our vastly superior healthcare, a society largely distracted from the hardships of day to day life experienced elsewhere in the world, coupled with an entirely different set of social taboo's as they relate to sexuality. To those who think America has all the answers, one need only remind oneself of some cruel statistics. We have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the western world, rates that exceed more than half of 3rd world nations. Our education system ranks right up  there with such scholarly peers as Turkey and Bosnia, a statistic we should be ashamed of. School systems are only allowed (when they buy in to federal money for their sex ed programs) to teach abstinance. More often than not these programs (and I've witnessed this stupidity in my own daughters sex ed curriculum) spread misinformation and falsehoods to scare teens into abstinance, a practice that clearly isn't working and is morally reprehensible!

Our approach to sex, sexual identity, and sexual responsibility in this nation has created a perfect storm of sorts. Those who are outside of the politically correct (and morally bankrupt) parochial concepts of heterosexual marriage are marginalized and institutionally given bad advice. This is why those outside of our false sense of normality (teens, the unwed, homosexuals) end up being the recipients of life's ills. This is not to say that these are excuses for 15 year old girls to get pregnant and be happy for WIC and Foodstamps, or excuses for gay males to engage in promiscuous behavior (a behavior that is clearly more driven by being MALE than being GAY).

What it does clearly indicate is this. We have to stop treating sex like it's dirty, immoral, unnatural, and unnecessary. Sex is clearly a need in our lives, and one that is necessary for us to live and live well. The fact that wearing a simple condom, the likes of which have existed for THOUSANDS OF YEARS, makes sex about as dangerous as going to Gamestop in the mall, is a fact we need to embrace collectively. This was a well known fact to the likes of Cleopatra, and was old news 2100 years ago when she used contraception. To those that pretend contraception is a consequence of modern depravity or other such nonsense, well you're just ignorant and denying the truth. Sorry.

People can reliably believe in the wrong things, not only as individuals but collectively, and these wrong beliefs can reliably lead to unnecessary human suffering. Anyone, anywhere in the world, suffering for any reason is reason enough to question your own convictions.

Morally convicting people of what they think and feel is known as a thought crime, and something that humanity has to get rid of. The Nazi's did this. Stalin did this. Some organized religions are still doing this. We have far better issues to be ethically concerned about than people's orgasms and how they obtain them. It's time we grew up.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Death Of Journalism...

I had a friend of mine ask me what I thought about newspapers and their increasing irrelevance in today's world. Given that I spent the better part of a decade writing reviews, articles and op-ed pieces for websites, you would think I'm all hardcore about the power of the web and it's clear challenge to the dominance of traditional journalistic media.

So that I don't come across as a hypocrite, yes indeed the fact that a moderately well informed geek like myself could make discretionary income writing for websites is a phenomena that I could have never indulged in within traditional media. I'm not a trained journalist. Like most traditional disciplines there are barriers to entry, and most of these barriers make some level of sense.

I for instance don't get invited to give lectures on quantum physics. I am after all not a physicist. If I were to be invited to a lecture on subatomic physics and I disagreed with a physicist about the nature of quantum indeterminacy because it is just a weird thing to contemplate, I would hope to be laughed off the stage. So there are domains where facts matter and expertise does count, as well they should.

One thing I learned in the competitive environment of tech journalism is that you had better do your research and get your facts straight. If not people will pour out of the woodwork to call you out on your mistakes or misinterpretations. Naturally some people will pour out of the woodwork just to be trolls, because the internet makes this as easy as having an informed opinion. Like many disciplines then, one can "become" a journalist by trying to be one.

The web does serve to make information more immediate, and this beyond all else is what is and will lead to the demise of traditional media outlets. We are however at a transitional stage where I feel harm is being done to journalism itself. Being able to choose when and where you get your information is a powerful and profound ability we all now have the ability to leverage at our whim. What many of us are not trained for or conversant with however, is the need to be skeptical and critical.

Anyone with $5 can put up a websites, and with effort you can leverage this easily into a place where hundreds of thousands (or more) of people will come to read what you write about. I know this is possible, as I've done this myself on several occasions. However I wrote in a very competitive sphere of interest. Not only was I competing with rival websites for views, I was competing with my readers for their opinions.

In this sense the web has turned us all into "journalists", and engaged us all in the process of being involved in a larger conversation. This is a good thing. Just keep in mind that not all the web's domains of interest fall into these patterns. Many sites attract a following because they take a stand on a given issue, and this stand appeals to like minded individuals. This can also be a good thing, but in this "drum beat" genre of website there is less inclination for participants to examine you critically.

One always should guard against buying into propositions solely because they make you feel good about yourself or what you believe. Penn Jillette said it best when he said "if feeling good and wasting your time is a goal, then maybe heroin is for you."

Before we dismantle our "trusted institutions" utterly (and some of these trusted institutions have become pretty rotten, but that's another topic for another time), let us simply realize that as we all become "citizen journalists" the responsibility to think critically and skeptically for ourselves has increased drastically. It is way not the other way around.

Drama, and how sometimes it follows you...

I've been debating writing about this, at least in a semi public manner like this. It's never particularly wise to share too much about yourself, but there's something cathartic about blogging away that is difficult to deny. Writing for me has always been personal, even when I spent many years writing articles and reviews of *geek stuff* for tech publications. Even in that stale venue I could express my thoughts, and perhaps be a bit entertaining while I did it too. On occasion as well writing in the tech industry gave me the opportunity to op/ed things I felt strongly about such as privacy and the application of law as it relates to concepts like liberty and personal responsibility. So, even being a boring ass reviewer of geeky things did occasionally result in fulfilling and cathartic examples I am proud of. 

This of course is not that sort of journal. This is a far more personal one. Through all of the trials and tribulations I've dealt with over the years you would think I'd be past the need to vent, and I suppose in most senses I am. This isn't me yelling at the wind after all, at least I don't think this is what I'm doing. Rather it's just a process of trying to understand the nature of things around me, especially those things that impact me, and yet, are outside of my direct control. 

To preface, and this isn't a noiseless plea for sympathy, some background is necessary to let you know how I've arrived at this odd place in my life. Anyone brave enough to read my profile will probably *get* the fact that I'm not your average Joe. 

Fifteen years ago I was at the top of my game. Married, with a wife I loved. Two very young daughters. An enviable career. I had achieved much at the tender age of 28 with a high school diploma and one college dropout session behind me. I was corporate director of Loss Prevention for a South East retail chain division. I had the big almost six figure salary, the company car, prestige among my peers, the works. I achieved all of this the hard way working my way up in this retailer from the tender age of 16. Then came downsize number one. A few years later trying to climb my way back up in the company, downsize number two. I go to work for another retailer as a store manager, making less than half of what I did before. Then comes downsize number three. (note: I experienced downsize number four about three years ago, but it wasn't such a big deal...I've gotten used to them...they're like friends now LOL).

The financial strife experienced over this course of time is largely what led to my divorce. Granted, in actuality this merely accelerated my ex's desire to be more unfaithful than she had been, all of which I found out much later but I digress. At any rate I end up unemployed this time for about half a year while I sit back and lose everything that mattered to me material or otherwise. I spend the next year trying to rebuild a life while simultaneously fighting for custody of my kids. Despite mountains of evidence, despite my ex committing perjury twice, she wins and I lose. I'm a realist at heart, so I don't kick myself too long about losing. I'd been prepared for that from the day I took her to court. 

I spent the next couple of years focusing on the basics. Making my life stable, or at least stable enough to not royally suck. This I have achieved largely through accepting the fact that I'm relatively poor and have kids to take care of. I now have an aging parent to take care of as well, but whatever. I focus on doing what I have to do to honor the relationships I value. 

Granted, I did spend a few years engaged in what I refer to as "3D Areal Combat Serial Dating", and though I came out of that phase of mine with a few regrets I learned things along the way. The experiences I've had the last eight years of post-divorceness (is that even a word?) have molded me into who I am today. And I generally like who I am today. 

One of the important ways I've grown, is in developing the realization that anger and abject hatred are truly wastes of time. Dwelling on such thoughts and emotions does little but harm ones self. I have exercised this revelation of mine in many senses. The most obvious and practical one has been my deliberate decision to be cordial and affable to my ex. It's in my best interest, as well as my children's best interests. As deeply as I'm prone to contemplate things, this is a tenet I apply everywhere I can in my life. This is why I make it plain in my profile that I can no longer abide by people who use foolish reasons to hate. It's just wrong headed and damaging, and serves to close your eyes rather than open your heart. 

This does not mean I've turned into a passive fool however. In the case of my ex, she thrives on drama and controversy. I've never shied away from pointing this out to my ex when it was necessary, and I've never pretended to my daughters that I've ever once considered their mother's behavior acceptable. I've gotten a lot of static over the years about my candor with my children, but my decision to be absolutely candid with my girls about everything has worked well for me and for us. This candor goes much further than simply being my opinions of their mother. I'm candid with them about everything, myself included. As such my relationships with my two daughters are strong ones. Not identical ones however. I treat my girls as the individuals they are. As they're now both teenagers, one of whom is about to start college, it'd be foolish to treat them otherwise. 

So why am I writing all of this. Well, we've got some drama in da house!!! And it's a frustrating variety of drama, known as ex stupidity. She's done quite a lot of things I should have been far more frustrated about than I have been. So long as my girls weren't in any sort of crisis however, I let those things be, all the while paying VERY CLOSE attention. She's lived in seven places in the last eight years. Out of those eight years she's been gainfully employed almost two of them. When downsizing hit her current husband (who is also my former best friend from grade school....don't even ask....Jerry Springer wouldn't even touch my divorce), she bounced around a few boyfriends here and there. She and he have stayed married primarily due to the joys of the Earned Income Credit and the extra several thousand bucks it puts in their pockets at tax time. 

So now, her husband is under a criminal investigation, awaiting the outcome of a Grand Jury before indictments come down. She was ordered to have nothing to do with him, and to definitely not have the girls around him, due to the precise nature of what he's accused of. She stupidly violated the order given to her by DSS. She's dodged bullets with them countless times so I can only assume she thought she could again. 

Gratefully my very smart high school graduate daughter had literally just moved in with me so she can get away from her mom-drama and start her own life (as well as start college here). As in a week before all this came to light. Not so gratefully, my youngest nearly ended up in foster care. She was placed with her maternal grandmother (whom I trust) instead of me, when her mother was temporarily stripped of her parental rights. Why was she not placed with me? Because the DSS investigator claims she had to make an on the spot decision, and my ex lied about me having joint custody, saying that I didn't have it. Given that this was necessary and true I suppose I can't fault the DSS investigator. But this has led to a very weird situation that I am not happy about one little bit.

In an interview session with my ex, her attorney (as to how she could have gotten away with using her husbands criminal attorney to represent her in the DSS matter is beyond me), DSS, and myself, I was basically put on trial. Somehow my not being a Christian made me seem less fit than an unemployed perjury ridden ex who despite having all the responsible behavior of a slug, claims to love Jesus. It didn't rattle my composure externally, but it was shocking all the same. I was able to remind everyone in the room, a room that eventually filled with law enforcement and state police detectives, that I was not the person who had violated state and federal laws and a court order. It took some significant gymnastics to steer things back intellectually on course, but I did. 

Now we're in this limbo state, awaiting the findings of a Grand Jury, so that DSS can decide what they're going to do next. And yes, before you ask, I'm expecting to have to lawyer up rather quickly. Not sure how I'm going to afford it though. I'm still paying child support on even the daughter that now lives with me. DSS cannot intervene, so I've had to separately lawyer up over that issue. Given that my child support is about 40% of my net income, it's a necessary first step. My divorce time period, as it coincided with a significant stretch of unemployment, left me incapable of securing loans to finance the impending sleighride. Banks are generally not willing to loan money to people who have had home and auto loans forclosed, but I digress. 

Moral of this story? No matter how hard you try to live a good life and become a good person, things entirely outside of your control can come along to test you. This reminds you that being a good person, and doing good things, even living a good life have little to do with the drama that often can creep up into it. We all have a tendency to let the "bad times" drag us down into a pit of self recrimination.

This is not only a huge waste of time, it is also precisely the wrong reaction. No matter what happens in your life being able to look yourself in the mirror and face who you really are and be good with that is the reward, the ONLY reward. Everything else is just life and it's details. Obstacles are a part of life, and once you realize this fact, they can be dismissed. 

Exasperating though they can be sometimes...

Friday, June 10, 2011

How To Free Yourself Of Unnecessary Baggage

I have spent almost my whole life– 44 years–  caring far too much about offending people, worrying if I’m cool enough for them, or asking myself if they are judging me.

I can’t take it anymore. It’s stupid, and it’s not good for my well being. It has made me a punching bag–  a flighty, nervous wuss. But worse than that, it has made me someone who doesn't take a stand for anything. It has made me someone who stood in the middle, far too often, and not where I cared to stand, for fear of alienating others. No more. Not today.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, is different.

We’re going to talk about the cure. We’re going to talk about what’s necessary. We’re going to talk about the truth.

Do you wonder if someone is talking shit about you? Whether your friends will approve? Have you become conflict-avoidant? Spineless?

Well, it’s time you started not giving a fuck.

FACT NUMBER 1. People are judging you right now.

Yes, it’s really happening right at this moment. Some people don’t like you, and guess what? There’s nothing you can do about it. No amount of coercion, toadying, or pandering to their interests will help. In fact, the opposite is often true; the more you stand for something, the more they respect you, whether it’s grudgingly or not.

What people truly respect is when you draw the line and say “you will go no further.” They may not like this behaviour, but so what? These are people don’t like you anyway, why should you attempt to please people who don’t care for you in the first place?

Right. Then, there’s Internet trolls. That’s a whole other thing.

Regular people are fine– you don’t actually hear it when they’re talking behind your back. But on the web, you do see it, which changes the dynamic drastically. They have an impact because they know you have your vanity searches, etc. But the real problem with Internet haters is that they confirm your paranoid delusion that everyone out there secretly hates you.

Thankfully, that’s not actually true. So the first noble truth is that most people don’t even care that you’re alive. Embrace this, my friends, for it is true freedom. The world is vast and you are small, and therefore you may do as you wish and cast your thoughts of those who dislike it to the side.

FACT NUMBER 2. You don’t need everyone to like you.

This stuff is crazy, I know, but it’s cool, you’ll get used to it. Here’s the next thing: not only do most people not know that you exist, and some are judging you, but it totally does not matter even if they are.

How liberating this is may not even hit you yet, but it will. Check this out: when people don’t like you, nothing actually happens. The world does not end. You don’t feel them breathing down your neck. In fact, the more you ignore them and just go about your business, the better off you are.

You know when they say “the best revenge is a life well lived”? Well, this is true, but it isn’t the whole truth. A life well lived is great, yes, but it cannot happen while you are sweating about who your detractors are and what they think. What you have to do, what you have no choice but to do, is accept it and move on.

So not giving a fuck is actually a necessary precedent to create a good life for yourself. It can’t happen without it. That’s why you have to begin today.

FACT NUMBER 3. It’s your people that matter.

Ok, so you’ve adjusted to the fact that most people in the world are barely aware of your existence, and you’re also conscious of the fact that those who don’t like you are in the obscenely small minority and don’t actually matter. Awesome. Next you need to realize that the people who do care about you, and no one else, are those you need to focus on.

Relationships are weird. Once we’re in one (with family, a spouse, whatever), we promptly begin to take the other person for granted and move on to impressing strangers instead– say, our boss. Then, once we’ve impressed our boss, we start taking him for granted too, and so on, in an endless cycle of apathy. It’s like we always prefer to impress and charm the new than to work on what we already have.

But these people– your champions– they understand your quest or your cause. They make you feel good when you’re around them, make you laugh or make you feel like you can just be yourself. They make you feel relaxed or at ease. You’ve shared things with them. They’re important. Focus on them instead.

FACT NUMBER 4. Those who don’t give a fuck change the world. The rest do not.

Ever read the book by Stephen King called the Long Walk. It’s a contest where people walk without sleeping or resting, and if they do stop, they are killed. (That’s actually every Stephen King book– “there’s a clown, but it kills!” “There’s a car, but it kills!” etc.)

I suspect this book is a metaphor for war, but it also captures perseverance very well. What it takes to move past anything is to simply realize that your obstacle is unimportant, and that it can be dismissed. This is true whether you’re running a marathon or trying to get to Mars.

If you dismiss the things that do not matter; if you remove those things from your mind and focus on what must be done; if you understand that your time is limited and decide to work now; only then will you be able to get to the finish line. Otherwise, you will be dissuaded into living a life you aren’t interested in.

Side note: You need to handle failure and obscurity better. You may be in a tough place right now where you feel lonely or like a loser. No worries, we’ve all been there. But it’s time for you to realize how common these things are, and that they’re experienced by even the most successful and happiest people in the world. Those people get past them, and you will too.

The eye is watching

You want to know something? This actually has nothing to do with anyone else. It has everything to do with you.

Everyone has an internetal eye. It always watching. It has been slowly constructed by society at large and by your friends and family, and it checks you for unacceptable behaviour. If you have had it around for long enough, you actually start to believe that the eye is you, and that you’re “being reasonable” or some other rationalization.

But the eye isn’t you at all. It is a prison, and you have justified its existence by obeying it. It’s strong because you let it be strong.

But the secret, the part that’s amazing, is that it can’t do anything to stop you, even if it wanted to. It’s an eye. It can only watch. The rest of you is free to act as you wish.

How to get back your self-respect in five easy steps

STEP 1. Do things that you consider embarrassing.

You must try this. Find your internal filters and break them, one at a time. Notice how society, like an ocean, smoothes over the waves you make, until what you do gets eliminated, or becomes the status quo. Work with this.

STEP 2. Accept, or deal with, awkwardness.

It’s widely known that interviewers get their best material by being quiet and allowing silence to force words out of a politician or celebrity.

You may be uncomfortable with silence. I know I still am. But I have been working on it and have to say that it is a much more serene state to be in than trying to cover it up with random babbling just to fill up the air. This is one type of awkwardness, a kind that you should feel comfortable about and learn to live with.

Another kind of social awkwardness is this in-between space where you might have done something wrong or been wronged, but don’t say anything. I’ve been given a few harsh lessons in my time and come away realizing that the freedom that comes from talking about an uncomfortable truth is better than the comfort of avoiding that talk altogether.

Someone told me recently that the Clintons’ method for earning respect in politics is this: if someone pushes you, push back twice as hard. This is much better than awkwardness. It’s clear, it’s not passive aggressive, and you know where you stand. Start doing this immediately.

STEP 3. Refuse boundaries.

Walk where you want to walk. Don’t accept false choices. Don’t let people dictate how you should live your life. Definitely don’t listen to the eye.

STEP 4. Tell the truth.

You don’t need to be an asshole, but the world does not need another conflict-avoidant, evasive person. No one wants another individual who steps in line with everyone else. The status quo is doing fine without you, so it’s up to you to call bullshit if you see it.

Don’t mind-read either. Telling the truth means seeing the truth, not adding your own layer of sugar coating or suspected emotion on top of it.

STEP 5. Begin your new life.

This step can’t happen without the others, but once you’ve gotten here, you can safely begin to explore a whole new world– one where anything you do is fine as long as it isn’t seriously hurting anyone else. Wanna explore old abandoned buildings? No problem, as long as you’re ready to live with the consequences. Feel like hanging from hooks or get whipped by a dominatrix? Go ahead, but be safe about it.

Once you begin on this path, you start to discover that practically everyone is capable of understanding the weird things that you do. In fact, it makes you interesting and worth paying attention to, further feeding into your plans of world domination, should you have any.

But none of this fun can happen without you recognizing, and walking past, the eye. Doing this is a powerful act of control which builds momentum and makes you strong.

Take back your self respect. Do it today– try it right now. Wear something ugly. Do something stupid. Tell someone the truth.

It doesn’t fucking matter.

{{This is a repost and summary of a fascinatingly good article by Julien Smith...I couldn't state this any better than he, so I leave his text largely alone}}